Dear M24s

May 18, 2013

Open letter to the M24s,

No more months or weeks, you’re now counting down the days before staging to prepare for arrival in Mongolia. Like you, I had many questions and turned to the web for answers. I found my greatest resource to be a PCV blog, and I read it word for word from the beginning. But since everyone’s experience is different, I committed to keeping my own blog, as much for me as for you. Thirty-seven posts later, I hope you’ve found something useful in here.

Probably also like you, my biggest concern was the weather. Well, let me allay that fear first. On a Saturday in January—what should have been the dead of winter—I sat in my apartment with the window open, wearing a pair of jeans and a sweater. The temperature was -11C/13F. I don’t want to give the impression that it hasn’t been cold, just that it’s possible to adapt to the point where 13F feels pleasant. I can’t believe it myself.

As you’re scrambling to get those last-minute, must-have-in-Mongolia items, and I’ve seen lots of discussions on the group page, I’ll remind you that everyone’s list will be different, depending on who you are, and who you want to become, as this surely is an opportunity to reinvent yourself.

With that, these are my top three items from home:

My pillow: If you have no attachments to your current pillow maybe you can dismiss this, but I really liked my pillow from home. (Mongolian pillows might not even be pillows… I actually heard of a teddy bear inside a pillow case.) Yes, it’s bulky, but it doesn’t weigh much at all. I strapped it to the back of my backpack so it didn’t take up any room. It was nice to have on the planes and during that first week of moving from place to place. And at my host family’s, having a plush pillow compensated for the firm bed that was only as cushy as my sleeping bag folded in half.

My sunhat: Keeping the sun off my face and out of my eyes was a priority even before I felt how strong the summer sun is here. It never occurred to me to disregard the no-contact-lenses directive so the sunhat was needed in lieu of sunglasses. We had quite a bit of rain last summer, and my water-resistant sunhat doubled as a rain hat.

My Kindle: One of my personal goals as I would be starting over was to kick the TV habit (i.e., turning on the TV and then finding something to watch). Thanks to my e-reader, in the past year I’ve read over 40 books—probably an 800% increase. While I haven’t loved all of the books, I’ve loved all of the time I’ve spent reading them. Just one way in which I am becoming the person I’ve wanted to be.

Other items have been quite useful: the watch with 3 alarms (since we didn’t have phones during PST), the Swiss Army Knife (specifically for the can opener which takes some getting used to but has to be safer than my host mom using a kitchen knife—I couldn’t watch!), the camelbak backpack , the hiking boots, the hard-drive (500GB, probably not enough), the iPod (especially nice on the long bumpy rides), and the Skype account so that I could call my family and friends who aren’t online.

Of the Peace Corps staff, I’ll say this: I’ve always felt that they have my safety at the forefront of their decisions. I find them to be highly competent, compassionate, and professional individuals who are dedicated to the mission of Peace Corps/Mongolia. You’ll be in good hands.

Of the PCT/PCV peers, I’ll say this: Being completely candid, at first glance, I wondered about some of them “why did they want to be here?” and “how did they get chosen to be invited?” And, yet, those few about whom I had reservations, after just a few one-on-one conversations, every single one beautifully expressed their genuine desire to be here in Mongolia and to serve in the Peace Corps. As soon as you’re tempted to dismiss someone, go over and introduce yourself instead.

Of the Peace Corps experience, I’ll say this: We are part of a government agency that has bureaucracy, reporting policies, a chain of command, and expectations of accountability. As a way to manage your own expectations, it is important to remember that The Peace Corps is made up of individuals: we are not perfect, we make mistakes, and we have bad days. This is a unique experience that requires a bit more understanding, a bit more patience, a bit more forgiveness than you might be prepared for.

But you are coming to a wonderful country, rich with culture, and full of friendly faces. There will be more good days than bad. The time will go quicker than you imagined. You will learn from those around you. You will learn about yourself. You will see breathtaking sunsets. You may even ride a camel. But above all else, you will reach people, personally; you will make an impact; you will be remembered.

Welcome to Mongolia. I look forward to meeting you.

~Love

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a flexourtient person

May 10, 2013

After 27 months of service, Peace Corps Volunteers—whoever they may have been prior to service—may come to define themselves as flexible, resourceful, and patient. This blog entry is about how that metamorphosis happens.

