I have never been one to make lists, or more accurately, I have never been one to follow what’s on the list, but for an undertaking of this magnitude, I started preparing and list-making as soon as I submitted the application. Just last week I left my job. I transferred to another location for the next three months. I haven’t told the new people that I’ll be leaving, and probably won’t–at least not until February.
I started preparing myself for departure soon after receiving the acceptance letter.
Here is a look at the massive to-do list that I created and have been checking it off since March and in earnest since I received the acceptance letter in July, approximately in chronological order.
- Change bank accounts. I moved my primary checking and savings to Charles Schwab. From everything I’ve read, they are the best deal around for travelers. I’ve banked with a credit union for years, and while I love them, the lock-down on my card overseas [even going to England is a hassle] and the massive fees I incur while traveling are enough to make me switch. I’ve kept my account active so that it’s still there, and also in case I run into trouble, I’ll have someone local to help out. Yes, I know the Peace Corps will set me up a bank account in my local area once I’m there, but it will be nice to have the safety net of my American bank account too.
- Give myself a pay cut. I set up direct deposit to my savings account so that $350 every week goes directly to savings. This savings will allow me to keep my house, take a PC vacation or two, and maybe even travel some post-service.
- Get another job. [to explore a new area of nursing and have some additional savings]
- Determine a savings goal. I looked into accommodations and transportation costs for possible destinations and read about other traveler’s expenses for long-term travel to come up with a savings goal of $10,000. I don’t know if I’ll meet it or not, but it’s a goal.
- Track my expenses. I m not nerdy enough to set up a spreadsheet and keep track of every dime I spend, but I did create a spending log recording [most of] everything I spent. This allowed me to identify areas to cut back and I could see how close [or far!] I was from my savings goal. I could also see when I needed to lay off Amazon or cut out trips to Target.
- Re-design my blog. I started blogging in 2005 mainly for myself. Over the last 12 years, blogging has still been mostly for me [and the occasional friend or family member who wanted an update to see if I was still alive]. Over the last year I’ve made a concentrated effort to do a little more on the technical side, learn a little bit more about photo post-processing, teach myself a little bit about making videos, get more comfortable exposing myself to a public audience, and maybe build a loyal, if not small readership before I leave.
- Connect with other travelers. I still hate Twitter, don’t really know how to use my blog’s Facebook page, and can’t for the life of me figure out Instagram’s algorithms, but through my blog and through reading other travel blogs, I have connected with dozens of other PC volunteers, returned PC volunteers, and bloggers who have traveled long-term or made blogging into a full-time career. Their advice and inspiration have been invaluable.
- Renew my passport. My passport was set to expire while in the Peace Corps, and while yes, I will get a Peace Corps’ diplomatic passport, I do want to travel some on my own either before, during, or after my service. I renewed it in April and opted for the one with the most pages available.
- Find a home for my cats. I hated the idea of giving my cats to random strangers on Craigslist or to a shelter, so a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders when a friend volunteered to foster the kids while I’m gone.
- Figure out what to do with my stuff. I don’t consider myself a minimalist by any means but I also didn’t want to pay $1700 for a storage unit. So I bought a house. What? you say? I found an incredible deal, made the purchase in October 2017. I moved most of my old furniture into the new house and plan on doing some heavy remodeling when I return from the Peace Corps. To date. I’ve painted all the walls, removed a ton of wallpaper, replace most light fixtures and ceiling fans, and tried my hand a tile-work. The house now has appliances from this century, and I’ve gotten a lot of tree/scraggly bushes removed. This is about all I’m doing until I come back.
- Doctor and dentist appointments. While I still have good insurance through work, I made a point to get an annual physical exam and a dental cleaning and check-up. Also see Pre-Service Medical Clearance.
- Vaccinations. I went to South America in 2010, I got the yellow fever vaccine and the Typhoid vaccine. Through work, I’m up to date on my tetanus-diphtheria-pertussis, flu, and hepatitis B. I added a Hepatitis A vaccine and cholera + what the Peace Corps recommends. Lucky for me, my insurance covered everything except the $110 consultation fee, saving me about $500.
- Get extra passport photos. Who knows what I might need them for [traveler visas perhaps], but I’m getting them while they are cheap.
- Buy stuff. I have tried to keep the purchases to a minimum because after all, I am going to a third world country where the daily income is around $2, but some must-haves that I have picked up so far include a new [used] laptop [with DVD drive so I can copy all my DVDs and CDs, a new-ish backpack [it’s been on a few excursions already], extra camera equipment [lenses mostly + a few memory cards and extra camera batteries], a Steri-pen, and new hiking shoes.
