Rolf Pott is a travel writer famous for his book Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel. His same-named blog is also a wealth of travel information and inspiration for those preparing for and/or living their dream journey, including this cyclist in South America. Rolf’s below cut-and-pasted words struck the chords that have been vibrating my mind lately—oil spills, the environment, consumerism—, and say what I would have liked to say in a quote-laden article that takes just five minutes to read.
This is where I end and Rolf begins….
In March of 1989, the Exxon Valdez struck a reef off the coast of Alaska, resulting in the largest oil spill in U.S. history. Initially viewed as an ecological disaster, this catastrophe did wonders to raise environmental awareness among average Americans. As television images of oil-choked sea otters and dying shore birds were beamed across the country, pop-environmentalism grew into a national craze.
Instead of conserving more and consuming less, however, many Americans sought to save the earth by purchasing “environmental” products. Energy-efficient home appliances flew off the shelves, health food sales boomed, and reusable canvas shopping bags became vogue in strip malls from Jacksonville to Jackson Hole. Credit card companies began to earmark a small percentage of profits for conservation groups, thus encouraging consumers to “help the environment” by striking off on idealistic shopping binges.
Such shopping sprees and health food purchases did absolutely nothing to improve the state of the planet, of course — but most people managed to feel a little better about the situation without having to make any serious lifestyle changes.
This notion — that material investment is somehow more important to life than personal investment — is exactly what leads so many of us to believe we could never afford to go vagabonding. The more our life options get paraded around as consumer options, the more we forget that there’s a difference between the two. Thus, having convinced ourselves that buying things is the only way to play an active role in the world, we fatalistically conclude that we’ll ever be rich enough to purchase a long-term travel experience.
Fortunately, the world need not be a consumer product. As with environmental integrity, long-term travel isn’t something you buy into: it’s something you give to yourself.
Indeed, the freedom to go vagabonding has never been determined by income level, but through simplicity — the conscious decision of how to use what income you have.
And, contrary to popular stereotypes, seeking simplicity doesn’t require that you become a monk, a subsistence forager, or a wild-eyed revolutionary. Nor does it mean that you must unconditionally avoid the role of consumer. Rather, simplicity merely requires a bit of personal sacrifice: an adjustment of your habits and routines within consumer society itself.
“Our crude civilization engenders a multitude of wants… Our forefathers forged chains of duty and habit, which bind us notwithstanding our boasted freedom, and we ourselves in desperation, add link to link, groaning and making medicinal laws for relief.”
– John Muir, Kindred and Related Spirits
At times, the biggest challenge in embracing simplicity will be the vague feeling of isolation that comes with it, since private sacrifice doesn’t garner much attention in the frenetic world of mass culture.
Jack Kerouac’s legacy as a cultural icon is a good example of this. Arguably the most famous American vagabonder of the 20th century, Kerouac vividly captured the epiphanies of hand-to-mouth travel in books like On the Road and Lonesome Traveler. In Dharma Bums, he wrote about the joy of living with people who blissfully ignore “the general demand that they consume production and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming, all that crap they didn’t really want…general junk you always see a week later in the garbage anyway, all of [it] impersonal in a system of work, produce, consume.”
Despite his observance of material simplicity, however, Kerouac found that his personal life – the life that had afforded him the freedom to travel – was soon overshadowed by a more fashionable (and marketable) public vision of his travel lifestyle. Convertible cars, jazz records, marijuana (and, later, Gap khakis), ultimately came to represent the mystical “It” that he and Neal Cassidy sought in On the Road. As his Beat cohort William S. Burroughs was to point out years after his death, part of Kerouac’s mystique became inseparable from the idea that he “opened a million coffee bars and sold a million pairs of Levi’s to both sexes.”
In some ways, of course, coffee bars, convertibles and marijuana are all part of what made travel appealing to Kerouac’s readers. That’s how marketing (intentional and otherwise) works. But these aren’t the things that made travel possible for Kerouac. What made travel possible was that he knew how neither self nor wealth can be measured in terms of what you consume or own. Even the downtrodden souls on the fringes of society, he observed, had something the rich didn’t: Time.
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.”
Despite several millennia of such warnings, however, there is still an overwhelming social compulsion – an insanity of consensus, if you will – to get rich from life rather than live richly, to “do well” in the world instead of living well. And, in spite of the fact that America is famous for its unhappy rich people, most of us remain convinced that just a little more money will set life right. In this way, the messianic metaphor of modern life becomes the lottery – that outside chance that the right odds will come together to liberate us from financial worries once and for all.
“Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune, Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing…”
– Walt Whitman, “Song of the Open Road”
Fortunately, we were all born with winning tickets – and cashing them in is a simple matter of altering our cadence as we walk through the world. Vagabonding sage Ed Buryn knew as much: “By switching to a new game, which in this case involves vagabonding, time becomes the only possession and everyone is equally rich in it by biological inheritance. 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. Dig?”
Dug. And the bonus to all of this is that – as you of sow your future with rich fields of time – you are also planting the seeds of personal growth that will gradually bloom as you travel into the world.
In a way, simplifying your life for vagabonding is easier than it sounds. This is because travel by its very nature demands simplicity. If you don’t believe this, just go home and try stuffing everything you own into a backpack. This will never work, because no matter how meagerly you live at home, you can’t match the scaled-down minimalism that travel requires. You can, however, set the process of reduction and simplification into motion while you’re still at home. This is useful on several levels: Not only does it help you to save up travel money, but it helps you realize how independent you are of your possessions and your routines. In this way, it prepares you mentally for the realities of the road, and makes travel a dynamic extension of the life-alterations you began at home.
“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”
As with, say, giving up coffee, simplifying your life will require a somewhat difficult consumer withdrawal period. Fortunately, your impending travel experience will give you a very tangible and rewarding long-term goal that helps ease the discomfort. Over time, as you reap the sublime rewards of simplicity, you’ll begin to wonder how you ever put up with such a cluttered life in the first place.
On a basic level, there are three general methods to simplifying your life: stopping expansion, reining in your routine, and reducing clutter. The easiest part of this process is stopping expansion. This means that – in anticipation of vagabonding – you don’t add any new possessions to your life, regardless of how tempting they might seem. Naturally, this applies to things like cars and home entertainment systems, but this also applies to travel accessories. Indeed, one of the biggest mistakes people make in anticipation of vagabonding is to indulge in a vicarious travel buzz by investing in water filters, sleeping bags, and travel-boutique wardrobes. In reality, vagabonding runs smoothest on a bare minimum of gear – and even multi-year trips require little initial investment beyond sturdy footwear and a dependable travel bag or backpack.
While you’re curbing the material expansion of your life, you should also take pains to rein in the unnecessary expenses of your weekly routine. Simply put, this means living more humbly (even if you aren’t humble) and investing the difference into your travel fund. Instead of eating at restaurants, for instance, cook at home and pack a lunch to work or school. Instead of partying at nightclubs and going out to movies or pubs, entertain at home with friends or family. Wherever you see the chance to eliminate an expensive habit, take it. The money you save as a result will pay handsomely in travel time. In this way, I ate lot of baloney sandwiches (and missed out on a lot of grunge-era Seattle nightlife) while saving up for a vagabonding stint after college — but the ensuing eight months of freedom on the roads of North America more than made up for it.
“Very many people spend money in ways quite different from those that their natural tastes would enjoin, merely because the respect of their neighbors depends upon their possession of a good car and their ability to give good dinners. As a matter of fact, any man who can obviously afford a car but genuinely prefers travels or a good library will in the end be much more respected than if he behaved exactly like everyone else.”
– Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness
Perhaps the most challenging step in keeping things simple is to reduce clutter – to downsize what you already own. As Thoreau observed, downsizing can be the most vital step in winning the freedom to change your life: “I have in my mind that seemingly wealthy, but most terribly impoverished class of all,” he wrote in Walden, “who have accumulated dross, but know not how to use it, or get rid of it, and thus have forged their own golden or sliver fetters.”
How you reduce your “dross” in anticipation of travel will depend on your situation. If you’re young, odds are you haven’t accumulated enough to hold you down (which, incidentally, is a big reason why so many vagabonders tend to be young). If you’re not-so-young, you can re-create the carefree conditions of youth by jettisoning the things that aren’t necessary to your basic well-being. For much of what you own, garage sales and on-line auctions can do wonders to unclutter your life (and score you an extra bit of cash to boot). Homeowners can win their travel freedom by renting out their houses; those who rent accommodation can sell, store, or lend out the things that might bind them to one place.
