Thursday, August 28, 2008

Bayankhongor, Here We Are!

We're mostly moved in and have some great stories to pass along as soon as we get an internet connection established. Nathan has internet at work, but it's dial-up and pay by the minute. Our next door neighbor in our building is a local NGO and they have agreed to let us use the internet, but they run regular business hours, so it's not real convenient. Next on our agenda is to run a network cable from their place to ours or procure a wireless router. If we do that, it's free access to the web.

Otherwise, all is well. We're enjoying our co-workers our jobs and the other volunteers. And we bought a washing machine yesterday!

We'll send out our address by email to as many people as we can.

To contact us by phone, Leslie sent out our phone numbers last week or so to our parents and some friends. It doesn't cost us anything to receive a call. We're 12 hours ahead.

To call through skype, we heard it was $.02/min and we heard $.20/min. Either way it's got to be cheaper than the phone, but sometimes it doesn't quite connect correctly. Keep trying.

Peace (Corps) from beautiful Bayankhongor.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Bayankhongor Here We Come

We’re going to Bayankhongor!

We’ll be living in the provincial capital called Bayankhongor City where Leslie will be working with at-risk youth at a children’s center and at a children’s theater, and Nathan will be working with ADRA, a international non-governmental organization (NGO or INGO or NGIO or LMNOPQRSTUV, but mostly NGO), which provides emergency disaster relief and education in business, health and food stores. We are both extremely excited to work with our new Mongolian counterparts.

We’ll be flying out Thursday from UB, and it’s about an 11-14 hour drive if we were to drive. We’ll be in an apartment of a former volunteer who recently left. It’s only about two years old with running water including indoor toilet, but no hot water. We’ll have electricity, though it went out a lot last year, we’ve heard. We’ll be extremely close to other Peace Corps volunteers from last year and walking into great programs started by recently departed volunteers with projects in environmental awareness, mentoring and more, which the town really wants us to continue. We’ve been told over and over again that our town contains perhaps the most highly motivated supervisors and community members in the country.

Each site that gets a volunteer is well researched starting with an application the requesting agency fills out to receive a volunteer – often years or several months in advance. Then, Peace Corps staff meets with them to find out their goals and if they overlap with the countries requests of Peace Corps. They continue to vet the best sites, traveling the country to visit each possible location to determine if they meet the minimum requirements for access to transportation, communications, and other criteria. Once volunteers reach the country, Peace Corps staff continues to cultivate the sites and assigns volunteers to those spots in an inside-out sort of way by placing the volunteers they have as best they can into positions they have, instead of recruiting specifically for each open job. Because of this, some people aren’t perfect matches for the region of the country they might prefer, in the housing they might prefer, or in the exact job they might prefer. Even still, Peace Corps staff does the best they can to accommodate all those variables, so the more flexible the volunteers are, they happier they are with their eventual placements. Indeed, we are. Indeed some are not, but in the bell curve of life, most volunteers got much of what they requested.

Our new supervisors showed up in Darkhan last week for some further orientation. They met amongst themselves, then in a short ceremonial rite of introduction, most of us met our new colleagues. We knew the agencies we’d be working for and where by this time and dying with anticipation. All the volunteers lined up on one side of the room while all the supervisors grouped on the other side. In Mongolian, each site and city were announced together, then the two parties met in the middle. Nathan’s counterpart was unable to get there on time because of a delayed flight, but there was an awkward confusion (not his fault) that had him meeting someone else’s new boss. Once the confusion was settled, we all went back to the hotel for lunch, more orientation and further introductions. Because Leslie has two supervisors - one from each agency she’ll be working for - Nathan was able to help her handle the barrage of excited questions.

The next day (after Nathan met his supervisor), with the help of translators as needed, we sat down with our supervisors to iron out the expectations of our jobs. Though we don’t know how everything with play out in real life, we are both thrilled with the possibilities. One goal of Leslie’s theater is to learn English language repertoire and put on a show in English. Nathan’s job with have him traveling a lot, seeing much of the large province that contains beautiful mountains in the North and the Gobi Desert in the South. Needless to say, we’re both excited! Regardless of our primary assignments with our new agencies, we’ll also be expected to do other work within the community and most likely with each other and the other volunteers in the area. In clustering volunteers as we are, they have found that we are able to accomplish more than if we were more scattered across the countryside. Only time will tell, but we both think we’re going to be really happy in out new community.

Nathan Leaves His Host Family, Misses the Soup

It sure was hard leaving my host family last week. Though they were paid to make sure I was fed and housed, they went above and beyond to make sure I was comfortable and cared for me like one of their – most of the time. The upside of being a guest was that I didn’t really have any chores to do because as my host mom told me, I wasn’t there to help them, I was there to study. Any time I would try to help out in more than a token manner like carrying water up the stairs or picking up after myself, I got shooed away. (My host mom even did most of my laundry for me.)

