Chapter 9: Homecoming
As educators who work to give students a meaningful foreign study experience, we all know the biggest challenge can be the homecoming: ensuring that all the eureka's, euphoria and exhilaration of the travel experience sinks in and becomes a transformative act.
What can a student or teacher do to make the seeds planted by the experience blossom, and make oneself truly a citizen of the planet with a broadened perspective, empathy and respect for all of humanity?
I believe the final chapter of my book, Travel as a Political Act, is its most important, and that's why I share it here. It's my hope that my Homecoming chapter will give you some good ideas.
Best wishes, Rick Steves
- Excerpted from Travel as a Political Act, copyright © 2009 by Rick Steves, published by Nation Books, New York, NY
Reverse Culture Shock
Having traveled makes being 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. 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 eaten by people 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 Mountains 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.
Travel Changes You
Travel doesn't end when you step off the plane into your familiar home airport. The preceding seven chapters — while ranging far and wide across the globe — all illustrate how travel is rich with learning opportunities, and how the ultimate souvenir is a broader outlook. By incorporating those lessons into my being, I am changed. Any traveler can relate to this: On returning from a major trip, you sense that your friends and co-workers have stayed the same, but you're...different. It's enlightening and unsettling at the same time.
A wonderful by-product 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 in far-away lands, we can better understand the consequences of continued neglect in our own community.
After a thought-provoking trip, I consume news differently. Since I've wandered through war debris with Alen in Mostar, news footage of any city being devastated by bombs suddenly aches with humanity. My memories of friends stiff with shrapnel, and former parks filled with tombstones, push me toward pacifism. During times of saber-rattling, I fly a peace flag from my office building. A neighbor once asked if I knew how much business I've lost by flying that flag. Because of what I've learned about the human costs of war in places such as Bosnia-Herzegovina, El Salvador, and Iran, it hadn't occurred to me to measure the economic costs to my business of speaking out for peace. In fact, it's hard for me to understand how someone could support a war they didn't believe in because it was good for their business.
|Even when this Afghan girl and her mother can no longer see me, I live my life at home knowing the world is watching.|
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 at 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 by making room for different lifestyles. And I want to 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.
Putting Your Global Perspective into Action at Home
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 troubling 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 religious 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 be empowering and 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. I'm sharing these in the hopes of demonstrating a few creative ways that you may do the same — on a larger or smaller scale. Here are some concrete ways you can bring your new global perspective into your local citizenship:
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?"
|Once you've met these girls living on a garbage dump in El Salvador, it's hard not to take them along when you enter the voting booth.|
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 terribly poor world. With this in mind, I think of it not as noble or heroic, but simply pragmatic to bring a compassion for the needy along with me into the voting booth. 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 and appreciate where small developments in our own society may ultimately lead — 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.
|My daughter Jackie's high school trip — a month in a Moroccan village — was her most eye-opening experience yet in life. A trip like that doesn't happen without parents and teachers who appreciate the value of sending students abroad.|
Encourage others to travel. For example, support student exchange programs. Many people have the resources to travel, but live within a social circle where "travel" means Las Vegas and Walt Disney World. High schools and universities are putting more priority than ever on foreign study programs. For many, the funding is a challenge. One trip can help forever broaden the perspective of a young person with a big future. Hosting a foreign student can help create the same amount of international understanding as funding an American student's trip abroad.
Do a survey of causes you might become involved in, 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 support.
Promote the wisdom and importance of talking to your "enemies," even in everyday life. Confront problems — at home, at work, in your community — with calm, rational, and respectful communication. Support politicians who do the same with foreign policy. France and Germany still mix like wine and sauerkraut, but they've learned that an eternity of agreeing to disagree beats an eternity of violent conflict.
Reach and preach beyond the choir. Don't hold back in places where progressive thinking may seem unwelcome. I was tempted to move to a church downtown that welcomed progressive thinkers, but chose instead to keep sharing a pew with a more conservative gang at my suburban church. Rather than change churches, I've stayed and contributed: teaching poverty awareness workshops, sharing my travels at special events, and — after learning that many in our congregation are homophobic — even inviting the Seattle Men's Chorus (America's largest gay chorus) to provide music one Sunday. While conservatives and liberals may see things differently, they care equally. I've found that, deep down, any thinking person wants to be challenged respectfully and thoughtfully. (That's why, rather than install a new air-conditioning system for our chapel, we built a well in a thirsty Nicaraguan village.)
Travel inside the United States to appreciate the full diversity of culture and thought within our vast, multifaceted society. Tune in to both ethnic diversity and economic diversity. Assume that subcultures — even scary ones — provide basic human necessities. At home and abroad, the vast majority of people who look scary aren't. I remember the first time I walked through Seattle's Hempfest — a party of 80,000 far-out people filling a park. A man named Vivian wearing a Utili-kilt and dreadlocks yelled, "Give it up!" for a band whose music sounded like noise to me...and people went wild. It was intimidating. Then I got to know Vivian, who explained to me that this is a subculture that once a year gets to come together here on Seattle's waterfront. I walked through the crowd again, with a different attitude. I celebrated the freedom and tolerance that made that tribal gathering possible. Last year I noticed I got strangely emotional when talking with police who said they enjoy the Hempfest assignment as a two-way celebration of respect and tolerance.
|Promote multilateralism. Join your local chapter of the UN. In the lead-up to the Iraq War, I designed bumper stickers with the blue-and-white UN flag that said simply "Think Multilaterally" so my neighbors and I could fly our flag without implying we supported a unilateral foreign policy.|
Take your broader outlook to work. Until we have "cost accounting" that honestly considers all costs, there is no real financial incentive for corporations to consider the environment, the fabric of our communities, the poor at home or abroad, or our future in their decisions. Executives are legally required to maximize profits, but with leadership and encouragement coming from their workforce, they are more likely to be good citizens as well as good businessmen. I encourage my employees to guard my travel company's ethics and stand up to me if I stray. And they do.
