Tag Archives: Cultural Experiences

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!

The Flying Postman of Broken Hill (Rerun)

(The following story first appeared on June 7, 2010.  I think readers who did not see it at that time will enjoy looking at it now.)

One of the joys of a working vacation is that it gives travelers time to uncover a region’s hidden gems–those quirky, idiosyncratic places too often overlooked by Frommers or The Lonely Planet but which give you a good feeling for life in the host country.  Well, quirky is the very essence of a place called Broken Hill, Australia.

Typical Red Rock Landscape of the Australian Outback

The Australian outback is a starkly beautiful area but, because of temperature extremes (summer temps of 120F are not unusual), poor infrastructure, and immense distances, it can be difficult to visit.  Many tourists skip the region entirely, limiting themselves to the urban pleasures of Sydney and Melbourne and the clear blue waters of the Great Barrier Reef.  Adventuresome types who venture into the outback usually do so on a two- or three-day fly in to Alice Springs and Ayers Rock, the two main tourist centers.  However, limiting yourself to these popular destinations is like visiting Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon and thinking  you have experienced everything the American Southwest has to offer.

My wife and I were on a working vacation to Sydney, Australia where I was teaching at the University of New South Wales.  Our three-month posting gave us sufficient time to investigate some of the interesting destinations that lie beyond the skyline of Sydney, including the barren landscapes of the Australian outback only a few hundred miles inland.  Based on recommendations from colleagues and neighbors, we set off during school holiday for a part of the outback rarely visited by tourists–the small mining town of Broken Hill, about 630 miles west of Sydney.  We boarded the  transcontinental Indian-Pacific express for our 12-hour train trip and watched in fascination as the lush greenery of the Pacific coast gave way to an austere, arid land that shimmered orange and ochre-red in the setting sun.

We arrived the next morning in a place that could easily have been the setting for a John Ford western.  Broken Hill was settled in the 1870s when a massive silver deposit was discovered nearby, followed soon by valuable caches of zinc and lead.  Like roughneck mining towns of the American West (think Deadwood or Dodge City) it grew quickly and was a haven for drinking, gambling and prostitution.  However, in the 1970s and 80s, as metal prices declined and mining employment dwindled, Broken Hill and the surrounding region had to reinvent itself, and today its major industries include sheep farming, craft shops, movie production (Mad Max 2, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), and a nascent tourism industry to which we were happy to contribute.

The Famous Palace Hotel in Broken Hill.

We toured an underground silver mine, visited the galleries and craft shops lining Main Street, took a walking tour of historic buildings (including the famous Palace Hotel built in the 1880s, see photo), and learned about the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia and School of the Air which meet the medical and educational needs of a region where the nearest public school may be 500 km distant and the closest pharmacy a 10 hour drive!  However, the highlight of our stay was the day spent with Mr. David Furnell, the famous “Flying Postman of Broken Hill,” whom we contacted from Sydney to book a most unusual outback tour.

Once a week Mr. Furnell pilots his single engine plane to more than two dozen sheep stations strewn around the outback, carefully avoiding the kangaroos playing tag on the runway.  To ward off boredom he invites guests to join him for the day, at absolutely no cost, as he lands, takes off, lands, takes off, … dropping the week’s collection of mail into steel drums, broken refrigerators, old washing machines, and other weird postal receptacles plunked down at the end of the makeshift runways.  If the station owners are home they often welcome Dave and his “temporary assistants” in for lunch and conversation, especially as they may be the first visitors at the station in weeks.

The Famous Flying Postman of the Outback (Photograph courtesy of AAPImage, Australia)

I cannot imagine a better way to learn about life in the outback than seeing it from an altitude of a few hundred feet and sharing a sandwich and cold drinks with ranchers striving to eke out a living in this remote landscape.  It gave us a good sense for what outback life is really like for those who struggle against this harsh and unforgiving landscape.  I doubt if your typical two-week “Highlights of Australia” tour would include sufficient free time to allow you and your family to spend a day with Mr. Furnell and residents of the sheep stations of Western New South Wales.  Pity!

So, when enumerating the many reasons for choosing a working vacation in place of your standard family holiday, add to that list a chance to get off the beaten path and see parts of the country casual tourists will never experience.

