Mali, West Africa. Mali may sound a bit exotic. Most people don't even know where it is. "You mean Bali?" they ask. "Malawi?" No, Mali. I tell them it's where Tombouctou (Timbuktu) is located. This is usually the start of a long conversation. Most don't even know Tombouctou is a real city. Telling anyone I lived there for almost two years sparks a string of questions. Mali is Africa in its purest form and not for the weak-hearted. It is not the Africa of safaris or the beautiful coasts of South Africa. It is harsh, pungent, uncomfortable, fatiguing … but it is real, magical, lively, never boring, and a place like no other. Mali is 2,000 years in the past, clashing with the present. It is real, vibrant - a virtual museum of West African life. It is centuries of culture laid out before you. For me, there is no place like Mali, because this country taught me not only lessons in traveling but lessons in life. Mali taught me about different means of transportation: that four people could fit on a moped, that a donkey cart was often the most reliable means of transportation, and that pickup trucks with wooden benches in the back could easily hold 25 people and several goats, plus the driver and his apprentice. … Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world, and the people are easily the most friendly and warm-hearted. Does the World Bank or the United Nations ever measure those statistics? Although Mali is a place where children barely get enough to eat, a family in a village there would not hesitate to slaughter their last chicken or goat to be able to serve you, a perfect stranger, a meal fit for a king. Such generosity, respect for others, and undying joyfulness even in the face of the most bleak circumstances is a lesson I will never forget.
- Charles Villalobos, Manassas, Virginia

On the road. I first jutted my thumb in the air to catch a ride soon after my 18th birthday. A rusty Buick pulled over. The driver was missing three front teeth, and the backseat was filled with what I imagine were all his belongings. I got in and kept my backpack on my lap. After a couple of miles, the driver leered in my direction and said he intended to rob me. I couldn't believe my first-ever hitchhiking experience was going so poorly. I always knew that traveling was in my cells. … During that first ride, I managed to get the driver talking. Soon he was laughing as I made fun of the local sheriff. When he dropped me off, still chuckling, he thanked me. This helped boost my travel confidence. Over the next three years, I hitchhiked 24,500 miles, crisscrossing North America. These travels as a "Roads Scholar" culminated with a trip overseas, where I spent time in Buddhist monasteries in Japan and in Korea. My travels didn't end there. I became a dancer and a teacher of contact improvisation. Soon, invitations from abroad began to arrive. Thirty years later, having traveled by plane, train, boat, and foot, I've planted my feet in 81 cities in 22 countries on five continents. … I often wonder how else but by being on the road can one have these experiences? Where else does one encounter the tea master revealing the three legends of the origin of oolong (dark dragon) tea and the correct way to slurp the tea to get the full flavor? How but by traveling could one experience the tango at a milonga at two a.m. in Buenos Aires? … Or see three men and a dog playing soccer in Vienna? (And the dog was good - he could kick and use his head to roll the ball to keep it to himself.)
-Martin Keogh, North Easton, Massachusetts

At the San Diego International Airport, there's this escalator. It's really a pretty ordinary escalator. It dumps thousands of people from the gate area into the luggage claim and transportation center every day. I'm certain there's one like it in almost every other airport, but this one, oh, it's special. Why? Occasionally, my wife will brave traffic and bring my two young children to the airport to pick me up. It's no secret that there is no truer joy then being welcomed home by loved ones. But, really, sometimes the anticipation of the reunion is just as exciting. The kids stake out a place near the bottom of the escalator, so it's really easy to spot them from the top. I scan the crowd for their faces, find them, and step onto my personal portal. If this escalator weren't there, I'd probably just run and hug … and be happy. But this escalator, well, it keeps you from running, and its leisurely pace allows me to slowly anticipate the hugs and kisses from my loved ones. It's 30 seconds of seeing my children be happy … just because they know I'm coming home.
-Charles Grisham, Oceanside, California

I know of a place that is so beautiful it can take your breath away. It is a place of contradictions, opposing senses, and ever- changing consequences. As I travel its land, I know that I will be changed in some remarkable way. Being there, my heart has no hiding place. The majesty of its mountains humbles me; the vibrant life of the forests sings to my senses. The gentle rain of the waterfalls washes me; the soft embrace of the verdant valleys nurtures me. All at once I am alone in the still, chilled desert night and in the heaving masses of the choked city. I can face dangerous creatures and be welcomed to the hearth of a stranger. I can swim with the sharks and stand on a hill at dusk among the swooping nighthawks. I can walk between the pungent fish stalls in a dusty open-air market and breathe the delicate scent of the frangipani carried on the eastern breeze. I can inhale the history of the ancient ones who lived before and fear their secret rituals. I can blaze untraveled paths with trepidation and swim in the warm acceptance of the ocean. In this land, I am master of my own domain and servant to its bidding. It demands that I care for it and protect it, for without it I cannot live. It is my lifeblood, my sustenance, my learning, my adventure, my mother, my earth. She is all we have, and as long as I live here, I will gladly reap the richness of her beauty and be grateful for her abundant gifts and never become complacent. There is no place like Earth.
-Archie Tew, Santa Fe, New Mexico

A window seat. Whether I'm traveling for business or for pleasure, the air blowing full throttle through the spinnable nozzle above my head lets me know that I'm headed someplace. Unlike many business travelers, who seem to not notice whether they're in midflight or accelerating through takeoff, I always have my face glued to the window. … I know I'm traveling. As the landscape fades away, I love the unique perspective that altitude­ gives me. I can see my home in relation to the office and the golf course. … I notice that my home, office, and golf course form a nearly perfect triangle. The window seat is the most wonderful seat on an airplane. … I feel like the captain, and as it was when I was a kid, I dream that I can fly!
-Christopher Marlowe, Coral Gables, Florida

The golf course. Where else can you achieve success (a well-struck three iron …) and fail-ure­ (… that goes out of bounds) at the same time? Where else can you simulta­neously act like a child (sinking a long putt …) and a tyrant (… for a double bogey)? Where else can you both enjoy (sunny, balmy weather) and hate (bee stings) nature? Where else can you have so much fun with your kids and be like them for a short while? Where else can you teach them the lessons your father taught you, and have them listen?
-Willis ­Samson, St. Louis, Missouri