Tuesday, December 30, 2008


It's Tuesday morning, and we're up early, full of anticipation. It is our first day "on the job" in Mongolia, and we're anxious to get started. The emotional impact of the events of the previous evening have made us more eager than ever to get into our assigned places and go to work.

Eloise and I didn't get to shower last night, so we're hoping to be able to do so this morning. Why didn't we shower last night? Well, I'll tell you. One problem - the water. The cold water was okay, but the hot water was running a rich red color. I tried to convince myself that it was just a little rust in the lines, but it didn't work. I just couldn't make myself shower in water that looked like that. I can accept, even cherish, the metaphor in the hymns about being "washed in the blood of the Lamb", but this is here on earth and just looked a bit too real for me. So, a cold water wash-up had to do. We were hoping the situation would improve by this morning. It has, and we manage to get a fairly decent shower.

Later, we learn that the hot water comes from lines that travel throughout the city, from a central heating point somewhere. So, the hot water that comes through our bathroom, if not diverted by our tap, goes right back out and on to another location. This seems very strange, until one stops to realize that the same thing happens at home with the cold water that circulates through the city water lines. The only difference is that we heat it ourselves at the point of use. Still, circulating hot water doesn't seem to me to be a very efficient plan. One would think there would be a lot of heat loss as the water travels through miles of lines.

After a good breakfast in the dining room, and a motivating pep talk from our leaders, we break up and proceed downstairs to join our respective groups. Two of our guys, Ray and Jay (now there's a combination!) are going with Pastor Midor on a journey through the steppes, to visit individual families in their gers and witness to them. Pastor Midor is a Mongolian, a very committed Christian with a true evangelist's heart. He has been described, accurately I think, as a modern-day Paul. The love of God shines in his eyes, the fervor of his calling resonates around him like an aura, and one feels blessed just being in his presence.

Pastor Midor and Ray and Jay plan to spend the next week on this journey, riding camels and/or horses, and leading some pack animals as well, with the supplies they will need. It sounds exciting! I wish I could go along, but of course, a woman on a trip such as this wouldn't be proper, and probably not terribly practical. Here's a picture of the three guys:


The trio of traveling evangelists leaves the hotel to go find their animals, and the rest of us gather, preparing to depart for our areas of service. Eloise is going to the sewing center, along with others. There they expect to be teaching the Mongol women how to sew, and helping them make clothing and blankets and quilts for the children. Eloise is armed with her special left-handed scissors and a lot of expertise. I can only dream of sewing as well as she does.

Another group is going out into the town, to visit ill and needy elders in the apartment buildings. I was originally scheduled for this duty, but since the apartments can have five stories or more and of course, there are no working elevators, there is no way I can navigate all those stairs with my damaged knee. One of our men, Bobby, has generously loaned me an Ace knee wrap, and it helps some, but it's not a brace. It serves more to give me a more secure feeling and to remind me not to put any stress on the knee. Stairs at this point are simply not an option. So, I'm reassigned to join the team going out to the remote medical site. This is what I did last year, and so I know that I'll spend most of the day sitting on a bench. I can just about handle that.

We get into our assigned vans and the journey begins. To our surprise, the vans are not the beat-up, bedraggled and suffering Russian vans we rode in last year. We are in relatively new vehicles, with doors that actually close and are not tied on with bits of rope. The windows open and close, a real novelty. The vans are roomy and the seats are comfortable. We are told that the Russian vans were otherwise engaged, and they were not able to get them for us. I'm not sure whether this is a tongue-in-cheek statement, or the truth. I'm sure the Russian vans would cost less to rent than the ones we're enjoying this year, and while those old vans will beat you to death, still I can respect the need for good stewardship of the ministry's funds. Our bruises might be painful, but a big dent in the budget would hurt a lot more.

