Monthly Archives: September 2010

The Not-Again School of Travel, Revisited

This working vacation in Zimbabwe was the ideal “proof of correctness” for our commitment to the not again travel philosophy described in the post Two Schools of Traveling Thought. The country has superb game parks that provide close-up views of all the big mammals from the luxury and safety of a jeep, just like our safaris in Kenya seven years earlier. However, Zimbabwe also offers adventures totally distinct from those of Kenya and Tanzania only a few hundred miles to the north.

The Great Stone Structures at Great Zimbabwe National Monument.

For example, midway through our stay we drove to Great Zimbabwe National Monument, a two hundred-square-mile area of massive stone ruins constructed between the eleventh and fourteenth century, most likely as a royal city by members of the Shona tribe. During the rule of apartheid, Rhodesian schools were not allowed to teach that these magnificent buildings were designed and built by African tribesmen 500 years before the onset of European colonial domination. That knowledge would have contradicted their racist teachings about the cultural and intellectual inferiority of blacks. Paul Sinclair, a senior archeologist at Great Zimbabwe during the time of apartheid, stated:

Censorship of guidebooks, museum displays, school textbooks, radio programs, newspapers and films was a daily occurrence. Once a member of the Museum Board of Trustees threatened me with losing my job if I said publicly that blacks had built Great Zimbabwe. . . . It was the first time since Germany in the thirties that archaeology has been so directly censored.[1]

The Zimbabwe National Flag Containing Bird Head Image From Great Zimbabwe National Monument

Today, the park and its structures, the second largest stone buildings in Africa after the Great Pyramids of Giza, are a source of great pride to Zimbabweans and upon independence in 1980 the country, originally named after Cecil Rhodes, an English businessman, was renamed in honor of this historical site. The national flag (see photo) contains an image of the bird carvings found on the walls and towers of Great Zimbabwe. It is an archeological treasure and one of the few extant examples of ancient African tribal culture on the continent.

The Magnificent Victoria Falls on the Border Between Zimbabwe and Zambia

Ruth and I traveled to the Eastern Highlands on the border with Mozambique to hike in its high mountains and enjoy its copious displays of wildflowers and bird life. Of course we made it to the biggest and most famous tourist attraction in all of Zimbabwe and, indeed, in all of Africa—Victoria Falls. At 360 feet in height and more than a mile in width, it is one of the largest waterfalls on the planet and one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. In addition to spectacular views from the unfenced rim of the chasm—feel free to sit and dangle your feet over the edge—there are also heart stopping, Class 5 (expert level, extremely dangerous) whitewater rapids on the Zambezi River to keep you fully entertained and sopping wet.

So even if you have been lucky enough to find that “one perfect Eden,” I invite you to cast your travel net even wider when planning the next working vacation–just as we chose to experience a new African country and culture rather than return to Kenya.  While it is certainly safe, comforting, and enjoyable going back to the same place year after year, witnessing new sights, experiencing new cultures, and meeting new people can be an even more invigorating and stimulating experience.  So, open up that atlas and start searching!

[1]. Julie Frederikse, “Before the war,” in None But Ourselves, Biddy Partridge, photographer (Harare: Oral Traditions Association of Zimbabwe with Anvil Press: 1990) [1982], 10–11.

Damn, These Kids Are Good!

One topic I have studiously avoided is my experience in overseas classrooms. This was a conscious decision as nothing could more quickly dampen enthusiasm for this blog than a few indecipherable pages of computer science minutia–even my wife starts to snooze when I begins waxing rhapsodic about a new assignment in my Data Structures course.   However, there is one misconception I need to raise and quickly put to rest—the quality of students you will encounter in a developing economy such as Zimbabwe (at least when we were there) or an even poorer third-world nation like Kenya.

One would naturally expect outstanding students at a top-tier university in countries like England, Australia, Israel, and Japan. Turkey, a NATO ally, could also rightfully be assumed to have high quality university programs filled with excellent students.   However, many North American and European faculty would shy away from working vacation opportunities in places like Kenya or Zimbabwe assuming, incorrectly, that students will be unprepared, facilities will be prehistoric, and the level of instruction will barely rise above that of grade school.  Let me assure you that this assumption is utterly wrong!

While some of the more costly resources—e.g., scientific equipment, journal collections—are often not at the level of a comparable facility in Europe or the United States, the students in both Kenya and Zimbabwe were uniformly excellent, not just smart but some of the most enthusiastic and hardest working I have had in three decades of teaching, and there is a simple explanation.

Kenya has a population of roughly forty million, with a larger percentage of its citizens of college age (18–25) than the United States. However, the country has only nineteen institutions of higher education, amounting to about one for every two million residents–the equivalent of my home state of Minnesota having only three colleges and universities.  In fact, it has 32!  This relative dearth of tertiary institutions makes admission extremely competitive, so top schools like the University of Nairobi attract the best and brightest students in the country, or at least the best and brightest who do not attend college overseas. The majority of students in my classes at the University of Nairobi and UZ would succeed and, in many cases, flourish, at a good U.S. school.

