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.

Kentucky and Tennessee

Horse farms. Bourbon. Bluegrass. The Appalachians.

That wasn’t all we saw while driving recently through Kentucky and Tennessee.

There were also the three older white couples eating breakfast near us one morning, discussing local politics. One laughed and said, “They’re spending so much, you’d think they were Democrats!”

They didn’t wear masks inside our hotel. Neither did most people in the other indoor spaces we visited, even in some government facilities with “masks required” signs.

In Nashville, at the Hermitage home of President Andrew Jackson, we visited replica houses of enslaved people who picked his cotton and built his fortune. In Gatlinburg, a restaurant owner wearing a cowboy hat vented to us about Joe Biden. As we drove across Knoxville, Lexington, Louisville, Nashville, and the Great Smoky Mountains before heading home to Durham, our radio dial was filled with country music and Christian preachers.

Kenneland racetrack, Lexington

As always happens when we travel, we experienced a world beyond our Blue Bubble. We were visiting Red America but also encountering a diversity more complex than simple labels. America surprises you when you explore it, as we’d seen in West Virginia a few weeks earlier. A young man there told us in a thick accent about the nearby mountain holler where he grew up, not far from where he met his husband.

At dinner on our first night in Tennessee, we were seated next to a group of young professionals holding a Bible study group, discussing Jesus while drinking beers. In Louisville, a couple from Bowling Green told us about the Corvette auto plant where he works. The next day we visited Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace, Mammoth Cave and a quirky “Kentucky Stonehenge” in a family’s yard. In Nashville, we chatted with young women dressed up for Dia de los Muertos and ate hot chicken while listening to a band playing country hits on Lower Broadway.

Donny Lee and his band perform at the Lucky Bastard Saloon in Nashville.

We saw sites ranging from Fort Boonesborough in Kentucky to the Parthenon in Nashville. We visited craft stores, ate barbecue, strolled atop the Ohio River and hiked through forests ablaze with autumn reds, yellows and greens. We won some money at the Kenneland racetrack in Lexington but lost about ten dollars more, then visited the Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs in Louisville. We met wonderful people.

It was time well spent as we slowly emerge from our long pandemic lockdown, eager to travel again but still cautious about going abroad. Kentucky and Tennessee reminded us how many places we have yet to explore — and learn from — much closer to home.

In Great Smokies National Park, Tennessee

Finding an Audience

My book about traveling the world and serving as an older Peace Corps Volunteer was published just as COVID-19 was closing international borders and the Peace Corps was evacuating its volunteers. How has it fared in the year and a half since then? This post, reprinted from the book’s website, highlights some of the coverage:

Profile in Worldview Magazine

An article in Worldview, the magazine of the National Peace Corps Association, featured Not Exactly Retired and considered how Peace Corps service has changed over the decades. It was accompanied by an article from Champa describing how “Many of us were not what Moldovans expected a Volunteer would look like. Together, we showed them that ‘American’ includes many kinds of people.”

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New York Times

The Times mentioned the book while profiling the two of us for an article about how retirees are coping with the pandemic.

‘A Shining Example’

Joe Casey, host of the Retirement Wisdom podcast, called Not Exactly Retired “a shining example of why volunteering is important – and why it can be a unique way of reinvention in early retirement.” His interview with me is on his website.

A ‘Must-Read’ Book

Not Exactly Retired is among the “inspiring, international reads” included on a list for armchair travelers and others. The reviewer called it one of “10 Must-Read Books About the Peace Corps.”

‘Unexpected Benefits’

Another reviewer called Not Exactly Retired “a gift to those who might be thinking there has got to be more to retirement than playing golf, traveling for pleasure, taking up new hobbies, visiting family, or walking the dog. Read and you just might find yourself setting foot on a not so familiar path with unexpected benefits!”

Born for Adventure

An article about the book on the Born to Be Boomers website sparked dozens of comments, including one saying “it is the job of the older generation to turn around and help the next one along. What a great example of that. I’m nearing that time and am hoping to transition to that with grace.”

Love Story, Saga, Guide

Brown Alumni Magazine described Not Exactly Retired as “part love story, part adventure saga, and a guide to finding a fresh act later in life.”

