“Modern travel is the hunt for the random mundane,” Rolf Potts wrote in Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, and, although this may seem at first to be a real buzz kill of a statement, approaching the world from this angle has the potential to increase its radiance exponentially. The interconnected “globalized” world has eased some of the stark contrasts between cultures, but the subtle interplay of various societies, technologies, and worldviews in collision has been magnified many fold. As Rolf put it: “Platonic ideals aside, the world remains a fascinating place for anyone with the awareness to appreciate its nuances. Social critics who proclaim that “real travel” is dead are just too lazy to look for complexities within an interconnected planet… “There is a new art to traveling in the postmodern world, and Rolf Potts teaches it vividly in Marco Polo Didn’t Go There.
Marco Polo Didn’t Go There starts out with a series of articles that climax in misadventure. These stories primarily have to do with Rolf facing the ever-taunting challenge of getting off the backpacker trail in countries with thriving tourism industries. These pieces are often cyclic, where Rolf goes off to have an “off the beaten track” adventure just to return back to backpacker trail slightly disillusioned. In one of these stories Rolf sets off to enter the set of the filming of The Beach in Thailand, and ends up just paying a lot of money to have a boat driver take him out to sea just to be caught by a security boat and returned to where they came from. In another story, the author decides that he is going to go out into the Libyan Desert of Egypt on foot, just to run out of water. In another tale the narrator spends a day hanging out with touts in Istanbul just to be drugged and robbed. In yet another story Rolf goes on an expedition to a region of Laos that was truly untouched by tourism just to realize that he is acting as part of the force which will soon change the place into yet another tourist head water.
Tourists trying to escape tourism is a major theme in global backpacker circuits, as is the mythology that the “authentic” side of a country is found in the places that has the fewest signs of what foreign backpackers would call familiar — which even extends to the backpackers themselves. There are preconceived expectations in any tourist circle of what a country “should” be like, and anything short of these expectations is labeled unauthentic, corrupted, Westernized, soiled. There is an artificial dichotomy set up between visions of the exotic and the realities of an inter-connected world, which is, ultimately, the same worn dichotomy between an idea of purity and the stain of the impure. Ironically, these expectations of the authentic that many backpackers set off into the world with are fantasies that were manufactured by the same tourism industry which they try to escape.
In the book’s first story, called Storming the Beach, Rolf tells of a travel writing stunt where he tried to crash the set of the movie, The Beach, which was being filmed on a nearly deserted island off the coast of Thailand. As a side anecdote to his narrative, Rolf tells of how the movie producers planted palm trees all over the beach because they were concerned that the naturally palm-less Thai beach they were going to film on did not look enough like a “Thai beach.”
In another tale, Rolf tells of how a Burmese Christian working reception at a backpacker hotel in Thailand would routinely get into arguments with the foreign clientele because he did not fit into the backpacker paradigm of what a Burmese man was suppose to believe and say. “More than once,” Rolf wrote, “this lead to bizarre scenes in the lobby, where sunburned Germans and Canadians and Californians angrily lectured Matthew [the clerk] about the pacifistic merits of Buddhism while the Kayin desk clerk tremblingly tried to explain how Burmese Buddhists had murdered his brothers. It was as if the backpackers didn’t know what to do with this meek little brown man who, with his
professed love of Jesus and affinity for George Bush, didn’t follow accepted narrative of how Southeast Asians were supposed to act.”
This theme of foreigners imposing their own paradigm of what they expect a place to be like resonates through Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, as Rolf faces a backpacker culture that would rather plant palm trees (believe in a phony idea of authenticity) than accept the beach (a place and people) for what they are.
Rolf often uses himself as the litmus tester of his tales, and he goes out on to pit his expectations of places up against their reality in Marco Polo Didn’t Go There. This is no better shown than in a story called Something Approaching Enlightenment, where Rolf shuns going to the highly touristy Dharamsala and heads way out into the Indian Himalaya to a village called Kaza. Rolf wrote, “Dharamsala had become so popular with other Western travelers that any spiritual epiphanies I found there would feel forced and generic. By contrast, the Indo-Tibetan burg of Kaza was the remotest Himalayan town I could reach by road in late winter. There, in the cobbled alleyways of an ancient and windswept Buddhist village, I imagined I might find a more authentic vision of what the Dalai Lama represented.” Thus the stage was set.
After a semi-arduous journey where Rolf faced broken down buses, being picked up by the Indian military, and a village called Pooh, he finally made it to Kaza. “As I walked,” Rolf explained his journey to Ki Gompa monastery near Kaza, the auspiciously chosen destination of his journey, “I felt a slight twinge of pity for all the travelers who went to Dharamsala seeking the Dalai Lama, only to wind up in guesthouses and Internet cafes full of travelers from Berekely and Birmingham and Tel Aviv. By contrast, I reckoned my final push to Ki Gompa would transcend such banality and lead me into the true heart of Tibetan spirituality.”
He then got bit by a large dog.
Returning to Kaza he sought medical care and refuge in the home of a few horny and drunken Indian men who watched American porno through the night. “I had indeed, it seemed, achieved something approaching enlightenment,” Rolf concluded the tale.
The slaying of delusion is one of the pretexts of enlightenment in the Buddhist sense, and, from this story, it seems as if the author got more of a vision of reality than he bargained for. But jests aside, Marco Polo Didn’t Go There is full of such proverbial lessons on how to break through the delusions of tourism and see a little deeper into the heart of a place. This book does not teach the physical mechanics of world travel, but it does provide a working model of how to engage the world if your intention is to get beyond the mental constructs of tourism.
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