How to Travel as a Political Act

Rick Steves with female students, Iran
Whether you travel as a monk, a hedonist, or somewhere in between, you can come home better friends with our world.
By Rick Steves

To get the most value out of your travels, plan to get out of your comfort zone, meet the people, and view other cultures — as well as our own — with an open mind. Here's how I do it.

Travel like a Medieval Jester

I'm a travel writer. According to conventional wisdom, injecting politics into your travel writing is not good for business. Isn't travel, after all, a form of recreational escapism? Yes…but it can be much more.

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.