Oct 21 2008

“It takes character to humanize your enemy. Then if you have to bomb them, at least it hurts more.”

by at 8:08 pm under The World at Work

This quote from Rick Steves, the globetrotting author of more than 30 bestselling guidebooks and the host of several public access TV and radio shows, who came to Georgetown yesterday to speak on the topic of “Travel as a Political Act.”

Rick began his talk with an endorsement of the importance of travel that I think strikes a particular chord in this historic election season:

There is so much fear today. The flip side of fear is understanding. I’m not afraid, not because I’m courageous but because I’ve been there.

For too many people, Steves believes, travel is all about “seeing if you can eat five meals a day and still snorkel when you get into port.” He sees, however, as the title of his lecture indicates, travel as having a much deeper purpose. It should allow us to get to know a people, a nation, and a culture, to broaden our historical, political, and social horizons.

He gave the example of a recent trip to the Strait of Gibraltar, the only place on earth where you can see two continents and two seas. In coming to this destination, he had traveled throughout Spain, stopping in several Catholic churches along the way and being struck by the fact that each one of them contained a statue or painting of St. James the Moor Slayer, famous not only for being one of Jesus’ disciples but also for always winning “Christian victories against the Muslim foes.” St. James is typically depicted rearing up on a horse, sword in hand, the heads of the infidels scattered on the ground before him:

St. James the Moor Slayer

St. James the Moor Slayer

These statues didn’t really trigger anything in Steves until he found himself looking across the strait from Spain to Morocco. He suddenly realized: he was looking at a Muslim country standing in a Christian country that routinely depicted decapitated followers of Islam in its public places of worship; that there are millions of Muslims living in Spain; and that, quite frankly, “it’s complicated.” Only by being there was he able to truly understand, truly feel, the depth of this complexity and internalize the fact that it’s never as simple as we make it out to be.

His story reminded of my friend Di’s comment (she is one of the friends who kept me from my work over the weekend) that one of the best parts of living in London is the easy travel around Europe. She and her husband Alex recently went to Turkey where she learned that the country borders Iraq. Somewhere, she already knew this. But it never really sunk in like it did when she was actually there. “Wow, I nearly went to Iraq on a weekend trip,” she thought. Suddenly, Iraq didn’t seem so far away…

I found Steves to be refreshingly, and sometimes even goofily, politically incorrect. He was not always the most eloquent of speakers, but his unique brand of un-eloquence on certain topics (government policy, for example) was offset by his obvious enthusiasm for the benefits of travel, and in fact in some ways made him that much more authentic on the topic. He’s not a politician trying to convince us of some position; rather, he’s just a regular guy (a “bumpkin” as he described himself) with an open mind who got bit by the travel bug long ago and thinks everyone else should let themselves get bit too.

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