deel video

February 7, 2014

Mentioning my M22 site-mate, Brittany, at the end of my Tsagaan Sar post was supposed to remind me to include a link to this video that she made last spring. It’s a collection of images of people in various stages of putting on the traditional Mongolian deel (totally G-rated!), set to the song The Hardest Button to Button. In the case of the deel, that likely refers to the button under the armpit but can also be those pesky buttons at the neck. It closes with an image of a water tank with some surprising graffiti: “Welcome to My Hood” written in English. The video is just under two minutes long, and, yes, you can catch a few glimpses of me, but I recommend you watch it because Britt put a lot of work into it and it deserves a wider audience.

And as long as I’m promoting videos, here‘s another one that was put together from some Mongolia PCVs the year before. This one is a straight up dance video (>3 min) showcasing Mongolians and Volunteers from the city of Erdenet. Such fun! I watched it multiple times before coming and each time I focused on something else: the clothes, the weather, the buildings, the snow, the cows, the people. Then, I met some of those people during PST… they were awesome.


ECON 101, Mongolia edition

September 18, 2013

Effective September 1, 2013, Mongolia has a new minimum wage, 192,000T per month. The previous minimum was 140,400T, which meant that Peace Corps Volunteers were earning just over twice the minimum wage when I arrived last year.

Since we’re paid in togrogs, I know immediately whether I can afford something. There is an automatic conversion to a percent of my income that happens. I don’t have to convert the cost of things to dollars to know whether it is a good deal; I merely compare prices between delguurs, since most of what I buy is food. This means I don’t have to pay attention to exchange rates on a regular basis.

This summer, a German man was having trouble at an ATM in Govi-Altai. (He was riding his motorcycle from Germany to UB, another Other!)  He had planned to exchange a $100 bill, but it was Sunday and the banks were closed. (The fact that he had US dollars didn’t hit me until later; the international currency.) Since it was just a few weeks before leaving for my Russia trip, and I would need dollars to pay for my Russian Visa, I offered to take togrogs out of my account for him. (I had a brief moment of wondering whether the $100 bill I held in my hand was legitimate—I hadn’t seen American money in over a year!—but it was absurd to imagine that anyone would travel to Mongolia to launder counterfeit dollars.) I quoted him the last exchange rate I knew ($100 = 140,000T) and he agreed.

Turns out I got the better end of that deal, but not by too much. Now, take a look at this frightening graph showing the dollar to Mongolian togrog over the past year (from here).


When I came to Mongolia last year, the exchange rate was about 1350T=$1. Now, it is 1700T=$1. Again, since I’m paid in tugs, I wasn’t aware of this. Of course, we were all aware of the notorious inflation in Mongolia. Initially, some of us thought that store proprietors were trying to take advantage of us foreigners by charging us higher prices than those posted, only to be told by locals that, no, the prices just keep going up. In fact, the economy had been expanding so rapidly that it was noteworthy when the inflation had slowed to below 10%. Still, with such high inflation, we can probably expect another adjustment to our living allowance, so, thanks, my fellow Americans.

Here is but a glimpse of the rising prices:
Shower was 1200T, briefly 1500T, now 2000T.
one egg was 350T, now 500T.
liter of milk was 1500T, now 2000T.
peanut butter was 5500T, now 9000T.
chocolate bar was 1400T, now 1500T.
3D movie in UB was 6000T, now 7000T.
large bottle of water was 600T, now 1000T.

Another interesting money tidbit is that the minimum ATM withdrawal is 1000T (which is now about 50 cents); you can get a decent ice cream cone for that price. Can you imagine taking so little from the ATM?!! Also, I used the ATM for many months before reading a message on the screen that there is a per transaction fee of 100T. So, for those who do take the minimum amount, the fee is 10%, which I know is only pennies, but still, 10%!!!! Since reading this message, I now take 100,000T at a time (unless I am lazy and press the 80,000T button, which is the highest pre-set amount).

One of my students showed me this: Sad Chinggis.


Happy Chinggis.


I know I’ve done this with George Washington. I love that there are such simple universal amusements.


October 26, 2012

Traveling and eating out are two of my favorite things 🙂

In traveling, at least the way I do it, aimlessly wandering takes up most of my day. I’ll get to the official major sites, but I’m not one for creating strict itineraries. In eating out, including during traveling, meals are decided spontaneously from a vast list of options that I can further alter to suit my taste. Preparation and clean-up are not my concern, and there’s bound to be something on the menu that I decide “Yup, that’s what I want,” which is a different thing entirely from thinking something is merely acceptable.

But, relocating to a foreign country as a Peace Corps Volunteer is neither traveling nor eating out. It is regularly cooking your own meals from what is available locally. Even when there are places around town, and my town has a few, our Volunteer stipend would not allow us to frequent them regularly. Contrast that to life back home when I seldom denied myself a dining-out opportunity.

The significance of this cannot be overstated.

