Archive for August, 2008

A lovely day….

Peace Corps Graduation

Peace Corps Graduation

The photo above shows the 12 of us who were in Suukbator this summer up near the Russion border.  This is our from our swearing in ceremony in Darhkan.  Many of our host families had deels (pronounced del) made for us, mine included. 

What a lovely day in the neighborhood…. I’ll admit there have been a few times when I questioned my sanity about agreeing to come to Mongolia. But not today, for several delightful reasons. For one thing, the sun was shining this morning after the rain and snow of yesterday. Chilly but not cold. Here’s reason number one but first I have to explain something. One of my counterparts’ (CP) sister comes to my language class each day. Last Friday she had a package and showed us some wool felt slippers she had bought—handmade and looked so warm. I asked if she got them at the zak (big market with everything imaginable in many little booths and shops), and she said yes. So I looked at the zak over the weekend and found nothing like them. On Monday I told my CPs I couldn’t find them. So today when I came in, my CP had on the table several pairs of slippers in soft red and soft green—this time with leather soles, even better. They reminded me of LL Beans’ ankle high slippers made of sheepskin. Alas, they were all too small. But before I knew it, all 3 of us from the office were trooping out arm-in-arm and going to a nearby little shop where they (and other items) are made out of felted wool. We found a pair that fit me and for about $10 I have a pair of super-warm slippers for the winter! This little shop had about 6 or 8 women working hard making these slippers and other wonderful items out of the felted wool—which they also make. Since I’ve not seen these items anywhere, I hope I can figure out how to work with them to build their business. Reason number 2: My primary CP explained to me she would be coming to my house at 5 today. I wasn’t sure why but when she arrived with her sister they brought several bags of good wood for my stove. I guess the Chamber of Commerce provides my wood (every day I learn something new and totally surprising). Fortunately, I had made extra tea this morning and put it in my big thermos—which everyone keeps on the table for guests. One is always offered tea and cookies and/or candy when one stops in a home. So I could offer my CP and her sister tea and cookies and felt I was a proper hostess. Plus I have a pretty good supply of wood for the present. Reason number 3: I’ve been here a week now and haven’t had too much interaction with the family on the other side of the house. They’ve presented me with yoghurt one day, 2 cucumbers another, and 2 eggs from their chickens and I’ve been very appreciative but they speak no English and my Mongolian is still poor. I was trying to think of something I could give them and today I realized that taking a few photos and then having them printed might be just the thing. My family this summer in Suukbator loved photos and I printed a whole bunch for them by the time I left. Every family displays photos in their home but few have cameras. So today, after my CP left, the wife was still outside making aarul—a sweet somewhat firm type of candy made from milk curds, sugar, and I don’t know what else. I had my camera and as best I could explained I wanted to take a picture of her daughter and the new month-old baby and then make a print for them as a gift. Somehow the message got through and I took several photos of the family that I will get printed hopefully tomorrow to give them. Shortly after that, the daughter came into my house (did I tell you no one knocks in Mongolia—people just walk into your house or your room???) and brought me several cucumbers and several red turnips (which we call beets). I hoped I still had tea left and I did so I gave her a bowl (remember, I said everyone used little rice bowls to drink out of?) and some cookies at my little table. I showed her my photo album (makes the conversation easier) and also tried to say that she and I could help each other with English and Mongolian. So now we are strengthening the bonds of friendship. And though the winter still concerns me (especially after the snow yesterday!), I figure that friends won’t let friends freeze. They’ll help me out and we will all survive together. So for these 3 sweet reasons, I’m glad I’m here and getting to know and love these people. Addendum: I took the photos—5 of them—over last night and the family seemed happy to have them—they turned out great! And then I had a nice visit with the family, showed them my photo album and they showed me theirs. We “talked” about their vegetables that they grow and I gave them the English words which they have now recorded in a notebook.

