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|Where's Carly? Marco Polo Didn't Go There|
The stories behind the stories
Rolf Potts' Marco Polo Didn't Go There
By Carly Blatt
I'm rarely able to read a travel narrative without wondering about the story behind the story. How did the writer end up in the situation? What aspects were left out of the published story? Did the author know he was going to write about the experience from the get-go, or did he realize later that it was a story that had to be told?
Rolf Potts’ new book, Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, is the perfect behind-the-scenes companion for curious readers eager to know the full stories behind many of his best-known travel narratives. Through a commentary track similar to a DVD, Rolf shares previously unpublished details about many of his favorite travel stories and explains how he crafted the experiences for publication. Rolf has reported from more than 60 countries and his work has appeared in Salon, Slate, National Geographic Traveler, Outside, The New York Times Magazine, and Condé Nast Traveler, among others. He is also the author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel.
Aspiring writers will benefit from learning the techniques Rolf used to develop each of the stories into a gripping narrative, while travel addicts will love hearing about the circumstances that led him to pen his assorted adventures. Armchair travelers with a craving for adventure stories will be similarly intrigued.
Many of Rolf's best travel narratives come from experiences that are largely unplanned, like getting taken on a tour of Beirut by an overbearing local (My Beirut Hostage Crisis), accepting an invitation to visit his train-seatmate's home in Cambodia, (Up Cambodia without a Phrasebook), exploring Cairo while avoiding visiting the pyramids (Backpacker's Ball at the Sultan Hotel), and many others. He has a unique ability to attract adventure; sometimes he seeks it out, sometimes it seeks him out.
I met up with Rolf in New York during his recent book tour to chat with him about the process of putting the book together and how his endnotes benefit aspiring writers.
To help create the endnotes "commentary track" for each of the stories in the book, Rolf dug out notebooks from past trips to fill in details. "Sometimes the official story you write becomes your memory. Going through the notebooks helped me remember some aspects that I hadn't thought about in years," Rolf said. "Also, there's something about the physical presence of the notebooks that's very evocative. They remind me of the world behind the story."
Rolf's endnotes often include explanations about why he used specific narrative techniques, how some of the "characters" reacted to seeing themselves in print, and why he had to leave out certain parts of some experiences. Part of what motivated him to include the commentary track was his wish that other non-fiction writers would do the same with their essays.
Many of his endnotes answer questions that we as readers would ask a friend telling us travel stories over a beer. Often, he shares details that weren't included in the published version of the story, like what he did after arriving in his unplanned destination after hitch-hiking in Poland (Road Roulette), where the assortment of colorful characters described in Backpackers‘ Ball at the Sultan Hotel ended up years later, and the significance of a gift of toilet paper he'd received in an Indian Himalayan village (Something Approaching Enlightenment). Rolf's stories are often the result of unplanned adventures and as a writer, he helps us realize the importance of being open to where the road takes you. In Road Roulette, Rolf plans to hitchhike around Poland and let the adventure take him where it may. After being picked up by a car full of friendly Hungarians, he tells them he wants to stop at the first Polish city after the border station so he can see Poland by thumb. He says:
"I just want to keep a laidback attitude and go where fate and chance take me. That's the best way to discover things, I think. Road roulette."
The Hungarians are heading to Krakow and insist he ride with them there, despite Rolf's protests that he'll miss most of Poland by doing so. They convince him that not staying with them goes against his desire to be laidback. Rolf realizes they have him checkmated and agrees to stay with them, thus ending up on an entirely different adventure.
Rolf's openness to experiences other than those he'd originally planned place him in many situations ripe for storytelling, like accepting an invitation to stay with a young Cambodian named Boon in Up Cambodia without a Phrasebook. Rolf soon finds himself as a guest in a one-room house with no running water and quickly realizes he is the sole English-speaker in the village.
The story is an intriguing tale about being a fish out of water, and Rolf's endnotes about the landmine education posters he encountered and what it was like to be recruited to play in an inter-village volleyball competition give further insight into his experience.
"I'd originally planned to write about Cambodia and genocide," he said. "But I soon realized that my experience in the village was the story I should write. You have to let a trip take you; the whole point of traveling is to get away from expectations and explore new experiences."
Sometimes, though, Rolf deliberately tries to go off the beaten path and later realizes that there's not much to explore. In The Barbeque Jesus and Other Epiphanies, he purposely seeks out a spot in Vietnam that is off the budget travel circuit. Once he arrives in a "rural minority village that looked suitably remote and authentic," he stops to check it out and realizes that he feels more like an outsider than ever. One of his primary motivations for seeking out the remote corner of Vietnam was to avoid other travelers and look for something authentic, but after arriving he understands that the reality wasn't what he was looking for either.
Some of the stories in the book – like Storming The Beach, which details his experience trying to sneak onto the Thai movie set of the Leonardo DiCaprio film – are tales that Rolf knew he'd write about from the beginning. Others, like My Beirut Hostage Crisis, are based on chance experiences that he later realized would make a great story.
Aspiring travel writers and fiction writers alike can use Rolf's endnotes as a mini-travel writing textbook of sorts. In them, he often explains why he chose to craft a tale in a certain way. In Turkish Knockout, a story about getting drugged and robbed in Turkey, Rolf purposely begins his story at the end of the experience by bringing the reader to the moment after the date-rape drugs wear off and he realizes what has happened. Later, he explains the events that led up to the robbery.
In his endnotes, he points out that he purposely framed the story as a type of a whodunnit. "I started at the end and kept coy about who robbed me until I'd introduced everyone I'd met that day," he noted. Had he simply started out by introducing the culprit, the reader would've simply read the story from beginning to end with little suspense. But as a whodunnit, readers are able to meet the possible robbers and guess for themselves who the guilty party is.
In Tantric Sex for Dilettantes, a story that Rolf often reads on his book tour, he shares in his commentary track why he decided to write that particular story in the second person. He also lets the reader know that the technique confused travel editors who weren't used to seeing second-person voice in non-fiction.
He discusses his use of present versus past tense in stories in the endnotes for Up Cambodia without a Phrasebook, and also shares how other writers feel about choice of tense.
During our chat, I asked Rolf what tips he had for aspiring travel narrative writers. "Remember that you're telling a story, not just recounting events. Use the same devices you find in short stories and novels to shape the story. Make the story come alive," he suggested. "There's a big difference between what was lived and what you write. You have to remove the details of the story that are boring."
In stories like Backpacker's Ball at the Sultan Hotel, he had to leave out mentions of many of his good friends in order to focus on other specific characters. "You have to narrow it down to the people who make sense in the story and move the story forward. It may feel uncomfortable to leave out friends, but you have to select the essential details to your story," he said.
Whether you're interested in improving your narrative writing skills or are simply curious about the details behind Rolf's experiences, Marco Polo Didn't Go There is an addicting read for travelers and writers alike. Visit rolfpotts.com for more information. You can also read Rolf's blog at vagablogging.net.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
New York-based freelance writer Carly Blatt has extensively traveled, studied and worked abroad, covering 26 countries on six continents. Her travel adventures include swimming in Antarctica, bungy jumping in New Zealand, diving with sharks in South Africa, paragliding in the Alps, caving in Belize, mountain boarding in Colorado, camping with locals in the Australian Outback, and helping confused-looking tourists find their way in Manhattan.
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