Posts tagged unsolicited advice
Posts tagged unsolicited advice
Ethiopia is lucky enough to be getting another group of Peace Corps Trainees at the beginning of June. By now, invitations are out, and their recipients — if they’re anything like me — are a little excited, a little scared, and completely and utterly clueless about what living in Ethiopia will be like.
There are many things invitees should do when they’re preparing to join the Peace Corps (like achieve a zen-like state of calm), but one is pretty basic: you have to pack. I’m sure that, in the end, you’ll do whatever you want when it comes to packing, but I (and several of my colleagues) have a few tips to share. You’ll notice something about our lists: they’re all different, but have some common themes.
1. You’re not going on a 27-month camping trip. Sure, it gets hot here, and breathable fabric is important. However, unless you’re an environmental volunteer (and even then), you’re not going to spend the majority of your time in the woods. If you’re a hiker, great! Bring your stuff. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to confound community members by going on hikes (walking far for fun? It actually took 5 months for us to figure out the word for this, and it translates to “recreation.”) But please, please don’t forget that you’re going to go to work. In a school or office environment, your colleagues will be dressed in something between business casual and business attire. For young men, a typical workday outfit is jeans, a button-down shirt, and dress shoes; women usually wear skirts that at least cover their knees, though jeans or pants aren’t out of the question (just hotter!). Older folks tend to skew more towards the professional end, with suits popping up here and there. Will you stand out [even more] in your swishy pants that unzip into shorts? Yes.
2. Bring less. You can get just about everything you need here — clothes are available in every town; volunteers share books and movies in training towns, via mail, and through the Peace Corps office; kitchen and home supplies are abundant (after all, people cook and live here, and have been doing so for a long time). I have, like, 9 shirts, 3 skirts, and 4 pairs of pants, and when I have to wash all my clothes at the same time my neighbors tease me about how much clothing I have. People wear the same outfit multiple times in a row, and you will too, once you’re doing your own laundry by hand. I’d recommend a two-tiered packing system: pack what you can’t live without, and put the things you’re not sure about in a USPS flat-rate box. Leave it with someone who loves you enough to dig out stuff you don’t need after a few months in country…and ask him/her to fill the remaining space with chocolate, cheese, and/or pork products before sending it to you. “One-bag Dave” was a legend in our training group. Be the legend.
3. There are, however, a few things you can’t get here, or that are exceptionally hard to find. Food-wise, baking soda, chocolate, (real, delicious) cheese, and pork products are the things I can’t get here, but that friends and family back home have been kind enough to provide from time to time. I haven’t been able to find a fitted bed sheet or a sharp kitchen knife. Backpacks, bags, and shoes that don’t fall apart after a few uses are scarce, but people able to repair them for a few birr are plentiful. I’d recommend bringing some of your favorite candy to tide you over until the end of pre-service training, and deciding what you really need from home when you get to your site.
4. A quick-dry towel and one of those pillows that can squish into a smaller size are great for traveling around the country. Hotels in smaller towns can be…er…ill-equipped. They’ll typically provide a pillow that’s about 8 inches thick and hard as a rock. Towels don’t come standard: after all, what are you going to do with one when there’s no shower, anyway?
5. I’m grateful for my earplugs just about every morning. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church observes many feast days, at irregular intervals, that necessitate the singing of prayers through a loudspeaker at 3 a.m. Mosques have the five daily calls to prayer. Roosters start crowing well before dawn. There are some nights when the entire canine population of my town seems to be up in arms about something. And every morning at about 6 a.m., my neighbor, with whom I share a non-soundproof wall, chops onions with what sounds like an axe. Bring several pairs.
6. Bring pictures of your family and friends. Not only will you want to look at them, but so will all your new friends and neighbors. A small photo album is a standard conversation piece in most Ethiopian homes.
7. A headlamp will free up your hands when you’re taking a late-night trip to the shint beyt or reading without power. You’ll look silly. You’ll feel silly. You’ll be glad you got one.
8. Bring an umbrella for the rainy season. They’re available here, but you’ll need one when you first arrive.
9. Bras. The ones available here are flimsy and weirdly-shaped.
10. The best packing advice I’ve heard so far is to bring things that make you happy, but leave it behind if it’s irreplaceable or if you’d be devastated by its disappearance. Bring your favorite sweater, for example, but expect that by the time you leave it will be threadbare from two years of handwashing. You can probably pick up a new one when you get home. If it’s your grandma’s favorite sweater from when she was your age, replacing it becomes more difficult.
I took a minimalist approach - and I certainly packed more than this when I came. If I could do it all over again, I’d err on the side of less.
Good luck! I can’t wait to meet you all and wel come (yeah, it’s two words here) you to Ethiopia!