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There’s no place like Earth: The world as home

by Michael on January 24, 2013

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We were at the other end of the globe: literally. The opposite spot on the planet from Philadelphia (known by map geeks as the antipodal point) is Perth, Australia. We were 12,000 miles from home, as far away as we could possibly be. Going a mile in any direction would actually bring us closer to Philly. As we relaxed on the beach watching the sun melt into the Indian Ocean we pondered that great distance.

It was easy to leave the comforts of home because we no longer had a home. We sold our house and gave away most of our possessions to travel around the world for a year. Life back home had gotten off track. Our relationship with our adult daughter, whom we adopted from Russia at age nine, was broken. The traditional parameters of home and family no longer felt relevant to us. We needed distance: thousands of miles, hundreds of days and totally new worlds to help us shake up our lives. We had become reluctant empty nesters.

Batu caves

We flew out of Philadelphia in August, 2011 and returned in October, 2012. During the course of our adventure across six continents we learned to live more simply. As the world became our home, our need for personal space shrunk. Instead of acquiring possessions we found more happiness in acquiring a wealth of experiences.

Along the way we wrote almost 20 articles for the Philadelphia Inquirer about our journey. They seem to have struck a chord with readers; many of whom have reached out to us for travel advice or, in one case, to meet up with their daughter who was spending a semester abroad in Sydney. In an ironic twist, by leaving Philadelphia we ended up getting to know more people from our home city. We found Philadelphians everywhere in the world.

Rocky Philly Jessica Aidan Tom London

At Victoria Peak overlooking Hong Kong’s harbor we asked a man if he could take our picture. After the usual exchange of pleasantries we discovered that Ed Campbell is a Philly native and major Eagles and Phillies fan. Nine months later we were strolling by Buckingham Palace when we spied a family with two teenagers. Jessica was wearing a 70s-era maroon and sky-blue Phillies t-shirt while her son Aidan was clad in a jersey paying tribute to Chooch.

A world of contrasts

We experienced highs and lows, both natural and man-made: one moment soaring over New Zealand’s glaciers in an open-cockpit biplane, while several months later we got down and dirty with a mud-caked float in the Dead Sea, the world’s lowest point on land. (Well, Larissa did, Michael was content to take photos).

Dead Sea Israel mud

The view from the top of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the world’s tallest building and a man-made wonder at 160 stories (twice as tall as the Empire State Building), provided views of the relentless development encroaching on the Arabian Desert. Not quite so leading-edge was a ride on the world’s deepest subway in what may be the world’s edgiest city—Pyongyang, North Korea—where tinny loudspeakers emitting patriotic slogans harangued passengers in dimly-lit 1970s-era train carriages, hand-me-downs from the former East Germany.

The skyline of Shanghai rises ever higher by the day, as the rapidly growing city of 22 million people (at least for now) has scooped up a quarter of the world’s construction cranes. In contrast, the skyline of the ancient city of Petra, painstakingly carved into the sandstone cliffs, remains unchanged after 2,000 years; and is likely to still be standing long after the skyscrapers of Shanghai are just a memory.

You gotta have faith

We witnessed profound displays of faith. At the end of a dark alley in Ho Chi Minh City, petite Buddhist nuns invited us into the Châu Lâm pagoda to pray with their worshippers on the Tet holiday. At Batu Caves, a Hindu shrine in Kuala Lumpur, we were impromptu guests at mundan; a head-shaving ceremony preparing a baby for his future life. The three-hour Good Friday procession in a Mediterranean village in Malta was both joyous and solemn, the music from Gladiator thumping through giant speakers as Roman legions marched by.

Malta Good Friday procession

The Western Wall in Jerusalem is an awe inspiring sight, as much for its size and stark simplicity as the display of devout Jews praying, crying and dancing with joy. A few weeks later Larissa donned the traditional black abaya worn by Muslim women to visit the Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. Religions may be different all over the world but the underlying spirituality remains the same.

