Rick Steves' Travel as a Political Act Blog
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While I don't want to seem paranoid, I worry that people in positions of power have become expert at manipulating the fear of the American people. History is rife with examples of leaders who use fear to distract, mislead, and undermine the will of the very people who entrusted them with power. Our own recent history is no exception. If you want to sell weapons to Columbia, exaggerate the threat of drug lords. If you want to build a wall between the US and Mexico, trump up the fear of illegal immigrants. If you want to invade Iraq, you say you "don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud." If you want to build an expensive missile-defense system, terrify people with predictions of nuclear holocaust. My travels have taught me to have a healthy skepticism towards those who peddle fear. And in so many cases, I've learned that the flipside of fear is understanding.
I'm hardly a fearless traveler. I can think of many times I've been afraid before a trip. Years ago, I heard that in Egypt, the beggars were relentless, there were no maps, and it was so hot that car tires melted to the streets. For three years, I had plane tickets to India but bailed out, finding other places closer to my comfort zone. Before flying to Iran to film a public television show, I was so uneasy that I nearly left our big video camera in Greece for its own safety. But in each case, when I finally went to these countries, I realized my fears were unfounded.
Posted by Rick Steves on May 29, 2009
Germany's old/new parliament building comes with powerful architectural symbolism. It's free to enter, open long hours, and designed for German citizens to climb its long spiral ramp to the very top and literally look down (through a glass ceiling) over the shoulders of their legislators to see what's on their desks. The Germans, who feel they've been manipulated by too many self-serving politicians over the last century, are determined to keep a closer eye on their leaders from now on.
Spiraling slowly up the ramp to the top of that dome during that festive opening week, I was surrounded by teary-eyed Germans. Now, anytime you're surrounded by teary-eyed Germans… something exceptional is going on. Most of those teary eyes were old enough to remember the difficult times after World War II, when their city lay in rubble. For these people, the opening of this grand building was the symbolic closing of a difficult chapter in the history of a great nation. No more division. No more fascism. No more communism. They had a united government and were entering a new century with a new capitol.
It was a thrill to be there. I was caught up in it. But then, as I looked around at the other travelers up there with me, I realized that only some of us fully grasped what was going on. Some tourists seemed so preoccupied with trivialities — forgotten camera batteries, needing a Coke, the lack of air-conditioning — that they were missing out on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to celebrate a great moment with the German people. And it saddened me. I thought, “I don't want to be part of a dumbed-down society.”
I worry that the mainstream tourism industry encourages us be dumbed down. To many people, travel is only about having fun in the sun, shopping duty-free, and cashing in frequent-flyer miles. But to me, that stuff distracts us from the real thrills, rewards, and value of travel. In our travels — and in our everyday lives — we should become more educated about and engaged with challenging issues, using the past to understand the present. The more you know, and the more you strive to learn, the richer your travels and your life become.
In my own realm as a travel teacher, if I have the opportunity to lead a tour, write a guidebook, or make a TV show, I take it with the responsibility to respect and challenge the intellect of my travelers, readers, or viewers. All of us will gain more from our travels if we refuse to be dumbed down. Promise yourself and challenge your travel partners to be engaged and grapple with the challenging issues while on the road. Your experience will be richer for it.
Posted by Rick Steves on May 27, 2009
As you travel, opportunities to enjoy history are everywhere. Work on cultivating a general grasp of the sweep of history, and you'll be able to inform your sightseeing with more meaning.
I was sitting on the summit of the Rock of Gibraltar, looking out at Africa. It's the only place on earth where you can see two continents and two seas at the same time. The straits were churning with action. Where bodies of water meet, they create riptides — confused, choppy teepee seas that stir up plankton, attracting little fish, birds, bigger fish...and fishermen balancing the risks and rewards of working those churning waters. The fertile straits are also busy with hungry whales, dolphins, and lots of ferries and maritime traffic. Boats cut through feeding grounds, angering environmentalists. And windsurfers catch a stiff breeze, oblivious to it all.
Looking out over the action, with the Pillars of Hercules in the misty Moroccan distance, I realized that there was an historical element in this combustible mix. Along with seas and continents, this is also where, for many centuries, two great civilizations — Islam and Christendom — have come together, creating cultural riptides. Centuries after Muslims from North Africa conquered Catholic Spain, Spain eventually triumphed, but was irrevocably changed in the process. Where civilizations meet, there are risks...and rewards. It can be dangerous, it can be fertile, and it shapes history.
