I’m an American. But since 2008 when I went to Mongolia as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I feel I’ve become half Mongolian. I even have two names: Judy and the Mongolian one my friends gave me: Jargalmaa meaning Happy Mother.
And though I’m no longer in Peace Corps I have returned each year to Mongolia to visit my friends who now feel like family. I’ve watched as some got married, had babies, changed jobs, built homes, and sent those growing-up babies off to school. And yes, I’ve seen some sad things during those past six and a half years: illness, divorce, disappointments and death. Two different cultures but all one family.
Overall, it is a joyous reunion each year (usually July) when the small propeller plane sets down at our little Muron airport and friends are at the gate to welcome me back to my Mongolian home. This summer was no exception. Many people knew I was coming and those who didn’t know would spot me later on the street and we would exchange warm greetings.
Gurvan Naiz happens!
If you read my blog from last summer’s trip, you’ll know that my Mongolian friends Esee and Moogie and I talked about working together to establish a little summer pre-school kindergarten for a group of herders in Burentogtokh far out in the countryside in their summer grazing grounds. We planned to call it “Gurvan Naiz” meaning Three Friends, but by the time it opened there were many people involved: the Burentogtokh school district, two teachers, World Vision, friends from America who contributed in various ways, and me.
Fortunately, I was able to attend the closing ceremony for the little school along with parents, teachers, and people from World Vision including its country director. No one celebrates better than Mongolians. The teachers helped the children prepare and we watched as they sang, recited poetry, and danced in the middle of this vast open valley. We laughed and clapped and even shed a few tears of joy, and then we shared in the khorhog feast to conclude the ceremony. Hope we can help again next year.
Mongolia is growing…flowers and vegetables I mean
While I’m in Mongolia I stay with my dear friends Enkhtuuvshin and Otgo whose sweet family now numbers four—two daughters, 2 years and 6 months last summer. Their new little greenhouse sheltered cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, lettuce and even a surprise poppy plant! And flowers were planted everywhere—a lot of watering to do in a dry climate.
Cabbages and more cabbages
Bold and Tsermaa, the couple who owned and lived in the other half of house where I lived during Peace Corps took me out into the countryside to show me their fields of vegetables including the cabbages from seeds I had sent them (and which grow well in short seasons and that they can’t get there). I was so impressed. These will keep well into the winter along with other root vegetables that they grow. They’ll sell them at the local market.
The major summer holiday is called Naadam when the three manly sports are celebrated: wrestling, horse racing and archery. I got to go to two this year: one in the town of Burentogtogh and one in Muron—this year a big one because of a major horse race for stallions drawing horses from all over Mongolia.
Of course, no visit would be complete without going out to Bat Erdene’s camp west of Muron with the glorious view out over the valley of the Delgermoron River. In addition to the many animals that graze in the valley we spotted “Seven Swans A-Swimming”—well, actually eight, 2 adults and 6 cygnets.
Back in UB
I had a little extra time in Ulaanbaatar this year before flying home. So I could have dinner with Alta whom I have known since Peace Corps training in 2008. And I got together with a new friend I met through a friend in Muron. Erdene is a guide and took me out to see the VERY BIG Chinngis status. You can even take an elevator up to the horse’s head and see many kilometers in every direction.
And finally, I came across a few amusing signs I thought might make you chuckle.
Then, off to Tokyo, Chicago, and Boston and home to Pond Street, jiggety jog.
Last week’s Baseball Hall of Fame voting stirred up a lot of dust. Should suspected steroid users even be eligible? Where do you draw the line? And then there’s the controversy over who should vote. At present, only sports writers are eligible to vote. So when one eligible voter basically crowd-sourced his ballot, he got banned from voting.
I have a better story. My late husband, Bob Gates, loved baseball. He played it in pick-up games growing up in Cleveland and all the way through college. He wrote about sports for the Miami University of Ohio college newspaper and was a stringer for several major papers in Ohio while still in college.
After college and a stint in the Army, he joined The Christian Science Monitor as a sports writer and moved into the Sports Editor position a few years later. And so he was a life-long member of the Baseball Writers Association of America, entitling him to vote for potential Hall of Famers as long as he lived.
