Packing advice for new Peace Corps Volunteers – Part 2

If you didn’t have enough of my 2,000+ dribble on packing yesterday, then you are in luck. I’ve got lots more today, and this time some actual suggestions.

Hope it’s helpful, if not, I can’t give you back your time. Maybe you should be more cautious next time.

On to the suggestions …

Luggage and bags

This is one of the areas where it is important to go for quality. As soon as I got my invitation, I knew I wanted a large travel backpack. You can buy these online, but I recommend going to a store so you can try them on and make sure they are comfortable. I’ve heard some big outdoor stores even measure you so they can find the perfect pack. I chose a large Osprey bag that was about $200. Although it is a bit big, I love this bag and it is perfect for trips of more than few days. I used it a lot in the U.S. as well.

To carry the rest of my stuff across the ocean, I used a large suitcase that I’ve had for a few years. It isn’t anything fancy but did the job.

I also have a smaller Jansport bag that I used in college for weekend trips or carrying stuff to school. Sometimes I would like something in between the large and small backpack, but I get along just fine.

While in Lesotho, my mom sent me these great reusable shopping bags that fold up into small pouches. They are great for shopping, especially if you are going to West Africa where they have open markets.

For a purse, I brought a Merrel over-the-shoulder bag that was a gift. It’s super durable and I like having something I can wear rather than carry. I also have a clutch, another gift, for storing money and debt cards. It has a clasp that I can attach to an inside of another bag and keeps it from being lifted or left on a taxi.

Shoes

No matter where you are serving you are going to want a durable pair of sandals. In Africa you do A LOT of walking and need some comfortable shoes and, for me, flip-flops don’t do it. You should bring a pair to wear around the house or for something to slip on quickly, but I suggest investing in a nice pair. This is where those discounts come in handy; most shoe companies on the Peace Corps Wiki site offer up to 50 percent off. I didn’t know this for Niger and bought a pair of Chacos at the full price. But, having fallen in love with them, I bought a second pair with the discount.

Of all my shoes, I wear the Chacos the most. They were great for the sand in West Africa and now the rocky roads in Lesotho. Other people enjoy Tevas and Keen. These sandals are really a staple of the Peace Corps wardrobe.

You will also need a pair of nice shoes for swear-in and formal functions. I don’t really have anything, but was gifted black Merrel sliders that I wear to school and other nicer places. I also wear my Chacos to these events, but I’ve been ridiculed for my choice of footwear so don’t blame me if someone makes a remark about your lac of fashion.

If you are a runner, bring your shoes. Lots of volunteers run and it’s a good way to work through stress. Double check with current volunteers to make sure it is culturally acceptable, especially for women. I ran in both Niger and Lesotho and didn’t have many problems.

Clothes

You need to check with current volunteers and your invitation packet on what is acceptable. In Niger, a Muslim country, I never wore pants at site and had to always have my shoulders and knees covered. Lesotho is a bit different, but I still needed suitable clothing for school. It is CRITICAL that you bring cultural appropriate dress. You will create a lot of unnecessary problems if you have something exposed you shouldn’t. This goes for workout clothes as well. Current PCVs will also tell you what you need for the weather. In Lesotho, you need winter and summer clothes because it’s hot and cold.

Also current volunteers can give you an insight on what you can find in country. In Niger, they recommended not bringing a lot because most volunteers end up having clothes made. I didn’t follow that brought way too much clothes that I didn’t wear. Getting clothes made is super cheap and it allows you to blend in. I think that is true for a lot of West Africa countries. In Lesotho, that isn’t so much the case. I have one traditional dress, but wear the stuff I brought most days. If the current PCVs say to not worry about clothes too much, listen to them.

You will be going on vacation and having get togethers with other volunteers so be sure to include some American clothing. I never wear jeans at site, but always when I visit other volunteers. It’s nice to throw them on with a tank top and feel like myself every now and then. I also wish I had brought a few vacation dresses as everything I have is mostly work related. One Lesotho PCV brought this beautiful black dress that she only pulls out for special occasions with other volunteers. I wish I had something like that.

Kitchen stuff

You will be give an moving-in allowance to buy all of your necessary home stuff, but there are a few things that I am grateful I brought from home, including large cutting knives and an array of spices. Depending on where you are going, there are some things you can’t find. In Niger I couldn’t find a lot of spices, so it was nice to have my own. And having American knives is nice because ones here aren’t as good.

Many volunteers swear by drink packets, such as Crystal Light, to hide things floating in their water or hide the not-so-pleasant taste of well water. I am not a fan and prefer my water non-sugary but you might not have a lot of options for soda or juice and these can add some allure to warm water.

Both times I brought Ziploc bags and plastic storage containers. They are nice for packing things like shampoo or batteries and then you get to use them after. Some of that stuff you can buy in country, but when you are on a limited budget they may not be a justifiable purchase.

Bedding

I brought a pillow to both countries because I like sleeping with a pillow. During training in Niger, we were given a mattress and a bed frame, so if you didn’t have a pillow well then you didn’t have one. In Lesotho we had a nicer set up but I like having my pillow to travel with. The first time I just brought one off my bed, but the second I bought a camping pillow and appreciate it’s ability to fold.

Sheets are also another luxury.  I recommend non-fitted and cotton. If you are short on packing space, there is a good chance that you can buy one in your country. I raided my mother’s linen closet and found an old sheet that does the trick.

Sleeping bags are also a great thing to have, especially when you visit other volunteers. I bought a warm weather bag for Niger and a cold weather bag for Lesotho. If you are going somewhere with cool winters, get a cold weather bag. Mine has been great and it was half off thanks to the Coleman discount.

