Rick Steves' Travel as a Political Act Blog
Rick's new book is now available in our Travel Store.
A cluttered little grocery — with a woman behind the counter happy to make a sandwich — was my answer for lunch. The salami looked like Spam. Going through the sanitary motions, she laid down a piece of waxed paper to catch the meat — but the slices landed wetly on the grotty base of the slicer as they were cut. A strong cup of "Bosnian coffee" (we'd call it "Turkish coffee") — with highly caffeinated, loose grounds settled in the bottom — cost just pennies in the adjacent café. Munching my sandwich and sipping the coffee carefully to avoid the mud, I watched the street scene.
Big men drove by in little beaters. High-school students crowded around the window of the local photography shop, which had just posted their class graduation photos. The schoolgirls on this cruising drag proved you don't need money to have style. Through a shop window, I could see a newly engaged couple picking out a ring. One moment I saw Nevesinje as very different from my hometown...and the next it seemed essentially the same.
And then, as my eyes wandered to the curiously overgrown ruined building across the street, I noticed bricked-up, pointed Islamic arches...and realized it was once a mosque. As if surveying a horrible crime scene, I had to walk through its backyard. It was a no-man's land of broken concrete and glass. A single half-knocked-over, turban-shaped tombstone still managed to stand. The prayer niche inside, where no one prays anymore, faced a vacant lot.
Remaining impartial is an ongoing challenge here. It's so tempting to think of the Muslims — who were brutalized in many parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina — as the "victims." But I have to keep reminding myself that elsewhere in this conflict, Serbs or Croats were victimized in much the same way. Early in the war, outcast Serbs migrated to safety in the opposite direction — from Mostar to Nevesinje. On the hillside overlooking Mostar are the ruins of a once-magnificent Serbian Orthodox church — now demolished, just like that mosque in Nevesinje. Travel allows you to fill out a balanced view of a troubled region.
Considering the haphazardness of war, I remembered how in France's charming Alsace (the region bordering Germany), all towns go back centuries — but those with the misfortune to be caught in the steamroller of war don't have a building standing from before 1945. I recalled that in England, Chester survived while nearby Coventry was bombed so thoroughly that the Germans had a new word for smithereens — to “coventrate” a place. And I remembered the confused patchwork of Dubrovnik's old and new tile roofs. These images — and now this sad, ruined mosque — all humanized the bleak reality and random heartbreak of sectarian strife and war.
Posted by Rick Steves on June 30, 2009
As I drove through the back roads of Bosnia-Herzegovina, it became apparent that the complex nature of things here comes across in the powerful language of flags. Just as bars throughout Europe don't want football colors, and pubs throughout Ireland don't want the green or orange of the sectarian groups, flags in this region come with lots of pent-up political anger.
Throughout the day I saw different flags, each one flying with an agenda. Croats salute their red-and-white checkerboard flag, while Serbs proudly hoist their flag with four C's (the first letter of "Serb" in the Cyrillic alphabet). But in the not-too-distant past, each of these flags was also employed by an oppressive regime — so Croats and Serbs each view the other's flag as equivalent to a swastika. Meanwhile, the country's official flag — which nobody really embraces (or is offended by) — is a yellow-and-blue, triangle-and-stars configuration dreamed up by the European Union.
While most tourists can't tell the difference, locals notice subtle clues that indicate they're entering a different ethnicity's home turf — those highly symbolic flags, discreet but hateful graffiti symbols, new road signs with politically charged names, and even ATMs with instructions in Croatian, Bosnian, or Serbian — but not the other two languages. During the days of Yugoslavia, these languages were all lumped together into a single, mutually intelligible mother tongue called "Serbo-Croatian." But, stoked by the patriotism of proud new nationhood, each of these groups has artificially distanced its language from the others — inventing new words to replace ones they find "too Serbian" or "too Croatian." It's fascinating to watch a fledgling young nation struggle to define itself.
Posted by Rick Steves on June 29, 2009
While Bosnia-Herzegovina is one country, the peace accords to end the war here in 1995 gerrymandered it to grant a degree of autonomy to the area where Orthodox Serbs predominate. This Republika Srpska, or "Serbian Republic" — while technically part of Bosnia-Herzegovina — rings the Muslim- and Croat-dominated core of the country on three sides.
