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.
“Everything is going to be alright,” says my host mother. “Anna will live in Mongolia for 2 years and you will live,” is pretty much what she says to comfort me, especially when I think about the -40 degree cold winters in this country.
I feel like I’m 9 years old again and carrying my black backpack as I wait for my mother to pick me up from school so we can go home and have dinner. Except now, I’m 23 years old and I’m waiting outside of my Mongolian school with my red backpack, awaiting my host mother so she can drive me home for dinner. Sometimes she is already there and other times I am anxiously hoping she won’t forget about me as I watch my friends disappear with their own host mothers and host siblings.
I have been living in the Land of Blue Sky with my host family for two weeks and there has been plenty of blue sky. There has been some drizzle but for the most part, hot and dry. Dust gets kicked up in the air as I walk to school or when a Prius drives past.
On a grey and foggy morning on 4 June, 51 Peace Corps trainees hugged and said goodbye for the summer. Groups of 8 to 10 trainees will be spending the next three months in different soums and aimags throughout Mongolia. With our summer bags, large water filters, medical kits, and our sleeping bags, my group of 9 crushed ourselves onto our little bus that would take us to our host families. We will not be seeing each other again until August for our swearing-in ceremony.
Upon arrival, our host families were all awaiting us by the bridge. One by one, under a hot sun in the middle of a Mongolian valley, just a few hours away from the Russian boarder, we were greeted by our family. Each family gave us a blue, ceremonial scarf called a Khata. We all accepted a Khata along with a bowl of milk to sip from. Mongolian Khatas are blue in honor of the blue sky. Then I had to throw the milk towards the mountain. My host family doesn’t know English and I don’t know Mongolian. This will definitely be a fascinating summer.
I have my own separate house next to the main house – my “lila stuga.” I have a bed, a table, a green dresser, a large glass cupboard, and a stove to make fires in. My family even decorated the walls with green floral wallpaper. The yard is large with an outhouse in the far corner and a fearsome looking guard dog. I’ve named him Greywind because he reminds me of the direwolf from Game of Thrones. Surrounding my soum are mountains as the Mongolians refer to them as. I just think of them as very large hills. My family is incredibly nice. My host mother is a math teacher. My host father is a gym teacher but is spending the summer working on trains. I have a 4-year-old sister and a 5-year-old brother whom I enjoy playing with. They are my little monkeys. In addition, my host mother’s niece, Chika, is always at the house.
As one PCT said, “The next two years of our life is going to consist of us just sitting, smiling, and nodding.”
Communicating with my host family requires a lot of good humor and patience. We are drawing pictures, acting, rapidly gesturing, and speaking in broken English and Mongolian. There is great excitement when we finally get our points across. I can already see myself as the next Charades champion back home. As of yet, I haven’t eaten anything strange or out-of-the-ordinary. I eat a lot of eggs, rice, meat, buuz, hassah, tsuiwan, pickles, soups, and apples. Mmmmmm, nothing like hot soup and hot tea on a hot day.
I joke with my family how living in Mongolia is going to be a lot like living on Lövön for two years. I bathe in a tumpun, I walk everywhere, and I have to re-wear my clothes. It takes awesome skill to create a new look with the same clothing. My soum is dusty in the summer. Horses, cows, dogs, and pigs meander all over the place. My school is a white building that is a 15-minute walk from my home. Close to the school are small supermarkets, an Internet Café where you can also play ping pong, a bank, the government building where I got to meet the governor, basketball courts and small parks, a post office, and a small hospital and police station.
My schedule for the next three months consists of Mongolian language lessons that begin early at 9 am with Aagie and Bogie. I’m chuffed to bits now that I know the Cyrillic alphabet but we laugh with each other because it feels like we’re 5 and learning how to read all over again. Everyone just gets a blank look in their eyes when we’re trying to remember how to say something. We look off into space, then there’s a moment of silence, and finally an “Oh, yeah,” once we remember. No English is allowed during our lessons. Mongolian is tough.
Then we have a lunch break from 1 to 2:30, followed by more lessons from 2:30 to 5:30. The later lessons consist of how to become efficient English teachers, how to integrate ourselves and to feel at home in Mongolia, and other important topics. During the month of June, we will be teaching micro-lessons. In groups of threes, we are teaching English to various age groups ranging from 5th grade to 12th grade. So far, I’ve had enthusiastic students. In my 5th to 6th grade class, there was a young boy who I nicknamed “boy genius” because he already knew all the vocabulary. He came up to me at the end of class and told me he had been born in Ireland.
Here are 13 highlights:
I will never get used to the outhouses. I will simply endure it as I hope I never drop anything, like my phone, down the 10-foot hole that lays below me, including myself. My legs will get super strong from all the squatting.
