100 Days to Rwanda: When To Go?

103134426So, in the first part, I talked about why you might want to take your family on an extended overseas adventure, and then I went over the discussion of how badly you need to want to do it, and picking a place that meets your criteria. And now it’s time to talk timing: when is best and when actually works — particularly when kids are involved. 

Timing: When To Go? How Long is Long Enough, How Long is Too Long?

There are two sides to timing: when does it make the most sense to be there, and when does it make the most sense to be away from here? Practical considerations like climate may determine when you’d like to be there, but at the end of the day, you may have no say in picking the timing on that end – as in, the project/job has a start date of x, and that’s when you’re expected to be in place.

Your commitments back home may also offer up restrictions – your may not be able to start your sabbatical or take your leave of absence until after a certain date, or you may have to be back home in time for the start of a new fiscal or academic year. Overriding all of that is the school calendar for the kids. If you’re going for a full year, then it makes some sense to miss an entire grade, rather than imposing the social and academic disconnect of missing half of two grades. If you’re going for less than a year (as in our case) then it may make sense to time it so you get the summer vacation to regroup and get your bearings at your destination. If you’re going for six months, then the Christmas holiday break allows you to do some traveling before heading home and dealing with re-entry.

So, when is the best age for the kids? The recommendations you get from other parents are endless and inconclusive: don’t go when they’re so young that they can’t really appreciate the experience, say some, while others point out that it’s better not to go when they’re so old that the disruption to their social life at home will render them reluctant to leave. By the time they’re in high school, their social life is complicated and they may not be keen on going; there’s also the added stress of preparing for college, which seems to commence earlier and earlier. If you’ve got more than one kid, the timing challenge gets all the more complicated.

Initially, we were planning to go for a full school year, but the coming year will be Lucas’ last year of middle school, and we felt it was important for him to be back in time to get closure on the middle school experience and get a proper transition to the start of high school.

So, what’s long enough – and what’s too long? Going for more than a year is a pretty huge commitment, and requires all the more in the way of planning and flexibility on the home front (not many employers will be able to grant more than a year’s leave of absence, and sabbaticals usually run for an academic year at most). It’s also going to have the kids out of circulation long enough to make the return all the more complicated.

Six months is probably the minimum to consider for a “real” overseas adventure. Going for less than that is really too short to feel like anything other than an extended vacation with a twist – sure, you’ll be away from home for a bit, but mentally, three months would only really be a summer and change, and if it takes a month to get settled in a new place and a few weeks to get ready to head back home, then you’re barely going to have any kind of day-to-day routine on the ground. It also would be harder to get the kids in school “over there” for less than a semester, so the experience would be a different one for them. One traveling mom broke it down his way: four months is enough to try it out, six months will get you a shot at getting the language down, and a year will truly get you in the groove of calling a new place home. 

Having said that, three months is obviously much simpler to pull off: time it right over the summer, and the kids will only miss a month of school back home. But it wouldn’t be the same.

Selling The Kids On The Plan

Okay. So, you want to go. Your significant other wants to go. You’ve picked a place you think will work (or where your work will work). You’ve decided how long you want to go for. You’re ready to go. By now, you’ve probably already at least talked to the kids about the possibility of going, and maybe they’ve sounded excited at the thought of a family adventure (or not). But if you’re getting serious and want to make it happen, then the challenge now is to get the kids on board with the very real notion of leaving it all behind and heading off into the unknown. And by “it all” I mean the comfort of home, the everyday routines, their familiar surroundings, their friends. For a kid, that’s pretty much everything – and the notion of suddenly not having it, even if only for a while, can be very intimidating.

The classic “guy” approach would be to encourage the kids to see the bigger picture, suck up their apprehensions, and remember that it’ll all still be there when they get back. Of course, that’s probably not going to go over well. It may make more sense to talk through specific sticking points, and it certainly helps to try to appreciate a 5th graders perspective. Try to think each aspect through ahead of time (packing up, leaving, the trip, the new surroundings, the new school, a place where they speak something other than English, eat different food, etc), and have the (hopefully) compelling argument ready as to why that might all be a fun challenge, not a threat to their existence.

