Category Archives: Where To Go

Road Trip of a Lifetime

In summer, 2004, my wife and I were living in Nepal where I was teaching at the University of Kathmandu under the auspices of a Fulbright Grant, i.e., on the other guy’s dime!  When classes were finished I still had a few weeks before returning to Minnesota and still had a few thousand dollars remaining in my travel account.

The Zhangmu Bridge from Nepal to Tibet

We decided to spend our remaining time and money traveling to Tibet. However, rather than the traditional round trip flight and packaged tour, we decided to rent a car and drive to Lhasa via the 900 km Friendship Highway–the second highest automobile road in the world and surely one of the most breathtakingly beautiful drives on the planet.  We took a local bus from Kathmandu to the border, walked across the Zhangmu Bridge into Tibet, and picked up our vehicle, an old Toyota Land Cruiser, along with a Chinese driver who spoke no English except for “OK, no problem,” usually uttered just after the tires came within inches of a sheer mountain precipice.

The Old Jeep and Old Me on the Tibetan Plateau

However, a running narration was not really necessary as the scenery outside the car window spoke for itself.  During our four days on the road we stopped in traditional villages, met some locals, shopped for meals in Tibetan fruit and vegetable markets, shared those meals with yak herders, and visited Buddhist monasteries allowed by Chinese officials to remain open.  Our drive to the Tibetan capital was certainly the highlight of our stay in Tibet, especially after arriving in Lhasa and discovering that it looked much more like an ordinary Chinese regional capital than the mysterious “Forbidden City” of classical literature.

My Son-in-Law in Front of Cho Oyu (Photo: By Rebecca Schneider)

After leaving the lush green Nepalese countryside the Friendship Highway climbs steeply to reach the 12,000 foot Tibetan plateau.  It passes glaciers, some reaching to the shoulder of the road, as well as five of the world’s highest peaks, clearly visible in the clear, dry Tibetan sky:  #1: Everest (29,029), #4: Lhotse (27,940), #5: Makalu (27,838), #6: Cho Oyu (26,864), and #14: Shishapangma (26,335).  The road reaches its highest point at the Gyatsola Pass, 5220 meters, or about 17, 130 feet, the second highest automobile pass in the world.

Ruthie at the Gyatsola Pass at an Elevation of 17,130 ft.

Although we never experienced altitude sickness, it is hard to describe how difficult it is to function at that extreme elevation, only 400 feet lower than the Everest base camp!  You would walk a couple of steps and then need to rest.  The process of bending down to pick up something you dropped would send your heart racing and require a significant pause.  The mountain scenery at Gyatsola is truly spectacular, but sometimes you can be so short of breath that it can be difficult to tell your traveling companions how much fun you are having!

Traditional Tibetan Nomadic Village Along The Highway

After Gyatsola, the road, unpaved and without guard rails or other safety features, passes through farms and small villages where residents still follow a traditional nomadic life style–herding yaks and goats, living in yurts, and moving with the seasons.  The road also passes the two historically important cities of Gyantse, site of the massive Gyantse Fortress built in 1390, and Shigatse, home of the Panchen Lama, the second highest ranking religious leader in Tibetan Buddhism after the Dalai Lama.

The Ancient Fortress Overlooking the City of Gyantse, Tibet

Finally, after four exhausting but exhilarating days, we arrived in Lhasa.  And while there are certainly wonderful things to see and do there–the Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple–our minds kept returning to those extraordinary days along the Friendship Highway and the time we spent seeing, enjoying, and sharing the “real” Tibet.  If you will be traveling to Nepal in the near future and have the time for a truly unique side trip, the four-day drive to Lhasa along the Friendship Highway is something that, I guarantee, you will not soon forget.

(To read more about our no-cost adventures in Nepal and Tibet you can pick up a copy of my travel book, On The Other Guy’s Dime.)

New York, New York

In my last post I wrote that it is a big world, and you might consider some less well-known locations to reduce competition and increase the likelihood of an eye-opening cultural experience. That is what I did when I lived and worked in such exotic locales as Zimbabwe, Mongolia, Mauritius, and Bhutan. However, while I believe in this strategy, and even wrote a book about it, there are times when you unexpectedly hit it big and score an all-expenses paid posting to “tourism central.”