Most families gave their trainee some sort of traditional dress to wear for the swearing in ceremony; some were Mongolian shirts, some were as involved as whole, head-to-toe outfits. As a going-away present, my host parents had a beautiful blue Mongolian jacket made for me in addition to the silver shirt they already gave me for Nadaam. The sewing co-op that made it (they had a lot of business that last week from us) had told my host folks to pick it up at 1 in the afternoon before I left, then 6, then 9, then finally at midnight. We were supposed to have a little ceremony that evening, but unfortunately, it wasn’t finished in time. Instead, at 5:45a.m., they woke me up, brought me into the living room where my brand new хурэм (jacket) was draped ceremoniously over the couch in front of full spread of Mongolian food, and sat me down to do it up right. Good morning!

In addition to the food, they gave me a tiny bottle of the finest Mongolian vodka, peanuts, a set of ankle bones (used in a kind of dice game) and a post card with their contact information and special sentiments.

As is customary, I gave them a box of good Russian chocolates and a bottle of vodka. I also gave them a packet of flower seeds to grow for next year, and for my four year old host sister some new Barbie clothes that my mom sent from the States and a bottle of bubbles. Because most ceremonies in Mongolia are not complete without a drink of vodka, the three of us popped one open and shared in celebration. It’s unlucky to do less than three shots, so of course, we obliged tradition (a few times), then around 6:30 they drove me to the school where the other eleven Americans were loading up meekers in a mob of well wishes, hugs and candy.

On our formal evaluations from Peace Corps, we were asked if we would recommend them again as hosts. Leslie and I both (independently) wrote that we didn’t, but only because we don’t want to share them with anyone. My host family expects us back periodically, which we will certainly try to accommodate. I mean, nobody makes soup like my host mom, nobody raises a toast like my host dad, and nobody laughs quite like my little host sister. How could I pass that up?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Sworn In, Hanging in UB

So, we typed up a couple blog posts and saved them to our flash drive to bring to the Peace Corps office, but we saved them in Word 2007 and the computers here only have 2003. Instead of going back home, let me catch you up to date and we'll post those other ones tomorrow.

We've been in the capital since Sunday, a couple of days now, but before that, we were in Darkhan for a week finishing up our training and meeting our new supervisors. It's been busy and crazy here in UB, but it feels a little bit like we're on vacation because we don't fly out to our site until tomorrow, Thursday. We've been enjoying the more westernized circumstances here including nice restaurants and a variety of choices.

Today is our 3rd anniversary. We are planning to see a movie with some friends because the movie theater is just around the corner from the Peace Corps office. No clue what's there, but word has it, they're pretty new and the theater is nice. We'll give a full report.

We are officially Peace Corps Volunteers now after a cool swearing in ceremony attended by the US ambassador and some Mongolian dignitaries. In our welcoming ceremony in June, Mongolian children sang, played and danced for us, so for the closing ceremony, we were charged with doing the same. Each group of trainees had to have a dancer and singer/Mongolian instrument player, which was the highlight of evening.

Leslie and I sang a well known Mongolian love duet. Our two language teachers put us up to it and wrote down the lyrics. My host father taught me my part, and Leslie's mom taught her her's. We'd only sung it a capella until we got to Darkhan last week and planned on doing it without accompaniment, but we ended up singing to a karaoke backing that we thought was a little hokey. Hokey or not, the Mongolians couldn't have loved it more. When we got off the stage, we were given the star treatment with hugs, kisses and calls for us to take the show on the road. We were most surprised to find out that we'd made people cry, even Americans. The whole thing was incredibly surreal and unexpected, considering the high level of dancing and musicianship displayed during the event. I hope we can find a video of it from someone, because neither one of us remembers much about it due to nerves. In fact, the only thing I really remember was my legs shaking uncontrollably. Nonetheless, we were happy we didn't forget any words or miss an entrance.

A large party followed at our hotel with dancing drinking and overall joviality. It was the perfect way to end training.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Check baby, check baby 1, 2, 3, 4. Check baby, Check baby, 1. 2.

It was a glorious sunny Saturday at a camp ground just outside the Mother Tree in Selenge. The Peace Corps Trainees of Leslie’s bag gathered for Family Appreciation Day. We started the day by traveling in two meekers (micro-bus), a land cruiser, and one car with our Mongolian families. All vehicles were packed with food, games, and PCTs with their families. When we arrived we began by taking advantage of all the amenities the camp had to offer, such as a volleyball court, basketball court, 2 pool tables under a tent, 3 metal framed tents for relaxing or playing cards, 2 comfortable 5 wall gers with 4 beds inside, and 3 wood A-frame 1 room cabins.

The cross-cultural conversations were remarkable! My favorite was hearing the host mothers ask our friend Evan (who has several piercings) whether he had the illusive “7th piercing.” There were many lessons that day. Lesson #1: 100mg of hot vodka, butter, and red & black pepper will take care of a sick stomach. I was told, in this case, there is no need for medicine.

