Bolivian Sojourn: Navigating a Coral Reef at 12,000 feet Above Sea Level

The area around the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat in southwestern Bolivia, is an other-worldly landscape of hallucinogenic visions and poses some difficult questions. For example: How did 10 billion tons of salt get here? Why is that lake green? Why are there thousands of pink flamingos living more than two miles above sea level? Why am I looking at steaming geysers and bubbling mudpots while freezing my butt off? Why is that lake red? But the question that I’m struggling with the most is: How is it that I am navigating an island of petrified coral, covered in cactus, in the middle of a sea of salt…at 12,000 feet above sea level?

The Salar de Uyuni is the remains of prehistoric Lake Minchin, which lost all its water via absorption and evaporation over 40,000 years ago. As the water disappeared, it left a perfectly-flat layer of salt covering 4.085 square miles, roughly 25 times the size of the Bonneville Salt Flats in the U.S. state of Utah. As the Andean altiplano was pushed up by the forces of plate tectonics, the Salar reached its present-day elevation.

We took a 4-day jeep safari starting in Tupiza and ending in Uyuni, the town that shares its name with the Salar. The first day was spent riding through the Lipez, a desert-like area in the farthest southwest corner of Bolivia, that resembles many areas of the U.S. southwest. We passed silver, gold, tin and antimony mines amidst thousands of roaming llamas, alpacas and vicunas (and one Andean ostrich). We also saw an odd animal called a viscacha, a rabbit-like creature with a long curly tail. The second day we passed hundreds of pink flamingos traipsing through lakes of swampy ice and borax. Three types of flamingos are indigenous to the swamps and marshes of the altiplano: the Chilean, the James and the Andean flamingos. By late morning, we arrived at Laguna Verde, a lake sitting in the shadow of a volcano, which keeps it’s green appearance due to the high arsenic content of its waters. After lunch and a dip in some thermal hot springs, we passed more volcanoes and flamingos and arrived at Sol de Mañana, an area of intense geothermic activity with steaming geysers and bubbling holes of mud. We carefully walked around the perimeter of the area but had to quickly retreat to the jeep due to the intense wind and cold. We spent that night on the shore of Laguna Colorada, a large lake that gets its red color from the profusion of algae blooms in the water. The third day we traveled past more snow-capped volcanoes and stopped at the Stone Tree, an eroded volcanic rock in the shape of a tree 25 feet high. We spent that night in a salt hotel, an inn made primarily of blocks of salt. Our beds were platforms of salt and the dining area boasted dining tables and block seats made from salt. When no one was looking, the kids and I licked the walls of our room to verify their saline content (trying not to think about how many previous guests had done the same).

We woke at 6:00 am on the fourth day and drove out to the middle of the Salar to watch the sunrise. The kids and I took pictures of our extremely long shadows, which stretched hundreds of feet to the west. We ate breakfast on the “shore” of Isla Inca Huasi, also known as Fish Island for its fish-like shape. Inca Huasi is an island covered with petrified coral and cactus that was once in the middle of ancient Lake Minchin and now sits in the middle of the Salar. The cacti are relatively new; we’d heard that they grow about 2 centimeters a year, so none could be much more than 1,000 years old. We climbed to the top of the island to see white salt and blue sky in all directions.

Any land of coexisting extremes like this one -- hot, dry, swampy, steamy, salty, windy, cold -- is bound to raise questions. Our 4-day jeep safari through the Salar answered some of them for us.


Bolivian Sojourn: El Choro Trek

Even when you take a year off, you need a vacation; we are currently touring Bolivia and everywhere we go we are impressed by its biodiversity. Bolivia has about 736,000 square miles (roughly the size of the U.S. states of Alaska and Washington combined), one-third of which is Andean altiplano and two-thirds is Amazon basin. Were it not for losing its Pacific War with Chile (1879-1884), it would have a coastline as well. (In fact, from 1825 to 1935, Bolivia lost half of its territory to neighboring Chile, Argentina, Peru, Brazil and Paraguay.)

We decided to experience some of this biodiversity first hand. After getting acclimatized in La Paz, we made arrangements to do the El Choro trek, a 43 km trek from the snowy tip of the Andes’ Cordillera Real range to the Yungas, the dense, steamy cloudforest that separates Bolivia’s altiplano from its Amazon basin. The trek starts out at La Cumbre, atop the Cordillera Real, the easternmost border of Bolivia’s altiplano, and goes to Chairo, before a jeep takes you to the relaxing tourist town of Coroico.

