In the early hours of the morning at 6:30am, I sleepily departed my hotel in Ulaanbaatar with all my bags – my large winter and summer bags, my water filter bag, my 2 backpacks, and my enormous sleeping bag. One of my concerns that I voiced to my supervisor was:
“I don’t think all of this will be able to fit onto the bus…”
But at 8am, the bus departed The Dragon Station with everyone and everything on board. It’s a seven-hour bus ride from the capital to my new home in Övörkhangai. With an early start, little leg space due to my bags and having had no breakfast, I slept the entire way as a Mongolian comedy show was playing on a flat screen at the front of the bus.
My counterparts (CPs) met me upon arrival and they helped me move into my apartment. I live right next door to my school. I’m living in a brand new apartment on the outskirts ofmy aimeg. However, due to it being a brand new building, I have had to do a lot of shopping to furnish it. A lot of tugriks were flushed away in a single day.
My aimeg lies on the northern edge of the Gobi Desert and on the southern tip of the Khangai Mountain Range and it is – according to the packet I got – the fastest developing sector consisting of carpentry, tailoring, auto-repair, houseware goods, and clothing amongst others. My aimeg is a fantastic example of modern-day living intermingling with Mongolia’s traditional past. Men and women, visiting from the countryside, stroll about wearing their vibrant colored deels, glimmering like shiny gemstones amongst more modern outfits.
“You are now the tallest person in the city.”
It’s a 10 to 15 minute brisk walk from my apartment building to the center of town. Auto shops and karaoke bars line up my little promenade as I plod daily upon a cracked and broken sidewalk. Trucks, cars, and motorcycles speed past me paying no heed to pedestrians. Stray dogs walk amongst humans. Mostly I’m ignored but sometimes my blonde hair will attract a hoot or a holler when they pass on by.
When walking across the government square, I can hear the excited voices of children as they race around in toy cars and ride their bikes, enjoying the last few days of freedom before school starts. Summer flowers have been planted on the walkway that leads you from the square to the market street. A person can find almost everything here. On the market street, fruit and vegetable sellers sit in their reserved spots where I can buy potatoes, carrots, onions, apples, cucumbers, and much more. Many stands have been selling school supplies and backpacks for the start of the new school year. “Frozen” is popular and I have seen the faces of Anna and Elsa on backpacks, notebooks, pens, caps, and t-shirts. Despite all the food being sold outside, there is no rancid or awful smell you would expect upon a market street.
The summer air is fresh and clean. Occasionally, gray storm clouds float overhead, spits the aimeg with rain, and then floats on to shower upon another region of Mongolia. It’s just like good ol’ English weather. The buildings aren’t pretty. They are cracked and run down but are like treasure chests. When you walk inside, you enter a well-stocked supermarket or a clothing store where there are clothing items ranging from Forever 21, H&M, and UNIQLO, to more unknown designers or even a home goods stores where you can buy your pots, pans, kettles, forks, spoons, and bed sheets. In addition, there are many hotels, restaurants, and a bakery selling scrumptious cake.
Surrounding the center of town and stretching all the way to the foothills is the ger district, where houses with their bright rooftops and gers have planted themselves. Steps leading up to the top of a hill brings you to a white deer statue where Mongolians have written their names – amongst other ghastly graffiti – believing that writing their names will bring them luck. At night, the stairs glow with white light.
My CP is trying to get me ready for winter. Snow can come as soon as September. I have been told to buy camel wool socks and a fluffy hat so I don’t fall victim to frost bite.
I am excited for my new home, the new school year, and to see what the fall semester brings.
I can’t remember when I found out about the Peace Corps. Maybe my parents told me about it or mentioned it in passing. Maybe at all the school career fairs, there was always a Peace Corps table. I can’t remember how old I was but I must have been 17 when I announced that I wanted to join the Peace Corps. I can still remember it clearly. My family flew to Sweden for the summer and on our first night while catching up with my grandmother and uncle, I can remember spouting interest in joining the Peace Corps. I love traveling but I was also inspired by my parents. With adventures of their own and a wonderful upbringing, their sense of exploration and discovery seeped into me.
“You’ve got to be a little crazy to join the Peace Corps.”
Now, I am officially a Peace Corps Volunteer of group M27. This year is also the 25th anniversary of Peace Corps Mongolia. On May 30th, we flew from Seattle with 52 Peace Corps Trainees and on August 13th, 46 were sworn in as Peace Corps Volunteers in Ulaanbaatar’s pink Opera Theater. Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet and the US Ambassador of Mongolia, Jennifer Zimdahl Galt, were both present. This is the Directors second swearing-in ceremony that she has ever attended. We all looked splendid in our summer deels.
