Tag Archives: overseas work

It’s The Journey

(The following is a guest post written by Ms. Carol Green of San Diego, CA, describing her own working vacations and their impact on her family.  She can be reached at cphgreen@hotmail.com)

When we began our working travels more than five years ago we knew that living abroad would be a wonderful experience. What we did not anticipate was how our cultural perspectives and vision of the world would be forever changed, not only by the places we saw but also by the people we met and the friendships we formed, friendships that continue to this very day.

Anyone who has traveled knows what a superb learning experience it can be.  However, settling into an overseas community and living and working with people from around the world makes that learning experience even more pronounced.  Since it would be impossible to describe our six summers of travel in a single guest post I’ll simply share stories of that first working vacation in 2007 and describe how the impact of our trip continued long after we returned.

My husband Jonathan accepted a two-month teaching position at an international school in England. The school covered a portion of his plane ticket, provided housing and meals, and paid a small stipend. This income made it possible to bring our family of five across the pond and, while it was not exactly free, it certainly qualifies as traveling “on the other guy’s dime.”  (Note:  Coincidentally, England was my first overseas working vacation as well. GMS)

In preparation for the trip we read dozens of books and highlighted places we wanted to see and things we wanted to do. We also had to make travel arrangements, find someone to stay in our house, take care of our dogs, and make plans for schooling our children. (Note:  All topics covered in my book. GMS)  After some frenzied preparations and a few passport scares, we were off on our first working vacation. We arrived at Heathrow and were met by a colleague who took us to our temporary home–a lovely English cottage just a block from the school. It was small but had everything we would need for our stay.  This was our family’s first lesson in living abroad—you really don’t need all that “stuff” we typically have in the U.S.

Early the next morning we awoke to our first look around.  It was rainy and green. The pebbled driveway was puddled with water, and the smell of lavender filled the air.  Ancient brick walls surrounded the school–some of them hundreds of years old. The cottage was quaint and very British; we learned later it was the servant’s cottage for the large main house that was converted into apartments for school staff. There was no television, no radio, a small refrigerator, and a washing machine in the kitchen.

Over the next few days we met the multinational faculty that hailed from around the globe, many of whom stay in touch and still influence our daily lives.  Before the end of that first day I learned another important lesson–the international people we would meet and the stories they would share would transport us far beyond England–to distant lands like Belarus, Latvia, and Kazakhstan.

Our Visit to the “Departure Terminal” of Hogwarts School

Before classes started we took a couple of family trips to London. The first was to Westminster to see the Abbey. Most of Britain’s monarchs were crowned there, from William the Conqueror in 1066 to Queen Elizabeth in the 1950’s. Being there gave both the children and us a sense of history you can’t get from books alone.  We then headed out to Kings Cross to see where the train to Hogwarts left. We found platform 9 3/4 and took turns pushing our trolleys into the world of witchcraft and wizardry.

Over the next two months we leisurely toured many other English landmarks, big and small, famous and obscure.  This was the part of the trip we had envisioned—visiting landmarks, getting a sense of history, and experiencing a new place.  But it was the people we met–neighbors, shopkeepers, students, colleagues–that made the biggest and most lasting impact.

As we settled into our life in the English countryside we learned to live, eat, and shop like Brits–Jonathan became comfortable driving on the “wrong” side of the road. I learned to do laundry in a small washer in my kitchen and put the clothes out to dry in the rain (which meant they did not dry).  I met a lady who grew vegetables in her backyard and sold them to her neighbors.  I learned that eggs are not refrigerated; cookies are biscuits, and the local convenience store closes whenever the people who work there feel like it. The owners were a lovely family from India, and over the next five summers we stayed in touch as their daughters grew and went off to college.

While I was shopping and doing laundry and Jonathan was off teaching, our children were in class making friends.  They met youngsters from Italy, Spain, Saudi Arabia, China, India, Thailand, Kazakhstan, and Korea, and over the years they remained friends with many former school chums.  They listened to stories about what other students did for fun, what they ate, and what their clothes, houses and cars were like.  Religious and political differences were discussed in ways that opened up our children’s eyes to the enormous cultural diversity of our world. (Note:  The effect that working vacations have on children can be even more dramatic than the effect on you and your spouse.  Check out “Do It For The Children.”  GMS)

We left that summer with tears in our eyes.  We knew this had been a special trip and we were eager to go back.  If that had been the end of our adventures it still would have been worth it but, fortunately, it was not.  Over the next four summers we returned to England and took side trips to Germany, France, and Belgium.  Because we were visiting for a few months, rather than a few days, we had a chance to explore interesting sights well off the beaten path.  We scaled the grassy hills of Beachy Head, searched for a sandwich in Sandwich, explored the war tunnels in the White Cliffs of Dover, watched the sunrise at Stonehenge, and got lost on a hike on the Isle of White.

