This is the third post in a three-part series of posts about what I packed for Peace Corps service in Colombia. Read about what luggage, clothing, and shoes I packed here, or about the electronics I brought here.
I’m writing this post for all my Type A CII-10 (and beyond, because the internet is forever) homies, because I know that October is around when I started Googling “Peace Corps packing list” and “Peace Corps Colombia packing list.” The former brings up a bajillion results, but a packing list for Mongolia isn’t going to help a Colombia volunteer; the latter only brings up two real results, neither of which are super comprehensive because they lack follow-up.
I’ve been in country nine months now. I know what I am glad I brought, I know what I wish I had brought, and I know what I wish I hadn’t (for me: not much).
I want to emphasize the words my and I; I could ask each of my fellow cohort members to write a post like this and all 24 would look very different. This is specific to my experience (no volunteer’s experience is the same, even if we’re in the same sector in the same country), and is much more a guideline than a Bible. And it’s long so sorrrrrrrryyyyyyy.
To make it slightly easier to see what I don’t recommend bringing based on my own experience, I have marked those things with red text.
The items marked in orange text are things I am still glad I brought, but would have changed somehow.
Unless you’re picky about brands/types, you can get most toiletries here for prices comparable to in the States (some cheaper, depending on the item). Example: I only brought two tubes of toothpaste, and it was a bit of a shock when I had to switch from my old standard Crest to Colgate.
Don’t bother spending space on sunscreen, bug spray, chapstick, or basic medications like Tylenol, Pepto Bismol, cough drops, condoms, etc. That’s all provided in your medical kit and resupplied as needed.
What I brought:
- Blonde bobby pins
- Makeup (I brought enough to get me through at least a year) – if you have specific makeup needs/wants because of skin sensitivities, highly recommend bringing lots of extra or planning for it to be something your family/friends send. Makeup, especially beauty-store brands, is super expensive here. That said, if you’re not super picky or sensitive, there are several mail-order brands (Avon, Natura) that sell good stuff at a decent price.
- 7 toothbrushes, 1 toothbrush holder, 2 tubes toothpaste, 1 pack of floss – I’m super picky about my toothbrushes. Floss is provided in the medical kit.
- 2 packets of Colgate Wisps – these disposable toothbrushes are wasteful, but they’re so great if the water is out or I’m traveling and don’t want to worry about possibly losing my toothbrush and toothpaste
- Cotton pads
- Cotton balls
- 4 sticks deodorant – this was kind of useless, because I brought Tom’s which just doesn’t do the job in this weather. It does help me with a mid-day refresh, but I ended up buying extra-strength after a couple stinky months.
- Manicure supplies – about 10 bottles of nail polish, 1 bottle nail polish remover, and basic items. I had narrowed my colors down to really subtle ones, and I wish I had brought my loud ones. That said, a mani-pedi complete with design runs $10-14mil.
- My razor and a handful of blades – blades are surprisingly inexpensive here, relatively speaking…but so is waxing.
- A loofah – this got tossed early on. It collected mold like whoa and liquid body wash is expensive.
- 5 bottles eye makeup remover, 1 pack of makeup removing wipes
- 2 bottles of body spray
- Altitude sickness medication – this was prescribed for me when I went to the travel clinic; I don’t know if/when I will take it.
- Microfiber towel (for my hair)
What I wish I had brought:
- More hair product – I ended up getting this ordered and brought to me during PST, because I had run out of my usual stuff and hadn’t yet found a good sulfate-free substitute. I finally did four months in (Natura), so won’t need to do this again.
- Dayquil and Nyquil – for me, this is everything when I have a cold. I had a cold for 2 solid months here, and just never felt great because I didn’t have my usual OTCs to help me out.
I realize I didn’t mention feminine hygiene at all. It’s important to know that Peace Corps does not provide any feminine hygiene products in Colombia. Most of my female cohort members used a menstrual cup. In-country, tampons are very expensive and not readily expensive in rural sites; most pads are very maxi.
I didn’t spend a lot of room on home goods like pillows, sheets, or kitchen supplies, because I knew that I would be living with a family and that these would all be available for purchase in-country. Each volunteer receives a settling-in allowance after swear-in, so that when they move to their two-year sites, they can get what they need for their new homes to make themselves comfortable. For me, that was a lot of plastic storage stuff to get my belongings out of sight and the rest went towards my bike.
In terms of the bike, volunteers in rural sites can request an allowance to purchase a standard bike; the money can buy one just barely. Helmets are provided to volunteers with bikes.
A lot of education volunteers think they want to bring a lot of school supplies. I just caution that schools here don’t work in the same way they do at home, so maybe wait to see what you wish you had and then have someone send that. I didn’t bring any school supplies; I get what I need here. The only thing I maybe wish I had brought were children’s books, in both English and Spanish.
What I brought:
- 4 small journals
- 2 adult coloring books
- 2 packs of colored pencils, 1 pack of markers
- A bunch of random markers and pens – Sharpies are easy to find here, but my favorite Sharpie pens are not as ubiquitous
- An agenda stuffed with cards from people – honestly I don’t use this but it was a gift from my mom so…
- A journal with notes from my family
- 1 physical book – these are nice to have when you’re on a public bus and want to read without busting out the Kindle, but they’re also available to borrow from the Peace Corps library
- A toy camera and some extra film
- 2 host gifts – I truly don’t think this is necessary. What is nicer than a gift upon arrival (which can signal “I have money and want to give you things”), is a thoughtful gift when leaving. Regardless, I brought each family a little packet of broccoli cheese wild rice soup, gourment hot chocolates, and tiny little honey bears, all local from my home states.
- Family pictures – I even packed a cheap plastic frame. It’s superlight, had no real risk of breaking, and having pictures and artwork on my walls makes me feel at home. These are probably also something you can buy here for relatively little money.
- Sleeping bag – mine was compact and pretty lightweight, but it will never be used while I’m here. I thought it would be useful to take when visiting other volunteers, but even just for laying on it is too hot in this climate. If I do end up going to Machu Picchu, all equipment is available for rent there.
- Inflatable pillow – I love this thing and just keep it in my backpack all the time so I don’t forget it when I’m making weekend trips.
- Two aluminum water bottles
- A cribbage board – yet to be used, but not a huge sacrifice because it’s compact.
- Bike lights – I knew I’d want a bike, and it was nice to just have these already and not have to worry about spending money on them
- Travel yoga mat
- Coffee thermos
- 2 intimates laundry bags
- Cross-stitch project (fabric, needles, thread)
What I wish I had brought:
- My actual yoga mat instead of the travel one. I had the space and weight available for it, and the travel one is just very thin and not cushy.
- Spices and hot sauces – almost everything you want is available here, but at prices that are expensive for our volunteer stipend. And it can be hard to get the time/funds to go into the city to buy them.
- A can opener – it’s something I’ve never bothered buying because I don’t need it often enough to spend my pesos on it, but on the rare occasion that I need to stab a can open with a knife I fear for my life
It’s not difficult to get most of the things that you will want and need in-country. What can be difficult is having the funds, the time, and convenient transportation for getting them. I recommend bringing the things that make you happy right away instead of waiting to get them, because mental health is important.
For more great suggestions from PCVs around the world, check out My Peace Corps Story’s ultimate packing list.