The Vagabond’s Way, Tactics for Immersive Travel, Pilgrimages, and More — Rolf Potts | Transcription
Transcription for the video titled "The Vagabond’s Way, Tactics for Immersive Travel, Pilgrimages, and More — Rolf Potts".
Note: This transcription is split and grouped by topics and subtopics. You can navigate through the Table of Contents on the left. It's interactive. All paragraphs are timed to the original video. Click on the time (e.g., 01:53) to jump to the specific portion of the video.
Hello boys and girls, ladies and germs. This is Tim Ferriss. Welcome to another episode of the Tim Ferriss Show. Have my friend Rolf Potts here. Rolf Potts, who is Rolf? Rolf is the author of the International Best Seller Vagabonding subtitle, "An Uncoming Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel." That was one of the two books I traveled with in the years preceding the writing of the 4-hour week. His newest book is "The Vagabonds Way," 366 meditations on wanderlust, discovery, and the art of travel. He is reported from more than 60 countries for a National Geographic traveler, the New Yorker outside, the New York Times magazine, and travel channel. Many of his essays have been selected as notable mentions in the best American essays, the best American non-required reading, and the best American travel writing. He is based in North Central Kansas. I love how specific that is, where he keeps a small farmhouse on 30 acres with his wife, Kansas-born actress Kristen Bush. My 2014, God, how old are we getting? Rolf, we're going to talk about that. My 2014 interview with Rolf can be found at Tim.blog/Rolf. We cover a lot of ground in that interview, including a lot of background with Vagabonding. We're probably not going to revisit all of that. We get into all sorts of nooks and crannies. That is a self-sustaining independent episode. We're going to try to cover some new ground in this one. You can find Rolf on Twitter and Instagram @RolfPots. That's R-O-L-F-P-O-T-T-S. You can also find everything Rolf at RolfPots.com. Rolf, it is nice to see you again, my friend. Good to see you again, too. It's funny. 2014. Gosh, it's been a while. It has been a while. It's almost coming up on a decade. I'm starting to round up now, getting old enough that I'm like, "Ah, it's three years until a decade. Two or three years. That's fine. It's more or less a decade." 2014. A lot has happened since 2014. Yes, sir.
Travel Experiences And Insights
Ideal travel partners, living or dead. (02:11)
I thought we would start with a question that came to my mind as I was preparing for this conversation, as I always do, and rereading part of the transcript of our last podcast episode together. It's a simple question, in a sense, which is when you think of travel companions or anyone you could travel with, alive or dead, are there any particular names or figures who come to mind? Perhaps you just have a suspicion of what it would be like to travel with them. That's totally fine. Really what I'm hoping to unpack here is, why are you choosing the people you're choosing, whether you know them well or not at all? I'm an old die-hard solo traveler. I'm not to be a curmudgeon necessarily, but I'm a big fan of solo travel just because it's an introverted forces me to look outward and to meet people and not to travel in a little bubble of self. You're talking about 2014, our last podcast interview, which was podcast felt new back then. I was a bachelor. Now I'm married. I met my wife during the pandemic. I went traveling with her to Europe for the first time internationally this summer. That's my cheat answer, basically. I'm just excited to have this person I love to travel with. It's sort of a late life marriage for me. That's exciting, but that's very concrete and less speculative. It is sort of turning back some of that solo curmudgeon. But yeah, if there was a famous person, it almost ties into who I was reading during the pandemic. Because in the pandemic, we couldn't travel. I was sitting on my deck, and then I met this woman who became my wife. And so we would start each day by reading to each other. Sometimes poetry, actually, we read Mary Oliver. I know you're a Mary Oliver fan. But we also read Tick Not Han. I think you probably are familiar with Tick Not Han. So I'm thinking like there's the Tick Not Han and Thomas Mertens who would be interested in travel with, but these are spiritual guys. And I know that travel is naturally spiritual, but those guys would be almost too intense. I think that I would always feel like I could never measure up to these saintly monk guys. So another guy we read to each other during the pandemic was Ross Gage. You know, the poet Ross Gage. I know. He wrote a book called The Book of Delights. And it in these other readings are sort of part of the model for my new book, The Vagabond's Way, because it's basically each page is a day. There's a quote and there's a meditation or a reflection on the quote. And Ross Gage's book is a hundred reflections. And he just seems like a guy I'd like to hang out with. And he has a great chapter about loitering and how loitering to him, it's a crime, like especially poor or people who aren't white are sometimes picked up for loitering. But learning is just like not necessarily doing anything. It's being inactive. And Ross Gage says, well, actually to me, that sounds like a good time. And as I was writing the new book, it occurred to me that actually like really super luxury vacations, like the image we have of luxury vacations are people. Are people who have who are wealthy, who are paying a lot of money to do nothing to sit by reflecting pool with the robot and do nothing as if you couldn't sit at home and do nothing, right? And so travel becomes this pretext for doing nothing. And so I just like Ross Gage's way of looking at the world. And of course, my wife and I would read to each other every morning. And he's not quite as competitively spiritual as Ticknaughan or Thomas Merton, who might make me feel less than spiritual. So he seems like he'd be a good companion as we find ways to loiter around the world together. So I have not stayed in a hostel on at least a handful of years. I mean, I used to stay in hostels. Even if I could afford a much more expensive hotel, I found that incredibly boring, sitting in a hotel room by myself.
Breaking the ice among screen-glued strangers abroad. (05:42)
I can do that anywhere. Let me stay in a hostel and do the bike tours and get to know people and so on. I imagine, I have not explored this recently, that that hostels probably mimic many other environments where you walk in and each person is glued to a screen and there's much less engagement. I have to imagine that's true. Probably when the booze comes out, maybe things get a little more social that tends to inevitably be part of the hostel experience. Are there ways that you might approach it? What's advice or thoughts would you share with folks? Well, I remember the historical technological moment when that started to shift. For me, it was around 2007, actually around the time before I worked with it came out actually, where I would sit in hostel lounges and people, this is when Wi-Fi was more ubiquitous. People really locked into their laptops later became smartphones. That communal environment that happens in the hostel lounge just wasn't happening like it was before. The great thing about a hostel lounge is that for all of the planning you do in advance of your trip and maybe while you're saving up money, it'll take you two years. You're planning all this stuff. One afternoon in a good hostel lounge with a bunch of people who are leaving the country that you're entering or have been to a lot of the places you've been to, that is on the ground intelligence that is priceless and so much better than what you're doing. Actually, George Orwell talked about this in an essay called "The Road to Wig and Peer." He said that when you take a train from Scotland to London, you sort of erase the experience of that journey that would have happened had you walked it. But I can criticize that, but I'm not going to not take the train, right? I'm not going to walk to London every time I want to go there just because there's more life to be experienced along the way. That serves a purpose, right? Our mobile devices also serve a purpose. It used to be this idea about 20 years ago that technology is something that would allow you to experience the world without leaving your home, right? Well, unfortunately, now we're in a situation where you can travel and not leave your home when you experience the world, right? You're still looking through the same screen, the same black mirror, which you get all your distractions. You're chatting with the same knucklehead friends you do usually, you know? You're really confining your experience to the size of the screen. So I don't want to knock it outright, and I very much do use my smartphone. I use technology. You really have to navigate that because one of the gifts of travel is attention. It is the actual experience of things happening. It's also making mistakes and being an outsider and being vulnerable and leaving yourself open to places. And so, easier said than done, but actually sometimes it can't hurt to in that hostile lounge situation or wherever. To be the person who interrupts somebody looking at their phone asking a dumb question and then sort of breaking that ice because I think sometimes it is almost group conformism. We've all defaulted back to our phone. We may as well be in our own bedroom back home. But instead we're in a hostile lounge making dumb jokes via iMessage with our friends. I think one person, if they're like, did you just say that you came from Chiang Mai? I'm going to Chiang Mai. Tell me about Chiang Mai. That can start to break the ice. It's really just sort of forcing you and the people around you past that impulse which is to look back at your phone and to have this organic wonderful experiences, which is the gift of travel. Even metaphorically, one purpose of travel is to force yourself into that kind of attention and that human experience that you sometimes don't give yourself because we're constantly in distractions at home. They call it the attention economy and our apps are smarter than we are. Our apps know how short our attention span is. So in a way we just have to slap down our apps and their algorithmically programmed way of holding our attention and give our attention to each other as humans. Give our attention to the places where we are, the smells, the other five senses. Not just the sounds you hear on your phone or the sights you see through your apps, but what you smell. Let's smell guide you through a new place. Your mention of the attention economy made me think, how much am I selling my attention for at different points?