When we returned home after that first working vacation I noticed what I call a “ripple effect.”  First there was the direct impact–when we read a newspaper the places they talked about were no longer strange, far off lands; instead, they were locales where colleagues lived. Natural disasters, political uprisings, financial impacts took on a more personal tone.  Where there were fires in Greece we thought of friends who lived there and emailed them “Are you OK?” When we heard about financial meltdowns in Spain and Greece we knew people personally impacted and sent out messages asking, “How are you?”

Then there were the indirect effects–the dramatic change in the cultural attitudes of our children and ourselves. Both our daughters described their experiences living abroad in their college essays and told how it had changed their view of the world.  Our daughter, Kristen, now 20, spent last summer in Chile on an international journalism grant where she wrote for an English language online magazine.  My husband participated in an educational and cultural bridge program to China and Hong Kong in 2011 and this past summer I worked with international students just 30 miles from home for British Study Centers America.  Because of these working vacations, and hopefully many more to come, our family is far more comfortable interacting with people of widely differing religious, racial, and political orientations.  Diversity is to be savored, not feared.
(If you would like to learn how to have a working vacation experience of your own, take a look at my “how-to” travel 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.)

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.) 

Grabbing Life By The Short Hairs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why oh Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Than Just Big Game

Mention Kenya to just about anyone and one word comes to mind–safari.  Most packaged tours of this East African nation consist of an endless series of visits to big game parks, with perhaps a day or two in Nairobi for souvenir shopping and nightlife. Sadly, these types of tours overlook a superb opportunity available to the African traveler–learning first-hand about the evolution of Homo erectus, the ancestor of modern man.

Anthropologists generally agree that humans first appeared on Earth in the Great Rift Valley, a scar on the landscape running more than 1,500 miles from the Middle East to southern Africa.  Most important hominid remains were unearthed in the East African section, which bisects Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania. Numerous archeological sites are located in this region, and they are often staffed by professionals eager to explain to the visitor how finds from this site contributed to our knowledge of human evolution. Given that my wife and I were in Kenya on a working vacation and would be there for well over three months, we were not about to make this mistake. We talked to my faculty colleagues at the University of Nairobi who suggested a few important  historical sites that would be both fun and informative.

So, with our trusty road map and spare auto parts in hand, Ruth and I piled into our 10-year old rented Nissan, hoping that the engine was in better shape than the bald tires and rusted body.  We headed out from Nairobi deep into the Rift Valley to visit Olorgesailie Prehistoric Site, a 52-acre national park built around an archeological dig first excavated by Drs. Louis and Mary Leakey in the 1940s.  Only 60 miles from Nairobi, it has been lovingly preserved as a field museum, complete with early hominid tools and fossils of extinct animals displayed in situ–exactly as they appeared when first uncovered.  A wooden catwalk encircles a prehistoric living area that includes a fire pit and the fossil remains of a 1.2 million year old hominid dinner. Paleontology students from the University of Nairobi conduct tours of the site explaining the significance of the artifacts and fossils on display.  Since so few tourists make it this way (Ruth and I were the only visitors that entire day) the student guides will spend as much time with you as you want and will even invite you to join them for lunch–an offer we happily accepted.  Similar prehistoric sites are found throughout the region, including Kariandusi, Koobi Fora, and Olduvai, across the border in Tanzania).

All too often African guided tours are geared for what a tour agency believes visitor want to see, not what they actually might like to see if they were aware of all available options.   Many places believe that if  you photograph the big five (lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant, rhino) your African trip has been a complete success, regardless of what other possibilities were overlooked.  One of the great thing about a working vacation is that your itinerary is not predetermined; instead, you have time to meet and talk with locals, learn about the country and what it has to offer, and discover some interesting, but perhaps lesser known, tourism gems.   That is exactly what happened to us as we enjoyed some of the amazing archeological venues of East Africa.  Combining these visits with our tours of Kenya’s superb game parks (yes, we did see the big five and much more) added greatly to the joys of our 3+ month Kenyan working vacation.

