Bones on display at Kunta Hora

Ah yes, the church of bones.  I’d heard about it before and even visited other crypts and ossuaries, but I knew that I’d have to visit Kunta Hora if given half a chance.


Sedlec Ossuary

Less than a day away from Prague, lies the hauntingly beautiful chapel of Kunta Hora–a chapel decorated with thousands of human bones.  The Sedlec Ossuary is a chapel in a suburb near Kutna Hora about an hour’s train ride from Prague. Several travel companies offer packages from Prague but it’s none to difficult to go about it on your own giving you the benefit of doing what you want when you want.

Traveling in winter in the Czech Republic often leads to nearly empty streets and tourist free site, especially when you get away from the larger cities and more popular destinations such as Prague, and it being January, Kunta Hora was practically deserted.

Entrance to the Sedlec Ossuary is about $5 and in my opinion, totally worth it. It’s estimated that the remains of 40,000 people were used to adorn the walls of the chapel. The story goes that during the Black Plague of Europe, they essentially ran out of places to bury people. So they dug up the already dearly departed, and used their space to put the new, plague-infested corpses in.  The solution as to what to do with all the much older dead was to use the bones (skin was already long gone) for ‘decoration’. To think that you were walking among real human skeletons was bone-chilling.

Being the #sciencenerd that I am, I tried to identify which bones were the most used.  Clearly skulls make the biggest impression, but I found an impressive number of long bones such as the tibia, fibula, femur, and humerus.  These long bones were used to make the ‘X’s and

 

After my self-guided tour of the chapel (you get a printed guide in the language of your choice as long as it’s English, Czech, German, Russian, and a couple other languages I didn’t recognize), I explore the town, the outdoor cemetery, and the impressive St. Barbara’s Church. If you know anything about me, you know that I love exploring a new (to me) city’s cemeteries, reading tombstones, and imagining their past lives.

Reading tombstones is much more difficult when they are snow-covered, but still hauntingly beautiful.

 

The next spot that piqued my interest was the massive gothic style St Barbara’s Cathedral.  Started in the 1300’s and completed in the 1800’s, the cathedral consists of several architectural styles, but gives off mostly gothic vibes.

St Barbara’s Cathedral

It’s not a gothic cathedral without stunning stained glass adorning the windows.
The town of Kunta Hora with St Barbara’s dominating the landscape

It’s always a bit eerie walking around a deserted town in the snow and frosty temperatures, and it being January, most things were closed so you can imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon the amazing (and not because it was one of the very few options open) Pizzeria Piazza Navona Restaurant. A delicious Italian-like  pizza in the heart of Bohemia was pure heaven.

I *may* have eaten the entire pie. Or not. I’m not telling

 

Kutna Hora is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for both St. Barbara’s Church and the Cathedral of Our Lady at Sedlec. If you have a day to spare when visiting Prague, I recommend getting out of the city and exploring the odd and unique Sedlac Ossuary ( and with it the rest of the town, Kunta Hora.

 

In search of the world’s largest bird

When you think of birds, what usually comes to mind?  For me, it’s cute little feathered things like hummingbirds, cardinals, or wrens.  Rarely do I think of owls as birds although I guess technically they are.  Then there are large birds like eagles and vultures, but I rarely see them.  Out of sight, out of mind, I guess.

When I heard that the world’s largest bird was in Colca Canyon, I made it my mission to not only see it, but also find out all I could about this magnificent bird.

It’s often hit or miss to see these birds, but there is a stop on most tours to the Colca Canyon at the Cruz del Condor.  It’s often the best place to get a glimpse of the bird in flight.

Fast facts about the Condor

  • The condor has a wingspan of 10 feet.
  • It can live to to be 70 years old, but the average lifespan in the wild is about 50 years.
  • The bird can weigh up to 30 pounds and is nearly 4 feet tall!
  • Due to its size, it prefers an environment where loft can assist its flight. Under the right conditions, the bird can fly to a height of 18,000 feet.
  • Both parents care for the babies and baby condors stay with their parents for 2 years.
  • They reach adulthood around 7 years old.
  • The condor mates every other year and only lays one egg at a time.
  • The condor eats carrion and eggs; it is not a threat to any type of wildlife.
  • Condors are currently on the endangered species list due to over-hunting.
  • The condors, are more specifically, the Andean Condor, is the national symbol of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Argentina, and Chile.

and my favorite fact about these massive birds…

  • Condors mate for life.

