Tag Archives: Peace Corps

Family Reunion in Nepal

We heard the drums as our car pulled up to Champa’s family house in eastern Nepal. Then we saw the dancers. Champa’s brother appeared with an armful of flower garlands. His wife held colorful scarves.

We’d arrived in Ilam, where Champa grew up and the two of us met when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer. Now it was 45 years later and we were traveling with our older son, Paul, his wife Stephanie and their four daughters. It was 9:30 p.m. Our drivers had been navigating the rutted, dusty roads since 4:30 a.m.

Champa with two of the dancers who welcomed us to Ilam.

Our exhaustion gave way to astonishment, then elation as we stumbled out of our two jeeps and entered the courtyard. With flowers and scarves around our necks and drums beating beside us, we joined the traditional Limbu folk dance.

Three days later we encountered an even bigger welcome, this time in the small village of Champa’s late older sister, where several of our nieces and nephews still live. This time we heard the drums as we walked on a mountain path approaching their house. Our extended family was waiting there with flower garlands. Two girls performed a dance. Folded hands and namastes gave way to hugs.

The drums and dancers paused long enough to snap this photo of our arrival in Samalbung.

These were just two of many unforgettable moments during our trip to Nepal, from where we returned a few days ago. We’ll remember our granddaughters seeing Kathmandu’s glorious temples and the monkeys at Swayambhou. There was Maya singing at Ilam’s outdoor Christmas show. Paula playing soccer with local men. The twins laughing with their cousins. School visits. Tea with old friends. Steaming plates of momos. Roosters waking us at sunrise.

We visited a school in Samalbung run by our nephew Santosh and his colleagues.

Paul and Stephanie had wanted to make the trip for years. Now, finally, our global family was brought together. Our worries about the trip never materialized. Everyone stayed healthy. Our family and friends welcomed us at every stop with boundless generosity. The girls fell in love with Nepal, as we’d hoped they would.

We’re still processing the trip. I’ll post more about it soon and also about Qatar, where Champa and I stopped on our way home. For now, I hope you’ll enjoy the photo slide show below.

Nepal, we miss you already.

Not Exactly Retired 2.0

When Champa and I began pursuing a new life of service and adventure seven years ago, it was easy to combine those two goals by serving in the Peace Corps.

After we returned home in 2018, it got harder. I couldn’t find the right kind of volunteer jobs. The pandemic upended our travel plans. I had medical problems, then recovered.

My sister, a retirement coach, told me to take time to figure things out. She was right; lately the pieces have been falling in place. I’ve been busy with several fulfilling volunteer roles and other activities. We have new trips planned. Our health is good.

Not Exactly Retired 2.0 has become clearer and I like how it looks.

I now spend several hours daily on volunteer work. Some of it is occasional, such as preparing meals at Urban Ministries of Durham or working with OLLI at Duke. Often it’s more sustained, like helping Durham’s West End Community Foundation to review its communications strategy or promote a wonderful new exhibit of local elders. (That’s Durham Mayor Elaine O’Neal, right, and her sisters Eileen and Eunice in the image by Jamaica Gilmer at the top of this post.)

I remain active with both Moldova and the Peace Corps. When Russia invaded Ukraine, I helped raise funds for the Friends of Moldova to assist Ukrainian refugees, working with a local Rotary group. When Congress considered new legislation to support the Peace Corps, I wrote this op-ed article to rally support. I also serve on the steering committee of the North Carolina Peace Corps Association.

At AmeriCorps Seniors RSVP, which encourages older Americans to serve as community volunteers, I’ve been working behind the scenes as its advisory council chair to help strengthen its local program. That’s one of my fellow council members, Jason Peace, in the above photo, right, kicking off a speaker series we recently launched to highlight nonprofits where older Durham residents might serve. He’s describing Meals on Wheels, which he heads. Sarah Cline, our RSVP program manager, left, spoke as well.

Even as I’ve established a satisfying portfolio of volunteer work, I’ve begun planning new trips, which I’ll describe in future posts, and spending time with our family and friends, going to the gym and enjoying life.

Our blend of service, travel and adventure isn’t for everyone but it works for us. (Some older travelers make the two of us look like homebodies.) The central message of my book wasn’t “join the Peace Corps!” but to be intentional about this stage of life, regardless of whether your personal happiness lies with volunteering, starting a business, church, golf or something else. In other words: Choose, don’t drift.

I recognize my own good fortune but also feel part of something bigger. As retirement expert Ken Dychtwald put it, “for the first time in history, large numbers of older individuals are not interested in ‘acting their age’ and retreating to the sidelines. They would rather rebel against ageist stereotypes and be productive and involved — even late blooming — in their maturity.”

The path differs for all of us. I’ve learned over the past few years how hard it can be to find. We may not even know the destination until we’ve made the journey, and then the journey begins again.

