Wednesday, May 26, 2010

...And Sometimes You're the Pigeon

As a follow-up from my sad birthday post a few months ago, I'd like to highlight some really wonderful things that have gone on lately. I am leaving Hovd until August on vacation and to do some work in the capitol heckling Embassies for money. So on Saturday I had a field day with all of my Access kids, both new and old, as a final outing before the summer. It was something quite interesting trying to explain the rules of baseball by myself to 25 children who have a rather limited understanding of the English language and all want to bat. But they seemed to enjoy our little tailor-made version of the game and we played around by the river for about 3 hours. Just before we left, I gave them a wee motivational speech, did he circle-sit activity and told them how great I think they all are. Then, as I collected my stuff off the field, they yelled in unison 'THANK YOU, TEACHER! WE LOVE YOU!'. I was taken aback. Just those few words made so many recent struggles and stresses vanish. And in the theme of final fetes, last night I had a little dinner with some friends to say goodbye to everyone before I leave for vacation. In the middle of the evening, an older Swiss woman came over. She is here for a short time teaching English at the University and we have had some nice chats; she has also come to my cooking club a few times. I said hello and wandered down the hall. Behind me she said 'I came here for you.' I turned around, curious and flattered. She was clutching a tan pencil with a multi-colored tip. 'I think you're just great' she started. She went on to tell me how much she admired my being here and the way I do so many wonderful things, but so quietly. She told me how much the university students talk about me. I blushed deeply. She went on for such a time that I started sweating I was blushing so hard for so long. She gently scolded me for my red cheeks- and at this point, my pink ears down to my crimson toes. I didn't need to be embarrassed, she said. Then she extended the pencil to me. 'I think you are like this pencil. So colorful' she smiled. She explained that I will figure prominently in the way she describes her experience here in Mongolia to people at home. It was possibly the nicest thing anyone has ever said. Not only because it was so kind and genuine, but also because I thought that no one saw me, how much I try to help and the amount that I work. Apparently my efforts have not escaped her notice. Being here is a process of trial and error, stabbing around in the dark attempting to find what works. And when someone like that gives you such a speech of love, encouragement and even admiration, your heart fairly bursts with deepest gratitude. In a special program for college leaders last year, I was made to give a speech about how I saw leadership and how I would carry it out in the future. I spoke about the idea of leadership as a colorful quilt, various patches sewn together from different places. At the end I remarked on the stark Mongolian landscape. Awash with browns and grays, I would have to take my leadership, my color, with me to this place. And here, exactly a year later after I stood at the podium and gave that speech, this woman was giving me color. Unknowingly presenting me with the idea I had had floated into the world many months ago. Confirming my almost prayer from college, she was telling me that I had fulfilled my hope to bring color via leadership to this place. It was profound. But she had to leave due to test writing in preparation for the next morning and the night marched on. Next a friend brought the party to a halt and proposed a toast to me and my travels. I was overwhelmed with the kindness. The evening wound down and I went home with my friend to get some rest. In the morning, he made coffee and ushered me back into his room. 'I have something for you!' he said. I grinned and folded myself onto the bed. He sat on a stool facing me, took up his guitar and proceeded to sing. He serenaded me with 'Sympathique' by Pink Martini, an upbeat French song about losing love. I smiled through my tears and soaked up every moment of it. He grinned and told me it was my birthday present. I had forgotten that he promised me a present and it hadn't occurred to me that he'd surprise me on our last morning together. That is where the birthday connection came from. I had a rather sad birthday, but people's actions this week have been overwhelmingly touching. I think I like that better. Not being nice when you feel you have to, rather reaching out in genuine kindness at a time that feels right. After the general outpouring of kind words and actions recently, I think I can look back on this last year and feel good about it. Hold my head high, I can know my vacation is well deserved and look forward to yet another year in the most challenging yet most rewarding job I will ever have.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Running for my Life or One Morning in Mongolia

