SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

January 29, 2011

A longing for Mongolia: Peace Corps volunteer back after two years

By Alan Burke
Staff Writer

MARBLEHEAD — Her home is on one of the prettiest streets in the most picturesque towns in the world. Judy Gates loves Marblehead.

But, she just spent 27 months in Mongolia, with no central heat, where wintry temperatures linger eight months of the year and the wind cutting across the grasslands can drive the thermometer to 50 below zero.

Yet, she said, "I felt more a part of the community there than I do here."

Not that she's lost her affection for Marblehead.

"I love seeing my friends again," Gates said.

And as a former library trustee, she will give a talk titled "Take a Trip to Mongolia" at the Abbot Public Library on Sunday, Feb. 6, at 2 p.m. It's a topic likely to tell us a little bit about our lives and what's gotten lost in the rush toward progress.

Gates, 67, a widow with two grown children and grandchildren, went to Mongolia as a Peace Corps volunteer in 2008.

"We all have to figure out what is meaningful in our lives," she said before departing. "One of the most important ways to find meaning is by trying to do things for others."

She went to a country quite literally on the other side of the world, tucked up between China and Russia, a land of grassy plains and people who briefly conquered much of the known world in the 13th century. Today, Mongolia is considered a developing country, formerly under Soviet control.

As a volunteer, Gates used her skills in marketing to help at the local chamber of commerce.

Renting space in a wooden house, Gates enjoyed three rooms to herself but kept to one in order to stay warm. Her biggest challenge, however, wasn't weather. It was the language. It gets tougher to learn, she conceded, as you get older.

"But I was able to make myself understood," she said. "I managed fine. And I was able to make many friends."

It helped that the Mongolians are now taught English in schools and seem anxious to use it.

Further, Gates found them wonderfully hospitable, a trait seemingly belied by their photos — most Mongolians believe it inappropriate to smile for the camera.

She was also struck by their respect for elders.

"If I go along the street in Marblehead, would teenage boys speak to me?" she asked doubtfully. In Mongolia, Gates heard greetings all day from strangers and from a growing list of friends.

"I felt welcomed by little kids," she recalled.

Meanwhile, she helped set up a shop catering to tourists on their way to nearby Lake Khovsgol, known as the Dark Blue Pearl and one of the deepest in the world.

In addition, she said she started a project to remind these once-nomadic people that it makes no sense to litter when you stay in one place, establishing a system of trash barrels in her town.

She helped in little ways, too, tutoring people in English, filling out forms in English, and, in one dramatic case, surmounting red tape for a young father who'd lost his leg in a motorcycle accident and getting him a new one.

Although increasingly urbanized, Mongolians continue to work as herders, and horses are a vital part of their lives.

"Just about as soon as they can walk, they learn to ride," Gates said.

She rode, too, and she came home with a broken thumb after being thrown by a balky horse, but she laughs that off.

The Mongolians are a people who love their mothers, love their families and love their songs, Gates said. They sing all the time. And while she doesn't begrudge them the influx of cheap Chinese electronics, computers and cell phones — "Everyone has one" — she worries about the impact.

"When I was growing up, my family sang all the time," warned Gates, who was born in Cincinnati. Lots of families did. But over time, the machines began singing for us and the habit faded away.

Seeking a better life, some Mongolians asked Gates about going to America. Others went to earn money in South Korea.

"The standard of living is much lower than it is here," she said. "But there is a love of family and a love of country that tugs at them."

It tugs at Gates, too.

Having only returned in September, she said, "I miss Mongolia." In fact, she hopes to get the Peace Corps to send her back for another six months in the spring.

"It's an absolutely beautiful country filled with people I love dearly."

If you go

What: "Take a Trip to Mongolia" with Judy Gates, Peace Corps volunteer. The library will recognize the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Peace Corps with a free talk by Gates, who will bring images from Mongolia and examples of handicrafts.

When: Sunday, Feb. 6, 2 p.m.

Where: Abbot Public Library, 235 Pleasant St., Marblehead