Category Archives: Taking Side Trips

Monkey Business (Quite Literally)

(Note:  This is a reprint of one of my most popular posts which first appeared on November 21, 2010.  A number of readers asked me to reprise it so, as a favor to them, here it is.  Enjoy.)

One of the pleasures of extended travel is the chance to get off the beaten path; to see unusual and wacky sights not included in Fodor’s or Frommer’s but which remain in your mind long after the “biggies” of the local travel scene have faded into oblivion.  That is exactly what happened to Ruthie and me on our visit to the Kayabukiya Tavern in Utsunomiya, Japan, 50 miles north of Tokyo.

Fuku-chan Serving My Wife Sake

We were told about this unusual tavern by our son, Ben, who saw it on the ABC-TV series, I Survived A Japanese Game Show.  It is a sake house where the waiters are, honestly, macaque monkeys.  The animals bring hot towels to your table, as is traditional in Japan, serve beer, sake, and hot tea, collect the bill, and bring change.  They also accept tips, but not cash–only edamame (soy beans).   The monkeys are actual employees whose hours and working conditions have been vetted and approved by both local authorities and Japanese animal rights organizations.  When we saw these furry waiters on a You Tube video we knew this was something we had to experience for ourselves.

Fuku-chan Joining Us at the Dinner Table

We stopped at the restaurant on our return from Nikko, a major tourist center near Utsunomiya and had the privilege of enjoying drinks and dinner served by Fuku-chan (F) and Yat-chan (M) as well as meeting their two young off-spring being groomed as the next generation of waiters–when it comes to monkeys, it appears it is easier to breed new employees rather than hire them.

Yat-chan Serving Customers Wearing a Fright Mask

In addition to bringing drinks and collecting the tab, these hairy denizens also entertain guests in typical monkey style–doing back flips and balancing on balls.  However, the most unusual (and weird) part of the evening is when they don their “fright masks.”  It is strange enough to be waited on by a monkey; now imagine being served by a monkey dressed as a two-foot tall replica of Jason from the horror movie “Halloween.”  Trust me when I say this was a unique experience, and one of the reasons Ruthie and I so enjoy living and working abroad.  The Kayabukiya Tavern would certainly not be part of your standard two-week “Highlights of Japan” tour.  However, when you are overseas for two or three months, rather than two or three weeks,  you have time to discover these little known tourism gems.  Yet another reason for taking a working vacation.

If you will be going to Japan in the near future, please stop by Utsunomiya and give our regards to Fuku-chan and Yat-chan.  And don’t forget the edemame.

(Read about our life and times in Japan and more than a dozen other exotic working vacation destinations in On The Other Guy’s Dime.) 

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Why oh Why?

In my last post, Don’t Fear It; Don’t Fight It,  I described the excitement that comes from taking short-term working vacations.  My wife and I have been on 15 of these adventures in the past 30 years, loving (and benefiting from) every one.  However, not all readers were convinced, and some expressed rather negative opinions about this type of life-style travel.  In this post let me address a simple question before moving on, and that simple question is “Why?”

My Wife And Students In Her Third-Grade Classroom In Thimphu, Bhutan

One reader states he does not consider any trip that includes work to be a vacation.  You can purchase a nice 10-day excursion to London, so why complicate things with a job?  Another writes he has a comfortable home with many friends and family nearby, so why jettison all this to live overseas?  Another states he already travels quite a bit, enjoying beach holidays in Jamaica and B & Bs in the south of France.  What does a working vacation offer that these trips do not?  All reasonable questions, so let me try to offer some reasonable answers.

1) Making friends.  On a working vacation you make new international friendships that can last a lifetime. My wife and I are regularly in contact with a young woman we first met in Mauritius. Recently, we had friends from Australia, a couple I worked with 20 years ago, visit us in New York. These relationships have become an important part of our lives.

2) Living in a different culture. On a typical 1- or 2-week family holiday you go on tours, visit historical and cultural sites, eat well, and relax. Fun, yes, but you rarely have an opportunity to spend time with locals, participate in their cultural and religious activities, or get involved with community organizations. The country is defined by the airport, hotel, and views from a bus window.  The locals you meet are often limited to those serving you meals or cleaning your room.

3)  Children.  The personal growth and maturity from living overseas can be even more pronounced in young children. Just as we know that youngsters are more adept at learning a foreign language or mastering a musical instrument, they are like living sponges soaking up the lessons of overseas life. Being part of another culture, even for a few months, is not only an exhilarating experience for parents, it is a transformative experience for their children.

