Category Archives: Pre-departure

Pre-departure covers the period of time after I received my letter of invitation from the Peace Corps until I arrived in country.

Packing list addendum

Since starting this Web site, I’ve had a number of people contact me, asking questions about joining the Peace Corps, living in Nepal, and about what to bring for the Peace Corps. Actually, mostly are about what to pack for the Peace Corps.

First, let me say that my earlier packing list was way, way, way too much stuff.

Here is my addendum.

Pack light.
I mean really, really light. You’ll be so glad you did.
Limit yourself to two bags.
Bring bags that you can actually use beyond initially arriving in country. I packed two bags inside a duffel, which worked great.
Don’t forget the fun.
Things like music, books, art supplies, a Frisbeen, stationary, journals, games, et cetera go a long, long way.

I am glad that I brought some nice clothes with me. I think many of the female PCVs wished they had nicer, conservative clothes, since women usually spend their days in the kurta surwal, common dress for women in the Terai.

Peace Corps has many good texts on Nepali language, including Teach Yourself Nepali and Nepali in Context. Peace Corps doesn’t seem to have the tapes around, but you can easily have them copied (shops that will dub tapes and CDs are plentiful). A PCVs in Nepal will have them. Hell, I had them.

One more note on music. If you’re a music lover, I suggest bringing something hardy and flexible. In Kathmandu, MiniDiscs are available and the most affordable option. MiniDiscs seem to do the job very well right now, since you can share (i.e., steal) music with your friends.

Most shops sell a wide variety of music, from Brian Eno to Britany Spears. They’ll convert music digitally to minidiscs. They’ll also burn MP3 CDs for you, but it’s pricier.

A MD player that can encode directly from a source is a wonderful way to copy your friends CDs while in the mountains on vacation. Some MP3 players can do this, too.

Here are some things that I wish I’d brought from the United States with me:

  • 110 to 220 voltage converter
  • Quality NiMH battery charger
  • Pinochle deck
  • Nylon zip-off pants (several pairs)
  • Lexan coffee press (glass will break)
  • Laptop

All of these items I have had sent to me here in Nepal and have arrived intact. Arranging to have a laptop sent from around the world was tricky, to say the least (the service cost me a fine meal in Kathmandu for a friend—thanks again, Colin).

I’m still thinking of things I should have and should not have brought, but nothing major. My main advice is pack light, pack light, and pack light.

How I got here: An explanation

There’s a photo I have where I’m walking out across the tarmac towards the plane that was to be first leg in a long trip to Nepal on February 17, 2002. Just before I boarded the plane, I stopped and waved to Nikkie inside the terminal, who was taking the photo.

That plane didn’t take me anywhere. Just as I had stored my bag, sat, and buckled myself in did the pilot announce, with an air of uncertainty to his voice, that the flight had been canceled.

I managed to leave Amarillo after a visiting with each airline in the airport—a buffet of options—and made a few unscheduled stops before I arrived in San Francisco a few hours later than planned.

When I walked into the conference room at the Radisson Miyako (the predeparture meeting point for our Peace Corps/Nepal group) I was greeted by a well rehearsed, Hello Scott from Amarillo! The room was divided into two uses: half for people and half for luggage.

The sight of piles of luggage overwhelmed the presence of these madmen who, oddly enough, were already calling me by name. I sat in the back, feeling somewhat victorious, knowing that I had managed to get this far and, for good measure, packed much lighter than everyone else.

The last night in America was good, just what we needed to render us completely unprepared for Nepal. As our hotel was in Japantown of San Francisco there was little surprise that we had sushi as our last meal.

Afterwards, we (‘we’ being a random group of seven or eight of us that had ended up in the same restaurant) found a bar to crowd, though it wasn’t smoky enough for my liking.

Moser (we came to discover that his name meant ‘socks’ in Nepali) had a Wallick Cocktail per my suggestion (a gin triple sec martini and generally terrible recipe) and said it was too sweet, which it was, but the glass was empty before long.

I had found that Wallick cocktail in the Mr. Boston bartender’s reference book while I was working as a bartender at the Loophole bar in Denton, Texas, and no matter how excited I could get about it, the drink never did much for me.

A few hours later we were over the Pacific. It had been quite an ordeal to get that far as a group. We numbered 56 and it was a Boy Scout-esque situation, lots of milling around, unsure of when we supposed to be where, who was leading, et cetera.

Before we left the hotel, the organizers divided us into groups of seven, each with a leader. We might as well have been wearing khaki shirts and green shorts with those green socks with the red trim. I happened to be a leader, or rather it happened to me.

