My Creative Journey

For as long as I can remember, I have always had a creative outlet, typically through piano and cello. Unfortunately, neither of these instruments is what one would call “easily transportable”. While PCVs who play guitar, ukulele, harmonica, or other portable instruments can bring their instruments to Mongolia or buy a cheap instrument here, I’m not as lucky. As such, I struggled to find a creative outlet. My school has a small keyboard, so I occasionally play piano there, and for a short time had a piano club for students, but with so much free time in the evenings, I craved more creativity. Eventually, I started drawing my favorite photographs I’ve taken of my favorite people and animals, which has definitely helped satisfy the creative thirst, but not in the same way music does.

Then, this spring, I had a big break. My friend/school music teacher sat me down and gave me a two-hour horsehead fiddle (morin khuur) lesson. I had previously been introduced to the instrument during Pre-Service Training when the Healthies visited a summer camp. While at camp, one of the campers who spoke English phenomenally (he lived in Australia for a year) gave me a quick intro lesson. Since then, I had been hoping to have the opportunity to learn the instrument more in-depth.

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My first time playing the morin khuur at summer camp with my student teacher

The horsehead fiddle is eerily reminiscent of an ancient cello, and I was hopeful that with my experience playing the cello since fourth grade, I’d be able to pick up the instrument quickly. Yet for how similar I expected the two instruments to be, I was quickly proven wrong.

Let’s start with the structure and position of the instrument. The horsehead fiddle is a two-stringed instrument.Unlike the cello, it does not have an endpin, so the instrument is upheld solely by balancing it between the thighs/knees. The instrument is also held in an upright position with the neck slightly in front of the plane of the player’s face and at an angle. The cello on the other hand is angled backwards, with the scroll ending up behind the player. In addition, the cello has four metallic strings which, from left to right when looking at the instrument are C, G, D,and A. However, the two strings on the horsehead fiddle are still made of horse hairs unlike the metallic strings used on modern day cellos and from left to right when looking at the instrument are F and B-flat. This means that from left to right, the cello’s strings go up in pitch, while the horsehead fiddle’s go down in pitch. The horsehead fiddle’s two strings as well as the bow’s strings are each made from 300 horse hairs. With regards to the bow, there is no tightening screw to create tension in the strings.

My first question was if I could hold the bow the same way I hold a cello’s bow: from the top (I demonstrated). Ganaa, my music teacher, looked at me like I was crazy and politely refuted. I was then shown how to hold the bow from underneath. All of a sudden, the strange bow-hold some upright bassists use made logical sense to me. The horse-head fiddle’s bow does not have a mechanism for tightening the bow hairs. As a result, the pinky and fourth finger are used to push the hairs away from the bow’s frog to tighten the hairs and create tension in the hair to pull the instruments sound out. Although nowadays modern instruments do not require this specific handhold thanks to the tightening screw, some bassists have upheld the tradition while losing its necessity. We worked on my bow-hold for a bit before moving onto the left hand’s placement on the neck.

I had expected that the fingering on the horse-head fiddle’s neck would be extremely similar if not the same as a cello’s, specifically with regards to pressing the strings against the neck. However, my teacher informed me that the player’s first and second fingers use the crook of the first joint and touch the joint against the side of the string rather than pressing down (with slow practice, a callous builds). The third and fourth fingers however press the tip of the finger against the side of the string. When shifting up to start a scale, the fingers follow the same pattern. Yet to continue the scale, the player’s hand shifts to the higher string (F) and up a half step. At this point, the same knuckle style is used for the first and second finger. The third and fourth fingers still lightly press against the side of the string, but the third finger arcs over the lower string (B-flat) while the fourth finger goes under the lower string (B-flat). Unique, right?? Just getting used to the fingering and bow-hold takes weeks of practice.

I had a few lessons during the spring, but when the time came for the school’s end of the year performance, I had to return my borrowed horsehead fiddle to the school. By that time, I’d learned about 5 pieces and was starting to feel comfortable with the fingerings and bow-hold, but I lost my momentum as summer came and I was without an instrument.

Fastforward to fall break this school year. I had just interviewed Tserenjigmed, a famous horsehead fiddler living in Arvaikheer who had told me about a horsehead fiddle competition the following week in his honor. Later that day, while hosting a culture club in my school’s auditorium, my music teacher friend walks in and informs me that I should come to the music room for a horsehead fiddle lesson as I will be competing in the aforementioned competition… After a week of practice, a blister on my left-hand pointer finger (the main finger used when playing the horsehead fiddle), and a borrowed school dance outfit, I was as ready as I could be.

The day of the competition arrived, and I spent an hour warming up to become accustomed to the outfit. My best Mongolian friend was with me the whole time, the wonderful Tungaa! She supported me through my nerves and made sure I knew the schedule. During my warmup, Tserenjigmed, the horsehead fiddler I’d interviewed, came backstage and listened as I warmed up. My nerves diminished significantly after that. If I could impress him, the man for whom the competition is named, then I could perform in front of an audience! Walking on stage, I knew I wasn’t in the mental headspace to give a stellar performance, but luckily the practice paid off and I got through the piece without forgetting my memorization. Although I didn’t perform at the level I wanted, the experience was unforgettable and a shining moment for me throughout my Peace Corps service.

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An official photo from the competition
My time learning the morin khuur has made me especially awed by masters of the instrument and appreciative of its unique sound and style. Furthermore, I’m once again grateful for the way music can transcend language and provide this wonderful integration experience!

 

My Mongolian Funeral Experience

The first time I realized that Mongolian customs regarding death and funerals are different than American ones, I was caught unaware. There I was, sitting in my school’s teachers’ room when I was handed a bag. To my delight, it had little presents in it: a box of matches, bottle of milk, wipes, and candy. Wow, quite exciting considering my minimal Peace Corps income! I turned to my counterpart and asked why I received this goody bag. She said, “one of the worker’s family members died”. Gulp, guess I shouldn’t have been excited… Since then, I have unfortunately received at least 5 more funeral “goody bags” and have been increasingly interested in Mongolian funeral rituals.

