I’m in a guest house in UB now, after having moved out of Arvaikheer permanently, and everything’s a little too close and cluttered for me to say how I feel about all of that at the moment. I will say, though, that my final bus ride was less emotional than I would have liked it to be– mostly on account of the catholic nun seated next to me who wouldn’t stop cursing (isn’t there some kind of rule against that?) and expressing how upset she was that we kept breaking down. I suppose my surprise at her choice of language and the way I had to strain to stifle laughter actually kept me from sharing in her frustration, so that’s good.

Or maybe I was just all cried out. Saying goodbye to my community was way harder than I expected; being in Arvaikheer this summer, and not  America-ing and then training in UB like last year, allowed me to nurture some of my older friendships in a way I wasn’t able to before. I got super, super close to a lot of people at the last minute as a result.

And now for some scattered photo documentation.

Laura dancing on the way to Elsen Taserhai (ps– peep our flooded river)

Rocks at Elsen Taserhai

Laura running toward the dunes at Elsen Taserhai. My camera died for the most stunning part of this trip, so I’ll have to steal and upload some pictures from my friends later. This was kind of our last adventure before leaving– hot sand and beautiful sunlight and good company.

Ding Dong, with a keen eye on my going-away party supplies

Car 1 of my going-away party caravan. Back to front, L to R: Handaa, Oyunchimeg, Jargal, Uugana, Batmaa, Oyunaa. We went to the same river as the frozen one featured in my first ever post two years ago and had a huge sheep barbecue.

The  going-away party barbecue men, before the clothes came off. L to R: Tuvshoo, Baagii, Ukaa, Batbaatar, moi (but I wasn’t in any position to be handling fire, so they did all the work)

Somewhere between vodka shot #1 and vodka shot #16, I ended up in the river.

At some point the clothes went back on and the barbecue commenced

Two of the guys went to this dude’s ger nearby and borrowed some tongs from him, so he joined the party

And then the ladies started getting thrown in the river

Batbaatar, the guy who runs the gym I go to

Baagii, the guy who cuts my hair. I guess the clothes came off again.

Uugana, gearing up to own Baagii with two fistfuls of mud

I guess Baagii rubbed mud all over me. He also kicked me in the head and broke one of my toes when he threw me into the river. That dude is strong. Anyway, there were twenty or so Americans, Aussies, Brits, and Mongolians at the party. It was a really, really fun time– the  kind of party where you wake up the next morning and can relive the good moments through the physical pain you find yourself in.

I think it’s kind of cool that my first and last posts from this two-year experience have had wild party pictures taken at the same river. I’ll miss it– still not quite sure what else to say about that.

Two days after the river debauchery, my friend Oyun celebrated her birthday and the opening of her newly constructed house. Here are some photos:

Chimgee and Oyunchimeg

L to R: Oyunaa, Oyun’s sister-in-law, Oyun’s aunt, Oyun’s mom, the guy who built the house, and Chimgee

L to R: Oyun, Oyun’s brother, and Oyun’s sister-in-law

The only other thing I’m loading on here as of now are pictures of my school’s completed library (and yes, I did, in fact, finish it on the 28th–the day before I moved out of Arvaikheer.) I’d recently returned from UB with six boxes of books from the US Embassy and Asia Foundation, a brand new computer, and some other supplies. This stuff, in addition to the previous installations, was all removed and locked away while the room was being painted. I was afraid it would stay barren, so as soon as the walls dried, I threw the whole thing back together in three hours. Tada!

View from the glass/wood office partition. The side from which this photo was taken is the librarian’s office and the future site of the school’s non-foreign-language book section.

Some shelves are still empty, but I figure the next volunteer can do his or her thing with them.

Amber and Esu threw me a fabulous birthday bash at my favorite Indian restaurant in UB last night, and my camera was also batteryless at that time. I’m worthless with cameras, essentially. But I got a Madonna CD, a beautiful yak cashmere scarf, a bottle of wine, the complete works of Oscar Wilde, awesome time with 15 friends, and some delicious cake out of the evening. Luckily, Amber let me use her camera, so I’ll have some photos of that and the sand dunes pretty soon as a supplementary upload. I’m not gonna do another post, though, I don’t think– this is the last.