The Way to a Culture’s Heart Is Through Its Stomach

Donkeys Delivering Supplies in the Ancient Marketplace of Fez

Donkey carts clatter across cobblestone streets; butchers wielding massive cleavers hack away at sides of lamb, beef, and camel; women and fruit sellers haggle over prices in Arabic, French, and Tamazight, the local Berber language. We are in Fez’s meat, produce, and spice market, maneuvering through the chaos under the watchful eye of Mr. Lahcen Beqqi, a master chef, restaurant owner, teacher, and expert on Moroccan cooking.

My wife Ruth and I signed up for a one-day class taught by Chef Beqqi to learn more about Morocco, its culture, and its world famous cuisine. Beqqi, a baby-faced Berber from the tiny village of Amellago in the High Atlas mountains, is a highly qualified teacher–he moved to Fez, the country’s food capital, in 2002 and cooked at some of the city’s finest restaurants until opening a school, Fes Cooking, in 2006. His classes provide not only culinary instruction (and eating, of course) but also an introduction to Moroccan agriculture, shopping, and mealtime traditions.  It is a wonderful way to learn about the many influences contributing to modern Moroccan culture.

Chef Beqqi Helping Us Select Items In The Marketplace

Ruth and I, along with the chef and two other students, begin our day in the open-air marketplace of this 1,200-year-old Imperial city. Since our menu will be dictated by what is available (“eat seasonal, buy local” has long been a way of life), we wander the narrow walkways surveying the possibilities. The sweet scent of cinnamon and rose water fills the air; stalls overflow with tomatoes, onions, celery, garlic.  “It was a good year for farmers with lots of rain, so there are no shortages,” Beqqi said as he helps us select items for the midday meal.

A Typical Spice Market in Ancient Fez. No Bottles of Spice Island or Durkee's Here!

As we stroll he points out foods that many American kitchens would consider specialty items but which are central to Moroccan cooking: dates, figs, apricots, chickpeas, mint. He also points out products that draw our blank stares: wild artichokes, argan oil, cardons, camel fat.   We wind our way through the market touching, squeezing, smelling, buying.  Finally, laden with bags of meat, vegetables, fruits, and spices, we head for the kitchen at Riad Tafilalet, a traditional Moroccan hotel and restaurant (riad is the Arabic word for garden or courtyard) that will be our classroom for the remainder of the day.

The Kitchen Staff. That's Me in the Center (With Beard and Glasses) and Ruth on the Far Right.

Although thoroughly modern, the kitchen contains no electric mixers, blenders, or food processors. According to Beqqi, Moroccan cooks enjoy “being close to their food,” so all chopping is by hand, all mashing by mortar and pestle.  We don starched white chef tunics, looking like contestants on “The Next Food Network Star,” and dive into our assigned tasks.  Lahcen watches carefully and explains proper techniques:  “Don’t add spices until the liquid is hot,” “Grate the tomatoes, don’t chop them.”

The Results of our Efforts. A Most Delicious Chicken, Prune, and Date Tagine.

A few hours later, our six-course lunch is finished. In the riad’s sunlit courtyard, we sit around low tables dining on harira, a tomato, lamb, lentil, and chickpea soup traditionally used to break the daily fast of Ramadan; small triangles of phyllo pastry, called briouates, filled with goat cheese and olives; zaalouk salad prepared with pureed eggplant, tomato, and zucchini; artichoke hearts with preserved lemons and orange water; a chicken, prune, and date tagine; and, for dessert, date and almond rolls and the ever-present mint tea.

As we gorge on the delicacies, Beqqi relates stories of the multi-ethnic influences that produced this distinctive cuisine: the Berbers of southern Morocco who brought tagines and couscous; seventh century Arab invaders who introduced grilled meats and a love of dried fruits and nuts; the Moors who contributed their taste for olives, oranges, and lemons; Sephardic Jews of North Africa who popularized the pickling and preserving of fruits and meats.  It is a history seminar complete with massive amounts of superb food and drink!

After eating for more than two hours I sit back on the sofa and sip my last glass of tea, feeling like a pampered pasha. At 4 p.m., after a busy but gratifying and highly informative day, Beqqi calls a taxi to take us back to our apartment, a trip whose cost is, thankfully, based on distance not weight.

Read more about our adventures living and working in Africa and the Middle East in my latest book, On The Other Guy’s Dime.  

A Little Mathematics, Maestro!

(The following is a reprint of a June, 2010 blog post.  Since its arguments are still valid I thought you might enjoy reading or rereading it.) 

In my latest travel book, On The Other Guy’s Dime, I describe one of the more successful techniques I have used to locate working vacations–the cold call.  I would contact a department chair in a city or country where I want to live and say something like “I don’t know you and you don’t know me, but I would love to come to your institution to work for a few months and contribute in any way I can.  Please let me show you why you should hire me.”  I would then attach a copy of my resume, lists of workshops and courses  I could teach, and services I could provide to the school and its faculty.

