Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Long Time Gone: Trading the countryside for urbane Ulaanbaatar

It was a long month in UB, but we're back in Bayankhongor now. Though we got a lot done while we were away and enjoyed lots of great food, fun company, and regular hot showers, it has been so good to be home.

The initial purpose of our trip to Ulaanbaatar was for me to lead several trainings on music therapy, specifically for social workers and social work students. I was asked in January to create a training for social workers with Save the Children. It was very successful, greatly due to my Peace Corps CYD director, Enkhee, who has social work degrees from the U.S. and is capable of maneuvering the complicated subject of music therapy from the English language to Mongolian. At the Save the Children workshop, I was asked to return for a follow-up with the social workers and also to present a 20 hour workshop with the seniors at the Mongolian State University of Education Social Work program.
Though only one of those workshops worked out, due to scheduling issues with the Save the Children social workers, I was able to have a successful week with the students at the university!

Enkhee spent a couple mornings translating for the first workshop, but it was impossible to get her away for 20 hours with the students. Thanks to a previous volunteer, we met a remarkable woman named Tuul Sukhbaatar! Sukhbaatar means Axe Hero! (and the same guy the town we trained in and the Square in UB is named after) in Mongolian. You can imagine how hard core that makes her! I was lucky that she was willing to take her vacation time to help me out. Much like working with Enhkee, it was really easy to work with someone I adore so much.

*Note: Tuul will be starting her masters degree in conservation in the United States this fall! This, of course, means that I will connecting her with many of you! She's a blast! I'm glad she'll still be there when we are finished in Mongolia!

I did my best to make it an extremely experiential week for the students, so Tuul and I worked with the social work students on lyric analysis, musical biographies, song re-creations, and music relaxation. The students lead several experiences during the week! The next week Enkhee told me that when she met with the students they were very excited to share with her all they had learned.

The next step I would like to do on this project is to re-create similar workshops throughout the country, since training in the countryside (not UB) does not happen as often. In addition, a fellow PCV, Julia, would like to lead some experiences on drama therapy. Currently, the Center Against Violence has expressed an interest in our workshop for the social workers that work at the Women's Shelters in the provincial capitals!

If you want to know more about how music therapy may work in Mongolia check out Voices in May. Voices, the online World Forum for Music Therapy, has agreed to make Mongolia the country of the month in May. I will be writing the article on the history of music here and how, though there are no creative arts therapists in Mongolia it is primed for use of creative arts in therapy and social work. I'm thrilled for my first published article.

While Leslie was doing her seminars, I was working on an internet project for my NGO, which is about half way done, but we need a lot of translation into English before it goes up. I can't wait to unveil it when it's done.

In the interest of setting up some sort of micro-financing partnership, I met with a guy from www.kiva.org. They have access to money and a partnership with a bank my NGO has already partnered with to give out micro loans, but they don't have a lot of vetted candidates to loan to. We have a ton of suitable recipients with no access to money. It seems we should be able to work something out. Lots of hoops to jump through first. We're hoping we'll be able to get Brother-in-law Stephen's Kiva credits our way.

Originally, I was only supposed to be in town for about three days while Leslie stayed to work. By the time we got back into UB from visiting our host families for Tsagaan Sar, though, we had both been pretty sick for almost two weeks. We got some antibiotics that didn't do the whole job, then I got some chest x-rays to rule TB, then we were both put back on another, longer round of antibiotics, which seem to have done the job. Also, because of the unexpectedly long stay, I only had about three outfits, so my clothes took a beating.

I was around a little longer than planned, but serendipitously, I was working for my NGO at the UB headquarters during a time when they were having some big discussions about an EU grant, and I eventually helped write parts of it. They kept me in town for an extra 10 days to help see it through. We're just in the beginning of the vetting process, so if it materializes, I'll elaborate on it more then, but potentially, it would invest in infrastructure and technical skills training for rural arts and peer-to-peer life skills education using Leslie's children's theater over three years. Leslie and I both had a lot of input, so fingers crossed for it to make it to the next stage. My programs director and country director at ADRA (a married Australian couple) are a real whizzes at the writing and planning, so even if it doesn't materialize, I at least got a lot out of the process.

I also found out that I was chosen to do training for the incoming volunteers. We'll be expecting them in 2 months, which surprisingly means we've been here 10 full months now. It will take me out of site again for 4-5 weeks during the summer and a weekend of training in May. No definite word on Leslie yet, but we both feel it's a done deal that she'll be training as well, as per her director Enkhee's recommendation. There have been a ton of budget cuts forcing the training to be much different than we experienced, so we're wondering how its all going to go down.

We grabbed some urban-themed photos from UB. These are mostly taken around Sukhbaatar Square, what may be considered the center of town. You can see the difference between UB and our countryside Bayankhongor, namely the big buildings and lots of cars. You might see in one shot that someone hates Chinese people enough to graffiti it in English. (My money is on Zero, the online handle of my buddy John. John, there are better ways.) You might also see there's a wall with the Beatles on it in front of a billboard advertising fresh milk. Imagine.

A Night at the Opera
On Saturday night went to the opera to see Tosca. We brushed up on the story beforehand on the internet, though the programs (in English and Mongolian) had the same synopsis. Most of the arias were in Italian (except for one male lead who sang only in Mongolian) and the recitative was in Mongolian (except for the female lead, who sang only in Italian), though it was kind of hard to tell the difference. 1 of the male leads was just so awful it was nearly incomprehensible, but the other male lead and the female lead held their own. The costuming was beautiful and had a Mongolian flair to it especially in the sacristan's robe, which was was worn more like cinched and bloused Mongolian deel at the waist than a hanging monks' robe. The same guy wore a bald
cap and a big prostetic nose. It was a hoot.
The star of the night was the opera house itself. It reminded us of Stuart's Opera House in Nelsonville, Ohio where we've performed. It was a quaint, small auditorium with about 400 seats and the interior was adorned with beautiful colors, traditional Mongolian designs, and charming lighting. The performers weren't amplified at all, and it was a treat to hear the pure voices with the orchestra, which sadly was often too heavy and/or out of tune, owing many troubles to the low brass and clarinet. Even still, the seats were cheap at 8,000MNT ($5.33) and we got our money's worth.

