Thursday, January 27, 2011

Happy Teacher's Day

Here in Mongolia we have many a holdover from Soviet control. Massive amounts of vodka, concrete Bloc-inspired architecture and the Cyrillic alphabet are just the tip of the iceberg. The Russians also revised the calendar so that it includes annual occasions like Children's Day and Soldier's Day. Today, as it so happens, is Teacher's Day. This auspicious occasion is normally marked by performances, competitions, awards, canceling classes and the subsequent pounding of booze. I was asked to judge a teacher's talent show earlier in the week but today I am exempt from the festivities since I don't work at a school; I'm the only teacher at the library. However, it has still turned out to be a heartwarming day. I haven't even had class yet but I've already gotten a transferred donation of phone credit, a large can of peaches, fancy chocolates and handmade felt slippers. How did I get to be so lucky?! Right now I am unfortunately mired in a battle of wills and bureaucracy over a complicated issue involving my future students. The details don't bare publishing but there is an angry fire burning within me to set all of the absurd rules right; to make fair what is ridiculous, arbitrary and harmful. I hope this is the mark of a good teacher: the willingness, or even need, to make the education system better. The day and my struggles bring to mind a quote I read recently. It ties in very well with both the profession of teaching and development work. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that "our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." True, on the flip side, discretion is the better part of valor, as Mr. Shakespeare reminds us. But I think teachers, if they are good teachers, care about students, know that they matter and speak up for them. I have had many a wonderful teacher do just this for me and the results were life changing. Regardless if it is something as small as an extra lesson after school or as broad as instituting new education legislation, teachers are the ones who do this on a daily basis. So thank a teacher today and fight the silence. Happy Teacher's Day everyone!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Monthly Montage: Vacation

I know this really does not have a whole lot to do with Peace Corps or Mongolia. But it was and still is a huge source of joy for me. So please bare with the perhaps gratuitous 'me' flaunting. Thanks! :-)

During late December and early January I joyfully lost myself in the snow covered streets and the cozy cafes of Berlin, Germany and Bern, Switzerland. It was a blissful break for sure and I felt truly lucky to be able to spend both Christmas with my family and New Years with my 'friend' who lived in Hovd last year. It was wonderful to explore the sites and sounds of new places and even though I've been to Berlin before I relished the chance to see it in a new light. Also, among many other things, I consumed approximately 15 different kinds of cheese and an amount of coffee so large that man has yet to come up with name for it. But all that came second to being with friends and family. So all in all, a very good trip. Recently most of my other friends have taken off to Thailand to kick it on the beach  for vacation. But I think winter in Europe has some really great stuff goin' on. Take a look!
The fam together again!
Gotta love a Christmas market.
The Berliner Dom-
a breathtaking cathedral on Museum Island.
Near Hitler's old bunker. This is a
painting of a real photo of a soldier
escaping to West Germany.
Merry Christmas, Brandenburg Tor!
Sister garnishing our Christmas
morning fruit salad with snow.
A nude sentinel.
Museum Island!
The Berlin Opera House. We saw Don
Giovanni and lord was it strange.

Taking in a Warhol.
Sister was posing for this picture and
a man jumped in with her. So funny!
The dome at the Dom.
Happy birthday, Baby Jesus.
A crazy weird modern art exhibit
that tried to recreate SOMA with
mushroom-stoned reindeer pee.
In the Reichstag. We're so important!
Horray for Germany!
Berlin at night.
Beautiful, snowy Bern.
The first clock in Switzerland. Impressive...

A wee racer gets a lift.
Love Switzerland.

The zoo! Also, flamingos in
the snow is super weird to see .

Should be called 'hang-over-a-saurus'. Poor guy.
Know how he feels some days.
Eclipse over grape vines.
The Jet d'eau in Geneva.
A cloudy day in Geneva.
The UN! Sadly it was closed for the holidays. :-( Boo.
The St. Pierre Cathedral in  Geneva.
A cute couple. The Geneva streets were
super old and narrow and so beautiful.
Switzerland + Mongolia = A Fondu Ger?
Buddy seems to like the idea.

Adelboden- the beautiful tourist ski town
where my friend teaches.
Drinking Swiss cider and loving life.
Adelboden again. The Ski World Cup
was here the day after we left.
Ice Skating! I didn't do too bad
for a Southern girl.
Homemade FONDUE!
...which was followed by quite a dance party later.

