Travel As a Political Act: How to Leave Your Baggage Behind

by Rick Steves

Clock Icon 17 minute read

Introduction

On a visit to Turkey, I met a dervish. Dervishes—who are sort of like Muslim monks—follow Rumi, a mystic poet and philosopher of divine love. (I like to think Rumi and St. Francis, who both extolled the virtues of simplicity, would hit it off well.) They’re called “whirling dervishes” because they spin in a circle as they pray. The dervish allowed me to observe his ritual on the condition that I understood what it meant to him.

The dervish led me to his flat rooftop—a peaceful oasis in the noisy city of Konya—where he prayed five times a day. With the sun heavy and red on the horizon, he explained, “When we pray, we keep one foot in our community, anchored in our home. The other foot steps around and around, acknowledging the beautiful variety of God’s creation…touching all corners of this great world. I raise one hand up to acknowledge the love of God, and the other hand goes down like the spout of a teapot. As I spin around, my hand above receives the love from our Creator, and my hand below showers it onto all of his creation.”

As the dervish whirled and whirled, he settled into a meditative trance. And so did I. Watching his robe billow out and his head tilt over, I saw a conduit of love acknowledging the greatness of God. This man was so different from me, yet very much the same. This chance interaction left me with a renewed appreciation of the rich diversity of humanity…as well as its fundamental oneness.

Experiences like this one can be any trip’s most treasured souvenir. When we return home, we can put what we’ve learned—our newly acquired broader perspective—to work as citizens of a great nation confronted with unprecedented challenges. And when we do that, we make travel a political act.

I enjoyed perhaps my most profound travel experience ever on my first trip overseas. I was a 14-year-old with my parents, visiting relatives in Norway. We were in Oslo’s vast Frogner Park—which, then as now, is filled with Gustav Vigeland’s great stony statues of humans of all ages, shapes, and sizes.

Immersed in this grand, chiseled celebration of family and humanity, I gained a new insight into my little world. I noticed how much my parents were loving me. Their world revolved around me. They would do anything to make me happy and help me enjoy a fulfilling life. At great expense to their meager family budget, they were making it possible for me to travel. Then I remember looking out over that park. It was speckled—like a Monet painting—with countless other parents…all lavishing love on their children. Right there, my 14-year-old egocentric worldview took a huge hit. I thought, “Wow, those parents love their kids as much as my parents love me. This planet must be home to billions of equally lovable children of God.” I’ve carried that understanding with me in my travels ever since.

On that same 1969 trip, I sat on the carpet with Norwegian cousins, watching the Apollo moon landing. As Neil Armstrong took that first step on the moon, my relatives heard his famous sentence translated into Norwegian: “Ett lite skritt for et menneske, ett stort sprang for menneskeheten.” Sharing the excitement of everyone in that room, I realized that while this was an American triumph, it was also a human one—one giant leap for mankind indeed—and the entire planet was celebrating.

As an idealistic young adult, I struggled with what I’d do with my one life. I wanted to work hard at something worthwhile and contribute to society. I wondered if it was really noble to teach wealthy Americans to travel. As a child, my earliest image of “travel” was of rich Americans on fancy white cruise ships in the Caribbean, throwing coins off the deck so they could photograph what they called the “little dark kids” jumping in after their nickels. They’d take these photos home as souvenirs of their relative affluence. That was not the kind of travel I wanted to promote.

Even today, remnants of that notion of travel persist. I believe that for many Americans, traveling still means seeing if you can eat five meals a day and still snorkel when you get into port. When I say that at a cruise convention, people fidget nervously. But I’m not condemning cruise vacations. I’m simply saying I don’t consider that activity “travel.” It’s hedonism. (And I don’t say that in a judgmental way, either. I’ve got no problem with hedonism…I’m a Lutheran.) Rather than accentuate the difference between “us” and “them,” I believe travel should bring us together. If I’m evangelical about the value of travel, it’s the thoughtful and challenging kind of travel—less caloric, perhaps—but certainly much more broadening.