It felt very much like a graduation. We sat alphabetically in chairs as speeches were made by our Country Director, the US Ambassador of Mongolia, the Peace Corps Director, and Mongolia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. We took the oath that all government officials and workers must take followed by the Peace Corps oath. When my name was called, I walked across the stage, shook hands, and then took my seat.
Successfully passing my summer training, not doing anything stupid that would get me sent back to America, repeating both oaths and taking a short stride across the stage, is all that it took to make me a Peace Corps Volunteer.
What is Ulaanbaatar like?
Just like any other city, the outskirts of UB are more rundown with stores cramped together. There are lots of large, shoddy apartment complexes to accommodate the influx of people who are moving in from the countryside. The traffic was bumper to bumper. However, the city transforms when you reach Chinggis Khaan Square, once known as Sukhbaatar Square. Here is where you can see how Mongolia is attempting to become the next up-and-coming city.
There is a fantastic article I read written by Pico Iyer in “Travel + Leisure” that describes the capital as a…
“Love child of Shanghai and Las Vegas. The city’s streets, where only a generation ago wolves and wild dogs roamed, are today clogged with 700,000 cars, inching past glass towers and giant screens projecting footage of runway models.”
A Louis Vuitton sits on the corner of Chinggis Khaan Square. The State Department has an entire floor of gorgeous yet expensive cashmeres. The Shangri La Hotel is connected to another mall and an I-Max theater. More hotels and buildings are erupting in the midst of a budding city. Here the greater population speaks English and restaurants and bars are geared towards tourists and the wider-world. You can find Irish pubs, western restaurants, Indian restaurants, and Mexican restaurants. Despite the city’s push towards a more international stage, Mongolia’s history remains palpable. Similar to the Abraham Lincoln Memorial in D.C., a large Chinggis Khaan sits upon his throne continuing his immortal reign as he watches over his city.
“Love you my family. Good luck. See you. Come back soon.”
A text message my host mother sent me the day I tearfully said goodbye to my host family.
8 August was my last day and night with my host family. They took me to grandmother’s house for dinner. Ate grilled pork and it was scrumptious. My last act as a thank you for hosting me all summer was to give them thank you gifts. I made treasure maps for my host siblings and hid their presents in the yard. Their faces beamed when I handed them each a map and they instantly went running off. They carried their presents back like prized possessions.
We finally departed our soum and our families the next morning. It was a sad farewell. Our families said good bye to us in front of the school. After 30 minutes of hugs and farewells, we finally piled into the bus that would take us to Darkhan. As we neared the boarder of our soum, we noticed little figures on top of a hill. Our families had driven ahead of us to intercept us at the border and once again we all hugged and said our good byes. This time, it was more difficult. I furiously hugged my host mother and my host siblings not knowing when I would see them again.
Peace Corps training flew by so fast. After our two-week Nadaam break, everything else torpedoed past me so fast that I panicked a little: “Is our summer already over?!?!” A lot happened during my last three weeks.
At the end of our last practice teaching at school, we awarded all the students with certificates as a reward for coming to our summer English classes. My host brother and his cousin now know their ABC’s and have been singing it repeatedly over and over and over again. I also passed my LPI (Language Proficiency Test). For 20-minutes, I sat in a room with my “interviewer” and talked about myself in Mongolian and answered questions in Mongolian.
The last day at school was a bittersweet day. We took down all of our Mongolian language posters from the walls and swept the floors. It felt like it was the end of a school year. I had moments when I was too tired to be in school or I was getting frustrated with the language but I was sad at seeing the walls stripped bare. The school had become my second home.
I spent a lot of time in Darkhan. On 5 August at 6:30 am, all 47 PCTs traveled to Darkhan for a teacher-training seminar. Seven PCTs are going to be teacher trainers and they each gave a 40-minute lesson in front of Mongolian-English teachers. The rest of us were there to observe. I remained in Darkhan afterwards with Emma and her host family. I got to see more of the city: I walked across Darkhan’s bridge and gazed upon the big, golden Buddha statue, wandered around in supermarkets, and had dinner at a Korean restaurant. The following day, I returned with my own host family.
We had our Host Family Appreciation Party down by the river. Our host parents bought a sheep and its dead body was strung up on a branch to be prepared for our dinner. This meal is called Khorkhog. As the sheep was getting chopped up and tossed into the pot, we had a relay-race, a water balloon toss, darts, and “beer” pong – (we used water), and played volleyball. We also gave speeches (in Mongolian!) to our host families, thanking them for their incredible hospitality. We ate apple and orange slices, bananas, and chips and peanuts as an appetizer before the main course was served: goat meat, including fatty stomach intestine, potatoes, and rice. After dinner, we splashed in the river and danced. Eventually, the mosquitoes became too pesky and painful bringing a stinging end to the party.
