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.

Feb 4, 2018 - Peace Corps    1 Comment

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.

Jan 28, 2018 - Peace Corps    No Comments

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.

Jan 14, 2018 - Current Events    No Comments

What’s this about ‘shit-hole’ countries

In about six weeks, I am headed for a shit-hole… if one listens to the current president.  This presents somewhat of a dilemma because why would one voluntarily give up life ‘in the best country in the world’ to go live and work in a ‘shit-hole’ country?  Call me crazy I guess. Some of these countries are struggling right now. Some of them are facing poverty, famine, war, natural disasters, and political strife, but all of the countries on this list are home to citizens who deserve respect and who deserve to be treated without assumption, judgement, or insult. All of them are countries of origin of regular people who are trying their best – either in their home countries or as immigrants – to survive, work hard, contribute to society, and make their lives and the lives of their loved ones happier and healthier.

Of course, I’m not yet there, and of course, my opinion could align with the president, but from everything I’ve heard and read Madagascar is an amazing place with amazing people, incredible biodiversity, and I will truly be lucky to serve on the Great Red Island.

The Peace Corps has three goals, one of which is to promote friendship among Americans and the national of the countries they serve, and thanks to the president, he has made my job infinitely harder.

Current and former non-shit-hole countries where Peace Corps has had volunteers

So, in alphabetical order, here are a few countries whose citizens do not come from shit-hole countries.

  • Afghanistan
  • *Albania
  • Algeria
  • Andorra
  • Angola
  • Antigua and Barbados
  • *Argentina
  • Armenia
  • Australia
  • Austria
  • Azerbaijan
  • The Bahamas
  • Bahrain
  • Bangladesh
  • Barbados
  • Belarus
  • Belgium
  • *Belize
  • Benin
  • Bhutan
  • *Bolivia
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina
  • *Brazil
  • Burundi
  • Brunei
  • Bulgaria
  • *Burkina Faso
  • Cabo Verde
  • Cambodia
  • Cameroon
  • Canada
  • *Central African Republic
  • *Chad
  • *Chile
  • *China
  • *Colombia
  • Comoros
  • *Costa Rica
  • Cote d’Ivorie
  • Crotia
  • Cuba
  • Cyprus
  • Czech Republic
  • Denmark
  • Djibouti
  • *Dominican Republic
  • Democratic Republic of Congo
  • Dominica
  • *Ecuador
  • Egypt
  • England
  • *El Salvador
  • Eritrea
  • Estonia
  • Ethiopia
  • Equatorial Guinea
  • Finland
  • France
  • *French Guiana
  • Fiji
  • Gabon
  • *The Gambia
  • *Georgia
  • Germany
  • Ghana
  • Greece
  • Grenada
  • *Guatemala
  • Guinea
  • *Guinea-Bissau
  • *Guyana
  • *Haiti
  • *Honduras
  • Hungary
  • Iceland
  • *India
  • *Indonesia
  • Ireland
  • Iran
  • Iraq
  • Israel
  • Italy
  • *Jamaica
  • Japan
  • *Jordan
  • *Kazakhstan
  • *Kenya
  • Kiribati
  • Kosovo
  • Kuwait
  • *Kyrgyzstan
  • Laos
  • Latvia
  • Lebanon
  • *Lesotho
  • Liberia
  • Libya
  • Liechtenstein
  • Lithuania
  • Luxomberg
  • Macedonia
  • *Madagascar
  • Malaysia
  • *Mali
  • *Malawi
  • The Maldives
  • Malta
  • Marshall Islands
  • Mauritania
  • Mauritius
  • *Mexico
  • Micronesia
  • Moldova
  • Monaco
  • *Mongolia
  • Montenegro
  • *Morocco
  • *Mozambique
  • *Namibia
  • Nauru
  • *Nepal
  • The Netherlands
  • New Zealand
  • *Nicaragua
  • Niger
  • Nigeria
  • North Korea
  • Northern Ireland
  • Norway
  • Oman
  • *Pakistan
  • Palau
  • Palestine
  • *Panama
  • Papua New Guinea
  • *Paraguay
  • *Peru
  • The Philippines
  • Poland
  • Portugal
  • Qatar
  • *Republic of the Congo
  • Romania
  • *Russia
  • *Rwanda
  • Samoa
  • San Marino
  • São Tomé and Príncipe
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Serbia
  • Sierra Leon
  • *Senegal
  • The Seychelles
  • Singapore
  • Slovakia
  • Slovenia
  • Solomon Islands
  • *Somalia
  • *South Africa
  • South Korea
  • South Sudan
  • Spain
  • Sri Lanka
  • St Kitt’s and Nevis
  • St Lucia
  • St Vincent and the Grenadines
  • *Sudan
  • *Suriname
  • *Swaziland
  • Sweden
  • Switzerland
  • Syria
  • Taiwan
  • *Tajikistan
  • *Tanzania
  • *Thailand
  • *Timor-Leste
  • Togo
  • Tonga
  • Trinidad and Tobago
  • *Tunisia
  • *Turkey
  • *Turkmenistan
  • Tuvalu
  • *Uganda
  • *Ukraine
  • United Arab Emirates
  • *Uruguay
  • *Uzbekistan
  • *Vanuatu
  • Vatican City State
  • *Venezuela
  • Vietnam
  • Yemen
  • *Zambia
  • *Zimbabwe

and last but certainly not least,

The United States of America

Jan 7, 2018 - Peace Corps    No Comments

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.
Dec 3, 2017 - Peace Corps    1 Comment

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.