The first day we drove straight up out of La Paz, the Bolivian capital which sits in a densely-populated bowl in the altiplano. We headed straight up for an hour until we reached La Cumbre (“The Summit”) at 15,502 feet. The driver dropped the eight of us off (our family of 4 plus our guide, cook, and two porters) amid alpine lakes, glaciers and rocky peaks. We hiked strenuously upward for a half hour until we reached our highest point, Abra Chucura (15,941 ft). From here, it was all downhill on paved Inca stones, past crumbling piles of flat pizara (slate), roaming packs of llamas, and the occasional donkey train transporting goods from the Yungas to La Paz. After an hour we passed pre-Inca, guesthouse ruins, where travelers long before us broke their journey. Over one mountain pass from us was Bolivia’s infamous “World’s Most Dangerous Road”, where an average of 26 vehicles a year disappear over the edges of the road from La Cumbre to Coroico. The road gots its nickname from a recent Inter-America Development Bank report and is a magnet for adrenaline junkies on downhill mountain bikes. Later than afternoon we passed beautifully paved pre-inca stone roads and finished our day at Challapampa (9,268 ft). For dinner our cook served us a delicious quinoa and vegetable soup while we were entertained by a young boy scrambling on the grassy camping area on all fours. The next morning, we brushed our teeth and all visited Challapampa’s village toilet; a makeshift wood platform about 10 feet above a large pit next to the river. This image alone will convince our kids to never drink alpine river water without it being treated.

Day two was a delightful downward stroll through cloudforest dotted with orchids, bromeliads and butterflies. We passed a shack selling Oreo cookies and softdrinks and bought a pack of Oreos. Not far before we reached the next shack selling drinks, we saw about a hundred empty plastic bottles dumped down the cliff next to the trail. For the rest of the hike I intermittently thought about the tourist's responsibilty for such an unsustainable practice. We continued to cross makeshift bridges and small waterfalls and finished the day at the village of San Francisco -- a couple of huts in a level space carved into the trail, surrounded by banana trees.

We started out Day three with sore legs and very quickly descended into a dense jungle area with hundreds of beautiful Amaryllis plants. I recalled working for the Gardener’s Eden catalog over ten years ago where we sold “forcing kits” of Amarylis bulbs with smooth rocks and a glass pot for $30. I mentioned this to my wife and she picked one and put it in her hat. For lunch we stopped and ate at Casa Sandillani (6,725 ft) and spoke with the village patriarch, Tamiji Hanamura. Mr. Hanamura was a 80-year old Japanese man, who had traveled widely for many years and once he reached Casa Sandillana, stopped travelling and never left. He’s been there for 40 years. He showed us his collection of postcards from the United States and we promised to send him a postcard from some exotic place. That afternoon we continued steadily downhill towards the town of Chairo. About an hour before getting there we saw parrots noisily chirping in a tree. We finally reached Chairo, sweaty and exhausted, and jumped in a jeep for Coroico. We reached Coroico and immediately took showers at our hotel. The view from our room revealed densely-covered cloudforest, extending out towards the Amazon basin. The first day of walking by glaciers seemed worlds away.


Cusco's Plaza de Armas: Predator or Prey?

Cusco’s Plaza de Armas is a beautiful main square ringed by colonial arcades and towered over by two 16th century religious structures: La Catedral and La Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus. During Inca times it was called Huacaypata and has always been the heart of the city. As I sat on one of the park benches I realized that I had been in Cusco long enough to be able to spot the different types of characters who inhabit the Plaza de Armas. Like a big game hunter taking stock of his quarry and tracking their behaviors, it occurred to me that most of the wildlife in the Plaza could be separated into predators and prey.

My favorite predators are the shoeshine boys. The typical shoeshine boy is about 11 years old, with dirty and sometimes tattered clothes and carries his well-worn shoeshine kit on his shoulder. His success in the wilds of the Plaza depends on his persuasive skills and in some cases, his acting skills. The technique that never fails to make me smile is the Oh my God, look how dirty your shoes are look. A shoeshine boy will approach a potential customer, point at their shoes and give them The Look. The Look usually makes a potential customer glance down and re-evaluate the appearance of their shoes. Shoeshine boys can be very persistent and I’ve often seen their prey give in and pay the one sol, just to stop their pestering.

