Tag Archives: serendipity

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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The Surprise of Travel

The modest roadside cafe we saw outside the Armenian village of Sevkar lacked a sign in English, much less a website. It was hardly the place you’d expect two older Americans to stop for lunch. But we did, unexpectedly, while traveling last week and it turned out to be a highlight of our trip. It also provided a reminder about how we all need to look beyond our plans and checklists to embrace life’s surprises.

It was before noon and we were the only customers there. The owner led us into his kitchen, pointed to some bowls of meat and asked what we’d like him to barbecue over his charcoal fire. IMG_8603Then, as the meat sizzled, he sliced bread, tomatoes, onions and cheese onto a plate and took them outside to a wooden table, where he invited us to sit.

The barbecue was beyond delicious, as was everything else. Here along a small road in northern Armenia, we enjoyed one of the best meals of our lives.

This happened only because we asked our driver to find somewhere to stop early for lunch so we could spend our remaining Armenian money before crossing the border into Georgia.

This is one of the things I love most about traveling. No itinerary can anticipate many of the experiences that end up making a trip memorable.

Here’s another example: While in Armenia we also came across an area filled with small stone cairns, which reminded us of the mani stones people in Nepal pile along trekking paths. Beside them were hundreds of cloth and plastic ribbons wrapped around trees and bushes, which people placed for good wishes and luck. They, too, fascinated us, even though we’d actually come to see the adjacent Geghard monastery, partially carved out of a mountain.

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We were surprised at a Jewish synagogue, too. Its caretaker in Tbilisi, Georgia, gave Champa and me a private tour, even opening the ark to show us some of their Torah scrolls. He told us about Tbilisi’s small Jewish community and took the photo you see here.

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While near Tbilisi, we also discovered wine ice cream, from this woman at Mtskheta. We thought it was a gimmick but I bought a cone and it was wine ice cream, and pretty tasty, too.

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We also were surprised by people like this New Zealand woman, Lesley, who we met at an Armenian restaurant that provided a demonstration of traditional lavash baking. We discovered she lived previously in Turkmenistan, where she was friends with a young American woman who is now in our Peace Corps group in Moldova.

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Then there was the woman with the red jacket you see talking with Champa. She is a physical therapist from the Philippines who works in Dubai. She and her husband came to Armenia for a brief vacation while renewing their visas. They were among several foreign nationals we met in Armenia who work in the Gulf. Who knew? The two Chinese women in the foreground, who took selfies and texted nonstop during our tour, are air hostesses for a Gulf airline.

It’s humbling for a planner like me to acknowledge that my detailed trip itineraries often fail to anticipate what Champa and I will remember most about a trip. As I wrote when I started this blog, one of my goals in being “not exacty retired” is to recognize the richness of life’s surprises and make the most of them, especially when traveling. “After being tied to calendars and project schedules for so many years,” I wrote then, “I wanted to embrace the unknown.”

Now, two and half years later, and especially after returning from a great trip, I feel that way even more. Spreadsheets are great but, in both the dictionary and on the road, serendipity will always come first.