You have created the tyrant who will rule your life for the next nine months* by setting your departure date for September 30. Now it’s time to make your first list of everything you need to do before that day. Again, this is only the list of everything you can think of now. It will grow and change the more you learn.
My first list, were I planning to leave for Bogotá on September 30 to set myself up as a freelance foreign correspondent, would look something like this:
Permissions: (call the Embassy of Colombia in Washington, DC, and ask to speak with an information officer. Ask for her email address and send her something like this:
Greetings. I am an independent U.S.-citizen reporter seeking permission from the government of Colombia to live in Bogotá as a base to report on South and Central America** for a number of U.S, newspapers, magazines, and radio-news outlets. Please find attached my resumé.*** I am affiliated with no government or media outlet; I am arranging now to work independently for several U.S. media. I will work alone and hire no locals. If possible, I would like to arrive in Bogotá on September 30, 2019 and begin work right away. To whom should I write to obtain this permission and what information will be required from me? She’ll have no idea. But she’ll be intrigued, maybe even excited, by this idea, and if you don’t hear from her in a week, email her again. If yet another week goes by, call her.
As for the other countries in the region from which you intend to report, you have two choices: over the radar or under the radar. Over the radar means you declare your intentions to the governments of Brazil, Venezuela, Honduras, etc. and ask for a multiple-entry journalism visa. This will let you operate in the open, interview government officials, and it will generally keep you out of trouble.
Under the radar means you remain invisible to those governments, travel through the region as a tourist, and do your reporting on the sly. The advantage is, you’re less likely to be monitored, you’ll encounter less bureaucracy and you’ll generally be freer. The disadvantage is, you cannot interview government officials, and if you’re caught working as a journalist without permission, it could fall hard upon you. Read this story for a cautionary tale: https://www.ndtv.com/tamil-nadu-news/us-journalist-investigating-tamil-nadu-sterlite-plant-questioned-by-cops-1970633
When Margaret and I set up our freelance news bureau in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 1987, to cover southern Africa, we obtained permission from the Zimbabwean Ministry of Information to live and work there, and only tried to get journalist visas from countries where our stories required that we interview government officials. Otherwise, we passed ourselves off simply as honeymooners. You might decide to fly under the radar in Brazil and over the radar in Venezuela. Do all you can to find out in which countries it’s worth asking for permission. How would you do that? Any hands? Yes, you in the back. Right; very good. Look at the bylines of stories from various countries in the region, call or email the paper or magazine, and ask either for the reporter’s contact information or, if the paper doesn’t want to yield it, ask the paper to pass along a message. Then ask the reporter about working in that country. Dangerous? Repressive? With whom is it worth and not worth speaking? Take careful notes and keep them on your computer.
We’ll continue tomorrow with the pre-departure list that you have to complete quickly, because remember: prepared or not, you will be on a plane on September 30. Nothing can change that.
*Remember: this technique of creating a tyrannical plan with a firm start date works equally well with any kind of project. Planning to move in with your sweetheart? Find a job in your field? Repaint the house? Put it on the calendar an appropriate number of months out, tell everybody about it, and bend your life to that plan. It will gradually become the reality, as fixed and immutable as the firmness of the earth, and on the appointed day it really will happen.
** It will be vaguely comforting to the government of Colombia that you intend to cover the whole region and not spend all your time examining Colombia with a microscope. In my experience, developing-world countries want attention, but not too much attention. They resent that we in the United States don’t know anything about the hemisphere we have dominated for so long, but any number of Latin American countries have jailed and/or expelled any number of foreign journalists for doing their jobs. (As Joseph Lelyveld put it in the opening of Move Your Shadow, his terrific 1985 book about apartheid South Africa, “In South Africa these days, a lot of words get spilled as the urge to be understood conflicts with urge not to be understood too well.”
We continue with the pre-departure list tomorrow.
*** If you have no news experience, don’t include a resumé.