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!

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.

Home for a Spell

September 19, 2009

My excuse for the late post–no internet access (or, rather, no time for internet access) since my return to Mongolia at the end of last June. Apologies.  Anyway, I figured it would be appropriate now, on a nice little Saturday night in Arvaikheer, to dedicate an hour or so to a post about what it’s like to go home in the middle of a two-year Peace Corps stint.

I suppose it’s best to start from the flight out of UB. I could probably have counted the number of times I’d been in a car on one hand during my entire first year here, so the prospect of putting myself inside of a large metal tube with wings which relies on the unfathomable principle of lift was something I was not ready to face. To compound my anxieties, I found out that MIAT (Mongolian Air) pilots are all former air force…take-off was like being catapulted through a type-II supernova. The hull of the plane protested accordingly.

I actually had a dream on the flight that we crashed. You can imagine how that must have sat with my fellow passengers.

I’ll skip straight to the America part, as my new fear of air travel would make the remaining leg of the journey sound redundant. In short, coming home was just as much of a mindjob as I had imagined–but in all the best ways. I felt a strange delight in the new areas in life in which I had become socially awkward. I adjusted to a vastly different pace of life for the four weeks I was there, and I got a much needed break from the culinary realm I described in previous posts. Of course, seeing family was the most heartrendingly relieving part of the whole experience, but I’ll get to that.

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First, on to social awkwardness. I always considered myself to be a rather socially apt person in my American life, but I had suspicions that spending a majority of my time with the same 7 Americans for an entire year in a rowdy Gobi border town might have an effect on that confidence. It did. On one of my first few days back in America, I took my vastly overweight wolf-shepherd mix, Molly, for an evening walk in my city and tried to get a feel for the place again. She was kind of a buffer–my conversation starter and my security. We happened on a waning arts festival on the canal, and people started coming up to me and asking me questions about her. “What a beautiful dog!” they would say. “What kind of dog is she?”

The first person who asked me this–the first American stranger I’d spoken with in a long time, I suppose–got a very loud and awkward, “UMMM THANKS HI” in response. Another family in a paddle boat far enough away to be allowed their own private discussion began discussing my dog. “I wonder what kind of dog she is–maybe a shepherd mix?” one of them said. I edged awkwardly toward the canal alongside their boat and tried to confirm their speculation, but their conversation had moved on. As had their paddle boat. Still, in a moment of poorly timed conversational bravery, I yelled out, “SHE…is.” Only the elderly man disassembling his crafts tent heard me.

Yet another powerwalking duo approached me and complimented Molly’s beautiful coat. I told them that she had gotten a little heavy in my unspecified absence, and one of the women said, “Awwwwwwwwww, did you just finish your first year of college?”

NO?!” was the only retort I could muster.

I guess my point is that I had lost the little graces that made me tolerable in public.

shaven and obese, but half wolf nonetheless <3

shaven and obese, but my little baby half wolf nonetheless ❤

me, being SUPER awkward on the DC Metro:

On my first night at home, we went to pizza hut as a family. It was so amazing to sit across from my mother and sister and father and actually put faces to the year-long infrequency of their voices. I ordered a huge pizza and slid back into my booth seat, reached into my bag, and extracted a few bread rolls saved from the flight. “Anyone want bread?” I asked. Everyone looked at me like I was crazy–bringing food into a restaurant like that. Faux pas 1. The pizza was amazing, though.

Maybe this would be a good segue into the aforementioned culinary heaven to which I was reintroduced upon going home. A list, and some pictures, will suffice:

pizza, sushi, ice cream, kebabs, crabs, cheeseburgers, fish, sandwiches, cheezits, pretzels, spinach salads, cheese, kalamata olives.

IMG_5293

IMG_5295

see the intensity?

see the intensity?

IMG_5897

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Treasure [of] the Chesapeake

treasure the Chesapeake

Venison kebabs, courtesy of uncle Dan

Venison kebabs, courtesy of uncle Dan

So, in the interest of not dwelling on the unfathomable distance between my current living situation and the contents of the images above, I’ll move on to some of the other things I did while I was home. For the firs two weeks of my stay in Maryland, the weather was exactly like this:

IMG_5448Many of you might see that and think, “how awful to finally come home and to have such heinous weather.” On the contrary–I had been living in a Gobi border town with absolutely not a single instance of rain in over 10 months, so the first two weeks in Maryland were a rainy treat to my senses.

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Don’t let the goofy photos fool you, though…This rainy period happened to coincide with a very dark time for my family. I won’t go into details, because this is one of those instances where I think language would fail to express some of the things we were thinking and feeling, but I will say that a member of my immediate family was diagnosed with a very serious and probably terminal illness just a few days after I got back. We panicked and suffered  for two weeks before finding out, post-op, that it was a false diagnosis. All I can say is that I have never been more grateful in my life.

And fittingly, the day we got the good news, the weather transformed into (and stayed like) this:

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The next two weeks were smooth sailing–lots of hanging out with my family and going to the beach and spending afternoons in the mountains and playing with my dogs.

baby Gaia

baby Gaia

my son, Blaze

my son, Blaze

my dad, about to get hit in the hip with a fastball.

my dad, about to get hit in the hip with a fastball.

My Mema came down for four days and we hung out at the beach in Delaware. It was amazing to see her, and it was really special that she came down to see me during my visit. And Seeing the ocean was a total shock to my world after a year of cold desert life!

haha...

haha...

Mommy and Mema at my favorite pizza joint

Mommy and Mema at my favorite pizza joint

Seeing everyone was amazing…I didn’t realize how much I needed a break from Mongolia and from Peace Corps until I was relaxing and living it up in beautiful Maryland. The whole experience rejuvenated me;  I doubt I would have been able to stay sane during my second year here in Mongolia if I hadn’t gotten a chance to spend time with my sister. This is the longest we’ve ever been apart, and I’ve never been a huge fan of spending time away from her to begin with. Needless to say, coming back to Inner Asia was a little emotional.

