Tag Archives: Family Travel

Grabbing Life By The Short Hairs

I just finished The Art of Non-Conformity by Chris Guillebeau, a book that spoke to me like few others.  As the author says on his Amazon page, “You don’t have to live your life the way other people expect you to.  Those who are open-minded, ready to challenge the status quo, are hard-working, and personally responsible can lead lives of rare authenticity.”  Reading these words made me feel like I have shared the writings of a “soul mate.”

My colleagues at work would often inquire how my wife and I were able to take working vacations to such exotic places as Mauritius, Borneo, Bhutan, Kenya, Australia, and Mongolia.  I would respond that most of our travel took place during the three-month summer hiatus when school was not in session.  “But isn’t that when you are supposed to do your research, write books, and prepare lecture notes?” they would ask.  “Yes, but I don’t need every single summer for these tasks and, besides, there are other ways to grow and improve as an academic professional–for example, working overseas and living and learning about new cultures.  “Oh, that sounds great, but I could never do that.”   Sadly, when I hear them utter those words, I know they never will.

That, dear friends, is the crux of the problem faced by Chris and myself: Namely, there are so many people who allow the scope of their dreams to be set by others; who routinely follow the expected path through life;  who believe that other people’s perceptions of them, rather than their own desires, are what count the most.  Let me give an example of this.

In early 1990 my school, Macalester College, signed an educational and cultural exchange with Miyagi University in Sendai, Japan.  The agreement specified that every August two Miyagi faculty would visit Macalester, while every January two staff from Macalester would spend one month overseas. Visitors would stay on campus for about ten days meeting with faculty and students, giving public talks, and presenting guest lectures–not a burdensome load.  The remaining 20 days would be spent traveling the country and learning about its people, history, and culture, with all expenses covered by the host institution.  In simple terms the agreement traded one-and-a-half weeks of light academic work for a fully paid two-and-a-half week Japanese holiday!  This was a unique travel opportunity, and I submitted my application on the first day they were accepted.

Macalester has 160 full-time staff, with two selected each year.  With 80:1 odds against me I doubted I would be in the initial group and was simply hoping the exchange program would last long enough for me to reach the front of the line.  However, I had not accounted for the lethargy and lassitude of so many of my colleagues who were content following their unchanging daily routine–work, eat dinner, play with the kids, go to bed.  They watched football on Monday, bowled every other Thursday, had sex on Saturday night, and spent a week or two each summer “up at the lake.”  It is so easy to fall into this rut and, once in, so awfully hard to get out.  The end result of their inertia was that of the 160 eligible faculty ONLY THREE APPLIED, MYSELF INCLUDED!  (Sorry for shouting.)  That is so sad because reading someone else’s adventure stories may be a pleasant diversion, but it is nothing like having these adventures yourself.  Four months after submitting my application, I headed to the airport for a flight to Tokyo and four glorious weeks touring this fascinating country–all on the other guy’s dime.

For those readers who might now be willing to consider a dive into the deep end of the pool, I would like to make the following two recommendations:  First, read Chris Guillebeau’s book to inspire you to live life with gusto and bring more excitement and adventure into your daily routine. Second, read my book, On The Other Guy’s Dime, to learn the nitty-gritty details of exactly how you can do this.  Trust me, you won’t be sorry.

(Get On The Other Guy’s Dime to read about our 15 working vacations and how you and your family can duplicate these adventures for yourself.)

Why oh Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5)  Becoming a more informed American.  One’s own social and political orientation can be profoundly influenced by working vacations as you not only expand your understanding of the world but gain greater insight into what is happening right here in the U.S. For example, travel to countries with deep-seated religious strife makes you acutely aware of the terrible societal damage caused by our own homegrown zealots. Living in the midst of a culture struggling with racial and tribal hatreds sensitizes you to the hurt arising from intolerance, bigotry, and segregation. Working in a developing nation whose economic policies exacerbate the gap between rich and poor opens one’s eyes to the ugliness of greed and the shame of our society’s tolerance of poverty amidst widespread wealth.  It’s startling to see the differences in racial, cultural, and religious tolerance between those who have lived overseas and those whose excursions are limited to a week at their cabin on the lake.

