Innocents Abroad: How Travel Changed My Perspective and Politics

When I brag how the US dominated the Winter Olympics, my Dutch friend Rolinka reminds me that, per capita, her country won five times the gold (3 medals to our 10).
Swiss conservatives come with a social conscience. When I shudder at Switzerland's high taxes, Ollie and Maria ask, "What's it worth to live in a country with no homeless, no hunger, and where everyone has access to good health care and a top-quality education?"
Scandinavians place their city hall on the main square like a temple to good government. Oslo's is wallpapered with murals celebrating how a society can work together for the benefit of all.
Europeans love their fuel-efficient "Smart Cars." Oil-friendly American politicians laugh at them.
Happiness in the developing world is a thatched roof over your head, a bike, enough land to plant your rice and beans, healthy children, peace, and political stability. Happiness in the developing world is a thatched roof over your head, a bike, enough land to plant your rice and beans, healthy children, peace, and political stability.
By Rick Steves • October 2003

As a kid my image of travel was clear. It was hard-working people vacationing on big white ships in the Caribbean. They’d stand on the deck, toss coins over board, and photograph little dark kids jumping for them.

As an idealistic student, I wondered if I should make teaching travel my life’s work. I questioned whether travel in a hungry world was a worthwhile activity. Even today, travel remains a hedonistic flaunting of affluence for many — see if you can eat five meals a day and still snorkel when you get into port. On cruise ships, the cultural primer for the port du jour, which slips under the door of each stateroom is little more than a shopping tip sheet.

I was raised thinking the world was a pyramid with the US on top and everyone else trying to get there. I believed our role in the world was to help other people get it right...American style. If they didn’t understand that, we’d get them a government that did. My country seemed to lead the world in “self-evident” and “god-given” truths.

But travel changed my perspective.

My egocentrism took a big hit in 1969. I was a pimply kid in an Oslo city park filled with parents doting over their adorable little children. I realized those parents loved their kids as much as my parents loved me. And then it hit me: This world was home to billions of equally precious children of God. From that day on, my personal problems and struggles had to live in a global setting. I was blessed…and cursed…with a broader perspective.

That same year travel also undermined my ethnocentrism. Sitting on a living room carpet with Norwegian cousins, I watched the Apollo moon landing. Neil Armstrong took “ett lite skritt for et menneske, ett stort skeitt for menneskeheten.” While I waved an American flag in my mind, I saw this was a human triumph even more than an American one.

In later years I met intelligent people — nowhere near as rich, free or blessed with opportunity as I was — who wouldn’t trade passports. They were thankful to be Nepali, Moroccan, Turkish, Nicaraguan, or whatever…and I was perplexed. I witnessed stirring struggles in lands that found other truths to be self-evident and God-given. I learned of Nathan Hales and Patrick Henrys from other nations who only wished they had more than one life to give for their country.

I saw national pride — that wasn’t American. When I bragged about the many gold medals our American athletes were winning, my Dutch friend replied, “Yes, you have many medals, but per capita, we Dutch are doing five times as well.”

Travel shows me exciting struggles those without passports never see. Stepping into a high school stadium in Turkey, I saw 500 teenagers thrusting their fists in the air and screaming in unison, “We are a secular nation.” I asked my guide, “What’s the deal…don’t they like God?” She said, “Sure, they love God. But here in Turkey we treasure the separation of mosque and state as much as you value the separation of church and state. And, with Iran just to our east, we’re concerned about the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism.”

Good travel is thoughtful travel — being aware of these national struggles. In Berlin I helped celebrate the opening of Germany’s new national parliament building, the Reichstag. For a generation, it was a bombed-out hulk stranded in the no-man’s-land separating east and west Berlin. But today the building is newly restored and crowned by a gleaming glass dome. The dome — free and open long hours — has an inviting ramp spiraling to its top. The architecture makes a powerful point: German citizens can now literally look over the shoulders of their legislators at work.

Climbing to the top of this great new capitol building on its opening day, I was surrounded by teary-eyed Germans. Any time you’re surrounded by teary-eyed Germans something extraordinary is going on. Traveling thoughtfully, I was engaged…not just another tourist snapping photos, but a traveler witnessing an important moment in history as a great nation was symbolically closing the door on a terrible chapter in its history. After so much war, fascism, communism, and division, a wiser Germany was entering a new century united and free, and filled with hope.

Travel teaches the beauty of human fulfillment. I believe God created each of us to be fulfilled. And that doesn’t necessarily mean to become doctors and lawyers. As you travel you find people who make crepes like they invented them…and will make them that way all their lives. Being poured a glass of wine by a vintner whose family name has been on the bottle for over a century you feel the glow of a person fulfilled. Sitting above the congregation with an organist whose name is at the bottom of a 300-year-long list of musicians who’ve powered that cathedral with music, you know you’re in the presence of an artist who’s found his loft.

