A few years ago, I had the opportunity to work in Mongolia. This was my first trip to Asia and I was determined to enjoy every moment of this new cultural experience.
My client prepared me with orientation materials on the history and culture of Mongolia, business etiquette and security. As a new democracy since 1990, Mongolia is a country of contrasts -skyscrapers adjacent to Buddhist temples and gers, new Mercedes dealerships and orphans living in the sewers.
I was warned that crossing streets could be a life and death experience as Mongolians drive like they ride their horses, hard and fast. And, as you would expect in a country of “have’s” and “have nots”, there are gangs and organized crime.
I arrived in the capital city, Ulaanbaatar, excited but jet-lagged. I checked in at the Bayangol, a tired hotel built in the Soviet regime of the 60s. My room was comfortable but the internet service did not work. The only working WIFI was in the hotel lobby, so it was there I went early in the morning and late at night to catch up on emails.
The first night in the lobby was an eye-opener. About a dozen big, burly men were sitting around and shouting to each other in, what sounded to me, a rough Slavic language. They looked bruised and tough. Strangers came in off the street though the open hotel door, made phone calls at the pay phone, and gave mysterious envelopes to the front desk, before abruptly leaving. I kept my eyes down and tried to shrink in my seat. I reached the frightening conclusion that somehow I was seated amongst members of the Russian mafia. However, they did not seem interested in me, so I continued my furtive trips to the lobby each night.
One night, as I got back in the elevator to go to my room, two of the men rushed into the elevator just as the door was closing. My heart was pounding. Then one of the men took my hand, kissed it and in perfect English said, “You are a great lady”. Shocked, I then noticed his jacket embossed with the Olympic rings. He explained he was the coach of the Georgian Judo Team, and the men in the lobby were Georgia’s Olympic team. They were training for the London Olympics. “Would you like to join us for a beer some night?” he asked. I am not sure whether I even answered as I stumbled out of the elevator dizzy from my paradigm shifting experience.
I had not met the mob. I had been in the company of elite Olympic athletes. I was not in danger.
From that night on, whenever I felt fear or worry about footsteps behind me, I would shake my head and laugh out loud at my false assumptions. I learned my lesson. Be prepared, not paranoid.