Goodbye Peace Corps

September 9, 2014

A week from today I begin my new job… er, my old job… I’ve been invited back to my old department! While my Europe travel buddies were sending resumes and having Skype interviews, and I was staunchly in vacation mode, this gift of full-time employment (with so many lovely people)–that was difficult to walk away from the first time around–was offered to me anew. So, with a new (old?) gig on the horizon, it’s about time I get this Farewell-to-Peace Corps blog out there.

Leaving Peace Corps
As with leaving any job, leaving Peace Corps involved a series of things that had to be completed and then verified by appropriate personnel: returning our Mongolian IDs, Peace Corps property (water filter, smoke detector), having our passport Visa deactivated, and closing our bank accounts. A few of these would be global Peace Corps requirements (though maybe the type of property to be returned depends on the country of service), whereas others were specific to how things are done in Mongolia (maybe not every country issues an ID). In addition to the final VRF that each of us was required to complete, we also had to write a 2-3 page Description of Service (DOS) which is our official summary of our Peace Corps service. But actually leaving Peace Corps was more than checking these things off the list.

So many goodbyes
To PCVs, who once were spread out across Mongolia and would soon be spread out across America and the globe. I spent many hours in the PCV lounge those last few days of service. Mostly I was using the internet but it put me in a central location for catching up with the others going through the COS Checklist. They’re going off to graduate school, law school, staying for a third year in Mongolia, staying in Mongolia to work outside of Peace Corps, staying in Mongolia to travel, traveling their way home (as I would), living abroad… as many different paths as there are people. We were a solid group, the M23s.

To the wonderful PC/Mongolia staff. That checklist required us to meet with people in many positions, including administrative, general services, medical, programming, and a one-on-one exit interview with the Country Director. During the waiting for signatures, I was lucky that other staff members had time to chat with me. What could have been a very frenetic two days was, instead, a very pleasant series of casual conversations that went beyond goodbye. It was very satisfying to have this downtime. It echoed leaving Govi-Altai and my host family in Orkhon.

The Ringing of the Bell
Following receipt of the final signature on our COS checklist, we were officially done. When we were ready, we took this ceremonial bell into the office of the Administrative Assistant so that she could have it broadcast over the intercom while we rang it. Within a few minutes, the entire staff stopped what they were doing and came to the lobby to say a final goodbye and give a final hug and wishes for safe travels. I don’t believe this is standard operating procedure Peace Corps wide, I think it was adopted from one of the senior staff member’s own country of service. I’ve tried to imagine what ending service would have been like without the ringing of the bell. The words that come to mind are: unfinished, incomplete, anticlimactic, sad. Ringing that bell wasn’t merely symbolic. It was a definitive, tangible moment.

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I rang the bell jointly with two people who were important to my Peace Corps service. One was Jason, a site mate of mine during PST. After we each went to our permanent sites, a few times I sent him a card with some Starbucks instant coffee packs that I’d received in a care package. You know how you associate certain people with certain things? Well, for me, Jason = coffee (and running) because our first morning in Mongolia, at the ger camp outside of UB, he shared his coffee with a few of us (after he returned from a run in those sneakers that have toes). Plus, he was in a soum without any sitemates and I was blessed with so many awesome people at my site and we often ate meals together (meals that were enhanced by what was in our care packages)… and, besides, who doesn’t like to receive mail?

The other person was Genni, who I honestly didn’t know well at the time but was about to become my second European travel buddy for three weeks and would therefore forever be inextricably tied to the end of my Peace Corps service. You know how you get a feeling about a person, like you know that the person is really cool and you want to get to know them better, and you’re just waiting for that opportunity to do so to come along? Well, for me, Genni was that kind of person and our Europe trip was that opportunity. So, I was glad that we finished our service nearly simultaneously and were able to ring the bell together, thus kicking off our 3 weeks of bonding.

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By the way, I’m pretty sure it is unusual for RPCVs to waltz into a full-fledged career upon return, especially given that many (e.g., those right out of college) have little pre-Peace Corps work experience. So, while I wasn’t looking forward to the job search, and I was counting on my work history to give me an advantage therein, I was expecting to put in the time…believe me, my good fortune is not lost on me!

As I wrote before, I have a few more Mongolia topics in the works so this blog isn’t done yet. To those of you still reading, thanks!


Naadam

July 10, 2014

This week is Naadam, Mongolia’s big summer holiday. The winter holiday, Tsagaan Sar, has all the tradition; Naadam simply has fun. I experienced two Naadams while I was in Mongolia. The first was in my training site, Orkhon, during PST. The second was at my permanent site, Govi-Altai. For the most part, the only difference was in scale, Orkhon’s being much smaller, Govi-Altai’s being a bit larger, and neither coming close to the size of the UB Naadam. It seems all soums celebrate their own Naadam and the dates are staggered a bit from the national Naadam and one another.