And so, since that first trip, I’ve spent a third of my life overseas, living out of a backpack, talking to people who see things differently than me. It makes me a little bit of an odd duck.

For the last 40 years, I’ve taught people how to travel. I focus mostly on the logistics: finding the right hotel, avoiding long lines, sampling local delicacies, and catching the train on time. But more important than the “how” we travel is the “why” we travel: Thoughtful travelers do it to have enlightening experiences, to meet inspirational people, to be stimulated, to learn, and to grow.

Travel has taught me the fun in having my cultural furniture rearranged and my ethnocentric self-assuredness walloped. It has humbled me, enriched my life, and tuned me in to a rapidly changing world. And for that, I am thankful. In this book, I’ll share what has made my travels most rewarding, and how they have helped shape my worldview and inspired my activism.

As a travel teacher, I’ve been fortunate to draw from a variety of rich overseas experiences. And, since just after 9/11, I’ve been giving a lecture I call “Travel as a Political Act.” I enjoy giving this talk all over the USA—to peacenik environmentalists in Boulder, to high-society ladies’ clubs in Charlotte, to homemakers in Houston, to Members of Congress and their aides on Capitol Hill, and at universities across the country.

With this book, I flesh out the message of that talk and trace the roots of my ideas to the actual personal travel experiences from which they originated. While I draw from trips all over the globe, my professional focus is Europe—so that’s where many of my anecdotes are set. Europe is not that exotic, but it’s on par with the USA in development, confidence, and impact on the developing world. Consequently, Europe provides an instructive parallel-yet-different world from which to view the accomplishments of our society and the challenges we face.

We can learn more about our own country by observing other countries—and by challenging ourselves (and our neighbors) to be broad-minded when it comes to international issues. Holding our country to a high standard and searching for ways to better live up to its lofty ideals is not “America-bashing.” It’s good citizenship.

I’m unapologetically proud to be an American. The United States has made me who I am. I spend plenty of time in other countries, but the happiest day of any trip is the day I come home. I’d never live abroad, and I’d certainly not have as much fun running my business overseas as I do here at home. America is a great and innovative nation that the world understandably looks to for leadership. But other nations have some pretty good ideas, too. By bringing these ideas home, we can help our society confront its challenges more wisely. As a nation of immigrants, whose very origin is based on the power of diversity (“out of many, one”), this should come naturally to us…and be celebrated.

This book isn’t a preachy political treatise. (At least, I hope it isn’t.) Since I’m a travel writer at heart, this book is heavy on travel tales and people-to-people connections. My premise is that thoughtful travel comes with powerful lessons. With this book, I hope to inspire others to travel more purposefully.

By the nature of this book, you’ll get a lot of my opinions. My opinions are shaped by who I am. Along with being a traveler, I’m a historian, Christian, parent, carnivore, musician, capitalist, minimalist, member of NORML, and a workaholic. I’ve picked up my progressive politics (and my favorite ways to relax) largely from the people I’ve met overseas. And, I seem to end up teaching everything I love: history, music, travel…and now, politics.

Your opinions will differ from mine because we draw from different life experiences. As a writer, I’ll try not to abuse my bully pulpit. Still, rather than take the edge off of my opinions, I’ll share them, with the assumption that good people can respectfully disagree with each other. I’ve always marveled at how passionate I am when my Dad and I disagree on some political issue. He’s my flesh and blood. Often his political assessment of something will exasperate me. I love him—but how can he possibly believe these things? While I don’t necessarily want him to change his mind, I want him to understand my perspective. Sharing it with him consumes me. In writing this book, I’ve discovered a similar passion. I want to share what I’ve learned with my fellow Americans, because I consider us all part of one big family. And, I assume that you’re reading this book for the same reason that I wrote it: because we both care.