During our Host Family Appreciation Party, only younger adults and children participated in the games while the adults preferred to remain seated in their circle talking and sharing vodka. However, Mongolians love music and they love to dance! Music was being played all night and after 8, our host parents weren’t shy in bopping and twirling around in the grass with each other.
Mongolian hospitality is legendary. Never have I experienced such incredible generosity, warmth, and kindness. I was not just a guest but I was treated like I was a part of their family. My host siblings and all of their cousins referred to me as, “Anna sister.” They protected me while including me in their day-to-day lives.
It is Mongolia’s celebration of the “Three Manliest Sports:” wrestling, archery, and horse racing. This is Mongolia’s largest celebration in the summer and it is to honor Mongolia’s ancient history and customs going all the way back to Chinggis Khan’s (Чингис хаан) time.
I wasn’t told the night before what time we were leaving or even when Naadam was starting. At 10am, I walked into the house in my pajamas.
“So, when are we leaving?” “IN 20 MINUTES!”
That got me sprinting back to my little house to throw on my deel, brush my teeth, and grab my camera. However, I should have known about Mongolian time because when I walked back into the house all ready-to-go, my little brother and sister were still running around naked and my host mom was getting her hair straightened.
I was excited to finally wear my deel that my mom bought me in Darkhan. People were staring at me as soon as I got out of the car. In fact, we all wore our colorful deels causing many eyes to be drawn to our group.
The deel I’m wearing is a 2-piece that can be warn separately from each other. The next time you’ll see me wearing this deel will be at my swearing-in ceremony in August.
We were incredibly lucky with the weather. There was cloud cover so we weren’t sweltering from the heat but we also managed to avoid a potential rainstorm. We sat in small bleachers underneath an awning with our host families. All the children sported Mongolian flag tattoos on their faces and were waving sticks of cotton candy. Little girls flounced about in their dresses and the boys sported clean pants and shirts.
Before the competitions began, there were performances. There was dancing and singing. My host dad has an incredible singing voice and dedicated one of his songs in my honor. Regrettably, I couldn’t understand what the man and woman were saying over the microphone throughout the prelude. I just heard my name being announced before my host dad’s performance. It was a wonderful performance.
Finally the games were underway! All three were happening simultaneously. Mongolian men were wrestling on the field inside the stadium while arrows were being fired nearby in a separate field. Young children and teenagers raced their horses for 30 km outside of the soum. Women and girls can participate only in archery and horse racing. Gers were erected all around the stadium where we could sit and eat kebabs. There were also carnival-like games that children and even adults could play for prizes. Women had set up their own refreshment tables with large Coke Cola bottles which they poured into cups and sold at a small prize. All in all, it wasn’t a crowded event. My soum is a large soum with 6,000 people but the stadium wasn’t jam-packed and swarming with people like it is in UB.
My fellow PCT, Andrew, got permission from our country director to wrestle. He had been training for weeks before Naadam and managed to stand his ground for a couple of minutes before he was taken down. An astounding feat and surely a very cool story to tell everyone back home about.
A 10-minute drive took me out to the finishing line to watch the horse riders come to a galloping finish. The winner was a young boy who looked to be only 8 years old. It felt like I was in the movie “Hidalgo.” We were all dressed in our finest, waiting in the dusty warm weather for the horses to make an appearance. All that was missing was a horn being blown.
I have now made it over the hill into the final two weeks of Peace Corps Training. Our community project was a success. We gave our school’s Director and the English teachers flash drives with various recorded scenarios – how to order food in a restaurant, formal and informal conversations, how to ask for a taxi, and when talking about travel. We also recorded children books for beginners, intermediates, and advanced English learners. We hope that our project will be fun and can help Mongolian children to learn English and that the English teachers will distribute the surplus flash drives to other English teachers around Mongolia.
Here are some more PCT highlights:
My house is getting invaded by animals. My host dad has already killed four mice. I had a bird get stuck in my chimney and a long rat-like rodent scurried into my room and then back out. My host mom asked me if I wanted a cat to which I swiftly said, “NO!” Just what I need, another animal prowling about.
There was a planned three-day electricity black out in our soum. So we had to build a fire to cook our meals over. I always have to make sure that my filter is full with water when incidences like this occurs because the machine that pulls up the water runs on electricity. Chika and I watched “Easy A” on my computer to pass the time.
