Saturday, May 30, 2009

A Year in Review

As May 2009 winds to a close, we’ve begun to look back on our first year as Peace Corps volunteers in Mongolia. We’ve seen and done some exotic things, learned some random stuff, had some real cross-cultural challenges, and we’ve had some of the most rewarding experiences we could have ever hoped for.

Often times, as you can imagine, life here is different. We've had to adjust to a new way of bathing and to using our handy-but-complicated clothes washer. The weather is a little more complicated here than advertised, and the travel is excruciating at times.

Despite the challenges of our jobs and different ways of life, the biggest challenges we’ve faced have been missing out on family events. Nathan’s dad almost died twice this year resulting in double bypass surgery and few months later, aortic stents. Leslie missed her brother Stephen’s wedding and the birth of Karsen, niece number three to oldest brother Chris. We’ve both missed holidays, impromptu family gatherings, having our friends over for barbecues, swinging by just to say hello, weathering the recession job losses of Nathan's brothers and their main sqeezes, and so much more.

Instead, we've grown closer as our own little family and brought in some new folks to help us make it, which include our counterparts and fellow Peace Corps volunteers. We performed at our swearing-in ceremony, put on a show in Bayankhongor, and have enjoyed learning all about Mongolian music. In fact, Leslie was published for the first time in a peer journal, Voices, discussing music, which is a nice resume booster and proud moment.

Thanks to everyone for sending us packages and continuing to care. We hope you also continue to read our blog in year number two, and we hope to see you in October when we fly to Ohio for Nathan's brother's wedding and trip to PA for some Shaffer family fun.

Here's to year number two!
Leslie and Nathan

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Monitoring and Evaluation Trip to the Northern Villages

Last week, just after our rousing concert, I took off for the countryside with Alta, my manager from UB, Undrah, my counterpart in Bayankhongor, and our driver Chuka. Leslie was at home gearing up to go on the road with her concert when I left. So far it's been almost two weeks since we saw each other and we have one more week to go.

You can see all the pictures with detailed captions here.

During the trip we gave presentations about some new procedural and structural changes that have been made to the business program, marketing, and I talked about project management. By the end, Undrah was doing all the presentations, demonstrating what we in the international development game call "capacity building." He learned from Alta and I, then he was able to do it himself, furthering one of my objectives as a Peace Corps volunteer. We also visited with the banks to make sure micro loans were being paid back, and we met with the local mayors to chat about our progresses.

Alta and I sat with the village mayor. Undrah took the photo.

Outside the classroom and meetings, though, I had the chance to get to know Bayankhongor Province and my counterparts a little better. Not surprisingly, this was the best part of the trip. I saw some absolutely stunning vistas and wildlife scenes, met some real characters, ate less meat than I thought I might, I watched Spring blossom around me, lived on solar power, and saw how to kill an animal. Oh, and I had a blast.

Buddhist monks drew some art for us to enjoy on our long trip.


In this village, trash was dumped just outside of town. Notice the horn sticking out of the burlap sack.

Undrah's niece heads inside for something apparently quite important.

Cell phone companies power their towers with solar panels.

The eagle
had landed.

Check out this ger placement!

Statues of horses, yaks, goats, sheep and camels were in almost every village we went to. Animals are obviously an important part of Mongolian countryside life.

Where there's water, there's life. Spring sprang while we were on our trip after some recent rains.

How to Kill an Animal

In case you're not familiar with how to slaughter an animal in Mongolia, here's a step-by-step tutorial. It's actually pretty cool and, I think, humane.

1. Tie up the animal (or have your buds hold it down), then use your trusty knife to make a small incision.

2. Stick your hand inside and find the right artery around the heart. Now pinch that until the animal stops moving.

3. Take your hand out, but leave any clingy guts inside.

4. (not pictured) Skin and gut your little lady. Supper's waiting on you.

Tea Time

If you were wondering how to make tea for guests in your ger, you're in luck. Normally Mongolian's drink milk tea, which is just black tea with a lot of milk cooked in. What's interesting about this time of year is that milk is scarce due to skinny animals who've endured a long winter but don't yet have spring grasses to graze on. The following technique is really only used for black and green tea, not necessarily milk tea.

1. Boil some water and put in loose tea. Mix well.

2. Scoop the tea through a mesh screen into the pot.

3. Pour tea for your thirsty guests.

4. Put the wok away and cover the fire.

Mill Your Own Barley
1. Pour in whole grains into your homemade mill of two flat rocks with a hole in the middle of the top one.

