Another feature of the convention is the stage for up-and-coming and big-name travel personalities who come to speak and plug their latest book or tour. This year the big name was Rick Steves, whom you probably know from his many PBS shows on traveling in Europe. Usually each speaker gives just one presentation for the whole weekend, but Rick Steves gave two talks for each day of the show. One of his talks was his usual schtick on travel tips for Europe--what to do in Paris, what to see in Munich, when to go to Rome, what to pack for London, etc. This is the talk I caught a little of. I say a little because I got to the stage a few minutes late, by which time every seat was taken and it was standing room only 4 or 5 people deep at the back. At the back I had a hard time hearing Steves even with his microphone, so I wandered away after a short while. I also realized I wasn’t connecting to the sight of Steves in person, and it took me a couple minutes to figure out why. He was dressed in a suit and tie, rather than the usual khakis and casual dress shirt or polo he wears on his TV show, and so he suddenly seemed unfamiliar to me.
This is significant because familiarity is a big part of Steves’s appeal. Though a world traveler several times over, Rick Steves looks more like a guy you’d readily see picking up his kids after school or standing in line at your local Best Buy or Starbucks than someone who regularly wines and dines his way across Europe.
|See what I mean? Photo from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette|
He looks...familiar, like almost anybody's idea of an average American, though he's been to many places in the world that many Americans will never get to. The reason why many Americans won't get to those places abroad is a bit of a mystery, given the general affluence of the United States. A recent statistic shows that only about 30% of Americans own a passport, compared to 60% of Canadians and 75% of British citizens. And in 2009, of the 61.5 million trips taken outside the U.S. by Americans, nearly half were taken only as far as our neighbors Mexico and Canada. (Further, one wonders how much of the remaining half comes down to cruisers and resort vacationers who never go beyond the resort walls except to fly in and out of the country.) Why don't more Americans travel abroad? Is it lack of time or money? Or is it a classic example of American arrogance or ignorance?
It's a question that can be argued for as long as it takes to fly from New York to Paris and back. But in Rick Steves's latest book, Travel As A Political Act, rather than examining the question from all angles, Steves zeroes in on one possible reason--fear, as in fear of the different and unknown--and runs with it. Steves's hypothesis seems to be that many Americans don't travel outside the U.S. because they are afraid to go outside their cultural comfort zones. Considering the man has built a very successful career out of helping Americans overcome this fear, he has a point. Steves has written dozens of books and produced dozens of TV shows and videos featuring his easy-to-understand advice and down-to-earth observations about foreign places and cultures and how Americans can navigate their way through them. With his easygoing demeanor and ordinary American appeal, his message to Americans who may be nervous or apprehensive about traveling abroad is, If I can do it, so can you.
Where Travel As A Political Act takes departure from Steves's other books and his shows is in focusing less on how to travel (what to see, where to stay, etc.) and more on why we should travel--less on the logistics of foreign travel and more on the benefits. Steves writes:
"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."
Following on this statement, Steves goes on to offer a series of essays--"heavy on travel tales and people-to-people connections"--that explore the benefits of traveling to places that challenge the American way of life, places that many Americans won't go to out of fears that are often entirely unfounded. In this book, that includes European countries with health care systems or drug policies very different from the U.S. (such as the Netherlands), countries with a very different religious makeup and outlook (such as Turkey, Iran, and Morocco), and countries struggling to right themselves after or in the midst of violent political conflicts, including conflicts with the U.S. (such as the former Yugoslavia and El Salvador). As he writes about all these places, he takes care to point out both the similarities between these cultures and America's and the differences--and the right for other countries to practice and celebrate ways that are very different from the American way. I was especially moved and fascinated by his chapters on his visits to El Salvador and Iran--two countries that have been effectively demonized in one way or another by the U.S. government and media. And in that regard, it seems Iran has much in common with America, as Steves makes observations on the genuinely warm and friendly reception he received from one everyday Iranian citizen after another, despite the "Death to America" murals he and his crew passed on daily basis.
Steves really has to be commended for writing this book and attempting to open up more American minds to the benefits of foreign travel. He is also to be commended for not glossing over the challenges of foreign travel. Indeed, his book argues that being challenged is the whole point of traveling abroad, the thing that makes it a more meaningful and political act rather than just another easy, mindless getaway, and the best thing about it.
I mentioned earlier that Rick Steves gave two talks each day at the Travel & Adventure Show in Chicago. Travel As A Political Act was the topic of his second talk. In my opinion it's an ideal topic for a venue like the Travel & Adventure Show, which still leans heavily on the draw of all-inclusive cruise and resort getaways, even as it hawks some more exotic travel destinations. I hope Steves's talk at the show was a success and won a few cruise-crazy Midwesterners over to the idea of traveling outside their comfort zone, of travel as a political act. And I hope to get to more of the places Steves writes about in his latest book someday soon--to Central America, to Morocco and Turkey, and who knows where else--so I can continue to grow as a citizen of the world.