Tag Archives: Peace Corps

Magnetic Memories

Peru, Kathmandu, Cape Town, Hawaii.

For decades, magnets from these and other places have spread across our refrigerator. This past week, I moved them to our bedroom, out of sight from guests in our kitchen.

We started the collection without much thought. While other travelers collected plates or snow globes, we bought magnets, one per destination. They’re usually the only thing we bring home.

By the time we left to serve as Peace Corps Volunteers in 2016, we had more than 100. We returned home with still more.

We didn’t amass the collection to impress others. We meant it for ourselves, as a mosaic of memories. 

We don’t want anyone to perceive otherwise, so we’ve now made it more private as we prepare to replace our refrigerator. I mounted a whiteboard on our bedroom wall and arranged the 158 magnets with U.S. destinations on the left, international destinations on the right and a Peace Corps magnet in the middle that previously adorned our refrigerator in Moldova.

We know how fortunate we’ve been to visit these places. If you ever visit us and want to see the magnets, just ask. I can tell you a story about each one. For example:

Now known as Utqiaġvik, Barrow is the largest city on Alaska’s North Slope. I traveled there one summer to write a magazine story about a science education project for Native Iñupiat children. I remember being unable to sleep at night because it never got dark.

My favorite memory of Berlin didn’t involve the conference I was attending. It was the taxi driver who helped me find the house where my mother grew up before fleeing with her family, prior to the Holocaust. He took several photos of me there.

To reach the Palace of Gold in Wheeling, we drove through a West Virginia neighborhood with pickup trucks and American flags. Only then did we arrive at this Hare Krishna center with its peacocks, incense and chanting. It was quite strange, but we’re glad we went.

I had a free afternoon during a scientific meeting in Rio. Instead of going to fancy shops or beaches, like many participants, I took a walking tour of a favela, the densely populated home for many poorer Brazilians. I met wonderful people there.

What I remember most about Traverse City, which we visited during a drive around Lake Michigan, was buying tickets online for a Judy Collins concert from a local television reporter. When we picked them up, we noticed they were labeled as being free. Presumably the reporter got them as a promotion, then sold them to us. Nice work if you can get it.

So, yes, there’s a story behind every magnet. If any of mine spark a memory about your own travels, please share it with a comment.

Learning From Travel

Despite being sidelined by the pandemic for more than a year, my travels are still helping me make sense of the world.

When President Biden said a few days ago that the systematic murder of ethnic Armenians during World War One was indeed a genocide, I knew he was telling the truth despite Turkey’s ongoing denials. Champa and I visited Armenia in 2017 and saw its memorials with our own eyes. Our tour guide in Vagharshapat, above, was among several Armenians who told us what happened.

Similarly, as I’ve watched Vladimir Putin move Russian troops to the Ukranian border recently, stirring up conflict again, I’ve thought back to another trip. Champa and I visited Ukraine briefly, touring Odessa with two members of our Peace Corps host family, but we were there long enough to see how it is an independent country with its own flag, currency and history.

We learned from international travel even before joining the Peace Corps. During a 2013 trip to China, we saw more than Tiananmen Square and other tourist sites; we also sensed the rising economic power and national pride that would make China ever-more formidable on the world stage. In Tibet, we witnessed its determination to control ethnic minorities, as it has been doing recently with the Uighurs in Xinjiang. The military music blaring near our hotel in Lhasa was clearly meant to send a message to the local Tibetans, not us.

Traveling has provided insight into our own country as well. We learned about immigration while driving along the southern border, such as at this checkpost near El Paso, and about water shortages in the West, as at this dry lakebed in San Luis Obispo. The storefront we passed in a Montana town in 2015 was a harbinger of the anger that helped propel Donald Trump to the White House a year later.

People travel in many ways and for many reasons, from spa holidays to shopping, and Champa and I have had our share of trips just for fun, but we’ve most loved exploring the unknown. We know how fortunate we have been to have all of these opportunities.

As we look beyond the pandemic to future adventures, we yearn more than anything to learn again about other cultures. When we watch the news, we want to be able to say “I’ve been there” and maybe even “I know something about that place.”

The sidelines have been a welcome safe haven but there’s no substitute for getting onto the field and making contact.

Echoing Alex

I was pleasantly surprised a few days ago when an article I wrote appeared in a magazine with Alex Trebek on its cover.

Little did I know that the famous Jeopardy! host would die on Sunday at age 80 after a long struggle with pancreatic cancer.

Healthy Aging‘s cover story about him concludes with him saying ” I believe in the power of positivity. I believe in optimism. I believe in hope.”

