Saturday, December 31, 2011

"I see the winter. She's crawlin' up the lawn."

Baganuur, from the steppe
So winter officially started last week with the solstice. Mongolia, being a landlocked country bordered by the Himalayas in the south and the Siberian High—a mass of high-pressured cold, dry air—in the north, has one of the harshest winter climates in the world. Thrilling. Back in the day, herders developed a system to monitor the passing winter season despite their lack of access to Gregorian calendars. Thus, the 9 9’s of the Mongolian winter was established following the lunar calendar. This measurement is 9 sets of 9-day periods, each categorized by a different winter “happening.” Here’s the breakdown:

Beyond my apartment building
1st 9: milk vodka congeals and freezes
2nd 9: vodka congeals and freezes
3rd 9: tail of a 3-year old ox freezes
4th 9: horns of a 4-year old ox freeze
5th 9: boiled rice no longer congeals
6th 9: roads become visible under the ice
7th 9: hilltops appear
8th 9: ground becomes damp
9th 9: warmer days set in

Pollution from the ger district
Cows in the ger district
Supposedly, the 3rd and 4th nines are the worst. Regardless, we’ve got 81 days of winter ahead, a confusing fact to reconcile since we haven’t seen temperatures above 0F in over a month already.

An ovoo outside my town
Yesterday, however, was a warmer day (only -10F or so). Since the sun was out, I decided to take a hike out beyond my town’s limits. I was greeted by frozen steppe shadowed by distant mountains. Mongolia is the least densely populated country in the world, a statistic that is immediately remembered upon gazing out into the distance. I thought to myself, If I could climb to the top of that hill, I will see evidence of people on the other side. If I make it to the horizon of the steppe, another town will magically appear. However, I’ve travelled enough to know that many towns, including mine, are hours from the next. In only three minutes, I was beyond my apartment block in utter nothingness. The calm was beautiful.

The Christmas dog we let thaw inside

With the onset of winter came Christmas. I went to Ondorkhaan, the aimag center of Khentii Aimag, the province that my town borders. I have several friends who live in the town center, and it was great to spend the holidays with familiar faces. We had a non-traditional Christmas Eve dinner: macaroni and cheese, stuffing, biscuits, and chicken. We made up for the lack of turkey with the array of pies that were present, including pumpkin, apple, and peanut butter. We exchanged white elephant gifts (I gave phone units and received a can of baked beans and a can of mixed vegetables!) and since 3 other volunteers and I bought controllers at the electronics black market in UB when we visited for Thanksgiving, we also were able to play multiplayer Golden Eye 007 (that’s right.) on our computers. Nothing says it’s Christmas like using the cheats to unlock all weapons! Albeit, it was strange to not be fighting my brothers for first player as we did when we were kids. The next day, we celebrated Christmas by eating too much Chinese food a la “A Christmas Story.” Overall, I had a wonderful holiday and am blessed to have such great friends here and such a supportive family back home (whom I got to Skype on Christmas!).

Christmas Eve dinner!
I hope that the holidays have found you happy and healthy. Today, I’ll be ringing in the New Year with my sitemates (14 hours before you folks!). Happy New Year! Шинэ жилийн мэнд хүргэe!
I'll leave you with cows in blankets. Eating the garbage.

Monday, December 5, 2011

"Have you take a medicine?"

For the past several days, I have been sick with a pretty bad cold. It is my second this “winter,” the first being only three weeks ago. Until this point, I had remained very healthy in my new home. But I guess the weather is getting to me.

I’ve avoided going outside, and have been sleeping most of the day. On Saturday, I managed to make a big pot of my granny’s chicken and dumplings, and that lasted me until today. This morning, I called my training manager at school and told her I wouldn’t be coming in. Several hours later, around lunchtime, I heard a knock at my door. Hesitant to answer, I got out of bed and looked through the peephole.

Three of my teachers, Enkhjargal, Bayartsetseg, and Sarantuya, were standing outside. I let them in and was overwhelmed with an onslaught of hospitality. My friends had brought me everything they thought I might need to get better: lemon juice, garlic, vitamin c, chocolate, some horse meat, and soup made from the meat. They poured me some soup immediately, and we talked for a while. They told me what each remedy was for: put the lemon in tea, cook with the garlic, the horse meat will keep you the warmest in winter, melt the chocolate in hot milk before bed. When they discovered that I had just ran out of milk, Bayartsetseg even went back out in the cold to get me some from the store across the playground. When lunch was finished, Sarantuya wanted to leave the rest of the soup with me to have as leftovers, but unfortunately, my only pot was still in the sink from the chicken and dumplings. Enkhjargal quickly began to wash it out, despite my attempt to beat her to it. I was told to go back to bed, and that she was happy to clean my dishes for me. After reminding me to wear my hat and scarf whenever I go outside, they left.

