Tag Archives: Family Travel

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.)


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David Brooks, Redux

About two months ago I wrote a post entitled The Haimish Line based on a New York Times op-ed article by David Brooks.  His essay touched me so deeply that I wrote a blog entry to express my enthusiasm and support.

Well, he’s done it again.  On October 28th Brooks authored an op-ed piece entitled The Life Report that hit so close to home it felt like it was written just for me.  His ruminations on why people choose to follow, or not to follow, their dreams addresses the central theme of this blog and could not be a more apt topic for discussion.  So, for a second time, I offer a post based on his writings; let’s call it “David Brooks, Redux!”

Brooks describes a collection of reminiscences written for the 50th reunion of the Yale class of 1942. While a few stories were inspiring and spoke of years enjoyed to the fullest, the majority lamented a rather mundane and pedestrian life that was endured not enjoyed; a passive existence in which events happened to them rather than a life aggressively forged to match their hopes and dreams. For example, Brooks tells how one man looked back on an uneventful career at an insurance company and concluded “Wish my self-profile was more exciting, but its a little late now.”  He relates the bittersweet memories of those who lament the path not taken.  “I deeply regret not moving to Australia when I was married there 25 years ago.”

Those who did have a fulfilling and satisfying fifty years describe the role that chance played in enriching their lives–”a pivotal and thoroughly unexpected moment that changed everything and took their life in a new direction mid-course.”  As I look back on my own “Life Report” I see exactly that pattern–a pivotal moment that changed my life forever.  In this case it was an offer to live and work abroad, an opportunity described in My London Epiphany. Until then I was a conventional, 35-year-old college professor with a good job, great wife, two kids, and house with a picket fence. (Sorry, no dog.)  By any measure life was good, but I was in a rut; life was simply happening, not being molded or directed.  Without a mid-course correction there is no doubt I would now be writing about my gold watch, grandchildren, and golf game rather than hiking the Himalayas, taking a camel safari in the Gobi, and living on a tropical island paradise.

After receiving that offer I closed my office, rented the house, and moved the family to England for three and a half months. Thank God I was willing to take that initial risk because this working vacation opened my eyes to other opportunities to live in exotic locales, experience new cultures, and have adventures usually seen only in National Geographic.  That initial posting was followed by 30 wonderful years of travel and work in such faraway places as Zimbabwe, Kenya, Turkey, Mauritius, Australia, Malaysia, Borneo, Israel, Nepal, Mongolia, and Bhutan–experiences described in my memoir On The Other Guy’s Dime: A Professional’s Guide To Traveling Without Paying.

People tell me that I am lucky to have traveled the world and had so many amazing adventures. I am lucky only in the sense of being given the opportunity to change the direction of my life.  However, those opportunities are not unique to me;  in fact, you had one yourself when you began reading this blog, which explains how you and your family can have exactly the same type of experiences.

So, it is not a question of having the chance to set sail in a new direction; that chance is out there waiting for you.  Instead, it’s a question of what you do with that chance–whether or not you have the gumption and the spirit to take a risk and try something completely new.  That risk may pay off; it may not–life does not come with guarantees.  However,  Brooks ends his essay by saying that in all the reports he read from the class of 1942 “nobody regretted the risks they took and the life changes they made, even when they failed.”

Working Vacations and The Book of Mormon

In previous posts I offered reasons why you should consider living and working overseas:  intellectual excitement, international friendships, low-cost (sometimes even no-cost) travel, and a learning opportunity for young children, to name just a few.  Well in this post I want to add another reason, possibly the most important one of all:  Do it for yourself!  Do it to bring deeper and more meaningful social, cultural, political, and spiritual values into your everyday life.  Do it to become a better person.

Last week my wife and I saw the most popular show now running on Broadway:  The Book of Mormon.  It is a riotous, raucous, and hilarious musical comedy written by the team that created South Park.  It tells the story of two young Mormon acolytes who go on a “working vacation” mission to Uganda to convert the locals.  They arrive in Africa with an air of arrogance and cultural superiority so common to those who are certain they possess the truth. However, in addition to great music and outrageous humor, the play has a lot to say about how we can change and grow as individuals by living in a  different culture and experiencing new ways of doing things.  At the conclusion of the play the missionaries are learning from as well as teaching the villagers, and each group is sharing their unique customs and traditions with the other.