Remember that many would love to travel and gain a broader perspective, but cannot. Find creative ways to bring home the value of travel by giving presentations to groups of curious people not likely to have passports. I did this back in my twenties by hosting a monthly "World Travelers' Slide Club," and do essentially the same thing on a bigger scale today by producing a radio show that I offer free each week to our nation's network of public radio stations.
Consider an educational tour for your next trip (see, for example, Augsburg College's Center for Global Education, www.augsburg.edu/global). Even if you normally wouldn't take a tour, visiting trouble zones with a well-connected organization is safe, makes you an insider, and greatly increases your opportunities for learning. I've taken three such tours, and each has been powerfully educational and inspirational. Educational tourism is a small yet thriving part of the tourism industry and offers a world of options.
Seek out balanced journalism. Assume commercial news is entertainment — it thrives on making storms (whether political, military, terrorist-related, or actual bad weather) as exciting as they can get away with in order to increase their audience so they can charge more for advertising. Money propels virtually all media. Realize any information that comes to you has an agenda. If you're already consuming lots of TV news, read a progressive alternative source that's not so corporation-friendly (such as The Nation magazine, www.thenation.com).
|Educational tours build in time to share and reflect.|
|Conquering fear and ethnocentrism through world exploration rewards the traveler with a grand and global perspective.|
Read books that explain the economic and political basis of issues you've stumbled onto in your travels. A basic understanding of the economics of poverty, the politics of empire, and the power of corporations are life skills that give you a foundation to better understand what you experience in your travels. Information that mainstream media considers "subversive" won't come to you. You need to reach out for it. The following are a few of the books (listed in chronological order) that have shaped and inspired my thinking over the years: Bread for the World (Arthur Simon), Food First (Frances Moore Lappé), The Origins of Totalitarianism (Hannah Arendt), Future in Our Hands (Erik Dammann), Manufacturing Consent (Noam Chomsky), War Against the Poor: Low-Intensity Conflict and Christian Faith (Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer), Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes (Robert McAfee Brown), The United States of Europe (T. R. Reid), The European Dream (Jeremy Rifkin), and The End of Poverty (Jeffrey Sachs).
Find ways to translate your new global passions to local needs. Like the bumper sticker says: Think globally...act locally. Travel has taught me the reality of homelessness. Talking with a proud and noble woman like Beatriz in El Salvador — which does more to humanize the reality of poverty than reading a library of great books on the subject — inspires you to action once back home. Thinking creatively, I used my retirement savings to purchase a small apartment complex that we loaned to the YWCA to use to house local homeless mothers. Now, rather than collect taxable interest, we climb into our warm and secure bed each night knowing that 25 struggling moms and their kids do as well. When you can learn to vicariously enjoy the consumption of someone who's dealing with more basic needs than you are, you are richer for it. With this outlook, helping to provide housing to people in need is simply smarter, more practical, and more gratifying than owning a big yacht. (This can be done on a smaller scale with much less equity, too. For more details, see www.ricksteves.com/politicalact.)
Find creative ways to humanize our planet while comfortably nestled into your workaday home life. Sweat with the tropics, see developing-world debt as the slavery of the 21st century, and feel the pain of "enemy losses" along with the pain of American losses. Do things — even if only symbolic — in solidarity with people on the front lines of struggles you care about.
Put your money where your ideals are. Know your options for local consumption and personal responsibility. Don't be bullied by non-sustainable cultural norms. You can pay more for your bread to buy it from the person who baked it. You can buy seasonal produce in a way that supports family farms. You can, as a matter of principle, shun things you don't want to support (bottled water, disposable goods, sweatshop imports, and so on). You can use public transit or drive a greener car. Consume as if your patronage helps shape our future. It does.
Participate in the Travel as a Political Act Readers' Forum at my website (www.ricksteves.com/politicalact). It's designed so that we travelers can share ideas and encourage and inspire each other. Please join the discussion there, share thoughts generated by this book, and contribute ways you've enjoyed incorporating your worldview into your local activism.
Keep on Whirling
With the fall of the USSR, I remember thinking, "Wow, the USA will reign supreme on this planet through the rest of my lifetime." It seemed that American values of democracy and the free market would be unstoppable. And American economic might, coupled with our hardball approach to maintaining our relative affluence, would be insurmountable. We would just keep getting richer and more powerful.
Of course, the outlook today is more sober. We've been humbled by the consequences of our isolation, the limits of our military power, the collapse of the housing and stock markets, the costly specter of global warming, and the meteoric rise of India and China as economic giants.
In this Global Age, the world's problems are our problems. It'll be all hands on deck. We need to address these challenges honestly and wisely. Lessons learned from our travels can better equip us to address and help resolve the challenges facing our world. We travelers are both America's ambassadors to the world...and the world's ambassadors to America.
Whether you're a mom, a schoolteacher, a celebrity, a realtor, or a travel writer, it's wrong to stop paying attention and let others (generally with a vested interest in the situation) make political decisions for us. Our founding fathers didn't envision career politicians and professional talking heads doing our political thinking for us. All are welcome in the political discourse that guides this nation.
Thoughtful travelers know that we're all citizens of the world and members of a global family. Spinning from Scotland to Sri Lanka, from Tacoma to Tehran, travelers experience the world like whirling dervishes: We keep one foot planted in our homeland, while acknowledging the diversity of our vast world. We celebrate the abundant and good life we've been given and work to help those blessings shower more equitably upon all.