Year 2 – Not Much to Say

As I come to the end of my final year of service, the anxiety of not keeping up to date with this blog has finally gotten the better of me. There have been several times where I have sat down to write an entry and couldn’t figure out what to say, or just ran out of steam. So, I’m going to provide you with more of a visual journey instead of a verbal one this time.

Let’s begin:

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PST: New People, New Places

In Peace Corps Mongolia, Summer is the season of new volunteers. M27, the 27th group of volunteers to come to Mongolia, arrived at the end of May to begin their 10 weeks of Pre-Service Training. They learn the language, have technical training sessions, and practice teaching Mongolian students.

Two weeks before they arrived, the resource volunteers and Mongolian trainers went through their own training in Darkhan. We TEFL trainers spent those 2 weeks preparing lesson plans, learning how to support trainees, and helping the new Mongolian trainers get used to working with and teaching Americans. Oh, and eating. So much eating. Breakfast was served by the hotel we were staying in, we had a morning tea break (consisting of sweets), 90 minutes for lunch, an afternoon tea break (usually lighter and sometimes with fruit), and then dinner. I had not eaten so much, so often since I came to Mongolia.

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1st half trainers partying by the river

There were 6 training sites this summer. Less than last year because there is only one sector (TEFL) as opposed to the three we had last year (TEFL, Health, CYD). I was placed as the Resource Volunteer for Sukhbaatar bagh 1. Sukhbaatar is the provincial center for Selenge aimag and consists of (I believe) 6 administrative subdivisions called baghs. Bagh 1 goes by the name Korpus. Along with one Mongolian Language Trainer who calls Korpus home, I also worked with another Mongolian Language Trainer from Khuvsgul, and a TEFL Technical Trainer from Erdenet. I was the Resource Volunteer for the first half, until July 3rd. We started with 7 trainees, gained one (for a week), then that one went home and another transferred to our site shortly before I left.

Overall, I’d say M27 is a pretty good group. My trainees were a wonderful group and I feel very lucky to have worked with them. They are now all their permanent sites for their 2 year service. Good luck, guys!

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Sukhbaatar Bagh 1 trainees and trainers at swearing-in

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International Women’s Day

In Mongolia, International Women’s Day, March 8th, is a public holiday, which means a day off for many people. Gender equality in Mongolia is in a different state than many majority world countries. Women are more likely to graduate high school and go on to university than men, usually because male children are expected to take over the responsibilities of herding and don’t consider higher education a necessity for that work. However, the scale tips the other direction when you look at the higher positions of leadership in government and business. So, we try to encourage male and female students equally in the classroom and show our students strong, positive role-models, both male and female.

In the week and a half before the day itself, I participated in a “Secret Santa” style gift exchange. I picked a name and gave her little gifts like candy, snacks, a soda. I got similar gifts from my “Monita”. The final gift, I was instructed, was to be made by hand. It was difficult to come up with something I could make with my limited resources that would be considered a worthy gift.

Jewel Lotus

This is an in-progress shot, unfortunately I didn’t get one of the completed (and framed) work. It’s what is called a “diamond painting”, a concept similar to cross-stitch, but instead of thread you work with little plastic gems that you stick on the adhesive-coated canvas. I’m still finding them all over my apartment.

The night before the holiday, there was a party. Everyone picked numbers to determine which party group they were in and the group leader collected money to go towards food and drinks. In the evening we ate, drank, and danced. When it came time to exchange our final gifts, I was glad I had made the decision to go with the diamond painting and have it framed. My giftee was impressed by it and I got many compliments from the other teachers.

The gift I received was simpler, but it was one of the items I will likely treasure most from my time here.

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My name in block Mongolian script.

Can’t wait to celebrate again next year!

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Lapse

I got a nasty cold last week and could do little more than spend pretty much the entire weekend in bed and then drag myself to work on Tuesday. I’m feeling much better now and I’ll be getting some more writing done soon! In the meantime:

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It was 60°F one day and we had blizzard conditions the next. Feels like home.

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Eagle Fest UB 2016

The first weekend of March was not the first time I’ve experienced the weather going from t-shirt to snow, but it was definitely the first time I’ve considered upper 40’s F t-shirt weather. Jessica and Yin (my sitemates) and I took the morning bus up to UB on Thursday, enjoying the warmer weather and being able to see out the windows on the bus. That day we went grocery shopping at the State Department Store, ate at Millie’s Cafe, and had drinks at the Blue Sky. Glorious.

Throughout the day, we were getting warnings about a snowstorm making its way across the country. I don’t remember when it started snowing, but it ended up being a lot. On Friday, the roads were shut down. All major forms of transportation, except the trains, were at a standstill. UB was still bustling. We did our major shopping trip that day, going to two cashmere stores, Mercury (an indoor open market where we buy some of our foreign foods), Good Price (where we buy peanut butter), and then we hit KFC. Best cheese fries this side of Siberia.

