downtime

March 15, 2014

I remember that back during PST I made a daily schedule blog post. I never did that in my permanent site and I realize now why that’s been the case: things were so structured during PST that sharing my day-to-day life was possible. The reality in Govi-Altai varies greatly from week to week because there’s stuff that’s supposed to happen that doesn’t (or at least not when it’s supposed to) and there’s stuff that’s seemingly spontaneous (though I often think I’m just the last to find out and it happens to be at the last minute).

According to my schedule at my permanent site, I work 40 hours a week. I think this is unusual among Peace Corps Volunteers, but since I came from a 40-hour-a-week job, this part doesn’t faze me (except insofar as Peace Corps service was meant to be a break from the 9-5 life). Four mornings a week are spent in classrooms, so that eats up a chunk of that time. The rest of the time is divided up into teaching special classes, prepping for classes, or waiting to do one or the other. Currently, my CP and I are giving two-hour, daily English lessons to workers at the Courthouse, as we’ve done in the past for the Music Ensemble and the Power Station workers. I’ve also been giving sessions on creative writing (the students do little, if any, writing at all) for a competition that will happen next week.

Between the things that are happening, there’s a lot of waiting for things to happen. I can’t say whether that’s definitively true Peace Corps-wide, but I have a sense that it is. I’d make the case that this “wait time” isn’t really downtime, though, because we are always anticipating (even if history doesn’t give us cause) the next interruption. What this means is that after an afternoon at the office, having “accomplished” nothing, I feel mentally taxed. It’s not the same kind of waiting that you do at the Registry (DMV) because, when your name is called, you have no idea what’s coming.

I wrote before about leaving behind the comforts of home and how the cumulative effect leaves one feeling out of sorts. While that was mostly in the context of loneliness, I think the sheer number of hours that we have to fill (whatever our work commitment, after all, we live here full time) is what makes the absence of all that so prominent. We find ourselves with a lot of downtime to fill.

So, here’s a list of the ways I’ve filled my thousands of hours of downtime these last two years.

extra lessons – Perhaps the most obvious, especially for a TEFL Volunteer. We have regular Tuesday night English club, Thursday night movie club, and Saturday morning conversation club with the medical college ladies. I’m still going to the Vocational School two nights a week. In addition, there’s often an unexpected knock on the door, what Seinfeld would call a pop-in. I usually make time for them. Last year, one of these girls became a regular, showing up several nights a week for several months.

language study – I continue to study vocabulary every day. However, I’m sorry to say, my spoken Mongolian remains average. Clearly, I can manage with the day-to-day but I tend not to put myself in unfamiliar situations. And I never got a tutor. How did that happen? Well, I tried initially with my Mongolian English-teacher friend but we often reverted to English. Just as the students don’t learn English in translation, I couldn’t learn Mongolian in translation. Why I never got a Mongolian-language teacher, or just a non-English-speaking Mongolian, I can’t say. It sounds silly, but I didn’t even realize it was missing until these last few months.

socialization – either with other PCVs or with Mongolians. Here’s something that has surprised me: I expected to come to Mongolia and do a lot of socializing with Mongolians. I do some, of course, but not nearly what I thought I would. Now, given that I lived in my Boston apartment for 11 years and didn’t know any of my neighbors, apparently I was counting on some personality transformation to have occurred simply by being in Mongolia. But, just as I seldom invited guests to my home back home, I’ve not done it here. I have an open-door policy, to the point that I shared my dinner with a man whom I’m still not sure who he was or how he knew me, but those pop-ins, while more common here than in America, are still not so common (once or twice a month). And to be honest, since my days are pretty full, even the days that are full of waiting, I’m content to not have more frequent visitors.

blog – it would be a great oversight for me to not state the obvious. This is my 63rd blog post. Some of these take up quite a bit of that downtime.

books – at this point, I’ve lost track. But I know it’s somewhere in the 60-ish range. That’s a mixture of e-books and the real thing. It’s also a mixture of fiction, non-fiction, classics, contemporary, pop-culture autobiographies, a few trashy romance novels, and a few books set in Mongolia.

crochet – this won’t be on the average PCVs things-to-do list, but then maybe there isn’t an “average” PCV. Thanks to some yarn contributions from folks at home, and a score at the black market, I’ve been able to make about 40 handmade hats. I also taught my sitemate, Jerome, how to do it and a day later he had his own hat. Next up, teaching some Mongolians.

The hat that started it all.