In fact, the remaining partner often commits suicide when its partner dies.  The bird just refuses to flap its massive wings and plummets to its death. Tragic, but also somewhat romantic.

11 weeks to go

In the time between now and June 4, I’ll be posting some of my favorite past adventures because they’ll be much more exciting that another omg…it’s getting closer post.  Also it will help to remind me of my adventurous self, and that I have been through some amazing life experiences [good and bad], and I’ve done some pretty amazing things in life so far.  Peace Corps isn’t always fun and games; sometimes it’s damn hard work.  It will help me to remind myself that I’ve taken on challenges before and I have succeeded.

An Aspiring Journalist

Every aspiring journalist knows what the five W’s are–it’s essentially a how to for writing. Who, What, When , Where, and Why.  If you can answer all those questions, then you’ve got an effective story. So let’s begin, shall we?

 

WHO

I’m Michelle and until the end of May, I’ll be hanging out a my little house on the prairie in South Carolina.  I’m a RN and will be working right up until I leave.  I’m always up for an adventure.

WHAT

I’ve accepted a position at a Maternal-Child Health in Rwanda with the Peace Corps. The official Peace Corps job description reads like this:

[This is the one for Guatemala; I’d suspect Rwanda is essentially the same.]

Maternal and Child Health Volunteers collaborate with health clinics, community organizations, and family members to promote healthier lives for mothers and children. Volunteers are assigned to health clinics in the most rural and needy communities where many children suffer from chronic malnutrition. You will help improve the training system of public health clinics to deliver high quality training to women, community members, and midwives to deepen their understanding of maternal, neonatal, and child health topics. All work done within the project will have a focus on behavior change, community empowerment, and sustainability.

Volunteers train health workers in adult education methodologies, behavior change theory, motivational interviewing, lesson planning, and overall development of educational resources. These actions will enhance health workers’ abilities to deliver high quality education. Having trained health workers and developed educational resources, Volunteers will co-plan and co-facilitate educational activities with household and community members, especially with women who are of reproductive age.

Volunteers with also work with the community at large, as community organization and empowerment is key to promoting community health. Volunteers and community members will engage in campaigns, activities, and projects to address community health needs. Methods include raising awareness around health issues, providing training on community project design and management, implementing educational projects, and implementing structural projects such as latrines, improved cook stoves, or vegetable gardens.

WHEN

Technically, the journey begins on June 04, 2018. I will serve for 27 months, returning home [if all goes according to plan October 2020! In all reality, the journey began September 2016 when I first applied. Since then, through the rounds of interviews, incredible amount of paperwork, and frequent doctor visits, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.  [I’m still not getting my hopes up too much because my last opportunity fell through]

 

WHERE

Rwanda

Rwanda is a small country, technically in East Africa, but being land-locked, seems more central Africa to me.  It borders Uganda, DRC, Tanzania, and Burundi. It’s mountainous; not as mountainous as Lesotho, but still not many places are.  As a result of the altitude, despite being practically on the equator, the climate is much more temperate.  It occasionally snows there. Rwanda is about the size of Massachusetts and is one of the more densely populated countries in Africa [1211 people/sq mile as compared to my current situation of about 150 people/ sq mile].  I’m about to get a whole lot of curious neighbors.

 

WHY

This is a complicated answer. Why am I  completely flipping my world upside down and exchanging a comfortable life for Rwanda? Honestly, the simple answer is because I can. The more complicated [much, much more complicated] answer, I’ll discuss later.

What it costs to join the Peace Corps

The Peace Corps is a volunteer job and although So how much does joining the Peace Corps really cost? The answer to that question will vary for everyone depending on what country you will serve in (do I need a visa?) and what tests/exams the Peace Corps deems it necessary for you to have.  It will also vary depending on what if any medical insurance a person has, and it will vary depending on where you live.  So lots of variables, but I’ll give you my costs so that you may get a general idea of the costs.

