Guest blogger

June 11, 2018

Me on a camel!

“To Mongolia with Love,” literally. Got to travel w/my cousin Love Lee Nickerson from 5/12-5/25/18 to Mongolia. She’d served in the Peace Corps there from 2012-2014 and this was her 1st visit back.

What an experience! What an adventure! From riding a camel to learning the proper way to squat when taking care of business out in nature, I embraced it all. The blue skies, the magnificent mountains, the vast landscape, it was all breathtaking and very scenic. The herds of goats, sheep, cows, horses, camels, etc., made me feel like I was in the middle of a National Geographic photo shoot, especially when visiting those living in yurts (or gers as they call them) in vast, open spaces they refer to as the “countryside.”

As a vegetarian, I went expecting to eat meat since it’s a big part of daily life there and I not only ate it all, I enjoyed it! Sheep tongue, goat liver, beef, mutton, pork, etc., I honestly liked it.

We spent time in 3 places: Ulaanbaatar or “UB” (the capital), Govi Altai and OPXOH (pronounced “Orhon”). In all 3, there were people who remembered my cousin from her time in the Peace Corps and they went out of their way to feed, house, chaperone, drive, entertain and just help us in any way possible that they could and that we needed or just wanted. People love Love.

Two things I learned very quickly: 1. Always have tp (toilet paper) in your pockets, and 2. Always have water boiling when you can. The tp is so that you’re ready and prepared, whether it’s on a 20-hr bus ride, an outhouse or even an inside bathroom, you just never know when or if you’ll need your own supply so always have it on you! BTW, when the bus stops for the bathroom break, men go to one side of the bus, women to the other and there you go. The boiling water is because you can’t drink the tap water and when you go out, you don’t want to always be buying bottled water, plus sometimes there just isn’t any around you for you to buy so you boil it when you can. Everyone has electric tea kettles and you get in the habit of constantly using it when you’re inside, to have water on hand to fill your water bottles and have drinking water available.

The gravity sink I used in the host family’s house, where my cousin Love had stayed for her 1st 10 weeks in the Peace Corps, and it was actually pretty cool. The green plastic container has water in it. They don’t have running water in the house so after using the outhouse, you’d come in the house, use the handsoap, push up on the white plastic “straw” connected to the green container which would let a little water out. You’d rub your hands together to lather up and then push up on the straw once or twice to rinse. The dirty water went down the sink and underneath into a pail. When the pail was full you opened the cupboard and took the pail outside to a designated spot to dump the dirty water.

We didn’t get to sleep overnight in a ger (yurt) but we did get to visit 6 of them, all unique in their own ways. Some were bigger than others and instead of feet to tell how big it was, it was the number of walls. The smallest one we were in was 4 walls big and the largest one was 6 walls big. We slept in various places: a hotel, a hostel (had it all to ourselves that night and that particular apt in the hostel slept 16!), Love’s host family’s place, the 1-room studio apt Love had when she was in the Peace Corps there, the host Mom’s cousin’s house and a current Peace Corps volunteer’s apt who was in the states for a wedding at the time we were there.

My cousin Love was pleasantly surprised that she remembered as much Mongolian as she did. She even taught an English class for about ½ hour to 11 & 12 year olds. The kids loved it, and her. Some remembered her from four years ago! They meet every week for English lessons and it was fun to see them interacting with her.

I could go on but I will end with some pictures from the trip. Enjoy!
~Priscilla Anne Arsenault


Why Mongolia is known as “The land of blue sky”


The countryside




…and after.



Love teaching


Town marker for Love’s training site


gravity sink




Inside Love’s host-dad’s ger in the countryside


more meat!


February 26, 2016

My Mongolian sister is in America!

Back in October I got a message (in Mongolian): What’s the distance between Boston and Chicago? I had known that my host mom had a younger sister in Chicago. Or, at least, I thought I knew that… funny thing about cross-cultural interactions, you think language is the only barrier… that just translating the words will make everything clear. Come to find out, that “younger sister” is an only child! Near as I can figure, Mongolians use the same word for “generic younger family member” as they do for “younger sibling.” Maybe she is a niece or a cousin of my host mom. And, my sister calls her what I thought was “older sister” but maybe it is more like “generic older female family member.” Someday I’ll figure it out.

Back to that text. By the end of my time in Mongolia, I had heard so many people with plans to travel abroad only to have something fall through. So, when I read that my sister had an interview to get her Visa to America, I thought the chances were 50/50 that she’d actually get here. I was cautiously optimistic. I didn’t allow myself to get too excited, but I did promise that if she came to Chicago, I would visit her there (using the future conditional tense in Mongolian for the first time ever!).

In December, I heard from her again. She was coming to Chicago in January. Not knowing the details, I asked how long she would be here, like “how many days will you be in Chicago?” The answer, 2 YEARS! Unbeknownst to me, she was coming here to study English. And I’m immediately thinking that I need to see her as soon as possible. And, then, as often as possible.

