What you actually need to bring to the Peace Corps

High-tech backpacking gear
A comfortable chair

I was an avid backpacker in the States. I was a gear junkie who swore by his Arc’teryx pack, Katadyn water filter, Western Mountaineering down sleeping bag, REI ultralight tent, Patagonia 800-fill down sweater, The North Face fleece, and Asolo boots. I drove my ’99 Subaru Outback thousands of miles along winding mountain highways in order to reach various trailheads. I was equipped. Then I lugged all of my gear with me to Africa (had to leave the Subie at home since it was hard to fit in my luggage) and now I spend most of my time sitting in a foldable camp chair bought at Lusaka’s version of Wal-Mart for $15.

When Calvin isn't already hogging it

When Calvin isn’t already hogging it

A good dose of adventure
A good dose of patience

Before I joined the Peace Corps, I pictured volunteers as enthusiastic explorers and seasoned travelers who traipsed the globe in search of adventure when they weren’t busy helping people. And many volunteers do indeed fit this bill. But as it turns out, life in the Peace Corps is so much less often about wanderlust than about waiting. Waiting for meetings to start. Waiting for buses to leave. Waiting for the day/week/month to end. Waiting for your phone to load News Feed on Facebook. We do a lot of waiting.

Sometimes though we do things like carry our bikes up mountains just because we can

Toys and candy for kids
Creativity

Service is often associated with giving. I had an image in my head of arriving at my site and distributing toys and candy to adorable, fresh-faced, polite, grateful children. This image was shattered into a million tiny pieces once I got to my new home and learned what every bedraggled parent already knows: if you give a kid a candy, he’s going to want another candy to go with it. Then fourteen more candies. Also, candy makes little kids sticky and decidedly not fresh-faced. Who knew? Since arriving at my site I’ve decided to change tacts and give kids trash from which they can fashion their own toys. In their hands plastic bags, old soda bottles, and discarded matchbooks become kites, soccer balls, toy cars, and playing cards. This encourages ingenuity and imagination, and has the added benefit of being free.

Kids hamming it up for the camera

Kids hamming it up for the camera

A guitar

Books, books, and more books

Everyone thinks that being in the Peace Corps is a great opportunity to learn a new instrument. So a lot of volunteers bring a guitar with them, expecting that they will have acquired Steve Morse-level skills by the end of their two years of service. But although we do have a lot of free time, it takes self-discipline to teach yourself on your own how to do something like playing the guitar. And if you are self-disciplined and wanted to learn to play the guitar, you probably had already taught yourself well before joining the Peace Corps. So you will probably just end up spending most of your free time reading.

Reading at a set of waterfalls near my site

Emi purchased a guitar from a volunteer who left last October and has played it exactly twice in the past nine months

Idealism
Optimism

It’s a common assumption that Peace Corps volunteers are trying to make the world a better place. That we are idealistic and enthusiastic and selfless and a bit naive. But most volunteers aren’t blind to reality. Most of us know that our work isn’t going to mean much more than a drop in the ocean of development work being done throughout the world. Most of us are aware of the lost earning potential of these two years we’re spending serving abroad instead of working stateside. And most of us are as much selfish as selfless, constantly aware of the various opportunities afforded by our Peace Corps service: the opportunity to live in a different country and culture, the opportunity to experience a new lifestyle, the opportunity to learn more about ourselves, and the opportunity to flesh out our resumes, in addition to the opportunity to work in development and the opportunity to serve our country.

But although wells may run dry and libraries may fall into disrepair, although fish ponds may turn to mud or become choked with weeds, some remnants of a Peace Corps service can still persist long after any development work itself is forgotten. The friendships made within host communities. The constant exchange of vastly different cultures. The newfound humility and compassion and respect learned by Americans venturing out of their comfort zones. And with each of these lessons learned, these relationships built, these arbitrary barriers that separate mankind broken down, perhaps the world is in fact slowly becoming a better place.

I’m optimistic.

My Zambian homestay siblings in Pre-Service Training fascinated with my American soccer ball, American pump, and American hiking boots

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