“Travel as a Political Act”

One of the five “cinque terra” hilltowns on the Italian Riviera

Andrea and I attended a presentation by the travel writer and travel business mini-mogul Rick Steves last night at the Weinberg Center in Frederick, MD. We took our retirement home’s minibus with about 20 others and got door-to-door service. It was a beautiful late-summer evening and we arrived early enough to take a stroll around the bustling downtown area where restaurants and shops enjoyed plentiful pedestrian traffic.

We’ve been fans of Steves’ travel series on PBS for decades. The old but well-preserved theatre on Patrick Street was sold out to about a thousand similarly inspired folks interested in world travel. This was the first lecture presentation of the 10th season of such events at the Weinberg, and there was an excited buzz in the room as introductions were made.

Steves launched right into the current state of European travel in the covid era. He didn’t underplay some risks, but his enthusiasm for the adventures awaiting prospective travelers was evident. He’d been forced to curtail his full assortment of travel offerings for over two years, using that time to update his many printed travel guides, and retaining his 100+ full time staff at full salary.

One of his main themes in conveying his enthusiasm for world travel is captured by his book “Travel as a Political Act”. Steves believes that world travel is an important and necessary experience for those of us committed to becoming citizens of the world. He talked about the inevitable “culture shock” of travel as a good thing — that which makes us become aware of the comfortable bubble we inhabit as well-off Americans. He told many stories of how his own encounters with different cultures opened him to a fuller appreciation of the rich varieties of being human.

One telling fact he shared was about basic eating habits — that about one third of earthlings eat with chopsticks, a third with only their hands, and the remaining with traditional silverware. He talked about our inherent ethnocentrism, and how our own preferences and prejudices can keep us small, distrusting, and isolated.

In addition to Steves’ main focus for travel — Europe — he also spoke of richly rewarding experiences in Turkey, Iran, Cuba, and Russia. He is a genuine humanitarian, showing photos of third world children and saying that they had as much right to be loved and cared for as our own. He reminded us that 10% of the world’s population lived in abject poverty, where basic human needs for food, water, clothing, and shelter are challenged. He said that travel could help us to open our minds and our hearts to this greater reality, beyond our self-absorptions in creature comforts and technological luxuries. In the end, the main benefit of travel is that it opens us up to larger realities and can help us devote ourselves to a life of higher consequence.

John Bayerl, 9/10/22

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