Constance Lafleur - Culture & Community, Nomad Project in Mongolia
I began what I call my “adventure travel” later in life, and after trips involving water rafting in Chilean Patagonia, sea kayaking in the Tasman sea off New Zealand and hiking over various Galapagos islands to view rare species, I realised I was always returning to my home base every night. I began researching opportunities to volunteer abroad while getting fully immersed in another culture and lifestyle for a 24/7 opportunity. This led me directly to Projects Abroad and their Mongolian Nomad project.
This project seemed ideal to me, as it offered a truly unique opportunity to experience and participate in a way of life completely different from mine in New Hampshire. It did not disappoint. My plane arrived late, but I was still met at the Ulaanbaatar airport by a Projects Abroad supervisor, Enkhee. After a good night’s rest in a guest house, we met the following day and she gave me a tour and overview of the city, as well as a cultural orientation at the Projects Abroad office, where I got to meet other staff members.
My Mongolian host family
In the countryside I was placed in a unique situation with an extended family. My host mother was the matriarch and the other family members were her son, his wife and new baby, a sister, and two brothers and their families. With constant visits from other relatives and friends, I felt completely and warmly welcomed into a whole community. Although the language barrier was significant, we managed quite well with the assistance of a Mongolian-English dictionary, phrase and pictures books, and good old fashioned hand signals.
My host mother was in constant action and seemed happiest when she was busy. She would skim the cream off the top of the milk, cook the milk to purify it and then add green tea and salt for the famous Mongolian tea, which was available in hot pitchers all day and evening long, ready to be served to visitors. Although limited by available food resources, meals were plentiful and a time for large get-togethers. Generally, meals consisted of mutton or goat, cooked with rice, hand-made noodles, and/or potatoes. My host mother was always saying “Et, et, et” which I thought was her English version of “eat”, but turned out to be the Mongolian pronunciation of eat!!
The room my host mother provided was comfortable and clean. She was constantly sweeping to keep out all the dust. I had brought my sleeping bag, but on cooler nights she provided me with a warm, comfortable quilt. We had the standard two small beds, but when out of town family came for the night, people spread out wherever there was room.
My Nomad placement
The day began early with cows to milk and heifers to take care of. After the younger goats and sheep were let out of the pen where they spent nights for safe-keeping from predators, they were released to graze for the day and cleaning up of the pen began. With several families there, I was fortunate to meet and work alongside other Projects Abroad volunteers. We were often joined in our clean ups by several children, who were totally happy to be there and helping, and time passed quickly as we often sang and danced our way through the job. We also collected dry cattle dung and added it to the piles outside the gers, where it was used as fuel for cooking, or heat when needed.
Another chore that had to be done was going to the nearest well, where huge barrels and smaller containers were filled. We had a temperamental older truck, which always had to be pushed to start, but with plenty of us helping, it was no problem. At the wells, some of which had troughs, there would be cattle drinking, and large groups of horses would also come around. Water is a precious commodity in the Mongolian steppes, used by the animals, used by the nomads for cooking, cleaning and hand washing clothes. As I had volunteered for a month I went into the city halfway through to do my own laundry and take much appreciated showers, even though there was no hot water.
Afternoons brought free time, which were used for reading and also much time was spent walking and climbing to the mountain peaks, where the 360 degree views were absolutely breath-taking, just vast green open space and distant mountains. Often I would be joined by another Projects Abroad volunteer, or more and it was a great opportunity to share our experiences.
One thing I had been asked by the nomad children when I first arrived was would I teach English? Of course, I enthusiastically agreed and we used a dry erase board and markers I had brought to go over the alphabet, numbers, colours and other basics. I imagine teachers back in the US would be envious of the unwavering enthusiasm of my young students. In the evenings, children and adults alike played checkers, and Uno was also popular.
After a while, the large herds of our several families had grazed out the surrounding area and it was time to move on to greener pastures. The dismantling and reconstruction of a ger is a routine for the nomads and they have it down to a science. Once we loaded one ger and contents at a time onto the truck, it was efficiently reconstructed at the new location. The pen was also assembled, the herds brought to the new location, and you’d hardly know we had moved.
My experience in Mongolia
Throughout this experience, the things that stood out most to me were the tremendous love the Mongolian nomads have for their families and also for their way of life. They are an unbelievably courteous and sharing people. I remember one time I walked into the ger and my host mother had an apple she had been given from a visitor, which she had already cut in half to give me my portion. In addition to their families, their animals are their life and are all important, from the goats and sheep to the cows, horses and their family dogs, who stay outside to protect the baby animals and the families.
There were five questions routinely asked of me (and all other volunteers), one being “How are old are you?” I had started off by politely answering I was 64 years old, which seemed to amaze them, but once they saw me, enthused, participating and contributing, I was able to tell them “I am young at heart”. They were perfectly fine with this and I am delighted to share this experience with other older volunteers to show not only can it be done by all ages, but appreciated and enjoyed by all.
Of all of my travels, Mongolia is at the top of my list of places to return to and I know someday I will be re-visiting a nomad ger to enjoy the hospitality, drink green milk tea, eat bortizg and admire (and maybe climb) to appreciate the incredible vast scenery. It is an unspoiled country filled with incredible people, and was the experience of a lifetime.
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