At the end of Peace Corps training in 2008 Alta and I exchanged small gifts. I gave her a little bracelet with a heart on it that a friend had given me and she gave me an small embossed leather purse. Alta who is Mongolian and a Peace Corps Volunteer with a year’s more experience than I in Mongolia helped our small group of Business Development volunteers learn what kinds of things we might be doing during the two years we would serve.
Alta and I have stayed in touch ever since. She has always wanted me to visit Khenti, the province where her family lives and the home of her ethnic tribe, the Uriankhai people. (They are the tribe that, it is claimed, know where Chinggis Khan is buried–but they’re not telling.) This year, I arrived in Ulaanbaatar at the time of a Uriankhai reunion. Some of the Uriankhai people live in the western Altai region so the reunion was in a central place, a ger camp about an hour outside Ulaanbaatar. It’s a three-day event similar to Naadam. Alta lives in Ulaanbaatar and so picked me up in UB and I was able to spend the middle day at the reunion.
At one point, it began to rain a bit and her extended family gathered inside a large ger to wait it out. To entertain us, a couple of musicians played the tribe’s traditional instruments and I recorded them. I think I was the only outsider there and am so grateful I could be a part of this special event.
Of course, I visit the Mary & Martha Shop in UB
It’s the very best Mongolian Craft Shop in UB. I have come to know the owners, Irene and Bill Manley, well over the years. Here’s how they describe their business: “Founded in 2007 with the express intention of running an ethical, fair and transparent business that has a primary objective of supporting the growth of small and micro indigenous businesses in Mongolia.” Each year, I have brought back or had shipped some of the lovely handcrafted items such as the embroidered handbags. I sell them at cost to friends here or at a local craft fair. Here is their web address: maryandmarthamongolia.blogspot.com. You’ll find it interesting reading.
Then, on to Muron
The little propeller plane takes about an hour and a half to get to Muron. I love looking down on the landscape, unrolling under us — mountain, hills, and steppe with occasional tiny little gers showing white against the mostly tan landscape. And when I land in my Mongolian hometown, my friends are there to meet me.
The family I stay with includes Enkhuush, Otgo, Sarangoo (now about 3) and Urangoo (now about 1 ½). During the time I’m there we celebrate a couple of birthdays: the husband Otgo’s and their niece’s whose family lives nearby.
My friend from Switzerland, Andrea, is also there. The little class she started for children with disabilities has had a good year. She has trained a local Mongolian as a teacher and she has also come in winter during the school session to work with the teacher and the students. We’re told a number of people, both parents and educators, have come from as far as UB, to observe the teaching methods and see the progress these little children are making.
So many good friends to see…
Bold and Tsermaa have started growing trees in addition to their vegetables both in their greenhouse and also along some new property near the river. They’ve managed to set up some irrigation in both places. They are hopeful their new little trees can be used to do some reforestation in Mongolia and would like to find an organization they could hook up with. If you know of any contacts, let me know.
Andrea and I spent a few days out at Bat-Erden’s ger camp. It’s undergoing some renovations with the work performed mostly by volunteers from a number of places in Europe and elsewhere. Set on a bluff overlooking the Delgermuron River valley with herds of animals moving up and down it, it is still one of my favorite locations in Mongolia,
In Muron itself
I was delighted to find that Ganaa, my journalist/broadcaster friend, is now the head of Sky TV in Muron. I’ve known her and her family since 2008 and am so proud of her progress. I also had a great visit with my friends, Jagaa and Tsolmoo. They were both single when I first knew them and now they are married with families. What a privilege to continue to be a little part of their lives.
Of course, no visit would be complete with seeing Batbayr, the woodcarver, or rather, I should say, Batbayr, the carver. This year, he was carving a stone bust of an important person (I don’t know who). Jagaa and I went together to see him hard at work and then he insisted we come to his home for buuz and milk tea. Another friend, Badmaa, also came along and serenaded us with the morin khuur (horse-headed fiddle) and a little throat singing.
