Packing advice for new Peace Corps volunteers – Part 1

Two years ago I received my first big blue envelope with those beautiful words, “You are invited.” I remember worrying over the packing list, scanning Peace Corps blogs and trying to make the most of time with my loved ones. Sixteen months later, I was doing the exact same thing, even though I was a pseudo expert since I had done it before.

Now, in Lesotho, it’s kind of fun to think back to those packing lists and what I brought that I use everyday and what I only touched twice – packing it and then unpacking it. Back in the U.S. many soon-to-be trainees have received those blue invites and are facing that monster question: “What do I need for two years?” As a two-time invitee and having served in two African countries on the opposite sides of the continent, I thought I would post about my Peace Corps must-haves. No matter what I write it can’t alleviate all the worry and confusion but I know what it means to have a hint of advice in the packing department.

So, for all interested, here is my packing advice. If you don’t like it, well, it is free and you can click the ‘X’ at any time. Any current PCVs or RPCVs are free to contribute further suggestions in the comment section. I started writing this and it eventually became a 4,000 post so I have divided it into two: tips about packing and actually suggestions. The next post will come tomorrow.

OK, let’s do this.

Before you begin

If you are new to this blog, I served in Niger for six months (including training) before being evacuated. I re-enrolled and am currently a PCV in Lesotho. My suggestions come from packing for the deserts of West Africa and the mountains of southern Africa. Many of my suggestions will relate to Africa, but could also be applied to most PC countries.

The best packing advice I received, courtesy of a friend, was that you need to chose items that can bring you comfort in a foreign place but be OK with losing at any minute. Africa is rough and things break, get lost or are stolen. So, if you can’t part with something don’t bring it. I left my mother’s ring and a beautiful scarf that was a gift from a dear friend at home. Yet, I brought T-shirts of my favorite local bands and a friend’s screen-print art.

Remember that you are going to the Third World and you may not have access to certain accommodations that don’t seem like luxuries in the States. You may have a site with running water or electricity and you may not, so plan accordingly. Neither one of my houses had electricity or water but there are volunteers in the same countries who do. You just don’t know.

Some of recommendations will include names of specific brands (look for that post Friday). You don’t need all the latest gadgets or super expensive traveling gear, but there are a few things items in which you should consider quality over price (see “Save your pennies” for some money saving tips). I am not a name-brand person, but I have learned that for some things it was worth spending a bit extra to know it will hold up. Also, nobody is paying me to endorse anything, but that should be a given since as a volunteer I can’t receive outside income and this blog gets like five hits a day (OK, maybe a bit more). (Man, I love parentheses).

Before you begin making the packing list, make sure to check the list sent with your invitation packet and ask current volunteers. They’ll be able to give your better recommendations for clothing and other weather related specifics. My list is pretty general so contact any current volunteers for questions specific to your country.

Save your pennies

Even though I just preached about quality over price, there are several ways you can prepare for PC without empting your bank account. Before either service I didn’t have a lot of money to blow on new stuff and had to find ways to get what I needed without blowing all the money I wanted to use on travel during and after my service.

Some people are campers, hikers, adventurers and have this stuff, but not me. I had to start at zero, even the second time because I was going to a cooler climate. So what can you do to save money?

First, find out what other volunteers are selling. You will be replacing volunteers who are on their way out and looking to unload some things. Most new groups have Facebook groups and COSing volunteers will often post their garage sale lists (they also join your group to stalk you. New trainees are better that Christmas Day, ice cream and puppies, combined). Or, if you would rather buy something used than new, ask the group if anyone is selling that item.

Second, go to Peace Corps Wiki and find the discount pages. Many companies offer discounts for people who need their gear for work, including PCVs. Register for anything you can, but most require a digital copy of your invite letter. I didn’t do this the first time, but it made a world of difference the second time, especially for big-ticket items such as hiking boots and a cold-weather sleeping bag.

Third, second-hand stores. I am a big believer in second-hand or consignment stores and bought many of my skirts and teaching outfits from them. Before coming to Lesotho, I knew I needed some warmer clothes and scanned the stores for fleece jackets and long-sleeve shirts. I got some great deals that allowed me to spend more on good shoes and jackets.

Fourth, family and friends. Now, I am not saying you need to solicit gifts from your loved ones, but many people will admire what you are doing and want to contribute something to the cause. A good way to do this is a registry through REI or a similar store or online wish lists with Amazon or Pinterest. Because I did most of my shopping for Lesotho online, I made a Pinterest board of the items I was interested in to keep track of them and compare prices. It really helped. A few friends found it and, without my intention, decided to gift me a few of those things. It’s a great way to stay organized and help answer the “What do you need?” question.

Send yourself something nice

Before I left the country before both services, I sent myself a package. It is an awesome thing to be in training and the mail guy come with a beat up USPS box for you. It’s also a good way to send things that you may need in training but not right away. Also, candy. I packed both of my boxes full of magazines and junk food, then was willing to share. Probably the only reason why I have friends in Peace Corps.

Other people will say it, so I don’t need to but I will: Don’t freak out about packing. As long as you have the major stuff – passport, WHO card, credit cards and daily medication – the rest can be bought or sent to you. Use this time to spend with friends and family and eating as much American food as your stomach can possibly handle at any given moment.

OK, that is it for today. Will have lots more tomorrow about specific suggestions. Any current PCVs or RPCVs are welcome to include any further advice or suggestions.

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