One year in Mongolia

1 June was Children’s Day in Mongolia, a national holiday.

With no school, children were outside playing and families were in the government square where there were toy cars for kids to drive around in, a swing set, and the museum had free admittance.

1 June is also another significant day for me.

I have been in Mongolia for one-year. I have completed one year of Peace Corps service.

When I looked back on what I have written during my service – (I have written more than 500 uncensored pages of my Peace Corps experiences) – it has been fascinating to see how I have transformed in this country.

Here’s brief one-year summary of my first year. Let us precede down memory lane.

June 2016

  • Arriving in Mongolia with 52 PCVs.
  • My Peace Corps training site was in a small soum in northern Mongolia where I lived with a host family and 8 other PCVs.
  • Peace Corps training was like a boot camp: early mornings, a nightly curfew, long hours of lessons, and if you screwed up, you were sent home.
  • Being hit hard by homesickness, being sick for 3-weeks, and the long hours of language class.
  • My first Mongolian sentence I learned was, “I eat egg.”
  • I feared the outhouses because I thought I was going to fall through and learned the importance of emptying your pockets.
  • Numerous ducky-showers in my blue tumpun.
  • The “Where’s Nancy?” moment during ping pong.
  • Driving to the Russian border.
  • Thunder storms that took out the power.
  • Our sacred wifi spot on the 2nd floor in the school hallway.
  • Not being able to keep a straight face during mico-teaching or saying/hearing the word, “болох уу.” We were the worst.

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July 2016

  • The hottest month of the year.
  • Being given a Mongolian name, Анхмаа (Ankmaa).
  • Celebrating Naadam in my new summer deel.
  • Having our trainer saying she needs to buy somethings before visiting the Mother Tree and coming out with ice cream, “Does the Mother Tree also need some pizza?”
  • River day!
  • Being told that I didn’t have what it takes to live in Mongolia due to its “rough” nature: “Winters are tough. It’s not for everyone.”
  • Getting food poisoning from ice cream.
  • Obtaining a closer relationship with my host family.
  • Having a mouse infestation in my home.
  • Andy: “Everybody, I have an announcement. I’ve decided to resign myself from Peace Corps……Just kidding, tomorrow morning, we’re having a river cleanup day.”
  • Karaoke night.

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August 2016

  • Exploring Darkhan with Emma and her host sister.
  • Host Family Appreciation Party by the river.
  • My host mom’s farewell text message after saying goodbye: “Love you my family. Good luck. See you come back soon.”
  • Getting my official site placement in western Mongolia.
  • Waiting three hours for our food in a Korean restaurant:“This is like prison food.”
  • Officially becoming 46 Peace Corps Volunteers during Mongolia’s 25th anniversary.
  • Meeting my counterparts and having my first teacher party where they spoke in Mongolian. Not knowing the language, I found myself intensely watching a high jump competition on TV.

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September 2016

  • The beginning of the school year.
  • Moving Jenni into her new home and having to carry a mattress up the stairs: “Pivot!”
  • Walking on the outskirts of the ger district with my site mates.
  • Seeing a yellow Labrador.
  • Pizza night with the Catholic nuns.
  • Receiving the devastating news that Angelina divorced Brad.
  • Weekend in Kharkhorin and visiting Erdene Zuu Monastery.
  • 25 September was the first snowfall.

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October 2016

  • Celebrating Teachers Day.
  • Starting our Saturday speaking club, The Chatty Bunch.
  • My friend Zulmka getting accepted to study abroad in Luxembourg.
  • Buying a bottle of wine and figuring out later, as we took our first sips, that it was brandy.
  • Celebrating Halloween with Bookbridge students.
  • Celebrating Tuya’s birthday.

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November 2016

  • Consolidation day drill: “Happy Drill Day. Hope nobody is illegally traveling.”
  • The 20-hour drive to Khentii and the Bookbridge English Festival.
  • Seeing the Genghis Khan statue in all its shiny glory.
  • Celebrating Friendsgiving twice at home and in Bayanhongor.
  • My radiator bursting and leaking water everywhere.
  • Almost missing the bus that would take me to IST.

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December 2016

  • Seeing everyone again at IST and finally having a hot shower.
  • Finally getting internet.
  • Walking in -20-degree weather to the Sunday Market.
  • The Young Teachers Christmas Party.
  • Having a crippling stomach inflammation that kept me bed-ridden for days.
  • Having a sleepover on Christmas Eve.
  • Having a low-key New Year’s celebration with two of my counterparts.  

