Tag Archives: Cultural Experiences

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.)

Passover in the Land of Allah, Buddha, and Shiva

During our first months in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (62% Muslim, 25% Buddhist, 9% Hindu), we celebrated Id Al Fitri, the Muslim festival ending Ramadan, Chinese New Year, and the Hindu holiday of Thaipusam. Now it is our turn. As it gets closer to the Jewish holiday of Passover, my wife Ruthann and I are determined to have a real Seder, complete with Haggadah, matzoh, and concord grape wine.  The problem is we can’t find the fixings and, except for one American couple in our apartment, we can’t locate any Jews!  Since I am in Malaysia under the auspices of a Fulbright grant, I contact the cultural attaché at the U.S. Embassy who, after numerous emails and phone calls, manages to locate a single Jew!  In this modern Asian city of 1.4 million, there are no synagogues, no Jewish schools, no kosher butchers, and exactly one permanent Jewish resident—Mr. Gary Braut, an Orthodox Jew from Brooklyn.  Gary was in the U.S. Merchant Marine and, on a tour of duty to SE Asia, had shore leave in KL. He liked what he saw and returned to start a new life. He opened an auto parts business that became quite successful and provides him with wealth, comfort, and ability to live an observant lifestyle in a city with absolutely no Jewish resources.

Gary Braut And Some of His Multicultural Staff at Precision Automotive Co. in KL

Gary is proud of his religious heritage and enjoys sharing holidays with any other Jews in town as well as those with no knowledge of Judaism–just as we have shared unfamiliar Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist festivals with friends and neighbors. A few weeks back he placed an ad in the New Straits Times (the main English language newspaper) saying, and I quote:

Passover Seder.   Let’s Break Matzoh Together.  Everyone Invited.  A Young Rabbi from Brooklyn Will Officiate. Call 03-XXXXX for Details.

Menorah Made From Used Auto Parts

It sounded interesting and we decide to go.  We drive to the specified location only to realize the Seder is not being held at home but in his auto parts factory, which is easily identified from the large menorah (candelabra) constructed of used mufflers and tailpipes. It is strange celebrating Passover in a foreign country, but even stranger holding it in a warehouse surrounded by machine tools, compressors, and ball bearings.

Gary has spared no expense in planning this celebration. There are boxes of Streit’s matzoh and bottles of kosher wine air freighted in from the U.S. There is homemade charoses (a ceremonial dish made from fruits and nuts) and matzoh ball soup prepared by Muslim women in burkas and headscarves.  They have no idea of the significance of these ceremonial foods but, nevertheless, do an excellent job. The biggest surprise is the presence of Velvel, a 23-year old rabbinic student from Brooklyn, complete with the payess (side curls) and tzitzis (fringes) worn by all Orthodox Jewish men.  He flew in from New York to lead the Seder for this one evening.  Afterwards he travels to Surabaya, Indonesia to minister to a dozen or so Indonesian Jews.

The other fascinating thing is the audience.  There are 35-40 people, but only six are Jewish—Gary, the rabbi, my wife and I, and the other American couple in our building.  The remaining 30 or so are Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists who are friends, employees, or locals who simply saw the newspaper ad and are curious to learn about this strange celebration. Most of the non-Jewish attendees are knowledgeable about Israel and the political unrest in the Middle East, probably due to Malaysia’s anti-Zionist foreign policy, but few appear to know anything about the religion. Their tone is friendly, inquisitive, and extremely polite.

There are Haggadot (Passover texts) for everyone, including comic book Haggadot for the children.  The rabbi does an explanatory Seder rather than a rigorously religious one, describing the history of the Jewish people, the role of the Torah (with parallels to the Koran and Bhagavad-Gita), the story of the Exodus from Egypt, and the reasons behind such symbols as the matzoh and four cups of wine. The attendees are fascinated and listen intently.  They ask numerous questions—from “What is this strange writing?” (Hebrew) to “How did Moses part the Red Sea?”  (tradition says with the help of God).  The rabbi carefully and thoroughly answers each question in a manner worthy of a skilled classroom professor.  The Seder lasts almost two hours but I hardly notice as I am enthralled by the questions, discussions, and explanations of this religious potpourri.

