…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.

April snowstorms bring May…something better, hopefully.

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).

M’lil boy!

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:

Dig that Monglish on the chalkboard. I certainly do.

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:

Me and the best friend at a hookah bar in Maryland, like, sixty-five million years ago

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.


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.

Mountain Stuff

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.

The Recent Past!

January 19, 2010

My peaceful readjustment to the Arvaikheer routine was interrupted last week by an urgent email from Peace Corps Medical. It said that we were all required to return to the capital before January 15th to receive our H1N1 vaccines. I shouldn’t call it an interruption, really; I was actually kind of looking for an excuse to not have to do as much work during the highly stressful Audit Week, which I think I mentioned in a previous post (but if not I’ll summarize: insanely complicated external reviews of teacher-kept records, with consequences for failure to produce certain documents). I’m exempt as a co-teacher, but I still have to be around for it.  Anyway, I welcomed the distraction. I climbed down the mountain before the sun rose on the morning of the 13th and was reborn as I found myself climbing the steps to the widely rumored… DISCO BUS!

And this ain’t no Hubble false color image, either–that’s the real deal. The glowing red focal point in the background is actually a LASER DISCO BALL, the green and red beams of which caressed my senses into the wildest migraine I’ve had in years. All of this, and more—“Modern Talking,” the greatest German neo-disco duo that ever survived the 80s—first in MP3 loudspeaker, then in flatscreen video marathon.

This was one of the videos I watched many, many times on the bus ride to UB that week. There are no words, really.

After the sun came up, we had Karaoke. The flatscreen became a follow-along lyrical backdrop to rural Mongolian music, and two microphones were passed around the bus. The music was so loud and the windows were frozen solid, so nothing could be seen through them, and I think this is why people were a lot less intimidated when the bus nearly flipped twice.

I kept saying things like, “We’re going to die on this disco bus” and “I really think we’re going to die” as jolly numbers about Mom’s Milk Tea and the Soft, Soft World blasted through the speakers around us. We all had a good laugh when it was over.

Joy? Fear? Both.

We made it to the city safely, and I quickly found myself nestled in my cozy and customary wall-to-wall bed at the Hongor Guest House. The following few days were nothing out of the ordinary as large-group reunions in UB go; lots of partying, not enough sleep, and temperatures that would make a sizable portion of the Martian surface feel like Grand Bahama. One night after some celebrating I thought I could wrangle up some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for my friends, and they turned out like this:

We only had a bag of crusts, for some reason, so we used those. I dropped some peanut butter on the dirty floor and mopped it up good with some of the unused bread, put it on a plate we were done with so I’d remember to throw it away, and then absentmindedly ate it five minutes later.

As for the vaccines, I got a fever after mine. I also had one of our medical staff members take a look at my throat, which had been swollen and heinously mucous-filled for almost three weeks, and she ended up prescribing me an antibiotic so powerful that it’s used to cure plague. That stuff works wonders. Apparently I started out with a virus, which ran its course, but in the meantime I got pollution poisoning and opened my system up to a ravenous bacterial infection. It’s hard for me to stop and think about the fact that these virions and bacteria manage to still move around out there in the ether, even though said ether is sometimes chilling at -50 degrees Fahrenheit (and sometimes even Celsius).

The rest of UB was kind of bittersweet…A good friend of mine has finally decided to head back to the States after a long struggle with some issues at his site. I was sad to send him off. Don’t really know what else to say about that, except that I’ll miss him.

I returned to work in Arvaikheer to find that Audit Week was actually just starting. Stress is high right now in the teachers’ lounge, but I know things will calm down in a bit. As for me, I experienced my own set of traumas today after a boy in one of my 9th grade classes punched a girl in the face in the middle of class. I reacted, of course, but no one else seemed to think it was out of the ordinary. I pulled him out of class and screamed more than I’ve ever screamed at anyone, at least since I can remember. The kid laughed, so I scared him into following me downstairs to Prominent Person X’s office. Prominent Person X is one of the most powerful members of the administration, so she is often asked to use her clout to deal with misbehaving students. I reamed the student out some more in front of her and said that he wasn’t allowed back in my classroom, went upstairs, and rejoined my co-teacher in the lesson we’d been teaching. She leaned in and told me, “Calm down. Because I’m a female teacher, I can’t get angry like that. Also, you should be careful, because that was Prominent Person X’s son.”

Guess who showed up for a random observation of my next class?

I rounded off a long day with dinner at my sitemate’s house. It was so cold that I physically couldn’t walk back up the mountain, so I called a cab. Tomorrow’s supposed to be even colder!

More later.

Updates and Other -dates

January 8, 2010

I’ve recently returned from another jaunt to America, and it’s only appropriate that I talk a little bit about what it’s like to be a Peace Corps volunteer who’s gone back to the States not once, but twice.

In a word: Amazing. The first time I went home [see previous entries], the whole experience felt like an exotic vacation, and not much like going back to the place where I belong. Coming back to Mongolia last July felt like a return to how I’d always lived. This time, though, I flew straight into an East Coast snowstorm that yielded almost a meter of snow, and the result was unadulterated indoor couch/tv/family/dogs/cuisine time for much of my 13-day trip. This, in conjunction with the realization that my semi-permanent return to America is a mere 7 months away, made the vacation seem like a very real taste of the future. It was definitely harder to come back to Mongolia after that.

While home, I basically didn’t use my legs for a full two weeks. I sat on the couch, ate, and drove around with my sister to the movies and to restaurants, where I sat on more comfortable things and ate. It was incredible! I’ve never felt so OK about being so incredibly lazy. Sometimes, while lying on the couch and fisting boxes of cheezits and drinking eggnog, I felt like my entire body–every single cell–wanted to scream to the universe how insanely comfortable the whole thing felt. I hadn’t realized how much I needed a break like this; even during the aforementioned H1N1 school hiatus, living was still a lot of work.

