Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Hey! Teacher! Leave those kids alone...

Most of the volunteers serving in Mongolia with the Peace Corps are (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) TEFL teachers, but even those of us who are health trainers, in youth development or business will be teaching English to the people we work with and our community members. So to help us with this reality, we received a two-day crash course on how to teach English as a foreign language.

Many of the techniques we learned are experiential, in that we use games and excercises in conjunction with lecture-style teaching. We have found that this is the best way to learn most new information and particularly helpful when learning a new language. We put our work to use last week with small classes. Leslie taught to bankers and Nathan taught to neighborhood kids below the age of 12. Both groups were very receptive and willing participants. Leslie's group wanted them to come back, but unfortunately, it was a one-time learning experience for her group.

There is a strong push in Mongolia to make English the official second language and children are doing well to pick it up. In fact, most people know at least "hello" and "bye" which can make for an interesting walk delivering all those greetings and salutations.

We have also been preparing and delivering presentations and workshops within our areas of expertise, which have gone well. Nathan will be delivery a symposium on customer service to local members of the Chamber of Commerce this weekend. He'll be talking about building relationships and encouraging repeat business through customer service and active selling. In the market and in small shops, there is little competition among vendors who sell similar products and they are often unmotivated to sell their goods. It seems they are afraid to undercut their fellow vendors and are generally happy to make whatever they make in a day. They tend to be more concerned with their direct relationships with each other and strive to serve each other by providing change or referrals, and less worried about selling merchandise. Making a larger profit doesn't seem to outweigh that primary relationship with the people they sell with each day. We had never really considered that until we saw it here. In some ways, it makes a lot of practical sense.

In other news, our new external hard drive bit the dust with all our music, pictures and movies. We're not amused. It worked and then it didn't, just like that. The power gets to it just fine, but no computer recognizes it. Leslie will probably be shipping it to her dad to see if he can get remedy the situation and send back a new drive with our old info.

Nathan talked to his parents Sunday. All seems well with his father who, after heart surgery last month, has dropped 20 lbs and is walking a mile a day with his mother. Both are in extraordinarily great spirits. His dad has been cleared to bowl in August, well ahead of the initial October prognosis.

Next week is our final week with our host families and our final language assessment before going to our site.

Monday, July 21, 2008


As we were studying in Nathan’s room last Sunday afternoon, Nathan’s host parents said to be ready to leave in 30 minutes! We’re going to the border!

So, Nathan’s host parents, his 28 y/o host brother, 25 y/o host sister, and 4 y/o host sister and we mounted into their Huyndai for a 25 minute trek to the Russian border for a picnic. Packed with mutton, rice soup, boiled potatoes and carrots, beer, soda, and dishes, we showed our special permit to the armed guards and walked up to the magnificent park overlooking the Selenge River and the border.

Nathan’s family and us pause lunch for some cheesing. Front row: Begsuren, Leslie, Nathan, Bulgaa. Second row: Orangoo, Davaasuren. Third Row: Anu.

In the background is Russia. In the foreground is us in Mongolia with us in it.

There is actually a buffer zone between the countries here, so while we approached the guards at the Mongolian border gate, the actual border is at least a kilometer up the road.

Russian border with guard tower: On our way down from a wonderful lunch at the Border.

The trip back was a bumpy good time.

In Other News
In other news, we got a bunch of GREAT mail this week. Nathan got a care package with goodies for his host family and him, complete with lovely note from his mother. Oldest brother Ryan’s letters continue to arrive in much appreciated fashion. Nathan continues to love his Batman, self sealing envelopes and the sentiments.

Leslie finally got the package her parents sent at the beginning of June with candles, books, shoes, nuts, etc. We were starting to wonder. She also got a nice letter from her mom with some priceless niece and nephew photos.

We also got an awesome postcard from friends Zach and Amy from their trip to Colorado, which made Leslie’s week. It was also a good conversation starter with some folks from General Denver’s old stomping grounds.

We also lost a trainee this week, one of Leslie’s crew who had to go home for family reasons. Leslie misses her a lot, hopes everything turns out well, and hopes she’ll be able to return Mongolia. Erica, you’re missed, but thanks for leaving the baby wipes.

It was a long week full of frustrations, heat and mild sickness, but we keep getting positive feedback on our progress and assurances that we, in particular, are going to love our placements. Only a couple more weeks of training to go.


Nadaam: How Mongolians combine the Renaissance Faire and the County Fair with the Super Bowl, Thanksgiving, and Independence Day all in one week to celebrate their 1921 independence from China.