A Second-Act Story

My interview with Andy Levine on the Second Act Stories podcast ranked high on his “Best of 2020” list. His show features people who have made dramatic career changes.

Peace Corps Worldwide

The website, which features books by Peace Corps writers, posted an extended interview with me, discussing my two stints as a volunteer and my writing process.

Lifelong Learning

OLLI at Duke — the “lifelong learning” organization — featured Not Exactly Retired in an online author interview that included an international call-in from our Moldovan “host sister.”

‘Interesting and Engaging’

That’s how a newsletter for older travelers described Not Exactly Retired, saying it encouraged readers to “gain insight into how to plan our own quests.”

‘Repurposing’ Your Life

The Career Pivot website and podcast featured Not Exactly Retired in an online interview conducted from Mexico. Host Marc Miller said the book showed how older listeners might want to “repurpose” their own lives.

Inspiration for Librarians

Circulating Ideas, a podcast for U.S. librarians, interviewed me about my work at a Moldovan library and described how Peace Corps Volunteers have assisted libraries worldwide.

Rocking a Retirement

Did we miss our grandchildren? Did we worry about getting sick? Kathe Kline asked these and other questions while interviewing me for her Rock Your Retirement podcast. She called Not Exactly Retired “an inspiring story.”

Bloomer Boomer

That’s the name of Andy Asher’s podcast about people thriving in the second half of life. He interviewed me about the book.

Visit the book’s website to order a copy or learn more.

Magnetic Memories

Peru, Kathmandu, Cape Town, Hawaii.

For decades, magnets from these and other places have spread across our refrigerator. This past week, I moved them to our bedroom, out of sight from guests in our kitchen.

We started the collection without much thought. While other travelers collected plates or snow globes, we bought magnets, one per destination. They’re usually the only thing we bring home.

By the time we left to serve as Peace Corps Volunteers in 2016, we had more than 100. We returned home with still more.

We didn’t amass the collection to impress others. We meant it for ourselves, as a mosaic of memories. 

We don’t want anyone to perceive otherwise, so we’ve now made it more private as we prepare to replace our refrigerator. I mounted a whiteboard on our bedroom wall and arranged the 158 magnets with U.S. destinations on the left, international destinations on the right and a Peace Corps magnet in the middle that previously adorned our refrigerator in Moldova.

We know how fortunate we’ve been to visit these places. If you ever visit us and want to see the magnets, just ask. I can tell you a story about each one. For example:

Now known as Utqiaġvik, Barrow is the largest city on Alaska’s North Slope. I traveled there one summer to write a magazine story about a science education project for Native Iñupiat children. I remember being unable to sleep at night because it never got dark.

My favorite memory of Berlin didn’t involve the conference I was attending. It was the taxi driver who helped me find the house where my mother grew up before fleeing with her family, prior to the Holocaust. He took several photos of me there.

To reach the Palace of Gold in Wheeling, we drove through a West Virginia neighborhood with pickup trucks and American flags. Only then did we arrive at this Hare Krishna center with its peacocks, incense and chanting. It was quite strange, but we’re glad we went.

I had a free afternoon during a scientific meeting in Rio. Instead of going to fancy shops or beaches, like many participants, I took a walking tour of a favela, the densely populated home for many poorer Brazilians. I met wonderful people there.

What I remember most about Traverse City, which we visited during a drive around Lake Michigan, was buying tickets online for a Judy Collins concert from a local television reporter. When we picked them up, we noticed they were labeled as being free. Presumably the reporter got them as a promotion, then sold them to us. Nice work if you can get it.

So, yes, there’s a story behind every magnet. If any of mine spark a memory about your own travels, please share it with a comment.

‘Nomads’ in the Pandemic

They’re “senior nomads” who travel the world full-time. When the pandemic hit, some were stranded overseas. Others kept traveling . 

In this new article for Next Avenue, I share some of their stories.

Many of these older vagabonds have been traveling for years. Debbie and Michael Campbell have a blog (and more recent book) that inspired Champa and me when we were considering our own “not exactly retired” journey. We chose a different path but share their sense of adventure.