Following the ceremony we eat a delicious meal of fresh fish, hard-boiled eggs, potato salad, tomatoes, cucumbers, and kosher wine. We have salmon for the main course since, according to religious law, its distinct orange color let’s you know that you are eating the flesh of a kosher animal.  With other species it can be difficult to distinguish between kosher and non-kosher.  (The nearest kosher butcher is in Singapore, 300 miles distant.)  The meal is prepared by observant Muslim women using brand new pots, pans, and chopsticks to ensure they meet the strict Jewish dietary rules for cooking utensils.

When it is time to leave, our host presents all attendees with a gift—a bronze coin containing a likeness of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.  Velvel explains the role of the rebbe in Orthodox Judaism by comparing him with a Hindu guru–a teacher and guide who leads the way to wisdom and understanding.  It is fascinating to hear a rabbi speak so knowledgeably about Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism.

That was a truly unique Seder.   Even 10,000 miles from home it felt comfortable to retell the Passover story, eat traditional foods, drink kosher wine, and sing traditional songs.   Now I feel embarrassed that I have chosen to hide my beliefs from departmental colleagues.  At my university it is customary to send cards to everyone in the department, regardless of ethnicity, wishing them a “Festive Chinese New Year” or “Happy Id Al Fitri.”  I myself received many such greetings, even though my colleagues know I am neither Buddhist, Hindu, nor Muslim.   However, when we first arrived staff at the U.S. Embassy, being overly cautious, asked me to maintain a low profile due to the rigid anti-Zionist stance of most Malaysian officials.  I was told that while no one would do me any harm, it would be best to keep mum on this issue.

However, attending this multicultural Seder convinces me to end my self-imposed silence. Malaysia prides itself on being a society in which all traditions live together in harmony.  In that spirit I decide to “come out of the closet” and send cards to my colleagues wishing them a happy Passover and explaining the holiday’s significance.  Then I sit back and nervously await the repercussions. Thankfully, there are none.  Instead, I receive notes and emails from my Chinese, Malay, and Indian co-workers thanking me for the good wishes and telling me how much they enjoyed learning about my religion and about a holiday of which they knew little or nothing.  Their curiosity and questions about Jewish practices and traditions continue over lunch and coffee for many days.

(Read more about our cultural adventures in Malaysia 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.)

On My Own Dime, This Time

My wife and I recently returned from a glorious, six-week Pacific odyssey during which we visited the Cook Islands (see Relaxation, Island Style), Sydney, Tasmania (A Tasmanian Toilet Tale), Laos (The Beauty of Travel; The Ugliness of War), China, and Korea.  Unlike virtually every other destinations discussed in this blog, this trip was on my own dime.  Yes, dear reader, I hate to admit it, but I paid for this rather lengthy holiday myself!  Before leaving I joked with friends not to tell anyone as it could ruin my carefully cultivated reputation as a world-class schnorrer–Yiddish for freeloader.

March of the Monks in Luang Prabang

However, even though I like to poke fun at myself for our many no-cost overseas jaunts,  I still enjoy a non-working holiday to an exotic locale as much as the next guy.  On this trip we lazed on the pristine beaches of the Cook Islands, sampled the theater and restaurant scene of Sydney, motored through the mountains and forests of Tasmania, marveled at the historical beauty of Luang Prabang, cruised the Mekong on a small riverboat; spent a few days in the lovely canal city of Suzhou, China, and were wowed by the massive urban chaos of Shanghai and Seoul–all without working a single day to pay the freight.  It was a superb trip that only confirmed my decision to take early retirement.  As long as there are no financial constraints, why would you ever postpone the joys of retirement until you are too old and infirm to enjoy them?  I am sure you have heard the truism voiced by Sen. Paul Tsongas: “No man ever said on his deathbed, ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office.’”

