In case the lack of blog posts recently wasn’t an indication enough, this summer has been a crazy busy one. Only now, have I had more than two consecutive days to just sit down and write. Today’s post is about what took the most of my energy: summer camps.
When Marc, James, and I set out to have a good old-fashioned, outdoor-based summer camp for the kids of Arkhangai, I had no idea that it would completely consume several months of my life and nearly drive me to jump off the cliffs of insanity.
The two weeks leading up to the camp was such a comedy of errors, there were moments that I thought that the camp would FOR SURE HAVE TO BE CANCELLED THIS TIME.
- James was asked to replace a volunteer at another camp in another region so he was gone and out of cell service up until four days before our camp.
- My main Mongolian counterpart was hospitalized (but in the end pulled through like a boss and insisted we still have the camp).
- Marc sprained his ankle and was put on bedrest.
- The Mongolian presidential run-off election was rescheduled to be during our camp so some counterparts could not help with the camp because they had to work on the election.
- We had a three-day water and power outage during which everyone’s phone died, making communication near-impossible, four days before we left.
- The Children’s Center
askedtold us they were adding 10 students to our roster the day the camp started.
In the end, miraculously, we packed all
20 30 students and 4 student camp counselors into a small bus and made our way to a Soviet-constructed summer camp in the middle of the Mongolian wilderness. We had ten extra students we were down two adults. It was going to be a fun week.
And it was!
The goal of the camp was to teach 6th and 7th graders about Leave No Trace ethics (i.e. how to enjoy the outdoors while respecting it) and practice life skills. A common response we got from Americans was “don’t Mongolians already know how to live in great outdoors?”. To which I answer: Yes, most of them do, but they sometimes struggle with understanding pollution and conservation.
Historically, Mongolians didn’t need to worry about where their trash went. For one thing, their trash was biodegradable and because they are nomadic, they could just dump their trash wherever they were before moving. Alas, the culture of leaving trash where it was used has remained, but the trash being disposed of has changed from biodegradable waste to plastics. And while Mongolians reuse a lot of their trash in creative and innovative ways, there remains a sizable amount of waste that is just left in the steppe where it stays forever. This is tragic because Mongolia has something that virtually no other country has: wilderness. Not just wilderness, but a lot of wilderness that no one owns. It is a really special thing and we were excited to show students how special that is, how they can become stewards of their homeland and preserve it.
Because of the number of students and the drop-out adults, we had a lot of work on our plates, and most days exceeded 12 hours. My recommendation to future volunteers is to to pick 1 (and just one) thing you want to do everyday and try to make that one thing happen. There are a lot of moving cogs with any kind of project this size so knowing what priorities you have is essential.
One of the single biggest factors in the qualified success of the camp was our camp counselors. Before the camp, we divided all the campers into four teams, trying our best to have a fair age and gender distribution. Each team was led by an 11th grader who was personally responsible for all the campers on their team. On the first day of camp, we had each team make matching tie-dye shirts and come up with a chant that they then used the rest of the week. I was blown away by some of our counselors and how much responsibility and leadership they demonstrated.
The location was also a hidden gem. The facilities provided us with food and shelter, so we had time to focus on the activities with the campers. In the middle of the week, we went on a full day hike through the surrounding woods and it was during that hike that I was made aware that only two of the campers had ever been hiking in the woods before. During the hike we gave each team a bag to collect trash along the trail and they turned it into a competition to see which team could collect the most.
The hike, like so many other activities we did, was far outside of our counterparts’ comfort zone, but with the exceptions of a few meltdowns (it wouldn’t be a real Peace Corps camp without a meltdown), I was impressed with how much everyone was willing to try new things.
Because we were at camp for the Fourth of July, I convinced the camp director that it was of the utmost importance to have a bonfire to celebrate our national holiday, and somehow they acquiesced. Being on an americana roll, I taught all the students to sing “This land is your land” by Woody Guthrie the next day, which is a great song for ESL students because it has a great message without too many new words. My counterparts loved the song and got the students to rewrite the lyrics to include places in Mongolia.
Will I have another camp next year? Maybe.
It was so much fun and the kids loved it, but it was also a ridiculous amount of work and was a huge source of stress for a long time. Between the grant-writing, the selection of students, the curriculum-writing, and the organizing of logistics, I had my share of practice in project management. That being said, Arkhangai also received a lot of new volunteers this year so who knows, maybe they will be able to carry on the torch.