Peace Corps challenge: Hospitality

Hospitality: the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers.

This year’s Peace Corps’ challenge is highlighting hospitality from countries around the world. For thousands of years, Mongolians have been a hospitable people who has endured to this day.

Before, a person could travel for days without encountering another human being. Therefore, it became important and necessary for ger dwellers to offer their home to travelers and herders. That hospitality was then expected to be reciprocated.

A friend told me that I should give the video challenge a go and voila! After a month of shooting video and editing, I submitted my 2-minute video showing Mongolian hospitality, a country that is so often overlooked but is slowly budding out.

Click on the picture shown below to give my picture and video a Facebook like.

You have until 21 February to vote.

VOTE MONGOLIA!

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A frosty January

1 January 2016:

I spent 8 hours standing on my feet as a hostess at Shaw’s Crab House counting down the hours while listening to Michael Buble Christmas music on loop.

1 January 2017:

I had a winter picnic out in the Mongolian countryside.

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Blue and white were the only colors I could see for miles across the Mongolian steppe, speckled occasionally with brown and black horses. It was refreshing to not see telephone wires marring the view, to be free of constant pollution, and to not hear the sound of traffic.

With Adiya, one of my counterparts, and her family, we first visited a horse monument. Enclosed within a square of stupas are 10 large horse statues. All are in memory of my aimag’s best race horses.

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After our walk around, we got back into the car and drove on. We drove straight up the main – and only paved road – for 20 minutes when suddenly, the car took an immediate left off of the road and onto a trail that is only visible to the Mongolian eye. We bumped our way over the steppe closer toward the hills until the car finally came to a halt in the middle of the snowy field. It was here on untouched snow where we had our picnic.

Blankets were laid out, milk tea was poured, and soup was prepared on a little traveling stove. We stayed out there until our fingers and toes lost all feeling.

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In addition to this month, I turned 24. I spent the day time at an English teacher’s seminar hosted by the State Department. Peace Corps Volunteers were there as a formality but otherwise sat in the back with our computers. In the evening, I had dinner and cake with my site mates and two counterparts. But the best part of the day was having my family, including my two grandmothers in Sweden and Scotland, calling my phone with birthday messages.

More January highlights:

  • Our aimag had a two-week winter break. At first I wondered what I would do during that time and regretting not booking a flight to a beach somewhere but I had a comfortable and lazy break. I read “Me Before You,” (book is way better than the movie) and “After You,” (super depressing), and I bought an oven.
  • I’m creating a video for a Peace Corps challenge. The theme is hospitality. Adiya took me to her sister’s ger to shoot video and I was invited over to my neighbor’s apartment. True to their hospitable nature, I have been eating so much buuz and drinking an incredible amount of milk tea for this video.
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Gers are bigger than they look. With a stove in the middle, this ger has a TV, two beds, a wardrobe, and a washing machine.
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When I met my friend Zulka, sitting on my right, she said that her dream was to become fluent in English and to study in Australia. After helping her with her student exchange essay and preparing her for her speech, she has been accepted to study abroad in  Luxembourg. She makes her family proud by being the first person from her family to travel abroad.
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A plate of buuz, steamed dumplings.
  • To make lesson planning more efficient, I create a monthly sign up sheet. Teachers are accountable for showing up after signing their name and available time for all to see. Now I’m teaching more classes except when something silly happens. The door to class 10A was jammed shut and nobody could open it. The students were inside while I was in the hallway. Eventually, the door had to be splintered and ripped off its hinges.
  • January was one of the coldest months. For one week we had a Siberian winter. I thought my face was going to crack. I stayed inside as much as humanly possible watching Brooklyn 99, the Gilmore Girls revival, and a very long movie, “Palm Trees in the Snow.”
  • Mongolia’s biggest holiday is swiftly approaching – Tsagaan Sar, Mongolia’s lunar New Year celebration. The market is crowded with people shopping for presents, food, and new deels. Homes are being scrubbed clean for families and friends who will invade. My counterparts have contributed to buying a winter deel for me. I’m building the anticpation by waiting until the holiday to post a picture of my deel in all its glory.