Legal

Fingerprints–$10   at the local county law enforcement center

Mailing fingerprints–$7.21–at UPS sent certified which requires a signature

Total Legal Cost =$17.21- Peace Corps Reimbursement $0 = $17.21

Passport + Visa

I renewed my passport earlier in the year and have already been to Canada, England and Wales on it.  Also, getting a PC passport the easy way just involves getting passport photos, filling out the forms, and mailing it in.  Getting the passport the hard way, requires blood, sweat, tears, and promise of your firstborn, AND $25 for an ‘execution fee’.  The problem with this is most places that issue passports are unfamiliar with the No-fee government passport, and that is where the headache come in. Originally, I had planned to go to a Nursing conference in Toronto in October. Then I got my invitation and decided to forgo the conference (save that money for other travels). Even knowing that I didn’t NEED the passport for anything, it was still hard to let it go.

Passport photos–$22.98 (+ tax with $2 off coupon code x2).

Mailing passport and visa application–$ 10.12    (once again, sent trackable via UPS)

Total Passport + Visa Cost = $33.50 – Peace Corps Reimbursement $0 =$33.50

[Add $110 if you need to get a personal passport]

Medical + Labs

General Medical Exam

Women’s Health Exam–> I got my women’s health exam done at Planned Parenthood.  I used my regular health insurance that I have through work (which costs about $400/year and this is the first time I have used it) and it was covered at 100% so my cost was $0.  Those $400 in premiums actually paid off this year.

Total Women’s Health Exam Costs = $0

Labs–>HIV screening was a required lab for my assignment [and maybe for all of them?]  and I had it performed as part of my women’s health exam.  On a whim, I asked if they could do my other labs since I knew they weren’t set up as a primary care facility.  They said yes, and amazingly enough, it was also covered at 100%. I did have to have a special lab drawn based on my medical history. I had a physician write a prescription for it and had it done at LabCorp.

Total Lab Cost = $50

Dental

Complete dental exam with panoramic X-rays $344.00 – Peace Corps Reimbursement $60 = $284.00

Dental treatments required =$0 Luckily, I didn’t need any treatments, had no cavities, or have anything wrong with my teeth or gums.

Required Vaccinations

Yellow Fever Vaccination [ had to get this one even though I currently have one. Mine will expire on June 4, 2020 so PC is making me get a booster.]

TDaP booster [Working in the hospital the last 15 years has afforded me access to most vaccines, but as luck would have it, my current immunity will run out while in Mada, so another booster it is)]

Total for all things required: $330.71 (current running total)

The Peace Corps does provide a cost share program for some expenses but the expenses are segregated.   What I wish is that they would provide a flat fee of say $500 to pay for these expenses. They will provide up to $290 for a medical exam yet my actual costs were $0, but only $60 for a dental exam (including x-rays). My actual dental costs were $344; I wish I could have used some of that $290 for my dental exam.  I am grateful that I have health insurance and I am grateful for federal laws that allow preventative care to be covered at 100%.  It hasn’t always been like this, and I can only hope that these laws won’t be repealed.

Flu advice circa 2018

I had a little bird

Its name was Enza.

I opened the window,

And in-flu-enza.

Children’s nursery rhyme, circa 1918

There is nothing I like more than when history, science, medicine, and travel interact, although in this case, it’s not me doing the traveling, it’s the flu virus. Although I mostly write about travel, occasionally about history, less occasionally about other things, my day job [so to speak] is being a registered nurse.

It’s 2018 and even if you aren’t a medical science/history junkie like myself, you’ve probably still  have heard of the Influenza Pandemic of 1918.  It’s the illness that killed more people than WWI and the Plague [the Black Death Plague of the middle ages] combined, and while the exact strain of the 1918 flu was never isolated, we do know it contained at least one strain of H3N2.  And that my friends is what is circulating now. And why the 2017-18 flu vaccine is so ineffective. [But still, 10-25% effective is better than 0% effective].

Ok people, real advice from a real RN: The flu is real this year, Read carefully and stay at home if you feeling sick and if at all possible! So sorry for those of you who have had it or are currently experiencing its wrath. Hope this is helpful for those of you who have so far avoided it, are caring for family members, or have contact with people on a regular basis–so pretty much everyone.

