Travel as a Political and Spiritual Act:
A Conversation with Rick Steves
Matthew J. Klem | Yale Journal of International Affairs
Celebrated travel author Rick Steves recently visited the Yale Divinity School to share his perspectives on travel as a political and spiritual act. Travel, Rick explained, can profoundly shape our attitudes toward global affairs. In his view, encountering the people and places that will be affected by our political stances has an everlasting effect on our understanding of the world. I spoke with Rick on the phone to follow up on his lecture.
Matthew J. Klem (MK): What do you mean when you say that travel is a political and spiritual act?
Rick Steves (RS): Travel is a political act in that it helps us become citizens of the planet as we exercise our citizenship as Americans. It is a spiritual act because it helps us get closer to God and better appreciate God’s creation, at least from a Christian point of view.
MK: How can travel contribute to alleviating global poverty?
RS: Travel makes it clear that suffering across the street is no more real than suffering across the sea. It’s easy to be oblivious to struggling people far away. They don’t feel real. When you travel, you gain an empathy for that kind of suffering, the humanity of it all, the heartbreak of needless suffering. Thomas Jefferson said travel makes a person wiser, if less happy. It’s easy to be politically ignorant about suffering far away, and then when you go there, you realize, this matters, and I want to be part of the solution.
MK: Why might travel be particularly vital for the formation of religious leaders?
RS: It is important not to be ethnocentric in our teaching or in the way we live our lives, especially when we look at things through a spiritual lens, regardless of our particular religion. You can believe in a heavenly Father, and you can say you see the whole planet as a family. You can say that, but if you haven’t really been there, haven’t really walked with people south of the border, you don’t really know vividly what’s going on. Also, from a point of view of being affluent Christians here in a very materialistic society, it’s important not to read the Bible through rich people’s eyes, but to read the Bible through landless peasants’ eyes. When we travel, we are inspired by the faith of people who don’t have the power and the wealth that we have. As a teacher, to have that experience to draw from would be very helpful.
MK: Could you share about how travel in Europe shaped your reflections on American politics?
RS: There are a lot of parallels between the United States and Europe: we’re both affluent, capitalist, pluralist, Christian societies. In Europe, you find people with more of a community focus. You have this focus on the piazza (public square). Americans are very, very afraid of anything that smells like communism or socialism. But community is a beautiful thing. That’s one reason why I like Italy so much—they have that piazza focus, everybody’s together, all the generations. Europeans are happy to pay taxes to grapple with challenges that the society is facing as a community together. Americans often think we have a choice: big, bad government or little, good government. But there is a third option: that’s big, good government. When we travel, we see big, good government in action in a lot of Europe. That helps to give you a better perspective.
MK: Could you share about how travel in the Middle East shaped your reflections on American involvement in that region?
RS: It’s nice to know Muslims so that you’re less afraid of them. Some people think Muslims are terrorists. Except of course there are Christian terrorists and Jewish terrorists and Muslim terrorists and Hindu terrorists, and those are fringe elements. When you travel to the Middle East, you see that there are fundamentalists. You’re more aware that there is Jewish fundamentalism and Muslim fundamentalism. And you realize fundamentalism is a problem, because when you’re a fundamentalist, it can mean, I’m right, and everybody else is wrong—my way or the highway. You also see how America is a stakeholder in the whole Israel situation. You realize that the American government spends more on each Israeli than they do on each American. It’s a complicated dynamic in our country, where we tend to favor the Israeli perspective. When you go to the Middle East yourself, if you go smartly, you go with an interest in hearing both narratives: a dual-narrative approach.
MK: In your talk, you illustrated how travel forms us as political agents by forcing us to encounter those who are different from us. How might a similar experience be beneficial for those of us on one side or the other of America’s sharply polarized political landscape? Can we recreate the same experience within our country?
RS: Travel can make us friends with people whom we don’t know yet and people who are different from us that we’d like to be careful of. We’ve got that same challenge in our community, but we don’t need a passport and a plane ticket to encounter people who are different. We can in a sense travel without ever even going just by getting to know people in our midst. So you could have culture shock within your own community. It could be as simple as going to different festivals with different cuisines. It could be gaining an appreciation of a different religion. Or it could actually be standing in solidarity with groups who have important struggles to wage. So in the same sense that travel helps us be one with the world, having an open view in our communities can add value right there. It’s unfortunate that you have to have money to travel, to travel in a conventional way. But you can work on that, the division in our country, if you’re clever about it in your own community.
MK: What would you say to someone who longs to experience the political and spiritual transformation that travel affords but fears that they can’t afford to travel?
RS: Huge travel experience can be found south of the border in Mexico. I’m not talking about going to Mazatlán. I’m talking about road-tripping into the heart of Mexico. That’s as developing world as anywhere else. There you find real struggles. You have structural poverty, you have deep Christian faith, you have gangs, you have corruption—you have so many of the challenges facing our world right there. That’s a tiny slice of the price of going to Europe. And then you can have creative ways to bring cultures into your own home. There are organizations whose mission is bringing people together. There’s incoming travel as well as outgoing travel. I just deal with outgoing travel. But there are organizations, like the World Affairs Council, that deal with incoming travel. There are clever ways for people to celebrate different cultures in their own homes. I interviewed a woman on my radio show who couldn’t afford to travel, but she took her children on a trip around the world by every week trying a different cuisine—choosing the top fifty-two cuisines on the planet, and each week taking her kids through the heart to that country by featuring it at the dinner table and talking about it and making it an ongoing study. I thought that was a beautiful opportunity.
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- Rick Steves, Travel as a Political Act: How to Leave Your Baggage Behind, 3rd ed. (New York: Nation Books, 2018). ↑