Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Deck The Gers With Boughs of Holly...?

No matter which way you look at it, spending the Holidays away from your family is rough. I mean, if you like your family. I happen to love mine, so this time has been a rather unfortunate one for me. I know being here is something I've chosen for myself but that doesn't mean that sometimes it isn't a little difficult. I'm not crying myself to sleep every night but something recently has taken up residence in the back of my mind all day, something a little mournful. Perhaps its the void of Christmas Carols being blasted in every shop, the tension one builds up when you can't yell at holiday traffic or missing the vicarious joy of seeing wee children parade around the mall in their Sunday best on the way to visit Santa. Whatever it is, the fact still remains that I do miss Christmas.

As I am not Christan, over the years I have had to ferret out the reason why I celebrate Christmas or more so why at this time I am now struck with a pang of longing to kiss the ground at Hartsfield Jackson International Airport. I have thought much about this and I have realized that there were two Christmastime events my family attended every year of my childhood which profoundly shaped my views of this season. Firstly, we always went to the Gospel Christmas at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. This is the most joyous thing I've ever experienced. Glamorous women in sequins and big hats and men looking dapper in suits with shiny shoes filled the audience. During the concert, they jumped to their feet, clapping and hollering in agreement with the music, their elated lack of composure belying their formal clothes. All the while, the singers on stage, ranging from venerable old women to feisty young kids, sing their hearts out in praise and love, swaying to the music in their long robes which make them look like angles. It is impossible for one's heart not to swell listening to the beautiful voices and watching the sheer joy of it all. As a child I figured that Christmas can't mean anything bad if all these people love it to the point of distraction and celebrate in such an ecstatic way. We also went to the Alliance Theater's A Christmas Carol play every year. While the whole experience was magical as a child, there was something about the Ghost of Christmas Present that really struck a chord with me. In this version, he was dreadlocked and sported a kilt, quite a contradiction of fashions, I know. But it was his jovial manner and his bagpipe that really did it. Whenever he encountered a bickering couple or angry man on the street, he would blow a tune into his bagpipe and snow would fall from the sky. Then the grumpy people, touched by his benevolence via song, would be instantly lifted to smile and wish others a merry Christmas. I must confess, the story of The Christmas Carol has touched me greatly for some reason. I like it's lesson of redemption and love and the boy Ignorance and the girl Want have haunted me, perhaps part of the reason why I volunteer so much with kids. But at any rate, these two Holiday events have made me view Christmas with then lens that it isn't about presents, throwing elbows at the mall or even the birth of Jesus, but rather my homespun philosophy is that it's about joy, love and taking time to really appreciate our fellow man. (Cheesy, I know, but never the less...)

My most lasting and wonderful memories of Christmas are the trips I've take with my family during the Holidays. Wandering through snow dusted Christmas markets, laughing until my belly ached in cozy restaurants while being eyeballed suspiciously by sober Europeans, gazing around overwhelming museums and ornate palaces and even squabbling with my dear Sister over the exact location of "the line" between our separate sides of the tiny beds we always share- they're all what defines Christmas for me: family and love.
This year isn't really that desolate- I will celebrate with my friends in UB (I've promised my Grandmother a Christmas morning Bloody Mary in her honor!) and this isn't the first time I've spent this month in a foreign country. But last time I was in England, holed up on the second floor of Starbucks, laughing with friends over gingerbread lattes and watching the people of Norwich do their Christmas shopping. The Holiday spirit was in the air there, where as here it took some very precious Holiday Greeting cards from friends and family to remind me of the season. But that's the thing- I know that my friends and family love me and think of me just as much as I them. This year I'll spend Christmas with my new friends, surly laughing just as hard as I have before during this season. And, in true Holiday spirit, I know I'll see the crowded and polluted capitol through the rose and green colored glass of the season. It will be a new and different sort of Christmas, not without it's own excitements, but one when I will certainly carry gospel singers, the sound of bagpipes and loved ones close to my heart.

Monday, December 7, 2009

A Wee Delimma

Reading an abridged Last of the Mahicans in class on Friday we came across the word "praise". I asked the class if they knew what that word meant and one of my smartest, sweetest students raised her hand. She said "yes, teacher, it means Heil, like Heil Hitler, right?". I didn't quite know how to react to this in front of the whole class so I told her that was sort of right but not entirely and proceeded to explain the word. This was not the first rather strange thing that this particular student had said about Hitler. She told me once that she would invite him to her dinner party and had, on a separate occasion, asked me to show her how to look him up in the World Book. So after last week's comment, I have decided to have a little Come to Jesus meeting with her about der Fuhrer. But I am not quite sure how to handle it. I have had ideas that range from showing her clips from Roman Polanski's "The Pianist," which is rather graphic but certainly would get the point across, to just sitting down with her and talking through it, although I think I need a visual to help show her what it was like. I don't want to scare or depress her and she is still young, 15 years old. But then again at 15 I had been pretty well educated about the basics of Hitler's reign of terror and in my book making comments about the badass-ness of Hitler is never really cool. So what to do? If she knows a little about the subject, is the entitled or even obligated to understand the whole thing, from extermination camps to the Nazi baby factories? That does seem a little extreme. But still I want her to know what she is talking about; she need to understand the weight and scale that name carries, especially to Westerners. She is one of my most motivated and promising students and if anyone is to study abroad, it will be her. I really don't want her rolling into America, England or Russia (all places that people here go to study) saying things like "Hitler was very powerful man, I want to make him Mongolian traditional foods". So today I think I will ask her to stay after class, tell me everything she knows about Adolph and then take it from there. Hopefully she will understand.

Creeping Towards Normal

There was a big volleyball tournament on Saturday morning at the local sports palace. It was scheduled for 10am but I figured that nothing here starts on time so an 11 o'clock arrival would suffice. I rolled in with a couple friends to watch the games, only to find the space all but empty. We hung out and chatted for about an hour, fielding wild gestures and unintelligible comments from the ancient Mongolian man sitting next to us, while people blearily filed into the gym. The tournament gained momentum and finally people were actually playing, rather viciously, too. Sitting there, joking with friends in the morning sun that streamed through the skylights and watching the volleyball game, I felt strangely normal. I wondered how many people around the world on that day would be sitting on bleachers somewhere, their hands wrapped around travel mugs just as mine where, cheering on their friends or family. It felt like such a natural thing to do. I sat there for a while just marinading in how predictable it all felt and how strange it was to feel completely comfortable, something that hasn't occurred in many months. This feeling took me by surprise and though it didn't last too long (shortly after, I went to the indoor market which always has bizarre and wonderful things for sale- discovery of the day: Asian pears- so amazing!) it's nice to know that it happened.

In other news of the normal, I had dinner at a Mongolian friend's house tonight. She is the most sophisticated woman I've met here thus far and we spent hours talking and laughing. She laid out an amazing spread of potato salad, rice with vegetables and cheese, a spiced meat stir fry, fruit and goldfish crackers with tea, juice and coffee on a low table.  Three of us (another Peace Corps Volunteer was there, too) sat on the floor, soaking up the warmth from a heating pad under the rug. Over food and wine that spilled into coffee with Bailey's and chocolate we talked about everything from traveling to teaching and from boys to boob jobs. It was so nice to get to know a new friend on a real level, not just have awkward small talk (a thing that I do daily here). I feel like I have a real friend in this woman; she even called me 'sister'. Getting to know people isn't really anything crazy unusual back home but this is pretty exciting here because for me building relationships is the most special part of my job. I suppose making friends and having a wider circle of people to share life with is something that I consider to be normal. It is also something I haven't been able to do genuinely with many locals yet, so this is a wonderful step. Somehow my life is crawling towards steady after months of new and strange experiences.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Good Morning, Mongolia!

Every monring I wake up thankful for several things in particular: my apartment with running water, health and happiness and the fact that I don't have to be at work until 10. Some of the other Hovd Volunteers drag themselves to school around 7...not me! I get to roll in around 10:05is after morning coffee, a little pilates, washing dishes and sometimes Skype. But when I finally make it to work one of the most interesting parts of my day begins. I always teach in the afternoon but the hours between 10 and 12 are filled with random activities that change almost daily- one of the perks of working here is that there's always a new morning crises or task. It wasn't always this way, in the time of Swine Flu, not so very long ago, the library was closed and parents were too paraniod to let their kids out of their hasha (the mud wall around the family compound). So even though no one came to the American Center all morning, I still had to go hold down the fort. On those mornings, I would hunker down in my comfy chair with my back to the sun and flip through the library's poetry anthologies. One of the greatest women I've known is Mrs. Kathleen McMannus, a Georgria Shakepeare Festival staple at whose knee I spent hours learning the ins and outs of Shakespeare. She taught me that the best way to read Shakespeare's cannon by just opening to any page and delving in. Now it's the only way I've ever been able to read poetry. So on those cold mornings, with my down coat slung over my lap, I paged though volumes upon volumes of random poetry books, bathing in the words. I like being busy again but there's a part of me that misses the peace of those mornings. Now that life has sort of gotten back to normal, I have been tutoring the Director of the Library in English for an hour in the mornings. Joined by my counterpart (who, I think, just wants to bask in his presnce and giggle coyly at his English butchering), we started from scratch. Today he bursted into the room with "Hi!Hello!Howareyou?What'sup?I'mfine!Thankyou!", a rather exciting development. Apparently all that work has been paying off. I have also begun tutoring a young Mongolian woman about my age. She is very sweet and doesn't speak a single word of English. I agreed to her request because so many people ask me for lessons, I say yes and then they never come. I figured this would be the same. But so far she's shown up, even on time to boot, and up to now we've worked on the English sounds. Before, I never really realized what a cruel joke the "th" sound is (as in there) or how difficult "rrrr" (as in are) can be. Bless her heart she keeps showing up, even though I can see that she concentrates so hard it visibly pains her when she tries to pronounce some of the English words. But as long as she keeps coming, I'll keep teaching. There's also always a random assortment of things in the mornings that pop up- editing friends papers (yesterday someone brought in one about otter migration), making tests for library hiring, trekking to the post office to retrieve a new and thrilling package, last minute lesson planning, catching up on my People magazine reading, teaching the tots who live in the ger behind the library the finer points of Playdough, etc...So when 12 comes around and I go for my lunch break, it's almost like I've had a full day already, even though I have the luxury of getting to work at 10am.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Starting From Scratch