I had planned to ask my closest counterpart about the ins and outs of Mongolian funerals, but unfortunately, she was continually dealing with sick family members or family members who passed away. Last week though, on a run with a community counterpart, I had the opportunity to ask her. She was a wealth of information and started asking about funerals in the US. Most of the information she knew about US funerals was from movies, and when we delved into the topic, she was just as interested and confused by our traditional customs. Definitely a win for cultural exchange! I also had the chance to ask her husband, a red sect Buddhist monk, some questions. Anyway, here is what they shared with me.

The Funeral Ceremony:

When a Mongolian person passes away, the first step is to have a monk visit the body. According to my friend’s husband, a monk, “in Mongolian Buddhism people know when they will die, so they want to hear the sutra and the bell while they’re dying”. This helps the person navigate the world in between this world and their next life. If the monk is not there at the time of death, the monk comes as soon as possible after the person has passed away. Monks read the “golden box” first. This is the horoscope of death that explains what the person was thinking and feeling when they passed away. However, only some monks do this (the powerful monks). The horoscope also shows which day the funeral will be, which day they should find the land, why the person passed away, what the family needs to do, what the deceased’s thoughts were, and what the person will be in their next lifetime. The “golden box” helps the person be reborn quickly and have a nice new life because the soul will travel the right path and won’t get lost. Another duty of the monk is to organize the funeral correctly. After reading the “golden box”, the monk will go out into the countryside to pick a place for the funeral that is fitting for the deceased. A couple days later, the funeral will occur. The monk says when the burial will happen, and in the meantime, friends and colleagues of the deceased visit the deceased’s home where they are fed. At this time, they give donations for the funeral. Including the deceased, an even number of attendees will be at the funeral, presided over by the monk. After the funeral, an odd number of people leave. The deceased is left at the funeral site. During the funeral, the monk reads sutras to help clear the passage for the soul, while funeral attendees stand in a circle.

The Burial Options:

There are three types of “burials”. The currently popular style is a burial similar to that in the US. The body of the deceased is buried approximately 2.5 meters below the surface, and a headstone is placed on the site. While it is uncommon to see cemeteries here (many PCVs have commented on this since you can hardly drive two blocks in the US without seeing a cemetery), they do exist, just deep in the vast countryside. The second type is cremation and is not as common as a burial. Finally, the last type is typically requested in advance by older traditional Mongolians. This “burial” is perhaps the most peculiar for foreigners. The body is left at the site, above ground, usually on a mountain to be left to the natural elements. It is considered good if birds eat the body. If the body is not eaten by birds or other animals, the interpretation is that the person who inhabited the body was evil.

The Mourning Period:

After the funeral and burial, the “goody bags” are given to people who gave donations. The bags help the deceased’s soul pass by demonstrating appreciation to the donors. The mourning period for the remaining family lasts for 49 days after the family member has passed away. During this time, the family members may not drink, attend parties, or celebrate holidays in respect of the deceased. When mourners visit the family, they are given food and milk tea. Mourners typically bring a donation and шар тос “shar tos”, the fat/oil that is burned during Buddhist ceremonies. There is a shrine set up for the deceased with their picture, other personal mementos, and burning “shar tos”. The burning oil helps the spirit pass over peacefully. Family members, at their desire, will use prayer beads (108 beads on a loop called эрхи “erkhi” in Mongolian) and chant “ум мани бадмэ хум”. Some shrines have a small speaker box that continuously repeats this same chant. Once a day, usually in the evening, the family and mourners from that day will gather and chant. This can continue for as long as the relatives want. This helps the soul go up to heaven. Also during the 49 days, monks help the person find their next life by praying and reading the sutras for the person (the experienced monks do this). By the end of 49 days, the person will find their next life.

My 5 Steps to Integrating

In the Peace Corps, we are always told, “it depends”. This motto applies to almost every aspect of our Peace Corps lives. Yet it seems to apply especially well to each PCV’s individual site. Integrating into your site depends, obviously on the volunteer, as well as the school, the location (size/population and region), teachers, community counterparts, neighbors, type of housing, personal mentality, first impressions, etc. Sometimes I wonder how I would have fared at other sites, but I got lucky; my school and aimag center are amazing.

One of the prime differences between sites is isolation/population, i.e. are you living in a soum in the middle of nowhere or in an aimag center potentially with people your age who do not work at your school? Living in an aimag center where most volunteers have apartments, it can be easy to isolate yourself. Were I to do this, my daily schedule would only involve leaving my apartment to teach classes. Luckily, I follow a set of guidelines I created to help myself become more integrated, and they seem to be working, if I do say so myself. Without further ado, here are my 5 steps to integrating.

*all steps should be stepping slightly outside of your comfort zone without feeling unsafe*

  1. Always say yes to invitations

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Cooking with the elementary school’s training manger and her children

Frequently, people you may only sort of know from your school invite you to their home to meet their family. Just because they’re not one of the English teachers, so you’ll have to speak Mongolian, and because you aren’t close with them, doesn’t mean you should discount them. I had teachers and training managers at my school whom I hardly knew, as in didn’t know their names and hadn’t ever spoken to them, invite me to their homes. Even though I felt slightly awkward going over alone, these experiences led to many new opportunities. Now, I am close friends with some of them, receive more invites to various school social activities, and have had the opportunity to experience Mongolia more fully by going to the countryside and cooking with one of them. Although the first time was awkward and outside of my comfort zone, I now feel perfectly at ease and happy around my new friends.

