Submitted by Kathleen B., 2017 “Look Wider” International Travel Scholarship winner
My name is Kathleen, and I became a Girl Scout in first grade. It started out with cute little badges that my mother helped iron on my vest, selling cookies, and planting flowers in front of our elementary school. That’s the image that comes to mind for most people when they think of Girl Scouts, and so many people are surprised when I tell them that I was a Girl Scout in high school. Their confusion quickly turns to jealousy once I start to describe the incredible adventures I went on as an older Girl Scout. I still earned badges, sold cookies, and volunteered in my community, but I also went rock climbing, white water rafting, and ziplining. I even got to volunteer at a panda base in China through ATS Destinations. Now, in my last summer of being a girl member, I embarked on another journey across the world, all the way to outer Mongolia.
So what does one do in Mongolia? Well, you know the saying, “When in Mongolia, do what the Mongolian do.” And in Mongolia, they ride horses. Before we could do that, however, we learned archery. The professionals showed us how it was done first. A boy barely older than us galloped by at breakneck speeds, the horse flying over the yellow grass. With a quick motion and a sharp twang, an arrow suddenly sprouted from the center of the target. I gave it a try with both feet on the ground, the bow master showing me how to grasp the string with only my thumb and finger. Everyone got a turn, but only a few arrows actually pierced the stack of hay. After an hour and a half of practice, we had to keep moving so we could start the best part of our trip: the horseback riding.
When our group arrived at our host family’s group of gers, or yurts, there were around 20 horses waiting for us. They weren’t the horses we would be taking on our week-long trek, we were told, but we could use them to learn how to ride. I was given a dark brown horse with a black mane. Mongolians don’t give names to their horses, but I ended up calling that practice horse “Blue”, since his harness was a bright cyan. Once the stirrups were lengthened to accommodate my long legs, I was shown how to hold the harness in the Mongolian fashion and which commands Blue responded to. I started out slowly, clutching the reins so tightly my knuckles turned white. The Mongolian horses moved in a way I was not used to, but I could feel the strength practically radiating from the small horse. We rode until dusk, going as fast as we wanted. It was exhilarating. The horizon stretched on endlessly, blue sky reaching down to brush yellow hills, and my horse yearned to meet it.
The next day, we loaded up our trek bags and drove to where we would start our trek. On the way, we stopped to try fermented mare’s milk, a traditional Mongolian drink. We also saw falcons and vultures up close, and hiked Turtle Rock, an enormous rock formation that looks like a turtle. By the time we got to the new horses, I was already exhausted, but I was excited to start our trek. I was given a new horse, one I decided to call “Buzz”, for his short mane. We crossed the river, water rushing over our boots and splashing up to hit our faces. We trekked through a forest for an hour when suddenly it opened up into a vast, open plain, with rolling hills and thin, winding dirt roads. I rode alongside the other girls in my group, chatting away and singing. Sometimes, I would ride next to one of our Mongolian guides and pester them with questions about their country and their experiences. My favorite part was out midday break, where we could lay down by a stream or in some shade, and eat lunch. It was usually the same, mutton stew and bread, sometimes rice. It was surprisingly filling, and occasionally we would get Mongolian candy as a treat before getting back into our saddles and starting again. We stayed with host families half the days, eating delicious meals and learning about the culture out on the steppe. The other half of the days, we camped out wherever we settled down for the night, and hung out with our guides and each other. Despite my aching legs and sunburned face, I was having the time of my life. Still, I was relieved when we said goodbye to our horses and our guides, and made our way into the city.
Once we were done touring the giant statues of Genghis Khan in and outside the city, we went into the National Museum to learn more about the history of Mongolia. I never knew how much I didn’t know about that part of history until I went into that museum. It made me wonder what else I was missing when it came to the history of people around the world. We also explored Mongolian culture through a concert that showed all the different traditional music and dances. I even cried during one of the performances. It was wonderful. I kept thinking back to it even as we split up into groups to go shopping in the city.
On the long plane ride home, I leaned back in my seat, exhausted. I had only been in Mongolia for a week, but it felt like days. I scrolled through the pictures I took on my phone, each one another memory that I’ll cling to for years to come. I came to a picture of the Mongolian horizon, wide and empty. There were no fences, no barriers. It was free.
Americans consider themselves a free people, but I have tasted a different kind of freedom, where the sky never touches the earth. I came back from Mongolia with a better understanding of my own life and a different perspective of the world. All because I am a Girl Scout.
There are more opportunities as an older Girl Scout than people can even imagine. I was able to get scholarships and financial aid from Girl Scouts and Look Wider. I seriously encourage all of my fellow Girl Scouts to go on Destinations, see more of the world, and look wider.
“Look Wider” International Travel Scholarships are made possible by the Rae Ann and Richard Dougherty Look Wider International Travel Fund Endowment at Rose Community Foundation. Thanks to this generous commitment, Girl Scouts of Colorado will award scholarships to girls every year.
Learn more about Girl Scout destinations and other international travel at forgirls.girlscouts.org/travel. Applications for destinations travel are due before Thanksgiving each fall. The application for the “Look Wider” International Travel Scholarship is available from November through February and is meant for individual girl travel. Read more about Global Girl Scouting and how to get involved atgirlscoutsofcolorado.org/global-girl-scouting.