I described the process of being matched up with host families as being puppies at the pound.
Imagine this: You are placed in a room with about 50 people who you do not know, where everyone is speaking a language you do not know. All you can do is listen for your name. And when it is called, you meet up with the representative of the family who will raise you for the next 10 weeks.
I met my Mama, and her first words to me were ‘Parle vous francais’. Sadly I answered ‘un peu’ and thus began the quiet weekend.
You see, this pairing up happened, for us, on Friday, after just two days in Rwanda, and a fledgling vocabulary consisting of ‘Hello, my name is… I am from America’ ‘Good Morning [evening]’ ‘Good Night’ ‘What is your name?’ I’ll admit to being terrified and saying, to myself, ‘what fresh hell have I engaged in now?’
As much as I want to be settled, I selected a few outfits, 5 days’ worth of underwear, two pairs of shoes, all my electronics, and my pillow. I left a lot of my things at the training center and was grateful that I did. My Rwandan family’s house is small, and my room is much smaller than I am accustomed to, and even with my two small bags [think carry-on sized] of clothes and electronics, I have more material things than they do. The Peace Corps’ gave us a 20L jerry-can, a 5L can of water, and rather large water filter. Additionally, we received a bucket, a small cup, and a bottle of bleach. My goods were loaded in a Peace Corps’ truck, I climbed in after Mama, and then we left. Approximately three minutes later, we arrived at my new house for the next 10 weeks.
The quiet weekend began as soon as I set foot in the house. Having exhausted my fledgling Kinyarwanadan vocabulary and not knowing any English, Mama and I didn’t talk. I went about setting up my room, ripping the plastic off my brand new Peace Corps’ provided [twin] mattress, setting up my Peace Corps’ provided water filter, and trying to make my Spartan accommodations as homey as possible [it didn’t work].
After about an hour, I hear a knock on the door, and in accented English, I hear “Michelle, do you eat lice?” Appreciating the English, but not the sentence, I remained silent. Another knock, “Michelle?” I reluctantly opened the door. Greeting me enthusiastically with ‘I am Deborah, your host sister. Mama wants to know if you eat lice?’
It took a few seconds for me to reach back into the dark areas of my brain and remember that sometimes, English as a Second Language learners sometimes mix up Ls and Rs. After remembering that, I replied, “Yes, I eat rice.”
With Deborah’s help, I learned that in Rwanda, I have a 25 year-old brother who live in Kigali [we’ve never met] and that she is Level 2 at the local school [I’m not sure what that means although there are six levels]. There is not Papa, and I know enough to ask, that when someone says someone is not here, don’t ask questions. [Although seeing as how Deborah is 14, it’s impossible that he died in the genocide that occurred in 1994].
The past two weeks of living with my host family has been challenging. Kinyarwanda is a difficult language with a lot of letter combination that my mouth isn’t used to making. While I can memorize words and may even know what someone is asking me, I lack the vocabulary to make a reply. I also lack the grammar skills to formulate my own questions so I rely on using the infinitive form of every verb along with helpers such as I like, I want, I need. It makes me sound [and feel] like a somewhat illiterate 2 year old child.
The family eats foods much different than what I am used to eating, and I don’t think I’ve ever eaten as many vegetables in a two week period in my life. [Although my new strategy of heavily complimenting any food that is remotely ‘American’ seems to be working; I’ve had spaghetti with tomato sauce twice] As a result and with the additional task of walking everywhere, I’ve lost about 10 pounds. This is not a bad thing, and I have more pounds [kilograms?] to go, but it has resulted in none of my pants fitting me anymore.
Chores are done differently. I wash my clothes by hand with a bar of soap, and hang them on a clothesline to dry. Cooking is done on a charcoal stove. Grocery shopping is done daily or at minimum every other day, and with a lack of refrigeration, left-overs are just re-boiled the next day.
