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!

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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!

Happy New Year

Шинэ жилийн мэнд хүргэе!

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.

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 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.

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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.  

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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. 

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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.

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From Thanksgiving to Christmas

I hope everyone had a lovely turkey day! I on the other hand, felt very ill and was coughing up a lung by the time Thanksgiving rolled around but I managed to roll out of bed to celebrate. On 23 November, my site-mate Jenni hosted a Friendsgiving at her apartment. We managed to squeeze 12 people into her small apartment. This was only done by lifting Jenni’s mattress up against the wall, bringing an extra hot plate, stools, and having her counterparts bring their own bowls and forks. For the third year in the row, I was in charge of the mashed potatoes – mainly because I might poison all 12 people if I bake or cook something.

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With my 6th and 7th graders in speaking club. We drew turkeys.

Then on 25 November, we hopped onto a bus from Ulaanbaatar that took us west to Bayankhongor. We felt like hitchhikers as we waited with our backpacks at a gas station for the bus. Another Friendsgiving was held that weekend as we celebrated with our friends, sang karaoke, went dancing, and saw some dinosaurs.

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A dinosaur park in Bayankhongor.
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A picture I snapped during a rest stop to UB.

 

At the beginning of December, all Peace Corps Volunteers and our counterparts traveled to UB for an In-Service Seminar held at the Park Hotel. The purpose of this? To strengthen work relationships between PCVs and counterparts. Our schedule was packed leaving no time to venture outside. We had Mongolian language class; TEFL (Teach English as a Foreign Language) training; various sessions such as critical thinking in the classroom, running camps and clubs, classroom management and interaction, empowering people with disabilities, and gender equality and empowerment, plus many more. Sometimes we were together with our counterparts and often we weren’t. This went on every day from 7am to 7pm. I also still had my cold and was coughing incessantly. So much that I pulled a muscle.

It was an exhausting week with some wonderful moments:

  • Since we went our separate ways during the summer it was exciting to see everyone again. There were hugs all around! The next time we meet again will be in August 2017 for Mid-Service Training.
  • My training group from the summer got together nearly every day for meals. Friday night, we went out to the Royal Irish Pub and were joined by our technical training and language teacher.

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  • Staying in a hotel means a larger bed, no cooking, and a hot shower! The last time I had a hot shower was during staging in Seattle. I took 20-minute hot showers every night.
  • On our last night, a small group got together and we sang Christmas carols together as Keysel played his ukulele.

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My counterpart was very grateful for everything that she learned at IST.

 

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Now I’m excited for Christmas. I went on a wild goose-chase as I searched high and low to find Christmas lights in my aimeg. I got lost in a labyrinth-of-a-building and when I finally found an exit, I saw a man selling lights at his stall right outside. Now, my apartment is twinkling with red, blue, and green lights hanging over my window and bed. My stocking is hanging on my door and my advent calendar from home is propped up on my coffee table.

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Good things have happened but I have had my frustrations as well. Let me first tell you about my apartment. The repair man has become my new best friend. He has had to replace my radiator which exploded while I was away in Khentii and then he had to replace a radiator in my bathroom which exploded while I was away in Bayankhongor. Then when I came back from UB, my bathroom was leaking again. Notice a trend here? I finally told the repair man to just switch off the heating going into my bathroom because I just can’t be bothered anymore.

An immigration officer paid me a surprise visit at my school. She demanded my passport and my alien card. Like I just casually carry my passport around wherever I go. Then she said that she wanted to take it away with her to which I firmly said no and made her take a photocopy instead.

Trainwreck was an awful movie. So much hype of people telling me how funny Amy Schumer is.

I get really depressed when I see injured dogs and puppies limping on the streets.

Lesson planning can feel a lot like having my teeth being slowly pulled out but I won’t go into too much detail concerning that. All PCVs understand what I’m saying and all future PCVs will understand what I’m saying.

