Monthly Archives: August 2010

Staying Healthy; Staying Solvent

In Istanbul we had our first encounter with something my wife and I had previously overlooked—the issue of overseas health care. Ruth came down with a mild ear infection, but one still serious enough to warrant a doctor’s visit and a prescription for antibiotics. Fortunately the problem cleared up in a week or so, and the resulting out-of-pocket costs were not too great.  However, it was sufficiently unnerving to make us realize how foolish we had been to ignore this concern and to purchase international health insurance policies on all our future working vacations–something we should have done from the outset.  (I guess we really weren’t as street-savvy world travelers as we had imagined.)

On the second page of every American passport the U.S. State Department prints the following stern warning:

Medical costs abroad can be extremely expensive. Does your insurance apply overseas, including medical evacuation, payment to the overseas hospital or doctor, or reimbursement to you later?

You are then referred to their brochure, “Medical Information for Americans Abroad” on the U.S. State Department website. It is an excellent document to read before starting on any overseas adventure.

When planning a working vacation it is absolutely critical to check with your local health-care provider to determine exactly what they do and do not cover when living and working abroad, including restrictions on injuries and illnesses, maximum length of stay, and exclusions for the country of residence. If you are one of the lucky few whose health policy includes full international coverage, then no more need be done.  (Note:  Some international exchange programs, such as Fulbright grants, include health coverage in their benefits.) However, the majority of policies contain significant restrictions or come to a complete and crashing halt at our national borders. In these cases you need to consider purchasing supplemental health-care coverage for you and your family, and a good place to start is HTH Worldwide. Click on their link Travel Medical and International Health Insurance Basics for an excellent introductory tutorial.

There are two types of policies: Travel Health Insurance pays for such basics as emergency medical needs, ambulance services, hospital costs, doctor bills, and prescription medicines. In the event of a serious injury or illness requiring specialized treatment, Emergency Evacuation Insurance covers the cost of airlifting you to your home in the United States or to the nearest full-service, first-world medical center, a cost that can run tens of thousands of dollars. You should purchase both types to avoid facing a catastrophically large expense.

Some other issues to keep in mind are: 1) Duration. Some policies are capped at thirty, sixty, or ninety days at which point they terminate.  Make sure a policy lasts at least as long as your appointment. 2) Primary/secondary coverage. A primary-care policy pays all medical expenses regardless of what other insurance you may have while a secondary policy only covers costs in excess of the amount you will be reimbursed from your existing policies. Primary coverage is an unnecessary luxury if your current insurer will pay a portion of the expenses.     3) Deductibles and co-pays. Like most policies, the more you are willing to pay the cheaper the cost will be. Determine how much you are willing to risk while overseas and then purchase a health policy with the appropriate deductible.

The exact cost of a joint travel health/emergency evacuation health policy will vary greatly based on duration, coverage type, and deductibles, as well as your age, family size, and host country. But, as one example, the cost of a policy providing health-care and emergency-evacuation coverage for a forty-something adult living and working in Istanbul, Turkey, is $130-300 per month, depending on deductibles and policy limits. This is not a lot to pay for an important aspect of any working vacation—peace of mind!  So, before heading out to Italy, India, or Indonesia, make sure you are fully covered if misfortune does befall.  Without it, your “Other Guy’s Dime” working vacation may end up costing you a huge percentage of your own savings.

Yogurt To Die For!

Our three-month working vacation in Istanbul resulted in yet another thoroughly enjoyably social, cultural and professional experience. We made close friends among the faculty as many had studied in the U.S. and were eager to renew professional contacts with American academics. We spent a good deal of time with Albert and the other summer school TAs who let us join them on excursions to local bars and music clubs.