The Main Campus of Columbia University on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in New York City

My wife and I are currently residing in a lovely and extremely affordable two-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan thanks to the largesse of Columbia University (the building owner) where I am a Visiting Professor through this December. In addition to the huge rent subsidy I also receive a generous salary for teaching one course two days a week. This income, when added to monies from the rental of my home in Minneapolis, allows us to live a very comfortable life style in what must be one of the most expensive cities on planet Earth.

Now the point of this post is not to say you should immediately apply for a professorship at Columbia, Harvard, or Princeton! Instead, I want to argue that you may be qualified for overseas positions you mistakenly believe are  beyond your reach; I want to convince you not to lower your sights or your standards because of some misplaced and misjudged “inferiority complex.” When I sent in that application for a Visiting Professorship some of my colleagues laughed at me–and I mean that quite literally. They guffawed at the idea of a rather average scholar at a small Midwestern college (Macalester in St. Paul, MN) thinking he was qualified to apply for, let alone fill, a faculty position at a prestigious Ivy League school. Well, the laugh is on them as I settle into my lovely apartment in one of the most desirable sections of this most fascinating of cities. And, to prove this was not a once-in-a-lifetime “lightning bolt” I have already met another visiting faculty member from an even smaller and less well-known school–Lake Forest College in Illinois. Like me, he was not discouraged by his colleagues dire predictions of embarrassment and utter failure.

So, my advice is not to be deterred by what other people may think or say about your background, abilities, or talent. Aim high and give it a try. If the response is negative then smile, say to yourself that at least you gave it your best shot, and load up for another attempt. When it comes to working vacations remember this credo: You only need to hit the target a single time to end up with a superb, not to mention free, cultural and professional experience.

Question:  What do they call a person who sent out a hundred working vacation applications and got back only a single positive response?
Answer:  An overseas traveler!

Such a Big, Big World

If I have been doing my job I will by now have convinced you of the benefits of a short-term working vacation and demonstrated the relative ease with which it can be accomplished. Now the question becomes “Where should I go?” Let me offer some helpful advice.

When it comes to planning an overseas posting, many people think only about such popular spots as England, France, or Italy. While certainly enjoyable I would caution against working vacations in such well-known locales for three reasons:

1) These countries have a highly educated cadre of professionals so their needs are far less. France has many talented physicians; England is well stocked with engineers and programmers; Italy has numerous business and financial specialists. Unless you are truly outstanding in your field why would a first-world country like this need you? When trying to market your skills, you want a locale that is growing economically, so it needs trained personnel, but one in which the college educated workforce may be too small to fill their employment needs. This might include countries like Thailand, South Africa, Brazil, Russia, Iceland, Jordan, Fiji, Peru, and Sri Lanka. Institutions in developing countries like this are far more likely to need the skills you bring to the table and far more excited to have you come for a short-term visit.

2. Even if an attractive destination like Switzerland or Australia does have some openings the competition for these spots will be intense. For example, the Fulbright Foundation publishes annual statistics on the number of student applications by country. In the European region there were 340 applications to Germany, 200 to France, 9 for Bulgaria, and one lone seeker of a position in Albania. This ratio of 50, 100, or 200 to 1 between the most and least popular destinations is typical of what you will encounter. While it might be fun to spend a few months consulting in Aix-en-Provence or giving lectures in Venice, please keep in mind the enormous difficulty of obtaining these highly desirable postings. My four Fulbright Grants were to Mauritius, Malaysia, Nepal, and Mongolia, all of which were fascinating trips as well as being far less competitive.

3. Finally, remember why you are applying for a working vacation in the first place–to have a transformative social, professional, and cultural experience. While you would certainly have a great time eating and sightseeing in London, Barcelona, or Paris, it probably will not change your life or open you up to different ways of seeing the world. However, six months teaching in the Buddhist nation of Bhutan, three months living in the steppes of Mongolia, or a summer in the mountains of Nepal, all working vacations I have taken, will open your eyes and your mind to totally new societies, cultures, and religions. Believe me, this can be a far more adventurous and exciting way for you and your family to spend some time.

The Not-Again School of Travel, Revisited

This working vacation in Zimbabwe was the ideal “proof of correctness” for our commitment to the not again travel philosophy described in the post Two Schools of Traveling Thought. The country has superb game parks that provide close-up views of all the big mammals from the luxury and safety of a jeep, just like our safaris in Kenya seven years earlier. However, Zimbabwe also offers adventures totally distinct from those of Kenya and Tanzania only a few hundred miles to the north.