On that note, I have no closing thoughts for now– none, at least,  other than a bit about my ever increasing inadequacy to make sense of my experiences through words. I look back at my old posts from two years ago and think, “what a tool that person was”– mostly because I tried to compartmentalize and understand everything based on the contrasts between my own personal culture and that of my surroundings here in Mongolia. That’s not the right approach, I’ve learned. I no longer try to illuminate things for myself through contrasts, because no matter how sensitive and politically correct we think we are in doing so, to write about those contrasts is to inadvertently elevate ourselves above our material. At least the way I was doing it. I like to think, then, that my experiences have reshaped the way I view myself in cultural context, and this is one of the  most valuable changes I think I’ve made. I guess what I’ve learned is that my personal culture is more a product of my personal surroundings, as opposed to something separate that can be juxtaposed against my environment and observed. Or something. I’m just sad to go. And happy to go home. I’m sure I’ll have more to say later, but I don’t yet know where I’ll post it.

I’m gonna miss this place  more than I know how to say.

Thanks for tuning in, friends.

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Today was quite a day for holidays. Many of you probably celebrated Valentine’s Day, so congratulations on that, I guess. Luckily for me, though, the coinciding first day of Tsagaan Sar completely overshadowed any bittersweet Valentine-oriented specialness this year. It was quite en eventful day!

Let’s start with last night. Mongolians celebrate Bituun–Tsagaan Sar Eve–with their families on the night before the first day of the new lunar year. I’ve been kind of a bad host-son of late, what with my frequent illnesses and subsequent absence from recent family life, so I wasn’t expecting any invitations. Instead I planned my day around staying inside in the bitter cold and not speaking a single word. I didn’t answer my phone, didn’t use Skype, didn’t even sing along to Itunes. I realize this may make me sound insane to most of you, or at least incredibly ascetic, but actually it’s a very easy thing to do when you live on a mountain by yourself. I savor days like that. They give me the chance to get centered and heal up from all of the wild and taxing social obligations– both inter-American and Mongolian– that characterize the role of the Peace Corps Volunteer living in this country. So I’m not crazy.

I was silent from the moment I woke up until around 5 pm, when I had to run to the store to buy some last minute supplies before everything closed for the holidays. I threw on my del, the full-body traditional cover that Mongolians wear for much of the year, and clumsily wobbled to the store. I think I still managed to order what I needed and exchange holiday greetings at a low volume in under 15 words. We won’t count that.

When I returned to my ger, I built a raging fire in order to boil water for spaghetti and accidentally let it get way too hot. I decided to lift my insulation flap and crack the door to let a little air in. When I do this, I typically tie the inside door handle to a chain of shoelaces that I’ve woven into my ceiling poles so as to only allow about a foot of opened door space. This time, though, I just let it fly open and relished the negative temps pouring in. I had turned my back to continue tending to the noodles when I suddenly heard someone fly in through the threshold and yell “HEY!”  –jarring after a day of silence! It was my 14 year-old brother Garidaa. He invited me to come celebrate Bituun with the family. I was a little flustered at having to leave my noodles to cool, but I was relieved at the invitation. In a hasty attempt to strain the noodles into my sink, I accidentally dropped the entire project into my refuse bucket. Which is also where I pee sometimes.

My family hadn’t seen me much since before the bleeding eye incident. They had lots of “you’ve gotten so skinny!”s and “you need to spend more time with us!”s to dish out, and though this made me feel like a bad son, it reminded me that I’m part of a family here and need to honor and respect that.  And it turned out to be a blessing that I’d wasted all that spaghetti; Mongolian celebrations are seldom without extreme amounts of food and drink. I pounded a half litre of airag– fermented horse milk– in about thirty seconds, drank milk tea and shots of vodka with the family, ate sheep meat and fat, buuz, and candy until I was ready to pass out before returning to my ger and doing just that.

My brothers, father, and I had agreed to all wake up and meet at around  7 am this morning for an important male tradition– viewing the first sunrise of the new lunar year from a mountaintop. They came to my ger and helped me get into my del before piling in the car and driving down to the huge monastery for a quick pre-sunrise blessing. We spun Tibetan prayer wheels as we raced into the monastery’s main hall. The sun’s preceding colors were lighting up the polluted horizon with a warning that we needed to hurry up, so I couldn’t really take it all in, but it was an amazing treat to the senses. There must have been over 50 monks and shevs, or apprentices, chanting in ancient Tibetan and playing traditional instruments. A ringed audience sat and took in the prayers while spinning prayer beads in their hands. I followed my father and brothers clockwise around the room and bowed and spun prayer wheels to honor the glass-protected portraits of donor monks and ancestors. The clanging of the cymbals and the wind instruments, the chanting and the colors and the hurried nature of our quick devotion just about spun me into an ecstatic trance. I was sad to leave the building after such a short tribute, but I knew we had to get to the mountain before the sun came up.