The first part of the article follows below. The full article is online at Next Avenue, which is part of the PBS system.

Once More, With Feeling

“What’s it like to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer in your twenties and then again decades later? David Jarmul takes a deep dive into that topic in his recent book, Not Exactly Retired: A Life-Changing Journey on the Road and in the Peace Corps. He ‘teases out a striking contrast between his service in Nepal 35 years ago and in Moldova in the age of Trump,’ says Marco Werman, host of The World on public radio.”

So begins an online article in the Spring 2021 issue of WorldView, the magazine of the National Peace Corps Association.

Accompanying it is an article from Champa describing how “many of us were not what Moldovans expected a Volunteer would look like. Together, we showed them that ‘American’ includes many kinds of people. As Peace Corps looks to its future, its Volunteers need to fully reflect our country’s diversity.”

Versions of both articles also appear (without all of the photos) in the magazine’s new printed edition, shown below.

Learning From Travel

Despite being sidelined by the pandemic for more than a year, my travels are still helping me make sense of the world.

When President Biden said a few days ago that the systematic murder of ethnic Armenians during World War One was indeed a genocide, I knew he was telling the truth despite Turkey’s ongoing denials. Champa and I visited Armenia in 2017 and saw its memorials with our own eyes. Our tour guide in Vagharshapat, above, was among several Armenians who told us what happened.

Similarly, as I’ve watched Vladimir Putin move Russian troops to the Ukranian border recently, stirring up conflict again, I’ve thought back to another trip. Champa and I visited Ukraine briefly, touring Odessa with two members of our Peace Corps host family, but we were there long enough to see how it is an independent country with its own flag, currency and history.

We learned from international travel even before joining the Peace Corps. During a 2013 trip to China, we saw more than Tiananmen Square and other tourist sites; we also sensed the rising economic power and national pride that would make China ever-more formidable on the world stage. In Tibet, we witnessed its determination to control ethnic minorities, as it has been doing recently with the Uighurs in Xinjiang. The military music blaring near our hotel in Lhasa was clearly meant to send a message to the local Tibetans, not us.

Traveling has provided insight into our own country as well. We learned about immigration while driving along the southern border, such as at this checkpost near El Paso, and about water shortages in the West, as at this dry lakebed in San Luis Obispo. The storefront we passed in a Montana town in 2015 was a harbinger of the anger that helped propel Donald Trump to the White House a year later.

People travel in many ways and for many reasons, from spa holidays to shopping, and Champa and I have had our share of trips just for fun, but we’ve most loved exploring the unknown. We know how fortunate we have been to have all of these opportunities.

As we look beyond the pandemic to future adventures, we yearn more than anything to learn again about other cultures. When we watch the news, we want to be able to say “I’ve been there” and maybe even “I know something about that place.”

The sidelines have been a welcome safe haven but there’s no substitute for getting onto the field and making contact.

A Virus Without Borders

My friend Laura describes her recent struggle with COVID-19 like this:

My fever was accompanied by fatigue and drowsiness, then headaches, then my nose. Oh jeez, it felt like the Sahara desert had changed its location in my nasal passages. Every breath hurt my brain.

On the third day of the fever, I had a feeling like being drunk, a continuous need for sleep. All I could ask for is nothing.

Somewhere on the seventh day, my smell disappeared. I put clementines in my nose: nothing. Coffee, nothing. Perfume, nothing.

After several more days, I tested negative and hoped to return to normal life, but I couldn’t focus. My memory felt weird. My leg hurt so much that I couldn’t step on it. My energy and smell improved very slowly.

Laura is now recuperating — “my smell is recovering; food tastes amazing,” she wrote me on Wednesday— but she remains tired and has trouble focusing.

Long after most Americans are vaccinated, Laura’s neighbors will remain at risk. That’s not due to their age or health status, but because they live in Ialoveni, Moldova, where Champa and I served in the Peace Corps.

Laura was my collaborator there on a music video we produced to celebrate our small city, where she works at the music school. That’s her beautiful voice on the video, which attracted thousands of viewers and was featured in a national television story, shown below. (Laura Bodorin’s music is on Spotify, Apple Music and SoundCloud.)