“As long as you live, there’s something waiting; and even if it’s bad and you know it’s bad, what can you do? You can’t stop living.”

I have sometimes thought to myself, “What is the point? I can just go home.” But I like it when tiny 5th graders come running out of their rooms to say “Hi,” when I walk by. I like it when students wave at me when I’m outside. I like it when I witness a counterpart doing a good job in the classroom. The best thing that can happen is when lesson planning goes well. Lastly, I am happy for the friends I’ve met and all the phone conversations we have when we’re apart.

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My 5th graders I teach every Friday morning.

Happy Halloween

Happy Halloween!

Happy birthday, Chinggis Khan!!

No school!!!

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There was no school on Halloween which is also Chinggis Khan’s birthday. 12th graders created all the decorations for their spooky Halloween party, baked all the food, and had games to play. They painted their faces, made home-made witch hats, wore creepy masks, and sported cat ears. There was even a live cat meowing constantly behind a curtain.

 

The Chatty Bunch

Peach Oolong, Forest Berry, Jasmine, Organic Spring Jasmine, Vanilla, Green Matcha, Green Tea Tropical, Organic Breakfast, Chamomile, Apricot Green, Ceylon, Mint, Mango Black, and English tea. Anybody who knows me knows that I need a lovely hot cup of tea every day.

Three times a day.

Living in Mongolia is no exception as my kitchen shelf is weighted down by all my bags of teas. Now that it is November and the temperature has significantly dropped, there is nothing I love more than to be done with work and to power walk back to my warm and comfortable apartment where my tea, camel blankets, and Kindle await me.

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It snowed at the beginning of the month.

Note to readers: I have recently finished reading the first two books in a new series called, “The Seven Sisters,” by Lucinda Reily. I’m obsessed. The first book is based in Brazil and the second in Norway. Third book comes out next year. To help ease the long wait, I’m trolling away on Reily’s website.

I don’t get bored here. I’m content. During the week days, I spend long hours at the school with lesson planning, teacher development, co-teaching, and with my speaking club. Many 6th graders come to my club every Tuesday. However, a counter part is unavailable – (or becomes conveniently busy) – so I am left alone to wonder how I can explain instructions and English words to small children. I’ve come to realize that it doesn’t matter what I say. They just love when I’m rambling away in English and teaching them nursery rhymes and The Beatles’ “Hello, Good Bye.”

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7th graders learn about many hobbies and write what their favorite hobbies are.

 

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11th grade students are learning adjectives. I had them watch a drone video of Chicago so they can practice using adjectives to describe the city.
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8th grade students review who, what, where, and when for asking questions.

 

 On the weekends, I get invited over to my counterpart’s home where they generously feed me.

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We celebrated my counterpart’s daughter’s birthday. She turned 5.

I shop in the markets and explore buildings where sometimes it feels like I’m wandering in a maze. A narrow hallway leads me through a copious amount of clothing stalls that are now overcrowded with puffy winter jackets; cosmetic counters littered with nail polish, Japanese eye shadow, toothbrushes, and small tubs of face whitening cream; food stands of Khuushuur and buuz that have been sitting there dormant for hours; and window displays of stunning winter deels. People push past in these close quarters so I keep my hands firmly in my pockets.  

I also assist with the Speaking Club – The Chatty Bunch –  at Bookbridge Learning Center.  Bookbridge was founded in Germany. Founded by my fellow PCV, Jenni, the goal of our speaking club is to not just be better English speakers but to become confident public speakers. With the help of our fearless leader, Uuganaa, we meet on Saturdays at 10am. We have accumulated a group of 40 students from all four schools.

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My next blog post will be about my trip with Bookbridge students to eastern Mongolia for an English camp.

Teacher’s Day

The role of a teacher in Mongolia is reveled. Students respect their teachers and a teacher’s dedication to their job and hard work is rewarded every year on the first week of October, National Teacher’s Day. This is a week-long celebration. On 30 September, 12th graders became the teachers for the day while teachers took the day off and had sport competitions all day and night.