The Main Gate to the Campus of the University of Nairobi, One of the Finest Schools in East Africa

Furthermore, because they know they are among the lucky few to be granted admission, they are eager to make the most of their good fortune by “pumping” teachers for any and all knowledge they can. This was a pleasant change from jaded students back home who treat classes not as unique learning experiences but as hurdles to get over on their way to a high paying job on Wall Street or Silicon Valley. Some of my most enjoyable times were spent in the school cafeteria or neighborhood coffee house chatting with students who wanted to continue a discussion even though class had long since ended.

I can only assume this scenario would replicate itself in other disciplines as well.  For example, because of a lack of scientific research centers in most developing nations the research centers that do exist will probably employ the very best scientists the country has to offer;  similarly, with so few outlets available for displaying one’s artistic talent, the musicians, painters, and dancers you work with will likely be highly talented individuals.  And, not only will they be bright and talented, they will be eager to join you in the process of studying, learning, and growing.  I found these types of interactions to be professionally exhilarating and rewarding.

So if you are resisting applying for a working vacation in a lesser developed nation because of fears that you will end up in some primitive, backwater institution without qualified students, capable colleagues, or modern facilities, let me put your mind at ease.   While, in most cases, you will not mistake a school, research lab, or cultural center in a developing nation for Oxford, Los Alamos, or the Met, they should provide a reasonably good level of professional interaction, not to mention a unique and thoroughly enjoyable social and cultural experience.

A Most Happy Announcement

Dear  Readers,    I am happy to announce that my new travel book, On The Other Guy’s Dime:  A Professionals Guide to Traveling Without Paying (Bookmobile Press) will be available this November.  When it appears, in both paper and e-book versions, I will post a notice on this blog.  If you have appreciated the stories and suggestions contained in these posts you will also enjoy reading the book as it contains far more information about living and working overseas than I could possibly include here.

The book is part travel memoir in which I share some of my most memorable adventures and the lessons learned along the way. It is also a “how-to” guide intended to teach you the skills I have acquired over the years—the ability to locate and evaluate overseas work opportunities and the practical knowledge to turn that information into reality.

So, please keep enjoying the blog posts and, if you have the desire to create your own working vacation adventures, I invite you to watch for the publication of On The Other Guys Dime.   It’s amazing how often good information and simple, direct action can lead to success—exactly the kind of success I want you and your family to experience.

A Witness To History

One of the joys of a working vacation, as described in Getting From Point A to Point B In Style, is the ability to add one or more interesting stops on the way to or from the host country.  After you have agreed to a contract simply ask your hosts for permission to purchase an air ticket that includes a layover in some interesting intermediate city.  Given the amount of money being committed to your visit–transportation, housing, salary–they will often be willing to absorb the insignificant $100 or so that this stop might add to their bottom line.  (This is exactly what happened on my upcoming trip to Kuala Lumpur.  My Malaysian hosts were generous enough to cover the $150 surcharge for adding a three-week stop in Japan on the return trip.)  Even if they do bill you for the layover, the cost will still be far less than purchasing an air ticket from your home to the same destination–just try flying from Minneapolis to Tokyo for $150!

After accepting a three-month teaching offer from the University of Zimbabwe and receiving authorization to purchase my ticket, I booked a flight on TAP, Air Portugal, because I could later rebook at no cost and convert our flight to Zimbabwe into not just a “two-fer,” as I had done on our earlier trip to Istanbul, but a “three-fer” with a three-day layover in Lisbon followed by a six-day stop in Cape Town, South Africa before continuing on to Harare.

We arrived in Cape Town in the late morning after an exhausting eleven-hour flight from Lisbon. Forcing ourselves to stay awake and adjust to local time, we took a leisurely walk around the city ending up at the classic Greek-columned South African Parliament building in Company’s Garden Park, totally unaware that we were about to witness a momentous historical event.

South African Parliament Building in Company's Garden Park, Cape Town

The information booth in the park informed us that the South African Parliament was being called into session in just a few minutes. Thinking this an interesting way to pass some time and stay awake we secured our entry passes and went upstairs to the visitor’s gallery unexpectedly packed with reporters, photographers, and observers. Every seat was taken and there were numerous standees, ourselves included. Was something special happening or do South Africans simply have a greater interest than Americans in the proceedings of their federal legislature? My wife and I once visited the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington DC when it was in session. There were maybe two dozen visitors in the gallery and even fewer legislators seated on the floor.

