Monthly Archives: November 2011

Happy Holiday!

Thanksgiving is the most American of holidays; a window into our country and its people.  Whenever we host international visitors at Thanksgiving time we enjoy watching them soak in what it means to be American–from football and family to turkey and pumpkin pie.  Well, the same cultural excitement is available to Americans working overseas.  When you take a one- or two-week family vacation, staying at a hotel or resort, you relax and have fun but are rarely involved with (or even aware of) national holidays.  However, when you are in country for an extended stay, like a working vacation, you have time to make friends and meet locals, and that usually means joining them in life-cycle events and holiday celebrations–a superb way to become part of a community and learn about its culture.

For example, while living in Mauritius, my wife and I participated in the festive holiday of Diwali, the Festival of Lights.  We joined a local family to light the clay lamps lining their sidewalk and bake the sweets traditionally given to friends and family–all the while learning about Hindu traditions and practices on this small Indian Ocean island.

Eating the Ceremonial Meal At A Mauritian Haldi

We were invited to participate in a Haldi, a Hindu ceremony held for a bride and groom on the night before their wedding.  The couple is entertained with good-natured jokes and smeared (literally) with a paste made from cooking oil, sandalwood, and turmeric–a mixture thought to bring good luck and fertility.  It is a raucous and playful time, a bit like a bachelor or bachelorette party in the U.S.  After the ceremony, a festive meal is served on banana leaves and eaten with fingers.

A Thaipusam Celebrant Piercing His Flesh With Hooks To Pull A Kavadi

While living in Kuala Lumpur we participated in what surely must be the most unusual religious celebration anywhere in the world–Thaipusam, a Hindu ceremony celebrated by Tamils in India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Singapore.  It is a time for repentance and gift giving for the purpose of avoiding future calamity and grief.  The penitents, upwards of one million strong, wash themselves in a river, shave off their hair, and don a ceremonial yellow robe.  Then, piercing their flesh with large hooks connected to ropes, they pull a chariot, called a kavadi, loaded with gifts of milk, fruit, and rice, up a steep hillside.  This mortification of human flesh is hard for a non-Hindu to watch but is a fascinating glimpse into a very different culture.

Ruth and I have celebrated many other holidays and life cycle events–with Buddhists in Mongolia, Janes in India, Muslims in Turkey, and Kikuyu tribesmen in Kenya.  We also attended Jewish services that were quite different from what we are used to–for example, a Passover Seder prepared by Islamic women wearing the hijab and attended by Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists.  During these events we learned a great deal about the country, its culture, and its people–far more than we ever would as short-term tourists.

So, as you enjoy the turkey and stuffing this holiday season, think about the many holidays and life cycle events that would be fun to learn about, observe, and participate in, just as my international visitors have enjoyed being part of Thanksgiving.  Then do just that by applying for and taking a working vacation as described in my book.  I promise you won’t regret it.

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How NOT To See The World

A big thank you to Adele for sending the following quote from the book Dream, Save, Do by Betsy and Warren Talbot:  “The longer you invest in your current reality–with your time, attention, money, and habits–the harder it will be to pull up stakes and make the changes necessary to live your dream. Don’t kid yourself that you’ll do it later. A dream deferred is a dream denied, and a smarter person than me coined that phrase.”  (It was Langston Hughes.)

This is a wonderful quote, and I just had to go to their Web site, Married With Luggage, to read about their experiences.  However, what I found was your typical “wandering nomad” travel blog describing a lifestyle that few, if any, of my readers would care to emulate.  They describe a lifestyle unrelated to the goals of  those who don’t want to throw everything away and start anew but simply want to add a dash of curry to a not-very-spicy lifestyle.

Betsy and Warren Talbot are two 30-somethings who got tired of chasing the big paycheck, quit their jobs, and sold all their worldly possessions.  They put a pack on their back and left home to see the world and have been doing just that for more than a year.  They are not sure when (or if) they will return, and their answer to the question “What will you do for work when you get back?” is a not too comforting “We really don’t know.”

This may sound exhilarating, but the reality is that many professionals, myself included, like our jobs and our life.  We might want to make some short-term changes, and we are not averse to adding a bit of adventure to a daily routine that is getting too predictable, but we are not ready to pull up stakes and leave everything behind.  When the excitement and hoopla of an overseas posting is done, we want to return to our home, friends, family, job, and paycheck.  For most of us, the response “we don’t know what we’ll do when we get back” is totally unacceptable.

