Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Early Morning Penguin

I don't know if you've already seen this and I'm just late to the party. But this video of a little penguin, apparently who lives at the Cincinatti Zoo and is named Cookie, is so adorable. I'm up super early today to head off to training and wish there was a giant hand to reach down from somewhere above and tickle me!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Consider the Sugar Daddy

Somehow between birthdays, Easter dinners, hot showers and reading a wonderful book, I have been trying to find time to reflect on what has happened in UB. It's only been two days but each hour is so packed with floods of emotions and overwhelming sensations that it feels like I've absorbed so much in a very little amount of time. One thing that has occupied my mind within the last few days is the dynamic between expats and the rest of Mongolia. Within a mere two days I have been hit on by older expat men not once, but twice. It happens in a strange manner. Both times I was sitting with girlfriends chatting, completely absorbed in our own conversation and nursing some sort of drink. For some reason these men, who tend to flock in twos to fours, think it is perfectly acceptable to come join our table though they have received absolutely no invitation whatsoever. Please tell me, what part of sitting at a coffee shop and chitchatting with friends screams 'please hit on me creepily, rich third-generation sausage maker from Austria!'? The audacity of assuming we are both available and interested in talking to them is mildly entertaining. Neither is true for me. These bizarre rituals proceed like Animal Planet suggests they should, with an offering of goods: the older men without fail buy drinks for us. What does one do? Tell the poor local server, who is already boggled by the idea of one group of people ordering drinks for another, that you won't accept them? We tried that once, only to reap playful heckles from our suitors. Also, it is really appropriate to assume that these gifts are somehow maliciously motivated? There's nothing wrong with a friendly conversation, after all. I know there are implicitly strings attached to the icy beverages, but there haven't been any remotely acted upon. We manage to keep the conversations platonic and the men end up leaving before we do, realizing that their shot in the dark has been to no avail and bidding us farewell with good nature and no ill will. So are these little presents merely to win the chance to banter with a table full of blonds? Seems like a silly exercise to me.

Honestly, if you can't tell, this whole thing makes me rather uncomfortable and bewildered. I know with full certainty that there is no such thing as a free anything, much less a free cocktail. However, there are some women here who face these transactions with ease and many who welcome it. A Peace Corps Volunteer recently went on an all expenses paid vacation to Southeast Asia, courtesy of her much older, wealthy English...boyfriend? And many of the Mongolian ladies at the clubs are just as on the prowl as the foreign men, willing to reach into a lonely gent's pockets for drinks and more. (Ironically, the club at which we this regularly takes place is called Strings; a venue that builds relationships based on the attachment of its namesake.) But then again, what is so wrong with this sort of interaction? If both parties are frank, and no one is feeling used beyond what is normal in a goods-for-services exchange, then it's perfectly okay. Right? Moreover, these relationships are ubiquitous and by virtue of their frequency they are somewhat legitimized. They are just not for me. On the other side of the table, the men who approach us seem very well aware of what they are proposing and the absurdity therein. At one awkward juncture, my friend commented on her father's upcoming 60th birthday. Our senior suitor fell silent and then sheepishly confessed that he was even older than that. Taking the hint, he didn't hang around long after.

Part of the reason I think there are so many of these kinds of guys here is because of the mines. Mongolia is currently the new Wild West, bursting at the seams with workers, hangers-on and prospectors seeking desperately to capitalize on the wealth buried beneath the Gobi's sands. This yields a large population of Western men who come and go frequently and are unsupervised by their wives. Coupled with the great amount of money these miners are amassing hourly and the titillation that many of them find in Asian women, this city has now become a minefield of a different sort. But thus far no explosions today and I hope to keep it that way. No amount of free alcohol can ever justify and older man's hand on your thigh and that's the way it will say- at least for me.

