Sunday, December 28, 2008

Shower the People

Today we came to the realization that we never explained the showering process for us (non-ger dwellers, yet apartment residents with no bath tub or hot water). Yes, it seems like an awkward subject, but as with the clothes washing process, it is involved and layered.

It begins with our toilet room arranged as it is on a daily basis with the tumpen tipped against the wall on the shower curtain.

Then, Nathan attaches the string that connects the shower curtain to several points in the toilet room to allow the showering individual to shower without the curtain touching their body.

It is now time for the water heating process. We must fill the solar shower approximately 5 times to fill it with enough water to shower. We can't simply boil water for this process. We boil one liter at a time and fill the rest of the electric tea pot with cold water from the tap as to not melt the solar shower.

The first time is easy enough. You simply have to keep the plug open on the solar shower and let a little air in to give room for the water.

Going through this process 5 times can be tedious. Trying some fun ways to fill the solar shower can fill your time.

Some times short folks have to stand on a chair to practice the "under the leg" move.

Other folks do not require the chair for such fancy moves.

Did I mention it is a tedious process?

I apologize for this version of filling the solar shower, but it has a purpose. Every New Years since 2003 we've gone down to Georgia to spend it with our friend, Mike Ray. Nathan thought this was just the sort of thing Mike would LOVE! We miss you Mike! This 5th filling of the solar is for you!

Then comes the new technology, the extra strong clothes hanger. The hanger is attached to the solar shower so it can be hung on the pipes in the toilet room.

The next step is one that a "non-full sized woman" can't do by herself! The very heavy solar shower filled with warm water has to be hung near the ceiling on the pipe.

The kitchen and toilet room are two of the coldest places in our apartment. With the help of the Peace Corps issued heaters the shower process becomes a more pleasant experience!

Now, it's finally time to shower!
Poof! You're clean! All that hard work is over, right?

The next step requires the tallest person in the apartment to return the strings attached to the walls of the toilet room to their original "at-rest" position.

Finally, the process finishes by emptying the tumpen into the toilet!
Congratulations, you are now clean!

Friday, December 26, 2008

We Wish You a Happy New Year and a Happy New Year

We've been trying to figure out why there are Christmas trees and lights and "Jingle Bells" and George Micheal's "Last Christmas" playing non-stop wherever we go, but not only is there no Christ in Christmas, there's no Christmas in Christmas. All the fuss around here is about New Years or "Shin Jil". I've had the sneaking feeling this is a Russian thing - since most of the 20th century, Mongolia was closely aligned with Moscow.

Determined to get to the bottom of it, I brought it up over lunch with a Russian/English teacher last week. I asked him and his wife how long Mongolians had been celebrating New Year's. They agreed that they began celebrating this way when they were in the first grade. They're 54 now, so it's been about 48 years or so by their reckoning.

He explained that since Mongolia had such close ties to Russia, they gladly picked up these fun cultural things and celebrated them as their own. They giddily recounted their childhood plays and dances where she always played a dancing "Winter Girl", and one year he was "Grandfather Winter", complete with a big sack of presents, white beard and red outfit.

So, my suspicions were confirmed - it is a Russian thing. But why do the Russians not celebrate Christmas? Why does New Year's look so much like Christmas?

The answer lies in the Communist era with the Soviet suppression of religion and non-state oriented celebrations. According to this site:

"Before 1917, Christmas was celebrated in Russia in much the same way as it was in the rest of the world: on December 25, with Christmas trees and Christmas gifts, Saint Nicholas and the like. During the years of Communism after 1917, all formerly Christmas traditions were transferred to New Year's Eve, which became the traditional winter holiday. New Year's Eve is now to Russians what Christmas is to most people in the rest of the world, with one exception: there is no remnant of Christianity in the holiday. New Year's Eve is simply a chance to celebrate, to bring in the new year and get rid of the old. It is a chance to exchange gifts, have a day off and enjoy oneself."

The Mongolians (and Most Russians) continue to celebrate on the 31st of January, and from what we've heard, it's not the raucous debauchery many of us enjoy in the States, but a family affair just like we might recognize as Christmas. So, when your kids ask how Santa Claus can get all the way around the world in one night, you might tell them he does half the world, takes a week off to restock, and then does the other half around New Year's.

As a staff we'll celebrate together during the week of New Year's, but my work celebrated "Shin Jil" last week with many of our clients. There was dancing, singing, and ceremonial presentations of certificates announcing the year's "best ofs".

All the ladies were decked out in their Shil Jil outfits and the table was stocked with buuz, huushuur, fruits, champagne, vodka and soft drinks.

