Tag Archives: Nepal

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!

Two Anniversaries

We’re celebrating two anniversaries this month: two years since I left my job at Duke and one year since Champa and I arrived in Moldova to serve as Peace Corps Volunteers.

20150615_180259As a new book makes clear, the “not exactly retired” path we’ve charted for ourselves is not exactly for everyone. Many people want to be retired in a traditional sense — playing golf, gardening or relaxing in other ways. Others seek to remain connected to their previous workplace or profession, or to search for new meaning in their life. Some end up watching too much television or getting depressed.

In Too Young to Be Old: Love, Learn, Work, and Play as You Age, sociologist Nancy K. Schlossberg explores the different paths people follow. She describes the six most common routes as “continuers,” “adventurers,” easy gliders,” “involved spectators,” “searchers” and “retreaters.”

Since we made the leap, traveling across the United States and Nepal and then joining the Peace Corps, Champa and I have mostly been “adventurers.” Schlossberg describes this route as “an opportunity to pursue an unrealized dream or try something new.” In my case, there’s also been an element of “continuer,” since I’ve remained active in communications, albeit in a very different way from when I was running a university communications office.

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Even though I was more than ready for the transition, it took time to adjust to my new life, just as my sister Nancy had warned me. (She is the author of Second-Act Careers, which I recommend highly.) I had trouble letting go of my professional identity, which I continued to highlight on my LinkedIn profile for several months. Only later did I change it to emphasize my role as a blogger and, later, as a Peace Corps volunteer.

Taking extended trips across the United States and Nepal helped loosen my grip. Serving in the Peace Corps then provided me with a new identity and a well-established mission and structure to serve others.

In one year, though, I will finish Peace Corps and again face the challenge of defining “who am I?” for both myself and others who know me, together with Champa. I will also need to reaffirm my identities within my family and my community back home. It’s a process that will probably never end.

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Champa and I know how lucky we are to have these opportunities, even though we really miss our family and are counting the minutes until we see them in a few weeks for a brief vacation.

Schlossberg’s book reminds me how other members of my generation will have their own retirement journeys, which may be very different from our own yet equally valid and compelling. All of us entering this phase of our lives share the challenge of finding the right blend of identity, relationships and purpose to fit our circumstances.

With two years and many miles now behind us, I now recognize our most important choice so far to have been choice itself, to act instead of drifting. What we actually chose is not everyone’s cup of tea (or even Moldovan wine), to be sure, but it’s worked for us. We all face life transitions sooner or later and can either resist or embrace them, however much our destinations and routes may diverge.

I welcome comments about your own dreams and journey, regardless of your age.