It’s been a strange time to release a book about travel and the Peace Corps. The coronavirus outbreak has been devastating and Peace Corps Volunteers were recently evacuated worldwide. Like many of you, I have been staying home and feeling grateful to the medical responders and others who are working so tirelessly on our behalf. If you’re ready for a distraction while we await better times, here are links to some of the stories that have appeared in places that focus on retirement and career changes, which are more numerous than I knew previously. You’ll find more links on the book’s Facebook page.
In a future post, I’ll share coverage from outlets less focused on retirement, like this interview on Peace Corps Worldwide.
Visit the book website to see reviews, trip photos and more, along with links to indie bookshops, Amazon and other places where you can order Not Exactly Retired in paperback or electronically. If you’ve read and enjoyed it, please post a review online!
More than 7,000 Peace Corps Volunteers from around the world arrived recently in North Carolina and other states after being evacuated because of the coronavirus.
They need our help — and they have something to teach us.
The volunteers have returned to Greensboro from Ukraine, to Raleigh from Malawi, to Cary from Panama and to Asheville from Ethiopia. They’ve come from South Africa, Guatemala and elsewhere — 61 countries in all. It’s the first time the Peace Corps has evacuated its volunteers worldwide.
The North Carolina Peace Corps Association, like its counterparts across the country, has been organizing to assist the evacuees, few of whom have jobs lined up. They don’t receive unemployment benefits and their health insurance is temporary.
Of course, millions of other Americans are out of work, too, wondering how they’re going to buy food and pay their rent. The Peace Corps evacuees share this economic stress along with having suddenly left distant villages where they were assisting teachers, organizing health projects and working in other ways with some of the world’s poorest communities. Now, after a difficult trip, they’re back home, maybe still under quarantine.
They may not be ready yet to focus on a job hunt or to hear how lucky they are to eat barbecue again. Many of them didn’t want to be here, at least not yet.
I can only imagine how they feel. When Champa and I returned to North Carolina from our Peace Corps service in Eastern Europe two years ago, after months of preparation, we needed time to readjust to things as simple as drinking water from the tap. We were happy to be reunited with our family and friends but missed our Moldovan friends.
Peace Corps Volunteers are renown for their resilience but those who were just evacuated could use some help. Even with everything else going on, other Americans should look for ways to assist them. The Peace Corps itself needs political support and resources to respond appropriately. (An online petition calls on the federal government to provide the evacuees with appropriate benefits.)
In return, these newly returned volunteers have a valuable perspective to share at this moment of worldwide anxiety.
They’ve just been living alongside people in other countries, so can help us see how the world is more connected than “us” and “them,” especially during a global crisis. Our country is not alone in facing extraordinary medical challenges and economic disruption, and it has greater resources than the countries where volunteers were serving.
The Peace Corps also exemplifies the human power of service, as millions of North Carolinians have been demonstrating recently, most notably with our heroic medical teams and first responders. More broadly, people across our region have been stocking grocery shelves, working at pharmacies or just staying home to reduce transmission rates. They are ordering meals to support local restaurants, checking on elderly neighbors and helping in other ways. The crisis has brought out the best in them.
In other words, Peace Corps Volunteers aren’t different from other Americans. They are just one example of how we all can enrich our own lives while serving others.
Champa and I began our Peace Corps service when we were 63 years old. We were among the hundreds of older Americans who join every year. The two of us ended up having a life-changing experience and feeling like we accomplished a lot. Thus, a final lesson, especially for people nearing retirement, which is to be unafraid about redefining your life and following your heart to pursue the Peace Corps or some other dream. As I discuss in my new book,you never know what might happen tomorrow.
Like a quarter-million Americans since President Kennedy started the Peace Corps in 1961, the volunteers and trainees who just came home answered our country’s call for service. I hope people in North Carolina and across the country will reach out, thank them, lend a hand and then listen to their stories.
The Second Act Stories podcast has just published a new episode, “At 63, He Joined The Peace Corps and Moved to Moldova.”
If you ever wondered why I would walk away from a wonderful job and friends at Duke, you’ll find the answer here. Host Andy Levine asked great questions and even spoke with Alisa from our Moldovan host family.
I don’t plan to share all of the coverage of my new book, but Andy tells our story especially well in just under 20 minutes.
If you are an experienced podcast listener, you can connect to the Second Act Stories podcast on Apple Podcasts (for iPhones), Stitcher (for Androids), Spotify, GooglePlay, iHeartRadio and others. If you are new to podcasts, you can listen to this episode directly from the Second Act Stories website. While you’re there, check out some of the other “second acts” Andy has profiled, as well as his Best Books About Second Acts and other resources.
For more information about my new book, a book website has ordering details, blurbs, photos and other information.
Thanks Andy, and thanks to my sister Nancy Collamer, the author of a terrific book on Andy’s list and an inspiration for mine, for bringing us together.