Some volunteers opt for sleeping pads and liners; I have neither. The liner is good for warmer weather and the pad makes a concrete floor a little more comfortable. I personally didn’t want to deal with the hassle of carry those extra items (I did bring a yoga mat and swap that in for a sleeping pad) but I can sleep anywhere. If you may want these items but don’t want to drag them across the ocean, check with other volunteers because these are the type of items they are looking to sell before returning home.

Bath and toiletries

For both services I brought a terry cloth towel, which is fine but clunky to carry around. Many volunteers opt for camping towels, such as the Sea to Summit Drylight Microfiber towel. While on vacation in South Africa a friend and I can across these towels at a travel store She had just lost hers and wanted to replace it My towel acquired quite the stench, thanks to the ocean and daily showers, and I was tired of finding room for the dumb thing so I decided to splurge and get one. It was 150 rand, or $18.75. In the States they are a bit more, but this towel changed my life. It dries quick, it dries me quick and it doesn’t take up a lot of space. If I were redoing my packing, I would go with this towel from the start.

You will be able to buy shampoo, conditioner and soap wherever you are, but if you have a preference for a certain kind bring it. It’s also fun to have nice smelling soap and lotion for days when you want to feel normal.

This next suggestion is for the ladies, so fellas I’ll see you in the next ’graph. In Niger some girls mentioned the Diva Cup for that time of the month and so I decided to get one for Lesotho, again using the discount. It is really awesome, especially if you are going to be on a bus for 14 hours. It takes some getting used to, but it’s much better to have than lugging around “supplies.”

Electronics

A lot of invitees wonder about computers: Yes. Having a computer is great for many reasons. You will have reports to write, and although you can access Peace Corps computers, it is nice to do it on your own. You may be able to hit up Internet cafes or, in Lesotho, we have modems, which are slow, bug perfect for checking different accounts. Even though I don’t have electricity in my house, I can access it daily and charge my computer for a movie every once and a while.

Unless you are going to a country with Peace Corps hostels, they aren’t many left, there will likely be no central location for media. In Niger we had hostels stocked with DVDs but in Lesotho everyone has hard drives. They load ‘em with music, movies and TV shows and then share media with other volunteers. My mom won a 2 Terobyte drive at a Christmas party and allowed me to use it, but you may not need that much space. The Passports are pretty common and give PCVs lots of space. And, if you want to make friends with the current PCVs right away, bring lots of new movies and latest episodes of popular TV shows. They will love you. (If you are reading this and preparing to come to Lesotho, I will bake you a cake if you bring latest episodes of How I Met Your Mother, Glee or Parks and Recreation.)

If you listen to your iPod daily bring it. It’s so nice to have music every morning to get me going and I use it for running or drowning out Famo music on taxies. I have battery-operated speakers that my mom sent to me while I was in Niger that are great for when other volunteers are visiting. One PCV used a iTrip to connect to the local radio and that worked great too.

EReaders and iPads are becoming more common among Peace Corps Volunteers. I didn’t have anything like that for Niger, but was gifted a Kindle before I left for Lesotho. Since my birthday was two days before staging, I received lots of Amazon gift cards and loaded it up. It is amazinjmg. You will read a lot and it’s nice not to have to haul, to country and around, a bunch of books you’ve been meaning to read. I don’t have an iPad, but those who brought them love them. Your access to wireless may be occasional at best (hardly at all in Lesotho) but if you use it for games, movies and books it would be worth it.

A good camera is essential and you should bring one depending on what photos mean to you. Many bring really nice DSRLs, but remember that I said things happen and it may not be functional after two years. If you value quality pictures over the possibility of shelling out for another, bring it. If not, get a nice point and shoot. I’ve wanted a DSRL for a long time but decided Africa wasn’t the time to make the splurge. So a really nice sales associate at Best Buy helped me pick out a Sony Cybershot. I love it and it takes good photos for what I need, which is posting on Facebook.

Phones are a big part of the Peace Corps life. Some volunteers will get their phones unlocked in America and then bring them to Africa and purchase the SIM here. I am not clever enough to figure that out so I just bought a phone in country. If you are coming to South Africa, Black Berry’s are big (I feel like the rest of the world is over the BB phase, but I could be wrong) along with the phrase, “BBM me.” If you are into that and have one, you can find out away, Google has great answers, to unlock it and then bring it. I personally didn’t want to deal with that and bought a crappy Internet capable phone that works just fine and can handle all of my inevitable dropping.

Random things

There is a bunch of smaller things that I brought that I really like having. Instead of giving you a 400-word composition on each item and why it is great, I’ll use a handy dandy list to make it nice and sweet.

Things I use almost daily:

–       Umbrella

–       Hemp

–       Duct tape

–       Push pins

–       Safety pins

–       Paper clips

–       Markets

–       GOOD pens

–       Envelopes

–       Notebook paper

–       Stickers

–       Batteries in all sizes

Sentimental Stuff

The host country natives and your new Peace Corps family will LOVE to see photos of loved ones back at home. But, to save space, don’t worry about albums and take the loose photos. You can decorate your house with them later on.

Journals. Lots of journals. You’ll want to have lots of memories of this time in your life and you need a place to record all those little and big moments. I brought a few and then have them sent to me when I think I am running out.

Bring things that will make you smile after a long day. A piece of art or your favorite coffee mug. These little things are nice to have once and a while and make you feel like you when everything else is so foreign.

If you are still reading this, congratulations. I am not sure I am still reading it. Anyway, if you have any further suggestions leave them in the comments. I will also answer any questions you have below or feel free to email me at heathermmangan@gmail.com and I will reply when I can.

Happy packing and good luck. You are in for a crazy, but magical, two years.

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