Keep your head up

Eventually during your Peace Corps service (and of course in regular life), you feel drained of all energy and become frustrated and exhausted. Sometimes once. Sometimes more then once.

Some people you work with aren’t motivated and don’t care. You sit in a meeting and end up playing Snake on your phone for the entire duration because nobody tells you what’s happening. You walk to your school wondering, “Will I actually work today?” But you’ve got to power through it despite all the odds stacked up against you. 

“You’re allowed to scream, you’re allowed to cry, but do not give up.”

Thankfully, my one bright ray of sunshine comes from my Sunday morning English club with 5th, 6th, and 7th graders. With the help of two Mongolian counterparts, we have been playing various games and activities with over 100 students. 

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Sitting at attention.
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Playing the Human Knot.
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Duck…duck…goose!
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They absolutely loved House, Dog, All.

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We had a Halloween themed club with pumpkins.

Originally the plan was to have the club at Bookbridge, a smaller learning center, but we didn’t know how many would come. Therefore, we moved it to the larger Children’s Center and we’re relieved we made that decision. We were definitely not expecting over 100 kids to come every Sunday. I’m extremely excited to continue this club every week. 

 

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Halloween race game.

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I had a much-needed holiday in November. 

I traveled to UB for the weekend where I connected with friends and stuffed myself with food. That’s what I always do when I travel to the city. I try to eat as much food as possible: sushi, Mexican food, chocolate croissants, delicious cheeseburgers with bacon. Plus, I managed to locate Bloody Mary’s and frozen margaritas. I also ventured up to the Blue Sky Lounge for the very first time. Seeing city lights lighting up the night had me longing for the Chicago skyline and the drive down Lakeshore Drive at night.

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Breakfast at Code in UB, a French bakery.

Furthermore, I began practicing yoga during the break. I bought a yoga mat in UB and have been using it everyday. In America, I had only done yoga a few times, but now yoga has become firmly entrenched into my daily life after a period of negative vibes which I escaped from with the help of friends.

I religiously watch Boho Beautiful’s Youtube channel. I really enjoy all her videos as all her videos are filmed in wonderful and sublime places. Additionally, I’m currenly reading Arianna Franklin’s “Mistress of the Art of Death” series, studied for the GRE, had a new Mongolian jacket made, and made naan bread from scratch. 

But naturally something has to go wrong at some point. I have a love/hate relationship with my apartment. Since I’ve arrived, I’ve had my radiators burst three times, it took 15 months to finally get hot water, my roof was leaking during the summer rainstorms, my toilet broke, and water leaks everywhere after taking a shower. This time, I almost had an electrical fire in my kitchen. 

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At noon when I opened up my fridge, a rotting stench escaped. My fridge wasn’t working and all the ice in the freezer had melted away leaving my food to rot. When I went to check to see if the fridge was properly plugged in, smoke instantly came pouring out from the outlet. Having never dealt with an electrical fire before, I was waving my hands like a maniac to disperse the smoke. I must have resembled a hysteric chicken who’s being lifted for the chop. The near fire left me panicked and I was instantly on the phone talking to a counterpart to get the repair man sent to my home. It had left the wall outlet and the plug to the fridge completely charred. With relief, everything was fixed and I didn’t have to buy a new fridge.

“You’re lucky it happened when it did and not while you were sleeping,” said the repair man, whose visit to my home was probably the 20th time to fix something. 

Now my attentions are being turned elsewhere. Me and my friend, Rachel, are the new National Coordinators for Write On, a creative writing competition that happens every year. 12 more Peace Corps countries participate in this event. We will be busy preparing for the event for the next five months. 

 

 

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The first snowfall but it hasn’t snowed as much as last year.

 

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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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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.

Road trip to Khentii

I stumbled out of my apartment building Friday morning at 7am, the only source of light being the car’s headlights. Despite the early hour, I managed a cheerful “Сайн байна уу” to the driver to which I only got a grunt in response. With my blue backpacking bag filled with snacks and clothes that was tossed into the trunk, my pillow, and camel blanket, I folded myself into the small car. I was on my way to Khentii, the birthplace of Chinggis Khan, with 20 Bookbridge students and my PCV site mates, Perrin and Jenni, for an English Festival.

