Departure & Staging

I am officially a Peace Corps Trainee writing to you from Kosovo, my home for the next 27 months. The past two weeks have been a blur, and I was a bit sleep-deprived when I wrote this, so please forgive any typos. For info about Staging, you can skip to about halfway down the post. Train pic 2

My final days in the states were spent saying goodbyes to friends and family in Alaska, Arizona, and then Minnesota. It was an emotional and stressful couple of weeks. After packing my life in Alaska into two bags, I was able to take the Alaskan Railroad from Fairbanks to Anchorage, traveling through Denali National Park. It was a 13-hour train ride, but absolutely gorgeous. And I got to make the journey in first class with the McCann Clan, my dear friends and coworkers in Galena.

mountains by train

After flying out of Anchorage I arrived in Phoenix, where I spent six days with my family. It was the first time my immediate family has been together for seven years. We sat out by the pool each day and naturally I got awful sunburn on my first day in Arizona. I guess that’s what happens when you don’t see the sun for most of the year.

My immediate family reunited at last.
My immediate family reunited at last.

My final days were spent at my parents’ home in Minnesota, unpacking, storing my stuff, shopping for supplies, and attempting to pack for two years in Kosovo.

Heads-up to future volunteers: Packing takes much longer than you think it will. Hence, I was up until 2:00 AM packing on Thursday night and had to wake up at 4:00 AM to get ready to leave. You can find my packing tips for Kosovo here.

Side note: I also had a horrible sleepwalking experience during those 2 hours of sleep. (In case you didn’t know, I am a chronic sleepwalker.) I couldn’t say exactly what happened because I was asleep, but I woke up crawling on my little sister’s furniture, fell down, and received two massive bruises on my legs that are still visible two weeks later.

So anyways, on June 5th I woke up at 4:00 AM to depart for the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport for my flight to staging. Goodbyes to my family were not very emotional, which I was thankful for. I think I was too sleep-deprived to cry. I arrived in Washington D.C. around 10:20, and from there I took a taxi to the hotel where our group of volunteers was meeting for staging.


What is staging?            Staging refers to brief orientation that Peace Corps Invitees attend before departing for their country of service. It is usually 1-2 days in duration. It marks the beginning of 11 weeks of training, known as Pre-Service Training.

Where is it?                    Staging takes place at hotels in major U.S. cities, depending on which country you will be serving in. The Peace Corps covers your flight or reimburses you for driving costs. Kosovo’s staging was in Washington, D.C.

staging

What does it involve?    Staging began at noon on June 5th and went until 7:00 PM. First we had registration and ate lunch in smaller groups. Then we had a few sessions on the Core Expectations, our anxieties, and basic get-to-know-you activities. I was expecting staging to be pretty boring and basic, but it was surprisingly interactive. However, it is difficult to give an accurate evaluation because of how much adrenaline we had pumping through our systems. The entire day I was thinking, I can’t believe I’m about to leave the country for 27 months. Many of us were also in a daze because we didn’t sleep the night before.

Initial Impressions of the Volunteers:Picture3
Staging involves a lot of introductions and small talk. I have to say I was pretty impressed by the group. People seem very intelligent, well-traveled, and experienced in teaching. It was crazy to look around and realize that these people will be my friends and support system for the next 2+ years.

The group was younger on average than I expected. The average age is somewhere around 24. There is a sizable chunk who just graduated from college, but the majority have been in the workforce for 1 to 3 years (most as teachers). There is only one volunteer in our group of 36 over the age of 40. The vibe was reminiscent of college orientation.

PST overview with titleThe Overall Schedule:
After our registration at noon, we had group sessions from 2:00-7:00 PM. Then most of the group went out to dinner and some went site-seeing. Our group was lucky, because we did not have to leave the hotel until noon on Saturday. I was able to catch up on sleep and do some re-packing before we checked out of the hotel.

