Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Travel as a Political Act by Rick Steves

On one of my many joyful trips to Barnes and Noble with my mom I spotted this book... Travel as a Political Act by Rick Steves.  With my summer just about packed with trips, I figured it would be an appropriate read and... I LOVED IT!!!  

I spent my morning driving my father to the airport for his trip to Budapest, Hungary and Prague, Czech Republic.  I've been trying to sneak my way onto this trip with him and was almost successful (I  had the plane ticket and everything), but ultimately it didn't work out and I'm left sitting here in Salt Lake - still with my sore throat going on 4 weeks now - trying not to get too down in the dumps that I'm missing out on such a fabulous trip.  I think I am even more saddened to be missing out after reading this supremely intriguing and eye opening book.  I highly recommend EVERYONE read it - even if you are not planning a trip abroad anytime soon.  Rick Steves has honestly been just about everywhere (his list of destinations is jaw dropping)  and even if you don't travel so much, you can learn from his experience.

Steves quotes Mark Twain who says, "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow- mindedness."  I haven't been on that many trips out of the country, but after the few I have been on, I definitely agree.   Steves says, "On returning home from a major trip, you sense that your friends and coworkers have stayed the same but you're... different.  It's enlightening and unsettling at the same time."  After hearing this statement, I am reminded of my trip to Ghana last summer, which I still find myself dissecting, pondering, and reflecting on almost everyday.  That trip truly changed me, and after my three weeks there, I am a firm believer that everyone should travel to Africa, Ghana especially.

My sister, the parasite expert, says she never wants to go to Africa.  She has read of too many illnesses that can be contracted there.  I made it in and out of Africa without so much as a stomach ache.  I realize many are not so lucky, but this sheds light on the plight of those that live there.  While spending time with my host family, two of their daughters, both young girls, were sick with Malaria.  They get this illness every now and then - in the same way that we might contract a cold - and they just take a quick trip to the hospital and have it dealt with as soon as possible...  it didn't really seem like it had a major effect on their lives because this is something they deal with every day.  How lucky are we that we don't have to go about our daily lives worrying about Malaria or Yellow Fever?  And I'm such a wonderfully privileged person, that if I did have a healthcare concern I can get healthcare quite easily.  There is a problem with healthcare in the United States, but ultimately we are lucky to have such an advanced system. The risk of illness was nothing compared to the things I learned there and the amazing people I met.  It is a risk I would easily take again.

While walking down the streets of Ghana, when entering a home, entering a shop, checking in to our hotel... I constantly heard the greeting "woe zo" -  "you are welcome."  I was welcomed every single place I went.  Everyone was so unbelievably kind and generous and willing to talk to me.  Everyone wanted to hear about the United States and they wanted to talk about their country of Ghana.  They were open and willing to discuss just about anything.  I felt that people I had just met on the street had a genuine interest in who I was and why I was there.  Everyone wanted to be my friend.  We took a brief visit to the Art Center - a shopping market, primarily for tourists, in Accra the capital city.  Everyone welcomed me into their shop, woe zo!  I spent some time talking with people ever so briefly.  When I came back 3 weeks later, I was remembered!  The people I had met remembered my name, remembered where I was from, what I had bought and considered me their friend.  At the grocery store I have visited once, maybe twice a week, for the last 4 years in Salt Lake, nobody knows my name.  I don't think an African walking down the streets of my city - a very friendly city by US standards- would ever be greeted with a warm smile and a welcome.  

While walking through the village of Dzodze, I came across a window shutter that had written on it "Poor in Pocket, but Happy in Life."  This is the epitome of Ghana.  I spent my days with an amazingly kind family that lives in a modest house, had no running water, and uses very little electricity.  The family of 5 creates so little trash that they are able to dump what little they make outside their home.  While we were there, the parents took days off of work to give us tours of their village (which was not small - when I say village, I really mean city).  They spent the day cooking for us and giving us cooking lessons.  They took us to church and let us tour their hospital.  They paid for us to take motor bike rides (the best form of a taxi) and bought us water knowing their water would make us sick.  Finally, they had complete Ghanaian outfits made especially for us and even gave us matching jewelry.  I was touched beyond words that a family who, by American standards, has so little could give us so much.  They were unspeakably kind and generous.  When I returned to the states I got into an argument with an ex boyfriend over money.  I couldn't help but wonder at that point to what extent money has ruined us as a culture and kept us from appreciating the little things in life and the kindness of others.  After returning from Ghana I realized I would rather be "poor in pocket but happy in life" than have any great amount of riches.  I already have lived a life of such unbelievable privilege, but I am most lucky to have a loving family and amazing friends.

Rick Steves brings up so many important points in his book, Travel as a Political Act.  The whole world is acutely aware of what goes on in the United States.  When I said I was from the US, while traveling through Ghana in the Summer of 2008, everyone asked me if I was planning on voting for Obama.  I didn't even know the name of the current Prime Minister of Ghana.  The rest of the world is so affected by the decisions made by the United States, yet many of us as voters are painfully unaware of what goes on in the rest of the world and the difference our vote makes in others' lives- myself included.  Steves talks about how other countries do their taxes, how they deal with their healthcare, their education system, their public transportation, their "war on drugs," and even their take on poverty and hunger.  Steves and I both agree that we are unbelievably lucky to live in a country as absolutely fabulous as the United States of America, but that doesn't mean that we don't have a lot to learn from the rest of the world.  Steves mentions, "I like to say (naively, I know) that if every American were required to travel abroad  before voting, the US would fit more comfortably into this ever-smaller planet."   If you can't afford to travel abroad, at least read this book.

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