December 2, 2012

Every three months, I’m a millionaire. Peace Corps includes my quarterly rent payment in my monthly stipend and I am responsible for paying my landlord within 5 days. I do it pretty much immediately; I have a bank app on my phone so it couldn’t be easier. And I have no idea if the money in my Mongolian bank account is earning interest. I can tell you that this summer, when our Khan Bank cards were distributed, the boys’ cards had horses on them and the girls’ cards had roses. If it were up to me, I would have chosen the horse.

In November, we completed the annual Living Allowance Survey so that Congress can decide whether Volunteers in Mongolia need more money to meet their basic needs. Inflation is pretty high here but that is a whole other blog topic. Anyway, I have all this data to share concerning the cost of living in Mongolia, specifically in Govi-Altai.

I’ve concluded that the staple groceries are comparable to back home, with just a few exceptions (e.g., peanut butter), but the services are much more affordable (if I think in terms of dollars, not necessarily in terms of my stipend). If there’s something specific you want to know the cost of, just let me know.

togrogs dollars
Rent 250,000  $  178.57
Living allowance 300,000  $  214.29
Monthly expenses
Internet 21,000₮  $   15.00
Phone 5,000₮  $     3.57
As needed
Toilet paper (per roll) 450₮  $     0.32
Baby wipes (70) 2,500₮  $     1.79
Letter—postage to US 1,100₮  $     0.79
Shampoo (Head & Shoulders = pricey) 7,800₮  $     5.57
Having my hair dyed in G-A 8,000₮  $     5.71
Having my hair cut in G-A 3,000₮  $     2.14
3D movie in UB 6,000₮  $     4.29
Hair cut in UB 10,000₮  $     7.14
Eggs (per dozen) 4,200₮  $     3.00
Bread 800₮  $     0.57
Honey 5,800₮  $     4.14
Flour (1 kg) 1,200₮  $     0.86
Cereal (small box) 3,000₮  $     2.14
Oats (1 kg) 1,200₮  $     0.86
dehydrated tofu (good-sized bag) 1,800₮  $     1.29
pasta 1kg 4,700₮  $     3.36
peanut butter (small jar, 18 oz) 5,500₮  $     3.93
Chocolate (regular bar size) 1,400₮  $     1.00
barley 1 kg 2,400₮  $     1.71
Tuna (small can) 2,500₮  $     1.79
milk 1 liter 1,500₮  $     1.07
cheese – pack (8 slices) (the good
cheese is much pricier)
2,500₮  $     1.79
Oil – large bottle 2,400₮  $     1.71
Tofu – block 4,500₮  $     3.21
Sugar 1 kg 900₮  $     0.64
Pickles 2,200₮  $     1.57
Rice – half kilo 1,500₮  $     1.07
Bouillon cube x 8 1,200₮  $     0.86
Juice – 2 liters 4,500₮  $     3.21
Juice – small 2,500₮  $     1.79
Butter 3,500₮  $     2.50
Peanuts (small can, 185 gr) 1,600₮  $     1.14
Canned veggies 2,000₮  $     1.43
Pringles 4,500₮  $     3.21
staple veggies (enough onions,
potatoes, carrots, turnips for a week)
5,200₮  $     3.71
tomatoes/cukes (2-3 of each) 3,000₮  $     2.14
Cabbage (this one was rather small) 800₮  $     0.57
3 bananas 1,800₮  $     1.29
2 peppers 2,000₮  $     1.43


Of note, Volunteers receive a Settling-In Allowance to cover some of those home set-up expenses. I include them here for a big picture of the cost of living. All but the modem and plant came from the Black Market. I still need to pick up more house stuff.
modem 50,000₮  $      35.71
blanket 20,000₮  $      14.29
rice cooker 22,000₮  $      15.71
laundry drying rack 18,000₮  $      12.86
steaming pot 20,000₮  $      14.29
large pan 15,000₮  $      10.71
mug 1,000₮  $        0.71
plant 10,000₮  $        7.14
slippers 1,000₮  $        0.71


November 20, 2012

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.


November 9, 2012

I’ve never been a weight-watching person. In fact, I’ve intentionally not been a weight-watching person to resist fulfilling that stereotype of the woman who is concerned about her weight. That said, though my weight has fluctuated over the years, I’ve always been more tall than round giving me the luxury of not having to pay too much attention.