Eau de Meatball

Today I indulged my lizard brain in a big way. For my site mate's birthday we all went to the sauna and it was glorious. There were actually only 4 of us- 3 boys and I, which definitely led to some very interesting assumptions made by the attendants at the shower house. But I would have braved a million judgy stares for the sheer bliss of letting my body melt in the heat of the sauna. Lying on the wooden bench, my muscles let go of their frigid rigidity for the first time in months. I breathed deep in the hot air, surrendering to my hunger for heat. I felt like a snake in the sun letting my body marinade in the sweat and warm as my eyes hooded themselves in sheer bliss. These days the temperature has been hovering around -10F and gets down to as low as -40F at night, so needless to say the heat of the sauna was something of a welcome shock to my system, much less the challenge of trying not to be confused in so few clothes. But sadly the warmth and happiness inside the little wooden box only lasted an hour.

I showered and got dressed but no sooner had I pulled a (relatively) clean t-shirt over my head than I was filled with disgust. My shirt smelled like some kind of fried food and my hoodie bore the same stench. My heart deflated knowing that I had to pile back into layers upon layers of smelly clothes after such a cleansing experience. I grossed myself out. It made me think of an episode during my recent vacation in which I lent my scarf to my mom. She took it then returned it rather quickly. I was puzzled and asked her why she wasn't cold anymore. She looked at me and said "that scarf smells like a meatball." Which is, sadly, how I think most of my clothes, and therefore I, probably smell. Definitely not one of the more glamorous parts of the Peace Corps, I have gotten used to less frequent clothes and body washing. I get a weekly shower at best, the most exhilarating 15 minute slice of heaven you can imagine. And the clothes...well...perhaps best not to talk about the clothes. But the clothes washing options are 1) wash by hand in unheated bathroom with freezing cold water or 2) use a friends washing machine in which you have to heat, load and drain the water yourself. Both are rather time consuming and not very through avenues to cleanliness, espeically in a world where everything takes about twice as long as it normally would.

Over time I have tried to surmise why Mongolia smells the way it does and the best I can come up with is because of the animals everywhere. We live in very close quarters with all sorts of animals; it's not unusual to see donkeys, cows, horses or packs of dogs just hanging out in the street. Herds of sheep and goats trot through town regularly and camels visit occasionally, too. Also, the local diet is overwhelmingly animal based, everything from frying oil to the main feature of all meals is derived from animals- mostly sheep. This may or may not be why I probably smell like a meatball factory most of the time. But here's the thing: we all do. I got so used to it that I didn't notice any sort of smell when I pulled on that t-shirt earlier in the morning (for the record, it passed the smell test with flying colors) and the rest of my site mates had a similar experience when putting their clothes on post-sauna. The distinct odor of our life here in Mongolia is something foreign to American sterility and we have merely gotten used to it as much as we are used to getting stared at or going through the list of greetings and questions in Mongolian before having any conversations. It is a fact of life at this point. To put it anecdotally, getting off the plane in Hovd, I was struck by how farm-y the airport smelled whereas when I got on the plane nothing seemed amiss. I am not saying I enjoy smelling like the sheep skin vest I sleep with for warmth, which perhaps also contributing to my mammalian odor. Inhaling scents of tropical flowers when I raise my arms would be lovely, however I think that's an ability that has abandoned me for America. Tomorrow night I'll go to wash my clothes in my friend's machine. But even though my black pants, scarf and shirts will be squeaky clean, I don't have much hope that they'll retain that fresh, soapy smell for long. Eau de meatball is never far away.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Another Sad Loss

The world lost far more than a bunny this month. Sargent Shriver, the founder of Peace Corps, died on January 18. He was 95 and in a hospice care facility in suburban Baltimore (strangely a few miles from my college). In addition to founding the Peace Corps, he was also President Kennedy's brother-in-law, the Ambassador to France and pioneered projects such as Head Start and Job Corps. A truly extraordinary man.

Sometimes, when my day has been rather odd, I look at my life in Mongolia with an acute feeling of self-consciousness and think 'who does this?'. It is rather strange, this idea of moving youngsters around the world and parachuting them into far flung villages and towns in order for them to help people help themselves down the path to a better life. A neat thing but really quite bizarre, too. So I have a lot of reverence for someone like Shriver who saw this brave new idea out of its infancy, inspired by Kennedy's speech to students at the University of Michigan in 1960. He was a true visionary without whom the world wouldn't seem nearly as small or as beautiful as it does today. Thank you, Sargent Shriver. You accomplished in spades what so many of us strive to do: change the world for the better.

For more info on this amazing person, there's a great piece on the Peace Corps website in addition to Bono's eulogy, which was published in the New York Times.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Frat Boy and Biscuit: The Saga Ends

December 19 was a sad, sad day. Not because that was the day I flew to UB for vacation. No. That was awesome. But unfortunately a bleary-eyed Suzanne stumbled into her bathroom early that morning to discover a tragic sight. Frat Boy (who had recently been re-christened as Pope McQueen) had died but he had gone down like The King- in the toilet. Her next door neighbor and our 'Mongolian brother' Gonzo dutifully and nobly fished him out of his watery grave, though it took quite a while. Later in the day, though the trash lady accidentally carted away the bunny body, they had a rousing service for our fallen loved one, complete with poetry recitation and harmonica odes. And that was the end of Frat Boy.