And finally, the Yak Festival
The day before I left, my friend, Esee, and his wife Moogie invited me to go to a yak festival nearby. It was being sponsored by the people from Jinst Muron, a little company in Muron that makes knit items using what I call yak cashmere—it’s the soft wool that’s similar to the more familiar goat cashmere. I have brought home a number of their sweaters, hats and scarves in the past. We had a good time watching the yak milking contest and admiring these hulking creatures who look as if they were designed by a committee with many opposing views.
And one more stop before heading home.
This year, my flight went through Hong Kong with a layover from 5 pm one day until 10:30 the next morning. Tracy’s brother-in-law works for Citibank and spends a lot of time in Hong Kong so he met me at the airport and I got to see a few of the sights including the spectacular harbor and the brilliantly lighted skyscrapers surrounding it. Going from one of the most sparsely populated countries on earth (2.8 million) to Hong Kong (over 7 million) is a bit of an adjustment. I felt as if I was continually surrounded by crowds of people who were following me everywhere! But it was really fun to see and I was grateful to have a good guide.
Now, back home in Marblehead, I am enjoying my own view of sailboats and ocean. And in October, I’ll begin splitting my time between Marblehead and a little apartment in East Boston. It’s a community of great diversity and such friendly people. Stay tuned!
p.s. If the format of my blog is driving you nuts, it’s the same for me! I’ll be making it much better soon!
This was the year to take my granddaughter, Ella, on an adventure of her choosing. She choose Greece. I was delighted. Some 40 years ago, it was the first country outside America that I ever visited. My husband had received a little extra money for some project and we decided to take a trip abroad. Since he had traveled widely in Europe when he was in the Army, he said I could choose. I wanted to go where I definitely didn’t know the language, and I had also read about the special quality of the light in Greece. So off we went for 3 weeks with the grandparents looking after the children. Greece has remained at the top of my list ever since. I love the people, the landscape, the history, and the food (especially the Kalamata olives and the feta).
So during Ella’s spring break, we hopped on the plane and took off, with one addition: my daughter Tracy. We planned to rent a car for part of the time and, having read about some of the roads in Greece, we could use a driver. Tracy was well acquainted with windy roads from maneuvering the Catskills in New York State where she and Barry have a weekend retreat.
And of course, she would be great company. Not only that, but she is a wonderful writer and, on return, captured a special part of our trip in her own blog, Squeaky Feet, named for its usual focus on the happenings in the world of squash–her primary sport.
So, with no more ado, I will provide a link to her blog, just click the following: What do Greek olives taste like? Revelations in the Peloponnese. And enjoy.
[You’ll find links to many websites in this blog. You can click on them or copy and paste into your browser. Lots of interesting information]
It all began last summer . . .
when I visited my neighbors’ new venture in East Boston. It’s called Corner Stalk (www.cornerstalk.com). According to the website, it’s a “Controlled Environment Agriculture farm that offers Boston area consumers fresh, locally grown leafy greens. We grow all of the produce in recycled shipping containers which create an extremely energy and water efficient environment. A year round growing season and dense planting allows maximum productivity from a dense urban footprint.”
I was so impressed and pleased that my neighbors were involved in such an earth-friendly project. The visit introduced me to East Boston—an area I’ve barely visited before. The Blue Line, part of Boston’s subway system, runs through East Boston and up the North Shore to Revere. When I go to Boston, I can take the bus to Revere and then the T (as the subway is known) to Boston.
My next trip . . .
to East Boston happened because I wanted to visit the newest library in Massachusetts which happens to be locate in East Boston. According to the library’s website (http://www.bpl.org/branches/eastboston.htm), it was established in 1869, and was the first municipally supported branch library in the United States. Now they have a new library that opened in November 2013.
I loved its open design and friendly feel. It’s located at the end of a new park and a community garden is right in front of the building. I understand it is high on the list to win some design awards soon.
A few days later back home…
a little voice said to me: “Judy, why don’t you move to East Boston?” “What,” I replied disbelievingly. “And leave my beloved and beautiful Marblehead? Are you crazy?” Now, don’t get excited. As of yet, I have no plans to leave town. I still love this community where I’ve lived since 1965. I love the ocean view from my home, my friends and neighbors, and I have long been active in the community in one way or another.
