Tag Archives: Nepal

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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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?

My Unpredicted Birthday

I never could have predicted when I was a boy that I would end up celebrating my 65th birthday in a country called Moldova with my wife from Nepal making a celebratory dinner of foods from our home state of North Carolina.

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I’d never heard of Moldova. I’d never heard of Nepal. Even North Carolina seemed exotic to a boy growing up on Long Island in the 1950s and 1960s. For me, a big trip then was to New York City. There were no ATM machines, Internet or smart phones, much less QR codes to hop on a jet plane and fly halfway around the world.

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Now I find myself in the former Soviet Union, nearing the end of my Peace Corps service alongside a woman from the Himalayas who became my beloved wife, giving me more happiness in my life than I’ve ever deserved. Even after nearly two years together in Moldova, I still sometimes shake my head in wonder: How did I get here? How did a boy from Freeport come to celebrate a special birthday in Eastern Europe, receiving congratulatory Facebook messages in English, Romanian and Nepali from family and friends stretching from Singapore to Seattle?

My life has gone in such unexpected directions. I have been so lucky — and I haven’t even mentioned my greatest blessing of all, our family back home.

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Here in Moldova, people celebrating a birthday are expected to arrange and pay for the party. So on Tuesday, one day before my birth date, I organized an American-style pizza-and-cake lunch for my colleagues at the library. They surprised me with several wonderful gifts and sang “Mulți Ani Trăiască!” in my honor.

The next evening, our host family joined us for a traditional North Carolina barbecue dinner, which Champa spent several days preparing. As you can see in the video clip, they sang both “Happy Birthday to You” and “Mulți Ani Trăiască!” when they brought out a cake and candles. I received more wonderful gifts.

Thank you to everyone who helped me mark this special occasion, either here, by phone or online. If I’ve learned nothing else over the past 65 years, it is that all of us around the world have so much more in common than the differences that separate us or make us fear one another. We can all touch each other’s lives. We can touch each other’s hearts. We can become friends, even families, together.

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In one of my very first posts on this blog, I wrote: “When people asked me over the past several months why I would walk away from a job and colleagues I love to travel around the United States and Nepal, I spoke often of how Champa and I love to travel — which we do — and of our desire to take a break from the conventional routine. But it was more than that. After being tied to calendars and project schedules for so many years, I wanted to embrace the unknown.” In a later post I added: “One of my goals in being ‘not exacty retired’ is to recognize the richness of life’s surprises and make the most of them.”

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I am so thankful Champa and I decided three years ago to pursue this dream, to veer off the usual path and open our lives to new experiences and ways of serving others. We’ve had good luck, to be sure. Things could have gone badly. But we’ve ended up discovering a new country and new friends while learning new things about ourselves.

Now we are looking forward to reuniting with our family and friends back home. I expect to remain “not exactly retired” after 65 but don’t really know what will happen next. I am eager to be surprised anew. Celebrating this birthday has reminded me how rich your life can become when you let it take you places you never predicted.

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Why PCVs Serve

If you think Americans sign up to become Peace Corps Volunteers because they’re altruistic and want to help people around the world, you’re right but not completely right.

A national survey of more than 11,000 Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) several years ago found their top three reasons for joining were “wanting to live in another culture,” “wanting a better understanding of the world,” and “wanting to help people build a better life.”

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Simultaneously, the survey reported “a significant generational shift” in the importance volunteers place on acquiring job skills and experience during their service. Volunteers who served more recently placed “a greater emphasis on career development as a motivation for joining the Peace Corps,” it said.

Just 30 percent of volunteers who served in the 1960s identified “wanting to develop career and leadership skills” as an important motivation.” Among volunteers who served in the 2000s, 68 percent cited this motivation, with 36 percent saying it was “very important.” Growing numbers of applicants also want to expand their language skills.