Integration has been slow for me partly because of my introverted nature, partly because of my acute awareness of my fledgling Kinyarwanda, and partly because of the compactness of my host family. I was thinking I have absolutely nothing in common with these people, and nothing to talk about, but last Wednesday when I inquired about maybe, possibly [ pretty plesase] watching the opening match of the world cup, I was greeted with an enthusiastic ‘YEGO’. You see, Mama is an avid soccer [football] fan, and she was worried that I, being American, wouldn’t be interested. Sitting there in the small living room on Thursday night, huddled around the 13” old-school style TV, watching Russia vs Saudi Arabia with my Rwandan mama, I finally felt at home.
and the new departure date in June 4–which gives me about 2.5 months to get ready. I’ll be in the Maternal-Child Health sector which focuses on the first 1000 days of life.
It’s not Madagascar; it’s certainly not where I thought I might go, but it is an opportunity to do something in a field I’m qualified to serve in.
It’s a small, land-locked country in Eastern Africa
The genocide that people immediately think about when they hear ‘Rwanda’ happened 24 years ago .
It’s a safe as if not safer than other African countries.
It shares a border with DRC; Lake Kivu [a large lake that serves as Rwanda’s answer to oceans. It has beaches!] separates the two countries
It’s capital is Kigali
It’s official languages are Kinyarwanda and English [Although French was an official language up until a few years ago]
It’s a more temperate climate due to its altitude so I may need long sleeves and sweatshirts.
The sun essentially rises and sets at 6a/6p every day.
There are four seasons: Rainy Season 1 and 2 and Dry Season 1 and 2
Rwanda probably has the best road in all of Africa [overall]
The mountain gorilla lives in Rwanda and Uganda and no where else on Earth
Rwanda has set a country goal to become Africa’s 1st middle-income country. I’m not exactly sure what all that entails, but it sure says a lot about the hope and progressive nature of this country.
So I don’t know a whole lot about what is to be my future home for the next two years, but it is still close enough to the Indian Ocean that I have a chance to swim in it. I hope I get to visit a few other nearby counties while I’m in the area [Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, maybe Mozambique… I’m looking at you especially]
Quick synopsis: The Great Sickness of 2018 happened, and I didn’t leave for 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].
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
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
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
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.
One month to go
It’s about four weeks until I go, you see, and in theory, I should have something heartfelt and sincere to say. Perhaps a few final thoughts I care to leave behind? A legacy? A farewell?
But I don’t. Nothing.
I’m still working… being a nurse and all, saving every $ I can so that I can fit some adventures in during my Peace Corps service. I’ve packed, but only because I moved out of my apartment in October. When I moved, I got rid of all the things I don’t want to keep. I haven’t done a whole lot to the house other than make it stronger to weather any particular storm. I’m doing a lot of overnight camping and hiking/backpacking. I’m crashing with friends. Molly and Lucy are in charge, so to speak. I essentially bought a house for the cats. They even have their own expense account so their new caretakers can provide for them like I have.
I have always been more on the private side; careful of what I say out loud, or in this case, put in print. Truth be told, I have very little that I care to say out loud. I, alone, am privy to my thoughts, as they are rapidly changing and I can’t seem to keep up. I’m nervous. Of course I’m nervous. No matter how much I try to prepare, it’s still the unknown. I’m scared. Of course I’m scared. Even though I’ve done some version of this before, this is a unique period in my life. I’m excited, thrilled even. I know of no one in my family, friends, or even aquanintances who has been a Peace Corps volunteer. In many ways, this is everything I’ve always wanted. And in many others, it’s nothing I ever expected.
Of course, I’m saying this now, before I’ve even begun. What will I say when I am two weeks into training? How will I feel? Will I be as self-assured as I imagine I will be? Or will I be as the other PCV’s (Peace Corps Volunteer) say; wondering what on earth possessed me to do such a thing?