THE LOWDOWN ON THE FLU:

  1. You CAN get the flu even if you received the flu vaccine. This is true every year,but especially this year, since this year’s vaccine has a range 10%-25% effectiveness. [The H3N2 strain is particularly difficult to grow and add to a vaccine and that is the predominant strain of the circulating virus.]
  2.  If you find yourself victim of the flu, you have a virus. It lasts 7-14 days during which you are going to feel like you want to die; you may/will have fever, chills, severe headache, sore throat, chest congestion, nasal congestion, coughing, sneezing, sore throat, severe weakness/lethargy, nausea/vomiting, diarrhea and severe body/joint aches. Viruses DON’T get treated with antibiotics; it has to run its course.                                                    
  3. Go to your primary care doctor, urgent care, or telephone triage nurse FIRST, but know there is little they can do to help you. The only thing they can help you with is medication for severe coughing unresponsive to over the counter medications or severe diarrhea/vomiting. You do not need antibiotics unless you develop a secondary lung infection.
  4. DO. NOT. COME. TO. THE. ER… UNLESS you have shortness of breath, cannot keep down fluids for 24 hours, have persistent liquid stools accompanied by dizziness, have a sustained fast heart rate or low blood pressure.
  5. Tamiflu is an antiviral drug that is found to be mostly ineffective, and comes with significant side effects and price tag.  It’s also only effective if taken within the first 48 hours of contracting the virus.  Most people don’t know they have the flu until after this window has closed.
  6. DO take Tylenol AND Advil/Motrin/Aleve [pick one; don’t take all] at MAX doses [unless contraindicated by other health issues or allergies] to alleviate fever, headache and body aches.
  7. DO take over-the-counter flu remedies. DO be careful taking combinations of different medications to avoid overdosing and over treating [example; some flu medicines already have Tylenol (Acetaminophen) in them; read the bottle].
  8. Use home remedies such as “hot toddies” [whiskey/lemon/honey, if appropriate, and obvs… FOR ADULTS ONLY], hot showers, vapor rubs, vapor humidifiers, essential oils, onions around your neck, potatoes under the bed, ect.
  9. Drink fluids! All kinds of fluids. At every waking moment. DO NOT underestimate the  power of fluids. Hot liquids and soups may be helpful. Try to maintain nutritious intake. Milk products may thicken mucus and worsen coughs. If your urine is yellow or darker, you are not drinking enough.
  10. Coughing… this is IMPORTANT: If it’s productive [stuff coming up], DO NOT suppress it with meds. If it’s non-productive [dry and annoying], DO suppress it. Make sure you’re properly hydrated, especially with a productive cough. Proper hydration thins out secretions and makes them easier to cough up and out. Elevate your head when you sleep to decrease coughing/secretions.
  11. PLAN AHEAD.   Stock up on medications, juices, drinks, soups, popsicles, and broth so you’ll be ready. This time of year it is not unusual to find store shelves empty. You will not feel like going shopping when you are sick… which brings me to my next point.
  12. DO NOT GO OUT IN PUBLIC FOR ANY REASON!  Someone with a compromised immune system, an elderly person, an infant, or someone in poor health can easily die from the flu. You don’t want to be the one who exposed them. For the love of all things holy, DO NOT send a child with a fever to school during flu season. DO NOT go to work with a fever.  Or church. Or anywhere else where you think it might be OK.  Fever means you are in the contagious period where you can spread the virus to others.
  13. PLEASE. PLEASE. PLEASE. WASH YOUR HANDS WITH SOAP AND WATER!! OFTEN.

Professional disclaimer:

[Take meds responsibly. My advice is my opinion from personal and professional experience. I am not liable for any actions taken or not taken based on these recommendations.]

Answers to the most frequently asked questions

I am in the medical/legal clearance stage right now so I haven’t told a lot of people that I’ve been accepted to the Peace Corps yet, but the ones who know have questions.
Question 1:  What exactly is the Peace Corps?

The Peace Corps was established in 1961 by John F. Kennedy with three key goals in mind:

  • Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
  • Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
  • Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
“The Peace Corps traces its roots and mission to 1960, when then Senator John F. Kennedy challenged the students at the University of Michigan to serve their country in the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries. From that inspiration grew an agency of the federal government devoted to world peace and friendship.”
The Peace Corps is a government organization in which accepted applicants are invited to serve in a foreign country. Areas of service are requested by the participating countries and include education, youth and community development, health, business information and communication technology, agriculture, and environment. Accepted applicants volunteer to spend 27 months abroad and fully immerse themselves in the language and culture. Volunteers have served in 139 different countries, and work to create positive sustainable change in a global community. Peace Corps celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2011.
Question 2:  Tell me about Madagascar.
  • Peace Corps | Madagascar began in 1993, and more that 1000 volunteers have served since its beginnings.
  • Currently, about 130 volunteers are serving in Madagascar. Africa represents about 40% of Peace Corps volunteers.
  • Madagascar is the 4th largest island in the world, and is located in the Indian ocean off of the southeast coast of Africa.
  • French and Malagasy are both the official languages.
  • The population is about 22 million, and 90% of the population live on less than $2 per day. It is one of the poorest countries in the world.
  • Climates vary. It generally has two seasons: hot and rainy from November-April and cooler and dry May-October. The east coast contains tropical rain forests which can be hit by tropical storms and cyclones. The central highlands are cooler and dryer, and are the main location of Madagascar’s agriculture. The west coast contains deciduous forests that lose their leaves during the dry months. Finally, the southwest is the driest and some parts can be considered desert.
  • Madagascar is considered a “biodiversity hot spot.” Over 90% of the wildlife is found nowhere else including lemurs, fossa (relative of the mongoose), and different types of birds. There are almost 15,000 different plants species, are 80% are found nowhere else on earth.
  • There are 18 different ethnic groups. Madagascar was originally settled by people from Africa and Asia, and the culture now is a unique blend of the two. Much of the Malagasy population are predominantly animist. Many aspects of behavior is determined by cultural taboos, including treatment of the dead. About 50% of the population is Christian, and 2% are Muslim.
  • Medical centers and hospitals are concentrated in urban areas, and medical care is very expensive relative to the average income. In 2010, Madagascar averaged 3 hospital beds per 10,000 people. The infection rate of AIDS is low compared to other African countries with about 0.9% of the adult population. Malaria is the main health concern, and was responsible for over 15% of hospital admissions in children under 5 years in 2008.

Question 3:  What will you be doing?
I will be a Community Health Adviser helping to train health educators in my area. Together, we will work on implementing a communication system to improve health workers’ ability to communicate health information. I will provide education and identify interventions to promote safe pregnancies, better nutrition, prevention of malaria and other illnesses, as well as the importance of water, hygiene, and sanitation. [Or at least that is the plan]

Question 4:  What do you do for training?
I will have about 10 weeks of pre-service training late February-mid May before a swearing-in ceremony. The training has five major components: technical, cross-cultural, language, health, and safety. I will also have a one week site visit to give me an general overview of what my site will be like.

Question 5:  Do you know where you’ll be living in the country?
No, but I will find out several weeks into training based off questionnaires, preferences, and where my skills will be best utilized. I don’t get to choose where I live.

Question 6:  What will your living situation be like?
I will most likely be living in a rural village without consistent electricity or running water. My housing will be similar to my community. I might have a room on the health center grounds or a small house with one or two rooms. My house might be a mud hut with a thatched roof or a modern cement house.

Question 7:  Will you have electricity or running water?
It depends where in the country I am. The cities have electricity available, and the rural towns not so much. If electricity is available it will be probably be inconsistent. In addition, Internet access will most likely be limited.

Question 8:  Will you have a cell phone?
Most volunteers buy their own cell phone but the service is spotty. I will bring my current mobile, buy a SIM card, and a internet stick. That way, I’ll be able to use my phone to text and call and use the internet.

Question 9: What will you eat?
Rice is the top food in all of Madagascar [Rice is not something I love or even like].  Rice is eaten with vegetables, beans, or meat. There are many fruits and vegetables that grow in Madagascar and are sold fresh and in their correct season.

Question 10: Do you have vacation?
Volunteers get two vacation days per month that can accrue totaling over 50 days for two years. I cannot take vacation within my first 6 months or my last three months.

Question 11:  Will you live with a host family?
I will most definitely live with a host family during  training.

Question 12:  Can you receive mail?
Yes, yes, yes! I want to keep in touch with family and friends while I’m gone, and a big thank you in advance to anyone who wants to send mail my way!  See my contact page on where to send stuff, what to send, and how to send it. Also my birthday is February 24, and cards and presents are always appreciated.

Question 13:  Do you get paid?

Yes, but not much.  Considering that most Madagascar natives make less than $2/day, I get paid well, but by American standards, I make more in one 12 hour shift as a RN than I do in one month working in Madagascar.  However, my housing and insurance are covered by the Peace Corps so essentially I just have to pay for food, transportation, and internet. Also there’s no Amazon in Madagascar so that addiction has been curtailed.

I also get an allowance at staging and a settling in allowance once in Madagascar. That allowance is based on whether the site has had a volunteer before, whether or not I need to buy furniture, and how far away I am from the capital.

