Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Wise Words from Fred

As I leave for vacation until January, I want to leave you with this wee morsel from A Christmas Carol. As you might know, it is my favorite holiday tale. I love it because it is the work that embodies all the things I strive to live by: sympathy, kindness, charity, humanity. Regardless of your religion or creed I feel that the message of love for your fellow man is an important one and one that is communicated so well in this "ghostly little book" as Dickens called it. And in it I think Fred, Ebenezer Scrooge's nephew, puts it best when he says:

I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.

May we all open our hearts and minds in love. Happy Holidays to everyone.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Monthly Montage: The Market

I really love the market in our town. It's nothing like Whole Foods or 7-11. Completely raw and real, there is something new and different to see every time you go. Tiny winding alleyways squeeze between freight containers that serve as stores and everything has a rather makeshift feel to it though truly the structures are permanent. There are departments of sorts- different places where you can find hardware, clothes, food and recreation. The whole place is alive with energy; like a beehive, it's an ecosystem that flourishes on it's own. It has a unique heartbeat as vendors, animals, loiterers and customers flow through its haphazard veins with a pulsing ebb and flow. So take a tour through the paths and alleys of the Hovs market. I guarantee you it ain't your mama's superstore.

The entrance to the market before opening time. You can get a sense of the overwhelming pollution. It costs 50 tugricks to get in- roughly 5 cents.
The taxi line in front of the market. There is constant confusion and honking. Rarely is it ever this orderly.
A vendor selling phone credit next to the entrance.
Hanging out across the street from the market.

Fur sellers ply their trade.
The products that are available here often come in many different varieties. For example: cigarettes- a lifestyle staple for many people in rural Mongolia.

The inside of a clothing shop.
People pay this woman to make phone calls. Kind of like a pay phone. You can see the hustle and bustle here a little.
A salt vendor making a sale. She was wary at first but we chatted for a while and made friends.
A man watching me take pictures pulled me into the frame and insisted on taking a photo.
The aforementioned photographer of the shot above.
An inside fruit store. They are quite tiny; I was standing against the front wall.
A brave outdoor saleswoman.
This guy was all about having his photo taken. He is posing in front of sacks of grain. They use ketchup bottles as scoopers.
My vegetable lady! She's super sweet and I always buy from her.
Early morning billiards.

Selling hardware.
I couldn't resist his smile.
And into the meat room...Not for the faint of heart. I knew I had been maybe a bit too overexposed when I stood here waiting for my meat to be ground and calmly ate an apple. Only later did it dawn on me that maybe my surroundings were a bit gross.
No shrink wrap here.
The meat room is attached to the dairy room where all sorts of milk products are sold. You can see hardened blocks of milk and yogurt among other things here. Also sea-buckthorn juice is a hot item as one of the only local sources of Vitamin C.
Only a wee stretch of the market. It is really huge.
On my way out I passed my new salt selling friends.
Many men come here and play snooker for hours regardless of the temperature.
A cluster of men playing a card game next to the pool tables.
Piling up skins for transit.
This man demanded I take his photo- regardless of the suspicious (endangered?) looking pelts on the wall behind him.
The second meat room.
You for sure know it's frozen. No rotten meat here. Although the last time I went to buy meat, it was so fresh that it was steaming.
Love her sweet face.
Drinking milk tea and holding down the fort. The large rounds next to her are rendered animal fat and are used for cooking.
A wave hello.
Necessary big boots through a tight squeeze.
These trucks parked on the fringes of the market sell coal and sometimes hay.
I love the colors.
Early morning market in the snow.
Hovd is legendary for its local watermelon crop that peaks in late summer. They are tiny and perfectly sweet.
Sunset over ropes that hold aloft tarps.
A wee muddy path with guanzes (cafes) on either side.
Hovd's indoor market. Not quite as cool at the outdoor one but a whole lot warmer and boasts more exotic goods.
Tubs of Korean salads, vegtables and kimchi in the indoor market.
My sitemate Ned has a great photographic eye and a camera that could blow mine out of the water. He was kind enough to share a couple pictures.
Ned Lederer, ladies and gentlemen.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Hallelujah! It's Wednesday

