My wife and I recently returned from a glorious, six-week Pacific odyssey during which we visited the Cook Islands (see Relaxation, Island Style), Sydney, Tasmania (A Tasmanian Toilet Tale), Laos (The Beauty of Travel; The Ugliness of War), China, and Korea. Unlike virtually every other destinations discussed in this blog, this trip was on my own dime. Yes, dear reader, I hate to admit it, but I paid for this rather lengthy holiday myself! Before leaving I joked with friends not to tell anyone as it could ruin my carefully cultivated reputation as a world-class schnorrer–Yiddish for freeloader.
However, even though I like to poke fun at myself for our many no-cost overseas jaunts, I still enjoy a non-working holiday to an exotic locale as much as the next guy. On this trip we lazed on the pristine beaches of the Cook Islands, sampled the theater and restaurant scene of Sydney, motored through the mountains and forests of Tasmania, marveled at the historical beauty of Luang Prabang, cruised the Mekong on a small riverboat; spent a few days in the lovely canal city of Suzhou, China, and were wowed by the massive urban chaos of Shanghai and Seoul–all without working a single day to pay the freight. It was a superb trip that only confirmed my decision to take early retirement. As long as there are no financial constraints, why would you ever postpone the joys of retirement until you are too old and infirm to enjoy them? I am sure you have heard the truism voiced by Sen. Paul Tsongas: “No man ever said on his deathbed, ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office.’”
However, as much as I loved our time in Asia there are many differences between a family holiday (even one as long as six weeks) and the short-term overseas postings called working vacations I have been espousing on this blog for the last two years and in my most recent travel book, On The Other Guy’s Dime. Most family vacations have amusement, entertainment, and personal pleasure as their primary goals–you take a holiday to relax, eat well, see sights, both natural and man-made, and enjoy time away from your regular routine. By contrast, a working vacation, while enjoyable, is meant for personal, professional, and cultural growth. You take a working vacation not only to see sights but to become part of a different culture, make friends, learn new ways of doing things, expose your children to the world around them, and use your professional skills in new and different ways. These are very different goals.
For example, during our stay in the Cook Islands I never made close friends with any local Polynesians. In Laos, I did not have the opportunity to celebrate Buddhist life cycle events with neighbors or colleagues. Not having a job in Shanghai meant I did not get a sense of what it must be like living in a booming metropolis of 20 million that is changing on an almost daily basis. Staying in a tourist hotel in Seoul prevented us from having the chance to live, play, and shop in one of the fascinating neighborhoods scattered around the city. Our trip to Asia was a wonderful way to see these countries but not to experience them.
So, go ahead and enjoy those family vacations as much as you want and as much as your wallet will allow. However, please don’t use the excuse that you don’t need a working vacation because you and the wife just returned from a cruise to Alaska, a week in Florence, or ten days diving in the Caymans. Holidays and working vacations are totally different beasts that have totally different purposes. Being a tourist and living as part of an overseas community serve very different roles, and you really should experience both.