Lester & Laura in Mongolia

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

"No, nothing lasts forever, nothings says "Goodbye" like a ticket in your hand. Oh, they say progress makes us better, time ain't standing still for any man."

“Justin We, love you.”

I read the engraving through teary eyes. The words, misplaced comma and all, were too much to handle. Lowering the silver bowl from my face, I looked around me. A gigantic carpet spread out on the green grass. The sun beat down over the steppe. The peaks of the Khentii mountains on the horizon at all sides of me. Crowded around the blanket adorned with a vat of meat, bowls of candy, and arranged bottles of vodka sat Omnodelger. My co-workers, my friends, my neighbors. 
They were all there. 
For me.

As my goodbye present, my last hurrah and final send off my school had put together a special countryside barbeque just for me. Complete with all the games, gusto and cooked goat that can be expected from any Mongolian occasion. I stood at the front of the blanket with my school's director as I was presented with my gifts. One by one people took turns at the microphone thanking me and recounting specific memories we shared together. Finally when it was my turn to speak I was so overcome with gratitude and emotion I found myself at a loss for words, much less Mongolian ones. I beckoned to Saruul, standing by my side gently rocking her newborn baby in her arms. She translated as best she could. I blubbered and thanked them from the bottom of my heart. For opening up their homes, their school and their whole town to me. For teaching me more about myself and the world than they realized. For giving me the opportunity to share my story, my knowledge, myself with them. The day ended in revelry. The goat consumed. The vodka flowed. The people I've come to know and love for two years gathered around me. I've never felt so special.

Two days later

I sat in my ger. Gutted, for all but the bed and table. The same solitary pieces that had existed in it when I first entered it two years ago. Unable to transport every aspect of my Mongolian life with me back home, I had donated much of my things to my Mongolian friends and neighbors. They eagerly took everything offered. Even the lightbulb was stripped from its socket. As the sun set, shadows danced across the lattice of my home. My backpack and guitar at my feet, any minute my ride would arrive and whisk me away from Omnodelger. It was hard imagining that I wouldn't be coming back, that there was the possibility it would only remain in memory. As insurance to myself that I”d return I buried a time capsule. Secretly digging a hole in the corner of Dawkraa and Tuya's hashaa and burying away a tiny container full of small keepsakes of my time here.

Northwest corner.
Four paces from post.
I won't forget.

Headlights danced on the street. Tires skidding on dirt. Two quick horn blasts. I picked up my bag and guitar with a sigh. The moment I never really prepared myself for had finally arrived. No words can describe the mix of emotion that stirred in me. Looking past the reality and sadness of goodbye I focused on the excitement ahead. I was leaving Mongolia, a place that had become familiar, a place I had grown to love. But I was embarking on a new adventure, a new chapter of excitement, experience and growth. My journey back to the States would be no easy hop, skip, and jump across the globe. No time warped plane ride.  It would be the trip of a lifetime. To get back west I opted to travel overland from Beijing, China to Moscow, Russia, a journey of over 6,000 miles. I would board and ride one of the longest railways in the world, from end to end.

The Trans-Siberian Railroad awaited.

Thank you to everyone who has followed my time here in Mongolia, for better and worse. I have decided to switch platforms and start a new blog chronicling my adventures of my time in Russia and China and beyond. I hope you'll continue to share in my experiences. You can continue to do so here www.betweenthecontours.wordpress.com.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

"Surely all people were made for each other. To join in together when the days turn to dust. So let the prison walls crumble and the borders all tumble. There's a place for us all here. And ain't it enough?"

Choeung Ek, Cambodia

Rich green grass sprouting from gentle rolling hills swayed softly in the breeze.  Fluffy white clouds moved slowly across a blue sky.  In the distance wildflowers grew at the base of fence posts.  Their yellow and white pedals stretching up to catch the sunlight outside of the shadows.  Paces away a bird dipped and banked overhead, perching on a nearby tree branch, it sang a song while the tree's leafy branches rocked beneath the breeze.  At my feet a butterfly danced and fluttered around my ankles.  Avoiding my steps it drifted off to skim over the wild grasses.
I sighed.  The expulsion of air catching in my chest.
This was a terrible place.

