Dump the job and travel? For mature adults, it takes work

02/26/2012 12:00 AM

02/27/2012 4:03 PM

She's somewhere in Cambodia now, living the dream. She's been gone a month, with another 11 to go. Maybe more. Who knows? She's open to new experiences, to the whims of change. That's what this whole thing is about, right?

What some people only dream about, Jannell Howell is doing.

The longtime Sacramento resident, who recently turned 40, has traded in a life of cubicle dwelling for a yearlong globe-trotting adventure that will take her from Thailand to Nepal, Egypt to England. She'll cut a large swath through Europe, too, maybe make a side trip to Morocco.

"I'm going with the frame of mind that, whatever comes my way, whatever piques my interest, I'll go for it," Howell said. "I was always the person (at work) with the screen saver of tropical islands."

Howell may be spontaneous, but it took her two years to plan the sabbatical. In her case, it was a full career break, since she quit her job in commercial property management, so she painstakingly budgeted her money and time.

As she learned, it's one thing for those with wanderlust to spin a globe and poke a finger at a locale, quite another to actually deal with the daunting logistics and monetary concerns involved.

Do you quit your job or ask for a sabbatical? How much money to last a year? Sell the house or rent it? Store possessions or hold a giant garage sale? How do you pay bills and taxes, deal with mail, acquire travel insurance?

And, once abroad: Where to stay? For how long? How to get there? What to do – work, volunteer, lounge? What to do if money runs low?

For answers, and advice from others with similar nomadic bents, Howell turned to Meet, Plan, Go, a company started by three corporate types who successfully jumped off the work hamster wheel and hold seminars to help others seeking escape, at least for a spell.

After hearing testimonials at a Meet, Plan, Go workshop in San Francisco in 2010, Howell joined one of the company's online "boot camps" to learn the specifics – because, apparently, ditching work can be work in itself.

By late last month, on the eve of her departure, Howell had her affairs in order. Most of her clothes and possessions were in storage, her money secure, her insurance in place, apartment lease handled, her itinerary finalized. All that was left was to board the plane and get on with the adventure.

"My old self would've been at wits' end over all the details," Howell said. "This is far different from a 20-year-old going backpacking. When you're an adult, you're thinking about your retirement account and stuff like that. But with the research I've been doing the last 15 months, I'm calm and peaceful."

She laughed, then added: "I have no idea where that's coming from."

Sherry Ott smiled knowingly. Ott is one of the founders of Meet, Plan, Go. A longtime middle manager in high tech, Ott said she felt the itch to chuck it all and travel.

"But it was the golden handcuffs," she said. "I had stock options, investments. They kept throwing more at me to stay. It's very scary to take that leap, to step away from something that's known, to do the unknown."

In 2006, Ott made that leap and, while it wasn't easy, she hit the ground running. She spent the next few years traveling in 23 countries, hiking, working and participating in cultural exchange programs.

Now, she and her partners are helping others traverse the trail they blazed. Meet, Plan, Go routinely holds seminars in 13 cities, including San Francisco, as well as offering online tutorials. It covers everything from how to pack economically to couch surfing with strangers, from the right way to ask your company for extended time off to making and changing an itinerary on the fly in a foreign land, from building your career résumé while on sabbatical to making yourself marketable upon your return.

"It's not all necessarily rocket science," Ott said, "but it can get overwhelming when you put it together. Having people share their stories, good and bad, helps prepare you for it. We know taking a career break is not for everyone. But there are people who have this little spark in them to make a change and travel, but it just hasn't been ignited yet. We help ignite it; we don't create the spark."

The spark was always there for Jason Raybin, a 30-something from San Jose. He served in the Navy for five years but "wanted to travel on my own terms." Then he immersed himself in a career at Caterpillar and, for a decade, never took more than 10 days of vacation per year.

So when Raybin, single, decided he wanted a year off before settling down, he turned to Meet, Plan, Go to help coach him about asking his company for a sabbatical.

"The key was to give them plenty of notice," he said. "And they fully understood my reasoning."

Ott says the most-asked question, not surprisingly, is how much money a person will need for a year abroad. The answer varies depending on whether a traveler chooses to live in hostels or starred hotels, whether they plan to do free-lance work or just sightsee. Ott and others say monthly costs range from $1,500 to $3,000.

Ott said her company's primary demographic is women ages 25 to 44 with some disposable income. Fifty-eight percent of all clients are solo travelers, 27 percent are couples, and families make up just 4 percent.

