Arts & Culture News

Rick Steves on Israel, Palestine, and Smoking Pot

By Monica Hinman "People used to say 'Bon Voyage", comments Rick Steves at the beginning of our phone conversation. It was a way to express excitement and adventure, instead of "Have a safe trip," which suggests fear and danger. Why such an ominous farewell?

Travel is safer than ever but when was the last time anyone wished you "Bon Voyage"? Has technology changed the way we think about travel and our world? To Steves' mind, the answer is yes. He suggests that today a sensationalist news industry capitalizes on crises and presents 'caricatures' rather than human beings, contributing to a sense that the world is a dangerous place. In his latest television special, The Holy Land: Israelis and Palestinians Today, Steves introduces the viewer to "average citizens, not radicals," attempting "to bring empathy for the people of this complex and confusing place."

And he'll be at the Winspear Opera House at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday to talk about his latest adventures.

RIck Steves began his travels as an 18 year old on a backpacking trip through Europe that his companion, a high school buddy, jokingly referred to as "Europe through the gutter." Steves' wide-eyed curiosity and sense of adventure made him a natural explorer and he honed his travel skills and wrote some of the first guides that recommended affordable ways to travel and actually see the way countries work. Skip the Ritz Carlton, stay at the tiny, local inn.

He wanted people to find their own "Eureka moments," about the world and its citizens. In 1979, he wrote his first travel guide, Europe Through the Back Door. And for the next 30-some years, he has lived out of a suitcase and written more than 50 travel guides and hosted over 100 travel shows on PBS.

Steves uses a thoughtful approach to travel and in The Holy Land, he explains his goal was to "not answer questions; but explain the narrative, and allow people to draw their own conclusions."

This hour long television show which he considers "'a 6,000 word carefully crafted artful documentary" aired on PBS channels in September and his 2009 book Travel as a Political Act will be re-released to include a 48 page travel journal of this trip.

He recounts being moved to tears many times as he witnessed the depth of the faith of imams, Christian pilgrims orJewish families as they worshipped. He cites the commonality of man in their "love of God, the treasure of children and parents, their dreams and aspirations."

In the Holy Land special, he shares the stories of both Israelis and Palestinians, "the heartbreaking challenges, and the deep historical scars." His trip took him to refugee camps filled with Palestinian children playing with toy guns pretending to shoot Jews and the settlements where the Israeli children were pretending to shoot Palestinians. I asked if this was discouraging.

"As a boy I played with guns and my enemies were Indians," he says. "All children are shooting their parents enemies."

And while, he won't say he feels optimistic about the chances for a resolution to the decades-old conflict, this trip made him more committed to starting a conversation which may in some way facilitate a means for peace.

When asked if he would ever run for political office, Steves remarks that there are other ways of making legislative change. "I'm more of a medieval jester, who leaves the castle, hears all the dirty jokes and then reports back to the king what his people are saying about him," Steves laughs. "Well, the king may not always like it."

Not one to shy away from controversial topics, Steves claims to have a European perspective on marijuana, believing America would be wise to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana use. On October 7, he sets out on a six day, ten city tour to advocate for the passage of Prop 91 which would legalize marijuana in Oregon.

To that, we say: "Bon Voyage, Rick!"

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