Rick Steves' Travel as a Political Act Blog
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To be clear, there is no Europe-wide agreement on drug policy. Some countries — including the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, and Switzerland — categorize marijuana as a soft drug (similar to alcohol and tobacco). Others — including Sweden and Greece — strictly enforce laws against both marijuana and hard drugs (in fact, drug-related arrests are on the rise in some countries).
But what most European countries have in common is an emphasis on education and prevention. They believe that, by handling drug abuse more as a public health problem than as a criminal one, they are better able to reduce the harm it causes — both to the individual (health problems and antisocial behavior) and to society (healthcare costs, policing costs, and drug-related crime).
Generally, Europeans employ a three-pronged strategy for dealing with hard drugs: law enforcement, education, and healthcare. Police zero in on dealers — not users — to limit the supply of drugs. Users generally get off with a warning and are directed to get treatment; any legal action respects the principle of proportionality. Anti-drug education programs work hard to warn people (particularly teenagers) of the dangers of drugs. And finally, the medical community steps in to battle health problems associated with drug use (especially HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C) and to help addicts reclaim their lives. When it comes to soft drugs, policies in much of Europe are also more creative and pragmatic than America's.
I'm not saying Europe always gets it right. They have employed some silly tactics in efforts to curb marijuana use. For example, a study in France showed that boys smoke more pot than girls, which they attributed to boys being nervous about approaching girls socially. So they literally gave boys government-funded training in flirting. While this notion seems ridiculous, you have to admit it's refreshing to see legislators thinking "outside the box." Even if some of their ideas fail, others turn out to be brilliant.
Meanwhile, the US seems afraid to grapple with this problem openly and creatively. Rather than acting as a deterrent, the US criminalization of marijuana drains precious resources, clogs our legal system, and distracts law enforcement attention from more pressing safety concerns. Of the many billions of tax dollars we invest annually fighting our war on drugs, more than two-thirds is spent on police, courts, and prisons. Meanwhile, European nations — seeking a cure that isn't more costly than the problem itself — spend a much larger portion of its drug policy funds on doctors, counselors, and clinics. According to the EU website, European policymakers estimate that they save 15 euros in police and healthcare costs for each euro invested in drug education, addiction prevention, and counseling.
Like Europe, the US should be open to new solutions. It's out of character for a nation so famous for its ingenuity to simply label the drug problem a "war" and bring in the artillery. Europeans make a strong case that approaching drug abuse from the perspective of harm reduction can be very effective.
Posted by Rick Steves on January 29, 2010
Because of my travels, I find myself one of the most high-profile people in the country advocating the reform of our nation's marijuana laws. I've produced a TV show on the topic with the ACLU, and have been a board member of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, since 2003. But I am certainly not "pro-drugs." I simply appreciate how much of Europe treats its drug problems in a pragmatic way, with success measured by harm reduction rather than incarceration. While in the USA 80,000 people are in jail for marijuana charges, in parts of Europe discreetly smoking a joint is just another form of relaxation.
I speak out on this issue, in part, because most Americans cannot — out of fear of losing their job or reputation or both. Of the countless good causes to get involved in, drug policy reform is a high-risk choice. When I'm interviewed about this on TV or radio, journalists ask me all the predictable questions...and then, as soon as the mic is off, they say, “Thanks for having the courage to speak out.” My first thought is that if it seems courageous to challenge a law one believes is wrong, that is, in itself, reason to speak out.
Since I own my own business, I can't get fired...and so, when it comes to America's prohibition on marijuana, I can consider lessons learned from my travels and say what I really believe when I'm back home. My next several blog entries will explain my take on this dicey topic.
Posted by Rick Steves on January 27, 2010
I am a Christian who wants to believe we can live peacefully with Islam. One thing is clear to me: What I learn about Islam from media in the US can fill me with fear and anger. What I learn about Islam by traveling in Muslim countries fills me with hope.
