July 2, 2010
I’m in a guest house in UB now, after having moved out of Arvaikheer permanently, and everything’s a little too close and cluttered for me to say how I feel about all of that at the moment. I will say, though, that my final bus ride was less emotional than I would have liked it to be– mostly on account of the catholic nun seated next to me who wouldn’t stop cursing (isn’t there some kind of rule against that?) and expressing how upset she was that we kept breaking down. I suppose my surprise at her choice of language and the way I had to strain to stifle laughter actually kept me from sharing in her frustration, so that’s good.
Or maybe I was just all cried out. Saying goodbye to my community was way harder than I expected; being in Arvaikheer this summer, and not America-ing and then training in UB like last year, allowed me to nurture some of my older friendships in a way I wasn’t able to before. I got super, super close to a lot of people at the last minute as a result.
And now for some scattered photo documentation.
Laura dancing on the way to Elsen Taserhai (ps– peep our flooded river)
Laura running toward the dunes at Elsen Taserhai. My camera died for the most stunning part of this trip, so I’ll have to steal and upload some pictures from my friends later. This was kind of our last adventure before leaving– hot sand and beautiful sunlight and good company.
Car 1 of my going-away party caravan. Back to front, L to R: Handaa, Oyunchimeg, Jargal, Uugana, Batmaa, Oyunaa. We went to the same river as the frozen one featured in my first ever post two years ago and had a huge sheep barbecue.
I guess Baagii rubbed mud all over me. He also kicked me in the head and broke one of my toes when he threw me into the river. That dude is strong. Anyway, there were twenty or so Americans, Aussies, Brits, and Mongolians at the party. It was a really, really fun time– the kind of party where you wake up the next morning and can relive the good moments through the physical pain you find yourself in.
I think it’s kind of cool that my first and last posts from this two-year experience have had wild party pictures taken at the same river. I’ll miss it– still not quite sure what else to say about that.
Two days after the river debauchery, my friend Oyun celebrated her birthday and the opening of her newly constructed house. Here are some photos:
L to R: Oyunaa, Oyun’s sister-in-law, Oyun’s aunt, Oyun’s mom, the guy who built the house, and Chimgee
The only other thing I’m loading on here as of now are pictures of my school’s completed library (and yes, I did, in fact, finish it on the 28th–the day before I moved out of Arvaikheer.) I’d recently returned from UB with six boxes of books from the US Embassy and Asia Foundation, a brand new computer, and some other supplies. This stuff, in addition to the previous installations, was all removed and locked away while the room was being painted. I was afraid it would stay barren, so as soon as the walls dried, I threw the whole thing back together in three hours. Tada!
Amber and Esu threw me a fabulous birthday bash at my favorite Indian restaurant in UB last night, and my camera was also batteryless at that time. I’m worthless with cameras, essentially. But I got a Madonna CD, a beautiful yak cashmere scarf, a bottle of wine, the complete works of Oscar Wilde, awesome time with 15 friends, and some delicious cake out of the evening. Luckily, Amber let me use her camera, so I’ll have some photos of that and the sand dunes pretty soon as a supplementary upload. I’m not gonna do another post, though, I don’t think– this is the last.
On that note, I have no closing thoughts for now– none, at least, other than a bit about my ever increasing inadequacy to make sense of my experiences through words. I look back at my old posts from two years ago and think, “what a tool that person was”– mostly because I tried to compartmentalize and understand everything based on the contrasts between my own personal culture and that of my surroundings here in Mongolia. That’s not the right approach, I’ve learned. I no longer try to illuminate things for myself through contrasts, because no matter how sensitive and politically correct we think we are in doing so, to write about those contrasts is to inadvertently elevate ourselves above our material. At least the way I was doing it. I like to think, then, that my experiences have reshaped the way I view myself in cultural context, and this is one of the most valuable changes I think I’ve made. I guess what I’ve learned is that my personal culture is more a product of my personal surroundings, as opposed to something separate that can be juxtaposed against my environment and observed. Or something. I’m just sad to go. And happy to go home. I’m sure I’ll have more to say later, but I don’t yet know where I’ll post it.
I’m gonna miss this place more than I know how to say.
Thanks for tuning in, friends.
May 28, 2010
Things are coming to a close! It’s insane that I’ll be going back to America so soon. I sort of lack the expressive powers to be able to sum all of that up in words right now, so I’m just going to post some pictures of recent events with brief explanations. If you hate reading, or if the technophobe in you fears prolonged computer exposure but you’re just too eager to see what I’m up to, then this is your lucky day.
So, we had our little Close-of-Service (COS) conference in Tov Aimag last week. I mostly sat in a quiet but simmering elitist rage and listened to my peers talk about their volunteer experiences. Occasionally a sad prickle of “this chapter is ending” would creep up into my mind, but I’m saving most of that for the real finale. The food was good and the scenery beautiful. It went something like this:
When I returned to UB, I floated around various social gatherings, got my fill of healthy international food, tried out a new gym. I was supposed to pick up new books for my school’s library, but there was a miscommunication with the Embassy and it didn’t work out. I rode home to Arvaikheer, crammed myself into a northbound van, and headed to Batulzii with two of my former university students to do a human trafficking awareness seminar at the high school there. It went something like this:
This awesome dog followed me around for a bit and I fed him
One of my co-facilitators racing up the mountain in Batulzii
So long since I’ve seen trees Read the rest of this entry »
April 27, 2010
…because “Spring” just doesn’t cut it. The pictures of snow from earlier 2009 entries of this blog may have been the only times we had ANY precipitation last winter/ spring. One or two times, maybe. This year, though, I feel like it’s snowed at least three times a week in Arvaikheer since October– often to extreme accumulation and at winds that would emasculate Zeus. Our stateside/ western European cliche associations of rebirth and renewel with Spring simply do not hold up here. Spring is at least 85% miserable.
