Category Archives: Pre-departure

Final preparations

So what have I been up to these last few months?

Six weeks ago, I quit my day job. I’ve been traveling quite a bit since: one last weekend trip with two of my best friends; a visit to my mom’s family and my sister’s college, ostensibly to see my sister play rugby (I am doomed never to see my sister play rugby); a weeklong trip around New York State and Pennsylvania to visit a fellow writer and my scattered college friends; finally, last week, a relaxing family vacation with my father and brother. (Ask them how well I relaxed.)

I’ve also been shopping. Lots of shopping: I needed a professional mini-wardrobe that wouldn’t get dingy or destroyed by harsh washing, good quality long underwear, luggage I could carry over rough roads, and so on. It cost a lot more than I planned to spend, but that’s because I decided to splurge on quality stuff and a few things I don’t necessarily need to buy.

Then I had to gather together everything I bought with everything I already owned and planned to bring.

Bizarrely, everything fits into one bag:

Mind, I haven’t weighed anything yet. And there are some fairly bulky items I haven’t packed (pillows, a scrapbook, my winter coat). I get two bags that fall within airline restrictions (50 lbs. each, with combined dimensions of 107 linear inches) and my carry-ons. One of my checked bags goes into storage for PST, and I live out of the other bag and my carry-ons throughout the summer. I’m planning to check that duffle and a hiking backpack, and to use my beloved and battered grade-school backpack and a laptop bag as carry-ons.

I have also been working on two projects that will be very important during my early days in Mongolia: a gift for my host family, and a scrapbook of people and places in the U.S.

The host family gift should theoretically be the easier of the two. But I’m very picky about gifts, and I’ve had trouble finding something I’m satisfied with. So far I’ve considered maple syrup (would make an awesome gift, but might cause trouble in customs); maple candies (I plan on bringing some, but I have to find a good-sized box for the whole family); a coffee table book about Buffalo (theoretically nice to show more about my hometown, but I had trouble finding one that had a variety of pictures and not a lot of text). I’m still wavering between the coffee table book and a Buffalo mug full of maple candies.

The scrapbook isn’t as difficult to figure out, but it’s been pretty time-consuming. I’m doing a page for each family member, several for close friends, a few for my house and dog and hometown, and one for each of the community groups that have been important to me (my sorority; my oboe studio in college; my karate dojo). I’ve labeled each one in English and in the best mangled proto-Mongolian I can accomplish. I don’t want to put the whole thing online — it’s a bit personal for that — but here’s a sample spread, the one with my house and dog:

As I write this, about a week in advance, I still have to finish the scrapbook and actually pack; by the time it’s published, I should theoretically be all set for my imminent departure. On Tuesday, May 26th, I travel to San Fransisco, where I will meet my cohort and and attend a two days of orientation.

Then we fly to Mongolia.

Backstory: Paperwork

Peace Corps Volunteers are issued a special passport for business-related travel. There are two ways to apply for this: either mail in your current passport, if you have one, with the DS-82 (passport renewal) form; or fill out the DS-11 (new passport application) at a post office or other passport agency. If you complete the DS-82, the Peace Corps retains your passport and returns it when you arrive at Staging. Since I was planning to travel out of the country on one last family vacation, I decided to fill out the DS-11.

Now, government employees undergo a different process from other applicants — the mailing instructions are slightly altered, and they aren’t expected to pay the $110 passport fee. I checked online for a passport agency that would be open on a Saturday, since I had work, and found a nearby post office. I arrived at the post office around 9:30 to be informed that the passport office was closed on Saturdays (the mailwoman pointed to a closed door, beside which the hours “Saturday 9-11am” were clearly printed), and furthermore I had to have an appointment.

On Monday I started calling around to the nearby post offices. It turns out that government passports are not commonly issued: the first three offices I called had never heard of them, announced that they were not qualified to issue them, and were mightily suspicious by the phrase “no-fee” despite that I was quite literally quoting the DS-11. I attempted to call the Buffalo passport office, but got an automated line, a lot of being-on-hold, and the spectre of a $65 service fee independent of the passport fee itself.