Besides, the old Russian vans were fun. I'm a little disappointed that our first-timers will miss that experience. Still, even in the newer, more modern vans, the trip over the countryside is no walk in the park. It's not as rough as last year, due in part to better suspension in the vans, but also due in large part to the fact that it has not been raining. Last year, there had been a lot of rain, and the track (no way can it be called a road) was rutted and slippery, with a lot of wash-outs and deep gullies that had to be traversed. Still, we made it, and we had fun. We'll make it this year, too, but it won't be quite as much fun.

When we arrive at the site, it looks much like it did last year. We're in the same beautiful location, on the bend of a swiftly-flowing river. Our triage tent has been set up by the industrious Mustangs, and there are gers for the doctors and the pharmacist. Dr. Tom will be in one ger, Dr. Ron in another, and Tammy, an RN with a lot of field experience as a Navy nurse, will function as a doctor this year, in a third ger. She's savvy enough to send anything she feels is beyond her expertise over to one of the MD's, so it's okay.

At this point, let me explain who the Mustangs are, for those of you who didn't read last year's journal. They're the older teenage boys from the ministry, and they live and function in a sort of "boot camp" situation. They chose the name "Mustangs" for themselves, and it's great to watch the spirit of pride and almost military discipline under which they live. They're capable and hard-working, and very obliging. If you need something done, and done quickly, ask a Mustang. They're eager to help and to please.

They live at the main compound, near the village of Hongor. This compound is located on the land that was deeded over to the ministry by the Mongolian government, and it's beautiful. It's situated on a lovely section of the river, and would be prime land in any country. The greenhouses, the warehouses and the Mustangs' dormitories are located there. As you will see later, the new "church ger" is located there as well. In time, Jerry and Susan will build their home there, next door to the church. It will be lovely, a roomy ger built over a dugout basement, which will have one wall of windows with a beautiful view of the river. If ever anyone deserved such a home, they do.

Back to the Mustangs. There are twelve of them, I think. They wear their fatigue-style clothes, and various styles of hats, so they're very identifiable. I recall many of them from last year's trip, and am happy to see them again. They come over for hugs, and to demonstrate the improvements in their English. I remember one young man in particular. He's never without a smile on his face, and we nicknamed him Smiley last year. They are so sweet, it's hard to imagine that they have all come from situations of abuse, abandonment, poverty and want. Most are now Christians, but I must stress that this is not pushed on them, it's a free and willing choice.

When a team such as ours is visiting, it's the Mustangs that do the very important work of setting up and breaking down our camps. Those boys can set a ger up in less than two hours, and can tear one down in twenty minutes. They can take our tent down in about five minutes. I don't know how long it takes them to set it up, but I imagine it's not very long.

Once we arrive and start seeing patients, the boys function as escorts for the patients, helping them get through the intake area where they are given a registration card, and then they keep them in proper order of arrival as they go through our triage area. Once we have seen the patient, gotten their vital signs and a brief history of their complaints, there is always a Mustang standing ready to escort them to the benches outside the doctors' gers. They're careful to keep the waiting lines at about the same length, always taking their patient to the shortest line. There are usually two or three who just circulate around the camp, running errands, fetching bottles of water for us when we run dry, and holding babies while moms are being seen by the nurses.

When we arrived this first morning, it was immediately noticed that one of the young Mustangs had a serious problem. He was barely walking, just hobbling along, with his knee bent and obviously painful. Investigation revealed a badly infected, hugely swollen knee. He had fallen from his bicycle a few days back, sustaining an abrasion and possibly a puncture wound to the knee. It had become infected and abscessed, and needed immediate attention. He, in true teenage boy fashion, had just gone about his business and had not reported it to anyone.

Dr. Ron immediately set to work. The knee needed to be incised and drained, but we weren't prepared for surgery and had no scalpels in our supplies. Not to worry - Dr. Ron is resourceful. He used the largest-bore needle he could find, and more or less perforated a line across the abscess until it opened on its own. Once it was cleaned out, the wound was packed and bandaged, and the boy was started on a course of strong antibiotics. None of this came a moment too soon. An infection like that could have easily invaded the joint and it's not inconceivable that it could have cost the boy his leg. However, with the improvised but effective treatment, and the antibiotics, Smiley was walking much better by the next day. Yep, it was my happy-faced little friend. The pain subsided rapidly, healing started immediately, and by the end of our visit his knee was fine.

