Hindsight is 20/20: Packing List Advice

>> Wednesday, November 21, 2007

This post may not be of much interest to our friends and family, but as we were preparing to leave for the Peace Corps, we obsessively Googled “Peace Corps Packing List” in hopes of finding out exactly what to bring. We did find a lot of lists online, but very few were from Latin America and none were from Nicaragua. Additionally, even though we found a lot of lists, we never knew if people were happy with the things they brought, only that they were planning to bring them.

We’ve had a couple of perspective volunteers ask if we have packing suggestions, so we decided to look back at our packing lists and see what we brought that we’re glad we did, what we wish we brought that we didn’t, and what we should have sold at the garage sale. This annotated list includes only the items that we think are worth commentary; our full lists of what we actually brought can still be found here and here.

Don’t Leave Home Without It

  • Headlamp: Invaluable for reading at night, the nights when the power goes out (there are many), and late-night trips to the outside bathroom. We’re really glad we have small LED lamps because they don’t eat batteries like some of the others.
  • Battery-powered alarm clock: Again useful because the power goes out all the time. Ours also shows the temperature which is fun for complaining about how IT’S NOVEMBER AND IT’S NINETY DEGREES IN HERE hot it is.
  • USB flash drive: It’s really nice to be able to save e-mails, documents, and have things on hand no matter what Internet cafe you go to. Paul has already lost a couple and they’re really expensive here, so we should have even brought a couple extras.
  • Nalgene bottles: These were great to stuff full of things while we were traveling, they’re indestructible, and they’re really nice because they can be boiled for cleaning.
  • Books: The Peace Corps office does have a big library, but the selection is sort of overpopulated with Danielle Steele and John Grisham. It’s great to bring a few books that you’ve really been wanting to read, and you can use your primo books as collateral to trade with other volunteers.
  • Digital camera: I’m not sure I know any volunteer who didn’t bring a digital camera. Digital was an easy choice for us as we can upload them online, put them on the blog, e-mail them, etc. We can also burn CDs of pictures to keep them safe. Film can be developed here, but the prints are really horrible quality and I’ve heard they don’t do well in the heat and humidity. Be sure to have a good case to keep your camera safe and dry.
  • Lots of extra batteries: Batteries here are expensive and horrible quality (a friend once bought name-brand batteries here that wouldn’t even power up her digital camera). We brought Energizer Lithium batteries for our cameras and they are awesome—they’re lightweight and they last forever (after thousands of pictures, I changed my batteries after being here for about 6 months).
  • Good everyday bag: There are plenty of tote bags here for sale, but the quality is often suspect. Paul brought his Tumbuk2 and I brought my own tried-and-true bag; we take them to school, the market, everywhere every day, so it’s nice to have something sturdy and, if possible, waterproof.
  • iPod/iPod speakers: It’s nice to be able to listen to some of your own music sometimes, you can use it in class to teach songs, and you can share your music with friends. We brought speakers that have decent volume control and that are battery-powered, so they can be used when there’s no power and they’re loud enough to be able to be heard over a loud classroom or irritating neighbor.
  • Command Hooks: These aren’t really useful until you get to your site, but once we did, we were really happy to have a bunch of 3M Command Hooks. Walls here are often crumbly, uneven concrete and nails just don’t work. We’re using Command Hooks for everything from our tote bags to kitchen utensils to keys to our bath towels. We actually only brought poster strips with us (also great for “hanging” posters and photos) but my mom sent a huge Ziplock bag full of hooks that we’re using all over the place.
  • Ziplock bags: There’s a long-running Peace Corps joke about how one of the most valuable parts of care packages that we receive are the Ziplock bags that things come in. They’re good for keeping things organized and absolutely necessary for ant-proofing food and keeping it from going stale. Bring a variety of sizes.
  • Chacos: Not really the prettiest shoes, but they’re durable and good to wear every day. And the company has a 50% Peace Corps Volunteer discount!
  • Card games: We brought UNO, Skip Bo, and a deck of regular cards. The first two were great to play with our host families, and the deck of cards is great for anything from solitaire to heated games of Euchre with other volunteers.
  • Laptop: We brought my three-year-old 12” iBook and it’s been really great so far. We use it to save and edit photos, do reports for work and prepare lesson plans, and write e-mails and blog posts; we could do all this at cyber cafes, but it would be really expensive and time-consuming. We also update our iPods and watch the inexpensive DVDs that are for sale on every street corner. We love our iBook because it’s portable (for when we get to stay in Managua hotels that have free wireless), has great battery life, and the Internet cafes infest our flash drives with viruses; if we had a PC that got a virus, we’d be in trouble, but our Mac is always safe. I wouldn’t recommend buying a nice new, expensive computer to bring to the Peace Corps because I’m not sure how it will survive two years of the dust and humidity.
Para Muchachos:
  • Nice, button-up short-sleeved shirts: Paul brought a couple of pique polo shirts, but after a couple of hang washings they became extra-extra-grande and they take a long time to dry. The button-up shirts dressy enough for Paul to wear to school and have retained their size more-or-less. You can find them in the market here, but it’s nice to have them even before you’re ready to brave the markets.
  • Quick-drying pants: They’re lightweight and cool and, as the name suggests, dry really quickly, which is a definite must when it rains for three weeks straight.
  • Comfortable t-shirts: Paul brought 2 or 3 but wishes he had brought 4 or 5 because Nicaraguan t-shirts seem to fit really oddly.
  • Quick-drying boxers: Paul brought Ex-Officio boxers that he really likes because they dry quickly (see above) and haven’t stretched as much as everything else.
  • Good pair(s) of jeans: Like most clothing, jeans are available here but the quality isn’t as good or if it is, they’re really expensive. Paul can wear jeans to school and surprisingly they dry pretty quickly in the sun.
  • Basketball shorts: Paul has yet to play basketball in this country, but the shorts are great to ease the awkward trip from the bathroom to your bedroom when you’re living with your host family, and are great for doing laundry, lounging, running to buy a newspaper, whatever.
  • One nice set of clothes: We needed this in staging when we went to the Nicaraguan embassy, for swearing in, and it never hurts to have one nice outfit at the ready. Paul brought nice khakis, a shirt and tie, and brown leather shoes.
  • Swimsuit: When you get the chance to swim you don’t want to be the sucker without a swimsuit, but if you want to swim Nica-style, then you just wear your jeans.
  • Razors: Razors are expensive here, so if your face is used to a Mach 3, you should bring along an ample supply unless you plan on growing a wild hippie beard.
