Monthly Archives: July 2010

Skoshi Nihongo de Hanashimas

That month in Japan flew by quickly as all my previous working vacations had lasted at least three times as long.  I spent one week on campus giving talks, observing lectures, and advising students–trust me, I was not overtaxed!  Following these required duties I was given a Japan Rail Pass, a thick wad of yen, and told to spend as much times as I wanted, or at least as much as the money and rail pass would allow, traveling the country learning about Japanese society.  No fixed itinerary, no packaged tours.  Since many American visitors would find this freedom a bit daunting and, given that English is neither an official nor semi-official language, the school offered to provide a student translator/guide/assistant.  However, traveling with an 18- or 19-year old did not appeal to me, and paying their food and hotel costs would significantly reduce the amount of my travel time.  It was then that the wisdom of an earlier decision became evident.

I was selected for the program in July although departure was not until the following January.  (My school was on a 4-1-4 calendar, with January a self-contained four-week semester.  This visit met my teaching duties for that one month term.)  Since I had sufficient advance notice I signed up to take Japanese 101 in the Fall.  While many tourists learn a few simple phrases such as “Good morning,” and “Where is the bathroom?”  I wanted to learn enough to become an independent traveler, even to remote towns where English speakers are few and far between.  I spent four months studying elementary Japanese and reached the point where I was able to tell people a little about myself, ask for directions (and even understand the answer), get a hotel room, and order meals at cafes well off the beaten tourist paths.

A Ryokan, Traditional Japanese Inn, of the Type I Stayed In During My Three Weeks Traveling In Japan

When I departed Miyagi my hosts were nervous about sending me off without a chaperone, but it worked out far better than I could have imagined.   Of course I went to the “biggies” of Japanese tourism–Kyoto, Nara, Hiroshima–but instead of staying at a Sheraton, Hilton, or Holiday Inn, I was able to walk into a local ryokan, a traditional inn, book a room, have meals, and enjoy the hot baths, even if the proprietor did not speak a word of English.  Having learned a minimal amount of Japanese allowed me to visit villages such as Takayama, Kanazawa, and Ise without worrying about whether I would be able to find someone who spoke English.  The smiles on the faces of people I met when I said skoshi Nihongo de hanashimas, “I speak a little bit of Japanese,” was priceless.  When I told them Watashi wa kyoju desu soshte Miyagi Kiyuiku Daigaku ni oshiemashta “I am a college professor and taught at Miyagi University” it produced some (albeit very simple) discussions about where I was from and how long I would be in the country.  I know that I routinely butchered the grammar, just as I probably made errors in this post, but it did not seem to matter.  I had made an effort to learn the language, and they were grateful and appreciative of that effort.  Errors be damned!

When you set off on a working vacation I cannot emphasize enough the importance of learning a bit of the local language–the more the better.  I was lucky enough to be able to register for a university course at no cost.  If that is not an option then look to a local community college or adult education center.  As a last resort consider Rosetta Stone or a good textbook.   Anything is better than nothing.  (I would love to receive comments from anyone who has studied a language in order to interact with the local community while living and working overseas.  Please share your experiences with our readers.)

I know English is the lingua franca of world travel, and you can usually get by with just this one language in your repertoire.  Learning the local language is not done as a survival skill but as a way to create opportunities to get away from overcrowded tourist haunts and see places and sights not often visited.   Speaking a bit of the local tongue also makes an important statement.  It says that you care enough about the history and culture of your host country to spend some time learning their language, at least enough to interact with locals at an elementary level.   The appreciative smiles on their faces will make it worth the effort, errors and all.

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Getting Out Of That Rut

Most working vacations are the end-product of due diligence and hard work–making cold calls, following leads, filling out applications.  Occasionally, though, dumb luck pays a visit, and you find yourself with a golden opportunity through no effort of your own.  But even when presented with unexpected good fortune it’s surprising how many people let it slip through their grasp like water through cupped hands.