The last month flew right off the calendar, and there's no letting up for now. As fun as our time was, it was not a vacation. After the hiatus from a comfortable bed and the 14 hour, punishing bus ride home, we are worn out. Also, even with per diem and help from Nathan's father, UB has so many good options for food and entertainment that our pockets are pretty bare. It should be a lean month ahead.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Our Love Song

During our swearing in ceremony in August, each training community had to perform a traditional song, dance, instrument and give a speech. We sang a duet for our teachers and fellow PCVs.

As promised months ago, check out our video on youtube.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Tsagaan Sar: Enter the Year of the Ox

Tsagaan Sar has so far been one of best experiences we've had in Mongolia. We were wined and dined all over town. We ate hundreds of buuz and bainsh and drank gallons a various beverages. We've met some wonderful new people and hopefully affirmed some lasting bonds with others.

If you like the photos you see here, we have a lot more with some detailed captions you can check out here. For more information on the holiday, check out our other blog post, Tsagaan Sar: We see a White Moon a risin'.

Day 1.
Nathan went to the top of the Erdenemandel mountain in the middle of town to greet the first rays of the new sun on the first day of the Lunar New Year. The irony of appreciating the sun on a lunar holiday was not lost on us, but Nathan got to the top just as the sun broke over the Ikh Nomgon mountain on the eastern side of the city.
Later that day, we went with Tysen to our friends' house. The father and daughter are high school English teachers at different schools and the mother is a retired economist who owns a small restaurant now. As per the custom, we dressed up in our Mongolian best, said our Tsagaan Sar greetings "Amar bain uu?", shared our snuff bottles, ate lots of food, drink and sweets, and recieved a gift for coming.

Later after a nap and a movie, Nathan's driver Choka and his co-worker Undrah picked us up. We went first to Choka's palatial western-style, two story house and met his family with our "Amar bain uu?"s and snuff bottles. His wife and son (who looks just like him) are a real fun sort and she made some really tasty buuz. We posed for a group picture, then moved on to Undrah's. At Undrah's ger, we did the same. A pattern was developing.

Day 2.
Nathan's new friend and English student, Bayanmunk, had us over. He's a high-school physics teacher and since his wife, Tunga, is an important judge, they've moved around a little bit for her job. As a result, they don't really have family in the area, which is good because we were able to spend most of the day being gorged by their "American-style" pasta, mutton, candy bars, Coca-Cola, cherries, strwaberries, steamed yeast bread, beef, etc, etc, etc. We were also treated to an intorduction to the head prosecuter in town who paused for a few minutes to chat on his two-way with the chief of police.

Day 3.
After our glutinous good time on Day 2, we didn't know just how much more we were up for. Day 3 is typically the day to spend with co-workers and we'd had loose plans with Leslie's, but we had no clue when or where. It's OK, because Leslie's co-worker Dogoo gave us 3 minutes warning that she was in a car on her way. We dressed, she drove and thus began another marathon day of mutton, buuz, milk products, candy and fun!

We must have gone to ten different houses that day. As required, we did our best to eat our three buuz and politely sip our generous portions of several different beverages. We had some real fancy-pants buuz at some places that even included hot peppers. What a treat and what a surpise, but yhey are theater folk, after all.

Day 4.
We spent with our new friend Demo and his family. He's a 21 year-old first year English teacher. His parents are both doctors, his one sister is a dentist, and his other sister is a college student. His parents told us over and over again their's was a family of doctors, reminding us frequently that Demo was not a docter, he was a teacher and translator. We had a really fun time with them, but neglected to take a picture.

Afterwards, they arranged a car ride to Nathan's other counterpart's house for a quick stop for some tea, milk products, vodka and meat. Again, as with each place we went, we exchanged our "Amar bain uu's?", snuff bottles and other pleasantries.

After that, we arranged another ride to the home of Tserensuren who runs a program for children with special needs, and with whom Leslie has been working with recently. Her son is deaf, among other limitations. Since there were no real resources for children like him, Tserensuren started a program at the hospital and worked closely with another PCV who recently returned to the States. They have a good thing going and it was good to share some time in her home. We're likely not to make it back too often because it is for real on the edge, edge of town. Without a ride, it would have taken about an hour to walk.

So, we finally got through the first few official days of Tsagaan Sar, though we were the worse for wear. It seems all the communal eating and drinking and lack of sleep over the past 5 days caught up with our bodies, and we have both been under the weather with a wicked throat and chest cold.

We were supposed to leave for Sukhbaatar on that Sunday, but the Russian van we booked the day before was greedily overbooked when we went to leave. We chose to let our sitemate Peder take the last remaining seat and went home. When we awoke the next day and tried to leave, we were just too completely worn out. We opted not to travel for a couple more days and this time we bought bus tickets, which had been sold out before. Bus tickets are cheaper than a crammed van and cost less.

Now we're in UB after a few days hanging with our host familes and our American friends in Sukhbaatar. We're still sick, both with the same nasty, nasty cough, but after meeting with our medical officer, we have some more agressive treatment than our gargling salt water, drinking tea, and popping pain pills. He says our cough is most likely pollution related.