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After a 10-month solo journey across five continents, seeing monkeys in the streets or a dead body by a river is no big deal. 

The World Enough and Time

Last year, Danielle Johnson was told that her company, Wheat First, was merging with a larger corporation. She was given two options: continue with the new firm as a financial analyst or accept a severance package and kiss her job goodbye. For Johnson, 25, it was an easy choice. She took the money and ran — all the way to Rhinebeck, N.Y., where she spent three months volunteering for a holistic retreat center. "I went from the Twin Towers to cleaning toilets," says Johnson. "It was a great way for me to release a little ego." Then she did something incredible. In January, Johnson purchased a ticket for $3,000 from British Airways that allowed her to travel around the world and, within a year, make three changeovers in each continent. The next month, she left Richmond on a 10-month solo tour across five continents. To the many Americans whose idea of travel has come to mean weekend excursions, cross-country trips and formulaic European vacations, Johnson's journey to exotic and largely imperiled places in China, India, Turkey and Israel seems strange. It's the kind of travel that writers dream about. For Johnson, it was an awakening. "I had to prove something to myself and deep down I knew it would make me a stronger person," Johnson says. Johnson returned to Richmond last month, and if she's feeling any culture shock, it's not visible. She doesn't harp on how good it is to be home or on the amenities she missed. Instead, she's eager to share details of a trip she says more Americans should take. Already, she's planned another trip to India in April when she'll tour the southern part of the continent. After that, she says she'll "come back home and get a real job." Johnson's penchant for visiting strange cultures is partly hereditary. Her parents met in the 1960s in Nepal as Peace Corps volunteers, and they celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary in 1992 with a family trip halfway around the world to return there. That journey inspired Johnson to spend a summer as an archeologist's assistant in Carthage, Tunisia. In college she studied abroad for a semester, teaching English in Osaka, Japan. But, she says, the wanderlust she feels today comes from her mother. It is her mother, Sylvia Clute, who proved to Johnson that she could do anything and go anywhere. When Clute's assignment in Nepal ended, she traveled home alone — by way of Southeast Asia. "It's part of our family lore that in my 20s I went to Vietnam at the height of the war," Clute says. "I didn't tell my parents until I got home." But Clute doesn't share the same worries for her daughter that her own parents felt more than 30 years ago. "I sent her off with pocket e-mail," Clute says. "As long as I got regular e-mails I was OK." And so it was with a pocket e-mail device, a 50-pound backpack, a credit card, fake wedding ring and several Lonely Planet guidebooks that Johnson set out to explore the world and find her place in it. Johnson did things she had never imagined. She took surfing lessons in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Australia, trekked the Himalayas and hiked beside the Great Wall of China. She worked as a volunteer for a month in Calcutta for Mother Theresa's Missions of Charity. There, she massaged disabled and starving children until the work became too "depressing." She then took on something most people would recoil from: searching the world's busiest train station for the neediest cases left to rot — often, she says, "cleaning maggots from gaping wounds of the diseased." In a village of exiled Tibetans, she studied an Asian healing technique called Reiki from a Buddhist nun. She arm-wrestled a border-control guard in Jordan, and cut and dyed her long blond hair when anti-American protests threatened her safety in Israel. While Johnson stayed with a Kurdish family in a small village in Turkey near the Iranian border, she survived a Turkish earthquake a country still trying to bury its dead from the last. "All of a sudden the floor turned to Jell-O," she says. Johnson shrugs off danger as she would a sniffle, dismissing any formidable consequence. "You have to rely on the goodness of strangers," she says. "There were times I felt uncomfortable but not unsafe." In August — after backpacking through parts of New Zealand, Australia, Japan, China and India — she traveled to McLeod Ganj where the Dalai Lama and exiled Tibetan government are located. To her surprise, when Johnson put in a request to meet the Dalai Lama, it was accepted. "It was more like a conveyor belt where people were pushed through to shake his hand and look into his eyes for a few seconds," says Johnson. Despite the impersonal arrangement, she adds, it made an indelible impression. "I shook his hand for two seconds and was able to look straight into his eyes. Everyone says he has this amazing ability to be very present with the person he is with, and it's true," she says. "I felt as though he was just as interested in looking into my eyes as I was [looking into] his. It was quite exciting and very peaceful. … I guess that's what happens when you meet the political and religious leader of a nation." But more than meeting the Dalai Lama or the countless adventures she had traveling with others she met along the way, Johnson says she values most the time she spent observing life in India. Despite adversity, she says, the Indian people are gentle and hopeful. Each day, she marveled at simple things like "seeing wild peacocks on walks to the local temple or huge monkeys [that would] come and play around neighborhood houses." While she stayed at a hostel in the holy city of Vanarasi on the Ganges River, a religious clash broke out between the Hindus and Muslims, and three Indians were killed. Police closed the city down for four days, but "life and death still went on by the river," says Johnson. At the water's edge they would "pray, wash their clothes, bathe, and burn their dead, the way they do every morning and evening." By just being there Johnson began to feel part of something bigger. "Seeing life and death so closely together — death as another part of life — took the shock and mystery out of death for me," she explains. "I've just grown up so much," Johnson says. "Seeing a dead body now is no big deal. It is just a part of the
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