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August 28, 2008 at 6:33 am Leave a comment

Almost a week in Khovsgol…

First—a postscript—Monday, the 25th: It rained a lot last night and as I walked to work this morning in my rain suit and bundled up a bit I saw there was snow on the mountains around the town! Uh oh! Where’s my shovel? I’m writing this on a Sunday afternoon and tomorrow will be a week since I arrived from UB. Check out Khovsgol on Google—Clayton says Google Earth gives you a pretty good picture of the town. Population is around 30,000. There are a few 2 or 3 story hotels and apartment type buildings, but most of the town are rows of hoshas–what we’d call a big yard enclosed by a 5 to 6 foot high solid wooden fence with the house and maybe an outbuilding or 2 plus the outhouse inside the fence. Almost always there is a dog inside the hosha, often on a chain, that barks when anyone comes in or it hears another dog somewhere (which is often). Even during the night, one hears dogs barking. Dogs here aren’t pets. They have a job to do and that’s it. Their food reminds me of the Bible story where the woman tells Jesus that even the dogs eat of the crumbs that fall from the table. Here, it is literally crumbs of food and leftover liquids that are kept in a can near the cooking fire. Periodically, the can is poured into the dog’s dish and somehow he (mostly males, they do away with most of the females) survives. But I digress… Last Monday, the 18th) I flew out with 4 other M-19 PCVs and our Supervisor or Counterpart (CP) from UB. I flew with one of my CPs. These people had been in Darkhan for a couple of days for meetings with Peace Corps and with each of us and then came with us to our site. My CP, Odnoo, is 24 I think and doesn’t speak much English. We didn’t communicate much in Darkhan but are doing better now (more about that later). Flying out we had good weather and I had a window seat (airplane was made by Saab and had 2 seats on one side and 1 on the other). Mongolia is the most sparsely populated country in the world (or maybe 2nd) and it was obvious as we flew—range after range of hills and mountains and valleys and not a sign of habitation except for an occasional ger or the wiggly lines of a dirt road winding through the countryside. Before we left UB we were told our luggage couldn’t fit on the plane (we all had so much. When we arrived in Moron, there were a number of people to meet us—and I was presented with a ceremonial blue scarf and a copper bowl of milk right in the airport by my Director, Supervisor and CPs. A little overwhelming at first when you don’t understand what is going on. PCVs are assigned to a ger, an apartment or a wooden house. I’m in the latter—half a house with 3 rooms and a little wood stove (wood is more plentiful here than coal). The family in the other half of the house raise a lot of vegetables (I think they have another location for growing the vegetables, but I have yet to figure that part out). Inside the hosha they have a greenhouse with plastic over it where they are growing cucumbers and peppers presently. Some tomatoes are growing in a not raised but lowered part of the hosha and I wonder if they will ripen before a frost. Perhaps they will make tomato relish or pickles from them. They also raise chickens and rabbits that I can see from my window. The husband has a tractor and a little cart that he uses to bring in greens (looks like carrot tops) from somewhere for the chickens and rabbits. I think a son or daughter lives with them and his/her spouse plus a month-old baby. Since no one in the family speaks much English, I have to guess at a lot of things now. The wife brought me some yoghurt one day and another day a cucumber and some tiny berries, sort of like blueberries. Today the husband gave me 2 eggs. I bought 2 cucumbers when I first arrived and I think I’ll try to buy more things from them if I can. The husband is supplying my wood and water (which comes from a nearby well). The water is kept in a big plastic container (maybe 30 gallons) in my kitchen and the wood just beside my stove. Furniture is pretty limited: 2 beds, 1 low dresser with a nice mirror but just 4 tiny drawers, a very old low cupboard I wouldn’t want to store anything good in, two small 2-shelf cabinets hanging on the wall. I’m keeping my books and some extra stuff in one and using the other in the kitchen for foodstuffs—safe place to keep it away from little creatures. I have one kitchen storage cabinet and a couple of shelves on top for kitchen items, a table about 2-foot square and 2 somewhat rickety chairs (will limit my entertaining a bit!). A little hot plate (one burner works) is on a very low stool that makes using it a little challenging. No real place to store clothes so am using my suitcases presently and putting them on my unused bed. My sink (pretty worn and rusty) sits on a little cabinet that holds a big bucket that the water drains into when you use it. Above the sink on a backboard a metal container is attached that opens on top and you can pour water into it. At the bottom of the container is a rod that you push up and it lets water come out. At some point I’ll send a picture—hard to visualize if you’ve never seen one but it works well. And then there is the little wood stove. Let’s say Vermont Castings wood stoves are at the other end of the scale… Some people’s places are better furnished than others. I’ve pretty much had to buy everything to use in my kitchen. I can cook on the stove but that means getting the fire going. I bought a heavy wok-type pot that actually fits down into the top of the stove. I also bought a small pan to use on the hot plate and I bought a rice cooker (which I can also use to make soups in) and an electric water heater pot. Hopefully these will work well. Some people think you should buy a toaster-oven and I might do that too but I have so little space to put things. I bought a large thermos (everyone keeps the milk tea in that to drink all day long), a couple of forks and spoons, and a couple of plastic containers to store food in. It was fairly warm here when we arrived but even in the first week it has turned chilly. I’m wearing turtlenecks and fleeces and even a fleece vest plus my only jacket—a rain jacket—when I go out. Peace Corps suggested we buy out winter coats after we arrived. I’m trying not to be too concerned about the winter and how to heat this house. After all, all these people here survived just fine and I’m sure they’ll help me do it too. But it will be interesting. They say gers are easier to heat than houses (low ceiling and small space) and the apartments have radiator heat. I’m sure there are some kinds of strategies I can use and someone will teach me. Many of us CEDs (Community Economic Development) PCVs are assigned to Chambers of Commerce in the aimag centers. Most of these have not had PCVs before so we will have a lot of figuring out what we can do to be of help. Peace Corps does meet with these organizations and develops a work plan for us but we hear it often changes. Peace Corps has been working on our placements for a long time. So far I’ve taught two English classes for my CPs and will teach another tomorrow about family and how to ask questions. It’s pretty informal at this point. There is lots more to share—about my living quarters, the people here in the town, my office, the zak or black market, cooking food, buying food, etc. So stay tuned.