I don’t know what I did as to be so lucky to work with such wonderful people, that even when I cancel class on them, they still come and help me. I can only hope to be as selfless and generous as they are in return.

Friday, December 2, 2011

6 months down...

6 months ago, I left my familiar home for a place I had only read about. I didn’t yet know about the great friends I would make, both with my fellow volunteers and my Mongolian counterparts, the family from the tiniest, isolated town that I would grow to love even through our language barriers, the customs that would become my daily routines, or the weather that would make me redefine any notion of seasons I had ever held. I didn’t know how much I would cherish letters sent from home or the single can of jalapenos that I have been saving, but I knew that I was in for an adventure.

Despite living alone, I have been cared for by many people. Through the magic of the internet, I am able to call home often. When I have a problem, my counterparts are quick to my rescue. With my first cold of the winter arrived teachers to my home, bringing tea and chocolates, giving me remedies for my illness. I feel compassion from the members of my community with whom I interact. It is shown in my store lady’s concern: “Make sure to dress warm. It’s good that you live close.” It’s in the students who follow me to and from school yelling, “Bagshaa!” reminding me of my role as their teacher, and it’s in the ones who scribble down lyrics to Mongolian pop songs for me, reminding me of my role as their friend.

I am thankful for my past 6 months in Mongolia, for my friends and family back home, and for the ones that I have made in-country. Happy (belated) Thanksgiving to you all!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

End of First Quarter: Struggles and Successes

We have reached the end of the first quarter of classes. Next week, I’ll have fall break to relax and celebrate surviving 9 weeks in the Mongolian school system. To commemorate, I thought I’d archive some of my struggles and successes.

Class size: My 9th grade class has 39 students. My fifth grade, 42. These are my largest classes (which I solo teach) and classroom management is extremely tiresome. Logistically, I just do not have enough resources to keep my 3 ½ dozen students occupied at all times with out someone getting off task. Group work, while ideal, is nearly ineffective, because since the groups are so numerous, it makes assessment practically impossible. Therefore, I am left without knowing whether my students comprehended the material or not.

Material: I do not work from books in any of my classes, so I am the sole opinion on what curriculum we should cover. Sounds great in theory: I can teach what I want, when I want. But I want to be preparing my students to meet whatever goal they have for learning English. And since this is my first time teaching English as a foreign language, I do not always know what is the most helpful way to learn what I am realizing to be a very intricate and complicated language.

Resources: Teachers have to supply their own resources—paper, chalk, markers, anything you might need to use in class. Having a very small living budget and class sizes that make creating effective resources the biggest challenge ever, I constantly have to decide whether or not a certain visual or manipulative is really vital to whatever lesson I’m teaching. Plus, I’m running out of single-sided handouts from Pre-Service Training that I’ve been recycling by printing on the other side.

Weather: It’s getting cold.

That got pretty lengthy. Nothing is terrible.

Clubs: I have started two clubs at school, a drama club for students in 7th-9th grades, and a song and poem club for students in 4th-5th grades. These have easily become my favorite classes and the highlight of my week. My class size is small—less than 25 students, and I get to teach whatever I want (I realize this sounds like my previously listed struggle, but in this context it is wonderful). The idea is that these are English clubs, but we are practicing our skills through drama and poetry. I get to revive games and warm-ups from my repertoire that I used to play back in my theatre days, and I get to incorporate fun songs for my little kids complete with hand motions and everything. Also, I get to teach these two classes in our school’s “art room,” which is like a dance room with mirrors and a stage. I use the mirrors to write down dialogue or song lyrics with a marker, and my kids eagerly circle around to see what we’ll be learning next. I just broke up my drama kids into pairs for their first scene, and they have been adorable with it. My song kids know “If you’re happy and you know it” and “The Moose Song.” It is fun to be out of desks for the hour.

