Tag Archives: Champa Jarmul

Champa’s Full Circle

Champa is part of an exclusive group: She was taught and inspired by Peace Corps Volunteers long before growing up to become one herself. Among the more than 230,000 Americans who have served since 1961, she has a special perspective on how volunteers can touch lives.

Her identity as a Nepalese-American has made her service — and mine — much richer. On Friday, for instance, we hosted a dinner party for some Moldovan friends, serving them Nepali curries and rice with an American chocolate chip cake and ice cream for dessert. We’ve also made Nepali food several times for our host family, shown below saying “namaste.”

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Champa especially remembers two volunteers, Susan Gibson and Janet Moss, who taught at her school in Ilam, the town in eastern Nepal where much of her family still lives. Another mentor was Dorothee Goldman, a PCV who befriended Champa at a training workshop after Champa became a teacher herself. Susan, Janet and Dorothee all taught Champa new skills and encouraged her to keep moving forward, helping her become the excellent teacher I encountered when I was posted as a volunteer to Ilam a few years later.

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After Champa and I got married and moved to the Washington, D.C., area to start our lives together, Dorothee reappeared in Champa’s life. The two of us were invited to a reception at the Nepalese embassy. We were dressed up and chatting politely with people when I noticed Champa staring at a young woman across the room. She went up to her and said, “Dorothee, what are you doing here?” Dorothee gasped and replied, “What am I doing here? Champa, what are you doing here?” The two of them embraced tightly, introductions followed and Dorothee and her husband, Mel, who also served in Nepal, became our dear friends. That’s them in the photo below, at their vineyard in upstate New York.

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With almost everyone in Moldova, Champa is the first person from Nepal they’ve ever met. Only a handful of other people from Nepal live here, one of whom married a Moldovan woman and now runs a restaurant, Himalayan Kitchen, that has become popular among PCVs looking for a change from the food served by their host families. The photos below show why they keep coming back.

Moldovans know almost nothing about Nepal but, then again, neither do most Americans. As people here have gotten to know Champa, they’ve asked about how she grew up, how Nepal compares to Moldova or whether she can see Mount Everest from her house. (Answer: No.)

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If we serve them Nepali food, we make it mild and they generally like it — although not always. We bought most of our spices, and the chocolate chips and brown sugar, when we visited home last summer. One of our guests on Friday was surprised we didn’t serve bread, a staple of every meal here. We hadn’t included chapatis, naan or puris on our menu, just rice.

Champa and I gave the Ganesh statue you see here to our host family and a few other local friends. He’s a symbol of good fortune with new ventures. We also brought some other Nepalese handicrafts, which have made great gifts.IMG_3676

The two of us are obviously foreigners but our unusual marriage has made us stand out even more in Moldova. “Diversity” here means someone is from, say, Ukraine instead of Moldova, or primarily speaks Russian instead of Romanian. There is a small Roma population but almost no people of African, Asian or Hispanic heritage. Moldovans are familiar with American diversity, such as from our music videos, but Champa and I are the first interracial couple many have ever seen, much less gotten to know. We’ve been aware from the beginning that our very presence would be as impactful in some ways as our teaching or projects.

Peace Corps has come full circle for Champa, who remains grateful to Susan, Janet and Dorothee for helping to change the path of her life. As she now prepares to return to her adopted homeland, she’s hoping she may have done the same with someone here.

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Our Bottom Line

Now that I’m three weeks away from completing my Peace Corps service, would I recommend it to other older Americans? Some friends back home have begun asking me this. My answer is a strong “yes” — but also “it depends.”

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Champa and I have had a wonderful experience in Moldova. We’ve felt fulfilled by the work we’ve done — her teaching English, me at the library. We’ve become close friends with our host family and others. We’ve learned about this part of the world and shared some great times with our local partners and fellow volunteers.

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Every volunteer’s experience is different, though, even within the same country, and several aspects of our service made things easier for us. Most obviously, we served together. We were never lonely and always had our best friend nearby to share the day’s events. Most Peace Corps Volunteers are single.

Also, we were posted to Eastern Europe, more specifically to a small city near Moldova’s capital where we lived in a nice house with electricity and running water, a modern kitchen and a washing machine. We weren’t allowed to drive (which I’ve missed), depending instead on overcrowded minibuses or walking. But we did have a good Internet connection and a supermarket where we could find items like peanut butter or barbecue sauce. For us, the “Peace Corps experience” definitely didn’t include living in a hut.

