Lasting Images

Beautiful temples. Historic treasures. Iridescent rice fields. Those are not the only scenes we’ll remember from our recent trip to Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. Some less-expected images will also stick in our minds, such as the dozen shown below:

This monk in Vientiane, Laos, is holding a string attached to a car. Why? Because he’s blessing the car for its new owners, the family in front of him.

Wait, are those bongs? Yes indeed, along with other paraphernalia featured at the Opium Museum near Chiang Rai, Thailand. It’s in the Golden Triangle, where opium has been cultivated for centuries.

If you need a ride or want to order food in this part of the world, you’ll probably use Grab, a Singapore-based smartphone app similar to Uber. The drivers, like these in Hanoi, wear green jackets.

Do this tree and temple look familiar? Angelina Jolie filmed scenes from Tomb Raider here in Cambodia. We watched the movie after we returned home and, sure enough, it’s the same spot.

This modest Hanoi restaurant serves bun cha, a traditional Vietnamese pork dish. President Obama dined here with Anthony Bourdain in 2016, as shown in the photo above the table. We tried it, too. Delicious.

Maison Centrale was the gatehouse to the “Hanoi Hilton” prison where John McCain and other Americans were held for years. It’s now a museum.

This statue at the National Museum of Cambodia made me think of Vlad the Impaler, whose home we visited in Romania. Probably not what they had in mind.

We were finishing a quiet dinner at an outdoor restaurant in Hue when these diners began singing “Happy Birthday” to a friend. They asked us to join them. We did and they ordered us a round of drinks.

These are two of five photos posted above the urinals in a men’s bathroom at a riverside restaurant in Vietnam. They all amused me.

These farming implements had an evil purpose. The Khmer Rouge used them to beat and hack people to death in the killing fields, which we visited near Phnom Penh.

This drag show in Chiang Mai was advertised across the street from a boxing match, offering a range of evening entertainment options.

Finally, a photo of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia. It’s not “unexpected,” but the site was too spectacular to leave out. We felt privileged to visit it.

Coming next: A post on the region’s food.

Vietnam for Real

“Vietnam” meant “the Vietnam War” when I was growing up. The Vietnamese had a different name for the conflict: “the American War.”

What surprised me when Champa and I visited Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand this past month wasn’t the nomenclature but how infrequently people spoke about the war. They were too busy making money and living their lives. They all greeted us warmly, including some former soldiers we met, like the man in the photo below. Most people, like the students you see visiting the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum complex in Hanoi, were born after the war ended.

The war is hardly forgotten. In Ho Chi Minh City — formerly Saigon — we visited a museum that highlighted acts of American brutality, such as the My Lai massacre, and the ongoing devastation caused by unexploded bombs and Agent Orange.

In Phnom Penh, we saw piles of human skulls at a memorial to victims of the Khmer Rouge genocide. Walking in the killing fields, where so many people were murdered, reminded me of visiting Auschwitz in Poland. The evil was palpable and overwhelming.

Our guides told us personal stories about relatives and friends who suffered and died. One guide began weeping. Another stared away for several moments.

Yet they and others seemed genuinely happy we were there and not only because we were bringing them business after the pandemic. They were proud of their history, their culture and their progress. They wanted us to know they are more than the place where America fought a misguided war. Much more.

Champa and I traveled across Southeast Asia with two old friends, Mitch and Chiyoko. We planned everything with a Hanoi company that prepared a custom itinerary and arranged for guides, drivers and accommodations at every stop. They did a great job for much less than we would have paid a Western company for a group tour.

We started in Hanoi, took a cruise along the breathtaking Halong Bay (above), then flew to Hoi An — a very pleasant place — and Ho Chi Minh City. From Vietnam we went to Cambodia, where we visited Angkor Wat, a floating village and several temples in Siem Reap. Next was Phnom Penh to see the killing fields, the Royal Palace, the Silver Pagoda and more. 

Our third country was Laos, where we spent a day in the capital, Vientiane, then took a newly opened train to Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage site with beautiful temples and a waterfall park that resembles the set of Avatar.

From there we took a boat up the Mekong River for two days to the border with Thailand, visiting a cave and villages along the way and stopping overnight for a hillside sunset and dinner. Our first stop in Thailand was Chiang Rai, where we visited the Golden Triangle and the White Temple, then drove to Chiang Mai to savor its spectacular temples and take a Thai cooking class. Finally we flew to Bangkok, where we explored everything from a floating market to an organic farm, along with still more temples.