But maybe the time has come to consider a change. So, I decided to explore the idea. I went on Airbnb and found a little place in East Boston near the waterfront and signed up for three nights.. www.airbnb.com
I arrived on Tuesday afternoon, January 5. . .
in the heart of East Boston at Maverick T stop on the Blue Line. Five minutes walk to my Airbnb where my hostess was waiting. She was very friendly and the place was charming. After I settled in, I took a walk around the neighborhood. (Why did I have to choose the coldest week of the winter so far? But as a seasoned Mongolian RPCV, I could handle that. )
The park nearby, Piers Park. . .
is beautiful and very new, right on the waterfront with views across the harbor of Boston’s skyline. Plenty of benches and open areas—great place to hang out in warmer weather and watch the water activity or rent a little sailboat at the sailing center adjacent to the park. Find Piers Park on www.bostonharborwalk.com
East Boston has a long history of ship building. Did you know that some of the world’s fastest clipper ships were built there, including the Flying Cloud that set the world’s sailing record for the fastest passage between New York and San Francisco, 89 days 8 hours? She held this record for over 100 years, from 1854-1989. And she’s known for something else: she had a woman navigator, Ellenor Prentis-Creesy, wife of Josiah Perkins Creesy, the captain. And guess what? Ellenor was from Marblehead where she learned her nautical skills.
As I walked around the neighorhood, I discovered lots of little ethnic restaurants and shops reflecting a community that is home to people from many different countries.
That first afternoon,
I noticed an old brick building located at 154 Maverick St. with the words “Overseers of the Public Welfare” carved in big letters twice on its front. It’s just a block from Maverick Square and it’s been turned into a small business incubator. (www.154maverick.com). The coffee shop in the building is called Boston Brewin Coffee. It was closed.
The next morning I walked over to Boston Brewin and met Albert. Friendly service, good coffee and great breakfast sandwiches made by Albert himself. We struck up a conversation and he introduced me to some of the regulars. I love the place, the people, and what it’s doing for the community—read about it on the website: (http://www.realbostonian.com/)
I made the most of my three days in East Boston
Tuesday, I took the T into Boston and stopped by The Boston Athenaeum (http://www.bostonathenaeum.org/) where I’m a member and then on to Old South Meeting House where I heard a noontime violin concert.
After that, up to the MFA (www.mfa.org) with my niece for my second visit to the Goya exhibit (fabulous)—now I want to read everything about him. Had dinner with an old friend from my Putnam days. On Wednesday, after breakfast at Boston Brewin, I took the T to Cambridge and visited the Harvard Museum of Natural History (www.hmnh.harvard.edu/). Saw again (after many years) the amazing glass flowers and, in the Dinosaur exhibit, Gallery Guide Fred found me some Mongolian dinosaur bones and then let me hold a dinosaur bone fossil and compare its weight to a more modern bone. Guess which is heavier?
Finally, on Thursday,
after one more breakfast prepared by Albert and one more tour of Piers Parks, I headed home, happy about my visit and my new friends.
Will I move there?
I don’t know. But I don’t have to decide today. I do know I loved being there and I hope my words inspire you to come and visit there too. I’d be delighted to be your guide!
At this time of year—a week before Christmas—most events have something to do with the holidays. But the event I attended on Thursday, December 18, was titled “The Summit on Reform, Re-Entry and Results: Promoting Progress in the Criminal Justice System”. Governor Patrick gave the opening remarks and described this summit as a milestone marking 8 years of efforts in Massachusetts to bring about criminal justice reform.
It was heartening to hear reports of progress made in legislative reforms including CORI reform, sentencing reform, and parole board reform. Better data collection is leading to expanding programs that work well in reducing recidivism and dropping those that are ineffective. Groups in many communities reported of their efforts to provide more effective community policing and training and juvenile diversion programs.
December 19th, up close and personal
The following morning I packed up shopping bags filled with small bags of cookies and took them to our county correctional facilities. A fleet of fellow bakers had made dozens of cookies to give to the inmates at ecumenical Christmas concerts. As we handed out the festive bags at the end of the concerts, we shook hands and looked into the eyes of each of the several hundred men who attended and thanked them for coming as they wished us a happy Christmas—knowing they would not be home for the holidays.
