Tag Archives: free travel

Working Vacations For (Almost) Everyone!

One of the popular misconceptions about working vacations is that they are exclusively for academics–only possible during the months of June, July, and August and only to schools and colleges around the world.  At book signings and call-in shows I often get snide comments saying, in effect, “Excuse me, but I don’t teach so I don’t have the opportunity to live and work in exotic locations like you do.”  And no matter how much I try to convince them otherwise, they stubbornly cling to this mistaken notion.  Now, thanks to Mr. David Rowell, creator of the blog Travel Insider and a recent reviewer of my book, I have  additional evidence to show that this view is utterly incorrect.

In his review David referred to the Web site of the International Executive Service Corps, abbreviated IESC, a non-profit organization founded in 1964 with a focus on helping developing nations grow their business and financial infrastructure.  Their “executive service corps” model was inspired by the success of the Peace Corps, and they utilize volunteers as well as paid consultants in fields such as banking, financial services, accounting, technology management, international trade, hotel and tourism management, real estate, capital formation, natural resources, patent law, and government regulations.  Their employees currently serve in 130 countries around the globe.

Paid consulting projects vary in length from one week to several months, exactly the length of working vacations I have been espousing in this blog, and more than enough time for a superb cultural experience.  If selected as a consultant you receive air fare, housing, and a per diem allowance sufficient to cover most or all your travel expenses.  In addition, if the appointment lasts for more than 28 days, IESC includes airfare for a spouse.  Essentially, IESC allows you to travel the globe, contribute to the development of an emerging economy, and have an amazing cultural adventure all (as I have said many times before) on the other guy’s dime.

This site expands the opportunities for working vacations to include industrial, business, and financial professionals in a wide range of specializations.  If I had more time, I would also include a lengthy description of Doctors Without Borders, an international humanitarian organization that hires professionals in medicine, nursing, pharmacy, sanitation, hospital administration, epidemiology, and public health for short-term postings in 60 countries around the world.

So, please don’t fall back on the tired old argument that a one or two month working vacation is the sole purview of high school and college teachers.  Trust me when I say there is no shortage of opportunities, regardless of your specialization, only a shortage of the motivation needed to search for them and, when found, to enthusiastically go after them.

What the Heck is a Working Vacation? (Act I)

Dear Readers,

It is coming up to the one-year anniversary of my blog, and I am flabbergasted at how much it has grown.  I have reached five figures in page views and am well past a thousand unique visitors, many of them relative newcomers. While enjoying my lighthearted stories of life in England, Israel, Australia, Kenya, Turkey, Zimbabwe, and Japan (especially the monkey waiters), recent arrivals to this site may not be aware of why I am writing this blog and what I hope to accomplish. To that end I think it is a good time to revisit earlier posts explaining the purpose behind my family’s overseas jaunts. (And for those who have been with me since the beginning, a little refresher course now and then isn’t such a bad thing.)

This reprise will come in three acts:  First the what–what is a working vacation and how does it differ from the journeys, wanderings, and roamings described on countless other web sites; second, the who–who is the audience that would benefit from this advice; finally, the why–why you should be motivated to pack up your family and travel to a foreign land to work, live, and grow.

Let’s start with the what.  In this blog (and in my book) I carve out a unique travel niche–a short-term overseas career break that I call a working vacation.  What the heck is a working vacation?

1.  It involves high-level professional work.  Unlike travel blogs for twenty-somethings, I am not talking about being a nanny, au pair, waiter, or the like.  There is nothing wrong with these jobs, and they are an excellent way for recent high school and college graduates to support themselves overseas.  The problem is that many older adults mistakenly think this is the only way to live and work in another country. They are unaware that professionals such as doctors, nurses, teachers, business executives, scientists, artists, engineers, government officials, etc., are all in great demand, and international institutions will gladly pay you to come and work with them. Even though you may be well past your teens or twenties, you have the same opportunity to live and work overseas as a younger cohort.

