Oct 17 2009
Marco Polo Didn’t Go There is a collection of travel stories by Rolf Potts from a decade of writing for publications like National Geographic Traveler, Salon.com, and WorldHum.com. He’s also been selected for The Best American Travel Writing anthologies several times and is best known for his book, Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel. Each essay in Marco Polo is accompanied by a “special commentary track” that gives the reader clarifications and anecdotes about each story. After Sarah and I read the book, we still had a few questions that we were dying to ask. Since his travel advice column for WorldHum.com is called Ask Rolf…we did.
1. Do you prefer aisle or window? (Please explain why.)
Aisle. I have long legs, and it’s nice to stretch them out every so often.
I’d say the bag of peanuts I bought in the Siphandon region of Laos in 1999. There were rumors of a cholera epidemic in the area at the time, so I was avoiding restaurant meals. I figured a bag of peanuts would be fine.
The problem was, they were raw peanuts, and when I had them roasted they must have gotten contaminated. I ended up suffering through cholera in a part of Laos that was not at the time connected by paved road to the rest of the country. I was in no shape to embark on the 8-hour boat journey up the Mekong to Pakse – and had a physician from Doctors Without Borders not been visiting the region by 4-wheel-drive at the time, I might still be down there.
Never. I refuse to pretend I’m Canadian, and I get irritated with Americans who do. It’s kind of insulting to assume that people in, say, the Middle East can’t differentiate between a nation’s foreign policy and its individual citizens. Better to tell the truth, gently challenge people’s stereotypes about America, and humbly represent your country on a person-to-person level than tell some dumb lie about being from Toronto.
I can read and write Korean, but my conversational skills have suffered in the 11 years since I lived in Korea. My up-and-coming language is Spanish, though I’m still a rank beginner. At one time I had enough Thai and Arabic to hit the market in Bangkok or Cairo, but those chops have suffered in the years since I traveled those parts of the world. So in the functional sense, I can only speak English fluently.
As for phrasebooks, my most interesting experience came in Laos, where I pulled out my Lonely Planet Southeast Asian Languages phrasebook in an attempt to communicate with some villagers near Thakhek. A small group of Lao adults were so fascinated by the phrasebook that they passed it around for a couple hours while I goofed off with the children in the village. We never did have much of a Lao-English conversation, but I had a lot of fun playing with the kids.
Back when I was fifteen I traveled to California from my home in Kansas. It was the first time I’d ever seen the ocean. I remember going into a shop in Newport Beach and seeing a door in the back of the store that said “Tobacco Room: Nobody under 18 years-old admitted.” For some reason, that prohibition imbued me with deep fascination: for years afterward I was intrigued by the notion of what forbidden pleasures were to be found in the Tobacco Room. Then, nearly ten years later, I went back to Newport Beach and discovered that the Tobacco Room was where they sold tobacco products. Duh! It was such letdown.
I still love the intoxicating feeling that comes when you’re denied entry into a place and vow to go back, but I’ve found that anyplace – forbidden or not – can be home to amazing experiences. So many destinations have eluded me so far for simple lack of time of opportunity – northern Ethiopia, the South Pacific, Central Asia, most of Scandinavia, central and southern Africa, and Antarctica included. But I’m confident I’ll visit those places someday.
I’ve had drinks with Dervla Murphy before, and I loved her unpretentiousness and her exuberant curiosity. So I’d take her to dinner any day. Marco Polo would make a great train companion (assuming we had an interpreter in tow), and I’d want the journey to be long, so I could pick his brain for days. I think Marco would get a kick out of the Trans-Siberian Express, since in his day Siberia was considered the land of Gog and Magog – home of the Anti-Christ. As for Waugh, definitely boxing. I love his writing, but I suspect he’d find me too American (and too close to my working-class heritage) to avoid being snooty in my presence. My friendly right-feint/left jab combo would provide the necessary corrective for that.
I don’t think I ever feared a world heritage site quite like I feared the Egyptian pyramids. But I have feared disappointment at monuments all over the world. For the most part, however – at places like Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat, and Petra – I’ve been really impressed. And I actually love the Eiffel Tower. It’s invariably surrounded by tourists, but that’s part of its charm (in part because I too am a tourist when I’m in France). I teach a writing workshop at the Paris American Academy, and one of my favorite experiences last summer was riding bikes to the tower with some students and friends at two in the morning, and just hanging out there.
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Lisa can usually be found staring longingly at the Eastern European shelf at the Globe Corner Bookstore. However, she really wants to go to Colombia.