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About half of the gers at the camp at which the festival took place.

Saturday, we got on a bus near the Blue Sky and paid ₮20,000 (or about $10) for the ride to and from and entry to the festival. The opening ceremonies were in Mongolian and I’m pretty sure only about half the crowd could understand it. There were seriously more tourists there than I had yet seen in one spot in Mongolia. There were craftspeople with tables set out selling their wares and I was very sad that I had not brought more cash with me, though I really shouldn’t be spending it on things like fur hats.

We got to watch a competition wherein the hunters were at the bottom of a snowy hill and their eagles flew down to land on their arms. Then the hunters went down the hill on horseback and the eagles flew down to land on their arm. Then the hunters pulled a lure behind them and the eagles flew down to attack the lure. Then there was a real live fox that the eagles chased down!

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Aisholpan, the Eagle Huntress

I got to meet the Huntress! Aisholpan is the first female eagle hunter in Mongolia. There was recently a documentary about her that did extremely well at Sundance and she is now world-famous. And I got to take a selfie with her! She’s the coolest.

My new friend (and fellow PCV) Bud and I stood out in the snow for hours watching while our companions went back to the food ger. We ended up standing behind the hunters at one point and it was, as Bud said, “like standing behind the blocks at a swim meet.” The energy was thrilling. The smell was pervasive. Let me tell you there is nothing like the aroma of sweaty horses and people and leather in the snow.

 

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Me and Aisholpan!

We got back on the bus around 4:30 and back on the road around 5:30. When we returned to the city center, 6 of us headed to KFC. I didn’t buy into the group buckets, but it was a glorious sight. Afterward, we went to Blue Sky, interrupted a date, got drinks, and danced to the band that plays there just about every night. A delightful end to an exciting day.

A+ weekend. 10/10. Would weekend again.

Next up this week: International Women’s Day and Secret Gifts!

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Lunar New Year

There are 2 major traditional Mongolian holidays. One of them is the summer sports festival called Naadam. The other is the Lunar New Year, known in Mongolia as Tsagaan Sar or White Moon/Month.

In order to prepare for the festivities, families mob the grocery stores, clean house, make (sometimes literally) thousands of buuz (steamed meat dumplings), and buy new deels (or get their finest ones ready). The mobbed store I got to experience for myself, as I was sick the second weekend before Tsagaan Sar and couldn’t get my shopping done then. Almost all the stores are pretty small and if the space itself isn’t, the space left from shelving and stacked merchandise is. It was like grocery shopping the weekend or day before Thanksgiving. Outdoors, it was still well below freezing, but as I was standing in line, I could feel the sweat soaking into my thermals, shirt, fleece, and jacket.

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Passing a (practice) snuff bottle back to a young boy.

The night before the event, Lunar New Year’s Eve if you will, the close family members spend time together and may visit their closest relatives, usually the head of the family or the brothers and sisters of the parents. The next day begins three days of drinking, eating, giving and receiving presents, small children coming around to collect money and candy, house hopping, and trying to recover enough to do it all again the next day.

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Two of the many children who visited my house.

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One of the presents I got for visiting houses, a card with credits to add to my phone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tuesday went well, I visited two or three homes and had more than my fill of buuz, mayonnaise-based salad, mutton, airag (fermented horse milk), and candy. Wednesday started out well, but did not end that way. I ate and drank far too much to get away with anything less. At the second house (of three) I lost count of how much I had consumed and by the time I got home, I was doomed to a night of discomfort. Thursday I recovered enough to go to one house, but was very careful about how much I ate and drank.

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Yin and I with the family of some of our teachers. The cookie tower’s height depends on the generation of the family hosting.

Also, the Agaa Egee (Big Brothers/Big Sisters-style mentorship club) at my school had a subdued version of Tsagaan Sar the Tuesday after the actual holiday. We steamed up some buuz, built our cookie tower, played shagai (games using sheep or goat ankle bones) and did some other fun activities.

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Round 1 of school buuz (and one little bansh) ready for steaming.

Overall I’d say this Tsagaan Sar was a success. And I have learned a lot for next year. More houses and less consumption is the game plan. Hopefully I’ll have plenty of invites!

I’ll be writing about my other February and March adventures this week while I have most of my days free during the 3rd quarter break. There’s eagles, International Women’s Day, and you’ll get to meet my new roommate!

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Soon.

I’ve been neglecting this poor thing for the last month or so. Sorry. We have two weeks of break coming up and I have so much to tell you about. From Tsagaan Sar, to Eagles, to Women’s Day, to my new roommate!