It’s an official 2-3 day holiday devoted entirely to sport, specifically wrestling, horse-racing, and archery. So, businesses are closed but stores would be open (unlike during Tsagaan Sar). There is music, dance and singing, too, so even if you don’t think you’re interested in the competitions, you could still have a good time. And those are just the events in the stadium. Outside the stadium there were pop-up carnival-type activities like a bean-bag toss and a throw-the-dart-pop-a-balloon game (that one without any safety precautions whatsoever for passersby!). It was the first time that I saw whole families out enjoying the day together, little kids flying kites. Mind you, we had only been in the country for 5 or 6 weeks by the time of that first Naadam, and my soum had only ~2000 people.

As it turns out, my favorite of the three “manly” sports was the wrestling. Tradition oozes out of every aspect of the sport, from the moment the men (only men wrestle) come onto the field wearing their summer deels and Mongol malgai (malgai = hat), it really is captivating to watch. Once the match is over, the winner does a sort of dance inspired by eagles in flight. And after, the two competitors come together and the winner raises his arms over the other. It’s really hard to explain with words without it sounding clunky because you know they’re not thinking “now I have to do the eagle dance… now I have to honor my competitor.” It’s just what they do.

Naadam is also the time you’re likely to be offered airag, the traditional fermented mare’s milk. I had it at the first Naadam in Orkhon, where there was an entire ger devoted only to airag. They also set up gers to sell huushuur, the official food of Naadam. My first year it was made with geddis (the stomach, etc), not my favorite, and those gers get mighty hot because of the non-stop deep frying inside.

My second year, in Govi-Altai, my Counterpart said that I should wear my Mongolian summer deel (dress) to the stadium at 9am. What she didn’t say was that the entire Education Department would march around the stadium as part of the opening ceremonies. There isn’t actually a lot of status with that, many groups in the aimag did it, but it is just one of those examples where I was given the least amount of information possible 🙂 Oh, Mongolia…

I wish I could post pictures for you here but it is difficult since I am on the move. Eventually, it will happen. Happy Naadam, everyone!


staff

April 11, 2014

Twice a year, in the fall and the spring, staff members fan out across the country for Site Visits. This just happened in March, and it was during this visit that I realized that something was missing from this blog and I aim to correct that here.

When I received the invitation to serve in Peace Corps/Mongolia, I didn’t actively think about who I’d be working with. I knew I’d live with a Mongolian host family for PST, and I knew that in my permanent site I’d have Mongolian counterparts. But if I’d been asked to imagine who made up the Peace Corps staff in Mongolia, I’d probably have assumed they were American. Well, I would have been wrong. Key positions—Country Director, Director of Management and Operations, Director of Programming and Training, and our Medical Officers—are staffed by Americans. And they are supported by a staff of amazing, highly skilled, and effective Mongolians.

If you think about it, it makes sense that the staff would be Mongolian because of the language skills and cultural knowledge necessary to interact with the host families when placing new PCTs, HCAs when placing newly minted PCVs, not to mention Immigration, Police, Ministries of Education, Health, etc., and even issues of office space, transportation and lodging for group-wide PC events, and likely many more things I’m not thinking of. But, if I didn’t explicitly say that there’s a Mongolian to American ratio of 3-to-1, I have an idea that you’d think as I thought. But, I don’t just want you to know that there are more Mongolians than Americans on staff; I want you to appreciate them as I (we) do.

We had lots of Safety and Security sessions during PST, and again at IST and MST, and our Safety and Security Manager gives it to us straight. Being a foreigner in Mongolia makes us more noticeable, and could mark us as a target if someone was looking for one. Our DSS breaks down the difference between walking in UB vs. walking in our community or walking alone vs. walking in a group. She reminds us that we are here as representatives of the United States and that, as such, reacting to a situation as we would in the States (e.g., punching a guy in the face) would have serious repercussions for the reputation of Peace Corps in Mongolia. As we are a Peace Corps, first and foremost, we discussed conflict resolution strategies and ways to de-escalate a situation. But, training in itself is not a deterrent to crime, and despite vigilance on the part of most Volunteers, things do happen (I think pick-pocketing, especially in UB, is the most common). When they do, our DSS is the go-to person. One M24’s experience with harassment highlights the capability of the Safety and Security staff.

Besides Site Visits, one of the ways PC keeps informed of our undertakings is through the Volunteer Reporting Form (VRF). A few weeks after submitting my VRF in January, my Regional Assistant called me to discuss. Her ideas were specific and plentiful. They were things I hadn’t thought of yet, though they didn’t come from some generic “pool of ideas for PCVs” script; they were specific to my placement (in the Education Department) and my actual site (which schools, people, etc.).

In a lot of ways, a Peace Corps Volunteer has a lot of autonomy on the job. For our day-to-day work, we report to our HCA, and, so far as I know, outside of Site Visits, there is little communication between our HCAs and PC/Mongolia. Additionally, PCVs do work in the community, which may be entirely off our HCA’s radar. For me, along with this autonomy comes the sense of not knowing where I fit in the grand scheme of PC/Mongolia. I know I’m not a “bad” Volunteer, but I often wonder “am I doing enough?” and that’s only sometimes in comparison to other PCV’s accomplishments. Usually, it’s in the context of thinking that I should be using my downtime more effectively and/by integrating into the community more. My Regional Assistant was able to share with me other PCV’s challenges and perceptions so I know I’m not alone in these thoughts.

