Category Archives: Motivation

The Why and the Wherefore

I have argued, rather vociferously, for skilled professionals to take working vacations–short-term, overseas postings which pay enough to cover most or all your expenses and do not require you to quit your day job.  Well, a reader wrote me asking a rather simple question:  “Why the heck should I close my house, pack up the kids, and schlep halfway around the world just to work for a couple of months? I am quite comfortable where I am!”

Fair question.  In fact its a question that gets to the heart of this blog and its 112 posts!  It isn’t trivial to plan and pull off a working vacation–it takes time to apply for a sabbatical or leave of absence; it takes time to rent a home; it takes time to find housing and transportation in the host country; it takes time to plan activities and schooling for young children.  It is far easier to simply open a cold beer and enjoy a Twins game.   Therefore, to answer this straightforward question, let’s talk a bit about the whys and wherefores of working vacations.

When we were teens or twenty-somethings many of us relished the idea of living, not just traveling, abroad. We dreamed of heading off to Europe after graduation (and a good number actually did) to experience a new culture, make new friends, and mature as young adults and global citizens. We were not interested in a one week “Highlights Tour” or dashing past a few major tourist attractions. Instead, we wanted to settle down, learn the language, find employment, and become part of the local community, even if only for a few months. Why should this love of cultural adventure fade as we grow older? Why should we abandon our idealism and wanderlust because we have added a few years, a few pounds, and a few dependents? Why aren’t we still as passionate about the joy and excitement that accrues from living and working abroad?

The Beach at Flic en Flac on Mauritius Where We Lived For Six Glorious Months While on a Working Vacation

When you live in a community, rather than drop in for a few days, you have time to meet neighbors, attend social, cultural, and religious events, and participate in local activities. Everyday tasks like shopping, laundry, even getting a haircut, require you to learn about the neighborhood and the people who live and work there. A short-term working vacation affords you time to take those off-the-beaten-path excursions not possible in the jam-packed schedule of a one- or two-week family holiday. You learn about a culture not by observing it from a distance but by becoming part of it.

One’s own social and political philosophy can be profoundly changed on working vacations as you not only expand your understanding of the world but also gain insight into what is happening right here at home.   Travel to countries with deep-seated religious strife makes you acutely aware of the damage caused by our own homegrown zealots. Living in the midst of a culture struggling with racial or tribal hatreds sensitizes you to the hurt arising from intolerance, bigotry, and segregation. Working in a developing nation whose economic policies exacerbate the gap between rich and poor opens one’s eyes to the ugliness of greed and the shame of our society’s tolerance of poverty amidst widespread wealth. As Mark Twain once said, “Travel is fatal to bigotry, prejudice, and narrow-mindedness … .”

And, best of all, short-term overseas work is a wonderful way to invigorate one’s  own life which can, no matter how much you love what you do, slip into a pattern of repetition and boredom–go to work, eat dinner, watch TV, fall asleep.  As the Roman philosopher Seneca said “Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.”   For many skilled professionals this type of transformative work experience is far more rewarding than a Caribbean cruise or a couple of weeks at a B&B.  A short-term working vacation is a wonderful way to combine the relaxation of a holiday with the intellectual growth and excitement of interacting with and learning from local residents and professionals.  And all this on the other guy’s dime!

(Read about our adventures living and working in Mauritius in my book, On The Other Guy’s Dime.)


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Thaipusam–The Ultimate Sensory Experience

Imagine trying to describe the smell of a fresh-cut rose or the taste of a superb French meal–words alone cannot do it justice. This is the problem writing about Thaipusam, a Hindu festival celebrating the birth of Lord Subramaniam.  The holiday is observed throughout the Hindu world but nowhere with more exuberance than Kuala Lumpur.  About 1.5 million people attend the day-long festivities, which occur in late January or early February.  Everyone is welcome to join in although, because of the huge throngs, you may wish to reconsider if you have enochlophobia–fear of crowds.

The celebration lasts 24 hours but due to the heat and humidity most tourists attend at night when the weather is less oppressive. My wife and I boarded a bus at 11:30 PM for our trip to the Batu Caves, the site of the festival, about 8 miles from the city center.  Because of the crowds the trip takes over an hour,  and we must walk the last half-mile as the vehicle can’t navigate the throngs of revelers, penitents, and sightseers. As we step off the bus everyone’s reaction is identical:  “What in God’s name did I get myself into!”  There are people everywhere, deafening music, strange smells, loud chanting, lights, noise, fireworks–a combination state fair, tent revival meeting, and hard rock mosh pit.   One man likens it to Dante’s seventh ring of Hell. The driver wishes us good luck and reminds us the bus returns at 5:00 AM sharp so leave enough time for the Herculean effort that will be required to get back to the parking lot.