When asked for driving tips, Croatians — who, because of ongoing tensions, avoid Republika Srpska — actually insisted that the road I hoped to take didn't even exist. As I drove inland from Dubrovnik, directional signs sent me to the tiny Croatian border town...but ignored the major Serb city of Trebinje just beyond. Despite warnings from Croats in Dubrovnik, I found plenty past that lonely border.
As I entered bustling and prosperous Trebinje, police with ping-pong paddle stop signs pulled me over. You must drive with your headlights on at all hours. The "dumb tourist" routine got me off the hook. I withdrew cash at an ATM. Bosnia-Herzegovina's currency is called the “convertible mark.” The name goes back to the 1980s, when, like other countries with fractured economies, they tied their currency to a strong one. It was named after the German mark and given the same value. Today, while Germany has switched over to the euro, the original German mark lives on (with its original exchange rate) in a quirky way in Bosnia. I stowed a few Bosnian coins as souvenirs. They have the charm of Indian pennies and buffalo nickels.
Coming upon a vibrant market, I had to explore. The produce seemed entirely local. Honey maids eagerly offered me tastes — as if each believed her honey was the sweetest. Small-time farmers — salt-of-the-earth couples as rustic as the dirty potatoes they pulled out of the ground that morning — lovingly displayed their produce on rickety card tables. A tourist here was so rare that there was nothing designed for me to buy. Coming from Croatia, I was primed to think of Serbs as the villains. Wandering through the market, I saw only a hardworking community of farmers offering a foreigner a warm if curious welcome.
Posted by Rick Steves on June 26, 2009
Pero uncorked a bottle of orahovica (the local grappa-like firewater) and told me his story. He got a monthly retirement check for being wounded in the war, but was bored and didn't want to live on the tiny government stipend — so he went to work and turned the remains of his Old Town home into a fine guest house.
Hoping to write that evening with a clear head, I tried to refuse Pero's drink. But this is a Slavic land. Remembering times when I was force-fed vodka in Russia by new friends, I knew it was hopeless. Pero made this hooch himself, with green walnuts. As he slugged down a shot, he handed me a glass, wheezing, “Walnut grappa — it recovers your energy.”
Pero, whose war injury will be with him for the rest of his life, held up the mangled tail of a mortar shell he pulled out from under his kitchen counter, and described how the gorgeous stone and knotty-wood building he grew up in suffered a direct hit in the 1991 siege of Dubrovnik. He put the mortar in my hands. Just as I don't enjoy holding a gun, I didn't enjoy touching the twisted remains of that mortar.
I took Pero's photograph. He held the mortar...and smiled. I didn't want him to hold the mortar and smile...but that's what he did. He seemed determined to smile — as if the smile signified a personal victory over the destruction the mortar had wrought. It's impressive how people can weather tragedy, rebuild, and move on. In spite of the terrors of war just a couple decades ago, life here was once again very good and, according to Pero's smile, filled with promise.
From Pero's perch, high above Dubrovnik's rooftops, I studied the countless buildings lassoed within its stout walls. The city is a patchwork of old-fashioned red-tiled roofs. Pero explained that the random arrangement of bright- and dark-toned roof tiles indicates the damage caused by the mortars that were lobbed over the hill by the Serb-dominated Yugoslav National Army in 1991. The new, brighter-colored tiles marked houses that were hit and had been rebuilt. At a glance, it's clear that more than two-thirds of the Old Town's buildings were bombed.
But today, relations between the Croats and their Serb neighbors are on the mend. The bus connecting Dubrovnik to Serb¬-friendly Montenegro — which was stubbornly discontinued for a decade — is, once again, up and running. And with age, someday all the tiles will fade to exactly the same hue.
Posted by Rick Steves on June 24, 2009
Yugoslavia's delicate ethnic balance is notoriously difficult to grasp. The major “ethnicities” of Yugoslavia were all South Slavs — they're descended from the same ancestors and speak closely related languages, but they practice different religions. Catholic South Slavs are called Croats; Orthodox South Slavs are called Serbs; and Muslim South Slavs (whose ancestors converted to Islam under Ottoman rule) are called Bosniaks. For the most part, there's no way that a casual visitor can determine the religion or loyalties of the people just by looking at them.