Payoff for the Heart

When Money interviewed me recently for its retirement newsletter about serving as an older Peace Corps Volunteer, one of the topics was, no surprise, money.

I told the editor that the Peace Corps is “definitely not a luxurious way to launch a retirement. It’s challenging, and you need to join for the right reasons. The main payoff is how it fills your heart. But it’s also a pretty good deal financially as a retirement transition from a regular paycheck.”

Was I on the money? You can read the full interview below.

The “Retire with Money” newsletter is free and available online.

What My Friends Are Seeing

What’s the latest in Moldova?

Many of you have been asking me that since Ukrainian refugees began flowing across the border in late February. More than 350,000 have entered Moldova and about 100,000 remain in this small country of less than 3 million people,. 

In my last post, I described how my former neighbors in Ialoveni, near Moldova’s capital, have welcomed the refugees generously. A New York Times video, PBS video and USA Today article tell similar stories about Moldovans nationwide.

In this post, I want to share some of what I’ve been hearing from American friends who are close to the situation, especially former Peace Corps Volunteers who (like me) retain a deep affection for Moldova.

Haley Bader, who served in my group and is now back in Comrat as a journalist, reported recently that “exhausted women, children, elderly men and people with medical issues or disabilities are bleeding across Moldova’s borders daily. From the north to the south, authorities are setting up tents and converting old boarding schools, exhibition centres and kindergartens to house those who are fleeing.”

Moldovans worry whether Putin may invade their country next, although that danger may have eased as Russian forces bog down in Ukraine. What is clear is that the refugees have come in large numbers, and the Moldovans have embraced them. My former host sister has gone to a train station in Bucharest, where she now lives, to invite young Ukrainian women to rest at her apartment.

We visited Chris Flowers at his post in Criuleni while we were all serving as Peace Corps Volunteers. That’s him in the middle.

“I’m seeing lots of cars with Ukrainian license plates on the streets of Chişinǎu,” says our friend Chris Flowers, another former PCV who now directs American Councils Moldova. “This is putting a strain on resources and infrastructure in the country. Despite how generous everyone is now, this level cannot be maintained and outside assistance will be needed.”

Former PCV David Smith agrees. “The Moldovan government has heroically responded with its limited resources and without any past experience dealing with a humanitarian crisis of this size,” he writes in his excellent newsletter. The response has been “amazing, inspiring and necessary” but is unsustainable. 

David Smith met with Moldovan President Maia Sandu, who came to his restaurant to support its refugee assistance efforts.

David has converted his Chişinǎu restaurant (which I featured in this article) into a center offering free food, clothing and other resources. Local volunteers assist the effort, including Peace Corps staff coordinated by Hannah Gardi. Lines stretch out the door. (Here’s a video clip of the line this morning.) Their work is admirable but, as David concluded in his last post, “Where is the cavalry?” 

Carol Spahn, acting director of the Peace Corps, left, traveled to Moldova to support local staff. She prepared meals with my former Romanian language teacher, Diana Prodan.

A friend on the Peace Corps staff wrote me to say: ““It is insane what is happening. We just don’t know where to direct all these refugees for help. The rollout of international help is very slow and disjointed.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with President Sandu and other Moldovan leaders.

The American Embassy in Moldova recently announced plans to provide assistance, as have other governments and international organizations. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other Western leaders have visited to show support. Chişinǎu’s convention center, where Champa and I attended a Moldovan friend’s fashion show, is now filled with refugee families.

Israel Collier is the co-founder of A.C.O.P.E.R.I.

Former PCV Israel Collier heads a nonprofit organization that assists Romani families and immigrants in Moldova. “This war has underscored the need for our service” she wrote me. “We’ve assisted at least 100 Ukrainian families (including many Romani families often rejected at placement centres). They specifically reach out to us because of our mission. We are currently delivering nonperishable food items, clothing and toiletries, to centres in Chišinău, Drochia and this week Soroca.

Another friend, Alex Weisler, and his colleagues at JDC, a global Jewish humanitarian organization, have moved quickly to assist the refugees. As Alex describes in this recent video from Moldova, “they haven’t eaten, they’re scared, they’re confused. They come here and they receive a sense that they’re not alone.”

Other groups are also helping, from Christian evangelicals to North Carolina nurses, who trained Moldovans how to assist refugee populations. Another former PCV friend, Rebecca Lehman, now in England, is helping a group there. Vladimir Snurenco, who led an English language center in Chişinǎu where I taught some classes, wrote me about an art sale in Michigan that raised money for Ukraine.

I’ve been working most closely with Friends of Moldova, an organization of returned PCVs that has raised more than $200,000 and distributed funds to shelters, churches and others. The group’s president, Bartosz Gawarecki, described the effort in this television interview. He recently returned to Moldova to help open new refugee assistance centers.

