Tag Archives: Working Vacation

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 Way to a Culture’s Heart Is Through Its Stomach

Donkeys Delivering Supplies in the Ancient Marketplace of Fez

Donkey carts clatter across cobblestone streets; butchers wielding massive cleavers hack away at sides of lamb, beef, and camel; women and fruit sellers haggle over prices in Arabic, French, and Tamazight, the local Berber language. We are in Fez’s meat, produce, and spice market, maneuvering through the chaos under the watchful eye of Mr. Lahcen Beqqi, a master chef, restaurant owner, teacher, and expert on Moroccan cooking.

My wife Ruth and I signed up for a one-day class taught by Chef Beqqi to learn more about Morocco, its culture, and its world famous cuisine. Beqqi, a baby-faced Berber from the tiny village of Amellago in the High Atlas mountains, is a highly qualified teacher–he moved to Fez, the country’s food capital, in 2002 and cooked at some of the city’s finest restaurants until opening a school, Fes Cooking, in 2006. His classes provide not only culinary instruction (and eating, of course) but also an introduction to Moroccan agriculture, shopping, and mealtime traditions.  It is a wonderful way to learn about the many influences contributing to modern Moroccan culture.

Chef Beqqi Helping Us Select Items In The Marketplace

Ruth and I, along with the chef and two other students, begin our day in the open-air marketplace of this 1,200-year-old Imperial city. Since our menu will be dictated by what is available (“eat seasonal, buy local” has long been a way of life), we wander the narrow walkways surveying the possibilities. The sweet scent of cinnamon and rose water fills the air; stalls overflow with tomatoes, onions, celery, garlic.  “It was a good year for farmers with lots of rain, so there are no shortages,” Beqqi said as he helps us select items for the midday meal.

A Typical Spice Market in Ancient Fez. No Bottles of Spice Island or Durkee's Here!

As we stroll he points out foods that many American kitchens would consider specialty items but which are central to Moroccan cooking: dates, figs, apricots, chickpeas, mint. He also points out products that draw our blank stares: wild artichokes, argan oil, cardons, camel fat.   We wind our way through the market touching, squeezing, smelling, buying.  Finally, laden with bags of meat, vegetables, fruits, and spices, we head for the kitchen at Riad Tafilalet, a traditional Moroccan hotel and restaurant (riad is the Arabic word for garden or courtyard) that will be our classroom for the remainder of the day.

The Kitchen Staff. That's Me in the Center (With Beard and Glasses) and Ruth on the Far Right.

Although thoroughly modern, the kitchen contains no electric mixers, blenders, or food processors. According to Beqqi, Moroccan cooks enjoy “being close to their food,” so all chopping is by hand, all mashing by mortar and pestle.  We don starched white chef tunics, looking like contestants on “The Next Food Network Star,” and dive into our assigned tasks.  Lahcen watches carefully and explains proper techniques:  “Don’t add spices until the liquid is hot,” “Grate the tomatoes, don’t chop them.”

The Results of our Efforts. A Most Delicious Chicken, Prune, and Date Tagine.

A few hours later, our six-course lunch is finished. In the riad’s sunlit courtyard, we sit around low tables dining on harira, a tomato, lamb, lentil, and chickpea soup traditionally used to break the daily fast of Ramadan; small triangles of phyllo pastry, called briouates, filled with goat cheese and olives; zaalouk salad prepared with pureed eggplant, tomato, and zucchini; artichoke hearts with preserved lemons and orange water; a chicken, prune, and date tagine; and, for dessert, date and almond rolls and the ever-present mint tea.

As we gorge on the delicacies, Beqqi relates stories of the multi-ethnic influences that produced this distinctive cuisine: the Berbers of southern Morocco who brought tagines and couscous; seventh century Arab invaders who introduced grilled meats and a love of dried fruits and nuts; the Moors who contributed their taste for olives, oranges, and lemons; Sephardic Jews of North Africa who popularized the pickling and preserving of fruits and meats.  It is a history seminar complete with massive amounts of superb food and drink!

