Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Nathan's Second Trip to the Countryside, Volleyball Tournament

While my director was in from UB this week, we made a couple short trips to small villages, both about 30 kilometers in opposite directions. While we were at one site, we met with our group members to discuss their progress.

Unfortunately, Mongolia is not exempt from the same factors that have caused banks world-wide to hold a little tighter to their money. As a result, our low-income families without collateral who are already struggling to make a living with various small businesses are not receiving the micro loans they need right now to keep their businesses properly afloat. Some, in fact, have begun missing payments.

Groups are typically formed by members with several different businesses and as a group, they take out small loans of about $150 to start. They divide the money among themselves how they choose, and they are each required to save a certain minimum each month. If the loans is repaid on time - usually in about three months - they can apply for a slightly larger amount. They can do this up to 9 times to provide capital for their small stores, sewing businesses, craft manufacturing, etc.

The problem is that because these are risky loans for a bank to finance these types of loans and they don't see much return. With money tight, these loans have been frozen - at least temporarily.

On our trip to the countryside, we met with some folks who are are ready to start their new businesses, but have no money to start. We stood outside one store and talked.

I didn't understand as much as I would have liked, but I'm trying.
You can see the concentration painted on my face.

One of the joys of going to the countryside is not only meeting the people, but also seeing where they live. Many people outside of the provincial capitals are herders, and they enjoy the wide-open Mongolian steppe with views like the ones below. Thanks to ADRA's IT specialist Amar for these two beautiful shots. I of course forgot my camera at the office.

This was taken just over the shoulder of gentleman in far right of the above photo.

If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn't believe it wasn't a painting.

It wasn't all business this weekend, though. At the request of our groups' committee, we hosted a volleyball tournament. There were about ten teams, including one from a bank, one from the business school where I have a business club and Leslie has a choir, and ADRA staff.

Having a sip of aarts, a sweet, milky winter drink made with sour milk curds, yogurt, milk, water and sugar. Tastes really better than it sounds. I've never had anything quite like it, and it's the first Mongolian drink I really enjoy. On a cold day, it really hit the spot, let me tell you.

If you look just right on the far end of the court, center, you can see my blue butt and red T-shirt sticking out as I wait for the serve.

Here, our driver Choka looks at me as we wait to play again.

ADRA staff won the competition after some hard fought games. Each team paid a nominal entrance fee and our reward was about $14 in cash, which we promptly spent on a nice lunch together.

It was a long week.

It was a roller coaster week filled with life and death, and some high highs and low lows. Nathan and I learned good lessons about things we often take for granted in the U.S., what can make being this far away really hard, good ways we handle peat situations, and what treasures there are to be found right here in our backyard.

Puppy Love
We may have mentioned this in passing to many of you, but here’s a fact: Mongolians don’t like dogs. In the States dogs are usually part of the family. They are loved, cared for, and often pampered. We even give them names. In Mongolia, they are generally feared, treated poorly, are used almost exclusively as security systems, or just run wild in the streets in mangy packs. Often our host families would mention to us to watch for dogs especially at night and to carry rocks with us to throw at them if they got too close. Though we’ve had almost no negative encounters at all, still today, our site mate Tysen receives messages from his hashaa mom (neighbor in the fenced in space they share) to watch out for dogs when he is out after dark.

During pre-service training Nathan mused that it just seems like one person a long time ago was afraid of dogs here and now everyone is superstitiously afraid of them too, but they can’t remember why. They just know dogs are bad. Soon after, we found out that over 600 hundred years ago, Chingiis Khan (Genghis Khan, to Americans), was probably that someone. As you might imagine, Chingiis Khan is the central nationalistic figure in Mongolian life, like all the Founding Fathers and Jesus Christ wrapped into one. His life is to be emulated.

With that in mind, here’s a story this week involving the cutest puppy ever: The other day while I was walking home from the grocery store in the middle of the day, I heard some whimpering. Looking back across the street, I saw a little black puppy, smaller than my foot, being kicked by passersby as it tried to find its way. This is a frequent happening, done with pride (imagine what Michael Vick might think). I quickly crossed the street to make sure it was okay. My hands were full of groceries, and I know there is no way I could convince Nathan to take in a puppy with us for the next two years, since we don’t intend on taking it with us back to the States. I saw it was alright then tried to keep my distance, but after I acknowledged it verbally, it began to follow me on the walk back to our apartment. There was no mother or siblings in site. It was terrible to watch.

Our building shares space with a bank, so there is always a lot of foot traffic at our door. Finally as I reached the outside of our building, an old woman opened the door for me and the little guy with his cute oversized paws crawled across the threshold into the semi-warm hallway with a wagging tail. Just as that was happening, Nathan met me at the entrance carrying out two bags of trash on his way back to work for the afternoon.

“Can we keep it?” I said with a cute, convincing voice.