Then we took a bus to the airport and began the long process of checking in and checking our bags. We each had two 50-lbs bags plus our carry-ons, so most of us were hauling 140 lbs of luggage through the airport single-handedly.

Tip to future volunteers: Make sure that you can handle all of your luggage yourself! You will be hauling it through airports and onto buses on your own, so make sure that you can carry what you pack. (I brought a hard rolling suitcase, a duffle bag, a rolling carry-on, and a small backpack.) You can find more packing suggestions here.

Our flight on Austrian Airlines departed Saturday evening, arriving in Vienna at 8:00 AM Sunday. Our next flight was to Prishtina, the capital of Kosovo. From there we took a bus to the city of Gjilan, where we stayed for three nights while completing a brief orientation to Kosovo and the Albanian language.

Next up: Read about my first month in Kosovo and Pre-Service Training.

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My biggest worries about Peace Corps Service

My departure for Kosovo is less than one month away. Although I have done my research and read many blog posts from current volunteers, the truth is that I have no idea what to expect. The unknowns are killing me.

Here are my biggest worries:stick figure happy3

1. Living with a host family

I have lived in an apartment by myself for the past two years. I have become accustomed to having lots of alone time in my peaceful little home. When I am not working I can usually be found sitting by my window reading a book. Adjusting from this to living with roommates would be a transition… but living with an entire family that speaks another language?

stick figure smiling3What if they don’t like me? What if they have a bunch of little kids who won’t leave me alone? What if all of our interactions are full of long awkward silences because I can’t speak Albanian?

(Update: Read what I wrote about life with a host family after serving for one year.)

2. Burnout

The biggest thing I have craved while living in an Alaskan village has been newness. No stores, no restaurants, no way in or out except by plane. I miss seeing new things, going new places, meeting new people. Although I crave these things, a large part of me has become accustomed to the slower pace of life. After living such a simple life, beginning Peace Corps service may be an overload of newness.stick figure mad3

Fortunately I’ll have adrenaline on my side. The excitement will get me through the first couple weeks… But after that?

It will be exhausting to adjust to life in another country. There will be high highs and low lows. Trying to communicate my thoughts will take immense effort, and I will be constantly translating Albanian to English in my head. Having my language skills laughed at as I stumble through simple sentences will be frustrating. (More about the language barrier here.)

stick figure 25 left3

 

When the honeymoon period is over, the real challenge of Peace Corps service will set in…

Thankfully I feel that my time in Galena has prepared me for some of the isolation that PCVs often feel during their service. I mean, wherever I end up in Kosovo is sure to have roads leading in and out, right? Kosovo may feel less remote than Galena in some ways. And I bet I won’t have to order my toilet paper from Amazon anymore!

3. Losing touch with important people

I am horrible at staying in-touch. I may have great intentions of calling friends or sending them a card, but it rarely happens. It has taken a lot of intentionality to stay in contact with a couple close friends while living in Alaska.

Now I am leaving the students who I have grown close to over the past two years. I worry that I will become so wrapped up in integrating into life in Kosovo that I will discard the relationships I have worked to build for the past two years.

4. Packing & getting ready before June 5th!

Living in a village with no roadway access and no stores makes preparing for my departure difficult. I have things to buy and boxes in storage in Minnesota that need to be sorted through… and I only have four days to do it.

I move out of Alaska on May 22nd and fly directly to Phoenix to spend six days having a family reunion. Then I fly to Minneapolis for a weekend retreat with my closest friends. That leaves a Monday-Thursday to do all of my unpacking, shopping, sorting, and re-packing. I don’t even know what suitcases I am bringing. Add to that more goodbyes to family & friends. It’s going to be a stressful four days.


Despite these concerns, I am feeling much more excited than anxious. I have not doubted my decision to join the Peace Corps once. It will be a challenge. There will be awkward moments with my host family. I’m sure there will be nights when I cry from missing my quiet little Alaskan home or being around people who know me. But it will be worth it.

Next: Read about my departure and staging in Washington D.C.!