Almost as soon as I returned to Ulaanbaatar, though, I began working from 7:30am-8:00 pm, five days a week and sometimes seven, in the city. I lived solo in a nice little apartment in the center of UB and trained new TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) volunteers in small satellite towns in and around Tov Aimag. Though rewarding, it was a gruelling and mentally trying experience to tackle after such a nice period of rest and rejuvenation in America. The city is expensive and trainers were not given per diem allowance this time around. I rarely slept, and on the weekends I felt I had to make the difficult decision between rest and unwinding.

In the middle of July, I skipped home to Arvaikheer for a day and a night to watch Naadam (the National holiday of the three manly sports–archery, horse racing, and wrestling). I unlocked the newly graffiti-covered door to my first floor university apartment to find that it had turned into a sandy, water-damaged hole of destruction and asbestos. The stench of the place was horrendous, and I knew then that I could not live there any more. When I returned to UB to work, I broached the subject of finally moving in with a family into my own ger or house in another part of town. Not only would the housing situation be settled, then, but I would also get a unique chance to live in a Mongolian family’s hashaa (yard) and to reach new levels of community integration through family connections. The PC Mongolia Safety and Security coordinator kindly jumped on board and persued a new housing agreement with my Mongolian supervisor at the university in Arvaikheer. To say that he was displeased, and unwilling to help, would be a vast understatement. Long story short, I am now a high school- and middle school English teacher at the Merged Advanced School for Mathematics and Foreign Language. I have moved into a ger on the slopes of the mountain above Arvaikheer (many of the photos from previous entries were taken from a spot very close to my new place) and I have NEVER BEEN HAPPIER here in Mongolia. Not to jinx anything, but my new job is filled with young and talented professionals who appreciate and seek out my input and engage me in social events outside of the workplace. My projects are almost unconditionally supported from the upper administration, the students are brilliant, and I get to work with young kids, too!

For those of you who don’t know, a ger is a circular, wood-framed felt and canvas tent. Mine is a “four-wall ger,” meaning that it has four curved sections of cross-piece latticework that come together to form the circle. The top is a dome-like shape, the apex of which rests roughly 8 feet above the center of the floor.

All ger doors face south, and as I once lived on the south side of town and am now on the highest ground in Arvaikheer, I walk out of my door every morning and literally look down on my old job. =)

Among the greatest parts of this transition is my new ability to control the temperature inside my living space by building gorgeously hot coal and wood fires in my stove. I also love the ways in which ger life encourages me to be more conscious of the resources I consume; I get my water from a well down the street once a week and store it in a huge blue container next to the entrance to the ger. At any given point, roughly 500ml of this water are kept in a small gravity sink to the right of my entrance, and this is my hand-washing water. I only refill this once a day, and I’ve still managed to stay perfectly clean. I’ve also been distilling some of my “gray”(or used) water back into drinking water.

the view outside my hashaa door

the view outside my hashaa door

m'ger!

m'ger!

m'ger!!

m'ger!!

my ceiling--half is open to the sky until october, when those four sections will be covered with glass to keep out the cold

my ceiling--half is open to the sky until october, when those four sections will be covered with glass to keep out the cold

Anyway, that’s quite a bit of time squeezed into one entry. This summer has been a swoosh of family and friends and work and changes, and I’m optimistic about my second year. I’ll try to keep posting more frequently now that I have an internet cable snaking in through that new ceiling of mine =) tata.

Mongolian Food

May 8, 2009

I just had an experience that absolutely necessitated an immediate blog post on Mongolian food culture. The team leader of our university foreign languages department initiated a lunch-preparation group a few months ago in which each of the 11 faculty members takes turns making food and bringing it in to work at around 11:00 am on a rotating daily schedule. My coworkers assumed that I, being 1) male, 2) the teacher with the lowest salary, 3)single, and 4) American, would not even be able to cook food for myself, let alone for 10 other people. Sensing that exposing them to some international foods would be a good way to win them over in the workplace, I insisted that I wanted to participate. Before long, I was cooking fabulous dishes and wowing my colleagues–and thereby gaining credibility and access to their inner circle.

Then, just the other day, I noticed that my name was absent from the food-prep lineup on the the large makeshift whiteboard in our faculty lounge. I asked why, and my team leader said, “because you don’t cook, and so it’s very difficult for you to prepare all of this food for us, and you are just a man, so you can’t.” This confused me, considering I had witnessed all of them slip into delightfully international food comas after dishing out effusive praise for each of the meals I had slaved to make for them. Once again, I insisted that they put my name on the roster; I didn’t want to lose any of the cool-points I had earned in the past few weeks. So, with an “Ok, but don’t say I didn’t tell you so” sigh, she scribbled my name into the slot for May 8.

And that’s where the fun began. I woke up this morning at 10:00 and ran to the store  (by the way, it’s snowing again) to buy flour. I had decided on fusion veggie soft tacos, and I only had an hour to make them.

**interesting tidbit–one of the most prominent Mongolian soda and beer companies just released a new soda product– “Kickapoo Joy Juice”–the label of which boasts a stereotypical Native American jumping into a vat of homemade liquor. The soda is bright green, and very, very cheap, so I decided to by 2 litres and try some last weekend. I opened it, drank some, and closed it, and when opened it and went to drink it again, it exploded and fizzed into my sinuses. It went flat 20 seconds later. I have been waking up with blood in my nose and mouth every morning since then, and I now have an upper respiratory infection that makes me cough up brown and bloody mucus. So that’s why I woke up so late this morning. Victory.**

Anyway, I rushed home and made 10 curried tortillas, chopped five green and red bell peppers, stir fried the peppers with garlic and onions and chili powder, and dumped Old Bay seasoning into the mixture. I carted the tortillas and veggies, along with a bag of oranges, sourdough bread, tabasco, soy sauce, sea salt, unsweetened yogurt (as a sour cream substitute), and the requisite Mongolian condiments–mayonnaise and ketchup, just in case–across campus and up three flights of stairs to my faculty lounge. Only one German teacher was there.