Yesterday, I tried the treadmill in my office for the first time. Today, I tried the scale. After converting the kilograms to pounds, I’m really not sure whether to believe my eyes. Suffice it to say, I don’t feel 30 pounds lighter.

Prior to leaving Boston, I had an amazing Memorial Day weekend camping trip with my awesome cousin, Liz (hi cuz!), and many more adventurous members of Chiltern Mountain Club. This is relevant because one of the activities at the campground was zip-lining, which required me to weigh myself (and sign a waiver in case I plummeted). Were it not for that, I’d have only a guess as to my pre-Mongolia weight of 183 pounds. You might even add a pound or two from the goodbye Italian dinner with lots of sangria the night before my flight.

Dropping weight as a PCV in Mongolia seems as hard to come by as frostbite in winter. Since that’s not the case at home, I thought I’d share the secrets of the Mongolian diet. (And by “secret” I mean things we already know but need to overhaul our lives in order to enact.) Since weight loss boils down to calories in vs calories out, let’s first take a look at the calories out by comparing activity levels here and there. Then, we’ll examine the calories in.

Though I always feel better after having exercised, I have a hard time getting motivated to do it. So aside from hikes maybe once a month and walking around Boston (mostly to the train), I didn’t get much activity in the mild winter before leaving. I did bike the 3 miles to and from work, totaling an hour a day, from when the Hubway bike-share reopened in mid-March until I left my job in mid-May (a sad day, indeed). And I did get to a few yoga classes during that first half of the year. But for the most part, I was somewhat of a couch potato… one of the things I was hoping to change by the mere fact of starting over in the Peace Corps.

So, here I am 5 months into living in Mongolia, and weighing in at 69.9 kilos—154 pounds—if that scale is to be believed.

While I’m not watching nearly as much television, I am still somewhat of a couch potato. I walk everywhere, but the town is so small that everywhere I need to walk is within 20 minutes of where I am, which is equivalent to walking to/from the train at home. I’ve done some long walks, just for the sake of walking, but not often enough for them to have made a thirty-pound difference. That’s why I’ve titled this blog “eating”—because that has to be my biggest behavior change from living in Boston.

Now, I’ve already posted a blog about what I’m eating and how it is pretty much American fare, so I think this effortless weight-loss comes down to two things, neither of which will be a great revelation: portion control and what I’m not eating.

Portion control
My host-mom would always serve me a heaping plate of food. Even though I enjoyed her cooking, I didn’t want to stuff myself. Thankfully, it got to the point where I felt comfortable enough with her that I could ask for less food. I would make a sweeping-off-the-plate motion with my hand and say tom hool or “big food” since I didn’t know how to say “too much” in Mongolian. About half-way through PST, I realized that we were using what would be a salad plate back home. And I never had “seconds” whereas, at home, I’d use a dinner plate and often have a second helping. I’d heard and dismissed this trick of using a smaller plate, but now I’m a believer.

Now that I’m on my own, in charge of my own meals, I haven’t reverted to my old ways. My studio apartment was furnished with certain necessities, among them 2 juice glasses and 2 bowls. Those two juice glasses are traditional juice glasses, I’d guess 4 ounces; those 2 bowls are small, I’d guess 1 cup. I have juice with almost every meal and I usually have just one glassful. (Contrast that to the 20 oz bottles at home!) When it comes to food, sometimes I do have a second helping, occasionally I’ll even have a third. But, I never give it a second thought (i.e., feel guilty) since it is a freshly home-cooked meal (i.e., no preservatives or mystery ingredients) and given that the food I eat here is already so simple (i.e., low in calories). Tonight was a three-helping night. On the menu: black beans and rice with a side of cabbage. Two months after moving in, I still have just two bowls. I need more if I’m ever to host a dinner but I readily admit I am hesitant to get large plates.

What I’m not eating
Some people drink coffee for the pick me up; I drank coffee for the taste of it. That meant I could go the whole weekend without it, so I never invested in a coffee pot. But since it was freely available at work, I partook. My preferred coffee taste is sweet and light with cream. In Boston vernacular, that means to make the coffee light by adding cream rather than “light on the cream.” Do you have any idea how much cream it takes to get a coffee light? I’d guess a quarter cup of cream. I realized even then that the more coffee I drank, the more cream and sugar I drank down with it.