It was great fun as everyone young and old alike participated in volleyball, basketball, and uno tournaments. Lesson #2: Mongolians love trash talk! I can’t count the number of times a man making a lousy serve was called an “emeigtei” (woman) or after a bad call I heard “yagshday” (liar). One of the most exciting moments came when we played the Mongolian version of Duck, Duck, Goose. In this game, rather than sitting you stand with a person behind you. To avoid being tagged you run in front of two other players and the person at the back is now given the job of running away from he who has been named “it.” Several times, simply to avoid running, a person would just stand and wait to get tagged so they could participate in a slapping fest to decide who would be “it” next. Watching my Mongolian mother do this was one of the best things I have ever seen! Lesson #3: Mongolians are competitive. My Mom won the “slap fest.”

The food was amazing and we even sang some Mongolian songs. Our dinner meal was called “horhog.” When cooking horhog, hot stones are placed in a container with meat and vegetables. After the meal is cooked you juggle the rocks in your hand in preparation for the meal. Lesson #4: Horhog rocks are REALLY VERY HOT. But, meat cooked in horhog style is very yummy. We sang the three Mongolian songs we know. The first is the Mongolian equivalent to “Rain, rain, go away.” It was lame, but our families are very forgiving. Next my teacher asked Nathan & I to sing the love song we will be presenting at our swearing in ceremony. During the chorus all the Mongolians sang along with us. It was fantastic! Lastly, we sang a Mongolian song about the homeland. We mumbled through a bit, but as I said, our families are very forgiving.

Around 7:00pm we took final pictures with everyone as the last hoorah. As we packed up we all looked up at the sky and watched as several clouds moved rapidly through the blue vast Mongolian sky. “Wow, those clouds are really moving,” I recall saying. You would have thought that would have been a hint. Lesson #5: Beware of rapidly moving clouds. Something has to make them move that fast! Quickly a storm approached like I have never experienced. Nathan ran to assist with the tents as they all began to blow around. All three metal framed tents tumbled through the air with ease as if on a road that lead directly to Nathan’s head. I managed to get out a “Nathan watch out!” as the second and third tents followed the first one he was holding. He moved away quickly enough not to take the full impact of the tents. Lesson #6: In a massive wind storm, avoid open areas. At that point Nathan stopped assisting. My mother, Nathan, and I went to one of the gers to get our bags. Just as we reached the bags at the back of the ger, a swift strong wind blew over the 2 center poles that attach to the circle ring of the roof. The ger immediately began to fall in on itself and my mother yelled “yawee, yawee, yawee” (Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go)!

Some of us ran to one of the two unlocked solidly constructed building. We sat on the floor and attempted to wait for the storm to pass. We watched as the small kitchen building next to us appeared to be slowly loosing its roof. This half an hour of strong wind (all American approximations were between 80-100mps) was followed by rain and lots of lightning! The families called us over to jump into the one remaining meeker and land cruiser. As the storm was still brewing and the meeker was packed to the roof with people. Nathan and I made the executive decision not to get into the vehicle and head back to the building. We assumed this would not be a problem, especially considering there were 5 other people after us that needed to get into the vehicles. Surely, they would be back for a second trip. Lesson #7: Don’t assume. You know what THAT always does. We sat in the building and waited for approximately forty-five minutes and watched as the owners of the camp attempted to fix some of the problems the storm had created.

As we waited in the building, we watched the rain and lightning in the distance as the sky turn blood red. Then we were accompanied by the owners of the camp in the main building. And, yes, we were the only Americans who did not get into the vehicles. After about an hour and a half Nathan turned to me and said “I guess we are staying here tonight.” Lesson #8: Mongolians believe you can be struck by lightning if you use your cell phone during a storm. Hence, we could not call my family or the Peace Corps. For the next three hours we sat and drank milk tea and vodka with the owners as we sang Mongolian karaoke. This was all very surreal! Luckily, Nathan & I know two solid Mongolian songs. As they realized we knew that one love song really well, they kept programming it into the karaoke machine, which (Lesson # 9) incidentally, is not believed to get you hit by lightning in a storm. Lesson #10: Mongolian microphone check goes a little something like this: “nik..nik….nikniknik..nik..nik” ( Brilliant! Who needs the “two” anyway? Around 10:30pm they decided to teach us a song on the machine. We eventually picked it up pretty well. As we powered through the fifth time on the song, my mother and father arrived. “Yasan bay,” (What happened) my mother said. We thanked everyone for their kindness a quickly drove off into the darkness.

Post storm blood-red sky. Notice the water reflecting back the sky. Eeeerie!

Apparently, my mother tried to contact people to find out where we were, but as you have recently learned, no cell phones on in a storm! Luckily, my father is a driver, so he is one of the few Mongolians with a car. My teacher informed me today she was relieved to finally hear from my mother that night when she called and said “Everything is okay. The kids are sitting here singing karaoke and drinking vodka.”

As we came into town we saw fences down in everyone’s yard. All our homes are surrounded by fences called “hashaa.” These last few days have been clean up time. Today my father and his friends have been working on our fence. The good news is that it could have been worse. Our whole fence did not fall down. Yet, it has been a pain kicking the wandering cows out of my mother’s garden.

Our poor fence after the storm.

All in all, there were many lessons learned. Though it was scary at moments, it was priceless and I just can’t emphasize enough the importance of understanding a Mongolian mic check.