“But, it’s sad and doesn’t have a mommy.”

“No. Dog, not a person.”

“It’s crying...”

“No. La-la-la. I can’t hear you,” he said sarcastically, consciously avoiding the fact that this precious little puppy faced certain death without shelter.

I finally wrangled it back out into the cold. With a heavy heart I went upstairs to put away my groceries and Nathan returned to our apartment door. He knew it was hard to watch. Not settling for leaving the dog on the stoop to freeze, we brainstormed how we could save it. I quickly remembered that his coworker didn’t have a dog, which is uncommon, since Mongolians always have a guard dog in a haashaa. I begged him to ask his co-worker Hongoroo if she needed one. I received a text from a surprised Nathan shortly after he returned to work. “She wants it! You can bring it to her house now!” Her grandfather who just moved in with her over the summer said they needed one.

Fueled by the great news, I ran downstairs with my hooded Ohio University sweatshirt, which possesses actual healing powers – as any alumni from that formidable oasis of higher learning can attest. When I got back down there, many people were standing outside our front door just starring at the puppy as it lay curled up in the sun sleeping.

As I scooped him up an elderly woman shook her head with a disgusted look and kept repeating “Myy, myy, myy (bad, bad, bad).” Though it’s not my habit to disagree with elderly Mongolians or give them attitude, I couldn’t control myself. “MYY BISH! SAIN! TER SAIN NOKHOI! (NOT BAD! GOOD! IT’S A GOOD DOG!”

I boldly carried the dog across town to Hongoroo’s hashaa where her 92 year-old grandfather (no joke, a 92 year old Mongolian man... simply unheard of!) was sitting in the ger they share with Hongoroo's young daughter. After knocking on his door with the offering, we began a lovely conversation in Mongolian.

“Do you need a dog? My husband spoke with Hongoroo and she said you needed a dog! Here you go!”

He was elated! He checked the sex of the dog and then proceeded to feed it. The dog really didn’t want to wake up, but as soon as Hongoroo’s grandfather put his finger full of soft cheese next to it’s mouth, it sprang awake!

For now, the dog will go nameless (though we refer to him as “Chatan” or “I can” in reference to Barack Obama’s “Yes we can” slogan.) And though he may be a Mongolian guard dog, now, Hongoroo’s grandfather has something to keep him busy, the puppy has a home, and I feel good for helping them both!

Feeling Like Boo-hoo-ty, BugabugaBooHOOOTY!
We’ve been pretty well keeping up with many of the happenings in the States through email and the online social connection website, Facebook, but we do miss a lot being this far away. Over 27 months we will/have miss/ed exciting family events: weddings, 40th anniversaries (three we’ll miss all together), and births. It’s tough, but these are all really joyful events, and we’re happy those that can attend are enjoying themselves. Last week was a little different. We missed being around for a death.

After 6 months of battling lymphoma, my friend Ryan Smith, a former vocal performance graduate student at OU, passed away in Chicago. I didn’t find this out through a call from a friendly voice; I found out by reading comments on Facebook.

If I were in the States I would have immediately called my friend Brenda, who was also a grad student at the same time as Ryan. Phone calls with Brenda are always epic - hours - and I love them! But, I even with a relatively cheap phone card, calls are still prohibitively expensive, given our modest living allowance. Instead, once I found out he was sick, I spent two days searching through random Facebook messages trying to get details, only to uncover a few.

I guess the moral of the story is, we weren’t prepared for what would happen if bad things were happen to our friends. Of course, there isn’t a system through the Peace Corps to contact us in this situation like there is for family deaths - not that I expect one - so I had to experience it relatively alone. It’s just a difficult part of being away, I guess.

In memoriam, I’d like to tell you a little story involving Ryan. The day after I heard of Ryan’s passing I was cleaning our apartment. I uncharacteristically put my iPod on shuffle where it randomly selects from the entire catalog of music. I usually listen to playlists I create because I and really enjoy. And I have a lot of songs on my iPod, so I never know what I’m going to get on shuffle. Oddly enough, a terrible ‘90s R&B song called “Feelin’ on Your Booty” by R. Kelly, came up. The beauty of “Feelin’ on Your Booty” is that it is arranged as a “slow jam” love song. Please forgive the following, but it’s just too funny.

This is my song, for real, no doubt.
Said the DJ’s makin’ me feel thugged out.
As I walk you to the dance floor,
We begin to dance slow,
Put your arms around me,
I’m feelin’ on your booty!
Feelin’ on yo boHOOOOTY,
Your bo…hoo…ty

-R. Kelly

The only reason I own this song is because of Ryan Smith, and every time I hear it I think of him. Ryan was a remarkable tenor, who even performed at the Metropolitan Opera last year, but he had a soft spot for junk like this! At the end of the song, R. Kelly breaks out into a skat-type sequence where he obnoxiously repeats “feelin’ on your booty” in several hilarious and distorted ways. Ryan loved to mock this section by floating his gorgeous tenor tones toward Brenda, Stacey (another grad student), and me to entice us into fits of laughter! He usually ended up cracking himself up too! It was insane! And glorious!

