Saturday night is the one month anniversary of our group’s arrival in Mongolia. Sometimes it feels like we just got here (probably because in the grand scheme of things we have). Sometimes it feels like we’ve been here forever. Either way, one of the great joys of my first few weeks has been the ability to share the experience with all of you back home, trying to give you a glimpse of the people I’m meeting and the language I’m learning, a taste of the foods I’m eating, and a view of the terrain I’m learning to navigate every day.
But more importantly, what I’ve really loved is getting online every few days to see people calling me a badass on Facebook.
I mean, after all, if you travel half-way around the world to live in a developing country but don’t post it on Facebook, how can you be sure that cultural immersion is really happening? If you can’t project a rugged, adventurous persona via social media, why buy so many khaki clothes? I’d love nothing more than to perpetuate the myth that I’m living like some sort of intrepid explorer with the National Geographic Society. But it’s time for me to come clean and admit: the rumors of my bad-assery have been greatly exaggerated.
As it turns out, life in Mongolia is really not that hard. Not yet anyway. Sure, I use an outhouse instead of an indoor toilet. I can’t drive and my daily commute to school would be better described as a hike. I only get to the shower house once a week. I wear the same clothes over and over and when I do wash them, it’s by hand. But millions of people live like this every day, and they’re happy and healthy. Take it from me, the girl whose version of ‘camping’ is sleeping in a tent situated next to her parents’ RV with its running water and satellite TV—the life I’m living now is not that hard.
First, I have everything I need, and more. I have a roof over my head and a bed to sleep in. Unlike some places in the world, I have easy and inexpensive access to clean water. And that water can be boiled because we have electricity that so far has gone out only once. I can blow dry my hair when I want. There aren’t that many bugs. It’s summer. Second, I’m in this with 90 other people. When everyone around you is wearing the clothes they wore the day before, it’s really no big deal. Third, I have some pretty incredible perks here: I have a khasha mom who prepares three meals a day for me. I have an in-country support network of people committed to helping me learn the language and culture. And I have the amazing luxury of time—to study the language, to get to know my community, and to get trained up for the job I’ll be doing for the next two years. It’s really a pretty sweet deal.
That’s not to say I haven’t had my ups and downs. For one, I like to be good at things. Something I might have pondered more carefully before shipping off. Here in Mongolia, I’m not good at much yet. My Mongolian consists of three- and four-word sentences like ‘I like cucumber,’ and ‘I tomorrow clothes wash?’ I had to be shown how to wash my clothes. I don’t know which meat to buy and which to stay away from at the market. I can’t roll out the dough for noodles evenly. I don’t know how to clean carpets without a vacuum and Stanley Steemer. There are days when I think my host family must wonder how I’ve stayed alive for 46 years. I’m thinking of asking a bilingual Mongolian friend to make a sign for me to wear around my neck listing all the things I can do, just so people know. Things like writing long, wordy e-mails in English. Walking in high heels. Picking up dry cleaning. Operating a pressure washer. Making salad. I’ll hang another sign on my back that says, ‘Really. These skills are useful in my country.’
There are also a few cultural/environmental factors that I looked past in the beginning, but that are now starting to wear on me ever so slightly: Seeing trash and broken bottles strewn everywhere across the streets and hillsides. Needing to be constantly vigilant about every step I take (I looked up for a just a moment the other day and barely missed an open manhole.) Saying hello and smiling at an elderly gentleman on my walk home, only to realize that I may have inadvertently signaled a desire to sleep with him. (I’m not entirely clear on this. All I know is that on closer examination, his eyes were bloodshot, I’m guessing as the result of a lot of Chinggis vodka, he was grinning at me, speaking rapid fire Mongolian, and gesturing for me to come with him. Mom, Dad, no need to worry. I was never in any real danger. I simply switched to my best non-verbal expression of horror combined with complete lack of comprehension and he quickly moved on.)
Then there’s the fact that despite having such a great group of PCTs and a wonderful host family, once in a while I can still get a little lonely. I miss my family. I miss being able to run out for coffee or dinner with friends. I miss having people around who’ve known me for years and know just what I need to hear when I’m feeling anxious or sad. People who get why, in my melancholy moments, I like nothing more than crawling into bed (preferably queen-sized with a down comforter) to binge-watch Lifetime TV movie marathons. It’s easy to think that if I were home with everyone, I’d be immune to feelings of loneliness. But I know that’s not true. Occasional melancholy is just a natural part of my emotional rhythm, probably part of being human—not necessarily a direct result of living in another country.
Fortunately, the lows haven’t lasted too long. Just when I start to think, ‘My god, what have I done? Did I really sign up for two years?’ something happens and I realize it’s all going to be OK. Like having one of my adorable students give me a Valentine’s Day sticker as a present in June. I plan to wear it on my jacket until it falls off. Or having one of my site mates share a story about falling over in the outhouse. (Truth: Nothing heals so much as the ability to laugh at someone else’s misfortune.) Or having PCTs that I’ve known for less than a month give me birthday hugs, buy me birthday coffee and tea, and take the time to tap out birthday wishes on our anything but smart phones. Then, as quickly as the weather changes in Mongolia, so does my mood. Which is great, because after all of my Facebook activity, if I were to ET now (that’s Peace Corps-speak for early termination), my pride would force me to keep it secret from all of you. Even if I moved back to the States, I’d have to live somewhere far away and get a job where there’s zero risk of seeing anyone I know. Maybe the Target in Tukwila.
Undoubtedly, things are going to get harder. In seven short weeks, we’ll be on our own. I’ll need to cook and clean and get water for myself, versus having a host family that does it all for me. I’ll likely be the sole PCV in my town, rather than living in a city with 20 others. And winter is coming. Lord only knows how I’ll adapt to that. But for now, life really is quite do-able.