Thank goodness Biscuit is alive and well but that's quite a story, too. Unfortunately it turns out that I didn't research quite as thoroughly as I should have before adopting our little furballs of joy. A while ago I discovered a scratch on Biscuit's nose. Suspicious, I trawled the internet for information about two male rabbits living together and my darkest fears were confirmed. Apparently if you leave two adult male bunnies alone together for long enough they will fight TO THE DEATH. A very sick part of me wants to know what a fluffy bunny death match looks like, but not enough to leave the two together. So Suzanne and I discontinued our joint week-on, week-off custody and took our separate animals home, least Biscuit be clawed to death mercilessly by his brother (again with the rodent families brutalizing each other!). But then that gave way to a conundrum: what to do with Biscuit while I went away on vacation. Serendipitously I had mentioned the fact that I had rabbits to a missionary/development worker who lives in our town. He and another family working for the same organization have a brood of about five or six kids together. I see them from time to time and it totally rocks my mind to be able to speak English with children. It feels so strange. But they are super cute and apparently at one point had bunnies when they lived in another town. Unfortunately those pets came to a brutal end at the jaws of a hashaa dog when they were on vacation and the kids have missed their furry friends ever since. Perfect! I asked and my American father friend enthusiastically agreed to let his spawn bunny-sit while I was away. Then came the bunny drop, which was intense- fending off hungry stray dogs while toting quite a large cage I was then swarmed by thrilled children all chattering away at once (in English!!) about how excited they were to have Biscuit. He was swept away and carried aloft by the small mob of missionary munchkins and I haven't seen him since.

Coming back to Mongolia, I realized that these children could probably give him far more love and attention than I ever could. Being here is hard enough but for an American kid many things are harder. Granted these children have never really known life in America but I feel a certain kinship with them and if giving them my bunny will make them happy then so be it. It's worth it. Completely. Apparently the missionary family also wants to breed rabbits later so if Biscuit can have a life filled with dozens of girlfriends while siring a whole baby bunny farm then who am I to deny him that? Also now everything I own isn't getting peed on, which is definitely a plus. I gave pet ownership a good, albeit brief, run. It was fun and educational to be sure. I don't think I'll be doing it again any time soon but it was totally worth every tugrog and second I spent on it. Today the father and one of his wee peanuts came to pick up the hay that I had kept for the bunnies. It's weird to see such a big open space in my closet now and I felt a little sad sweeping the last straws off the floor. But I know Biscuit is in a far better place. And I hope Frat Boy is, too.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

New Friends!

Disc Golf Discs
Everyone loves new friends! Especially when those friends are super awesome and send you free discs (or frisbees if you're not an Ultimate nerd like me). That's why I was so excited when the kind folks from Disc Golf Station contacted me. In exchange for discs that my wee kiddies can toss around and perfect their throws with, I wanted to let you know how slammin' Disc Golf Station is. Check them out at! Holler at these guys for your Ultimate Frisbee or Disc Golf needs. Thanks, Disc Golf Station crew! :-) You rock!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Goodness! It's Wednesday

The heat's still off?
That's okay 'cause my space heater's truckin' along and it's Hump Day. Happy Wednesday! :-)

Monday, January 17, 2011

To Sir(ve), With Love

Despite it being the absolute dead of winter, I've had a really great day today. Bouncing down the street on the way to work, preying that the puppy frolicking in the road doesn't get bulldozed by a speeding sedan, I basked in the weak sunlight and relished the walk. Perhaps the rare sun between lingering hours of darkness brightened my mood. But as I reflected on my contentment I realized that I was really happy because I didn't have to teach class today. I was hauled in to judge an English speech competition at a local secondary school. The competition lasted only an hour but it took a whopping two hours to get started, eating a hole in the middle of my day and leaving no time for other lessons. Somehow I wasn't too sad. Now don't get me wrong- it's not that I don't like my students. I love them! They're adorable, each and every one of them. Being able to be a part of shaping their wee lives and informing the way they see the world is such an honor- a privilege. But it's also a lot of pressure. It is a constant battle to lesson plan everything perfectly so that all the class, in it's extremely varied levels of English ability, grasps the concepts. Standing up there with 20 little pairs of eyes trained on you, soaking up every word that you say, sometimes in reverent hero worship, can be a little overwhelming. And I never want to let any of them down. I want to be the absolute best teacher of their lives because I adore them so much, which is admittedly a sure sign that this pressure being self applied.