Look for me at first light on the fifth day. 12810399_10100371585621491_452603428_o

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Christmas, New Year, Going Dentist

Everything is different here and that’s usually a good thing. The following is an account of holiday celebrations, nearly dying in the desert (several times), and getting a root canal.

Holidays

For Christmas, my sitemates and I got together and basically cooked all day. We made cookies, turkey, pie, stuffing, and fudge. Everything was pretty delicious. We listened to Christmas music until Jessica got tired of it. I shared “Fairytale of New York” with her and Yin.

The Wednesday before started all the New Year celebration. Well, the whole school was decorated the weekend before, but my first party was Wednesday night. All the teachers in the province were in the gym at the Polytechnic College and the place was decked out like prom. Mongolian New Year parties are basically adult prom. All the ladies get dressed up and made up, though some just wear their fanciest work outfits. The guys’ effort runs the gamut from nice sweater with jeans to three piece suit. I had brought a dress just for New Year and I wore more makeup than I have since I’ve been here.

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So fancy!

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Thanksgiving and “Mongolia’s Kidz Got Singing”

Thanksgiving happened a little early this year, but I had a great time. On Friday, the 20th of November, my sitemate Jessica and I got to the bus station a little later than we had planned. We weren’t sure if the bus to Mandalgobi had left already, but we figured it was leaving soon. We stood in the below-zero weather for a few minutes before Jess decided to head inside. I wasn’t cold and I figured I might as well get some standing time in, since we’d be sitting for the next 5 or 6 hours, so I stayed outside. After another 20 minutes, she came out and said the vehicle had apparently not gotten to the station yet and the wait might be a little while longer. I went in and sat next to a package that said it was heading for Dundgobi, which Jessica pointed out meant that we definitely hadn’t missed the bus and whenever that package left, we should too. Made sense to me. Though, I did go over to the window at one point and asked about the bus. The only word that I knew for sure was “mashin” which means vehicle, but I felt, more than translated, that the bus had had a mechanical problem and they were sending a different bus. It turned out to be a mikr, but it was, thankfully, plenty of room for the two Americans and nine Mongolians that started the bumpy ride to Dundgobi.

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One of several Thanksgiving posters made by my students.

We made several stops in soums on the way to the aimag center. Some people got off, others got on. I got to see camels for the first time! We got offered some cold meat from a bag and I ate it, though Jessica declined because she’s had enough mutton to last a lifetime. I’m not sure what kind of meat it was, but it was cooked with onions and actually pretty delicious. Jess had brought some chips with her, which she shared with an adorable little Mongolian boy. The ride got super bumpy at one point, which caused an argument between the driver and a mother who was holding a six-month-old in her arms. It went back and forth for a while, but didn’t get too heated.

When we got to Mandalgobi, the mikr driver asked us where we wanted to be dropped off. Since our host, Elijah’s apartment is close to his school, we asked to be dropped there. We met up with him and dragged our stuff a few hundred meters to his place. That night, we ate at a guanz, which is a place with a diner-like atmosphere that serves Mongolian food. I had some mantuu (steamed bread) and a couple buuz (steamed dumplings). Some of Elijah’s sitemates came over that night and we played Bananagrams.

Thanksgiving Day was the 21st and it was amazing. We didn’t have a turkey, but we did have turkey cakes, which are made with stuffing and canned turkey and taste divine. We had chicken, mashed potatoes, bread, mac’n’cheese, pie, cookies, and a lot of other food.

When I got back from Thanksgiving, all my students and teachers were busy preparing for a school talent competition. I think every student participated. Classes were basically put on hold for two weeks for preparation. There was singing, dancing, recitation, and acting.

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One of my talented students.

The youngest, starting with 1st grade, were adorable. The older students did a pretty good job with most of their performances, though I wasn’t able to watch all of them. (There’s only so many hours at a time I can sit in a hard wooden chair.) My supervisor, who is the upper school training manager, and the school’s social worker were some of the judges.

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Students singing modern songs.

It was an enjoyable spectacle, like most events I’ve seen in Mongolia. I can’t wait to see more.

 

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Back in Time

It’s been 2 months since I arrived in Choir. Since that time I’ve started working with the Agaa Egee (Big Brothers/Big Sisters) project, observed classes, co-planned and co-taught, taught completely on my own, tested the English level of all the teachers at my school, taught English classes for the teachers, attended Community English classes, celebrated Teachers’ Day and 2 weddings, started 3 clubs with my counterparts, washed my clothes by hand 4 times, had two hitchhiking couples as guests, received 4 cards and 1 package, and experienced snow and below-freezing temperatures.

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Snow in Choir

Overall it’s been going alright. There have been ups and downs, but I’m still here! I’m heading to Ulaanbaatar this week for a flu shot, looking forward to being in a real city again!

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