Classical Dancers in Bhutan. A Cold Call Resulted in a Spectacular Three-Month Working Vacation in Thimphu

Some skeptics will read the previous paragraph and scoff at the idea of cold calls as a way of finding working vacations.  With images of all those struggling telemarketers firmly in mind they will argue you have only a miniscule chance of success.  However, believe me when I say it is nowhere near as futile as they portray.  You are not some nobody shilling aluminum siding or stain remover; we are talking about highly trained professionals–e.g., doctors, nurses, teachers, engineers, lawyers, artists, business people–offering to share their special skills with developing nations that sorely need them.  I could argue for the efficacy of this technique by simply stating that it got my wife and me to Kenya, Turkey, Zimbabwe, Mongolia, and Bhutan.  But, instead, let me show that cold calling is a realistic technique by proving it mathematically!

A few years ago New Yorker ran a cartoon entitled “What Hell Is Really Like.”  There was Satan, with horns and pitchfork, standing over some unfortunate wretch writhing in pain and straining to read the words on a piece of paper.  It said “A train leaves Chicago going 40 miles per hour … ”  While I don’t believe Hell is a never-ending set of algebra problems, I know many of you will smile and sympathize.  Therefore, I tread carefully when presenting a mathematical argument and will try my best not to make this difficult to follow.

Let’s assume there is only 1 chance in 20 (probability p = 0.05) of success, i.e., of getting a “Yes, we would love to have you join us for a few months” response to your cold call.  That means you will get a “No thank you” 19 times out of 20 (p = 0.95).  Furthermore, let’s say you contact four institutions, A, B, C, and D, trying for that one dream offer.

The likelihood that exactly 1 of these 4 places will make an offer is equal to the chance of getting exactly 1 Yes and 3 Nos, which is (0.05) x (0.95) x (0.95) x (0.95) = 0.04287.  Now that single Yes could come from either A, B, C, or D, so the overall probability is four times that number or 4 x 0.04287 = 0.1715, or 17%.

However, the actual odds are even better.  If you are lucky you might get 2 Yeses.  Of course you cannot accept two jobs, but you are free to pick the one that best suits you. There are 6 different ways that 2 institutions could respond Yes:  (A, B), (A, C), (A, D), (B, C), (B, D), and (C, D).  The chance of any one of these events happening is the probability of getting exactly 2 Yeses and 2 Nos, which is (0.05) x (0.05) x (0.95) x (0.95) = 0.0022562.  So, the overall probability is 6 times that value, or 6 x 0.0022562 = 0.0135, or 1.3%.  I won’t go through the mathematics of 3 and 4 Yeses (rare events) but the sum of all these possibilities is the probability that you will receive at least 1 Yes in response to your 4 cold call inquiries. That total is 0.1855, or about 18.6%.

Think about what that last number means. Even if you have only 1 chance in 20 of someone hiring you, simply by contacting 4 schools (or hospitals, labs, government agencies, … ) you have improved your chances of landing a working vacation from 1 in 20 to about 18.6%, almost 1 in 5.  If I told you that spending an hour or so on your computer would result in a 1 in 5 chance of an all-expense paid trip to Turkey or a 3 month no-cost safari in Kenya would you do it?  Of course you would.  Well, why haven’t you!

And you can do even better.  The Web makes it easy to find contact names and addresses at overseas institutions, so why limit yourself to 4?  If, for example, you send out 8 emails, and the probability of a single success is still 1 in 20, your overall odds go up to 1 in 3.  That certainly isn’t the miniscule possibility that skeptics would have you believe.

And, finally, for those who scoff at my assumption of a 1 in 20 chance of success (a value based on my own cold calling experiences), let’s lower it to 1 in 50.  Even with these dismal odds (who would bet on a 50-1 shot at the racetrack?) if you were to send out 8 exploratory emails you would still have a 15% chance of landing a position; send out 15 and the odds rise to 1 in 4–a heck of a lot better than the lottery!   With the universal availability of the Web, word processors, and e-mail, sending out 15 inquiries is probably not even a single day’s labor.

So, for those who have been able to stay with my mathematical arguments this far, I hope you will be motivated to send a few unsolicited emails to those dream destinations–India, Norway, Chile, Austria–described to me in your comments.  Remember, the odds are definitely in your favor!

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.)


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.