Our daughter is a glass-half-empty kind of girl, and has a knack for finding all the potential pit falls and threats in any given scenario. From “alas, my friends will all have forgotten me!” to “argh, some stranger will be sleeping in my bed?!?” she’s gone over the horrors of leaving, declaring the whole thing a non-starter. Add in her dislike of travel, her fear of bugs, and her general weariness of the unfamiliar, and she’s a tough customer. All the same, she has slowly come around – in part because we’ve continued talking about this as a fait-accomplis, not discussing whether it would happen, but how it would happen, and making it clear that no amount of foot stomping would change it. So, yes, not so much a question of selling her on the idea as making the idea palatable to her. A few well-chosen bribes helped as well. We’re not above that…

Lucas was much more receptive to the idea – he loves the notion of travel and adventure, and while he’s more socially inclined than our daughter, he seemed to have no fear that he’d be forgotten by the time we return. His biggest moment of disgust so far came when I broke the news to him that his Xbox was not going to join us on the trip. Good grief, you’d think I’d suggested that he cut off his left hand and leave it behind. “But… but…” No buts. No Xbox. We are bringing a full complement of laptops, so he’ll be able to stay in touch with his posse via Facebook, Skype and email if and when internet connectivity allows, but part of the whole point of this exercise is to break his habit of spending hours in front of the screen online with his buddies from down the road.

In the next installment: “Practical Stuff: Paperwork, Cars n’ Houses. Schools – Again.” Stay Tuned.

100 Days to Rwanda: How Badly Do You Want This?

GoPhoto_0023_Negative-Scan-01418In the first part, I went over the “why” part of the whole “let’s take the kids on the road and go somewhere vaguely ridiculous for a rather long time” notion. Once you’ve figured that one out, it’s on to more practical decisions, but… 

First things first: you need to want to do it. I mean, really, truly want to do it. This is not just a “sure, I supposed we could go out for Indian tonight” kind of decision. You’re going to be turning your entire family’s life upside down and inside out for months or years, setting in motion lots of expensive and involved processes that can’t be undone so easily (“yeah, so about our house in Vermont that you thought you were renting while we were away? Well, here’s the bad news…”), so before you hit “go” be sure you want to go big and long and far away badly enough. If all you really need to work your travel yayas out of the system is a road trip to the Grand Canyon or two weeks touring southern France on a bicycle, then by all means go do that instead.

It is probably also fair to insist that everyone involved be genuinely keen on the idea – at the very least the grown-ups in the travel party. We’ll get to the (perhaps) challenging task of convincing the kids later on; for now, just make sure that everyone of voting age has a realistic sense of what’s being suggested and agrees on the basics. Just because Dad has the urge and the sabbatical to do it doesn’t mean Mom is willing or able to quit her job to tag along for the year. Or maybe she just really prefers the comfort of home and isn’t real keen on the great unknown. Talk it all through thoroughly – expectations, hesitations, dreams, and fears – well before you start booking tickets and shots at the travel clinic.

Picking a Place

You may not have the luxury of spinning the globe and picking the place of your fancy – after all, if your wife’s company would only ever consider sending her to Kiev in the Ukraine for two years, then that’s where the action is going to be at. (Good luck with that…)

But if you have the luxury of making a choice, well, then you need to make a choice. Of course, there are intrepid souls brave (or crazy and reckless) enough to bring their kids to even the nastiest of places for extended periods of time. Sure, you’ll have exotic bragging rights (“remember that time I was breast feeding by the bonfire on the lake shore and the pygmy rebel leader sailed up in his canoe, demanding to know why our wi-fi was off, only to find himself attacked by Zoe’s pet crocodile? Good times, good times…”), but they may come at a price not quite worth paying. Friends of ours saw their infant son catch malaria while they were working in Botswana – quite scary, and probably nobody’s idea of a good time.

