Monday, August 14, 2006

Mongol Rally

I’m writing this on my last day of Mongolian classes, and wow has the time really flown by. You’d think that 4 hours of learning Mongolian then 3 hours of teaching or observing English a day would be long, but no. I move out of my host family’s house on Monday morning, a day I am not looking forward to at all. It’s gonna be a sad one.

So, today was the last day of classes as well as the LPI (Language Proficiency Inspection) test. Peace Corps has a ton of acronyms; I feel like PC has it’s own language to learn as well as the host countries. The LPI went fine. It’s really just a test to grade yourself against others objectively, but if you score below a certain level than you are required to get a tutor (beginner mid, which is what I scored in the middle of the summer, and some people scored beginner high – not many people are required to get tutors). However, its not really a stressful day because I am planning on getting a tutor anyway – why not, PC pays for it. Some people are a little stressed out though, which is unfortunate because they are the ones who seem to care about the score the most but you know that the stress will affect them during the test. Oh well. The way I see it, your score on an oral exam after three months of intensive language training can only predict how well you will be able to learn the language over two years out on your own. (edit: 21-beg high, 21-int low, 14-int mid. I got int low, but everyone else in my class got int high, so im guessing I was just having a bad language day because I am not worse than the others in my class. My class was by far the best with scores though)

Also today, between class and the exam, we saw a bunch of white people so we decided to go and talk to them (as we normally do when we see white people – except for in UB, because there were tons of them). Turns out they were a bunch of British guys who were at the tail end of their London – UB, 3 week journey. There are roughly 200 cars that are doing this trek at the moment, using various routes, but all ending up in UB. The trip is a charity called MongolRally. I’m not sure how long it has been going on or who started the program, but all the cars have to be under a certain amount of money (either 100 dollars or pounds, I forget which), and they have to be donated once they get to UB. They also raise money for the trip and then donate it at the end as well. The website was something like, there are only so many combinations to try I guess. I was thinking maybe someone will buy me a really nice car and I can drive it from UB to London at the end of my service =).

Tomorrow we all go with our host families to Ethan’s family’s countryside spot for a little going away party. It will be really nice to get everyone together with their families and spend a little time together. I’m sure it will end up being some ridiculous story though, and if it does, you will all get to hear about it.

Community Project

So let’s see… last time I wrote you was in UB, right after finishing practice teaching. Saturday after finishing practice teaching we conducted our community project, which we were to put together as a group in any form that we wanted to. Getting everything organized was pretty much as would be expected, disorganized. At first we wanted to paint a mural on one of the classroom walls, but we didn’t get permission from the school director or funding from PC in time, so we scratched that. However, we did decide to do a variety of other things for the students we had been teaching as well as anyone else who wished to participate.

A few of us had been doing yoga after school for the previous few weeks, and a few students had been doing it with us when they found out we were doing it. So, for the community project day, we held a much larger yoga session, which went over quite well. A few of us led it, and one of the Mongolians who had been participating from the beginning helped explain in Mongolian what we were doing. They had a lot of fun doing the yoga, and Sean, the PCV who lives in Bayangol, decided that he will have a class after school for those who want to show up throughout the school year.

We had two art competitions, one for younger kids and one for older kids. We had a really large turnout for the younger kids competition. We had then use materials they brought or the colored pencils that we supplied to draw a picture of what Mongolia was to them. Most drew pretty similar pictures: hills in the countryside with gers and horses, and the individual members of their family in dels. I don’t think anyone drew UB or naadam, and, more surprisingly, Chingghis Khan. For the older kids, only a few showed up, but those who did drew some pretty outstanding pictures. The winner used watercolors that he brought to draw a bull-rider with an American flag in the background.

