I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick

Great Discussion…Allow Me a Few Responses

My recent posts have generated some great discussion. While I generally try to stay out of the discourse, I’ve enjoyed reading the comments so much that I must share a few ideas that came to me from them:

When people say that’s the last time they’ll use a Rick Steves guidebook after I spout off politically, I’m sad and I wonder why. Then I remember that I used to love Dennis Miller (and all his hilarious “rants”) until I learned of his conservative politics. While I’m sure he’s as funny as ever, I no longer find him entertaining (and therefore no longer buy his CDs). So perhaps for me, too, speaking out is bad for business.

If someone’s politics really annoy me, it’s usually because they are either flesh-and-blood relatives (my Dad) or smart and funny. Mixing funny, smart, irreverent, and conservative (Dennis Miller) confounds me (maybe like I confound some people who wish they could still like me).

I always find it interesting that I most offend some people simply by being willing to sacrifice a little business in order to share political ideas I’ve picked up in my travels. The norm in our society today is to protect your career or business by keeping your ethics and personal beliefs to yourself. I keep meeting people who support the war they know is wrong because they work for a company that builds airplanes. I meet people at NORML conventions who can’t tell their workmates that they’re at a conference working to change marijuana laws because it would threaten their chances at a promotion. I keep meeting quiet people who believe in freedom who tell me it’s courageous to speak out.

Kathy: I once literally stood on a soapbox in London’s Speakers’ Corner and gave a little lecture…it was fun and drew a huge crowd. I like how you likened a blog to Speakers’ Corner. Now that you mention it, I think you’re correct.

I’ve been visiting Speakers’ Corner for 30 years. It’s like a dozen blogs raging simultaneously. Each loudmouth has his Humberd-ian sidekick. Gentlemanly, tone-deaf, and uninvited, he chimes in rhythmically, adding to the strangely lovable, eccentric mix that keeps people heading down to Hyde Park each Sunday morning.

Some people say I should stick to travel. After 25 years of giving my “budget travel” talk all over the USA, I now give a talk called “Travel as a Political Act.” It just feels so much more worthwhile. Maybe that’s why, when my church friends were moving from my conservative suburban Lutheran church to the hip, progressive one in downtown Seattle (back in the Iran/Contra days), I chose — as a matter of principle — to stay with my neighborhood church even though I was politically the odd duck.

I find that people who are most adamant about our right to militarize the Middle East to protect our access to its oil are also generally the most evangelical about the free market. If they believe in the free market, why not just let it work? Whatever you might think of Arab states, their natural resources are captive to the wonderful (and ultimately omnipotent) laws of supply and demand. They can only charge what the market will bear. If they charge too much, it will stimulate international markets to find an alternative. With military intervention, we subvert the free market. Come on, hawks and conservatives…trust in the free market (and trust in your ability to make money without wars). I believe that the $2 trillion we’re spending on this war has, ironically, created a vast and extremely profitable industry (more so even than in past wars) that cheats the free market…and the rest of us, too. I believe the free market will humble the Arab oil barons much more effectively (and economically) than our military.

Kent: I’m the first one to admit that travel takes oil. I wish there was bold and honest leadership to put an effective carbon tax on airfares so that those of us who fly had to pay for some program to make it carbon-neutral. If it cost $500 more per ticket, I’d be thankful for the opportunity to pay the true cost of the flight. If half as many people would then travel, I’d be perfectly willing to make half as much money in my business. (In a recent interview for an airline magazine, they asked me my prediction for the hot destination in the future. I said, “Our own backyard — as that’ll be the only place we’ll be able to go if we don’t get serious about climate change.”)

The problem as I see it is that our government is “government by the people via the corporations the people own.” Therefore it is elected primarily to create and protect a business-friendly environment for those corporations to profit-maximize (which is what they are legally obligated to do in the interest of their shareholders). A fundamental difference between us and Europe is that their government is by and for the people, even if that means legislating something not good for short-term business (e.g., making people pay for the disposal costs of a car when they purchase it). While I would much rather run my business here in the USA than in Europe, in the interest of people who will follow us, the environment, and a sustainable economy, I’d trade off a little business-friendliness for European priorities and ethics.