At the completion of service, I will get a settlement allowance of roughly $9000 + a flight home [or its equivalent in cash]. There are also government benefits such as one year NCE status and opportunities for graduate school scholarships.

Peace Corps Interview

Interviews are not my favorite thing. Now coming from someone who has blogged for 10+ years this next statement may seem a bit out of context.  I don’t really like talking about myself.  I don’t like tooting my own horn, and I really don’t like talking about ‘failures’.

Any interview can be daunting, but getting ready for my Peace Corps interview [something I really, really want] can be down right scary. Here’s my secret confession:  this was my second Peace Corps interview.  The first one, for Lesotho, did not go very well. Part of it was because I was dead tired –coming off a 24-hour call shift where I’d worked 16 of those hours, and leaving for a trip only a couple hours later.  I was barely coherent, and I’m sure that came across as disinterest [which to some degree was true].  Part of it was deep down, I knew that I did not want to go to Lesotho to serve as a healthy youth volunteer. So of course I was disappointed when I didn’t receive an invitation to Lesotho, but I was also relieved. I knew that I would try again so when I received that email that said I had not been selected I set about applying again… the very same day.

In my second application I was a lot more selective. I chose a specific sector–health– and three specific countries–Madagascar, Guyana, and Tanzania [I think]. On my previous application I’d selected go anywhere and do anything. I learned that I really wouldn’t go anywhere and do anything.

So when I found out I’d been selected for an interview for Madagascar, I gave myself 36 hours to prepare. Too long, and I’d stress out. It had only been six months since my original application and two months since the resubmitted one. So in Peace Corps’ world, not long at all. The key to any interview is preparation, and while I’m far from an interview expert, I know that following certain steps will make your interview go smoother. I think it also helped that I had just finished my leadership and management class where a large chunk of our grade was interviewing for a fictional leadership job via webcam. That experience, while harrowing at the time, was invaluable practice for me feeling somewhat more comfortable interview and talking via webcam. I didn’t have that experience on the first go round, and while I don’t think the outcome would have been different, and know absolutely that I was 100% more comfortable the second go round.

So  here’s is what I’ve determined…

Practise is important

Not just knowing your answers to potential questions, but really practicing interviewing on a webcam. Grab a friend, google ‘peace corps interview questions’, have friend ask you said questions, and record yourself answering them on a webcam. Then watch it.  It may be painful, but the feedback is invaluable. I would not have known this had not for that assignment for class where I had to record an actual interview.

I took a screenshot of me before the interview so that I’d know how I’d look on webcam. Was lighting adequate? Did I look presentable?

Display professionalism

From the moment you create a Peace Corps account to the moment you receive an invitation, be nothing but professional Every time I contacted someone within the Peace Corps, I was polite and ready. For my interview, I chose a nice jacket in a bright color–something I’d call business casual ; it’s an outfit that I’d worn to an actual work meeting.  I had on pants [you know, in case the laptop fell, or someone came to the door, or the cat started acting up and I needed to open the patio door]. I dressed like I was attending a professional meeting.  My theory, treating the interview like a face to face meeting signals the brain to act like its a face-to-face meeting.  Being over-prepared is much better than being under prepared.

When I got the request for invitation, I opened my laptop and replied to avoid the unprofessional reply-from-a-cell-phone-email.  

Research the country

The application process gives applicants the opportunity to choose a country BEFORE the invitation [queue groans from old school RPCV] so use that time to gather info. You can choose three countries so research them all. Unless you are the ‘I’ll go anywhere’ person, you should research the countries you’ve selected. Google the country. Look up the current events. Find recent blogs from current and past volunteers and read the entire blogs from start to finish. Try to discover what there is to like about the country, what challenges you may face, and why you want to go there. Even if you want to risk it and not do those things, at least read the assignment description so that you’ll be doing. Know something about the county, its climate, infrastructure, and culture. During my interview, I mentioned that I was excited to go to Madagascar because of its incredible biodiversity. I mentioned the plant and animal life. I wanted the interviewer to know that I am not all about malaria and health care… The more you can show that you like the country, the more likely they will feel that you would be a good fit and be able to complete your service.

