Here is the full transcript of Guidebook author and travel TV host Rick Steves’ TEDx presentation: The Value of Travel at TEDxRainier Conference. He is the author of several guidebooks, including, among them, Rick Steves Europe Through the Back Door 2017.
Listen to the MP3 Audio: Rick Steves on the Value of Travel at TEDxRainier
Thank you very much. And you know, I have spent a third of my adult life living out of a suitcase. And looking back on those 30 years, four months every year of traveling, it occurs to me, it’s really clear that travel, thoughtful travel, is well worth the time and the money. And I’d like to take just a few minutes to explain to you why.
Travel opens us up to the wonders of our world. In so many ways, it helps you appreciate nature. I mean for me, a great day is walking high in the Swiss Alps, like tight-roping on a ridge, on one side I’ve got lakes stretching all the way to Germany, on the other side the most incredible alpine panorama anywhere, the Eiger, Mönch, Jungfrau: cut glass peaks against that blue sky. And ahead of me I hear the long legato tones of an alphorn announcing that the helicopter-stocked mountain hut is open, it’s just around the corner and the coffee schnapps is on. That connects you with nature, and it connects you with culture.
And when I’m traveling I love this whole idea that travel connects us with culture. When I am traveling I find that there are different slices of culture that I never realized people could be evangelical about. Cheese, for instance. You go to France and they’re crazy about cheese! I like being a bumpkin in my travels. For me, cheese was always just orange and in the shape of the bread. There you go: cheese sandwich.
And then I meet these people and, I mean, there’s a different cheese for every day of the year. You step into a cheese shop and it’s just a festival of mold. I love going shopping with my Parisian friends, they’ll take me into a cheese shop, put up a moldy wad of goat cheese take a deep whiff: “Oh Rick! Smell this cheese. It smells like the feet of angels!”
Okay. Well when you’re traveling you open up to new things that might smell like the feet of angels. A great thing about travel is that it connects you with people. And, if I am making a tour, or a guidebook or a TV show, and I am not connecting people with people I am kind of nervous, because it’s going to be a flat experience. It’s people that really make your experience vital. That’s the mark of a good trip. And it doesn’t need to be like earth-shaking encounters, they can be just silly encounters.
I was in Italy recently and I met this little kid. And he was just staring at me, he was kind of rude. Finally his dad said: “Excuse my son, he stares at Americans.”
I said: “Why’s that?”
And he said: “Last week, we were at McDonald’s having our hamburger, and my son, noticing the fluffy white bun, said: “Dad? Why do Americans have such soft bread?” And the dad said: “Son, that’s because Americans have no teeth.”
So, I showed him my teeth and I sort of straightened out a little misunderstanding between peoples there and it occurred to me that there are so many misunderstandings between people, and when we travel we straighten them out. I don’t know about you, but I was raised thinking the world is a pyramid, with us on top and everybody else trying to figure it out.
And then I traveled and I realized we have the American dream, that’s a great thing, but other people have their own dream. Norwegians have the Norwegian dream. Bulgarians have the Bulgarian dream. These people have the Sri Lankan dream. Travel wallops my ethnocentricity, and I’m very thankful for that. It’s something to celebrate. Our dream is beautiful, but so is theirs.
In my travels I have really been impressed by the amount of pride on this planet. Wonderful pride. I was in Afghanistan once, in a cafeteria where the backpackers were hanging out, a man sat down next to me and said: “Can I join you?”
I said: “You already have.”
And he said, “You’re an American, aren’t you?”
I said: “Yeah”
He said: “Well, I’m a professor here in Afghanistan, and I want you to know that a third of the people on this planet eat with spoons and forks like you do. A third of the people eat with chopsticks, and a third of the people eat with their fingers, like I do, and we are all civilized just the same.” He had a chip on his shoulder. He thought I thought less of him because he ate with his fingers. And that lesson stuck with me and for the rest of my trip through South Asia I was aware of that.
I went to restaurants, fine restaurants with well-dressed professional local people that had no spoons and forks. They had like a ceremonial sink in the middle of the restaurant, people would wash their hands and eat using their fingers the way God intended them to be used. It actually became quite natural for me. I had to be re-trained when I got home.
But these are the lessons you pick up and it is so fun to change something that you thought was a basic truth. Well, in the adulthood you realize: Hey! Other people, smart people, can see it differently.
I’m impressed how many heroic struggles are going on on this planet all the time that I am completely oblivious to. Every year, eight or ten distinct languages go extinct. That’s eight or ten ethnic groups that lose a long struggle. I was raised thinking Nathan Hale, Ethan Allen, Patrick Henry they were the ultimate. Ah! Well you know they are great, but they’re certainly not unique. They’re a dime a dozen on this planet. It doesn’t diminish ours but it’s really important for us to remember in our travels that there are other heroes and other causes.
One great way to make your travels more meaningful is to relate to, to embrace a contemporary Nathan Hale, in a different country. Get into it. An easy one is: Archbishop Oscar Romero. Go down to San Salvador, El Salvador, and learn about Archbishop Oscar Romero. A present-day Nathan Hale.
A few years ago, I was due for a vacation. I was heading for Mazatlán, and I was just needy for a nice stretch of pristine beach, swept free of local riffraff. I was going to have a plastic strap on my wrist, giving me unlimited margaritas, never have to dirty my fingers with coins, you know what that’s like, I was ready.