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!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Hump-Day Pick-Me-Up

I know I'm a little slow on the up take but I've recently discovered how wonderful the show Glee must be. I don't have cable but I do have internet and while I cannot stream Glee I've gleaned from videos and Facebook that it's fun and super witty with the perfect dose of drama nerd for a former Theater major like myself. I was also completely convinced that this show is utterly awesome when I found this super sweet video on my lovely friend Janelle's Facebook page. Besides the dream-boats in neckties *swoon*, it's catchy and tells a little slice of what looks to be a pretty cute love story. Plus Katy Perry is totally my secret bubblegum pop indulgence these days. She's just so much fun and this song has quickly weaseled it's way into my life (I end up blaring it and dancing around my apartment about once a day). So enjoy! Happy Wednesday!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

To Tie the Knot

Congratulations, Prince William and Kate Middleton! If you haven't seen or heard yet, the super cute couple is now engaged. Yippee! And while I'm still not quite sure if he has a personality, I'm a huge fan of her and her wardrobe and am pretty excited that the two of them worked out. Classy girls: 1! I was also pretty excited about this because recently I've been really into weddings- although I have no idea why. NOT for me, mind you. I couldn't possibly be farther from wanting to get married at this point in my life. The idea makes me a little terrified and I tend to break out in a mild sweat when I am asked almost daily by students when I am going to get married. Somehow it's kind of like extreme tightrope walking or urban warfare, something that I have absolutely no desire to do but is really cool to watch. Maybe it's the escapist fairytale of it all; the beauty of the day and the splendor of dedicating your life to another. Or maybe it's the fact that some of my friends and exes are starting to get married and I'm trying to make sense of it because I vaguely but don't fully understand what it is to make a commitment that big at the tender age of early twenties. Possibly it's because I recently realized how young I really am- I could change my life completely right now if I so chose. Ok, so maybe I'm a little long in the tooth for the Moscow Ballet Company, but there are so many avenues that are not yet closed to me. There comes a time when changing your life on a massive scale is not really an option and I haven't yet reached that point. Getting married takes you to or at least close to that level of stability quite quickly. Or perhaps my dalliance in wedding pictures could just be me fantasizing about a night that I could spend in a pretty (not white) dress with all my friends, a sick d.j. and an open bar. The fact that just about all my best college friends will be at a wedding this spring keeps coming back to haunt me and makes me soul crushingly and mind numbingly sad each time I think about it. That wedding is something I'd fly home for in a heartbeat but I cannot leave Mongolia because of the timing and my friends can't really change the date. But whatever it is, I've discovered that other people's weddings are just fun to look at. I've been checking up on the aforementioned blog Once Wed which a childhood friend expertly maintains. I've also read about this rad lady who decided to marry herself in China. Intriguing, no? As of now, I have absolutely no idea what my wedding will be like. It will be a party and there will be biscuits- I know that much. But otherwise, when I try to visualize anything wedding related for myself, everything just gets distorted. So for now it's fun to poke around at what other people have done and wait with bated breath to see what washes of elegance and exorbitant gowns the upcoming royal wedding will bring.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Mans Best Friend

I woke up to the sound of crying yesterday. Roused from surreal dreams that quickly became silhouettes, I peeked out of the curtains to see what creature was making such a piteous noise. The sound was gut wrenching; I could feel it reaching to the bottom of my very being and moving my sleep shrouded senses to fervent concern. Whatever was crying would never be the same. I peered at the landscape until I saw it: at the Norwegian Lutheran Mission next to my house a Mongolian worker was grasping a puppy roughly by the scruff of it's neck. He held a broom in the other hand which he used to hit the tiny animal as soon as he dropped it by the front gate. The puppy's struggles and cries were futile and painfully delicate against the mans blows. Though the puppy tried to get back to the building, its attempts were in vein. The puppy was forced through the small crack between the gate and the dusty earth beneath it. It stood at the gate for some time, its cries growing more desperate. The worker walked away. Then, like a child, the puppy became distracted and forgot it's former troubles. It happily trotted over to some crows picking at a plastic bag. The birds just looked at him, seemingly entertained by this fluff ball who didn't even clear their eye level. The puppy threw a glance back at his former residence padded off, in search of a new life.
It is easy anthropomorphize baby animals. And while the above antidote might seem like the picture-perfect beginning for a child's version of 'Oliver' I am afraid that the puppy's story will end more tragically than it began. Winter is coming and temperatures that don't even brush freezing for four months do not bode well for homeless puppies.

