Organization/Effort: Peace Corps
Service Work: Teaching English to adults and elementary-age students
After serving in Mongolia with the Peace Corps, tour director Tomas Garza is able to take small travel mishaps in stride.
"I cringe when people complain about a flight delayed by a half hour," Tomas said. "When you've experienced crumbling infrastructure and three-day flight delays, these minor inconveniences are nothing.
"It makes a challenging hotel check-in process so much easier."
Tomas's stint began in 1999, not long after democracy supplanted Soviet rule in Mongolia. Vestiges of a deeply flawed society remained.
"Everything was in transition," Tomas recalled. "The Soviet architecture was really shocking, very interesting - these hastily constructed apartment buildings with totally uneven floors. They seemed to be on the verge of collapse."
Only two roads led from Ulaanbaatar, the nation's capital. Tomas traveled about 1,000 miles along one of them to reach his small-town station, his home for nearly two years.
He taught English to adults and elementary-age students. However, he soon discovered his official role did not comprise the entirety of his work. Building bridges of cultural understanding overshadowed his daily duties.
"That's where the service comes in," Tomas said, "the ambassadorship rather than the technical job description."
The learning experience worked both ways. As Tomas imparted hallmarks of Western civilization, he enjoyed a culture of hospitality unique to this sparsely populated region. With vast distances between communities, nomads can always expect food and warmth upon arriving at a stranger's "ger," the Mongolian word for yurt.
Typical of many Asian countries, the most celebrated holiday of the year is the Lunar New Year. Festivities may last for weeks as families and friends travel great distances to visit one another, share meals, and exchange gifts.
"We were invited to so many gatherings I had a hard time fitting them all in," Tomas said.
Serving with the Peace Corps both "toughens you and softens you," he said. His remarkable experiences and ability to connect with individuals of different cultures readied him for an exciting, challenging career in tour directing.
"It reminds you that there is nothing insurmountable about a language barrier - that commonalities between people always win out."