My Regional Manager visited this past Site Visit (my last Site Visit). Her visit was more conversational; still covering all the bases, but without the checklist. She let me talk, asked follow-up questions, and let me talk some more. I doubt “make PCV feel good about herself” is in her job description, but these talks inevitably have that effect on me.

I can’t emphasize enough that these staff members are not merely translators so that you can communicate with your CPs, etc. They are genuine liaisons who facilitate these conversations. They can give us the cultural perspective that helps us re-frame our experiences. They provide focus when we can’t see the Gobi desert for the grains of sand. They are our advocates, our motivators, our champions.

And that makes sense too, because if we succeed, Mongolia succeeds.


medical

April 1, 2014

Knock on wood; I’ve been a healthy person. It’s not something I’ve taken for granted; many a Thanksgiving my health has topped the list of things for which I am thankful. But, living in a developing country presents new challenges and managing even a run-of-the-mill cold may require more effort here than at home.

The two Peace Corps Medical Officers (PCMOs) in UB are responsible for our well-being. During PST, they give numerous trainings covering general health concerns and those specific to Mongolia. Topics covered include: alcohol (including the alcohol content of different drinks, alcoholism, alcohol as a means of escaping or coping), mental health (including the warning signs of depression and the methods of coping), dog bites, healthy eating (to the extent possible in soums with few vegetables), medications (which to use for which symptoms, what’s available in our individual med kits, what’s available by request from the PCMO), and sexual health issues (including sexual assault, alcohol and sex, Sexually Transmissible Infections and how to prevent them, and exploring the reasons people engage in sexual activity). That’s not an exhaustive list. Outside of trainings, our PCMOs also take care of in-country vaccinations, flu shots and annual physicals. When something goes wrong while we are at site, they make the decision to get us to UB so they can examine us in person. And if something goes really wrong, they make the decision to send us to Thailand for treatment. They are available 24/7 via an emergency number; of course, we are advised to troubleshoot non-emergency issues on our own first.

The Health Manual answers basic questions of symptoms and preliminary treatment and allows us to triage the more serious issues to the PCMOs. My first experience with the Health Manual was shortly after my arrival at site. I had an earache which isn’t something that I’m prone to getting. The earache was mild and short-lived so I never bothered with contacting the PCMOs about it. But I learned from the Health Manual that “for some inexplicable reason, a few Volunteers will develop excessive earwax during their time in Mongolia.” And it was true! For a while I was thinking to myself, “where’s all this ear wax coming from?” But since it wasn’t cause for concern, it wasn’t worth mentioning. I imagine it has something to do with the different climate and altitude and it’s probably further proof that I’ve adapted since over the 22 months here (wow!), my earwax has returned to “normal” levels.

The med-kit contains a medley of over-the-counter meds, a pair of rubber gloves, water-purifying tablets, rehydrating salts, condoms, an ace bandage, gauze, generic band-aids, bug spray, sunscreen, well, here’s a picture.

med_kitIf we need a resupply of things, we can request via phone call or email and they’ll mail it to us at site. I’ve gotten PCMO packages in 2 days!

The PC/Mongolia Cook Book I’ve touched on briefly before. But let me highlight the best thing about it, and where it differs from other cook books I’ve owned. This cookbook has recipes which only use ingredients we can get here. Other recipe books wanted fancy ingredients that I didn’t know where to buy or would only use a portion of before the remainder would spoil. This cook book is divided into two sections, Hungry Hudoo (for the Volunteers living in the countryside with fewer options) and Posh Corps (for the Volunteers in UB and those of us who have more variety). What this means is that I can make any of the Hungry Hudoo recipes and many of the Posh Corps recipes (except for the fact that I don’t cook meat or have an oven). But, armed with this cook book, I’ve learned to make: vegetarian chili, ginger tofu, black bean burgers, lentil burgers, any bean falafel, risotto, curry carrot soup, tomato soup, corn chowder, sweet and sour beets, peanut sauce, hummus, tzatziki, tortillas, no-bake cookies, rice cooker cake, and best of all, rice cooker brownies!!!

My reason for writing on this topic is that over the last 2 weeks I’ve had some experience with the Mongolian hospital in town and realized that I never really posted about our medical care here. So, now that I’ve done that, I’ll recount my experience.

Around the beginning of March I had a cold, nothing serious. The symptoms were a shallow cough, which morphed into a sore throat, before settling into a runny nose accompanied by sneezing a week later. I’m well familiar with Upper Respiratory Infections and back home I’d suffered through far worse symptoms before finally going to my Primary Care doc only to find I’d had walking pneumonia or bronchitis. I wouldn’t say I have a high tolerance for pain or am averse to medical treatment, but just that I procrastinated until I couldn’t any more.