The Mongolian Waltz is something different than the waltz we know. It involves lots of tight spins and can be done to all kinds of music, not just the 3-4 "oohmp-pop-pop" waltz music we're used to.

My counterpart making some last minute adjustments to the decorations using a makeshift ladder.

Here's a small Shin Jil tree drenched in decorations inside the city government building, complete with official hand-carved government seals in the background. Shin Jil trees are usually pretty small like this.

Whenever you celebrate it, we wish you and yours a Happy New Year!


Thursday, December 25, 2008

Le Merry Christmas Eve

A quick Christmas Eve breakdown, mostly in photos!

What did you do for Christmas Eve?

Really? Well, we spent it with French Veterinarians in Mongolia.
Actually, French vets and their 2 adorable children!

Lawrence made us a very yummy chicken and mushroom dinner on our sad little Russian oven.

Chef du jour, Lawrence! Notice the empty bottle of wine in the corner that his wife Catherine is holding.

The light in our family room burnt out today. Our landlord said it will be fixed tomorrow. Therefore, we all ate standing up in the kitchen, using the washing machine as a table.

Solidad and Titoua and their makeshift dinner table.

The food was amazing! Leslie made double chocolate chip cookies that were quickly finished by Solidad and Titoua! They had Leslie running secret missions to the kitchen to keep them in cookies and coca cola without their mother knowing until nearly midnight.

We attempted to find a movie with French subtitles to no avail. We ended up watching Ratatoille. It was a great choice! Titoua has an infectious laugh and he kept pointing at the screen every time he laughed with complete glee. It was hysterical and adorable!
Watching Ratatoille by Christmas light.

As they left Nathan asked the Roffet/Gaillard family to pose like Mongolians. Everyone hit the mark except for Solidad. She just couldn't keep from smiling!

Keep your eyes peeled for a special Christmas post!
Merry Christmas Eve!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Wireless Router Fixed. Mongolian Winter is Cold

We got our wireless router up and going again after our AC/DC adapter got fried only having yielded 10 hours of service three months ago.

I finally was able to go a big electronics store in UB that was essentially a 5-story flea market with some new and some used products. It was on a main drag by foot and called "Computer Land" - just like that, no translation - so it was pretty easy to find. It was right behind a huge Canon store where they sell copiers, printers and cameras and the like.

I went into to one place and they didn't have what I was looking for but pointed me to the second floor to stall 204. All in Mongolian, I was able to describe the power pack I needed and from under a counter in front of me, the guy pulled out exactly that. It was much bigger and heavier than ours, but the specs were the same for the volts and amps, and it even had the precise same tip to our wireless router. For 6,000 tugrugs (<>$5) and three months of waiting, we're back up and running! If all goes well, we'll be able to Skype with our families on Christmas.

And I know it's cold across the States right now, but it was -10 here the other day with a stiff wind and my counterpart was walking all around town with me collecting surveys from banks. (It was -33 two weeks ago). He rhetorically asked me if Mongolia was colder than America. I told him it's not this cold where I'm from in the States, or at least this is as cold as it ever gets. He said somewhat proudly that it's still warm here and it won't really be cold until January when it hits -45 or so.

Regardless of how cold it is outside, I hope it's warm where you are or you have someone fun to snuggle up to.

Seasons Greetings.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Since our last post a few weeks ago, a lot has happened. We spent 4 days attending in-service training with our Mongolian counterparts at a hotel outside the capital Ulaanbaatar (UB), I went to Sukhbaatar (our training site) by train to speak at a chamber of commerce conference, Leslie presented two days of music therapy to social workers , and we both had a blast hanging out with all our best PC buds. I'll give you the skinny on the interesting parts of the technical.

Prodigal Son Returns to Sukhbaatar
After Thanksgiving, I had a week to fill with work I thought was going to be with my host agency in their UB office, but at the last minute I was invited to Sukhbaatar to present an activity on business ethics with two other PCVs, one of whom helped plan and organize the event. I replaced my pal Darren who had a last minute conflict. Thankfully, he had already prepared most of the materials ahead of time. The materials were supposed to be translated in Sukhbaatar, but the translator canceled at the last minute. Instead, I called our Mongolian tutor in Bayankhongor, bribed her to translate them, and after some email confusion, got them back in time for the presentation.

To get there, I took the slowest train on the face of the planet overnight Wednesday, arriving at 6 am Thursday. It was a sleeper car mostly to myself, which I got my money's worth out of. When I finally got into town, I got phone directions from Garrett, who I was staying with, then walked in the -30F morning frigidly across the street toward his place. With no one else on the street, I was greeted by a young police officer patrolling the area by foot. He asked why I was there, I told him in Mongolian and he said back to me, "Oh, yes. American. He lives right here." Then in English, he counted to four with a smile, pointing to where Garrett's apartment was on the fourth floor and wished me well.

