Once More, With Feeling

“What’s it like to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer in your twenties and then again decades later? David Jarmul takes a deep dive into that topic in his recent book, Not Exactly Retired: A Life-Changing Journey on the Road and in the Peace Corps. He ‘teases out a striking contrast between his service in Nepal 35 years ago and in Moldova in the age of Trump,’ says Marco Werman, host of The World on public radio.”

So begins an online article in the Spring 2021 issue of WorldView, the magazine of the National Peace Corps Association.

Accompanying it is an article from Champa describing how “many of us were not what Moldovans expected a Volunteer would look like. Together, we showed them that ‘American’ includes many kinds of people. As Peace Corps looks to its future, its Volunteers need to fully reflect our country’s diversity.”

Versions of both articles also appear (without all of the photos) in the magazine’s new printed edition, shown below.

Learning From Travel

Despite being sidelined by the pandemic for more than a year, my travels are still helping me make sense of the world.

When President Biden said a few days ago that the systematic murder of ethnic Armenians during World War One was indeed a genocide, I knew he was telling the truth despite Turkey’s ongoing denials. Champa and I visited Armenia in 2017 and saw its memorials with our own eyes. Our tour guide in Vagharshapat, above, was among several Armenians who told us what happened.

Similarly, as I’ve watched Vladimir Putin move Russian troops to the Ukranian border recently, stirring up conflict again, I’ve thought back to another trip. Champa and I visited Ukraine briefly, touring Odessa with two members of our Peace Corps host family, but we were there long enough to see how it is an independent country with its own flag, currency and history.

We learned from international travel even before joining the Peace Corps. During a 2013 trip to China, we saw more than Tiananmen Square and other tourist sites; we also sensed the rising economic power and national pride that would make China ever-more formidable on the world stage. In Tibet, we witnessed its determination to control ethnic minorities, as it has been doing recently with the Uighurs in Xinjiang. The military music blaring near our hotel in Lhasa was clearly meant to send a message to the local Tibetans, not us.

Traveling has provided insight into our own country as well. We learned about immigration while driving along the southern border, such as at this checkpost near El Paso, and about water shortages in the West, as at this dry lakebed in San Luis Obispo. The storefront we passed in a Montana town in 2015 was a harbinger of the anger that helped propel Donald Trump to the White House a year later.

People travel in many ways and for many reasons, from spa holidays to shopping, and Champa and I have had our share of trips just for fun, but we’ve most loved exploring the unknown. We know how fortunate we have been to have all of these opportunities.

As we look beyond the pandemic to future adventures, we yearn more than anything to learn again about other cultures. When we watch the news, we want to be able to say “I’ve been there” and maybe even “I know something about that place.”

The sidelines have been a welcome safe haven but there’s no substitute for getting onto the field and making contact.

A Virus Without Borders

My friend Laura describes her recent struggle with COVID-19 like this:

My fever was accompanied by fatigue and drowsiness, then headaches, then my nose. Oh jeez, it felt like the Sahara desert had changed its location in my nasal passages. Every breath hurt my brain.

On the third day of the fever, I had a feeling like being drunk, a continuous need for sleep. All I could ask for is nothing.

Somewhere on the seventh day, my smell disappeared. I put clementines in my nose: nothing. Coffee, nothing. Perfume, nothing.

After several more days, I tested negative and hoped to return to normal life, but I couldn’t focus. My memory felt weird. My leg hurt so much that I couldn’t step on it. My energy and smell improved very slowly.

Laura is now recuperating — “my smell is recovering; food tastes amazing,” she wrote me on Wednesday— but she remains tired and has trouble focusing.

Long after most Americans are vaccinated, Laura’s neighbors will remain at risk. That’s not due to their age or health status, but because they live in Ialoveni, Moldova, where Champa and I served in the Peace Corps.

Laura was my collaborator there on a music video we produced to celebrate our small city, where she works at the music school. That’s her beautiful voice on the video, which attracted thousands of viewers and was featured in a national television story, shown below. (Laura Bodorin’s music is on Spotify, Apple Music and SoundCloud.)

Moldova trails Bangladesh and El Salvador on this chart, below, of “vaccine preorders as a percentage of population,” published this week in The New York Times and based on an analysis by the Duke Global Health Innovation Center.

Chart from New York Times

By comparison, the top of the chart, below, shows Canada and the United States placing orders for more than half the vaccine doses that may come on the market next year.

“While many poor nations may be able to vaccinate at most 20 percent of their populations in 2021,” the Times reported, “some of the world’s richest countries have reserved enough doses to immunize their own multiple times over.” Many people in low-income countries might have to wait until 2023 or 2024 for vaccination. (Articles in The Washington Post and Nature provide additional insight.)

