By Joel Widzer Travel columnist
updated 12/27/2006 12:00:57 PM ET 2006-12-27T17:00:57

Increasingly, travel is woven into our daily lives. Whether for business, pleasure or holiday merry-making, travel is as much a part of our lives as MP3 players and cable TV.

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With so many people traveling (42 million Americans will travel over the holidays alone), I’d like to make the case for treating travel as a hands-on adventure, rather then a passive sightseeing opportunity. It can make a big difference in the rewards you reap.

Here’s an example. Earlier this year I had the opportunity to visit Panama. Naturally, I ventured down to the famous canal. While dining on the top level of the canal restaurant, I watched a cruise boat navigate the lock, transiting from west to east. Passengers lined the decks, waving gaily to those along the shore. “How boring,” I thought, and sad, too. Here are all these people who’ve traveled so far and they’re stuck on a bacteria-ridden boat, waving as opportunity passes them by.

Determined not to be a passive traveler, I ventured off in my four-wheel-drive truck to see the real sights. I found a local crossing point and stopped in the middle of the canal for a close-up view of the lock mechanisms — truly a marvel of engineering. I continued along a dirt road until I literally could drive no more. I had arrived at an idyllic, tranquil cove offering a billion-dollar view. A couple of fishing boats were returning to shore — just dinghies really, with small outboard motors. I offered the guys a few cold waters I had in the truck, and we chatted about this and that. One offered to take me out for a short ride, and I accepted. It was a priceless experience — totally unique and personal, and nothing like the touristy shore excursions the cruise passengers were in for.

Another such blessing occurred when I was in Ethiopia, where I was traveling with a group to see the countryside, the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela and the giant ancient monoliths in Aksum. (For two excellent articles on this little-visited country, see On the Right Track in Ethiopia and Advancement in Ethiopia.) I was there for the nature and the history, but I found a spiritual renewal sitting among a crowd of local men drinking a beer and talking about sports, music and even a little politics (there is a picture of me with the group in the first link above). Most of the conversation was happy and trifling, but I also learned that one of the group, a youngster of about 13, had lost all his family and was living on the streets. Despite his sad story, you could not have found a better-adjusted kid, who joked with me when I called him Snoop Doggy for his love of rap.

Now, I am no stranger to poverty, but something about the people of Ethiopia genuinely touched me, and I was glad to have stopped by the side of that dusty road. While my travel companions were stuck watching a touristy coffee ceremony, I was sitting on a tree stump talking and laughing and drinking with some wonderful people. Of course, as word got out that an American was handing out beers, more and more townspeople came out to greet me, but no one was begging for anything or taking advantage of the situation. With each beer, I received a heartfelt “Thank you.” All in all, I spent about $12 to buy 25 beers, and I got another priceless moment.

When it comes to travel I truly have been blessed. This past year I traveled to more than 21 countries. I saw the ancient pyramids in Egypt, the wonders of the Roman Empire, and the beauty of Budapest. I visited Vietnam and found it easy to understand why Sen. John McCain has become so devoted to this country. I travel first class and I stay at 5-star hotels, but what really hits home are the everyday people I meet along the way. The boy doing perfect back flips in the field beyond the Queen of Sheba’s throne, and his luminous smile when I gave him 50 birr (about $5). The Ethiopian farmers cultivating the land as their ancestors have done for thousands of years. These are people and blessings I’ll hold dear this year.

My advice is to embrace the wonderful world of travel. If you can get off that cruise ship or tour bus and rub shoulders with the locals — do it. Of course, be careful, but experience tells me that there is much in this world to discover if you let down your guard just a little. Put aside your first-class airs and humble yourself to the world around you. Open your eyes, open your mind, open your heart — open your wallet if you have to. The blessings will all be yours.

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