Tag Archives: coronavirus

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.

Free Walking Tours

I wrote this article after Champa and I returned home from Europe in March, just before the coronavirus made such travel impossible. It felt inappropriate to publish it then. A new article in The Washington Post prompts me to share it now, with hope for better times.

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Champa and I were accompanied on our recent European trip by Laura, Camille, Adrien and Tim. They were our guides on free walking tours, a travel idea we hope to use again after the current crisis passes. Perhaps you can use it then, too.

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Laura, Bruges

Traditionally, you had to buy an advance ticket for a walking tour of a city, but several years ago some companies began switching to a “pay what you like” model. The concept spread, even to Moldova, where we served in the Peace Corps. 

The two of us prefer this model because the guides are motivated to provide a great experience every time. Their tips depend on it and their companies monitor their online reviews.

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Camille, Ghent

All of our guides on free walking tours have been enthusiastic local experts who provided a 2-3 hour blend of history, architecture, culture and humor.

In Bruges, Belgium, for example, Laura explained how the picturesque Flemish city became a center of European commerce, declined and then reemerged as a cultural hub. She described its majestic belfry and churches and shared stories about how it came to possess both a Michaelangelo statue and swan-filled ponds. Laura spent several years in Australia, so her narration had an unexpected accent.

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Adrien, Brussels

In Ghent, our guide was Camille, whose description of that city’s historic competition with Bruges provided an interesting counterpoint. Camille took us to several buildings that served powerful guilds and to others that beckoned sailors seeking prostitutes. We also learned the history of Belgium’s famous beer, potato fries and other foods.

Our guide in Brussels, Adrien, expanded the food conversation to include waffles and chocolates. He pointed out architecural oddities in its magnificent Grand Place and suggested local beers for us to sample when we stopped at a bar halfway through our tour. IMG_4150Like other guides, he also addressed some difficult topics. Standing in front of a statue of King Leopold II, he described how millions of Africans died under brutal Belgian rule.

In Amsterdam, our guide, Tim, told another story of colonial oppression, this one about Dutch rule in Indonesia. He also brought us to a former Jewish neighborhood and to the Anne Frank House to consider what happened to Amsterdam’s Jews under German occupation. Mostly, though, Tim kept us smiling as he riffed on everything from Dutch cheeses to the maintenance of canals. When he told us he also works as a stand-up comedian, we weren’t surprised.

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Tim, Amsterdam

During our Peace Corps service, we took free walking tours in several East European cities, such as with the guide you see below from Sofia, Bulgaria. Her excellent tour ranged from the architecture of a local mosque to the city’s many symbols of recent Communist rule.

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All of our guides combined light material with more serious sights. As Adrien said in Brussels, “I don’t want you to get churched out.” We found all the tours just right in length. We haven’t had a bad experience yet. Needless to say, we tipped all of the guides and posted favorable reviews. Hennessey, who showed us around Dublin during an earlier trip, told us his mother checked his reviews regularly.

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Hennessey, Dublin

Free walking tours can also help you find a good hotel or Airbnb, as I learned from one of my favorite blogs, The Senior Nomads. If you’re looking online for a place to stay, check where the walking tour originates, then search near there. You’ll end up close to top attractions instead of in a distant neighborhood.

Champa and I know how fortunate we are to have returned safely at a time when the coronavirus is claiming an enormous physical and economic toll. People around the world are struggling, and those on the front lines are risking their lives to help us. We are grateful to all of them.

As we isolate at home, we’re dreaming of the day when we can again explore a new city with a good walk.

Help the Evacuees

More than 7,000 Peace Corps Volunteers from around the world arrived recently in North Carolina and other states after being evacuated because of the coronavirus.

They need our help — and they have something to teach us.

The volunteers have returned to Greensboro from Ukraine, to Raleigh from Malawi, to Cary from Panama and to Asheville from Ethiopia. They’ve come from South Africa, Guatemala and elsewhere — 61 countries in all. It’s the first time the Peace Corps has evacuated its volunteers worldwide.

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The North Carolina Peace Corps Association, like its counterparts across the country, has been organizing to assist the evacuees, few of whom have jobs lined up. They don’t receive unemployment benefits and their health insurance is temporary.

Of course, millions of other Americans are out of work, too, wondering how they’re going to buy food and pay their rent. The Peace Corps evacuees share this economic stress along with having suddenly left distant villages where they were assisting teachers, organizing health projects and working in other ways with some of the world’s poorest communities. Now, after a difficult trip, they’re back home, maybe still under quarantine.

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Volunteers evacuate from Senegal. From an article and video by Paula Ospin for “The New Yorker.”

