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Trip to Mongolia proves to be paradise, not punishment

SUBMITTED PHOTO  - Esther Halvorson-Hill at far left, posed during a graduation ceremony at Southern Oregon University with Naran, her interpreter during her stay in Mongolia; Susan Bakewell-Sachs, the dean of Oregon Health & Science Universitys School of Nursing; Yondonsu, an administrator at the hospital in Mongolia; and Juliana Cartwright, OHSU School of Nursing associate dean.

As I was growing up my mother would say “If you don’t behave I’ll send you to outer Mongolia.” Little did I know that I would actually go there much later in my life.

I was planning my sabbatical from teaching when I received a letter from a cousin who was a missionary in Mongolia. He was telling of this vibrant country that was coming out from under the yoke of Communist rule. Since the life expectancy was about 50 years, the government was being run by younger people who were interested in a new vision for their country.

This caught my attention and the idea of visiting such a far-away place was appealing. I started an email conversation with a Mongolian man connected to the missionary work there. He told me that there was a need for someone who knew nursing and administration and who would donate their time and effort. This fit me to a tee.

Mongolia at that time had only about two flights per week into the country and mail took about a month to arrive. However, the Internet was being embraced by the younger more technologically aware young people. This amazing new world view burst in upon the previous isolation. Talk about culture shock!

When I arrived in Mongolia via Tokyo and Beijing, I was met by the man I had connected with via email. I stayed in a very utilitarian hotel that had been built by the Russians. A big, black car would come in the morning and take me to lecture at the nursing school, or community gatherings. My interpreter was a wonderful pediatrician who became a good friend. I suspected that she embellished my teaching in a wonderful way. I would say several words in English and she would go on at length. I was aware that there was kind of a buzz of excitement wherever she and I would go. It was only later that I found out that this unassuming lady was the head of all of nursing in her country.

Another key contact was a Mongolian hospital administrator who took us on tours of hospitals, Buddhist Monastery ruins, and luncheons in large ceremonial gers, what we know as yurts. The buzz of excited conversation seemed to surround him. It was only later that I found out that he was a very important “secret” lama.

There was a kind of dream-like quality to my time in Mongolia, which was only two weeks but seemed like months. My father had just died, and I was grieving him and also did not know much of the language. I communicated largely by non-verbal means. Things seemed to be happening on two levels; an actual and a spiritual level.

On the spiritual level, there was my translator Naranchimeg looking deeply into my eyes and saying with emphasis “I know you” when we met. I was embraced by the Buddhists. When I was in the administrator’s office, monks in saffron colored robes would arrive, look surprised, bow and leave. Until recently, much of the practice of Buddhism had been in secret.

Somehow I knew from my readings what to do when our car stopped near a pile of rocks on the side of the road. I joined them in picking up a rock, circling the pile two times, and tossing the rock on the pile.

When we were riding to see an old monastery in a car full of nurses, I heard them giggling and looking at me. I asked Naran what was going on. She said, “They say you bring the blessing of the rain.”

I remember joyfully running down the mountain near the ruins with them. Naran took me to a Buddhist ceremony and though I was looked at with suspicion, I felt as if I could have sat down with the monks who were chanting in a deep monotone. I have this strange low voice that can make those sounds.

I felt a real affinity for the Mongolian people.

My connection with Naran and the administrator continued long after that initial teaching gig but that is another story.

My contact with Mongolia turned out not to be the punishment threatened by my mother but a wonderful cultural experience.

Esther Halvorson-Hill is a member of the Jottings Group at the Lake Oswego Adult Community Center.