Staging

Staging Part 1:  February 2018.

I wanted to have a quiet little get together on Saturday.  A bonfire, a birthday party, and some friends just hanging out.  Sadly that didn’t happen as I started to feel bad on Thursday.  I hope it was just nerves. Or maybe a quick passing virus.  No such luck.  My ‘last weekend’ at home turned out not to be my last weekend as I was diagnosed with the flu on Friday night and had to receive IV fluids thanks to the fever, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea going on.  On Monday morning, my plane left GSP without me on it.

On Tuesday, my stage left for Madagascar without me with them.

On Wednesday, they arrived in Madagascar  while I still sat at home trying to recover, trying to regain strength and such.

What happens next is out of my control?  Will I go to Madagascar in June as an education volunteer?  Will I go to another country as a health volunteer?  I haven’t confirmed anything, but I think my medical and legal clearance is good for another 6 months which means I’d have to leave before September.  I just hope that I can go somewhere.  It would be a shame if my PC career ended before it began as a result of the flu.

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Prior to leaving and prior to influenza, I’d already said a few good-byes. Although these good-byes weren’t with my closest friends, I noticed that with these goodbyes I felt a sense of loss. Since these were people I saw on a regular basis, but were not my closest friends, this was a little unexpected. But, I reminded myself that I’m not losing anything, and have everything to gain from this experience.

I originally thought I’d fly to Philadelphia on Monday morning, but after being in contact with Peace Corps medical, we mutually decided that it was best for me not to go. And as devastating as that decision was, I am glad that I didn’t have to make it alone.

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I’ve been in contact via email with the Peace Corps Country Director.  Nothing official has been decided, but I’ll be glad when it does.  Whether I go to Madagascar with the next group in June, wait until next year, switch countries all together, or never get to be a PCV has yet to be determined.

Cat Sanctuary in Rome

2018 Michelle here:  I love, love, love kitty cats.  I love cat cafes and attractions that feature cats. The cat sanctuary in Rome was my first experience with a ‘cat attraction.  While I don’t know the feline situation in Rwanda, I’m hoping to see the big cats while abroad, perhaps while on vacation in Tanzania?


There are two kinds of people in the world: cat people and dog people.  And cat people are way more interesting than dog people.  And if you can’t tell by that statement, I am a cat person.  Big cats. Little cats. Basically if you are in the feline family, I love you.  And Rome is a cat’s paradise.  Hundreds of cats haunt the place where Julius Caesar was murdered in 44 BC.

Known as Largo di Torre Argentina, this archaeological wonder was excavated as part of Mussolini’s rebuilding efforts in 1929, revealing extensive multi-level temples that lie sunken 20 feet below modern street level. Besides several different temples, Torre Argentina also contains part of the famous Theater of Pompey, upon whose steps dictator Julius Caesar was betrayed and killed. Today, volunteers at Torre Argentina care for approximately 250 cats. After the site was excavated, Rome’s feral cats moved in immediately, as they do all over the city, and the gattare, or cat ladies, began feeding and caring for them. Since the mid-1990s, the population has grown from about 90 to the current 250, and the organization has ramped up with care for sick or wounded cats, as well as an extensive spay and neuter program to keep the feral population in check. Most of the permanent residents have special needs – they are blind or missing legs or came from abusive homes.

On any given afternoon a small crowd gathers here to watch the cats sunbathe on ancient pillars and steps. At first it may be hard to spot the cats, but once you start to see them, they are everywhere.

Also, in my next life, I plan to come back as either a pampered house cat like Lucy or Molly, or if I can’t get that gig, I would like to be one of Rome’s pampered felines–I mean lounging around ancient architecture having someone to come feed me every day– what’s not to love about that?

Museums of Broken Relationships

2018 Michelle here:  This museum I found in Zagreb, Croatia is perhaps one of the more interesting museums I’ve ever been in [The Sex Museum in Naples is another].  While Zagreb is no uber charming city, this museum had me enthralled.  The end of a relationship is always a trying time for everyone involved even if it’s just a ‘whew, I dodged that bullet’ thought. But I’ve never thought of putting my relationship detritus in a museum for other to look at.  Let this be a reminder that atypical museums can be some of the more educational/informative/pleasurable.