An additional consideration in life-simplification is debt. As Laurel Lee wryly observed in Godspeed, “cities are full of those who have been caught in monthly payments for avocado green furniture sets.” Thus, if at all possible, don’t let avocado green furniture sets (or any other seemingly innocuous indulgence) dictate the course of your life by forcing you into ongoing cycles of production and consumption. If you’re already in debt, work your way out of it – and stay out. If you have a mortgage or other long-term debt, devise a situation (such as property rental) that allows you to be independent of its obligations for long periods of time. Being free from debt’s burdens simply gives you more vagabonding options.
And, for that matter, more life options.
“It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after your own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self Reliance”
As you simplify your life and look forward to spending your new wealth of time, you’re likely to get a curious reaction from your friends and family. On one level, they will express enthusiasm for your impending adventures. But on another level, they might take your growing freedom as a subtle criticism of their own way of life. Because your fresh worldview might appear to call their own values into question (or, at least, force them to consider those values in a new light), they will tend to write you off as irresponsible and self-indulgent. Let them. As I’ve said before, vagabonding is not an ideology, a balm for societal ills, nor a token of social status. Vagabonding is, was, and always will be a private undertaking – and its goal is not to improve your life in relation to your neighbors, but in relation to yourself. Thus, if your neighbors consider your travels foolish, don’t waste your time trying to convince them otherwise. Instead, the only sensible reply is to quietly enrich your life with the myriad opportunities that vagabonding provides.
Interestingly, some of the harshest responses I’ve received in reaction to my vagabonding life have come while traveling. Once, at Armageddon (the site in Israel; not the battle at the end of the world), I met an American aeronautical engineer who was so tickled he had negotiated 5 days of free time into a Tel Aviv consulting trip that he spoke of little else as we walked through the ruined city. When I eventually mentioned that I’d been traveling around Asia for the past 18 months, he looked at me like I’d slapped him. “You must be filthy rich,” he said acidly. “Or maybe,” he added, giving me the once-over, “your mommy and daddy are.”
I tried to explain how two years of teaching English in Korea had funded my freedom, but the engineer would have none of it. Somehow, he couldn’t accept that two years of any kind of honest work could have funded 18 months (and counting) of travel. He didn’t even bother sticking around for the real kicker: In those 18 months of travel, my day-to-day costs were significantly cheaper than day-to-day life would have cost me back in the United States.
The secret to my extraordinary thrift was neither secret nor extraordinary: I had tapped into that vast well of free time simply by forgoing a few comforts as I traveled. Instead of luxury hotels, I slept in clean, basic hostels and guesthouses. Instead of flying from place to place, I took local buses, trains, and share-taxis. Instead of dining at fancy restaurants, I ate food from street-vendors and local cafeterias. Occasionally, I traveled on foot, slept out under the stars, and dined for free at the stubborn insistence of local hosts.
In what ultimately amounted to over two years of travel in Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, my lodging averaged out to just under $5 a night, my meals cost well under $1 a plate, and my total expenses rarely exceeded $1000 a month.
“When I was very young a big financier once asked me what I would like to do, and I said, ‘To travel.’ ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘it is very expensive; one must have a lot of money to do that.’ He was wrong. For there are two kinds of travelers; the Comfortable Voyager, round whom a cloud of voracious expenses hums all the time, and the man who shifts for himself and enjoys the little discomforts as a change from life’s routine.”
– Ralph Bagnold, Libyan Sands
Granted, I have simple tastes – and I didn’t linger long in expensive places – but there was nothing exceptional in the way I traveled. In fact, entire multi-national backpacker circuits (not to mention budget guidebook publishing empires) have been created by the simple abundance of such travel bargains in the developing world. For what it costs to fill your gas-tank back home, for example you can take a train from one end of China to the other. For the cost of a home-delivered pepperoni pizza, you can eat great meals for a week in Brazil. And, for a month’s rent in any major American city, you can spend a year in a beach hut in Indonesia. Moreover, even the industrialized parts of the world host enough hostel networks, bulk transportation discounts, and camping opportunities make long-term travel affordable.
Ultimately, you may well discover that vagabonding on the cheap becomes your favorite way to travel, even if given more expensive options. Indeed, not only does simplicity save you money and buy you time, it makes you more adventuresome, forces you into sincere contact with locals, and allows you the independence to follow your passions and curiosities down exciting new roads.
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.