We went right to work seeing patients, and my companion in triage this time was Barb, a nurse from Canada. She and her husband have joined our group, will be working with us for our entire stay, and then they will continue on and travel in Mongolia for a few weeks after we leave. I miss my colleague from last year, Toom Chris, but soon find that Barb is fun, friendly and very capable. I know we're going to be friends, and will have a great time working together.

This grows lengthy, so I'm going to stop here and pick up today's events in another installment.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Finally, we are on the ground in Beijing. I know what you're thinking right now - "This is the third installment and we're still traveling? We aren't in Mongolia yet?" Well, if you think you're tired of reading about it, imagine how we were feeling as we were living it!

As I said, we're now in Beijing, and after deplaning, we follow Omar through the challenging maze of the airport. We are to collect our luggage which, by no small miracle, has made it to Beijing with us. I can't imagine what it took to get it off our broken plane and reloaded onto the one that actually brought us here. Transferring the luggage for about 500 people would be a monumental task, but they did it.

We complete all the formalities in the airport - and they are legion - and gather at a staging point designated by Omar. He is deep in negotiations with United Airlines, as our Miat Airlines flight to Ulaanbaatar has long since departed without us, and there is nothing else until tomorrow. It is Omar's opinion that since it was United's fault that we are going to be stranded here overnight, they should pay for hotel accommodations for us. Naturally, United sees it differently, but implacable as always, Omar finally convinces them and they agree.

Omar manages to get enough rooms for us at the Sino-Swiss hotel, where we stayed last year, and the hotel sends vans to pick us up. Our luggage is loaded in with us, with large pieces in the aisles and smaller pieces in our laps, and away we go!

Arrival at the Sino-Swiss feels like coming home, weary as we are. Those of us who are veterans of last year's trip remember the hotel very well. It's nice - not overly luxurious, but very comfortable. After the heat and humidity outside, our room is cool, the beds are comfortable, and there is a shower that willing delivers a generous supply of hot water. At least it does after we remember that we are in China and the hot water tap is on the right! We wash away a layer or two of travel grime, and with grateful sighs, we settle into the clean beds and very quickly fall asleep.

Five a.m. comes with astonishing speed, and we are up, dressed and in the lobby well before six. The group assembles, and soon we're back on the vans, heading for the airport. Due to the very early hour, the traffic is quite light, and we oldtimers are mildly disappointed, because we had been anticipating the expressions on the faces of the newcomers when they saw Beijing's traffic for the first time. Consoling ourselves that we'll have that bit of fun on our return trip, we give way to gratitude that we're going to make it to the airport in record time.

Indeed, the vans deliver us to the airport in just a few minutes, and we follow Omar inside. There is a delay, while our group assembles and Omar goes off to begin negotiations to get us on a Miat flight. For some reason, United needs to be involved - probably to confirm why we missed yesterday's flight and therefore need to get on one today. Finally, the appropriate officials show up, Asian amenities are observed and we can see Omar smiling. That's a very good sign, and sure enough, in a few minutes the Miat ticket counter is opened and the agents begin issuing boarding passes to our group.

Once this is done, Omar again leads us through the various phases of approval required by China. We visit Customs, fill out and turn in our health questionnaire (as though anyone with an ounce of smart would admit to being ill and risk being quarantined in China) and complete our exit cards. All documents ask for essentially the same information, all are collected by an unsmiling Chinese and put into a large pile of similar forms. I feel so certain that each of these are carefully read and processed at some point, probably sometime within the next two years. What is the point? Still, we do it.

We make our way to our gate and soon are boarding a plane bound for Ulaanbaatar, in Mongolia. The Miat staff, as always, are friendly, charming, efficient and make us feel welcome. The two young female attendants are lovely, very beautiful women. As soon as we're in the air, cabin service begins and is almost non-stop thereafter. At this rate, we'll all soon be too large to fit in our seats!

