By David Ball
The News staff writer
Did you know that Mongolian’s Naadam festival is the celebration of the anniversary of the regions’ independence from China? And one of the favorite events is shaqaa — a sport that involves flicking sheep ankle bones at a target several feet away? Another favorite is khoomii or throat singing.
Darlene Hernaez did not know these things either until she began studying Mongolia in preparation for her two-year relocation there as a Peace Corps trainee this June.
“I’m still a trainee and I’m still not official,” the former Port Arthur resident said. “I have to ‘survive’ the first 11 weeks learning Mongolian language and customs. I’ll be there under the English Education and Community Development program. Then I’ll be sworn in as a full-fledge Peace Corps volunteer.
Hernaez said “it’s been a lifelong dream” to join the Peace Corps.
“I always wanted to keep all of my childhood aspirations,” she said. “It’s so important to never let that little girl die. To say that I can get another stamp on my passport. Instead of sitting on my butt I can be proactive.”
Hernaez admitted growing up she would look at Peace Corps volunteers as saving the world. She now knows she won’t change the world, but that she can make a difference.
“My family is a little concerned because I’m the baby and they care,” she said. “Unfortunately, I was the most mischievous growing up and I was the most likely to go to the Peace Corps. I call my friends my support group and they’re not that surprised. They know I do wild and crazy things. Some of may friends in Austin are applying too.”
Hernaez recently graduated from the University of Texas in Austin. She earned a bachelor of science degree in corporate communication studies where she plans to enter either marketing, public relations, or maybe event planning. She added she could see herself working for another non-profit organization or something in international relations.
“I was born in the Philippine Islands, but raised for 19 years in Port Arthur. I left there at three-and-a-half years old and my earliest memory is the plane ride here. I love traveling.”
Hernaez studied Spanish in high school and college and she hoped to land an assignment in Latin America. However, the Peace Corps had other ideas and sent her where there was a need.
The Peace Corps has worked in Mongolia since 1991 after the Communist government collapsed there and they adopted democratization and a free-market economy.
“I’ll be the 18th Peace Corps volunteer to go there. It’s freezing there and I’m not used to the cold,” Hernaez said. In fact, the capital city Ulaan-Bataar’s temperature sometimes plummets to -22 degrees.
Hernaez will be paid $24 a month, the average income of a Mongolian person. It does not sound like much, but it will go a long way in comparison to Mongolian currency. She hopes she can take some vacation days also to attend the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, China.
Summing up her reasons for wanting to join the Corps, Hernaez said she is “proud to be a Filipino and adopted by a wonderful country.”
“I was educated here and everyone shared those gifts so freely,” she explained. “It’s not an option for me. I want to be a beacon. I’m inspired to learn about the Mongolian culture and open my eyes more. I’m definitely going to miss modern conveniences like toilet paper, but I’m an adventurous girl.”