To future Peace Corps Volunteers

Packing for two-years of your life is tough. I can still vividly remember back in May 2016 when I spent all week in my basement attempting to sort out all my stuff. Clothes were strewn everywhere and piles of miscellaneous were scattered all over the place. I even had my mom come down and I would hold up a t-shirt or a dress and ask, “Yes? No? Maybe?” In the airports, people went around me like I was a rock in a stream. No one wanted to mess with me as I struggled with over a hundred pounds.

There is no right or wrong answers when it comes to packing. Bring what you think is necessary and important for you. Packing lists you find online only proved to be a little helpful for me. Thus, you will read a snippet of what I packed to avoid a nervous breakdown.

There is not much out there about Mongolia. When  standing in the travel section in a bookstore, there were 30 books about China, 15 about Japan, and 1 – if you’re lucky – about Mongolia. But guess what? Mongolia pretty much has everything! During your first three months of service, you will be under a travel ban but Peace Corps does give permission if you need to go to UB for something crucial such as winter clothes or a broken computer. If you live in a small soum, you can travel to your local aimeg.

Here’s what I brought with me to Mongolia. I will not give quantities because if you want to go ahead and bring 10 black t-shirts or a lot of dresses, bring 10 black t-shirts and a lot of dresses. Pack your style and prepare to be a little scruffy.

Some tips:

  • Mongolians don’t care if you re-wear the same outfit.
  • Pack what you can be versatile with. For example, I have a floral dress from Forever 21. I can tuck it into my skirts, I wear long-sleeve under armor underneath when it’s cold, and I can wear it with leggings. Plus, it washes and dries quickly.
  • More than half of you will be washing your clothes in a bucket so don’t bring material that can easily get destroyed.
  • Pack an equal amount of professional and casual clothes.
  • Pack a cardigan. Women in Mongolia don’t show off their shoulders especially at work. Even at parties, most women wear dresses that cover their shoulders. You won’t get arrested for indecency. It’s just how it is and you’ll avoid a light scolding during your first week.
  • If your computer is over 6 years old, buy a new one but not the latest Apple computer. You will use your computer a lot and you don’t want your computer to suddenly break. I have Microsoft Windows 10.
  • Height matters. I am 6 feet tall with size 10 feet. Therefore, I had to pack all my shoes: running shoes, walking shoes, flats, sandals, winter boots, and my leather boots. If you are short with small feet, you will be luckier in the clothing and shoe department.
  • When you land in Mongolia, you will have no time to go shopping. Then when you arrive at your training site, your site might not have what you need. So, pack extra deodorant, a big bottle of lotion, a big tube of toothpaste, underwear, etc..
  • At your permanent site, your counterparts will take you out shopping for whatever you might need. It’s not necessary to pack pots, pans, forks,  spoons, a sewing kit, a tent, etc..
  • Whatever it is that you absolutely can’t find, your family can send you a package.  

What am I most grateful for?

  • My kindle. Small with a battery that lasts forever, it is my favorite possession.
  • My hard drive. Pack two – at least 1 TB –  and have the other as backup. Upload movies and shows to it. If you don’t know how to do that kind of stuff like me, you can have media exchanges with other volunteers. You will be my best friend if you come with the latest movies and shows. Also, back up your computer.
  • My camera.
  • My pillow and two pillowcases. Mongolians don’t use pillows and if they do, it’s packed with sand or material found in beanie babies. You also can’t find pillow cases.
  • Special items from home. A family calendar, a small photo album, my Chicago Blackhawks t-shirt, my flannel shirt, a journal, many types of teas, cards friends and family wrote to me, and comfy pants.
  • My winter gear. I packed my winter coat, a lot of under amour, thick socks, winter boots, and my hat. Winter will hit you fast and you don’t want to be caught off guard without a coat.
  • Chapstick.
  • My running shorts. Summers get very hot and I wore my shorts every day outside of school during training. Even now when my apartment gets very hot, I wear my shorts.

What do I have that is necessary?

  • A headlamp. Even though I live in an apartment, I have had power outages.
  • An external power charger. During the long power outages, you still have something to charge your items with.
  • Duct tape and clear scotch tape to fix all your problems.
  • A pocket knife.
  • Lotion. Lotion is expensive and most lotion has chemicals like bleach in it.
  • Stickers. Students love stickers! If you have trouble motivating students to do their work, pull out your stickers. I brought stickers for all seasons and holidays.
  • Extra ear buds.
  • Spices, especially cinnamon.

What did my parents send in care packages?

  • School supplies like flash cards, larger notebooks, folders, more pens and pencils, and a map of the United States to show students.
  • More chapstick, tea, and lotion.
  • A few more casual t-shirts and comfy pants.
  • Starbursts, gummy bears, trail mix, and Nature Valley bars.
  • Extra chargers for when mine mysteriously disappeared or died.
  • DVDs for fun.

What do I wish I could have packed but had no space for?

