Tag Archives: David Jarmul

Peace Corps After 50

[An edited version of this post also appears on the PBS website NextAvenue.]

Before Champa and I joined the Peace Corps at the age of 63, people asked us how we’d feel to be surrounded by volunteers younger than our two sons.

Well, many of our fellow volunteers are indeed in their 20s, and most of them are smart, enthusiastic and fun to be around. Yet Champa and I are hardly outliers. Fourteen of the 58 people in our training group — nearly one in four — are 50 or older.

IMG_8252Worldwide, Americans over age 50 comprise about 7 percent of the nearly 7,000 Peace Corps volunteers now serving in 63 countries around the world. With its better medical facilities and programs in fields such as business development that attract people with lots of real-world experience, Moldova attracts higher numbers.

Whatever their reasons for choosing Moldova, the older volunteers here are impressive. They’ve worked as professors, attorneys, IT managers, nonprofit leaders, teachers, city administrators and management consultants. They come from across the country, including two other older volunteers from North Carolina. They are single, widowed, divorced or, as with us and one other older couple, married and serving together. Like the volunteers here generally, they are also diverse, reflecting the country we represent.

IMG_8174We differ from our younger counterparts in some ways. Learning a new language may be tougher for us, although many of us are doing fine in our Romanian classes. We may run slower in a group soccer game, if we participate at all. When several younger friends went to get tattoos recently, they knew better than to invite me along. They also may party harder and make surprising cultural references. When I was in the Peace Corps office the other day, a Carole King song started playing and the young woman next to me said, “Hey, it’s that song from the Gilmore Girls!”

On the other hand, they’re usually polite when we make our own references to people and events from before they were born, so it tends to even out.

In Moldova and other Peace Corps countries, there are advantages to being an older volunteer. Many of these countries show great respect towards older people. Similarly, having children and grandchildren has provided Champa and me with an instant bond with older members of our new communities. Our experience enhances our credibility in our workplaces as well; my future colleagues have already checked me out online. Older volunteers can share their hobbies, too, as Champa hopes to do with art and gardening.

Peace Corps has a special website for older Americans interested in becoming volunteers. The site reviews the application process, which is competitive and includes an extensive medical clearance process.

One of my reasons for writing this blog, and this post in particular, is to encourage older readers to consider the Peace Corps or some other new challenge for themselves. It’s not as strange or exotic as they might think and shouldn’t just be dismissed with “Oh, I could never do that at my age.”

Obviously, many people have family obligations, medical problems and other constraints that make Peace Corps unrealistic. Nonetheless, it’s a proven program through which more than 220,000 Americans of all ages have served their country and the world — and had a great adventure in the process.

Personally, I’m already wondering what it will be like in two years to be back in America and surrounded by friends who are mostly older than the ones I’ve made here.

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Nepal Trip Video

In the fall of 2015, as chronicled earlier in this blog, Champa and I took an extended trip to Nepal. We visited her home town of Ilam and a small village, Samalbung, and spent time in the Kathmandu Valley. During the second half of the trip we welcomed eight members of our American family for an unforgettable tour, highlighted by the two families coming together. This video has the highlights.

Nepal’s Death-Defying Taxi

Americans who complain about potholes in their roads should take a ride on one of the taxis that serve Samulbung, a village in eastern Nepal.

FullSizeRender 561These four-wheelers climb and swerve along unpaved roads made of potholes. They bounce over cobblestones along the better stretches, then struggle across longer stretches where the pockmarked dirt often becomes mud.

FullSizeRender 556During the monsoon season, the mud resembles a swamp. Even when rain is intermittent, as it was when we visited a few days ago, water collects into pools. Drivers have to place one tire on either side of a pool and avoid slipping into the middle, or else charge through and try to reach the other side before losing traction.

FullSizeRender 611Sometimes the driver doesn’t make it. That’s what happened when our driver, Arpan, was a split-second late in down-shifting over a depression in the road. Since his four-wheel-drive was temporarily broken, he swerved into a ditch, as shown in the photo, then nearly burned off his left rear tire trying to regain contact. We all had to get out as he and his assistant gathered stones and gravel to provide traction. Eventually we got back on the road.

FullSizeRender 555Tires puncture regularly, which also happened to us. Once again, we disembarked as Arpan and his assistant made a quick roadside repair, as you can see here.

