Monday, February 28, 2011

Jane Trumps Taylor

As you know, part of the residue left in Mongolia by the Russians are holidays. Teachers Day was previously discussed on this blog and Woman's Day is fast approaching in early March. In a stab at revamping the library before the big wigs from UB come to visit next week, my counterpart decided to have the students do posters for Woman's Day. She authorized them to raid the substantial collection of outdated magazines for pictures and the ninth graders, armed with scissors and glusticks, jumped right in. I gave them instructions to find 'real womean' and not models. After a little while I went over to check up on their progress. Peering through the mounts of paper that littered the table, I observed that the vast majority of pictures they had glued to their paper were full length cutouts of young women on the red carpet. Mildly frustrated, I held photos of Patsy Cline and Lindsey Van aloof and tried to explain to them that what we wanted were photos of women doing things. They nodded obediently and returned to their cutting. When all the scraps had settled later, I pulled out their poster and stared at it. There were no less than 5 pictures of Taylor Swift, only 2 women of color and none, besides the picture of Opera I made them add, over 130 pounds or 26 years of age. This sent me into a sort of mental tailspin. Granted, it is difficult to find photos of women who do not resemble Keira Knightley's cross-eyed manikin-like ilk in most publications, a fact frustrating in itself. But the idea that all these girls (there is only one boy in the class) rapidly sought out pretty women and ignored the smarter, more able portrayals of females was troubling. Ok, ok it was only a poster. I know it's not like these young ladies outright told me that they are being molded into Heidi Klum worshipers and anorexic fashion fiends as they mature. But it still bothers me. They gravitated so swiftly and unwaveringly towards the pretty teenybopper icons and that to me communicated that what they have been taught to value in women is purely aesthetic. Just then Suvda ambled into the room. A sassy 40-something who will tell you loud and proud what she thinks, she looked at me after hearing my conundrum and voiced an issue I had been skirting in my mind. "You sound like a feminist!" she declared. I was perplexed for several reasons upon hearing this. Firstly, I am not a feminist. I love my bras! They are pretty and they make me perky. You can bet your sweet ass that I have no plans to burn them. And some of my best memories of former boyfriends is of them holding the door open for me. Secondly, how is wanting young women to recognize traits that aren't related to physical beauty classified as feminist? Isn't that just normal? Shouldn't the value of the mind be what we take for a granted, a simple fact, as opposed to some sort of labeled and separated set of ideals apart from the norm? Shouldn't it be backwards at this point in modern history to believe that women are valued based on their dress size? I smiled at Suvda and returned to gluing Jane Goodall to my own collage. I am still not quite sure what to make of this whole experience. I do know that I am rather reluctant to allow myself or other to slap a label on my beliefs. But regardless I hope that through our time together these young women will grow to see their fellow females as allies and friends, rather than just a catalog of pretty faces.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

My Train Station Town

One of the best parts about living in Western Mongolia is not just experiencing all that Mongolia has to offer but that the rest of the world comes to you. A huge advantage of being in a lage(r) town is that it has a big draw for many aid and development organizations, so there are a lot of foreigners stationed in town for me to play with. Hovd is also the transit, trade and agricultural hub of Western Mongolia, making it a thoroughfare for a wide variety of people. Among other things this means that starting in the spring and well into autumn we get a steady stream of couch surfers floating and crashing through town. Despite the limited amounts of goods and services that make it here, it's amazing how people manage find their way to Hovd. Even though an avocado has never graced the rusty bed-springs of the makeshift market stalls, I have managed to get a slice of life from so many different corners of the world and the people who come bring with them fragrant breezes and exciting stories.

The catalyst for this post was last night. There are three Russian girls, young women really as they are my age, who are teaching in Hovd for a year. Occasionally our American-Swiss contengecy will collide with theirs on the weekends to have fun. Due to an unfortunate situation with her boyfriend's mother, one of the Russian girls has to go home. Our little foreigner crew has set the bar pretty high on craziness when we party with the Russians, in part due to some serious Russian drinking games, but last night went above and beyond. It was a very fitting sendoff. Walking to the disco, linked arm-in-arm with two of the Russian girls, I was overcome by how cool it is to hang out with so many different kinds of people. En route they belted out a Russian song about rain and a jilted lover while I hummed along merrily, happy to be a part of such a neat cross-cultural exchange. They tried to teach the song to me, but sadly that didn't go so well. I was happy to appreciate it though.

