1. One or two changes of business casual clothing (include one pair of dress shoes). As you read your Peace Corps invitation kit you’ll see that formal attire is required for in-country training. This is not a suggestion! There will be times when you will meet foreign and U.S. representatives of State and religious leaders. Despite what you may have heard Peace Corps is not a hippie commune, and this is not band camp. There will be plenty of time for playing in filthy clothes and shower flip-flops later.
2. AAA battery LED headlamp. When the sun sets your light source is out. Most of the time the sun will not set when you are used to going to sleep, or at least before you begin cooking or set up your mosquito net for the night. Even volunteers placed in urban posts will likely experience outages from time to time. I found triple-A batteries easy to find even in rural markets.
3. Water Bottle. You can spot a new volunteer a mile away by the gleam of their brand-new Nalgene water bottle. As you might imagine, every country and culture on earth has a means of carrying water, and you are definitely capable of adopting their method, so this isn’t by any means an absolute must. I was tempted to include this on the Things you Shouldn’t Bring (but probably will anyway) items list but other volunteers I consulted reined me in. I will admit that durable water containers are a good idea.
- Note: Clear Naglenes marked with a recycling No. 7 do break down over time, and chemicals (bisphenol A) released into the water may reduce sperm-count in men. Click HERE for more information. Those trendy new aluminum bottles are a better bet if this concerns you.
4. Bag. This is stating the obvious, as you will need something to bring the afore-mentioned items in. Just remember that shiny, name-brand-recognizable items tend to walk away (this is not specific to any particular continent or country). I recommend something that looks just crappy enough not to attract attention. Swiss military surplus gear can be found at Mills Fleet Farm for under $10 ! Seriously, this isn’t the Appalachian trail: you don’t need to show off your brand new Northface gear.
- Note: If you buy some large tip-lock bags its easy enough to put articles of clothing in them and suck out excess air before closing them up. This shrink-wrapping will save room, and the zip-locks may be useful in keeping critters out of spices, flour, and misc. cooking items once you get to post.
5. Photographs. You are charged with sharing the best of yourself, and your country while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer. Bring pictures of your family, your home, your friends, typical holiday celebrations (keeping in mind your new friends might be Muslim: no bars), and anything you value and consider an important part of your life as an American. I forgot this on my first trip and wish I hadn’t.
Believe it or not this is all you need! Other items necessary to life in training, and at your post, can be purchased there, or belong in the Comfort and Things You Shouldn’t Pack (but will probably bring anyway) items lists.
1. Underwear. Peace Corps Medical staff will confirm this fact: underwear only keeps a warm, moist, bacteria-petri-dish-like area more warm, moist, and petri-dish-like! I understand most Americans will not heed this advice. There may be times when underwear is desirable, but I’m going to keep this blog rated- G (General audiences of all ages approved). Suffice to say, if he/she won’t love you without underwear, perhaps it isn’t love.
2. Playing Cards. You will have lots, and lots, and lots of down time. This 27-month commitment involves serious work, time, and dedication, and will be the hardest job you’ll ever love. It can be a bit slow at times though. If you bring a pack of durable playing cards people will love you (or at least tolerate your presence for the duration of a game, which in many cases will warm your heart beyond expectation).
3. Male/Female Reproductive Health. This category is as broad as the variety of human desires and needs. If you are traveling to a Muslim country don’t assume less-than-conservative-items – whatever those might be, will be readily available for sale. Peace Corps will provide you with the means with which you may prevent pregnancy, should this be a concern of yours. Actually this should concern you: pregnancy results in an immediate ticket back home. They also provide female monthly necessities that I will pretend to know nothing about.
- Note: you may not have grocery variety available to you but female volunteers have informed me that ’several’ options are provided.
