Tag Archives: Champa Jarmul

Humbled by the Pandemic

Friends from Nepal and Moldova have been contacting us to check on how we’re doing as the pandemic spins out of control in the United States. 

I went to those two countries as a Peace Corps Volunteer to provide training and insight from an American. Now they and others look at us and see crowds defying public health guidelines in bars, on beaches and elsewhere, and a death toll topping 140,000. It’s humbling.

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Unlike the majority of developed countries that responded to the pandemic with discipline and a respect for science, the United States has acted foolishly and incompetently. Why should anyone take us seriously again?

Millions of Americans have behaved responsibly, even heroically. Doctors, nurses and other front-line workers have been risking their lives to help others. Many teachers will soon return to their classrooms. Others are continuing to sell food, collect trash and perform other essential tasks, often for low wages. Neighbors are helping each other.

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Medical center in Chişinǎu, Moldova.

Yet the situation is worsening, and it’s our own fault. Especially here in the South, many governors rushed to reopen their states before it was safe. They defied health experts who correctly warned what would happen. N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper has been among the exceptions, largely resisting pressure to reopen too quickly.

Paul Krugman of The New York Times says we shouldn’t blame this failure on our American culture being “too libertarian, too distrustful of government, too unwilling to accept even slight inconveniences to protect others.” The bigger factor, he says, has been President Trump denying the pandemic’s seriousness. His decision to “trade deaths for jobs and political gain” led many local leaders and others to act irresponsibly.

Both factors, culture and politics, have surely played a role, and health officials could have done a better job of communicating messages and winning public trust. In any case, here we are. I know Champa and I have been fortunate to ride out the crisis in a comfortable home but I am angry about how many of my fellow Americans are now suffering, especially people of color. Our IMG_4366hospitals are overwhelmed. Businesses keep closing. This didn’t have to happen.

I keep thinking back to the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam, which I visited just before the pandemic spread out of control. Anne and her family remained quiet in an attic for more than two years before the Nazis discovered them. Here in America, by contrast, millions of people have been unable to last a few months before they insisted on partying. Even now, they reject something as simple as wearing a mask. 

One of the three Peace Corps goals is to “promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.” It’s ironic our country had to evacuate its Peace Corps Volunteers worldwide just when it needed more than ever to be learning from others.

[Top photo: The hospital entrance in Ilam, Nepal, my first post as a Peace Corps Volunteer.]

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One reviewer calls it “a love story and adventure book all in one. A truly inspirational tale.” Another says “it shows how adventure can give new meaning to our lives and make them richer.” Visit the book website for Not Exactly Retired: A Life-Changing Journey on the Road and in the Peace Corps.

Grounded

Older folks who love to travel have been having a tough time since the pandemic started.

Some have been scrambling to deal with canceled airline tickets, visa extensions and medical insurance. Others have expired passports and are waiting with 1.7 million other Americans for the State Department to work through a backlog of renewals. Still others are waiting for their stimulus payments or wondering whether the countries they hope to visit will even allow them to enter. 

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From one of the Facebook groups

All know they are at higher risk for coronavirus because of their age and any complicating conditions.

More than 413,000 retired workers receive Social Security benefits abroad, according to one study. That’s an imperfect marker that includes retirees who move abroad to be with family and for other reasons, but it’s big nonetheless. As I learned during our own “not exactly retired” adventure, there are a lot more seniors on the road than you might guess by counting R.V.s with bumper stickers saying they’re spending their kids’ inheritance.

Two of my favorite bloggers, the Senior Nomads Debbie and Michael Campbell, have spent the past seven years staying in more than 250 Airbnbs in 85 countries. Now their foreign travels have been curtailed. 

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Debbie and Michael recently started a Facebook group for like-minded seniors. The response amazed me. I couldn’t believe how many older people had similar stories to share. Some sold their homes to travel full-time, or to live abroad for all or part of the year in places like Costa Rica, Portugal or Malaysia. Others have been using long-term Airbnbs or other foreign rentals. Almost all have seen their plans disrupted.

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I’ve been seeing the same thing on other Facebook groups such as an Earth Vagabonds group for “retired budget travelers” and a 50+ hikers of the world group.

Recent posts on these sites have described retirees “sheltering in place” from Taiwan to Nicaragua. They’ve been locked down in Cyprus, stranded in Chile and cooped up in Croatia. They’ve had cooking classes canceled in Italy and insects swarming in Costa Rica, or are happily riding out the pandemic in Mexico or the Philippines.

