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,

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.

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.






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]