Local Nadaam shuts down towns for a week while everyone attends events at the local sport facility and countryside to watch the “three manly sports”: Wrestling, Archery and Horse racing. National Nadaam happens in the capital city during the weekend and everyone stays home to watch the events on TV. It’s a time for families to get together, so we spent one day at Leslie’s house and one at Nathan’s. Competitors and, traditionally, observers dress in traditional attire. Nathan’s host mom surprised him with a brand new, handmade цамц (dress shirt, pr. tsahmts).

Nathan, the all-American kid, drinking his Coke with a smile in his brand new, traditional traditional Mongolian dress shirt. (Big thanks to Amber Barger for taking this.)

Families usually slaughter and a sheep and enjoy it in various dishes throughout the week. they also tend to celebrate heavily with ceremonial shots of vodka, airag (fermented mare’s milk) and by drinking beer.

The most popular event is wrestling, though especially if you don’t know any of the wrestlers, it’s not a very exciting sport like WWE or Olympic wrestling. As many as four matches go on simultaneously and the first one to touch more than a hand or foot to the ground is out. No points. No pins. No weight classes.

No weight classes in Mongolian wrestling.

Wrestlers approach the referee, and hold their arms out like and eagle and dance the motion of flight. The winner comes to the front and repeats the dance after the match has ended. Most matches last at least a minute or more. When you know the wrestler, you really you hope he stays up at least a minute. Even if he doesn’t you’re glad you recorded his 18 seconds of glory.

Our friend Trip Edington wrestling at his first Nadaam. Note the Mongolian officials laughing at the red-headed “Ginger kid” from Alabama doing the traditional Mongolian eagle move before his match.

Trip, “the Ginger Kid”, Edington’s 18 seconds of glory.

The second event is horse racing. This involves several races with an approximate 30 km (shorter for younger tykes) path where competitors are broken down by age, which are mostly children and mostly without saddles.

We call this shot "horses asses."

The final sporting event is archery, though it is not as popular as the other two and can be left out of the celebration in smaller aimag centers (providence capitals). Though the archery is not a must see event, we were sure not to miss Naadam’s true must have: HUUSHUUR (хуушуур, pr: “Hoe-shure”). In fact, we must have eaten our weight in the meat-stuffed, fried bread pocket delight. As Leslie’s host mom told us, it wouldn’t be Nadaam without huushuur.

See? Renaissance Faire, County Fair, Super Bowl, Thanksgiving, and Independence Day all in one! What a great holiday!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Bear Necessities

According to the information the Peace Corps gave us, as of 2004, only 62% of Mongolians have access to safe drinking water, though where we are - notwithstanding the known microscopic concerns including parasites and bacteria and that the water is pretty hard with dissolved minerals - the water itself seems pretty clean and debris-free.

To ensure our water is safe, Peace Corps gave each volunteer an electric water distiller, which heats the untreated water into vapor and then drips it out through a charcoal filter into a collection basin. It is by far, the cleanest water anyone could ever hope to drink anywhere on the planet, ever in the history of time. After the water is cooked, the inside of the distiller shows exactly how hard the water is as a dried film coats the metal walls and the bottom is layered with a slimy white film. A simple vinegar solution cleans it right up.

As a backup, if the power should be out for an extended period of time and we were unable to distill water or boil it on a stove, our medical kits come stocked with iodine tablets.

Water in our villages comes either from a well on a family’s property, which is free (like Leslie’s host family) or it is sold from a little metered station resembling a wooden kiosk with a hose out the side. Water is usually pretty centrally located and retrieved using a rubber-sealed metal container that holds about 5 gallons (by quick estimation), which is wheeled back on forth from the depot on a useful two-wheeled dolly. The upside is that it’s still rather inexpensive, about ₮2/liter ($.oo17), and the downside is that no matter where you are in the countryside, you have to fetch it. The downhill part is where Nathan’s water is, and the uphill part is where Nathan lives.

For many reasons including money and access limitations and probably other historical and cultural reasons, Mongolians tend to be very frugal with their water and typically only need to get it every few days. Not only do they bathe and launder much less frequently than Americans, (though we’ve noticed that they don’t tend to get funky/smelly like we do after a few days), they also wash hands, dishes, faces, etc. using a ubiquitous gravity reservoir. It’s a small but thick metal bucket mounted above nearly every sink in the countryside that holds a gallon of water or less, and it has a weighted metal rod hanging down through the center bottom. When you need water, you just push the rod up into the reservoir and the water runs out on demand. Drop your hand back down and the metal rod plugs the hole with a rubber seal. It’s simple but genius.