The World Famous Kanlica Yogurt

Since I taught in the morning, afternoons were free for trips to tourist sites such as Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia, and the Blue Mosque, as well as more leisurely activities like riverboat excursions to the Black Sea, meetings with members of the Turkish Jewish community (courtesy of Albert), and a visit to the small village of Kanlica on the Asian side of the Bosporus. According to colleagues Kanlica is famous for making the world’s richest, creamiest, and most delicious yogurt. After traveling there by water taxi and enjoying a bowlful at a local restaurant, we could only agree. Our “yogurt outing” is typical of the delightful, off-the-beaten-path day trips you can take when given adequate time. Kanlica would certainly not be part of the typical four-day/three night “Highlights of Istanbul” packaged tour.

Since I did not teach on Friday (I asked the chair to schedule my classes between  Monday and Thursday) Ruth and I had time for three-day weekend jaunts to sights farther afield, such as the three thousand-year-old archeological ruins of Ephesus, the volcanic cave homes of Cappadocia, and the beach resort of Bodrum. These tours were purchased from a local travel agent after our arrival and paid for in lira, making them quite inexpensive.

The Riverside Terrace of the Bebek Hotel Near Campus Where We Spent Many A Pleasant Evening.

Many days we would not go into the central city but, instead, sit on the lovely outdoor terrace of the Bebek Hotel, walking distance from campus and overlooking the Bosporus. We would sip coffee (in the morning) or enjoy a glass of wine and a plate of meze (in the evening) watching river traffic sail by and the setting sun illuminate the Asian side of the straits.

To learn about a country and its people most visitors, ourselves included, head off to museums, historical sites, churches, mosques, and parks. Food, however, is an important component of culture, and a cooking class can be an entrée into a different aspect of a country’s history and traditions. Turkish food, although not as well-known to American palates as French, Italian, or Chinese, has influenced eating habits throughout the Mediterranean. My wife and I signed up for a cooking class that included not only cooking instruction—and eating, of course—but also an introduction to local agriculture, shopping habits, and Turkish mealtime rituals.

When thinking about how to use the extended time provided by a working vacation, consider not only the sites listed in The Lonely Planet but also some less well-known introductions into the traditions, habits, and customs of your host country. This includes not only cooking classes, but courses on language, dress, music, and traditional crafts; visits to people’s homes; sporting events; involvement with a local religious community; volunteering at a neighborhood school; or assisting at a community center or senior citizen home. It is difficult to participate in these types of activities on a tightly scheduled packaged tour, but they fit quite comfortably into a working vacation whose duration is measured in months not days. Colleagues and neighbors, as well as the Web, are good sources of information on how to locate and sign up for classes, home visits, community activities, and volunteer opportunities.   And finally, when deciding what kind of cultural experience you might wish to have, be adventurous and thoroughly unconventional, like my wife who signed up for one of the more unusual aspects of Turkish culture–at the Serap Su Belly Dancing Academy of Istanbul!

Eat Pray Spend

This is not the post I originally planned to put up–that one will appear in a few days.  Instead, it is an emotional response to the embarrassingly bad and thoroughly unrealistic “chick flick” Eat Pray Love and its relationship to what I am trying to accomplish in this blog.  Although the two may seem quite different, there are a number of unfortunate parallels.

In the movie a privileged Manhattanite divorces her husband and sets off on a worldwide search for enlightenment and self-discovery.  She rents a lovely apartment in Rome, one of the most expensive cities in the world, meditates in an Indian ashram, and winds up in a luxurious home on the island of Bali.  Nowhere, though, is there any mention of how she is paying for this voyage of self-discovery, a year-long odyssey whose out-of-pocket costs would probably run more than $100,000.  Furthermore, in the movie the heroine deals only with such problems as zipping up her jeans after a few too many pasta and pizza dinners, while in real life recently divorced women spend far more time fighting over shared assets, coping with anger, and stressing about how to pay the bills.

OK, why am I being so harsh on this Hollywood pot boiler?  Why dwell on what is nothing more than an excuse to spend a couple of hours munching popcorn while enjoying some lovely scenery?  The answer is that the unrealistic fantasies of Eat Pray Love are being reproduced daily on hundreds of travel blogs scattered across the Internet.