But, with this particular cold, on a Tuesday night after English club, I felt a double earache coming on, the right side worse than the left. And, since I’m less familiar with these than the URIs, I consulted the Health Manual. I learned that earaches after colds could be a middle-ear infection, and that complication included a ruptured eardrum with the possibility of temporary hearing loss. As the pain was getting worse, I started freaking out a little (as much as I can freak out, which, to look at me, maybe you wouldn’t have known). I didn’t call the PCMO emergency number because, I reasoned, there was nothing they could do, or advise me to do, that would help immediately. I decided to call first thing in the morning.

It was a difficult night trying to sleep. The pain was worse when lying down. Sitting up didn’t help much, but it was an improvement. I’d taken Tylenol, which didn’t seem to make a difference, and I was worried about taking too many so I didn’t take any more. It was nearly 3am that I couldn’t stay awake anymore and tried to sleep.

When I awoke, the first thing I noticed was that there was no pain. Well, that wasn’t entirely true, but it was a 1 or 2 vs. a 5 or 6 (on that 1-10 pain scale) so I was relieved. I could tell there was moisture in my ear, and sure enough, a cotton swab (and my pillow) showed a slightly bloody fluid. I assumed a ruptured eardrum, but my hearing, though muffled, was still there. Big sigh of relief!

Long story short, after gathering the information, the PCMO (who, just a few weeks prior, had visited our very hospital) authorized me to visit the Ear, Nose and Throat doctor (which not all hospitals here have). Oyundar, the otolaryngologist, examined my ear, said, in English, “no puncture,” and reported back to an interpreter in UB who relayed the diagnosis to the PCMO. The PCMO then allowed me to be treated by the doc. That first day, when she inserted a 2-inch long strip of gauze, that had been dipped into a solution, into my ear, oh, joy! The remaining pressure I’d felt was relieved. And when I’d removed the strip of gauze 2 hours later, I could hear! It wasn’t permanent, meaning it blocked again when I blew my nose, but it was promising. I noticed that night, while lying in my bed in the absolute silence of night, that there was a bit of high-pitched ringing in my right ear.

Over the last 2 weeks, I have made 8 visits to the hospital. It’s pretty crowded in the lobby, where the registration window is, but I don’t have to register. Registered patients are given laminated, numbered tickets, just like you were at the deli. The ENT’s office is on the second floor, across from a pediatrician’s office, at the end of a corridor. One morning I counted 30 people waiting in the hallway. There are benches to accommodate 8-10 people. I wait alongside them, one day for nearly an hour, but once the doc knows I’ve arrived, she ushers me in and the visits are pretty routine. The door’s two glass panels are covered with opaque film, so waiting patients often poke their heads in to see what’s going on. During the third visit, the otolaryngologist charged me 10,500 tugs (about $6) to cover the total number of visits.

There hasn’t been any ear pain since that first night, and the ringing in the ear is gone (or, at least I can’t hear it anymore). She originally said 5 visits, so for the last 3 visits I’ve been asking, in Mongolian, “tomorrow, I don’t come, right?” But, she kept saying to come. Finally, today she wrote a prescription and we had to get the PCMO on the phone again, along with the translator. Turns out, she wants me to use steroid ear drops for the next three days. The PCMO approved this. She also wanted to give me an aloe injection. The PCMO rejected this. The doc and I were able to communicate using a sort of Mong-lish, and I understood that I am to take 2 drops every 8 hours, and return in 3 days. I took my script to the pharmacy and paid the 7,000 tugs (about $4) and remembered to ask for a receipt, my first time asking in Mongolian, so that Peace Corps can reimburse me.

I’ll be home in ~3 months and I look forward to hearing your voices in person!


love

February 14, 2014

Last spring, a few of us Govi-Altai PCVs (the ladies) were invited to speak at a Young Families Conference. Fifty couples, married 2-5 years, participated in this conference. Topics covered included: family planning in the context of marriage, children’s rights, nutrition (including breast feeding), domestic violence, alcoholism, and financial planning. We were there to show that there is great variety in American families, so that these Mongolian families can recognize that they have choices. The information for the first part of this blog comes from our meeting with the Director of the Department for Children and Family Development. These were my notes taken during an informal session and I take responsibility for anything mis-heard or misunderstood.

love (lower-case L) in Mongolia
– average age for first baby: 22-25
– parents encourage marriage after completing university
– average age for marriage: 25
– more common to marry baby’s father
– divorce is common after a few years marriage
– variety of family-planning methods available: pill, condom, IUD, shot
– men may think pregnancy prevention is not their responsibility
– both parents are financially responsible
– women are more highly educated, so expenses mostly fall to them
– belief that if a woman has an abortion at the first pregnancy, she will never become pregnant again
– belief that giving birth is more difficult after 30
– women generally want a baby, even if they don’t have a husband
– high-risk women who don’t have children “find it difficult”
– average number of children per woman: 2-3

Love and love
Of course, I did the math before I even applied to the Peace Corps. If I started at 36, I’d finish at 38. It would be 2014, the year of my 20-year high school reunion. I mention it because the thought had crossed my mind that, with Peace Corps service, I’d be taking myself out of the dating pool and that maybe I’d miss out on meeting someone. But, the likelihood of that seemed so remote, that it was hardly a deterrent.

