Category: Peace Corps

Packing for Peace Corps | Rwanda

 

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

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

With that in mind, I’ve tried to create a comprehensive packing list. Comprehensive as in just over 5000 coherent words on what to bring to your Peace Corps’ adventure. Keep in mind that this is a  Pre-Departure List, and I plan to update [List updated September 2018 after having spent one month at site] it once I’m fully installed at my future site.  The format essentially reads like this:

Item:

Rationale:

Verdict:


What not to bring

Let’s start with what not to bring. Peace Corps will provide a twin sized mattress, a mosquito net, a solar lamp, one bucket, one cup and a water filter.  PC also provide malaria medication, general first-aid supplies, sunscreen, condoms, and any prescription medicine you have scripts for.  They will also treat any acquired illnesses so unless you just want, you really don’t need a full sized first-aid kit [Full disclosure:  I brought every conceivable first aid item available and even some that aren’t. I’m also a RN in the US, and will have to be damn near dead or have something unusual come up for me to call the PCMOs for anything.  But that’s me…] For those who are  going to Rwanda but not with the Peace Corps’, you’ll want to look into these things based on the length of your stay and where you’re going. Pharmacies in most countries carry a lot of medicines; all hotels have mosquito nets, and bottled water, soft drinks, and beer are available pretty much anywhere.


Money

I have a friend that says there aren’t many problems in the world that can’t be solved with copious application of money. I’d apply that to the Peace Corps’ as well. If you buy absolutely nothing new for PC from the time you get your invitation until you leave, and save that money, it should go pretty far in rural Rwanda [not so much in Kigali]. If you’re planning on bringing some cash, bring hundred dollar bills that are 2006 or more current. I’m not sure why this is, but Rwandan banks don’t accept the older bills.  Not little headed Benjamins, but 2006 or newer big headed Benjamins. Large bills, which most places define as hundreds only, get the best exchange rate. Money changers and banks will sometimes refuse bills older than 2006 and will often give you a bad exchange rate if they do accept them. Peace Corps recommends $300-500 and I think that’s a pretty good number, considering you can save some of your living allowance every month.  It’s nice to have a stash to supplement the moving in allowance especially if you are headed to a new site and have to buy everything.

A lot of places in Kigali and other larger towns take credit cards so having one or two is a good idea as a back up to cash.  Credit cards are also a good idea if you want to buy a plane ticket or stay in nicer hotels while on vacation.


Luggage:  I need containers to get my stuff from here to there

  • Items:
    • 1 obnoxiously large, sturdily-constructed rolling duffel bag [ebags mother lode 29″].  If you bring a bag this big, just know that it’s easy to go overweight quickly. My first attempt had this bag weighing in at 75#… ooops [Also, the handle broke during one of the many times this bag was moved during training.  It is essentially a 30″ high night stand now and will not be making the trip across the Atlantic with me–the bag is still functional for sure, but the draw of having a wheeled duffel bag was to extend the handle and drag it behind me… so while the bag is very large and sturdy, Rwanda broke the plastic handle]
    • 8 year old 65L hiking backpack that has already seen half the world.
    • Osprey Porter 46–a 46L bag with backpack straps that can be removed and carried like a tote.  This bag does not have wheels, but is otherwise an awesome bag
    • A tote bag–also a carry-on–In it, I’ll carry a book and assorted small odds and ends + my electronics and sleeping kit.
    • I also have a school sized backpack packed in the bags and another small canvas/cloth tote that I will use as a market bag.
  • Rationale: I need a way to get stuff from here to there.
  • Verdict:  I’m glad I have all the bags.  I hate all the bags while in transit, but I love having all the bags.

