Monthly Archives: February 2012

The Flying Postman of Broken Hill (Rerun)

(The following story first appeared on June 7, 2010.  I think readers who did not see it at that time will enjoy looking at it now.)

One of the joys of a working vacation is that it gives travelers time to uncover a region’s hidden gems–those quirky, idiosyncratic places too often overlooked by Frommers or The Lonely Planet but which give you a good feeling for life in the host country.  Well, quirky is the very essence of a place called Broken Hill, Australia.

Typical Red Rock Landscape of the Australian Outback

The Australian outback is a starkly beautiful area but, because of temperature extremes (summer temps of 120F are not unusual), poor infrastructure, and immense distances, it can be difficult to visit.  Many tourists skip the region entirely, limiting themselves to the urban pleasures of Sydney and Melbourne and the clear blue waters of the Great Barrier Reef.  Adventuresome types who venture into the outback usually do so on a two- or three-day fly in to Alice Springs and Ayers Rock, the two main tourist centers.  However, limiting yourself to these popular destinations is like visiting Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon and thinking  you have experienced everything the American Southwest has to offer.

My wife and I were on a working vacation to Sydney, Australia where I was teaching at the University of New South Wales.  Our three-month posting gave us sufficient time to investigate some of the interesting destinations that lie beyond the skyline of Sydney, including the barren landscapes of the Australian outback only a few hundred miles inland.  Based on recommendations from colleagues and neighbors, we set off during school holiday for a part of the outback rarely visited by tourists–the small mining town of Broken Hill, about 630 miles west of Sydney.  We boarded the  transcontinental Indian-Pacific express for our 12-hour train trip and watched in fascination as the lush greenery of the Pacific coast gave way to an austere, arid land that shimmered orange and ochre-red in the setting sun.

We arrived the next morning in a place that could easily have been the setting for a John Ford western.  Broken Hill was settled in the 1870s when a massive silver deposit was discovered nearby, followed soon by valuable caches of zinc and lead.  Like roughneck mining towns of the American West (think Deadwood or Dodge City) it grew quickly and was a haven for drinking, gambling and prostitution.  However, in the 1970s and 80s, as metal prices declined and mining employment dwindled, Broken Hill and the surrounding region had to reinvent itself, and today its major industries include sheep farming, craft shops, movie production (Mad Max 2, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), and a nascent tourism industry to which we were happy to contribute.

The Famous Palace Hotel in Broken Hill.

We toured an underground silver mine, visited the galleries and craft shops lining Main Street, took a walking tour of historic buildings (including the famous Palace Hotel built in the 1880s, see photo), and learned about the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia and School of the Air which meet the medical and educational needs of a region where the nearest public school may be 500 km distant and the closest pharmacy a 10 hour drive!  However, the highlight of our stay was the day spent with Mr. David Furnell, the famous “Flying Postman of Broken Hill,” whom we contacted from Sydney to book a most unusual outback tour.

Once a week Mr. Furnell pilots his single engine plane to more than two dozen sheep stations strewn around the outback, carefully avoiding the kangaroos playing tag on the runway.  To ward off boredom he invites guests to join him for the day, at absolutely no cost, as he lands, takes off, lands, takes off, … dropping the week’s collection of mail into steel drums, broken refrigerators, old washing machines, and other weird postal receptacles plunked down at the end of the makeshift runways.  If the station owners are home they often welcome Dave and his “temporary assistants” in for lunch and conversation, especially as they may be the first visitors at the station in weeks.

The Famous Flying Postman of the Outback (Photograph courtesy of AAPImage, Australia)

I cannot imagine a better way to learn about life in the outback than seeing it from an altitude of a few hundred feet and sharing a sandwich and cold drinks with ranchers striving to eke out a living in this remote landscape.  It gave us a good sense for what outback life is really like for those who struggle against this harsh and unforgiving landscape.  I doubt if your typical two-week “Highlights of Australia” tour would include sufficient free time to allow you and your family to spend a day with Mr. Furnell and residents of the sheep stations of Western New South Wales.  Pity!