Finding safe homestays while traveling (and why you should). (10:02)
That's more of a metaphor in the sense that I think of how much I'm valuing my attention at different points and how am I allocating it? As if it were a budget, a fixed budget, and that's something I'm going to actually reflect on because I have some travel coming up. Is something like couch surfing a partial remedy because the social expectation perhaps is greater in a setting like that in the social arrangement of something like couch surfing which I haven't used in a long time. I don't know if it is alive and well or if it is now turned into something else or is defunct. I have no idea. More so than say a hostile in current day, 2022, or how would you think about that? In other words, it's even worth going to a hostile if you're going to have to assault people to grab their attention to ask them about Chiang Mai. It's worth going to a hostile. I remain a fan of hostels for people of any ages. They used to be called youth hostels. There's a historical reason why they're called youth hostels. I've taken my parents to hostels in their 60s and they loved it. I don't want to poop with that. Actually, you mentioned activities. There's tours and dinners and other times in hostels that give you non-screen time with other humans. Couch surfing is a good opportunity when you can have it. Couch surfing didn't take off. Like we may have thought it was. Couch surfing, the social media site, it was 10 years ago. It's still an option. There's also things like home stays and planned activities where actually in local economies instead of staying at a hostel or a hotel, you just pay a family to stay at their house. It's almost like study abroad, but you're just passing through. Basically, the mother is cooking for you and you're hanging out with the kids and it's more interactive. How would you find that if you wanted to find that in Destination X? Let's say Chiang Mai probably not the example I would use, but let's just say, who knows? Go to Kansas. I'm going to London. I'm going to Burma. Who knows? What would be your approach to finding such a homestay? Would you just Google Homestay fill in the blank place? That is exactly what I was thinking. There are lists of homestays. I still maintain my vagabonding.net website. I have resources that are things about all kinds of lodging, including homestays. Homestays sometimes are more common in, like often they're really common in Latin America for some reason, less so in North America. That's where you start. Google, the place where you are at homestay, because it's a thing. Then ask around after them, even ask at the hostel, because this can be really interesting. Then you get into the life of a family who's in the community. You're also directly paying into the community. Instead of having money siphoned off through middlemen, your money is going to the family. They're practicing their English. They're cooking for you. They're benefiting financially directly from your role there as a guest. Just ask around. Curiosity is another great tool in your toolbox as a traveler. In any situation, just asking questions. From my own podcast, I recently interviewed a woman who decided to go hitchhiking across Europe looking for pastry recipes. When she got taken to a town, she would just ask, "Where's the closest bakery?" They're like, "Yeah, there's one up the street." She would go and say, "This is delicious. How do you cook it?" People weren't used to that. She would basically, that was her window into the place. People opened their hearts at home to her because they took interest in what they no longer thought that much about and wanted to learn something they had. In that curiosity, for a home stay or pastry, or just like whatever, I think you said before that when you travel, you look for something like martial arts because it gives you a community. It gives you people to be curious with. Once your screen is down and you have that human being in the room, your curiosity is going to lead you in all these directions that you had no idea existed before you started asking after those things.
The Cal Fussman method of creating community on public transport. (14:18)
Yeah, totally. Your story about the pastries made me think of a story that Cal Fussman told me. So Cal Fussman, writer, interviewer, extraordinaire, he wrote the, I think it's what I learned, what I've learned column for Esquire Magazine for a very long time. So he interviewed Gorbachev and Muhammad Ali and everybody you can imagine. And what he did when he was very young and traveling internationally with no money, when he didn't know where he was going to stay that night or the next night, you'd get on a bus going from point A to point B and you try to find a grandma to sit next to. And he would ask as his example, how do you make the best goulash? He'd have a place to stay, he'd have amazing goulash. The people around him on the bus would be curious about what the grandma was saying and they debated or they'd agree and it would turn into a whole mini community on this bus en route to wherever he was going without any plan whatsoever. So, Cal is a great example, because he's an interviewer, right? So he has sort of perfected the art of sort of ingratiating himself and getting on their good side. And so curiosity is his job description. Yet we all have curiosity in our toolkit as travelers of just, I'm just thinking in Kansas, like basically anybody who comes in a non tourist state like Kansas where I'm talking to you from now and speak in a foreign accent. They're immediately going to have the interest of whoever is talking to them because this is a pretty isolated part of the country. In that same way curiosity about the most basic things, I guess, and this Cal will tell you this as an interviewer. People, maybe Mikhail Gorbachev is a different example, but most people aren't used to people taking interest in them, right? Yeah. And so if you're asking for a pastry recipe for a goulash recipe, if you're saying, is there a place around here where there's a pick up game of soccer or basketball or something? And suddenly people in their family don't ask that. All of a sudden you're taking an interest in these smaller parts of their lives and suddenly the door swings wide open to an experience of travel that is not something that's a consumer experience, but it's just one of the gifts of being in a new place.
Finding the focus to make your travels purposeful. (16:27)
So to double down on the pastry story, it strikes me that, and we've spoken about this on multiple occasions, both recorded and unrecorded, about the perils of being over scheduled or over determined in your plans for travel, let's just say, not leaving much space for improvisation or adaptability in your plans. And as I was prepping for this, I was contemplating the different reasons that people may be inclined to do that, or they end up being reactive, or they end up on their phones all the time, even though they've been waiting six months to go to Paris, right? And then there are nonetheless, they're on their phones all the time. Why is that? And it strikes me that one plausible answer is that they don't have a focusing theme or through line in the same way that that woman you mentioned had with pastries. It's a focusing function. And perhaps you could speak to inventing or different missions one could have. Kevin Kelly, photography might be an example. But could you perhaps just give a handful of such examples because I do think that it's not just for the benefit of the mission that you have a mission? There's a lot of collateral benefit that radiates out from that. Absolutely. Yeah, I mentioned Kevin Kelly in my new book as a guy who he set out. Like he wanted to be a photographer for National Geographic. And so he called the office and they're like, yeah, kid, you're 17 years old. No thanks. So we decided to go to Asia and take photos anyway. And so he traveled with like 500 rolls of film and one spare shirt. It's a great story. And he just started taking photos and he traveled there for like nine years. And so while other backpackers were sort of partying and not really sure what they're going to do, he had a mission. He was out taking photos. And to this day, he has a new book out of his Asia photos. It's amazing. Vanishing Asia. Thirty year plus project. Yeah. Yeah, I contributed to that Kickstarter or whatever, just because I believe in his vision as a photographer because he threw himself into it. Like what university was going to give him that experience of nine years of shooting film every day in Asia. Another thing is I was in Sumatra, like the last year for the pandemic, early in 2019, I was in Sumatra. And I was staying at this Ecolodge on this little isolated part of the island. I love Sumatra so much. And I was hanging out with birders and surfers. And these are some of the happiest travelers I've ever met because the birders would just would pay so much attention. I'd be eating my dinner in the lodge. And they start arguing over like something that they see hundreds of yards away in the tree that I can't even see. Like they have something through which the lens of their travels forces them to pay attention to what other people overlook, which is birds, which are everywhere. Right. And so as the more I spent time in Sumatra, the more I realized, if I just sit still and stop being bored, I bet there's things in these trees. And so I saw mckakes and birds and amazing things just by allowing myself to be still. The surfers are great because they're just looking for waves. And in a certain sense, the surfers I met, they're great guys, but they're sort of crappy travelers because they're not interested in anything that's inland. Right. Like I went to Lake Toba, which is one of the great Sumatra places. It's a volcanic lake where you can get like an $8 guesthouse and jump off the rail of your balcony and swim in this volcanic caldera. And like, yeah, no, I haven't heard of it. Like, because it's not on the ocean. Right. But they were learning Bahasa Indonesian so well. They knew their maps. They were such capable travelers because they use their obsession as a map for learning all the other skills that fell into place as travelers. And so whereas some other very young, capable, smart travelers, I knew would always default in the boredom mode by looking at their phone. It's that same instinct you have back home. You look at your phone, you fall asleep, you wake up, you look at your phone, that frames your days. These guys were just thinking about waves and it taught them language skills, it taught them food skills. It was such a, it made me wish I was a better surfer because it made me realize that having that kind of obsession, be it pastries or surfing, is really a great pretext to have adventures that you could never imagine before you lived. You mentioned something a few minutes ago that I had not been aware of. So you said, I took my parents who were in their sixties. Now, you're not an ancient guy by any stretch, but you're also no spring chicken. Right. So how old were your parents when they had you?
What Rolf learned by traveling with his senior parents. (20:47)
Oh, no, no, no, well, this was this happened a long time ago. That was 20 years ago. Yeah, but my parents are pushing 80s now. Sorry for the timeline discrepancy, but they, you know, they had gray hair. They were tired. It's funny how at the time, I thought they were really old. Like now in my early fifties and sixties was like right around the corner. And it's gonna be like it's gonna be that old. But the time I was used to being sort of this solo dirt bag, who was just up for anything and just living out of a rucksack and doing what I wanted. And then suddenly my parents were with me and I was thinking, okay, whatever, but we were in China, right? And Chinese culture really respects age. And my parents are school teachers and they're just curious about everything. But actually that happened in Europe too. People thought my parents were cute, you know, even as they're sort of incompetent wandering around Paris and Prague. It was such a great pretext and a good reminder that expertise is less important than openheartedness and curiosity because in a way the roles reversed, I was the parent. I was the expert. I was the one who was trying to keep them out of trouble making sure they were fed. And they were just throwing themselves into every day. And the thing about the hostels is this is a great thing about travel culture too is that it was rare that people would be not interested in them just because they were 40 years older than them, right? That they just thought, fair enough, you're staying in the hostel, I'm gonna treat you like anybody else. So it was so cool to see the young people bend towards what my parents were up to and my parents do the same. And it was a really great experience and it made me realize that, yeah, I hope I travel until the day I drop dead because it really keeps you new and fresh and vulnerable to new experiences in a way that it's hard to pull off at home and it was fun to see. Yeah, totally. So comment and then a follow up. So the comment is, and I've done this, I just hadn't recalled it when we were chatting about hostels earlier, I have gone to hostels to just talk to the people who work there and not to stay at the hostel.