4)  Getting off the beaten path.  When you have three to six months, not just a few days or weeks, to explore a country you have time to discover hidden gems often overlooked in the hectic schedule of a one or two-week tour.  On a working vacation you can chat with colleagues and neighbors and learn about places that may not be in Frommer’s or the Lonely Planet but which give you an appreciation for a region and its culture–just as my wife and I learned in the Istanbul adventure described in Yogurt To Die For.

5)  Becoming a more informed American.  One’s own social and political orientation can be profoundly influenced by working vacations as you not only expand your understanding of the world but gain greater insight into what is happening right here in the U.S. For example, travel to countries with deep-seated religious strife makes you acutely aware of the terrible societal damage caused by our own homegrown zealots. Living in the midst of a culture struggling with racial and 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.  It’s startling to see the differences in racial, cultural, and religious tolerance between those who have lived overseas and those whose excursions are limited to a week at their cabin on the lake.

For many professionals these are compelling reasons for working vacations. As Mark Twain wrote in Innocents Abroad, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely.” A working vacation is a wonderful way to combine the relaxation and enjoyment of a holiday with the intellectual growth that comes from interacting with and learning from other cultures. And all this on the other guy’s dime!

(Discover additional reasons for working vacations and learn how to do it yourself in On The Other Guy’s Dime.)

Don’t Fear It; Don’t Fight It; Do Enjoy It!

My wife and I have been on 15 working vacations in the last 32 years–from Australia to Zimbabwe, Mauritius to Mongolia, Borneo to Bhutan–and I consider myself a “gold medalist” in the overseas work arena.  However, at the start I certainly did not have that kind of global curiosity; heck, I had never even been more than a few hundred miles from home.  I was a reluctant traveler frightened by the prospect of living in a strange new place, so when I received an invitation to spend a summer teaching at Imperial College, London I immediately came up with dozens of reasons why this cockamamie idea wouldn’t work.  Thank God my wife was far more adventurous and convinced me to give it a try, a decision I have never come to regret.

The most common problem I encounter when talking with friends and colleagues about working vacations is their fear of doing something totally different; the uncertainty that comes from pulling up roots, even for a few months, to become part of  a new and different culture.  Overcoming those initial fears is the biggest impediment to working travel because once you have done it you appreciate how rewarding, invigorating, and personally exciting it can be.  Then the only issue becomes how to do it again.  Let me illustrate.

Imperial College, London Where I Taught For 3.5 Months On My Very First Working Vacation

When we returned from that amazing 3+ month stay in England I asked myself why I had waited so long to attempt something like this. My accounting of income and expenses, completed for tax purposes the following April, showed that this English adventure had cost us a grand total of $1,500 in out-of-pocket expenses, about $3,800 in today’s dollars.  Our stay in London had been a break-even proposition, perhaps even generating a small surplus, due to my Imperial College living allowance, summer paychecks (I have a 9-month teaching job, but I spread the income over 12 checks), and rental income from our home in the US.  The extra costs came from our many family excursions throughout the region.  We could only marvel at how many things we had seen and how well we had lived at a cost that probably would not cover a two-week family stay at an upscale Caribbean resort.

Not only was the trip a financial success, it was a professional and cultural success as well.  I initiated scholarly activities that helped me achieve tenure a few years later. My wife and I had an opportunity to be part of an international culture and make new friends with whom we are still in contact.  My children had the chance to meet and play with British children raised in far different circumstances and, although they are now fully grown, they still fondly remember that first overseas adventure.  Finally, given three-plus months, rather than just a week or two, we had plenty of time to discover the hidden gems of this wonderful city and enjoy spur of the moment weekends to Devon, Cornwall, the Lakes District, Scotland, and Paris.

Looking back on my imagined doubts and problems I now realize that they were just that–totally imagined.  Not a single one of my deep-seated worries came to pass and none of my irrational arguments for foregoing this trip were valid.  I can think of nothing I would have changed except, perhaps, to host fewer house guests.  (Not only do I enjoy traveling on the other guy’s dime, so do friends, family, and neighbors!)  It was such a transformative experience that after returning home I immediately began planning our next jaunt, which came only two years later and took my wife, two children, and me to Jerusalem.  The pattern had been set.

So, please believe me when I say I understand your initial reluctance to give working vacations a try–I felt exactly the same way.  However, also believe me when I say that taking a short-term working vacation is a decision you will never regret.  It can make an enormous change in your view of the world (and your children’s) and give you a new and refreshing outlook on life.  It certainly did with me.