Happy Holidays! Somehow I sense that the holiday season is in full swing in the Western world. In Mongolia people celebrate New Years with a vengeance but their version of this holiday has suspicious addition such as an evergreen New Years tree and Father Winter- a bearded man who hands out presents adorned in a blue suit trimmed with white fur. However, the only seasonal song I have heard issuing from various mouths and cell phones is 'Last Christmas' by Wham!. So this time of year gets a little muddled for me.

This holiday season I've been a wee bit on the emotional side for some reason. I've never really been into Christmas; present shopping is exhausting and the consumerism that has barnacled onto the holiday has a way of trifling with my feelings for America and my fellow man. But somehow this year I deeply miss it all. The other day I found myself in our local outdoor market. Surrounded by people pushing and purchasing I found a sudden emptiness upon realizing that no one around me found this to be a special time. Adrift in a ocean of consumers I found myself floundering. It hit me that there was no way I could sip an eggnog latte while dishing with friends or feel that certain warmth of a cute sweater dress as the The Gospel Christmas or A Christmas Carol unfurled before me. These thoughts were mildly devastating.

I have gotten this video from a number of family members and find it painfully beautiful. There were haters on youtube who dared to call it a 'gross violence' because of the non-Christan people in the vicinity when this video was being filmed. But I see it far from being about Jesus. I'm not Christan at all and it made me cry at work; the PC friend I shared it with loved it and is far too cerebral to be any sort of religious. The way that the performers exemplify how this season makes people come together with joy and grace is what this video is about. It's an exultation of love. So Happy Holidays and I hope you're having a good Wednesday. Perhaps this will brighten your day- or even make you cry a little. Regardless, enjoy the beauty!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Precious Children