Finally, I got hold of a very helpful passport agent, who said that she’d never done a no-fee passport, but she’d heard of them, and she was pretty sure it was in the manual — why didn’t we meet the Tuesday after Christmas, in about a week? She would do her research, and I could bring my instructions, and if for some reason she couldn’t do it she would give me a call. I thanked her slavishly before I hung up.

The actual application process was neither difficult nor especially different from the ordinary application, although it was terrifically awkward to tell a USPS employee that a U.S. government bureau does not allow its employee candidates to use USPS to mail their employment-related documents. (Something about a radioactive screening process that melts photo paper; I’m not sure why UPS and FedEx don’t have the same problem).

“I don’t know why the other offices said they couldn’t do it,” the agent told me cheerfully. “It’s all in the manual.”

Neither do I, I thought, and smiled at her.

In the beginning of December, my medical portal updated with the documentation required for clearance.

I am tremendously fortunate in that, being under 25, I’m still covered by my father’s insurance. (I could also have been insured through my document control job, but the coverage wasn’t as complete.) My medical expenses were minimal, though I know of people who had to shell out several thousand. I’ve seen a dentist and an optometrist regularly since early childhood and didn’t have to get much work done. I did, however, have to go through the intake process for an adult physician, since my pediatrician had politely and discreetly slipped me a transfer-of-care slip at my only visit as a college graduate.

My complete medical experience:

  • Personal Migraine History: I get migraine headaches and had to write a personal statement about how I’d deal with them abroad. Not a problem — migraines only rarely interfere with my day-to-day.
  • Dental: I’ve always had pretty good teeth and was due for a checkup around the time I received the forms. No problems.
  • Optometric: the Peace Corps replaces your glasses if they break during service, but doesn’t support the use of contacts. I dropped off the prescription form when I stopped by to pick up my last six months of contacts; this month, when the insurance turned over, I bought a backup pair of glasses.
  • Physical Part 1: I had to do an intake appointment with a new physician to establish my medical history and get my records transferred from the pediatrician. She issued me a script to get my bloodwork done.
  • Immunizations Part 1: I was up-to-date with everything except my TDaP and an adult polio. When I had my intake appointment, my new physician informed me that they could to the TDaP but that she would have to write me a prescription for the polio, since it’s no longer part of the routine for U.S. adults. “They’ll give you a vial,” she told me, “just keep it in the fridge until you come for your next appointment.” It turns out that regular pharmacies aren’t licensed to distribute vaccines (shocker, right?) so I had no way to get the prescription filled.
  • Bloodwork: I’d never gotten my blood drawn before and babbled inanely at the technician to hide my nerves. (It probably didn’t help that it was 6 a.m. and I hadn’t eaten.) Turns out six tubes of blood is significantly less than, say, the Red Cross asks for in a donation.
  • Physical Part 2: My new physician was both thorough and brisk, though she flatly refused to examine (and therefore would not check off) the sections that fell under the gynecologist’s purview, and she forgot about the TDaP. My bloodwork was clean.
  • Immunizations Part 2: I booked an appointment with a travel health organization to get my polio vaccine, and decided to do the TDaP while I was there. This cost me around $250, since the organization didn’t take my insurance.
  • Pap Smear/Physical Part 3: I had to do intake with a gynecologist as well, but that was a much quicker process — just a few forms at the same appointment. The gynecologist was happy to fill out the sections of the physical my primary had left blank.

All said and done, I had submitted all medical documents by February 7th and received my medical clearance on February 9th.

Backstory: the invitation

The summer passed slowly. In June, I took a TEFL certification course (through Oxford Seminars; seemed like a solid program, though I haven’t got any basis for comparison). This was partly to enhance the competitiveness of my application, and partly because I felt — still feel — thoroughly underqualified.

Actually, it may be helpful for me to list my qualifications here:

  • a Bachelor of the Arts in English/Creative Writing from a small SUNY (State University of New York) school.
  • one academic year as a peer tutor in my school’s College Writing Center (around five hours a week, ~80-100 hours total) — primarily one-on-one sessions working rhetorical structure, grammar, and citation — following a semester-long practicum including composition theory.
  • volunteering for a literacy organization, tutoring a student one-on-one and designing my own lesson plans/curriculum — at the time of my application I’d only just finished the month-long training, but I’ve since clocked about a year (another 80-100 hours) of weekly sessions.
  • TEFL certification — four sixteen-hour weekends learning some basic language-learning & education theory and best practices for teaching English to non-native speakers.