My single status is not something I think a lot about. I’m comfortable with where I am in life and never really put much effort into “finding someone,” outside of a few half-hearted craigslist posts over the years. But, when I do think about it (usually having nothing to do with February 14), to be perfectly honest, I find it kind of crazy. I’m a catch, man! I could rattle off my good qualities, and think my bad qualities are pretty insignificant to a relationship. But, no love for Love.

Love and love in Mongolia
After name and nationality, rounding out the top 5 most commonly asked questions in Mongolia are age, marital status and children. (Mongolians are very direct about these things; these questions aren’t considered rude. Also, they all guess that I’m ten years younger than I am 🙂 ) Common follow-up questions to my being single and childless are, “Why?” and “When will you get married?” During PST, we were taught to view such forward questions as an opportunity for a cultural exchange, rather than take offense to them. For example, I can explain that most people in America don’t get married in their early 20s. But, that doesn’t really answer the question of why I’m still single, does it? In fact, these questions sting more than the reality because they remind me that my single status isn’t my choice. Not being a mom isn’t my choice; it would have been a conversation to have, if there was someone to have it with. But there’s not. This here is the best I can do to answer these questions in English. In Mongolian, all I have is “bi medexgui” (I don’t know).

While it may seem improper to share these thoughts with such a wide audience, they are a part of what goes into making the decision to apply to the Peace Corps when you’re a single woman in your mid-30s. Yet, in all my pre-Peace Corps research, I didn’t find anyone else speaking from this perspective. So, I’m assuming that role for the other 30-something single ladies who want to apply to the Peace Corps but are hesitating because they are 30-something and single. I had wanted this Peace Corps experience for a long time, but I wasn’t ready in my 20s. Just like many people (at any age) who get married and have children (in some order) aren’t ready for those responsibilities. In that way, I’m kind of lucky that I didn’t have kids when I was ready to serve in the Peace Corps.

love (lower case L) in the Peace Corps
Despite the fact that I’m single, Peace Corps romances are pretty common. In our group of 60 or so volunteers, there are lots of couples and the cynic in me wonders if they would have paired off under different circumstances. Not that it matters. They’ve got someone to comfort them during these two years away from home, someone who (merely by being a PCV) probably shares some core values, someone who can understand their day-to-day challenges, and I bet that’s worth a lot to them. Of course, there are occasionally Volunteers who find love in a Host-Country National (HCN, in Peace Corps speak) and my little group has those, too; two engagements (that I know of)! I’d love to see their pictures in the Peace Corps marriages photo album.

And, finally, to reinforce that I have a sense of humor about my single status, here is a list of the reasons to date a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV), which will be me in just a few months!

PS, responses welcomed, but, in case it needs to be said, please refrain from any of that “you’ll find someone” type of encouragement since the point of this post is that, whether my being single is by choice or not, I’m content with my life the way it is. Which isn’t to say that I’ve “given up on love” or ruled it out for my future, but just that I’m someone who lives in the “what is” and not the “what if.”

Happy Valentine’s Day!


Tsagaan Sar

February 5, 2014

Tsagaan Sar (meaning both white month and white moon) is Mongolia’s most revered holiday. It coincides with what Americans might refer to as Chinese New Year, though the Mongolians I mentioned that to didn’t like it one bit, and rightfully so, I think. Since they are celebrated completely differently, Mongolians should get the recognition of their own holiday for the Lunar New Year, which is a big deal here. I am the Year of the Dragon, as are my host mom and dad (they are 12 years older), which is why I wanted my new deel to have dragons.  🙂

A not-great picture of an amazing fabric.

A not-great picture of an amazing fabric.

Whereas Naadam is all fun and games, Tsagaan Sar is full of tradition and custom. The American equivalent to Tsagaan Sar would be if you took the food of Thanksgiving (not the actual food, of course, but that food is the centerpiece), the gift giving of Christmas (according to the Mongolian rules of gift giving), the fanciness of a formal New Year’s Eve gala (not that I ever attended one), combined the expense of those three holidays, and threw in some serious spring cleaning.

During the week or two prior to Tsagaan Sar, Mongolians spend hours upon hours cleaning their homes in preparation for visits from family and friends. They go shopping for gifts to give those who come to their home. They prepare bite-sized, meat-filled dumplings (bansh, buuz) by the thousands to feed those who come to their home. Little work-work happens during this time, especially that week prior to Tsagaan Sar.