Once a week, we travel 2 hours by bus to Sukbartan where our Peace Corps Medical Officers (PCMO) educates us more on what to do in case of an emergency. Our first trip was a 2-hour heinous bus trip. The road was still under construction so we had to go cross-country. I was so sore by the end of the trip and ecstatic that I hadn’t eaten a big breakfast. But during our 2nd trip, it went a lot smoother. We were able to travel on an actual road. Seeing a black paved road caused my heart to leap with joy. Tears came to my eyes.
It’s tough finding body lotion. All the PC girls are becoming a little frantic because we can’t find body lotion anywhere.
I’m impressed with the food selection in the supermarkets. I have found Nutella, various jams, plenty of fruit and vegetables, and Pringles. I read how I would have trouble finding fruit and vegetables but there are plenty here. I expect this might change come winter time. The one thing that always throws me for a loop is seeing a massive haunch of meat just sitting in a cooler for anyone to pick up. While there is a variety of food a person can find, my meals usually consist of rice, meat, and egg.
Mongolians love sports. Whenever I meet someone, they would ask me for my name, where I’m from, and “Do you like sports?” I’ve played basketball twice already and more people always come to the court when they hear the sound of the ball bouncing – either on foot or by horse!
I know how to make a dung fire and a wood fire. My little house gets nice and toasty.
With three other PCTs, I walked to the top of a hill where I got to see my entire soum and beyond. At the top of the hills are Ovoos or a cairn, human made piles or stacks of stone and wood. You must walk around an Ovoo clockwise three times in order to have a safe journey. Then you must place your own stone in the Ovoo.
There is nothing soft to sit on. Bus seats are hard. Chairs are hard. The beds are hard. It’s like sitting on rough rock all the time.
I’m awful at making buuz. There is a certain way to pinch the dough so the dough looks like flower petals on the top. My host family pinches the dough so quickly!
I went swimming in the river. The water only came up to my knees so by swimming I mean that I submerged myself in the water. It was an idyllic scene. A herd of white and brown horses were directly across from me on the other side. Also, skipping stones is an art form that I have yet to master. My stones just go, “Ka-plonk.”
When Molly and I are out walking together, cars actually slow down to look at us. One blonde is interesting but two blondes is a phenomenon.
I would give anything to have a margarita.
I have definitely had my fair share of ups and downs.
Yes, not being able to communicate is challenging and can be frustrating. Yes, internet is hard to find. The school had internet for a while but it has disappeared on us. Probably because a teacher saw all 9 of us sitting in the hallway reading our emails and checking Facebook.
Yes, I have to draw my own water in order to clean myself. Yes, I’m afraid that I will fail as a teacher. Yes, I’m always cracking my head on the low doorways. Yes, I’m afraid that I will fall in the outhouse. Yes, people stare at me constantly like I’m an exhibit in a museum. Yes, I miss home. I miss my mom and dad. I miss walking around Lincoln Park and going to David’s Tea and the various cafes. Yes, I’m afraid that I will never find some wretched body lotion and my skin will turn into fish scales.
But Mongolia is beautiful. I have been here for less than a month and I know that I’m still settling in. All PCTs are on a family plan and we can call each other for free upon our Nokia phones. Talking, laughing, and seeing pigs snuffling along the roadside always helps to pull me out my ruts. With time, everything will get better but for now, I will continue taking one day at a time.
“We are now one big family,” says my host mother to me.
Respiratory illness. Delightful food. Diarrhea. Woods, mountains, and steppes. Slow and sometimes lack of wifi. New friends. Cold showers or no showers. Naadam festival. Frostbite. Yaks and horses. Scabies. Host family. Pickpocketing. Gers. New language. Teacher. Travel. Peace Corps.
Mongolia, land of the blue sky.
Above are some problems that I will be encountering during my two-year stay in Mongolia with the Peace Corps. However, what I’m most excited for strongly outmatches the negative facets of my journey.
I have already been in Mongolia for 5 days.
Rewind though on how I came to be in Mongolia.
When I left home, I was very sad when I gave my dog a final squeeze and when I waved goodbye to my mom and dad in the airport. I was like a pack mule who was in no great shape or form to be lugging over a 100 pounds in luggage, but my noodle arms won out in the end. I had to endure many uncomfortable and strange looks that were directed my way: “No, I swear. Nothing weird here. I’m with the Peace Corps…”
From Seattle, 52 brave souls flew Air Delta to Seoul, South Korea. That was an 11-hour flight. However, Seoul was where we ran into a bump on the road. We had to pick up all our luggage and then check them back in for Air Korea.
“I’m sorry, but you can only check one bag,” was what the woman at checkout told me. I had a mini heart attack, of course. “One bag? But we all need to check in our winter and summer bags! We’re with the Peace Corps.”
