London is one of our favorite destinations in the world to visit. One of the reasons is that there are so many hidden sights in London that we’ve never heard of before. But with each visit there’s less and less new, or in London’s case, old, to explore. That’s why I was so intrigued with a new book by David Fathers called London’s Hidden Rivers: A Walker’s Guide to the Subterranean Waterways of London. It’s that last part that intrigued me. Sure, we all know about the strolling along the River Thames through the heart of London, but there are also underground waterways? This was worth checking out.

The book highlights 12 ancient rivers that helped form the city into its current layout. In medieval times these waterways were used for drinking, cleaning, powering industry, and sewage disposal. Due to this latter use, they were not pretty. In fact, as Fathers points out, by the 17th century the water wasn’t even drinkable.

London's hidden Rivers book review

 

As the rivers became literally toxic, they city started to bury them. An 1849 cholera outbreak that cost 49,000 lives also led to the creation of a city water works to provide clean water to Londoners. Over time the buried rivers were largely forgotten, but much of the path of development in the city can be traced to their prior uses. In fact, many of the city’s borough borders were defined by the rivers. These days, that’s more often a road that rides over the covered stream below.

Book Review London's Hidden Rivers Wilkinson Sword Company

The book features 75 miles of walks along 12 of these former rivers. The illustrations that accompany the maps of these walks were also drawn by the multi-talented Fathers. I particularly enjoyed learning about little anecdotes like walking along the track that Sir Roger Bannister used while training to be the first human to run the mile in under four minutes.

London’s Hidden Rivers is a great book for anyone who thinks they know London and is looking for something else to explore. Despite its compact size, it also makes for good reading about the history and development of London.

28581550060_131210d7e7_mLarissa and Michael are your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive our free quarterly newsletter with updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

Note: We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites like in the book review above. We earn a very small commission on these sales and it does not affect your price for the item. These commissions are one very small way we can continue this blog and provide readers like you with valuable travel advice for free.

Our friends tell us, “You’re living the dream.” Well . . . yes and no.

In 2011, when Larissa was 52 and Michael 51, we walked away from our jobs in, respectively, life sciences and commercial real estate. Heartbreaking personal circumstances made our careers, and even our home, seem irrelevant and we needed a major shakeup in our lives.

So we sold our house in the Philadelphia suburbs, gave away our possessions and began crisscrossing the world, following a lifelong dream of becoming travel writers. More than five years later we’re still on the road, global nomads with no permanent address.

For the most part our grand experiment at reinventing our careers and ourselves has worked well. Our travel blog at ChangesInLongitude.com won a Lowell Thomas award, which led to a contract to write Philadelphia Liberty Trail, a new guidebook to the city’s historic district. We also write the “Field-Tested Travel Tips” column for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Along the way we’ve visited all 50 states and 6 continents. Last year Michael’s book, the Roadster Guide to America’s Classic Car Museums was published.

That said, “living the dream”—particularly when you still need to earn  money—has its distinct downsides. We gave up the security of a monthly salary and benefits, we have no home to return to, and we are establishing ourselves in a totally new field: we had really stepped outside our comfort zone. At an age when we should be on a comfortable glide path to retirement, we live in cramped quarters and often report to editors half our age.

We’re not alone. Many Americans in their 50s are at a crossroads due to downsizing, buyouts or general dissatisfaction. If you’re considering personal reinvention, here are some lessons we’ve learned:

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–A dramatic change can lead to dramatic challenges. Taking a chance on completely overhauling your life might sound like a great idea, but the transition may be tougher than you think. Just selling all we owned and dismantling our prior lives took an emotionally charged year. With no prior experience, breaking into the travel writing field was not easy.

Starting our travel blog was a good first step, but that meant working for free and building up a following. Eventually a friend introduced us to the travel editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, who was intrigued by our tale of chucking it all and agreed to look at a few stories.

We agonized for hours over the wording of our first spec article, about bucolic Beihai Park in Beijing; we probably made about 50 cents an hour on it. But when we saw our names in print for the first time it was a rush that allowed us to imagine making a go of this new career.

larissa Buenos Aires
–Full-time travel doesn’t mean permanent vacation. At first we spent all our time exploring, eager to soak up a new destination. But that was exhausting; we had no time left to write about our experiences—the very activity that would bring in revenue. We soon realized that jotting a few notes in a café is not the same as writing an article on deadline so we applied the brakes and slowed down.

We now spend several weeks to a month or more at most destinations, touring less than half that time. We’ve taken “working from home” to a nomadic level. There are days we never leave the apartment, which might seem strange when Buenos Aires or Hong Kong is right outside the door, but the work needs to get done.

Our accommodations aren’t plush; we often stay in lodging we would have once considered quite rustic. During our remote stay in the Australian bush country, we gingerly used the outside bathroom at night, well aware that a deadly snake lurking there had killed a cow the previous week. But such inconveniences seem minor when kangaroos come loping through the yard at dusk.