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

  • Item:  Fleece pull-over x1.  
  • Rationale:  Some areas get cool; some not so much. I won’t know until a few weeks in if I’m going to be in one of those areas.
  • Verdict:  It gets quite cool in the mornings during the rainy season in the south and even colder in the North. I’m glad I brought it.
  • Item:  Lightweight rain coat
  • Rationale: It rains. I won’t have a car so I’ll be walking in the rain.  Being dry is preferable to being wet
  • Verdict: I’m glad I have it both as a rain jacket, a wind breaker, and for covering my skin on moto rides
  • Item:  Cardigan x3.  One black; one silver/gray, and one orange.
  • Rationale:  It can get cool. These can spiffy up t-shirts and make me look more professional
  • Verdict:  I wear the black one the most, but do wear all of them especially on those rain-cooled mornings.
  • Item:  Blouses x3.  I never wear these at home.  Button-up shirts and bustiness don’t mix
  • Rationale:  I may need something nicer than T-shirts
  • Verdict:  I’ve only worn one of these.  One doesn’t quite fit, and the other is even too nice for Rwanda and will be going back home with me when I visit the USA next year.
  • Item:  T-shirts x7.  Plain, colorful
  • Rationale:  I wear these all the time.  Even to work.
  • Verdict:  I love that I have these. I’m bringing a few more when I return from my vacation
  • Item: Long-sleeve T-shirt
  • Rationale:  Sometimes my elbows get cold
  • Verdict:  I usually sleep in these so  I’m glad I have them
  • Item:  Hoodie x2
  • Rationale:  They’re fashionable. They have long sleeves. And a hood.
  • Verdict:  One is essentially a long sleeved t-shirt. I wear it to bed some, and around the house when it’s chilly. The other one is nice and soft and somewhat stylish.  It’s too nice for Rwanda to break so it’s going back home with me next year.
  • Item:   Flannel Shirt
  • Rationale:  Because why not?
  • Verdict:  I don’t wear if often but I do wear in around the house as sort of a light weight jacket.  I’m glad I brought it.
  • Item: Pants x 5.  Dark brown, dark grey, khaki, dark green, and black + one pair of jeans. Also known as hiking pants.  Also scrub pants x1 in dark gray.
  • Rationale:  I need something to cover my butt
  • Verdict:  I’m glad I have the scrubs, and I’ve already sent for more. I’ve already lost 15 pounds in just over three months and while that is good for my overall health, most of my pants are comically large now.  I can now only wear the scrub pants and pants that can be belted.  
  • Item: Skirts  x2–one mid-calf brown skirt and one slightly below the knee blue.
  • Rationale:  Sometimes skirts are more comfortable than pants
  • Verdict:  I haven’t worn them at my site, but I wore them frequently at training.  In order for me to wear a skirt it needs to be a special occasion or above 75 degrees. Neither of those have happened yet.
  • Item:  Scarves X3.  One teal, one burgundy, and one gray with owls on it
  • Rationale:  They can spiff up an outfit nicely
  • Verdict:  I ended up leaving these at home, and I wish I had at least one, and will be bringing these on my return voyage
  • Item:  Socks and underwear x a lot…seriously I think I have close to 40 pairs of underwear and 20 pairs of socks
  • Rationale:  The amount of socks and underwear I take on any given adventure is directly proportional to the amount of time I have until I need to do laundry.
  • Verdict:  During training, I took out 6 pairs of underwear and 4 pairs of socks and used those exclusively. Once I moved in to my house, I took another 6 pairs of  underwear and 4 pairs of socks and put them in rotation… so now I have 12 pairs of underwear and 8 pair of socks in rotation. At the 8,16, 24 month mark, I will remove the too worn items and replace as necessary. In reserve I have 5 pairs of underwear and 3 pair of socks for my COS trip.  I have found that the cotton ones have a much shorter lifespan that the quick-dry kind.
  • Item:  BrasI have 3 sports bras and 4 regular bras
  • Rationale:  I have larger than average boobs and would like to keep them corralled and would prefer do fight gravity a little while longer
  • Verdict:  I wear them everyday so I look for comfort. One sports bra is now too big. The regular bras can be adjusted.  I’m glad I brought the different styles, types, and sizes.
  • Item:  Shoes—OMG, shoes.  Apparently shoes are a big deal in Rwanda so I’m trying to go with shoes that are easy to clean and durable.  To that end, I brought or will bring back the following:  Rain boots.  These are mostly not necessary, but the only other time I’ve lived in a ‘wet’ environment [which was the Amazon Rain forest], I had a pair, and I loved being able to splash about, walk through mud puddles with reckless abandon, and generally not give a flip about my feet when it’s raining. I found an inexpensive pair on Amazon and will most likely gift these to someone when I COS. Trail-running shoes.  I wear these as my every day shoes [Shoe stylish I am not]. Casual shoes. For me, these are my brown leather slide-ons [treated with Scotchgard prior to leaving].   Keen Sandals I’ve had a pair of these since they first came out and I practically live in them in the summer months in South Carolina.  Teva dress sandals This model but in black… Flip-flops–generic, slide-ons that I got from Target.
  • Rationale:  While I could be happy rotating two pairs in and out, I don’t really care about cleanliness.But Rwandas do. And I’m trying to be culturally appropriate.
  • Verdict:  I still hate shoes, but I’m glad I have all the ones I have.  The Teva dress sandals were worn for swearing-in and will be returning to America. Also returning to America will be the Keen leather shoes. In its place will be coming rain boots and hiking boots. The Keen shoes are not practical for two hour one-way treks up and down hills.
  • Item: Pajamas X1
  • Rationale:  I’m not picky, but I brought a T-shirt I was gifted and a pair of fuzzy pajama pants.
  • Verdict: These didn’t make the cut, but I will be bringing the fuzzy pajama pants when I return.  Some nights are beyond chilly and with no HVAC of any kind, clothing and blankets are what keep me warm.
  • Item: Additional clothing:  Yoga pants x1, mesh basketball shorts x1
  • Rationale: It may get hot. I may not feel like leaving the house. I want to be comfortable
  • Verdict:  I sleep in the shorts and wear the yoga pants when I do yoga.
  • Item:  Swimsuit
  • Rationale:  I may get to go to a large body of water at some point.  Or a fancy hotel with a swimming pool.
  • Verdict:  I haven’t used it yet, but hold hope that one day I will.