He was an adorable, humble, silly, loving guy. Though our paths haven’t crossed directly much in the past few years, I have kept a watchful eye on his career and enjoyed catching up with him through Facebook. I miss him, and I missed being able to share my grief with Brenda.

He struggled sometimes, but accomplished much his abbreviated life. Here’s a link to his obituary in the Atlanta Journal Constitution where we also got the photo.

Altaa’s Trying to Avoid a Testosterone Trifecta
On the new-life news side, my coworker at the theater, Altaa, will be giving birth to her third child very soon. She has two adorable firecracker little boys already, but she has repeated to us every time she has seen us in the last 2 months that if she has another boy, it’s ours. She doesn’t want three boys. (Nathan’s mom could probably empathize why.) Altaa always pantomimes handing it straight over saying “Meh!” (roughly: “Here, take this!”) I always tell her I don’t care, because her kids are cute anyway!

So, how will she be giving birth to this girl? Last week she and her family packed up an SUV and drove to Ulaanbaatar. She is over 8 months pregnant and they scurried off on bumpy car ride through the countryside to the capital city that can last 11 hours at minimum! Wow! A little different then how Americans do it.

Like Americans, though, most women in Mongolia have C-sections at a hospital these days. Though Bayankhongor has a hospital, Altaawill be having her baby UB where she will hang out until January when she can bring it back on a plane.

A Rocking Game of Chess - King Me!
Over the weekend Nathan’s program director from Ulaanbaatar came into town. One evening we were invited to go with her to the countryside. Learning from our mistake from day two in Bayankhongor where we didn’t ask and didn’t have a change of clothes and didn’t come back for three days, we were sure to verify it was just for the evening. It was indeed a quick trip, albeit extremely frigid. We got there just as dusk was settling in.

Here’s what we saw:

This is a Shatar Chuluu or “Chess Rock”. It is so named because there is a large stone chess board with large stone pieces representing people and animals to mark an ancient grave site. All have sustained severe weathering over the years, but remain alone in the middle of an empty plain.

This particular chess set, without a specific name to differentiate it from others around the country, is said to be dated between 4,000BC and 5,000 BC, from what we could determine. At that time, Mongolia was made up of innumerable small tribes. When a khan (king) died, there would be a large grave site to mark where he was buried with his jewels, gifts, and sometimes his horse – kind of how Mongolians did their version of the ancient pyramids. Like the pyramids of Egypt and Central America, there are some mysteries surrounding the construction, mainly, where did this rock come from since it’s not native to this area, and why was it transported here?

We were told the writing that is still visible today in a dull maroon hue, is Turkish or Turkic - we were a little confused on this point. As Mongolian is also a member of that language family, we were unsure exactly on the Mongolian to English translation from Nathan’s director. Either way, it’s astounding.

Also interestingly, though not photographed, to mark the Buddhist 108 sacred defilements and prayers, there are 108 rocks lined up that run to the sunset. After Chingiis united the tribes 602 years ago, this form of burial was no long used.

I think most interesting to us, however, was how un-ceremonial these remains set alone in the middle of an open valley used routinely by herders. There is no museum. There is no staff of archeologists studying or protecting it . It’s simply a 6,000 year-old king’s gravesite in the countryside 15 km from us. We assume the lack of attention is because Mongolians tend to fear graves. Unlike in the States, graves here are not places to be visited, though I’m sure glad we did. What a trip!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

All good gifts around us....

As we are in the month of November, the month for giving thanks, we felt it was important to mention all the people who have been so thoughtful and generous in sending us care packages. We DO have everything we need to survive here, but the packages and letters from home really help us to make our place in Bayankhongor a more familiar American home!

Let's first start with the new home for our fresh fruits and vegetables. As you may know, food in Mongolia is slightly complicated and usually involves frequent trips to several stores across town to acquire all the food to make meals we like. Thanks to Sister-in-Law Kendall, those trips are not in vain, and our fruits and veggies have a place to "hang." Notice the wide variety of potatoes on the bottom section. Thanks to China, we have apples available as well!

This will be our first Christmas away from home. One of the most creative items we have received is the "plant your own" Christmas tree from Amy Wills! Amy is the sister of one of Nathan's former roommates, and Leslie's unofficial little sister. Leslie has attempted to make a trade for Amy in exchange for giving her brother Mike back as a friend. No such luck. We're stuck with Mike Wills forever now! :)

Bayankhongor is quickly getting colder, and as we have learned, Mongolians do not account for wind chill in temperature. You never really know what you are going to get! Luckily, Carmela Almquist, Leslie's mom's best friend and Leslie's unofficial aunt, sent her possibly the warmest pair of footwear in the history of time! Plus, look how cute Leslie's feet look in them!