Know Your Assignment

My assignment was community health volunteer. I had to throw it out there that I would know my role and not try to practice nursing. I know that my role would be educating people about health topics instead of actually being a nurse. Read the assignment description and get it in your brain what skills that you have that will make you a great volunteer. For me that was assuring the interviewer that I could be hands-off medically yet hands-on in other ways. That I’d be willing to not only teach people about respiratory disease and how to prevent it, but also how to build stoves that vent to the outside or burn cleaner than burning trash. Want to teach English to kids? Tell them about how you volunteered reading to kids. Want to work in a health center? [even if you are not a nurse] Tell them about how you helped volunteered at the medical tent for a 5k. Something. Anything. Wanna work in community economic development?  Spin that time you sold candy or cookies into something amazing.

While you are looking for blogs to read, try to find some in which the volunteers are doing the same job as what you will be doing. It’s a lot easier to see yourself there doing that job, and key point: do not be afraid to display confidence. I am an introvert and do not like talking about myself, but for that interview, I was as confident as a Texas hold ’em champ. My goal was to make them feel like not nominating me would be theirmistake. Be confident. Don’t say ‘I think’ or ‘I’d try.’ Say ‘I know’ or ‘I can,’ but, please, don’t be overconfident.  Then you’ll come across as a condescending asshole. No one wants an asshole on their team.

Print out your resume and aspiration statement

Yes, you wrote it. Yes, you were honest and  did everything on it, but nothing is worse than forgetting what you did in the past and being stuck with having to trot out the ubiquitous group project to answer “How are you a good leader?”  or “Tell me about a time something did not go as planned.”  On your printed copies highlight the events that you want to showcase. Make an outline so you can see it everything at once. Be sure you can relate to either how these skills are transferable to Peace Corps service or  how they will well prepare you for service. Make sure you know why you want to be a volunteer, and if you want to add something speak now or forever hold your piece. Seriously. Right now go and sit down and think about why you want to dedicate 2+ years to something very few people will do.

Pray. Meditate.

Pray. Meditate. Do yoga. Run. Pray. Sleep. Do whatever you need to do to be physically, spiritually and emotionally centered. I woke up a whole hour before my interview, ate breakfast, got dressed, set-up the computer, and got on my knees and prayed for mental clarity and calmness. I knew this was it; it’s a huge opportunity and for me, a second chance.  I definitely did not want to be “out of it” this time, or let my nerves to get the best of me.

“Do you have any questions for me?”

Of course you do. Write them down so that  when your are asked, you will remember them. Scenario: The interview went well. You feel great. You’re on a high. You’ve knock all the questions out of the park, but when then they ask that question [and they will], you don’t want to draw a blank and end up asking “How did you like your service?”

Interviewer are almost always RCPVs and they get asked that question All.The.Time. You don’t want to be generic; you want to be memorable! Be prepared with questions before-hand and make them honest questions. I asked two questions: 1. I know that Madagascar has two official languages, Malagasy and French.  How often is French used in the day-to-day conversations? I asked this because I don’t speak French. I have a background in Spanish, and have picked up a traveler’s vocabulary in Italian, Romanian, and German, but French pronunciation is still a mystery to me. I learned that I really need to know my numbers because prices and such are generally quoted in French. [Who knew?] and my second question was “What challenges did you face during your service?” Generic yes, but it did give me a little insight to the struggles volunteers face. Other good questions:  If you could do anything differently, what would it be? What was you best [or favorite, funniest, happiest, saddest, or hardest experience?]

At the end of the interview be sure to ask about your application and if there is anything you can do to make yourself a stronger candidate. I asked her if there were any concerns that she had with me as an applicant and was told that I was a strong applicant. The interview is your last chance to make a good impression. At the end of the interview, make sure you thank them for the opportunity.

Once the interview is over, be done. Decompress. Do what ever it is you do to decompress. I took a nap. [Hey, I love my sleep]. Watch your favorite show.  Go to a movie.  Breathe easy. You put yourself out there. You made your best effort. If you don’t get it then, oh well. No regrets, but if you DO get the invite, by all means CELEBRATE!!! You are going to the Peace Corps! … then sit down and get ready for the mountain of paperwork  and clearances that you have to complete.

Welcome to the Peace Corps!

Dear MICHELLE,
Congratulations! You have been selected to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer, pending medical and legal clearance. This letter is your formal invitation to serve as a/an Community Health Advisor in Madagascar departing February 25, 2018By accepting this invitation, you are taking the next step toward joining hundreds of thousands of Americans who have answered the call to service and made sustainable change in communities around the world.
Congratulations again on receiving an invitation to serve. We look forward to hearing from you soon.