  1. Leave your house once a day

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Waltz competition I happened upon at the wrestling palace

It’s easy to become accustomed to being cooped up in your apartment all day, with your unlimited Wi-Fi, running water, refrigerator, and most importantly: Netflix. Yet, just as the hardest part of exercising at the gym is actually arriving at the gym, the hardest part of leaving your home is gathering the stamina to put on a coat and brave the weather. Besides getting hopefully fresh air (unless the air pollution is pungent at the exact time and day you leave), you also may see people on the streets you know, meet new people at the market, see cute dogs, and just experience the town. Some days the outing will be bland, but other times you’ll come back with wild stories of dust storms or blizzards almost carrying you away. Maybe you’ll even see an event happening at the square or the wrestling palace and go watch!

  1. Don’t be afraid to socialize with men

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Some of my volleyball friends

As a woman in Mongolia, I was warned many times about drunk men following foreign women, cat-calling, potential sexual harassment or assault, games being played that require kissing or hint at sexual encounters, and a general warning that the atmosphere between foreign women and Mongolian men being friends is difficult. Other female volunteers I know said they fully heeded these warnings, and as a result, are not close with any of the male teachers at their school. However, I was of the opinion that men would be more likely to sexualize and inappropriately tease me if they didn’t respect me; since respect comes from knowing someone, I thought I should get to know the men at my school. I got lucky because I enjoy volleyball, and most of the male teachers at my school play in our weekly school games. This lead to me becoming good friends with many of the male workers and teachers with whom I don’t co-teach. Although I am friends with the English teachers, these friendships occasionally feel slightly more like a mentorship where they take care of me and are sort of required to be my friend as they are one of the few teachers who speak English fluently at my school. However, the male teachers I have befriended mostly speak Mongolian with me and are my friends not out of force, but because they truly want to be. The men at my school have become some of my closest Mongolian friends. I feel way more comfortable with the men at my school than I was initially led to believe I ever would.

  1. Let the day lead you

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We were supposed to go ice skating with my friend. Instead we watched him exercise his horses #mongoliahappened

Sometimes you have a plan for the day, and sometimes, these plans are thwarted by what we Mongolian PCVs like to call “Mongolia happening” (eg: “I was going to come home to exercise, but then Mongolia happened, and I went to a ger in the countryside with one of my teachers for the entire day” #mongoliahappened). Let’s be real though, as PCVs, we don’t have that much work that can’t be put off for a day; our schedules are pretty free. You just need to suck it up and look at the experience in a positive light. For example, I was walking home after a long day and ran into one of my friends who is a worker at my school. I asked where he was going, and not surprisingly, I only half understood the answer. I decided to go with him because otherwise I would spend the entire evening at home. We ended up going to the ger where many of my school’s workers live. When I entered the ger, it was clear there were no teachers invited, but all the workers inside started saying my name in awe with bright eyes that followed me. I didn’t stay for too long and didn’t talk for about half the time I was there, but this was the most interaction I’d had with the workers at my school, and I felt like I got to know them a lot better. You never know what fun experience will arise from a random encounter.

  1. Hang out with your teachers outside of classes

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My counterpart/friend’s husband and youngest child

When you live in an apartment alone in a foreign country, it can be easy to separate your work life from your home/fun life. As a result, your counterparts get grouped into “work life” and consequentially, are not part of the group with whom you hang out. However, getting to know your counterparts outside of class can foster relationships that lead to better cooperation: more dialogue, sharing of ideas, and a better understanding of your colleague. The teachers at the school are people too, with families and lives that they enjoy sharing with the foreigner. Plus, your language skills will improve as you’ll practice and learn new vocab. Believe me, you’ll feel more comfortable stepping into your teachers’ room at school when you’re entering a room full of friends.

 

These are some steps that have worked for me to feel more at ease in my new environment and have created many friendships. By following my self-imposed rules, I have felt how my integration into my life here has improved throughout my 8 months at site. I can’t wait for what the future will bring!

My Life: Logistics

I’ve lived in Mongolia for a little over four months at this point, and life is finally starting to take on a regular schedule. Throughout my time here, there are some consistent differences I have noticed between life in the United States vs life in Mongolia, so prepare yourself for the logistics of Mongolian life.

SCHOOLS

In the United States, with the exception of kindergarten, most school days run from 8 am until around 3 pm, give or take half an hour for both start and end times. However, schools in Mongolia run slightly more similarly to a college with students choosing their electives and coming in and out of the school based on their elective and core subject schedules. As a result, school typically starts around 8 am and lasts until 7 pm. Here in Arvaikheer we have 4 public schools and one vocational college. Vocational colleges are basically trade schools. The one in Arvaikheer used to be a university, but due to poor enrollment, it is now a vocational college. The students who attend are students who failed the mandatory 9th grade exam. As a result, they are given the opportunity to learn trades, rather than finishing high school (sort of like a GED rather than a high school diploma). Depending on the vocational college’s resources, students have various opportunities to practice their trades. For example, the students at Arvaikheer’s vocational college can practice cooking because there is a kitchen, but the students learning about welding and building do not have the resources to practice their trades.

Of the 4 public schools, three are actually public, while my school, is a strange hybrid. To attend my school, a Japanese-funded charter school focused on mathematics and languages (Mongolian, English, Russian, and Japanese), students must pass an entrance exam. Based on the students’ grade, they pay different amounts to attend, with elementary school costing 125,000 tugriks per year, middle school costing 135,000 per year, and 10th grade and up costing 145,000 tugriks per year. To put this in relative terms, as PCVs, we make about 360,000 tugriks a month. It almost seems as though the payment is kept low enough as to not hinder enrollment. Teachers at my school are paid slightly more than teachers at the other three schools, but they must still must provide their own resources i.e. markers, paper for printing, flipchart paper, chalk from their income. The schedule is created by Training Managers (teachers are assigned 19-20 hours of teaching at a minimum per week) and takes about 1 month to finally settle, with up to 3 changes occurring throughout that month. My school has 8 sessions in the morning and 8 in the evening where each session is 40 minutes (a time limit set by the government), with the last session of the morning and the first session of the evening overlapping for 25 minutes. The 10th-12th graders only have class in the mornings, while all other grades have morning and afternoon sessions, including the elementary school. Every day, all students must participate in an exercise break that occurs during a 5-minute break between 2 class sessions. In general, there are no transition periods between classes though as students stay in classrooms, while the teachers move around to different grades. As a result of the varying times different grades are taught, both teachers and students come and go as they please, based on their schedules and lunch time, rather than spending the entire school day in the building as done in the US. Teachers and students alike stop in at the canteen (lunchroom) throughout the day for either snacks or traditional Mongolian foods like khuushuur, buuz, and milk tea, as well as a daily featured soup (one time it was cabbage, french fries, and mutton soup).

