shower-house

June 19, 2013

There was a shower-house in my training site last summer but, as far as I know, my host family never used it, so I never used it. I learned to bathe in my tumpun and my host-mom or host-sister would help me wash my hair by pouring the warm water over my head while I lathered and rinsed. The bathing and the hair-washing didn’t necessarily coincide. I would bathe every 7-10 days (using baby-wipes in the interim); I’d wash my hair every 5-7 days. Much like clothes washing in the tumpun, tumpun bathing was complicated by the need to carry the one bucket of water to my bedroom, combine in my tumpun with water from the kettle, bathe and then pour from the wide tumpun into the dirty-water bucket—hopefully, executing neither step with excessive spillage—finally, emptying the dirty water into the special pit outside.

With this as my frame of reference, the indoor plumbing at my permanent site made tumpun bathing so much easier, that I didn’t immediately seek out the Altai shower-houses. At site, I could fill (fill=2-3 inches) my tumpun right from the sink and, after washing, pour it right into the toilet. Even better was when the heat came on and my running water wasn’t ice-cold; then, I didn’t need to use the kettle at all. I’d gotten into a routine of upper-body bathing (right from the sink!), lower-body bathing, and hair-washing two days a week. The baby-wipes remain a living-in-Mongolia, must-have item.

I think at this point I should mention that when I lived in the States, my habit was to shower every other day. I’d adopted this schedule when growing up in California, because of “the drought,” and even though I’m sure I was in the minority to skip a day, it stuck with me and I saw no reason to change when I left. Like many routines, it wasn’t a hard-and-fast rule and if I needed/wanted a shower off-schedule, I’d take one. No judgment! 😉

After the new year, I asked my site-mate to show me the shower house. I think it was because the weather was so cold that I wanted that all-over warmth. That first shower in Altai, on January 10th, was gloriously warm. And, I remember thinking, “it’s so pleasurable to wash my hair without bending over.”

There are several shower-houses in Altai, but I’ve only experienced the one. The cost is 1300 togrogs (just under a dollar) for 30 minutes. There are two attendants: one collects the money (from the usage fee and the sale of toiletries) and the other seems to be in charge of throwing a bucket of water on the shower floor in between guests, handing out communal shower slippers and locking you in. Yes, the attendant locks you in, and there is no secondary lock on the inside for the vulnerable person who is naked and preoccupied. There are about 12 rooms and none that I’ve used have been particularly nice, each showing the black of mildew and/or mold. There’s no doubt it wasn’t always a shower-house, though, as the rooms are different configurations and the water comes via PVC pipes literally strung up to the rafters. It turns out, the temps at the shower-house are unpredictable and, for the most part, unadjustable. Regardless, that weekly shower is a treat. When you’re done, you give a knock and the attendant comes and unlocks your door.

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Oh, and by the way, it isn’t a lock with a key… just a simple slider. I want to think this is another example of trust built into things in Mongolia, but then I remembered, it’s like showering at a gym or a campground back home. Except for the whole gender-separation thing that is largely ignored here.

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To trust or not to trust?

February 17, 2013

This blog is an example of the Peace Corps’ Third Goal, for Volunteers to give Americans a better understanding of the cultures we serve. This depends on me and I don’t update as regularly as I or some of you would like. But it’s the Second Goal—giving our host country a better understanding of Americans—that happens every day. Some of this is deliberate, as when a holiday coincides with an English club and provides the vocabulary of the lesson. But more often than not, the Second Goal is inferred from our reactions to some chance encounter. That is, our unintentional, unscripted, unfiltered, honest response to all that we take in.

There are certain aspects of what I think of as American culture that I don’t want to share with the Mongolians. This occurred to me this week following a knock on my window. When I pulled back the shade to see who it could be—it was 8pm and long since dark—there stood a family I didn’t know, the mom waving papers. So, I opened my door and led them in, without locking the door behind us, to see what it was they wanted from me from within the warmth of my apartment.