I was just finishing arranging the table when people started to trickle in. I gave the first of what would amount to be 5 introductions on how to prepare a soft taco in a way that I thought would appeal to Mongolians–first squeeze a line of mayo on the tortilla, then apply the vegetables, followed by some hot sauce (for the adventurous ones) and a trail of yogurt and/or ketchup to top it off before wrapping it up and eating it. This doesn’t really sound Mexican at all, I realize, but this entry will illustrate later on that any combination of flavors subverts culinary trends here and had the potential to pique the Mongolian palate; any flavor, essentially, is “international.” Bottom line, these things were delicious.

I noticed immediately that my counterparts were only eating the vegetables and leaving the tortillas  to soak in their own juices on their plates. I suppose they forgot I speak Mongolian, as well, because I started hearing muttered grievances through mouthfuls of sauce : “this is hard to eat”,  one instance of “I’m going to far too much after this”,  a few sarcastic utterances of “this is delicious”, etc. No one was trying the hot sauce, as such a strong flavor actually hurts Mongolians.

One of my counterparts took the yogurt bowl and started drinking out of it. Another licked her finger and wiped it across the top of my sea salt container, licked her finger again, and repeated several times. The colleague seated next to me abandoned her taco for a piece of sourdough bread and covered it with mayonnaise, then with yogurt, and ate it. Then everyone decided to do the latter. I just sat back in amazement and laughed.

Eventually, my main counterpart, who has traveled abroad extensively and enjoys a more sophisticated palate, arrived and voraciously ate five tacos–with hot sauce–and loved them. That made me feel a bit better.

The point of this story is to illustrate how concretized the traditional Mongolian culinary scene remains in modern culture. Before the consequences of prolonged Chinese and Russian control took effect, I’m told, Mongolians ate a diet consisting entirely of vegetables and dairy products during the summer, and saved all of their meat for the winter. There is little trace of this now; the modern Mongolian diet is now extremely meat and lipid-heavy year-round, with high carbohydrate intake and little appreciation for vegetables. Most dishes, even when advertised as “vegetarian,” have prominent pieces of goat or mutton in them, with separately and deliberately added chunks of fat. In fact, I have seen people go into the meat markets and buy two kilograms of pure goat or sheep fat right off the animal to later put in their dinners.

There is some seasonal observation of food trends here, but it still revolves around the meat axis. In summer, Mongolians prefer “lighter” meats like goat, and wait until winter to eat the meats that are considered good for insulation, like horse flesh or beef.

**interesting tidbit–I thought I had giardia, a protozoan parasite that is commonly found in water contaminated with fecal matter (and 96% of Mongolian water is)–for several months. The symptoms include diarrhea or constipation, sulfuric gas emissions, weakness, weight loss, and fatigue. I sought medical consultation, did research, took medicines, and nothing helped. Finally, after sending a stool sample to the Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, DC, I discovered that my system had absolutely no trace of any parasite whatsoever. It turns out I just have a digestive allergy to horsemeat–previously my winter nutritional recourse, per the suggestions of my Mongolian counterparts. **

Returning to the homogeneity and limited diversity of the Mongolian diet, it should be stated that there are only five main dishes eaten by a majority of Mongolians:

  • Tsuivan–a dry flour noodle dish with fat and meat and sometimes potatoes and carrots
  • buuz–steamed dumplings with mutton and fat in them (see the Tsagaan Sar entry)
  • Hoshuur–analogous to empanadas, also with fat and mutton in them
  • Shul–broth soup, with meat and fat and sometimes potatoes and pasta
  • hurag–rice, meat and fat, and sometimes potatoes

**There is also a much-loved sixth option, and it’s gedes–innards. Mongolians love eating nearly the entire inside of an animal. I remember once over the summer, in my homestay, I had just finished saving an email draft to my family that centered on how well I had been adjusting to the culture here. In it, I described how I had heard that Mongolian food was horrible, but was pleasantly surprised to have found nothing so far that had disagreed with me. I saved the email in a folder designated for future internet access and walked into the kitchen for lunch. There, on the floor, was a bloody goat head. My host mother was kneeling over a bathing bucket filled with entrails, and she was funneling blood into a long string of intestines and tying the ends off for boiling. My host father entered the kitchen with a still-bloody slaughtering knife, pulled a bloody intestine out of a pot of boiling water, and instructed me to use the knife to eat it. I was shocked. I ate liver–the least heinous of the mixture–for the next three weeks, until I lied and told my host mother that the Peace Corps doctor had instructed me to stop.**

Of the above bulleted dishes, buuz  and hurag are probably of Chinese origin, and the soups might have been a Russian introduction. There are other side dishes that are widely enjoyed here, but their origins and regard hint further at the lack of options in the Mongolian diet:

  • Neeslil Salat–“Capital Salad”–chopped potatoes and mayonnaise mixed together.  A Russian dish first introduced to Ulaanbaatar,  it was considered to be so exotic that people decided to name it “Capital Salad” and the name stuck.
  • baitsaini Salat–oil and cabbage mixed together, from China.
  • Lovangiin Salat–shredded carrots and mayonnaise mixed together.
  • Kimbab–a Korean dish of rice and spam sausages rolled into seaweed and cut into sections.
  • perojkie– a Russian snack of ground mutton and rice packed into a yeasty dough pocket and deep fried.
  • mantou–a Chinese steamed, fluffy biscuit

Further emphasizing the sparse nature of the Mongolian culinary scene is the notion that a large percentage of the produce and dishes available in Mongolia are known by Russian or Chinese names:

  • chinjou– from the Chinese ‘qingjiao’, 青椒,–bell peppers
  • baitsai–from the Chinese ‘baicai’, 白菜–cabbage
  • jyotsai–from the Chinese ‘jiucai’, 韭菜–green onions/ leeks
  • songon–from the Chinese ‘cong’, 葱–onions
  • lovan–from the Chinese ‘luobo’, 萝卜–carrot
  • manjing–from the Chinese ‘manjing’, 蔓菁–turnip/wild cabbage/ beet
  • ongortsii–from the Russian ‘ongurets’, огурец–cucumber
  • perets–from the Russian ‘perets’,перец–pepper

And the list goes on and on. Even the one of the standards of weight for measuring vegetables is from Chinese–“Jin.”