- Explore ways to connect. Skype account, Google Hangouts, FaceTime, all vaible options, but will they work well with rural African internet. .
- Give notice at work. I haven’t done this just yet, but when I do, it will be when this whole thing starts to feel real!
And there is still more to come over the next few weeks:
- Notify my banks and credit card companies.
- Withdraw cash in the form of bills that are recent and in good condition [once again, you never know when crisp dollar bills might be useful].
- Create a list of bank and credit card info.
- Update my Couchsurfing profile [because you never know…]
- Study and practice French some more.
- Update my resume.
- Assemble the documents I need to apply to graduate school so that when the time comes, I’ll have everything I need, and applying from the middle of Africa won’t be quite so challenging.
Not everything on the lists above will apply to everyone, but my hope is that this will be helpful for those of you who might be starting to think about taking some time off to travel or joining the Peace Corps.
The Peace Corps is a volunteer job and although So how much does joining the Peace Corps really cost? The answer to that question will vary for everyone depending on what country you will serve in (do I need a visa?) and what tests/exams the Peace Corps deems it necessary for you to have. It will also vary depending on what if any medical insurance a person has, and it will vary depending on where you live. So lots of variables, but I’ll give you my costs so that you may get a general idea of the costs.
Fingerprints–$10 at the local county law enforcement center
Mailing fingerprints–$7.21–at UPS sent certified which requires a signature
Total Legal Cost =$17.21- Peace Corps Reimbursement $0 = $17.21
Passport + Visa
I renewed my passport earlier in the year and have already been to Canada, England and Wales on it. Also, getting a PC passport the easy way just involves getting passport photos, filling out the forms, and mailing it in. Getting the passport the hard way, requires blood, sweat, tears, and promise of your firstborn, AND $25 for an ‘execution fee’. The problem with this is most places that issue passports are unfamiliar with the No-fee government passport, and that is where the headache come in. Originally, I had planned to go to a Nursing conference in Toronto in October. Then I got my invitation and decided to forgo the conference (save that money for other travels). Even knowing that I didn’t NEED the passport for anything, it was still hard to let it go.
Passport photos–$22.98 (+ tax with $2 off coupon code x2).
Mailing passport and visa application–$ 10.12 (once again, sent trackable via UPS)
Total Passport + Visa Cost = $33.50 – Peace Corps Reimbursement $0 =$33.50
Medical + Labs
General Medical Exam
Women’s Health Exam–> I got my women’s health exam done at Planned Parenthood. I used my regular health insurance that I have through work (which costs about $400/year and this is the first time I have used it) and it was covered at 100% so my cost was $0. Those $400 in premiums actually paid off this year.
Total Women’s Health Exam Costs = $0
Labs–>HIV screening was a required lab for my assignment (and maybe for all of them?) and I had it performed as part of my women’s health exam. On a whim, I asked if they could do my other labs since I knew they weren’t set up as a primary care facility. They said yes, and amazingly enough, it was also covered at 100%. I did have to have a special lab drawn based on my medical history. I had a physician write a prescription for it and had it done at LabCorp.
Total Lab Cost = $50
Complete dental exam with panoramic X-rays $344.00 – Peace Corps Reimbursement $60 = $284.00
Dental treatments required =$0 Luckily, I didn’t need any treatments, had no cavities, or have anything wrong with my teeth or gums.
Yellow Fever Vaccination (I had to get this one even though I currently have one. Mine will expire on June 4, 2020 so PC is making me get a booster.)
TDaP booster (Working in the hospital the last 15 years has afforded me access to most vaccines, but as luck would have it, my current immunity will run out while in Mada, so another booster it is).
Total for all things required: $330.71 (current running total)
The Peace Corps does provide a cost share program for some expenses but the expenses are segregated. What I wish is that they would provide a flat fee of say $500 to pay for these expenses. They will provide up to $290 for a medical exam yet my actual costs were $0, but only $60 for a dental exam (including x-rays). My actual dental costs were $344; I wish I could have used some of that $290 for my dental exam. I am grateful that I have health insurance and I am grateful for federal laws that allow preventative care to be covered at 100%. It hasn’t always been like this, and I can only hope that these laws won’t be repealed.
When I share with someone that I’m joining the Peace Corps, I get one of two reactions:
- “OMG, how long is that? TWO YEARS! How can you afford to do that? What about work? What about your house? What about [fill in the blank]________________?” This exclamation is often accompanied by a facial expression of woe and angst followed by “I could never do that”
- “Oh wow, that is so cool. That’s so brave. I’m really excited/I really admire that you’re doing that.” This is usually said by someone who is not a member of my generation, or someone who is a really close friend and knows me well.
