Our Closing of Service ceremony (COS) at a nice hotel outside of the city felt a lot like having a big party on a Sunday night and then immediately returning back to work on Monday.
On paper, we are finished as Peace Corps Volunteers in Mongolia but technically we still have another three months left in country including one more month left of work.
I think I’ve done the best I could in my situation. I don’t think my school ever wanted a PCV or if they did they didn’t know what to do with me. During my first year, I was more polite asking, “Can I do this?” During my second year I was more, “I’m going to do this now!”
I came to realize that if no one at school was asking for help, proposing ideas, or telling me what I should do, I had to take the bull by the horns so I could stay busy and feel productive. I believe without that attitute my girls camp in April never would have happened.
Seeing friends again and receiving our certificates was both exciting and bizarre knowing that two-years has flown by. Unfortunately, my name on my certificate said Anne. I will get a new one before I leave. We received a lot of information about what we need to do before leaving our villages and towns such as closing our bank accounts, alerting our landlords, having a final interview with the country director, and visits to the doctor’s office.
I also received my departure date to fly back home. My flight leaves Mongolia at 6 AM. I’ve been mentally preparing a feast to eat as soon as I land – (seafood, seafood, seafood, seafood, seafood, seafood). The plan is to reacquaint myself to the big city, to Amerian life, and a different time zone. Then possibly followed by a trip to visit both my grandmothers in Sweden and Scotland.
This time last year I was planning my trip to Vietnam and Cambodia. My parents were also visiting for the summer. Now I’m eyeing everything in my apartment that either needs to be sold, donated, or thrown out. Work at school has been slowing down. My last project I’m trying to finish up before the end of the month is recording all the reading passages in textbooks teachers can use next year when I’m gone.
I can still clearly remember arriving in Seattle in May 2016 and seeing other people, who were complete strangers at that time, struggling to leave the airport with all their bags. We would look at each other and go, “Peace Corps?” “Yep.” “Niiiice.”
Only one person from my training group was absent as we took pictures together in our deels and with the Mongolian flag.
As my school’s very first TEFL volunteer, some ideas are considered to be too radical. Met with indifference or confusion that later get swept away under the rug.
As my second (and last year) was starting in Mongolia, I thought how I wanted to do something at my school so I could end my year with a bang. A high note knowing I’ve accomplished something different and new.
With the help of one counterpart, Adiya, we organized and prepared a weekend-long Girls Empowerment workshop/camp/training/call it what you will that occurred on March 13-15. The second semester of school in Mongolia is thwarted with many long breaks – winter break in January, Tsaagan Sar break in February, and a Spring break in March. Suffice it to say…time was running out and I knew I had to begin early.
Powerpoints and worksheets had to be translated into Mongolian, subtitles added to videos, activities had to be thought of, and what type of topics to be covered during the weekend. I then turned into a part-time health volunteer when an 11th grader said: “We are told we should do something but not told the importance of why we should be doing it.” Thus health was included into the schedule.
What impressed me the most throughout the weekend was the amount of English the girls wanted to use despite the difficulty. They were free to discuss amongst themselves in Mongolian and write in Mongolian but they all wanted to speak and write in English.
Some of the topics and activities we did from Friday to Sunday, 10 AM to 4:30 PM:
Girls learnt about Mongolian and foreign role models. Malala Yousafazai was very popular.
The girls learnt about non-profit organizations and in teams created their own non-profit. The winning team was about human rights while the runner-up was about an environmental issue.
After kicking out the boys who were playing basketball, we did yoga in the gym. For most of them, this was their first time ever doing yoga. Lots of giggles erupted when we were in happy baby pose.
An art project. Girls drew and painted themselves after describing themselves with adjectives and connecting those adjectives to specific colors.
In addition, we talked about the importance of goal setting, stereotypes, leadership qualities, and created bucket lists. An 8th grader said she wanted to visit Genovia and was sad when I told her the country doesn’t exist. While all the girls said they want to travel to another country, goals ranged from the lofty to the simplistic. Having purple hair, wanting to meet Emma Watson, becoming a doctor, learning how to swim and to wanting to walk through a haunted house during Halloween.
This weekend wouldn’t have happened without the incredible help of Adiya. She met with me every week, helped make applications, and did her best to understand everything. As a result, the entire weekend went smoothly and I went home happy.
However, not all projects will have so much preparation time like mine did. You have to judge your school’s vibe. Either you are a very busy PCV or you fall into the same hole as me and your school doesn’t utilize you enough. As a result, I had plenty of time to bring this weekend with Adiya to fruition.