Having said that, it doesn’t necessarily have to involve volcanoes and head hunters. “Overseas” can really be anywhere – even an extended stay in Canada would be different enough, I suppose. For a couple of kids raised on organic milk and fresh air here in Vermont I’m sure six months living in L.A. would be something of an eye-opener (“wow, look – smog…”). Bottom line: if the notion of squat toilets and similar significant changes in lifestyle is simply unappealing to one or more of you, then there are still plenty of opportunities to be found around the world that would offer your family a change of scenery and culture with a lot less hassle.

So, what should matter? Some of the key factors that we considered when deciding if Kigali and Rwanda was a viable option for us were: safety, housing, climate, community, surroundings & infrastructure, schools and language.

  • Safety. Way back when, I used to cherish the notion of traveling to places where no-one else wanted to go. I’ve been deported (Serbia), robbed (India), arrested (Lebanon), shot at (Israel) and generally abused across most continents. In the days before kids, I taught an OFDA-sponsored course on safety & security to relief workers – stuff like land mine awareness, how to behave at a road block, planning and preparing evacuations, conflict resolution, etc. All very useful stuff if you’re willing to work in a refugee camp in a war zone, but 15 years later I absolutely refuse to even consider the option of deliberately and voluntarily putting my kids’ in harm’s way, so active conflict zones were off limits (not to mention that any employer or organization worth working with should flat out refuse to relocate a family to a place where there’s much potential of real danger).

    But my wife and I were also quite uncomfortable with a setting where crime and insecurity would require a permanent state of justified paranoia. Many moons ago, we spent quite a bit of time in Cape Town, South Africa; loved the place and came very close to moving there for a longer stint. But friends of ours recently spent six months there with their kids, and their tales of barbed wire, armed guards, and endless robberies in spite of all their precautions sounded quite off-putting.

    Of course, many Americans believe that venturing anywhere outside the contiguous 48 states is tantamount to suicide because “there be dragons” (or at least terrorists and Frenchmen). They are of course wrong. But a lot of big cities in the developing world really aren’t particularly safe, so you’re either looking at life in a rural setting, where the whole school/community thing gets tricky (see below) or you need to accept living with the fortress mentality. Kigali offered an excellent compromise: it’s the heart of the nation, providing all the big city amenities, but it’s also that rarest of creatures: a fairly laid back African capital with safe streets and little crime.

  • Housing. For an extended stint anywhere, you’ve got to have a decent place to stay and call home. Unlike the good ol’ days where you could crash on someone’s couch for months on end or live out of a backpack in a hostel dorm, that’s just not going to work for your 5-year-old (or for your relationship, for that matter).

    Some people get a kick out of enduring physical hardship and going native: no running water, outdoor latrines, limited access to electricity all add to their sense of adventure and pushing the limits. While I admire their endurance and eagerness to suffer, you’ve got to be really honest and ask yourself: once the novelty value wears off, is anyone in the family going to go nuts without access to at least a lukewarm shower or a place to charge an iPod? In our case, the answer was a definite yes on both counts, so we needed housing that offered at least some basic amenities. Kigali has a huge turnover of rental housing in the expat community; it’s by no means cheap, but it’s readily available and of decent quality.

  • Climate. I don’t function well in the super hot and humid, and my wife’s pretty sensitive to extremes of climate, too. It would not have been a deal breaker, perhaps, but a posting to, say, Bangkok or Jakarta would have brought with it a whole bunch of other requirements (like, constant AC) that I’d much prefer to to avoid. On that account, Kigali is rather exceptional: located almost on the equator, it is obviously hot. But the city (and, indeed, most of the country) is at about 5000 feet above sea level, so it never gets oppressively hot – evenings are downright cool (and as a nice added benefit, the bugs are bearable, too.)

