So—hello! I’m Rowan, pronounced ROW-in, don’t let the Malagasy pronunciation fool you. Environment volunteer in the Northeast, near Sambava. There’s a new group of people setting off for
So if your schedule is like ours, your group will consist of both Environment and Business Development volunteers, and there will be somewhere around 30 of you. You’ll meet in an East Coast city (probably DC, but that might change) for a day or two of orientation—completing paperwork, doing icebreakers, talking about the schedule. Then you’ll be on a plane for 2 days of fun-filled insomnia (I watched a lot of plane movies). They’ll probably put you up in a hotel in
Soon after you get in country, you’ll be paired with a host family, who you’ll live with for most of your first 10 weeks in country. My stage was placed with host families about the second day, but they may change that with the new stage and put you in the training center for awhile first. The first 10 weeks is training—usually, a half day of language classes and a half day of tech training 5 ½ days per week, with one day a week reserved for medical, security, and administration lectures, and Sundays off to do laundry and study.
Your first week, you’ll have an interview with your APCD—the director of your sector—to discuss your site placement, and you’ll get your site assignments soon after. Then, many people will switch to learning a dialect instead of Standard Malagasy. You’ll visit your site around week 5 and swear in as official volunteers after 10 weeks.
This is one of the biggest things people freak out about, and one of the things volunteers care least about. If you get sick, the Peace Corps doctors will take care of you, period. If you have issues with your malaria prophylaxis, you can probably switch. If you’re missing a shot, you can get it here. You get Western-style medical care in PC.
Oh, the difficulty of packing. Don’t worry too much about the weight limit, but do make sure you can move everything yourself. And if you ARE obsessing about the weight limit, you’re trying to bring too much. Really. Unless you’re me, in which case all those books were totally necessary, thank you very much.
The most important things to remember (again, my opinion): DO bring a computer and thumb drives. DON’T BOTHER with the stupid solar chargers. DO bring stuff to do. DON’T go too crazy with medications and toiletries, you can get those in country.
Most Business volunteers, most Education volunteers, half of Health volunteers, and about a quarter of Environment volunteers have electricity. (By the way, that does mean: Environment volunteers, don’t hold your breath.) During training, you can bank of having electricity once a week at the training center. Even if you’re placed at a site without electricity, most solar chargers are pathetic enough that unless you go majorly high end, they barely function. Not worth it. Also, you can buy a solar charger in-country called Tough Stuff that functions better than the crap you can get in the States for the same price (though it only charges cell phones, batteries, and the Tough Stuff solar lamp). A lot of volunteers can find places at their site to charge stuff, usually off generators. Bottom line: don’t get solar chargers, figure on charging stuff electrically. You DO probably want to get an adapter in the States (plug adapter, you probably don’t need a converter). You can get them here, but you probably won’t have an opportunity to go shopping until you’ve been here for quite awhile! It’s the usual African/European plug, two round prongs.
Like I said, this is one area where PC’s paperwork is really outdated. First off, that PC address they tell you to set up on Yahoo? You don’t need it, most volunteers use their regular Gmail or whatever. Internet access is still really variable here—some people have daily access to it, some people can only get to it once a month. During training, don’t hold your breath, you’ll probably have internet access like twice.
DO bring a computer and one or two thumb drives (USB keys, external minis, whatever you want to call them). Unless you are purposefully trying to fall off the grid (which IS legitimate), you probably want a computer. A lot of PCVs have netbooks like Dell Inspiron mini. If you buy new, it’s a good idea to get a big battery—mine lasts 6 hours, so charging it once a week works out pretty well. Yeah, I know PC still says they prefer you not to have one—but like I said, that’s outdated. PC expects you to do quarterly reports by computer and an extensive report and Powerpoint presentation during your first three months at site. Plus, it’s really nice to be able to upload photos and watch movies (digital movies, very few people bother with those DVD things). Thumb drives are necessary to get paperwork, upload blog posts and such at internet cafes, and (if large enough) get movies. I brought 2 and am happy I did because a LOT of Malagasy computers (and, OK, volunteer computers too) have viruses, so I use one for when I think I’m on a computer that might have a virus. The other one stays “clean” (I hope).
One of the reasons PC recommends to not bring a computer is because it makes you a target for theft and puts you above the community, and that’s totally legitimate. But most PCVs, I think it’s fair to say, DO have a different material reality than the people they live with. Forget tech stuff—I’m considered rich in my community because I have real shoes, a gas stove, and a mountain bike. That said, I keep my tech stuff out of sight so most people don’t know I have a computer or iPod. Voila, problem solved.
