Wandering through the countryside of northern Thailand has rekindled my intermittent desire to live overseas…or at least to spend time travelling for an extended period. In order to learn more about what I’d be signing up for, I recently read Rolf Potts’ classic Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel (Bookshop), the 2003 book that helped kickstart the digital nomad movement. Here’s everything I highlighted on my Kindle while reading it.
This book views long-term travel not as an escape but as an adventure and a passion — a way of overcoming your fears and living life to the fullest.
So, as you prepare to read the book, just keep in mind what martial arts master Bruce Lee said: “Research your own experiences for the truth… Absorb what is useful… Add what is specifically your own… The creating individual is more than any style or system.”
Vagabonding is about using the prosperity and possibility of the information age to increase your personal options instead of your personal possessions.
Vagabonding is an attitude — a friendly interest in people, places, and things that makes a person an explorer in the truest, most vivid sense of the word.
Muir called these folks the “time-poor” — people who were so obsessed with tending their material wealth and social standing that they couldn’t spare the time to truly experience the splendor of California’s Sierra wilderness.
We’d love to drop all and explore the world outside, we tell ourselves, but the time never seems right. Thus, given an unlimited amount of choices, we make none.
Vagabonding is about gaining the courage to loosen your grip on the so-called certainties of this world. Vagabonding is about refusing to exile travel to some other, seemingly more appropriate, time of your life. Vagabonding is about taking control of your circumstances instead of passively waiting for them to decide your fate.
Vagabonding starts now. Even if the practical reality of travel is still months or years away, vagabonding begins the moment you stop making excuses, start saving money, and begin to look at maps with the narcotic tingle of possibility.
Work is how you settle your financial and emotional debts — so that your travels are not an escape from your real life but a discovery of your real life.
Many vagabonders don’t even maintain a steady job description, taking short-term work only as it serves to fund their travels and their passions. In Generation X, Douglas Coupland defined this kind of work as an “anti-sabbatical” — a job approached “with the sole intention of staying for a limited period of time (often one year)… to raise enough funds to partake in another, more personally meaningful activity.”
We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope; without it the life of the cities would drive all men into crime or drugs or psychoanalysis. —Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
Regardless of how long it takes to earn your freedom, remember that you are laboring for more than just a vacation. A vacation, after all, merely rewards work. Vagabonding justifies it.
Ultimately, then, the first step of vagabonding is simply a matter of making work serve your interests, instead of the other way around.
As citizens of a prosperous democracy, any one of us has the power to create our own free time, outside the whims of federal laws and private-sector policies.
Many people are able to create vagabonding time through “constructive quitting” — that is, negotiating with their employers for special sabbaticals and long-term leaves of absence.
Page 36 (on updating your resume):
List the job skills travel has taught you: independence, flexibility, negotiation, planning, boldness, self — sufficiency, improvisation.
And so I stand among you as one that offers a small message of hope, that first, there are always people who dare to seek on the margin of society, who are not dependent on social acceptance, not dependent on social routine, and prefer a kind of free-floating existence. —Thomas Merton, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton
For all the most important things in life, the timing always sucks. Waiting for a good time to quit your job? To have that kid? To take a dream trip? Sadly, the traffic lights of life will never all be green at the same time. Conditions are never perfect. “Someday” (“someday I’ll do this, someday I’ll do that”) is a disease that will take your dreams to the grave with you. —Tim Ferriss
This notion — the notion that “riches” don’t necessarily make you wealthy — is as old as society itself. The ancient Hindu Upanishads refer disdainfully to “that chain of possessions wherewith men bind themselves, and beneath which they sink”; ancient Hebrew scriptures declare that “whoever loves money never has money enough.” Jesus noted that it’s pointless for a man to “gain the whole world, yet lose his very self,” and the Buddha whimsically pointed out that seeking happiness in one’s material desires is as absurd as “suffering because a banana tree will not bear mangoes.”
Money, of course, is still needed to survive, but time is what you need to live. So, save what little money you possess to meet basic survival requirements, but spend your time lavishly in order to create the life values that make the fire worth the candle.
Travel can be a kind of monasticism on the move: On the road, we often live more simply, with no more possessions than we can carry, and surrendering ourselves to chance. This is what Camus meant when he said that “what gives value to travel is fear” — disruption, in other words (or emancipation), from circumstance, and all the habits behind which we hide. —Pico Iyer, Why We Travel
On a basic level, there are three general methods to simplifying your life: stopping expansion, reining in your routine, and reducing clutter.
