Packing for Peace Corps | Rwanda

I HATE PACKING. AND SHOPPING. And I’ve already done this once when I thought I’d be heading to Madagascar [Read Every.Single.Thing.I packed for Madagascar.] When I thought I’d be heading to Madagascar, there was an above average chance that I’d be living in hot, humid coastal environment where casual clothing rules the day.  So what I had packed for Madagascar was not necessarily appropriate for a mountainous, land-locked, sometimes chilly, appearance conscious Rwanda.

Much like any future PCV, I googled ‘Peace Corps’ packing lists | Rwanda, and found next to nothing. Very few Peace Corps’ blogs detailing an entire 2 years of service.  Maybe a lot of volunteers got tired of blogging?  Maybe a lot of volunteers didn’t complete their service?  Who knows–it still remains there are very few Rwanda-specific packing lists.

With that in mind, I’ve tried to create a comprehensive packing list. Keep in mind that this is a  Pre-Departure List, and I plan to update it once I’m fully installed at my future site.


It has come to my attention that every blog I have read mention that Rwandans essentially have a shoe fetish.  Not in a creepy, sexual fetish way, but more in a ‘fastidious about cleanliness’ way.  Of all the articles of clothing for a country to obsess about, I get stuck with the country who obsesses about shoes. I hate shoes.  I mean I like wearing them, but hiking shoes and Danskos for work are about as fancy as I get.  So when I’m reading blogs about how people are packing 6! pairs of shoes, internally I am saying ‘Kill.Me.Now.‘.  I’d planned on taking two pairs plus shower shoes to Madagascar.

Shoes:

  • Rain boots.  These are mostly not necessary, but the only other time I’ve lived in a ‘wet’ environment [which was the Amazon Rainforest], I had a pair, and I loved being able to splash about, walk through mud puddles with reckless abandon, and generally not give a flip about my feet when it’s raining.  At home in SC, it rarely rains long enough or hard enough to warrant spending  that kind of money.  BUT, Target [aka my favorite store that’s not Amazon] entered in a partnership with Hunter in April, and BOOM! I now have Wellies for less than $100.
  • Hiking boots.  Also probably unnecessary, but I do love hiking. I plan to do it as much as possible. And I love my boots.
  • Trail-running shoes.  I wear these as my every day shoes [Shoe stylish I am not].
  • Athletic shoes.  Who knows, I might take up running [Laughs uncontrollably at that statement].
  • Casual shoes. For me, these are my brown leather slide-ons [treated with Scotchgard prior to leaving].
  • Keen Sandals I’ve had a pair of these since they first came out and I practically live in them in the summer months in South Carolina.
  • Teva dress sandals This model but in black
  • Flip-flops–generic, slide-ons that I got from Target.

Clothes:

From previous experience, anywhere where clothes have to be hand washed over a long period of time will inevitably not make it back. I thought I was pretty minimalist when it came to outer clothing.  Also, it depresses me to no end that Rwanda puts a huge emphasis on clothing and appearance.  At home I wear scrubs, jeans and a t-shirt or sweatshirt, or during the summer–khaki shorts and t-shirts.  Nothing fancy.  Nothing stylish. I’m probably going to disappoint a lot of Rwandan mamas.

  • one pair jeans
  • one pair hiking pants [gray, Patagonia]
  • one pair khakis
  • two pairs scrub pants
  • three button-up shirts [one  long sleeved, one 3/4 sleeved, and one short sleeved]. The thing with button up shirts is they never quite look like they are supposed to if you are female with above average sized breasts.  Hence when I do wear button-up shirts, they always have another layer under them and I usually wear them more to keep the chill off during the evening than for actual shirts.
  • six colored t-shirts
  • one long sleeved t-shirt
  • one flannel shirt
  • one hoodie
  • three skirts [all knee length or longer]
  • one pair khaki capri pants
  • one pair knee length athletic shorts
  • one pair yoga pants
  • about 42 pair of underwear [not all at once though]
  • about 20 pair of socks [5 wool, 5 casual dress, 10 athletic–or there abouts–also not all at once]
  • bras [4 sport, 4 regular]

Sleep:

  • Down blanket
  • Sheets–I brought a twin set and an extra full fitted sheet
  • Sleeping bag–something similar to this one, but I bought mine in 2010 and it’s orange.
  • Pillow–just one of the many [so many] pillows I have at home.  Last item in the suitcase.

Shower:

  • Quick-drying Towel 
  • Regular beach towel
  • 2-1 shampoo/conditioner–either of these are my favorites
  • Dry shampoo–for in between washes.
  • Bar[s] of soap
  • Toothbrush and toothpaste [I have brand favorites so I brought them]

Tech:

  • Kindle — for books, music, movies, photos, ect.
  • External Hard Drive – for movies, music, TV shows, podcasts, actual work documents
  • Laptop–yes it’s heavy and huge, but watching movies on it is awesome.
  • Camera– what can I say–I love my camera, and will physically hurt anyone who tries to take it

Kitchen:

  • Spices – whatever you like, but definitely salt and pepper.  I also brought cinnamon
  • Drink Mixes–as many as you can find
  • Knives, vegetable peeler, cutting board, measuring spoons/cups
  • Can opener
  • Ziploc bags/storage containers--Illegal in Rwanda so I’ve got Quart, Sandwich, and Snack + sandwich sized plastic containers [stuffed with goodies on the plane ride over]
  • Enamel mug/Stainless steel mug
  • Water bottle x2

A Good Backpack – When you are traveling somewhere and you plan to stay overnight, you are unlikely going to bring one of your suitcases along. Travel in Rwanda is done on what is call “squeeze” buses. Bring a backpack that is comfortable to wear and big enough to hold essential items for staying somewhere overnight (extra clothes, toothbrush, laptop, towel, etc.). If you can attach your sleeping bag to it, even better.