Last Thanksgiving, my family gathered at my home in Marblehead. A few days before, my daughter called from Brooklyn and asked if I could find out if the club where her father had played tennis allowed guests. She and her husband thought they’d bring along their rackets and get some exercise.
So I stopped by the little club where Bob had played for a number of years. It’s a modest building with just two indoor and two outdoor courts. In the office, I found the only staff person around. I asked if the club allowed guests and then explained that my husband had been a member there some years ago. He assured me guests were welcome if courts were available and then asked who my husband was. I told him and his face lit up. He had known Bob and couldn’t say enough good things about him: what a gentleman he was and how much he enjoyed talking with him about sports (baseball in particular) and filling in as an occasional fourth for a match.
And then he told me this story: When the Hall of Fame ballot arrived each year, Bob would bring it to the club and the two would sit down together, review the options and decide whom to vote for. I think it was one of the highlights of the year for this man. It was a kind gesture typical of Bob and I was glad to finally hear about it.
I had just arrived in Ulaanbaatar, settled into Zaya’s Guesthouse and was walking down a crowded street. “Hello, Judy,” said a 20-something Mongolian walking with a friend in the other direction. I stopped in my tracks, stared at him and pointed to myself, “You know me?” “Yes,” he nodded with a smile and walked on.
I still don’t know who he was, perhaps someone who worked at Peace Corps, but I do know it made me feel I was home, back in my adopted country, Mongolia. And when I flew on to Muron the next day, my home during my Peace Corps years, friends welcomed me at the airport and later, as I walked around town, I kept hearing, “Hi, Judy!” as other friends saw me and stopped to say hello. This was my sixth summer in Muron. It feels like home.
I spent the month of July in Mongolia this year. As I did last summer, I stayed with my friend Enktuvshin and her family along with a Swiss friend also there for the month. Enkhtuvshin’s daughter, Sarangoo, is now a year old and started walking the day after we arrived. She is adorable and is more adventurous every day.
What I brought with me
I always try to bring some little gifts to share and sometimes I get requests. This year the requests included a saddle for my friend, Esee, a guide who takes people on horse treks. Since Mongolian saddles are wooden, the English style saddle is more comfortable as well as being a size appropriate for the smaller Mongolian horses. I have to admit it was a bit of a challenge to find a way to pack it!
I also brought a big bundle of children’s warm wool hats and scarves donated to me by a little knitting group from the Swampscott library next door to Marblehead. World Vision in Muron will give them to children from the many poor families in the area.
One wedding and two birthdays
Entuvshin’s brother was married while we were there—it was fun being involved in the preparations‑-like peeling mounds of potatoes as part of the food preparation for the wedding feast. And then there were two birthday parties, one for Enktuvshin where we ate, karaoked and discoed, and one for Bataa whom I have known since my first days in Muron and who is now married with a little daughter.
Bat-Erdene’s Ger Camp
Early in this trip I spent a few days at a favorite place, Hargalat Ger Camp, about an hour west of Muron. It sits high on a bluff with one of the most beautiful views in Mongolia: a broad valley with streams running through it, herds of goats and sheep and cows and camels and horses passing back and forth. Distant mountains, magnificent clouds, and fantastic sunsets. Starry nights and utter peace. Magic!
As I was a business volunteer in the Peace Corps, I am always interested in what is happening in that area. The little summer souvenir shop I helped start some years ago was open again but in a new location and not doing so well. I tried to help raise the visibility of the shop but after I left August 6 I heard it had closed. Perhaps it will go better next year.
On the other hand, a couple I had known before with a tiny knitting business have been able to get some funding and purchased some new one-person knitting machines. They are turning out some beautiful yak and sheep wool sweaters and I’ve ordered some to sell, along with some other local products, at a couple of craft fairs here leading up to the holidays.
