Logistics of International Work–Part 2

Street scene, Ipoh, Malaysia image: Erik Mustonen
Street scene, Ipoh, Malaysia
image: Erik Mustonen

My two previous posts, Getting Started in International Work and Logistics of International Work—Part 1, dealt with preparing to work internationally. This post deals with the logistics of when you are in a foreign country and after you return. The previously stated caveat—that conditions vary greatly between countries, within countries, and over time– still applies, but this should at least give you a few things to think about.

1. Health

“Pig spare-part soup,” Singapore food court image: Erik Mustonen
“Pig spare-part soup,” Singapore food court
image: Erik Mustonen

Be careful what you eat and drink. Health hazards and standards of hygiene vary greatly by country and region. A lot can be achieved by just increasing your awareness and following simple practices such as using hand sanitizer and avoiding touching your face unless your hands are clean.

Tropical diseases need to be taken seriously. You should avoid mosquitoes by covering up with as much clothing as possible and wearing repellant on exposed skin when in risky areas. When sleeping, a combination of at least two of the following three is advisable: repellant (coil), a mosquito net or a fan (which confuses mosquitoes by blowing away your scent and carbon dioxide). Malaria is usually found only in rural or forest areas, but dengue fever—for which there is no known prevention—is found in many large Asian cities. There are many other serious diseases and parasites, especially in Africa where an Ebola epidemic is currently underway. MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) is also becoming an increasing concern.

If you are stuck in a room with bed bugs, leave the light on, and they may stay hidden rather than coming out to feed. Light-colored clothing and bedding helps you to spot the intruders. More worrying is the fact that to control bed bugs, some hotels in Asia are using an illegal, highly toxic pesticide (aluminum phosphide) that has resulted in the deaths of several tourists.

2. Identification/Papers

Peace Corps Volunteers at a sidewalk café, Sfax, Tunisia image: Erik Mustonen
Peace Corps Volunteers at a sidewalk café, Sfax, Tunisia
image: Erik Mustonen

North Americans find the idea of needing to carry identification, other than a driver’s license, strange. On my first trip to Europe, I was sitting at a Parisian sidewalk café one evening when a police van pulled up to the curb. Several uniformed policemen jumped out along with a detective in a fedora hat and a trench coat, looking like something out of a classic movie. The detective came up to my table and said, “Vos papiers, Monsieur?” (“Your papers, Sir?”). I pulled out my passport, he examined it and returned it saying, “Merci.” He went to the next table, where a group of American students had left their passports at their hotel. They were all arrested on the spot. As they were being loaded into the police van, one was yelling, “I’m going to contact my Congressman!”

If you acquire residence in a foreign country you may be issued a national identity card; otherwise, you should always carry your passport (except in Canada). Depending on the prevalence of pick-pockets, this may or may not need to be hidden in a cloth money belt or bag, under your clothing with the passport in a zip-lock plastic bag to keep it dry. Stolen passports are very valuable on the black market.

Check the rules about drivers’ licenses. You may be able to use your regular one (perhaps for a limited time only) or you may have to supplement it with an International Driver’s Permit, which is available from your home country automobile association. Or you may need to get a relevant national license, which can be difficult and/or expensive.

Inquire about other national requirements. In Germany, for example, there is no such thing as “of no fixed address.” As a resident, you need to register your name and address with the local police within two weeks by completing a form you can buy in a convenience store.

3. Ethics

Bathing in the Ganges, Varanasi, India  image: Erik Mustonen
Bathing in the Ganges, Varanasi, India
image: Erik Mustonen

Culture, politics and business practices vary greatly around the world. Working internationally, you must decide for yourself what your core beliefs are and what may perhaps be subject to interpretation depending on the context. You may want to avoid some countries completely, and some countries, or clients, may want to avoid you because of your religion, gender, sexual preference or political beliefs (expressed or assumed). Being open to different cultures, however, expands the mind.

In some countries, a small amount of baksheesh, or “tea money,” is sometimes expected to lubricate the wheels of daily life. Serious bribery, such as to secure a contract, is a different matter and can lead to prosecution either in your home country or in the host country.

4. Accommodations

Hotel in traditional structure, southern Tunisia  image: Erik Mustonen
Hotel in traditional structure, southern Tunisia
image: Erik Mustonen

Provision of accommodations can vary quite a bit depending on the situation and your contract. For short stays, hotels, furnished apartments or housing compounds are usually provided by the employer. For longer stays, you may have to find your own place, perhaps with assistance from a local employer/employee. There may or may not be a housing allowance depending on what was negotiated. Renting in some countries, especially in parts of the Middle East, may be absurdly expensive. Also check on income tax implications—both local and in your home country—of housing expenses.

The first time I was sent to Saudi Arabia by a German firm, I was assigned to what they called “the Bulls’ Cloister,” a boarding house for single, expatriate, German men. On the weekend, cases of bootleg booze came out, and a party erupted that made National Lampoon’s Animal House look like a church ladies’ tea party in comparison. Since it was obvious that I did not fit in, I was later assigned to a shared, furnished, more civilized apartment. Married couples lived in compounds of several multi-unit buildings around a swimming pool.