 


A break-up is like a broken mirror:  it’s better to leave it alone than to hurt yourself picking up the pieces.

 

His name was Michael. Today is his birthday. I shouldn’t remember that, but I do. When we met he was 32, and I was 24. We met at work.  I loved his sense of humour and he loved my adventurous spirit.  We were friends first.  Nearly a year, before anything more than friendly happened.  But as is often the case between men and women, something did happen.  I practically dared him to kiss me, and when he did, it was as if time stood still. July 19, 2004…after lunch. The kiss lasted exactly 42 seconds.  I know because I had a digital atomic clock on the wall in my office.  The kiss touched every neuron in my body, and for the first time in my life, I felt alive.

I named him “Nobody” and he called me “Girl. ”  If people asked me who I was dating, and they did because people love to meddle in the affairs of others, I’d say “Nobody.” If people asked him who we was seeing, he’d say “Just some girl.”  It was our secret, and it was exciting.

We carried on our secret affair for 18 months –until I moved away…co-workers weren’t supposed to date. And even after moving to a different state, the thought of him was like a drug.  We were like addicts addicted to each other; couldn’t stay away, yet couldn’t get enough.

broken relationship 4

The first step in recovering from an addiction is admitting that there is a problem, and oh boy, there was.  Michael was as strong as any drug I’d ever encountered, and willpower alone wasn’t enough to make me quit him.  Over time I came to rely on a power greater than myself and contact with Michael became more and more sparse.  Withdrawal is a painful master.  There was physical pain.  There was emotional pain. There were tears.

broken relationship 5
There were no stuffed worms. No legs were broken in this break-up.


The last conversation I had with him was right before I left for Moscow.  He said “you always did want to go places.” and I said “I will always love you, but this will be the last time I tell you that.”  And I haven’t had contact with him since.  After returning from Moscow, I wanted to call him.  I wanted to tell him all the amazing adventures I had.  Instead, I got a cat.  I named her Lily. She was a sweet cat.

 

Lily helped me heal.

 

I still have a post card he gave me. And ticket stubs for various events. And a necklace. And various little notes.  What can I say, I’m a sentimental soul.

broken relationships 1

I knew before I went to Zagreb that I wanted to go to the museum of broken relationships. I find it  fascinating to see what people keep as mementos from relationships.  Not every relationship ends on a sour note.  Some have other obstacles that time just could not overcome.  Some just aren’t meant to be.  Some exist solely to prepare you for the future.  Michael was not my first boyfriend, but he was my first love, and without that relationship, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

I’ve held on to the mementos of the relationship with Michael for 15 years, and karma, good energy, and such being what it is, it’s time to release that energy into the universe. Good bye Michael.


PS...I have a slight confession to make.  One time I was dating this guy.  His name was James. Now I knew that the relationship with James was never going to be long-term, but he was ummm, fun, and I had recently broken up with a cheating bastard I caught with another woman.  I made James brownies for his birthday.  I left them on the kitchen table with a ‘Happy Birthday’ note.  I came over the next day to find everything in the trash. I was pissed to say the least. Livid. Irate. Incensed. A seething cauldron of raging fumes; you get the idea. He was being such an ass. I went to the local World Market, bought a bottle of cheap $7 Il Bastardo wine, and switched it out for his fancy $200 bottle of French Bordeaux.  My friend and I drank the rich, velvet wine while sitting in her hot tub cursing all the shallow men in the world.  I still feel no shame in taking Il Bastardo’s prized bottle of red wine.

In retrospect, the Il Bastardo was still probably pretty good.  After all it comes from Tuscany and is a Sangiovese so probably still good. I really would have like to have smashed Il Bastardo over the bastard’s head, but I got my revenge in other ways that even though the statute of limitations has passed, I’ll still keep my mouth shut because some things are just better left unsaid [or in this case… things are better left un-typed].

at least no axes were ever involved in any of my break-ups

PPS…Names and dates have been changed to protect the innocent…Except Il Bastardo.