While relatively few people are actively religious here (thanks to the stifling atheism of the communist years), they fiercely identify with their ethnicity. And, because ethnicity and faith are synonymous, it's easy to mistake the recent conflicts for "religious wars." But in reality, they were about the politics of ethnicity (just as the "Troubles" in Ireland are more about British versus Irish rule, than simply a holy war between Catholics and Protestants).
"Yugoslavia" was an artificial union of the various South Slav ethnicities that lasted from the end of World War I until 1991. Following the death of its strong-arm leader Tito, a storm of ethnic divisions, a heritage of fear and mistrust, and a spate of land-hungry politicians plunged Yugoslavia into war. Many consider the conflict a "civil war," and others see as it as a series of "wars of independence." However you define the wars, they — and the ethnic cleansing, systematic rape, and other atrocities that accompanied them — were simply horrific. It's almost miraculous that after a few bloody years (1991-1995), the many factions laid down their arms and agreed to peace accords. An uneasy peace — firmer and more inspiring with each passing year — has settled over the region.
But there's no substitute for traveling here in person. Walking with the victims of a war through the ruins of their cities gives you “war coverage” you'd never get in front of a TV. Seeing how former enemies find ways to overcome their animosity and heal; enjoying the new energy that teenagers — whose parents did the fighting — bring to the streets; and observing combatants who followed no rules now raising children in the ruins resulting from their mistakes...leaves a strong impression on any visitor.
Posted by Rick Steves on June 22, 2009
Today — less than two decades later — some parts of the former Yugoslavia are re-emerging as major tourist destinations. In recent years, I've enjoyed trips to countries that once belonged to Yugoslavia, including Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Montenegro. As tourist destinations, they offer profound natural beauty, a relaxing ambience, and a warm welcome. Life goes on here. Local people, while not in denial about the war, would rather not be constantly reminded of it. Many think about this ugliness in their past only when tourists ask them about it.
And yet — although I realize that, in some ways, it does a disservice to these places to view them through the lens of war — I can't help but think about those recent horrors as I travel here. Seeing the bruised remnants of Yugoslavia is painful yet wonderfully thought-provoking. And, because this blog is about how travel can change the way you think about the world, I hope you'll excuse my narrow focus on our visit to this region.
My next several blog entries cover my recent travels through Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Montenegro. Through these experiences, we'll get a look at the sectarian struggles that have shaped these regions. Nowhere else in Europe can you go so quickly from easy tourism to lands where today's struggles are so vivid and eye-opening.
Posted by Rick Steves on June 19, 2009
In the former Yugoslavia — Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Montenegro — we'll wander through the psychological and physical wreckage left in the aftermath of a tragic war...and ponder the sobering lessons.
Considering the European Union, we'll see how a great society (living in a parallel world to ours) is evolving. The EU is melding together a vast free-trade zone while trying to keep alive the cultural equivalent of the family farm — its diverse ethnicity.
We'll witness the moderate side of Islam in quickly developing nations by visiting Turkey and Morocco. This helps balance our perspective at a time when the news of Islam is dominated by coverage of extremists and terrorists.
In Denmark, by delving into contemporary socialism and a hippie attempt at creating a utopia in a society routinely rated the most content in the world, we'll have a stimulating chance to consider a different formula for societal success.
Traveling to El Salvador, we'll learn about the impact of globalization and the reality of a poor country at the mercy of a rich country — from its perspective rather than ours.
In the Netherlands and Switzerland, we'll compare European and American drug policies, contrasting how two equally affluent and advanced societies deal with the same persistent problem in fundamentally different ways.
Exploring Iran, we'll see how fear and fundamentalism can lead a mighty nation to trade democracy for theocracy, and what happens when the "Axis of Evil" meets the "Great Satan" — from an Iranian perspective.
Finally, I'll explain why flying home from each trip reminds me how thankful I am to live in America, why I believe the rich blessings we enjoy as Americans come with certain stewardship responsibilities, and how we can enrich our lives by employing our new perspective more constructively back home.
Posted by Rick Steves on June 17, 2009
Anyone can learn that half of the people on this planet are trying to live on $2 a day and a billion people are trying to live on $1 a day. You can read that the average lot in life for women on this planet is to spend a good part of their waking hours every day walking for water and firewood. But when you travel to the developing world, you meet those “statistics” face-to-face...and the problem becomes more real.