I admired Alex Trebek and loved his show, so now feel honored to appear in the same magazine with words that echo his inspiring message. My own article encourages readers to “dream differently” as they age and to consider the Peace Corps and other volunteer experiences that may challenge them — challenges less intense than cancer, to be sure, but meaningful in their own ways.



These experiences aren’t easy, I write in my article. “You struggle. You get lonely. You reexamine your beliefs and life goals.” Yet they also can transform how older Americans view themselves and their place in the world.

“Now that we’re back home in North Carolina, the two of us treasure our Peace Corps memories,” the article concludes. “We have renewed appreciation for our many blessings as Americans and greater empathy for the billions of people around the world whose lives differ from ours. We know we touched the hearts of our Moldovan friends, just as they touched ours. We still don’t have a boat or a golf cart, but our lives are richer than ever.”

I wrote the article several months ago, just as the pandemic began spreading across the globe. When the Peace Corps withdrew its volunteers worldwide, for the first time ever, the editor decided to hold off on publishing it. (The Peace Corps plans to resume its operations when conditions allow.)

The article highlights one of the main themes of my book, Not Exactly Retired: A Life-Changing Journey on the Road and in the Peace Corps, which was published by the Peace Corps Writers imprint on April 2. Although the pandemic derailed some planned publicity for the book, numerous articles, podcasts and other media have still featured it, as you can see on this Facebook page. The book website has links to buy the book from independent bookstores, Amazon and elsewhere.

If you want to learn more about Healthy Aging, the magazine is offering a discount to Not Exactly Retired readers — $15 off its regular subscription rate of $24.95. Use the promo code author10 at its online subscription page.

NY Times Article

“Just as the pandemic has upended the lives of students and workers, it is derailing the plans of many retirees,” Susan Garland writes in today’s New York Times. “More than six months into the pandemic, many retirees, after what some described as a period of fear and hopelessness, are finding ways to adapt.” 

Susan’s excellent article about how active retirees are responding to the pandemic features Champa and me, along with OLLI at Duke’s Chris McLeod and others. Thanks to Susan and to Jeremy Lange for the great photo. Here’s the opening section, about the two of us:


David Jarmul and his wife, Champa, long envisioned what their retirement would look like. After returning from a two-year Peace Corps stint in Moldova in 2018, the couple, both 67, planned extensive travel, including trips to the Baltics, West Africa and Sri Lanka.

“Travel is our passion — it’s what we love to do,” said Mr. Jarmul, who retired in 2015 as head of news and communications for Duke University.

For now, the two are living a Covid-19 retirement — packed with volunteer and social pursuits but reconfigured for a social distancing world. Mr. Jarmul is delivering groceries to a local food pantry and engaging in a get-out-the-vote letter-writing campaign. And the two are caring for their 15-month-old grandson — playing hide-and-seek and reading books — while their son and daughter-in-law work from home and supervise the online classes of two older sons.

“We are happy to spend the time with him. It’s helpful for our son and daughter-in-law,” said Mr. Jarmul, author of Not Exactly Retired, a book about the couple’s Moldova experience.

As for his retirement dreams, Mr. Jarmul considers himself fortunate compared to those with true hardship. “Despairing is not a great solution,” he said. “We are trying deliberately to fill our lives with activities that give us meaning — remaining connected to our friends and being good members of the community.”

Read the article.

Turn Down Your Stress

The pandemic grinds on. The election is approaching. Wildfires are blazing. And now Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died.

I’m old enough to remember the tumult of 1968 and the Watergate years, but these past several months have been an even bigger challenge to our individual and collective sanity.

On a Zoom call recently, some friends decribed how they’ve been coping with the unrelenting stress, from going on hikes to watching webcams of wild bears. Others have been binge-watching Netflix, baking bread or learning hobbies. Many are struggling.

One way I’ve been reducing stress is by walking six miles daily.

I assist North Carolina’s partnership with Moldova, transport donations for a food bank, write letters to potential voters and provide editorial or financial assistance to causes I support. Recently I’ve also been helping to launch a program for older volunteers to assist Durham community groups, one of which I’m helping myself.

Champa joined me in delivering a food donation from a local grocery store to this Durham food pantry.

As I experienced in the Peace Corps a few years ago, serving others shifts your attention from yourself. It reminds you how lucky you are. It connects you to the wider community and gives meaning to your life.

For me, the pandemic has also highlighted how volunteering can reduce stress, as scientists have confirmed. A 2015 study by researchers at the Yale School of Medicine found that adults who helped others reported higher levels of positive emotion. “Prosocial behavior moderated the effects of stress on positive affect, negative affect, and overall mental health,” they reported.

Michael Poulin, a University of Buffalo researcher, described it this way: ”When you are thinking about helping other people you’re simply not thinking as much about yourself and your problems … In essence it’s a kind of distraction, but a more satisfying distraction than surfing the Web or binge-watching House of Cards.”