Traveling the world

–If you’re joined at the hip, marital bliss can turn to blisters. That’s the dilemma we faced. Since we live, work and travel together, all that “togetherness” 24/7 can get old. In fact, we spend much of each day only a few feet apart from each other as we work on our various stories. That’s not a problem for Michael, but can you imagine how trying that is for Larissa? While visiting Singapore, about four months into our journey, we realized we each needed some alone time. Michael wanted to tour World War II sights in the city while Larissa was interested in gardening and food tours.

So we split up to pursue our separate interests for a day. The result was we had more interesting stories to share, both with each other and in articles. Now we occasionally spend time apart, last year Larissa visited Machu Picchu while Michael explored abandoned auto factories in Detroit. (Talk about different interests.)

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–A dream can fall flat, at least for a while. And that’s okay. Unfortunately the 50 cents an hour we mentioned isn’t widely off the mark for a travel writer these days. Our biggest challenge in our new career is earning a living. When we realized freelance writing alone wouldn’t pay the bills, we drew on our business backgrounds and leveraged our now extensive travel experience to pursue other interests. Michael has branched out into writing about classic cars for several publications. Larissa started teaching at the Close School of Entrepreneurship of Drexel University. Some of this work is done for on-line courses, still allowing her the freedom to travel.

–How long can this go on? People often ask, “don’t you miss home, and your stuff?” The answer is no. After years of accumulating things, we’re focused on collecting experiences. Instead of a new car or the latest flat-screen TV, we’re gaining a more enriching life learning how to surf in Hawaii or taking a self-drive safari in Namibia. Our lives are now too full to ponder about the possessions we’ve given up. As long as we can earn enough to make ends meet you’ll find us somewhere in the world, still living the dream.

Hover over these images to quickly pin them!

Here are some tips we’ve learned about how to live a nomadic life.

When we departed Philadelphia in 2011 we thought we’d explore the world for a year and then figure out what we wanted to do when we grew up. We started writing stories about our journey on this blog and for a new series called “A Year in the World” for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Somehow we branched out to other media outlets and became bona fide travel writers.

But for all the destinations we explored and wrote about on six continents, we didn’t cover the city we knew best, Philadelphia. After seeing so many exotic places when we returned to Philly we approached it with fresh eyes, as if we were discovering it as first time visitors.

Then a funny thing happened. In late January, 2014 Globe Pequot Press, a major regional travel guide publisher in Connecticut, contacted us. They asked us if we’d be interested in writing a book about Philadelphia. They had enjoyed our stories about other places and figured we’d do a good  job writing about our hometown.

You see Boston, which has more sports championships than Philly but in our humble opinion has way less historic sites, has had something called a Freedom Trail for over 50 years. It’s a well-marked guide to Boston’s revolutionary sites. But Philadelphia has nothing similar that connects the sites where America was founded, so we had to create one. Oh, and our deadline was four months. Piece of cake, right?

Philadelphia Liberty Trail-an informative and quirky travel guide to the city's historic districtI turns out a deadline is a good thing for us! Last month Globe Pequot published the result of our efforts: Philadelphia Liberty Trail: Trace the Path of America’s Heritage. This 224-page book takes a fresh approach to the founding of America. It’s part historical narrative and part travel guide that goes beyond Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell to immerse visitors in history right where it happened.

During our research we unearthed little known historical tidbits such as: Benjamin Franklin’s Electric Turkey Experiment; Lydia Darragh, the Quaker woman who saved the American army from destruction; the church that in the 1790s was the precursor to the modern Civil Rights movement; and the home where soda was first introduced to America in 1807, by a doctor no less!

We also talk about unusual events like America’s first dumbest criminal. In 1798 the first bank robbery in America took place at Carpenters’ Hall in Philly. The man behind it, Isaac Davis, was arrested when he started depositing large sums of money in the very same bank he had just robbed. You really can’t make this stuff up.

Philadelphia Liberty Trail-Ben Franklin "Key" statue, funded by school children

The trail we created is about four miles long but we’ve broken it into several segments. Easy-to-follow maps guide the visitor and since this is a book we wrote, there are also Pit Stops to rest weary legs and get a cookie (always important for Michael) or other treat. Complete with lodging, dining, family-friendly options and practical travel information, Philadelphia Liberty Trail is the indispensable guide to exploring America’s most historic square mile.

Here’s how you can buy Philadelphia Liberty Trail on Amazon.

If you get a chance to read the book we really hope you enjoy it. It was a lot of fun to write and discover our hometown once again.

Oh, that guy at the top of the page? He’s Matt O’Connor, the CFO (“chief flag officer”) at Humphry’s Flag Company, right across from–you guessed it–the Betsy Ross House.

Note to Philadelphia area readers: We are speaking at Penn State’s Great Valley campus in Malvern, PA on April 8th. Topics will include the Philadelphia Liberty Trail and travel tips from our 3+ years on the road. Here is the information for this free event: Penn State lecture. We’ll also be signing books at the Visitor Center at Independence National Park on Flag Day, June 14th, 2015 from noon to 4 p.m. Hope to see you there.

We’ve been on the road since 2011 with no home and no fixed address. Whenever we meet people they are surprised that we are true nomads. The first question we often get is, “How do you live a nomadic life?” Here are some tips for wandering the world.