Finally, we had a small basketball tournament. There is a small basketball court in the school. The walls are basically the out-of-bounds lines and the goals are about 12 feet high, but we made due. We played 5 on 5 full court, and the 4 teams were the 9th, 10th, 11th grade teams (schools only go up to 11th grade), and us. It was very packed with the spectators on the already small court, but I have a feeling that this is something they might all be used to. I think most of you reading this know how bad I am at basketball, but we gave the 10th graders a run for their turgrigs, losing 10-11 after their 2 point comeback at the very end of the game. The 11th grade team easily cleaned up the whole tournament, beating the 9th graders in the first game, and then the 10th graders in the final game.

After all these events, we hosted a small concert in the cultural center to congratulate the winners as well as practice our “things” for the concert for the swearing-in ceremony. Let me explain this… At swearing-in, we put on a concert that goes on national TV. PCVs go on and play songs they wrote in Mongolia, sing Mongolian songs, dance, play Mongolian instruments, etc. So, I decided to write a speech, get some help translating it into Mongolian, and read that. Also, all 56 of us will be singing one of their national songs (like their version of “America, the Beautiful”). The Wednesday before this community activity day, we went to the cultural center to watch a traditional march/dance. They then asked if anyone would like to learn it. I (with 7 others) volunteered to learn. After going through the routine about 3 or 4 times, they inform us that we aren’t just all messing around, but that we will actually be doing it for swearing in, and we will practice for it on Saturday at the community day party. I don’t have much in terms of previous dance experience, but they decided that I was the one who needs to have the front and center spotlight routine with the Mongolian who was teaching us (who won’t be with me on TV). When we showed up on Thursday at 5 to practice again for the weekend, they throw these lovely dresses on the 4 guys, and some tops and skirts on the girls (the girls were quite upset with the way the outfits fit them, much more upset than I will go into detail here). We do it once, and then they inform us that we will be doing it for a community concert that night. We have maybe done the full thing 5 times, all of us have to watch the Mongolians to know what we are supposed to be doing, and we are on in front of everyone in a little over an hour. And I have a lovely “solo” (I call it that because what I’m doing is not anything like what my Mongolian buddy is doing), with a couple side leg kicks and spins. Well, when the time came, we went out there, and many of us gave our first dance performance. It ended up being recognizable, and the community was more entertained than they ever could have been if we did this thing correctly.

Back to our concert on Saturday evening. We hadn’t practiced again since the surprise concert a few days before, but we went through it once, and actually did much better than we did before. Rob recited a famous Mongolian poem, and Andy played a three-stringed Mongolian instrument called a shans. We also had Eric come up and sing a song that he wrote about Mongolia with some cleverly placed Mongolian words (it’s called “Zugeer, Mongolia” which means, “It’s OK, Mongolia”), including a shans solo by Andy. We gave some prizes to the winning artists and basketball team, sing a song, and said thank you to the community for hosting us for the summer. Afterwards, we put on a couple popular songs and danced for a little while. It was a good end to a good day.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Here is a photo of me with my family. I am going to try to upload some more pictures, but when I tried to do a bunch at once it wouldn't let me. So at least you will be able to see this one.


So before I write about Amarbayasgalant, I just wanted to let you all know that I am in UB right now for 3 days getting familiar with the city. We finished up practice teaching on Friday, and had a community activity day which was a lot of fun and will write about next week and publish to the blog when I get to darkhan next week. Tues to Sat I will be in Bayangol, but I move out on Sat, go to Darkhan for a few days and then will leave for my permanent site. I find out where I'll be going the first day in Darkhan, and I am very excited for this. So yea, the summer is basically wrapped up and I will be a full Peace Corps Volunteer in just a few days. Depending on where they are sending me, I will either be talking to you a lot more or a lot less than I get to now. Let's all hope for more. Now about my Amarbayasgalant trip...

