A new beginning

Quick synopsis:  The Great Sickness of 2018 happened, and I didn’t leave for Peace Corps | Madagascar on February 26 as scheduled.
A bit of background: In 2005 I became a pediatric respiratory therapist and have been working in health care ever since. I became a registered nurse in 2015 with the goal of choosing a slightly different career path.  I’ve worked in pediatric ER, NICU, PICU, telemetry med-surg, inpatient rehab nursing, and finally psychiatric/addiction nursing either as a nurse or as a respiratory therapist.  I’ve been continuously employed with the exception of six months from May 2015-December 2015 due to a broken wrist AND broken ankle which required surgery.  I like to travel and explore, and  I plan on going to graduate school and working as a RN doesn’t afford a lot of extended length vacation time. Which brings me to…
 Peace Corps: I had been interested in joining the Peace Corps since high school, a desire which was magnified during short-term volunteer experiences in Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil. However, I also felt compelled to gain work experience and further my career. Nonetheless, I still felt the pull of Peace Corps and I first applied to the Peace Corps in September 2016 then again in March 2017.  In July 2017, I got an invitation to Madagascar for community health. I was super excited as Madagascar is an amazing country and was going to be my home for 2+ years. However, as fate would have it, I got the kind of sick that makes you question whether or not you’ll live 4 days prior to staging. So despite being medically and legally cleared and ready to go, I’m still sitting in the US of A. And this brings me to…
Logistics: I’d had already given notice at my job[s], arranged for my kitties and house to be looked after while I’m gone. I was fortunate to be able to return to one of them so I could continue to make a few dollars while I wait until my fate is decided.  So now I’m leaving most likely in April or May, but possibly as late as June.  I’ve decided I’m OK with it [do I really have a choice?].  I DO like my job, and having a few more weeks [months?] with my loved ones [and kitty cats], and working on house projects can’t be a bad thing, can it?
As long as I have a few weeks’ notice, I can cancel my YMCA membership, give [another] two weeks’ notice at the job I hope to return to post-Peace Corps, and tie up other loose ends. Which brings me to…
My current status as an applicant: I have spent an enormous amount of time and money going through all the hoops necessary to become a volunteer. I have completed the application, gotten the recommendations, done the interview, visited my doctors and dentist (10+ visits), and  packed my bags even. I’m medically and legally cleared; I just have to wait until I know to which program I am being reassigned. I’m hoping to find out by the end of March. So this brings me to…
… a super helpful (but not at all helpful) chart of potential placement sites. [This chart was compiled based on 2017 departures. I think the Burkina Faso one has been shut down, but for the rest of them, I guess any is an option.  I’ve just selected departures April-June since that is most likely when I’ll be reassigned].
April
  • 8th – Namibia Community Health Volunteer, Small Enterprise and Entrepreneurship Development Volunteer
  • 13th – Vanuatu Health Extension Volunteer, Health Extension Specialist Volunteer, Hygiene Education and Water Sanitation Volunteer, Primary Education English Teacher-Trainer
  • 23rd – Mozambique Community Health Services Promoter

May

  • 24th – Mongolia Public Health Educator, Secondary Education English Co-Teacher, Secondary Education English Teacher Trainer, University English Teacher
  • 28th – Ecuador Health Extension Volunteer, Youth Development and Community Service Volunteer

June

  • 1st – Sierra Leone  – Health Extension Volunteer, Secondary Education English Teacher, Secondary Education Math Teacher, Secondary Education Science Teacher
  • 3rd – Uganda – Agribusiness Advisor, Business Development Specialist, Community Agribusiness Coordinator, Community Health Educator, Community Health Specialist
  • 3rd – Togo – English and Gender Education Teacher, Food Security Educator, Public Health and Malaria Educator
  • 3rd – Moldova – Community Development Worker, Health Education Teacher, Secondary Education English Teacher
  • 4th – Rwanda Maternal and Child Health Volunteer
  • 5th – Malawi Health Extension Volunteer, Natural Resources Management Volunteer
  • 10th – Burkina Faso – Community Economic Development Volunteer, Community Health Agent, Community Health Specialist, English Teacher – TEFL Certificate, Math Teacher, Science Teacher
  • 10th – Guyana – Community Conservation Promoter, Community Health Promoter, Community Health Promotion Specialist, Primary Literacy Promoter, Primary Literacy Specialist
  • 11th – Swaziland – Urban Youth Development Volunteer, Health Extension Volunteer
  • 24th – Belize Rural Family Health Educator