Given those figures, it would be easy to dismiss Meet, Plan, Go clients as "Eat, Pray, Love" wannabes – those who've read Elizabeth Gilbert's empowerment-through-travel book and want to experience it themselves.

But Sarah Lavender Smith, a Bay Area marketing professional and mother of two, bristles at the "Eat, Pray, Love" connection, because it smacks of entitlement and colonialism – or, at the very least, a clichéed playing-out of midlife crises.

Smith traveled for 10 months to 83 locales on five continents with her husband, Morgan, and two children (11 and 8 at the time). She half-jokingly called the experience "radical marriage and family therapy. This kind of nomadic, stripped-down lifestyle fosters simplicity and anti-materialism."

Far from being a self-indulgent, navel-gazing, "Eat, Pray, Love"-type trip, Smith said, her family's journey taught each member to give more to others and be open to other cultures and lifestyles. And, yes, their travels served as an extended exercise in familial bonding.

"It made the four of us function as a team and leveled the playing field in the relationship between my husband and me," she said. "We're much more interchangeable as partners.

"We were together 24/7 and living in often one room. You learn to function as a foursome. It was wonderful. I had a huge worry we'd devolve into fighting and bickering and get sick of each other, and that I'd be yearning for my space. That didn't happen."

There's a reason, Smith said, that such a small percentage of Meet, Plan, Go participants are families.

Pulling children out of school for a year and "road-schooling" them is a major commitment, even if the children are young. Having kids along can conceivably limit a couple's nimbleness to pick up and move to a new locale and try new adventures.

"I recommend having your kids be old enough that they can remember it and be somewhat self-sufficient in terms of carrying their own things, but young enough that it's not too challenging academically to road-school them," she said. "Once they get into middle and high school, they become so passionate about extracurricular activities it becomes hard to go away."

On the upside, Smith said, her two children became close during the year away from school friends, and they've continued that closeness after returning. They also learned to live with less – her son, Kyle, played with only one plastic bag of Legos the entire year abroad, because he had to carry his own luggage.

As with most who decide to take a sabbatical, the Smiths dealt with considerable pre-trip anxiety.

"We were potentially jeopardizing our professional and financial security," she said. "We were putting our house in the hands of someone else and putting our kids' education in our own hands. That certainly kept me up many nights.

"But I thought, 'What would happen if we didn't do it? What are the risks of staying in the same rut?' I was haunted by the feeling (she and her husband) would wake up in our 50s when our kids were in college and we had never had the experience of stepping out of the bubble of our regular lives."

For others, the choice was easier. Sabbaticals are routine for many in academia, and they often give professors' spouses a chance to temporarily trade their lives.

When Kathy Fleming's husband, Paul Bethel, a history teacher at American River College, taught a term at a university in England, she thought it would be a perfect opportunity to take a four-month leave as executive director of Fairytale Town, the children's playland and learning center in Sacramento.

It turned into a quasi-working vacation for Fleming. She visited playgrounds, city farms and cultural institutions in Great Britain and came back with fresh ideas and a new perspective.

"It was an incredible experience," she said.

And, at least in her case, fairly easy logistically. They thought about renting their home, but decided against it. They found "a great little place" in England via the website sabbaticalhomes. com. They began to pay their bills online ("This was a blessing in disguise as it forced us into online bill pay, which we now love," she said) and her staff at Fairytale Town picked up her work slack in her stead.

For Sacramento psychotherapist Meika Hamisch, taking five months studying meditation under Dr. Paul Ekman in Phuket, Thailand, was made easier because her husband stayed in Sacramento. But she still had to suspend her therapy practice, giving patients six months' notice.

"I felt, why wait until I'm too old to train my mind?" said Hamisch, 57. "I really thought I'd be of benefit to myself and others if I could do this sooner rather than later.

"It was transformative. It was a different culture, climate, people. I was in silence for about four months. It calmed my mind."

Upon return, Hamisch jump-started her practice to add meditation and "mindfulness training."

Ott said a significant number of Meet, Plan, Go clients change careers once they re-enter their old lives. She counts herself as one.

"I knew I was good at (her job), but I didn't love it," she said. "It was becoming this big burden. But you keep going because they pay you this big paycheck. It was that realization that it's not really what I wanted to do and I should step away from it. It was time to think and get in touch with my creative side."

Smith's husband, Morgan, had been a litigator for a San Francisco law firm for 17 years. During the sabbatical – in Florence, Italy, to be exact – he decided to change careers. He now runs Cogent Legal, a litigation graphics and trial consulting firm. Sarah works part-time in the marketing department.

"I do not believe Morgan and I could work well together now unless we had that year on the road being together 24/7," she said.

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