Not having seen her in the year before leaving Mongolia, I needed that connection for me. I’ve been missing Mongolia pretty regularly since resettling into life in America… I miss that relaxed pace of life, the friends dropping by unannounced, the semi-legit reason for not hearing from people, and the disconnect from so much pop-culture nonsense. I needed to reaffirm that what mattered so much to me when it was happening wasn’t inflated as time has passed. Also, I was eager to have the chance to speak Mongolian with someone who I knew would be patient and helpful. During these last 20 months out of Mongolia, I have continued to study my Mongolian vocabulary and phrases almost daily, so this visit would be yet another benchmark in my language learning.

A very large part of the reason for me making a visit my priority was to show her that I’m here for her, now that I know firsthand the value of “comforts from home” when you are away from it. Though I am American, our connection is Mongolia. So, though I may not be the obvious friendly face from home, who better than me to put her at ease as she adjusts to life in a foreign land. To my mind, I was the Host Country National and it was my turn to welcome her to America. I didn’t put it into such “Peace Corps speak” at the time, but that was the sentiment I felt. I also wanted to encourage her in her study of English not just for the opportunities it can bring, but also so that our conversations aren’t limited by my Mongolian language ability.

Until that happens though, with all our communication in Mongolian, and me not knowing which questions to ask, there were a few glitches. The family members that she is staying with didn’t know I was coming! But, they still welcomed me in and invited me to stay for the 2 nights. And my long-weekend visit that made so much sense with my 9-5 work schedule was foiled by her Saturday and Sunday class schedule. Still, we made it work. And when she slipped her arm in mine and we began walking in step with one another, I got what I needed.

Sears Tower at sunset.

No pictures of the three Mongolian meals (made with beef, not mutton) but you’ll just have to take my word, it was all so good.

Brunch with one of my first Peace Corps/Mongolia friends, Vinh, who I remembered at the last moment lives in Chicago and made time to meet us.


February 16, 2015

Hey, remember when I was in Mongolia for two years? Yeah, me neither.

When I first arrived home, on August 5, Mongolia was at the forefront of my mind. Everything I was experiencing was through the filter of having spent the previous 2 years in Mongolia. Literally everything had a “this one time, in Mongolia…” story, which I didn’t always share, but couldn’t help but think of. I remember constantly having to refocus on the here-and-now, bringing my thoughts from Mongolia to Boston. Until, at some point, maybe about two months in, I realized that it wasn’t effortless and automatic anymore but required a conscious decision on my part to recall an experience or translate a word. Bringing my thoughts from Boston to Mongolia. Thinking about it now makes me sad because I expected to hold onto Mongolia, well, forever. I wasn’t prepared for this. I’m not prepared for this. I’m more grateful than ever to have written this blog.

So, missing Mongolia definitely tops the list of my observations of readjusting to life in America. It is the thing I care the most about and what I would “warn” other PCVs of as they journey toward becoming RPCVs. But, since there are some other observations on that list, I thought you might be interested in reading about them.

If I thought about it, I would have thought that returning to America, where business is conducted in my mother tongue, could only be easy. Which is probably why I didn’t think to think about it. And then I went to reactivate my old (non-smart) phone and get a new phone number. Remember that story I told about not understanding the Starbucks barista in Scotland? Well, it was like that, except that it was in Boston. On three distinct occasions (getting phone service, joining a gym, setting up a bank account), I found myself pretty slow on uptake, having to ask the customer service representative to repeat, simplify, clarify, slow down, start over… It was so strange feeling like a fish out of water in my hometown. Why do people talk so fast? What’s the hurry?

Sense of time
What’s the hurry, indeed. Remember how I said that making plans in Mongolia was kind of difficult because quite often people didn’t show up or else expected you to drop everything and go NOW? Or how, because the roads were so bad, it took literally twice as long (minimum) to drive the same distance there as here? I don’t know that I can attribute this next part to those classic Mongolia experiences but it may give a frame of reference… For nearly 4 months, I was commuting to my job from where I was living with my brother’s family. Using public transportation, it was about 2 hours each way. And I know that should have bothered me a LOT more than it did. I know that because when I mentioned to people how long my commute was, I could read the pain they felt for me in their expressions. And of course they said how much that much suck. Ultimately, it wasn’t the length of the commute that was starting to get to me, but the crowded trains and those things I’d forgo to make sure I caught the next bus.

Traveling unphased
This is along the same lines as the “sense of time” above, but it is worth it’s own entry because, by it’s very nature, traveling is time sensitive. During last summer’s Europe trip with my two RPCV friends, there were 3 travel mishaps that could have been our undoing. 1) Upon learning that we missed our train stop in Venice and would have to get off, wait for the next train, pay another fare, arriving two hours later than scheduled… we just kind of shrugged it off. 2) Arriving at the Munich train station… with bus tickets. “Huh, would you look at that.” 3) Trying to leave Berlin from the same bus station we arrived at, instead of where the buses departed from across town. Missed bus. New tickets. Delayed arrival in Hamburg and our only reaction, “Let’s get dinner while we wait.” I can’t say, definitively, whether it was the PC experience that made us this way, or if, perhaps, PC is likely to recruit folks who are already super flexible. Feel free to weigh in if you would have reacted the same way, which is to say if you would have had no reaction at all.