As Laurel Lee wryly observed in Godspeed, “Cities are full of those who have been caught in monthly payments for avocado green furniture sets.”
As I’ve said before, vagabonding is not an ideology, a balm for societal ills, or a token of social status. Vagabonding is, was, and always will be a private undertaking — and its goal is to improve your life not in relation to your neighbors but in relation to yourself.
In this way, simplicity — both at home and on the road — affords you the time to seek renewed meaning in an oft-neglected commodity that can’t be bought at any price: life itself.
Money is not required to buy one necessity of the soul. —Henry David Thoreau
Reading old travel books or novels set in faraway places, spinning globes, unfolding maps, playing world music, eating in ethnic restaurants, meeting friends in cafes… all these things are part of never-ending travel practice, not unlike doing scales on a piano, shooting free-throws, or meditating. —Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage
And, as Phil Cousineau pointed out in The Art of Pilgrimage, I tend to believe that “reparation no more spoils the chance for spontaneity and serendipity than discipline ruins the opportunity for genuine self-expression in sports, acting, or the tea ceremony.”
As John Steinbeck wrote in Travels with Charley, “Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity… no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.
When visiting the Holy Land in the nineteenth century, Mark Twain expressed frequent exasperation at the guidebook fundamentalists in his travel party: “I can almost tell, in set phrase, what they will say when they see Tabor, Nazareth, Jericho, and Jerusalem,” Twain wrote in The Innocents Abroad, “because I have the books they will ‘smouch’ their ideas from.”
A good traveler has no fixed plan, and is not intent on arriving. —Lao-Tzu, The Way of Life
Fortunately, you don’t ever need a really good reason to go anywhere; rather, go to a place for whatever happens when you get there.
Vagabonding is not like bulk shopping: The value of your travels does not hinge on how many stamps you have in your passport when you get home — and the slow, nuanced experience of a single country is always better than the hurried, superficial experience of forty countries.
Thus, the biggest favor you can do for yourself when trying to decide what to bring is to buy — and this is no joke — a very small travel bag.
This small pack, of course, will allow you only the minimum: a guidebook, a pair of sandals, standard hygiene items, a few relevant medicines (including sunscreen), disposable earplugs (for those inevitable noisy environments), and some small gift items for your future hosts and friends. Add a few changes of simple, functional clothes and one somewhat nice outfit for customs checks and social occasions. Toss in a small flashlight, a decent pair of sunglasses, a day pack (for carrying smaller items when you leave your hotel or guesthouse), and your smartphone. And then — looking down to make sure you have a sturdy pair of boots or walking shoes on your feet — close the bag and affix a small, strong padlock.
I remember a conversation with a college professor on the train to Sicily, discussing the need to travel. He said, “You can read everything there is in the world about a place, but there is no substitute for smelling it!” He was right! So make plans, but be happy to abandon them, if need be. Kurt Vonnegut once wrote: “Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.” I like that. Do as much research before leaving as possible, but certainly don’t let fears keep you away. On a given day, Los Angeles is far more dangerous than anyplace I’ve traveled. Take normal precautions, use common sense if you have any, and you’ll be fine. —Bill Wolfer
One of the most remarkable travel memoirs of the twentieth century was Juanita Harrison’s My Great, Wide, Beautiful World, which recounted the author’s journey through thirty-three countries over the course of eight years in the 1920s and 1930s. Harrison’s book was a bestseller in 1936 — yet, unlike most bestselling travel authors of that era, she was not an upper-middle-class white fellow who’d studied literature at a fancy university. Harrison was a Mississippi-born African American woman, who’d been working various domestic-labor jobs ever since her schooling ended at age ten.
“Travel in general, and vagabonding in particular, produces an awesome density of experience,” wrote Ed Buryn, “…a cramming together of incidents, impressions and life detail that is both stimulating and exhausting. So much new and different happens to you so frequently, just when you’re most sensitive to it… You may be excited, bored, confused, desperate and amazed all in the same happy day.”
If there’s one key concept to remember amid the excitement of your first days on the road, it’s this: Slow down. Just to underscore the importance of this concept, I’ll state it again: slow… down.
In many ways, this transition into travel can be compared to childhood: Everything you see is new and emotionally affecting, basic tasks like eating and sleeping take on a heightened significance, and entertainment can be found in the simplest curiosities and novelties. “Suddenly you are five years old again,” Bill Bryson observed in Neither Here nor There.” You can’t read anything, you only have the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.”