Some of Champa’s fellow teachers in Ialoveni have also gotten the virus, a tiny fraction of the billions of people around the world who have been affected.

Photo: Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters

Moldova is just one example. Near it on the bottom of the Times list is Nepal, where we also know people who have been infected, including someone close to us who is still recovering. Champa’s brother recently asked her on the phone why some Americans don’t want to receive the vaccine while so many people in Nepal wish they had the opportunity. People in her home town, Ilam, have died, see below, as they have elsewhere across the Himalayas.

From Ilam Green Facebook site

I am grateful to Laura for giving me permission to share her story here. (It is translated from Romanian and lightly edited.) I wanted to “put a human face” on the global situation for American readers who, understandably, are focused on our own situation.

I’m an American, too, and I’m feeling hopeful as vaccinations begin, even as our death toll mounts and many people face increasingly desperate circumstances. I agree with our country being among the first to benefit from vaccines it played such a large role in producing. I want to be vaccinated myself and to see our country’s nightmare end.

Simultaneously, I know we cannot return to normal unless we act globally. We’ve seen how easily the virus spreads across borders. We need to control it everywhere, which means collaborating closely with international efforts such as the COVAX Initiative.

The world will welcome our assistance, and not only with vaccine supplies we must be generous in sharing as our own urgent needs are met. I serve on a communications advisory committee for the Sabin Vaccine Institute, which on Tuesday joined in launching an initiative to train frontline medical workers how to discuss vaccines persuasively with uncertain parents and others. Physicians from Armenia to Honduras participated in its online rollout with leading public health experts. It was a striking reminder how this crisis affects all of us, no matter where we live, and how we must work together to overcome it.

If you’re a fellow American awaiting the vaccine, I hope you will receive it soon. When your turn comes, please give a thought to Laura and everyone else around the world. They are real people who, like us, have endured a terrible year. They, too, want nothing more than to be safe and reclaim their lives in the year ahead.

A World of Volunteers

If you’re an American who donated to a charity on “Giving Tuesday” or is volunteering with a community group, does that make you like people in other parts of the world?

That’s the question I explored recently with volunteer leaders around the globe for an article I wrote, just published by Activate Good, a Raleigh-based organization that promotes volunteerism in North Carolina’s Triangle region.

You may be surprised by some of what I found. India’s largest volunteer group has to deal with 22 official languages. HandsOn Bogotá says it “has a lot to learn” from U.S. volunteering. Volunteer groups from Paris to Singapore are scrambling to maintain their services amid the pandemic.

I hope you enjoy the article — and check out Activate Good’s excellent work while you’re on their website. You’ll also find a link to the Points of Light Global Network to help you get involved with volunteer groups elsewhere in the United States and around the world.


Top image: iVolunteer, India. Bottom image: Volunteer Ireland.

Books for a Crazy Year

Only two of my ten favorite books in 2020 were nonfiction, but all of them helped me make sense of issues we confronted during this crazy year.

For all of you who are fellow book lovers, here are my Top Ten:

James McBride’s Deacon King Kong, set in a Brooklyn housing project in 1969, illuminated our country’s history of racial injustice even as it kept me laughing and turning the pages.

Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, about an African American woman who passes as white while her twin sister remains in the black community, moved me deeply.

Lawrence Wright’s The End of October anticipated how a worldwide pandemic might upend our lives. I was amazed by Wright’s prescience and riveted by his story. 

My Dark Vanessa, by Kate Elizabeth Russell, made me think anew about the #MeToo movement with its unsettling portrayal of a teenage girl who has sex with her teacher yet resists being seen as a victim. 

Far lighter was Carl Hiaasen’s Squeeze Me, a rollicking tale of a giant snake eating a Republican socialite at a resort resembling Mar-a-Lago while a narcissistic president blathers and his foreign-born wife has an affair with a Secret Service agent. I’ll let you draw your own parallels about that one. 

Isabel Allende’s A Long Petal of the Sea is set decades ago in the Spanish Civil War and in Chile under the Pinochet dictatorship, but its messages about war, loss, family and migration were universal and timely this year.

Liz Moore’s Long Bright River made my list partly because it is set in Kensington, Philadelphia, where my son and his family lived until a few years ago. Simultaneously, it’s a gripping detective story that brings us face to face with drug addiction, police misconduct and other challenges.

Then there was Ayad Akhtar’s Homeland Elegies, which combined autobiography and fiction in a compelling story that ranged improbably from the discrimination faced by Muslim immigrants to the intricacies of financial debt. I couldn’t put it down.

One of the two nonfiction books on my Top Ten list also illuminated the year indirectly but powerfully. In The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larson describes how Winston Churchill led England courageously through the darkest days of World War II, in sharp contrast with the incompetence we’ve seen during our own crisis.