How Rolf found the girl next door on the other side of the world. (22:38)
Because you have, this is maybe gonna sound like a strange comparison, but for people who've seen Game of Thrones, you have like the spider, who's this hub of all information and knows exactly what's going on in the town and the city gossip and what's happening in the realm. And on a benevolent side, not looking at a character exactly as the spiders depicted in Game of Thrones, a lot of the folks who work in hostels just have all of their fingers on the pulse of what is happening. And so you can also just wander in and have a cup of coffee and chat them up for a bit and ask for a few recommendations and not necessarily stand the hostel. But the hostel does have the effect to your comment about your parents is breaking down a lot of the social barriers that our cultures have constructed or that we have constructed, right, the separation of generations that you tend to see in North America, much more than South America and so on. The question that I want to ask was, as the solo dirtbag traveler get up and go anytime marriage now, what happened? I mean, I'm not saying that in a bad way, but how did you personally arrive at a point where you're like, okay, I think this is the next step. It's a good question, and I wish there could be some sort of replicable lesson here, you know, that if you just do this during a pandemic, you'll meet your soulmate. But I just threw dumb luck and a dating app. I met my person, you know, I met my soulmate during the pandemic. It's funny. She's from Kansas. I'm from Kansas. I've sort of been searching for my Kansas girl on the other side of the world. And she was on the other side of the world. She was living in Europe when pandemic happened. She came back to be close to her family. I was living close to my family. We were both sort of bored on a dating app one day, and it's like, wait a second, really? You're out there? And it just went from zero to let's get married and no time flat. And so in a way, I just, I met the right person and it was great, but I think just being open to that and realizing that was a thing. I think as a dirtbag traveler, and I've always been a proud dirtbag traveler, there's some compromises you make in life where you think I'm sort of sacrificing traditional love for an interesting life and for freedom and for flexibility and for the ability to be anywhere at any time. And then you meet this person, then you meet your person. It's like all those song lyrics that you sort of rolled your eyes at in your 20s. Suddenly makes sense. It's like, yeah, yeah, sure. Give me an old 60s Motown song about love. That's what I'm experiencing with this person. And so it's great. It's the ability to experience something, and it's not like I fell in love for the first time, but experience that full-throated, full-hearted, all-in love. When I was pushing 50, it was fun to see, and there's almost a travel parallel in that sense in that you're always seeking newness, and I think I sort of had a scab over my heart in a certain sense because travel was so rewarding and the freedom to travel was so rewarding. That I didn't realize I could have it both, and then suddenly I met this person, it's like, oh, and I think when I proposed marriage, I used Waltman's line, you know, I give you my hand. I give you my love more precious than money. Will you come travel with me? Shall we stick together as long as we live? If I didn't quote that directly, I paraphrase it because it's like, yes, this is my person. Come travel with me, and come stay here with me too. We have a good life here in Kansas as well. But it's interesting, and this probably doesn't happen to most people. I think a lot of people really get into love mindset in that age that features romantic comedies, your 20s or whatever. But for some reason, I thought the price of an interesting life was not having traditional love relationship, and I was blown away to have a to fall in love during the pandemic with my person. So let's dig a bit further on that. You're an excellent writer, a man of words, a man of letters.
Advice for anyone finding full-throated, open-hearted love elusive. (26:38)
How would you describe this experience? What was different? How were you different in responding to it? As you said, not your first time falling in love. And love can also be an umbrella term that covers a lot of different species of what we might call love. So what was different about you, about her, about the two of you? You've been exposed to a lot of things in a lot of places. So what was it? I enjoyed being a bachelor back when I was one. I've told my wife sometimes we should have met 10 years earlier. This 10 years would have been way more interesting if you would have been in it. And she said, "Yeah, I'm not sure if I would have been ready for you and you for me." And so I think sometimes maybe I'm a person who just needed to grow a little bit, to be more openhearted, to be ready to meet this person. And I'm suddenly this believer in fate. But I sort of needed to work through some things. I needed to travel some and just sort of get a sense to where I realized I needed that. That I wouldn't have lived a complete life. I needed my other half. I needed that full-throated, open-hearted love. And it sort of caught me by surprise, but now that I have it, it just doesn't make sense. What was I doing all those years before I met my wife? Does that answer your question? I suppose I'm hearing the you being more prepared on some level, even though it perhaps wasn't a conscious preparation for this. But having changed over time become more open-hearted. You also, I would imagine, probably thought through what proposing and getting married would mean. I suppose if you have any other pieces of advice or suggestions for folks out there, maybe one who you're talking to, who is, no, I'd say getting to, if not having already passed the midpoint in life, who has not yet arrived there. What would you say? I think that that needs to be worked through. I think too many people in all societies marry too soon because it's sort of expected. I think it will complete them somehow. I think working through ambivalence or through uncertainty is an important thing. I had a concussion. I wrecked a motorcycle in Asia in 2019. It led me into some post-concussive depression. I think, actually, I'm not sure how hardwired for depression I am. I'm sort of this reflexive optimist, but it also felt seasonal depression sometimes. It was probably always there, but just sort of working through, sort of having my head knocked in a little bit and being, sort of, working through dealing with aloneness and sadness and realizing that being completely an island away from other people is not necessarily a desire to be. It's not necessarily a desirable thing. I don't think that depression necessarily is going to compel someone to just marry the next person who walks in the door. I think I was very lucky to meet someone who was very well suited to be with me, and I was her. But I think working through those, just realizing it's something you need. I think I realized I needed that kind of love before I met my wife. When I met my wife, it's like, "Oh, well, there you are." And so I worry, my nightmare is that I may have met her 10 years earlier and not recognized the way that she completed my way of being in the world. And so I would say, don't be afraid of those negatives and the sadness and sort of trying. But be honest with yourself, I think sometimes maybe men have a problem with this more than women, is that self-sufficiency, trying to be completely self-contained and having freedom and not really having obligations to other people in life, doesn't always yield happiness in a way that sort of yoking yourself to somebody else's life can. And so I can speak with expertise about travel, less so with love. I still feel like I was really blindsided by it and again very lucky to have experienced it in the full-throated way that I did. But I think just sort of working through it and realizing that complete independence and sort of being pinched off from other people in the world is not necessarily the best way to live.
What Rolf means by “full-throated.” (30:53)
So I must ask you, since it's come up a few times, what do you mean by full-throated? Full-hearted I've heard? Full-throated, yeah, sorry, maybe that's a poetic term. Full-throated is like speaking it aloud, right? Like, I'm a Midwestern guy and so we stand for our part, we don't hug as much, we don't say as much, right? Full-throated is when it's like, you know, when you verbally state your love, you know, it's not just, you know I love you, hun, you know I love you. No, it's when you think about it so often that you have to say it. Yeah, got it. Okay, I'm glad I asked.
Nothing makes you appreciate home like traveling the world. (31:26)
Did you always suspect that you would end up back in Kansas or did you think that was the furthest thing from any possible geographic, I don't want to say resting place because you're not resting, obviously, you're not dead? But did you foresee ending up back in Kansas? Was that something that you had as your homing beacon in some respect or was that not the case? I don't think so. I think I always had a fondness for Kansas and I always, when my dad was a high school science teacher in Kansas and so I went a lot of field trips with him and I was allowed to see Kansas as a naturalist might, you know, to see the grass and realize that the grass may be one foot above the ground, but those roots go 20 feet down and it's part of an ecosystem and there's actually dinosaur bones because Kansas used to be a sea. So being raised by a science teacher sort of helped me appreciate the subtleties of a landscape by Kansas, but Kansas is not a very sexy or exciting place, right? Yet I always held this tenderness for it, but I sort of figured when I was younger that I would end up, you know, in a Portland or a Paris or a New York or someplace like that. And actually, this actually ties into my family as well because one thing I learned from travel is that almost anywhere in the world, and we can forget this sometimes in the United States, family is a core value. You know, you go to Southeast Asia and one of the first questions are you're married. It's like, no. Oh, you're 27. You're not married. Oh, I'm so sorry. You know, like, you have kids. The family is just this core value everywhere in the world. And we've sort of allowed ourselves to rid that. Anyway, I would see people in Vietnam, in Egypt, pulling the resources as a family to get like real estate or to share in different burdens and joys together. And so, gosh, it's been almost 18 years. Some land came up for sale in Kansas and I couldn't afford it by myself. So I talked my parents into getting another half of the property and other house with me. And they've been my neighbors. They just moved into assistance living recently, but they were my neighbors for 17 years. And it was really great because they keep it on in my house when I was gone. Things are dirt cheap. And in Kansas, you've talked about geo arbitrage many times before. The great plains is the dirt cheap place to live. And this is something I talked about in my first book, Vagabond, and the idea of, you know, travel doesn't necessarily need to make you unemployable. Well, now we live in an age where you're interviewing me, you know, via my laptop that we can actually do our jobs remotely through computers in a way that where you are, you don't have to be like two subway rides from that office in Manhattan now to do good work for an important company or a publisher or a media organization. Now you can sit in a beloved place like Kansas. I love it here. And yeah, my first date with my wife was just on the other side of this door here. And that is a travel one joy. And I think thanks to technology, and I critique technology a little bit in my new book, but thanks to technology, we can root ourselves to a quiet place where there's lots of space and things aren't that expensive, yet participate in the greater world. You know, human culture has been urbanizing since the Industrial Revolution, and maybe this new technology will allow us to sort of have a counter movement against that organization, nothing against cities, but sometimes it's nice to be in a more remote, peaceful place where you can go for a formal walk and not see anybody and see that as a good thing. I feel you as I get older and more cantankerous, maybe just more sensitive, maybe reclaiming the sensitivity that I had as a child, but beat into submission one way or another.