Moldova trails Bangladesh and El Salvador on this chart, below, of “vaccine preorders as a percentage of population,” published this week in The New York Times and based on an analysis by the Duke Global Health Innovation Center.

Chart from New York Times

By comparison, the top of the chart, below, shows Canada and the United States placing orders for more than half the vaccine doses that may come on the market next year.

“While many poor nations may be able to vaccinate at most 20 percent of their populations in 2021,” the Times reported, “some of the world’s richest countries have reserved enough doses to immunize their own multiple times over.” Many people in low-income countries might have to wait until 2023 or 2024 for vaccination. (Articles in The Washington Post and Nature provide additional insight.)

Some of Champa’s fellow teachers in Ialoveni have also gotten the virus, a tiny fraction of the billions of people around the world who have been affected.

Photo: Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters

Moldova is just one example. Near it on the bottom of the Times list is Nepal, where we also know people who have been infected, including someone close to us who is still recovering. Champa’s brother recently asked her on the phone why some Americans don’t want to receive the vaccine while so many people in Nepal wish they had the opportunity. People in her home town, Ilam, have died, see below, as they have elsewhere across the Himalayas.

From Ilam Green Facebook site

I am grateful to Laura for giving me permission to share her story here. (It is translated from Romanian and lightly edited.) I wanted to “put a human face” on the global situation for American readers who, understandably, are focused on our own situation.

I’m an American, too, and I’m feeling hopeful as vaccinations begin, even as our death toll mounts and many people face increasingly desperate circumstances. I agree with our country being among the first to benefit from vaccines it played such a large role in producing. I want to be vaccinated myself and to see our country’s nightmare end.

Simultaneously, I know we cannot return to normal unless we act globally. We’ve seen how easily the virus spreads across borders. We need to control it everywhere, which means collaborating closely with international efforts such as the COVAX Initiative.

The world will welcome our assistance, and not only with vaccine supplies we must be generous in sharing as our own urgent needs are met. I serve on a communications advisory committee for the Sabin Vaccine Institute, which on Tuesday joined in launching an initiative to train frontline medical workers how to discuss vaccines persuasively with uncertain parents and others. Physicians from Armenia to Honduras participated in its online rollout with leading public health experts. It was a striking reminder how this crisis affects all of us, no matter where we live, and how we must work together to overcome it.

If you’re a fellow American awaiting the vaccine, I hope you will receive it soon. When your turn comes, please give a thought to Laura and everyone else around the world. They are real people who, like us, have endured a terrible year. They, too, want nothing more than to be safe and reclaim their lives in the year ahead.

A World of Volunteers

If you’re an American who donated to a charity on “Giving Tuesday” or is volunteering with a community group, does that make you like people in other parts of the world?

That’s the question I explored recently with volunteer leaders around the globe for an article I wrote, just published by Activate Good, a Raleigh-based organization that promotes volunteerism in North Carolina’s Triangle region.

You may be surprised by some of what I found. India’s largest volunteer group has to deal with 22 official languages. HandsOn Bogotá says it “has a lot to learn” from U.S. volunteering. Volunteer groups from Paris to Singapore are scrambling to maintain their services amid the pandemic.

I hope you enjoy the article — and check out Activate Good’s excellent work while you’re on their website. You’ll also find a link to the Points of Light Global Network to help you get involved with volunteer groups elsewhere in the United States and around the world.


Top image: iVolunteer, India. Bottom image: Volunteer Ireland.

Books for a Crazy Year

Only two of my ten favorite books in 2020 were nonfiction, but all of them helped me make sense of issues we confronted during this crazy year.

For all of you who are fellow book lovers, here are my Top Ten:

James McBride’s Deacon King Kong, set in a Brooklyn housing project in 1969, illuminated our country’s history of racial injustice even as it kept me laughing and turning the pages.

Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, about an African American woman who passes as white while her twin sister remains in the black community, moved me deeply.