Having written this out, I feel like these responses to my decision are a pretty accurate timeline of my own feelings about Peace Corps.
I received my invitation to serve in July 2017. At first I was really excited, and then lurking worry and fears of the unknown starting to sneak their way into my subconscious. Eventually, I sucked it up and got my fingerprints done, checking off the first task in a surprisingly long litany of Peace Corps related tasks. This is probably one of the finer decisions I have made in life.
Nearly every adult older than me I spoke with about my Peace Corps decision encouraged me without reservation to pursue that unknown horizon (Reaction #2). They spoke of looking back on their own lives to places where they met a fork in the road, and now with near unanimity wish that had taken that less trodden path. My biggest hang up was money, though it shames me to say it out loud. I have always prided myself in not being a consumer, not letting things or stuff tie me down or control my life. I never appreciated that instead of stuff, I was consumed by the need to horde money for my future’s sake. Every single adult assured me that there is always time to make money, and really, money doesn’t make your world go ’round. Certainly it is important, and I know there are certain things I want to buy that will require some savings and a steady job, but those things are worth delaying for something like Peace Corps.
Making the decision to let go of monetary wealth for the next two years was really difficult for me, but I’ve come to the point where I can put it out of my mind for the sake of better things that I’m sure will make me poorer monetarily speaking, but much richer in life. Wealth, after all, is just what you make of it.
Hooray for personal growth!
But not everyone is supportive of this decision and here are some of my thoughts on the most common questions or concerns I get concerning Peace Corps.
Q: That’s like TWO YEARS of your LIFE! (concerns about commitment)
A: Yes, yes it is. However, it’s not like I wouldn’t be living those two years of my life anyway, right? You have to live them somewhere, and I can either live them in a way where that it is easy to predict my day-to-day, or in a way that it is not. If I weren’t going into the peace corps, I’d being going to graduate school, so it’s not exactly as if I’d be carefree and unencumbered anyway.
Q: Oooh… doesn’t that mean you have to live with no running water/electricity/indoor plumbing/car/etc?
A: Quite possibly yes, it does. But you know what? The lack of conveniences really doesn’t bother me in any significant way. Yes, I love hot showers and all of the joys of plumbing, but they aren’t huge priorities for me. I’ve lived without them before, and I would do it again.
Q: What if you get sick/robbed/homesick/lonely?
A: I fully expect all of thing to happen, probably all at once and probably more than once. And it will be miserable and without a doubt, there will be moments where I want nothing more than to catch the next donkey cart back to South Carolina. But bad things happen to people everywhere, all the time. They happen to me living here, and I deal with them. They will probably happen to me there, and I will deal with them there, too.
Q: Oh, so you’re out to go save the world/postpone adulthood/some other irresponsible choice? That probably won’t look too hot on a resume.
A: Oooh, judgy-judgy, aren’t you?! I am joining Peace Corps for my reasons, and my reasons alone. They consist of pursuing what I find to be personally fulfilling, important, and meaningful, as well as how I see my own place within the world and life. It’s such a challenge to get out there! To see the world for what it is instead of what it is portrayed to be! I love that, and want to be part of it. Peace Corps is not perfect in any way (is anything?), but they offer an opportunity to serve myself, my country, and maybe in some small way, someone else who shares in my fellow humanity. I think that in itself is cause enough for anyone.
And no, I would dare to disagree that joining Peace Corps is “postponing” anything, except perhaps a fat bank account. It has taken me a lot of thought and courage to apply and pursue Peace Corps, and if anything, I see it as a remarkable testament to my character, perseverance, and ability to withstand nearly anything. Also, perhaps it demonstrates a marked tolerance for misery, which is just fine with me. Putting a successful Peace Corps tour on my resume will be a very proud moment in my life, and honestly, would I even want to work for someone who didn’t agree?
Q: Oh wow, Peace Corps? I could never do that.
A: Yes. you. could. I hate to hear people downplay their own ability to adapt, change, and remain resilient against the unknown. Women, especially, seem to always discount their own strengths and ability to do something hard. If you are reading this blog and contemplating your own application to Peace Corps, I would urge you to dismiss outright those fears of what is unknown or unfamiliar. Don’t be discouraged by your own trepidation, or shy away from discomfort. If Peace Corps (or anything in life) is something you feel calling to you, whispering in your ears with an unheard voice of temptation, then take those reins! Seek that far horizon and do not stop until you find whatever it is that drives you. For me, Peace Corps is the hand that will open many doors I could never have opened or perhaps even dreamed of myself. Yes, I feel fear, and yes, I feel anxiety. But everything that may ever be gained by stepping into the chasm that is the unseen future is worth the immense challenge it is to rise above those concerns. It is a process. It will take time and thought and my utmost concentration. But, I have no doubt, that I am ready to serve.
