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Introducing Rolf Potts: The Luggage-Free Traveller

Rolf Potts is an American travel writer, essayist, and author. He has written two books, Vagabonding (Random House, 2003) and Marco Polo Didn’t Go There (Travelers Tales, 2008).

Potts directs the summer creative writing workshop at the Paris American Academy, and he was the 2011-2012 Arts Edge Writer-in-Residence at the University of Pennsylvania. He currently teaches nonfiction writing at Yale University.

He shares his no luggage experience.

                    “The less I took, the less I had to worry about, and the less it slowed me down.”

The no-baggage journey was over! After six weeks and more than 30,000 miles on five continents, I was back in New York. To be honest, I was severely tired (and I’d reckon my exhaustion had less to do with my lack of luggage than the fact that the world is a big place to cover in such a short time). I didn’t pack many items for the journey, but I did manage to pack in a lot of experiences.

Before I started this trip I wondered how light I could pack, and I wondered which items might be essential to the enjoyment of other countries. As it turned out, I didn’t require much — the less I took, the less I had to worry about, and the less it slowed me down. I managed to have a lot of great experiences over the course of my journey, and I rarely found myself wishing I’d brought more things. All too often, I think, we pack a bunch of “just in case” items most of which are either available on the road, or not necessary in the first place.

Starting and ending in New York City, I travelled through 12 countries in six weeks. I made nearly 10 flights (spending over 50 hours in the air), rode countless trains and buses, and maybe even a boat or two. All with no luggage!

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From New York, the first stop was London before taking a train to Paris.  Then I went off to Spain, where I saw the sights of Madrid and headed off to Gibraltar for a ferry to Morocco.  Next up it was Egypt, and then South Africa for a safari.  Another long flight to Bangkok before making my way through Thailand, Malaysia, and on to Singapore overland.  New Zealand was next, with a quick stop off in Australia, and then I was back to the United States for a cross-country jaunt back to New York City.

I’d set up five simple ground rules for the No Baggage Challenge..

1) No bags on the journey, period.

2) No borrowing of items from (or stowing items with) the cameraman (Justin Glow).

3) Borrowing items from locals or other travelers is permitted

4) Buying items along the way is permitted

5) Mailing items to oneself is interesting, but not permitted.

The No Baggage Challenge wasn’t just about traveling around the world without luggage — it was also an inquiry into simplifying material concerns and seeking rich life-experiences.

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Ever since the earliest days of my no-baggage round-the-world journey, I’ve wanted to test out the smell and appearance of my travel clothing by trying to get past the “velvet rope” of some exclusive nightclub in some great world city. In Bangkok I finally got the chance to do this. Thankfully neither I nor my clothes smelt bad and I, pretty much had a great time that night!

I also got the chance, on that same day, to eat assorted insects from a street vendor.

Unlike my usual flavours, I ended up eating grasshoppers, crickets, butterfly larvae, ant larvae, and dried frogs — and it was interesting to note how different each item tasted.

By far the best were the dried frogs (I’m not sure how they were prepared, but they were boneless and a tad crunchy) which tasted a lot like pork rinds.

Of all the things I’d expected to experience when planning my no-luggage world journey, drinking elephant-dung tea in South Africa was not among them. I’d expected I might explore nightlife in Spain (which I did, while eating tapas in Madrid) or ride a camel in Egypt (which I did, at Giza) —but I never expected to imbibe a medicinal beverage that had recently passed through an elephant’s ass— to cure a gentle harmless cold!

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By the time we reached Bangkok, however, the cold was gone. Such is the unpredictability of travel.

Looking back I feel that I got into a travel rhythm pretty soon and the no-baggage aspect of the trip was pretty simple. Two-a-day showers kept me as clean as I’ve ever been on the road, and daily clothes-washing (of my socks, underwear, and t-shirt) kept my wardrobe fresh and odour free. Washing clothes every day was no more tiresome than washing myself every day. In short, if you can get into the habit of taking a shower every day (and I hope you have), you can get into the habit of washing a few clothing items every day. In fact, you can do both at once — many nights I took my clothes into the shower and washed them as I washed myself.

 

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