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.