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.

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in a rut

November 25, 2013

I was doing pretty good at updating this blog several times a month. That made me happy because, for those of you who read it regularly, I knew you would read it and think of me and it makes me feel less lonely than I might otherwise feel; if that makes any sense.

But lately I find myself not knowing what to write about. I’m not sure if it is because this is my second year, and therefore some of the novelty has worn off. Or maybe it is because, with each turn of the calendar, I find myself counting down the months to my own Close of Service; continually weighing my pre-Peace Corps expectations against what I’ve actually accomplished, and coming to terms with the reality. Of course, it could be the approaching winter that has me mentally hunkering down. So, while I’m awaiting the next unique Mongolian experience, here are some happenings of late that you might be interested in.

Taco night
When our M24, Jerome, received a care package that included taco seasoning, he very generously arranged for a group dinner at his place the following weekend when our soumer, Max, would be visiting. Most Mongolian food doesn’t use much more than salt as far as seasoning goes, so adding flavor is always on our minds when we do our own cooking. Perhaps I’m burying the lede here, because I suspect you are most interested the fact that our tacos had horse meat.

“Well, how was it?” I can hear you asking. It was good! It’s a red meat, very lean, unlike a lot of the mutton we eat. But maybe that’s not fair to the sheep since Mongolians add fat to their food, and since the Americans here don’t buy sheep I’ve never seen it prepared another way. But, back to the horse… This particular horse was not ground meat, which would have been better for tacos. I don’t know if that is the reason it was a bit chewy, or if it needed to marinate or what. The point is that it was good. Especially considering that Jerome purchased the horse meat from the trunk of a car outside of the black market. Maybe it wasn’t strictly cold enough for that yet—this was a few weeks ago—but now that real winter has settled in around us, with temps regularly below freezing, the trunk of a car is better than a freezer because it requires no electricity.

Early Thanksgiving
For those who don’t know, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I simply love that there is a day set aside to acknowledge what we already have; I especially love that there are no gifts exchanged, since gift selection is not among my skills. Maybe that is why Black Friday enrages me so… the early morning hours, the crowds, the frenzy, the prices so low that you have to buy more things because you haven’t spent enough: a five-dollar DVD becomes a stocking stuffer.

This past Saturday night, my three site-mates and I joined a few of the other non-Mongolians in Govi-Altai for a Thanksgiving dinner. We had chicken legs rather than turkey but, as one who often opted to fill her plate with all the side dishes and forgo the turkey altogether, that didn’t give me pause. This year, side dishes included mashed potatoes and gravy, an enormous fresh salad (with cabbage), macaroni and cheese, sliced carrots (there are no baby carrots here) cooked in with the chicken. My contribution to the meal was mashed turnips, a first for me, and prepared more out of curiosity. Over dinner, we wondered aloud, again, why are there no yams or sweet potatoes in this country with a bounty of other root vegetables. Also absent were the signature stuffing, cranberry sauce, and green bean casserole.

tgiving

We M23s were looking forward to a trip to UB—conveniently scheduled to coincide with Thanksgiving—for our required flu shot. However, due to the Continuing Resolution (e.g., no new money for Peace Corps), our Thanksgiving in the capital is canceled, and other arrangements are being made to get us vaccinated. What this really means is that we will not see our peer group, as a whole, until our COS Conference in March or April. There are so many really cool people I haven’t gotten to know as well as I’d have liked.

Vocational School Teachers
There have been some ups and downs in my Peace Corps service; I’ll wait to share some of that in another entry because I do want to be balanced. But, for now, I want to shout out to my new group of teachers at the local vocational school. We PCVs got an alcohol-awareness life skills training off the ground in September (it had stalled in the spring, so that it finally happened was exceptionally gratifying). Rather than launching the training at the high schools (maybe why we had difficulty the first time), we went to the vocational school.

After the first planning meeting, the principal asked if we could begin giving English lessons for the staff, not the students. As the TEFL volunteer, I agreed, but not without some private concern that it would fall apart, that people would lose interest or show up but not participate. It’s been two months now and that hasn’t happened. While there certainly isn’t perfect attendance, the teachers, by and large, do come. And they are enthusiastic to speak, to ask and answer questions. Mistakes are made, but no one is embarrassed about them. They want more vocabulary, practice with each other in class, and ask for homework. Those two nights a week that I trek to the other side of the town, I couldn’t be happier. And for that, I am very thankful.


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.


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.


water

September 25, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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