The audience hushed as President F. W. de Klerk entered the assembly, stepped to the lectern, and began addressing Members of Parliament (MPs) but, unfortunately, in Afrikaans. I thought to myself how sad I would not be able to understand a word he said, but after five minutes he smoothly, and without warning, switched to impeccable Oxfordian English. To our utter amazement, now that we could understand, he announced to everyone seated on the floor and in the visitor’s gallery that his government would, effective immediately, rescind every remaining racial segregation law still in force–he had eliminated some, but not all, apartheid statutes in a speech to the legislature two years earlier.  At that point, the conservative Afrikaner MPs stood up, turned their backs to him, and stormed from the hall as the gallery erupted in cheers and photographers sprang to their feet to snap photos.

Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk Receiving the Nobel Prize in Oslo in December, 1993

What had begun as simply an afternoon stroll to stay awake had ended with our witnessing one of the most significant moments in African history—the official end of apartheid in the Republic of South Africa. Eighteen months after listening to that speech, F. W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela shared the Nobel Peace Prize at a formal ceremony in Oslo, Norway.

Back To Africa

Even though we loved our time in Kenya, since Ruth and I subscribe to the not again school of travel (see Two Schools of Traveling Thought) we really wanted to see another part of this vast continent.  One of the pleasures of a working vacation is being able to pull out the atlas and decide for yourself where to go rather than having that destination be selected for you by a company, funding agency, or professional society.

Our Kenyan friends and colleagues told us that if we enjoyed our three-month stay in East Africa we really should consider a trip to Zimbabwe, the country called Rhodesia until 1980 when it won its independence from Great Britain in a bloody civil war. After reading about its rich culture, natural beauty, and superb historical sites, Ruth and I decided that a working vacation in Zimbabwe would be an excellent way to relive the delights of our Kenyan safari, now many years distant, but with different places to explore and new people to meet.  Not long after sending email inquiring about summer teaching opportunities at the University of Zimbabwe, the best university in the country, I received a reply from Rob Borland, chair of the computer science department, inviting me to teach at UZ during the coming winter quarter–oops I forgot about that Southern Hemisphere thing yet again!

The New Mathematics and Information Technology Building at the University of Zimbabwe

At that time Zimbabwe was the success story of sub-Saharan Africa, and its capital, Harare, was one of the loveliest cities on the continent. This is hard to fathom given conditions there today—famine, cholera, hyperinflation, and civil unrest—all thanks to a once-benevolent president, Robert Mugabe, who devolved into a brutal dictator with a death grip on power and an intolerance of public dissent.  (Conditions are actually much worse. In a recent article in the New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote “If you want to see hell on Earth, go to Zimbabwe where the madman Robert Mugabe has brought the country to such a state of ruin that medical care for most of the inhabitants has ceased to exist.”)

However, in 1992 things were quite different and Harare was a charming city of pedestrian malls, upscale shopping, and outdoor cafes, all frequented by a large, thriving black middle class. With its broad downtown avenues shaded by Jacaranda trees and lined with busy stores, it would be hard for most Americans to believe they were in Africa.  Rather than the images of ramshackle housing and malnourished children that routinely fill our newspapers and airwaves, you would encounter Africans lunching in bistros and driving late-model American and European cars on modern, well paved city streets.  It was a city that, at least in 1992, would utterly shatter your stereotype that all of sub-Saharan Africa looks like a Sally Struthers public service announcement for “Save the Children.”

This shattering of stereotypes  is another important reason to travel, especially to unfamiliar regions and places where your imaginings are far removed from the reality.  For example, a  working vacation in a country like Turkey (or Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, Malaysia) will end those misconceptions about Islam and day-to-day life in a modern Muslim society–exactly what happened to my Classics professor friend as described in Official Confirmation.  A long-term stay in a city like Mumbai, Delhi, or Bangalore will certainly change your perception that India has nothing to offer visitors but crowds, poverty, disease, and privation.  The friendliness and warmth of the residents of Nairobi (including those in the slums of Kibera) would go a long way toward ending the misguided view of Africa as nothing but tribal hatreds and violent crime.

So, on May 26th, 1992, Ruth and I set sail from the Minneapolis International Airport for a three-month teaching sojourn in the city of Harare, Zimbabwe but not before making a couple of fascinating stops along the way, in Lisbon, Portugal and Cape Town, South Africa–exactly as detailed in Getting From Point A to Point B in Style.

Two Schools of Traveling Thought

There are two types of world travelers—the repeaters and the not agains. Repeaters have found their dream destination and go back year after year to the same village, the same B&B, the same lake. They are the couple who return every March, like swallows to Capistrano, to that quaint little inn in the south of France; who pre-book every year at their special hacienda on the Mayan Riviera; who canoe the same rivers and eat at the same restaurants, year in, year out. In contrast, the not agains love the places they have been but prefer instead to seek out new sights and unexpected adventures. Repeaters are the “bird in the hand” group, not agains the “two in the bush.”