Gurvan Naiz Kindergarten
I mentioned Esee, a local guide, earlier. Since I first got to know him and his lovely family, he has wanted to take me out to the countryside where he was brought up. In between his guiding trips this year, we did it—he and his wife, Moogie, and his three children and I drove out in his SUV miles and miles and miles out through the hills and valleys to meet his relatives in their summer grazing grounds. About 20 families of herders live scattered in gers across a broad valley looking after their flocks. I loved meeting the families and seeing this beautiful place. That evening I sampled my first marmot and my first yak vodka. Yum! I wish I had photos of the valley but unfortunately we had a lot of rain. It prevented us from riding horses but could not dampen our spirits.
On the way back the next day, Esee told me he had a dream—he wanted to start a little summer kindergarten for the children in this valley. As we drove down a road through what I can only call an extremely rocky gully between two high hills, I mused on this and then said I too had an idea—I would like to help him. Esee, Moogie, and I shared some ideas and they suggested we call it “Judy’s Kindergarten.” I didn’t want my name on it, but as we talked, I came up with an alternative. “Let’s call it ‘Gurvan Naiz Kindergarten” which means “Three Friends Kindergarten” in Mongolian. Perfect.
When we returned to Muron, I told my friend at World Vision about it and she said World Vision perhaps could help if we got a proposal together.
So now I’m back home in Marblehead working on the proposal and talking to all kinds of people about ideas that will help make it a success. We’ll need a couple of gers where the classes can be held, some modest furniture, a teacher, and some supplies.
It will probably be just a few hours a day but I’m trying to think out of the box. I’m soliciting ideas from everyone I know (YOUR ideas are welcome!) An educator friend suggested finding ways to introduce the children to children of other cultures. Another suggested using puppets so the children could make up stories and put on little plays. I hope we can find creative ways to explore the incredible nature around them and learn more about how to take care of it. I hope we can foster creativity and learn about working together to solve little problems. I have started collecting colorful books about children in other cultures and soliciting knitted puppets from some of the knitters I mentioned above.
I well know from experience that not every project turns out the way you expect but I’ll do my best and, hopefully, will have a good report next summer. Meanwhile, I treasure the month spent in Mongolia with my Mongolian family.
The dictionary defines a marathon first as “a long-distance running race”. Like the Boston Marathon. The second definition is: “a long-lasting or difficult task”. After the tragic bombing on April 15, it’s that definition we are engaged in. Any real understanding of what happened and why will indeed take a long time and won’t be easy.
But there’s another long-lasting task underway. This tragedy has also inspired people to respond with generosity, kindness, love, understanding, comfort, and patience to those in need.
Over the past week or so, three incidents have stood out to me:
Falling down and getting up
A 78-year-old Washington state man running his third Boston Marathon was near the finish line when he was knocked down by one of two bomb blasts and caught in a news photograph that quickly went viral. A race official helped him to his feet and the man walked across the finish line. Click here to see you YouTube video.
Running toward, not running away
After the two bombs went off within seconds of each other, cameras covering the event revealed many, many people running toward the site of the blasts, not just the police and other security people, but ordinary citizens, young and old. They set their own safety aside in order to come to the aid of those in need. Bless them.
Google Person Finder, hundred of offers
Shortly after the bombing, I heard about the Google spreadsheet set up to enable anyone to post offers of lodging, food, clothes, transportation, and whatever else was needed for those affected. It was impressive–hundreds of people offering help in a multitude of ways. Direct contact information was included to make it easy to get help quickly. And this was just the tip of the iceberg.
At a time when the onslaught of news about tragedies happening around the world, both large and small, seems almost overwhelming, the generous public response to help those affected by the Boston bombings is indeed heartening. I am grateful to be a witness to it.
“Judy, How are you?” I received this brief email from one of my best Mongolian friends last Saturday, one day after the Newtown tragedy. I hadn’t heard from her in a while and her spoken and written English are minimal, but I knew what was behind her question. From her standpoint, what happens in America may have happened to me.People watch TV in Mongolia and I know they hear some world news, e.g., another Mongolian friend’s email question who had heard about Hurricane Sandy: “Judy, where did you hide?”
This time, the simple question, “How are you?” stopped me cold. I’m not all right. I hope none of us are. Today I am the mother of every one of the children who lost their lives in Newtown. But, more than that, I am the mother of all people in every part of the world who lose their lives through violence. I am the mother who gave them birth, fed them, nurtured them, walked the floor at night with them when they cried, encouraged them, cheered them, laughed with them, and praised them. But, at the last, I couldn’t protect them.
