South Africa: The Planning

A couple months ago, one of my cousins sent me a message and asked me how you get started planning a project like this. I feel badly that it's taken so long for me to put together my answer, but it's a long one.

Ever since we adopted Derrick in 2005, we knew that we would take him on a trip back to South Africa. Someday. After Kaleigh was born, we decided we should wait a couple of years until she was a little older. We knew that a trip to South Africa was too big of a life changing opportunity to leave Rachel out of it. And we couldn't take Rachel without taking Lucy. So the original plan was to take everyone but Adam. We figured we could probably leave Adam with someone else for a maximum of two weeks. But if we were going to spend thousands and thousands of dollars to get to South Africa, I wanted to make the most of it and stay for an entire month. And there was no way we were going to leave Adam for a month. It took some serious persuading, but I eventually talked Steve into a family trip, with everyone going.

Of course the biggest constraints were time and money. Two years ago, we sat down and set a date: February 2013. We discussed how we were going to come up with the money for our trip. We made one list of how we were going to earn $5,000, another list of ways we could cut $5,000 in expenses, and then we knew that we would be getting $5,000 back in tax returns over the next two years. Cutting $5,000 from your budget might sound impossible, but when you multiply anything by two years, it adds up. Reducing our cable down to the basic channels and getting rid of DVR saved us enough money to pay for one airline ticket. With earning money, I broke everything down into $50 increments. Because if I could earn $50 per week, over two years, that would add up to $5000.

By September of 2011, we started planning other aspects of our trip, I really wanted to do some sort of volunteer project in South Africa and contacted a number of agencies and organizations to look into options. There is a myriad of opportunities for volunteer work in South Africa. But most of the programs do not allow children to participate and most of them are surprisingly expensive. Steve told me I shouldn't try to complicate things; traveling with a family of seven to South Africa was going to be enough of a project itself.

In January of 2012, I started looking into getting passports. Of course, I tried to take the pictures myself to save money. (Round Two was a success, as far as fitting within the passport photo requirements. But the pictures weren't nearly as cute as Round One.) The pictures of me and Steve were borderline scary:

We received our passports in the mail about a week after applying. And by the way, if you ever need to apply for a passport in Ogden, skip the post office and go to the Weber County Clerk's Office. When we called the post office, it took us about a week to get in for an appointment. We had to check our kids out of school and Derrick had to ask off time from work. And then it was a really big problem when Adam needed to use the restroom and Steve needed to take a phone call. Derrick had a copy instead of the original for one of Kaleigh's forms, so then he had to start all the way over with her application. He went to the County Clerk's Office the second time around and said it went much, much smoother.

In February 2012, I won a copy of the book Growing Up Global: Raising Children to Be At Home in the World

Steve and I started reading the book together, and we implemented many of the suggestions. We had a large map framed and hung it on the wall next to our kitchen table. We subscribed to National Geographic. There were so many quotes in the book that rang true to us: "International consciousness in children leads to adults who can function more effectively in a global environment." "The social and emotional side of your child's development is at least as important to their happiness and future success as their academics." 

And then we found ourselves planning a trip to Alaska. We used our passports to travel through Canada. And on the very last day of our trip, as we were disembarking from the ferry, we decided that our kids were not ready for a trip to South Africa. In fact, I specifically described it as a "we-are-not-ready-for-a-trip-to-South-Africa realization". 

Instead, we planned a four-week trip to Mexico. Which was subsequently canceled.

Steve was completely content with skiing through February and March, and the girls didn't really want to miss school.

So that was that.

We had a couple of ideas floating around for a spring break trip, and when Steve and I sat down to finalize our plans, I was very clear that I was not okay with canceling another trip.

As Steve and I talked about possible spring break trips and discussed costs, we kept finding ourselves saying that it wasn't worth spending that much money to go here or there, when our real goal was to go to South Africa. We started feeling the pull. During church, I made a list of all of the places I wanted to take the kids to see: Table Mountain, Cape Point, Oudtshoorn, Storms River Bridge, Mossel Bay, Knysna, Port Elizabeth, Kruger National Park. And then, without ever saying a word to Derrick about our thoughts of going to South Africa, he unexpectedly came and talked to us about getting a new passport. Derrick is still a South African citizen and getting a new passport would require him to pay the expensive fees to have the process expedited. Derrick doesn't like to spent his money, so this was a big deal.

Steve and I both realized that South Africa was the trip we needed to be taking.

On my birthday, after spending seven or eight hours scouring the internet, we purchased five tickets for a month-long trip to South Africa in May.

I emailed friends with questions about rental cars and traveling in South Africa. The response from my college roommate, Miriam, began, "You should be nervous, but it will be a great adventure."

Within four days, I had our entire trip mapped out.

We immediately began Derrick's application process to renew his passport. A normal application for a South African passport can take upwards of a year, so Derrick paid for the expedited, 15-day service, through SA Fast Track. Passport photos had to be taken and then retaken, once we learned that South African passport photo sizes are different than U.S. standard passport photo sizes. (We had to call all around town and, of course, nobody takes South Africa-specific passport photos. But then we figured out that Russian photo sizes are the same as South Africa's, and Walgreen's takes Russian passport pictures.)