Later that day — still pondering Islam and Christendom rubbing like tectonic plates — I stepped into a small Catholic church. Throughout Spain, churches display statues of a hero called “St. James the Moor-Slayer.” And every Sunday, good 21st-century Christians sit — probably listening to sermons about tolerance — under this statue of James, his sword raised, heroic on his rearing horse, with the severed heads of Muslims tumbling all around him. It becomes even more poignant when you realize that the church is built upon on the ruins of a mosque, which was built on the ruins of a church, which was built on the ruins of a Roman temple, which was built on the ruin of an earlier pagan holy place. Standing there, it occurred to me that the recent friction between Christendom and Islam is nothing new and nothing we can't overcome. But it's more than the simple shoot-‘em-up with good guys and bad guys, as often presented to us by politicians and the media. Travel, along with a sense of history, helps us better understand its full complexity.
Posted by Rick Steves on May 22, 2009
On my last visit, I remember enjoying Cecilia's pride and happiness as she popped open that bottle of their fine Orvieto Classico wine. Watching my glass fill, I noticed her hand gripped the bottle in a way that framed the family name on the label. And I noticed how her mother and now-frail grandmother looked on silently and proudly as visitors from the other side of the world gathered in their home. On that remote farm in Italy, where the Bottai family had been producing wine for countless generations, my group was tasting the fruit of their land, labor, and culture. And our hosts were beaming with joy.
Posted by Rick Steves on May 20, 2009
People tell me that they enjoy my TV shows and my guidebooks because I seem like just a normal guy. I'll take that as a compliment. What can I say? I'm simple. I was raised thinking cheese is orange and the shape of the bread. Slap it on and — voilà!…cheese sandwich.
But in Europe, I quickly learned that cheese is not orange nor the shape of the bread. In France alone, you could eat a different cheese every day of the year. And it wouldn't surprise me if people did. The French are passionate about their cheese.
I used to be put off by sophisticates in Europe. Those snobs were so enamored with their fine wine and stinky cheese, and even the terroir that created it all. But now I see that, rather than showing off, they're simply proud and eager to share. By stowing my preconceptions and opening myself up to new experiences, I've achieved a new appreciation for all sorts of highbrow stuff I thought I'd never really "get."
For example, I love it when my favorite restaurateur in Paris, Marie-Alice, takes me shopping in the morning and shows me what's going to shape her menu that night. We enter her favorite cheese shop. Picking up the moldiest, gooiest wad, Marie-Alice takes a deep whiff, and whispers, "Oh, Rick, smell zees cheese. It smells like zee feet of angels."
Thankfully, people are sophisticated about different things, and I relish the opportunity to meet and learn from an expert while traveling. I'm the wide-eyed bumpkin...and it's a cultural show-and-tell.
Posted by Rick Steves on May 18, 2009
In even the farthest reaches of the globe, travelers discover a powerful local pride. Guiding a tour group through eastern Turkey, I once dropped in on a craftsman who was famous for his wood carving. Everybody in that corner of Turkey wanted a prayer niche in their mosque carved by him. We gathered around his well-worn work table. He had likely never actually met an American. And now he had 15 of us gathered around his table. He was working away and showing off…clearly very proud. Then suddenly he stopped, held his chisel high into the sky, and declared, “A man and his chisel — the greatest factory on earth.”
Looking at him, it was clear he didn't need me to tell him about fulfillment. When I asked if I could buy a piece of his art, he said, "For a man my age to know that my work will go back to the United States and be appreciated, that's payment enough. Please take this home with you, and remember me."
I traveled through Afghanistan long before the word Taliban entered our lexicon. While there, I enjoyed lessons highlighting the pride and diversity you'll find across the globe. I was sitting in a Kabul cafeteria popular with backpacking travelers. I was just minding my own business when a local man sat next to me. He said, "Can I join you?" I said, "You already have." He said, "You're an American, aren't you?" I said yes, and he said, "Well, I'm a professor here in Afghanistan. I want you to know that a third of the people on this planet eat with their spoons and forks like you, a third of the people eat with chopsticks, and a third of the people eat with fingers like me. And we're all just as civilized."