The most meaningful task for the traveler. (34:53)
I definitely long for that type of immersion, not necessarily in solitude, but in nature, which I think you can certainly do without pure solitude. Let me read a few lines that are from the new book, and then I would love to hear any stories or examples that you can give. So, let's start with one here. "The most meaningful task for the traveler may well be to look past what feels exotic and learn to save our subtle differences in the things we already have in common." Could you elaborate on that, maybe give any examples? Well, this ties into the first example that I thought was just this family situation. I was in Vietnam, I was in Namibia, I was in Italy, and seeing how families would pull resources. Whereas I could have been in those places and seen the most obvious foreign thing. I could have looked for the Himba tribes women in Namibia who plate their hair with ochre. I could have looked for a very stereotypically Vietnamese ways that people dressed or ate. There's nothing wrong with enjoying difference, but what resonated with me from those places was how people related to family. I had a souvenir vendor, I wrote a book about souvenirs, and in Namibia, I was talking to him about, it just seemed like a rough job. He was on a beach, and on the skeleton coast of Namibia, the tourist attractions are shipwrecks. He was selling rocks that he dug out of the mountain, semi-precious stones to tourists. It's like, "Where's your pleasure in this?" and it's like, "Oh, this isn't work, this is love, this is love for my family, this is love for my daughter, this is love for my wife, this is love for my son." And so, where I might have been tempted to see him as this exotic guy who sells rocks for a living to tourists, suddenly he exemplified his love of family in a way that I couldn't have expressed. I was trying to say, "Don't you feel bad that you're just a souvenir vendor?" and he's like, "No, no, no, this is love, I'm bringing a better life to my family up in the mountains." And so, that's one example. Family is such a universal way that we can look past, I think we all around the world have similar familial relationships or love relationships. And so, seeing that, another thing that just popped into my head is I lived in Korea for two years. Like watching soap operas in Korea and how it's same-same but different as they say. And just sort of seeing how romantic love is romantic love, but like the manner system within Korea is a little bit different. So, the plots are sort of being strained through the Confucianist culture of Korea in a way that you wouldn't see in soap operas in the United States. And so, I think that we can go- and you see it too much on Instagram. People go to another part of the world and it's like, "Here's the most stereotypically dressed tribes person in this place where I am. Here's a German person wearing later hosin." When in fact, at the end of the day, the most interesting thing about all those people is things how they relate to love, how they relate to family, how they relate to sports and things like that. And I think I use you as an example in the new book as someone you talk about, porting martial arts to new countries and you instantly have a community and you can look beyond that. And I think the camaraderie, I talk about a communitos in the new book among travelers that basically the fact that you're all doing the same thing at the same time gives you what is called communitos, which is shared experience. Pilgrims on a pilgrimage will do that. That's why pilgrimages are special to people because communitos means, "Okay, this woman is 68 years old Italian and Catholic. I'm 24 and from Alabama, but we're doing this one step at a time." And communitos gives us a connection that we wouldn't normally have had. And so, I love that about travel. I love those common experiences. And I don't know if you are a pilgrim of martial arts, but certainly you've talked before about how you have an instant community when you take a skill to another place. Yeah, absolutely. And it breaks down those barriers that can otherwise exist so easily, not just in North American society or American society, but elsewhere. And at the end of the day, if you're in, even in the US, you can do this, of course. I remember training a long time ago in San Jose, California at this place called AKA American Kibachan Academy. And they have some tremendous, tremendous competitors. I mean, I don't hold a candle to one-tenth of any of them. But in the process of training, it was funny how, after even several months, there were tons of people in the class who didn't know my first name. I was just like that guy who's good at one particular thing. And then I knew this other guy, and he had some nickname, you know, "Whistlepuff" or whatever, that the coach had given him. He had no idea what this guy's real name was, but I knew he was really good at, you know, triangle choke and A, B, and C. And it was beautiful in that way. Nobody knew what I did professionally. I had no idea what they did professionally. All that mattered was that shared experience of training. And all people cared about was how serious you were. That was it. It was very refreshing. We're really, really refreshing in that way. I missed that. I actually would like to compete again in something. I think I'm too arthritic and a little too creaky at 45 for the Martial Arts competition. But let me ask you a question about pilgrimage. Because as it so happens, I am going to be heading to Japan in the next handful of months to walk a portion of the Kumano Kodo, which is the pilgrimage.
Pilgrimage pointers. (40:20)
I can't really say trail because it's actually a whole network of different trails that wind through Japan. But it's thought of as the sister pilgrimage to the Kumino de Santiago. And in fact, when you get your stamp book, one side is the Kumino de Santiago, and the other side is this Kumano Kodo. I'll be walking with seven or eight people. Most of them strangers. What advice would you give for getting the most out of that? It's going to be probably seven to ten days long, walking most of the day. Any thoughts? This is not something I've never done a pilgrimage, an actual pilgrimage or at least pilgrimage trail for that period of time. I've done one or two days at a time here and there, but nothing of that duration. Are you bringing your phone? Well, I'm not saying you shouldn't. Yeah. My default would be to have my phone. However, I have kept Verizon instead of AT&T because Verizon has worse international coverage. So generally with Verizon, I can't use my phone unless I use an e-sim of some type like Gig Sky, which actually works really well. I use that in Chile and Antarctica or on route to Antarctica. But I try not to use my phone. So very often, actually, the last time I was in Japan, what I did is I just downloaded a few offline maps, which you can do on Google Maps. So you can use the Wi-Fi at the hotel to download a couple of maps. And then I would go out and I was flying blind aside from the maps on the phone and maybe a camera. So I'd be open to not taking it because there will be people on the trip who are going to be taking copious photographs. I don't think I will need to duplicate any of that. So I could take or not take. Yeah. But do you know the American writer who writes about Japan a lot, Craig Mod? Do you know Craig Mod? You write the writer sometimes? Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. He's got some great stuff. And I haven't heard it, but I hear through reliable sources that his Japanese is also spectacular. And that's impressive. That's hard to do as an adult. It's very hard to do as an adult. Yeah. I'm impressed by his Japan chops and actually quote him in the Vagabonds way because he goes on a pilgrimage. And I think he downloaded some maps in Wikipedia and maybe was able to access a few blogs offline. Nothing else worked during the hike. And his exercise was "Hello." He would say hello to everybody. Presumably in Japanese because the Japanese people are like, "Oh, here's an American." And that was almost his mantra. It's just like, "Hello." And basically that sort of gave him energy during his pilgrimage is that because he knew his default was always looking down in his phone and is become that way for all of us because the algorithm is smarter than all of us. And so saying hello was his go to. And I think that's great advice for your journey as well. Whether or not you bring your phone. I say, "If you're willing to try it, don't bring your phone. That could be a good experiment." You know? Yeah, totally.