At the very moment President Trump was announcing his European travel ban on Wednesday, Champa and I were returning home from a two-week trip to Europe.
We didn’t expect to be there during a pandemic. When we flew to England for our nephew’s wedding, coronavirus was just beginning to appear in Europe. As we then traveled by train to London, Paris, Belgium and Amsterdam, it kept spreading.
We enjoyed visiting the Eiffel Tower and other attractions without waiting on lines, but we were concerned about what was happening to others and relieved to return safely. We’re now staying at home as a precaution.
At this moment when the health and financial news is so grim, and our thoughts are with everyone affected, let me offer some relief with a post about a time and place that already seem far away: Amsterdam’s Dam Square this past Sunday.
As Champa and I walked towards our hotel near there, we heard boisterous chanting and cheering from what turned out to be a demonstration for International Women’s Day. The crowd was huge and full of energy. We saw countless homemade signs in Dutch, English and other languages. Here are some that caught my eye:
As soon as the Women’s Day protesters marched away from the square, a new demonstration and concert began. This one was for the human rights of Indonesians, who were once colonized by the Dutch.
That was on the main stage. Elsewhere on the square, a man set up a display in support of the Palestinian people. A few steps away from him, another protestor defiantly held up an Israeli flag.
In another direction, several Falun Gong protestors stood beside a booth with large signs condemning Chinese oppression of their religion.
Meanwhile, tourists snapped photos of the historic architecture, tour guides led groups and police officers observed patiently. Marijuana smoke wafted from “coffee shops” beside the square and prostitutes posed in windows of the nearby Red Light District.
It all illustrated why Amsterdam is renown for its tolerance.
When we returned to Dam Square two days later, we encountered yet another group of protestors. This time it was Tibetans condemining the oppression of the Chinese govenrnment and calling for the return of the Dalai Lama.
Champa and I enjoyed Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, Anne Frank House and other famous spots, but Dam Square was the most memorable for us. We loved being in the middle of this festival of free speech and democracy.
I hope such trips become possible again soon for Americans. For now, we all need to focus on the more serious business of saving lives at home and around the world.
Keep Dam Square in mind for when that day comes — and if you’re lucky enough to travel there, be sure to bring a sign.
One of the world’s great private collections of West African art was hidden until recently in the Durham attic of two returned Peace Corps Volunteers, Reggie and Celeste Hodges. Now they’re donating to North Carolina museums many of their hundreds of masks, statues and other precious objects. It’s a remarkable story, which I tell in this article just published by WorldView, the magazine of the National Peace Corps Association.
When Champa and I returned to Durham after serving abroad for two years in the Peace Corps, I didn’t expect it to be so difficult to continue volunteering in my own community.
I assumed there were local nonprofit groups that could use my professional skills, especially for free. When I called around and searched online, though, I couldn’t find a good match. Eventually, I created an informal volunteer role for myself with the North Carolina partnership program that assists Moldova, where we served as Peace Corps volunteers, and I resumed volunteering at Urban Ministries, but who knows what I missed?
I am not alone. Across the Triangle and more widely, many older Americans now view retirement as much more than leisure. They consider it a second act, a new life stage of personal growth and service that may last for decades. These retirees are still sharp, still active, and a tremendous potential resource for nonprofit organizations that could tap their expertise in various fields.
Too often, however, communities regard their older residents in an outdated way — as a group requiring assistance rather than as an asset to recruit and empower.
These are wonderful and impressive people — caring, thoughtful and professional. They are working hard on missions such as helping retirees obtain medical care or promoting volunteerism broadly.
Generally, though, older volunteers are only a small part of their missions, which were established before the big shift began in how Americans think about retirement.
For instance, our local volunteer center does great work but is also busy with high school students and many others. Websites such as VolunteerMatch and organizations ranging from AARP to RSVP serve important roles, too. Yet many older residents still fail to connect with worthy organizations that could benefit from their experience in writing grants, preparing budgets, building websites or managing staffs.
To be sure, many retired citizens do serve as volunteers — teaching literacy classes, building homes with Habitat for Humanity and much more. Some volunteer throughtheir religious organization or a former employer. Many retirement communities and senior centers have their own volunteer programs, often with a focus on serving the needs of other retired people.
We need to be more strategic about this, as some communities around the country have demonstrated. A leader of the Encore Boston Network told me about their system to train older volunteers, match them with organizations and provide ongoing support. He described similar efforts in Phoenix, Denver and elsewhere. Many of the volunteers take on assignments that draw on their special expertise. Springfield, Missouri has an impressive Give 5 program that brings groups of retired people on a bus to local nonprofits, helping them find one to match their interests.