It was a busy itinerary — too busy, perhaps — but we came home with a new appreciation for a part of the world I’d misunderstood and done my best to avoid when I was younger. 

I plan to post additional stories that highlight the most memorable things we saw. If you want to update your own understanding of this extraordinary region, I invite you to stick around.

Op-Eds for Ukraine

As the world prepares to mark the one-year anniversary of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, on Feb. 24, few Americans are better qualified to comment than Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who served there.

These RPCVs lived and worked alongside Ukrainians. They learned the local language. They care deeply about what’s been happening, as do many of us who served in Moldova and other countries affected by the conflict. Some of us also visited Ukraine during our service.

This past week, I helped train a group of Ukraine RPCVs how to write op-ed articles to share their stories. I joined with Dylan Hinson, an RPCV who served in Namibia, in teaching the workshop organized by the RPCV Alliance for Ukraine and the National Peace Corps Association.

This video of my presentation is excerpted from the larger program. If you’re interested in learning more about writing effective op-eds, check out my earlier post. A short YouTube video features Dylan encouraging RPCVs to become op-ed authors.

The Ukraine RPCV group and our Friends of Moldova organization both continue to assist Ukrainians affected by the conflict. Especially as Russia prepares to launch a new military offensive, please consider donating to their life-saving work.

Top photo: The Odessa Opera House, which we visited in 2018.

Seeing in New Ways

Have you ever thought of Baghdad as a “city of peace” and “a miracle”?

Me neither, but that’s how it was described in an exhibit we visited recently — not in Iraq, but at the National Museum of Qatar.

Several of the exhibits there reminded me that people around the world see things very differently than we do in the United States, regardless of who is “right.” Another one highlighted the collapse of the global pearling industry, which was devastating to Qatar but unknown to me. An exhibit about the “Ramadan Blockade” described how Qatar was blockaded by several neighbors a few years ago. I barely remembered that happening.

The museum, which opened in 2019 with a design evocative of a desert rose, wasn’t the only one in Doha that made me think in new ways. Across town, at the Museum of Islamic Art, an exhibit examined how Lawrence of Arabia and other films have contributed to Western misunderstanding of the Arab world. Another gallery showed how modernity has brought prosperity to Islamic nations while upending local traditions.

Both museums featured stunning architecture and beautiful exhibits. Neither was especially political; on the contrary, both were designed to appeal to broad international audiences. Inevitably, though, they reflected the perspective of a society that, for all of its wealth and rapid modernization, still differs from our own.

This is why I love to travel. It challenges my assumptions and broadens my perspective, no matter where we go.

Shortly before we flew to Qatar, for example, we had lunch at the Kathmandu home of two old friends. Here’s what I saw on the gate outside their house:

If you’re startled to see a swastika displayed so proudly, much less beside a Star of David, think about your own vantage point. Swastikas were sacred symbols in Hinduism long before they were linked to Hitler. The six-pointed star, which we associate with Judaism, is also a Hindu symbol. Both symbols are common in Nepal and have nothing to do with Nazism or Judaism, at least in the local context.

Or consider this statue we saw in Ilam, Champa’s home town. It honors Ratna Bantawa, a local Communist leader who opposed Nepal’s former king. Ratna and his brother were denounced as terrorists and killed for their activities. Today Ratna’s memory is celebrated. There’s a road named after him. Communists now play a prominent role in Nepali politics even as “communist” remains an epithet in our own country.

My point here isn’t to debate Iraqi history or communism, just to note how travel changes our perceptions. This latest trip reminded me of something I wrote several years ago after returning to Moldova from a trip to Bulgaria and Romania: “One of the things for which I’m most grateful about serving in the Peace Corps is how it’s made me less fearful about traveling to places that seem exotic or dangerous to some Americans even though they’re actually safe, beautiful, fascinating and cheap.”

As I wrote then, “you hardly need to have served abroad to expand your horizons a bit. … There’s a big world waiting beyond the American comfort zone” for those of us fortunate enough to be able to travel, a privilege the two of us never take for granted.

That big, mysterious, fascinating world is still there and still waiting. Now that the pandemic has eased, I hope more Americans will explore it, as we hope to keep doing ourselves.

Surprised by Qatar

I didn’t expect to like Qatar when we stopped there for several days on our way home from Nepal. But I did.

I loved wandering past the spice shops and bird markets of the labyrinthine souq near our Doha hotel. There was a camel pen next door and a falcon market up the street. On our first evening, we were eating at a Syrian restaurant when a magician began performing for the family at the table next to us. Two nights later we ate dinner on the floor of a Yemeni restaurant, then ate Moroccan the next night.

