Rick Steves' Travel as a Political Act Blog
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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
My flight out of Iran was scheduled for 3 a.m. For whatever reason, planes leaving for the West depart in the wee hours. The TV crew had caught an earlier flight, Seyed had gone home, and I was groggy and alone in the terminal.
Finally walking down the jetway toward my Air France plane, I saw busty French flight attendants — hair flowing freely — greeting passengers at the door. It was as if the plane was a lifeboat, and they were pulling us back to the safety of the West. People entered with a sigh of relief, women pulled off their scarves...and suddenly we were free to be what we considered “normal.” The jet lifted off, flying in the exact opposite route the Ayatollah had traveled to succeed the Shah.
For 12 days, I'd been out of my comfort zone, in a land where people live under a theocracy. I tasted not a drop of alcohol, and I never encountered a urinal. Women were not to show the shape of their body or their hair (and were beautiful nevertheless). It was a land where people took photos of me, as if I were the cultural spectacle.
Landing in Paris was reverse culture shock. I sipped wine like it was heaven-sent. I noticed hair, necklines, and the curves revealed by tight pants like never before. University students sat at outdoor cafés, men and women mingling together as they discussed whatever hot-button issue interested them. After the Valium-paced lifestyle of Iran, I felt an energy and efficiency cranked up on high. People were free to be “evil” and able to express their joy anyway they wanted. And, standing before that first urinal, I was thankful to be a Westerner. I was grateful for the learning experience that gave simple things — from visiting the men's room to dealing with traffic jams, from valuing nonconformity to respecting women — a broader cultural context.
Posted by Rick Steves on April 16, 2010
How oceans of blood were shed by both sides in the Iran-Iraq War — a war of aggression waged by Saddam Hussein and Iraq (with American support) against Iran.
How invasion is nothing new for this mighty and historic nation. (When I visited the surprisingly humble National Museum of Archaeology in Tehran, the curator apologized, explaining that the art treasures of his country were scattered in museums throughout Europe and the West.)
How an elderly, aristocratic Iranian woman had crossed the street to look me in the eye and tell me, “We are proud, we are united, and we are strong. When you go home, please tell your people the truth.”
How, with a reckless military action, this society could be set ablaze and radicalized. The uniquely Persian mix of delightful shops, university students with lofty career aspirations, gorgeous young adults with groomed eyebrows and perfect nose jobs, hope, progress, hard work, and the gentle people I encountered here in Iran could so easily and quickly be turned into a fiery hell of dysfunctional cities, torn-apart families, wailing mothers, newly empowered clerics, and radicalized people.
My visit to the cemetery drove home a feeling that had been percolating throughout my trip. There are many things that Americans justifiably find outrageous about the Iranian government — from supporting Hezbollah, financing Iraqi resistance to the US occupation there, and making threats against Israel; to oppressing women and gay people; to asserting their right to join the world's nuclear club. And yet, no matter how strongly we want to see our demands met by Iran, we must pursue that aim carefully. What if our saber-rattling doesn't coerce this country into compliance? In the past, other powerful nations have underestimated Iran's willingness to be pulverized in a war...and both Iran and their enemies have paid the price.
I have to believe that smart and determined diplomacy can keep the Iranians — and us — from having to build giant new cemeteries for the next generation's war dead. That doesn't mean “giving in” to Iran...it means acknowledging that war is a failure and inspiring us to find an alternative.
Posted by Rick Steves on April 14, 2010
Most estimates are that there were over a million casualties in the Iran-Iraq War. While the United States lives with the scars of Vietnam, the same generation of Iranians live with the scars of their war with Iraq — a war in which they, with one-quarter our population, suffered three times the deaths. Iran considers anyone who dies defending the country to be a hero and a martyr. This bloody conflict left each Iranian city with a vast martyrs' cemetery. Tombs seem to go on forever, and each one has a portrait of the martyr and flies a green, white, and red Iranian flag. All the death dates are from 1980 to 1988.