Practice Teaching is over. The number of students had dropped since teaching resumed after the Naadam break. For example, we went from 30 5th graders to three. We were still able to teach the limited number of students but the atmosphere was way less formal. My host brother and his cousin came and were excited to learn their ABC’s. My host sister is too young and was crying when I told her that she was too little.
We had a Karaoke night. One of the host mother’s organized the whole event and we had our own private room supplied with bowls of chips and peanuts and lots of beer. Our host parents came and were sitting outside like our chaperones, laughing at how horrible we were. But they all came in when we sang, “Аяны Шувуу.”
For a week, the hills surrounding my soum disappeared under a blanket of fog and smoke. I found out that Russia had raging forest fires and all the smoke was being blown into Mongolia. It at least helped to bring the temperature down.
I went on a hike with all the children. At one point, I was carrying two children up at once when it got too steep or they got too tired. I have grown to enjoy their company. I have never been around so many kids before. At first I was overwhelmed. Now, I look forward to spending every possible minute with them. However, I still have trouble remembering most of their names so I have assigned them with animal names; “Little Bear,” “Little Monkey,” “Little Goat,” “Little Cat,” etc. They love it.
On TV, I’m been watching UK’s CNN in an attempt to keep up with the news. I have to say that I much prefer UK’s news coverage over U.S. coverage. More events and incidences from around the world are being covered and reported.
On Independence Day, I was given my Mongolian name:
It means #1 or winner.
Now, whoever said, “Don’t pack shorts! You’ll never wear them!” should be strung up by their toes. The summers here are sweltering. I’m thankful that I brought a pair of running shorts that I always pull on once I’m back from school. At least the sun has given me an incredible tan that is offsetting my blonde hair.
Currently, my host mother’s university friend and her 8-year-old son are visiting from UB to avoid the Nadaam crowds in the city. She told me that she works for “Монгол Сайхан” – “Beautiful Mongolia” – a 30-minute show illuminating Mongolia’s nature and beautiful scenery.
Nadaam, consisting of the “Three Manliest Sports” that are archery, wrestling, and horse riding, began on 11 July. Only recently have women been allowed to participate in only archery and horse racing. However, very few do. Nadaam in my soum will start on the 20th. I will be wearing my brand new deel.
On 9 July, with my host mother and two other PCTs, we took the minibus into Darkhan to go deel shopping. There were a plethora of stores that you could enter filled from top to bottom with lively and vibrant colors. Being almost 6 ft. tall and slim, I was the last one to finally find a deel that fit without any major adjustments made to it. It felt like I was shopping for a prom dress. You can just ask my parents how long that took. There were no changing rooms so we were changing in any empty corner we could find. Now that I have my first summer deel, I can’t wait to buy my winter deel. We wandered some more around the markets. I kept my backpack pulled tight to my stomach to avoid any fingers that could squirm into any pockets.
I have also recovered from my first bout of food poisoning.
The cause of it?… ICE CREAM.
On 16 July at 1:30pm, my host mother came home from the supermarket with popsicles. Within 10 minutes after eating mine, it felt like little mice feet were skittering about in my stomach. For the entire day, I felt nauseous and was knocked out cold. To make it even worse, we drove out to the countryside to the grandmother’s house to swim and eat dinner. After swimming, I fell asleep for three hours as everyone was tiptoeing around me. The following day, I was attacked by diarrhea. Every 10 minutes, I had to trek out to the outhouse. At one point, it felt like I was squatting in there long enough for me to carve my name into the wood. But my host mother whipped me up some rice water.
1/4 cup of rice
3 cups of water
Boil 1/4 cup of rice in 3 cups of water for 30 minutes. Leave to cool for another 30 minutes and then sprinkle in some salt.
This really helped in my recovery but I had to force it down. In the end, I emerged from my little house to live another day. But enough of this.
Finally, it is strawberry picking season and the berries are so itty bitty tiny. I helped to make 8 jars of the most delicious strawberry jam. First, I had to pluck off all the stems and leaves. Then my host mother placed a large pot over the fire and poured in a small ladle of water followed by 4 kg of sugar. Then we poured in 4.5 kg of strawberries. The whole process only took 20 minutes as we took turns stirring the sugar and jam until it liquefied into a delightful aroma of fresh home-made jam.
Here are some more succinct highlights:
We had a mock language test to prepare ourselves for the real test at the end of training. I wasn’t awful but I wasn’t good.
We began practice teaching at the beginning of July. It’s very similar to our micro lessons except we teach for 40 minutes with more thorough planning. Currently, we’ve been on a two-week break from teaching because of Nadaam.