We reveled in two world-class museums, one about Islamic art and the other about Qatar’s history. We visited a cultural village with multiple attractions and a man-made luxury island lined with yachts and restaurants. We traveled into the desert to tour a fish market, a nature preserve, an old fort and an ancient village. 

It all cost less than we expected since hotels slashed their prices after the World Cup ended. We stayed in a five-star hotel — usually far beyond our budget — for less than we’ve paid for some Best Westerns here. Several Uber trips cost the same as our single ride home when we landed in North Carolina.

We went to Qatar mainly to decompress after our family reunion in Nepal, and to break up the long trip home. We’d passed through Doha on previous trips and decided to stop and take a look this time.

We had several concerns about going there. There was Qatar’s disturbing human rights record and treatment of migrant workers, including from Nepal. I’d listened to an entire podcast series about how Qatar bribed its way to the World Cup. Photos of Doha’s skyline and architecture looked glitzy rather than appealing, at least to me.

Our visit didn’t erase those concerns but it did modify them. We met several Nepali workers and spoke with them privately, in Nepali. All said they were working hard for low wages but were happy to be there. It was a limited sample size, but still.

We saw some of the World Cup stadiums and wondered what Qatar will now do with them. But we also heard enormous pride, from a Pakistani guide, a Djiboutian taxi driver and a Nepali lab technician, about how well the tournament went.

There were plentiful new buildings with gleaming facades and blinking evening lights but also old shops piled with carpets or kitchen goods. There were families out strolling and kids playing. Some of the women we saw were completely covered. Others wore scarves, or hijabs or no head covering at all. Some were driving.

For such a small country, there was a lot to see, taste, smell and learn. So Qatar surprised us, in a good way. We’re glad we checked it out.

Family Reunion in Nepal

We heard the drums as our car pulled up to Champa’s family house in eastern Nepal. Then we saw the dancers. Champa’s brother appeared with an armful of flower garlands. His wife held colorful scarves.

We’d arrived in Ilam, where Champa grew up and the two of us met when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer. Now it was 45 years later and we were traveling with our older son, Paul, his wife Stephanie and their four daughters. It was 9:30 p.m. Our drivers had been navigating the rutted, dusty roads since 4:30 a.m.

Champa with two of the dancers who welcomed us to Ilam.

Our exhaustion gave way to astonishment, then elation as we stumbled out of our two jeeps and entered the courtyard. With flowers and scarves around our necks and drums beating beside us, we joined the traditional Limbu folk dance.

Three days later we encountered an even bigger welcome, this time in the small village of Champa’s late older sister, where several of our nieces and nephews still live. This time we heard the drums as we walked on a mountain path approaching their house. Our extended family was waiting there with flower garlands. Two girls performed a dance. Folded hands and namastes gave way to hugs.

The drums and dancers paused long enough to snap this photo of our arrival in Samalbung.

These were just two of many unforgettable moments during our trip to Nepal, from where we returned a few days ago. We’ll remember our granddaughters seeing Kathmandu’s glorious temples and the monkeys at Swayambhou. There was Maya singing at Ilam’s outdoor Christmas show. Paula playing soccer with local men. The twins laughing with their cousins. School visits. Tea with old friends. Steaming plates of momos. Roosters waking us at sunrise.

We visited a school in Samalbung run by our nephew Santosh and his colleagues.

Paul and Stephanie had wanted to make the trip for years. Now, finally, our global family was brought together. Our worries about the trip never materialized. Everyone stayed healthy. Our family and friends welcomed us at every stop with boundless generosity. The girls fell in love with Nepal, as we’d hoped they would.

We’re still processing the trip. I’ll post more about it soon and also about Qatar, where Champa and I stopped on our way home. For now, I hope you’ll enjoy the photo slide show below.

Nepal, we miss you already.

Top Ten Books 2022

Asia looms large this year in my annual “best books” list. Four of my top ten have a connection to Asia.

Celeste Ng’s Our Missing Hearts is the chilling story of a boy’s search for his missing mother in a dystopian America that tramples human rights and demonizes China. In the wake of the Jan. 6 uprising and recent attacks on Asian-Americans, the plot felt unnervingly plausible. It made me think about my own Asian-American family and those who appear “other” to so many Americans.

Jenny Thinghui Zhang’s Four Treasures of the Sky reminded me how deeply rooted this prejudice is. Set in the American West, it tells the story of Daiyu, a Chinese girl who is kidnapped and then sold into prostitution in San Francisco. She escapes and finds love only to endure a horrific incident based on an actual historical atrocity. The story combines myth and history to speak to our hearts.