Amarbayasgalant and Adventure

Amarbayasgalant is one of the most beautiful and well preserved monasteries in Mongolia. Buddhism was once extremely prevalent in Mongolia, but during and since the Soviet occupancy, the numbers of devout followers and monks has dwindled. However, Buddhist traditions are still widespread, and many Mongolians practice infrequently. For example, my house has a small shrine in my room. There are several offerings on the shelf, such as a picture of a Buddhist scene with a prayer cloth wrapped around it, a tea pot, my sister’s diploma, a bunch of prayers in a bag. There is also some incense, vodka, snuff, and candles; these seem to be not as much offerings but rather items that they use that could be used as offerings and are simply placed on the shelf for that reason. There is also a prayer wheel that they turn roughly once a day. The prayer wheel contains prayers that are supposed to be activated with motion, which is also why they put prayer clothes on top of mountains or other windy areas. They spin it for various reasons: I have seen them spin the wheel for prayer’s sake but they have also gotten up and spun the wheel during an intense card game, hoping for a good hand next round. So, although they do practice this one Buddhist ritual, I would by no means call them religious people, and I think most people around are the same way. I also believe that the situation is similar to America, where the further into the country you get the more religious the people are, and the urban people are less religious.

So, Amarbayasgalant is one of what used to be hundreds of monasteries throughout Mongolia. However, the Russians destroyed most of them when they occupied the country, but fortunately left most of this one intact. We decided to go Sunday, the 31st, because a very famous llama was going to be there, the highest after the dalai llama. 10 of the 11 of us went, along with the driver (who was the host father of the PCV who left), his son and a friend, our two Mongolian teachers, and one of their husbands. Luckily, we went in a Mikr and a car, although it would not have surprised anyone if we all fit into the Mikr, as that’s kind of how they do things here. We left at 6 in the morning Mongol time, or about 6:45, and after stopping for a quick breakfast, we got there at about 10:30. The architecture is beautiful: many stupas, Buddhas, player cloths, prayer wheels, other decorations. There were also many tourists because of the llama’s being there. As we got there the llama was leaving in a helicopter; everyone was crowded around it bowing out of respect.

We walked around the monastery for a while, but I will spare you all my attempt to use descriptive language and instead recommend that you spend a minute looking through pictures of a few of them online to get the idea of what it would look like. The highlight, however, was the birthstone which you are supposed to crawl through and be reborn. Its funny because it’s a tight fit, and everyone laughs at the people struggling to get through. You are supposed to crawl into it, look though a small hole at a sun statue, spin around three times and then crawl out the other side. Well, I am a little bit taller than your average visitor to this location, and I had a bit of trouble with the whole process. I could not physically spin around in the thing three times, so I decided to just crawl out, but that didn’t prove to be too easy either. I was in the thing long enough for the other volunteers to ask me if I was alright in there and if I needed any help. I eventually wormed my way out, to be caught on video and cheered on by the crowd of people watching the silly Americans try to be Mongolian. Fun stuff.

After the monastery and a lunch of xiam and rice, we went to a natural spring in the area. It is supposed to bring good luck so there were a lot of people there filling water bottles or just putting some on their head. We stayed there for a couple hours picking some tiny little Mongolian strawberries and being frustrated with how many more berries the Mongolians with us could find them than we could. But it was a lot of fun being out in the sun in a field picking berries in Mongolia… you know, not something that you would expect me to be doing normally. Afterwards we went down to a river. Three of us decided to get down to our underwear to be able to cross, and the others stayed behind and just hung out. On the other side were some more stupas that we visited, 8 all connected together, 2 separated, and 1 way up on a hill above. Very beautiful: very much worth the extremely cold water and underwear crossing. On the way back we were stopped by some vacationing Mongols to have some tea and candy. We stayed briefly to be polite, talked a bit about the differences between America, Mongolia, and Russia, and we went on our way. More and more I am realizing that the hospitality that I read about before coming here is in fact the case. And when you add the fact that we are Americans, we will always have someone taking us in to feed us or give us tea, which is a really nice way to spend two years.

