Rick Steves on Travel as a Political Act
Rick Steves, an avid traveler and author of European guidebooks, recently spoke about the value of travel in today’s world at a Bay Area event, a talk that was filled with thoughtful political insights and personal anecdotes. With a presidential election on the horizon and politics on the brain, one story he told struck me as especially relevant to the political climate of today.
During a trip to Afghanistan, a man approached Rick while he was sitting in a cafeteria in Kabul, a moment he recalls as his most memorable cultural experience. The local man said, “You’re an American, aren’t you? Well, I’m a professor here in Afghanistan. I want you to know that a third of the people on this planet eat with spoons and forks like you do. A third of the people eat with chopsticks. And a third of the people eat with their fingers like I do. And we’re all just as civilized.”
Although Rick admits his wife needed to do some “retraining” upon his return home, he ate with his fingers for the remainder of that trip, an experience he described as “a joy…very natural.”
I was able to catch up with Rick to get more of his thoughts on why he thinks traveling abroad is essential. He graciously responded to all my questions, as I asked him about everything from who will get his vote in the 2008 election to what travel follies he hopes his mom never finds out about.
TWS: You’ve said that you believe travel is a “vital force for peace.” Why do you believe this?
Rick: Naturally, people who wage war (rightly or wrongly) find it convenient if there is no real understanding of the day-to-day humanity of the people on the receiving end of their bombs. When you’ve traveled in what becomes “enemy territory” and see how the media “introduces” us to that land, you understand why they say, “Truth is the first casualty of war.” It’s simply harder to go to war with people you have met, eaten with, laughed with and hope to see again.
TWS: How can Americans use travel to change our image around the world?
Rick: Just like we Americans can misunderstand foreigners if our impressions are based solely on government and corporate-sponsored information sources, I believe people oversees can misunderstand us when all they have is their media. On the whole, I believe that Americans are good, caring and likable people. Especially when we have a government that is unpopular abroad, it is important that people abroad meet traveling Americans. If someone believes Iran’s government or America’s government is evil, it’s important for them to realize that both governments were elected against the wishes of nearly 50 percent of that nation’s people. Travelers learn this.
TWS: How do you work to bridge cultural gaps and foster cross-cultural understanding through your personal travels?
Rick: I remind myself that while we Americans find many truths to be “self-evident and god-given,” other people find other truths to be self-evident and god-given. I’ve learned that people with nowhere near the affluence, freedom and opportunity that I’ve been blessed with would not trade passports with me. They don’t have the “American Dream.” They have the Bulgarian dream; or the Moroccan dream; or the Latvian dream; or the Sri Lankan dream. I am not threatened by this…I celebrate it. And in my travels I enjoy trying to understand this.
TWS: What was your most challenging cultural experience?
Rick: My most challenging travel experience has been three trips to El Salvador and Nicaragua over the last 20 years – seeing a popular revolution succeeding then crushed and the effects of globalization in a “dollarized” El Salvador. (They no longer use their own currency.) I don’t know if globalization is good or bad for the half of humanity trying to live on $2 a day. But, from the perspective of a family’s dirt floor, it’s painful to see. In Central America – where there are an abundance of Dunkin’ Donuts and armed guards these days – they say, “Globalization. It’s like a big train…get on or get run over.”
TWS: Where have you felt most out of place and why?
Rick: I feel most out of place in parts of my country where people fly the stars and stripes on their car antennas and treat wars like a high school pep rally. Where people say “God bless America” as though God has a special destiny for us over the other 96 percent of humanity. And people think it is unpatriotic to celebrate the wonderful diversity on this planet. I don’t deal with it very well.
TWS: What do you recommend for travelers who may not know where to start in regards to truly experiencing the culture of a place?
Rick: Find a way to connect with locals doing things locals do, and remind yourself that you are just as interesting to them as they are to you. Remember: as an American, you have a special knack for being casual and friendly. Use that as a tool to reach out with charm and a smile to connect. Whether lounging in a sauna in Finland, playing backgammon in Turkey, sucking on a cigar in Cuba, a hookah in Egypt or a joint in Amsterdam, people absolutely love to meet Americans. But so often, if we don’t break the ice…it won’t be broken. Be an extrovert. If you see four cute old guys sitting on a bench…ask them to scoot over.
TWS: What are some creative ways for travelers to share their own culture when they visit a foreign destination?
Rick: I bring a zip-lock baggie of show and tell items from home to share my world culturally with the people I’m hoping will share theirs. Simply photos of your family, school, work, car, favorite baseball team…whatever…offer great opportunities to share. I also bring an iPod with a Y-jack to share my music.
TWS: The upcoming election seems to dominate the news right now. What responsibility do you believe our leaders have in bridging the boundaries of cultural misconception?
Rick: I guess the reality is that our leader’s main responsibility is to keep America safe and wealthy. While this may be counter-intuitive to many, I believe that the wise and pragmatic way to do that is the progressive, multilateral approach. When the only tool you have is a hammer, you treat every problem as a nail. I believe we need to trust the free market and stop defending the economic interests of our corporations in other peoples’ lands (e.g., oil companies in the Niger Delta). We need an understanding that if we were constructive rather than destructive with the billions of dollars we put into “defense,” we could become the world’s treasure, and once again people would name their children Frankie and Johnnie. With a half the money we spend on our military, we could forgive the Third World debt (which I believe is the slavery of the 21st century), end world hunger, bring water to the villages where mothers spend hours every day walking for water and deal honestly (in concert with other industrialized nations) with climate change. We live in a democracy where the electorate has chosen government “by and for the people” through the corporations the people own. We live in a society where corporations are legally required by shareholders to profit maximize in the short term. Consequently (unlike Europe, which makes some laws that are bad for business in the short term but good for people in the long term), our government’s role is primarily to provide a good environment for business.