There is some cloud cover, and we're not able to see the Great Wall. I couldn't have seen much anyway, from my aisle seat. Too bad. It's truly a sight to behold from the air, but I have to content myself with memories of last year's flight. In what seems a very short time by comparison to the last flights, we feel the plane start to throttle down and before we know it, we're on the ground in Ulaanbaatar.

In the jetway after leaving the plane, I stop to attach my carry-on bag to the little wheels I bought. Taking a step backward for a more stable position, I suddenly find myself flat on my back. My first thought is that I've somehow fallen off the jetway, but immediately, reason tells me that this isn't possible. It's enclosed, for heaven's sake! All I can remember is stepping back, and the odd impression that either my leg wasn't there, or there was nothing beneath it to stand on. Obviously, neither of those options can be true. I become aware that my knee, the one I twisted on the United flight, is hurting. OK, that explains it. The knee simply gave way.

Immediately, I see faces above me, and hands are reaching to help me up. Dr. Tom and others soon have me on my feet, my carry-on is retrieved and I'm assured it will be taken care of, and I have a tall, strong man on either side, practically carrying me through the jetway. I have probably been this embarrassed at some other point in my life, but right now, I can't think when it was. Feeling like the world's biggest klutz, I gratefully allow the guys to assist me.

Fortunately, the airport in Ulaanbaatar is small and informal. There is only one luggage carousel (maybe two?) and the guys find a chair nearby, deposit me there and go off to retrieve my luggage. That's not a problem. Everyone on the trip knows my blue and white flowered luggage. In fact, it's used as a signal to let us know when we're at the right carousel. If my "hand-painted periwinkles" bag appears, then this must be the place!

All the luggage is collected, and Dr. Tom - ever the gentleman - insists on helping me outside to the bus which is waiting for us, to take us to Darkhan. Others of the guys are nearby, as well. I feel safe. I'm walking okay, though the knee is tender and feels very unstable. Of course, I thought I was walking okay before I fell in the jetway, too. It's a bit disconcerting to realize that I can't depend on my knee to hold me up, but it's encouraging to know that I won't be left stranded, like a turtle on its back.

Again let me say, the only reason I'm recounting this personal situation is to underscore the spirit of unity, of helpfulness, of support for each other that is woven through our group like a golden thread. I can't see my bags anywhere, but I'm not worried. I know that someone has taken care of them. I know that Eloise has the bag containing my cameras, and my passport is secured in a little leather pouch which hangs around my neck. As I attempt to board the bus and find that I cannot use my left leg to lift myself up the steps, hands are there to support and assist, and I'm quickly settled into a comfortable seat. The bus is large, and there are empty seats, so Eloise is seated behind me and we each have a whole seat to ourselves. I'm glad, because now we can both see the beautiful Mongolian countryside as we travel toward Darkhan. I get myself situated, camera ready, and prepare to watch for remembered landmarks.

This has been a long and arduous journey, but for those of us who have been here before, the stressful journey fades in our memories, no longer important. We know the joys and rewards of a period of service in this beautiful land, as we try to show the love of God to the remarkable people who live here. The first-timers in the group are fun to watch, as their anticipation and excitement overcome their fatigue. Of course, the same thing is happening to us old-timers as well.

Finally, we're all on board and settled, and our driver shepherds the big vehicle out of the airport and onto the highway. We are on our way to Darkhan!

As I watch the landscape unfold as we pass, I'm once again struck by the stark beauty of the place. I begin to recognize those landmarks I mentioned - a particularly spectacular group of hills, or a rocky outcropping. We pass many ovoos, but I don't see the one I photographed last year. I'm sure it has been added to by now, and would no longer look the same. An ovoo is a pile of stones, sticks, trinkets and other things that are piled together by travelers, as an offering to the spirits of the mountains. Often poles are stuck into the top of the heap, and strips of cloth are attached like banners. The cloth is always in the color I call "Buddha Blue". The same shade of blue, always. I learned from my translators last year that the color is often used by Buddhists, who believe it to be a sacred color to the Buddha. So, while established to pay homage to elemental spirits such as wind and rain, and to animal spirits as well, there is a strong overlay of Buddhism in the piles of debris known as ovoos.

