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.

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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.

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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.


downtime

March 15, 2014

I remember that back during PST I made a daily schedule blog post. I never did that in my permanent site and I realize now why that’s been the case: things were so structured during PST that sharing my day-to-day life was possible. The reality in Govi-Altai varies greatly from week to week because there’s stuff that’s supposed to happen that doesn’t (or at least not when it’s supposed to) and there’s stuff that’s seemingly spontaneous (though I often think I’m just the last to find out and it happens to be at the last minute).

According to my schedule at my permanent site, I work 40 hours a week. I think this is unusual among Peace Corps Volunteers, but since I came from a 40-hour-a-week job, this part doesn’t faze me (except insofar as Peace Corps service was meant to be a break from the 9-5 life). Four mornings a week are spent in classrooms, so that eats up a chunk of that time. The rest of the time is divided up into teaching special classes, prepping for classes, or waiting to do one or the other. Currently, my CP and I are giving two-hour, daily English lessons to workers at the Courthouse, as we’ve done in the past for the Music Ensemble and the Power Station workers. I’ve also been giving sessions on creative writing (the students do little, if any, writing at all) for a competition that will happen next week.

Between the things that are happening, there’s a lot of waiting for things to happen. I can’t say whether that’s definitively true Peace Corps-wide, but I have a sense that it is. I’d make the case that this “wait time” isn’t really downtime, though, because we are always anticipating (even if history doesn’t give us cause) the next interruption. What this means is that after an afternoon at the office, having “accomplished” nothing, I feel mentally taxed. It’s not the same kind of waiting that you do at the Registry (DMV) because, when your name is called, you have no idea what’s coming.

I wrote before about leaving behind the comforts of home and how the cumulative effect leaves one feeling out of sorts. While that was mostly in the context of loneliness, I think the sheer number of hours that we have to fill (whatever our work commitment, after all, we live here full time) is what makes the absence of all that so prominent. We find ourselves with a lot of downtime to fill.

So, here’s a list of the ways I’ve filled my thousands of hours of downtime these last two years.

extra lessons – Perhaps the most obvious, especially for a TEFL Volunteer. We have regular Tuesday night English club, Thursday night movie club, and Saturday morning conversation club with the medical college ladies. I’m still going to the Vocational School two nights a week. In addition, there’s often an unexpected knock on the door, what Seinfeld would call a pop-in. I usually make time for them. Last year, one of these girls became a regular, showing up several nights a week for several months.

language study – I continue to study vocabulary every day. However, I’m sorry to say, my spoken Mongolian remains average. Clearly, I can manage with the day-to-day but I tend not to put myself in unfamiliar situations. And I never got a tutor. How did that happen? Well, I tried initially with my Mongolian English-teacher friend but we often reverted to English. Just as the students don’t learn English in translation, I couldn’t learn Mongolian in translation. Why I never got a Mongolian-language teacher, or just a non-English-speaking Mongolian, I can’t say. It sounds silly, but I didn’t even realize it was missing until these last few months.

socialization – either with other PCVs or with Mongolians. Here’s something that has surprised me: I expected to come to Mongolia and do a lot of socializing with Mongolians. I do some, of course, but not nearly what I thought I would. Now, given that I lived in my Boston apartment for 11 years and didn’t know any of my neighbors, apparently I was counting on some personality transformation to have occurred simply by being in Mongolia. But, just as I seldom invited guests to my home back home, I’ve not done it here. I have an open-door policy, to the point that I shared my dinner with a man whom I’m still not sure who he was or how he knew me, but those pop-ins, while more common here than in America, are still not so common (once or twice a month). And to be honest, since my days are pretty full, even the days that are full of waiting, I’m content to not have more frequent visitors.

blog – it would be a great oversight for me to not state the obvious. This is my 63rd blog post. Some of these take up quite a bit of that downtime.

books – at this point, I’ve lost track. But I know it’s somewhere in the 60-ish range. That’s a mixture of e-books and the real thing. It’s also a mixture of fiction, non-fiction, classics, contemporary, pop-culture autobiographies, a few trashy romance novels, and a few books set in Mongolia.

crochet – this won’t be on the average PCVs things-to-do list, but then maybe there isn’t an “average” PCV. Thanks to some yarn contributions from folks at home, and a score at the black market, I’ve been able to make about 40 handmade hats. I also taught my sitemate, Jerome, how to do it and a day later he had his own hat. Next up, teaching some Mongolians.