The North Carolina Peace Corps Association, on whose steering committee I serve, has generously donated to Friends of Moldova and the RPCV Alliance for Ukraine. In a few weeks, I’ll be speaking at the Rotary Club of Raleigh about these and other initiatives.

There is a lot happening, in other words, and I could have included more examples. Yet as my friends keep telling us, the situation remains stressful. David Smith is right: They need the cavalry.

I wish I could have provided a cheerier update about what’s happening in Moldova, but this is the reality. If you share our concern, I encourage you to contact anyone you know who may have some influence over the situation. Donate to Friends of Moldova or another organization. Attend a rally. Write a letter. Please help.

Moldovans Step Up

I am prouder than ever to have served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Moldova, whose people have been racing to assist refugees from neighboring Ukraine.

(Scroll to the end of this article to learn how you can help, too.)

Despite being one of Europe’s poorest countries, Moldova has stepped up in a big way, as you can see with some examples from places I know there:

Champa did her pre-service training in Costești, a village that has converted its tourist complex into this refugee center.

My training was in Bardar, which has opened a home for refugees.

We served together in Ialoveni, whose citizens are now working to help the refugees in various ways. This Facebook post offers them free dental services. 

We lived near Stella’s Voice, a home for young women in danger of being trafficked. They just opened their doors to several young Ukrainian women.

Ialoveni’s officials are cutting through red tape to assist the refugees, such as by quickly notarizing their travel documents.

Many of my Moldovan friends have been posting images to show their support for Ukraine.

Peace Corps Moldova has been helping, too, both as an organization and through its staff, some of whom prepared these meals for distribution.

The Friends of Moldova, a group of returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) and others, has launched a fundraiser to aid refugee support efforts, which are far more extensive than the few I’ve described here.

Ukraine RPCVs have been working on several fronts, from advocacy to fundraising, through the RPCV Alliance for Ukraine.

Amid my own outrage at Russia’s aggression, I have been inspired by the brave resistance of the Ukrainian people, and by the government and citizens of Moldova and other countries — including ours. 

There are many ways you can help as well. A good one you may not have considered is by supporting this groundswell of activity in Moldova. David Smith, an RPCV who still lives there, publishes an excellent newsletter that just listed several ways you can do this. If you, too, are outraged by what you’ve been seeing, then donate today — and please feel free to add other comments or suggestions below.

Slava Ukraini!

Top image: AP/Aurel Obreja

Next Door to Ukraine

Ukraine shares a long border with Moldova, where I served in the Peace Corps from 2016 to 2018. With Russian forces now threatening Ukraine, it’s a good time to share some things I learned about the neighborhood.

Moldova and Ukraine have separate identities and histories, and I don’t claim any expertise about Ukraine, but the following seven photos do tell interesting stories:

I’ll start with this photo of me with Vladimir, my “host father” during my pre-service training. He served in the Soviet military, preparing to fight their Cold War enemy — in other words, us. Now he was hosting an American. For so many Moldovans — and Ukrainians — the Russian military is not an abstraction. It’s something they know personally.

Americans endured great suffering during World War Two. My father was among those who saw friends die in combat. Yet the Soviet Union had more than 50 times as many deaths as we did, a toll that’s seared into their collective memory. Almost every Moldovan city and village has a memorial, including this one in the capital. Vladimir Putin’s aggression against Ukrainian sovereignty is unacceptable, and I’m glad to see our government pushing back so forcefully, but we shouldn’t be surprised when Russians obsess about the security of their borders.

This Soviet memorial and Orthodox church are in Comrat, a small city that is the capital of Moldova’s autonomous region of Gagauzia, which we visited. Most Gagauz people speak Russian instead of Romanian. So do people in other parts of Moldova. Ukraine also has regions where most people speak Russian and have strong cultural and familial ties to Russia. Simultaneously, some of these same people now feel more loyal to Ukraine than to Russia. It’s complicated.

This statue is outside the school where Champa taught. Sanduța Petru served in the Soviet military and was killed in Afghanistan. His memorial reminds us that the Soviets suffered a military disaster there long before our own recent debacle. About 15,000 Soviet troops were killed during nine years of fighting with the Mujahideen, a force with less equipment and training than Ukraine has now. Putin surely remembers that conflict, although one wonders what conclusions he draws from it.

This statue in Moldova’s capital memorializes the devastating deportation of Moldovans to Siberia and other locations during Stalin’s rule. Many died during this Great Purge and Moldovans have never forgotten about it. I met several families whose relatives or friends were deported. Tens of thousands of Ukranians were banished as well and I assume their neighbors haven’t forgotten, either.

Champa and I toured Odessa, where my grandmother grew up. We visited the magnificent opera house and strolled past beautiful buildings, parks, shops and statues. Odessa was the third largest city in the Russian empire. As you can see in this photo, it’s a Ukrainian port along the Black Sea. If Putin attacks from here, as some analysts predict, his troops could march into the city via the famous Odessa Steps, which Sergei Eisenstein immortalized in his 1925 film Battleship Potemkin. Stalin later banned that film over fears it might incite a riot against his regime. That’s interesting to contemplate now.