Of course there are real dangers. And rare is the religion whose fundamentalist fringe wouldn't kill in the name of God. But no society should fear another society simply because their leaders and media say they should. Before anyone hardens their take on Islam, a little travel to a moderate Muslim country can be a good idea. (It's a sad irony that terrorism causes Americans to travel less.) If you can't visit in person, travel to Islam vicariously by seeking out connections and friendships with people from cultures and religions that are different from your own.
The centuries-old tension between Christendom and Islam is like a human sharing a forest with a bear. Both just want to gather berries, do a little fishing, raise their kids, and enjoy the sun. Neither wants to do harm to the other, but — because they can't readily communicate — either would likely kill the other if they crossed paths. The world is our forest and we're sharing it with others. As it gets smaller, more and more cultures will cross paths. Our advantage over the human and the bear: we can communicate.
Posted by Rick Steves on January 25, 2010
Being here without a big tour group, I met gracious Moroccans eager to talk and share. About the only time I saw other Westerners was when I crossed paths with one of the many day-tripping groups. As they completed their visit, these tourists walked in a tight, single-file formation, holding their purses and day bags nervously to their bellies like paranoid kangaroos as they bundled past one last spanking line of street merchants and made it safely back onto the ferry.
I pondered this scene, wondering if these tourists — scared, oblivious, clutching the goodies they traveled so far to pick up on the cheap, and then sailing home without learning a thing — were dealing with Morocco this way because it's the same way their home countries deal with the developing world in general.
It was poignant for me because, until the lessons I learned from this trip, I was part of the problem — recommending the tour rather than the independent adventure. Some of those needlessly paranoid tourists likely had my guidebook in the bag they were clutching. I wished I could grab their books and update all the information that I now realized was bad advice.
While I was comfortable and enjoyed a fascinating Moroccan experience on my own, the frightened tour groups reminded me of some kind of self-inflicted hostage crisis. While they sailed away still filled with fear, I was celebrating an Islamic nation that was stable, enjoying a thriving economy, and that didn't concern itself much with America. The tourists were thankful they didn't get ripped off or diarrhea. I had overcome my fear and was thankful Morocco was doing so well.
In some cases, visiting a country on a tour ruins any opportunity to really learn about that place. While that may be a lost opportunity and a costly mistake, it can also be a valuable lesson. Any one of those tourists could return and, with a different attitude (and better guidebook advice), be welcomed not as a customer, but as a friend.
Posted by Rick Steves on January 22, 2010
On my last visit to Tangier, roosters and the Muslim call to prayer worked together to wake me and the rest of that world. When the morning sun was high enough to send a rainbow plunging into the harbor amid ferries busily coming and going, I stood on my balcony and surveyed Tangier kicking into gear. Women in colorful, flowing robes walked to sweatshops adjacent to the port. They were happy to earn $8 a day (a decent wage for an unskilled worker here) sewing for big-name European clothing lines — a reminder that a vast and wealthy Continent is just a short cruise to the north. Cabbies jostled at the pier for the chance to rip off arriving tourists.
Wandering in Tangier — especially after dark — is entertaining. It's a rare place where signs are in three languages (Arabic, French and Spanish)...and English doesn't make the cut. Sometimes, when I'm frustrated with the impact of American foreign policy on the developing world, I have this feeling that an impotent America is better for the world than an America whose power isn't always used for good. Seeing a country where the signs are in three languages, but still ignore English, shows me that there's a world that's managing just fine without us.
The market scene was a wonderland — of everything but pork. Mountains of glistening olives, a full palette of spices, children with knives happy to perform for my camera.
My guide, Aziz, explained that each animal is slaughtered in accordance with Islamic law, or Halal. I asked him to explain. He took me to a table with a pile of chickens and hollered "Muhammad!" to catch the attention of a knife-wielding boy. (That confused me, until Aziz explained that when he wants someone's attention, he says, "Hey, Muhammad!" It's like our "Hey, you"...but very respectful. For a woman, you'd holler, "Hey, Fatima.") He asked the boy to demonstrate the proper way to slaughter an animal, and I was given a graphic demonstration: in the name of Allah, with a sharp knife, animal's head pointing to Mecca, body drained of its blood.
