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.
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.