There have been so many similar moments in my time here; bits of life when I am completely immersed in a different culture and thrilled to be so. Couch surfers are fantastic vessels for this exoticism. I've eaten a sublime rustic breakfast lovingly made by a pair of Israelis. I've been tutored in the nuances of making psychedelic techno by a quasi-famous English DJ. I've experienced the shock and awe on the faces of Mongolian waitstaff as they watch French gypsies play accordion and dance in the middle of their restaurant. I've devoured traditional Indonesian noodle soup and shrimp chips and laughed with the cooks with gusto. And then there was living with Swiss people, a wonderful and fascinating experience.The couch surfers haven't all been lovely, however. There was an alcoholic Londoner who passed out on my floor uninvited after I caught him fondling my dirty bras (his excuse was "it's been a while"). But that was mostly just entertaining and overall it's been such a wonderful adventure getting to know people from so many different places. Even the people from America are interesting. We are all so different and from extremely varying places that our lives have been completely nonuniform. The Peace Corps Volunteers are very dissimilar and then throw in the American missionaries and religious aid workers we hang out with sometimes and it's a veritable melting pot. I consider myself extremely lucky to have met each person I've come across and am in constant wonder that people manage to find our little town, marooned in vast expanses of desert as it is. And though my Russian friend will be sorely missed, I am not only joyful to keep the company of so many other cool people but also look forward to the warmer weather and the rainbow of traveling characters it will bring.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Boob Tube on a Wednesday

Apparently there have been tons of new music videos out lately. A total sucker for MTV and VH1 (on the rare occasions they don't play atrocious reality tv shows), music videos have always been a sort of pop art fascination for me. Watching the video for the new Radiohead single 'Lotus Flower' on Monday, I was struck by a strange question: do people in America really dress like that? I have absolutely no idea how people dress in America these days! In the video, Thom Yorke seemed to be seizing around a stage dressed in sprayed-on pants topped off by a bowler hat. Are bowlers back? I know my first boyfriend and I were into them circa 2005. This does not bode well. And why was he wearing long underwear that looks like jeans? Usually I wear two layers of those under real pants. Wouldn't that threaten to cut off circulation to some very important parts? Out of sheer perplexity, I've decided that this next music video is really what America looks like right now. Also, everyone loves a really good beak-up song and this one hits the nail on the head. Say what you will about Kanye's personal life, the man is a musical genius. So tell me, am I on track? Or has the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave actually stopped wearing real pants? Please tell me everything is a shade of retro 80's neon and bowlers aren't back to stay!

[And for reference, Thom Yorkes impressive convulsions in tights can be found here]