Friday, April 22, 2011

FYI...and Apologies

Just a brief notification: blog posts will be scarce in the next week and a half as I will once again be in UB. It should be a good time with friends and an educational conference, though frankly I prefer being in Hovd away from the money drain and torturous social drama that tends to accompany life in the big city. So apologies in advance. I have also noticed some typos in recent posts and have not been able to be as prolific this month, due to squeezed time between city trips. For that I am deeply sorry.

However, one thing to look forward to this coming week is observing the juxtaposition between country life and city life that marks UB. Last time I was in UB I stood in line behind a woman who was surely wrestling with her very first encounter with an ATM. My friend had to buckle and unbuckle an eme's seat belt en route to the city, as she'd clearly never been on a plane before. When the plane landed, she had no idea how to get up. This is the same city in which vodka moguls rub elbows with Russian bank owners and as foreigners, we have the ability to move though almost all social circles as we explore the city. It is fascinating. So beware of the writing sabbatical and here's hoping that I absorb lots of interesting scenes for future posts.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Foul and Friendly Jolts

Somehow I always thought that culture shock would never affect me. I remember sitting in a session about it's dangers before I studied abroad in college and thinking that I was so much tougher than anyone who came down with the culture shock. It seemed like a disease and I was far too cosmopolitan to be susceptible. But I suppose I was wrong. Though it affectedly me heavily at first, I am over the big shocks of Mongolia now for sure. The sight of severed animal heads with tongues bulging don't freak me out and I am used to holding down my spot in an ATM line akin to a mosh pit. However, some things still manage to get under my skin as either really nice or wretched. I suppose these things are part of the ongoing learning process that is living in a foreign country. Perhaps they are still remnants of culture shock? They smack of both bewilderment and humble learning. And though I am getting ready to pack my bags and fly off to UB tomorrow morning for my Close of Service conference I can still  be affected by parts of life here that remain new and strange.

The thing that has stuck me as really wonderful of late is rampant sharing. Definitely a dessert vulcher myself, my friends would laugh and yell at me to get my own cheesecake as they watched me sneak rather unstealthy bites of theirs in our college cafeteria. This was also the attitude I had when I caught someone else sucking down my cocktail or eating my cheesecake. Go get your own! But here, it's completely different. If someone has something, it is implied and expected that they will share. Even when there are 20 people and four cookies, you can bet that everyone will get a bite. It's a really sweet attitude of being more attached to people than to things- sharing the joy of an ice cream is much better than having one all to yourself. Sometimes this gets taken a little too far. I dread transporting baked goods from my house to my class. Last time I walked across town with homemade cookies in an open container, I was constantly heaving sighs as random people walked up to me and snagged a cookie off my plate. I have now learned to make extra cookies. This has cascaded into my interactions with foreigners. I now make enough of anything I bring to share at campfires, as we have grown to take and give with ease amongst each other for the most part. It's a nice feeling, not being grasped by an urge to protect whatever you're enjoying but to relax because it actually belongs to the community and not to you. Frustrating at times, it is. But most often it leaves everyone with the sticky sweet taste of ubiquitous vanilla ice cream and a bright smile.

On the other hand, one thing I have noticed that still gives me a jolt of anger that often accompanies culture sock is yelling. Unfortunately, Mongolia is a yelling culture. I'm not quite sure of it's origins. Perhaps it was bred from the top-down way that Soviet life was run. Looking farther back, I'm pretty sure that Chinggus Khan didn't sit down for a round table chat before he barked orders at his subordinates. Wherever it's roots are, it is rather unpleasant. Evidence of this yelling is seen everywhere in a foreigner's life here. Whenever I have a package at the post office, the postmistress calls me and yells at me for not coming sooner. Whenever I go to collect said package, she yells at me once again for...something. Normally I just wait for the storm of spittle to subside and get on with my life. However, I was beyond infuriated when one of my students showed up at my home last week with tears in her eyes. The janitors had mercilessly ripped her a new one for being in the American Center after hours, even though I had given her permission to do so. My little film critic, the one from previous posts, was watching The Pianist. How could I deny her a chance to finish it? Even if it was after hours, she is more friend than student and I trust her completely. But apparently the janitors did not. After comforting her with some chamomile tea, I stormed to work. I tried to think of the most diplomatic way to broach the topic but as soon as I saw the janitor in question I summoned all the venom I had within me and flung it at her loudly in Mongolian so good that it surprised both of us. This is exactly what I didn't want to do: fall victim to the vicious cycle that is yelling. She nodded her head demurely and walked away; I instantly felt horrible. I'm not quite sure how to combat this. I know the first step is not to yell, but my inner tigress came out to defend my student and I couldn't help it. Perhaps next time I'll be better. Hopefully there won't be a next time.

