March 01, 2016

Sabbaticals: Off the Grid

A small firm offers partners a sabbatical program. The author finds the benefits well outweigh any lost income or work disruption.

Norman R. Mueller

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It was misting softly when we arrived in the small village outside Sapa, Vietnam. Our guide, Ha, led us to a small house adjacent to the narrow road. As we entered, a young girl sitting in the tiny doorway, engrossed in a school workbook, ignored us. Her younger brother glanced at us and quickly returned his gaze to the small television blaring in the center of the room.

No parents were visible. Presumably they were at work in the neighboring fields. Ha explained that the placement of furniture divided the single space into rooms. Food storage was in the small loft. The cooking area was outside near the water buffalo pen and featured a wood stove with embers glowing and a water barrel. Ducks, chickens, and pigs wandered nearby.

As we left and began the three-hour trek to a neighboring village, the mist turned to gentle rain. Soon we were joined by two Hmong women who accompanied us most of the way, one insisting on holding an umbrella for my wife. When the two finally announced they were returning to their village, they convened an impromptu market, showing us products of their handiwork stored in large sacks strapped to their backs—bags, scarves, hats, and various articles of clothing. After a bargaining session filled with lively negotiation, they left bearing smiles, the result of our modest purchases.

Ha was our favorite guide during our 65-day trip through Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar. One of 12 children, she was the only member of her family to leave their village, pursue an education, and live in what they referred to as “the city.” Primarily self-taught, she displayed impressive English skills and juggled her responsibilities as our guide with her maternal concerns for her beautiful five-year-old daughter who was suffering from a persistent cough.

Ha quickly embraced my wife as a mother figure, walking arm-in-arm with her as we hiked or visited local markets. Not wanting to alienate the vendors, many of whom she knew, Ha created a secret code for market excursions. If we were interested in something and asked Ha about its authenticity or quality, her simple reply of “yes” actually meant “no”; only a repeated “yes, yes” response signaled Ha’s true approval.

The journey to Asia was my sixth sabbatical from the practice of law. I joined my firm in 1983, as it expanded from four attorneys to five, and a few years later we started our sabbatical program. We followed a seniority schedule, which placed me in line for my first sabbatical in 1988. As that first sabbatical approached, I doubted I would stay out of the office for my allotted time. I remember thinking a four-week vacation would be nice, but much longer seemed unnecessary. I had always worked, and after six years as a public defender and eight years in private practice, I wasn’t that excited about being gone for so long.

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