American University graduate experiences a unique way of life with nomads in Mongolia
23-year-old Sylvan LaChance from Massachusetts wanted to experience a full cultural immersion somewhere completely different and far away from home. This motivated her to travel to Mongolia and she signed up to spend one month volunteering at the Projects Abroad Nomad Project. Sylvan had previously completed 2 trips with Projects Abroad; a Care Project in Tanzania and a Building Project in Ghana.
“I wanted to be away from the big city and have minimal contact with other volunteers and other people that speak my language. I wanted a full cultural immersion and it really was a cultural immersion out at the Nomad Project because nobody spoke English.”
Sylvan stayed in a ‘ger’, the traditional Mongolian dwelling, with a nomad family - her host parents and their three children - for one month near the village of Altanbulag in the Tuv Province, which is located 200km away from Ulaanbaatar city. The host mother’s parents lived next door and they had a farm with about 400 animals including horses, cows, goats, and sheep. Sylvan really enjoyed being involved in the daily routines of the nomads such as cooking traditional food, herding animals, riding horses, combing goats, and helping deliver calves.
“It was a really busy time as all the animals were giving birth. I think at least 200 animals gave a birth during the time I was there. The animals would give birth while they were in the steppes so we had to trek and get the new born animals. Sometimes when babies are born, their bodies come out the wrong way. So helping to pull out the babies was pretty incredible and going to find them on horse-back and sometimes by motorcycle was my favorite.”
“This time of year, nomads comb their goats for cashmere. It was very difficult at first and took up a lot of time. But having done a lot of brushing I got little bit better with it and they said “you good, you good” and kept saying it over and over. It was just the best feeling. Because at the beginning I felt like an outsider but during the last 2 weeks I really did feel like part of the family. Everything I did they said ‘you good’ and it was really rewarding just feeling like you’re part of something bigger.”
At the end of her project, Sylvan said that she found the little things the most rewarding, and especially looking after the new born calves: “Because it’s like new life; you see the babies and in the couple days they’re a little bit bigger and for a month you watch them grow. Sometimes the mothers abandoned them so sometimes I would feed them with bottles. I felt very maternal.”
“As a volunteer at the Nomad Project, I felt that I learnt so much; just because it’s such an amazing experience. But they are so generous and it’s kind of them to let you help. You might be slowing them down sometimes but experiencing a different kind of world and different lifestyle is so rewarding. It is so calm, so happy and so simple; and nothing I’ve ever seen before.”
After her 1 month’s stay with her Mongolian nomadic family, Sylvan advises future volunteers to be enthusiastic and ready to learn: “Just jump and help. If you don’t push yourself on them, they don’t ask you to help. So you will be watching them the whole time, if you don’t speak up. You don’t even have to ask them to do anything; just go and do it. They respect you more because you took the initiative to do it yourself.”
“One thing I really liked about the nomadic families is the sense of community and family values are important. I think that is something we really loose today especially being in a city. Everybody is doing their own thing and own job. It’s not about selfishness but you’re going along on your own path and you don’t really care too much for everyone around you. But they really communicate all the time with each other and care so much for each other like a big family. So it was nice to see and to feel a part of it too.”
She continued: “They’re really hospitable and kind to let me in. Because I realized how difficult it is to let an outsider come in and how difficult it is to teach someone things that you have been doing for your whole life. Everything is so natural to them - feeding goats or herding animals because they learnt it when they were 3-years-old. So I was grateful that they allowed me to learn.”
“It was a different experience. I liked being in open space and I liked the landscape and really liked being with the animals. That’s not an experience I could’ve had in the city. It was so different and incredible that I didn’t want to leave.”