Radio—you can get cheap radios in country, but they don’t pick up shortwave very well. If you want to listen to the news, get a shortwave in the States. I can’t really help you with specs, but anything you get in the States will be better that what you get here.
As mentioned, internet access varies a lot and don’t expect to email during training. Once you’re at site, you can reassess. Cell phone coverage, however, is pretty decent, and you can expect to have a cell phone starting not too long after you get here—say the 2nd week. Your
Yes, Mad’s in the tropics and I have sweat pouring down my face as I’m writing this because it’s almost a hundred with high humidity. There’s a big temperature range, though, so don’t bring just t-shirts. During the cold season (July-August) in the highlands, it gets into the upper 30s sometimes. Yipes. On the other hand, here up north, I haven’t put on long sleeves in 4 months. I live in cargo capris, flipflops, and cotton tshirts. It’s liberal here and any clothing goes, but further south, they prefer you to cover up a little more (any people down south want to comment on that, please do). Your best bet it to bring a lot of cotton t-shirts and a little of everything else and augment your wardrobe once you get to site—there’s lots of secondhand Western clothes here, once you’re comfortable enough to brave the craziness of the frip markets.
Don’t get too crazy packing warm clothes because I mentioned the 30s thing, but do make sure you at least throw in a fleece. Since you’ll be leaving the States in February, I doubt that’ll be a problem. Everyone says to bring lots of good underwear, and I agree, it’s hard to find here. It rains a lot here, although I think that after awhile PCVs just give up staying dry and wander around in the rain (again, I’m Environment). PC says to bring nice clothes, and you should bring at least one set for things like meeting your counterpart, swearing in, and getting dragged to official ceremonies once you’re at site. A skirt/slacks and nice shirt is fine, you don’t have to go crazy. Keeping in mind that I’m female and an Environment PCV—if any SED people feel like commenting about workplace wear, be my guest. And one of the male PCVs I live near commented that he wished he brought a dozen pairs of basketball shorts and left the rest at home, so guys, there you go. Again, Environment.
Other Packing Info
Let’s see, what else?
DO bring stuff to do, you’ll have spare time to twiddle your thumbs regardless of sector—welcome to the speed of the African workplace. If you’ve ever wanted to take up the harmonica or read War and Peace, now’s your chance. (War and Peace was good, btw, we had a little book club going.) In any case, bring books to replenish our volunteer library and add to the trade network of volunteer books. If you’re placed in the
Toiletries: you can get most things here, though shopping time the first 2 months will be limited. But rest assured,
That said, two things are hard to find here: face wash and conditioner (can you get conditioner at Jumbo? Anyone know?) I haven’t needed to use conditioner much here, it’s humid, but if you’re attached to your face wash, bring a bottle and ask people to send you more.
Medical Supplies: Peace Corps gives out lots of medical supplies—you’ll get a partial kit within a few day of getting here and a full kit after about a month. This includes dental floss (hard to find here, so PC gives it to you), sunscreen (ditto), pink bismuth (aka Pepto Bismo), bandaids and gauze, antibiotic ointment, calamine lotion, lip balm with SPF, mosquito repellent (the stick kind), antihistamines, antacids, motion sickness pills, Epipens (if you have major allergies), et cetera ad infinitum. Lots of stuff. Don’t waste too much space with medical supplies.
Lots of PCVs say to bring envelopes. Not really necessary. You can get them in country, and the cheapest way to send letters is to get the prepaid ones anyway. If you do bring a few envelopes, get the ones with the peel off sticker—if you get the ones you need to lick, they will seal themselves closed in the humidity.
I’m happy I brought: A journal. A good hat—Malagasys have small heads, and it takes awhile to find one that fits here. A small combination lock for the transit house lockers (you can get locks with keys in country no problem). My own pillow—that’s obviously very optional, but it packed down pretty small, didn’t take up much weight, and is much better that the ones I can buy locally. A photo album—30 or so pictures of family, friends, and where I lived, to give people a visual of the States and to have something to talk about with people, especially the first week at site. Buy a cheap album from the drugstore to put pictures in, otherwise they will be ruined very quickly by the dirty hands of small children.
Anything else? Eh, I dunno, I’ll update if I think of something. Feel free to ask me questions (though it may take me a week or so to respond). Check Facebook to see if people from your stage have started up a group.
Have fun packing (though I know it’ll be a while yet)!