How to live a nomadic life

how to live a nomadic life bedouin camp

1)      Give it up — If you have a house, sell it: if you have stuff, get rid of it; if you have an office-based job, leave it. If you’re going to wander the world, you don’t want to be weighed down by things back home.

2)      Put yourself in a box — Life sometimes intrudes on the fantasy of chucking it all. You’ll need a place to receive the occasional mail. Set up a P.O. box or use a trusted friend or relative’s address.

3)      You can bank on it — The Internet that is. Set up banking and paying all your bills online. The good thing about a nomadic life though, there are many less bills to pay. No cable, WiFi, mortgage/rent, home insurance, real  estate taxes, utilities; well you get my drift, it’s a lot cheaper to be  a nomad.

4)      To store or not to store? — That really is the question. Although we got rid of most of our possessions before leaving, we still had enough junk left over to fill a 10’ by 10’ storage unit. We thought it was stuff we’d still need or want. Guess what? We were wrong.  After returning to the U.S. we got rid of the remaining items.

5)      The telephone game — I got rid of my cell phone before leaving in August, 2011 and have lived without one ever since. It’s remarkably freeing. Set up a Skype account so you can still keep in touch with those you want to call. Think of all the time you just freed up by not checking voice mail or texting all day.

6)      Book it — Libraries are a wonderful resource on the road. Almost every town has one, they offer free Wifi and are quiet, air-conditioned places to hang out. We skim through the used book rack to buy $1 books. If we stay someplace for a week or more we get a library card so we can check out books and DVDs for free.

7)      Playing doctor — Health insurance is a major issue. Check into plans for travelers but be aware that some of them require you to have a base health insurance policy first. Many nomads get minimal coverage or go places where health care is so cheap they travel without insurance. We have a basic policy and skip things like medical evacuation coverage. We had our own health insurance for years before we started our nomadic life. Unfortunately under the ACA the price has gone up. You’ll have to choose the plan that works best for you.

8)      The world is flat — Skip the hotels and rent flats or apartments. They are a cheaper option for long-term travel. See our tips for long-term apartment rentals. During our journey Airbnb has become our default rental site to the point that we now live in “Airbnb World.”

9)      Go the extra mile — When we were traveling around the world we rented a car where we needed one. Back in the U.S. that got expensive so we bought a car. You’ll put on many miles as a nomad so skip the gas guzzler and get a car with great gas mileage.

10)    Take a break — Constantly moving from place to place can get tiring. We try to stay a minimum of a week anywhere. We’ll also set up firebreaks where we’ll stay at least a month or two to recharge our batteries and catch up on our writing. When that happens Larissa even makes the investment of buying a bottle of ketchup. I’m concerned though that it could be a gateway condiment and the next thing I know she’ll be buying mustard and relish.

Bonus tip: Don’t worry, be flexible — Every place you stay may not be as comfortable or as nice as you like. We’ve had relatively good luck in this department, mostly due to Larissa’s thorough vetting of our rentals. But the beauty of living a nomadic life is that if you don’t like an area, you’ll soon be moving on. And if you do like it, then you can stay longer.

Any questions you have or tips you’d like to share?

28581550060_131210d7e7_mLarissa and Michael are your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive our free quarterly newsletter with updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

We’ve been traveling the world for almost three years now and recently wrote a story for Huffington Post that asked “how is America different from the rest of the world?” That story struck a chord among readers who suggested more areas that set America apart.  Read more

We meet some incredible people on our travels who make Larissa and me seem like a couple of slackers. Such an encounter happened when we were visiting Death Valley National Park on a typical steamy summer day. With the temperature hovering around 114 degrees we saw a young man wearing a luminous lime-green vest, long sleeve shirt, long pants and a broad-brimmed straw floppy hat as he pushed one of those baby jogging strollers full of food and camping gear. Since we were roasting in our shorts and t-shirts we just had to ask what the heck he was doing.

Michael Stafford is a 27-year-old native of Erie, Pennsylvania who is walking across America. He set out from Virginia Beach on January 4th and hopes to reach the San Francisco area by mid-July. It’s truly an awe-inspiring accomplishment and reveals the life of someone who doesn’t worry about what lays beyond the next bend in the road. The 2007 Penn State graduate is remarkably composed about his accomplishment so far.

Michael Stafford walking across America supplies (800x658)

The walk is not part of some grand plan. “It’s something I’ve been thinking about doing for the past eight years. It’s always been sitting there in the back of my mind,” Michael said. He takes back roads and avoids interstates, the better to experience the sweeping landscape of America and its small towns along the way.

I asked him if he would be like Forrest Gump, see the Pacific Ocean, turn around and repeat the journey in the other direction? That’s when his obvious weariness kicked in, “Oh no,” he replied. “I’ll just want to rest.”

As for his plans after he reaches his goal he is remarkably sanguine. What will he do next? “I don’t know, but it’s okay to have unknowns in life. I’ll find something that will come up,” Michael stated.