Leatherman – Or a good old fashioned pocket knife.

Headlamp – It comes in handy when you need both of your hands at night.

Multi Vitamins – These might be your only source of nutrients when you are eating rice, beans, and potatoes.

Music – It is the only thing that keeps me sane some days. Sometimes you need to shut the door, put in your ear buds, close your eyes and listen to music. I also brought a speaker that is great for when I want extra volume or don’t want to be constricted by my ear buds.

Nail Clippers –self explanatory


Everything else is non-essential. Fill any extra space with things that will bring you comfort, like your favorite candy or pictures from home. I wish I had packed less clothing and more of the essential items listed above

You can get most things in Rwanda, but some things you’ll want to bring from home because they’re either a) expensive or b) low quality. Below are some ideas:

  • A raincoat/poncho – Both health and education volunteers arrive during a rainy season, so one of these things will be helpful.
  • A swiss army knife – Knives aren’t great in Rwanda, so a portable one with good blades is helpful, especially if it has a corkscrew and can/bottle opener
  • Can opener – Most Rwandans stab open cans with a knife, but this is not a great way to spend your time.
  • A tide pen – Clean clothes are important, so stick one of these in your backpack to stay right culturally or just to prevent a bad stain from setting
  • Stick deodorant – This is somewhat expensive and only available in Kigali. So when PCVs go to Rwanda, it won’t be available to them right off the bat.
  • Your favorite shampoo – The generic shampoo here is not great.
  • Photos of your friends and family – Pre-Service Training in Rwanda involves living with a host family. Having photos is a good way to break the ice, especially when your communication is difficult in the first few weeks. You could also bring a couple copies to give the host family as a memento and a way to say thanks.
  • A couple of good pens – Pens are cheap and easy to find in Rwanda, but they aren’t high quality. If you write a lot, bring a few pens you like and never, ever lend them to anybody.
  • Nail clippers/nail file

Money

If you’re planning on bringing some money for vacations (a great idea if you can), bring hundred dollar bills that are 2006 or current. Large bills, which most places define as hundreds only, get the best exchange rate. Money changers and banks will sometimes refuse bills older than 2006 and will often give you a bad exchange rate if they do accept them. Peace Corps recommends $300-500 and I think that’s a pretty good number, considering you can save some of your living allowance every month.

A credit card is a good idea if you think you’ll want to buy plane tickets. Many volunteers end up flying somewhere during or after their service and a credit card makes buying a plane ticket easier.

Technology

My take on technology in Peace Corps is that 2 years is almost long enough for your gadgets to become obsolete, so if you’ve already got something useful, bring it. Having something like a laptop is great because it allows you to communicate with friends and family easily (a USB modem and pay-as-you-go internet are cheap in Rwanda). You probably won’t be able to skype on a portable connection, but just to be able to send and receive e-mails is really nice. Electricity is widely available throughout Rwanda and even if you don’t have it in your home, you can usually charge up somewhere in town.

Other than a laptop and camera, I recommend

  • An external hard drive – To share music and movies with other volunteers. There’s a great volume of stuff that gets swapped around among PCVs.
  • A portable USB flash drive – makes swapping files a lot easier
  • Antivirus software for the laptop

The Peace Corps packing list recommends a transformer or voltage converter. Unless you are bringing small appliances, such as a blow dryer, you probably don’t need a voltage converter. Many camera and laptop cords have a black box on them which regulates voltage and says the range that they are capable of handling. Rwanda is 230V. Check your electronics and appliances to see if they’ll be compatible and if you don’t need a converter, don’t get one.


Non-essentials/not for everybody

If you’ve packed all of the essentials and you don’t have extra space, you’ve gone overboard. Most likely, though, you’ll have extra room. Here are some ideas for how to fill it up:

Camping gear, binoculars, art supplies, board/card games, soccer ball, sleeping bag, aloe vera, lotion, a musical instrument (guitar is a popular item), books (English dictionaries are desperately needed, but also bring some for yourself), beef jerky/other snacks, stickers, and if you know how to cut hair, do everyone a favor and bring some shears!

What not to bring

Over-the-counter medications – The Peace Corps medical kit includes multivitamins (pre-natal, lots of iron), Advil, Tylenol, pepto, bandages, antihistamines, decongestants, throat soothers, sunscreen, iodine tablets, malaria prophylaxis, condoms, insect repellent, chapstick, hydro-cortisone cream, antibiotic ointment, and many other essential things. (Do come with a 6 month supply of your prescription meds if you have any, per Peace Corps’ policy on that.)