These things still boggle my mind. I suppose that's a good thing. Maybe I'll never feel completely at ease here, which is okay. The thrills and pitfalls of being impressed on anew by a culture I have lived in for so long is a fascinating thing. On thing I know is that I'll try to continue to share my ice cream and speak softly for many years to come.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Monthly Montage: Kazakh Life

Inspired by both the Kazakh New Year, 'Nowriz' which just passed in March and my recent infatuation with BBC's Human Planet series, this month's montage will be focused on the Kazakh population in Mongolia. Concentrated in my corner of the country, the westernmost province of Bayan Olgii is comprised almost exclusively of Kazakhs. Here in Hovd we have a Kazakh minority that is quite vibrant, though sadly Kazakhs here face frequent discrimination. Over the past year I have put forth my best efforts in tandem with a development worker from another organization in creating a Kazakh Cultural Center here in town. While I don't think I'll be here to see our efforts into fruition due to my rapidly approaching Close of Service date, it has roused in me a very deep awareness of this marginalized population and the unique culture that it possesses. So take a look at the smattering of Kazakh-related pics below; some are of Kazakh events, some are Kazakhs themselves and others are just life in the neighboring province. I hope you'll be as intrigued as I am by this group. But first BBC's Human Planet highlights the hunters among us.
(PS apologies in advance for some wack formatting. I have yet to figure out how to publish pictures properly according to caption size...Eek! Sorry!)
My student, Tiku. Of four classes, he is one of the only two boys who has stuck with Access.
I couldn't resist. Such a sweet baby!
At a special Kazakh concert in Hovd. He is playing the dombra, a traditional instrument with three strings.
A concert singer sporting pretty sweet traditional dress.
Kaz, Kazakh horse sausage, is super popular and surprisingly tasty.
Beshbarmak, meaning 5 fingers, a special meal to celebrate a friend's new apartment.
Bayan Olgii Aimag Center from afar.
Life in Bayan Olgii can be tough since the Kazakhs are so marginalized. Here boys fetch water from the frozen river.
In the Olgii Square. Many are still very fond of the Soviet era.
The local school in Bayan Olgii. In front of the school is a stature of a Russian soldier running away and shooting backwards at the school. No idea why.
A very large and fancy байшин, or house. Kazakhs tend to live in these in the winter and bigger gers in the summer.
Chopping coal to heat my friend's modest байшин. Dogs are to be expected in both Kazakh and Mongolian yards, they're excellent guards. Thankfully Ruthie was a friendly sentinel.
And sometimes when you live in a байшин it gets a little too hot and you light your roof on fire. Subsequently, it seems like a good idea to empty the contents of an entire fire extinguisher into the tiny space.
My friend's student. He invited us for Nowriz last year.
The traditional Nowriz fair is a 7-ingredient soup.
In the Kazakh tradition, meat is served in big hunks on a large platter. It is the oldest man's job to cut and serve.
The landscape between Hovd and Olgii during a vodka/pee break en route.
Umm sheep head.
Standing on a hill over a yak farm after a breakdown between Olgii and Hovd hoping to capture the expansive isolation.
Grandma and baby!
In their finest array, the community turns out for a parade.
Older women walking proudly in their wimples.
A fancy float. Though religion has more cultural significance than anything, Kazakhs are still very attached to their Muslim roots. For reference, Mongolians are similarly only quasi-devout Buddhists.
The real mosque in Olgii.
Perhaps one of the best known parts of Kazakh culture, an eagle hunter with his feathered friend.
More of the landscape between Hovd and Olgii. This time featuring fertile camels.
Another relatively well known part of Kazakh culture, handicrafts- especially wall hangings. They are all beautiful handmade, including the date it was finished and the name of the maker. Sadly though they are vanishing quickly.
The head hancho at the Eagle Fest. Quite an ensemble.
Hunters in the sun. I very much hope they'll be able to keep this incredible tradition alive.
A hunter on his horse with a owner-less eagle in the foreground.
I took my students to experience Nowriz at a Kazakh student's home. Remarkably, though they have been living among Kazkahs their whole lives, they had never celebrated the most important Kazkah holiday or even been inside a Kazakh house.
Cross culture bonding between teachers at a Peace Corps training. One of the Kazakh counterparts brought kaz to UB all the way from Olgii and shared it with her new Mongolian friends.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Perks of Adulthood

