Tag Archives: Peace Corps

Why am I here?: Part 1

I’m a stranger here myself

When you hear the term Peace Corps Volunteer, a certain image pops into your mind, doesn’t it? It certainly does mine, and I am both fortunately and unfortunately, painfully aware of the stark discrepancy of that image of a Peace Corps’ Volunteer and the perceptions of who I am as a person.  When most people think of Peace Corps Volunteer, I’m sure the image of 20-something political activist, crunchy-granola type, professional do-gooder, and dare I say it, modern day hippie. People who have minimal life experience, still see the good in everyone, still want to save the world types of people. People who are unsure of their career/life’s goals.

I am none of these.

My 20’s have long passed [thankfully]. I about as apolitical as they come. No one would dare call me the crunchy-granola type with a straight face, and I while I have a career as a nurse, no one in their right mind would call me a professional do-gooder.  I am as sure of my career and life goals as one can be when Fate is involved.

 So what am I doing here and why I am I doing this exactly?

Well, it took me a long while to work that out.

I wish I could say my reasons were entirely altruistic. That I just want to ‘help people’.  I’d love to climb up on my soapbox and tell you about the ills of the world and how I, personally, plan to address and fix all of them. But that would be the EGO talking, and I try daily, to keep the beast in check.  However, I am a human being, and sometimes the EGO runs amok, does thoughts to run through my head.

My reasons are as varied as any other PCV’s reason are.  At my core, I would like to do some Good, as much as it is possible. GOOD being composed of Concrete GOOD and Abstract GOOD. Also, I have never been one to follow the PLAN.  The PLAN being go to college, start a career, get married, buy a house, have babies, retire with a healthy pension. I did go to college [and again, and again and plan to go again]. I have bought a house, butI don’t ever plan to have babies, and pensions are a thing of the past. So aside from doing GOOD, I want to travel and do something different, immerse myself in a culture foreign to me, go not only somewhere I’ve never been, but somewhere I’d otherwise never go. What better place to accomplish that than the Peace Corps? They have volunteers that are strewn, quite literally, all over the globe. And while I have traveled somewhat extensively even at times for long periods of time, I have never lived in one area other than the Upstate of South Carolina for a period longer than two years.

Where is here? And Rwanda?

Well, it wasn’t my first choice.

But when was the last time you met anyone who has been to Sub-Sahara Africa, let alone lived there.  When planning your last vacation, how many of you even considered sub-Saharan Africa? I’ve never even seen an advertisement for anything other than a safari. Even in this age of the ubiquitous travel blogger, very, very few are from Africa, and even fewer still visit/write about things other than Safaris and Vineyards. So if not for this Peace Corps opportunity, not only would I likely never go to a place like Rwanda, but no matter how much money I made or prestige I earned or opportunities I had to travel, I would likely never even consider it.

I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.

In my mind that means doing my best to experience the great touristy parts of the world, as well as the places that are off the grid. Of course, I say that now… while I sit here in the relative comforts of familiar environs with reasonably fast internet.

“I want to help people.”

And I really do want to help people. I’ve worked in healthcare for most of my adult life.  If I didn’t truly want to ‘help people’ there are a lot of other, less strenuous, less soul-draining professions out there where I could probably make more money, have a better life-work balance, and certainly not spend all hours of the night awake.

But American healthcare is complicated. The overwhelming majority of my co-worker want to ‘help people’,  yet we often know that whatever we do–whether it’s a life-saving measure in the Emergency Department or Continued Care in a Rehabilitation Department–it’s a stop-gap procedure.  Yes, SOME people do GET IT.  Some people see it the catalyst needed to do massive behaviour change, but for the most part, Americans are repeat offenders in the health care system, and generally speaking look to blame their problems on others.

Now I’ll get my chance to work with patients who really want and need help.  Of course, creating behavior change is still going to be hard.

Third Goal

The Peace Corps, as one of their central missions for each volunteer, encourages each person to share their story, ostensibly through their own blog which many volunteers take advantage of. I would encourage many of you, if you are interested in getting great stories and reading great writing, to take a look at these blogs and get a feel for what life is like in other countries. The majority of them are very well done and informational. I’m excited to have what I think is a legitimate avenue to share my thoughts and writing in the context of traveling in the Peace Corps. There isn’t much more I can do other than report my story, simply, as I see it whether that is GOOD or BAD.