Peace Corps will also provide a mosquito net and a water filter. For those who are not going to Rwanda with Peace Corps, you’ll want to look into these things based on the length of your stay and where you’re going. Pharmacies here carry a lot of medicines; all hotels have mosquito nets, and bottled water, soft drinks, and beer are available pretty much anywhere.

 

Peace Corps Update

When I share with someone that I’m joining the Peace Corps, I get one of two reactions:

  1.   “OMG, how long is that?  TWO YEARS! How can you afford to do that? What about work? What about your house?  What about [fill in the blank]________________?” This exclamation is often accompanied by a facial expression of woe and angst followed by “I could never do that”
  2. “Oh wow, that is so cool. That’s so brave.   I’m really excited/I really admire that you’re doing that.”  This is usually said by someone who is not a member of my generation, or someone who is a really close friend and knows me well.

Having written this out, I feel like these responses to my decision are a pretty accurate timeline of my own feelings about Peace Corps.

I received my invitation to serve in July 2017.  At first I was really excited, and then lurking worry and fears of the unknown starting to sneak their way into my subconscious. Eventually, I sucked it up and got my fingerprints done, checking off the first task in a surprisingly long litany of Peace Corps related tasks. This is probably one of the finer decisions I have made in life.

Nearly every adult older than me I spoke with about my Peace Corps decision encouraged me without reservation to pursue that unknown horizon (Reaction #2).  They spoke of looking back on their own lives to places where they met a fork in the road, and now with near unanimity wish that had taken that less trodden path. My biggest hang up was money, though it shames me to say it out loud. I have always prided myself in not being a consumer, not letting things or stuff tie me down or control my life. I never appreciated that instead of stuff, I was consumed by the need to horde money for my future’s sake.  Every single adult assured me that there is always time to make money, and really, money doesn’t make your world go ’round.  Certainly it is important, and I know there are certain things I want to buy that will require some savings and a steady job, but those things are worth delaying for something like Peace Corps.

Making the decision to let go of monetary wealth for the next two years was really difficult for me, but I’ve come to the point where I can put it out of my mind for the sake of better things that I’m sure will make me poorer monetarily speaking, but much richer in life. Wealth, after all, is just what you make of it.

Hooray for personal growth!

But not everyone is supportive of this decision and here are some of my thoughts on the most common questions or concerns I get concerning Peace Corps.

Q: That’s like TWO YEARS of your LIFE!  (concerns about commitment)

A:  Yes, yes it is.  However, it’s not like I wouldn’t be living those two years of my life anyway, right?  You have to live them somewhere, and I can either live them in a way where that it is easy to predict my day-to-day, or in a way that it is not.  If I weren’t going into the Peace Corps, I’d being going to graduate school, so it’s not exactly as if I’d be carefree and unencumbered anyway.

Q: Oooh… doesn’t that mean you have to live with no running water/electricity/indoor plumbing/car/etc?

A: Quite possibly yes, it does. But you know what? The lack of conveniences really doesn’t bother me in any significant way. Yes, I love hot showers and all of the joys of plumbing, but they aren’t huge priorities for me.  I’ve lived without them before, and I would do it again.

Q: What if you get sick/robbed/homesick/lonely?

A: I fully expect all of thing to happen, probably all at once and probably more than once. And it will be miserable and without a doubt, there will be moments where I want nothing more than to catch the next donkey cart back to South Carolina. But bad things happen to people everywhere, all the time. They happen to me living here, and I deal with them.  They will probably happen to me there, and I will deal with them there, too.

Q: Oh, so you’re out to go save the world/postpone adulthood/some other irresponsible choice? That probably won’t look too hot on a resume.

A: Oooh, judgy-judgy, aren’t you?!  I am joining Peace Corps for my reasons, and my reasons alone. They consist of pursuing what I find to be personally fulfilling, important, and meaningful, as well as how I see my own place within the world and life.   It’s such a challenge to get out there! To see the world for what it is instead of what it is portrayed to be! I love that, and want to be part of it. Peace Corps is not perfect in any way (is anything?), but they offer an opportunity to serve myself, my country, and maybe in some small way, someone else who shares in my fellow humanity. I think that in itself is cause enough for anyone.
And no, I would dare to disagree that joining Peace Corps is “postponing” anything, except perhaps a fat bank account.  It has taken me a lot of thought and courage to apply and pursue Peace Corps, and if anything, I see it as a remarkable testament to my character, perseverance, and ability to withstand nearly anything.  Also, perhaps it demonstrates a marked tolerance for misery, which is just fine with me. Putting a successful Peace Corps tour on my resume will be a very proud moment in my life, and honestly, would I even want to work for someone who didn’t agree?

And finally…

Q: Oh wow, Peace Corps? I could never do that.

A: Yes. you. could. I hate to hear people downplay their own ability to adapt, change, and remain resilient against the unknown. Women, especially, seem to always discount their own strengths and ability to do something hard.  If you are reading this blog and contemplating your own application to Peace Corps, I would urge you to dismiss outright those fears of what is unknown or unfamiliar. Don’t be discouraged by your own trepidation, or shy away from discomfort.  If Peace Corps (or anything in life) is something you feel calling to you, whispering in your ears with an unheard voice of temptation, then take those reins! Seek that far horizon and do not stop until you find whatever it is that drives you.  For me, Peace Corps is the hand that will open many doors I could never have opened or perhaps even dreamed of myself. Yes, I feel fear, and yes, I feel anxiety. But everything that may ever be gained by stepping into the chasm that is the unseen future is worth the immense challenge it is to rise above those concerns.  It is a process. It will take time and thought and my utmost concentration. But, I have no doubt, that I am ready to serve.