On the border of Iraq I have vivid memories of another lesson in fulfillment. A weather-beaten old Kurd held his chisel high in the sky. He was the region’s much-loved carver of prayer niches for village mosques. The world was brown and blue — his face, his robe, the parched earth, and the sky. The blade gleamed as he declared, “A man and his chisel…the greatest factory on earth.” The pride in a simple man, carving for the glory of God, was inspirational. He was fulfilled. When I asked the price of a piece he’d carved, he gave it to me explaining for a man his age, to know that a piece of his work would be enjoyed in America was payment enough.

Travel helps us celebrate differences and overcome misunderstandings — big and little — between people. Recently in Germany a little pre-schooler stared at me. Finally his mother said, “Excuse my son. He stares at Americans.” She went on to explain that last time they went to McDonald’s the boy (munching the fluffy hamburger bun) asked why Americans have such soft bread. She explained that it’s because Americans have no teeth. Giving the child a smiley growl, I did my part to dispel that misunderstanding.

Following a restaurateur friend through her Parisian neighborhood market taught me about the love of fine food from a woman who serves it daily. Stepping into a cheese shop — a festival of mold — she picked up a gross wad of the stinkiest cheese imaginable. Holding it close to her nose, she took a long, sensual whiff. Then she offered it to me saying, “Oh Rick, smell this cheese…it smells like zee feet of angels.” Travel shows me how in life, there’s much to be passionate about.

On another trip I was in Afghanistan. Eating lunch in a Kabul cafeteria, my meal came with a lesson in pride and diversity. An older man joined me with his lunch, intent on making one strong point. He said, “I am a professor here in Afghanistan. In this world, one third of the people use a spoon and fork like you, one third use chopsticks, and one third use fingers — like me. And we are all civilized the same.”

On another trip — this time in Egypt, in a field across the Nile from the Temple of Luxor — children mug in front of my camera. I take photo after photo while parents looking on know that two clicks of my shutter costs me what they make in a day. While my camera’s worth a year’s wages, they smile and wave graciously before returning to their crops.

Travel paints a human face on our globe, making the vast gap between rich and poor vivid. Half of humanity — 3 billion people — is trying to survive on $2 a day. This is a fact. Educated people throughout the world know that America, with 4 percent of the world’s population, controls half its wealth. And most of the world believes we elected a president whose mission is to make us wealthier.

My hard work and business success have made me wealthy. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for the freedom and opportunity that comes with being an American. Without America ’s commitment to freedom, those teary-eyed Germans might still be under fascist or communist rule. In fact, without America, we might live in a world without guidebooks and bus tours.

Travel has sharpened both my love of what America stands for and my connection with our world. And lessons I’ve learned far from home combined with passion for America have heightened my drive to challenge my countrymen to higher ideals. Crass materialism and a global perspective don’t mix. We can enjoy the fruits of our hard work and still be a loved and respected nation. While I’ve found no easy answers, I spend more time than ever searching. The world needs America the beautiful. But lately, the world sees America as more aggressive and materialistic than beautiful.

As a traveler, I know you don’t want to be rich in a desperately poor world. If he knows what’s good for him, even the greediest person around doesn’t want to be rich in a poor world. I’ve seen it…and it’s not a pretty picture. I’ve been in Java, drinking tea with rich Chinese behind designer fortifications. I’ve luxuriated with wealthy Salvadorans who have speed bumps in front of their mansions so angry poor people — driving by with explosives ready to toss — have to slow down long enough for guards to get the license plate. Back home in the US, where the hottest things in real estate are prisons and gated communities, I’m troubled by an aggressive business community that doesn’t understand that this growing imbalance (both within our country and between our country and the developing world) will someday haunt it.

Europe is also wealthy. But it gives capitalism a compassionate twist — a safety net for the losers — even if it weakens the much vaunted incentives of pure capitalism. It’s tough to get really rich in Europe. Belgians like it when their queen does her own shopping. The Dutch say the grain that grows the tallest gets cut back. Norwegians unilaterally forgave the debt owed them by the poor world.

In America, we play for higher stakes. Many believe in free enterprise without government-sponsored safeguards for the losers in the capitalist game. While no one would argue that if my cat has more buying power than a Chilean child, my cat should get the tuna…that’s how it works in today’s world. You may prefer not to understand the economics behind this, but there’s blood on your banana.

