There will inevitably come a time when someone is telling me what a great thing I did serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mongolia and I’ll be a little dismissive of how exceptional it was. I can assure you, this won’t be Love-being-modest or self-deprecating. Here’s what will be going on: my life here has become my life. It isn’t that much different from my life back home, except for in the most obvious ways. In fact, on more than one occasion, when I’ve read the Peace Corps informational email that I’d subscribed to during the application process, my mind went to that place of “oh, someday, I’m gonna do that” before I remembered: I am doing that.
The other piece of this reality check is that there are other non-PCVs/non-Mongolians living in or traveling through Govi-Altai, and I should remind you that Govi-Altai isn’t on the way to anywhere. These encounters have left an impression on me and are as much a part of my experience living in Mongolia, in a way that meeting foreigners in America never was. They’ll be what I’m thinking of when I respond that what I did in Mongolia “wasn’t that big a deal.”
In my first week or so in Govi-Altai, I saw two men in the post office. As they were clearly not Mongolian, and I was clearly not Mongolian, we struck up a conversation. The Romanians explained to me that they were participants of the Mongol Rally, a driving adventure from the UK to UB, Mongolia. So: they pay a fee to participate, make all the arrangements themselves, drive 8-10 thousand miles, crossing maybe a dozen countries. They arrive in three to four weeks, the cars are auctioned off for charity, and then they fly home. Even thinking about it now, I am still astounded.
Last fall, I went to the hospital to meet some Americans who were visiting Govi-Altai. In their words, they were a “volunteer, non-denominational, Christian organization,” that provides screenings of children to identify heart defects. In phase II, a pediatric cardiac surgery team is brought in to treat the young patients and continue to improve the Mongolian cardiac-care system, which the MD-blogger writes is “about thirty to fifty years behind pediatric cardiac surgical care in the U.S.” There is some amount of proselytizing during all this, of course, but, as I understand it, the screenings and surgeries (even those that can’t be done here and require travel to the US) are at no cost to the patients.
In late fall/early winter last year, a young Swiss woman named Daria came through Govi-Altai. She had previously lived in Mongolia for 6 months working on a camel farm, doing camel research. Those of us in town took her to karaoke, and, though she didn’t sing, she chipped in for the room.
For all these chance encounters, there are some reliable ones too. In Govi-Altai, there are 2 European women (from the Netherlands and Switzerland) who’ve twenty years here between them and speak impressive Mongolian. There’s an Australian woman and an American couple who live here 6 months of the year. Though they are here as missionaries on behalf of JCS (Joint Christian Services), some have day jobs in the community, including working with disabled children or teaching handicrafts at the felt workshop so local women can have a sustainable means of support. I don’t see them regularly, but as the collective foreigners, there is a definite sense that we can turn to one another. The Iowans gave me a traditional Thanksgiving dinner (with chicken in lieu of turkey) when all my site mates were out of town during my favorite holiday. I’ve spent the past two weeks cat-sitting for the Swiss woman; it would have been a most unwelcome request of her Mongolian neighbor. As compensation, I receive much love and affection from Mimosa, the purr-monster, and full use of the apartment amenities, most notably the fully automatic washing machine.
The latest person to roll through Govi-Altai left this morning, on his bicycle. By the time he got to me, he had put 1,000 km behind him. Maxime, a Frenchman, living and working in Germany, is still at the beginning of a solo bike-trek from UB, through China, a few of the ‘stans, ending his journey in Iran. It was by PCV word-of-mouth that he found me here and his impressive undertaking was so momentous that I needed to help him in any way I could: use of my rice-cooker, a share in my load of laundry, a safe place to store his bike, a bed for the night (an especially easy offer since I was staying at the cat house). I was even able to give him an English-speaking contact for his next soum. From my perspective, my contribution to Maxime’s trip was so small, but the way he thanked me, you’d think I was some bicycle-trip savior.
For better or worse, my whole life my mom has been “taking in strays,” which I guess isn’t a nice way to refer to people who need help, but doing so is an effective way to teach your kids about helping others in need. So long as you can identify their need.
This weekend marks my one year anniversary in Mongolia! To all my peeps, and especially my new friend Maxime, may the wind always be at your back.