If I had my pick, and at this point, I’m quite certain that I do not [although I did have some say in Madagascar] my top picks are:  Mozambique [late April], Belize [late June], Mongolia or Ecuador [both late May].  I have Spanish language skills; I think Portuguese would be fairly easy to acquire. English/Creole is spoken in Belize, and Mongolian is so foreign that I don’t think my Spanish background would impede learning it. I think Moldova, Rwanda, and Guyana [early-middle June] are in the second-tier, with most of continental  West Africa being third tier as far as my preference goes.

This is a long post, but for those of you who I haven’t been able to speak with about this at length, I felt that it was important to share the background and current status of my plans. Those of you who know me well will probably not be surprised by my desire to join the Peace Corps, even though I’m a bit sad to leave SC and my friends and family in SC and other parts of the US. I am hoping for everyone’s support and understanding as I (hopefully) launch into a new journey in my life.

Every.Single.Thing. I Packed for Madagascar

More than 1500 coherent words on what I packed for two years in Madagascar from the kind of suitcase I had, and everything I put in said suitcase; don’t say I didn’t warn you

I found out in July 2017 that I’d been accepted into Peace Corps | Madagascar.  That left me with 7 months to pack and clean out my apartment, and seven months to obsess about what to pack.  And this from someone who hates to pack. And someone who hates to shop.  And then I went and bought a house in October 2017. And I had already planned vacation for December 2018.  So I packed for Madagascar as well as my vacation to Germany/France in December while I was packing up the apartment for the impending move. I scoured other PC blogs’ packing lists–for Madagascar, other African countries, even cold weather Eastern Europe/Asian countries… just to see what I was up against. I put effort into packing. I drudged through Amazon customer reviews. I wandered up and down REI’s aisles without buying a thing. I enjoyed crafting the spreadsheet more than the actual shopping.
Not related at all, but a somewhat ironic tangent: I was once in charge of logistics for planning my college’s fencing team flight from Greenville to Philadelphia and securing lodging while in Philadelphia. 13 college students, flying with sabres, foils, and  epees constantly reminding them not to say ‘weapons’ in an airport even though that is totally what they are called collectively.  Reminding people to pack clothing separately from fencing gear in case bags were confiscated, and yet I forgot socks.
Other journeys have similarly been fraught with packing mistakes and my most epic one to date is getting to the airport only to find out I’d brought my recently expired passport instead of the new, active one.  Thankfully it was about 1 in the afternoon, traffic was reasonable, and I lived 20 minutes away instead of an hour away like I do now.Before I start the list, here are the premises I’m working on:

  • Despite popular opinion, this is not a 2 year camping/backpacking trip. I will be living mostly in one place for 2 years. A place that most likely lacks indoor plumbing and electricity.
  • Madagascar is a poor country.  No need to have $200 hiking boots when most, if not all, of my neighbors will be barefoot. All the time.
  • I’ll forget something.   Hopefully, it won’t be my passport.  Or underwear.
A giant duffel bag–with wheels, a hiking backpack, a school backpack x2 and a messenger bag. Not all of these bags are going to Madagascar. At least not at first. One bag has the December vacation clothing in it.

Packing is certainly one of the most stressful aspects of preparing for service, because you think, “how the hell am I going to fit 2 years’ worth of stuff in 2 bags?”  Just so you know now, the Peace Corps country handbook is of absolutely no use. So I put together my own list of what I thought would be helpful. This will hopefully take care of a lot of your potential questions up front, but please feel free to message me or comment if you have a specific question, or if you don’t see something on this list and wonder if you should take it. [Caveat: I am the proud owner of 2 X chromosomes so this is aimed at fellow XX-ers more than guys, but most of these suggestions also apply to men… except, you know, the parts about bringing skirts, bras, and tampons.]

The first thing to keep in mind is that no amount of stuff will make it easy, and no one item will make the difference between having a great experience and a terrible one. The second thing is to keep in mind that even though 2 bags doesn’t sound like a lot, you will still have way more stuff than any of your neighbors have. Having 3 pairs of shoes to carry you for the next 2 years might not sound like a lot, but remember that most people you’ll be living near are lucky if they have one pair of shoes. It is very humbling.  Hopefully my suggestions and advice below will help you avoid packing stress as much as possible but help you arrive to Madagascar well-equipped and excited to serve.