It all started with the brown pants. They're a cute lenin(ish) pair from H&M that I sported with little tee-shirts and ubiquitous pink Chucks last year whenever the weather would allow. At my behest my parents recently sent them in one of their ever-divine care packages. When they arrived, I tore open the box, pulled them on and discovered with a peep of dismay that they didn't look quite right. Zipping the fly was rather more arduous than I remembered. I had heard about Mongolia's infamous widening effects on womens derrieres. A Peace Corps friend informed me that upon arriving in America after her time in Mongolia, her bosom buddies assured that she looked completely the same- just her ass had gotten huge! It seemed like I had gotten bit by the same bug. It is a commonly know fact in Peace Corps Mongolia that the majority of women who come here gain weight. (In yet another of life's injustices- men tend to lose weight.) I was even warned about this travesty before I got came here by a returned PC Mongolia Volunteer. Certainly a contributing factor is that the accepted national diet consists of solely of meat and carbohydrates (flour noodles with meat, fried hot-pockety things with meat, dumplings with get the drift). That fact makes it hard not to contemplate all the terrible things you'd do to eat just one, little green salad as you munch into yet another buuz or even piece of bread. I tried searching the stores recently for something green but only came up with canned peas and pickles out of four shops. At any rate, as I forlornly extracted myself from the brown pants, clouded with self doubt and wounded esteem, I resolved to do something about my current problem. I still fit into all of my other clothes- just the brown pants were a wee bit too snug. I wasn't too bad off. But I knew then and there that if I had to turn this mildly tubby car around. To check myself before I wreck myself, as it were. I moped about for a few days until my friend encouraged me to go running as I had done in college. I had brought my super sweet running shoes from home in hopes to start here. But life got away from me and before I knew it, I'd only laced my shoes up once and my brown pants had failed me.... or I guess my ass had failed the brown pants. So running again seemed like the most logical thing to do, not to mention the healthiest; I decided to start. It did help that my friend, fully supportive, promised to greet me with fresh coffee and encouragement upon my triumphant return. So on the following Monday, I hauled my shoes on at the bleak hour of 7:30am and headed down the apartment stairs.

I have kept the same route since then and it never ceases to amaze me. There are always new absurdities and amusements, new morning vistas and scenes of daily life as I jog past. When I start out on my route, I run upstream through waves of children going to school. Sucking on lollipops and sporting huge bows that match their old fashion Russian uniforms they stare at me googly eyed, wondering what in the world I am running from. They yell 'hello' and 'hi!' playfully as they stroll arm-in-arm. Sometimes I pass a brood of older boys hanging out on a store stoop, intent of teasing me for their own amusement they, too, holler. At first my route takes me down two relatively crowded streets. Parents stroll as their toddlers trip along beside them, teenagers late for school rush or amble by, children bravely clad in striped tights or track pants play in the dirt and old men eye me cautiously, wary of the change my presence portends. Many days my run is less of a strait path than an obstacle corse of muddy puddles and steaming cow poo. I also make sure to give a healthy distance to resting dogs, lying and tussling on the dirt road after escorting their little school-bound masters out of the yard. Then, with a turn that brings the rising sun to my face, I hit the big street. It's the main road through the Kazakh district. A wide stretch of pavement, it is lined with fences made of mud, wood and scrap metal. Behind these fences each family is waking up, performing their morning dance. Through the cracks and open gates I see children flapping their arms at cows or sheep, women transferring water from one vessel to another and men sidling up to their outhouses. A few notes on this: almost none of these dwellings have running water and, as for the latter, I learned the hard way that the outhouse walls aren't always where they should be. Who knew the full moon shined at 8am?! Many days when I turn onto the big road, it steaches empty before me. But soon, with the rising sun, people venture forth. Aged women in colorful headscarves and men equally as antique confer with one another, hands clasped behind their backs. There is always at least one or two herds of animals- sheep, goats or cows- on their way to the grassy meadow and the river that runs though it. They roll through the gas station en route to graze, making for a comic sight. Many times I'll see a huge heard of goats, their quivering cries overlapping in the air. The amazing thing about countless goats walking on a paved road is that it sounds like rain. All the tiny little hooves join together making a symphony akin to a summer storm, a miraculous sound when you live in a desert. Sometimes at the back of the herds men ride majestically atop horses or a bored teenage boy walks as he texts on a cellphone. I saw three generation of women herding one morning; they had the same gait and manner of waving at the errant animals as they walked together to the fringe of town. That seemed to encapsulate the cycle of time here on the arid steppe. All manner of transit passes me. Sometimes entire families on motorcycles sputter by. The children on board, with their heads smooshed to the side between their parents, eye me with wonder. Some motorcycles have old-school Russian sidecars laden with fuel for fires, some are piled high with enigmatic sacks- perhaps kilos of rice and potatoes to be carted to the remotest homes. On rare days huge trucks will blow by, filled to the brim with ger pieces and eight to ten people crammed in the front. But despite the traffic, which is really very sparse and in itself interesting, its a beautiful way to see Mongolia in the morning. Little birds dip and soar overhead though the smoke that rises from breakfast fires and the whole world seems fresh.