The hat that started it all.

The hat that started it all.

the mundane – certainly, just as at home, we have to bathe, do laundry and grocery shop. It’s only worth mentioning because we never know how much of our downtime these things will occupy. Will the shower house have an hour’s wait? If so, would I rather wash in my tumpun? Will I find what I want at 2 stores or 5? Knowing that I may visit 5 and still not have found what I wanted. Ger dwellers could add chopping wood and fetching water to this list.

a 6000-piece puzzle – I’m quite proud of this one. This time last year I gave up my floor for a site-mate puzzle party. Little did I know that it would take 2 months to complete. It was worth it, though.

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sporcle – I almost wish I was never introduced to this quiz website. How many times have I said “just one more” only to realize it was one in the morning? I’ve wasted a lot of time doing really stupid quizzes, just for something to do. BUT, I’ve also learned all the countries of the world, so there’s that.

TV shows, movies, podcasts, music – I do more of this media consumption than I would probably like. Sometimes I can multi-task with one of these while I prepare dinner or make hats or write blogs. But sometimes it’s a solitary, sedentary activity. Ho-hum.

exercise videos, a la P90X – I probably should have started this sooner since I’ve gained back about half of that PST weight loss. We had a rather mild (for Mongolia) winter, and there are some hikes in our future.

Our 5-hour hike last September. We found TREES!

Our 5-hour hike last September. We found TREES!

instrument – I really wish I thought to do this. Mongolia has some really interesting traditional instruments that are alive and well. Why did I never consider learning the morin huur?

creating videos, poems, songs, etc. – this is another that falls into the category of things I didn’t do with my downtime. But, other PCVs have and I’d like to share a few with you.

  • If you’re curious about ger life, and I know I am, I’d recommend this 2-minute video from a current M24.
  • For a PCV twist on an American anthem, an anonymous volunteer re-wrote the lyrics to American Pie. Incidentally, that’s my site-mate Jerome’s blog; for those of you who will miss my Mongolian chronicles, I can recommend his for a good chuckle.
  • If poetry is your thing, I point you to a current M23 who alternates poetry along with prose on a regular schedule.

I leave you with the thought that I’m somewhere around the 100-day countdown to my Close of Service. How will I spend it?


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.

Enjoy!


Soundtrack of a bus ride

December 9, 2013

I’d accepted that I wouldn’t go to UB until the COS conference in May. As it turned out, an opportunity to judge an English-speaking competition in UB came along and the coordinators offered to cover transportation and lodging for PCVs. Though my site is 1000km (600miles) from UB, making me a “fly-site” for Peace Corps, if I wanted to participate—and I did!—I’d have to take the bus. Nearly half the road is unpaved, so it takes at least 20 hours. Long-haul bus travel is something I was interested in doing at some point during my time here, since it is quintessentially Mongolian, but if I’d had the choice it would not have been on the cusp of winter.

10:00 is written on the ticket; I am on the bus at 11:00. The friend who helped to purchase my ticket hadn’t been satisfied with the seats available, so she comes on the bus and essentially evicts a girl from her seat—completely unnecessarily, I thought—so that I can have a “good chair.”  12:00 noon is the scheduled departure; we are finally on the road by 12:45. During this wait, several times I hear a classic Mongolian patriotic song as a ringtone.

12:45 As we drive out of Altai, the Mongolian band HURD is playing. You can also see the music videos on the large flat screen tv mounted above the driver. The band members wear all black, have the long hair of early Red Hot Chili Peppers, and they play ballads. I decide I like them.

15:00 “Hool idex uu?,” my neighbor asking me if I will eat when we stop. It seems early to me, but since I am not sure when the next stop will be, I ask “yamar hool?” (what kind of food). There are two options, tsuivan (a noodle dish) or soup. I opt for tsuivan.

15:30 The slurping of soup and tea. The tsuivan is exceptional.

16:00 More music videos. More HURD. Also, some Mongolian long song, which I find beautiful. English songs from a German band, Modern Talking, come on. I’ve never heard of them but their look is exactly that of the 80’s hair bands, yet their music video has 1998 on it so I’m totally confused. The sound of crunching peanuts.