Like the Julia Roberts character, many of us dream about spending time on a tropical island paradise or in a Himalayan hideaway, and there are many sites that feed these fantasies–stories of people (I call them “privileged nomads”) who quit their job, sell the house, kiss friends and family good-bye, and set off around the world. However, when you dive into their “About Me” page you often discover they are either 1) independently wealthy, 2) have come into a significant windfall, 3) are living off the largesse of parents or exes, or 4) are knowingly denuding their life savings. Since most of us do not fall into any of these categories we erroneously conclude that our fantasy of living and working overseas is an unattainable dream; something that happens only in B-movies and to the “other guy.”  Unfortunately, that skepticism spills over to other places, including this blog.  After reading about my working vacations in London, Sydney, Jerusalem, Nairobi, and Istanbul they believe that, while enjoyable to follow (the blog equivalent of a B-movie), they could never have the kind of adventures described in these posts.

My passion for travel writing is to convince you that living and working in some exotic, overseas locale is not an unrealistic goal and not a scriptwriter’s fantasy. If you are a professional with a marketable skill, e.g., doctor, nurse, lawyer, teacher, banker, business person, engineer, scientist, artist, etc., there are many host countries eager to exploit your skills by offering temporary employment for periods ranging from one month to one year. And, unlike Julia Roberts, by earning enough money to cover most or all of your travel expenses you need not be a lottery winner, rolling in alimony, or the scion of a wealthy Wall Streeter to fulfill your dreams.

As I wrote in Getting Out of That Rut, one fact that is quite clear to me is there is no shortage of working vacation opportunities, only a shortage of the motivation needed to go after them.  I hope you will read this blog with a different attitude from the one you had watching Eat Pray Love.  I have no desire to write popcorn escapism, and my goal is not simply to entertain you with fun stories–reading someone else’s adventures may be a pleasant diversion, but it is nothing like the thrill of experiencing those same adventures for yourself.  I hope you will read the current and future posts on this blog with the sincere belief that these adventures are not something that happen only to the “other guy” but, instead, represent a life style choice available to anyone with the drive and energy to make it happen.

Our Elegant Georgian Colonial on the Bosphorus

After a week of eating well, reveling in Greek history, and swimming in the turquoise-blue water of the Aegean, we flew to Istanbul where my teaching assistant, Mr. Albert Levy, met us at the airport. Yes, that is his real name. Albert is a fourth-generation Turkish Jew, and he was our entrée into the 500-year old Jewish community of Istanbul. The school did not assign him to me for that reason, and he was as surprised as me to discover that we shared the same faith.

Albert drove the forty miles from the airport to the school while I sat back and took in the horizon-to-horizon sprawl of this massive city. As we drove, visions of our “modest” Nairobi apartment raced through my head (see Doubts and Fears), while I played guessing games about what our on-campus housing might look like this time. Bare light bulbs dangling from the ceiling? Maybe. Western toilet? Hopefully. Comfortable mattresses? Doubtful. Hot shower? No way.  Reminding myself of the enjoyment we had on that Kenyan working vacation in spite of the less than plush accommodations (see Sharing The Secrets), I decided I could make do with whatever lodging the school might provide. Fortunately, my fears were unfounded. That summer my wife and I lived like an upper-middle class American couple, comfortably ensconced in a leafy, well-to-do suburban neighborhood.

Bogazici University, originally called Roberts College, was founded in 1863 by two American educators from New England. They purchased a large, wooded plot on a steep hill overlooking the Bosphorus and set about creating a university where English was the medium of instruction, admission was open to students of all races and religions, and the curriculum would be modeled on the American university system. In 1912, John Stewart Kennedy, a trustee and wealthy donor, gave the college money to build six homes as the academic traditions of the time dictated that senior professors live on campus to be near their students. Since the school was founded by New Englanders, these stately homes were set on acres of forested land and constructed in classic Georgian colonial style, complete with chimneys, porticos, white wooden siding, and black shutters. These dwellings would not be out of place in the better sections of Boston, Hartford, or Providence, but they certainly looked strange plopped down in the middle of Istanbul on the border between Europe and Asia.

