As the newest group of Peace Corps Namibia volunteers are preparing to give two years of their life to service of the U.S. and Namibia, I wanted to share a few short items that have made me just a bit happier and more content during my service. There are a ton of “what to pack” blog posts and lists out there, but I think that is less important than those few items that you, personally, consider essential. It goes without saying that these are merely my opinions, experiences and recommendations. Consult as many people as you can on what they felt was important for them, and also trust your own instincts on what is necessary packing for you.
- My small, portable Bluetooth speaker. It turns my flat from a death box of heat to a dance party when I need it to, makes for great music projection at a braai in my front yard and amplifies some of those movie files that you just can’t hear otherwise. It holds a charge for 10 hours and has made my home feel more welcoming and inviting. Music is pretty essential to me, as you can tell.
- A few hard copies of books that I love, but didn’t mind passing around. I am one of the few volunteers who really, really enjoys the feel of a real book in my hands as opposed to a Kindle, but a few of my friends and I trade out books quite often when we get together. There are a lot of books in the Peace Corps lounges, in Windhoek, Rundu and the Olands, and for me it was really nice to feel like I was “dropping a book, picking up a book” the way many programs are back in North Carolina. This is absolutely not essential, though, if you are a Kindle or Nook reader, as there is at least one huge digital book file that most volunteers have and you can easily acquire once you get to your Pre Service Training. There are book options for everyone, and you will be thankful for those options on those lazy weekends and days that you take for yourself.
- A decent supply of my own personal brand of birth control pills. Although Peace Corps is great about medical coverage and will provide you with literally anything that you need throughout your service, from antibiotics to antifungal cream and malaria tests, there are only a few specific brands of birth control pills that they are contracted with and provide. Through our VAC and VSN representatives, there has been some movement from the Peace Corps Medical Office on giving more options and varieties for female volunteers, but if you are able to get a good supply of the pill that works for your needs, it would be my recommendation to do so. I ended up having to go off of my birth control pill (for the better of my health, in the end) because the options that were available once my personal stock ended did not agree with my body. Again, all personal choices, but I know how hard it is for many women to find a birth control pill that works for their individual body chemistry and isn’t accompanied with rough side effects.
- Clothing, jewelry and accessories that I wear in my every day life in the States. I am big into my earrings, necklaces and bracelets and was worried that I wouldn’t be able to wear them once I got to site for fear of not fitting in or getting robbed. Despite what the stereotype is of a Peace Corps volunteer, we don’t all dress in khakis, Chacos or Tevas and janky t-shirts (at least not all of the time). I’ve included some pictures below of what I wear to work on a daily basis to give you a better idea, but don’t stress about buying a whole new wardrobe to fit the dress code. Most sites in Namibia are quite modern and you do not have to be completely covered up all the time, although for women, bring at least one or two longer skirts for when you visit the deep bush villages. Generally speaking though, as long as your skirt is not “vodka cranberry, club ready!” then you are most likely fine. Stick to loose, flowy shirts (it gets hot here, man) that are fashionable and easily paired with slacks or skirts, a few cardigans and a couple of flowy dresses. Spaghetti straps are frowned upon at work, though. I also wear jewelry on a daily basis, as it is part of my personal attire, and get many compliments on them. Just be cautious when you are hiking or in the big cities that you don’t wear something too fancy or flashy to draw attention to your “otherness”.
- Two journals that were personally made for me by people I cared deeply about. Writing and journaling have been a daily part of my life since I was in Middle school, and that certainly did not change once I got to Namibia. I love looking at how my writing, ideas and perspectives have changed over the two years I have been here, and oftentimes my greatest coping mechanism for the tough days is to journal. I bring a journal almost everywhere I go, which is why they look like they have seen quite a few coffee and wine spills (they have – they absolutely have). But that is all part of the character and experience. If writing is important to you, bring at least one journal to document your journey from the beginning – you can always get another one here, so don’t bring too many. I still have my airline ticket from the flight to Windhoek in my first journal! It is cool to look back on.
