Rolf Potts has inspired more people to travel than any writer working today. His first book Vagabonding motivated my first long-term trip, and I’ve run into countless travelers who have said the same thing.
Rolf’s newest book is a collection of stories called Marco Polo Didn’t Go There: Stories and Revelations from One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer. He recently took the time to answer a few questions about his newest book, his favorite places in the world, and his upcoming show on the Travel Channel.
1. Your new collection of stories and essays has a rather puzzling title: Marco Polo Didn’t Go There. Where does it come from?
I’ll give it to you straight from the introduction chapter:
The title of this book is not my own creation: It is a direct quote from an inmate I met at Bangkok’s women’s prison in January of 1999. At the time I had been a full-time travel writer for less than a month, and I’d been telling people I planned to travel across Asia in the footsteps of Marco Polo.
Looking back, I’m not sure why I found it necessary to say this. I guess I was just following the presumed formula of what travel writers were supposed to do.
Indeed, at the very moment I was setting out from Asia, various travel scribes were researching or publishing books that diligently traced the international footsteps of Captain Cook, Che Guevara, Moses, Sir Richard Burton, William of Rubruck, John Steinbeck, Lewis and Clark, Robinson Crusoe, Ibn Battuta, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Herman Melville. Journeying in the footsteps of others had, it seemed, become the travel-literature equivalent of cover music – as common (and marketable) as Whitney Houston crooning Dolly Parton tunes.
As it turned out, my own “footsteps” ruse lasted less than one month before I found my way into the visiting room of a women’s penitentiary just outside of Bangkok. As unusual as it might sound, visiting Western prisoners was all the rage among backpackers when I’d arrived in Thailand. In cafes and guesthouse bulletin boards along Khao San Road, photocopied notices urged travelers to take a day off and call on prisoners at the various penitentiaries around Bangkok. Figuring this might be an interesting deviation from the standard tourist-circuit activities, I went to the American embassy and received a letter of introduction to an unlucky drug trafficker named Carla.
Brief acts of presumed kindness carry a whiff of narcissism: As I took a series of buses through the snarl of Bangkok traffic to the edge of the city, I imagined Carla to be a weary, desperate woman who would thank mefor the small gift of magazines and the encouragement to keep persevering behind bars. In reality, Carla was a tough, pretty Puerto Rican woman who arrived in the visitor’s room fifteen minutes late smelling like shampoo, and regarded me with ambivalent cordiality. After speaking for a while about her own situation (her fateful decision to make a quick buckdelivering Thai heroin to New Jersey for an acquaintance; her plans upon her release in nine more months), she began to steer the conversation toward me.
“Why did you come to Thailand?” she asked.
“My primary goal is to follow the route of Marco Polo through the Orient.”
“Oh yeah?” Carla said. “Where are you going after Bangkok?”
“North,” I said. “Probably to Chiang Mai for a while.”
“Chiang Mai?” Carla raised a skeptical eyebrow at me. “Marco Polo didn’t go there.”
Though I didn’t know it at the time, this simple observation was to change the way I traveled, far beyond Asia.
2. Are you looking forward to the upcoming book tour? Do you have dates and locales picked out yet?
I’m definitely looking forward to the book tour, as I always enjoy meeting readers and talking to audiences. I’m in the middle of my Kansas leg at the moment, and when that’s finished I’ll continue on to Chicago, New Orleans, Minneapolis, New York, Camden, Portland, Bellingham, Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. This will take me right up to Thanksgiving.
You can check out the details on the events page at my website.
3. Asking a seasoned traveler which are his favorite places in the world is a bit like asking a mother which is her favorite child. But can you take a shot at sharing some of your favorite countries or cities?
You’re right — it’s always a tough assessment. Since the early days of my international vagabonding I’ve been a big fan of Laos, Burma and Mongolia — though I haven’t been back to any of those countries since 2003. I go to Paris every summer to teach a creative writing workshop at the Paris American Academy, and I’ve really come to love that beautiful city, despite my weak French language skills. Last year I went to Havana and really came to love Cuba. And there are some other places I want to go back and get to know better — Argentina, Ethiopia, India, Australia. The list could go on.
Of course the place I’m really getting to know better these days is Kansas, where I’ve had a little farmhouse on 30 acres since 2005. I’m actually not there very many days a year, but when I am home I learn a lot about slowing down and getting to know one place.
4. Several of the stories in your new book originally appeared on the internet. What do you see as the benefits and drawbacks of writing for an internet audience?
A big benefit in my experience has been narrative flexibility. At places like Salon and World Hum and Slate I’m really able to take stories in my own personal direction, without the space or photo considerations that might come with writing for a glossy travel magazine. These stories also have more reach, since they’re available worldwide and can be accessed as easily now as the day they came out.
As for drawbacks — well, I’ve been writing for online venues for so long that I really can’t think of any, off the top of my head. I’m used to the format, and it works for me
5. Rumor has it you’re working on a new show for the Travel Channel. Can you give us any details about it?
You bet. The working title of the show is “American Pilgrim,” and it takes a look at the travel conditions of the Mayflower Pilgrims. I’m the host, and basically I travel around the United States meeting with the descendants of those first Pilgrims and talking about the challenges they faced. If all goes according to plan, the one-hour show should debut on the Travel Channel on Thanksgiving Day around prime time. I fly to England at the end of this month for a couple days to record voiceover narration.
Of course, people who are familiar with my writing might wonder why I’m doing a show about American cultural history when I’ve established myself as an independent and international travel guy. I wondered the same thing at first, but I guess they wanted a younger host to inject some energy into what might be seen as middle-aged subject matter. It was a good way to get some experience in front of the camera, and I actually had a really great time shooting it. I can’t imagine I’ll turn my career over to television anytime soon — I will always be a writer first and foremost — but I look forward to doing occasional TV documentary work in the future.