The river is our only reprieve from the heat. Like a Viking, I go jumping into the cold water.
I finally finished watching Game of Thrones season 6. That finale!
All of our host families came together and had a volleyball tournament. It was also a sneaky way to get us all together and remind both host families and PCTs of the 8pm curfew.
I have replaced my Illinois license with my new Mongolian ID, a Certificate of Alien Registration.
After two weeks of the same breakfast, two sausages and bread dipped in egg batter, my mouth was salivating at the thought of oatmeal with lingonberry, Swedish pancakes, and toast topped with my favorite cheese. Luckily, my host mother has become attuned to my thoughts and bought me Choco Chip cereal. Now, I haven’t eaten cereal in over a year, but I rejoiced in the change. She also gave me two jars of peanut butter. I’ve never been a fan of peanut butter but I’ve got to eat what is available.
I taught my host siblings and their cousins, “Round a round a circle like a teddy bear…” It’s what my Granny always use to do to me when I was little and now I’m constantly having all the small children running towards me with their palms stretched out yelling, “TEDDY BEAR, TEDDY BEAR!”
Now what do I do in my free time when I’m not bogged down by PCT work? I’m reading the 8th Outlander book, “Written in My Own Heart’s Blood,” off of my Kindle.
We’ve been told by our language teachers and our cross-cultural team that we should learn a couple of Mongolian songs for when we are asked to sing. Fortunately, if we learn just the first few lines of a song, Mongolians will quickly jump in and sing along thus saving us from embarrassment. With my croaky voice, I will need saving.
On 23 June, after our usual weekly trip to Suhbataar, we drove 20 minutes farther North to Сайханы Хөтлийг and the Mongolian-Russian border. To drive to this spot, we had to drive through a security checkpoint.
Through my awestruck blue eyes, I gazed upon the most beautiful sight.
We hopped off the bus and immediately hustled ourselves up to the top of the hill to look out at the magnificent vista of clear, blue sky and lush green hills. A crisp breeze kept me from getting to hot from the hike to the top.
All along the Mongolian border you can find more oovos. These are made up of large pile of rocks with blue scarfs weaved through. This particular one had a ram’s skull perched on top.
It’s these type of moments that remind me why I chose to serve with the Peace Corps in Mongolia.
On our way back, we saved a car that got stuck in the mud and by “we,” I mean, just the men.
I have conquered my first month with the Peace Corps.
So much has happened since the last time I posted.
I was sick for 2-weeks with a sore throat and awful congestion. It made something as simple as getting out of my sleeping bag an unpleasant ordeal. By the 8th day when I realized that I wasn’t getting any better and it became painful to swallow food and drink, I had to call the Peace Corps Medical Office (PCMO). Dr. Maya saved me and I can now walk to school without feeling exhausted. In addition, I was feeling homesick but now I feel more comfortable with where I am…although I could live with less spiders invading my house.
Twice has my soum been hit by rainstorms. And both times we lost electricity. My little house even suffered from some flooding but my host parents were amazing and took quick care of it. The first storm came after a hike I took with 4 PC friends.
As we were coming down from the mountains and were re-entering our soum, little raindrops escalated into a fierce thunderstorm. I knew I would get drenched as I was still a 30-minute walk away from my house when suddenly, there was a honk. A white car was waiting up ahead – my host parents! I don’t know how they found me or if it was purely by accident, but they saved me from turning into a drowned rat. Mongolian parents have a sixth sense about their children or they just called around the town asking, “Have you seen the Americans?!”
My host family also took me out in the country to visit “my” grandparents. We all sat outside for dinner. What was for dinner? Well, let me tell you. Someone slaughtered a goat – (glad I was not there for that part) – and wrapped the bones and meat into a dough-like blanket. Potatoes and carrots were also added into the mix. Then the blanket was put in a pan and set upon an outdoor fire and left there for a couple of hours. When the meat was ready, the dough was pulled away to reveal all the meat.
Mongolians are meticulous when eating their meat. Like eating ribs, they eat everything off the bone – (yes, even the fat) – until there is nothing left except for glistening white bones that get thrown to the dogs. Some even crack the bone in half to drink the marrow inside. I refuse to eat the fat. I also had my first taste of Mongolian made vodka. Not a fan. It tasted buttery but even if you don’t like it, you must take at least one sip to show respect.
The vodka was poured into a copper bowl which is then passed around to everyone at the table. I followed the example of putting my ring finger into the bowl and then flicking Vodka drops into the air. One flick for the past, a second flick to the present, and a third flick for the future. After our dinner, we played basketball – (with a soccer ball, I might add) – and went swimming in the river. It was a perfect day.
