Mark Twain wrote in 1869, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow mindedness.”
Rick Steves, in his book, Travel As a Political Act, echoes Twain’s sentiments as he presents an in-depth view of conclusions he’s deduced from his decades as a travel celebrity and writer. He has taken this opportunity to ask uncomfortable questions that Americans need to hear, ponder, and consider.
This nice, Norwegian Lutheran boy from Edmonds, Washington freely shares his 35 years of observations on travel, religion, social issues, and politics. His premise that travel changes the way you “see” the world echoes Mark Twain, who also wrote from a travel writer’s perspective.
The colorful pictures of smiling faces in this book offer an uplifting visual message, while Travel As a Political Act describes some sobering global situations.
Using examples of both social and political issues in Yugoslavia, Europe, El Salvador, Denmark, Turkey, Morocco, Iran and the Holy Land (Israel and Palestine), Rick Steves suggests new ways to think about poverty, religious tolerance, and the legislation of morality.
He believes that we travel “to have enlightening experiences, to meet inspirational people, to be stimulated, to learn, and to grow” and that this enlightenment and growth can come in disturbing ways.
Steves says, “Travel has taught me the fun in having my cultural furniture rearranged and my ethnocentric self-assuredness walloped. It has humbled me, enriched my life, and tuned me in to a rapidly changing world.”
To experience the world, he stresses that you have to be willing to leave your comfort zone and to be open-minded. “My best vacations have been both fun and intensely educational. Seeing how smart people overseas come up with fresh new solutions to the same old problems makes me more humble, open to creative solutions, and ready to question traditional ways of thinking.”
This kind of thoughtful travel can have a deep impact. When we see America from a foreigner’s viewpoint, we learn a lot about ourselves as we begin to see ourselves as other see us.
No longer do we so often hear the old farewell, “Bon voyage!” Since 9/11 friends and family are more likely to say, “Be careful.” Steves says, “I’ve learned that fear is for people who don’t get out much” and “The flipside of fear is understanding—and we gain understanding through travel.”
He goes on to explain, “If people stay home out of fear of violence fueled by misunderstanding between cultures, they can actually bring on the danger they fear. When we travel, we build understanding, making it harder for the governments of other countries to demonize us through their propaganda… and harder for our government to demonize other cultures through our propaganda.”
He believes that the most powerful thing an American can do to combat terrorism is to travel, learn about the world, and bring home a more enlightened perspective.
He addresses the difference in attitudes about guns between Europeans and Americans in a simple, down-to-earth manner that makes you reflect. On US government interference in other countries, like the author John Perkins (Confessions of an Economic Hitman), Steves is appalled by “what happens when the US funds the publishing of textbooks in places such as El Salvador and Nicaragua, with ideological strings attached. The economics of a banana republic are taught in a way that glorifies multinational corporation tactics and vilifies heroes of popular indigenous movements.”
Steves points out that “One person’s war hero is another person’s war criminal. One person’s freedom fighter is another person’s rapist. One person’s George Washington is another person’s Adolf Hitler. It’s aggravating, and yet so human.”
No matter who you ask, from a university professor to a diplomat to the man-in-the-street, Steves says you can always find a different interpretation of events, all presented as fact.
Travel will expose you to different thinking about our society, our rights, and our businesses. While the US perspective is focused on what’s best for business—our capitalist nature—European countries focus more on what’s best for people.
He cites this example, “While in Europe, the notion of paying for a car’s disposal when you first buy the car makes sense, it would be dismissed
in the US as bad for the economy. Because carbon taxes are considered good for the environment but bad for business, I doubt you’ll see them anytime soon in the US—but several European countries already have them.”
European governments focus more on what’s best for the environment, the poor, and the long-term interests of society. European citizens have a balanced work/life that enables them to enjoy more vacations and family time.
Steves readily admits he’s glad to be an entrepreneur in the US rather than in Europe, seeing pros and cons to both approaches but acknowledging a benefit in “comparing notes.”
His take on wars and the US position of “policing the world” makes you think about both military and fiscal policies. He makes a strong argument for peace and an awareness of viewpoints that both respects and celebrates diversity.
In his in-depth and insightful chapter on Iran, he says, “From a Western viewpoint, it’s disrespectful (at best) to impose these regulations on women. But from a strict Muslim perspective, it’s the opposite: Mandated modesty is a sign of great respect.” It’s all about perspective.
In this book, Steves explains that immigration isn’t just a US issue and how both Europe and the US can all learn form each others’ successes and failures.