August 26, 2008 at 7:59 am Leave a comment

More news from Khovskol

I’m beginning to know the territory…Moron is about 30,000 people and most live in hoshas in wooden houses with plenty of gers sprinkled in.  Every house with its yard is surrounded by a tall wooden fence laid out pretty much in straight lines.  Not particularly attractive but fairly neat and organized. 

I have been to my office each day but only for a few hours each time. I come at 11 a.m. and then teach an English class–pretty informally to the 2 office mates (supervisor away) plus a couple of others who drop by.  The Chamber of Commerce office is in the Government Building about a 20 minute walk from my house down the main street.  There are only about 2 or 3 paved streets in town, the rest are dirt/sand.  The office is near the Post Office and the Haan Bank which i use.  Banking is a challenge here.  There are 2 branches and one has an ATM but each time I’ve been in them, they are swamped with customers.  I wait awhile and then finally give up.  Mongolians have not yet adopted the idea of waiting in line–there are lines but people freely shove you aside and move ahead.  Guess I need to become more assertive.  I heard it was better if you went when the bank first opened so this morning i was there at 9 a.m., but alas, there apparently was no electricity.  People were standing in line anyway in the hopes the electricity would go on (bank was open) but gradually people would drift away and then more would show up hopeful the electricity was going to go on.  I gave up after half an hour.  Tomorrow I am going to try again when the bank first opens.  Peace Corps gives us a “settling in” allowance to buy items for our living quarters (mine is pretty sparsely furnished) and a winter coat, boots, hat, gloves and heavy sweater.  Prices here have gone up a lot in the past year or so between food, energy, and general inflation so our Peace Corps allowance has to really stretch a long way.  More to come…love to all.

