a flexourtient person

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.

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3 Responses to a flexourtient person

  1. Thanks for the pictures! I’m coming to Mongolia in a few weeks, and it’s hard to imagine what living there will be like. Pictures help.

  2. Priscilla A. Arsenault says:

    Q: The 11p-ish lights out policy, enforced in some soums by turning the electricity off, is the main purpose of that just to save on electricity or is it equally to make sure everyone is home and in bed where they should be, staying out of mischief and trouble? I apologize if you’ve explained this in the past (you give us so much info, which I love, and I acknowledge that I don’t memorize it all, my bad).

    • eelevol says:

      As I understood it, the 11-pm lights-out policy was to save on electricity. But it probably does curtail some mischief, as a side effect.
      At my training site, though we had electricity at all hours, there were no streetlights. One of our last nights, we (my PCV neighbors and I) were going home after dark. What was normally a 15-minute walk took an hour because we got lost!

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