After our chat with Michael we climbed back somewhat guiltily into our air-conditioned car. As we pulled away Michael gave us a wave as he took off down the lonely road deeper into Death Valley.

walking acorss america death valley

You can follow Michael’s journey on his blog at Mike Hikes. For those of you seeking tips for a similar journey he was wearing Naot sandals.

Another remarkable traveler we’ve met is Vladimir Yarets, a deaf mute motorcyclist form Belarus who is motorcycling around the globe.

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After traveling around the world for almost threee years we’ve noticed many ways how America is different from the rest of the world. From the proper way to eat pizza to how to tell time, here are a few of our favorites: Read more

Recently I had the privilege of giving a TEDx Talk in Philadelphia at Drexel University. The theme for the day was “The Next X.” Since TED Talks are designed to be “ideas worth sharing,” my message was about “The Next . . . Phase of Your Life.”

When Michael and I started out a few years ago on the journey that would become Changes in Longitude, we had no idea we were entering a new phase in our life.  We thought it would just be a break from our normal routine. (Well, okay, there was that little bit about a trip around the world with our buddy Little Rocky mixed in there.)  But the concept that our life would change so radically, and indeed even be a topic for a TED Talk, never crossed our minds.

Little Rocky TEDx DrexelU

Little Rocky was a big part of the TEDx Talk

There was a fascinating array of speakers that day, including an astronaut who had flown on the space shuttle and a mathematical genius who developed the world’s largest game of “Pong,” played on the side of a skyscraper.  Our round the world journey never took us to outer space, but it still managed to transform our lives into the nomadic lifestyle we lead today.

Ultimately, my message was that it’s okay to disrupt your own life. Please take a look and tell me what you think.

Special thanks to my friend Donna Higgins for introducing me to TED!

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Ahh what a simpler time. When a recently minted ex-President could hop in the car with his wife and take a road trip, unescorted by any security, halfway across the country to visit his daughter and some friends.

Even though Harry Truman was the target of an assassination attempt while President, back then once you left the White House you truly were a private citizen and could move about unencumbered by security details and an entourage of personal assistants.

Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip by Mathew Algeo perfectly captures the 1950s, which was a time before ex-Presidents became money printing machines from speaking fees and board memberships.

In fact, Truman was rather poor. He hadn’t been in the Army long enough to claim a military pension and his Senate career was cut short to become Roosevelt’s Vice President so he missed out on that pension too. What a far cry from today when even a single term as a United States Senator guarantees a lobbying income for life.

harry truman driving car

The author retraced the trip himself, staying at some of the same hotels and eating at the same restaurants. He even met a few people who interacted with the Trumans along the way, including a police officer who stopped the couple for driving too slowly. Harry, who was a car buff and notorious speeder, had to agree to Bess’ rule that they obey the posted speed limit.

Although Truman left office with a 22% approval rating, people were eager to meet him and give him well wishes. He made a triumphant return to Washington where the press asked him for his impressions of the Eisenhower administration. Normally never one to mince words, Truman didn’t feel it was his place to judge the new president. Again, it was a simpler time.

28581550060_131210d7e7_mLarissa and Michael are your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive monthly updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

Do you ever feel burdened by having too much “stuff?” Wondering what you are going to do with it all? One of the biggest tasks in preparing for our year-long journey was deciding what to do with all our stuff, the things we had spent a lifetime in acquiring. Getting rid of the house was an easy choice. But what about furniture, kitchen gadgets, clothing and more? We were traveling light so we’d have to leave everything behind but surely we’d need it all when we returned, right? It turns out the answer to that is “wrong.”

While we sold or gave away almost everything we owned before we left, we still had enough possessions we “couldn’t live without” to fill a 10’ x 10’ storage unit. It seemed kind of small compared to having a whole house full of belongings. But when we returned we slid open the overhead door to the unit, took one look at all the things piled up and thought, “Why the heck did we keep all this?” (Along with, “Why do we have so many lamps?”)

We were going to keep traveling and writing so we couldn’t imagine settling down any time soon. By contrast, that stuff in the storage unit seemed quite settled in.

So we did what any rational person would do, we slid the door back down and walked away, not thinking about it for six months. Six months that we continued to pay monthly storage rent because we just couldn’t face going through it all again.

how to simplify your life storage unit

During that time we gave a lecture at the Penn State Arts & Culture Series about our adventure and mentioned how we now live out of our suitcases, possessions no longer meaning anything to us. But a little voice in the back of our heads kept saying, “You hypocrites, what about all that crap in your storage unit?”

The voice kept getting louder and no amount of justifying–but it’s a pain to get rid of all that stuff, what if we need it again?, we just don’t have the time!—could make the voice go away. We were just coming up with pitiful excuses to avoid reality.

So we decided to clean out the shed and finally make the hard choices to get rid of our remaining possessions. Did we really need our college yearbooks anymore or CDs or any of the detritus of everyday life? We packed a few sentimental objects like family photos (after severely culling them) into boxes to store in a cousin’s basement. We sold or gave away the rest.

Since we are living a nomadic lifestyle, the material possessions we now own have to fit into the trunk of our car. (Without even spilling over into the back seat, Michael is very proud of his packing capabilities.)