2. Next use a stick to spin the rocks. As they spin, the ground grains fall out the side.

3. Serve with a specially prepared Mongolian yellow fat, water and sugar.

This adroit and pleasant 72 year-old gentleman has been using this technique for 15 years. His parents were farmers, but he took other jobs during the planned economy. When the government changed to the market economy in the early 1990's he used his knowledge to start his own small farm. He has 10 children, 3 of whom are still in college earning degrees in business, computer engineering and accounting, so he said he was working hard to get them through. He is quite strong, but well worn by life.

His plot of land is few acres just outside of town, and he works it all by himself. This year, he's adding another 100 sq. meters or about another third of his field. He's also a motorcycle repairman, among many other things. It was a pleasure to meet him.

It was quite a long trip, but I was happy to learn many new things about life in Bayankhongor's northern villages. To see all the pictures from the trip, please click here.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Our Concert Evening

Friday, May 8, 2009 we put on a show. All proceeds went to the Center for Children with Disabilities.

It all started in February as our good pal Tysen began seriously working up some grad school audition pieces on piano. He wanted to do a recital so he could have a practice benchmark and to show off his stuff. He asked Leslie to sing a few songs, and they set a date.

Then, while we were in UB on other business in March, we ran into Julia Cannon, theater degree holder and performer extraordinaire. She signed on to join us in Bayankhongor as well, singing her own stuff and collaborating with both of us.

A few weeks later, our Peace Corps coordinator came for a site visit and recommended that we call a second-year volunteer, Dwan, who has an extensive dance background. One phone call and Dwan was in and wanted to dance with Nathan.

As the performance date approached and details were arranged, the Mongolians at Leslie’s theater were beginning to make it a much bigger deal than any of us had anticipated at the start. We just wanted a small, fun recital we could be proud of. There were big questions of, “Who will be your producer? You can’t do a program without a producer.” They said, “Who will pick your songs for you and in what order?” and “Who will tell you where to stand and when?” and “Who will print the tickets?” We already had the songs picked out, it was easy enough to decide the order, and where to stand was based mostly on the grand piano placement.

The grand piano. Though the theater proudly boasted having the piano, we found out a few weeks before the concert that it hasn’t been played since glasnost and perestroika were all the rage, and it had presumably seen better days before. The keys on the last quarter of each side didn’t work, it was more out of tune than Florence Foster Jenkins, and it was looking like if we didn’t get it fixed, there wasn’t going to be much of a concert. Tysen rightfully refused to play a classical concert on a cheap Casio and the clangy upright in the practice room wasn’t a better option. After some hemming and hawing over it (including the theater director insisting that Tysen only play in the center if that’s where the keys worked), they called in a “specialist” from UB to put the piano back together again – sort of. Almost all the keys worked, though the tuning left much to be desired.

As the concert week approached, the piano repairman had come in on the preceding Friday, Julia came in on Sunday night, and then Dwan came in on Monday night. By Monday the piano was “fixed” and it was looking like we might just pull this thing off. Dwan and Nathan began blocking their dance, working with the dance teacher at Leslie’s children’s theater. Tysen began putting the final touches on his pieces and learned much of the accompaniments for the ladies, and the ladies worked the kinks out of their songs. At some point, Tysen, Julia, Leslie and Dwan sat for an interview with the local TV with Leslie’s theater and children’s center counterparts to promote the event, which aired that week.

By Thursday, the pre-order tickets, which were to be sold to businesses as the producer’s big idea for securing attendance, finally came in from UB effectively killing the “pre” portion of the pre-selling concept. That meant we weren’t sure if anyone would show up at this point because there was no sign, almost no promotion, and the only real word we had around town was from us and one TV news story.

Finally by Friday, hours of rehearsals during the week and frayed nerves later, which included a rousing dry run that made us all a little nervous about the lighting and sound, not to mention a problem that left the “E” key (two below middle C) ringing every time the sustain peddle was depressed, the show was to go on. One carpenter and a host of last-minute onlookers and well-wishers later made the last few minutes eventful, nonetheless.

Earlier in the week, our friend and English teacher, Bayarmaa, translated a summary of each vocal piece into Mongolian. She stood on one side announcing in English and Leslie’s young theater counterpart, Baagi, stood on the other, announcing in Mongolian.

Tysen started with a two-part Beethoven sonata (Sonata in E Major, Op. 101 movements I & II). After he stopped between the movements, the announcers came out and began announcing his next piece, causing him to craftily scrap the second Beethoven movement. He went on to expertly work his way up and down the keyboard, often eliciting “ooos” and “aahs” from the crowd as he played Bach (Prelude and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 84), Chopin (Ballade, Op. 38) and Glass (Wichita Vortex Sutra).