This year, I was able to help two friends with their bansh making. In both instances, all the preparation (rolling out the dough, filling the dough with meat, pinching it closed) took place on the floor. Very curious to me, given that this is such a musical culture, was that there was no music. I think of painting parties or such back home and there’s often music to occupy our minds while we do the task at hand. But here, in each home, the tv was on as background noise but what was on didn’t seem to matter. For all intents and purposes, bansh making was a very quiet affair.

Assembly line at first home. I stuffed a full bowl of meat's worth of bansh.

Assembly line at first home. I stuffed a full bowl of meat’s worth of bansh.

Bansh, sitting on the car to freeze.

Bansh, sitting on the car to freeze.

They had a more fancy pinching technique to make flower-shaped bansh.

They had a more fancy pinching technique to make flower-shaped bansh.

1. stuff 2. pinch 3. place

1. stuff 2. pinch 3. place

The first morning of Tsagaan Sar some families watch the sunrise and circle the ovoo 3 times and give a milk offering. I was invited by Oyuna, one of my medical college ladies, to join her and her husband, who is one of my students at the vocational school. This time of year, in this part of the country, sunrise is about 9am. Unfortunately, the morning of Tsagaan Sar was overcast and cloudy, but at around the time of the sunrise, people around me raised their hands toward the sun. (It was the closest thing to religion I’ve seen here, apart from visiting a monastery during PST.) During the wait for the sun to rise, I’d entertained fantasies of returning home and taking a nap, since the first day of Tsagaan Sar is family day. At this point, I didn’t know that wasn’t going to happen.

I could say they kidnapped me for the day. But, I prefer to think of it as adoption-for-a-day.

I could say they kidnapped me for the day. But, I prefer to think of it as adoption-for-a-day.

Hands raised toward the sun.

Hands raised toward the sun.

Now, I’ve just explained that Tsagaan Sar is a time to visit families, but I’m going to spell this out for you because I didn’t fully understand what that meant until I was a part of it. I went with Oyuna and her husband to Oyuna’s oldest family member’s home, then to Oyuna’s home. I was starting to question whether I should stay, or rather, whether I was supposed to go (being very aware of my gadaad hun (outside person) status, I wasn’t sure if my still being there was appropriate). So I asked and Oyuna said that I should stay with them because otherwise I would be alone and I shouldn’t be alone. I didn’t have a problem with being alone, but neither did I have a problem with accompanying her and experiencing Tsagaan Sar to the fullest.

So, here was my revelation: IT WAS THE SAME PEOPLE. I visited 4 apartments and 5 or so gers before I lost count. Oyuna later told me it was 13 homes altogether. You know how, in America, individuals host the big holiday and everyone gathers in that home, probably relieved that they could skip hosting this year? Yeah, that is not Tsagaan Sar. At Oyuna’s, the second stop, I recognized some people, either the people themselves or their fancy deels or hats, and dismissed it thinking, “well, of course they’d be here, they’re family.” But at the 3rd, 4th, and 5th homes, I finally understood. Everyone hosts everyone. It’s a wacky idea that they each take very seriously.

That morning, at the first home wearing our deels and hats, getting in a line from oldest to youngest, we did the formal greeting (zolgokh). This was done only once, and later in the day as newcomers (who’d been visiting spouse’s families?) arrived. But everything else was repeated at each home: the milk-tea, the plate of ham and pickles, the host presenting the tower of bread and candy or aruul and saying “eat, eat” (well, the Mongolian equivalent which sounds exactly the same!), the formal presenting of the snuff bottles, the bansh, the vodka, the gifts (10 hours later, I had 20,000 worth of crisp tugs, an assortment of chocolates, and a shampoo/conditioner set). By my estimate, I ate between 30-40 bansh that first day—nowhere near the PCV record of 130—and I was super proud of myself at this assimilation even as I longed to go home and floss.

Zolgokh. Elder's arms above, younger's below. Each says a specific phrase. Sniff or kiss, first to the left, then to the right.

Zolgokh. Elder’s arms above, younger’s below. Each says a specific phrase. Sniff or kiss, first to the left, then to the right.

Towers on the left, fat on the right. Towers are always an odd number of layers. I occupied my time by counting them.

Towers on the left, fat on the right. Towers are always an odd number of layers. I occupied my time by counting them.

Exchanging the snuff bottles (filled with a powdered tobacco). Very ritualized but some people are more casual than others.

Exchanging the snuff bottles (filled with a powdered tobacco). Very ritualized but some people are more casual than others.

Self-serve bansh. By the end of Tsagaan Sar, I was eating these even when no one was watching (which is probably not true... someone was watching).

Self-serve bansh. By the end of Tsagaan Sar, I was eating these even when no one was watching (which is probably not true… someone was watching).