The hat that started it all.

the mundane – certainly, just as at home, we have to bathe, do laundry and grocery shop. It’s only worth mentioning because we never know how much of our downtime these things will occupy. Will the shower house have an hour’s wait? If so, would I rather wash in my tumpun? Will I find what I want at 2 stores or 5? Knowing that I may visit 5 and still not have found what I wanted. Ger dwellers could add chopping wood and fetching water to this list.

a 6000-piece puzzle – I’m quite proud of this one. This time last year I gave up my floor for a site-mate puzzle party. Little did I know that it would take 2 months to complete. It was worth it, though.

IMG_3869

sporcle – I almost wish I was never introduced to this quiz website. How many times have I said “just one more” only to realize it was one in the morning? I’ve wasted a lot of time doing really stupid quizzes, just for something to do. BUT, I’ve also learned all the countries of the world, so there’s that.

TV shows, movies, podcasts, music – I do more of this media consumption than I would probably like. Sometimes I can multi-task with one of these while I prepare dinner or make hats or write blogs. But sometimes it’s a solitary, sedentary activity. Ho-hum.

exercise videos, a la P90X – I probably should have started this sooner since I’ve gained back about half of that PST weight loss. We had a rather mild (for Mongolia) winter, and there are some hikes in our future.

Our 5-hour hike last September. We found TREES!

Our 5-hour hike last September. We found TREES!

instrument – I really wish I thought to do this. Mongolia has some really interesting traditional instruments that are alive and well. Why did I never consider learning the morin huur?

creating videos, poems, songs, etc. – this is another that falls into the category of things I didn’t do with my downtime. But, other PCVs have and I’d like to share a few with you.

  • If you’re curious about ger life, and I know I am, I’d recommend this 2-minute video from a current M24.
  • For a PCV twist on an American anthem, an anonymous volunteer re-wrote the lyrics to American Pie. Incidentally, that’s my site-mate Jerome’s blog; for those of you who will miss my Mongolian chronicles, I can recommend his for a good chuckle.
  • If poetry is your thing, I point you to a current M23 who alternates poetry along with prose on a regular schedule.

I leave you with the thought that I’m somewhere around the 100-day countdown to my Close of Service. How will I spend it?


deel video

February 7, 2014

Mentioning my M22 site-mate, Brittany, at the end of my Tsagaan Sar post was supposed to remind me to include a link to this video that she made last spring. It’s a collection of images of people in various stages of putting on the traditional Mongolian deel (totally G-rated!), set to the song The Hardest Button to Button. In the case of the deel, that likely refers to the button under the armpit but can also be those pesky buttons at the neck. It closes with an image of a water tank with some surprising graffiti: “Welcome to My Hood” written in English. The video is just under two minutes long, and, yes, you can catch a few glimpses of me, but I recommend you watch it because Britt put a lot of work into it and it deserves a wider audience.

And as long as I’m promoting videos, here‘s another one that was put together from some Mongolia PCVs the year before. This one is a straight up dance video (>3 min) showcasing Mongolians and Volunteers from the city of Erdenet. Such fun! I watched it multiple times before coming and each time I focused on something else: the clothes, the weather, the buildings, the snow, the cows, the people. Then, I met some of those people during PST… they were awesome.

Enjoy!


Soundtrack of a bus ride

December 9, 2013

I’d accepted that I wouldn’t go to UB until the COS conference in May. As it turned out, an opportunity to judge an English-speaking competition in UB came along and the coordinators offered to cover transportation and lodging for PCVs. Though my site is 1000km (600miles) from UB, making me a “fly-site” for Peace Corps, if I wanted to participate—and I did!—I’d have to take the bus. Nearly half the road is unpaved, so it takes at least 20 hours. Long-haul bus travel is something I was interested in doing at some point during my time here, since it is quintessentially Mongolian, but if I’d had the choice it would not have been on the cusp of winter.

10:00 is written on the ticket; I am on the bus at 11:00. The friend who helped to purchase my ticket hadn’t been satisfied with the seats available, so she comes on the bus and essentially evicts a girl from her seat—completely unnecessarily, I thought—so that I can have a “good chair.”  12:00 noon is the scheduled departure; we are finally on the road by 12:45. During this wait, several times I hear a classic Mongolian patriotic song as a ringtone.

12:45 As we drive out of Altai, the Mongolian band HURD is playing. You can also see the music videos on the large flat screen tv mounted above the driver. The band members wear all black, have the long hair of early Red Hot Chili Peppers, and they play ballads. I decide I like them.

15:00 “Hool idex uu?,” my neighbor asking me if I will eat when we stop. It seems early to me, but since I am not sure when the next stop will be, I ask “yamar hool?” (what kind of food). There are two options, tsuivan (a noodle dish) or soup. I opt for tsuivan.