Most of the Plaza’s street vendors-cum-predators have something to sell…usually to tourists. There are the vendors selling paintings, all of which seem to have been painted by the same pastel-crazy, watercolor artist. Some of the paintings border on hallucinogenic, like the orange and purple-hued interpretation of Machu Picchu I saw recently. They will approach you with a leather portfolio of paintings and drawings: “Hola amigo, you like paintings?” When you keep walking past them their standard line is “Maybe later? or “Looking is free.” The same dialog accompanies ladies selling alpaca woven goods, like mittens, caps, sweaters and sashes. If your goal is not to be bothered by these vendors, it is imperative not to look at their product and by all means never touch the goods or you’ve earned another five minutes of hard sell.

Some of the more subtle vendors will start off with “Hola, my friend…what country?” before they launch into the sales pitch. On three separate occasions, I’ve been approached by a different painting or woven goods vendor who, after determining my country, began to list every recent U.S. president, in reverse-chronological order. “United States of America…president is Barrack Obama…previous is George W. Bush…before Bush…Bill Clinton…before Clinton, other Bush…before Bush, Ronald Reagan…” One young woman got all the way to Herbert Hoover before she needed some help.

Lots of the Plaza’s predators are simply touting their establishment, like spiders beckoning prey into their webs. Young women hand out cards and offer the services of their massage parlor. Some tout their tour agency and others try to convince you to eat at their restaurant. Most of the restaurant touts rely on the promise of a balcony seat overlooking the Plaza or a fresh plate of ceviche.

Another Plaza predator is the brichero, or his feminine counterpart, the brichera. The brichero wears nice jeans, has long hair and speaks passable English. His goal is to befriend tourists and backpackers in bars and clubs around the plaza and sponge as many free drinks as possible.

It's important to remember that predators can't survive without prey. Businessmen and tourists are the prey of the shoeshine boys and generally tourists fall victim to the painting and woven goods vendors and those who tout their establishments. Backpackers, who travel for months at a time, usually have more time to succumb to the charms of the Brichero(as). The package tourist is an example of prey than moves in packs. Like a herd of wildebeest on the African savannah, they get shuttled around together in large air-conditioned buses and even when out of the bus, never stray more than 10 feet from one another. They beat a well worn path from the Plaza de Armas to Saqsaywaman to the Qorikancha to Machu Picchu to their hotel. To get at the package tourist, you need to work with their tour agency for access and be prepared to give them a share of the spoils.

In the Plaza de Armas, as in all balanced ecosystems, both predator and prey need one another to survive.


Less is More

Now that we’ve been in our Cusco apartment for a few months, it’s interesting to note that we have significantly fewer possessions and less things that we “have to do” than back in Marin County. Our material possessions are a fraction of what they were and our lives are much simpler. We have fewer commitments, fewer appointments, fewer responsibilities. Every time we think about this, we realize that we don’t miss any of those things. There are four main ways in which this has been manifested: how we communicate, how we get around, how we eat and how we entertain ourselves.

Communication is much simpler in Cusco because we don’t have a telephone. If we can’t make an appointment, we’ll send an email. The era of instantaneous communication doesn’t exist for us here. The one exception is that our kid’s Spanish teacher, tired of not being able to contact us, did give us her 10 year-old cell phone (that only takes incoming calls) so that she could let us know if she’d be late for a class. Without a telephone, there is much less pressure to be available 24/7 and it foments a healthy feeling of “it can wait until tomorrow.”

Transportation is very straight-forward in Cusco as we either walk or take a taxi; we don’t have or need a car. We live in the city center and most everything is within walking distance. When we need to venture out further afield, taxis are inexpensive and plentiful. We have yet to even think about commuting in traffic, filling up at the gas station, paying for car insurance or worrying about getting our car door dinged while shopping at the supermarket.

The range of eating options for us in Cusco is considerably scaled back. There is not the plethora of Costco & Trader Joes’s prepared foods like back home, so what we are left with is a pretty good selection of fruits & vegetables as well as your basic meats, grains and dairy products. We end up making lots of soups, stews and spaghetti. We don’t have an oven, so roasted meats, pizzas and chocolate chip cookies (!) are not an option.

One of our principal forms of entertainment in Marin County – dinner parties with family friends – has been curtailed significantly. Hanging out with other families, eating multiple courses of rich foods and drinking lots of expensive wine was fairly commonplace for us and to date in Cusco we have yet to host a dinner party. Both my wife and I felt that we often ate and drank too much during these occasions so we feel quite a bit healthier here in Cusco. Entertainment for us here is usually a family night in front of a DVD or a walk around the San Blas neighborhood. In Peru we haven’t yet worried about which wine to pair with the pork tenderloin or where we can find the lemongrass for the Tom Kar Gai.

