Tag Archives: Moldova

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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Decluttering Anew

Once again, we’re decluttering.

Before we began serving as Peace Corps Volunteers, we spent months giving away books, clothes and other stuff, reducing our possessions to what we could cram into a small storage room in our house and the two suitcases we were each allowed to bring to Moldova.

It was exhausting but liberating — good mental preparation for leading a simpler life. As I wrote then, “We feel like we’re unloading the excess baggage of our old lives. Already we can sense how this lighter load will give us more flexibility to seek adventure and embrace what life has to offer.”

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Now we’re going through a similar process anew, sifting through boxes of language materials, teaching materials, tourist brochures, souvenirs and other things we’ve accumulated during the past two years. Once again we’re making three piles: “Keep,” “Give Away” and “Trash,” plus some books and other things we need to “Return” to Peace Corps or our work sites.

IMG_3620As before, “Keep” must fit into two suitcases each. It’s a lot easier this time since we’re leaving behind many of the clothes we brought — worn-out socks, yes, but also shirts and other items we’re now placing into our second pile.

That’s “Give Away,” which we’re doing with local friends and a nearby donation center. IMG_3628We’re also placing items in a special room of the Peace Corps lounge where departing volunteers leave things for those still serving. We found some great things there ourselves and now it’s our turn to pay it forward.

Pile Three, “Trash,” is smaller since our host grandmother will welcome anything flammable to burn next winter in the small fireplace in her room. We already have a couple of boxes of paper for her.

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Champa and I will store our four suitcases at the Peace Corps office while we travel for two weeks with carry-on bags before heading home. We’ll hope to keep the recluttering under control after we get back.

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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Revisiting ‘Fat City’

As Champa and I count down the days until we complete our volunteer service in Peace Corps Moldova, I’ve been thinking about the last time I went through this transition. Thirty-nine years ago this week, I published the following op-ed article in The New York Times, shortly after I returned from Peace Corps Nepal. Now seems like a good time to revisit it, even knowing I failed to live up to much of what I wrote then. My perspective has evolved as I’ve gotten older but, four decades later, parts of the article still resonate with me. 

[Reprinted from The New York Times, June 9, 1979]

People wrote to me before I recently returned home to New York, after two years in Peace Corps, about all the changes I’d find: disco, roller skating, a new mayor, a decent Rangers team.

But nobody warned me about what’s remained the same: how rich and wasteful this city is.

[Text continues below.]

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New York’s being rich sounds strange, I know. After all, the city was staving off bankruptcy when I left in 1977. And I hear similar sacrificial moans from New Yorkers now about gas prices and inflation.

But today those cries ring hollow. After I’ve lived so long in a truly poor country, New York seems like Fat City. People here don’t realize how lucky they have it.

My post was in Nepal. My first year was spent in a Himalayan hill bazaar, Ilam, the second in Katmandu, the capital. I taught English and writing, worked with blind students, set up several newspapaers and organized a village literacy project.

The Peace Corps paid me $76 monthly, $92 in Katmandu. This was plenty. The per capita income in Nepal is less than $100 per year. Given the skewed distribution of wealth, many Nepalese live on less than 15 cents daily. Most children work. The literacy rate is below 20 percent.

One of my students in Ilam was Mardi Kumar, an untouchable. One week he didn’t come to school. I went to his house to see why not. His father told me that Mardi’s older brother was dying in the local hospital.

The doctor said Mardi’s brother needed insulin. There was none to be had in eastern Nepal. The father pleaded with me. I was a foreigner; didn’t I have some insulin? No, I didn’t. A few days later his son died.

In Katmandu, I hired a cook, Harka Bahadur. I taught him to read Nepalese and gave him room, board and $1.75 weekly. The neighbors complained that this was too much and would drive up local prices. I insisted. Harka supported his mother, wife and baby daughter on his salary. He had no money for eggs, fruit or medicines. In the winter I had to convince him to take a sweater I’d been given for the holidays.

