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Paul and Elizabeth Holland served in Mongolia
Paul and Elizabeth Holland served in Mongolia
Local Peace Corps volunteers return to Fond du Lac
Couple pauses during two-year stay in Mongolia
By Patty Brandl
the reporter firstname.lastname@example.org
There’s no light-bedecked Lakeside Park in the rural Mongolian village where a former Fond du Lac man and his wife serve in the Peace Corps, but there is a Santa Claus.
The character, known in Mongolia as Father Winter, shows up around the 1st of January and looks a lot like jolly old St. Nick – except that he’s dressed in blaze orange from head to toe, said the former city resident.
“He looks more like a deer hunter Santa,” Paul R. Holland said.
Holland and his wife, Elizabeth, are taking a short hiatus from their two-year volunteer stint to spend the holiday with their loved ones. Splitting the vacation time between their two families, the couple is in town for a 10-day stay with his parents, Paul and Doreen Holland.
After graduating from St. Mary’s Springs High School in 1988, Holland earned degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Ohio State University. He met his wife in a running race and, while living on the north shore of Boston, the couple took a trip to Ecuador. It was there they met a few Peace Corps teachers and began to explore the idea of volunteering.
The Hollands decided to sign up and left for the village of Uliastai in the northwest part of Mongolia in mid-June 2002. Both were eager to experience day-to-day life in a different culture, but Paul said their decision also had a humanitarian component.
“I don’t know if you would want to join the Peace Corps just to see the world,” he said, especially because most of the stint is typically spent in one area. “Life in the Peace Corps is harder than it is living in America.”
Their introductory glimpse of the village that would be their home for the next few years was pretty incredible, Holland said.
“The first thing we noticed were the mountains around Uliastad. They’re not as big as the ones in Colorado, and look different because there are no trees,” he said. “But you get the feeling of being in a little valley with a river running through it.”
Elizabeth, a high school teacher in the States, is helping Russian teachers in Uliastai improve their English skills and polish up their lesson plans.
Paul is working with the businesses in the village. It’s a teaching experience, he said, but a learning experience as well, since it requires dusting off concepts he learned as a student.
“For me, it provided an opportunity to teach business skills to small business owners,” he said. “I take accounting and marketing and try to simplify it. If you make it too complicated, all of the benefits of a small business would disappear.”
His parents’ house on Glenwood Drive is a far cry from the couple’s home in Uliastai. The traditional Mongolian home, called a “ger” or a “yurt,” is a circular structure with a slanted roof and felt walls. In the summer, one layer of felt is sufficient, but in the winter when temperatures drop well below zero, three layers keep the home fairly warm, Holland said. With no indoor plumbing, outhouses are the norm.
“The worst thing about an outhouse is that it’s ‘out,’” he said, particularly when the temperatures drop to 15 below zero.
The hardest thing for the couple to adjust to was the cultural difference. The people there love Americans, Holland said, but tend to think all western-looking people are Russian. When the Hollands walk down the street, some people point and whisper in Mongolian that they’re Russians.
Holland enjoys telling them, with the smattering of the language he has picked up, “No, I’m not Russian, I’m a Mongolian.”
The language was harder for Paul to learn than it was for Elizabeth. Because many words in the Mongolian language are “off-the-wall different,” Holland sometimes uses the school’s English teacher as a translator to make his business classes easier for his students to understand.
The Mongolian political system is pretty stable, he said, and has experienced a lot of democratic reform.
“Mongolians, on the whole are nationalists,” according to Holland. They’re proud of their country, and now that they’re beginning to see outside influences creeping into the culture, he said, “they don’t like it.”
The average salary in the rural areas is around $60 a month. It’s enough to buy food, and wood for fuel to keep the families warm in winter.
The majority of the people in Mongolia are Buddhists, but not traditional Buddhists who worship the Dalai Lama, Holland said. They’re animistic and worship things found in nature like the sky and the mountains. Men and women are even forbidden to kiss in front of certain mountains because it might anger the mountain god.
They will finish their stay in Uliastai sometime next summer and hope to spend some time traveling through China and Tibet. When they return to the States, they plan to look for jobs either in the Midwest near his family, or the Northeast near Elizabeth’s family.
For now, they’re enjoying their stay in Fond du Lac and look forward to the second leg of their trip, which will take them to Hallowell, Maine.
Then it’s the long journey back to the other side of the world for the two Peace Corps volunteers.
Back to their round mountain home with the cold outhouse. Back to the land where Genghis Khan once created an empire that extended all the way from Hungary to Korea. And back to the new friends and neighbors they will never forget.