Skyline of the City of Sendai Where I Lived and Worked for One Month in 1991

In early 1990 my school signed an educational and cultural exchange with Miyagi University of Education in Sendai, Japan.  The agreement specified that every August two Miyagi faculty would visit Macalester while every January two people from Macalester would spend three to four weeks there. Visitors stay on campus for seven to ten days meeting faculty and students, giving public talks, and presenting guest lectures.  The remaining two to three weeks is spent traveling the country and learning about its history and culture, with all expenses covered by the host institution.  In simple terms the agreement traded one to one-and-a-half weeks of academic work for a paid two to three-week Japanese holiday!  To me that is the very definition of dumb luck, and I submitted an application on the first day they were accepted.

Macalester has 150 full-time faculty with two being selected to participate in the program each year.  With 75:1 odds against I doubted I would be in the initial group and was simply hoping the grant would last long enough for me to reach the front of the line.  However, I had not accounted for the lethargy and lassitude of many of my colleagues who were content following their unchanging daily routine–work, eat dinner, play with the kids, watch TV.  They played poker on Monday, bowled every other Thursday, had sex on Saturday night, and spent a week or two each summer “up at the lake.” Over and over and over.  It is so easy to unknowingly fall into this rut and, once in, so awfully hard to get out.  The end result of their inertia was that of the 150 eligible faculty ONLY THREE APPLIED, MYSELF INCLUDED!  (Sorry for shouting.)

I will give some of my colleagues the benefit of the doubt.  Roughly forty were untenured and working their butts off to get it by the end of their sixth year on campus, so I can only assume they did not want to fully disengage their noses from the academic grindstone.  Another fifty or sixty had young children and may not have wanted to travel without their spouse or leave the children with friends or family.  But that still leaves fifty or sixty senior colleagues who were either unmarried, had no children, or whose children were grown and out of the house.  Of that cohort only two showed any interest in adding some spice to their daily routine by participating in this unique Asian experience.  Because of their indifference my estimate of 75:1 odds against morphed into 2:3 odds in favor, and on January 2, 1991  I boarded a plane (with a colleague from the Economics Dept.) for a glorious, no-cost, one month Japanese adventure.

One fact that is clear to me is that there is no shortage of working vacation opportunities, only a shortage of the motivation needed to go after them.  My passion for writing this blog is not simply to relate fun stories and provide a bit of “how-to” advice.  It is also presented in the hope that these posts will motivate you to apply for a working vacation of your own. Reading someone else’s adventure stories may be a pleasant diversion, but it is nothing like the thrill of experiencing those same adventures for yourself.   No matter how enjoyable your current life may be, it can only be made even more enjoyable by the personal growth and intellectual excitement that derives from living and working, however briefly, in a new culture. Theodore Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, the beloved children’s author, captured this idea far better than I could ever hope to in Oh, the Places You’ll Go! (New York: Random House, 1990).

You have brains in your head.  You have feet in your shoes.  You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own.  And you know what you know.  And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.

So, have fun whenever you get to your ultimate destination and, please, do send me email when you arrive.

Sharing The Secrets

As with all previous working vacations, this one ended well before Ruth and I were ready to leave. On that final day in Nairobi my feelings of exuberance and delight were in marked contrast to the tears of uncertainty described in the earlier post Fears and Doubts.   Our going-away dinner at the Carnivore Restaurant, a well-known Nairobi bar and eatery famous for game meat (see photo) was a rousing, rambunctious, and bittersweet affair. During this three-month African sojourn we had made good friends with whom we are still in contact, traveled throughout the region, and saw incomparable sights, both expected–animals, game parks–and completely unexpected–Rift Valley archeology, the vibrant Jewish community, the slums of Kibera. Best of all I was able to contribute to the academic program of the University of Nairobi, learn about life in Kenya, settle in to a comfortable routine, and even begin to feel a bit like a local.

Menu at the Carnivore Restaurant in Nairobi. Note Game Meat Items Such as Zebra, Ostrich, Hartebeest, and Crocodile

When we returned to Minneapolis in early September 1987, my wife and I agreed that this Kenyan adventure had cemented our dedication to long-term travel and convinced us that living and working overseas would be a permanent part of our professional lives. The postings described on these pages—England, Israel, Australia, and now Kenya—had brought us to the point where we were no longer travel “newbies;” no longer intimidated by daily life in a strange, new place. Instead, we were well on our way to gaining a reputation as seasoned, street-savvy world travelers able to adapt to and flourish in a new culture, a reputation those around us were also beginning to notice. Family members, friends, and colleagues began inquiring how I was able to locate, plan, and finance these exotic vacations.  They asked questions about renting out our home, finding overseas accommodations, staying healthy, and traveling safely with young children.  More and more I found myself relating stories and sharing ideas about how they might create their own colorful adventures to their own dream destinations. Thus began my lifelong passion for storytelling and helping others to live and work overseas, a passion that ultimately led me to produce this blog and author the book On The Other Guy’s Dime: A Professional’s Guide To Traveling Without Paying, a combination travel memoir and  “how-to” guide now nearing completion.

