Monthly Archives: August 2011

The Haimish Line (with Apologies to David Brooks)

David Brooks, a well-known columnist for the NY Times, wrote an essay entitled “The Haimish Line” that I would love for everyone to read. (It is available at

According to Brooks, the Yiddish word haimish suggests “warmth, domesticity, and unpretentious conviviality.”  It is the feeling you have at holiday time when sipping wine, telling stories, and laughing for the thousandth time at Uncle Louie’s bad jokes.  It is the emotions that wash over you when sharing good food and good times with close friends.  It is the comfort you sense when you are someplace friendly and familiar.  Finally, and the reason I want you to read this article, it is the experience you have when you go on a working vacation and become part of a neighborhood, community, and country.

In the article Brooks tells a story about spending time with his family at some basic safari camps in Kenya devoid of the luxuries routinely available at more upscale African retreats. As Brooks describes it:  “These simple camps were friendly, warm and familial. We got to know the other guests at big, communal dinner tables. At one camp we got to play soccer with the staff on a vast field in the Serengeti before an audience of wildebeests. At another camp, we had impromptu spear-throwing and archery competitions with the kitchen staff … I can tell you that this is the very definition of heaven for a 12-year-old boy.”

When the family then moved to a more luxurious camp the results were rather surprising.  “These more elegant camps felt colder. At one, each family had its own dinner table, so we didn’t get to know the other guests. The tents were spread farther apart. We also didn’t get to know the staff, who served us mostly as waiters, the way they would at a nice hotel …  It occurred to me that when we moved from a simple camp to a more luxurious camp, we crossed an invisible Haimish Line. The simpler camps had it, the more elegant ones did not.”

I have the same feelings when traveling.  When I am on a working vacation I do not simply go to famous sights–museums, churches, galleries–but also try to become an integral part of the local culture.  I make friends, meet neighbors, shop at area merchants, and attend social, cultural, and religious events.   I travel to important locales as well as “off the beaten path” places tourists rarely see but give a deeper appreciation for a country’s soul–like a foreign visitor attending a State Fair. Like my times spent with friends and family, these working vacations were warm, friendly, and convivial.

However, when traveling  on my “own dime,” staying in hotels, eating in restaurants, and viewing a country through the windows of a tour bus, I rarely feel like I am coming to understand a country and its people.  While certainly appreciating the sights, food, and leisure, my interactions with the culture are usually formal and distant.   I am seeing a country but not feeling it.  I am enjoying a country but not experiencing it.  To quote Brook’s own words, I  have crossed that invisible “Haimish Line.”

Brooks finishes his column with some wonderful advice:   “Buy experiences instead of things;  Buy many small pleasures instead of a few big ones.”  This is one of the best arguments I can think of for taking a working vacation–it is truly an experience you will never forget.

Road Trip of a Lifetime

In summer, 2004, my wife and I were living in Nepal where I was teaching at the University of Kathmandu under the auspices of a Fulbright Grant, i.e., on the other guy’s dime!  When classes were finished I still had a few weeks before returning to Minnesota and still had a few thousand dollars remaining in my travel account.

The Zhangmu Bridge from Nepal to Tibet

We decided to spend our remaining time and money traveling to Tibet. However, rather than the traditional round trip flight and packaged tour, we decided to rent a car and drive to Lhasa via the 900 km Friendship Highway–the second highest automobile road in the world and surely one of the most breathtakingly beautiful drives on the planet.  We took a local bus from Kathmandu to the border, walked across the Zhangmu Bridge into Tibet, and picked up our vehicle, an old Toyota Land Cruiser, along with a Chinese driver who spoke no English except for “OK, no problem,” usually uttered just after the tires came within inches of a sheer mountain precipice.

The Old Jeep and Old Me on the Tibetan Plateau

However, a running narration was not really necessary as the scenery outside the car window spoke for itself.  During our four days on the road we stopped in traditional villages, met some locals, shopped for meals in Tibetan fruit and vegetable markets, shared those meals with yak herders, and visited Buddhist monasteries allowed by Chinese officials to remain open.  Our drive to the Tibetan capital was certainly the highlight of our stay in Tibet, especially after arriving in Lhasa and discovering that it looked much more like an ordinary Chinese regional capital than the mysterious “Forbidden City” of classical literature.