The conference was long, but information-packed for the Selenge Province business delegates who attended. One interesting point I'll always remember is that one day they had to scrap the afternoon's programming because of a last minute scheduling conflict of the key speaker, so everyone had the afternoon off. The next day, probably half of the twenty participants showed up hungover, some didn't show at all and some went back to the hotel for lunch and didn't return. Good to know.

Also, by the fourth day, they were done hearing presentations through a translator. If I do something similar, I'll try not to do much presenting unless it's an activity. A half hour spoken presentation is over an hour, which is grueling for everyone involved.

Incidentally, my presentation went off well. I had them break into four groups and discuss scenarios. Prompted by questions, they discussed child labor, environmental impact, office supply theft, and gender equality. The answers were pretty standard, but it's interesting to note that most offices are made up of women, though most managers are men. No one really saw a problem with that.

Here I am writing my name on the board. You can see it written in both Latin and Cyrillic letters. In Cyrillic, I spell it phonetically, but on my ID it's spelled like "nah-tahng", which isn't very helpful in getting my attention from across a room.

As per custom for any gathering of people, we all sat for an amusing photo to remember the event. I posed Mongolian style for this one. Only Garrett (bot right) feigned a smile.

The best part of the trip, of course, was getting to spend some time with my host family. My host mom was thrilled to stuff my face for two hours and talk about everything that's happened since I left in August. We missed each other a lot. She was extremely peeved to know I wasn't going to be staying overnight there. My little host sister took a minute to warm up, but we had a good time counting in Mongolian while attending to her kindergarten homework and with her Barbies, especially the dirty blue outfits my mom sent for her over the summer, which have apparently seen a lot of play. I was sad to leave again.

I didn't have a chance to get over to Leslie's host folks, but we'll hopefully be back up there for Tsagaan Sar, the Mongolian lunar new year celebration that family oriented and lasts for weeks, much like Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter all wrapped into one, with a little little Memorial Day in there too. Looking forward to that.

The train ride back to UB was shared with three other PCVs and wasn't much more exciting than the trip up, but we had a some good laughs. I enjoyed not being in a packed microbus with 20 other people meant for 11.

Music Therapy Workshop
Around the same time, Leslie presented to child protection social workers.

The first day, with the brilliant translation help of her program director, Enkhee, Leslie provided background on music therapy, defined it, described what therapists do, who can benefit from it and who is qualified to practice it.

The last half of the first day and all of the second day were mostly experiential. They walked through lyric analysis, music biographies, music assisted relaxation, and talked about improvisation.

They mostly had questions about music assisted relaxation and how to do it most effectively. The social workers mostly work with street children and children with special needs. There are few services for people with special needs, and most are usually left at home with no education. For example, the Downs Syndrome Society of Mongolia was just started about 3 years ago and only has about 30 members, even though there are many more people with the syndrome in the country.

She was really nervous before hand, but the seminar went so well. She was even asked to come back in March for update and refresher course. She was also asked to present 20 hrs to social work students to the one social work program in the country.

We spent four days with 19 other non-English teacher (Teaching English as a Foreign Language -TEFL) PCVs at a conference hotel just outside UB, whose name roughly translates as "Nook". It was almost the exact layout of the Darkhan Hotel four hours away, where all of our other trainings have been. Gotta love that Soviet flair for architecture.

With the aide of translators as needed, we were able to dissect the Peace Corps procedures and expectations with our counterparts so we all understood how project/program management is supposed to work. All presentations by PC staff were done in both languages and sometimes we were broken into separate language groups. Interestingly, Leslie's and my counterparts spoke the least amount of English out of all the other counterparts, but we got through everything really well. In fact, we were told constantly by the other counterparts that they were jealous of us. No pressure. Leslie and I spent a lot of time just with our counterparts, even rooming separately with them, which got us a lot of points with the PC staff and lots of flack from our fellow volunteers.

The focus of the training was program development and management (PDM). Though we all teach English in our communities and to our co-workers, those of us who aren't teaching children in schools are expected to work with our agencies to assess programs we can start, and then put together a plan of action. We're encouraged to think much more grass roots and to use our skills more than pockets to accomplish small to medium goals. The Peace Corps has a whole list of goals and objectives created by negotiations between our two governments mostly about training, so that's a good place for us to start talking. Sometimes these programs/projects involve grant writing and some dollars, and sometimes they just involve training and cooperation.

Just after the fall of communism here, many well-intentioned NGOs and governments through a lot of money at Mongolia without a lot of strings or training or oversight, but it didn't go well. Because of this, we're encouraged not to use the word "project" in either language because it usually means something big, involving lots of money and lots of corruption. In fact, the word in Mongolian is almost the same as "budget".

