All posts by djarmul

I am a Peace Corps volunteer in Moldova, in Eastern Europe, serving in the small city of Ialoveni with my wife, Champa. We are from Durham, N.C., where I was the head of news and communications for Duke University. You can follow our adventures on my blog, notexactlyretired.com.

5 Ways to See Alaska

Alaska is vast, spectacular and endlessly photogenic.

See for yourself. 

Champa and I just returned from a two-week trip there with eight of our American siblings, cousins and spouses. We spent the first week touring Anchorage, Denali National Park and Girdwood. Then we cruised south through the Inner Passage to Vancouver, where we spent a couple of days before flying home.

We saw whales, moose, reindeer, bald eagles, glaciers, sled dogs, totem poles and much more. I’ve gathered some of our group’s photos into five short slide shows, below.

Animals

Landscapes

Glaciers

Sights

Portraits

It was hard to say goodbye to such a beautiful and fascinating place. If you’ve never been to Alaska and ever get the chance, go see it yourself.

On the Winner Creek Trail – Chugach National Forest, Girdwood, AK

(Thanks to Nancy Collamer and Irvin Rosenthal for shooting and sharing some of these photos.)

Podcasts for the Road

Leaders of the radical Weather Underground accompanied us during our recent road trip to Chicago. We drove home with the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski.

We also spent time with an Indianapolis radio reporter involved in a hostage crisis. He sounded just like the actor Jon Hamm. In fact, he was Jon Hamm, playing the lead role in an 8-episode podcast drama, American Hostage

The Weather Underground was the focus of a 10-episode podcast series, Mother Country Radicals, narrated byZayd Dohrn, the son of celebrated radicals Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers. He described what it was like to grow up underground and on the run with parents wanted by the FBI. Project Unabomb considered whether Ted Kaczynski was just a madman who murdered people or a troubled prophet who foresaw how technology can harm us.

These and other long-form podcasts have made the hours fly by when Champa and I have traveled. Sweet Bobby was a 6-part series about a woman who fell in love with someone who appeared to be a handsome cardiologist but was actually a cruel scammer. Passenger List featured a woman seeking the truth about an airplane that disappeared with her brother and others on board. S-Town made me care about a strange man who despised his Alabama town and decided to do something about it.

With their dramatic stories, talented casts and compelling audio, podcasts like these grab my attention more than most audiobooks with a single narrator reading text. However, I have enjoyed audiobooks such as Michelle Obama’s Becoming and Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, and old favorites like Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck.

I prefer these multi-episode podcast series when we travel but not when I’m home. For my daily morning walks, I usually listen to the latest episodes of shows ranging from the news (The Daily) to current affairs (Fresh Air), sports (Pardon the Interruption), technology (Pivot), travel (Rick Steves), foreign affairs (Pod Save the World) and business (Planet Money). 

I’ve also enjoyed several humor and entertainment podcasts — such as from Marc Maron and Conan O’Brien — but usually listen in spurts and then take a break. Similarly, I’ve sampled podcasts on particular topics, such as Ear Hustle on prison life, but decide “that’s enough” after a few episodes.

I download podcasts for free onto my iPhone and listen with earbuds or, when we’re traveling, through our car’s audio system. If you’re unfamiliar with how to do this yourself, it’s easy, and I encourage you to give it a try. Here are instructions.

I’m always on the lookout for something new, so please share your own podcast suggestions with a comment. Heard anything good lately?

Our Chicago Loop

Chicago. Columbus. Cincinnati. Charleston.

There were lots of “C”s when we drove recently from Durham to Chicago, and back — plus an unexpected “C” that sent us racing home earlier than expected, a loop of more than 1,700 miles.

We came down with Covid as we were leaving the Chicago suburb we were visiting. We arrived back home more than a week ago and are only now feeling better.

Still, we’re very glad we went.

In Charleston, W.V., we toured a State Capitol building whose dome is taller than the U.S. Capitol. A heroic coal miner outside embodied the state’s heritage and energy politics.

In Columbus, Ohio, we visited the Ohio State University campus, saw lovely Victorian homes and ate German food. At the North Market, we found this momo shop.