It didn’t take long to understand—the printed email promising lottery winnings scream “scam!” to anyone old enough to remember AOL or young enough to not remember a time before “google it” was a way of life. We weren’t always internet savvy, though—it’s a skill we learned through trial and error—so even if we don’t remember it, it’s easy to understand the vulnerability of people who have little reason to doubt combined with the desire of wanting to believe in a sudden windfall of fortune, wherever they happen to live.

While this was playing out, I was experiencing a sort of PCV-déjà vu. Soon after arriving at site, a fellow M23 experienced this exact scene and wrote about it in his own blog. (When I reread it, the parallels between our experiences in Mongolia are pretty striking.) What I remembered that night is that he found our Peace Corps-provided dictionary lacked the word “scam” so, without bothering to look, I attempted other ways to convey that message. The Mongolian word for “lie” seemed to get it across. My mind racing, I also said, in English, “not true” which the older daughter understood and translated. The mom’s hope vanishing, she looked for reason. “Яагаад (yaa-ghaad)” she asked, maybe rhetorically. I’d recently learned the word ашиглах (ah-shig-lakh), which means to exploit or take advantage of and is somewhat easy to remember, assuming you can remember that ашиг (ah-shig) means profit. But I didn’t think of it in English, so it remains one of many missed speaking opportunities.

The first thing I take from this encounter , and this goes back to what I wrote previously about how strange it is to me that I represent America 24/7—because people are always watching—is that I didn’t know them, but they knew me. At least, they knew that I am an American and that therefore I speak the English of the email, and they knew where I live. I don’t know where they live. Are they my neighbors from across the street who might have watched me putter around my room, unbeknownst to me? Or did they seek me out from across town? Will I see them again? Or will this be the one time our paths cross? I’d like to think I’ll see them again, that we can learn from each other. But as of now, they’ve had this one ten-minute period in which to form their opinion of me, and America, by extension.

That brings me to the second thing I take from this encounter, and the thing I don’t want to share with the Mongolians about American culture: that crime in America is so hyped that we are a nation ever en guard, suspicious of everyone’s ulterior motives, waiting for the proof that we were right not to trust people from the start. It has become a place where the idea of opening your door to a stranger is akin to a hen inviting a fox into her coop. Between our 24-hour media’s “if it bleeds it leads” mindset, and Hollywood’s sensationalized “inspired by true events” stories, we’ve been duped into thinking that shark attacks are likely and twelve-year old boys must follow mom into the women’s room, rather than use the men’s room by themselves.

This preemptive mistrust baffles me. It doesn’t have to be this way. Yet, many of those who wax nostalgic about their carefree youth will repost a negative story with lightning speed or perpetuate a rumor without fact-checking first, keeping everyone on edge indefinitely.

As much as I resisted this thinking at home, our stranger-danger mentality still followed me to Mongolia and I even asked my site-mates whether it was okay to tutor a student in my apartment without getting permission from the mom or even knowing who the mom is. “What are the rules,” I wanted to know. Apparently, as far as interpersonal relationships go, the rule here is trust and not in the you-have-to-earn-it sense.

Suffice it to say that I feel very safe here, in Mongolia in general, and in my aimag in particular, to the point that when this unknown mom and her two unknown daughters were standing around my table looking at this email and my unlocked external door was opened, followed by my unlocked internal door, and this unknown man who was the unknown woman’s husband entered my home, I am proud to say that my instinct was not fear. And as it was the end of Tsagaan Sar—the lunar new year, a major holiday here—the man and I went through the ritual, which involved me placing my outstretched arms beneath his outstretched arms (since he is my elder) and each of us leaning in, nearly touching, first the right cheek, then the left cheek, with a sniff and the traditional greeting. He then passed me his snuff bottle with his right hand, I accepted with my right hand, and raised it to my nose and sniffed each side of the closed bottle.

