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.
In my last two posts, I wrote about food and spirituality. But any great culture also needs, well, great culture.
That’s what we’ve enjoyed during two days in Cleveland, a city we had never visited before. We drove up yesterday from West Virginia, stopping en route to tour a candy-making factory in North Canton whose operation made Champa think of the famous Lucy episode where the assembly line runs wild.
After reaching Cleveland, we spent most of the afternoon at the Cleveland Museum of Art. The breath and quality of its collection was impressive, spanning a wide range of eras and styles. It was housed in a magnificent facility conceived by Rafael Viñoly, the same architect who designed the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University.
Today we devoted the entire day to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which exceeded my high expectations. I grew up with this music and was engrossed by the exhibits, videos and memorabilia, which ranged from Jerry Garcia’s guitars to Michael Jackson’s glove to gowns worn by Diana Ross and Beyonce. (Yes, that’s a custom motorcycle owned by Elvis.)
After leaving the museum, we drove to Edgewater Park to walk along Lake Erie. Then, we joined a large crowd of our new Cleveland friends at a free outdoor R&B concert at Wade Oval, a park in University Circle where Case Western Reserve University and other institutions are located. (That’s a video snippet below.) Finally, we ate a late dinner in Little Italy, eating pasta and listening to Dean Martin on an outdoor patio at a family-owned restaurant.
Birds chirped. Frogs croaked. From our bench beside a lily pond filled with blooming flowers, we gazed on a golden temple. No one was around us as the sun began to set and a gentle breeze rustled the tall grass.
We were in New Vrindaban, a Hindu temple and retreat near Wheeling, West Virginia. We’d heard about it for years from Champa’s family and friends, so decided to finally visit.
I’m not a Hindu or Hare Krishna devotee, and I didn’t participate in the prayers, but the generosity and serenity of our hosts was undeniable. We ate a delicious vegetarian dinner — sorry about my previous post — and stayed overnight in their lodge.
At Duke, my life was always hurry, hurry. Here, I had no cell phone reception, no wireless connection, no worries. What a difference. Hare, hare.
We traveled today from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, where we drove around the city, rode the Monongahela Incline and marveled at the endless bridges.
The real highlight, though, was an outrageous lunch we ate at Fat Heads, a local saloon that features “headwiches” — sandwiches as big as a person’s head. We saw it recommended on both the Roadfood and Food Network sites.
Champa ordered the Bay of Pigs, made with pulled pork, ham, Swiss, pickles, honey mustard and “killer sauce.” The menu compared it to “an invasion of your stomach.” I ate the Mighty Fine Bovine, which featured brisket, pastrami, Swiss, hot pepper-kraut, onion, pickles and garlic-parm mayo. Providing nutritional balance were abundant house-made potato chips.
Each of us could only finish half of our sandwich, so we saved the rest for dinner. This reduced the overall caloric load, cost and guilt for the day. Now we feel virtuous.
Steelers, Pirates, Penguins … all good. Sandwiches as big as your head? Definitely worth a visit.
Almost every family that likes to travel has one person who does the planning. In our family, that’s me. I’ve always considered planning to be half the fun of a trip — figuring out where to go, what to eat, where to stay. As you can see from the photo, I’m now focusing on our upcoming stops in Pittsburgh and Cleveland, reviewing brochures and checking information online. Champa and I will be leaving Philadelphia tomorrow, after spending two great days with our family, and I have a pretty good idea what we’ll be doing for the next stretch. That won’t surprise anyone who has worked with me. I’m a planner who likes schedules.
Until last night, however, the extent of my planning for Pittsburgh was to know it is west of Philadelphia, along our general route. I deliberately resisted my natural urge to spend hours on TripAdvisor or local websites coming up with a detailed plan. For there and elsewhere, I have tried to keep our trip open to serendipity, or at least to keep planning to a minimum. If we’re so busy racing to Site No. 4 in a city, I figure, we may not spot the charming church fair or local pie stand along the road, much less stop to take a look.