Para Muchachas:
  • Stretchy t-shirts: I brought one Gap Stretch T-shirt and am now scouring eBay for more. My shirt has been awesome because it hasn’t faded or stretched, which is quite the accomplishment, and it dries quickly. Regular t-shirts have stretched, faded, balled up, and gotten holes at the seams.
  • Stretchy underwear: For all the same reasons as above, I’m really happy I brought Body by Victoria undies. I’d recommend bringing a lot of undergarments because the less often you need to do laundry (especially during the rainy season), the better.
  • Feminine products: Pads are available here (though there’s not as much variety as at home) but tampons are nowhere to be found. Also keep in mind that nothing (not even toilet paper) can be flushed in this country; it all has to go in the trash can. I highly recommend something like the Diva Cup.
  • Swimsuit: Nicaraguans swim in jeans and t-shirts, so I’m not sure I’ve seen swimsuits for sale many places. People wear swimsuits, though, at touristy beaches and hotel/hostel pools so you’ll probably want to have one.
  • Dress clothes: I only brought a couple of nicer outfits, and I wish I had brought more. Shopping here for clothes is sort of an ordeal and requires a lot of patience and stamina. I wish I would have brought more “business casual” clothes like a pair of thin black pants, some nicer shirts, and some more nice skirts to wear to things like dinners and conferences.
If You Have Room/Weight:
  • Multi-tool: It’s really nice to have around the house as a screwdriver or an extra knife to cut up an orange or mango but not absolutely essential.
  • Moon Handbook: Nicaragua: We brought Living Abroad in Nicaragua instead of the regular travel book, which was a mistake. We had the Moon Handbook sent to us because it’s really helpful to plan weekend getaways or to know where to eat when you’re visiting friends. If you don’t have space, you can sometimes spot an old edition in the office library, but I think it’s worth it. It was also written by former Nica PCVs.
  • Long-sleeve shirts: Some of the sites are kind of cold in the mornings and evenings, so long-sleeve shirts are nice to have around.
  • Good rain jacket: Before we came, we really thought a good rain jacket would be the most important item to bring here. I’m glad I brought it, but it wasn’t as necessary as I thought. It’s too hot to want to wear a jacket very much, and we’ve tried to adopt the Nicaraguan policy of just not going outside when it’s raining.
  • Good umbrella: After what I just said about the rain jacket, there are times when you just have to go outside when it’s raining or when the rain catches you by surprise. I have a really nice umbrella packed away at home that I wish I had brought; I bought one here, and it sometimes leaks and is getting a little rusty. Nicas don’t use umbrellas much for the rain, but they use them a lot to provide shade. I carry my small umbrella with me all the time because you never know when it’s going to start pouring when you’re out and if it’s not, you can probably use it to protect you from the sun.
  • School supplies: This is another group of items that are available here, but are of a poorer quality. We brought Sharpies and had Crayola markers, Mr. Sketch markers, and whiteboard markers sent to us. Other really nice items to have are index cards (for Spanish flash cards and to use in class) and pens if you have a favorite type from home. Construction or other colored papers are also hard to find here.
  • Spanish reference book: Before we came, lots of people told us not to bring any Spanish books under any circumstances. We followed this advice and regretted it. The Peace Corps gives you a Spanish-English dictionary, 501 Spanish Verbs, and a grammar exercise book. We had one really awesome book that we used in a college class, and there have been countless times when I think, “Oh, I really wish I had En Breve to look this up… I know it’s in there!” If you have something you really like, bring it. If not, I wouldn’t worry about it.
  • Sheets: The Welcome Book said to bring flat sheets so you can use them on any bed. Here there are twin-sized beds and full-sized beds. If you know already what size bed you will buy, then I would bring sets of flat and fitted sheets. Your family provides sheets during training.
  • Smartwool socks: We brought moisture-wicking Smartwool socks because of our fallacious two-year-long-camping-trip mentality (see Rain hat below), but wound up being really happy we brought them. It took a surprisingly short amount of time for us to become accustomed to the heat; we now layer ourselves in socks, pants, long-sleeved t-shirts, and fleece jackets any time the thermometer dips down below about 77.
If You Don’t Have Room/Weight: If it’s the night before staging and you realize that your bags weigh 100 pounds, these are things you could easily leave behind.
  • Soap and Shampoo: Our stuff from the Peace Corps said to bring a 3 months’ supply of all the toiletry products. Bring at least enough for staging, orientation, and a few days with your host family, but people here also bathe regularly, so this stuff is easy to find.
  • Bandanas: If you don’t have room for bandanas then you’ve got some serious space issues, but if you can’t bring them don’t worry--they are cheap and plentiful here for the always-important sweat rag.
  • Huge roll of Duct Tape: We brought a lot of Duct Tape with us. While it does come in handy sometimes, we would be just fine with a little bit of tape wrapped around a pencil; the full roll is really big and really heavy.
Leave It At Home!
  • Medicine: The first day you get to Nicaragua, you receive a small briefcase full of medicine and medical supplies. This includes everything from Band-Aids to a thermometer to chewable Pepto Bismol. Anything that isn’t in your kit can be requested including multivitamins and your favorite brand of OTC allergy medicine.
  • Rain hat: We both loved having rain hats when we were camping because they kept us dry and covered us from the sun, but here we haven’t used them. Appearance is very important here and Nicaraguans already think we’re weird for being tall and white, so wearing a rain hat is a bit much. Generally speaking, Peace Corps isn’t a camping trip, so be sure the stuff you’re bringing is stuff you’d actually wear or use at home.
  • Locks: The Peace Corps made a really big deal about having combination locks for everything, but I don’t really know why. In training, families are required to provide you with a room that locks, and if you really need locks for something, you can buy them here. We did bring a computer lock that we use at hotels, but it’s probably not necessary.
Other Packing Advice:
1. Bring what you want. Packing lists were really valuable to use as we were preparing to leave, but they have their limits. If you have something you really love and really want to bring, then bring it, even if you don’t see it on anyone else’s list. Paul and I both brought our favorite pillows, Paul brought his Nintendo DS, and I really regretted not bringing my knitting supplies. If it’s something like a laptop or a Nintendo DS that you wouldn’t want neighbors or your host family to see, you can always just make sure to use it privately, but we were surprised that people here are no strangers to iPods or Nintendos. Little comforts from home can make a big difference, and the worst that can happen is that it was a hassle to bring something that you don’t use.