The Great Stone Structures at Great Zimbabwe National Monument.

For example, midway through our stay we drove to Great Zimbabwe National Monument, a two hundred-square-mile area of massive stone ruins constructed between the eleventh and fourteenth century, most likely as a royal city by members of the Shona tribe. During the rule of apartheid, Rhodesian schools were not allowed to teach that these magnificent buildings were designed and built by African tribesmen 500 years before the onset of European colonial domination. That knowledge would have contradicted their racist teachings about the cultural and intellectual inferiority of blacks. Paul Sinclair, a senior archeologist at Great Zimbabwe during the time of apartheid, stated:

Censorship of guidebooks, museum displays, school textbooks, radio programs, newspapers and films was a daily occurrence. Once a member of the Museum Board of Trustees threatened me with losing my job if I said publicly that blacks had built Great Zimbabwe. . . . It was the first time since Germany in the thirties that archaeology has been so directly censored.[1]

The Zimbabwe National Flag Containing Bird Head Image From Great Zimbabwe National Monument

Today, the park and its structures, the second largest stone buildings in Africa after the Great Pyramids of Giza, are a source of great pride to Zimbabweans and upon independence in 1980 the country, originally named after Cecil Rhodes, an English businessman, was renamed in honor of this historical site. The national flag (see photo) contains an image of the bird carvings found on the walls and towers of Great Zimbabwe. It is an archeological treasure and one of the few extant examples of ancient African tribal culture on the continent.

The Magnificent Victoria Falls on the Border Between Zimbabwe and Zambia

Ruth and I traveled to the Eastern Highlands on the border with Mozambique to hike in its high mountains and enjoy its copious displays of wildflowers and bird life. Of course we made it to the biggest and most famous tourist attraction in all of Zimbabwe and, indeed, in all of Africa—Victoria Falls. At 360 feet in height and more than a mile in width, it is one of the largest waterfalls on the planet and one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. In addition to spectacular views from the unfenced rim of the chasm—feel free to sit and dangle your feet over the edge—there are also heart stopping, Class 5 (expert level, extremely dangerous) whitewater rapids on the Zambezi River to keep you fully entertained and sopping wet.

So even if you have been lucky enough to find that “one perfect Eden,” I invite you to cast your travel net even wider when planning the next working vacation–just as we chose to experience a new African country and culture rather than return to Kenya.  While it is certainly safe, comforting, and enjoyable going back to the same place year after year, witnessing new sights, experiencing new cultures, and meeting new people can be an even more invigorating and stimulating experience.  So, open up that atlas and start searching!

[1]. Julie Frederikse, “Before the war,” in None But Ourselves, Biddy Partridge, photographer (Harare: Oral Traditions Association of Zimbabwe with Anvil Press: 1990) [1982], 10–11.

Back To Africa

Even though we loved our time in Kenya, since Ruth and I subscribe to the not again school of travel (see Two Schools of Traveling Thought) we really wanted to see another part of this vast continent.  One of the pleasures of a working vacation is being able to pull out the atlas and decide for yourself where to go rather than having that destination be selected for you by a company, funding agency, or professional society.

Our Kenyan friends and colleagues told us that if we enjoyed our three-month stay in East Africa we really should consider a trip to Zimbabwe, the country called Rhodesia until 1980 when it won its independence from Great Britain in a bloody civil war. After reading about its rich culture, natural beauty, and superb historical sites, Ruth and I decided that a working vacation in Zimbabwe would be an excellent way to relive the delights of our Kenyan safari, now many years distant, but with different places to explore and new people to meet.  Not long after sending email inquiring about summer teaching opportunities at the University of Zimbabwe, the best university in the country, I received a reply from Rob Borland, chair of the computer science department, inviting me to teach at UZ during the coming winter quarter–oops I forgot about that Southern Hemisphere thing yet again!

The New Mathematics and Information Technology Building at the University of Zimbabwe

At that time Zimbabwe was the success story of sub-Saharan Africa, and its capital, Harare, was one of the loveliest cities on the continent. This is hard to fathom given conditions there today—famine, cholera, hyperinflation, and civil unrest—all thanks to a once-benevolent president, Robert Mugabe, who devolved into a brutal dictator with a death grip on power and an intolerance of public dissent.  (Conditions are actually much worse. In a recent article in the New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote “If you want to see hell on Earth, go to Zimbabwe where the madman Robert Mugabe has brought the country to such a state of ruin that medical care for most of the inhabitants has ceased to exist.”)