Much of the time it's sadly difficult to get up the mojo to actually run. Occasionally my mind is trapped and my body can't free itself to move satisfactorily. I will get stuck in the memory of my old morning runs. Lacing up my shoes, I'd head down to the air conditioned gym where shiny machines awaited. There I found an immaculate set up that had been paid for by a college tuition equal to mortgaging the White House. Mounting an elliptical, my feet would glide above the polished floor as I worked up a sweat. And to captivate my mind, my own personal television would spring to life, offering more channels that the good Lord ever intended. I would turn up my ipod and tune out to an intensely quaffed Paula Deen or exotic locals on the Travel Channel. Imagining sweet potato biscuits or perusing the colorful streets of Buenos Aires would suck me in and I became blissfully unaware of my vanishing calories. Now my scenery has somewhat altered and getting past that mental block has become a new daily challenge. My panting breath screams in my ears and I constantly have to will my feet to quicken, sometimes to no avail. Regardless, it has been a good new challenge. A perpetual personal milestone when normally my life is crowded with people and social predicaments. These flat streets have become my own mountains.

I have tried my best to be faithful to my morning constitutionals since that inaugural Monday morning. I've missed one day each for laziness, sickness, business and 'snoze'/'stop' confusion since I started four weeks ago. Not too bad, I think. And even if my brown pants don't fit perfectly around svelte, new hips come vacation time next week, these runs have been more than just an attempt to shape up. I've developed a new relationship with a country that I have inhabited for almost a year now- a thing I might have thought impossible after such a long time. And my relationship with myself has deepened, it always behooves one to work on pushing and patience. So every morning, as I lace up my running shoes, I wonder what new scene awaits me. Then I turn towards the pavement that is waiting for my pounding feet.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Treecat and the 'Nola Bar

