It's that time again - just one month until another group of volunteers arrive here in Guate, the group that will arrive on my group's one-year anniversary in country! To mark the occasion, I'd thought I'd offer a few packing tips to those who might be reading.
First of all, you don't need to prepare to be out in the middle of nowhere for two years straight, nor buy a bunch of fancing camping gear and clothes. Guatemala is a very commercialized country, and most sites are comparatively not too rustic. Almost all volunteers have electricity and are within three hours of a supermarket/commercial center with products very much like those you'd buy in the US. Some are farther out, but still have more access to supermarkets and such than you would in, say, Mali.
Quality used clothing (paca) is cheap and abundant throughout Guatemala, and during training you have the chance to drop by the paca in Antigua's market. There's also a supermarket called Bodegonia for toiletries and such.
There is some stuff that is more expensive or non-existent here: electronics (computers, cameras), outdoor gear, some footwear, speciality toiletries. If needed, I'd stock up on that stuff before coming here.
(1) Clothes: You may end up in a hot, temperate, or cold site, but in training days are warm and nights are cool or cold. Guatemalans dress up for business or family occasions, but for hanging out or going shopping or around town you can wear whatever (within reason). If you have doubts about a clothing item, leave it, cos if it turns out you do need it you can find an equivalent in the used clothing stores (paca). I'd bring:
- Two week supply of underwear
- 3-4 + outfits just to hang out or hike or mess around in - jeans, shorts, capris, t-shirts (long and short-sleeve), tank tops, casual skirts/dresses
- 2-3 business casual outfits to wear to the Peace Corps office (whether you'll need them in site depends)
- 1-2 going-out outfits if that's your thing (women get really dressed up here; men can get away with jeans and a collared shirt)
- bathing suit (hot springs, ocean, who knows?)
- comfortable pajamas
- 2-3 hoodies, fleeces, or sweaters; hat; gloves
You can always buy warmer or skimpier clothes depending on your site.
(2) Footwear: Strappy sandals, flats (closed or open-toe), or heels are standard for women in business and public generally. For work, I wear hiking sneakers or flats. For hanging out or around town, I wear hiking sneakers, Chacos or flip-flops. I usually tend to be a bit underdressed but it works. Men tend to wear dress shoes in business contexts. You can find some shoes in paca but it's hit or miss for sizes larger than womens' 8 or mens' 10.
(3) Raingear: I have a thick rainshell which is useful up here in the Highlands - it's freezing when it rains! - but not totally essential. In hotter parts of Guate, rainshells can be stifling hot. If you don't have a rainshell already, you can buy big umbrellas here which work fine anywhere except on the trail. If you anticipate doing a lot of hiking or fieldwork and don't have a functional rainshell, you will want to buy one.
(4) Toiletries: You can find more or less whatever mainstream stuff you'd find in a US pharmacy or supermarket, and Peace Corps gives floss, cheap sunscreen, etc. It's hard to find biodegradable or herbal soaps or toothpastes (e.g. Dr. Brunner's, Tom's) or good facial sunscreen. Pack a good supply of that stuff if you are picky. Otherwise bring just enough toiletries to get you through the first few weeks of training.
(5) Glasses vs. contacts: I gave up my contacts when I came here just because I didn't want the additional hassle or expense, but contact solution is not hard to find in larger cities.
(6) For women: Peace Corps provides plentiful Tampax tampons, and you can easily find pads in the corner stores. That said, trash management is non-existent here and I highly recommend the Diva Cup, supplemented with Glad Rags if you are worried about leakage or not into tampons. The money and trash you'll save really adds up. But give them a test run before leaving the US.
(8) Cell phone: [edit 12.12.2010] It turns out that Peace Corps cut a deal with Tigo and will be issuing contract cell phones to all volunteers starting later this month. Now we'll have free calls to other volunteers and PC staff, plus additional minutes nationally and internationally. Sounds like it should be a pretty sweet deal, but if you want to keep a second phone, tri-band phones from the US will work here. You just need to buy a Guatemalan SIM card (Tigo or Claro).
