It hit with a suddenness that took took my breath away. One minute I was staring eagerly out the window of my second Russian van in as many weeks, excited for the trip to the Gobi that had barely begun, and the next I was slumped against the seat, so exhausted at the prospect of being shaken half to death for the next seven days that I would have given almost anything to be out of that seat and back in the capital city.
My plans had been ambitious: after my two weeks in Thailand, I’d spend a month in Mongolia that would take me west to the Eagle Festival in Bayan-Ulgii, south to the Gobi, and back up to Erdenet to celebrate my birthday with my friends. Then I’d ship most of my belongings home, joining friends in Vietnam and seeing Angkor Wat in Cambodia before finally returning home for Thanksgiving.
Needless to say, things had not gone as planned. I’d gotten sick upon returning from Thailand, forcing me to move my planned Gobi trip from mid-September to early October. That three-week delay, seemingly so trivial, would force me to register to stay beyond my allotted month, and it would also severely curtail my tour options. Mid-September is still sort of tourist season in Mongolia; October most assuredly is not. The one tour to the Gobi I was able to join left Ulaanbaatar a mere 15 hours after my flight from the west landed. I needed a few days to rest from one trip before beginning another, and I wasn’t going to get them.
And so, in that moment of window-gazing realization, my plans were upended. I knew then that I was simply too tired to continue my intended itinerary. After the Gobi trip, I returned to Ulaanbaatar even more traveled-out than I’d left it. Though the prospect of a beach somewhere in southeast Asia tempted me, given that I’d be headed home into a Chicago winter, I couldn’t quite manage to find it worth the ordeal of getting there. All the itineraries to Bangkok were awful, forcing me to arrive past midnight or spend the night in the Beijing airport. I could have taken the extra-long layover option, using the time to see Beijing itself, but even the thought of seeing the Great Wall paled next to my exhaustion of the thought of more crowds, more customs forms, and another language I didn’t understand.
It was time to go home.
“You know, your cousin in Florida’s having a baby shower the first weekend of November,” said my mother. “Florida has beaches.” And while I know the Thai islands must make Florida’s coastline look like a drab sparrow to its colorful parrot, I decided Florida was enough. Within an hour, we’d booked a flight that would get me home in time for Halloween. I leave tomorrow afternoon, and though I’ve spent the past few days packing and repacking to meet the baggage guidelines, I still can’t quite process that fact.
If you’re dismayed at not yet having heard my stories about the places I’ve been in the past two months, worry not; I have dozens of blog posts about Thailand, Bayan-Ulgii, and the Gobi that are still brewing, and even more on the rest of my time here. My experiences here have given me material to blog about for at least another year, and I fully intend to make use of it. There are lots of tales yet to tell, beginning with the conclusion to the hiking disaster cliffhanger.
But first, I have other matters to attend to. As my nearly fifteen months in Asia draw rapidly to a close, I find myself with a lot of thanks to bestow upon the people who have helped and supported me throughout that time.
First and foremost, of course, those thanks have to go to Mom and Dad. I can’t begin to quantify all you’ve done for me in the past few months (not to mention my whole life), so I won’t even try. Now you can quit fretting yourself into an ulcer, Mom. Just think – as long as the Grand High Military Masters of Fickleness don’t change their minds at the last minute (as they so often do), you get to have both your chicks home for the holidays!
The second (and equally obvious) recipient is the Fulbright Program that brought me to this fantastic country. Friends who told me, when I was dithering between Mongolia (as a Fulbrighter) and France (with TAPIF), that I’d be nuts to pass up this fantastic opportunity – thanks. You were right. Accepting the Fulbright got me more than a plane ticket across the world and a placement at a school; I can’t begin to count the number of doors it has made available to me. I now have Mongolian pseudo-relatives so determinedly hospitable that they get offended if I don’t let them know when I’m in town or make the time to visit them; I have friends in Ireland, Slovakia, Germany, Spain, and numerous other countries whom I would not have met had I not been in Asia and with whom, I have been strenuously informed, I am to stay should I ever pass through their parts of the world. I have a high-profile program name to put on my resume, and a schnazzy @fulbright.com email address available to me, should I choose to use it. I have connections in the US Department of State (!) and Foreign Service who have been honest and enthusiastic in providing information about those career paths, should I choose to pursue them. I have contacts at the US Embassy in Mongolia who never hesitated to provide assistance in ways far below their job description, whether it was by helping me in my (futile) search for motion-sickness medication or calling my co-teacher to explain what, precisely, she needed to put in that letter I need for my exit visa. Uyangas, you da bomb.
The other Fulbrighters, too, deserve thanks: my own cohort for the great time I had with them, and the new one for folding me into their social group and helping me with the unexpectedly extensive preparations needed before I can leave. Fifteen months in a country leave you with lot of baggage, and though I’ve known them only a few months, they volunteered to help me shoulder it even before I could ask. I’m so glad I stayed on long enough to meet you guys, and I wish our time here overlapped more.
But the biggest thank-you I need to bestow is to a different and less obvious group, and that’s Peace Corps Mongolia. Whereas I was part of only the third group of Fulbright English Teaching Assistants in Mongolia, the new generation of Peace Corps Volunteers is the twenty-fourth to serve in this country. As the more established program, it has far more resources and a much better-developed support system. It was my great fortune to be placed in the same city as six PCVs who, without hesitation, granted me access to both.
My thanks, however, go not just to the organization itself, but to the people who make it up. The greatest part about living with so many PCVs was the way it hooked me into a country-wide network of other PCVs. There are volunteers in just about ever corner of this country, and they are some of the most helpful and welcoming people I have ever known. There is no possible way to thank these people for every individual thing they’ve done for me, but I’d like to mention a few.
Thank you for immediately folding me into your social network, for insisting that I attend early gatherings that I would otherwise have skipped for fear I was imposing. Thank you for including me in your educational endeavors, for providing a teaching environment far more rewarding than the one I was assigned. For your unwavering patience in explaining the bewildering array of acronyms that are an integral part of the Peace Corps patois, and for forgetting at times that I might need such explanations, as though I’d been part of your group from the beginning. Thank you for taking the time to accompany and assist me on errands in the days when even a visit to the post office far exceeded my pathetic language skills. Thank you for providing your expertise on little, everyday matters, even if it meant responding to a text from someone you’d never met. For offering your floors to sleep on, when you had the room to do so, and for throwing out the welcome mat in other ways when you did not. For the open invitation to visit your homes, near or far, and the way it expanded my travel prospects. Thank you for welcoming me, and the rest of the Fulbrighters, to Peace Corps Thanksgiving, for giving us a family with whom to celebrate when our own families were so far away.
Thank you for accepting me as one of your own.
The biggest thanks, of course, go to the Erdenet Peace Corps Volunteers, whom I saw nearly every other day during my grant term and without whom I would surely have gone stir-crazy, and to the friend in the Gobi who acted as a much-needed confidante during my difficult winter. I found myself in what ought to have been a Peace Corps placement without the much more extensive Peace Corps training, and without all of your support, I might well have broken my contract and gone home early. I certainly would not have stayed five months after the end of my grant term to experience more of this country and culture. The Fulbright program may have brought me to Mongolia, but it was the Peace Corps Volunteers who made me want to stay.
I can’t thank you enough.