My one travel regret

I have made it a point in life to not regret the past. Sure there are things that I wish had not happened, but I also think that for better or worse, these life experiences have shaped me into the person that I am today. That being said, my one regret is that I didn’t study abroad when I was in college. It wasn’t as if I actively made the decision to not study abroad; my college, being a small (tiny even) liberal arts school did not have contracts in place with foreign universities.

chichen itza
Studying Mayan art and architecture in Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras was most certainly interesting, but not all that practical

And also, let’s be honest. Even if they had had those agreements in place, most likely I would not have been able to afford it. It was all I could do to afford college to begin with. I worked full-time hours throughout my entire college career. Going abroad for a semester or a summer would have meant 3-4 months of no job and no income.  Putting that together with the added expense of being overseas and it just didn’t add up.

I did manage to travel while in college so it wasn’t as if I never left the country.  I turned a two week vacation into a three month tour of Northern England, Scotland, and Wales with a side of Ireland after my freshman year. While my friend were actually graduating college, I did an ‘independent study’ in Mexico AFTER I’d taken all my other classes needed to graduate thus delaying my official graduation for a year.

llanfair
I did make it to the town with the world’s longest name whilst wandering about Wales. Thankfully they just call it Llanfair.

I am quite certain that if I had studied abroad, my life would be 99.9% different than it is now–or maybe I would have arrived at the life I have now a lot sooner. I am quite certain that NOT studying abroad in college led me to take a ‘career break’ in 2010. And that ‘career break’ in 2010-11 led to me changing my career over the last 5 years. That career break also led to me choosing an elective where I got to spend time in both St Petersburg and Moscow (studying plants of all things) , Russia and Cardiff, Wales (studying the UK’s National Health System).  Both of those experiences, while amazing, was not the immersion experience I was looking for. And while travel nursing in the US is totally a thing; international travel nursing is not.

cardiff
At least I got to do a little exploring in and around Cardiff whilst working/studying at the Wales Hospital for Children.

All these experiences (and lack of experiences) has led me to the Peace Corps.  Peace Corps is not something I’d even heard of other than in passing until after I graduated college. But it is something that has been nagging at me, sometimes gently, sometimes with a bit more force over the last 15 years.

So maybe not studying abroad in my initial college experience was a good thing; after all, it has brought me to the Peace Corps where I’ll finally have that immersion experience I have been craving since I was 19 years old.

 

Accepted

The Peace Corps’ sent my invitation to serve on July 27, 2017 via e-mail.  I was past the point of obsessively checking my email like I did for the first few weeks after my interview. I popped in randomly to check my email, only to be disappointed by the lack of updates.  My check-ins were getting further and further apart.

Which is why I almost missed my invitation to serve!

I sat down at my desk on a late Sunday night, checking my email, thinking it would be full of spam yet again when I saw it…

Dear MICHELLE,

Congratulations! You have been selected to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer, pending medical and legal clearance. This letter is your formal invitation to serve as Community Health Advisor in Madagascar departing February 25, 2018By accepting this invitation, you are taking the next step toward joining hundreds of thousands of Americans who have answered the call to service and made sustainable change in communities around the world.Here’s what you need to do within 3 calendar days:

  • Review all assigned materials. Please review the assignment-specific information sent to you via email previously, as well as the Peace Corps Volunteer handbook.
  • Respond to your invitation within three days: 

See that second bullet point–respond to your invitation. It was already Sunday, July 30th at 11:45pm. Did this really mean I only had 15 minutes remaining or my invitation would be rescinded?  I don’t know, but I wasn’t going to take any chances.  But by my getting my invitation so late in the game, meant that I had absolutely no one to talk to about it. Except my coworker.  Who thinks I’m crazy for wanted to join the Peace Corps (she’s roughly twice my age, and thinks I should be getting married and having kids instead of running off to an island).

Trusting my gut, I responded to the accept link in my invitation. And that was that. On August 2, I got inundated with the first set of tasks–getting my fingerprints done and sent off to legal and getting my passport and visa application sent to the appropriate place.

You see how ‘pending medical and legal clearance’ is bolded in the original offer?  That’s because medical clearance is no joke–and with only two months (60 days to be precise) to complete them, it’s a race to complete on time.