When students reach 6th grade, they are assigned a homeroom teacher who follows that class all the way up until the class graduates. Homeroom classes are meant for life skills, but in essence end up occasionally acting as another core subject class depending on what topic the homeroom teacher teaches. In addition, only one of the schools here has students with disabilities. A couple years ago, one of the teachers and a PCV teamed up to fundraise for a disabilities classroom that has a kitchen and various other resources, so the disabled students all attend the same school; however, most of the disabled students in Arvaikheer do not attend school. This is still an area that the community of Arvaikheer is looking to improve (i.e. increased enrollment) and in which to provide adequate support.

Schools often have lofty goals but lack the resources to meet them. For example, I am running a piano club with one of the music teachers at my school. Fun idea, right? Unfortunately, the school only has one upright piano, one keyboard, and one keyboard on the wall. Three more keyboards have been ordered from UB, so hopefully teaching lessons will be easier and more interactive when they arrive. However, students don’t have sheet music. The school has three binders of sheet music from which students may borrow one or two pieces with the teacher’s permission. I decided to ask my parents to send me some of my old books which I no longer need. My goal is to increase the school’s sheet music library, allow for better accessibility of music for the students, and have students play music more at their level. What I noticed after hearing the students play Fur Elise was that rather than looking at the sheet music to see which note to play when they got stuck, they had another student come up and tried to memorize the fingering. In addition, they were barely getting through pieces that were too difficult for them. Hopefully, with better technique and fingering, they will be able to play easier pieces, more at their level, but at a higher performance quality.

Furthermore, certain subjects are lacking. This last school year, health teachers got cut from the curriculum due to inadequate funding by the Mongolian government. The revamped Peace Corps Health program is attempting to fill this vacancy, as well as the lack of structure of the homeroom curriculum by introducing PCVs into homeroom classes to teach life skills, sexual reproductive health, alcohol and tobacco prevention, nutrition, and exercise.

APARTMENTS

I’ve got an easy life, living in an apartment in an aimag center, but that is not to say that apartment life is without difficulties. While ger-dwellers have a harder lifestyle and isolation typically, apartment-dwellers seem to have less control over their home. In the winter, electricity comes and goes, so I’ve been warned to always have food that doesn’t require cooking or re-heating to eat. Not to mention the electrical wiring is slightly shady (think: the outlet behind my fridge caught on fire so my landlord and I had to get fancy with our outlet to power-strip combinations). Sometimes apartments get extremely hot in the winter since most use old radiators that do not have temperature settings. However, when the power goes out, the apartments become frigid, and without a fire place, there is no way to stay warm besides layering clothes. The heating turned on during the last week of September and with it came a slew of problems. I have 5 heaters in my apartment, but only two would turn on. When I attempted to turn one of them on, it started spewing rusty water all over the wall and floor. The next day, I came home from school and another radiator had leaked over the entire floor. The maintenance worker from my school ended up buying new valves to replace the old rusted or stripped ones. My toilet also has a mind of its own… it doesn’t always flush and likes to run a lot (as in run water, not go for a 5-mile run), but I have recently figured out that by making sure the button comes back up, it stops running. To get hot water, some apartments wait until winter when the hot water turns on, while others, like mine, have a heater. Some heaters are larger and require 15 minutes to warm up all the water in the basin, but mine is small and continuously warms a small volume, which means that to have hot water, the water pressure must be really low. I’m not complaining though, the only amenity I’m missing in my apartment is an oven, but it’s extremely easy to get by without an oven.

Depending on how old the apartment building is, installing WiFi might be more difficult and cost more. Since my apartment is relatively new, there is a router at the top of the apartment to which my cable is connected that runs down the side of the building and into my apartment through a window where it connects to my modem. However, for buildings that do not have a router, WiFi is a lot more expensive; we’re talking an extra 150,000 tugriks for installation while my installation was complementary. Trash is placed in the stairwell and collected twice a week by the women who are paid to clean the floors and stairs, so the stairwell frequently smells like a trash dump (a wonderful present for my nose as soon as I step out of my apartment, the first apartment in the building). Peace Corps gives PCVs an allotted amount each month based on the general price of utilities in their area with the hope that throughout the 12 months, during which PCVs are always paid but don’t always require the utilities allowance for any payments (i.e. no heating during the summer months), the payment vs the cost will even out. I’m slightly skeptical of this, but I’ve been assured that turning in 6 months-worth of receipts of payment will either allow for reimbursement or an increased allowance. Still unsure what all that means, so we’ll see how it goes…

PHONES/DATA

There are four major phone providers in Mongolia: Mobicom, Unitel, Skytel, and G-Mobile. Mobicom has the best coverage but is the most expensive, while Skytel and G-Mobile are the cheapest and offer incentives such as free Facebook (i.e. not using data when browsing Facebook). Unitel offers the best deal for ger data. There are wingles (little USB devices that create WiFi with a sim card), modems, and routers that are sold. Plans can be daily, weekly, or monthly plans depending on how much data you buy. With routers, the plans are either monthly or cheaper for a yearly contract that is still paid monthly. In addition, for texting and calling, you must buy “negj,” which are basically units. One text costs 19 units of negj with Mobicom. As PCVs, we are each given a Nokia phone with a Mobicom sim card paid for by Peace Corps and promised one replacement Nokia and sim card if anything happens to our current phone, but after that, we’re on our own. With Peace Corps’ family plan, there is free Mobi-Mobi calling. This is Peace Corps’ attempt at helping volunteers feel less isolated. My smartphone has a Skytel sim card for which I typically buy 10 GBs for 2 months for 30,000 tugriks. However, this will probably change with the addition of WiFi to my apartment. My apartment has a modem one of the teachers at my school gave me and a Mobicom yearly contract plan.

