The Others

June 2, 2013

There will inevitably come a time when someone is telling me what a great thing I did serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mongolia and I’ll be a little dismissive of how exceptional it was. I can assure you, this won’t be Love-being-modest or self-deprecating. Here’s what will be going on: my life here has become my life. It isn’t that much different from my life back home, except for in the most obvious ways. In fact, on more than one occasion, when I’ve read the Peace Corps informational email that I’d subscribed to during the application process, my mind went to that place of “oh, someday, I’m gonna do that” before I remembered: I am doing that.

The other piece of this reality check is that there are other non-PCVs/non-Mongolians living in or traveling through Govi-Altai, and I should remind you that Govi-Altai isn’t on the way to anywhere. These encounters have left an impression on me and are as much a part of my experience living in Mongolia, in a way that meeting foreigners in America never was. They’ll be what I’m thinking of when I respond that what I did in Mongolia “wasn’t that big a deal.”

In my first week or so in Govi-Altai, I saw two men in the post office. As they were clearly not Mongolian, and I was clearly not Mongolian, we struck up a conversation. The Romanians explained to me that they were participants of the Mongol Rally, a driving adventure from the UK to UB, Mongolia. So: they pay a fee to participate, make all the arrangements themselves, drive 8-10 thousand miles, crossing maybe a dozen countries. They arrive in three to four weeks, the cars are auctioned off for charity, and then they fly home. Even thinking about it now, I am still astounded.

Last fall, I went to the hospital to meet some Americans who were visiting Govi-Altai. In their words, they were a “volunteer, non-denominational, Christian organization,” that provides screenings of children to identify heart defects. In phase II, a pediatric cardiac surgery team is brought in to treat the young patients and continue to improve the Mongolian cardiac-care system, which the MD-blogger writes is “about thirty to fifty years behind pediatric cardiac surgical care in the U.S.” There is some amount of proselytizing during all this, of course, but, as I understand it, the screenings and surgeries (even those that can’t be done here and require travel to the US) are at no cost to the patients.

In late fall/early winter last year, a young Swiss woman named Daria came through Govi-Altai. She had previously lived in Mongolia for 6 months working on a camel farm, doing camel research. Those of us in town took her to karaoke, and, though she didn’t sing, she chipped in for the room.

For all these chance encounters, there are some reliable ones too. In Govi-Altai, there are 2 European women (from the Netherlands and Switzerland) who’ve twenty years here between them and speak impressive Mongolian. There’s an Australian woman and an American couple who live here 6 months of the year. Though they are here as missionaries on behalf of JCS (Joint Christian Services), some have day jobs in the community, including working with disabled children or teaching handicrafts at the felt workshop so local women can have a sustainable means of support. I don’t see them regularly, but as the collective foreigners, there is a definite sense that we can turn to one another. The Iowans gave me a traditional Thanksgiving dinner (with chicken in lieu of turkey) when all my site mates were out of town during my favorite holiday. I’ve spent the past two weeks cat-sitting for the Swiss woman; it would have been a most unwelcome request of her Mongolian neighbor. As compensation, I receive much love and affection from Mimosa, the purr-monster, and full use of the apartment amenities, most notably the fully automatic washing machine.

The latest person to roll through Govi-Altai left this morning, on his bicycle. By the time he got to me, he had put 1,000 km behind him. Maxime, a Frenchman, living and working in Germany, is still at the beginning of a solo bike-trek from UB, through China, a few of the ‘stans, ending his journey in Iran. It was by PCV word-of-mouth that he found me here and his impressive undertaking was so momentous that I needed to help him in any way I could: use of my rice-cooker, a share in my load of laundry, a safe place to store his bike, a bed for the night (an especially easy offer since I was staying at the cat house). I was even able to give him an English-speaking contact for his next soum. From my perspective, my contribution to Maxime’s trip was so small, but the way he thanked me, you’d think I was some bicycle-trip savior.

For better or worse, my whole life my mom has been “taking in strays,” which I guess isn’t a nice way to refer to people who need help, but doing so is an effective way to teach your kids about helping others in need. So long as you can identify their need.

This weekend marks my one year anniversary in Mongolia! To all my peeps, and especially my new friend Maxime, may the wind always be at your back.