As far as drinks are concerned, I think I’ve made the importance of vodka apparent in previous posts. In the summer and early autumn months, however, a welcomed semi-departure from trends in alcohol consumption occurs, and fermented horse milk–airag–is drunk. It has a very mild alcohol content, and one can drink quite a lot of it before achieving a buzz. I’ve heard other volunteers say that it’s an instantaneous hangover, but I’ve never had that experience. I will say, though, that it’s an acquired taste–sour and difficult to handle at first. The truth of it is that on a warm autumn day, there’s nothing better than sitting in a stall in the market under the sun and having a refreshing bowl of airag.

I should say that, though the aforementioned food options do seem quite basic, I was surprised to discover even the slightest amount of diet diversity after my summer homestay. My host family was contractually obligated to provide three meals a day to me, and was paid 7,000 tugrug a day to do so (even though Mongolians don’t usually eat breakfast themselves). And provide they did. When I wasn’t eating liver, I ate goemontau shul–noodle soup, with fat and a few inadvertant stray goat hairs–three times a day for three months. I had no idea that the other options were actually widely eaten until I left my training site, and my world opened up to the other options.

I later found out that my host family was saving the money Peace Corps gave them for food to buy a washing machine after I left. haha. ❤

As you may have noticed, the dishes I’ve discussed thus far have mostly the same ingredients in all of them. This, to a foodie like me, should seem like a serious hardship. I won’t lie–I’ve had periods during which I’ve felt disillusioned with the Mongolian diet in my 11 months here. But now I arrive at the portion of this explanation where I tell you how much being here has made me crave Mongolian food intensely, at the weirdest times.  After my summer study, I actually started feeling goemontae shul withdrawal, and I went through a phase where I had to eat flour products to satisfy that. Now, I have the same feeling for tsuivan–the dry noodle dish–and I have to satiate it or I feel off balance.

To sum it all up, last week I went to the gym where I teach yoga and lift weights and had the best workout of my whole service, then went straight to a seedy police bar and ate 10 enormous buuz. Without condiments. I’ve assimilated.

To bring some variety to our diets, most Peace Corps volunteers cook for themselves. There truly are ingredients that we can use to diversify our food intake, as shown by the taco failure mentioned previously, and distate for deviations from normal food trends here is purely cultural. A perfect example of this was when several volunteers cooked pizza and spaghetti for their host faimlies, who fanned their mouths with their hands and hyperventilated at the “spiciness” of the tomato sauce (which, incidentally, had nothing but parsley in it.) Nevertheless, the ingredients are out there–if a little expensive–and we have been known to splurge on  $9/kilo cheese for pizza from time to time. We cook roti with lentils, enchiladas, chili, tostadas, tofu stir fries, peanutbutter and jelly sandwiches, omelettes, steak fajita burritos, spaghetti, pesto baked vegetables, cakes and breads, beer battered onion and pepper rings, kimbab, and vegetarian variations of a lot of the previously mentioned Mongolian dishes. In this way, we’ve all managed to stay healthy under some form of western culinary variegation.

Wow…what a disparaging tone this entry has. Unintentional. I would just like to reiterate that, depite the relative dearth of options and flavors here, and despite the elitist tone I took in this post, I am wholly addicted to and dependent on the traditional food of Mongolia. I know that a year from now, I’ll probably be sitting in some posh sushi restaurant in DC and wishing I had a perojkie and some milk tea to tide me over.

Apologies, once again, for the insane amount of time between my last post and this one. Part of the intensity of springtime here in Mongolia, as you’ll see in this entry, is the unreliability of electricity and technology like the Internet in the face of a tempestuous climate. But things seem to have calmed down for the time being, so I’m going to try to squeeze an entry in before another biblical storm comes through.

“Spring” in American culture is synonymous with fun and sun–a respite from the perceived hardships of what is, in reality, an incredibly mild winter. In a country where the winter is 9 months long and boasts -40- degree temperatures, imminent spring is something many first-year volunteers look forward to…mistakenly. No matter how many Mongolians warned me that “Spring is terrible,” I still had it in the back of my mind that it would be the end of a pretty uncomfortable period in my service here. Spring is here now, and though it certainly does have its beauty and warm days, it can be far from pleasant.

uh ohhhh

uh ohhhh

We mid-Atlantic folk are used to the back-and-forth nature of the transition from winter to spring, but living my entire life in that clime did not prepare me for what I was to experience in Mongolia. During the winter here, my senior students came over to to help me winterize my apartment. To do this, they tore up some of my less desirable bedsheets into thin strips  and soaked them in a pot of hot, soapy water. Then they stuck the sudsy strips to the cracks where my windows met the sills and stuffed rolled-up newspapers in the spaces between my double panes. This, they said, would keep out the cold. It did exactly that–but it also prevented me from opening my windows whenever there was a musty feeling about the place (or whenever my kitchen inexplicably caught on fire and smoked me out.)

So, one mild day in February when the outside world seemed to be creeping out of its -40 – degree hibernation (and when I say “mild” I mean still way below freezing), I was overheating in my apartment. I decided, like the rookie I was, that if it were to stay like that, I would have to dewinterize my apartment and open some windows. The next day it rose into the 50s, and I went for a t-shirted hike down the dry riverbed behind our mountains. I was convinced that I had conquered winter. I strutted home and ripped those sheet-strips down out of the window sills and opened my kitchen and bedrooms to the desert air.

Stupid.

The next day it was -35, and there was nothing I could do to restore my apartment to the heat it had before. I convinced myself that it was worth it, and that I would be happy to be able to open my windows if temperatures rose again.

This turned out to be true. I caused several more kitchen fires, the temperatures increased periodically to where I was relieved to be able to open windows, and I was still warm in my 4-radiator apartment. And then spring came. First a few days of 70-degree beauty, and then an epic sand/ dust storm that thrashed itself through the open cracks in my windowsills and filled my house with brown Inner Asian sand and organic matter. Schools were canceled, businesses shut down, and people stayed inside unless it was absolutely necessary to go out. I kicked myself for having removed those soapy strips.