With less possessions and things to do, our life here has fewer moving parts and has been more enjoyable, healthy and stress-free.


Cusco Taxis: “Dos Cincuenta?”

I had minor trepidations about taking taxis our first few weeks in Cusco. From the Lonely Planet guidebook’s “Dangers and Annoyances” section I’d read the following: “Ruthless robberies in taxis are on the rise. When taking cabs, use only official taxis – look for the company’s lit telephone number on top of the taxi. Lock your doors from the inside, and never allow the driver to admit a second passenger.” The only problem with this advice is that the overwhelming majority of Cusco taxis do not have a lit telephone number on top. Most of the taxis are “Ticos”, miniature 4-door sedans made by the South Korean automobile manufacturer Daewoo, with roof racks but no lit telephone numbers. Further advice came from the U.S. State Department’s web site: “Some crimes in the city of Cuzco and in Arequipa have involved the drivers of rogue (or unregistered) taxis. Travelers should use only licensed, registered taxis such as those available from taxi stands in Cuzco displaying a blue decal issued by the municipal government on the windshield of the vehicle.”

It definitely makes sense to take authorized taxis as they have more to lose if there are any problems. According to the Municipality of Cusco web site, to get an authorized taxi you must, among other things, have a driver’s license, have a clean driving record, have the car smog-checked, and not have a criminal record. Knowing that one’s livelihood will be taken away can be a strong deterrent to committing a crime.

Gathering information from all possible sources, we developed a checklist, which I made my 12-year old daughter memorize: 1) Taxi must have a blue Autorizado sticker on the front windshield, 2) Taxi must have yellow and black checkerboard pattern on both sides of the taxi (this from the South American Explorers Club web site), and 3) Taxi must have no other people in the car besides the driver. Once we were comfortable with how to recognize Autorizado taxis, we felt very comfortable taking taxis in Cusco. My daughter became our Autorizado taxi spotter and she became very good.

Once she had this down, she graduated to explaining (in Spanish) to the driver where we wanted to go and negotiating the fare. Taxi meters are not used in Peru, so everything is negotiable. Typically in Cusco, it costs 2.50 soles ($0.83 U.S.) for a local to get across town and anywhere from 3 soles ($1.00 U.S.) and up for a gringo. When I related this information to my daughter, she took it as a personal challenge. Once she gave the driver the address, she would firmly say “dos cincuenta” (“two-fifty”) to show the driver that she not only knew the standard fare but expected to get it. She also learned that getting the local’s price was much easier if you have not already gotten into the taxi. Once you’ve gotten into the taxi, it is pretty much impossible to negotiate. Even though the difference between 3 soles and dos cincuenta is only seventeen U.S. cents, my daughter took pride in getting the local price. On some occasions, I’d smile from the sidewalk as she sent two or three taxis away trying to get the dos cincuenta price.


Musical Benjamins

Just as in the kid’s game “musical chairs,” where the object is to not be the kid left without a seat when the music stops, when you exchange money in Peru, if you are not careful, you could be the guy left holding the fake $100 bill. According to a May 7th Economist article, “In the past two months, Peru’s police have seized some $40m in near-perfect replicas of American dollar bills in $20, $50 and $100 denominations.” Dollars are in demand in Latin America not only because of the relative strength of the U.S. economy, but also because Ecuador, Panama and El Salvador use the dollar as their currency, thus enhancing their acceptance. The Economist further stated, “Lima is considered as the world’s new hot spot for counterfeit currency-making: while $43 million in counterfeit currency was seized solely in Peru since January 2009, $103 million was seized by the U.S. Secret Service in the rest of the world last year.” Not only are Peruvians on the watch for counterfeit bills, even if the bill is legitimate, they are very selective about what kind of shape the money is in.

Because of fees associated with ATM withdrawals, credit card transactions, traveler’s checks and bank wire transfers, we decided to bring lots of cash with us to Peru…lots of “Benjamins”. Every time we handed over a $100 bill at a Casa de Cambio (money exchange) they carefully scrutinized every inch of the note. They held it up to the light to check the watermark. They inspected it to see if there were rips, tears or excessive wear. Some of them carefully felt the surface to see if the texture was right. One guy actually sniffed a bill – presumably to detect counterfeit ink.

