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The not-so-lonely planet

 Real Change (USA) 24 May 2019

(Originally published: 10/2009) Sure, you can take a vacation and sleep the days away under a beach umbrella. But radio and TV travel host Rick Steves has some advice: leave your hotel and meet the people.  - ROSETTE ROYALE

Real Change News

Courtesy of Real Change News

"I've been to paradise," a line from an '80s pop song goes, "but I've never been to me." In a strange way, travel guru Rick Steves has been to a paradise, too, but he's found the best places to visit, the ones where you learn the most about yourself, are those where you connect with the locals. Steves should know. For decades, he's been bopping around the globe - Spain, Italy, France, Turkey - having adventures that have led him outside the bubble of resort hotels and into a deeper understanding of the world we inhabit. And while most many people know him through his PBS show, "Rick Steves: Europe through the Back Door," his globetrotting isn't merely Euro-centric. He's not afraid to step foot in non-touristy, non-Western locales, such as El Salvador or Nicaragua. He ventures to these destinations - the ones travel companies rarely recommend - because he believes that within the travel experience, there exists a chance to become politically engaged with the world. It's a notion reflected on his blog, "Travel as a Political Act." His political side extends past the borders of international travel. An unrepentant social activist, Steves, who was born in Edmonds, Wash., has worked to bring attention to homelessness and is an outspoken proponent of marijuana reform. All of which means he's a busy man with a lot of opinions, some of which you'll be able to hear on Sat., Oct. 10, when he speaks at Town Hall on behalf of the Voices Education Project, and on Tues., Oct. 20, when he serves as keynote speaker for Real Change's Annual Breakfast at Seattle Center. As a prelude to these events, Steves, in between travels, spoke about what travel can offer, his observations of some Iranian girls, his very first trip and the first time he got high.

Real Change: First question, really basic: Why do people travel?

Rick Steves:Well, the famous quote is: "Living on this planet and not traveling is like having a great book and never turning the page." Travel carbonates your life; it challenges truths you were raised thinking were God-given; it lets you empathize better with people's struggles; and it lets you know there are other ways of thinking, so you're less self-assured in the way you look at life. And I find that humbling and exciting.

R.C.:Do you think it's the same to travel across town or across the state, as opposed to going to another country?

R.S.:Well, in a sense, traveling is meeting people. So you can travel around the world and not meet people and you haven't done much traveling. Or you can travel across town and talk to people you wouldn't otherwise, and you could argue that that's valuable travel. I just really like the people aspect of travel.

R.C.: I guess it's a Western perception that you think, "Well, you need money to travel." So, do you?

R.S.:Well, you need money to go far away. And you need time. Time is often something that's underestimated. Americans tend to have more money than time, so I think it's real important that Americans find a way to get more time and use their time smartly, as well as their money. But yeah, to travel to Europe, to Mexico: Unfortunately it's quite expensive. You can travel domestically pretty cheaply. You can hitchhike to California and travel for the cost of your hamburgers and fries.

R.C.:There's your new book and blog of the same name, "Travel as a Political Act." What does that mean?

R.S.:Travel as a political act means choosing to travel in a way that broadens your perspective. You can travel in a way that's just relaxing, recreational, hedonistic - and that's fine. It doesn't you. I like to travel in a way that makes me a better citizen of the planet. And that means rather than going to Mazatlán (in Mexico), I'll go to Managua (in Nicaragua). And when I step out the door in Bosnia, in (the city of) Mostar, I can turn left out of my hotel and go eat at the touristy restaurant, or I can turn right and go to what was the front line of the recent civil war and eat my humble dinner among bombed-out buildings, talking with the owner of this little restaurant that just opened, which is the first business to open up on the former front line.

R.C.:You've mentioned sometimes, when you hear that you shouldn't go to a section of town, you tend to go.

R.S.:Yeah, I do. I want to find the reality, what's going on with people who are struggling in their lives.

R.C.: Is that why you think we're not to go to those dangerous places? Because we'll see the reality of life?

R.S.:Nobody makes money off of you when you see the reality of life. People make off of you when you are escapist in your travels, if you want to lay on the beach and pretend the whole world's a tequila sunrise. I think travelers have to know that all the information that comes at them to help them determine how they're going to spend their vacation, that information is motored by people who have a business interest in how you choose to travel. They're not going to turn you on to options that are less consumptive and less profitable. And I find the irony is, in so many cases, the less I spend, the more I experience.