    What kind of climate extreme can you tolerate and still act sociable around the people you love and work with? Parts of China and Russia make Vermont look downright balmy. Before you sign on the dotted line, make sure a year in Ulan Bator, Mongolia isn’t going to build a little too much character in you or your kids…

  • Community, Infrastructure, Surroundings. Some people really are fine living all alone at the hill station a two hour dirt road drive from the nearest village. Others crave the full expat package with a 4th of July party at the ambassador’s residence and nights spent at the rowdy British pub where ex-mercenaries drink to forget while they watch the satellite feed of the Manchester United soccer game from “back home.” Particularly for kids, having at least some other people around is a good thing to mitigate the strange and unfamiliar setting. And just as with the amenities and housing, you’ve got to determine what else you really “need” to have nearby to make it through an extended stay. Some people assimilate and function better if they can connect with an instant community of like-minded compatriots (although it does raise the question: why travel halfway around the world if your first concern is finding the local Americans to hook up with?) Others will want to look for opportunities to interact with the local population either through volunteering or simply making friends.

    On the very practical side of things, long, slow drives on the crappy and profoundly dangerous roads that rule throughout much of the world is extremely exhausting to deal with. You really want to be able to live where your work is – which may rule out scenarios with you living in a city for your family’s sake, but commuting to a field post (where a lone bachelor could simply have set up shop at the research station).

    We likely could have done our family adventure in Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania, but I was reluctant to consider that option. Dar is a big, unappealing city with precious little of interest, especially for kids. There’s just not a whole lot to see or do nearby (I’m not talking about epic outings like a safari or a climb up Kilimanjaro – great and all, but not something you do on whim after school on a Tuesday afternoon). Kigali, on the other hand, is surrounded by beautiful hills where you can hike and bike, and there are lots of options for day trip adventures nearby.

  • Schools. We’ve got a rising 6th and 8th grader. There’s no question that six months away from home in the heart of Africa will teach them more about life than any six months of middle school curriculum back in the United States could ever do. That’s a strong part of the incentive for making this trip happen at all: it’s intended as an immersive “there’s more to life than your cushy little village in New England; come, let me show you it” experience. All the same, “no school” for six months didn’t seem like an option. Certainly, some variation on home schooling and keeping up with homework from home via the Internet would have been quite possible, but we felt that another part of the “away” experience should be the chance to try a semester of school abroad. Which meant that there had to be a decent school at our destination. I’ll go into more detail about the school search and related practicalities later on, but suffice it to say that a) the internet is your friend and b) most bigger cities will have some kind of British/American/­International school that could cater to your kids. Local schools might well be willing to enroll your kids as well, but your mileage would vary significantly.

  • Language. Do you prefer the convenience of an English-speaking country? Or the challenge of a place where English is a second language at best? Even if your kids end up in an English-speaking school, day-to-day life in a country where English is not spoken on the streets is going to be more interesting or frustrating, depending on the attitude with which you all approach it. Rwanda is an odd one. Kinyarwanda is the primary language (and an exceptionally challenging one to learn), and until recently French ruled as the de facto second language (and the language of officialdom and higher education), spoken to some degree by most locals. But the country recently decided to switch its affiliation from francophone Africa to the British Commonwealth, adding English as a third “official” language and the new primary language of the government and education. That obviously won’t change the language of cab drivers and fruit stall vendors overnight, so actively using the French that our kids have been learning since Kindergarten will be a significant part of daily life.

    It would not have been a deal breaker if we had ended up in a country where neither English, French or Spanish was commonly used, but it is certainly more convenient for a relatively short stay like ours to be able to fall back on a language with which we all have a working knowledge.

So, there you have it. Those were some of the key considerations as we started zeroing in on possible destinations. Again: carefully picking your destination presumes you even have that luxury at all, but you could use the same parameters to determine if a given destination might be suitable for your family.

The best way get a feel for a place before the big move is obviously to go see it in person. I had worked in Rwanda briefly in the late 90’s, so had a sense (and a very positive impression) of the place. Lisa was fortunate enough to take part in a couple of work-related trips to Rwanda before our planned move. But a pre-departure visit may not be part of the package you’re being offered, in which case you’d have to spring for a visit for one or more of you out of your own pocket. At the very least, you could take virtual tours via Youtube and travel logs online.

