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.

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see the intensity?

see the intensity?

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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.