Thaipusam is a time for the devout to cleanse themselves of sin. Pilgrims wash themselves in the nearby river and cut off their hair at one of the dozens of “barber shops” lining the walkway to the festival. The newly shaven head is then smeared with sandalwood, a pale yellow powder holy to Hindus.

A Penitent Carrying His Ceremonial Kavadi

After the ritual bath and haircut the penitents put themselves into a trance-like state.  Through prayer, as well as rhythmic music, drumming, and chanting, they become hypnotic, almost catatonic, and unconsciously bump into people around them.  Once entranced they are pierced with skewers, knives, and other sharp objects–mostly through their cheeks and lips.  More intense participants put hooks through the skin on their stomach, tie them to ropes, and drag a ceremonial chariot, called a kavadi, using only their flesh.  The kavadi is a wooden frame carrying incense, fruit, feathers, milk, honey, and other gifts for Lord Subramaniam.  The penitent drags this chariot through the madding crowd screaming and chanting prayers, all the while helped along by friends should he fall down or faint from exhaustion, ecstasy, or pain.  Within the site are tens of thousands of worshippers, hundreds of thousands of helpers/musicians/dancers, and countless sightseers, touts, vendors, and assorted hangers-on taking in the multitudinous sounds, sights, and smells. There is also a carnival area where thousands of vendors set up stalls selling food and Hindu “tchotkes,” such as sandalwood and incense, while fortune tellers are offering to predict your future.

Throng of Penitents Climbing The Steps to Cathedral Cave Temple

The place where pilgrims bring their gifts, Cathedral Cave Temple, is at the top of a steep hill. An enormous gilded staircase (40 feet wide, 272 steps) snakes up the mountain to reach the temple and its gilded statue of Lord Subramanian. Tens of thousands of people, carrying torches to light the way, drag their chariots up the many steps. Tourists can join the procession, but we decline as we can’t face yet another teeming throng. Instead, we opt to watch the torchlight parade of pilgrims and marvel at this awe-inspiring demonstration of religious fervor.  I also began plotting our strategy for returning to the bus–a non-trivial operation since pilgrims and visitors are still streaming in.  We return to our apartment at 6:30 AM, so wound up in the evening’s experiences that sleep is impossible.  I also smell (reek is a better word) of incense, sandalwood, curry, sweat, and mud, and stand under a hot shower for a very long time.

I am not sure if it is proper to say one has “enjoyed” such an experience, what with the pushing, screaming, heat, and crowds. I can say,however, that I was totally mesmerized, thoroughly awed, and utterly fascinated–an evening unlike anything I have done before or since.

(Read more about our adventures living and working in Malaysia, all at no cost, in my travel book On The Other Guy’s Dime.)

Poverty Tourism

(This article first appeared on June 30, 2010. I thought it was interesting enough to warrant a “rerun” and hope you will agree.)

A friend from Minneapolis gave us the name of a former parish priest, Father George, who left his pulpit in Minnesota to work with the Missionaries of Charity in Nairobi, a worldwide organization established by the Nobel Peace Prize winner Mother Teresa.  Its volunteers, both lay and clergy, are committed to helping the neediest members of society—lepers, AIDS sufferers, street children, the homeless. Soon after our arrival in Kenya for a three-month working vacation, we contacted Father George who invited us to join him as he made the rounds of Kibera, a place utterly unimaginable to anyone who has not traveled outside the first world.

Kibera is the largest slum in Nairobi and the second largest in Africa. It covers only one square mile but is home to one million people, a population density greater than that of Mumbai, the most densely populated city in the world. Dilapidated dwellings sit cheek-to-jowl and rise atop mounds of rotting garbage and human waste. Due to the absence of sewers and drains these residences flood during the rainy season and must be completely rebuilt every year. Although Kibera is geographically within the city of Nairobi, it is not really part of it as the police refuse to enter, and it has no access to basic city services such as water, sanitation, and electricity.

We spent the day in Kibera with Father George, distributing food and medical supplies, participating in last rites for the dying, drinking tea, and talking with residents. It was a disturbing but highly enlightening experience. The dominant emotions in Kibera are not anger and despair but determination and persistence. Residents go to Herculean efforts—for example, walking two hours each way to low paying jobs in the central city—to improve their lot and provide for their children. Hearing these stories made me embarrassed by my emotional reaction to our simple apartment with its lumpy mattresses and bare light bulbs. It also made my wife and me mindful of why these working vacations were becoming such an important part of our lives–when you work in a country you not only have a wonderful time but also a culturally and personally enriching experience.

