Deviate With Rolf Potts – Kevin Kelly on Backpacking Asia (and why you should travel now)

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“If you have the chance to travel, you will never regret it, just do it.” – Kevin Kelly
Why Asia?
  • In the 1960s, Kevin became interested in photography while in high school
    • “Photography is this beautiful convergence of art and technology”
  • After graduating high school, Kevin had a best friend who went to Taiwan as a missionary
  • After dropping out of college, Kevin spent the next few years reading one book a day
    • After reading Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Kevin was seized by the impulse to travel
  • At that point, he decided to visit his friend in Taiwan and eventually Japan
    • He planned to extensively photograph his journey
  • Before traveling for the first time, Kevin thought you had to be invited to a country to go there
    • Remember at this point in the 1970s, the internet was nothing like it is today
    • “Traveling like this was really unknown territory, and I really did it blindly”
    • Rolf calls it a “pre guide book era”
What happened when he got there?
  • Taiwan had almost no English speaking people anywhere, making it very hard to find hotels
  • After meeting a few other travelers, he was convinced to go to the Philippines where English was much more common
    • He traveled to Manila without any plans whatsoever
    • “The absence of information sounds unbelievable to us now, but that really was the state of affairs back then” 
      • Think about how different it must have been traveling 40 years ago, no GPS on your phone, no Uber, no Hotel Tonight or Airbnb – how did anyone manage to actually travel???!
    • The solution to any of your travel worries – “Just ask”
  • How did Kevin approach money once he got there?
    • Travelers checks were common, but only certain banks cashed them
  • How did he get mail?
    • There was no internet and phone calls were too expensive
    • He would write letters, and receive mail back at major city post offices
How far did the dollar go in Asia in the 1970s?
  • Very far, except in Japan
    • Due to the high train prices, Kevin hitch hiked around Japan, staying at hostels where there were cheap all you can eat meals. Usually a second meal for him later in the day would be a cheap bowl of noddles.
    • He was living on $3-4 a day, except in Japan, or a couple thousand dollars a year – this included everything
  • There were no travel guide books or internet, so staying at cheap dorms/hostels was a good method for picking up travel tips
  • Kevin didn’t like to party – he saw himself as a working photographer on assignment
Who did Kevin come across on the road?
  • Mostly males, occasionally couples. It was very uncommon to run into a solo female travelers – although this was more likely in places like Thailand and the Philippines
  • Americans were a minority
    • Most travelers were either Australian or European – Europeans could get to Asia by bus for very cheap
    • Of the few Americans he met – “The people who made it there, were all interesting, because in order to get to Asia, there’s so many things you have to do out of the ordinary. So everyone you met there was interesting in some capacity.”
  • There were two types of people
    • Those who were there to party and lounge
    • Then there was the adventurous types who realized it was the bargain of the century – they realized that with a small amount of money, you could get somewhere where it used to take a full on group expedition
      • Kevin recalls taking a bus from Delhi to Nepal for $5
  • Did Kevin pick up any languages on the road?
    • A little Chinese, Japanese, Hindi
How did the trip expand and end up lasting multiple years (1972-1979)?
  • It emerged organically, travel was sort of an addiction for Kevin
  • Once in one country, he would hear or meet someone who had come from some place else – their tales would convince Kevin he had to go as well
    • “The further you went, the more and more opportunities you were presented with, that you didn’t know existed before”
  • At one point, Kevin ran out of money
    • Many of his friends decided to teach English, but Kevin figured he could make more money going back home to work as a photographer
    • He did this twice on his 1972-1979 trip for about 6 months each time
  • Kevin traveled alone most of the time, except for a few trips with his brother
    • He didn’t have a girlfriend
  • He was rarely in one place longer than 2 nights
How did Kevin pack for his journey?
  • Kevin left with 500 rolls of 35 mm film in small boxes, his camera, as well as one change of clothes – that’s it
    • Really makes you appreciate our cell phone cameras nowadays
  • On certain shorter trips, he just traveled with a day pack
  • “I had remarkably little stuff
How was Kevin received by people?
  • It varied
  • “People’s responses were a mirror of your own relationship to them”
    • If you were social and friendly, people would do the same
  • Kevin didn’t often stay in one place long enough to make friends
Any negative experiences with sickness or crime?
  • Crime
    • In Asia – there was never really any threat to your safety
    • Pickpockets or other scams were more common
    • He did have his camera stolen 3 different times, but he got it back each time
  • Sickness
    • In India he came down with Giardiasis (an intestinal disease)
    • Kevin also caught hepatitis in Nepal – the only remedy is rest (he lived in a hostel in Calcutta India for a month while he recovered’
    • Malaria was common
    • “If locals drank the water, I drank the water”
    • To combat intestinal illnesses today, Kevin tries to keep his microbiome in tip top shape 
Time and Money
  • People would often say to Kevin – “I wish I had enough time to do what you’re doing”
    • These people had more money than time and Kevin more time then money.
    • “Of the two, it’s much better to have more time than money”
What did Kevin read? Did he keep a journal?
  • No journal except on very rare occasions
  • He would read a Bible or history books of places he was
  • His time was mostly taken up by photographing
  • Kevin’s pictures were documented in his book, Asia Grace
  • His photographs focused on traditional things
    • Nowadays, most of Asia is more developed and less “authentic” – the traditional shots are increasingly rare
  • Kevin is working on a new book with photographs of places he didn’t get to capture the first time around – he plans to title it Vanishing Asia
    • Kevin has noticed the first thing to disappear are cultural costumes, then native architecture
    • Food is among the last to go – “You can often find traditional native dishes in very modern places”
  • “It was a mistake not to be more thorough in my note taking. There are some photographs now where I can’t even tell where they were taken.”
  • Traveling with 500 rolls of film, he would mail them back home to be developed when he finished them off
    • He would have his mom put them in a freezer
      • Think about how slow this feedback loop is compared to now, Kevin had to wait months to see his shots
    • Kevin shot at a rate of 2 rolls a day, or about 70 images
    • In today’s money, taking and developing one picture was the equivalent of $5 an image
      • “If you had to pay $5 today for every photograph you took and uploaded to Instagram, what would you point your lens at” – Rolf
  • “Photography made me get out, it’s my excuse and motivation to get out and see the world”
Why did Kevin end his journey?
  • He felt he needed to “graduate”
    • Kevin was 30 at the time, and felt his drifting days were over
    • His interests changed a little, and he started writing about budget travel for a magazine
  • Nowadays – Kevin does a lot of business in Asia and frequently extends his journeys to work on his next book, trying to document the last pockets of vanishing Asia
The Future
  • Almost two thirds of the people on the planet live in Asia
  • “As they develop in their own way, Asia will become the cultural center and leader of the world”
    • This will be a big psychological blow to the West/America
    • “I go to Asia now to capture the past, but also see where the future’s going to be”
How did backpacking influence Kevin’s life?
  • Rolf – “Youth is very much about the procress becoming yourself”, Kevin traveled to Asia in his early 20s
    • What Kevin learned – “The value of community identity, the value of not just seeing yourself as an individual but finding that the group as a whole is at least equally as valuable”
    • His empathy increased
  • “I attribute much of my technology optimism to seeing entire populations who are in very dire poverty, and then watching them remake themselves into some of the richest places in the world”
    • Like Korea
    • “The center of gravity of optimism has moved out of the US and into Asia”
  • “I am so thankful I had the opportunity to see this world, which will soon be gone, it was a real privilege”


Deviate with Rolf Potts : , , ,
Notes By MMiller

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