It’s a Big World Out There: In the Footsteps of Marco Polo

Left to right: Francis O’Donnell and fellow explorer Denis Belliveau.
Left to right: Francis O’Donnell and fellow explorer Denis Belliveau.
Mr. Belliveau with students who wanted to know more.
Mr. Belliveau with students who wanted to know more.
Mr. Belliveau shows students in a small workshop a rare copy of The Travels of Marco Polo. Marco Polo's fame today derives from this book about his travels, told to and written by a writer from Pisa named Rustichello.
Mr. Belliveau shows students in a small workshop a rare copy of The Travels of Marco Polo. Marco Polo's fame today derives from this book about his travels, told to and written by a writer from Pisa named Rustichello.
Students could hold extremely old pages that were copies of Marco Polo’s travel notes.
Students could hold extremely old pages that were copies of Marco Polo’s travel notes.
In Marco Polo’s time, Europeans had never seen a silk worm. The secret of the production for silk remained unknown outside China.
In Marco Polo’s time, Europeans had never seen a silk worm. The secret of the production for silk remained unknown outside China.

The South Huntington PTA Cultural Arts program didn’t have to travel far to find its most recent exceptional presentation. It turned out to be practically in our own backyard. Two local New York City residents, already experienced travelers, were looking to do something different once they finished college. They were intrigued with the travels of Marco Polo and hit upon the idea of retracing his footsteps as he sought to find the riches of the Orient.

Denis Belliveau and fellow explorer Francis O’Donnell followed Marco Polo’s route through Afghanistan and 20 other countries, traveling 33,000 miles over two years, in jeeps, trains, and rickshaws, on horseback and by camel. They are certainly the first to retrace Polo’s steps entirely by land and sea—all this without resorting to helicopters or airplanes.

In their book and film, A Return To Venice: In the Footsteps of Marco Polo, Mr. Belliveau and Mr. O’Donnell take readers and viewers on an incredibly historic journey. “Marco Polo’s journey took 24 years, and clearly we couldn’t take that kind of time,” said Mr. Belliveau as he answered a student’s question. “So we decided to do 1 month for each year of his journey. Two years and over 30,000 miles later, we completed the journey of a lifetime.” Starting in Venice, where the Polo family is from, the duo went on to face deadly skirmishes in Afghanistan, navigate the bureaucratic jungle that is Iran, brave the physical elements in Mongolia, navigate regulations on foreign travel in China, penetrate the deepest jungles of Sumatra, witness the incredible beauty of ancient India, and, finally, navigate the challenges of returning though the Middle East to Venice.

Their book, In the Footsteps of Marco Polo, reads like a compelling novel. The two explorers kept to their promise of traveling the route of Marco Polo as closely as possible. They refused air travel and spent much of their journey on the backs of camels, traveling through parts of the world that few ever see. After showing much of their documentary to the Whitman students, explorer Mr. Belliveau answered questions that helped reinforce the immense satisfaction the two must have shared. Simple, everyday things like a hot shower became an almost religious experience, as the two traveled for months in sub-zero arid mountainous terrain without washing anything more than their faces and hands.

Food, one of our simplest pleasures, was an ongoing challenge as they traveled through some of the world’s poorest and most remote areas. “What other explorers would you like to follow?” was the question one student posed. “I’ve been giving that a lot of thought lately,” said Mr. Belliveau. “Two explorers of the Ancient Mayan cities in Mexico, John Lloyd Stevens and Frederick Catherwood, are interesting to us. And there was a French explorer, Louis Joliet, who canoed the entire Mississippi River. That would be a great trip, paddling a canoe from the Great Lakes to Louisiana.” The Whitman students kept the questions coming and were clearly intrigued by the modern-day explorer.

Q: What were the highlights of your trip?

Mr. Belliveau: “Highlights of our trip were whenever we were able to really step back in time and experience life and culture in a way that was as close as possible to Marco Polo’s experience. A good example of this was when we were traveling through China. They had a cultural revolution in the 1960s, and many historical and cultural artifacts were destroyed, so some of the travel was on paved roads with electrical wires overhead. This was vastly different than when we went through Mongolia, where they are pretty much living now like they have for centuries.”

Q: What parts of history do you like the best?

Mr. Belliveau: “I love all history, but I guess that because I spent so much of my time doing the Marco Polo experience, the late Middle Ages are a favorite.”

Q: Were you ever afraid for your lives?

Mr. Belliveau: “When we were in Iran, a large demonstration erupted not far from where we were staying, and so we investigated. We were horrified to see an effigy of the American president and American flag being burned, but we soon learned, after we got away from the TV cameras and demonstrators, that residents were required to attend these ‘government-sponsored’ demonstrations, and 9 out of 10 Iranians came up to us and told us flat out that they liked Americans, but the government forces them to participate in these demonstrations. We never really felt threatened.”

Q: Why were you given only a 3-day pass to visit India?

Mr. Belliveau: “When going from Sumatra to India, we traveled as working crewmen on a merchant ship, and when we landed in India we were granted only a 3-day pass. This comes from historical times as far back as Marco Polo, because if you look at a map, India’s northern border is protected by the Himalayan Mountains. They are separated from the rest of Asia and Europe, so any attacks throughout their history came from the sea. They are very skeptical of sailors or anyone traveling by sea.” The two explorers disregarded the 3-day pass and got lost in India's culture and history traveling for months.

Q: What was the grossest thing you ate?

Mr. Belliveau: “Well, one of them may have been in Sumatra, where it was customary to eat live grubs. They move around in your mouth, so it’s pretty gross. Another was when we were in Mongolia, and it was our next-to-last day. The family we were staying with wanted to kill a sheep for a feast in our honor, so Fran and I were like ‘Oh boy, Mongolian BBQ and lamb chops. Instead they carefully laid out the lamb meat to dry for jerky, since they were nomadic and the dried meat would last for months. They put the sheep’s eyes, brains, lungs, liver, and other organ meats in a big kettle and boiled it with a handful of salt. They offered us this soup. Since it was so high in protein, it was the best that they had to offer. We couldn’t disrespect them, so, I was like, okay, give me that eyeball.”

Q: What about Marco Polo’s Will was most exciting?

Mr. Belliveau: “When we returned to Venice after 2 years of traveling, the mayor of Venice asked what he could do for us to show they city’s gratitude for our dedication to the Venetian culture. Fran and I immediately said that we would like to see Marco Polo’s actual will. Our wish was granted, and the experience was amazing. Marco Polo had many skeptics in his day. When he said there were cities in China with over a million people, Europeans didn’t believe him. When Marco Polo told how the Chinese used paper money, they laughed at him, saying that the only real money was gold and silver. But in his will we read about the three prized possessions he left for his three daughters, and after reading that part, it only confirmed what we already believed: Marco Polo truly did what he said he did.

Oh, those three things he left for his daughters in his will? One was a golden tablet given to him by the Kublai Khan, the grandson of the great Genghis Khan. Another was a golden headdress from China. And the third was a large silver belt worn by Mongol Knights.

Mr. Belliveau, a graduate of New York’s School of Visual Arts, resides in New York City with his wife and two children. He visits Walt Whitman annually to share his experiences with our students. This year he also conducted small workshops in several classrooms, to which he brought along a copy of Marco Polo’s travel diary, one of only 800 copies that exist worldwide. He also shared with the small class workshops historic documents detailing many of the flora and fauna that Marco Polo found on his journey.  

Thank you, PTA Cultural Arts, for bringing this incredible experience to the students at Walt Whitman High School.