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The Great Escape
You say: I want to quit my job and travel for months. We say: Why not?

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.

Total price tag for my Latin American adventure: $10,000. That was high compared with some other travelers' costs, but I'm cautious with money. I built in funds for Spanish classes (becoming proficient was part of the reason for my trip), scuba certification, some nicer hotel stays I knew I would need, and discretionary dollars just in case. (A pair of finely crafted, knee-high, black leather boots in Buenos Aires, for instance, was discretionary.) McIlvain spent a total of $14,000 for his 10-month jaunt, $4,500 of which was airfare. His meager monthly allowance: $750. The reality: "Some months I was under and a couple [of months] I ended up way over," he says.

Even traveling in a budget-crushing country like the United States can be affordable with some work. The Sedors spent close to $35,000. They kept a thorough spreadsheet of their spending, camped, stayed with friends and relatives, and "Pricelined like crazy," Gabrielle says. But they weren't so cheap that they didn't enjoy themselves. "We ate at restaurants; we went to happy hour," she says. "You could certainly do it for less."

Unforeseen gasoline price hikes forced an early end to what they had envisioned as a two-year escape. The couple returned home to Harrisburg, Pa., in November 2005. They're taking weekend trips to check off the remaining historic sites on their list.

But taking a break from life doesn't have to mean a world of camping and cold-water-only hostels. Meldrum, 44, and Jordan-Meldrum, 42, rent a well-appointed home and take Mia, now 5, to a private bilingual school. To pay for the experience abroad, they refinanced their house, taking equity they might have used to remodel their kitchen. Their spending cap, which they haven't reached, is the 50 grand in equity.

One trick to financing these trips is to continuing working. Jordan-Meldrum had her own education consulting business in Washington and was able to telecommute from Argentina, thanks to wireless cafes and Internet-based phone calling.

For the family, the move to Mendoza was a personal decision. Meldrum's younger brother died in December 2004, which prompted Meldrum to think about the priorities in his own life. "I had a fairly stressful job" -- as the head of a nonprofit environmental civic education group -- "and decided at the time that I needed to take some time away and sort of regroup and spend some time with my daughter," he says.

The family also had an American friend in Mendoza who was launching a wine business, for which Jordan-Meldrum now works. Meldrum has been a stay-at-home dad in a country, he notes, where there are no stay-at-home dads.

Michael Sedor quit his job as a research assistant in a law office; Gabrielle, a government affairs coordinator at a nonprofit, was able to arrange for herself a part-time consulting role, working 10 to 20 hours a week from the road.

The Sedors also developed a new relationship with debt. They maxed out one credit card, shuffled balances among others and came home with not a penny. The couple had $10,000 in the bank before their trip and had decided, "We'll charge when we have to, and we'll deal with it when we get home," Gabrielle says. "Right now, we're home and we're dealing with it."

The Hardest Part: Returning

For many, the trip is not the worry so much as the return to society. Would a huge, gaping hole in the résumé look like a self-indulgent trip to Slackerville?

"That was a huge concern," Gabrielle Sedor says. Because of that, the couple wrote columns for Harrisburg's Patriot-News and put together an extensive Web site on the trip (see box at left). "As long as we keep producing, as long as we have something to show for our time away, we'll be okay," Gabrielle says of their thinking.

In fact, those Web-page-building skills led to contract work for Michael at the nonprofit where Gabrielle has been employed. She was able to rejoin the organization full time.

When I told people that I was leaving my job as managing editor of a media criticism magazine, I thought they would react with disdain for such irresponsible behavior. Instead, across the board, whether the person was 22 or 64, they applauded my spirit and vigor. I had been at the magazine for nearly eight years and had been thinking about what my next step would be. It was the perfect time to take the plunge.

My trip is a great topic of conversation during interviews -- I describe the time as a "sabbatical" -- and it leads me to tout my proficiency in Spanish. I started freelancing upon my return. It paid the bills, but I took a full-time editing job in April.

On his résumé, McIlvain plays up the fact that he did some volunteer work as an English instructor while away. He landed a job designing and maintaining intranet sites about six weeks after his return.

In Argentina, Meldrum started working part time for his old employer in February. The family plans to come back to Northern Virginia in early 2008.

"It's one thing to do this in your 20s," Jordan-Meldrum says. "For us, the challenge was to say to ourselves and to current and future people we might work with, to explain that this is part of our life story and why we made this choice."

Adds her husband: "We didn't want people to have the perception that we came apart at the seams" and just went away.

One long-term traveler's vagabonding led to a new calling. In 2003, Thomas Adamek, now 32, quit his job as a mechanical engineer in Michigan to take a round-the-world trip. He traveled through Central America and, in 2004, made it as far as Peru, where his sister was working on a World Wildlife Fund conservation project. Adamek's two-week visit turned into a two-year-plus job with the WWF.

He is a pilot, engineer and general repairman for a project tracking animals. "Conservation in the Amazon. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity I couldn't pass up," he writes in an e-mail from the southeastern Peruvian jungle, where roads and phones are few but the Internet connection usually works.

He plans on finishing his trip later this year, and he advises others to take a Zen approach to a return to the 9-to-5. "There will always be jobs waiting when you get back," Adamek says.

If you get back.

Lori Robertson is a Washington journalist. She spent her six-month solo trip in Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Peru, Bolivia and Argentina.

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