There was confusion as no one in the airport knew what to do with us. Many phone calls later and with a sigh of relief, our bags were finally accepted. Then ten minutes later, I ultimately was told – and this was after my bags were handed in at check out – that I had to return because there was a problem with one of my bags. My heart resumed its palpitations again. Upon my return, I was told that security wanted to check my bag because of my “spray.”
“They found my pepper spray,” is what I initially thought. No. They wanted to investigate my bug spray.
After explaining and demonstrating what it does, I was finally able to say “See ya!” to my obese bags. Air Korea flew us 2.5 hours to Ulaanbaatar. No turbulence on both flights. We finally landed in Chinggis Khaan International Airport Monday at midnight on 30 April where a host of Peace Corps workers greeted us.
Due to not being able to say exactly where I am (Peace Corps rules), I can describe it for you.
I am just north of Ulaanbaatar. When you walk down the gravel driveway from our hotel, take a right, you can walk further down into the aimeg where you see an assortment of cabin-like houses; abandoned homes; homes that are half-way through construction and then have been abandoned; modern homes with balconies; orange and green houses; and dotted along the edge of the woods and all over the fields, are Mongolia’s white gers that stand as a stark contrast against the green grass and trees.
While marveling at these new road sights, we were accompanied by horned cows and yaks with fluffy tails who marched stoutly on. Along the road were also guard dogs that were chained up. Surrounding the hotel are hills and woodlands. A couple of times, I have wondered up into the hills via a wooded trail.
My first week in Mongolia has predominantly been spent inside the hotel on rock-hard chairs, learning the 411 of the Peace Corps and how to survive in Mongolia. The food has been fantastic. Lots of meat, rice, salad, watermelon and apple slices, a variety of soups, potatoes, yogurt, and buuz. I can’t complain yet. After dinner, we were then free to do whatever we wanted. So, I will be leaving for my host family with a well-stocked medical kit, a heavy-duty sleeping bag, a water filter, a cell phone, and most importantly…the understandings and knowledge to not get horribly sick or die during my two years of service, (fingers crossed).
What makes me laugh is how this area of Mongolia reminds me so much of my time on Lövön in Sweden. Being able to walk through the woods and keeping a sharp eye out for ticks, the camp-like living arrangements and cold water, and a sense of isolation from the rest of the country. Do I feel homesick yet? No. Evidently I will, but not quite yet.
Saturday morning on 4 June, I’m departing for my host family. Again, I’m not allowed to say where I will be living for the next three months of Peace Corps Training (PCT), but I have heard nothing but wonderful things about the place. It will take at least – a heavy emphasis on the “at least” – six to seven hours by bus. As Suran said, “Culturally, we don’t promise time, but, we promise you will get to your sights on the same day.”
It feels like only yesterday that I received my email that I have been accepted into the Peace Corps in Mongolia on 23 September 2015. At the time, I was still interning for WTTW/Chicago Tonight. But it also feels like another lifetime ago. Eight months have gone by – (four of those months I spent working at Shaw’s Crab House with a fabulous host team) – and here I am on 25 May…nervously sipping my tea and hoping I haven’t forgotten anything.
I’ve got to admit though that my favorite part of telling people that I’m leaving with the Peace Corps to Mongolia has been seeing the ripple of confusion sweeping over their faces as their eyes cloud over and their minds frantically think: Where’s that again?!?! I love Mongolia BBQ! That’s the country with Genghis Khan, right?!?! HORSES!
I can honestly say that the most difficult part has been packing. Since November, I have slowly been accumulating everything: under armor, a backpacking bag, heavy socks, a warm pair of pants, etc. I can only check in two bags – (one winter bag that will go into storage during the summer months and a summer bag) – with the goal of them weighing no more than 50 pounds… I will be flying to Seattle for three nights and then on 28 May, I will be off to Mongolia via South Korea.
However, this past month has been incredible. My grandmother from Scotland flew in for a two week visit; my university and childhood friends all banded together at my going away party; I got to travel back into Chicago a few more times; I ate my weight in seafood during my last dinner in America. Simultaneously, I was also saying goodbye, or a see you later: “I’ll just be gone for a bit,” to everything and everyone.
I am both nervous and excited but that is as it should be.
My mom and I recently watched “Brooklyn” together and the quote that resonates with me is:
“You’ll feel so homesick that you’ll want to die, and there’s nothing you can do about it apart from endure it. But you will, and it won’t kill you… and one day the sun will come out and you’ll realize that this is where your life is.”
I will be missing my family but thank God for FaceTime, email, Facebook, and WhatsApp! Am I right?
I wish there was something more eloquent to say before I leave but all I can think of is that this is what I have been wanting to do for many years now and I’m going to enjoy every minute of it. Even if I am freezing in -30 weather or I get bowled over by an ice cream craving so great because as my friend Audrey Bailey said to me last night:
“Nothing is ever as bad as what we image it to be.”