Tag Archives: overseas work

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.)

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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.

The Why and the Wherefore

I have argued, rather vociferously, for skilled professionals to take working vacations–short-term, overseas postings which pay enough to cover most or all your expenses and do not require you to quit your day job.  Well, a reader wrote me asking a rather simple question:  “Why the heck should I close my house, pack up the kids, and schlep halfway around the world just to work for a couple of months? I am quite comfortable where I am!”

Fair question.  In fact its a question that gets to the heart of this blog and its 112 posts!  It isn’t trivial to plan and pull off a working vacation–it takes time to apply for a sabbatical or leave of absence; it takes time to rent a home; it takes time to find housing and transportation in the host country; it takes time to plan activities and schooling for young children.  It is far easier to simply open a cold beer and enjoy a Twins game.   Therefore, to answer this straightforward question, let’s talk a bit about the whys and wherefores of working vacations.

When we were teens or twenty-somethings many of us relished the idea of living, not just traveling, abroad. We dreamed of heading off to Europe after graduation (and a good number actually did) to experience a new culture, make new friends, and mature as young adults and global citizens. We were not interested in a one week “Highlights Tour” or dashing past a few major tourist attractions. Instead, we wanted to settle down, learn the language, find employment, and become part of the local community, even if only for a few months. Why should this love of cultural adventure fade as we grow older? Why should we abandon our idealism and wanderlust because we have added a few years, a few pounds, and a few dependents? Why aren’t we still as passionate about the joy and excitement that accrues from living and working abroad?

The Beach at Flic en Flac on Mauritius Where We Lived For Six Glorious Months While on a Working Vacation

When you live in a community, rather than drop in for a few days, you have time to meet neighbors, attend social, cultural, and religious events, and participate in local activities. Everyday tasks like shopping, laundry, even getting a haircut, require you to learn about the neighborhood and the people who live and work there. A short-term working vacation affords you time to take those off-the-beaten-path excursions not possible in the jam-packed schedule of a one- or two-week family holiday. You learn about a culture not by observing it from a distance but by becoming part of it.

One’s own social and political philosophy can be profoundly changed on working vacations as you not only expand your understanding of the world but also gain insight into what is happening right here at home.   Travel to countries with deep-seated religious strife makes you acutely aware of the damage caused by our own homegrown zealots. Living in the midst of a culture struggling with racial or tribal hatreds sensitizes you to the hurt arising from intolerance, bigotry, and segregation. Working in a developing nation whose economic policies exacerbate the gap between rich and poor opens one’s eyes to the ugliness of greed and the shame of our society’s tolerance of poverty amidst widespread wealth. As Mark Twain once said, “Travel is fatal to bigotry, prejudice, and narrow-mindedness … .”

And, best of all, short-term overseas work is a wonderful way to invigorate one’s  own life which can, no matter how much you love what you do, slip into a pattern of repetition and boredom–go to work, eat dinner, watch TV, fall asleep.  As the Roman philosopher Seneca said “Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.”   For many skilled professionals this type of transformative work experience is far more rewarding than a Caribbean cruise or a couple of weeks at a B&B.  A short-term working vacation is a wonderful way to combine the relaxation of a holiday with the intellectual growth and excitement of interacting with and learning from local residents and professionals.  And all this on the other guy’s dime!

(Read about our adventures living and working in Mauritius in my book, On The Other Guy’s Dime.)


Poverty Tourism

(This article first appeared on June 30, 2010. I thought it was interesting enough to warrant a “rerun” and hope you will agree.)

A friend from Minneapolis gave us the name of a former parish priest, Father George, who left his pulpit in Minnesota to work with the Missionaries of Charity in Nairobi, a worldwide organization established by the Nobel Peace Prize winner Mother Teresa.  Its volunteers, both lay and clergy, are committed to helping the neediest members of society—lepers, AIDS sufferers, street children, the homeless. Soon after our arrival in Kenya for a three-month working vacation, we contacted Father George who invited us to join him as he made the rounds of Kibera, a place utterly unimaginable to anyone who has not traveled outside the first world.