The dogs are restless. I can feel it- something in the air. Long before I watched the eviction and virtual death sentence of the puppy, I noticed it on my morning runs. The dogs uneasily roam the streets, no longer sitting by their hashaa gates Spinx-like. Similar to teenage boys here, the dogs roll around in ominous packs. Sometimes I wonder if Anthony Burgess or William Goldberg ever visited this country before they wrote their respective classics: A Clockwork Orange and Lord of the Flies. Pack mentality is so strong everywhere you look and dogs are no exception. After all, they are pack animals. But their dedication to sticking together is a small wonder- they know what's coming. When the temperature drops, so too will the number of animals left alive. The problem of dogs frozen on the streets gets so bad that there is a rumor that prisoners are set loose with guns every fall to rid the cities of their K-9 problem. I am pretty sure that was confirmed when walking to work last week I saw two police cars escorting a truck with three men in the flat bed, grinning like they were out on a field trip and clutching guns. The dogs who have managed to survive to adulthood seem to know what is in store; an ugly season.

Because of the inability to get pets spayed or neutered in the countryside, there are a great deal of feral dogs throughout Mongolia. But death knocks on the doorstep of even the domesticated. One of my cutest and sweetest students told me she killed her dog on accident when she left it outside last year. I tease her gently about it and we laugh because all four feet of her is so angelic but really it's rather sad. Though dogs die every winter, people still do what they can to prevent the problem of dog overpopulation. The most common method is to slit the throats of the newborns, giving only the strongest one or two male puppies the slightest chance at survival. But really, what else should they do? My friend Laura who lived in Bayan Olgii brought home a dog and her host family kindly took in it; a great and probably unprecedented act, as the dog was female. Within a year Ruthie had a litter and once Laura left for a business trip, her family killed all but one. She was heartbroken, especially as she watched Ruthie search frantically for her puppies. But Laura could hardly be angry; she knew it was a cultural norm and really the only birth control option. What else should they have done? Try to find homes, yes. But no one wanted the girl puppies, leaving the growing family with few options when it is a daily struggle to feed themselves.

I don't want to write about this is upset anyone. I know many people who balk and quail at the notion of any animal cruelty. My intention in airing out what happens here is to both expose a grizzly and silenced side of Mongolia in addition to providing a foil for the Western way of life. The value of life added to the comfort and certainty with which most Westerners live is so easily taken for granted. Both children and dogs will be cared for, provided the systems in place do not fail. And while those systems are far from perfect, here there are no systems. No safety net for abandoned puppies or  wary dogs.

Mongolian dogs are different animals from the ones in America. Even the dogs that Peace Corps Volunteers take in and raise always maintain a wild edge. In Mongolia, animals are everywhere- donkeys are set lose to eat trash,  battered cats slink around corners, cows amble through the town square and horses graze along side yaks on the outskirts of town. Dogs are not lumped into the 'people' category- here there they belong with the rest of the animals. Our dog trainer at home worked for a company called 'Pets are People, too,' that could not be further from the truth in this corner of the world. Far from the land of no kill shelters and Milk-Bones, I've learned a lot about animals. I know what a dieing sheep smells like, that a cow can survive on a diet of trash bags and dead leaves and the particular shine on the inside of an animals skin. I've leaned about dogs, too. The stance a dog takes when it's about to run at you, the way bending down to pick up a rock sends angry dogs running, what doggie gang-bangs and frozen dogs look like. But perhaps this crucial education and subsequent fear of dogs that I have acquired does not serve me so well in the rest of the world. Shopping for shoes in a posh part of Sydney, Australia the store owner's tiny poodle became indignant at my presence and began to yap. Flashbacks of being lunged at by the hashaa dog behind the library ripped through my mind. I screamed as if I were about to be torn to shreds and bolted from the store. My family was somewhat amused and mildly concerned I think, the shop attendant confused and mortified. It was then that I realized Fido has morphed in my mind from being a fun loving friend and Frisbee partner to one among the horrifying packs that race through the beginning scene of 'Waltz with Bashir'.