Kitchen/household:

  • Item:  Knives/cutting board
  • Rationale:  Apparently good kitchen knives are hard to come by in Rwanda. I’m bringing a knife set, one small, a small plastic cutting board, measuring spoons, 3 measuring cups [1/2c,1/3c, and 1/4c]
  • Verdict: I ended up not bringing the cutting board and was lucky enough to be left a nice wooden one. The knives and measuring cups I use daily; the spoons not so much
  • Item:  Grater
  • Rationale:  I can’t tell you the last time I grated anything but apparently I will want this; it’s a light, flat, handheld one that doesn’t take up much space
    Verdict: Surprisingly enough, I grate a lot of things…carrots, ginger, garlic… things I never grated back home.  I’m glad I have one
  • Item:  Can opener
  • Rationale:  Opening cans without it is super hard
  • Verdict: I now have two, and have yet to open a single can with it.  There just aren’t a lot of canned things and most things have the pop-top
  • Item:  Stainless Steel Water Bottle
  • Rationale:  I don’t want to have to buy all my water and drink out of a puddle isn’t acceptable
  • Verdict:  I wish I had this earlier, but I’m glad I have it now.  I drink between 2.5-3.5 liters of water a day and it’s pretty easy to do when I only have to fill up my bottle a couple times a day.
  • Item:  Vegetable peeler
  • Rationale:  While I rarely peel vegetables at home, the water here must be treated, filtered, boiled, and you must prepare a sacrifice in order to use them.  I’ll just peel the damn vegetables.
  • Verdict:  I rarely peel vegetables… I’ll probably end up with a gut full of parasites, but peeling vegetables is a chore I cannot get behind.  I do however wash them in treated water, and cook or pickle them long enough that I hope the germs are gone.
  • Item:  Spices
  • Rationale:  Rwandan food is bland.  I’m no iron chef or anything, but I did bring salt/pepper, cinnamon, Greek seasoning, Italian seasoning, and taco seasoning.
  • Verdict:  I use the salt and pepper everyday.  And the cinnamon when I have oatmeal.  And Italian seasoning when I make spaghetti. Haven’t used the others yet, but I will.  Also I need more pepper.
  • Item: Zip-lok bags
  • Rationale:  They are illegal in Rwanda and I’m a rebel.  Also I use these nearly everyday.
  • Verdict:  I should have brought more.
  • Item:  Head lamp and other solar charged lights
  • Rationale:  The electrical grid is not reliable
  • Verdict:  I ended up bringing two head lamps and one extra solar lamp.  The electricity goes out frequently and my kitchen doesn’t even have electricity so if I end up cooking any time past 5:30, I’m doing it in the dark.  The headlamps are especially useful for the kitchen.  I keep one in the kitchen and one in the bedroom.  The other lamp stays in the shower room.
  • Item:  Seeds
  • Rationale:  I need food.  Hopefully the climate is conducive to growing them. They don’t take up much space
  • Verdict:  I haven’t used  them yet because I live in a concrete compound, and haven’t figured out exactly how to use them yet.  I’m thinking about taking one of my basins and making in a shallow, portable container garden.  I can at least grow herbs, lettuce [which is impossible to find], and maybe something like a squash in it]

