Excerpt: Rick Steves’s ‘Travel as a Political Act: How to Leave Your Baggage Behind’

In his latest globe-trotting book, the author and activist explains how thoughtful travel can teach you about the world — and yourself
By TVO Current Affairs - Published on July 4, 2019
Nam Kiwanuka interviews travel writer Rick Steve on The Agenda in the Summer.

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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 lie in the gutter with the riff-raff. 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.

Book cover for Travel as a Political ActMany of today’s elected leaders have no better connection with real people — especially those 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 traveller 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 traveller 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 colours. We realize there are exciting alternatives to the social and community norms that our less-travelled neighbours may never consider. Imagine not knowing you could eat “ethnic.” Imagine suddenly realizing there were different genres of music. Imagine you love books ... and one day the librarian mentioned there was an upstairs.

But you can only reap the 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 perspective 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.

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. Travellers 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.

Travelling in Bulgaria, you learn that shaking your head “no” means yes and that giving an up-and-down nod can actually mean “no.” In restaurants in France, many travellers, 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.

Travelling 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.

Reprinted from Travel as a Political Act (Avalon Travel) copyright 2018 Rick Steves Europe, Inc.

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