That said, I managed to snap some shots of a beautiful, if terribly cold, day this past week while walking around.
Actually, upon review, these pictures make everything look pretty dismal. Sorry.
The wind was so insane the other night that the fence dividing my hashaa from our neighbors’ was completely destroyed. Poor Ding Dong must have been so scared when it came down, but he soon discovered the ruined fence to be a good shelter during the snowstorms (which, I’m told, may let up tomorrow. It’s supposed to be 70 F. My immune system is going to need some quieting down after the heinous vicissitudes of this season).
In other news, the library is coming along nicely. Still trying to work out the kinks, label books, catalog the collections, find more books, etc. The strains of springtime are taking their toll on progress, just as they did in my former place of work last year, but I think it’s going ok. Here are some updated photos:
We may not have many books (a few steps back from these points of view and the bottom shelves are more visible in their barren states), but seeing these kids come in and browse and pleasure read in their own school for the first time is probably the most rewarding aspect of my service to date.
I even had some kids come and volunteer to help me catalog and organize the books. This was great– the more kids directly involved in the setup process, the fewer instances of theft we’ll have down the line. These kids will want to protect and preserve the things they’ve worked hard to start long after I’m gone.
Book theft from libraries is a big issue in this country, where student-friendly libraries are rare and books are normally locked behind closed doors or only available through a small window guarded by a librarian. Browsing is almost never an option. In fact, and I don’t know if I mentioned this in a previous entry or not so I’ll just repeat it, I ran into this problem while working on a similar project at my former place of work (the university). I secured permission to move all of the English books from behind closed doors to the English Club room in an effort to set it up as a student-run library. My supervisor, who had given me the go-’head, then went to all of my coworkers and said, “you are not only forbidden from helping him with this project, but you will also turn over any and all private books you are keeping in your classroom shelves to be locked away with the others.” Including some that I’d personally ordered from an NGO in America. I’m happy I haven’t encountered anything like that since.
The fear of student ‘bibliokleptomania’ (you like that? I invented it.) actually spurs theft on in that sense; granted, it’s also a problem in the States, but not to the extent that it is here. And I have to believe it’s because the students here are not brought up in a scholastic environment where books are there for them to browse and read freely without having to go through strict intermediaries in user-unfriendly spaces. This is what we’re trying to combat at my school. Word is spreading, too; I had a woman come up to me the other day and say, “I hear you’re setting up a library at Merged School…and that you’re not locking the books up?!“
I haven’t seen a single one stolen yet, so I think we’re doing the right thing.
The following is completely unrelated, but I figure I’d share. When I load photos onto this thing from my mac, I have the file browser window and a photo preview program open. I scroll through the photo previews to find non-blurry images that suit the text and enter their file numbers into the blog’s file search bar. When I put the file number into the search bar, sometimes two photo files with the same number come up as listed on my hard drive. This is because I switched cameras about three years ago, and some of the old ones are still on here. So, when I was choosing photos for this entry, these blasts from the past came up as duplicate file numbers:
Dad looking dapper at a sushi place, also from the Late Cretaceous Period (LCP)
And my beautiful mom at the same restaurant. I actually used both of these parental images in a PowerPoint during a recent menu layout and restaurant design training. The audience thought they were really pretty people.
It’s nice to reflect on two or more very different periods of my life via photos every time I update this thing. It makes me happy that I haven’t yet gone on a crazed hard drive space-clearing purge to make room for other stuff.
Anyway, that’s all for now. More later.
April 14, 2010
Welcome, friends, to a speedy and cheerful post.
I just wanted to upload a few pictures of our recent Annual Fifth Grade English Alphabet Celebration, of our new library in progress, and of some satisfying cosmetic dentistry.
To give you a little background, many primary schools around the country choose a random day in the Spring to celebrate the English alphabet. I’m not quite sure how it’s done in other places, but the kids at my school were each assigned a letter of the alphabet to use in a group recital. After all saying a phrase with alliteration corresponding to their letters, they sang songs and performed short skits. My counterpart handled most of the assigning and rehearsing. She chose to take lines straight from a Mongolian-written kindergarten alphabet workbook, so the kids were made to recite strange things like,”‘A’ is for ‘apple.’ Draw an amazing apple,” or “‘B’ is for ‘boys’ and ‘balls.’ Boys play balls. Draw a boy and balls.” [And the latter is a direct quote.] I explained to her why this wouldn’t make sense, but she said the audience wouldn’t speak English so it didn’t matter.
The kids sang the ABC song, “London Bridges,” “You Are My Sunshine,” and a few other notable nursery rhymes. When rehearsing, my counterpart had the kids practice “Ten Little Indian Boys.” I explained to her that it’s not necessarily an appropriate song and has been left out of the nursery rhyme scheme for a long time due to its insensitivity to Native Americans. She said she would take it out of the lineup. When it was showtime, however, she had the boys line up, sing the song, and then tap their open palms against their mouths while making stereotypical Native American sounds and dancing in a circle. Afterward, they sang a song about” The Lord,” which never happened during rehearsal. I point the finger at the temporary volunteers, whose nationality and umbrella organization will remain unspecified, who came here last summer and left some pretty questionable song books in a local library. Thanks guys. <3
Anyway, the kids were adorable. I had them perform three-kid acts from a hypercondensed ESL version of Aesop’s Fables that I found on the internet. They all dressed up as foxes and crows and rabbits and delivered adorable performances. As I don’t have any pictures of their skits, I’ll leave you with some photos of the chaos leading up to the show:
The kids lined up at the top of the stairs, which is our makeshift stage.