(Read about that summer in England and our subsequent 14 working vacations in my book, On The Other Guy’s Dime: A Professional’s Guide To Traveling Without Paying.  It also explains how you and your family can experience the same type of cost-free adventures.)

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.)

The Endless Steppes

Within the soul of every Mongolian is the desire to live a rural, nomadic lifestyle unencumbered by the noise of the city and the smothering nearness of one’s neighbors.  On most summer weekends the capital of Ulan Bator, a city of well over one million, empties out as residents head to the mountains, the Gobi, and the steppes—those never-ending oceans of grasslands that cover well over half the country. Some people enjoy outdoor sports with horseback riding, hiking, and archery among the most popular. Swimming, boating, and water sports are a little more difficult in this frigid, landlocked country where water temperatures rarely rise about 55 degrees, even in mid-summer.

My Wife, Ruthann, Sitting On The Steps of Our Yurt

However, organized activities are not the primary purpose of these weekend outings. Many just relax in their yurts—felt covered tents—and enjoy the fresh air, endless vistas, and lack of cars, noise, and crowds. They join family and friends in groups that may total a dozen or more, eating; drinking vodka, beer, and ayrag (fermented mare’s milk); sharing stories; singing traditional folk songs; and experiencing a bit of the rural lifestyle that their parents and/or grandparents led before moving to the city and leaving the nomadic life behind–not unlike the dude ranches and campfire gatherings that try to recapture the spirit of  the American West.

The “Road” To The Yurt Camp. Which Way Do We Go?

On one July weekend my wife Ruth and I were invited to join Dr. Lkhagvasuren, the president of Genghis Khan University, his wife, Chugilma, and Nomiko, a young female student and translator, for a weekend holiday at a yurt camp 150 miles away. About one hour outside the city the paved road gave way to unmarked, rutted dirt tracks crisscrossing the grasslands in what appeared to be random geometric patterns. Lkhagvasuren, who had driven the route many times, navigated this vast, empty wilderness with a smile and an air of sureness that I took to be supreme confidence in knowing exactly where he was headed.  Fortunately, he did.

Dinner Being Prepared In Our Honor

Four hours later we arrived at the camp where a dinner was to be prepared in our honor, an honor that included selecting the sheep we would eat and watching it dragged kicking and bleating from its pen, slaughtered, and gutted in front of us so we might personally appreciate its girth and fattiness. After a few too many vodka toasts and the singing of some American folk songs at our host’s urging (I tried my hand at “Home, Home on the Range” and “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore”), we sat down to a very fresh mutton dinner. However, rather than the chops and roasts we were expecting, we dined primarily on the animal’s innards–stomach, heart, liver, and intestines. To Mongolians, these are prized delicacies and, as the guests of honor, it was presented to us as a special treat we were expected to consume with relish and gusto.

We ate (and kept down) as much as we could only to see the remaining offal brought to the table the following morning. As difficult as it was to eat this for dinner, a breakfast of cold sheep intestines soaking in milk exceeds even my ability to transcend cultural differences.  Fortunately, we were able to convince our gracious hosts that we would be quite content with toast and tea for our morning meal.

While I could not recommend the food, these amazing cultural experiences are what makes a working vacation so utterly unique and so totally different from your typical family vacation.  You really must try it.

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

The Three Wise (Business) Men

Mongolians have a saying “The Gobi is not one desert but a hundred.” It is the largest desert in Asia, covering 35% of the country, but unlike the Sahara it is a crazy-quilt mixture of mountains, steppes, and plateaus, but only 4% sand.

However, today that 4% is our destination as my wife and I enjoy a vacation from Genghis Khan University where we are both teaching.  We set out in an old, Russian-made Jeep for an area called Khongoryn Els (the “Singing Dunes” in Mongolian), a remote wilderness of rose-colored dunes, some reaching the height of a 60-story building.  The 40-mile drive from camp traverses a roadless, trackless terrain, containing not a single village, not a single farm, hardly a single person.  After an hour or so the landscape changes rapidly from flat gravel plain to a rolling seascape of sand, and the driver parks our vehicle just below one of these massive formations.  We jump out, like children at the beach, and gaze at the uninterrupted vistas and stark beauty of this place. We scamper up the dunes, run down, and climb back up again, taking endless photos and drinking in the utter and complete silence.  My wife and I look at each other fully aware that we are standing in the most sparsely populated region of the most sparsely populated country on Earth and quietly contemplate that isolation.    That is until…

