It was the slowest week ever. Same old teaching routine, but it crawled by. Each day dragged. It was the light at the end that made this week slower than most. Vacation. Warm weather, beaches, fruit, cold drinks, trees. Cambodia. A country I had often read about during high school and college but never saw myself ever having the opportunity to go there. Yet here it was. And I was going. Relax on the southern beaches, explore the ruins of Angkor, take in a new culture, a new language, a new climate, a new exciting place in the world. All I had to do was make it until Saturday.
Saturday came. The busiest this year. Omnodelger was hosting the Khentii Aimag Western Soum’s Olympics. Students from small towns all over Khentii flocked to my tiny town to compete in a variety of school subjects. As the only native speaker present I was to be the chief judge for the English portion. In between proctoring exams, judging speaking, and reading off listening portions to students I found time to find a ride that would take me away towards Ulaanbaatar to get my vacation started once the exams were finished. My driver told me he’d leave “later” the usual answer. In my experience this meant from anywhere between 6:00pm to 10:00pm. This being the one time where leaving later would work to my advantage as I wanted to finish up with the Olympics.
Hours later around 2:00pm I had just finished grading a speaking portion of the exam when my driver called. He wanted to leave now. The exams weren’t finished, I couldn’t leave. I cursed my luck, the one time I actually wanted to leave late is the one time I have an opportunity to leave at a reasonable hour. I regrettably told him to leave without me and I would find another ride. Explaining my misfortune to Saruul I tasked her with finding me a new driver while I gave the next round of tests.
Later that evening I sat around grading the exams with my counterparts and all of the other soums English teachers. It was fun and lighthearted, as we competitively joked with one another as we tallied up the scores. To my delight Omnodelger took three gold medals and one silver. As I was giving myself a mental pat on the back two of the other soums teachers began arguing with one another. Quick fire Mongolian, hand gestures, and one of the teachers snatched up two tests and put them side by side. I quickly saw their predicament. Two students from two different soums got tied scores. They were both tied for a bronze medal. I slowly slunk back trying to make myself less noticeable, but I was too late. Munkhkherlen pushed the papers across the table towards me, “Justin, you must choose who will take the bronze medal.” The two competing teachers eyed me sternly. C’mon man I just wanna go on vacation I whined in my head, aware that now one of those teachers would be directing anger towards me. I scanned both tests and made a decision based on the students ability to comprehend the question in the essay portion. After picking a winner I was delighted to see everyone shake hands and congratulate each other. During the revelry Saruul looked up from her seat and smiled at me, “You better go home and pack your things, your ride will come soon.” I practically skipped and whistled my way home.
I sat on my bed. My bag packed by the door. My ger clean and put together for when I would return. My coat was on. My boots were on. The fire was beginning to die. The familiar waiting game. Six o’ clock turned into seven and then into eight. This was normal though. Drivers claiming they’d leave at six would not actually leave until many hours later. I’d never learn though. The American in me was always packed and ready to go at the allotted time. Eagerly sitting by the door like a little kid told he would be taken out for ice cream soon. It was around 9:30 that I started to get irritated. I went over to Tuya’s and gave her my driver’s name. She said she had his number, she’d call him and find out when he was coming. I went back into my ger and sat waiting for her to text me.
It wasn’t until a little after 10:00pm that I got her text. Reading the words, I saw spots in my eyes. Clenching the phone so hard I was afraid it would break. He had decided he wasn’t going to go tonight. He made this decision hours ago but neglected to tell me. Now it was too late. All the other drivers were gone. I would have to wait until tomorrow. This set my preparations for leaving back drastically. In an frantic fury I fired off messages to all of my counterparts seeing if they knew anyone who was still in town that would leave for the city that night. An apologetic message from Munkhkherlen was my only reply. Defeated, I resigned to just watch a show on my computer and try to sleep. I tried and couldn’t, I needed to blow off steam. I threw on my sweatshirt, boots, gloves, and put on my headlamp. Stepping outside I grabbed my axe and at 10:30 at night I began chopping wood. Whack! The axe hit the stump with a satisfying crunch. Whack! The log split in a shower of splinters. With no rhythm or method to my chopping I cut into the wood like a mad man. Two headlights blinded me from my insane chopping spree. Sweating and panting I glared up at the vehicle, angry for being interrupted. Expecting to see Dawkhraa and his hunting buddies to come piling out I was shocked when I saw every one of my counterparts come climbing out of the jeep and running towards me instead. Each one with a big smile on their faces. Saruul opened her mouth to speak but then stopped and raised her eyebrow when she saw what I had been doing. Regaining her train of thought she went on excitedly. “Justin aa, we have found you a ride!” Bolormaa came running up behind her, “It is a microbus from Binder soum, it was going through our town, we stopped it for you!” Saruul waved her arms towards my ger, “Get your things, hurry.” Together me and all of my counterparts, Munkherlen, Saruul, Bolormaa, Oyunchimeg, and Enkhtor took off into my ger. They hurriedly grabbed up my things. “You have to dress very warm.” Saruul exclaimed as I put on my coat. “The microbus is very full with people, you will be uncomfortable.” I didn’t care, I was too overjoyed. “You have to sit on the meat!” Bolormaa shouted as she pulled the blanket from my bed. “Sit on this, the meat will be cold.” We dashed out into the street where a microbus was waiting. As Munkhkherlen pulled open the doors I could see every inch of space was crowded with either people or frozen slabs of livestock. They passed my things into the vehicle and one of the passengers offered up his seat for me so I wouldn’t have to be banished to the meat. My counterparts wished me safe travels and as I climbed in Munkhkherlen whispered in my ear, “Text me when you get to Baganuur, we don’t know these people, they aren’t from our town.” As I sat down I felt emotional.
It was right then that I knew without a doubt that what they felt for me and what I felt for them was nothing short of love.