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Small Town Groupie

Last weekend I encountered an unexpected boon of living in Mongolia. Because Mongolia has such a tiny population most of the time life here seems like living in a very spread out small town. There are less than 3 million people in the whole country; I'm pretty sure there are apartment buildings in Mexico City that house more people than that.  So when I found out that my good friend Amra knows the lead singer of my favorite Mongolian band, the Lemons, I was beyond thrilled but not too surprised. She told me he was her brother, which I totally believed in the biological sense until she told me some weeks later that he is more her "brother" because they are such close friends. Apparently they met at church, not in the postnatal wing. Amra and I normally talk in abstract about hanging out with him together which we again joked about last Saturday night while feasting on Amras heavenly pizza. I promised her that I have resolved to marry him and take his babies back to America with me (just kidding, Mom!...kind of). That conversation is pretty par for the course so when she handed me the phone later that night with a grin, I was a little confused. "Bahn yy?" I heard on the other side of the phone. Good Lord! I thought, my eyes bulging, it's him! "Bahn!" I replied shakily, the standard phone greeting. We proceeded to have a short conversation in which he wished me happy birthday while my wit, charm and Mongolian language completely failed me the more crimson my face and ears became. I was completely starstruck, I mean this guy is without doubt by far the coolest person in Mongolia. He always wears sunglasses- no one's seen his eyes. His style is one fit for the Gods and he sings with the voice of an angle. Well perhaps that's a little over the top. But he really is the coolest person out of 3 million, that I promise is true. Talking with him, even if for a few minutes, really made my night and makes me smile even now. Besides Larry the Cable Guy, that's probably the most famous person I've ever talked to. And he's way hotter than Larry.
Though there can be some happy coincidences in a country that boasts such a small population, admittedly the population size is not without its disadvantages. For example, there are way too few politicians to ensure an uncorrupted government, despite their reliability or lack thereof people never get turned down for large loans and the thirst for gossip is only matched by how quickly news spreads. There are plenty of obstacles to deal with when you live in the most sparsely populated country in the world. But on the other hand being part of a small population does bring a lot of great opportunities and Saturday night I could only see its glorious advantages.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

My Mountains

Sitting here at work bundled in what I affectionately call my 'sleeping bag coat,' I am savoring the memories of my recent vacation. The streets and trains of Europe seem so far away. It feels like the distance is trying to rob me of the things that filled my memory: butter scented bakeries, the sway of metros and sun shining through red wine. Attempting to retreat into these memories helps me focus on something other than my painfully frozen feet. One thing that sticks out vividly in my mind from all my trips to Europe, this last one being no exception, is the cathedrals. I grew up in a Unitarian Universalist Congregation that looked something like the love child of a theater-in-the-round and a flying saucer into which the '70's puked orange upholstery. A wonderful place but not the beacon of magnanimous architecture. So it really shattered my world when I saw my first cathedral at about 13. The space was both somber and delicate, heavy and light. It stole my breath. I walked slowly down the center aisle, soaking it all in.

It's hard to put into words the way I feel in a cathedral. I've accumulate slips of memories over time and somehow all the hallowed halls and stone archways have snowballed to create one vast, monumental structure in my mind. Inside this amalgomous structure you can feel its vast age in your bones and the spirits of generations that have passed through the doors palpably hang in the corners. I always find myself thinking about all the people who spent lifetimes building such a monument, or those who have found a life and refuge there. I can't help but love these stone giants; standing tall and proud, their weathered faces defiant as they hold their ground. Without fail they remain dutifully stalwart though the modern world tries to overtake them like kudzu vines. In a cathedral, everything else melts away as your perspective is completely altered. One the most remarkable parts about the experience is that you are forced to look up. The windows, columns and sculptures that dwell above catch your eye and hold you in rapture. I'm not religious at all and I dare say not even spiritual but I do think there is a lot to be said for looking up. It has the tendency to impart gratefulness and humility all at once. I am also not really into nature, unless it's on the other side of a window. Cathedrals have become my mountains- vast craggy massifs that were built long before I was here and will remain long after I am gone. It's a comforting thought.

My infatuation with these structures is perhaps strange and difficult to elocute properly. But the gentelmen in the band Jump Little Children have no problem picking up where I fail. This group sings a truly soul melting homage to cathedrals. Strange? Yes. But also very beautiful. So give it a listen and perhaps you can feel a little of what I find so special in these magnificent places.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Nose Knows