The Peace Corps was established in 1961 by John F. Kennedy with three key goals in mind:
- Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
- Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
- Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
- Peace Corps | Madagascar began in 1993, and more that 1000 volunteers have served since its beginnings.
- Currently, about 130 volunteers are serving in Madagascar. Africa represents about 40% of Peace Corps volunteers.
- Madagascar is the 4th largest island in the world, and is located in the Indian ocean off of the southeast coast of Africa.
- French and Malagasy are both the official languages.
- The population is about 22 million, and 90% of the population live on less than $2 per day. It is one of the poorest countries in the world.
- Climates vary. It generally has two seasons: hot and rainy from November-April and cooler and dry May-October. The east coast contains tropical rain forests which can be hit by tropical storms and cyclones. The central highlands are cooler and dryer, and are the main location of Madagascar’s agriculture. The west coast contains deciduous forests that lose their leaves during the dry months. Finally, the southwest is the driest and some parts can be considered desert.
- Madagascar is considered a “biodiversity hot spot.” Over 90% of the wildlife is found nowhere else including lemurs, fossa (relative of the mongoose), and different types of birds. There are almost 15,000 different plants species, are 80% are found nowhere else on earth.
- There are 18 different ethnic groups. Madagascar was originally settled by people from Africa and Asia, and the culture now is a unique blend of the two. Much of the Malagasy population are predominantly animist. Many aspects of behavior is determined by cultural taboos, including treatment of the dead. About 50% of the population is Christian, and 2% are Muslim.
- Medical centers and hospitals are concentrated in urban areas, and medical care is very expensive relative to the average income. In 2010, Madagascar averaged 3 hospital beds per 10,000 people. The infection rate of AIDS is low compared to other African countries with about 0.9% of the adult population. Malaria is the main health concern, and was responsible for over 15% of hospital admissions in children under 5 years in 2008.
Question 3: What will you be doing?
I will be a Community Health Adviser helping to train health educators in my area. Together, we will work on implementing a communication system to improve health workers’ ability to communicate health information. I will provide education and identify interventions to promote safe pregnancies, better nutrition, prevention of malaria and other illnesses, as well as the importance of water, hygiene, and sanitation. [Or at least that is the plan]
Question 4: What do you do for training?
I will have about 10 weeks of pre-service training late February-mid May before a swearing-in ceremony. The training has five major components: technical, cross-cultural, language, health, and safety. I will also have a one week site visit to give me an general overview of what my site will be like.
Question 5: Do you know where you’ll be living in the country?
No, but I will find out several weeks into training based off questionnaires, preferences, and where my skills will be best utilized. I don’t get to choose where I live.
Question 6: What will your living situation be like?
I will most likely be living in a rural village without consistent electricity or running water. My housing will be similar to my community. I might have a room on the health center grounds or a small house with one or two rooms. My house might be a mud hut with a thatched roof or a modern cement house.
Question 7: Will you have electricity or running water?
It depends where in the country I am. The cities have electricity available, and the rural towns not so much. If electricity is available it will be probably be inconsistent. In addition, Internet access will most likely be limited.
Question 8: Will you have a cell phone?
Most volunteers buy their own cell phone but the service is spotty. I will bring my current mobile, buy a SIM card, and a internet stick. That way, I’ll be able to use my phone to text and call and use the internet.
Question 9: What will you eat?
Rice is the top food in all of Madagascar [Rice is not something I love or even like]. Rice is eaten with vegetables, beans, or meat. There are many fruits and vegetables that grow in Madagascar and are sold fresh and in their correct season.
Question 10: Do you have vacation?
Volunteers get two vacation days per month that can accrue totaling over 50 days for two years. I cannot take vacation within my first 6 months or my last three months.
Question 11: Will you live with a host family?
I will most definitely live with a host family during training.
Question 12: Can you receive mail?
Yes, yes, yes! I want to keep in touch with family and friends while I’m gone, and a big thank you in advance to anyone who wants to send mail my way! See my contact page on where to send stuff, what to send, and how to send it. Also my birthday is February 24, and cards and presents are always appreciated.
