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Travel as a force for peace  

Take a trip outside your comfort zone and come back with a broader perspective

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It was 1969, I was 14 years old, and one night my dad came home and said, “Son, we’re going to Norway to see the relatives.” I thought, “Stupid idea.”  

A few days after arriving, I was sitting on the carpet with my cousins in Bergen watching Neil Armstrong on TV as he took “et lite skritt for et menneske ... one giant leap for mankind.” It occurred to me that this was more than an American celebration. It was a human one.

Without my realizing it, travel was broadening my perspective. While reinforcing how thankful I was to be an American, it was also making me a better citizen of the planet. It was shaping the 14-year-old me to be a force for peace and an advocate for the importance of travel. 

Since 1975, I’ve spent four months a year in Europe. I’m a travel teacher. And for the first decade of my career, my focus was budget tips. I wrote Europe Through the Back Door, which taught travelers how to get a good meal affordably, how to find a charming local guesthouse, how to pack light, and how to enjoy the sights. Then I became interested in teaching people about the art and history of Europe. I wrote Europe 101 to encourage travelers to connect with culture in a deeper register. 

But since 9/11, I’ve realized that my mission is about more than saving money or visiting museums. Travel can also be a force for peace – but that depends upon how you travel and where. If you travel thoughtfully, travel can become a political act. Ever since that epiphany, my goal has been to inspire and equip Americans to come home from their travels with the most valuable souvenir: empathy for the other 96 percent of humanity. And that teaching led me to write Travel as a Political Act. 

These days, rather than wish one another “bon voyage,” we say, “Have a safe trip.” As a nation, it seems we’re gripped with fear. But in my travels, I’ve learned that fear is for people who don’t get out much, and that the flip side of fear is understanding. We gain that understanding when we travel. We appreciate the importance of building bridges rather than walls. 

For that reason, I have a crazy fantasy: What if all countries contributed to a fund that provided high school graduates with an all-expenses-paid, three-week international trip? 

Yes, I know this sounds silly. But it could be the single most practical investment the world could make for peace. Because if that happened, each of those young people would forever be more mindful of the love and joy and humanity that fill our world beyond their own borders. Imagine if you had to have a passport and travel abroad before you could vote. The political landscape of the United States – or of any other country – would be much different, and the whole world would be better off for it. Rotary’s Youth Exchange program and Peace Fellowships are a great model for this.

Thomas Jefferson wrote that travel makes a person wiser, but less happy. Muhammad said, “Don’t tell me how educated you are. Tell me how much you have traveled.” I say travel is a great way to get to know the extended human family.

For an illustration of that idea, take a walk with me through an obscure-to-the-world but central-to-itself village in central Turkey called Güzelyurt. I was a special guest at a wedding there. The entire community had gathered. Calling the party to order, the oldest couple looked happily at the young bride and groom and shared a local blessing: “May you grow old together on one pillow.” 

Leaving the party, I walked down the street. The town struck me as cluttered, with ugly unfinished concrete buildings bristling with rusty reinforcement bars. While I love the Turks, I couldn’t help but think, “Why can’t these people get their act together and just finish these buildings?” That was before I learned that in Turkey, there’s an ethic among parents – even poor ones – that you leave your children with a house. Historically, Turks have been reluctant to store money in banks, because it tends to disappear through inflation. So instead, they invest it, bit by bit, into constructing a building. Every time they get a hundred bucks together, they put it into that ever-growing house. They leave the rebar exposed until they have another hundred bucks, when they make another wall, put in a window, frame in another door … and add more rebar. Now, when I look at that rusty rebar, I remember that Turks say, “Rebar holds the family together,” and it seems much prettier to me.

At the edge of Güzelyurt, I came upon a little boy playing a flute. Just as in biblical times, it was carved from an eagle bone. I listened. And I heard another eagle-bone flute, coming from over the hill, where his dad was tending sheep. As they have for centuries, the boy stays home with the mom and plays the eagle-bone flute. The dad tends the flock and plays his flute, too, so the entire family knows that all is well.

I hiked up the shepherd’s hill and sat looking out over the town. On a higher hill, just beyond the simple tin roof of a mosque, I saw the letters G Ü Z E L Y U R T spelled out in white rocks. Listening to the timeless sounds of the community, I thought how there are countless Güzelyurts, scattered across every country on earth. Each is humble, yet filled with rich traditions, proud people, and its own village-centric view of our world. Güzelyurt means “beautiful land.” While few visitors would consider it particularly beautiful, that’s how the people who call it home see it. They would live nowhere else. For them, it truly is a güzel yurt. 

Our world is full of joy, love, equally valuable lives, and Güzelyurts. And when we travel and meet the people who live in those places, we are forever changed. 

I love Turkey. And Italy. And India. There are so many places that beckon, it’s hard to choose. My travel tip is to visit a place – whatever place – that’s just beyond your comfort zone. A place that wouldn’t normally make the top of your list. Travel to challenge yourself: Find similarities and differences with your own country, and make connections with the people you meet. 

Worried about refugees? Visit Germany, which has taken in over a million of them since 2015. Concerned about Muslims? Visit Turkey or Morocco or Bosnia. Wonder why Israelis and Palestinians can’t get along? Visit the Holy Land. Think undocumented immigrants are causing problems? Visit Mexico beyond the resorts. Think our taxes are too high? Visit Scandinavia. Threatened by communism? Visit Cuba. One of the great joys of travel is the rich insights you gain by talking with people you would otherwise not have met. 

