14 April 2013

the things i carried

Before I get into it, know that I was not asked to write about packing suggestions for incoming Volunteers by any committees or staff members in Peace Corps Ethiopia. I know there is an entire sea of blogs to navigate, many of which will offer packing suggestions of some sort, as well as information sent to you directly by Peace Corps. However, I have been keeping a running list of “the things I’m most thankful for having brought” and have shared all or some of that information with a couple PCVs-to-be, so I figured I’d go ahead and make it accessible by all. I’m sure it’s also at least somewhat insightful for the many friends and family who would frequently ask, “So, how do you pack for two years” in the months before my departure (to which I would often respond, “Well, it’s actually 27 months, so…”)

Another factoid to have in mind before perusing my suggestions is that, out of a group of 70 people, I far and away hauled the heaviest packing load, coming in right around 200 pounds. There are few things in that mass that I regret bringing, so narrowing it down to “the most essential” items was a bit of a challenge. On that note, also know that it was no big deal for me to exceed the PC-recommended luggage weight limit. I had to pay for the extra weight, and it was a bit of a hassle moving it around a few times during training, but it was worth it. So if you think you might be an overpacker (quite the other end of the spectrum from the “one baggers” in our midst), be prepared to pony up the fees.  

Finally, to give credit where credit is due, I found Mike Waidmann’s packing list to be the most helpful during my preparations. Mike completed his service in the Fall of 2012, and is now back in the magical land known as America. You’ll notice plenty of similarities between his list and the one you’re about to ignore. Thanks Mike!

1.      Sturdy, durable, waterproof hiking boots – number one on my list by miles and miles. I shelled out around $300 at REI the day before departure for a pair of rockin’ Asolos, and I can’t imagine a better way to spend that money. I wear them every day and would be absolutely miserable without them. Make sure you get fitted by someone who knows what they’re doing, and let them know you need the pair to last 2+years. Daily walking, in many parts of Ethiopia, is much like hiking.
2.      Microfiber towel or towels - also called "quick dry." I can't possibly express how thankful I am for the two I have here; one small, one large. I highly recommend the REI brand.
3.      Thermarest sleeping pad - lightweight and great for traveling and/or hosting guests at your place; also great if you're stuck with a crappy mattress during training or when you first arrive at site. I get flack from some of my lighter packing friends for calling this “essential,” but they seem pretty happy I brought it when they crash at my place.
4.      Laptop - Peace Corps seems to be somewhat ambiguous and non-committal on their recommendation, but it has definitely proven necessary here in Ethiopia, for Peace Corps work as well as keeping in touch. As Mike points out, internet is never a guarantee, but it’s availability is far more widespread than you might presume. Many of us have a wireless service transmitted through a USB dongle that you purchase once in country. Some of us are lucky enough to have enough speed to video chat with loved ones back home.
5.      A large external hard drive – I would bring at least a terabyte. I did not, but learned quickly how essential it is and had my wonderful fiancĂ© bring me one when we met in London for Christmas. I asserted that I “wouldn’t need movies and t.v. shows and whatever,” but you have free time in ways you can’t imagine, and there’s plenty of file sharing going on up in here.
6.      A medium/large, bright, LED light - I have one designed for tent camping that hangs on a carabiner clip; clutch for power outages.
7.      A quality headlamp - speaking of power outages...I bought a good, waterproof model; never leave home without it.
8.      Sunglasses – The quality here is not great. One friend brought 5 pairs. Good call.
9.      A general variety of footwear – In addition to the boots, I have a pair of slides I wear around my house, a pair of flipflops to wear around the compound (a.k.a. “shint bet shoes”), a pair of Tevas, several pairs of running shoes, etc. Took up more space than desired, but happy to have ‘em.
10.  Black socks and black underwear – Just remembered to add this after skimming Mike’s list again. Don’t ask, just do it.
11.  Sentimental/decorative items - it's amazing how far a few printed pictures, a poster or two, some magnets, and a flag can go to bring you some comfort from home in your little corner of the world. Never have I valued printed pictures so much.
12.  Swedish Fish - this is just me...but I underestimated how nice it would be to have American candy and other sweets on hand, especially as you're adjusting.
13.  Trekking/Hiking Backpack - I brought the biggest one I could find, which is great for bigger trips, but I wish I had also packed a medium sized hiking pack; not just for hiking, but super convenient for all the travel you have to do for Peace Corps.
14.  A small set of speakers  - music, aloud, in your home...nothing like it; capable of running on batteries would be wise, so you’re home’s not rendered silent by the many power outages you will endure.
15.  Ipod loaded with tunes - speaking of music...I bought the most spacious ipod I could find and filled it with my entire collection. Priceless. It has been said that to set out upon travels on the public buses without music is to do so on “hard” mode.
16.  Shortwave Radio - I had no idea how much I would value listening to BBC on a regular basis. It's great for keeping up with the world, but also for hearing some English. I found a Tecsun PL-380 for $45 on Amazon and have been very happy with my investment.
17.  A comfy pillow – My worst nights of sleep over the past 10 months have been with an Ethiopian pillow under head.
18.  Bungie chords - might just be me, but I rig up lots of stuff with these things...
19.  Duct Tape (and Gorilla Tape) – Speaking of rigging things up…I “repaired” at least for items for my host family that were still running on Duct Tape last time I dropped in to visit.
20.  Hooks - I brought magnetic and the kind you can screw into wood. Very useful for all sorts of stuff.
21.  A French Press - I am not even a big-time coffee drinker, but it's been nice to be able to prepare my own this way, especially since the local method in Ethiopia is very different.
22.  A set of tupperware - another unexpected essential; great for some many things, it would take another list to name them all.
23.  Ziplock bags - the normal sizes, but also the large, heavy duty ones; great for storing things under beds and whatnot so your items won't get dirty or covered in dead bugs.
24.  Several good bags/backpacks - I brought at least 10 different bags; a messenger bag, a couple drawstrings, two reusable shopping bags, a small backpack, a day backpack, a small duffle bag, etc. So many uses!
25.  Fitness items - I am beyond thankful for bringing my resistance bands. There was no doubt about my running gear, but other packable items to help you stay in shape go a long way.

There is certainly a lot more I could recommend and plenty of other items I have found useful, but the above definitively constitutes the “things I’m most happy I brought.” I urge you to take a look at Mike’s list, as well as others out there, and use your best judgment. No one know you better than you, so if there’s something that will make you comfortable and/or make your life easier, such as a years’ supply of Doritos, go ahead and pack it up.

If you’re part of the group arriving this July, I look forward to meeting you (I’m also in the Education sector). The challenges never go away, but you get much better at handling them. For a lot of us, it took about 8 months of living in Ethiopia before feeling relatively comfortable.

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