The trip back from anywhere you’ve been for two years seems like a very short trip. But I suppose after a little more than two months since leaving Mongolia, I’m realizing that the trip back has really only just started. I’m in the United States in body, but a large part of my mind and spirit are still very much in the Gobi—still in my ger.
I find myself behaving like my grandparents’ generation. That is, with an intense dose of scarcity-minded thinking: “I better order one of everything at this restaurant because when I come back, it might all be gone next time!” That will be a hard habit to break. I also balk at the price of everything and complain obstreperously within earshot of management about how loud the music is in the restaurant or bar. Frankly, I miss the quiet, or if not the quiet, then at least sounds that don’t come from speakers. Do we all really need to shout at one another across the table? I’m hoarse after one cocktail and half a glass of beer.
It’s funny to even be writing this entry. In Mongolia, I was so careful to keep an upbeat tone about everything that appeared on here, but now that I’m back, I feel like it’s OK to hit my own gang again (Scots are stingy, Minnesotans are painfully apologetic, etc.). That alone makes me feel good to be home.
And it is good, don’t get me wrong. It is great, in fact. I’ve still not tired of running water, the simplest amenity I missed the most—well, missed the most unless the power was out. And can we all just take a moment and marvel at how organized everything is? Buses and trains have schedules, letters and boxes are delivered, people keep dogs as pets and actually pick up their…well, their “leavings;” we can be some very considerate folks, us Americans—when we want to be, of course.
I’d hate to think at writing this that it’s the last word on what I’ve learned and how I’ve grown in the last two years. How can it be though, when people like Paul Theroux are still reflecting on their service all these years later. I’ll be the same, or at least on this end of things I’m insisting I will be. I suppose we’ll see when I’m 71. At my ‘Welcome Home’ party a few weeks ago, where many of you dear readers were present, is where it all came home to me the most since being back—it became especially, pointedly clear how important each and every one of you were in guiding me along a path of choices leading to Mongolia in the first place, and then how your love and support carried me all the way through to the other side. On this end of things, life looks a whole lot less like “Carrot-On-A-Stick”, and a whole lot more like “Blind Man’s Bluff”—multi-directional, where the people I’ve bumped into while stumbling through the last 26 years are by far the most important part of figuring this game out. I couldn’t have done it without every one of you.
On my way back, a couple of Peace Corps friends and I spent six weeks traveling through Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Coming back slowly was certainly the way to do things. Mongolia to New York is an enormous shock to the system, but slowly adjusting to the world outside (and starting that process in Southeast Asia) made the transition feel a bit more seamless, and it let me feel ready to face the parts of this modern world I was most apprehensive about. If I could recommend one place to travel, it’d be Mongolia (because obviously I’m pretty biased), but if I could recommend 4 places, it’d be Mongolia and Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
Expect some Southeast Asia pictures shortly!
Clean laundry has been a hard thing to come by lately, mostly because of my own reticence to bother hand-washing an enormous load of pants (the hardest to hand-wash), shirts, and sweaters (a close second), especially now that we’re getting on towards summer. I’ve really only felt responsible to my underwear and socks.
Part of it is just myself hoping to revel in every last moment I have in Mongolia—hand-washing laundry was a part of that reveling at first, but now it’s mostly just a chore. I’m quoting a friend, but I will miss everything about my life here. I know that sounds strange to those of you that have endured my whinging at one moment or another—about transportation, or too many buuz, or uncommitted co-workers—but I’ll miss all of it, because all of it meant I was in Mongolia and that has been everything to me for two years of my middle-twenties.
School is in its springtime “limping” phase. Classes are still happening, but everybody has their mind on the fatted calf, quite literally—the birthing season was late this year, but it was a good one. We’re all looking forward to the return of summer, warmer weather, but instead of a return I’m looking at departure. I’ve fielded a repetitive script of questions this spring, mostly asking about whether I’ll be here next year. It’d be dishonest if I didn’t mention that I was a little happy when people expressed dissatisfaction at my plan to leave and return home. Everyone wants to be wanted, I guess.
