Marco Polo Didn’t Go There
By Kelly Westhoff
With the release of his new title, Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, Rolf Potts is again in the author spotlight. Not that he ever really left it.
His travel writer star has been shining brightly ever since he started as a travel columnist for Salon.com in 1999. His work has appeared in the Best American Travel Writing series and his “Ask Rolf” column is a reader favorite at World Hum. In 2003, he published Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, which quickly became a classic for those with wanderlust.
But back to his newest book, which is a collection of his essays from the past ten years. Potts has been touring the United States in support of the title. Last weekend, he landed in the Minneapolis-St. Paul, where GoNomad’s Kelly Westhoff caught up with him.
What was your impetus behind this collection, Marco Polo Didn’t Go There?
Travelers Tales approached me earlier this year. They suggested it was time I compiled some essays. I knew I wanted to do a collection, but suddenly I looked back and realized it’d been ten years since I’d been a full-time travel writer.
There are certain types of travel that are unique to you when you haven’t been doing it for 30 years. You can only be a fish out of water for so long. If I’d waited until I was 50 to approach this work, I think it would have lost the freshness it has now.
Plus travel has changed a lot in the last decade, probably at a rate that’s unprecedented because of communications technology and other advances. These past ten years have been an interesting time to be a travel writer.
It’s the dawning of online media. My earliest stories were published online where people could immediately react. A person I write about in a story can send me an email and tell me I’m a jerk.
We’re almost getting to the point now where we could forget there was a time before this could happen. We’re entering an era where you can no longer get away with a blatant exotification of the rest of the world.
Let’s take the cover of the book. It’s a monk in the view frame of somebody else’s camera, but this monk is also holding a camera. You might have a picture of him, but he also, very clearly, has his own story to tell, and it’s probably a story that includes you.
I feel like I got my career started just as we were transitioning out of that old, flabby kind of travel writing where it was easy to exaggerate and exotify because you weren’t beholden to anything. Travel writing used to be a one-way communication, but now people in Ethiopia can Google themselves and find out what we’ve been saying about them.
So after a decade of traveling and writing, how did you decide which of your many essays would make it into this collection?
I aimed for variety. I wanted the essays to have a geographic and a thematic spread, and I wanted to choose stories that would underscore what it’s been like to travel in the past ten years.
So many of these stories take place within the tourist matrix and are about how we, as travelers, are always trying to remove ourselves from that. At the end of the day, though, we’re still stuck inside it.
It’s something that I think is sometimes overlooked by travel writers. One old trick of travel writing is to make the tourist matrix disappear, to make it seem as if you’re standing alone and unique in the world encountering the exotic by yourself, when in reality, you usually do it in a crowd of people.
So much of travel happens within the realm of tourism, but some writers write these stories that make themselves shimmer above the world of tourism that we all inhabit.
I definitely tried to include stories with an honest acknowledgement of the tourist matrix, to show that we are all engaging with the world as tourists and to pretend that you’re something other than that is selling the experience short.
Do you have a favorite essay in the book?
It’s interesting how reader reaction can chance your own perception of a story. One story that I like to read on this tour is “Tantric Sex for Dilettantes.” Audiences like it. It’s funny. It’s got these sexual themes and little, giggling lines about ejaculation. But it’s an unusual story. It’s written in the second person, and it got rejected a lot after I wrote it. There was a time when I was really down on it and thought it wasn’t very good, but now it’s one of my favorites.
This book is more than just collection of your favorite essays, though. Can you talk about the notes you’ve included at the end of each chapter?
I had it my head that I wanted to do a collection with endnotes. I think it gives the book a different dimension. I was aiming to deepen the entertainment value, give a little peak into the creation of each story and give the reader a little something extra. A lot of people who’ve been following my career online have seen these essays before. But if somebody wants to read the book and ignore the endnotes, it still works.
There are places, though, where the endnotes are actual instruction about telling a story, about setting the hook and about how sometimes you have to leave out certain details in order to make a point. Functionally, I suppose, it is sort of like a text book for travel writing.
As a writer myself, I’ve found that once I complete a story, the words on the page start to become my memory of that event. How did you work around this to write your endnotes?
Sure, I have specific memories of these stories that are tied to how I wrote them. Having a presentable, complete written version of a story does end up influencing your memory of an experience.
Fortunately, I’ve kept all my notes. If I hadn’t, the endnotes would only be about half of what they are now. But I went into storage and I pulled out all this information. Going back through those notebooks, I realized there’s so much I left out, entire story threads I decided not to follow at all.
For example, “Storming the Beach” is one of my best known stories. You read it and it seems like this obsessive adventure because that was how I wrote it. But when I went back to my notes, I realized that I had spent an entire day just hanging out and reading a book that had nothing to do with the obsessive storyline. The reality was that I was just as distracted then as I am during a normal day now, but you can’t tell a quest story and throw in details that have nothing to do with the quest.
And the funny thing is … there are even more stories that I remember that I never took notes on or have ever even written about.
I guess what it all means is that there are several layers to every story — the completed version that has been in my head for eight years or however long, the notes that went into making it, the things I never wrote down but still remember, and then there are the things that I’ll probably never remember, like the details of what I ate from day to day, that were just as real when they happened but will never be a part of any story.
What’s the story on your ubiquitous author photo? I’ve been seeing it for years.
That was taken in Myanmar on assignment for Conde Nast Traveler in 2001. Catherine Wessel was the photographer, and it’s not a posed shot. I was just sitting at a tea shop and she took the photo.
It is getting a little old, though, since I’ve been using it for promo purposes since 2003. This will be the last book where it serves as my author shot.
So there’s another book in you?
There are several, but I haven’t had a lot of time to write lately. I’m on book tour now, so I’m doing a lot of public, social stuff, which cuts into my writing time. I have offers and opportunities, I just need to sit down and sort them through.
Will you always be a travel writer?
Travel is my bread and butter, but there are other things I enjoy. I don’t want to limit myself. My subject matter is already diversifying. About a quarter of what I do has little or nothing to do with travel. I’ll always have a travel slant, but I’m getting into different types of creative writing and journalism.
I’ve got a TV agent now and I been doing some television, which is almost like a day job. Thanksgiving weekend there’s going to be a Travel Channel special called American Pilgrim, and I’m the host. If that goes well, I might end up doing quite a bit of TV, which is kind of strange seeing as how I don’t own a TV. Of course, I’ll need to pay some more attention to it if this is going to be a new world I’m getting into.
Speaking of new worlds, where do you want to travel next?
That’s hard. The thing about travel is that the more places you go, the more places you want to go.
So after all these years of far-flung, adventurous travel, do you still consider yourself a backpacker?
Yes, but I don’t know if I ever really considered myself a backpacker to begin with. I don’t know that I would ever limit my self-definition to the manner of luggage I carry.
I think I’m a backpacker at heart and I think everybody who starts out that way sort of feels loyal to that part of themselves, even if they’re not saving $2 by sleeping on the floor or eating ramen for 20 days in a row.
I think you can always be a backpacker even though you don’t travel in the same way that you did as a 19 year-old or a 27 year-old. My sensibilities are different now, but my ethic is very much still rooted in that idea of traveling light, going slow and saving money, not just because it leaves more money in my pocket, but because it’s a good way to engage other places.