Thus far, we’ve had only two minor problems with our U.S. dollars. The first problem was when I was putting a deposit down on our apartment and I handed over three $100 bills to my landlord. Senor Miguel looked them over carefully and shook his head and handed one back to me, saying “Lo siento” (I’m sorry). It had a very small tear (less than one centimeter) near one of the corners. I gave him another unblemished bill and he was happy. That night I got out my scotch tape to very carefully repair the slight tear. The next day I went to a Casa de Cambio and I buried the taped bill in a stack of five $100 bills, but sure enough the money-changer found it and handed it back, shaking his head. Apparently even taped bills, no matter how slight, were not commonly accepted. I finally was able to change the bill at the largest bank in Cusco. When I mentioned this to a co-worker, she immediately asked me if I could change her told US notes for her at the same bank. Our second problem occurred when again changing dollars for Peruvian soles at a Casa de Cambio. My wife handed over a couple $100 bills and the woman behind the counter shook her head, handed back two of the bills and pointed to serial numbers that started with the letters “CB”. They explained to us that “CB” serial numbers were chosen for a run of counterfeit U.S. notes and that they couldn’t take them. We finally took them to the same bank to get them changed.

With everyone scrutinizing our money, we in turn become more selective when accepting theirs. One money changer tried to give me a torn Peruvian sol and I looked him in the eye and – channeling my landlord – shook my head and said “Lo siento” as I handed it back to him.


Why There are no Movie Theaters in Cusco

Cusco does not have a single movie theater and for a city of 320,000 people that is downright strange. Perhaps the reason can be found in a makeshift jumble of market stalls on the outskirts of Cusco; a "black market" called El Molino. During my first couple weeks in Cusco, I heard the words "El Molino" more than a few times. My Spanish teacher told me to visit El Molino for inexpensive CD's and DVD's and my landlord told me to go there for household items that we needed for our kitchen. During our first week in Cusco, my daughter and I frequented a restaurant on the Plaza de Armas called Mythology, a salsa bar-cum-restaurant that shows movies. For the price of a couple drinks or a plate of appetizers you can choose from hundreds of new DVD movies to watch while you enjoy your lomo saltado. Many of the titles come out as soon as a few weeks after their U.S. theatrical release. When I asked where they got so many brand new titles, the answer was "El Molino".

El Molino lies alongside a foul-smelling river about a 10 minute taxi ride from the Plaza de Armas. I'm told that much of the merchandise is brought in duty-free from Peru's southern-most port town of Tacna. The market itself is a collection of hundreds of small stalls with corrugated tin roofing that are jam-packed with merchandise. Look down one aisle and you'll see books, bicycles and bootleg CD's. Look down another and you'll see perfume, pinatas and pirated DVD's. Glance to the side and you'll see clothing, cameras and costume jewelry. Turn around and you'll spot hard liquor, housewares and HDTV's.

Obviously, all the DVD's are pirated; how else could you charge only 3 soles ($1) for a brand new DVD movie that just hit the theaters 3 weeks ago. With every movie title on the market available for just a dollar, who needs a movie theater?

This smorgasbord of cheap digital media does have its risks, however. As El Molino veterans, we have learned from experience what to look for when purchasing DVD's. The first thing to look for is: Does the disc have English-language audio and subtitles? Recently we bought Steven Soderbergh's 2-disc "Che" (Guevarra) biopic and we previewed the first disc to verify that it had English-language subtitles. After enjoying the first disc about Che's role in the Cuban revolution we popped in the second disc to find that it did not have English-language subtitles. The second thing to look for mainly applies to new releases: Is it a disc-to-disc copy or was it filmed in the back row of a movie theater? Pirated versions of new releases get out quickly because someone sits in a movie theater with a digital movie camera and films it. Our kids watched "Ice Age 3" a few weeks ago and a baby started crying in the middle of the DVD soundtrack. About a month ago we bought "Transformers 2" knowing that it was filmed in a theater. The excitement of seeing this new release outweighed our concerns about the video and audio quality. We got home that night and watched about 10 minutes of it before we gave up. The action scenes were impossible to watch and understand. The third thing to look for applies to TV series: Are all the discs present? My daughter has bought four seasons of "The Office" and on two occasions, we found episodes missing.

Even with these risks, the economics of pirated DVD's means that it will be a while before we see a multiplex adorning Cusco's Plaza de Armas.


Ten Reasons Why Your Family Shouldn’t Take a Year Off: Reason #5 “What about your kids’ education?”

Pulling up your family’s suburban roots and heading off for some developing country for a year is foolish. There are lots of reasons not to do it. For example: What about your kids’ education?

