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Last night, Jacques and I went to the National Geographic Society to hear a presentation by 2012 Travelers of the Year and hopefully gain some wisdom we could apply on our own travels.

Although ten travelers or traveling teams were honored this past year, only four of them appeared on the National Geographic stage (which, by the way, is awesome and always humming with world beats, photos, and tales of world exploration).  Here’s a bit about them and what we learned .

1-      Paula Busey and Samwel Melami– (Only Paula was on stage, as Samwel lives in Tanzania and couldn’t make it). Paula is a school librarian in a wealthy community in Colorado. Samwel  is a Maasai tour guide in Tanzania. They met when he was her guide on a Tanzanian safari with her family a few years ago. They formed a deep friendship and she raised funds to have him visit her community and students. Samwell is now starting a Maasai owned and operated safari operation.

Lesson: Paula discussed her male students’ fascination with Samwel’s description of Maasai rites of passage and deep connection with each other and with nature, both things, she said, that are missing in American boys’ lives. As a mother of boys, my ears perked up. I realized that our rites of passage are mostly marked by personal, and not communal achievement– first words, first step, then sports and academics. It does sometimes feel like there’s a deeper connection that we’re missing. Connecting to the larger world through travel is one way I’m hoping to fill that gap.

2-      Heather, Ish, Cameron and Ethan Davis– This family of four traveled the world for a year, visiting 29 countries in 12 months. You can follow their trip journey on their website. While this seems like an impossible dream for most of us, it seems to boil down to three things: resources, organization, and willing family members. It also takes a lot of guts and the will to ignore the naysayers (and there were a lot of those, according to Heather). Was it worth it? They’re already planning their next year-long trip in five years.

Lesson: Some of their most surprising and beautiful moments came when they seemed to be doing exactly what they’d been advised not to do. Columbia, for example, was a place they’d been advised against and it turned out to be a great experience. Obviously, safety is paramount, but if travel doesn’t change our perceptions and misconceptions about a place, well, then, really, what’s the point? Another lesson: after a year on the road, the family picky eater is no longer a picky eater.

3-      Booker Mitchell– This 15-year-old New Yorker has traveled to Spain, Nicaragua, and Brazil with his skateboard and his documentary filmmaker mom. Together, they have a web show that features destinations through the eyes of, well, a 15-year-old skateboarder. His inspiring motto “Live Life Outside” urges other teens to get off their gadgets and go exploring. We love that!

Lesson: Booker emphasized that you don’t need to get on a plane to be a traveler. It’s all about how you view the world. You can learn a lot, even in your own neighborhood, if you just go out there and keep your eyes and mind open. Great message. Too bad there were only a handful of kids in the audience.

4-      Theron Humphrey- This guy was literally buzzing with excitement and creativity (and caffeine?). After a bad breakup and disillusionment with the corporate photography life, he set off to travel all 50 states, capturing a person’s story in audio and film each day. He raised $15,000 through Kickstarter and set off, posting his work on his website. And along the way he “fell in love with life.”

Lesson: Jacques and I were both inspired by Theron to make each encounter count while we travel or while at home and to set goals and stick to them. For me, the message was loud and clear: in travel and in life, follow through with your wackadoodle ideas! After all, that’s what got this inspiring group on the National Geographic stage.

One thing that 15-year-old  Booker said that made me smile (and there were many) was that he sets the family’s travel agenda by picking a place and his parents just make it happen. On our late drive home, as Jacques and I were discussing the evening, I reminded him that we were going to Peru in large part because he was so fascinated with the Incas after reading Samantha Sutton and because he and Julian really wanted to add South America to their travel map. He laid his tired head on the head rest, gave a tired content smile and said, “Oh, yes.”

National Geographic received about 600 nominations for Traveler of the Year. Nominate your favorite traveler. And yes, you can nominate yourself.