Though I've been living on my own for quite a few years now, it's still nice to savor moments in which you keenly feel the freedom of adulthood. Nothing like sitting on your sunny stoop with a friend and relishing an ice cream in for breakfast. Wonderful moments indeed.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Riding Hard on a Wednesday

I have discovered the best website ever. Well if you're Southern and have a quirky sense of humor like I do, it's the best website. May I introduce Paula Deen Riding Things. It's basically what it sounds like: Paula Deen Riding Things. Behold:
Hope those made you giggle as much as they did me! Have a great Wednesday!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Monastic Magic

The reason for my silence in the last week or so is that I was in the capitol fulfilling my duties as a member of the Volunteer Advisory Committee, a group which serves as a bridge between the Volunteers and Peace Corps staff. It was somewhat productive and worth the trip in but unfortunately due to the flight schedules and the timing of the meeting, I spent a whopping week in UB to attend a 3 hour meeting. However, I managed to pass the time well in the company of friends, sunshine, good food and coffee. It was a lovely break from countryside life but I was glad to return to the normalcy of my job, my wonderful friends and the comfortable churning rhythm of my weeks here in Hovd

Though life in the big city can get pretty expensive and exhausting emotionally (how does one operate an elevator?), there are some really delightful surprises to be found just below the surface if you open your eyes to them. One day, board with the typical pattern of working, eating and drinking that PCVs tend to adhere to in the big city, I decided to take a stroll to a different part of town. A few girl friends came with me and our merry band set out in search of the funky, offbeat shopping district which is a fair distance from our normal stomping ground in the city center. I was leading the pack, a rather risky move since my sense of direction boils down to plodding in the general direction of the final destination. This technique seemed to be failing at first, as we quickly realized that we weren't quite in the right place. However, it turned into a rather beautiful accident when we stumbled upon a tree lined avenue and found ourselves at the foot of a rather impressive monastery. It was a prefect day and it was wonderful to behold people linked arm-in-arm strolling across the grounds freely as the monks moving to and fro. We congratulated ourselves on the lucky find and prepared to follow suit, starting off towards the grounds. However, no sooner had we entered the gates, an attendant sprang to life and demanded that we pay an entry fee. Confused by all the locals around us coming and going as they pleased we tried to tell them that our goal was merely a pleasant walk, not to sight-see. When this failed to register, we gave a collective shrug and took a less scenic route around the monastery wall. Somehow, spending our small discretionary income on nail polish is more justifiable than shelling out for bribes. We trudged along in a zig-zag pattern until something stopped us. One of our crew had to pee and scurried off to find a corner in which to do so; another went along as a lookout. That left two of us standing at the back of the massive monastery. Idly we chatted and waited for our friends- until we heard the most breathtaking noise. We turned to see a tiny house on the opposite side of the dingy little street from which the most intriguing sounds and smells issued forth. A droning filled our ears; not unlike a swarm of a million bees. It was punctuated by the cacophony of sundry instruments being played simultaneously with great gusto. We wandered towards the house and soon found ourselves at the threshold of a beautiful, albeit tiny temple. The two-story room was smoky with incense