R.C.: You have a special about Iran, which is on What were you impressions? I mean, Iran: It's the politically hot country. At least from our viewpoint.

R.S.:Well, our government wants us to think that.

R.C.: Exactly.

R.S.:I'm just very impressed by the impact of propaganda on both sides of an issue. People in Iran are victimized by their government's propaganda and their media's propaganda; people in the United States by our government's propaganda and our media's propaganda. No company is going to spend money to put a program like mine on the air that humanizes the enemy. That's just not what they want to do. I wanted to go there and try to understand what makes those people tick. And what I concluded after several weeks in Iran was the political base of (President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad is motivated by the same things that the political base of a right-wing politician: fear and love. I had people crossing the street to say, We just don't want our children to be like Britney Spears. They're scared to death of American influence. And they'd fight to the death to keep their family values. Well, they're victims of their propaganda, which makes us seem worse than we are. And when I go there in person, I better understand them and they better understand me. That is travel as a political act.

R.C.:How difficult would it be for an ordinary person to go to Iran?

R.S.:Anybody can go to Iran. You've just got to have the visa. And in order to get the visa, you need to have your hotels and your surface transportation figured out. Basically, you've got to take a tour. But you don't need to stay with the tour. You just skip out for a while and you walk over to the mall, and you see girls dressed trashy. That's fun. Girls dress trashy in malls in Bellevue and girls dress trashy in malls in Tehran. [Chuckles.] Gosh, I really want to ask another question.


R.C.:Is their trashy dress like American trashy dress? Is it like Britney Spears? Even better, because they're from a different culture, but they're just as trashy. It's trashy with a cultural switch.

R.C.:Could you describe what that looks like, because in [this] newspaper?

R.S.:In the Muslim world, a woman cannot show the shape of her body or any hair or any skin below her chin - she's not supposed to anyway. So, they'll leave home and after they get to the mall, they tighten the belt on their robe and they've pulled the scarf back on their head. And when you've been in Iran for a week, looking at women with no hair tumbling over their forehead, you know how naughty it is for hair to be tumbling over the forehead. And then you see a woman with a beautifully made-up face and hair tumbling over her forehead, it's quite - [pause] - exotic. Almost erotic. You don't need to look at cleavage, as you would here, if you were girl watching. Then you realize, this girl is dressing trashy. That's quite exciting.

R.C.:America, of course, has a reputation which precedes it. So, in the years you've been traveling - and how many years would you say?

R.S.:Oh, 30 years. R.C.:how do you think America's reputation has changed?

R.S.:Well, the media shapes our image. The media and the administration's foreign policy. The media always has the California kind-of-fast life going on. And a lot of people, they look at us and they just think Charlie's Angels or whatever. Or Britney Spears. That has a huge impact. If you go to Iran, people want to know what's up with our government; you got to Central America and people want to know what's up with our government.

R.C.: You talk about the media. But you, in a way, are a part of the media. So how do you think you shape how America is perceived?

R.S.: I'm just doing the best that I can. That's my calling: Not to change what other people think of America, but help Americans better appreciate what it's like out there, without their perceptions being shaped by media with an agenda. [Pause.] media with an agenda, but I think my agenda is nicer than somebody who's just trying to sell fear and commercialization. I'm trying to sell understanding and celebrating the diversity on the planet. I'm fighting fear.

R.C.:Do you remember the first trip you took?

R.S.:Yeah. My very first trip. I was in Oslo, I was just a 14-year old, and I didn't want to be there - my parents were dragging me along - and they took me to this park. My parents were just doting over me, just loving me. And I looked out over the park and it occurred to me that this park is just speckled with parents loving their kids as much as my parents loved me. And it hit me: Wow, this world is home to billions of equally lovable, equally precious children of God. And it's sort of a burden I've borne ever since, this notion that suffering and love and need and happiness far away are just as real as suffering and love and neediness and happiness across the street.

R.C.:It's like, I took a trip to Uganda 10 years ago

R.S.:It changes you, doesn't it?

R.C.: It completely altered my life.

R.S.:Yes, it's powerful. It's a beautiful thing. It's truth. Truth to see the similarities in other people.

R.S.:The fundamental oneness.

R.C.:On your radio show recently, you had two men who were talking about Mexico City, the largest city in the Western hemisphere. I was just in Mexico and even some Mexicans I met don't like Mexico City.