Back into the car and up the hills to Undurlig– which you should all be more than familiar with by now (if not, look at any entry posted since January  2009, and I’m sure you’ll see pictures.) I’d force you into looking at more images of it, but I decided not to bring my camera this morning in order to absorb the experience more organically. Anyway, the car protested and spun wheels on the rocks before my father finally decided to park it and get out. The scene was amazing– hundreds of cars clustering up to the peak, where hundreds of men and boys had squeezed themselves into every flat space on the precipice. I turned around to look at the southeastern horizon and saw a hot pink line poking out over King Mountain.

We still had about a hundred meters to go, and the sunrises here are strangely fast, so Garidaa and I sprinted to the top just in time to see the sun clear the earth. The smoke columns from thousands of stovepipes and chimneys lit up orange as the men around us began throwing rice in a clockwise circle around the monument at the peak. The air was crisp and clear, and the sky had almost turned into a full day blue by the time we were back in the car and heading home.

I came back and chilled in my ger for a while before returning to the house and doing a zolgokh, or traditional Tsagaan Sar greeting, with Zaya Egch (hashaa mom/big sister). She gave me a traditional hat and a box of brandy chocolates. We headed back over to my grandpa’s house and zolgokh’ed some more, ate more buuz, potato salad, and drank more airag and milk tea. My grandma gave me a small chess set, a new T-shirt that reminds me how filthy my whites have become, and a box of chocolate truffles that I haven’t been able to stop stuffing into my mouth. Here’s where I started to take pictures, so I’ll let those take over for now.

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

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

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

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

So I’ll tie off my description of the first day of Tsagaan Sar with this little tidbit: while I’m sitting respectfully in the living room shown above, I hear the door in the entryway open and a gurgling Mongolian “hello.” Before I can get up to see who it was, a figure clad in a thick red del falls ten feet across the floor and slams his head into the glass food table. He collects himself and, nodding to all of us with some slurred holiday greetings, struggles up into a chair. He’s the ex-husband of the cousin of the sister-in-law of –you get the idea– and he’s wasted. It’s 9:45 am.

We zolgokh each other and exchange introductions. He sits down again across the room and asks me where I’m from. I tell him I’m American, and he smiles and gives me a thumbs up. We all sit quietly and wait for more food to come out, and he grows dark. He mutters something at me, and Chinzoo tells him to shut up and be respectful in the home of his elders. My grandpa just looks confused. The man apologies to me and asks me where I’m from.

I tell him again and sip at a blown-glass chalice of whiskey that’s just been handed to me. The newcomer is still eyeing me with alternating expressions of approval and fury. After a few minutes he asks me where I’m from and what my name is. I tell him again. He turns to Zaya Egch and says, “Where is he from? I’m gonna fight him.”

Chinzoo tells him to shut up and that I’m his son. This makes me feel like all of the illness-induced neglect and transgression has been forgiven, and it makes me feel included. Every once in a while the man mutters something and the family laughs, so I decide to take his random threats as mere jokes. I just fix my most convincing Xena-raised-eyebrow-gaze on the drunk man and sip my morning whiskey. But periodically he gets up and lumbers over to me on the couch, shakes my hand, apologizes, calls me a friend in Russian, and goes right back to throwing curses around. He finally works up the breath to say, “What the hell is this Australian doing here? I’m gonna pound that German shithead into the ground.  Why is there a Brit sitting here in Mongolian clothes? I’m gonna punch him in the face. Russian Shithead.” He continues to accuse me of being the scum of every nationality he can think of, in Russian and Mongolian, until one last rise from his chair wins him the boot. Chinzoo bounces him out of there into the street like it’s his job, returns to the den, and says with much disdain, in English, “Neofascist.”

It pays to have family around. I’m extremely grateful to them for housing me, for bringing me into their close-knit group, and for protecting me when my environment gets a little out of hand. I returned to my ger and napped until 5 pm.

*

Switching gears. Up until now I feel like I’ve done nothing but show pictures of Undurlig and ignore the rest of my town. So I’m just gonna post a bunch of pictures of my daily haunts in order to give you a better mental image of Arvaikheer.

This is a vast misrepresentation of the market to which I refer sometimes, but it’s Tsagaan Sar and everyone’s at home. This corridor is usually packed so full of people and goods that it may take five minutes to walk a few meters. The colorful storage containers you see open up Sunday through Friday to reveal clothing, housewares, electronics, and kids’ toys.