PPPS...If I dated women, I’d totally give every.single.one I ever broke up with this bar of chocolate.

broken relationship 6

 

One month to go

It’s about four weeks until I go, you see, and in theory, I should have something heartfelt and sincere to say. Perhaps a few final thoughts I care to leave behind? A legacy? A farewell?

But I don’t. Nothing.

I’m still working… being a nurse and all, saving every $ I can so that I can fit some adventures in during my Peace Corps service.  I’ve packed, but only because I moved out of my apartment in October.  When I moved, I got rid of all the things I don’t want to keep. I haven’t done a whole lot to the house other than make it stronger to weather any particular storm. I’m doing a lot of  overnight camping and hiking/backpacking. I’m crashing with friends.  Molly and Lucy are in charge, so to speak.  I essentially bought a house for the cats.  They even have their own expense account so their new caretakers can provide for them like I have.

I have always been more on the private side; careful of what I say out loud, or in this case, put in print.  Truth be told, I have very little that I care to say out loud. I, alone, am privy to my thoughts, as they are rapidly changing and I can’t seem to keep up. I’m nervous. Of course I’m nervous.  No matter how much I try to prepare, it’s still the unknown. I’m scared. Of course I’m scared. Even though I’ve done some version of this before, this is a unique period in my life.  I’m excited, thrilled even.  I know of no one in my family, friends, or even aquanintances who has been a Peace Corps volunteer.  In many ways, this is everything I’ve always wanted. And in many others, it’s nothing I ever expected.

Of course, I’m saying this now, before I’ve even begun. What will I say when I am two weeks into training? How will I feel? Will I be as self-assured as I imagine I will be? Or will I be as the other PCV’s (Peace Corps Volunteer) say; wondering what on earth possessed me to do such a thing?

How can I, now, at this very moment, possibly make a statement? There is so much I don’t know. How am I to predict how I’ll feel in the coming weeks and months, when I can’t even get a firm grasp on how I feel right now? My mind is a chaotic whirl. I’m busy preparing for my departure, anticipating my arrival, and trying to juggle work and spending time with friends in between. Everything has been moving so fast, and in these next final weeks, they’ll only continue to speed up.

I’m working through February 20.  My birthday is February 24, and I leave for staging on the 26. I have a to-do list at least a mile long. I’ve essentially got to set up my life for two years so that someone else can manage it. I’ve got to get what’s need to apply to graduate school for when I return. I need all those addresses and phone numbers now. I’ve got to get friends to download WHATSAPP, and before I know it, it will be February 26.

2/26.

D-Day.

My world will likely be flipped upside down in ways that I never saw coming. I’ll say goodbye to my home, my friends, my kitties, and my family. I’ll give up the creature comforts that I knowingly take for granted. I’ll bid farewell to a community for whom my appreciation came unexpectedly.

But these are the thoughts running through my head. Every time I get in my car and drive around the country. When I am in a store looking for something I *need* for Madagascar. When I sit in my house and look around and think, ‘we’ve only just begun.’  I’ve had my house for a total of four months and yet it’s already filled with me.  At night, with Lucy curled at my feet, and Molly by my side, I stare at my ceiling and convince myself to stay calm…

…Because I wanted this. I wanted the uncertainty. I wanted the fear. I wanted the unknown. 18 months ago, I decided I was ready to give up what I know in exchange for the adventure of a lifetime. The world is mine and my future belongs to me. The Peace Corps will test me, push me to my limits, and force me to rise above. I will grow and I will change. I will not be the same person I was when I started, but I look forward to meeting her in the end.

Bring it on.

Thoughts before I go

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.]