Nov 26, 2017 - Peace Corps    No Comments

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.

Oct 29, 2017 - Wanderlust    5 Comments

39 photos of spectacular places to be dead

     It’s October… one of my favorite months.  For starters, college football is in full swing.  Baseball is in its play-off period.  European football has gotten over its opening schedule shockers, and ice hockey starts up at the end of the month.  It’s also one of my favorite seasons for traveling.  For a few years, I took the month of October off from work and traveled, and those were some of my best trips.   The weather is nice … cool, but not cold… surprising warm days mixed in, and Halloween… my favorite holiday of the year.

So to celebrate my favorite month of the year, I’ll be featuring some of my favorite cemeteries in the world.  I LOVE, love, love, visiting cemeteries. [and I love cats… any coincidence that cats like to hang out a cemeteries…. I think not] They fascinate me [cemeteries not cats]… Fancy ones like Pere LaChaise in Paris and Recoleta in Buenos Aires. Solemn ones like Arlington National just outside Washington DC and the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague. Old ones like Magnolia in Charleston, SC and Bonaventure in Savannah, Georgia. Eclectic ones like merry cemetery in Săpânţa, Romania, and the Mayan cemetery in Xcaret. Odd ones like the crypt of the Capuchin monks in Rome… None of it matters.  If I hear of an ‘interesting’ cemetery…whether its old and crumbly or happy and bright or austere and serene, I’m there.

Some of my favorite final resting places from around the world

1.  Pere-LeChaise Cemetery, Paris France

I spent a day in Paris.  I know what you are saying…’Only one day, impossible’, but it’s true.  I  watched fireworks at the Eiffel Tower and hung out with the dead.  Paris is awesome.

2.  Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires, Argentina

years ago, I was in Buenos Aires.  It was my birthday.  Instead of doing something fancy like going to a tango show, I went to Recoleta and hung out with the dead.  And the cats.

3.  Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, VA, USA

I stand up straighter and walk a little taller when I visit Arlington.  It’s impressive, quiet, and simple.  American soldiers. Clean white tombstones.  A Marine guard.  It doesn’t get more solemn than this.

4.  Jewish Cemetery, Prague, Czech Republic

On a snowy day in January 2013, I visited the Jewish Cemetery in Prague.  I think I was the only living thing around.

5.  Magnolia Cemetery, Charleston, South Carolina

Southern cemeteries are awesome.  Spanish moss hanging down gives everything a spooky appeal, and the humidity makes everything rust and age rather quickly.

6.  Bonaventure Cemetery, Savannah, Georgia

They say Bonaventure is haunted.  If you go there at night, it certainly feels that way.

7.  Mayan Cemetery, Xcaret, Mexico

Confession time:  this is a fake cemetery.  It’s a creation of what a lot of Mexican cemeteries do on El Dia de los Muertos….this one is a lot cleaner, though.  The Mayans didn’t actually bury their dead.

8. Merry Cemetery, Săpânţa, Romania

It’s happy.  It’s bright.  It’s weird.  Go there. See for yourself.  These dead peeps are having the time of their lives.

9.  Crypt of the Capuchin Monks, Rome, Italy

Eerie.  Spooky…Bone-chilling…Fascinating…I wonder if the Monks know their bones are being used as decorations.  I’m not a Monk, but I’d love to donate my femur [you know, once I’m done with it] for a clock or better yet, the handle of the scythe of the Grim Reaper

10.  Monumental Cemetery, Milan, Italy

Morbid statues.  Fascinating pageantry.  Marble slabs of decaying flowers.  Ingenious.

11.  Hanging Coffins, Sagada, Philippines

If heaven is up, and hell is down, wouldn’t you rather be hanging on the side of a cliff instead of buried in a hole?

12.  Novodevichy Cemetery, Moscow, Russia

Boris Yeltsin, Anton Chekhov, Gherman Titov…I’m a bit fascinated with Russia and the dead Russians.  If you can’t qualify for the Kremlin, Novodevichy is a fantastic second choice.

13. Hallstat Ossuary, Hallstat, Austria

Oooh…more bones….since I’m donating my femur to the Monk, the Ossuary can have my skull, but only if they paint a pretty design on it.

Sep 24, 2017 - Peace Corps    No Comments

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.