Well, similar change can happen to anyone who takes a working vacation, and it is one of the most important reasons to escape, however briefly, that comfortable “cocoon” we have created in our daily lives.   One’s social and political outlook can be profoundly influenced as you not only expand your understanding of the world around you but also gain greater insight and empathy into what is happening right here at home.

For example, travel to countries with deep-seated religious strife makes you more aware of the terrible societal 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—both physical and spiritual—arising from intolerance, bigotry, and segregation. Working in a developing nation whose economic policies exacerbate the gap between rich and poor can open one’s eyes to the ugliness of greed and the shame of our own society’s tolerance of abject poverty amidst widespread wealth.

One of the most common characteristics I have observed among individuals who fear differences–racial, religious, sexual–is that they rarely travel to places with a unique culture or experience distinct spiritual and religious practices.   Simply put, they rarely venture outside that safe and often highly homogeneous cocoon.  If they did they would come to understand, like those young Mormons, that there is no one “absolute religious truth” but rather many truths that we might want to experience, understand, and respect.  They would learn, like those young Mormons, that the differences between people are far less important than the similarities.  As Mark Twain wrote in Innocents Abroad, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely.”  Indeed, they do.

Another Great Working Vacation Website

In my last post I identified an excellent online resource for short-term volunteer postings:  Volunteer Stays.  This is the fourth time I have brought a working vacation resource to the reader’s attention:  Transitions Abroad, described in the post A Great Web Site for Working Vacation Planners; International Executive Service Corps, a site listing overseas positions for business and financial specialists discussed in Working Vacations for (Almost) Everyone; and, finally, Doctors Without Borders, a portal containing all sorts of wonderful short-term opportunity for a wide range of health professionals.

Well, I would like to raise that number to five by identifying another outstanding working vacation blog, The Wandering Educator, a site that is, in their own words, “A Global Community of Educators Sharing Travel Experiences.”

My "Official" Badge as an Editor of the Wandering Educator Web Site

(Full disclosure:  I was recently named Academic Travel Editor for this site and have contributed articles.)   The Wandering Educator is not so much a searchable enumeration of overseas jobs as it is a collection of stories, travel memoirs, and words of encouragement from teachers who have lived and worked overseas and who wish to share those experiences with friends and colleagues.   For example, the site currently contains articles about the benefits of taking academic leave for periods as short as one week, one scholar’s working vacation experiences in the townships of Johannesburg, South Africa, and arguments for why a working vacation can help you get out of that academic rut.  The site also contains links to useful travel resources such as book reviews, information on home rentals, and inexpensive airline and train tickets.

If you are a teacher, at any level, considering a short-term working vacation you really should give this Web site the once over.  And, if you are not yet among this cohort you definitely should read my book, On The Other Guy’s Dime, as well as some of the postings on this blog to get yourself into that frame of mind.

The Haimish Line (with Apologies to David Brooks)

David Brooks, a well-known columnist for the NY Times, wrote an essay entitled “The Haimish Line” that I would love for everyone to read. (It is available at www.nytimes.com/2011/08/30/opinion/brooks-the-haimish-line.html.)

According to Brooks, the Yiddish word haimish suggests “warmth, domesticity, and unpretentious conviviality.”  It is the feeling you have at holiday time when sipping wine, telling stories, and laughing for the thousandth time at Uncle Louie’s bad jokes.  It is the emotions that wash over you when sharing good food and good times with close friends.  It is the comfort you sense when you are someplace friendly and familiar.  Finally, and the reason I want you to read this article, it is the experience you have when you go on a working vacation and become part of a neighborhood, community, and country.