29 June was Mongolia’s Election Day. Peace Corps is forbidden to talk about politics or be in or around polling houses, so I’ve kept a tight lip since my arrival. The day was considered to be a holiday so there was no language class or afternoon classes. I saw many people dressed in their finest with older folk wearing traditional garb.
Micro teaching is now over. In July, we will now be practice teaching. In new groups of 3’s, we will teach 8 times throughout the month, to a variety of grade levels. The stakes are higher with more intensive lesson planning and more thorough evaluations. For our first two lesson plans, Peace Corps officials came to watch. We have also begun our community outreach program. After interviewing our host parents and after translating their Cyrillic script with the aid of our language teacher, we unearthed what the problems are in our town: poor dental hygiene, too much trash being thrown on the ground, not enough space in Kindergarten rooms for more children. They want a fitness center, indoor toilets at the school, better roads, drinking water in the school and more. Obviously, we can’t do anything about a fitness center, indoor toilets, or the roads. But we have come up with an excellent, long-lasting idea that we hope gets approved by Peace Corps.
July will definitely be a busy month. I only have a month left until my swearing-in ceremony. It will be exciting to transition from a Peace Corps Trainee (PCT) to Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV). I’ve received packages from my parents. My spirits soar every time I see someone walk into the room announcing, “Package for Anna!” Except one package was accidently sent to Singapore. Oops. Next time I update, I hope I will be wearing my own deel and telling you all about the Naadam festival that is in July.
“Everything is going to be alright,” says my host mother. “Anna will live in Mongolia for 2 years and you will live,” is pretty much what she says to comfort me, especially when I think about the -40 degree cold winters in this country.
I feel like I’m 9 years old again and carrying my black backpack as I wait for my mother to pick me up from school so we can go home and have dinner. Except now, I’m 23 years old and I’m waiting outside of my Mongolian school with my red backpack, awaiting my host mother so she can drive me home for dinner. Sometimes she is already there and other times I am anxiously hoping she won’t forget about me as I watch my friends disappear with their own host mothers and host siblings.
I have been living in the Land of Blue Sky with my host family for two weeks and there has been plenty of blue sky. There has been some drizzle but for the most part, hot and dry. Dust gets kicked up in the air as I walk to school or when a Prius drives past.
On a grey and foggy morning on 4 June, 51 Peace Corps trainees hugged and said goodbye for the summer. Groups of 8 to 10 trainees will be spending the next three months in different soums and aimags throughout Mongolia. With our summer bags, large water filters, medical kits, and our sleeping bags, my group of 9 crushed ourselves onto our little bus that would take us to our host families. We will not be seeing each other again until August for our swearing-in ceremony.
Upon arrival, our host families were all awaiting us by the bridge. One by one, under a hot sun in the middle of a Mongolian valley, just a few hours away from the Russian boarder, we were greeted by our family. Each family gave us a blue, ceremonial scarf called a Khata. We all accepted a Khata along with a bowl of milk to sip from. Mongolian Khatas are blue in honor of the blue sky. Then I had to throw the milk towards the mountain. My host family doesn’t know English and I don’t know Mongolian. This will definitely be a fascinating summer.
I have my own separate house next to the main house – my “lila stuga.” I have a bed, a table, a green dresser, a large glass cupboard, and a stove to make fires in. My family even decorated the walls with green floral wallpaper. The yard is large with an outhouse in the far corner and a fearsome looking guard dog. I’ve named him Greywind because he reminds me of the direwolf from Game of Thrones. Surrounding my soum are mountains as the Mongolians refer to them as. I just think of them as very large hills. My family is incredibly nice. My host mother is a math teacher. My host father is a gym teacher but is spending the summer working on trains. I have a 4-year-old sister and a 5-year-old brother whom I enjoy playing with. They are my little monkeys. In addition, my host mother’s niece, Chika, is always at the house.
As one PCT said, “The next two years of our life is going to consist of us just sitting, smiling, and nodding.”
Communicating with my host family requires a lot of good humor and patience. We are drawing pictures, acting, rapidly gesturing, and speaking in broken English and Mongolian. There is great excitement when we finally get our points across. I can already see myself as the next Charades champion back home. As of yet, I haven’t eaten anything strange or out-of-the-ordinary. I eat a lot of eggs, rice, meat, buuz, hassah, tsuiwan, pickles, soups, and apples. Mmmmmm, nothing like hot soup and hot tea on a hot day.
