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.
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.”
A morning’s sunrise.
An evening’s sunset.
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.
First holidays abroad and I must admit, it was tough on me. There were just too many Buchanan traditions I missed out on that I craved all throughout December such as seeing our Swedish Christmas tomtes decorating our home; decorating the Christmas tree; baking Swedish gingerbread cookies while munching on the dough; walking amongst all the twinkling lights that crown Chicago; eating a smorgasbord for dinner; driving to the airport at midnight with my dad to pick up my brother; and pestering my dad with my incessant chatter that makes him wish my brothers came home more often.
But Peace Corps Volunteers must adapt to new changes in their lives. So I made the most of my new situation. Just like in America, all stores in my aimag were decorated for Christmas and New Year’s. The government square had a large Christmas tree in the center. In the market, small Christmas trees were being sold along with lights, ornaments, little Santa jackets, and ribbons. I played Christmas music in the mornings and plugged my Christmas lights in every night.
My school held a Christmas/New Year concert in the sports hall. Each grade decorated a small Christmas tree that were lined up alongside the stage. Students sang and danced and Santa gave out presents to the best students. The Russian Santa isn’t a jolly, fat, and red suited fella we’re used to but is tall, thin, and dresses all in white.
I also attended the Young Teachers Christmas (Shinjil) party with my site mate, Jenni. The hall was decorated with snowflakes hanging from the ceiling, a Christmas tree was flashing away in a corner, banners saying “Merry Christmas” hung on the walls, Santa made an appearance, and women wore glittery dresses. At seeing the dresses, it felt like I had been transported back to high school prom while simultaneously feeling under dressed. Yet, the real Christmas miracle was having fresh pineapple delivered to our table. My first taste of pineapple in 6 months.
During IST, Peace Corps gave each aimag a turkey. Having never prepared a turkey before, I did extensive research before undertaking the task. What did I come to realize? That a big turkey requires a big pot that requires a large refrigerator. A counterpart supplied me with the pot but the pot barely managed to get into my tiny fridge. I was lying in bed when I heard a thumping sound but I thought it was the children next door to me. The thump came again and then I remembered that a massive pot filled to the rim with salt water in which a turkey was floating in was in my fridge. I caught the pot before the entire shelf came crashing down. My Friday night was spent duct taping my shelf back up and cutting up the turkey into many pieces to be put into a smaller pot. There was turkey blood everywhere.
Nevertheless, our Christmas Eve feast was a success with the turkey, roasted potatoes and carrots, and cinnamon rolls. On Christmas, we prepared a brunch that included blueberry scones and strawberries. I chatted with my family and opened my Christmas packages my parents sent. It was a Christmas spent with my sitemates who become like family during your service.
For New Year’s Eve, my counterpart invited me to her home. She had spent two hours the day before preparing buuz, Mongolian steamed dumplings. I feasted on the most delicious buuz I’ve ever had. At midnight, 2017 swept in as little fireworks popped in the sky.
What’s my New Year resolution? I don’t really have one except to continue my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
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.
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.”
On the weekends, I get invited over to my counterpart’s home where they generously feed me.
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.
My next blog post will be about my trip with Bookbridge students to eastern Mongolia for an English camp.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 ofmy 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.
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.
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.
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 Independence Day, I was given my Mongolian name:
It means #1 or winner.
Now, whoever said, “Don’t pack shorts! You’ll never wear them!” should be strung up by their toes. The summers here are sweltering. I’m thankful that I brought a pair of running shorts that I always pull on once I’m back from school. At least the sun has given me an incredible tan that is offsetting my blonde hair.
Currently, my host mother’s university friend and her 8-year-old son are visiting from UB to avoid the Nadaam crowds in the city. She told me that she works for “Монгол Сайхан” – “Beautiful Mongolia” – a 30-minute show illuminating Mongolia’s nature and beautiful scenery.
Nadaam, consisting of the “Three Manliest Sports” that are archery, wrestling, and horse riding, began on 11 July. Only recently have women been allowed to participate in only archery and horse racing. However, very few do. Nadaam in my soum will start on the 20th. I will be wearing my brand new deel.