Some might be drawn to a place they’d visited in the past (e.g. Peace Corps volunteers), but it’s worth recognizing that the place you visited 25 years ago will have changed quite a bit since then. Remember, too, that the place that so rocked your world when you were a 21-year old pre-med student looking to spend a week scuba diving on the cheap might not rock quite as hard when you’re a family of four looking for a good place to spend a year together.

Next up: When and for How Long?and “Selling The Kids On The Plan.” Stay tuned.

100 Days to Rwanda: Off to the Heart of Darkness? Okay, Let’s Bring The Kids, Then

luggage2I love the quaint old term “going overseas.” It conjures up images of steamer trunks with colorful stickers, starched napkins at the captain’s table shortly before hitting an iceberg, Dr. Livingstone taking afternoon tea on the savannah and all that. Alas, in this age of effortless global travel you’d be hard pressed to arrange something with quite the same air of adventure – no matter how clumsy the execution, the grope-down by the TSA staff at the airport just doesn’t count as “exploring.”

But exactly (well, give or take a day) 100 days from now, my wife and I are bringing our two kids – Lea, age 10, and Lucas, 13 – with us to Rwanda for six months. It’ll most definitely be a learning opportunity for us all – and that’s even before we leave the comfort of our Norwich, Vermont, home.

“Oh, how exciting for you all,” says everybody. Absolutely, exciting and challenging – if not particularly trailblazing. After all, missionaries, diplomats and dedicated company men have uprooted their lives and moved to beyond-far-away over the ages. (“Jolly good show with that pesky order, Rodgers, quite so. We’re putting you in charge of the Burma account and sending you off to Mandalay – best of luck, old chap, the steamer sails at noon tomorrow”). I’d like to think that most people today have the freedom to decide if they want to go or not. This is all seen from the perspective of a family who had that luxury; we could easily have chosen to simply stay put right here in safe, old comfortable Vermont if that had been our preference. Instead, we chose to go.

In our case, it’s a work opportunity for my wife that’s making it possible. As a doctor on faculty at Dartmouth’s Medical School she’s involved in an ambitious new project to strengthen the medical education system in Rwanda. Curriculum building, training of trainers, mentoring, and all that good stuff. As a photographer and writer I’m fortunate enough to be able to pack my work in a duffel bag and bring it with me on the road. When I’m not busy wrangling kids, I’ll be working on several stories on Rwanda and its neighboring countries for editors in the United States and Europe.

“It’s hot and smelly, and I hear they cook meals with goat’s eyes and weird bugs. Why on earth would you go at all?” For some, it’s the realization of a lifelong dream to get out and see the world after being stuck at home forever. For others, it’s a natural extension of a life spent traveling. A creatively resolved midlife crisis, perhaps, or a chance to show your privileged kids that there’s more to life than movies-on-demand and overflowing supermarkets. In our case, it was a mix. My wife and I met in Kosovo while we were both far away from “home” (hers in Boston, mine in Copenhagen). We subsequently lived and worked together in Africa in the easy going pre-kids days (Lucas was conceived in Tanzania, but born in New York), and we’d long talked about finding the opportunity to do a stint somewhere with the kids in tow. We also definitely considered this as an opportunity to shake things up a bit, leave the Xbox behind and firmly nudge our kids towards an expanded worldview.

That initial “why” is really up to you and your particular philosophy of life and temperament to grapple with. But once that’s resolved (see “how badly do you want this” later on), the issue becomes a much more practical one of “how”: how do you make an overseas adventure happen at all in this day and age? If you’re independently wealthy, some of the usual hurdles are instantly eliminated. You just up and go. Ah, envy. For most of us, however, it’s going to be work-related, a sabbatical or leave-of-absense, or a gap between jobs. If you’re so inclined, missionary work is an option, as is volunteering with the countless non-profit organizations in the 3rd world.

Once you’ve figured out how to make it happen, you move on to all the nitty-gritty of actually pulling it off.

If you’re already past the “why” and actively toying with the idea of taking your family on the big, big road trip, then some of our research and our many missteps may just help you pull off the adventure a little easier.

Up next: How Badly Do You Want This?and “Picking a Place.” Stay tuned.