Friday, July 22, 2016

Хэрлэн Голын Зусланд (At the Kherlen River Camp)

I started negotiations with the owner of the Kherlen River Camp several months ago.  We agreed that PCVs could help this locally owned and run camp for two separate week long sessions during the summer. The purpose of our assistance would be to offer English lessons and in general just play with the kids. I solicited the help of a number of volunteers in Khentii province and together we planned the lessons. Before we knew it, the week of the first session was upon us, and Sally, Kyra, and I set off on week of adventure.
Kherlen River Camp

The Kherlen River camp is located 11km outside of Chinggis town in the middle off steppe. From the camp, it is easy to make out the city in the distance. The camp is a loose collection of older buildings with 1970s camp architecture that are left vacant during the colder months of the year. There are a couple of student dorms, a teachers’ dorm (where we were placed), a cafeteria/central meeting hall, camp store (for ice cream and treats), and several out-houses. The river flows a km outside of the camp grounds in the direction of the city. The lands surrounding the camp are open grassland speckled with gers and herds of livestock.

Sally and Kyra leading a circle game
Me awkwardly throwing the basketball
For Sally, Kyra, and I the camp was a lot of fun. Our typical day involved waking up at 8 to the sounds of the camp loudspeaker as the campers did their morning exercises and stretches. We would then follow the campers into the dining hall for breakfast which was usually bread with some sort of spread and a milk/rice based porridge. Our mornings were usually free for us to prepare for afternoon activities. The students during this time would have math lessons. Lunch was at 1 and was always some sort of Mongolian food.  At 3 o’clock we would offer English lessons in two classes to young campers who had no English skills and middle school campers. The high-school campers at our session were not there for math or English, they spent their days practicing archery on targets around their dorm with an instructor from Russia. (Archery is a big deal in Mongolia and is one of the three sports of Naadam.)
Sally teaching an English song in her class
Me teaching the Baby Shark song to practice family vocabulary, "Grandpa shark do do do do do do do Grandpa Shark!" 
From 4:30-7PM were afternoon activities. These usually involved various sport competitions including basketball, volleyball, and sumo wrestling. On several of the days, the temperature was in the upper 90s during this time, so the campers spent several hours trying to stay cool. On the first day, we had a water fight with a water hose, but this activity was not repeated.  7 o’clock was dinner again strictly of a Mongolian variety.
Water fight!!!
From 7:30 to 10:30 were evening activities.  During this time, we would often play with the kids using a Frisbee that Sally had made for my birthday. The campers loved the new games we taught them, and swarmed around my tin whistle playing with open enthusiasm. On one day there was a Mr. and Mrs. Competition where campers dressed as the opposite sex for a beauty pageant. Several other nights were devoted to dances that were given by various instructors. Sally and I learned the Mongolian waltz during this time. We also tried to teach the campers swing dancing. It was challenging, but they seemed to enjoy it. Sally and Kyra were able to teach a number of dances to the Mongolians including the electric slide and the cupid shuffle, but the all-time favorite was a routine to “Uptown Funk” that Kyra taught everyone. While I doubt that Bruno Mars is aware of his fan base in Mongolia, he is nonetheless quite popular.  The evenings would close with a soothing traditional song circle which seemed to relax the young ones. Then after everyone had wished each other good night in song, the circle would unravel and we would return to our beds.
Sally and Kyra teaching a dance
Sally and I teaching swing dance 
Every night we got Mongolian Yogurt as a snack
Me playing the tin whistle for a group of kids
While the campers were not allowed to go to the river because a number of them were too young, Sally, Kyra, and I managed to visit it twice during the week during our free time in the morning. It was nice to “bathe”, and the waters cool and refreshing. The only downside was that the river flowed through a lot of grazing lands, so there was a lot of manure floating down stream.

Unlike American summer camps, Mongolian summer camps do have a lot of built-in free time. There are advantages and dis-advantages to this. Some of the biggest intervals of free time were during the hottest times of the day when activities were canceled because of heat. As someone who grew up in the Deep South, I always wondered how it was that northern climates could suffer so badly from heat waves. It seemed ridiculous that thousands of people might die in a northern city that was only experience temperatures in the high 90s. Now I understand. We who have lived with air conditioning do not understand what it is like to be in these temperatures without it. Even when we go out for the day or weekend to camp in extreme heat, it is always with the knowledge that we will return to the comfort of air-conditioning at some point in the foreseeable future.  I can now say with ease that high temperatures are no laughing matter. Some days it is difficult to get cool when literally everything around you is in the high 90s. Each subsequent day that you are unable to cool off in the evening is torturously hotter. It adds up and adds wear and tear to your body, but I digress. The camp was not this bad. While the days were sometimes hot, the evenings were usually cool and breezy.
The river wasn't very deep, but I could still float hundreds of yards down stream

The three of us PCVs were placed in a separate building to sleep in. This was nice because it afforded us some privacy during our down time. We were about half-way through our camp session when we began to notice the bats. There were hundreds of them that rousted in the space between the roof and ceilings, and in the walls of the abandoned building next to ours. We noticed the bats one night as we were brushing our teeth and looking at the stars and the details of the milky-way. The silent night flyers would shoot through the air sometimes cutting amazingly close to our heads. There would be dozens of them soaring around our building, but this was not a problem because they were not inside the living quarters.

One night shortly after I had fallen asleep, I woke to Sally patting my head from her twin bed. When I was manageably awake, she dove back under her blanket and left me in the open. I realized that there was a black silhouette bouncing through the air of our room. As I fumbled with my glasses, the shape bounced off the window next to my bed and fell on my exposed leg. Everyone in their life time have had moments when they are jolted from sleep in a most horrible and inconvenient way. This may take the gold as the worst way I have ever come into consciousness.

After some cussing and shouted exasperations at the irony of life, “Really!?! Really, did that really just  happen!?!” I managed to fumble the lights on as Sally and Kyra maintained their security of mind under their blankets. I remembered that bats can’t take off into flight, they require a drop/freefall of a couple of feet, so I flipped over my fleece blanket where the animal was now burrowed and picked it up with an old t-shirt to take it outside. Its exposed mouth was opened in rows of little razor sharp yet cute teeth. The shock of being man-handled seemed to wear off half way across the room, and I barely made it to the hall as the animal screamed a most frighteningly loud screech before I lost control of the t-shirt. The bat took flight, and I slammed the bed room door behind it. I shall not detail the moments behind our closed door as we realized the animal was still in the building. Nor will I tell of my heroic journey into the dark hallway to open the outer door for such moments are rarely so exciting in their retelling.

Bats and heat aside, the camp was a lot of fun! It was great to spend so much time with the children who really appreciated our help and lessons. After a long week, we switched places with the new PCVs and returned back to our homes in Chinggis. Sally and I for only a day before speeding away to our next camp adventure!


P.S. Thanks to Kyra! She provided a number of the pictures on this post. 

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