You’ve got a question; I’ve got answers–part 2

I’m medically and legally cleared still but people still want to know what happened with Madagascar. [Questions for Madagascar; why I’m still in the US].  Let’s get to the questions, shall we?
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:  Rwanda? Is that safe?
  • Peace Corps | Rwanda began in 1975 went through 1994, was suspended in 1994 and was restarted in 2008. Currently there are about 175 volunteers in Rwanda and nearly 800 have served in the country since its beginnings.
  • Africa represents about 40% of Peace Corps volunteers.
  • Rwanda is about the size of Massachusetts. It is located at higher altitude and has a more temperate climate than one would expect of a country located nearly on the equator.
  • The official languages are English and Kinyarwandan. French was dropped as an official language in 2009 as Rwanda seeks to become more ‘international’.
  • The population is about 12 million people. Although Rwanda is resource-poor and land locked, it seeks to become Africa’s first middle income (second world) country. 60% of the country lives on less than $1.25/per day.
  • Climates vary. It generally has four seasons , just not the four we are accustomed to having: rainy season 1 and 2; dry season 1 and 2. It is cooler in the higher altitudes and warmer to the west.

Question 3:  What will you be doing?
I will be a Maternal-Child Health volunteer focusing on mamas and the first 1000 days of children’s lives. I could be partnered with an international organization like the Red Cross or a local NGO. While yellow fever is not endemic to Rwanda, malaria is.  I’ll be promoting 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 June–August. 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 exactly where I will live which is OK since my Rwandan geography is nascent, but if I had my preference, I’d choose to live near one of the national parks.

Question 6:  What will your living situation be like?
I will most likely be living in a rural village, but Rwanda is one of the smallest and most populated African countries so chances are, I won’t be alone.  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.  From my research, it seems as if the more rural the location, the better the actual house.  Indoor plumbing is most likely a no as is running water. However, electricity is quite a possibility.  Not 24-7 electricity like we are used to, but especially in rural Rwanda, PV electricity is common in health centers.   Rwanda is one of the most connected countries in Africa, and it is almost certain that I’ll have cell service from my location.

Question 7:  Will you have a cell phone?
See question #6. Most volunteers have their own cell phone. 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 8: What will you eat?
Rwandan food is pretty bland; it is neither spicy nor hot. People eat simple meals made with locally grown ingredients. The basic diet consists mainly of sweet potatoes, beans, corn, peas, millet, plantains, cassava, and fruit. The potato is now very popular, thought to have been introduced by German colonists.  I also hope to have my own vegetable garden, but seafood is most likely not going to be an everyday meal.

Question 9: 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 [training or community integration] or my last three months [site project wrap-ups].

Question 10:  Will you live with a host family?
I will most definitely live with a host family during  training, and most likely live on my own the rest of the time.

Question 11:  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 12:  Do you get paid?

Yes, but not much.  The 2016 GDP for Rwanda was $738 which is the highest it has ever been. That averages out to be a little more than $2/day and is quite the improvement from 1994  when it was $204–about 60 cents. I will be making about $375/month and considering that most Rwandan 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 Rwanda.  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 or Target in Rwanda so that addiction has been curtailed.

I also get an allowance at staging and a settling in allowance once in Rwanda. 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.

Wanderlust

Wanderlust

I do not think that means what you think it means… Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride.

 

The English word “wanderlust” already existed in German dating as far back as High Middle German. The first documented use of the term in  English occurred in 1902 as a reflection of what was then seen as a characteristically German predilection for wandering that may be traced back to the  German system of apprenticeship, as well as the adolescent custom of the ‘Wanderbird’ seeking unity with Nature.

 

The term originates from the German words wandern (to hike) and Lust (desire). The term wandern, frequently misused as a false cognate does in fact not mean “to wander”, but “to hike.” Placing the two words together, translated: “enjoyment of hiking”, although it is commonly described as an enjoyment of strolling, roaming about or wandering.

 

I am a wanderer… both in the historic sense of the word and the modern.

 

I grew up an introvert, sensitive, an only child, and a bookworm with a keen desire to explore beyond my boundaries.  Pictures exist of me, I could not have been more than three years-old, packing a bag and leaving home. Of course, at three, I never really went anywhere. I saved the real adventure until I was five. [but that’s a story for another day].  I was athletic and sporty;  I lived for summer basketball and soccer camp.  Then later, volleyball and softball camp. I loved being away from home, hanging out on college campuses, and imagining when I would finally be able to leave my small town for good. I was 8 and already imaging life at 18.