It took two chartered buses to move all of us and all our luggage. (To my disappointment, I found that Andrew, a RPCV who had been evacuated from Uzbekistan, packed lighter than I did.) The situation escalated to absurdity as we orchestrated a full-scale invasion of the airport.

The logistics of moving 56 people with approximately three to four bags of 104 lbs per person in a timely manner was a bit too much for any one person to organize.

In a Musharraf-like ascent to power, I perched myself on a concrete pillar and began barking orders for this group to go there, these people take luggage tags and string (the string was used to denote Peace Corps luggage), and generally behaving like Mussolini.

Once again, as many times in youth and college, I was a mockery of the alpha male. But before I could let myself be too impressed with the enormity of what was happening, we were on our way, watching movies and deciding chicken or beef.

It didn’t take long to decide neither and renounce meat as a part of my diet in Nepal. We’d been in Kathmandu for just a couple days before we’d had our first meal of daal bhaat tarkari. This is the standard meal of most of Nepal.

It’s a plate of boiled rice with a bowl of lentils, pressured cooked into a spicy soup that is poured over rice. Alongside those two items comes to tarkari, which can be pretty much any number of various curried vegetables. Tarkari is Nepali for vegetable.

You mix it all up with you hand and thrust it into you mouth. It’s delicious.

The meat that comes on Nepali dishes is something else. The chicken was prepared like so: chicken is bought/raised/stolen and is killed, plucked, decapitated, mostly gutted, and then beaten into a mash of bone-meat-gristle-fat-marrow-guts side dish.

The past few days in Kathmandu seem to me now as if they were years ago.

I’m not sure the people I met then are the same people I’m now close friends with. Everything happened so fast. We stepped off the plane in Kathmandu to yet another airport in a line of airports, unaware of how much more wandering was a head of us.

A lot, it turned out.

Forget me not, a packing list

It doesn’t make sense, packing for two years. Where do I put the ironing board? Begin thinking of how you would pack for two years with a limit of 104 lbs and you’ll realize how much you’re going to leave behind.

I imagine some PCVs will be stuck in an airport explaining why he’s bringing a pizza slicer onto the plane—I would be smart enough to pack mine in checked luggage. Peace Corps says that most volunteers bring too much with them.

Bringing a lot of stuff doesn't mean you will necessarily bring the right stuff.

Bringing a lot of stuff doesn't mean you will necessarily bring the right stuff.

Our baggage limit equals about three to four large duffel bags stuffed with clothes (or cutlery). There’s a chapter in the Peace Corps handbook, How to Pack for Two Years, which is an interesting idea. Yet when I spoke with a RPCV, I was told, That’s a terrible idea. Who told you to pack for two years?

Suddenly the hypothetical question, If you were stuck on a desert island and could only have one book/shirt/album/etc., what would it be? is a packing mantra. What the RPCV meant was that I shouldn’t pack as if I were on vacation, because to pack enough mouthwash for two years would require a crate.

Instead, I should pack as if I’m moving to a far away place. The things I take with me are the things I’m going to cling to as I transition into Peace Corps life. Think Lawrence of Arabia. He went to Arabia dressed as a British officer. He left looking like an Arab. It’s an stupid example, sure, but I think that a great part of the Peace Corps is dressing and living in a similar manner to the locals.

So here is what I’m taking. It’s a long list, so skip it if you like:

  • 2 pairs cotton slacks (wrinkle-free type)
  • 2 pairs jeans
  • 3 dress shirts (to look ‘professional’)
  • 1 blazer
  • 1 tie
  • 3 T-shirts from my college
  • 15 pairs socks
  • 10 pairs boxers
  • 3 undershirts
  • 1 rain slicker
  • 1 fleece jacket
  • 1 pair gloves
  • 1 warm hat (Thanks to Steph G.)
  • 2 pairs shorts
  • 1 baseball cap
  • 1 pair long underwear
  • 1 pair hiking boots
  • 1 pair Teva sandals (Chacos are better)
  • 1 pair dress shoes
  • 1 pair sneakers
  • 1 tape recorder and 2 blank tapes
  • 4 tapes of music
  • 1 shortwave radio
  • 1 solar AA battery charger, 12 rechargeable batteries
  • 1 camera
  • 1 world almanac
  • 1 Iliad (Lattimore translation, of course)
  • 1 journal
  • 1 body/hand towel (like a chamois)
  • 1 medium backpack (frameless Lowe Alpine Mountain 70)
  • 1 satchel
  • 1 Maglight
  • 1 Peace Corps Handbook and 1 Welcome to Peace Corps/Nepal
  • 1 stainless steel flask
  • 1 Nalgene bottle
  • Fistful of locks
  • 1 small sewing kit
  • 1 small first-aid kit
  • 1 small shaving lotion, 1 toothpaste, 1 shampoo, etc.
  • 1 Teach Yourself Nepali with the audio tapes
  • 1 photo album (with photos)
  • 1 ultralight sleeping bag
  • 1 fleece blanket

All this fits into a garment bag and a large, wheeled duffel bag. The garment bag and camera case will be carried onto the plane.