(Read more about our adventures living and working in Kenya in On The Other Guy’s Dime: A Professional’s Guide To Traveling Without Paying.)

The Endless Steppes

Within the soul of every Mongolian is the desire to live a rural, nomadic lifestyle unencumbered by the noise of the city and the smothering nearness of one’s neighbors.  On most summer weekends the capital of Ulan Bator, a city of well over one million, empties out as residents head to the mountains, the Gobi, and the steppes—those never-ending oceans of grasslands that cover well over half the country. Some people enjoy outdoor sports with horseback riding, hiking, and archery among the most popular. Swimming, boating, and water sports are a little more difficult in this frigid, landlocked country where water temperatures rarely rise about 55 degrees, even in mid-summer.

My Wife, Ruthann, Sitting On The Steps of Our Yurt

However, organized activities are not the primary purpose of these weekend outings. Many just relax in their yurts—felt covered tents—and enjoy the fresh air, endless vistas, and lack of cars, noise, and crowds. They join family and friends in groups that may total a dozen or more, eating; drinking vodka, beer, and ayrag (fermented mare’s milk); sharing stories; singing traditional folk songs; and experiencing a bit of the rural lifestyle that their parents and/or grandparents led before moving to the city and leaving the nomadic life behind–not unlike the dude ranches and campfire gatherings that try to recapture the spirit of  the American West.

The “Road” To The Yurt Camp. Which Way Do We Go?

On one July weekend my wife Ruth and I were invited to join Dr. Lkhagvasuren, the president of Genghis Khan University, his wife, Chugilma, and Nomiko, a young female student and translator, for a weekend holiday at a yurt camp 150 miles away. About one hour outside the city the paved road gave way to unmarked, rutted dirt tracks crisscrossing the grasslands in what appeared to be random geometric patterns. Lkhagvasuren, who had driven the route many times, navigated this vast, empty wilderness with a smile and an air of sureness that I took to be supreme confidence in knowing exactly where he was headed.  Fortunately, he did.

Dinner Being Prepared In Our Honor

Four hours later we arrived at the camp where a dinner was to be prepared in our honor, an honor that included selecting the sheep we would eat and watching it dragged kicking and bleating from its pen, slaughtered, and gutted in front of us so we might personally appreciate its girth and fattiness. After a few too many vodka toasts and the singing of some American folk songs at our host’s urging (I tried my hand at “Home, Home on the Range” and “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore”), we sat down to a very fresh mutton dinner. However, rather than the chops and roasts we were expecting, we dined primarily on the animal’s innards–stomach, heart, liver, and intestines. To Mongolians, these are prized delicacies and, as the guests of honor, it was presented to us as a special treat we were expected to consume with relish and gusto.

We ate (and kept down) as much as we could only to see the remaining offal brought to the table the following morning. As difficult as it was to eat this for dinner, a breakfast of cold sheep intestines soaking in milk exceeds even my ability to transcend cultural differences.  Fortunately, we were able to convince our gracious hosts that we would be quite content with toast and tea for our morning meal.

While I could not recommend the food, these amazing cultural experiences are what makes a working vacation so utterly unique and so totally different from your typical family vacation.  You really must try it.

(Read more about our Mongolian adventures in On The Other Guy’s Dime: A Professional’s Guide To Traveling Without Paying.)

The Three Wise (Business) Men

Mongolians have a saying “The Gobi is not one desert but a hundred.” It is the largest desert in Asia, covering 35% of the country, but unlike the Sahara it is a crazy-quilt mixture of mountains, steppes, and plateaus, but only 4% sand.

