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Saturday, December 6, 2014

Packing Tips for 2015's Senegal PCVs

This blog’s niche, so sorry to everyone reading who is NOT coming to Senegal to be a health volunteer and is not interested in my opinions of what/what not to pack. I just remember that I perused tons of blogs looking for tips about packing when I was in this next group’s position.  Some people’s blogs I agreed with, some I didn’t…some I wish I’d listened to, some I still think were crazy (I’m talking to you, Miss “I Packed 50 Pairs of Underwear”). 

I’m not going to go through everything in my suitcase in minute detail.  Yes, you’ll need clothes.  People wear clothes here.  Bring clothes.  How many and what kind of clothes you bring are up to you.  Remember, you’re coming to a country that millions of people live in, so anything you need to live, you can find here.  If you forget something, it’s not the end of the world.  I’m just going to list off some things I brought and was happy about, some things I brought that ended up being ridiculous, and things I wish I’d packed but didn’t.  This blog is just my own opinion, so take it with a big chunk of salt. 

Things I packed and am happy for:

My prescription sunglasses.  If you wear glasses, go to zennioptical.com and order yourself a pair.  They’re less than 20 bucks and you’ll wear them every day.  I didn’t realize before I got here how much time I’d be outside.  People in my village literally only go inside their huts to sleep.  The rest of the time they’re hanging out on benches under mango trees.  Sometimes they even sleep under the mango trees.  If something were to happen to my zennis, I could get by with normal glasses, but I really hope that never happens. 
A warm hoodie and sweatpants. I felt like an idiot when I got here in March with those things because it was hot season and it was too warm to think, even in the middle of the night, but now I’m grateful that I have clothes appropriate for cool season, because it does get chilly sometimes now.  Of course, if I would not have packed them, they would have been available at any fukkijai (used clothing boutique), so if you don’t have room in your suitcase, no worries.
A big bottle of shampoo and conditioner.  There is a nice foreign goods store in Thies (the city where the training center is) but you’re not going to be allowed to leave the training center for your first week.  I shared my shampoo and conditioner with many grateful girls who had only brought a tiny travel size.
All my makeup.  I brought it all because I figured my Peace Corps service was two years long, and by two years from when I left it would all be expired anyway – cosmo says you’re supposed to throw out mascara after 6 months – and I didn’t have enough makeup that I felt it took up too much luggage space. I don’t wear makeup in village very often, but I do for parties and holidays, and I have a lot of fun giving makeovers to my favorite pre-teens in village.  Also, I never wear nail polish, but PCVs that do say they’re happy they brought some with them.  The local stuff’s not the best quality.
LOTS of exercise clothes.  I brought with two spare pair of running shoes and am very glad I did.  I run almost every morning here to help me keep some degree of sanity and am already on pair #2.  I might be able to find good running shoes in Dakar, but almost certainly couldn’t find the exact size and brand that I prefer (Saucony kinvara, man size 8.5, you are amazing and I love you).
A hammock.  I’m in the casamance and there are lots of trees here, but there are not trees everywhere in Senegal, so packing this one was a bit of a gamble, but I’m glad I did it.  There are few greater tranquilities than hammocking in a jungle studying Pulaar flash cards with gorgeous tropical birds flitting about, singing pretty songs at you.
A camera.  You’re not NOT going to bring a camera, are you?  Come on.  You need a camera.  If you’re one of those types that uses their smart phone as a camera in America, I think it’d be worthwhile to get a cheap used digital camera instead.  The battery lasts longer and it’s less of a show to bring it out in village.
Plastic bags. I probably brought too many of these, but I am glad I bought some.  Unfortunately, ants CAN chew through them, so you can’t store food in them (RIP to the delicious sugar roasted nuts that taught me that) but they’re good to keep other things clean and dry.  Plus, if you give a village woman one of them, she will pray you some great prayers.  Ziplocks are very popular.
A few nice sturdy tupperwares with snap top lids. Thick plastic is ant- and mouse-proof, so these are good to store food in.
A swimsuit. There are pools in Dakar and Kolda for sure, and I’d wager that there are some in other cities as well.  They’re frequented by ex pats, not by Senegalese people, so don’t worry about packing a lil bikini if that’s your thing.  It’s not inappropriate.

Things I packed that were stupid:

Cooking spices.  I lived in Korea for a while, and while I was there I had fierce cravings for American food. As a result, when leaving for Peace Corps I packed tons of taco seasoning, cilantro, oregano, lemon pepper; all the stuff I thought might be hard to find here in Senegal.  I never use them.  I live with a family who does all my cooking for me, so I never use them for preparing my own meals, and Senegalese people (people in general, I suppose) are resistant to new tastes, so my family’s not interested in them.  In the last six months, there have been two instances I’ve used the spices: both occurred when everyone I normally share a bowl with wasn’t back from the fields yet when the meal was ready and the cook told me to eat alone in my room rather than wait for it to get cold.  Cinnamon made the gosse girte taste better, and garlic salt made the lecciri jambo taste better…but when I offered some of the improved dishes to my sister to taste she crinkled her nose and disagreed emphatically.  There are some volunteers that really enjoy cooking American meals at the regional houses, but I am not one of them.  It’s much cheaper and easier to go to restaurants.  You can get the best omelet, onion, and mayonnaise sandwich on warm fresh baked bread with a cup of delicious tea for less than $1 AND not have to do dishes.
Dress shoes (both heels and flats).  I thought there might be instances where I’d want to dress up nice and feel like a pretty lady, but this is NOT the way to do it. I live in the “deep south” of Senegal, the least sandy area in the country, and it’s still too sandy to walk in heels here.  It’s just not possible.  Don’t pack heels.  Senegalese woman do wear special dress shoes for holidays (or for every day, if they’re fancy) but the dress shoes here are nothing like dress shoes in America.  They’re $3 flip flops with rhinestones or triangles of colorful plastic attached instead of the normal everyday $1 flip flops.  Closed-toed flats are a sweaty mess here.
Hiking boots. I thought I’d be outside all the time, hiking, gardening, walking through the woods, and I’d need good protective footwear.  I am outside all the time, and I do do all those things, but I do in them in $1 flip flops.  Everyone here does.  You can too.  You will.  Really.
Jewelry.  I didn’t bring anything REALLY nice, but I brought a few of my favorite rings and necklaces, figuring that they were small and it probably wouldn’t hurt to have them just in case I felt like wearing them.  They are all rusting or corroding away and some kind of insect ate my peacock feather earrings.  If you wear something every single day, bring it, but be aware that everyone you encounter will demand that you give it to them.  If you just want to bring it because you think you might feel like wearing it here, don’t.  It’s far safer to keep it in the land of climate control and leak-proof roofs.
Dress pants and a cardigan. Peace Corps says you should bring “business casual” clothes to staging before you leave the country, but please for your own sake keep this as close to the casual side of business casual as you can.  “Dressing up” in village means your clothes have minimal holes and are clean.  My dress pants are ridiculous in village, like a parody of a rich person costume, and they have been in the bottom of my trunk at the regional house since I got here.
A speaker for my iPod.  This wasn’t stupid, just needless.  This radio is available at any market for 5 mille (about $10).  There are slots on the side for USB and memory cards.  You can transfer songs you want from your computer to the USB or the card, slap in some batteries, and have a dance party anytime.  AA batteries for the radio are available from any boutique – for forty cents you get about four hours of listening time.  It’s local, it doesn’t need electricity to charge, it’s real sturdy and hard to break, and it doesn’t scream “I’m rich so please ask me for money because I have so much of it” like my expensive American speakers do.



Things I wish I’d packed but didn’t:

A tent/bug hut.  I remember what was going on in my head when I decided not to bring my tent.  “I’m not going camping!” I thought.  “I’m going to LIVE there.”  Yes.  That’s true, I do live here, and when I’m at home, I’m very comfortable sleeping in my hut with my own bed.  However, PCVs travel a lot.  I regularly spend the night at regional houses or in other volunteers’ villages, and other volunteers come to my village, as well.  It’s a good idea to have a tent in the Peace Corps because it’s much easier than having a spare bed/mattress/mosquito net for guests or for your own travel.  I acquired a tent now from someone who COS’ed, but for my first 6 months here, whenever I traveled I either had to bring my mosquito net and find somewhere to string it up, which was a pain, or sleep without one and get bitten by malarial mosquitos, which was a worse pain. 
A solar charger.  Usually I charge my computer battery up as full as I can whenever I’m near electricity, then use a USB charger to charge up my cell phone and MP3 player using my computer battery while I’m at site.  This process works fine, but it’d be nice to have a solar charger instead, since that would help my computer battery last longer.  My computer is supposed to have an 11 hour battery life, and it probably does usually, but using the battery to charge other electronics makes it die much sooner for me.  If I would have packed a solar charger I might be able to use my computer battery to write more, or at least to rewatch Breaking Bad.
Notebooks.  Notebooks are available here, but Senegalese people prefer to write on tightly-ruled graph paper (I think Europeans do, too) and I do not.  I wouldn’t go crazy with bringing Target’s entire Back to School aisle, but I don’t think you’d regret throwing in a college-ruled spiral bound or two.  Bring some nice pens or gel pens (or GLITTER gel pens!) too if you want to write letters back home – nothing’s available here but cheap ballpoints.  They’ll get you by, but they’re not great.
A kindle or other e-reader.  The regional houses provide me with more paperbacks than I could read in a dozen Peace Corps services – but they also provide me with terabytes of hard drives of unlocked Kindle books.  I find great books at the regional houses and I like the excitement of trying something new after happening upon it on the shelf, and I like that my paper books don’t break if they get rained on or sand gets in them, but it would be nice to have access to anything I wanted to read, anytime I wanted to read it.  The perfect example of this is that I’ve read 1, 2, and 4 of the Game of Thrones series, but I can’t finish it unless I happen to find the other two.  It’s a treasure hunt, so that’s kind of exciting, but if I had a kindle, I could have read them already.  On the other hand, there are many wonderful regional house books I’ve read that I might not have if unlimited kindle variety had been available. 
Band aids. Med does supply band aids, but the quality is not the best (meaning they barely stick at all), and rainy season foot infections cashed out my entire stash in about two weeks.  After I ran out of band aids, I used medical tape and gauze that I bought at a pharmacy in the nearest city, but band aids are better.  If you bring a box of those nice cloth ones, the ones that could stay on through a marathon, you probably won’t regret it.

Well, this ended up being a pretty long post.  Thanks as always for reading!  Please feel free to message me any specific questions you have.  If you’re in the new stage, you’re going to love Senegal!  Welcome to the family!

~Kadiatou/Barbara