which filled my nose and delighted the senses. It would seem here, though the Russians tried hard to both literally and figuratively kill religion in Mongolia, that Buddhism is very much alive and well. Frozen in awe we stood in the threshold of the temple, trying our best to soak it all in. It was so beautiful. The fragrant incense, the way the light filtered through the smoke, the colorfully painted space, the ornate cloth cascading from the ceiling and the wall filled with ornate, cryptic shrines laden with offerings all came together to create a staggeringly stunning and exotic scene. Even the maroon and gold garb of the brothers was a sight to behold in the already vibrant room. Unlike the larger monastery, which seemed to be used as a tourist trap and a park, this one was very much alive. There were two rows of monks, young and old, facing each other, some were reading, all were chanting. Every once in a while, the younger boys would pound away on drums or blow into huge Seuss-worthy horns with as much lung power as they could muster. Around the two lines seated in the middle, monks were also plying their trade on the side walls. There were desks at which families were seated, apparently desperate for advice or help from their spiritual leaders. The wizened elderly and tiny infants were inspected by the gentle hands of the monks, all seemed to be under some sort of spell. It was one of the most tranquil places I've known; certainly it possesses the most supreme calm of anywhere I've been in Mongolia. Peace seemed to wash over me, as it did everyone else, as I walked through this domain, trying to make myself as strait and small as possible out of respect. After passing by the wall where people were consulting with the holy brothers, I reached the alters. There were so many Buddhas; I felt painfully ignorant not being able to tell what each one meant or what the different offerings that lay in silver bowls at the Buddha's feet symbolized. People came in a trickle to pay their respects to the deities, bowing their heads with hands clasped in front of them. I moved slowly, without taking pictures, bent on absorbing this place and committing it to my deepest of memories. My friend and I looked at each other as we discovered each new wonder, our eyes wide in amazement. As we began to depart, I tried my hand at spinning the large prayer wheels by the door. I walked reverently towards the first one and spun it. Probably amused and hopefully only a little offended, the old man seated near the door shook his head kindly but firmly at me and pointed in the other direction. I smiled in thanks and apology and walked to the other end of the wheels, spinning them clockwise, as they should be. My friend followed suit and as we walked out, we turned back for one last look at the magical place we found on accident. And as we walked down the stairs, the sound of chanting and banging was a glorious wind that sent us back out into the traffic and squalor of the urban jungle that is Ulaanabaatar.

Incredibly, after almost two years, Mongolia still amazes me in it's ability to surprise. The surprises are not always good, but not always bad either, which is perhaps how they never fail to catch me off guard. Sometimes it will be something as small and lovely as a student doodling 'I love you, teacher!'s all over her test or occasionally more frustrating things will happen, such as hearing slurs shouted out of apartment windows. And then there are the physical surprises, like the monastery. Stumbling upon such a beautiful place in the middle of a trash strewn mud street was truly a surprise. It reminded me of what is really important, both in Mongolia and life as a whole. I look forward to the rest of my time here being filled with surprises, both good and bad. They are with out doubt some of the things that make life here the most fascinating and rewarding.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