Kibera is the largest slum in Nairobi and the second largest in Africa. It covers only one square mile but is home to one million people, a population density greater than that of Mumbai, the most densely populated city in the world. Dilapidated dwellings sit cheek-to-jowl and rise atop mounds of rotting garbage and human waste. Due to the absence of sewers and drains these residences flood during the rainy season and must be completely rebuilt every year. Although Kibera is geographically within the city of Nairobi, it is not really part of it as the police refuse to enter, and it has no access to basic city services such as water, sanitation, and electricity.

We spent the day in Kibera with Father George, distributing food and medical supplies, participating in last rites for the dying, drinking tea, and talking with residents. It was a disturbing but highly enlightening experience. The dominant emotions in Kibera are not anger and despair but determination and persistence. Residents go to Herculean efforts—for example, walking two hours each way to low paying jobs in the central city—to improve their lot and provide for their children. Hearing these stories made me embarrassed by my emotional reaction to our simple apartment with its lumpy mattresses and bare light bulbs. It also made my wife and me mindful of why these working vacations were becoming such an important part of our lives–when you work in a country you not only have a wonderful time but also a culturally and personally enriching experience.

View of the Slums of Kibera

One word of caution, though. Our visit was by invitation of someone living and working in Kibera. He wanted us to experience conditions in the slums, bring that knowledge back to the United States, and share it with students and faculty at my school, which I did.   At the time of our visit my wife and I were among a tiny handful of Western visitors to spend time in those squalid streets. The situation today is completely different because of a new form of niche travel called poverty tourism available from agencies, large and small, around the world.  These companies provide comfortable, safe, and fully narrated bus tours of not only Kibera but the slums of Calcutta, townships of South Africa, shantytowns of Mexico City, and the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. In the last few years slum visits have become a popular form of day tripping as travelers grow bored of a standard tourist menu heavy on museums, beaches, galleries, and boutiques.

Proponents of these tours cite the educational experience of learning about conditions in the slums. They claim they are providing desperately needed jobs for bus drivers and tour guides as well as creating opportunities for residents to sell locally made handicrafts. They also believe the embarrassment of tourists witnessing horrific living conditions just a few miles from their own luxury accommodations will pressure local politicians into cleaning up these horrific neighborhoods.  However, opponents argue it is simply a way for unscrupulous travel agents to make money off the humiliation and desperation of others, and there is precious little education to be gained snapping photos of shantytowns from a bus window.  An editorial in the Daily Nation, Kenya’s largest newspaper, castigated movie stars, well-heeled businessmen, and other dignitaries for their fascination with slums like Kibera, perhaps fueled by the popularity of the movie The Constant Gardener in which the neighborhood played a starring role.

It is quite possible that a future working vacation will take you and your family to impoverished  or developing nations, much like this trip to Kenya as well as our later stays in Nepal, Borneo,  and Mongolia. Poverty tourism is a moral issue you need to think about and resolve in your mind as you mull over proffered visits to urban slums, charity hospitals, leper colonies, and other places of poverty, pain, and despair. Of course there is no universal answer to this dilemma, and you will need to decide each case individually based on the goals of the visit, the benefits it brings to residents, and whether you and your family will learn and grow from this intensely emotional experience.

The Clues Are All Around You

The most frequent question I get from blog readers is “OK, I’m convinced of the professional and cultural benefits of short-term working vacations, but where do I find them? How do I locate opportunities to live and work overseas?”   I can’t provide a short answer to that question; indeed, a hundred pages of my book, On The Other Guy’s Dime, is devoted to answering that one query in great detail.

However, there is one technique that is easy to describe–be sensitive to the many opportunities appearing in print and electronic media, on television and radio, or discussed with friends and colleagues over a cup of coffee.  In Chapter 3 of my book I write “Every newspaper article, TV show, radio program, and professional interaction has the potential to turn into a working vacation. A magazine story about a new university in Africa could, with the appropriate inquiries, lead to an invitation to work with local faculty.  A TV feature about a primary care clinic in Southeast Asia could be a clarion call to health professionals in pediatrics, epidemiology, or tropical medicine, and that exchange teacher from South America could be the source of a future invitation to visit his or her home country. Whenever you read or hear about an overseas opportunity that is relevant to your field initiate a phone or e-mail conversation to determine if there is any way for you and your family to take advantage of it.”