Spring break wasn’t supposed to begin until the end of March but on 9 March I got a text message from my counterpart: “Do you know? Break has started.”
I was perplexed.
As it turns out, foot and mouth disease has been spreading throughout Mongolia infecting both livestock and people. I had heard about it in northern Mongolia but it had eventually seeped down to my neck of the woods. The governor ordered a shut down of schools and the market. The market was so empty all it needed was tumbleweed. If it had been during my first year I would have been excited for starting break weeks early but it’s my second year and I have a project in the works. Me and my counterpart had a long meeting with my supervisor and so my project was pushed back to mid-April.
So Spring Break or Quarantine Break began early.
Schools were closed yet students and teachers continued to meet informally. In the mornings, I went to help my students for the upcoming Olympiad exams.
I went on a very long hike over the hills. The only person I encountered was an old woman watching over her goat-herd. We chilled together on the rocks and ate pretzels.
When I’m not outside I’ve been doing a lot of yoga. I have been watching all of Boho Beautifuls’ videos but found a new video channel called Yoga with Kassandra. My counterpart came over with her 10-year-old daughter. An endless amount of giggles peeped out from her daughter as she clumsily transitioned from one pose to the next. Falling over like a baby giraffe.
I finished reading “The Great Alone” by Kristin Hannah and “Armageddon” by Leon Uris. Hannah’s book is set in Alaska and had me in tears. I finished it in two days. I highly recommend this book! The other is about the re-birth of Berlin after World War II.
On the other hand, a pipe that connects from my bathroom and into my kitchen has burst in three separate places. The repair man had to turn off the water flowing through it but water is still sprinkling out. So now no hot water, my kitchen has a bucket (probably) permanently leaning against my wall, and I’m back to boiling water and pouring a bucket onto myself. Makes me appreciate what I will soon be going back home too.
The best part of my break was my weekend in Ulaanbaatar. Before leaving town, there were people at the bus station dressed in anti-contamination gear spraying hand sanitizer onto our hands and water into our mouths. There were frequent stops with people out on the road spraying down bus wheels.
I treated myself to a stay in the Shangri La and spent Saturday with my friend whom I’ve been close to since Peace Corps training. We hit all our favorite spots such as Green Zone, Swiss Coffee, an art store, an Indian restaurant, and the movie theater. It was a weekend I really needed to resuscitate myself, but the fairy tale was shattered as soon as I was back at Dragon Center and back on a bus to my town.
When school begins I’ll be back to preparing for my project. It’s almost April!
For Mongolia’s New Year, Tsagaan Sar, I traveled back to Yeruu in northern Mongolia to visit and celebrate with my host family. I hadn’t seen them since we last hugged goodbye in August 2016 when Peace Corps training was finished.
Now flash forward two years and it’s a long trip back. I took a seven-hour bus ride to Ulaanbaatar. Followed by a four-hour bus ride to Darkhan and ending with a one-hour car ride to Yeruu. There are now paved roads that shoot straight to Yeruu. During Peace Corps training, there had been a lot of cross-country driving over bumpy terrain.
I was so happy to see my host family. My host siblings immediately wanted to play and my grandmother was tottering about making sure plenty of food was on the table. This family has been there with me since the very beginning. They were there during all the highs and lows I experienced during that summer. They were witnesses to when I first began learning Mongolian as I tried to (very poorly) make the KUUUHH and x sounds. Despite this, I have the most success understanding and communicating with them. They know we need to speak slowly with each other and we all patiently make huge efforts to make ourselves understood.
During my first night, everyone came to the house – all of my host mom’s brothers and sisters and their children. The kids thankfully haven’t changed much and are still chubby and adorable. Together, we drove to a hill and went sledding.
I felt pathetic as I fell asleep dressed head to toe in under armor underneath three blankets while my host family fell asleep in t-shirts with only one blanket. This was my first visit to the countryside during winter and from now on I will only be visiting in the summer. I was like a cockatiel sitting perched on a stool by the stove where the only source of warmth was coming from.
Friday was the first day of Tsagaan Sar. We were all dressed in our Mongolian deels. Every house we visited had salads and buuz on the table with milk tea and vodka. We stayed at each house for at least an hour. There was a lot of: “Back in the car, Anna!” “ZAAAAA!”
I had to leave Yeruu at 5 AM on Saturday morning. Not a lot of transportation leaving during the New Year and having to leave at that ungodly hour was my only option. However, my trip out of Yeruu felt surreal. It was pitch black and snowing. I was stuffed in the back of a small car between luggage and another girl. ABBA was playing on the radio. We encountered no other cars. These small moments of my time in Mongolia are what I will oddly remember the most.