I don’t mean in any way to downplay the many people, of all ages, who are generously rolling up their sleeves across our region to deliver meals, comfort the sick and more, or the excellent organizations that work with them. But as more and more older Americans look for new meaning in their lives, communities like Durham that attract them should recognize their good fortune and act deliberately to match them in meaningful volunteer roles, which would also help retirees avoid social isolation.
The opportunity is compelling and I am optimistic we can take advantage of it. As I’ve discussed it with local leaders and stakeholders, they’ve generally been responsive and enthusiastic. They see the possibilities. Several key players are interested in trying to make Durham a leader in this arena. Everything I’ve encountered so far reminds me why Champa and I are lucky to live in such a progressive and caring community.
If some older folks prefer to just play golf or tend their gardens, they’ve earned that choice. The two of us enjoy traveling and spending time with our grandchildren, too. But we also want to continue the spirit of volunteerism we found so fulfilling in the Peace Corps.
Family, weddings, classes, projects, trips, a book and 73 episodes of Game of Thrones.
That’s what Champa and I have been doing since we returned to Durham from our Peace Corps service in Moldova one year ago this month.
We were especially busy initially — buying a car, restocking our kitchen and so forth — but our biggest challenge proved to be readjusting to the country we were so proud to represent when we left in mid-2016. We served for more than two years with the mission of helping others and promoting cross-cultural understanding. Then we came home to a new president who insults foreign allies and demonizes immigrants. It’s been a tough transition.
Of course, we’re thankful to be reunited with our family and friends. We’ve reveled in things as simple as driving or drinking water from a tap. Yet we still miss Moldova, every day. We made such good friends there and we now interact with them only on Facebook or with an occasional phone call.
Champa and I didn’t expect our transition to be so hard. We’d traveled a lot. We’d remained closely connected to America while we were gone. I’d served in the Peace Corps previously and she was born in Nepal. So how hard could it be? We didn’t fully appreciate that America wasn’t the only thing that changed. We’d changed, too.
I’m not the same person I was when I walked away from a conventional job four years ago to pursue a new life of service and adventure. I’m now 66 and no longer want a full-time job. Nor do I want to be “retired.” Instead, I continue to explore a third path, this time back in our home town. During the past year, I’ve been refocusing my energies on three new activities:
We also attended four beautiful weddings and took short trips both domestically and abroad. We renewed our subscription to UNC’s Playmakers theater series and, after living without a television for so long, we binge-watched movies and television shows we’d missed, including the entire Game of Thrones series. (Bran won the throne, really?)
Most important, we welcomed a seventh grandchild to our family a few weeks ago.
So life has been good this past year and we know how fortunate we are to be able to say that, just as we were in Moldova. As I’ve begun pursuing this new phase of “not exactly retired,” I’ve been surprised to discover how disorganized our community is in taking advantage of older Americans like me who are eager to share their skills and enthusiasm to address social needs. I think it’s possible to make it much easier for them to do this, both in North Carolina and more widely. In future posts, I’ll be writing more about how I’ve begun working with others to address this opportunity.
When Champa and I traveled to Scotland and Ireland three weeks ago, they felt a lot more like home than did Armenia, Ukraine and other places we visited while serving as Peace Corps Volunteers in Moldova.
At dinner on our first night in Dublin, the pub menu featured burgers and the accents sounded like Boston. Our waitress asked where we were from and, after hearing we live in North Carolina, she said, “oh, my college roommate came from Raleigh.”
In Edinburgh, the dining options near our Airbnb included a Pizza Hut and a Five Guys burger joint along with haggis or fish and chips.
We couldn’t even escape President Trump during our trip. He came to Ireland shortly after us and we saw security patrols near his golf course.
For the two of us, Scotland and Ireland were the flip side of what we experienced on the opposite side of Europe. When we took a free walking tour through the historic streets of Romania’s capital, Bucharest, we were the only Americans. In the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, only one other American joined us and 23 tourists from Bulgaria, Canada, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Netherlands and Spain. Even in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital that’s been gaining buzz as a tourist hot spot, we felt alone. As I wrote then, a big world awaits beyond the American comfort zone.
Scotland and Ireland didn’t feel exotic to us, in other words, but we loved both of them.
We went first to Scotland, to hang out with some of our Nepalese relatives (top photo) who took the train up from their home in England. Together we toured Edinburgh Castle, the National Museum of Scotland, the Royal Mile and more. We discovered a Nepalese garden at the botanic gardens and a nice coffee shop at the Port of Leith. After our relatives left, Champa and I hiked atop a local peak, Arthur’s Seat, and had dinner with an old friend and his wife. Then we took a two-day tour of the highlands, visiting Loch Ness and other sites. We were entranced by the striking bogs, heather and thistles despite pouring rain.