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

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

The Ex-Pat Life or Not?

Our most enjoyable working vacation was a one-semester visiting position at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.  Australia was as close as my wife and I have come to becoming permanent ex-pats–quitting our jobs, selling the house, kissing friends and neighbors good-bye, and pitching our family tent in a new country.  It was that wonderful.

The Skyline of Downtown Sydney, Australia at Twilight

We found the quality of life in Sydney to be nigh-on perfect, which is saying a lot since we reside in Minneapolis, itself one of the most livable cities in North America.  Australians know how to balance the stress of work and daily life with the pleasures of food, wine, relaxation, and time spent with friends and family.  None of my colleagues gulped lunch at their desk, burned the midnight oil, stressed over research grants, or brought work home at night.  When they left the office at the sensible hour of 5PM, they relaxed on their patio, opened a Fosters, enjoyed a leisurely dinner, and played with children or friends.  Everything about this life style resonated with me, and it felt like the Aussies had discovered the secret of la bonne vie, the good life.   However, when our visit ended my wife and I chose not to stay; not to pitch that tent.  After four months in this heavenly city, our family boarded a plane for the long trek home.  The obvious question is “Why?”  If Australia held such fascination why did we choose to return?

A popular form of travel writing describes the roamings of stylishly elegant vagabonds who leave behind their home, family, and job for a new life overseas.  The stories are a paean to their suddenly über-fashionable quality of life.  For example, in A Year In Provence by Peter Mayle, a wealthy British businessman moves to the south of France to enjoy good food and wine, all the while restoring an elegant 19th century French country home. In Eat, Pray, Love an American divorcee seeks comfort and solace in Italy, India, and Bali.  (Another possibility:  Under the Tuscan Sun).

Stories of vagabond ex-pats make for superb reading and sell quite well–my readership would probably be far higher if I had stayed in Australia, bought a cattle ranch, and authored a book entitled A Year In The Outback.  However, while enjoyable, these tales suffer from a serious problem–they are totally unrealistic.  Like 99% of my readers, I have home, family, and job commitments that my wife and I either cannot or will not voluntarily abandon.  In my case I love my teaching post and the security it affords.  My children enjoy their classes, friends, and after-school activities, and our relatives live nearby, allowing us to participate in family life-cycle events.  We have a great life in Minneapolis, and we chose not to give up these bird-in-the-hand pleasures for the two-in-the-bush possibilities of a new life in Australia.

No matter how much you may love your job after a few years everyone begins to get feelings of “being in a rut.”  It is a natural human response to doing the same thing day after day.  These feelings are what fuel the dreams of wanderers like Peter Mayle and motivate them to leave everything behind.  But if most of us cannot, or will not, plunge into the ex-pat pool, what are we to do?  How do we dig out from a trench of monotony and boredom?  How do we scratch our “wanderers itch?”

The answers to these questions are the raison d’être for this blog.  For some people a week at a ski lodge or beach resort is sufficient to refresh the soul and rekindle the fires in the belly.  For the rest of us, though, it takes more– something along the lines of the temporary two- to four-month working vacations that my wife and I have done on 15 occasions–from Australia to Zimbabwe, Mauritius to Mongolia, Turkey to Tibet.  Best of all, when we are finished with a posting, we return refreshed and reinvigorated to our home, friends, family, job and regular paycheck.  No bridge burning required.

So, if you have a yearning for something a little bit different, please don’t think the only cure is to chuck it all and sail around the world, live in an Indonesian rainforest, or buy a vineyard in the south of France.  You don’t need years to renew the soul; a few months living and working overseas–i.e., a working vacation–is every bit as good a medicine for what ails you.  And if you read any of the other 128 posts on this blog you can learn exactly how to do it!

(Read more about our working vacation adventures in my book On The Other Guy’s Dime, and learn how to do it for yourself and your family.)

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.)

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.

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.