Today is July 26th, 2011 here in Mongolia. Kara and I have spent the past week in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar where we've been finishing up our Close-of-Service (COS) paperwork for Peace Corps. As of July 24th, midnight, we became RPCV's...(the R means Returned...which we soon will be in actuality).
It's really hard to put into words how we feel right now. I know my feelings are different than Kara's...and I know our memories are different as well. Honestly, leaving Arkhangai was harder than leaving Mongolia will be. We fly out later tonight, but in many ways it feels like our time in Mongolia has already concluded. When we were packing our things in our apartment, it didn't take nearly as long as I thought it might. It's a strange feeling knowing that you came to this country with two large bags and two carry-on items...and yet we'll leave carrying the same baggage. Yes, we've swapped out our old clothes for some of the gifts we received from members of our community. We've thrown out old shoes, and donated other items to friends, future PCV's, and even an orphanage. And yet, we're about to get on a plane carrying the same amount of weight as when we arrived over 2 years ago.
During our last 48 hours at our site, we had many different friends and co-workers want to stop by and visit, or take us out for a meal, or give us a small gift so that we'll remember them when we've left. It was a wonderfully kind show of affection. The most common question we received was "when will you return to Mongolia?". And honestly, we don't know. It's easy to joke about returning in 10 years...or telling people we'll return when we've had children and we can all reminisce about our 2 years in Arkhangai together. But the reality is we just don't know. And not knowing when you'll return can make leaving even harder than leaving a place you know you'll return to.
Before we left, my co-workers presented me with the "engraved" version of the bowl they gave me when we were camping. I asked them to have the text be engraved in Mongolian so that I can at least try to remember a few words of this language whenever I look at it. They've been incredibly giving to me over the past couple of years, and I hope that the "work" we've done in Mongolia, together, will be something they remember whether I return in the future or not.
The day we left Arkhangai we were told we'd be picked up at around 10am. Then that got changed to 2pm. Then we got a call at 1:15 saying they were coming to get us. Luckily, we were ready. We packed all our things into our micro-bus, including our cat Mishka (who is coming back with us!), and prepared for our final goodbyes. One of our friends from the community called me, asked us to wait, and said he was jumping on his motorbike and would drive down to see us off. And just before it was time to leave, a group of my co-workers arrived in a separate vehicle, told Kara and I to join them, to leave our bags, and informed our driver we'd meet them a little ways down the road.
They drove us out to the archway/gate at the edge of Tsetserleg where the rest of my staff was waiting to see us off. We all shared one last toast of Chinggis vodka, passed around some candy, and waited for our ride to appear through the gateway. I had a really hard time keeping it together. I couldn't say anything to my co-workers for fear that I'd really start tearing up...so instead I just tried to smile. When it came time for us to go, Kara and I were gripped with heart-felt hugs from everyone. And then we drove away.
I've had a lot of time here in UB to think about the completion of our service. To ponder what it means to "finish" something like volunteer development work. Our period of service is finishing, but what we've been doing and why we've been doing it will not end when we get on the plane. There are thousands of volunteers all over the world that are continuing to do what we've had the privilege to experience these past 2 years. And more importantly, we have friends that will stay here for at least another year.
As I was typing this I received a call from our sitemate Tim Jenkins. He will be the only volunteer in Arkhangai until the incoming trainees get placed. He used to tell us all the time that he's not sure how he feels about being left alone. He used to joke that we should stay to keep him company. And when he realized that we were really leaving he would just randomly quote the phrase "one man walks alone". But his phone call this morning was to tell me the following, "last night I realized that it won't be 'one man walks alone' when that man has the spirit of his friends with him all the time".
Our time here is coming to an end, but I hope that the spirit of what we've done here in Mongolia continues to live on. And I hope that our friends, of every nationality, know that Mongolia will continue to be a part of our memories for the rest of our lives. So it is with a mix of sadness, hope, joy, and amazement that I am saying goodbye to our relatively short time in Mongolia.