As we approach the halfway point, memories of the infamous restroom (read: outhouse) come to mind, and I'm thankful that I'll be able to pass up a visit there. The bus stops, however, and a few brave and/or desperate souls do enter the dark portals. Not I!

We finally arrive in Darkhan, and are taken to the Darkhan Hotel, the same place we stayed last year. Still shabby, still crumbling, still struggling, but not seedy. Somehow, the woman who runs it manages to put in little touches that just break one's heart. Her daughter is one of our translators, and in the course of this visit, we learn about her struggles to extract operating funds from the owner. She usually can't even get enough for daily operation, much less repairs and upgrades. In the journal of our last trip, I described our room. Rickety furniture, threadbare carpet, unbelievable plumbing and broken bathroom tiles, but we had sheer curtains at the windows that bore lovely embroidery work. This time, everything is the same, but we find a pair of complimentary disposable slippers by each bed, and in the bathroom, on the sagging shelf above the cracked, leaky sink, we find a new toothbrush and some packets of shampoo. Later we are to learn that not every room had these little amenities. I guess the woman just does what she can, with the pittance the owner allows her for operating expenses. You have to give her credit for trying.

After a little time for cleaning up and settling in, we gather in the dining room for dinner. The food, as usual, is good. Fried potatoes that quickly become everyone's favorite, which is a good thing, because we receive them three times a day. With some of that good Mongolian catsup on them, they're great! I don't recall what else we had, but it must have been good, because I do remember that I didn't go away hungry.

Friday, December 12, 2008


Our section is called, and we join the line of people boarding the huge airliner. We find our row and discover that we are in a 3-seat section again, but this time we are not alone. Eloise takes the window seat (I think she wants as far away from the aisle as she can get this time), I'm in the middle, and a very nice young man is seated by the aisle. He has a ready smile, and is very quick to help us stow our bags.

We settle in and prepare to depart San Francisco. It is 1:15 p.m., our scheduled departure time. We wait, expecting to feel the gentle motion of the jet as it is pushed away from the gate, but nothing happens. The plane does not move. Minutes tick by, and it's getting warm and stuffy inside the airplane. People begin to speculate on the reason for the delay. We can see no empty seats that would indicate a delay to allow someone to make their connection, but then the plane is huge and we can't see the whole thing. It's getting very warm, and people are getting restless.

Finally, after about half an hour, the pilot's voice comes over the intercom and announces that there is a problem with the ventilation system in one of the lavatories, and it will take about twenty minutes to repair it. There is an audible collective sigh as we settle down for a longer wait.

Another half hour passes. We are now one hour late in departing. The pilot announces that a part is needed to complete the repair and it is being sent over by courier - another twenty minute delay. Apparently someone has asked the obvious question - why can't that lavatory just be locked and not used, and let us get on our way? The pilot explains that the ventilation in the lavatories is part of the overall smoke ventilation system for the entire aircraft, so it must be repaired and functional. Sigh. By now it is quite warm in the plane and several hundred people are getting hungry and restless.

The twenty-minute explanation is repeated once more, and this time no one believes him. Our disbelief is justified, as we wait, and then wait some more. Finally, at about 4:30, the announcement is made that the problem cannot be corrected (apparently not in our lifetime, anyway) and we are going to deplane and wait for another aircraft to be made available. We can expect to depart San Francisco at 6:45 p.m. This does not bode well for us to make our connection with Miat Airlines in Beijing.

