Tag Archives: free travel

Having Your Own Travel Epiphany

In May, 1980 I took my first working vacation to London, England–an experience described in London Epiphany and Living and Learning in Chiswick. At the time I was an inexperienced traveler who had barely laid eyes on other regions of the U.S., let alone the world.  However, in spite of all my doubts and fears, the posting ended up being a professional, financial, and personal success.  In those three-plus months I started the transformation from someone far too insular, closed-minded, and comfortable with his surroundings into, if not yet an experienced world traveler, at least someone open to new experiences and no longer afraid to venture beyond self-imposed boundaries.

I realized this was not a once-in-a-lifetime adventure that came about because of miraculous good fortune, and it did not happen because I am a world-class scholar with one-of-a-kind skills.  It occurred simply because I was willing to take a risk and experience something new and different in my life.  I came to understand that, even though I was an unheralded and little known academic from a small Midwestern liberal-arts college, my skills could be of use to not only Imperial College (where I worked) but other schools around the world.  This realization was a travel epiphany that changed my life forever.   With a little bit of planning and effort I was able to locate other opportunities to combine work and travel, mix professional, personal, and cultural growth, and contribute to and learn from others, all at no cost to me or my family.  What is so stunningly obvious today—that I possess skills of sufficient interest to overseas institutions that they would pay me to temporarily live and work in their country—struck like a thunderbolt thirty years ago.

My Wife Teaching Young Buddhist Monks During Our Working Vacation At Thimphu College in Thimphu, Bhutan

Since that initial posting my wife and I have lived overseas fifteen separate times, for periods ranging from one to eight months, never quitting our day jobs and never once reaching too deeply into our wallets.  We have gazed at Everest, traveled the Gobi by camel, lived among indigenous tribes of Borneo, viewed the wildlife of Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and Kenya, frolicked on the beaches of Mauritius, and shared the hospitality of Buddhist monks in Bhutan, with all expenses happily and willingly paid for by others.

On Our Drive From Kathmandu, Nepal to Lhasa, Tibet During My Working Vacation At The University of Kathmandu.

My goal in this blog is for you to have that same epiphany–to realize that living and working overseas is a doable, affordable, and intellectually exhilarating experience whether for a month or a year; whether teaching, engaging in research, or consulting; whether in Asia, Africa, Europe, or the Americas; with or without family. You don’t need to be a superstar, and you don’t have to be in one specific area. Institutions around the world are eager to host professionals for short-term stays in fields such as business, IT, infrastructure development, education, economics, women’s rights, law, family medicine, urban planning, community theater, and conflict resolution, to name but a few.

You need to discard the incorrect belief that the only way to work overseas is to quit your job, kiss friends good-bye, and head out for an extended, multi-year stay.  You need to discard the mistaken belief that you have neither the résumé nor the reputation to apply for and secure a short-term international position.    What is important is not your wealth, pedigree, or specialization but a sense of adventure and a willingness to open your mind to the possibility of a temporary sojourn in a new and exotic locale.

(Read about our fifteen working adventures and learn how to do the same for yourself and family in my travel “how-to” book: On The Other Guy’s Dime:  A Professional’s Guide To Traveling Without Paying.)

It’s Not Either-Or. It’s Both.

Important decisions don’t have to be “either-or” affairs: black-and-white with no middle ground.  We don’t tell women they must choose between children or working outside the home–many do both by going part-time, hiring outside help, or having a spouse take on the duties of child rearing.  Following graduation we don’t tell our children they must go to college or find full-time work.  Many young people spend a “gap year” seeing the world while others opt for short-term stints in the military, Peace Corps, or with charitable groups.

The same is true about living and working overseas.  It isn’t a black-and-white choice between blindly remaining in your day job or having amazing travel adventures.  People mistakenly assume the only possible way to live overseas is to sell the house, kiss friends and family good-bye, and head out with no set return date.  This is fueled by books and movies that describe what I call the “Wandering Nomad” mode of travel.  Most of us have read stories like Under the Tuscan Sun and A Year in Provence, or have seen movies like Eat, Pray, Love that glorify the ex-pat who leaves the cubicle behind for exotic adventures across the ocean.

I just finished a popular travel book that fits perfectly into this genre–Wondrous Journeys: The World is Waiting for You by Dean Jacobs.  Dean was a marketing specialist who, after a decade of success at his chosen occupation, gave it all up to see the world.  He bought a travel hat and a world map, spread the map out and said, “I can go anywhere I want.  Where do I begin?  What have I always wanted to see?”   His dreams resulted in a two-year journey to 28 countries.  Today he is still traveling and giving talks to audiences around the U.S.   Sounds great, right?  Yes, but let’s be brutally honest.  Many of us enjoy the jobs we have and the financial security they afford.  We love the communities we live in, and the friends and family near us.  We have important commitments we will not throw under the bus.  We can’t simply chuck everything we have, but we would love to add something new and exciting to our daily routine.