How can I, now, at this very moment, possibly make a statement? There is so much I don’t know. How am I to predict how I’ll feel in the coming weeks and months, when I can’t even get a firm grasp on how I feel right now? My mind is a chaotic whirl. I’m busy preparing for my departure, anticipating my arrival, and trying to juggle work and spending time with friends in between. Everything has been moving so fast, and in these next final weeks, they’ll only continue to speed up.
I’m working through February 20. My birthday is February 24, and I leave for staging on the 26. I have a to-do list at least a mile long. I’ve essentially got to set up my life for two years so that someone else can manage it. I’ve got to get what’s need to apply to graduate school for when I return. I need all those addresses and phone numbers now. I’ve got to get friends to download WHATSAPP, and before I know it, it will be February 26.
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.
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.
I have never been one to make lists, or more accurately, I have never been one to follow what’s on the list, but for an undertaking of this magnitude, I started preparing and list-making as soon as I submitted the application. Just last week I left my job. I transferred to another location for the next three months. I haven’t told the new people that I’ll be leaving, and probably won’t–at least not until February.
I started preparing myself for departure soon after receiving the acceptance letter.
Here is a look at the massive to-do list that I created and have been checking it off since March and in earnest since I received the acceptance letter in July, approximately in chronological order.
Change bank accounts. I moved my primary checking and savings to Charles Schwab. From everything I’ve read, they are the best deal around for travelers. I’ve banked with a credit union for years, and while I love them, the lock-down on my card overseas [even going to England is a hassle] and the massive fees I incur while traveling are enough to make me switch. I’ve kept my account active so that it’s still there, and also in case I run into trouble, I’ll have someone local to help out. Yes, I know the Peace Corps will set me up a bank account in my local area once I’m there, but it will be nice to have the safety net of my American bank account too.
Give myself a pay cut. I set up direct deposit to my savings account so that $350 every week goes directly to savings. This savings will allow me to keep my house, take a PC vacation or two, and maybe even travel some post-service.
Get another job. [to explore a new area of nursing and have some additional savings]
Determine a savings goal. I looked into accommodations and transportation costs for possible destinations and read about other traveler’s expenses for long-term travel to come up with a savings goal of $10,000. I don’t know if I’ll meet it or not, but it’s a goal.
Track my expenses. I m not nerdy enough to set up a spreadsheet and keep track of every dime I spend, but I did create a spending log recording [most of] everything I spent. This allowed me to identify areas to cut back and I could see how close [or far!] I was from my savings goal. I could also see when I needed to lay off Amazon or cut out trips to Target.
Re-design my blog. I started blogging in 2005 mainly for myself. Over the last 12 years, blogging has still been mostly for me [and the occasional friend or family member who wanted an update to see if I was still alive]. Over the last year I’ve made a concentrated effort to do a little more on the technical side, learn a little bit more about photo post-processing, teach myself a little bit about making videos, get more comfortable exposing myself to a public audience, and maybe build a loyal, if not small readership before I leave.
Connect with other travelers. I still hate Twitter, don’t really know how to use my blog’s Facebook page, and can’t for the life of me figure out Instagram’s algorithms, but through my blog and through reading other travel blogs, I have connected with dozens of other PC volunteers, returned PC volunteers, and bloggers who have traveled long-term or made blogging into a full-time career. Their advice and inspiration have been invaluable.
Renew my passport. My passport was set to expire while in the Peace Corps, and while yes, I will get a Peace Corps’ diplomatic passport, I do want to travel some on my own either before, during, or after my service. I renewed it in April and opted for the one with the most pages available.
Find a home for my cats. I hated the idea of giving my cats to random strangers on Craigslist or to a shelter, so a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders when a friend volunteered to foster the kids while I’m gone.
Figure out what to do with my stuff. I don’t consider myself a minimalist by any means but I also didn’t want to pay $1700 for a storage unit. So I bought a house. What? you say? I found an incredible deal, made the purchase in October 2017. I moved most of my old furniture into the new house and plan on doing some heavy remodeling when I return from the Peace Corps. To date. I’ve painted all the walls, removed a ton of wallpaper, replace most light fixtures and ceiling fans, and tried my hand a tile-work. The house now has appliances from this century, and I’ve gotten a lot of tree/scraggly bushes removed. This is about all I’m doing until I come back.