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January 2017

  • Vising the horse statues and having a winter picnic on 1 January.
  • Finally buying an oven. Best decision I’ve made.
  • Turning 24 years old.
  • Having my lowest point of my service when my CP made me cry.

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February 2017

  • A three-day language seminar.
  • Making my Peace Corps hospitality video.
  • Perrin: “You want to eat at the vegetarian restaurant?” Simon: “Pizza chicken?!?!” Perrin: “No….”
  •  The Write On competition.
  • Having Mongolian dance lessons.
  • Finding and buying bags of frozen strawberries.
  • Celebrating Tsagaan Sar, Mongolia’s New Year in my new winter deel.

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March 2017

  • Watching Tuya rain hell on the woman who cheated me out of my internet data.
  • Going on a run with Perrin and getting chased by some youths. “Piss off” probably wasn’t the best Peace Corps response to them.
  • Telling Adiya I wanted to make some tsuvien but she mistakenly thought I said soybean so she was trying to look up what soybean was.
  • Wear your deel to school day.
  • Eating fish for the first time in months.
  • A massive snow storm that hit us at the end of the month.
  • Traveling to UB where I ate so much food and watched “Beauty and the Beast.”

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April 2017

  • Having a three-day TedX workshop for 33 students.
  • Making pizza with Adiya and her kids.
  • Going to the hair salon and having six people watch me as I got my hair cut.
  • Uuganaa: “I’m so proud you are here in Mongolia.”
  • Teaching the best class all year with my 6th graders.
  • Going hiking in the countryside and getting hit by a rain and wind storm.

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May 2017

  • The last month of school.
  • Arvaikheer’s trash cleanup day.
  • Dust storms.
  • Inviting all my English teachers to my home for dinner.
  • Buying material for my new summer deel.
  • Ted X Arvaikheer being a success with 3 students speaking in English.
  • Having dinner with people from the US Embassy and Mongolia’s Fulbright candidates.
  • Traveling 16 hours to Erdenet for Special Olympics.

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One more year!

Hygge in Mongolia

Moving to a new country has its moments:

It’s exciting. It’s new. There’s an adrenaline rush.

But, it’s also nerve-wrecking and scary.

Unlike America, Mongolia follows its own set of rules. The country is still developing but its culture and traditions have been firmly rooted in Mongolian life for hundreds of years. It has all been a whirl wind for me.

When thrown into a country that is not your own, you will experience:

  1. A new language that can create excitement when you can understand something or frustrations when you have no idea what is being said.
  2. A new sense of time. America is a punctual country. More then 5-minutes late and you are questioned or given a warning while you try to put the blame on how bad the traffic was or how the train was delayed. In Mongolia, if you are more then 30-minutes late, no questions are asked. You simply say, “I was at the market,” “I had to go to the bank,” “I had to eat lunch,” or absolutely nothing.
  3. A new work environment. In Mongolia, classes are run differently and are more teacher focused then student focused. For example, students aren’t asked for their opinion on subject matter and there is a lack of critical thinking. Substitute teachers don’t exist. If a teacher can’t come to school another teacher will cover their classes.
  4. A lot of staring. Wherever I go, whatever I do, I always get stared at. When I got a haircut, I had 6 people staring unflinchingly at me through the mirror. Many Mongolians have never seen an American before and that I understand, so I say hi to the children or I look straight ahead and ignore it, but I also have moments when I don’t want to leave my home.
  5. New holidays such as Mongolian New Year, Tsagaan Sar, and Naadam, Mongolia’s summer holiday.
  6. Different weather. Winter and summer are Mongolia’s dominant seasons. Luckily, I’m from Chicago so the cold winter didn’t throw me off kilter. In the fall, it will start to snow as early as September and in the spring we get wind and dust storms.
  7. A new diet. Mongolia has no seafood and unless you are in UB, there is no Mexican, Indian, or sushi to be eaten.

But you can also make new friends, eat new food, discover a new talent, explore, make great memories, and become aware of what you are capable of when on your own in a foreign country.  

Therefore, it has become essential for me to find ways to relax. To have myself a comfortable alcove where it’s just me and for a few hours the outside world doesn’t exist.

