Kharkhorin, the super-soum north of Arvaikheer, had its first ever Halloween themed race on 14 October 2017. The goal of the race was to raise money for an NGO in UB called Achilles. Achilles raises awareness for people with disabilities. Those with disabilities ran for free while able-bodied paid a small fee. There was a 1k, 3k, and 5k race.
In contrast to the extravagant costumes the young and old create, the door-to-door trick or treating, and the parties that occur in America, Halloween in Mongolia is not as widely celebrated. There are some parties and most Mongolians instantly think of zombies. I told a 12th grade class I was once a penguin for Halloween and they didn’t understand why I would dress up as a penguin, “That’s not scary!”
I wore the wrong boots as I stood out in the governor square at 6:30 in the morning. It was pitch black as I walked the 20 minutes from my home. I also got spooked by a horse that materialized out of nowhere. As I waited for all the kids to arrive and the transportation that would take us to Kharkhorin, I was stomping my feet and curling my toes trying to bring warmth back to them.
Unlike Arvaikheer, Kharkhorin still had snow on the ground and it was a lot colder. After a nauseating 3-hour drive, we arrived just on time for a communication problem. All the kids and adults we brought with us from Arvaikheer were registering for the race inside one building while all the kids and adults from Kharkhorin were registering outside on the other side of town. Phones were ringing, and people were talking simultaneously at each other. In the end, everyone was registered for the race inside a bus in the middle of the race field.
Throughout the day, kids crowded the face painting table as the same short music playlist played on repeat all day. Every song was a remix of the original.
Races finished faster than we anticipated. As we saw runners coming towards the finish line, we had to stand by the banner with small pieces of paper that had the numbers 1, 2, and 3 for first, second, and third place to hand off to the exhausted runners. Medals and certificates were awarded to the top three from each race. I must also add that a Mongolian event would not be complete if there was not a random 5-minute dance party. But I think someone was told, “Quick, stall for time!”
After a quick meal in a woman’s ger, we all drove back to Arvaikheer. A significant amount of money was raised for Achilles and all kids, winners and non-winners, went home happy.
My last year as a TEFL teacher/trainer began on 1 September.
This school year is going to be even better than last year because I know people, I know what to expect, and I’m aware of what can be considered as a helpless cause.
But before the school year began, my Peace Corps group reunited for our mid-service training (MST) at Terelj National Park outside of UB. Unlike our in-service training (IST) in December 2016, where we had to bring our counterparts along, MST was just Peace Corps.
Many of us were unprepared for how cold it was going to be. When we arrived at the park, it was pouring down with rain and we were all running into our little wooden houses. It was cold and there was no heat in any of the buildings. However, our houses had hot showers (!!!!!) and heated floors. Every night, me and my room-mate would lay our sweaters on the ground so they would be warm and toasty in the mornings. The wear was “business causal” but for me, it was wear as many layers as possible.
It’s a beautiful park once the fog and clouds lifted. From 7am to 5:30 we were stuck in sessions but afterwards we were free to do whatever we wanted. Some of us went horse back riding (which left me sore for a week), we hiked up hills, running back down, and we sat around a large bonfire. Unfortunately when we departed, the weather was warm and sunny making me wish we could stay longer.
On the first day of school, my school smelled of fresh paint as balloons and a large banner were hung outside by the front entrance. Students were back in their uniforms. I spent the first two weeks of school waiting for the teachers schedule to be completed. During September and for the duration of October, I’m teaching 5th, 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th graders in the morning with lesson planning and teacher development in the afternoon. Besides school, I was busy with Special Olympics and Teachers Day.
My amazing counterpart and friend who has helped me with so much and has accepted me as part of her family.
This year, Special Olympics was hosted in my aimeg. Teams came from four different regions with one team coming all the way from Khuvsgul. They all arrived on Thursday. Friday consisted of medical screenings and basketball, table tennis, and judo competitions. Saturday was badminton with track and field races held outside. I was asked to take photographs and was kept busy, walking from one spot to the other, snapping away. They were so happy to be competing and racing each other.
Teachers Day is when 12 grade students become teachers for the day while the teachers become the students. This is a holiday 12th graders are very excited about. In the morning, teachers trade places with their students and sit at the desks while a student teaches. We are also given a 12th grader to later exchange gifts with in the evening. My 12th grader took her role very seriously. We met the night before so she could create the perfect lesson plan and she did an amazing job. Last year, my school had a volleyball competition but this year my school had a teachers talent contest.
You can read about teachers day from last year here.
More marvelous things that have since happened:
I finally have internet. Now I don’t have to walk 20-minutes to a restaurant and order the cheapest item on the menu as I use their internet.
For a long time, my building’s heating was broken. I was told it wouldn’t be fixed for another two or three weeks making me cry out in anguish. My apartment was so frigid I got sick and shivered myself to sleep. Thankfully, it didn’t take three weeks to fix and now my home is blessedly warm. Why do I make such a big deal out of this? Because in Mongolia, air conditioning doesn’t exist and heating comes from a central system which people can’t control on how hot it gets.
My aimeg has two new health volunteers. There are now four of us.
I’m re-watching “The Office” and “Gilmore Girls” thus bringing joy to my life when the language barrier becomes to much or when something breaks in my apartment or even when people hoot and “OY” at me as I’m trying to go about my business.
There was a silly moment during my school’s track and field day when my name was called and one of the teachers was holding out a medal for me. I thought, “I have done absolutely nothing that warrants a medal but okay…” Conveniently my two counterparts disappeared so I didn’t know what everyone was yelling. But apparently they just wanted me to place the medal around the neck of another teacher. I’m nearly just walked off with the medal.
I’m eagerly awaiting a box of books for my school I’ve asked an organization in America to send.
I took a long deep breath and signed up to take the GRE in December.
We have a new café in town called Friends Café. The woman who owns it went to university in America and used to live in Naperville. Small world!!
People always ask if I’m cold. They all think I’m to skinny for a Mongolian winter. That I need more meat on my bones.
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.
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.
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?”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
The last month of school.
Arvaikheer’s trash cleanup day.
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.
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:
A new language that can create excitement when you can understand something or frustrations when you have no idea what is being said.
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.
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.
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.
New holidays such as Mongolian New Year, Tsagaan Sar, and Naadam, Mongolia’s summer holiday.
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.
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.
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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:
My kindle, I have already read 25 books, or my hard drive of movies.
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.
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.
Here we are marching out of our aimag.
It was warm enough for short sleeves.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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!