September 25, 2012

A common question is “what do you miss most” from home. It’s a terrific question because the answer entirely depends on 1) where you are now (i.e., what is and is not available) and 2) what your biggest comforts were, so that asking my friend in Singapore (Hi, Crystal!) or my friend in Greece (Yassou, Anna!) would yield different answers. For Anna, I know it’s Mexican food.

The thing is, how many us know what are biggest comforts are? For example, is it worse if your car breaks down or if your electricity goes out? Probably depends on what you were about to do.  Do I miss guacamole more than I miss Hubway (my beloved Boston bike-share program)? Oh boy, it is hard to say. What about personal space vs. punctuality (any Mongolian PCV will understand these references); which of those two qualities do I miss more? I guess I have discovered that the more things we have, the more difficult it is to rank them in importance. Wants become needs. But take away all but the most basic needs, and clear preferences emerge.

I spent this summer with only a squat outhouse (jorlon). Even though it was the Taj Mahal of outhouses (I can say that, because I’ve been to the Taj Mahal), one might think that I must have missed a toilet most of all. This is not so, and I am not just saying it because I now have a toilet. In fact, I miss the byproduct of the squat outhouse so much—those firmer, stronger thighs and buttocks—that I’ve begun doing several squats a day. (overshare?)

People who’ve had a meal with me—who know that I delight in eating to the point where I involuntarily hum—probably think that some food item is my greatest longing. Indeed, many of my suggested care-package items are food or food-related. But no. Though I have always loved a good meal, I don’t think that I’ve spurned an average meal. This is important because I’ve cooked ALL of my meals the past month, save for a few site-mate dinners. No daily soup/salad from the cafeteria (Hi, DFCI lunch crew!), no take-out (as if!), no frozen dinners, not even ramen noodles (which we do have).

It comes to this: during the summer, the thing I missed most from home was running water. This had nothing to do with the jorlon since most everyone who had a jorlon had a gravity sink (a clever contraption wherein the water was poured into a reservoir (maybe 1-2 liters) above the basin and by pushing up on a valve underneath the tank, the water flowed down into the dirty water catch bucket under the basin) so washing hands was quite easy. But the bigger jobs (the hand-washing laundry and tumpun bathing) each became incredibly labor intensive: assuming you already had water (carried it or had it delivered), you have to carry buckets of water (one at a time) from where it’s stored, heat some of it in the electric kettle, then do the washing, dump the dirty water (into a special dirty-water pit outside), repeat all the steps to do the rinsing, then dump the dirty water again. And I like to rinse twice!

Since my permanent site has running water—the thing I had already identified as the one thing I was missing most—how could I not be happy? Well, I wasn’t unhappy but I wasn’t as happy as I would have thought in the “be careful what you wish for” sense. Have you ever washed your hands or did the dishes (even with rubber gloves) in ice-cold water? Try it. You’ll quickly agree that it is more than unpleasant. In fact, I exclusively used the red faucet in the hopes that someday hot water would magically appear. Wants becoming needs. Meanwhile, it was back to heating up the tea-kettle, but at least the time for the big chores was cut in half without all the carrying back and forth.

And now, the denouement of the running-water saga: the heat in my studio apartment was turned on over the weekend (it’s either on or off, no thermostat), just in time for the first snow in town. Wherever it originates from, it enters my apartment through 3 radiators and exposed pipes running the length of the same 3 walls. And wherever the water originates from must pass over those pipes to become tepid when the heat is on. Yes, I have tepid running water. At first I thought, “Are my hands so cold that this water feels warm?” until the heat went off and the water was ice-cold again. I’m still hoping it’s not a fluke and that when winter is in full effect I can still feel the difference. And assuming I will have tepid running water—the thing I’ve now identified as the one thing I was missing most—for as long as there is heat (maybe 6 months), you can rest assured, I’ll be pretty happy in Govi-Altai, Mongolia.

site packages

September 19, 2012



Today marks four weeks since I landed in Govi-Altai, Mongolia. I refer you to my original blog for the preamble regarding sending packages—that all still holds true.

That out of the way, this is a list of current items I could use during the next two years at my permanent site:

Lentils and Beans – kidney, black, garbanzo – they store well, are an excellent source of protein and fiber, and we don’t have ’em! Every once in a while, there’s a lone can of “beans in tomato sauce” (which I snatch up) but dry beans would be more versatile,

Spices – cumin, chili powder, ginger, curry, something like Lipton Onion Soup mix. Feel free to remove a portion from your own jar and put it in a labeled baggie, then send it off in an envelope,


Granola and/or fiber bars – still haven’t seen them,

Burt’s Bees Lip Balm – I don’t generally abide by brand loyalty, but on this one I don’t have a choice. I’ve developed a reaction to other lip balms and I suspect it indicates a mild allergy to the ingredient “flavor” that is absent from the Burt’s Bees label,

Gatorade powder (or REI equivalent) or energy gel like cliff mocha – for all those incredible hikes. As I recall, family members are allowed to use my REI membership by giving my name, but the card # is 12070850,

Dry beverage powder (such as Crystal Light) – probably any flavor,

Hard candies – Mongolians have a big sweet tooth and ALWAYS offer candy to guests. Think of me when they go on sale after holidays or to stuff into the little extra space of a package of something else,

Throat lozenges – not for sore throats, per se.  I live in the desert now and the dry air has me waking up parched every morning,

Yarn! – assorted weights, colors, etc. – remnants absolutely fine, hit up a thrift store for me. Keep me productive on those long, cold winter nights ahead,

Lotion – not needed now, as I haven’t exhausted my supply from home, but when those holiday sales kick in or there’s a free-with-purchase trial size, I could use it. My cuticles are a wreck! Have I mentioned I live in the desert?