Monday, April 8th this year was the English Olympics. That is a test that some 9th and 11th graders, and all English teachers, must take (take, not pass). The test consists of grammar, reading comprehension, vocabulary, listening comprehension, and essay writing. Being a native English speaker, the tests certainly illustrated what I take for granted. But, this blog entry is not about that…

Since all of the soum teachers (35-ish) would be coming to the Aimag capital to take the test, a few weeks prior my CP asked me to give about an hour’s presentation, as part of their full-day seminar on Wednesday. She wanted me to cover “Teaching English Grammar without Translation,” one of the activities we had during IST. The day before the seminar, my CP informs me that I will have 3 hours, and suggests that I do some other lesson since the school year is almost over, saving that one for the fall seminar. “You want me to give a 3-hour presentation? Tomorrow?” I asked, somewhat incredulously, somewhat rhetorically. “Yes,” she answered, with the straightest of faces.

I pulled together a morning that looked something like this: warm-up exercise (Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes); a presentation that I’d already created and never gave on Multiple-Choice Tests; a presentation on Public Speaking that I’d created and gave to about 8 teachers but figured repetition for them couldn’t hurt; a collection of ways to build vocabulary, which included, as a listening activity, a podcast from the Matty in the Morning show wherein a Canadian man plans a surprise wedding for his girlfriend (they weren’t even engaged!); and a chance to tackle as a group the essay question from the Olympics test (“Should travelers adopt local customs when they visit a foreign country, or should the country welcome visitors’ diversity?”).

Given the way it was thrown together, I was pretty happy with the session. But, in reality, I think I spoke too quickly for a non-native audience, used too many obscure words (such as “obscure”), generally did too much talking rather than getting them to speak, and didn’t have a way to measure the usefulness or practicality of the information I was giving them.

A week after the English teachers’ seminar, on Thursday around 4pm, my CP called to tell me I was going on the Education Department’s trip to visit 5 soums. I’d be leaving the next morning, at 7:30am. I’d be gone for 10 days.

While it is true that visiting soums was in my “work plan” when I began last fall, it was put off for so long because of lack of funds. So it wasn’t that the trip was happening that threw me, it was the timing of when I was told about it to when I was expected to be ready to leave. No part of me thinks that this trip was thrown together at the last minute or that anyone else in the department was frantically running through a checklist of what to do. But I didn’t have time to fret about the last-minute notice: I had a bag to pack, a plant to water, and electronics to charge. I also had to notify Peace Corps that I was leaving site. I grabbed a few story-books from the resource room and headed home.

The week that followed can only be described as a whirlwind. Peace Corps had asked me to provide them with a schedule (soum name and dates we would be there), the type of transportation and the number of men and women. Armed with this information, I still had no clue about such practical concerns as sleeping arrangements, meal plans, or what exactly I was expected to do. The good thing was that, though I’d started out winging-it, with each new soum I had a little more experience from which to draw.

These are some highlights from this trip:
– Four of the soums were similar in size (2,000 people), one a bit larger (3,000). Some soums, including at least one of these 5, have an 11pm lights-out policy, enforced by shutting off the electricity. The landscapes varied; the most shocking was Hukhmort, the soum built on sand. Several soums had no internet access. One had a legit karaoke club. From two of the soums we drove about 30 minutes to see sand dunes with a lake or a gorgeous marshland surrounded by mountains… made me wonder how these soums came to be where they were, rather than at the “Beautiful Place.”
– Our entire group stayed in the school’s dormitory. Regular public schools have dormitories to house the students whose families live in the countryside. As I understand it, this is free to them. The dormitories vary quite a bit from soum to soum: spacious rooms or small rooms, with bunks or singles. One dormitory, notable for its indoor plumbing, had been awarded Best Dormitory of 2012, with a cash prize of 500,000 togrogs (~$350).
– Our meals (mainly carbs, meat and pickles) were all provided, either room service by the school’s cafeteria or at a horkhok—a sort of picnic wherein the meat is cooked outside.
– I ate marmot, and liked it! It is a red meat, but soft like chicken. They don’t use much in the way of seasoning here, so it could only be even better. I didn’t know what a marmot looked like until I told my sister-in-law and she emailed me a picture (Tricia, you meanie); they’re so cute!
– In Darvi soum, we had a tour of the brand new kindergarten. I recall that, from the outside, it didn’t look very kindergarten-like, but the construction was first rate. The proud teachers demonstrated the kid-sized flush toilets and working sinks in each of the bathrooms; they had us wear booties to cover our shoes before allowing us on the classroom carpets.
– Students were enthralled by my ability to “bridge-shuffle” my deck of UNO cards. I think it was my cousin Allyson who taught me when I was around 10 or 11 and we played hours of Spite and Malice. So, a big thanks to you, cuz!
– I sang “my” Mongolian song at least 8 times. At each soum’s group event, my department colleagues insisted I sing it; at the last soum, one of the teachers insisted I sing it for each of her three classes. Би шинэ дуу хэрэгтэй (Be sheen doe herekhtay; I need a new song).
– Riding for hours at a time on unpaved roads is a skill that Mongolians have mastered. Reading and hat-making were out of the question for me, but, I kid you not, one of my colleagues threaded a needle and re-secured her purse strap, while I looked on tightening my grip on the seat in front of me. While they were slumped over napping, I was being tossed about, every which way, wishing I had a seatbelt, not for safety, but just to keep me tethered to the seat so that I didn’t crash back down after every bump or dip.
– I spent my “work” time observing teachers in the classroom and giving feedback, touring the schools, their facilities and the soum beyond the school, attending meetings (I stopped after 2 since I got little out of them and had nothing to add), and attending organized seemingly mandatory socializing events. I spent my “student” time answering questions (formally or not), reading short stories, teaching them UNO, teaching them an English song, or just visiting. I spent my “down” time, of which there was very little, reading, making a hat, or trying to keep up with my language studies.