One of the most common questions we get from people we meet along the way is “What about all your stuff?” We’re now pleased to answer, “What stuff?” This is the lightest and most free we have ever felt. No weight bearing us down, no material goods to worry about.

Believe it or not, it’s a lot of work to simplify your life, more so than we anticipated. But in the end, it’s been worth it and we encourage you to try it. If you could snap your fingers and cut some items from YOUR life, what would they be? (Please, no spouses.)

Changes in Longitude Larissa & Michael Milne at Arctic Circle

We’re Larissa and Michael, your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive updates and valuable travel tips subscribe to our free travel newsletter here.

This week we tackle travel myths and misconceptions related to destinations. In our many years of travel to 70 countries, we’ve learned to take what we read in guidebooks with a grain of salt and form our own opinions. Some places were pleasant surprises, others not so nice. Read on to see if you’ve encountered the same, or have others to add to the list:

Travel Myth #8: The French are rude. (They are NOT!)

rocky statue paris

Oh bullmerde! Do these people look rude? The French are nice people, and very proud of their country and its traditions. We have been to France many times and have never had to deal with rude Frenchmen.  The French are not very tolerant of rude travelers—they will simply be standoffish in return. And who can blame them? I’ve seen plenty of tourists march up to a random Frenchman and ask in English, “Where is the Eiffel Tower?” Learning a few simple words like sil vous plait and merci  will go miles in engendering good will. A good practice wherever you travel. (Thanks to the very nice Barbara and Didier for posing with Little Rocky in Paris.)

Travel blogger Barbara Weibel of The Hole in the Donut writes more about smashing the myth of French rudeness.

Travel Myth #9: You have to take a group tour or safari to visit Africa

Soussevlei sand dunes Namibia

Nope—try Namibia. The 22-year-old nation on the southwest coast of Africa is a safe spot for self-drive road trips. It offers an abundance of wild animals, a sterling national park system, and spectacular scenery. Many of the countries popular for safaris—Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa—warn against moving about the country on your own due to safety concerns, so a group tour is your only option.  In Namibia we drove around the country alone for 3 weeks, and there were days we were the sole humans viewing a waterhole filled with 30 elephants taking a bath. Just be sure not to wake a sleeping lion.

Travel Myth #10:  Bali is a paradise

Bali Kuta Beach trash

Sadly, we found this not to be true.  Rampant overbuilding and way too many tourists have made the southern part of the island overcrowded. Traffic is a nightmare, the streets full of litter and the beaches are some of the filthiest we have ever seen. They even have a time of year known as the “trash season”—yuck. The Balinese people are wonderful, and beauty still exists on the island, but you have to head pretty far inland to find it. Here’s more on our experience with Bali’s trashy beaches.

Travel Myth #11:  Middle Easterners don’t like Americans

Rocky Mohammad Lebanon Abu Dhabi

Total hummus. We spent 2 months traveling independently throughout the Middle East. Wherever we went, people asked where we were from. When we replied “the US” their first response was universally “welcome”.  This was true of Emirati in Dubai, Bedouin workers in Qatar and Jordan and even a few Lebanese and Saudi guys we met in Abu Dhabi. Their Arab and Muslim customs may be different to that of the west (and as a woman I’m not really crazy about the whole burka thing), but that does not mean the people are hostile. The reports we see on TV are of the sensational zealots, and like zealots everywhere they are a small (but noisy) minority.

Travel Myth #12: You’ll have trouble with the language

travel myths debunked language

We’ve been to almost 70 countries, and we certainly don’t speak 70 languages fluently, or even 2 for that matter. English has become the universal language of business while English language movies and TV programs are available all over the world. (Heck, you can buy knockoffs of the latest western releases in China and Vietnam for 75¢.) As a result, in most major cities and tourist areas you’ll be able to at least muddle through with English. And the world over, when someone doesn’t speak the local language, English is what they use to communicate. In Vietnam we saw an Italian man conversing with a Vietnamese woman in English, similarly a Turkish woman speaking English to a German. This does not mean you shouldn’t learn at least a few words of the native tongue (see number 8 above). And in rural locations all bets are off. But do NOT let unfamiliarity with the language be a hindrance to your travels!

Travel Myth #13:  North Korea is off-limits to visitors

choson ot what women wear in north korea

Not true. Although visitors must take a group tour via one of the few approved tour operators (we used Koryo Tours), and all tours originate out of Beijing. Visas are not granted to anyone with a public profile, so this is not the time to brag about how popular your blog is, or even mention that uncle who works at the Pentagon.  The tours are pretty structured, with visits to the “great and glorious” sights that the North Korean government has deemed worthy. Despite this, there are still glimpses beneath the veneer, and opportunities to interact with the North Korean people, who are sheltered, but still friendly  and curious. We wrestled with the question “Is it morally right to visit North Korea?” and in the end were glad we decided to go.