5. Local Transportation

New Delhi traffic (1980) image: Erik Mustonen
New Delhi traffic (1980)
image: Erik Mustonen

Possibilities for local transportation vary greatly. In some countries there is a highly developed public transit system, and having a car would be a burden. I bought a car in Germany but only used it evenings and weekends because commuting by transit was so convenient.

In Kuala Lumpur, a car used to be necessary, but now transit (including a network of light-rail lines and a monorail) has greatly improved, and traffic has gotten much worse. There are numerous cheap taxis, but finding them in busy periods may be impossible. In many countries, you have to negotiate the price of a taxi ride before getting in.

In some countries, having the use of a car is essential, and in some places, driving is a death-defying experience. In Saudi Arabia, both are true. A company car will likely be provided for expatriates, but women are not allowed to drive.

You need to learn the local driving style to survive. In Germany, for example, it is in accordance with strict rules, but some people speed like maniacs on the Autobahn. I was once riding with someone who was doing 170 km/h (106 mph) when a sports car passed us like we were standing still. In Saudi Arabia, virtually no rules are observed except “thou shalt not run a red light,” but people creep out into the intersection while waiting for the light to change. With the frequent high-speed collisions, there are wrecks by the side of the road that could not be recognized as cars but for a wheel sticking out here and there.

6. Communications

Internet shop, Dubai image: Erik Mustonen
Internet shop, Dubai
image: Erik Mustonen

Communication options vary greatly around the world. It is usually good to have one stable cell phone number that you can use and be reached at as you travel, but make sure that the device is a “world phone” that will work with all systems you may encounter. Also carry appropriate electrical converters. Roaming charges are likely to be prohibitive, so you might also want to get a local cell phone (or SIM card), which may be provided by the company. Internet access is available around the world, and Skype will be handy for calls home.

You may not have time for television, but watching local TV can be useful as an aide for learning the language. Regional systems are not inter-compatible between continents, so get a local TV, and don’t bring it back.

7. Other Aspects of Life

Hiking in primary forest (“jungle”) with the Malaysian Nature Society  image: Erik Mustonen
Hiking in primary forest (“jungle”) with the Malaysian Nature Society
image: Erik Mustonen

In spite of likely working long hours, you should take advantage of opportunities to meet people, participate in activities and discover the local culture and natural environment. The Malaysian Nature Society, for example, offers “jungle” hiking and camping, snorkeling, cave exploring and hill station overnights where you can see the rings of Saturn through a telescope. I was often the only foreigner in a large group. Some cultures, however, are more restrictive and less welcoming, so you may be forced to hang out with other expatriates and have very limited options for entertainment or recreation.

Taking a spouse, especially one who cannot work in the foreign country for whatever reason, can be challenging, and taking children can also be problematic. For various reasons, they may not be able to attend regular local schools. High quality “International Schools” may be available but very expensive. The International School of Kuala Lumpur, for example, costs about $30,000 to $43,000 USD per year, depending on grade level. Home schooling might be worth considering.

8. Coming Home

Putrajaya Federal Administrative Centre, Malaysia  image: Erik Mustonen
Putrajaya Federal Administrative Centre, Malaysia
image: Erik Mustonen

The way international work is done is quite different from the way the profession is practiced in North America. Working internationally, you often have to able to do almost anything and everything, and you may be working on a mega-project as the only (or almost only) landscape architect on a team. In 2001, I was sent by a multi-national firm, as one of eight “program management consultants” to oversee a master planning study for an oil company town in Saudi Arabia. Working with six engineers and a planning technologist, my role was effectively “Project Manager of Architecture, Landscape Architecture, Urban Design and Environmental Planning”—I had to use everything I had. The client referred to me as “Mister Urban—very important!”

Also, expatriates are often given neither the time nor the information necessary to make major decisions since they are expected to be able to “shoot from the hip from horseback” (like the cowboy heroes in old Westerns) in a largely unregulated environment. Public input is also often lacking.

In North America, however, specialization both vertically (within a team) and horizontally (within a discipline) is more the norm. Moreover, design decisions need to be based on a thorough analysis, with reference to numerous regulations, standards and guidelines and with public input.

In 1997, I returned after five years in Malaysia where I had worked on enormous commercial and institutional projects such as the Menara Telekom as the only landscape architect—sometimes with one junior assistant—and a master planning study for the Putrajaya Federal Administrative Centre (a new town on a 10,000-acre site) as a leader of a team of three local landscape architects.

With no recent North American experience and no state licensure, it took a long time to find my first job. After passing the LARE, getting licensed in some states, becoming LEED-accredited and CLARB-certified, and getting several years of experience in the US and Canada, I am now finally back, but it has been a struggle. Early in my career, a seasoned landscape architect with overseas experience advised me that doing international work would be a perfectly viable career path, but he warned me not to try to go back and forth. He may have been right. It has been exciting, culturally enriching and professionally fulfilling, but it has not been easy.

It is a very good idea to maintain your contacts back home while overseas to avoid becoming cut adrift professionally. Keeping up with professional reading on the internet and with professional journals, and attending ASLA Annual Meetings will help, but isolation becomes an issue nevertheless.

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”
–Marcel Proust (1871-1922)

But living, working and traveling in foreign countries gives you new eyes, and you will not be the same afterwards.

by Erik S. Mustonen, ASLA, CSLA, RLA (CA + MN), CLARB, LEED-AP-ND, International Practice PPN Chair

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