As he clearly had a chip on his shoulder about this, I simply thought, "Okay, okay, I get it." But I didn't get it...at least, not right away. After leaving Afghanistan, I traveled through South Asia, and his message stayed with me. I went to fancy restaurants filled with well-dressed local professionals. Rather than providing silverware, they had a ceremonial sink in the middle of the room. People would wash their hands and use their fingers for what God made them for. I did the same. Eventually eating with my fingers became quite natural. (I had to be retrained when I got home.) Travel taught me that there are three ways to eat — and, sure enough, they all get the food into your mouth just the same.
Posted by Rick Steves on May 15, 2009
In our daily routines, we tend to surround ourselves with people more or less like us. It's the natural thing to do. But on the road, you meet people you'd never connect with at home. In my travels, I meet a greater variety of interesting people in two months than I do in an entire year back home. I view each of these chance encounters as loaded with potential to teach me about people and places so different from my own milieu.
For example, one of my favorite countries is Ireland — not because of its sights, but because of its people. Travel in Ireland gives me the sensation that I'm actually understanding a foreign language. And the Irish have that marvelous “gift of gab.” They love to talk. For them, conversation is an art form.
Actually, more Irish speak Irish than many travelers realize. Very often you'll step into a shop, not realizing the locals there are talking to each other in Gaelic. They turn to you and switch to English, without missing a beat. When you leave, they slip right back into their Gaelic.
The best place to experience Ireland is in a Gaeltacht, as Gaelic-speaking regions are called. These are government-subsidized national preserves for traditional lifestyles. In a Gaeltacht, it seems like charming and talkative locals conspire to slow down anyone with too busy an itinerary.
I was deep into one conversation with an old-timer. We were on the far west coast of the Emerald Isle — where they squint out at the Atlantic and say, “Ahhh, the next parish over is Boston.” I asked my new friend, "Were you born here?" He said, "No, ‘twas ‘bout five miles down the road." Later, I asked him, "Have you lived here all your life?" He winked and said, "Not yet."
Posted by Rick Steves on May 13, 2009
But you can only reap these rewards of travel if you're open to them. Watching a dervish whirl can be a cruise-ship entertainment option...or a spiritual awakening. You can travel to relax and have fun. You can travel to learn and broaden your perspective. Or, best of all, you can do both at once. Make a decision that on any trip you take, you'll make a point to be open to new experiences, seek options that get you out of your comfort zones, and be a cultural chameleon — trying on new ways of looking at things and striving to become a “temporary local.”
Assuming they want to learn, both monks and hedonists can stretch their perspectives through travel. While your choice of destination has a huge impact on the potential for learning, you don't need to visit refugee camps to gain political insight. With the right approach, meeting people over beer in an Irish pub, while hiking Himalayan ridges, or sharing a hookah in Cairo can all connect you more thoughtfully with our world.
Traveling in Bulgaria, you learn that shaking your head “no” means yes, and giving an affirmative nod can mean no. In restaurants in France, many travelers, initially upset that “you can't even get the bill,” learn that slow service is respectful service — you've got the table all night…please take your time. And, learning how Atatürk heroically and almost single-handedly pulled Turkey out of the Middle Ages and into the modern world in the 1920s explains why today's Turks are quick to see his features in passing clouds.
Traveling thoughtfully, we are inspired by the accomplishments of other people, communities, and nations. And getting away from our home turf and looking back at America from a distant vantage point, we see ourselves as others see us — an enlightening if not always flattering view.
Posted by Rick Steves on May 11, 2009
For me, since about 9/12, the role of a travel writer has changed. I see the travel writer of the 21st century like the court jester of the Middle Ages. While thought of as a jokester, the jester was in a unique position to tell truth to power without being punished. Back then, kings were absolute rulers — detached from the lives of their subjects. The court jester would mix it up with people that the king would never meet. That was his job. The jester would play in the gutter with the riffraff. Then, having fingered the gritty pulse of society, he'd come back into the court and tell the king the truth. “Your Highness, the people are angered by the cost of mead. They are offended by the queen's parties. The pope has more influence than you. Everybody is reading the heretics' pamphlets. Your stutter is the butt of many rude jokes.” The king didn't kill the jester. In order to rule smarter, the king needed the jester's insights.
