The most challenging and rewarding trip
Lydia LaBelle de Rios and Gregorio Rios have plenty to be thankful for.
The thought, although not new, was evident on Thanksgiving when the Rifle couple and their two young children were returning from a roughly three-month stint teaching English in Mongolia.
From the support that made the trip possible to the stark contrast between life here in the states and life in the vast rural regions of Mongolia, the sense of gratitude was overwhelming, Lydia and Greg said just days after returning to their modest home in Rifle. They recalled their travels while sipping a milk tea from the country as traditional Mongolian music played in the background.
“For me I think the most prevalent thing is again how full of gratitude we are, especially for folks that helped us,” Lydia said.
Prior to leaving in September, the couple admitted that many of the details were unknown.
The trip was to teach English for the Swiss Program for Language Instruction and Teacher Training. The couple did not know where they would be teaching or how they would pay for the trip, which required them to take unpaid time off from their jobs. Local businesses and organizations including the Base Camp, Olive Ridley’s Coffee Tea & Travel Co. and the Rifle Moose Lodge 1345 / 2147 offered support, as did others.
Still, the uncertainty as to what they would actually do in Mongolia, remained when the family arrived in the country and learned they could fly or take a two-day bus ride to get to the Bayan-Ölgii province in the western part of the country where they would live for the next three months.
Gregorio, who had made an effort to learn the Mongolian language, discovered that the majority of the population where they were headed speaks Kazakh.
“Oh, man,” Gregorio said while putting a palm to his head.
The surprises did not dampen the mood during the initial “honeymoon” phase of the trip, but after about 10 days the reality of the situation settled in, Lydia said.
As a couple, being in a foreign country was not a new experience. Gregorio was born in Paraguay and has traveled internationally, as has Lydia, who served in the in the Peace Corps. However, all those trips were without their children, Dante, 8, and Alex, 4.
“We we’re looking at each other like ‘Why did we do this? What was wrong with a Disney vacation?’” Lydia joked.
After a couple of weeks, though, the family got into a routine, and with help from some of the few colleagues and students who spoke English, the family integrated into the culture as much as they could. They were invited into homes and participated in celebrations, including a festival-like event centered on a small group of hunters who use eagles to catch small rodents. They slowly learned some Kazakh phrases — Alex and Dante learned more than their parents.
“For the short time that we were there we really felt like we had become part of the community,” Lydia said.
The people in the predominantly Muslim region served as a timely reminder that a person’s faith does not always translate to the evil acts that grab headlines, Lydia added.
The people, Gregorio concurred, are amazing and their kindness demonstrated the true beauty of the country.
Some things, though, are universal, such as the work of teachers, for whom the couple have a reaffirmed respect. Lydia taught roughly 80 college students, while Gregorio taught approximately 250-300 students ranging from sixth to 12th grade.
Without any prior teaching experience, both Lydia and Gregorio had to develop and implement their own lesson plans.
“There were days where it was like ‘I can’t believe teachers do this,’” Gregorio said.
As teachers, there were bouts of ups and downs, Lydia added, but the gratitude from the students always managed to overcome the stress of the job.
“You could see how grateful they were for education and especially to be learning English,” she said.
Outside of the classroom, the family managed to accomplish a range of tasks, which they documented on their Go Fund Me page http://www.gofundme.com/MongoliaRios.
They helped a clean-up effort of the Khovd River that included 60 students, four teachers and 10 community members, and helped coordinate a funding effort to build a new dormitory at the university where Lydia taught. After helping to secure partial funding through a grant from Give2Asia, a philanthropic organization, the couple plans on continuing to raise awareness for the effort until it is fully funded, Lydia said.
“I’m really proud of what we did. … We obviously couldn’t have done it without (the local people) … because you can sit there and be full of ideas but you have to have people interested otherwise it just goes away once you’re gone,” she said.
Now that they’re back home, they hope to establish a pen pal program between third graders at Cactus Valley Elementary and students at the school Gregorio taught at.
Reflecting on their time in Mongolia, Lydia and Gregorio are quick to point out that this trip was undoubtedly the most challenging, but the most rewarding. Although the family, especially the children, were ready to return home by the end of the trip, it was an emotional departure. After telling his students that he would be leaving soon, several of Gregorio’s students cried, he said.
“It was pretty emotional,” Lydia said, while remarking that the family is still adjusting. (On the day of the interview, the family was up at 4 a.m. to eat breakfast.) “And I think it’s going to take us some time to settle in.”
Not lost in the transition, though, is the gratitude for support from family, friends and the local community.
“We just want to pay a lot of gratitude to the community,” Lydia said.
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