I have recently realized that there is a definite value in explaining things that normally I assume people understand. There had been several instances that have illuminated this fact for me lately. So I like to start my classes with an activity that is stimulating and requires critical thinking, making the students exercise their wee minds in ways that their regular school teachers neglect. Recently I posed the question: What is a good leader? Can you be a good leader and do bad things? The students wrote about what they thought and then had a debate. Afterwards they still wanted to discuss this question and I was happy to let them. The thoughts then turned to Chinggus Khan and the fact that he is Mongolia’s greatest hero but also murdered may people. One student then raised his hand and asked me “Teacher, what about Hitler? Isn’t he like Chinggus? People really like him now, right?” My stomach lurched at the question. The kid who asked this isn’t a skinhead and probably doesn’t even know what a neo-Nazi is. He likes football and girls, not racial purity. I took a deep breath and explained the basics of how Hitler rose to power and that he killed so many innocent people. I told him of seeing Hitler’s grave and how Berliners now take their dogs to go to the bathroom there and people vomit on the spot. After I was finished I could see that he still wasn’t quite convinced. His eyes betrayed the fact that he thought I was bias somehow and that I didn’t know the whole truth. He seemed confused as to why someone with so much power could be that bad. I don’t quite know if it’s scary or sweet that he couldn’t wrap his head around the past and present of the Third Reich. Another more comical instance happened during our huge international Thanksgiving on Wednesday night. In place of our weekly international dinner club of sorts at a local bakery, I had everyone over to experience Thanksgiving. I think at one point 25 people were crammed into my apartment. Just about everyone brought something, from horse sausage and Russian mushrooms to wine we had to bang against the wall to open and homemade gnocchi. I had made apple pie and pumpkin pie in the traditional Thanksgiving spirit. Before everyone ate there was a portly woman hanging around the food, judiciously sampling a bit of all the dishes set out. When people were finishing getting their dinner, I strolled back into the kitchen to check on the flow of traffic. It was then that I noticed in horror the aforementioned food sneaker and a friend were going to town on my apple pie with their forks. I got there just in time to see them scraping out the last bit of filling, leaving a forlorn and battered pie crust in the bottom of the pan. Apparently I should have cut it before setting it out and not assumed that they knew pie protocol. The pie desecration wasn’t a big deal and with further reading the boy will learn more about Hitler. These experiences have just served as a reminder to me that while I am getting more comfortable, patience and understanding of cultural differences are thigns I should never forget.

Monday, November 23, 2009

A Whirlwind in November: Giving Thanks for a Great Holiday

I am not quite sure what my best memory from this weekend's Thanksgiving celebration is. Probably laughing until I cried, sitting on the floor with my friends during the post-Thanksgiving meal haze, convinced that I would explode from hilarity on top of dinner. Or perhaps a certain someone cutting her pubes in my kitchen and saving them in a plastic bag (still sitting on my desk) to prank someone with. Maybe even playing an international game of kickball in the snow as a cooking break; it was fun even though the girls were solidly trounced by the boys. I suppose the bottom line is that last weekend was the best I could have hoped for.  Laura, a girl who is one of my best friend in Peace Corps and works in the closest big town, came in early with her friend Brad, who is on vacation but lives in Erdenet, and they stayed at my apartment at various points. Laura and I decided that we've reached new heights in our friendship, resulting from chats in the shower, sharing underwear (she forgot to pack any and needed a good lookin' pair) and multiple cooking marathons including more dish washing than the good Lord and my tiny kitchen sink ever intended. It's nice to have a friend you feel totally comfortable with. Scott and Ashley, a married couple, and another volunteer Matt also came down from Olgii for Thanksgiving so in addition to the 2 Swiss and 3 Koreans, we had quite a crowd for the holiday (I think in total 20 people). I was able to get off work Thursday and Friday so I got to help cook, sleep later and hang out. The whole weekend sort of blurred together, even now I can't differentiate one day from the next. We kicked things off with a Mexican night at my apartment on Tuesday and after that all I know is that there was ample Sex in the City, girl talk, general debauchery and on Friday 6 pies, corn casserole, cranberry sauce, 2 loaves of apple bread, 3 loaves of pumpkin bread and enough biscuits to feed a State Fair were cranked out of my kitchen. We had a massive Thanksgiving spread on Saturday including items ranging from the usual stuffing, mashed potatoes with gravy and green bean casserole, to the not-so-traditional horse meat stir fry, flan and 12 bean chili. Not surprisingly there was no turkey, but the Peace Corps Volunteers who used to be in Hovd and are now serving their third year in the capitol sent two chickens out to us! During the meal we listened to Laura read a kid's book about a plump and perky turkey and then went around the room telling each other what we're thankful for. I said I was thankful for my health and the love around me (implying the love I carry with me from home and the company at present). We sat around for hours after the feast, talking, laughing and playing games (including charades- thank God I finally get to use that theater degree!- and a snorting contest of sorts) while countless bottles of wine disappeared. Thanksgiving sprawled into Sunday when many of us reconvened at Mona's apartment for leftovers, more games and "The Muppet Christmas Carol." It was strange to have a full day of work today, as the swine flu shutdown has been lifted, and come home to a reasonably clean house. But Thanksgiving 2.0 is on Wednesday at my apartment and this time it's with all of our Mongolian and Kazakh friends. Also, In Service Training in December is getting closer and for that we'll all be flown to UB where I'll spend another blur of a holiday laughing with friends.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Step Back in Time

It seems that during winter the experience of going to the outdoor market alters itself just a little. I was thrilled to see that we had one in Hovd when I first got here- markets of any kind are endlessly exciting to me. The noise, the bustle, the strange and exotic things for sale. I blame my father really. When my sister and I were young he used to take us to the Dekalb Farmers Market in Atlanta almost weekly. For as long as I can remember I used to sit in the cart, happily gnawing on a ham and cheese croissant and just be enthralled with the foreign people and goods that crowded the warehouse. They were wonderful afternoon excursions. Here in Hovd, the market is a little different. It is outdoors for the most part and, by virtue of the fact that it is in a remote town in Mongolia, has far less variety. But now in winter it's taken on a positively Dickensian feel. Stepping past the ancient chain link fences surrounding the market is like taking a step back in time. I can only imagine that this is the closest thing on earth to a shopping trip in the Victorian period. The ger and shop fires are blazing already this time of year so the air is thick with smoke. On the colder days people bundle even their faces, gritting their teeth and squinting against the cold. They walk stoically through the ally ways that weave through the market, stopping to talk to friends or investigate a purchase. Some haul furniture, sacks of potatoes or huge rolls of flooring, some lead sheep and goats away on ropes. The women who peddle salt and rice outside wear huge mid-calf length booties over their shoes to stave off the cold; they look like elephantiasis patients. Children dart through the crowds running errands or playing tag. Other kids watch jealously from their stalls, made to man the booths while their parents eat lunch or drink vodka in tiny, smoky little restaurant shops heated by single burning stoves. Buying meat is quite an experience in and of itself. The meat market in Hovd at times makes The Jungle seem like Whole Foods. The market is housed in a long, low building with two rows of stalls; meat sellers occupy both sides and the middle. If you want to make a purchase, the way to check for both freshness and meat genera is to peer under the tables and search for the head of the animal for sale above. Sometimes sheep, sometimes cow, sometimes goat. I have yet to see a horse head but I know the meat is for sale. Ally cats tensely nibble on bits of scraps and bones, keeping half an eye on possible bullies. The meat vendors are a lively bunch, mostly feisty, beefy women, yelling, smoking cigarettes and throwing their bulk into grinding meat and fat. The interior is dimly lit, depending mostly on skylights, and not heated; smoke issues from everyone's mouth and clouds the space. Massive raw haunches coated in layers of fat lie on just about every table and hang from the supportive poles; it's like a maze walking around without brushing up on some recently dead creature or stepping on an errant rib. Since most people here firmly believe that Mongolian meat has no bacteria, the sellers don't wear gloves and lay out raw meat, overlapping fresh pieces with day old bits, on their bare tables. I highly doubt they wash their hands frequently, if ever. After the meat market, it’s off to buy vegetables. The choices left at this year are limited, but not as bad as it will be in a few months. It's still fall where our produce comes from so tomatoes, bell peppers and even the occasional cucumber is available. Pretty soon we'll be confined solely potatoes, onions, carrots and cabbage. Maybe apples, too. The vegetable sellers are no less rowdy than the meat vendors and eager to hassle any foreigner who steps through the threshold. They should nedz!, Mongolian for "friends!", at me and cackle when I shout it back; we pretend like we're old buddies. The vegetable house is taller and lighter than the meat market and smells overwhelmingly like earth. There is a thin layer of dirt in the air, brought about by the women smacking their vegetables out of boredom and habit- in the summer they do that to keep the flies at bay. After buying vegetables, it’s time to leave and perhaps on the way peek into some of the smaller shops peddling general goods. These shops are always claustrophobic and excessively heated. When you open the door the smell of Christmas trees hits you; all the shop owners burn a bright green incense. The goods are packed to the brim in the tiny stores, baskets overflowing with brightly colored candy and fruit. After poking around these shops for a little while, it’s time to head home and unload the purchases. So needless to say, my shopping trips now are quite a far cry from the quick trips to the sanitized, organized grocery stores I used to take and sadly no ham and cheese croissants are for sale where I am. I think if Oliver Twist, Bob Cratchit or even Charles Dickens himself were to be dropped in the midst of our market, they would not be at a loss. It is truly like a step back in time.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What's A Girl To Do?