Then it was on to Ireland. Our tour there traveled west from Dublin to Galway and then down the Atlantic coast. Using Killarney as a base, we explored the Cliffs of Moher, the Dingle Peninsula, the Ring of Kerry and other landmarks. Then we turned east, stopping at Blarney Castle to, yes, kiss the Blarney Stone, before continuing on to Kilkenny and Dublin. On our first night back in the capital, we spent hours watching the Irish Celts play traditional music at Darkey Kelly’s pub. Finally, on our last day, we walked throughout the city before returning exhausted to our hotel near Christ Church Cathedral, ready to fly home the next morning.
As always, we were surprised by some of what we saw, such as a sheep-herding demonstration in Kerry that you can glimpse below in a brief video I produced on my phone the same evening (also available on YouTube). We learned a lot about the histories of Scotland and Ireland, especially their struggles with England. We gained new perspective on our many American friends whose families emigrated from there. Their ancestors escaped oppression and found a better life, much like my own or, for that matter, the Lyft driver from Aleppo, Syria, who drove us to the airport.
In both Scotland and Ireland, we traveled in small groups with Rabbie’s Tours, which provided excellent guides and organization.
We were reminded throughout our time there that you can have a wonderful trip outside the United States even if you don’t stretch your comfort zone much. Just like other destinations familiar to Americans, Scotland and Ireland let you experience something different while still feeling at home. They’re comfortably foreign.
I published an article Thursday, May 16, in the Raleigh News & Observer about North Carolina’s extraordinary partnership with Moldova. I‘m sharing the article here along with photos of an April 27 conference in Raleigh where teachers, nurses, politicians and others discussed the partnership. My Peace Corps volunteer colleague Jim Fletcher (pointing below) and I were among the speakers.
Later this week, North Carolina will renew its partnership with a little-known country that’s been bringing out the best in our state’s people for more than two decades.
North Carolina’s National Guard has been helping the country’s defense forces throughout this time. Librarians from Wilmington and across the state have sent it more than 350,000 books. Nurses, dentists, pharmacists and others have provided medical assistance. A Hendersonville group has renovated some of its orphanages and schools.
North Carolina recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of its extraordinary partnership with the country and the amazing thing is that many North Carolinians have never heard of the country, much less about the partnership.
It’s the Republic of Moldova, a former Soviet state one-fourth the size of North Carolina that’s wedged near the Black Sea between Romania and Ukraine. It’s the poorest country in Europe, with a struggling economy, political instability and other problems. It’s also beautiful, with lush vineyards and farmland, a rich culture and wonderful people.
My wife, Champa, and I had barely heard of it, either, when we left our home in Durham three years ago to serve there as Peace Corps volunteers in a group that included volunteers from Asheville, Charlotte, Boone, Winston-Salem and Raleigh. We were posted to a small city where we lived with a host family and I worked at the library while Champa taught at the school. (I described our adventures on my blog, Not Exactly Retired.)
While we were there, we kept hearing about Moldova’s partnership with, of all places, North Carolina, which turned out to be a big deal.
The partnership began with North Carolina’s National Guard assisting Moldova’s defense forces when the Soviet Union ended and Moldova became independent. The partnership has grown to include civic, educational and other organizations, including religious groups that range from Christian groups based in Claremont and Dublin to the Greensboro Jewish Federation.
In 1999, North Carolina and Moldova signed a collaborative agreement through the NATO Partnership for Peace. Governors of both parties have renewed it regularly and another renewal is planned when a delegation led by N.C. Secretary of State Elaine Marshall travels to Moldova’s capital later this week.
“North Carolinians should be proud of this partnership,” former U.S. Ambassador to Moldova Michael Kirby said at a recent conference in Raleigh that brought together participants from across the state. “I’ve never seen another relationship like this.”
The partnership has been “an important force for peace, an important force for democracies going forward,” agreed Rep. David Price, who recently visited Moldova as part of a bipartisan Congressional group.
In addition to receiving support within its own borders, Moldova has sent groups of experts to North Carolina to learn about topics ranging from judicial reform to agriculture. In turn, North Carolinians have benefited, too.
“I’m from Eastern North Carolina, where Raleigh is hours away,” said Elaine Justice, principal of an elementary school in Swansboro whose teachers and students interact with a Moldovan school. “Our kids, by being connected through this, are growing. They don’t just see themselves as living on the edge of North Carolina. They’re becoming global citizens.”
This past summer, when my wife and I returned to Durham, we found America beset with political rancor. It’s been a relief to get involved in this bipartisan partnership where Republicans and Democrats, military veterans and university students and people of diverse ages, faiths and ethnicities are working together to provide assistance and form friendships with people in a struggling democracy, exemplifying what’s best about North Carolina. As Sec. Marshall told the conference, the program’s success is “due to people with a heart who are willing to share it.”
I hope more people get involved in the partnership and perhaps even visit Moldova. It’s a fascinating place that’s waiting to bring out the best in them, too.
David Jarmul, the former head of news and communications at Duke University, served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Moldova with his wife, Champa.