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The world as home

A year of life-altering travel teaches a couple that there's no place like Earth.

Petra, Jordan: A skyline of sandstone cliffs, unchanged after 2,000 years.
Petra, Jordan: A skyline of sandstone cliffs, unchanged after 2,000 years.Read more

We were at the other end of the world, 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 had sold our house and given 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 had adopted from Russia at age 9, 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 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 shrank. Instead of acquiring possessions, we found more happiness in acquiring a wealth of experiences.

Along the way, we wrote almost 20 articles for The Inquirer about our destinations. They seem to have struck a chord with readers: Many 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 a twist, by leaving Philadelphia, we ended up getting to know more people from our home city.

We found Philadelphians everywhere we went. 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 a 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 Carlos "Chooch" Ruiz.

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, several months later getting 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.)

The view from the top of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the world's tallest building and a man-made wonder at more than 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 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've got to 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.

The Western Wall in Jerusalem is an awe-inspiring sight, as much for its size and stark simplicity as for 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 Sheikh 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 prebreakfast hike in Namibia, we searched for 500-year-old rock paintings of giraffes, and then turned to see a pack of giraffes ambling by, oblivious to their portraits 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 k.p.h. 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.

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 mudlike 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 kiwifruit 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.)

Little Rocky goes the distance

We also took a piece of Philadelphia with us: a mini-statue of filmic 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 forthcoming season of the show.

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. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote that "Not all those who wander are lost." There is solace in that thought as we return home and continue our wandering ways.

And those sand dunes in Perth where we were pondering our future? As more folks flocked to our isolated spot to witness the sunset, we realized 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 we were shedding the vestiges of our former lives. 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.

Travel Show

Larissa and Michael Milne will appear at The Philadelphia Inquirer Travel Show at the Valley Forge Convention Center on Jan. 27 to discuss their yearlong journey.EndText

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