Forth Goal

Ok so there is no official 4th goal, but for me, joining Peace Corps’ is a way to slow down in inevitability of life.  People say the older you get, the more time flies, and at this stage of life, I’m starting to see that.  Momentum is carrying me along this path or that path and sometimes I can’t seem to stop it.  Of course, there are less dramatic and more practical methods of changing your habits and behaviors than signing up to live in an African village for two years. But where would be the fun in that?

Back country transport–how things are here

Language Learning and Settling In

Days 2 and 3 involved getting ourselves safely to Kigali–an adventure by itself. Our bus was about an hour late getting to Philadelphia. Then the driver wasn’t really sure where he was going so he was on his phone both as a GPS and texting.  There were a couple of close calls where he tried to occupy a currently occupied lane, but we made to JFK airport without incident.

Imagine this X 23 others checking in for our flight to Kigali via Brussels

While yes, we are all legally adults, and have a fair amount of life experience, I thought there’d be a little more assistance in the getting from Philadelphia to Kigali, but nope, once we waved good-bye to the desk officers, we were on our on.  We departed the US with 24 Peace Corps Trainees and arrived in Kigali with 24 Peace Corps Trainees so I call that a success despite sitting in the last row of seats on the trans-Atlantic flight [they don’t recline… at all].  Nearly 24 in-transit hours later, we were reunited with out bags, successfully passed customs, and were whisked away to the convent.

You may think I’m kidding when I say convent, but no, out first two nights in Kigali were spent in a Catholic convent/ Jesuit priest retreat [thanks US budget cuts].  The nuns were nice, the food was basic, but entirely edible, and there were flushing toilets.  I call that a win.

We spent most of the time in Kigali being herded around like cats, interviewing with several people about several things, setting up Rwandan bank accounts, getting an intro into the Kinyarwanda language [it’s hard], and getting up-to-date on shots.  Then just as we’re getting comfortable at the convent, we are whisked away again–this time to our training site which will be our home for the next three months.

These three months consist of a lot of language training and some basic ‘how-to survive in Rwanda on your own classes in health and sanitation.

Friday ended with us being placed in our host families which I lovingly call –being dropped off at the pound.

Packing for Peace Corps | Rwanda

If you are reading this post, I have at least gotten on the plane to Philadelphia which will lead to Kigali by way of Brussels… Which also means I have gotten through the check-in process at least once.  So there’s that…


Let’s begin with:  I HATE PACKING. AND SHOPPING. And I’ve already done this once when I thought I’d be heading to Madagascar [Read Every.Single.Thing.I packed for Madagascar.] 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. Keep in mind that this is a  Pre-Departure List, and I plan to update it once I’m fully installed at my future site.  The format essentially reads like this:

Item:

Rationale:

Verdict:

Obviously I can’t fill in the verdict part until later…


Let’s begin with:  I HATE PACKING. AND SHOPPING. And I’ve already done this once when I thought I’d be heading to Madagascar [Read Every.Single.Thing.I packed for Madagascar.] 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. Keep in mind that this is a  Pre-Departure List, and I plan to update it once I’m fully installed at my future site.


It has come to my attention that every blog I have read mention that Rwandans essentially have a shoe fetish.  Not in a creepy, sexual fetish way, but more in a ‘fastidious about cleanliness’ way.  Of all the articles of clothing for a country to obsess about, I get stuck with the country who obsesses about shoes. I hate shoes.  I mean I like wearing them, but hiking shoes and Danskos for work are about as fancy as I get.  So when I’m reading blogs about how people are packing 6! pairs of shoes, internally I am saying ‘Kill.Me.Now.‘.  I’d planned on taking two pairs plus shower shoes to Madagascar.

Shoes:

  • 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.  At home in SC, it rarely rains long enough or hard enough to warrant spending  that kind of money on shoes, but I found a cheap pair on Amazon so we’ll see how that works out.
  • Trail-running shoes.  I wear these as my every day shoes [Shoe stylish I am not].
  • Athletic shoes.  Who knows, I might take up running [Laughs uncontrollably at that statement].
  • 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.

Clothes:

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.