The clenched fist
The few times I have truly experienced stress have made me super grateful that I am typically a very relaxed person. Like, physically relaxed. I think of it as my most “Pisces” trait, that go-with-the-flow, carefree persona. So, imagine my surprise when I found myself, on one of what turned out to be many occasions since coming home, with a clenched fist. I first noticed it at the dinner table. I looked down and saw my left hand, in a fist, resting on the table. At first, it was just, “that’s weird,” unclench fist. But after a handful of times, I started to get worried about it. That I wasn’t being as honest with myself about how I was “readjusting” to being back. That my body knew better than I did and, on some level, it wasn’t happy. I still notice it, but not nearly as often. Or, maybe I’m so conscious of the possibility now that I’m constantly relaxing my left hand, preemptively unclenching. I’ll keep an eye on that.

Impervious to the (freezing) cold
While I was experiencing Mongolia’s winters, and later, as Boston’s winter was getting underway, several people pondered whether my acclimating to the Mongolian winter would make me impervious to cold. So, here is an interesting observation: apparently, there is a weather-window where my physical response doesn’t really correlate to the temperature. I have recently figured it to be anywhere between 40-60 degrees; get me outside then and I’m a shivering, quivering mess. But, take it colder, like today’s 11, and I’m actually using friendly words like “brisk” to describe it. This is the view outside my window yesterday. I went for a walk.


In closing, it’s nearly 8 months since Mongolia. I’m still studying my vocabulary every day! But I called my Mongolian Mom for New Year’s Eve and it was a struggle for me. I left Mongolia thinking I’d be back in 3-5 years… now, I’m thinking 2-3. Which I just realized, is now 1-2! Wow, that makes me happy!

Goodbye Peace Corps

September 9, 2014

A week from today I begin my new job… er, my old job… I’ve been invited back to my old department! While my Europe travel buddies were sending resumes and having Skype interviews, and I was staunchly in vacation mode, this gift of full-time employment (with so many lovely people)–that was difficult to walk away from the first time around–was offered to me anew. So, with a new (old?) gig on the horizon, it’s about time I get this Farewell-to-Peace Corps blog out there.

Leaving Peace Corps
As with leaving any job, leaving Peace Corps involved a series of things that had to be completed and then verified by appropriate personnel: returning our Mongolian IDs, Peace Corps property (water filter, smoke detector), having our passport Visa deactivated, and closing our bank accounts. A few of these would be global Peace Corps requirements (though maybe the type of property to be returned depends on the country of service), whereas others were specific to how things are done in Mongolia (maybe not every country issues an ID). In addition to the final VRF that each of us was required to complete, we also had to write a 2-3 page Description of Service (DOS) which is our official summary of our Peace Corps service. But actually leaving Peace Corps was more than checking these things off the list.

So many goodbyes
To PCVs, who once were spread out across Mongolia and would soon be spread out across America and the globe. I spent many hours in the PCV lounge those last few days of service. Mostly I was using the internet but it put me in a central location for catching up with the others going through the COS Checklist. They’re going off to graduate school, law school, staying for a third year in Mongolia, staying in Mongolia to work outside of Peace Corps, staying in Mongolia to travel, traveling their way home (as I would), living abroad… as many different paths as there are people. We were a solid group, the M23s.

To the wonderful PC/Mongolia staff. That checklist required us to meet with people in many positions, including administrative, general services, medical, programming, and a one-on-one exit interview with the Country Director. During the waiting for signatures, I was lucky that other staff members had time to chat with me. What could have been a very frenetic two days was, instead, a very pleasant series of casual conversations that went beyond goodbye. It was very satisfying to have this downtime. It echoed leaving Govi-Altai and my host family in Orkhon.

The Ringing of the Bell
Following receipt of the final signature on our COS checklist, we were officially done. When we were ready, we took this ceremonial bell into the office of the Administrative Assistant so that she could have it broadcast over the intercom while we rang it. Within a few minutes, the entire staff stopped what they were doing and came to the lobby to say a final goodbye and give a final hug and wishes for safe travels. I don’t believe this is standard operating procedure Peace Corps wide, I think it was adopted from one of the senior staff member’s own country of service. I’ve tried to imagine what ending service would have been like without the ringing of the bell. The words that come to mind are: unfinished, incomplete, anticlimactic, sad. Ringing that bell wasn’t merely symbolic. It was a definitive, tangible moment.


I rang the bell jointly with two people who were important to my Peace Corps service. One was Jason, a site mate of mine during PST. After we each went to our permanent sites, a few times I sent him a card with some Starbucks instant coffee packs that I’d received in a care package. You know how you associate certain people with certain things? Well, for me, Jason = coffee (and running) because our first morning in Mongolia, at the ger camp outside of UB, he shared his coffee with a few of us (after he returned from a run in those sneakers that have toes). Plus, he was in a soum without any sitemates and I was blessed with so many awesome people at my site and we often ate meals together (meals that were enhanced by what was in our care packages)… and, besides, who doesn’t like to receive mail?

