Rick Steves is a personal hero of mine. He’s the original travel influencer before that was even a thing. I admire most the depth of his dedication to cultural exchange. He hosts a popular public television show, produces a best-selling guidebook series, a weekly public radio show, and a syndicated travel column. He’s considered one of the world’s experts on travel to Europe. But Rick doesn’t travel to be on TV, nor for the books, or the glamour or the glory. Rick’s travel ethos is that the best souvenir we can bring back is a new perspective. Travel is central to understanding ourselves and growing to be the best we can be. But sometimes we can’t travel, and for that, there’s virtual reality.
Like Rick, I first got hooked on travel beyond the beaches. My curiosity brought me to Cuba as a student, in 2016. Little did I know that in the five months I was there I would witness the historical milestones of Obama’s trip to the island, the Rolling Stones concert, and a real sense that change was in the air.
We were there to interview Rick for the Cuba Dreams documentary series, a four-part film project about Cuba today set to premiere nationally in fall 2020 on American Public Television.
Before I went to Cuba, there was always a nagging question: What is on the other side? There’s something about human nature that we most want to experience that which we are told we can’t. I felt like Harry Potter going into the forbidden forest. Half-expecting platoons of green fatigues marching the streets, I fell in love with the Cuba I encountered. So much so that I’ve spent the last few years sharing that experience with others through documentary film, music, and virtual reality.
Sometimes Havana, especially Habana Vieja, feels like an anthill. The tourists are the ants, of course. They follow each other blindly in meandering lines that wind through the cobblestone streets and plazas of Old Havana. It’s amazing what happens when we can’t perfectly curate a sorted list of restaurants, rated by their brunch specials, within a narrow radius of our location and comfort zone. What happens when you step off the beaten track?
When the time came, I took out the VR headset and brought Rick on a trip to Cuba. There’s no faster way to travel.
With this mindset, travel becomes about connecting, sharing meals, conversation, and dreams. To each person I met, I asked a simple question with complex answers: What is your dream for Cuba?
The thing about dreams is that they are abstract until they are real. Sometimes it’s embarrassing to even give voice to a dream. They elude until they manifest. But I find that when we dream together something magical happens. Dreams multiply. They are shared and disagreed with, they are built upon, and soon enough, a dream becomes something of its own.
Under this premise, I made my way to Edmonds, Washington, Rick Steves’ home town. You can literally see his middle school from his office. Edmonds is a small coastal town about thirty minutes north of Seattle. It’s ironic how Rick travels the world, and yet always returns home. It’s this balance of the local home and the global home that form a beautiful metaphor of how travel is not just about the experience of being somewhere foreign; rather it’s about what you do with those experiences. How do you share them?
“Cuba is a beautiful flower, why can’t we let that flower blossom?”Rick Steves
As a storyteller, I am aware that one effect of the U.S. embargo against Cuba is that it’s not just an embargo on trade and travel. It’s an embargo on stories, too. An embargo on people-to-people connections. It’s under these conditions that we conceptualize the “other,” propaganda becomes more effective, and our shared humanity becomes blurred. Two parallel narratives propagating along the same course of history, each with their distinct spins, fallacies, and agendas. But what if we could break the embargo through storytelling? With a documentary series, and using new technology like 360 videos, volumetric capture, and virtual reality, that’s exactly what we did.
Rick Steves’ headquarters is a travel hub in downtown Edmonds, WA, near Seattle. The lobby is covered in maps, guidebooks, the record of someone who lives to share their travel experiences. Making our way to a conference room we sat down for our interview. Our conversation dove into comparing different Latin American countries, Rick’s most visceral travel experiences in Cuba, and his view on engagement with Cuba.
We were there to interview Rick for the Cuba Dreams documentary series, a four-part film project about Cuba today set to premiere nationally in fall 2020 on American Public Television. As part of this project, we ask each participant “What is your dream for Cuba?” When the time came, I took out the VR headset and brought Rick Steves on a trip to Cuba. There’s no faster way to travel.
Virtual Reality (VR) is the use of computer technology to create a simulated environment. Unlike media consumption, VR places the user inside an experience. Instead of viewing a screen in front of them, users are immersed and able to interact with 3D worlds.
It was Rick’s first time using virtual reality. He tenderly put on the virtual reality headset. The VR experience took Rick into tunnels dating back to the Cuban missile crisis. To the storefront of Clandestina (Cuba’s first independent fashion brand), and to Brooklyn, New York, where they had set up a pop-up shop. These VR experiences have reconnected diasporic families for the first time, closing the physical distance and circumnavigating the many legal and personal reasons why so many Cuban Americans have never returned to their homeland. After a few minutes, Rick took off the headset and was back on our film set, back in Edmonds, and yet connected to Cuba in a new way.
Rick’s dream is for Cuba to reach its full potential. For Cuba to develop in its own unique way, independent of foreign influence, and free from oppressive policies. He said, “Cuba is a beautiful flower, why can’t we let that flower blossom?”
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Rick is not a supporter of dictatorships, or of communism. Rather, he knows that we learn about ourselves when we travel, and only through engaging with the ‘other’ do we realize that amongst all the difference is a swath of similarities. Perhaps we’re more similar than it seems on the surface.
This is an exercise in collective dreaming. If you’re reading this, I want to know: What is your dream for Cuba? Let us know and tag #CubaDreams.
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