I got flowers for Valentine's Day! Not a big bouquet or even a little spray, but three tiny yellow flowers, barely bigger than my thumbnail. I held the delicate blossoms in my palm and breathed in their scent. I hadn't seen flowers in Mongolia literally in months. I felt like they must have been illicitly trafficked taped to the top of a truck or something. "They smell so good!" I exclaimed, cupping the precious plants under my nose. The flower giver smiled and shrugged; "they smell like grass." "Exactly!" I had forgotten the smell of grass. The deep, rich, organic smell of things that grow. In a Mongolian winter many things die, the strangest of which are smells. When things freeze, you can't smell them. This fact of life makes the outhouses much more pleasant but the rest of life becomes incredibly flat. Of course, the opposite end of the spectrum is when things burn. For some reason I've always imagined the streets of India in summer being alive with festering, sizzling things. When things freeze, they just slowly deaden without a fight. But when they burn, its like they become so alive that they explode in an ecstasy of being. On cold days I'll close my eyes and think about an outdoor market on the surface of the sun; a brilliant yellow existence in the distortion of hot air where everything is painfully alive. But here in Mongolia smells disappear, dieing along with their source, and you don't notice. It's easier to focus on the narrowing color palate, the vibrant greens and blues shriveling down to browns and grays. Then it's those times in which you are presented with a living thing that you realize what you are missing. The revisited fragrances are overwhelming and exhilarating. 

A memory I have held close from my trip this summer is visiting a museum in Auckland. It had beautiful grounds and though it was rainy my friend Wes and I decided to stroll through them. We came to a hot house where Wes, always the gentleman, opened the door for me. And all at once it hit me; I felt as if I'd been blitzkrieged by a perfumery. The smells! The beautiful, floral aromas that had been so absent in my life for a year enveloped me and I was carried along by the warm saccharine breath. The colors were so vibrant. It was so surreal, so completely different from what I have gotten used to. Now back in Mongolia I can conjure a vague memory of the distant tropical smell while the world freezes around me. Knowing that hot house exists with it's precious cargo is a thought I hold dear.
In another instance of sensory recall, I held a baby this weekend for the first time in a very long time. Rocking her back in forth and humming the Beatles, her eyes began to close. I cradled her to my face and breathed deep the scent of her hair. It's amazing: babies everywhere smell the same! The fresh, delicate smell of new life is the just same on an old sofa in rural Mongolia as it is in Piedmont Hospital in downtown Atlanta. And everywhere it is heavenly.

What I've taken away from this sensory phenomenon is that I suppose you can't in fact have rain without rainbows, fireflies without mosquitoes, weed without stems and seeds or whatever they say. True, flowers have and will always smell good. But just as hunger is the best sauce, revising a rare smell after so long is almost indescribably mind blowing. For as long as I live I don't think I'll ever smell such honeyed flowers or babies so sweet. These memories will carry me through the winter until the world blooms again.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Monthly Montage: Tsagaan Saar

A few weeks ago Tsagaan Saar was upon us. It is the Mongolian holiday recognizing the lunar new year, a holiday celebrated throughout the Asian world. Apparently this year we were marking the coming year of the male iron rabbit, whatever that means. Regardless, I had such a great time celebrating with friends and "family" here in Hovd. The basics of the holiday, if you missed it before, is the idea that everything you do within the three plus days of Tsagaan Saar sets a president for what will happen in your next year. So that means you must eat, drink and visit friends until you can't possibly shovel another buuz into your mouth or drink another bowl of milk tea. It gets pretty exhausting but the festive nature of the time is exhilarating and the home visits are as rewarding as they are fascinating. So here are some sights from this year and last years Tsagaan Saar. Сар шинэдээ сайхан шинэлээрэй!
Before Tsagaan Saar I was taken to a ger near
my library tosee how they cook the meat.
These are the back halves of sheep that cook
slowly rigged up in a big metal trash can.
Ingenious, no?
My counterpart worked really hard to organize a
Tsagaan Saar competition for the foreigners. The buuz
in the foreground were made by the librarians.
Our foreigner-made buuz were so ugly!
Part of the competition was a game of
horse race шагай or ankle bones.
Suzanne needed a bit of help with her deel from one
of the librarians. We all did though! Those things
are impossible to put on by yourself.
The teams. We won! :-)
On the first day you should get up super early to go to the oldest, most respected people you know to wish them a happy Tsagaan Saar first.
The very decked out family of Suzanne's
counterpart, Nymhoo. Her daughter is also
my student.
Sweet Tsagaan Saar baby!
Nymhoo's эмээ (grandmother) and
євєє (grandfather) in their traditional
ethnic getup.
Talking on the cell phone.
Love the anachronism!
At our friend Boogi's house. 
Our lovely lady friend Roza steps, fetches
and pours сүүтай цай (milk tea).