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Modem, smartphone, and Peace Corps issued Nokia

Mongolians and their phones are all over the place. Since I live in a larger city now, most people have smartphones. However, during PST, all adults and most children had old Nokias that barely had any buttons left and were taped to hold the phone together. The children who had smartphones usually had cracked old smartphones that only occasionally had data. Service goes in and out, but usually you can find 4G at any small town. During bus rides, if there are no towns nearby, both of my phones typically lose service, although the Mobicom phone lasts longer. However, for how large and sparsely populated Mongolia is, communication via phones is quite simple.

ENVIRONMENT

Winter is in transition currently in Arvaikheer. Last week, temperatures were in the 50s, windy, and with snow occasionally in the mornings that melted by 9 am. However, it is 15 degrees Fahrenheit right now with a high of 30 degrees at 4 pm… quite the drastic change. Other aimags are experiencing bountiful snowfall and blizzards already. As the heating has turned on, I have noticed a change in the air quality. In general, trash and waste (including what should be recycled) are burned in incinerators. There are two incinerators in the city: one at the north and one for medical waste next to the hospital at the east. Currently, grants are being written for the proposed move of the hospital incinerator to a new location at the south of the city as winds typically blow north to south in Arvaikheer. The addition of heating has caused all the heating waste release pipes to also exude black smoke. As you walk towards the market, you can smell and almost taste the trash and smog in the air. The air is visibly gray in comparison to August when we first arrived in Arvaikheer, and black clouds overlapping the city can be seen in all directions from any window of my apartment. Unfortunately, none of the incinerators in Arvaikheer have filters. This is apparently why Japanese and Korean volunteers have been banned from Arvaikheer since the smog poses a health risk. Peace Corps will provide us with filtered masks that will hopefully help. I’ve been warned that the ger districts on the outskirts of the city cannot be seen in the dead of winter due to the copious amounts of smoke in the air.

Ulaanbaatar has similar pollution problems. The last time I was in UB, I spoke with a civilian driver who was taking me to the bus station. She said that based on the final number of a car’s license plate, that car may not be driven in downtown UB on certain days. For example, license plates ending in 4 cannot be in downtown on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Similar attempts at controlling pollution have been made in other cities in various countries, such as in Quito, Ecuador. I’m unsure how efficient the solution is, but it is good the government is attempting some sort of solution.

TRANSPORTATION

With a paved road between Arvaikheer and UB, there are ample options for transportation. Three times daily, at 8 am, 2 pm, and 6 pm, a bus leaves from Arvaikheer to UB and vice-versa at a cost of 20,000 tugriks. Generally, the bus only has one mandatory 30-minute stop about halfway through the trip, but sometimes there can be up to 5 stops depending on the driver and if any passengers need to stop at the side of the road to go to the bathroom, pick up goods to sell in UB from family or friends who are waiting for them with a car, or even to pick up new people or get dropped off. There are also many meekers (kind of like vans) and private drivers always offering to go to UB. The bus leaves on time and all 45 seats are always filled. Meekers and private drivers are slightly less reliable. Meekers may take 1 or 2 hours to fill up and only leave when they are at full capacity or past full (i.e. 12 passenger seats but 17 people including children). The travel time for buses and meekers is about the same (7.5 hours to UB from Arvaikheer), while cars are faster (around 5 hours) but more expensive, especially if you are the only passenger. To get to Kharkhroin (the old capital of Mongolia) from Arvaikheer costs 12,000 tugriks and is typically a trip done in a meeker. The meekers in most towns in Mongolia are found either at the market or the transportation station.

The only train in Mongolia goes along the North-South line in Central Mongolia near UB, so we don’t have the benefits of the train line in Arvaikheer, although we are located 10 kilometers from the geographic center of Mongolia. In general, all transportation is through UB, especially to fly sites, like Bayan-Ulgii out in the western mountain range of Mongolia. In UB, you can just stick your hand out and eventually a registered taxi, unofficial taxi, or just a civilian will pull over and offer a ride (about 800 tugriks per kilometer). In Arvaikheer, all taxi rides are 2,000 tugriks, no matter how long the trip around the city (thus, this is both a curse and a blessing depending on the distance travelled).

Most recently, my travel experience has been on the bus. Children usually just sit in their parent’s or grandparent’s lap. One of my trips on the bus, I sat at the very back; looking out across the seats, I could see children’s heads popping up, peering over the seats at random times, like that game, Whac-A-Mole. The windows of the bus were frosting at 3 pm, that’s how cold it was already (classic Mongolia). The streets of Mongolia are slightly terrifying. Lanes are fluid, especially in UB where a three-lane road may arbitrarily have 4 or 5 lanes. Cars go up in the right-turn lane but then cut across the intersection to turn left because they didn’t want to wait in line… Although Mongolia is a right-side of the road country, the cars have steering wheels on either side since all cars are imported from the surrounding countries, so I wonder how easy it is to see traffic with side mirrors in cars with right-sided steering wheels. Apparently, car accidents are frequent and so are breakdowns, but in my experience so far, transportation has been pretty reliable, and Mongolians are always willing to help find transportation. Once the travel ban for M28s is lifted (an attempt by Peace Corps at helping and promoting integration by not allowing new PCVs to leave their aimags), hopefully I will get a better grasp on transportation. For now, my only experience has been during PST, coming to Arvaikheer, and returning to UB for dental appointments.