Last night I was confronted with something I was told was inevatible but was really dreading/hoping wouldn't happen. Mongolia has a vastly different stance on domestic violence than America- here it's viewed as a part of life. Many husbands do it and many wives accept it. It's seen as just the way of things because in this culture being male is such a privledge and elevation in status. Sadly, I've seen the evidence here before. It isn't very hard to surmise what a difficult marriage my counterpart had- she is jumpy, afraid of men and submissive much of the time. Last year my counterpart told the PCV that had my job before me that she had been a victom of abuse for many years and had even divorced her husband it was so bad; divorce is a rarity here so that stands to the testiment of how badly she was treated. I've also seen one of Mona's counterparts wear sunglasses for days both indoors and out thinking that it would hide her massive black eye. Last night I was doing laundry at Jakes (he is being an angel and letting me use his washing machine as I have no hot water and my heat isn't very good - not optimal hand washing conditions) and Alana had decided to tag along. We were watching The Usual Suspects, chowing down on the cake Alana and I had made Jake as a thank you when we heard voices, a man and a woman, outside in his hall. At first they were just distracting and annoying, as Jake's speakers weren't very loud. But they escilated to shouts and yelps. Then the conversation outside crachendoed to banging, raverberating blows of something on something echoed loudly. I winced with each noise and pretty soon there was no doubt in my mind as to what was happening outside the door. The three of us looked at each other, what should we do? I mean the options were pretty disheartening. We could step out the door and say "stop, we are Americans and we know better than you- we are here to help your country and tell you what to do!" in English, which the people having the altercation wouldn't understand anyway. And even if we did that, if we did interfere, one of two things would ensue: the violence would be turned on us or the people would retreat into their apartment and continue about their business, just annoyed at the inconvienece. But despite the lack of effective solutions to this problem I couldn't in good consience just sit there while the possible sounds of a woman being abused found my ears from a few feet away. I was about to stand up, grabbing my coat, but just then an older woman's voice sounded in the hall, apparently officiating and trying to allay whatever was going on; things settled down. Unfortunately that didn't last long and the yelling and banging started up again soon after. I couldn't take it- I grabbed my cell phone (which has a flashlight on the end) and thrust my head out the door just in time to see several young women yelling and stomping into an apartment at the far end of the hall, seemingly in hot persuit of their friends who had been fighting. That was about the end of it. Jake said that the people in that apartment were all young and had been drinking all day. Yes, I do regret not going out there and helping the young woman in distress. But at the same time, I would have put myself into grave danger (it's not uncommon for men to have knives here), I have limited communication skills and as evidenced by the older woman and the young screaming ones, the community here had adopted a handfull ways of dealing with this sort of situation- although not enough to stop this from happening clearly. The Mongolians have a proverb that states "don't walk you donkey between a man and a woman" and the Peace Corps enforces that- advising us not to get involved in domestic disputes regardless of context. This issue had been brought to my attension before I left for Mongolia and I had spoken with my family about it. My sister said that of course you should help the woman in trouble and that was my knee jerk reaction, too. But the prospect of going out there and facing a drunk man who is ready for a fight when I am already someone who attracts pleanty of negative attension is a scary thing. I am not sure that what I did or didn't do was wrong or even what I would do in the same situation if I could go back and relive it. The only thing I really know is that it was unfortunate.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Ladies Who Luncheon

So Mona, being the sweetheart that she is, has been sharing her counterparts with me. She has about 7 female English teachers whom she works with on a regular basis- observing their classes, giving them solicited advice on life, love and English, team teaching with them and socializing with all of them. I, however, only have 1 counterpart who, though sweet as she can be, isn't very involved in my work and is normally busy, nowhere to be found in the library. So Mona has invited me to share her gaggle of English teachers as surrogate Mongolian mothers and real friends. Previously I had bonded with these women over a rather debaucherious night celebrating a teacher getting her masters, followed by an after party at a club and an after after party at Mona's apartment- quite an evening. Thursday was a rather different affair. On Thursday, becasue there is no school due to H1N1 and the women were interested, Mona had all of her counterparts over to her house to teach them how to make spaghetti and asked me to come over to share the experience. When I told Jake (another PCV in Hovd) about this he laughed and told me that surely the women knew how to boil pasta and open a jar of sauce. Actually, they didn't. Cooking spaghetti was rather foreign to them, though pasta and marinara sauce populate the local grocery store. We made sauce from scratch, using onions, garlic, cherry tomatoes, spices, tomato paste and meat which effectively blew minds. When it came time to put the pasta into the water, all of them crowded around, craning for a look at the magic of spaghetti as if it were baby Jesus in the manger. While Mona headed up the spaghetti effort, I taught them how to make garlic bread in the living room. They had never made garlic bread, or indeed ever heard of the stuff and were quite enthused by the whole process. It was a really great feeling to teach these women sometime new, something they were excited about. And the relationship that developed over our carb fest wasn't one of student to teacher but peer to peer. It was nice to get to know these women, they were so interesting and interested in me. They are all so sweet and real, ranging from a soft spoken mother of one of my Access students to a feisty recent abortion patient whose greeting was grabbing me and reporting that I "have a nice shape ass." At the end of the 2 hour cooking ordeal, when we sat down to eat, they were visibly very pleased with their efforts, certainly a reward for me, and I can safely say that this might have been the first time spaghetti was so heartily enjoyed with milk tea (the first woman who arrived taught Mona and I how to make it before everyone else showed up). Over bites of pasta and garlic bread, they grilled Mona and I about America and more specifically American women. No subject is taboo here so the questions ranged from college tuition money to religion (one of the women told me that she was convinced all "pure Americans" were Christian and was candidly surprised when I explained to her that I didn't prescribe to the belief), from teaching to marriage and having children. They were so intrigued by life across the sea and told us that they honestly didn't see much of a different between Mongolian women and American women from our descriptions. I was sorry to have to leave at 2:30, far passed the time I should have been back at work. With real reluctance I departed this giggling group, heading for my cold chair at the library which was made all the warmer by the memories of my lovely lunch.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Once There Was This Woman on a Bus...

Yesterday I got pretty great, albeit informal, confirmation of the work that I'm doing here. One of my students, Azzaya, comes in fairly fequently to work on the project that I've assigned her class. I gave them a famous person to research and write a small essay on- they picked people from a list of choices I made ranging from Alexander the Great to Elenor Roosevelt. Azzaya happened to get Martin Luther King, Jr., a man she had never heard of before. Yesterday she wrapped up writing her essay and asked me to look it over. One brief glance told me she didn't really understand what she had taken from her sources- phrases like "affirmative action" and "biblical piety and religious liberalism" peppered her pages. So we sat down together and went through her paper, sentece by sentence, and I explaned to her what she had written. We came to the word "segregation" and I tried to tell her what that was, illuminating it in the context of King and the American South. Then she looked at me and goes "Oh! Can I give an example?" My students seem fond of giving their own examples of things I teach them. So "of course!" I said. She then started with "once there was this woman on a bus" and proceeded to tell me the story of Rosa Parks. She had forgotten Park's name and even that I had read her class Park's story from a children's book about a month ago. But the fact that she so excitedly volunteered the story of Rosa Parks and seemed to genuinely feel for Park's struggle was extordinarily touching. She was so proud to tell me something that she knew about the Civil Rights movement and I was proud that she was so invested the story. The students here don't get much mental stimulation in school- the Mongolian education system, harboring leftover ideas from Socialism, is based mostly around memorization enforced by strict decipline- sometimes even corprol punishment. But the fact that I could give a handful of students a window into the life of a seemstress who had the gumptsion to stand up for what she believed in (I made sure the class understood that Parks wasn't 'just tired' like many ignorent people believe, but an activitst who had planned for some time to make a stand that day) was really rewarding, not to mention the fact that Parks had clearly lingered in Azzaya's mind. Even if the only thing I do here is foster a kinship between a strong female hero like Parks and a sweet Mongolian girl like Azzaya, the fact that I could do even that made everything worthwhile.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Culture: My Drug of Choice

Needless to say, life for me has altered significantly since graduating college and coming out here to Mongolia. One of the most pronounced way in which it has changed is the way in which I spend my free time. At Goucher, especially as a Senior, it was difficult to find a way not to get into trouble. There was normally a party , bar night or people hanging out 5 nights per weeks (or at least it was harder to find trouble on Sunday and Monday night…not that it couldn’t be done, mind you). But here in Hovd, my little corner of Mongolia, it’s quite a bit harder to go crazy quite as much. So in lieu of liver destruction, I have taken to reading new books, watching new movies, cooking new foods, keeping up with the news and getting into artwork. Admittedly, there is a big part of me that misses the debaucherous lifestyle, especially at the young age of 22 when most of my friends are still living it. However, in the past few months I’ve read more books for pleasure than I ever did in college (possibly more books, period, even though I was a literature major…my reading list has most notably included The Water is Wide by Pat Conroy, O! Pioneers by Willa Cather, Lie Down With Lions by Ken Follett and currently The Known World by Edward P. Jones). And it also feels really good to be able to have in-depth conversations about current events, a thing I could only do in the general sense before. I like this idea of continuing education outside of formal schooling. Learning new things is something my parents do and I really aspire to follow them in that- my dad is always reading a new door stop sized history book and my mom constantly delves into new projects and hobbies, both travel often. So for the time being beer pong has been replaced by Jane Austin (well, for the most part) and keg stands have been pushed out by charcoal pencils. I wonder if this is growing up. That's a scary thought- instead I’d like to think that is being resourceful in order stave off boredom and perhaps make myself a better, more intelligent person along the way. But whatever it may be, for now I’m enjoying learning a little more about something every day.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Perspective and Percipitation