To Kent and others who wonder: For the record, as a matter of principle, I have never paid a penny beyond the price of an economy fare to fly. If someone bumps me up to business class, I’ll happily take it, but I really wish planes only offered economy class. (Frequently as I fly, I don’t keep track of my miles, either…but that’s for another blog entry.)

Maggie: I don’t take tax breaks for my “women’s violence shelter.” Until we need it ourselves, my wife and I have used our retirement nest egg to buy an apartment building that we let the YWCA use to house 24 single moms and their kids who would otherwise be homeless. If enjoying the tax-free joy of housing people rather than earning taxable interest income is a tax break, then maybe you’re correct. But I just think it’s a smart way to put your equity to good use until you need it later. (For all the details, go to the “About Rick/Media Corner” of our website and look under “Social Activism.”)

Laura: If you’d like the text of my “Travel as a Political Act” talk, go into that same Media Corner and find the article called “Innocence Abroad.” It’s pretty close, but I’m working on writing up the talk better.

Jeff: I didn’t feel the Marine acted disrespectfully to me. I respected his confidence that he was doing the right thing. You say the tone of my comments is “growing more anti-American and hateful every week.” I don’t mean to be unpatriotic or hateful. I actually believe I am motivated by a love of my country. And if I point out that we (via our military) have killed far more innocent people than terrorists have killed innocent Americans, I inject that truth into discussions not in a hateful way, but as a patriot. Allowing our country to be dumbed down by the media…now that’s anti-American. Dumb electorate = dumb government. And that’s a mistake that we can no longer afford.

My Mood Elevator

I just spent a very successful night in Spokane hosting a pledge marathon for KSPS. During six hours of travel shows, the station raised $90,000 — great by any standards in PBS…really great for Spokane.

The pledge producer commented that the money was “two to one from Canadians.” For years, American PBS stations have nurtured a loyal following north of our border and favored their Canadian supporters by promising “par for your dollars” for the various pledge gifts. Now, with the Canadian dollar actually worth more than our dollar, they still offer “par for your dollars”…but don’t bring the subject up.

My theory is that Canadians, who famously support American public television generously all across the northern USA, do so for their own national security interests (believing that a dumbed-down America can be dangerous, and an America open to the world is good for all). I played on that theme during the breaks (along with the fact that my Norwegian grandparents homesteaded in Edmonton, Alberta), and the phones really rang.

Just 45 minutes out of a deep sleep this morning, I’m at the cute little Spokane airport. It’s too early for me even to have a mood. Then it starts to dive.

Before joining the security line, I remember: no liquids. I gulp some of my apple juice and toss the half-full bottle into the bin. The security agent says, “Steve! I love your show.” Then she stares at my license, laboriously comparing the name on it to the name on my boarding pass. She asks, “Any liquids?” I answer, “Only in my bladder.”

Waiting at the second zag in a zigzag of stanchions, I stare at two bins: quart-sized plastic bags offered to hold our “plastic bottles under 3 ounces”; and plastic booties to protect the stocking feet of the travelers. All I can think of is the irony that these are both made of petroleum.

(BTW: All the luggage around me was made of petroleum, too…except mine, which was the hemp version of the Rick Steves Civita Daybag—which I sell at the same price as the normal bags even though the cost of the material is substantially higher for now. The tag reads, “This 100% hemp bag is patriotic — it contains no national-security-skewing petroleum products.”)

At the zig a few minutes later, I pass time by reading the headlines of the paper held by the man a row ahead of me. I see a story of the USA’s $20 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. Under it, there’s a small headline about Israel’s response to persistent Palestinian shelling from Gaza: “Gaza Strip in the Dark: Israel halted shipment of diesel required to run the only power plant in Gaza.”

Remembering the frustration in the voice of the Palestinian who once told me that the US government spends more on each Israeli citizen than it does on each American citizen, I imagined how angry the people of Gaza must be — in the dark with their children.

People around me are happy. The woman ahead of me seems to be a walking ad for all the goodies designed to get you through security in a hurry. Her mesh bags are see-through. Her bottles are neatly lined up. The army of TSA people are jovial, as if they just had a huddle and that was the game plan.

It seems like security is becoming an established part of life. Just like when we had to join our neighbors to buy a lockable mail box last year, I reminded myself to accept the reality and don’t be a grump. I struggled to keep my mood up.