Then Julia and Leslie alternated intermittently, performing some really great musical theater and foreign language numbers. Because the theater sound guy is so bad (the mics are always, always wildly screeching out feedback and are turned up too loudly with a tin-can sound), that both opted to sing without mics, which balanced well with the piano. They each nailed their performances with energy and flair while Nathan turned pages for Tysen.

Julia sang:
“Show Me” from My Fair Lady
“This Place is Mine” from Phantom of the Opera
"How Could I Ever Know" from Secret Garden
“All the Same” from Man of La Mancha

Leslie sang:
“Se Florindo รจ fedele” by Alessandro Scarlatti
“Nel cor piu non mi sento” by Giovanni Paisiello
“What Good Would the Moon Be?” from Street Scene
“Les berceaux” by Gabriel Faure

Together, they sang “By My Side” from Godspell.

After the piano was pushed off stage, Nathan and Dwan danced their ballet number to Mozart’s Klavierkonzerte Nr. 20 (II. Romance). Dwan played a doll and Nathan played the doll maker. Here is the synopsis of the 10 minute dance:

Scene 1: The Doll Maker
The story began with Nathan at a workbench while the doll he was building sat awkwardly in a chair on the other side of the stage. He walked around his doll with a sketch pad and pen, made improvements, and tested the working order. He mimed drawing in eayes and a smile.

He decided the last touch should be to wind up the doll and let it move freely, but the doll moved rigidly and eventually fell. Nathan reset the doll, tested the moving parts, looked at his watch and left stage.

Part II. Magic Dust Brings Life
As the music changed, magic dust (confetti thrown from the curtains) entered the workshop and caused doll to sneeze, and then poof, the doll became filled with life. She jumped up and became aware of her body parts and began to move with limited range. As the music changed, confidence built and she danced freely with joy and excitement!

Part III. Discovery of A Life Created
The doll maker arrived the next morning concentrating on how he might improve on his mechanical creation. The doll was still dancing with excitement but hid as Nathan’s back was turned to her. Nathan finally noticed the doll missing (from a musical cue) and then frantically searched until he found her behind the chair. He reached for the animated doll and they danced together. She gleefully showed off her new moves and the they ended in a joyful pose as the music wound down.

During the middle of the third act, about 7 minutes into the 10 minute routine, it began to rain on the front of the stage in one long, heavy stream. Luckily it turned out that if the announcers hadn’t cut off Tysen’s second movement in the Beethoven piece, Leslie would have been on stage singing her Faure number as the open grand piano turned into a kiddie pool. Crisis was coincidentally averted and all were counting their hindsight lucky stars.

The final number was a resounding success as the two of us sang “Hairlan Duumaar Baina” (our now routine love song) with Julia. The only hitch was the electricity kept cutting out, so the accompaniment hiccuped a few times and the microphones kept cutting out. Nonetheless, it was the decided crowd pleaser of the evening.

Though it was raining and snowing outside, and the concert wasn’t promoted much, we were amazed that the house was full with around 400 audience members. It was made up of our Mongolian friends and counterparts, but mostly it contained people under the age of 12, which was exciting at first. The problem was, we had prepared a program for businesspeople who were going to buy pre-sold tickets to a classical concert. As you might notice by the selections, we didn’t have a lot to keep the attention of anyone who might have been born after we graduated high school, with exceptions of the dance and the Mongolian number.

In fact, during nearly the entire concert, children and adults were talking at normal levels (not even whispers), one kid toward the middle back started listening to other music on his cell phone (boombox style), and people were taking phone calls like they were waiting in line at a mall food court. To say it was a tough crowd would be an understatement. It reminded us of the cheap movie theater we would sometimes go to near the bus station in Philadelphia or one of those clubs with the metal cages the Blues Brothers played in the movie. If David Letterman had been there, he would have been tugging at his collar with a grimace. When we talked to a Mongolian English teacher about how rude we thought it was, she just laughed and said that’s how Mongolians are. Just then we realized why every concert we’d been to had the microphones and accompaniment turned up to full blast. It occurred to us that maybe they just want to drown out the crowd noise. Either way, we all earned the evening.

Once the bows were finished, instead of the curtain coming back down, there was an anticlimactic moment for us Americans that seemed to be the Mongolians' entire reason for the concert. In Mongolian style, there was a long, gracious presentation of gifts and flowers and commemorating certificates issued to each one of the volunteers who performed. Speeches of congratulations and appreciation were delivered by the Mongolians who helped us plan and execute the performance, and we all posed for pictures.

Afterward we all went out to dinner and recalled the triumphs and difficulties of our first concert in Mongolia. May 8, 2009.