Aviation was the theme in Dayton, Ohio. The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force was spectacular (and free). A smaller but compelling museum across town honored the Wright Brothers, the local legends who made possible our North Carolina “First in Flight” license plate.

On Day Four, we spent most of our time at the famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Our behind-the-scenes tour included the winner’s circle, the press room and a great display of winning cars. We also saw the city’s giant Indiana State Soldiers and Sailors Monument.

Finally we arrived in Aurora, near Chicago, where we enjoyed catching up with some of our Nepali family and friends.

We’d hoped to spend afternoons in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Huntington, W.V., during our return trip, but instead drove straight home, isolating in a motel for one night en route.

Covid wiped us out for several days. We can only imagine how sick we might have gotten if we weren’t vaccinated and boosted. If you haven’t gotten vaccinated yet yourself, please take Covid seriously. It can throw you for a lot more than a loop.

Ukraine’s Refugees: Still There

Civilians murdered. Soldiers killed. Buildings bombed. It’s all still happening in Ukraine, even as we Americans let our attention drift to newer problems.

Those millions of Ukrainians who fled their homes? More than 90,000 of them remain in neighboring Moldova.

Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) from Moldova have been working hard to help them. Since the war began in February, the Friends of Moldova group has served 60,000 Ukrainians, supported 175 other relief efforts in Moldova and raised nearly $700,000. All of the RPCVs work as volunteers; several have returned to Moldova to provide direct assistance.

This past week, the Friends of Moldova, in concert with a Moldovan Rotary club, received a $25,000 Rotary Foundation Disaster Response Grant to buy food and other resources for refugees in northern Moldova.

North Carolina’s Rotary District 7710 initiated the grant after I described the urgency of the situation in a talk at the Rotary Club of Raleigh. Kim Dixon, who served with the Peace Corps in Georgia, and I developed the grant with her Rotary colleagues.

Friends of Moldova President Bartosz Gawarecki and other RPCVs also worked on the grant, which Bartosz will now oversee in Bălți. He lived there as a volunteer, leading a recycling initiative and youth sports programs, and returned recently from his Michigan home to establish a refugee assistance center for the region. That’s him on the left in the photo below.

Rotarians in Oklahoma City have been pursuing a similar collaboration with Moldova, inspired by another RPCV, Kelsey Walters, who married and remained in Moldova but returned to Oklahoma with her children recently after hearing explosions across the border. The two districts joined in a conference call hosted by N.C. Sec. of State Elaine Marshall, who oversees the state’s long-standing formal partnership with Moldova. We discussed how to expand these efforts and encourage other Rotary districts around the country to pursue similar grants. 

That’s where you come in, readers.

First and foremost: Please continue to donate online to the Friends of Moldova. Your support has enabled the organization to transport refugees from a freezing border, feed children and provide hope to families.

Now you can make an even bigger impact by working with a Rotary group in your area to pursue one of these grants. The Friends of Moldova cannot do this centrally; it needs supporters across the country to initiate grants locally. If you’re willing to help, please contact me directly and we’ll guide you through the process, which isn’t complicated. If you are a Rotarian or served with the Peace Corps in Moldova, that’s great, but it isn’t necessary. (I’m not a Rotarian myself.)

I wish I didn’t need to keep writing about this but, as you’ve seen on television, Russia’s aggression has been bloody and relentless. Ukrainians keep dying. Millions of innocent families remain dislocated, overwhelming their generous hosts across the border. As Americans, we can feel anger, outrage or despair about all of this, but I hope you will join the Friends of Moldova in providing something more useful: help.

[Top photo: RPCV Clary Estes, Ukraine Stories. Other photos: Friends of Moldova]

Traveling Again

We just returned from a trip to Wilmington, N.C. And from the Georgia coast. And from Philadelphia, San Francisco and the Maryland shore.

After more than two years of a pandemic and my six months of cancer treatment, we’ve begun traveling again regularly. I’d been busy working with several nonprofit groups, and Champa with her art and gardening, but we missed the road.

We began with a drive south to the Golden Isles in Georgia, staying near the St. Simons lighthouse and exploring sights such as this driftwood beach on neighboring Jekyll Island. On the way home, we stopped in two of our favorite cities, Savannah and Charleston.

In Philadelphia, we visited with our son and his family and survived several boxing matches on his new virtual reality system.