It’s been like that for about a month now–60s and 70s with intermittent dust storms. Sometimes the wind dies down, but the dust just floats in the air like a huge brown blanket and stays hot and backlit by a blazing  high-altitude sun.

uh ohhhhhhhhhhh

uh ohhhhhhhhhhh

Sometimes it’s warm and beautiful in the morning, and I leave my house on the southside of town and walk to the market or to friends’ houses in summer clothes. I conduct my business in town, and when it’s time for me to return home, the skies have darkened, it’s dropped 30 degrees, and it’s snowing. This makes it all the more frustrating when I go into town for scheduled commitments–like police department English classes, trainings, or meetings–and I arrive to find out they have been canceled for whatever reason. I’m left, then, to walk home in my t-shirt through the newly miserable weather when I could have just stayed home.

Last wednesday shattered the last glimmer of trust I had in my ability to guage Uvurkhangai weather patterns. It was about 60 degrees and sunny when a traveler and I headed up to town–I had my cop class, and she was going to hang out with my sitemates. In the middle of my lesson–just like a school kid distracting his classmates at first sight of flurries through the window of his 4th grade classroom–I froze and stood staring out the window of the courthouse at what I  had previously thought was just a strange glass tint. In fact, it was a deep brown cloud rushing around the city and bending trees and bushes to the ground at 60 mph.  After my lesson finished, I threw on a hoodie and rushed outside to my sitemate’s work, where I was owed some money. It looked like this outside:

people fleeing at my friend's work

people fleeing at my friend's work

my school

my school

Afterwards, I let the horrifying winds push me home to rest a while and wash up. Fine sand filled my mouth and ears and hair; in any other context it would not be too big of a deal for me, but people in Mongolia are susceptible to pink eye and other infections from sandstorms due to the fact that a large portion of the dust blown around in storms actually contains fecal matter.

I napped for a while after braving the storm, and when the winds died down the traveler and I decided to meet up with my sitemates at his house. While we were enjoying coffee and a movie, the sand/dust storm picked up again and it snowed almost a foot outside in some places. Then the lightning started. As I may have written in other entries, the  strength of the prevailing north-to-south winds makes walking into town from my apartment a 20-minute ordeal, but walking back to my apartment from virtually anywhere else in town takes around 10 minutes for the same reason. Walking home from my sitemate’s house that night took three and a half minutes.

sand/dust/snow/lightning storm

sand/dust/snow/lightning storm

The next day, the snow melted and flooded the town, like so:

my school apartment complex

my school apartment complex

and then, after a beautiful sunset, the flooding froze and coated the town in thick ice.

sunset over the mountains

sunset over the mountains

The pleasant transition into American Spring tests the work ethic of students and working adults alike. One might wonder, then, what the consequences of a Mongolian Spring would be on the population here–particularly in a desert province. In my experience, spotty attendance and an exponential loss of interest in all things scholastic result from the weather here at my university. Even teacher punctuality and attendance drops off completely in springtime in some places in Arvaikheer. This can be extremely frustrating, considering the fact that Spring comes shortly after Tsagaan Sar (the White Month–see last entry), which is marked by over a month of no work in some instances. Many of my best students have been exhibiting signs of apathy and fatigue lately, and it certainly has an effect on their performance.

At first, I couldn’t seem to figure out what it was that was making my students and colleagues behave this way. There’s no cabin fever if there’s no reason to go outside, and the winter-spring transition was one in which the weather had just changed from one kind of horrible to another. But then I started feeling an intense fatigue, too. I would wake up on the weekends at 11 am and be completely exhausted by 8 pm, after having done nothing. This has stuck with me for a few weeks now, and I can honestly say that I’m beginning to understand why Spring is so counterproductive. In America, I would sometimes get sick during seasonal transitions if the temperatures fluctuated too quickly. Though I haven’t gotten sick here yet as a result of temperature changes, I can feel the stress it puts on my system; to put it in perspective, microbiologists at pharmaceutical companies use controlled rapid temperature swings to make bacteria weak enough to open up and take on new DNA to protect themselves (and the tailored DNA usually codes for the production of chemicals used in the creation of medicines, but whatever.) My point is that temperature swings like the ones we have here are TERRIBLE for your body.

On a more concrete level, thousands upon thousands of livestock die every time we have storms like this. This has historically been a huge problem for rural Mongolia, and the issue of desertification in provinces like Uvurkhangai only compounds the personal, communal, and economic impact of losing livelihoods to storms. In the aforementioned sand/dust/snow/lightning storm, for instance, Uvurkhangai lost 60,000 sheep, goats, and cows, and several people died. A program called The Ger Initiative (in cooperation with a company based in Germantown, MD, mom and dad), used to provide capacity building trainings and resources to herders and farmers who had lost their livestock to such storms, but the organization is being phased out in Mongolia.

Switching gears a bit, I’d like to point out a non weather-related challenge of springtime in Mongolia: graduation. Like all other social milestones, graduation is something that is heavily prepared for and celebrated here in Mongolia. This usually involves buying expensive clothes or having them made from flashy fabrics, traveling, and tons of money spent on parties. It has come to my attention lately, as graduation approaches, that people in Arvaikheer go to Ulaanbaatar to buy fancy graduation clothing, and people from the deep countryside come to Arvaikheer to buy theirs. So, in and around the last week of April and first week of May, there is a huge population turnover in my town.

I wish I could say that I noticed this when I stopped recognizing as many people, or that I caught on when I saw more traditional clothing being worn, but in truth the only reason I can tell this is happening is because there are more drunk men stumbling around in the markets and streets. To qualify, this is not to say that all countryside people are drunks–on the contrary, as stated in previous entries, herders are among the most successful and upstanding members of my provincial community.  The difference here is that the weather is getting nice, and when many countryside families come into town to buy clothes, other friends and family tag along for the ride. The women and young adults do the shopping while the men entertain themselves. In a country that has more vodka factories per capita than any other nation on earth, an increase in population in a given area, however temporary, is bound to bring a higher incidence of alcohol abuse with it.