Two decades after the war's end, the cemetery was still very much alive with mourning loved ones. A steady wind blew through seas of flags on the day of our visit, which added a stirring quality to the scene. And the place was bustling with people — all mourning their lost loved ones as if the loss happened a year ago rather than twenty. The cemetery had a quiet dignity, and — while I felt a bit awkward at first (being part of an American crew with a big TV camera) — people either ignored us or made us feel welcome.
Nearby was a different area: marble slabs without upright stones, flags, or photos. This zone had the greatest concentration of mothers. My friend explained that these slabs marked bodies of unidentified heroes. Mothers whose sons were never found came here to mourn.
In another part of the cemetery, a long row of white tombs stretched into the distance, with only one figure interrupting the visual rhythm created by the receding tombs. It was a mother cloaked in black sitting on her son's tomb, praying — a pyramid of maternal sorrow.
Posted by Rick Steves on April 12, 2010
My main regret from traveling through Iran on my first visit, back in 1978, was not trekking south to Persepolis. And I wanted to include Persepolis in our TV show because it's a powerful reminder that the soul of Iran is Persia, which predates the introduction of Islam by a thousand years. Arriving at Persepolis, in the middle of a vast and arid plain, was thrilling. This is one of those rare places that comes with high expectations...and actually exceeds them.
We got to Persepolis after a long day of driving — just in time for that magic hour before the sun set. The light was glorious, the stones glowed rosy, and all the visitors seemed to be enjoying a special “sightseeing high.” I saw more Western tourists visiting Persepolis than at any other single sight in the country. But I was struck most by the Iranian people who travel here to savor this reminder that their nation was a mighty empire 2,500 years ago.
Wandering the site, you feel the omnipotence of the Persian Empire, and gain a strong appreciation for the enduring strength of this culture and its people. I imagined this place at its zenith: the grand ceremonial headquarters of the Persian Empire. Immense royal tombs, reminiscent of those built for Egyptian pharaohs, are cut into the adjacent mountainside. The tombs of Darius and Xerxes come with huge carved reliefs of ferocious lions. Even today — 2,500 years after their deaths — they're reminding us of their great power. But, as history has taught us, no empire lasts forever. In 333 B.C., Persepolis was sacked and burned by Alexander the Great, replacing Persian dominance with Greek culture...and Persepolis has been a ruin ever since.
The approach to this awe-inspiring sight is marred by a vast and ugly tarmac with 1970s-era parking lot light poles. This paved hodgepodge is a reminder of another megalomaniac ruler. In 1971, the Shah threw a bash with unprecedented extravagance to celebrate the 2,500-year anniversary of the Persian Empire — and to remind the world that he was the latest in a long string of great kings who ruled Persia with the omnipotence of a modern-day Xerxes or Darius. The Shah flew in dignitaries from all over the world, along with dinner from Maxim's in Paris, one of the finest restaurants in Europe. Iranian historians consider this arrogant display of imperial wealth and Western decadence — which so offended his poverty-stricken subjects — the beginning of the end for the Shah. Within a decade, he was gone and Khomeini was in. It's my hunch that the ugly asphalt remains of the Shah's party are left here so visiting locals can remember who their Revolution overthrew.
Posted by Rick Steves on April 09, 2010
Esfahan TV, which had televised the prayer service, saw us and wanted an interview. It was exciting to be on local TV. They asked why we were here, how I saw Iranian people, and why I thought there was a problem between the US and Iran. (I pointed out the "Death to Israel" banner that was prominently displayed in the mosque, for starters.) They fixated on whether our show would actually air...and if we'd spin our report to make Iran look evil.
Leaving the mosque, our crew pondered how easily the footage we'd just shot of the prayer service could be cut and edited to appear either menacing or heartwarming, depending on our agenda. Our mosque shots could be juxtaposed with guerillas leaping over barbed wire and accompanied by jihadist music to be frightening. Instead, we planned to edit it to match our actual experience: showing the guards and “Death to Israel” banner, but focusing on the men with warm faces praying with their sons at their sides, and the children outside scrambling for mulberries.