In the San Francisco Bay area, we visited family and friends, then headed north to visit a winery and hike through beautiful places such as this redwood forest and Sonoma Coast State Park.

At the Maryland shore, we stayed at a condo in Ocean City, together with our Philadelphia family, and visited in nearby Onancock, Va., with our friend Andrea, who served with us in Peace Corps Moldova.

Most recently, we hung out in Wilmington with two long-time friends. They’re less than three hours from Durham but, like so many others, felt much further away during the pandemic.

What’s next? We’re planning a driving trip to Chicago, with several stops along the way, and an Alaskan adventure. After that, we hope to start venturing abroad again.

We know it’s a privilege to pursue our travel passion but we’ve been reminded over the past two years how unpredictable life is. We want to embrace it while we can. As I wrote near the end of our Peace Corps service in 2018, and feel even more strongly now, “I expect to remain ‘not exactly retired’ after 65 but don’t really know what will happen next. I am eager to be surprised anew.”

Hot Flashes for Men

Hot flashes are more than a nuisance or a cause for joking about “hot women.” They’re real and not especially funny — and they can happen to men, too, as I describe in this article for NextAvenue, the PBS website for older Americans.

The article continues here (www.nextavenue.org/hot-flashes-arent-just-for-women).

The Fragility of Life

Two weeks ago I posted a message on Facebook about successfully completing six months of radiation and hormone treatment for prostate cancer, something I hadn’t shared widely before then.

The response overwhelmed me. I received hundreds of upbeat comments, “likes” and other encouragement, all of which filled my heart. But there were also messages from friends around the country who shared their own cancer stories.

One former work colleague told me about his experience, as did a relative and others. That was just for prostate cancer.

A college friend wrote to tell me how he’s gone through three operations for bladder cancer.  Another friend, who grew up near me, told me he’s been battling a similar cancer for nearly a year.

Another long-time friend wrote to say he’s been dealing with multiple myeloma.

Still another friend said she and her husband are both cancer survivors.

The toughest messages and stories have come from friends far younger than me. One is now fighting brain cancer. Even younger is a former Duke student who has gone through a “nightmare” battle with breast cancer, which appears to have turned out well. 

“Cancer is scary!” she wrote me.

I’d known that intellectually. As a science writer, I’d written about oncogenes, signal transduction pathways and other aspects of cancer. But my knowledge was largely abstract, except when loved ones were affected.

Getting cancer myself, even a treatable kind with a high survival rate, has made it far more personal. It’s been like when Champa and I were expecting our first child and I began noticing all of the pregnant women around me. They’d always been there. I just hadn’t paid much attention to them. Foolish me.

My younger friend who battled breast cancer closed her last message by saying, “Let our new perspective be a source of strength.” Yes, and of compassion, too. Our lives are fragile. Even the happiest day can turn grim in a moment, with a doctor’s frown, a baby’s cry or a car’s skid. We interact daily with people facing “scary,” regardless of whether we recognize their situation or have joined them yet ourselves.

Payoff for the Heart

When Money interviewed me recently for its retirement newsletter about serving as an older Peace Corps Volunteer, one of the topics was, no surprise, money.

I told the editor that the Peace Corps is “definitely not a luxurious way to launch a retirement. It’s challenging, and you need to join for the right reasons. The main payoff is how it fills your heart. But it’s also a pretty good deal financially as a retirement transition from a regular paycheck.”

Was I on the money? You can read the full interview below.

The “Retire with Money” newsletter is free and available online.

What My Friends Are Seeing

What’s the latest in Moldova?

Many of you have been asking me that since Ukrainian refugees began flowing across the border in late February. More than 350,000 have entered Moldova and about 100,000 remain in this small country of less than 3 million people,. 

In my last post, I described how my former neighbors in Ialoveni, near Moldova’s capital, have welcomed the refugees generously. A New York Times video, PBS video and USA Today article tell similar stories about Moldovans nationwide.

In this post, I want to share some of what I’ve been hearing from American friends who are close to the situation, especially former Peace Corps Volunteers who (like me) retain a deep affection for Moldova.