I come from a long line of homebodies, inwardly jealous of friends and classmates who went to ‘the beach’ every summer. Or Disney World. Or anywhere really.  My dad’s idea of a vacation was a weekend trip to Atlanta to watch the Braves or a fall Saturday to Clemson or Columbia to watch college football. Week-long or even multiple week vacations were unheard of in my family.  My fondest junior high memory was of being left behind at Martin Luther King center in downtown Atlanta.  Upon returning from the restroom, my entire class was no where to be found. Cell phone were in their infancy; no one had one. But I knew the city well enough, or at least how to get to the ballpark.  I was 13, and on my own in the big city (at least for a while). It. Was. Fucking. Awesome. Right then and there I knew I’d been bitten by the travel bug.

There’s a word in Korean that means the inability to get over one’s addiction to travel, a perpetual case of wanderlust. Once the travel bug has bitten, it indicates, there is no cure.

 

The fixation with traveling that began with memorizing world capitals and drawing country flags on notebooks took on a life of its own. At 14, I managed to sneak away from home for two days, take the train to Baltimore, watch a baseball game, and get back home without my absence  being noticed.  And once I’d gotten my driver’s license, the back roads and hiking trails of South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia became intimately familiar.  I was determined to go everywhere… working on a bucket list that didn’t yet have a name.

Chichen Itza

I’ve never been one to advocate for quitting one’s job in order to see the world. Yes, I have worked in jobs I hated and companies I hated even more. I’ve worked in jobs or positions that I absolutely knew was just a paycheck. Hell, where I am working now I feel my skills regressing daily.  But I know that this is temporary. I am waiting for one of two thing to happen and then I am out of there.  I’ve always known that working these jobs would allow me to pursue my dreams.  I worked PRN-status for 11 years so that I’d be able to create my own schedule and take time off when I wanted to.  Everything I’ve done has contributed to my seemingly disparate goals of 1: seeing as much of the world as possible and 2: becoming a nurse practitioner.  One is not mutually exclusive of the other.

 

I got my first real job, other than the odd thing here and there, when I was 18.  It was working in a home improvement store where I learned to mix paint, use a commercial saw, and do basic electrical things.  I also had to count nuts and bolts by hand during inventory. I was by far the youngest person working there although there were a few guys that worked there on their college break. For most of my co-workers, this was there career.  They were satisfied with their two weeks’ vacation and only being closed three days a year.  I made nearly $5000 that first year I had to file taxes and thought I’d amassed a fortune.  I made another $4000 working in a factory spring semester of my freshman year.  Oh God, how I hated that job. I sat there, loading parts on a machine, conjugating French, German, or  Spanish verbs in my head, thinking ‘this is why I’m in college…’

The ultimate goal was to earn enough money to spend my junior year of college studying abroad in some as-of-yet-undetermined major.[Spoiler alert: that never happened]

At 19, I had the chance to go to England for two weeks; I jumped at the opportunity.  When things didn’t go as planned, instead of coming  home and working at the factory yet again, I stayed three months. I still have the journal I wrote it when I left Atlanta. It’s funny now… and telling.

“I’m on a plane to London via Amsterdam. I AM ON A PLANE.”

“I JUST ORDERED A BLOODY MARY FOR DINNER.  AND THEY BROUGHT IT. I HAVE ARRIVED*”

“TRAVELING IS AMAZING”

 

A series of travel mishaps later, I end up at the flat of a friend of a friend of a friend. The flat was empty. The landlord came and asked how I knew of this place. I told my story. No, I’d never met the previous tenant. Yes, I was only visiting. No, I didn’t want to rent it, but then, I was offered the deal of a lifetime–200 pounds/month for June, July and August for a 1 bedroom/1 bath in Stafford, England. My dorm room cost more than that. I said yes and after some international finagling of funds, I had $5000 transferred to me** and that is what I lived on that summer.

It’s not a gothic cathedral without stunning stained glass

That summer, I traveled. To Wales. To Scotland. To Ireland. And around England. I ate and drank in pubs. I learn to play darts. And cricket. And drink whisky. I met up with different people every week.  It was the life I’d always wanted. The day before I was to come back, I was in the pub with the friends I’d made this summer when I saw a guy I’d never seen before  He was scruffy and despite drinking a pint of Guinness, was clearly out of place of the regulars.  I went over, dart in hand, and said “hey, wanna play?”

His name was Nick or Mick. Or maybe it was Mark.  I don’t remember. He was from Australia. Or New Zealand. Those details are fuzzy now.  But he was well-traveled. Meeting up with a cousin before heading back home. Or something like that.  He was tanned in a way you can’t get in England and spoke of places like Chaing Mai, Nha Trang, and Angor Wat. I was mesmerized. And impressed. “Wow, you travel a lot.” He took a long swallow of his Guinness before answering me, foam still on his lips.

“Trying to. The world is an awfully big place and there’s always more to see.”

“That’s true.  Well, do you play or not.” I was trying not be be impressed by the late 20 something sexy stranger.

“Why not?”

“Good. You can be on my team.”

He told me about his running with the bulls in Spain and working on a farm in France. How he worked his way through Thailand and Vietnam. He told me about the spice markets in Istanbul and Marrakesh.  And about eating guinea pigs in Ecuador and piranhas in Brazil. I had never met anybody like him.  I had never met anyone who was doing what I wanted to do. I was spellbound.  Amid pints and double old fashions, he  grabbed me around my waist and pulled me away from everyone, kissed me hard on the mouth. At that moment, my world stopped. Mesmerized by those green eyes and mop of black hair. I had one throw left, and it was almost too perfect that I hit the bullseye to win.