So, when enumerating the many reasons for choosing a working vacation in place of your standard family holiday, add to that list a chance to get off the beaten path and see parts of the country casual tourists will never experience.

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Travel Contest–Part II (and the winner is … )

I am pleased to announce  the winner of the travel contest is Mr. J. Green of California.  A copy of my book On The Other Guy’s Dime will be sent to him in the mail.  He correctly identified the mystery location as the Gobi Desert region of Mongolia.  Congratulations.

A little while back I ran a travel contest in which readers were asked to identify an unknown location from a set of clues–much like Conde Nast’s monthly “Where Are You” feature.  It was a lot of fun and over two hundred people submitted guesses; the only problem was that 190 had the right answer!  I had forgotten that applications like Google and Wikipedia made it easy to identify any place on the planet by entering a few key words taken from each clue.

So, for this second contest I want to make things a bit more difficult.  Instead of written clues, I will provide a sequence of three photographs–one every two days–with each picture giving a little more information about the secret location.  The earlier you get the correct answer the greater your chances of winning:  If you identify the place (not simply the country but also the location within that country) after only a single photograph you will have your name entered into the drawing three times; if you get it correct after two photos you will have your name entered twice;  finally, if you name the right location after seeing all three photos you will get only one shot at the brass ring.  When the contest is completed I will randomly draw a single winner from among all the names in the pool, and that individual will receive a free copy of my travel memoir entitled On The Other Guy’s Dime: A Professional’s Guide To Traveling Without Paying. Instead of submitting guesses as blog comments for everyone to see, I ask that you email them directly to me at schneider@macalester.edu.  That way, readers won’t see the wrong answers and  know where not to guess.

So, good luck, and here is my first photograph from the mystery location–rather forlorn and not too informative.  However, don’t give up hope as two more snaps are on the way!

Travel Contest. Photograph 1. Where Are You?

OK, no one has been able to locate where in the world we are.  (Not surprising)  So, here is photograph number two–a picture of some people that I met while in this mystery location.

Travel Contest. Photograph 2. Where Are You?

OK, we have four correct answers so far, but there is still lots of time to enter a guess and win the “grand prize.”  Photograph 3 is of a musician entertaining guests at a hotel in our mystery location.  He is wearing traditional national dress and is playing a musical instrument that is the symbol of his people.  This instrument, which is said to sound like the unrestrained call of a wild horse, was recently declared a UNESCO cultural masterpiece artifact.

Travel Contest. Photograph 3. Where Are You?

The Way to a Culture’s Heart Is Through Its Stomach

Donkeys Delivering Supplies in the Ancient Marketplace of Fez

Donkey carts clatter across cobblestone streets; butchers wielding massive cleavers hack away at sides of lamb, beef, and camel; women and fruit sellers haggle over prices in Arabic, French, and Tamazight, the local Berber language. We are in Fez’s meat, produce, and spice market, maneuvering through the chaos under the watchful eye of Mr. Lahcen Beqqi, a master chef, restaurant owner, teacher, and expert on Moroccan cooking.

My wife Ruth and I signed up for a one-day class taught by Chef Beqqi to learn more about Morocco, its culture, and its world famous cuisine. Beqqi, a baby-faced Berber from the tiny village of Amellago in the High Atlas mountains, is a highly qualified teacher–he moved to Fez, the country’s food capital, in 2002 and cooked at some of the city’s finest restaurants until opening a school, Fes Cooking, in 2006. His classes provide not only culinary instruction (and eating, of course) but also an introduction to Moroccan agriculture, shopping, and mealtime traditions.  It is a wonderful way to learn about the many influences contributing to modern Moroccan culture.