It's amazing how lucky I feel to be here. I know that's hard to fathom that when I tell you that only sometimes does my heating, electricity and running water work (that's the cold water, mind you, the hot water has decided to work for perhaps 3 minutes per day, if at all). In addition to the fact that consumer goods here are extremely limited and that the coldest winter I have ever known is fast approaching. But really, if you look at it a different way, then it all sounds quite nice. I have tons of wonderful site mates, a great job teaching eager students, a steady pay check, an apartment that is quite cozy (bonus: leopard-print futon), great free medical care, parents and a whole extended family network who couldn't possibly be more supportive or interested in my work and the best friends I could possibly hope for. Things like the lights in my apartment working seem trivial compared to the love I feel from people at home and the priceless things I've been given, like the best education possible. And the opportunity to share those things, to not take them for granted, makes me feel lucky.
I spent lots of time working with homeless and at-risk teenagers (a thing I miss dearly here) in the last few years. One kid, Jay, really stood out to me. When I knew him he was about seventeen and was always dirty, didn't normally wear shoes, was a compulsive liar and lived on and off with his pimp. One day he walked into the center where we worked with the kids and I asked him how he was doing. He looked at me and, in the cheeriest and most matter of fact voice, goes "blessed and highly favored!" That really just stand out to me as the quintessential example of how you can really decide how to look at your life. I think Jay was on to something.

Also, it snowed here a few days ago. The town is still blanketed in white and I am pretty sure that my fifth floor apartment gives me the best view in the city of the winter wonderland. It's really strange to live somewhere with little to no precipitation. Hovd is technically a "desert-steppe" climate, a thing drastically different from either Atlanta or Baltimore. Having any sort of rain, sleet or snow give a sort of release that I think is rather cathartic for everyone who experiences it, either consciously or subconsciously. It is certainly nice to have sunny weather all the time but I do miss those storms that make the world feel newly washed and fresh. The snow clouds that gathered and let lose upon my town made things feel less tense, like there was a general release of breath as the flakes fell. A euphoric and snowy exhaliation.

Monday, November 2, 2009


I've finally caught up to present day! Here are some thing's I'm struggling with at this moment...

I am overall really very happy. But sometimes it’s an isolated feeling that blankets my world. Sometimes it feels like I’m one of the Lost Boys, but without Peter Pan. We, all us Peace Corps Volunteers, are here in a wee band, a little tribe, of people, some young, some old, clinging together to get through this ordeal come hell, Hook or high water.

Also, Facebook has decided to up and shut me out. Normally it wouldn't be this big a deal but that social network is really why I went to such great lengths to get internet in the first place. It's pretty important to me to keep in touch with my friends, keeps me sane and not feeling quite so isolated from everything. It's like a scrapbook from my entire college career. This may be for better or worse, but it's mine and I loved knowing that it was there, baring witness to my years at Goucher. I desperately hope it lets me back in.

Inadvertent Revelations and Tropical Fruit on November 1

I think being here is letting me get in touch with myself and the world around me. This was certainly not something I set out to do and it even sounds contrite to say it. Saying that you’re getting in touch with things conjures up images of some brooding poet who takes to the mountains or perhaps flees to a little house in the European country side. But for me, life is just more quite here. There are less distractions, less noise, in my town and my apartment. I have started really cooking, getting to know the process it takes to create food. I let silence creep in around me sometimes, a thing I made of habit of never doing in the States. I’m getting the hang of the rhythm of life. It’s an inadvertent thing, this quiet, and it came about so slowly that I’ve only now just noticed it. It wasn’t an epiphany or anything, but a feeling of looking next to you and realizing that someone has been sitting there for quite sometime. I don’t have any plans for today (except perhaps battling the massive hangover brought on by the severely debauched Halloween party last night) and it’s been nice to just clean up, drink coffee and now I’m about to watch a movie.
Alana has been hanging around my apartment, fleeing the frozenness of her ger. It’s nice to have her energy and chatter fill the space. Even though I’m enjoying being alone, I’ll certainly miss her when she leaves in a few months. We chat endlessly as she uses my oven and water distiller and I’ve learned a lot from her- she grew up in the North Carolina country, a far cry from my urban upbringing. We look at the world differently and it’s nice to share views.

I found a pineapple in the market yesterday! It looked lost, sitting among the potatoes and dead sheep with four of it’s fellows. I bought it and excitedly showed it to the vender I buy normally buy vegetables from and she said “oooh, banan.” I don’t think Mongolians know what to do with a pineapple. It was so strange to put it to my face and smell the tropical smell, the specific scent I associate with Hawaii., in the middle of the frigid market. I cut it up today with the intention of sharing it with Alana. Sadly, the core had already started going bad and the middle was a dark purplish color. As we ate around the rotten core, I found it profoundly poetic that this little pineapple had traveled so far from it’s home (I like to think it was on a ship that wrecked and so it found itself on a foreign shore, like “Twelfth Night”… “What country, friend, is this?”) and lost it’s youth and life on the journey. I know it’s just a pineapple but it’s a pretty incredible thing here so I think it deserves a story, however false.

Marching Towards Winter on October 30...Also, It's 5 O'Clock Somewhere...

So now my apartment has now been thoroughly winterized. On Wednesday morning, two of the cleaners from the library trooped into my apartment at 930am to winterize the windows. The process is like this: wash the windows, clean the sills and between the double pains (is it pains or panes...?) of glass (all the windows and doors are in two layers), stuff magazine pages, news paper bits and saw dust between the two window pains (apparently this keeps it warm and stops the windows from frosting over/fogging) and then apply duct or scotch tape liberally to the edges of the windows. It's quite a process. However, I wasn't really around for this whole affair, because as soon as the ladies came in and assessed my apartment they turned to me and started demanding (in Mongolian, neither of them spoke English), flicking their throats with their fingers, beer and American food. So with a heavy sigh, I ran down to the bank then bought beer and mac and cheese stuff. I figured it's a nice gesture to thank them. I've realized that everyone here has very distinct roles (women do the window winterizing but when it came to nailing up my felt on the door, they explained that only men can do that- not a women's job!). So since they wouldn't let me help with the window winterizing, I'd be more in the way than anything, my role was to feed and water, so that's what I did. So now my windows are winterized and my counterpart and the library director came over yesterday and nailed the felt up over my bedroom door so that the heat stays in and concentrated and today my cleaner friends rolled in, waking me up with some seriously violent door knocking, with a rug (thank god they only wanted tea and coffee this time around). I think I just might survive the winter now that I have all the accountramonts. My heat is still sporadic and the hot water has decided to turn off completely but my space heater and I get along just fine (I have a feeling that soon I'm going to love that little heater more than I've loved anything ever before). Also, school has been canceled across the whole country for the second week in a row due to swine flu. Luckily my health seems to have gotten better recently without having to work, as I've been sleeping more, so I feel just fine!

Hug Trees, Not Swine!...October 23ed's Thoughts

This weekend there's going to be a big environmental rally in the square and then Ultimate Frisbee and Soccer down by the river. That should be fun. Next week we have a fall holiday so I get the week off. Normally the break would be a few weeks later but the swine flu is getting so bad in Mongolia that they have decided to bump the break up and hopefully stop the spreading by not letting kids cough on each other in class. I don't think any cases have been found in Hovd. And not to let an occasion pass uncelebrated, the international crew here has decided to have a swine flu party with a contest for the best decorated mask. I think I'm going to do a rapper's grill in tin foil on the front of mine. We'll see...But so far everyone I know is healthy and if it were really serious I have every confidence that Peace Corps would fly us into UB and vaccinate us. At this point I'm just glad to have a week off.

On Wednesday night I went to a karaoke competition. This wasn't you normal bunch of tipsy people sitting on couches singing off tune. It was a huge event with a cash prize, fully televised in a big hall-type venue. The library staff was one team, as was the local insurance company, Xaah bank and secondary school teachers- even the police force had their own karaoke squad in full uniform. It was serious business. The vodka flowed freely (although I try not to drink it- I've discovered the unfortunate repercussions, a hangover that's brutal and totally not worth it) and the library director was clearly feeling pretty good. It was so funny to see all these adults in costumes (everyone had on pretty crazy costumes- one group looked like Barbie goes to Prom, our team was dressed vaguely like flight attendants and the MC wore a shiny gold vest under an orange and yellow suit complete with a sparkly bow tie that reached past his coat lapels- it was incredible) taking karaoke so seriously. The songs were all Mongolian folk songs and everyone sounded vaguely the same so I couldn't figure out why the police team won, aside from the fact that it is probably a good idea to let the police win any local competitions so as not to suffer the consequences. It was a pretty surreal experience.

Snow and News From October 14

Today I woke an hour early to see gray skies out my window. As the morning progressed, it began to flurry and now the snow is coming down in thick, white clumps. Snow always takes me back to vacations during the holidays. Somehow snow smells like Western Europe at Christmas, and conjures up memories of white Kriskendal Marts, flakes melting on my gluvein and laughing with my family as we get lost once again in wee snowy alley ways trying to find our way back to the cozy hotel. It was rather puzzling for this Southern Belle to want to sit at home and watch the Muppet Christmas Carol today and then realize I have to go to work to start planning the Halloween party. Apparently it's still early for snow in Mongolia but it's really pretty and not all that cold so I really don't mind. Hovd allegedly has the average rainfall of Phoenix, AZ so this is quite a special thing.

