Rick Steves – From Iran to Salon

Travel Perspectives, Travel Writers & Books — By on March 23, 2009 at 7:14 am

Rick Steves may be famous for his European travel guides, but he’s also a huge proponent of going beyond the tourist trail and using travel as a means to learn about oneself and the world. He went to Iran a while back in order to produce a documentary about that country and recently caught up with Salon magazine to talk about his experiences.

Here is a brief excerpt from the Salon interview, discussing his experience with the Iranians:

 What can your Iran show say to American hard-liners?

When I made the show, I was not interested in endorsing or challenging the complaints we have about Iran’s government. Maybe they do fund terrorism, maybe they do want to destroy Israel, maybe they do stone adulterers. I don’t know. I just wanted to humanize the country and understand what makes its people tick.

When I came home after the most learning 12 days of travel I’ve ever had in my life, I realized this is a proud nation of 70 million people. They are loving parents, motivated by fear for their kids’ future and the culture they want to raise their kids in. I had people walk across the street to tell me they don’t want their kids to be raised like Britney Spears. They are afraid Western culture will take over their society and their kids will be sex toys, drug addicts and crass materialists. That scares the heck out of less educated, fundamentalist, small-town Iranians, which is the political core of the Islamic Revolution and guys like Ahmadinejad…

Do you want your film to have a political impact in the U.S.?

Well, yes. I talked to 2,000 people in Tulsa today. After I explained this to them, I am convinced they now have a little less self-assuredness in thinking that Iran is the evil our government wants us to think it is. I was actually scared to go to Iran. We almost left our big camera in Athens and took our little sneak camera instead. I thought people would be throwing stones at us in the streets. And when I got there, I have never felt a more friendly welcome because I was an American. It was just incredible. I was in a traffic jam in Tehran, a city of 10 million people, and a guy in the next car saw me in the back seat and had my driver roll the window. He then handed over a bouquet of flowers and said, “Give this bouquet to the foreigner in your back seat and apologize for our traffic.”

And some comments on travel and tourism:

Echoing Paul Bowles’ famous line, what’s the difference between a tourist and a traveler?

I’ll give you an example. A few years ago, my family was excited to go to Mazatlán. You get a little strap around your wrist and can have as many margaritas as you want. They only let you see good-looking local people, who give you a massage. There’s nothing wrong with that. But I don’t consider it travel. I consider it hedonism. And I have no problem with hedonism. But don’t call it travel. Travel should bring us together.

That same week, I was invited to go to El Salvador and remember the 25th anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. I thought, “I’m not going to be any fun on the beach in Mazatlán, I have to go to San Salvador.” So I went down there and I had a miserable, sweaty dorm bed, covered with bug bites. We ate rice and beans one day, and beans and rice the next day. But it was the richest educational experience. It just carbonated my understanding of globalization and the developing world, and Latin America. I was in hog heaven. And I’ve been enjoying souvenirs from that ever since. Whereas my wife just gained a few pounds on the beach in Mazatlán.

Do you think tourism gets in the way of experiencing a foreign place?

Oh, yeah. But if you’re savvy, you understand the tourism industry just wants to dumb you down and go shopping. So you have to be smart. I was just in Tangiers, which is where all the people go from Spain’s Costa del Sol resorts for their one day in Africa. It’s a carefully staged series of Kodak moments. They have a lunch. They see a belly dancer. They see the snake charmers. They buy their carpet. And they hop back on the boat to Spain. When I see them, I can’t help but think of a self-imposed hostage crisis. They put themselves in the control of their guide and never meet anybody except those who want to make money off of them. It’s a pathetic day in Africa.

Check out the entire Salon article, in which Steves covers many other topics.

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1 Comment

  1. Diane Hulen says:

    I am sorry for Rick’s unfortunate experience in Mazatlán. I live here, in the old town. It is a lovely city and, except for the hotel strip where Rick stayed, there is a lot to see and learn. Travellers come here too, not just tourists! They come for different reasons, of course. D-

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