Rick Steves: Travel as a Political Act

In 2009 I bought my very first guidebook and that guidebook was by Rick Steves. He’s made it his life mission to get Americans traveling, and so he has. At surface level, it’s fair to think his impact stops at tips for packing light or choosing the best guesthouse (both invaluable skills). However, his message has evolved as he’s brought Americans into the “wading pool” that is Europe and encourages them to wade a little deeper in the name of gaining perspective.

The title of the talk was “Travel as a Political Act,” derived from the book he wrote on the topic back in 2009. Standing on stage at the Penn Museum, his  enthusiasm was immediately recognizable. His authenticity was refreshing and reassuring. Immediately he dove in, squashing ideas that the talk would include travel tips but instead that he’d be encouraging something much more important: Refusing to fall victim to fear mongering in a “dumbed down” society (his words) and welcoming the broader perspective travel brings to your life and thus your ability to better-connect with the diverse people of this world. Wow.

flower vendor, Kadikoy, Istanbul, 2011

Rick’s forward honesty was exactly what I needed to hear. He said everything that storms in my brain in response to others’ safety assessments of the places we go and the people we meet there. He hooked us with us with his frustration over the evolution of bon voyage to safe travels…and his need to debunk any illusion that it is safer staying at home than traveling. As you can imagine, I found myself nodding in agreement the entire lecture, and scribbling illegible notes like these based on his message:

On fear:

  • [It is necessary to] combat your own fear as well as the fear others project on you.
  • It is a challenge [to stay informed] in a dumbed down society, [especially one where] it is elitist to be educated.
  • Risk and fear are two very different things.

On the “other 96%” (i.e.: the rest of the world):

  • The only thing exceptional about Americans is that we think we’re exceptional [relative to the rest of the world].
  • Everyone around the world does not have the American dream [that does not make them lesser.]
  • Different people find different truths to be self evident.
  • Other nations have baggage too [such as war and terrorism] that we are completely oblivious to.

On the “Ugly [American]”:

  • America is very quick to “legislate morality” [at home and abroad]
  • The “Ugly American” can apply to any nationality that demands or complains about certain luxuries and is blinded by them, missing the precious opportunity travel offers in the first place.

It was powerful to hear this. I left feeling energized and eager to continue my slow journey of seeing the world…Luke, too.  In this context and beyond this, we cannot fall victim to fear. During a time that far too many of us find ourselves wishing to hide under a rock, it is all the more important to get out into the world and send and receive the beauty and diversity of our world.

fellow passenger on a ferry in Istanbul, 2011

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