Traveling in Denmark, where all education is free and alternate lifestyles are accepted as part of the social fabric, Steves says, “Hopefully when the pressures of conformity require selling a bit of our soul, travel experiences like these help us understand the potential loss before it’s regrettably gone.”
He openly states that when some critics ask, “If you love Europe so much, why don’t you just move there?” his short answer is, “I love America more. And because I care about our society, I challenge us to do better. In times good or bad, we should be open to considering all the solutions we can.”
He adds, “Part of the fun of travel is learning to respect and celebrate how different people have different passions for different things. A traveler learns that the love of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness comes in different colors and knows no borders.”
“Through travel,” Rick Steves says, “we can observe Islamic societies struggling (like our own society) with how to deal with a rough-and-tumble globalized world. In doing so, we gain empathy.”
Steves reminds us that nearly one in four persons on the plant prays to Mecca and includes a humorous story about introducing his Norwegian Lutheran father to Islam.
He concludes with, “My visits to places like Turkey, Morocco, Iran (described in Chapter 8), and Palestine (described in Chapter 9) have shown me how travel takes the fear out of foreign ways.”
“I left Iran impressed more by what we have in common than by our differences,” he says. “Most Iranians, like most Americans, simply want a good life and a safe homeland for their loved ones… Both societies seek a defense against the onslaught of modern materialism that threatens their traditional ‘family values.’ Both societies are suspicious of each other, and both are especially suspicious of each other’s government.”
As well as travel as a political act, Rick Steves suggests that travel can also be a powerful spiritual act.
In 2013 Steves traveled to Israel and Palestine to produce a television documentary. Addressing the different religions that claim sections of the Dome of the Rock, he says, “Pondering the tumult and persistent tragedy caused by the fact that three religions share a single holy rock, I wonder if God doesn’t just have a wicked sense of humor.”
He addresses religious differences world-wide and why he is thankful to “live in a nation that is vigilant about protecting the separation of church and state.”
Traveling to so many countries—in South America and the Middle East as well as Europe—has convinced him that for a person of faith, “travel can be a spiritual act as well as a political one.”
“In this (the Holy) land, so treasured by Jews, Muslims, and Christians,” he says, “I’m reminded that the prophets of each of these religions taught us to love our neighbors.”
In the final chapter of Travel as a Political Act, Rick Steves challenges us to not only learn from our travels, but to find ways at home to share what we’ve learned, raise thoughtful conversations, and act on a daily basis in ways that encourage good global citizenship.
“Good travel is all about connecting with people and better understanding their perspective,” he says. “Because we’ve seen the extremes in faraway lands, we can better understand the consequences of continued neglect in our own community.”
Steves believes that “Travel can—and should—be a positive force for change” while emphasizing his appreciation for the many blessings we enjoy as Americans. He believes it is our responsibility to “employ our new perspective more constructively back home.”
He encourage us “to learn from other societies who are thinking out of the box to deal with problems that also plague our society.” He sees a need to address the challenges of our Global Age honestly and wisely so that we can better address and resolve the problems of famine, war, religious differences and poverty in today’s world.
We admire Rick Steves, who began his travel career as a “hippie”-looking young man backpacking through Europe and subsequently built a thriving, successful business. A business that has enabled him to become a media spokesperson for tolerant values, a curiosity that educates, and bringing new ideas home for discussion.
A business that also has allowed him to literally put his money where his mouth is, through engagement with NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) and Bread for the World (www.bread.org), a Christian citizens’ organization that effectively lobbies our government in the interest of poor and hungry people both in our country and overseas. (He is donating all his royalties from Travel As a Political Act to support Bread’s cause.)
Rick Steves’ book reminds us that “as a traveler, you always have the option to choose challenging and educational destinations.” And he challenges us to share at home our new experiences from abroad.
“You can travel with your window rolled up…or your window rolled down,” he says.
In the end, in Travel As a Political Act Rick Steves reminds us that no matter where we travel, “we enrich our lives and better understand our place on this planet.” and “We undercut groups that sow fear, hatred, and mistrust. People-to-people connections help us learn that we can disagree and still coexist peacefully.”
— Carolyn V. Hamilton
Journals from Rick Steves’ insightful trips to Central America are online at ricksteves.com/politicalact.
For contact information for his Palestinian and Israeli guides and for a list of companies doing “dual narrative” tours of the Holy Land, see the TV section of ricksteves.com.
For the latest on Rick’s lectures, guidebooks, tours, public radio show, and public television series, contact Rick Steves’ Europe, 130 Fourth Avenue North, Edmonds, Washington.
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