The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


August 22, 2007

Rick Steves on meaningful travel

Veteran guide Rick Steves believes good travel is meaningful travel. In his 30 years as an author, television host and tour leader, Steves has learned that it's all about meeting people with other views and values.

"It's the people that carbonate the experience. If I can't get my travelers in touch with real people, the experience is going to fall flat," Steves said in a recent edition of "Grace Matters," the radio ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Steves brings his faith perspective with him as he travels and leads other travelers. He is a member of an ELCA congregation in Lynnwood, Wash.

With his enthusiastic and unpretentious style, Steves has taught millions of Americans how to make the most of their vacations abroad through his 30 guidebooks and his popular public television series "Rick Steves' Europe."

Steves knows that good travel means more than being fed and pampered, although those are important factors.

"I sell a lot of guidebooks because I list a lot of restaurants and hotels, but my passion is to inspire people and equip people to travel in a way that broadens their perspective and celebrates the world," Steves said. "Of course, the practical hook is the tips and the tricks and the budget ideas."

As a young man returning to Europe summer after summer, Steves realized that his fellow American travelers -- honeymooners, retirees and families on once-in-a-lifetime trips — were making the same mistakes he had made on previous trips.

"I thought if I could just package the lessons I've learned from my experience, other people could learn from my mistakes rather than their own and travel better, and I would have a good excuse to go to Europe every year and update my material," he said.

Europe is the focus of his work, because in Steves' estimation Europe is the wading pool for American travelers. "They go to Europe first, they gain their confidence, and then they can go further afield in the developing world."

For Steves, further afield means places such as Papua New Guinea, El Salvador and India. Steves rates India the most culturally stimulating country he's visited. His most memorable trip was to Central America on a tour that uncovered the faith of people living in economic hardship. "The faith of people in Central America blows away a lot of Americans and Europeans who visit," he said.

"When you travel (in developing countries), you realize that the poorest people on the planet operate from a mindset of abundance while the richest people operate from a mindset of scarcity. That's a very challenging thing," Steves said.

When Steves walked on a garbage dump in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, he saw adults scrambling to meet the dump trucks to pick out half-used batteries they could sell at the markets. In that moment, said Steves, "I realized, these are parents, they've got kids (to feed)."

Through face-to-face encounters with a few of the billions of people who live on $2 per day or less, Steves has found that his priorities back home have changed. "It's inexcusable that there's a tsunami worth of casualties among children every week for simple water- and hunger-related illnesses that could very easily be addressed if we had those priorities," he said.

Steves believes that once you've met with people who find "God-given truths to be self-evident" that are different from those of the average U.S. citizen, it changes the way you see the world. "There is just nothing as valuable to understand our world out there as to physically leave your home and go far away and look at your home from a distance."

Listen to audio clips from "Expanding Your World," the May 13, 2007, interview with Rick Steves on "Grace Matters."

Watch a 12-minute Mosaic video interview on "Faithful Travel."

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Embracing diversity