15:30 The slurping of soup and tea. The tsuivan is exceptional.

16:00 More music videos. More HURD. Also, some Mongolian long song, which I find beautiful. English songs from a German band, Modern Talking, come on. I’ve never heard of them but their look is exactly that of the 80’s hair bands, yet their music video has 1998 on it so I’m totally confused. The sound of crunching peanuts.

21:30 Spinning wheels in the sand. We all (50-60 people) get off the bus.

22:00 Sounds of shoveling the sand from around the tires. “Neg, hoyeriig, guravaa…” the “one, two, three” before people try to push the bus, to no avail. Sounds of unloading the luggage from underneath the bus. Probably more shoveling sounds and more pushing sounds but by this point I’m stargazing on this moonless night with Florence and the Machine on my MP3 player, moderately concerned about the Return of the Frozen Toes that I am experiencing.

22:30 The sound of silence. We’re back on the bus; awaiting our fate.

01:30 A big truck engine. More shoveling.

02:30 The sound of the earth moving beneath our bus. Repacking the luggage. (Yes, in that order.)

03:00 The sound of people sleeping on a moving bus.

04:45 The beep of a text message received, likely sent 10 hours prior… I’d had no service all that time. Hey, my toes aren’t numb!

08:00 TV’s back on. The sounds of a Mongolian sketch comedy show. Very popular.  The sound of crunching snow underfoot while finding a spot to pee. I realize that men use the right side of the bus, and women use the left side, which means women must cross the road. But, I understand that it gives the women more privacy.

09:00 A crying toddler. The kid was here the whole time, and 20-hours in, I was ready to cry myself. I couldn’t blame her.

11:00 “Hool idex uu?”

12:00 Sounds of lunch.

Lunch spot. About 6 hours outside of UB.

Lunch spot. About 6 hours outside of UB.

16:00 People chatting. Ray LaMontagne in the headphones. Phone calls coming in and going out.

18:30 Sounds of UB.


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.

~Love


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.


spring

May 4, 2013

Prologue

I tried to write this blog entry about leaving winter behind and welcoming spring, but this is nothing like the spring I know. For so many years, spring to me has meant the first blossoms on the magnolia trees at St. Leonard’s Church and Peace Garden in Boston’s North End. It meant throwing the windows open, welcoming in that change in the air. It meant being able to walk home from work: Comm Ave through the Boston Commons, if I wanted some quiet time, or Newbury St and Faneuil Hall if I wanted to people-watch. A few years ago it meant watching my high school classmate run in the big race: in my boisterous excitement, my camera lens only caught the pavement as I tried to snap his photo while holding my homemade sign. Last year it meant finally(!) getting to ride Hubway again.

Since arriving in my permanent site 8 months ago, I’ve nurtured this tie to my hometown with Matty in the Morning podcasts and Robert B. Parker Spencer novels. I haven’t romanticized living in Boston, though. I remember the day I understood what my big sis was talking about when she visited us in San Diego and said how nice it was that people walking down the street said “hello” and looked you in the eye, after I’d moved back to Boston and that didn’t happen. They all let their guard down when the Sox won the Series in ’04—strangers high-fiving and giving hugs—but it didn’t last. I well remember the day I tripped going up the escalator at Ruggles Station, completely ignored by my fellow rush-hour commuters. The people irked me, but I never held this against the city.

This time next year, I’ll be doing what my M22 site-mates are doing now: making preparations for Close of Service. I honestly don’t know where I will end up. Coming into the Peace Corps meant a chance to start over, twice, and this wasn’t lost on me during the application stage. Before I was even officially invited to serve, I looked forward to my post-Peace Corps life, with two years’ experience living and working abroad, and what kind of growth that could mean for me, personally, and where, literally, that could take me. There’s a chance I won’t go back to Boston for good, but Boston will always be my home.

And now, back to the blog: The Winter that wasn’t

I promised an update when “real” winter came… but it never did, not to my aimag, anyway. Now this may seem strange to those of you who recall my frozen toes that didn’t defrost for 3 months, but I’ll remind you that that incident occurred in UB. So, winter—as I feared it to be—definitely came to UB. And I’ve seen photographic evidence among my PCV friends, whose frozen eyelashes and beards left no doubt, that winter definitely came to other parts of Mongolia. But here in the Southwestern aimag of Govi-Altai, we’re well into spring now and aside from a few days here and there during January and February, I never felt that the regular negative temps (in both C and F) were unbearable.