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A few years ago, a volunteer who returned from Guatemala wrote: “I’m sure that my Peace Corps service helped me gain acceptance to a selective master’s degree program (because my grades as an undergraduate were disappointing, at best). Over the years, many people have told me that having the words ‘Peace Corps’ on my resume would only help me.”

vanuatuIndeed, Peace Corps itself touts the career benefits of service. Its recruitment materials emphasize the importance of selfless service and cultural outreach but also highlight medical benefits, student loan deferrals, tuition reductions and career networking opportunities.

peruAll of this is consistent with the changes I’ve seen myself since I first served as a volunteer in Nepal in the late 1970s. My friends and I didn’t talk much about resumes, grad school applications and job prospects. America was the world’s dominant economic power then. Jobs were plentiful.timor-leste

Before I joined Peace Corps this second time, I met regularly at my university with undergraduates who were considering Peace Corps, serving as an informal advisor for the campus placement office. At first, I was taken aback by how many of their questions were about how Peace Corps service might afftect their career paths. Would it help them get into law school, or a public health program or the Foreign Service? They asked whether I agreed with advice like this from The Princeton Review: “Altruism distinguishes a strong medical school applicant from a mediocre one. Volunteer work and community service [such as] the Peace Corps … speak most strongly to this quality.”south-africa

I always responded positively. Seeing how impressive these students were, I also came to understand their questions reflected new economic realities, not a diminishment in the applicant pool’s sincerity. Just like my colleagues now in Moldova, most of whom are much younger than me, they were wonderful people and every bit as committed as those who served before.

I’ve developed even greater admiration for today’s generation of PCVs as political winds back home shift towards “making America great again.” They face a more challenging economic environment than my generation did but have still chosen to devote more than two years of their lives to serve others. Yes, doing so may enhance their resumes and career prospects. That’s also true for young people who choose to serve in Teach for America or, for that matter, the Marines. Life is complicated.

So, too, for me. Champa and I joined the Peace Corps mainly to serve others, and to serve our country, after having so many blessings in our American lives. But we also were looking for some adventure and an interesting transition away from the conventional workplace.

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The Guatemala RPCV, Taylor Dibbert, emphasized what he and many of us ultimately consider most important about Peace Cops service: “Volunteers are doing important, unglamorous work that’s consistently underappreciated – from health to education, agriculture, the environment and more. Besides, volunteers are connecting with foreigners from across the globe and humanizing the U.S. for thousands upon thousands of non-Americans.”

Political winds and job markets will continue to evolve. What endures, he wrote, is “the culture of altruism, adventure and patriotism that has permeated the Peace Corps since the organization’s inception.”

I think he’s right, perhaps even completely right.

[All photos except featured image are from the Peace Corps online library.]

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How else has Peace Corps changed? My post Peace Corps: Now vs. Then identified six of the biggest changes I’ve seen. Subscribe to receive all of this blog’s future posts. 

‘Wealthy’ Neighbors

When your neighbor appears wealthier than you, it affects how you view your own life. I’ve seen this in both of the countries where I’ve served as a Peace Corps Volunteer, in how Nepalis view India and how Moldovans view Romania.

Most Americans probably view India and Romania as developing economies, which they are relative to ours. But in Nepal, India is the wealthier neighbor next door, as is China to the north. In Moldova, which was once part of Romania, many people look admiringly at their western neighbor’s economy, which has prospered since joining the European Union in 2007. This is especially true in our home city of Ialoveni, which has strong cultural ties with Romania. In some other parts of Moldova, the outward focus is more on Russia, whose economy is also much wealthier.

Many Moldovans are eligible for dual citizenship with Romania. If they can obtain a Romanian passport, they can work in EU countries. Every day, they line up outside the Romanian Embassy, which is located down the block from the Peace Corps office. In between are passport photo shops, travel companies and employment agencies.

The three high school students who were on my Diamond Challenge entrepreneurship team last year are all studying now at universities in Romania. Several of the girls on my current team may study in Romania, too. A young man from Ialoveni who I tutored in English is now there as well, as are people from across Moldova. Many others are in Italy, Germany, France and other Western countries, as well as in Russia and other countries to the East.

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Before we came to Moldova, we visited our nephew Shankar and other members of our family in Nepal who live near its eastern border. India is on the left side of the river behind us in this photo.

It all reminds me of what I’ve seen in Nepal, where India is a larger, wealthier and more powerful neighbor — and one much more accessible than China for most Nepalis. A large percentage of Nepal’s adult population has left to work across the border or elsewhere, especially in the Gulf, although there are also Indians who come to work in Nepal.

When Champa and I visited Nepal before we came to Moldova, we spent several days at her sister’s home in a small village near the Indian border. In the evening, we could look across the river into India and see homes whose brighter lights contrasted with those on our side, where electricity was weak and  irregular. We often had to use candles and flashlights. So did the family next door, which had a television and other nice things purchased by their son who worked abroad.