This is the store where I try to buy cereal about once a week and fail, usually. They used to have a Polish Rice Crispy-esque cereal called Sunrise, and a Cinnamon Toast Crunch equivalent, but they both disappeared sometime ago. The sign reads “Shin Tushig Hunsnii Hudldaa” which means “New Tushig Groceries,” basically. This is right next to the Original Tushig. New Tushig used to be more like a 7-11, and then it changed to individual vendors sharing a co-op floorspace last year.  We often reminisce about the more customer-friendly Old New Tushig.

The Cyrillic reads almost the same as English, here: “Emt.” Its first floor is where I go to buy most of my fresh produce and other non-meat things– everything from peppers to wet tofu to honey to oranges. I haven’t traveled much in Mongolia, but I’m told by visitors that we’re lucky to have such a well-stocked produce outlet. The second floor is all cell phone accessories and mp3 players. That’s where I go every time I need a new pair of sad Chinese headphones, which is about once a month, or whenever my phone is lost, broken, or stolen (which is, on average, once every two months. And I’m not kidding.)

This is Sondor (and is the Cyrillic getting easier for you yet?), our favorite peroshkie/ khoshur/ milk tea spot in the market. It’s always packed, and it’s often open during the holidays, too. This is a good indicator for the quality of its food. And it’s cheap. I used to walk a mile against 50mph winds in the dead of winter to get to this place. Now I just eat peanut butter and jelly in my ger, even though I live a lot closer.

This is not the best picture, and I’ve actually never been inside this particular building (Gerel Tov, or ‘Light Center’–hardwares, cosmetics, and random repairs), but it has an interesting story. This is the first building on the left when you walk down the main market street towards Undurlig. A sitemate of mine received a text message last year that said, in English, “I heard your voice at the bank today and I liked your intonations.” Since then, several of us have gotten equally creepy texts from the same number (e.g. “I saw you today but you couldn’t see me…”) It turns out they’re all from a person who works here, and his person just likes practicing English. It’s not considered inappropriate, incidentally, for a total stranger to approach someone in-the-know and ask for another person’s phone number. Administrators, teachers, and friends periodically give my number out to people I don’t know. This is kind of frustrating, but I think we’ve all gotten used to it. And the person in question is a total sweetheart and very active in getting acquainted with the English language, so I don’t mind too much.

“Bumbat,” with a missing “T” at the end, is without a doubt the classiest supermarket in town. The top floor is a coffee shop with fun little attic-like window enclosures and tables that are perfect for sitemate catch-ups and quick post-shopping coffee binges. There are also two tailors on the second floor where I’ve had a suit and shoulder bag custom made. During the holidays this entire building is overcapacity and the lines are 45 minutes long. And your Cyrillic should be pretty damn good by now.

A Classic: New Leader Disco Club. And that’s English, for any of you who have mistaken the ease of reading this sign for mastery of Cyrillic. It’s a strobed-out, busted-speaker mess of Russian and English trance often mashed with Christmas songs and the Macarena. Always a good time. Or maybe forty percent of the time.

This is the other main street in town. I like this one– its peaceful and not too crowded. When it snows, though, and during particularly festive times, the city has to replace much of the blue and yellow wrought-iron fence that lines the street;  cars slam into it routinely.

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

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

Another shot of the museum and its (somewhat neglected) outdoor collection of ancient Turkic stone monuments. The paintings are blown-up depictions of the rock carvings north of Undurlig that I always rant about.

An inviting poster next to the doorway of one of our other hangouts, Isabella. It’s an overpriced Korean restaurant. I usually go and order the only cheap option, which is a huge pile of eggs, beautifully spiced minced beef, and rice.

And finally, my beautiful little school. The purple/pink/yellow building in the foreground is the primary school, and the yellow and brown building behind it is the recent addition for the secondary students. Doesn’t it look like such happy place? A warm ‘thank you’ to the people at the Okayama Government in Japan for making it so perdy.

SooooOOOooo…longest entry EVER. You all must think I’m a huge couch potato nerd with nothing better to do than check his blog stats and eat incessantly. I’m on holiday, though, so gimme a break.

more later.

A quick and disjointed account of all things recent.