Since there is no running water into the house, there is also no water running out either. Each house in the countryside has a bucket for collecting the waste water under the sink. When it’s full, the bucket is taken outside and either dumped into a gravel/sand sump (rare), tossed in a specific corner of the property or tossed outside the property in the road. After some recent flash flooding, the runoff was a little frothy, probably due to wastewater like this. City apartments have running water with Western style sanitation.

Despite the disposal concerns, Mongolians, overall, use far fewer detergents and much less water than Americans do, and they try to get the most out of them before tossing them out. For instance, when many families do their laundry in the tumpun (small basin we’ve mentioned a couple times before), they wash at least their feet and sometimes more in the somewhat-soapy rinse water before throwing it out. Unfortunately, the downside of using fewer detergents, though, is the lack of soap when washing dishes. They tend to only use water, which has made many of us more than a little nervous about how “clean” they actually get.

From what we can tell, the Mongolian diet where we are is primarily made up of about 5 different ingredients prepared differently, and which are almost always really delicious, including: meat (usually beef or mutton), eggs, bread/noodles, potatoes, and rice. They also sprinkle in some cabbage, carrots, jam, butter and ketchup. In fact, whether it’s a nice dry meat and noodle dish with potatoes, a beef soup with potatoes, cabbage, carrots and noodles, or a steamed wonton filled with meat and potatoes over a plate of rice, Mongolians love to put ketchup on it. Nathan’s middle brother Kevin would probably get along quite nicely here, though he might be disturbed to find out that their ketchup would ever be confused for good ol’ Heinz 57. It’s more like a Hunt’s 23.5, but it gets the job done when you need that little something extra.

The noticeable lack of nutritional diversity hasn’t worn us down yet since every meal has been so tasty up until now, but we can certainly see why volunteers seem to get a little bored. Once we’re on our own, we can diversify a little more and current and former volunteers have compiled a cookbook for us to use, so we’re pretty excited to see what we can get into.

We’ve learned, though, that the budget will be tighter and tighter as food prices continue to rise, even after they have apparently tripled in the last three years. Since most vegetables are imported and are already expensive, this raises a concern for us. Some current volunteers expressed their problems putting together what they consider to be a nutritional diet using the stagnant Peace Corps monthly allowance that has remained the same since 1996 in Mongolia despite high annual inflation rates here and a weaker dollar.

One volunteer reported that last year a loaf of bread was ₮200 and now it’s ₮700. That’s quite a jump. Many volunteers spend money out of their own pockets each month to make ends meet, but since we don’t have that luxury, we’re hoping the recent evaluation being conducted by Peace Corps will yield enough in extra living allowance to cover that gap.

Before we got here, we read and heard that there were no seats in the outhouses here. And while that’s 99% true for most trainees here in the countryside, we didn’t expect that there would be no place to sit either. Outhouses here are not like the ones in the States for that reason. In most, there is just a board missing from the slatted floor or triangles cut into the floor, perhaps for a little ambiance. That has taken a little getting used to, but our thighs are the better for it. TP (the standard issue stuff is pretty grainy by American standards) goes in the bin inside the outhouse. Like almost all trash here, it’s burned.

Apartment buildings have Russian-style toilets in them, but even those take some getting used to because the waste material sits on a little plateau just under the depositor. When the plunger is pulled straight up through a hole in the center of the tank , water sweeps down carrying the waste to the front of the toilet, then away to who knows where. TP goes in the bin next to the commode.

Gas is about $4 a gallon here, but the cost of living and income is far less than we enjoy in the States, even by those far under the poverty line. We don’t know how much a car is here, but we haven’t seen any new ones or any place to buy them either. Most cars tend to be either compact Hyundai or Toyota sedans, SUVs tend to be old Russian jeeps or tall Toyota Landrovers, and they have large minivan-looking vehicles (“meekers”) with three rows of benches. No matter what you’re cruising in, you are most likely to be packed and stacked as much as the vehicle can allow. A small sedan holds 1-2 in the front and 3-5 in the back. A meeker holds 14 somewhat comfortably and 20 or more routinely.

With no public transportation, low automobile ownership rates, and no apparent laws governing it, if you have a car, you’re a taxi driver. And you probably make OK money. Each short ride (within a few miles) to our villages from the city center is between ₮300-₮500 ($.25-$.45) so if you pack a car, you’ve more than made up the gas. And since you already own the car, there’s no insurance, and you don’t pay taxes on those wages, you just got cash money in your pocket. Good job buying that car.