21:30 Spinning wheels in the sand. We all (50-60 people) get off the bus.

22:00 Sounds of shoveling the sand from around the tires. “Neg, hoyeriig, guravaa…” the “one, two, three” before people try to push the bus, to no avail. Sounds of unloading the luggage from underneath the bus. Probably more shoveling sounds and more pushing sounds but by this point I’m stargazing on this moonless night with Florence and the Machine on my MP3 player, moderately concerned about the Return of the Frozen Toes that I am experiencing.

22:30 The sound of silence. We’re back on the bus; awaiting our fate.

01:30 A big truck engine. More shoveling.

02:30 The sound of the earth moving beneath our bus. Repacking the luggage. (Yes, in that order.)

03:00 The sound of people sleeping on a moving bus.

04:45 The beep of a text message received, likely sent 10 hours prior… I’d had no service all that time. Hey, my toes aren’t numb!

08:00 TV’s back on. The sounds of a Mongolian sketch comedy show. Very popular.  The sound of crunching snow underfoot while finding a spot to pee. I realize that men use the right side of the bus, and women use the left side, which means women must cross the road. But, I understand that it gives the women more privacy.

09:00 A crying toddler. The kid was here the whole time, and 20-hours in, I was ready to cry myself. I couldn’t blame her.

11:00 “Hool idex uu?”

12:00 Sounds of lunch.

Lunch spot. About 6 hours outside of UB.

Lunch spot. About 6 hours outside of UB.

16:00 People chatting. Ray LaMontagne in the headphones. Phone calls coming in and going out.

18:30 Sounds of UB.


Mother Mountain

October 23, 2013

When I was 21, I moved from San Diego back to Boston (via Seattle). It was a classic “Love” adventure, wherein I took the Greyhound cross-country and stayed in hostels. There was some preliminary research but, for the most part, I went where the day took me. I found myself in Minneapolis at a hostel that rented bikes for $3 a day. Armed with a map supplied by the hostel, I set out for the Minnehaha Falls. I remember just about all of the ride was on bike paths and I enjoyed being surrounded by nature. It was a glorious summer day and, at one point, I hopped off the bike and took a dip in one of the 10,000 lakes. I felt as though I were going somewhere special, somewhere that few people would see, so, it was quite jarring, upon arrival, to see the parking lot for tour busses and a gift shop. I was disappointed that what I’d been looking forward to seeing, what existed in my mind as an oasis, was really a tourist trap. And, part of me thought that those who drove there couldn’t possibly appreciate it the way that I did.

This question of whether we appreciate something more if we have to endure something to get it, came back to me recently on a trip to Mother Mountain. The ladies from the medical college (the same ones who made Camel Day happen) organized this trip to Altai’s most revered mountain. Seven of us met at the town square at 8am, by 9am we were on the road out of town. There were a few only-in-Mongolia type of pit stops (chronicled below), but no matter how you break it up, traveling 200 km (120 miles) in 10 hours is a journey.

Pit Stop #1 – Overlook of the town
Ohh, I just had a flashback to the large bowl of meat that appeared as we were leaving Altai. You know, how you just eat meat from a communal bowl while you’re driving somewhere. Well, just when I thought our journey was beginning, we stopped. At a little hill overlooking the town, we looked back and said goodbye. It’s amazing how quickly it disappears.

Pit Stop #2 – See that ger over there
As we were quite far away, I don’t know how they could see what was going on—maybe they just intuitively knew via some Mongolian-radar—but we were told the folks at the ger had just slaughtered a goat and asked if we wanted to see. My M23 site-mate and I were in agreement, no thanks. But, the new guy, the M24, he said, ever so casually, “I wouldn’t mind seeing it.” SHARP RIGHT TURN! We pulled up, took some photos, were invited into the tiniest ger I’ve ever seen, drank some milk-tea, ate some aruul, and chatted up the herdsman. Turns out, he was the uncle of one of our coworkers. And, back on the road in 10 minutes.


Pit Stops #3, 6, 7 – Pee break
These have to be timed right because on stretches of desert there are no bushes to squat behind for privacy. Outside of that, we know the drill: bring your own TP and hand sanitizer (which Peace Corps Medical will supply, lest we get something requiring a trip to UB to treat).