Phone Calls from Eej: Weekly, I talk on the phone with my host mom from Orkhon. I get a chance to practice my Mongolian and get caught up on life back in my soum. Recently, she told me that one of our hashaa dogs, Mojgai, had 3 puppies. Other newsworthy information: the cows were fine, the river was freezing over, my siblings will come home soon, and my host dad was sleeping in the other room. Eej always asks if I’m warm and eating food. I tell her I am both. I tell her that I may visit in February for Tsaagan Sar, and that би танд дандаа сандагI miss you always.

Cooking: I didn’t lie to Eej; I am eating. In fact, I really enjoy cooking here with what I can find. I have only one burner and one pan, but I make due. Last month, I bought a rice cooker, and it gets the job done. I need to figure out what I’m going to make to bring to Thanksgiving in UB.

Traveling: Last weekend, I successfully traveled to UB alone. As in, I navigated the insanity that is transportation in Mongolia, and arrived safely where I should have, and then made it back to the bus station, bought a ticket, and made it home. This was my first trip back to the capital since being there one night after Swearing-In in August, and it was my first time exploring the city. Cheesburgers! Bacon! Escalators! I’ll be back in a couple of weeks, more confident in my abilities to take a trip there when I need to.

With a quarter of the school year complete, I’m still at times shocked to remember that I’m living in Mongolia. Life is feeling routine. Both the struggles and the successes I have here are just a part of my normal daily life. Here’s to fall break!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

October Happenings

As October has left, so have the leaves on the few trees lining the streets of Baganuur. Now, ice covers the sidewalks where children slide to school. I have been busy this month. For a week, I went to daily acupuncture sessions at the hospital in hopes of quelling the migraines that plague me. After following the smell of tea, I arrived in the alternative medicine wing where my doctor manipulated ten small needles in various pressure points. Then, small cups were suctioned to my back with a hand pump and moved around to increase circulation in a practice fittingly called cupping. I was also told to not touch cold things. Good to know. No word on the effectiveness yet, but the sessions let me get some relaxation, at least.

A poster my 9th grader drew: Alcohol as a Magnet
October was also the proud parent of Alcohol Awareness Week—a nation-wide outreach project to educate the population on the risks that can accompany the country’s dangerous affair with overconsumption. The theme of this year’s campaign was “peer pressure,” aptly chosen, considering the cultural customs that surround drinking here make it very difficult to turn down alcohol when it’s offered, as doing so can be viewed as offensive. I’m also highly suspicious that there is an old wives’ tale that Mongolian vodka has a one-hour shelf life—that it will go bad if you do not finish the bottle once you open it. Or so people seem to believe. For this year’s activities, my sitemates and I involved our police department, our children’s center, and even our governor’s office. We held a competition between the two main school complexes in my town.
The Man Who
Wanted to be
as Strong as a Wolf
Fetal Alcohol

Each school selected winning posters from 9th grade that fit the theme, a winning AXA (ah ha) team from 10th grade, and two winning ACK (ask) teams from 11th grade to compete against the winners from the other school complex. Enter note on Mongolian competitive nature: Mongolians are competitive. A few weeks ago, my teachers drafted me to play in a volleyball tournament that started at 7 pm on a Tuesday night. Our team took first place and the 100,000,000 Tugrik prize around 12:30 in the morning. However, the tournament victory was not enough, because it was at this point when we started playing side games for funsies. On a school night. After over 5 hours. C’mon. Anyway, we knew the kids would be all for the competition. We held the event at our town’s culture center, and it started only an hour after it was supposed to. Not too bad. AXA is a game show-type activity where students have to answer questions on stage and if they get one wrong, they have to remove one of three sticky stars they have placed on their chests (humiliating for a Mongolian who prides awards and recognition of success, trust me, but they adore AXA). 
All of the ACK teams
An ACK skit

ACK is a performance competition. Students create skits on the theme, and have to make a team name and introduction, and also have to answer questions from a panel. It is quite the production, and it was really neat to watch. Though I couldn’t understand all of the skits, they were quite dramatic and really portrayed how much alcohol has affected the lives of some of these kids. After all was said and done, winners were picked and prizes were awarded. More importantly, certificates were bestowed that will be filed away in students’ book o’ certificates that they undoubtedly have at home and that documents every success they have ever achieved. Certificates are no joke here.