However, today that 4% is our destination as my wife and I enjoy a vacation from Genghis Khan University where we are both teaching.  We set out in an old, Russian-made Jeep for an area called Khongoryn Els (the “Singing Dunes” in Mongolian), a remote wilderness of rose-colored dunes, some reaching the height of a 60-story building.  The 40-mile drive from camp traverses a roadless, trackless terrain, containing not a single village, not a single farm, hardly a single person.  After an hour or so the landscape changes rapidly from flat gravel plain to a rolling seascape of sand, and the driver parks our vehicle just below one of these massive formations.  We jump out, like children at the beach, and gaze at the uninterrupted vistas and stark beauty of this place. We scamper up the dunes, run down, and climb back up again, taking endless photos and drinking in the utter and complete silence.  My wife and I look at each other fully aware that we are standing in the most sparsely populated region of the most sparsely populated country on Earth and quietly contemplate that isolation.    That is until…

Mongolians and Their Camels in the Gobi Desert

We turn around to see three Mongolians, three camels, and a dog lumbering up the dune.  They seem to have materialized out of thin air as a 360o scan of the area reveals no villages, no yurts, no dwellings of any sort.  Are they rangers?  (This part of the Gobi is a National Park.)  Do they need food or water? Are they part of a commercial caravan to Dalanzadgad, the only town of any size but well over 100 miles distant?  Worst of all, do they wish us harm?  (Our driver is relaxing in the Jeep at the base of the dune, quite far away and out of earshot.)   When they reach the top they dismount, smile, (we breathe a sigh of relief), open the pack carried on the back of one of the camels, and proceed to set up and display their wares–an impressive collection of handmade Gobi souvenirs!

Portable Souvenir Shop in the Middle of the Remote Gobi

Aside from our surprise at encountering anyone in this trackless wilderness, let alone three Mongolian entrepreneurs, we do not understand how they knew we were coming.  We saw no one on the drive, passed no telephone poles, saw no WiFi “hotspot” signs, not even a smoke signal on the horizon.  Yet, somehow our presence quickly and efficiently triggered their arrival and the creation of this portable tchotchke shop. My wife and I could only laugh at our earlier imaginings of being in the remotest place on Earth–true, but not too remote to conduct a little business.

We haggled, bought a stuffed camel for our grandson, paid for it, and smiled back at them, our only common language.  Once they realized we were finished buying, they bundled up their wares, loaded them onto the pack camel, and trudged back down the dune.  We wanted to see exactly where they were heading, but they passed out of sight over the next hill, probably to locate other tourists who will, like us, marvel at their unexpected appearance.

(Read more about our experiences living and working in Ulan Bator, Mongolia in my travel book On The Other Guy’s Dime.)

On The U.S. State Department’s Dime

In an earlier post (The Clues Are All Around You) I addressed the single most common question from readers of this blog:  “OK, you convinced me of the personal, professional, and cultural benefits of short-term working vacations.  Now, how do I find them?”  Fair question, and in that post I talked about one possible technique–being hypersensitive to clues about overseas opportunities that appear in newspapers, magazines, TV, and radio, and which emerge from on-line discussions and personal interactions.  Some of my most rewarding postings came about from something I read, such as an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about summer school teaching shortages in Israeli universities, or something I saw on TV–a news segment about the Royal University of Bhutan, the first university in that remote Himalayan hideaway.

However, there is an even better source for working vacations–the Fulbright Grants Program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. The  Fulbright program is the single greatest source of paid overseas opportunities in the world–each year they pass out 1,200 grants to 140 countries for periods ranging from three weeks to one year.  I have been lucky enough to receive four–Mauritius (1995), Malaysia (2001), Nepal (2004), and Mongolia (2006).  If you are a teacher, doctor, nurse, lawyer, engineer, scientist, artist, musician, librarian, or other skilled professional, there is a high probability that Fulbright has a need for someone with exactly your skills.

In the coming weeks and months I will be authoring a series of articles about the Fulbright program, including some “tricks of the trade” for writing a successful proposal.  (I am batting .800, with four out of five.)  These posts will be on a site entitled The Wandering Educator, and I want to invite everyone to read them–I will post links to the articles as soon as they appear.  Even though they are on a Web site meant primarily for educators please remember that the Fulbright program is NOT, repeat NOT, limited to academics.  It is open to any U.S. citizen with a useful skill, a sense of adventure, and a desire to see the world.

The first post, entitled “The Fulbright Program,” went up today, and it highlights a number of common misconceptions about the program.  If you have been motivated by the arguments in my blog to consider a working vacation then these are posts you simply must read.  As I write in that initial article:

Fulbright is the very essence of what is so great about working vacations: You have an amazing cultural experience, become part of a fascinating overseas community, and do not quit your job, sell your home, or kiss friends and family a permanent good-bye–they will all be waiting for your return.  Best of all, you do all this on the other guy’s dime!