Most of the Moroccans I encountered didn't emulate or even seem to care about the USA. Al-Jazeera blared on teahouse TVs, with stirring images of American atrocities inflicted on fellow Muslims. But people appeared numb to the propaganda, and the TV seemed to be on that channel for lack of an alternative. I felt no animosity toward me, as an American. There was no political edge to any graffiti or posters.
When I tried to affirm my observations with Aziz, he explained to me the fundamental difference between "Islamic" and "Islamist": Islamists are expansionist and are threatened by the very existence of Israel. He explained how Al-Jazeera appeals to Islamists. Its reporting is as "fair and balanced" as we'd find on Fox News in the USA. And then Aziz made it clear that Morocco is Islamic, not Islamist.
Posted by Rick Steves on January 20, 2010
Tangier, which I once called "the Tijuana of Africa," used to make me nervous. But the city has changed radically in the last few years...and so has my assessment of it. It was a neglected hellhole for a generation. Tangier was an international city — favored by the West and therefore disdained by Morocco's previous king. He made a point to divert all national investment away from his country's fourth-largest city.
The new king, who took the throne in 1999, believes Tangier should be a great city again and has provided the funds to make it happen. The first city he visited after his coronation was Tangier. His support has changed the city. The difference is breathtaking. While Tangier is still exotic — with its dilapidated French colonial and Art Deco buildings giving it a time-warp charm — it's much more efficient, people-friendly, safe-feeling, and generally likable.
Checking into Hotel Continental, I was greeted by flamboyant Jimmy, who runs the shop there. Jimmy knows every telephone area code in the US. A few years ago, I had told him I was from Seattle. He said, "206." Now I tested him again. He said, "206, 360, 425...new area codes."
As I updated the information in my guidebook, I found a striking and nonchalant incompetence. My guidebook listed the hotel's phone and email data more accurately than their own printed material. It's a 70-room hotel with, it seemed, not a sheet of paper in its office.
Walking the streets of Tangier, I enjoyed observing a modest new affluence, lots of vision and energy, and, at the same time, no compromise with being Arabic and Muslim. The king is modernizing. His queen, a commoner, is the first queen to be seen in public. Moroccans have never seen their king's mother. The fact that Moroccans don't even know what their former queen looks like illustrated how much can change in a relatively short time.
Women are making gains throughout Moroccan society. Until recently, a woman here couldn't open a bank account. Today the general director of the stock exchange in Casablanca is a woman. Out of 21 ministers voted into office in a recent election, seven are female. It's an exciting time in Morocco.
Posted by Rick Steves on January 18, 2010
Just as pre-Vatican II Catholicism embraced Latin (for tradition, uniformity, and so all could relate and worship together anywhere, anytime), Islam embraces Arabic. Turks recently experimented by doing the call to prayer in Turkish, but they switched back to the traditional Arabic.
The Quran teaches that Abraham was a good submitter (to the will of God). The word for submitter is "Muslim" — derived from Islam ("submit") with a Mu- ("one who"). So a Muslim is, literally, "one who submits."
Like Christians come in two basic varieties (Protestants and Catholics), Muslims come in two sects. After Muhammad died in A.D. 632, his followers argued over who should succeed him in leading his Islamic faith and state, causing Islam to splinter into two rival factions. Today Shias (a.k.a. "Shiites," less than 15 percent of all Muslims) are concentrated in Iran and Iraq, while Sunnis dominate the rest of the Islamic world (including Turkey and Morocco).