Recently cats have been howling at night. But the howl they emit is not just any howl. They let loose a long, mournful noise that seems to reverberate across the whole city. Some nights the noise makes it difficult to sleep and once I even heard a gunshot silence the moaning felines. But still they persist. I don't quite know why they carry on so- perhaps a fight, maybe some are just plain horny. But whatever it is, they seem to cry out to all humanity, singing out their mysterious plight to the whole world. Once Ophelia said that a particularly troubled Hamlet "raised a sigh so piteous and profound, as it did seem to shatter all his bulk." These animals surely shake their very souls unleashing the noise- just as Hamlet no doubt did. Walking at night with some friends our group happened upon some cats howling in this way. One girl shined a flashlight on the scene and what we saw stunned me: two motionless cats, seemingly frozen in time, their bodies were directed toward each other but their faces, inches away, were looking into the distance in the same direction as they cried into the night. I expected a tussle or humping or something. But they just stood there, their furry cheeks almost touching, singing the same sad song. My friend and I thought it so adorable that we playfully mimic them, pressing our faces together and howling sillily. I heard the cry again today leaving work. I was en route to a rendezvous with my friend, and thinking that it was my friend calling, I grinned and turned. But what I found instead was a distressed cat stuck up a tree. Important to firstly note: I've never been much of a cat person. My family always had dogs. But the kid in me always roots for the underdog and here cats are hated and feared. Slinking around the streets; cats here avoid people and for good reason. Mongolian tradition holds that cats will steal your soul, which yields a group of people who throw stones and screech at the unknowing and bewildered animals. A friend and I went to the market once and upon seeing a cat, yards away, my friend gasped and clutched my arm, using my body to shield herself from the sunbathing animal we scooted by at a football field's distance. That alone makes me rather sympathetic towards the species as a whole. And that particular cat, frantically calling out for help, edged up into the furthest reaches of the tree, pulled at my heart stings with it's distressed wailing. I stopped in my tracks and walked under the tree in which it was held captive by great height and paralyzing fear. The crows that inhabit the tree were pecking at it mercilessly. I felt the urge to cry. Silhouetted against the blue sky, the dirty animal seemed to change shape, morphing and changing until it became a mirror. I somehow saw myself in the cat- stuck in a strange place, hounded by the creatures whose home it had unwittingly invaded. I realized heartbroken I couldn't climb the tree to rescue the cat. The branches were too thin. So caught up in the moment, I clapped my hands, made kissing sounds and smacked the tree trunk, doing my best to coax it down. Amazingly it worked. The distressed animal made its way towards me, past the thinnest of branches, to a manageable spot. I am sure I looked absolutely absurd. The people who walked down the sidewalk gave the cat a wide berth and me strange looks. But inwardly I panicked a little. I realized that I have learned so many things here- how to handle everything from tires that burst mid-steppe in subzero temperatures to weeks without electricity and hot showers. I had managed, taught myself everything I needed for survival, and thrived. But somehow this helpless little cat made me feel at sea. What does one do in Mongolia for this? In America, I'm sure there's a remedy. But how to handle this lost treecat eluded me. Soon one of my students came along. An older boy with superb English, he rolled up with his friend and chuckling asked what I was doing. I checked myself and sheepishly explained my conundrum. He smiled, humoring my foreignness and seemingly disturbed mental state. We chatted and I pointedly ignored the treecat as he threw rocks at it, trying to frighten it down. After our exchanging of pleasantries, I felt silly remaining at my post near the base of the tree. So we parted ways and I walked off down the sidewalk, looking back multiple times to see how my furry friend fared. Perched on a larger branch, I resolved that treecat would be fine. When I reached my friend I animatedly explained what trauma I had just undergone. He glanced at me and shrugged unconcerned saying 'It'll come down when it's hungry enough.' I realized that he was right. Confused as to why I hadn't sorted this out before and taken aback by my behavior in hindsight, I nodded. I am still not quite sure what to make of this incident. The feeling that I was helpless to aid the creature hangs over me still and I'm sure it was more the principal of the experience than anything. In the moment the cat's mournful cries reached out and rended my very being. I think that crying had something to do with it. There are few things that make such a poignant noise. Wailing mourners being one of them. Perhaps old Scottish and Irish love songs another. I'll stew over it a bit more- though I'm not sure I'll ever reach an explanation for my frantic behavior. Maybe I just need a vacation. As am a woman literally never embarrassed, the fact I feel a twinge of regret and discomfort at the memory says volumes. I feel reproach even writing this now. My only hope is that when I walk to work tomorrow treecat will be gone, along with the granola bar I threw up the tree in hopes of luring it down. I hope that during the night treecat will summon all its feline gumption and bravery, climb down the tree and tote the granola bar off to a place it can live fat and happy, unmolested for the rest of it's days, never having to cry in the night. May it be so.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

She Does Have a Point...

Words to live by from everyone's favorite it-girl:

"Some women choose to follow men, and some women choose to follow their dreams. If you're wondering which way to go, remember that your career will never wake up and tell you that it doesn't love you anymore." --Lady Gaga