The Flying Postman of Broken Hill (Rerun)

(The following story first appeared on June 7, 2010.  I think readers who did not see it at that time will enjoy looking at it now.)

One of the joys of a working vacation is that it gives travelers time to uncover a region’s hidden gems–those quirky, idiosyncratic places too often overlooked by Frommers or The Lonely Planet but which give you a good feeling for life in the host country.  Well, quirky is the very essence of a place called Broken Hill, Australia.

Typical Red Rock Landscape of the Australian Outback

The Australian outback is a starkly beautiful area but, because of temperature extremes (summer temps of 120F are not unusual), poor infrastructure, and immense distances, it can be difficult to visit.  Many tourists skip the region entirely, limiting themselves to the urban pleasures of Sydney and Melbourne and the clear blue waters of the Great Barrier Reef.  Adventuresome types who venture into the outback usually do so on a two- or three-day fly in to Alice Springs and Ayers Rock, the two main tourist centers.  However, limiting yourself to these popular destinations is like visiting Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon and thinking  you have experienced everything the American Southwest has to offer.

My wife and I were on a working vacation to Sydney, Australia where I was teaching at the University of New South Wales.  Our three-month posting gave us sufficient time to investigate some of the interesting destinations that lie beyond the skyline of Sydney, including the barren landscapes of the Australian outback only a few hundred miles inland.  Based on recommendations from colleagues and neighbors, we set off during school holiday for a part of the outback rarely visited by tourists–the small mining town of Broken Hill, about 630 miles west of Sydney.  We boarded the  transcontinental Indian-Pacific express for our 12-hour train trip and watched in fascination as the lush greenery of the Pacific coast gave way to an austere, arid land that shimmered orange and ochre-red in the setting sun.

We arrived the next morning in a place that could easily have been the setting for a John Ford western.  Broken Hill was settled in the 1870s when a massive silver deposit was discovered nearby, followed soon by valuable caches of zinc and lead.  Like roughneck mining towns of the American West (think Deadwood or Dodge City) it grew quickly and was a haven for drinking, gambling and prostitution.  However, in the 1970s and 80s, as metal prices declined and mining employment dwindled, Broken Hill and the surrounding region had to reinvent itself, and today its major industries include sheep farming, craft shops, movie production (Mad Max 2, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), and a nascent tourism industry to which we were happy to contribute.

The Famous Palace Hotel in Broken Hill.

We toured an underground silver mine, visited the galleries and craft shops lining Main Street, took a walking tour of historic buildings (including the famous Palace Hotel built in the 1880s, see photo), and learned about the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia and School of the Air which meet the medical and educational needs of a region where the nearest public school may be 500 km distant and the closest pharmacy a 10 hour drive!  However, the highlight of our stay was the day spent with Mr. David Furnell, the famous “Flying Postman of Broken Hill,” whom we contacted from Sydney to book a most unusual outback tour.

Once a week Mr. Furnell pilots his single engine plane to more than two dozen sheep stations strewn around the outback, carefully avoiding the kangaroos playing tag on the runway.  To ward off boredom he invites guests to join him for the day, at absolutely no cost, as he lands, takes off, lands, takes off, … dropping the week’s collection of mail into steel drums, broken refrigerators, old washing machines, and other weird postal receptacles plunked down at the end of the makeshift runways.  If the station owners are home they often welcome Dave and his “temporary assistants” in for lunch and conversation, especially as they may be the first visitors at the station in weeks.

The Famous Flying Postman of the Outback (Photograph courtesy of AAPImage, Australia)

I cannot imagine a better way to learn about life in the outback than seeing it from an altitude of a few hundred feet and sharing a sandwich and cold drinks with ranchers striving to eke out a living in this remote landscape.  It gave us a good sense for what outback life is really like for those who struggle against this harsh and unforgiving landscape.  I doubt if your typical two-week “Highlights of Australia” tour would include sufficient free time to allow you and your family to spend a day with Mr. Furnell and residents of the sheep stations of Western New South Wales.  Pity!

So, when enumerating the many reasons for choosing a working vacation in place of your standard family holiday, add to that list a chance to get off the beaten path and see parts of the country casual tourists will never experience.