2.  It only requires a short-term commitment.  Most professionals enjoy what they do and like the city or town where they do it.  While not averse to a short-term temporary assignment they do not want to leave home for years at a time.  Unfortunately, travel blogs for ex-pats focus on how to sell your home, quit your job, kiss friends and neighbors good-bye, and move overseas for an extended period.  But you can enjoy many of the same professional and cultural benefits in a far shorter time, as little as 1-6 months, and when the posting is completed you return to your home, job, and, best of all, your regular paycheck.  No bridge burning required.

3.  You travel on the other guy’s dime. (Hence the blog’s name)   Unlike many other travel blogs, I am not talking about volunteer tourism in which you must pay your own expenses; I am not writing for people who won the lottery, are receiving huge alimony payments, sold their business for millions, or are living off the largesse of parents or ex’es–in effect, I am not competing with Eat, Pray, Love; Under the Tuscan Sun; or A Year in Provence.  Instead, I describe how to you use your professional skills to earn enough money to pay all or most of your travel expenses–flight, housing, living costs.  The goal of a working vacation is to not dive into your own wallet to support a travel habit, but have the other guy dive into his.

Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it!  Well it is, and my wife and I have done exactly that 15 times in the past three decades.  In the coming days I will address two other questions that are probably on your mind: 1) who are candidates for this type of travel, and 2) why you really should consider it.  Let me know what you think!

Failure Is Not An Option

OK, neither plan A nor plan B worked, and I was batting 0 for 3 in my attempt to live and work on a tropical island paradise. However, it is not yet time to throw in the towel as there is also a plan C.

If all of the original contacts have turned you down, broaden your horizons to include institutions in countries that might provide you and your family with a similar, although not identical, professional, social, and cultural experience. All too often we focus so intently on that one perfect working vacation in that one perfect place that we overlook other regions of the world that could provide an equally enjoyable, not to mention rewarding and no-cost, career break.

For example, if your dream is to work in Singapore, but that carefully crafted e-mail to the National University of Singapore is a bust, consider contacting schools in Malaysia, its next-door neighbor with a closely related culture and history. If you are dying to live and work in France but that did not work out, what about nearby Francophone Belgium as an interesting alternative? Are those letters to schools in Mainland China going nowhere? Consider applying to colleges and universities in Taiwan. What about a working vacation in Iceland or Finland when the Scandinavian nations of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, have all said no?   India a non-starter for you–how about Sri Lanka?   When exploring potential sites for a working vacation it is important to be creative, flexible, and inclusive. The smaller the candidate pool the less likely your chance of success.  When it comes to working vacations, treat the entire world as your sample space.

The Beach at Flic en Flac, Mauritius, One of the Most Beautiful Places in the World

In my case, I decided to consider not just locations in the South Pacific but the Indian Ocean as well. Americans don’t usually think of the Indian Ocean in terms of glorious tropical getaways, but island nations such as the Seychelles and the Maldives could easily hold their own in any tropical beauty contest with their better-known Pacific cousins Tahiti, Fiji, and Hawaii.  I searched the Web for schools in countries rimming the Indian Ocean, and a few years later, after much time and effort, as well as further rejection, success arrived.  Ruth and I spent six glorious months living and working on the island of Mauritius, a spectacularly beautiful coral-rimmed paradise 500 miles east of Madagascar.  I had fulfilled my goal to live in the tropics, and I had done it, as this blog advertises, on the other guy’s dime!

Our Lovely Apartment in Mauritius Overlooking the Ocean. It Was Provided To Us at No Cost.

The moral of this story is that for me, and I hope for you, when it comes to locating a working vacation, delays and rejections may be unavoidable, and success may not come quickly, but total failure should never be an acceptable option

Plan A, then Plan B, then Plan C

As described in my last post, I dreamed of living and working on the island paradise of Palau.  So with a cocky swagger, I sent an email off to the head of IT at Palau Community College (PCC) and waited for his eager response. Like clockwork, a “You have mail” icon appeared within the week, but this time its contents were not at all what I wanted to see:

Dear Dr. Schneider,   Thank you for your letter but we have no need for a visiting teacher at this time. Best of luck.

