Monthly Archives: October 2012

Having Your Own Travel Epiphany

In May, 1980 I took my first working vacation to London, England–an experience described in London Epiphany and Living and Learning in Chiswick. At the time I was an inexperienced traveler who had barely laid eyes on other regions of the U.S., let alone the world.  However, in spite of all my doubts and fears, the posting ended up being a professional, financial, and personal success.  In those three-plus months I started the transformation from someone far too insular, closed-minded, and comfortable with his surroundings into, if not yet an experienced world traveler, at least someone open to new experiences and no longer afraid to venture beyond self-imposed boundaries.

I realized this was not a once-in-a-lifetime adventure that came about because of miraculous good fortune, and it did not happen because I am a world-class scholar with one-of-a-kind skills.  It occurred simply because I was willing to take a risk and experience something new and different in my life.  I came to understand that, even though I was an unheralded and little known academic from a small Midwestern liberal-arts college, my skills could be of use to not only Imperial College (where I worked) but other schools around the world.  This realization was a travel epiphany that changed my life forever.   With a little bit of planning and effort I was able to locate other opportunities to combine work and travel, mix professional, personal, and cultural growth, and contribute to and learn from others, all at no cost to me or my family.  What is so stunningly obvious today—that I possess skills of sufficient interest to overseas institutions that they would pay me to temporarily live and work in their country—struck like a thunderbolt thirty years ago.

My Wife Teaching Young Buddhist Monks During Our Working Vacation At Thimphu College in Thimphu, Bhutan

Since that initial posting my wife and I have lived overseas fifteen separate times, for periods ranging from one to eight months, never quitting our day jobs and never once reaching too deeply into our wallets.  We have gazed at Everest, traveled the Gobi by camel, lived among indigenous tribes of Borneo, viewed the wildlife of Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and Kenya, frolicked on the beaches of Mauritius, and shared the hospitality of Buddhist monks in Bhutan, with all expenses happily and willingly paid for by others.

On Our Drive From Kathmandu, Nepal to Lhasa, Tibet During My Working Vacation At The University of Kathmandu.

My goal in this blog is for you to have that same epiphany–to realize that living and working overseas is a doable, affordable, and intellectually exhilarating experience whether for a month or a year; whether teaching, engaging in research, or consulting; whether in Asia, Africa, Europe, or the Americas; with or without family. You don’t need to be a superstar, and you don’t have to be in one specific area. Institutions around the world are eager to host professionals for short-term stays in fields such as business, IT, infrastructure development, education, economics, women’s rights, law, family medicine, urban planning, community theater, and conflict resolution, to name but a few.

You need to discard the incorrect belief that the only way to work overseas is to quit your job, kiss friends good-bye, and head out for an extended, multi-year stay.  You need to discard the mistaken belief that you have neither the résumé nor the reputation to apply for and secure a short-term international position.    What is important is not your wealth, pedigree, or specialization but a sense of adventure and a willingness to open your mind to the possibility of a temporary sojourn in a new and exotic locale.

(Read about our fifteen working adventures and learn how to do the same for yourself and family in my travel “how-to” book: On The Other Guy’s Dime:  A Professional’s Guide To Traveling Without Paying.)

A Driver’s License Economy

Last year my wife and I had the good fortune to visit the Cook Islands, a South Pacific paradise untouched by the ravages of large-scale Western tourism.  It is a tiny nation (population < 20,000) with no five-star hotels, championship golf courses, casinos, or expensive restaurants.  Instead, it is a laid back place where visitors stay in beach bungalows, eat at locally owned mom-and-pop restaurants, enjoy the white sand and turquoise waters, and retire not long after the sun sets. Its residents lead a traditional Polynesian lifestyle where women dress in flowered sarong, men still fish by hand in the lagoons, and people prefer their local language, Cook Island Maori, to English.  I imagine this is what Hawaii was like in the 1920s and 30s,  before the appearance of Sheraton, Hilton, and Hyatt.

When we arrived (on a once-a-week flight from Los Angeles) we decided to rent a car rather than rely on the lone bus that circles the main island.  However, when I went to the rental office and showed them my Minnesota license the clerk smiled and said “Sorry, we don’t accept this.”  I was ready, though, and pulled out the International License I had purchased before departure.  He again smiled and repeated “Sorry, we don’t accept this.”  Now out of licenses, I could only stare blankly and ask “what am I supposed to do?” at which point he told me I had to apply for a Cook Island permit at the police post down the street.  I drove there (they let me take the rental car even though I was technically  “illegal”) and took a road test–my first in over fifty years.  I nervously drove the officer up and down the highway going ever so slowly, carefully signaling turns, and staying well clear of all other traffic.  When we returned and he told me I had passed I could not have been any happier than when I got my first license at age 16.  I was photographed and documented, paid the $25 fee (in U.S. dollars), and was handed an official license from my new Pacific home.

My Official Cook Island Driver’s License

A week later, as Ruth and I waited for our flight to Sydney, Australia, I was chatting with one of the clerks about how this small island nation, with so little in the way of natural resources and population, could generate enough income to support itself.  He replied that they export mangos, coconuts, and fish and generate a small amount of foreign income from tourism.  But then he smiled and told me that, surprisingly, one of their most reliable sources of hard currency came from the sale of Cook Island driver’s licenses! The reason for my road test a week earlier had suddenly become much clearer.

Oh, well, that little piece of plastic has become one of my favorite travel souvenirs, and if I get stopped by a local cop (at least before 2013) I plan to hand him my perfectly valid Cook Island license just to see the look on his face.

(Read more vignettes about our life overseas in my book On The Other Guy’s Dime: A Professional’s Guide To Traveling Without Paying.)