What can I do now? I can do more. I can more actively support those people and organizations seeking to reduce violence in our world. I can more actively support those working to bring about peace wherever discord is evident. I can live a life that expresses love not hate, collaboration not confrontation, patience not frustration. I’ve already taken some steps to do more. I hope each person who reads this will find his or her own way to do more.
And a 60-year-old holiday story
Many years ago, my husband Bob and I were taking a walk. It was the day before trash pickup and someone had set out a box of old Reader’s Digests. They looked really old, and I was curious, so I picked up a couple. They were from the 1940s and ‘50s. Hmmm, I thought, some interesting content—and I persuaded Bob to carry the box home with us. The box is still in my attic and I occasionally put a couple around the house for browsers.
The other day I came across an article in one that included a paragraph that captured the holiday message I wish to share with all my friends.
“A minister soliciting for a worthy cause was turned down by a curt letter that ended, ‘As far as I can see, this Christian business is one continuous give, give, give.’ The clergyman wrote back, ‘Thank you for the best definition of the Christian life I have ever heard.’*
For me, I would broaden that definition to include all mankind without religious distinction and simply say, “Thank you for the best definition of the purpose of life I have ever heard.” And that ties in with another of my favorite quotes: “No man can make a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.” (Edmund Burke)
Happy Holidays, my friends
* Try Giving Yourself by Arline Boucher and John Tehan in Reader’s Digest, November 1951
“I’ll always come back,” I told my Mongolian friends as I boarded the plane in Muron after three weeks visiting my friends this last July. “After all, I’m half Mongolian.” Well, at least half my heart is in Mongolia.
I hadn’t planned to go back this summer. I came home at the end of January and looked forward to a summer in Marblehead, my lovely seacoast town in New England with views of the sailboats from my back porch.
But my computer’s screensaver scrolled through photos from my three years in Mongolia—little children dressed up for Tsagaan Sar, the broad steppes and craggy mountains
of the countryside, people singing and dancing to Mongolian music, big Mongolian wrestlers at the summer festival called Naadam, herders and their flocks of sheep, goats, yaks, cows, horses and camels moving across broad valleys, weddings and hair-cutting celebrations, and so much more. I had to go back. And I’m so glad I did.
One of the highlights of this trip was being able to restart the little handicraft ger where local craftspeople could bring their wares. It was set up in an even better location this year and was staffed by two of my very favorite people. It will be open for two months during the tourist season and has attracted many visitors each day.
It was also wonderful to re-establish connections with my many friends in Muron. I stayed with Enkhtuuvshin, her husband, and brand-new daughter.
They were married not long before I left. They generously offered a recently completed second floor of their home. The two rooms accommodated both me and my Swiss friend who had been in Muron when I was there before.
The time went fast but I was able to reconnect with so many people including Batbayr the woodcarver, Sara my former boss at Chamber of Commerce, Jagaa now at PC Mall, Bymba and Tsolmon who became our salespeople at the craft shop, Enkhee an English teacher,
Bold and Tsermaa who lived in the other half of the house where I lived for 3 years, Esse and Moogi who are my business partners and have opened a local handicraft shop at the zakh (main outdoor market), friends from World Vision including Tuul, Ganaa, and my favorite jolooch (driver) Bilgee.
In addition to being able to attend Naadam, I was able to get out into the countryside for a few days at my favorite ger camp, high on a bluff above the Delgermuron river. It’s an idyllic setting I never ever get tired of, watching the herds of animals move back and forth over the wide river valley, hiking up into the hills behind the camp, reveling in the sunsets over the mountains, even curled up reading in our ger while the rain pitter-pattered on the roof and a cozy fire burned in the little stove.
All too soon, it was time to pack up and head for home. During the time I was there, several projects came up that I hope to pursue here. One, of course, is to continue to try and expand my little import business of Mongolian products. I met with the two men whose local businesses produce yak and goat cashmere knitted items. I’m going to try and get a Pen Pal program set up for a little town way out in the countryside and help a Mongolian English teacher find some sort of teacher exchange. My friend, Esse, is a fine guide in Mongolia, speaks English well, and hopes to establish his own tourist business this next year. I’ll try to help in any way I can.
