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A Traveler Who Loves Coming Home: On the Road with Megan Cain

This is a traveler case study. (Read others or nominate yourself.)

I love finding people who are able to incorporate travel into their lives without making it their whole life. Here’s how Megan Cain has done just that.

Introduce yourself!

After college, I lived in San Francisco before packing up and moving to a rural, 100-person town in Missouri to live at an eco-village and learn how to garden. I felt a pull towards growing my own food.

My move was a leap of faith that changed my life forever. I lived in a 90-square-foot cabin, met my future husband, and started the basis of a career in sustainable living. Mark and I are now have jobs, enjoy owning a home and being rooted in Madison, Wisconsin, while incorporating longer travel adventures into our lives.

What we see and do is secondary when we hit the road. The real rewards of traveling are deeper than sightseeing. Everything falls away when we’re away: grocery shopping, cleaning, paying bills, calling family members, planning the week and weekend ahead. All of the “shoulds” and “have-tos” and “I better’s…” are gone. It’s just Mark and me with our backpacks, and the days unfolding before us like a chain of crisp, white, blank pieces of paper ready to be filled in with whatever we desire.

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What inspired you to travel?

I grew up in a row home in Philadelphia with most of my family just few walkable blocks away. Everyone went to the Jersey shore for vacation – it’s what their parents and grandparents had done before them. I didn’t know anyone who traveled much outside of the tri-state area, so going to Kentucky with Habitat for Humanity my freshman year of college was completely new.

Appalachia was a different world than anything I knew before, from the mountainscape to the history of coal mining and the mountaintop removal to the people. That experience planted the seed in my mind that there must be so many different kinds of lives being lived around the world, and whet my appetite for more.

I also loved the service aspect of the trip. We weren’t tourists – we were there with purpose, to work alongside the residents and learn what life was like for them. Bonding with other students added a third layer of richness to the experience.

All of this became the basis of the travel I do now.

Tell us about how you incorporate longer travels in your life.

Adventure and freedom are Mark’s and my life values, so we structure our lives with them at the center.

We focus on taking one big trip a year—usually leaving for 4-6 weeks in January—and a couple of smaller trips, too. It’s a bit like taking a break from the comfortable routine of our jobs, house, and lives back home.

Having somewhat seasonal jobs helps make this all possible. I built my career around gardening and teaching children and adults how to grow their own food, first with a non-profit and then with my own business. With the cold Madison winter, our jobs tend to slow down, which made it easier to negotiate for unpaid time off (before we were our own bosses).

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Mark picks a pineapple on Maui.

How do you pay for your travels?

Our budget for each trip is about $3,000-$4,000 – which means we are choosy about where we go and how much we spend. To do this, we live beneath our means the rest of the year.

Originally, we stuck primarily to Central America in our travels because it’s inexpensive to fly there from the U.S. But, a little over two years ago I found out about travel hacking thanks to Chris.

Now, we can afford to entertain destinations that weren’t on our list before. Last year I successfully used credit card points to get us two tickets to Chile for the month of January. Travel hacking has been a big game changer for us!

What kind of travel hacking do you do?

We both have businesses so we’re able to cycle through all of the personal and business credit cards. We usually work on one business and one personal card at a time.

We’ve earned about 450,000 miles in the past two years. We’ve cycled through most of the Chase cards and several of the American Airlines and United cards.

I just cashed out most of our miles on three trips for 2015. But, I’m working on the next credit card now!

Tell us a memorable story from one of your travels.

During a session with my life coach, I told her I was feeling a pull to take a solo adventure – maybe hiking on the west coast.

“On a scale of 1-10, how adventurous is that for you?” she asked me.

“About a 4,” I told her.

“What would be a 10? A 12?”

I went home and journaled about it, finally realizing I wanted to work with women, art, and business – and I came across Global Mamas and decided to go to Ghana and volunteer with them.

At first, the trip was largely about me: I’d done a lot of personal work in the past year and was looking for a way to let it sink in. I wanted to be open and accepting of what happened while I was away, rather than trying to constantly do something. I’d always been a super-doer, and was curious to practicing going with the flow and being happy regardless.

But of course, travel doesn’t always adhere to expectations. As I worked with Global Mamas, I got fascinated by the intricacies of fair trade. Like all handmade goods, there is a story attached to each item sold by Global Mamas. Each dress is touched by so many people – office workers who cut the calico, the batiker who dyes the fabric, the quality workers who check color, the seamstress who sews it all into a dress. Global Mamas, and fair trade in general, is about relationships, and their business models take into account the workers, their communities, and the environment.

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My first dabble in bead making.

I wound up spending a lot of time in the bead making region of Ghana. I had never thought about how a bead is made, but it’s labor intensive to say the least. Pounding and sieving glass until it looks like white sand, molding and dying the glass, baking, and rinsing it.

Eventually, it was my turn to try designing jewelry. I was completely out of my element, and looked to the women I was working with for guidance. Later, back in the US, I received the newest Global Mama’s catalogue, and realized one of my designs had been cleaned up and made into an ornament being sold. I had to triple check my prototype photos to be sure, but yep, there it was!

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On the left: my prototypes made in Ghana. On the right: the ornament now for sale.

I loved spending most of my time there with other women from around the world – Africa, Europe, the U.S., Japan, and many other countries. The trip was exactly what I needed – a solo adventure where I got to serve an organization that is doing great work.

Tell us about an encounter fresh in your mind.

On a winter trip to Central America, I lived with several different families and studied Spanish at a school in Quetzaltenango. With my teacher, Gladys, I learned more Spanish in 3 weeks than I had in years of classes throughout high school and college.

Gladys was a joy. We hit it off right away, and soon she was telling me stories about life in Guatemala and living through war. She not only taught me Spanish but let me get to know her as a person. Individual stories are one of the best parts of travel; they weave together to tell a collective story of a place.

We had tears in our eyes as we said goodbye.

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Mark and I were not excited to find snow on this Chilean mountain.

The great debate: aisle or window?

Window!

What has surprised while traveling?

I like to come home!

Right before we leave for our winter vacation each year, there are a few moments where I second guess our decision to leave for six weeks. Sometimes I even panic, thinking it’s crazy to leave everything for so long.

Predictably, within the first week of vacation I laugh at myself and think, Did I really believe we shouldn’t go away each year? We absolutely should. This is so awesome! By week four I forget I have a whole existence back in Wisconsin, and by week five I’m appreciative of how relaxed I am, spending hours sitting on the deck listening to music.

But by the end of week six, my mind wanders back toward home. I think about the things I’ve missed (my bed, dark chocolate, vegetables, IPAs, and the library) and the fun things waiting for me there (ordering my garden seeds, seeing my friends, shopping at the co-op). When I can finally see Madison from the airplane window, I identify my favorite places from the air.

After landing, I smile sweetly to myself and settle into the excited feeling of being home. The realization that I love my life in Madison is a gift I receive each year at the end of my vacation.

Where are you headed next?

I just cashed out most of my miles on three trips for 2015—the big one being New Zealand for a five week vacation.

Stay up to date with Megan at  Creative Vegetable Gardener or via Instagram @creativeveggardener.

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