After we wrapped up Alcohol Awareness Week, we threw a Halloween party for our friends here who are other volunteers from Japan and Korea, as well as a few co-workers. Our party was their first interaction with Halloween, so we did our best to make it authentic. We told them to come in costume, and they did a great job. I fashioned a robot get-up from old care packages that was stellar at masking my lack of creativity when it came to dance moves. We made pizza and our Japanese friends brought an assortment of their own delicacies. We had candy and drinks and even a pie. We made good use of the spigot half of one of our water filters to make a punch bowl for “pink drink” (too reminiscent of Pepto-Bismol for comfort) and kept everything else cold in our bathing tumpins using snow we gathered outside (genius). We had a very successful night indeed.

Now as October has wrapped up, I realize that I have been in Mongolia for 5 months. Moreover, I have almost been at my permanent site longer than I was at my training site, a new milestone in itself. Each day, the time I spent in Orkhon learning Mongolian, growing to love my host family, herding cows, making friends, climbing mountains, swimming in the river, and soaking up the sun feel more distant, especially as a permanent cloud of grey swallows the impending winter sky. Still, I have fond memories of the days in the heat, and after each phone call with my host mom, I daydream of returning to visit.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Counting My Blessings

It has been over 4 months since I moved to Mongolia, and life feels normal. Still, every now and then, like yesterday when walking home from the shady, underground market after finding celery (celery!) as the sun was setting and the cool night air was claiming the ground, I become consumed by a feeling of overwhelming fortune. How fortunate am I to have the experience to share myself with people across the world, and in return be taught so much about different ways of life? I am calling the most sparsely populated country in the world my home and the people I meet here my friends. It is baffling, a word that I recently taught my teachers to describe the pronunciation rules in the English language, but that completely applies to my incapability to fully explain how it feels to be here each day.

As if that wasn't enough, my friends and family have found ways to shower me with love and thoughts though I'm an ocean away. I have received care packages from my mom, my best friend, and my uncle, aunt, and grandmother. I feel so special when I receive them, knowing they put so much thought into sending it. I like imagining picking up things at the store, thinking, surely Sara needs this, then laying out the contents on their kitchen table, on their apartment floor, and trying to maneuver a way for it all to fit. And though these are just things, the reception of them is no less significant. Not to mention, I have discovered a list of things it only takes 4 months to start missing. Included: peanut butter m&ms, popcorn, hot sauce, cinnamon, trail mix, velveeta, and of course, the unfortunately unshippable avocado. I can now actually cook more than plain rice for every meal. I can make things spicy! I can have a snack between meals that doesn't consist of боов (pastry-type bread). I can fashion a movie night complete with candy from home. I can color pictures in preparation for the holidays. I hope that these things don't sound too mundane, because they really have meant so much to me, and I cannot thank my gracious senders enough for the time, effort, thought, and money that went in to sending these treasures my way.

In end, I guess you could say that getting amazing care packages has made my Mongolian life cushier. Still, I am still incredibly thankful to be able to emerge from the shady, underground vegetable and meat market with newly purchased celery feeling inspired and comforted by the breeze that greets me.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Манзушир Хийд

At Chinggis Khaan's
A couple weekends ago, I went on a trip to Manzushir Khiid with the teachers from my school. We planned to leave from the school at 7 a.m., so of course we left around 8:30. It was a very cold day, and I dressed appropriately in three pairs of pants and three tops and a jacket. I even brought along my hat and gloves. My teachers also dressed warmly, but had a better idea of how to beat the cold. About thirty minutes into our meeker (microbus) ride there, the first bottle of vodka was opened and passed around in shot form, along with watermelon halves that had just been sliced in the car with a pocket knife. I’d like to inform you that at this point in the trip, we were off the main road and barreling down dusty, mountainous trails. What better time for a watermelon and shot fiesta?

Preparing the khorkhug
Pouring airag
(fermented mare's milk)
Outside of our ger

When we arrived at Khiid, we secured a ger for the day. Once inside, my male teachers, Batsukh, Altansukh, and Battogtokh began to make a fire while the female teachers organized a vast array of food on the only table. Once the fire was going, the men balanced a khorkhug container atop the wood-burning stove. Khorkhug is probably one of my favorite Mongolian delicacies, and it consists of a goat or sheep whose parts have been pressure-cooked in a giant metal milk jug-like container with water, potatoes, and carrots. I find the flavor and texture of the meat cooked in this style to be reminiscent of a nice roast. The khorkhug cooked as we munched down on ham, pickles, pickled salad, boov (small pastry-like bread nuggets), and homemade jam from mountain berries (which phenomenally tastes like blackberry jam and which I hope to bake with at some point, should I ever find an available oven).