I’m a two-bin traveler: one for the laptop and one for the jacket. I take off my jacket…put it in the bin. The TSA sergeant looks at my sweater and says, “Take off your jacket.” The line is moving slowly. Ahead, I see a frail old man helped out of his wheelchair to struggle through the security gate.

My boarding pass is checked again. I play with the idea that all this “security” might be designed not only to keep us safe…but scared and safe.

Walking to the nearest bench to put things back on, it occurs to me that my socks are not only cold…now they’re damp, too.

A little later, my plane tears past the colorful UPS, DHL, and FedEx planes, past the hidden Air Force bunkers, and lifts above the snowy prairie. Like a mood elevator, my plane climbs. I pop open my laptop and start writing this blog entry. And, like express delivery, I’ll soon be back in my office…happy to be working here in the USA.

P.T. Barnum and Empire

Wow, my last entry (comparing the USA to an empire) struck a chord and generated the most discussion of any posting since I started this blog — over a hundred comments. Apparently “empire” is a very sensitive issue. As several commented, it was refreshing to find the vast majority of the postings respectful of differing opinions. Ditto that emotion. And thank you.

That reminds me of something. Before I go on any conservative talk radio show these days — knowing I’m little more than shark bait for these guys — I have one precondition for my right-wing host: I make him acknowledge at the top of the show on the air to his listeners that I may be naive and I may be wrong, but I am motivated by a patriotic concern for the well-being of my country.

Of course, when doing radio interviews and other media, I’m generally (at least indirectly) promoting my business. I’m an animal about sneaking in a mention of my books or website. (See, I just did.) The only time I have not wanted to mention my website and my guidebooks during a radio interview was to a huge national audience, when I was on the Michael Medved show. His callers seemed so full of paranoia, anger, and aggression, that I didn’t want them to even know I had a business. This was a fascinatingly strange feeling for a guy who loves the P.T. Barnum axiom: “Just mention my name.” For one furious hour, I was a stealth travel company.

Anyway, I enjoyed the conversation the last entry generated. (To those of you who believe it is inappropriate for travel writers and other citizens to share their politics and that these issues should be entrusted only to professional politicians…I’m working on a response.) Thanks again for your ideas.

Ambushed in San Jose

Stepping out of the San Jose airport, I spied my driver waiting patiently with a little cardboard sign saying “Rick Steves.” Shaking his hand and identifying myself to him, I was interrupted by a good-looking, strapping young Marine in uniform. He apparently had seen the sign and was waiting to ambush me with a message. He said, “Excuse me, Mr. Steves. With the success of the coalition’s surge, do you take back your words about the war now?”

He caught me completely by surprise. He rattled me right out of a light and happy mood. I needed to respond. Without thinking much, I blurted out, “Surge or no surge, our war in Iraq is a waste of $2 trillion dollars and lots of blood.” As I hustled on toward my car, he responded almost as if saluting me, saying, “And we will fight and die to defend your freedom to say that.”

Settling into my car, I marveled at the illogic of soldiers “defending my freedom of speech” in Iraq. I wished I had time to actually talk with that Marine…about empire.

In preparation for a talk I was giving at the San Jose Commonwealth Club that afternoon, I looked up the meaning of “empire.” I found this definition: “An empire is a state that extends its dominion over a population that is distinct ethnically and culturally from the culture and ethnicity of that state’s center of power…usually with coercion.”

“Empire” certainly has a negative connotation — bloody, keeping people down, militaristic. The Bible teaches that empire and Christ were (and are) at odds.

While we are not your standard political empire, I see our nation acting like an empire. Our country, with four percent of the planet’s population, spends as much on its military as every other nation combined (and, these days, it’s tough to get elected without promising even more). We maintain military bases in 130 countries as if it’s our right to do so. In many foreign lands, the biggest and most fortified building in the entire country is the embassy of the USA. Only we can declare the natural resources of another nation on the opposite side of the globe (e.g., oil in the Middle East) “vital to our national security interests.” I believe it would be more honest to justify our foreign policy by calling those resources “vital to our material lifestyle.”

A friend of mine recently made a strong case trying to convince me that, as a taxpayer of a country at war, I am not an “innocent civilian” but a combatant. I do believe that, when we wage a war, every bullet that flies and every bomb that falls — whether justified or not — has my name on it. (That’s why sometimes I can’t just “lighten up.”)