Boogi cookin' up a storm- boiled mutton
over a wood and coal burning stove.
Suzanne and our collective PCV
'Mongol Mama' Tserenkhlam.
Aaron contemplating his sweet
mustache and obligatory shot of
vodka in an awesome cowboy boot
glass at Tserenkhlams apartment.
Ned set out to beat the local Peace Corps Volunteer
record of 137 buuz in one day. Also, you can see the
vast spread at my counterpart's house.
євєє and the apple of his eye at my
counterparts apartment.

A bit of fun on the ice between house visits.
Making a new batch of сүүтай цай.  Even if you're
already half way out the door it's considered very rude not
to drink a bowl from the fresh batch. I really like it though!
Making buuz in a ger. It's so cold outside and
hot inside that every time the door opens
a fog sweeps in.
Taking a buuz break and
watching the kiddies play.
Wee Mongolians!
Playing with a tea set at our student's house.
These girls are adorable!
Sweet girls! The two twins were adopted by their cousins
family when their parents passed. They are three girls
the same age; all brilliant and inseparable.
Ned taking a buuz break.
I think he was on number 90 at this point.
Making the rounds.
Our гадаадын хїн (foreign person) crew.
Ned sticking it to buuz number 138!
 Here are a few pics from last years Tsagaan Saar. A little old but still kinda neat...

At the Tsagaan Saar competition last year.
Making buuz is no joke.
The шагай competition as the librarians look on. 
Sadly my ankle bone horse was fat and lazy!
The boys having fun.
The spread at our friend Javkhlan's house. Can you spy:
1 plate of buuz, 4 salads, 3 сүүтай цай and large parts 
of sheep? Also the stack of cookies on the left is on every 
Tsagaan Saar table.The levels always symbolize 'happy' then 
'sad' then 'happy' again. There is always an odd number 
of levels- unless someone in the family has died in the last year.
Miss Deggi making buuz in her families ger.
Davadorj, the head of the foreign language
department at Hovd University. He is for sure
жинхэнэ монгол (real Mongolian).
Little Anka, the granddaughter of the librarians
'gardener' (pouring at right), serving vodka
to the librarians.
Yanja, one of my favorite people in all of Mongolia,
and her adorable family. Gotta love a gun totin' baby!
Jake experiencing the Tsagaan Saar
syndrome, a little like the Thanksgiving

Thursday, February 10, 2011


Yeeaaa! We're breakin' triple digits! This is officially my 100th blog post. That's a lot! It's funny to reflect about what it has been like to blog. A few years ago I never would have thought I'd ever be into this kind of thing. But with support and dedicated reading from my friends and family, seems like it's turned out quite well. Together we've persevered though floods (10 posts last month!) and droughts (summer. oops!); we've ventured through great posts and crappy ones. So to all the readers, both commenting and not, thank you. I never could have done this without you! :-)

Don't quite know what this woman has in common with the blog- other than being centenarians. I just hope that I can be as fun and feisty in my old age! Hopefully my writing will follow her example and never get boring.

Also, apologies for not posting in a while. Tsagaan Saar ate my life for a week and now I'm so swamped with working on projects, classes and meetings that I literally don't get a weekend. And to add to that, starting Monday I have 2 new classes to teach every day. Eek! But I will try my best. Promise! Good things to come shortly.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Happy Tsagaan Saar!

Today marks the first day of Tsagaan Saar, the three day Lunar New Year celebration and arguably the most important time in Mongolia.There is a whole lot that goes into it but basically the Tsagaan Saar traditions are visiting, hosting, well wishing, gift giving and eating way too much food. On the first day you visit the oldest and most respected people you know; the visits during the other two days, which spill into several more days, are kind of a free for all. The first day is supposed to start super early so this morning I lugged myself out of bed before the sun came up and went with Suzanne to visit her counterpart and her counterpart's parents. We did quite well, Suzanne and I, clocking in our first shot of vodka at 8:30am and our first buuz (ravioli-sized steamed mutton dumplings) at 9:45. Impressive, no? Thus far I am three ger visits in and am in sore need of a walk. The weather is warming a tiny bit which has been heavenly. So off I go to the river, a friend I've missed since the lung-choking pollution has put it's foot down on my morning runs, for a Thanksgiving-esque stroll. Hopefully that will help me digest and quiet the 'baah's coming from my stomach. So in mean time, happy Tsagaan Saar!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A Loss for Words