Travel Myth #14: Get up early to avoid the crowds

Angkor Wat crowded entrance

Ah, the “travel secret” of every guidebook! Know what happens when you do this?  You end up stuck with the crowds of people who got up early to avoid the crowds, missing breakfast in the process. We aren’t early risers, so our philosophy is to go late to miss the crowds. We do other activities in the morning (which usually includes sleeping in and having a leisurely breakfast) while the crowds are at the nearby sights. Then we head over after lunch, just as the busloads are returning. From the temples of Angkor Wat to safaris in Africa to the ruins at Pompeii this strategy has worked well for us. We often have the place almost to ourselves, along with great late afternoon light for photos.

What travel myths about destinations have you debunked?

For more see our list of Travel Myths #1-#7

Sign up for Airbnb through our referral link and you'll get at $35 on your first stay (& so will we :)

28581550060_131210d7e7_mLarissa and Michael are your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive our free quarterly newsletter with updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

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.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy I headed to Long Island to check on damage to my mom’s house. She lives in a waterfront community that was in a mandatory evacuation zone but was out of town for the storm. Fortunately her neighborhood was not affected by the floods caused by the storm surge and only lost power for a few days.

Hurricane Sandy Long Beach

Idyllic Long Beach, Long Island as the storm approached. Famous as Billy Crystal’s hometown, the area suffered serious damage.

My aunt and uncle were not so lucky. An old tree across the street lifted up the entire sidewalk and made a beeline for their front door, knocking down power lines in the process. They shivered their way through two weeks without electricity. (Yet somehow managed to keep up with Dancing With The Stars.)

Two days before the storm hit we watched preparations at Long Beach. The boardwalk we were standing on was destroyed.

Down near the water I visited parents of high school friends, all of whom suffered substantial damage including the loss of their cars to the rising waters. It was an incongruous sort of high school reunion, chatting with people I hadn’t seen in 30 years outside of their waterlogged homes.

On TV we watched residents of Staten Island who had been hit the worst and lost almost everything. Their houses were filling with a foul-smelling mold that they were worried was harming their health. When asked if they would leave their homes they said no, because they were afraid of looters.

Their dilemma made me reflect on being so worried about stuff that they wouldn’t leave their unhealthy home for fear of losing things. After jettisoning just about everything we owned for this trip, I no longer value “stuff” so much anymore. Living out of a suitcase will do that to you.

Hurricane Sandy damage tree on sidewalk

This tree yanked up the sidewalk, which is sticking up in the air behind me, before tumbling toward my aunt and uncle’s house.

We’ve met people around the world who from the outside appeared to have nothing. Our neighbors in Indonesia lived in a ramshackle strip of small houses with no running water, yet they were happy. They had so much less to burden them. We met Bedouin in Jordan who live in yurt-like structures constructed of corrugated metal and other reclaimed salvage. Worrying about the loss of a widescreen TV would be an alien thought to them.

As Sandy bore down on the East Coast we hunkered down in my brother’s house. We didn’t really have any personal concerns. We have no house to get damaged, no cars to get flooded, no stuff to get ruined. As we rode out the storm, listening to the howling winds outside, I felt relieved that I really had nothing to worry about.

Long Beach boardwalk damage Hurricane Sandy

The Long Beach boardwalk after Hurricane Sandy. It’s being ripped out and hopefully a new one will be built by summer. 

We live a nomadic lifestyle now. If there’s a problem in one region, we’ll just pick up and move someplace else. There are no roots to reach up and entangle us, or to lose their tenuous grip on the ground and send us crashing to earth. Perhaps the Bedouin have had it right all along.

To contribute to relief efforts go to the Robin Hood Fund.

The second most popular question we get about how to travel for a year has been: How do you decide where to go? (We’ll tell you the most common question later.) Trip planning is different for everybody but here’s how we did it.

We knew there were certain sites that were “must sees.” Our top five were: the Great Wall of China, Angkor Wat, Sydney Harbour, Petra and wild game in Africa. On top of that there were a few destinations that we definitely wanted to include in an around-the-world itinerary: Paris, Buenos Aires, Dubai, Hong Kong and Jerusalem.

travel for a year Sydney Harbour

We originally hoped to go to Tokyo, but when we were planning the trip in early 2011 Japan was feeling the aftershocks of their earthquake. Things were still a bit unsettled there, so we decided to postpone Japan for another time.

We also had a few other criteria:

1)      Weather – We didn’t want to be anyplace during their winter. Packing for a temperate climate is easier, plus we just didn’t want to be cold.

2)      Geography – We wanted to hit 6 continents. Antarctica would be left out for this go around. It’s too expensive, plus see the previous comment about cold.

3)      We were going to North Korea for the Mass Games which only occur in August/September so we had to work around that.

Our planning bible was National Geographic’s 100 Countries, 5,000 Ideas: Where to Go, When to Go, What to See, What to Do . It provides an overview and photos of each country along with information on the best time to visit for weather, etc.

travel for a year Bayon Temple Angkor Wat

Along the way we came across an issue which severely impacted our planning: the Schengen Agreement. The what agreement? This obscure little treaty limits how long travelers can visit most of continental Europe to 90 days within a 180-day period. We didn’t know about this when the trip started, but later on it severely limited our options when we were in Europe.