August 22, 2008 at 10:29 am Leave a comment

Moron, Khovsgol, my new home

I just have a few minutes but wanted you to know I have arrived and am getting settled in my new home.  I am “at work” today, but not really working yet.  There will be a lot of getting acquainted before I can figure out what I can do to be of help even though there is a “work plan”.  My supervisor is off to UB tomorrow for a week so I doubt if much will happen in the meantime.  I’ll work on my Mongolian and continue to get settled in my new home.  It is a “duplex”, that is, it’s a separate entrance in a house in a hosha.  The family raises chickens, rabbits, and has a plastic-covered green house with cucumbers and green peppers growing.  i bought 2 cucumbers yesterday.

I have 3 rooms and a little entry area heated by a little wood stove.  No running water and an outhouse.  The hosha dog is chained to a fence that is on the way to the outhouse.  The first few times I went that way, he barked ferociously–not the most pleasant thing to have to pass several times a day.  Some PCV had suggested spitting on a cookie and tossing it to the dog so he would get your scent.  So i tried that and also talked to him as a went by, explaining i am his friend.  Today he has almost stopped barking and growling and looks a little friendlier.  It may not seem like much, but it was a big step forward for me!

  I’ll have lots to tell about the town, where I’m living, and everything else.  I just need the time to write it down.  Fortunately, I do have electricity.  I thought I had only one outlet and one light bulb from the ceiling but last night, the man next door came and is installing 2 more ceiling lights and another outlet.  Hooray!

Weather here is now beginning to be a little chilly and windy but still lots of sun.  Will keep you posted.    Love to all.  Thanks for emails.

August 20, 2008 at 4:55 am Leave a comment

I’m officially a Peace Corps Volunteer!

This is a quick update for my blog.  More to come with pictures.  But just so you know:

I’m now an official Peace Corps Volunteer. Saturday morning, August 16th, we had our swearing in ceremony—they make a big deal of it in Peace Corps and it does impress everyone: Mongolians, us PCers, our supervisors/counterparts in places we are going and overall, it’s a good thing. We were all dressed in our deels (pronounced “del”)– I’ll get pics out as soon as I can—59 of us.

First, speeches by Peace Corps Country Director Jim Carl, then U.S. Ambassador, Mongolian head of Ministry of Education and a few others (both English and Mongolian, of course).  Then Ambassador administered the “oath of office” to us –we all stood, raised our right hands, repeated phrase by phrase.  Then we went on stage in a line and shook hands, received our official certificate. Then there were 3 short speeches in Mongolian by our our  own PCVs, performances of Mongolian songs and dances by our PCVs too, then we all went back on stage to sing the Mongol national anthem and the we all went off to a reception at a hotel across the street.

I’m going to be working at the Chamber of Commerce in Moron, the aimag center in  Hovsgol  Aimag, near Lake Hovskol up near Russian border.  I’ll be living in a house—a “duplex” with my separate entrance.  I will be heating it with a wood stove and will have to fetch water from a nearby well and will have an outhouse.  So no running water or hot water—except what I heat myself.  Some people leave today.  Most of us go to UB tomorrow and then I fly out on Monday at 10:30, 1 1⁄2 hour flight.  Five PCVs going to my site.  There’s a beautiful lake (as I understand it) just north of where I’ll be (coldest spot in Mongolia!).  Gets a fair number of tourists in the summer.  More info to come when I have time.

Re Olympics:  Hope you heard that Mongolia won its first ever gold medal in men’s judo?  The country is wild about it.  They have won silver and bronzes but never the gold.

August 16, 2008 at 8:43 am Leave a comment

What’s for dinner?

I though you might like to hear more about food in Mongolia. Not that the food itself is a very exciting topic—not much variety. The cuisine has evolved from the nomadic times I think. Meals are basically one-dish occasions. Peace Corps does pay our host families to give us three meals a day and I think the money enables the families to eat better than they would normally.

I’ll start with drinks: Two big red gallon thermoses are always on the table—in fact, on every table in every house I’ve seen. Milk tea is made in the early morning and again if needed during the day. Water and milk are boiled in the big heavy wok over the wood fired stove and then a handful of some kind of tea is tossed in along with some salt. This is strained into a great big tea kettle, sits awhile, and then poured into the big thermoses. This drink stays hot and is drunk at all meals and in-between. Mongolians think that cold drinks aren’t good for you. It’s been really hot lately—around 100 I’d say (no access to a thermometer). So I’d really love a big pitcher of iced tea! No ice available and since we can only drink the water that’s been through our purifiers, there’s not much chance of getting ice.