My counterpart, Undrah, and me outside the Nukht Hotel. Good times.

Leslie and her counterpart, Dogoo, on the bus ride home.

My trainer Cady and program director, Baagi, presenting about cross-cultural expectations of work

In this presentation, one person spoke in English while the other translated and vise versa.

Most sessions were very hands-on, as per the Peace Corps model. It's a form of teaching and learning that's very new here, but the results were compelling enough to get many people talking about taking this style back to their workplaces.
We were all assigned to get things from other people around the room. It was like herding cats as we literally pulled certain people with multiple skills in many directions at once.

We had a really great time bonding with our counterparts, hanging out with our American friends, and getting to know UB, but were glad to be home.

Here's our little Bayankhongor Airport. Just to the left of the building is where you pick up the luggage after your flight.

Now we're looking forward to putting all these new skills to use with our counterparts. In January, it's just down to Undrah and me as my other counterpart/manager is on maternity leave for 5 months. Fingers crossed.


Shout out to Batjargal in Darkhan. He's an English student in Cady's class who's been following our blog for the past couple months. Hope to meet you soon!

Shot out to my dad, who just had another surgery, this time to repair his abdominal aorta with a stent. All's well after the surgery. I texted him from my phone to my brother's phone just before he underwent the endoscopic procedure last week. Technology is cool.

Monday, December 1, 2008


It's been a while since our last post because we were traveling, experiencing our duel Thanksgivings. Our apolgies.

Our Thanksgiving afternoon began with a short Skype conversation with Nathan's friends and family as everyone gathered on their end for Thanksgiving Eve. Soon after, we were driven to the Bayankhongor airport by Nathan's colleague, who stayed around to see us off. We had about a 40 min wait during which we gave her the short and dirty on the first Thanksgiving and what is means today. She knew a lot about it already, so it wasn't a hard sell.

Then we hopped the afternoon flight to for 1 hour and 5 mins of comfort. The drive would have taken anywhere from 13-24 hours we've been warned, so we were extra thankful we were able to fly - especially on Peace Corps' dime. Due to required Peace Corps training, we could come into UB, work with our organization for a while, and then stick around for training with our counterparts.

Our walk to the flight. Bayankhongor Airport

The drive from the UB airport to Darren & Laura's apartment. Almost as long as the flight with UB traffic.

We ended up have 2 Thankgivings, really. The first one, we celebrating with a small group on that on that Thursday at a Thai restaurant, then jaunted over to the Grand Khaan Irish Pub to meet up with everyone else who was in town.
Thanksgiving - Round One (Thai food on ACTUAL Thanksgiving Day)
Went to the Grand Khaan for some after dinner fun with everyone who had gathered in town for the big weekend.

Then for the main event on Saturday with the ambassador, complete with turkeys he flew in for us and all the trimmings provided by Peace Corps staff and volunteers.

Nathan doing his official duties as "Turkey Carver."

Dylan and Yoomie presenting their turkey. And yes, Yoomie gave it an orange rind bow.

An example of a Peace Corps Volunteer Thanksgiving plate. There's always a fear it's a terrbile joke and the food will be taken away so you must stock up at first!

The appetizer table. Notice the famed "Bucket O' Salad" brought to you by Cady Sinnwell & Emily Holekamp.

Many were shocked by the occurance of traditional mongolian food (hosuure) at the Thanksgiving meal. Thankfully, when you bit into the hosuure you discovered not mutton but curried potatoes!

The beginning of the dessert table. PCVs feared a lack of desserts. Eventually, the table was stacked 5 desserts high (specifically cake boxes).

Determined to add class to the event our Ambassador brought nice pumpkins and a table runner! Thanks, Ambassador Minton!
Fed and watered and ready for the couch.

Evan & Nathan attempting to breath after devouring the Thanksgiving cornucopia!

Sure, your Thanksgiving was nice, but did it involve Dennis Rodman?

PCVs are grateful for this amazing meal! Here's our Country Director, Jim Carl, being presented with a felt painting (Thanksgiving 2008, in Mongolian script along the side.)

Special thanks to Darren & Laura (the other married couple in our training year) who allowed us to stay at their apartment over the holiday. They have a lovely faculty apartment with a fold out couch and cable TV! Pretty impressive! We slept like babies and watched Daddy Day Camp because beggars can't be choosers!
It was a great time, but tiring.

Note Darren & Garrett's reaction to the long few days!

It was a great time with friends and great food! Though we missed our families and friends, it was a thoughtfully planned event and went off without a hitch! Thanks for all your thoughts and prayers for us over the holiday!