Following our return Ruth and I did not promise to duplicate this experience on a fixed schedule as we were well aware that the timing of future working vacations would depend on the vagaries of funding, family, and job availability. However, we did commit to doing everything in our power to locate and take advantage of whatever opportunities might arise, and we pledged ourselves to ensuring that the interval between trips would never become inordinately large.  Fortunately, the next adventure, an all-expenses paid working vacation to Japan, was not too long in coming.

The (Almost) Kenyan Branch of My Family

It is not only President Barack Obama who has Kenyan relatives perched in his family tree;  I almost had some as well.

About a month before our departure from Africa we had our first and only overseas visitor, my sister Karen who came for a two-week stay. Ruth and I drove to the airport to meet her, accompanied by the Computer Science department chair, Dr. Tony Rogrigues, who insisted on joining us to ensure we got there safely. I tried to convince him that if I could navigate forty miles over the Ngong Hills to a remote archeological dig (see It Ain’t Just The Animals, People), and if I could drive  one hundred and twenty miles down to the Tanzanian border (see The Most Beautiful Place on Earth), I could certainly handle the short thirteen mile trip to the airport.  However, Tony remained unconvinced and plopped down in the back seat, not to be moved.

Zanzibar Island Resort Where Tony and My Sister Karen (But Not Us!) Spent Ten Lovely Days

The flight arrived on schedule, customs delays were minimal, and Karen exited the front door of the international arrivals terminal right on time.  On the drive back to our apartment my wife and I could already sense the “sparks” flying between them, both single and about the same age.   Tony joined us for some shopping and sightseeing on Karen’s first full day in town, and their growing closeness became even more noticeable–Ruth and I were already starting to feel like unwelcome third wheels.  Two days later Tony informed us that he and my sister would be flying to the Indian Ocean island of Zanzibar for a beach holiday and would return ten days later, only one day before her scheduled return to the United States. So much for the family visit. We never even got a postcard.

Karen returned to Africa the following summer and spent a month in Nairobi, where Tony proposed marriage. However, he was quite adamant that he would not leave his home and teaching job at the university, so if she accepted the offer she would need to sell her condominium in the oceanfront community of Del Mar, California and move to Nairobi—a relocation of staggering proportions.  After agonizing deliberations, including many long and expensive phone calls to us, she decided she could not bring herself to leave her lovely home in California and relocate to Kenya.  At the end of the month she declined his proposal of marriage and returned to the U.S. Too bad; I was looking forward to some rather unique family get-togethers on the plains of the Serengeti.

In the forty or so posts on this blog I have repeatedly asserted that a short-term working vacation can be a life-changing experience for you, your spouse, and children.  In this case, though,  it was almost (but, sadly, not quite) a life-changing experience for my sibling.  I guess that, in the end, you never really know who will benefit from this type of transformative travel experience!

The Most Beautiful Place on Earth

The most frequent question I get from friends and family is “What is the most fabulous place you have ever been?”  My stock answer is that I’ve enjoyed them all—exactly the cop-out reply you get from any parent when asked which of their children they love the most.  However, if you were to insist I not weasel out my response would be the Ngorongoro Crater National Park in Tanzania, a hundred-square-mile volcanic caldera encircled by mountains rising two thousand feet above the valley floor.   (Readers:  I would love to receive comments on what you think is the most beautiful place on Earth!)  My wife and I arranged for a tour from a local travel agent, drove 120 miles from Nairobi to the border city of Namanga (in our ancient Nissan), walked through customs, and were met on the Tanzanian side by our tour guide and van.