Haley Bader, who served in my group and is now back in Comrat as a journalist, reported recently that “exhausted women, children, elderly men and people with medical issues or disabilities are bleeding across Moldova’s borders daily. From the north to the south, authorities are setting up tents and converting old boarding schools, exhibition centres and kindergartens to house those who are fleeing.”

Moldovans worry whether Putin may invade their country next, although that danger may have eased as Russian forces bog down in Ukraine. What is clear is that the refugees have come in large numbers, and the Moldovans have embraced them. My former host sister has gone to a train station in Bucharest, where she now lives, to invite young Ukrainian women to rest at her apartment.

We visited Chris Flowers at his post in Criuleni while we were all serving as Peace Corps Volunteers. That’s him in the middle.

“I’m seeing lots of cars with Ukrainian license plates on the streets of Chişinǎu,” says our friend Chris Flowers, another former PCV who now directs American Councils Moldova. “This is putting a strain on resources and infrastructure in the country. Despite how generous everyone is now, this level cannot be maintained and outside assistance will be needed.”

Former PCV David Smith agrees. “The Moldovan government has heroically responded with its limited resources and without any past experience dealing with a humanitarian crisis of this size,” he writes in his excellent newsletter. The response has been “amazing, inspiring and necessary” but is unsustainable. 

David Smith met with Moldovan President Maia Sandu, who came to his restaurant to support its refugee assistance efforts.

David has converted his Chişinǎu restaurant (which I featured in this article) into a center offering free food, clothing and other resources. Local volunteers assist the effort, including Peace Corps staff coordinated by Hannah Gardi. Lines stretch out the door. (Here’s a video clip of the line this morning.) Their work is admirable but, as David concluded in his last post, “Where is the cavalry?” 

Carol Spahn, acting director of the Peace Corps, left, traveled to Moldova to support local staff. She prepared meals with my former Romanian language teacher, Diana Prodan.

A friend on the Peace Corps staff wrote me to say: ““It is insane what is happening. We just don’t know where to direct all these refugees for help. The rollout of international help is very slow and disjointed.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with President Sandu and other Moldovan leaders.

The American Embassy in Moldova recently announced plans to provide assistance, as have other governments and international organizations. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other Western leaders have visited to show support. Chişinǎu’s convention center, where Champa and I attended a Moldovan friend’s fashion show, is now filled with refugee families.

Israel Collier is the co-founder of A.C.O.P.E.R.I.

Former PCV Israel Collier heads a nonprofit organization that assists Romani families and immigrants in Moldova. “This war has underscored the need for our service” she wrote me. “We’ve assisted at least 100 Ukrainian families (including many Romani families often rejected at placement centres). They specifically reach out to us because of our mission. We are currently delivering nonperishable food items, clothing and toiletries, to centres in Chišinău, Drochia and this week Soroca.

Another friend, Alex Weisler, and his colleagues at JDC, a global Jewish humanitarian organization, have moved quickly to assist the refugees. As Alex describes in this recent video from Moldova, “they haven’t eaten, they’re scared, they’re confused. They come here and they receive a sense that they’re not alone.”

Other groups are also helping, from Christian evangelicals to North Carolina nurses, who trained Moldovans how to assist refugee populations. Another former PCV friend, Rebecca Lehman, now in England, is helping a group there. Vladimir Snurenco, who led an English language center in Chişinǎu where I taught some classes, wrote me about an art sale in Michigan that raised money for Ukraine.

I’ve been working most closely with Friends of Moldova, an organization of returned PCVs that has raised more than $200,000 and distributed funds to shelters, churches and others. The group’s president, Bartosz Gawarecki, described the effort in this television interview. He recently returned to Moldova to help open new refugee assistance centers.

The North Carolina Peace Corps Association, on whose steering committee I serve, has generously donated to Friends of Moldova and the RPCV Alliance for Ukraine. In a few weeks, I’ll be speaking at the Rotary Club of Raleigh about these and other initiatives.

There is a lot happening, in other words, and I could have included more examples. Yet as my friends keep telling us, the situation remains stressful. David Smith is right: They need the cavalry.

I wish I could have provided a cheerier update about what’s happening in Moldova, but this is the reality. If you share our concern, I encourage you to contact anyone you know who may have some influence over the situation. Donate to Friends of Moldova or another organization. Attend a rally. Write a letter. Please help.