The Return of Faraz Ali is set in Pakistan. A police officer is coerced to cover up a young girl’s death in the red light district of Lahore. He refuses to comply and wrestles with pervasive corruption and his own troubled past to find a measure of redemption. Aamina Ahmad’s story is grim but uplifting.

The Immortal King Rao begins in a remote Indian village, then moves to Seattle and the world. King Rao becomes the world’s celebrated tech entrepreneur, more powerful than Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates combined. He appears to save the planet from climate change but unleashes new horrors. Author Vauhini Vara, a former tech reporter, makes us ponder the true cost of progress.

A central character in Stacey D’Erasmo’s The Complicities is also uber-wealthy. In this case it’s a financier resembling Bernie Madoff. The story and title focus on his wife, who may not be as innocent of the crimes as she claims. We learn her back story as she pursues a simpler existence. After her husband is released from prison, he remarries and confronts her anew with the compromises she has made.

Another family unravels in Marrying the Ketchups, Jennifer Close’s saga about an Irish American clan that runs a Chicago restaurant. One sister leaves town to pursue a music career. Another hates her suburban neighborhood. A brother feels unloved at work and in love. They and others stumble, fight and try to make sense of their lives as the country frays around them after Donald Trump’s election.

Family dynamics are also central to The Latecomer by Jean Hanff Korelitz. Triplets born through IVF to a wealthy New York family have little in common. Their father is disengaged. Their mother is desperate. All veer towards separate lives until a fourth sibling intervenes, a younger sister who is more connected to the triplets than anyone realized. The story touches on grief, guilt, privilege and loss. Most of all, it is about the power and mystery of family.

In Tracy Flick Can’t Win, Tom Perrotta updates the character immortalized by Reese Witherspoon in the movie Election. Now she is middle-aged, still smart, still ambitious, but less successful than she envisioned. She is poised to win a new job for which she is more than qualified, but once again is passed over for someone more likeable. By the time fate finally intervened in Tracy’s favor, I found myself cheering for her.

I also cheered for the author of one of the two nonfiction books on my list, a new neighbor of mine in the Triangle. Frank Bruni, the New York Times columnist, moved here after his eyesight began failing. In The Beauty of Dusk, he describes movingly how the condition changed his life and made him reconsider his remaining years. I read it during my own treatment for prostate cancer, so it resonated deeply.

Finally, the year’s most publicized book was from another New York Times reporter, Maggie Haberman, who began covering Donald Trump long before he won the White House. Confidence Man describes how his New York years shaped his presidency. I was fascinated by its depiction of Manhattan real estate, politics and celebrity. The book’s second half, about his presidency, was more familiar but still compelling.

Several other books could have made my list. Jennifer Egan’s The Candy House, Michelle Huneven’s Search, NoViolet Bulawayo’s Glory, Anne Tyler’s French Braid, Grace Li’s Portrait of a Thief and Grant Ginder’s Let’s Not Do That Again were all splendid. Highly recommended.

I read several good biographies: Max Chafkin on conservative activist Peter Thiel, Mary Childs on investor Bill Gross, Grant Hill on his legendary basketball career and Hollywood writer David Milch on creating television classics. 

I also enjoyed four books that chronicled the Trump era in different ways. Two were nonfiction — Why We Did It by Tim Miller and Wildland by Evan Osnos — and the other two were fiction: Anthem by Noah Hawley and The Unfolding by A.M. Homes.

Mysteries? Yes, I snacked on those, too, including the latest from Daniel Silva and John Grisham. Sascha Rothchild’s Blood Sugar and Dervla McTiernan’s The Murder Rule were among my new favorites.

I also loved some 2021 books that I read too late for last year’s list. The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles and Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout probably would have made my top ten. Arriving Today by Christopher Mims was a timely account of the world’s fragile supply chains.

I’ll close with two older books. I’d never read Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, even though I’ve watched the movie countless times. It was a bit trashy but I couldn’t put it down. Song of Solomon was the first book I read by Toni Morrison, back in my twenties. When I picked it up again a few months ago, I was afraid it wouldn’t live up to my awestruck memories. It did, and more. Great literature endures, no matter what year it is.

If you loved some books this year, please leave a comment and share your suggestions with others. Happy reading in 2023!

Not Exactly Retired 2.0

When Champa and I began pursuing a new life of service and adventure seven years ago, it was easy to combine those two goals by serving in the Peace Corps.

