A common question among new Peace Corps Volunteers is this: what is the one thing you brought with you that you cannot live without? Like the Peace Corps is some mythical desert island to which you can bring one and only one object. Or that one object could make or break your twenty-seven months in country. Your service is not about what you bring with you; it’s not quantifiable through simple objects, and it can’t be written out like a long checklist. But when you know so little about what your life will be like as service begins, packing becomes an obsession.
New Volunteers-in-Training will be arriving in Kyrgyzstan in a little less than two weeks, and this question has come up a lot: What are things you wish you had brought? Should I bring a HAM radio? (No, probably not.) Specialty shampoo and conditioner? (If you want it, I guess. It will last you a longer than you expect when you only shower once every two weeks.) An entire suitcase of hot sauce? (If you do, Hi! My name is Maddie, we are going to be best friends.) Every piece of semi-important paper that Peace Corps has sent you in triplicate? (Reams of paper, untouched for months, stacked under a year’s worth of Peace Corps handouts and training plans, were definitely not worth the space.)
With a limit of only 100 pounds, there are only so many things that make the list of what you need. I packed and re-packed, and re-packed, and then panicked and re-packed the night before my 30+ hour flight to Kyrgyzstan. That bottle of Febreeze didn’t make it, but that extra deodorant did. I bent the rules on weight limits, shoved in more candy that I bought from the airport to give to my new host family, worried that the pound of it I already had wouldn’t be enough. (They ate the pound in the first 5 hours, airport candy shaped like the Statue of Liberty ended up being worth it.) When you are packing, two years seems daunting – how do you pack 100 pounds to build a home in a new place, far away? What do you really need?
A year in, you’d be surprised how much that need has shrunk to a favorite shirt, your warmest socks, the most comfortable of your disintegrating shoes, lip balm, the pictures on your refrigerator, good floss, your never-without-it journal, your computer, a magical, cloud-like sleeping bag, that aforementioned hot sauce. How you wish you would have made space for thicker socks and better shoes, or you look at your GRE study book collecting dust, unstudied but yes, absolutely, I am starting to study tomorrow. (Promise? Ok, I’m trying.)
In the end, it’s just stuff.
For me, service has been, among many other things, a practical experience in true necessity. What do you really need to build a home? What are the things you truly need when you can barely afford to buy milk and eggs every week, let alone meat or fresh vegetables? Not a lot, it turns out. Splurging, in this sense, really feels like splurging – a good cup of coffee every now and again, a piece of pie from my neighborhood bakery, an extra-warm sweater in the depth of winter, lemons. The value of things change. Utility becomes important, as does comfort – not just in a physical sense, but things that bring you comfort, too.
You are building a home here, things that create a sense of whatever the word “home” means for you. And that can be anything: for some people that’s a good pair of running shoes. Or make-up, dresses, things that make you feel beautiful, even if showering is a once-a-week event. Or stacks and stacks of books, episodes of TV that you can escape into if you need it. Or a way to make unfailingly delicious coffee (and the premium roast to do it.) How you build home depends on you.
For me, building home has always been bringing people together around good food. Cooking, as an act, is the same everywhere. You take raw, sometimes inedible things, and create something nourishing out of them, sharing it with people you care about. That’s how I build home. So bringing exotic spices or American flavors, hot sauce (have I mentioned how much I love hot sauce?), good recipes, and a willingness to learn how to cook new foods helped me build my home in my little apartment in Bishkek. Good, substantial meals become like indulgent luxuries when the majority of your nutrition is bread and tea – and a way to bring people together.
So – advice on packing: bring things that build home. You will be so glad that you do.
Here’s a more practical list of things to bring to your service in the Kyrgyz Republic:
- I don’t know if I mentioned it, but HOT SAUCE. Most Kyrgyz food doesn’t have a whole lot of spice, most Kyrgyz people don’t even like cinnamon because it is too ачуу, or spicy. And, hot sauce is just spicy magic in a bottle, why would you not want that with you at all times?
- A hardcover, good quality journal. It is ever-present and just might be my most prized possession.
- Cajun spices, Montreal Steak Seasoning, chaat masala, Chipotle spices, any other flavors you love. The difference between macaroni and cheese and a cajun-spiced macaroni and cheese is staggering, I promise.
- High-quality, warm, thick socks. There was a point this winter where I could not feel my toes for an entire week. You will never regret an extra pair of warm socks.
- Speaking of feet, mine are a size 10. Most Kyrgyz women scale up to maybe a size 6 or 7, tops. One time I asked if they had a shoe in my size and I was just laughed out of the stall at the bazaar. Investing in good-quality, sturdy shoes was the best decision I have made, especially as the unpaved Kyrgyz roads have already eaten three-and-a-half pair. (I have bought two pair here, both of which are men’s shoes. Kyrgyz ejes find it ridiculous.)
- Floss. Dental hygiene in Kyrgyzstan is…not great. Evident in the number of solid gold teeth that most people of the Kyrgyz Republic are sporting, this makes good floss foreigner-priced or just a spool of thread. And you got to get the sheepfat out from between your molars somehow.
- A swimsuit. Always bring a swimsuit, no matter where you go. That’s just common sense.