Religious faiths tell us the same thing, that giving enriches the giver.

Paige Greenwood, a neuroscience doctoral candidate at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, published this article after participating in a free online workshop I taught about writing op-eds.

I also recognize that my own modest efforts come from a place of privilege and pale in comparison to those of many other volunteers, not to mention those who’ve been battling the pandemic and saving lives in other ways. While West Coast fire fighters have fighting huge blazes, I have been safe at home, with my wife, free to volunteer. Others face stresses far bigger than mine.

My Peace Corps friend Jim Fletcher and I spoke at this orientation program for UNC dental students preparing to visit Moldova.

They may find, as I have, that helping others during stress-filled times is a good way to renew their own equilibrium and strength. Based on what we’ve seen so far this year, we’re all going to need it.

They’re Not ‘Shitholes’

As we approach an election with huge implications for our country and the world, a U.S. agency charged with promoting international friendship needs to make some big changes.

That agency is the Peace Corps, in which I served twice as a volunteer.

On Wednesday, the National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) highlighted on LinkedIn a talk I gave recently arguing the Peace Corps is way too focused on “development” and not enough on helping Americans and others to learn about each other.

No one is better situated than Peace Corps Volunteers to explain to their fellow Americans that developing countries are not “shitholes” — or to help people around the world see the realities of our own society.

Moreover, it’s their mission to do this. according to the agency’s three goals. One goal is to assist economic development, the other two are to promote cross-cultural understanding. Yet the Peace Corps now devotes almost all of its attention and resources to the first goal, even though returned volunteers say the other two end up mattering the most. This approach makes less sense now than ever before, as some politicians whip up fear about “the other.”

Peace Corps Volunteers can help Americans recognize that foreigners, including Muslims and people of color, share many of their own dreams and are not their enemies — and they can do so while maintaining the agency’s nonpolitical, bipartisan tradition.

NCPA has posted my 5-minute talk on YouTube. I hope it will help spark an overdue conversation about the agency’s programming after the pandemic eases and volunteers return to the field. I also discussed some of these issues in an earlier post and in my recent book, Not Exactly Retired: A Life-Changing Journey on the Road and in the Peace Corps.

The talk was part of NPCA’s “global ideas summit” (also on YouTube), which raised many interesting questions about the future of the Peace Corps — an organization I love and want to see have a bigger impact.

I welcome your comments.

 

 

(Top image from Olivia Prentzel’s Peace Corps blog.)

The Older Evacuees

I was friends with Karen Jean (KJ) Hunt before we both left Durham to serve in the Peace Corps. Champa and I were lucky enough to serve before the pandemic. KJ was in Ethiopia (above, with some of her students in Kotu) when the Peace Corps evacuated all of its volunteers worldwide for the first time ever. In a new article for Next Avenue, I describe how the evacuation affected KJ and other older volunteers and what to expect in the months ahead.

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Read the article.

Humbled by the Pandemic

Friends from Nepal and Moldova have been contacting us to check on how we’re doing as the pandemic spins out of control in the United States. 

I went to those two countries as a Peace Corps Volunteer to provide training and insight from an American. Now they and others look at us and see crowds defying public health guidelines in bars, on beaches and elsewhere, and a death toll topping 140,000. It’s humbling.

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Unlike the majority of developed countries that responded to the pandemic with discipline and a respect for science, the United States has acted foolishly and incompetently. Why should anyone take us seriously again?

Millions of Americans have behaved responsibly, even heroically. Doctors, nurses and other front-line workers have been risking their lives to help others. Many teachers will soon return to their classrooms. Others are continuing to sell food, collect trash and perform other essential tasks, often for low wages. Neighbors are helping each other.

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Medical center in Chişinǎu, Moldova.

Yet the situation is worsening, and it’s our own fault. Especially here in the South, many governors rushed to reopen their states before it was safe. They defied health experts who correctly warned what would happen. N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper has been among the exceptions, largely resisting pressure to reopen too quickly.

Paul Krugman of The New York Times says we shouldn’t blame this failure on our American culture being “too libertarian, too distrustful of government, too unwilling to accept even slight inconveniences to protect others.” The bigger factor, he says, has been President Trump denying the pandemic’s seriousness. His decision to “trade deaths for jobs and political gain” led many local leaders and others to act irresponsibly.

Both factors, culture and politics, have surely played a role, and health officials could have done a better job of communicating messages and winning public trust. In any case, here we are. I know Champa and I have been fortunate to ride out the crisis in a comfortable home but I am angry about how many of my fellow Americans are now suffering, especially people of color. Our IMG_4366hospitals are overwhelmed. Businesses keep closing. This didn’t have to happen.