So, what do I do?

I’m trying to live with some “Hygge” in my life – (not to be confused with “lagom” which is something else entirely).

Pronounced “Hoo guh,” hygge is, “A quality of coziness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being.”

The key words being cozy and content.

My main ingredients for such a feeling consists of:

  • Tea
  • Fuzzy socks
  • Comfortable pants
  • Candles
  • My kindle, I have already read 25 books, or my hard drive of movies.
  • Music
  • Baked goods that I either buy or bake myself.
  • Cat naps as I bask in the sun that shines through my windows.

When something causes me stress or frustration, it’s important that I have a comfortable home away from home to come back to.

A hike in the countryside

27 April marked the first day since October that I didn’t have to wear my two layer winter coat outside.

However, now that it’s spring, Mongolian weather is experiencing some mood swings as the weather shifts from warm to cold on a day-by-day basis.

One day it’s warm. The next day, there is a dust storm.

One day it’s warm and sunny. The next day, there’s a 30-minute snow storm.

One day the sky is blue. The next day, the sky turns moody and gray and grumbles as another wind storm arrives.

Or all four seasons happen in a single day.

I went on a hike into the countryside with students. A day that started out brilliantly but was eventually thwarted by the weather.

Schools are still taking Olympiad exams. Students compete to place 1st, 2nd, and 3rd in their school subjects. I think the concept is utterly ridiculous as students and even teachers are put under a lot of pressure by administration to compete for the best score.

So, going out on a hike was a perfect diversion to leave school behind.

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There is still snow and ice out in the countryside.
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We had brought a jump rope and a ball to play volleyball and soccer.

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When we set off, it was warm enough for me to take my jacket off and frolic about in short sleeves.

But 30-minutes after we finally found our spot, the sun vanished, it began to rain, and the wind forced us to find shelter against the rocky outcrop of a hill.

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I couldn’t help but laugh as I sat there against the rocks trying to rub life back into my cold fingers. I should have realized that this was going to happen. But as I sat there with Mongolian students ranging from 7th to 11th grade, this had just become another comical moment that I stored away into my memory to reminisce about later in the future.

 

Spring Break in UB

A blizzard hit my aimag on the first day of spring break. It was by no means a gentle snow fall but with the help of strong winds the cold snow was whipped into my face making it impossible to see as I walked. So, I hunkered down in my apartment, holding a mug of hot chocolate while watching cars getting stuck in the snow, motorcyclists walking their bikes, and small children drowning in the snow drifts as their older siblings came to their rescue. Later, when I had to go food shopping, I found myself floundering as the snow came up to my knees in certain places.

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My counterpart, in the red coat, walking across the government square.
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The hill next to my yellow school later became a place for sledding and snowball fights.
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The road from my apartment building to the market and center of town.

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The very weekend the snow storm hit was the weekend me and my site mates were supposed  to go to Ulaanbaatar. Sadly, the storm shut the bus station down for four-days because all the roads were buried in snow. This brings me to the next chapter of my story.

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My counterpart’s daughter making snow angels in front of a ger.

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As the roads were gradually cleared and the bus station opened, luckily, a window of opportunity opened up and I was able to travel to UB. I had to visit the dentist and so I was on medical leave. I traveled without my site mates making this the first time I had to travel in Mongolia by myself. On the morning of my departure, I waited for my driver to take me to the station but he never showed. As if by coincidence, my counterpart came to my home at 7:30 in the morning and walked with me to the bus. The drive to the city took eight-hours. It was slow going driving north as roads were still covered in snow and my bus stopped by a house for 30-minutes without any explanation. The season also transitioned from winter to spring the closer I got to UB. Ironically, as my aimag was getting pounded by snow, UB was getting dazzled by sunshine and clear blue skies.

A lot happened as a PCV, who still has no grasp of the Mongolian language, toured around UB. I miss city life. My aimag has a large market plus a bakery and a coffee shop but I miss seeing buildings and seeing more variety of shops and stores.

I ran into a lot of unexpected people:

While walking to the Peace Corps Office, I ran into my 5th grade student. Her mother bought me a cookie from the café we were standing in front of.

I heard an “Anna?” as I was running late for my dentist appointment. It was Kevin B who was back in Mongolia. I must have had my peripheral vision turned off because I didn’t notice as a 7-ft. man walked right past me.