(9) Memory stick: A USB drive is useful for working/printing in Internet cafes or the Peace Corps office, especially during training. You can also easily find them for sale here if you have a need.
(10) Laptops: Most volunteers have computers. I went the first six months without, but then I got a used netbook sent from home and it's been great. (Computers and electronics generally are more expensive here than they are in the US, so take that into account.) Without it, getting work done was more difficult, I spent more money on Internet cafes and phone calls, and I was also a lot lonelier at night. Most volunteers have Tigo Internet reception in their sites, and I also got the Tigo cell phone modem to use Skype and check e-mail, which has worked out great for keeping in touch cheaply. Some volunteers love watching DVDs at night, so you might consider an external drive if you're one of those people and your laptop doesn't have one.
A note about electronics: Generally speaking, if you use your computer, I-pod, or camera all the time in the US, you will probably feel better having them in Guatemala, too. It can be a good challenge to go without, but keep in mind that the happier you are, the more professional and productive you will probably be. It's definitely a personal choice though. It's nice too to not have to worry about taking care of a bunch of stuff but a laptop is super-useful for work.
(11) Surge protector: This is a good idea if you have a computer, electricity is often unreliable and you don't want to fry your computer. They can be purchased here but are more expensive than in the US.
(12) Camera: I have a cheap digital camera I bought used in the states, other friends brought digital SLRs. I'm content to have a lower-end camera I can drag around everywhere and not worry about (after all, with digital these days, good photos are way more about composition than equipment!). Photos are popular with host families and digital developing is readily available here. A small card reader is useful if your laptop doesn't have one.
(13) I-pod: Some people swear by theirs for sanity.
(14) Headlamp: For black-outs, camping, hostels; essential if you do end up as one of the PCVs with limited electricity.
(15) Rechargable batteries: If you bring electronics that use disposable batteries, I'd recommend rechargable batteries and a charger. It's an investment but they'll save money over time and reduce trash. (No battery recycling here.)
(16) A gift for host families or kids: think of stuff you can't get here... a souvenir from your hometown, real maple syrup, etc. The kids will appreciate Hershey's chocolate but it'll taste the same whether you buy it at home or at the grocery in Antigua.
(17) Stuff to share with your host family -A pack of cards, a photo album of your family, house, and hometown - it's fun to share. You can easily find school supplies or stickers here which are also fun with kids.
(18) Ear-plugs!: Guatemala is a noisy country. Depends on your tolerance, but I personally am not into hearing church sermons at 4:30 am on Saturday morning.
(19) Nalgene or Kleen Kanteen bottles (or Camelbak if you think you'll do a lot of hiking) - gotta have a place to put that agua pura!
(20) Camping gear: If you really love camping, you could think about bringing your own gear with you in case you'd rather not go out with tour operators. Camping off the beaten track is not generally considered a safe activity in Guatemala, but there are definitely plenty of parks where it is safe. A sleeping bag can be useful for regular travel, too.
(21) Medium-sized daypack: What is really useful for me and many volunteers is a large school backpack or medium-sized daypack (around 3000-3500 cc) for shorter trips, vacations, and day hikes. It fits in the overhead rack on the camioneta rather than needing to be thrown on top of the bus, which is less hassle in the rush and bustle to get on and off the camioneta, and also safer for your stuff.
And what to pack it all in:
A big backpackers' pack is convenient for carrying a lot of weight at one time, but if you don't already have one and don't plan on doing backpacking trips, it's not an essential. It can be convenient to have a big backpack and one other bag (rolling or duffle) but a regular rolling luggage and a duffle bag works fine. In most cases you'll never walk very far with all of your luggage combined, the bus ayudantes are super-helpful, and at most you'll brave the buses with all your stuff two times - probably less if your in-site counterpart picks you up with a car at the end of training. So don't feel pressured to buy an expensive backpackers' bag just for that.
So that's what I've got. Any comments or questions, feel free to get in touch with me!