So though I wanted to cuddle the put upon puppy into my arms, feed it chicken from America and tell it everything would be alright, I forced myself to turn from the window as it trotted off. I'm not in the position to adopt a dog and letting mother nature take it's course is something I know I can't fight, as much as it hurts to admit. I know the little puppy's cries will haunt me and I will continue to wonder what has become of him. The loss, the destruction, of innocence is something that I continue to write about, as it is difficult to stomach and is markedly different here than at home. But somehow each encounter feels fresh, as I realize over and over again that I cannot save the world one treecat, trashboy or tiny puppy at a time.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Amazing Article Alert

As a follow-up to Whiplash, here is a really incredible article from the independent Mongolian newspaper 'UB Post' about the rampant racism and confused Nazism that plagues Mongolia today. What you read here is diluted here in the countryside but unfortunately not by much. Enjoy!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

A Modern Day 'Weeper

My apartment trashboy visited me again today. At 10am he knocked on my door without pause until I dragged myself out of bed to answer the caller. And there he stood. At 12-years-old, he is vastly undersized for his age. He appears in the same baggy jeans and hooded sweater, apparel far too flimsy for the early Mongolian winter that is upon us. His fingernails are always grimy. Perpetually cinched in his filthy hands is a woven plastic sack which he slowly fills with trash from the apartments in my building. He hauls the sack upon his back, doubling over from the weight of so many glass bottles and bones. Then he trudges his little frame over to the trash pit near my apartment where the plastic bags and wrappers that don't blow away will be lit on fire as cows and dogs bicker over them. He does the work that impoverished women usually do. Seeing them is hard to stomach sometimes. He breaks my heart. It is easy to assume that he is a victim of truancy law violation. I ask him how many people in his family and he tell me he has two younger siblings. I wonder what fate lies in store for them. Will they also be trash children? Will they be doomed to chase down flyaway plastic and clean vomit from concrete stairwells while their peers play on swings and run amuck? And what will become of my little laboring friend? Will he ever lead a normal life? Or will he end his days as a trash collector, stooping until his death to gather the mess of others? Will his child be by his side then, clutching at trash with tiny hands? Whenever I think of him, William Blake's poem 'The Chimney Sweeper' comes to mind. Published as two different versions in Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, it treats on a small Victorian boy who is forced to sweep chimneys with his little fellows. The first stanza goes:
When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry 'weep! 'weep! 'weep! 'weep!
So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep.
The rest of the poem goes on to talk about faith, God and the divine escape that is Heaven. But this first part catches me and when I look at the trashboy who walks the halls of my building, I see the plight of so many children reflected in him. The horse, trebling cry of 'weep! 'weep! (a child's lisping slang for 'sweep!' but also paralleling tears the boys shed for their plight) wouldn't seem foreign on his lips. He looks like he might sleep in soot. But there is really nothing to be done. No grandiose act of mine could ever release him from the shackles of child labor. I have given him food and a few of my myriad pairs of gloves. I have invited him in for tea. He has become bolder over the months that we've know each other and asks me for specific things now. Yesterday he wanted spices. I beckoned him into my kitchen where he opted for meat-specific spice packets that have been handed down from Volunteers past. I never would have used them. Today he asked for boots and I have him my old pair from last year that I wasn't ever planning on wearing again. They are for his mother. 
I wonder what he sees when he walks into my apartment. Usually warm (though today the heat has been turned off and my space heater killed itself by burning out its plug a few hours ago), the oasis of shelves laden with foreign food and two rooms for only one person must seem so extraordinarily decedent to him. The bunnies darted between his feet today and I don't think he quite knew what to make of it. He looks around so hesitantly at everything I poses. Being here has been a humbling experience; I look at the life I used to live with different, more appreciative eyes. The excess of America can even be overwhelming. But seeing my current life through the eyes of my little sweeper also gave me pause. I still exist in excess though I feel far more Spartan now than ever before. 
I don't know how my donations to him are being used. Perhaps his parents are pushing him to milk the dumb foreigner for more clothes and food. Maybe they are deeply grateful. I don't think it really matters. Honestly I don't know what else to do but to think about this dear boy in the same light as I do all teaching and aid work in general: do everything you can and hope desperately for the best.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


All last week I intended to blog- so much has happened! But as soon as one event finished, another followed so fast that it clotheslined me as I raced to finish yet another thing. However, after this past weekend, I am eternally grateful for my busy life. While I had a hefty to-do list, Saturday and Sunday were far too devoid of any structure or activity; so much so that I ended up psyching myself out and losing hours of sleep as my thoughts banged around my head like a dog chasing its tail until the early morning. Sadly when you live in a country where there are precious few reasons to leave the house, you do go a little crazy with nothing to do and no Starbucks to welcome you into its fragrant bosom during the dull hours. In summary, the roller coaster that is life in the Peace Corps was so apparent in the last few days that I just had to write about it.