Benefits Of Travel And Slow Living
Getting lost is good for you. So is taking a break from mobile tech. (43:45)
I'm not a fan of smartphones, but I usually bring them and the GPS comes in handy. It's actually good for your hippocampus to be lost. You can actually good against neurodegenerative diseases to be lost and to figure out your way. They say that Lundy cab drivers before GPS had the most developed hippocampus in the world. So yeah, that would be it is the independent of the black mirror of your device as much as possible. And maybe this is a psychogiographical strategy. We may have talked about this a little bit when you were in Paris years ago, but find ways to play games with your sense of place. And Flinura is one strategy. Would you just sort of wander into the experience of the city? You're not following a map, but you're sort of following what captures your interests. Psychogiography is to sort of create a little trick to make yourself pay attention. And so for Craig, it was saying hello to people on the trail. But maybe you could think of something else. Maybe you're going to collect something or maybe you'll be a birdwatcher or a surfer or whatever. But maybe find like a little bag of six little tricks that you're looking for, a little ways to force yourself to pay attention. And it's a shame that in the 21st century, we have to do that. We have to force ourselves to pay non-digital attention to things. But travel is a great pretext and I'm actually excited to hear how it turns out, Tim. I'm super excited. I can't wait to get back. It's been a number of years. Still close with my host family from age 15. And really want to see them. And that's wild, man. It's wild. You know, my younger brother, my younger host brother now has like three or four kids, runs three companies. It's just bizarre because he's always frozen in time for me as this little brat. So it's just wild to think about. And I will say for people who may want to experiment with this, that about two years ago, I just surrendered and accepted, as you said, that the algorithm, specifically the armies of engineers and computer science PhDs and now certainly, you know, machine learning and AI are so overwhelmingly favored to win any battle of attention with an individual that you are, I was going to say, bringing a knife to a gunfight, but that's not even, you're bringing a match stick, like a match stick to a gunfight. I mean, you just have almost no hope to put up much resistance. So I removed all social apps from my phone two years ago and have missed exactly nothing. Because you can still access it if you need to, or want to through laptop, although it's a little more difficult with certain platforms because they recognize that they want to hook you on the cocaine dispenser so they force you to use mobile so that it can track you and do all sorts of other things that I don't like. But it has had to my knowledge, nothing but positive impact on me professionally, allowing me to focus and batch and so on. And if you want to post on Instagram, guess what, you can do it in batches. And you can use something else, a surrogate, say like a buffer app, or meet Edgar, one of these services, you don't actually need to be scrolling through your feed ever, necessarily. So that has been very helpful, but even the messaging apps now are so distracting. I mean, it's like, you've got WhatsApp and the IMS and Signal and Telegram and everybody uses something different. And it just becomes a whack-a-mole. So maybe I will leave my phone at home. Certainly with seven or eight people who are mostly technologists of some sort, I'm not worried about dying in the forest. It's not a concern, not a concern at all. Get a stack of postcards and every time you want to send a text message, send them a two-week postcard instead. Yeah, that's a good idea. Yes, stack. Backback full of postcards. Let me ask you another, or this is not really an ask, but it's to mention another quote from the new book.
Uncertainty as a gift of travel — and how to cultivate it by slowing down. (47:40)
And you can expand in any way you like, would love any stories or examples come to mind, of course. That's just how my mind works. Quote, "In an information-drenched society that tempts us to choose unhappiness over uncertainty, it is helpful to remember that one of the key gifts of travel has always been uncertainty itself." I could have been paraphrasing you. I feel like we talked about this, or that's a phrase that I know is probably not too foreign to you. No, it's not. And this really falls into the idea of preparation versus leaving yourself open to chance, which is really the gift of travel. And that goes into the ideas of flurring your way through a city or using psychogiography to surprise yourself, to sort of force yourself into being surprised by a place. Because in a way, if we bring a menu of options to a place, then we're sort of bound by the size of the menu and what's on that menu. Whereas if we throw the menu away and we just, and this is a metaphor, not just talking about food, if we're open to any kinds of experiences, then you can experience what you didn't expect to find. Like, once I was wandering through Cambodia, and I had a lot of great experiences back in my drip bag, backpacker days, and I'm a pretty tall guy. I was like the tallest guy by a head in Cambodia. And I got invited to a volleyball game because these local villager guys thought I would be the ringer. And ladies and gentlemen, I've never had my ass handed to me in sports so much by these guys in Cambodia who were so much smaller than me. They actually kicked me off the team. They brought me on as a ringer and they kicked me off because I'm reasonably athletic, but these guys just loved, lived, and breathed volleyball. And actually Asia is a great volleyball culture, if that's your sport. And so I think had I gone into that experience just with my anchor, Wattmap, I wouldn't have had that deep humility that came. And then the friendship that happened afterwards, you know, the beers, the guys, I made their day by being the six foot three guy who was just completely inferior to them in volleyball. And that's just one of many experiences where you just, one of my mantras is walk until your day comes interesting because then things happen to you instead of going with expectations about something that will happen to you. You just sort of walk and what happens happens. You let go of that uncertainty to a little bit because sometimes we're sort of task driven people back home. But why not just let a day breathe? Why don't just walk and tell your ass handed to you in volleyball or somebody wants to invite you to a festival? I mean, this happens more often in places where you're obviously not from there. I think I was a little bit spoiled by spending the first eight years of my international travel career in Asia where I don't look very Asian. And so I was on the statement of the conversation. Yes, you do not look very Asian. This is true. I do not look Asian. And so I had the privilege and it really is a privilege of obviously not being from this place. And so it's like, let's talk to this dude. He's not from here. Right. And so it gives so many rewards. And I feel like that scab, that uncertainty scab, I peeled off a long time ago because it's been so rewarding in life. And I think maybe Asia cured that of it. It's just like, here's the pasty guy. Let's go bring him to our parents or let's go include him in this soccer game or let's go see if he wants to eat these these boiled fish eyes or whatever. And it just makes it makes the experience more interesting. And so I think sometimes the uncertainty isn't really uncertainty in the face of danger, but just uncertainty in the face of not having a list of things to do and not having a set itinerary for a given day. I love museums, but at the end of the day, it's those weird random getting your butt kicked in volleyball moments that are much more memorable and lead to these connections that no amount of certainty could give you. And that's what uncertainty does give you. Are there any particular tactics or recommendations? Let's say somebody agrees with us. They're like, I totally agree with what you're saying. Every trip I've taken has been pretty tightly scheduled. What do you suggest? Right? So you can walk until the day becomes interesting and get lost, especially in a place like Japan. I mean, it's so safe, generally speaking. It's fantastic. Plus the English, at least when I was last there a few years ago, I mean, the English level tends to be quite low. So you automatically get more excitement that way. And do you have any other suggestions? I mean, one thing that came to mind for me, for instance, I was like, look, if you're in Japan, you get in your wonder and getting lost. And let's say you don't find a cool park or this, that other thing, some big obvious point of focus. You could also just decide, you know, today, I'm going to walk and get lost. And I'm going to go into every convenience store and try to notice the things that are different in those convenience stores because they are quite different. Even if you go into, say, 7-11 in Japan, they are not the same as the 7-11 in the United States. And that might sound really stupid, but you start to notice a lot of little details. And any other suggestions for injecting some uncertainty if somebody wanted as funny as this might sound, you know, instructions for injecting uncertainty? Yeah, well, I think to your 7-11 in Japan example, people who are in a hurry to get to those five tourist attractions don't have time to linger in the 7-11 and see how weird there's those bean paste sweet things that you buy there, right? Oh, yeah. And so really slow down. If you have 10 days in this country, spin them all in one town or spin them all in one region and don't force yourself to rush from one place to another. One of the philosophers I quoted in the new book is, "Biangchal Han." Have you heard of, I think he has a book, I think it's called "The Sense of Time." Ooh, great title. Yeah. Well, he talks about how you can't fast forward sense. Like, the five senses, like, there's probably people who are listening to this right now on double speed or 1.5 speed. You can fast forward sound. You can fast forward through a movie, right? You can't fast forward through the smells of a market, right? So he talks about smell is the ultimate slow sense. And basically his philosophy is that the Swiss Korean guy is that it's the experience of duration that counts in life, not the number of experiences, right? He's actually a pretty abstract philosopher. His book is a little bit slow to read. But it's such a great point and applies to travel so much in that it is that day where you go from convenience mark to convenience mark and see how they're different. That counts. It's the duration of that day that is more meaningful than those five tourist attractions that you might have gone to before. You and I have hung out in Paris before. And actually we had a great walk in Paris, which we can talk about if you want. But oftentimes I have friends, students will come to Paris and it's like, "I ordered lunch and it took them forever to serve my lunch. And then I wanted the bill and it took them forever. I had to find the guy." And it's like, "I wanted to experience Paris, but I was sitting in this restaurant waiting for my bill." And it's like, "No, no, no. That three hour lunch is the experience of Paris. The reasons are not standing in life for the Louvre. I'm not going to knock the Louvre. It's fine." But that was the most Parisian thing you experienced that day, was sitting for three hours and just sort of watching the world go past you. If you're willing to sit still, then you are a spectator in daily life of the world. So, yeah, I think about Jung-Chaal Han's philosophy quite a bit, that it's the experience of duration. If you can find ways to savor experience, to slow it down. And to notice that from that cafe table in Paris, it's just as Parisian as any other part of the city. And you can actually watch it with more attention to detail. And this doesn't just Paris, but anywhere. If you slow down and instead of moving through a place, let that place move through you for a while. It's going to be so much more affecting.