All these items are in my box that is currently in transit.


  • Item:  Sheets
  • Rationale:  Why such an essential item is not provided by PC is beyond me, but nonetheless, no sheets provided.  I brought a gray pair that Christopher the Cat put a shred mark in, and a cheap pair I picked up right before leaving for $10.  Options include a single [90cm],  full sized [120cm] queen sized [140cm] and giant [200cm].  My bed at training was a single and my bed at site is the 140cm variety, but because these are expensive, I opted for a 120cm with a little space on the side and I have my PC mattress on top so I’m sleeping like the princess and the pea.
  • Verdict:  I ended up buying sheets here, because I found a pair I like and I have essentially a queen size bed here.  The other sheets will return to America with me
  • Item:  Towels
  • Rationale:  I brought a beach towel and a quick dry towel and an absorbent head wrap for wet hair.  I threw in a couple of wash clothes because they are small and lightweight.
  • Verdict: I ended up leaving the towel at home, but bought one when I got here.  Also I was left 3 towel at my site. I have used all five at some point.
  • Item:  Swiss Army Knife
  • Rationale: When is this not a good idea?
  • Verdict:  It’s small. I’ve used, but I haven’t needed it.
  • Item:  Sleeping bag
  • Rationale:  It may solve the sheet problem.  I may need to visit others.
  • Verdict: I also left this at home.  Camping is not a thing in Rwanda and the blanket I brought is sufficient for visiting others.
  • Item:  Down blanket
  • Rationale:  It gets cold and this one packs up small
  • Verdict:  I use it frequently and is one of the best things I brought.
  • Item:  Quilted comforter
  • Rationale:  It’s warm and homey
  • Verdict:  Even though this was a bitch to pack, and I never used it during training, it is on my bed now, and it is one of the items I am most glad that I brought.  I got a full/queen sized one of medium weight and love having it.  I almost want to bring it back home when I COS but it doesn’t match any of my decor and I don’t want to carry it around during my COS trip.
  • Item:  Pillow X2
  • Rationale:  I sleep much better with my own things
  • Verdict:  I am so glad I brought not one but two pillows with me.   I used one in training and now that I’ve got my own space [and bed] both of them are out.  Also Rwandan pillows are crap…either lumpy foam or hard as a rock with no give.

Office/school/work supplies:

  • Item:  Notebook [composition book x2], travel journal x2, and planner
  • Rationale:  I like to write things and the illusion of being organized makes me happy
  • Verdict:  I could use more notebooks.  Mine got wet and are now falling apart.  One travel journal is a gratitude journal I write in everyday [even if its only ‘I have a roof over my head’ and read when I’m having down days, and while I don’t use the planner daily, I to at least try to plan out my weeks/months.
  • Item:  Pens
  • Rationale:  I am a pen-whore and needed to downsize.  Also I like to color code things.
  • Verdict:  I ended up only bringing three.  I should have known better.  These are now in a care package currently in transit.
  • Item:  Medical equipment–pulse ox, stethoscope, blood pressure cuff
  • Rationale:  These are probably mostly unnecessary, but if I’m going to be in a health center, I’d like to have my own tools.
  • Verdict:  These are wholly unnecessary and will be returning to the US with me.  I’ve used the pulse ox a few times and will most likely keep in here. As I’m currently at about  6000ft, it’s interesting to see how my oxygenation is changing as I get used to the altitude. 