Everyone gathers their belongings once again, and we leave the plane. Inside the terminal, we are given vouchers for food service and told from which gate our flight will eventually depart. Eloise and I hook up with three other women from our group and go in search of a restaurant. We don't find much. We finally end up at something that describes itself as a "deli". The sign should have read "Clip Joint". I spend $19.83 for a fair-to-middlin' sandwich, a tiny fruit cup, two cookies and a bottle of water. The voucher covers $15 of that, so I guess it was okay.

After we've finished eating, I decide I'm tired of lugging my carry-on bag, which seems to be getting heavier by the minute. In a little luggage shop, I find a set of wheels with some bungee cords for securing things. The whole device collapses into a flat, easily-stored form, but expands to hold my bag, my little pillow and my camera case. The thing costs $30, but as I drop my heavy bag onto the base and secure everything, I think that this just may be the best $30 I've ever spent! Hooray, it rolls!

We move on to the waiting area for our flight, and at about 6:45 (the time we were told we would be departing) we are called to board the plane. Everyone gets settled, expecting a rapid departure, but no - again we are waiting. After about half an hour, the explanation is given that because our original crew is now in overtime, the FAA requires that there be four pilots on board and they are waiting for the fourth one to arrive. We can understand that this is a safety issue, and we have no quarrel with it, but seems like the airline should have thought about that earlier and had the pilot already on the scene. At 7:30, an attendant tells us that the pilot is here and we will be departing shortly.

Finally, at 7:50 the plane moves away from the gate, and now at this moment, 8:05, we are sitting on the tarmac, not moving. Needless to say, we're all a bit edgy, wondering just what has gone wrong now. At 8:15, an hour and a half after we boarded, the plane finally begins its lumbering, ponderous journey down the runway, taxiing for takeoff. We are over six hours late, and should be halfway to Beijing by now. The 12-hour flight ahead of us doesn't sound very inviting.

The captain is pushing the big jet hard, it shudders and strains, and suddenly we get that "light" feeling and know that we're airborne. Look out, Beijing, here we come! Finally.

The flight is essentially uneventful, a few rough patches but nothing serious. The young man seated next to me is very pleasant, and we make conversation. I discover that his name is Anthony, and he works for Google, the internet search engine people. He's delighted when I use the term "Google it", and I think probably a little surprised that this old gal even knows what that means. He shows me pictures of his boys, I share pictures of my family (thanks, Brittney) and we watch a movie together on his laptop.

It's now 9:20 a.m., Texas time, or 27 1/2 hours after we first gathered at D/FW. It's 10:20 p.m. in Beijing. Rumor has it that we will be landing in about half an hour. We are ready. The cabin staff has been great. We have been fed much more than we ever wanted or should have eaten, but of course we ate it anyway. Passengers, for the most part, have been patient and pleasant.

Remembering Beijing airport from last year, I decide it would be prudent to make one last potty stop before we land, and Anthony obligingly gets up to allow me to leave my seat. Mission accomplished, and I'm returning to my seat. The seatbelt sign has been turned on, and I must hurry. Anthony is elsewhere, walking around. There is a trick to getting into the center seat quickly and with a measure of grace, and I employ it. You step in with the left foot, holding onto the back of the seat in front of you. Then you sort of swing into the seat, with your left foot pivoting into alignment as you drop into your seat. At least this is the plan. It usually works. Not always. This time, just as I started to swing into place, the plane lurched and literally threw me into the seat. Probably would have been fine, except my heel was wedged against something and my foot did not pivot. Result - one corkscrewed knee, lots of pain, and significant nausea.

I managed to keep quiet, but Eloise knew I was hurt, and kept asking how she could help me. (That's what good friends are for, you know. In fact, I would not be mentioning this personal incident at all, except for the fact that it demonstrates so beautifully the spirit of comradeship and cooperation that prevailed in our group, as you will see.) I sat gritting my teeth and chewing my shirt collar for a few minutes, and miraculously, in about five minutes, the pain subsided and I thought I might be home free.

We feel the big plane starting to descend, and the pilot sends the cabin staff scurrying to prepare for landing. This very long, very tiring flight is finally about to end.