Friday, January 1, 2010

“Revolutionary” Travel Sentiments for the New Year

“Wars spring from unseen and generally insignificant causes, the first outbreak being often an explosion of anger.” - attributed to Thucydides

“All those who seek to destroy the liberties of a democratic nation ought to know that war is the surest and shortest means to accomplish it.” - attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville

Among the treasures I received this Christmas, I now count a book given to me by my brother and sister-in-law as dear: “Travel as a Political Act” by a Edmunds, WA based travel writer Rick Steves (paperback Nation Books, New York, NY 2009 ISBN-13:978-1-56858-435-5). Mr. Steves accomplishes something in this work of which past world travelers/commentators (like the ancient Greek general Thucydides or the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville) would have been proud: He translates the political struggles of people from distant lands into local equations.

Mr. Steve's travel experiences have not made him a fan of the “war on terror”: “Every three days, a 747's worth of people die on our highways....imagine we downgraded our “War on Terror.” Fantasize for a moment about...all the good we could do with those resources...” [p. 15] Mr. Steves documents the insights from his travels that helped him come to such conclusions: “With each new president, other nations wonder if there will be unilateralism or multilateralism, respect and collaborations or threats and hypocrisy....because I care about our society, I challenge us to do better. In difficult times, we should be open to considering all the solutions we can.” [p. 79]

Indeed. Whether visiting El Salvador on the anniversary of Cardinal Romero's assassination, exploring the communes of Copenhagen or embracing his own personal peace quest (“Mission: Understand Iran”) , Mr. Steves continually encourages the reader to use travel as a form of personal evolution; a type of pedagogic seminar to help Americans understand the best parts of themselves through immersion in the struggles of foreign cultures: “If an American diplomat complained to his European counterpart, “America is doing all the heavy lifting when it comes to military,” the European might respond, “Well, you seem to be enjoying it. We're building roads and bridges instead.” [p. 55] This debate between guns and butter, war or prosperity needs to be had more open and frankly in our society. We have yet to connect the economic and social costs of our “Three Trillion Dollar War” to its devastating consequences on the American middle class.

Despite an often nonchalant and informal style, Mr. Steve's comments on the outlook of various foreign peoples can be as noble and powerful as a Thucydides or de Tocqueville might have been in their times.: “I have long held that travel can be a powerful force for peace. Travel promotes understanding at the expense of fear. And understanding bridges conflicts between nations....I left Iran impressed more by what we have in common than by our our differences. Most Iranians, like most Americans, simply want a good life and a safe homeland for their loved ones...Our political leaders sometimes make us forget that all of us on this small planet are equally precious children of God. Having been to Iran and meeting its people face-to-face, I feel this more strongly than ever.” [pp 191 – 193]

In his final chapter, Mr. Steves coaches his readers on how to use travel as a political act – how to understand others by seeing the world through their eyes. Even now, I find myself practicing his perspective at my hotel room in a small town in southern Oregon, on my way home to Bellingham.  I heartily recommend reading “Travel as a Political Act” for your new year.


Chuck said...

Rick Steves will give a free presentation based on his book, "Travel As A Political Act" at 7pm on Sunday, January 31, at the Congregational Church, 2401 Cornwall Ave., Bellingham. For more information:

Steve Wilson said...

Thanks for the positive spin on the book. I'm not so sure that you have to jet around the world to get that perspective tho. I just open my laptop and am virtually anywhere on the planet.
Considering our privledged first world status, I think NOT traveling the globe is perhaps a more relevant political statement these days.

Ryan M. Ferris said...

I watched his you-tube on Iran and his preview to his Iran movie. I found them both absorbing and provocative. I am not traveling to Iran anytime soon, but I appreciate those that have brought back their perspectives.