A lot of Peace Corps volunteers midway through service reflect on their original packing list, what they shouldn’t have brought, and what’s been invaluable. I’m too lazy for a full census, so I’ll just list a few of my Peace Corps “MVPs”, items/clothing/less tangible things that have been key parts of my service. Not trying to sell you anything here, just giving credit where credit is due.
- Laptop: as I’m writing this blog post on it, might as well start here. Right before leaving I bought a Lenovo X260 for $800, and have never regretted it. It won’t win any speed awards and my music skips if I pick it up too suddenly, but it’s simple, light, and compact. And while some understandably view its black, angular aesthetic as boring and decidedly unsexy, I appreciate the lack of flash in that it doesn’t draw attention to me in a place where an iPhone can get a volunteer a lot of generally unwanted attention from kids.
- Kindle: I’ll just keep going with the electronics. As a Luddite and lover of paper things of all sorts, I was skeptical of the Kindle at first, but its served me faithfully since my cross-country Amtrak journey. While it certainly does feel better and more “right” reading an actual paper book, I love that I can carry my Kindle anywhere, read easily without holding a book open (yikes, life is difficult), and buy new books whenever I want. I also appreciate how easy it is to take notes and save them to my computer for later when I want to look back over what I’ve read.
- Skype: Skype is a miracle. Being 8,000 miles away from friends, family, and girlfriend is still difficult, but every Skype session is a huge mood boost. Sometimes I wonder whether integration in my community would be easier or deeper without the internet and the connection of Skype (and email, Facebook, etc.) to the wider world, but you know what, if that’s the price of easily talking with loved ones back home, it’s worth it.
- Quality windows: Armenian apartments in the old Soviet buildings are generally pretty identical from the outside, but you can tell a lot about a family’s socioeconomic status from the quality of their windows. In a country where winter can last six months, if you have the money, you buy good windows. The house where I lived solo for two months last winter had single-pane windows with a few cracks here and there, and occasionally on a cold night I’d hear the wind howl outside and shortly after feel a light breeze across my face; not so great. My host folks’ house has double-pane European windows, ensuring a cool house in the summer and a toasty one even in the depths of winter. I never thought I’d have such strong opinions on windows, but Peace Corps is truly a life-changing experience.
- Giant winter coat: sort of like a well-insulated, high-quality window you wrap yourself in. I picked up my winter coat in Tbilisi at Zara while on vacation, and it kept me warm and toasty all winter, and lurks in my closet, waiting for the arrival of, well, probably mid-October. While living on my own last winter, I frankly felt warmer outside in my giant coat than inside, even with my wood stove roaring. When wearing this coat I feel like a snuggly little penguin hiding inside a battle tank.
- Dark Clothing: Armenian culture places a higher value on cleanliness and neat clothing than American, and I can be a pretty uncoordinated eater and holder of dirtying things. So, dark clothing as much as possible. For all you know, the clothes in the below picture might be covered in stains. Let’s be real, they probably are.
- Salomon trail running/hiking shoes: my second pair of XA Pro 3Ds is nearing the end of its life, and I’ve already got a third pair stashed for the rest of my time here. I wear these all the time – for hiking in the hills around town, walking Border to Border, and for going essentially everywhere in wintertime as long as there’s less than a foot of snow on the roads.
- Journal: Peace Corps pushes you to develop stronger personal coping mechanisms for the variety of daily challenges volunteers face (indeed, this was a big draw for me). I’ve always been a healthy journalier, but being over here has pushed me to write at least a half page a day to both stay mentally/emotionally healthy and, perhaps just as importantly, to log funny and exciting things. I look forward to revisiting these journals over the years to reflect on the challenges I overcame here and revisit the daily hijinks.
- Armenian coffee: Հայկական սուրճ (haykakan surj), traditionally called Turkish coffee back home, often diplomatically called Eastern coffee in certain restaurants here. Standard “American” coffee (i.e. drip) is pretty strong for me, so while I need the morning coffee infusion it often leaves me jittery and anxious afterwards. Armenian coffee has enough caffeine to properly wake me up, and little enough that I can drink three or four cups of it a day without negative effect. While a lot of the beauty of the Armenian coffee experience is that it’s traditionally shared instead of drunk alone, I hope to convert friends, family, and coworkers back in America to it. My current plan back in the States is to grind and brew Dunkin’ in the Haykakan style, a perfect blend of various significant life influences.