Guest Post: Are Volunteers Over-Connected?

Are too many of today’s Peace Corps volunteers spending their time texting friends back home and downloading American television programs instead of interacting with people in their villages? Do their parents hover from afar, like the “helicopter parents” of U.S. university students?

Those provocative questions were raised by a reader of my recent post, on how the Peace Corps experience has changed over the years. Rob Carr was among several returned volunteers who commented on the post after it appeared on a Facebook site for that community. Rob served in Liberia and now lives in Tanzania, where he works with a large development agency. With his permission, I am sharing a slightly edited version of his comments here, hoping they may spark a lively conversation.

Personally, I treasured being off the grid in Nepal and think it helped me integrate with my community. Yet I now enjoy and benefit from being online — not only to stay connected but also to help me do my job and to pursue the Peace Corps “third goal” of helping Americans learn about other countries. Since Rob is referring mainly to younger volunteers, I also must note that those serving with me in Moldova are generally smart, engaged and committed to their service.

What do you think? Please share your comments!


Rob Carr, then 21, in Liberia during his Peace Corps training in 1985

I was a PCV in Liberia over three decades ago. During the past 15 years, I have worked in countries where PCVs are posted and have gotten to know them and the staff … Many parents of PCVs these days hover too much. I know staff at PC that get calls from parents if they do not get FaceTime or chat for a few days. A week is a 3-alarm panic.

Being a bit disconnected is rather difficult and unpopular these days, and it’s no different in PC life. I think this has created some space for PCVs to interact less with their hosts and more with people back home in some cases.

In Liberia, would I have sat under a palm tree with my local buddies drinking palm wine and chewing on kola nuts for hours if I had Facebook and chat going with my friends back home, or if I was streaming movies?

It is not always an easy debate between old RPCVs and recent ones. It always comes down to “we had it TOUGH because …” Social media and the need to be connected is a sword with two blades. One keeps us more in touch with family and global events. The other may keep us from socializing with our hosts and performing the MAIN goal of PC service. That is to interact with people in host countries so THEY get to know more about average Americans and WE get to know more about normal people in a far-off land and bring that back home.

When THAT interaction is achieved (forget about PC small projects that may or may not have worked), then the real purpose of PC service has been achieved. I think this is still going strong, but social media has added the risk that if a PCV is not outgoing or is too reclusive, he or she could spend two years on Facebook and never make an impact on this goal. I am not sure if PC is taking this into account in their selection of PCVs or how they orient and support them in their sites.

On the other hand, there is a positive spinoff from our new connectedness. Once PC service is over, it is possible for RPCVs to keep in touch with some of their counterparts and buddies back in their site as lifelong Facebook friends. I have discovered this joy even three decades later. This kind of takes the goals of PC to a new level too.

So it is a double bladed sword – to be handled with care.


Rob, thanks again for letting me share your thoughts on Not Exactly Retired. Readers, what do you think?

Video: Independence Day

On Saturday, the Republic of Moldova celebrated its 25th birthday as an independent country. Champa and I joined the celebrations in our new home, Ialoveni, and at the nearby winery of Mileștii Mici, home of the world’s largest wine cellar. This video captures some of the highlights:

Peace Corps: Now vs. Then

Can you guess what question I’m asked most often in Moldova, especially by other Americans?

It’s this: How have I found it different being a Peace Corps volunteer now compared to when I served in Nepal four decades ago?

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My short answer is that the experience feels very familiar. As before, I’ve left my family and America to serve people in another country, learning their language and sharing their daily lives.

But serving in Moldova has also been very different from my stint in Nepal in the late 1970s. Here are six of the biggest changes I’ve seen:

  1. I am much more connected to the outside world. I have a smart phone, a laptop and a Kindle, all linked to wifi. I talk regularly with my family. I am following the U.S. election campaign and other news. I interact online with my Moldovan partners and Peace Corps colleagues. In contrast, when I served in Nepal I did not call home even once. The Internet did not exist. I was very alone.
  2. Safety and security have become a much bigger deal. Neither terrorism nor street crime are serious problems in Moldova, yet our training was filled with security briefings. We were given detailed emergency action plans. I can’t leave my post overnight without notifying the staff. I can’t even enter the Peace Corps office without passing through a locked gate, a guard and a metal detector. In Nepal, I used to ride my bicycle past a front gate nominally staffed by a guard, then strolled inside.
  3. The infrastructure is more elaborate. My desk is piled with Romanian language workbooks, brochures on Moldovan culture, a “volunteerism action guide” and more. I have dozens more resources on a thumb drive Peace Corps gave me, not to mention the documents we received before we arrived here. There are detailed protocols for everything from paying a language tutor to taking a trip. In Nepal, our training was also excellent, but we had fewer resources and a lot less red tape.
  4. I’m in a different country. Moldova is in eastern Europe, with an agricultural economy best known for wine. Its population is almost entirely white and Orthodox Christian. Nepal is in the Himalayas and mainly Hindu, along with Buddhists, Christians and Muslims. Both countries have delicious food, interesting people and fascinating customs, but they are as different as can be, except for the fact they are both landlocked — Moldova between Romania and Ukraine, Nepal between India and China. Inevitably, the Peace Corps experience is different, too.
  5. The world has changed over the past four decades. When I served in Nepal, the country was ruled by a king, who had not yet been murdered by his son. Now it’s a struggling democracy. The United States was still in a Cold War with the Soviet Union, which included Moldova. China was poor. Personal computers were new. Gay people could not get married. The idea of an African American or woman president back home was almost unimaginable. After four decades, the world is a different place. Peace Corps has evolved with it, such as by launching programs to combat HIV/AIDS or to “let girls learn.”
  6. I have changed. I saved this one for last because it’s the variable that affects everything else. When I joined the Peace Corps in Nepal, I was two years out of college, single and eager to save the world. Now I am a father and grandfather, serving with my wife of 37 years, who I met in Nepal. I am older and hopefully a bit wiser. In any case, I’m in a different place in my life, and not only geographically.

So, yes, I can now watch YouTube videos instead of fiddling with a shortwave radio to find a signal from the BBC or the Voice of America. But at least for me, Peace Corps still feels like “the toughest job you’ll ever love,” with the same beating heart. Once again, I’m working alongside a wonderful group of Americans who have taken a break from their lives to serve others and represent our country. Once again, I feel privileged to be among them.

Who knows? Perhaps there’s even a new form I’m supposed to fill out to confirm this.

All of That and More

If a playground were being dedicated in America, you might see a child cutting a ribbon, a mayor shaking hands or a reporter interviewing happy parents.

img_9570On Sunday, we attended a Moldovan version that offered all of that and more: a priest sprinkling holy water on the equipment, a wrestling tournament and a couple of giant mice.

The new playground, which is beautiful, is in a park in the center of Ialoveni, the town where Champa and I moved on Thursday. We attended its dedication with two of our new Peace Corps neighbors, Michelle and Cynthia. The mayor welcomed us enthusiastically as things got under way, making sure we got pieces of the ceremonial bread to eat. He then helped a boy cut the ribbon and declared the playground open.

img_9515As the children raced inside and a television crew spoke with some of the parents, an Orthodox priest lit candles, chanted prayers and walked through the crowd to sprinkle blessings on people and equipment alike. The mayor, who is wearing a blue shirt in the video, carried the water beside him.

img_9615The festivities then moved down the street to the Casa de Cultura, or cultural center, where people watched as wrestlers competed to win a ram tied to a nearby staircase.

img_9601The crowd included Igor Balaur, a local wrestling hero who competed in the Olympics years ago and was now visiting with his family, which lives in France.

The dedication was part of a larger “diaspora day” honoring Igor and the many other Moldovans who reside abroad. It also featured two other notables from another country, both with big ears, with whom you can see us posing in the photo. Perhaps you recognize them.

Peace Corps has trained us to be open to new experiences, although that didn’t quite describe Mickey and Minnie. Still, we all managed to be culturally flexible. It was a beautiful afternoon. The kids were happy. The parents were happy. We were happy. It was all of that and more.


Seeing With New Eyes

Before I joined the Peace Corps I wouldn’t have thought twice about eating a bowl of cereal, waving goodbye to my wife and walking to work. On Friday morning, all three things made me happy.


I had corn flakes for breakfast with a cup of coffee and a banana, as I sometimes ate back home. Here in Moldova, though, for the past two months my wonderful host families served me breakfasts of kasha, sausages, eggs, chicken cutlets, spaghetti or hot cereal. I enjoyed the food but yearned for cold cereal and a cup of coffee. On Friday, that’s what I had.

A day earlier, Champa and I moved to Ialoveni, the town near Moldova’s capital where we expect to serve as volunteers for the next two years. We’re staying with a local family but are cooking for ourselves. The corn flakes were included in the first three bags of groceries we bought for $16 at a nearby market.