We’ve fooled ourselves into thinking we are a generous nation. But the aid we give to poor countries around the world amounts to one-eighth of one percent of our national income. While we are the wealthiest nation, our allies give much more to the poor. Most of our “aid” is military aid to allies like Israel. Take away that and we’re a perennial last place among wealthy nations.

Worse than not giving aid, our aggressive policies play merciless hard ball with the basket-case economies of desperately poor countries. Most of the world’s forty poorest nations have debts to the rich world (primarily the US) so big that roughly half of their national budgets are spent paying the interest. World Bank and IMF consultants “come to the rescue” by implementing strict reforms in which interest payments often take precedence over local health, environmental, education, and infrastructure concerns. The World Bank and IMF require nations to produce export crops (e.g., coffee or beef) rather than food to be consumed locally (rice or beans) because that will generate more money to pay the interest on money owed to industrialized nations.

Much of the world, which recognizes that these debts were incurred by long gone dictators, sees the Third World debt problem as the slavery of the 21st century. The international community has made great strides in forgiving this debt (erasing $60 billion so far). But solving this issue — so debilitating to so many desperate nations — requires American support. And most American politicians understandably assume that pushing this issue will win them no points with their electorate.

I find the Biblical concept of the Jubilee Year thought-provoking. It calls for the forgiveness of debts and redistribution of all land every 50 years. Rich Christians know God couldn’t be serious about this. But debt and land issues are the foundation of so much strife. After taking two “reality tours” through Central America, it occurred to me that perhaps God was onto something. By the greedy nature of aggressive landlords, in countries without safeguards for the poor, it seems to take about 50 years for ownership of land to get so imbalanced that a society suffers. In fact, historically — ever since the Europeans first landed — about every 50 years in Central America there has been a huge slaughter of indigenous people…the preferred alternative to Jubilee-inspired peaceful land reform.

Farm subsidies also help keep the poor world hungry. Both the US and Europe protect their farmers with subsidies, making it impossible for farmers in the poor world to compete. Flooding hungry nations with sacks of charity grain from the subsidized farms of rich countries only puts local farmers out of business, exacerbating that country’s food problems.

In the wake of 9/11, America has realized that poverty fertilizes conditions which breed terrorism. Yet there is still a net flow of wealth from the poor world into the rich world. And many who’ve devoted their life’s work to this issue conclude that the big road block when it comes to making progress on global poverty issues is nearly always the United States. In this decade, on issue after issue (global warming, “free trade,” land mines, debt relief, affordable medicine for AIDS, women’s issues), it is America that stalls exciting opportunities for the rich world to help the “two-thirds” world.

The dominance of America is unprecedented in world history. Because of our immense military — nearly as costly as the rest of the world’s combined — America is unfightable by conventional means. Any strike on America — other than a terrorist attack — is suicide. As the gap between rich and poor countries continues to grow, a strong feeling of persistent injustice will grow, too. And patriots will be driven to terrorist acts against our country.

An enduring image of September 11, 2001 is the sight of trade towers collapsing into angry clouds of dust chasing average Americans through the streets of NYC. Many in the developing world see in these clouds the vengeful ghosts of victims of American imperialism.

But who was actually being attacked on 9/11? The targets chosen were symbolic — not average Americans (a shopping mall or sports stadium) or the freedoms that America stands for (Statue of Liberty) but international corporations (the trade towers), the CIA and US military (the Pentagon), and George W. Bush (the White House).

To even consider the terrorists’ concerns (US military out of Islam, Arab control of oil, security for Palestine) is out of the question in today’s America. But the passions are strong enough and the technologies of mass horror are accessible enough that radicals/heroes/terrorists/martyrs from angry lands (where the most popular name for baby boys is Osama) will certainly strike again if no one listens to their concerns.

I’m concerned about a disconnect between us and the rest of the world. And I’m perplexed by an electorate that seems to vote against its own interest. If America is a democracy, how can people vote in policies that aggravate an unjust and growing gap between rich and poor? It’s because a small minority can form a plurality. Here’s the arithmetic: the wealthiest ten percent of a society can call the shots in a democracy if 20 percent vote on moral rather than economic issues and half the rest don’t vote at all. An alliance between the champions of capital and moralists (those whose vote is determined by moral issues such as prayer in school, abortion, and gun control rather than by economic policy) becomes potent when half of the rest of the electorate (those who would gain most from a more liberal government) are confused or simply don’t bother to vote. The electorate is then kept in line by a cattle-prod called fear.

