The Rest of Tsagaan Sar

February 21, 2010

Just some pictures and quick explanations.

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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).

Mandukhai, me, and Zaya’s little brother

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.

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Chuka’s house

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

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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

Baagi

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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.

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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.

My Hashaa dad (Chinzoo) and Garidaa in front of the Tsagaan Sar food spread at Grandpa’s house

Chinzoo, me, and Zaya Egch in our dels in front of my ger

Me, looking exceedingly creepy. And that’s Grandpa’s seat, so you better believe I moved my ass the second this photo was done

Me and Tingis, my extremely precocious three year-old brother

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.

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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.

The new Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP) offices/ Haas Bank. They make the most delicious Tsuivan ::someone I know who will remain  unnamed:: has ever tasted.

One of my new favorites, the Uvurkhangai Museum. It’s seriously one of the coolest places in town.

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.

more later.

A quick and disjointed account of all things recent.

News and Happinesses

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!
  4. 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.
  5. 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!)
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. I discovered last night that my carbon monoxide detector works, and my ear drums have the rupture scars to prove it.

This is as far as I could open 'em when I woke up.

I don't have a mirror in my ger, so I took pictures of the pus-eye to see what was up.I don’t have a mirror in my ger, so I was checking the eye infection with a camera.

Le Pièce de résistance: peep that mucus, folks.Le Pièce de Résistance: Peep that mucus, folks.

The Things I’m Looking Forward To

  1. Seeing my students researching, pleasure reading, and relaxing quietly between classes in the soon-to-be-completed Merged School library.
  2. A respite from the cold, even if it means sandstorms are on their way.
  3. 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.]
  4. Sushi…just sushi.
  5. Seeing my sister at the end of July.
  6. Wrestling with my 70-kilogram German Shepherd at my parents’ new farmhouse.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.)
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

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.)

It was warm enough recently for me to hike up to Undurlig with a few visitors. I even took my jacket off for part of the walk.

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.

This is me trying to wrangle Ding-Dong into a photo. He’s such a love!

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!