I was surprise-forced to announce awards and superlatives to the fifth grade class in front of our Mongolian audience without any preparation. Completely in Formal-Announcer-Mongolian, which can be slightly different. It was pretty funny. Sorry I don’t have better pictures. I did, however, manage to catch a glimpse of this magical Chinese copyright infringement during the show:
Onto other things! Our library is finally under way. They moved the fitness room to another location and stripped the nasty carpet up, put a bunch of huge wooden tables in, and commissioned a glass partition to be put up to separate the stacks from the English Corner. The room is about half the size of the primary school’s first floor! It’s already attracting students and faculty who are tired of failing to carve out some semblance of concentration in the insanely loud classrooms and hallways. Take a look at the room in progress:
So, shameless plug time. As you may know, getting stateside bookstores and organizations to pledge books to projects like this is easy as pie. Shipping them, however, is something that most parties seem to be terrified of. I can’t really put my mailing address here… so some of you will get it in a reminder email about my updated post. If other readers are interested, leave a comment and I’ll see if I can privately send you the address.
And now, for a dental update. Last year I chipped my right front tooth on a pint glass. I finally had it sanded and fixed this past week in UB. (I also used the opportunity to grab a whiteboard and several hundred Mongolian-to-foreign-language dictionaries for the library.) Peep my new look!
See? Glory. It was a five minute procedure. I’m a happy boy. More later.
April 6, 2010
Hello all. I just got done reading my buddy Olivier’s blog and decided it was time to do the responsible thing and put some stuff up here. Just some pictures of the last few weeks and some updates.
My sitemate Esu and I ( ^ ) just spent two weeks out west by the Kazakh border in Baynolgii. We took a four-day bus ride out there to help with the province’s first ever English Teacher Methodology Seminar. The whole thing was a huge success, and it was a great chance to catch up with my pal Laura. She and I trained together in Sant in 2008. We haven’t had much time to hang out over the last two years because of the 1600 kilometers of desert and huge mountains between us, but it hasn’t stopped us from staying in touch. Esu and I stayed in her one-room house with four other volunteers from nearby Hovd. It was a total blast.
Baynolgii Aimag, nestled in the gorgeous Altai Mountain Range, is inhabited by a predominantly Kazakh ethnic population. The language is totally different than what I’m used to in central Mongolia– it was fascinating to hear Laura bust it out every time we got in a cab or needed something from a store. She was our translator the whole time!
Hovd Kat and me
The weather was incredible for the most part. It was so warm on the last day of the seminar that we sat outside in her yard and had a picnic.
Sadly, our other friend from Olgii, Matt, decided it was time to end things a bit early and head to Cambodia for the foreseeable future. We had an awesome going-away party for him at Laura’s house. It’s always a bit sad to see people go, even if we’re this close to the end of our service.
After we’d had a chance to hang out in Olgii a bit after the seminar was finished, it was time to come back to Arvaikheer. Esu and I were in a hurry to return, so we decided to skip the last two legs of our journey and come straight home. We reserved two seats on a bus leaving Olgii for the following Monday for 60,000 tugrug (roughly 45 dollars). We packed all our things up and heaved them to the bus station, where a different driver and a new bus were waiting. The price was also different– 120,000 tugrug per foreign passenger. Sixty for locals, one hundred and twenty for foreigners. We explained that we weren’t tourists, that we were here on work, and that we don’t make any money. Laura’s coworker helped us to communicate this in Kazakh. Her coworker’s husband is also the region’s transportation director, so we figured it would be handled smoothly. There was a lot of laughter between him and the drivers, though, and much to his wife’s fury. In the end we resolved to spend the rest of the day in Olgii, take an 8-hour jeep to Hovd, and wait there for two more days before catching an eastbound bus. A bit pricier than the original 60,000, but nowhere near the 120,000 that the shady driver was attempting to get out of us.
Unfortunately, my camera battery died before I got to Hovd, so I can’t prove how gorgeous it was. We stayed with our friend Cameron in his beautiful apartment for those two days and just ate and hung out. It was actually nice to break the trip up into segments after all.
Like I said, no photos, but I’ll try my best to describe it. Hovd borders Baynolgii along probably one of the most dramatic stretches of the Altai Range. A sizable portion of the elusive snow leopard’s dwindling population lives in these mountains, many of which are snowcapped all year. We made several stops in small soums along the way and marveled at the enormity of the mountains. It reminded me a lot of my time in 2006 in Xinjiang, China, along the Karakorum pass (which, as I may have mentioned before, shares its name with the famed ancient capital of Mongolia in Uvurkhangai!) So, screw it–I’ll just throw some pictures of that in here and you can pretend it’s in Hovd.
Anyway, back to Mongolia. Esu and I arrived in Arvaikheer and work reared its demanding head almost immediately. I mentioned in a previous post that Peace Corps approved my school for a SPA Grant, which means our library is well underway. I returned to see a room roughly 1/4 the size of our primary school already undergoing renovations for the new space. I couldn’t be happier! I rushed to the market and purchased a large tv, a dvd player, and fifteen ridiculously large posters for the room. This Thursday I’ll jump on another bus and go to UB to buy some more city-exclusive items for the kids (a whiteboard, speakers, and maybe a couch. Cross your fingers I can negotiate reliable shipping!) Some things just aren’t available outside of the capital. It’s ok, though; I’ll kill two birds with one stone and get my front teeth fixed… I may or may not have chipped one of them on a pintglass. Don’t worry about it.