The other person was Genni, who I honestly didn’t know well at the time but was about to become my second European travel buddy for three weeks and would therefore forever be inextricably tied to the end of my Peace Corps service. You know how you get a feeling about a person, like you know that the person is really cool and you want to get to know them better, and you’re just waiting for that opportunity to do so to come along? Well, for me, Genni was that kind of person and our Europe trip was that opportunity. So, I was glad that we finished our service nearly simultaneously and were able to ring the bell together, thus kicking off our 3 weeks of bonding.


By the way, I’m pretty sure it is unusual for RPCVs to waltz into a full-fledged career upon return, especially given that many (e.g., those right out of college) have little pre-Peace Corps work experience. So, while I wasn’t looking forward to the job search, and I was counting on my work history to give me an advantage therein, I was expecting to put in the time…believe me, my good fortune is not lost on me!

As I wrote before, I have a few more Mongolia topics in the works so this blog isn’t done yet. To those of you still reading, thanks!


August 21, 2014

I’ve been in America for 2 weeks. How is it? Exactly the same. The family I’ve seen seems pretty much the same. Prices in the grocery story are pretty much the same; gas is less than I remember. I haven’t spent too much time in my city, but what I saw was basically the same. I feel pretty much the same. But I’m not.

In the nearly 2 months since I left Mongolia I can feel it almost slipping away, like I have to work to keep it real. Like, if I asked you, “How was your last two years?” Well, if there wasn’t some monumental event, how would it be different from the last ten years. But, “You were in Mongolia,” I hear you say. And I keep telling you, except for the fact of being in Mongolia, my life was pretty typical.

I’ve written about saying goodbye to my permanent site and my host family, and how they were the best goodbyes I could have asked for. I have a draft of a leaving-Peace Corps blog that I will get to, but I can tell you it was a similarly relaxed departure. The one thing that didn’t go the way I wanted was I never got to see my little sister, Hongor. She’s a college graduate so she’s hardly little, but I am the youngest in my American family so I loved being the oldest in my Mongolian family. She lives in UB now and my time there was pretty busy. Plus, if I’m being honest with myself, I always hesitated to call because of my limited language (it’s much more difficult on the phone) and by the time I got to the point when I couldn’t wait any longer, there was no answer.

As you can imagine, I was thrilled when my little sister reached out to me on facebook about 5 weeks after I left Mongolia. I thought it would be a brief exchange, limited to the “how are you?” realm. And I was a bit nervous that, if it strayed much beyond that, it would quickly be beyond my level of understanding and/or speaking. When you are really invested in the conversation, as I am with my Mongolian family, not understanding can be incredibly frustrating. But to my great delight, that’s not what happened. My sister and I exchanged real information and, my awful grammar and atrocious spelling notwithstanding, I had a surprising amount of confidence as I was thinking in Mongolian. In fact, given that I almost never read Mongolian written in the Roman alphabet, and never wrote in it, I suspect my understanding would have been even better if she had written in the Cyrillic alphabet that I’m used to. I realized I could share it here so that you can really get a feel for my language ability and maybe have insight into our relationship.

Person Transcript Translation (i.e., what I understood, and what I was trying to say) Comments
Sister hi Hi it’s English
Me hi minii duu! Hi, my little sister! Mongolians use the word “duu” to mean younger brother or younger sister.
Sister sain ywj bn uu Are you traveling well?
Me sain. bi chamd sanaj bn. Yes. I miss you.
Sister bi ch bas taniig sanaj ban I miss you too.
uulzaj chadaagvi ywuulsand uuchilaarai Sorry I couldn’t see you when you left.
Me medne. bi mongoloor uzeglexgui I know. I can’t spell in Mongolian. This was a total guess.
Sister yu What? I guess I was wrong.
Me minii hamgiin suuldiin odor chamd utasdsan. utas bas facebook bichij hetsuu bn. I called you my last night. It is difficult to phone or write on facebook.  
Sister oo miniii utas holbogdohgvi bsan ymuu Oh, my phone was… Was what??? I know the word in a different context.
ta hezee mongold ireh beee When will you come to Mongolia?
Me magadgui, 3-5 jiliin daraa. Maybe in 3-5 years.
Sister 😦 tiim vv 😦 Really?
Me mednee. bi ajilax herextai. irne! Minii Mongol ger bul martcaxgui! I know. I have to work. I will come! I won’t forget my Mongolian family!  
  zuragiin tsomog harsan uu? Bi Xongor bagshiin ger buld ongotsnii buudalt ogson. Did you see the photo album? I gave it to teacher Hongoroo’s family at the airport. Whew! This was exhausting, but I’m fairly confident in it.
Sister awsan goe goe zurag zondoo bn leee I got it. Very nice photos… I wish I knew the rest.
 bid 2-iin uulaar ywj bsan zurag ih goe garsan bn lee The picture of the 2 of us at the mountain is the nicest… Again, I wish I knew…
Me good. hotsoroson. bi haramsaj baisan. Good. I’m sorry it was late. Photos printed the day before I left Mongolia!!
  hamgiin suldiin sar ix hurdan tsag… haha! The last month went very quickly… haha! Actually, that says “last month very fast time”
Sister kkkkkkk Haha
mongol-g sanaj bn uuuu Do you miss Mongolia?
odoohondoo gaigvv bn uu So far are you good?
Me Za Yeah.  
  odor bur mongol tuxai canaxdag Every day I think about Mongolia.  oops, not canaxdag… sandag!!!
  bi uneheer uzeglexgui!! I really can’t spell!!
Sister mongol helee martaj bolohgvi shvvv zaaa You can’t forget your Mongolian language, okay?
Me Za. odor bur mongol hel sordag. Yeah. Every day I study Mongolian. It’s true! Even while I was traveling. But studying vocab isn’t the same as speaking.
Sister ok sain bn + Ok, that’s good.
bi english hel surahiig ih hvsej bn I want to learn English. I don’t know this grammar construction but that’s the jist…
daanch surch chadahgvi bn aaa … can’t study…
Me bid hoer “Skype” chadnaa. Bi chamd angli hel tuslan. Chi nadad mongol hel tuslan. We can skype. I can help you with English. You can help me with Mongolian.
Sister za tegeeereei Okay, let’s do that.
миний ажил тарчлаа дараа fc- б таарья. Би гэрлүүгээ явлаа байртай My job is finishing. I’m going home. Goodbye. Yay for Cyrillic alphabet!
Me bayrtai!! Goodbye!!