For many years I have had a small connection with the criminal justice system by participating regularly in a religious service at our country correctional facilities. In recent years, my interest has greatly deepened as a wide range of injustices have been exposed in the news media, in films, in books and in what I hope is becoming a national conversation about how to address these issues. Progress is being made in some places, but we have far to go to establish a human justice system that seeks to heal the problems of the criminal justice system.
Each day, I look at a little symbol that reminds me of the need to work for progress in criminal justice around the world: a ger (Mongolian nomadic home, perhaps more familiar to some as a yurt—the Russian name) made of rolled pieces of paper by prisoners in Mongolian jails. The ger is about 2 inches in diameter and an inch high. A group called Prison Fellowship Mongolia showed the men how to make them using only paper and thread—they aren’t allowed to have scissors or needles. Each ger takes two days for an inmate to make and then it’s sold for a small amount to buy a little food for themselves and to give to their families. I have met some of these men—and boys—and the same phrase always comes into my mind: “They don’t belong in here.”
A few days ago, I read an article from WBUR’s cognoscenti writer, Donald M. Berwick. He writes: “Improvement is a three-part challenge: First, reduce the number of people who are sent to prison; second, use incarceration as an opportunity to intervene in lives – often young lives – that have gone off the tracks; and, third, provide sensible supports for re-entry from prison back into normal, productive life.”
Please join me in finding ways to respond to this challenge.
Here are a few books, films and links I have found illuminating and often alarming about what is happening in criminal justice in America:
* Frontline documentary Stickup Kid
* The Central Park Five documentary from Ken Burns
The Central Park Jogger case, for the first time from the perspective of the five teenagers whose lives were upended by this miscarriage of justice.
Book: The New Jim Crow : Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
Two books by David R. Dow:
Things I’ve Learned from Dying: A Book About Life
The Autobiography of an execution
Book: Just Mercy : A story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
Book: Getting Life: An Innocent Man’s 25-year Journey from Prison to Peace by Michael Morton
I’m an American. But since 2008 when I went to Mongolia as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I feel I’ve become half Mongolian. I even have two names: Judy and the Mongolian one my friends gave me: Jargalmaa meaning Happy Mother.
And though I’m no longer in Peace Corps I have returned each year to Mongolia to visit my friends who now feel like family. I’ve watched as some got married, had babies, changed jobs, built homes, and sent those growing-up babies off to school. And yes, I’ve seen some sad things during those past six and a half years: illness, divorce, disappointments and death. Two different cultures but all one family.
Overall, it is a joyous reunion each year (usually July) when the small propeller plane sets down at our little Muron airport and friends are at the gate to welcome me back to my Mongolian home. This summer was no exception. Many people knew I was coming and those who didn’t know would spot me later on the street and we would exchange warm greetings.
Gurvan Naiz happens!
If you read my blog from last summer’s trip, you’ll know that my Mongolian friends Esee and Moogie and I talked about working together to establish a little summer pre-school kindergarten for a group of herders in Burentogtokh far out in the countryside in their summer grazing grounds. We planned to call it “Gurvan Naiz” meaning Three Friends, but by the time it opened there were many people involved: the Burentogtokh school district, two teachers, World Vision, friends from America who contributed in various ways, and me.
Fortunately, I was able to attend the closing ceremony for the little school along with parents, teachers, and people from World Vision including its country director. No one celebrates better than Mongolians. The teachers helped the children prepare and we watched as they sang, recited poetry, and danced in the middle of this vast open valley. We laughed and clapped and even shed a few tears of joy, and then we shared in the khorhog feast to conclude the ceremony. Hope we can help again next year.
Mongolia is growing…flowers and vegetables I mean
While I’m in Mongolia I stay with my dear friends Enkhtuuvshin and Otgo whose sweet family now numbers four—two daughters, 2 years and 6 months last summer. Their new little greenhouse sheltered cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, lettuce and even a surprise poppy plant! And flowers were planted everywhere—a lot of watering to do in a dry climate.