This pain in my chest, this ripping of emotion through my heart and lungs was a feeling I'd felt before.  A feeling I'd felt brought on by places.  I'd felt it before walking passed the ovens of Dachau.  My footsteps echoing through the gas chambers of a place where a country thought the solution to its problems was through the act of extermination.  I felt it again on the silent fields of Gettysburg.  Gazing out at a spot where countrymen, brothers, fathers, and sons, depleted of powder and shot set upon each other with the butts of rifles, stones from the earth, and bayonets.  I felt it merely hours before as I walked through S-21, the high school turned prison and interrogation center.  Where a regime gone mad with paranoia spared no one of torture.  For all my love of "places" I understand the importance of visiting the ones that hurt to look upon.  Now the dull ache in my chest continued as I tried to perceive yet another one of the world's most darkest places.  All the books I'd read, documentaries I'd watched, or pictures I'd seen could not have prepared me for Choeung Ek: Cambodia's largest Killing Field.
I was standing in an unfathomably large mass grave.

The Khmer Rouge following a lengthy civil war, ousted Cambodia's government and installed their communist ideals upon the country.  Citizens were forced from cities and made to work the fields of the countryside, in a fantastical vision of a pure self sustaining agrarian society.  It wasn't long before the Khmer Rouge began the interrogations.  Paranoia set in, they saw enemies everywhere.  The educated, former government officials, the rich, the successful all posed a danger to their revolution.  Waves of executions followed and the madness only got worse.  Doctors, professors, people with glasses, people with soft hands, murdered.  The children of the condemned executed so as not to come of age and seek revenge for their parent's murder.  During a span of five years it is estimated over 2.2 million people were murdered under the Khmer Rouge regime.

One not need be an archaeologist or crime scene investigator to uncover Choeung Ek's dark past.  The gentle rolling hills were not gentle at all, but sharp, unnatural mounds lumped together by continuous churning and reburying of the earth.  Looking closely at the soil, you can see fragments of bone protruding from the dirt.  At the base of the leafy tree tatters of clothing can be seen sticking out of the earth, tangled in the tree's roots.  The victim's remains, too numerous to be exhumed entirely come to the surface every year following seasonal rains.  Every month, workers collect newly surfaced pieces of bone and fragments of clothing and place them in glass boxes around the site.  At the center of the field rests a massive stupa.  I've seen many a stupa through my travels in Asia and Mongolia but none were like this.  It stood tall, white and gold, the center, a hollowed out tower of shelves encased in glass.  Each level holding row upon row of human skulls.  The uncountable victims of Choeung Ek, of all ages and genders stared back through the glass in the most somber memorial I'd ever seen.  Circling the monument, it was difficult to look upon.  Many skulls of the victims bearing signs of grisly and painful deaths.  Staring back at them my chest hurts trying to conceive those final moments.  The whine of a diesel generator, the blaring of propaganda music, many with their last ounces of strength are made to dig their own graves.

"Never Again," those two words usually echo on some monument or inscription at the end of these terrible places.  But I've seen the pictures, I've read the news.  The Holocaust, Cambodia, weren't the beginning just as they weren't the end.  It continued in places like the Balkans, Armenia, Central Africa, Iraq and the Sudan.  What can we do to make those two words seem not so empty?  The beauty of our differences, the evolution of culture, language, religion and ideas brought to a screeching halt when humanity becomes too drunk with power and too blind with hate.  I believe the preservation of these dark places exist for a reason.  Not to be visited and locked up in your conscious but to come away from these places and share what you've learned, what you've seen, what you now know man can do to one another.  Tell your friends, your family, complete strangers.  Knowledge and education is the best weapon against making "Never Again" not such a broken promise.  I share my experiences with you in Choeung Ek now for that reason.  If only that were enough.

"Ain't it enough, to live by the ways of the world?  To be part of the picture, whatever it's worth.  Throw your arms around each other, and love one another.  For it's only one life that we've got and ain't it enough?"

*If you'd like to learn more about the Cambodian Genocide and life under the Khmer Rouge there is an amazing and moving book called "First They Killed My Father," a memoir by survivor Loung Ung.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

"Through this Railroad Earth for whatever it's worth, singin' songs and stayin' high. And you know I'll be where my heart stays free and my thoughts are free to fly."

 Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Senses were alive.  As the tuk tuk, the motorcycle driven cart sped through the paved streets of Cambodia's capital I breathed deep.  The air smelled not of coal ash and soot but crisp and tropical.  It smelled like palm leaves and fresh fruit.  My eyes danced from sidewalk to sidewalk.  Carts full of tropical delicacies, papayas, dragon fruits, bananas and coconuts.  Electric scooters and tuk tuk's weaved through traffic while tall palms swayed in the night breeze.  Colonial inspired buildings dotted the skyline, earthen colored clay roofs and arched facades.  Two years ago Phnom Penh was just the name of a place I knew.  An obscure world capital that I prided myself on memorizing.  Like Ulaanbaatar I could have never dreamed that I would be one day traversing its streets.  Yet here I was.  New sights, new sounds, new smells, a new culture with so many new things to learn.  Elation.  This is why I love to travel.

Koh Rong, Cambodia

I wasn't dreaming.  I was floating.  On my back staring skywards.  Wispy clouds crawled across a blue sky.  Birds circled and danced across my vision, eventually flying out of sight to perch in the dense jungle of palms that dominated the small island in the Gulf of Thailand.  The water lapped lazily against the shore.  Gently the waves rocked me back and forth.  All around me an ocean of turquoise crystal, the most clear dazzling water I've ever seen.  Righting myself I could feel sand as fine as powder beneath my feet.  Looking down, tiny fish darted away from the reach of my toes.  A breeze swayed the giant leaves of the coconut trees.  The thatched roofs of the bungalows rustled and shell wind chimes jingled.  It was hard to imagine a mere day ago I was shivering on the frozen steppes of Central Asia.  I allowed the waves to let me fall backwards into the sea.  The waters of the Indian Ocean soaking away my coal callused fingers and easing my muscles.  Floating on my back once again I felt rejuvenated by the sun, the warmth, the air.  I closed my eyes allowing myself to be soothed.  I wasn't dreaming.


"Oh Mama, ain't it good to be alive?"

Friday, February 1, 2013

"Ah, you're a devil you can push those buttons 'til there's no more water in the well, fires burning in Hell, flowing in my veins. I've been around I know you brother, I know how this story goes. You and me push it to blows, then I feel sad. I love to even up the score. But I don't go there, anymore."

It was the slowest week ever.  Same old teaching routine, but it crawled by.  Each day dragged.  It was the light at the end that made this week slower than most.  Vacation.  Warm weather, beaches, fruit, cold drinks, trees.  Cambodia.  A country I had often read about during high school and college but never saw myself ever having the opportunity to go there.  Yet here it was.  And I was going.  Relax on the southern beaches, explore the ruins of Angkor, take in a new culture, a new language, a new climate, a new exciting place in the world.  All I had to do was make it until Saturday.

Saturday came.  The busiest this year.  Omnodelger was hosting the Khentii Aimag Western Soum's Olympics.  Students from small towns all over Khentii flocked to my tiny town to compete in a variety of school subjects.  As the only native speaker present I was to be the chief judge for the English portion.  In between proctoring exams, judging speaking, and reading off listening portions to students I found time to find a ride that would take me away towards Ulaanbaatar to get my vacation started once the exams were finished.  My driver told me he'd leave "later" the usual answer.  In my experience this meant from anywhere between 6:00pm to 10:00pm.  This being the one time where leaving later would work to my advantage as I wanted to finish up with the Olympics.

Hours later around 2:00pm I had just finished grading a speaking portion of the exam when my driver called.  He wanted to leave now.  The exams weren't finished, I couldn't leave.  I cursed my luck, the one time I actually wanted to leave late is the one time I have an opportunity to leave at a reasonable hour.  I regrettably told him to leave without me and I would find another ride.  Explaining my misfortune to Saruul I tasked her with finding me a new driver while I gave the next round of tests.