After eating for more than two hours I sit back on the sofa and sip my last glass of tea, feeling like a pampered pasha. At 4 p.m., after a busy but gratifying and highly informative day, Beqqi calls a taxi to take us back to our apartment, a trip whose cost is, thankfully, based on distance not weight.

Read more about our adventures living and working in Africa and the Middle East in my latest book, On The Other Guy’s Dime.  

A Little Mathematics, Maestro!

(The following is a reprint of a June, 2010 blog post.  Since its arguments are still valid I thought you might enjoy reading or rereading it.) 

In my latest travel book, On The Other Guy’s Dime, I describe one of the more successful techniques I have used to locate working vacations–the cold call.  I would contact a department chair in a city or country where I want to live and say something like “I don’t know you and you don’t know me, but I would love to come to your institution to work for a few months and contribute in any way I can.  Please let me show you why you should hire me.”  I would then attach a copy of my resume, lists of workshops and courses  I could teach, and services I could provide to the school and its faculty.

Classical Dancers in Bhutan. A Cold Call Resulted in a Spectacular Three-Month Working Vacation in Thimphu

Some skeptics will read the previous paragraph and scoff at the idea of cold calls as a way of finding working vacations.  With images of all those struggling telemarketers firmly in mind they will argue you have only a miniscule chance of success.  However, believe me when I say it is nowhere near as futile as they portray.  You are not some nobody shilling aluminum siding or stain remover; we are talking about highly trained professionals–e.g., doctors, nurses, teachers, engineers, lawyers, artists, business people–offering to share their special skills with developing nations that sorely need them.  I could argue for the efficacy of this technique by simply stating that it got my wife and me to Kenya, Turkey, Zimbabwe, Mongolia, and Bhutan.  But, instead, let me show that cold calling is a realistic technique by proving it mathematically!

A few years ago New Yorker ran a cartoon entitled “What Hell Is Really Like.”  There was Satan, with horns and pitchfork, standing over some unfortunate wretch writhing in pain and straining to read the words on a piece of paper.  It said “A train leaves Chicago going 40 miles per hour … ”  While I don’t believe Hell is a never-ending set of algebra problems, I know many of you will smile and sympathize.  Therefore, I tread carefully when presenting a mathematical argument and will try my best not to make this difficult to follow.

Let’s assume there is only 1 chance in 20 (probability p = 0.05) of success, i.e., of getting a “Yes, we would love to have you join us for a few months” response to your cold call.  That means you will get a “No thank you” 19 times out of 20 (p = 0.95).  Furthermore, let’s say you contact four institutions, A, B, C, and D, trying for that one dream offer.

The likelihood that exactly 1 of these 4 places will make an offer is equal to the chance of getting exactly 1 Yes and 3 Nos, which is (0.05) x (0.95) x (0.95) x (0.95) = 0.04287.  Now that single Yes could come from either A, B, C, or D, so the overall probability is four times that number or 4 x 0.04287 = 0.1715, or 17%.

However, the actual odds are even better.  If you are lucky you might get 2 Yeses.  Of course you cannot accept two jobs, but you are free to pick the one that best suits you. There are 6 different ways that 2 institutions could respond Yes:  (A, B), (A, C), (A, D), (B, C), (B, D), and (C, D).  The chance of any one of these events happening is the probability of getting exactly 2 Yeses and 2 Nos, which is (0.05) x (0.05) x (0.95) x (0.95) = 0.0022562.  So, the overall probability is 6 times that value, or 6 x 0.0022562 = 0.0135, or 1.3%.  I won’t go through the mathematics of 3 and 4 Yeses (rare events) but the sum of all these possibilities is the probability that you will receive at least 1 Yes in response to your 4 cold call inquiries. That total is 0.1855, or about 18.6%.