Early on, of course, you’re bound to make travel mistakes. Dubious merchants may swindle you, unfamiliarity with cultural customs may cause you to offend people, and you’ll often find yourself wandering lost through strange surroundings. Some travelers go to great pains to avoid these neophyte blunders, but they’re actually an important part of the learning experience. As the Koran says, “Did you think you should enter the Garden of Bliss without such trials as came to those who passed before you?” Indeed, everyone starts out as a vagabonding greenhorn, and there’s no reason to presume you’ll be any different.
Tourist attractions are defined by their collective popularity, and that very popularity tends to devalue the individual experience of such attractions.
“The anti-tourist is not to be confused with the traveler,” wrote Paul Fussell in Abroad. “His motive is not inquiry but self-protection and vanity.” Ostentatiously dressing in local fashions, deliberately not carrying a camera, and sedulously avoiding the standard sights, “the antitourist doesn’t have much integrity or agenda beyond his self-conscious decision to stand apart from other tourists.
Slow down and remember this as you begin your travels: Being busy can be a form of laziness. Lazy thinking, and indiscriminate action. Being selective — in other words, doing less in a smart way — is usually the more productive and fun path. —Tim Ferriss
Travel is the best way we have of rescuing the humanity of places, and saving them from abstraction and ideology. —Pico Iyer, Why We Travel
Those who visit foreign nations, but associate only with their own countrymen, change their climate, but not their customs. They see new meridians, but the same men ; and with heads as empty as their pockets, return home with traveled bodies, but untraveled minds. —Charles Caleb Colton, Lacon
After all, cultural identity is instinctive, not intellectual — and this means that the challenge will come not in how you manage your own manners but in how you instinctively react to the unfamiliar manners of others.
As historian Dagobert Runes quipped, “People travel to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home.”
To truly interact with people as you travel, then, you have to learn to see other cultures not as National Geographic snapshots but as neighbors.
The secret of adventure, then, is not to carefully seek it out but to travel in such a way that it finds you.
“Good people keep walking whatever happens,” taught the Buddha. “They do not speak vain words and are the same in good fortune and bad.”
The use of traveling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they really are. —Samuel Johnson, from Anecdotes of Samuel Johnson
“Our eyes find it easier on a given occasion to produce a picture already often produced, than to seize upon the divergence and novelty of an impression,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche. “It is difficult and painful for the ear to listen to anything new; we hear strange music badly.”
“Tourists don’t know where they’ve been,” observed Paul Theroux in 1992, “travelers don’t know where they’re going.”
“Travelers are those who leave their assumptions at home, and [tourists are] those who don’t,” wrote Pico Iyer in 2000.
In this way, “seeing” as you travel is somewhat of a spiritual exercise: a process not of seeking interesting surroundings, but of being continually interested in whatever surrounds you.
Luxury, then, is a way of being ignorant, comfortably. —Leroi Jones, Political Poem
Thus, the purest way to see a culture is simply to accept and experience it as it is now — even if you have to put up with satellite dishes in Kazakhstan, cyber cafes in Malawi, and fast food restaurants in Belize.
Often I feel I go to some distant region of the world to be reminded of who I really am… Stripped of your ordinary surroundings, your friends, your daily routines, your refrigerator full of your food, your closet full of your clothes, you are forced into direct experience. Such direct experience inevitably makes you aware of who it is that is having the experience. That’s not always comfortable, but it is always invigorating. —Michael Crichton, Travels
As Salvador Dalí quipped, “I never took drugs because I am drugs.”
People say you have to travel to see the world. Sometimes I think that if you just stay in one place and keep your eyes open, you’re going to see just about all that you can handle. —Paul Auster, Smoke
If you really want to learn about a country, work there. —Charles Kuralt, A Life on the Road
Travel, after all, is a form of asceticism, which (to quote Kathleen Norris )” is a way of surrendering to reduced circumstances in a manner that enhances the whole person. It is a radical way of knowing exactly who, what, and where you are, in defiance of those powerful forces in society that aim to make us forget.”
Thus, travel compels you to discover your spiritual side by simple elimination: Without all the rituals, routines, and possessions that give your life meaning at home, you’re forced to look for meaning within yourself.
Have you travelled for long periods of time or moved to a different country? Any stories or advice you can offer to others who are thinking of taking the leap?