Wherever I travel, having just a basic grasp of the dominant local religion makes the people and traditions I encounter more meaningful and enjoyable. Exploring Muslim countries leaves me with memories of the charming conviviality of neighborhoods spilling into the streets. Like Christmas is a fun time to enjoy the people energy of a Christian culture, Ramadan is a particularly vibrant time to be in Islam. My visits to places like Turkey, Morocco, and Iran have shown me how travel takes the fear out of foreign ways.
Posted by Rick Steves on January 15, 2010
While the call to prayer sounds spooky to many Americans, I find that with some understanding it becomes beautiful. Traditionally, just before the sun rises, an imam stares at his arm. When he can tell a gray hair from a black one, it's time to call his community to prayer. While quality and warble varies, across Islam the Arabic words of the call to prayer are exactly the same. The first call to prayer of the day starts with an extra line:
Praying is better than sleeping God is great (Allahhhhhh hu akbar...) I witness there is no other God but Allah I witness Muhammad is Allah's prophet Come join the prayer Come to be saved God is great...God is great There is no other God but Allah.
Big mosques have a trained professional singer for a muezzin. Many tiny mosques can't afford a real muezzin, so the imam himself does the call to prayer. The qualitative difference can be obvious. Invariably, my hotel seems to be within earshot of five or six mosques, which creates quite a cacophony.
My challenge is to hear the Muslim call to prayer as a beautiful form of praise that sweeps across the globe — from Malaysia across Pakistan, Arabia, and Turkey to Morocco and then to America — like a stadium wave, undulating exactly as fast as the earth turns...five times a day.
Posted by Rick Steves on January 14, 2010
Muslims, like Christians and Jews, are monotheistic. They call God "Allah." The key figure in the Islamic faith is Muhammad, Allah's final and most important prophet, who lived from A.D. 570 to 632. When Muhammad's name appears in print, it's often followed by "PBUH": Peace Be Upon Him.
The "five pillars" of Islam are the same for all Muslims. Followers of Islam should:
1. Say and believe, "There is only one God, and Muhammad is his prophet."
2. Pray five times a day, facing Mecca (denoted inside a mosque by a niche called a mihrab). Modern Muslims believe that, along with thinking of God, part of the value of this ritual is to help people wash, exercise, and stretch.
3. Give to the poor one-fortieth of your wealth, if you are not in debt. ("Debt" includes the responsibility to provide both your parents and your children with a good life.)
4. Fast during daylight hours through the month of Ramadan. Fasting is about self-discipline. It's also a great social equalizer that helps everyone feel the hunger of the poor.
5. Visit Mecca. Muslims who can afford it and who are physically able, are required to go on a pilgrimage (Hajj) to the sacred sites in Mecca and Medina at least once in their lifetime. This is interpreted by some Muslims as a command to travel. My favorite Muhammad quote: "Don't tell me how educated you are; tell me how much you've traveled."
Posted by Rick Steves on January 11, 2010
The courtyard outside the mosque was filled with a kind of religious trade fair. Stalls offering free food, literature, and computer programs (with a Mavis Beacon-type prayer guide) stood side by side. Using incentives to target poor and less-educated Turks, it reminded me of the old-school strategy of Christian missionaries. The propaganda seemed mostly directed at women. My friend believes that women, even more than men, are pulling secular Muslim societies like Turkey to the religious right.
The mosque was filled to capacity, and the courtyard was jammed with the overflow crowd. Women knelt to pray next to their men. But my Turkish friend predicted that within two years, the sexes would be segregated. She pointed to a stairway already filled with fundamentalist women who believed they should worship separately. They've staked out this zone until a formal women's area can be established.
Marketers know that women make the purchasing decisions in American families. Considering this, I ponder whether women make the religious decisions in Turkish families, and to what degree women really are behind the changes in moderate Muslim societies like Turkey. I consider the impact women have on the political discourse in my country. It's interesting that, in both our society and Muslim societies, women with an agenda can be at odds. Some women push their rights in terms of “family values,” while others push their agenda in terms of “women's liberation.”