Similarly, don’t bring things just because you see them on a packing list; if it’s not something you’ve ever used in the States and don’t think you’re going to use it here, you probably won’t. The Welcome Book said to bring a garlic press, but I never used a garlic press at home and don’t regret not having one here. The only exception to this rule is a headlamp: you will regret it if you do not bring a headlamp, even if you have never used one before.

2. If it can’t be bought here, it can be sent.
Many things that I thought were especially clever to bring—like extra watch batteries—can be found easily here. For things that can’t be found here, like knitting needles, it wasn’t a big deal that I left them at home because it was easy to have them sent in a care package (thanks again!). Other things we have had sent to us include measuring cups, Command Hooks, books, candy, flash drives, and family photos. I wouldn’t want to mail a really valuable item like a laptop or a camera, but anything else is just a care package away.

Paul and I also wish we had pre-packaged some care packages for ourselves before we left. We would have included things like books that we already own but didn’t bring and snacks for our families to seal up and send later. If nothing else, we wish we would have packed separately things we were already thinking we might want sent later on (particular books, knitting supplies, that shirt I really wanted to bring) so that it would be less of a hassle for Paul’s parents to rummage through all the boxes in storage in order to find that garlic press that we really, really can’t live without.

3. Take advantage of all that space!
I already talked about how Ziplock bags are worth their weight in headlamps not only because they make it much easier to pack for the Peace Corps but also because they’re really useful once you get here. We also used Space Bags to pack all our clothes, and they were awesome. They cut down on space, make backpacks a lot easier to pack, and are good for storing stuff and keeping it dry once you get here. Especially since you’ll have to unpack and repack everything at least 6 times before you’re settled in your house at your site, the Space Bags are great. Be sure to get the kind that you don’t have to use a vacuum cleaner to seal. We also used Nalgene bottles and other storage containers to keep things organized for the journey (even though some storage containers were filled with other storage containers) and now we’ve found all sorts of creative uses for just about everything we packed things in.

Good luck packing, and don’t forget that headlamp!


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