June is just around the corner, and with it comes the newest batch of Peace Corps Zambia volunteers! Welcome CHIP/RED 2014!
As I’m coming up on my own 4 month service mark, I have been enjoying remembering back to January when I was counting down the days (hours, minutes…) until I boarded the plane for staging in Philly. The last few weeks were hard – saying goodbye to loved ones, visiting that favorite coffee shop just one last time – but one of the biggest stressors was in feeling like I had packed all the right stuff. What to bring? What could I not live without? What could I find in country? Help!
So, this week I want to throw my two cents into the “what to bring to Peace Corps” discussion. An important note: just as all volunteer countries and even sites are different, so are all volunteers. What I have found to be essential (or non-essential) may be radically different from the opinion of my nearest neighbor. Also, you’ll note that this post is called “1st Edition”. I’ve only been through two seasons now in Zambia, and not yet a full year of service. I’ll update this list again once I’ve lived through the full range of conditions and circumstances and can more appropriately report on the usefulness of my gear. This list is a compilation of things I use daily (and really enjoyed during training), most that I brought as well as a few additional things that I’ve since requested to be sent from my loving, doting, and extremely good looking friends and family back in the States.
1. Headlamp with recharable batteries
In Zambia, Peace Corps has been issuing each intake a recharable solar lamp. My intake was fortunate to get the Sun King** lamp, which is an outstanding device that provides 35 hours of light (on the low setting) on a full charge. Most importantly, it also comes with a cord and series of adapters for charging your mobile phone or other similar small device. However, Peace Corps doesn’t promise volunteers a light source and this lamp is not a guarentee. Thus, a headlamp with rechargable batteries is an essential.
Water is your very best friend in Zambia, and 9 times out of 10 you’ll be providing your own pre-treated and filtered water. I don’t leave my hut without at least a full liter in my pack; two liters if I’m biking anywhere (and this volume will go up in the hot season). I brought three water bottles with me to Zambia, and received a fourth as part of my biking gear. I use three of them regularly with the fourth as a spare. Bring your favorite, an extra, and then a spare extra so that you’re never without a quality water container. Label them, keep them clean (uncontaminated with dirty water), and wash them weekly to keep them from becoming bacteria farms. Pro packing tip: when preparing your luggage for Zambia, you can stuff water bottles with more breakable items (i.e. bottles of Tabasco sauce, eyeglasses, etc.) to save space and protect your belongings.
3. Multi-tool and/or knife (with scissors)
I carry my knife with me everywhere I go, and use it at least a half dozen times per day. It is easily one of my most essential tools, and I highly recommend you bring a good one with you. This week, my knife has been used for: cutting fruit, scraping a tick off a friend, scraping peanut butter out of a jar, cutting lines, branches, and fabric, and picking a pebble out from under my toenail. I use a Kershaw** knife with a straight blade and a flip action, and I love it. I do not recommend buying any knife that has a spring opening action as they are illegal in many countries. I also have a Leatherman Wave** and a mini-Leatherman multitool that has a pair of scissors as the main feature. I can not overstate how much I’ve used those scissors, so I highly recommend a tool that has some or bringing a solid pair along with you.
4. Sun protection
Peace Corps will issue you sunscreen, so don’t worry about bringing too much with you unless you have special needs (like SPF 100 for tattoos or something). I am not a big hat-wearing person in the States, but I brought a baseball cap that has been essential on hot and sunny days. I also brought polarized sunglasses and a large scarf that I’ve used for covering my neck and shoulders. Choose the methods that have worked for you in the past, and bring at least two methods of protection with you.
Music has always been an integral piece of my day, and so I brought along my iPod Touch**, a JamBox by Jawbone** (a very generous gift from a friend), a few sets of headphones, and a shortwave radio. While I’m still wrestling with the radio in my receiption-unfriendly site, the iPod and Jambox (a bluetooth speaker) have been a major part of my mental health plan. If you like music, bring the most durable MP3 player you can. The speaker isn’t necessary, but I’ve really enjoyed it for group music during training, and throwing impromtu dance parties for my village children.
6. Solar panel (Goal Zero) + battery pack**
Most volunteers in my intake brought a solar panel and battery pack system. I use the Goal Zero Nomad 7 panel and Guide 10 Plus battery pack and find them adequate for charging my iPod, phone, and speaker in a pinch (I prefer to use my Sun King lamp for most things). With the Guide 10 Plus battery pack, it’s important that you only use NiMH batteries. Frankly, I haven’t been too impressed with the Goal Zero AA batteries that came with the kit (they take a long time to fully charge, and don’t provide much juice), though other rechargable batteries I’ve used have lasted a long time and provide a lot of charge. When deciding whether to bring a solar panel, realize that you don’t NEED one. They are not essential to your life. For me, it provides free energy (aside from the purchase price) and a way to keep my few electronics charged and working, which provide me with a steady source of morale boosters when I need them and the ability to blog from the field – a priority during my service.
7. Comfortable daypack
I brought the backpack I used in grad school, and use it daily. It’s an REI LookOut 40L**. While I rarely pack it all the way full, it’s a great overnight bag, biking pack, and all around useful bag. You will need a reliable, durable bag during your service. Don’t leave home without one.