Pit Stop #4 – Lunch
They fed us ham and cheese and bread. More milk-tea. That bowl of meat from breakfast reappeared at lunch. So. Much. Meat.

Pit Stop #5 – Camels!
So, the new guy hadn’t seen camels yet. A little more off-roading, and now he can cross that off the list. A few minutes chatting up the camel herdsman, taking photos, then we were back in the jeep.

And then, FINALLY, we see it looming in the distance. Mother Mountain.


Little did we know that it was still two hours away 😦 That is, an hour-plus to get to it, and almost an hour spent driving along side it, back and forth, to find the entrance. Once we found that road, we were met with a tiny sign, in both Mongolian and English—never expected that!—and then a gate with a guard’s quarters. The gate was up and in we went. There is a one-room structure that we were lucky enough to find empty—yay, squatters’ rights! The alternative was pitching the tents that they’d brought, and I, for one, was grateful for the brick alternative.

As the ladies set about boiling the milk-tea and cooking dinner, we three explored a little in the last of the daylight. After the long ride, and three full meals, we were all in our sleeping bags by 9 o’clock; absolutely exhausted.

We awoke before the sun, which meant it was possible to see it rise, as we had hoped. As the ladies set about boiling the milk-tea, we three began a 7am hike to the top of a nearby peak and were rewarded with this

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Following breakfast, we went for THE hike—the one that brought us here: walking on sand, over boulders, between natural pools. Mother Mountain has terrain like I’d never seen. We saw the monk’s cave in the mountain, and the unmistakable shapes in the rocks. We were reminded that many people in Altai will never see this. And indeed it felt special.

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The next morning, as Mother Mountain receded into the background, given its remoteness, I doubted that I would ever return. I imagine a future Mongolia with a more developed infrastructure, where paved roads connect the country and allow you to travel at more than 20km/hr. And I have mixed feelings about it. As with the rapid construction in my aimag, I have a sense that there is a trade that must happen; the cultural cost of progress, if you will. Without doubt, Mother Mountain is worth the visit. But I believe with equal intensity that it should be an experience, not a day trip.


boomtown

September 30, 2013

Since I can remember, my favorite time period in American history has always been the Industrial Revolution. Having always considered myself a “city girl,” I loved learning how the cities came to be. Even though I am from New England, I always found the Pilgrim-era to be dreadfully boring (colonies-shmolonies, yuck!).

I have a tendency to take things at face value so in my mind the Industrial Revolution existed as a neatly packaged inspirational anecdote summarizing the determination of the American will to grow. Of course, this was fanciful revisionist history and the more I learned (in Mr. Williams’ 10th grade IB World History class), I was able to remove the rose-colored glasses to see the hardships and poverty alongside the growth and prosperity.

Living in Mongolia, specifically, in Govi-Altai, I feel I am getting a sense of what it was like to live during a time of such growth. Just yesterday I heard that 24-hour electricity came as recently as 5 years ago to my aimag. The development here is fast and furious, in terms of construction, public works and infrastructure. There are the buildings, of course, too numerous to count. There have been improvements that make previous blog entries obsolete (manholes have been covered, streetlights are on). In a town with only two traffic lights, there were additions I didn’t know were feasible, including speed-bumps, lane dividers and signage. There is a public bus (for crying out loud!) that makes a two-mile loop, from the Education Department to the Hospital. And, it looks like my part of town is about to get a paved road and maybe even a sidewalk!

And, yet, as exciting as it all is, a part of me is mourning the loss of the blue sky that’s obscured with each new level.

Coming soon: Govi-Altai’s third 5-story building. I’m told these are apartments for sale, around 50 million tugs, or $30,000. That is considered pricey.

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This one has a garage underneath.

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A break from Soviet-era block-style housing, many of the newer projects have a corner chopped off. This is our new Performing Arts Center. This photo of one of our two intersections with traffic signals also shows a crew working on a streetlight and the swanky new signage (pedestrian crossing in the foreground, and the yellow square within a white square is a ‘through traffic’ symbol).

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Another building that went up in the past year (start to finish). I’m told the bright colors and patterns are also a response to the Soviet-era plain, drab, uninteresting block buildings.