  • one pair jeans, darker wash
  • one pair hiking pants [gray, Patagonia]
  • one pair brown pants
  • one pair khakis
  • one pair scrub pants–for those days I can’t be bothered with real pants
  • three button-up shirts [one  long sleeved, one 3/4 sleeved, and one short sleeved]. The thing with button up shirts is they never quite look like they are supposed to if you are female with above average sized breasts.  Hence when I do wear button-up shirts, they always have another layer under them and I usually wear them more to keep the chill off during the evening than for actual shirts.
  • six colored t-shirts
  • one long sleeved t-shirt
  • one flannel shirt
  • one hoodie
  • three skirts [all knee length or longer]
  • one pair knee length athletic shorts
  • one pair yoga pants
  • about 42 pair of underwear [not all at once though]
  • about 20 pair of socks [5 wool, 5 casual dress, 10 athletic–or there abouts–also not all at once]
  • bras [3 sport, 2 regular]

Sleep:

  • Down blanket
  • Sheets–I brought a twin set and an extra full fitted sheet
  • Sleeping bag–something similar to this one, but I bought mine in 2010 and it’s orange.
  • Pillow–just one of the many [so many] pillows I have at home.  Last item in the suitcase.

Shower:

  • Quick-drying Towel 
  • 2-1 shampoo/conditioner–either of these are my favorites
  • Dry shampoo–for in between washes.
  • Bar[s] of soap
  • Toothbrush and toothpaste [I have brand favorites so I brought them]

Tech:

  • Kindle — for books, music, movies, photos, ect.
  • External Hard Drive – for movies, music, TV shows, podcasts, actual work documents
  • Laptop–yes it’s heavy and huge, but watching movies on it is awesome.
  • Camera– what can I say–I love my camera, and will physically hurt anyone who tries to take it

Kitchen:

  • Spices – whatever you like, but definitely salt and pepper.  I also brought cinnamon. And taco seasoning mix.
  • Drink Mixes–as many as you can find
  • Knives, vegetable peeler, cutting board, measuring spoons/cups
  • Can opener
  • Ziploc bags/storage containers--Illegal in Rwanda so I’ve got Quart, Sandwich, and Snack + sandwich sized plastic containers [stuffed with goodies on the plane ride over. Technically, they could get confiscated]
  • Enamel mug/Stainless steel mug
  • Water bottle 

All ‘kitchen’ things I won’t need until I am actually on my own so I packed a box and mailed it to myself.

A Good Backpack – When you are traveling somewhere and you plan to stay overnight, it is unlikely that you are going to want to bring one of your suitcases along. Bring a backpack that is comfortable to wear and big enough to hold essential items for staying somewhere overnight (extra clothes, toothbrush, laptop, towel, etc.). If you can attach your sleeping bag to it, even better.

Swiss Army Knife – Or a good old fashioned pocket knife.

Headlamp – It comes in handy when you need both of your hands at night.

Multi Vitamins – These might be your only source of nutrients when you are eating rice, beans, and potatoes.

Music – It is the only thing that keeps me sane some days. Sometimes you need to shut the door, put in your ear buds, close your eyes and listen to music. I also brought a speaker that is great for when I want extra volume or don’t want to be constricted by my ear buds.

Nail Clippers and polish–self explanatory


Everything else is non-essential.

Money

If you’re planning on bringing some money for vacations, bring hundred dollar bills that are 2006 or more current. 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.

A credit card is a good idea if you think you’ll want to buy plane tickets.

Technology

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 skype 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.

Other than a laptop and camera, I am bringing:

  • An external hard drive – To share music and movies with other volunteers.
  • A portable USB flash drive – makes swapping files a lot easier
  • Antivirus software for the laptop

The 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, don’t get one.

What not to bring

Peace Corps will also provide a mosquito net and a water filter. For those who are not going to Rwanda with 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.


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
    • 8 year old 65L hiking backpack that has already seen half the world.
    • School-sized backpack that will serve as a carry-on:  I’ll carry my camera, laptop, kindle, chargers, one change of clothes, sleeping on the plane kit, ect
    • A tote bag–also a carry-on–In it, I’ll carry a book and assorted small odds and ends.
  • 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:

  • 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:  haven’t needed it yet, but if I head to the north, it will come in handy
  • 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.  I have already used it once [and it’s technically the dry season]
  • Item:  Cardigan x2.  One black; one colorful
  • Rationale:  It can get cool. These can spiffy up t-shirts and make me look more professional
  • Verdict:  I haven’t used them yet, but I suspect I will when I need to be fancy.
  • 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
  • Item:  T-shirts x7.  Plain, colorful
  • Rationale:  I wear these all the time.  Even to work.
  • Verdict:  I love that I have these
  • Item: Long-sleeve T-shirt X2
  • Rationale:  Sometimes my elbows get cold
  • Verdict:  I usually sleep in these so  I’m glad I have them
  • Item: Pants x4.  Dark brown, dark grey, khaki, and black.  Also known as hiking pants.  Also scrub pants x2.
  • Rationale:  I need something to cover my butt
  • Verdict:  I’m glad I have the scrubs, and I’ve already sent for more.
  • Item: Skirts  x2–one mid-calf brown skirt and one slightly below the knee blue.
  • Rationale:  Sometimes skirts are more comfortable than pants
  • Verdict:
  • 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
  • Item:  Socks and underwear x a lot
  • 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.  I also have at least 10 pairs of each reserved for use starting at the midway point of service.
  • Verdict:  I have 6 pairs for training and the rest for the rest of my service
  • 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 have one pair of Keen leather shoes, Salamon trail running shoes [I plan on running exactly zero trails], Keen sandals, [which are technically ‘hiking sandals’], Teva dress sandals, rubber flip flops to use in shower, and my Salamon hiking boots.
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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

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, 2 measuring cups [1/2c and 1/3c]
  • Verdict:
  • 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: 
  • Item:  Can opener
  • Rationale:  Opening cans without it is super hard
  • Verdict:
  • 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 it.  I’ll just peel the damn vegetables.
  • Verdict
  • 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
  • Item: Zip-lok bags
  • Rationale:  They are illegal in Rwanda and I’m a rebel.  Also I use these nearly everyday
  • Verdict
  • Item:  Seeds
  • Rationale:  I need food.  Hopefully the climate is conducive to growing them. They don’t take up much space
  • Verdict

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.  I’ll send for more when I know what size bed I’m going to get in my house.  Options include a full sized bed or two singles.  I guess if you are tiny [not me], one single would suffice.
  • Verdict
  • 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
  • Item:  Swiss Army Knife
  • Rationale: When is this not a good idea?
  • Verdict
  • Item:  Sleeping bag
  • Rationale:  It may solve the sheet problem.  I may need to visit others.
  • Verdict: I also left this at home
  • Item:  Down blanket
  • Rationale:  It gets cold and this one packs up small
  • Verdict:  I haven’t used it yet, but i plan to when I get to my own space

Office/school 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
  • Item:  Pens
  • Rationale:  I am a pen-whore and needed to downsize.  Also I like to color code things.
  • Verdict
  • Item: Zip-lok bags
  • Rationale:  They are illegal in Rwanda and I’m a rebel.  Also I use these nearly everyday
  • Verdict
  • 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:

Electronics:

  • Item:  laptop
  • Rationale:  I use it everyday at home
  • Verdict:  I’m glad I have it even though I only use it on weekends
  • 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:
  • Item: Kindle
    Rationale: E-reading is not my favorite thing, but weight restrictions prevent me from bringing an entire physical library.
    Verdict:

  • Item:  Camera 
  • Rationale:  I rarely go anywhere without it so of course, it was coming with me.
  • Verdict:
  • Items:  Flash drives x2 16GB each
  • Rationale: I’ve been told I’ll need them.
    Verdict:
  • Item: iphone
  • Rationale:  It doesn’t work as a phone but with 64G of songs/podcast and the ability to face-time certain people, it’s a no-brainer.
  • Item:  External speaker
  • Rationale: My laptop speakers are wretched. REchargeable speakers are the solution
  • Verdict:
  • Item:  Headphones
  • Rationale:  Sometime you just need to chill
  • Verdict:
  • Item: USB charger
  • Rationale:  Electronics need to charge
  • Verdict:
  • 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.
  • 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: I haven’t needed to replace any batteries yet, but I expect to.
  • Item: Outlet adapters
    Rationale: For my items that have to plug into the wall, I’ve got a handful of light, simple adapters.
    Verditct:

Toiletries:

  • Makeup
    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
  • Deodorant
    Apparently stick deodorant is not a thing I can get here.
  • Shampoo/conditioner I’m sure I can find shampoo here if I look, but I won’t have to for a while because I have a giant bottle of coconut-scented-shampoo, and it makes cold bucket baths nicer.
  • Soap 
    Nice bar soap has been wonderful. I’m not a fan of bucket baths still, but I’m a fan of my soap

  • Chapstick
    My lips are always dry. Burt’s Bees is magical.
  • Travel bottles
    At the suggestion of a current PCV who was surviving trips with shampoo in baggies, I packed a set of empty travel-size bottles.