I joke with my family how living in Mongolia is going to be a lot like living on Lövön for two years. I bathe in a tumpun, I walk everywhere, and I have to re-wear my clothes. It takes awesome skill to create a new look with the same clothing. My soum is dusty in the summer. Horses, cows, dogs, and pigs meander all over the place. My school is a white building that is a 15-minute walk from my home. Close to the school are small supermarkets, an Internet Café where you can also play ping pong, a bank, the government building where I got to meet the governor, basketball courts and small parks, a post office, and a small hospital and police station.
My schedule for the next three months consists of Mongolian language lessons that begin early at 9 am with Aagie and Bogie. I’m chuffed to bits now that I know the Cyrillic alphabet but we laugh with each other because it feels like we’re 5 and learning how to read all over again. Everyone just gets a blank look in their eyes when we’re trying to remember how to say something. We look off into space, then there’s a moment of silence, and finally an “Oh, yeah,” once we remember. No English is allowed during our lessons. Mongolian is tough.
Then we have a lunch break from 1 to 2:30, followed by more lessons from 2:30 to 5:30. The later lessons consist of how to become efficient English teachers, how to integrate ourselves and to feel at home in Mongolia, and other important topics. During the month of June, we will be teaching micro-lessons. In groups of threes, we are teaching English to various age groups ranging from 5th grade to 12th grade. So far, I’ve had enthusiastic students. In my 5th to 6th grade class, there was a young boy who I nicknamed “boy genius” because he already knew all the vocabulary. He came up to me at the end of class and told me he had been born in Ireland.
Here are 13 highlights:
I will never get used to the outhouses. I will simply endure it as I hope I never drop anything, like my phone, down the 10-foot hole that lays below me, including myself. My legs will get super strong from all the squatting.
Once a week, we travel 2 hours by bus to Sukbartan where our Peace Corps Medical Officers (PCMO) educates us more on what to do in case of an emergency. Our first trip was a 2-hour heinous bus trip. The road was still under construction so we had to go cross-country. I was so sore by the end of the trip and ecstatic that I hadn’t eaten a big breakfast. But during our 2nd trip, it went a lot smoother. We were able to travel on an actual road. Seeing a black paved road caused my heart to leap with joy. Tears came to my eyes.
It’s tough finding body lotion. All the PC girls are becoming a little frantic because we can’t find body lotion anywhere.
I’m impressed with the food selection in the supermarkets. I have found Nutella, various jams, plenty of fruit and vegetables, and Pringles. I read how I would have trouble finding fruit and vegetables but there are plenty here. I expect this might change come winter time. The one thing that always throws me for a loop is seeing a massive haunch of meat just sitting in a cooler for anyone to pick up. While there is a variety of food a person can find, my meals usually consist of rice, meat, and egg.
Mongolians love sports. Whenever I meet someone, they would ask me for my name, where I’m from, and “Do you like sports?” I’ve played basketball twice already and more people always come to the court when they hear the sound of the ball bouncing – either on foot or by horse!
I know how to make a dung fire and a wood fire. My little house gets nice and toasty.
With three other PCTs, I walked to the top of a hill where I got to see my entire soum and beyond. At the top of the hills are Ovoos or a cairn, human made piles or stacks of stone and wood. You must walk around an Ovoo clockwise three times in order to have a safe journey. Then you must place your own stone in the Ovoo.
There is nothing soft to sit on. Bus seats are hard. Chairs are hard. The beds are hard. It’s like sitting on rough rock all the time.
I’m awful at making buuz. There is a certain way to pinch the dough so the dough looks like flower petals on the top. My host family pinches the dough so quickly!
I went swimming in the river. The water only came up to my knees so by swimming I mean that I submerged myself in the water. It was an idyllic scene. A herd of white and brown horses were directly across from me on the other side. Also, skipping stones is an art form that I have yet to master. My stones just go, “Ka-plonk.”
When Molly and I are out walking together, cars actually slow down to look at us. One blonde is interesting but two blondes is a phenomenon.
I would give anything to have a margarita.
I have definitely had my fair share of ups and downs.
Yes, not being able to communicate is challenging and can be frustrating. Yes, internet is hard to find. The school had internet for a while but it has disappeared on us. Probably because a teacher saw all 9 of us sitting in the hallway reading our emails and checking Facebook.
Yes, I have to draw my own water in order to clean myself. Yes, I’m afraid that I will fail as a teacher. Yes, I’m always cracking my head on the low doorways. Yes, I’m afraid that I will fall in the outhouse. Yes, people stare at me constantly like I’m an exhibit in a museum. Yes, I miss home. I miss my mom and dad. I miss walking around Lincoln Park and going to David’s Tea and the various cafes. Yes, I’m afraid that I will never find some wretched body lotion and my skin will turn into fish scales.
