Semester Abroad in Mongolia: Interview with Evan Buxbaum

Evan in MongoliaEvan in Mongolia.

Mongolia isn’t the first place that comes to mind for most students thinking about studying overseas for a semester. But for Evan Buxbaum, Mongolia was exactly the kind of place he wanted to spend his semester in 2004.

In the years since his time in Mongolia, Evan has finished university, travelled around the world on his own, and finally returned home to New York, where he works as a writer, actor and director.

TravelBlogs caught up with Evan to hear more about his experiences in Mongolia and the rest of the world.

Why did you decide to do a semester abroad? And why did you choose to do it in Mongolia?

I am very lucky to have parents who love to travel and shared that with me throughout my childhood. By the time I was in college, I never really thought about not going abroad; it just seemed like a great opportunity to get to see a little bit more of the world. (Not to mention a great opportunity to get away from the intensity of Swarthmore College for a semester, and by junior fall, that was a very enticing prospect.)

As to why I chose Mongolia, you know, I’m still not entirely sure. I knew from the beginning I wanted to go somewhere very different from anything I knew. I wanted to really get out there and see something I had no chance of seeing in America or anywhere I had ever been. I wanted to go off the American deep end, out past Burger King, and J. Crew. Past the world class restaurants, the mass transit, the Visa cards and Coke machines. Really, past anything comfortable, insulated, or expected.

I had wanted to go to Tibet, however that year proved a little rougher than usual in the region and most of the programs shut down or relocated primarily to Nepal. I had been looking specifically at one program in Tibet run by SIT, and as I flipped through the booklet earmarking pages with alternate country programs, I kept coming back to one page: Mongolia. It just seemed so different, so out there. Do most people even know where it is? That they speak Mongolian? That it’s the largest landlocked country in the world? Over time, as it became clear Tibet would not really be an option, I began flipping to the Mongolia page more and more often. It went from a remote possibility to a real possibility, and by then, the decision was already made. Once I had the possibility of going in my mind, it would have felt like a let down to do anything more conventional. So I applied, and a few months later, found myself eating stewed mutton in a ger on the Mongolian steppe.

Had you traveled much before that semester in Mongolia?

I had traveled a good deal, thanks to my parents. I was very fortunate growing up to have gone on family trips throughout Europe, parts of America, Canada, Belize, the Caribbean, Tahiti, and Ecuador, among others. My parents love to travel too. Nothing I had seen, though, could have really prepared me for Mongolia. It was a pretty unique place.

You wrote in your blog about a two-week home stay on the central Mongolian steppe. How has that experience affected the way you see life back home New York?

I wanted to go off the American deep end, out past Burger King, and J. Crew. Past the world class restaurants, the mass transit, the Visa cards and Coke machines.

It’s difficult to say. I find the ways in which travel changes you are tough to articulate and often can only be seen, subtly, by those who knew you before you left. Change is never easy and one of the things I am constantly amazed at while traveling is the human ability to detach and adapt. What I mean by this is that while traveling, I am constantly amazed by how quickly we become used to previously foreign things and become detached from the novelty of these things through our ability to adapt to them. It is unbelievable, when you think about it, that we can handle adapting to something as alien as living in a teepee in sub-zero temperatures in Siberia, then upon returning home, adapt back to eating in a four-star restaurant with a suit and tie on. What is more, through our ability to detach ourselves from the reality of these experiences (even while experiencing them) we can soundly reconcile the two and avoid a psychotic break. It never stops amazing me, the human potential to adapt.

Returning home, it was easier than one might think to reintegrate into New York life, something that in and of itself was somewhat unnerving. In the end, surely this is why we can handle traveling at all; because we are supremely adept adapters.

That said, coming home was tough, and for all the reasons people try to tell you about before hand, but you can never really understand until it happens. I became very anti-social for a while. I had no desire to go to parties of any sort and little desire to see friends. I was used to being alone, with people I struggled to converse with. I had relied virtually on myself for the bulk of 6 months, and now there were people everywhere I could talk to, about anything, anytime, and none of them had seen what I had seen. When the twelve of us who went on the program to Mongolia split up in the airport in San Francisco at the end of the semester, that was the last time, for a while, I talked to people with whom I had gone through an experience unlike any other in my life. And it was difficult returning to a place where no one really knew what that had been like and where so much had remained the same, while I felt very different. After the initial euphoria of being home, of seeing my family, my friends, wore off, I felt somewhat alone for a while, which was accentuated all the more because I was surrounded by people.

In terms of literally affecting the way I saw life in New York, my semester in Mongolia had a limited effect. New York and Mongolia are so different it is hard to believe they exist on the same planet, and as such, it is very difficult to compare and contrast them. Sure I had changed a lot, but the way I saw New York had not changed a great deal; the way I saw the world that New York City fits into, however, had changed immeasurably.

What do you think are the advantages of staying in one place for a while, as opposed to traveling from country to country and city to city, without spending much time in any of the places?