It took 18 hours.

          18 hours!

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We left with two cars, the small car I was in and a Russian meeker that had 20 people crammed in. They looked like sad cows going to the slaughter. I thanked my lucky stars that I wasn’t in that meeker with them. My long legs wouldn’t have forgiven me. When we left our aimag, the sun was a red orb rising over the plains like a scene from The Lion King.

It was a tough journey. The drive to UB took nine hours, two hours longer then it would have taken by bus. We kept making stops because of the meeker driver. Nobody knew what his problem was. He was making far too many stops and driving at a sluggish pace. It was an agonizingly slow drive. I munched on peanuts, craisins, and carrots as my IPod played on shuffle.

          “UB is just ahead of us.”

          “I don’t see it.”

That’s because of the great plumes of steam and smoke erupting from chimneys, factory smoke stacks, and the ger district, creating a lovely blanket of smog that caused the city’s skyline to disappear. Transitioning from empty roads we were suddenly hit by a blitzkrieg of bumper-to-bumper heavy traffic. Terrifying when traffic laws are heavily lax here. We were making a left turn when another car thought it was a great idea to push a little harder on his gas pedal nearly crashing into us. But our driver was like, “NOT TODAY!” and stoically evaded the car while I nearly shitted myself in the back seat. I held on a little tighter to my pillow as if that would do something. We made some more stops in the city. Sadly, none of the stops was at a coffee shop and we resumed our journey out of the city and onto Khentii.

During the second part of the drive, it was pitch black with stars guiding our way. Cars in the far distance looked like fireflies as they descended from the hills; their car lights a small bright light in the murky blackness. We arrived in Chinggis Xot at 1 am due to the slow meeker driver. We had to chug behind him at snail’s pace to stay close to the students. At one point, we were driving 25 miles-per-hour.

PCVs stayed with other PCVs in the aimag while Bookbridge students and faculty found their own accommodations. The lovely Phoebe and Mission, the cat, took me in for the weekend. On Day 1 of the English Festival, Bookbridge students from my aimag united with Bookbridge students from Khentii’s aimag. They all took a one-hour test that Jenni, Perrin, and I created for different grade levels. Our tests were vastly different from Mongolian tests because there was more writing and open-ended questions to avoid cheating. More than half did very well. Later in the afternoon, Khentii PCVs organized games for the students and there was an awards ceremony. Students with the top scores received medals, a certificate and an English grammar book. Afterwards, we disbanded. Students were still exhausted from the long drive. During Day 2 of the festival, students played basketball and volleyball in the morning, we went over test corrections in the afternoon, and then watched Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the evening. 

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Who run the world? Girls!

 

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Test award winners with ages ranging from 10 to 17-years-old.

 

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We didn’t leave Chinggis aimag until Monday morning at 9 am. Before entering UB, we hopped out of the car for a few minutes to gaze upon the enormous Chinggis Khan statue. With daylight we could also see the landscape that escaped us Friday night: flat with small hills and eagles that sat puffed up on the snowy ground. In UB, we had a two hour break and spent it in E-Mart, a Korean superstore. I devoured a large pizza for lunch. The traffic was so bad. It took nearly two hours to get out of the city. We didn’t arrive back home until midnight. Our driver must have been exhausted from driving all day and night. I kept a wary eye out for him just in case.

          “Are you keeping an eye on him?”

          “Yeah, he’s staring straight ahead.”

          “It’s hard to tell if he’s swerving because of all the potholes.”

It was a nerve-wrecking ordeal. Trucks with their headlights blinded our eyes and horses standing at the side of the road wouldn’t materialize until the very last second, including three dead ones. We were all exhausted and I was happy to come back to my apartment. However, I came home to a leaking radiator. More on that thrilling tale to come later.

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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.

One month wih the Peace Corps

July is here!

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.

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An afternoon Sunday hike with my fellow PCTs. 

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?!”

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After the rain storms. Small lakes pop up everywhere.

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.

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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.   

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The summer nights are long with the sun not setting until after 11pm.

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. 

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On the road to Sükhbaatar. There is never a dull moment or a more beautiful sight then when driving through Mongolia.

 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. 

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My fellow Peace Corps trainees after a long day of language class and practice teaching.