Books, movies, and experiences that help slow the perception of time. (55:33)
Are there any other books or thinkers, writers, movies? Doesn't really matter. Anything at all that has had an impact on your ability to maybe extend your perception of time, slow the passage of time, increase your savoring of time, anything like that. I mean, you mentioned the sense of time. I'll throw one out there and buy some time. So, I read a novel that was gifted to me by my brother, who has a very high bar. And it took me several attempts to get through the first hundred pages because it's very dense. And you can't put it down after 13 pages and pick it up for seven pages two days later and then read another 12 pages. That will never work. You have to kind of get the balls in the air and juggle so that your short-term memory is doing some work. But that novel, once you get, if you get to the talking fish, I'll only leave it at that. You'll realize, "Oh, okay, this is about to get very strange indeed." And that book had a profound impact on my way of perceiving the world in time for a few weeks. It was very, very, very cool experience. Are there any other books, writers, thinkers, experiences that people might be able to look to themselves that have changed your experience of time or your ability to slow down? I've been weirdly obsessed with time ever since I met this guy in a monastery in Massachusetts on my first vagabondin trip. I was like 23. This dude, wherever he is, thank you, whoever you are. He just left the Navy. He was in the contemplation room of a monastery. And I didn't want to become a Trappist monk, but it's like the only place where I could stay for free and I was a dirtbag and I wanted to stay there. I knew this guy. He was just out of the Navy. He wasn't necessarily going to become a monk, but he was really interested in monasticism. He had this skull and crossbones on his arm. And that's where I learned the phrase "Memento Mori." I had no idea what "Memento Mori" remember death is, the philosophical idea of "Memento" death. And I've been thinking about it ever since. Actually, one of the inspirations for me as a traveler, for vagabonding and up to the new book, is just the idea of that life doesn't necessarily reward you in time. My grandfather was a Kansas farmer. He worked really hard from the age 15. He dropped out of school, took over the farm when his dad died, worked his ass off. And then when he got to retirement age, his wife, my grandmother, got Alzheimer's disease and he took care of her for the rest of his life. And so, it was a really heartbreaking thing when I was young, but I realized that you sort of, that time isn't just given to you in a rational way in life. You have to grab time as you are allowed to grab it. And so, I mean, there's great writing about time. Is it Oliver Berkman? I think you've covered other people with 4,000 weeks, I think. 4,000 weeks. Yeah, no, I haven't finished that book, but it's, and I always read like 10 books at once. But the philosophy of time and the idea of time and now the sense of time is something that I've always sort of obsessed about. And actually, one of my favorite filmmakers is Richard Licklater, who, and time is sort of one of the things he experiments in as a filmmaker. And, you know, I love before sunrise because it's about a guy who meets his true love, you know, on a train in Austria. Well, I met my wife the one time I wasn't traveling, but that's still a very meaningful movie to me because they talk so much about time in that trilogy. And they talk about journaling, you know, which is something I know you talk about quite a bit, but is not done as much anymore as it was in the '90s when that movie was first made. And just the idea that Celine, that character in before sunrise, is talking about coming to this city as a teenager and writing in her journal and basically having a conversation with herself based upon what she wrote in that journal. And Richard Licklater has some other, you know, their boyhood is about very specifically about time and aging and things like that. But I think, I saw before sunrise, around the time that I left that monastery with the Navy guy with the Tet, Tet, two who taught me about Memento Moray. And so I've thought about that. And I think it's really important to be cognizant of time and just the idea that the moment is what we have. And there's so many ways to embrace time, but maybe as an obsessive traveler, it always puts me into this thought experiment of how time is playing out and how I'm making use of it. You know, I just realized, so I'll just quickly say I'll add an 11th book so that you're reading 11 instead of 10 with the little comma big by John Crowley.
Novels are empathy machines.” (59:51)
That's the novel that I was describing earlier. But I don't know if I've ever asked you about fiction per se. We've spoken about Walt Whitman and we've spoken a bit about poetry, which I suppose might be in many cases a form of fiction. But largely when I've asked you about writers and books, it's all been nonfiction. Are there any particular fiction writers or fiction books that have had a large impact on you or just impact on you? They come to mind. They could have been in the last few years. It could have been 30 years ago. It doesn't matter. That's a great question. Interestingly, like I'm fascinated by Romana Clef fiction, fiction that is basically a sneeze away from real life, like on the road, right? My wife, it's such a stereotypical female thing. My wife gives me a hard time because she loves novels. She plows through novels. She eats them up. And I always default to nonfiction. But actually, as a traveler, I find that fiction is like novels are empathy machines. They basically put you into the experience of another human being and it allows you to experience what it's like to live in this country or to be a woman in this part of the United States or whatever. And that's the great thing about novels is that it sort of brings you into the emotion of what it is. And so I found something that I've done more and more as a traveler is not just read travel books, not just read travel guidebooks, but read novels written by people who live in the country where you go to. And I was just in the Faroe Islands, kicking my wife and I went to the Faroe Islands. And so it was interesting to see. Where are the Faroe Islands? The Faroe Islands are north of Scotland, south east of Iceland and southwest of Norway. And they're just mind-blowingly beautiful and they're very Nordic. You've got to pick your season, I guess. Oh, yeah. No, we're there in August. And even then, it was the weather was unpredictable. It's like a famously unpredictable place. It's very Nordic there. The language is Nordic. It's probably the closest familiar language is Icelandic. But it was so interesting. Like I read, I had the guidebook, but I like read the Faroe Islands saga, which is sort of about the heathen culture adapting to the introduction of Christianity. And the old man in the sea, I forget the name who wrote that, but it's about these old fishermen who have always transported by boat, but yet their sons are building roads and traveling by roads, it's set in the middle 20th century. And so it's about how basically Christianity is this globalized religion that upended the heathen, the Viking religions of a thousand years ago. The fact, and he talks about time in this book, that basically the men who sailed out to fish and didn't know when they were coming back, time meant nothing to them. Time was a huge expansive thing. Their sons who traveled by roads, time is a very concise thing. And they had a much less philosophical attitude towards time. And so it's another book I haven't finished along with Oliver Berkman's book. But it was so interesting to look at these... It's a great irony that one of the books you haven't yet finished is the 4,000 weeks on the finite nature of life, P.S. Right, no, actually you partially know this, but years ago I thought I was going to write a book called Time Wealth. And then I told my friend Mike who does my website, it's like, "Yeah, I want to write it, but I don't have time for it." And he's like, "Okay, how about that? You don't have time to write time wealth, okay." But yeah, no, I'm surrounded by books right now. Maybe I should do a podcast about reading one half to one quarter of a book and then talking about that based upon you guys so far. But it was so interesting being in the Faroe Islands. I saw the school let out. We were in this village one day. And a lot of the kids, this kid was walking by, he was sort of nerdy in a way that I was nerdy when I was about 10 years old. And he was watching an English language YouTube video on his phone. And a part of me thought, "This kid needs to be where he is." But also, I remember being a nerdy 10 year old kid and the fact that he's in his second language, he's watching a video. And so I think this conversation about how new ideas and new technologies change societies, it's been going on in the Faroe Islands ever since they decided, the Norse people decided to introduce Christianity and sort of up him. The pagan religion. It's been changing since they built roads and then the men who fished were different from the men who drove cars. And so this is a roundabout way of saying, "I don't really read that many novels." But it was interesting how they tied together. And again, it's that empathy that novels put you into characters in a way that nonfiction really can't. You get information from nonfiction, which is why I love nonfiction. But then there are just these empathy machines putting you through a novel allows you to empathetically experience other lives. And oftentimes, if it's written from the perspective of the country you're visiting in any part of the world, it's just a great resource to have as a traveler. Yeah, I love novels as empathy machines. I would guess, and this is pointing the finger back at myself also, the people who are historically heavily predisposed to nonfiction probably are not suffering from a lack of information in their lives. And so maybe an IV of empathy, vis-a-vis some really compelling fiction might be a good counterbalance. Well, there's information versus ritual because I was just thinking another thing that I touched on the book is the idea that we get information from books is pretty new. We get our stories, but the idea that a novelist creates a story that we read and we recognize him as the author of that is pretty new because historically stories are shared in communities. And you can still go to parts of the world where literally or metaphorically stories are shared around a campfire. And nobody owns the story. It's just this person who tells the stories that were and who tells it the best, not the person who wrote it. And so I think people like you and me are a little bit obsessed with information. Forget that so much of human resonance comes through stories and even shared stories and even common stories. And I think that's why we have Urban Miss. That's why we have all these weird stories that float around because there's certain things that we gravitate towards. And yeah, so maybe that's a resolution. Another thing for your pilgrimage, read some fiction, read some Japanese fiction and see how you do because it is information can be in an obstacle sometimes. How much information do you need? I don't know. I don't know the answer to that. I am swimming every day.
