Book Review: Vagabonding - An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel

This book is marked as a guide to long-term world travel, but it’s more of a rousing and sobering case for modern circumnavigation. It’s also a thesis on how to approach life as a “vagabond” - to live in a manner outside the mold set forth by society. Vagabonding is the choice to cast away material anchors, to take control of your circumstances, and to cultivate a passion for new experiences. Vagabonding is honest about reality vs. expectations in both traveling and life, but that’s precisely what makes the case it presents so appealing.

The author, Rolf Potts, argues that the appeal of long-term travel is orthogonal to the reason most people travel. He states that “Vagabonding is not a social gesture, nor is it a moral high ground.” Most people view travel as unavoidably expensive and limit travel to short bursts of energy in a crowded few days. We rush through each sight-seeing location and tourist trap in order to squeeze the most of the little precious time we reserve for travel, making sure we take pictures along the way to show off to friends and family. We view these trips as “a smooth-edge, encapsulated experience that we purchase the same way we buy clothing and furniture.”

Potts addresses this immediately in his book, and I think its my favorite part of the whole thing. He references a quote from the move Wall Street (which at the time of writing I have not seen but it’s on my list!) in which the Charlie Sheen character states “I think if I can make a bundle of cash before I’m thirty and get out of this racket, I’ll be able to ride my motorcycle across China.” and describes his surprise at how many Americans feel the same way. I know I’ve probably lamented the same thing once or twice! Potts fights against the notion that travel has to be an expensive undertaking, and promises that if we look past the touristy marketing materials and adjust our motivations for travel we can travel with financial efficiency.

Potts stipulates that because most people consider long-term travel to be an expensive proposition only suitable for an escapist fantasy, they never actually put time into formulating a practical path toward it! And so, we become the monks Theodore and Lucius, equipped with an appetite to see the world that is never satisfied because we continually delay planning and action to some shifting time in the future. Potts insists that vagabonding begins with the work and financial prudence that occurs prior to traveling. It starts when you begin to take control of your life and direct your priorities to prepare for travel - this might include lessening your material binds, saving money, and ultimately realigning to yourself to “gain the courage to loosen you group on the so-called certainties of this world.”

I also enjoyed Potts description of traveler vs. tourist. He’s a bit of a critic when it comes to the common dichotomy of traveler and tourist, finding that “tourist” is used as a harsh derogatory term by those who live in Marriot glass houses. He finds that “the main conceit in trying to distinguish travelers from tourists is that you end up with a flimsy facade of presumed insiders and outsiders” and that putting on “such pretense on the road will only cheapen your travel experience.” In fact, is it not the sights seen, hostels lived in, or local garb worn that defines the difference between a traveler and a tourist but rather they “see” their surroundings or “look” at the attractions. Potts finds this distinction “an odd perversion” of the difference, but does stress that the secret to “seeing” your surroundings when traveling is to keep things real. By this, Potts indicates that we should engross ourselves in each moment and not view travel as an escape but as an experience. We often find ourselves fretting on future responsibilities and past decisions and to do so is to separate ourselves from the reality of the day - we should be where we are, ready to take on the “predictable and unpredictable, the pleasant and the unpleasant” because they are “not separate but part of the same ongoing reality.”

Vagabonding is a pretty quick and entertaining read. It’ll inspire you to examine a more travel-based life and stress that traveling should not be done for the sake of an escapist fantasy - it is tough but rewarding, achievable but demanding. I think I’ll find myself reading this book over a few times both as inspiration and guidance.

One of my favorite quotes of the book is the following: “You can try to make vagabonding confirm to your fantasies, of course, but this strategy has a way of making travel irrelevant. Indeed, vagabonding is-at its best-a rediscovery of reality itself.”