von Markus Albers

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The best places in the world: How to get there, shut down your laptop and find happiness


(Picture taken from www.vagabondish.com)

Can you choose the “dreamplace” you want to live in? How do you travel the world and still have a proper stream of income? What’s the link between place and happiness?

Here’s part two of my chat with an expert on these questions: Rolf Potts, one of the finest living travel writers and inspiring character for everybody with a mobile lifestyle. I did the interview as part of research for my next non-fiction book, so please comment on the ideas and concepts discussed here. I’d really like to hear your thoughts, ideas, critique and personal experiences.

Next Blogpost will be in German again.

Rolf, is long term travel still possible in a recession?

One of the great things about “vagabonding”-style long-term travel is that it’s pretty much recession-proof. This is because vagabonding isn’t about how much money you have so much as how you choose to spend that money. Too many people just throw money at their travels in the hope that this will make their travels better. In truth, travel becomes a richer experience when you save money, slow down, get creative, and spend your travel budget in the local economy instead of the “tourism economy.” Vagabonders have always done this, and hence we’re less effected by economic woes.

As is always the case, it’s good to use information to your advantage — both before and during your trip. Before your journey, study guidebooks and go online to get a sense for what prices and bargains are link in your destination country. And once you’re on the road you can save even more money by asking local people and other travelers about good deals when it comes to hotels, food, and local experiences. As a rule, the recession will make all of these things less expensive — so even if you have less money to work with, you won’t need to spend as much money to have the same great experiences.

If you could pick a place to live outside your home country, which one would it be? Is thinking about ‘best places to live’ something you do (or have done)? Why is it so fascinating for many people?

I’ve been traveling for so long that the challenge comes in choosing just one. And the charm of the mobile lifestyle is that you don’t really have to choose one — you can choose many. For instance, I have a farmhouse in Kansas, not far from where I grew up, but I’m only there a few months a year. I spent at least a month a year in Paris, and there are many cities around the world — Bangkok, Cairo, Pusan, Buenos Aires — where I would feel comfortable for months at a stretch. So if you see attraction to a place as an act of love, I guess you would say I’m a polygamist! Some people will be attracted to a single place, but I can’t seem to choose — and really there’s no need to.

I think the whole notion of choosing a “dream place” to live is part of a process that starts quite early in life, when you first learn — from books or TV or other people — about all these other amazing places in the world. In this sense it’s connected to a child-like sense of wonder with the world — but there’s no reason why this feeling has to end when you’re an adult. I plan on discovering and enjoying new places my whole life.

Richard Florida, the magazine Monocle and Simon Anholt all publish city- or country-rankings on a regular basis. Do you read those polls / lists? Why do you think people want to know?

I read these rankings from time to time, but I don’t take them too seriously because I know what it’s like to write a “list” article. Invariably, these rankings are subjective and need not be taken too seriously, since cities are far more complex and full of potential to properly categorize.

I think people enjoy these rankings because the idea of a clear hierarchy allows them to easier choose one place over another. There’s a comfort in that. I recall writing an article for an American magazine that wanted me to rank certain independent travel destinations. I objected to this, since “independent travel” infers that a ranking is not needed, that people can go in with existing information, employ some trial-and-error, and choose the place they like best. Ultimately, my editor admitted that these rankings were not for people who seriously intended to travel, but for those who rarely travel. Somehow, he said, people like to sit on the toilet at home, read the magazine, and know that some places are “better” than others — even if they will never go there. In short, lists sell magazines.

So reading these lists can be fun, but they can’t compare to the personal experience of visiting these places at your own pace and deciding for yourself which one you like best.

Eric Weiner has written a great book about ‘The Geography of Bliss’, linking place to happiness. Do you subscribe to that concept?

I think happiness ultimately comes down to individual sensibility. Place and culture play a role in happiness, but only insofar as the individual reacts to them. I also think it helps to have options, as well as a healthy sense of self. It’s good to live in such a way that your options are flexible, and you can experience many different places — but what you get from those places will depend on what you bring into them. You can’t just go to, say, India and buy wholesale into an Indian lifestyle; you have to have to have a healthy awareness of your own cultural self while you sample what is good and useful about other cultures.

Can you give three fundamental tips for people wanting to travel more or even live abroad for a while without completely dropping out of their current lives ?

a) Just do it. It’s not an all-or-none equation, and you’re not going to ruin your life by trying out a vagabonding experience or embracing a mobile lifestyle for a short time. In time, you can make this travel lifestyle longer and more central to your life. You get more comfortable the more you do it, and you discover how easy it can be.

b) Go slow. At home we’re conditioned to micromanage our lives in the hope of making everything more efficient. When you travel, this is one of the worst things you can do. Don’t micromanage. Don’t try to cram 15 cities into a one-month journey; just visit one or two and enjoy them to the fullest. Quality is better than quantity, and you have the best experiences when you’re not in a hurry.

c) Be a minimalist, and make a clear line between work and fun. Obviously travel by its very nature is going to do this, since you can’t pack everything you’d keep in your home office. But this should apply to your travel office as well. For example, get a cheap laptop, and use it only for your work. Don’t use the laptop to surf news online; go to the local newsstand instead. Don’t use the laptop to watch DVDs or listen to music; go to a local cinema or nightclub instead. This is not just a matter of travel aesthetics or cultural appreciation — it’s a matter of breaking bad habits. Back home we use our work technology to fart around and pass the day. Nobody should travel around the world just to sit in front of a laptop and fart around.

What are your own plans for the future? Travel more or less? Settle down in the US or abroad? Work more from an office or on the road?

I’ll likely travel just as much as I always have, but perhaps in different ways. Between 1996 and 2005 I traveled and lived overseas pretty much nonstop — but that was in large part because I didn’t really have a place to call home. Now that I have a house in Kansas and a regular teaching gig in Paris (each July at the Paris American Academy), my wanderings are a bit more structured. Most of my office work is done at home, so that when I travel I’m not working; I’m just enjoying the road.

In relative terms, having a house in the United States might mean I’m “settled” — though few people would look at my lifestyle and consider me a settled person. In many ways, having a home has given me more travel options — it allows me to continue this ongoing cycle of travel and discovery without getting exhausted or disoriented in the process. And I think can be this way for most people. Just because you backpack for years at a time in your twenties doesn’t mean you have to travel that way your whole life. You might be happier traveling in different ways as you get older.

What matters isn’t how long you’re on the road, or where you ultimately settle down, but how your lifestyle allows you to live life to it’s fullest.

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