On a personal note, I had already considered myself a flexible, resourceful, and patient person. But these experiences are testing those traits, even redefining them.

Pics of the soum visits can be found here.


spring

May 4, 2013

Prologue

I tried to write this blog entry about leaving winter behind and welcoming spring, but this is nothing like the spring I know. For so many years, spring to me has meant the first blossoms on the magnolia trees at St. Leonard’s Church and Peace Garden in Boston’s North End. It meant throwing the windows open, welcoming in that change in the air. It meant being able to walk home from work: Comm Ave through the Boston Commons, if I wanted some quiet time, or Newbury St and Faneuil Hall if I wanted to people-watch. A few years ago it meant watching my high school classmate run in the big race: in my boisterous excitement, my camera lens only caught the pavement as I tried to snap his photo while holding my homemade sign. Last year it meant finally(!) getting to ride Hubway again.

Since arriving in my permanent site 8 months ago, I’ve nurtured this tie to my hometown with Matty in the Morning podcasts and Robert B. Parker Spencer novels. I haven’t romanticized living in Boston, though. I remember the day I understood what my big sis was talking about when she visited us in San Diego and said how nice it was that people walking down the street said “hello” and looked you in the eye, after I’d moved back to Boston and that didn’t happen. They all let their guard down when the Sox won the Series in ’04—strangers high-fiving and giving hugs—but it didn’t last. I well remember the day I tripped going up the escalator at Ruggles Station, completely ignored by my fellow rush-hour commuters. The people irked me, but I never held this against the city.

This time next year, I’ll be doing what my M22 site-mates are doing now: making preparations for Close of Service. I honestly don’t know where I will end up. Coming into the Peace Corps meant a chance to start over, twice, and this wasn’t lost on me during the application stage. Before I was even officially invited to serve, I looked forward to my post-Peace Corps life, with two years’ experience living and working abroad, and what kind of growth that could mean for me, personally, and where, literally, that could take me. There’s a chance I won’t go back to Boston for good, but Boston will always be my home.

And now, back to the blog: The Winter that wasn’t

I promised an update when “real” winter came… but it never did, not to my aimag, anyway. Now this may seem strange to those of you who recall my frozen toes that didn’t defrost for 3 months, but I’ll remind you that that incident occurred in UB. So, winter—as I feared it to be—definitely came to UB. And I’ve seen photographic evidence among my PCV friends, whose frozen eyelashes and beards left no doubt, that winter definitely came to other parts of Mongolia. But here in the Southwestern aimag of Govi-Altai, we’re well into spring now and aside from a few days here and there during January and February, I never felt that the regular negative temps (in both C and F) were unbearable.

Spring here sort of seems to me like winter-in-reverse: during November and December, I kept waiting for the deluge of snow, but there was never more than an inch or two at a time, and it often melted by the end of the day. (A curious observation is that our snow, when it comes, generally comes overnight.) During March and April, what winter we did have kept asserting itself in fits and starts, but by then its attempts weren’t worrisome. I haven’t worn my Mongolian winter boots since sometime in March, and though I haven’t packed away my winter coat, it wasn’t needed for most of April. This has all fluctuated, of course; there was a day at the end of March that was pleasant enough for just my Boston hoodie, and there were a few snow days in April.

I was mentally preparing for the heat in my apartment to be turned off in March. It would have been unpleasant, for sure, but nothing like waking up in a ger in winter when your overnight fire has long since burned out; I wouldn’t have felt justified in complaining. The heat burned on into April, though, and I was back to opening my window to let in some fresh air, whenever the wind was calm enough to not bring the dust inside. Over the last few weeks, I’ve adopted a new trick: leaving the apartment door open. Since that outer room has no heat, the cooler air wafts in, but there’s no wind and therefore no dust. Now it’s early May, and the heat is STILL on, with outside temps in the 50s/60s F.

The mountains here are back to brown with just patches of snow taunting the sun, but I’ve seen patches of green grass crop up in unexpected places that makes me smile. So, naturally, that’s what I’m looking toward.