 

Sep 10, 2017 - Wanderlust    No Comments

My Favourtite European Cities

I have traveled a lot. Not as much as some, but a lot more than most of the people I deal with on a daily basis. I often get asked what’s my favorite city/country area, and it’s hard to say.  Sometimes it depends on my mood.  Sometimes it depends on the reason they are asking.  So, I’ve come up with a list to answer what’s my favorite.  OK two lists:  one for smaller cities and one for European capitals.

First up, my favorite European cities.

  1.  Kotor, Montenegro
  2.  Belgrade, Serbia
  3.  St. Petersburg, Russia
  4.  Krakow, Poland
  5.  Bwets-y-Coed, Wales
  6. Cardiff, Wales
  7. Quedlinberg, Germany

Next, my favorite European capitals.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that, in general, I don’t love large cities. Luckily for me, some of Europe’s capital cities are quite small.  Europe is so diverse and every country is so different that it is often impossible to make fair comparisons.

 London, England

 

I have been to London 5 times, but only in the last two years have I gotten out and truly explored the city.  I have barely cracked the surface, and there is so much more to explore. I am absolutely head over heels for it. If I could magically get a work visa and a job offer in London [not sure if the NHS hires foreigners or if I’d want to work there, but I digress], I would move there tomorrow; that’s how much I love it. I’ve never pictured myself living in a big city — until I finally explored London for the first time.

Things I love about London:

    • The variety — neighborhoods, food,  museums, parks, historical sites; they’re all here
    • The location — London is situated perfectly to explore Europe, which this traveler loves.  The only time I haven’t flown into London for a European holiday was when I solely toured Italy.
    • The Englishness — the Tube, the castles, the red  double decker buses, the black cabs, the pubs, the tea… it’s all so quintessential English!

Berlin, Germany

At the Olympic Stadium in Berlin

 

 

Berlin doesn’t get the attention than Munich or Bavaria does, but that’s OK by me…  I’ve never been one to fall for surface flashiness, and on the surface Berlin is grungy, but it’s OK.  I’m not ashamed to admit it: I am in love with Berlin.  You could actually say that it was love at first sight, as I felt an immediate connection with Berlin from the moment I arrived. I don’t know if it’s the alternative culture, the history, or a mixture of the two that draws me to Berlin. But there’s no denying that it’s a place I can see myself spending a lot of time in in the future.

Things I love about Berlin:

    • The history — from Nazis during WWII to the  Berlin Wall during the Cold War, Berlin has a fascinating (and very recent) history
    • The creative side — because I have a soft spot for hipsters and street art
    • The vibe — it’s a little gritty and a little alternative, but Berlin is evolving in a way that I find very  exciting.

Budapest, Hungary

August 2015–Danube River–basking in the summer moonlight

I never planned to go to Budapest at least not the first time, but a cheap flight  from Geneva on EasyJet had me landing there one  January afternoon, and my oh my was is bone-chillingly cold.  The capital of Hungary was a bit of a surprise for me — I never expected to like it as much as I did. But, whether it was strolling along the Danube, visiting the Semmelweis Museum, or soaking at the Szecheni Baths while watching snow fall,  I found myself loving everything about Budapest. It’s also seriously awesome ( and hot!) in the summer.

Things I love about Budapest:

    • The two halves of the city — the Buda and Pest sides of the city have completely different feels to them.
    • The bridges — which are attractive and offer up nice views of the Danube.
    • The buildings — from Parliament to Fisherman’s Bastion to Buda Castle, there’s plenty of amazing architecture here to view.

Edinburgh, Scotland

 

The capital of Scotland is one city that I probably will never tire of visiting. It’s not a large capital like the others listed here, but it still has a unique character all its own. Whether it’s roaming around the Old Town or climbing up to quieter parts like Calton Hill, Edinburgh is always enjoyable — even in that unpredictable Scottish weather.

Things I love about Edinburgh:

    • The architecture — with the gorgeous Victoria Street being my favorite example
    • The history — the entire city is recognized by UNESCO, which tells you something
    • The people– Scottish people are a treasure

Cardiff, Wales

Cardiff Castle–Cardiff is home of the 2017 champions league and the Welsh dragon is guarding the trophy.

Cardiff, the smallest capital in the UK doesn’t get near as much attention as London, Dublin, or even Edinburgh, but it’s still pretty amazing. Only two hours by train from London, and 45 minutes to Bristol, you can easily get to a bigger city quickly if the small town feel of Cardiff starts to get to you.

Things I love about Cardiff:

  • The size–For a capital city, Cardiff is small.  And that makes it easy to navigate. And that makes me happy.
  • It’s location–Cardiff is perched on a river, quite close to the Atlantic Ocean, and on the Wales Coast Path.  Coastal Welsh weather is unpredictable, but on nice days, Cardiff is close enough to the beach to make an afternoon of it.
  • The Language–Welsh is a language I’ll probably never master, but I love that every single sign is in both Welsh and English.  The history and architecture are pretty great too.

It’s no secret that I prefer small cities to large ones, but this list is a good mix of both large cities and small villages.