Others feel stuck in America, “bored out of my mind” as one person wrote. Another said: “We are close to retirement and this has significantly recalibrated our thinking about the future.” And another: ““My entire future life has been radically altered.”

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On the “Senior Nomads” Facebook page, people have amused each other by posting photos of where they were one year ago. They’re also guessing the locations of each other’s travel photos, including one I posted of Champa beside a beautiful church in Armenia, above. (Yes, someone identified it.)

At a moment when the pandemic continues to spread and our country is confronting its ugly history of racism and police violence, I hasten to put all of this in perspective. The problems I’m discussing do not compare with being on a ventilator or having a policeman’s knee on your throat. Even senior travelers with modest means — which describes many of them — are still privileged relative to many other people.

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I do hope they will be able to return to the road before long, especially given their medical vulnerability and shorter time horizons. Certainly no industry needs their business more than airlines, hotels and restaurants.

As for Champa and me, we will continue spending the pandemic at home until we consider it safe to travel again. We don’t know when that will be. Maybe soon. Probably not. We have our suitcases ready.

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Top photo: We visited Ghent, Belgium, during our last trip before the pandemic.

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One reviewer calls it “a love story and adventure book all in one. A truly inspirational tale.” Another says “it shows how adventure can give new meaning to our lives and make them richer.” Visit the book website for Not Exactly Retired: A Life-Changing Journey on the Road and in the Peace Corps.

Learning Moves Online

Champa and I have been learning online lately.

We used to attend classes “in person” with our local Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI). Since we returned from our Peace Corps service in Moldova two years ago, I’ve studied topics ranging from foreign policy to science fiction films.

That ended when the coronavirus pandemic cut short this spring’s schedule. The OLLI program at Duke University and others nationwide have been scrambling since then to provide classes online.

Next Avenue just published this article I wrote about what’s been happening. Next Avenue is one of my favorite sites, produced by Twin Cities PBS “to meet the needs and unleash the potential of older Americans.” You can read the article on their site, on the Forbes website, in this PDF file or below.

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One Year Back Home

Family, weddings, classes, projects, trips, a book and 73 episodes of Game of Thrones. 

That’s what Champa and I have been doing since we returned to Durham from our Peace Corps service in Moldova one year ago this month.

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We were especially busy initially — buying a car, restocking our kitchen and so forth — but our biggest challenge proved to be readjusting to the country we were so proud to represent when we left in mid-2016. We served for more than two years with the mission of helping others and promoting cross-cultural understanding. Then we came home to a new president who insults foreign allies and demonizes immigrants. It’s been a tough transition.

IMG_1385Of course, we’re thankful to be reunited with our family and friends. We’ve reveled in things as simple as driving or drinking water from a tap. Yet we still miss Moldova, every day. We made such good friends there and we now interact with them only on Facebook or with an occasional phone call.

IMG_0868Champa and I didn’t expect our transition to be so hard. We’d traveled a lot. We’d remained closely connected to America while we were gone. I’d served in the Peace Corps previously and she was born in Nepal. So how hard could it be? We didn’t fully appreciate that America wasn’t the only thing that changed. We’d changed, too.

I’m not the same person I was when I walked away from a conventional job four years ago to pursue a new life of service and adventure. I’m now 66 and no longer want a full-time job. Nor do I want to be “retired.” Instead, I continue to explore a third path, this time back in our home town. During the past year, I’ve been refocusing my energies on three new activities:

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  • North Carolina’s partnership with Moldova (above).
  • An initiative I’ve undertaken with others to encourage retired people to pursue volunteer opportunities. 
  • A book manuscript I’ve written about our recent adventures and what it means in today’s world to be “not exactly retired.”

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I also traveled to Romania to help teach a workshop on vaccines (above) and took two excellent adult-education courses with OLLI. Champa’s been working in her garden, pursuing art projects and spending time with family and friends. 

We also attended four beautiful weddings and took short trips both domestically and abroad. We renewed our subscription to UNC’s Playmakers theater series and, after living without a television for so long, we binge-watched movies and television shows we’d missed, including the entire Game of Thrones series. (Bran won the throne, really?)

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Most important, we welcomed a seventh grandchild to our family a few weeks ago.