Think about what that last number means. Even if you have only 1 chance in 20 of someone hiring you, simply by contacting 4 schools (or hospitals, labs, government agencies, … ) you have improved your chances of landing a working vacation from 1 in 20 to about 18.6%, almost 1 in 5.  If I told you that spending an hour or so on your computer would result in a 1 in 5 chance of an all-expense paid trip to Turkey or a 3 month no-cost safari in Kenya would you do it?  Of course you would.  Well, why haven’t you!

And you can do even better.  The Web makes it easy to find contact names and addresses at overseas institutions, so why limit yourself to 4?  If, for example, you send out 8 emails, and the probability of a single success is still 1 in 20, your overall odds go up to 1 in 3.  That certainly isn’t the miniscule possibility that skeptics would have you believe.

And, finally, for those who scoff at my assumption of a 1 in 20 chance of success (a value based on my own cold calling experiences), let’s lower it to 1 in 50.  Even with these dismal odds (who would bet on a 50-1 shot at the racetrack?) if you were to send out 8 exploratory emails you would still have a 15% chance of landing a position; send out 15 and the odds rise to 1 in 4–a heck of a lot better than the lottery!   With the universal availability of the Web, word processors, and e-mail, sending out 15 inquiries is probably not even a single day’s labor.

So, for those who have been able to stay with my mathematical arguments this far, I hope you will be motivated to send a few unsolicited emails to those dream destinations–India, Norway, Chile, Austria–described to me in your comments.  Remember, the odds are definitely in your favor!

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.)


Driving in Nepal: The Ultimate in Adventure Tourism

I used to believe that driving the Dan Ryan or FDR at rush hour would be the most stressful activities you could undertake. Fuggedaboutit!  Nepalese drivers make New York cabbies look like models of decorum. The primary rule of road behavior in Kathmandu is “Blink and die!”  Passing on curves and driving on the sidewalk don’t rate a second mention in the litany of traffic sins, while a cow sleeping in the road is not unusual.  Turning, passing, stopping, and merging are indicated via honking so you can only imagine the cacophony ringing around you as you drive.  As for traffic “infrastructure,” ha.  Lane markers—you gotta be kidding me; stop signs—in your dreams; traffic lights—when the messiah comes. The most important infrastructure available to the Nepalese driver is a good bumper and firm seat belts.

Image

Our Lovely Four Bedroom Home in Kathmandu

While my wife and I were on a three month working vacation in Nepal I had to travel 30 km (18 miles) to work from our lovely home in Kathmandu (see the photo–and, yes, that was really our home) to the university campus in Dhulikhel high in the foothills of the Himalayas.   I had a rental car at my disposal and thought it would be a quick trip since the two cities are connected by the Arneko Highway, the main East-West road link for the entire nation.  Unfortunately, this lifeline of commerce and transportation is not quite as wide as the side street in front of my home and nowhere near as well maintained!  The craziness I saw every morning and evening was made even worse by the range of vehicles using the road.  The Arneko Highway contains an equal mix of cars, overloaded trucks straining to reach 10 mph, buses spewing coal black exhaust, motorcycles, mopeds, bicycles, pedestrians, cows, and (yes) lawnmowers. This last one confused me, since I didn’t think lawn maintenance was a major concern of the Nepalese. It turns out used riding lawnmowers are less expensive than mopeds and, as long as you don’t mind the leisurely 4-5 mph, a cheap form of motorized transport!

Even worse, the local highway police assume that all foreign visitors are rich and able to pay the full cost of an accident. So, instead of a “No fault” model of auto insurance, they use a “Your fault” model.  Even if a cow walks directly into your fender, you will be held liable.  So far I have not had to test this theory but I cannot imagine, what with the carnage I see every day, that my turn is not just around the next bend.  I am deeply committed to my Jewish heritage, but I am seriously thinking of placing a St. Francis on my dashboard as I need everyone on my side.   For now, wish me well.  Work is over and I am heading out on the road to go home …

(Note:  About 3 days after writing this article, I gave my rental car back to the agency and relied on a local bus to get to work.  I was far happier and a lot less stressed!)  

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.