And I lived to tell about it. The line between naiveté and trust just shifted.


weather

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.


water

September 25, 2012

A common question is “what do you miss most” from home. It’s a terrific question because the answer entirely depends on 1) where you are now (i.e., what is and is not available) and 2) what your biggest comforts were, so that asking my friend in Singapore (Hi, Crystal!) or my friend in Greece (Yassou, Anna!) would yield different answers. For Anna, I know it’s Mexican food.

The thing is, how many us know what are biggest comforts are? For example, is it worse if your car breaks down or if your electricity goes out? Probably depends on what you were about to do.  Do I miss guacamole more than I miss Hubway (my beloved Boston bike-share program)? Oh boy, it is hard to say. What about personal space vs. punctuality (any Mongolian PCV will understand these references); which of those two qualities do I miss more? I guess I have discovered that the more things we have, the more difficult it is to rank them in importance. Wants become needs. But take away all but the most basic needs, and clear preferences emerge.

I spent this summer with only a squat outhouse (jorlon). Even though it was the Taj Mahal of outhouses (I can say that, because I’ve been to the Taj Mahal), one might think that I must have missed a toilet most of all. This is not so, and I am not just saying it because I now have a toilet. In fact, I miss the byproduct of the squat outhouse so much—those firmer, stronger thighs and buttocks—that I’ve begun doing several squats a day. (overshare?)

People who’ve had a meal with me—who know that I delight in eating to the point where I involuntarily hum—probably think that some food item is my greatest longing. Indeed, many of my suggested care-package items are food or food-related. But no. Though I have always loved a good meal, I don’t think that I’ve spurned an average meal. This is important because I’ve cooked ALL of my meals the past month, save for a few site-mate dinners. No daily soup/salad from the cafeteria (Hi, DFCI lunch crew!), no take-out (as if!), no frozen dinners, not even ramen noodles (which we do have).

It comes to this: during the summer, the thing I missed most from home was running water. This had nothing to do with the jorlon since most everyone who had a jorlon had a gravity sink (a clever contraption wherein the water was poured into a reservoir (maybe 1-2 liters) above the basin and by pushing up on a valve underneath the tank, the water flowed down into the dirty water catch bucket under the basin) so washing hands was quite easy. But the bigger jobs (the hand-washing laundry and tumpun bathing) each became incredibly labor intensive: assuming you already had water (carried it or had it delivered), you have to carry buckets of water (one at a time) from where it’s stored, heat some of it in the electric kettle, then do the washing, dump the dirty water (into a special dirty-water pit outside), repeat all the steps to do the rinsing, then dump the dirty water again. And I like to rinse twice!

Since my permanent site has running water—the thing I had already identified as the one thing I was missing most—how could I not be happy? Well, I wasn’t unhappy but I wasn’t as happy as I would have thought in the “be careful what you wish for” sense. Have you ever washed your hands or did the dishes (even with rubber gloves) in ice-cold water? Try it. You’ll quickly agree that it is more than unpleasant. In fact, I exclusively used the red faucet in the hopes that someday hot water would magically appear. Wants becoming needs. Meanwhile, it was back to heating up the tea-kettle, but at least the time for the big chores was cut in half without all the carrying back and forth.

And now, the denouement of the running-water saga: the heat in my studio apartment was turned on over the weekend (it’s either on or off, no thermostat), just in time for the first snow in town. Wherever it originates from, it enters my apartment through 3 radiators and exposed pipes running the length of the same 3 walls. And wherever the water originates from must pass over those pipes to become tepid when the heat is on. Yes, I have tepid running water. At first I thought, “Are my hands so cold that this water feels warm?” until the heat went off and the water was ice-cold again. I’m still hoping it’s not a fluke and that when winter is in full effect I can still feel the difference. And assuming I will have tepid running water—the thing I’ve now identified as the one thing I was missing most—for as long as there is heat (maybe 6 months), you can rest assured, I’ll be pretty happy in Govi-Altai, Mongolia.