The Lovely Canal City of Suzhou, China

However, as much as I loved our time in Asia there are many differences between a family holiday (even one as long as six weeks) and the short-term overseas postings called working vacations I have been espousing on this blog for the last two years and in my most recent travel book, On The Other Guy’s Dime.  Most family vacations have amusement, entertainment, and personal pleasure as their primary goals–you take a holiday to relax, eat well, see sights, both natural and man-made, and enjoy time away from your regular routine.  By contrast, a working vacation, while enjoyable, is meant for personal, professional, and cultural growth.  You take a working vacation not only to see sights but to become part of a different culture, make friends, learn new ways of doing things, expose your children to the world around them, and use your professional skills in new and different ways.  These are very different goals.

The Soaring, Neon-Lit Skyline of Shanghai

For example, during our stay in the Cook Islands I never made close friends with any local Polynesians.  In Laos, I did not have the opportunity to celebrate Buddhist life cycle events with neighbors or colleagues.  Not having a job in Shanghai meant I did not get a sense of what it must be like living in a booming metropolis of 20 million that is changing on an almost daily basis.  Staying in a tourist hotel in Seoul prevented us from having the chance to live, play, and shop in one of the fascinating neighborhoods scattered around the city.  Our trip to Asia was a wonderful way to see these countries but not to experience them.

So, go ahead and enjoy those family vacations as much as you want and as much as your wallet will allow.  However, please don’t use the excuse that you don’t need a working vacation because you and the wife just returned from a cruise to Alaska, a week in Florence, or ten days diving in the Caymans.  Holidays and working vacations are totally different beasts that have totally different purposes.  Being a tourist and living as part of an overseas community serve very different roles, and you really should experience both.

On The U.S. State Department’s Dime

In an earlier post (The Clues Are All Around You) I addressed the single most common question from readers of this blog:  “OK, you convinced me of the personal, professional, and cultural benefits of short-term working vacations.  Now, how do I find them?”  Fair question, and in that post I talked about one possible technique–being hypersensitive to clues about overseas opportunities that appear in newspapers, magazines, TV, and radio, and which emerge from on-line discussions and personal interactions.  Some of my most rewarding postings came about from something I read, such as an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about summer school teaching shortages in Israeli universities, or something I saw on TV–a news segment about the Royal University of Bhutan, the first university in that remote Himalayan hideaway.

However, there is an even better source for working vacations–the Fulbright Grants Program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. The  Fulbright program is the single greatest source of paid overseas opportunities in the world–each year they pass out 1,200 grants to 140 countries for periods ranging from three weeks to one year.  I have been lucky enough to receive four–Mauritius (1995), Malaysia (2001), Nepal (2004), and Mongolia (2006).  If you are a teacher, doctor, nurse, lawyer, engineer, scientist, artist, musician, librarian, or other skilled professional, there is a high probability that Fulbright has a need for someone with exactly your skills.

In the coming weeks and months I will be authoring a series of articles about the Fulbright program, including some “tricks of the trade” for writing a successful proposal.  (I am batting .800, with four out of five.)  These posts will be on a site entitled The Wandering Educator, and I want to invite everyone to read them–I will post links to the articles as soon as they appear.  Even though they are on a Web site meant primarily for educators please remember that the Fulbright program is NOT, repeat NOT, limited to academics.  It is open to any U.S. citizen with a useful skill, a sense of adventure, and a desire to see the world.

The first post, entitled “The Fulbright Program,” went up today, and it highlights a number of common misconceptions about the program.  If you have been motivated by the arguments in my blog to consider a working vacation then these are posts you simply must read.  As I write in that initial article:

Fulbright is the very essence of what is so great about working vacations: You have an amazing cultural experience, become part of a fascinating overseas community, and do not quit your job, sell your home, or kiss friends and family a permanent good-bye–they will all be waiting for your return.  Best of all, you do all this on the other guy’s dime!