After our khorkhug feast, we explored the grounds of Manzushir, a monestary that remains today in rubble after it was torn down in the 1930’s by the Soviets. We went to a museum full of taxidermied animals and then began our hike up one of the mountains surrounding the remains. The scenery at Manzushir is indescribable, and I’ve been assured that it is even more beautiful in the summertime. We climbed to the first of three protected overlooks that was built to protect very old carvings in the mountain. When standing on the small ledge in front of the carvings, one became aware of just how steep the trek was up the mountain, for the overlook rested on a bald-faced edge
among scattered rocks that had surely fallen from up above. In the second over-hang, we stopped to all simultaneously shout across the vastness which lay before us. Our combined voices carried over the rubble and through the valley on the other side. When we finished our unison yelling, one of my counterparts looked over at me and asked, “Could you feel the energy?” Her simple question summed up what that moment of yelling was: all of us throwing our voices across the scenery to see how far we could make it together, and ultimately, to be reminded of how small we stood amongst the mountains when the voices stopped and were engulfed by the sound of the wind.

The third overlook rested beside a tree covered in khadug, a traditional scarf (typically blue) which plays an important role in Mongolian culture. Adapted from Tibet, the bright blue of the scarf symbolizes the expansive Mongolian sky, and the giving of a khadug symbolizes compassion and purity of intentions. For example, when a man proposed to a woman, he will give a khadug to her father. Likewise, when I arrived in Mongolia, I was presented one for well wishes and the start of a good relationship. I was told that the tree dressed in these colorful scarves was a “wish tree,” and observed one by one as each of my counterparts and friends whispered their hopes among the branches.

Our climb down was only slightly less than terrifying. The steep face and numerous pebbles made finding secure footing difficult, but we all made it down just fine. Once back on the ground, we returned to our ger to rest for a bit and sing some songs. At around 6 p.m., I was invited over to the school management’s ger with the rest of our faculty for an “opening ceremony.” Confused at why the “opening ceremony” was happening so late in the day when I was already exhausted was beyond me, but I went anyway. Once there, the teachers from my school formed a huge circle and sang the Mongolian version of “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” Friends were laughing and dancing and vodka was being toasted. From the ceremony, we headed back to the ger to warm up before heading home. As predicted, this warming-up consisted of more drinking and singing.

All the teachers at "Opening Ceremony"

The Foreign Language Dept.
As the night ended, we headed back to our meeker. An impromptu dance party broke out after I had taken a seat inside, and my teachers came to drag me from the car to join in the middle-of-the-path get down. Finally, it was time to leave. I cannot quantify how long we were on the road on the way home. The trip was dark and disorienting, and the “road” was as bumpy as I remember it on our trip in. The only number I can measure this trip in is the three bottles of vodka we stopped separately to buy on our return home. Yes, three. In the meeker. On the dark, dark road. My counterparts spent the entire ride (I mean the entire ride) singing songs. At one point, a competition was held between the front half of the meeker and the back to see who could sing the most songs without repeating any. About 4 hours later when we arrived home, no song had been repeated, and the teachers began a tune about Baganuur (my town) which I could not have been more happy to hear. I was dropped off at nearly 1 a.m. right beside my apartment. The short walk home was bitter cold, but I couldn’t have been happier to see my warm bed.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Monday, September 12, 2011

Classes Begin

I had my first class for my intermediate level English teachers. We learned modals (may, might, can, can't, couldn't). I learned that I'll be going somewhere out of town this weekend with the teachers from my school for a sort of back-to-school retreat. Immediately after being told this, my primary counterpart, Altansarnai added, "I think after tomorrow will be snow." Wonderful.

Yesterday, however, was a beautiful day. I know there are few of those left, so I went vegetable shopping in athletic pants and a t-shirt while the sun was still out. Yesterday was also the 10th anniversary of September 11th. I talked with some friends about where we were that day. It was strange to reminisce now as a teacher the way my teachers at the time remained so calm at school that day. I'm not sure that I would know what to do in their position. The day has come and gone and not much else was mentioned. I'm sure there are all sorts of memorials being aired on tv in the States, but here, it was a Sunday as usual. Sunday - Бүтэн сайн өдөр : Whole good day. I washed clothes in my bathtub (far superior to түмпүн washing, I might add) and made stir fry with the brown rice I found. Sometimes, my days are very normal.