It looks pretty on paper, but: I’ve never been responsible for a whole classroom; I’ve never worked with students younger than I am; and I’m not certified to teach in my own state. Many of my friends — virtually all of teacher my friends — have a minimum of two years working toward an education degree. By that standard, I really am massively underqualified. I really hope this three-month Pre-Service Training beefs up my classroom management skills.

September arrived, and with it the year’s first cold winds. Buffalo, for those of you unfamiliar with New York State geography, is one of the snowiest cities in the U.S. — we get around eight feet a year. The past few years have been especially awful thanks to climate change. I began to joke with my friends and coworkers that of course I wasn’t going to Thailand — instead we’d have a horrible winter, and as soon as it started to warm up, they’d ship me off to one of the coldest countries in the world.

I shouldn’t have said anything. Sure enough, in the middle of September, I got an official email: As the Placement Officer for the Thailand program, I am writing to inform you that all positions for the program to this program have been filled. Your application will now be prioritized and considered for the next possible program for which you qualify. … Specifically at this time, we are looking at Mongolia which departs May 2015.

I replied that I was willing to wait until May to get into the Mongolian program. Less than two hours later, I got my formal invitation to join the Peace Corps as a Secondary English Teacher.

This, of course, meant that Buffalo had the coldest, snowiest winter I have ever experienced.

The invitation came with about a hundred pages of PDFs: a description of my responsibilities, notes on the history and culture of Mongolia, a safety and security primer. The email politely requested that I read these and respond within seven calendar days.

I flew through the readings over the course of a weekend (at that point I was working the document control job full-time) and accepted my invitation. I got an autoresponse informing me I would be contacted within few days. This was September 18th. On the 22nd my legal kit was mailed out — I had to find a place to get fingerprinted and return it through FedEx — and my medical portal was updated.

I had planned to attend a science fiction/fantasy writing workshop the week of October 13th. Not yet having heard from anyone — not, in fact, having any points of contact known to me — I shot an email to my placement specialist to let her know I would not be able to respond to emails.

She responded that I now had four main points of contact: the Mongolia country desk, SATO, Medical, and Staging. I was supposed to have received an email with a checklist, and could I please “let us know” if I hadn’t received it.

Having no idea which of the contacts was applicable here, I replied to the placement specialist, CC’ing the country desk, and asked to have the checklist resent. I left for the workshop; it was an absolutely wonderful experience, andI developed an entirely new perspective of myself as a writer and a professional. I threw myself into my writing when I returned home, and two months flew by.

December: I still hadn’t heard anything from the Peace Corps. It was just over five months from my tentative departure date, and I was a bit worried. I checked my email history and realized the placement specialist had never gotten back to me. I sent an email to the country desk and received no response. The following week I sent an email to Staging, asking for the checklist or at least direction to the appropriate email — and, lo and behold, within twenty-four hours I had access to two new portals, fifteen Mongolian language lessons, two online classes, a series of forms, a new resume request — oh, and a passport and visa application I was supposed to have filled out within a week of receiving my invitation.

I was understandably rather panicked.

Backstory: the interview

I did my research.

The U.S. Peace Corps does not, in fact, participate primarily in house-building. There are six sectors, or categories of service, and a university degree with a minimum of related experience is required for each. A yearlong application/pre-departure process precedes the two-year service. You have to be in good physical condition. You have to go wherever and do whatever the Peace Corps tells you. You must be flexible and adaptable and aware that you are a highly visible representative of the U.S.A. in your host country. I discovered that my creative writing degree and peer-tutoring experience qualified me as a secondary English/TEFL teacher.

I completed my B.A. in December, came home from England, and spent four months working document control for a biomedical company and bouncing aroud my family’s empty house. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a poster child for the United States. As I read through the website, flexible and adaptable took on an uncomfortable ring of weed words — words that could be used to weed out those who failed to overlap with the Peace Corps model in some otherwise indefinable way, to bind the remainder together as a mark of pride and therefore potentially of shame and silence, and to enforce unreasonable standards as representative of an ‘adaptable’ model; words which, moreover, could be used to gloss over failures of planning on the part of the organization[1]. It was harder, too, to reconstruct the excitement of travel and my sense of myself as an independent adult when I was surrounded by the people and objects of a relatively sheltered childhood.