The Walkway to our Georgian Colonial in the Middle of Istanbul.

Today, these large, comfortable homes are no longer allocated to individual senior faculty but are used to house visitors coming to the university for short stays. Two, three, or even four families might share a single house, depending on family size and length of stay. However, since this was summertime, when there were far fewer visitors, we were its sole residents. We ended up with a beautiful colonial home on five-plus acres of forested land in the middle of a densely packed urban area of thirteen million. The only comparison I can offer is to imagine yourself living in an elegant New York City residence situated smack in the middle of Central Park. Some Turkish visitors to our home jokingly commented we were living as well as, perhaps slightly better than, the president of the country. While a bit of hyperbole, there is no doubt our housing that summer was superb and totally unexpected. We unpacked our suitcases with very large smiles on our faces!

When a school chooses to provide on-campus housing, rather than have you locate it for yourself, it can fall anywhere on the spectrum from minimally acceptable, as in Kenya, to off-the-scale luxurious, as was the case that summer in Turkey. All you can do is hope for the latter but be willing either to accept the former or to say to your hosts “Thank you, but no.” and then find and pay for your own accommodations.

Getting from Point A to Point B in Style

As I described in the post Cold Call: Take Two, I was the happy recipient of an offer of summer employment from Bogazici University that included, along with housing and a modest salary, one round-trip air ticket from Minneapolis to Istanbul.  When I sent e-mail accepting their offer I asked my hosts to purchase a ticket leaving one week earlier than their proposed date of June 7th, just prior to the start of summer classes, and to route me via Athens rather than on a non-stop flight from New York to Istanbul as they had planned. Since neither of these changes increased their costs they were happy to comply.  Then, after receiving the ticket in the mail (this was before the days of e-tickets), I contacted the airline and, for a modest fee, extended my layover in Greece from four hours to seven days!

Beaches on the Greek Island of Paros Where We Spent A Leisurely Couple of Days on Our Way To Istanbul

A great way to turn your working vacation into an even more enjoyable low-cost holiday is to take that free ticket from A (your home) to B (your destination) and convert it into a free or “almost-free” ticket from A to C to B, where C is any destination along the way that you would enjoy visiting. Essentially, you are converting your no-cost working vacation airline ticket into a “twofer” by adding a second stop.  My wife and I spent a glorious week in Athens, Thessaloniki, and the lovely island of Paros before continuing on to Istanbul to start teaching.

Beachcomber Island, Fiji Where We Spent Time on A No-Cost Stopover on the Way to Australia

We repeated this gambit on a number of subsequent working vacations, including Zimbabwe (via Lisbon, Portugal; and Cape Town, South Africa), Mauritius (via Mumbai, India), Australia (via the Fiji Islands) and Mongolia (via Beijing, China). This coming October I will be working in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia with a three-week layover in Tokyo, Japan added to the end of the stay. In all cases the charge for extending my time in the stopover city was either zero or quite small compared to the cost of purchasing a full-fare air ticket from Minneapolis to that same destination. Even today’s $100 to $150 fee for modifying an existing reservation is a small price to pay for a holiday in Beijing, a week in Athens, or nine days in the Fiji Islands!

When planning air travel to a host country don’t search only non-stop flights, unless you are traveling with children and that is the most important consideration. Instead, determine which airlines fly to your ultimate destination, where they stop, and what the cost would be to extend your time in a stopover city on the way there or upon your return. Then inquire if your hosts would be willing to purchase an air ticket with an extended layover, either with them picking up any additional costs or having you cover the difference. You might be surprised to discover that, since the host institution has already committed to spending thousands of dollars on transportation, salary, and housing expenses, a $50 or $100 fee added to the air ticket will be of little or no concern to them–as was the case with my upcoming trip to KL.  And the end result is that you get to spend a few days, perhaps even a week or more, in some exotic getaway–an attractive perk added to your already attractive working vacation experience.