A Mongolian woman pretended to tie her shoes as she waited for me to catch up to her on the sidewalk. She was eager to talk about America and had never met a “Chicago girl” before. She lives in a soum three-hours away from my aimag.

When I showed up at my hostel, I didn’t know if any PCVs would be there but funnily enough there is always a guarantee there will be some in the city. As I was eating breakfast in the hostel kitchen, my Peace Corps trainer from last summer, Matt, plopped down on the stool in front of me with a, “What’s up, Anna?”

While I was waiting for my bus to leave at the Dragon Center, a man tried to pick pocket me. He probably thought the blonde hair was a dead giveaway for a stupid tourist with open pockets containing an iPhone just ripe for the picking. He wasn’t pleased when I swerved around him as his grubby hand unsuccessfully swiped my jacket followed by my triumphant smirk as I descended down the escalator.

Food, food, food:

I was most excited about eating food in UB. In fact, the only pictures I took while in UB was of food. I ate cheeseburgers at Ruby Room and Granville, a stir-fried dish at a Korean restaurant, had a large popcorn at the movies, munched on various delicacies in a café, and ate a bagel with salmon at Khan Deli.

 

Taxi rides:

After 10 months, my Mongolian is still awful. However, it has made transportation either very amusing or terrifying. When I got off the bus at the Dragon Center, I was swamped by men yelling,

“Taxi?

Taxi!

Taxi?!?!”

Everyone in Mongolia is a cab driver.

The first car I got into, the driver walked away leaving me in it. I quickly got out and  power walked away farther down Peace Avenue. The second car had never heard of Peace Corps and couldn’t understand what I was saying, (I couldn’t blame him though). The office doesn’t exactly have an address so I was saying, “Suhkbataar Square,” and “Coke can.” I just called someone at Peace Corps to talk to him followed by many “ahhhhh, zaa zaa zaa!”

The afternoon when I had to go back to the Dragon Center, I hailed down a driver who didn’t know what the Dragon Center was. The driver was in a good mood and called a friend who speaks English. Apparently, you need to replace the “A” sound in dragon and emphasize more of an “O” sound. For 30 minutes, we combined our minimal English and Mongolian and chatted about the weather, Mongolia, food, and the Chicago Bulls.

I should really improve my language but I still surprisingly get around without the need for fluency.

Finally, *cue the music*…

A tale as old as time:

I grew up watching Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” and just had to watch the live version in IMAX 3D and it was so good! The woman next to me was swiping away tears from under her 3D glasses. Or maybe that was me.

The next time I will be back in the city will be when my parents come to visit in the summer!

Shagai

After the long Tsagaan Sar break, all schools have a “wear your deel to school day.”

A deel, if you remember, is Mongolia’s traditional clothing that is worn in the countryside and during holidays such as Tsagaan Sar during the winter and Nadaam during the summer.

There is nothing more adorable then seeing small children in their deels. At my school, there were more younger students strutting about in their deels then the older high school students.

 

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Group photo with my 5th grade class.

 

Students also played shagai, an ankle bone game.

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When you toss the ankle bones, the four shagai positions are from left to right: camel, horse, sheep, and goat.

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This game is called “Horse Race” and can last for a very long time.

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Another game students played is when you throw an ankle bone into the air and with the same hand try to swipe up as many ankle bones from the floor before you catch the falling ankle bone. If you successfully catch the ankle bone, you keep the ankle bones you swiped.

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Celebrating Tsagaan Sar

Ready…Set…Tsagaan Sar!

Tsagaan Sar felt like a race that began weeks in advance. Stores were being emptied out, I had to wait 30 minutes in a line at the ATM as a dead goat was being shoved into my back, and many folk from the countryside came in for weekend shopping trips. I heard the word “Opoc” (Russia) being whispered as I stealthy weaved through the crowds.   

What is Tsagaan Sar?

Tsagaan Sar is Mongolia’s Lunar New Year.

Because this is a brand new holiday for all of us, Peace Corps prepared us with what to expect and taught us the proper greetings. Below are just three examples:

Сар шинийн мэнд хүргэе! – Happy Tsagaan Sar!

Сайхан шинэлээрэй! – Have a good Tsagaan Sar!

Сар шиндээ сайхан шинж байна уу?  – Are you having a good Tsagaan Sar?