So, the one way that I know that Mongolia really happened is that I speak Mongolian. Well, not actively because I don’t need to. And not well. But, it’s in there. And, sometimes, while I’m drifting off to sleep, I’ll recount my day in Mongolian, as if I’m sitting at the kitchen table talking to my Mongolian family. They are another way I know Mongolia really happened.

Hongor and Love

things I might say

July 18, 2014

Last week I was on a tram in Prague and there was this obnoxious American dude, talking loudly about how he hated the city and would never come back. He managed to use the F-word at least once in every sentence. I hate to give someone like that any kind of power, but the truth is that that’s the kind of thing that can color my day. Of course, there’s no talking to someone like that, either. But, then, quite unexpectedly, the best thing happened. My travel buddy, fellow RPCV Kevin, leaned over to me and said, in Mongolian, that the guy was stupid. And I burst out laughing! And I said, in Mongolian, that the guy uses too many bad words! And that was it, though the incident has stuck with me, it has a completely different meaning now. So, in honor of this keeping-Mongolian-alive-outside-of-Mongolia, I present to you a list of things I might say:

зүгээр (pronounced zoo-ger, with a hard G), this is the equivalent of “it’s alright, don’t worry about it, no problem”
тигье (pronounced tig-ee, that’s Tig like Tigger), this means “yeah, let’s do that, sounds good”
идье, идье (pronounced like eat, eat), it means “eat, eat” so you’ll never know, but I will 🙂
за (pronounced za), this word with so many meanings, that I avoided for that first year, ulitmately I use it for “uh-huh, I hear you, okay”

One of my favorite aspects of Mongolian language is this handy shorthand for etcetera. You say the word, then repeat the word using M as the first syllable. Who’s going? Багш магш (bagsh-magsh) meaning teachers and everyone else. What did you eat for breakfast? Өндөг мөндөг (undokh-mundokh) meaning eggs and all that goes with that. You might also hear it in the form of chilli-milli or pizza-mizza.

And here are a list of words that sound like perfectly ordinary English words, but mean something completely different in Mongolian. I include them here because I expect to smile at my inside knowledge when I hear these:
хайр, sounds exactly like “hair” but means LOVE
нэг, sounds like the name Nick, but means ONE
том, sounds like the name Tom, but means BIG
найм, sounds like name, but means EIGHT
арав, sounds like arrow, but means TEN
би, sounds like be, but means I
миний, sounds like mini, but means MY or MINE
нэр, sounds almost like near, but means NAME
тийм, sounds like team, but means YES
юу, sounds like you, but means WHAT
хэн, sounds like hen, but means WHO
вэ, sounds like way, but is the question particle for questions with answers (not yes-no questions)
хэд, sounds like head, but has to do with counting (like how much does something cost)
сандал, sounds like sandal, but means CHAIR
суу, sounds like so or sew, but means SIT
хэл, sounds like hell, but means LANGUAGE or TONGUE
дуу, sounds like doe or dough, but means SONG
ном, sounds like gnome, but means BOOK
нүд, sounds like nude, but means EYE
чих, sounds like cheek, but means EAR
хамар, sounds almost like hammer, but means NOSE

Things I won’t say, but will want to:
нөгөдөөр (pronounced no-go-der), one word for the day after tomorrow
урчигдөр (pronounced oar-chick-der), one word for the day before yesterday


July 10, 2014

This week is Naadam, Mongolia’s big summer holiday. The winter holiday, Tsagaan Sar, has all the tradition; Naadam simply has fun. I experienced two Naadams while I was in Mongolia. The first was in my training site, Orkhon, during PST. The second was at my permanent site, Govi-Altai. For the most part, the only difference was in scale, Orkhon’s being much smaller, Govi-Altai’s being a bit larger, and neither coming close to the size of the UB Naadam. It seems all soums celebrate their own Naadam and the dates are staggered a bit from the national Naadam and one another.