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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…


money

December 2, 2012

Every three months, I’m a millionaire. Peace Corps includes my quarterly rent payment in my monthly stipend and I am responsible for paying my landlord within 5 days. I do it pretty much immediately; I have a bank app on my phone so it couldn’t be easier. And I have no idea if the money in my Mongolian bank account is earning interest. I can tell you that this summer, when our Khan Bank cards were distributed, the boys’ cards had horses on them and the girls’ cards had roses. If it were up to me, I would have chosen the horse.

In November, we completed the annual Living Allowance Survey so that Congress can decide whether Volunteers in Mongolia need more money to meet their basic needs. Inflation is pretty high here but that is a whole other blog topic. Anyway, I have all this data to share concerning the cost of living in Mongolia, specifically in Govi-Altai.

I’ve concluded that the staple groceries are comparable to back home, with just a few exceptions (e.g., peanut butter), but the services are much more affordable (if I think in terms of dollars, not necessarily in terms of my stipend). If there’s something specific you want to know the cost of, just let me know.

togrogs dollars
Rent 250,000  $  178.57
Living allowance 300,000  $  214.29
Monthly expenses
Internet 21,000₮  $   15.00
Phone 5,000₮  $     3.57
As needed
Toilet paper (per roll) 450₮  $     0.32
Baby wipes (70) 2,500₮  $     1.79
Letter—postage to US 1,100₮  $     0.79
Shampoo (Head & Shoulders = pricey) 7,800₮  $     5.57
Having my hair dyed in G-A 8,000₮  $     5.71
Having my hair cut in G-A 3,000₮  $     2.14
3D movie in UB 6,000₮  $     4.29
Hair cut in UB 10,000₮  $     7.14
Groceries
Eggs (per dozen) 4,200₮  $     3.00
Bread 800₮  $     0.57
Honey 5,800₮  $     4.14
Flour (1 kg) 1,200₮  $     0.86
Cereal (small box) 3,000₮  $     2.14
Oats (1 kg) 1,200₮  $     0.86
dehydrated tofu (good-sized bag) 1,800₮  $     1.29
pasta 1kg 4,700₮  $     3.36
peanut butter (small jar, 18 oz) 5,500₮  $     3.93
Chocolate (regular bar size) 1,400₮  $     1.00
barley 1 kg 2,400₮  $     1.71
Tuna (small can) 2,500₮  $     1.79
milk 1 liter 1,500₮  $     1.07
cheese – pack (8 slices) (the good
cheese is much pricier)
2,500₮  $     1.79
Oil – large bottle 2,400₮  $     1.71
Tofu – block 4,500₮  $     3.21
Sugar 1 kg 900₮  $     0.64
Pickles 2,200₮  $     1.57
Rice – half kilo 1,500₮  $     1.07
Bouillon cube x 8 1,200₮  $     0.86
Juice – 2 liters 4,500₮  $     3.21
Juice – small 2,500₮  $     1.79
Butter 3,500₮  $     2.50
Peanuts (small can, 185 gr) 1,600₮  $     1.14
Canned veggies 2,000₮  $     1.43
Pringles 4,500₮  $     3.21
staple veggies (enough onions,
potatoes, carrots, turnips for a week)
5,200₮  $     3.71
tomatoes/cukes (2-3 of each) 3,000₮  $     2.14
Cabbage (this one was rather small) 800₮  $     0.57
3 bananas 1,800₮  $     1.29
2 peppers 2,000₮  $     1.43

 

Of note, Volunteers receive a Settling-In Allowance to cover some of those home set-up expenses. I include them here for a big picture of the cost of living. All but the modem and plant came from the Black Market. I still need to pick up more house stuff.
 
modem 50,000₮  $      35.71
blanket 20,000₮  $      14.29
rice cooker 22,000₮  $      15.71
laundry drying rack 18,000₮  $      12.86
steaming pot 20,000₮  $      14.29
large pan 15,000₮  $      10.71
mug 1,000₮  $        0.71
plant 10,000₮  $        7.14
slippers 1,000₮  $        0.71

water

September 25, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


packages

July 19, 2012

11/3/2012: THIS IS OUTDATED INFORMATION, PRESERVED FOR POSTERITY. PLEASE VISIT THE MAIL INFO PAGE FOR THE MOST UP-TO-DATE REQUESTS.