Chef Beqqi Helping Us Select Items In The Marketplace

Ruth and I, along with the chef and two other students, begin our day in the open-air marketplace of this 1,200-year-old Imperial city. Since our menu will be dictated by what is available (“eat seasonal, buy local” has long been a way of life), we wander the narrow walkways surveying the possibilities. The sweet scent of cinnamon and rose water fills the air; stalls overflow with tomatoes, onions, celery, garlic.  “It was a good year for farmers with lots of rain, so there are no shortages,” Beqqi said as he helps us select items for the midday meal.

A Typical Spice Market in Ancient Fez. No Bottles of Spice Island or Durkee's Here!

As we stroll he points out foods that many American kitchens would consider specialty items but which are central to Moroccan cooking: dates, figs, apricots, chickpeas, mint. He also points out products that draw our blank stares: wild artichokes, argan oil, cardons, camel fat.   We wind our way through the market touching, squeezing, smelling, buying.  Finally, laden with bags of meat, vegetables, fruits, and spices, we head for the kitchen at Riad Tafilalet, a traditional Moroccan hotel and restaurant (riad is the Arabic word for garden or courtyard) that will be our classroom for the remainder of the day.

The Kitchen Staff. That's Me in the Center (With Beard and Glasses) and Ruth on the Far Right.

Although thoroughly modern, the kitchen contains no electric mixers, blenders, or food processors. According to Beqqi, Moroccan cooks enjoy “being close to their food,” so all chopping is by hand, all mashing by mortar and pestle.  We don starched white chef tunics, looking like contestants on “The Next Food Network Star,” and dive into our assigned tasks.  Lahcen watches carefully and explains proper techniques:  “Don’t add spices until the liquid is hot,” “Grate the tomatoes, don’t chop them.”

The Results of our Efforts. A Most Delicious Chicken, Prune, and Date Tagine.

A few hours later, our six-course lunch is finished. In the riad’s sunlit courtyard, we sit around low tables dining on harira, a tomato, lamb, lentil, and chickpea soup traditionally used to break the daily fast of Ramadan; small triangles of phyllo pastry, called briouates, filled with goat cheese and olives; zaalouk salad prepared with pureed eggplant, tomato, and zucchini; artichoke hearts with preserved lemons and orange water; a chicken, prune, and date tagine; and, for dessert, date and almond rolls and the ever-present mint tea.

As we gorge on the delicacies, Beqqi relates stories of the multi-ethnic influences that produced this distinctive cuisine: the Berbers of southern Morocco who brought tagines and couscous; seventh century Arab invaders who introduced grilled meats and a love of dried fruits and nuts; the Moors who contributed their taste for olives, oranges, and lemons; Sephardic Jews of North Africa who popularized the pickling and preserving of fruits and meats.  It is a history seminar complete with massive amounts of superb food and drink!

After eating for more than two hours I sit back on the sofa and sip my last glass of tea, feeling like a pampered pasha. At 4 p.m., after a busy but gratifying and highly informative day, Beqqi calls a taxi to take us back to our apartment, a trip whose cost is, thankfully, based on distance not weight.

Read more about our adventures living and working in Africa and the Middle East in my latest book, On The Other Guy’s Dime.  

A Little Mathematics, Maestro!

(The following is a reprint of a June, 2010 blog post.  Since its arguments are still valid I thought you might enjoy reading or rereading it.) 

In my latest travel book, On The Other Guy’s Dime, I describe one of the more successful techniques I have used to locate working vacations–the cold call.  I would contact a department chair in a city or country where I want to live and say something like “I don’t know you and you don’t know me, but I would love to come to your institution to work for a few months and contribute in any way I can.  Please let me show you why you should hire me.”  I would then attach a copy of my resume, lists of workshops and courses  I could teach, and services I could provide to the school and its faculty.