Electronics:  

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

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

  • Item: Laptop
  • Rationale:  I use it everyday at home
  • Verdict:  I’m glad I have it even though I don’t use it every day
  • Item: External Hard Drive x2. One is a 1TB drive, and the other is a 2 TB.
  • Rationale:  I take a lot of pictures and watch a lot of movies.  Also there’s no such thing as ‘too much storage’
  • Verdict:  One connection cable has already started not connecting so I’m glad I have the other one  that also has some media on it.
  • Item: Kindle
  • Rationale: E-reading is not my favorite thing, but weight restrictions prevent me from bringing an entire physical library.
  • Verdict: I sometimes read a book a day and this has been a life [and mind] saver.  Also you can trade files with others. I now have nearly 30,000 e-books.
  • Item: Camera
  • Rationale:  I rarely go anywhere without it so of course, it was coming with me.
  • Verdict:  I haven’t brought it out yet mainly because I self- conscious enough without it, but as I get to know people and as they get to know me, I plan to use it much more.
  • Items:  Flash drives x2 32GB each
  • Rationale: I’ve been told I’ll need them.
    Verdict:  Handy for transferring files, not entirely necessary
  • Item: iphone
  • Rationale:  It doesn’t work as a phone but with 64G of songs/podcasts, it’s a no-brainer.
  • Verdict:  I listen to music every day so I’m glad I have it
  • Item:  External speaker
  • Rationale: My laptop speakers are wretched. Rechargeable speakers are the solution
  • Verdict: See above
  • Item:  Headphones
  • Rationale:  Sometime you just need to chill
  • Verdict:  I rarely use them, but am glad to have them
  • Item: USB charger
  • Rationale:  Electronics need to charge
  • Verdict:  There’s no such thing as too much stored power.
  • Item:  Flashlight and headlamp
  • Rationale  Electricity is sporadic at times
  • Verdict: Late night walks home and electricity outages have already made these practical. The headlamp is especially useful if I have to cook in the dark when the electricity is out.  Also my kitchen doesn’t have electricity so  I either have to eat at 5p or use my headlamp to cook
  • Item: Rechargeable batteries
  • Rationale:  Apparently there’s no great way to dispose of batteries in Rwanda, so I have rechargeable ones for my headlamp and flashlight.
  • Verdict: They’re amazing
  • Item: Outlet adapters
  • Rationale: For my items that have to plug into the wall, I’ve got a handful of light, simple adapters.
  • Verdict:  Glad I thought of these

Toiletries:

  • Item:  Makeup
  • Rationale:  I’m not hugely into make-up, but I have an eye shadow palette, plus 1 lipstick, seemed like a good idea for any dressy events
  • Verdict:  I used it for swearing in and a couple of other times just for the hell of it, but I don’t even look in a mirror daily so make up seems a bit excessive.  I’ll keep it just because it’s likely to go bad at home.
  • Item: Deodorant
  • Rationale:  Apparently stick deodorant is not a thing I can get here.
  • Verdict: I brought 3.5 sticks. I’m glad I have them and will be bringing back more. I average one stick ever 2.5 months.
  • Item:  Shampoo/conditioner
  • Rationale: I’m sure I can find shampoo here if I look hard enough and am willing to pay enough, but who has the time and money for that.
  • Verdict:  I cut my hair super short four days before leaving and the travel sized containers lasted one month.  I’m now using my Dr. Bronner’s soap for shampoo as well as soap.  It works OK, but I will be bringing back one bottle of 2-1 coconut scented shampoo/conditioner because as my hair grows, I’ll be using more shampoo
  • Item: Soap.  I have both a bottle of peppermint Dr. Bronners soap and a very nice bar of  woody-scented soap that feels amazing.  I use them both
  • Rationale:  I need to be clean
  • Verdict: Nice bar soap has been wonderful. I’m not a fan of bucket baths still, but I’m a fan of my soap.
  • Item: Chapstick
  • Rationale:  My lips are always dry. Burt’s Bees is magical.
  • Verdict:  Yes, you can request these from med supply.  No it’s not always available, it’s nice to have a back-up. And some in every single bag and jacket pocket you have.
  • Item:  Dry Shampoo
  • Rationale:  For when I can’t be bothered to wash my hair
  • Verdict:  I’d never used dry shampoo before, but I love it.  It smell coconut-like so it reminds me of the beach.  It was really good during hot season when the back of my head would be all sweaty 5 minutes after washing it. Now I usually wash my hair once a week and dry shampoo it 2x/week.
  • Item:  Toothbrush and toothpaste
  • Rationale: I don’t want dentures too soon
  • Verdict: I have brand favorites so I brought some.  I also bought some Russian toothpaste in the grocery store and keep it in my weekend bag.  That way if I forget it when visiting someone, I’m not super sad.  I love my cinnamon toothpaste.
  • Item:  Nail clippers, nail file, and polish
  • Rationale:  Gnarly nails are not nice.  I’ll pick one color to take with me when I COS and leave the rest behind
  • Verdict:  My hair and nails have always grown fast and it’s no exception in Rwanda. I usually cut them every other week and shape on the in between week. I don’t paint my fingernails because it would do no good between the hand washing of dishes and clothes and generally just using my hands more, but I do like to keep some color on my toes.
  • Item:  Travel bottles
  • Rationale:  Lugging big bottles of things around suck, and little cheap baggies leak.
  • Verdict:  They’re small and mine are cute.  I use them when visiting other volunteers for the weekend and for the first 10 weeks in Rwanda. 

Personal/miscellaneous:

  • Item:  Multi-vitamins
  • Rationale:  They may be my only source of nutrients some days…those days my diet consists of potatoes, rice, and pasta.
  • Verdict:  I brought some gummy ones to supplement the PC provided pre-natal vitamins, and I’m glad I did.  I hate the taste/smell of regular vitamins so I’m glad to get a break.  In addition to regular multi-vitamins, I brought a B-complex since I’m not eating a lot of grains or eating much meat.
  • Item:  6 passport photos
  • Rationale: The Peace Corps said to
  • Verdict:  I only brought 2 because those things are expensive [$15 for 2 at Walgreens].  I then got 6 printed at a shop in Rwanda for 3000RWF [about $3.25].  They are use to establish a banking account, apply for residency visa, and something else that I don’t remember. But you will need all 6.
  • Item:  Purse and wallet
  • Rationale:  You need somewhere to store your cash and backpacks aren’t always practical
  • Verdict:  I bought a nice matching leather set right before I left.  I haven’t used the purse much… essentially only when in Kigali, but the wallet stays in my backpack.  Now that I’m at site, I don’t carry my backpack everywhere I go so the wallet often stays hidden in my house.  I also have a small change purse for the never ending accumulation of coins and small bills needed for motos and transit.  I am hoping to be able to take this on my COS trip and use it in America when I return.
  • Items:  Entertainment such as playing cards and bananagrams
  • Rationale:  Because when does a deck of cards not come in handy?
  • Verdict:  I’ve yet to break out my cards [other people have always had a deck too], but I play bananagrams about once a week.  It’s great for keeping up my English vocabulary.
  • Item: Tide-to-go pens
  • Rationale:  Stains are a bitch to get out… especially when you have to hand wash clothes
  • Verdict:  They’re cheap, light, I doubt I’ll regret having a few around. They have saved my life (or at least my shirt) multiple times.

There it is, my complete packing list for Peace Corps | Rwanda.  I am also creating two separate lists of things I didn’t bring that I want to bring back when I come back from my US vacation… this list contains mostly food items, but also things like rain boots, and a third list of things I brought, and either don’t need, can’t use, or no longer fit.