In San Salvador, I met Beatriz, a mother who lives in a cinderblock house with a corrugated tin roof. From the scavenged two-by-four that holds up her roof, a single wire arcs up to a power line that she tapped into to steal electricity for the bare bulb that lights her world each night. She lives in a ravine the city considers "unfit for habitation." She's there not by choice, but because it's near her work and she can't afford bus fare to live beyond walking distance to the place that pays $6 a day for her labor. Apart from her time at work, she spends half the remaining hours of her day walking for water. Her husband is gone, and she's raising a child. Beatriz is not unusual on this planet. In fact, among women, she's closer to the norm than most women in the United States.
I went home from that trip and spent $5,000 to pay for my daughter Jackie's braces. I had money left over for whitener. I noticed every kid in Jackie's class has a family that can pay $5,000 for braces. This is not a guilt trip. I work hard and am part of a winning economic system in a stable land that makes this possible. I love my daughter and am proud to give her straight and white teeth.
But I have an appetite to understand Beatriz's world and the reality of structural poverty. I know that for the price of two sets of braces ($10,000), a well could be dug and a thirsty village of women like Beatriz would not have to walk for water. They would have far more time to spend with their children. I advocate within my world on Beatriz's behalf, and enthusiastically support relief work in the developing world. This is not because I am a particularly good person…but because I have met Beatriz.
Traveling in places like El Salvador enables you to appreciate the gap between rich and poor. And having met those people makes it all the more gratifying to help out as you can.
Posted by Rick Steves on June 15, 2009
For my vacation, I opted for El Salvador — to share a muggy dorm room, eat rice and beans, be covered in bug bites, and march with people in honor of their martyred hero who stood up to what they consider American imperialism. The march passed a long, shiny, black monument that looks just like our Vietnam memorial. It was busy with mourners and etched with countless names — each a casualty of a civil war their loved ones believed was fought against American interests and American-funded troops.
It's not a matter of whether America is good or bad in a certain instance. The fact is, the popular patriotic sentiment “my country, right or wrong” — while embraced by many Americans — is by no means unique to our country. There are good people waging heroic struggles all over the world… against our country.
If you've got a week to spend in Latin America, you can lie on a beach in Mazatlán, you can commune with nature in Costa Rica, or you can grapple with our nation's complex role in a country like El Salvador. I've done all three, and enjoyed each type of trip. But El Salvador was far more memorable than the others. The tourism industry has its own priorities. But as a traveler, you always have the option to choose challenging and educational destinations.
Posted by Rick Steves on June 12, 2009
I've long been enthusiastic about how travel can broaden your perspective. But I didn't always preach this gospel very smartly. Back in the 1970s, in my early days as a tour organizer and guide, I drove 50 or so people each year around Europe in little minibuses. I had a passion for getting my travelers beyond their comfort zones. Looking back, I cringe at the crudeness, or even cruelty, of my techniques.
As a 25-year-old hippie-backpacker-turned-tour-organizer, I had a notion that soft and spoiled American travelers would benefit from a little hardship. I'd run tours with no hotel reservations and observe the irony of my tour members (who I cynically suspected were unconcerned about homelessness issues in their own communities) being nervous at the prospect of a night without a bed. If, by mid-afternoon, I hadn't arranged for a hotel, they couldn't focus on my guided town walks. In a wrong-headed attempt to force empathy on my flock, I made a point to let them feel the anxiety of the real possibility of no roof over their heads.
Back when I was almost always younger than anyone on my tour, I made my groups sleep in Munich's huge hippie circus tent. With simple mattresses on a wooden floor and 400 roommates, it was like a cross between Woodstock and a slumber party. One night I was stirred out of my sleep by a woman sitting up and sobbing. With the sound of backpackers rutting in the distance, she whispered, apologetically, “Rick, I'm not taking this so very well.”
Of course, I eventually learned that you can't just force people into a rough situation and expect it to be constructive. Today, I am still driven to get people out of their comfort zones and into the real world. But, now in our tour program, we do it more gently and in a way that keeps our travelers coming back for more.