So with that being said…


To get the goods to a location, I’ll need bags. I’m allowed 4; 2 checked, one carry-on and one personal item. The checked bags must weigh less than 50# each. Since I usually try to do carry-on only, I did not have a large duffel or suitcase so I bought one from ebags. It’s my go to site for things luggage related.  So my four bags are:

    1. A suitcase. A duffel bag. Something big. Something sturdy. It’s going to get abused. It may fall apart; it may surprise me and last my full service.  I’ll probably use it as storage once I have a home.
    2. A hiking backpack. I have an old REI one. I’ll probably take the REI one; it’s no longer bright and shiny, and has already proven itself, has a cover, and I know I can pack a lot of stuff in it
    3. A school-type backpack. Can be stuffed to capacity and carry a weeks’ worth of clothing.
    4. A messenger bag. Good for books, notebooks, official documents, plane snacks, travel pillow, ect.

Inside the bags, things will be organized with packing cubes.  If you’ve never used packing cubes, they will change your life.  I also have two plastic storage boxes, 1 small and one medium. And inside those containers, I’ll have:

Outfits: 10 tops + 10 bottoms + 1 cold weather base layer

  • 1 nice outfit: 1 nice top + 1 skirt (mainly to be worn ‘out’ or for important events like swearing in)
  • 2 cardigan/blazer things to be worn over regular T-shirts when the occasion calls for it
  • 2 work outfits: 4 T-shirts + 2 skirts
  • 2 casual outfits: 1 T-shirt + 1 pair of casual pants, and 1 long-sleeve shirt + 1 pair of yoga pants
  • 2 pairs of scrub pants
  • 3 pairs of capri pants/knee length shorts

Additional Clothing

  • Jackets: 1 rain jacket, 1 zip-up jacket, 1 light jacket
  • Bras: 5 sports bras, 5 regular bra
  • Underwear: as many as I can fit into one packing cube [estimated 20-30 pairs]
  • Socks: 6 pairs cotton, 6 pair lightweight wool
  • 2 pairs of leggings

Accessories

  • 1 belt: a few years ago I bough a durable leather belt from the men’s section of REI.  I’ve never gone back.
  • 1 baseball cap
  • 1 bathing suit:
  • 2 pairs of sunglasses

Shoes

  • 1 pair of Tevas sandals–these are fancy dress-up Tevas
  • 1 pair of Keen sandals
  • 1 pair of hiking shoes
  • 1 pair of flip-flops for showering and around the house

Sleeping Kit

  • Sleeping bag: It’s down, but lightweight REI brand.
  • Sleeping liner:  really just a large king sized sheet sewed together to be used when it’s too hot for the bag or in sketchy travel hotels
  • Sleeping pad: REI brand. On past travel, I opted not to use one, but this time around is different.
  • Tent: REI-brand… two-person, simple setup, easy storage.
  • 1 medium compressible Thermarest pillow

Home

  • Cookbook
  • 2 water bottles: a 1L Nagalene and a 24oz stainless steel one
  • Wall decor:  USA map, SC flag, and UT flag
  • Umbrella
  • Clothesline. Braided rubber from REI.
  • Housewares:  measuring cups, cutting board, knives, vegetable peelers, bottle opener, can opener, ect
  • Drink packets / spices
  • Mug + stainless steel water bottles
  • ziploc bags, plastic storage containers
  • Towels: 1 large quick-dry, 1 small quick-dry
  • flat sheets
  • Gorilla tape roll

Tech

  • Kindle, USB cord, and case
  • Phone, USB cord, and case
  • Mini speaker, USB cord
  • 2 headlamps, one to stay at home; one to stay in the bag
  • USB hub, for all the above
  • Laptop, charger, and case
  • 2 sets of headphones* (nothing fancy, not blue tooth)
  • 2 flash drive
  • Shortwave radio
  • Travel alarm clock
  • Rechargeable AA and AAA batteries.  Not sure if I’ll need D or not so I’m waiting before I purchase them
  • A non- electronic alarm clock