Later that evening I sat around grading the exams with my counterparts and all of the other soums English teachers.  It was fun and lighthearted, as we competitively joked with one another as we tallied up the scores.  To my delight Omnodelger took three gold medals and one silver.  As I was giving myself a mental pat on the back two of the other soums teachers began arguing with one another.  Quick fire Mongolian, hand gestures, and one of the teachers snatched up two tests and put them side by side.  I quickly saw their predicament.  Two students from two different soums got tied scores.  They were both tied for a bronze medal.  I slowly slunk back trying to make myself less noticeable, but I was too late.  Munkhkherlen pushed the papers across the table towards me, "Justin, you must choose who will take the bronze medal."  The two competing teachers eyed me sternly.  C'mon man I just wanna go on vacation I whined in my head, aware that now one of those teachers would be directing anger towards me.  I scanned both tests and made a decision based on the students ability to comprehend the question in the essay portion.  After picking a winner I was delighted to see everyone shake hands and congratulate each other.  During the revelry Saruul looked up from her seat and smiled at me, "You better go home and pack your things, your ride will come soon."  I practically skipped and whistled my way home.

I sat on my bed.  My bag packed by the door.  My ger clean and put together for when I would return.  My coat was on.  My boots were on.  The fire was beginning to die.  The familiar waiting game.  Six o' clock turned into seven and then into eight.  This was normal though.  Drivers claiming they'd leave at six would not actually leave until many hours later.  I'd never learn though.  The American in me was always packed and ready to go at the allotted time.  Eagerly sitting by the door like a little kid told he would be taken out for ice cream soon.  It was around 9:30 that I started to get irritated.  I went over to Tuya's and gave her my driver's name.  She said she had his number, she'd call him and find out when he was coming.  I went back into my ger and sat waiting for her to text me.

 It wasn't until a little after 10:00pm that I got her text.  Reading the words, I saw spots in my eyes.  Clenching the phone so hard I was afraid it would break.  He had decided he wasn't going to go tonight.  He made this decision hours ago but neglected to tell me.  Now it was too late.  All the other drivers were gone.  I would have to wait until tomorrow.  This set my preparations for leaving back drastically.  In an frantic fury I fired off messages to all of my counterparts seeing if they knew anyone who was still in town that would leave for the city that night.  An apologetic message from Munkhkherlen was my only reply.  Defeated, I resigned to just watch a show on my computer and try to sleep.  I tried and couldn't, I needed to blow off steam.  I threw on my sweatshirt, boots, gloves, and put on my headlamp.  Stepping outside I grabbed my axe and at 10:30 at night I began chopping wood.  Whack!  The axe hit the stump with a satisfying crunch.  Whack!  The log split in a shower of splinters.  With no rhythm or method to my chopping I cut into the wood like a mad man.  Two headlights blinded me from my insane chopping spree.  Sweating and panting I glared up at the vehicle, angry for being interrupted.  Expecting to see Dawkhraa and his hunting buddies to come piling out I was shocked when I saw every one of my counterparts come climbing out of the jeep and running towards me instead.  Each one with a big smile on their faces.  Saruul opened her mouth to speak but then stopped and raised her eyebrow when she saw what I had been doing.  Regaining her train of thought she went on excitedly.  "Justin aa, we have found you a ride!"  Bolormaa came running up behind her, "It is a microbus from Binder soum, it was going through our town, we stopped it for you!"  Saruul waved her arms towards my ger, "Get your things, hurry."  Together me and all of my counterparts, Munkherlen, Saruul, Bolormaa, Oyunchimeg, and Enkhtor took off into my ger.  They hurriedly grabbed up my things.  "You have to dress very warm."  Saruul exclaimed as I put on my coat.  "The microbus is very full with people, you will be uncomfortable."  I didn't care, I was too overjoyed.  "You have to sit on the meat!"  Bolormaa shouted as she pulled the blanket from my bed.  "Sit on this, the meat will be cold."  We dashed out into the street where a microbus was waiting.  As Munkhkherlen pulled open the doors I could see every inch of space was crowded with either people or frozen slabs of livestock.  They passed my things into the vehicle and one of the passengers offered up his seat for me so I wouldn't have to be banished to the meat.  My counterparts wished me safe travels and as I climbed in Munkhkherlen whispered in my ear, "Text me when you get to Baganuur, we don't know these people, they aren't from our town."  As I sat down I felt emotional.

