Camp Tsoglog was nestled three hours north of the bustling, restless city of Ulaanbaatar. A serene, pastoral haven, this mesmerizing piece of scenic countryside was the safe sanctuary underprivileged Mongolian children rested their weary bones in. I was not only their teacher who taught English to them at three different summer camps. I was their friend, their confidante. I was family. A hot, blistering month of swimming, hiking, dancing, singing, endless conversations less so spoken in the native tongue but through simple, kind gestures – a sip of their juice, a tight hug, a toothy grin splitting across their face when I tell them I am proud of them – I could have kept dancing through this dizzy summer haze, laughing too loudly, crying too softly, all the while with good faith, all the while holding onto their tiny hands.
The river yawned and stretched a sleepy finger to meet the mountains, still and silent, like distant giants.
“Never look one of them in the eyes.” Our 17-year-old Mongolian translator chided, as he gripped my small wrist. I winced. But let his veiny hand pull me to safety.
The relentless 12 o’ clock sun, the endless trek up the hill, sweat pouring down my back and my parched-dry throat. Someone tapped me on the shoulder. Turned to my left and a young girl in worn-out sandals, feet covered in red angry blister, stretches her hand out to me and offers me a bunch of tiny strawberries, ripe and fresh and bursting with juice from the picking. “For you,” she says, before racing on ahead of me. I watch her silhouette recede into the distance before hastily following suit.
A thick haze enveloped the camp one evening. You could hardly see for miles. Against the backdrop of the misty mountains, I felt as if I were in a ghost town. It was quiet. Too quiet. Almost as if the world had forgotten about us. Somewhere in the distance, a dog howls. I remember running.
My heart swelled with the sky and shattered into the dimming pale light.
The chef who worked in the kitchen has the kindest eyes. One day she left camp for a wedding dinner and it threw all of us into a frenzy. It was utter chaos. Everyone was in disarray. When she returned, she hugged me like my mother would, a few seconds too long. I let her.
“I like you. You talk to us and play with us.” If there was one thing to be learned from the summer camps, is that respect is not at your beck-and-call. It cannot be commanded with a harsh, piercing whistle, a stern hour-long telling off, hardly a painful whip on shaking hands with an elastic jump rope. Respect takes time. Respect is earned.
Around the crackling bonfire, we danced, spinning round and round, all careless feet , tumbling hair, sparkling eyes, on and on, deeper and deeper, into the darkening night.
A lone white stallion pauses, stares straight into my soul, then dips its head low, bows to the earth
I rescued a little fledgling with Bob, this girl in my English class who quickly took to the silly nickname I would call her by. She wrapped it in her flowery cotton sweater and let me stroke its head. Neither of us said a word to the other when we let it go.
It wasn’t always easy to remember Mongolian names. So we would give them English names like Sparkles or Justin Bieber or Cheeky Boy. Until they probably decided they had had enough of us and gave us some Mongolian names of our own as well. I let one of them tattoo it on the underside of my arm. It sat against my skin like a talisman. I didn’t wash it off for days.