 

I spent the rest of the night nuzzled in the pub, making out with the cute boy from far away, listening to his enticing travel tales telling myself that one day I’d be the one telling those tales. The details of that night have faded, but the feelings of knowing a life of adventures were waiting for me if only I had the courage to see it through has never left me.

 
*My very first alcoholic drink was at 30,000 feet flying over the Atlantic Ocean.  I have never felt more adult… more cool in my life than when I ordered and subsequently drank that first alcoholic drink

**International banking was a lot more complicated in the late 1999 than it is now.  I had $5000 wired to me and stashed the cash in a secret place in the flat. The secret place is the same secret place I stash cash in my current apartment.

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.

 

Breaking the rules in Aberdeen, Scotland

Ignorance is no excuse

One of the very few things I remember from my Business Law class is ‘ignorance of the law is no excuse,’ nor is it a valid defense.  However, in Aberdeen not only did I unknowingly break several laws, had I been caught, ignorance would have been my only defense.

Aberdeen is not quite the Scottish Highlands, but it is getting closer. Aberdeen is Scotland’s third largest city behind Edinburgh and Glasgow, and its location on the North Sea gives it an amazing coastline and busy shipping docks.

Nearly everything in the town is constructed with granite mined from the Rubinslaw Quarry. The quarry was active for nearly 300 years, but was closed in 1971. Now it’s a big giant hole in the ground filled with 40+ years of rainwater.

Sheriff’s court

History Nerd Alert #1:

Robert I, popularly known as Robert the Bruce, was King of Scots from 1306 until his death in 1329. Robert was one of the most famous warriors of his generation, eventually leading Scotland during the Wars of Scottish Independence against England.

Marischal College–now a civic building in Aberdeen

History Nerd Alert #2:

A mercat cross is the Scots name for the market cross found frequently in Scottish towns, cities and villages where historically the right to hold a regular market or fair was granted by the monarch, a bishop or a baron. It therefore served a secular purpose as a symbol of authority, and was an indication of a burgh’s relative prosperity. Historically, the term dates from the period before 1707 when Scotland was an autonomous kingdom, but it has been applied loosely to later structures built in the traditional architectural style of crosses or structures fulfilling the function of marking a settlement’s focal point. (Thank you Wikipedia)  Aberdeen’s cross was constructed from granite and was designed by local architect John Montgomery in 1686.

History Nerd Alert #3

The Gordon Highlanders was the name of a British Army Infantry Regiment. It was active from 1881 to 1994, and I always thought that Gordon Highlander was a single person in Scotland’s history.

They used to hold public executions in the spot across from Old Blackfriar’s pub. Nothing like a good public execution to stir up an appetite for fine Scotch and good grub.

St. Nicholas Church

Courtyard at St Nicholas

I’m not very good at following rules. It’s a badge of honour that I have not yet ever spent time in jail.  I certainly have done some things in my time that could have landed me there. In my wanderings out and about in Aberdeen, I have inadvertently broken the following Scottish laws today:  [I can only hope that I don’t end up at the roofless Scottish prison in Edinburgh]

  1. Took pictures in a shopping center
  2. Took a picture of a police car and perhaps a police man[person]
  3. Touched an old rusted propeller in a museum that had it labeled as something “too fragile to touch”
  4. Read an article in a magazine in a store without purchasing it
  5. Took pictures in a church
  6. Took pictures of Scottish people without their permission [ In my defense though, no one will be able to recognized the aforementioned Scottish people.]

Aberdeen–you are a beautiful, unexpected breath of fresh air.

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.

US National Parks | Chaos at Ninety Six

2018 Michelle here:

I am a #historynerd.  There;  I said it.  I often choose destinations based on history and in destinations I don’t choose, I seek out history.   Y’all can bet the farm that I’ll be exploring Rwanda’s [and its neighbor’s] history while I’m there.  As of now, I know exactly one thing about Rwandan history:  the 1994 genocide.  Not the best impression is it.  I’m determined to discover more about this progressive, modern country in the middle of Africa.


History and a [short] hike

I have begun to expect the unexpected whenever I decide to go for a hike.  It doesn’t seem to matter if it is a long, planned months in advance hike or a spur-of-the-moment trip 30 minutes from my house. Something unexpected is going to happen.  Such was the case when I tottled down to Ninety Six, South Carolina to wander around the Ninety Six Historical Site.

Ninety Six is an easy day trip from midlands or upstate South Carolina. Piedmont or low mountains North Carolina, and upper Georgia.  Ninety Six is also an important historical part of the Revolutionary War.

The History:

Ninety Six began as a crossroads between the English/Scottish Irish/German settlers that left Charles Town in search of a more prosperous way of life and the Cherokee that already lived in the area.  Ninety Six was the only town [early 1700’s] in the Carolina back country and Cherokee Indians traded deer skin for guns and metal with the settlers who then took the deer skins back to Charles Town and sold it to merchants who then shipped it to England.  Ninety Six was an important strategical location as nearly all Indian tribes west of the Cherokee traded with the French and all tribes east of Ninety Six traded with the English. Over time the Cherokee began to distrust the English [and French] which lead to the Anglo-Cherokee War of 1760.  The Cherokee reclaimed almost all of the back country but Ninety Six remained under British control.