Also, much of the economic tug-of-war going on today victimizes segments of our society that can’t vote (children, the disenfranchised, the environment, and the future). A key to allowing the gap between rich and poor to continue to grow (with fewer and bigger winners and more losers) is the dumbing-down of the electorate. When poor people vote to abolish the “death tax” and 70 percent of Americans believe Saddam Hussein bombed NYC, democracy is sitting on an embarrassing foundation of ignorance.

And what about the folks smart enough to see what’s happening, not benefiting, yet still voting for it? The fact that Joe Sixpack has now bought into the stock market seduces even the little guys into trading away ethics for the quarterly profit statement. Fairness to dedicated employees, sustainability, and the long term don’t matter. A quick return on investment does.

It’s as if the entire country is communing on the bread and wine of capitalism. As stockholders, we believe if we’re not winners yet…we can be shortly. Jobs are sent overseas, corporate regulations are lifted, wars are good for business, and pension plans are raided…all in the name of profitability for shareholders. There’s no serious complaint from the working class, because they are now invested in the stock market.

“There’s not enough money” is an excuse we’re getting used to hearing as the niceties that give our society its character and a little warmth get cut and then cut some more. There’s no longer enough money for public education, libraries, environmental protection, or parks. We can’t afford many things that we funded without question a generation ago. Are we producing less now? No. We live in the wealthiest country on the planet. We’re working harder and producing more than ever. There is as much money as ever. It’s just going to other things.

Spending half our nation’s discretionary budget on the military while stripping down our society and reshuffling wealth into the richest families is a tough sell. And it gets tougher and tougher. It requires fear (an enemy as big as communism — like terrorism), a distracted dumbed down electorate, and a narrowly held media. A government looking out for the little guy only gets in the way, so a disdain for government in general (and taxes in specific) must be sold to the populace.

Travel in Europe puts you in touch with societies who believe in good government. In Scandinavia you sip your coffee on town squares where the city hall rather than a church is the centerpiece. The city hall bell tower stands like a steeple…an exclamation mark declaring communities can work together and care for all. Inside the city hall, you enter what feels like the nave of a church and are surrounded with murals extolling the beauties of good government and the sorry consequences of bad government. Citizens pay high taxes in expectation of a high-service government.

Europeans have a different take on the Social Contract. America gives it a Locke spin: rugged individualism, don’t fence me in, do what you want as long as it doesn’t hurt others. And Europeans go with Rousseau’s Social Contract: if we all give a little more than our share, society can live together nicely. To Locke, the government restricts freedom. To Rousseau, the government is us and serves our needs.

My European friends amaze me with their willingness to pay huge taxes and live with regulations I would chafe at. And, with all the regulations, expenses, and safeguards for society and workers in Europe, it’s not a place I’d want to run my small business. But it’s a place that challenges me to see how a society can build compassion into its affluence.

Hiking high in the Alps, I asked my Swiss friend Ollie why they are so docile when it comes to paying high taxes. Without missing a beat he replied, “What’s it worth to live in a country with no hunger, no homelessness, and where everyone has access to good health care and a top-quality education?” While America is embracing the Texas (“low tax, low service” state) model, Europe believes government can be both big and good.

Europe is investing in its infrastructure. And travelers know the results are breathtaking. With the English Channel tunnel, trains speed from Big Ben to the Eiffel Tower in 2.5 hours. You zip under the English Channel in 17 minutes…looking out the window for fish. More travelers now connect London and Paris by train than by air.

Exciting as the English Channel Tunnel is, that’s just the tip of the infrastructure iceberg. Norway is drilling the longest tunnels on earth — lacing together its fjord communities by highways. Denmark and Sweden are now connected by a massive bridge. With the opening of that bridge, Malmo and Copenhagen became the biggest metropolis in Scandinavia. There’s a bullet train in Spain. Twenty years ago, if you told me there was a bullet train in Spain I’d think you were speaking of Basque terrorism. But no, we’re talking 150 miles an hour across La Mancha. And every year it seems new autobahns, tunnels, and bridges cut a couple of hours off the time it takes my tour buses to make our 2,000 mile Best of Europe circuit.

European money is making this happen. The European Union — a vast free-trade zone — is investing in its weakest partners. On my last visit, the roads in Portugal were constantly messing up my itinerary. Every day I’d arrive at my destination hours before I thought I would. There are freeways in Portugal now! And just recently Ireland surpassed England in per capita income…thanks again to EU investments. With ten new nations joining in May of 2004, the European Union will continue to grow stronger.

While America is pressuring its European allies to spend more on their militaries, Europeans are sticking stubbornly to their budget priorities — roads, public transportation, health care, education, and social programs.