I think both are great ways to travel, depending on what you are looking for. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. I stayed in Mongolia for 5 months and it was just enough, however on my trip around the world after graduating from college I did not stay in any of the 20 countries I visited for more than 5 weeks, and I would not have done it any differently.

There is a stigma against going to a country for a short amount of time. Many travelers I have encountered abroad look down on those who do it as second-class travelers, tourists. I don’t think this is really fair. Being in Mongolia for such a long time was wonderful; it allowed me to fully immerse myself in the culture, the lifestyle, the 12th century-like country existence. It was difficult, it was eye opening, and it was transformative. On my trip around the world I wanted it to be just that, a trip around the world. I hopped from Argentina, to Southern Africa (5 countries) to London and Paris, through Bahrain to Istanbul then on to India, escaping to Nepal, and finally Hong Kong, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. It was a whirlwind. I did not become fully ensconced in many of the countries; I was traveling through in a very real way. However I was surprised how much of the culture and lifestyle I could often soak up in a few weeks. It’s a completely different feel, you are more of an interloper seeing the world, and less of an expat living in a foreign world. Like I said, I think both approaches have their merits and their shortcomings, but I don’t think one is better than the other. They are simply different.

After graduating from College, you took an extended solo trip around the world. What were some of the highlights on that journey?

Do you have a few hours? A few days? They were so many. I loved Namibia, the giant dunes, the people, the barren coastal towns with desert sands blowing into the Atlantic. Istanbul was one of the most amazing cities I have ever visited. The lush array of history and culture packed into such a bustling, international city; it was intoxicating. India was India. Many of the most remarkable, disgusting, entertaining, and heart-breaking stories that I have from my trip, come from India. It was fantastic, tragic, uplifting, utterly depressing, peaceful, unendingly difficult, and unfailingly rewarding. Mongolia and India are the two places I have been in my life that draw no comparisons. They are completely unique in my experience, and though I could try to explain them with a barrage of words and similes, the result would be a uselessly shallow rendering of two places so beautifully, often perversely, complicated and inimitable.

Evan in NepalAdmiring the beauty of Nepal.

Nepal was beautiful up in the mountains, and though I virtually blew out my knee on the Annapurna circuit (then walking on it for the next 3 months until my return to the States) it was worth every minute. Hong Kong was cleaner than clean and more modern than modern (of course I had just comes from the Subcontinent) and Vietnam was, well, surprisingly capitalist. Laos was, quite simply, my favorite country that I visited on my trip. The people there were the warmest and friendliest I have ever encountered. The whole country positively glowed with the beauty of contentment, of joy in one’s surroundings. It was unlike anything I have ever seen. It made me want to be more Laotian. It made me want to giggle more.

For more on those countries, I have a full entry devoted to each on my blog. There’s just so much to say about them all.

How does travel inspire you as a writer and director?

I really think as young Americans we have a duty to see some of the world that our international policy and exported culture affects so deeply.

Hard to say. I have seen things traveling that inspire me to write, to speak out, to take up causes. The different ways people live, the different dreams, the aspirations and the struggles. I think for an American looking to get into a creative field (or, really, any field for that matter) there is nothing more important than traveling and seeing even a little bit of this ever more interconnected world in which we live. If I had not seen at least some of the world outside of America with my own two eyes, I would have a very different perception of the things I see around me in America. I would have greater difficulty understanding these things, in large part, because I wouldn’t know what I was missing, what I had not seen. I really think as young Americans we have a duty to see some of the world that our international policy and exported culture affects so deeply. Especially as a writer and director, presenting something which is then inherently taken as reality by viewers, it is very important to see as much of the world as possible, to inform your world view before you inform the world view of others.

Many of us have the ability to do so and choose not to. We put our priorities elsewhere, in big screen TVs and Cadillac Escalades. It is, I think, one of the most negative trends in young Americans today. Traveling the world I met about 1 American my age for every 40 from Great Britain, Canada, Australia, Israel, and Western Europe. Considering the population of those places is about 545 million all told (100, 33, 20, 365, and 7 million people respectively) and America currently hovers around 303 million, that’s a bad ratio. Were the ratio even, I would have seen 22.3 Americans for every 40 others.

Any future travel plans?

I really want to go to Bolivia. I am also very tempted to go back to Turkey, see some more of the country, then travel down through Greece and Israel. I would also love to go to Morocco. I have still never made it to Tibet (on this last trip my visa was revoked the day before I was supposed to leave Nepal), so a trip to Chengdu and then to Lhasa is on the horizon some day.

All this to say, no, not yet. But soon, I hope.

Take a look at Evan’s blog to read more about his travel experiences.

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Discussion »

  • #1Jennifer Geiger

    Evan—I just wanted to thank you for your information and insights. I am planning my trip to Mongolia for the end of August and I cannot wait. I have been to Morocco and I would highly encourage you to go. I went during the end of Ramadan…which as a single woman was likely a good thing—things were a bit more subdued. That, and when the holiday was over, it was an amazing celebration! Thanks again for sharing, Jen

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