Indie Traveler Interview: Rick Steves

On Monday, BootsnAll announced a project that we, together with travel writer and vagabonding expert Rolf Potts, have been working on. The Indie Travel Manifesto is a community-curated statement about a particular style of travel – the kind that emphasizes slowing down, interacting with and learning about the local culture, and seeing the world around you in shades of gray, not black and white, right or wrong. 

As part of the Manifesto creation, we asked some of our favorite indie travelers to give us their thoughts on travel and how indie travel helps them better understand themselves and the world around them. 

Here’s what Rick Steves, travel guidebook writer and Europe travel expert, had to say. 

Travel gives me a better, more real grasp of what’s actually out there. I meet people I wouldn’t normally encounter in my day-to-day home life. It makes me a better citizen of our world, as well as a more thankful American.

Travel has taught me that different people find different truths to be “self-evident” and “God-given.” It humbles me. It stokes my curiosity. It helps me celebrate rather than fear the diversity on our planet. It makes it tougher for those with an agenda to shape my perspective. It keeps me young.

Before going to Iran, I figured people there would be angry at an American they’d meet on the street. What I found reminded me that only by actually going someplace in person can you understand the sentiment of people living there. We were stuck in a traffic jam one day in Tehran. I was just sitting patiently in the back seat of our car when the man in the next car motioned to our driver to roll down the window. He handed over a bouquet of flowers and said, “Please give this to the foreigner in your back seat and apologize for our traffic.” This was typical of the warmth and friendliness I experienced throughout my adventure in a country that is supposed to be our enemy.

It takes discipline to let serendipity trump carefully laid plans. For me, a fundamental goal in my travels is to have meaningful contact with local people. When an opportunity in this regard presents itself, I jump on it. Driving by a random cheese festival in Sicily? Stop the car. Get out. Experience it. Hiking through England’s Lake District and popping into a pub for a drink? Don’t sit at a table. Sit at the bar where people hang out to talk. Dinner time in Mostar, Bosnia? Don’t go to the touristy places on the riverside again. Turn away from the tourist center and head out to the Bulevar (the boulevard)—the front line of the sectarian troubles and be the first American to eat at a new local eatery. Talk with the owner about how Muslims and Christians are peacefully co-existing. Connecting with people is what carbonates your travel experience.

I was sitting solitary on a bench enjoying the floodlit façade of a Gothic cathedral in Reims, France. It was dark and after eight. I was munching on a baguette with cheese. Suddenly the bum on the next bench leaned over and offered me a swig from his crumpled-up plastic bottle of red wine. I didn’t take it…but the gesture and his smile juxtaposed with that glorious Gothic façade warmed my meal and helped complete an experience that gave me a memory I’ll enjoy for the rest of my life.

If on vacation, I prefer to keep things more open. But as I’m generally working on my guidebooks or TV shows, my time on the road is pretty scheduled. For most travelers, I’d recommend to have a thoughtful and detailed plan, but don’t be a slave to it.

Like skiing with bent knees makes the moguls fun, you need to take risks, get out of your comfort zone, have a positive attitude, and enjoy the bumps in the road. I like to say that if things aren’t to your liking, change your liking.

Are you an indie traveler? Sign the Manifesto and share your thoughts about indie travel! 

All photos courtesy of Rick Steves and may not be used without permission.