The CultureMap Interview
America’s top travel expert Rick Steves spends so much time on the move, that in order to talk to him about his visit to Texas this week, I, quite appropriately, had to call him while he traveled by train.
Only a few minutes into the interview, I realized why so many people turn to the PBS star for guidance when they feel the urge to roam. As his train kept chugging along the East Coast, we lost our cell connection again and again. Each time I called back, Steves would pick up our conversation mid-sentence, ever enthusiastic and good-natured, as would a man so experienced in both the joys and occasional mishaps of travel.
The politics of travel
Traveling through Texas this week, Steves stopped in Houston to deliver a presentation about travel as a political act, a version of his continually evolving talk he first began giving after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. His book on the subject, succinctly titled Travel as a Political Act, was published in 2015, yet Steves already feels the need to add to the book and is working on a new edition in the wake of the United Kingdom's decision to leave the European Union, commonly known as Brexit.
Throughout our conversation, Steves argued for looking past fears when thinking about the world outside our country, and Brexit is another issue where he urges putting the latest headlines into context.
“The mission of the European Union was to weave the economies of Germany and France together so that there’s no more war, and they did that effectively,” he says. “The other thing was to create a free trade zone to compete with the United States, and they’ve done that also. Brexit is big news, but it’s not an existential threat to the EU.”
One of the benefits of travel, according to Steves, is perspective, whether by putting current events into historical perspective or letting us see that people are not all that different. He draws parallels between our own recent elections, Brexit, and elections across Europe — and even in countries like Iran.
“They've got to respect that frustration and that feeling that people have, even if it doesn’t seem very logistical,” says Steves of politicians in the U.S. “It’s the same thing in Europe. You’ve got an angry working class dealing with economic challenges. Politicians that are scapegoating and fear mongering. There’s a lot of parallels in Europe with what’s going on the United States, and there’s a parallel in Europe today with Europe 80 years ago in the 1930s. It’s very poignant to talk about these things today.”
Fear vs. understanding
While getting out of our comfort zones and exploring other counties and cultures might not be the ultimate solution to all the problems in the world, Steves believes when we travel with an open mind, ready to learn, we bring back new perspectives on people we think are so different but might share many commonalities.
“One reason why my talk is really pertinent right now is because our country has become so ethnocentric in the last year or so, and our country has become more fearful than ever in my lifetime,” he explains. “Ethnocentrism is not good, and fear is a very dangerous thing. Fear is for people who don’t get out very much. The flip side of fear is understanding, and we gain understanding when we travel.”
When I asked Steves if we also contribute something besides our tourist dollars when we travel, he said he believes we do.
“We give them a chance to know an American,” says Steves. “There are so many goofy misunderstandings in both directions. I like to say that when we travel, it makes it tougher for their propaganda to demonize us. And when we get home, it makes it tougher for our propaganda to demonize them.”
For Steves, these exchanges of views, ideas, or even just friendly “hellos” in whatever language are the real souvenirs we take home.
“The mark of a good trip is how many real people do you meet and interact with,” he explains. “I encourage people to become a cultural chameleon. If you eat and drink what the local people eat and drink, hang out where the local people hang out, and if you’re an extrovert and you connect with people, you’ll find that people are curious about us.”
Safe time to travel
Steves thinks today is one of the best times to take that trip to Europe or beyond because, contrary to what the nightly news might tell us, this is one of the safest times in history to travel.
“You don’t need to seek out dangerous places, but in the last couple of years, I’ve been to Cuba, Palestine, Russia, and Iran, and none of these places is particularly dangerous anymore than Chicago or Philadelphia or Houston.”
And, no matter what our personal politics, there’s no doubt that people around the world are more curious than ever about Americans, and they have a lot of questions for that friendly tourist they meet in the pub, cafe, or just wandering the cobbled street in need of directions.
“These days, especially with who’s in the White House, it’s a great time to travel, because everybody wants to talk with us.”