Work as Leisure: The Best Way to Travel

…a Speculation Based on Good Experience
(c) 2014, Davd

After reading about European distaste for tourists, some 30 years ago now, i was sitting in an orientation meeting in Helsinki and heard a Dutch student say, “If I were home and saw a bunch of Americans wearing T-shirts that said ‘Hollands Klub’, I would definitely avoid them.1

I had a good time in Helsinki, and methinks it was because i went there as a professor on sabbatical, with skills that could be worked to the benefit of the locals. The first one i put to work was “inspecting English texts”, (and knowing some Finnish was essential to doing really high quality work at that.) My knowledge of the commonest language of science and business was not so special in Canada; but there, it was a skill “in demand”—and short supply.

I went to London [UK] once during that sabbatical year, to deliver a somewhat boring, routine report on behalf of one of Helsinki University’s research and training departments; it cost less to send me than to send a salaried employee, and my English was at least as good as any of theirs. I got to walk around London for a week at little cost, and “en route back,” paused in Germany for another conference in which Helsinki University was not involved.

My year’s sojourn in Helsinki and my weeks in London and the Rhine Valley, were far more enjoyable exactly because they involved a lot of work—work i chose to do because, in context of where it was done, when, and with whom, it was fun—much more fun than sitting and watching TV or any other commercial entertainment.

It’s well worth mentioning, that the work i enjoyed, was based on my better skills and on their scarcity in the places where i travelled. Foreign workers who undercut locals in wage competition are of course unwelcome… but inspecting academic writing for subtle ambiguities and delivering technical reports at foreign meetings, are a far cry from “busing” tables at a fast food joint or picking up litter in a park. They are not skills likely to be over-abundant much of anywhere.2

Twice, when i arrived at monasteries for visits of different length, i asked the first Brother i met [who in each case was doing work of a practical rather than ritual sort] “Is there anything I can do to help out?” Once there was, once there wasn’t; but what better way to arrive anywhere? … assuming you’re in good health and don’t need rush off to the can.

It’s got to where if i don’t have work to do in a place … i don’t go.

Once i even got my travel costs paid do go to a conference and deliver a paper titled “Work as Leisure.” (If that title reads to you like a contradiction, the reason might be that you have worked mainly under close supervision and strict rules. In these sad closing days of the Industrial Revolution, those conditions seem to be getting worse again… but any apparent contradiction between work and leisure can be punctured with a cooking fork—or a spading fork, or a garden trowel, an artist’s brush, even a pair of knitting needles.)

Cooking up a good pot of chili is definitely work! useful, too. So is putting in a herb garden to support a good kitchen, or smoking several kilos of herring or mackerel or river sucker for future enjoyment. All are things men have enjoyed doing, additional to the future pleasures of better eating.

Once, not far west of the border between the provinces of Alberta and B.C., i built a sauna for a family i was visiting. Another time, nearer the Pacific Ocean, i gathered apples at a cider-making Saturday “work party”. Definitely useful—without my menial labour, at least three gallons of cider wouldn’t have been made—and since i took home one of those gallons of cider for a little ageing, i can attest it was good.

I’ve never been in the Southern Hemisphere—nor in Asia or Africa—so far. I doubt i ever will go there, unless i can find something useful to do when i arrive. And while i’m not the kind of “American” that Dutch lad was referring to, methinks even a Canadian group being led around by a tour guide, whether the writing on the bus said “Hollands Klub”, “Sociedad Española” or “Treasure Tours”, would also be avoided by the locals unless they were paid to talk to it.

What’s fundamentally wrong with being a tourist in the usual sense of the word, is that what you have to offer the locals is money—and as far as they know, nothing else. Result: Apart from sheer charity, they have no reason to want to deal with you, but getting money; and you increase the congestion—so we hear stories from returning tourists, about greed, even theft, by the locals. Those are the locals they attracted—the greedy ones, some of whom resorted to theft.

Arrive with work skills, especially work skills that are in any kind of short supply, and you meet quite different locals. You are welcomed because you are contributing. If, for instance, you are part of a Habitat for Humanity project building a boardinghouse for homeless men to live in and operate with their own labour, you’re likely doing work no one would have paid for—so local talent hasn’t lost the jobs you’re doing. Locals will be glad to see a problem taken off the streets—especially if they are among the homeless. And you will come back with an appreciation of the place far greater than you can get at a fancy hotel3 or on a top-rank tour.

A major theme of this “Jobs and Working” series, has been that work itself is good4, and the more useful the work you do, the better. Finding work that you enjoy and do well, is vital to living well and making the most of your time alive.

Even “on the road.”


1. Yes, in English. Dutch isn’t spoken much in Helsinki, and several of those at the meeting weren’t functional in Finnish.

2 .. given that the language of the text being inspected is not local to the place where the inspecting is done.

3. These days—unlike 30-50 years ago—even fancy hotels have serious problems with bedbugs, for instance. (CBC Radio told me so, last year. I haven’t been in a fancy hotel since the 1980s, and seldom even then.)

4. I’ve read and heard Christians to say that work is a curse from God because Adam and Eve ate that forbidden fruit. Not so: Earlier in the first book of the Bible, we read (Genesis 2:15) “the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.” Part of being in Paradise was tending that holy garden. The curse (Gen 3: 17-18) fell on the working conditions; work had been man’s from the start.

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About Davd

Davd (PhD, 1966) has been a professor, a single father keeping a small commercial herb garden so as to have flexible time for his sons, and editor of _Ecoforestry_. He is a practicing Christian, and in particular an advocate of ecoforestry, self-sufficiency horticulture, and men of all faiths living together "in peace and brotherhood" for the fellowship, the efficiency, and the goodwill that sharing work so often brings.
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