1:21 p.m., March 26, 2010----Travel writer Rick Steves is a firebrand preacher
Regular viewers of his PBS travel show, “Rick Steves' Europe,” may find it hard to envision. The jovial, khaki-clad Steves bounds around Europe taking in the sights while doling out advice about affordable hotels and best place to grab a crepe, a smile almost always genuinely occupying the real estate of his face.
But, he has a message and he's not afraid to sermonize. On Thursday, he brought it to Arsht Hall on UD's Wilmington campus as the featured speaker at the University of Delaware Library Associates annual dinner.
Steves preaches the transformative power of travel. The author of more than 40 travel books, he recently penned Travel as a Political Act. His speech of the same name encouraged audience members to go abroad to experience history and culture, but also to see what life is like for 96 percent of the planet's citizens, the ones who are not American.
“Travel should change you, get you out of your comfort zone,” he said. “When you travel you realize there's exciting struggles going on that we would be clueless to if we didn't get out there and talk to these people.”
To illustrate his point, Steves relayed the details of a trip to El Salvador. He was invited to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, a champion of the poor in El Salvador. He told the dinner crowd that marching with the people through the city streets, visiting at the country's civil war memorial etched with the names of the dead, was the richest travel experience of his life, because he viewed the soul of the people there.
“I was in a bunk bed dorm, covered in bug bites, eating rice and beans one day and beans and rice the next,” he said, noting he chose the trip over another opportunity -- to relax on a Mexican beach.
Steves' devout followers, like dinner attendee Charlene Prucker, knew the basic tenets of his sermon well.
“He just gets past all the materialistic and really dives into the culture of the people,” she said.
Vignettes about interactions with locals popped up throughout his hour-long speech to more than 175 library supporters. Steves mentioned a conversation with an Irishman from the country's west coast: “I asked him, 'Have you lived here all your life?'” Steves relayed. “He said, 'Not yet.'”
Steves described an archeologist he knows as “the Indiana Jones of the (German region of) Tirol” and even discussed some of Europe's smaller inhabitants -- birds. Of the continent known for its advanced high-speed rail system, he said, “Europe's a dangerous place if you're a small bird.”
While he took a light tone in many of his stories, his message was a serious one, exemplified by a recent trip to Iran.
“People ask me, 'Why did I go to Iran?' I went to Iran because I think it's important to know people before you bomb them,” he said. “It's important we have a more reasoned understanding of why these people are saying 'damn America.'”
The prospect of visiting Iran scared him, he said, but what he saw enlightened him. Steves said he realized many of the people are victims of propaganda: frightened, poorly educated, fundamentalists, often parents. As one mother told him, “we just don't want our girls to be raised like Britney Spears.” Steves told the dinner crowd, “Neither do we.”
“I wanted to humanize the place and I had the greatest experience,” he said.
Steves' was invited to share his experiences by the UDLA, a group dedicated to expanding and enriching the knowledge base at the University through the library's special collections.
In his address at the dinner, UD President Patrick Harker described the event as “an unabashed celebration of research, study and scholarship.”
To that end, UDLA President Wilson Braun presented a check for $43,000, the proceeds of the event, to Harker and Susan Brynteson, UD vice provost and May Morris Director of Libraries. The money goes toward the acquisition of rare materials for the library's special collections.
As Steves wrapped up his presentation, he reiterated his challenge to travel as a political act, travel to broaden your perspective and come face to face with some of the world's less pleasant realities.
He ended with his own version of an amen, telling the crowd, “Happy travels!”
Article by Andrea Boyle
Photo by Kevin Quinlan