Dispatches from the Coldest Capital in the World
To step out into December’s minus-20-degree weather, Leon Tucker layers up “in bundles and bundles” with long underwear, thermal sweatshirts, camel wool socks and a North Face parka. This is not what he meant back home in Deale when he called himself “an outdoors person.”
Mongolia is not what Tucker’s mother, Kathy Norris, imagined for the son who always dreamed of travel. “I thought he was going to take off,” she says, “but not that far!”
But Mongolia is what the 28-year-old got when he asked for a Peace Corps assignment to Central Asia.
“I had to Google to find out where it was,” he says by long-distance telephone.
As a Peace Corps volunteer, the 2001 graduate of Southern High School says he is doing “something I not only wanted to do, but something I had to do for myself and my community.”
For all his motivation, going 6,485 miles was a challenge.
“When I arrived, I wondered how I’d do without clothes I like, foods, the gym,” he says.
Customs, he found, were different. Mongolians wear a deel, a tunic that overlaps across the front and clasps at the neck and sides. The townsfolk cook what seem to be only five basic meals; and as for the gym, what gym?
Tucker is black, part of the 20 percent of minority members among the 9,095 Peace Corps volunteers now serving.
His skin color made him as strange to Mongolians as Mongolia was to him.
“At the beginning of my service, I got long, hard stares,” he says. “They were friendly, out of curiosity. Through my two years there, the stares got shorter and shorter. I still see them every day, but they are very welcoming. One lady, a nice lady, rubbed my skin like it would go away.”
In Bor-Ondor, a small town five hours from the nearest health department, Tucker’s job was health outreach. He demonstrated hand-washing to kindergarteners, made safe sex presentations at the local college and organized an alcohol awareness week with presentations for high school seniors, college freshmen and police officers.
The busyness of his work didn’t help him deal with his own spare time, especially in the first year.
“My biggest challenge really has been with myself,” Tucker explains. “Not the isolation, but the lack of free-time activities.”
Slowly, he found his way into the community. At the high school, he taught basketball and organized a drama club. He learned traditional Mongolian songs and performed in concerts. Doors opened, and he was invited to family events like the ceremony of a three- to six-year-old’s first haircut — a celebration of survival — plus weddings and housewarmings.
“Mongolia is hospitable,” he says. “Everyone’s door is always open.” He can show up any night for dinner at an acquaintance’s home.
In August, he finished his 27-month service by writing a successful proposal to World Vision for a project on healthful diets for Mongolian children. The diet is mostly hot pockets, dumplings with meat — sheep, cow or horse — and heavy oil. The only vegetables are potatoes, garlic, tomatoes and carrots cooked in soups; no greens.
Tucker is now a volunteer leader, living in the Mongolian capital, Ulan Bator, mentoring new volunteers and helping with assignments and training. He also works with Tomorrow’s Development, a non-governmental organization working for vulnerable children.
“Living and working abroad teach you things about yourself,” he says. “When you see the world through only one lens, you think that is it. Being able to see life through a new lens makes you appreciate a whole lot more and need less as you grow.”
When told that Deale had a 37-degree night, Tucker — who will return home next year — was unimpressed.
“Ulan Bator is the coldest capital in the world. Imagine every day, all day being cold,” he said. “Peace Corps volunteers dream of 37 degrees.”