Touched by a Mongolian smile

On a trip to Ulan Bator, Mongolia, where I lived for three months, I spent my last day visiting Verbist Orphanage, in the countryside.  Mongolia is a one-city nation, with the vast surrounding land composed of the Gobi desert or barren land.  The extreme temperatures from their minus 40 degrees to 40 degrees Celsius, harbors a harsh environment for the few scraggly plants to try and persist despite the desert clime. It’s not an inviting place, yet I boarded the plane with my ticket in hand for a country few people have ever heard of or want to visit willingly.

volunteering in Mongolia

My travels have been my biggest learning experiences in my life.  They have taught me to be stronger, to adapt to unusual and uncomfortable circumstance, and to survive in some of the hardest situations I’ve dealt with physically and emotionally.  As an orphan given a second life with my parents’ gracious love from America, I was taken out of the scenario I was walking straight into.

volunteering in MongoliaThe children’s faces were confused at first, when my group arrived to the orphanage.  I had gone with a group of Mongolian students learning English.  One of the students had befriended me with her kind heart and shared interest in journalism.  She invited me on this excursion, and I jumped at the chance to visit an orphanage.

We boarded a bus that navigated the country terrain bravely to our destination.  Outside of the city, there are no paved roads in Mongolia.  There is nothing but open fields of nomadic families living off the land and their horses’ back. This is no terrain to take a public transportation bus through.

Upon arriving to the compound, we found the orphanage surrounded by a six foot wall decorated with colorful murals painted by previous visitors.  It was strange to see this compound in the middle of the dessert.  We had not encountered another living person or any sign of civilization for hours.  Our last gas stop to fuel up was more than two hours ago.  There were no buildings out this far from Ulan Bator.

It appeared like a mirage in the desert, but was firm to the touch when I reached for the gate handle.  Children, as young as five-years-old, were chopping wood with an axe by the entrance.  I winced in default as I stopped myself from taking the axe away from them.  This was their life; the way they had to live to survive.   They seemed unsure and scared of us – people from the city with our clean clothes and washed hands.  Many gesticulations later, the children were swarming us with warmth and laughter once the barrier was broken.  I had the toughest time since I couldn’t speak but a handful of words in Mongolian, most of which were nonsensical and useless in my current situation.

“San ban o.”  I said hello and smiled a lot to befriend the children, but they played with me with no inhibitions.  Two Belgium graduate students were spending a couple months living in a Ger in the orphanage compound.  They were teaching them English and writing their thesis on the orphanage; therefore, I gave the children a great outlet to use the handful of words they knew.  Most could say hello, but few were brave enough to venture more conversation.

We played basketball and random games they created on the spot.  We had brought toys and some books to give to them, which brought the biggest smile and a touch of civilization to their orphanage.  There was no electricity or running water.  Non-governmental organizations fund Verbist, just enough for the bare essentials.  I may never see their faces again or hear how their futures turn out, but I know they have touched my life.  Volunteering has a way of helping the volunteers out more than those they seek to help.  It is a gift to lend your hand and time to others, and it is always rewarded with gratitude and a memory you’ll always deeply cherish.

Read more of my trip to Verbist Orphanage.

~ By guest blogger Kate Greer