DENTIST

My teeth have always been perfect, leave the one time I chipped my front tooth on a fork while eating salad (pathetic story, I know); however, my teeth decided that Mongolia would be the time to test the dental system. One of my front teeth had been hurting for about a week and a half on and off if I drank cold water or a cold breeze blew when it eventually developed a crack. I sent a picture in an email to Peace Corps Medical and was immediately called. Eventually, I talked to one of the contracted dentists who recommended I come to UB for a checkup. I left that day, and my appointment was the next morning. Turned out that I needed a root canal (classic Roberta, skipping cavities and going straight for the root canal).

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Ominous X-ray that resulted in a root canal diagnosis

I’m now going for my third dental visit this week where hopefully my tooth will be well enough to receive a permanent filling; if not, a new medicine will be injected, and I will have to go back again for another check-up and hopefully, the permanent filling then. To get to UB, I have used money from my Peace Corps allowance but have kept receipts which I have turned into the Financial Department to get reimbursed. I will also be reimbursed for up to 30,000 tugriks for meals each day, depending on how many meals I ate. I’m still waiting for the reimbursements to come in, but they should come soon. During my stays in UB, I have either stayed in the sick room at Peace Corps headquarters or at a hotel paid for by Peace Corps if the sick room is otherwise occupied. I’ve been happily surprised by the quality of care I have received for my tooth and am reassured in case anything else were to arise during my service.

NEXT UP

Life in Mongolia has definitely treated me well so far. Parts of Mongolian life are easy to become accustomed to, yet cultural differences and culture shock are an everyday aspect of life. The above-mentioned topics are parts of life that are omnipresent and, in my opinion, require conscious thought to attempt to fully understand and personally come to terms with. As my time continues here, I will hopefully develop a more well-rounded view and can also include other topics, such as price comparisons between goods in Mongolia vs the United States. For now, ponder what I’ve shared and imagine how your life in Mongolia would be. Would you want to live in the Land of the Blue Sky?

My First Month and a Half at Site

I’ve found it difficult to write a blog post recently as things at school are starting to pick up. Even on days when I don’t have as much work, I still am at the school from 9 am until around 6 or 7 pm. This doesn’t leave much time for writing since typically after school I go grocery shopping, start cooking, attempt to exercise, try to finish lesson plans, or am invited to an event with the teachers. However, so much has happened since arriving at site and then meeting all the teachers that rather than leaving out occurrences, each exciting occasion deserves a short summary. So, here goes…

Week 1:

After unpacking the first night, I finally relaxed on my large bed, knowing full-well the coming week would be hectic. Valerie and I explored the “city” and found a coffee shop where we relaxed for a bit before going to meet our supervisors. We were shown the important stores at the market: vegetables, meet, random grocery stores, home utensil stores, and clothing stores. The rest of the week, we went to the market every day, slowly stocking up our apartments with important goods, such as two plates, one pot, and one pan (only the bare necessities for us volunteers)! We ended up going on two hikes. The first “hike” was really just walking up the white stairs on the first mountain that overlook the town with the two M27 TEFL volunteers, while the second actually included hiking up the mountains with Valerie’s supervisor and teacher and my two Mongolian neighbor girls. The mountains here are quite rocky with a high possibility of rolling an ankle, but the views are spectacular.

Week 2:

We still went to the market every day (I even ventured out alone, which is a rare occurrence considering Valerie and I live two floors apart), but we were buying fewer things. We found where the different types of cheese can be found, not that there’s a large selection, and we bought housing supplies that weren’t necessary but were desired, like my shower curtain. Another M28 Health volunteer from a soum in our aimag came into town for a wedding and stayed with us for three days. We were all introduced to a woman in the community who runs an English learning facility and is extremely well-connected. She showed us a new coffee shop, which has WiFi, brownies, and apple pie (it’s our new go-to coffee shop)!

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Eventually, we became friends with the store owner, which came in useful when we found out there would be a horse race. Her sister and father were coming in from UB and ended up picking us up. We saw the Fastest Horse Monument and ran into two Belgians who were driving the “Mongol Rally”. This is a car trek that typically starts in England and ends up in the southern part of Russia past the Mongolian border. When our ride left, the guys offered to drive us back home. With the third volunteer and the two guys, we went to the little photo store where we enjoy having our pictures taken. Afterwards, we introduced them to the market where they were finally able to buy fresh vegetables after 7 weeks on the road. They cooked us dinner to thank us as we chatted about politics and life in various regions of the world. The next day, they left for UB.

Week 3:

This was the week leading up to the first day of school. In an effort to make use of my free time, I went on a solo hike to clear my mind. A storm appeared on the horizon, so I was worried about getting caught, but luckily my path led me on the outskirts of the storm cloud, which eventually headed north and missed our town entirely.

The next day, I dressed up in my deel and went to school. I was pre-informed by other volunteers that nothing is accomplished the first day of school as there is a large opening ceremony. The ceremony consisted of speeches from the director and officials in the town with dances, songs, and musical performances by students and teachers interspersed. No classes were held that day as the teachers drank airag, ate aaruul (dried curds), and had a teachers’ meeting. Throughout the day, I was told that I look like a Barbie doll, and my hair was constantly being commented on or touched. I was introduced at the teachers’ meeting by one of the English teachers and had to answer questions about my life in the US. Although the day didn’t last long (I was home by 1 pm), I was definitely tuckered out. Cultural immersion is tiring!

Week 4:

This was my first full week of school. The very first evening, I played volleyball with the teachers for 2 hours! Throughout the week, I also met all the English teachers, and we had a meeting with my supervisor (the school social worker), and the director. The meeting turned out to be very productive as my clubs were decided upon. I will be running 5 clubs (one with each counterpart): girls’ health and life skills, professionalism, big brothers/big sisters, hiking, and piano. The hiking club will include the gym teacher and my supervisor, piano club will include an English teacher and the music teacher, and the other three clubs will have the remaining three English teachers assigned to them.