Doctor and dentist appointments. While I still have good insurance through work, I made a point to get an annual physical exam and a dental cleaning and check-up. Also see Pre-Service Medical Clearance.
Vaccinations. I went to South America in 2010, I got the yellow fever vaccine and the Typhoid vaccine. Through work, I’m up to date on my tetanus-diphtheria-pertussis, flu, and hepatitis B. I added a Hepatitis A vaccine and cholera + what the Peace Corps recommends. Lucky for me, my insurance covered everything except the $110 consultation fee, saving me about $500.
Get extra passport photos. Who knows what I might need them for [traveler visas perhaps], but I’m getting them while they are cheap.
Buy stuff. I have tried to keep the purchases to a minimum because after all, I am going to a third world country where the daily income is around $2, but some must-haves that I have picked up so far include a new [used] laptop [with DVD drive so I can copy all my DVDs and CDs, a new-ish backpack [it’s been on a few excursions already], extra camera equipment [lenses mostly + a few memory cards and extra camera batteries], a Steri-pen, and new hiking shoes.
Explore ways to connect. Skype account, Google Hangouts, FaceTime, all vaible options, but will they work well with rural African internet. .
Give notice at work. I haven’t done this just yet, but when I do, it will be when this whole thing starts to feel real!
And there is still more to come over the next few weeks:
Notify my banks and credit card companies.
Withdraw cash in the form of bills that are recent and in good condition [once again, you never know when crisp dollar bills might be useful].
Create a list of bank and credit card info.
Update my Couchsurfing profile [because you never know…]
Study and practice French some more.
Update my resume.
Assemble the documents I need to apply to graduate school so that when the time comes, I’ll have everything I need, and applying from the middle of Africa won’t be quite so challenging.
Not everything on the lists above will apply to everyone, but my hope is that this will be helpful for those of you who might be starting to think about taking some time off to travel or joining the Peace Corps.
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.
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
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
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.
Yellow Fever Vaccination (I 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.
I am in the medical/legal clearance stage right now so I haven’t told a lot of people that I’ve been accepted to the Peace Corps yet, but the ones who know have questions.
Question 1: What exactly is the Peace Corps?
The Peace Corps was established in 1961 by John F. Kennedy with three key goals in mind:
Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
“The Peace Corps traces its roots and mission to 1960, when then Senator John F. Kennedy challenged the students at the University of Michigan to serve their country in the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries. From that inspiration grew an agency of the federal government devoted to world peace and friendship.”
The Peace Corps is a government organization in which accepted applicants are invited to serve in a foreign country. Areas of service are requested by the participating countries and include education, youth and community development, health, business information and communication technology, agriculture, and environment. Accepted applicants volunteer to spend 27 months abroad and fully immerse themselves in the language and culture. Volunteers have served in 139 different countries, and work to create positive sustainable change in a global community. Peace Corps celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2011.
Question 2: Tell me about Madagascar.
Peace Corps | Madagascar began in 1993, and more that 1000 volunteers have served since its beginnings.
Currently, about 130 volunteers are serving in Madagascar. Africa represents about 40% of Peace Corps volunteers.
Madagascar is the 4th largest island in the world, and is located in the Indian ocean off of the southeast coast of Africa.
French and Malagasy are both the official languages.
The population is about 22 million, and 90% of the population live on less than $2 per day. It is one of the poorest countries in the world.
Climates vary. It generally has two seasons: hot and rainy from November-April and cooler and dry May-October. The east coast contains tropical rain forests which can be hit by tropical storms and cyclones. The central highlands are cooler and dryer, and are the main location of Madagascar’s agriculture. The west coast contains deciduous forests that lose their leaves during the dry months. Finally, the southwest is the driest and some parts can be considered desert.
