Rolf Potts is a bit of a young travel writing/blogging legend. Author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel and Marco Polo Didn’t Go There: Stories and Revelations from One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer (Travelers’ Tales Guides) and also dozens and dozens of published pieces (that have netting him some impressive writing awards), his career is what a good number of us hope to somewhat emulate.
Although I’ve not yet met him in person, I do know people that know him well and everyone speaks highly of his knowledge, inquisitiveness, and humility. Add him to the long, long list of fellow travel bloggers that look forward to meeting in person at some point in the hopefully near future.
1 – what was the first concert you went to on your own dime?
It was either the Van Halen “1986” tour (done in support of 5150, the first album with Sammy Hagar as the singer), or the Stryper “Soldiers Under Command Tour.” I can’t remember because they were both in the same year. Both shows were slightly lame, and — in retrospect — utterly awesome. Stryper, of course, was Christianity’s answer to Mötley Crüe (if there could ever be such a thing) at the height of the 1980s heavy metal era, and they were famous for hurling Bibles into the audience during their encores. I was only vaguely familiar with their music, but I went to church and I liked heavy metal, so I figured it would be a good fit. I think my parents made my older sister come with me. Sadly, we didn’t catch any Bibles during the encore.
I don’t remember much about the Van Halen concert, save the fact that the opening act was Bachman-Turner Overdrive, who came out and said “Hello Kansas City!” when in fact the show was in Wichita. I seem to recall having a good time, even though I was a bigger fan of the David Lee Roth’s Van Halen than Sammy Hagar’s Van Halen.
2 – festival or sporting event you most want to attend?
I’ve been to some pretty amazing festivals around the world, including India’s mind-blowing 2001 Kumbh Mela, and Carnival in Rio de Janeiro (twice). No doubt I’ll attend some other awe-inspiring international events in coming years. But, oddly enough, I’ve always been intrigued with an American event — the Super Bowl — and I think I’d like to attend someday. My fascination with NFL football goes back to my preschool days, and while I never played football myself, I’ve always followed the Super Bowl religiously. Ten years ago I even did a piece for NPR about trying to find a place to watch the Super Bowl while living in southern Thailand. I’ve found a way to follow the Super Bowl in places like Korea, India, Egypt, Brazil, and Chile — and one day I’d love to see it in person.
The catch here is that this experience may well prove to be a letdown, since sporting events are often easier to follow on television. But I think attending a Super Bowl would be an intriguing inquiry into some indefinable American part of myself.
3 – worst grade you got in school was?
School came pretty easy to me when I was growing up. I remember in college, trying to explain to a girlfriend how I went through a “rebellious” phase my sophomore year of high school and got three B-grades in one year. “So all the rest were like C’s and D’s and F’s?” she asked. “Oh no, the rest were A’s,” I replied. “That doesn’t count as rebellion,” she said. I’d reckon she was right.
4 – your favorite movie of all time?
I can be quite the film buff, and there was a time in college that I considered being a screenwriter. I still dabble in screenwriting from time to time, though I’m a long way from getting anything produced. I obsessed on various movies growing up, from “Back to the Future,” to “The Terminator,” to “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off Bueller.” In and shortly after college I was intrigued by the work of directors like Spike Lee, Richard Linklater, Steven Soderbergh, Noah Baumbach, and Quentin Tarantino. But if I were to pinpoint one movie that has captured my imagination in recent years, it’s “The Big Lebowski,” by the Coen brothers. I can’t even explain why — it just gets stranger and funnier every time I watch it.
5 – what is your favorite room in your house and why?
My office — where I am, in fact, typing this right now. When I first bought my house five years ago this area was the living room, but I remodeled it into a place where I could do all my writing. My brother-in-law built me a giant bookshelf that takes up the entire north wall, and I put in a new woodstove and a big desk. I do all my reading and writing in here, and sometimes in the dead of winter I’ll pull out my sleeping bag and spend the night in front of the stove. It’s a very comfortable space for living and working.
6 – from your many and varied travel experiences, your favorite nationality of women is?
I’m old enough now to know that this is a trick question, since ultimately women are more distinguishable on an individual level than a national level. That said, part of coming of age as a guy involves marveling at the cross-cultural wonders of femininity. It’s a silly ritual, but I spent my twenties (and much of my thirties) taking note of, say, how Brazilian and French women walk with such confidence, or how Russian and Korean women are so well put-together, or how African and Latin American women flirt so effortlessly. I marveled at the forthright attractiveness of Scandinavian women and the attractive forthrightness of Israeli women, and so on. But the more I traveled and the more I got to know people, the more I realized that a given Italian or Chilean woman might be as quirky or familiar as the American gal you grew up with — just like you can come home to discover that the American gal you grew up with suddenly seems wonderfully exotic. So in the end I think that national distinctions are less distinct than most guys initially assume.
7 – your recent No Baggage Challenge brings to mind this question: what is the longest you have gone without a shower or bath?
When I was 19 I worked for an Outward-Bound-style summer camp in Colorado, teaching younger teenagers about rock climbing and wilderness survival. At once point during this gig I think I spent 10 days in the Rocky Mountain backcountry without showering. When I got back to the base camp I didn’t shower for two more days — not because there were no showers available, but because at age 19 this just seemed like a funny thing to do. I couldn’t grow a beard back then, so I didn’t even look that dirty — though odor was probably a different matter.
8 – what is your most prized personal possession?
I’ve spent the last 20 years trying not to accumulate many possessions, so this can be a tricky one to answer. Everything I own is pretty practical — books to read, clothes to wear, utensils to eat with. So I guess that means my most prized possession is my house. I live in a converted double-wide in the middle of nowhere on the Kansas prairie — and I can be gone for eight or more months each year — but I love spending time here. Part of the appeal is that I renovated the place (with the help of my family) five years ago, and it’s perfectly adapted my needs.
9 – the longest you were grounded or otherwise punished by your parents was when you _________.
I actually got into trouble when I went to that Van Halen concert in 1986 — but it wasn’t really my fault. I was supposed to get a ride to the concert with this 8th grader named Brent, but he wrecked his moped after school and had to go to the hospital. So I just bummed a ride in my neighbor Jason’s parent’s van — but I forgot to tell my parents about the change of plans. So when Brent’s grandparents called my house to say that Brent was in the hospital, my mom freaked out because she thought I was in the hospital too. Even after she got the facts worked out she was still upset, so she told me I couldn’t go to any more concerts that year. A couple months later I pretended to want to go to a Scorpions concert just so my mother could have the satisfaction of telling me that I wasn’t allowed to go. I didn’t really get back into concert-going until college, when I was living in the Pacific Northwest during the grunge era.
10. Who plays you in the movie about your life?
I’m thinking Zach Galifianakis. I realize he’s nothing like me, but I’d want the audience to be entertained, and I’m sure there’s comedic potential in a short, bearded, Greek-American version of Rolf Potts teaching English in Korea, invading the set of a Leonardo DiCaprio movie in Thailand, learning the bagpipes in Cuba, and otherwise roaming the earth and getting into misadventures.
11. What is the best piece of blogging advice you can give people, aside from “have good content.”
Don’t let it interfere with your travels. Or, at the very least, endeavor to strike a balance that favors deep, immersive travel experiences over constant connectivity.
12. Whose tweets do you most look forward to when they pop up in your stream?
I don’t spend much time on Twitter, but when I do the tweets from @lonelyplanet are always relevant and interesting.
13 – what is the best Halloween costume you have ever worn?
Batman, when I was seven years old. Were it not for the fact that I was 47 pounds and 4 feet tall people might have actually mistaken me the Caped Crusader.