I keep thinking back to the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam, which I visited just before the pandemic spread out of control. Anne and her family remained quiet in an attic for more than two years before the Nazis discovered them. Here in America, by contrast, millions of people have been unable to last a few months before they insisted on partying. Even now, they reject something as simple as wearing a mask. 

One of the three Peace Corps goals is to “promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.” It’s ironic our country had to evacuate its Peace Corps Volunteers worldwide just when it needed more than ever to be learning from others.

[Top photo: The hospital entrance in Ilam, Nepal, my first post as a Peace Corps Volunteer.]

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One reviewer calls it “a love story and adventure book all in one. A truly inspirational tale.” Another says “it shows how adventure can give new meaning to our lives and make them richer.” Visit the book website for Not Exactly Retired: A Life-Changing Journey on the Road and in the Peace Corps.

Help the Evacuees

More than 7,000 Peace Corps Volunteers from around the world arrived recently in North Carolina and other states after being evacuated because of the coronavirus.

They need our help — and they have something to teach us.

The volunteers have returned to Greensboro from Ukraine, to Raleigh from Malawi, to Cary from Panama and to Asheville from Ethiopia. They’ve come from South Africa, Guatemala and elsewhere — 61 countries in all. It’s the first time the Peace Corps has evacuated its volunteers worldwide.

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The North Carolina Peace Corps Association, like its counterparts across the country, has been organizing to assist the evacuees, few of whom have jobs lined up. They don’t receive unemployment benefits and their health insurance is temporary.

Of course, millions of other Americans are out of work, too, wondering how they’re going to buy food and pay their rent. The Peace Corps evacuees share this economic stress along with having suddenly left distant villages where they were assisting teachers, organizing health projects and working in other ways with some of the world’s poorest communities. Now, after a difficult trip, they’re back home, maybe still under quarantine.

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Volunteers evacuate from Senegal. From an article and video by Paula Ospin for “The New Yorker.”

They may not be ready yet to focus on a job hunt or to hear how lucky they are to eat barbecue again. Many of them didn’t want to be here, at least not yet.

I can only imagine how they feel. When Champa and I returned to North Carolina from our Peace Corps service in Eastern Europe two years ago, after months of preparation, we needed time to readjust to things as simple as drinking water from the tap. We were happy to be reunited with our family and friends but missed our Moldovan friends.

Peace Corps Volunteers are renown for their resilience but those who were just evacuated could use some help. Even with everything else going on, other Americans should look for ways to assist them. The Peace Corps itself needs political support and resources to respond appropriately. (An online petition calls on the federal government to provide the evacuees with appropriate benefits.)

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Photo taken in Los Angeles International Airport by PCV JaKyah Beatty during a layover on her trip from Fiji to Houston.

In return, these newly returned volunteers have a valuable perspective to share at this moment of worldwide anxiety.

They’ve just been living alongside people in other countries, so can help us see how the world is more connected than “us” and “them,” especially during a global crisis. Our country is not alone in facing extraordinary medical challenges and economic disruption, and it has greater resources than the countries where volunteers were serving.

The Peace Corps also exemplifies the human power of service, as millions of North Carolinians have been demonstrating recently, most notably with our heroic medical teams and first responders. More broadly, people across our region have been stocking grocery shelves, working at pharmacies or just staying home to reduce transmission rates. They are ordering meals to support local restaurants, checking on elderly neighbors and helping in other ways. The crisis has brought out the best in them.

In other words, Peace Corps Volunteers aren’t different from other Americans. They are just one example of how we all can enrich our own lives while serving others.

Champa and I began our Peace Corps service when we were 63 years old. We were among the hundreds of older Americans who join every year. The two of us ended up having a life-changing experience and feeling like we accomplished a lot. Thus, a final lesson, especially for people nearing retirement, which is to be unafraid about redefining your life and following your heart to pursue the Peace Corps or some other dream. As I discuss in my new book, you never know what might happen tomorrow.

Like a quarter-million Americans since President Kennedy started the Peace Corps in 1961, the volunteers and trainees who just came home answered our country’s call for service. I hope people in North Carolina and across the country will reach out, thank them, lend a hand and then listen to their stories. 

Africa in the Attic

One of the world’s great private collections of West African art was hidden until recently in the Durham attic of two returned Peace Corps Volunteers, Reggie and Celeste Hodges. Now they’re donating to North Carolina museums many of their hundreds of masks, statues and other precious objects. It’s a remarkable story, which I tell in this article just published by WorldView, the magazine of the National Peace Corps Association.

Click to open a PDF copy of the article.

Learn more at Reggie and Celeste’s website.