Travel, Study & Fun

  • 4 packs of blank index cards
  • 2 decks of playing cards
  • 2 shopping tote bags
  • Travel purse
  • Earplugs
  • Gifts for host families
  • Pens and pencils
  • Notebooks
  • Blank journals
  • Photo albums of friends and family
  • Snacks
  • small umbrella
  • sunglasses
  • canvas tote bags
  • cards

Toiletries

  • Small bottle of your favorite perfume
  • Hand wipes/hand sanitizer
  • Multivitamins
  • Makeup: foundation, eye shadow, lipstick, face wipes, face lotion
  • Hair: comb + brush, shampoo + conditioner, bobby pins, hair ties, scissors, dry shampoo
  • Tools: tweezers, nail clippers, razor + blades, make-up brush, Q-tips
  • Dental: toothbrush, toothpaste, floss
  • Body: bar soap, lotion, razor + blades, pumice stone, deodorant, menstrual cup + tampons
  • Eyedrops
  • Mini first aid kit

And that’s it.

Note: At training I’ll be provided with a Peace Corps’ first aid kit. Again, this is my pre-service packing list. Overall I feel pretty good about it, but that’ll change: Things will break; I’ll send things home, and hopefully I will have some awesome friends who will send me things while I’m here.

Thoughts before I go

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 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 acquaintances 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.

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.

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 at

    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 enough to support this girl’s expensive habits

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.

My one travel regret

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All these experiences (and lack of experiences) has led me to the Peace Corps.  Peace Corps is not something I’d even strongly considered even though I had heard its existence while in high school. I pondered joining after I graduated college, but there was always this reason or that reason holding me back. But it is something that has been nagging at me, sometimes gently, sometimes with a bit more force over the last 15 years.

So maybe not studying abroad in my initial college experience was a good thing; after all, it has brought me to the Peace Corps where I’ll finally have that immersion experience I have been craving since I was 19 years old.  Let’s only hope I don’t regret joining at this stage of life.

 

Invited to Serve

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

Which is why I almost missed my invitation to serve!

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

Dear MICHELLE,

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Birthday USA

I am not the most patriotic person around.  I don’t know where all my ancestors hail from.  I know there’s some Cherokee [the original Americans], Irish, English, Scottish, and possibly German… What I do know is that my ancestors come from South Carolina, North Carolina, and Tennessee from as far back as the early 1800’s/ late 1700’s.  In spite of all that or maybe because of it, I do love history  and am often called a history nerd… History classes such Western Civ, US History, and even Spanish/New World Latin American history were always my favorite classes in school; I even wrote my senior thesis on Mayan Art and Architecture.  I love stumbling up hidden historical markers and visiting well known historical sites whenever I am out and about.

The USA is massive and each different geographic area boasts of a different history. For example, the southeast is completely different than the Pacific Northwest.  Almost as if they were different countries.  Yes, we’re all Americans and speak the same language, but culturally, politically, and historically, this two areas are as different as night and day. On this 241st birthday of the United States, let’s s explore some of the things that make the USA different from its neighbors and former ‘masters’. This is more of a Happy Birthday USA post than anything else, and with that I’ll leave you some of my favorite photos of historical sites.

First up:  America’s friendliest city and representing my home state, Charleston, SC

Historical homes on the battery at night.

Boneyard beach… on one of Charleston’s barrier islands

Charleston-Mount Pleasant bridge

And the famous live oak trees that populated the coastal south nearly everywhere

Next up:  Washington DC, the capital city of the USA and sort of the cultural divide between north and south

george-and-the-flag

Washington Monument and American Flag

US_Marine_Corps_War_Memorial_Iwo_Jima_Monument_near_Washington_DC

Washington DC, as the US capital, is one of the most historic spots in America has something photogenic at every turn.

And of course [although not my favorite] New York City

Lady Liberty and her island

The craziness of Times Square

And the Empire State Building viewing sites

Moving on to the West Coast…

Hello San Francisco…

Golden_Gate_Bridge_
Moving out to the west coast, it one of the more iconic bridges in the world… the Golden Gate Bridge painted in its infamous International Orange colour.

Hello, Las Vegas…

las-vegas-city-

The wonderment that is the Grand Canyon [Read my posts about hiking the Grand Canyon]

grandcanyonnp
One of the best natural features in the USA

Mount Rainier–outside of Seattle in Washington.

mt-rainier
and beautiful mountains

and awesome hiking trails on both sides of the country