I’ve been in Mongolia about 6 weeks now so I have some sense of the things I could use, what is available here, and what is cost prohibitive from a living allowance perspective—Peace Corps Trainees in Mongolia earn about two dollars a day, which is more than enough since our host families provide for us. Once we are officially Peace Corps Volunteers and are on our own, the allowance increases substantially, but still remains far below American wages. I mention this as a reminder that being here is my choice and going without comforts from home is as much a part of the experience as is integrating into the culture (and living as the locals do is, in fact, another way to integrate).

But since I’ve been asked what I need, and what I want, I will give a list of possibilities—I just ask that everyone reading this, who is potentially considering sending a care package, please remember who I am. Though I can be impulsive with purchases, as you know, more often than not, my practical side is typically in control of my spending. And, I have little problem with delayed gratification, or “sacrificing” now with an eye toward something great later. As someone who does not like to waste my money, I also don’t want you to waste yours. I say this because I have seen care packages delivered to my peers where the shipping alone was exorbitant (one was $126), and the contents were presumably thought to be highly desirable and unavailable (2 cases of snickers, which are not only available here, but comparably priced).

Okay, with that peace of mind, following is a list of things I could use throughout the next two years.

Peanut butter and trail mix – both are here at the American store, they just costs 5 times as much,

Oatmeal – haven’t seen it at all; would love a break from white rice, especially at breakfast,

Brown sugar – haven’t seen it, and if I get oatmeal, which would be wonderful, it would that much more wonderful if it had some brown sugar. (Though these will go together for me, I’d prefer to not have the flavored instant oatmeal packets.)

Granola and/or fiber bars – haven’t seen them. There’s lots of hiking here and snacks that can travel would keep me from absent-mindedly grabbing a candy bar,

Gatorade powder (or REI equivalent) or energy gel like cliff mocha (had a free sample from REI before I left) – for all those incredible hikes. Maybe it comes with age, but my knuckles swell 🙂

Hard candies – Mongolians have a big sweet tooth and ALWAYS offer candy to guests. Think of me when they go on sale after holidays or to stuff into the little extra space of a package of something else,

Sunscreen minimum 30 SPF – The Mongolian sun is strong! The weather is unpredictable (rainstorms to rainbows) but I can’t reapply often enough on a sunny day,

USB flash drives – from what I hear, during collaborations people “forget” to return them. I don’t want anyone to go out and buy USB flash drives! but if you happened to have conference freebies laying about (or maybe a 128MB one like I found at home before I left), and you don’t know what to do with it, I’ll gladly take it off your hands.

Finally, I could use a super-absorbent large towel for laundry. I can’t wring out the hand-washing enough to prevent dripping and I don’t want to use my personal towel for the laundry and for me. As I recall, family members are allowed to use my REI membership by giving my name, but in case you want it, the card # is 12070850.

Between all of us, packages have taken about 5 weeks, letters/cards about 3 weeks, so if you DO plan to send something, do it NOW because if you wait a few weeks, I’ll get my site assignment which will delay the package further. As soon as I have my new address (in a few weeks), I will post it and there will be about a month overlap.

If you do decide to send something, use USPS, not courier services, because they require a visit to the capital for signature. And if you don’t send a package, that’s cool too.


Surprise!

June 16, 2012

So, my Mongolian sister just brought in this internet connection flash drive and told me to get my computer… not sure how frequently I’ll be able to use it but I will revel in this moment of technological comfort. Just as I was feeling settled in here, and so busy that I’m not really thinking about home to think whether I miss it, I read a comment from my niece Rachel that made my eyes well up. But, it was in the best way. My life here is good just as my life there was good. But they couldn’t be more different in the most basic ways. And that’s just fine.

A subset of our group went for a swim in the river today, alongside the horses. Then we stopped by one of our group’s host family’s and watched part of Alladin. This afternoon, I will wash my laundry by hand in my tumpun (my Mongol mom has been after me about this the past few days) and this evening, as most evenings although I don’t usually go, there will be soccer and basketball and volleyball at the field.

I think my connection is not strong enough for uploading pictures and I can’t do the landscape justice with words alone. I can tell you that Mongolia is known as “The Land of the Blue Sky” for a reason. The past 3 days have been sweltering, but not humid at all, so it’s tolerable. We have also had an unusual amount of rain (so we are told) in the 10 days we have been at site, but those were short-lived and once the storms passed, the blue skies returned.

postscript: I was able to upload some photos to facebook. You can see them here even without a facebook account.