Personal/miscellaneous:

  • 6 passport photos
    The Peace Corps said to, so I did
  • Journals
  • Purse and wallet
    Necessitites, of course. I picked up a small wallet (which I haven’t carried yet because I’ve been keeping my lunch money in my backpack, but which has been nice for storing the bulk of my cash so I’m not walking around with all my money) and a cross-body purse that folds over, snaps, and zips before you can get it open. Hopefully this minimizes the chances of anyone reaching into it, although I guess they could still slice it… but there’s not much I can do about that. 
  • Playing cards
    Because when does a deck of cards not come in handy?
  • Tide-to-go pens
    I’ll be honest; I’ve never used these. However, they’ve been highly recommended and seem like a good option. They’re cheap, they’re light, I doubt I’ll regret it. This has saved my life (or at least my shirt) multiple times.

There it is, my complete packing list for Rwanda.  I am also creating a list of things I didn’t bring that I want to get when I go back home in February/March.

 

Setting the stage

Staging is what the Peace Corps calls orientation. I imagine they are all essentially the same. All the members fly to a central location and sign-in hereby becoming Peace Corps’ trainees. Then it is meeting and greeting, learning Peace Corps policy, and bonding with fellow trainees.

For Africa and Europe we meet in Philadelphia. Peace Corps pays for that flight, the stay at the Marriott, and gives us $134 to eat 4 meals as well as get from the airport to the hotel. I think I spent about $100 including the taxi from the airport.

Overall staging is a quick orientation to Peace Corps’ life reminding me that even if there is a target right next door, I will still forget something as important as a USB power bank and a water bottle.

Saying my good-byes

Fact: good-byes are the worst.

For more months than I care to remember, I’ve been preparing for departure. Preparing to say my good-byes to a life I’ve spent the last few years carefully crafting. All the government required paperwork, the new purchases that are a *must-have* [like a nifty head lamp], and setting up Lucy and Molly for their own little adventure. I have had a suitcase partially packed for 6 months. Who does that? A neurotic person who has prepared for not one but two different Peace Corps service stations, that’s who. Add to that the time I’ve spent researching Peace Corps | Rwanda and attempting to teach myself some vocab in the local language, and I have basically been making myself *slightly crazy*.

Ice cream is always a good idea

But I have not forgotten some important advice given to me from my Madagascar stage-mates: spend as much time with friends and family as possible before leaving. I’m looking at these extra three months as a gift.  I got spend Spring Break with my favorite little people. I’m continuing to work to save up money for adventures [maybe I’ll get to Madagascar after all]. I get to spend one last Spring/early Summer in South Carolina which is much preferable to the constant heat and humidity of July and August.  I’m going hiking and doing short trips with friends. Taking ALL THE PHOTOS for the memories and also for the house decorations.

I went hiking on the Cumberland Trail in Tennessee in May.  It was an awesome spur-of-the-moment hike.
Concerts on the lawn with friends
Took the little people to the zoo
Went hiking in the cold with the little people… they were troopers
We had much nicer weather on Spring Break
And then I hiked the Foothills Trail all by myself
And I got to see an amazing sunrise on top of Jellico Mountain, Tennessee

Basically, these last three months have been a gift wrapped up in a neat little package.  The little people and I have spent more time together.  I found out there’s going to be another little person come November.  I got a few more house projects done.

Enjoyed some picture perfect days
Made a Lucy-approved walkway out of patio pavers
Planted some flowers–hopefully they will establish roots and still be thriving when I return

This is the week of good-byes.   Good-byes to co-workers. Good-byes to friends. Good-byes to Best Friends. Good-bye to kitty cats. Over all, I feel a lot more prepared to leave than I did when I was scheduled to depart for Madagascar… Let’s all hope I can still say that next Monday.

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

 

Holy Hell, I’m going to…

Rwanda.!

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.

Map of eastern Africa showing Rwanda, Congo and Kenya

So RWANDA?…

  • 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 [1994].
  • 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]

An Aspiring Journalist

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 October 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 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.

One month to go

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

But I don’t. Nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

2/26.

D-Day.

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

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

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

Bring it on.

Thoughts before I go