I am always amazed to think about things as it relates to a timeline. Exactly 6 months ago today I left the good ole USA for a country I knew very little about. It was over a year ago that I received my invitation to join the peace corps. Subsequently, it has also been over a year since I began thinking about what items of mine would make the cut for what to bring with me. While I can’t remember exactly the weight requirements, I know that we were limited to bringing 2 checked-in bags that were either 40 or 50 pounds each, one carry on bag, and one personal item. Regardless, try fitting two years worth of stuff in that much space. It isn’t easy. This blog post is for anyone curious about the 11 items (because 10 is just so boring) I have found to be the most useful and are considered my favorite items brought with me. These are not in any order.
1. Smartphone: the item I am typing this blog post using. While it has become less of a necessity in life here in Swaziland, I no longer have panic attacks when I leave home and realize I forgot my phone, it has really made life so much easier than if I didn’t have it. Many Swazis have smartphones. As Internet is still a very new thing in the country with wifi slowly becoming more and more frequent to find in restaurants, my phone is my source for accessing the Internet 98% of the time. It is also my way of communicating with people both here in Swaziland and back home. It is interesting how much easier it is to communicate with family and friends in the US from Swaziland, a tiny 3rd world country in Sub-Sahara Africa, compared to my study abroad in Ireland in 2012. Without doubt, it is easier to call and talk to people here than it was during my study abroad. Accounting for the 7 hour time zone difference, I am able to talk to virtually anyone with a smartphone on Whatsapp for basically nothing! Technology! I talk to my mom and stepdad at least once a week. It depends how many stories I have to tell or how many student loan problems I have that day!
2. My Chaco sandals: I have always been the guy who gets weird tan lines. My chacos ensure this trend continues. I wear my chacos literally every day for everything unless I am going for a bike ride or run. Somehow chacos go well with Swazi Imvunulo, the traditional outfit worn by Swazis and I wear frequently. With such great airflow on the feet comes greater responsibility, like making sure you wash the insane amount of red dirt off your feet all the time. But at least i almost never have to wash my socks!
3. Going away cards, notes, and gifts from people back home. Obviously if anyone is reading this blog because they are soon to join the PC, if you get these before leaving, prize them. Read them on those inevitable down days you will get because of language frustrations and culture shocks, or when you just wish you had your best friends and family with you. For those reading this who have contributed, know that these mean more to me than anything.
4. Leatherman multi tool knife: I am never without this. As good quality knives are hard to come by here and you never know when you have to saw a small tree down by hand on a mountain to make into a book shelf, I carry this knife everywhere.
5. Luci Solar Lanterns: regardless of the fact I am fortunate to have electricity in my hut, this is by no means guaranteed or to be assumed to be the case when joining the PC. Even if you have electricity, you have no idea how many days it will take for the electricity to return after a storm that knocked both electricity and phone service down. These lanterns are great, very easy to take anywhere and are solar!
6. Camera. Before coming here I used my DSLR camera quite a lot, it was what I took with me to get crazy awesome pictures in Ireland. It is gathering dust here…literally. While I brought that camera, I am reluctant to use it here. Instead, I use my Olympus TG-4 as my go to camera. It is always in my daily bag. While it doesn’t take as good of pictures as a DSLR, it wins in so many other levels. One thing in particular is that it draws much less unwanted attention. It isn’t that I am afraid of being robbed, honestly in many ways I feel safer here than in America. As a white American, people see me and see imaginary money signs over my head here. I try to reduce this as much as possible by keeping big and likely expensive things out of sight. Additionally, most people, especially children in my community have never held let alone used a camera. I love the toughness of my Olympus because it withstands the accidental drops to the ground it takes when the neighborhood kids are taking pictures. And it actually does take remarkably decent pictures!
7. Timbuk2 messenger bag: it was part of me before I left America. I used this bag everyday in America to go to work, get groceries, and do odds and ends. It is just as useful here. Whenever i am going anywhere for a day I take my timbuk2 bag with me. It is funny to see that everyone who came with me in my PC group to Swaziland who rode bikes in America brought their Timbuk2 messenger bag…it’s a cult thing. Regardless I know we all are very happy to have these high quality bags.