This is the reason for creating this blog and my book.  Although my wife and I have lived and worked in dozens of countries we are most definitely NOT wandering nomads roaming the world aimlessly without a financial safety net.  Instead, my writings describe how to take working vacations–overseas postings for those who want to work and play in an exotic locale but have neither the ability nor the desire to leave everything behind.  I blog for people who would love to take a short-term sabbatical but do not want to quit their current position. I write for professionals who want travel options that do not require permanently kissing family and friends good-bye.

My wife and I have seen and done as much, if not more, than the Talbot’s–we have lived and worked from Bhutan to Borneo, Mongolia to Mauritius, Turkey to Tibet.  The difference is that I accomplished this without having to sell my home or quit my job, a job that I love and cherish.  I think that it is I, not the Talbot’s, who drew the long end of the travel straw.

David Brooks, Redux

About two months ago I wrote a post entitled The Haimish Line based on a New York Times op-ed article by David Brooks.  His essay touched me so deeply that I wrote a blog entry to express my enthusiasm and support.

Well, he’s done it again.  On October 28th Brooks authored an op-ed piece entitled The Life Report that hit so close to home it felt like it was written just for me.  His ruminations on why people choose to follow, or not to follow, their dreams addresses the central theme of this blog and could not be a more apt topic for discussion.  So, for a second time, I offer a post based on his writings; let’s call it “David Brooks, Redux!”

Brooks describes a collection of reminiscences written for the 50th reunion of the Yale class of 1942. While a few stories were inspiring and spoke of years enjoyed to the fullest, the majority lamented a rather mundane and pedestrian life that was endured not enjoyed; a passive existence in which events happened to them rather than a life aggressively forged to match their hopes and dreams. For example, Brooks tells how one man looked back on an uneventful career at an insurance company and concluded “Wish my self-profile was more exciting, but its a little late now.”  He relates the bittersweet memories of those who lament the path not taken.  “I deeply regret not moving to Australia when I was married there 25 years ago.”

Those who did have a fulfilling and satisfying fifty years describe the role that chance played in enriching their lives–”a pivotal and thoroughly unexpected moment that changed everything and took their life in a new direction mid-course.”  As I look back on my own “Life Report” I see exactly that pattern–a pivotal moment that changed my life forever.  In this case it was an offer to live and work abroad, an opportunity described in My London Epiphany. Until then I was a conventional, 35-year-old college professor with a good job, great wife, two kids, and house with a picket fence. (Sorry, no dog.)  By any measure life was good, but I was in a rut; life was simply happening, not being molded or directed.  Without a mid-course correction there is no doubt I would now be writing about my gold watch, grandchildren, and golf game rather than hiking the Himalayas, taking a camel safari in the Gobi, and living on a tropical island paradise.

After receiving that offer I closed my office, rented the house, and moved the family to England for three and a half months. Thank God I was willing to take that initial risk because this working vacation opened my eyes to other opportunities to live in exotic locales, experience new cultures, and have adventures usually seen only in National Geographic.  That initial posting was followed by 30 wonderful years of travel and work in such faraway places as Zimbabwe, Kenya, Turkey, Mauritius, Australia, Malaysia, Borneo, Israel, Nepal, Mongolia, and Bhutan–experiences described in my memoir On The Other Guy’s Dime: A Professional’s Guide To Traveling Without Paying.

People tell me that I am lucky to have traveled the world and had so many amazing adventures. I am lucky only in the sense of being given the opportunity to change the direction of my life.  However, those opportunities are not unique to me;  in fact, you had one yourself when you began reading this blog, which explains how you and your family can have exactly the same type of experiences.

So, it is not a question of having the chance to set sail in a new direction; that chance is out there waiting for you.  Instead, it’s a question of what you do with that chance–whether or not you have the gumption and the spirit to take a risk and try something completely new.  That risk may pay off; it may not–life does not come with guarantees.  However,  Brooks ends his essay by saying that in all the reports he read from the class of 1942 “nobody regretted the risks they took and the life changes they made, even when they failed.”