Here in Moldova, many of my colleagues at the library earn a bit more than $100 per month. Monthly pensions for retirees are far lower. Highly-educated employees at the local county government earn only a few hundred dollars per month. No wonder some Moldovans look lookingly at their counterparts in Romania, whose GDP per capita in 2016 was $9,474 compared to $1,900 for Moldova, according to the World Bank. (For the United States, it was $57,467.)

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We saw Romania’s economic growth for ourselves when we visited Transylvania last spring.

All I can say is that what I’ve seen here in Moldova feels familiar to me, as does the irony that the same Romanians whose economic situation seems better may aspire themselves to get a green card to live and work in the United States. Likewise for people from India and other countries whose economies look impressive to their poorer neighbors but remain behind our own and, of course, include wide disparities in income and opportunity.

It’s all relative, and we’re not immune from these comparisons ourselves. When Champa and I flew home from Nepal last time, we stopped for several hours in the oil-rich Gulf state of Qatar, whose Doha airport felt like a palace compared to many of ours in the United States. I was impressed, if not a little jealous, even though I was glad to leave and continue home.

Our sense of other people and places begins with our own lives. Wealth, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

 

200 Posts: Top Ten

This is my 200th post on Not Exactly Retired, which I started in mid-2015.IMG_0992 As we’ve traveled around the United States, spent time in Nepal and served as Peace Corps Volunteers in Moldova, the blog’s audience has kept growing, with more than 26,000 visits so far. Thanks to all of you who have joined us on our journey!

FullSizeRender 808“Not Exactly Retired” advances two of the three official goals of Peace Corps: to promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans, and vice versa. (The other goal is to “help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.”)

Here’s a Top Ten list of the blog’s most popular stories so far, as measured by views. There’s more to come, so stick around — and if you know anyone who might enjoy Not Exactly Retired, please tell them about it and invite them to subscribe.

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The Most-Viewed Stories on Not Exactly Retired

  1. Peace Corps After 50 (featured on PBS/NextAvenue)
  2. Peace Corps: Now vs. Then (comparing service in Nepal and Moldova)
  3. Funny Peace Corps Videos (the joys of pooping in a hole)
  4. Moldova’s Marathon (a recent story about runners here)
  5. Are Volunteers Over-Connected? (from WorldView Magazine)
  6. Older Peace Corps Volunteers (a 5-part series about Moldova)
  7. Message in a Bottle (discovering your impact on someone, decades later)
  8. Life is Calling (making a big change doesn’t need to be scary)
  9. Reading in OverDrive (how to read books on your e-reader for free)
  10. The Smokehouse Experiment (former PCVs open a restaurant here)

Other popular stories have focused on the perils of downsizing after decades of American life, Thanksgiving in Moldova, an amazing Romanian salt mine and the adventures a friend and I experienced years ago while backpacking across Afghanistan, Nepal, Sudan and other places.

Not surprisingly, most of the blog’s views have come from readers in the United States, followed by Moldova. Rounding out the Top Ten are Romania, the United Kingdom, Nepal, Canada, Germany, Ecuador, India and the Philippines, all with at least 100 views.

Are you enjoying “Not Exactly”? Do you have any reactions to these lists? Requests for future stories? As always, I welcome your feedback and comments.

 

Where Are You, Reader?

Screen Shot 2017-08-12 at 11.27.18 AMMore than 12,000 readers have visited “Not Exactly Retired” since its launch two years ago. I was curious where all of you are located, so recently ran a search on WordPress, which hosts the site.

Here are the results, in order.

Not surprisingly, the largest group of readers is in the United States, followed by Moldova, where we are serving as Peace Corps Volunteers.

The Top Five also includes Nepal, where Champa was born and we maintain close ties, so that’s not a surprise either. Nor is Romania, which is next to Moldova, especially since I wrote a series of stories in April about our trip to Transylvania, some of which were featured on sites within the country.

Screen Shot 2017-08-12 at 12.02.12 PMSome of the other “Top Dozen,” though, surprised me. Who are all of you reading “Not Exactly” in Ecuador or the Philippines? Are you fellow Peace Corps Volunteers in those countries? How about in India, Germany and Italy? I know at least one loyal reader in Singapore (hi Corinna!), but who are the rest of you? The data provided by WordPress provide only a glimpse.

I’d love to hear from you, even if your country is not on this list. You may be in one of the other countries shown in yellow on the map. I’m so happy to be sharing our journey with you. Please comment here or send me a message at djarmul@gmail.com. Tell me who you are!