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Howard County family returns after 396-day trip around the world

The Rivenbarks returned from a 13-month trip around the world, consisting of 35 countries in nearly every continent. (Jon Sham/Baltimore Sun video)

It's been an exciting year for one Howard County family.

They bungee-jumped in New Zealand, rode ostriches in South Africa, snorkeled in Australia's Great Barrier Reef, walked on the Great Wall of China, and trekked eight grueling days to the base camp of Mount Everest.

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After a 13-month, 35-country trip around the world, the Rivenbarks and their two children have returned home.

"It's the best thing we ever did," says Julie Rivenbark, 40.

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Throughout the trip, her husband, Tim, 44, compiled statistics of their journey. By his calculations, the family traveled 396 days and covered more than 87,000 miles, including 1,350 miles on foot and 242 by tuk-tuk, a three-wheeled motorized vehicle that's popular in Asia. They survived food poisoning in Cambodia, altitude sickness in Nepal, epic traffic in Delhi, and a card-eating ATM in Botswana.

Despite all of that, the youngest Rivenbarks had a blast. "I think it probably lived up to expectations," says the couple's son Tyler, 12. "It was probably better."

The Rivenbarks began their travels in June 2014, hoping to enjoy the trip of a lifetime, an "endless summer" that would offer lessons to their children about the value of experiences over possessions.

Tim took an unpaid leave from his national sales director post at Analytical Graphics; Julie quit her physician's assistant job. They sold their house and cars. They packed as lightly as they could, each carrying a backpack with a computer, clothing and toiletries. Julie took two cameras. Tyler carried a soccer ball for the first month or so, meeting other kids through pickup games in Italy and Germany.

The parents involved their children from the start, planning an itinerary that incorporated the destinations important to them. Kara, now 11, chose Australia and Africa, and Tyler wanted to go to Italy.

The agenda was far from iron-clad. In New Zealand, Tyler took charge. "I had the inspiration and convinced everyone to go bungee-jumping," he says.

While his mom says the experience was pricey, it was worth every cent. "We would have regretted it if we didn't do it," she says.

Though the pace was brisk, Tyler and Kara "never held us back," says Julie. The children loved riding in a hot-air balloon in Turkey and swimming in a shark cage in South Africa. But they got bored with museums and churches before their parents did, and they didn't have much patience for shopping.

Some of their favorite memories involve food. They sampled scorpion, tarantula and a fruit called durian, known for its vile smell and distinctive love-it-or-hate-it taste. Unable to communicate in some restaurants, they just pointed to symbols on a menu, hoping for something delicious that would not aggravate Tyler's peanut allergy.

In many cities, they were the only blond-haired, blue-eyed people they saw for days. But there was always a McDonald's.

Throughout their journey, the family reserved at least one day each week for schoolwork, booking flights and hotels, and blogging about the trip at their website earthtrekkers.com. For all their risks and challenges, Julie says, unreliable Internet service was the most frustrating.

For Tim, the most meaningful moments involved meeting local people. One night, they joined an outdoor bingo game in Darjeeling, India. Another time, a Vietnamese man invited them to share his coconut water.

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Most dramatic for the family was an eight-day guided trek to the base camp of Mount Everest. Even the flight from Kathmandu to the starting point, Lukla Airport, was dicey, since the plane had to land on a tiny strip angled up the the side of a mountain. Because of that, it could only fly in pristine weather conditions.

Each day, as they walked from one rustic lodge to the next, the conditions grew more challenging. After the first day, there was no electricity and after the second, there was no running water. And each day, the oxygen levels became lower. Yet the family trudged on and successfully reached the base camp.

Since the view from the base camp isn't great, many people hike up Kala Patthar very early to see the sun rise over Everest. In the pre-dawn dark, Tim and Tyler headed out with their guide while Julie and Kara remained behind.

During the ascent, Tyler began showing symptoms of altitude sickness, including dizziness, nausea, and tingling throughout his body. Altitude sickness can be fatal; the cure is to get to a lower altitude.

The guide scooped up Tyler and began running down the trail with him. Tim, a triathlete, ran ahead of them, shouting to ascending hikers to clear the trail. Tyler threw up several times but soon recovered.

Back home in his grandmother's living room in Columbia, he floats the theory that the altitude sickness made him stronger. "I don't think so, honey," replies his mom.

But the adventure as a whole has made the family stronger, even with bouts of illness, including a mild case of dengue fever for Julie Rivenbark.

Now, the family has happily returned to Howard County friends and routines. They purchased cars, and signed a contract for a house in their old school district. Kara started sixth grade at Folly Quarter Middle School, and Tyler started seventh. Tim returned to work with a new title, director of business development, and Julie is launching a travel consultant business, building on her firsthand experiences.

The family is already planning where they will go on spring break. Choices include Israel, Guatemala and Greenland. "There are still lots of places we want to experience," says Tim.

"For every place we checked off, we added three to our list," says Julie.

Even so, perhaps where you go isn't that important.

"My advice would be to go out and explore," says Tim. "Do something outside your comfort zone. It doesn't have to be a trip around the world."

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