When one of my teaching mentors heard that I adopted a book from PBS travel show host Rick Steves he thought I lost my mind. Little did my mentor know about Steves’ ulterior motives in writing Travel as a Political Act, and, to be fair, little did I know about Steves’ savvy cosmopolitanism and political leanings. Only after I heard Steves interviewed by Terrence McNally on his KPFK show Free Forum did I learn that he traveled to Iran, and, once there, Steves discovered “the more a culture differs from my own, the more I am struck by its essential humanity.”
Nevermind though what myself or my mentor think of Steves. What matters most is that the students from my Argument & Research composition course loved him. Only two of them had seen his show before, one of whom belonged to a family of “Europe Through the Back Door” aficianados and happened to own all his DVDs. As we read Steves’ experiences traveling to El Salvador, Denmark, Turkey, Morocco, and Iran, many from my class caught his show on TV during the semester and were surprised to find that Steves is essentially an even-keeled, hip-to-be-square geek. Nevertheless, I’m happy to say that by the time we finished his book, I had a class full of Rick Steves fans who were eager to see the world with a critical and compassionate eye. In Yugoslavia, Steves describes that in light of all the struggles there the people smile freely, and “Every country has suffered tragedy, there’s no exception, especially in Europe.” He examines the difference between Americans and their neighbors across the Atlantic. Americans, he explains, tend to be very individualistic while Europeans focus on community. He favors the communal life, that’s putting it mildly, and Steves doesn’t spend enough time considering Europe’s markedly different history with immigration and their botched attempts at multiculturalism in contrast to America’s founding based on immigration, starting from day one, but my students still found his ideas and perspective engrossing, and we were never at a loss for words during class discussions.
In El Salvador, his revolutionary side comes out: “If I pay taxes, I am a combatant. Every bullet that flies and every bomb that drops has my name on it.” Steves reveals a wonderful and heartfelt overview on Liberation Theology and his personal discovery of Oscar Romero, who inspired him to be more active and engaged with the communities he visited. Unfortunately, the economic situation in El Salvador is so dire, kids spend their days scavenging garbage heaps for food, my students were so unsettled by these facts they reported that this was their least favorite chapter in the book. At least they read it! Steves is an outspoken NORML activist, and he spends a good deal of time covering the drug policies in the Netherlands, basically arguing for the U.S. to decriminalize marijuana use. His visits to Turkey and Morocco shatter stereotypes, moving past the highly controversial theocracy to examine the day-to-day life of average citizens. Overall, Steves writing is incredibly eloquent, effortlessly accessible, and keenly insightful. This book is Steves sharing his enlightenment with us. Once you read him, like my students, you’ll be hooked.