For me, seeing towering stacks of wood in Belfast destined to be anti-Catholic bonfires, and talking with locals about sectarian hatred helps make a trip to Ireland more than just Guinness and traditional music sessions in pubs. Taking groups to Turkey during the Iraq wars has helped me share a Muslim perspective on that conflict. And I consider visiting a concentration camp memorial a required element of any trip we lead through Germany.
As a tour guide, I make a point to follow up these harsh and perplexing experiences with a “reflections time” where I only facilitate the discussion and let tour members share and sort out their feelings and observations. I've learned that, even with the comfortable refuge of a good hotel, you can choose to travel to complicated places and have a valuable and learning experience.
Posted by Rick Steves on June 10, 2009
While European Christians have similar beliefs to ours, travel in the developing world opens your eyes to new ways of interpreting the Bible. An American or European Christian might define Christ's “preferential option for the poor” or the notion of “sanctity of life” differently from someone who has to put their children to bed hungry every night. While a US Christian may be more concerned about abortion than economic injustice, a Namibian Christian likely has the opposite priorities. As for the Biblical Jubilee Year concept (where God — in the Book of Leviticus — calls for the forgiveness of debts and the redistribution of land every fifty years), what rich Christian takes it seriously?
Travel beyond the Christian world offers us invaluable opportunities to be exposed to other, sometimes uncomfortable, perspectives. As an American who understands that we have a solemn commitment to protect Israel's security, I am unlikely able to sympathize with the Palestinian perspective...unless I see the issue from outside my home culture. In Iran recently, I watched an Al-Jazeera report on the American-funded wall being built by Israel around a Palestinian community. Politically, I may understand the rationale and need for this wall. But even without understanding the words of that TV documentary, I could also empathize with the visceral anger Muslims might feel — observing as, brick by brick, their fellow Muslims had their sunlight literally walled out.
I come away from experiences like this one, not suddenly convinced of an opposing viewpoint...but with a creeping discomfort about my confidence in the way I've always viewed the world. Whether reading the Bible through the eyes of a Christian from another part of the world, or having your hometown blinders wedged open by looking at another religion a new way, travel can be a powerfully spiritual experience.
Posted by Rick Steves on June 08, 2009
I was raised thinking the world is a pyramid with us on top and everybody else trying to get there. Well into my adulthood, I actually believed that if another country didn't understand that they should want to be like us, we had every right to go in and elect a government for them that did.
While I once unknowingly cheered on cultural imperialism, travel has taught me that one of the ugliest things one nation can do is write another nation's textbooks. Back in the Cold War, I had a Bulgarian friend who attended an English-language high school in Sofia. I read his Soviet-produced textbooks, which were more concerned about ideology than teaching. He learned about “economics” with no mention of Adam Smith. And I've seen what happens when the US funds the publishing of textbooks in places such as El Salvador and Nicaragua, with ideological strings attached. The economics of a banana republic are taught in a way that glorifies multinational corporation tactics and vilifies heroes of popular indigenous movements. I think most Americans would be appalled if we knew how many textbooks we're writing in the developing world.
On the road, you learn that ethnic underdogs everywhere are waging valiant but seemingly hopeless struggles. When assessing their tactics, I remind myself that every year on this planet many languages go extinct. That means that many heroic, irreplaceable little nations finally lose their struggle and die. There are no headlines — they just get weaker and weaker until that last person who speaks that language dies, and so does one little bit ethnic diversity on our planet.
I was raised so proud of Nathan Hale and Patrick Henry and Ethan Allen — patriotic heroes of America's Revolutionary War who wished they had more than one life to give for their country. Having traveled, I've learned that Patrick Henrys and Nathan Hales are a dime a dozen on this planet — each country has their own version.
I believe the US tends to underestimate the spine of other nations. It's comforting to think we can simply “shock-and-awe” our enemies into compliance. This is not only untrue…it's dangerous. Sure, we have the mightiest military in the world. But we don't have a monopoly on bravery or grit. In fact, in some ways, we might be less feisty than hardscrabble, emerging nations that feel they have to scratch and claw for their very survival.
We're comfortable, secure, beyond our revolutionary stage...and well into our Redcoat stage. Regardless of our strength and our righteousness, as long as we have a foreign policy stance that requires a military presence in 130 countries, we will be confronting determined adversaries. We must choose our battles carefully. Travel can help us understand that our potential enemies are not cut-and-run mercenaries, but people with spine motivated by passions and beliefs we didn't even know existed, much less understand.