Spring here sort of seems to me like winter-in-reverse: during November and December, I kept waiting for the deluge of snow, but there was never more than an inch or two at a time, and it often melted by the end of the day. (A curious observation is that our snow, when it comes, generally comes overnight.) During March and April, what winter we did have kept asserting itself in fits and starts, but by then its attempts weren’t worrisome. I haven’t worn my Mongolian winter boots since sometime in March, and though I haven’t packed away my winter coat, it wasn’t needed for most of April. This has all fluctuated, of course; there was a day at the end of March that was pleasant enough for just my Boston hoodie, and there were a few snow days in April.

I was mentally preparing for the heat in my apartment to be turned off in March. It would have been unpleasant, for sure, but nothing like waking up in a ger in winter when your overnight fire has long since burned out; I wouldn’t have felt justified in complaining. The heat burned on into April, though, and I was back to opening my window to let in some fresh air, whenever the wind was calm enough to not bring the dust inside. Over the last few weeks, I’ve adopted a new trick: leaving the apartment door open. Since that outer room has no heat, the cooler air wafts in, but there’s no wind and therefore no dust. Now it’s early May, and the heat is STILL on, with outside temps in the 50s/60s F.

The mountains here are back to brown with just patches of snow taunting the sun, but I’ve seen patches of green grass crop up in unexpected places that makes me smile. So, naturally, that’s what I’m looking toward.


IST Challenges

January 3, 2013

IST – In-Service Training

Before I get into this, I should preface it with a disclaimer of sorts and that is: I love this stuff. I love getting diverse people together and asking questions (leading or open-ended, it doesn’t matter to me). I love seeing concepts illustrated with images, brainstorming and team-building activities. I love sessions that present something of which I’ve had only an inkling and walking away feeling illuminated. I love hearing what others have to say and especially that moment when I think, “I had no idea. You just blew my mind.” I readily admit they don’t all go this way. But, I also love giving honest, constructive feedback… muah-ha-ha!

Normally, I go to these meetings that I enjoy and take notes that I feel are important and then never look at them again—just one of my idiosyncrasies that bugs me. But, this blog is the perfect excuse (why do I always need an excuse?) to revisit what I felt was worth writing down. If I am right, at the end of reading this, you’ll have some insight into the cultural differences between Americans and Mongolians.

In the “Expectations and Challenges” session, we were asked to recall our expectations when we got to site, then list our current challenges. Note, I’ve cherry-picked these responses to highlight the cultural aspects.

One of the Mongolians’ expectations was that we would become accustomed to living in the Mongolian winter. (One month after my exposure to the frigid UB temps and my big toes are only about 85% normal; strike one for Love.) They also expected that we would be an active member of our schools. Seems fair enough, right?

The PCVs’ expectations included a desire to use our skills other than English (we are more than just TEFL beings) but, at the same time, that our CPs be aware of our limitations (e.g., just because we can read English, does not mean we can fix your computer).

And now, the challenges
The Mongolians listed “pets” at the very top of their challenges in dealing with American PCVs. I haven’t mentioned this yet, but, as a rule, Mongolians do not have pets, though there are many dogs and some cats throughout the country. The dogs in their hashaa (yard) are guard dogs, and even those are feared. Dogs are the reason our host families wanted us home before dark. (In defense of this reasoning, dog bites are a very common reason for a PCV’s trip to the medical staff in UB.) Cats are seen as evil spirits, as I understand it. So, the PCVs who take in a stray dog or cat are effectively creating a wedge between themselves and their community. Makes it hard to host a dinner, for example.

Another hot-button issue for the Mongolians is the everyday appearance of their PCV. Mongolians, as a rule, are very professional looking. Remember that the average PCV age skews post-college, but even those of us who are outliers likely came from casual workplace environments. Yes, it’s true that we had to pack for 2 years (including all seasons of clothing) and were allowed only 100 pounds of baggage, but this complaint isn’t about the wardrobe, per se. For, even if the Mongolian women wear the same three dresses, they are always clean and presentable. A big sigh to the Americans hand-washing in a tumpun… or not, as it were.

Also on the list of challenges for the Mongolians is their PCV’s Mongolian language skills. Here, I hang my head in embarrassment (strike two for Love.) I had thought my motivation would translate into learning, all by itself. Not to say that I’m not putting in effort, just that by my own standard I am not doing nearly as much studying as I had thought I would and am therefore not nearly where I expected to be after 7 months in the country!!! Please hear me when I say this, it is a two-part message: 1. any foreigner who enters America and works with people who speak their native language (as my CP speaks to me in English) will have great difficulty learning English on their own just by merely living in the culture; 2. any American who ever uttered the words “if I were going to move to a country, I’d learn the language” as if it were the most effortless thing, and held the oft-accompanying belief that not learning the language was a choice made by the individual—is ignorant. Yes, I just said that. My built-in thesaurus gives me these alternatives: unaware, uninformed, rude, impolite, inconsiderate. Any of those will do, too. I’d also add xenophobic. Long before Peace Corps, I was preaching from the learning-a-foreign-language-is-hard soapbox. I’ve always admired those who are conversational in a second language, but only now can I really empathize with those who are struggling with English. Only now do I really champion those who try, especially when they are wrong.