The road to Amarbayasgalant is about 30 km of dirt road off of a paved road that is about an hour to Darkhan. About half a km from the paved road, we heard something that you don’t want to hear while riding in a car in Mongolia. The car that was luckily with us towed us to the street, and when we all got out, the back left wheel was on fire (in the inside, I’m not good with cars so I don’t know exactly what was wrong). After taking off the wheel and axel and realizing that this wasn’t a problem that we could fix immediately, the car left with the driver to get some parts. So make a long story short- the mosquitoes were extremely bad. There was some miscommunication, so one of our Mongolian teachers left by herself in a car and went home to Bayangol, rather than stopping to try to get us another car in the next town. After about 4 hours we decided to try to get rides ourselves, and send 4 volunteers in a Mikr to Darkhan to get a hotel, and we were going to follow as we found cars. Unfortunately, finding cars after 11 is harder than during the day, so we didn’t have any luck getting cars. As we decided that the next car was going to be the last and we would try to go to sleep after it past, it turned out to be the car that we were with, back from getting parts from Bayangol. So at 2 in the morning, they spent about an hour fixing this Mikr which is something I am pretty confident saying that an American mechanic would take a week and $1,000 dollars fixing. So, we drove to Darkhan, picked up the people in the hotel there and got home by 6. All in all, not terrible from our first Mongolia breakdown story. I’m sure you will here of many more over the next two years from me. Volunteers I have talked to have been able to tell a few each, after having been here only a year, and I doubt my luck will be any better. Life got back to normal later that day though. We missed language class in the morning, but still made practice teaching in the afternoon. Just another road trip.

A day in the life of

This and the previous post were both written about a month ago. I hadn't found a computer that would let me conect my camera to it to let me get the files off. In UB, however, anything is possible.

So I thought I would write about a regular day during my life here as a trainee.
I wake up at 8am every morning to the sound of static on my shortwave radio. I tried turning it to a station at night for a while until I realized that I will never get reception on the same station in the morning as I did at night. I supposed that a soft static is better than the terrible beeping of an alarm going off though, so I can’t complain. After folding my blanket and sheets, brushing my teeth, and dressing, I eat the breakfast that my host mother has prepared for me. It is usually cash (a sort of grits-y meal that isn’t bad in small quantities, but is served in large) or some mini-pancakes thingy. Sometimes I get eggs (fried in oil) or some rice and xiam (kinda like a hotdog). This is always served with some very hot suu-tai stea (salted milk tea) which I can already see myself not being able to live without. I am also slowly developing calluses in my mouth from the heat, and hopefully I will be able to drink it as fast as they can soon, although doubtful. I fill my water bottles with the water that has distilled over night, and pack my backpack with the materials I’ll need for the day. I say bye and walk about 5 minutes to school across a field with some cows grazing, avoiding the variety of patties. There are a couple of cute calves that are usually around playing that I like to watch during the short walk.
There are 11 of us total here in Bayangol, and we are split into groups: 5 in ours and 6 in the other. We started with 6 too, but our group boasts the only group to have had a volunteer who decided to leave (he did on the second week of training). We begin class with some questions about the day before, and we use this time to share anything bizarre that may have happened the night before and learn the vocabulary for it from our teacher (Enxhee). We have class until about 10:45 when we have just about reached our limit of things we can learn, and then have a half hour break, which the teachers have recently been interrupting, making us explain to them what we are talking about in Mongolian. After about half an hour of break, we head back to the classroom and learn some more Mongolian until 1. I got home for lunch, which is usually just being finished by my sister or mom. Lunch and dinner are similar meals, always consisting of goat meat, carrots, and onion. This is put in with either rice, noodles, or a sort of noodle homemade out of flower (my personal favorite). This can either be cooked up as is or water can be added to make a soup (which they have been making less, either cause they have noticed that I like it less or because it’s warmer out). There are also three sizes of dumplings that they make, which they can either steam or fry, and these can be eaten normally or added to the soup or suu-tai stea. I always try to help when making the dumplings, but still haven’t gotten the art down. They’ll laugh at me and try to show me again how to pinch them correctly, and then continue to make them at lightening speed while I slowly make one poorly. Its fun though, and I’m getting better, and I mean they are still edible, just not pretty.
After lunch we’ll clean up, and practice what I learned with whoever is home. I’ll usually have something to do in the afternoon at 3: previously it was TEFL training and cultural classes, and from now on its going to be practice teaching (I’ll have my own class). Days that I have nothing to do in the afternoon are usually when I write these things or just laze around, read, watch a movie, or play Mongolian games with the family. I feel like after two years I’ll be pretty damn good at the language, cooking, etc, but the games are something that I will never master, especially shaghai. But when I get back to the States, I’m excited to show you all how to play these games and beat you all as bad as they beat me!
Post-afternoon activity, I am called for dinner at about the time that I really start wishing that they would call me for dinner. On nice days we eat outside, if not, we eat in the kitchen or in the galthsoozh (a kind of half inside half outside room where they do the cooking- the kitchen is a normal kitchen, but I guess they only cook there in the winter). Dinner is usually served with regular tea, and lunch can be with either tea. After dinner and cleaning up, we mostly spend the rest of the evening playing volleyball outside and talking with guests. Lots of guests here… friends and family just stop by for a short while, drink some tea, share gossip/news, and go on their way. I’m not really sure if they purposefully stop by here, or if they just kind of walk around and stop by if they are in the mood to. Either way, it provides me with more Mongolian language practice and some more difficult names to try to remember. These activities will continue on until about 11, when it finally gets dark outside and the mosquitoes come out. If it’s raining out, I’ll usually watch a movie with my siblings and give up trying to explain what is going on after about 15 minutes. I’ll then do homework for language and prepare a lesson for the next day. I fill my distiller with water to be ready for me in the morning and try to be in bed by 12 or 1 at the latest, to be ready for a very similar day to come.
Although I have a very regular routine, every day ends of very different from each other. Some times language is boring, or sometimes we play games or learn songs. Some afternoon sessions boring and filled with paperwork, but sometimes we’ll go on a walk around the community or meet a government official. Sometimes we don’t have them, and we go to the river to skip stones, or we climb one of the many hills. Sometimes I cook, and sometimes I’d prefer a piece of bread to what they are giving me. Sometimes I just watch a movie and sleep, sometimes we have a volleyball tournament, and sometimes there is a local show with singing and dancing for us to watch. I’ve gone over to other trainees house and see how different their routines are, and they’ve come over here (I think they secretly wish they didn’t have to leave). Usually though, the days fly by a lot faster than I would expect them to, and I find myself getting ready for bed in a good mood, ready for what tomorrow will bring.