My dear sweet film critic came back again today. Cheerily she returned the book I gave her and expressed much satisfaction over her new found understanding of World War II and the Holocaust. At least she said she understood everything. She must be either a true glutton for punishment or hellbent on becoming the most worldly, educated 16-year-old in Mongolia. For her next personal screening she chose 'Precious'. Like 'The Boy in the Striped Pajamas' I know the general storyline and even some specifics of the plot but have never seen it. I told her it would be another difficult movie, she nodded with steely resolve and away she went to hook up the equipment. I had to float off to teach a class but while supervising independent and pair work throughout the lesson, I caught glimpses of the film over my student's shoulder. It ignited my memory and stirred a wind.
 Many times being so far flung is a blessing, I am not pulling my hair out over Christmas carol overload, I don't have to deal with Twitter and I certainly don't miss being yelled at to buy cars first thing in the morning. But one tough thing about being in Mongolia is that you miss out on a lot of pop culture, which is frustrating when there are some good looking movies playing in the Sates. 'Precious' was one of those movies. It's on DVD now I know but I still haven't seen it. I think it would haunt me too much.
While in UB over the Thanksgiving holiday I picked up a copy of Push by Sapphire, the book that the movie 'Precious' is based on. It was hanging around my friends house where I was staying and I idly began to read. Precious's narrative voice struck me. Like cinematic flashbacks in which the protagonist finds himself a boy once again and the sound of his dead mother's voice rings through the air, the voice of Precious had a painfully recognizable tone. The way she narrated her life story invited a wind of similar voices telling similar stories that rushed through my head. It was a wind that stirred once again upon seeing clips of the film today and has borne me on it's back ever since.
For the last two years of college I volunteered with homeless youth. We saw everything ranging from sassy male hookers to titanically breasted country girls, from destitute divas to lost angles, even a mother-son pair- all under the age of 21. Once a week in either Baltimore or Atlanta I would devote my afternoon and evening to serving these young people, people who were no less than a handful of years younger than me but had found themselves homeless. My experiences with these youth marked me for life. I will always wonder about what happened to the kids and young adults I worked with; children who had seen too much too young and were eking out a life between the cracks.
In Atlanta I would do outreach, trawling the streets for homeless youth with a fellow volunteer, sometimes a really wonderful 30-something woman named Suzanne whom I admired for her nonchalance, grace and grit on the streets. In an attempt to connect with homeless youth, we would talk to people just chillin' on the sidewalk or playing chess or cards. I miss the bare reality of it all, just listening to the way different people felt about a life in which they had neither money nor stable shelter, a safety net-less population. For some weird reason I miss the way it smelled, the odor of dirt, raw sweat, fried, just fried, and gasoline mingling and growing rancid together. Somehow it smelled alive to me, almost like visiting some strange spice market. Perhaps it's terrible to see other people's problems as my escape. But it was an escape, worries about school, social drama, personal insecurities and family issues melted in comparison to the cards that been dealt to the people around me. It made me feel needed and I relished really rolling up my sleeves and working with people who could really use the help. I loved the job.
During my time volunteering with homeless youth, I saw some nasty, sad thing. But far more important than those horrors, I met some beautiful people. People who would never let life get them down; tenacious, confident, courageous people I will never forget. I think I wove into a previous blog entry one of my favorite interactions with a homeless teen. I asked him how he was doing that day and despite his lack of shoes, his grimy clothes and dirt streaked hair, he chirped 'blessed and highly favored, thank you!'. At the time he was living with his pimp.
I also heard some amazing stories. One of my favorites was from a girl who had just returned to our center after being away for a while. She told us about an ex-boyfriend recently out of prison who wanted her back so badly that he forwent his free bed at a homeless shelter to sleep on a cold, stone bench- just to be near the bench she slept on. He asked nothing more but to rid himself of all  the space between them save the few yards that separated their benches. Honestly I don't know many people who would sleep on a rock in downtown Atlanta for me.
So when Precious's voice dragged and raged through my head, it all came back, the people whose life stories weren't so different from hers. And when I glimpsed Gabourey Sidibe enacting struggles that I have seen in the form of very real scars, it was almost overwhelming. I longed to go back to the streets, to reconnect with those people. I felt so deeply and suddenly the memories of all the youths who had seen too much to be kids but were too young to be adults.
I hope one day I can roll up my sleeves again and continue working with the dirt-streaked favored like Jay. Flipping through Push made me really remember why I love the forgotten people, those society is repulsed by. I adore the broken ones,  the ones who are beautiful on the inside though their past may be cracked like the sidewalks they walk on. Teaching English is useful but it's nothing like strapping on my Converse All Stars and feeling them wear thin as I pound the pavement in search of a child in need. One day I will do so again. Until then Precious and her children will remain safe in my heart.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

We're Famous!

 In other news, my dear friend Cassandra, an economic PCV in Ulaanbaatar, and I are in this months edition of InStyle magazine! We took three different pictures with the magazine and in all the other ones I was smiling like a normal human being. But I kind of like the fact that they picked the silly one- it's got more personality, it's more me. This one was taken when our purgon (old Russian van/bus) stalled out in the middle of nowhere and the driver had to spend a while cranking the old school front-starter engine. 
Almost better than being printed in the mag, InStyle sent us care packages! I can only hope they are chockablock full of fun, girlie products from America and beyond. Horray for being famous- and the perks that come with it!

A Stab at a Sonnet

I know Julia Child said no apologies- but really rhymed poetry has never been my strong suit. I used to write love letters and poems for my sister when we were in school but sadly it appears that some things really do get harder with age. I sprang out of bed to write this the other night after some versus popped into my head. Having been sick for over a week now and really tunnel vision-ing my vacation starting soon, I have been somewhat uninspired of late which has proved frustrating. So I'm putting this late night, extended sonnet out into the world. Neither the syllables nor the length are dead on but both the factual content and rhyme scheme sure are. So here goes...

