Rick Steves' Travel as a Political Act Blog
A traveler's focus evolves from budget tricks to art and culture to gaining a global perspective. With this year-long, three-times-a-week blog, I share how I've grown politically through my travels. These entries come from the fascinating challenge of writing my new book, Travel as a Political Act. For related articles, audio and video clips, and a thriving message board, see ricksteves.com/politicalact.
Of course, the outlook today is more sober. We've been humbled by the consequences of our isolation, the limits of our military power, the collapse of the housing and stock markets, the costly specter of global warming, and the meteoric rise of India and China as economic giants.
In this Global Age, the world's problems are our problems. It'll be all hands on deck. We need to address these challenges honestly and wisely. Lessons learned from our travels can better equip us to address and help resolve the challenges facing our world. We travelers are both America's ambassadors to the world...and the world's ambassadors to America.
Whether you're a mom, a schoolteacher, a celebrity, a realtor, or a travel writer, it's wrong to stop paying attention and let others (generally with a vested interest in the situation) make the political decisions for us. Our founding fathers didn't envision career politicians and professional talking heads doing our political thinking for us. All are welcome in the political discourse that guides this nation.
Thoughtful travelers know that we're all citizens of the world and members of a global family. Spinning from Scotland to Sri Lanka, from Tacoma to Tehran, travelers experience the world like whirling dervishes: We keep one foot planted in our homeland, while acknowledging the diversity of our vast world. We celebrate the abundant and good life we've been given and work to help those blessings shower equitably upon all.
Thanks to all of my readers for their interest in my Travel as a Political Act blog. I hope you've enjoyed pondering the ideas I've broached here. From now on, you can find my thoughts about travel topics — both political and apolitical — on my regular blog.
Posted by Rick Steves on May 10, 2010
Seek out balanced journalism. Assume commercial news is entertainment — it thrives on making storms (whether political, military, terrorist-related, or actual bad weather) as exciting as they can get away with in order to increase their audience so they can charge more for advertising. Money propels virtually all media. Realize any information that comes to you has an agenda. If already consuming lots of TV news, read a progressive alternative source that's not so corporation-friendly (such as The Nation magazine, www.thenation.com).
Read books that explain the economic and political basis of issues you've stumbled onto in your travels. A basic understanding of the economics of poverty, the politics of empire, and the power of corporations are life skills that give you a foundation to better understand what you experience in your travels. Information that mainstream media considers “subversive” won't come to you. You need to reach out for it. The following are a few of the books (listed in chronological order) that have shaped and inspired my thinking over the years: Bread for the World (Arthur Simon), Food First (Frances Moore Lappe), The Origins of Totalitarianism (Hannah Arendt), Future in our Hands (Erik Dammann), Manufacturing Consent (Noam Chomsky), War Against the Poor: Low-Intensity Conflict and Christian Faith (Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer), Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes (Robert McAfee Brown), The United States of Europe (T.R. Reid), The European Dream (Jeremy Rifkin), and The End of Poverty (Jeffrey Sachs).
Contribute to the Travel as a Political Act Readers' Forum. It's designed so that we travelers can share ideas and encourage and inspire each other. Please join the discussion there, share thoughts generated by this blog, and contribute ways you've enjoyed incorporating your world view into your local activism.
Posted by Rick Steves on May 07, 2010
Consider an “educational tour” for your next trip (see, for example, Augsburg College's Center for Global Education, www.augsburg.edu/global). Even if you normally wouldn't take a tour, visiting trouble zones with a well-connected organization is safe, makes you an insider, and greatly increases your opportunities for learning. I've taken three such tours, and each has been powerfully educational and inspirational. Educational tourism is a small yet thriving part of the tourism industry, and offers a world of options.
Find ways to translate your new global passions to local needs. Like the bumper sticker says: Think globally…act locally. Travel has taught me the reality of homelessness. After talking with a proud and noble woman like Beatriz in El Salvador — which does more to humanize the reality of poverty than reading a library of great books on the subject — inspires you to action once back home. Thinking creatively, my wife and I took our retirement savings and purchased a small apartment complex that we loaned to the YWCA to use to house local homeless mothers. Now, rather than collect taxable interest, we climb into our warm and secure bed each night knowing that 25 struggling moms and their kids do as well. When you can learn to vicariously enjoy someone else's consumption who's dealing with more basic needs than you are], you are richer for it. With this outlook, helping to provide housing to people in need is simply smarter, more practical, and more gratifying than owning a big yacht. (This can be done on a smaller scale with much less equity, too. For more on this, see www.ricksteves.com/politicalact.)