So life has been good this past year and we know how fortunate we are to be able to say that, just as we were in Moldova. As I’ve begun pursuing this new phase of “not exactly retired,” I’ve been surprised to discover how disorganized our community is in taking advantage of older Americans like me who are eager to share their skills and enthusiasm to address social needs. I think it’s possible to make it much easier for them to do this, both in North Carolina and more widely. In future posts, I’ll be writing more about how I’ve begun working with others to address this opportunity.

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Comfortably Foreign

When Champa and I traveled to Scotland and Ireland three weeks ago, they felt a lot more like home than did Armenia, Ukraine and other places we visited while serving as Peace Corps Volunteers in Moldova.

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At dinner on our first night in Dublin, the pub menu featured burgers and the accents sounded like Boston. Our waitress asked where we were from and, after hearing we live in North Carolina, she said, “oh, my college roommate came from Raleigh.”

IMG_1398In Edinburgh, the dining options near our Airbnb included a Pizza Hut and a Five Guys burger joint along with haggis or fish and chips.

IMG_1494We couldn’t even escape President Trump during our trip. He came to Ireland shortly after us and we saw security patrols near his golf course.

For the two of us, Scotland and Ireland were the flip side of what we experienced on the opposite side of Europe. IMG_1572When we took a free walking tour through the historic streets of Romania’s capital, Bucharest, we were the only Americans. In the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, only one other American joined us and 23 tourists from Bulgaria, Canada, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Netherlands and Spain. Even in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital that’s been gaining buzz as a tourist hot spot, we felt alone. As I wrote then, a big world awaits beyond the American comfort zone.

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Scotland and Ireland didn’t feel exotic to us, in other words, but we loved both of them.

We went first to Scotland, to hang out with some of our Nepalese relatives (top photo) who took the train up from their home in England. Together we toured Edinburgh Castle, the National Museum of Scotland, the Royal Mile and more. We discovered a Nepalese garden at the botanic gardens and a nice coffee shop at the Port of Leith. After our relatives left, Champa and I hiked atop a local peak, Arthur’s Seat, and had dinner with an old friend and his wife. IMG_1823Then we took a two-day tour of the highlands, visiting Loch Ness and other sites. We were entranced by the striking bogs, heather and thistles despite pouring rain.

Then it was on to Ireland. Our tour there traveled west from Dublin to Galway and then down the Atlantic coast. Using Killarney as a base, we explored the Cliffs of Moher, the Dingle Peninsula, the Ring of Kerry and other landmarks. IMG_1803Then we turned east, stopping at Blarney Castle to, yes, kiss the Blarney Stone, before continuing on to Kilkenny and Dublin. On our first night back in the capital, we spent hours watching the Irish Celts play traditional music at Darkey Kelly’s pub. Finally, on our last day, we walked throughout the city before returning exhausted to our hotel near Christ Church Cathedral, ready to fly home the next morning.

As always, we were surprised by some of what we saw, such as a sheep-herding demonstration in Kerry that you can glimpse below in a brief video I produced on my phone the same evening (also available on YouTube). We learned a lot about the histories of Scotland and Ireland, especially their struggles with England. IMG_1839We gained new perspective on our many American friends whose families emigrated from there. Their ancestors escaped oppression and found a better life, much like my own or, for that matter, the Lyft driver from Aleppo, Syria, who drove us to the airport.IMG_1848

In both Scotland and Ireland, we traveled in small groups with Rabbie’s Tours, which provided excellent guides and organization.

We were reminded throughout our time there that you can have a wonderful trip outside the United States even if you don’t stretch your comfort zone much. Just like other destinations familiar to Americans, Scotland and Ireland let you experience something different while still feeling at home. They’re comfortably foreign.

Photo Finishing

For decades they piled up: thousands of family photos and souvenirs that we placed in albums. David Early Years061Three years ago, when Champa and I packed up our house to join the Peace Corps, we were stunned by how many albums we’d accumulated and by how much storage space we needed for them. Champa Early Life045“We have to sort through these after we return home,” we told ourselves.

This past week, I finished making that vow a reality. For three months I worked several hours daily to whittle dozens of photo albums and boxes of family memorabilia into a single storage bin. I scanned the best images and saved them online and on a hard drive. I also compiled bags of photos to give away to our sons and other relatives.

The job was as tedious as I expected, even though we stopped compiling albums of printed photos several years ago as we shifted to digital photography and occasional printed books.