I prefer to travel in a way that forces me to really learn about other corners of our world. In fact, I like to visit lands – such as Iran, Cuba, and Palestine – where I can get to know people who are supposed to be our enemies. When we travel to these places, we humanize each other: They get to know us, and we get to know them. And that makes it tougher for their propaganda to demonize us, and tougher for our propaganda to demonize them.

I believe that if you’re going to bomb a place, you should know its people first. Even if military force is justified, it should hurt when you kill someone. So, a few years ago, I went to Iran.

I traveled there on a mission: to produce a public television special that would help build better understanding between our countries. Rather than focus on the Iranian government’s offenses – its alleged funding of terrorists, threats to Israel, and nuclear ambitions – my goal was to connect with Iran’s people and culture. 

What I experienced in Iran was a revelation. Of course, I saw (and filmed) hateful anti-U.S. and anti-Israel propaganda. But what struck me most was how kind and welcoming the Iranian people were to me as an individual. Iranians consider visitors to be a gift from God, and treat them that way. Routinely I would look up from my note-taking and see Iranians gathered and wanting to talk. They were fascinated that I was an American and curious to better understand me. I found it ironic that, in a country I was told hated me, my nationality was a real plus everywhere I went.

One of my most revealing interactions came in, of all places, a Tehran traffic jam. As we struggled to drive along a congested street, our driver suddenly declared, “Death to traffic.” Startled (and expecting to hear “death to Israel” or “death to America”), I asked him to explain. He said, “Here in Iran, when something frustrates us and we have no control over it, this is what we say: ‘Death to traffic. Death to … whatever.’”

This caused me to think differently about one of the biggest concerns many Americans have about Iranians: their penchant for declaring “death to” this and “death to” that. Did our driver literally want to kill all those drivers that were in our way? Of course not. He speaks English poorly and was merely attempting to translate the word “damn”: “Damn this traffic jam!” If we say, “Damn those teenagers,” do we really want them to die and burn in hell for eternity? Of course not. Just turn down the music.

When we travel – whether to some part of the “axis of evil” or just to a place where people yodel when they’re happy, or fight bulls to impress girls, or can’t possibly serve breakfast until today’s croissants arrive – we enrich our lives and better understand our place on this planet. We undercut groups whose agenda is to manipulate us by sowing fear, hatred, and mistrust. People-to-people connections help us learn that we can disagree and still coexist peacefully.

Another place I’ve traveled to find inspiration for peace in this complicated world is the Holy Land. Where bodies of water converge, you get riptides that mean more fish – and more danger. Where tectonic plates rub together, you get glorious mountains – and devastating earthquakes. And where great cultures meet and mingle, you get more interesting cuisine – and interethnic strife. In places like this, I make a point to practice “dual narrative” travel: hearing perspectives from both sides of thorny issues. If you travel thoughtfully, with an open mind and without an agenda, listening to both narratives helps you gain empathy for a wide range of people and perspectives. In short, you learn.

I had a powerful week in Israel, working with top-notch Israeli tour guides and getting to know people from all walks of life – from falafel vendors in Jerusalem, to young urbanites in Tel Aviv, to settlers living in newly built, supermodern, planned Israeli communities on Palestinian land. 

And then I had a powerful week in Palestine, working with top-notch Palestinian tour guides and getting to know female university students in Ramallah, Palestinian Christians who run a school in Bethlehem, and Arab refugees who have spent a generation living in a 20,000-person refugee camp just outside Nablus.

While I had wonderful opportunities to get to know both Israelis and Palestinians, sadly, I never had a chance to be with both at the same time. Walking a soot-blemished stretch of the barrier separating Israeli and Palestinian lands, I saw graffiti murals honoring bomb-throwing Palestinians – considered freedom fighters on one side of that wall and terrorists on the other. I sensed that the younger generation on both sides wanted to connect. But because of this barrier, there is literally no common ground where people from opposite sides can come together. Walls may be necessary at times, but they represent a diplomatic failure.

There’s a little turnout on the Palestine side of the wall where travelers can conveniently change from a Palestinian car to an Israeli one. When I left Palestine, my Israeli driver was there, waiting for my Palestinian driver to drop me off. While I barely knew either of these men, I’ll never forget their handshake in the shadow of an Israeli watchtower. 

These men were both beautiful, caring people, trapped in a problem much bigger than either of them. In the exchange, I was little more than a suitcase shuttling from one back seat to the other. I watched as they quietly shook hands, looked into each other’s eyes, and said a solemn and heartfelt “shalom.” And I thought, “With all these good people on both sides, there has got to be a solution – and a big part of it will be regular people building not walls, but bridges.”

The examples in this article are a few of the many ways that you can consider political realities in your travels and embrace travel as a force for peace. But travel makes a difference only if you act – that is, if you do something positive with your broadened perspective once you return home. While each of us may have different wattage in our bulbs, we can all bring light to our communities: by voting as if our world depended on it, by donating time or money to worthwhile causes, by seeking out balanced journalism, by promoting sustainability, by confronting problems cooperatively, and by getting out and interacting with the world. That’s how I make travel a political act. And that’s why I close each of my TV shows with my cry for peace – a simple wish that we Americans “keep on travelin’.” 

• Rick Steves writes travel guidebooks, hosts the public television series Rick Steves’ Europe, and, with his 100 colleagues at Rick Steves’ Europe, organizes and leads bus tours throughout Europe. He has partnered with the Rotary Club of Edmonds, Washington, to provide a 24-unit apartment building used by the YWCA in a collaborative effort to support homeless mothers and their children. Rick’s newest book is the revised third edition of Travel as a Political Act. Read more stories from The Rotarian.