We set up to film across the vast square from the mosque. My lines were memorized and I was ready to go. Then, suddenly, the cleric with the beaming smile came toward us with a platter of desserts — the local ice cream specialty, like frozen shredded wheat sprinkled with coconut. I felt like Rafsanjani himself was serving us ice cream. We had a lively conversation, joking about how it might help if his president went to my town for a prayer service, and my president came here.
Posted by Rick Steves on April 07, 2010
Everything in Esfahan seems to radiate from the grand Imam Square, dominated by the Imam Mosque — one of holiest in Iran. Dating from the early 1600s, its towering facade is as striking as the grandest cathedrals of Europe.
We were in Iran for just one Friday, the Muslim "Sabbath." Fortunately, we were in Esfahan, so we could attend (and film) a prayer service at this colossal house of worship.
Filming in a mosque filled with thousands of worshippers required permission. Explaining our needs to administrators there, it hit me that the Islamic Revolution employs strategies similar to a communist takeover: Both maintain power by installing partisans in key positions. But the ideology Iran is enforcing is not economic (as it was in the USSR), but religious.
To film the service — which was already well underway — we were escorted in front of 5,000 people praying. When we had visited this huge mosque the day before, all I had seen was a lifeless shell with fine tiles for tourists to photograph. An old man had stood in the center of the floor and demonstrated the haunting echoes created by the perfect construction. Old carpets had been rolled up and were strewn about like dusty cars in a haphazard parking lot. Today the carpets were rolled out, cozy, orderly, and lined with worshippers.
I felt self-conscious — a tall, pale American tiptoeing gingerly over the little tablets Shia Muslim men place their heads on when they bend down to pray. Planting our tripod in the corner, we observed.
As my brain wandered (just like it sometimes does at home when listening to a sermon), I felt many of those worshippers were looking at me rather than listening to their cleric speaking. Soldiers were posted throughout the mosque, standing like statues in their desert-colored fatigues. When the congregation stood, I didn't notice them, but when all bowed, the soldiers remained standing — a reminder of the tension within the Islamic world. I asked Seyed to translate a brightly painted banner above the worshippers. He answered, "Death to Israel."
Watching all the worshippers bow and stand, and pray in unison, at first seemed threatening to me. Then I caught the eye of a worshipper having a tough time focusing. He winked. Another man's cell phone rang. He struggled with it as if thinking, "Dang, I should have turned that thing off." The mosaics above — Turkish blue and darker Persian blue — added a harmony and calmness to the atmosphere.
I made a point to view the service as if it were my own church, back in Seattle. I was struck by the similarities: the too-long sermon, responsive readings, lots of getting up and getting down, the "passing of the peace" (when everyone greets the people around them), the convivial atmosphere as people line up to shake the hand of the cleric after the service, and the fellowship afterwards as everyone hangs out in the courtyard.
Posted by Rick Steves on April 05, 2010
While the Islamic Republic of Iran's constitution does not separate mosque and state, it does allow for other religions...with provisions. I asked Seyed if you must be religious here. He said, "In Iran, you can be whatever religion you like, as long as it is not offensive to Islam." Christian? "Sure." Jewish? "Sure." Bahá'i? "No. We believe Muhammad — who came in the seventh century — was the last prophet. The Bahá'i prophet, Bahá'u'lláh, came in the 19th century. Worshipping someone who came after Muhammad is offensive to Muslims. That is why the Bahá'i faith is not allowed in Iran."
I asked, "So Christians and Jews are allowed. But what if you want to get somewhere in the military or government?" Seyed answered, "Then you'd better be a Muslim." I added, "A practicing Shia Muslim?" He said, "Yes."
Posted by Rick Steves on April 02, 2010