Tag Archives: Nepal

100 Posts

This is my 100th post on Not Exactly Retired, which has attracted more than 7,500 visitors since it began in mid-2015. I’ll be celebrating the milestone with a special series about older volunteers in the Peace Corps, starting with my next post.

First, though, especially during this holiday season, I want to pause to tell all of you how much I love producing this blog and appreciate all of you who read it.

img_2535Before Champa and I began our journey 18 months ago, I spent a career doing communications for nonprofit organizations, much of it ghost-writing articles and speeches for others. For four decades, I largely put my own writing aside.

Only after I started Not Exactly Retired did I realize how much I’d missed speaking in my own voice.

Now I get to report first-hand on issues such as immigration or the devastating 2015 earthquake in Nepal. I can be silly, as with the adventures of our traveling gnome. I can produce videos one week and share recipes the next. Some posts get picked up elsewhere and reach national audiences.

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What I’ve enjoyed most is sharing the incredible experiences Champa and I have had since we walked away from our conventional American lives to pursue new lives of adventure and service, most recently as Peace Corps volunteers in eastern Europe. I treasure the many messages I’ve received and posts I’ve seen from people saying the blog is inspiring them to consider changes in their own lives.

I’ve always been a quick writer, so I can produce the blog while remaining active with everything else I am privileged to be doing as a Peace Corps volunteer. Things go even faster because the layers of my institutional vetting process now work as follows:

Me talking to myself: “So, David, do you approve this?”

Me answering myself: “Yes.”

screen-shot-2016-12-03-at-11-22-25-amMost blogs fail. A 2009 New York Times article cited a Technorati survey saying 95 percent of blogs were “essentially abandoned, left to lie fallow on the Web, where they become public remnants of a dream — or at least an ambition — unfulfilled.”

Not Exacly Retired is going strong thanks to all of you who read it, offer comments and send encouragement. I hope you enjoy the upcoming series and everything that follows. If you have a friend or relative who is pondering how to live the second half of their lives,  or who just has a sense of adventure, I encourage you to share Not Exactly Retired with them, too. Perhaps they will find it useful, or at least entertaining.

As always, I recommend you subscribe directly to the blog. If you’re just linking to it from Facebook, you’re missing out on some of the best stuff.

I also welcome your comments.

And now, on to the series and whatever comes after that. I don’t know about you, but I’m not exactly finished yet.

Message in a Bottle

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Signor Rana, when he was one of my students in Nepal

Just a few days before the stunning U.S. election, I received a message out of the blue that confirmed something Peace Corps told us during our training: You never know whose life you may touch, no matter what happens in the wider world.

The message came from Signor Rana, one of my students when I taught English at a school near Kathmandu as a Peace Corps volunteer four decades ago, long before I began serving again in Moldova.

It came to me on Facebook: “Hi, are you the same David Jarmul who was peace corp volunteer back in late 70 in Nepal? Remember Lab times in lab school? I was one of your student? I was looking for you since 1988.”

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Signor and his classmates at the Lab School near Kathmandu, where I taught as a Peace Corps volunteer. He is second from the left in the second row.

Of course I remembered the Lab Times, the wall newspaper I started at the school, but I didn’t remember Signor — one of several hundred students I had there and in Champa’s village, Ilam. Still, I wrote him back, and he responded quickly.

“Wow, I was looking for you since I came to US as a student back in 1989,” he replied, describing how he is now married, living in Maryland and working as a software engineer for the federal government.

“You used to tell a story of America and show us moon landing documentary and made me participate in play Snow White. That made me dream of America and came here. You do plant a seed on a boy who was 10 years old. Thanks for helping me. Please let me know when you visiting back to US.”

Coincidentally, I’d responded just a few days earlier to another unexpected message, this one from Australia. It was from the son of a friend of mine from Ilam.

Perhaps there were others, too. I don’t really know. Neither do most other Peace Corps volunteers who completed their service years ago.

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Signor and his family today

Signor’s timing could hardly have been more auspicious. His was like a message in a bottle, washing ashore just when I needed to discover it.

It reminded me that no matter what happens in politics, we all have the power to make a difference in some lives, even if our impact is not revealed until years later, if ever. That remains true today for the nearly 7,000 other Peace Corps volunteers and trainees serving around the world, in more than 60 countries. As it has for more than 50 years, the Peace Corps touches lives every day, with strong bipartisan support from Republicans and Democrats alike.

That’s a fact worth treasuring at a moment when our country is struggling to heal after a bitter presidential campaign. Indeed, perhaps some of the lives that need touching right now are Americans who feel uncertain about the future.

I don’t mean the election’s results don’t matter. They do, profoundly, and I will be watching what happens along with everyone else. But as someone who is old enough to have lived through presidents from both parties who did both good and bad things, I choose to take the counsel of our current leader: The sun will still rise tomorrow. We can still find meaning in our own lives. We can still make the world a better place.

No matter whether we are abroad or back home, in the Peace Corps or among our neighbors, regardless of politics, we can all try to touch lives or, as Signor put it, to plant seeds.

Sometimes they will bloom. You never know.