How travel can give us context for the choices we make at home. (01:06:13)
Yeah, I remember one of my friends in past podcast, Derek Sivers, who's a phenomenal guy. His story is just insane. I mean, this is like philosopher king computer programmer who is also a circus ringleader and traveled around as a musician playing at state fairs. I mean, his all stories insane and just amazing. And he said at one point, and I think I'm getting it right, but I could be paraphrasing. If more information were the answer, we would all be billionaires with six pack abs. I just thought that was fantastic. So let me read another snippet here. And we can explore it a bit or rather, I can listen to you explore it. "Travel can give us context for the life choices we make at home. And by exposing us to other ways of living, help us fine tune those choices in a way that makes our home life fuller." Any stories, examples, expansions on that? I think sometimes, I mean, this also applies to the idea of buying in on property with your parents, like you do in other countries. But basically, we have this set of choices, often information driven set of choices that we abide by at home. But then when we see other people approaching love in a different way, for example, if you go to a country that's still sort of navigating the line between arranged marriages and love matches, right? Which Korea was when I was there. And it was interesting to see how there's sort of a fairy tale I lucked at. I fell in love with my soulmate. But we detached this fairy tale significance to love that the Koreans I met at the time did not. They saw a lot of my Korean students that, well, someday I'm going to enter into an arranged marriage and I'm going to make the most of it. Love becomes work after a certain point, right? And I think that sometimes we fetishize love as something that solves problems. And something that is bestowed upon us as opposed to something that we work for. And even though I've said multiple times that I married my soulmate, part of one of our vows was William Carlos Williams poem, "The Ivy Crown." We will it so and so it is past all accident, basically. That love is something that is a miracle and a gift that happens in your life. But it's also something that you have to work for. It's not something that just falls into your lap, but you have to will it so so that it's not an accident. And that the miracle of us meeting is something that we also have to keep willing. Years after we're married, we have to keep underpinning that miracle of love with willpower. And I think that's something that was really underpinned when I was in Korea, just knowing there are people there who didn't necessarily have the storybook soap opera love, but they were partnered with somebody for reasons that made sense to their family. And they were going to make it work. And so that helped me contextualize. It was a long fuse because it was the 90s that I was in Korea and it was the late 20s before I met my wife. But just that idea of love as an active thing, as something that is something that you will sow in a certain way. That's an example of something that was contextualized in a really useful way. But the culture is actually Latin America is the same. We're talking about full-throated love. I mean, have you been to Cuba? I have not been to Cuba. I would love to at some point. Yeah, I loved Cuba. They're Peter Opos. I don't know if they still do it. Like here it might be called "Cat Calling", but there's so much art to it in Cuba that basically a guy gave me like a parropos lesson when I was in Cuba once. It's like, if you can cook like you walk, I'll marry you right now. You know, maybe it doesn't translate very well. But Latin cultures are so much more verbal and so much more artistic about the courtship ritual, right? Yeah. Again, in the Midwest, we stand far apart in Korea. It's much more family-oriented. But in Latin America, I think maybe my love language that I can now use in my wife was sharpened by the context of being in this country where people are very unambiguous about their statements of love, even if they're not sure if it's love yet. They're just throwing things out there. And I think it makes their days more interesting. Yeah. Yeah. There are nary, a sharper contrast could be found than between, I would say, you know, Korea and like Cuba, street beautiful posts. Yeah. Or maybe between Kansas and Cuban street beautiful posts for that matter. No, there were some things directly translated that we punched in the nose in Kansas, that these Cuban guys, they worked for them. They can make it work. Yeah. Different culture. What would you suggest people perhaps pay attention to or how they can open the surface area in their life for making contact with new life choices that could translate back to home while they travel? Is it just a general awareness? I mean, if so, how do you cultivate that? A lot of people see a lot of amazing things and experience a lot of amazing things when they travel and then they come home and it's, you know, control Z on the back to normal. So what are some of the efforts that can be made, if any, come to mind? Well, attention again is a good word. It's sort of a refrain in this conversation. And I was literally thinking of Tic Nhat Hanh's washing dishes analogy. Are you familiar with this? Yeah, you should definitely describe. I mean, this is, yeah, some book I read of his. This was the one thing that stuck with me. So, yeah, please describe it. As a guy who's otherwise incompetent in the kitchen compared to his wife, I'm good at washing dishes, right? So this really appealed to me as an otherwise incompetent kitchen guy. But he's basically saying that whatever you should do, the life that you live is in the moment right now. And so whatever you do, you should be thankful for the miracle of what you're doing. And so as you're washing the dishes, as you're washing these bowls and holding them under the water, you should give thanks for the fact that you have this life and that this is what you are doing. That you're not thinking back to the dumb thing you said in a conversation yesterday. You're not thinking about what you're going to do tomorrow. That you're celebrating the miracle that is these bowls. Well, I think travel is something that sort of gives us that miracle. It's its otherness. It sort of forces us into a kind of attention that is special. That can be a letdown. And actually coming back into 90 degree heat from the Faroe Islands in Kansas is a little bit of letdown. I'm trying to adjust. I've done this a million times, but still it's like, oh man, I wish I was still walking in the rain in the Faroe Islands. But I think that is almost the metaphor that travel reminds you that life is important, I guess, that the dishes that every dish you wash, that every hike you take, that every street corner you turn around and see a samba school dancing towards you that you didn't expect to see in Rio, that that is what your life consists of. And so not to be too heavy and philosophical about this, but that's really what popped into my head. Just the idea that at its best travel is a spiritual thing. It connects you to the to the nowness of being alive. And that's actually something I need to work on right now, Tim, because I'm really missing the Faroe Islands with the cute little sheep and the beautiful views and just that feeling of Viking otherness that I felt there. That I have to reset and remind myself to take that attitude, that dishwashing nowness of the travel experience back home. And it's never a perfectable thing as proven by the fact that I'm sort of wishing I was in the Faroe Islands now. But that's the best answer I can give is just that washing the dish of this moment now and realizing that this is the moment that you have is what you have and it should be celebrated. Yeah, for sure. And some version of that story, he's probably told multiple versions that also stuck with me had an additional wrinkle to it, which was, if while you're washing the dishes, you're thinking about the juicy apricot or something plum that you're going to eat afterwards. If you're thinking about this plum or apricot while you're washing the dishes, when you're eating the plum or the apricot, you're going to be thinking of something else. And that always stuck with me. It's like, okay, if you're looking forward to this thing and you're willfully unaware and blind to what you're doing en route to that thing, when you get there, you're going to be thinking about the next thing. And it's going to be pearls before swine, so don't be a swine. That's so good. And it's actually hard to quote a specific book for the dishwashing analogy that Tic Nhat Ham has because he's a preacher, right? He's a spiritual man. He would give a sermon. And people who give sermons often will riff on the same idea several times. And so I think the dishwashing analogy comes up. It's like a stand-up comic working on his 60-minute set. No, totally, totally. Yeah. And it's so funny. And assembling a book. I don't know if you come up against this, but I had to pay for some of the quotes I used, especially the poetry. And actually, I found a David Wagner poem. I think through Five Bullet Friday, there's this David Wagner poem about the forest knows where you are. Let it find you. Yeah, so good. And I wanted to use that quote, which I'm pretty sure I found through you somehow. Well, he's been dead since, like, for 10 years at least, but I had to pay his publisher $100 to use, like, six lines of that poem. And so I'm thankful for Tic Nhat Ham. This is a complete aside. I'm thankful for Tic Nhat Ham for preaching in sermons that I don't have to pay for his beautiful language because you don't have to pay for a sermon like you do for a poem. Six measly lines costing me $600. David Wagner, bless your soul, but I know it didn't go in your pocket. Yeah, so when people hear the "Woe is Us" publishers talking about how hard life is, don't let them fool you. There are actually some great economic models at work that have kept some of them afloat for a very long time. Some of them are doing incredibly well, so don't lose any sleep over that. And my publisher didn't pay their publisher. I paid that in my own pocket. That's rich, as they say. But it was worth it. It was a good poem. Yeah, yeah, got to get it done one way or the other.