Madagascar is considered a “biodiversity hot spot.” Over 90% of the wildlife is found nowhere else including lemurs, fossa (relative of the mongoose), and different types of birds. There are almost 15,000 different plants species, are 80% are found nowhere else on earth.
There are 18 different ethnic groups. Madagascar was originally settled by people from Africa and Asia, and the culture now is a unique blend of the two. Much of the Malagasy population are predominantly animist. Many aspects of behavior is determined by cultural taboos, including treatment of the dead. About 50% of the population is Christian, and 2% are Muslim.
Medical centers and hospitals are concentrated in urban areas, and medical care is very expensive relative to the average income. In 2010, Madagascar averaged 3 hospital beds per 10,000 people. The infection rate of AIDS is low compared to other African countries with about 0.9% of the adult population. Malaria is the main health concern, and was responsible for over 15% of hospital admissions in children under 5 years in 2008.
Question 3: What will you be doing?
I will be a Community Health Adviser helping to train health educators in my area. Together, we will work on implementing a communication system to improve health workers’ ability to communicate health information. I will provide education and identify interventions to promote safe pregnancies, better nutrition, prevention of malaria and other illnesses, as well as the importance of water, hygiene, and sanitation. [Or at least that is the plan]
Question 4: What do you do for training?
I will have about 10 weeks of pre-service training late February-mid May before a swearing-in ceremony. The training has five major components: technical, cross-cultural, language, health, and safety. I will also have a one week site visit to give me an general overview of what my site will be like.
Question 5: Do you know where you’ll be living in the country?
No, but I will find out several weeks into training based off questionnaires, preferences, and where my skills will be best utilized. I don’t get to choose where I live.
Question 6: What will your living situation be like?
I will most likely be living in a rural village without consistent electricity or running water. My housing will be similar to my community. I might have a room on the health center grounds or a small house with one or two rooms. My house might be a mud hut with a thatched roof or a modern cement house.
Question 7: Will you have electricity or running water?
It depends where in the country I am. The cities have electricity available, and the rural towns not so much. If electricity is available it will be probably be inconsistent. In addition, Internet access will most likely be limited.
Question 8: Will you have a cell phone?
Most volunteers buy their own cell phone but the service is spotty. I will bring my current mobile, buy a SIM card, and a internet stick. That way, I’ll be able to use my phone to text and call and use the internet.
Question 9: What will you eat?
Rice is the top food in all of Madagascar [Rice is not something I love or even like]. Rice is eaten with vegetables, beans, or meat. There are many fruits and vegetables that grow in Madagascar and are sold fresh and in their correct season.
Question 10: Do you have vacation?
Volunteers get two vacation days per month that can accrue totaling over 50 days for two years. I cannot take vacation within my first 6 months or my last three months.
Question 11: Will you live with a host family?
I will most definitely live with a host family during training.
Question 12: Can you receive mail?
Yes, yes, yes! I want to keep in touch with family and friends while I’m gone, and a big thank you in advance to anyone who wants to send mail my way! See my contact page on where to send stuff, what to send, and how to send it. Also my birthday is February 24, and cards and presents are always appreciated.
Question 13: Do you get paid?
Yes, but not much. Considering that most Madagascar natives make less than $2/day, I get paid well, but by American standards, I make more in one 12 hour shift as a RN than I do in one month working in Madagascar. However, my housing and insurance are covered by the Peace Corps so essentially I just have to pay for food, transportation, and internet. Also there’s no Amazon in Madagascar so that addiction has been curtailed.
I also get an allowance at staging and a settling in allowance once in Madagascar. That allowance is based on whether the site has had a volunteer before, whether or not I need to buy furniture, and how far away I am from the capital.
At the completion of service, I will get a settlement allowance of roughly $9000 + a flight home [or its equivalent in cash]. There are also government benefits such as one year NCE status and opportunities for graduate school scholarships.