Growing up in the US, I was told over and over how smart, generous, and free we were. Travel has taught me that the vast majority of humanity is raised with a different view of America. Travelers have a priceless opportunity to see our country through the eyes of other people. I still have the American Dream. But I also respect and celebrate other dreams.
Posted by Rick Steves on June 05, 2009
Every three days, a 747's worth of people die on our highways. And it's not worth headlines. We're a mighty nation of 300 million people. People die. Some 40,000 people die on our roads every year. Anybody in that business knows if we all drove 20 miles an hour slower, we'd save thousands of precious lives. But in the privacy of the voting booth, is the average American going to vote to drive 50 mph on our freeways to save thousands of lives? Hell, no. We've got places to go.
Consider handguns. Thirteen thousand people die every year in our country because of handguns. You could make the case that that's a reasonable price to pay for the precious right to bear arms. We are a free and well-educated democracy. We know the score. And year after year, we seem to agree that spending these lives is a fair trade-off for enjoying our Second Amendment right.
Germans decided not to have that right to bear arms, and consequently they lose about 1,000 people a year to handgun deaths. Europeans (who suffer less than a quarter the per capita gun killings we do) laugh out loud when they hear that Americans are staying home for safety reasons. If you care about your loved ones (and understand the statistics), you'll take them to Europe tomorrow.
If we dispassionately surveyed the situation, we might similarly accept the human cost of our aggressive stance on this planet. We spend untold thousands of lives a year for the rights to drive fast and bear arms. Perhaps 300 million Americans being seen by the rest of the world as an empire is another stance that comes with an unavoidable cost in human lives.
I know this is wild, but imagine we downgraded our "war on terror." Fantasize for a moment about the money and energy we could save, and all the good we could do with those resources if they were compassionately and wisely diverted to challenges like global warming or the plight of desperate people (in lands that have no oil or natural resources) whose suffering barely registers in the media. Imagine then the resulting American image abroad — we'd be tougher for our terrorist enemies to demonize. And imagine the challenge that would present terrorist recruiters.
Posted by Rick Steves on June 03, 2009
I got an email recently from a man who wrote, “Thanks for the TV shows. They will provide a historical documentation of a time when Europe was white and not Muslim. Keep filming your beloved Europe before it's gone.”
Reading this, I thought how feisty fear has become in our society. A fear of African Americans swept the USA in the 1960s. Jews have been feared in many places throughout history. And today, Muslims are feared. But we have a choice whether or not to be afraid.
Of course, terrorism — which, by its very nature, is designed to be emotional and frighten the masses — makes it more difficult to overcome fear. But my travels have helped me distinguish between the fear of terrorism...and the actual danger of terrorism. I was in London on 7/7/05…a date the Brits consider their 9/11. A series of devastating bombs ripped through the subway system, killing 52 and injuring about 700 people. Remembering the impact of 9/11 on the United States, I thought, “Oh my goodness, everything will be shut down.”
Instead, I witnessed a country that, as a matter of principle, refused to be terrorized by the terrorists. The prime minister returned from meetings in Scotland to organize a smart response. Within a couple of days, he was back in Scotland, London was functioning as normal, and they set out to catch the bad guys — which they did. There was no lingering panic. People mourned the tragedy, even as they kept it in perspective. The terrorists were brought to justice, Britain made a point to learn from the event (by reviewing security on public transit and making an effort to deal more constructively with its Muslim minority)...and life went on.
The American reaction to the shocking and grotesque events of 9/11 is understandable. But seeing another society respond so differently to its own disaster forced me to grapple with a new perspective. If the goal of terrorists is to terrify us into submission, then those who refuse to become fearful stand defiantly against them.
Every time I'm stuck in a long security line at the airport, I reflect on one of the most disconcerting results of terrorism: The very people who would benefit most from international travel — those who needlessly fear people and places they don't understand — decide to stay home. I believe the most powerful things an individual American can do to fight terrorism are to travel a lot, learn about the world, come home with a new perspective, and then work to help our country fit more comfortably and less fearfully into this planet.
Posted by Rick Steves on June 01, 2009