Lawrence Wright’s The End of October anticipated how a worldwide pandemic might upend our lives. I was amazed by Wright’s prescience and riveted by his story. 

My Dark Vanessa, by Kate Elizabeth Russell, made me think anew about the #MeToo movement with its unsettling portrayal of a teenage girl who has sex with her teacher yet resists being seen as a victim. 

Far lighter was Carl Hiaasen’s Squeeze Me, a rollicking tale of a giant snake eating a Republican socialite at a resort resembling Mar-a-Lago while a narcissistic president blathers and his foreign-born wife has an affair with a Secret Service agent. I’ll let you draw your own parallels about that one. 

Isabel Allende’s A Long Petal of the Sea is set decades ago in the Spanish Civil War and in Chile under the Pinochet dictatorship, but its messages about war, loss, family and migration were universal and timely this year.

Liz Moore’s Long Bright River made my list partly because it is set in Kensington, Philadelphia, where my son and his family lived until a few years ago. Simultaneously, it’s a gripping detective story that brings us face to face with drug addiction, police misconduct and other challenges.

Then there was Ayad Akhtar’s Homeland Elegies, which combined autobiography and fiction in a compelling story that ranged improbably from the discrimination faced by Muslim immigrants to the intricacies of financial debt. I couldn’t put it down.

One of the two nonfiction books on my Top Ten list also illuminated the year indirectly but powerfully. In The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larson describes how Winston Churchill led England courageously through the darkest days of World War II, in sharp contrast with the incompetence we’ve seen during our own crisis.

Finally, I just finished reading The Apolcalypse Factory by Steve Olson, a wonderfully talented science writer. He describes how scientists raced to produce atomic bombs at a remote site in Washington State, helping to end World War II while creating a toxic legacy that haunts us today.

Other recent nonfiction books also helped me see the world more clearly this year. Ezra’s Klein’s Why We’re Polarized illuminated our election. On the science front, Matt Richtel’s An Elegant Defense was the most readable overview I’ve seen about the immune system, and Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep kept me wide awake and fascinated.

A scientist was also a central character in Esi Edugyan’s novel Washington Black, in which a British researcher helps a young black slave escape by balloon from a sugarcane plantation in Barbados. 

Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments revisited and updated the dystopian religious theocracy of The Handmaid’s Tale. Jeanine Cummins’ controversial American Dirt dealt with Mexican gangs and migration across the U.S. border. 

I also loved several novels that were simply great stories. Margarita Montimore’s Oona Out of Order took me time traveling with a young woman trying to figure out her life. Mary Beth Keane’s Ask Again, Yes explored love and redemption through two police families sharing a tragedy. Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House offered a moving story of a brother, a sister, a mansion and life’s unpredictability.

Some of these books were published before 2020, as were Normal People, My Name is Lucy Barton and others that gave me happy reading this year. Other novels I enjoyed included Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler, The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel, Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett, The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell, Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid, Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson and The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

I finally read Samantha Power’s superb autobiography, The Education of an Idealist, and Rachel Maddow’s rich account of the international oil industry (Blowout). Julie Andrews shared delightful memories of Broadway and Hollywood in Home Work

When the news got especially grim in 2020, I sometimes turned to thrillers to distract myself. They included good ones by Harlan Coben, James Patterson, David Baldacci, Daniel Silva and Chris Bohjalian. 

A special treat was Joyce Hooley’s charming Cu Placere, which reminded me why I fell in love with Moldova while serving there in the Peace Corps.

I wasn’t enthusiastic about everything I read in 2020. Some prominent recent books, such as White Fragility and Trick Mirror, underwhelmed me, and I was disappointed by others I’d been meaning to read for years, such as T.C. Boyle’s East is East and Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume.

Overall, though, I loved reading my way through this challenging year. Thanks to the Durham County Library, through which I downloaded many of these books onto my Kindle.

If you want to share your own suggestions, I invite you to leave a comment.

Finally, I can’t write about this year’s books without mentioning this one, which one reviewer called “a fascinating story about the rewards of doing good while seeing the world” and another described as “the perfect combination of adventure, compassion and love.” Check it out if you haven’t already, and happy reading in 2021.