Aaaaand, back to the list.  A few other things the Mongolians find challenging when dealing with American PCVs I will group as their concern for our wellbeing: what are they eating? are they eating enough? can they make a fire? are their clothes warm enough? are they missing home? did they remember to lock their door? Some of the PCVs, easily and understandably, misinterpret this as patronizing the helpless American and find it suffocating and even belittling. But not me! Not Love-of-the-frozen-toes! I’d tell you I’d embrace this kind of being cared for, except that I don’t live in a ger (which comes with a hashaa family) so I’m not experiencing the brunt of it. Maybe that’s also why I can see that it comes from a place of concern.

Now for the American challenges living in Mongolia and working with Mongolians: As casual as we Americans are, we love our clocks! We want the Mongolians to make a schedule and stick to it; give us as much notice as possible; not be late for meetings and especially NOT not show up at all. I find this fascinating.

We want the CPs to understand that we have responsibilities to Peace Corps in addition to those of the HCA and when they conflict, the PC expectations win out.

We pointed out that PCVs face the challenges of: “diminishing interest” in our roll over time (my very first Staff English class had about 8 people; since then it is usually 4, and not the same 4, despite their insistence that I am a good English teacher); “lack of specificity/details” in what they’ve asked us to do; differences in school and classroom norms from what we are used to.

Observation 1: I wrote above that the Mongolians expectation was that their PCV would be an active member of the school? Turns out the PCVs would counter with “don’t assume we know what’s going on” event-wise (and, of course, “give us as much notice as possible”).

Observation 2: Juxtaposed to that list of Mongolians concern for our wellbeing are a special set of PCV challenges summarized as “understand our stresses.” This was explained as being away from friends and family, struggling with the language, where to buy warm boots… not exactly parallel lists, but certainly overlapping ones.

It’s a fine line between understanding and assumption. IST was a valuable, eye-opening week for PCV-CP relations, Mongolian-American relations, and Love-PCV peers relations, since none of us is having the same experience in the Peace Corps, in our jobs, or in Mongolia.


frozen toes

December 18, 2012

For the past 12 days I haven’t been able to feel my toes. Okay, that’s somewhat of an exaggeration… they feel swollen even though they look normal sized and touching the toes gives sort of a dull sensation, almost as if Novocain is wearing off, though I can move them normally and walking isn’t a problem.

Here’s what happened: From my Aimag, flights to the capital are only available Tuesdays and Fridays. That meant that I had to arrive in UB Friday for the Peace Corps In-Service Training (IST) for TEFLs, which began the following Monday. (I found the training super informative and I plan to write about it in the next few days.) The background info is that buses in UB are 400 togrogs, whereas a taxi ride from the airport would be at least 15,000. That enormous difference in transportation cost partially explains my decision to brave the bus, but generally speaking, I am a proponent of public transportation and taking taxis is something I seldom do, wherever I happen to be. Additionally, the Mongolian “taxis” are often simply people who own cars… you flag them down and they take you where you want to go and charge you, but there are no regulations. I have no qualms about couchsurfing or hostels, yet I can’t put into words why this car-sharing makes me uncomfortable. Furthermore, my site mate with a year more living-in-Mongolia experience drew me a map with walking directions to the bus stop and assured me it was “the only way to do it.”

The two-hour flight from my Aimag was uneventful and I found the bus stop with little trouble. However, on the ten-minute walk there I could see that I was just missing a bus and found myself waiting in -35°C temps wearing two layers of socks and hiking boots. After about 20 minutes I got on the first bus that came, even though it wasn’t the most direct bus, just to get out of the cold. That ended up not mattering much because, as it turns out, this time of year the UB city buses are equivalent to an ice-box with a sheet of frost on the inside of every window—obscuring the view from all but the windshield. (I thought it curious that they would paint the windows white; it wasn’t until I saw that someone had scraped a treble clef into the frost that I understood what I was looking at.) Unfortunately, there is no picture of this because removing my mittened hands from my pockets, and then removing the hands from the mittens, and then unzipping my coat where my camera was around my neck (to keep it from freezing), and then unzipping the camera case, each seemed either unsafe for my fingers or requiring more finger dexterity than I had.