We drink, and often eat, from a single small bowl like you’d use for rice at a Chinese restaurant. They often give me a bigger bowl for the food. I think Peace Corps tells the families we’re used to larger portions. Dishes are kept at a minimum. When the meal is over, often there’s just the little bowl and a spoon or fork to wash for each person plus the wok the food is prepared in. They eat the food first, and then pour the tea into the bowl to drink. I guess when I get home I can get rid of most of my dishes.

A typical day’s meals would be…

Breakfast: Bread with butter and sugar or a sort of semi-solid cream on it (I just eat the bread), milk tea, and, generally they fix me a scrambled egg with cut-up chives in it cooked in a lot of oil. Did you know that butter doesn’t melt if left out? I don’t know the chemistry but I’m told real butter doesn’t melt or separate—stays in a solid but spreadable state. Sometimes there is rice and milk cooked together and maybe a few raisins—sort of a cereal or soup.

The noon meal is the main meal that we have about 1:30 when I get back from school. It might be some kind of soup, generally the same things are in it—all chopped very small: onions, carrots, potatoes, cabbage, perhaps noodles, maybe some turnip, even a beet today, and generally some kind of meat. The piece of meat used is generally unrecognizable—a mixture of fat and lean, more fat than lean. It could be cow or sheep and sometimes the innards. So far, I haven’t had camel or horse. I hear camel is very good. No matter what we have it’s always chopped very small. Perhaps to make it more digestible? Or perhaps it’s because many Mongolians are missing a fair number of teeth. They eat hard candy and sweet snacks frequently, plus adding a lot of sugar to yogurt and on their bread.

Lunchtime meals could be buuz (meat dumplings), sometimes khoosur (hot pockets the other PCT’s call them), sometimes rice with bits of vegetables in it, sometimes a drier mixture of meat, noodles, bits of vegetables, sometimes soup. Since Tstetsgey’s sister has been here, she has done more of the cooking and I’ve had more vegetables (cucumber and tomatoes) and fruit (apples). Usually the fruit is made into what they call a salad (all of the above cut very small and mixed together with something they call mayonnaise).

I help cook by cutting up whatever we’re having with the one knife in the house (looks a little like the knife the Chinese use to hack up meat). It’s just a piece of metal in a rectangular shape and a handle-like shape at one corner that is wrapped in tape so it won’t hurt your hand. They keep it sharp by honing it on the bottom of one of our little Chinese bowls—it seems to work. There is one other knife—an old table knife worn down and sharpened the same way and used for peeling vegetables. That’s it. So I guess I can get rid of all my knives when I get home too.

When I get home from school around 5:30 or so we often have a little bowl of yogurt = made by Tstesgey. As I said, I like it without sugar. Then around 8 or 9 we have a little supper. They might cut some slices of what they call ham, which looks to me like a fatty sausage (already cooked). It might be fried in too much oil or simply sliced on a plate and eaten with bread. Sometimes there are some slices of cucumber and maybe tomato. The other night we had some cheese. It looked like cheese, had the right texture, almost white in color, but there was no, I mean no, flavor that I could discern. Perhaps Mongolians have more discriminating palates. On the whole, I pretty much eat everything set before me but avoid the sugar and cream if I can.

It has surprised me how much sugar and junk food is consumed here. In my host family, sugar is added generously to bread and yogurt. Hard candy is always around and a dish of it is always presented when you visit someone’s home. In Tsetsgey’s shop, a lot of candy and junk food (cookies, chips, sweet snacks) is sold, most all of it very cheap quality probably from China or Russia. Fortunately, they don’t put sugar in the milk tea.

