June 3, 2009

G-18 Packing List

Well it’s almost time for the next education training group to arrive in Guinea, which means I’m almost at my one year point. Unbelievable, I honestly don’t know where the time goes. I vaguely remember those last few months before leaving for Guinea as a blur of anxiety and numerous trips to Target. In an effort to try and make the process a little bit easier for those who are coming I wrote up a packing list. For all of you G-18ers out there reading this, keep in mind that obviously these are just suggestions and there are things that I think are useful to bring which might not make sense for you. So take everything I say with a grain of salt.

To all the rest of you, I’ll put up a more me-centric post (everybody’s favorite kind of post obviously) soon.

Things to Bring

• Photo Album - This is a great way to break the ice with your host family and people in your village. Throw some pictures of friends and family in there but also put a lot of pictures of stuff from The States that aren’t in Guinea or are done differently than here, like snow, or supermarkets, or pictures of you at work/school, or pictures of you cooking.

• Host family presents – You’re going to have a host family at least for training and you’ll want to give them some presents to thank them for having you, I think a new nalgene makes a good present. I brought two for myself to country but my host mom during training liked the one I was using so much I gave her the second one. They make a good present because they're pretty looking, useful, and high quality (which is something that is often lacking here). Other good presents are things that are obviously from America or related to America. Things with American flags, postcards, maps, American candy, etc. Don’t spend a lot on presents though, you might think a cheap present is no good but it’ll be nice here. And honestly it’ll mostly just be the thought anyways.

• Books – Don’t bring a lot, just a few that you really love or have always wanted to read. There are thousands of books in the Peace Corps transit houses in country left behind from past volunteers so you’ll never want for reading material. Don’t bring War and Peace, there are about a million copies here.

• Earplugs - Village life is loud! Crying babies, goats, roosters, people getting up at the crack of dawn. Not to mention when you're in transit houses with other PCVs and you just want some sleep. Bring some good earplugs, you'll be happy you did.

• Kelty Redwing Traveller 3100 - I definitely recommend some sort of mid sized backpack to use on trips in country. I like this one because it zips apart into two bags, a big one and a little one. When I go on bush taxis I put the big one on top with all my clothes and inexpensive stuff and then I keep my money and electronics in the car in the small one with me. That way if anyone goes through my bag up top (which happens sometimes) they can't get at anything I care about losing. Plus the small one is good for walking around in town.

• Something to break the ice with your host family (bracelet making stuff, drawing supplies, cards, something like that) - Moving in with a host family can be awkward, especially if you're language skills aren't cemented yet. Having a little activity you can do together that doesn't require too much talking is a good way to start off on the right foot.

• U.S. postage stamps and self sealing envelopes – The Guinean postal system sucks so if you want to send mail back reliably just put a U.S. stamp on it and give it to a volunteer going back to the states to drop in a mailbox there. There's always someone going back so this works fine. Also bring self sealing envelopes, the kind you have to lick don't do well in the heat. I didn't think I would do that much writing so I didn't bring stamps, but then I had people send me them in packages. It's a good way to keep in touch and you'll have plenty of time to write at site. Make sure you get people's mailing addresses before you leave though! Also you might want to get the U.S. postage pricing figured out before you go. I'm never quite sure if I need to put extra postage on my heavier letters so I always err on the side of caution and stick an extra stamp on. If I knew the actual prices I wouldn't have to waste stamps.

• Simple cheap weather thermometer – You almost definitely won’t have internet at your site. It's easy to forget how awesome it is to have internet and just be able to look up little things you want to know right away. I always want to know what the temperature is at site but I have no way of finding out. I wish I had one of these.

• World Map - For the same reason, no internet means no access to maps. You'll probably listen to a lot of BBC world news at site and it's nice to be able to look up where the different countries they're talking about are. Plus it makes a good decoration. It also helps to remind me that I’m not alone in the world when I start to feel a little isolated at site. You can buy these in Conakry if you don’t feel like lugging one across the Atlantic.

• Dictionaries, an English one and a good comprehensive French/English one - Again, no internet/computer so if you're writing letters at site there's no spell check. A good English dictionary is super useful for writing letters also if you plan on reading and studying a lot it's useful. I've heard it's necessary to have if you plan on studying for the GREs (which you can take in Conakry). Peace Corps will provide you with a French/English dictionary but in my opinion it was kind of lacking. Bring a compact but comprehensive French/English dictionary with you. I have the one made by Berlitz with the blue plasticy cover and I really like it.

• Rechargeable batteries and charger - Batteries in Guinea are really shitty and I’ve heard they can blow up and ruin electronics (but I’ve never actually seen this happen). Rechargeable batteries sidestep this problem. You'll probably have access to electricity to recharge them somehow at site or at least on monthly regional capitol visits. I recommend it, plus it's good for the environment.

• Headlamp and flashlight - No electricity means no light (duh)! Headlamp is a must and a backup good long lasting flashlight too. I got the generic PETZL headlamp and I really like it. It's LED so it lasts a long time and it's bright. For a flashlight I have the Princeton Tec Attitude. That's also LED and it doesn't drain batteries that fast, it's small, and bright.