Animal kingdom

During a pre-breakfast hike in Namibia we searched for 500-year-old rock paintings of giraffes, and then turned to see a pack of live giraffes ambling by, oblivious to their portraits set in stone. On our road trip to the Australian Outback we never tired of spotting kangaroos bouncing alongside us; as long as they weren’t threatening to veer into the highway and become hood ornaments. We raced from Beijing to Shanghai at 300 kph aboard the world’s newest high-speed train but then had to crawl along single-lane roads in New Zealand and Scotland where sheep have the right-of-way.

Namibia Etosha giraffe sunset

Our most menacing moment came courtesy of a herd of sharp-horned cattle while we were trekking on a foggy moor in England. We were ankle-deep in mud (and whatever other mud-like substance might be deposited in a cow pasture) when we realized we were on the wrong side of the fence. The bulls seemed none too happy about it and, like something out of a Bugs Bunny cartoon, they started pawing the ground and glaring at us. Suitably motivated we hightailed it through the mud and managed to scramble to safety over the fence.

A global feast

Larissa noodled around cooking classes in seven countries, stir-frying pad thai in Bangkok and hand-rolling fresh tortellini in Bologna. She prepared homemade kiwi jam in New Zealand with Beth Keoghan, the mother of Amazing Race host, Phil Keoghan, while staying at her B&B. The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul was a frenetic assault on the senses: a whirling dervish of a place that led us to the most delicious sandwich of our entire journey. Only later did we learn that the sandwich, kokorec, was made from sheep intestine. (Sometimes ignorance truly is bliss.)

Kokorec stand istanbul turkey

Little Rocky goes the distance

We also took a piece of Philadelphia with us; a mini-statue of boxer Rocky Balboa. He served as our trip mascot and encouraged us to “go the distance” when times got tough. His story is universal and people everywhere wanted their photo taken with him. Perhaps It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but it was drizzling in London when we bumped into Danny DeVito on the street after a West End theater performance. He eagerly posed with Little Rocky and discussed the upcoming season of the show.

Rocky Danny Devito

The end of the road?

The journey revealed to us that we won’t be going back to our former lives. We’ll continue traveling and writing to inspire others who are considering taking a break. Tolkien said that, “Not all those who wander are lost.” There is solace in that thought as we return home and continue our wandering ways.

Nude beach PerthAnd those sand dunes in Perth where we were pondering our future? As more folks flocked to our isolated spot to witness the setting sun we found out, rather graphically, that we were smack in the middle of a nude beach. In an unusual twist, to remain clothed would have made us the odd man and woman out. So we shed our clothes as easily as we were shedding the vestiges of our former life. But one of the nice things about travel is that no one knows who you are. You can be anyone you want, and even reinvent yourself along the way.

Note: This article originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Jan. 20, 2013

PS: Sorry about using the pic of Michael rather than Larissa but that’s what we had.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Cat of Sunshine and Siestas January 25, 2013 at 3:08 am

Poignant piece! I’m always struck by the people I meet traveling and findthe strange connections I have to them – from the three girls at a hostel in Split who had just finished their freshman year living in the same dorm as me at the University of Iowa, to making a close friend in Seville who lived just blocks from me at home. Traveling makes you realize that the world is small, and we’re all connected through little strands of yarn. Safe travels!

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Michael January 26, 2013 at 9:07 pm

We’ve met more new people in our year of traveling than in many years at home. And, yes, many of them are from our hometown of Philly.

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Rick February 25, 2013 at 9:00 am

What an inspirational story. Some day for me.

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Eileen Thai February 7, 2014 at 11:03 am

Hello,
Glad to hear you’re still having fun traveling. We’ve been travelin by boat, but have been stationed on the beautiful TN River in Chattanooga for the last 7 years! Not moving back to a “home” any time soon.

Anyway, I happened to see this post, and was surprised to see the picture of Batu Caves from my home country of Malaysia.

Happy traveling!

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