My goal for COS is to be down to the 65L backpack plus whatever bag I have my electronics in, and I have no doubt that I can do it.  I don’t plan on buying a ton of Rwandan thinks to take back to the US, and most clothing items will not be any good anyway.  One backpack and one tote will be much easier to manage than 2 backpacks and 2 tote bags.

 

Tick Tock

Tonight I had dinner with one of my best friends and as if often the case, we got around to talking about my upcoming plans. The immediate [I leave in two and a half weeks], the intermediate [I want to go to NP school when I get back], and the distant [I’d like to get married someday].  There aren’t many people in the world I can talk to about anything, but he is one of them, and probably the human I’ll miss most while I’m gone.

The only thing that I know for sure is that if something happens, and I can’t get on that plane, there’s no way I can put myself through the preparation again.

Let’s Get Real

I’ve gave notice at my job in March, but I’m still picking up shifts and will be until the last minute; I’ve met the continuing education requirements needed  to renew my nursing license in 2019.

I’m on an emotional roller coaster and I couldn’t get off even if I tried. I’m up, I’m down; I’m sure of myself, and I’m wondering what the hell I was thinking.

Basically, I’m freaking out.

10 days to departure. T- 2.5 weeks and counting. Holy sh…..

Tick-tock.

I’m scared out of my mind. Of what, I couldn’t tell you, but that’s probably contributing to my fear. I don’t know what’s in store for me when I get to wherever it is I am going. I don’t know who I’m going to meet, or what my living conditions will be like. An idea, sure, but every situation is circumstantial.

I’m nervous about not doing well. I spent a lot of time thinking, how hard could it possibly be, despite how many times I’ve read or heard about the “hardships” a PCV faces. Now, in the wake of my sudden apprehension, I worry I was being too cocky.

What the actual fuck am I doing!?

I go from feeling on top of the world to having a feeling in the pit of my stomach. I walk around with confidence, proud of myself and this accomplishment, and then I hug a friend goodbye and I feel the ground crumbling beneath my feet. In the span of a moment, I could easily begin with “I got this sh**.” to “Oh my god, what the hell is wrong with me?” My perception and my feelings are constantly changing. I keep finding new things to be excited about, and new things I’m terrified to be leaving behind.

Let me say this now, so you don’t misunderstand: I’M NOT GIVING UP.

The Peace Corps was not a decision I made lightly. In truth, the idea began brewing my mind during my mind many, many years ago. It started as a way to see the world. It began to transform into a desire to meet new people and experience new cultures. Then it ignited into a passion for helping others.

Tick-tock.

In September 2016, I bit the bullet and submitted an application. I didn’t think I’d get in. I was convinced I wasn’t good enough to be accepted into such a prestigious group. And now it’s 17 days to departure.

I can do this. I know I can. I’ve taught myself that I can do anything I put my mind to. I wanted this, and so I went out and got it. Later tonight, ask me how I feel, and I bet you’ll get a different answer.

Tick-tock.

OMG… the cats. What am I going to do with my little black kitty cats? After much searching, I’ve finally found a solution for what to do with Lucy and Molly.  It’s not ideal, but  it was a much better situation than sending them to their deaths at the pound.  I won’t see them again for over two years.  What is that in cat years?  I wasn’t there for their kittenhood, but I’ve had Lucy for three and a half years, and Molly just under a year. She’s had three owners/homes in her three years and is still the sweetest cat I know; I couldn’t very well send her on her way to her 4th owner/house.  They love me, and I them. So they have 2 years worth of cat litter supplies, an Amazon subscribe and save account for food and a savings account for yearly vet visits + emergencies.

The Amazing Lucy

See? Up and down. I’ve got this sh**, but really, what the fuck am I doing?

17 days.

Tick-tock.

Molly is the kind of cat that lets a random 8 year old pick her up not-so-gently
She’s also the cat for whom the saying ‘curiosity killed the cat’ was written

 

Peace Corps Update

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hooray for personal growth!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And finally…

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

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

You’ve got a question; I’ve got answers

I’m medically and legally cleared still but people still want to know what happened with Madagascar. [Questions for Madagascar; why I’m still in the US].  Let’s get to the questions, shall we?
Question 1:  What exactly is the Peace Corps?