I talked about legacy a mere twenty-some months ago, but to even begin to decide what that might be is probably myopic. I’ll save those sorts of heavy assessment for my official documents to be submitted to the US Government before I leave—no really, there are a lot, and I’m always at a loss as to what should be included. What was work? What was just me finding the things here that I needed to continue for twenty-four months? I guess I don’t have a good answer to that yet.
I’ve had some visitors in the last few months, which makes me feel like my investment in Mongolia (not monetary, but physical, psychological, and emotional), will most certainly pay off. The world is again starting to take notice of its biggest empire, born from the steppe. A PhD candidate and a journalist have found their way to Tsogttsetsii in the last six weeks, and it’s been fun to feel like an expert in a place where I often still feel lost. Spending the rest of my life here probably wouldn’t teach me enough to know it completely—not least because it seems to change a little bit every day thanks to the radical transformation Mongolia is experiencing.
My most recent visitor is working on an article about how Mongolia is changing as a result of the mining industry here, and my town is sort of the epicenter of that seismic shift in Mongolia’s zeitgeist. I won’t give away too much here, because the article will probably be out in the near future, but I’ll certainly link it when it comes out. We went out to meet some herders that have been directly affected by the advent of the mining industry in the Gobi—suffice it to say, we met some big personalities. Chief among them was Tserenbazar: A leathery and bearded man of 60 who said that he’d been forced off his land by the road south to China that cuts directly through his pastures. Thousands of tons of coal are tearing down the road here every day, and kicking up great plumes of desert dust in the process. He said that dust is always in the air, blanketing the grasses for 20 km on either side of the road. In the last twelve months, they’ve been unable to enjoy the innards of the sheep and goats they butcher for their families (a popular treat here), because the stomach and intestines are a muddy black color and filled with grit. I just hope the millions don’t forget the hundreds that have called this place home since before they can remember; an old story I suppose, happening now, and it’ll certainly happen again.
It feels like such an uncertain time to leave Mongolia. I’ll depart the country for good in June, and if I’m ever so lucky as to come back, I won’t be returning to the place I remember. The America I left has changed too, undoubtedly, but the trees, the grass, the buildings, the people I remember are mostly where I left them. In the Gobi at least, the nomads have already started wandering farther than before, because they have no other choice, and most of what I have come to know in the last two years may become unrecognizable.
A cluster of Volunteers in Erdenet put together a pretty lovely little dance video that actually sums up a lot about what it’s like to live here in the way that we do. Yes, the video is a heap o’ fun, but dig a little deeper and you get a sense of just how much a part of each others lives we’ve become, Mongolians and Volunteers, during our time here–it’s a rare opportunity, a wonderful one, and we have a lot of fun with it.
The video was a joint venture between Volunteers and their Mongolian friends and counterparts in Erdenet, but the editing credit goes mostly to Ms. Katie. You can check out her excellent blog here.
In late March and early April, the English Olympics are just about all the average TEFL Volunteer can talk about. I’m almost certain I gave you an explanation last year, but I’ll just offer a bit of a refresher course: It’s a national competition where a school’s best 9th and 11h grade students take tests written by the Ministry of Education and Culture in Ulaanbaatar. The winning students in each aimag go on to the national competition in UB just a few weeks later.
It’s a nice excuse for us soumers to drag our pale features (and even paler social skills) out of our gers and into the spring sun for the first time since November, and this year was no different. It was a pleasant surprise that I got to tag along with some other Volunteers on their tour of the Gobi’s highlights: Yoliin-am, Khongor Sand Dunes, and the Flaming Cliffs.
As we all agreed, this past week was one of those extremely rare times a) when everything seems to work out perfectly in Mongolia in terms of transportation, timing, and weather, and b) that we always expected to have during our Peace Corps service, but only get to enjoy on particularly wonderful occasions. We basically managed a crash course in Gobi tourism in about 4 days–a feat for any guided trip around Mongolia’s desert.
I’ve got plenty of pictures for you all below!
Asleep in the sun, this guy’s got the right idea…