And then, after the passport application had been submitted and mailed to South Africa, SA Fast Track responded back and inquired about Derrick's ID Book.

"What is an ID Book?" we asked. And once we realized how complicated this process was going to be we also asked, "Since he is a South African citizen, does he need a passport to enter the country?"

"Yes, he needs a passport to travel to SA. Before he can get a passport, he requires a ID Book (as he is over the age of 16). The ID book registers his prints on the Home Affairs system, and then qualifies him as an adult. Once the prints are registered he can get an adult passport. He can then travel. Yes, he needs an ID Book. Yes, he needs a passport. Without this he cannot travel anywhere. To be honest, if you went through an extensive adoption program, this should not be news to you."

Well, then. . .

So we ordered the documents to be sent to us and paid for the ID Book to be expedited.

"Hi Emily, I would suggest to go and see a independent fingerprint expert or to have the prints done at the local consulate (in Los Angeles). Due to the complexity of the prints, you need an expert who can do the prints."

We filled out more forms, and I painstakingly mastered the art of fingerprinting. Emails went back and forth, almost daily. Each time a form was completed, I was required to scan it and email to SA Fast Track. Then they would review it, approve it, and then set up a time for a courier to come pick it up. Thirty-three emails were sent back and forth during the month of February.

In the meantime, I came up with the idea for "Shoes for South Africa". I emailed non-profit groups that have helped people in Coffee Bay. I emailed my brother, Sam, and asked if his graphic designer could come up with a flier for us to use for our project. It turned out better than I could have envisioned:


I emailed a friend in Cape Town, and he gave me the contact information for an American family living in Coffee Bay. We exchanged a couple of emails, and I asked questions about things like the number of children in Coffee Bay, import taxes, and any suggestions/ideas/concerns. Robin sent a couple of emails and told me she would help me as much as possible, but then I never heard back from her.

We started publicizing our project and requested donations from the different organizations we are involved with. (But none of them panned out.) I sent out a first round of letters to companies that we hoped would donate to our project including Converse, Target, and IFESH.

My friend, Jacques, looked into customs and duties and found out that it was possible to import the shoes without paying taxes, but we needed a registered non-profit organization to complete some paperwork and act as an importer/receiver in South Africa. We thought we had a non-profit lined up, but then it fell through.

Forty-one more emails were sent back and forth between SA Fast Track. It seems that in addition to Derrick's passport and ID Book, we also needed to register his adoption, as he currently only exists as Derrick Horner in South Africa.

I spent hours monitoring airlines prices each week, waiting to snag an appropriately priced flight from SLC to JFK. And then I spent more hours lamenting that I hadn't purchased them earlier when the prices were lower. My friend, Heidi, coached me through the process, and kept assuring me that prices to NYC would drop within two weeks of our travel date.

And then we halted the marketing of our shoe project. Duty on shoes and VAT adds up to almost fifty percent, and we didn't want to get stuck having to pay thousands of dollars just to bring the shoes into the country. I continued to send emails to everyone I could think of, including LDS Charities. I drafted more letters and sent them to Zappos, Piperlime, Kohl's, Famous Footwear, WERI, 6pm.com, and amazon.com. No, no, no, no, no response, no, and no.

One month before our departure date, British Airways sent me an email confirming the changes to our itinerary. . . except that I hadn't made any changes to our itinerary. Our original flight, through England, had been canceled and they had rescheduled our flight to the following day. It was a good thing I hadn't booked tickets to NYC. Or the tickets from Johannesburg to Cape Town. I had never heard of an airline doing something like this and was dumbfounded that all they bothered to do was send me an email.

After calling the airline, I realized that this gave us the opportunity to cancel our tickets for a full refund. It was somewhat tempting. Derrick didn't have a passport, and it was looking very unlikely that he was going to get one. We didn't have a non-profit organization lined up to be our importer/receiver, and we hadn't collected very many pairs of shoes. We hadn't booked anything else for our trip, and it would be relatively easy to walk away from. But we still felt the pull to go.

So we started praying. Really praying. That things would somehow work out.

We cancelled our tickets with British Airways and rebooked tickets with South African Airways that were direct from JFK to JNB.

My friend, Jacques, phoned into a local talk show in Cape Town and was matched up with a non-profit  group called The Big Tree Foundation who was willing to work with us to get the taxes waved.

Derrick and Kaleigh went and got their immunizations to travel to South Africa. Even though he hadn't even completed step one of the three-step process to get his passport.

We started publicizing our project again, and I told Steve there was no way we were going to get enough shoes. But then the shoes started coming in. Not from corporate sponsors, but from people. This was much more of a grassroots project, with donations coming from the six-year old girl in our ward who wanted to buy a pair of shoes with her birthday money. Steve's cook saw our flier on Facebook and bought two pairs of shoes.

My brother, Sam, donated thirty-five pairs, which gave me a real boost of hope. 