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12th graders invade the office  as they prepare for the day.

 

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5 of my Mongolian-English counterparts before the Volleyball games.

 

I rocked up to school wearing my sneakers and volleyball outfit. I just love how everyone assumes I’m a volleyball expert because I’m tall. I usually end up kicking the ball. I didn’t know that all the teachers would eventually change into their sport outfits later. So for the first three hours, I felt very much like an awkward kangaroo, just bouncing on my heels waiting for my counterparts to change out of their fancy dresses and high heels.

Volleyball would have fared better if the ball hadn’t been rock-solid. It seemed every time that the ball ricocheted off of an arm an expletive was heard. The entire competition lasted until 2 AM. Nevertheless, we English teachers came in 2nd place and got silver medals for our bruises, sleep deprivation, and sportsmanship. In between games, we played table tennis. Teachers also bought food and drink. I went the lazy route and bought bags of chips while my counterparts make khuushuur, soup, and buuz. A thermos of hot milk tea and bottles of vodka and wine decorated the table but I had to pass on the first two due to it being 9 AM. I definitely would have been awful at volleyball if I had gone down that road.

Like Stanley Stewart wrote in his book “In the Empire of Genghis Khan:” “When Mongolians party the rest of Asia locks its doors.”  I can wearily support this statement.

At 8 PM, the volleyball competition was put on pause and was replaced with an assembly. Teachers rushed to switch outfits. The lights of the gym were dimmed and music that sounded like music from an action movie trailer started to play. All the 12th graders stood in two long lines on both sides of the gym, clapping and cheering for all the teachers as we walked down the middle. It felt like I was being applauded for winning a medal of valor. The director of the school made a speech and there were singing and dancing performances. I managed to not clumsily trip my way through the Mongolian waltz.

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The 12th grade class after the teacher-student gift exchange.

 

On 6 October, teachers from all the schools in the aimeg gathered together in the theater for an awards ceremony. There were many long and tedious Mongolian speeches. I found myself nodding off as unintelligible Mongolian was spoken, awards were awarded and pictures were taken on stage. Thankfully, the award ceremony ended and a concert began. This concert was incredible! It was every tourist’s dream who visits Mongolia. Teachers played various instruments such as the horsehead fiddle. Gorgeous outfits were worn. There was dancing and singing including throat singing. Also, when Mongolians clap, they clap together in unison.

After the concert, everyone scattered to their respected school’s party at a venue. My school’s party was held at the Wedding Palace. Dinner was served while more speeches were made and more teachers won awards. Vodka was being chugged at such as speed that I didn’t think anyone was going to show up to school the next day. The entire week was a whirlwind as I celebrated a new holiday in my new home.  

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Winter is coming

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
  • Warm leggings
  • Thick socks
  • Two hats
  • Winter boots
  • 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.

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The sun begins its asscent into the sky at 7:30 am. This picture was taken from my window.

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.

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When traveling through Mongolia, you will very rarely travel by road. You will find youself hoping you don’t break down as your car or bus drives through rivers, navigates around deep holes, slowly groans up hills, and travels over dirt roads or over grass.

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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.

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My 11A class wearing their deels while performing in a play.

Summer Flashback

Here are pictures that were taken by my Mongolian language teachers.

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Meeting my host family for the first time. Around my neck is a blue Khata, a Mongolian scarf that is presented during special occasions; births, holidays, graduations, ceremonial occasions, and the arrival and departure of guests.
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Group picture after a volleyball competition with our host families.
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Doing our best to learn Mongolian while ignoring the rumbles of hungry stomachs.
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Holding our lovely Mongolian teacher in our classroom on our last day.  
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On the day we left our soum, our host families met us at the border to wish us farewell and to take one last group picture.

Stay tuned for my next blog post:

My first day at my new school and all the victories and defeats I have suffered so far.