One also has to take into account the fact that an influx of countryside friends and relatives is sure to stir up social activity, which is almost always marked by alcohol consumption. So, in other words, it’s gotten pretty rowdy over the last few weeks.

highlights:

  • I was chased through the market the other day at full speed by a fiercely drunk man, who was trying to choke me. He pursued me through the busy isles into a large white department store, bought an orange, and stumbled out. I called the police, but no one picked up.
  • two separate groups, in two separate cars, ran me off the road when I was walking the other day. One came up onto the sidewalk to hit me, and the other charged at me and forced me up against a building. I wasn’t hit by either of them, but it still scared me a bit. Both parties drove away laughing.
  • I saw one young man roundhouse kick someone else in the  face in the square yesterday in a screaming fit of rage, and then they walked away arm in arm.
  • a visiting volunteer was nearly knocked down when a fight broke out between two drunk men in the doorway to the meat market as we were leaving, and one of the men was pushed onto her.
  • several countryside male students at my technical institute who matriculated and then did not attend a single class returned to Arvaikheer to attempt to get their diplomas, saw me for the first time all year, and decided I was a tourist that they could harrass.  Light, but obnoxious.

Each of my sitemates has a slew of similar stories from the last few weeks, but fortunately we have all been here long enough to be secure in our longterm safety and membership in the community. As I said, with temporary population turnover comes new interpersonal challenges, and I think we are all more than capable of putting up with these setbacks until graduation comes. The real challenge is dealing with the remainder of a wildly tempermental phase in Mother Nature’s schedule.

As I prepare to write this entry, I’m trying to think of ways to include an explanation of my post-party-tipsy state into a disclaimer about the quality of the post. No need now, I suppose. Just get ready for the coolest entry ever…because this one’s about the coolest holiday in Mongolia: Tsagaan Sar.

Tsagaan Sar means “White Month,” or alternatively, “White Moon.” Considering the fact that it is marked by the first new moon (i.e. black sky) of the lunar calendar, however, it is usually translated as the former (or erroneously as the latter). And though this entry is an attempt to portray Tsagaan Sar from the perspective of my own experiences, I should probably say a few things about the holiday in general beforehand.

It is an intensely family-oriented holiday, and for this reason I must admit that I was a little nervous to celebrate it here in Mongolia for the first time. During the first three days of Tsagaan Sar, families dress up in traditional Mongolian clothing (hereafter referred to as ‘deel’ ) and visit each others’ homes, where they are met with gifts, refreshments, and the traditional holiday staple that is buuz–steamed goat meat dumplings. Guests are also expected to bring gifts of money, sweets, or small practical items when they visit homes. A whole series of behavioral protocols, which will be visited in a later section, are also observed during this holiday. The most important thing to take away from this introduction, though, is the fact that Tsagaan Sar is–by far–the most important and widely (read: wildly) celebrated holiday in Mongolian culture.

Families are expected to spend up to 3 months’ salary in preparing for Tsagaan Sar. This money is put to use towards buying the materials necessary for the hand-production of up to 2,000 dumplings, dozens of traditional lard-fried sweet bread products, candy, and (of course) vodka. Cold weather in the weeks leading up to Tsagaan Sar offers Mongolians the perfect opportunity to produce these items and freeze them outside, but increases in average temperatures have made this difficult in recent years.

So, to move onto my own experience, the first celebrated portion of Tsagaan Sar is actually Tsagaan Sar Eve–or Bituun. Foreign residents of Mongolia are  cautioned that this has the potential to be the most painful of the celebration days, as it tends to inspire parties limited to nuclear families. I was fortunate enough, however, to experience Bituun with my best friend Uugana and her family; she is my main counterpart, and our relationship is one that routinely bridges the inconsistencies between American and Mongolian cultural trends. She was happy to share this auspicious day with me–a foreigner external to her personal and familial adherence to tradition–and I was very grateful. Bituun does not feature any of the customary motions or greetings of the rest of this complex holiday; on Bituun, families simply eat together and finish preparations for the actual celebrations, which occur the following day.

Uugana’s son Yusoo played video games and enthusiastically showed me his Playstation car-racing simulator prowess while Uugana’s husband Saikhnaa put the finishing touches on the Urz centerpiece–a decorative skinned goat-hindquarters placed on an ornate wooden tray in the center of a low table in the living room. Saikhnaa and his young brother-in-law, Uka, used an antique Mongolian steak knife to remove and snack on portions of the slab of meat.

Saikhnaa and Uka slice away at the urz

Saikhnaa and Uka slice away at the urz

Another family's urz display with side dishes

Another family's urz display with side dishes

I came to this Bituun celebration with the assumption that gifts were requisite for participation, but I was wrong. That I was included in this very laid-back celebration of the opening of Tsagaan Sar was a true honor and a testament to my friendships with Uugana and her family.

Interestingly, the word ‘bituun’ is actually a verbal noun of a term that means “to eat until completely full”, or “to eat until unable to eat any more.” Bituun certainly lives up to its name; I was served buuz, carrot salad, and milk tea until I was ready to explode.

buuz

buuz

As I said before, I felt extremely lucky to be invited to Bituun at Uugana’s house. It was perfectly within her culture-dictated rights to spend Bituun with only the members of her immediate family, and she still chose to include me. My anxieties surrounding the hardships of a family-less Tsagaan Sar, however, were realized on the second day–the designated extended family day.

I was slated to host 11 of my counterparts at some point during the holiday at my apartment. I was told to prepare pizza, vodka, and candy for all 11 of them–“but no gifts, because of the global recession,” according to my manager–but the event was canceled at the last minute when half of my coworkers traveled to the countryside to visit relatives. I was left friendless, essentially, for the bulk of this most social of holidays…or so I thought.

I had believed that my dearth of home-invitations stemmed from a previously unnoticed lack of community-integration, and as a volunteer, I can tell you that this is the worst feeling someone can have. That it fell on a joyous holiday made it that much more unbearable. Soon enough, however, I realized that the first official day of Tsagaan Sar was for relatives, and that ANY invitations as a foreigner were to be much appreciated. I ended up going to the home of Baagi and Byamba–a former Mongolian Denver resident-cum-Arvaikheer Merci Corps employee, and a head monk (lam) at a beautiful monastery in town, respectively. This husband-and-wife team is considered to be among the most affluent in the town, and their spiritual and logistic contributions to the community are widely celebrated. I felt so honored to have been invited to their Tsagaan Sar party with my American friends.