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The Chatty Bunch

Peach Oolong, Forest Berry, Jasmine, Organic Spring Jasmine, Vanilla, Green Matcha, Green Tea Tropical, Organic Breakfast, Chamomile, Apricot Green, Ceylon, Mint, Mango Black, and English tea. Anybody who knows me knows that I need a lovely hot cup of tea every day.

Three times a day.

Living in Mongolia is no exception as my kitchen shelf is weighted down by all my bags of teas. Now that it is November and the temperature has significantly dropped, there is nothing I love more than to be done with work and to power walk back to my warm and comfortable apartment where my tea, camel blankets, and Kindle await me.

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It snowed at the beginning of the month.

Note to readers: I have recently finished reading the first two books in a new series called, “The Seven Sisters,” by Lucinda Reily. I’m obsessed. The first book is based in Brazil and the second in Norway. Third book comes out next year. To help ease the long wait, I’m trolling away on Reily’s website.

I don’t get bored here. I’m content. During the week days, I spend long hours at the school with lesson planning, teacher development, co-teaching, and with my speaking club. Many 6th graders come to my club every Tuesday. However, a counter part is unavailable – (or becomes conveniently busy) – so I am left alone to wonder how I can explain instructions and English words to small children. I’ve come to realize that it doesn’t matter what I say. They just love when I’m rambling away in English and teaching them nursery rhymes and The Beatles’ “Hello, Good Bye.”

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7th graders learn about many hobbies and write what their favorite hobbies are.

 

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11th grade students are learning adjectives. I had them watch a drone video of Chicago so they can practice using adjectives to describe the city.
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8th grade students review who, what, where, and when for asking questions.

 

 On the weekends, I get invited over to my counterpart’s home where they generously feed me.

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We celebrated my counterpart’s daughter’s birthday. She turned 5.

I shop in the markets and explore buildings where sometimes it feels like I’m wandering in a maze. A narrow hallway leads me through a copious amount of clothing stalls that are now overcrowded with puffy winter jackets; cosmetic counters littered with nail polish, Japanese eye shadow, toothbrushes, and small tubs of face whitening cream; food stands of Khuushuur and buuz that have been sitting there dormant for hours; and window displays of stunning winter deels. People push past in these close quarters so I keep my hands firmly in my pockets.  

I also assist with the Speaking Club – The Chatty Bunch –  at Bookbridge Learning Center.  Bookbridge was founded in Germany. Founded by my fellow PCV, Jenni, the goal of our speaking club is to not just be better English speakers but to become confident public speakers. With the help of our fearless leader, Uuganaa, we meet on Saturdays at 10am. We have accumulated a group of 40 students from all four schools.

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My next blog post will be about my trip with Bookbridge students to eastern Mongolia for an English camp.

Kharkhorin

At 9am on Saturday morning in a private car, me and my site mates left our aimeg for Kharkhorin – a “super” soum lying in northern Övörkhangai Province.

This particular soum is referred to as a “super” soum not just because of its size but because of its tourist appeal. Many tourists come to  Kharkhorin to visit Erdene Zuu Monastery and the famous phallic rock that continues to humorously serve as a reminder for monks to remain celibate but yet also symbolizes fertility. The land had also once been the capital of the Mongol Empire under Ogedei Khan.

During my training, I had gotten used to the bumpy rides over fields and dirt roads. But since arriving in my aimeg back in mid-August, I hadn’t been on a bumpy road trip in two months. There was a moment when I thought I was going to get ill. It was a three-hour drive to the soum. The car rode smoothly on a paved road for 30-minutes until our driver made a left onto a narrow dirt road. For the rest of the ride, we followed this trail that winded its way like a snake over fields, streams and through stunning valleys. The hills are sparse of vegetation. I saw some trees clumped together in pockets between hills or upon the foothills. Their leaves were bright yellow, a cheerful bright color amongst the never-ending shades of greens and browns.

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Kharkhorin is large with roads and sidewalks traversing around its markets, restaurants, schools, gers, and homes. Kharkhorin made itself comfortable on the lower end of the Orkhon River and upon the eastern foothills of the Khangai Mountains. The Orkhon River is part of UNESCO’s World Heritage Site Orkhon Valley Cultural Landscape.