In my new winter deel, I visited five homes where I stuffed myself like a glutton. It was the epitome of being fat and happy.

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Every Mongolian household puts together a display of food on the eve of Tsagaan Sar. The layers of all the bread represent happiness and sadness. Always beginning and ending the year in happiness. On top are white food items such as sugar cubes, aaruul, and white mints. The color white represents the moon. Then there is a massive chunk of beef guests can carve from, fruit, and a bowl of sweets.

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What does Tsagaan Sar entail?

  • Food – So much food! The main entre is buuz. Every family makes over a thousand buuz. There are also more plates of meat with slices of pickles plus chocolate. You can drink milk tea, airag, vodka, beer, and juice.

Two weeks before the holiday, I went to the supermarket. The atmosphere of the supermarket was much like a gladiatorial fight. People were fighting over boxes; straight, organized lines at the cashier no longer existed. People were trying to step in front of each other while old women showed no mercy as they shoved themselves to the very front; the last couple of eggs, bags of bread and apples, and packages of chocolate chip cookies were swiftly scooped up. But before I got caught up in all of it, I promptly made a u-turn and bee- lined it to another less raucous supermarket. Thus, I had to stock my kitchen with food as if the apocalypse was approaching. Later, on 6 March, stores still didn’t have dairy products or bread.

  • Family – Tsagaan Sar is all about visiting family. Depending on how large a family is… and Mongolian families are large…you can spend two-weeks or more visiting each others gers and apartments. Visits can be short or long depending on how busy your day is.

 

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My counterpart Nymdavaa and her husband in their home.

 

  • Winter deels – Tsagaan Sar is a blast to the past honoring Mongolian tradition by wearing a deel. Seamstresses are busy months in advance creating new winter deels for men and women, boys and girls.
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On top of a hill with an ovoo, a sacred stone heap.
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My counterpart’s daughter also wearing a blue deel.
  • Presents – After every visit, Mongolians give presents to every visitor before they leave. It can be a variety of items such as candy, cookies, money, soap, and makeup.

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Some Peace Corps Volunteers have described the holiday as being a lot like Halloween (going out and visiting houses), Thanksgiving (eating a lot of food), and Christmas (giving and receiving presents) all rolled up into one big holiday.

My school also had a ceremony.

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A Buddhist monk attended the ceremony. We were all given three white food items: a wafer, a peppermint, and a sugar cube. As the monk chanted and incense wafted up into the air, we had to circle our hands, while holding the items, when directed by the monk. I was very close to chomping down on the wafer beforehand but quickly stopped myself when I saw no one else was eating.

 

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Me with my school’s English and Russian teachers.

 

Now its Spring!

Tsagaan Sar also symbolizes the end of winter and the beginning of spring. The weather already feels warmer. It won’t be shorts weather until May or June but the sun is shining bright.

Peace Corps challenge: Hospitality

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

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

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

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

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

You have until 21 February to vote.

VOTE MONGOLIA!

Write On!

On the second floor of the theater, the only sound was the scratching of pens on paper in a quiet room. Some students instantly began to write while others stared blankly off into the distance trying to categorize their jumbled minds of Mongolian and English.

As someone who spent hours writing silly (and cringe-worthy) stories as a child and whom was heavily inspired after reading “The Lord of the Rings” in elementary school, I was very excited for this particular event.

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9 February was the Write On! competition. Write On is a creative writing competition that grades 6th through 12th including university students and young professionals can compete in. Organized by Peace Corps Volunteers, Write On is held in 22 Peace Corps countries. Mongolia joined the competition in 2011. The objective of the competition is to allow students of all ages to be creative and to just go crazy with their imaginations.

During January, we organized and held two writing workshops for students in our aimag. The first workshop was “How to write a creative story” – introduction, rising action, conflict, falling action, and resolution – while our second workshop was “Using your imagination.” Students won’t know what the story prompts are until they arrive. From 9AM to 5PM, students came when they wanted. They were allowed only 90 minutes to write.

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10 February was judging day. Many hours were spent in the theater reading all the stories and let me tell you…boy, were some of them entertaining! Each story was read by three different people and if there was a tie in score a fourth reader was needed.

Finally, the awards ceremony was on 11 February. The stories who came in 1st place will move on to compete in the national level. We are very proud of our winners and our counterparts who sacrificed their time helping us.

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Next year I will be a National Coordinator for Write On!

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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