Simply put, I am saying keep your “working vacation radar” attuned to the clues that are all around you.  And they are there.  For example, on 12/6/2011 (only two days ago) the Science section of the New York Times ran a feature article entitled “Vast and Fertile Ground in Africa for Science to Take Root.”  The story tells of a new computer science/engineering center being established at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda.  This new institute, one of the best in East Africa, is growing rapidly and initiating research in areas ranging from wireless communications to artificial intelligence.  It has acquired initial funding from Microsoft and Google and attracted some excellent faculty such as Dr. John Quinn, a researcher with a Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh, one of the best computing schools in Europe.

Photograph of Makerere University on Facebook

For most Times readers this will simply be a “feel good” story about the work of some visionary scholars and the creation of a high-quality educational institution in a region with precious few of them.  But for professionals in computer science, computer engineering, management information systems, and telecommunications this article could turn into an opportunity to spend a few months (or more) in a fascinating region of the world doing some good work, living in a new and different culture, and having the adventure of a life time.

Of course, there is no guarantee that Makerere University will hire you as a paid, short-term member of the faculty.  However, the cost of an email inquiry–including resume, classes you could teach, talks you could present, and references–is $0.00, so there is absolutely no risk in giving it your best shot.  If they respond “No” nothing has been lost, and you can settle back and wait until the next working vacation clue appears, unexpected and unannounced.  But if things happily turn in your favor, as they have for my wife and me 14 times in the last 30 years, then you (and spouse and children) will have a transformative cultural, social, and professional experience like no other.  And, best of all, it will be on the other guy’s dime.

Happy Holiday!

Thanksgiving is the most American of holidays; a window into our country and its people.  Whenever we host international visitors at Thanksgiving time we enjoy watching them soak in what it means to be American–from football and family to turkey and pumpkin pie.  Well, the same cultural excitement is available to Americans working overseas.  When you take a one- or two-week family vacation, staying at a hotel or resort, you relax and have fun but are rarely involved with (or even aware of) national holidays.  However, when you are in country for an extended stay, like a working vacation, you have time to make friends and meet locals, and that usually means joining them in life-cycle events and holiday celebrations–a superb way to become part of a community and learn about its culture.

For example, while living in Mauritius, my wife and I participated in the festive holiday of Diwali, the Festival of Lights.  We joined a local family to light the clay lamps lining their sidewalk and bake the sweets traditionally given to friends and family–all the while learning about Hindu traditions and practices on this small Indian Ocean island.

Eating the Ceremonial Meal At A Mauritian Haldi

We were invited to participate in a Haldi, a Hindu ceremony held for a bride and groom on the night before their wedding.  The couple is entertained with good-natured jokes and smeared (literally) with a paste made from cooking oil, sandalwood, and turmeric–a mixture thought to bring good luck and fertility.  It is a raucous and playful time, a bit like a bachelor or bachelorette party in the U.S.  After the ceremony, a festive meal is served on banana leaves and eaten with fingers.

A Thaipusam Celebrant Piercing His Flesh With Hooks To Pull A Kavadi

While living in Kuala Lumpur we participated in what surely must be the most unusual religious celebration anywhere in the world–Thaipusam, a Hindu ceremony celebrated by Tamils in India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Singapore.  It is a time for repentance and gift giving for the purpose of avoiding future calamity and grief.  The penitents, upwards of one million strong, wash themselves in a river, shave off their hair, and don a ceremonial yellow robe.  Then, piercing their flesh with large hooks connected to ropes, they pull a chariot, called a kavadi, loaded with gifts of milk, fruit, and rice, up a steep hillside.  This mortification of human flesh is hard for a non-Hindu to watch but is a fascinating glimpse into a very different culture.

Ruth and I have celebrated many other holidays and life cycle events–with Buddhists in Mongolia, Janes in India, Muslims in Turkey, and Kikuyu tribesmen in Kenya.  We also attended Jewish services that were quite different from what we are used to–for example, a Passover Seder prepared by Islamic women wearing the hijab and attended by Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists.  During these events we learned a great deal about the country, its culture, and its people–far more than we ever would as short-term tourists.

So, as you enjoy the turkey and stuffing this holiday season, think about the many holidays and life cycle events that would be fun to learn about, observe, and participate in, just as my international visitors have enjoyed being part of Thanksgiving.  Then do just that by applying for and taking a working vacation as described in my book.  I promise you won’t regret it.