Cabbages and more cabbages
Bold and Tsermaa, the couple who owned and lived in the other half of house where I lived during Peace Corps took me out into the countryside to show me their fields of vegetables including the cabbages from seeds I had sent them (and which grow well in short seasons and that they can’t get there). I was so impressed. These will keep well into the winter along with other root vegetables that they grow. They’ll sell them at the local market.
The major summer holiday is called Naadam when the three manly sports are celebrated: wrestling, horse racing and archery. I got to go to two this year: one in the town of Burentogtogh and one in Muron—this year a big one because of a major horse race for stallions drawing horses from all over Mongolia.
Of course, no visit would be complete without going out to Bat Erdene’s camp west of Muron with the glorious view out over the valley of the Delgermoron River. In addition to the many animals that graze in the valley we spotted “Seven Swans A-Swimming”—well, actually eight, 2 adults and 6 cygnets.
Back in UB
I had a little extra time in Ulaanbaatar this year before flying home. So I could have dinner with Alta whom I have known since Peace Corps training in 2008. And I got together with a new friend I met through a friend in Muron. Erdene is a guide and took me out to see the VERY BIG Chinngis status. You can even take an elevator up to the horse’s head and see many kilometers in every direction.
And finally, I came across a few amusing signs I thought might make you chuckle.
Then, off to Tokyo, Chicago, and Boston and home to Pond Street, jiggety jog.
Last week’s Baseball Hall of Fame voting stirred up a lot of dust. Should suspected steroid users even be eligible? Where do you draw the line? And then there’s the controversy over who should vote. At present, only sports writers are eligible to vote. So when one eligible voter basically crowd-sourced his ballot, he got banned from voting.
I have a better story. My late husband, Bob Gates, loved baseball. He played it in pick-up games growing up in Cleveland and all the way through college. He wrote about sports for the Miami University of Ohio college newspaper and was a stringer for several major papers in Ohio while still in college.
After college and a stint in the Army, he joined The Christian Science Monitor as a sports writer and moved into the Sports Editor position a few years later. And so he was a life-long member of the Baseball Writers Association of America, entitling him to vote for potential Hall of Famers as long as he lived.
Last Thanksgiving, my family gathered at my home in Marblehead. A few days before, my daughter called from Brooklyn and asked if I could find out if the club where her father had played tennis allowed guests. She and her husband thought they’d bring along their rackets and get some exercise.
So I stopped by the little club where Bob had played for a number of years. It’s a modest building with just two indoor and two outdoor courts. In the office, I found the only staff person around. I asked if the club allowed guests and then explained that my husband had been a member there some years ago. He assured me guests were welcome if courts were available and then asked who my husband was. I told him and his face lit up. He had known Bob and couldn’t say enough good things about him: what a gentleman he was and how much he enjoyed talking with him about sports (baseball in particular) and filling in as an occasional fourth for a match.
And then he told me this story: When the Hall of Fame ballot arrived each year, Bob would bring it to the club and the two would sit down together, review the options and decide whom to vote for. I think it was one of the highlights of the year for this man. It was a kind gesture typical of Bob and I was glad to finally hear about it.
I had just arrived in Ulaanbaatar, settled into Zaya’s Guesthouse and was walking down a crowded street. “Hello, Judy,” said a 20-something Mongolian walking with a friend in the other direction. I stopped in my tracks, stared at him and pointed to myself, “You know me?” “Yes,” he nodded with a smile and walked on.
I still don’t know who he was, perhaps someone who worked at Peace Corps, but I do know it made me feel I was home, back in my adopted country, Mongolia. And when I flew on to Muron the next day, my home during my Peace Corps years, friends welcomed me at the airport and later, as I walked around town, I kept hearing, “Hi, Judy!” as other friends saw me and stopped to say hello. This was my sixth summer in Muron. It feels like home.
I spent the month of July in Mongolia this year. As I did last summer, I stayed with my friend Enktuvshin and her family along with a Swiss friend also there for the month. Enkhtuvshin’s daughter, Sarangoo, is now a year old and started walking the day after we arrived. She is adorable and is more adventurous every day.