It’s an official 2-3 day holiday devoted entirely to sport, specifically wrestling, horse-racing, and archery. So, businesses are closed but stores would be open (unlike during Tsagaan Sar). There is music, dance and singing, too, so even if you don’t think you’re interested in the competitions, you could still have a good time. And those are just the events in the stadium. Outside the stadium there were pop-up carnival-type activities like a bean-bag toss and a throw-the-dart-pop-a-balloon game (that one without any safety precautions whatsoever for passersby!). It was the first time that I saw whole families out enjoying the day together, little kids flying kites. Mind you, we had only been in the country for 5 or 6 weeks by the time of that first Naadam, and my soum had only ~2000 people.

As it turns out, my favorite of the three “manly” sports was the wrestling. Tradition oozes out of every aspect of the sport, from the moment the men (only men wrestle) come onto the field wearing their summer deels and Mongol malgai (malgai = hat), it really is captivating to watch. Once the match is over, the winner does a sort of dance inspired by eagles in flight. And after, the two competitors come together and the winner raises his arms over the other. It’s really hard to explain with words without it sounding clunky because you know they’re not thinking “now I have to do the eagle dance… now I have to honor my competitor.” It’s just what they do.

Naadam is also the time you’re likely to be offered airag, the traditional fermented mare’s milk. I had it at the first Naadam in Orkhon, where there was an entire ger devoted only to airag. They also set up gers to sell huushuur, the official food of Naadam. My first year it was made with geddis (the stomach, etc), not my favorite, and those gers get mighty hot because of the non-stop deep frying inside.

My second year, in Govi-Altai, my Counterpart said that I should wear my Mongolian summer deel (dress) to the stadium at 9am. What she didn’t say was that the entire Education Department would march around the stadium as part of the opening ceremonies. There isn’t actually a lot of status with that, many groups in the aimag did it, but it is just one of those examples where I was given the least amount of information possible 🙂 Oh, Mongolia…

I wish I could post pictures for you here but it is difficult since I am on the move. Eventually, it will happen. Happy Naadam, everyone!

goodbye Orkhon

June 30, 2014

I’d given my host mom about 2 weeks notice that I was coming. Due to Peace Corps policy about the earliest we are allowed to leave site for COS, I could leave Altai on Thursday morning, and my flight out of Mongolia was the following Wednesday morning. We had a lengthy checklist of things to do to leave Peace Corps (which I’ll write about next) so I had to get stuff done that Thursday and couldn’t leave to my host family’s until Friday around noon. I was hoping I’d have had a day or two longer, but I was also glad I was able to go at all.

The easiest way to get to Orkhon is to take the Erdenet bus from the Dragon Center bus station in UB. So, it’s worth mentioning that Mongolians call it “Dargon” not Dragon. Then, you have to tell the driver that you want to get off at the gas station on the road to Orkhon Soum, and not go all the way to Erdenet. It’s a beautiful 4 hour drive to Orkhon, with plenty of rolling green hills, horses, cows, sheep, and goats along the way.

My host mom arranged for a driver, Will’s host dad from PST, to pick me up. There were 3 others and he dropped them off first; since he is our neighbor it made sense to drop me off last. Riding into Orkhon for the first time in ten months, the first thing I noticed were the streetlights! You couldn’t NOT notice them, towering above everything on the one main street. Development even in this little town of a couple thousand. They didn’t reach as far as my family’s neighborhood, though.


I arrived around 4:30. It was raining. Mom was at work. My younger host brother immediately began cooking food for me. I’d tell you his name, but when I met him for the first time, his name was too hard for me to pronounce so mom just said to call him “Baga” which I thought was a nickname, but it turns out it just means he is the youngest of the family. Anyway, he made a rice stir fry and didn’t accept my offer to help. While he was chopping and stirring, we chatted. It was so different from those first few weeks. I remember he took me for a walk my first weekend and he tried to teach me to count to five. I could get 1 and 5, which are each one syllable, but 2, 3, and 4 were all slurred together; I just couldn’t hear where one stopped and the next started.

Another story from that first weekend: Baga was asking me for the English names of the foods we were eating. I answered, potato, cabbage, or carrot and he repeated. Then, he held up something I didn’t recognize, because it was sliced and cooked. It was yellow, darker than a potato, but lighter than a carrot. I said that I didn’t know, and sure enough, he repeated, very carefully, “I don’t know” as if that was the name for turnip! In our first two “survival Mongolian” lessons, we’d learned important words like toilet (for the outhouse), toilet paper, meat, fat… we’d also learned the phrases, “What is this?”, “I like…” and “I don’t like…” But, we hadn’t yet learned how to say “I don’t know” in Mongolian. Lost in translation.