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With a new bus, comes a new bus stop.

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This project began six or seven months ago.

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The “ruins” of Govi-Altai, juxtaposed with the contemporary, and indeed future, of building here.

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reunion

July 22, 2013

I just returned from a 4-day stay with my host family. Though nearly a full year had passed since we said our farewells, at no point was I nervous about our reunion. I was eager to talk to them and see if they understood me, as a way to gauge my improvement in the language. I was looking forward to the quiet times between conversation, just being silent in the kitchen but not feeling awkward about it. I was longing for the greenery and the roaming sheep and goats of Orkhon that redefine free-range. I was not disappointed.

We readily fell into our old routines. They gave me my old room with the bed while they all slept on the floor in the big room. My mom cooked nearly all the meals and I took over the washing up after. They asked about my apartment, my job, my aimag, and my visit with my American Mom in December. I showed them pictures and told stories… they laughed about me wearing the Mongolian boots underneath the pink dress, so I know they understood. Mom showed me the new garden and I asked what crops she was growing and she told me: cabbage, carrots, potatoes, and beets. I told them about my upcoming train trip to Russia with Will (whom they know from PST), and that we will stay with “internet friends” which is how I explained couchsurfing to them. My Dad showed me pictures from his time in Moscow and “Leningrad” in about 1985 and I told him I was surprised that they were black-and-white photos.

On my last day, my Mom had cooked my favorite meal and we went to the river. We spread out a picnic blanket and had potato huushuur and sang songs. My Dad had called a friend and spoke enthusiastically: I understood “Boston” and “shar ohun” which translates to “yellow daughter” and I just laughed about that and slugged him on the shoulder.

It was only in hindsight that I thought about the fact that they are no longer obligated to cook for me, or give me a place to stay, or be patient with my minimal (still) Mongolian-language skills; that the Peace Corps contract that we’d signed was what brought us together, but that bond we have is genuine and endures.

I’ll spend a few more days with them after the Russia trip, sharing all the stories from the next three weeks, before I head back to site and begin the next nearly full-year without seeing them.


a flexourtient person

May 10, 2013

After 27 months of service, Peace Corps Volunteers—whoever they may have been prior to service—may come to define themselves as flexible, resourceful, and patient. This blog entry is about how that metamorphosis happens.

Monday, April 8th this year was the English Olympics. That is a test that some 9th and 11th graders, and all English teachers, must take (take, not pass). The test consists of grammar, reading comprehension, vocabulary, listening comprehension, and essay writing. Being a native English speaker, the tests certainly illustrated what I take for granted. But, this blog entry is not about that…

Since all of the soum teachers (35-ish) would be coming to the Aimag capital to take the test, a few weeks prior my CP asked me to give about an hour’s presentation, as part of their full-day seminar on Wednesday. She wanted me to cover “Teaching English Grammar without Translation,” one of the activities we had during IST. The day before the seminar, my CP informs me that I will have 3 hours, and suggests that I do some other lesson since the school year is almost over, saving that one for the fall seminar. “You want me to give a 3-hour presentation? Tomorrow?” I asked, somewhat incredulously, somewhat rhetorically. “Yes,” she answered, with the straightest of faces.

I pulled together a morning that looked something like this: warm-up exercise (Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes); a presentation that I’d already created and never gave on Multiple-Choice Tests; a presentation on Public Speaking that I’d created and gave to about 8 teachers but figured repetition for them couldn’t hurt; a collection of ways to build vocabulary, which included, as a listening activity, a podcast from the Matty in the Morning show wherein a Canadian man plans a surprise wedding for his girlfriend (they weren’t even engaged!); and a chance to tackle as a group the essay question from the Olympics test (“Should travelers adopt local customs when they visit a foreign country, or should the country welcome visitors’ diversity?”).

Given the way it was thrown together, I was pretty happy with the session. But, in reality, I think I spoke too quickly for a non-native audience, used too many obscure words (such as “obscure”), generally did too much talking rather than getting them to speak, and didn’t have a way to measure the usefulness or practicality of the information I was giving them.

A week after the English teachers’ seminar, on Thursday around 4pm, my CP called to tell me I was going on the Education Department’s trip to visit 5 soums. I’d be leaving the next morning, at 7:30am. I’d be gone for 10 days.