I made my very first QR code:

And then my Junior League friends contributed. My friends' parents contributed. My cousins contributed. My mother's cousin mailed me a check. Friends posted on their blogs and shared on Facebook. Strangers who had heard about the project from other people sent shoes and contributed money.

We went and got $400 in travel immunizations at the health department: 

Steve and I went home with very specific instructions on how to take the oral typhoid fever vaccine. They even send you home wearing Reminderbands:  

I spent a day feeling crummy and then a day full-on sick in bed after taking my first pill. But I recovered and, thankfully, didn't have as bad of a reaction to the three other pills. 

Steve must have been distracted while we were at the health department and completely missed the part about taking the pills every other day. I assumed it was going to be fine, but since he had a pretty severe stomach reaction, I called the CDC. They told me to call the nurse who administered the pills, and by the time she returned my phone call, Steve had messed up again. (He came upstairs to bring me my pill one night and picked up the glass of water to hand it to me. But then, instead of giving it to me, he instinctively just took the pill himself. I was sitting right next to him, but it happened so fast that I didn't realize what he had done until it was too late. . . . It resulted in some hysterical laughter.) I figured it was still probably okay, but the nurse said she would have to call the company that made the vaccine and ask them. I can't tell you how embarrassing it was to go back to the health department and listen to a lecture of how important it was that Steve follow the dosing instructions correctly this time. And if there was any question as to whether he couldn't follow them, he was really going to need to get the shot because we couldn't mess up again. 

Heidi was right, the prices for the NYC tickets came down exactly two weeks before our departure date. I purchased one-way tickets for $165; we will sort out our return trip later. 

By this point we were really praying for things to work out with Derrick's passport. We didn't want to go to South Africa without him, but his passport situation was looking bleak. Just when we were expecting the adoption registration to finally go through, Home Affairs requested another form. After submitting it once, they told us we needed to resubmit it and fill in our information as Derrick's natural parents. This, of course, didn't make any sense to me. They told me to sign, acknowledging that Derrick was born out of wedlock and that Steve was the natural father. And the top of the form clearly states that it is only for persons one year and older, but under fifteen years. If the South African government comes after me for falsifying a legal document, at least Steve and I will go down together. (And my cousin Natalie, who signed off as the informant!)

It was about that same week that I felt like we received an answer to our prayers. Derrick's relative was in the hospital and was transferred to the ICU, awaiting an operation. The thought came to me that this might make Derrick eligible for an emergency passport. I phoned the South African Consulate in New York (because I was too impatient to wait for the one in Los Angeles to open.) I spoke to a woman who indicated that Derrick probably would be able to get an emergency passport issued. She told me everything we would need to gather (signed letter from the relative, copy of Derrick's travel itinerary, etc.) She also explained to me the risks of an emergency passport. It would be a one-way passport into South Africa that could leave Derrick stuck there until his new passport was completed. I thought this was a risk we were willing to take, but Derrick was far more hesitant. 

I later contacted someone at the Los Angeles consulate. He told me that the emergency passport wasn't what we wanted, a temporary passport would be much better because it would be valid for one year, and would permit Derrick to travel in and out of the country. But there was one major restriction. European countries do not accept temporary passports from South Africa, so we would have to book a direct flight straight from the United States to South Africa. Suddenly, we were thankful for the cancellation of our original flights with British Airways. Everything I had read online indicated that temporary passports were being phased out and weren't being issued anymore. And temporary passports were supposed to take two weeks. . . we were leaving in nine days. The assistant to the Consulate General assured me that if we could gather all of the paperwork, assuming things were in order, he could push everything through in a couple of days and overnight a passport back to us right before our trip. 

Getting the letter from the sick relative in the ICU wasn't exactly easy, but we got it. And airline tickets weren't as cheap as when we booked them, but we reserved them anyway. 

And then. . . just one day before we left for South Africa, Derrick received his temporary passport. Talk about cutting it close. The temporary passport was a solution that we hadn't previously considered. . . which is exactly how answers to prayers often work. 

Sometimes when you start planning a trip, you don't really know exactly how things are going to work out. But you just have to start. You keep going until things don't feel right anymore. And then you shift and go a different direction until they do. With a project this big, so many things had to fall into place. The timing, the money, Derrick's passport. I couldn't see the miracle of our flights through London being canceled until I later found out about the restrictions with Derrick's temporary passport. So to answer my cousin's question, no matter what sort of trip or project you want to plan, just start. 

Set a date. 
Budget the money. 
Keep going. 
Don't give up. 

And you will be amazed to see how things will work out.  


Kayli said...

That's pretty incredible. It actually brought me close to tears. I hope you are having an amazing time.

@udj said...

Wow. I was reading this silently when Five came and sat by me. He asked m to read aloud to him. So I did and I started crying. You are amazing Emily and you can make anything happen. And not because you are lucky, because of your faith, prayers, and persistent efforts. I am inspired to plan a trip! I am grateful to know you! I know This trip will be amazing.

emily ballard said...

That was so nice of you to say, Audrey. I wish we could plan a trip together to visit Kayli in Switzerland before she moves back to the US. Because I'm pretty sure that the two of you ought to be friends. Or, better yet, can we all be neighbors someday??