With bunny pee on my hoodie and puke on my pants,
I am at a loss for nightwear as I drift off to sleep,
Soon visions of washers through my head dance.
And I happily sigh as appliances into my dreams creep.

I love my splashy bath but a shower would be fine.
Merely a mop for the floor would be a novelty.
Or perhaps a dishwasher to rinse away the grime?
But even my broom is without a handle, a sad reality.

Although I know I mustn't be an ungrateful geezer,
The one appliance I own humms happily along.
But I wish my fridge were more than a giant freezer,
Sadly the temperature sings only one cold song.

Recently a microwave made me stop in my tracks.
I had no idea how to operate such a complex machine.
Staring at it with confusion while my brain I racked,
Then realizing it was futile trying to decode the screen.

Oh modern conveniences where can you be?
Modern conveniences all seem so foreign to me.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Happy Hump Day!

Hoping you're having a great Wednesday. It's looking cloudy in Baltimore and rain's forecasted for the weekend in Hot-lanta but don't let that get you down! Apparently even hedgehogs know how to enjoy the rain in style so here's hoping you can too. :-) Love from Mongolia.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Holla At My Ladies!

A little late, I know, but I just wanted to put it out there that I had three wonderful Thanksgivings. Admittedly nothing can be better than a Thanksgiving with family and it was painful, as it is every celebration or holiday, to be so far away from my exquisite and loving family members. At the last of my Thanksgiving fetes, however, I noticed a really nice trend. The celebration took place in the capitol with all the Peace Corps Volunteers and PC Staff. Honestly it started out feeling more like a soup kitchen then Thanksgiving at all, which imparted a rather hollow feeling on such a traditionally family-oriented holiday. But as the evening wore on, I was warmed by the presence of so many friends. It grew to feel like the wonderful people around me were holding me up as we celebrated our thankfulness for the beauty and bounty of life together, just like a family. Mulling in turkey, stuffing and red wine I reflected on my travels and early adulthood, arriving at the realization that there have always been really wonderful women in my life. Somehow no matter where I travel, from Atlanta to Hovd and from Baltimore to Norwich, I've manage to stumble across the most amazing women, both young and old. It is a struggle as I travel to leave these friends that I bond so closely with but the knowledge that they will welcome me with open arms when I next see them rests in my heart. It hasn't always been easy for me to have female friends. A nasty episode in high school left me scarred and mistrusting of the gender as a whole. I took to hanging out with mostly boys in my latter years as a teenager. But upon going to college, I found some really amazing female peers to share time and experiences with. I even made new girl friends my senior year of college and was a little taken aback by the amount of unconditional love and support these ladies showed me. I believe it made me a much better person. And yet here in Peace Corps I have found amazing female site mates, fellow volunteers and many host country nationals who inspire me every day. Girl friends are important especially here in Mongolia, a culture that assumes any cross-gender friendships mean an illicit late night "tea friend". I know of few, if any, platonic cross-gender friendships here. But the women do stick staunchly together. On the other side of the world, my Grandmother has found a cool new lady friend to share meals with since moving into a home. This gives me faith that there are phenomenal women everywhere of all ages. I will always enjoy my guy friends, there really isn't anything like rolling with your dudes. But still, it's the women in my life who are the glue. So with this I wanted to say how thankful I am for my female friends. I am truly blessed to find wonderful women wherever I go.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Art and Darkness

