I’ve packed for a lot of trips in my life. And for the most part, my rule of thumb has been to pack for three or four days, no matter how long the trip—you can almost always find a way to do laundry on a weekly basis, especially when you’re staying with family or in a decent hotel. But packing for 27 months when you’re not sure what your living or laundry situation will be is more challenging. In this instance, it’s really the weight limitation that drives what you’ll take. And faced with what to do with 100-pounds (trust me, it comes up FAST), packing becomes like an exercise in Zen Buddhism: it’s not so much about what you put in the pack, as it is about what you take out. What items are truly essential, and what can you do without?
At the same time as I was deciding what to bring with me to Mongolia, I was also figuring out which items in my house to keep and store, which to donate, and which to dispose of. These two parallel activities brought me to a sober conclusion: that I’m a high-functioning hoarder. Oh sure, I might say I don’t buy that much. And it might look as if I regularly cull my closets and cabinets of clothing and household items I never use. But given the right amount of space, and the ability to tuck things out of the way, unexplainable things happen: like a Barry Manilow concert program that I seem to have saved since 1996. (In my defense, I should note that I do not appear to have saved the program from Manilow on Ice, an Ice Capades-esque performance set to an hour-long medley of Barry’s all-time hits.)
At the beginning of my packing odyssey, the piles of stuff tentatively earmarked for Mongolia likely weighed in at 150 to 200 pounds: seven pairs of shoes, an Aeropress coffee maker, spices to dress up Mongolian food, a bottle of my favorite perfume, a four-pack of Crest toothpaste from Costco. And so on.
During this packing (or rather un-packing) process, I was reminded of one of my favorite scenes from the movie Out of Africa, in which Karen (played by Meryl Streep) is alarmed when her train comes to an unplanned stop. Seeing people swarm around her many crates of cargo, she attempts to shoo them away, yelling, ‘That’s all my crystal, my Limoges!’ Cue big-game hunter Denys Finch Hatton (played of course by Robert Redford), who simply shakes his head at her and replies, ‘Oh. Sorry, they didn’t know it was Limoges.’ The line sets up one of the movie’s running themes: the tension between Denys’s ability to live without things (and to some degree, people) versus Karen’s attempts to re-create her European life in Kenya.
So I had to face a similar tension: am I trying to have an American experience in Mongolia, or a Mongolian one? While there’s nothing wrong with wanting some of the comforts of home, people have been living in Mongolia for thousands of years, and gotten along just fine without Costco I’m pretty sure. So in the end, I’ve tried to remember why I’m joining the Peace Corps in the first place, and that is to have an immersive experience, and to integrate into the culture of my host country.
So in the end, I’m leaving with about 16 items of clothing, a few pairs of shoes, a few toiletries to get me by until I can stock up in UB, and survival gear (my outerwear certified for Arctic temperatures, a good knife, gorilla tape) and a few electronics. I am bringing a couple of ultrasonic dog deterrents given the run-ins I’m likely to have with wild dogs, and a solar shower. But otherwise I’m planning to drink milk tea instead of coffee, and to eat my food the way the Mongolians do…at least for now. 🙂