In other food-and-drink consumption-oriented news, Easter at Amber’s was phenomenal. I shattered everyone’s doubts by whipping up my FIRST EVER SELF-BAKED DESERT: apple pie. I can say, without ego, that it was fantastic. I also made two pizzas. It was a potluck deal, so my sitemates contributed pumpkin bread, deep fried whole peanuts, chocolate chip cookies, eggs, biscuits, yogurt, cheeseburgers, and no-bake peanutbutter oat cookies. I ate for four hours straight without pausing. It’s been a good few weeks for food; Laura fed me so well when I was in Olgii that I gained five pounds, which is also a first, considering I’d only ever lost weight while traveling. GOOD TIMES.
Arvaikheer was gorgeous today. It was raining in the desert to the south, snowing in the Khangais to the north, and about 60 with big billowy clouds in between. And I could see all of it happening around me in a beautiful and dramatic panorama. I didn’t even wear a jacket for most of the day. I decided to lay out on top of my ger in the sun when I got off work.
OH OH OH And!! Three cheers for my baby sister, who got accepted to nursing school!!!!! I LOVE YOU STEPHANIE!!!
February 21, 2010
Just some pictures and quick explanations.
Zaya’s (former university student’s) house
From the Left: Mandukhai, Zolboo, me, and Zaya’s little brother
I opted to lose the del, as you can see in these pictures. It just got too heavy to walk up and down the mountain in. Plus, I wanted to attract fewer xenophobic threats from out-of-towners who didn’t approve of such an overt foreigner wearing their traditional dress (many strangers were pleased to see me trying to adhere to holiday custom, but definitely not all of them. Sometimes I wish I’d never learned the commonly-spat phrase for “I’m gonna kill you, C-word”– because then I’d never feel threatened! haha).
This evening turned out to be a raucous one; there were no parents involved, so the alcohol consumption had gone a little above customary by the time I arrived. I was therefore on a little bit of a different plane than the other guests. I’m glad the alcohol was finished before I got there; the residual American in me felt that it would have been inappropriate to drink with my former students.
Mogi, who passed out on my stuff. I thought things might turn sour with this new acquaintance after I told him he looked like a young Chingis, but he liked it. I meant it as a compliment. Check out the epic wall hanging, too– not Mongolian in the slightest.
The girl clutching the ger pole in the lower left is Zaya, and the guy with his hand up is Dorjoo. Two of my [also sober] Australian volunteer friends showed up after a while. I think they were relieved that the alcohol had been totally consumed by the time they got there, too.
From the left: Buya’s boyfriend, who I think kind of looks like a Mongolian Edward Cullen, and Chimgee. The person passed out in the background is Chimgee’s boyfriend. He wasn’t drunk– just sleepy. I think.
One of my favorite Mongolians in the universe. Chuka’s an English teacher at Arvaikheer School Number 1, and she helped us a lot with structuring our teacher certification program last year. She’s kind of like an aunt to all of us. Her side of town overlooks the valley to the East about a 30-minute walk away from the center. I almost moved there after I changed host country agencies last Fall, but Peace Corps put me where I am now at the last minute.
Me, Chuka, and Esu in the living room
Baagi and Byamba’s
You may remember this couple from last year’s Tsagaan Sar post– the Brangelina of Arvaikheer? She’s a World Vision bigwig, and he’s the head lama at one of the main monasteries in town. They always invite the resident volunteers over for a good time during the holidays.
Byamba and Me
I wasn’t at my photo-best, clearly, but this is Baagi trying to attend to her baby’s undefined needs
Me and Bendee
From the left: Anukaa, Bendee, me, and Ulaanaa
All told, I probably visited about 10 or 11 houses this year. It was a bit more mellow compared to last year, probably because our m-18 sitemates returned to America last Fall (and with them went some of our connections). The Tibetan Calendar also called for four days of official celebration this year instead of three, so I think families were a little too overworked in stocking their houses for the extra visitors to accommodate as many guests as they would have liked to.
One of my favorite things about this year’s holiday was the return of my hashaa brother, Adika. He goes to university in UB, so I never get to see him. He came over every night so I could help him with some chords on the guitar. We also spent about two hours laughing at the content of http://www.yourtattoosucks.com, and this culminated in him asking me to draw a huge skull on his arm.
That’s all. More later.
February 14, 2010
Today was quite a day for holidays. Many of you probably celebrated Valentine’s Day, so congratulations on that, I guess. Luckily for me, though, the coinciding first day of Tsagaan Sar completely overshadowed any bittersweet Valentine-oriented specialness this year. It was quite en eventful day!
Let’s start with last night. Mongolians celebrate Bituun–Tsagaan Sar Eve–with their families on the night before the first day of the new lunar year. I’ve been kind of a bad host-son of late, what with my frequent illnesses and subsequent absence from recent family life, so I wasn’t expecting any invitations. Instead I planned my day around staying inside in the bitter cold and not speaking a single word. I didn’t answer my phone, didn’t use Skype, didn’t even sing along to Itunes. I realize this may make me sound insane to most of you, or at least incredibly ascetic, but actually it’s a very easy thing to do when you live on a mountain by yourself. I savor days like that. They give me the chance to get centered and heal up from all of the wild and taxing social obligations– both inter-American and Mongolian– that characterize the role of the Peace Corps Volunteer living in this country. So I’m not crazy.