Thankfully, at this point in my life, I wasn’t much of a fast food eater, in terms of the national burger chains. But there was lots of quick food: sandwiches from the work cafeteria, a sub from the deli in the convenience store, a slice of pizza on the way home, a breakfast sandwich (on a bagel!) from the coffee shop on a Saturday morning. Not only were all of these enormous in my hindsight eyes, but they were sometimes accompanied by a bag of chips or a pint of ice cream or another impulse purchase. Sure, I tried to get at least two or three servings from that pint, but now I have the same amount of ice cream every night—none.

Eating out was never reserved for special occasions; I did it as much to socialize as I did to eat. Actually, maybe it was more to socialize. In any case, in addition to the main course, I’d sometimes have an appetizer and almost always have a dessert.

Not having as many take-out or casual dining encounters has diminished my meat consumption to almost none, since I don’t cook it. Meat has appeared at group dinners (chicken, camel), meals with Mongolians (mutton), and the few times I have eaten out here (mutton, beef), but that might average to twice a month.

There you have it. The crazy thing is, not having these things isn’t felt as equivalent to making a sacrifice. Sure, I’d love an eggroll or a brownie sundae, and maybe if I lived in a soum and had even fewer options than I have, I’d feel the absence of everything more acutely. But, they are simply not here, and I think I’ve always been one to look at what is, rather than what’s not.

I’ve added more pictures to my facebook album. And here’s a new album of food. Buon appetito.

May 2012 to Nov 2012.

May 2012 to Nov 2012.


October 7, 2012

One of my professors at San Diego City College, the brilliant and animated Bill Stewart, encouraged his students to ask questions because, as he said, a third of the class was probably wondering the same thing. I have always loved how he framed our inquiries as though they were for the benefit of the quieter students. It trampled on the “there are no dumb questions” approach to getting students to participate, and instead made it our duty to ask. Like I said, he was brilliant.

In that spirit, here I introduce the first Q&A blog entry. These questions are courtesy of my sister-in-law, Tricia.

Do you have any containers that you can fill with water for those days it is not flowing? 

Here, she is referring to my plumbing that, as I wrote to her, has repeatedly been shut off. In 6 weeks, it’s probably happened about 6 times but not in any scheduled way that would allow me to plan for it. (Might be due to the construction on my street.) It’s lasted for as little as 10 minutes to as long as 8 or 10 hours.

To answer the question, I have a Peace Corps-provided water filter (which deserves its own blog entry) so that I am able to drink, and cook somewhat depending on what I am making. It holds about a gallon of water, and the lesson learned is to promptly fill it so that I am never without drinking water. If the drought were to continue for an extended time, I could purchase bottled water from almost any of the delguurs, however, there is no recycling here so I hesitate to do that unless it was urgent.

Do you have refrigeration?  Freezer?  Oven? What about containers for leftovers?

I do have a refrigerator with a freezer inside. It’s about 3-feet high, though they have smaller and larger in Mongolia. The freezer, however, has no door so either the entire thing was a freezer or I turned down the setting, which is what I did. In the winter, I could use my entry room as a freezer, like the people who live in Mongolian gers use their ping (boxed-in area covering the door, to keep out the cold weather). But I don’t expect to freeze much, food-wise, since I don’t buy anything frozen, and have been making meals with only 2-3 extra portions, which I finish off in the next 3-5 meals.

I have a table-top electric burner for cooking. (There are two burners but I was told only one works so I never tried the other.) I also have a rice-cooker, which I always wanted in the States and never got. I do not have an oven. The PCVs with ovens are willing to share, though, and at our site-mate dinners I have benefited from their ovens in the form of pizza, garlic bread, home-made pretzels, and most recently a chocolate cupcake with coffee frosting and caramel drizzle. Thankfully for me, the ovens are not wasted on non-bakers or the stingy!

As for containers for leftovers, I’m all set there. Since there is no recycling, I have been reusing, mostly pickle jars. The longer I’m here, the more jars I will accumulate and use for all manner of storage—not just food. But, because I am so conscious of the absence of recycling, I hesitate over impulsive items (like single serve juices) since additional uses for the bottle is limited, relative to a jar.

Hey, how’d you like your toothpaste? I remembered that was included while I was brushing mine thinking I needed to replenish our stock.  And I smiled a little knowing Toms would be a nice treat.  Like you mention, it’s the basics we appreciate more when we go without them.