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Moreover, Champa and I came here with a lot of experience outside the United States, so we had little trouble adjusting to a new culture. Nor were we distracted by family emergencies back home, at least until a few weeks ago when one of our granddaughters got quite sick. Thank goodness, she is now fine, but her illness was a reminder that our time here could have ended suddenly. We were also fortunate to remain healthy ourselves, unlike some of our volunteer friends. IMG_6969When I served in Nepal years ago, I was sick frequently and was eventually “med-sep’d” before my scheduled departure date. Not this time.

All of these caveats are significant. What ultimately mattered most, though, is that Champa and I really wanted to serve as Peace Corps Volunteers and were willing to put up with sickness, separation from our family and almost anything else. We had a clear idea of what we were signing up for and were determined to succeed. Peace Corps is hard, no matter how old you are. IMG_1057If you’re not fully committed, you’re probably not going to make it.

We joined for many reasons, but mainly because we felt we had received many blessings in our lives and wanted to give back. We challenged ourselves for two years, worked hard and felt like we made a difference. Like so many volunteers before us, we also ended up feeling we received more than we gave, mainly because of the generosity of the Moldovan people,

We didn’t like everything. There were a lot more regulations than when I served as a volunteer in Nepal in the late 1970s. After living independently for so many years, I found it jarring to have to ask permission to do routine things, even to see Champa when we were separated during training. I wasn’t crazy about walking on Moldova’s icy roads in January or riding its minibuses in July. Overall, though, it was great.

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I hope this blog has been useful to anyone, especially older Americans, who is considering the Peace Corps as an option for their next stage of life. As a reminder, they can find lots of useful information on my blog and on a special Peace Corps website. I’m always happy to answer questions personally, as I’ve done many times with readers of “Not Exactly Retired” and others. Simultaneously, many Americans will have different constraints than us, will choose other ways to serve or just want to do something else with their lives. That’s fine; Peace Corps isn’t for everybody.

As we get ready to ring the “COS Bell,” Champa and I are deeply grateful to have had this opportunity. If you are as committed to the Peace Corps philosophy — and as lucky — as we have been, you, too, may have an experience you will never forget or regret. You won’t change the world with your service but you will change the path of your own life, for the better.

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Our Moldovan Mother

The most memorable person we have met in Moldova, and the person we will miss the most after we return home this summer, is the 87-year-old grandmother, or bunica, of our host family.

Nadejda Ciornea inspires us.

a9dce809-8824-46d5-98c1-00ccd229775eShe travels almost every day from our house in Ialoveni to downtown Chișinău, where she sells handicrafts in the outdoor market in the Arts Square. She walks up a steep hill to the bus stop, then boards an overcrowded vehicle before finally arriving near the market. There she sits outdoors on a folding chair, in the heat of the summer and the cold of the winter. Only rain or a snow storm keep her home.

IMG_7145Watching this small woman shuffle on the road with her cane, or greet customers in the market, never ceases to amaze us. When we ask why she continues to work at her age, she smiles and wags her finger, saying la lucru! (the work). In fact, she says this to us almost every day, teasing us that we need to work as hard as she does.

IMG_2301Every evening I ask her how business went that day. Often she says she earned nimic, or nothing, usually followed by some choice words about Moldova’s faltering economy. Sometimes she smiles and points to the small ledger she carries, where she records her sales. Occasionally she’ll share photos or letters from customers she’s met over the years who befriended her and sent her greetings.

In the evening, we sometimes share a glass of wine and a piece of cake, preceded by her toasting our good health and success. She asks about our family back home and what we did that day, always with a twinkle in her eye and a quick laugh.

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Bunica’s daughter, Nina, is officially our “host mother,” and we’ve become very close to her, her husband Mihai and the rest of the Bordei family. Since we are a few years older than Nina, however, it’s Bunica who has felt like a mother while we’ve been in Moldova. Champa and I both lost our own mothers years ago. We never expected to find another here on this side of the world.

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In the years ahead, whenever we feel like complaining about getting old, we will remember Bunica wagging her finger and saying la lucru!  She has shown us how to age gracefully, embracing every day with what Moldovans call a suflet mare — a big soul.

Bunica said to me the other day that she will miss the two of us a lot after we depart in July. We will miss her even more.