In my office, I have a statue I purchased at a Christmas market in Central America. Every winter, poor children in places like El Salvador buy these painted clay figurines with three characters: a bloody slain peasant (the “Christ figure”) at the feet of two camouflaged, US-equipped-and-funded soldiers (tools of empire). Each Christmas, Christian peasants scoot these gory trios into their manger scenes along with Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds — empowered by this vivid (Liberation Theology) reminder of Roman Empire/American Empire parallels.

Good Americans can differ on whether our foreign policy is right or wrong, if our latest war is justified, and to what degree we are an empire. But it is clear that we are seen by others as an empire.

Empires always have angry people on their fringes nipping at them. Throughout history, the “Redcoats” of various empires have wished their enemies would line up in formation so they could carpet-bomb them. But any guerilla commander knows that, when fighting an empire, you strike from the bushes.

Empires call these people different things: “barbarians” eventually sacked Rome; “anarchists” assassinated the prince and eventually brought down the Hapsburgs; and today “terrorists” threaten America. Just as earlier empires broadened the meaning of those other terms, we will see more and more angry enemies of “our interests” labeled “terrorists” — whether villagers in the Niger Delta fighting international oil companies, Palestinians chafing at new walls, guerillas fighting US anti-drug forces in South America, or suicide bombers offended by Christian troops in their holy land.

As we fight “terrorists” on more and more fronts, I think it would be more honest if we called our military “forces of the empire” rather than “coalition forces.” (By the way, I found it extremely annoying that the USSR claimed to put down popular uprisings in Czechoslovakia and Hungary with “Warsaw Pact” troops — clearly a sham “coalition.”)

Thankfully, unlike empires of the past, we have the freedom (that the Marine in San Jose believes he is defending) to change a course that unites angry people against us. Using our democracy and freedom as a weapon, we can design a happier ending than that which finished the story of Rome, the Hapsburgs, and other long-gone empires.

The Tyranny of a Weekly Hour

One hundred and twenty weeks ago, when I committed myself to producing a regular radio show, someone wise with experience sighed, “You’re taking on the tyranny of a weekly hour.”

That’s a funny thing — how easy it is to jump at a creative challenge, and then realize you have just adopted a chore that continues at a regular interval until it fails or until you kill it. Thankfully nothing is failing. And I like my little creations too much to kill any of them.

Lately, I’ve felt the mounting tyrannies of my ongoing commitments: annual guidebook updates, a new TV series every two years (the tempo I’ve maintained since 1990), an hour every week for public radio, a weekly column for my newspaper syndicate, and even this blog.

Perhaps the toughest is the weekly radio show. With 70 or so stations running it each week and my wonderful producer (Tim Tattan) doing such a fine job, it’s a thrill. And we have a serious responsibility not to stumble in our production schedule. We always have a few weeks of episodes in the can…but it seems we always need to be producing more. Next week we’ve scheduled a two-and-a-half day frenzy of interview recordings to get the raw material for, I hope, 8 or 10 new shows. (We’ll be streaming the interview sessions live and taking call-ins — to be announced on our website.)

When I took on the radio show, I unrealistically figured I could crank out shows with just a couple hours of work for each. But it takes much more time. We need to set up the interviews and prepare the questions. (I’m put off by interviewers who don’t prepare before an interview with me, so I feel an obligation to the experts we have on the show to be ready with a thoughtful interview.) Then, after the recording sessions, we need to write and record all the promos. I can’t bear to have sloppy promos airing all over the country — so these take a fair amount of time, too. In January, I’m looking ahead at my annual travels (being gone for April, May, July and August), which means we’ll need shows in the can to cover us until September.

And then there’s the rest of life. (We’ve got some pretty exciting projects cookin’.)

Someone just asked where our son Andy was. I said in Prague. They asked, “What’s he doing there?” I said, “Just hanging out.” Who’s he with? Alone. Has he been there before? Nope. I offered to get Andy a room. He said he’d prefer to just get there and find a hostel that felt the most fun. Andy’s confidence as a 20-year-old on the road brings me great joy. (In a week, he’ll stop “hanging out” and report for studies for his Notre Dame semester in Rome.)