What I brought with me
I always try to bring some little gifts to share and sometimes I get requests. This year the requests included a saddle for my friend, Esee, a guide who takes people on horse treks. Since Mongolian saddles are wooden, the English style saddle is more comfortable as well as being a size appropriate for the smaller Mongolian horses. I have to admit it was a bit of a challenge to find a way to pack it!
I also brought a big bundle of children’s warm wool hats and scarves donated to me by a little knitting group from the Swampscott library next door to Marblehead. World Vision in Muron will give them to children from the many poor families in the area.
One wedding and two birthdays
Entuvshin’s brother was married while we were there—it was fun being involved in the preparations‑-like peeling mounds of potatoes as part of the food preparation for the wedding feast. And then there were two birthday parties, one for Enktuvshin where we ate, karaoked and discoed, and one for Bataa whom I have known since my first days in Muron and who is now married with a little daughter.
Bat-Erdene’s Ger Camp
Early in this trip I spent a few days at a favorite place, Hargalat Ger Camp, about an hour west of Muron. It sits high on a bluff with one of the most beautiful views in Mongolia: a broad valley with streams running through it, herds of goats and sheep and cows and camels and horses passing back and forth. Distant mountains, magnificent clouds, and fantastic sunsets. Starry nights and utter peace. Magic!
As I was a business volunteer in the Peace Corps, I am always interested in what is happening in that area. The little summer souvenir shop I helped start some years ago was open again but in a new location and not doing so well. I tried to help raise the visibility of the shop but after I left August 6 I heard it had closed. Perhaps it will go better next year.
On the other hand, a couple I had known before with a tiny knitting business have been able to get some funding and purchased some new one-person knitting machines. They are turning out some beautiful yak and sheep wool sweaters and I’ve ordered some to sell, along with some other local products, at a couple of craft fairs here leading up to the holidays.
Gurvan Naiz Kindergarten
I mentioned Esee, a local guide, earlier. Since I first got to know him and his lovely family, he has wanted to take me out to the countryside where he was brought up. In between his guiding trips this year, we did it—he and his wife, Moogie, and his three children and I drove out in his SUV miles and miles and miles out through the hills and valleys to meet his relatives in their summer grazing grounds. About 20 families of herders live scattered in gers across a broad valley looking after their flocks. I loved meeting the families and seeing this beautiful place. That evening I sampled my first marmot and my first yak vodka. Yum! I wish I had photos of the valley but unfortunately we had a lot of rain. It prevented us from riding horses but could not dampen our spirits.
On the way back the next day, Esee told me he had a dream—he wanted to start a little summer kindergarten for the children in this valley. As we drove down a road through what I can only call an extremely rocky gully between two high hills, I mused on this and then said I too had an idea—I would like to help him. Esee, Moogie, and I shared some ideas and they suggested we call it “Judy’s Kindergarten.” I didn’t want my name on it, but as we talked, I came up with an alternative. “Let’s call it ‘Gurvan Naiz Kindergarten” which means “Three Friends Kindergarten” in Mongolian. Perfect.
When we returned to Muron, I told my friend at World Vision about it and she said World Vision perhaps could help if we got a proposal together.
So now I’m back home in Marblehead working on the proposal and talking to all kinds of people about ideas that will help make it a success. We’ll need a couple of gers where the classes can be held, some modest furniture, a teacher, and some supplies.
It will probably be just a few hours a day but I’m trying to think out of the box. I’m soliciting ideas from everyone I know (YOUR ideas are welcome!) An educator friend suggested finding ways to introduce the children to children of other cultures. Another suggested using puppets so the children could make up stories and put on little plays. I hope we can find creative ways to explore the incredible nature around them and learn more about how to take care of it. I hope we can foster creativity and learn about working together to solve little problems. I have started collecting colorful books about children in other cultures and soliciting knitted puppets from some of the knitters I mentioned above.
I well know from experience that not every project turns out the way you expect but I’ll do my best and, hopefully, will have a good report next summer. Meanwhile, I treasure the month spent in Mongolia with my Mongolian family.