News and Happinesses

  1. Peace Corps finally approved the library project outlined in a recent post,  so my school will soon be able to acquire the necessary materials to set up a comfortable, student-centered, student-run learning space with books and electronic resources in several languages.
  2. Remember the sinus infection I spoke of in the last entry? Well, interestingly, it morphed into an eye infection that caused blood and mucus to seep through my tear ducts and glue my eyelids shut every night while I slept. But I kicked it! To be safe, though, let’s slap a huge “knock on wood” on this post to avoid jinxing myself any further. In fact, readers, please print this entire passage out, hastily duct tape it to a crowbar, and slam it twice into the largest tree you can find in your forested mid-Atlantic or New England community.
  3. One of my sitemates recently wrote a proposal that funded over 20,000 dollars’ worth of new beds, blankets, and furniture for a secondary school dormitory that houses herders’ children from all over the province. Let’s put some good vibes out there so that the rest of the funds (for new windows and flooring) will go through!
  4. I reserved a spot on the list of people COSing (close-of-service-ing?) on July 15th, which is the first possible day to end service in Mongolia in 2010. Seeing that in print kind of freaked me out; two years are being swallowed up faster than I’d ever thought possible.
  5. I was able to buy a week’s worth of healthy food– food that might return some vitamins to my system and prevent my eyes from bleeding– for less than one percent of an extremely generous gift from a certain family member (thanks Mema!)
  6. I’m considering finding an alternative source of kindling for my stove. Mongolians believe that it’s extremely bad to put things like used tissues (among other taboo items)  into the stove when building a fire. They sometimes refer to the Fire God, who is traditionally thought to live inside the stove of every ger. In Arvaikheer, at least, this is more of a folk concept than a real belief; still, though, some families adhere strictly to the spirituality of what can and can’t be burned.  I was reprimanded by Zaya Egch (my hashaa mom/big-sister) for having saved used tissues in a box next to my stove for later use as kindling last October. She said I would make her whole family sick if I burned them.  I regret to say that, since then, I’ve been saving the tissues in a hidden location in my ger and burning them every night. I figure I’m sick too often to waste the two-birds-one-stone opportunity of getting rid of the bio-waste while having a quick firestarter material. But we’ve all been sick all winter, so maybe it’s time I switch back to newspaper.
  7. Much of the first four seasons of Xena: Warrior Princess appears to have taken place in ancient Mongolia. Way to go, Rob Tapert and Flat Earth Productions.
  8. America has totally out-wintered Mongolia this month, so I no longer feel okay complaining about the harsh conditions here unless I’m spilling it to someone who lives in Bombay or Hawaii.
  9. I’m waiting to hear back from three grad schools. I’d forgotten what this kind of excited anxiety felt like…it restores some youth to my spirit.  Cross your fingers I’ll get accepted and offered some outrageous tuition waiver, and then force the stranger sitting next to you at the wi-fi coffee shop to cross his or her fingers as well. He or she will understand. If not, threaten him or her with the crowbar from point 2.
  10. I discovered last night that my carbon monoxide detector works, and my ear drums have the rupture scars to prove it.

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

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

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

The Things I’m Looking Forward To

  1. Seeing my students researching, pleasure reading, and relaxing quietly between classes in the soon-to-be-completed Merged School library.
  2. A respite from the cold, even if it means sandstorms are on their way.
  3. Getting my 10th and 11th grade students involved in a project to redo the English translations for the labels of all of the fascinating items at the Arvaikheer museum, where I was locked inside the dinosaur exhibit by myself with the lights off for almost a half hour last week [and what’s a “Dinny Bone?” A lot of big steppe dinosaurs had them, according to the displays that kept me company while I was waiting to be released.]
  4. Sushi…just sushi.
  5. Seeing my sister at the end of July.
  6. Wrestling with my 70-kilogram German Shepherd at my parents’ new farmhouse.
  7. Tsagaan Sar!  Saturday is Bituun, or Tsagaan Sar Eve, and that means the season of traditional dress, extreme buuz-eating, and brashik (fermented seabuckthorn juice) is upon us! My favorite part of winter.
  8. Using the new Korean chin-up bar at the gym down the mountain (what makes it Korean, I’m not sure. But those things work.)
  9. Starting up a guitar club at my school after Tsagaan Sar. Some organizations in America have expressed an interest in spearheading the funding part, so that should be cool.
  10. The continued use of the three woolen blankets and thick camel fleece bedpad I just bought at the market.  I’d been using crusty old Peace Corps emergency blankets before, and I think these may have been adding to my legion physical problems. I used the old blankets to insulate my walls, and the heat just keeps building and building in this little ger of mine!

I’m sure there’s a lot more that should go in this list, but I’ll leave it at 10 and 10 with a few nasty snapshots. More later.

The Recent Past!

January 19, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

Joy? Fear? Both.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More later.

Updates and Other -dates

January 8, 2010

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

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

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

I gained ten pounds in Maryland.

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

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

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

http://b.static.ak.fbcdn.net/rsrc.php/z4HBM/hash/3krgnmig.swf?v=540577920636&ev=0

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

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

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

This is a Naran music video:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.