Baagi (purple shirt) and Byamba in their apartment

Baagi (purple shirt) and Byamba in their apartment. Byamba owns his own monastery and stupa, and his father is the founder of one of the city's most prominent construction businesses. He is a Red Monk, which means he is allowed to marry and have children. Red Monks tend to focus on community projects, while Yellow Monks are required to engage in introspective prayer and the private (celibate) achievement of enlightenment.

This was my first Tsagaan Sar visit outside of Uugana’s family. In these visits, which begin after Bituun, guests are required to hold blue bolts of traditional fabric called ‘hadag’ in their outstretched, upturned hands. If the guest is older than the host, he or she must hold the hadag thusly above the arms of the host, who also holds a hadag in the same fashion. If the guest is younger, his or her arms must be held beneath those of the host. The younger of the pair is expected to lean in for the elder to place a Mongolian kiss (which may be a strong, brief sniff through the nose) on each of his or her cheeks. During this greeting, both parties say the phrase, “Amar Baina uu,” “Amar Sain uu,” or a combination of the two. This translates roughly to “Are you resting well?” and its use is strictly limited to greetings during Tsagaan Sar. Every person in the household must be greeted accordingly, and then everyone may fold their hadag and place them in their deel pockets before offering small gifts to the eldest member of the household and sitting down in the main living room for refreshments.

The aforementioned urz platter remains the centerpiece of the table for the duration of Tsagaan Sar, and next to it is a stack of lard-fried bread bricks called heveenbov. They are arranged in a circle in one, three, five, seven, or nine layers, depending on the age and/or rank of the host. These ornate bread bricks are often topped with candy and sweetened white dairy products to symbolize the purity of the White Month. Young couples typically stick to 3-layered heveenbov stacks, while the elderly display larger arrangements. The heevenbov structure contains, without exception, an odd number of layers. This is due to the fact that the bottom layer represents happiness, the next layer sorrow, the next happiness, and so forth. To show an even-number-layered heveenbov is to suggest that sadness permeates life, and it is never done.

heveenbov

Heveenbov. This model may appear to have six layers, but the top disc is merely a cover for the otherwise topless arrangement and is meant to support candy and sweetened dairy products.

During Tsagaan Sar, the heevenbov serves a solely decorative purpose. Separate glass trays of candy, as well as plates containing sausages and cucumbers, are passed around the room clockwise for guests to consume. Shots of expensive liquors, bowls of fermented horse milk (airag), and glasses of homemade Russian beer (brashk) also move around the room, and recipients are expected to either drink the entire offering or to touch it to their lips before returning the container directly to the host. Depending on the household, the passing of liquor can be a gendered endeavor, with red wine offered to women and vodka to men.

One of the more interesting customs is the exchange of snuff between guests. Men often carry ornate glass or agate bottles of powdered tobacco in embroidered silk pouches on Tsagaan Sar, and it is customary to swap bottles during household visits. One man will remove the bottle from his pouch and hold it out in his right hand (with his left arm bent under his right elbow–the default respectful passing gesture of Mongolia), and the recipient will simultaneously accept the snuff bottle with his right hand while sliding his own bottle into the other man’s. Each will then remove a small amount of snuff from the bottle using the spoon attached to the inside of the lid and deposit it on the skin between his index finger and thumb, inhale it deeply into each nostril, close the bottle, sniff the lid, and return it to its original owner the same way it was passed.

As with any major Mongolian social event, toasting and singing tend to be a large part of Tsagaan Sar home-visits. Toasting, of course, serves as a spoken reminder of interpersonal appreciation and friendly affirmation for guests and hosts alike, and it often sets the tone for drunken merriment. Sometimes, though, the hosts–who usually remain comparatively sober on Tsagaan Sar and opt to get their guests drunk–decide to do the singing (especially when they have the added confidence of affluence and marital happiness, à la Baagi and Byamba!)

Guests normally visit individual homes for 1-2 hours before leaving. In my limited experience, the hosts’ presentation of gifts for the guests is typically an unspoken signal for their departure. The gifts I have received, incidentally, have so far been way beyond my own financial means–be they foreign sweets, expensive personal hygiene products, phone unit cards, or crisp (and lifesaving) bills.

Before I go into a soc/anth rant about the collectivist- wealth-redistribution benefits of such a holiday, here’s a play-by-play of my first Tsagaan Sar so far:

After visiting Baagi’s and Byamba’s place, I went home and lamented the fact that I did not have more houses to visit. My other American friends all seemed to be involved in parties at their respective coworkers’ homes, but everyone from my entire work realm seemed to have gone away for the holiday. As mentioned earlier, I was beginning to feel as if my loneliness was a reflection of poor cultural integration skills–but then I remembered that a mere expression of my interest in Mongolian  cultural processes has always landed me exactly where I wanted to be socially. So I sent “Happy Tsagaan Sar” text messages out to almost everyone I knew in town, and sure enough, I started getting invitations. The following two days turned out to be filled with enriching cultural and interpersonal experiences.

Yesterday, I visited the home of my coworker’s sister, whom I had never met. I arrived before my other friends, so the vodka poured for me before anyone else had to touch it. I was alone with a couch full of complete strangers, whom I thought were staying, but they ended up leaving after we had all carried out the customary hadag greeting protocol. I ended up having a lengthy discussion with my coworker’s brother-in-law while stuffing myself with buuz, vodka, brandy, whiskey, Irish cream liqueur, airag, brashk, milk tea, and salad. Eventually my other friends arrived, and we had a very jolly gift exchange and conversation period.