But Mongolia is beautiful. I have been here for less than a month and I know that I’m still settling in. All PCTs are on a family plan and we can call each other for free upon our Nokia phones. Talking, laughing, and seeing pigs snuffling along the roadside always helps to pull me out my ruts. With time, everything will get better but for now, I will continue taking one day at a time.
“We are now one big family,” says my host mother to me.
Respiratory illness. Delightful food. Diarrhea. Woods, mountains, and steppes. Slow and sometimes lack of wifi. New friends. Cold showers or no showers. Naadam festival. Frostbite. Yaks and horses. Scabies. Host family. Pickpocketing. Gers. New language. Teacher. Travel. Peace Corps.
Mongolia, land of the blue sky.
Above are some problems that I will be encountering during my two-year stay in Mongolia with the Peace Corps. However, what I’m most excited for strongly outmatches the negative facets of my journey.
I have already been in Mongolia for 5 days.
Rewind though on how I came to be in Mongolia.
When I left home, I was very sad when I gave my dog a final squeeze and when I waved goodbye to my mom and dad in the airport. I was like a pack mule who was in no great shape or form to be lugging over a 100 pounds in luggage, but my noodle arms won out in the end. I had to endure many uncomfortable and strange looks that were directed my way: “No, I swear. Nothing weird here. I’m with the Peace Corps…”
From Seattle, 52 brave souls flew Air Delta to Seoul, South Korea. That was an 11-hour flight. However, Seoul was where we ran into a bump on the road. We had to pick up all our luggage and then check them back in for Air Korea.
“I’m sorry, but you can only check one bag,” was what the woman at checkout told me. I had a mini heart attack, of course. “One bag? But we all need to check in our winter and summer bags! We’re with the Peace Corps.”
There was confusion as no one in the airport knew what to do with us. Many phone calls later and with a sigh of relief, our bags were finally accepted. Then ten minutes later, I ultimately was told – and this was after my bags were handed in at check out – that I had to return because there was a problem with one of my bags. My heart resumed its palpitations again. Upon my return, I was told that security wanted to check my bag because of my “spray.”
“They found my pepper spray,” is what I initially thought. No. They wanted to investigate my bug spray.
After explaining and demonstrating what it does, I was finally able to say “See ya!” to my obese bags. Air Korea flew us 2.5 hours to Ulaanbaatar. No turbulence on both flights. We finally landed in Chinggis Khaan International Airport Monday at midnight on 30 April where a host of Peace Corps workers greeted us.
Due to not being able to say exactly where I am (Peace Corps rules), I can describe it for you.
I am just north of Ulaanbaatar. When you walk down the gravel driveway from our hotel, take a right, you can walk further down into the aimeg where you see an assortment of cabin-like houses; abandoned homes; homes that are half-way through construction and then have been abandoned; modern homes with balconies; orange and green houses; and dotted along the edge of the woods and all over the fields, are Mongolia’s white gers that stand as a stark contrast against the green grass and trees.
While marveling at these new road sights, we were accompanied by horned cows and yaks with fluffy tails who marched stoutly on. Along the road were also guard dogs that were chained up. Surrounding the hotel are hills and woodlands. A couple of times, I have wondered up into the hills via a wooded trail.
My first week in Mongolia has predominantly been spent inside the hotel on rock-hard chairs, learning the 411 of the Peace Corps and how to survive in Mongolia. The food has been fantastic. Lots of meat, rice, salad, watermelon and apple slices, a variety of soups, potatoes, yogurt, and buuz. I can’t complain yet. After dinner, we were then free to do whatever we wanted. So, I will be leaving for my host family with a well-stocked medical kit, a heavy-duty sleeping bag, a water filter, a cell phone, and most importantly…the understandings and knowledge to not get horribly sick or die during my two years of service, (fingers crossed).
What makes me laugh is how this area of Mongolia reminds me so much of my time on Lövön in Sweden. Being able to walk through the woods and keeping a sharp eye out for ticks, the camp-like living arrangements and cold water, and a sense of isolation from the rest of the country. Do I feel homesick yet? No. Evidently I will, but not quite yet.
Saturday morning on 4 June, I’m departing for my host family. Again, I’m not allowed to say where I will be living for the next three months of Peace Corps Training (PCT), but I have heard nothing but wonderful things about the place. It will take at least – a heavy emphasis on the “at least” – six to seven hours by bus. As Suran said, “Culturally, we don’t promise time, but, we promise you will get to your sights on the same day.”