I was silent from the moment I woke up until around 5 pm, when I had to run to the store to buy some last minute supplies before everything closed for the holidays. I threw on my del, the full-body traditional cover that Mongolians wear for much of the year, and clumsily wobbled to the store. I think I still managed to order what I needed and exchange holiday greetings at a low volume in under 15 words. We won’t count that.
When I returned to my ger, I built a raging fire in order to boil water for spaghetti and accidentally let it get way too hot. I decided to lift my insulation flap and crack the door to let a little air in. When I do this, I typically tie the inside door handle to a chain of shoelaces that I’ve woven into my ceiling poles so as to only allow about a foot of opened door space. This time, though, I just let it fly open and relished the negative temps pouring in. I had turned my back to continue tending to the noodles when I suddenly heard someone fly in through the threshold and yell “HEY!” –jarring after a day of silence! It was my 14 year-old brother Garidaa. He invited me to come celebrate Bituun with the family. I was a little flustered at having to leave my noodles to cool, but I was relieved at the invitation. In a hasty attempt to strain the noodles into my sink, I accidentally dropped the entire project into my refuse bucket. Which is also where I pee sometimes.
My family hadn’t seen me much since before the bleeding eye incident. They had lots of “you’ve gotten so skinny!”s and “you need to spend more time with us!”s to dish out, and though this made me feel like a bad son, it reminded me that I’m part of a family here and need to honor and respect that. And it turned out to be a blessing that I’d wasted all that spaghetti; Mongolian celebrations are seldom without extreme amounts of food and drink. I pounded a half litre of airag– fermented horse milk– in about thirty seconds, drank milk tea and shots of vodka with the family, ate sheep meat and fat, buuz, and candy until I was ready to pass out before returning to my ger and doing just that.
My brothers, father, and I had agreed to all wake up and meet at around 7 am this morning for an important male tradition– viewing the first sunrise of the new lunar year from a mountaintop. They came to my ger and helped me get into my del before piling in the car and driving down to the huge monastery for a quick pre-sunrise blessing. We spun Tibetan prayer wheels as we raced into the monastery’s main hall. The sun’s preceding colors were lighting up the polluted horizon with a warning that we needed to hurry up, so I couldn’t really take it all in, but it was an amazing treat to the senses. There must have been over 50 monks and shevs, or apprentices, chanting in ancient Tibetan and playing traditional instruments. A ringed audience sat and took in the prayers while spinning prayer beads in their hands. I followed my father and brothers clockwise around the room and bowed and spun prayer wheels to honor the glass-protected portraits of donor monks and ancestors. The clanging of the cymbals and the wind instruments, the chanting and the colors and the hurried nature of our quick devotion just about spun me into an ecstatic trance. I was sad to leave the building after such a short tribute, but I knew we had to get to the mountain before the sun came up.
Back into the car and up the hills to Undurlig– which you should all be more than familiar with by now (if not, look at any entry posted since January 2009, and I’m sure you’ll see pictures.) I’d force you into looking at more images of it, but I decided not to bring my camera this morning in order to absorb the experience more organically. Anyway, the car protested and spun wheels on the rocks before my father finally decided to park it and get out. The scene was amazing– hundreds of cars clustering up to the peak, where hundreds of men and boys had squeezed themselves into every flat space on the precipice. I turned around to look at the southeastern horizon and saw a hot pink line poking out over King Mountain.
We still had about a hundred meters to go, and the sunrises here are strangely fast, so Garidaa and I sprinted to the top just in time to see the sun clear the earth. The smoke columns from thousands of stovepipes and chimneys lit up orange as the men around us began throwing rice in a clockwise circle around the monument at the peak. The air was crisp and clear, and the sky had almost turned into a full day blue by the time we were back in the car and heading home.
I came back and chilled in my ger for a while before returning to the house and doing a zolgokh, or traditional Tsagaan Sar greeting, with Zaya Egch (hashaa mom/big sister). She gave me a traditional hat and a box of brandy chocolates. We headed back over to my grandpa’s house and zolgokh’ed some more, ate more buuz, potato salad, and drank more airag and milk tea. My grandma gave me a small chess set, a new T-shirt that reminds me how filthy my whites have become, and a box of chocolate truffles that I haven’t been able to stop stuffing into my mouth. Here’s where I started to take pictures, so I’ll let those take over for now.
So I’ll tie off my description of the first day of Tsagaan Sar with this little tidbit: while I’m sitting respectfully in the living room shown above, I hear the door in the entryway open and a gurgling Mongolian “hello.” Before I can get up to see who it was, a figure clad in a thick red del falls ten feet across the floor and slams his head into the glass food table. He collects himself and, nodding to all of us with some slurred holiday greetings, struggles up into a chair. He’s the ex-husband of the cousin of the sister-in-law of –you get the idea– and he’s wasted. It’s 9:45 am.
We zolgokh each other and exchange introductions. He sits down again across the room and asks me where I’m from. I tell him I’m American, and he smiles and gives me a thumbs up. We all sit quietly and wait for more food to come out, and he grows dark. He mutters something at me, and Chinzoo tells him to shut up and be respectful in the home of his elders. My grandpa just looks confused. The man apologies to me and asks me where I’m from.
I tell him again and sip at a blown-glass chalice of whiskey that’s just been handed to me. The newcomer is still eyeing me with alternating expressions of approval and fury. After a few minutes he asks me where I’m from and what my name is. I tell him again. He turns to Zaya Egch and says, “Where is he from? I’m gonna fight him.”
