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.