After we returned home in 2018, it got harder. I couldn’t find the right kind of volunteer jobs. The pandemic upended our travel plans. I had medical problems, then recovered.

My sister, a retirement coach, told me to take time to figure things out. She was right; lately the pieces have been falling in place. I’ve been busy with several fulfilling volunteer roles and other activities. We have new trips planned. Our health is good.

Not Exactly Retired 2.0 has become clearer and I like how it looks.

I now spend several hours daily on volunteer work. Some of it is occasional, such as preparing meals at Urban Ministries of Durham or working with OLLI at Duke. Often it’s more sustained, like helping Durham’s West End Community Foundation to review its communications strategy or promote a wonderful new exhibit of local elders. (That’s Durham Mayor Elaine O’Neal, right, and her sisters Eileen and Eunice in the image by Jamaica Gilmer at the top of this post.)

I remain active with both Moldova and the Peace Corps. When Russia invaded Ukraine, I helped raise funds for the Friends of Moldova to assist Ukrainian refugees, working with a local Rotary group. When Congress considered new legislation to support the Peace Corps, I wrote this op-ed article to rally support. I also serve on the steering committee of the North Carolina Peace Corps Association.

At AmeriCorps Seniors RSVP, which encourages older Americans to serve as community volunteers, I’ve been working behind the scenes as its advisory council chair to help strengthen its local program. That’s one of my fellow council members, Jason Peace, in the above photo, right, kicking off a speaker series we recently launched to highlight nonprofits where older Durham residents might serve. He’s describing Meals on Wheels, which he heads. Sarah Cline, our RSVP program manager, left, spoke as well.

Even as I’ve established a satisfying portfolio of volunteer work, I’ve begun planning new trips, which I’ll describe in future posts, and spending time with our family and friends, going to the gym and enjoying life.

Our blend of service, travel and adventure isn’t for everyone but it works for us. (Some older travelers make the two of us look like homebodies.) The central message of my book wasn’t “join the Peace Corps!” but to be intentional about this stage of life, regardless of whether your personal happiness lies with volunteering, starting a business, church, golf or something else. In other words: Choose, don’t drift.

I recognize my own good fortune but also feel part of something bigger. As retirement expert Ken Dychtwald put it, “for the first time in history, large numbers of older individuals are not interested in ‘acting their age’ and retreating to the sidelines. They would rather rebel against ageist stereotypes and be productive and involved — even late blooming — in their maturity.”

The path differs for all of us. I’ve learned over the past few years how hard it can be to find. We may not even know the destination until we’ve made the journey, and then the journey begins again.

The Third Act

Jane Fonda is profiled. So are Robert Redford, Gloria Steinem, Norman Lear and other celebrities. But the people who inspire me the most in a new book about older Americans doing unconventional things are those with less familiar names.

Andrea Peterson became a firefighter at 62.

Paula Lopez Crespin followed in her daughter’s footsteps to join Teach for America.

Donzella Washington graduated college magna cum laude at age 80.

Art Schill was even older when he became a stand-up comedian.

The Third Act: Reinventing Your Next Chapter also profiles a North Carolina couple who joined the Peace Corps in their sixties and returned home to serve as community volunteers. We were surprised to be included in the book but pleased to be among those illustrating how older Americans are redefining this stage of life in diverse ways.

“For some, this third act can be more engaging and satisfying than the work that came before while also having a tangible positive impact,” author Josh Sapan writes in the preface. “Others are realizing dreams that they never thought possible. … Each person in this book — some famous, all uniquely powerful — is a picture of another kind of retirement: one that’s generative, reflective, and rewarding.”

In the book’s foreword, retirement expert Ken Dychtwald says “for the first time in history, large numbers of older individuals are not interested in ‘acting their age’ and retreating to the sidelines. They would rather rebel against stereotypes and be productive and involved — even late blooming — in their maturity. They see longevity as an opportunity for new dreams, interests, relationships, and ways of living.”

Sapan calls this transition a “third act.” I’ve called it “not exactly retired.” However you describe it, so many people are pursuing it that they’re now part of the mainstream, even if the rest of American society doesn’t always recognize it.

I’ll give the last word to another woman profiled in the book, Cynthia Barnett, a long-time teacher who “refired” her life by establishing a successful STEM program for girls. “Each of us comes into this world with a purpose,” she says. “When I leave this earth, I want to be all used up, but I’m not done yet!”

The Third Act: Reinventing Your Next Chapter, by Josh Sapan, will be published on Nov. 15 by Princeton Architectural Press. You can pre-order it from independent bookshops, Amazon and elsewhere.

Join us on the journey.

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