Application, timeline, and clearance

It was nearly 18 months since the time I first submitted a Peace Corps application until I got on the plane to Philadelphia for staging.
September 2016: I officially decide to submit a peace corps application nearly 20 years after hearing about the program for the first time.  My application was immediately selected as ‘under consideration’ for Peace Corps | Lesotho for Healthy Youth. Not overly excited but decide if selected, I would go.
January 4, 2017: Peace Corps interview.  Quite possibly the worst interview ever. I interview at home via web cam in scubs after 24 hours of being on call/work.  I was barely coherent and only remember that  the interview lasted 45 minutes when I was told it would most likely last 90.  Probably not a good sign.
March 1, 2017 : I was notified that I was no longer under consideration for Peace Corps | Lesotho for failure to receive recommendations on time. I was not surprised based on the atrocious interview and one missing recommendation. Found out one of recommendation writers never received the form.  Begin new application for Peace Corps, and submit with an updated resume, and different recommendation writers. Hit ‘submit’.
March 8, 2017: Once again, I am placed ‘under consideration’. This time for Peace Corps | Madagascar–Community Health.  I am much more excited about this opportunity.  Talk to recruiter by phone and says interviews won’t start until the application cycle ends… so July 1st would be the earliest opportunity. Tell my recommendation writers not to expect anything until then.
May 4, 2017:  Recruiter was wrong. Interviewed for PC | Madagascar.  Interview went much better than the last time lasting almost 1.5 hours. Feel much better about my chances, but realize the know by date is September 1, 2017. So I’m still not getting my hopes up.
May-July, 2017:  Check my email about once a week [usually on Saturday night while I am at work] as to not miss anything and to not be obsessive. And to preserve my sanity.
July 27, 2017: Receive invitation. Almost miss it due to the ‘checking email once a week’ strategy.
July 29, 2017:  Formally accept invitation.
August 2, 2017:  Received a bunch of tasks to complete with a deadline of September 30, 2017 5:52pm.
August 4, 2017: Get fingerprints and mail off fingerprint card for legal clearance.
August 4, 2017:  Make dental and medical appointments for later in August.
August 5, 2017: Get passport photos and fill out requisitions for Peace Corps Government Passport and Madagascar visa
August 9, 2017: Received notification fingerprints have arrived and the FBI is opening a file on me.
August 24, 2017: Dental visit…Teeth are in good condition.
August 29, 2017:  Medical Exam.  Body in good condition
September 15, 2017:  Have special lab drawn that could not be drawn
October 6, 2017:  Finish my last activity for my Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing. Graduation isn’t until December, but I’m not attending.
October 2017:  On going saga with med office about a missing lab. Frequent communication with PC med office about missing lab.  Deadlines extended for lab.
November 6, 2017:  Received final medical and dental clearance so as long as nothing happens between now and then, I’m in the clear.
December 29, 2017: Receive final  legal clearance
December 30, 2017:  Receive more ‘tasks’ in a new portal.  Paperwork very similar to starting a new job with banking info required, emergency contacts, press release info, ect.

Peace Corps Prep

Peace Corps To Do List

I have never been one to make lists, or more accurately, I have never been one to follow what’s on the list, but for an undertaking of this magnitude, I started preparing and list-making as soon as I submitted the application. Just last week I left my job.  I transferred to another location for the next three months. I haven’t told the new people that I’ll be leaving, and probably won’t–at least not until February.

I started preparing myself for departure soon after receiving the acceptance letter.

Here is a look at the massive to-do list that I created and  have been checking  it off since March and in earnest since I received the acceptance letter in July, approximately in chronological order.