It was right then that I knew without a doubt that what they felt for me and what I felt for them was nothing short of love.    

Monday, December 31, 2012

"Your eyes alight with sun shot rays. A riot of color is a banquet for your name. The worlds alight with coals aflame."

Om mani padme hum

I remember the day I met Choijamts.  It was my first August in Omnodelger.  It was a hot summer day. Cloudless blue sky.  I remember it was sunny.  Really sunny.  I was bustling back and forth around my ger.  I had just received furniture.  I remember scurrying back and forth trying to organize my life into the small space I'd be calling home for the next two years.  Bluegrass music twanged from my laptop.  My ger door hung open.  The sun's rays bursting through to soak the vinyl floor in its brilliance.  I was so caught up in giving my Mongolian home some American flavor that I didn't even hear him come in.  "Oui!" My head shot up, startled.  I looked towards the doorway and squinted against the vibrant rays.  A hunched silhouette filled the entrance to my ger.  He shuffled out of the sun's grasp chuckling to himself having caught me by surprise.  Dressed in a dark purple deel, camouflage pants, and a tattered cabbie's hat the aged figure came towards me.  He grasped my hand introducing himself.  He gripped my palm and patted my wrist with his other weathered hand.  "My name is Choijamts," he said.  I remember it was hard to understand much after that.  My poor Mongolian mixed with his low mumbled voice caused me to strain to understand every word.  He said the weather was nice.  It was hot.  It was sunny.  He gestured towards the bright doorway slowly with a crooked finger.  Did I like the furniture?  Do I need more?  Is there anything else I needed?  Can I make a fire?  He said he'd come back when it got colder and teach me.  Just like that he was gone.  He shook my hand again.  Waved goodbye then moved at a snails pace onto the sun dried grass and back into the street.
I remember I stood in my sunny doorway and watched him go.

A creaking.  Plastic and wood stretching, then a clatter.  Metallic rustling of knives, spoons, forks and utensils tumbling down as the shelf of my food cabinet collapsed in on itself.  "Damn it, again?!?"  I shouted aloud.  My furniture had been on its last legs for months now.  It was the middle of winter and the Chinese furniture I inherited from my predecessor was worse for wear.  My kitchen cabinet's shelves continued to collapse and break apart on regular intervals.  The wood so full of holes from me poorly hammering it back together made it look like swiss cheese.  My clothes dresser was also in shambles with the doors detaching every time they swung on their hinges.  I decided to take action before I too started cursing China.  I stormed off to school.  I found Munkhkherlen.  Explained my predicament.  The American wanted furniture and he wanted it now.  She just shrugged at me.  "Lets go see Choijamts."  So we did.  Trudged from the school through the snow to the dormitories where we entered a tiny room upstairs.  I was met with the sound of a rasping cough as I entered.  Simple Mongolian furnishings lined the walls.  A painted chest, carved coffee table, a decorated mirror.  I passed an altar with piles of spent incense.  There in the back of the room on a wooden bed was Choijamts.  For the first time I noticed I could see my breath in his room.  It was freezing.  He was huddled on the bed clutching the purple deel up to his chin and stifling another cough.  I could see he was ill.  He reached up to shake my hand from the bed.  Suddenly my trivial problem of cheap furniture was forgotten.  Forget me, someone get him a blanket!  I screamed in my head.  But it was already too late.  Munkhkherlen without any introduction began rambling off my grievances.  I waved my arms behind her whispering under my breath for her to just forget it, it wasn't important.  The point had already come across though, he nodded from his bed.  "I'll find you good Mongolian furniture."  he said, coughing into his deel.  I remember being so grateful, I didn't know how to show my gratitude.  I don't know why but I said the first thing that popped into my head.  "Do you like to play Mongolian cards?"  I asked.  His eyes lit up.  "Of course!"  he exclaimed, "But I have no cards."  Fifteen minutes later I was back in his room, having fetched a deck of cards from my home.  He sat up on the bed and we played cards on the tiny coffee table.  I never won.
The next day.  I was in my ger grading papers.  When a knock resounded against my door.  Thats weird, I thought, no one knocks here.  No sooner had I opened the door then bursting through came a convoy of school workers all carrying beautiful pieces of Mongolian furniture.  Setting them down where I asked, they turned to leave.  As the last worker exited my ger he turned to me.  "Choijamts says if you need anything else please tell him."