I drafted my application. I made two timid attempts to attend recruitment events in Buffalo, but couldn’t find the recruiter — one event was canceled; I have no idea what happened with the other one. I waffled about applying for graduate school, though I really wanted practical experience before I poured money I didn’t have into a degree I might not use. Finally, in May 2014, I bit the bullet and submitted my application.

Within two days I’d heard back from my local recruiter: When would I be available for an interview? Was I able to make the hour-and-a-half drive to Rochester, or would I prefer to Skype?

I decided to go to Rochester, because I wanted to demonstrate my dedication and because it seemed awkward to interview through a screen. We arranged to meet at a coffee place the following week, and she sent me an email with preparatory instructions.

I arrived at the interview about half an hour early — I’d been that nervous about running late. I huddled in my car for twenty minutes with a Tamora Pierce book and then wandered into the coffeeshop, hoping I looked more confident than I felt.

The interview itself was a surprisingly pleasant experience. (I generally expect interviews to feature glowering monsters in black-hooded robes who declare my total unfitness for any activity whatsoever, so they are usually surprisingly pleasant.) The interviewer, a RPCV from Cape Verde, asked a set of scripted questions that echoed the preliminary email: What experience did I have that would contribute to service? What were my concerns about serving? Did I have tattoos, or piercings, or a restricted diet, and what would I do if assigned somewhere that did not permit them? How did I feel about a situation where men would ignore or dismiss me simply because I was a young woman?

I answered as honestly as I could, and asked a few questions of the interviewer, who shared her experience in Cape Verde. While I’d met a few RPCVs abroad, this was my first opportunity to ask in-depth questions. She told me she thought I’d be a great fit as an English volunteer. Based on some work as treasurer in my college sorority, I was also marginally qualified to try for a community development position (a sort of catch-all for projects that don’t definitively fall under the other sectors), but as an English volunteer, she said, I would be “more competitive”. I agreed that I was more interested in teaching English anyway.

And then she asked the big question.

“Where do you want to go?”

Where did I want to go?

I stared at the interviewer, dumbfounded. I do believe I resembled a highly bewildered fish. Nobody had ever indicated that this question would come up. Everything I’d read suggested that my placement barely took into account my preferences[2]. I was under the impression that they had some elaborate system in place to determine my best fit. I had barely looked at the current programs — the sheer number had overwhelmed me.

I tentatively suggested volunteering in a Spanish-speaking country, since I had taken Spanish in high school; the interviewer looked it up. No English teaching programs fell within the appropriate time frame. I offered a bit more blank staring and stuttering. I can’t remember if I’d heard the names before, or if she recommended them now, but both Mongolia and Mozambique came up as established programs that Volunteers quite enjoyed.

At length we decided it would be best for me to go home, do some research, and email her with my top choices from those English programs that left between April and June 2015. I did so the following week, looking up unfamiliar names on Wikipedia and making an essentially arbitrary list of countries that seemed to have interesting programs and not a whole lot of political or environmental upheaval. Mozambique no longer had an English program, but Mongolia left in May; I put it at the top of the list.

Shortly after I sent this email, I received a call from my interviewer. She explained, sounding slightly harried, that I might be able to leave sooner; they were changing their application process and competitive candidates were now eligible for empty slots in earlier-departing programs. I sent another list for the January-March 2015 slot. Thailand, due to leave in January, was my first choice.


[1] I have not myself experienced any of this, and I think the Peace Corps’ revised application process cuts out a lot of this sentiment. Still, I think the potential for abuse — especially the potential for a psychologically toxic situation — is worth pointing out.
[2] It turns out my application period fell right smack in the middle of a revamp of the process. All of the language at the time I was doing the research suggested that I wouldn’t get to pick (it’s not a vacation, this will test your adaptability, the appropriate distribution of your skills is more important than your preference, etc.), but by the time I got through the interview, they were transitioning toward a speedier and more personalized system.