4. Music. Everyone loves music, especially volunteers who have been in country for awhile and depend on new volunteers for New Music. Consider anything that does not require batteries. I’m not saying you have to buy a solar charged or hand-crank device, but if you don’t want children running around with your used up batteries in their mouths these are considerate choices. I’m not about promoting name brands but iPod’s are great! You can charge them when you’re around electricity and bring back up re-chargeable battery packs. There are solar chargers for these as well.
- Note: playing anything by Journey during Peace Corps functions is generally considered good form.
5. Sandals. You can purchase sandals of all kinds in-country, but some volunteers prefer expensive brands not available throughout West Africa. You can buy name brand sandals from CHACO at almost half price with a copy of your Peace Corps Invitation letter! Contact their customer service department and they’ll give you a form once you’ve provided a copy of your invitation letter.
6. Bungee Chords & Tie-Downs. This might sound odd, but then maybe you’re not used to traveling in a donkey-cart or by bush taxi either. Both instances might involve strapping your belongings to moving vehicles of an almost certain state of disrepair.
6. American Pillow. Real pillows are hard to find. If you absolutely must have something substantial to cling to at night this may be smarter than chasing volunteers… then again it takes up a lot of space!
Things You Shouldn’t Bring (but probably will anyway)
1. Compact water purifier. Peace Corps will supply you with a large water filter and tablets that purify your water. This is a large, non-portable filter. A portable water-pump or purifier of some kind might come in handy when you travel but I rarely used mine.
2. Books. You might want one for the flight: don’t bring your library. Believe it or not other volunteers will think of this. Other volunteers before you certainly have. Hostels, Peace Corps bureaus, volunteer houses and huts will be filled with books. Believe me, you aren’t the only one who adores Harry Potter, and you aren’t the only one who has stumbled across and fallen in love with Barbra Kingsover’s Poisonwood Bible. Trashy Danielle Steele romance novels are not rare. You may be astonished (hopefully horrified) to find that copies of fairly current US Weekly, Glamour, Star Magazine ect. are everywhere. This ties in well with our next item..
3. Toilette Paper. I’m going to break this to you the easy way: you may not use this. Certainly there are volunteers who stubbornly choose not to learn local sanitary methods, but you should know that this is not necessary, and not common in rural areas. They’ll probably ween you off of it in training, or at least provide it there and leave you to your own devices once you’ve been installed at post. You may decide to take the middle road: forgo purchasing actual toilette paper in favor or using pages of those US Weekly magazines! “Go Green” and recycle these pages by putting celebrity faces where they belong.
4. Electrical Devices. These things break, die, and walk off easily. The shinier and more hip they are, the faster and more inevitable their disappearance. This is not country or region specific: volunteers themselves are as guilty of ‘accidentally’ walking off with these as anyone else. No one’s saying you won’t want a laptop, digital camera, an array of solar or hand-crank charging devices, or a nifty new GPS unit: they just might not last. Don’t bring you new iPhone.
BONUS MATERIALS FOR THOSE WHO READ THIS FAR:
You’re probably in the minority of the very few people who bothered to visit this page if you’re still reading. Your reward is a few suggestions that may just make you instantly popular among older volunteers.
Do bring chocolate, cheese, less-than-conservative/Muslim-items (mentioned but not elaborated on for obvious reasons earlier), spice packets, SPAM (hey, its pork so you don’t have to share with the Muslim neighbors), Valveeta Cheese (never goes bad, makes even ’sauce-gumbo’ tasty), beef jerky, nice pens, LED keychain lights (insanely popular in the village), un-sweetened Kool-AID packets, American stamps, envelopes, girly comfort things, and a bottle or two of ANYTHING sold in the duty-free shops.
- Note: they’ll probably love you anyway if you just show up clean, optimistic, and smelling like America. Don’t be offended if they stand real, real close and breathe in deeply on first encounter. No matter how filthy these old volunteers look, they’ve probably ‘freshened up’, by their own standards (might mean they are wearing that one seldom-used pair of underwear) just to welcome and impress you.