I’m officially a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV). I flew home on 1 August on a direct flight from Beijing. This time my suitcases were under the 50 pound limit as I mostly carried home my Mongolian clothes, gifts I received, and all of the goodies I bought in Ulaanbaatar.
July was simultaneously a slow and fast month. It was pouring during the Naadam festivities. Then during one weekend, my entire town lost power. Last time this happened Mongolians had been forewarned about it and had told me, so I could pre-download movies and charge my external battery. However, this time, there was no warning. My closest friends had either left for the countryside or were in the city. I was standing in a dark supermarket with other Mongolians looking glumly at what we could buy that wouldn’t require electricity to prepare: a jar of pickles, canned fish, carrots, crackers. Ultimately, I dropped my shopping basket, walked out, and went straight to the bus station to buy the next ticket to the city.
Clearing out my apartment was a month-long process. For future Peace Corps Volunteers in Mongolia, don’t wait until the last few days to begin organizing, donating, and selling your items. You’ll be surprised at how much you’ll accumulate. My apartment wasn’t going to have another Peace Corps Volunteer living in it so everything had to go.
Peace Corps offices around the world have a special bell which volunteers are allowed to ring when we have successfully completed our service of two-years. It signals the end. My group decided to wait until everyone had finished their end of service interviews, medical exams, and other miscellaneous paper work in order to ring the bell together. We were a little too enthusiastic as a piece of the bell fell off.
“We came in together, we’re leaving together.”
Now I’m happy to be home, but my time in Mongolia will be with me forever.
Watch my video at the top for my last summer in Mongolia.
Our Closing of Service ceremony (COS) at a nice hotel outside of the city felt a lot like having a big party on a Sunday night and then immediately returning back to work on Monday.
On paper, we are finished as Peace Corps Volunteers in Mongolia but technically we still have another three months left in country including one more month left of work.
I think I’ve done the best I could in my situation. I don’t think my school ever wanted a PCV or if they did they didn’t know what to do with me. During my first year, I was more polite asking, “Can I do this?” During my second year I was more, “I’m going to do this now!”
I came to realize that if no one at school was asking for help, proposing ideas, or telling me what I should do, I had to take the bull by the horns so I could stay busy and feel productive. I believe without that attitute my girls camp in April never would have happened.
Seeing friends again and receiving our certificates was both exciting and bizarre knowing that two-years has flown by. Unfortunately, my name on my certificate said Anne. I will get a new one before I leave. We received a lot of information about what we need to do before leaving our villages and towns such as closing our bank accounts, alerting our landlords, having a final interview with the country director, and visits to the doctor’s office.
I also received my departure date to fly back home. My flight leaves Mongolia at 6 AM. I’ve been mentally preparing a feast to eat as soon as I land – (seafood, seafood, seafood, seafood, seafood, seafood). The plan is to reacquaint myself to the big city, to Amerian life, and a different time zone. Then possibly followed by a trip to visit both my grandmothers in Sweden and Scotland.
This time last year I was planning my trip to Vietnam and Cambodia. My parents were also visiting for the summer. Now I’m eyeing everything in my apartment that either needs to be sold, donated, or thrown out. Work at school has been slowing down. My last project I’m trying to finish up before the end of the month is recording all the reading passages in textbooks teachers can use next year when I’m gone.
I can still clearly remember arriving in Seattle in May 2016 and seeing other people, who were complete strangers at that time, struggling to leave the airport with all their bags. We would look at each other and go, “Peace Corps?” “Yep.” “Niiiice.”
Only one person from my training group was absent as we took pictures together in our deels and with the Mongolian flag.
Spring break wasn’t supposed to begin until the end of March but on 9 March I got a text message from my counterpart: “Do you know? Break has started.”
I was perplexed.
As it turns out, foot and mouth disease has been spreading throughout Mongolia infecting both livestock and people. I had heard about it in northern Mongolia but it had eventually seeped down to my neck of the woods. The governor ordered a shut down of schools and the market. The market was so empty all it needed was tumbleweed. If it had been during my first year I would have been excited for starting break weeks early but it’s my second year and I have a project in the works. Me and my counterpart had a long meeting with my supervisor and so my project was pushed back to mid-April.
So Spring Break or Quarantine Break began early.
Schools were closed yet students and teachers continued to meet informally. In the mornings, I went to help my students for the upcoming Olympiad exams.
I went on a very long hike over the hills. The only person I encountered was an old woman watching over her goat-herd. We chilled together on the rocks and ate pretzels.
When I’m not outside I’ve been doing a lot of yoga. I have been watching all of Boho Beautifuls’ videos but found a new video channel called Yoga with Kassandra. My counterpart came over with her 10-year-old daughter. An endless amount of giggles peeped out from her daughter as she clumsily transitioned from one pose to the next. Falling over like a baby giraffe.