Finally, I just finished reading The Apolcalypse Factory by Steve Olson, a wonderfully talented science writer. He describes how scientists raced to produce atomic bombs at a remote site in Washington State, helping to end World War II while creating a toxic legacy that haunts us today.

Other recent nonfiction books also helped me see the world more clearly this year. Ezra’s Klein’s Why We’re Polarized illuminated our election. On the science front, Matt Richtel’s An Elegant Defense was the most readable overview I’ve seen about the immune system, and Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep kept me wide awake and fascinated.

A scientist was also a central character in Esi Edugyan’s novel Washington Black, in which a British researcher helps a young black slave escape by balloon from a sugarcane plantation in Barbados. 

Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments revisited and updated the dystopian religious theocracy of The Handmaid’s Tale. Jeanine Cummins’ controversial American Dirt dealt with Mexican gangs and migration across the U.S. border. 

I also loved several novels that were simply great stories. Margarita Montimore’s Oona Out of Order took me time traveling with a young woman trying to figure out her life. Mary Beth Keane’s Ask Again, Yes explored love and redemption through two police families sharing a tragedy. Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House offered a moving story of a brother, a sister, a mansion and life’s unpredictability.

Some of these books were published before 2020, as were Normal People, My Name is Lucy Barton and others that gave me happy reading this year. Other novels I enjoyed included Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler, The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel, Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett, The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell, Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid, Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson and The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

I finally read Samantha Power’s superb autobiography, The Education of an Idealist, and Rachel Maddow’s rich account of the international oil industry (Blowout). Julie Andrews shared delightful memories of Broadway and Hollywood in Home Work

When the news got especially grim in 2020, I sometimes turned to thrillers to distract myself. They included good ones by Harlan Coben, James Patterson, David Baldacci, Daniel Silva and Chris Bohjalian. 

A special treat was Joyce Hooley’s charming Cu Placere, which reminded me why I fell in love with Moldova while serving there in the Peace Corps.

I wasn’t enthusiastic about everything I read in 2020. Some prominent recent books, such as White Fragility and Trick Mirror, underwhelmed me, and I was disappointed by others I’d been meaning to read for years, such as T.C. Boyle’s East is East and Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume.

Overall, though, I loved reading my way through this challenging year. Thanks to the Durham County Library, through which I downloaded many of these books onto my Kindle.

If you want to share your own suggestions, I invite you to leave a comment.

Finally, I can’t write about this year’s books without mentioning this one, which one reviewer called “a fascinating story about the rewards of doing good while seeing the world” and another described as “the perfect combination of adventure, compassion and love.” Check it out if you haven’t already, and happy reading in 2021.

Echoing Alex

I was pleasantly surprised a few days ago when an article I wrote appeared in a magazine with Alex Trebek on its cover.

Little did I know that the famous Jeopardy! host would die on Sunday at age 80 after a long struggle with pancreatic cancer.

Healthy Aging‘s cover story about him concludes with him saying ” I believe in the power of positivity. I believe in optimism. I believe in hope.”

I admired Alex Trebek and loved his show, so now feel honored to appear in the same magazine with words that echo his inspiring message. My own article encourages readers to “dream differently” as they age and to consider the Peace Corps and other volunteer experiences that may challenge them — challenges less intense than cancer, to be sure, but meaningful in their own ways.



These experiences aren’t easy, I write in my article. “You struggle. You get lonely. You reexamine your beliefs and life goals.” Yet they also can transform how older Americans view themselves and their place in the world.

“Now that we’re back home in North Carolina, the two of us treasure our Peace Corps memories,” the article concludes. “We have renewed appreciation for our many blessings as Americans and greater empathy for the billions of people around the world whose lives differ from ours. We know we touched the hearts of our Moldovan friends, just as they touched ours. We still don’t have a boat or a golf cart, but our lives are richer than ever.”

I wrote the article several months ago, just as the pandemic began spreading across the globe. When the Peace Corps withdrew its volunteers worldwide, for the first time ever, the editor decided to hold off on publishing it. (The Peace Corps plans to resume its operations when conditions allow.)

The article highlights one of the main themes of my book, Not Exactly Retired: A Life-Changing Journey on the Road and in the Peace Corps, which was published by the Peace Corps Writers imprint on April 2. Although the pandemic derailed some planned publicity for the book, numerous articles, podcasts and other media have still featured it, as you can see on this Facebook page. The book website has links to buy the book from independent bookstores, Amazon and elsewhere.

If you want to learn more about Healthy Aging, the magazine is offering a discount to Not Exactly Retired readers — $15 off its regular subscription rate of $24.95. Use the promo code author10 at its online subscription page.