Find creative ways to humanize our planet while comfortably nestled into your workaday home life. Sweat with the tropics, see developing-world debt as the slavery of the 21st century, and feel the pain of “enemy losses” along with the pain of American losses. Do things — even if only symbolic — in solidarity with people on the front lines of struggles you care about.
Put your money where your ideals are. Know your options for local consumption and personal responsibility. Don't be bullied by non-sustainable cultural norms. You can pay more for your bread to buy it from the person who baked it. You can buy seasonal produce in a way that supports family farms. You can, as a matter of principle, shun things you don't want to support (bottled water, disposable goods, sweatshop imports, and so on). You can use public transit or drive a greener car. Consume as if your patronage helps shapes our future. It does.
Posted by Rick Steves on May 05, 2010
Promote the wisdom and importance of talking to your “enemies,” even in everyday life. Confront problems — at home, at work, in your community — with calm, rational, and respectful communication. Support politicians who do the same with foreign policy. France and Germany still mix like wine and sauerkraut, but they've learned that an eternity of agreeing to disagree beats an eternity of violent conflict.
Reach and preach beyond the choir. Don't hold back in places where progressive thinking may seem unwelcome. I was tempted to move to a church downtown that welcomed progressive thinkers, but chose instead to keep sharing a pew with a more conservative gang at my suburban church. Rather than change churches, I stayed and contributed — teaching poverty awareness workshops, sharing my travels at special events, and — after learning that many in our congregation are homophobic — even inviting the Seattle's Men's Chorus (America's largest gay chorus) to provide music one Sunday. While conservatives and liberals may see things differently, they care equally. I've found that, deep down, any thinking person wants to be challenged respectfully and thoughtfully. (That's why, rather than a new air-conditioning system for our chapel, we built a well in a thirsty Nicaraguan village instead.)
Take your broader outlook to work. Until we have "cost accounting" that honestly considers all costs, there is no real financial incentive for corporations to consider the environment, the fabric of our communities, the poor at home or abroad, or our future in their decisions. Executives are legally required to maximize profits, but with leadership and encouragement coming from their workforce, they are more likely to be good citizens as well as good businessmen. I encourage my employees to guard my travel company's ethics and stand up to me if I stray. And they do.
Posted by Rick Steves on May 03, 2010
Do a survey of causes you might become involved in, and choose a couple that resonate. Then tackle these as a hobby. Working on my favorites — debt relief for the developing world, drug policy reform, and affordable housing — brings me great joy. I have an excuse to focus my studies, I meet inspirational people, and I enjoy the gratification that comes with actually making a difference. Organizations like Jubilee USA Network need grassroots help in reaching their goal of relief for the world's most heavily indebted nations (www.jubileeusa.org). Look into Bread for the World, a Christian citizens' organization that effectively lobbies our government in the interest of poor and hungry people both in our country and overseas (www.bread.org). If you're inspired to advocate for smarter US drug laws, join NORML (www.norml.org) and talk about it in polite company. There are a host of good organizations and a world of worthy causes to be a part of.
Posted by Rick Steves on April 30, 2010
Be an advocate for those outside of the US who have no voice here, but are affected by our policies. See our government policy through a lens of how will this impact the poor. Travel forces voters to consider a new twist on “representative” democracy. Whom should your vote represent? Because I've made friends throughout the developing world, my vote is based on more than simply, “Am I better off today than I was four years ago?” Travelers recognize that the results of an election here in the US can have a greater impact on poor people half a world away than it does on middle-class American voters. My travels have taught me that you don't want to be really rich in a desperately poor world. With this in mind, I think of it not as noble or heroic, but simply pragmatic to bring along with me into the voting booth a compassion for the needy. I like to say (naively, I know) that if every American were required to travel abroad before voting, the US would fit more comfortably into this ever-smaller planet.