The Unexpected Teacher

Please welcome a guest blogger, Mr. George Christodoulou from

As Michael has stated many times, you never know for sure where or when a short-term employment opportunity will unexpectedly appear. For me it happened on a visit to Cyprus that morphed from a brief pleasure trip into a working vacation.  My initial plan was to go for a holiday, but I ended up falling in love, finding a job, and extending my stay to six months. The friendly people and the gorgeous sights grabbed my attention and would simply not let go.

The Picturesque Village of Treis Elies Nestled In The Valley

Cyprus is filled with both natural beauty and old-world charm.  I spent the majority of time living and working in the picturesque village of Treis Elies in west-central Cyprus.  This tiny town is surrounded by mountains, vineyards, hot springs, fruit arbors, and wildflower trails. Near the end of my visit I spent about one week seeing other parts of the island and found that its tourist regions are, like most Mediterranean destinations, crowded, noisy, and similar to other island getaways.  Therefore, I spent most of my time in the regions surrounding Treis Elies enjoying hikes along high mountain passes, long walks through lush orchards, and leisurely meals with friends and family.

Before I went to Cyprus I had been living in New York.  It was a tough employment year, and I needed a break from the stress.   I had been a marketing consultant as well as a part-time language instructor teaching an after-school Greek class in the city.   In Cyprus, I would often while away the hours in my relative’s coffee shop enjoying the sun as it peered through the makeshift grapevine “roof.”  One day a man walked onto the patio and took a seat next to me.  He was the director of a program in the local school that taught English to children in the immediate area. After telling him I was a part-time Greek teacher he offered me a position because of my background in teaching a second language.

Teaching The Children of Treis Elies

Overall, that six month working vacation was an eye-opening cultural and social revelation. Even though I grew up in a home with Cypriot parents, I was fairly ignorant of the culture and mores of my ancestral homeland. My parents had been in America for about ten years before I was born and had started the process of acclimatizing to American norms and behavior.  My Cypriot background, like those of many second-generation immigrant children, was rapidly fading.   Spending a few weeks lounging on a beach could not begin to eliminate that cultural ignorance, but a six-month working vacation certainly would.  The people of Treis Elies, especially the children, took me in and taught me a great deal about their world, a world far more relaxed and  tightly knit than the stressful, anonymous life of a megalopolis like New York.  It was as if I had been transplanted from a large open forest into a tiny garden where everyone shared the same space. Ultimately, as a teacher it became more about what the students were teaching me of Cypriot life than about the English lessons I was giving them.

Sadly, after six months the program closed, and I decided to head back to America.  However, that working vacation experience and my memories of this trip will stay for a lifetime.. I return to Cyprus every so often when I want to relax and see friends and family.  I currently work for OneTravel (a company offering Cheap Tickets) as a travel writer using my life experiences as inspiration for my articles.

Cold Call: Take Two!

I subscribe to the Woody Hayes philosophy of life. Hayes, a legendary football coach at Ohio State University, would start each game by sending his best running back directly into the middle of the line. If the opponents stopped him for little or no gain, he would try something different. If, however, they couldn’t halt his progress, Hayes would run the same play over and over again until they proved they could. His reasoning was eminently logical­—why change a winning strategy?   My first attempt at a cold call to the University of Nairobi resulted in a hugely successful, once-in-a-lifetime East African experience. So, as Woody would say, why change?