Now I’m home. My first full day back, my folks took me to see the new shopping atrium at the Citicorp headquarters. I saw imported jams at $10 per bottle, exotic pastries, shiny furniture stores, a giant delicatessen, several chic cafes.

It was a shock. I could not believe the extravagance, the wealth.

The following morning I had an argument with my father about Mother’s Day. My father wanted me to buy my mother an azalea bush. As much as I love her, I couldn’t bring myself to spend the money. My mother doesn’t need an azalea bush, I told him. So why waste money that others need just to survive?

My father told me that I was culture‐shocked. I ought to stop converting New York prices into what they could buy abroad. Nepal was Nepal. This was New York. Why take it out on my mother?

A few days later my grandmother complained to me that she has to travel a long way from her house in Flushing to take my grandfather to the doctor to get his prescriptions filled. I sympathized, but I couldn’t help reminding her how fortunate she is to have medicines availaable at all. After all ‐ Mardi’s brother didn’t.

Then a conversation with my other grandmother: She asked what kind of furniture I plan to buy for my new apartment. I told her I will get whatever is cheapest while not squalid. She responded with a smile and reassured me that with time I will get over this “phase” and back into American life.

The point is that right now, I don’t want to get back into a consumptive American life. I don’t want to jump on the bottled water bandwagon when I can just as easily drink water out of the faucet like I did before I left and give the 70 cents per bottle to somebody who really needs it.

But, as I’ve learned quickly, to say those things out loud, even with the excuse of being just out of Peace Corps, makes one come across like an Asianized Jeremiah. Friends ask me, quite rightly, just what it is that I expect them to do. Give up all of life’s small luxuries until there are no more poor people? My instinctive reaction right now is to say yes.

That’s idealistic and unworkable, I know, but I remember too vividly my Nepalese friends: Rudra Bahadur, the farmer across the street who thanked me profusely when I gave him my wornout rugby shirt. Ram Prasad, a fellow teacher who almost burst into tears when I gave him the seven dollar calculator that I’d bought in Times Square. The Brahmin village family —I don’t even know their names — who shared with me their dinner of rice, lentils and dried yams when I appeared on their doorsteps one evening while hiking.

Intellectually, I recognize that if friend here spends $20 extra on a pair of blue jeans just to sport a designer label; it isn’t going to make any difference to the lives of my Nepalese friends. Not unless the friend chooses to send that $20 to Nepal and just take a pair of Levi’s.

But I can’t choose for others. And also know that I must fight off this moralism. I know there are many poor New Yorkers, poor Americans. Our country can’t take upon itself all of the world’s suffering. We shouldn’t all go through life. guilt‐ridden. After all: that’s Nepal, this is New York.

Still, as I face my new life ahead, I keep wondering: Am I really as culture‐shocked as people tell me, or is American society as profligate as it now seems to me? Will I be able to hold onto my new convictions about living modestly and helping others? Will I remember?

Unknown Researchers

Growing numbers of professors across the United States now use social media to highlight their research, share their ideas, expand their connections and attract new funding.

Not so in this corner of Eastern Europe. Facebook is widespread in Moldova but Twitter is not. Instagram is still catching on. Many Moldovans prefer Russian-language social networks such as Odnoklassniki or Vkontakte. And, of course, faculty members who hope to catch the attention of English-speaking journalists may have difficulty communicating with them.

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The deeper challenge, though, as I discovered when leading a workshop at Moldova State University on Friday, is that researchers in this post-Soviet state have no training or infrastructure to help them explain their work to the public, whether on social media, through journalists or otherwise. IMG_3407Moldova State University, the country’s flagship academic institution, doesn’t even have a news office, much less a system for promoting faculty research.

As someone who worked with researchers for several decades in the United States before coming to Moldova two years ago to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I was humbled by the immense challenges academics face here. The ones I met are working on renewable energy options, decision-making models, biomedical systems and more, but they are essentially on their own in sharing their work with their fellow Moldovans, much less the outside world. 

