Tag Archives: No-Cost 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.)

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Monkey Business (Quite Literally)

(Note:  This is a reprint of one of my most popular posts which first appeared on November 21, 2010.  A number of readers asked me to reprise it so, as a favor to them, here it is.  Enjoy.)

One of the pleasures of extended travel is the chance to get off the beaten path; to see unusual and wacky sights not included in Fodor’s or Frommer’s but which remain in your mind long after the “biggies” of the local travel scene have faded into oblivion.  That is exactly what happened to Ruthie and me on our visit to the Kayabukiya Tavern in Utsunomiya, Japan, 50 miles north of Tokyo.

Fuku-chan Serving My Wife Sake

We were told about this unusual tavern by our son, Ben, who saw it on the ABC-TV series, I Survived A Japanese Game Show.  It is a sake house where the waiters are, honestly, macaque monkeys.  The animals bring hot towels to your table, as is traditional in Japan, serve beer, sake, and hot tea, collect the bill, and bring change.  They also accept tips, but not cash–only edamame (soy beans).   The monkeys are actual employees whose hours and working conditions have been vetted and approved by both local authorities and Japanese animal rights organizations.  When we saw these furry waiters on a You Tube video we knew this was something we had to experience for ourselves.

Fuku-chan Joining Us at the Dinner Table

We stopped at the restaurant on our return from Nikko, a major tourist center near Utsunomiya and had the privilege of enjoying drinks and dinner served by Fuku-chan (F) and Yat-chan (M) as well as meeting their two young off-spring being groomed as the next generation of waiters–when it comes to monkeys, it appears it is easier to breed new employees rather than hire them.

Yat-chan Serving Customers Wearing a Fright Mask

In addition to bringing drinks and collecting the tab, these hairy denizens also entertain guests in typical monkey style–doing back flips and balancing on balls.  However, the most unusual (and weird) part of the evening is when they don their “fright masks.”  It is strange enough to be waited on by a monkey; now imagine being served by a monkey dressed as a two-foot tall replica of Jason from the horror movie “Halloween.”  Trust me when I say this was a unique experience, and one of the reasons Ruthie and I so enjoy living and working abroad.  The Kayabukiya Tavern would certainly not be part of your standard two-week “Highlights of Japan” tour.  However, when you are overseas for two or three months, rather than two or three weeks,  you have time to discover these little known tourism gems.  Yet another reason for taking a working vacation.

If you will be going to Japan in the near future, please stop by Utsunomiya and give our regards to Fuku-chan and Yat-chan.  And don’t forget the edemame.

(Read about our life and times in Japan and more than a dozen other exotic working vacation destinations 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.

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.

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!”

Don’t Be Afraid!

One of the reasons often cited for not taking a working vacation–a short-term, one to six month overseas posting–is “What would I do with my house?”  The answer is simple:  Rent it out!

Renting your house while living and working overseas offers many benefits.  If, like me, you live in a cold-weather climate you don’t want to leave a home empty during the winter months as even the most minor furnace problem, such as a sticky pilot light, can morph into a calamity causing thousands of dollars in damage.  Another advantage is the rental income can go a long way toward making your working vacation a travel experience truly done “on the other guy’s dime.”

My wife and I will be leaving in two weeks time for a six-month sojourn in New York City–living in a spacious two-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan complements of Columbia University.  We found a lovely, professional family to live in our home–a pediatric surgeon moving to town to practice at a local hospital.  That income will certainly help us to balance the books while residing in this expensive city.

Now I know that many people are nervous about strangers living in their house for an extended period.  To that I say “Don’t be afraid!”  In the 15 times we have rented our home, 14 times we returned to a place in as good a shape as we had left it, sometimes better, especially when the renters were handy people who like to fix things.  The one time it was left dirty and messy, we used a significant portion of their rental deposit to hire a cleaning company.  After a couple of days it looked like new.

So, my advice is not to let your house be the anchor preventing you from “sailing” the world.  Pack away the breakables, valuables, and mementos, look for high quality renters, have a friend stop by occasionally to take a peek, leave the phone numbers of plumbers, electricians, and other assorted handymen, and then take off for places far and wide.  Most importantly–don’t worry!  After all, isn’t that why they invented damage deposits and homeowners insurance in the first place!

In my next post I will share my secrets for finding those desirable, high-quality professional renters who will lovingly care for your home while you are gone.