Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Mongolia unlike any other

It has been 16 years since I left the Philippines to study for a master’s degree in the United States. At that time, I thought I would be away for only two years. I told myself that I would just finish my studies then return home and get a job that would allow me to apply in a developing nation what I would have learned in the developed world. But I must admit I enjoy living overseas tremendously that I have sought to continue living the life of a nomad.

Prior to studying in America, the first country I traveled to was Australia to participate in an international debate tournament. I had “country shock” being in a place that is picture perfect. I remember Sydney exactly as it was on every postcard, and every spot there was a photo opportunity for. I only had a 35mm-film camera then so I could not take all the pictures I had wanted.

In Australia, a queue does not exist. I was also in the capital of Canberra where there are much fewer people and where cabs wait for passengers – not the other way around. Back in Sydney, my cousin, aunt, and her new husband (who is Australian) took me around and we were never caught in a traffic jam. In these two cities (and I assume most everywhere in the country), it was commonplace for people to smile and greet other people. Soon enough, I was also saying hello to strangers myself.

Believe it or not, UB sometimes reminds me of Sydney and Canberra. It is definitely not as picturesque as these cities, but there are still plenty of photo opportunities – new and old architecture like the Choijin Lama Temple Museum and Blue Sky Hotel and Tower, a huge plaza that is Sukhbaatar Square, and the Buddhist monastery complex of Gandan, among many other places. Here, I also do not have to wait a long time to catch a taxi. Anywhere in Ulaanbaatar, I just have to signal for a cab or, make that, a private car whose driver will hit the brakes, ask me where I want to go, and take me there. Yes, there are traffic jams but at least not all the time and only during rush hours. Ulaanbaatar is also a compact city so one can never be too late for an appointment despite any bottleneck. Also In UB and everywhere in Mongolia, sincere smiles abound – just like in Australia.

A few years later and before arriving in America, everybody was telling me how California is such a beautiful state by the sea and how the weather down south is perfect all year round. It turns out that my university is in the nearby coastal city of La Jolla, a Spanish term for “The Jewel,” and the name literally speaks for itself. I fell in love with the place and, even before graduating, I was offered a lucrative job in a global investment firm so I chose not to go back to the Philippines as I had originally planned in order for me to stay in such a beautiful city.

What Mongolia lacks in coastline, it more than makes up for in its countryside and desert sceneries. Postcards of the country’s rural areas and the Gobi Desert do not do them justice. Beautiful is an understatement to describe what is literally the “Land of the Eternal Blue Sky,” and the word “amazing” is not enough to sum up an experience in the south of Mongolia. A part of me is afraid that my expectations of the places I have not yet been to such as Khuvsgul Lake and Kharkhorin are above the roof, but a greater part is confident that these natural and historical sights will exceed them.

I lived in the UK afterwards to pursue a doctorate at the University of Bath. In that small city in southwest England, I was transported back in time to the Georgian era. I was surrounded by art, culture, and history. Were it not for the cars that ply its narrow cobblestoned roads, I almost personified Becky in William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel, “Vanity Fair.”

Many years later, I was again transported back in time when I went to The 13th Century Complex near Tsonjin Boldog here in Mongolia. That place, of course, was not from hundreds of years ago; but I sure felt like I was. My friends and I arrived at its main gate first on a mini-bus, but we went from one area to the next on horses. Had it not been for the casual clothes that I was wearing, I would have thought that I was a soldier of Chinggis Khaan returning home after a day in battle. On the streets of UB, it does not seem like the 21st century whenever I meet people wearing the traditional deel.

I must say that I did get kind of bored living in the developed world for seven years. Life was good but I was searching for something “better.” I missed (and still do) the warm relationships and profound friendships that I have in the Philippines. While I was in the US and the UK, the people seemed to be too busy working that they no longer had the time to get to know other people more, provide a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on (hence, the need for shrinks, I suppose), and hang out with family and friends on a regular basis.

I am truly glad that serendipity brought me to Mongolia and that I had been working in a host of other developing countries before then. In these parts of the world, I get the benefit of being surrounded by people who I now consider as family like I am in the Philippines without having to live there. My evenings and weekends in UB are always full as I go out with colleagues and students who have quickly become my friends. And whenever I feel homesick, I simple call any one of them who will always listen to me whine and give me encouraging words afterwards.

Another reason why Mongolia is unlike any other countries is that there is close-to-zero inflation here. Its New Government of Innovation and Reform makes it a point to curb price increases to maintain the people’s purchasing power. Maybe it is too soon to have a dent on anyone’s budget, but the tugrug has significantly depreciated against the US dollar yet prices have not skyrocketed. I am pretty confident that the Mongolian economy will normalize and the exchange rate will return to its stable level.

Finally, there is political stability in Mongolia. Being in power means serving other people and not the public servant’s own interests. In short, not every Mongolian politician is hungry for authority. Life is so peaceful there that I have not experienced any coup d’etat nor seen a massive rally. There are also no natural calamities here in the birthplace of Chinggis Khaan. Had I been in the Philippines last week, I would have already been stranded on a highway and surrounded by floodwater.

As much as my family and friends want me to stay with them for good, I tell them that I am still giving myself nine more years to work and live in different countries before finally going back and making a (hopefully big) difference. Ironic as it may sound, I feel so sheltered living outside America and the UK. I am very grateful for the career and travel opportunities that are being given to me, particularly working and living here in Mongolia.

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