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?
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.