TWS: Which presidential candidate do you support and why?
Rick: In the interest of our long term economy, the environment, the developing world and a sustainable-in-the-long-term (if less prosperous in the short term) future, I will happily take any Democratic candidate for president. Of the viable candidates, I like Edwards, Clinton and Obama in that order. [Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted before Super Tuesday.]
On a lighter note…
TWS: This will tell us everything we need to know about you: Window seat or aisle?
Rick: I’m happy in any seat in economy…as long as I have a noise reduction headphones and life in my laptop battery.
TWS: You’ve said that the oddest travel item you pack is a stapler to keep all your papers attached. Why don’t you use paper clips instead? They would travel easier and be less of a security risk.
Rick: When flying, the only security risk that concerns me is getting my papers out of order.
TWS: What’s the one thing you’ve done while traveling that you hope your mom never finds out about?
Rick: She knows.
TWS: What is the one place that you would never go back to?
TWS: If you were taking your very spry, 73-year-old granny to Europe, where would you go? (OK, fine, this one is for me! For the record, Gram can walk from one end of the Vegas strip to the other without slowing down!)
Rick: Down the Dordogne river in a canoe and then cap the day with a fine riverside meal—letting her enjoy the liver of a force-fed goose (explaining it to her later) and the finest glass of red French wine she’s ever had.
TWS: How much of your travels revolve around places you’ve never been before?
Rick: All of them originally. Now I need to revisit places I report on to expand and update the coverage. While I like to think impressions and assessments made twenty years ago are still sound, things do change. (For example, Berlin is now much better than Munich. Tangier is no longer the armpit of North Africa but a delightful city. Mostar, rather than Korcula, is the best side trip from Dubrovnik.) So, I need to stay focused on my beat (Europe—which I see as America’s wading pool for world discovery) and spend four months a year “working” there.
TWS: What’s the weirdest food you’ve ever eaten? Have you ever been served anything that you just had to refuse?
Rick: A hallucinogenic mushroom omelet in Bali was the weirdest (in a wondrous way). I refuse energy drinks. Despite their popularity among Europeans, I’ve never tried Red Bull or anything like that.
TWS: What inspired your love of travel?
Rick: I realized I loved traveling in Europe when first dragged there by my parents—I was a 14 year old schoolboy with a bad attitude. Things quickly changed. I watched the 1969 Apollo moon landing in Norway and celebrated it as a human as well as American achievement. I was enamored by a beautiful blond German woman and then, seeing her reach for something on the top shelf and expose a shaggy armpit, I was still enamored. I learned to enjoy mushrooms (non-hallucinogenic) in the home of aristocratic German piano builders. I gazed at the Arc d’Triomphe in Paris and didn’t understand how it could look like an ancient arch but be modern and then learned about the French Revolution and neo-Classicism. With experiences like these as a child traveler, exploring and learning from Europe became my passion. It remains that today.
My name: Jennifer Gaines, but my friends call me Gaines, Jenni-Dallas or just plain Jenn.
(Find me on Twitter @jenngaines)
Travel ambitions: It's my mission to visit each of the New 7 Wonders and to step foot on every continent before my next milestone birthday.
Greatest travel lesson learned: Find the local hangouts to experience the real, true culture of a place. During a trip to Europe, my friends and I spent several days with a French family in the small town of Vichy. We had a private party in their family-run creperie, feasting on cheese-stuffed crepes and sampling wine that we picked up in the Bordeaux region a few days earlier. Their English wasn’t much better than my French, which is limited to a few well-known phrases from Moulin Rouge and the question: Parlez-vous anglais? (I'm proud to say that I can spout this question off in several different languages, and luckily most Europeans do indeed speak English!) After a few bottles of wine, the language barrier was hardly noticeable (slurring actually sounds the same in French!), and we managed to swap stories about life in other places. What a slice of local flavor!
My most beloved place in the whole world is: My grandparents place in Texas. It’s a 10-acre oasis in between two sprawling cities: Dallas and Fort Worth. A creek runs through their enormous backyard, where Granddad built a deck over the water. The entire place is shrouded with all types of trees (mainly pecan), blocking the Texas sun in the summer. Dusk is the best time to sit on the deck, drink a glass of ice tea and watch baby raccoons from the spring litter surround their back porch as Gram feeds them bread (no lie!). There will be dozens of raccoons eating on any given night. In the fall, my family gathers in the courtyard in front of their house for an annual “weenie roast.” Granddad lights the bonfire, and we roast dogs and s'mores. Yes, y’all, we’re from Texas!
Favorite way to get around: Well, I’m not much of a driver. I get lost easily and my tires have never come across a curb they didn’t want to get to know a little better. But, I do enjoy cruising around and listening to music. That said, I much rather explore a place by foot (with my iPod in tow) for a more intimate encounter.
View that took my breath away: Coming from Texas (where the view is wide but there’s not much to see), scenes from my new home of San Francisco never fail to amaze me. The city is a pedestrian’s dream, but don’t forget to turn around and look behind you as you meander through its neighborhoods. You won’t realize it, but you’ll be at the tip-top of a hill and the ocean will suddenly seem to be at eye level. Take a drive through the Presidio and over the Golden Gate Bridge where even more stunning views await!