A perfect little example that sums it all up was my glory and victory this morning when I realized that my herb seedlings has sprouted! Throwing my hands in the air with glee, I lovingly examined the tiny sprouts, complete with tender green tips and tall, proud stalks. I was terrified that my efforts at windowsill gardening would be a massive failure. I longed for beautiful, healthy plants to nurture and to give me a lush, tasty oasis in a world of brown and gray. But here was evidence of my success. I wasn't barren after all! All the careful watering and planting had paid off. Gleefully I grabbed my bag and headed out the door. And then I saw it. The soil that I hadn't used to plant anything was also sprouting little seedlings. Damnit! Apparently the cow poo that I'd gingerly gathered to throw into my home-brewed soil mix was a much better gardener than I. Not only did the basil not blossom, but the shit was thriving. Excellent. My hopes had soared, only to get a steaming bovine dump dropped on them. But now I've leveled. I've resolved to give the herbs a little while longer to show me they think life is worth living. I will continue to water and watch vigilantly in hopes of fresh thyme and cilantro. But if not, I will retire the idea that I might have a green thumb waiting to blossom and accept the fact that you can't grow shit in the tough soil with only a handful of hours of sunlight. Or maybe you can only grow shit...I know something as small as seeds seem trivial but here is the rub: life in Mongolia is concentrated. There is very little to do, so in consequence things grow in perspective to your otherwise humdrum life. A tiny seed becomes monumental when it is your only hope for mint all year.

First on my recent roller coaster there was the lift up- I got a job! I know it's definitely jumping the gun to get a job for a year from now but I received an e-mail from a former Mongolia PCV who said the organization I was interested in working was actively looking for employees. So after much resume editing (thanks, Mom and Dad!) I sent in my inquiry for employment and was greeted with a thrilled response. On Saturday night I had the official interview with the Director and he seemed super enthused to have me on board. Horray! Pending my sustained interest, I have been hired as a Leadership Resident at the Harpswell Foundation in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The Harpswell Foundation is a pretty sweet group. Dedicated to foster positive female leadership, the Harpswell Foundation has two dorms in which they house poor young women from the countryside who show academic aptitude and promising leadership qualities. My job will be both a mentor in informal settings and a formal teacher for English, critical thinking and current events classes. This is a particularly exhilarating turn of events, as it is the first step in my rather harebrained scheme to travel the world stopping occasionally to work. Pending funding, I would like to stop in Cambodia, India and Ireland to work with NGO/non-profit organizations for up to six months and travel in between jobs. It is something I've had a mind to do for a while and I am thrilled that the journey is looking like a possibility after procuring employment in Cambodia. This future sojourn seems like a really great way to get international work experience and see the world. I have a site mate about whom people whisper 'that man has lived life- he's seen the world.' And in dedicating my next few years to travel and work abroad with a variety of organizations, I hope to be living life as aggressively and hands on as he has. I want to really LIVE as Maude told Harold to do in the cult classic.

But then my roller coaster plummeted. After getting what I wanted, I began to have second thoughts. Did I really want to sign up for more years of thumbing through my friends Facebook party photos, glumly and acutely aware of what I was missing? Was I resigned to not have a normal early twenties experience, complete with a dingy Brooklyn apartment and a rock-and-roll lifestyle on the cheap? Could I miss that? Sitting alone in my apartment, somehow my thoughts went from exhilarated to terrified as all the choices that I could make loomed towards me ominous and heavy. In that moment I felt so heavily that that with freedom comes the ultimate prison- you must chose your own path, the hardest thing when all roads lie clear. I also realized something rather unsettling about myself: I am afraid of mediocracy. That is a common fear among people of my generation, I think. Many friends of mine have expressed the same wariness. Knowing that, I let my mind wander back in time. Did every young person with their life in front of them quail in terror at the idea of a normal life? I wondered: did Joan of Arc, at the ripe childbearing age of 16, secretly freak out at the idea of being a provincial wife and mother? You have to admit, claiming to hear the voice of God and leading an army is a great way to avoid average. But seeing as she beat the rest of us to the punch, what could I do that is truly exceptional?

