I’ve always been smitten with Rick Steves. He was the first travel guru that I knew about and the first one that I made a bona fide effort to follow. His company is based out of Edmonton, Washington; my college was a mere five-hour drive away. He offered free travel seminars, and I drove across the state to attend them. This was years before my travel blog or my travel writing career or anything beyond a row of guidebooks in the bookstore.
Rick Steves made me believe travel without boundaries was possible, and, to this day, I love to read anything he’s written.
A couple years ago my mom sent me Travel as a Political Act, a book unlike any others that Steves’ has written. This isn’t a guidebook or a book packed with travel tips. Rather, it’s an exploration into why we journey beyond our backyards and what we can learn from the act of travel. As stated in the back book blurb:
There’s more to travel than good-value hotels, great art and tasty cuisine. American’s who “travel as a political act” can have the time of their lives and come home smarter—with a better understanding of the interconnectedness of today’s world and just how our nation fits in.
When Steves’ uses the term “political act,” he’s not talking specifically about government and politics. Instead, the book shows how traveling and connecting with people in different cultures from different backgrounds with different lifestyles and opinions can enhance the overall quality of life. I’ve often believed that people who served in the Peace Corps and similar organizations lead different lives after service than before service simply because of the things they encounter when they travel to foreign destinations, both physically and metaphorically.
In Travel as a Political Act, Steves demonstrates how a similar change of heart and mind can occur through the simple act of travel. He highlights seven specific topics and demonstrates how traveling with an inquisitive attitude can broaden the spectrum of ingenuity and problem solving. For example, in El Salvador, Steves chats with shop owners and those employed with international corporations to examine what globalization means in developing countries. It sounds good in theory: Globalization allows for large corporations to open factories in developing nations thereby providing jobs to those who wouldn’t normally have them. Well, when profits are the bottom line, cheap labor is exploited and homegrown businesses are forced to close. It’s a lot different to learn this lesson from the mama making jewelry on the street corner in Vietnam or Peru than from the mouth of a CEO in the United States.
In Europe (specifically in the Netherlands), Steves looks at how the issue of soft drugs is handled. In America, we’ve waged a “war on drugs,” but does that make sense financially and culturally? He looks at how a variety of drug-related solutions have been handled in Europe—what worked, what didn’t work and why—and how this differs from what the solutions are in the U.S. In light of this, he considers the financial cost to the two countries and what it means to society as a whole. Again, in America, we simply hear that drugs are bad and that’s the end of the story, but traveling invites the possibility to explore different ways to look at the problem.
The important thing to realize is that this book isn’t specifically about the seven topics that Steves explores. He uses these as examples of ways to think outside our pre-conceived political notions, so while some of the facts in this book may become dated over time, it’s the overarching message of discovering and thinking for yourself that is timeless.
I suppose the bottom line is this: The United States (or any other country, for that matter) is not necessarily always right in the way it handles international situations. In Travel as a Political Act, Steves encourages people to make their own decisions about hot topics by asking questions, meeting people and learning through experience rather than simply accepting something “just because.” It’s not Pulitzer material, but it is justification for travel, and for some people, getting the chance to experience a different culture for political reasons, even if it is just through a book, may help make this world a better place.
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