While it is true that visiting soums was in my “work plan” when I began last fall, it was put off for so long because of lack of funds. So it wasn’t that the trip was happening that threw me, it was the timing of when I was told about it to when I was expected to be ready to leave. No part of me thinks that this trip was thrown together at the last minute or that anyone else in the department was frantically running through a checklist of what to do. But I didn’t have time to fret about the last-minute notice: I had a bag to pack, a plant to water, and electronics to charge. I also had to notify Peace Corps that I was leaving site. I grabbed a few story-books from the resource room and headed home.

The week that followed can only be described as a whirlwind. Peace Corps had asked me to provide them with a schedule (soum name and dates we would be there), the type of transportation and the number of men and women. Armed with this information, I still had no clue about such practical concerns as sleeping arrangements, meal plans, or what exactly I was expected to do. The good thing was that, though I’d started out winging-it, with each new soum I had a little more experience from which to draw.

These are some highlights from this trip:
– Four of the soums were similar in size (2,000 people), one a bit larger (3,000). Some soums, including at least one of these 5, have an 11pm lights-out policy, enforced by shutting off the electricity. The landscapes varied; the most shocking was Hukhmort, the soum built on sand. Several soums had no internet access. One had a legit karaoke club. From two of the soums we drove about 30 minutes to see sand dunes with a lake or a gorgeous marshland surrounded by mountains… made me wonder how these soums came to be where they were, rather than at the “Beautiful Place.”
– Our entire group stayed in the school’s dormitory. Regular public schools have dormitories to house the students whose families live in the countryside. As I understand it, this is free to them. The dormitories vary quite a bit from soum to soum: spacious rooms or small rooms, with bunks or singles. One dormitory, notable for its indoor plumbing, had been awarded Best Dormitory of 2012, with a cash prize of 500,000 togrogs (~$350).
– Our meals (mainly carbs, meat and pickles) were all provided, either room service by the school’s cafeteria or at a horkhok—a sort of picnic wherein the meat is cooked outside.
– I ate marmot, and liked it! It is a red meat, but soft like chicken. They don’t use much in the way of seasoning here, so it could only be even better. I didn’t know what a marmot looked like until I told my sister-in-law and she emailed me a picture (Tricia, you meanie); they’re so cute!
– In Darvi soum, we had a tour of the brand new kindergarten. I recall that, from the outside, it didn’t look very kindergarten-like, but the construction was first rate. The proud teachers demonstrated the kid-sized flush toilets and working sinks in each of the bathrooms; they had us wear booties to cover our shoes before allowing us on the classroom carpets.
– Students were enthralled by my ability to “bridge-shuffle” my deck of UNO cards. I think it was my cousin Allyson who taught me when I was around 10 or 11 and we played hours of Spite and Malice. So, a big thanks to you, cuz!
– I sang “my” Mongolian song at least 8 times. At each soum’s group event, my department colleagues insisted I sing it; at the last soum, one of the teachers insisted I sing it for each of her three classes. Би шинэ дуу хэрэгтэй (Be sheen doe herekhtay; I need a new song).
– Riding for hours at a time on unpaved roads is a skill that Mongolians have mastered. Reading and hat-making were out of the question for me, but, I kid you not, one of my colleagues threaded a needle and re-secured her purse strap, while I looked on tightening my grip on the seat in front of me. While they were slumped over napping, I was being tossed about, every which way, wishing I had a seatbelt, not for safety, but just to keep me tethered to the seat so that I didn’t crash back down after every bump or dip.
– I spent my “work” time observing teachers in the classroom and giving feedback, touring the schools, their facilities and the soum beyond the school, attending meetings (I stopped after 2 since I got little out of them and had nothing to add), and attending organized seemingly mandatory socializing events. I spent my “student” time answering questions (formally or not), reading short stories, teaching them UNO, teaching them an English song, or just visiting. I spent my “down” time, of which there was very little, reading, making a hat, or trying to keep up with my language studies.

On a personal note, I had already considered myself a flexible, resourceful, and patient person. But these experiences are testing those traits, even redefining them.

