Pack Your Bags: Travel as a Political Act

Travel connects people with people. It helps us fit more compatibly into a shrinking world. And it inspires creative new solutions to persistent problems facing our nation.

The following is excerpted from theTravel as a Political Actby Rick Steves, published by Perseus Books. Copyright © 2009 by the author.

I enjoyed my most powerful 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 is home to billions of equally lovable children of God.” I’ve carried that understanding with me in my travels ever since.

On the same trip, I sat on the carpet with Norwegian cousins watching the Apollo moon landing. As Neil Armstrong took that fi rst step on the moon, my relatives heard his famous sentence translated into Norwegian:  “Ett lite skritt for et menneske, ett stort skritt 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 them. 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…after all, 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 back in 1969, 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 30 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 that’s not why we travel. We travel 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 flying all over the USA, giving this talk to peacenik environmentalists in Boulder, high-society ladies’ clubs in Charlotte, homemakers in Toledo, Members of Congress and their aides on Capitol Hill, and at universities across the country.

In that talk, I 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 most of my anecdotes are set in Europe. Europe is not that exotic, but it’s on par with us 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.

I enjoy bettering myself by observing others. And I appreciate constructive criticism from caring friends. In that same spirit, I enjoy learning about my society by observing other societies and challenging myself (and my 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 learning from our travels and bringing these ideas home, we can make our nation even stronger.

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.  

Rick Steves is the host of a public television series, and a public radio travel show, and the author of many travel guidebooks and autobiographies.