Peace Corps: Now vs. Then

Can you guess what question I’m asked most often in Moldova, especially by other Americans?

It’s this: How have I found it different being a Peace Corps volunteer now compared to when I served in Nepal four decades ago?

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My short answer is that the experience feels very familiar. As before, I’ve left my family and America to serve people in another country, learning their language and sharing their daily lives.

But serving in Moldova has also been very different from my stint in Nepal in the late 1970s. Here are six of the biggest changes I’ve seen:

  1. I am much more connected to the outside world. I have a smart phone, a laptop and a Kindle, all linked to wifi. I talk regularly with my family. I am following the U.S. election campaign and other news. I interact online with my Moldovan partners and Peace Corps colleagues. In contrast, when I served in Nepal I did not call home even once. The Internet did not exist. I was very alone.
  2. Safety and security have become a much bigger deal. Neither terrorism nor street crime are serious problems in Moldova, yet our training was filled with security briefings. We were given detailed emergency action plans. I can’t leave my post overnight without notifying the staff. I can’t even enter the Peace Corps office without passing through a locked gate, a guard and a metal detector. In Nepal, I used to ride my bicycle past a front gate nominally staffed by a guard, then strolled inside.
  3. The infrastructure is more elaborate. My desk is piled with Romanian language workbooks, brochures on Moldovan culture, a “volunteerism action guide” and more. I have dozens more resources on a thumb drive Peace Corps gave me, not to mention the documents we received before we arrived here. There are detailed protocols for everything from paying a language tutor to taking a trip. In Nepal, our training was also excellent, but we had fewer resources and a lot less red tape.
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  4. I’m in a different country. Moldova is in eastern Europe, with an agricultural economy best known for wine. Its population is almost entirely white and Orthodox Christian. Nepal is in the Himalayas and mainly Hindu, along with Buddhists, Christians and Muslims. Both countries have delicious food, interesting people and fascinating customs, but they are as different as can be, except for the fact they are both landlocked — Moldova between Romania and Ukraine, Nepal between India and China. Inevitably, the Peace Corps experience is different, too.
  5. The world has changed over the past four decades. When I served in Nepal, the country was ruled by a king, who had not yet been murdered by his son. Now it’s a struggling democracy. The United States was still in a Cold War with the Soviet Union, which included Moldova. China was poor. Personal computers were new. Gay people could not get married. The idea of an African American or woman president back home was almost unimaginable. After four decades, the world is a different place. Peace Corps has evolved with it, such as by launching programs to combat HIV/AIDS or to “let girls learn.”
  6. I have changed. I saved this one for last because it’s the variable that affects everything else. When I joined the Peace Corps in Nepal, I was two years out of college, single and eager to save the world. Now I am a father and grandfather, serving with my wife of 37 years, who I met in Nepal. I am older and hopefully a bit wiser. In any case, I’m in a different place in my life, and not only geographically.

So, yes, I can now watch YouTube videos instead of fiddling with a shortwave radio to find a signal from the BBC or the Voice of America. But at least for me, Peace Corps still feels like “the toughest job you’ll ever love,” with the same beating heart. Once again, I’m working alongside a wonderful group of Americans who have taken a break from their lives to serve others and represent our country. Once again, I feel privileged to be among them.

Who knows? Perhaps there’s even a new form I’m supposed to fill out to confirm this.

Our Trip to Nepal (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.

Tikas and More Tikas

FullSizeRender 808One and done?

Not when it comes to getting tikas during Dashain, Nepal’s biggest holiday.

I received five from various friends and family members during the past few days, and was honored each time.

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Tikas are a mixture of red powder, rice and yogurt, with a little sugar sometimes blended in. The person who bestows a tika is usually an older relative, to whom you are showing respect.

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Here’s how it works: You sit at a table with your hands raised in front of you. The tika-giver uses his or her thumb and finger to apply a dab to your forehead, then places jamara — yellowish rice plant shoots — behind your ear or on your hair. While doing this, they chant blessings for your happiness and future.

FullSizeRender 832Next, they give you a piece of fruit and an envelope containing a bit of lucky money. Three of the envelopes I received were adorned with swastikas, which are a traditional Hindu symbol of prosperity. People gave them to me with love and generosity, so I let pass what the symbolism might mean for a Westerner, especially one whose mother fled from Nazi Germany.

After you receive the tika, you bow towards the person and thank them for their blessing. You’re supposed to wear the tika for at least the rest of the day, if not longer. Later, you can wash it off easily in the sink.

FullSizeRender 823This year I gave someone a Dashain tika for the first time, as you can see here. That’s Mamata, whose mother Usha, gave me a tika just a moment earlier. I watched Usha didi’s technique carefully but, even so, was relieved that I didn’t screw up and commit some religious faux pas.

During the first five days of the Dashain season, people travel from house to house, receiving tikas from grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts and others. Each visit is accompanied by delicious snacks before the tika and an even more delicious meal afterwards. This year, tika season ended with the full moon on Sunday. Next year’s season is now less than a year away. I’m already getting my thumb and finger ready.

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The 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.