And European governments are progressive on the environment. Entire communities (with government encouragement) are racing to see who will become the first in Europe to be 100 percent wind-powered. London recently implemented a “congestion fee” charging drivers about $8 to enter the city center. This has lessened traffic congestion and enabled buses to get around faster. The money raised subsidizes cheaper public transit fares and more frequent service. Buses leave every 3 or 4 minutes and fares have been slashed. Public transportation is so good that many Europeans never get around to learning how to drive. They’re not making any kind of political or environmental statement. If you live in a city you simply don’t need a car.

Europeans don’t have the opportunities to get rich that Americans do. And those with lots of money are highly taxed. But Europeans consume about a third of what Americans do and they claim they live better. Most Europeans like their system and believe they spend less time working, have less stress, enjoy longer life spans, take longer vacations, and savor more leisurely (and tastier) meals. They experience less violence and enjoy a stronger sense of community.

Europeans differ from Americans in their pragmatic approach to persistent social problems. For example, in the Netherlands (where prostitution is legal), if a prostitute pulls her emergency cord the police — rather than a pimp — come to her rescue. The Dutch have a decade of experience treating the recreational use of marijuana as a health problem rather than a criminal problem. They’ve stopped arresting people for smoking pot and a ten-year track record shows use has not gone up. Dutch drug enforcement officials consider coffee shops (where marijuana is sold and enjoyed) as a firewall stopping the abuse of hard drugs. This is where they communicate with people likely to abuse hard drugs. And, in societies that don’t lock up marijuana users, law enforcement is freed to tackle more serious problems. Dutch friends are quick to tell me that they believe a society must make a choice: tolerate alternative lifestyles or build more prisons. They remind me that the USA arrests 700,000 people on marijuana charges annually. And, with 4 percent of the world’s population, America has over a quarter of its prison population. The US is ratcheting up its war on marijuana. But Switzerland, Britain, Scandinavia, Spain, Canada, and many other countries are following the more tolerant Dutch approach (even if it means risking trade sanctions from America).

Through travel we learn how the world views America . Most of the Europeans I met that support the American war in Iraq were old enough to remember WWII. They seem to have made a personal pact to forever support America in thanks for our heroic rescue of Europe from Hitler. But the majority of Europeans see American foreign policy as driven by corporate interests and baffling electoral needs. They believe America’s Cuban policy is designed to win the votes of Castro’s enemies in Florida and our Israel policy is driven by the demands of Jewish voters. No other nation is routinely outvoted in the United Nations 140 to 4. And Europeans find it amazing that when we lose a vote so thoroughly, we think we (along with our voting block: Israel, Micronesia, and the Marshal Islands) have it right and everyone else has it wrong.

Europeans see hypocrisy in American foreign policy. We fought a war for democracy in Kuwait, yet Kuwaiti women cannot vote and Americans don’t care. We create or support dictators (the Shah, Somoza, Noriega, even Saddam Hussein) as long as they play by our rules and we enjoy access to their natural resources. We use corruption as a basis for “regime change,” bomb the country, and give the contract to rebuild it to the vice president’s former corporation. We push free trade with a religious zeal — unless steel workers in Pennsylvania need a little protection and that state is a swing state in the next election. American refusal to join with the family of nations in fighting global warming, cleaning up land mines, and the world court is telling. To Europe, American unilateralism is a euphemism for American imperialism.

Yet travel, in spite of all these hard truths, reminds me that I live in a great corner of the world. I’ve filled up a few passports. But when I get home, I find the view of my junior high school out my office window comforting. With the Cascade Mountains as a backdrop, a lush environment giving me the sensation of living in a terrarium, and the Puget Sound rolling out to the Pacific reminding me of the vast world out there, I know I have much to be thankful for, to defend, and to be involved in.

Like anyone who loves his country, homeland security is a big issue for me. But in the last year, I fear “homeland security” has been hijacked by people with a self-serving rather than country-serving agenda.

I like Europe ’s approach to homeland security. That involves a well-educated electorate, a healthy environment, and the maintenance of civil liberties. It considers quality housing, nutrition, health care and education a birthright. It expects a government to work for corporations only by working for people first. And Europeans take a multilateral approach to world problems.

By connecting me with so many people, travel has heightened my concern for people issues. It hasn’t given me any easy solutions. But it has shown me that the people running our government have a bigger impact on the lives of the poor overseas than they do on my own life. It’s left me knowing suffering across the sea is as real as suffering across the street. I’ve learned to treasure — rather than fear — the world’s rich diversity. It’s clear to me that people around the world are inclined to like Americans. And I believe that America — with all its power, wisdom and goodness — can do a better job of making our world a better place.

I will promote thoughtful travel with more gusto than ever because of my belief that if Americans had to travel before they could vote, our country would fit better into this ever smaller planet.