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Costume Coverage

The recent visit of the U.S. ambassador and Peace Corps guests to see the beautiful new costumes at Champa’s school was featured in a national television story, on a local news site and in the latest issue of Ialoveni’s monthly newspaper. (A translation of the newspaper article follows below; my previous post features a video about the event.)

TVR Molodova covered the costume event with this story (also available on YouTube):

The news site Ialoveni Online covered the events with the story excerpted below (in Romanian). You can use Google Translate to translate it online, if needed.

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The city’s monthly newspaper published two articles, both shown here. The first is about the ambassador’s discussions at the primăria, or city hall, which followed the costume event. The second, which I’ve translated below, is about the costume celebration and earlier library visit by Peace Corps guests, and about the work the two of us have been doing in Ialoveni.

Thank you again — vă mulțumim frumos! — to our extraordinary partners at the school and the library who made all of this possible and were so welcoming to their American guests.

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Translation of second article:

Interesting Achievements of Peace Corps Volunteers in Ialoveni

Theoretical High School Andrei Vartic in Ialoveni had a gala festival to launch a volunteer project by its students, parents and teachers with support from the U.S. Peace Corps and volunteer Champa Jarmul.

Attending the event was his Excellency James D. Pettit, the U.S. ambassador to Moldova. The project produced 43 costumes that can be used by actors in dramatic presentations. The event featured a series of short scenes in which student actors presented heroes from the works of Shaespeare, V. Alecsandri and I. Creangă.

The celebration honored the volunteers. Thanks were expressed by school director Valentina Sacara and project coordinator Ana Doschinescu to all those who contributed to making this dream a reality.

A delegation from Peace Corps Moldova led by director Tracey Hébert-Seck visited Ialoveni’s Petre Ștefănucă public library. Peace Corps Volunteer David Jarmul presented some of the library’s activities, such as its robotics club, “Bebeteca” children’s room and infographics. The guests were impressed by the many activities carried out in collaboration with the volunteers.

Library director Valentina Plamadeala thanked David and Champa Jarmul for their diverse cultural activities at the library and in the community, for the beautiful projects they brought to Ialoveni and for their hours of English language training at the library.

Costume Party (Video)

On Friday, the U.S. ambassador and other guests celebrated the new costumes Champa and her Ialoveni school partners created over the past several months — a colorful and emotional day we will never forget. This video is also on YouTube.

 

Getting Into Costume

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Cowboys, Indians, pirates and other characters have begun arriving at Champa’s school. Her grant project to create a costume and prop wardrobe for its drama program is progressing nicely, with many of the costumes now completed.

 

 

The school, LT “Andrei Vartic” in Ialoveni, Moldova, recently received its first batch of stage props, including some great hats. As you can see in these photos, Champa and I had fun trying them on with her project partner Ana Doschinescu, in the white and blue dress, and another teacher, Tamara Vîrlan.

Ana, Tamara and Champa can’t wait until the project is completed and students start using the props and costumes on stage. We’ll keep you posted.

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Story Time at the Library

Readers, I seek your assistance — the first and only time Champa or I will make such a request while we are serving in Moldova as Peace Corps Volunteers.

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The library where I work in Ialoveni has launched a project to create a “Story Time at the Library” program for toddlers along with educational programs for adults. They’ve already raised nearly $1,000 locally — a lot of money here — but need $2,303.94 more to create a kid-friendly room with small chairs, educational toys, art materials and the like.

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I’ve worked with the library and Peace Corps to launch a fundraiser through the Let Girls Learn program championed by Michelle Obama.

As you can see in the infographic, the librarians did a survey showing overwhelming community support for the idea, which is similar to the story times held at many public libraries in the States. Their target audience is kids a bit younger than those you see in the photo above of a school group recently visiting the library.

The project is just the latest example of how Ialoveni’s library is trying to redefine itself for the modern world and become a vital community resource. During the past year alone it has expanded beyond books to create programs for video animation, advocacy, computer coding and robotics, together with new services for special-needs users.

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You can learn more about the project and donate here. Your contribution is tax-deductible in the United States. You can donate in honor or memory of someone and, if you choose, share your contact information with me. You can also send words of encouragement to the project team. I will be administering the funds.

If you’ve enjoyed reading this blog, support what the Peace Corps is doing or just want to support a great cause for the holidays, I hope you will make a donation. On behalf of the mothers, children, families and librarians of Ialoveni: Mulțumesc (Thank you)!