The lingering tensions from the Cherokee-Anglo War contributed to the backcountry’s division.  Feeling neglected by the government in Charleston, facing high taxes, crime, and Indian raids, settlers on the frontier demanded more law and order in the back country.  Vigilantes took justice into their own hands: patrolling roads, hunting criminals, and whipping offenders.  Eventually the crisis ended without much violence, but unrest among settlers lingered.

By the early 1770s, Ninety Six contained approximately twelve houses, public buildings, and a few businesses.  The town boasted an imposing two story brick jail and a courthouse.  An observer noted: “Ninety Six is situated on an eminence in a flourishing part of the country, the land round about it is generally good.  Natural growth is Oaks, Black Walnut, Hickery, etc., which are very large and thrifty.  The land is cleared for a mile round the Town.  It produces wheat, Indian Corn, oats, Hemp, Flax, Cotton, and Indigo.”

There happened to be some re-enacting going on…and demonstration of weapon firing.

Twenty years later:

The fledgling American colonies have declared its independence from Great Britain.  The war has been on-going for 5 years.  Great Britain’s latest strategy is to retain control of the Southern Colonies while admitting defeat in the Northern ones.  The Siege of Ninety Six in 1781 was the longest siege of the American Revolution and pitted American vs American in the form of Patriots vs Loyalists.  It was as if the truce agreed upon a mere six years earlier had never happened.

The STAR FORT and THE MINE [from the National Parks Service website]

When you walk out to the Historic battlefield, you’re walking on hallowed ground. The siege trenches are partially reconstructed, but the Star Fort is original.   Construction of the Star Fort started in December 1780 and finished in early 1781. It was built by Loyalist soldiers (loyal to the King of England) & slaves from nearby farms and plantations. It wasn’t a very popular design because it was hard to build, and couldn’t hold many troops, but Loyalist engineer Lt. Henry Haldane decided that an eight-point star fort would be better for the site than a tradition square fort. The star shape allowed musket and cannon fire in all directions.   The Start Fort had a gun battery which was located near the bottom center point in the picture. The long mound of dirt in the center of the picture is called a Traverse and was built during the Patriot siege of Star Fort (May 22- June 18, 1781). It was to be used as a second line of defense in case the Patriots breached the Star Fort walls. The Start Fort was an earthen fort. As you see it today is pretty much how it looked in 1781. The Star Fort walls were originally about 14 feet high with sand bags around the top giving it a height of about 17 feet during the battle. The walls are a little weather worn in places, but are original. No major reconstruction has been done to the fort.

The Mine has nothing to do with traditional mining, instead it was used by the Patriots (those fighting for independence from England) during the Siege of Star Fort at Ninety Six, May 22- June 18, 1781. The Loyalists (those living in the Colonies that were fighting for the King of England) held the Star Fort and General Nathanael Greene and his Patriot Army tried to take the Star Fort away from the Loyalists. Under the direction of Colonel Thaddeus Kosciuszko, the Chief Engineer of the Patriot Army, the Patriots dug a mine gallery out from the 3rd parallel. The idea was for the Patriots to dig the Mine underneath the Star Fort, pack it with gunpowder, and then blow it up, thus allowing the Patriots to storm the Loyalist held Star Fort. Patriot Sappers (trench diggers) and slaves borrowed from nearby plantations dug into the hard red clay to dig the mine. They had to suffer from the heat, bugs, broken shovels, Loyalist cannon fire, and Loyalist sorties (attacks made from a place surrounded by the enemy). After dark on June 9, 1781, a small group of Loyalists, under Lt. Colonel John Harris Cruger, attacked the Patriot sappers digging the mine. A British account stated that the Loyalists “discovered a subterraneous passage in which. . . miners were at work, every man of whom was put to death, and their tools brought into the garrison.” (The Royal Gazette,August 25-29, 1781) It was during this sortie that Colonel Kosciuszko was wounded in “his seat of honor” with a Loyalist bayonet, but was able to make it back to safety within Patriot lines.

In the 1973, archeologists actually found a bayonet blade near where Kosciuszko was wounded. The Mine was never used for its intended purpose because the siege was lifted before it could be used. In the 1920s, the entrance to the Mine was stabilized with brick. During the 1940-60s, local children used the Mine as a playhouse before the National Park Service took over its care. In the 1970s, archeologists wrote that the Mine was still intact except. Only 35 feet of the right gallery had collapsed. The Mine was re-opened again in April 2004. Today we know that the Mine starts with a 6 foot vertical shaft from the 3rd parallel then 2 galleries (or branches) go to toward the Star Fort. On average the Mine is 3 feet tall in most places. As the above picture indicates shovel and pick marks can still be seen in the walls along with niches that were carved out for candles for the Patriots to work by. The Mine at Ninety Six National Historic Site is the only mine that was used during the American Revolution.

