The Eat, Pray, Love effect: How families decide to just do it

Part 2 of a Monitor cover story about how families hit by the Eat, Pray, Love effect just do it, pulling up stakes to leave it all behind and embark on extended global global travel.

Courtesy of the Brown Family
Henry Wyatt Brown (bottom) and his sister, Chandler, assist newly hatched turtles as they make their way to the water at sunset at Paradise Beach, near Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Many families, like the Browns, hit by the Eat, Pray, Love effect just do it – pulling up stakes to leave it all behind and embark on extended global global travel.

Fantasizing about leaving everything and traveling Eat, Pray, Love style – as writer Elizabeth Gilbert documented in her best-selling memoir – is one thing; to just do it is another. When the Jenss family, from New York, first began planning their extended travel, they thought of a thousand reasons they shouldn’t pull up stakes and take the kids on the road. Then, says Rainer Jenss, who was an executive at National Geographic Kids at the time, came a defining moment: “We stopped looking at traveling as a crazy fantasy, or from the perspective of risk, of what we had to lose – like careers, house, friends – and began looking at what we could gain, at all the benefits.”

Others make plans but never follow through. Betsy and Warren Talbot – she a business consultant and he involved in long-term strategy for Microsoft – were dining with a couple of good friends in 2008 when discussion turned to a brother and a close friend who’d developed serious health problems out of the blue.

Betsy, recalls the question that the couples asked each other that night back in Seattle: “ ‘What if you knew you wouldn’t make it to your 60s? What would you do now?’ And the answer for all of us was, ‘travel.’ ”

Interviewed via Skype aboard a ship off the coast of Senegal last month (six months into an open-ended round-the-world trip), Betsy, said that all four at the table concluded: “Why wait?” Within 12 hours, planning began. The Talbots carried through with it; the other couple gave them a going-away party.

Families can take years to plan and save for their trips. Ann and Doug Brown were living a pretty typical, upper-middle-class life in Carlsbad, Calif., when they decided in 2005 to change their lives.

Part 1 of their plan was to buy into a new housing development in Loreto, Mexico, on the coast of the Sea of Cortez. They hoped to immerse themselves and their two children in Spanish and the Mexican culture. Though not thrilled with the public schools their kids attended, Ann says they weren’t running from anything, either: “We were more interested in gaining something for our kids we couldn’t get in Carlsbad.” They wanted familial closeness, while cultivating an independent spirit in their kids.

“In the US, for example, all the games kids play – like baseball, soccer or T-ball – [are] organized by adults,” says Ann. “There’s a $50 uniform, a $25 team picture.... You can’t just go out in the street and play a pickup baseball game anymore.... Here, the kids walk down to the beach and explore tide pools by themselves. We don’t worry. They swim and build forts for hours.”

In 2007 the Browns sold their Carlsbad house and much of their furniture and caravaned down the desert peninsula of Baja California, loaded down with supplies like toilet paper and canned goods. Back then Doug Brown was national sales director for Innovasia, a sourcing and manufacturing company based in China, and Ann Brown was a stay-at-home mom.

Part 2 of the Browns’ plan was to live on a sailboat for as much of a year as they could manage. In March 2010 they bought a 35-foot sailboat, a “blue water sloop cruising boat, made to be out on the wide-open sea,” explains Doug.

Living at sea wasn’t as wild a decision as it sounds – the couple had actually done it for two years on a 40-foot boat when they were first married (Ann had quit her job with a small independent event company and Doug had sold his business).

Others often see the Browns as courageous for moving their family to another country and for living at sea for extended periods of time. But Ann says: “I don’t feel brave at all. This just feels very comfortable, very normal and natural for us. I don’t know why more people don’t do this regularly. I wouldn’t do it if I were even a little bit afraid.”

Writer David Elliot Cohen describes people like the Browns and the Talbots as “seekers.” Mr. Cohen took a year off with his wife and three kids in 1996 and wrote a book about it, “One Year Off: Leaving It All Behind for a Round-the-World Journey with Our Children.” Although he hears from more families doing this now than when the Cohens hit the road, he believes the number of people leaving secure, stationary lives for itinerant ones is relatively small. “I think most people are really happy living a comfortable, productive life with less risk.”

Next: What makes a family sell the house, take the kids out of school and hit the road? One mom says; she just wanted to "shake things up a bit."

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