Pics of the soum visits can be found here.


pet peeves

April 14, 2013

Alright, so I do a lot of gushing on this blog about how I’ve adapted so well, how the people are so encouraging and supportive, how charming the culture is, etc., that you may be wondering if I ever have a bad day. How can you trust what I have to say if it isn’t balanced reporting? Surely there must be things that bug me, right? Well, I generally do describe myself as “more happy than not happy” but, yes, even I can get disgruntled. So, what does it? What causes me to regard something as annoying in Mongolia? Here goes:

The date

By usual American standards, we would write today’s date as April 14, 2013. We know, however, that other parts of the world would write 14 April 2013, and we can accept this. In one of our language classes during PST, our teacher wrote the date on the board and received the ultimate, most sincere objection ever from fellow trainee Steven, “Absolutely not, you can’t do that! Why would you ever do that?” So, what could she have done to bring about such resistance from this otherwise gentle California dude? She mixed Roman numerals with regular old numbers. To write 14/IV 2013 is unfathomable.  

Watch Your Step

When I wrote about the streetlights going off exacerbating the danger of the coverless manholes and the uneven streets, you may have been led to believe that the walking hazards were limited to outside. But that is hardly the case. It may even be the norm that staircases are uneven in Mongolia. When climbing up, every time I go to put my weight down, only to end up slamming my foot on a step that is an inch or two lower than expected, I think “Why?” Sometimes, because the whole staircase was off, that last step up is only an inch high. And they aren’t just differing heights, but they slant in every possible direction. And we all know I have large feet by American standards, so in Mongolia they are especially large. But, still, I think the depth of the stairs is far too shallow. Either I walk on tip toes, or else I walk diagonally. Going down is particularly challenging.

I can’t read this!

So, ten months later, I still have trouble with differentiating between the “O sounds” as previously written, but what’s worse is that I can’t read anything in Mongolian that isn’t written in block Cyrillic. There are a few people in my life whose penmanship is so unique (first prize to Krin!) but, being written in English and me having a vested interest in understanding them and already knowing the context, such notes are decipherable. There are so many acceptable ways to write letters here that even words that I know look foreign (ha!) to me. I will post a picture of this, I promise. Then, of course, there is the whole issue of spelling Mongolian words with the Roman alphabet (a.k.a. English) but to accommodate sounds that don’t exist in English, there are multiple acceptable spellings for single common words. Sigh…

That’s not a word!

 “За” (Za) is probably comparable to “um” in terms of how often it is used. But, whereas “um” is a space filler, “za” apparently has actual information. I’m just not confident enough to try it out. Depending on the situation, it could mean, “yes, I hear you” (not that I necessarily agree with you), it could indicate a transition to another topic, or that the discussion has come to an end.

That’s a brand.

There are certain brand names that we (Americans) use in place of the generic. I was once so aware of this that I wrote them down, but all I can remember offhand is Xerox and Chapstick. And maybe White-Out, some version of which is still in use here. In Mongolia, it’s Scotch, as in packing tape. I don’t know the word for tape because I’ve only ever heard “do you have any Scotch?” The funny thing is I’ve never even seen the Scotch brand here! 

Are you having difficulty breathing?

What’s really weird to me is that I missed this for the first 2 months… I suppose it’s similar to our “mm-hmm” or “uh-uh,” instead of actually saying “yes” or “no.” What the Mongolians do, and I don’t see myself adopting this, is a breathy exhale or inhale. The word for “no” is “үгүй,” phonetically that is “oo-gwee” but it’s generally shortened to “oh-go”—in fact, my host family seemed to tease my need to say it as it is spelled (all in fun and no hard feelings). Now, the shortened “oh-go” is further shortened to just the “go” part, but it is said as if you were Darth Vader. And, I’m going to have to assume that from there, the breathy inhale for “yes” evolved (since it’s the opposite of an exhale) because I can’t otherwise explain it. But, everyone does this. It doesn’t have the same formal vs. casual connotations that our shortened versions seem to have. And once I became aware of it, I hear it all the time.

 

And now for a few things that aren’t pet peeves exactly, but they are noteworthy and I can’t think of another place to put them.