So within the last few days I have had news of the good, the bad and the ugly...The good news first: the Goucher magazine is having it's 125th anniversary issue and is featuring alums from different eras whom they find to be interesting or successful. So, who knew!, they asked me. Apparently I'm an interesting/successful alum already and I've only been out of school for about 5 months! I don't know if I quite believe it though! I'm now trying to come up with "quotable" things to say about my life. Also, in good news, my work place has tropical heating. It's wonderful! I'm warm and toasty in my long underwear, sipping the Taster's Choice Grandma sent me and comfortably watching the snow fall outside. Not too bad.
The bad: I haven't had power for over 2 days and nights at my apartment. No one seems to know why and I've successfully burnt all my candles out. I suppose living in a soviet bloc apartment does have it's draw backs. But my director is going over there to see what he can do about it today so hopefully it'll come back soon. My apartment and the two next to it seemed to be the only three in the city sans power which was the most frustrating part. But compared to other Peace Corps volunteers living in tents and digging holes for personal outhouses, a loss of power really isn't the worst thing.
The ugly: I found out today that one of the girls who went Greece with me was killed in a car crash yesterday. It involved a high profile soccer player who sustained minor injuries but Ashley, 22, did not survive. I can't help but think of her mother- she had no other kids and was divorced- and of the loss of Ashley's life. I wasn't ever really that close to her, we didn't hang out after Greece, but she was so kind and fun and it's always strange when someone you used to know quite well dies.

Some Ruminations on October 8

Apparently Friday is culture day. Not quite sure what that means but today my boss/counterpart informed me that she had taken to liberty of signing me up for a chess tournament today and a ping pong tournament tomorrow. She asked me if I knew how to do either after she signed me up. I told her that I knew how to do both but couldn't really perform either very well. (I certainly foresee getting completely owned at ping pong.) So I am not quite sure if I'm going to have class today or not. It seems like school revolves around special occasions here, not the other way around. If there's a wedding, a horehog, a cultural event, a funeral- anything- school is the first to go. Not that I mind, it'll be fun to try these new things. It's just rather different from America where you need a note and vacation time just to go to the dentist. Anyway, wish me luck!

I woke up somehow extraordinarily happy and blissfully contented today. Not even the smell of cooking mutton that wafted up through my floorboards could take it away (a bold statement because that smell is pretty rancid). Last night Hovd was in my dreams for the first time ever. I dreamed that Peace Corps wanted to take me away from Hovd and put me in another Mongolian town for some reason or another, I vaguely remember Hovd being destroyed in my dream. I was so distressed and even remember crying in my dream. Somehow in sleep I couldn’t be parted from this city- a city I was assigned to by someone else, almost arbitrarily. When I woke, I was relieved to find myself here safe and sound with another day of teaching in front of me. I was glad to see that I had weeks and weeks to live and work here and for the first time was taken aback with the thought of leaving. Since now I’ve been looking forward to getting out at some point, either on vacation or for training. But now I am just contented to live my life in this wee Western city, even in my dreams.

Humm, Boys...Some Thoughts from my Journal on September 5

So since coming to Mongolia, I've been able to really think about a lot of things. One of the things I've been thinking about is why I'm here and this throws into perspective almost daily thoughts of both the rewards and sacrifices of doing something like the Peace Corps. One sacrifice of joining the Peace Cops, and even before this a result of moving around all the time, is the toll it takes on my relationships, both platonic and romantic. The former is important for sure but right now my attention has been drawn, by a certain dashing gentleman residing in America, to the latter. At a recent count, I could think of at least six potential romantic relationships that were bought to a grinding halt by my geographic undesirability. Really I can't remember a love or budding affection, serious or otherwise, that wasn't affected negatively by distance and my tendency towards a nomadic lifestyle over the past few years. But then again, I must remind myself that it is worth it. I willingly sacrifice these relationships so that I can go and see the world and live the life that I feel like I need to. Driven in hot pursuit of my personal and professional goals, I don't even vaguely feel the need to curb myself for the sake of a guy. But still, sometimes it's a sad and lonely choice to leave someone for the sake of your ideals, thoughts of what could have been sometimes creeps into the corners of my mind, even though I know the choice to chase my goals has always been the right one.

My First Encounter with the Imfamous Power Outages: September 6

We've been having power outages about every day now but hopefully such frequency won't last too long. Surprisingly it doesn't affect the pace of life here too much. They still have school and the market is outside anyway; for Monglish yesterday the restaurant we were at just lit candles. I remember being terrified of the power outages at home when I was a kid, but here it's not a big deal. Kinda funny.

Update from August 27

Getting internet is going rather slowly. We have come to affectionately call it 'Mongolian Time'- things get done anywhere from 3 hours early to a couple of weeks late. My counterpart said she'd help me get internet but that hasn't gone too well thus far (today, she told me she'd take me then led me behind the children's library where a bunch of Mongolians were hanging out and cooking outside. We sat there for 30 minutes until she told me she had to go...but on the up side of that adventure, I met a Mongolian 'eme' which is the word for 'grandma' -everyone calls old women that. If you get an eme on your side, she will make sure that no one messes with you and if she finds out that someone was rude to you, she will shame them horribly and publicly. Apparently eme's are the law around here and I made friends with a good one, I think.).

We had a big dinner called Monglish last night. It was all the PCV's in Hovd plus an American Fullbright scholar here for a while and a really fun Swiss German teacher who is a girl a little older than I am meeting up for dinner with a bunch of Mongolian and Kazach people to chat in both Mongolian and English. We had a good time and I think I've made some really great friends here. After dinner we all went to the disco where the rest of the Americans flaked out and I was left dancing to until late in the night with my new friends. It was great fun.

I've also set about getting my apartment furnished. It's been quite an adventure weaving through the stalls in the big open air market in the middle of Hovd, trying to find cookware, towels and the like. Luckily one of our new friends, a really sweet Kazach guy name Berickbold, took a few of us around yesterday and helped us look for things. Almost there. And we have a big party on Friday that we are throwing to meet people and sort of announce our selves. Hopefully that will go well. I don't start work until the 5th, or thereabouts, so I've just been getting to know the city and assembling my apartment. Things are going well thus far although I must admit that they'd be going better if I were able to get internet for my apartment. That seems to be the one thing that is most important to me (as that way I can have more dependable communication, put up picutres, etc.) but also the most difficult to get.

Early Days in Hovd: Thoughts from August 25

Taken from an e-mail to my parents, this is when I first got to Hovd (which was a process in and of itself, involving a 5am plane flight on which one of my site mate's new school directors was far too trashed to be let on the plane and was retained, clutching his tallboy of Tiger beer, at the security checkpoint)...

Lovely news from the steppes! Everything is going strangely well. The hardest thing about my life, the rotting mutton in the leftover pots in my new kitchen, is going to get cleaned today! I think asking the former occupant of the apartment, my boss, to take her sweaters out of the fridge where she is currently storing them would be something of a stretch, however.

Last night we went to a 'hore-hog' (that's how its pronounced phonetically, anyway) for my site mate's new school's 30 anniversary. A horehog is a real Mongolian barbecue, normally held by a river of some sort, it involves killing sheep, putting the hacked up parts into a large metal bucket of sorts with hot rocks and placing the whole container on top of a dung fire, all the while erecting lots of gers. When we (two site mates and I) got there the party was in full swing, sitting in a ger with lots of school officials, I learned Mongolian 'cheers' and was fed meat off the bone. After about an hour of this, on top of speeches and more schmoozing and standing around the fire, the speakers came out and literally everyone, from the 70 year old janitor to the young P.E. teacher, got to dancing to terrible Russian techno. They were all very impressed with my moves but it doesn't take much to impress here in the dancing department to be honest. It was just so wonderful that I met new friends (a middle aged, portly Mongolian woman who teaches English at my site mates school attached herself to me and we got along just fine- she loved to dance, speaks great English and sort of took me under her wing for the night) in Mongolia at a sheep roast in a ger in the middle of the most stunning scenery I've ever seen with literally nothing around but a flock of eagles. The more I experience such genuine Mongolian things like that, the more I feel so lucky to be here. I would never have done that nor met any of those people if I hadn't taken the leap and come out here. There have been lots of really affirming experiences like that lately and I know I'm in the honeymoon phase of being out here but I really feel very lucky to have this site.

I'm actually at my first day of work right now and it's a really impressive place. They have lots of good books and resources in Mongolian and English for students. So it seems like there's a lot here for me to work off of but they still need help- they don't have an online catalog of the books and they really want one so i think that would be a good project for me.

Site Placement: Thoughts from August 16

Still catching up...Recollections of what I was thinking...

