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!