I hope to visit again in the summer!
This year, me and a friend are Write On’s 2018 National Coordinators. Write On is a creative writing competition held in 20 Peace Corps countries.
Last year, almost 1,000 Mongolian students and adults participated nation-wide.
This year, I held more writing workshops at my school and surprisingly more 6th, 7th, and 8th graders attended. Most of these students ended up writing on competition day! During these workshops, students learnt about characters, settings, plots, and solutions and how to weave all these aspects together into one story.
The most difficult aspect was explaining the differences between a story and an essay. When I was explaining that these stories can be fun, entertaining, and humorous they all had the same expressions on their faces screaming, “But that’s not what we’ve been taught!”
Write On in Arvaikheer was held on February 10th at the Children Center with 75 students attending. There was an equal amount of young and older students. From 9 AM to 2:30 PM, I sat in the Children Center registering students and supervising the event. It got chaotic in the morning but ebbed off in the afternoon.
Once the last 12th grader left, PCVs met at Friend’s Café to score all the stories. Thankfully there were six of us to get the job done sooner.
It was cute when I sent congratulations text messages to all 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place winners telling them to come back to the children center on February 11th for certificates and medals. Responses I got were: “Wow!…Thank you!…How exciting!” My favorite was a student, who after winning first place for his grade, happily said, “I never win anything!”
All seven 1st place winning stories will now precede to the national level in March.
December was a whirlpool of events.
December in UB is also cold.
I took my GRE in the city. I had been studying since September. I was the only person staying in the guesthouse for two nights. It was eerily cool. The bell to the door was never ringing and I had an entire room to myself. The GRE was at the Mongolian University of Science and Technology. An easy walk from the guesthouse but once I was there I realized I didn’t actually know which building I had to go in. I ended up having to call someone who had taken the test earlier in the month and found the place within minutes. I had at least been in the right building but wrong floor. Then someone thought I was a guest speaker and tried to drag me off somewhere else.
It was just me, a Russian woman, and two Mongolians. Other than a 10-minute power outage that occurred in the middle, I finished the test in just under four hours and was relieved to be done. I rushed over to Granville Restaurant where I devoured a cheeseburger and fries.
It has made me so jovial on Sundays when a solid amount of kids come for Sunday’s English club. Usually clubs in Mongolia see a decline from 70 to 12 to 4 students. When I arrive at the Children’s Center I wonder, “Is this the day when kids stop showing up?” But I think I’m doing something right.
This month, kids have been learning Christmas songs. Jingle Bells is popular but I also taught them lesser known songs such as Frosty the Snowman. In addition, they created Christmas word trees and watched the cartoon “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”
Christmas was celebrated for the second time away from home. On Saturday prior to Christmas, we had a PCV Christmas dinner with friends from nearby aimags and soums. We finally ate the turkey Peace Corps gives us every year. I was fortuitously not in charge of the bird. I still remember the turkey blood and the breaking of my fridge from last year. On Christmas morning, I opened up the presents I kept hidden away under my bed and then went to school for a few hours. There were Christmas performances at school. All teachers participated in secret Santa. For two-weeks, we had to buy 5 presents for our chosen ones and secretly deliver them. It was arduous work having to sneak into the director’s office when he wasn’t around.
Nation-wide all schools began winter break earlier then expected. Aimags and soums have different reasons. Some say it’s because it’s too cold. Other places because of sickness. The governor issued his statement and students and teachers were told to stay at home. This included the cancellation of other extra curricular activities. So as a result, winter break extended from two-weeks to one month. Despite early closure, my school still had its New Year’s party. I donned a dress I bought in UB.
Happy New Year!
Smiles are the best. With Christmas and New Years swiftly approaching, I miss my home. But seeing students smile at school – (and not immediately bursting into giggles which usually happens after just saying hi) – is a small thing I greatly appreciate.
I will continue my service in Mongolia during my favorite holidays. While family and friends in Chicago are visiting Christkindlmarkt, decorating Christmas trees, and walking along streets illuminated by Christmas lights…I’m on the prowl for bags of frozen strawberries, wearing my mask every evening to ward off air pollution, and googling how to make cinnamon rolls from scratch.
I have done my best to make my home festive. My Christmas stocking is hanging on the door; I have snowflakes and a reindeer dangling from the ceiling; the small doors in my advent calendar are faithfully opened up every morning; lights have been hung over my window; my tiny Swedish tomte sits upon my dresser. It’s the best I can do. A large number of restaurants and stores have also been decorated for Christmas and New Years. When I was in UB earlier for a Peace Corps PAC meeting, I saw the giant Christmas tree in the Shangri La Mall.