Two days later, the piano club had auditions. I was taken to the music room, unsure of my purpose, and was told to pick the students. The music teacher then left since he apparently had class… I got through three students before someone forgot her piece. After that, none of the students remembered their pieces, Eventually the music teacher came back and chose the students based on their ability to play back a rhythm. We have 8 students who will participate, broken into two sessions of 4 students each. Although the process was confusing, it was nice to feel like my work was truly starting.

That weekend, we went out into the countryside for a day. We drove for half an hour on a paved road, and one hour on the dirt road. We passed through a herd of horses lying in the grass who only raised their heads as our car passed right next to them. The next herd we passed was slightly more spirited, and the little foals ran by, bucking in excitement due to the car and the crisp air. However, reaching the ger camp proved difficult; we got lost, which was quite amusing. Imagine driving around across the steppe, being able to see in all directions as the land is entirely flat except for the mountains surrounding the valley, and then weaving back and forth to see if maybe another road will be more fruitful. Luckily, we finally arrived. Right away we were ushered into a ger for airag and snacks, before being led to a second ger for milk tea and aaruul. I definitely had my fill of Mongolian food. For breakfast, the teachers made cow intestine soup. My supervisor went around telling each teacher individually and made an announcement that I was not allowed to eat the cow intestine soup. Apparently, my host parents had both informed her of my food poisoning from cow stomach soup, so I was now forbidden from eating it. This was okay by me, as my substitute meal was bread with salami, cucumbers, tomatoes, and some fruits.

As the day went on, we ate khorkhog and boodog (these were described in an earlier post with my host family), played volleyball, sang songs, and had a relay race. I was given the apple-eating station. Now, I can eat quickly if I’m eating chips, but I like to savor apples and other fruits. This lead to some difficulty as I decided to not swallow in an effort to eat more quickly (don’t judge me, I was under pressure!). Another teacher ended up finishing the apple for me, so I was definitely my team’s weakest link. Afterwards, we had a dance party, which mostly consisted of the younger students. However, luckily for me, I got to have the real dance party experience at the end of the night. We all piled into the cars, turned on the cars, and then all got back out as it was spontaneously decided that we should quickly have a 10-minute dance party (cough cough 45-minute cough cough). All the teachers danced in a circle for the modern music, and when it was time to waltz, the lights were turned back on, and people started pairing up. I danced with a female teacher I’d met that day, the music teacher, a history teacher, and the school director. It was a long day (I arrived back home after 11:30 pm) but a great bonding experience.

The next day, I went with Valerie and another volunteer to the countryside. We’d been invited to a picnic by the well-connected woman. She currently has an American staying with her, who also came on the trip, along with the woman’s youngest daughter and her husband. It took an hour to reach the camp on dirt roads, but we got to see trees finally! We had lunch by the river and relaxed before the other two PCVs and I decided to go on a hike. We crossed the river four times and saw a plethora of animals: goats, sheep, horses, cows, and yaks. In one weekend, I had seen more of the countryside than in my entire three months in Mongolia. This country truly is beautiful, and the people are wonderfully friendly!

Week 5:

Monday started off with my supervisor telling me with which classes I would be working. This meant that throughout the week I was going to these classes to observe how the teachers were running their life skills homerooms. Some teachers continued on with their class, only stopping to introduce me or ask how it went at the end, while others had me fully participate. I watched a 7th grade class on dreams 20 years from now and the steps that will be taken this year to help them move forward on this path. I sat there innocently assuming I would just watch, but the teacher came over, handed me a paper, and so I wrote my 20-year plan (apparently in 15 years my only goal is job advancement). I ended up having to share my goals in front of the class. The teacher and I went over my goals in a mix of English and Mongolian and hand signals before I shared since I finished the assignment much more quickly than the students. Then, I slowly shared in English so the students could try to understand, after which the teacher explained my goals in Mongolian. In each class I watched, the students were very excited to see me. The ways they demonstrated their excitement were all over the board. The 5th graders gasped in awe, 7th grade tried to ask questions right away, 8th grade made me introduce myself in English the first minute by saying “say it in English, we speak very well”, one 9th grade class stared at me throughout the class and then made me introduce myself in Mongolian at the end of the period, while the other 9th grade class crowded me, brought me a chair, sat me down, and promptly started throwing questions my way. Their excitement was a welcome change of pace and really helped me throw myself into work.

I also started with the piano club. The students showed up Tuesday morning, but the music teacher did not… I ended up teaching them fingering for scales and the D and G major scales. However, the session on Friday with two different students ended up with everyone besides me being a no-show. It was okay though because the students from the Tuesday session had seemed more interested and motivated during the auditions, so I knew I’d be okay (as long as they kept showing up to the club…).

I left Friday afternoon to go see Kharkhorin, the old capital of Mongolia. I met up with the two volunteers who live there, went to a concert in honor of one school’s 60th anniversary, and visited the monastery. This trip was my first solo attempt at traveling. I ended up taking a meeker there and back (12,000 MNT per one trip). On the bus, I chatted with a mother whose twins attend my school. The entire meeker-full of people kept saying how I was fluent in Mongolian (a far cry from the truth, but I’ve had enough practice with the usual questions), so the conversation was quite validating; I was able to communicate, and not just when buying vegetables!

Week 6:

So far, this week has included fewer classes, but a lot of independent lesson planning. Monday night, I went out to karaoke with the music teacher! The next morning, I had the piano club, and this time the music teacher did show up (YAY!). Only three students came, but they seem extremely interested, so hopefully they continue coming. I also met with one counterpart (CP) to discuss the Professionalism Club and create a weekly plan! Today, some schools across the country held a strike which consisted of teachers arriving at school but not teaching. As PCVs, we were informed that we should still go to school and work on lesson plans unless we were told by our supervisors not to show up, at which point we should work from home. However, my teachers did not participate. I have been told that there will be a protest in October or November in which they are planning to participate. For now, though, the teachers are working hard and preparing for Teachers’ Day. This is a day when the senior students teach classes in place of the teachers who have a sports competition.