View of the Slums of Kibera

One word of caution, though. Our visit was by invitation of someone living and working in Kibera. He wanted us to experience conditions in the slums, bring that knowledge back to the United States, and share it with students and faculty at my school, which I did.   At the time of our visit my wife and I were among a tiny handful of Western visitors to spend time in those squalid streets. The situation today is completely different because of a new form of niche travel called poverty tourism available from agencies, large and small, around the world.  These companies provide comfortable, safe, and fully narrated bus tours of not only Kibera but the slums of Calcutta, townships of South Africa, shantytowns of Mexico City, and the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. In the last few years slum visits have become a popular form of day tripping as travelers grow bored of a standard tourist menu heavy on museums, beaches, galleries, and boutiques.

Proponents of these tours cite the educational experience of learning about conditions in the slums. They claim they are providing desperately needed jobs for bus drivers and tour guides as well as creating opportunities for residents to sell locally made handicrafts. They also believe the embarrassment of tourists witnessing horrific living conditions just a few miles from their own luxury accommodations will pressure local politicians into cleaning up these horrific neighborhoods.  However, opponents argue it is simply a way for unscrupulous travel agents to make money off the humiliation and desperation of others, and there is precious little education to be gained snapping photos of shantytowns from a bus window.  An editorial in the Daily Nation, Kenya’s largest newspaper, castigated movie stars, well-heeled businessmen, and other dignitaries for their fascination with slums like Kibera, perhaps fueled by the popularity of the movie The Constant Gardener in which the neighborhood played a starring role.

It is quite possible that a future working vacation will take you and your family to impoverished  or developing nations, much like this trip to Kenya as well as our later stays in Nepal, Borneo,  and Mongolia. Poverty tourism is a moral issue you need to think about and resolve in your mind as you mull over proffered visits to urban slums, charity hospitals, leper colonies, and other places of poverty, pain, and despair. Of course there is no universal answer to this dilemma, and you will need to decide each case individually based on the goals of the visit, the benefits it brings to residents, and whether you and your family will learn and grow from this intensely emotional experience.

Happy Holiday!

Thanksgiving is the most American of holidays; a window into our country and its people.  Whenever we host international visitors at Thanksgiving time we enjoy watching them soak in what it means to be American–from football and family to turkey and pumpkin pie.  Well, the same cultural excitement is available to Americans working overseas.  When you take a one- or two-week family vacation, staying at a hotel or resort, you relax and have fun but are rarely involved with (or even aware of) national holidays.  However, when you are in country for an extended stay, like a working vacation, you have time to make friends and meet locals, and that usually means joining them in life-cycle events and holiday celebrations–a superb way to become part of a community and learn about its culture.

For example, while living in Mauritius, my wife and I participated in the festive holiday of Diwali, the Festival of Lights.  We joined a local family to light the clay lamps lining their sidewalk and bake the sweets traditionally given to friends and family–all the while learning about Hindu traditions and practices on this small Indian Ocean island.

Eating the Ceremonial Meal At A Mauritian Haldi

We were invited to participate in a Haldi, a Hindu ceremony held for a bride and groom on the night before their wedding.  The couple is entertained with good-natured jokes and smeared (literally) with a paste made from cooking oil, sandalwood, and turmeric–a mixture thought to bring good luck and fertility.  It is a raucous and playful time, a bit like a bachelor or bachelorette party in the U.S.  After the ceremony, a festive meal is served on banana leaves and eaten with fingers.

A Thaipusam Celebrant Piercing His Flesh With Hooks To Pull A Kavadi

While living in Kuala Lumpur we participated in what surely must be the most unusual religious celebration anywhere in the world–Thaipusam, a Hindu ceremony celebrated by Tamils in India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Singapore.  It is a time for repentance and gift giving for the purpose of avoiding future calamity and grief.  The penitents, upwards of one million strong, wash themselves in a river, shave off their hair, and don a ceremonial yellow robe.  Then, piercing their flesh with large hooks connected to ropes, they pull a chariot, called a kavadi, loaded with gifts of milk, fruit, and rice, up a steep hillside.  This mortification of human flesh is hard for a non-Hindu to watch but is a fascinating glimpse into a very different culture.