Classical Dancers in Bhutan. A Cold Call Resulted in a Spectacular Three-Month Working Vacation in Thimphu

Some skeptics will read the previous paragraph and scoff at the idea of cold calls as a way of finding working vacations.  With images of all those struggling telemarketers firmly in mind they will argue you have only a miniscule chance of success.  However, believe me when I say it is nowhere near as futile as they portray.  You are not some nobody shilling aluminum siding or stain remover; we are talking about highly trained professionals–e.g., doctors, nurses, teachers, engineers, lawyers, artists, business people–offering to share their special skills with developing nations that sorely need them.  I could argue for the efficacy of this technique by simply stating that it got my wife and me to Kenya, Turkey, Zimbabwe, Mongolia, and Bhutan.  But, instead, let me show that cold calling is a realistic technique by proving it mathematically!

A few years ago New Yorker ran a cartoon entitled “What Hell Is Really Like.”  There was Satan, with horns and pitchfork, standing over some unfortunate wretch writhing in pain and straining to read the words on a piece of paper.  It said “A train leaves Chicago going 40 miles per hour … ”  While I don’t believe Hell is a never-ending set of algebra problems, I know many of you will smile and sympathize.  Therefore, I tread carefully when presenting a mathematical argument and will try my best not to make this difficult to follow.

Let’s assume there is only 1 chance in 20 (probability p = 0.05) of success, i.e., of getting a “Yes, we would love to have you join us for a few months” response to your cold call.  That means you will get a “No thank you” 19 times out of 20 (p = 0.95).  Furthermore, let’s say you contact four institutions, A, B, C, and D, trying for that one dream offer.

The likelihood that exactly 1 of these 4 places will make an offer is equal to the chance of getting exactly 1 Yes and 3 Nos, which is (0.05) x (0.95) x (0.95) x (0.95) = 0.04287.  Now that single Yes could come from either A, B, C, or D, so the overall probability is four times that number or 4 x 0.04287 = 0.1715, or 17%.

However, the actual odds are even better.  If you are lucky you might get 2 Yeses.  Of course you cannot accept two jobs, but you are free to pick the one that best suits you. There are 6 different ways that 2 institutions could respond Yes:  (A, B), (A, C), (A, D), (B, C), (B, D), and (C, D).  The chance of any one of these events happening is the probability of getting exactly 2 Yeses and 2 Nos, which is (0.05) x (0.05) x (0.95) x (0.95) = 0.0022562.  So, the overall probability is 6 times that value, or 6 x 0.0022562 = 0.0135, or 1.3%.  I won’t go through the mathematics of 3 and 4 Yeses (rare events) but the sum of all these possibilities is the probability that you will receive at least 1 Yes in response to your 4 cold call inquiries. That total is 0.1855, or about 18.6%.

Think about what that last number means. Even if you have only 1 chance in 20 of someone hiring you, simply by contacting 4 schools (or hospitals, labs, government agencies, … ) you have improved your chances of landing a working vacation from 1 in 20 to about 18.6%, almost 1 in 5.  If I told you that spending an hour or so on your computer would result in a 1 in 5 chance of an all-expense paid trip to Turkey or a 3 month no-cost safari in Kenya would you do it?  Of course you would.  Well, why haven’t you!

And you can do even better.  The Web makes it easy to find contact names and addresses at overseas institutions, so why limit yourself to 4?  If, for example, you send out 8 emails, and the probability of a single success is still 1 in 20, your overall odds go up to 1 in 3.  That certainly isn’t the miniscule possibility that skeptics would have you believe.

And, finally, for those who scoff at my assumption of a 1 in 20 chance of success (a value based on my own cold calling experiences), let’s lower it to 1 in 50.  Even with these dismal odds (who would bet on a 50-1 shot at the racetrack?) if you were to send out 8 exploratory emails you would still have a 15% chance of landing a position; send out 15 and the odds rise to 1 in 4–a heck of a lot better than the lottery!   With the universal availability of the Web, word processors, and e-mail, sending out 15 inquiries is probably not even a single day’s labor.

So, for those who have been able to stay with my mathematical arguments this far, I hope you will be motivated to send a few unsolicited emails to those dream destinations–India, Norway, Chile, Austria–described to me in your comments.  Remember, the odds are definitely in your favor!