Yesterday, the teachers had a teachers’ meeting during which they were informed of a survey I’d like them to take regarding teaching health classes and a survey they should give their students about their students’ knowledge. They were also split into groups for the sports competition. Apparently, I was assigned to a group as well; I have yet to find out which group it is. Tomorrow, we have a piano club session (who knows if students will come) and volleyball in the evening. I will also be teaching a lesson on dental health for parents of children participating in Special Olympics that will be held in my town this weekend! On Saturday, the Country Director is coming for lunch with all the PCVs in my aimag and watching Special Olympics. Afterwards, my main CP wants to show me a trade market and has invited me for dinner at her home! The integration is becoming more pronounced and a part of everyday life. I’m ready for a finalized schedule so I can start teaching classes. This will supposedly start in October (just 10 days away!)!

My New Home Part 2: Arriving at Site

With an 8-hour trip looming ahead, I had ample time for a lot of people watching. Basically, the bus ride demonstrated the communal culture within Mongolia. At the beginning of the trip, the bus riders did not particularly talk. It seemed it was an “each person for himself” setting. It was like a guessing game, wondering what each person would bring on the bus. I saw: 4 dozen eggs, a toddler’s bike, and khuushuur to name a few. As the trip progressed, children began walking up and down the aisles, and adults were conversing. A 5-year-old boy in front of me began playing peek-a-boo with me, while a 2-year-old behind me came up on his bike and excitedly stared at me. Upon reaching the halfway point for a restroom/eating break, everyone dispersed. The 5-year-old boy’s grandmother left him in the care of my supervisor, whom she had just met on the bus 4 hours earlier. At the stop, I met two students who attended my school. One of them had graduated the year before and was also on my bus. The rest of the trip, I sat next to him and had long philosophical discussions about why Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez broke up (my insight: they were too young to have a relationship in the spotlight. Brilliant, isn’t it?). We listened to the Justin Bieber songs he had saved on his phone and only stopped when the music videos on the bus switched from traditional Mongolian music to a Rihanna song. Once the song was over though, we were back to the Biebster. The second half of the trip felt a bit longer than the first. Take a gander why…

Anyway, we eventually reached my aimag center where my supervisor’s sister was waiting to pick us up. We drove to their mother’s house; she had prepared tsuivan for me, as my supervisor had asked what my favorite Mongolian meal is: tsuivan. Then it was time to go to my apartment!

My apartment turned out to be very big. It’s on the first floor, about a two-minute walk from my school. My friend, Valerie (Valerie’s Blog), lives on the third floor. Her apartment is a very different set-up. Luckily, she has an oven, and I have a fridge, so we have everything we need. I am fortunate because my apartment has hot water, a microwave, a queen-sized bed, and a semi-automatic washing machine!

I slept extremely well after having arrived so late that night. My supervisor let me sleep in before taking me to the market. Since my school and Valerie’s are so close, our supervisors have taken us to do a lot of activities together. We checked out the market the first day and also went to local immigration and housing to register in the aimag center. So far, we have mainly bought cheese and supplies for our apartments, like cups, plates, and pots and pans. The apartments are relatively bare, but they are starting to feel cozier! For example, a drying rack and shower curtain are now present in my apartment! I’ve even been able to cook! This is especially impressive considering I had only cooked five times in my life before coming to Mongolia. My first meal here was over-salted pasta. I’d read online that you could never add too much salt when making pasta, so obviously I proceeded to add too much salt. However, my second meal, chicken, green beans, and mashed potatoes turned out extremely well! See for yourself… or as much as a picture can demonstrate deliciousness.

Valerie and I have hung out a lot. The first night we made pizza from scratch. It turned out alright…

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Valerie made a great point in our group message with the other PCVs from our training site. She said that she thinks we are having a uniquely different experience being able to live so close to one another. The feeling of impending solidarity hasn’t hit us yet. Not only do we have each other, we also have two site-mates in the aimag center, one of whom was a Resource Volunteer for another training site this summer. We have gone on two hikes so far: one with our site-mates and one with the few Mongolians we know. These included Valerie’s supervisor and counterpart (my supervisor was busy painting the new house her family had built two days before) and two neighbor girls who like to explore the aimag center with me.

It’s surprising how quickly you can start to feel integrated in a new place. The two neighbor girls are eager to show me around. They have taken me to the amusement park twice. The first time they wanted to pay for me since I forgot money, which I didn’t allow, so we went back the next day. We rode the Dragon Twin ride together; however, they left me to ride the merry-go-round by myself as they watched from the sidelines… no worries, I enjoyed it though (always love horseback riding, no matter if the horse is real). We also went to the local garden and some nearby stores. During the walk to the garden with the two girls, I ran into my supervisor’s sister leaving the bank! Earlier that day, I had seen the 5-year-old boy from the bus and his grandmother at a дэлгүүр (delguur – small shop). It’s crazy how small the aimag center is starting to feel. Yesterday evening, one of the girls held an origami lesson for the two of us at my apartment, and I have already made friends with a sweet lady who sells vegetables at one of the stands at the market! Furthermore, when I mentioned that Peace Corps recommends apartments getting new locks as a safety measure, two school workers came and immediately switched the lock (it probably helps that my landlord used to be the school director). However, the next day, my key wasn’t working. I called one of the English teachers from my school to inform her, as well as talked to one of the neighbor girls. I went from being alone in the hallway to having 8 Mongolians show up: the neighbor girl, a random boy from the apartment building, the school worker, my supervisor, the English teacher, and the English teacher’s husband and two children.  The lock was quickly fixed. My school and aimag center are already so welcoming. I can’t wait to see what the year brings! By the way… I’m now officially a Peace Corps Volunteer, forgot to mention that!