Finally, while President Biden and others are warning loudly about the Russian threat, Ukraine’s leader has acted calmer, as have many Ukranians (and Moldovans, for that matter). President Zelensky’s approach may be calculated but he also was a comedian before entering politics. He’s not alone among Ukranians in having a sense of humor, as you can see from this shop window in Odessa.

I emphasize again that I served in Moldova, not Ukraine, which is a bit like someone opining about the United States after living for two years in Canada. But I was in the region long enough to grasp the complexity of its history and culture. If you hear an American politician or pundit suggesting the current situation can be easily explained or resolved, I encourage you to be very skeptical.

Reconnected on TV

Moldovan national television just reconnected us to the city where we served in the Peace Corps.

On Thursday, it broadcast a story about North Carolinians who served in the Peace Corps, the latest in a series by TeleFilm Chişinǎu about the state’s partnership with Moldova.

Watch the story below or here on YouTube [at 13:14].

We were deeply moved when we saw our former host family, work partners and others on the screen, showing off the projects we pursued together. Most emotional was seeing our beloved Bunica, or Moldovan grandmother, talking to us from her bed.

Even if you don’t speak a word of Romanian, you should have no trouble following along. We think the producers did a great job and hope you enjoy the story, too. “Mulțumim frumos!” to everyone who made it happen.

Finding an Audience

My book about traveling the world and serving as an older Peace Corps Volunteer was published just as COVID-19 was closing international borders and the Peace Corps was evacuating its volunteers. How has it fared in the year and a half since then? This post, reprinted from the book’s website, highlights some of the coverage:

Profile in Worldview Magazine

An article in Worldview, the magazine of the National Peace Corps Association, featured Not Exactly Retired and considered how Peace Corps service has changed over the decades. It was accompanied by an article from Champa describing how “Many of us were not what Moldovans expected a Volunteer would look like. Together, we showed them that ‘American’ includes many kinds of people.”

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New York Times

The Times mentioned the book while profiling the two of us for an article about how retirees are coping with the pandemic.

‘A Shining Example’

Joe Casey, host of the Retirement Wisdom podcast, called Not Exactly Retired “a shining example of why volunteering is important – and why it can be a unique way of reinvention in early retirement.” His interview with me is on his website.

A ‘Must-Read’ Book

Not Exactly Retired is among the “inspiring, international reads” included on a list for armchair travelers and others. The reviewer called it one of “10 Must-Read Books About the Peace Corps.”

‘Unexpected Benefits’

Another reviewer called Not Exactly Retired “a gift to those who might be thinking there has got to be more to retirement than playing golf, traveling for pleasure, taking up new hobbies, visiting family, or walking the dog. Read and you just might find yourself setting foot on a not so familiar path with unexpected benefits!”

Born for Adventure

An article about the book on the Born to Be Boomers website sparked dozens of comments, including one saying “it is the job of the older generation to turn around and help the next one along. What a great example of that. I’m nearing that time and am hoping to transition to that with grace.”

Love Story, Saga, Guide

Brown Alumni Magazine described Not Exactly Retired as “part love story, part adventure saga, and a guide to finding a fresh act later in life.”

A Second-Act Story

My interview with Andy Levine on the Second Act Stories podcast ranked high on his “Best of 2020” list. His show features people who have made dramatic career changes.

Peace Corps Worldwide

The website, which features books by Peace Corps writers, posted an extended interview with me, discussing my two stints as a volunteer and my writing process.

Lifelong Learning

OLLI at Duke — the “lifelong learning” organization — featured Not Exactly Retired in an online author interview that included an international call-in from our Moldovan “host sister.”

‘Interesting and Engaging’

That’s how a newsletter for older travelers described Not Exactly Retired, saying it encouraged readers to “gain insight into how to plan our own quests.”

‘Repurposing’ Your Life

The Career Pivot website and podcast featured Not Exactly Retired in an online interview conducted from Mexico. Host Marc Miller said the book showed how older listeners might want to “repurpose” their own lives.

Inspiration for Librarians

Circulating Ideas, a podcast for U.S. librarians, interviewed me about my work at a Moldovan library and described how Peace Corps Volunteers have assisted libraries worldwide.

Rocking a Retirement

Did we miss our grandchildren? Did we worry about getting sick? Kathe Kline asked these and other questions while interviewing me for her Rock Your Retirement podcast. She called Not Exactly Retired “an inspiring story.”

Bloomer Boomer

That’s the name of Andy Asher’s podcast about people thriving in the second half of life. He interviewed me about the book.

Visit the book’s website to order a copy or learn more.

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.