09/22/2010 02:20 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why I Travel and Occasionally Return

We learn more about our favorite theatrical characters when they're placed in unfamiliar, challenging situations. The same goes for ourselves. New and different environments can expose us to an alternate universe, and a projection of our place in it. Walking with new friends through a neighborhood in Benin, West Africa, I found myself wondering "What would my week be like if I actually lived here? How about a month or the year?" Same goes for bike riding in Paris or sailing for a week straight on the Atlantic. "Could I live out here?" Why shouldn't I just do this for a while?"

I love few things as much as traveling -- tacos, sunshine, and riding or sailing in the summer night are a few that compare -- and have had the privilege to explore a few interesting locales recently, including Togo, Ghana, Benin, France, South Africa, Belize and Costa Rica. My approach to such exploration is much like my approach to dining out: I want to eat where and what "they" eat. I'm not interested in eating American versions of Mexican food, thank you very much. I don't know how many times my fiancée Aryn and I have asked a waiter, "What are you guys eating in the back? Yeah, sneak us some of that." I want to eat in the dives ventured by the likes of Anthony Bourdain, where the grandmas are cracking jokes in the kitchen. It goes the same way with travel destinations, especially to far less industrialized nations than our own. I want to eat, sleep and drink somewhere different from what I'm accustomed to. Now don't get me wrong, I love like a nice hotel or beach side villa as much as the next Dick or Harry. But for me, it's even better to dive right in and stay with a family, maybe in a guest houseor a Bed & Breakfast. I'm not a hostel guy myself, but you get the idea. (Do what you will with the pun.)

In my experience, traveling tests all existing relationships. Especially when traveling with a partner and/or group of friends, family, etc. For me, it also offers an out of body perspective on the parts that make up our whole. What do you really need and what can you do without? And that question can include the people in the rings around us. "Who and what would I miss if I didn't go home for a while?" Now, every stamp in my passport doesn't represent some existential game of self-reflection, but the option to explore it is out there. I'm just sayin'.

I hopped over to South Africa for the World Cup this summer, and it was a truly outstanding time. After working diligently stateside for over a year to acquire as many game tickets as we could in two cities -- get it together! -- Aryn and I joined forces with friends and family that were flying from Atlanta, San Francisco, Saudi Arabia, Spain and Trinidad to partake in the festivities. We saw amazing matches in Johannesburg and Cape Town, and every day the experience and energy was like New Year's Eve and Obama's Inauguration Day in D.C. combined: Overflowing Positive Energy. I was grateful that this wasn't our first time in South Africa. Because after a twenty-six hour flight, it's easy to feel you need to see everything in one trip, since you're not coming back anytime soon. A few years back we went shark diving in Cape Town and had an exhilarating five-day safari expedition in Greater Kruger National Park, which included a [guided] pursuit of the most intimidating Black Rhino I've ever successfully tracked. Anyway, my previous experiences in Johannesburg, Soweto and Cape Town had also prepared me for the often curious racial politics that lurk within the otherwise beautiful South Africa. (But that's for another conversation.)

Ever since I was a kid, I've been fascinated by the effects of geography on our personal way of life. On family road trips I'd press my face against the glass and stare out at the countryside, imagining the ways my life would have been different if I had been raised there. Or there. Or here, but two hundred years ago. And what if I was a Sioux in the 1700s and a "short trip" was a two day horseback ride over them thar hills? Coooool! (Kid's voice.) In college, it was probably a similar fascination that pulled my focus toward history, and to teaching high school history after I graduated. More recently, it probably pulled me into my experiment with acting; the challenge and adventure of exploration.

This challenge and adventure is exactly what appealed to me when I accepted the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation's offer to be their Artist-in-Residence later this month -- September 25, to be exact. The opportunity to perform a historically accurate piece of theatre for nearly a thousand inquisitive minds of all ages, on a beautiful outdoor stage? Don't mind if I do. And not just any section of history, but a period that ranks highly on my list as one of the most thought provoking: The United States at its birth, and the varied experiences of its most trivialized founding members, enslaved Africans. My father has always been obsessed with education and history, and as kids he would take my brothers and me through Colonial Williamsburg on our drives south to visit family. In a few weeks I'll return to Virginia, time travel into 1776 and contend with an entirely different lot in life. Returning there, as a contributor to the experience, is a privilege I look forward to. Here's to hoping that the adventure is half as revealing as I imagine. My face pressed against glass from my window seat.