Example Of The Abundance of Wildlife Found In The Ngorongoro Crater National Park

The Ngorongoro Crater contains more than twenty-five thousand animals, including herds of zebra, gazelle, and wildebeest, large flocks of flamingos, and the important “big five” of all safari goers—rhino, lion, elephant, leopard, and cape buffalo.   We stayed at a lovely hotel perched on the crater’s edge with stunning veranda views of the landscape a half-mile below.

As we descended into the park each morning via a dirt track dropping at a stomach-wrenching 17 percent incline, the feeling was reminiscent of the undiscovered plateau in The Lost World, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In this case, however, it is not a plateau keeping the animals in but a half-mile high mountain range.  Within its small area, the sunken crater includes a number of environments–lakes, swamps, highland forest, open grassland–that support an enormous range of wildlife.  Although the animals are generally free to migrate in and out of the crater, the area has the feeling of an unfenced enclosure in which the animals have been placed for your viewing pleasure.  In Ngorongoro it would not be uncommon to sit in your vehicle enjoying the sight of a large black rhino while directly behind you a pride of lions is stalking its next meal.  In virtually every direction you gaze you experience a diversity of animal life found nowhere else on earth.

Typical Veranda Views From Hotel Rooms On The Rim Of The Crater

That four-day Tanzanian safari was an unforgettable experience, especially as it was not a long-planned, carefully researched expedition but rather an impromptu “let’s get out of town” jaunt taken during school vacation, much as you might impulsively head to the beach or a lake cabin on a three-day holiday weekend.  Rather than having to pre-plan and pre-book your entire holiday, which can be difficult in an unfamiliar country, a two- or three-month working vacation affords you the time to settle in to a new residence, talk to locals, learn about those special out-of-the-way places that you really must see, and book a tour from a local travel agent at your convenience and at a fraction of the cost. The end result is that your holiday becomes much more like life back home where you may read about an event or see a travel deal advertised in the newspaper and, on a whim, give it a try.  It is a wonderfully  spontaneous way to travel.

It Ain’t Just The Animals, People!

When we told friends we would be working in Kenya for three months one word sprang to everyone’s lips: safari.  The reason is obvious–most tours of East Africa consist of an endless series of game-park excursions, with perhaps a day or two in Nairobi for souvenir shopping. Sadly, these animal-centric  itineraries miss out on a unique cultural experience—learning firsthand about the evolution of homo erectus, the ancestor of modern man, in the Rift Valley area of Eastern Africa. With months, not weeks, to explore this fascinating country we were not about to make the same mistake.

The Catwalk At Olorgesailie National Historic Park

Therefore, our first African adventure was not, as you might expect, to one of Kenya’s well-known game parks but, instead, to Olorgesailie, a Stone Age archeological dig excavated about 75 years ago by world-famous anthropologists Drs. Mary and Louis Leakey.  The 50-acre site, which dates to 600,000 to 900,000 BCE, was recently declared a National Historic Park and includes in situ fire pits, animal bones, stone tools (especially hand axes), and hominid remains.  Best of all, it is only 40 miles southwest of Nairobi on paved roads.

Ruth and I piled into our newly acquired rental car, a tired, 10-year-old Nissan with a ghastly two-tone brown and yellow paint job.  Hoping the engine was in better shape than the balding tires and rusted body, we drove over the Ngong hills, sans road map, and down into the Rift Valley with its incomparable African scenery. Along the way we had our “welcome to Africa” moment—a lone giraffe, indifferent to our presence, standing by the side of the highway munching acacia leaves. To a local Kikuyu or Luo farmer that is probably as common a sight as a squirrel collecting acorns is to a Midwesterner, but to us it was worth an extended stop and at least a dozen photos.

We made it to the dig in three hours–one hour of driving and two-hours of drinking the in scenery and photographing wildlife.  The park guide, a paleontology major from the University of Nairobi, was quite happy to see us as we were the first people to arrive in two days.  He gave us a personalized tour (not surprising with so few visitors), carefully explaining the history of the dig and the artifacts at the site.  We strolled along a wooden catwalk encircling a prehistoric living area with a cooking pit and the fossilized remains of an 800,000 year-old hominid dinner.