I finished reading “The Great Alone” by Kristin Hannah and “Armageddon” by Leon Uris. Hannah’s book is set in Alaska and had me in tears. I finished it in two days. I highly recommend this book! The other is about the re-birth of Berlin after World War II.
On the other hand, a pipe that connects from my bathroom and into my kitchen has burst in three separate places. The repair man had to turn off the water flowing through it but water is still sprinkling out. So now no hot water, my kitchen has a bucket (probably) permanently leaning against my wall, and I’m back to boiling water and pouring a bucket onto myself. Makes me appreciate what I will soon be going back home too.
The best part of my break was my weekend in Ulaanbaatar. Before leaving town, there were people at the bus station dressed in anti-contamination gear spraying hand sanitizer onto our hands and water into our mouths. There were frequent stops with people out on the road spraying down bus wheels.
I treated myself to a stay in the Shangri La and spent Saturday with my friend whom I’ve been close to since Peace Corps training. We hit all our favorite spots such as Green Zone, Swiss Coffee, an art store, an Indian restaurant, and the movie theater. It was a weekend I really needed to resuscitate myself, but the fairy tale was shattered as soon as I was back at Dragon Center and back on a bus to my town.
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When school begins I’ll be back to preparing for my project. It’s almost April!
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.
Smiles are the best. With Christmas and New Years swiftly approaching, I miss my home. But seeing students smile at school – (and not immediately bursting into giggles which usually happens after just saying hi) – is a small thing I greatly appreciate.
I will continue my service in Mongolia during my favorite holidays. While family and friends in Chicago are visiting Christkindlmarkt, decorating Christmas trees, and walking along streets illuminated by Christmas lights…I’m on the prowl for bags of frozen strawberries, wearing my mask every evening to ward off air pollution, and googling how to make cinnamon rolls from scratch.
I have done my best to make my home festive. My Christmas stocking is hanging on the door; I have snowflakes and a reindeer dangling from the ceiling; the small doors in my advent calendar are faithfully opened up every morning; lights have been hung over my window; my tiny Swedish tomte sits upon my dresser. It’s the best I can do. A large number of restaurants and stores have also been decorated for Christmas and New Years. When I was in UB earlier for a Peace Corps PAC meeting, I saw the giant Christmas tree in the Shangri La Mall.
What has December been like?
As my bus pulled into my town’s bus station at 2 in the morning, someone had taken one of my bags from above the seats. I was very frustrated as I walked home. Later, I told a friend about my missing bag and she made a post on Facebook about it. That post was shared and read by so many people! Three-hours later, my bag was returned with everything in tact. Then for the next week, I had people asking me at school or sending me text messages: “I’m sorry about your bag.” “Did you get your bag?” and my favorite, “I can’t sleep until your bag is back with you!”
Blistering cold weather but only a little bit of snow.
I finished reading The Mistress of the Art of Death series and have begun reading Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” I couldn’t finish “Anna Karenina” so lets see how long I can last with the “masterpiece of world literature.”
I traveled to UB for a Peace Corps PAC meeting. A few volunteers were asked to discuss about the TEFL (Teach English as a foreign language) program and offered suggestions on how to improve the future of the program. Buses are extremely hot. UB’s temperatures can plummet down to -20 Fahrenheit so you’ve got to dress warmly. However, after just two hours on a bus, I’ve stripped down to my t-shirt.
My friend returned from study abroad in Europe. She had a wistful and dreamy gaze as she recalled her stories about her stay in Luxembourg and her trips to Spain, France, Germany, and Switzerland. She has taken a piece of the cake and now she wants the whole cake. What’s her next plan? To go to Australia!
Me and another PCV had lunch with someone who served with Peace Corps in Paraguay during the ’90s. It’s fascinating to hear how different Peace Corps was prior to laptops, kindles, and hard drives that we use now.
My door had been receiving a lot of attention from the children in my building. Knocking once a day turned into knocking five-times a day. They always want help with English homework or want to play. I actually began to flinch every time I heard the pounding of tiny fists on my door accompanied by the yells of “Anna teacher! Anna teacher!” Unfortunately, it became a problem and they were told by their grandmother and my counterpart to stop.
I am still lesson planning and team teaching when opportunity presents itself.
I attended a dance performance at the theater with my counterpart’s family. Her daughter was dancing. The theater was packed with people. Children were sitting on top of each other. People were standing in the aisles against the walls. I’m amazed I was saved a seat. The ride home was the best part. 10 people were smushed into a small car. I sat on an 80-year-old woman’s lap with a small child on my lap as my head was crushed against the roof thinking, “This would be an awful time to hit potholes.”
Nevertheless, good things are happening. I will soon take the GRE. My birthday is approaching and I’m going on an exciting vacation in three-weeks.
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.