Combining the must-see sites, destinations and criteria gave us a sort of framework to wrap the trip around. When we left America we had the first two months planned. September would be spent in China and North Korea, followed by a month-long flat rental in Sydney. Beyond that we had no idea where we were going.

travel for a year Dubai harbor

Initially we thought we would always have the next two months planned out, but that notion quickly fell by the wayside. As we got deeper into the trip we became more adept at planning and more used to being flexible. We often didn’t know two days ahead of time what country we would be in next. But that unknowing became part of the fun.

We had decided against buying a round-the-world airline ticket, so we had more flexibility. However, airfare was part of our planning equation since we were always buying one-way tickets. In Australia we couldn’t explore as much of the country as we wanted since flights were ridiculously expensive. In Southeast Asia it was the opposite, there we found low-cost carriers that allowed us to hop around quite cheaply.

Vietnam Airlines duct tape

Okay, so maybe some of the planes were held together by duct tape but we were assured they were safe. 

A major source of destinations that popped up during the trip was recommendations from other travelers we met along the way. Namibia and Turkey were not on the radar for us when we started out. But so many people gushed about them that we added them to our list. We’re glad we did, as they became two of our most enjoyable places.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Abu Dhabi

Yes, that’s Larissa as we toured the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. Michael was petrified of breaking the PDA rule, hence his “no hands” pose.  

Our favorite trip planning tools

We brought with us an inflatable globe and a fold-out map of the world. They became two of our essential trip-planning tools. We’d sit for hours poring over them to pick our next destination. It’s incredibly fun to plan without any time constraints. That only became an issue towards the end of the trip when we had set up a date by which we had to return.

map round the world trip planning

The trusty map displays the end result of all our planning.

At some point we realized it’s not like this is the last trip of our lives, so we don’t have to see everything on this go around. That realization made planning easier. Overall it worked out pretty well. While we didn’t enjoy every place that we went, we had a pretty good batting average. It’s helpful to start out with some idea of where you want to go, but make sure to be flexible along the way.

Oh, and the most popular question we get? “What was your favorite place?” There were so many so we still haven’t figured out an answer for that one.

What would be some of your “must sees” on an around the world trip?

October, 2012: We’re back in the USA. After 400+ days, 6 continents, 31 countries and 100,000 miles we’re home . . . sort of.

Our goal was to get away from a destructive family situation, using time and miles to help us heal. Our plan: travel for a year around the world. As our mascot Little Rocky would say, “to go the distance.” We’re happy to report that we have indeed been there and done that.

Now what? In the short time since our return we’ve begun to reconnect with friends and family. After more than a year of totally new and different people, places, sights and sounds we’re enjoying the comfort of familiarity, the ability to put our senses on auto-pilot and just hang out for a bit.

Larissa Michael Rocky statue

Little Rocky is finally reunited with the Rocky statue.

It’s great to be back, but we’re not really home. Technically we don’t have a home, since we sold our house and gave away most of our stuff before we left. Renting a house or apartment and resuming our lives as before could remedy that easily enough.

But that’s not going to happen. The place we once called home may be more or less the same, and very comfortable, but we’ve changed. As the world became our home our need for personal space shrunk, and we no longer have a need for all the stuff we used to have. We learned to adapt to new environments and situations quickly and to revel in soaking up new experiences.

We’re not going back to our former careers. Instead we’ll keep traveling, keep learning, keep writing, and keep providing tools for others to “Just Go Already.” There are still many stories and travel tips to share and we’ll be writing here, for the Philadelphia Inquirer and other media outlets. We’re also writing a book about our experience. (Anyone know a book agent or publisher?)

So stay along for the ride. The trip may be over, but the journey has just begun.

And you hunger for the time
Time to heal, desire, time
And your earth moves beneath
Your own dream landscape.

—A Sort of Homecoming by U2

PS. Long-time readers may recall that we started our journey 14 months ago from the base of the Rocky Steps in Philadelphia and would run up the steps when we returned. Well we did:

Many thanks to our friend Paula for taking the photos and video. She had a remarkably steady hand!

We recently marked the one-year anniversary of taking off to travel the world. The date had almost passed unnoticed. Dates take on a different perspective when traveling. Anyone who has ever been on vacation and remarked, “I don’t even know what day of the week it is” can understand what we mean. The calendar is just a means to schedule our travel; we are more focused on looking forward, rather than looking back.

Despite the occasional curve ball that’s been thrown at us, it’s been smooth sailing so far. We’ve had a few lodging snafus, but we’ve learned to either grin and bear it for a night, or retrench quickly. Only one flight has been cancelled and we haven’t had to visit the lost luggage counter. We’ve had no health issues—even our emergency roll of toilet paper remains unfurled. (Nothing like saying that to jinx it!)

Travel the world Michael South Australia

Quite frankly we thought that a life constantly on the move would have burned us out by the fifth or sixth month.  We often don’t know where we’ll be going until a few days ahead. But instead of being nerve-wracking it’s been invigorating.  Maybe that was one of the goals for this trip.

One of the questions we often get is “What’s it like to be with the same person for a year? Day in and day out, hour by hour, minute by. . .” well, you get the idea. That part has been surprisingly easy. After 25 years together we are attuned to each other’s rhythms and make it work. While we do spend most of our time together, we’ve learned to branch out separately from time to time. This lets us pursue our own interests which are then fun to share later, (kind of a nomad’s version of “how was your day, Dear?”)