Such repairs provide a break from a journey that routinely steers to the edge of precarious roads lacking side barriers. If the vehicle went over the edge, it might fall hundreds of feet before crashing amid the world’s biggest mountains. Keep in mind there is no Life Flight helicopter service here. For that matter, there are hardly any doctors.

FullSizeRender 544Just to make the experience more interesting, the vehicles are piled high with luggage, grain and goods, all of which raise the center of gravity and reduce stability. Fortunately, the vehicles are usually crammed with passengers, who provide a counterweight

Many of the drivers are young men, who remain cheerful despite working long hours and earning little money. They stop regularly to pick up passengers and goods, and also to run errands — such as delivering a cell phone or money — for people along the route.

FullSizeRender 553Champa and I took two trips and found them simultaneously terrifying and hilarious. As happens so often in Nepal, we soon got used to the situation and begin joking with the other passengers at each new unexpected turn. We embraced the “No Tension” sticker on the driver’s door.

FullSizeRender 547Our fare for four passengers to travel three hours to Fikkal, the local town, was $11, luggage included. If you find that price unbelievable, well, you’re right: It’s not what you’d expect. We paid nearly double the usual fare to ensure we had only one person in the front passenger seat (me) and only three in the second row. Champa and Bindu, shown here, shared the second row with Bindu’s husband, our nephew Shankar. Business class rocks.

Prayers at the Stream

These faces of devotion are gathered along a stream to wash away curses, evil spirits and bad luck, to be replaced by prosperity, health and good luck.

FullSizeRender 616Their maanghope ceremony, all but unknown in the West, took place Saturday morning along a stream in Samalbung, a small village in eastern Nepal. Families gathered to pray, light candles, beat drums and toss flower petals and grain into the water.

FullSizeRender 675Jai Kumar, with the large white hat, led the ceremony. He is the local sikhsamba, or religious leader, for a growing number of Kirati people in this part of Nepal who have begun turning away from Hinduism and returning to animist traditions. They also have rejected animal sacrifices.  Instead, they follow the teachings of Falgunanda, whose temple in Kathmandu I described in a previous post.

FullSizeRender 690Jai Kumar, a second cousin of ours, expects no payment for leading the ceremony, which calls on everyone to pray not only for themselves and their families, but for the entire community. He lives next door to the home of Champa’s older sister, Sumitra, who died earlier this year. A day earlier, he led another ceremony at the house to coincide with our arrival.

Champa and I came here from Ilam along a breathtakingly bumpy road to pay our respects at the graves of Sumitra and her husband, Naina, and to visit with our nieces, nephews and extended family.

FullSizeRender 625They and their neighbors are the people you see in the photos, gathering as they do every year during the harvest season for the maanghope ceremony. Another annual ceremony, ubhawli, occurs during planting season.

Few Westerners have ever observed the ceremony, which lasted about an hour. I felt honored, as a member of the family, to be invited to participate. The sights were even more colorful and dramatic than you see here. The drums, cymbals and chanting voices blended with the flowing water and chirping birds to compose a symphony of serenity that still lingers.

The Animal Market

FullSizeRender 739Being a goat in Nepal during the Dashain holiday season is like being a turkey in America just before Thanksgiving: Your odds of surviving aren’t great.

So it was for these goats being sold in Ilam’s market this past Thursday. Farmers brought them there by the hundreds from throughout the surrounding area. Shoppers came to buy a goat or two for their family feasts, and wholesalers bought truckloads to sell in Jhapa, about three hours to the south.

FullSizeRender 752Dashain (pronounced: dah-sy) is Nepal’s biggest holiday, taking place during a week each October. (This year, Nepal’s government extended the holiday by a few days to ease scarce petrol supplies.) Schools and offices close and people travel across the country to their family homes. Almost every day during the festival, they perform designated forms of puja, or worship.

Ilam’s animal market takes place every Thursday, part of a larger market centered in the main bazaar. As Dashain approaches, business booms, as we saw for ourselves from the window of Champa’s house, just up the road. For hours on end, goats bleated their way past our gate.

Families typically hire a butcher to slaughter the goat and prepare it for consumption. Likewise for pigs and buffalo, if they eat these. They usually slaughter chickens themselves.

FullSizeRender 750

For a Western visitor, all of this can be grim to watch. However, if you’re someone who eats meat, it’s also more honest than going to a local supermarket and tossing a package of steak or chicken wings into your cart without giving any thought to its origin. Here in Nepal, there’s no avoiding the question. In Ilam and many other towns across the country, the answer can be found in the weekly animal market.