Mongolia has made me weirdly self-conscious. Though I was plagued by this problem to a painful degree throughout middle school, it faded away during my Senior year of high school and I blossomed out of it during college. But sadly it has made a rather soul crushing comeback. I have a theory as to perhaps why this has come to be. My life now has precious few of, for lack of a better term,'social mirrors' or people, both friends and strangers alike, who give you clues as to the appropriateness of your behavior. Through the importance of these folks might be difficult to see, imagine your life without all the friends, neighbors, baristas and fellow commuters who gently prod you back into place on tough days and for whom you do the same. We are behavior models for each other and without the aforementioned ensemble it's hard to tell if one should alter anything about one's comportment or if one is on the right track. We rely on people to whom we can turn and ask, verbally or not, 'how am I doin' here?' Now the reason these social mirrors have become scant in my life is twofold. Because there are completely different social norms in Mongolia my American behavior code is always considered weird. For example, pushing, crowding and gawking at an ATM is perfectly normal, but refusing a shot of vodka is a big no-no; not exactly American rules. On the flip side, people get profoundly confused when I hold a door open for them. Moreover, the Westerners I do hang out with are certainly a rare breed. Possibly due to the amount of restriction and responsibility we face in our daily lives or maybe because that's just how we are, but when everyone gets together the topics of conversation frequently turn to the sexual, crass and extremely un-politically correct.

Consequently, I've discovered that this lack of a Western social norm makes it quite difficult when dealing with the outside world. Exhibit A: when e-mailing my Grandmother I asked 'is your apartment warm?', a totally normal and even expected question in Mongolia. But after sending the e-mail I second guessed myself; I wasn't sure if that is considered typical conversation material for Americans. Aren't all apartments warm? Don't they have those little magic boxes called thermostats? Do people even talk about that stuff in the States? And chatting with a friends online I now occasionally fail to recognize the difference between a little too off-color and a funny joke. Where is the line? I have no effing clue! I've forgotten how people in America talk to each other. We have a joke in Peace Corps Mongolia that at our fist American cocktail party we will probably march up to the first person we see, put our face in theirs and ask 'WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!' That, in fact, is normal Mongolian behavior which we have also adopted for the sake of cultural integration. But in all seriousness, conversations in which people don't ask me my age and why I'm not married with children (there must be something wrong with me if I haven't cranked out several babies by now!) are completely elusive here. But if memory serves those topics aren't too welcomed back home. Right...? Maybe?

Although what is almost worse is that I very well might have become the proverbial conversation cat lady. Let me elaborate. When I was a little girl we had a neighbor down the street. She was an older woman and lived alone- the only older woman I knew to do that (she was also the only woman I knew who had a mustache and drank Budweiser, for the record). She would come to every party about 45 minutes early, crack a beer and talk for 2 hours without an inhale. The loneliness of her life in that big, empty house probably got to her and when she found herself around other people she was so overjoyed that she just couldn't stop talking. Sadly now I know all too well how she must have felt. After long nights spent alone in my apartment, when I see my friends I feel a near frenzy to say everything I have been thinking, feeling and doing in the last 48 hours. Good lord, I sometimes think, checking my upper lip for excessive hair, have I become that woman? But then again I really have no way of telling how close I am to cat lady status since my social mirrors are somewhat foggy. At this point I figure there is not a whole lot to be done. For now my to do list is as follows: 1. try not to alienate my friends, 2. do the best I can not to feel and act like a self-conscious cat lady and 3. prey I somehow rebound my tact and conversational grace one day. I'm sure it will work out eventually, I just really hope it happens before my first cocktail party.