barefoot around the farm

Well, I guess its not really a farm in the American sense of the word. A large number of people here own live stock, and its no surprise to see pigs, cows, goats, sheep, etc walking around. However, yesterday (Friday the 14th) I went with my family out to the xodoo (countryside). We took the 3pm train that left at 4 and got there about 3 stops and an hour later. The train was pretty normal. The only weird part was that it seemed that people were really pushy to get on and attempt to get their own seat (still normal), but then once they got stuck sitting with strangers, they were very friendly right away. Not really the polite airplane conversation that we are all used to, but a school/work acquaintance type conversation. I guess I just found it amusing that they would push each other around to try to not have to sit and talk with someone they didn’t know but then end up enjoying their time with their seat-mate.
Anyway… we got to the countryside, and my dad’s sister’s husband and son met us at the train. We walked/rode horses about half a mile until we got to a small river that we had to cross on the horses, so we took turns crossing. The water was deep enough to almost covered the horse’s back, so we all got soaked; it was great. When we got to their gers, we did a little bit of greeting, and then moved right on to eating. Over the coarse of the night we cooked up two sheep and a goat, all of which we killed right there. There were a couple of other things available, like a potato or two, cooked in the same pot as the meat, but basically it was all meat and all delicious. We spent the time in between animals singing Mongolian songs and dancing to rock music on the car radio.
We went back to the river to swim, but it turns out the Mongols find the river very dangerous and don’t like swimming in it. So we had a little water fight, and left it at that. We did some cow milking and some other farm things, and then went back to eating, singing and dancing. It really was a great day/night, and I hope I get to make it back out to the xodoo again with my family.