In the decade since I wrote the first edition of this book—in the waning days of the George W. Bush administration—our world has changed dramatically. Pivoting from his predecessor, President Obama set this country on a clear course for eight years. And then Donald Trump was elected, and drastically changed course. In the decade to come, we can be sure of plenty more changes. Our presidents can propel our country forward, or set us back. But no matter who’s in power, my fundamental message remains the same: Traveling as a political act is always worthwhile. It feels more important in challenging times, but—regardless of who’s making the headlines this year—the fundamentals are always the same.

In the following chapter, I lay out the framework—those fundamental skills—that have helped me open up my perspective. Then we’ll travel together to very different destinations. By the time we return home, I hope that—as on any good trip—we’ll have a richer understanding of our world.

Chapter 1
How to Travel as a Political Act

  • Travel like a Medieval Jester
  • Choosing to Travel on Purpose
  • Connect with People
  • Stow Your Preconceptions and Be Open to New Experiences
  • Take History Seriously–Don’t Be Dumbed Down
  • Overcome Fear
  • The American Dream, Bulgarian Dream, Sri Lankan Dream: Celebrate Them All
  • Pry Open Your (Christian) Blinders
  • Get Beyond Your Comfort Zone–Choose to Be Challenged
  • See the Rich/Poor Gap for Yourself
  • Okay, Let’s Travel...

If this book is a trip featuring exciting destinations, this first chapter is the flight over—a great time to mentally prepare for the trip. 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. (I’ll try to make it worth missing the in-flight movie.)

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? Maybe…but it can be much more.

For me, since September 12, 2001, 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’s job was to mix it up with people that the king would never meet. 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. Quite the contrary: In order to rule more wisely, the king needed the jester’s insights.

Many of today’s elected leaders have no better connection with real people—especially ones outside their borders—than those “divinely ordained” kings did centuries ago. And while I’m fortunate to have a built-in platform for sharing the lessons I’ve learned from my travels, 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 compromise their freedom to be ruled by clerics out of fear that otherwise, as they explained to me, their little girls would be raised to be sex toys), 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.

Choosing to Travel on Purpose

Ideally, travel broadens our perspectives personally, culturally, and politically. Suddenly, the palette with which we paint the story of our lives has more colors. We realize there are exciting alternatives to the social and community norms that our less-traveled neighbors may never consider. Imagine not knowing you could eat “ethnic.” Imagine suddenly realizing there were different genres of music. Imagine you loved books…and one day the librarian mentioned there was an upstairs.

Whether you travel as a monk, a hedonist, or somewhere in between, you can come home better friends with our world.

But you can only reap these rewards of travel if you’re open to them. Watching a dervish whirl can be a cruise-ship entertainment option, or it can be a spiritual awakening. You can travel to relax and have fun. You can travel to learn and broaden your perspective. Or, best of all, you can do both at once. Make a decision that on any trip you take, you’ll make a point to be open to new experiences, seek options that get you out of your comfort zone, and be a cultural chameleon—trying on new ways of looking at things and striving to become a “temporary local.”

Assuming they want to learn, both monks and hedonists can stretch their perspectives through travel. While your choice of destination has a huge impact on your potential for learning, you don’t need to visit refugee camps to gain political insight. With the right approach, meeting people—whether over beer in an Irish pub, while hiking Himalayan ridges, or sharing fashion tips in Iran—can connect you more thoughtfully with our world.

Good people have different passions.

My best vacations have been both fun and intensely educational. Seeing how smart people overseas come up with fresh solutions to the same old problems makes me more humble, open to creative problem-solving, and ready to question traditional ways of thinking. Travelers understand how our worldview is both shaped and limited by our family, friends, media, and cultural environment. We become more able to respectfully coexist with people who have different norms and values.

Travel challenges truths that we were raised thinking were self-evident and God-given. Leaving home, we learn other people find different truths to be “self-evident.” We realize that it just makes sense to give everyone a little wiggle room.

Traveling in Bulgaria, you learn that shaking your head “no” means yes, and giving an up-and-down nod can actually mean “no.” In restaurants in France, many travelers, initially upset that “you can’t even get the bill,” learn that slow service is respectful service—you’ve got the table all night…please take your time. And, learning how Atatürk heroically and almost singlehandedly pulled Turkey out of the Middle Ages and into the modern world in the 1920s explains why today’s Turks are quick to see his features in passing clouds.