Share lessons, expect more from your friends, and don't be afraid to ruin dinners by bringing up uncomfortable realities. In a land where the afflicted and the comfortable are kept in different corners, people who connect those two worlds are doing everyone a service. Afflict the comfortable in order to comfort the afflicted. By saying things that upset people so they can declare they'd fight and die for my right to be so stupid, I feel I'm contributing to the fabric of our democracy.
Get involved. After observing alarming trends in other countries, it's easier to extrapolate the similar effects of small developments in your own society — whether it's the impact of a widening gap between rich and poor, a violation of the separation of church and state, the acceptance of a tyranny of the majority, or the loss of personal freedoms. Then, for the good of your community, you understand the importance of becoming active and speaking out to help nip those trends in the bud.
Posted by Rick Steves on April 28, 2010
Mark Twain wrote, "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness." These wise words can be a rallying cry for all travelers once comfortably back home. When courageous leaders in our community combat small-mindedness and ignorance — whether pastors contending with homophobia in their congregations, employers striving to make a workplace color-blind, or teachers standing up for intellectual and creative freedoms — travelers can stand with them in solidarity.
I strive, not always successfully, to be tolerant. As a comfortable, white, Protestant, suburban American, a warm welcome always awaits me over with the tyranny of the majority. I recognize that intolerance can be a natural state of rest. I'm inspired by lands that have morals but don't moralize…lands that make tolerance a guiding virtue and consider peaceful coexistence a victory. I want to celebrate the diversity in American life, making room for different lifestyles. And I want help shape an America that employs that viewpoint on a global scale as it works to be a constructive member of the family of nations.
Traveling to learn, you find new passions. Had I not seen shantytowns break out like rashes in Istanbul, I might not have gotten tuned into affordable housing issues in my own community. After observing the pragmatic Dutch and Swiss approach to drug abuse, I chose to speak out on drug law reform with NORML and the ACLU. Having traveled in the Islamic Republic of Iran, where religion and government are thoroughly interwoven, I've seen the uneasy consequences of mixing mosque or church and state. In my church, some want the American flag right up there in front, while others in my community would like to hang the Ten Commandments in our city hall. And, because I care both for my church and my state, I work to keep my church free of flags and my city hall free of commandments.
Travel becomes a political act only if you actually do something with your broadened perspective once you return home. The challenges on the horizon today can be so overwhelming that they freeze caring people into inaction. While trying to save the planet singlehandedly can be disheartening, taking a few concrete and realistic baby steps in that direction can bring fine rewards. Because of my work, I've had some exciting opportunities in this regard. Below are a few personal examples of how I've incorporated passions sparked by my travels into real action back home in the hopes of demonstrating a few creative ways that you may do the same — on a larger or smaller scale.
Posted by Rick Steves on April 26, 2010
A wonderful byproduct of leaving America is gaining a renewed appreciation for our country. When frustrated by overwrought bureaucracies overseas, I'm thankful that it's not a daily part of my life back home. When exasperated by population density, I return home grateful to live in a sparsely populated corner of the world. Traveling, I sample different tempos, schedules, seasoning, business environments, and political systems. Some I like better — others I'm glad don't follow me home.
When I return home from any trip, I realize that I am a part of the terroir of my home turf, just as the people who so charm me in distant corners of the world are part of theirs. Those people might visit me here, find it interesting, incorporate a few slices of my lifestyle into theirs, and be just as thankful to fly home. While seeing travel as a political act enables us to challenge our society to do better, it also shows us how much we have to be grateful for, to take responsibility for, and to protect.
In addition to gaining a keen appreciation of how blessed we are, travelers also understand that with these blessings come responsibilities. Protecting the poor, civil rights, and our environment are basic to good global citizenship. Travelers experience lands that have a wide gap between rich and poor, places without basic freedoms an American might take for granted, and regions where neglect has led to ruined environments. Packing that experience home, we can become more compassionate, even (or especially) during difficult times. Because we've seen the extremes, we can better understand the consequences of continued neglect in our own community.
