Once again, been a while, sorry for that. I’ve been pretty busy and haven’t really had time to sit down and write about what I’ve been doing. Seems that I am always either to busy to write about what I’m doing or not busy enough to have anything to write about… funny how that works out.
A few weeks ago was the fall break for the Mongolian schools. My Aimag’s education administration people decided to all go down to Beijing to spend the vacation together. So, 19 of us got on the train at midnight on Thursday/Friday and we started out on our trip. Early morning Friday we got to the border town called Zameen Uud, and I found out that crossing the border is one of the most difficult/annoying things I’ve done here so far. In ZU, we got 3 jeep sized cars to take us and all of our luggage to the border crossing point. Everyone jumps out of the car and runs into the building where they shove and push in attempts to make the process go faster. After about an hour of this, you finally get your leaving Mongolia stamp, at which point you run back to the over crowded car and sit in a 4ish hour long traffic-jam (because the cars are doing their version of pushing and shoving) until you finally get to the Chinese side to do the same thing to get your entering China stamp. Get back in the same car and finally go to the bus stop in Erlian (the Chinese border city) where we wait for the bus which will finally take us to Beijing. (This is the same process on the way back, so I won’t repeat it again later). After picking up some snacks for the bus because we didn’t think we had time to eat lunch before the 3pm take-off time, we finally left at 5pm on our 12 hour bus ride.
The bus ride was pretty uneventful on the way there, as well as pretty uncomfortable for someone my size. However, we finally arrived in Beijing and checked into the second hotel (a Mongolian one) we went to after a little argument at the first one over the number of people we could put in each room. We rested for a few hours, and got in a tour bus and went to see the great wall. This was one of the funnier parts of the trip for me, because seeing the look on people’s faces as they saw me get out of a bus with all of the other Mongolian tourists was priceless. Everybody was so confused as to why an American-looking person would be traveling with Mongolians on a trip to China. Needless to say, I got a lot of pointing, pictures taken, and questions asked of me in a variety of languages (well, mostly Chinese and Russian I suspect).
Now, Beijing is a pretty big place. I don’t know how many miles it is in area, but I do know there are about 18 million people who live there. However, I was able to run into a friend from college that night who is studying abroad there. As Mongolians are not big fans of making plans because they don’t like talking about the future for fear of jinxing it, I wasn’t able to contact my friends at Pomona to see if anyone I knew was studying abroad in Beijing, and if they were, get their contact info. Regardless, at a bar with some of my Mongolian friends that night, I spotted a friend of mine. The next day I decided to hang out with him and 4 of my other buddies rather than doing some of the sights that I had seen on my last trip to Beijing with Semester at Sea. We just hung out at one of their university dorms (which was as nice as any hotel I’ve ever been in) and talked for a couple of hours. After getting some dinner (which was so much better with them than with the Mongolians because they knew how to speak Chinese and order tasty things rather than guessing) we all went bowling. Funny how little things like that can really make a trip great.
The rest of the trip was pretty much just visiting other sights and markets. One of the most interesting things about the trip for me, however, was being with a different culture on a tourist trip. Watching them, how they dealt with the language barrier, how they took in this new culture, etc was very interesting. I felt very uncomfortable at times being with this group I felt was being very rude and insensitive to the Chinese (the Mongolians and Chinese have a pretty bad history and the Mongolians openly dislike the Chinese). They refused to learn any and made fun of the language, they tried to eat as much Mongolian food as possible (Inner-Mongolian food is pretty similar and the language is the same with an accent) and complained when they had to eat Chinese, we stayed at a Mongolian hotel, we had Mongolian guides, most nights they stayed in and drank Mongolian vodka together.
However, upon reflection of the experience, I realize that this must be how most American tourists are. I know that people always say that American tourists are terrible, but I always thought that I and those I’ve traveled with to be exceptions. I realize, however, that if I am being a terrible tourist, I wouldn’t really know because I would be in my comfort zone. Being with the Mongolians, still new to their culture and language, I was able to travel with them while getting an outsiders point of view on the whole thing. My initial response is to think that even if I am a bad tourist, there is no way I could be as bad as them. However, who knows how a Mongolian would feel traveling with an American tourist group after only having lived in America as long as I have lived here. I think it would be equally awkward and interesting for them.
I guess the lesson I am taking from the trip is that it is very important to try to be as sensitive as possible when traveling to another place, someone else’s home. At least learn enough of the do’s and don’t’s, language, and culture to let your hosts know that you are making an attempt to be polite and learn about them. Because, even though it seems impossible to me, I bet the Mongolians thought that they weren’t doing anything wrong, and I bet that each one of us have at one time been doing wrong when we had absolutely no idea that we were doing so.
So after a long trip back, I spent a few days at site and left again for Thanksgiving in UB. All of the volunteers who have been here for a full year already (M16s, I’m an M17) were in UB for shots, and just about every M17 who did not have to fly came in as well for the holiday. It was a really great time, meeting people who I have only heard about and seeing people who I haven’t seen since training. It was a potluck, so most of Thursday was spent getting ingredients, and Friday morning cooking to get ready for the 3pm dinner on Friday. All of the Peace Corps people (and the administration’s families), a few other ex-pats, and the new Ambassador were there. We were even able to get a turkey from China through the State Department. It was a really nice time, although one of the most homesick times I’ve had so far as well. Good thing all those other homesick people were there with me, helping each other to take our minds off of home.
Now I’m back at site, and I will be here for a solid three weeks before going back to UB for a week long In-Service Training (IST). Although I love traveling around and seeing all the other PC people, I do have to admit that it is nice to relax here for a while, concentrate on teaching and thinking of possible secondary projects. IST is where we learn about identifying possible secondary projects, applying for grants, and carrying out these plans. I’m really looking forward to this as the secondary projects part of the deal is the main thing that made Peace Corps so attractive to me.
Other than that, it’s just cold. Its about -20C outside right now. There is a thin layer of snow on the ground from about a week ago, which I’ve been told is probably the last of the snow I will see all winter. -20C is pretty cold for those of you who don’t know, like hurts to breathe kind of cold, however, they tell me that at -40C (which is the coldest it gets, and the temp it will usually be from Jan to Feb) my eyelids will freeze together. Oh boy! If my fingers don’t fall off, I’ll be sure to let you know what its really like when it gets that cold.
Hope all is well and warm(er) for those of you reading this. I know I said this last time as well, but I will try to update more often in the future. Take care, Jacob.