Thursday, March 24, 2011

Moving overseas is exhausting!

And I thought the application process was lengthy and stressful! Turns out it's nothing compared to what I'm going through now. Don't get me wrong – the peace of mind that comes with having my invitation in-hand and knowing I really am joining the Peace Corps is awesome, but planning to live abroad for two years is not so awesome. It's stressful, anxiety producing, and seemingly never-ending, despite my relaxing days at the beach! 

First there's the paperwork… buying life insurance, personal property insurance, supplemental health insurance; designating power of attorney and having it notarized; registering with U.S. Customs; opening new bank accounts that don't have international transaction fees; changing my address, driver's license and voter registration to SC; tracking down copies of my immunization records… just to name a few.  

Then there's the packing… oh, the packing! Luckily I've connected with some of the current Volunteers, as well as a few of my fellow Trainees, and have been able to ask them questions and get their feedback. But every time I cross something off my list, three more items appear in its place. The hardest part is really not knowing what to expect… not knowing where I will be assigned and therefore not knowing the weather of that particular region… not knowing if I'll be in a town or city and therefore not knowing how rough the roads will be when I'm walking to work every day… not knowing where I will be living and how often I'll be able to shower. Plus I've read that Georgians take great pride their clothes and shoes, and often dress nicer in the workplace than Americans. So I know I need to pack my business clothes, but then I worry about looking too American or too wealthy. Then there are the decisions of wool vs. silk long underwear, mid-weight vs. lite-weight socks, down vs. wool jackets. So many decisions… so many unknowns. 

Assuming I'll be able to buy everything I need in the next few weeks, then I have to figure out if it will all fit in my two checked bags while still weighing less than 100 pounds. If not, then I'll have to decide if I want to ship a box of winter clothes to myself or just eliminate a few items in order to make it all fit now.

And just when I think I can't handle any more stress, my Georgian language lessons stare me down, just begging to be heard. So I listen. And then I get completely overwhelmed by these words that start with tsgvk and the fact my mouth just can't – and I mean CAN'T – make those sounds. My fun lesson yesterday: mama means father, and deda means mother. I am determined to master this language if it's the last thing I do but right now, it's not looking so good! Still, I have learned an important phrase: minda erti botli ghvino! (I would like a bottle of wine!)

Luckily the Peace Corps handles some of the bigger details like flights, health insurance, jobs and housing – and for that, I’m extremely thankful. So for now, I'll continue to plug away at my massive to-do list, learn an insanely difficult language, enjoy time with friends and family, and be grateful knowing it will all work out in the end. Or maybe I'll just go to the beach…

Saturday, March 12, 2011

You're doing what?!?

Exactly 19 months ago today, I started my Peace Corps application, and now I have just 6 weeks before I depart for my new home in Georgia! This has been the longest process of my life… paperwork, essays, interviews, fingerprints, needles, and months and months of waiting… but now I feel like I'm running out of time. How does that always happen?!

Since I first shared my news, I've been asked a lot of the same questions by my friends and family, so for my first post I thought I would put together a quick list of FAQs. 

Why the Peace Corps?
After 12+ years in the trade show business, I knew it was time for a change. Every time I had a bad day at the office (which was all too often), I would find myself perusing the Peace Corps website, envious of those who had the courage to leave their lives behind to pursue a dream. Then one day it hit me… I could do that too! So I applied. 

The process took 19 months, really?
Yes, really. I started the application in August 2009, had an interview with my recruiter in November 2009, was nominated for a position in March 2010, was medically cleared in September 2010, and finally received my invitation on January 31, 2011!

Georgia… where?
Georgia is a former Soviet country, located on the Black Sea. It borders Russia to the north, Turkey to the southwest, Armenia to the south and Azerbaijan to the east. It's about the size of South Carolina with a population of 4.7 million – and it just happens to be the oldest wine producing country in the world! Wikipedia provides a great overview if you want to read more. 

What will I be doing?
I'll be serving as a Business & Social Entrepreneurship Facilitator (BSE for short), which supports small businesses, organizations and community groups engaging in sustainable programs. I could be doing anything from project design and management, to business planning, marketing and grant writing. 

How long is service?
Service is 27 months total; 3 months of in-country training and 2 years of service.

Do I get vacation?
Yes, Volunteers get 48 days of vacation (2 days accrued every month). I plan on traveling to Turkey and Armenia while I'm there, and possibly hit up Greece on my way home! And no, I don't plan to come back to the States during my service. I want to see as much of Georgia as possible while I'm there!

Can I have visitors?
Yes!! Just not during the first 6 months, or the last 3. The airport code is TBS, and you're all welcome to visit anytime! Just bring gummy bears and peanut butter.

Do I have to learn the language?  
Yep! And I have to pass an oral proficiency test before I get sworn in as a Volunteer. I ask for your prayers on this one... 

What language do they speak?
Georgian. And apparently, they don't care much for vowels!! They have words that begin with 8 consonants like gvprtskvni or in Georgian: გვფრცქვნი. Like I said… prayers, please.

Where will I be living? 
I will be living with a Georgian host family during the duration of my service. I wasn't too thrilled about the idea at first, but now I'm really excited about it! Living with a family is the best way to truly experience their culture, not to mention the big family dinners!

Will I be with other Americans?
Yes and no. I'll meet up with my fellow Trainees in the U.S. and we'll fly to Georgia as a group. We'll all move into our respective homes, but will go through training together. Once we're sworn in as Volunteers, we'll move to our own villages. A lot of Volunteers stay in touch and spend time together on the weekends though so it's not like I'll be alone.

Do I get paid? 
Yes, I'll receive a monthly living allowance comparable to what the locals earn, which will enable me to live like they do. I'll also receive a readjustment allowance when I get back to the States. Of course, Uncle Sam wants a bite of out all of it, go figure. 

Will I have electricity, Internet, running water, plumbing, etc.?
Maybe, maybe not. A lot of it will depend on where I end up. Most Volunteers don't have access to showers on a regular basis and many don't have indoor plumbing at all (it's called a hole in the ground, people). Internet and electricity are sporadic, and many experience power outages on a regular basis. So basically I'll be taking bucket baths, washing my clothes by hand, and trekking to the outhouse at 2am in the dead of winter. Yep, that's going to be my life! I will, however, have a cell phone!

Am I scared?
Of the language, yes. Of living overseas, not in the least! I feel like I've finally figured out my life and it's the best feeling in the world! Yes, I know there are risks involved, but don't you think the same risks exist in say… Washington DC? It's all a matter of being aware of your surroundings and not making foolish decisions, just as you would no matter where in the world you lived. 

Am I crazy? 
Absolutely. But I'm also living my life the way I want to live it, and I couldn't be happier!

What's next?
I'll be spending the next 6 weeks packing, repacking, shopping, visiting friends and family, and soaking up as much of America (and its awesome indoor plumbing!) as I can. I'm also really looking forward to a weeklong trip to Indiana to visit both of my 90+ year-old grandmothers and other family members, as well as trips to Greenville and Raleigh. 

So there you have it… my life in a nutshell. And while I have you here, I want to thank everyone for your support and kind words over the last several weeks. It's such an exciting time in my life, but also a bit overwhelming. I couldn't do it without my amazing friends and family, so thank you all!