So it looks like I really got everything I asked for and dared not ask for (becasue I was so afraid of not getting it...). I am out in the far West of Mongolia in a town called Hovd teaching at an NGO (I'm the only TEFL Volunteer not at a school!) called the American Culture and Information Center, which has a big English library and free internet. My main job will be teaching English to small classes of motivated students from low income families. What a great job! I solo teach all the time so I have the freedom to create my own curriculum which will be nice for sure. I apparently have an apartment (sooo happy about that!...hope it's warm in the winter though), as well, and it has running water, which is a huge deal. I have five awesome site mates plus one other girl who has been there for a year already which is wonderful because I was terrified of the loneliness of being the only American in some tiny town or having site mates I didn't like. Also, there are tons of NGO's and non-profits based there that I'd love to do some work with. Hovd is also really diverse, one of the most diverse places in Mongolia, actually. Because it's so close to the Kazakh aimag (province or state) of Bayan Olgii, there are lots of Kazakh people, as well as Mongolians. We have a Buddhist Temple and a Mosque! The only drawback is that it's a fly site (meaning that it's so far from the capitol that Peace Corps will pay for our flights to and from trainings). However, that really doesn't seem like such a bad thing; I think it sounds way better than having a 20 hour bus ride to the capitol. I was really anticipating being dissipointed in some way but it just didn't happen- everything worked out. Here's a site about Hovd (Wikipedia doesn't really have anything but this site was created by a PCV a few years ago):

The Site Placement Ceremony itself was really nerve wracking. The way they do it is that they have everyone in the gym in the school we're training at and have a huge map of Mongolia spread out on the floor. They call towns, organizations and then the name of the person who will be working there. You stand up, walk shoeless onto the map and someone leads you to stand on the town you'll be spending two years of you life in. Many people were pretty upset during this ceremony, since they didn't get the posting that they'd hoped for. But looks like I got really lucky on this one, just about everything I could have hoped for!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

More Stuff from Training

I also have back log journal entries, as well. Since the old e-mails in the last post sort of went over what I was doing for the most part, the journal entries were more about what I was feeling. It all seems a bit melodramatic now but at the time with the culture shock and the intensity with which I was missing home, the melodrama is actually about right. Again, my thoughts on the
situation now are in parenthesis. So here goes...

July 18:
Yesterday the movie "Edward Scissorhands" came on t.v. in Mongolian. I stayed up an hour and a half passed my bedtime to watch it- a big splurge since I wake up at 7 every morning to walk the cows to the river with my host Mom. The movie was appropriately dubbed in Mongolian but even though I couldn't understand a word, I cried at the end. Before I came here I found "Edward Scissorhands" unnecessarily sad and a little dumb. But now after experiencing truly being an outsider in every way, I found myself weeping at such a poignant albeit bizarre film. For some reason, that night, the movie seemed to speak directly to my situation here. The experience of being completely submerged in a culture yet not being able to participate or worst making a horrible mess of things you try to do is one that not everyone has. A sense of belonging, or lack thereof, has such a profound impact on one's life that I hadn't recognized before. I suppose that it's because I've never felt this out of context and alien that it is particularly striking now. It's amazing how many people have written on the topic- from Shakespeare's "Richard II" to "Peter Pan" everyone has something to say about belonging or not belonging, and I'm only now really seen it first hand. It's a powerful enough thing to make a girl feel like she has scissors for hands.

July 16:
It is really frustrating waiting for site placement. I feel totally in the dark which is a tough thing in a situation when so much is unknown already- as in most of my day is bewildering. I'm so scared of getting a bad placement, I wouldn't do well in a ger in the middle of no where. I definitely didn't sign up for that. All this unknowing makes me think of sailors in the Middle Ages, sailing into sunset, headed for God only knows where, clutching a map riddled with monsters and dragons, armed with only vague ideas of how to crew a ship. Only those sailors made it to the Bahamas, that is for sure not in my future.
Over the last few weeks, I've stared to feel really young. Never before has 22 felt so infantile. Perhaps I'm realizing that I am really physically very young-in college 22 is ancient, in grown-up years it really isn't that old- the transition from college to grown-up is one I've been working on in addition to all the other stuff. There's also the fact that I am pretty bewildered by my surroundings and feel like a little puppy most of the time, unable to fend for myself very well. The more I'm learning here the more I realize that I don't know a whole lot about the world, well at least I realize there is so much more to learn. When we're children, we have the good fortune of not knowing how little really know, often times we think we know everything. But in a situation like this I've become painfully aware of how much I don't know. It's a strange and scary feeling when you've spent your whole life- no matter how long that may be- in pursuit of knowledge to look around and find that you don't really know anything. I mean I can hold my own in a conversation about art, politics, ethics, education systems, etc. But here in Mongolia I have about 20 nouns at my disposal and might as well have a neon sign blinking "confused white girl" over my head when I walk into a store. It's jarring and disconcerning but most of all humbling. And as frustrating as it is to be so utterly brought to ones knees, I hope I never forget this feeling in the future, near or distant. No matter how good one gets at life, it is always important to remember the darkest hours and hold them dear, trusting them to keep ourselves and our egos in check.

July 11:
Every day I come closer to being at peace with being here. There is still a long way to go- I can honestly say that a single idle moment hasn't gone by when my thought don't immediately go to my life and loved ones in America. However, my dreams are settling. Whenever I go somewhere alone that's really different or even just sleep in a new place I have vivid and often disturbing dreams. For the first three weeks my dreams were pretty intense and left me feeling drained when I woke up. Most of my dreams were about lost loves or abandonment which I think totally makes sense given that I've moved across the world, but the dreams are disconcerting nonetheless. Recently, however, I haven't been remembering my dreams as much and when I do they've been of a sweeter, milder nature, a sure sign I'm getting used to my new life. Recently I got miserably sick, plagued with a fever, chills, aching back, congested sinuses, sore throat and absurdly swollen lymph nodes. I stayed in bed for two days, read all of Pat Conroy's "The Water is Wide" (I highly recommend it!) and sweated out the virus. At night my fever broke and I had a dream of my family being together again. When I woke up in the morning I felt better, like a great storm had passed and was strangely more at peace with my life. For whatever reason, since my recovery being in Mongolia no longer makes me want to throw myself into the Pacific and doggie paddle until I reach American soil. My body has healed itself here, I've reach the absolute bottom and managed to bounce back just fine. So perhaps I should stick around and really give this place a shot.

June 28:
I've been thinking a lot about Van Gogh's painting "The Potato Eaters" lately. I've been lucky enough to see it twice and both times it resonated with me deeply. But since I've come to Mongolia, I've come to understand it on a deeper level. My job in my host family is the designated
vegetable peeler and chopper. It's a job I think I got it because I can't really mess it up too badly although they certainly have a specific way of doing it here. I don't mind- I kind of like the tactility and monotony of the job and it's nice to feel useful and included in the family chores. My host family and I eat potatoes about twice a day and I've begun to feel a little like Van Gogh's subjects, exhaustedly hunched over yet another 'tater, squinting to dig out the eyes of said tuber it in the dimly lit house. Even though the canvass is hanging with its subjects hundreds of miles away in a beautiful museum in Amsterdam, I still feel bonded with it as well as with the potato eaters of the past and present. I think it has something to do with focusing on each day, just trying to make it through to the next just like the people in the painting had to do. In training this has become my reality, pushing from day to day, trying not to miss home too much, choking down the food and attempting to cram Mongolian language into my brain. It is a lot to work on but for today it is enough to have just reach an understanding with the potato peelers and a single piece of art.

June 24:
Shadows of the Past- Every now and then I'll hear a noise that makes me think I am somewhere else. My host sister's cell phone sounds like my ring tone back in America. When it goes off, I sometimes think that it's a friend calling for dinner or waning to throw the frisbee around on the quad. Something dropped in the kitchen the other day and it sounded like a soda vending machine. It has happened many times. It only takes a second for my reflexes that tell me I'm in America to fade, I realize that what I've heard and it's like a light has come on in a dark room, the shadows are instantly gone. But it's the jerking me out of my recollections is the strange part, I am left with the empty feeling that I can't even understand the sounds around me. It's a lonely thing, this feeling. It recalls a world I've left of my own derision but still miss deeply.

June 22:
Atmosphere- A word on atmosphere. Firstly its the name of the group that whose songs have reoccurred throughout my life with odd regularity, rearing its head at poignant or memorable moments and marking many experiences. Their songs became my anthems during all night paper writing in college, keeping me awake with the infectious hip hop beats and profound lyrics. My favorite song of theirs "The Woman with the Tattooed Hands" reminds me of those nights that blurred into the following day. Those times that I watched the sun rise over Goucher from behind a computer in the deserted library. The song again reared its head during a wild night out with my StandUp for Kids coworkers, speeding through the streets of Baltimore in pursuit of parties. It also reminds me of my Sister. She introduced me to that specific song and we then introduced all of Atlanta to it by blaring out open windows while cruising the streets together. It also now comments on my time in Mongolia. The chorus goes "I've got a lot to teach, but even more to learn" and everyday I find that it's true for me here. It is with that attitude that I try to view my experiences in this foreign land.
Also, the atmosphere here in Mongolia is particularly remarkable. The air smells like mint or sage when the wind blows, a huge different from the streets of Baltimore. The wind here will whisk you off your feet and makes walks by the river seem almost like strolling through a science fiction novel. Walking in town foreign smells fill the air. The scent of roasting mutton- not the nicest of smells- and livestock hangs in the air, waiting for you to walk through it. When you walk here, little white butterflies scatter into the air in your wake and in front of you. They're tiny, almost moth-like and there are so many of them it sometimes looks like a cloud. The sounds are different, too. Cuckoos live in the trees by the river and I can hear them from my house. The chattering of voices speaking a language I don't understand fills my ears daily and is something I have yet to get used to. The atmosphere here is so intensely different from anywhere I've lived before and perhaps that's what makes things feel so foreign.