Days went by.  Weeks went by.  A year and five months went by.  Every time I saw Choijamts he greeted me with that handshake.  Always sporting his signature purple deel and cabbie hat.  "Do you have enough wood?"  he'd ask.  "Do you need more coal?" he'd inquire.  "Lets play cards!"
When I encountered him on the street he'd greet me and walk with me to school.  He'd wrap one hand into the crook of my arm and I'd walk at a snails pace with him chatting the best I could while minding the ice.  As my second Mongolian winter set in he came with a bundle of cardboard, pulled up a stool next to my stove and proceeded to make a fire.  I remember between one of our frequent card games I paused to demonstrate a card trick to him.  I remember him cackling uncontrollably, rocking on his stool with laughter after the convoluted magic trick finished and I revealed the only remaining card on the table to be the one he had chosen.  Times beyond counting I remember being seated somewhere in our teacher's room.  Caught up in grading or lesson planning, mesmerized in some task, when I'd look up to see his hunched figure over me.  Hand extended.  Ready for that handshake.

This year I celebrated Christmas in the Gobi Desert with other volunteers.  After the interesting but joyous celebration was finished I made my trek back east alone.  A fifteen hour car trip, I sat on the bus and listened to music.  Snow drove out of the sky, whirling outside my window and beating against the road.  My daydreaming was interrupted when I pulled my phone from my pocket.  I had a text message.  It was from Tuya.  The first part of the message was standard.  My cat was fine and hadn't frozen while I was away, but he was low on food.  The second part of the message was what shook me.  It was about Choijamts.  Two words together stuck out to me.  The first being "nas".  The second being "barsan".  Separately I knew them both, (age) and (expired).  I didn't need a dictionary to understand that when you put them together in Mongolian it translates to "deceased".  Downcast after confirming my suspicions with Tuya.  I just rested my head on the window, let the music drone on, watched the snow drive on,  and let my thoughts carry me on to Omnodelger.

I dragged myself from my bed at seven in the morning.  Bundled up as warmly as I could.  I gave a quick hello to friends and family stateside via the internet then trudged out into the morning darkness.  I headed to meet at Munkhkherlen's home, not understanding why I was instructed to leave so early.  I only knew we would meet to say a last goodbye to Choijamts.  The morning was cold, the air crisp and frozen.  I walked across town and met Munkhkherlen outside her yard.  Together we walked to a relative of Choijamts' ger.  As we approached I saw how crowded it was.  People huddled in deels and winter jackets congregated outside of the hashaa fence.  Cars were parked at every which angle all throughout the street.  It seemed as though the whole town was here.  Either through tiredness or the somberness of the occasion people were quiet.  Hushed whispers and mumbled conversations.  We stood and waited with the crowd.  I bounced back and forth slowly on two feet to keep my blood moving.  "Whats happening?" I asked my counterpart Enkhtor, "What are we waiting for?"  She gestured with her hand towards the eastern horizon.  "We are waiting for the sun,"  she explained.  "Then we can say goodbye."  The beauty of what she said dazzled me.  I didn't know how to respond. I could only nod.  From the crowd my director's wife, Naranjargal took me and three other teachers by the arm.  "My home is right there,"  she said, pointing at the hashaa over.  "Lets have tea and wait inside, its warm."  We drank tea in her house in silence.  I sipped the white milk tea slowly letting the steam rise and warm my face.  Pulling back the curtain Naranjargal turned to us, "It's time, lets go."  When we got back outside everyone was lined up side by side flanking the entrance of the hashaa gate.  We stood in with the long rows of people and waited.  Everyone was quiet.  All eyes to the horizon.  At first just stains of pinks and oranges.  Long streaks of watercolor yellows and reds.  Then suddenly, a burst of illumination came from the peak of a distant mountaintop.  Then another.  And another.  Until the tell-tale rim of humanity's most precious star lit up the horizon.  As if on cue a chanting began sounding from inside the hashaa.  As the sun continued to rise a procession exited, men bore the simple wooden coffin on their shoulders as they made their way from the gers and into the street.  Behind them walked two monks, bareheaded and in simple red robes, chanting in Tibetan and ringing a bell.  Behind the monks walked two women in deels.  One carried a large platter of Mongolian boov, fried dough inlaid with designs and arranged on a dish in a symbolic way.  She held it out in front of her moving the plate in tiny circles.  The other woman carried a bowl of milk and as she followed the coffin she ladled little droplets out, tossing them up towards the sky.  The coffin was hoisted into the back of a waiting microbus, the men jumped in behind it to hold it in place, then the large van pulled away slowly at a crawl.  The crowd turned and followed.  The deel clad people of Omnodelger clutching their prayer beads and walking in silence, followed the procession towards the town's limits.  The monks chanted.  The bell rang.  The women offered their boov and milk.  When we reached the edge of town the microbus picked up speed and drove out towards the steppe.  No doubt silently giving one final goodbye to Choijamts, the crowd stopped and we all looked on.