Interviews are not my favorite thing. Now coming from someone who has blogged for 10+ years this next statement may seem a bit out of context. I don’t really like talking about myself. I don’t like tooting my own horn, and I really don’t like talking about ‘failures’.
Any interview can be daunting, but getting ready for my Peace Corps interview [something I really, really want] can be down right scary. Here’s my secret confession: this was my second Peace Corps interview. The first one, for Lesotho, did not go very well. Part of it was because I was dead tired –coming off a 24-hour call shift where I’d worked 16 of those hours, and leaving for a trip only a couple hours later. I was barely coherent, and I’m sure that came across as disinterest [which to some degree was true]. Part of it was deep down, I knew that I did not want to go to Lesotho to serve as a healthy youth volunteer. So of course I was disappointed when I didn’t receive an invitation to Lesotho, but I was also relieved. I knew that I would try again so when I received that email that said I had not been selected I set about applying again… the very same day.
In my second application I was a lot more selective. I chose a specific sector–health– and three specific countries–Madagascar, Guyana, and Tanzania [I think]. On my previous application I’d selected go anywhere and do anything. I learned that I really wouldn’t go anywhere and do anything.
So when I found out I’d been selected for an interview for Madagascar, I gave myself 36 hours to prepare. Too long, and I’d stress out. It had only been six months since my original application and two months since the resubmitted one. So in Peace Corps’ world, not long at all. The key to any interview is preparation, and while I’m far from an interview expert, I know that following certain steps will make your interview go smoother. I think it also helped that I had just finished my leadership and management class where a large chunk of our grade was interviewing for a fictional leadership job via webcam. That experience, while harrowing at the time, was invaluable practice for me feeling somewhat more comfortable interview and talking via webcam. I didn’t have that experience on the first go round, and while I don’t think the outcome would have been different, and know absolutely that I was 100% more comfortable the second go round.
So here’s is what I’ve determined…
Practise is important
Not just knowing your answers to potential questions, but really practicing interviewing on a webcam. Grab a friend, google ‘peace corps interview questions’, have friend ask you said questions, and record yourself answering them on a webcam. Then watch it. It may be painful, but the feedback is invaluable. I would not have known this had not for that assignment for class where I had to record an actual interview.
From the moment you create a Peace Corps account to the moment you receive an invitation, be nothing but professional Every time I contacted someone within the Peace Corps, I was polite and ready. For my interview, I chose a nice jacket in a bright color–something I’d call business casual ; it’s an outfit that I’d worn to an actual work meeting. I had on pants [you know, in case the laptop fell, or someone came to the door, or the cat started acting up and I needed to open the patio door]. I dressed like I was attending a professional meeting. My theory, treating the interview like a face to face meeting signals the brain to actlike its a face-to-face meeting. Being over-prepared is much better than being under prepared.
When I got the request for invitation, I opened my laptop and replied to avoid the unprofessional reply-from-a-cell-phone-email.
Research the country
The application process gives applicants the opportunity to choose a country BEFORE the invitation [queue groans from old school RPCV] so use that time to gather info. You can choose three countries so research them all. Unless you are the ‘I’ll go anywhere’ person, you should research the countries you’ve selected. Google the country. Look up the current events. Find recent blogs from current and past volunteers and read the entire blogs from start to finish. Try to discover what there is to like about the country, what challenges you may face, and why you want to go there. Even if you want to risk it and not do those things, at least read the assignment description so that you’ll be doing. Know something about the county, its climate, infrastructure, and culture. During my interview, I mentioned that I was excited to go to Madagascar because of its incredible biodiversity. I mentioned the plant and animal life. I wanted the interviewer to know that I am not all about malaria and health care… The more you can show that you like the country, the more likely they will feel that you would be a good fit and be able to complete your service.