My coworker's sister's family and friends

My coworker's sister's family and friends

After visitng my coworker’s sister’s home, I returned to Uuganas house for an official Tsagaan Sar party with my American friends. She had even prepared vegetarian food options–something that is very scarce here in Mongolia–for one of my sitemates, who is abstaining from meat during Lent. I was told that this party would phase out into a jaunt across the street to my director’s home–the home of Uugana’s father-in-law–but it never happened.  I returned home slightly tipsy and got into my pajamas just in time to receive a text message from a tenuous acquaintance that read “REPLY ME–MY HUSBAND WILL COME TO PICK YOU UP. WHERE DO YOU LIVE?”

I sensed that I might be in for a rare opportunity to get to know an entire whole kinship group to which I had never been exposed. At such a late hour–midnight, actually–I felt like it was even more of a social adventure. So I rushed back into my traditional clothes and ran out the door to meet the text-sender’s husband in a landcruiser. We drove to an apartment complex near my campus and ascended eight flights of stairs to the apartment of Duya–a Japanese language teacher at the magnet elementary school where I help coordinate a computer-based educational resource program. Once again, vodka, buuz, salad, airag, milk tea, and conversation with new friends.

It got very late, and I had the impression that it was time for me to leave. Duya and her husband told me that, despite my apartment’s close proximity to their complex, I would have to accept a ride home in their vehicle. I explained that I am more than accustomed to walking alone at night, especially from such insignificant distances, but they insisted. So I followed them down the stairs to the parking lot, where a white van filled with happy women and children pulled up. We got in and, thinking I was going straight home, I set my body at an uncomfortable angle on the edge of the seat by the frozen sliding door.

We drove through the darkness of Arvaikheer for over an hour–into nameless alleys and down steep dirt bluffs, through dry riverbeds to hidden houses, all the while dropping laughing girls off at points throughout the town. I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone would know this labyrinth of homes and dusty streets so well, and my tispy brain was working overtime in suppressing what the night’s vodka had turned into a very urgent bladder. I found out then that Duya was not taking me home; she was bringing me to her father’s house, where there was supposedly a car waiting to escort me back to the area that was originally within eyeshot of where I was before.

So, my decision to use a faint social connection to meet some new people led me to a whole household of people I had never even seen before. Her father’s house rested on a hill above the city in a dark corner on the far northwest side, and it was filled with people. There was more meat, more vodka, more tea, and by then I was barely able to walk from a combination of drink and sensory overload. Still, though, I made some new friends and received some very interesting gifts; Duya’s mother handed me a bar of chocolate and a half-used orb of yellow anti-bacterial liquid soap on our way out.

I remember walking out of the house into the man’s yard and looking out over the city. The lights of the gers and houses and apartments were far enough away for the Milky Way to be the brightest light in my field of vision, and the holiday had rendered the entire town silent. It was really an amazing site, and a truly incredible feeling; I felt like I had really done the right thing as Duya and her husband guided me into her father’s car and drove me home.

Today I dragged myself out of bed and went to a giant hadag-greeting at my school at 9 am with faculty and staff. It lasted until 10 am, at which time everyone shot out the door to their respective social obligations. I then joined my friend Brian at the ger of a mutual student, Zaya, on the northwest end of town for an afternoon Tsagaan Sar visit. She lives with her mother in a gorgeously decorated and very warm ger, and she had infused all of the buuz she made with chili powder. Spice, for those of you who  have not heard, is simply not done here. So I was very happy.

When we first entered her home, she instructed us to go and pay our respects to her altar–a sort of lars familiarum containing photos of her deceased grandparents and incense–and to spin her brass Tibetan prayer wheel three times. We then sat down and ate about forty buuz with salad, goat meat, brashk, airag, vodka, and milk tea.

Zaya's ger

Zaya's ger

Zaya (foreground) and another student, Chimgee (background)

Zaya (foreground) and another student, Chimgee (background)

Zaya and Chimgee

Zaya and Chimgee

Zaya's mom and Chimgee. Her mom is sitting next to the stove, which is supporting a jignur--a tray designed for steaming buuz.

Zaya's mom and Chimgee. Her mom is sitting next to the stove, which is supporting a jignur--a tray designed for steaming buuz.

We left after Zaya gave us money and candy and headed to another household for a repeat of the same meal, sans spice, and about twenty times more vodka than I was prepared for. The walk home this evening is blurry in mind as I write this, but I have these charming photos to prove it happened:

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Anyway, as promised, a quick rant on the cultural and collectivist benefits of Tsagaan Sar.

If it’s not obvious already, I’m fascinated by collectivism, and it’s getting to the point where anything that even remotely suggests roots in, or promulgation of, collectivist behavior practically screams out at me.  I have to turn it over in my mind and think about it and record it. Tsagaan Sar is no different. In fact, I would say that this holiday is one of the most glaring examples of Mongolian collectivist culture possible; the exchange of gifts, the obscenely high amounts of money spent on preparing food and sweets and alcohol on guests, not to mention home preparation–all of this month-long effort is churned into an enormous financial, social, culinary mutuality! Everyone–regardless of socioeconomic status–hosts, and everyone visits. Almost in the same way that Halloween candy is snatched up in stores and hoarded until kids come around and receive it at our doorsteps, individual Mongolians’ tireless efforts and exhausted salaries culminate to contribute to a vast redistribution of community wealth and resources, and it happens every single year. Most communities observe the official first three days of Tsagaan Sar, but many people consider it to be a February 1st- January 31st holiday; a family who hosts and visits everyone they know in Arvaikheer during Feburary and decides to summer in the countryside seven months later might go through the entire Tsagaan Sar greeting-and-eating process when they finally get to see their relatives in the summertime. Like so much else, this depends on the community, on the family, on the individual at hand.

I’ve said it before, but I’ve most definitely experienced problems in the community integration process since I arrived here last August. I thought my coworkers’ sudden flight to the countryside would leave me lonely and bored during this incredible holiday, and the thought of missing out got to me more and more every minute I had to wait. When those invitations started coming, though, I’m not sure I can liken the sentiment to anything I’ve felt since I’ve been here. The only thing that surpassed this feeling of being included in positivity was the actual process of participating in the holiday, and I’m already looking forward to next year!

Mandokhae, Chimgee, Zaya, and I outside of Zaya's house

Mandokhae, Chimgee, Zaya, and I outside of Zaya's house