June 20:
The latter half of today was good. I've spent the better part of 2 days choking back tears. (My host family pointed to the phrase "what are your parent's jobs?" in the phrase book and I had to go to my wee house to grab the dictionary so I could answer but also so they wouldn't see me burst into tears with how much I missed them and the feeling of 'what the hell am I doing here?!') But being able to speak with the other volunteers later in the day was so therapeutic. I found out that everything I was feeling other people were feeling, too. We took a walk by the river after a game of basketball then I went home for a nap and now am having a good time cooking with my host sister. I think I just needed to talk to someone about all this. Culture shock is a tough one.
Today I was also feeling bad about the way I look. No surprise since I haven't showered in days, have greasy hair and am now just discovering that the pants I brought with me for 2 years are incredibly ugly. I mentioned this to Todd and he looked at me and said "you look like a Peace Corps Volunteer." While you'd think I'd have figured this one out earlier, I was kind of taken aback by his words. It made a huge amount of sense really and while I don't plan on embracing my dirty hair (now that I have running water, I wash it every day), I looked at myself differently for the fist time. I saw a strong adult doing a brave thing instead of a ex-college girl who used to be attractive when she had a blow dryer and an arsenal of cute clothes.

Friday, October 16, 2009


Here are a few excerpts from e-mails I sent my parents with a few added details in parenthesizes. I think the emotional turmoil that went down in training for me are pretty adequately expressed and gives a bit more detail about what exactly I was doing. It's a lot to read and perhaps repeats some of the last post so feel free to skim or whatever. The earliest emails are at the bottom and they work chronologically up to the top. Here goes...

August 11:
One of my PC friends here is a recent graudate from Sarah Lawerence-same time as me- and when we get down thinking about all the freedom and ease offeres-see: whole foods, flushing toilets, the same language, etc.- we talk about how difficult the job hunt would be and where we could afford to live in the States- a box really. Not that I'm doing this because there's nothing else to do, but (it's good to keep in mind what I've got instead of dwell on what I wish I had). I just finished reading Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia, which was great. I'm trying to minimize the reading right now, which is hard because there are so many great things on my Kindle, but I really need to buckle down and learn Mongolian. I have my big language test tomorrow then we leave on Saturday morning and find out our site placement at 3:30 on Saturday!! I can't wait. To be honest, I am scared of being put out in the country side. But I talked to the site placement people about that during my site placement interview and they seemed to understand. So we'll see what happens and really it might be a good experience to be out in the country for two years. I also don't know what it will be like so it's silly to be scared of something I don't know about. So I just gotta wait and find out. It'll be an adventure for sure wherever I go. I'll certainly keep you posted. If anything I am excited to live on my own and try to hack it here. Mongolian food isn't bad but I miss Ameircan food and want to cook for myself and it would be great to have my own space. So itll be good wherever they send me...As far as friends goes, Ive found lots of cool people. Im anxious to see who I'll be stationed near because those people will really be my network. Ive been able to meet a wide vierity of people since being here, it's really incredible. Just in my wee group of 12, there's a 73 year old retired college professor, a 30 year old gay Texan whose worked at Denny's for 12 years before joining the peace corps, a 26 year old girl who got her masters in Chaucer from St Andrews in Scotland-and the list goes on. The peace corps certainly attracts a motley bunch and if anything it is wonderful to meet people with such different life views and experiences. I've made some good friends within our group here. Some of them arent people I might not necessarily be chose to or even have occasion to meet so this has been such a great experience on being with different people, being thrown together like this.

uly 31:
Things in Mongolia are trucking right along. As of tomorrow, my first day of school is in one month- a terrifying prospect. It's all going to happen so fast after what's felt like forever waiting to see the other kids again and get our site placements. Went into UB yesterday for an orentation day. We went to a monistary I'd love to take you to- it was a very old one that survived the communists becuase it was turned into a museaum. We also went to a cafe with chi tea lattes and i just about died of happiness. UB is really a facinating city- there are lots of markets that remind me of the dekalb farmers market, the smells are so intense and amazing. You really can get whatever you want in UB, from curry powder to bottled frappachinos, for a price though...Tomorrow night we have our community project and I really hope it doesn't tank. We are going to show a very profound anti-trafficking video, have a community discussion and then a dance. I don't know how that segway will go to dance from human trafficking discussion or if many people will show up but a project is something peace corps requires us to do so they're just looking for us to try something. I'll let you know how it goes. But it has definitely gotten me jazzed to work on human trafficking prevention when I get to site. That seems like a good project, seeing as my host family doesn't believe it happens in Mongolia but the statics are pretty scary.

July 24:
I had my first solo teaching and it went so so well! They really loved it. My friend traced my silhouette on a big sheet of paper and they labeled the parts, in addition to Simon Says and 'Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes' which they loved. Also, my Mongolian teacher is great. I haven't told you about her yet. Shes really smart and sweet, a young woman who spent lots of time in Germany and teaches Mongolian at the school. She's a great part of the support system that the Peace Corps has for us. It's good to get to know a Mongolian on a teacher level but she is also getting to be a friend of everyone in the class-for example, she took in one of the trainees whose host uncle died and had no where to go.

July 15:
I got hit with a wave of homesickness yesterday but went to my Mongolian house, did some laundry-what a process that is!-, ate some strange goat meat from a barbecue by the river and realized that this life is very normal to many people. It was hard not to wish I was back home today when I was looking at the photos but there have been lots of great things happening here, too. Over the weekend, I went to UB with my host sister. We spent all day going to Naadam, seeing the biggest monistary in UB- so beautiful!, climbing up to this crazy soviet monument overlooking the whole city, checking out the state department store-think Harrods of Mongolia- and of course Suukbater square. It was so great to finally see the city. And while they say that UB is not the real Mongolia, it's good to know what's out there and makes me realize I don't want to the in the capital because that's not really how Mongolian people live-even though a half of their population is there. It's Mongolia but urbanized which causes the lifestyle to lose so much of it's uniqueness.

July 8:
I'm so glad everyone had a great fourth of July. Ours was interesting with all the hijinx expected of a peace corps fourth of July in Mongolia- a little debauchery in a yert and a wild goose chase for a party behind a hotel. But all is well and we were Kindle is wonderful. I love it and there are several other volunteers who eye it jeliously when I take it out. I've finished Mountains Beyond Mountains thus far and got to read the entirety of Pat Conroy's book The Water is Wide when I was sick- a phenomenal book, what an authorial voice!, with lots of similarities to what I think I'm doing...or at least trying to do, with the right amount of old south to make me long for grits and balmy weather but not too homesick. Now I'm starting Pride and Prejudice...I went to the Naadam-the festival of three manly sports- for my village last weekend and the big Naadam in UB is this coming weekend. Apparently, my family is going for the first part of Saturday for the opening then having a 10 person -whole- goat roast down by the river...Things are going well here these days- I'm getting into the groove of being here over all. I've come to realize that two years is not that long- especially not compared to the American life span-longer than the Mongolian one. I can spend the rest of my life in America leading a normal life with a normal relationship but now is the time to have an unconventional life and be in a relationship developing myself/helping others- if that makes sense. Also, there are so many doors that this will open. I suppose it's obvious I've been spending lots of time thinking about the world lately, especially in context to my role in it and Peace Corps as a whole, which I think is good. Also, I've picked up some instant Nescafe from the store and make a sort of latte with my milk tea in the morning so life here is going fine. It seems like a game or puzzle to figure out how to live my life in such a different place and it's going well so far.

June 30:
Our teacher asked us to draw our ideal/fave American meal and label it in Mongolian during class. I drew Dad's salmon salad complete with homemade hummus, salmon fillet, roasted red peppers and the words. Sadly, mixed field greens didnt translate very well into Mongolian. :) Sorry it's been a while- I've actually been really sick lately. I feel much better now but I had to miss a day and a half of school due to fever, soar throat, sinus congestion and everything. For some reason, after having been so ill I feel much better about being here. I had a dream about the family being together when my fever was breaking and after that I was able to dream about Mongolia-weirdly, I hadn't yet and somehow when I recovered from my illness I had come much more to terms with being here than earlier. Before, I fought being here and would construct fun Atlanta agendas for my day instead of being here: Pilates, Flying Biscuit, Boarders, Piedmont Park, etc. but now I've really started looking forward into the future in Mongolia. I think it's healthy because I've realized while my favorite Starbucks and shoe stores may come and go, life in Atlanta and to a greater extent America will be going on without me and will welcome me back into it when I get home, wherever I chose to get a place after I'm done with my experiences here. So much more secure thoughts coming from over here in the east these days. My host family is great. I've actually been placed with one of the poorer host family in this town. Literally up to about six adults and a baby sleep in the same room every night on mats on the floor and cots. Earlier, I couldn't conceive of how a family could actually live in a two room house but now I see that people do and while I am sure glad that I don't normally-they have me in a small separate house at the other side of the yard- it's something mind blowing to watch and be a part of, especially coming from the privilege life that I do. The family is in total a mother and six kids. The father died in a car crash when all the kids were all very young and the mother had to raise all those kids by herself-can you imagine!?. But they are all very friendly and come and go regularly, without staying very long- some of the sisters left for work in the countryside yesterday only to be replaced by a brother and cousin a day later. But they cook on a single wood/dung burning stove and seem to get along just fine really. The mother is a cook and at 44 she sleeps on the floor, some days doesn't come home until everyone's asleep from work and is still so sweet-albeit missing several teeth. The kids are great, they're all about my age and are very into teaching me Mongolian. And though I'll miss the cuteness, the fussy baby was whisked away to the countryside with the mother so no poop on the floor-they don't buy diapers- or insessent crying...I think I'll miss him soon, though. Mongolian is coming along at a glacial pace, sadly. It's been very frustrating albeit humbling to have to learn to read all over again- it's really like I am a child. I have a one-on-one with my teacher tomorrow so hopefully that'll help. It's such a guttural language and it's hard to assign what we consider just sounds and noises to things like trees and stars. I also had my third teaching lesson today. The assignment was grammar and we did prepositions. I think they liked jumping onto their benches for 'above' the best. Every time we start class I do a warm up that Laura Cole taught me at the Shakespeare Tavern and it's always a big hit- funny I don't know if she had that in mind when teaching it. We also had a ger visit yesterday and learned how the fire safety worked, how to winterize and de-winterize a ger, chop wood, what the proper way to enter and exit a ger is and all that. I actually don't know if I'll be living in one because I'd like to be stationed in a bigger town and those are mostly apartments but there's always a chance of living in a felt tent for two years!- either way is fine with me really, they both have ups and downs. It really just depends on what the school I am placed with gives me to live in. Alright, I've gotta go take my tumpon bath now- it's a little pink tub I have for washing everything that needs to be washed- from my clothes to myself...quite an adventure.