I stood on the sunny street and watched him go.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

"You'd think that I could muster up a little soft shoed gentle sway but I don't feel like dancin', no sir, no dancin' today."

"What country is that?"  I asked, pausing from painting the vast expanse of northern Canada.  I gestured towards Ulzii-Bayar as he colored a long peninsula forest green.  He stopped painting and pondered the landmass.  "Hmmm, I don't know," he admitted shrugging his shoulders.  I pointed to it with my brush handle.  "It's Thailand," I added.   "Ah, right," he smiled.  "It's warm there, I'll go there some day," he added this with an air suggesting that this had been determined for some time.

It has been over a year in the making.  The World Map Project.  I first got the idea browsing our Peace Corps resources website many many months ago.  After making multiple forays out to the city to get the appropriate supplies, helping another volunteer do the project in a neighboring town, and gathering support and interest in my school, my English Club and I were finally ready to tackle the task.  To my students it meant a really hands on English/Geography lesson.  As we painted I asked them personal questions about what we were creating.  What countries have you visited?  What countries do you want to visit?  What's this island?  What's that continent?  Do you think its as cold as Mongolia here?  After the three day project finally finished they ended with enthusiasm and I'm hoping further knowledge of our world.

To me the project meant all those things too.  Sharing two things I'm pretty good at English and geography, but it also meant something a little more.  Multiple volunteers have called Omnodelger home over the years.  A small handful of women, one man, and now me.  I am to be the last of Omnodelger's Peace Corps volunteers.  The town has met its cap.  Time for other places to get a turn.  As I roam the halls of our little school physical evidence of those past volunteers is almost nonexistent.  Every once and while whilst rummaging and searching for some forgotten resource I'll stumble upon an old photo or a lost lesson plan of one of my predecessors.  It is sobering to say the least.  For me the map project is something physical.  Something that will stand through time if appreciated.  It isn't a legacy or a testament to myself.  It simply echoes in a colorful way that the Peace Corps was here.  That a handful of foreigners were here.  That individuals wanted to help and came here.

That we were here.

Thursday, December 6, 2012


He came down the mountain,
Frosty beard and smokin' breath,
It was such a long road,
His shadow asked him for a lift,
It said, "I don't mean to be a trouble now."
"But, can you take me to where evening lasts?"
He said, "You know I'm here to help you."
"Just no ones had the sense to ask."

She came up the river,
Made her way on broken strings,
She had such long hair,
Smooth fingers and golden rings,
"We oughta live for tomorrow."
Catch the wind without a care,
She said, "You know I'm here to help you."
"But first meet me halfway there."

He walked into the country,
Worn boots and dirty nails,
Seems like he was running,
But from what, I can't tell,
A young mother, she's shivering,
Shakes her fists up to the sky,
They say, "You know we're here to help you."
She says, "Leave us be, we'll get by."

Halfway spent,
You know I'm halfway home,
Halfway frozen to the bone,
Halfway gone,
You know I'm halfway there,
Lord don't make me,
A halfhearted man.