Terse and direct. It certainly exuded a tone of “don’t bother following this up. We don’t have anything.”   This type of response is familiar to any struggling artist, dancer, or writer who has submitted an unsolicited manuscript, answered a cattle call audition, or pitched a movie script. It is also a response that will become familiar to anyone who uses cold calls to locate a working vacation. Much of the time you will get either a polite rejection or no response at all.

Beachcomber Island in Fiji. This is Why I Wanted to Live and Work in the South Pacific

The trick now is not to give up hope as there is a plan B.  However, before starting down that path first send a polite thank-you note saying you are sorry things did not work out but if anything comes up to please keep you in mind. The majority of time this courtesy leads nowhere, but you never know when, against all odds, someone will dig out your letter from the detritus of their inbox and give you a call.  (This is how I got to Bhutan, but that’s a story for another day.)

OK, what now? What is plan B?  Simple—when searching the Web to locate candidate institutions don’t limit yourself to just a single site. Instead, get the name of every place in the country or region that could benefit from your skills because they 1) use English, 2) have a department in your field, and 3) are in a place where you would enjoy living. Then prioritize this list and contact them in order. In a previous posting entitled A Little Mathematics, Maestro, I showed how dramatically cold calling chances improve when you increase the number of institutions contacted. Never use a “one and done” philosophy–think in terms of “the more the merrier.”

In my case I used the Web to identify two other possibilities:  the College of Micronesia and the University of the South Pacific. Both institutions had IT programs, taught in English, and were in luscious tropical locations that would certainly satisfy my idyllic fantasies. Upon receiving that initial rejection I tried again, first sending e-mail to the College of Micronesia in the Federated States of Micronesia, and then to the University of the South Pacific on the island nation of Fiji.  I wish I could say that plan B worked, but sadly, no dice. I was now zero for three. In fact, these two schools never even sent a formal rejection—not a rare occurrence. If you haven’t received a response in two or three weeks double-check that the names and e-mail addresses are correct and resend your inquiry. If you don’t hear a second time, forget it–they aren’t interested.

But, it’s still not time to give up on that dream.  There is a Plan C.

Ask, but Ye Shall Not Always Receive

Reality check time: For the last few months I have described my resoundingly successful cold-calling exploits–all sevens, blackjacks, and cherries across the bar.   These cold calls led to an amazing three-month stay in Nairobi (Hakuna Matata, No Problem Man),  a truly unique working vacation in Istanbul (Cold Call, Take Two!), and, finally, our return to the African continent to work in Harare, Zimbabwe (Back to Africa).  This unfailing good fortune might lead you to believe that traveling the world on the other guy’s dime requires nothing more than a contact name and cleverly worded e-mail, with a few academic letters after your name for good measure.  As you might imagine, this is not the case.

Yes, I had good luck in response to my blind calls, but I would be remiss if I did not also share some of my more abject failures, if only to convince you not to lose hope when the inevitable disappointment strikes. I learned this important lesson from a writing instructor in New York City, Mr. Kurt Opprecht, who walked into class the first day and proceeded to boast he had published forty articles in magazines, guidebooks, and major metropolitan dailies.   Since my own total of published travel stories was zero, I was duly impressed. But then he opened his briefcase, removed a stack three inches high, held them up for all to see, and announced he was also the proud recipient of more than three hundred rejections. His moral was clear—if you plan on becoming a professional travel writer you need a thick skin and a short memory. We can adapt his advice to our situation–if you plan on applying for a working vacation you need those two attributes as well as patience, perseverance, and a Gandhian willingness to accept rejection without losing hope.

Just remember that an initial “No thank you” response is not the end of the line; simply the first step.  In the next few posts I will provide some personal examples of cold call  rejections that ultimately morphed into fascinating, no-cost working vacations.

Listen To My Interview On Wisconsin Public Radio

On December 7th, I was interviewed by Jean Faraca of Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR) for the show Here on Earth: Radio Without Borders.  The one-hour call in show covered many of the working vacation topics presented in this blog and discussed in my book On The Other Guy’s Dime.