  • A smaller sleeping bag. Peace Corps gives you a sleeping bag but it’s enormous and weighs a ton. It just isn’t possible to lug it around with you when traveling.
  • More sweaters. I thought, “Hey, I can just buy some,” but that’s not true. Cashmere sweaters – while significantly cheaper in Mongolia compared to in America – are still expensive on a Peace Corps budget and most sweaters I find unflattering.
  • A more glamorous dress for teacher and holiday parties. At a Christmas party, it felt like I was at my high school prom.

What will Peace Corps give you?

  • A cell phone.
  • A sleeping bag.
  • A plug adapter with six outlets.
  • A bug net.
  • A medical kit but I recommend packing extra vitamins and Airborne.
  • A water filter.

What was I able to buy in Mongolia?

  • A morning robe.
  • A cardigan.
  • A wool dress.
  • A cashmere scarf.
  • Camel socks and camel leggings.

Don’t change your style while packing. If you prefer dresses over pants, pack your dresses. If you like nail polish, pack your nail polish. Don’t pack what you would never catch yourself wearing in the States. The same for hobbies. If you have never knitted a thing in your life, don’t pack up extra space with items you might never use. If you think you can sacrifice your winter coat for something else more important, go for it. If you have never kept a journal, don’t feel compelled to bring a journal. If you love coffee, bring a  french press. If you like wearing high heels, bring your best pair.

So, relax, breathe, and remember, you are all in the same boat. You’ll have funny stories to retail. Most of all, don’t freak out and compare what you are packing to somebody else’s. All will be well.

Feel free to ask any questions.

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Mongolian Concert

Mongolians sure know how to put on a performance. A night of dancing and singing in traditional Mongolian dress.

The Mongolian Deel

If it weren’t for Chinggis Khan and his Golden Horde that took the world by surprise in creating the world’s largest empire, the world might know absolutely nothing about Mongolia. Dwarfed between two colossal sized countries, China and Russia, Mongolia has quietly endured its own ruthless past that came to an end when the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991.

Since arriving in Mongolia in May 2016, I have encountered and participated in many Mongolian traditions and customs such as drinking milk tea, eating Mongolian food, playing shagai, partaking in the Nadaam festival, and buying and owning my own deel.  

For this post, I will focus on the Mongolian deel. For centuries, Mongolians have worn deels. With a sheep- wool lining inside, deels have kept Mongolians warm during the harsh winters. Easy to put on, a deel can be pulled over and pulled at the waist using a belt and small clasps on the side.  You can find deels in a variety of colors. Most notably are the colors blue, red, yellow, green, and white. Blue represents Mongolia’s blue sky. After all, Mongolia is known as the Land of the Eternal Blue Sky. Red symbolizes fire; white symbolizes milk; green symbolizes the Nine Stones; yellow is a symbol of the Dali Llama’s yellow robes.

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The Buddha’s followers compiled his teachings into books – most notably, the Kangyur. In the 1650s, the Mongolian monk, Zanabazar, brought a collection of the Kangyurs into Mongolia from Tibet. Today, 10 different types of Kangyurs are safely preserved in the National Library of Mongolia. One notable copy was written with 9-precious stones: gold, silver, corral, pearl, mother of pearl, turquoise, lapis lazuli, copper, and steel. All stones were crushed into a powder and mixed with water and goat’s milk for ink.  

Now in 2016, deels come in an assortment of patterns, some subtle while others can be very eye-catching. Some possess intricate details on the sleeves and collars, can have wide sleeves or thin sleeves, and more colors have been introduced such as purple and pink. Styles have also evolved from the traditional Mongolian deel to a more Chinese inspired deel. 

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There are many different types of deels distinguished by its cut, color, and trimming. Each ethnic group has their own type of deel. They can be long or short. They can be one piece or two piece and made from different materials. Silk from India, Japan and China are popular. Most notably are the winter and summer deels. Winter deels are thickly padded to keep out the chill.

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On the second floor inside an old building in the market, I found Nachagnyam’s deel store. She has been making deels since 1992. She learned the skill from her mother. Beginning first with smaller deels for children, called a баривч (barevch), she has worked herself up to making a variety of deels for everyone. Now she works with a team of young women. When I asked how long it takes to make a deel, she said that it can take one to three days depending on the style. Nachagnyam then said that she wants to see more people wearing deels, most notably the younger population. In a much smaller deel store, Yanjmaa also believes more people should wear deels. She claims they are necessary for survival and a deel belt can keep a person’s stomach and kidney warm.

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Deel store owner, Nachagnyam.
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Deel store owner, Yanjamaa.
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My counterpart came with me to help translate my questions into Mongolian and their answers into English.