I read somewhere that 1 out of 200 pieces of luggage never reach their destination. There will be 58 PCVs on the plane to Kathmandu, which makes that statistic pretty grim.

Flight itinerary, the Asia sampler

A few days ago I received my Begin to Learn Nepali Language booklet and audio cassette. I’ve realized quite suddenly that I’m going to be learning a foreign-foreign language. Perhaps it should be renamed, Learn to Speak Nepali in Your Wildest Dreams.

There are some handy phrases in the book. There are inclusions, purposeful as they may be, that give me pause. For example:

Are there poisonous snakes around?

I don’t know Nepali culture. Please teach me.

Mother cooks delicious food.

I will not eat today. I am not feeling well.

Last week I made my flight reservations. My parents realized I was leaving the country and not going camping. (My mother insists I bring a compass in case I get lost. And who knows, maybe she’s right.) For me, it was a great relief to have tickets in hand.

Once I get on the plane, there’s no turning back. Before I fly to Kathmandu, I’ll attend a ‘staging’ in San Francisco with other Peace Corps volunteers heading to Nepal. (I’ve heard the group is around 58 people.) After a one-day introduction to life as a Peace Corps volunteer, I will head to Kathmandu.

I’m not sure how many actual hours it will take us to get to Kathmandu from San Francisco, but because of time zones and the International Date Line, we arrive in Kathmandu around 48 hours and 20 minutes after leaving San Francisco:

Date Departure airport Departure time Arrival airport Arrival time
Feb 18, 2002 SFO, San Francisco 12:25 NRT, Tokyo 16:45
Feb 19, 2002 NRT, Tokyo 17:50 BKK, Bangkok 22:25
Feb 20, 2002 BKK, Bangkok 10:30 KTM, Kathmandu 12:45

Counting from today, there are 21 days before departure. Let me stretch my legs while I can.

Violently sentimental garbage

If at any moment throughout the day I could write down the fleeting impulses caused by my upcoming departure (in 34 days), psychoanalyzing my anxiety would be much simpler.

Exactly when I got it into my head to join the Peace Corps is something I wish I could remember, probably because I was more articulate about it then than I am now. How many times have I heard people half-heatedly proclaim, I’m joining the Peace Corps? It’s enough to make me vomit.

Somehow the collective social consciousness thinks of the Peace Corps as a French Foreign Legion but for conscientious objectors. Are you failing in college? Out of jail with nowhere to go? Unemployed but unwilling to live with your parents? Hell, join the Peace Corps.

What I’ve learned about Peace Corps volunteers is that they are a group who, as a generalization for example’s sake, have their lives in order, insomuch as they are willing, transitory expatriates; however, I can’t deny the opt-out factor. At a time when future plans are discussed openly at family functions, joining the Peace Corps is an easy decision (usually answered with a breaking Oh).

A year later, I was riding buses and teaching kids.

A year later, I was riding buses and teaching kids.

I’ve never met anyone who has joined the Peace Corps (or U.S. armed forces for that matter) because they had an immediate future planned out. And as I put behind my college life, I realize that the rest of life isn’t necessarily any different than before. I’ve chosen a cheap, unique, and moderately elite graduate school: I turned in applications, went to interviews, and even took a few tests.

Just as I was nervous leaving for college, so am I now. Just as I met smelly people who could hardly read or write, so will I in Nepal. My worries are no different than at any other time when I moved: nervous about making friends, retaining ties to old friends, adjusting to a new lifestyle, and the terrible realities of pending dysentery.

I’ve been lucky to have the support of friends and family, which hasn’t gone unnoticed. My good friend Randy sent me a farewell card and wrote on it a few quartets from T.S. Eliot’s The Dry Salvages:

Fare forward travellers! not escaping from the past
Into different lives, or into any future;
You are not the same people who left that station
Or who will arrive at any terminus.

When I arrive in Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport, the newness of everything will invigorate me. Thinking of it now gives me an anxious sense of happiness. When the waters are still, let us mock the storm.

Maybe I’ll just join the French Foreign Legion if this Peace Corps thing fizzles. It’s just the first entry, of course.