One of the log cabins on site at Ninety Six Historical Site

The Hike:

The hike is a moderate hike using parts of the Cherokee Trail, Charlestown Road, and the Goucey Trail.  Parts of the trail allow for horses while parts are fairly rustic. An unidentified cemetery lies just off the marked trail that leads to Ninety Six Lake.  The entire loop was just over 6 miles. It took 3 hours including stopping for lunch at the lake, searching for the unidentified cemetery, and reading historical markers.

daffodils along the trail


1780’s men weren’t very big.

The Unexpected:

The unexpected isn’t always a bad thing.  Sometimes it is serendipity and my hike through the trails at Ninety Six certainly paid off.  At the beginning of the hike the temperatures was around 50F, and by the end there were snowflakes.

 

**image credit of the skeleton from nps.gov**

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.

Sinners, Saints, and the Drink in Dublin

A person can learn a lot about a country by the symbols the country uses to represent it.  It tells you a lot about Ireland that the symbols of the country is a musical instrument , a harp facing in one direction. And the unofficial symbol of Ireland may just well be a pint.  Of Guinness to be exact.  A Beer that uses the National symbol isn’t all that uncommon, but music and beer–well, that tells you a lot about Ireland, doesn’t it?

 

The Guinness Harp–a symbol of Ireland

 

AND the gates to the Guinness brewery… Notice the similarities

See, music and beer. Throw in a few writers, poets, and books, and you have Dublin in an overly-simplified nutshell

Trinity College:   Nowhere in America is there a 400 year old college much less a 900 year old book. Trinity College is a contemporary college still accepting students; its building are a mix of architectural styles from 400 years to present. And during spring and summer, it’s elegant gardens are truly a sight to behold. I love visiting college campuses… especially well done ones, and ones with spectacular libraries.  The Old Library at Trinity is amazing: stack and stacks of ancient wooden bookshelves filled with ancient (and not so ancient) books that seem to go on endlessly.

And while Trinity College is certainly something to be seen, my absolute favorite part of the college is the Long Room in the Old Library at Trinity College. The room is a book-lovers dream (and downstairs you can see the famous Book of Kells).

The Sinners:

Kilmainham Gaol: Maybe it’s my dark, twisted soul that has me visiting things like cemeteries and jails wherever I go, but Kilmainham Gaol is Irish revolutionary history in living color.  Constructed in 1796, and used as a prison for the city of Dublin through 1924, the uprisings of 1798, 1803, 1848, 1867 and 1916 ended with the leaders’ confinement here. Robert Emmet, Thomas Francis Meagher, Charles Stewart Parnell and the 1916 Easter Rising leaders were all visitors, but it was the executions in 1916 that most deeply etched the jail’s name into the Irish consciousness. Of the 15 executions that took place between 3 May and 12 May after the revolt, 14 were conducted here. As a finale, prisoners from the Civil War were held here from 1922.

While the revolutionaries are certainly the most (in)famous citizens of the prison, Kilmainham Goal hosted men, women, and children during its nearly 130 years in operation.  While some inmates were there for crimes such as murder and assault, others were there for theft of food to feed a starving tummy. The jail closed in 1924, but happily these days, one can tour the jail and the tour leads you through old, crumbly prison cell-blocks and ends in the yard where the  hangings used to occur.  I’m not one to be superstitious, but if any place is haunted, I’d imagine this place would be.

 

The site of executions at the gaol–yes, it’s a little bit creepy

The Saints:

St. Patrick’s Cathedral:  Construction began in 1191; it became a cathedral in 1224.  Yep, it’s over 800 years old… kinda makes the 400 year old college [Trinity] look like a spring chicken, and most surprisingly [to me] it’s not a Catholic church.  The most famous church in a country known for Catholicism is Anglican.

 

The Drinks:

Take a tour of the Guinness Storehouse, which may just be Ireland’s top tourist attraction. Yes, more people come here than visit the Book of Kells or the Cliffs of Moher. For around 15 Euros, you can tour the 7-story building, learning  important things like the history of the Guinness, how it’s produced, and how the it has evolved over the years. At the end of the tour, there is the chance to enjoy a complimentary pint at the Gravity Bar (although for 15 euros, in my opinion you should get something).

I was 19 years old the first time I visited Ireland and some of my first alcoholic drinks were in Dublin, because how can you not? While the taste of a Guinness never took,  Irish Whiskey most certainly did. Especially in the form of Irish Coffee… There’s a reason Irish Breakfasts are a thing, and Irish Coffee is a great addition to it.  Jameson’s distillery was the first distillery I ever visited and those smooth triple distilled grains are like sweet honey. Even though I’m not a huge coffee drinker, the combination of whiskey, Irish cream, and coffee is pure magic.

Jameson Irish Whisky

The Temple Bar, I guessing at one time, was authentically Irish.  These days, its just another overpriced bar, with a great location, that caters to tourists.  For the love of all things holy, go somewhere (anywhere) else to get an authentic ‘pub experience’.  The are literally hundreds of pubs in Dublin and I’d wager than any one of them not located in the city center would be a better experience than the Temple Bar. I’m not saying to not go to the Temple Bar, just know that these days, you’ll rarely find a local hanging out there.  One cool thing about the Temple Bar, is there’s always live music playing so pop in, if for no other reason than to listen to a tune or two.

The HaPenny Bridge–Dublin