Ah, stream-of-consciousness writing… how it speaks to me. Here, she is referring to Tom’s of Maine toothpaste which she lovingly included in my care package. It was indeed a treat. In fact, I had stopped purchasing Tom’s at home because I was finding it a bit pricey and hard to find my favorite flavor: fennel. Trader Joe’s used to have it at $2.99 but then they introduced their own brand and the Tom’s went up, and I tried the TJs brand—I believe they even had fennel—and didn’t like it as much. Ho-hum. This is probably a luxury item that will remain off the care-package list, but would make me smile if it were to emerge from a box.

How far are you from where you work? Which bldg is it?  Is it one of the pics posted?  How far to post office (again)? Do you walk everywhere?

This reminds me that I never posted the link to the new Permanent Site photo album. It is here. Forgive me for redirecting you; I am still having trouble uploading to this site.

My apartment is about a 7-minute walk to work. The post office is about an 8-minute walk in the opposite direction, so that if I walk from work to the post office, it is about 15 minutes. Yes, I walk everywhere. Unless, as has happened 2 or 3 times now, a coworker driving by stops to take me the rest of the way. “Thank you for sparing me those 3 minutes of walking!” Really… maybe I will appreciate it when it is winter but now it seems silly, despite being a nice gesture.

I bet people think that Mongolians drive jalopies, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Most of the vehicles here are HUGE: Jeeps and Land Rovers and such (I had to write “and such” because I don’t speak car, but you get the idea that they are big SUVs). It makes sense because of the roads. Some of the paved roads have giant pits and some of the dirt roads washout in the rain so that people just blaze a new trail. However, and I find this particularly noteworthy, one of my coworkers has a hybrid 🙂

They also drive motorcycles, sometimes 4 deep: the dad driving with a kid in his lap and a kid sandwiched between him and the mom at the back. I saw the same thing in India and did my first triple-take. No worries for me though; Peace Corps Volunteers are prohibited from riding on or driving a motorcycle, not that I’d have been tempted.

Some of the kids here have bikes, but I have no intention of getting one. Why not? Bicycle maintenance, winter, and bad roads dissuade me.

There are also taxis, but having barely taken them across Boston, I can hardly rationalize taking one across Govi-Altai. Again, maybe when winter hits.

Beef stewing it tomorrow. Oooh…can you get yeast easily?  And flour?  Eggs?

Oh, yummy! (Even though I would pick around the beef, which is amazing given some of the things I have eaten here – food blog entry in the works.) I believe yeast is courtesy of care packages, or else found in the capital. But, since I do not have an oven, I’d be less likely to use it. Flour and eggs are readily available. In fact, I made my own tortillas from scratch! (Chris, are you reading this?! Who am I?!) Until then, I thought they were uniform circular disks that came in packs of 8-12. While mine were far from uniform, they tasted like bona-fide tortillas 🙂

Day 1 again

August 23, 2012

How much do first impressions count for?

Yesterday, as my plane was descending into my new town, I took it all in from my window seat: the dusty landscape, the surrounding brown mountains, the sparse trees. So beautiful was my training site, Orkhon, with its greenery and roaming livestock—I’d say “hello, cows” ever a smile on my face—that maybe nowhere would measure up to its serenity, or at least the serenity I found within myself during those 10 weeks as a Peace Corps Trainee.

Last night was not only my first night in my first floor studio apartment but in a sense, it was also my first night alone. After 5 days of logistical sessions and my first work meetings with my counterpart in Darkhan, and another 5 days in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar (UB), essentially waiting for my flight and saying goodbyes to fellow Volunteers (we are now PCVs!), some I will not see for a year, I was exhausted all around. After a too-brief nap and some unpacking, my counterpart and her husband drove me to the black market for some house-hold supplies and groceries and I cooked my first dinner for myself in months. It was bland.

But as tired as I was, you know that my mind doesn’t stop during waking hours, so I sat in my you’d-think-it-was-plush-but-it’s-really-stiff-as-a-board non-reclining chair contemplating just what I’d gotten myself into, thinking that I’ll have the same view of a trash-burning dumpster outside my window for the next two years.

And at that moment, when I probably needed it most of all, the phone rang. I would have been happy to hear from anyone, of course, but I was overjoyed to speak with my host family, first my brother, then my mom, then my sister. In my limited Mongolian, I told them I had arrived that morning, that I was in my apartment, what I made for dinner, and that I had to begin work the next morning. And I listened to each of their familiar voices, comforting me not with words that I didn’t understand but with smiles that I knew existed on the other end.

There is a bigger picture forming here. The first impression will have two years worth of opportunities to be overwritten.