There is a solution to this conundrum, and it is based on the original premise of my post:  Living and working overseas does NOT have to be an either-or proposition.  You don’t have to choose between 40-years and a gold watch vs. pulling a Dean Jacobs, selling everything, and sailing a 36-footer around the world.  In short, you don’t have to become a wandering nomad.  There is a reasonable middle ground–a middle ground that I call a working vacation–a short-term job (typically 2-6 months) that affords you the cultural and social benefits of a typical overseas posting without having to burn bridges behind you.  It allows you to refresh and renew your daily routine and your professional career while allowing you to return to your home, job, and regular paycheck when finished.  Working vacations are a realistic option for any skilled professional with the desire to see the world and become a more informed global citizen.  I know from what I speak as my wife and I have been on 15 of these amazing adventures in the past 30 years–Mauritius to Mongolia, Turkey to Tibet, Borneo to Bhutan–without ever having to open up my wallet or quit my day job.  No matter how much you enjoy your current position a working vacation can be a truly transformative personal experience, and it is something you should seriously consider.  Please let me teach you how.

(Read about Michael and Ruth Schneider’s working vacations around the world, and learn how to have these amazing adventures for yourself in his travel “how-to” book: 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.

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!

Driving in Nepal: The Ultimate in Adventure Tourism

I used to believe that driving the Dan Ryan or FDR at rush hour would be the most stressful activities you could undertake. Fuggedaboutit!  Nepalese drivers make New York cabbies look like models of decorum. The primary rule of road behavior in Kathmandu is “Blink and die!”  Passing on curves and driving on the sidewalk don’t rate a second mention in the litany of traffic sins, while a cow sleeping in the road is not unusual.  Turning, passing, stopping, and merging are indicated via honking so you can only imagine the cacophony ringing around you as you drive.  As for traffic “infrastructure,” ha.  Lane markers—you gotta be kidding me; stop signs—in your dreams; traffic lights—when the messiah comes. The most important infrastructure available to the Nepalese driver is a good bumper and firm seat belts.

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Our Lovely Four Bedroom Home in Kathmandu

While my wife and I were on a three month working vacation in Nepal I had to travel 30 km (18 miles) to work from our lovely home in Kathmandu (see the photo–and, yes, that was really our home) to the university campus in Dhulikhel high in the foothills of the Himalayas.   I had a rental car at my disposal and thought it would be a quick trip since the two cities are connected by the Arneko Highway, the main East-West road link for the entire nation.  Unfortunately, this lifeline of commerce and transportation is not quite as wide as the side street in front of my home and nowhere near as well maintained!  The craziness I saw every morning and evening was made even worse by the range of vehicles using the road.  The Arneko Highway contains an equal mix of cars, overloaded trucks straining to reach 10 mph, buses spewing coal black exhaust, motorcycles, mopeds, bicycles, pedestrians, cows, and (yes) lawnmowers. This last one confused me, since I didn’t think lawn maintenance was a major concern of the Nepalese. It turns out used riding lawnmowers are less expensive than mopeds and, as long as you don’t mind the leisurely 4-5 mph, a cheap form of motorized transport!

Even worse, the local highway police assume that all foreign visitors are rich and able to pay the full cost of an accident. So, instead of a “No fault” model of auto insurance, they use a “Your fault” model.  Even if a cow walks directly into your fender, you will be held liable.  So far I have not had to test this theory but I cannot imagine, what with the carnage I see every day, that my turn is not just around the next bend.  I am deeply committed to my Jewish heritage, but I am seriously thinking of placing a St. Francis on my dashboard as I need everyone on my side.   For now, wish me well.  Work is over and I am heading out on the road to go home …

(Note:  About 3 days after writing this article, I gave my rental car back to the agency and relied on a local bus to get to work.  I was far happier and a lot less stressed!)  

Volunteer Tourism

I want to thank reader Adele for posting the following comment:  “Michael, I recommend you check out Volunteer Stays!”  Well, I did and discovered that it is a Web site whose goals, described on their home page, are virtually identical to those of my own book and blog:

“You’re not interested in packaged vacations. You want to see the world and experience other cultures and ways of life. You need a little adventure in your life, and you know that the best vacation memories are the ones that involve a connection…to people, to nature, to the undiscovered parts of yourself.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself!  So, if a volunteer posting overseas piques your curiosity, check it out.  The site has a search feature that allows you to list your professional skills, dates available, and countries or regions in which you are most interested.  It then tries to locate an overseas job that best matches those desires.  Right now there are not a slew of positions but, hey, it’s rather new so cut it some slack.  I am sure the number of listings will grow rapidly in the coming months, and you can check back as many times as you want to see what is available.

I only ask you to remember one thing:  Unlike the positions described in my blog this is volunteer work, usually about 20 hours per week–enough free time to enjoy the physical, cultural, and historical sights of a region.  But you will be responsible for transportation and visa costs and will not receive a salary, although in most cases you will be provided with accommodations and meals.

My book on the new arrivals table at the Columbia Book Store. Only one left!

So, if you can get away from home for a while and subsist without a salary (e.g., retired,  student on holiday or summer vacation, just won the lottery) Volunteer Stays is a great way to locate a temporary position overseas, settle in, and become an integral part of a new and different culture.  It is also a great way to turn that holiday into an opportunity to help others.  However, if  receiving a salary is a non-negotiable feature of any position you would accept, then please check out the paid working vacation strategies described in my book, On The Other Guy’s Dime.