In the spring of 2010, Stevo Dinberger, 29, and Chanel Cartell, 30, met on a blind date and subsequently fell madly in love. In March of this year, they both quit their successful advertising careers in South Africa and set off on an international year-long journey.
"We just looked at our life and the path it was going down — after finishing school, going to college, getting stable jobs — and we knew that the 'normal' steps next were to settle down, get married, have kids and carry on living 9-to-5," Cartell and Dinberger, who run the blog Home Far from Home, told Mic via email. "We wanted to break this expected routine."
Tracking the kilometers of how far they get from home each time, the couple has explored everywhere from Italy, Turkey, Greece, Norway and Australia. In two weeks, they'll fly from Perth to Munich, not knowing exactly where they'll stay or how they'll support themselves.
"That's about as far as we want to plan," they told Mic.
If you haven't heard Dinberger and Cartell's story, you've probably heard one like it. This year has brought a deluge of tales from successful 20- and 30-something couples abandoning high-powered careers for roaming foreign countries, sailing the Atlantic or cruising continents in handmade tiny homes. It's perfect Instagram fodder, with dreamy photos that tap into our sense of wanderlust and dreams of escape from the 9-to-5.
But like so much on Instagram, there's likely a starker truth behind the photos. Who are these couples with such enviable narratives and what are their lives like when savings start running low and calendar pages start flying by?Mic asked five off-the-grid couples about the harsh realities of permanent travel and what it actually takes to make wanderlust-fueled #relationshipgoals a reality.
The seductive itch of leaving it all behind: Matt and Jessica Johnson, both 33, quit their jobs in 2012 to buy a boat and sail around the world. Since then, they've traveled to 16 countries, including Peru and Jamaica, and are documenting it all on their personal blog.
"We love the fact that we can look at each other each day and say, 'You know, instead of spending our days in cubicles and only being able to enjoy a few hours together each night, we get to spend all of our time together in some of the most beautiful locations on earth,'" Jessica told Mic.
Jenna Spesard, 28, and Guillaume Dutilh, 30, also decided to see more together when they embarked on an epic road trip across North America with a tiny home they built in tow.
"It's truly amazing what we get to see. The experiences we have are like nothing we could have had before in our jobs," Dutilh told BuzzFeed.
Their trip, like so many others, went viral. There's a reason why wanderlust is such an addictive and popular narrative in the digital age. Just as easily as we scoff at the lack of realism in these stories, we're fascinated by what they suggest about our own potential to leave the stresses of conventional life behind.
In a culture where professionals are expected to work more than 50 hours per week and studies estimate we clock in a meager 6.1 hours of sleep a night, who wouldn't daydream about selling their belongings and chartering a private boat across the Atlantic with their cat?
"I fixate on these stories because these are people who have stopped defining their lives by their careers, which is something I think we all do," Theresa*, 26, who has only contemplated moving abroad to Europe, previously told Mic. "I daydream about that stuff, until I think of my job."
Stories about couples are especially compelling, as the exhilaration of travel is heightened by a level of intimacy with a partner who you never get sick of and with whom you share an unwavering synchronicity. As Jessica Johnson, also one-half of a couple who jet off, told Mic, "The most rewarding thing is that we're able to do whatever we want each day, and we get to do it together."
It's #relationshipgoals incarnate set against an alluringly stress-free backdrop.
Bankrolling the lifestyle: Of course, the question on the mind of any 20-something living paycheck-to-paycheck is how, exactly, do these couples afford their dream lives?
While many of the couples told Mic that anyone can take the leap with a bit of hard work, these stories overwhelmingly involve people who have already enjoyed a degree of financial success, had steady full-time jobs and, for many, come from families that encourage their wandering lifestyles.
Even with that support, what looks dreamy on Instagram doesn't come without effort. Dan and Audrey Noll, who were fully nomadic from 2006 to 2012 and have seen more than 90 countries, told Mic that their "vacation lifestyle" is far from a vacation. They fund their travels through their blog Uncornered Market, where they make money through sponsorships, brand and destination campaigns, affiliates and advertising.
Matt and Jessica Johnson lived with Matt's parents to save money for a year before starting their journey. Since then, they've been sustaining themselves off what was in their bank account in 2012.
"We try to find ways to make our money go as far as possible, such as not eating out at restaurants frequently; anchoring instead of staying in a marina; trying to find free activities at our destinations; and taking a long hard look at things that are a want over a need," Jessica told Mic.
The couple are so thrifty, in fact, that they log every single travel expense on their blog, with some months' expenses totaling as little as $268.36.