In spring 1991 I sent unsolicited, “out-of-the-blue” emails to the computer science chairs at three universities with English-based curricula relating my desire to work in Istanbul, become a part of Turkish society, and experience its rich history and culture.  I attached a current resume, the names of professional references, some courses I could teach, and the titles and abstracts of talks I could present to faculty and students.  Although two of the three schools quickly sent polite rejections, within two weeks of my initial inquiry I received an e-mail offer of summer employment from Bogazici University–my arguments in support of cold calling described in A Little Mathematics Maestro were holding up quite well.  Furthermore, to show you this success is absolutely not unique to me, when I returned from Turkey I sent the names and email addresses of the people I worked with to a professional colleague at San Jose State University in California.  The following summer he and his wife were comfortably ensconced in Istanbul enjoying an identical three-month working vacation experience.

View of the Bosphorus from the Bogazici University Campus Located In the Lovely Neighborhood of Bebek

In his reply the chair proposed I teach one ten-week summer school class and give a series of weekly talks on new developments in the computer science curriculum.  In exchange I would receive a single round-trip air ticket from Minneapolis to Istanbul, no-cost on-campus accommodations for my wife and me, and a modest cash allowance. Modest, I might add, in terms of purchasing power, not in absolute amount. My wife and I were to become “Turkish millionaires,” receiving a monthly stipend of 1,200,000 Turkish lira, the local unit of currency. With lira then trading at 2,400 to the dollar, that three-inch thick wad of bills I collected and stuffed into my pockets each month amounted to just $500. However, when the Bogazici salary and free housing were added to my Macalester paycheck (spread out over 12-months even though I was on a 9-month contract) and monies from the rental of my house in Minneapolis, it was enough for Ruth and I to live quite well in Istanbul, a city with a modest cost of living.  In fact, there were sufficient funds remaining to support weekend and school holiday sojourns to Ephesus, Bodrum, Pamukkale, and Cappadocia.

By this fifth overseas working vacation I was coming to understand that these terms—one round-trip air ticket, on-campus housing (sometimes free, sometimes at a nominal cost), and a small food and living allowance—were pretty much the norm and roughly what you might expect to receive on your own working vacation.  One of the realities of negotiating with an overseas institution is that there may be little or no “wiggle room” regarding the financial terms of the offer. Pay scales are often set by the university administration or central government, not the dean or department head, leaving little room to maneuver. However, while salaries are often inflexible there may be room for negotiation with regard to workload. Don’t be surprised if the host institution initially proposes a heavy course load, dozens of public lectures, or consulting with a multitude of groups, since the director, department chair, or dean will want to squeeze as much valuable work out of your visit as possible.  The same admonition applies to other disciplines–a doctor may be asked to see hundreds of patients; the engineer may be assigned a six or six-and-a half-day work week; the consultant may be asked to meet with dozens of agencies. Don’t be afraid to respond that this is too great a workload for you to do a quality job, and it needs to be lowered to a more manageable level. Then discuss a compromise acceptable to both you and the host institution. You may not be able to negotiate the amount they are paying you, but you may be able to negotiate the amount of work you must do to earn that pay.

So, once again, on May 30, 1991 Ruth and I made our way to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to begin a three-month summer working vacation in Istanbul, Turkey but this time, with an interesting, no-cost diversion included on the way.

(Sidebar:  Some people have commented that my blog is getting quite large, making it difficult to find specific topic material. Sad but true! I am not much of a designer, but I did make a couple of changes to make it more useful, especially to new readers who may have missed some earlier posts.

Change 1: I added categories to each post specifying what kind of helpful travel advice is contained in each article. There are currently sixteen categories included under the heading “Working Vacation” with many more to come as new posts are added and new topics are addressed.

Change 2: If you look in the right-hand column you will see a listing of these categories. If you are interested, for example, in the issue of housing in a host country, then simply click on the category “housing”and you  will get a list of all posts that have anything to do with that topic.

Change 3: I added a brand new page entitled Table of Contents. It lists, in chronological order, every post I have put up, along with its date and first few lines to give you a brief idea of what it is about. There is also a link (the word more…) to the full post.

I hope you find these changes helpful, and I would love to receive more suggestions about how to make this blog more useful . Thanks so much.)