In 2008-published Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, American travel writer Rolf Potts presents an anthology of previously published works drawn from a decade of travel around the world. The pieces touch on a raft of issues, such as backpacker culture, overtourism, press trips and ecotourism and are an interesting and at times very funny page turner.
I read almost the entire book on a single sitting, beachside in Bali (and have the sunburn to prove it), in part I confess because so much of the book was like reading a telling of my own travels. While the stories are unfortunately not specifically dated, Potts and myself were clearly kicking around some of the same destinations at around the same time. I couldn’t help but see myself in some of the tales—a sensation that certainly kept the pages flipping.
Potts is an engaging and, at times, very amusing writer. The story set in Cairo where he purchased a 20-second donkey ride for a pen (he thought he was purchasing the donkey) had me laughing out loud. Meanwhile, Indian soldiers stumble upon a somewhat under-prepared Potts in the Himalayas, trying to smash a wooden door (for firewood). Suspecting him of taking photos, one Lt. Diesel says “This is a dangerous border, and it’s not for tourists. Why did you bring a door?”
While the book is rich in amusing anecdotes (the Rishikesh chapter is spectacular), many of which will be familiar to anyone who has travelled independently outside their home country, Potts does have a more serious tilt. This surfaces repeatedly through the book as he muses on questions revolving around travel.
In Kontum (a little-visited provincial capital in Vietnam’s Central Highlands), the realities of Potts’ imagined time in the untouristed clashes with the realities of travel in remote areas. He has an unpleasant interaction with a local guy and finds himself asking, repeatedly, why am I here?
“The decision that brought me there [to Kontum] was not a savvy act of independent travel, but an insipid act of negation—a ritual of avoiding other travelers, as if this in itself was somehow significant.”
Indeed, my own experience in Komtum was not dissimilar—it took me some years to untangle myself from one particular operator there. On another occasion, when Sam and I travelled to a remote area of Laos (Pha Udom) only because it was marked on a map, we found ourselves feeling likewise somewhat out of place. The locals, while not rude, were far from welcoming. A local kid asked a friend (in Lao), “Why do they keep smiling at me?” Indeed, what were we doing there?
Later, at the conclusion of a very interesting chapter about Australia’s outback, Potts has an epiphany around the loaded term “authenticity”. After all, how many times have travellers, seeking “the authentic”, baulked at Thais dining at Maccas or Indonesians lining up at Starbucks? Says Potts, to my mind nailing a pretty solid definition while simultaneously dovetailing it with another concept of travel close to my heart, slow travel:
“This is because authenticity anywhere is an internal dialogue within a culture as it synthesizes its past with the present, hoping to better navigate a changing world. The job of the traveler, I reckon, is to slow down and listen so that he can hear snippets of that conversation.”
Slow travel is implied often through the stories, but, in a captivating chapter early in the collection, Potts deftly captures one of the joys of just letting travel take you where it wants you to. Hitching near the Polish border, he aims for a ride just over the border, but the convivial crew convince him to join them to Krakow. Later, while still in the car, he falls asleep and wakes later ... in Budapest.
“What happened in Slovakia?” he asks of his companions.
Most of the chapters are accompanied by a series of endnotes (Potts calls them “special commentary tracks”), which work to explain some of the backstories that didn’t make it into the piece. I found many of these to be fascinating and certainly learned a thing or two about writing, but one of the ones related to the hitching chapter reveals something I’ve repeatedly experienced myself. During the drive, Potts pays for a tank of gas without the knowledge of the driver, Ervin, who was subsequently deeply insulted when he found out. As Potts says, “When you come from a wealthy country, it’s easy to forget how the simplest of gestures might seem patronizing.”
Self awareness and being mindful of your surroundings matters.
When Potts is drugged and robbed in Istanbul, he later weaves it into his life experiences, which he refers to in passing as “resume weaving”.
“In time, this exercise of memory renders things relative: it makes you realize that things could have been much, much worse; it makes you realize that bad experiences on the road or otherwise, help you experience good experiences otherwise forgotten.”
When my travelling companion and I were robbed in Mexico on our first trip overseas, my companion lost everything except for a sleeping bag, a camping stove and a copy of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being—much pop psychology followed on from that event—what do you really need in life? Had the thieves given us a message?!
While Potts and I obviously had many of the same stomping grounds, one of my favourite chapters though was set in Cairo, somewhere I’ve never been. Potts is enmeshed in the traveller scene at backpacker crash pad, the Sultan Hotel. Sounding very much like the fictionalised On On Hotel in Alex Garland’s The Beach, the Sultan and its guests are absolutely my kind of scene, and it was pleasing to read a great defence of backpacker culture:
“At one level my companions and I were indolent and impulsive in Cairo, skimming the surface of a culture as we cooked rabbits, ogled belly dancers, and swilled duty-free booze. But most of us also studied Arabic and learned the rhythms of the neighbourhood around Orabi Square; we attended Sunni mosques and Coptic churches; we lingered in tea shops and made Egyptian friends. Moreover the Sultan Hotel (like many backpacker haunts) was a curiously class-free environment, where a Melbourne construction worker could hang out with a Pennsylvania Ivy Leaguer and an Egyptian fruit vendor in a spirit of mutual respect and curiosity.”
Yes, backpacking and the scene deserves some of the flogging and ridicule it receives, but as Potts continues on to say “... but they are generally going through a more life-affecting process than one would find on a standard travel holiday.”
Amen to that.
This is however a book about much more than backpacking and backpackers. A series of chapters, clustered under “The dubious thrill of press trips” will be of interest to anyone involved in professional travel writing. Potts neatly sums them up: “Even the most enjoyable press trips... are never created for the mere sake of enjoyment.” Indeed.
The previously mentioned end notes make this also a handy text for the student of travel writing, as the notes are both instructive and revealing, pointing the reader to the thinking behind why something was omitted from or embellished in the published piece.
At one stage, Potts touches on expat culture (which I’d count myself a member of, as while we came to Southeast Asia with two backpacks if we ever return home it will be with a twenty foot container), saying “Every out of the way province in Southeast Asia, it seemed, had a few guys like him—aging expats who’d lived remarkable lives, enjoyed their anonymity, and had no plans of going home.”
In the next to final chapter, in a passage which will strike home to any long term traveller returning home, Potts is back home in Kansas and feels lost.
“Now that I was in Kansas visiting family, however—strolling around a town where I didn’t look much different from the locals—I felt somehow more isolated than in any place I’d discovered in the hinterland of Burma.”
Then later on the same thread:
“Somehow the thrill of that journey [to Burma] contained a hint of narcissism—an egoistic desire to see myself, vivid and unique, in the reflection of a land so unlike my own. Minneapolis, Kansas offered no such temptation; it had only offered itself, in all its understated and charming reality.”
Marco Polo Didn’t Go There will appeal to anyone who has done a bit of independent travelling—delivered with enough self deprecating humour to have you nodding and laughing at the same time. For the student of travel writing, it is a must read. Rolf Pott’s website also has plenty of material including some interesting videos, which are well worth a look.
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