I gained ten pounds in Maryland.

The visit was actually a surprise for my sister, who wasn’t told that I was coming home at all. I took some pretty absurd measures to prevent her from finding out. I had to think of a reason for why I’d be going into Ulaanbaatar before my flight, just in case she was suspicious, so I told her that I had to take my GRE’s. I’d previously told her that I was taking them on December 22nd, but she knew I was headed into UB on the 14th, so I ended up saying something about how the testing center burned down and the date had to be pushed up. She bought it. I also disabled my Facebook wall so no friends could post things like “have an awesome time in America.” I sent her a private message telling her I did it because of a recent Peace Corps crackdown on internet activity, which she also bought.

My parents set it up so that I’d be hiding in a large red plastic bag between their booth and the window in a local Japanese restaurant, and when my sister came to meet them, I’d pop out. When I did, she recoiled in confusion and started crying immediately. She said she thought it was a hallucination and was scared for a split second at her own insanity. It was so beautiful.

I couldn’t embed the video here, since it’s on Facebook (not one of the supported video hosting sites), but I uploaded it under a setting that enables anyone to watch it. Check it out here:


Last year I couldn’t really place myself mentally in the permanent American context, as I had so much of my service left before me. The whole visit was different from the first, in that it gave me an opportunity to visualize myself in a setting that I’ll be returning to very soon for good. I miss Maryland already!

I don’t need to go into any more detail about my trip to America…writing any more about it will just make me homesick.

I returned to Mongolia on New Year’s Eve and celebrated with some friends at a posh bar in Ulaanbaatar called ‘Sky Lounge.’ We missed the countdown, but we made our own, so it was OK. I remember stopping a famous Mongolian singer, Naran, in the middle of her performance there and making a song request, which she understandably disregarded. I also tried to dance with her.  I ended up spilling red wine all over my new outfit and decided to call it an early night.

This is a Naran music video:

I love Naran, but I wasn’t too embarrassed later on that I’d accosted her. Now, if I’d managed to make an ass out of myself in front of Maraljingoo, my favorite Mongolian singer of all time, I’d feel a little differently…

Although Maraljingoo is a bit of a diva. Two summers ago she performed at night in Sant at an outdoor 80th town anniversary  concert, and I attended with my friends. The setup had bright spotlights focused on her, and the beetles and moths went nuts in the light  and dove down her cleavage and into her hair, and she freaked out. It was pretty hilarious.

ANYWAY, when I’m in UB in the winter, I usually go to the same guest house and rent a 6′ x 10′ room that’s just a bed, wall to wall, and fall asleep every night pushed up against the radiator while watching documentaries and eating. The days I spent in UB after my trip to America were no different. I think this was a nice transition between couch-life and ger-life.

Apparently it reached -60 degrees Fahrenheit in Arvaikheer while I was away, and I felt fortunate to have missed that. But the temperatures dropped to obscenely low again after I got back to Uvurkhangai, and one of my sitemates actually got frostbite. Today it reached +20! I came home from work early to chop wood in the sun and overheated. It’s amazing how much our bodies adjust to fluctuations like that, and bizarre how it feels to be comfortable in temperatures I wouldn’t dream of putting myself through in America.

Yesterday there was an atmospheric phenomenon that Mongolians refer to as “The three suns,” which is supposed to signify the onset of a tremendously cold winter. It looked something like this over my mountain in the evening, but when the sun was a bit higher:

Some people think this means we are about to experience a Zud, the heinous and destructive winter that results in mass livestock and even human death. The economic implications for such a season are devastating. I was told today that 80% of Uvurkhangai is currently covered in snow, which means that the livestock on which much of the economy depends is unable to have access to adequate grazing grounds. Time will tell what this means for 2010’s agriculture.

To switch gears, an interesting note about returning to work after such a lovely break: it’s departmental audits-and-checks-time, so I’ve barely been able to get anything done. This is the time when teachers start to record grades and attendance and write up their lesson plans in official formats–and god forbid they do it in the wrong color ink!–lest they be fined obscene amounts of money or even fired. This means that the workplace priority has changed to prepping for the checkup, rather than actual teaching in some cases. I’ve taken the bullet and solo-taught all week. It’s made work pretty frustrating, as my job is to only co-teach lessons.

On an interesting note, tonight we showed ‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith’ for our weekly English Movie Night at the local English library. We thought that the action-romance combo would be perfect for the mostly female audience, and indeed they loved it, but not the violent parts. When Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are shooting at one another in their house and destroying it in the process, the girls laughed and were riveted–but as soon as the shooting turned into guy-on-girl fist fighting, I saw many of them turn their eyes away. I remembered then how prevalent domestic violence is here, and immediately regretted the decision to show the movie. The students who attended thanked us profusely for having chosen it in the end, though, so maybe it wasn’t that traumatic after all.

Or maybe it’s just a glimpse at how absurd our own American viewership culture is; that we rate a movie with a big fat ‘R’ if there’s nudity or a sex scene, but not necessarily if there’s extreme physical violence. The fact of the matter is that most of us will NOT grow up to shoot another person or do murder, and will never have to defend ourselves in a fight against an armed enemy. And yet these things are taken for granted in our visual culture. Most of us will, however, grow up to experience nudity and sexual activity comparable to that found in any R-or-more-rated movie, and yet we stigmatize it to be this big taboo. Maybe our Mongolian viewers were just more jarred by the fighting than they were by the sexual nature of the film because they have a better grasp on that concept.

Well, I should get going. I’m nauseated suddenly, perhaps because it’s 108 degrees in my ger and it’s been a few hours since my last questionable meal. Happy New Year!