Wednesday, April 25, 2012

What’s the Deal with Travel (According to Rick Steves)

From my TravelOkcity column in The Tribune (2012)

Whenever travel teacher Rick Steves wanted to understand about a place he’s visiting, he’d ask, “What’s the deal here?”  He always seems curious, wanting to know and understand. I thought I’d like to throw back the question to him. I wanted to ask, what’s the deal with travel? I know  why I want to travel, but why do you want to understand the world?  Why do you organize European tours on a regular basis every year? What’s the deal with the numerous travel guides you’ve authored? Why do you preach traveling as a political act in your TV and radio shows? What do you hope to achieve on your road trip across America?

That's me smiling like a fan girl.

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to ask him these questions, but before I could ask them, he answered them for me. He gave me more than just answers; he gave me insights and a new pair of eyes that I could see with in my next adventure. 

The book from which his talk was based on.

I have to admit that I’ve never been a fan of Rick Steves. I always thought that he was too square compared to the likes of Ian Right or Anthony Bourdain. The fact that he focused mainly on Europe (partly he said because he enjoyed his most powerful travel experience there on his first trip overseas.) didn’t help. But in his recent lecture titled Cultivating a Global Perspective through Travel, I developed a newfound respect for him. During the one hour and a half lecture at the Oklahoma Christian University, I thought him to be funny and impassioned about his beliefs.

Another addition to my growing collection of signed books.

He said that the deal with travel is that it offers him an “exciting opportunity to gain enthusiasm for nature and culture” and for things he doesn’t really understand. Cheese for instance used to be just coagulated milk for him. “I was raised thinking cheese is no big deal. It’s orange in the shape of bread. Here you go, cheese sandwich,” he described with almost a straight face. Then he met people who regarded cheese in a different way. “You go to Europe and people are evangelical about cheese. You go to a cheese shop and it’s a cesspool of mold. They have a different cheese for every day of the year in Paris.” He explained that with these discoveries one gains a new perspective and an appreciation for things like a product of controlled spoilage that then becomes a gourmet delicacy, a representation of people’s culture and identity.

"Travel like a medieval jester, " advises Rick Steves. "Bring back valuable insights."

The history degree holder went on to say that travel cultivates the enthusiasm for other things like history. “For me history was just fun. It was just story telling. And when I traveled I realized history is an ongoing adventure and we can all be caught up in it.”

I was never a Rick Steves fan, but as a travel writer, I thought his talk was worth checking out.

He recalled a visit to the Reichstag Dome in Berlin. A large glass dome with a 360 degree view of the surrounding Berlin cityscape, the Reichstag Dome symbolizes the unification of Germany. Steves had the privilege of visiting it during its inauguration.  “I was on top of that dome surrounded by teary-eyed Germans. Any time you are surrounded by teary eyed Germans, something exceptional is going on,” he half joked. “It occurred to me that this is a very powerful symbolic moment in the story of a great nation with the opening of this new capital building, closing a bleak chapter in German history.  No more division. No more communism. No more fascism… A new united government looking into a promising future…It was exciting to be up there. I was caught up in it.” He emphasized that when you go out to see the world, you can be part of all that. 

Unfortunately, people are partly immobilized because of fear. “Fear is for people who don’t get out very much,” Steves said.  “If you get out you realize that part of fear is not understanding.” He encourages people to go out, to understand what they do not know, and to humanize each other.

Cultivating a global perspective through travel.

This is one of the reasons why he dared to travel to a place where not many would venture to: Iran. “My hope was to enjoy a rich and fascinating culture…To better understand the 70 million people who call Iran home,” Steves revealed in his book Travel as a Political Act from which the talk was based on. He admitted it was hard at first with the stigma that hovered heavy over the country and the not so welcoming banners that say “Down with the U.S.A.”  But then he met the smiling faces who say “I love America”, a woman in a bookstore who gave him a book as a gift, and stranger who handed him a bouquet of flowers to apologize for the traffic and then he went home with a better understanding of what the deal is with the people many fear.

He was no Ian Wright, but he was surprisingly funny.

I’ve always wondered, not without contempt, why he would focus on Europe alone when there is so much more that the world has to offer.  But after he explained his deal, I thought, how can I judge someone whose preference was formed by his upbringing but still challenges what he knew and venture into places that I wouldn’t even dare visit?  


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