Many things drive religious people to get political: desire for economic justice, a moral environment in which to raise their children, equal rights, the “sanctity of life,” and hopes for salvation. These are powerful forces. They are easily manipulated by clever political marketing. They can drive people to war and they know no cultural or political boundaries.
Observing the enthusiasm of this very religious crowd in the courtyard of the mosque, I could imagine someone who had never been outside of the USA dropping in on this scene — and being quite shocked by it all. I asked my Muslim friend, “Should a Christian be threatened by Islam?” She said, “If you have self-confidence in your system, assuming it deserves to survive, it will. Christendom should be threatened by Islam only if the Christian West seeks empire here.”
I find an irony in the current tensions between America and Islam. I believe we're incurring incalculable costs (both direct and indirect, tangible and intangible) because our lack of understanding makes us needlessly fearful about Islam. And sadly, I fear that because we're afraid of it, our actions create a situation where we need to be afraid.
Posted by Rick Steves on January 08, 2010
Imagine watching your country gradually slip into a theocracy — one universal interpretation of scripture, prayer in school, religious dress codes, women covering up and accepting a scripturally ordained subservient role to men, judges chosen on the basis of the dominant religion, laws and textbooks being rewritten. When the separation of religion and state is violated, a moralistic ruling class that believes they are right and others are wrong sets about reshaping its society.
Seeing this struggle play out in Turkey — a land that first adopted a modern, secular constitution only in 1924 — is dramatic. I can feel the chill sweep across a teahouse when a fundamentalist Muslim man walks by...followed, a few steps behind, by his covered-up wife.
For a traveler, the move to the right is easiest to see in peoples' clothes. As the father of a teenage girl who did her best to dress trendier than her parents allowed, I am intrigued by teenage Muslim girls covering up under both scarves and, I imagine, duress. Sure, they're covered from head to toe. But under their modest robe, you know many wear chic clothes and high heels.
Throughout Islam, scarves are widely used both as tools for modesty and as fashion accessories. In a fine silk shop, I asked a young woman to demonstrate scarf-wrapping techniques. She happily showed off various demure styles. I asked her to demonstrate how to turn one of her scarves into a conservative religious statement. It took some convincing before she obliged. She tied the scarf under her chin and around her face, and then, with an extra fold across the forehead, suddenly she became orthodox. The power of that last fold gave me goose bumps. She took it off with a shudder.
Posted by Rick Steves on January 06, 2010
Sucking sweet apple tobacco from a water pipe, I offered my waiter a puff of my hookah. He put his hand over his heart and explained he'd love to, but he couldn't until the sun went down. During Ramadan, if you sleep lightly, you'll wake to the call to prayer and the sounds of a convivial meal just before dawn. As the sun rises, the fast begins. Then, as the sun sets, the food comes out, and the nightly festival begins. Muhammad broke his fast with a dried date or an olive — which remain the most common fast-breakers. Saying, "Allah kabul etsin" ("May God accept our fast today"), the staff at a restaurant where I was having only a glass of tea welcomed me to photograph them, and then offered to share their meal. Anywhere in Islam, witnessing the breaking of the day-long Ramadan fast at sundown is like watching children waiting for the recess bell. Throughout my visit, every time I witnessed this ritual, people offered to share their food. At that restaurant, I said, "No, thanks," but they set me up anyway — with figs, lentil soup, bread, baklava, and Coke. (I thought the Coke was a bit odd… but they said it's not considered American anymore. Coke is truly global.)
Much as I enjoy these Ramadan experiences, my latest visit left me with an uneasy awareness of how fundamentalism is creeping into the mainstream. Mayors now play a part in organizing Ramadan festivities. During Ramadan, no-name neighborhood mosques literally overflow during prayer time. With carpets unfurled on sidewalks, just walking down the street is a struggle. I got the unsettling feeling that the inconvenience to passing pedestrians wasn't their concern... rather than trying to get somewhere, everyone should be praying.
Posted by Rick Steves on January 04, 2010