First I had to remove the photos from the albums, carefully peeling them off the sticky pages and placing them in plastic bags. Then I triaged them into piles to keep, discard or revisit. I created separate bags for big events such as family weddings or overseas trips. I sorted photos into different piles and made lots of difficult decisions about which photos to keep, which to scan and (most often) which to discard.

Those congratulatory cards my parents received when I was born? I tossed out almost all of them. My elementary school report cards? Likewise. Copies of my high school newspaper when I was the editor? I kept most of those but trashed all but a few of the humor columns I wrote for The Brown Daily Herald. It was a no-brainer to keep Champa’s old black-and-white photos of her family in Nepal, since these are few and precious. Jarmul Family Pre-1953004So, too, for the old photos and documents from my side of the family, like the one you see here of my parents.

I’ve been sharing some of these images with my two sisters. Both of them tell me they hope to tackle their boxes, too, but haven’t yet found the time or courage. That’s surely true for a lot of other people as well, as it was for me when I was working full-time. After we returned home this summer from Moldova, I was too busy with our transition, family gatherings and a writing project to deal with the photos. By the end of last year, though, I ran out of reasons to keep procrastinating. I bought a scanner and got to work.

I’ve learned a few things along the way.

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My main advice is to purge ruthlessly. Unless you are famous or planning to commit a crime that will get reporters and historians interested in your back story, no one cares who attended your eighth birthday party. I was a history major in college who went on to write some of our country’s history for the Voice of America, so I respect the importance of historical archives, but who are we kidding? 1983-84076Only your kids and their descendants are likely to care about your photos, and they will probably worry more about receiving too much instead of too little. You’ll do them a big favor by reducing the pile drastically, keeping only the most significant and poignant images. As Marie Kondo might say, find the things that bring you joy.

I’ve also tried to find the “sweet spot” in annotating everything. I noted the time and location for each bag of photos but didn’t label images individually. Yes, this means you’ll never know the names of the couple we met in Greece, who are in one of the photos. But guess what? At this point I don’t care about their names, either.

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A scanner is essential, not only to produce a permanent digital record but also to make it easier to give away the printed copies. If my sons or others want any of the digital copies, we can share those, too. My scanner, an Epson V550, has enhanced the images, some of which had faded, so the digital versions are often better. If you prefer, several reputable companies can do the scanning for you, for a fee.

Tackling this big job made me feel productive while Champa and I take a break from our “not exactly retired” adventures. Now that I’ve finished, I guess I need to find a new project to keep me busy, so I won’t start driving her crazy. In fact, our garage looks like it needs some spring cleaning. 

Maybe next week.

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Kiplinger Article

Shortly before we left Moldova, the Peace Corps communications office in Washington, D.C. contacted us to ask whether we might assist a Kiplinger reporter writing an article about older Peace Corps Volunteers. Kim Lankford’s article recently appeared on the Kiplinger website. The version shown in the illustration above was published in the subscribers-only Kiplinger’s Retirement Report.

Goodbye for Now

We rang the COS bell on Tuesday, completing our service in Peace Corps Moldova.

We joined a large group of volunteers in our group who are among the first to officially complete their service. Champa and I depart on Wednesday for a short trip and will then head home to North Carolina. 

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This special moment also feels like the right time for me to take a pause from this blog.

IMG_3918Readers, I want to thank you so much for following along with Champa and me, regardless of how recently you discovered “Not Exactly Retired” or how regularly you’ve tuned in. IMG_3931I’ve posted 265 stories since we started our adventure three years ago, attracting readers from around the world. My blog posts and videos have been viewed more than 100,000 times. I’ve treasured the messages and comments I’ve received in response, especially from readers who said they were inspired to follow their own dreams.

This blog and my videos never interfered with my primary Peace Corps assignment at the Ialoveni library or the projects I’ve undertaken in Moldova. (As a former news office director, I work fast.) Indeed, they have helped me make sense of our time here while simultaneously promoting the Peace Corps goal of enhancing understanding between Americans and people in other countries.

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I’m not ending the blog, just taking a break while we reintegrate with American life and our family (above), which has been waiting for us to come home. I expect to return in the future with some new adventures and hope you will join me then. 

We’ve loved having you with us on our journey and hope you will pursue yours as well. Life is awaiting you, no matter how you choose to define your own “not exactly.” For now, I bid you a heartfelt la revedere.