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Key QuestionsThis page covers the foremost questions advisors and volunteers have about international projects.
Will I be safe?
Safety and security are primary concerns when overseas. Your safety is a major responsibility of the field organization which oversees the project. However, don't put your own safety entirely in the hands of another person or organization. It is important for you to understand, as accurately as possible, the real safety issues in the country you are visiting.
When trying to get an accurate picture of the day-to-day security situation in a given country, we have found that the news media does not provide a useful picture. Their job is to report news events, not present the security issues for travelers. They may report a single incident which is far removed from where the project is located, and have little bearing on safety. Or there may be no newsworthy events to report in a country that has real safety issues for an advisor or volunteer.
Prior to accepting any international project we read the Travel Warnings & Consular Information Sheets maintained by the U.S. State Department. Their information on each country is up-to-date, gives a real view of how safe the country is overall, and tells you what the real security risks are. They give information on the quality of roads so we can plan whether we we will want to rent a car or hire a car and driver. They suggest whether it is safe to walk around at night, and what types of crimes are prevalent (pickpockets or murders).
Once we are in a country, we have found that the single most important rule for safety can be summed up in a single word: Listen. We have heard this creed from members of the U.S. military, former CIA members, and people responsible for the security of corporate executives: Listen to the local people with whom you work, your country director, your hotel staff, and other trusted people who have spent a long time in the culture. They know what is safe and the nuances of local security issues. They also have your best interests at heart, since you are providing them assistance.
For more information on safety, see Safety on the Project.
On a project in Namibia, we were advised against traveling to the Northern border near Angola due to hijacking incidents. The locals who lived virtually on the border had no problems with these issues, since no incidents had occured in five years. The real safety issue was driving at night. The antelope and warthog population had ballooned, and hitting one of these stray beasts at night was a lot more likely to occur than a hijacking.
Can I deal with poverty?
It's human nature to avert our eyes from squalor: beggars sitting on the street with outstretched arms; children tugging at your clothes asking you for coins; shabbily dressed people calling to you to purchase something from them. Depending on where your project takes you, these are indeed some of the sights that might greet you.
It's difficult to prepare in advance for encounters with poverty. It took time for us to get used to the emotions that surface when we were first exposed to the plight of poor people. It also helped to remember that we were helping people by our presence on an international project.
One key rule: don't support beggars. Purchase items offered, pay and tip generously for services, donate to in-country charities, hire people to drive you and give you a tour of the sites, but don't give handouts.
What are the living conditions?
The standard of living varies widely with the specifics of the project. The field organization that oversees the project will give you a very good idea of your living condition before you commit to a project.
We have been fortunate on our projects to be provided accomodations which are better than how we live at home in the U.S. This photo shows that our accomodations in Zimbabwe in 1997 were particularly outstanding, although all our experiences have been positive. We've had maids, gardeners, cooks, pools, eaten four star meals, and stayed in five star hotels. Many times we've stayed in guesthouses owned by the locals. These are the best experiences since you get the local perspective on everything.
What about language?
Speaking the local language can be a help, but it is usually not a necessity. Many hosts speak English or have someone available who speaks English. If not, an interpreter can often be provided.
How do I find the time?
Many firms will give employees time off or extended vacation time to complete an international project. This is especially true if the assignment is viewed as career-related, or gives the employee a new perspective of potential business opportunities.
Some advisors have intentionally chosen to pursue a simpler lifestyle. They take a yearly sabbatical from work or have chosen to take consulting or temporary assignments so that they have blocks of time for international projects.
Many advisors and volunteers have retired or downshifted. They use international projects to help live an active and diverse lifestyle. One retired advisor's motto is “Not Done Yet”.
How much support can I expect on my project?
Lots. Most field organizations have in-country directors who meet you at the airport, take you to your lodgings, and provide you with local information. Since many of them are expatriates, they welcome your company and may join you socially in your off-hours during your project.
On the other hand, the locals with whom you'll be working are eager to show you their country, and will undoubtedly vie for your off-hours time as well.
One of the most unexpected challenges we have faced on a few projects is to get some quiet time between work and the schedule of social events was planned for us!
What if I get sick?
Healthcare is a concern, and may represent the largest threat to your safety. Doctors may be unreliable, and hospitals may be unusable. We probably would not have felt comfortable with the medical services offered by Chiremba Surgery, above a shoe store in Harare.