I like to think of myself as a methodical and reasoning individual, but one trait that surprises even me, and that I continually exhibit, is impulsiveness. On this Friday night it reappeared when I got off the bus because everyone else was getting off the bus. Of course, having gotten off the bus, and not recognizing anything, I then decided that I needed to walk in a random direction in the hopes of seeing something that looked familiar, in a city that accommodates over a million people, in which I had spent only 5 days, three months before. I trudged along with my large suitcase rolling behind me, following a woman who didn’t know she was my guide. It was a good twenty minutes before I reconsidered and turned back to the bus stop, another twenty or so minutes waiting at the bus stop before asking which one gets me to Sukhbaatar Square and being told that I am on the wrong side of the street. Another ride in the ice-box-on-wheels, just 3 or 4 stops, and I was there! Almost. I couldn’t find the hostel, which didn’t matter because we (the entire training site gang) were actually staying somewhere else. A few phone calls made with frozen fingers and someone came to fetch me and take me to the room.

Saturday morning, I was surprised to find my three big toes still numb. After breakfast, I stayed inside a full 30 hours, forgoing the plans I had to see a movie and eat popcorn, willing my feet to thaw.

On Sunday morning, once again I awoke with numb-ish toes. This time, I soaked them in warm water as the medical staff instructed us during summer training. I also rested them against the radiator which felt good but didn’t make a difference. When I did get out in the afternoon, I picked up some camel wool socks since everyone swears by them… while they might keep the cold out, I can tell you they don’t take the cold out once it’s in.

Monday was our first day of IST, which was in a beautiful part of UB—surrounded by pine trees—about 45 minutes from the hustle and bustle of downtown. We would stay for 5 days and 4 nights and with all meals provided there was no reason for me to venture out until Friday afternoon when the buses came to take us back to the city.

Though I’d soaked my feet in the hotel tub a few times, they felt far from normal so many days after exposure that by Wednesday I was concerned enough to ask the medical staff to take a look. They were concerned that my toes looked white, but then I always look more pale than not being one who avoids the sun. With a few pokes, the tiniest bit of color came into the toes. And since I could move them and had sensation when touched, even though it was dull, it was a good indication that, while damage was clearly done, it wouldn’t be permanent.

Today is a full week after that, and still my toes feel thick and dull. I’ve been soaking in warm water once or twice a day for the past 4 days. Yesterday I thought my middle toes were much better, leaving just the two big toes of each foot feeling thick and dull. If I had to quantify it, I’d say maybe 50% sensation in the two big toes, 80% in the middle toes, and the two small toes are 95%.

It was a hard lesson to learn. At so many points I could have turned things around by making better, indeed smarter and safer, decisions. I didn’t know the temperature in UB that Friday night, but I didn’t need to to know what I was feeling in my feet. There is an entire Mongolian winter ahead of me, so perhaps this scare was necessary for me to understand first-hand how easy it is to take such risks. I already know how easy it is to avoid them.


weather

November 20, 2012

Peace Corps Volunteers are currently placed in more than 70 countries. Applicants to the Peace Corps may state a preference for geographic location of service but are advised that priority is given to matching volunteer’s experience and skills with the requests of a host country. In other words, there is no guarantee that a location preference can be accommodated. Also, by holding out for the choice assignment, an applicant risks prolonging the already lengthy process during which time life goes on and circumstances can change in a way that makes service less feasible (marriage, promotion).

Because I was finally ready to serve—after years of having thought about it and once attempting the application—I didn’t want anything to delay my placement, should I be accepted (and I had no idea of the likelihood of that). So, I filled out the application checking “No Preference” for geographic location, though somewhere I added that I’d love to learn a language I could use when I returned home. Haha!

From the very beginning, Mongolia was on my radar. Even when I began filling out the never-submitted application in 2001, it was the country that somehow for me was the epitome of Peace Corps service, though I knew nothing about it other than its remoteness. This sense of destiny was reinforced when, during my in-person interview, my Recruiter challenged my “No Preference” for region with, “So, you’d go to Mongolia?” As far as I was concerned, that was all she wrote.

Before I was invited to serve in Mongolia, I was nominated for service in Asia, which narrowed down my “anywhere” to Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Mongolia, Nepal, Philippines, and Thailand. Though a more manageable number than the 70 possible countries, that’s still too broad a swath of land to study-up on each one, but I did do some cursory searches on Mongolia and used my Rosetta Stone for Mandarin, just in case. (Thankfully, the Peace Corps Invitation letter comes with a packet of country-specific material and I read every word.)