Traveling thoughtfully, we are inspired by the accomplishments of other people, communities, and nations. Then, getting away from our home turf and looking back at America from a distant vantage point, we see ourselves as others see us—an enlightening, if not always flattering, view.

Connect with People

One of the greatest rewards of travel comes from the people you encounter—especially if you’re open to letting them show off a bit and impress you with their culture. As a traveler, I make a point to be a cultural lint brush, trying to pick up whatever cultural insights I can glean from every person I meet.

In our daily routines, we tend to surround ourselves with people who are, more or less, like us. That’s OK. It’s the natural thing to do. But on the road, you meet people you’d normally never connect with. When I travel, I meet a greater variety of interesting people in two months than I do in an entire year back home. I view each of these chance encounters as loaded with potential to teach me about people and places so different from my hometown world.

For example, one of my favorite countries is Ireland—not because of its sights, but because of its people. Travel in Ireland gives me the sensation that I’m actually understanding a foreign language. And, the Irish have that marvelous “gift of gab.” They love to talk. For them, conversation is an art form.

Actually, more Irish speak Irish (their native Celtic tongue) than many travelers realize. Very often you’ll step into a shop, not realizing the locals are talking to each other in Irish. They turn to you and switch to English, without missing a beat. When you leave, they slip right back into their Irish.

The best place to experience Ireland is in a Gaeltacht, as Irish-speaking regions are called. These are government-subsidized national preserves for traditional lifestyles. In a Gaeltacht, charming and talkative locals conspire to slow down anyone with too busy an itinerary.

Ireland gives me the sensation of understanding a foreign language…with people who love to talk.

I was deep into one conversation with an old-timer. We were on the far west coast of the Emerald Isle—where they stand on a bluff, squint out at the Atlantic, and say, “Ahhh, the next parish over is Boston.” I asked my new friend, “Were you born here?” He thought about it, paused, and then said, “No, ’twas ’bout five miles down the road.” Later, I asked him, “Have you lived here all your life?” He winked and said, “Not yet.”

In even the farthest reaches of the globe, travelers discover a powerful local pride. Guiding a tour group through eastern Turkey, I once dropped in on a craftsman who was famous for his wood carving. Everybody in that corner of Turkey wanted a prayer niche in their mosque carved by him. We gathered around his well-worn work table. He had likely never actually met an American. And now he had a dozen of us gathered around him. He was working away and showing off…clearly very proud. Then suddenly he stopped, held his chisel high into the sky, and declared, “A man and his chisel—the greatest factory on earth.”

Looking at him, it was clear he didn’t need me to tell him about fulfillment. When I asked if I could buy a piece of his art, he said, “For a man my age to know that my work will go back to the United States and be appreciated, that’s payment enough. Please take this home with you, and remember me.”

I traveled through Afghanistan long before the word “Taliban” entered our lexicon. While there, I enjoyed lessons highlighting the pride and diversity you’ll find across the globe. I was sitting in a Kabul cafeteria popular with backpackers. I was just minding my own business when a local man sat down next to me. He said, “Can I join you?” I said, “You already have.” He said, “You’re an American, aren’t you?” I said yes, and he said, “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, a third of the people eat with chopsticks, and a third of the people eat with fingers like me. And we’re all just as civilized.”

As he clearly had a chip on his shoulder about this, I simply thought, “OK, OK, I get it.” But I didn’t get it…at least, not right away. After leaving Afghanistan, I traveled through South Asia, and his message stayed with me. I went to fancy restaurants filled with well-dressed professionals. Rather than providing silverware, they had a ceremonial sink in the middle of the room. People would wash their hands and use their fingers for what God made them for. I did the same.

That professor’s hunch was right: I thought less of people who ate with their fingers. Then, through travel, I learned otherwise. Eventually eating with my fingers became quite natural. (In fact, I had to be retrained when I got home.)

