Monthly Archives: April 2012

On The U.S. State Department’s Dime

In an earlier post (The Clues Are All Around You) I addressed the single most common question from readers of this blog:  “OK, you convinced me of the personal, professional, and cultural benefits of short-term working vacations.  Now, how do I find them?”  Fair question, and in that post I talked about one possible technique–being hypersensitive to clues about overseas opportunities that appear in newspapers, magazines, TV, and radio, and which emerge from on-line discussions and personal interactions.  Some of my most rewarding postings came about from something I read, such as an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about summer school teaching shortages in Israeli universities, or something I saw on TV–a news segment about the Royal University of Bhutan, the first university in that remote Himalayan hideaway.

However, there is an even better source for working vacations–the Fulbright Grants Program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. The  Fulbright program is the single greatest source of paid overseas opportunities in the world–each year they pass out 1,200 grants to 140 countries for periods ranging from three weeks to one year.  I have been lucky enough to receive four–Mauritius (1995), Malaysia (2001), Nepal (2004), and Mongolia (2006).  If you are a teacher, doctor, nurse, lawyer, engineer, scientist, artist, musician, librarian, or other skilled professional, there is a high probability that Fulbright has a need for someone with exactly your skills.

In the coming weeks and months I will be authoring a series of articles about the Fulbright program, including some “tricks of the trade” for writing a successful proposal.  (I am batting .800, with four out of five.)  These posts will be on a site entitled The Wandering Educator, and I want to invite everyone to read them–I will post links to the articles as soon as they appear.  Even though they are on a Web site meant primarily for educators please remember that the Fulbright program is NOT, repeat NOT, limited to academics.  It is open to any U.S. citizen with a useful skill, a sense of adventure, and a desire to see the world.

The first post, entitled “The Fulbright Program,” went up today, and it highlights a number of common misconceptions about the program.  If you have been motivated by the arguments in my blog to consider a working vacation then these are posts you simply must read.  As I write in that initial article:

Fulbright is the very essence of what is so great about working vacations: You have an amazing cultural experience, become part of a fascinating overseas community, and do not quit your job, sell your home, or kiss friends and family a permanent good-bye–they will all be waiting for your return.  Best of all, you do all this on the other guy’s dime!

The Beauty of Travel; The Ugliness of War

In the 1960’s and early 1970’s I was fiercely opposed to the Vietnam War. I protested, marched, sat in, and obtained a deferment by teaching at a local college.  However, I think this opposition was more closely related to my deep-seated fear of fighting in the steamy jungles of SE Asia than to any inherent pacifism or fundamental opposition to the horrors of war.

Sculpture at COPE Constructed From Remnants of American Cluster Bombs

However, 40 years later, those horrors were brought home in a most unusual and unexpected manner.  My wife and I recently finished a lovely visit to Vientiane, the capital of Laos.  Unknown to me, from 1960 to 1972 Laos had more bombs dropped on it than any other nation in SE Asia.  The areas surrounding the Ho Chi Minh trail, which runs the length of the country, were a vast dumping ground for American artillery, rockets, napalm, and, worst of all, cluster bombs.  Sadly, many of these Vietnam-era armaments are still active, lying in wait under the soil for the unsuspecting farmer to plow a new field, for the bicyclist to take a new short-cut into town, or for the young child to chase an errant baseball.  Each year almost 5,000 innocent Laotians lose arms and legs to these hidden remnants of the Vietnam War, certainly one of the low points in our country’s history.

While in Vientiane we had the good fortune to visit COPE–the Consortium for Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprises.  COPE is the country’s valiant but limited attempt to provide rehabilitative services to the tragic victims of unexploded ordnance (UXO).  With a full-time paid staff of only three, along with many dedicated volunteers, they provide artificial limbs as well as the occupational and physical therapy needed to use these new limbs effectively.  For example, I observed a 12-year-old boy who had lost both hands to a UXO learning to type on a laptop with his mouth and a pointing stick.  It was a highly sobering experience, and you can only imagine how you feel as an American knowing it was your country’s own munitions that caused the pain and suffering before your very eyes.

Examples of Prostheses Produced by COPE for Bomb Victims

Surprisingly, there was absolutely no animosity or hostility directed toward either my wife or me.  In fact, the staff at COPE gave us a welcome that could not have been more warm or sincere, and they were proud to show us what they have been able to achieve with limited funds.  The staff focuses on meeting the needs of the present and looking toward the future, not dwelling on the mistakes of the past.  I have to say they showed a level of forgiveness and understanding that I might not have been able to achieve if the situation were reversed.

Laos is now opening up to large-scale Western tourism, and I recommend it as a fascinating destination with lots to see and enjoy–not to mention great food and one of the best beers in the world (Beerlao).  If you do go, please make sure to include some time for a visit to COPE.  It is an amazing place that will leave you emotionally drained, spiritually uplifted, and filled with food for thought.

(Read more about my visits to SE Asia in my book, On The Other Guy’s Dime: A Professional’s Guide To Traveling Without Paying)