Holy crap, we got pancakes!!! Kendall is a genius! This is something we didn't even know we wanted until they got here. And then we almost cried, along with our site mate, Tysen, and near site mate, Leila! Our tears were controlled as we ate the pancakes.

Please note that we really DO want pictures of everyone! Mongolians love to look at our photos when they visit. Plus, we miss all your faces! Now we get to see Nephew Harrison and his rock star attitude whenever we want! Thanks, Kendall!

This is the "Gee, Bayankhongor is close to the Gobi and thus drier than you think" table. We were not prepared for how dry it can get here! Thanks to Kendall, Leslie's Mom, and Mama Wills (via Amy) we can fight the dessert dry air!
In addition, this lovely table in the second room sports our sweet new pens, bobby pins, ziplock bags, candies, and wash clothes from Kendall, Leslie's Mom, and Nathan's Mom! Thanks everybody!

One of our favorite things is the quote in the PC Mongolia Cookbook that states "I just don't understand how it's possible how an empire that nearly conquered the entire world managed to not bring back any spices..." It's true! It doesn't make a lick of sense. We can't begin to explain it. Thanks to Kevin, Nathan's brother, Nathan's Mom, Leslie's Mom, and Kendall our lives are much spicier! Who knew that black pepper was exotic?

The beverages of choice in Mongolia are milk tea and airag. Milk tea is mostly milk with the lovely added bonus of salt and filtered black tea. It's not even as tasty as it sounds. And I don't imagine you think it sounds too tasty. Airag is, of course, fermented mare's milk. Which is also an acquired taste. In two years, sit us down and maybe we can explain to you the flavor more precisely. Thanks to Kendall and Amy we now have great ways to flavor the 4 hour filtered water! Cocoa! Man, another thing we didn't even remember how much we missed until it got here! Thanks, you two!

Fruit! There ain't nearly enough of it here! Thanks to Leslie's mom for sending great dried fruit! She also managed to pack great snacks and peanut butter! Just like when we were little!
To make life even sweeter, Nathan's Uncle Steve sent glorious natural chunky peanut butter! Did we mention it didn't take long for the snacks he sent to disappear? Thank you, thank you, thank you!

So, Mongolians don't drink so much coffee. The only coffee regularly available around here comes in small packages of pre-sweetened instant "coffee-like-substance" with American Flavour. No joke. We went to the market to purchase the coffee press we had seen. Our site mate asked the store owner if she knew what the contraption was. She was very honest. "No," was her answer. He explained how it worked. She simply responded with an uninterested "oh." Thanks Mom, for a little flavour of Jolly Ol' New England! :)

The only type of tape they have here is Scotch tape. They even call tape "scotch." Luckily, we now have lots of duct tape to assist with our every Mongolian need, such as insulation, taping the plug into the outlet so it won't fall out, making shelves out of boxes, and taping the shower curtain in the faux shower so it doesn't stick to our butts. Ah, the glory of duct tape! We even have fancy schmancy designer duct tape, the envy of PCVs world wide!
Thanks Moms, Amy, and Kendall!

There is nothing like a nice, fluffy, well constructed towel to make the tumpen bathing experience a little more like home! Thanks to Nathan's mom and brother Kevin we don't have to use tiny Chinese towels that easily come un-stitched!

Thanks to Nathan's mom and Kendall, our Halloween party was really a hit when we had real Halloween decorations, Halloween wind-up toys, and Halloween candy! Everyone was really in the spirit!

Best. Socks. Ever! Thanks Georgi, Chamberlain family friend, for making it your quest to keep our toes bright, warm, and happy! We adore them!

Notice the fancy faux shower rigging. Thanks to Nathan we don't have to sit in a tumpen to bathe anymore! Thanks to Kendall and Leslie's mom the shower process is much better with the mitten washclothes and the 3-1 coconut shower wash. And yes, Kendall, it works to remove the funk. You're right, if that didn't work we would just have to smell like dust and coal smoke for the next 2 years! Thank you two for keeping us clean!

Candles, photos, and faux leaves. Now we really feel at home! Thanks to Leslie's mom and Kendall for the candles that our site mate commented "smell like Christmas." And thanks to Nathan's mom for adding the fall leaves! When we are surrounded by the sights and smells of home we feel almost like we are there! Thanks to Kendall and Amy for the photos in frames!!

Please know that this list is not exhaustive! We even removed some things from our wish list because you all were so generous! We've received many amazing care packages filled to the brim (more than we thought possible in those boxes!) We are so very grateful for everything our friends and families have spoiled us with including packages, letters, calls, emails, thoughts, and prayers! We're so thankful for all of you! We could never thank you enough!