10 June 2008

It’s a Wrap!

Posted by JonHaley under: Mongolia .

Gobi pics for Ruth 197.jpg

I’ve been back in Canada for a few days now, but I thought I should put on a closer post before everything gets mixed up again. (I’m still waiting for some photos from my Gobi trip, which I’ll post as soon as I can!) I don’t want to be too boring so I’ll just sum up the experience in general and make a few points about some key stuff.

This was definitely one of the bigger things I’ve done in my life and it will leave an impression for quite a while I’m sure. The experience for me was nearly all positive and I believe I was able to achieve pretty much everything I hoped to achieve in terms of getting outside my bubble of North American pseudo-reality, becoming immersed in a culture and language much different from my own, and doing something positive for the benefit of many Mongolians.

The overseas volunteering concept is definitely not perfect. I’ve seen first hand how it can be inefficient, condescending, and just plain wasteful. I’ve also seen many of the other manifestations of international aid and development and how completely off the wall they can be. So while acknowledging the faults of overseas specialist volunteering, i.e. VSO, I’m still a firm believer that it does many positive things and produces generally good results overall. I’d definitely like to volunteer again with VSO or another group in the future. After I’ve gained some experience working in Canada as an engineer for a few years, I’ll be in a better position to share my expertise in another country (maybe not in Mongolia again though). I also encourage anyone else who may be interested to consider it as well.

In terms of the cultural exchange that I experienced, it will take me a while before I can step on someone’s foot and not have a knee-jerk reaction to immediately shake their hand, or to point with one finger instead of my whole arm and give something to someone without supporting my right hand at the elbow, or the many other customs I picked up. Learning Mongolian, a language about as far removed in origin from English as possible, and achieving some level of rudimentary communication was one of the most worthwhile things I did out there. Even though I was never able to have an actual in depth conversation with anybody, I was at least able to connect with a few people in their own language and have communication occur at some level. Also the friends I made there both foreign and Mongolian had a huge impact on my life and world-view. I’ve learn all sorts of the things about Mongolians, but also about English, Scottish, Dutch, Filipino, Kenyan, Australian, and Japanese people.

The only thing for sure about Mongolia is that it is changing too quickly to be able to say anything for sure about it. In the nine months I was there, the changes to the city landscape, political landscape, and international makeup have been very noticeable. If I come back in a few years, I’m sure it will be a very different country. The saddest part about that is it is becoming just like everywhere else. How many capital cities around the world have neither a Starbucks nor a single American fast food chain? UB is likely one of the dying few. How many countries have a large nomadic population, with pockets of people living a traditional lifestyle nearly unchanged for thousands of years? Unfortunately, not even Mongolian herder families are immune to the forces of capitalism, globalization, and climate change, and eventually they too will have to adapt and change to fit into the “modern world”.

Never again will I be able to wonder about Mongolia, the word will no longer conjure up images of ice fields, mean-ass dudes on horses, or an endless vacant wasteland. I now have seen enough to know these stereotypes are seriously outdated and wrong, and I hope anyone who has read this blog or at least looked at the pictures will have changed their views as well. The only way to actually understand and get a feeling for this country, however, is to visit it. I would encourage anybody who has any interest, to visit as soon as possible, before it is too late!

Here are my top 10 Mongolian experiences in no particular order:

  • My first day in the country, driving out to a ger camp in Terelj National park and being thoroughly happy to have chosen Mongolian (over The Gambia, my second choice).
  • Sharing a very awkward elevator ride during Tsaagan Sar (lunar new year) with an old lady, two frozen solid sheep carcasses and a dog.
  • The rush and exhilaration of defying the odds and arriving at work in the morning during the winter, avoiding the homicidal drivers, the ice patches, the -30C weather, the thick smog, the huge open holes in the sidewalk and the blinding sunlight.
  • The novelty of having my nose hair and eyelashes frozen together and my scarf and hat caked in frost after only a short walk outside.
  • Seeing an “Eagle Festival” complete with fox hunting, rabbit sacrifice, and a rousing match of Goat Polo.
  • Climbing and sliding down the huge, perfectly uniform sand dunes of the Khogoryn Els in the Gobi Dessert.
  • Partying it up with my roommates and Mongolian friends during our Halloween, Christmas, and St. Patrick’s Day parties. Plus, the bizarre stuff that always goes down at UB night clubs, including contortionist shows, Cwalk faceoffs, and huge circle dances to really bad Russian techno music.
  • Coming across a herd of 1000 yaks and over 4000 sheep and goats in the middle of the vast steppe. They were being herded across Mongolia by 4 people on horse back and two dogs for 60 days.
  • My short trips to India and China for giving me a lot of extra context and perspective to fit into my Mongolian experience, and being amazing in their own right.
  • Arguing with taxi drivers, ordering food at the guanz, cracking lame jokes with some oldsters who had stopped me on the street, trying to impress girls, and making connections with Mongolians whenever they were available.

Thanks for reading!

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