Posted by Rick Steves on April 23, 2010
Having traveled makes being at home feel homier than ever. Part of my re-entry ritual is a good, old-fashioned, American-style breakfast with my family at the local diner. I know just how I like it: eggs — over medium, hash browns — burn 'em on both sides, and toast — sourdough done crispy with marionberry jam. I don't think about politics at all. Instead, as the waitress tops up my coffee and I snap my sugar packet before ripping it open, I think of how, across this planet, there are thousands of entirely different breakfasts with locals just as exacting as I am. And, of all those breakfasts, it's clear that this one is the right one for me. I am home.
Considering all the fun I have traveling, feeling thankful to be home affirms my sense that I'm rooted in the right place. I enjoy the same Olympic Mountain view from my kitchen window that I did as a kid. I look out my office window and still see my junior high school.
While I relish the culture shock of being in an exotic, faraway place, I also enjoy the reverse culture shock of returning to the perfect normalcy of home. As if easing from my traveling lifestyle into my home lifestyle, I still function out of my toiletries kit for a few days before completely unpacking. The simplicity of living out of a single bag slowly succumbs to the complexity of living out of a walk-in closet in a big house with light switches and an entertainment system I've yet to master.
Over time, I willingly fall back into the snappy tempo and daily routine of a busy home life. I do this because I am not fundamentally a vagabond. I love my family, have fun running a business, enjoy the fellowship of the coffee hour after church, and savor my daily stroll across town for coffee. If I had a top hat, I'd tip it to the ladies I pass along the way.
And yet, after every trip, things remain a bit out of whack...but only to me. There's a loneliness in having a mind spinning with images, lessons, and memories that can never adequately be shared — experiences such as finding out why the Salvadoran priest ignores his excommunication, why the Dutch celebrate tolerance, and why the dervish whirls. I enjoy the trip-capping challenge of making sense of the confusion, and splicing what I learned into who I am and what I do.
Posted by Rick Steves on April 21, 2010
I didn't go to Iran as a businessman or as a politician. I went as what I am — a travel writer. I went for the same reasons I travel anywhere: to get out of my own culture and learn, to go to a scary place and find it's not so scary, and to bring distant places to people who've yet to go there. To me, understanding people and their lives is what travel is about, no matter where you go.
I have long held that travel can be a powerful force for peace. Travel promotes understanding at the expense of fear. And understanding bridges conflicts between nations. As Americans, we've endured the economic and human cost of war engulfing Iran's neighbor, Iraq. Seeing Iraq's cultural sites destroyed and its kind people being dragged through the ugliness of that war, I wished I'd been able to go to Baghdad before the war to preserve images of a peacetime Iraq. As our leaders' rhetoric ramped up the possibility of another war — with Iran — I didn't want to miss that chance again. It's human nature to not want to know the people on the receiving end of your “shock and awe” — but to dehumanize these people is wrong. I wanted to put a human face on “collateral damage.”
It's not easy finding a middle ground between “The Great Satan” and “The Axis of Evil.” Some positions (such as President Ahmadinejad denying the Holocaust) are just plain wrong. But I don't entirely agree with many in my own government, either. Yes, there are evil people in Iran. Yes, the rhetoric and policies of Iran's leaders can be objectionable. But there is so much more to Iran than the negative image drummed into us by our media and our government.
I left Iran struck more by what we have in common than by our differences. Most Iranians, like most Americans, simply want a good life and a safe homeland for their loved ones. Just like my country, Iran has one dominant ethnic group and religion that's struggling with issues of diversity and change — liberal versus conservative, modern versus traditional, secular versus religious. As in my own hometown, people of great faith are suspicious of people of no faith or a different faith. 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.
When we travel — whether to the “Axis of Evil,” or just to a place where people yodel when they're happy, or fight bulls to impress the girls, or can't serve breakfast until today's croissants arrive — we enrich our lives and better understand our place on this planet. We undercut groups that sow fear, hatred, and mistrust. People-to-people connections help us learn that we can disagree and still coexist peacefully.
Granted, there's no easy solution, but surely getting to know Iranian culture is a step in the right direction. Hopefully, even the most skeptical will appreciate the humanity of 70 million Iranian people. Our political leaders sometimes make us forget that all of us on this small planet are equally precious children of God. Having been to Iran and meeting its people face to face, I feel this more strongly than ever.
Posted by Rick Steves on April 19, 2010