Mongolians and Their Camels in the Gobi Desert

We turn around to see three Mongolians, three camels, and a dog lumbering up the dune.  They seem to have materialized out of thin air as a 360o scan of the area reveals no villages, no yurts, no dwellings of any sort.  Are they rangers?  (This part of the Gobi is a National Park.)  Do they need food or water? Are they part of a commercial caravan to Dalanzadgad, the only town of any size but well over 100 miles distant?  Worst of all, do they wish us harm?  (Our driver is relaxing in the Jeep at the base of the dune, quite far away and out of earshot.)   When they reach the top they dismount, smile, (we breathe a sigh of relief), open the pack carried on the back of one of the camels, and proceed to set up and display their wares–an impressive collection of handmade Gobi souvenirs!

Portable Souvenir Shop in the Middle of the Remote Gobi

Aside from our surprise at encountering anyone in this trackless wilderness, let alone three Mongolian entrepreneurs, we do not understand how they knew we were coming.  We saw no one on the drive, passed no telephone poles, saw no WiFi “hotspot” signs, not even a smoke signal on the horizon.  Yet, somehow our presence quickly and efficiently triggered their arrival and the creation of this portable tchotchke shop. My wife and I could only laugh at our earlier imaginings of being in the remotest place on Earth–true, but not too remote to conduct a little business.

We haggled, bought a stuffed camel for our grandson, paid for it, and smiled back at them, our only common language.  Once they realized we were finished buying, they bundled up their wares, loaded them onto the pack camel, and trudged back down the dune.  We wanted to see exactly where they were heading, but they passed out of sight over the next hill, probably to locate other tourists who will, like us, marvel at their unexpected appearance.

(Read more about our experiences living and working in Ulan Bator, Mongolia in my travel book On The Other Guy’s Dime.)

Traveling On a “TwoFer”

In my last blog post, The Jews of Kochi, I described our visit to the historical city of Kochi, the capital of Kerala State in SW India.  However,  I didn’t say anything about how we got there.  One obvious answer is that I went on-line to a discount site like Orbitz, located the best deal (currently about $1,900 per person), and shelled out almost four thousand dollars to purchase tickets for my wife and myself.  Fortunately, the real answer is far more affordable and represents yet another benefit of working vacations–the concept of a twofer.

On every one of my working vacations (fifteen and counting) I was given a complimentary round-trip air ticket, purchased by my hosts, from my home in Minneapolis to the city where I would be working.  If you don’t provide your hosts with suggested routings they will almost certainly select one with the least number of legs and the shortest airport delays, thinking they are doing you a big favor.  However, that may not be the case.  Nothing says your travel must be on a direct flight and without long layovers, so long as you arrive and depart the host city on the required dates.  Once you realize this, you will begin to appreciate the many interesting side-trip possibilities that have fallen into your lap.

A great way to turn a working vacation into an even more enjoyable holiday is to take your free ticket from A (your home) to B (your destination) and convert it into an “almost-free” ticket from A to C to B, where C is any destination along the way to B that you would like to visit for a few days or weeks. Essentially, what you are doing is converting that free ticket into a twofer by adding a second stop, either on the way there or on the return.   For example, when I was traveling to Mauritius, a small island nation in the Indian Ocean, our hosts assumed we would prefer the most direct route:  Minneapolis to Amsterdam to Mauritius.  Instead, we asked them to route us home via Mumbai and London, with a three-week layover in India.   I gladly agreed to pay the increased $150 ticket cost per person since $300 is far less than the $4000 required to reach India from the central U.S.  We had a glorious time in Mumbai, Goa, Bangalore, and Cochin before returning home.  We repeated this gambit on subsequent working vacations to Turkey (via Athens and the Greek Isles), Australia (via Fiji), Mongolia (via Beijing), and a threefer to Harare, Zimbabwe–via Lisbon, Portugal and Cape Town. In all cases the cost of extending our stay in the layover city was small compared with purchasing a full-fare ticket from Minneapolis to that same destination. In three cases (Turkey, Japan, Malaysia) my employer agreed to cover the added expense since the ticket costs still fell well within their overall travel budget.

The moral of the story is that when planning air travel don’t inquire into only direct flights, unless you are traveling with small children and that is the most important consideration. Instead, see what airlines fly to your destination, where they stop, and what the added expense would be for extending your stay in that stopover city.  You might be pleasantly surprised at how little it costs to add a few days or weeks in some attractive getaway to your already attractive working vacation.

(Read about our travels to Mauritius, India, and many other exotic destinations, at virtually no cost in On The Other Guy’s Dime.)