Today I experienced a not-so-fun part of teaching. One of my former Access students came by; she is cool a young woman of 16 whom I adore. She swoops in several times a week to hone her speaking skills and watch hip-hop videos. But what she's most passionate about is American movies and regularly takes advantage of the American Center's vast, current DVD collection and in-house player. Today just for fun I asked her which movie we should watch during next Friday's movie screening and she went to browse. She pulled out a movie with an intriguing cover and asked if we could watch that one. I wrinkled my forehead and told her that the film she had chosen, "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas," was probably not a good choice for the class. I told her it was difficult to watch and that one of the boys on the cover died. When she looked back up at me she had a twinkle in her eye and asked "Teacher, can I watch it?". I shrugged, plugged in the DVD player and headset then busied myself with other library duties. She's watched tough movies at the American Center before. I figured she could handle it. It might even be good for her. One of my guiding principals is to introduce kids to things that they were wholly unfamiliar with. An hour or so passed and I forgot she was there- until I heard sniffling in the corner. I craned my head in time to see my student wiping her nose and slowly pulling off the headphones. Concerned, I gave her a hug and a wad of toilet paper which she accepted with a little smile. She seemed like she was recovering okay then looked at me over my computer and said "Teacher, is this story true?" I sighed pensively. I've never seen the movie but am familiar with the plot line. Taking a deep breath I said "Well, the people aren't really true. But the events, they are true." She looked disappointed.  From my experience here so far I thought all Mongolian children had at least a minimal knowledge of the basic outline of Western history. This girl had apparently never heard of Hitler. I pulled up a chair next to mine and patted it, "come'ere, I'll teach you." We went to Wikipedia and I talked her though the basic outline of pre-World War II Germany, why Hitler was so popular and how he took power. She interjected sad questions like "But why the Jewish People?" I stressed the point of racial purity, fear of 'other' and explained that homosexuals were also targets; I figured Roma people were a bridge too far. At points in our talk, which lased maybe ten minutes, her eyes welled up with fresh tears. It was salt water that pulled on my heartstrings and made me question myself. I fought tears of my own. I wanted to make it all better for her. I Google Image searched Holocaust Memorials and we talked about education and how almost every city has a memorial. But I knew there was no way to bandage this. She would go home and the little boy, the boy who was forced to wear the striped pajamas, would follow her. Did I do the right thing? Should I have let her watch this movie? Must all children be taught about this dark and hideous corners of history? Must they be harrowed by horrors like genocide? I destroyed a young girls innocence today. But I think she had to learn. If not in service to the six million who perished in Europe but all the others- people, children her age, who have been slaughtered at the hands of hate. I tried to draw a parallel for her, to make it both more real and abstract. I tried to explain that this is the reason why I get angry when students say they hate the Chinese. Because this is what hate can do. It wasn't important to show her the pictures of the shoes or the emaciated liberated, she got the message. I gave her a hefty comic book that had been sent to me by the Anne Frank Organization in America to help make things a little clearer. I hope it helps.

This kind of thing is normally my favorite part of the job: what I like to call "culture time". Depending on the topic at hand, the kids circle their wagons around my laptop and we Google Image or Wikipedia different things that are completely new to them. These things normally relate to a lesson. Once it was Janice Joplin (that one actually related to nothing- just the thought of children not knowing Janice scandalized me), another time botanical gardens and yet another time Jackson Pollock. I really love working with teenagers because they are nothing but little sponges, soaking up all goodness you lay before them. It's a lot of pressure to get things right, but I love being the woman for that job. The site of their little faces brimming with astonishment as they absorb yet another part of the world never fails to be fufilling. Yesterday is a good example. When overseeing peer editing on a project about different countries, I realize the girl who was studying Italy and her peer editor had never seen the Sistine Chapel. Or St. Peter's Basilica. So I conjured up photos online and beckoned the two girls to the computer. If I live a hundred years, I don't think I'll ever forget their gasps. It was magical, almost better than seeing the real thing. Hours I spend pulling teeth for participation from younger students, lesson planning until I want to vom and biting my tongue when I can't hear myself think over drunk librarians singing all vanish when I hear these little gasps. It's like their awe-filled exhalations gently puff out any frustration or anger trapped in the recesses of my life.