Contemplating life’s next chapters. (01:16:11)
I want to mention one thing from our first conversation for people who may not realize the power of the Google in one particular capacity. And that is Googling your demographic and then what you're contemplating doing, right? So we talked a little bit about this, so you could type in, and this is just an example. 35 years old, two kids one year of travel, and you'll likely find 20 blogs or who knows, Instagram, probably at this point, maybe, of people in that demographic who are doing exactly what you're contemplating doing. So if you're like, "I can't do it because I've got a dyslexic dog and I bump up up up up." It's like, type it all into Google and it's like, "Oh wait a second. Six people have already done this." And I can learn all about how they did it. So just for a little bit of inspiration and tactical instruction, I recommend that. I would love to zoom out for a minute and just talk about the second half of life. So how are you thinking about next chapters for yourself and just how you frame that for yourself, anything at all related to that? This is something I reflect on a little bit in the new book and specifically I quote Richard Rohr. Have you read much Richard Rohr? I want to say I recognize the last name, R-O-E-H-R. R-O-H-R, yeah. Oh, it might be a different person. Why don't you tell me/refresh my memory. I may not know who this is. He has a book called Falling Upward, which I think the subtitle might be "Wisdom for the Second Half of Life." And for a while, I thought he was my own discovery and I asked him on my podcast and then I found out he's friends with Oprah and Bono, right? That he's way more famous than I thought he was. Yeah, right. He had discovered this hidden gem. Right, like I found him in the library and it's like, "Oh my God, this guy is amazing. Everybody needs to know about him." And then I realized that actually Oprah and Bono are friends with the guy. But Falling Upward is about, and I love the analogy, he says that in a way America is a very first half of life focused society. But he says that the first half of life is creating the vessel of the form your life will take. The second half is filling in that vessel. Oh, I love that. It's Falling Upward. It's a great book recommendation. It's so wise and it's so smart. He uses the idea, he has a lot of analogies, but he talks about Odysseus. We have this idea that Odysseus, you know, we see Odysseus as his traveler, but then also he's also this guy who comes home and has to court his wife, right? And so there's another adventure that actually happens after he gets home. And I just love the idea of filling your vessel. It's like we as Americans are obsessed with first half of life and you and I have used this in a conversation before. It's an achievement versus appreciation, right? It's outcomes versus awe. It's like building a life you want versus living the life that you've built, right? And so it's something, actually my wife is like eight and a half years younger than me. She'll say nine, but we talk about this because we're both above the age of 40. And just the idea that if you are still living by first half of life aspirations and values in the second half of life, then there's going to be diminishing returns, you know? Yeah, for sure. Actually, interesting quote, John Muir. I didn't know this. John Muir made a ton of money selling grapes to Hawaii when he was young. He was a good businessman. I did not know that. Yeah. No, but then he seems like a challenging just from a logistics perspective in that day and age. It seems very challenging, but yeah, okay. Well, I think there were so few great. He was in California, obviously, but he was shipping grapes to Hawaii. He made a ton of money. And then he decided to just drop out and be the John Muir. We know he decided to walk around and explore the wilderness and be at one with his experience of nature. And somebody said, they talked to this guy. I think his name was E.M. Harriman, who was a very rich magnet. And they're like, well, he's making more money than you. You made all this money. And then you quit. Like, don't you want to be as rich as him? And he's like, I already am richer than Harriman because I have all the money I need and he doesn't, right? I have all the money I want and he doesn't. And so I think that's sort of second half of life wisdom. And I realize that you've built the vessel and it's sort of a, it's a vessel that's worth filling up now. It might not be the vessel you dreamed of when you were 22, but it's a vessel that looks pretty good. And now is the time to start appreciating the life that you're living. Being married underscores it. I travel in kind of a different way now. I think I have less of a G-Wiz approach to travel. In some ways, I'll never match up to those first adventures I had when I was wandering through the jungle and getting my ass handed to me playing volleyball. But now I sort of have, I sort of know where I want to go back to. I know where I still want to go. And I know that I won't ever be able to go to everywhere I dream of and that's okay, right? But I've created a vessel that has travel and has this woman I love and it has this connection to this land in Kansas. And I'm not saying that I'm a perfect example of first half, second half, but I'm thinking about this because I think the United States is an achievement culture. It's less so an appreciation culture. And if you are in second half of life and you're still grinding to achieve something, you're still grinding to compete with the guy next door, well maybe that has less happiness embedded in it than just appreciating the life that you've built for yourself. And one great thing about success, that's another thing we talked about in our last podcast interview was success management. And I think I couldn't articulate that as well eight years ago, but it, I think success management is taking that vessel and filling it in a way that enhances the life that you've built. The life that you've built for yourself. I'm certainly not an expert Richard Roor would be a good guy to speak to that. He's a Franciscan priest actually. He's from Kansas originally. But it's something that has really fascinated me. I think he lives in Albuquerque now. Just the idea that yes, focusing on filling the vessel is really where I should be now. I shouldn't really be competing for my lot in the world in the way I was when I was in my twenties and thirties because I have become the person I am and now I should enjoy it a little bit. Yeah, I agreed. I'm definitely meditating on all this and realizing as I had before, like number one, don't want to be the old guy at the club.
Motivation Behind 'The Vagabond’S Way: 366 Meditations On Wanderlust, Discovery, And The Art Of Travel'
What compelled Rolf to write The Vagabond’s Way: 366 Meditations on Wanderlust, Discovery, and the Art of Travel? (01:22:12)
Like I really don't want to be that guy. Number one, number two, it's not always, this is metaphor obviously, it's not always a great idea to be the oldest geyser in like the NHL. It's a full contact sport. This is like individualistic achievement business is very full contact including a lot of self abuse and flagellation and man, you can only take so many hits and so much abuse and so many physical or psychic reconstructive surgeries before you're like, good Lord, what am I doing to myself? So, yes, filling the vessel, I agree with that. Well, Rolf, the new book is the Vagabond's way 366 meditations on wanderlust discovery and the art of travel. How did you decide, why did you decide to put this together? Well, it really came out of the pandemic. And in fact, I approached you. I was maybe during that time of depression in 2019. I'm like, I want to write Vagabonding too. And you talked me out of it. Yeah. I'll free your rationale basically, you know, unless there's a whole lot of new things to say, don't sort of write the diet coke junior varsity version of the book people know you for. And that was good advice. But I also, you know, I met Kiki. I met my wife during that time and we started reading books to each other every morning. There's a lot of tick not hon wisdom that has been collected into day by day reading books. The Roské book of delights we were reading to each other. We were reading also Ryan Holiday's Daily Stoic, which sort of became a template for the book the Vagabond's way became because that was a page today book, 366 chapters, quote by a stoic meditation with other contexts, reflection on what he set, what that stoic person was saying. And so I realized that maybe one way I could get out of writing Vagabonding to one way I could bring value to all my 25 plus years of reading about travel and traveling was to have this idea that basically my wife and I would go out. And we were engaging with ideas, but we were also connecting with each other and our morning readings, be it Roské or tick not hon. Whoever we read, that sort of set the tone for the day. And so I realized that there really wasn't a travel equivalent of this and that I'm a keeper of a commonplace book. You know, I've been saving quotes and thoughts for years and years and years. And I realized that I had all of this wisdom, other people's wisdom that I didn't know what to do with. And so I decided to put it into this format since I was getting so much out of this daily ritual at home to write what I had never seen before, which is sort of a travel version of the daily stoic where you get a meditation on a certain aspect of travel and then go a quote about it and then a meditation about that quote. And then almost like vagabonding, even though it's not vagabonding to it sort of takes you to the journey. So January is about being inspired for the journey and why journeys are important and why it's important to take them now. February is about preparing for the journey in this information, sawed in society, how to best prepare for the journey. March is about getting started on the journey all the way through until December is about coming home and bringing that attitude of travel home. So much like my true love and marriage, it fell into my lap during the pandemic and it's like, this is the book to write. And so, yeah, it was really fun engaging with it. And I'm really excited to have it in the world. Amazing. This might seem like a dumb question. It probably is. So I think a full year's 365 days. So is it 366 is Jan 1 to Jan 1? Is that the idea? No, it's leap year. It's leap year. Okay. Got it. Got it. Yeah, I do. And on the cultural context of New Year's resolutions, which is an old Babylonian ritual. It's an old harvest ritual. But I didn't do January 1st twice. I snuck in a leap year just so that people wouldn't have something an empty day during a leap year. Yeah, cover the basis. You got to cover the basis. Well, we're always great to see you. And I'm excited about the new book, as I am about all of your writing. I'm excited about the new book.
Final Thoughts On Attention Economy
Billboards as the original attention economy device and parting thoughts. (01:26:16)
I've read a ton of your writing, as I mentioned in the very beginning, you know, vagabonding shaped a lot of my experiences that then contributed to the writing of the four hour work week. And I think it is for people who are perhaps not immediately drawn to extended global travel, I will say that I view vagabonding more as a philosophical cleanse and reset that allows you to approach life in a not necessarily minimalist but more elegant, thoughtful, deliberate way. And for all of those reasons, I think it's tremendously valuable as a book and a guide for life. Even if you have no intention of traveling, it is using travel as a vehicle for exploring all of these subjects. And similarly, sounds like that's what the 366 meditations are doing in the vagabonds way. Is there anything else you would like to add? People can find you, of course, RolfPots.com and then on all the social, we'll link to all of that in the show notes for this episode. Is there anything else you'd like to add? Any closing comments, requests of the audience? Anything at all? Well, I was thinking, you know, we've talked about attention and the attention economy. Sometimes your question is, what would you put on a billboard? Oh, yeah. Let's do it. I think the last time I did that, I said time as wealth, but I was reading The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu. And the billboard was the original attention economy device. You know, back in 19th century France, if you were stuck in an intersection, they painted a wall with an advertisement for something to get your attention. And so I guess just, you know, the travel reminds us of the preciousness of real organic attention. And maybe, I don't know, I like my idea the last time, you know, that the time is wealth, your true wealth is time. But maybe the sun in the billboard is, don't look at me. Lend your attention to life itself, because the attention economy is a trap in a way. And again, I don't want to knock technology too much. But attention is such a gift in the moment is what we have. And so that's just something that I reflected on listening to our last conversation. It's like, yeah, billboards are part of the attention economy. So maybe instead of looking at the billboard, we should just look at our lives and pay attention and wash our dishes and make the most of what we have. Yeah. Here here, I agree with that. And you know, it also made me think I have not actually been through downtown Sao Paulo, but I have heard that they have removed all billboards, or at least for a period of time, the entire city of Sao Paulo, which is a huge city, had removed billboards or outdoor advertising, it would be fascinating to go there for the conspicuous absence of that barrage, just to see what it's like, because I've never experienced that in any modern city of any size. And Ralph, so great to see you. I recommend people check out the new book and all the things you've written and will write the Vagabond's Way 366 Meditations on Wanderlust Discovery in the Art of Travel. Thanks for taking the time, man. Really appreciate it. It's good to see you, Tim. And let's meet somewhere in the world someday. Yeah, let's do it. Let's do it. It's been a while since any in-person jam session. So we'll make that happen. And for everybody listening, as always, you can find links to everything we discussed, all the names, all the books, all the things at Timnup.log/podcast. Just search "Rolf" R-O-L-F, and it will pop right up. And until next time, be a little kinder than is necessary, and take care.