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On top of a hill is a massive oovoo surrounded by thin walls depicting the stages of the Mongol Empire.

 

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For centuries, the Orkhon Valley was believed to be the seat of imperial power. Now, the valley continues to support Mongolia’s nomadic traditions.

 

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An abandoned mill house adorns the bank of the river. Now its only visitors are spiders, cobwebs, and birds.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATourists can stay in ger camps that offer beautiful scenery of the river and hills.

Erdene Zuu Monastery survived the communist purge of all Buddhist monasteries in the country. Joseph Stalin ordered for this monastery to remain in tact to show international visitors that there was some toleration of religious freedom.  The monastery is surrounded by a high wall in a square-shape enclosure with 108 stupas sitting on top. Visitors can walk in for free.

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The Temple of Dalai Lama.

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Family, friends, and visitors can spin these canisters to show respect for the dead. They wrap all the way around the monastery.

 

 

Here is a list for more monasteries to visit in Mongolia.

http://mongoliatravel.guide/things_to_do/view/monasteries-temples-in-mongolia/

Winter is coming

On 25 September, the first snow flurries fell from the sky. Never have I seen snow fall this early in the year.

The hills and steppe were covered in a white powder of snow. I was in a car coming back from Kharkhorin when the sky began to piss down with rain. The rain then transformed into snow.

 Luckily, I had forced my winter gear into my suitcase. I have with me my… 

  • Layers of under armor
  • Warm leggings
  • Thick socks
  • Two hats
  • Winter boots
  • Patagonia sweater and jacket

In Mongolia, I have bought warm and comfortable camel socks and two camel blankets for my bed. Camel socks are great because they aren’t itchy. In the future, I hope to obtain a winter deel. Chicago is a cold and windy city. I survived the storm of “Chiberia” in January 2014 and many blizzards. The only difference with Mongolia is how early winter arrives and I still don’t have hot water and heating.

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The sun begins its asscent into the sky at 7:30 am. This picture was taken from my window.

My fridge door is finely decorated with long strips of duct tape. It is the only way to keep my fridge door closed – (If you are a future Peace Corps Volunteer in Mongolia, pack your duct tape!!!) Sometimes my toilet doesn’t fill back up with water so I give it a few slaps and hits. I won’t get hot water and heat until 1 October – a day I have been eagerly awaiting. I also have no internet and must rely on my school’s internet and free Wi-Fi at many hotel restaurants.

Despite my minor problems, my apartment if feeling more like home. When I first arrived, I had nothing. I had two chairs, a small coffee table, and a bed frame. I have slowly been accumulating everything to make my home comfortable and livable. Now all I need is a toaster oven!

So what do I do in my free time? I switch back and forth between watching Law and Order and The Office depending on my mood. I finished reading all eight books in the “Outlander” series. My Kindle has 80 books waiting to be read. I walk around my aimag with my site mates: climbing hills, going on long walks, and meeting new people.

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When traveling through Mongolia, you will very rarely travel by road. You will find youself hoping you don’t break down as your car or bus drives through rivers, navigates around deep holes, slowly groans up hills, and travels over dirt roads or over grass.

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I enjoy teaching at my school. Grade levels range from A to G and I co-teach in a lot of classes. My goal is to help with creative thinking. What can we do to make learning grammar and book work more interactive, engaging, and will allow students to work together as a group? This is what I tackle while lesson planning with my counterparts. Students love playing competitive games, using music as a learning tool, and are obsessed with stickers.

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My 11A class wearing their deels while performing in a play.

Home Sweet Home

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 of my 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.

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The view of my aimeg from the top of a hill.

 

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.

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It was a wonderful surprise to find a Moomin t-shirt in my aimeg.

 

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.

Is this real life or is this just fantasy?

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.

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We spent the summer together surviving Peace Corps training and now we stand upon the steps in Chinggis Khaan Square as Peace Corps Volunteers.  

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.

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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.

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Chinggis Khaan Square.

 

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.