- A small, lightweight portable hammock. This has been a blessing and relaxation tool that I have never appreciated more. I have owned mine for a quite a few years before my service, and am so glad that I brought it with me. I found the perfect spot at the Ministry of Youth, where I work and live, to hang mine up and spent Saturday mornings reading and writing. This is another one of those small things that makes a place to live into a home, and I bring it with me when I travel in case I find the perfect spot to set up. It is also fun to see my friend’s faces when they see a hammock for the first time, and their joy when they sit in it.
- A lightweight, extremely condensable sleeping bag and silk liner. The key words here are lightweight and condensable – when you are on a hiking trip or even just hitch-hiking through Namibia to visit other volunteers, you don’t want something bulky and heavy to weigh your pack down any more than it already it with the rest of your personal items. I got my bag at REI in the children’s section (the perks of being small) and it is essential to bring with you on trips, as many volunteers only have floor space for you to crash on. This and my yoga mat have given me a lot of comfort where there otherwise would have been none. It also provided me with a blanket during my homestay at PST and when I first got to site and had not purchased a comforter yet. Plus, it sometimes gets cold here in the desert at night, and the extra warmth is appreciated.
- Reusable canvas bags. I brought three of them, which might seem excessive at first, but I use them almost every day. It is important to me to conserve resources and the environment as much as possible, especially while in a country where waste is not properly managed, and plastic bags are the biggest eyesore on the streets. They float through the air on windy days, in a depressing way, not in the American Beauty way, and I do my best to never use them. Not to mention, they each cost .20 cents at the shops – not only are you saving on plastic use, you are saving money as well. I am told that reusable bags can also be purchased at bigger shops in towns, but I do not have access to them in my community, and am always thankful that I have mine easily accessed.
- At least one Leatherman or pocket knife (or both!). These have come in handy so many times throughout my service, from chopping vegetables to cutting branches off trees to create posts for my garden, to properly killing and gutting a goat with my community. I carry mine with me almost all the time, especially when camping or traveling. If there is one thing that Peace Corps teaches you, it is to be self sustaining and never count on someone else bringing or doing what you need for yourself.
- An insulated water bottle. So many volunteers (and by that, I mean 99% of them) bring Nalgenes as their water container, which works out just fine. However, depending on where you get placed, you could be dealing with 110 degree days where you are walking around your village/town for outreach – when it comes to these days, I am SO thankful to have an insulated water container that I put in the freezer overnight. You don’t know the meaning of being appreciative of cold water until you live without centralized heating and cooling apparatuses, no power for a fan and the heat of the Namibian sun bearing down on you. Whatever water bottle you choose, whether a plastic Nalgene or a fancier insulated bottle, make sure to bring something so that you cut down on the cost of buying drinking water (almost everywhere in Namibia has potable water) as well as plastic usage.
A note of caution in your packing – I think they tell you this in all of the information that they give you prior to Staging, but I remember it being a lot of knowledge to absorb all at once. Pack anything valuable in your carry on. This includes electronics (obviously), jewelry of value (a friend of mine got all of her jewelry stolen at the Johannesburg airport), valuable medications and a change of clothes. Sometimes things get misplaced, and its always good to have a backup if your suitcase will take a few days to get to you. The Jo’burg airport, for whatever reason, is notorious for taking valuables out of suitcases, so just be cautious and strategic about your packing.
Otherwise, don’t sweat too much. I know it feels impossible to pack for two years of your life into two suitcases and a carry on, but you will do it and you will probably have WAY more than you ever need. We all do it. Take a personal inventory of what you really feel like you can’t live without and know that you can get almost anything you forget in the big towns when you go for your shopping trips. Your priorities change quite a bit in 27 months and you will realize how little you actually need to survive and thrive. Enjoy your last few months of home time with family, friends, guacamole and queso.