It feels strange to be sitting here at my computer and trying to find a way to explain these past 2 weeks. Each of the over 800 pictures that I took have their own story to tell, and there are a million moments that I want to share. I have to admit that I’ve been putting off writing about my experience because explaining 2 weeks of my nomadic homestay is impossible to condense. How do I accurately describe how it felt to spend my days telling time by the sun? How it felt to sit in the grass and only hear the sound of hundreds of animals chewing? Or what it was like to watch a goat give birth on a mountain?
I ended up surprising myself with the amount of unexpected lessons that I learned. If you had asked me at the beginning to outline my expected challenges, only half would have been accurate. I probably would have mentioned challenges like: not bathing for 2 weeks, having no internet connection, the Mongolian language barrier, and the food. However, I would say that out of these challenges, the only one that turned out to be true was the language barrier. But even this was not as challenging as I thought. I became an expert mime by the end.
The challenges that I ended up having were completely different than I anticipated, which I think is the beauty of this experience. During my lows, I tried to accept these difficulties and get something out of it. The biggest challenge that I dealt with was boredom. The chores were not always exciting. Learning to herd was a beautiful experience, but there were days when 10 hours of herding became less exciting. Sometimes I would make up poems in my head, which made me understand why storytelling and singing are important to Mongolian herding culture. Other times I thought about life and all of it’s complexities (as stereotypical as that sounds). I can’t imagine another time in the near future where I’ll nothing to do but simply think for 2 weeks straight. As our academic director said: “Boredom is starting to become a luxury”.
Along with boredom, the extreme feeling of isolation was incredibly overwhelming and unexpected. I anticipated isolation in a different way. I thought that being disconnected from the internet would be isolating, but I mostly felt isolated from the group and people who speak the languages that I understand. I wanted to process with someone in words, and yet I had to deal with all of my emotions on my own. This was independence at its most extreme. It was difficult to deal with, but it was completely worth the struggle.
One thing I can say for certain is that this homestay was twice as difficult as my rural Ugandan homestay. In Uganda, I had a fellow student as a host sibling, my family spoke English, and our whole group lived in the same village. Here, the closest student to me was at least a 45-minute walk away. It was also only 5 days in Uganda, compared to almost 2 weeks in Mongolia. I didn’t experience any boredom or feelings of isolation, which was my biggest challenge here. But I will say that I think that I got more out of this experience partly because of the unexpected challenges I faced.
Once I was able to bond well with my family, I immediately found a great amount of joy. When I look back in my memory, I first think of my positive experiences: playing cards, brushing goats for cashmere, playing with the toddler, seeing the sunset while herding, and catching baby goats. Even though I had lots of lows, it was well worth my time and energy to work through them by myself. The whole time I lived there, I never felt like I’d made a better decision than coming here to Mongolia.