Tonight, I'll teach a lesson on lesson planning. Until then, I have a free day. Each of my teachers was just given a gift bag with a carton of milk, matches, and something else that I can't see. I was told that it is tradition to collect money for a teacher when a member of her family dies, and in turn, that teacher later gives symbolic gifts to the contributors. Milk is very important and symbolic here, while the matches are more spiritually symbolic of the departed soul. Day by day, I am learning more about the culture that now engulfs me. I'll try to explain more customs as I remember them or as they come up.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The past month has been very busy. I moved from my summer home in Orkhon to Baganuur, a district of the capital city, Ulaanbaatar. Baganuur has a population of around 25,000 and is located about 2 hours east of UB.

Ээж, Одко, Ме, Одмаа, Аав 
On August 19th (my birthday), I was sworn in by the US Ambassador as an official Peace Corps Volunteer. Accompanying the ceremony were many performances of our attempts at Mongolian dance, music, and song from my fellow trainees and I. I sang a popular song as a friend played along on guitar. After the ceremony, we had a reception and many of our host families came. Immediately after that, we went back to the dorm where we were staying in Darkhan and packed our things to move to our respective sites.

My family saw me off with flowers, chocolates, a birthday cake, and plenty of hugs and kisses. I was even given watermelon by another family that I was close with in the community who hosted a friend of mine. So with all of my baggage, the water filter, wash bucket, medical kit, and sleeping bag that PC had given me, and my newly acquired watermelon, cake, and candies, I loaded the bus for UB. Since there are only two main roads in the entire country, most travel has to occur by first going to the capital, and then continuing on to your destination. So most of us spent a few nights in UB before moving to our permanent sites. Once loaded, our buses left the dorm. My language teacher and friend, Tumee, brought me a bottle of water and handed it to me through the window as we rolled away, along with letters from home and birthday cards from my brother, Mom, and Mammaw. We waved goodbye and headed off. No one chased our bus, flinging milk towards the sky as they had done when we left Orkhon to wish us safe and prosperous travels, but we were moving nonetheless.

Орхон Trainees

Tvmээ and I

I stayed one night in UB. I went to dinner with friends from my training site and with some volunteers who were in the city to show us around. We went to an Irish pub where I had a stew with a pastry on top and a salad. It was incredible. Later, we went to a party that one of the current PCV’s was having for all the newly sworn in volunteers at a dance club. Concluding possibly the busiest birthday I’ve ever had, I headed back to the dorm where I would stay for the night before moving to my new home the next morning.

Today marks 3 weeks since my arrival in Baganuur. I live in a 4th floor one-room apartment very near to my school. I have running hot water and electricity. Since my city is large, I can find many products and produce that I haven’t seen all summer. Last week, I bought bananas. Today, I found a Dr. Pepper. Still, I am adjusting to things vastly new and foreign to me even though it’s my 4th month in country.

Take for example, the weather. On September 6th, we had our first snowfall. I awoke to snow still clinging to the mountains in the distance, though it had already melted from the ground. The temperature since then has often dipped below freezing, and today is the first day it has been out of the fifties. The sun is shining brightly and the sky is cloudless. I actually have my windows open as I sit at my kitchen table typing this post. Last night, however, I woke up at 3 freezing to put on another layer of clothes and turn on my space heater. Unpredictable. The heat in my apartment will be turned on next Thursday.

I spend my free time here reading and watching movies and tv shows. I just got internet in my apartment via a USB modem, and have already been able to Skype home. I work at a school complex, but I work primarily with teachers. After administering an assessment last week, I divided my 25 counterparts into 3 levels. I’ll teach intermediate English on Mondays and advanced English on Wednesdays. I hold office hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays to help my teachers lesson plan effectively. On Fridays, I have a special class of 9th graders. They are selected students who excel in English, and the class will focus on listening and speaking activities. I’ll also start a beginning class for the teachers I work with who know no English, and I’ll leave it open for other teachers in the school to join as well.