R.S.:Right. [Laughs.] And these two guys on my show loved it so much, they left their American homes and moved there. What a fascinating, bizarre thing.

R.C.:There are more people living in urban areas now in the world than we've ever had. What are your feelings about the megalopolis?

R.S.:Oh, I generally think they're hellish, they're soulless. They're just rusty coffee cans and people who moved in from the countryside in hopes of finding a job and scam artists and bulldozers from the government bulldozing shanty towns that pop up overnight like rashes that are stealing electricity from the wires. Those are the third-world megalopolises, where you have a hundred thousand people living, scavenging off a garbage dump like flies. But that's the reality these days. There's lots of cities on this planet with 15 to 20 million people. The last megalopolis I went to was Bombay (Mumbai), Shanghai, Mexico City.

R.C.:So, Mexico City. Did you love it?

R.S.:I found it fascinating but I didn't love it. R.C.: What do you think when there's someone on your show who loves something and you're, "Ennh?"

R.S.:Well, when I don't like something I've learned it's usually because I don't know enough about it. The more you know about a place, the better connected you are, the more enjoyable it is. Any city will have its charms. But no one thinks of Mexico City as a charming place. You think of Mexico City as a cultural powerhouse. I enjoyed being in Tehran. I don't like that city, but I enjoyed being there. Fourteen million Iranians being kept down by a really theocratic dictatorship. Fascinating story. But after a few days, I'm ready for something with a little more charm.

R.C.:Here in the United States, well, there's wealth for some people. Did you ever have any issue reconciling Western privilege in going to places where you come face-to-face with global poverty?

R.S.:Oh, I have no problem with that at all. There's a reality on this planet: There are people who are filthy rich and there's some who are desperately poor. I think if you're going to travel with good character, you're going to travel in a way that's honest. And rather than going golfing in an elite hotel in the middle of a desert - which is sucking up all the water and importing all the food and using local people only as a cheap labor force, with all the profit leaving the country and going back to the international people who own it - I'd rather travel in a way that puts money into the local economy. And I'd like to travel in a way that humanizes that country and I gain empathy for the people and learn what their struggles are. And then, when I go home and I step into a voting booth, I realize that who I vote for impacts those people in a poor country more than my short-term financial best interest. That seems almost perverse in our society. But to me, it's not: It's just enlightened. And I gained that kind of enlightenment through my travels.

R.C.: Do you think Obama's election has had a great impact on the world's view of America?

R.S.:Oh yes. People are impressed that Obama comes to a country and listens. Bush and his people never went to a country to listen: They went to a country to.

R.C.:Now, this is kind of a leap from Obama, but: Marijuana. I know what you think about marijuana laws, but let's say someone didn't know. How would you sum it up?

R.S.:I think a country's drug policies should be motivated by harm reduction. I think we need to acknowledge that drugs harm people, that drugs ruin lives and that drugs can be abused. On the other hand, you can make a case that the mature, adult use of marijuana as a recreational drug is a civil liberty. Personally, I think if you took the crime out of drug abuse, and treated it as a health problem rather than a criminal problem, you could save a lot of money, avoid a lot of heartache and have less people abusing drugs. And that's why I'm advocating having another look at the legal status of marijuana in the United States, and try to think of a way to get it out of the criminal and court realm and get it into counseling and medical-help realm. There's never been a society in history that didn't have people using and abusing drugs. It's what people do. There are lots of recreational drugs in our society that are legal and are advertised and taxed, and others are determined to be illegal. I think marijuana should be classified with alcohol rather than with heroin. What I bring to the discussion is a European perspective on marijuana. In Europe, they don't lock people up for smoking pot, and they consume less than half the marijuana per capita than we do. They just have a more creative approach to their drug problems. And I think they're doing a better job with harm reduction.

R.C.:Did you have the European perspective before you started traveling to Europe?

R.S.:No. I never smoked marijuana in the United States. I smoked it first in India, in Afghanistan, where it's the normal thing, where it's part of the culture. My first experience with that was in a whole different environment.

R.C.:Last question: What's your next trip?

R.S.: Tomorrow I'm going to the NORML convention in San Francisco.

R.C.: [Laughs.] Can you tell us what NORML is?

R.S.: [Laughing.] NORML is the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, of which I'm a board member. No, I just got back from four months of traveling, so I'm home for a while now. I don't know what my next trip is going to be.

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