As Tsagaan Sar lasts 3 days officially, this scene played out a handful more times over the next two days, with me visiting a few friend’s and a few student’s homes. I’ve written 1000 words already, and included pictures, yet I feel I can’t really capture “what it was like” for you. During this time, and having little to do with how the Mongolians treated me, my emotions ran an intense gamut, including: being in awe (faced with the deep-seated tradition that I always found lacking in America), impatient (when will she call to invite me?), annoyed (at the short notice, “please come now”), overconfident (look at my shiny new deel!, as if that’s all it takes to fit in), shy (the only way I can reason not having taken advantage of this opportunity to speak Mongolian), frustrated (that I couldn’t be in control of my own food, especially the intake, “eat!”), incredulous (the snuff bottles, again? You just did that!), jaded (another sheep carcass on the table), exhausted. Was I a guest? An intruder? Is it possible to be at once ignored and the center of attention? Did I just sum up life as a PCV?

Last year, my M22 site-mate, Brittany, observed that, with a 27-month commitment, Peace Corps service gives you “a first time and a last time” to experience most of the holidays. As overwhelmed as I was, it is a bittersweet thought that I will not be here for the next Tsagaan Sar. Happy Year of the Horse!

Because I can't have enough pics of smiling Mongolians.

Because I can’t have enough pics of smiling Mongolians.


to Russia with Love

August 29, 2013

We studied Russia when I was in seventh grade. Actually, it was probably the USSR, back then. This was before I became the world traveler that I’ve become, when foreign places were exotic and beyond my imagining. When I knew I was coming to Mongolia last year, the seed was planted to take the Trans-Siberian Railway to Moscow. I can’t even tell you how I knew about the Railway, but it was a promised adventure that called to me: even if nothing were to happen, the journey itself was sure to be amazing. My friend, Lillian, bought me the Handbook and before I’d even left the States I’d read it cover to cover. Well, now that the trip is in the past tense, I’ll do my best to give you a sense of what it was like to go “To Russia with Love” without the chronology that usually bogs me down. Pics are available here!

The Travel Buddy
Too easily taken for granted, the travel buddy is a crucial element to the overall travel experience. A good travel buddy can make a dull trip memorable, just as a bad travel buddy can spoil an otherwise wonderful time. What makes it tricky is that “good travel buddy” means different things to different people. As an example, I like sharing food. While that may not be a prerequisite for traveling with me, it certainly adds to my happiness. Luckily, I’ve been blessed with some great traveling companions and the Russia Travel Buddy falls into that category. Will and I were at the same training site during PST. (Since he was the most committed to language study, and we were neighbors, I occasionally invited myself over to his house so that I could focus, and he welcomed me even though I was probably more of a distraction for him.) We’d both talked about going to Russia, but it was his nudging this spring that made it happen. At one point, about two weeks into it, I suspected that we were both a bit too easygoing in that whatever suggestion was made the other was likely to agree, even though the person making the suggestion wasn’t necessarily deeply committed to Option A… once that tendency was acknowledged, it was easier to offer an Option B. But if the worst thing about your travel companion is that he is too agreeable, at the end of the day, that’s a good thing.

The Plan
Pretty much, the plan was to not have much of a plan, to allow spontaneity, to eat good food and to meet new people. Mission accomplished, but not without some kinks. By buying our tickets only to Moscow, we were continually planning the next leg of our trip—scrambling to find internet, purchase tickets online, then finding the right machine to print e-tickets. We wanted to see Red Square in Moscow, The Hermitage in St. Petersburg, and Lake Baikal: check, check, and check. The built-in flexibility allowed us to include Gorky Park in Moscow and a day of bike riding around St. Petersburg, both highlights for me! Will and I were also on the same page about couchsurfing (an internet-based, global network that connects travelers to hosts who provide a place to sleep, free of charge). We wanted to couchsurf for a few reasons: it’s an obvious way to save some rubles; not speaking the language, it would be helpful to have locals who could give us some tips; we also wanted to know the real Russia, to have real people in mind when we thought about it afterwards. This paid off ten-fold (see The People, below)!

The Visa, etc.
Internet research on this was a quagmire to wade through! First, you need an Invitation letter. A legit hotel will provide the Invitation letter, but with couchsurfing that wasn’t an option. The weird thing is that you can buy an Invitation letter, using dummy information, calling into question the purpose of it. The Visa is pre-approval to enter the country. When applying for the Visa, in addition to the Invitation letter, you also need to complete a 40-question application that includes colleges that you’ve attended, countries you’ve visited, current and previous two jobs… it was tedious. Finally, within five days of entering the country, you have to Register—basically, officially file that you are there. Again, legit hotels (even some hostels) can Register for you, but going the couchsurfing route, it was on us. I’ll spare you the tiresome details, but if you want more info, just ask.

The Train
I should mention that in the end we didn’t ride the official Trans-Siberian which only leaves once or twice a week. You’d think this would bother me, but my draw to the adventure was traveling by rail for the duration of the journey more so than the type of train. Besides, I’m pretty sure the basics are the same across trains (but the prices varied every time I did a search, so those listed are just to give you an idea).

Spalny vagon—first class—2 berths in a compartment. As Peace Corps Volunteers, we did not consider this option. (As an FYI, the cost was between $500-600 UB-Moscow, $700 Moscow-UB.)

