Unsolicited advice for a new Volunteer: What to bring

Unsolicited advice for a new Volunteer: What to bring
By Madeline Stoddart
May 8, 2015

It’s the question every new Peace Corps Volunteer asks: What is the one thing you brought with you that you cannot live without?

Once you’ve been at site for a while, you realize that service is not about what you bring with you. But when you know so little about what your life will be like as service starts, packing becomes an obsession.

Should I bring a ham radio? (No, probably not.)

Specialty shampoo and conditioner? (If you want it, I guess.)

An entire suitcase of hot sauce? (If you do: Hi! My name is Maddie, we are going to be best friends.)

With a limit of only 100 pounds, there are only so many things that make the list of what you need. I packed and repacked… and repacked… and panicked… and repacked one more time the night before the 30-plus-hour flight to my new home. 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.

In the end, it’s just stuff.

For me, Peace Corps service has been, among many other things, a practical experience in true necessity. What do you really need to make a home? What are the things you truly need? Not a lot, it turns out. Splurging really feels like splurging – a good cup of coffee every now and again, a piece of pie from the neighborhood bakery, an extra-warm sweater in the depth of winter, lemons.

The value of things changes. Utility becomes important, as does comfort – not just in a physical sense, but things that bring you comfort, too.

You are building a home on the other side of the world, and you have to find things that create a sense of whatever “home” means to you. It can be anything: a good pair of running shoes; makeup, dresses and things that make you feel beautiful; stacks and stacks of books, plus episodes of TV for escape; a way to make unfailingly delicious coffee (and the premium roast to do it)… How you create a 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 seemingly 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 Kyrgyzstan. 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.

Madeline Stoddart