Writing for me is a source of stress relief, creativity outlet, and record of my daily life as a volunteer. I brought with me three blank journals, and write nearly every day. The conventional wisdom of packing for Peace Corps is that if you didn’t normally use it at home, you probably won’t use it here. I would argue that even if you weren’t a journaler at home, you may find it to be a worthwhile outlet once you’re in-country and adjusting to the ever-changing life here. If you’re not sure, just bring a small one with a few pens and give it a try.
9. Quality sandals and footwear
You will do a lot of walking, biking, and getting around on foot while in Peace Corps. In Zambia, they advise you to bring a variety of “formal footwear”. As a LIFE/RAP volunteer, my formal needs are much less than that of CHIP/RED volunteers. However, a solid pair of hiking sandals that strap to your foot are a must. I brought a pair of Chacos**, and wear them daily (or so says my sexy foot tan), and imagine I’ll need to request a second pair before my service is up. Other volunteers in my intake live in hiking shoes, tennis shoes, and even a pair of knock-off Vans. Whatever you bring, make sure it’s quality, has a solid sole (arch support), and can be cleaned up to look nice for training events. You don’t need lots of pairs of shoes, but this is a good place to invest if you’re deciding what’s worth the money. My personal recommendation: a pair of tennis shoes/hiking shoes, a pair of quality flip flops (mine are also Chacos), a pair of quality hiking shoes, and a pair of semi-formal flats that you can still walk in. You may also desire muck boots, but you can purchase them in-country if you need them at your site.
10. Hot sauce
Oh hot sauce, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. #1001: when I simply cannot eat one more bite of nshima (our local food staple, reminiscent of mush), hot sauce in its many glorious varieties reinvigorates my appetite, leaving me with a molten mouth and tears of spicy happiness in my eyes. Definitely not a staple for everyone, but I eat it with nearly every meal and it adds an immeasurable dose of joy and familiarity to my life.
11. Rain jacket
This is another one of those “worth it to spend the money on it” items. I use a Columbia** jacket with a deep hood and velcro-adjustable cuffs. I don’t leave home without it during rainy season.
12. Momentos from home (photos, etc.)
Of all the things on this list, these things are the most important to my mental health. From home, I brought farewell cards, photos of friends and family (I wish I had brought more), and a world map. I’m a great lover of maps, and so I brought one from inherited from my grandmother’s awesome map collection. I should have checked the publication date before packing it, however, because it’s a National Geographic** map from 1981, and so I spend my spare time gazing at the Soviet Union, Zaire, and Sudan. So, if you bring a world map, bring a current one (though, I’ll admit, I’ve really come to love my pre-my-birth map).
13. Good hair ties
I have longer-than-shoulder length hair, and it’s thicker than molasses in the wintertime. I brought ample supplies of strong hair ties with me (I almost always wear it up), and have been greatful. Zambian women wear their hair very short, or tie it up with string. You will be hard pressed to find something elastic and strong enough to deal with volumes of long hair.
14. Collapsable Bluetooth keyboard
This is definitely one of those “essentials” that isn’t so essential, but has been a life-changer for me. As you know, blogging is an important priority for my service, and it drives me crazy to try to use Swype or any of the on-screen typing methods. I purchased my keyboard off Amazon** for around $30 USD and have loved it every minute since. If you’re an avid blogger, or even keep an electronic diary, you may consider bringing such a keyboard.
15. A Few Clothing Items
Let me tell you, ‘dem threads – which to bring? What’s appropriate? – really stressed me out during packing for Peace Corps. Here’s my short list of things that I use daily and am glad to have brought:
– Lightweight, cotton leggings in dark colors
– Lightweight, loose-fitting, cotton T-shirts
– Durable, quick-dry and cotton underwear (you end up scrubbing the crotch out, so bring extra or have more sent)
– One pair of jeans, and one pair of long, lightweight work pants
– A pair of work gloves
And finally, here are some things you absolutely, positively, do not need to bring to Zambia.
1. Peanut butter
We have it here, and it’s delicious.
We have too much of it here, and it’s giving me high blood pressure.
3. A phone from America
I purchased a Samsung Galaxy S** from Amazon on the cheap shortly before coming to Zambia. While it was great during training, it ate up data like there was no tomorrow, and had a very limited battery life (smart phones eat data FAST, and data is expensive on the volunteer budget) and didn’t work at all at my very remote site. So, I ended up buying a Samsung Chat** off a COSing volunteer (dual sim cards, long battery life, doesn’t eat data). If you’re debating whether or not to buy a phone to bring to country, I would recommend from my personal experience waiting and bringing the cash to buy one here. That being said, the people I know who have iPhones seem to be doing well with them (though they still eat data and battery life rapidly).
So, there you have it. A list of things that you may or may not find as important to your Peace Corps life as I do.
A final note: just remember, everything you need to live in Africa is already here. Peace Corps will provide to you the essentials (like a water filter) and teach you to survive on the local food and in the local environment. Trust that you can get by on less than you’re used to; the truth is, you can and will, and you’ll likely be surprised by how fast you make that adjustment. Ultimately, the old addage that “less is more” is absolutely true when packing for Peace Corps.
*Psst…want to see more about the daily essentials of Peace Corps and traveling life? Check out “What’s In My Backpack?” over at Go Girl Travel!
**While I often mention products in my blog posts, I do not receive compensation from any of the above mentioned companies for talking about their products. I love gear that is quality, reasonably priced, and that comes from a reputable and customer-conscious company.