They may not be ready yet to focus on a job hunt or to hear how lucky they are to eat barbecue again. Many of them didn’t want to be here, at least not yet.

I can only imagine how they feel. When Champa and I returned to North Carolina from our Peace Corps service in Eastern Europe two years ago, after months of preparation, we needed time to readjust to things as simple as drinking water from the tap. We were happy to be reunited with our family and friends but missed our Moldovan friends.

Peace Corps Volunteers are renown for their resilience but those who were just evacuated could use some help. Even with everything else going on, other Americans should look for ways to assist them. The Peace Corps itself needs political support and resources to respond appropriately. (An online petition calls on the federal government to provide the evacuees with appropriate benefits.)

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Photo taken in Los Angeles International Airport by PCV JaKyah Beatty during a layover on her trip from Fiji to Houston.

In return, these newly returned volunteers have a valuable perspective to share at this moment of worldwide anxiety.

They’ve just been living alongside people in other countries, so can help us see how the world is more connected than “us” and “them,” especially during a global crisis. Our country is not alone in facing extraordinary medical challenges and economic disruption, and it has greater resources than the countries where volunteers were serving.

The Peace Corps also exemplifies the human power of service, as millions of North Carolinians have been demonstrating recently, most notably with our heroic medical teams and first responders. More broadly, people across our region have been stocking grocery shelves, working at pharmacies or just staying home to reduce transmission rates. They are ordering meals to support local restaurants, checking on elderly neighbors and helping in other ways. The crisis has brought out the best in them.

In other words, Peace Corps Volunteers aren’t different from other Americans. They are just one example of how we all can enrich our own lives while serving others.

Champa and I began our Peace Corps service when we were 63 years old. We were among the hundreds of older Americans who join every year. The two of us ended up having a life-changing experience and feeling like we accomplished a lot. Thus, a final lesson, especially for people nearing retirement, which is to be unafraid about redefining your life and following your heart to pursue the Peace Corps or some other dream. As I discuss in my new book, you never know what might happen tomorrow.

Like a quarter-million Americans since President Kennedy started the Peace Corps in 1961, the volunteers and trainees who just came home answered our country’s call for service. I hope people in North Carolina and across the country will reach out, thank them, lend a hand and then listen to their stories. 

A Free Speech Festival

At the very moment President Trump was announcing his European travel ban on Wednesday, Champa and I were returning home from a two-week trip to Europe.

We didn’t expect to be there during a pandemic. When we flew to England for our nephew’s wedding, coronavirus was just beginning to appear in Europe. As we then traveled by train to London, Paris, Belgium and Amsterdam, it kept spreading.

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We enjoyed visiting the Eiffel Tower and other attractions without waiting on lines, but we were concerned about what was happening to others and relieved to return safely. We’re now staying at home as a precaution.

At this moment when the health and financial news is so grim, and our thoughts are with everyone affected, let me offer some relief with a post about a time and place that already seem far away: Amsterdam’s Dam Square this past Sunday.

As Champa and I walked towards our hotel near there, we heard boisterous chanting and cheering from what turned out to be a demonstration for International Women’s Day. The crowd was huge and full of energy. We saw countless homemade signs in Dutch, English and other languages. Here are some that caught my eye:

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As soon as the Women’s Day protesters marched away from the square, a new demonstration and concert began. This one was for the human rights of Indonesians, who were once colonized by the Dutch. 

IMG_4269That was on the main stage. Elsewhere on the square, a man set up a display in support of the Palestinian people. A few steps away from him, another protestor defiantly held up an Israeli flag. 

IMG_4268In another direction, several Falun Gong protestors stood beside a booth with large signs condemning Chinese oppression of their religion.

IMG_4277Meanwhile, tourists snapped photos of the historic architecture, tour guides led groups and police officers observed patiently. Marijuana smoke wafted from “coffee shops” beside the square and prostitutes posed in windows of the nearby Red Light District.

It all illustrated why Amsterdam is renown for its tolerance.

When we returned to Dam Square two days later, we encountered yet another group of protestors. This time it was Tibetans condemining the oppression of the Chinese govenrnment and calling for the return of the Dalai Lama.

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Champa and I enjoyed Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, Anne Frank House and other famous spots, but Dam Square was the most memorable for us. We loved being in the middle of this festival of free speech and democracy.

I hope such trips become possible again soon for Americans. For now, we all need to focus on the more serious business of saving lives at home and around the world.

Keep Dam Square in mind for when that day comes — and if you’re lucky enough to travel there, be sure to bring a sign.