Frequently I come across teachers dilemmas. I don't think I was ever cut out to be a teacher, mentoring is what I love and what I've done before. I never really wanted to be a teacher, but the line between teacher and mentor blurs itself in cases like the ones above which is why I treasure them. As for teaching, having an audience I love but trying to spell the simplest words correctly or differentiate between adverbs and adjectives are things I have no zeal for. Hell, I don't know these things, why should my students? But every day I try to make the best of it and times like these, the mere minutes when I can sit down and really talk with a student, get them to open their minds to a new idea, make me proud to be an educator. But then burdens come with the thrills and as my student took her new found demons home with her, so too I took hers home with me as well.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Monthly Montage: Sweat in the City

Sorry it's been so long since I posted. I've been in the capitol getting trained for my position on the Peer Support Network (a handful of Peace Corps Volunteers who get reimbursed for phone credit used to talk to other Volunteers about issues they are struggling with here in Mongolia). In addition to the training there was bonding with friends, celebrating Thanksgiving with just about every PC Volunteer and staff member in the country and saturating in luxuries like cheese, spinach and draft beer. But now I'm back in Hovd and down to business. The November Monthly Montage is barely squeaking by in time but hopefully you'll like it. Sadly I just picked up a crazy debilitating computer virus so posting will be a little more difficult until I get this sorted. And the format is a little wack on the photos due to working on a strange computer. Thanks for your love and patience, ya'll!

Since I started the new school year I have been pretty faithful to my morning runs. There is really no reason to lounge around in bed these days and the feeling of getting better at something challenging has been rather intoxicating. There are so many fascinating things to see- something new and  bizarre every day. I took my camera out every day for a week and this is some of what I saw. This montage doesn't really cover all the strange and wonderful things that I've stumbled upon but hopefully will give you a good idea of one morning in Mongolia though the eyes of a novice runner.


The gaps in the wall the Manchu built.

Ger District.

Waiting on reputedly good meat and seasonal yogurt outside someones hashaa.

Groups of men loitering while the women fight for spots
in the yogurt line in front of a hashaa door.

Snow day! This is the first street I come to after leaving my apartment.
At the end of this road I turn left, right or go strait depending on the pollution and my mood.

Early morning tracks.

Going out of town.

Typically my turning around point in my run.
Quite a sight for a city girl like myself.

Sunrise over thatch and loam.

Not quite a mini-van but it gets the family around.

The towns only heating plant from afar.
Smog and smoke.

Turning around to run back through the haze and into town.


A wary watcher.

He was rather fascinated but gave me the thumbs up after I snapped this shot.

The new mosque that is being built and a horseback commuter.

Off to school.

The neighborhood dumpster and a few of those who profit from it.

Waiting to collect meat for the winter from a truck recently arrived in town.

Bringin' home the bacon.

Happy customers!
Buying a whole, skinned sheep is very common.
The younger woman in this photo spied me taking photos of the line of people buying meat. She beckoned me inside her hashaa and into her ger. She then made me take pictures of her whole family. She was so stern yet friendly- how could I resist? It was tough trying to tell her why I didn't want milk tea and candy in the middle of my run. Her family seemed to be a traditional Kazakh one.
Inside my new friend's ger. Making milk tea, fresh meat and eme ('grandma') holding down the fort.

Ovoo ('grandpa') making milk tea. Notice the sweet Kazakh tapestries behind him.

A very sweet little girl. She was rather terrified of that calf but happy to pose.

A stern matriarch.

When I feel like off roading I run strait out into the field.

Clouds of ger smoke.

Free running!

Whose Dad makes the best granola in the world?

A little taste of the best coffee shops in Atlanta to take to work.

What I lovingly refur to as my 'splashy bath'. Two kettles of boiling water, three or four ladles of cold water and 15 minutes later a squeaky clean Peace Corps Volunteer ready to start the day!