Ruth and I have celebrated many other holidays and life cycle events–with Buddhists in Mongolia, Janes in India, Muslims in Turkey, and Kikuyu tribesmen in Kenya.  We also attended Jewish services that were quite different from what we are used to–for example, a Passover Seder prepared by Islamic women wearing the hijab and attended by Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists.  During these events we learned a great deal about the country, its culture, and its people–far more than we ever would as short-term tourists.

So, as you enjoy the turkey and stuffing this holiday season, think about the many holidays and life cycle events that would be fun to learn about, observe, and participate in, just as my international visitors have enjoyed being part of Thanksgiving.  Then do just that by applying for and taking a working vacation as described in my book.  I promise you won’t regret it.

How NOT To See The World

A big thank you to Adele for sending the following quote from the book Dream, Save, Do by Betsy and Warren Talbot:  “The longer you invest in your current reality–with your time, attention, money, and habits–the harder it will be to pull up stakes and make the changes necessary to live your dream. Don’t kid yourself that you’ll do it later. A dream deferred is a dream denied, and a smarter person than me coined that phrase.”  (It was Langston Hughes.)

This is a wonderful quote, and I just had to go to their Web site, Married With Luggage, to read about their experiences.  However, what I found was your typical “wandering nomad” travel blog describing a lifestyle that few, if any, of my readers would care to emulate.  They describe a lifestyle unrelated to the goals of  those who don’t want to throw everything away and start anew but simply want to add a dash of curry to a not-very-spicy lifestyle.

Betsy and Warren Talbot are two 30-somethings who got tired of chasing the big paycheck, quit their jobs, and sold all their worldly possessions.  They put a pack on their back and left home to see the world and have been doing just that for more than a year.  They are not sure when (or if) they will return, and their answer to the question “What will you do for work when you get back?” is a not too comforting “We really don’t know.”

This may sound exhilarating, but the reality is that many professionals, myself included, like our jobs and our life.  We might want to make some short-term changes, and we are not averse to adding a bit of adventure to a daily routine that is getting too predictable, but we are not ready to pull up stakes and leave everything behind.  When the excitement and hoopla of an overseas posting is done, we want to return to our home, friends, family, job, and paycheck.  For most of us, the response “we don’t know what we’ll do when we get back” is totally unacceptable.

This is the reason for creating this blog and my book.  Although my wife and I have lived and worked in dozens of countries we are most definitely NOT wandering nomads roaming the world aimlessly without a financial safety net.  Instead, my writings describe how to take working vacations–overseas postings for those who want to work and play in an exotic locale but have neither the ability nor the desire to leave everything behind.  I blog for people who would love to take a short-term sabbatical but do not want to quit their current position. I write for professionals who want travel options that do not require permanently kissing family and friends good-bye.

My wife and I have seen and done as much, if not more, than the Talbot’s–we have lived and worked from Bhutan to Borneo, Mongolia to Mauritius, Turkey to Tibet.  The difference is that I accomplished this without having to sell my home or quit my job, a job that I love and cherish.  I think that it is I, not the Talbot’s, who drew the long end of the travel straw.

David Brooks, Redux

About two months ago I wrote a post entitled The Haimish Line based on a New York Times op-ed article by David Brooks.  His essay touched me so deeply that I wrote a blog entry to express my enthusiasm and support.

Well, he’s done it again.  On October 28th Brooks authored an op-ed piece entitled The Life Report that hit so close to home it felt like it was written just for me.  His ruminations on why people choose to follow, or not to follow, their dreams addresses the central theme of this blog and could not be a more apt topic for discussion.  So, for a second time, I offer a post based on his writings; let’s call it “David Brooks, Redux!”

Brooks describes a collection of reminiscences written for the 50th reunion of the Yale class of 1942. While a few stories were inspiring and spoke of years enjoyed to the fullest, the majority lamented a rather mundane and pedestrian life that was endured not enjoyed; a passive existence in which events happened to them rather than a life aggressively forged to match their hopes and dreams. For example, Brooks tells how one man looked back on an uneventful career at an insurance company and concluded “Wish my self-profile was more exciting, but its a little late now.”  He relates the bittersweet memories of those who lament the path not taken.  “I deeply regret not moving to Australia when I was married there 25 years ago.”