I’ve met great people here. I work with great, motivated teachers who treat me as a friend. I have two other sitemates who I get together with occasionally to make tacos, pasta, chili, or whatever else we are craving. I was even invited to vacation with the family of one of my teachers in the summer. She said that I need to go sightseeing, and that I should come with her family and be shown around.

I am getting used to my new life in Baganuur. Days pass easier now that I have made my schedule. I am a really lucky girl with a great life that, at the moment, just happens to be stationed in a foreign country. I’m excited for the adventure ahead.
(cows crossing the playground in front of my building in the rain)

Monday, August 29, 2011

Today (Sunday, July 17th) I went to “the countryside” with my sitemate, Bonnie, and her family. I would phonetically type “the countryside,” except that I am not sure how, which kind of works the countryside is a mysterious place. Let me elaborate. Seemingly one-by-one, PCT’s from my site have been being taken by their families to “the countryside.” When they get back to class, the stories from the countryside are strange and always surprising. Basically, we have learned from the retelling of these storites that if you are told that you are going to the countryside (which can be difficult to understand in the first place since “the countryside” is only one sound different than our closest pseudo-city, Khutul, where some other trainees are) expect that there might be a possibility of any of the following: you might spend the day weeding potatoes in the hot sun, your family or you might be about to butcher an unexpecting animal for lunch, you might be offered candy while going to the bathroom in a field, and best of all, you could possibly be staying the night. Bonnie and I had a less tumultuous experience.

We splashed around in a creek for a while, laid in the sun, rode a horse, ate some soup, had some vodka and “Mongolian vodka” which is made from yogurt, laid around in the sun some more, and then finally headed home. Among my favorite moments of the day was when we asked what we were going to eat, and Bonnie’s mom replied, “Countryside food.” After a great day of relaxation, we got in the car to head home. In the back seat: a live goat.

The trip to Khiid

The cold weather stayed through the weekend. Friday, though the day of our first Peace Corps evaluation and Language Proficiency Interview, was warmed by the multitude of mail I received at school. I got a letter from my brother and two packages from my mom, one which contained letters from a friend. I was overwhelmed with the amount of American goods I had in my reach. Then, on Saturday, we went to Amarbayasgalant Monastery with our families and language teachers. We left in the cold at around 5:30 in the morning and arrived a few hours later after driving through the countryside and mountains on dirt roads and through small creeks.
When we arrived, the men, including the American gents, went into the forest to find wood for a fire. When they returned, several were missing shoes that they had sacrificed to rivers that they had to cross, but they came back with trees on their backs. Once a fire was started, a metal bowl of tea was brewed. A breakfast of cucumbers, tomatoes, ham, and bread was prepared by the mothers and we feasted. Around this time, or 9:30, the first of the vodka shots were poured and toasts were given. I remember the phrase, “Maybe you are cold,” being uttered in justification. 3 rounds later, we visited the Monastery and conjoining school while several fathers stayed and prepared for lunch.
When we returned, we played games in the rain and tried to keep warm by the fire. The men were busy tending to lunch. A khorkhuk was being prepared. A goat had been killed and was put into a metal can of sorts with hot stones from the fire, possibly a bottle of vodka or beer, carrots, potatoes, onions, and salt, and then a lid was attached and the stew pressure-cooked for nearly an hour. After we had finished wrestling, playing a duck-duck-goose type game, and playing limbo, we were called to lunch. We were given the hot stoned from the mixture to pass between our hands to warm us up. Metal plates were filled with heaping portions of meat and root vegetables. I took my plate to a tired tree limb that was resting on the ground and began to feast on possibly the best meal I have ever had. My friends agreed that this peculiar delicacy could not be described in words.
As we finished eating, our language teacher, Tumee, brought us a beer, explaining that after eating this meal, we shouldn’t drink cold liquid or water because we would get very, very sick. Beer, however, was perfectly fine. So it goes.

We continued to enjoy our day in the beautiful countryside as the rain fell. We sang songs with our families and danced between cars playing music from their windows. I attempted the Mongolian Waltz with my Mongol dad. Soon after the dancing, we headed back to Orkhon. It wasn’t much later than 3 PM, but we were all exhausted. We stopped at a natural spring and drank water that was said to be holy because it was so pure. We also ate tiny strawberries we picked off the nearby mountain. Full, blessed, and happy, I fell asleep on the ride home.