Sometimes, life throws wicked curve balls at inopportune times – such as, middle age. A lifetime of plans fly out the window, and you’re left facing … what?
A couple of years ago, Larissa and Michael Milne experienced this scenario. To put it more bluntly, they encountered a personal apocalypse of sorts. Faced with a number of very difficult options, they chose to rekindle their love for each other – and to do it away from their Philadelphia home. So they sold everything, got on a plane – and spent the next year experiencing the world in what has grown into a most amazing story. Imagine taking in North Korea, Vietnam and Namibia while dealing with major family issues back home …
The Milnes are writing about their 31-country, 6-continent journey in Changes In Longitude, a book that couples travel narrative and poignant memoir, with the Milnes’ journalistic skill and catchy humor present throughout. The book is now beginning to make its rounds in the publishing world, where it is certain to find a home that puts copies in countless readers’ hands in the near future. One thing for sure: the book is bolstered by one of the best and most brand-conscious websites out there, www.changesinlongitude.com.
Recently, I had the chance to interview the Milnes, to whom I was introduced through my work for another travel narrative author and client, Lynne Martin, author of the forthcoming Home Free. As you’ll see, the Milnes’ experience is distinctive, unique – and well worth turning the pages to follow, for both its travel and emotional richness.
Bob Yehling: In this busy publishing cycle of travel memoirs and narratives, you have a truly unique personal story that prompted your decision to travel for a year? Could you elaborate?
Larissa and Michael Milne: On the surface, our decision seems like a lark or reaction to a mid-life crisis. In reality, it sprang from much deeper roots. We were reeling from the physical and emotional strain of years of dealing with a destructive family situation related to our daughter, whom we had adopted from Russia. By the time she became an adult, our relationship with her was broken and we became reluctant empty nesters. We needed time to heal so we turned to our love of travel.
BY: You combined truly exotic or hard-to-reach destinations with some world favorites – North Korea, Namibia, Vietnam, etc. Could you describe how that added to your experience – and to the narrative of Changes in Longitude?
Milnes: This journey was about discovering new places as we rediscovered ourselves. We indulged our natural curiosity for far-flung destinations, seeking to understand the people behind the places. Since journalists are not permitted to enter North Korea, we provide rare perspectives of this isolated country. We met people there who were warm and welcoming, so unlike the vitriol spewed towards the world by their government.
In Vietnam, we toured the My Lai Massacre site (from the Vietnam War). Locals, once they found out we were Americans, embraced us and said “U.S.-Vietnam friends now.” We realized that no matter how much governments are in conflict, people are the same all over the world and respect each other.
BY: One of my favorite scenes is when you find yourself mired in a Scottish meadow, ankle deep in mud – with a bull getting ready to charge you. Why do you feel readers gravitate so readily to funny, even mindless moments within the larger scope of the journey?
Milnes: Those I Love Lucy moments are entertaining. They remind us that travel is all about creating memories, experiences that you can’t predict. In 400 days of travel, we had our fair share. Wait until you read about Larissa’s encounter with a toilet on a Malaysian train.
BY: You’ve been writing a column for the Philadelphia Inquirer, as well as pieces for National Geographic Traveler and other magazines. You were also featured in Smithsonian Magazine. What age groups have you heard responses from? And how did this writing prepare you or aid your decision to write Changes in Longitude?
Milnes: Chucking it all to travel is a dream of many, regardless of age. The phrase “you’re living the dream” is one we heard consistently from people all over the world. Travel stories in newspapers and magazines typically place the reader “in the moment” by telling them the who, what, where and why of the story. We spread our wings more in the book by taking the reader beyond what happened in the moment; delving deeper into the situations we encountered and people we met.
BY: What were the advantages and challenges of writing this book together?
Milnes: We each have slightly different perspectives of our experiences, which adds dimension to our narrative. It can be a challenge writing in a collective voice.
BY: You’ve obviously read several travel memoirs and narratives. What in your reading moved you the most about these works? And what devices did you find most advantageous to your book (though obviously tweaking to distinguish your voice and journey)?
Milnes: Normally we enjoy reading narratives that make us want to visit a place. But there are also books like J. Marten Troost’s The Sex Lives of Cannibals. After reading it, we have absolutely no desire to visit Kiribati, but love the way he wrote about the country and its people with candor and affection. We both relish Bill Bryson; the way he writes with humor, but also delves into the local history, which places his observations in context.
BY: Why do you feel travel is such a great way to work through traumatic emotional or structural changes in our lives?
Milnes: Travel takes a person completely out of the routines of daily life, giving them the space and time to heal while gaining a self-awareness they wouldn’t achieve at home. Living in a foreign land where nothing is familiar also avoids stepping on many of the emotional trip wires that are pervasive at home.
BY: The best single moment of your trip?
Milnes: There was no one “best” moment, but there was a pivotal one when we realized how the journey was affecting us. This occurred on a beach in Perth, Australia as we were watching the sun melt into the Indian Ocean. It was the first time we realized that rather than taking a break, we were making a break; we would not return to our prior lives. Every step forward would help us shape our new life.
That first step occurred sooner than expected. As more folks flocked to our isolated spot, we found out that we sat smack in the middle of a nude beach. To remain clothed would make 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.
BY: The most challenging moment?
Milnes: In North Korea, we were fed a steady diet of propaganda related to the Korean War and U.S.-North Korea relations. We were warned ahead of time not to counter the guides with our version of these historic events. It wouldn’t reflect well on our hosts, and we wouldn’t their change minds, anyway. But when we were touring the War Museum in Pyongyang, Michael had enough of the alternative history – and apparently, it showed. He was pulled away from the group by an Army guide who questioned where he was from and why he was being so “callous.”
BY: Now that you’re shopping Changes in Longitude, what do you feel are the central themes, or even experiences, that readers may find most engrossing?
Milnes: No matter how down your life might be, travel can provide uplifting moments. String enough of those moments together and you can find a path forward to true happiness, a happiness that is newly defined.
We embraced a much simpler lifestyle. (Living out of a 22” suitcase for a year will do that to you.) As the world became our home, our need for personal space has shrunk, and we no longer need the stuff we used to own. We learned to adapt to new environments and situations quickly; instead of acquiring possessions, we’re more interested in acquiring a wealth of experiences. None of this would have happened if we had continued with the same routine of our prior life. If you want to change your life, then change your life.