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Eight cities in 12 days
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I made my way past Immigration, which always gives one some sense of relief. Getting into a country is one thing. Getting back out is something completely different.

I found my way to the bar to wait.

My firm had ongoing operations in Papua New Guinea for decades so this was hardly my first time through the airport.

This time I had just come out of the Mount Hagen highlands after spending six weeks in one of the most pristine, unexplored rain forests on the planet.

My trip out to Port Moresby had required hiking down volcanic cliffs to a helicopter landing pad cut into the forest. The helicopter took me to a grass airstrip where a Twin Otter flew me to the capital. After a day scuba diving on World War II wrecks in the harbor with friends, I now found a stool at the tropical bar.

The casual space was full of Australian and Asian businessmen heading out to Singapore.

Sitting next to me was an Australian staring deeply into a tall mug of beer. In the days before cell phones and portable computers such bars were for relaxing not catching up on e-mails.

We struck up a conversation and he asked where I was from.

I told him San Francisco and I was not surprised when he said he had been there. Many foreigners visit San Francisco. He mentioned he had spent a full day there on a tour of America.

Further discussions revealed he had once been on a 12 day whirlwind tour of the U.S. in which they visited eight cities.

As I boarded the plane and settled into my seat, I pondered just what could one really learn about America by visiting eight places in 12 days.

How much do you learn about Georgians by spending one night in Atlanta; getting up the next morning to visit the World of Coke and the Aquarium before flying out on the red eye for Miami?

I am not sure that counts as really visiting someplace. I spent one night in Baku and was taken to the historic Inner City center the next morning.

Five hours later I was at 32,000 feet heading for Istanbul.

What had I learned of the people, the customs and a real sense of the place?

I would never claim I know Baku.

A traveler visiting our country for two weeks does not know "America."

The same is true for any American that only spent four hours in some port town while on a 12-day Caribbean cruise.

I spent 30 years in the international oil business, traveling most of that time.

This was going deep into foreign countries, spending a lot of time there and working with the citizens. In a number of cases I actually lived overseas for long periods. I can claim I know something of those places and the people there very well. Other places not so much at all.

Rewarding travel involves digging into a place, depending on local strangers, putting yourself into their places rather than the pre-planned tourist traps.

Understanding a culture means eating their food, listening to their opinions, participating in their joys and their dramas.

Now is typically the time Americans start formulating their summer vacation plans.

If you are planning a trip this summer add in some time to try to learn more about the real people, the real place you are visiting.

You might just discover that as you learn more about them, you learn more about yourself.

Charlie Auvermann is a longtime Dawson County resident and former editor of the Dawson Community News. He is also the executive director of the local development authority.