Last month I gave a test to my younger class. Some passed with flying colors, achieving 90's and above. But there were a few that didn't do too hot and tanked with a 27 or 35. I recorded the spectrum on the white board for the kids to see and panicked. How much of these scores was I responsible for? What had I done as a teacher to help or hinder these children? Did the handful of sucky grades mean I was a failure? Or were those kids slackers and therefore doomed to fail regardless? How much of the material did they learn in school or did they learn it all in my class? Should I leave the weaker ones behind? How do I make sure everyone understands everything without boring/punishing the overachievers? Were all of them ever going to understand? Was it worth it to make sure everyone understood? My brain was wracked with a million questions. I'd never really been a formal educator before. It was never my bag, so to speak. But here I was, with these children's precious minds in my hands and the results of my efforts staring back at me mercilessly, offering no solutions or help. I never really reached a conclusion on my conundrum. We reviewed the test together, they corrected their mistakes for homework and we moved on. I guess that was the right thing to do. I tried to think back on my education and that seemed to be the default endgame of a test normally. Right?

Though it is a challenge and often overwhelming, I am looking forward to starting class again soon. Admittedly it has been nice to have a respite from the emotional and mental turmoil that comes with being a teacher. But, after all, that's why I wanted to come here- to be challenged to do my best in every way, and as long as those wee eyes stare up at me I can't help but strive for excellence. So like it or not, because of my love for my students, I will continue to demand the very best of myself every single day.

Friday, January 14, 2011

It's The Little Things

Since the heat is indefinitely out all over town due to some issue with the heating plant, I have come to realize how much the little things in life matter. Something as small as a power strip that doesn't spark and melt when you plug in a space heater or a knit hat will change your life. Although I suppose this noting of small things started earlier and peaked while on vacation in Germany and Switzerland. Walking into a grocery store stockpiled with all sorts of exotic items like Gruyere and avocado was earth shattering. Here was such wild abundance but if only one of the many luscious items that graced the shelves were to find its way to my town it would be cause for great celebration. And later when I returned from my jaunt abroad, on a rather beer saturated night with some friends, a guy I barely knew looked at me hard and told me he could tell I was upset about being back in Mongolia; he could see my mind was elsewhere. He smiled and told me that the next song was for me. He chose a sweet melody on his iTunes, turned and left the room. The song was by a group I hadn't listened to since my sister and I jammed out to it in our bathroom as teens. The familiar voice wrapped itself around me and buoyed me through the night, as my heart filled with gratefulness for such a small but caring act. Finally, my counterpart told me this morning about her son. Before I left for vacation, I visited her home where her 5-year-old boy was playing with an action figure on the floor. He only had one toy but loved it so much that he took care to show me every joint and bit on the little plastic man. In Switzerland, admittedly as more of an excuse to play with toys than anything, I bought him a new action figure- a really sweet Transformer. When I got to work this morning, my counterpart said that the boy had stayed up until the wee hours playing with the toy, fascinated that such a gadget was all his. My chest swelled to know that I could give such joy to a child and so cheaply. Here in Mongolia where there is so little, I already know too well that tiny gestures mean a lot. But occasionally life has a way of reminding me how amazing it is that such small and trivial things can change a person so much, and not always negatively. I suppose it's just nice to remember this in such cold times. So as I wait on heat I'll hunker down in my coat and find warmth in the memory of cheese, songs and a little boys happiness.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Back In Business!

Firstly, HAPPY NEW YEAR! I hope you had a wonderful Holiday Season and a lovely New Year!
Secondly, sorry I haven't posted in a while. I happily spent the rest of my Peace Corps vacation days on a trip to Germany and Switzerland to see friends and family for the Holidays and New Year. It was heavenly and I got back to Hovd today. But more on that later...
In an effort to catch up on my lack of posting, I'm throwing up two different but interesting bits of media. The first I can't help but laugh at. As Peace Corps reaches its 50th Anniversary, the powers that be have been putting out all sorts of videos and PSA's. Here is one that I found particularly amusing for several reasons.
1. The things that are seemingly absurd in the rest of the world but are completely normal in Peace Corps.
2. The mildly obnoxious feeling I get when mentioning said absurdities to people in the 'outside world'. God, I hope I'm never that guy!
3. The really sweet message of thanks for all Volunteers present and future.

So here goes. Hope you enjoy!

The second bit is less funny and much more Mongolia specific. It's an article that is part of a special series that NPR is doing on Mongolia and addresses the rampant alcoholism throughout the country. I haven't gotten a chance to read any of the other articles in the series but I'm sure they're equally as informative and enlightening. The photographs in this essay are also quite telling. The story focuses on Ulaanbaatar but you see the same things throughout the countryside. Except for I'm pretty sure there are no rehab facilities here.