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How to plan a genealogical travel adventure

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Taipei market
A woman inspects sweets at a market ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday in Taipei on January 19, 2012.
PATRICK LIN/AFP/Getty Images

Where we come from can say a lot about our present. Sometimes traveling to that place provides answers about our current lives and allows us to connect emotionally with our past.  

Read the post-show takeaway

President Barack Obama and Megan Smolenyak
President Barack Obama with genealogy expert Megan Smolenyak following his remarks during an Irish celebration visit at College Green in Dublin, Ireland, May 23, 2011. Smolenyak was invited to the event after she traced Obama's roots back to Moneygall, Ireland.
Pete Souza/The White House

"In recent years, savvy destination marketers have noticed the growing trend of roots travel — that is, travel built around or at least including some aspect of genealogy," wrote genealogy expert Megan Smolenyak for Huffington Post. "It may be for family reunions, to walk in ancestors' footsteps, or to explore abandoned cemeteries that might hold clues to the past (those of us in the field know that the measure of a true genealogist is how excited one gets when the subject of cemeteries comes up)."

Smolenyak made a name for herself in 2007, when she traced President Barack Obama's roots back to Moneygall, Ireland. She was invited to see Obama speak in Dublin in 2011.

Genealogical travel can be a rewarding experience, but it takes a lot of preparation. 

Mei-Ling Hopgood, freelance journalist and author of "Lucky Girl," went back to her birthplace in Taiwan and wrote about it for National Geographic Traveler:

It is my first visit to the land where I was born, where most people have hair and eyes like mine, where I'm about as tall (or as short) as everyone else. Still, I am a foreigner, laowai. I left Taiwan in 1974, when I was an eight-month-old infant, to be raised by an American family in Detroit, a place that could not be more different from this. Taipei, located about one hundred miles from the southeast coast of China, is a crowded landscape of skyscrapers, Buddhist temples, and weaving traffic. The market feels like a riotous blend of foreign sensations...

I'd never wanted to visit Taiwan or my biological family before, but here I am, feeling as if I never want to leave, magically assimilating to a place and people I'd never known. Later, I'll look back and wonder if this intense sense of belonging was a dream, an illusion of desire. But during this first visit to Shilin, I could not feel more at home. I let the night market absorb me. I'm a rainbow sign promising the best bargain, a shrimp in a neon tank, a piece of tofu sweltering in soup. The colorful Chinese characters stacked high above us leave a brilliant stamp in my memory.

THE TAKEAWAY: DNA can help African-Americans fill in some of the gaps.

A caller, Polly, said that the topic was "a little hurtful" for her and for other African-Americans.

"We know we come from the African continent, more than likely, but we don't know necessarily how to get back home," Polly said. "I don't know if I'm Liberian, Nigerian, Kenyan, Somali, because we don't have the opportunity of knowing who our forefathers were so that we can do that. Although I love hearing everybody else talking about where they're from, it kind of hurts me. We had a costume party one time, and everybody was wearing their native costumes. I said, 'What am I supposed to wear?'"

Smolenyak said that thanks to recent advances in DNA technology,  Polly could at least get a general idea of where her roots lie.

"You can find out more than many suspect," she said. "I've done the roots of Michelle Obama,  your local hero Prince, Cory Booker Emmitt Smith ...  . With DNA testing, you can get a sense of where in Africa your family  came from. And it's often quite possible to trace African-American roots in America back a good 200 years, which is about the same for a lot of other ethnicities as well. ... 

"But it's still a bit of a ballpark, as opposed to a precise, 'We came from here.' So I definitely understand what your caller is saying."

LEARN MORE ABOUT FINDING YOUR ROOTS:

• The Road to Discovering Your Roots. Some tips to get you started on your trip. (Intelligent Travel)

• Face to Face With Your Past. "In recent years, a growing number of Americans have turned to the Internet to trace their roots. Now they want to do it IRL." (Wall Street Journal)

• With Some Digging, Roots Travel Rewards Both Agents and Clients. The growing popularity of Ancestry.com is a sign that more travel agencies should offer roots travel. (Travel Market Report)

• Finding the Birthplace of Your Immigrant Ancestor. A step-by-step guide to tracking down your relatives. (About.com)