What has December been like?
As my bus pulled into my town’s bus station at 2 in the morning, someone had taken one of my bags from above the seats. I was very frustrated as I walked home. Later, I told a friend about my missing bag and she made a post on Facebook about it. That post was shared and read by so many people! Three-hours later, my bag was returned with everything in tact. Then for the next week, I had people asking me at school or sending me text messages: “I’m sorry about your bag.” “Did you get your bag?” and my favorite, “I can’t sleep until your bag is back with you!”
Blistering cold weather but only a little bit of snow.
I finished reading The Mistress of the Art of Death series and have begun reading Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” I couldn’t finish “Anna Karenina” so lets see how long I can last with the “masterpiece of world literature.”
I traveled to UB for a Peace Corps PAC meeting. A few volunteers were asked to discuss about the TEFL (Teach English as a foreign language) program and offered suggestions on how to improve the future of the program. Buses are extremely hot. UB’s temperatures can plummet down to -20 Fahrenheit so you’ve got to dress warmly. However, after just two hours on a bus, I’ve stripped down to my t-shirt.
My friend returned from study abroad in Europe. She had a wistful and dreamy gaze as she recalled her stories about her stay in Luxembourg and her trips to Spain, France, Germany, and Switzerland. She has taken a piece of the cake and now she wants the whole cake. What’s her next plan? To go to Australia!
Me and another PCV had lunch with someone who served with Peace Corps in Paraguay during the ’90s. It’s fascinating to hear how different Peace Corps was prior to laptops, kindles, and hard drives that we use now.
My door had been receiving a lot of attention from the children in my building. Knocking once a day turned into knocking five-times a day. They always want help with English homework or want to play. I actually began to flinch every time I heard the pounding of tiny fists on my door accompanied by the yells of “Anna teacher! Anna teacher!” Unfortunately, it became a problem and they were told by their grandmother and my counterpart to stop.
I am still lesson planning and team teaching when opportunity presents itself.
I attended a dance performance at the theater with my counterpart’s family. Her daughter was dancing. The theater was packed with people. Children were sitting on top of each other. People were standing in the aisles against the walls. I’m amazed I was saved a seat. The ride home was the best part. 10 people were smushed into a small car. I sat on an 80-year-old woman’s lap with a small child on my lap as my head was crushed against the roof thinking, “This would be an awful time to hit potholes.”
Nevertheless, good things are happening. I will soon take the GRE. My birthday is approaching and I’m going on an exciting vacation in three-weeks.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Kharkhorin, the super-soum north of Arvaikheer, had its first ever Halloween themed race on 14 October 2017. The goal of the race was to raise money for an NGO in UB called Achilles. Achilles raises awareness for people with disabilities. Those with disabilities ran for free while able-bodied paid a small fee. There was a 1k, 3k, and 5k race.
In contrast to the extravagant costumes the young and old create, the door-to-door trick or treating, and the parties that occur in America, Halloween in Mongolia is not as widely celebrated. There are some parties and most Mongolians instantly think of zombies. I told a 12th grade class I was once a penguin for Halloween and they didn’t understand why I would dress up as a penguin, “That’s not scary!”
I wore the wrong boots as I stood out in the governor square at 6:30 in the morning. It was pitch black as I walked the 20 minutes from my home. I also got spooked by a horse that materialized out of nowhere. As I waited for all the kids to arrive and the transportation that would take us to Kharkhorin, I was stomping my feet and curling my toes trying to bring warmth back to them.
Unlike Arvaikheer, Kharkhorin still had snow on the ground and it was a lot colder. After a nauseating 3-hour drive, we arrived just on time for a communication problem. All the kids and adults we brought with us from Arvaikheer were registering for the race inside one building while all the kids and adults from Kharkhorin were registering outside on the other side of town. Phones were ringing, and people were talking simultaneously at each other. In the end, everyone was registered for the race inside a bus in the middle of the race field.
Throughout the day, kids crowded the face painting table as the same short music playlist played on repeat all day. Every song was a remix of the original.
Races finished faster than we anticipated. As we saw runners coming towards the finish line, we had to stand by the banner with small pieces of paper that had the numbers 1, 2, and 3 for first, second, and third place to hand off to the exhausted runners. Medals and certificates were awarded to the top three from each race. I must also add that a Mongolian event would not be complete if there was not a random 5-minute dance party. But I think someone was told, “Quick, stall for time!”
After a quick meal in a woman’s ger, we all drove back to Arvaikheer. A significant amount of money was raised for Achilles and all kids, winners and non-winners, went home happy.