8. Hydro Flask: as the days are reaching summer high heat, I am appreciating my hydro flask more and more each day. Just a few days ago I broke my 5+ month streak of living without a fridge. I have been putting my hydro flask in the fridge over night and by the end of the next day after being outside in 95+ heat all day the little water I have left is still cool! It also is nice to use to roll out pizza dough!
9. 80 liter Kelty hiking bag. I take this with me on basically all trips I make where I bring multiple weeks worth of clothes (even though I have historically only worn one or two of the outfits for the duration). I also take this as my go-to bag when I make the 2.5 hour trip into town to buy my groceries. It holds a lot of lentils, baked beans, and popcorn. 80 liters to be exact.
10. The Office (on an external hard drive): since coming here there has certainly been many nights that I want to relax and laugh at the stupid stuff Michael Scott does and says. I have filled up a 2TB external hard drive with more movies and tv shows than I could watch if I watched them all day and every day for the next two years. Having my favorite tv shows helps me feel like there is a level of normal in my life.
11. Spot It! Game Cards. This game hands down has been the single best way for me to become friendly with the young kids in my family and in my neighborhood. The first day I arrived in my community I brought out this card game and taught my little brother and his friends how to play, I have used this as an easy way of spending time with my youngest brother and his friends.
12. Solar chargers. I have and use my Solio Classic2 solar charger frequently. While most of the volunteers in Swaziland have electricity at our site, it is never a guarantee. There have been times where a regular rain storm knocked out the power in my community for several days at a time. This holds me over to keep my phone charged in these occurrences. It also is nice because I can take it with me wherever I am and charge my phone even on the 3 hour bus ride.
13. Podcasts. Along with coming here with lots of tv shows and movies, many other volunteers also came with plenty of their own to share amongst each other. One thing I have found myself doing more often is listening to podcasts. Unfortunately I didn’t come with nearly enough and am finding myself spending a significant amount of time when I do stumble upon internet here trying to download new podcasts because the internet is generally not fast at all here. If you have any podcasts you might even think you could be interested in listening to…bring em.
14. Head lamp. Similar to having luci lamps a head lamp has been great when the power is out or at night when you’re investigating the sound of what you believe is a snake attacking your goats. It has definitely been useful and glad I brought it.
15. Hammock. Great to use to relax in the hut, to take on camping outings, and to share with your little siblings.
16. Professional clothing. Swaziland is a respectful country. Dressing to show a sense of identity, like in America, doesn’t count for much here. Here, the way you dress is a sign of respecting others. I wear business casual clothing way more often than I ever anticipated one would in the PC. Button down collared shirts and black or khaki pants are my regular attire if I’m at school or attending meetings.
17. Casual clothes. I wish I brought more comfortable clothing like I would wear in America. Some parts of the country are so conservative that PCVs are discouraged from ever wearing shorts or tshirts whenever they leave their homestead. Thankfully, my community is much more relaxed and I have no problem wearing shorts here, I do most days actually when I am not at school. Being a guy definitely makes it easier for me to get away with wearing what I want. I just realize that an elder in the community is going to regard me as umfana “boy” because generally men wear pants and boys wear shorts. I’m willing to make that compromise for being comfortable.
18. Tent and sleeping bag. This is something that I am glad to have brought and have already used them several times. For any future pcv they need to really consider whether or not they will use a tent and sleeping bag. They take up a lot of space in your luggage and could easily gather dust of the person just isn’t into camping. Many PCVs didn’t bring theirs and are totally happy with that; I’m glad I brought mine
19. French press and favorite coffee from home. The coffee here sucks. Even though I’m getting adjusted to instant coffee it certainly isn’t the same as a nice cup of your favorite coffee from home. I unfortunately only brought enough of my favorite coffee to last the first few months. They do have real coffee here but it is more expensive and not as good of quality as I would normally prefer. The “good” quality coffee is basically like drinking Folgers coffee. Nothing special but does the job.
20. Good pens. If you are like me, when you find a pen you like you cling to it. I am way too picky about how a pen writes that I brought about 30 of my favorite type of pens with me. Great decision because the pens here just don’t meet my standards and the pens that are good are just way too expensive on a PCV income.