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A new world view

They sold everything and spent a year traveling to 23 countries. What one family learned on its odyssey.

Keller family (Wendy Maeda / Globe staff) The Keller family, clockwise: Teresa, Alex, 14, Jennifer,19, and Bella, 13, have just returned from a humanitarian trip around the world.
By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / September 3, 2011

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Brave . . . or nuts?

A year ago, a Globe story about the Keller family of Groton posed that question as they embarked on a journey that was, by any measure, almost crazily ambitious.

For the next 12 months, they would travel the globe, mixing sightseeing with humanitarian work in Bulgaria, Kenya, India, and Cambodia. Their itinerary took a full year to plan. Projected travel budget: $125,000. To track their progress and raise funds for charities they’d be supporting, they created a website, Round the World With Us (www.rtwwithus.org), featuring blog posts, podcasts, and videos.

The five travelers - Teresa Keller, a single mother and former executive director of the Archaeological Institute of America; her three teenage children, Jennifer Manglass, Isabella Gagliardo, and Alexander Gagliardo; and family friend Meagan Franz - returned home earlier this summer. Home, that is, in a manner of speaking.

Before leaving, the Kellers gave up their Groton rental house, sold most of their possessions, and left schools and jobs in the rearview mirror. Plans for the coming year are currently in flux, even as they process a once-in-a-lifetime experience: a 23-country, 43,000-mile odyssey taking them from Moscow to Nairobi, Cairo to Tokyo. Their travels took them from a Kenyan village where they raised $10,000 for a community well - and hosted a Thanksgiving dinner for 900 - to southern India, where they assisted a rural land-grant program serving some of the country’s poorest citizens.

The five rode camels in Egypt, petted tigers in Thailand, milked cows in Kenya, and went bowling in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. In Laos, they funded three library reading rooms; in Belize, a schoolhouse roof. Traveling mainly by train and bus, they lived frugally while raising over $152,000 in donations, money that bought everything from computers to shoes to trees. None went to their own travel expenses, which were funded out of pocket.

As expected, they learned much about local customs and cultures along the way. But they often played teacher, too, conducting classes in art, English, and video production for Third World children living far off the western pop-culture grid. They even gave Macarena lessons to a group of Maasai warriors, possibly a first for that African tribe.

Brave or nuts? A better question might be, did the trip accomplish what they hoped it would? And would they do it again if given the chance?

“It was a lot easier than we thought it would be, a lot more doable,’’ Keller said during a recent stopover in Massachusetts, where her family was busy catching up with friends and schoolmates. But, she added, “There were also conflicts, being together 24/7. I had to learn to take it easy and not nag so much.’’

Joining in the travelogue were Bella and Alex, both of whom had expressed deep reservations about the trip beforehand. All spoke passionately about what they’d seen and done, notwithstanding some difficult lessons learned.

One was how punishing travel on this scale can be, mentally and physically. At the halfway point, exhausted after spending a month living and working in the slums of Calcutta, everyone wanted to head home - Keller included. They kept going, but it was not an easy call.

“One big take away was, it’s the process and not necessarily the goal that’s important,’’ Keller reflected. “I thought we’d be one of those families that keeps traveling. But I realized we need structure and community.’’

Spending the first few weeks driving through Europe may not have been wise, either, they agreed. While intellectually stimulating, it delayed the volunteer work they wanted to start. By September, in Bulgaria, attitudes improved. The five spent a month working and living in the Maria Theresia Orphanage, where they helped set up, and fund, a computer lab.

Almost no one there spoke English, but that hardly mattered. His computer know-how made him instantly popular, Alex recalled with a smile. Bella had blogged about wishing to stay longer, among kids in awe of her piano playing. One even nicknamed her Tchaikovsky, she wrote.

From Bulgaria, they moved on to Turkey and Egypt before a six-week layover in Kenya and two projects that ranked among the high points of their year abroad: assisting the people of Nyumbani, an AIDS-ravaged community whose members have been learning to grow their own food and build their own houses; and Lugulu, a Maasai village whose residents are learning to use biosand water filters as they transition to a more self-sustaining way of life.

“It was a million times better than we thought,’’ Teresa said, her children nodding in agreement. “Nyumbani is a brilliantly engineered place, environmentally. A place where the old take care of the young and the young take care of the old. It was inspiring.’’

It was, she continued, one of the first places where her family realized how happy others could be with relatively little, at least by American standards. “Even people in the Calcutta slums, living together in one tiny room, were all so happy,’’ Keller said. “It’s a cliche, I know. But being happy with less is something many of us in America have lost.’’

What about their own comfort level as they moved from country to country, project to project, as they fulfilled the mission they’d set out upon 12 months ago?

Health: Getting all their required shots, plus $8,000 worth of malarial pills, helped ensure that nobody got seriously sick on the trip. There were several minor medical procedures, however, including one ingrown toenail (Alex, surgically treated in Nairobi for $100); one pulled wisdom tooth (Teresa, Cambodia, $30); and “one traditional Maasai method of extracting sea urchins from feet using a mango spear.’’

Safety: Pickpockets stole Keller’s wallet in a Paris subway. Otherwise, crime and safety were seldom if ever pressing concerns. Scariest encounter? The flood of beetles, scorpions, and other creatures unleashed by Kenyan rainstorms. “You don’t want to know about the Cockroach Room,’’ said Bella wryly.

Schoolwork: Alex, headed for 8th grade this fall, and Bella, going into 7th, took online courses in several subjects - but rarely made homework a high priority, they admitted. Keeping up with math was key, according to Keller. Otherwise, subjects like World History became part of what they did and saw each day.

Staying connected: Jennifer, who felt the most cut off from friends during the trip, says they’d expected to be less addicted to the Internet than back home. “It was exactly the opposite, though,’’ she said. “Everywhere we’d go, it was, ‘Where’s the Wi-F i?’ ’’

Changing plans: No trip this complicated goes as scripted. In India, the Kellers had thought they’d be partnering with a charity they’d been in contact with from the US. When that charity was less welcoming than anticipated, they found another project to work for. Also, a scheduled hike up Tanzania’s Mt. Kilimanjaro was scrapped due to the high cost ($1,000 per person) of hiring guides. After spending time in Kenya, where villagers were grateful to have a pair of shoes, the hike seemed too indulgent, all agreed.

Meanwhile, the trip, scheduled to last 12 full months, ended prematurely, in late June. Flying from Asia to San Francisco for a two-week break, and with Alex and Bella unsure of where they’d be in school this fall, Keller decided to postpone stops in Belize and Peru, at least for her three teens. She and her partner, Doug Tilden, who works with Children International, did fly to Belize to carry out the planned school project.

For the coming year, at least, Keller, Alex, and Bella will live in San Francisco. Jennifer is off to Clark University in Worcester. Meagan is finishing high school in Salt Lake City. In November, they’ll reunite in Peru to finish another project planned 12 months ago.

A year from now, Keller will likely move back to the Boston area. Her goal is to launch a nonprofit connecting inner-city kids in the US with their peers overseas. Young Americans struggling with drugs and poverty can be empowered by making such connections, she said. “I want them to have a bigger picture on the world.’’

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com

Website visits: 281,895

Money spent: $104,808.17

Money raised: $157,972

Miles traveled: 42,884

Nights spent in youth hostels: 174

In hotels: 64

In orphanages: 148

Trees planted: 8,000

Acres of land puchased for Dalit families, India: 65

Pairs of shoes supplied: 765

Teens taught conversational English: 120

Teens receiving health-education training: 1,800