When my mom arrived, one of the things she noticed was that I had the same sandals from two summers before, when I lived with them. She said they must be very sturdy. But, I reminded her that I don’t wear them for the 8 months of winter, and I was also able to say that Govi-Altai was very dusty so that I didn’t wear them too much there in the summer, either. I was able to tell her about my summer travel plans and that I wouldn’t have a job after the following Wednesday and that when I returned home I’d be living with my brother’s family while I figured out where to live and work permanently. Then, I heard her repeating all these things when she was talking to my sister or dad or a friend on the phone, so I knew she understood me, and it was great to realize that I understood her.

She saw that I had brought my pillow, my beloved pillow from home, and said that it was nice. I told her I was leaving it with them as a gift, but that I needed to wash it, which I did on Saturday. (I think I wrote that Mongolian pillows aren’t much of a pillow at all…) I also gifted them my Peace Corps-issued sleeping bag; it’s much more appropriate for a Mongolian winter than anywhere I’ll end up. I gave my dad my Swiss army knife, Baga got my Red Sox hat, and my older younger brother, Erka, got my headlamp with fresh batteries. I also had a PST photo album printed when I got back to UB that I had sent back to them.

My visit included enough downtime, enough alone time, to wander the town and say goodbye. I also visited with the M23 PCV who lives there, and met 3 of the PCTs training there. Sunday late morning, my family sent me off with wishes to get married and have a baby when I get home. If either happens, I’ve no doubt that my Mongolian friends and family will be more excited than my American friends and family 🙂 It was a good goodbye. It wasn’t nearly as difficult as the first time, when I was leaving for the unknown.


Peace Corps cautioned us not to make promises about returning to Mongolia, but I’m so certain I will return, it didn’t seem like a promise, just a telling of my future plans. In three-to-five years, I’ll be back. I never did visit my host family for Tsagaan Sar, and when I realized it could coincide with a trip to the Harbin, China, ice-sculpture festival, the other trip I’d wanted to take from here, well, it seemed like a no-brainer. So, if anyone wants a tour guide to Mongolia, IN WINTER, you know where to find me.

goodbye Altai

June 26, 2014

As you can imagine, my last week in Altai was pretty busy.

I had a goodbye dinner with 2 ladies from the medical college. I never wrote about Jargal. That woman is hysterical! She has us write down everything, “Please, write.” Always wanting to sound more natural, she studies English idioms… but in one conversation she’ll use more than you’ve ever heard. Some obscure. Some not quite right. Some British, so who the heck knows if they’re right. It’s great to see someone so enthusiastic about learning English.

Between the packing and reorganizing and sorting, I continued to have my daily Drs. conversation club almost to the end. The week before I left, they wanted to learn a song; I taught them What a Wonderful World. It’s a great song for English-language learners because it is slow and there are few words. It also has a great message that they could understand with little translation. How happy was I to discover a few days later that one of them made the song her cell phone ringtone! They also arranged to take me and my couchsurfers (below) to see the hydro-power plant in a neighboring soum, and have a picnic. It was great to spend time with them outside, but I was astounded that they had their backs to the water–an enormous reservoir–while we were eating! I was curious how I would adjust to living in this land-locked country after having only ever lived on the coasts of America. Obviously, I managed, but now I know my preference is to be near the water, wherever I end up.

I hosted two French couchsurfers (my first time as host!) for 3 nights. Due to the fact that I was leaving my apartment, you’d think, as I did, that this was bad timing. But they were biking across Mongolia, one small part of an unbelievable round-the-world journey (usually by foot), and since I was the only host in Govi-Altai, I didn’t want to say no. Originally, they were to arrive Sunday and leave Tuesday. Since I was flying out Thursday morning, I thought this would give me enough down time to get my stuff done when they’d left. But due to a storm, they arrived late and asked to stay later. It was pretty clear that they were legit travelers who would appreciate staying but would obviously leave if I asked them to. But, again, I wasn’t about to impede their efforts. In the end, she offered to help with cleaning my apartment, which of course I took her up on, and she did a phenomenal job with very little direction. They ended up being a big help, instead of being in the way. Plus, I think having them there was a bit of a distraction from the emotional toll of leaving and saying goodbye. You can follow her journey here, and even if you don’t read French, there’s lots of photos and video.

The dates for my final project, a teachers’ English camp outside of Altai, shifted just slightly enough for me to be unable to participate, except insofar as I helped create the weeks worth of lessons with another PCV, Heath. He arrived on my last day and was also a big help, and distraction from the finality of it all. I spent my last day getting photographs of my two years together for an album to give to my co-workers. In addition to the album, I printed separate copies for the individuals in the pictures. Sorting all these photos ended up being a much bigger project than I anticipated, and that’s where Heath came in. By the time the album was finished, it was after the office should have been closed and I thought I’d slink in there and leave the album on the main table and leave each person’s photos on their desks, thus avoiding the goodbyes. But no. Little did I know that the entire office was waiting to give me a gift, a cashmere dress designed to look like a Mongolian deel. It’s a gorgeous baby blue, with an overlay that has the pattern in royal blue. They also gave me a photo album with photos that someone had lifted from my facebook, many of the pictures are not of work events, and some of the pictures aren’t even from Altai! But it is very special.