Chinzoo tells him to shut up and that I’m his son. This makes me feel like all of the illness-induced neglect and transgression has been forgiven, and it makes me feel included. Every once in a while the man mutters something and the family laughs, so I decide to take his random threats as mere jokes. I just fix my most convincing Xena-raised-eyebrow-gaze on the drunk man and sip my morning whiskey. But periodically he gets up and lumbers over to me on the couch, shakes my hand, apologizes, calls me a friend in Russian, and goes right back to throwing curses around. He finally works up the breath to say, “What the hell is this Australian doing here? I’m gonna pound that German shithead into the ground. Why is there a Brit sitting here in Mongolian clothes? I’m gonna punch him in the face. Russian Shithead.” He continues to accuse me of being the scum of every nationality he can think of, in Russian and Mongolian, until one last rise from his chair wins him the boot. Chinzoo bounces him out of there into the street like it’s his job, returns to the den, and says with much disdain, in English, “Neofascist.”
It pays to have family around. I’m extremely grateful to them for housing me, for bringing me into their close-knit group, and for protecting me when my environment gets a little out of hand. I returned to my ger and napped until 5 pm.
Switching gears. Up until now I feel like I’ve done nothing but show pictures of Undurlig and ignore the rest of my town. So I’m just gonna post a bunch of pictures of my daily haunts in order to give you a better mental image of Arvaikheer.
This is a vast misrepresentation of the market to which I refer sometimes, but it’s Tsagaan Sar and everyone’s at home. This corridor is usually packed so full of people and goods that it may take five minutes to walk a few meters. The colorful storage containers you see open up Sunday through Friday to reveal clothing, housewares, electronics, and kids’ toys.
This is the store where I try to buy cereal about once a week and fail, usually. They used to have a Polish Rice Crispy-esque cereal called Sunrise, and a Cinnamon Toast Crunch equivalent, but they both disappeared sometime ago. The sign reads “Shin Tushig Hunsnii Hudldaa” which means “New Tushig Groceries,” basically. This is right next to the Original Tushig. New Tushig used to be more like a 7-11, and then it changed to individual vendors sharing a co-op floorspace last year. We often reminisce about the more customer-friendly Old New Tushig.
The Cyrillic reads almost the same as English, here: “Emt.” Its first floor is where I go to buy most of my fresh produce and other non-meat things– everything from peppers to wet tofu to honey to oranges. I haven’t traveled much in Mongolia, but I’m told by visitors that we’re lucky to have such a well-stocked produce outlet. The second floor is all cell phone accessories and mp3 players. That’s where I go every time I need a new pair of sad Chinese headphones, which is about once a month, or whenever my phone is lost, broken, or stolen (which is, on average, once every two months. And I’m not kidding.)
This is Sondor (and is the Cyrillic getting easier for you yet?), our favorite peroshkie/ khoshur/ milk tea spot in the market. It’s always packed, and it’s often open during the holidays, too. This is a good indicator for the quality of its food. And it’s cheap. I used to walk a mile against 50mph winds in the dead of winter to get to this place. Now I just eat peanut butter and jelly in my ger, even though I live a lot closer.
This is not the best picture, and I’ve actually never been inside this particular building (Gerel Tov, or ‘Light Center’–hardwares, cosmetics, and random repairs), but it has an interesting story. This is the first building on the left when you walk down the main market street towards Undurlig. A sitemate of mine received a text message last year that said, in English, “I heard your voice at the bank today and I liked your intonations.” Since then, several of us have gotten equally creepy texts from the same number (e.g. “I saw you today but you couldn’t see me…”) It turns out they’re all from a person who works here, and his person just likes practicing English. It’s not considered inappropriate, incidentally, for a total stranger to approach someone in-the-know and ask for another person’s phone number. Administrators, teachers, and friends periodically give my number out to people I don’t know. This is kind of frustrating, but I think we’ve all gotten used to it. And the person in question is a total sweetheart and very active in getting acquainted with the English language, so I don’t mind too much.
“Bumbat,” with a missing “T” at the end, is without a doubt the classiest supermarket in town. The top floor is a coffee shop with fun little attic-like window enclosures and tables that are perfect for sitemate catch-ups and quick post-shopping coffee binges. There are also two tailors on the second floor where I’ve had a suit and shoulder bag custom made. During the holidays this entire building is overcapacity and the lines are 45 minutes long. And your Cyrillic should be pretty damn good by now.
A Classic: New Leader Disco Club. And that’s English, for any of you who have mistaken the ease of reading this sign for mastery of Cyrillic. It’s a strobed-out, busted-speaker mess of Russian and English trance often mashed with Christmas songs and the Macarena. Always a good time. Or maybe forty percent of the time.
This is the other main street in town. I like this one– its peaceful and not too crowded. When it snows, though, and during particularly festive times, the city has to replace much of the blue and yellow wrought-iron fence that lines the street; cars slam into it routinely.
Another shot of the museum and its (somewhat neglected) outdoor collection of ancient Turkic stone monuments. The paintings are blown-up depictions of the rock carvings north of Undurlig that I always rant about.
An inviting poster next to the doorway of one of our other hangouts, Isabella. It’s an overpriced Korean restaurant. I usually go and order the only cheap option, which is a huge pile of eggs, beautifully spiced minced beef, and rice.
And finally, my beautiful little school. The purple/pink/yellow building in the foreground is the primary school, and the yellow and brown building behind it is the recent addition for the secondary students. Doesn’t it look like such happy place? A warm ‘thank you’ to the people at the Okayama Government in Japan for making it so perdy.