My typical meals look something like this:

cereal and milk; oatmeal with raisins and brown sugar; one over-medium egg; juice; yogurt; bread and peanut butter or jam; biscuit

PB&J sandwich, egg salad sandwich, pasta salad, dinner leftovers,

Any combination of the staples: onions, garlic, potatoes, cabbage, carrots, turnips in a stir-fry or soup, sometimes with pasta, sometimes with rice, sometimes with barley, sometimes with lentils or beans; pasta; grilled-cheese sandwich; 2 eggs, sometimes with cheese;

salad of tomato/cucumber/pepper; often apples; sometimes bananas; my own trail mix(!) of canned peanuts, a chocolate bar, and raisins; wafer cookies; and yes (however seldom) chips, even though the American brands are 3-4 times what I would have paid at home

That all sounds quite American fare, I’m sure, and I’ll post a separate Mongolian food entry. You’ll notice that isn’t much variety, though. You’ll also notice there is no meat on that list. That’s my rule: I don’t cook meat. And if it wasn’t my rule before coming here… let’s just say, I don’t want to cook anything sold from the trunk of a car. That was quite a site!

As I’ve mentioned, one never knows what will be available in a given delguur. The upside here is that one never knows what will be available in a given delguur. To understand this upside, you would have had to have witnessed my euphoria at the unexpected… “ZUCCHINI!! I’m gonna take you home and fry you up!” And I did. And it was amazing! How many times have I wandered the produce aisles at a supermarket and inevitably ended up with my usual standards? So, even though my options are severely limited, in a way my variety has increased.

Thankfully, the Peace Corps is serious about our nutritional health and safety and provided us with The Peace Corps Cookbook—Mongolia Edition.  It includes only recipes with items that we can find here, though it includes a “Posh Corps” section for those in the cities and larger towns with access to delicacies like cheese and tomatoes (that’s me!) or ovens (not me, directly). From that cookbook, I also tried my hand at green-pea (from a can) falafel, peanut butter fried rice, and zucchini risotto (it was a big zucchini!). The results were mixed but I am not done experimenting… still waiting for my first veggie-chili.

Because we can get cheese and some of my site-mates have ovens, we have occasionally (once or twice a month) had group dinners of pizza, or, most recently, home-made bread bowls for home-made broccoli-cheese soup. The day the broccoli came to town the PCVs were abuzz, “Did you hear? There’s broccoli at the Fruit and Vegetable Store.” We look out for one another.

If there is anyone willing to take the PC/Mongolia Cookbook Challenge—maybe a week, okay a weekend, of cooking from the cookbook—I’d be happy to email you the PDF. It makes for interesting reading, I think.


October 5, 2012

A small shop in Mongolia is called a delguur. The storefront is usually one of the doors to a house, and the delguur to resident ratio rivals that of a Starbucks or a Dunkin’ Donuts; from one, you can easily see at least 5 others. They range in size, but the footprint might max out at half the size of a 7-11.

More often than not, the prepackaged items are stocked in an orderly manner on shelves behind the counter: giant boxes of imported chocolates get prime shelf space, a few cans of peas, milk in a box, mayonnaise in a bag within a box, single toilet paper rolls, sea-cabbage for making a type of non-fish sushi called kimbab, or eating plain like I have come to do. The counters are always glass and underneath you will find smaller goodies (candy, spices, tea, single serve 3-in-1 packets of blended coffee, sugar and creamer). Eggs might be sitting in those egg-shaped cardboard trays on the counter and they are purchased individually. You tell the clerk what you want and he or she gets it for you. The money is kept in a cardboard box on one of the shelves, and if they can’t make exact change because of the pesky 10, 20, 50 tugrugs (10<penny), they make the difference in your favor.

I can imagine that going from shopping in a Supermarket—with over a dozen aisles, frozen foods, prepared foods, a deli, a bakery, and all manner of fruits and vegetables, fresh, frozen and canned—to shopping in a room with <1% of the stock would seriously distress someone who hadn’t already expressed that the sheer number of options available to Americans was overwhelming. Since I am the person who bemoaned so many brands of XX, it was a bit of a relief to walk into a store and choose *the* loaf of sliced bread, or *the* jar of pickles (we have pickles!!!), or *the* bag of dehydrated tofu. In and out in 5 minutes.

I can also imagine that there are people who, upon seeing less than perfect produce, would turn up their noses and shop elsewhere. Thankfully for me, I was the person who would have chosen the slightly damaged package just so that it wouldn’t get tossed out. And, yet, I was also the person who once asked a coworker who was peeling a full-sized carrot during lunch why she went through all that trouble?! This is what growth looks like, people. Transitioning from so-called “baby carrots” to the carrots-straight-from-the-earth was less of an adjustment than I would have thought. It’s one of the changes I plan to keep when I return home.

All the delguurs are variations on the same theme. They all start with candy, flour, tea, potatoes, onions, carrots, juice, salt, sugar, jam, soda, vodka, beer, single serve ice-cream, toilet paper. You know, the essentials. Maybe half of the delguurs will add some or all of these: cabbage, garlic, butter, yogurt, apples, eggs, milk, frozen chicken legs (loose in the freezer, take your pick). And a few of those will add cheese, bananas, peanut butter or cereal. So that the store that has cereal (which we helpfully refer to as “The Cereal Store”) has yogurt but neither eggs nor butter. The store that has cheese (which we call, yes, “The Cheese Store”) sometimes has chicken, sometimes has bananas, but hasn’t yet had peanut butter. Depending on what’s on your shopping list, if you guess right and the stars are aligned, you can get everything with just 3 stops. But, then, when you can walk across town in 20 minutes, it’s just a dusty, uneven aisle.