12/12/2011 02:45 pm ET | Updated Feb 11, 2012

Post50 Americans and the Quest for Meaningful Travel

I get asked many questions when I tell people that my husband Jacob and I quit the rat race to travel the world. But one that is never asked is: "Why?"

Instead, listeners to my stories get a far-away look in their eyes remembering past trips. Or maybe they're imagining future journeys. They understand.

On April Fools' Day 2006, we began what would become a five-year voyage around the world, visiting all seven continents, over 50 countries and living in three. We quit our corporate jobs, sold our house and all our possessions, and bid adiós to Los Angeles. We gave up the security of our jobs and home and along with it let go of the stress that comes from living the everyday work grind.

I knew we'd come back changed but I couldn't have imagined the extent to which the trip would shape the rest of our lives, how much we would learn about our generation's travel needs, nor how much fun we would have becoming a resource to others who want to travel.

An Accidental Transformation

Now, people don't set out to make themselves over through travel but it's impossible to be unaffected by what we experience when exposed to so many new things. And you don't need to go away for several years to live this change -- a few weeks away with an open mind can do nicely.

My accidental transformation began before the journey even started. You see, I'm a planner: that's what they paid me the big bucks for. Normally, I would have the entire trip planned before leaving with every country (maybe even city) scheduled for a specific time.

Thanks to job burnout and a lack of information specific to Boomer travel, the original Big Official Trip Plan consisted of: Make it around the world in the next two years, see six continents and figure out what to do next.

Not planning every detail taught me to relax more and enjoy things as they came. If we missed a chicken bus to a Vietnamese village, I knew another would come along soon. When we arrived in a new Indian town without a reservation, we found a room -- often much better than if we'd booked in advance. Less stressed by life, I was unfazed by fish head dinners in China and an unwanted sexual proposition on a deserted Mexican road.

The lack of a plan also allowed me to learn patience. And it sure came in handy crossing over 80 borders in and out of countries. Immigration officials with their self-important manners, multi-layered forms, as well as visas, passports and special permissions: all were no match for my new serenity. We even saw humor in the actions of the Cambodian border guard who corrected our penmanship on the immigration forms.

Thanks to this endurance for bureaucracy and all things slow, I made many friends while waiting in long queues at world-famous attractions, bargained the requisite amount of time (usually without speaking the local language) to get goods at half the price, and visited some of the most remote parts of the world: Tibet, Antarctica and the Amazon.

Authentic Change from Authentic Travels

It sounds like a throwback from the 60s and 70s, but the biggest change in me was a greater consciousness about the choices I make. I'm no longer burned out from work, nor do I carry a large mortgage, have a long freeway commute, or lack time to enjoy who and what I really love.
In our travels, we chose experiences that engaged us intellectually, emotionally and physically which we learned was precisely what our generation seeks through their journeys. Authentic travel isn't possible through tours, cruises and resorts where your only contact with the locals is with chambermaids, waiters and guides. So we volunteered, stayed in people's homes, took classes and found many ways to get involved. When we chose to cruise -- the Amazon, the Nile and the Yangtze rivers -- and the few times we toured -- Vietnam, China and the African bush -- we chose operators who brought us closer to the communities we visited.

Now that we're back in Los Angeles, firmer evidence of my personal transformation is emerging. While I've resumed planning, I'm much more patient and conscious of my choices. When I forget myself, I just have to look back at how things were -- how I was -- before the world trip and serenity returns to erase the doubts that in the past led me to overplan, be impatient and choose unwisely.

To anyone seeking meaningful travel -- for a week, a month, a year -- but believes they're too old, too busy, too poor, too, too, too... I tell them: "Stop! Think for a moment: if this time away from your regular life will change you and your perception of the world for the better, isn't it worth it?"