Tropic of Capricorn sign

We did not undertake this journey lightly. We had endured a family situation that was no longer tolerable. A life of stasis was not an option. It was time to look forward and break away from an enabling situation that we could not change, or allow it to keep dragging us under. We chose to keep going. We needed to.

We took this trip to shake up our lives a bit and have they been shaken. It’s been refreshing, a little intimidating, enlightening, but never boring. We highly recommend it to others. You don’t even need to have a strong yearning for adventure. Perhaps you just want to break out of a rut, to realize that you don’t have to follow the same path for the next 20, 30 or 40 years.

Larissa and woman on boat Hoi An

After a year on the road we still have a plenty of the world we want to see, and we can definitely say that we would do it all over again. Well, maybe not right away, we do have to stop at some point to earn a living. But we doubt we will follow the traditional route with our lives that we had been on before.

Some humans nest while others are nomadic. Over the past year we’ve met many who fit into the latter group. Like them we now find the world a delightful place to roam. If that’s something you’re interested in, we encourage you to forge your own path.

Travel the world Rocky Dunnet Head Scotland

Little Rocky dons the kilt in Scotland.

Do you love perusing maps? Can an atlas keep you occupied for hours? Do you pull the airline magazine out of the seat pocket so you can scan the route map and plan future trips? If so, then you may be a maphead. Ken Jennings, the record-setting Jeopardy champion, has written a book just for you. It’s called Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks and is an engaging book that will interest anyone who answered “yes” to the above questions.

Fortunately, mapheads are easy to spot. We met one in Bali. Theresa, husband Thomas and six-year-old daughter Alexandra have lived all over the world including stops in Dubai, Romania, Africa and Kuala Lumpur . Theresa hails from a small town in Louisiana where she had six siblings, but she is the only wanderer in the family. I asked if she was different growing up. “Oh, yes,” she replied. “I used to love reading the encyclopedia and learning about other places.” Theresa is a typical maphead.  As, we confess, are we.

Ken Jennings as a child

Ken Jennings as a child with a map coloring book.

Jennings reveals much about his childhood in South Korea, where studying atlases helped him cope with being away from America and developed his love for geography. Along the way he gets hooked on geocaching, a sort of GPS based treasure hunt. In between, he takes what could be a dry subject and makes it fun. He also reveals a much bawdier sense of humor than he displayed on Jeopardy.

He guides readers on a journey from the early history of maps right up the present day with GPS technology and Google maps. Which brings up an interesting point, with the advent of those technologies do crinkly, paper maps that are difficult to refold even have a future? Read Maphead and find out.

Purchase Maphead

 

The Afghan Girl cover on National Geographic

The most iconic National Geographic cover displays an image of a teenage Afghan girl with luminescent green eyes peering out at the reader. We recently attended a travel bloggers conference in Umbria , Italy where we had the opportunity to meet the man behind the cover, photographer Steve McCurry. He was in Umbria taking photos of the beautiful region for a special project. We joined our fellow writers in asking Steve a few questions about his career. Here are a few tips on how to take better travel photos:

Photography tips from Steve McCurry

1) How did you find the subject for the “Afghan Girl” photo shoot? I was taking photos at a school when I noticed her off to the side with some friends. She was shy so I couldn’t just approach her directly. I spent some time taking photos of a few of her classmates. Eventually she became intrigued and agreed to pose. Once we started I knew I only had about ten minutes before she would lose interest and wander off.

2) Did you know right away the photo was a winner? Back then you had to send your film back to be developed before you knew how the pictures came out. My editor contacted me and told me we had something special.

3) How do you compare digital and film photography? Digital photography is superior to film. Although I’m glad I waited to get into it now that it’s much improved.

4) What are you looking for when you take pictures? I try to get beyond the postcard view to capture the flavor of a place. It’s about the people so I look at that more than landscapes.

5) How do you develop a rapport with your subjects so they let you photograph them? When taking intimate photos of people don’t be shy, be confident. Establish a friendly smile and treat them with respect. Most people are thrilled to be photographed. Make sure you are treating them as a real person, not an object. They’ll also reflect your personality, if you’re nervous then they’ll be nervous.

6) How do you overcome language barriers? I usually have a translator or a guide. But I also use sign language or a joke. You can’t overestimate humor to make someone comfortable.

7) Have you ever had “the photo that got away” that you weren’t ready for? I don’t dwell on negativity or missed opportunities.

8) Who inspired you when you were starting out? Henri-Cartier Bresson developed such a sense of timing, light and composition. I wanted to take what he did and take it to the next level with travel photography.

9) How would you like to be remembered? For seeing the great places of the world: Umbria, where I’m working now, the Grand Canyon, the Great Wall of China.

Steve McCurry Afghan girl photographer

Naturally Philly native and Penn State grad Steve McCurry would pose with our trip mascot, Little Rocky.

Many thanks to Steve McCurry for taking the time.

Interested in photography? Here’s a link to our photos of North Korea.

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