SooooOOOooo…longest entry EVER. You all must think I’m a huge couch potato nerd with nothing better to do than check his blog stats and eat incessantly. I’m on holiday, though, so gimme a break.
February 12, 2010
A quick and disjointed account of all things recent.
News and Happinesses
- Peace Corps finally approved the library project outlined in a recent post, so my school will soon be able to acquire the necessary materials to set up a comfortable, student-centered, student-run learning space with books and electronic resources in several languages.
- Remember the sinus infection I spoke of in the last entry? Well, interestingly, it morphed into an eye infection that caused blood and mucus to seep through my tear ducts and glue my eyelids shut every night while I slept. But I kicked it! To be safe, though, let’s slap a huge “knock on wood” on this post to avoid jinxing myself any further. In fact, readers, please print this entire passage out, hastily duct tape it to a crowbar, and slam it twice into the largest tree you can find in your forested mid-Atlantic or New England community.
- One of my sitemates recently wrote a proposal that funded over 20,000 dollars’ worth of new beds, blankets, and furniture for a secondary school dormitory that houses herders’ children from all over the province. Let’s put some good vibes out there so that the rest of the funds (for new windows and flooring) will go through!
- I reserved a spot on the list of people COSing (close-of-service-ing?) on July 15th, which is the first possible day to end service in Mongolia in 2010. Seeing that in print kind of freaked me out; two years are being swallowed up faster than I’d ever thought possible.
- I was able to buy a week’s worth of healthy food– food that might return some vitamins to my system and prevent my eyes from bleeding– for less than one percent of an extremely generous gift from a certain family member (thanks Mema!)
- I’m considering finding an alternative source of kindling for my stove. Mongolians believe that it’s extremely bad to put things like used tissues (among other taboo items) into the stove when building a fire. They sometimes refer to the Fire God, who is traditionally thought to live inside the stove of every ger. In Arvaikheer, at least, this is more of a folk concept than a real belief; still, though, some families adhere strictly to the spirituality of what can and can’t be burned. I was reprimanded by Zaya Egch (my hashaa mom/big-sister) for having saved used tissues in a box next to my stove for later use as kindling last October. She said I would make her whole family sick if I burned them. I regret to say that, since then, I’ve been saving the tissues in a hidden location in my ger and burning them every night. I figure I’m sick too often to waste the two-birds-one-stone opportunity of getting rid of the bio-waste while having a quick firestarter material. But we’ve all been sick all winter, so maybe it’s time I switch back to newspaper.
- Much of the first four seasons of Xena: Warrior Princess appears to have taken place in ancient Mongolia. Way to go, Rob Tapert and Flat Earth Productions.
- America has totally out-wintered Mongolia this month, so I no longer feel okay complaining about the harsh conditions here unless I’m spilling it to someone who lives in Bombay or Hawaii.
- I’m waiting to hear back from three grad schools. I’d forgotten what this kind of excited anxiety felt like…it restores some youth to my spirit. Cross your fingers I’ll get accepted and offered some outrageous tuition waiver, and then force the stranger sitting next to you at the wi-fi coffee shop to cross his or her fingers as well. He or she will understand. If not, threaten him or her with the crowbar from point 2.
- I discovered last night that my carbon monoxide detector works, and my ear drums have the rupture scars to prove it.
The Things I’m Looking Forward To
- Seeing my students researching, pleasure reading, and relaxing quietly between classes in the soon-to-be-completed Merged School library.
- A respite from the cold, even if it means sandstorms are on their way.
- Getting my 10th and 11th grade students involved in a project to redo the English translations for the labels of all of the fascinating items at the Arvaikheer museum, where I was locked inside the dinosaur exhibit by myself with the lights off for almost a half hour last week [and what's a "Dinny Bone?" A lot of big steppe dinosaurs had them, according to the displays that kept me company while I was waiting to be released.]
- Sushi…just sushi.
- Seeing my sister at the end of July.
- Wrestling with my 70-kilogram German Shepherd at my parents’ new farmhouse.
- Tsagaan Sar! Saturday is Bituun, or Tsagaan Sar Eve, and that means the season of traditional dress, extreme buuz-eating, and brashik (fermented seabuckthorn juice) is upon us! My favorite part of winter.
- Using the new Korean chin-up bar at the gym down the mountain (what makes it Korean, I’m not sure. But those things work.)
- Starting up a guitar club at my school after Tsagaan Sar. Some organizations in America have expressed an interest in spearheading the funding part, so that should be cool.
- The continued use of the three woolen blankets and thick camel fleece bedpad I just bought at the market. I’d been using crusty old Peace Corps emergency blankets before, and I think these may have been adding to my legion physical problems. I used the old blankets to insulate my walls, and the heat just keeps building and building in this little ger of mine!
I’m sure there’s a lot more that should go in this list, but I’ll leave it at 10 and 10 with a few nasty snapshots. More later.
February 2, 2010
It’s 3:07 a.m. I can’t sleep. It might have something to do with the raging sinus infection I have–you know, the one I somehow managed to contract while killing a debilitating throat infection with a ten-day course of bubonic plague medication. There is some wild pathogenic magic going on in these parts. I think the plague pills were so strong that they tricked my immune system into believing it wasn’t needed anymore.
Anyway, what better or more productive way to spend insomnia than to engage in my favorite computer pastime (second only to watching “Xena: Warrior Princess,” of course): uploading pictures to my blog.