With Heath sorting pictures, and the couchsurfers occupied with their own packing, I was able to spend time with visitors and actually sit and have tea. I gave one of them, my student Dolgormaa, a sweater that she had previously admired, and even though she won’t wear it for a few more months, she was super appreciative. I also visited my non-PCV American friends and had a leisurely mid-day snack without feeling rushed. And, finally, my site-mate Eva cooked a delicious dinner for Heath and me.

It was the best last day, the best series of goodbyes, I could have asked for. I think it helped knowing that I’ll be able to see Eva right after I return home and my CP (who will study abroad in Seattle!) soon after. I’m very lucky.

Note: I’m officially not a Peace Corps Volunteer anymore. My last day was June 25, 2014. I’m now an RPCV 😀 Also, I’m not in Mongolia anymore. We left about 36 hours ago and I am on my way home via about a month in Europe. Maybe these last entries won’t mean as much to you in that case, but this blog is also my record of my time in Peace Corps and in Mongolia, so I’ll continue to document over the next few weeks and maybe longer if things come up. I’ll add pictures of the above events when I’m able. In the meantime, as always, thanks for reading.

Coming soon: Goodbye Orkhon (host family visit!), UB, COS-ing…


June 6, 2014

I’m within two weeks of leaving site, three weeks of leaving Peace Corps and Mongolia. At times, my chest is tight. My chin quivers, unexpectedly, and my throat doesn’t swallow easily.

Though we arrived en masse to Mongolia, Close of Service marks the last time my cohort, the M23s, will have been together. Though a handful will stay for a third year, the majority will depart the country in staggered waves, some going directly home while others travel our way back. Some of us will keep in touch. Some of us will want to keep in touch but will, perhaps inevitably, drift apart. And some of us may move on to the next phase of life without looking back. Though, I believe that even this group will hold a special place in their hearts for those who were a part of this Peace Corps/Mongolia experience.

The COS Conference we had in May was necessary for disseminating information we needed to know in order “to leave Peace Corps and to leave Mongolia.” One PCV said it required more paperwork to get out than to get in. Practical things were covered, such as closing our bank accounts, deactivating our visa, and post-PC healthcare options; helpful things such as networking and resume tips; cautionary things such as “readjustment” to life in America; and the delicate, easily overlooked topic of saying goodbye to our communities was addressed.

There was a panel of mostly RPCVs assembled for us to ask our life-after-Peace Corps questions. One man, now working at the American Embassy in UB, was an M2, the second group of Volunteers in Mongolia. We gave him a round of applause in recognition of how different, how more difficult, it must have been for him. One woman, who finished service ~10 years ago, had never stopped improving her Mongolian language and is now a document translator based in Mongolia. Another woman, a recent RPCV, is now at PCHQ in DC. I’m within three weeks of leaving Peace Corps, so I am within three weeks of being unemployed. Where on earth will I be a year from now? What will I be doing? It’s still too soon for me to think about.

During our evenings at the conference there were organized group activities (trivia, dance, bananagrams) and intimate groupings that formed organically. On the last day, we had lunch with the US Ambassador to Mongolia. We had many photos taken, including with our PST groups. My personal highlight: our beloved Safety and Security Manager sang us out while playing “Country Roads” on guitar. After our two years of trying to integrate into the Mongolian culture, it was super meaningful to have a Mongolian take on an American folk song. This cherished memory is heavy on my heart if I think about it too long, so I’d better move on.

Our last night in UB, many of us gathered for an unofficial wedding ceremony for my PST site-mate and our language teacher. They’ll do it for real in the States, and I plan to be there, but I was glad they thought to do something here while so many of us were together. Afterward, we danced in the club until closing time. As the night wore on, more and more goodbyes were said during a tight embrace. The honesty, the raw emotion, the respect were all palpable. I looked around the crowded room and saw it time and time again, history being acknowledged with a nod or a grin, private moments unfolding around me, thinking “I need to start my own goodbyes, but I’m not ready.” Ready or not, they came to me.

I’m lucky to have had some solid groups in my past which gave me a support network at the time, life-long friends since, and a shared identity that allows us to pick up where we left off no matter the time that has passed: my band friends from high school (even jr. high), my fellow cast members from “images: Theater for Young Hearts and Minds” (a peer education group), my one college roommate (the one person I’m in touch with 15 years later), colleagues from my two hospital jobs who were more than mere co-workers.

To this esteemed collection of groups, I add my Peace Corps family. This includes the other M23s, of course, and the M21s, M22s, M24s and M25s I’ve gotten to know. I hope it goes without saying that my host family, my CP, and our PC staff, American and Mongolian, are in there too. But it also includes the Peace Corps/Mongolia PCVs before and after, nearly all of whom I will never meet, and the Peace Corps Volunteers from any other country ever. Why? Because this shared experience is that meaningful to me. There’s a knowingness, a tacit understanding, that can’t be captured in a blog. And just as I’ve had to say goodbye to being a member of the other groups in my life, but never said goodbye to the people, so, too, must I say goodbye to being a PCV. What’s really neat, though, is that I move from being a PCV to an RPCV, a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. And that’s something I’ll be forever.