Know Your Assignment
My assignment was community health volunteer. I had to throw it out there that I would know my role and not try to practice nursing. I know that my role would be educating people about health topics instead of actually being a nurse. Read the assignment description and get it in your brain what skills that you have that will make you a great volunteer. For me that was assuring the interviewer that I could be hands-off medically yet hands-on in other ways. That I’d be willing to not only teach people about respiratory disease and how to prevent it, but also how to build stoves that vent to the outside or burn cleaner than burning trash. Want to teach English to kids? Tell them about how you volunteered reading to kids. Want to work in a health center? [even if you are not a nurse] Tell them about how you helped volunteered at the medical tent for a 5k. Something. Anything. Wanna work in community economic development? Spin that time you sold candy or cookies into something amazing.
While you are looking for blogs to read, try to find some in which the volunteers are doing the same job as what you will be doing. It’s a lot easier to see yourself there doing that job, and key point: do not be afraid to display confidence. I am an introvert and do not like talking about myself, but for that interview, I was as confident as a Texas hold ’em champ. My goal was to make them feel like not nominating me would be their mistake. Be confident. Don’t say ‘I think’ or ‘I’d try.’ Say ‘I know’ or ‘I can,’ but, please, don’t be overconfident. Then you’ll come across as a condescending asshole. No one wants an asshole on their team.
Print out your resume and aspiration statement
Yes, you wrote it. Yes, you were honest and did everything on it, but nothing is worse than forgetting what you did in the past and being stuck with having to trot out the ubiquitous group project to answer “How are you a good leader?” or “Tell me about a time something did not go as planned.” On your printed copies highlight the events that you want to showcase. Make an outline so you can see it everything at once. Be sure you can relate to either how these skills are transferable to Peace Corps service or how they will well prepare you for service. Make sure you know why you want to be a volunteer, and if you want to add something speak now or forever hold your piece. Seriously. Right now go and sit down and think about why you want to dedicate 2+ years to something very few people will do.
Pray. Meditate. Do yoga. Run. Pray. Sleep. Do whatever you need to do to be physically, spiritually and emotionally centered. I woke up a whole hour before my interview, ate breakfast, got dressed, set-up the computer, and got on my knees and prayed for mental clarity and calmness. I knew this was it; it’s a huge opportunity and for me, a second chance. I definitely did not want to be “out of it” this time, or let my nerves to get the best of me.
“Do you have any questions for me?”
Of course you do. Write them down so that when your are asked, you will remember them. Scenario: The interview went well. You feel great. You’re on a high. You’ve knock all the questions out of the park, but when then they ask that question [and they will], you don’t want to draw a blank and end up asking “How did you like your service?”
Interviewer are almost always RCPVs and they get asked that question All.The.Time. You don’t want to be generic; you want to be memorable! Be prepared with questions before-hand and make them honest questions. I asked two questions: 1. I know that Madagascar has two official languages, Malagasy and French. How often is French used in the day-to-day conversations? I asked this because I don’t speak French. I have a background in Spanish, and have picked up a traveler’s vocabulary in Italian, Romanian, and German, but French pronunciation is still a mystery to me. I learned that I really need to know my numbers because prices and such are generally quoted in French. [Who knew?] and my second question was “What challenges did you face during your service?” Generic yes, but it did give me a little insight to the struggles volunteers face. Other good questions: If you could do anything differently, what would it be? What was you best [or favorite, funniest, happiest, saddest, or hardest experience?]
At the end of the interview be sure to ask about your application and if there is anything you can do to make yourself a stronger candidate. I asked her if there were any concerns that she had with me as an applicant and was told that I was a strong applicant. The interview is your last chance to make a good impression. At the end of the interview, make sure you thank them for the opportunity.
Once the interview is over, be done. Decompress. Do what ever it is you do to decompress. I took a nap. [Hey, I love my sleep]. Watch your favorite show. Go to a movie. Breathe easy. You put yourself out there. You made your best effort. If you don’t get it then, oh well. No regrets, but if you DO get the invite, by all means CELEBRATE!!! You are going to the Peace Corps! … then sit down and get ready for the mountain of paperwork and clearances that you have to complete.