Kupe—second class—4 berths in a compartment. This was our intro to the trip. In the end, it afforded us the best sleep and a chance at privacy. Although our car’s broken air conditioning made for an uncomfortable first two days, our fellow traveler got off on the second day and we didn’t get any others. We rode for a full 4 days, passing the time reading, playing Yahtzee, enjoying the scenery, eating, and sleeping. We chatted with a Mongolian man who shared some food and insisted we take the “How financially savvy are you?” quiz in his magazine (in Mongolian). We took turns getting off at the stops that were long enough for walking around the station, sometimes beyond. We traveled over 6000 km (nearly 4000 miles) for about $200. As we say in Boston, “that’s a bahgain.”

Platzkartny—third class—one car, ~50 berths, no doors: it’s like a hostel on rails. We chose this option for the Moscow-St. Petersburg leg. It’s possible to make that trip in under 4 hours, but we thought the 9-hour, overnight train would give us more time for sightseeing. Well, there are people who are pros at this—beds made, in their jammies, fast asleep before the train left the station—but for us, it was an unkind introduction to Platzkartny. We purchased the tickets the night before. We paid $85 to unknowingly get, what the guidebook warned us to “avoid at all costs,” the absolute worst berths on the train, along the corridor, next to the bathroom. Neither of us could pinpoint why we’d slept so poorly; likely it was a combination of location (and resulting foot traffic), limited sleep time by the time we’d gotten around to it, and the fact that the lights never completely went out (presumably a safety feature). Fortunately, we weren’t too resentful of this and we gave it another chance, from Moscow-Irkutsk. We still had the side bunks, but this time they weren’t the worst seats in the house. Still not great sleep, and maybe by this point, the novelty had worn off and the train was merely transportation. That was a 3-day journey for about $250.

Seat only—after our miserable night’s sleep on the way to St. Petes, we knowingly took a chance with the seat-only option from St. Petes-Moscow, another overnight train. We reasoned that since we were just connecting to another train, with a berth, for a 3-day journey, what did it matter if we didn’t sleep since we’d get plenty of sleep on the new train. As you can imagine, we were actually quite surprised, and relieved, to find plush reclining chairs! Subsequently, we were a bit chagrinned upon finding out that we were in the wrong car… off to Common Class, where 2 would-be-berths-in-a-compartment-used-as-seating-for-6-people awaited us. Without any partition between people, it could have been a long night of having someone fall asleep on your shoulder or in your lap. Thankfully, there were only two others (rather than 4!) and they’d perched themselves at the table by the window (which we’d surely have done if we’d arrived first). This left half of the bench to attempt to curl up on, which seemed a lot more promising than it turned out to be. Somewhere in the night I thought, since I wasn’t sleeping, that I’d use the restroom. I must have fallen asleep at some point because the door was closed and I didn’t remember that happening. Well, despite my attempts at opening it quietly, I’d disturbed the heavens… a man, with his eye mask pushed up on his forehead, appeared from above—he’d been sleeping in the overhead luggage compartment! Fortunately, he understood English and climbed down to help un-stick the door. This was, of course, after I’d yelped at the sight of him. The cost of this story was about $50.

Each car has an attendant, the Provodnitsa. She was in charge of checking our tickets, distributing the bed linens, keeping an eye on who entered the train at station stops, etc. The kupe train was carpeted and the hall and compartments were vacuumed every night. The uncarpeted Platzkartny car was swept and mopped every night. There is a bathroom at each end of the car. We weren’t supposed to use the one near the Provodnitsa in the kupe, but it wasn’t a problem in the Platzkartny (with twice the people, I should hope not). There aren’t any showers onboard, but there is a drainage hole in the bathroom floor if you want to wash up using the sink. I’m a seasoned Peace Corps Volunteer in Mongolia; baby wipes will suffice. The toilets themselves flush onto the tracks. For this reason, they are unusable (i.e., locked) while in the stations and for some amount of time before and after.

The People
This part will be the most difficult for me to capture with words because it is the most personal. The expectation of couchsurfing is that a surfer will be given a place to sleep. That’s it. And by that measure, our hosts were exceptional. A hot shower after a 4-day train ride; use of a washing machine after 2 weeks of traveling; a home-cooked dinner after countless pre-packaged “meals” on the road, our hosts really put themselves in our place and identified what we must want most and offered it up gladly. They also saw us as tourists in their communities and knew what we would want to see and helped make it happen, often as tour guide. The trust that came with the keys to the apartment or allowing us near their small children shouldn’t feel undeserved, since Will and I are trustworthy people, and yet, I still marvel at their wholehearted welcome of us.

Prior to going on this trip, I was led to believe that Russians would be difficult, even intentionally so. Yet, our hosts’ hospitality was amplified by the woman who, speaking no English, literally walked us to our train platform, which I suspected was not at all where she was going. In two different cities, when we were seen reading our maps, people asked if they could help direct us.

I left Russia feeling I knew it better than I know places I’ve been to more than once or have spent more time. I left Russia looking forward to my next visit.