Backstory: Travel Bug

I met the couple from San Diego and their Welsh friends at a train station in Naples. I was on my way to Pompeii, not sure I’d found the right platform and confused by the lack of station maps. They were on a cruise and had taken the day to sightsee.

I knew families back home that went on cruises. I’d gone on one myself as a kid. I have vague memories of a February head cold, the book I was reading, jewel-green-blue ocean on all sides. Now I was into my last college semester, spending a week in Rome at a hostel near Termini. I wanted to see the ancient sites. I’d already done the Forum and the Coliseum, Ostia, the Appian Way: Pompeii was my last item before I took a plane back to Norwich and the University of East Anglia.

The cruise ship couples were also confused about the station. We muddled through and found the right tickets, the right platforms. They seemed concerned about my safety, a young woman all alone on a train in Italy. I thought about the women who’d shared a room with me in the hostel: groups, pairs, and, yes, several others alone, on gap year or backpacking through their monthlong vacation. I was paying twenty euros a night to share a six-person room. I’d set up my whole trip by Googling on a university computer.

On a cruise ship, I’d have a room to myself and everything would be taken care of for me. I realized I preferred to meet strangers in a cheap hostel and to spend my afternoons looking for the tastiest gelato in the neighborhood. I liked figuring out how to find exactly what I wanted to see. I wondered when that had changed.

Still in Rome: two nights before. Dinner at the restaurant around the corner, which the hostel had discounted. I had a book. Not long after I sat down, I heard someone nearby give her order in flat American English. I looked up and spotted a woman about my age, alone at her table, dishwater blonde and fair beneath her tan. We established, a bit awkwardly, that we were both American students abroad, both at this restaurant on the hostel’s recommendation. I joined her table. She was from Spokane and spending the semester in Florence. She’d never heard of my college town in northern New York. I told her about UEA in England, its seventies concrete-block architecture and the prestigious creative writing classes I hadn’t gotten into.

Talk turned, inevitably, to what we would do after this final glorious semester. She said she’d thought about applying to the Peace Corps. I’d never heard of it.

“Two years in another country,” she said, “you live like a local, and, you know, you build houses and stuff. I think they’ll take me, because I speak French, and there’s a lot of programs in French-speaking countries in Africa.”

I did not, just then, think to ask any of the usual questions: Do you get paid? Do you choose where you’ll go? Do you have internet, electricity, running water? It was just something she was thinking about — she hadn’t researched it much. A talking point, the same sort of interesting as the roommate who was a travel agent or the one who let strangers couch-surf in her London flat. Something you ended up with after the travel bug bit you.

Naples again, afternoon, hanging around for the train back to Rome. An idea had waited patiently in the back of my brain for two days. Now I was unoccupied, and it demanded my attention.

I could do that. That’s it. That’s what’s next.

I paced around the station for twenty minutes and then sat down to write in my travel journal.

I think I might join the Peace Corps.

I shouldn’t put this into writing — I don’t know enough about it; I might do a bit of research & consign the idea to oblivion.

I am often asked questions about beginnings — Where did you hear about this, when, why, how did you decide? The answer I give depends on how pragmatic I’m feeling. That first entry is full of a self-conscious idealism. I am not adventurous, I always thought, I am not in search of danger, and as for good deeds — well — this is not a feasible option for me so let’s leave the good deeds to people who are capable … And now I’m thinking, Damned if this lark in Rome isn’t an adventure. And, I need to get past this idea that anything is unfeasible just because it’s strange or daunting.

I don’t put it into those terms now. Adventure is a thoroughly impractical reason to dedicate oneself to two years of anything, and the ethics of government-sponsored foreign service projects aren’t as simple as they looked back then. But at the end of the day, this is the moment it began: at a train station in Naples with the aftermath of my undergraduate degree hurtling toward me and a stranger’s words alive in my brain. The sum total of a semester alone on a new continent. One of those moments when my narrative identity was laid out glass-clear and straight, and I was intensely aware of the constructed fragility of it all — that this story I tell myself, doing and being and becoming, is an illusion of coherence my brain imposes on a random and nonsensical world. No story I tell you can approach the complexity of truth.

But, well, it seems to be working out for me so far.