My Son-in-Law in Front of Cho Oyu (Photo: By Rebecca Schneider)

After leaving the lush green Nepalese countryside the Friendship Highway climbs steeply to reach the 12,000 foot Tibetan plateau.  It passes glaciers, some reaching to the shoulder of the road, as well as five of the world’s highest peaks, clearly visible in the clear, dry Tibetan sky:  #1: Everest (29,029), #4: Lhotse (27,940), #5: Makalu (27,838), #6: Cho Oyu (26,864), and #14: Shishapangma (26,335).  The road reaches its highest point at the Gyatsola Pass, 5220 meters, or about 17, 130 feet, the second highest automobile pass in the world.

Ruthie at the Gyatsola Pass at an Elevation of 17,130 ft.

Although we never experienced altitude sickness, it is hard to describe how difficult it is to function at that extreme elevation, only 400 feet lower than the Everest base camp!  You would walk a couple of steps and then need to rest.  The process of bending down to pick up something you dropped would send your heart racing and require a significant pause.  The mountain scenery at Gyatsola is truly spectacular, but sometimes you can be so short of breath that it can be difficult to tell your traveling companions how much fun you are having!

Traditional Tibetan Nomadic Village Along The Highway

After Gyatsola, the road, unpaved and without guard rails or other safety features, passes through farms and small villages where residents still follow a traditional nomadic life style–herding yaks and goats, living in yurts, and moving with the seasons.  The road also passes the two historically important cities of Gyantse, site of the massive Gyantse Fortress built in 1390, and Shigatse, home of the Panchen Lama, the second highest ranking religious leader in Tibetan Buddhism after the Dalai Lama.

The Ancient Fortress Overlooking the City of Gyantse, Tibet

Finally, after four exhausting but exhilarating days, we arrived in Lhasa.  And while there are certainly wonderful things to see and do there–the Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple–our minds kept returning to those extraordinary days along the Friendship Highway and the time we spent seeing, enjoying, and sharing the “real” Tibet.  If you will be traveling to Nepal in the near future and have the time for a truly unique side trip, the four-day drive to Lhasa along the Friendship Highway is something that, I guarantee, you will not soon forget.

(To read more about our no-cost adventures in Nepal and Tibet you can pick up a copy of my travel book, On The Other Guy’s Dime.)

No Reason Not To

When first given the opportunity to live and work overseas I was rather reluctant.  After receiving an offer of a paid three-month visiting position at Imperial College I thought of dozens of reasons why this absurd idea would never work.  (These fears and doubts are described in “My London Epiphany.”) Fortunately, my wife Ruth is far more willing to consider new things and was able to convince me to give it a try.  (I think her exact words were “Dammit, this will be fun. Let’s do it!)  She was right, very right, and for the past 30 years we have lived all over the world happily letting others pick up the tab!

One of the goals of this blog is to play a role for you similar to the one my wife played for me–refuter of those “ready-made” arguments against the adventure of a lifetime; debunker of the beliefs that convinced you that living and working overseas is something only “others” do, not you or your family.  So, for those of you reading my posts but certain that I am not talking to you, please read on:

Argument #1)   Michael, you are a college professor, someone of high intellectual achievement.  I don’t have either the resume or reputation to do what you did.

Response:  “Negative Vibes”, “I Can Do This”

Argument #2)  Michael, I am far too busy at work to think about taking a month or two away from my desk.  No can do.

Response:  “It’s About The Time, Not Just The Dime”, “What The Heck Is A Working Vacation (Part II)”

Argument #3)  What would I ever do with our house while living overseas for a few months?

Response: “Don’t Be Afraid” , “How To Rent Out Your House”

Argument #4)  OK, but even if I do rent out my home, how will I ever find a place to live overseas?

Response:  “It Really Wasn’t All That Difficult”

Argument #5)  I don’t know anyone over there.

Response:  “Making Friends, Meeting Locals.”

Argument #6)  Mike, I am really worried about what to do my wife or one of my kids got sick while we were living overseas.

Response:  “Staying Healthy, Staying Solvent”

Argument #7)   Excuse me, Michael, I have young kids at home. What would you propose I do with them!

Response:  “Do It For the Kids”

Now I am sure you can come up with additional excuses I have not anticipated and not yet written about, especially if your goal is avoiding an exotic, no cost, overseas adventure with your family.  However, since you are reading my blog I can only assume that this is not what you want, and that you, like me, will eventually heed my wife’s sage advice given to me all those many years ago:  “Dammit, it was fun.  Go do it!”