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Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Just Like the Old Days

Asia, Mongolia

Take an imaginary trip with me for a moment. Think of where you live right now. Now imagine it a thousand years ago. That's long before there were big farms, tall skyscrapers, and modern houses. Go back to a time when there were no cars, no plumbing, and no electricity to make your life easier.

Now jump ahead in time to today. Have a look around.

Well, when I look around in the countryside of Mongolia, where I am a Peace Corps Volunteer, I don't have to imagine the past. I see the past every day. The lifestyle of the people and the land itself have remained mostly the same for well over a thousand years. The Mongolia that Marco Polo described some 800 years ago is pretty much unchanged, aside from the capital, Ulaanbaatar, which has grown into a bustling city of nearly a million people. But most Mongolians still live in white felt tents, called gers . That's the same way their ancestors lived in the time of Genghis Khan.

I recently visited a nomadic family—a family that moves around with the seasons. It almost seemed like a trip to another world. A Mongolian friend, Byamba, is driving his '69 Russian jeep across the steppe—which is a high plain of small, rolling mountains. We are approaching a big ger. I have no idea how he has found it, because to me, all gers look alike. And this one is way out, away from everything else. The ger we're approaching is the one where he grew up. However, his own family has moved away because the local river, where they fished, has dried up. The Gobi Desert is creeping farther north into Mongolia every year.

We get out of the car as the family comes out of the ger. Two adorable young girls come to meet us. They are wearing Mongolian dels, which are long robes with a sash tied around the waist as a belt. The girls have not seen their Uncle Byamba in nearly a year. Judging from the way they look at me, they have never seen someone from another country before.

We approach the rest of the family and exchange greetings. A common greeting in summer is, "Are your animals fattening nicely?" Byamba's brother assures me that the horses are fat, and they are also becoming fast. This means that his horses can race in the Naadam holiday that is coming up.

Byamba's family is doing just fine. I know almost exactly what will happen, because meetings and behavior inside a ger always follow the same pattern. I know what people will say. I know what they will eat. I know what they will drink.

I stoop to enter the ger, and I see Emee, or Grandmother. She is sitting on a low bed on the right side of the tent. That's the side that people consider most important. She is probably only 55 years old, but her deep wrinkles and hunched posture make her look much older. Living outside on the steppe has aged her quickly. But her toothy smile and her energy with her granddaughters make the room lively.

Byamba's father died a few years ago. Today, Byamba's brother, along with his wife and two kids, live in this ger with his mother. In Mongolia, families stick together closely. The arrangement in this ger is common. Usually one of the family's children marries and stays with the aging parents. That person then takes over the family herd. Grandparents remain important in the family, and receive much respect. When they become sick or too old to perform their usual activities, the rest of the family takes care of them. I once explained the idea of nursing homes and retirement homes that we have in the United States for old people. My Mongolian friends could not understand such an idea.

I walk into the left side of the ger. That is the custom for guests. They give me a small wooden stool and tell me to sit. Within a minute they hand me a bowl of steaming hot milk-tea. Shortly after, we begin eating borzag, which is like a doughnut, but less sweet. We also eat bread with uuram , which is the cream skimmed off the top of fresh milk. When I first came to Mongolia, I didn't like these foods. But now, I find them quite tasty.

Now the family looks at me. They ask Byamba questions: Who am I? Where am I from? Why did I come to Mongolia? Byamba remains silent as I answer the family's questions. At first they don't talk directly to me. They say their words to Byamba, because they don't think I will understand. It often takes Mongolians a moment to see that I can understand them, even though I am not Mongolian.

We finish up the snacks and conversation. Soon the family is commencing their work for the afternoon. Byamba's sister-in-law begins chopping meat and rolling out dough for dinner. Emee straps on a huge backpack and grabs a three-foot-long wooden fork. She is going out to collect dried animal droppings. She will burn this in the stove for cooking and for heating the ger. Byamba and the young girls take care of the goats. Byamba will comb their fur to get the soft hairs to make cashmere, which is a really soft kind of fabric that fetches quite a price. The girls milk a different group of goats. And I go with Byamba's brother on horseback to round up the livestock that have wandered a few miles away to graze.

A newcomer to Mongolia quickly discovers that the hospitality in the countryside is the best in the world. I know that even if I were not with Byamba, this family would take care of me. They would treat me like family. The herder life in the countryside is difficult. People take care of strangers because they know a stranger would always take care of them.

The evening becomes chilly as the sun dips below the mountains after 10 o'clock. But inside, the ger is alive and warm in dim candlelight. We take turns singing Mongolian songs. After hours of telling stories, playing cards, and singing, the seven of us drift off to sleep. We are resting in our white felt tent, just as people here have been doing on this steppe for a thousand years.  

About the Author

Jonathan Phillips

As a Peace Corps Volunteer in western Mongolia, Jonathan Phillips served as a business and economic development Volunteer.

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