Finally, with my thoughts spiraling around the empty apartment, I pulled up my big girl panties and went to hang out with some friends. We congregated at my site mate Ned's house and that's when I hit the jackpot. Aimlessly flipping through his movies I discovered the entire 'Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' series on DVD. Apparently Ned has some hook-ups in the Hollywood set and his friend sent him the final movie which was not even released when the package was mailed- in addition to the first two. So late Saturday night and Sunday I indulged in the story I love so much. Allowing myself to become seduced by the lifestyles and cafes of Sweden, I spent hours in Europe last weekend. Even as I strolled around the market later, visions of ancient streets leading to sweeping views and Westerners sipping cappuccinos nestled into their scarves flashed in front of my eyes. The story of the Millennium Trilogy is rather addicting. Filled with intrigue, excitement and plenty of badass-ness, the tale of Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist is one of the most page-turning adventures I've read and translates well to screen. The simultaneous familiarity and exoticism of the European setting and characters like old friends were a comfort food for me. The hard part came when the screen faded to black and I looked out my window to gaze upon trash bag tumbleweeds over broken glass and dogs fighting next to drunks. I understood with a pang that I was worlds away from the Millennium headquarters.

My final and most recent rise and plummet included my students. On Friday night we had such an amazing Halloween party! With over 40 people in attendance, the kids enjoyed bobbing for apples, a doughnut-on-a-string eating race, arts and crafts, musical chairs and pin the witch on the broom. My best students out did themselves with crazy makeup and costumes. We had a great time taking pictures and just being goofy. I feel incredibly close to the students in my older class- after a year and a half of classes that last 90 minutes and meet three days a week we are really tight. But yesterday something really gave me pause and reflect on how well I really know my students. Talking about our current unit on advertising, the subject of China was came up. All of a sudden my dear, sweet students turned into close-minded hate mongers. The amount that they detest the entire Chinese nation and everyone in it took me by surprise. I tried to reason with them but they insisted that hate for China runs in their blood. They tried to convince me that without exception that all Chinese were vampires and terrible people. They used the word 'dirty.' For me as a teacher this was the ultimate defeat. Last year I assigned them projects on figures such as Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Martian Luther King Jr. and we  have talked ad nauseam about civil rights and the like. And they are such good kids; bright and kind in so many ways. But yesterday they continued expounding on their hate, despite my devil's advocate questions, until it became too much. I realized with horror that they were racist and totally comfortable with it. They went to great lengths to justify their blind hatred with wrongs done to people unknown and battles fought centuries ago. With a sharp intake of breath, it dawned on me that I had just made a birthday cake for a racist. Class time was up anyway so I ended the discussion abruptly. It was exhausting and tragic, sad and draining. I had tried to tell them that hate would only hurt them, that others would think them ignorant, that you can't judge an entire people based on a few bad ones, but nothing would stop their lust for Chinese blood. They had turned into monsters of the worst sort before my very eyes and nothing would reverse the wretched transition. It weighed heavy on me all night and returned to me in the morning. Nothing I could say could save these children- the ones I love the most here in Hovd- from themselves and the sheer hate that has been infused into their blood. They have doomed themselves

With every up and down that holds me in its grips here in Mongolia, I have to make adjustments. I make concessions about everything from how I view my students to the way I see myself. I desperately hope that one day my life will level out but I know that's probably not in the cards. So in order to cope for the time being and in the spirit of Halloween I feel that I have helpful ghosts. Not the spooky kind, but the kind that will pop up to meet me unexpectedly. I am lucky to be able to consider the strong spirits of Maude, Joan and Lisabeth as model women. I can look to them for inspirational doses of fearless badass or eternal optimism. When life is tough I think of Maude's loving vivacity or when I catch shots and hollers from the teenage boys I channel Lisbeth's steely resolve. Perhaps it's living too much in the imagination but it seems to work for now. I know these bouts of whiplash will be a constant thought my time in Mongolia. I also know that the best I can do is preach only love, water the plants and pray to the ladies.