100 Days to Rwanda: Practical Stuff

thumb_COLOURBOX1609889In 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. Then we got the kids on board and decided when to go and for how long. All that’s left is all the practical stuff like visas. 

Paperwork.

You’ll probably need visas, work permits and whatnot. Some of that may be dealt with by your employer if they’re the ones sending you out there, but if they’re not used to dealing with this sort of thing or with your particular destination, then perhaps it might be worth it for you to get actively involved. Either way, double check with the state department and the local embassy of the country you’re visiting to find out exactly what’s required.

Accompanying family members usually get a visa that’ll allow them to at the very least reside in the country alongside the working member of the family, but their visas may be different (i.e. you may not be eligible to work in-country just because your significant other has a work visa). This all needs to be sorted out well ahead of time – the procedure for anything relating to passports and stamps and petty bureaucrats can be quite farcical, involved, and highly time-consuming (and expensive, too). You will need lots and lots of passport-sized photos of all of you. Oh, and really basic stuff: you will need passports that are valid for at least six months after your expected date of return, be sure you don’t have any offensive stamps from countries that are on the no-go list in the country you’re visiting.

If you’re planning on traveling in the region, beware that some countries require that you get their visa from their embassy in your “real” home country – that is to say, they won’t allow you to pick up the visa from their embassy in the country where you’re staying overseas. This can be a real pain, and I’m going to test just how true it is when you can document that you’re in country X as a permanent resident with a work permit. Should be fun… not.

Some countries also have annoying requirements like a valid, pre-purchased return ticket and/or an invitation from a local company (which, of course, can simply be a travel agent or a hotel willing to provide you with such an invitation for a fee), which can be a pain if you want to travel from country to country or take the road less traveled and won’t simply be flying in and out of the international airport. Finally, beware the need for a valid re-entry visa to your temporary home country as well.

We’ll get to the international vaccination card/yellow fever card under health later, but you may also want to get an international driver’s license (in the United States, the crooks at AAA have the monopoly on that stuff, in most other countries, it’s whoever issues driver’s licenses that deal with the international ones).

For some transactions (like, say, opening a bank account or signing a lease) some countries may require a document of good standing. This is like your citizen’s report card and includes your criminal record. Check with your local attorney general’s office or local police to find out where you might get yours. This obscure thing will then need to be formalized, which is even more involved – if you’re lucky, your new host country will be a co-signer of the Hague Convention on international documents, which means you can get an apostille certification of your document – much easier than the fullblown process. Nope, I knew nothing about any of this before I started digging – it’s fascinating in that diplomatic/bureaucratic “I guess this is important to someone, somewhere” way, and you can learn more about it here.

Buying a car there? Shipping one over? Taking the bus?

It’s so American to assume that you’ll need a car to get around. After all, most people in the world (and in the country you’re about to visit) do just fine without one. You need to figure out what will work for you. Even if one of you can get to work without a car, the kids may not be able to get to school without one. Or you will be stuck without the ability to get out of the city without one. Check carefully and see if you can get away with local public transportation, the occasional cab, renting a car for weekend outings or sharing a car with others.

If it turns out you really, really need a car, you have two options: buy it there (or nearby), or ship it there. Buying it there means somehow finding a car for sale and negotiating the purchase – either before your arrival or once in-country. Getting someone you can trust in-country to act as your broker may be an option. Be sure you really, truly obtain full ownership of the car, not just a random lease agreement. If you ship a car from the United States to your destination you will have to deal with the whole shipping & handling & customs part of things – no laughing matter when it comes to something as significant as a car. It’s pricey, too – shipping a car from the United States to pretty much anywhere is going to cost you thousands of dollars and will take anywhere up to a couple of months. But it may still be worth it. (I got a quick quote from an outfit via the web for $2200 to ship a car from New Jersey to Mombasa in Kenya.)

Importing the car to your destination is destined to be a production unto itself. Taxes, registration, various handling fees, bribes to make things happen, etc. etc. Not to mention the time required to deal with it all – if you think the guys at the DMV are slow, wait until you’ve tried doing the whole thing in Swahili with bureaucrats looking to milk the opportunity for all it’s worth…

Then comes insurance for the car, and safe parking, and maintenance – all the usual headaches associated with our four-wheeled friends. Then acknowledge that you’re going to be on marginally maintained roads, shared with suicidal fellow drivers and their highly erratic interpretations of concepts like yielding and safety, and you’ll be all set.

When it comes time to leave, you’ll have to decide what to do with your car (or what’s left of it). If you’re going to sell it, your best bet may be an incoming expat family looking for a car, just like you were a year earlier. The transaction will involve lots of paperwork, only this time in reverse.

If that all sounds way too daunting, then look into the alternatives to driving – the locals do every day, and so can you. But: zipping around on the back of a motorbike taxi without a helmet is probably even more dangerous that driving yourself. Take the bus, or walk; if you’re really brave, get a bike – but that’s probably even more dangerous than the back of the motorbike if you’re in a city… If you forego the car, then your location becomes all the more crucial to pick well.

Schools

Courtesy of the Internet, it was is easy enough to get a sense of what is available in the way of local and international schools. The American Embassy in Kigali also had a good list of recommendations. We ended up with a shortlist of about four or five options, with one strong favorite. The runner-ups were either too big (3,000 kids in a middle school might be a tad overwhelming for a girl coming from Marion Cross School in Norwich, Vermont, where there are less than 40 kids in the entire 5th grade), too French (both in the sense of all instruction happening in French, and in the sense that they followed the French school system with all its moribund rigidity, including the school uniforms), or too faith-based (when the day starts with mandatory scripture from 8-12 followed by science as explained in the Bible later on, there’s little time left to actually learn something useful).

Our choice was one of several smaller English-speaking international schools, this one following an American curriculum (others follow the British system, which probably wouldn’t have been a problem until the high school years), and is run by a principal who just happens to have lived in Vermont for over 20 years. With just 120 kids across all grades K-12, we figure it’ll facilitate a quicker sense of belonging during our relatively short stay. We were fortunate that Lisa was in Kigali last year and had time to visit the schools in person; you may not have that luxury and would then probably be better off trying to track down online reviews or comments from other parents about potential schools. Expats are usually very generous with recommendations and evaluations of their experience, so it shouldn’t be hard to find something to go by.

Private school is not cheap, and your potential employer may not be willing to spring for the cost of your kids’ education. If the budget it tight, this may be one potential stumbling block, and certainly something to get clarified in the early phase of the contract discussions. If you’re only going for part of the year, check with the school of your choice if they will pro-rate tuition so you only pay for what you’re getting. There will be a (hefty) deposit either way, along with various registration fees – and the challenge of getting the money to the school (start getting used to exorbitant wire transfer fees paid to your local bank).

In the next installment: Health and Insurance.” Stay Tuned.

Rwanda-based Photo Journalist

RwandaFrom July through December 2012, I will be based in Kigali, Rwanda as a freelance photo journalist.

I will be looking to cover human interest stories, development stories, photo features on the country and the region, as well as spot photography. My particular areas of interest are health, children, and the influcence of foreign aid on the contry. 

I will be available for assignments throughout the Great Lakes region, including Rwanda, the D.R. Congo, Burundi, Western Tanzania and Uganda. 

I would consider collaboration on stories with freelance or staff writers, as well as assignments for both photos and text. 

Contact me to discuss assignments or ideas for collaboration on stories in the Great Lakes region. Check out some of my previous work here and here

I can be reached as follows: