The Great Escape

Mia Meldrum, now 5, left Arlington in 2005 with her parents for a year's stay in Argentina. She's still there, with a working mom and a stay-at-home dad.
Mia Meldrum, now 5, left Arlington in 2005 with her parents for a year's stay in Argentina. She's still there, with a working mom and a stay-at-home dad. (Provided By Vince Meldrum)
By Lori Robertson
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 27, 2007

For years, when people would ask what my plans were for the future, I would say something about my goals as a writer, then add, "And someday I'll quit my job and go to Latin America for six months." It was a real desire, yes -- but a pipe dream.

Until I actually did it. Saved money, sold my car, had a yard sale, put stuff in storage, rented my condo, designated my boyfriend as power of attorney (just in case) and flew to Guatemala.

The pre-trip planning was filled with anxiety: Would I run out of money? Would I, nearing age 35, be the "old" traveler staying in hostels? Was this career-ending suicide?

Answer to all of the above: No.

Leaving the real world behind to travel for more than the standard two-week vacation isn't hard to do -- a few days into my trip in November 2005, I realized the angst was for naught. And it's less expensive than most people think. With a little courage, frugal budgeting and, in some cases, home-equity refinancing, people of all backgrounds -- successful, career-minded folks with a healthy dose of wanderlust -- are taking the plunge.

Anne Morgan Scully, president of McCabe World Travel in McLean, says she and her colleagues in the industry have seen an increase in families taking long trips, such as spending the summer in China, India and Japan. "This didn't happen five years ago," she says. "This is new."

The payoff is a unique opportunity to see other countries, or your own, in ways that simply aren't possible with a limited number of vacation days. These trips are educational endeavors filled with lessons on culture, language, history, science and independence. Think of it as an adult study-abroad program.

Sean McIlvain, a 41-year-old Washington graphic/Web designer, spent three years "thinking, talking big and planning" for a 10-month around-the-world backpacking trip. When his day job became less than desirable, he quit. "I bought the round-the-world ticket two weeks later."

McIlvain, who left town in July 2005, says he met plenty of Europeans who were traveling for long periods. "These were people of all ages, walks of life, men and women of varying professional backgrounds," he writes in an e-mail. (The two of us, in fact, met for the first time in a hostel in Arequipa, Peru -- even though we live just blocks apart in Washington.) "The stereotypical backpacker is the dread-headed, crusty hippie type," he says. "These people surely exist, but many backpackers are normal people with a desire to learn about the world outside of their home country."

I Think I Can, I Think I Can

The first step to taking a long -- and long-dreamed-about -- trip is to believe in it. Vince Meldrum and Janalee Jordan-Meldrum rented out their Arlington home in December 2005 to spend a year in Mendoza, Argentina, with their then-3-year-old daughter, Mia. They come back to Washington periodically to visit, and every time, Meldrum says, someone walks up to him and comments, "I so wish I could do that; I just don't have the ability." It's a mind-set he and Jordan-Meldrum probably shared, he says, before they moved to the land of Malbecs. "The biggest piece of advice I would give: Just believe you can do it."

Gabrielle Sedor seconds that. She and her husband, Michael Sedor, then both 29, said goodbye to full-time office jobs in March 2004 and set off on a 20-month cross-country trip to visit every national park, monument, battlefield and historic site in the United States. "We saw people home-schooling their kids, traveling the country along with us," she says. "We saw people hiking with babies on their backs. . . . Every excuse that you can come up with, we saw people disproving it."

Okay, fine, say you, the reader weary of the daily grind, but how can I possibly afford it? This was the sticking point for me. But once I got serious about saving and calculated how much I would need for a budget-minded trip with the occasional splurge, my travels no longer seemed the stuff of trust funds and fairy tales.

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