Culturally, drivers are quite powerful and have the final say on all travel plans, pricing and routes to destinations. Pricing on longer trips are more flexible, and foreigners heavily subsidize the locals. Recently, two trainees with the help of a host mother who is a driver, were only able to get a driver down to ₮20,000 ($17.25) for a 45 minute ride he was charging Mongolians ₮5,000 ($4.30) for. There doesn’t seem to be any specific anger or animosity in it, they just expect that we pay more because they think we can afford it, even though we make less than most Mongolians.

Being a passenger in Mongolia (volunteers are prohibited from driving during service) may be one of the most foreign things about the experience so far. There is only one decent, paved road here and it runs a few hundred miles from Sukhbaatar in North Central Mongolia, south to the capital, Ulan Bator. And even though it’s the best road, it’s still not that great, and mostly resembles a round-top country road in the Midwest. Outside of that, some city streets are paved, and many are full of pot holes, and where they aren’t paved, they tend to be riddled with potholes or have been washed out by heavy rains. Because of this, each driver is compelled to navigate a perceived perfect path, weaving back and forth across the road to ensure he has chosen the route containing what he feels is the least amount of potholes. They drive wildly from side to side, regardless of “lane” or oncoming traffic. If the road is smoother on the left side, they casually play chicken until another car is within about 10-15 yards from their front bumper before returning to the right side. It is a fine, crafted, nerve-wracking art to witness.

Ironically, even though there is next to no adherence to lanes here, we did see a road crew crouched on the good road this weekend using buckets and brushes to paint the center line.

We’ve heard that the U.S. government, through an aid program, just awarded Mongolia a special grant for something like $330mil to help build roads and railways here. Hopefully that doesn’t mean Mongolia will be unveiling a shiny new set of white train tracks any time soon.

About 1,160 Mongolian National Tugrik (MNT or ₮) = 1 USD. All money has the same portrait of Genghis Khan (or as they call him, “Chingiss Khang”, but what do they know), though the bills are different colors and the smallest bills, the 100 and 50 are physically smaller than the 500, 1, 5, 10 and 20,000 denominations.

There are no coins, though slang still refers to money as “silver”.

The exchange rate at banks is better depending on the size of the USD, so if you exchange a $100 bill, you get a better rate than if you exchange 5 $20 bills. We don’t really know why, but we’re not so worried about it since we don’t have any Ben Franklins anyway.
Inflation is high, about 15% per year we’re told.

There is no tipping in Mongolia, but no one is in a hurry to give you your change if don’t ask for it either. For that reason, having correct change is usually the way to go. If you wait too long before insisting on change, you have forfeited your claim to it as one trainee recently discovered in a bar.

The bank loan system seems to work more like credit cards in the U.S. Loans are granted on short terms with monthly compounded interest of about 3.5%. Most loans are due within a year and if they’re not honored, Mongolia still maintains a debtor’s prison. Most people don’t have much collateral, so loans tend to be somewhat tough to come by, but we have heard of folks taking out loans to by cell phones. Needless to say, they’re not big savers. In that regard, they seem pretty well in tune with America.

Health Care
One thing we can count on being exactly as billed is the medical attention. We each received a medical kit stocked with anything one might need including Benadryl, Pepto, antibiotics, disposable thermometers and Ace bandages. From bug spray to sunscreen and band-aids to condoms, they’ve got us covered.

The Ulan Bator hospital is the best in the country, though they still don’t have much in the way of specialists or trauma care. So, if we have anything seriously wrong with us, they’ll stabilize us and put us on a plane to Thailand, where they do have anything we could ever need. One guy broke his arm last year and spent some time there with the Peace Corps medical team. Apparently it’s nice in Bangkok, at least comparatively speaking, because some refer to as the “Posh” Corps. We hope to make it there some time to see for ourselves, though hopefully not because of any medical emergency.

If we’re hurt in a remote location, they have access to planes and helicopters to get us out.
We get a dental checkup once a year, but if we have a problem, we’ll get immediate attention.

For mental health, there is a peer support system made up of individuals who agree to lend an ear. All calls used on Peace Corps cell phones (each volunteer gets one after swearing in in August) can be billed through the medical office and if in-country travel is necessary to help prevent a meltdown or some other such catastrophe, the medical office will pay for that too.