Following the tour the guide invited us to join him for lunch, but since there was no restaurant–brown bag only–we had to decline.  He also invited us to spend the night at one of the park’s bandas, thatched-roof cabins rented out by the day, but again I had to say no as I needed to return to Nairobi and teach the following day.  However, we did linger long enough to have a fascinating discussion about the many archaeological sites in Kenya that are woefully underutilized by tourists who come only to see lions, leopards, rhinos, and elephants.  When we departed after a truly fascinating day I saw the guide in my rear view mirror standing there wondering when the next batch of visitors might unexpectedly appear over the horizon.

We followed up our trip to Olorgesailie with a visit to the world-class Nairobi National Museum and its exhibit of Lucy, a 3 million year old hominid whose remains are among the most important artifacts in the world, and we attended a lecture on human evolution in East Africa by Dr. Richard Leaky, son of Mary and Louis.  Our unplanned and unexpected enjoyment in learning about Rift Valley archeology was one of the highlights of our time in Kenya.

Many countries where you may work have a single feature for which it is justly world famous–the food of Paris, the art of Florence, the mountains of Nepal, the beaches of Fiji.  However, when living and working there don’t become so narrowly focused on that lone attraction that you miss out on the full range of adventures a country can offer.  One of the joys of a working vacation is that it affords you the time needed to visit and experience both the expected and the unexpected.  While it certainly would be criminal to go to Kenya and not enjoy its spectacular wildlife in my opinion it would also be criminal to come to this country and not sample a few of its incomparable archeological wonders.

July 4th, International Edition!

To all my U.S. readers: Have a happy and healthy July 4th holiday.  In honor of this, our national day, I am taking a brief break from my ongoing Kenyan narrative to describe some rather unique experiences celebrating this holiday abroad.

Because I often work during summer vacation, my wife and I frequently find ourselves celebrating July 4th overseas, but never so dramatically as our Independence Day in Hanoi.  Since I am in my mid-60s, I was of prime draft age during the Vietnam War era, and it was only good fortune in securing a draft deferrable job, followed by drawing number 322 in the draft lottery, that kept me stateside.

My memories of those contentious times run from sadness for those who perished to anger at what I believe was my government’s immoral and unethical behavior.  Therefore, when I traveled to Vietnam in July 2001 to present a series of workshops at Hanoi University of Technology I was prepared to hear hostile diatribes about U.S. foreign policy and to be an apologist for my country’s military conduct.  To my utter surprise, though, no one I met was angry or resentful about the war (in fact, they seemed to admire our economic and technical achievements), and everyone with whom I worked was willing to look beyond those horrible times and move forward.

During the stay my hosts took Ruth and I to a concert by the Hanoi Symphony at the impressive 100-year-old  Hanoi Opera House modeled after the Palais Garnier in Paris.  Midway through the evening the conductor announced, in both Vietnamese and English, that to honor our national day the

The Spectacularly Beautiful Hanoi Opera House

orchestra had prepared a special piece.  Then they proceeded to play an energetic rendition of John Phillips Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever while the audience cheered and a giant American flag was unfurled from the rafters. All I could think was that this was happening in a country that only three decades earlier had been at war with us, a violent war that took 500,000 lives, destroyed tens of thousands of buildings, and denuded millions of acres of Vietnamese forest and farmland.  It is a moment I will never forget, and an experience that provides me with a tiny glimmer of hope for reconciliation in those seemingly intractable and never-ending struggles in Palestine, Kashmir, Sudan, and Somalia.

In the summer of 2006 my wife and I were living in Ulan Bator, Mongolia where I was teaching computer science at Genghis Khan University under the auspices of a U.S. State Department Fulbright Grant.  Ruth and I were invited to attend July 4th celebrations at the residence of the United States Ambassador where we had the privilege of meeting not only the U.S. diplomatic corps but also the President of Mongolia and high-ranking government officials from China, Japan, and Russia.  We watched fireworks, listened to a Mongolian band dressed in period costumes play July 4th music on traditional instruments–imagine America The Beautiful on a horsehead fiddle–and dined on classic holiday fare, hot dogs, potato salad, and cole slaw.  When I asked the Ambassador where she had purchased the food (trust me, hot dogs, potato salad and cole slaw are not standard Mongolian grocery items) she simply smiled and said “Now, you really didn’t think the diplomatic pouch was only for top-secret documents, did you?”  Silly me!