We’ve been fortunate enough to have had some extremely warm weather. It’s been up in the high 20′s (Fahrenheit) for about a week now. The ways in which a warm spell can remind you what it felt like before the Mongolian Winter set in are startling; your eyes don’t freeze, your running nose doesn’t freeze, and it doesn’t hurt to take a full breath of air in. Check my unwashed faux-hawk, sans hat. No frostbite this week!
(several volunteers, including myself, have suffered frostbite on their ears and noses in the past few weeks. It ain’t pretty.)
This is Marisa, a Peace Corps Volunteer from the new M20 group. She’s a ton of fun. She came down to Arvaikheer to chill with us for a few days and relax in the relative warmth. Another visiting friend, Tysen, also came on the hike, but all of the pictures of me and him together on the mountain are heinous. Sorry, Tysen.
Once at the top , I pointed down to the Wishing Tree (mentioned in a previous entry) and asked if they were interested. We ended up walking down there to find that we’d intruded upon an elderly woman’s private wishmaking time…She was wandering around the tree and crying, all the while mumbling and clutching a bottle of vodka. I lamented the fact that, after almost two years, I’m still not familiar enough with communicational norms to have asked her if she was ok. Instead we continued on down the mountain and returned to my ger.
The following days were much colder, though still warm enough to produce precipitation. We had some of that frozen-cloud-snow– the kind that blankets the ground in a dusting of ice particles that are much smaller than the average snowflake. It can’t even be seen in the air when it’s falling unless it’s caught at the right angle to the sun, but it accumulates and looks something like snow after a few hours. Interestingly, huge storm-like clouds dumped this type of snow in the mountains around Arvaikheer today, but never entered the town.I managed to snap some pictures (and sorry about the weird floaters in some of the images):
^This one was taken on my way back from work today, and the one below was from my street. If you look closely, you can see snow falling in the distance in both of them.
So, if I were to try to summarize this entry thus far with any adherence to its title, I’d say the things that make me happy lately are 1))making light of frostbite and bacteria-on-virus action, visitors, and frozen cloud-fall seen from miles away. But all of this is just pretext for debuting my favorite part of every day: MY LITTLE BOY!
His name’s Ding-Dong, which is actually not a Mongolian word or anything. My extremely precocious 3 year-old brother named him. He probably heard it on a cartoon or in a song. Ding-Dong is tied to a runner during the day, and whenever I approach him, he gets extremely excited and wants to bite my ankles and jump all over me. The following images kind of illustrate that, I think.
I should mention here that most Mongolians’ relationship to dogs is not characterized by the same love and friendship as it is in, say, American culture. Captive dogs serve a very specific purpose–to defend the hashaa, or yard, against intruders. They are never allowed inside under any circumstances (except in UB, where they’re sometimes owned as pets). They are usually never touched or spoken to in an affectionate way, and people often throw stones at them or kick them when they’re allowed to roam the alleys. [A lot of UB residents get offended when they read posts like this and insist that it's not true, but most of these people don't spend time in countryside places like Arvaikheer. So please take my word that I see this almost every single day and am NOT lying to make Mongolia seem inhumane].
Anyway, this little boy is the happiest part of my day. I love him. I play with him and feed him and talk to him so much that the dog next door, who watches jealously through slits in the fence that divides our hashaas, has come around asking for the same attention. That funny little neighbor even walks me into town sometimes.
K, It’s getting late and I’m starting to fade. I’ve talked myself through feeling okay about not going to work tomorrow…I love my daily life, but the Winter routines are catching up with me and making it impossible for me to get healthy again. So if you were one of the people who had to listen to me convince myself that I deserve a break tomorrow, thanks. More later!
January 23, 2010
Sometimes I like to get above the town to Undurlig (Mongolian for ‘peak’) for a few minutes to kind of center myself whenever the weather permits. I used to have to walk an hour to get there when I lived on the south side. Now, though, it’s right behind my house. (Many of you might be bored to death by the same photos I take every time I go up there, but I don’t care, because I love posting them.) Today the temperatures on my mountain were about 20 degrees warmer than they were downtown, so I decided to walk up there for the first time in a while and relax for a bit.
I usually sit right here:
and while I was up there today I listened to this song:
It’s called “My Juvenile,” by Bjork and Antony Hegarty. The original video is nowhere to be found, but luckily a bunch of youtubers made their own (and the above is one of those). I started listening to it a lot when I first got to Mongolia. For me, at least, the minimalist makeup of it kind of lends itself well to looking out over vast expanses of land and letting my mind browse all of the intense and amazing things that have happened in my life over the past few years. I think it holds a special significance to me because of the fact that it’s about a son growing up and leaving home. Listen to the lyrics–they’re actually really poignant.
After I sit for a while, I usually head north and down aways to the Wishing Tree. It was set up by some monks last August, and since then Arvaikheer residents have been tying traditional sacred bolts of cloth to it and making wishes. I walk around it three times, as is common here, and think about all of the nice things I’d like to happen for my family back in America. Out of respect I won’t upload any pictures of it, but I’ll put one up of the stone pile next to it. Circumlocution around the stone pile three times is a kind of blessing which I think is borrowed from Shamanism. At some point during each rotation, people usually throw a pebble onto the pile.
It was a perfect hike. Getting up in the mountains from time to time is essential for me; I need the peace and quiet and visibility of it all to remind myself of where I am, and to purge all the little anxieties and confusions of everyday life here. It’s just an extremely positive feeling.
Also, look at this awesome hat I bought yesterday:
Victory in suede and faux-fur.