However, in 1992 things were quite different and Harare was a charming city of pedestrian malls, upscale shopping, and outdoor cafes, all frequented by a large, thriving black middle class. With its broad downtown avenues shaded by Jacaranda trees and lined with busy stores, it would be hard for most Americans to believe they were in Africa.  Rather than the images of ramshackle housing and malnourished children that routinely fill our newspapers and airwaves, you would encounter Africans lunching in bistros and driving late-model American and European cars on modern, well paved city streets.  It was a city that, at least in 1992, would utterly shatter your stereotype that all of sub-Saharan Africa looks like a Sally Struthers public service announcement for “Save the Children.”

This shattering of stereotypes  is another important reason to travel, especially to unfamiliar regions and places where your imaginings are far removed from the reality.  For example, a  working vacation in a country like Turkey (or Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, Malaysia) will end those misconceptions about Islam and day-to-day life in a modern Muslim society–exactly what happened to my Classics professor friend as described in Official Confirmation.  A long-term stay in a city like Mumbai, Delhi, or Bangalore will certainly change your perception that India has nothing to offer visitors but crowds, poverty, disease, and privation.  The friendliness and warmth of the residents of Nairobi (including those in the slums of Kibera) would go a long way toward ending the misguided view of Africa as nothing but tribal hatreds and violent crime.

So, on May 26th, 1992, Ruth and I set sail from the Minneapolis International Airport for a three-month teaching sojourn in the city of Harare, Zimbabwe but not before making a couple of fascinating stops along the way, in Lisbon, Portugal and Cape Town, South Africa–exactly as detailed in Getting From Point A to Point B in Style.

Two Schools of Traveling Thought

There are two types of world travelers—the repeaters and the not agains. Repeaters have found their dream destination and go back year after year to the same village, the same B&B, the same lake. They are the couple who return every March, like swallows to Capistrano, to that quaint little inn in the south of France; who pre-book every year at their special hacienda on the Mayan Riviera; who canoe the same rivers and eat at the same restaurants, year in, year out. In contrast, the not agains love the places they have been but prefer instead to seek out new sights and unexpected adventures. Repeaters are the “bird in the hand” group, not agains the “two in the bush.”

I have no quibble with repeaters and congratulate them on discovering their one perfect Eden. Even better, the task of locating the next working vacation is far simpler for repeaters than for the not agains. After completing the first employment contract, sit down with school, agency, or institute administrators, tell them how much you enjoyed your stay, how professionally and culturally rewarding it was, and ask if they would be interested in hosting a return visit in the near future. Assuming you have not screwed up too badly and funds are available, there is a decent chance they will be eager to invite you back, and the planning for your next working vacation will have been fully accomplished. Nice and simple.

I followed that path myself after a 2007 cold call resulted in a six-month visiting professorship at Columbia University in New York City, home of my now-grown children and grandchildren. I renegotiated that initial offer into a return visit for the 2008-09 academic year and beyond.  I just completed my third teaching stint at the school with plans for more in the near future.

However, in 1992 my wife and I definitely belonged to the latter group, the not agains. We loved all our working vacations and found every city where we had lived—London, Jerusalem, Nairobi, Sydney, Istanbul—a destination not yet plumbed to its fullest depths. Each site still tempted with possibilities of fresh explorations and new discoveries. When we would return home, bubbling over with stories about the sights we’d seen and the people we’d met, friends and family were sure that our next trip would take us back to the same place—working vacation redux. However, in almost three decades of travel, until our return to New York City and Columbia, it never has. As much as we’ve enjoyed and savored each and every trip, when it came time to think about the next one we would stare at a world map and see too much unexplored space, too many countries not yet experienced. The U.N. has 192 member states and so far we had lived and worked in five. It seemed much too early for reruns.

I would love to hear from readers which of these two schools of thought best describes your own traveling philosophy.   Whether for a brief one- or two-week family vacation or a long-term working adventure do you prefer to fall back on the tried-and-true or are you more about exploring the as yet unexplored?  Please share.