Don’t let Rick Steves fool you. The man whose name is nearly synonymous with travel might have an amiable demeanor familiar to anyone who knows his PBS series or many guidebooks, but beneath that slightly nerdy exterior beats the fiery heart of a provocateur traveler.
And he has a message: Travel isn’t just about collecting memories; it’s about broadening one’s mind.
“You can travel in a way that gets you closer to the world,” Steves told Oklahoma Gazette, “or travel in a way that exacerbates the differences between us and where we’re visiting.”
It’s a lesson Steves plans to impart Saturday evening when he lectures at a sold-out event at Oklahoma Christian University, part of a nationwide tour in which the renowned travel writer is spreading the gospel of leaving home. He considers it a particularly salient message for an American culture characterized by complacency and xenophobia.
“Americans tend to be hung up on a lot of things that betray the fact that they don’t get out very much,” said Steves. “I think fear is for people who don’t get out very much.”
Steves’ expertise about travel transcends matters of how to pack lightly or find the best hotel. While he said those skills certainly remain valuable, his views about traveling abroad have evolved to encompass bigger issues.
“When you travel, you humanize people. It’s more difficult for their propaganda to demonize us, and its more difficult for our propaganda to demonize them,” he said.
To illustrate his point, Steves referred to a 2009 trip he made to Iran.
“I thought it was good character to know people before you bomb them,” he said dryly.
What he found, Steves said, was a warm and friendly people. He recalled one day a motorist even offered him a bouquet of flowers by way of apologizing for Tehran’s relentless traffic.
Steves conceded that Americans have plenty of psychological baggage as the result of Sept. 11, 2001.
“We lost 3,000 people on 9/11. That was tragic, but it shouldn’t change our whole way of looking at the world — and it really has,” he said. “Other countries have similar baggage.
“If we can gain empathy with other people’s baggage, that’s a huge thing. That’s a very constructive thing. A lot of Americans are only motivated by national security. If that’s all you care about, it’s important to get out there and better understand the other 96 percent of humanity.”