Those who did have a fulfilling and satisfying fifty years describe the role that chance played in enriching their lives–”a pivotal and thoroughly unexpected moment that changed everything and took their life in a new direction mid-course.”  As I look back on my own “Life Report” I see exactly that pattern–a pivotal moment that changed my life forever.  In this case it was an offer to live and work abroad, an opportunity described in My London Epiphany. Until then I was a conventional, 35-year-old college professor with a good job, great wife, two kids, and house with a picket fence. (Sorry, no dog.)  By any measure life was good, but I was in a rut; life was simply happening, not being molded or directed.  Without a mid-course correction there is no doubt I would now be writing about my gold watch, grandchildren, and golf game rather than hiking the Himalayas, taking a camel safari in the Gobi, and living on a tropical island paradise.

After receiving that offer I closed my office, rented the house, and moved the family to England for three and a half months. Thank God I was willing to take that initial risk because this working vacation opened my eyes to other opportunities to live in exotic locales, experience new cultures, and have adventures usually seen only in National Geographic.  That initial posting was followed by 30 wonderful years of travel and work in such faraway places as Zimbabwe, Kenya, Turkey, Mauritius, Australia, Malaysia, Borneo, Israel, Nepal, Mongolia, and Bhutan–experiences described in my memoir On The Other Guy’s Dime: A Professional’s Guide To Traveling Without Paying.

People tell me that I am lucky to have traveled the world and had so many amazing adventures. I am lucky only in the sense of being given the opportunity to change the direction of my life.  However, those opportunities are not unique to me;  in fact, you had one yourself when you began reading this blog, which explains how you and your family can have exactly the same type of experiences.

So, it is not a question of having the chance to set sail in a new direction; that chance is out there waiting for you.  Instead, it’s a question of what you do with that chance–whether or not you have the gumption and the spirit to take a risk and try something completely new.  That risk may pay off; it may not–life does not come with guarantees.  However,  Brooks ends his essay by saying that in all the reports he read from the class of 1942 “nobody regretted the risks they took and the life changes they made, even when they failed.”

What is Travel? What is Work?

One of the most oft-repeated arguments I get for not taking working vacations was voiced by a young woman named Sabrina in a letter on Travel For Free, a blog mentioned in my previous post.  In her commentary, she states, with apologies for the language and grammar:

“When I travel, I don’t want to work. Many people work while they travel, they get none or a shitty salary but they offer free rooms and sometimes free (crappy) food. And in the end these people didn’t really travel, they just worked around the world for free and didn’t see much. Traveling is traveling, its vacation time.”

In spite of the poorly worded sentences her argument is clear:  She does not  want to cover the cost of travel through paid work.  I hear this a lot from people who imagine an overseas experiences saddled with back-breaking physical labor, like harvesting crops, or with mind-numbing tasks such as chasing after rambunctious children 24/7.  Well, let me quickly put your concerns (and Sabrina’s) to rest about the pleasures of a working vacation.

My posts are not written for the 18-25 year old crowd heading off to Europe or Asia before starting college, graduate school, or their first job.  For these young travelers, low paid positions such as clearing tables or being a nanny may be all that is available, and these jobs do indeed pay a shitty salary.  Instead, my book and blog are for individuals with one (or more) college degrees, work experience, and, most importantly, professional skills of interest to overseas institutions.  For such people (e.g., doctors, teachers, nurses, business people, engineers, social workers, clergy, artists) there are many short-term postings that, unlike what Sabrina suggests, pay a reasonable salary–certainly enough to live on–and provide both comfortable housing and sufficient free time to enjoy the pleasures and promises of the host country.

However, the most misleading part of Sabrina’s letter is her assertion that  ” … in the end these people didn’t really travel, they just worked around the world for free and didn’t see much… ”   In fact, I would argue that professionals on a short-term working vacation do more and see more than those whose idea of travel is a week or two at the beach, on a cruise ship, or ensconced in some comfy European B&B.   I don’t learn a great deal about a culture, its people, and traditions by talking with my tour guide or peering through the windows of a bus.  Instead,  I settle into an interesting locale, make friends with neighbors and colleagues, shop at the local merchants, and participate in social, cultural, and religious events.  I learn about a culture not by observing it by become a part of it. To me that is the very definition of exciting and rewarding travel.

So, Sabrina, I am sorry to say that I could not disagree more with your argument that those who worked while they traveled “… didn’t see much.”   If by “seeing” you mean ticking off the biggies of the local tourist scene (art museums, temples, waterfalls, big game animals) then maybe you are right. But if you define “seeing” as learning, interacting, and growing intellectually and culturally, then I think that a working vacation has it all over more traditional travel.  In the words of the author Miriam Beard “Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is the change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.”  Couldn’t have said it better myself!