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

  • Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
  • Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
  • Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
“The Peace Corps traces its roots and mission to 1960, when then Senator John F. Kennedy challenged the students at the University of Michigan to serve their country in the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries. From that inspiration grew an agency of the federal government devoted to world peace and friendship.”
The Peace Corps is a government organization in which accepted applicants are invited to serve in a foreign country. Areas of service are requested by the participating countries and include education, youth and community development, health, business information and communication technology, agriculture, and environment. Accepted applicants volunteer to spend 27 months abroad and fully immerse themselves in the language and culture. Volunteers have served in 139 different countries, and work to create positive sustainable change in a global community. Peace Corps celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2011.
Question 2:  Rwanda? Is that safe?
  • Peace Corps | Rwanda began in 1975 went through 1994, was suspended in 1994 and was restarted in 2008. Currently there are about 175 volunteers in Rwanda and nearly 800 have served in the country since its beginnings.
  • Africa represents about 40% of Peace Corps volunteers.
  • Rwanda is about the size of Massachusetts. It is located at higher altitude and has a more temperate climate than one would expect of a country located nearly on the equator.
  • The official languages are English and Kinyarwandan. French was dropped as an official language in 2009 as Rwanda seeks to become more ‘international’.
  • The population is about 12 million people. Although Rwanda is resource-poor and land locked, it seeks to become Africa’s first middle income (second world) country. 60% of the country lives on less than $1.25/per day.
  • Climates vary. It generally has four seasons , just not the four we are accustomed to having: rainy season 1 and 2; dry season 1 and 2. It is cooler in the higher altitudes and warmer to the west.

Question 3:  What will you be doing?
I will be a Maternal-Child Health volunteer focusing on mamas and the first 1000 days of children’s lives. I could be partnered with an international organization like the Red Cross or a local NGO. While yellow fever is not endemic to Rwanda, malaria is.  I’ll be promoting safe pregnancies, better nutrition, prevention of malaria and other illnesses, as well as the importance of water, hygiene, and sanitation. [Or at least that is the plan]

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

Question 5:  Do you know where you’ll be living in the country?
No, but I will find out several weeks into training based off questionnaires, preferences, and where my skills will be best utilized. I don’t get to choose exactly where I will live which is OK since my Rwandan geography is nascent, but if I had my preference, I’d choose to live near one of the national parks.

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

Question 7:  Will you have a cell phone?
See question #6. Most volunteers have their own cell phone. I will bring my current mobile, buy a SIM card, and a internet stick. That way, I’ll be able to use my phone to text and call and use the internet.

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

Question 9: Do you have vacation?
Volunteers get two vacation days per month that can accrue totaling over 50 days for two years. I cannot take vacation within my first 6 months [training or community integration] or my last three months [site project wrap-ups].

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

Question 11:  Can you receive mail?
Yes, yes, yes! I want to keep in touch with family and friends while I’m gone, and a big thank you in advance to anyone who wants to send mail my way!  See my contact page on where to send stuff, what to send, and how to send it. Also my birthday is February 24, and cards and presents are always appreciated.

Question 12:  Do you get paid?

Yes, but not much.  The 2016 GDP for Rwanda was $738 which is the highest it has ever been. That averages out to be a little more than $2/day and is quite the improvement from 1994  when it was $204–about 60 cents. I will be making about $200/month and considering that most Rwandan natives make less than $2/day, I get paid well, but by American standards, I make more in one 12 hour shift as a RN than I do in one month working in Rwanda.  However, my housing and insurance are covered by the Peace Corps so essentially I just have to pay for food, transportation, and internet. Also there’s no Amazon or Target in Rwanda so that addiction has been curtailed.

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

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

Answering the basic questions

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

 

WHO

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

WHAT

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

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

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

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

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

WHEN

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

WHERE

Rwanda

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

WHY

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

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.