Monthly Archives: July 2012

The Ex-Pat Life or Not?

Our most enjoyable working vacation was a one-semester visiting position at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.  Australia was as close as my wife and I have come to becoming permanent ex-pats–quitting our jobs, selling the house, kissing friends and neighbors good-bye, and pitching our family tent in a new country.  It was that wonderful.

The Skyline of Downtown Sydney, Australia at Twilight

We found the quality of life in Sydney to be nigh-on perfect, which is saying a lot since we reside in Minneapolis, itself one of the most livable cities in North America.  Australians know how to balance the stress of work and daily life with the pleasures of food, wine, relaxation, and time spent with friends and family.  None of my colleagues gulped lunch at their desk, burned the midnight oil, stressed over research grants, or brought work home at night.  When they left the office at the sensible hour of 5PM, they relaxed on their patio, opened a Fosters, enjoyed a leisurely dinner, and played with children or friends.  Everything about this life style resonated with me, and it felt like the Aussies had discovered the secret of la bonne vie, the good life.   However, when our visit ended my wife and I chose not to stay; not to pitch that tent.  After four months in this heavenly city, our family boarded a plane for the long trek home.  The obvious question is “Why?”  If Australia held such fascination why did we choose to return?

A popular form of travel writing describes the roamings of stylishly elegant vagabonds who leave behind their home, family, and job for a new life overseas.  The stories are a paean to their suddenly über-fashionable quality of life.  For example, in A Year In Provence by Peter Mayle, a wealthy British businessman moves to the south of France to enjoy good food and wine, all the while restoring an elegant 19th century French country home. In Eat, Pray, Love an American divorcee seeks comfort and solace in Italy, India, and Bali.  (Another possibility:  Under the Tuscan Sun).

Stories of vagabond ex-pats make for superb reading and sell quite well–my readership would probably be far higher if I had stayed in Australia, bought a cattle ranch, and authored a book entitled A Year In The Outback.  However, while enjoyable, these tales suffer from a serious problem–they are totally unrealistic.  Like 99% of my readers, I have home, family, and job commitments that my wife and I either cannot or will not voluntarily abandon.  In my case I love my teaching post and the security it affords.  My children enjoy their classes, friends, and after-school activities, and our relatives live nearby, allowing us to participate in family life-cycle events.  We have a great life in Minneapolis, and we chose not to give up these bird-in-the-hand pleasures for the two-in-the-bush possibilities of a new life in Australia.

No matter how much you may love your job after a few years everyone begins to get feelings of “being in a rut.”  It is a natural human response to doing the same thing day after day.  These feelings are what fuel the dreams of wanderers like Peter Mayle and motivate them to leave everything behind.  But if most of us cannot, or will not, plunge into the ex-pat pool, what are we to do?  How do we dig out from a trench of monotony and boredom?  How do we scratch our “wanderers itch?”

The answers to these questions are the raison d’être for this blog.  For some people a week at a ski lodge or beach resort is sufficient to refresh the soul and rekindle the fires in the belly.  For the rest of us, though, it takes more– something along the lines of the temporary two- to four-month working vacations that my wife and I have done on 15 occasions–from Australia to Zimbabwe, Mauritius to Mongolia, Turkey to Tibet.  Best of all, when we are finished with a posting, we return refreshed and reinvigorated to our home, friends, family, job and regular paycheck.  No bridge burning required.

So, if you have a yearning for something a little bit different, please don’t think the only cure is to chuck it all and sail around the world, live in an Indonesian rainforest, or buy a vineyard in the south of France.  You don’t need years to renew the soul; a few months living and working overseas–i.e., a working vacation–is every bit as good a medicine for what ails you.  And if you read any of the other 128 posts on this blog you can learn exactly how to do it!

(Read more about our working vacation adventures in my book On The Other Guy’s Dime, and learn how to do it for yourself and your family.)

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More Than Just Big Game

Mention Kenya to just about anyone and one word comes to mind–safari.  Most packaged tours of this East African nation consist of an endless series of visits to big game parks, with perhaps a day or two in Nairobi for souvenir shopping and nightlife. Sadly, these types of tours overlook a superb opportunity available to the African traveler–learning first-hand about the evolution of Homo erectus, the ancestor of modern man.

Anthropologists generally agree that humans first appeared on Earth in the Great Rift Valley, a scar on the landscape running more than 1,500 miles from the Middle East to southern Africa.  Most important hominid remains were unearthed in the East African section, which bisects Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania. Numerous archeological sites are located in this region, and they are often staffed by professionals eager to explain to the visitor how finds from this site contributed to our knowledge of human evolution. Given that my wife and I were in Kenya on a working vacation and would be there for well over three months, we were not about to make this mistake. We talked to my faculty colleagues at the University of Nairobi who suggested a few important  historical sites that would be both fun and informative.

So, with our trusty road map and spare auto parts in hand, Ruth and I piled into our 10-year old rented Nissan, hoping that the engine was in better shape than the bald tires and rusted body.  We headed out from Nairobi deep into the Rift Valley to visit Olorgesailie Prehistoric Site, a 52-acre national park built around an archeological dig first excavated by Drs. Louis and Mary Leakey in the 1940s.  Only 60 miles from Nairobi, it has been lovingly preserved as a field museum, complete with early hominid tools and fossils of extinct animals displayed in situ–exactly as they appeared when first uncovered.  A wooden catwalk encircles a prehistoric living area that includes a fire pit and the fossil remains of a 1.2 million year old hominid dinner. Paleontology students from the University of Nairobi conduct tours of the site explaining the significance of the artifacts and fossils on display.  Since so few tourists make it this way (Ruth and I were the only visitors that entire day) the student guides will spend as much time with you as you want and will even invite you to join them for lunch–an offer we happily accepted.  Similar prehistoric sites are found throughout the region, including Kariandusi, Koobi Fora, and Olduvai, across the border in Tanzania).

All too often African guided tours are geared for what a tour agency believes visitor want to see, not what they actually might like to see if they were aware of all available options.   Many places believe that if  you photograph the big five (lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant, rhino) your African trip has been a complete success, regardless of what other possibilities were overlooked.  One of the great thing about a working vacation is that your itinerary is not predetermined; instead, you have time to meet and talk with locals, learn about the country and what it has to offer, and discover some interesting, but perhaps lesser known, tourism gems.   That is exactly what happened to us as we enjoyed some of the amazing archeological venues of East Africa.  Combining these visits with our tours of Kenya’s superb game parks (yes, we did see the big five and much more) added greatly to the joys of our 3+ month Kenyan working vacation.

(Read more about our adventures living and working in Kenya in On The Other Guy’s Dime: A Professional’s Guide To Traveling Without Paying.)