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Waccamaw Library: Traveler follows Marco Polo's footsteps

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

It was with the gift of an atlas that one of Francis O’Donnell’s biggest ideas was born.

The book came from his mother and on its pages were the trade routes of ancient civilizations, including the route Marco Polo used in his travels through Asia during the 13th century. O’Donnell, a world traveler himself and always eager for an adventure, was entranced.

“I looked at that route and said, ‘can you imagine going to all those mythical and magical places?’ Then I found out no one else had ever retraced Marco Polo’s path,” O’Donnell said.

He decided he would be the one to do it and enlisted a friend, Denis Belliveau, to take up the challenge with him.

“Other expeditions had tried and failed,” O’Donnell said. “Everybody told us we couldn’t do it, that it couldn’t be done and if it could, it wouldn’t be by us.”

That negativity fueled their determination and the naysayers were proven wrong.

Their 25,000-mile journey started in the mid-1990s and spanned two years. Fifteen years later it became the subject of “In the Footsteps of Marco Polo,” an Emmy-nominated PBS film.

O’Donnell, who is visiting his sister in Myrtle Beach while he works on a new writing project, will talk about both at the Waccamaw Library on Jan. 5 when he is guest speaker at the first Thursday of the Month program hosted by the library’s friends group. The program begins at 7 p.m.

O’Donnell and Belliveau spent about a year and a half planning their journey and enlisting sponsors. The two met at an archeology dig in France in 1984 and attended the School of Visual Arts together in New York. They were already traveling companions, having seen Mexico, most of Latin America, Europe and Nepal together.

“We thought we were educated men and knew a lot about the world from our travels,” O’Donnell said. It didn’t take long to realize the world and its cultures are even more diverse than they knew.

O’Donnell, an artist and former Marine, and Belliveau, who was at the time a wedding photographer, “made their way across the world’s largest land mass and back, securing – or, when necessary, forging – visas,” according to information from PBS. They survived a deadly firefight and befriended a warlord in Afghanistan, crossed the forbidding Taklamakan Desert in a Silk Road camel caravan, endured continuous interrogations from authorities, and lived among cultures ranging from the expert horsemen of Mongolia to the tattooed tribes of Indonesia.

They rode horses, camels, jeeps, trucks, boats and trains, or made their way on foot.

“There was no flying involved,” O’Donnell said. “Anybody can fly into a place, look around and see a few of the things Marco Polo saw.”

He and Belliveau wanted a truer experience. As they traced the route taken by the great explorer, they looked for things he told of in “The Travels of Marco Polo,” the book that made him famous. Polo was often accused of embellishing or entirely making up his adventures.

“A lot of people didn’t believe in his fantastic tales of Asia. Europe was kind of a backwater to the enlightenment of Asia,” O’Donnell said.

“We didn’t find any smoking gun.” But he believes they found enough to conclusively say Polo was truthful in his tales.

It was almost two years to the day after they set out that O’Donnell and Belliveau returned home. They felt they had a valuable story to tell and set out to look for a way to do it.

“We went to big TV companies and they said, ‘that’s wonderful, that’s great, but Americans don’t care about that part of the world,’ ” O’Donnell recalled.

It wasn’t until after Sept. 11, 2001 that changed.

“We never gave up,” O’Donnell said.

One screen deal they were working on fell through, but they finally made a deal with PBS and the resulting 90-minute film premiered in 2008. It can be viewed online.

According to legend, when Marco Polo was on his death bed, his parish priest came to him and told him to recant all his lies.

“He told him, ‘I haven’t told half of what I have seen and done,’ ” O’Donnell said.

Likewise, O’Donnell said he has told only a small portion of his own adventures. To hear the rest, folks will have to go see him at the Waccamaw Library.

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