At meals we all sit around a low table. There are several low stools and then there are 2 chairs or stools that sit sideways to the table—wouldn’t fit under it—and are against the wall. Usually Tsetsgey and I sit on the chairs. Meals are pretty informal—people come and go. Food keeps fairly hot in the big iron wok that is used on the wood stove. Of course, a fire must be built in the stove for every cooked meal. When I first arrived, we cooked and ate inside for several weeks since it was a bit cooler. Now all meals are prepared and eaten in the little outdoor kitchen area. The challenge outdoors is mosquitoes and flies.

A note that as I write this bit of the blog: I’m sitting in my room trying to keep comfortable. It’s a Sunday. I think it is the hottest day we’ve had: no clouds and must be a 100 at least. Fortunately, it is dry and as soon as you get into the shade, it’s a bit cooler. We sat under the one tree in Tsetsgey’s hosha for lunch and there was a little breeze. Early this morning, I weeded the potatoes for an hour or so. Weeding here is a really tedious process. It’s all done by hand and every blade of grass is pulled up by the roots. In addition, there have been more and more mosquitoes and flies as the summer wears on. I do have bug spray that helps and I wear a wide brimmed hat. We’ll weed again this evening when it cools off a bit.

The other day, Tsetsgye’s other daughter, Solange, stopped in for a visit (I think she and her family live in the main part of Sukhbator). I had taken pictures at Naadam and she conveyed to me that she would take me to the photo shop in Sukhbator to get them printed. I wanted to do this anyway, but didn’t know where the photo shop was. So we went in this week and printed out a lot of pictures including many duplicates so each member of the family could have some. I had planned to give them as a gift anyway, so I paid for them. We must have printed some 60 pictures. When we got home and showed them to Tsetsgey, Enka, Duulya, Saggi, and Solange’s two sons Baggi and Ochiro, they were thrilled. Lots of laughing and enjoying the various shots. They all keep photo albums or framed photos on the walls, so this is just the right present.

Coming up soon: We have our final language test on Friday, August 8 and we leave for Darkhan the following Tuesday, August 12. As soon as we arrive, we find out where our individual sites will be. On Sat., the 18th, we’ll be sworn in and I assume will be going to our sites almost immediately after that. Everyone is speculating on where they’ll be sent but no one knows anything for sure. To be continued…

One more thing: I may have told you about the rainstorm we had earlier this summer that was so heavy huge gullies were carved out of the roads—some 3 feet deep or more. For the most part, these gullies remain just as they were created—no road department to come and fill them up. So people still have to wind back and forth down the road to avoid them. A few people have tossed trash into them or perhaps a little dirt, but it will be a long time, if ever, before they are filled up again.

The second big weather event happened last Saturday. It had been a hot day, blue sky and towards evening clouds began to gather a bit in the north—which is where the weather tends to come from. Suddenly, with no warning, a major sandstorm blew up, wind whipping, sand blowing everywhere, anything not tied down blowing away, tv antennas ripped off roofs, fences blowing over, even an outhouse blown away, one of our PCTs told us. One of my fellow PCTs thought perhaps it was a microburst—a sudden storm out of nowhere. While the wind is whipping, I can still see the sky up high with clouds stationary and even blue sky. So this storm must have stayed close to the ground. At first, Tstetsgey and Enka didn’t know where Saagi was—she wanders freely during the day though she’s only three. Enka put a coat over her head and went looking—fortunately she turned up at the house across the road safe and sound. It probably lasted about an hour and then it rained hard for awhile. Power was out and it wasn’t until the next morning we could see the damage. Everywhere you could hear the rat-tat-tat of hammers as people patched their roofs, put fences back up, etc. Didn’t do the vegetable garden much good either—not sure if the tomatoes will make it. However, I did see another reason for the tall wooden fences that surround the compounds of each family. They probably break the wind a bit for items that are close to it—like the garden. We had to repair a fence where part had blown down, but aside from the usual leaks, everything stayed put. I wondered about the cows but they eventually found their way home. We heard that this had never happened before—something so strong and so fast and so destructive.

August 4, 2008 at 7:53 am Leave a comment


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