In Ulaanbaatar, it is seldom when you see a person walking down the street in a deel. Now, it is usually the herders and folk from the county side who wear a deel. With Ulaanbaatar undergoing much construction in becoming a modern city, a gulf has opened between the modern age and the traditional age: from living in gers to moving into houses and apartment buildings. From wearing deels to sporting western clothing. However, Mongolians haven’t entirely severed their ties to their country’s history. During major holidays, such as Naadam and Tsagaan Tsar, Mongolians return to their roots and pay homage by wearing deels while celebrating with friends and family.

My blog post is based on my previous knowledge from what I have read about Mongolia, what I have seen during my stay, and from what I have heard when speaking to Mongolians. This is not intended to be a thoroughly researched article but something that I wanted to do due to my own fascination and interest.    

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An array of material a person can buy when custom making a deel.

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From Thanksgiving to Christmas

I hope everyone had a lovely turkey day! I on the other hand, felt very ill and was coughing up a lung by the time Thanksgiving rolled around but I managed to roll out of bed to celebrate. On 23 November, my site-mate Jenni hosted a Friendsgiving at her apartment. We managed to squeeze 12 people into her small apartment. This was only done by lifting Jenni’s mattress up against the wall, bringing an extra hot plate, stools, and having her counterparts bring their own bowls and forks. For the third year in the row, I was in charge of the mashed potatoes – mainly because I might poison all 12 people if I bake or cook something.

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With my 6th and 7th graders in speaking club. We drew turkeys.

Then on 25 November, we hopped onto a bus from Ulaanbaatar that took us west to Bayankhongor. We felt like hitchhikers as we waited with our backpacks at a gas station for the bus. Another Friendsgiving was held that weekend as we celebrated with our friends, sang karaoke, went dancing, and saw some dinosaurs.

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A dinosaur park in Bayankhongor.
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A picture I snapped during a rest stop to UB.

 

At the beginning of December, all Peace Corps Volunteers and our counterparts traveled to UB for an In-Service Seminar held at the Park Hotel. The purpose of this? To strengthen work relationships between PCVs and counterparts. Our schedule was packed leaving no time to venture outside. We had Mongolian language class; TEFL (Teach English as a Foreign Language) training; various sessions such as critical thinking in the classroom, running camps and clubs, classroom management and interaction, empowering people with disabilities, and gender equality and empowerment, plus many more. Sometimes we were together with our counterparts and often we weren’t. This went on every day from 7am to 7pm. I also still had my cold and was coughing incessantly. So much that I pulled a muscle.

It was an exhausting week with some wonderful moments:

  • Since we went our separate ways during the summer it was exciting to see everyone again. There were hugs all around! The next time we meet again will be in August 2017 for Mid-Service Training.
  • My training group from the summer got together nearly every day for meals. Friday night, we went out to the Royal Irish Pub and were joined by our technical training and language teacher.

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  • Staying in a hotel means a larger bed, no cooking, and a hot shower! The last time I had a hot shower was during staging in Seattle. I took 20-minute hot showers every night.
  • On our last night, a small group got together and we sang Christmas carols together as Keysel played his ukulele.

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My counterpart was very grateful for everything that she learned at IST.

 

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Now I’m excited for Christmas. I went on a wild goose-chase as I searched high and low to find Christmas lights in my aimeg. I got lost in a labyrinth-of-a-building and when I finally found an exit, I saw a man selling lights at his stall right outside. Now, my apartment is twinkling with red, blue, and green lights hanging over my window and bed. My stocking is hanging on my door and my advent calendar from home is propped up on my coffee table.

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Good things have happened but I have had my frustrations as well. Let me first tell you about my apartment. The repair man has become my new best friend. He has had to replace my radiator which exploded while I was away in Khentii and then he had to replace a radiator in my bathroom which exploded while I was away in Bayankhongor. Then when I came back from UB, my bathroom was leaking again. Notice a trend here? I finally told the repair man to just switch off the heating going into my bathroom because I just can’t be bothered anymore.

An immigration officer paid me a surprise visit at my school. She demanded my passport and my alien card. Like I just casually carry my passport around wherever I go. Then she said that she wanted to take it away with her to which I firmly said no and made her take a photocopy instead.

Trainwreck was an awful movie. So much hype of people telling me how funny Amy Schumer is.

I get really depressed when I see injured dogs and puppies limping on the streets.

Lesson planning can feel a lot like having my teeth being slowly pulled out but I won’t go into too much detail concerning that. All PCVs understand what I’m saying and all future PCVs will understand what I’m saying.

“As long as you live, there’s something waiting; and even if it’s bad and you know it’s bad, what can you do? You can’t stop living.”

I have sometimes thought to myself, “What is the point? I can just go home.” But I like it when tiny 5th graders come running out of their rooms to say “Hi,” when I walk by. I like it when students wave at me when I’m outside. I like it when I witness a counterpart doing a good job in the classroom. The best thing that can happen is when lesson planning goes well. Lastly, I am happy for the friends I’ve met and all the phone conversations we have when we’re apart.

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My 5th graders I teach every Friday morning.