Sitting in the Public Radio Studios

If you would like to listen to that interview the show is available on-line.  Simply go to the WPR link http://www.wpr.org/ideas/programnotes.cfm.  At the top of the page enter the date December 7th, 2010 and click on GO.  When the day’s list of programs appear on-screen scroll down to 3PM and click Listen.  I hope you enjoy it, and please let me know what you think.  I have a number of upcoming interviews, and I would love to use your thoughts and opinions to make them as helpful as possible.

(Note: If you are in the Philadelphia metro area you can listen to me on the Brian Greenberg Show, WNJC, 1360-AM, Tuesday, Dec. 14th, at 6:45PM.)

So Far, But Yet So Near

Skyline of the Modern City of Kuala Lumpur Where I Worked For One Week Prior to Going to Japan

In the spring and summer of 2001 Ruth and I spent eight months in Kuala Lumpur, the longest of any of our fourteen working vacations.  We had a superb time, and our stay was filled with fun adventures, trips around SE Asia, even political intrigue–check out Chapter 10 of the book for those rather unusual details.  However, because of the length of our stay we saw much of what the country has to offer, and when I accepted the invitation to be an external examiner and return to Malaysia some of my friends were a bit surprised.  What they didn’t understand is that sometimes you accept a posting not only because of where a place is but also because of where a place is near.

In 1991 I spent a month in Japan (described in Getting Out of That Rut) but, sadly, without my wife–the only extended trip I have taken without her.  I promised her that someday we would return so she could see what she missed from twenty years ago.  This trip to Malaysia was the perfect opportunity.

The Atomic Dome in Hiroshima, One of The Few Building Standing After the Bomb. It Is A National Historical Monument.

The air route from Minneapolis to Kuala Lumpur is via Tokyo.  Once I accepted the school’s offer I asked my hosts to extend the layover in Tokyo on the return trip from four hours to twenty-one days!  They were happy to oblige, and I ended up with a free ticket to Japan. I did the same thing a few years later when I accepted a six-week working vacation in Mongolia that included a glorious fourteen-day stopover in China

So, when planning a working vacation don’t just think about places you want to see but also places that are nearby things you may want to see.  This way you get a “two-fer” all for the price of none!

A Witness To History

One of the joys of a working vacation, as described in Getting From Point A to Point B In Style, is the ability to add one or more interesting stops on the way to or from the host country.  After you have agreed to a contract simply ask your hosts for permission to purchase an air ticket that includes a layover in some interesting intermediate city.  Given the amount of money being committed to your visit–transportation, housing, salary–they will often be willing to absorb the insignificant $100 or so that this stop might add to their bottom line.  (This is exactly what happened on my upcoming trip to Kuala Lumpur.  My Malaysian hosts were generous enough to cover the $150 surcharge for adding a three-week stop in Japan on the return trip.)  Even if they do bill you for the layover, the cost will still be far less than purchasing an air ticket from your home to the same destination–just try flying from Minneapolis to Tokyo for $150!

After accepting a three-month teaching offer from the University of Zimbabwe and receiving authorization to purchase my ticket, I booked a flight on TAP, Air Portugal, because I could later rebook at no cost and convert our flight to Zimbabwe into not just a “two-fer,” as I had done on our earlier trip to Istanbul, but a “three-fer” with a three-day layover in Lisbon followed by a six-day stop in Cape Town, South Africa before continuing on to Harare.

We arrived in Cape Town in the late morning after an exhausting eleven-hour flight from Lisbon. Forcing ourselves to stay awake and adjust to local time, we took a leisurely walk around the city ending up at the classic Greek-columned South African Parliament building in Company’s Garden Park, totally unaware that we were about to witness a momentous historical event.

South African Parliament Building in Company's Garden Park, Cape Town

The information booth in the park informed us that the South African Parliament was being called into session in just a few minutes. Thinking this an interesting way to pass some time and stay awake we secured our entry passes and went upstairs to the visitor’s gallery unexpectedly packed with reporters, photographers, and observers. Every seat was taken and there were numerous standees, ourselves included. Was something special happening or do South Africans simply have a greater interest than Americans in the proceedings of their federal legislature? My wife and I once visited the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington DC when it was in session. There were maybe two dozen visitors in the gallery and even fewer legislators seated on the floor.