When we arrived in Zimbabwe, our country director picked us up at the airport. She took a detour on her way to our accomodations, pointing to a small building next to the local hospital. She said “If you have a medical problem, any time of the day or night, go in that door, tip the receptionist $3, and they will take you to see a good doctor. Then they will notify us and we'll all decide what to do.”
What if I am selected for a project, but can't go?
No problem! You are always given the option of declining a project, for any reason.
However, it is good etiquette to accept or decline a project when it is offered to you as quickly as possible. Field organizations are intent on finding the best advisor or volunteer for a project. Declining a project after “sitting on it” for a week or two can hurt the organization's chances of finding another suitable person.
So, when the data sheet on a project comes over the wire, sit down as quickly as possible, read the project description, and review the Country Guide. Decide whether the project is right for you, and if the timing fits within your schedule.
How do I pack for an extended trip?
Selectively! We like to pack only as much luggage as we can personally tote. This avoids hassles with porters. For us, this is one rollable bag and one carry-on bag per person.
Laundry service has always been available everywhere we've gone (and cheap!). Avoid bringing clothes that need to be dry-cleaned. We usually bring three conservative business outfits that we rotate throughout our stay and three casual outfits for after work and weekend outings. Clothes are always available for purchase (and cheap!), but the hassles of clothes shopping may not be worth the savings in luggage weight or money.
At the end of our stay, you may find that you want to donate some of your shoes and clothes to house staff or acquaintances. We've done this on several projects, and they have been thrilled to receive imported clothing. Also, but by this point, we were so tired of wearing the same outfits, we were only too glad to be rid of them!
How do I stay in touch?
Phone service is fairly reliable in many developing countries, but international service is expensive. This makes it useful for extraordinary situations or emergencies. See our Tips on Telephone page for strategies on getting the best phone service.
Internet access has become pervasive in many developing countries, so E-Mail has become the best link home for many situations.
Yes, this establishment in Calcutta did have Internet access, and we connected and surfed the Web. We even ate lunch there. And yes, the cow stayed around the entire time.
See our recommendations for Connecting to the Internet for more on this topic.
What about my house, car, mail and phone messages back home?
It pays to have good friends!
In our case, we give credit to our neighbors Matt and Tammy who are reliable, trustworthy, and excellent troubleshooters. They come over to our house, water our plants, pick up the mail, open our bills and pay them from our checkbook that we entrust to them. We leave them a contact sheet with names and phone numbers of our plumber, gardener, electrician, etc., should the need arise for their services. In addition to our overseas phone number, we also stay in contact via E-Mail, in case they should have a question (which came in handy when Merrill Lynch notified us that our credit card had been stolen over the Internet!).
One caveat: make sure you give them something in return for their troubles. They may say that it's not a bother, but going to your house every few days gets real old real fast.
We suspend newspapers, magazines and even car insurance during our absence. However, even though a car remains undriven while you are gone, you may need to maintain a minimum level of comprehensive insurance to satisfy state requirements.
Will I get to sightsee?
It is almost a requirement. If you don't explore the hosting country or region, you would miss out on a huge cultural opportunity. You would also probably disappoint your hosts, most of whom are eager to show off their country.
Exactly how you go about touring depends on the particulars of the project you undertake.
While in Zimbabwe, we qualified for “resident” rates, bringing the cost of an evening at a safari camp from $400 to $45! The travel ideas (and connections) of the people we have worked with has taken us to places way way off the beaten path. We have found ourselves in a commune in India and a Shingon Buddhist monastary in Japan.
How do I avoid making a cultural faux pas?
You won't. It is impossible to know the nuances of every culture. You can prepare by reading the cultural sections in travel guidebooks such as Fodor's Online, Frommer's Online, and Lonely Planet Online.
You will also take cues from the locals around you. We learned the art of eating with our hands in Zimbabwe by watching. (There was no silverware on the table, so we had no choice but to watch). We had to re-learn this particular skill in India, where the technique is very different. If the locals take their shoes off before entering a temple, so do you.
Despite our best efforts, we have accidentally made obscene gestures, botched introductions, stumbled on political issues, and bumbled the language so badly that one poor man in a hot springs in Kyoto thought Clint said that he had small genitalia. Most mistakes are recoverable, and people are very understanding, but we never saw that particular Japanese gentleman again.
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