Book Review: Marco Polo didn’t go there by Rolf Potts

AuthorRolf Potts
TitleMarco Polo didn’t go there
Publication Info: Palo Alto, Calif. : Travelers’ Tales, c2008.
ISBN: 1932361618
Summary/Review: This collection of travel essays (post-modern travel writing according to the author) grapples with travel in the modern day with the competing forces of commercialism and authentic experience.  A lot of people try to make a distinction between the tourist and the traveler, but Potts contends that there really is no difference, and that’s okay.  Potts does a great job a bringing an interesting angle to his travel experience whether he’s hiking alone in the Egyptian desert or on a posh package tour sponsored by a glossy travel magazine.  Each essay ends with a series of footnotes which offer insights on the process of writing about travel with some tips for how to do it.  It all gets very meta but I think it’s well balanced enough to avoid being pretentious.  Potts is one of the more interesting, insightful, and refreshing travel writers I’ve read in some time and I look forward to reading more of his work.
Favorite Passages:

p. xv – I use the word “tourism” intentionally, since it defines how people travel in the twenty-first century.  Sure, we all try to convince ourselves that we we’re “travelers” instead of “tourists,” but this distinction is merely a self-conscious parlor game within the tourism milieu.  Regardless of how far we try to wander off the tourist trail (and no matter how long we try and stay off it) we are still outsiders and dilettantes, itinerant consumers in distant lands.  This is often judged to be a bad thing, but in truth that’s just the way things are.  Platonic ideals aside, the world remains a fascinating place for anyone with the awareness to appreciate the nuances.”

p. 173 – In truth, backpacker culture is far more dynamic than reporters assume when they visit Goa or Panajachel to shake down stoners for usable quotes.  Outside of predictable traveler ghettos (which themselves are not as insipid as  these articles let on), independent travelers distinguish themselves by their willingness to travel solo, to go slowly, to embrace the unexpected and break out from the comfort-economy that isolates more well-heeled vacationers and expats.  Sure, backpackers are themselves a manifestation of mass tourism – and they have their own self-satisfied cliches – but they are generally going through a more life-affecting process than one would  find on a standard travel holiday.

Recommended books:  A Sense of Place: Great Travel Writers Talk About Their Craft, Lives, and Inspiration by Michael Shapiro and The End of Elsewhere: Travels Among the Tourists by Taras Grescoe.
Rating: ****

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