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By contrast, the news office I led previously at Duke University (above) now has three research communicators as well as videographers, photographers, social media experts and others available to assist with stories. Additional research communicators focus on medicine, engineering, environment and other topics at Duke’s various schools. The same is true at other top U.S. research universities, as well as at other campuses, national labs, corporations and others involved in research. The National Association of Science Writers has nearly 2,000 members, with active regional groups, and there are U.S. groups for professional communicators in medicine, health care, environment, education and other fields.

Here in Moldova, there’s close to nothing.

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The main reason, of course, is money, or rather the lack of it. Prior to the workshop, I reached out to Florentin Paladi, a physicist and impressive guy (in the blue shirt in the photo above) who oversees research at the university and, earlier in his career, spent time at the University of Michigan and institutions in London, Italy and Japan. He described a budget so tight that most professors earn less than a U.S. teenager working at McDonald’s, with no resources left for news offices and other functions we take for granted back home.

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That’s why I encouraged the professors to use social media, since they can do it themselves for free. I showed them how researchers do this in the West, drawing on some excellent slides shared by my former Duke colleague, Karl Bates. I also showed a few budding social media examples from this part of the world, a few of which I’ve included here. I needed to move quickly, though, since I had to leave time for everyone to practice explaining their work simply to each other and, later, to the group. Just like back home, this led to laughter and applause as these highly trained experts struggled to speak without jargon, whether in Romanian or English. (The workshop was supposed to be in English but I ended up teaching much of it in Romanian.)

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A few weeks earlier, at the invitation of Vladimir Snurenco, I taught workshops at the American Language Center (above), on news writing and opinion writing. The students at these sessions were not academics but I encountered similar cultural differences. For instance, many media outlets here are controlled by oligarchs or foreign governments and even routine local news stories may be colored with political commentary. “Pay to play” is common. There are few op-ed pages.

I’ll be returning home in a few weeks and am already bracing myself for the first time I hear someone complain we don’t do enough in the United States and other developed countries to highlight research, which is often supported with public funds and is essential to our collective health, security and prosperity. I agree with them but, even so, I now know some experts who could give them a second opinion.

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Young Friends

Most of the Peace Corps Volunteers in our Moldova 31 group are younger than our two sons. We weren’t sure before we came here how we would feel about this. As we now approach the end of our service, we’ve learned the answer: We’ve treasured it.

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To be sure, we’ve formed especially close friendships with some of our fellow older volunteers, a group of whom we traveled with last year (above). Jim Fletcher & David JarmulWe met one of them, Jim, left, before we even left home since he lived near us in North Carolina. Champa became close friends with a fellow teaching volunteer who ended up returning early to help take care of her first grandchild. We expect to remain in touch with them and several other older volunteer friends after we move home in July.

But we’ve also made friends with younger volunteers. One was Haley, right, a member of my community organizing group. img_0653-e1527484184800.jpgShe is an aspiring journalist who will start graduate studies next fall. She and I spent many happy hours discussing writing and other topics. I can’t wait to see what she does with her life.

IMG_2988One of Champa’s best friends here is Beth, left, a young teacher from upstate New York with whom she chats regularly on the phone. She’s such an admirable young woman and we’re looking forward to following her life, too.

I’ve helped several younger colleagues here with their resumes, grad school applications and job search strategies, sharing my experience as someone who has hired lots of people. I also helped some of them share their experiences through Peace Corps Stories, Super Moldovans and other communications projects.

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But they’ve helped me, too, and I’ve been inspired by their enthusiasm and dedication. Ingrid showed me through her daily example how to slow down and appreciate what she playfully calls our “fellow humans.” Katie exudes a gentle professionalism. Danny is so knowledgeable about the Soviet legacy here. Samantha and Alexandra have worked hard to help Moldovan young women become entrepreneurs. (I could name many other examples and apologize for not including more.)

As Champa and I get ready to return home, we are thinking how we will incorporate the lessons of our Peace Corps experience into our American lives. One thing I’ve learned is that as much as I love my older friends back home and can’t wait to get back together with them, I will be looking to spend time with younger friends, too. My life is richer and much more interesting for having them around me.

 

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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