For now I’m home, happy to see my family and friends. But a part of me will always abide in
Mongolia’s land of blue sky cherishing the friendships and traditions of this remarkable land.
I couldn’t stay away.
I miss Mongolia too much. So Monday, July 2, I’m heading back to Murun, my hometown in Mongolia, for about 3 weeks. I’ll see my friends and the beautiful Mongolian countryside. And I’ll also work on my little business importing crafts from the local Mongolian artisans to America. I’ll be missing a few weeks of summer in Marblehead but I’ll be back in time to get in some more sailing and trips to the Farmers Market.
Natural surprises in Marblehead
I had two very interesting interactions with nature this past week. Last weekend, we had a little family reunion at my home. After most people had left, my daughter and I went out to do an errand. When we returned and pulled the car into the drive, she spotted something in the flowers growing atop a wall next to the car. She was eye level with the flowers and, at first, she thought it was just a bee buzzing around the flowers. But it didn’t really look like a bee. It looked like a very, very tiny humming bird—less than an inch long. I jumped out of the car to take a look and we both watched it darting here and there, sucking the nectar and its little wings a blur of movement. How could it be? Did hummingbirds come that small?
After it flitted away, we googled a few descriptive words and discovered it was a hummingbird moth. We’d never heard of one before (see photo). After Tracy left the next day, I picked up a book she had been reading from my library, My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell. It’s one of my favorite books, incredibly funny about the Durrell’s family life on the island of Corfu. There, on one of the first pages in the book, Durrell describes some of the creatures he spots on the island, including the hummingbird moth! What a coincidence!
You won’t believe this marine (?) interloper
The other interaction is even more incredible. We had a 3-day heat wave—100 degrees on my back porch, and late Saturday some big thunderstorms rolled through. It did cool things off and so, Sunday morning, I thought I’d take an early bike ride in the cool fresh air. About seven, I went down the back steps to the yard to get my bike stored under the back porch. The grass was still very wet. Just before I reached the bike, I saw something small and dark lying in the grass in front of me. Then I looked closer and saw it was alive and it looked like a little lobster, about 6 inches long. I bent down to see better and sure enough, that’s exactly what it was. When I reached for it, it began to crawl away. I picked it up and it waved its little claws trying to wiggle out of my grasp. I put it down and ran to get my camera. It was too small to get very far on its own. Then I got a pail of water, dumped in a little salt, and plopped the lobster into it.
No one was around to show it to, so I proceeded on my bike ride. When I returned, my neighbor, David Breashears, was home and I invited him over to see it. He was as befuddled as I was. So far, the only explanation we can come up with is that perhaps a seagull had picked it up and during the thunderstorm had been blown landward by the winds and dropped the lobster in my yard. No doubt it was a bit befuddled away from the water. If you have other theories, you’re welcome to share them.
I contacted my friend Ellie who used to keep a saltwater aquarium of sea creatures at the school where she worked. She stopped by to admire the little guy—oops, she determined it is a girl. We’ve named her Lobelia. Then we went to get a bucket of seawater plus some rocks and gravel since Ellie says the lobsters like to have a little shelter and even can concoct one if give the raw materials. We also picked up a few periwinkles and another crab so Lobelia won’t starve. ‘
I’ll probably only keep her a day or two to show the neighbors and then put her back into a nice deep pool among the rocks on the edge of a little island nearby reached by a natural causeway—and one of the best habitats for lobster breeding on the East Coast. What tales she will have to tell of her adventures!
THIS JUST IN: My neighbors up by Redds Pond (a freshwater pond about a block up the hill from my house) just came down to see my lobster and they claim it is a crayfish, apparently lots of them this year at the pond. Seagulls and cormorants also hang out around the pond. I’ve checked it out on the web and it is possible. The two species are exactly alike except one likes fresh water and the other salt water plus one is bigger than the other—in my case however it could be a small lobster. Either way, what’s it doing in my backyard?
Final sad note: I left it in the saltwater overnight and it didn’t survive—so must have been a crayfish.