Peace Corps Volunteers are currently placed in more than 70 countries. Applicants to the Peace Corps may state a preference for geographic location of service but are advised that priority is given to matching volunteer’s experience and skills with the requests of a host country. In other words, there is no guarantee that a location preference can be accommodated. Also, by holding out for the choice assignment, an applicant risks prolonging the already lengthy process during which time life goes on and circumstances can change in a way that makes service less feasible (marriage, promotion).
Because I was finally ready to serve—after years of having thought about it and once attempting the application—I didn’t want anything to delay my placement, should I be accepted (and I had no idea of the likelihood of that). So, I filled out the application checking “No Preference” for geographic location, though somewhere I added that I’d love to learn a language I could use when I returned home. Haha!
From the very beginning, Mongolia was on my radar. Even when I began filling out the never-submitted application in 2001, it was the country that somehow for me was the epitome of Peace Corps service, though I knew nothing about it other than its remoteness. This sense of destiny was reinforced when, during my in-person interview, my Recruiter challenged my “No Preference” for region with, “So, you’d go to Mongolia?” As far as I was concerned, that was all she wrote.
Before I was invited to serve in Mongolia, I was nominated for service in Asia, which narrowed down my “anywhere” to Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Mongolia, Nepal, Philippines, and Thailand. Though a more manageable number than the 70 possible countries, that’s still too broad a swath of land to study-up on each one, but I did do some cursory searches on Mongolia and used my Rosetta Stone for Mandarin, just in case. (Thankfully, the Peace Corps Invitation letter comes with a packet of country-specific material and I read every word.)
One of the first things you learn about Mongolia is that it has extreme weather. Besides having the “coldest capital on the planet,” it also has the Gobi Desert which is super hot in summer, giving Mongolia a temperature range of -40°C to 40°C (for us Americans, that’s -40°F to 104°F).
What you need to know about me, if you don’t already, is that I run cold… I’ve been known to wear wool sweaters in June, turtlenecks in August, and to shiver on a cool Boston summer evening (who can vouch for this?!). Even my host mom, in her evaluation of my readiness to live in Mongolia, commented that she was worried I would be too cold (such a mom thing to say!).
Solely because of the weather, the very thought of being sent to Mongolia was terrifying; I had to remind myself “people live there” to believe that I could, too. I know it isn’t winter yet, which is why this blog is titled “weather”—I’m not about to tempt fate! But I post this as much for you, dear readers, as for myself when winter has settled in and I can’t remember a time when the temperature was tolerable. I also post this for future invitees to Mongolia who may have come across my blog in their own search of what to expect.
During my early weeks at my permanent site, I have distinct memories of shivering as I climbed into my Peace-Corps issued sleeping bag (rated to -25°C/-13°F) at night. I am sure this shivering stopped before the heat in my apartment was turned on, though. There have also been a handful of blustery days when the wind cut through whatever I was wearing and the short walks seemed interminable and my toes were numb through two layers of wool socks. I just don’t know what the temps were on those days.
So, just how am I doing now? This is just one more area where I have adapted better than I could have imagined. We’ve had several snow days in Govi-Altai since September, so I knew it was at least “freezing” but I couldn’t have guessed at a number. Thankfully, the heat in my apartment (and at work) is phenomenal, but since I can’t adjust it, I have no way to gauge the temperature indoors. I often open my apartment window in the morning and during lunch to get some fresh air. My walk to work is fewer than 10 minutes so most days I’m not exposed to the elements for very long, but the tip of my nose is instantly chilled and runny, and my eyes tear up. My only “coat” would not have been sufficient for a Boston winter, and I’ve yet to upgrade. And when I can finally stand the curiosity no longer, I look to a weather site which tells me the current temperature is -7°C/19.4°F. (That was yesterday; today it is -9°C/15.8°F.)
To further give you an idea of just how incredible my adaptation to this climate has been, today I am wearing an ankle-length sleeve-less(!) dress (an amazing $8 thrift-store find in Madison, before leaving home) with one layer of Winter Silks long underwear, top and bottom. During my walk to work I have on my not-a-winter-coat and a scarf. My alpaca mittens (hand-made by me!) are in my pockets, not on my hands. I didn’t bother with my hat this morning. (That was all yesterday; today I am wearing my khaki pants with one layer of Winter Silks long underwear, short-sleeved t-shirt and a thin cotton sweater, still no mittens.)
I attribute part of this adjustment to the almost daily sunshine in this, the Land of Blue Sky. Feeling the warmth of the sun does help to disguise the temps. But, I have to ask, does being in the desert make the temps feel different in the first place? For the answer to this question, I am reminded of a fellow M23’s blog entry on the weather in his part of the country. Our perspectives are very different since Adam prefers the cold to begin with—he was excited to be assigned to Mongolia; plus he lives in a ger.
I’ll be sure to post again when winter does arrive, probably January and February will be the thick of it. In the meantime, I’m just thankful that I can feel my toes.