Vagabonding – An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel by Rolf Potts

I’ve lived away from my home country of England for over 2 years now and I don’t think I’d be able to give you a succinct and definite answer if you were to ask me why. There are a host of practical reasons; the wages are better, the food is exciting, the adventures are more frequent.. but I couldn’t pin down for you my exact philosophical motivations for travelling or why I continue to do to it to this day with no intention of stopping. At least I couldn’t until I read Vagabonding – a book which found me in the passenger seat of an old brown car in April of 2014.

Taken shortly before being passed on to another future Vagabonder.

Taken shortly before being passed on to another budding Vagabonder.

A calm voice from the back said ‘We have a phrase in Afrikaans which when you translate it into English means something like “My ass is chewing holes out of the car seat right now.”’

Thys, a chronic-insomniac chef from South-Africa who I’d met 10 hours earlier in a guest-house, summed up the situation perfectly. It was 11pm and the old brown car huffed and puffed it’s way up the beaten, rocky track flanked on the left by steep, dark jungle and on the right by darkness. Utter darkness, where the single-lane road fell away and not a hint of the stunning tea fields which lay in the valleys far below us could be seen.

It was clear that Thys and I were calmly sceptical about whether or not we’d make it to the top of Brinchang, a mountain straddling the border of the Malaysian states of Perak and Pahang, but we didn’t panic. We continued to sip our overpriced beers as Bella, an Indian-Malay hailing from Ipoh who I’d been staying with for the past week, regaled us with facts, information and insight regarding the area while effortlessly conquering the steep curves and corners of the road. The chasm to our right looked car-hungry but it only added to the thrill of the situation; three friends driving up a mountain in excited anticipation, hoping to catch a lucky night-time glimpse of the milky way – a sight I’d longed to see for some time.

It was spectacular. The most stars I’d ever seen at once in my life. The view caused a wordless vacuum to form in my mind which looms even now when I consider the futility of trying to describe the view on that night. So please forgive me if I don’t.

Each sign points to equally impassible jungle descents. Machetes are mandatory.

Each sign points to equally impassible jungle descents. Machetes are mandatory.

On the descent we listened to Bob Marley and talked about our travel experiences and ideas. I was explaining how after almost 3 weeks Couchsurfing and travelling through Malaysia I’d started to realise that I was relying a lot on other people and didn’t feel as though I was really travelling independently, or taking care of myself. Thys replied ‘I’ve just finished reading a book that I have to give you. Remind me when we get back.’ Which I did. The book was Vagabonding by Rolf Potts.

‘Vagabonding is about time – our only real commodity – and how we choose to use it.’

Noting that many people nowadays feel that long-term travel is a luxury afforded only to the rich or to wandering jobless graduates, Potts attempts to demist the misconceptions surrounding this oft dreamt of experience. He does this by collecting together an exhaustive wealth of input from a dizzying array of sources. The book is peppered throughout with a variety of insightful and inspirational quotes, messages, and first-hand accounts. The book also contains ‘vagabonding profiles’ in which the life of a seasoned ‘vagabonder’ is looked at in closer detail.

Potts is attempting to hand us the keys to our own personal maturation and freedom by whetting our appetite with his own adventures and then giving us the tools to make it happen for ourselves. Each chapter ends with a section of recommended further reading and suggested websites which will enable anybody making the decision to go vagabonding garner as much information as they need to make it happen.

Overall Potts’ strategy is elegantly simple. Firstly, you have to make the choice to go vagabonding. He writes:

‘[Vagabonding] has always been a private choice within a society that is constantly urging us to do otherwise. This is a book about living that choice.’

And the rest of the book details exactly how to live that choice. ‘It starts now’, he implores. Start saving your money, commence cutting back on coffee, attack abstaining from alcohol and re-consider renouncing restaurants. Potts hits us with the simple reality that money saved at home (speaking to residents of America, from where he hails) will stretch immeasurably further in many parts of the world. So, a few months scrubbing toilets combined with frugal living can equate to a few months riding a motorcycle across China, or an even longer stretch living in a beach hut in Indonesia.

Toiling in toilets isn't the only way - even a few months busking as a human statue could be your key to seeing the world.

Toiling in toilets isn’t the only way – a few months busking as a human statue could be your key to seeing the world.

What I loved most about this book is the philosophy implicit within all the practical advice. We’ve allowed corporations to hijack a monopoly on our time as we’re forced into seemingly eternal weekly, monthly and yearly routines. As a result, many people miss out on exploring the Earth that is their birthright. It’s our right as humans to move freely throughout the world and although not all of us are born with the opportunity to make it happen, those in the wealthy western realm certainly are. You just have to want it enough and be willing to work for it. If that sounds daunting or impossible, don’t worry, Potts shows us that it isn’t. He walks us through the whole process beginning with making the decision to go do it and ending with how to readjust upon returning home after your trip.

His concept of vagabonding is one of a creative process, a lifestyle change which continues to grow and evolve as you do. He writes:

‘[Vagabonding] is the ongoing practice of looking and learning, of facing fears and altering habits, of cultivating a new fascination with people and places.’

Ultimately, to me at least, vagabonding seems to be about developing a wonder and curiosity for all that’s around you, no matter where you are. It’s about learning to recognise the miraculous reality which has sprung out of unutterable and inexplicable cosmic chaos, a lesson which I now know spurs me on in my own travels.

Throughout the book’s modest 206 pages I repeatedly had that unmistakable feeling of encountering truth which I’ve instinctively known for a long time, but hadn’t yet expressed in my own words. Truth that resonates and occasions those light-bulb moments during which sudden clarity and understanding dawn simultaneously and make you sit back in your seat in awe. Vagabonding is dense with these moments because it’s dense with truth. A 9-5 job is only a cage if you choose to make it one. Potts shows us how we can forge from that cage the means to liberate ourselves and I urge every one of you reading this to heed his call so that one day you too might find yourself atop a mountain beneath the milky way marvelling at the cosmic chaos which made it all possible. 

But if not don't worry, the warm-up to the Milky Way isn't half bad either. Dusk atop Gunung Brinchang.

But if not don’t worry, the warm-up to the Milky Way isn’t half bad either. Dusk atop Gunung Brinchang.

Pages: 206

Total FoA Pages: 41, 062

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6 thoughts on “Vagabonding – An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel by Rolf Potts

  1. alliemariano says:

    Nicholas, welcome to Friends of Atticus! I think this was just the review I needed to see this morning.

    • Thanks, It’s great to be here!

      And it wasn’t an accident when I wrote that the book ‘found me.’ It popped into my life just when I needed it to also.

      You can read it in a day but it can change the course of your entire life.

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