Welcome to the Peace Corps!
Congratulations! You have been selected to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer, pending medical and legal clearance. This letter is your formal invitation to serve as a/an Community Health Advisor in Madagascar departingFebruary 25, 2018. By accepting this invitation, you are taking the next step toward joining hundreds of thousands of Americans who have answered the call to service and made sustainable change in communities around the world.
Congratulations again on receiving an invitation to serve. We look forward to hearing from you soon.
Women are in the news yet again. These days it has to do with the current US president’s views on women (and other marginalized populations), but honestly, it’s always something. A few years ago, it was the media giving women traveling along a hard time. This post is from my previous travel blog and seems like a good time to keep in mind that for women every day life boils down to one thing–personal safety. It doesn’t matter if it is the president of the US talking about ‘grabbing the by the pussy’ or female genital mutilation [a subject I wrote a paper on in college], daily life for women is all about personal safety.
It seems like every few months or so something happens and all the news outlets rush to make up stories about why women shouldn’t travel alone. I am referring to the latest story to attempt to scare people [especially females] away from traveling alone. Almost every news outlet has an opinion on the subject. [comments from the NBC site–““A woman has no business traveling alone,” FOX news’ take, another FOX gem, CBS has an opinion too, let’s not leave out ABC] The current theory is that the victim was ‘hanging out with criminal element‘ and therefore, it shouldn’t be surprising that she got her skull bashed in. Several travel bloggers [who travel much more frequently than I do] have already weighed in on this issue,[see the posts here, here, here, here, here, here, and here,] but I am more inclined to go with this viewpoint. It is the violence directed at women, not necessarily the traveling abroad, that is the real issue. For whatever reason, women are a target when it comes to violent crime–not just abroad, but at home too. As for me, I would not be the same person I am if I hadn’t traveled solo at various points in my life. Truth be told, I’ve experienced violence directed at me at home, and I’ve experience less subtle attempts at violence while traveling. At home sometimes we let it slide because it’s someone we know; while traveling, we usually have out guard up–at least to some degree.
Traveling solo has helped me to:
not feel guilty that I majored in foreign languages in college and didn’t add a teaching degree with it
end a relationship that was seriouslybad news
meet new people that I wouldn’t have ever had the opportunity to meet before [people that are definitely different that the crowd I normally meet in South Carolina]
develop a quiet independence
come out of my shell [It’s hard NOT to talk to someone, anyone when you are traveling alone]
make decisions about where I want my career to go
be confident in making decisions
explore my photography passion
go where I want and do what I want
be a better citizen of the world
develop an inner voice
Traveling alone isn’t rocket science. Use common sense. Let someone know where you will be. Trust your instincts. Don’t advertise that you are alone. Don’t be a idiot. Don’t flash around jewelry, electronics, or cash. Know where you are going, or at least act like you do. Research your destination ahead of time. Just be smart about being out there by yourself. These tips apply whether I am traveling in Charleston, SC, Cape Town, South Africa, or even my hometown.
Hi, I’m Michelle and this is my own little corner of the interwebs where I write, share photos, and interact with others in the blog-o-shpere. So in addition to that–Who am I? I am –in one way or another– the following: hiker + backpacker + swimmer + pediatric respiratory therapist + registered nurse + avid traveler + cat parent + gardener + photographer + medical science junkie + adventure-seeker + DIY enthusiast + voracious reader + history and science nerd + football fanatic + aging athlete + wannabe chef + trying not to succumb to the trappings of a 9-5 life. And beginning in 2018, a Peace Corps Volunteer in Rwanda.
Everyday life doesn’t have to be routine. Anyone can do just about anything he or she wants to do– sometimes one has to find creative ways in doing it. Sometimes one has to tear down the barriers that might stopping them. Everyday is an opportunity to choose your own adventure. That is what I ultimately write about.