…because “Spring” just doesn’t cut it. The pictures of snow from earlier 2009 entries of this blog may have been the only times we had ANY precipitation last winter/ spring. One or two times, maybe. This year, though, I feel like it’s snowed at least three times a week in Arvaikheer since October– often to extreme accumulation and at winds that would emasculate Zeus. Our stateside/ western European cliche associations of rebirth and renewel with Spring simply do not hold up here. Spring is at least 85% miserable.

April snowstorms bring May…something better, hopefully.

That said, I managed to snap some shots of a beautiful, if terribly cold, day this past week while walking around.

Actually, upon review, these pictures make everything look pretty dismal. Sorry.

The wind was so insane the other night that the fence dividing my hashaa from our neighbors’ was completely destroyed. Poor Ding Dong must have been so scared when it came down, but he soon discovered the ruined fence to be a good shelter during the snowstorms (which, I’m told, may let up tomorrow. It’s supposed to be 70 F. My immune system is going to need some quieting down after the heinous vicissitudes of this season).

M’lil boy!

In other news, the library is coming along nicely. Still trying to work out the kinks, label books, catalog the collections, find more books, etc. The strains of springtime are taking their toll on progress, just as they did in my former place of work last year, but I think it’s going ok. Here are some updated photos:

Dig that Monglish on the chalkboard. I certainly do.

We may not have many books (a few steps back from these points of view and the bottom shelves are more visible in their barren states), but seeing these kids come in and browse and pleasure read in their own school for the first time is probably the most rewarding aspect of my service to date.

I even had some kids come and volunteer to help me catalog and organize the books. This was great– the more kids directly involved in the setup process, the fewer instances of theft we’ll have down the line. These kids will want to protect and preserve the things they’ve worked hard to start long after I’m gone.

Book theft from libraries is a big issue in this country, where student-friendly libraries are rare and books are normally locked behind closed doors or only available through a small window guarded by a librarian. Browsing is almost never an option. In fact, and I don’t know if I mentioned this in a previous entry or not so I’ll just repeat it, I ran into this problem while working on a similar project at my former place of work (the university). I secured permission to move all of the English books from behind closed doors to the English Club room in an effort to set it up as a student-run library. My supervisor, who had given me the go-‘head,  then went to all of my coworkers and said, “you are not only forbidden from helping him with this project, but you will also turn over any and all private books you are keeping in your classroom shelves to be locked away with the others.” Including some that I’d personally ordered from an NGO in America. I’m happy I haven’t encountered anything like that since.

The fear of student ‘bibliokleptomania’ (you like that? I invented it.) actually spurs theft on in that sense; granted, it’s also a problem in the States, but not to the extent that it is here. And I have to believe it’s because the students here are not brought up in a scholastic environment where books are there for them to browse and read freely without having to go through strict intermediaries in user-unfriendly spaces. This is what we’re trying to combat at my school. Word is spreading, too; I had a woman come up to me the other day and say, “I hear you’re setting up a library at Merged School…and that you’re not locking the books up?!

I haven’t seen a single one stolen yet, so I think we’re doing the right thing.

The following is completely unrelated, but I figure I’d share. When I load photos onto this thing from my mac, I have the file browser window and a photo preview program open. I scroll through the photo previews to find non-blurry images that suit the text and enter their file numbers into the blog’s file search bar. When I put the file number into the search bar, sometimes two photo files with the same number come up as listed on my hard drive. This is because I switched cameras about three years ago, and some of the old ones are still  on here. So, when I was choosing photos for this entry, these blasts from the past came up as duplicate file numbers:

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

Dad looking dapper at a sushi place, also from the Late Cretaceous Period (LCP)

And my beautiful mom at the same restaurant. I actually used both of these parental images in a PowerPoint during a recent menu layout and restaurant design training. The audience thought they were really pretty  people.

It’s nice to reflect on two or more very different periods of my life via photos every time I update this thing. It makes me happy that I haven’t yet gone on a crazed hard drive space-clearing purge to make room for other stuff.

Anyway, that’s all for now. More later.

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Libraries and Teeth

April 14, 2010

Welcome, friends, to a speedy and cheerful post.

I just wanted to upload a few pictures of our recent Annual Fifth Grade English Alphabet Celebration, of our new library in progress, and of some satisfying cosmetic dentistry.

To give you a little background, many primary schools around the country choose a random day in the Spring to celebrate the English alphabet. I’m not quite sure how it’s done in other places, but the kids at my school were each assigned a letter of the alphabet to use in a group recital. After all saying a phrase with alliteration corresponding to their letters, they sang songs and performed short skits. My counterpart handled most of the assigning and rehearsing. She chose to take lines straight from a Mongolian-written kindergarten alphabet workbook, so the kids were made to recite strange things like,”‘A’ is for ‘apple.’ Draw an amazing apple,” or  “‘B’ is for ‘boys’ and ‘balls.’ Boys play balls. Draw a boy and balls.” [And the latter is a direct quote.] I explained to her why this wouldn’t make sense, but she said the audience wouldn’t speak English so it didn’t matter.

