Travel as a Change Agent

cinque terre church

The World Affairs Council of Charlotte hosted Rick Steves on March 13, 2013 for an evening presentation. I wrote a guest post for their blog, “Rick Steves ‘Broadening Worldview through Travel,'” but I had a personal interest as well in attending the event. Long before my husband and I were watching Steves’ PBS specials, I had benefited first-hand from his travel guidance: Two friends and I celebrated a very special Easter Sunday weekend in Cinque Terre thanks to his reconaissance and sharing. It was a great opportunity to hear from the man behind the book.

This is our story.

Originally we considered visiting Rome for the sacred holiday, but opted instead for a quiet, discreet detour to the side of a few craggy hills that jutted up against the coast. One small grocery store, a couple beds for rent, a cold shower, pastel houses stacked one upon the other upon the earth, slightly leaning out to sea, and windows pulled over the streets by clotheslines, packed so much ambiance into such a small space that I was dazzled for the entire trip.

There are five (cinque) villages connected by rail and foot path. In our short weekend we would explore most of them, hike the part of the trail that was open, encounter a fellow Rick Steves traveler, run into a Candian family who outed us for claiming that we were Canadian, enjoy a cool dip in the sea, and take sunset pictures that are still among my favorites.

But the best memory was Easter Sunday. We were clearly the outsiders, but we walked to the village church as the bells rang for the start of service. One Catholic and two Protestants. There were small children playing soccer in the dusty space outside the front door. I started to suspect film crews were about because it was textbook idyllic. The service was in Italian so we followed along as best we could. The Catholic in the group had an edge for the standing, sitting, go to the front routine. I believe at one point I crossed myself with the wrong hand and got a stern glance from her.

But it was beautiful. It was a gathering of Christians celebrating a holiday unadorned by pastels and small rodents; a tribute to community, tradition, and faith. I didn’t understand a word of it, but I understood it.

When we did make it to Rome, my Protestant friend and I visited the Christian catacombs. I got chills listening to a small group singing “Amazing Grace” beneath the ground among the skulls and skeletons of Christians before us.

Steves’ speech made a compelling case for the power of travel as a political agent – think breaking down stereotypes and stimulating discussion on different approaches to universal problems (if you want to know more about his ideas, I summarized parts of the lecture in the aforementioned post). Travel is also, for me, a spiritual conduit, and this trip was my first glimpse into appreciating the many ways that Christians worship around the world.

I think it’s fair to say that travel has the potential to change a person in  many ways – in expected and unexpected places – so this summer, grab a guidebook and go somewhere new. I can’t guarantee a spiritual epiphany if you follow one of Steves’ books, but I can say that he has an unparalleled passion for travel that is thoughtful and challenging – a good combination.

Have you had any “ah-ha” moments when traveling (funny or serious)?

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