Why travel?

Rick Steves.

I don’t know about you, but for me his name conjures up European adventures and PBS telethons. He was my first exposure to the travel industry and the possibility that you could travel the world, share your experiences with others and make a living from it. In fact, I think I applied for a job with Rick Steves’ company when I graduated from college, but let’s save that for another day.

Imagine my surprise earlier this year at The New York Times Travel Show when I stumbled upon Rick’s name during the Saturday sessions. I was beyond ecstatic. Not only was Rick Steves going to be there in the flesh(!), but he was speaking at a seminar entitled: “Travel as a Political Act.” Not a topic I would have expected from Rick Steves, the man who had shown us all the tips and tricks of traveling through European history, but a topic for which he displayed such incredible passion and humor in delivering, his book, was added to my ever-growing “Books to Read” list.

The essential premise behind Rick’s talk and book is that travel allows us to get beyond any fear or prejudice we may have and gives us a true perspective on the humanity of a people, a place and culture. Part travel memoir of places he’s visited and part “how to” for those interested in taking this approach to travel, the book uses the backdrop of Europe for the majority of his examples, from traveling through the former Yugoslavia and how the remnants of the ethnic conflicts shape the outlook of the people who call the country home to the European approach to socialism (for example, he calls the Danes “highly taxed and highly content”) and of course, The Netherland’s tolerant policy towards recreational drug use.

The most interesting chapters were those he spent in El Salvador and Iran. Here the reader really gets to see firsthand how Rick Steves approaches traveling, overcoming any preconceived notions of a place along the way.These chapters include detailed study of the history of each place and how his time in these countries helps him expand his worldview to make him a more compassionate human being. The lessons in the book are too numerous to list here, nor would I want to spoil the surprise of uncovering these kernels of truth for anyone interested in reading the book. Suffice it to say, my Kindle version of the book has underlines and notes littered throughout.

As I wound my way toward the end of Rick’s tale, it made me think about my own travels. Places I’ve wanted to travel to and those travel opportunities that presented themselves (namely business trips that were required). It has reconfirmed my belief that each country and people have its own story to tell and for those lucky travelers who find themselves open to the experience, they will be rewarded with a souvenir that moves beyond the tchotchke that sits on the dresser and is one that is indelibly imprinted on their soul.

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