I have no quibble with repeaters and congratulate them on discovering their one perfect Eden. Even better, the task of locating the next working vacation is far simpler for repeaters than for the not agains. After completing the first employment contract, sit down with school, agency, or institute administrators, tell them how much you enjoyed your stay, how professionally and culturally rewarding it was, and ask if they would be interested in hosting a return visit in the near future. Assuming you have not screwed up too badly and funds are available, there is a decent chance they will be eager to invite you back, and the planning for your next working vacation will have been fully accomplished. Nice and simple.

I followed that path myself after a 2007 cold call resulted in a six-month visiting professorship at Columbia University in New York City, home of my now-grown children and grandchildren. I renegotiated that initial offer into a return visit for the 2008-09 academic year and beyond.  I just completed my third teaching stint at the school with plans for more in the near future.

However, in 1992 my wife and I definitely belonged to the latter group, the not agains. We loved all our working vacations and found every city where we had lived—London, Jerusalem, Nairobi, Sydney, Istanbul—a destination not yet plumbed to its fullest depths. Each site still tempted with possibilities of fresh explorations and new discoveries. When we would return home, bubbling over with stories about the sights we’d seen and the people we’d met, friends and family were sure that our next trip would take us back to the same place—working vacation redux. However, in almost three decades of travel, until our return to New York City and Columbia, it never has. As much as we’ve enjoyed and savored each and every trip, when it came time to think about the next one we would stare at a world map and see too much unexplored space, too many countries not yet experienced. The U.N. has 192 member states and so far we had lived and worked in five. It seemed much too early for reruns.

I would love to hear from readers which of these two schools of thought best describes your own traveling philosophy.   Whether for a brief one- or two-week family vacation or a long-term working adventure do you prefer to fall back on the tried-and-true or are you more about exploring the as yet unexplored?  Please share.

Official Confirmation

While working in Turkey I received e-mail from a colleague, a Classics professor who travels annually to Greece for his research. This year he wanted to add a stopover in Turkey to view its many historic landmarks—Ephesus, Troy, the Temple of Aphrodite—but he and his wife were somewhat hesitant, scared off by the misguided perception of Turkey as unclean, dangerous, even somewhat sinister–perhaps they had seen the movie Midnight Express. When they learned that Ruth and I were living in Istanbul they wrote to ask if we might consider being their guides to the city, helping them avoid the problems experienced by naive travelers visiting a strange, new place. We were more than happy to accommodate, and I made arrangements for someone to pick them up at the airport and take them to a nice downtown hotel.

A Typical Street Front Cafe in Istanbul.

For three busy days the four of us walked the old city, saw the sights, sipped strong coffee at outdoor cafes, ate at local restaurants without getting sick—one of their nagging worries—and went to my favorite clubs to listen to superb Middle Eastern music. Their fears soon dissipated, and my colleague realized how silly he had been to wait so long before visiting this magical, not sinister, city. (He has returned many times since.) Before departing he thanked us profusely for being such excellent hosts and making him feel safe and relaxed in an unfamiliar place.

For us this was “official confirmation” that Ruth and I had completed the transformation from working-vacation newcomers to experienced, knowledgeable travelers. Here was a Classics professor, whose area of study is the Eastern Mediterranean, including Turkey, asking a computer scientist (of all people) for help in seeing the country and navigating its social and cultural maze. From the “Nervous Nellie” in My London Epiphany frightened by the mere idea of moving to England, by the completion of this sixth working vacation (England, Israel, Australia, Kenya, Japan, and Turkey) I had gained the confidence needed not only to live and work overseas but to guide others through the orientation process needed to feel comfortable in a strange, new culture.  Creating that same sense of self-confidence in my readers is exactly what I want to accomplish in this blog and with the upcoming publication of my travel memoir and how-to book “On The Other Guy’s Dime.”

The Ubiquitous Simit Salesman, Found on Virtually Every Street at Every Hour of the Day

As September 1, our departure date, approached Ruth and I reflected on how much Istanbul reminded us of New York City, not in terms of history, ethnicity, or architecture, but in terms of scale, vibrancy, and its citizens unbridled enjoyment of life. It is a city that never sleeps. Two in the morning is prime time for the thousands of people enjoying the Taksim music scene; the cars, taxis, and buses clogging city streets; street vendors hawking simit, Turkish bagels, and döner kebabs. It is a city where you can spend countless hours shopping, eating, and drinking apple tea while strolling the hundreds of neighborhoods that sprawl over this massive urban area. During our three-month stay we explored perhaps one-tenth of this fascinating city. I can’t imagine how little you would drink in given only one or two weeks.

Cities like Istanbul demand time, lots and lots of time, to understand and appreciate their many religious, historical, and cultural riches. A working vacation is the perfect way to get that time without having to burn your housing, employment, and family bridges behind you.