The audience hushed as President F. W. de Klerk entered the assembly, stepped to the lectern, and began addressing Members of Parliament (MPs) but, unfortunately, in Afrikaans. I thought to myself how sad I would not be able to understand a word he said, but after five minutes he smoothly, and without warning, switched to impeccable Oxfordian English. To our utter amazement, now that we could understand, he announced to everyone seated on the floor and in the visitor’s gallery that his government would, effective immediately, rescind every remaining racial segregation law still in force–he had eliminated some, but not all, apartheid statutes in a speech to the legislature two years earlier.  At that point, the conservative Afrikaner MPs stood up, turned their backs to him, and stormed from the hall as the gallery erupted in cheers and photographers sprang to their feet to snap photos.

Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk Receiving the Nobel Prize in Oslo in December, 1993

What had begun as simply an afternoon stroll to stay awake had ended with our witnessing one of the most significant moments in African history—the official end of apartheid in the Republic of South Africa. Eighteen months after listening to that speech, F. W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela shared the Nobel Peace Prize at a formal ceremony in Oslo, Norway.

Back To Africa

Even though we loved our time in Kenya, since Ruth and I subscribe to the not again school of travel (see Two Schools of Traveling Thought) we really wanted to see another part of this vast continent.  One of the pleasures of a working vacation is being able to pull out the atlas and decide for yourself where to go rather than having that destination be selected for you by a company, funding agency, or professional society.

Our Kenyan friends and colleagues told us that if we enjoyed our three-month stay in East Africa we really should consider a trip to Zimbabwe, the country called Rhodesia until 1980 when it won its independence from Great Britain in a bloody civil war. After reading about its rich culture, natural beauty, and superb historical sites, Ruth and I decided that a working vacation in Zimbabwe would be an excellent way to relive the delights of our Kenyan safari, now many years distant, but with different places to explore and new people to meet.  Not long after sending email inquiring about summer teaching opportunities at the University of Zimbabwe, the best university in the country, I received a reply from Rob Borland, chair of the computer science department, inviting me to teach at UZ during the coming winter quarter–oops I forgot about that Southern Hemisphere thing yet again!

The New Mathematics and Information Technology Building at the University of Zimbabwe

At that time Zimbabwe was the success story of sub-Saharan Africa, and its capital, Harare, was one of the loveliest cities on the continent. This is hard to fathom given conditions there today—famine, cholera, hyperinflation, and civil unrest—all thanks to a once-benevolent president, Robert Mugabe, who devolved into a brutal dictator with a death grip on power and an intolerance of public dissent.  (Conditions are actually much worse. In a recent article in the New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote “If you want to see hell on Earth, go to Zimbabwe where the madman Robert Mugabe has brought the country to such a state of ruin that medical care for most of the inhabitants has ceased to exist.”)

However, in 1992 things were quite different and Harare was a charming city of pedestrian malls, upscale shopping, and outdoor cafes, all frequented by a large, thriving black middle class. With its broad downtown avenues shaded by Jacaranda trees and lined with busy stores, it would be hard for most Americans to believe they were in Africa.  Rather than the images of ramshackle housing and malnourished children that routinely fill our newspapers and airwaves, you would encounter Africans lunching in bistros and driving late-model American and European cars on modern, well paved city streets.  It was a city that, at least in 1992, would utterly shatter your stereotype that all of sub-Saharan Africa looks like a Sally Struthers public service announcement for “Save the Children.”

This shattering of stereotypes  is another important reason to travel, especially to unfamiliar regions and places where your imaginings are far removed from the reality.  For example, a  working vacation in a country like Turkey (or Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, Malaysia) will end those misconceptions about Islam and day-to-day life in a modern Muslim society–exactly what happened to my Classics professor friend as described in Official Confirmation.  A long-term stay in a city like Mumbai, Delhi, or Bangalore will certainly change your perception that India has nothing to offer visitors but crowds, poverty, disease, and privation.  The friendliness and warmth of the residents of Nairobi (including those in the slums of Kibera) would go a long way toward ending the misguided view of Africa as nothing but tribal hatreds and violent crime.