One of the first things you learn about Mongolia is that it has extreme weather. Besides having the “coldest capital on the planet,” it also has the Gobi Desert which is super hot in summer, giving Mongolia a temperature range of -40°C to 40°C (for us Americans, that’s -40°F to 104°F).

What you need to know about me, if you don’t already, is that I run cold… I’ve been known to wear wool sweaters in June, turtlenecks in August, and to shiver on a cool Boston summer evening (who can vouch for this?!). Even my host mom, in her evaluation of my readiness to live in Mongolia, commented that she was worried I would be too cold (such a mom thing to say!).

Solely because of the weather, the very thought of being sent to Mongolia was terrifying; I had to remind myself “people live there” to believe that I could, too. I know it isn’t winter yet, which is why this blog is titled “weather”—I’m not about to tempt fate! But I post this as much for you, dear readers, as for myself when winter has settled in and I can’t remember a time when the temperature was tolerable. I also post this for future invitees to Mongolia who may have come across my blog in their own search of what to expect.

During my early weeks at my permanent site, I have distinct memories of shivering as I climbed into my Peace-Corps issued sleeping bag (rated to -25°C/-13°F) at night. I am sure this shivering stopped before the heat in my apartment was turned on, though. There have also been a handful of blustery days when the wind cut through whatever I was wearing and the short walks seemed interminable and my toes were numb through two layers of wool socks. I just don’t know what the temps were on those days.

So, just how am I doing now? This is just one more area where I have adapted better than I could have imagined. We’ve had several snow days in Govi-Altai since September, so I knew it was at least “freezing” but I couldn’t have guessed at a number. Thankfully, the heat in my apartment (and at work) is phenomenal, but since I can’t adjust it, I have no way to gauge the temperature indoors. I often open my apartment window in the morning and during lunch to get some fresh air. My walk to work is fewer than 10 minutes so most days I’m not exposed to the elements for very long, but the tip of my nose is instantly chilled and runny, and my eyes tear up. My only “coat” would not have been sufficient for a Boston winter, and I’ve yet to upgrade. And when I can finally stand the curiosity no longer, I look to a weather site which tells me the current temperature is -7°C/19.4°F. (That was yesterday; today it is -9°C/15.8°F.)

To further give you an idea of just how incredible my adaptation to this climate has been, today I am wearing an ankle-length sleeve-less(!) dress (an amazing $8 thrift-store find in Madison, before leaving home) with one layer of Winter Silks long underwear, top and bottom. During my walk to work I have on my not-a-winter-coat and a scarf. My alpaca mittens (hand-made by me!) are in my pockets, not on my hands. I didn’t bother with my hat this morning. (That was all yesterday; today I am wearing my khaki pants with one layer of Winter Silks long underwear, short-sleeved t-shirt and a thin cotton sweater, still no mittens.)

I attribute part of this adjustment to the almost daily sunshine in this, the Land of Blue Sky. Feeling the warmth of the sun does help to disguise the temps. But, I have to ask, does being in the desert make the temps feel different in the first place? For the answer to this question, I am reminded of a fellow M23’s blog entry on the weather in his part of the country. Our perspectives are very different since Adam prefers the cold to begin with—he was excited to be assigned to Mongolia; plus he lives in a ger.

I’ll be sure to post again when winter does arrive, probably January and February will be the thick of it. In the meantime, I’m just thankful that I can feel my toes.


Q&A

October 7, 2012

One of my professors at San Diego City College, the brilliant and animated Bill Stewart, encouraged his students to ask questions because, as he said, a third of the class was probably wondering the same thing. I have always loved how he framed our inquiries as though they were for the benefit of the quieter students. It trampled on the “there are no dumb questions” approach to getting students to participate, and instead made it our duty to ask. Like I said, he was brilliant.

In that spirit, here I introduce the first Q&A blog entry. These questions are courtesy of my sister-in-law, Tricia.

Do you have any containers that you can fill with water for those days it is not flowing? 

Here, she is referring to my plumbing that, as I wrote to her, has repeatedly been shut off. In 6 weeks, it’s probably happened about 6 times but not in any scheduled way that would allow me to plan for it. (Might be due to the construction on my street.) It’s lasted for as little as 10 minutes to as long as 8 or 10 hours.

To answer the question, I have a Peace Corps-provided water filter (which deserves its own blog entry) so that I am able to drink, and cook somewhat depending on what I am making. It holds about a gallon of water, and the lesson learned is to promptly fill it so that I am never without drinking water. If the drought were to continue for an extended time, I could purchase bottled water from almost any of the delguurs, however, there is no recycling here so I hesitate to do that unless it was urgent.