In the article Brooks tells a story about spending time with his family at some basic safari camps in Kenya devoid of the luxuries routinely available at more upscale African retreats. As Brooks describes it:  “These simple camps were friendly, warm and familial. We got to know the other guests at big, communal dinner tables. At one camp we got to play soccer with the staff on a vast field in the Serengeti before an audience of wildebeests. At another camp, we had impromptu spear-throwing and archery competitions with the kitchen staff … I can tell you that this is the very definition of heaven for a 12-year-old boy.”

When the family then moved to a more luxurious camp the results were rather surprising.  “These more elegant camps felt colder. At one, each family had its own dinner table, so we didn’t get to know the other guests. The tents were spread farther apart. We also didn’t get to know the staff, who served us mostly as waiters, the way they would at a nice hotel …  It occurred to me that when we moved from a simple camp to a more luxurious camp, we crossed an invisible Haimish Line. The simpler camps had it, the more elegant ones did not.”

I have the same feelings when traveling.  When I am on a working vacation I do not simply go to famous sights–museums, churches, galleries–but also try to become an integral part of the local culture.  I make friends, meet neighbors, shop at area merchants, and attend social, cultural, and religious events.   I travel to important locales as well as “off the beaten path” places tourists rarely see but give a deeper appreciation for a country’s soul–like a foreign visitor attending a State Fair. Like my times spent with friends and family, these working vacations were warm, friendly, and convivial.

However, when traveling  on my “own dime,” staying in hotels, eating in restaurants, and viewing a country through the windows of a tour bus, I rarely feel like I am coming to understand a country and its people.  While certainly appreciating the sights, food, and leisure, my interactions with the culture are usually formal and distant.   I am seeing a country but not feeling it.  I am enjoying a country but not experiencing it.  To quote Brook’s own words, I  have crossed that invisible “Haimish Line.”

Brooks finishes his column with some wonderful advice:   “Buy experiences instead of things;  Buy many small pleasures instead of a few big ones.”  This is one of the best arguments I can think of for taking a working vacation–it is truly an experience you will never forget.

No Reason Not To

When first given the opportunity to live and work overseas I was rather reluctant.  After receiving an offer of a paid three-month visiting position at Imperial College I thought of dozens of reasons why this absurd idea would never work.  (These fears and doubts are described in “My London Epiphany.”) Fortunately, my wife Ruth is far more willing to consider new things and was able to convince me to give it a try.  (I think her exact words were “Dammit, this will be fun. Let’s do it!)  She was right, very right, and for the past 30 years we have lived all over the world happily letting others pick up the tab!

One of the goals of this blog is to play a role for you similar to the one my wife played for me–refuter of those “ready-made” arguments against the adventure of a lifetime; debunker of the beliefs that convinced you that living and working overseas is something only “others” do, not you or your family.  So, for those of you reading my posts but certain that I am not talking to you, please read on:

Argument #1)   Michael, you are a college professor, someone of high intellectual achievement.  I don’t have either the resume or reputation to do what you did.

Response:  “Negative Vibes”, “I Can Do This”

Argument #2)  Michael, I am far too busy at work to think about taking a month or two away from my desk.  No can do.

Response:  “It’s About The Time, Not Just The Dime”, “What The Heck Is A Working Vacation (Part II)”

Argument #3)  What would I ever do with our house while living overseas for a few months?

Response: “Don’t Be Afraid” , “How To Rent Out Your House”

Argument #4)  OK, but even if I do rent out my home, how will I ever find a place to live overseas?

Response:  “It Really Wasn’t All That Difficult”

Argument #5)  I don’t know anyone over there.

Response:  “Making Friends, Meeting Locals.”

Argument #6)  Mike, I am really worried about what to do my wife or one of my kids got sick while we were living overseas.

Response:  “Staying Healthy, Staying Solvent”

Argument #7)   Excuse me, Michael, I have young kids at home. What would you propose I do with them!

Response:  “Do It For the Kids”

Now I am sure you can come up with additional excuses I have not anticipated and not yet written about, especially if your goal is avoiding an exotic, no cost, overseas adventure with your family.  However, since you are reading my blog I can only assume that this is not what you want, and that you, like me, will eventually heed my wife’s sage advice given to me all those many years ago:  “Dammit, it was fun.  Go do it!”

New York, New York

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

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

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

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

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

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