So, on May 26th, 1992, Ruth and I set sail from the Minneapolis International Airport for a three-month teaching sojourn in the city of Harare, Zimbabwe but not before making a couple of fascinating stops along the way, in Lisbon, Portugal and Cape Town, South Africa–exactly as detailed in Getting From Point A to Point B in Style.

Getting Out Of That Rut

Most working vacations are the end-product of due diligence and hard work–making cold calls, following leads, filling out applications.  Occasionally, though, dumb luck pays a visit, and you find yourself with a golden opportunity through no effort of your own.  But even when presented with unexpected good fortune it’s surprising how many people let it slip through their grasp like water through cupped hands.

Skyline of the City of Sendai Where I Lived and Worked for One Month in 1991

In early 1990 my school signed an educational and cultural exchange with Miyagi University of Education in Sendai, Japan.  The agreement specified that every August two Miyagi faculty would visit Macalester while every January two people from Macalester would spend three to four weeks there. Visitors stay on campus for seven to ten days meeting faculty and students, giving public talks, and presenting guest lectures.  The remaining two to three weeks is spent traveling the country and learning about its history and culture, with all expenses covered by the host institution.  In simple terms the agreement traded one to one-and-a-half weeks of academic work for a paid two to three-week Japanese holiday!  To me that is the very definition of dumb luck, and I submitted an application on the first day they were accepted.

Macalester has 150 full-time faculty with two being selected to participate in the program each year.  With 75:1 odds against I doubted I would be in the initial group and was simply hoping the grant would last long enough for me to reach the front of the line.  However, I had not accounted for the lethargy and lassitude of many of my colleagues who were content following their unchanging daily routine–work, eat dinner, play with the kids, watch TV.  They played poker on Monday, bowled every other Thursday, had sex on Saturday night, and spent a week or two each summer “up at the lake.” Over and over and over.  It is so easy to unknowingly fall into this rut and, once in, so awfully hard to get out.  The end result of their inertia was that of the 150 eligible faculty ONLY THREE APPLIED, MYSELF INCLUDED!  (Sorry for shouting.)

I will give some of my colleagues the benefit of the doubt.  Roughly forty were untenured and working their butts off to get it by the end of their sixth year on campus, so I can only assume they did not want to fully disengage their noses from the academic grindstone.  Another fifty or sixty had young children and may not have wanted to travel without their spouse or leave the children with friends or family.  But that still leaves fifty or sixty senior colleagues who were either unmarried, had no children, or whose children were grown and out of the house.  Of that cohort only two showed any interest in adding some spice to their daily routine by participating in this unique Asian experience.  Because of their indifference my estimate of 75:1 odds against morphed into 2:3 odds in favor, and on January 2, 1991  I boarded a plane (with a colleague from the Economics Dept.) for a glorious, no-cost, one month Japanese adventure.

One fact that is clear to me is that there is no shortage of working vacation opportunities, only a shortage of the motivation needed to go after them.  My passion for writing this blog is not simply to relate fun stories and provide a bit of “how-to” advice.  It is also presented in the hope that these posts will motivate you to apply for a working vacation of your own. Reading someone else’s adventure stories may be a pleasant diversion, but it is nothing like the thrill of experiencing those same adventures for yourself.   No matter how enjoyable your current life may be, it can only be made even more enjoyable by the personal growth and intellectual excitement that derives from living and working, however briefly, in a new culture. Theodore Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, the beloved children’s author, captured this idea far better than I could ever hope to in Oh, the Places You’ll Go! (New York: Random House, 1990).

You have brains in your head.  You have feet in your shoes.  You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own.  And you know what you know.  And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.

So, have fun whenever you get to your ultimate destination and, please, do send me email when you arrive.