After breakfast, I waved goodbye to Champa, who stayed home to finish our unpacking. Once again, that was unremarkable, except that she and I are now together again after being separated through most of our training. We knew in advance we would live in different villages during training, since we work in different programs. We made the best of the situation but, after 36 years of marriage, we really missed each other.

Similarly, it doesn’t sound like a big deal for someone who has worked for four decades to get up and go to work. Yet it’s been more than a year since I left my job in North Carolina to pursue a new life of adventure and service with Champa. Friday morning was my first “go to work” day since then. Peace Corps has assigned me to assist Ialoveni’s county government with development projects and to help the local community in other ways. This time around, I’m not wearing a suit. I don’t have a staff. But it’s important work and I’m excited to get started.

In these and so many other ways, being “not exactly retired” has helped me to see my previous life with new eyes. On Friday morning alone, I savored things as unremarkable as a bowl of cereal, the shower I took before breakfast and the cool morning that followed a long hot spell without air conditioning.

Such simple pleasures were there in front of me when I lived in America. It’s only after I came halfway around the world that I noticed them again. I’d feel foolish if I weren’t so grateful for the nudge.







Video: Student Performances

Champa and her fellow members of the English Education group in Peace Corps Moldova 31, along with their partner teachers, wrapped up their practice teaching on Friday with performances by their students in Costesti. I made this short video so you can enjoy the fun, too:

The Romanian Word Is ‘Dificil’


Did you struggle in high school or college to learn Spanish, French or some other foreign language? Great! This question is for you:

I learned Nepali when I was a Peace Corps volunteer four decades ago and am now learning Romanian as a volunteer in Moldova. Which language do you think is harder?

Keep in mind: Romanian is related to many other European languages and to our own. It shares many words with English. Its syntax is similar. Nepali, on the other hand, is a Sanskrit language. Its alphabet, Devanagari, is completely different, as is its syntax. In Nepali, the sentence “What is your name?” literally translates as, “Your name what is?”

Maybe you’re thinking this is a trick. Maybe I’m encouraging you to say Nepali is harder but I actually think Romanian is harder.

Well, I do think Romanian is harder. But the problem is that I’m not sure it really is harder. Perhaps I’m just not as good at learning languages as I used to be.

img_9221To be sure, Nepali was harder for me at the outset. Its sentence structures seemed so bizarre that I walked out of my first language class, ready to quit in despair. Within a few days, though, I got the hang of it. By the end of our training, I was able to have a simple conversation. Today I still speak it easily, if imperfectly.

When I first encountered Romanian, it reminded me of French, which I studied in high school. I was relieved so many words looked familiar. For instance, here are some Romanian verbs whose meaning you can probably guess: discuta, studia, dansa, telefona and permite. I am a voluntar who is activ, sociabil, inteligent and optimist. Right now it’s August. Next month is Septembrie.

See what I mean? How hard could it be to learn Romanian, right?

Well, it’s been plenty hard. Accent marks change the pronunciation and meaning of s, t, a and i. Adjectives and verbs must be conjugated as masculine or feminine. Verbs fall into multiple categories, each with their own conjugation. There are endless exceptions.

During our language training, which wrapped up last week, we blasted through lessons on how to describe our families, order food, ask for directions or describe our work as Peace Corps volunteers. We learned how to use present tense, past tense, future tense, reflexive verbs and things like “genitive case” whose meaning I’d long forgotten in English, much less Romanian. We memorized lists of foods, clothing, furniture and more.

I’ve found it much harder to cram all of this into my brain than when I learned French or Nepali. I mutter “Damn you, neural plasticity!” to myself while I study before and after our four-hour classes, make word lists, then make new lists of words I still can’t remember.

img_8923Fortunately, I had an incredible teacher, Diana, who was skillful and tireless in helping my classmates and me learn everything. That’s her in the flower dress with us. With Diana’s help, I ended up with a good score on the exam they administered before we swore in as volunteers last week. She kept telling me I was doing fine, and I guess she was right.

In any case, this is just the first lap. I recently moved in with Champa while her group finishes its training, and I’ve been using the time to keep studying. Whenever I need more motivation, I remind myself I’m moving soon to a post where my partner doesn’t speak much English.

There’s a Romanian word for what this has been like for someone 63 years old. You can probably guess its meaning: dificil. However, I am doing my best to stay focused on another Romanian word: succes. Regardless of how your own language class turned out, please wish me luck.