Next blog
Leslie had a great week at an orphanage doing a practicum with the other youth development trainees and Naadam is this week. Stay tuned...

Friday, July 4, 2008

Always on the Sunny Side of Life

As some of you may already know, with the recent election in Mongolia there was a bit of civil unrest in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. This event was limited to one day in one area of the capital where no PCVs were located. There is no need to worry about us.

We felt this would be a perfect opportunity to present you with some photos and videos of the lighter side of our Peace Corps experiences and some good news about the LPIs (language exam). As Nathan mentioned in the previous blog, we participated in a mid training language exam on July 1st. After our language exams we met with our sector staff to discuss how our experience has been going so far.

Let me begin by giving your background on the exam and the progress necessary for Peace Corps standards. At the end of per-service training (August 17th), we are expected to receive a rating of Novice High on the language proficiency exam. Yesterday we learned that 13 volunteers received a Novice Low, 36 received a Novice Mid, and 15 received a Novice High rating.

I am excited to report that Nathan & Leslie both received a Novice High rating! We were thrilled by this news and are excited to learn more before we are placed in August.

On the sector front (Peace corps jargon for program fields), we each were given stellar reports by our sector leaders and can’t wait to find out what the Peace Corps has in mind of us.

Recently, in Leslie’s bagh (village), the trainees prepared a large dinner together at a fellow trainees host home. It was a really beautiful day and the group decided on taking some remarkable tough photos using Leslie’s sunglasses. Sadly, our group leader (jijur) Trip was out checking out the horses during the photos so he was unavailable for the photos. Here is the final project made from the photos (Trip is at the bottom):

Here's a compilation of some of our favorite photos:

Nathan’s little sister (duu), Anudauria, showing her yogurt mustache.

(warning: She’s super cute, but with has a wicked temper and is tremendously destructive. We call her the Mongolian answer to Harrison Glouner Shaffer)

Leslie’s younger sister (duu), Boogii eating the gamber (sweet fried bread) Leslie made with her Mongolian Mom (Eej). (Yup, that’s me making a Mongolian sentence. “My little sister is eating gamber.” And then my sister giving you several ways to say it tastes good. See, I can be domestic!)

Nathan and his tumpun.

In a previous post we mentioned that Leslie is spoiled with her laundry and showering. Here’s proof. Nathan does his laundry and bathes in that pink tub. Leslie’s family has a mechanical agitator for clothes and she showers in the solar shower outside. Once again, Nathan has this pink tub.

This is the Bomboole Delgoor. Leslie’s sister calls this “Leslie’s store.”

Leslie’s bashin (house), modeled by Boogii

Nathan’s baishin

*note: for the 4th of July we had a trainee/trainer dodge ball tourney. We lost. BUT, Leslie was the last standing during one of the last games. Life is good.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

We're Half Way There, Oh-oh, Livin' on a Prayer

Nathan here.

We had what amounts to a midterm examination today to gauge our progress. It was a 10-15 minute conversation where we told about our families, what we do, what we like to eat, what our hobbies are, etc. I can now say, "My dad recently had heart surgery, but is fine and at home resting." It's a mouthful. Overall, I did pretty well with one notable half German, half Mongolian phrase. I said "Ви auch" for "me too" instead of "Ви ч ьас." I quickly caught it when the tester gave me a weird look. Still, it was pretty funny.

We also had a review of our technical training up till now. I received some flattering remarks from our Mongolian trainer, which I was glad to receive. I'm getting on well with my language teachers as well. So far so good.

Didn't have a chance to make it to the internet this weekend, and I haven't talked to Leslie for a week now. I lost her phone number and I haven't heard from her either. There doesn't seem to be voice mail on the phones here either. From what I can tell, it's a prepaid system where you buy "units" for texting and calls, and you only pay for calls you make, without incoming charges. We'll all be coming together for a the rest of the week coming up to celebrate Independence Day, so that should be fun. There'll be running, hot water and a "Western-style" toilet, so I'm looking forward to that. Otherwise, I'll miss my bed at my host family's house because it is rather large and has springs. Most beds here are very, very hard from my experience; like just-a-board-with-a-blanket-it-on hard. The hotel bed fits that description.

I'm not looking forward to cramming 14 of us into a what amounts to a minivan with an extra row of seats in the back for our 2 hr. trip tomorrow. But I am looking forward to seeing Leslie. A couple (the husband was one of Leslie's trainers) was sent home in the last week because they're unexpectedly expecting their first child, so I'm a hoping there's no trend developing. I'll try to respectfully keep my distance.