An Appendage Lost

Yesterday started out super fun. It began with a slow morning followed by perusing the black market with Aaron then a long walk joined by Suzanne. We wound our way through the ger districts until we got to the new monastery, sadly we found it locked. Then we swung by Suzanne's counterpart's ger where we sipped on salty black tea, played with her two-year-old son and chatted with her ancient, but always smiling mother. After that, Aaron and I set about concocting what he called a "Tuscan feast". We cook for our friends and sitemates about once every other week or so and this week's menu was creamy polenta topped with a rustic tomato stew of white beans and vegetables simmered in red wine. Our super rad missionary-esque friend Marvin contributed his near orgasmic garlic bread and even though the beans were a wee bit undercooked, it made for a fine meal. Later we met up with the Russian ladies at a local disco. Upon entry, the club seemed to have been revamped; it now boasted a table section adorned with tablecloths(!) and a Christmas light contraption that serves as a sort of curtain separating the dance floor from the rest of the space. A waitress led us to a table near the door where we deposited our coats and shimmied our way over to our friends who were already breakin' it down. It was fun, despite the outbreak of a fierce brawl between two University girls and rather shoddy music. I returned to our coats for a momentary respite and reached my hand into my pocket to check my phone. I found the pocket zipper stuck. It was open. My keys were there but I vividly remembered zipping up my coat pocket with my cell phone inside before abandoning it. I frantically dug around for my phone, but I knew it was gone. Diving under the couch, I scoured the area though I somehow felt my belonging's complete absence. My friends dialed my number only to reach a busy signal. My heart plummeted. My phone was gone. That was it. It wasn't ever coming back. As acceptance grew, silent tears streamed down my cheeks as I felt the colored lights of the disco transform into a sick, circus nightmare in which all the strangers are really foes. This is not the life I thought I chose for myself.

Before you judge me for being overly attached to a piece of plastic or to the outside world, it was what this gesture stood for that was particularly difficult to swallow. I just felt so violated. I know that, unlike the student who ended up on the floor with a foot to her solar plexus, my physical being was not harmed. My lot could have been much worse. However, it was difficult to squelch the voice inside that was raging and screaming "I came all the way around the world to be here in a spirit of love and friendship; I left everything I had behind to help and this is how your re-pay me?!" But a greater part of me knows that one Mongolian does not represent the actions of many. Though many are innocent of this crime, phone stealing is a recurring issue here. I am well acquainted with the dangers and frequency of petty theft. On a comparison in UB, I realized that I was one of the sole people among my friends whose Peace Corps issued cell phone had not been absconded with...yet. What also made this difficult is that my phone is also my lifeline to these far flung friends. When you live in such an isolated, unique and occasionally hostile environment, you tend to cling to the people who share similar experiences. My phone is the vessel for both absurd jokes and pained commiseration; it is the thing that saves me when I am having a hard day or find no one here to listen. It symbolizes my connection to my bosom buddies in the Peace Corps and reminds me that I am part of something greater. Moreover, part of the pain of this experience stems from the irony that every single one of my Mongolian friends, even my students, have nicer phones than I do. My phone is essentially the same model as the first cell I got my Freshman year of High School. It's not likely that it will fetch any sort of a price at the market. All my cherished memories in the form of saved texts, the comfort of easy accessibility to my friends and the safety promised by the flashlight on the tip of the phone is being tossed away for a mere paltry sum.

In Mongolian cell phone translated literally is 'hand phone', which makes sense both physically and metaphorically. People here are constantly on their cell phones. Landlines never really made it here in a big way so everyone has and loves their cellphone, even youngsters; they are very dependent upon them. For me, when my phone was stolen, I felt as if a real part of me had been severed. This was the part that trusted that nothing bad physically would ever happen to me here, the part of me that believed that because I was here to help I would escape unscathed. This part trusted strangers as friends for the most part and felt secure almost always. But now that has been distroyed, and with my hand phone, goes the part of me that trusted so freely and openly. Another innocence has been amputated.

When I woke up this morning, the anger and frustration had faded with the darkness. Honestly, I'm just disappointed it's not a better story. I went to the club, my phone was stolen, the end. Not a very exciting trade-off given the fact I now have to deal with getting a new phone activated when I am busy lesson planning, grading and teaching during the few hours that the stores are open. But c'est la vie. Nothing to be done. Now I can only process, heal and get reconnected. But for the time being, if you need me, I'll be reachable by e-mail, Facebook and carrier pigeon.