Both our kids will miss the entire school year next year and our daughter studied under the auspices of the district’s independent study program this past spring. The three most common questions that we’ve heard from friends and acquaintances were “Will they let you take the kids out of school for a year?”, “Won’t they get behind in school?” and “How do you know what to teach?” As we started to tell our family and friends about our plans, these three questions cropped up more than any others. (One of the more amusing questions we heard was from an administrator at the kids’ school: “How will you carry all those textbooks?” Answer: “We won’t.”)

The first question is an interesting one: Will they let you take the kids out of school for a year? All school districts are different, but we had surprisingly little interest or concern from our kids’ middle school. No one from the school, the school district or the State of California has stepped forward and said that we couldn’t do what we planned to do. The school was much more concerned about the minutiae of our daughter’s independent study for the final trimester than for missing the entire next year. The independent Study program allows “distance learning” under a teacher’s remote supervision for a period of up to 60 days. Our daughter’s teachers set up an independent study curriculum with scanned pages from her math, science and language arts textbooks, as well as research reports on both the Andean Condor and the Andean ecosystem as well as a research paper on The Beatles.

The second question, “Won’t they get behind in school?” is a fear that many parents share. It helps that both our kids are very good students so there is no “catching up” or learning issues to deal with. Both my wife and I both think that there is not a lot of learning going on in middle school. It is a time when kids are going through drastic physical and emotional changes and middle schools’ resources are overtaxed just to keep kids from falling off the deep end. Additionally, the time required to homeschool two kids ought to be much less than the time required to teach 20 kids in a school classroom. Finally, when we did a 6-month sabbatical through Central America and Spain in 2005, both kids missed the final trimester of that school year and did not miss a beat upon returning in the Fall.

The third question, “How do you know what to teach?” is easy in theory but hard in practice. The California education standards for each grade are listed in detail at the State of California’s web site. The blueprint is right there on the World Wide Web and all you have to do is print it out. In practice, the act of coming up with problems, exercises and projects that will teach the standards has given us a deeper respect for the teaching profession. Last week both our kids finished 500 word persuasive essays on the question: The Monroe Doctrine: Good or Bad for Latin America?” This week they are writing a 750 word dual biography on the twin liberators of South America: Simon Bolivar and Jose de San Martin.

Most of this blog entry has been about “keeping up”, but there are many things that they are getting from travel that their classmates aren’t. They are already intermediate-level Spanish speakers and they are acutely aware that most of the world is nothing like the privileged place they call home. They have learned that many simple things that they have taken for granted are luxuries in the developing world. They are much more open to new and different people, foods, customs, experiences and points of view. Perhaps most importantly, they will have a broader view of their responsibilities as global citizens when it comes time to choose their careers. It may be a cliché, but it also happens to be true: “Travel is Broadening”.


Ten Reasons Why Your Family Shouldn’t Take a Year Off: Reason #4 “What about your career?”

Pulling up your family’s suburban roots and heading off for some developing country for a year is foolish. There are lots of reasons not to do it. For example: What about your career?

This is a really, really good question. Even with the economy on life support and people moving from job to job at a much quicker rate than ever before, employers still tend to look askance at a one year hole in your resume. Not only are you losing a year of income, but when you return, it often takes quite a few months to find a job. At the executive level – and given the current economy -- this might mean as much as two years without work. This is arguably the biggest obstacle to enjoying an extended sabbatical with your family.

There are, however, a few different ways of looking at this.

First of all, as a consultant in the very cyclical retail industry during the worst economy in a half century, there’s a chance that there may not be much work anyway in the next 12-24 months. If I were to go half the year with no income, we’d be worse off financially than if we rented out the house and traveled the world…in fact, we’d actually lose less money. This alone is pretty compelling. An additional benefit of being a consultant is that clients are used to the idea of an uneven work history due to the project-related nature of the profession.

Secondly, in the past 4-5 years, I’ve had a burgeoning desire to work in the non-profit sector and do something a bit more meaningful than just drive shareholder wealth for retail companies. What better time to offer my pro-bono consulting services than during the worst economy in decades?

Thirdly, by working pro-bono, I am…working. I am doing actual work, helping an organization and adding to my professional skills and experiences. This is something that many of my out-of-work colleagues aren’t able to say. Additionally, in the internet age, it is much easier to keep in touch with my professional contact network via email and social networking sites like LinkedIn. With LinkedIn, a kind of Facebook for executives, it's possible to proactively manage the perception of my career to the people in my professional network. The people in my network don’t need to know that I am not getting paid; all they need to know is that I’m on an assignment with another client.

Lastly, when will we ever have a chance again to do this?