• I was told to bring a monthly planner, I never use it but I could see how it could be useful. I just make my own calendars at site, it's something to do.

• Mach 3 with replacements - The razors in Guinea are crap. I'm glad I brought them.

• Seeds - If you plan on gardening bring these. They're easy to buy in the states but harder to get in country. I can only find the few vegetables they grow here and I wish I had more variety.

• Cash - It's hard to get money out of a U.S. bank account in Guinea so if you've got any money you want to use for traveling I'd bring it with you and just keep it locked up with Peace Corps in the main office. Don’t worry about bringing money though, Peace Corps pays you enough to live comfortably and travel. And if you do bring money don’t go overboard, I wouldn’t bring more than $1,000 - $2,000. To give you an idea of how much money that is here, we get paid $200 a month and that goes a really long way. Travel money is nice but by no means necessary.

• Pillow - Someone told me to bring one before I came and I'm glad I did. That being said, if you can possibly avoid bringing one, don't bring it. They're big and bulky and a bitch to carry around. And you can also buy American style pillows in Conakry.

• Camp towel - It's not necessary but it's nice to have a small towel you can stuff in your pack for trips. There are volunteers here who just use a strip of fabric they bought in country and that works well also. I like my camp towel though.

Things Not to Bring

• Too many books - Bring the ones you really want/need but don't bring more than that. There will be tons of books in country from past volunteers who left them and if push comes to shove they make a good care package item.

• Too many toiletries - They're really heavy and you'll be able to find everything you need in country. Just bring enough to get you through the first month or so of training until you're comfortable enough to go out and hunt for them yourself.

• Too many clothes - Pack light! A) you'll want to buy Guinean clothes in country B)You'll probably wear your clothes for a lot longer stretches at a time than you do in the States because hand washing your laundry is awful and there's really no need to be clean. Also you can find tons of cheap American style clothes here like t-shirts and jeans, so if you need more you can buy them.

• Too much survival/wilderness type stuff - you're not gonna be camping for two years, you'll have a home with comforts. In general most outdoorsy stuff won't be all that useful.

• Too many bags - I recommend a large duffel bag and the Kelty I was talking about earlier. Keep it light, trucking around a lot of baggage is no fun.

• Too many things to pass the time - I brought a bunch of little things to pass the time with like a hacky sack/harmonica/Frisbee and I don't really use any of them. You'll have a bunch of time on your hands but you'll probably read a lot and do other things that are more productive.

• Dress clothes - Peace Corps will tell you to bring dress clothes, don't be fooled! Dress clothes aren't really that necessary except for maybe one or two functions. I brought all the dress clothes they told me to bring and maybe wore them once. I'd recommend bringing some outfit that you can wear casually but is also nice enough to get by at some sort of embassy event or something like that (like a polo with comfortable brown slacks). Honestly, you're a Peace Corps volunteer, people expect you to be dirty.

• Food - Some people brought some food from home but in general it was gone quickly and I don't really see the point. You're not gonna miss American food right away and by the time you start missing it all the food you brought will be gone. Plus you'll get used to the food here. And food is a great care package item.

General Things to Think About

• Anything you forget to bring is not a big deal so don't stress out about packing. Honestly you could probably show up in country with the clothes on your back and be fine, you'd be surprised the kind of stuff you can find in country. Also, if you ever really need something that you forgot it can just be sent in a care package (although this is a headache to coordinate and mail can get stolen so try and get it right with the important stuff the first time around).

• If you don't use it in the States you probably won't use it in Guinea. Life's different but in general you won't need all sorts of weird different stuff.

• Keep visibly expensive items to a minimum. There's some stuff I brought (like ipod speakers) that I just don't use that often because it's awkward to have really conspicuous nice stuff when everyone else around has nothing. Nice stuff is good, but make sure you can be discreet with it.

• Communication back home is nice, try to plan it out. Get yourself a mass mailing list, collect people's e-mails, mailing addresses, and phone numbers, figure out good calling cards for people to buy so they'll know ahead of time what to do to get in touch with you, start a blog. The blog's actually kind of bitch to update but it's worth it, it keeps people connected to me who would otherwise just drift away.

• That being said, communication back home is tough. Keep that in mind and say your goodbyes to people you might not talk with for two years.

• Make yourself Journal. It can be boring and I often lack the motivation to do it, but force yourself to do it. You'll be really happy you did. I look back on my entries even now just from the beginning of my service and I'm really happy I have them. Your journal will be something you'll have for the rest of your life and it'll help you remember your time in Peace Corps. Just do it!

• Stay in the moment! It can be easy at times during service (especially on bad days) to be in a bad mood and just count the days till it's over. Resist the urge to do that! This will be one of the most unique experiences of your life and don't fall into the trap of not appreciating it as it's happening.

Ok, I think I’ve touched on the big things that I wanted to mention. Good luck to everyone out there and I’ll see you soon!