Many of today's elected leaders have no better connection with real people (especially outside their borders) than those “divinely ordained” kings did centuries ago. And while I'm fortunate to have a built-in platform, I believe that any traveler can play jester to their own communities. Whether visiting El Salvador (where people don't dream of having two cars in every garage), Denmark (where they pay high taxes with high expectations and are satisfied), or Iran (where many willingly compromised their freedom to be ruled by clerics out of fear that, as they explained to me, “their little girls would be raised to be like Britney Spears”), any traveler can bring back valuable insights. And, just like those truths were needed in the Middle Ages, this understanding is needed in our age.
Posted by Rick Steves on May 08, 2009
I'm unapologetically proud to be an American. The United States has made me who I am. I spend plenty of time overseas, but the happiest day of any trip is the day I come home. I'd never live abroad, and I'd certainly not have as much fun running my business overseas as I do here at home. America is a great and innovative nation that the world understandably looks to for leadership. But other nations have some pretty good ideas, too. By learning from our travels and bringing these ideas home, we can make our nation even stronger. As a nation of immigrants whose very origin is based on the power of diversity (“out of many, one”), this should come naturally to us...and be celebrated.
By the nature of this blog, you'll get a lot of my opinions. My opinions are shaped by who I am. Along with being a traveler, I'm a historian, Christian, husband, parent, carnivore, musician, capitalist, minimalist, workaholic, and board member of NORML. I've picked up my progressive politics (and my favorite ways to relax) largely from the people I've met overseas. And I seem to end up teaching everything I love: history, music, travel...and now, politics.
Your opinions will differ from mine because we draw from different life experiences. As a writer, I'll try not to abuse my bully pulpit. Still, rather than take the edge off of my opinions, I'll share them with respect and the knowledge that good people will respectfully disagree with each other. I've always marveled at how passionate I am when my dad and I disagree on some political issue. He's my flesh and blood. Often his political assessment of something will exasperate me. I love him — but how can he possibly believe these things? While I don't necessarily want him to change his mind, I want him to understand my perspective. Sharing it with him consumes me. I've discovered a similar passion. I want to share what I've learned with my fellow Americans...because I consider us all part of one big family. And I assume that you're reading this blog for the same reason that I'm writing it: because we both care.
Posted by Rick Steves on May 06, 2009
Immersed in this grand, chiseled celebration of family and humanity, I gained a new insight into my little world. I noticed how much my parents were loving me. Their world revolved around me. They would do anything to make me happy and help me enjoy a fulfilling life. At great expense to their meager family budget, they were making it possible for me to travel. Then I remember looking out over that park. It was speckled — like a Monet painting — with countless other parents…all lavishing love on their children. Right there, my 14-year-old egocentric worldview took a huge hit. I thought, "Wow, those parents love their kids as much as my parents love me. This planet is home to billions of equally lovable children of God.” I've carried that understanding with me in my travels ever since.
On the same trip, I was on the carpet with Norwegian cousins watching the Apollo moon landing. As Neil Armstrong took that first step on the moon, my relatives heard his famous sentence translated into Norwegian: “Ett lite skritt for et menneske, ett stort skeitt menneskeheten.” Sharing the excitement of everyone in that room, I realized that while this was an American triumph, it was also a human one — one giant leap for mankind indeed — and the entire planet was celebrating.
Even today, remnants of that notion of travel persist. I believe that for many Americans, traveling means eating five meals a day on a cruise ship and trying to snorkel when they get into port. When I say that at a cruise convention, people fidget nervously. But I'm not condemning cruise vacations. I'm simply saying I don't consider that activity "travel." It's hedonism. (And I don't say that in a judgmental way, either. I've got no problem with hedonism…after all, I'm a Lutheran.) Rather than accentuate the difference between "us" and "them," I believe travel should bring us together. If I'm evangelical about the value of travel, it's the thoughtful and challenging kind of travel — less caloric perhaps…but certainly much more broadening
And so, since that first trip back in 1969, I've spent a third of my life overseas, living out of a backpack, talking to people who see things differently than me. It makes me a little bit of an odd duck.
For the last 30 years, I've taught people how to travel. I focus mostly on the logistics: finding the right hotel, avoiding long lines, sampling local delicacies, and catching the train on time. But that's not why we travel. We travel to have enlightening experiences, to meet inspirational people, to be stimulated, to learn, and to grow.
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 into a rapidly changing world. And for that, I am thankful.
Posted by Rick Steves on May 04, 2009