Keep an open mind while traveling, Rick Steves recommends
BY BRIANNE SANCHEZ October 1, 2013 10:41AM
Travel guru Rick Steves. | AP
Booking tickets on bullet trains and squeezing his essentials into the smallest possible suitcase are only part of Rick Steves’ preparations for a trip abroad. The acclaimed travel writer and public television producer says he also packs mentally — and in his trademark voice as the friendly authority on how to “enjoy maximum travel thrills per mile, minute and dollar” — Steves suggests you should, too.
For Steves, sightseeing shouldn’t be the sole focus of an overseas adventure. Travelers also should seek to gain a deeper understanding of the people in the places they visit. Before a trip, he studies up on a destination country by reading about its history and watching documentaries about the social and political issues he may encounter.
“If you’re going to Estonia, it’s a shame not to be aware of the Singing Revolution,” Steves said, recommending a documentary by the same name. “The more you know, the more you appreciate.”
Steves’ “back door” brand of touring favors attending church services and sporting events over just checking off all of the popular, postcard-worthy venues. Once embedded in a different culture, Steves says he relishes hanging out with people “who find different truths to be self-evident.” He avoids restaurants that advertise menus in English, honing in on the mom-and-pop spots whose offerings might be handwritten and posted daily.
In the increasingly crowd-sourced travel industry, Steves sees his role as the expert curator who has had his boots on the ground for four months out of every year for 30 years, exploring and doggedly updating his advice. From the building of new bridges to the formation of the European Union, much is different and yet much remains the same.
“(The formation of the E.U.) changed the tactics and infrastructure (for travel), but I don’t think it’s changed the flavor,” he said.
The quest to uncover a region’s authentic gems sometimes poses a paradox for Steves, whose influence can have a major impact on the establishments he covers.
“I have to be careful,” he said. “Does it want the tourism? Can it handle the tourism? Ultimately, I am the hired hands of my readers, and it’s my duty to teach them how to travel sustainably and contribute to the economy.”
Most often, Steves says, locals celebrate his arrival and the boost in future visitors that a mention in his guidebooks provides. Steves believes most people don’t want to be stuck in the past, or in the kind of poverty that forces them to carry water jugs on their heads.
Especially since 9/11, Steves’ efforts to banish ethnocentricism have taken on an increasingly ecumenical bent. He published “Travel as a Political Act” in 2009, which includes field reports from Central America, Asia and the Middle East as well as Europe. In the book and his talks on the topic, Steves encourages his audience to get away from their preconceived notions and arrive as eager students. He explains that our self-assured American opinions of what’s right or wrong — from the politics of Putin in Russia to the rules regulating worship in a Muslim mosque — were likely formed out of context. By traveling thoughtfully, we can shed our biases.
“The best souvenir is to take home a broader perspective,” Steves said.