Category Archives: Overseas Visitors

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.

Official Confirmation

While working in Turkey I received e-mail from a colleague, a Classics professor who travels annually to Greece for his research. This year he wanted to add a stopover in Turkey to view its many historic landmarks—Ephesus, Troy, the Temple of Aphrodite—but he and his wife were somewhat hesitant, scared off by the misguided perception of Turkey as unclean, dangerous, even somewhat sinister–perhaps they had seen the movie Midnight Express. When they learned that Ruth and I were living in Istanbul they wrote to ask if we might consider being their guides to the city, helping them avoid the problems experienced by naive travelers visiting a strange, new place. We were more than happy to accommodate, and I made arrangements for someone to pick them up at the airport and take them to a nice downtown hotel.

A Typical Street Front Cafe in Istanbul.

For three busy days the four of us walked the old city, saw the sights, sipped strong coffee at outdoor cafes, ate at local restaurants without getting sick—one of their nagging worries—and went to my favorite clubs to listen to superb Middle Eastern music. Their fears soon dissipated, and my colleague realized how silly he had been to wait so long before visiting this magical, not sinister, city. (He has returned many times since.) Before departing he thanked us profusely for being such excellent hosts and making him feel safe and relaxed in an unfamiliar place.

For us this was “official confirmation” that Ruth and I had completed the transformation from working-vacation newcomers to experienced, knowledgeable travelers. Here was a Classics professor, whose area of study is the Eastern Mediterranean, including Turkey, asking a computer scientist (of all people) for help in seeing the country and navigating its social and cultural maze. From the “Nervous Nellie” in My London Epiphany frightened by the mere idea of moving to England, by the completion of this sixth working vacation (England, Israel, Australia, Kenya, Japan, and Turkey) I had gained the confidence needed not only to live and work overseas but to guide others through the orientation process needed to feel comfortable in a strange, new culture.  Creating that same sense of self-confidence in my readers is exactly what I want to accomplish in this blog and with the upcoming publication of my travel memoir and how-to book “On The Other Guy’s Dime.”

The Ubiquitous Simit Salesman, Found on Virtually Every Street at Every Hour of the Day

As September 1, our departure date, approached Ruth and I reflected on how much Istanbul reminded us of New York City, not in terms of history, ethnicity, or architecture, but in terms of scale, vibrancy, and its citizens unbridled enjoyment of life. It is a city that never sleeps. Two in the morning is prime time for the thousands of people enjoying the Taksim music scene; the cars, taxis, and buses clogging city streets; street vendors hawking simit, Turkish bagels, and döner kebabs. It is a city where you can spend countless hours shopping, eating, and drinking apple tea while strolling the hundreds of neighborhoods that sprawl over this massive urban area. During our three-month stay we explored perhaps one-tenth of this fascinating city. I can’t imagine how little you would drink in given only one or two weeks.

Cities like Istanbul demand time, lots and lots of time, to understand and appreciate their many religious, historical, and cultural riches. A working vacation is the perfect way to get that time without having to burn your housing, employment, and family bridges behind you.

The (Almost) Kenyan Branch of My Family

It is not only President Barack Obama who has Kenyan relatives perched in his family tree;  I almost had some as well.

About a month before our departure from Africa we had our first and only overseas visitor, my sister Karen who came for a two-week stay. Ruth and I drove to the airport to meet her, accompanied by the Computer Science department chair, Dr. Tony Rogrigues, who insisted on joining us to ensure we got there safely. I tried to convince him that if I could navigate forty miles over the Ngong Hills to a remote archeological dig (see It Ain’t Just The Animals, People), and if I could drive  one hundred and twenty miles down to the Tanzanian border (see The Most Beautiful Place on Earth), I could certainly handle the short thirteen mile trip to the airport.  However, Tony remained unconvinced and plopped down in the back seat, not to be moved.

Zanzibar Island Resort Where Tony and My Sister Karen (But Not Us!) Spent Ten Lovely Days

The flight arrived on schedule, customs delays were minimal, and Karen exited the front door of the international arrivals terminal right on time.  On the drive back to our apartment my wife and I could already sense the “sparks” flying between them, both single and about the same age.   Tony joined us for some shopping and sightseeing on Karen’s first full day in town, and their growing closeness became even more noticeable–Ruth and I were already starting to feel like unwelcome third wheels.  Two days later Tony informed us that he and my sister would be flying to the Indian Ocean island of Zanzibar for a beach holiday and would return ten days later, only one day before her scheduled return to the United States. So much for the family visit. We never even got a postcard.

Karen returned to Africa the following summer and spent a month in Nairobi, where Tony proposed marriage. However, he was quite adamant that he would not leave his home and teaching job at the university, so if she accepted the offer she would need to sell her condominium in the oceanfront community of Del Mar, California and move to Nairobi—a relocation of staggering proportions.  After agonizing deliberations, including many long and expensive phone calls to us, she decided she could not bring herself to leave her lovely home in California and relocate to Kenya.  At the end of the month she declined his proposal of marriage and returned to the U.S. Too bad; I was looking forward to some rather unique family get-togethers on the plains of the Serengeti.

In the forty or so posts on this blog I have repeatedly asserted that a short-term working vacation can be a life-changing experience for you, your spouse, and children.  In this case, though,  it was almost (but, sadly, not quite) a life-changing experience for my sibling.  I guess that, in the end, you never really know who will benefit from this type of transformative travel experience!