June 22:
Things here are over all good but it is hard at times. The way I look at it, I'm in the process of coming to terms with being here and this lifestyle. We had a cross culture class today and talked a lot about culture shock. They said that it would be a lot of ups and downs most of the time very abruptly which seems the be just about right. But I know I can do this and having all of you support makes this whole process so much easier. The process is a little lonely at times but it's more bewildering and scary than anything I think. But I know it will pass and it will be worth it for sure. Sadly, my host family baby is the fussiest baby I've ever come across! It cries all the time (he was in the teething phase, I think, and eventually the baby really grew on me- I find myself wondering now if he's walking or talking and how big he is) but I suppose it just solidifies the need for birth control for me. It's neat though cause they do interesting practices with him like circling it with incense three times every night (and after dark, they rub soot from the stove onto his forehead so he looks like a little Indian prince in all his glorious chubbiness). Also, there's a five year old niece that comes around a bunch and she reminds me so much of Chapman! So funny. Gauuchurt is beautiful! Apparently its one of the most beautiful places in Mongolia and I'd believe it. For the latter half of our Mongolian lesson today we sat in the sun by the river and practiced. (some of my strongest and happiest memories of training are of the river, it really marked my experience there)


Ok so I don't really like to write about stuff that happned a while ago in blogs or journals (somehow the events lose their potancy quickly and it seems like a chore to write about them after they've passed) but in order to bring you up to speed, I'm going to try and post some e-mails and journal entries between the beginning of training and now.

But for context's sake, here's a brief summary of the last few months:

I was in a wee suburb town called Gachuurt about 30 minutes outside of UB for training. The town was beautiful, boasting a winding river lush with trees- a rarity in such an arid country. The training lasted something like 2 1/2 months and we were instructed in Mongolian language and culture. I lived with a lovely host family of a 44 year old mother, 3 daughters, ages ranging from 19 to 26, the 11 month old baby of the eldest sister, a 24 year old host brother I didn't really see ever and an uncle who just came to crash on the floor, in addition to a cow, a calf, 2 dogs and the occasional random family member (a sassy little 5 year old more often than not) who came to stay for a while. It was a full house!

I had a pretty good training group. Sometimes the personalities clashed in a rather unsettling way but I found some amazing friends I will keep until the end of my Peace Corps service and beyond! There was certainly a group of people there who kept me afloat and I them. Together we seemingly clung to our sanity though many indulgent afternoons filled with movies, group studying, countless ice cream bars, girl talk and general kindness and understanding. I think we were lucky to have each other and I am over the moon about seeing them at Christmas.

Also, my LCF (the woman who was serverd as the Mongolian teacher for half my training group and surrogate Mongolian mother) was amazing! She went above and beyond the call of duty to make sure we were all okay and adjusting well. It was so wonderful to have her as my bridge into Mongolian culture. She took us clubbing and then delivered us home safely, came early to help me with the language, spent all day shutteling Aaron and I around UB to buy food for the host family appreciation party and checked up on our host families frequently to make sure that we were getting enough food and love. Through here I was properly introduced to the legendary Mongolian hospitality.

So that's about all the basics of training. More in detail to come...

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

a pretty candid article for Goucher's Service-Learning blog

First posted on June 8, 2009 to the old blog:

So upon hearing that I got into the Peace Corps, Michael Curry, the Director of Service-Learning at Goucher College (where I just graduated), asked me to write an article for Goucher's Service-Learning blog about my process, expectations, etc. He has yet to put it up- he's a busy guy I know so I'm not too bothered about that- but I wanted to post it here. I wrote it a little while ago so some things have changed since then but I wanted to post the original thing. Here it is:

When I read the words “Congratulations! It is with great pleasure that we invite you to being training in Mongolia for Peace Corps service” my fluttering heart dropped like a brick onto the Post Office floor. Yes, I had been waiting with baited breath for months for this letter and yes, there is nothing more I wanted than to be done with the Peace Corps application process. The Peace Corps was my dream, I couldn’t wait to finally get my country assignment. But it was all wrong. Visions of myself reclining in a Thai tikki hut, drinking out of a coconut, surrounded by bronzed children were shoved away by thoughts of bitter winters. I had somehow concluded that the karmic payback for my giving two years of my prime to teach Asian children English would be a placement somewhere blissful and tropical. I had not applied to the Peace Corps with the tundra in mind.

As placement is nonnegotiable, I have scrambled to learn as much about Mongolia as I can since receiving the letter only a few weeks ago. While much of it is daunting, the more I learn the less scary it becomes. At this point, I can practically recite the Mongolia Wikipedia page, have checked out the sad handful of books the Goucher library has on the country and have YouTube-ed Tuvin throat singing to death. The thing that has been really heart warming though is the way in which both my friends and family have thrown themselves into research about Mongolia, as well. My friends have been bombarding me with facts about Mongolia that I hadn’t even come across yet. My parents daily check the weather in Ulaanbaatar, the capital city; it’s permanently saved on their iPhones. Even my 83-year-old grandmother opened a NetFlix account and has been leaving synopses of strange Mongolian films on my voice mail. Learning all I can about this strange land that no one seems to be able to find on a map (for the record, it’s between Russia and China) has helped banish some of my fear of this foreign land and having my loved ones support me has meant everything.

These days I am beginning to come to terms with a future reality that will inevitably include a diet of mostly meat (I can’t remember the last time I had a burger), winters that reach -40 degrees (I’m a warm blooded girl from Atlanta) and a language that sounds like the strange lovechild of Russian and Chinese (I barely squeaked by the minimum in Spanish class). However, there are some really neat things about being sent to this obscure corner of the world. For instance, anywhere from 30% to 50% of Mongolians are nomadic, living in large felt tents called gers that can be taken down in 30 minutes and relying solely on horses for transportation. But like many bucolic lifestyles worldwide, the Mongolian nomadic culture is vanishing rapidly. Motorcycles are edging out horses and young adults are moving to the sprawling cities. The ability to get a slice of this lifestyle before it goes extinct is something I am honored to have the opportunity to do. The Peace Corps expects volunteers to live like natives and work alongside them; I’ll probably get my very own ger and will certainly live as a Mongolian. I will eat their food, celebrate their holidays and work in their schools. I will live like this dying race for several years and not many people can say that.

Whatever the joys and pitfalls of living in Mongolia will be, I am resolute in my love of the Peace Corps. A brief rundown for those who are unfamiliar with the Peace Corps: it is a government program that sends volunteers to impoverished countries all over the world. The object of doing so is to help develop the infrastructure of the host country by working in a number of capacities, such as strengthening their health, education and agricultural systems. The Volunteer’s obligation is for two years plus several months of training.

I first found out about the Peace Corps through my godmother who was a Volunteer in the 60’s when the Peace Corps was relatively new; she has inspired me to follow in her footsteps. I suppose it didn’t help my expectations of placement that she was sent to the tropical island of Samoa. However, the fact that she is still in touch with her host family in Samoa after over 40 years is amazing. They still consider her their daughter (they’ve even reserved a burial plot for her in Samoa with the rest of the family) and that drove me to find out what it is that binds people from totally different worlds so strongly.

In Mongolia as a Peace Corps Volunteer I will be teaching English to High School age students and helping Mongolian English teachers refine their knowledge of the language. I will also be doing Community Development, a job as abstract as it sounds; essentially I must find something my community needs and help them obtain it. As my first job after graduation, I couldn’t be more thrilled. The opportunity to explore unfamiliar terrain, live a completely different lifestyle and challenge myself in ways I can’t imagine from here at my dorm room desk is both terrifying and exciting. It is sure to bring many unforeseen challenges and rewards. I am elated to be foraging out into a strange country to bring about positive change and represent my home and people in the best way that I can.

While I am admittedly proud of myself, this is such a huge transition with such lofty concepts that it becomes difficult to grapple with at times. Whenever I feel conflicted or scared about the future that lies in wait less than two months away, I remember President John F. Kennedy’s words upon founding the Peace Corps in 1961. They are frank and beautiful and I have carved my expectations out of what he said when he told Congress this:

"Life in the Peace Corps will not be easy. There will be no salary and allowances will be at a level sufficient only to maintain health and meet basic needs. Men and women will be expected to work and live alongside the nationals of the country in which they are stationed—doing the same work, eating the same food, talking the same language.

But if the life will not be easy, it will be rich and satisfying. For every young American who participates in the Peace Corps—who works in a foreign land—will know that he or she is sharing in the great common task of bringing to man that decent way of life which is the foundation of freedom and a condition of peace."

Reflecting on Kennedy’s words truly soothes my tempestuous thoughts about leaving Goucher and everything I know behind. They make me yearn for the day that I will hold my head high and walk tall towards Asia, striding though my fears and doubts, past my worries of bitter cold and abject loneliness into a new place. So while I did not initially see the opening of my acceptance letter as something to celebrate, Mongolia was definitely not what I had expected or wanted, it has certainly been the start of a new adventure.