Question 13: Do you get paid?
Yes, but not much. Considering that most Madagascar natives make less than $2/day, I get paid well, but by American standards, I make more in one 12 hour shift as a RN than I do in one month working in Madagascar. However, my housing and insurance are covered by the Peace Corps so essentially I just have to pay for food, transportation, and internet. Also there’s no Amazon in Madagascar so that addiction has been curtailed.
I also get an allowance at staging and a settling in allowance once in Madagascar. That allowance is based on whether the site has had a volunteer before, whether or not I need to buy furniture, and how far away I am from the capital.
At the completion of service, I will get a settlement allowance of roughly $9000 + a flight home [or its equivalent in cash]. There are also government benefits such as one year NCE status and opportunities for graduate school scholarships.
I have made it a point in life to not regret the past. Sure there are things that I wish had not happened, but I also think that for better or worse, these life experiences have shaped me into the person that I am today. That being said, my one regret is that I didn’t study abroad when I was in college. It wasn’t as if I actively made the decision to not study abroad; my college, being a small (tiny even) liberal arts school did not have contracts in place with foreign universities.
And also, let’s be honest. Even if they had had those agreements in place, most likely I would not have been able to afford it. It was all I could do to afford college to begin with. I worked full-time hours throughout my entire college career. Going abroad for a semester or a summer would have meant 3-4 months of no job and no income. Putting that together with the added expense of being overseas and it just didn’t add up.
I did manage to travel while in college so it wasn’t as if I never left the country. I turned a two week vacation into a three month tour of Northern England, Scotland, and Wales with a side of Ireland after my freshman year. While my friend were actually graduating college, I did an ‘independent study’ in Mexico AFTER I’d taken all my other classes needed to graduate thus delaying my official graduation for a year.
I am quite certain that if I had studied abroad, my life would be 99.9% different than it is now–or maybe I would have arrived at the life I have now a lot sooner. I am quite certain that NOT studying abroad in college led me to take a ‘career break’ in 2010. And that ‘career break’ in 2010-11 led to me changing my career over the last 5 years. That career break also led to me choosing an elective where I got to spend time in both St Petersburg and Moscow (studying plants of all things) , Russia and Cardiff, Wales (studying the UK’s National Health System). Both of those experiences, while amazing, was not the immersion experience I was looking for. And while travel nursing in the US is totally a thing; international travel nursing is not.
All these experiences (and lack of experiences) has led me to the Peace Corps. Peace Corps is not something I’d even heard of other than in passing until after I graduated college. But it is something that has been nagging at me, sometimes gently, sometimes with a bit more force over the last 15 years.
So maybe not studying abroad in my initial college experience was a good thing; after all, it has brought me to the Peace Corps where I’ll finally have that immersion experience I have been craving since I was 19 years old.
The Peace Corps’ sent my invitation to serve on July 27, 2017 via e-mail. I was past the point of obsessively checking my email like I did for the first few weeks after my interview. I popped in randomly to check my email, only to be disappointed by the lack of updates. My check-ins were getting further and further apart.
Which is why I almost missed my invitation to serve!
I sat down at my desk on a late Sunday night, checking my email, thinking it would be full of spam yet again when I saw it…
Congratulations! You have been selected to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer, pending medical and legal clearance. This letter is your formal invitation to serve as a Community Health Advisor in Madagascar departing February 25, 2018. By accepting this invitation, you are taking the next step toward joining hundreds of thousands of Americans who have answered the call to service and made sustainable change in communities around the world.Here’s what you need to do within 3 calendar days:
- Review all assigned materials. Please review the assignment-specific information sent to you via email previously, as well as the Peace Corps Volunteer handbook.
- Respond to your invitation:
See that second bullet point–respond to your invitation. It was already Sunday, July 30th at 11:45pm. Did this really mean I only had 15 minutes remaining or my invitation would be rescinded? I don’t know, but I wasn’t going to take any chances. But by my getting my invitation so late in the game, meant that I had absolutely no one to talk to about it. Except my coworker. Who thinks I’m crazy for wanted to join the Peace Corps (she’s roughly twice my age, and thinks I should be getting married and having kids instead of running off to an island).
Trusting my gut, I responded to the accept link in my invitation. And that was that. On August 2, I got inundated with the first set of tasks–getting my fingerprints done and sent off to legal and getting my passport and visa application sent to the appropriate place.
You see how ‘pending medical and legal clearance’ is bolded in the original offer? That’s because medical clearance is no joke–and with only two months (60 days to be precise) to complete them, it’s a race to complete on time.