Twenty-seven moments to represent the (nearly) 27 months I have served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mongolia.
1) That first freak-out moment I experienced the first day with my host family when I was sitting in my ger, questioning why I had thought it was a good idea to travel 6,000 miles out of my comfort zone. I didn’t understand anything anyone was saying to me in Mongolian, and I was living in a tent. But after that moment, through learning, spending time with people, and embarrassing myself more than a few times, life in Mongolia became my life.
2) Seeing my host dad’s face when he tried Starbucks instant coffee, which is worlds different from the 90% sugar/milk, 10% instant coffee popular in Mongolia.
3) Drinking hot milk tea in a kitchen hut in the countryside as gentle summer rain fell outside and my extended host family talked around me about their eternal favorite subjects: their children and their horses.
4) Learning a Mongolian dance and performing it at our Swearing-In Ceremony at the U.S. Ambassador’s residence in Ulaanbaatar.
5) Teaching English at Laboratory 8th School and sometimes receiving applause just by walking into the room. It kind of goes to your head sometimes.
6) Getting texts from my Mongolian friends on Thanksgiving, much needed when I was missing being home on a holiday: “Happy Thanksgiving! Thank you so much for helping us to improve our English knowledge.” –My friend Urtaa, a pediatrician at one of the local hospitals
“Happy thanksgiving. I’m thankful u are friend & we met in life. Sunshine smile” -My friend Davaakhuu, a student at Erdenet’s Mongolian National University
7) Arriving by train in the early winter morning in UB. It’s like an old movie, with the Soviet-era train’s smoke transforming the people around you into hazy outlines in the bitter cold air and crunching snow underfoot.
8) Watching thick-bodied wrestlers perform their surprisingly graceful eagle dance before their rounds commence during Naadam, Mongolia’s traditional summer sports festival, occurring every summer since the time of Chinggis Khaan.
9) Dancing with all my school’s teachers in an awkward dance circle to anything from disco and ABBA to Shakira and Justin Bieber at holiday parties (Teacher’s Day, Soldier’s Day, New Year’s, etc.). Vodka was consumed, hips did not lie, and good times were had by all.
10) Doing absolutely nothing. At times one of the best parts about living in Mongolia was its comparatively slower-paced lifestyle. In the U.S., it can feel like you’re always running from the coffee shop to work to the gym to dinner with friends; you should always be occupied with something. In Mongolia, I tried to shed the American mentality that you should always be checking things off your to-do list. Some weekends, I just sat and watched the snow fall outside my window.
11) Being in a Red Hat sect monastery while the monks were reading prayers by chanting and using handheld drums. It was all synchronized in rhythm and one of the most powerful experiences I’ve had in a house of worship.
12) Anytime a Mongolian has thanked me for learning their language. Mongolian is really, really hard.
13) Eating Pringles with my site mates and other Peace Corps friends. Pringles are a part of the food pyramid for PCVs in Mongolia.
14) Reading creative writing from my students for a contest we put on 2 years in a row. They wrote about anything from alien boarding schools in space to what a dog would say if it could talk.
15) Riding on a bus or in a car through Mongolia’s huge open spaces. I’ve never been anywhere with so much space before, where the steppe or mountains go on forever and some days the blue sky seems to be reaching down to swallow the earth.
16) The Erdenet Special Olympics.
17) Introducing my family to Mongolia.
18) Watching horse races in the summer, when children gallop bareback across the finish line, hooting and hollering to encourage their horses to finish the 15, 20, 30 km race.
19) Eating horhog, Mongolian traditional barbecue, for which you place hot rocks in a metal container with meat (and, if you’re lucky, vegetables) and let the rocks sear and cook everything. It’s delicious, and my favorite part is afterward, when you toss the piping hot rocks quickly between your hands. I’ve been told many times that to do this is very “healthy.”
20) Experiencing Khovsgul Lake last summer. It’s the most peacefully beautiful place in Mongolia, with rocky pine coasts, refreshingly cold water, and surrounded by tree-covered mountains.
21) Visiting a Russian Orthodox Church in Ulaanbaatar. And learning more about Russian culture in general. (I’m also very proud to have finished War and Peace this winter!)
22) Spending a week at Enerel’s (the local orphanage) camp last summer. Our last night there, we had a bonfire, roasted marshmallows/introduced s’mores, and danced to an array of American, European, and K-Pop music.
23) Throwing Halloween parties at my school and the orphanage. Halloween has only become popular in Mongolia in the last few years, but wow do students get into it…
24) Walking to school every morning– sometimes I passed by horses and ambling cows grazing along Erdenet’s sidewalks. Another time I ran into my counterpart’s husband, who asked me if I liked milk, then gave me some milk he had just bought. When am I ever going to live anywhere again where someone stops me on the street and gives me milk?
25) Writing this blog and reflecting on my experiences, always with valuable reactions and feedback from my friends and family!
26) Watching my 6th graders perform their renditions of “The Tortoise and the Hare” at a show for their parents last month. The skits were entirely in English, their costumes were incredibly creative, and they were so expressive!
27) Making 800 buuz in a day with my English teachers in preparation for Tsagaan Sar.
Now, two years later, I am weathered by the winds, my eyes have creases from the sun in the blue sky, and my bones have felt the deep winter cold. I leave Mongolia having learned more about living and relationships and nature and communication than I ever thought was possible in just 27 months.
It’s bittersweet and I am sad to leave but I am ready.
See you on July 21st, America.