Monthly Archives: October 2011

Working Vacations and The Book of Mormon

In previous posts I offered reasons why you should consider living and working overseas:  intellectual excitement, international friendships, low-cost (sometimes even no-cost) travel, and a learning opportunity for young children, to name just a few.  Well in this post I want to add another reason, possibly the most important one of all:  Do it for yourself!  Do it to bring deeper and more meaningful social, cultural, political, and spiritual values into your everyday life.  Do it to become a better person.

Last week my wife and I saw the most popular show now running on Broadway:  The Book of Mormon.  It is a riotous, raucous, and hilarious musical comedy written by the team that created South Park.  It tells the story of two young Mormon acolytes who go on a “working vacation” mission to Uganda to convert the locals.  They arrive in Africa with an air of arrogance and cultural superiority so common to those who are certain they possess the truth. However, in addition to great music and outrageous humor, the play has a lot to say about how we can change and grow as individuals by living in a  different culture and experiencing new ways of doing things.  At the conclusion of the play the missionaries are learning from as well as teaching the villagers, and each group is sharing their unique customs and traditions with the other.

Well, similar change can happen to anyone who takes a working vacation, and it is one of the most important reasons to escape, however briefly, that comfortable “cocoon” we have created in our daily lives.   One’s social and political outlook can be profoundly influenced as you not only expand your understanding of the world around you but also gain greater insight and empathy into what is happening right here at home.

For example, travel to countries with deep-seated religious strife makes you more aware of the terrible societal damage caused by our own homegrown zealots. Living in the midst of a culture struggling with racial or tribal hatreds sensitizes you to the hurt—both physical and spiritual—arising from intolerance, bigotry, and segregation. Working in a developing nation whose economic policies exacerbate the gap between rich and poor can open one’s eyes to the ugliness of greed and the shame of our own society’s tolerance of abject poverty amidst widespread wealth.

One of the most common characteristics I have observed among individuals who fear differences–racial, religious, sexual–is that they rarely travel to places with a unique culture or experience distinct spiritual and religious practices.   Simply put, they rarely venture outside that safe and often highly homogeneous cocoon.  If they did they would come to understand, like those young Mormons, that there is no one “absolute religious truth” but rather many truths that we might want to experience, understand, and respect.  They would learn, like those young Mormons, that the differences between people are far less important than the similarities.  As Mark Twain wrote in Innocents Abroad, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely.”  Indeed, they do.

Off The Beaten Path

When I was working full-time, my wife and I visited our children in New York only on weekends, perhaps extended to three or four days if a holiday fell on a Monday or Friday.  In addition to the kids and grandkids, we would squeeze in a few “biggies” of the NYC tourist scene–Broadway shows, Statue of Liberty–before running out of time and returning home.  Now we live in the city for six months of the year (I am a Visiting Professor at Columbia) and this makes all the difference in the world.  We not only have time for important sights (we still go to the theater, Met, and Chinatown) but also some less well-known activities that we rarely had time for before–walks on the High Line, picnics in Central Park, dancing at a Russian nightclub in Brighton Beach, fall colors along the Hudson.  That’s what you can do when you have time to uncover the hidden pleasures of a city and region.

The same is true on a working vacation.  When you spend a week in London or Paris you only have time to enjoy the four and five-star attractions listed in your guidebooks. In contrast, a working vacation affords the time to settle in, talk with colleagues and neighbors, and discover those less well-known places that are not in Lonely Planet but which are nonetheless thoroughly enjoyable.  Let me offer two examples:

Before leaving for a working vacation in Japan our son Ben told us about a most unusual bar near Tokyo–a sake house where the waiters are, honestly, macaque monkeys.  The animals bring hot towels before the meal, as is traditional in Japan, serve beer, sake, and hot tea, collect the bill, and bring your change.  They also accept tips, but not in cash–only edamame (soy beans).   The monkeys are actual employees whose hours and working conditions are vetted and approved by local authorities and Japanese animal rights organizations.

Fuku-Chan Serving Sake To My Wife Ruthann

We stopped at the bar when we were in the neighborhood and had the privilege of enjoying drinks and dinner served by Fuku-chan (F) and Yat-chan (M) as well as meeting their two young off-spring being groomed as the next generation of waiters–when it comes to monkeys, I guess it is easier to breed new employees rather than hire them.  This certainly had to be one of our more unusual side trips, and one that we have shared (accompanied by raucous laughter) with friends and family.

Enjoying World Famous Kanlica Yogurt In Istanbul

On a three-month working vacation in Turkey, we had time to visit the small village of Kanlica on the Asian side of the Bosporus. According to my colleagues Kanlica is famous for making the world’s richest, creamiest, and most delicious yogurt, a food item my wife and I dearly love.  After traveling there by water taxi and enjoying a thick bowlful at a local restaurant, we could only agree.  I have not enjoyed yogurt that rich and delicious since returning from Istanbul.

Like our side trip to the monkey bar, this “yogurt outing” is typical of the fascinating and delightful off-the-beaten-path day trips you can experience when given adequate time to uncover the hidden treasures of a host city.  A short-term working vacation, even one as short as four to six weeks, gives you that time.   I doubt that either Fuku-chan or Kanlica would be included on your typical four-day/three night “Highlights of … ” packaged tour.