On 9 July, with my host mother and two other PCTs, we took the minibus into Darkhan to go deel shopping. There were a plethora of stores that you could enter filled from top to bottom with lively and vibrant colors. Being almost 6 ft. tall and slim, I was the last one to finally find a deel that fit without any major adjustments made to it. It felt like I was shopping for a prom dress. You can just ask my parents how long that took. There were no changing rooms so we were changing in any empty corner we could find. Now that I have my first summer deel, I can’t wait to buy my winter deel. We wandered some more around the markets. I kept my backpack pulled tight to my stomach to avoid any fingers that could squirm into any pockets.
I have also recovered from my first bout of food poisoning.
The cause of it?… ICE CREAM.
On 16 July at 1:30pm, my host mother came home from the supermarket with popsicles. Within 10 minutes after eating mine, it felt like little mice feet were skittering about in my stomach. For the entire day, I felt nauseous and was knocked out cold. To make it even worse, we drove out to the countryside to the grandmother’s house to swim and eat dinner. After swimming, I fell asleep for three hours as everyone was tiptoeing around me. The following day, I was attacked by diarrhea. Every 10 minutes, I had to trek out to the outhouse. At one point, it felt like I was squatting in there long enough for me to carve my name into the wood. But my host mother whipped me up some rice water.
1/4 cup of rice
3 cups of water
Boil 1/4 cup of rice in 3 cups of water for 30 minutes. Leave to cool for another 30 minutes and then sprinkle in some salt.
This really helped in my recovery but I had to force it down. In the end, I emerged from my little house to live another day. But enough of this.
Finally, it is strawberry picking season and the berries are so itty bitty tiny. I helped to make 8 jars of the most delicious strawberry jam. First, I had to pluck off all the stems and leaves. Then my host mother placed a large pot over the fire and poured in a small ladle of water followed by 4 kg of sugar. Then we poured in 4.5 kg of strawberries. The whole process only took 20 minutes as we took turns stirring the sugar and jam until it liquefied into a delightful aroma of fresh home-made jam.
Here are some more succinct highlights:
We had a mock language test to prepare ourselves for the real test at the end of training. I wasn’t awful but I wasn’t good.
We began practice teaching at the beginning of July. It’s very similar to our micro lessons except we teach for 40 minutes with more thorough planning. Currently, we’ve been on a two-week break from teaching because of Nadaam.
The river is our only reprieve from the heat. Like a Viking, I go jumping into the cold water.
I finally finished watching Game of Thrones season 6. That finale!
All of our host families came together and had a volleyball tournament. It was also a sneaky way to get us all together and remind both host families and PCTs of the 8pm curfew.
I have replaced my Illinois license with my new Mongolian ID, a Certificate of Alien Registration.
After two weeks of the same breakfast, two sausages and bread dipped in egg batter, my mouth was salivating at the thought of oatmeal with lingonberry, Swedish pancakes, and toast topped with my favorite cheese. Luckily, my host mother has become attuned to my thoughts and bought me Choco Chip cereal. Now, I haven’t eaten cereal in over a year, but I rejoiced in the change. She also gave me two jars of peanut butter. I’ve never been a fan of peanut butter but I’ve got to eat what is available.
I taught my host siblings and their cousins, “Round a round a circle like a teddy bear…” It’s what my Granny always use to do to me when I was little and now I’m constantly having all the small children running towards me with their palms stretched out yelling, “TEDDY BEAR, TEDDY BEAR!”
Now what do I do in my free time when I’m not bogged down by PCT work? I’m reading the 8th Outlander book, “Written in My Own Heart’s Blood,” off of my Kindle.
We’ve been told by our language teachers and our cross-cultural team that we should learn a couple of Mongolian songs for when we are asked to sing. Fortunately, if we learn just the first few lines of a song, Mongolians will quickly jump in and sing along thus saving us from embarrassment. With my croaky voice, I will need saving.