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.

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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.


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.


’Nighty, night

March 6, 2013

On a moonless night in Mongolia, the darkness is a black hole that will suck in whatever light your flashlight emits. At most, you’ll see a few feet in front of you. But without it… the world literally disappears.

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In the fall and early winter, the streetlights in my Aimag were tied to some schedule other than darkness. They either didn’t come on until well after dark, or they simply didn’t come on. Eventually, though, they were on reliably at dusk and the walk home from a fellow PCV’s, or the Tuesday night English club, was that much safer. (The sidewalks in Govi-Altai would be a lawsuit-waiting-to-happen in any US city: uneven, rock-filled, with open manholes and completely without accessibility ramps.)

If the streetlights’ coming on was a gamble, however, the streetlights’ going off was a sure thing: every night at midnight is a darkness-imposed curfew. I’d been outside a handful of times, or else at home in some stage of the getting-ready-for-bed routine, when the switch has been flipped. (They come on again at some early morning hour, for which I have thankfully not been awake.) Without that light pollution, and with the tallest (2) buildings at 5 stories, the vastness of the Mongolian night sky can fully be taken in: stars and constellations, satellites and planets, and one night during PST I swear I saw the Milky Way.

My previous mentions of the Mongolian sky have been in the context of the nearly ever-present sunshine that’s earned the country the nickname “The Land of Blue Sky.” Well, the nighttime sky is just as awesomely breathtaking. This city-girl, for one, can’t get enough of it!