You’ll be shocked to hear, I know, that I LOVE to travel. Or, maybe not, since my blog is subtitled “Reflections on books, travel, and whatever else occurs to me.” I consider these two primary passions of mine to be inextricably interconnected. Books allow me to experience other times, places, and lives on a daily basis. And travel, well, travel allows me to engage with and at some level actually experience those other times, places, and lives. I don’t travel nearly as much as I would like, so reading is how I assuage my insatiable curiosity about the world.
The 20 year-old girl who got on a plane for the very first time in her life 35 years ago and flew to Spain to spend a year studying in Madrid was not the girl who returned. That experience shaped me in ways I could not have imagined in my sheltered Colorado childhood, and I would never think about myself, my community, or my country the same way again. Thomas Jefferson is quoted as saying that “traveling make a man wiser, but less happy.” I don’t know if that’s necessarily the case with me, because there is a euphoria when I travel that I can’t readily describe, but I do know that traveling has made me much wiser, and has informed and shaped my political views accordingly.
Which leads me to my latest book, Travel as a Political Act, by Rick Steves (Avalon Travel, 2015). You most likely have at least a passing acquaintance with Rick Steves from his PBS shows, primarily about Europe. I always pause on them when I’m flipping through channels, and have always liked his affable manner and un-assuming, “regular guy” narrative. He advocates traveling much like I learned to do as a college student: as light as possible, with an emphasis on learning about the history and culture of where I am while searching out authentic food and lodging experiences and interacting with the locals. But I’ve never actually read his guidebooks. I had a friend remark once fairly early in the Rick Steves phenomenon that her experience of looking for the restaurants and hotels recommended in his books only resulted in spending all her time with other Americans. While I do extensive studying about history, culture, sights, and logistics before any trip, I have my own hit or miss approach to finding food and lodging, and by and large it has worked well for me. But when I saw Travel as a Political Act, I was intrigued, first by the title and then after flipping through the book by Steves’ message: “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.” The chapters ranged from the former Yugoslavia to El Salvador to Iran to Israel and Palestine, with stops in between to examine what we could learn from the European approach to social issues. I was curious.
Steves does a very good job in his shows of masking, or at least downplaying, his progressive views, and I should warn you that if you believe in American “exceptionalism”, or that traveling “…means seeing if you can eat five meals a day and still snorkel when you get into port”, then this book is going to make you uncomfortable. At best. It might make you angry. He makes no apologies for this, for offending people who disagree with him because they’ve never seen first hand children who literally live on top of a garbage dump, or the brutal realities of what protecting American interests abroad really looks like. But since my travel experiences have led me to hold many of the same views as Steves, I loved this volume and found it inspiring. And while I squirmed with his admonition at the end of the book to “share lessons, expect more from your friends, and don’t be afraid to ruin dinner by bringing up uncomfortable realities” (I HATE conflict), he is, I believe, right when he says:
In a land where the afflicted and the comfortable are kept in different corners, people who connect those two worlds are doing everyone a service. Afflict the comfortable in order to comfort the afflicted. By saying things that upset people so they can declare they’d fight and die for my right to be so stupid, I feel I’m contributing to the fabric of our democracy.
I did not expect Steves to be such a good writer. Even putting his political conclusions aside (all of which I whole-heartedly agree with), the writing in this book is excellent. It is succinct, and thoughtful, and explains complex historical situations carefully and clearly. I have a better understanding of the current situations in Iran, Israel, and Palestine after reading his chapters about those countries than I’ve gleaned from viewing the nightly news and reading the newspaper daily for years. Angry about immigration, and the unaccompanied minors problem from last summer? The chapter on El Salvador might make you re-think previous assumptions. Think that Colorado erred in legalizing marijuana? His explanation of how various European countries approach drug use as a social ill rather than a criminal activity will help you understand why some of us voted for legalization, and would like to see an end to the “War on Drugs”. And although it is popular to discount and deride progressives as “un-Christian”, Steves makes quite clear that he is very much a Christian, and that his political views derive in equal measure from his extensive travels and efforts to connect with people AND his faith.
Periodically in his book, Steves alludes to criticisms of his pacificism and accusations of being un-American. One of the lessons I’ve learned from my travels is that there are MANY ways to look at an issue, and what saddens me about the current state of politics in the United States is the refusal by so many to compromise coupled with the venom levelled against those who disagree with them. I think it should be possible to discuss issues without resorting to name-calling. And I truly believe that if more Americans would really travel (beyond packages to Cancun or Disneyland) and engage with other cultures, our country would be better off. I spent my entire teaching career hoping that if my students took one thing out of my classroom, it would be that lesson. As Mark Twain wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”