When people asked me over the past several months why I would walk away from a job and colleagues I love to travel around the United States and Nepal, I spoke often of how Champa and I love to travel — which we do — and of our desire to take a break from the conventional routine. But it was more than that. After being tied to calendars and project schedules for so many years, I wanted to embrace the unknown. The phrase I found myself using was “put myself in the path of serendipity.” Mike Schoenfeld heard me say it so often that he bought me this book about the origins and unexpected usages of the word “serendipity.”
I’m not sure Pittsburgh and Cleveland have appeared often in the same sentence as “serendipity,” and the top photo shows I will retain my planning instincts no matter how serendipitous my current intentions. Still, I know there has to be a better balance between the two, and I want to find it. Louis Pasteur famously noted that chance favors the prepared mind. And, yes, Drew Carey famously noted that Cleveland rocks. So bring it on.
[An Editorial Note: The Blue Devil gnome we’ve nicknamed “G” is still traveling with us. You can follow his humorous photo adventures — GNome Expression — at davidjarmul on Instagram. We welcome your comments here about both this blog and the Instagram photos. Write us!]
North Carolina friends, Maryland friends, let me ask you both a question. I’m going to describe a city. You need to guess which one it is. Readers in other states or countries are welcome to guess as well. Ready?
OK, this city is not large, but it’s not tiny, either. It’s well-known within its larger metropolitan area for its ethnic diversity, liberal politics and funky charm. It has a vibrant farmers market and a disproportionate number of people with Obama bumper stickers, not to mention people our age who still gather at the local gazebo to play drums on a drizzly Thursday evening, as seen below. There are great local restaurants and a lively music scene. Because of its many charms, it faces both the benefits and challenges of gentrification. Oh, and one more thing … Champa and I lived here for many years.
North Carolina readers: The answer is Durham, right? Well, in most respects, yes. But today I’m describing our former home, Takoma Park, Maryland, where we arrived yesterday on the first leg of our journey. Along the way, we stopped at the National Air and Space Museum center near Dulles Airport.
It’s fun to be back. Today we’ll be spending the day at the National Portrait Gallery and other sites in downtown Washington. Tonight we will probably go out to dinner, perhaps at Takoma Park’s latest hot spot, Republic. It takes its name ironically from “People’s Republic of Takoma Park.” As we might say in Durham: Power to the people, y’all.
Suitcases are now strewn across our bedroom as we get ready to load up our car for our big road trip, which starts tomorrow morning. I find myself thinking back to the last time I set off on a major road trip, in 1975. I had just graduated from college and left to backpack around the world with my friend, Mitch. (We’ll be visiting him in Portland in a few weeks.) He and I traveled for seven months across Asia, Africa and Europe. We visited Belgium, France, Switzerland, Greece, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Sudan, Egypt and Italy. The entire trip cost $2,100 each, airfares included. Along the way, we traversed the Khyber Pass, hiked the Himalayas, were arrested by Idi Amin’s goons in Uganda and had too many adventures to count.
That trip changed my life, making me more self-confident and curious about the world. A year after we returned, I joined the Peace Corps in Nepal, which also proved transformative, and not only because I met Champa. Travel showed me the possibilities life offers, which our daily routines tend to obscure.
Mitch and I traveled with only backpacks. Tomorrow, Champa and I set off in a Ford Fusion crammed with clothes, gifts, brochures and snacks. I know she and I won’t see those two Afghan boys who sold me a pair of colorful woolen socks on the streets of Kabul in 1975. But I’m confident something else is waiting to make us see differently.
Champa and I have had a wonderful life, filled with family, friends and colleagues we treasure. We wouldn’t trade any of it. But after more than 35 years of working 9 to 5 — actually, often more than that — we’ve decided to make a change. This past Tuesday, I stepped down from my position at Duke University, where I served as the head of news and communications for nearly 14 years. (The photo was taken at the farewell party they held for us. I don’t expect to be wearing a tie again anytime soon.)
In three days, we’re heading off on a two-month trip across the United States. We’ll be driving across the top of the country, to Seattle, then down the Pacific Coast to San Diego. From there, we’ll drive east across the bottom of the country, through Texas, eventually working our way back to Durham. After a brief break, we’ll depart for another two months, this time to Nepal, where we met back in 1977. And after that … well, who knows? We’re taking these trips to help us figure out the answer.
We invite you to make the journey with us. Are you ready? We are.