Do you have refrigeration?  Freezer?  Oven? What about containers for leftovers?

I do have a refrigerator with a freezer inside. It’s about 3-feet high, though they have smaller and larger in Mongolia. The freezer, however, has no door so either the entire thing was a freezer or I turned down the setting, which is what I did. In the winter, I could use my entry room as a freezer, like the people who live in Mongolian gers use their ping (boxed-in area covering the door, to keep out the cold weather). But I don’t expect to freeze much, food-wise, since I don’t buy anything frozen, and have been making meals with only 2-3 extra portions, which I finish off in the next 3-5 meals.

I have a table-top electric burner for cooking. (There are two burners but I was told only one works so I never tried the other.) I also have a rice-cooker, which I always wanted in the States and never got. I do not have an oven. The PCVs with ovens are willing to share, though, and at our site-mate dinners I have benefited from their ovens in the form of pizza, garlic bread, home-made pretzels, and most recently a chocolate cupcake with coffee frosting and caramel drizzle. Thankfully for me, the ovens are not wasted on non-bakers or the stingy!

As for containers for leftovers, I’m all set there. Since there is no recycling, I have been reusing, mostly pickle jars. The longer I’m here, the more jars I will accumulate and use for all manner of storage—not just food. But, because I am so conscious of the absence of recycling, I hesitate over impulsive items (like single serve juices) since additional uses for the bottle is limited, relative to a jar.

Hey, how’d you like your toothpaste? I remembered that was included while I was brushing mine thinking I needed to replenish our stock.  And I smiled a little knowing Toms would be a nice treat.  Like you mention, it’s the basics we appreciate more when we go without them.

Ah, stream-of-consciousness writing… how it speaks to me. Here, she is referring to Tom’s of Maine toothpaste which she lovingly included in my care package. It was indeed a treat. In fact, I had stopped purchasing Tom’s at home because I was finding it a bit pricey and hard to find my favorite flavor: fennel. Trader Joe’s used to have it at $2.99 but then they introduced their own brand and the Tom’s went up, and I tried the TJs brand—I believe they even had fennel—and didn’t like it as much. Ho-hum. This is probably a luxury item that will remain off the care-package list, but would make me smile if it were to emerge from a box.

How far are you from where you work? Which bldg is it?  Is it one of the pics posted?  How far to post office (again)? Do you walk everywhere?

This reminds me that I never posted the link to the new Permanent Site photo album. It is here. Forgive me for redirecting you; I am still having trouble uploading to this site.

My apartment is about a 7-minute walk to work. The post office is about an 8-minute walk in the opposite direction, so that if I walk from work to the post office, it is about 15 minutes. Yes, I walk everywhere. Unless, as has happened 2 or 3 times now, a coworker driving by stops to take me the rest of the way. “Thank you for sparing me those 3 minutes of walking!” Really… maybe I will appreciate it when it is winter but now it seems silly, despite being a nice gesture.

I bet people think that Mongolians drive jalopies, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Most of the vehicles here are HUGE: Jeeps and Land Rovers and such (I had to write “and such” because I don’t speak car, but you get the idea that they are big SUVs). It makes sense because of the roads. Some of the paved roads have giant pits and some of the dirt roads washout in the rain so that people just blaze a new trail. However, and I find this particularly noteworthy, one of my coworkers has a hybrid 🙂

They also drive motorcycles, sometimes 4 deep: the dad driving with a kid in his lap and a kid sandwiched between him and the mom at the back. I saw the same thing in India and did my first triple-take. No worries for me though; Peace Corps Volunteers are prohibited from riding on or driving a motorcycle, not that I’d have been tempted.

Some of the kids here have bikes, but I have no intention of getting one. Why not? Bicycle maintenance, winter, and bad roads dissuade me.

There are also taxis, but having barely taken them across Boston, I can hardly rationalize taking one across Govi-Altai. Again, maybe when winter hits.

Beef stewing it tomorrow. Oooh…can you get yeast easily?  And flour?  Eggs?

Oh, yummy! (Even though I would pick around the beef, which is amazing given some of the things I have eaten here – food blog entry in the works.) I believe yeast is courtesy of care packages, or else found in the capital. But, since I do not have an oven, I’d be less likely to use it. Flour and eggs are readily available. In fact, I made my own tortillas from scratch! (Chris, are you reading this?! Who am I?!) Until then, I thought they were uniform circular disks that came in packs of 8-12. While mine were far from uniform, they tasted like bona-fide tortillas 🙂