Nick and Dariece*, both 31, have traveled to 45 countries in eight years. They support themselves through their savings, teaching English in China, advertising on their website, taking freelance writing jobs and pet sitting.
"We take care of people's homes and pets [abroad] for about half of the year, while the other half, we are traveling around. There are many perks to being a pet sitter, but the main one is free accommodation, which really helps us to sustain our travels," Dariece, who runs the blog Goats on the Road, told Mic.
Generosity helps. For Spesard and Dutilh, the couple road-tripping in their tiny home, free private parking lots served as their base camp for the entire year. According to BuzzFeed, they've covered the other expenses of their year-long journey through photography, travel writing and donations from supporters. (The couple, who did not respond to an interview request, recently reported on their blog that their tiny home had been evicted from a residence in Denver.)
Others get by via not-so-glamorous means. Stevo Dinberger and Chanel Cartell made headlines in August when they blogged about the work they endured to fund their travels: "So far, I think we've tallied 135 toilets scrubbed, 250 kilos of cow dung spread, 2 tons of rocks shoveled, 60 meters of pathway laid, 57 beds made, and I cannot even remember how many wine glasses we've polished," Cartell wrote on the blog.
They found these odd jobs through Workaway, a work exchange program that allowed them to trade work with international hosts for food and accommodations. Dinberger and Cartell told Mic that they cover additional expenses, such as transportation and toiletries, with their savings.
Not exactly as idyllic as an Instagram of scuba diving in Greece.
What you won't see on Instagram: Dinberger and Cartell said they wrote the blog post about scrubbing toilets because they wanted to be transparent to their approximately 111,000 followers about the struggles of their journey.
"The only thing our community probably doesn't see is the frustration of carrying our blackboard around and how cranky we get when we haven't had enough sleep," Cartell said.
Tara Bouis, 32, agreed. "You have to pay your dues, even in paradise," Bouis, who made headlines when she and her husband Sasha, 38, began selling pizza off a boat in the Virgin Islands, told Mic.
For five years, the couple saved up to open their shop by working on chartered yachts. The job was less than glamorous, as Bouis told Mic, "You are onstage 24/7 living in very close quarters on a boat with a new group of strangers every week for a run of nine months. You wait on people hand and foot from before sun up to way past sundown."
Every couple had a story about a less-than-inspirational moment that didn't make it onto Instagram. For Audrey Noll, it was when a spider bit her eyelid while she was trekking in Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonian Chile. "My eye and whole side of my face swelled up and I looked like I had just crawled out of a boxing ring. I was hideous," Noll told Mic.
About those #relationshipgoals... While all five couples interviewed by Mic have stayed together since their adventures, there were heated moments that tested their relationships.
"When you're traveling with someone non-stop for such a long period of time ... the other person will see your ecstatic side, your stressed side, your tired side and your back side. There's no hiding and everything you ever feared or wanted to say will come out," Dinberger said.
Nearly every couple who has adopted the permanent vacation lifestyle stressed that patience, respect and constant communication were the only ways to make the relationship work. Dan and Audrey Noll once fought so hard in Buenos Aires on Valentine's Day, they boarded separate buses one night. Their reconciliation later inspired a blog post, "How to Travel the World Together Without Killing Each Other."
"If someone asks about the secrets to a healthy marriage and staying together [on a trip], laughing and self-deprecating humor are essential," Audrey said.
"An enriching uncomfortable experience bonds you like nothing else."
So what keeps these couples coming back for more global adventures? It's not just the allure of swapping a cubicle for a sun-drenched hammock. Many of the couples extolled the virtues of getting away from the daily grind with their partners. In fact, research indicates that a perma-vacation may be the best way to extending the honeymoon phase of a relationship. A 2000 study found that engaging in novel experiences was the key to staving off boredom in a relationship, while a 2013 study in the journal Personal Relationships found that couples who regularly engage in shared activities report greater relationship satisfaction.
As much as the average person might roll their eyes as they flip through Instagram, every traveling couple said they were pretty damn happy with their decision.
"We found that an enriching uncomfortable experience bonds you like nothing else," Dinberger said. "We've definitely become bulletproof from going through what we've gone through, and it's only made us hungry for more."
Cartell agreed. "So many people get stuck in the humdrum of society, working towards the weekend, or their next holiday, or retirement — always thinking ahead and dreaming," she said. "We're living our dream right now."
Even with 135 scrubbed toilets.
* Last names withheld to allow subjects to speak freely on private matters.