Turn Down Your Stress

The pandemic grinds on. The election is approaching. Wildfires are blazing. And now Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died.

I’m old enough to remember the tumult of 1968 and the Watergate years, but these past several months have been an even bigger challenge to our individual and collective sanity.

On a Zoom call recently, some friends decribed how they’ve been coping with the unrelenting stress, from going on hikes to watching webcams of wild bears. Others have been binge-watching Netflix, baking bread or learning hobbies. Many are struggling.

One way I’ve been reducing stress is by walking six miles daily.

I assist North Carolina’s partnership with Moldova, transport donations for a food bank, write letters to potential voters and provide editorial or financial assistance to causes I support. Recently I’ve also been helping to launch a program for older volunteers to assist Durham community groups, one of which I’m helping myself.

I didn’t pursue these activities so as to ease my own sense of unease and despair during a pandemic. But that’s what they’ve ended up doing for me.

 
Champa joined me in delivering a food donation from a local grocery store to this Durham food pantry.

For me, the pandemic has also highlighted how volunteering can reduce stress, as scientists have confirmed. A 2015 study by researchers at the Yale School of Medicine found that adults who helped others reported higher levels of positive emotion. “Prosocial behavior moderated the effects of stress on positive affect, negative affect, and overall mental health,” they reported.

Michael Poulin, a University of Buffalo researcher, described it this way: ”When you are thinking about helping other people you’re simply not thinking as much about yourself and your problems … In essence it’s a kind of distraction, but a more satisfying distraction than surfing the Web or binge-watching House of Cards.”

Religious faiths tell us the same thing, that giving enriches the giver.

Don’t get me wrong: I still shudder at the pandemic’s rising death toll and sputter at what I see on the news. I recognize the value of passion and support vigorous political action.

My own modest efforts come from a place of privilege and pale in comparison to those of many other volunteers, not to mention those who’ve been battling the pandemic and saving lives in other ways. While West Coast fire fighters have fighting huge blazes, I have been safe at home, with my wife, free to volunteer. Others face stresses far bigger than mine.

Still, our collective anxiety is real and I have a suggestion for those feeling overwhelmed as the campaign enters its final stretch. If they are spending hours sharing angry memes on Facebook or Twitter with like-minded friends, ratcheting up their own anxiety, they might want to turn off their smartphones and, instead, help a neighbor or organization in need. (Activate Good is a great place to find opportunities here in the Triangle.)

They may find, as I have, that helping others during stress-filled times is a good way to renew their own equilibrium and strength. Based on what we’ve seen so far this year, we’re all going to need it.

They’re Not ‘Shitholes’

As we approach an election with huge implications for our country and the world, a U.S. agency charged with promoting international friendship needs to make some big changes.

That agency is the Peace Corps, in which I served twice as a volunteer.

On Wednesday, the National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) highlighted on LinkedIn a talk I gave recently arguing the Peace Corps is way too focused on “development” and not enough on helping Americans and others to learn about each other.

No one is better situated than Peace Corps Volunteers to explain to their fellow Americans that developing countries are not “shitholes” — or to help people around the world see the realities of our own society.

Moreover, it’s their mission to do this. according to the agency’s three goals. One goal is to assist economic development, the other two are to promote cross-cultural understanding. Yet the Peace Corps now devotes almost all of its attention and resources to the first goal, even though returned volunteers say the other two end up mattering the most. This approach makes less sense now than ever before, as some politicians whip up fear about “the other.”

Peace Corps Volunteers can help Americans recognize that foreigners, including Muslims and people of color, share many of their own dreams and are not their enemies — and they can do so while maintaining the agency’s nonpolitical, bipartisan tradition.

NCPA has posted my 5-minute talk on YouTube. I hope it will help spark an overdue conversation about the agency’s programming after the pandemic eases and volunteers return to the field. I also discussed some of these issues in an earlier post and in my recent book, Not Exactly Retired: A Life-Changing Journey on the Road and in the Peace Corps.

The talk was part of NPCA’s “global ideas summit” (also on YouTube), which raised many interesting questions about the future of the Peace Corps — an organization I love and want to see have a bigger impact.

I welcome your comments.

 

 

(Top image from Olivia Prentzel’s Peace Corps blog.)

The Older Evacuees

I was friends with Karen Jean (KJ) Hunt before we both left Durham to serve in the Peace Corps. Champa and I were lucky enough to serve before the pandemic. KJ was in Ethiopia (above, with some of her students in Kotu) when the Peace Corps evacuated all of its volunteers worldwide for the first time ever. In a new article for Next Avenue, I describe how the evacuation affected KJ and other older volunteers and what to expect in the months ahead.

Screen Shot 2020-08-14 at 11.35.05 AM

Read the article.

Join us on the journey.

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