Lighting

I’ve noticed this since the beginning and somewhere I have a picture of what I mean, but I’ll try to explain it here. The wiring in this country, especially in the older buildings, is an afterthought. There are exposed wires that are tacked along the wall to get to the destination, or else an unsightly hole in the wall to let the wires out. Light switches and outlets are sometimes dangling from the wire, not attached to the wall. (It’s common enough that Peace Corps rules for host families specified that the Volunteer’s room had to have an outlet attached to the wall.) Despite this apparent apathy towards the aesthetics of electric pathways, there are often very flamboyant lighting fixtures. Certainly, there are just as many bare light bulbs, but when there is a light fixture of any kind it is sure to be eye-catching.

Hop in!

Motorcycles are very common here, as I’ve documented previously. What I haven’t said is that a significant portion of them (maybe 5-10%) have a side car attached. I recently saw an эмээ (Em-may, grandmother), wearing the traditional Mongolian deel, riding in a side-car. No pics yet, but surely it’s just a matter of time.


Posh Corps

March 8, 2013

I’ll let you in on a little secret: as much as I am serving in the Peace Corps, I am also serving in the Posh Corps. That’s the ‘inside joke’ for those of us who live in areas with indulgences or have an American bank account that we can tap into should our volunteer stipend not cover all our wants. That’s one of the perks of being an ‘older’ volunteer: having a savings account.

As far as Mongolia goes, living in an Aimag, rather than a soum, is definitely indicative of serving in the Posh Corps. Even though Govi-Altai is one of the smallest of the 21 Aimags, my diet is more varied (cheese!), I have indoor plumbing, and there are more opportunities for entertainment (karaoke!) than if I lived in a soum.

Now, I try to be good about having the legit Peace Corps experience and not dip into my American money for day-to-day life here. My first month in Govi-Altai, I held out for the regular internet flash-drive modem, rather than purchase the more expensive one they had in stock, just to save the additional 25,000 togrogs. A soumer would probably tell me that the delay didn’t qualify as a hardship since I had an internet café during that wait. It’s all perspective. A washing machine costs *only* about 100,000 or 150,000 togrogs but I’ve no intention of purchasing one. That’s less to do with the cost-benefit analysis and more to do with a needs-wants analysis: I don’t feel I need it, so therefore I don’t want it. (Convenient when the two correlate like that.)

It’s actually pretty easy for me to comply with my living allowance since my biggest luxuries pre-Peace Corps were frequent meals out and fantastic vacations-on-a-budget. Even with our newly established weekly PCV lunches at a local гүанз (“guanz” = café), I can swing the 1,000 tugs that the proprietor (under)charges for my veggie meal without questioning whether I can afford it on my PC stipend. And since those restaurants that I would want to frequent simply aren’t here, eating out isn’t the draw that it once was. That leaves vacations.

Prior to leaving the states, I sort of decided that I wouldn’t visit home until after my service was completed, and use my vacation time (we earn 2 days per month) to travel in these parts, instead, since it would be less expensive from here and since I don’t know whether I’d visit them otherwise.

In December, following our IST training in UB, I added a 10-day vacation to Singapore to visit my college roommate (Crystal, you’re a wonderful host!). This was covered by my American bank account, of course. Peace Corps covered my flight to the capital for the training, so taking the vacation when I did meant a $300 savings. Future trips in the works (Russia and Harbin, China, both via the Trans-Siberian Railway) will hopefully also be able to dovetail trainings in UB. I also intend to see more of Mongolia in the next year; Govi-Altai isn’t what I’d call scenic.

I’ve always been a thrifty person, but even I am surprised that I’ve unwittingly saved some togrogs along the way. Peace Corps advises that we save our annual leave allowance (~33,000 togrogs that we receive monthly), so that it’s available when we need it (i.e., for personal travel taken with annual leave since we are all over the country but likely have to leave from UB). Not a problem. And, some of the credit is almost certainly due to the care packages that have left me swimming in beans (special thanks to Tricia!) so I haven’t spent as much on food as I might have. And it looks like I’ll continue to be able to save since Congress has approved a 13% living allowance increase for this calendar year. But, lest you think I’m bragging about my Posh Corps life, the real point of this post is to highlight the disparity in the cost of living between Mongolia and the USA, which was evident in my Peace Corps W2 statement: in 7 months, I earned $1,984.99. Kind of makes me think about retiring here in 30 years…