Tag Archives: Travel

Having Your Own Travel Epiphany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s Not Either-Or. It’s Both.

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

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

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

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

(Read about Michael and Ruth Schneider’s working vacations around the world, and learn how to have these amazing adventures for yourself in his travel “how-to” book: On The Other Guy’s Dime: A Professional’s Guide to Traveling Without Paying.)

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.)

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.)

Traveling On a “TwoFer”

In my last blog post, The Jews of Kochi, I described our visit to the historical city of Kochi, the capital of Kerala State in SW India.  However,  I didn’t say anything about how we got there.  One obvious answer is that I went on-line to a discount site like Orbitz, located the best deal (currently about $1,900 per person), and shelled out almost four thousand dollars to purchase tickets for my wife and myself.  Fortunately, the real answer is far more affordable and represents yet another benefit of working vacations–the concept of a twofer.

On every one of my working vacations (fifteen and counting) I was given a complimentary round-trip air ticket, purchased by my hosts, from my home in Minneapolis to the city where I would be working.  If you don’t provide your hosts with suggested routings they will almost certainly select one with the least number of legs and the shortest airport delays, thinking they are doing you a big favor.  However, that may not be the case.  Nothing says your travel must be on a direct flight and without long layovers, so long as you arrive and depart the host city on the required dates.  Once you realize this, you will begin to appreciate the many interesting side-trip possibilities that have fallen into your lap.

A great way to turn a working vacation into an even more enjoyable holiday is to take your free ticket from A (your home) to B (your destination) and convert it into an “almost-free” ticket from A to C to B, where C is any destination along the way to B that you would like to visit for a few days or weeks. Essentially, what you are doing is converting that free ticket into a twofer by adding a second stop, either on the way there or on the return.   For example, when I was traveling to Mauritius, a small island nation in the Indian Ocean, our hosts assumed we would prefer the most direct route:  Minneapolis to Amsterdam to Mauritius.  Instead, we asked them to route us home via Mumbai and London, with a three-week layover in India.   I gladly agreed to pay the increased $150 ticket cost per person since $300 is far less than the $4000 required to reach India from the central U.S.  We had a glorious time in Mumbai, Goa, Bangalore, and Cochin before returning home.  We repeated this gambit on subsequent working vacations to Turkey (via Athens and the Greek Isles), Australia (via Fiji), Mongolia (via Beijing), and a threefer to Harare, Zimbabwe–via Lisbon, Portugal and Cape Town. In all cases the cost of extending our stay in the layover city was small compared with purchasing a full-fare ticket from Minneapolis to that same destination. In three cases (Turkey, Japan, Malaysia) my employer agreed to cover the added expense since the ticket costs still fell well within their overall travel budget.

The moral of the story is that when planning air travel don’t inquire into only direct flights, unless you are traveling with small children and that is the most important consideration. Instead, see what airlines fly to your destination, where they stop, and what the added expense would be for extending your stay in that stopover city.  You might be pleasantly surprised at how little it costs to add a few days or weeks in some attractive getaway to your already attractive working vacation.

(Read about our travels to Mauritius, India, and many other exotic destinations, at virtually no cost in On The Other Guy’s Dime.)