USB flash drives –I don’t want anyone to go out and buy USB flash drives! but if you happened to have conference freebies laying about (or maybe a 128MB one like I found at home before I left), and you don’t know what to do with it, I’ll gladly take it off your hands. Even better if you want to throw some media files on it!

Finally, Sunscreen minimum 30 SPF – Now that summer ‘tis but a distant memory, this can be on a hold list. But I don’t dare remove it after this summer.

Now that I am at my permanent site (and items do not have to go to the PC headquarters before being re-routed to me), packages take about 3 weeks, letters/cards about 2 weeks.

If you do decide to send something, use USPS, not courier services, because they require a visit to the capital for signature. And if you don’t send a package, that’s cool too.


September 18, 2012

My host mom called me yesterday. I just checked and it was under 4 minutes in duration. Each time we pretty much have the same conversation since my vocabulary hasn’t increased; indeed, I’ve probably forgotten quite a bit since our formal classes ended and I’ve yet to get a Mongolian-language tutor in my permanent site. She asks “what’s new?” and “how’s life?” and “is it cold?” and I tell her I made soup for dinner and I taught an English class at work.

For the purposes of this blog, and when talking to family at home, these were my host-family members. But here, they were my family. When talking to other PCTs or PCVs, they were my mom, my sister, my brothers. Sometimes, when telling a story for example, we would have to distinguish and then it would be “my Mongol mom” or “My American mom.”

I’ve mentioned before that my Mongol mom taught me how to hand-wash my clothes in my tumpun. We actually had a washing machine, but she took her job—teaching me how to live in Mongolia as the Mongolians do—seriously. And since they reserved the washing machine for the big jobs, more often than not, they were hand-washing in their own tumpun. She also taught me how to scrape a carrot with a knife—I didn’t know peelers were a superfluous kitchen tool. And, yes, my first night there—just as the “families” did in the skits during the last of Orientation Days, to prepare us on what to expect—she demonstrated how to use the squat outhouse.

She was my biggest champion: the day I answered her question completely (“that is because…”), after just having learned how to give a reason for something in language class, she gave me a big hug. And just as free-spirited as I: after our “Host-Family Appreciation” concert, she led me in the Mongolian waltz but I tumbled over my feet and collapsed into her arms and she held me up while we laughed away any notion of embarrassment.

Towards the end of the time with my host family, maybe even the last night, I witnessed a moment so genuinely affectionate between my host sister and host mom, I knew then that even though I referred to her as such, I could never really be this woman’s daughter: at the dinner table, long after dinner but where we spent most of our time together, my sister was tugging on her mom’s earlobe. It was a comforting, somewhat unconscious behavior that I’m sure I’ve done with my own mom, and maybe not that long ago. It was one more way that we are more alike than different. And at that particular time, just as I was readying to “leave the nest,” as it were, it was a necessary sight. I was their first PCT and they did right by me, but they were a family before I got there and they’d remain a family once I’d gone.

I’ll take the living-in-Mongolia skills they taught me, add the interpersonal skills of a Communication major and the professionalism garnered from my years of work experience, mix in my enjoyment of speaking English with non-native speakers, and pour all that into the Love-mould my family and friends helped to create. Chill (because I’m in Mongolia) for two years, continually adjusting the recipe. I feel the need to say a blanket “thank you” to everyone right now. Thank you.


September 10, 2012

I never thought much about prepositions in English. As a native speaker, I take for granted that I know when to use “in” vs “at” vs “to”, etc. Over the years, a few friends of mine, who are not native English speakers, had expressed confusion over which preposition to use. I didn’t understand this because I assumed it would be a matter of translating from their native language to English. Until a few years ago when my Brazilian friend, Ricardo, explained that several of our prepositions share the same word in Portuguese, and it was that “A-ha!” moment when all my other foreign friends’ troubles with prepositions became understandable to me. Even if their native language didn’t skimp on prepositions, I could extrapolate the significance that straightforward translation wasn’t always possible, let alone desirable.

Now, even though I’ve studied a few other languages, I never belabored over prepositions, which might mean I was often wrong in the ones I chose. (The value of this potential discovery is moot since, though I studied those languages, I do not speak them well enough to claim that I speak them.) The point is, I never broke down the word “preposition” to realize that this group of words was not haphazardly named, but that its name is an indication of where the words would come in a sentence “pre-“ and that their function was to indicate something’s “position” relative to something else. This next “A-ha!” moment came quite recently in my study of Mongolian, which paradoxically doesn’t use prepositions at all—they use post-positions. This is part of what is meant by saying Mongolian is an agglutinative language, meaning endings (not only post-positions) are tacked on to change the meaning. Let the crazy-awesomeness begin!

The word for time is tsagk, but if you want to say something happens at a certain time, it becomes tsagkt. At seven o’clock is doloon tsagkt.

I came from America (Amerik), or Amerikaas irsen.

I came to Mongolia (Mongol), or Mongold irsen.

(But if you want to say you are going to somewhere, say Darkhan, it becomes Darkhan roo. Unless where you want to go already ends in the “r” sound, such as the capital Ulaanbaatar, in which case you would add “loo”. Darkhan roo or Ulaanbaatar loo.)

And, when telling how you got somewhere, that is, by what means, you add “aar” turning mashin, the word for car, into mashinaar. (Keeping in mind my earlier blog which mentioned the vowel-harmony rule which comes into play thusly: coming by airplane, or ongots, is ongotsoor.)

Putting it all together, you get: Be doloon tsagkt Amerikaas ongotsoor Mongold irsen. And if you were able to translate that word for word, which you couldn’t because dictionaries only have roots of words, you would get “I at seven o’clock from America by plane to Mongolia came.”  Whew!