The kids sang the ABC song, “London Bridges,” “You Are My Sunshine,” and a few other notable nursery rhymes. When rehearsing, my counterpart had the kids practice “Ten Little Indian Boys.” I explained to her that it’s not necessarily an appropriate song and has been left out of the nursery rhyme scheme for a long time due to its insensitivity to Native Americans. She said she would take it out of the lineup. When it was showtime, however, she had the boys line up, sing the song, and then tap their open palms against their mouths while making stereotypical Native American sounds and dancing in a circle. Afterward, they sang a song about” The Lord,” which never happened during rehearsal. I point the finger at the temporary volunteers, whose nationality and umbrella organization will remain unspecified, who came here last summer and left some pretty questionable song books in a local library. Thanks guys. ❤

Anyway, the kids were adorable. I had them perform three-kid acts from a hypercondensed ESL version of Aesop’s Fables that I found on the internet. They all dressed up as foxes and crows and rabbits and delivered adorable performances. As I don’t have any pictures of their skits, I’ll leave you with some photos of the chaos leading up to the show:

The kids lined up at the top of the stairs, which is our makeshift stage.

I was surprise-forced to announce awards and superlatives to the fifth grade class in front of our Mongolian audience without any preparation. Completely in Formal-Announcer-Mongolian, which can be slightly different. It was pretty funny. Sorry I don’t have better pictures. I did, however, manage to catch a glimpse of this magical Chinese copyright infringement during the show:

Onto other things! Our library is finally under way. They moved the fitness room to another location and stripped the nasty carpet up, put a bunch of huge wooden tables in, and commissioned a glass partition to be put up to separate the stacks from the English Corner. The room is about half the size of the primary school’s first floor! It’s already attracting students and faculty who are tired of failing to carve out some semblance of concentration in the insanely loud classrooms and hallways. Take a look at the room in progress:

Some kids already using the space!

So, shameless plug time. As you may know, getting stateside bookstores and organizations to pledge books to projects like this is easy as pie. Shipping them, however, is something that most parties seem to be terrified of. I can’t really put my mailing address here… so some of you will get it in a reminder email about my updated post. If other readers are interested, leave a comment and I’ll see if I can privately send you the address.

And now, for a dental update. Last year I chipped my right front tooth on a pint glass. I finally had it sanded and fixed this past week in UB. (I also used the opportunity to grab a whiteboard and several hundred Mongolian-to-foreign-language dictionaries for the library.) Peep my new look!

Before:

After:

See? Glory. It was a five minute procedure. I’m a happy boy. More later.

The Rest of Tsagaan Sar

February 21, 2010

Just some pictures and quick explanations.

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Zaya’s (former university student’s) house

From the Left: Mandukhai, Zolboo, me, and Zaya’s little brother

I opted to lose the del, as you can see in these pictures. It just got too heavy to walk up and down the mountain in. Plus, I wanted to attract fewer xenophobic threats from out-of-towners who didn’t approve of such an overt foreigner wearing their traditional dress (many strangers were pleased to see me trying to adhere to holiday custom, but definitely not all of them. Sometimes I wish I’d never learned the commonly-spat phrase for “I’m gonna kill you, C-word”– because then I’d never feel threatened! haha).

Mandukhai, me, and Zaya’s little brother

This evening turned out to be a raucous one; there were no parents involved, so the alcohol consumption had gone a little above customary by the time I arrived. I was therefore on a little bit of a different plane than the  other guests. I’m glad the alcohol was finished before I got there; the residual American in me felt that it would have been inappropriate to drink with my former students.

Mogi, who passed out on my stuff. I thought things might turn sour with this new acquaintance after I told him he looked like a young Chingis, but he liked it. I meant it as a compliment. Check out the epic wall hanging, too– not Mongolian in the slightest.

The girl clutching the ger pole in the lower left is Zaya, and the guy with his hand up is Dorjoo. Two of my [also sober] Australian volunteer friends showed up after a while. I think they were relieved that the alcohol had been totally consumed by the time they got there, too.

From the left: Buya’s boyfriend, who I think kind of looks like a Mongolian Edward Cullen, and Chimgee. The person passed out in the background is Chimgee’s boyfriend. He wasn’t drunk– just sleepy. I think.

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Chuka’s house

One of my favorite Mongolians in the universe. Chuka’s an English teacher at Arvaikheer School Number 1, and she helped us a lot with structuring our teacher certification program last year. She’s kind of like an aunt to all of us. Her side of town overlooks the valley to the East about a 30-minute walk away from the center. I almost moved there after I changed host country agencies last Fall, but Peace Corps put me where I am now at the last minute.

Me, Chuka, and Esu in the living room

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Baagi and Byamba’s

You may remember this couple from last year’s Tsagaan Sar post– the Brangelina of Arvaikheer? She’s a World Vision bigwig, and he’s the head lama at one of the main monasteries in town. They always invite the resident volunteers over for a good time during the holidays.

Byamba and Me

I wasn’t at my photo-best, clearly, but this is Baagi trying to attend to her baby’s undefined needs

Me and Bendee

From the left: Anukaa, Bendee, me, and Ulaanaa

Baagi

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All told, I probably visited about 10 or 11 houses this year. It was a bit more mellow compared to last year, probably because our m-18 sitemates returned to America last Fall (and with them went some of our connections). The Tibetan Calendar also called for four days of official celebration this year instead of three, so I think families were a little too overworked in stocking their houses for the extra visitors to accommodate as many guests as they would have liked to.

One of my favorite things about this year’s holiday was the return of my hashaa brother, Adika. He goes to university in UB, so I never get to see him. He came over every night so I could help him with some chords on the guitar. We also spent about two hours laughing at the content of http://www.yourtattoosucks.com, and this culminated in him asking me to draw a huge skull on his arm.

That’s all. More later.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

more later.

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.

IMG_5732

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:

IMG_6168

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.

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.