  • Change bank accounts. I moved my primary checking and savings to Charles Schwab. From everything I’ve read, they are the best deal around for travelers.  I’ve banked with a credit union for years, and while I love them, the lock-down on my card overseas [even going to England is a hassle] and the massive fees I incur while traveling are enough to make me switch. I’ve kept my account active so that it’s still there, and also in case I run into trouble, I’ll have someone local to help out. Yes, I know the Peace Corps will set me up a bank account in my local area once I’m there, but it will be nice to have the safety net of my American bank account too.
  • Give myself a pay cut.   I set up direct deposit to my savings account so that $350 every week goes directly to savings. This savings will allow me to keep my house, take a PC vacation or two, and maybe even travel some post-service.
  • Get another job.  [to explore a new area of nursing and have some additional savings]
  • Determine a savings goal. I looked into accommodations and transportation costs for possible destinations and read about other traveler’s expenses for long-term travel to come up with a savings goal of $10,000.  I don’t know if I’ll meet it or not, but it’s a goal.
  • Track my expenses. I m not nerdy enough to set up a spreadsheet and keep track of every dime I spend, but I did create a spending log recording [most of] everything I spent. This allowed me to identify areas to cut back and I could see how close [or far!] I was from my savings goal. I could also see when I needed to lay off Amazon or cut out trips to Target.
  • Re-design my blog. I started blogging in 2005 mainly for myself. Over the last 12 years, blogging has still been mostly for me [and the occasional friend or family member who wanted an update to see if I was still alive]. Over the last year I’ve made a concentrated effort to do a little more on the technical side, learn a little bit more about photo post-processing, teach myself a little bit about making videos, get more comfortable exposing myself to a public audience, and maybe build a loyal, if not small readership before I leave.
  • Connect with other travelers.  I still hate Twitter, don’t really know how to use my blog’s Facebook page, and can’t for the life of me figure out Instagram’s algorithms, but through my blog and through reading other travel blogs, I have connected with dozens of other PC volunteers, returned PC volunteers, and bloggers who have traveled long-term or made blogging into a full-time career. Their advice and inspiration have been invaluable.
  • Renew my passport.  My passport was set to expire while in the Peace Corps, and while yes, I will get a Peace Corps’ diplomatic passport, I do want to travel some on my own either before, during, or after my service. I renewed it in April and opted for the one with the most pages available.
  • Find a home for my cats.  I hated the idea of giving my cats to random strangers on Craigslist or to a shelter, so a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders when a friend volunteered to foster the kids while I’m gone.
  • Figure out what to do with my stuff.  I don’t consider myself a minimalist by any means but I also didn’t want to pay $1700 for a storage unit.  So I bought a house.  What? you say? I found an incredible deal, made the purchase in October 2017. I moved most of my old furniture into the new house and plan on doing some heavy remodeling when I return from the Peace Corps.  To date. I’ve painted all the walls, removed a ton of wallpaper, replace most light fixtures and ceiling fans, and tried my hand a tile-work.  The house now has appliances from this century, and I’ve gotten a lot of tree/scraggly bushes removed.  This is about all I’m doing until I come back.
  • Doctor and dentist appointments.  While I still have good insurance through work, I made a point to get an annual physical exam and a dental cleaning and check-up. Also see Pre-Service Medical Clearance.
  • Vaccinations.  I went to South America in 2010, I got the yellow fever vaccine and the Typhoid vaccine. Through work, I’m up to date on my tetanus-diphtheria-pertussis, flu, and hepatitis B. I added a Hepatitis A vaccine and cholera + what the Peace Corps recommends. Lucky for me, my insurance covered everything except the $110 consultation fee, saving me about $500.
  • Get extra passport photos.  Who knows what I might need them for [traveler visas perhaps], but I’m getting them while they are cheap.
  • Buy stuff.  I have tried to keep the purchases to a minimum because after all, I am going to a third world country where the daily income is around $2, but some must-haves that I have picked up so far include a new [used] laptop [with DVD drive so I can copy all my DVDs and CDs, a new-ish backpack [it’s been on a few excursions already], extra camera equipment [lenses mostly + a few memory cards and extra camera batteries], a Steri-pen, and new hiking shoes.
  • Explore ways to connect.   Skype account, Google Hangouts, FaceTime, all vaible options, but will they work well with rural African internet. .
  • Give notice at work.  I haven’t done this just yet, but when I do, it will be when this whole thing  starts to feel real!

And there is still more to come over the next few weeks:

  • Notify my banks and credit card companies.
  • Withdraw cash in the form of bills that are recent and in good condition [once again, you never know when crisp dollar bills might be useful].
  • Create a list of bank and credit card info.
  • Update my Couchsurfing profile [because you never know…]
  • Study and practice French some more.
  • Update my resume.
  • Assemble the documents I need to apply to graduate school so that when the time comes, I’ll have everything I need, and applying from the middle of Africa won’t be quite so challenging.

Not everything on the lists above will apply to everyone, but my hope is that this will be helpful for those of you who might be starting to think about taking some time off to travel or joining the Peace Corps.

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.