March 15, 2013

I’m so used to it now that it no longer seems strange, until I imagine it happening in the USA. Then I remember how remarkable it truly is. 

Let’s say you studied Spanish, as I did for 4 years. And let’s say you didn’t live in a large Spanish-speaking town (which wasn’t the case for me but is necessary for the comparison). The parallel situation is, essentially, that you’d shout “Hola!” at every person who looks like they might speak Spanish. Crazy, huh?! Well, that’s kind of what it’s like here. 

There was a young boy in my training site who, whenever he saw us, rode across the field on his bicycle shouting, “Hello, my name is Garnum!” Well, I’m not entirely sure that was his name because all efforts to engage in conversation with him led to his cycling away. But his opening with such enthusiasm was quite unexpected so early on in my service. Now, it is the norm. 

The standard around Govi-Altai is that students who are learning English will give a confident “Hi” or “Hello.” To them I will respond in kind. Sometimes there is a “What is your name?” or “How old are you?” in either direction. A few of the daring young ones, those not yet learning English, will make the attempt at a “Hello” or “Hi” and that’s the end of it. To the shy young ones, I give a smile and a Mongolian greeting, which sometimes turns into a dialogue exhausting all my questions and answers in a few minutes. 

Occasionally, I am taken aback by something quite unexpected. The best for my sense of purpose was when a girl said, “Hello, Love.” I figured I must have taught her class recently and she remembered my name. The best for my sense of humor was the boy who said, “Hi. Baby.” I was prepared to give a “hi” back, but the delayed “baby” totally threw me and I could only laugh. And every once in a while, there is a random person just waiting for the opportunity to try out the one English phrase they know, be it “Merry Christmas,” “I love you,” or “Happy Birthday.”

Some of the other volunteers have gotten “hellos” in Russian or German, but not me, not yet. If it happens, it will probably lead to a blog wherein I assert my American-ness. Until then, Goodbye!

Posh Corps

March 8, 2013

I’ll let you in on a little secret: as much as I am serving in the Peace Corps, I am also serving in the Posh Corps. That’s the ‘inside joke’ for those of us who live in areas with indulgences or have an American bank account that we can tap into should our volunteer stipend not cover all our wants. That’s one of the perks of being an ‘older’ volunteer: having a savings account.

As far as Mongolia goes, living in an Aimag, rather than a soum, is definitely indicative of serving in the Posh Corps. Even though Govi-Altai is one of the smallest of the 21 Aimags, my diet is more varied (cheese!), I have indoor plumbing, and there are more opportunities for entertainment (karaoke!) than if I lived in a soum.

Now, I try to be good about having the legit Peace Corps experience and not dip into my American money for day-to-day life here. My first month in Govi-Altai, I held out for the regular internet flash-drive modem, rather than purchase the more expensive one they had in stock, just to save the additional 25,000 togrogs. A soumer would probably tell me that the delay didn’t qualify as a hardship since I had an internet café during that wait. It’s all perspective. A washing machine costs *only* about 100,000 or 150,000 togrogs but I’ve no intention of purchasing one. That’s less to do with the cost-benefit analysis and more to do with a needs-wants analysis: I don’t feel I need it, so therefore I don’t want it. (Convenient when the two correlate like that.)

It’s actually pretty easy for me to comply with my living allowance since my biggest luxuries pre-Peace Corps were frequent meals out and fantastic vacations-on-a-budget. Even with our newly established weekly PCV lunches at a local гүанз (“guanz” = café), I can swing the 1,000 tugs that the proprietor (under)charges for my veggie meal without questioning whether I can afford it on my PC stipend. And since those restaurants that I would want to frequent simply aren’t here, eating out isn’t the draw that it once was. That leaves vacations.

Prior to leaving the states, I sort of decided that I wouldn’t visit home until after my service was completed, and use my vacation time (we earn 2 days per month) to travel in these parts, instead, since it would be less expensive from here and since I don’t know whether I’d visit them otherwise.

In December, following our IST training in UB, I added a 10-day vacation to Singapore to visit my college roommate (Crystal, you’re a wonderful host!). This was covered by my American bank account, of course. Peace Corps covered my flight to the capital for the training, so taking the vacation when I did meant a $300 savings. Future trips in the works (Russia and Harbin, China, both via the Trans-Siberian Railway) will hopefully also be able to dovetail trainings in UB. I also intend to see more of Mongolia in the next year; Govi-Altai isn’t what I’d call scenic.

I’ve always been a thrifty person, but even I am surprised that I’ve unwittingly saved some togrogs along the way. Peace Corps advises that we save our annual leave allowance (~33,000 togrogs that we receive monthly), so that it’s available when we need it (i.e., for personal travel taken with annual leave since we are all over the country but likely have to leave from UB). Not a problem. And, some of the credit is almost certainly due to the care packages that have left me swimming in beans (special thanks to Tricia!) so I haven’t spent as much on food as I might have. And it looks like I’ll continue to be able to save since Congress has approved a 13% living allowance increase for this calendar year. But, lest you think I’m bragging about my Posh Corps life, the real point of this post is to highlight the disparity in the cost of living between Mongolia and the USA, which was evident in my Peace Corps W2 statement: in 7 months, I earned $1,984.99. Kind of makes me think about retiring here in 30 years…

’Nighty, night

March 6, 2013

On a moonless night in Mongolia, the darkness is a black hole that will suck in whatever light your flashlight emits. At most, you’ll see a few feet in front of you. But without it… the world literally disappears.


In the fall and early winter, the streetlights in my Aimag were tied to some schedule other than darkness. They either didn’t come on until well after dark, or they simply didn’t come on. Eventually, though, they were on reliably at dusk and the walk home from a fellow PCV’s, or the Tuesday night English club, was that much safer. (The sidewalks in Govi-Altai would be a lawsuit-waiting-to-happen in any US city: uneven, rock-filled, with open manholes and completely without accessibility ramps.)

If the streetlights’ coming on was a gamble, however, the streetlights’ going off was a sure thing: every night at midnight is a darkness-imposed curfew. I’d been outside a handful of times, or else at home in some stage of the getting-ready-for-bed routine, when the switch has been flipped. (They come on again at some early morning hour, for which I have thankfully not been awake.) Without that light pollution, and with the tallest (2) buildings at 5 stories, the vastness of the Mongolian night sky can fully be taken in: stars and constellations, satellites and planets, and one night during PST I swear I saw the Milky Way.

My previous mentions of the Mongolian sky have been in the context of the nearly ever-present sunshine that’s earned the country the nickname “The Land of Blue Sky.” Well, the nighttime sky is just as awesomely breathtaking. This city-girl, for one, can’t get enough of it!