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.

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.


June 19, 2013

There was a shower-house in my training site last summer but, as far as I know, my host family never used it, so I never used it. I learned to bathe in my tumpun and my host-mom or host-sister would help me wash my hair by pouring the warm water over my head while I lathered and rinsed. The bathing and the hair-washing didn’t necessarily coincide. I would bathe every 7-10 days (using baby-wipes in the interim); I’d wash my hair every 5-7 days. Much like clothes washing in the tumpun, tumpun bathing was complicated by the need to carry the one bucket of water to my bedroom, combine in my tumpun with water from the kettle, bathe and then pour from the wide tumpun into the dirty-water bucket—hopefully, executing neither step with excessive spillage—finally, emptying the dirty water into the special pit outside.

With this as my frame of reference, the indoor plumbing at my permanent site made tumpun bathing so much easier, that I didn’t immediately seek out the Altai shower-houses. At site, I could fill (fill=2-3 inches) my tumpun right from the sink and, after washing, pour it right into the toilet. Even better was when the heat came on and my running water wasn’t ice-cold; then, I didn’t need to use the kettle at all. I’d gotten into a routine of upper-body bathing (right from the sink!), lower-body bathing, and hair-washing two days a week. The baby-wipes remain a living-in-Mongolia, must-have item.

I think at this point I should mention that when I lived in the States, my habit was to shower every other day. I’d adopted this schedule when growing up in California, because of “the drought,” and even though I’m sure I was in the minority to skip a day, it stuck with me and I saw no reason to change when I left. Like many routines, it wasn’t a hard-and-fast rule and if I needed/wanted a shower off-schedule, I’d take one. No judgment! 😉

After the new year, I asked my site-mate to show me the shower house. I think it was because the weather was so cold that I wanted that all-over warmth. That first shower in Altai, on January 10th, was gloriously warm. And, I remember thinking, “it’s so pleasurable to wash my hair without bending over.”

There are several shower-houses in Altai, but I’ve only experienced the one. The cost is 1300 togrogs (just under a dollar) for 30 minutes. There are two attendants: one collects the money (from the usage fee and the sale of toiletries) and the other seems to be in charge of throwing a bucket of water on the shower floor in between guests, handing out communal shower slippers and locking you in. Yes, the attendant locks you in, and there is no secondary lock on the inside for the vulnerable person who is naked and preoccupied. There are about 12 rooms and none that I’ve used have been particularly nice, each showing the black of mildew and/or mold. There’s no doubt it wasn’t always a shower-house, though, as the rooms are different configurations and the water comes via PVC pipes literally strung up to the rafters. It turns out, the temps at the shower-house are unpredictable and, for the most part, unadjustable. Regardless, that weekly shower is a treat. When you’re done, you give a knock and the attendant comes and unlocks your door.


Oh, and by the way, it isn’t a lock with a key… just a simple slider. I want to think this is another example of trust built into things in Mongolia, but then I remembered, it’s like showering at a gym or a campground back home. Except for the whole gender-separation thing that is largely ignored here.

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.

Dear M24s

May 18, 2013

Open letter to the M24s,

No more months or weeks, you’re now counting down the days before staging to prepare for arrival in Mongolia. Like you, I had many questions and turned to the web for answers. I found my greatest resource to be a PCV blog, and I read it word for word from the beginning. But since everyone’s experience is different, I committed to keeping my own blog, as much for me as for you. Thirty-seven posts later, I hope you’ve found something useful in here.

Probably also like you, my biggest concern was the weather. Well, let me allay that fear first. On a Saturday in January—what should have been the dead of winter—I sat in my apartment with the window open, wearing a pair of jeans and a sweater. The temperature was -11C/13F. I don’t want to give the impression that it hasn’t been cold, just that it’s possible to adapt to the point where 13F feels pleasant. I can’t believe it myself.

As you’re scrambling to get those last-minute, must-have-in-Mongolia items, and I’ve seen lots of discussions on the group page, I’ll remind you that everyone’s list will be different, depending on who you are, and who you want to become, as this surely is an opportunity to reinvent yourself.

With that, these are my top three items from home:

My pillow: If you have no attachments to your current pillow maybe you can dismiss this, but I really liked my pillow from home. (Mongolian pillows might not even be pillows… I actually heard of a teddy bear inside a pillow case.) Yes, it’s bulky, but it doesn’t weigh much at all. I strapped it to the back of my backpack so it didn’t take up any room. It was nice to have on the planes and during that first week of moving from place to place. And at my host family’s, having a plush pillow compensated for the firm bed that was only as cushy as my sleeping bag folded in half.

My sunhat: Keeping the sun off my face and out of my eyes was a priority even before I felt how strong the summer sun is here. It never occurred to me to disregard the no-contact-lenses directive so the sunhat was needed in lieu of sunglasses. We had quite a bit of rain last summer, and my water-resistant sunhat doubled as a rain hat.

My Kindle: One of my personal goals as I would be starting over was to kick the TV habit (i.e., turning on the TV and then finding something to watch). Thanks to my e-reader, in the past year I’ve read over 40 books—probably an 800% increase. While I haven’t loved all of the books, I’ve loved all of the time I’ve spent reading them. Just one way in which I am becoming the person I’ve wanted to be.

Other items have been quite useful: the watch with 3 alarms (since we didn’t have phones during PST), the Swiss Army Knife (specifically for the can opener which takes some getting used to but has to be safer than my host mom using a kitchen knife—I couldn’t watch!), the camelbak backpack , the hiking boots, the hard-drive (500GB, probably not enough), the iPod (especially nice on the long bumpy rides), and the Skype account so that I could call my family and friends who aren’t online.

Of the Peace Corps staff, I’ll say this: I’ve always felt that they have my safety at the forefront of their decisions. I find them to be highly competent, compassionate, and professional individuals who are dedicated to the mission of Peace Corps/Mongolia. You’ll be in good hands.

Of the PCT/PCV peers, I’ll say this: Being completely candid, at first glance, I wondered about some of them “why did they want to be here?” and “how did they get chosen to be invited?” And, yet, those few about whom I had reservations, after just a few one-on-one conversations, every single one beautifully expressed their genuine desire to be here in Mongolia and to serve in the Peace Corps. As soon as you’re tempted to dismiss someone, go over and introduce yourself instead.

Of the Peace Corps experience, I’ll say this: We are part of a government agency that has bureaucracy, reporting policies, a chain of command, and expectations of accountability. As a way to manage your own expectations, it is important to remember that The Peace Corps is made up of individuals: we are not perfect, we make mistakes, and we have bad days. This is a unique experience that requires a bit more understanding, a bit more patience, a bit more forgiveness than you might be prepared for.

But you are coming to a wonderful country, rich with culture, and full of friendly faces. There will be more good days than bad. The time will go quicker than you imagined. You will learn from those around you. You will learn about yourself. You will see breathtaking sunsets. You may even ride a camel. But above all else, you will reach people, personally; you will make an impact; you will be remembered.

Welcome to Mongolia. I look forward to meeting you.


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.


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!