Stow Your Preconceptions and Be Open to New Experiences

Along with the rest of our baggage, we tend to bring along knee-jerk assumptions about what we expect to encounter abroad. Sometimes these can be helpful (remember to drive on the left in Britain). Other times, they can interfere with our ability to fully engage with the culture on its own terms.

People tell me that they enjoy my public television shows and my guidebooks because I seem like just a normal guy. I’ll take that as a compliment. What can I say? I’m simple. I was raised thinking cheese was no big deal: It’s orange and the shape of the bread. Slap it on, and voilà! —cheese sandwich.

But in Europe, I quickly learned that cheese is neither orange nor the shape of the bread. In France alone, you could eat a different cheese every day of the year. And it wouldn’t surprise me if people did. The French are passionate about their cheese.

I used to be put off by sophisticates in Europe. Those snobs were so enamored with their fine wine and stinky cheese, and the terroir that created it all. But, now I see that rather than showing off, they’re simply proud and eager to share. By stowing my preconceptions and opening myself up to new experiences, I’ve achieved a new appreciation for all sorts of highbrow stuff I thought I’d never really “get.” Thankfully, people are sophisticated about different things, and I relish the opportunity to meet and learn from an expert. I’m the wide-eyed bumpkin…and it’s a cultural show-and-tell.

If they’re evangelical about cheese, raise your hands and say hallelujah.

For example, I love it when my favorite restaurateur in Paris, Marie-Alice, takes me shopping in the morning and shows me what’s going to shape her menu that night. We enter her favorite cheese shop—a fragrant festival of mold. Picking up the gooiest wad, Marie-Alice takes a deep whiff, and whispers, “Oh, Rick, smell zees cheese. It smells like zee feet of angels.”

Family Pride and Fine Wine

I’m inspired by how the pride of a family business or regional specialty stays strong, generation after generation. In Italy’s Umbria region, I have long taken my tour groups to the Bottai family vineyard. Cecilia, the oldest daughter, is no longer the little girl that I once knew. Now, as her parents are taking it easy, she greets us at the gate and shares her family’s passion with us. Cecilia walks us through the vineyard, introducing grape plants if they were her children. As we follow her into the dark, cool tunnels of her vast cellar—dug a thousand years ago—she finds just the right bottle to share. And finally, we gather at the family dining table in a room that has changed little in 200 years.

On my last visit, I remember enjoying Cecilia’s pride and happiness as she popped open a bottle of their fine Orvieto Classico wine. Watching my glass fill, I noticed her hand gripped the bottle in a way that framed the family name on the label. And I noticed how her mother and now-frail grandmother looked on silently and proudly as visitors from the other side of the world gathered in their home. On that remote farm in Italy, where the Bottai family had been producing wine for countless generations, my group was tasting the fruit of their land, labor, and culture. And our hosts were beaming with joy.

When your name’s on the label, you take great joy in sharing.

Take History Seriously—Don’t Be Dumbed Down

I got my history degree accidentally. I remember waking up in the dorm one morning and realizing I already had seven history classes under my belt. I thought, “Three more and I’m ‘a historian’! Let’s push on through.” Because I had traveled, history was fun. But, back then, I still didn’t fully understand its importance.

Where can a monkey spy two seas and two continents at the same time? On the Rock of Gibraltar.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, a history degree is practical. In college, I was encouraged to also earn a business degree, so I’d graduate with something “useful.” I believe now that if more Americans had a history degree and put it to good use, this world would be better off. Yesterday’s history informs today’s news…which becomes tomorrow’s history. Those with a knowledge of history can understand current events in a broader context and respond to them more thoughtfully.

As you travel, opportunities to enjoy history are everywhere. Work on cultivating a general grasp of the sweep of history, and you’ll be able to infuse your sightseeing with more meaning. Traveling with no understanding of the local history is like going to a 3-D movie and deciding not to bother with the glasses.

 

Related Reads