It sounded like popcorn and those inside were counting the time between the sounds-- sometimes five seconds, sometimes less. In the dark you might never have identified each of the teeny thuds as the sound that the body of a black beetle makes as it hits a linoleum floor covering after falling from a ceiling.
Our shelters had been invaded by what could only be surmised was a mass migration of the inch-long creatures across the open plains-- directly through the camp.
Linoleum? Yep, not your typical camping experience. Nothing about it except perhaps the tented port-o-potties conformed to the expected standard that we were warned about in the Project HOPE recruiting material, which required of us a "demonstrated ability to live/work in field conditions [that are] simple, austere, primitive, close-quartered. Flexibility and adaptability to changing missions/environments and a good attitude is a must."
And so our hearty Project HOPE team, serving as volunteers for Pacific Angel Mongolia, enjoyed the five hour ride from the capitol to the remote camp, set up for the mission strategically between clinic sites (some of which were still an hour and a half away). The team was intrigued by the wool and cotton covered ger shelters-- a larger version of those which have been used by the nomadic herders for centuries. And no one seemed fazed by the Army cots and shared quarters, the necessary mad dash to draw the wool flap over the ventilation hole at the apex of the teepee-style roof at the first sign of rain.
We gloried in the food, partially because it seemed implausible. From within a cluster of humble Army green tents, Mongolian staff delivered perfectly grilled kebobs, jam-filled crepes, milk so fresh it was still warm, and soups and dumplings with mysterious ingredients on pre-portioned cafeteria-style trays. Would you like another mutton steak?
A staff of dozens was the great Oz behind the curtain, chopping wood to heat water for the communal tent showers, waging RAID wars on beetles and driving the great Mad Max-mobile-- a kitchen on monster truck tires-- to clinic sites each day to prepare the midday meal.
This allowed the campers-- 120 clinic-weary doctors, dentists, optometrists, engineers, translators, others-- time to build evening fires and watch lightening frame the cluster of shelters both horizontally and vertically like a neon advertisement for the nomadic life; to enjoy full rainbows and a full moon rising like a bowling ball of fire over the horizon. And to stage kick ball and card games.
The bugs? Well, once the cots were moved outside, the acrobatics they performed in our notably circus tent-shaped quarters could go on without angry spectators, and our view became white points on a black background as the stars became the last of the evening entertainment.
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