With the end of Pre-Service Training (PST) coming up, the last couple weeks have been hectic. My host parents left for a week to visit family in Khovsgol, so I stayed with my two host nephews and my host brother. Peace Corps had instructed my family to teach me how to make a fire and to chop wood so that I would be prepared for ger life. Luckily, my host brother took on the challenge. Aав had already taught me how to make a fire, but the prospect of attempting to chop wood was daunting. My host brother easily picked up the ax, swung with impeccable precision, and chopped the wood straight in half. He then handed me the ax with an expectant look. Having never chopped wood before, I struggled trying to figure out how to hold the ax. Eventually, my host brother showed me one method. I swung the ax… and the piece of wood promptly fell off the chopping block, my ax not having even made a dent. What followed was a series of different techniques for holding the ax, methods of garnering enough momentum to pierce the wood, and a chorus of giggles at each failed attempt from my host nephews. Eventually, I was able to get the ax stuck in the wood. This meant I was on the right track. After a couple more swings, I finally chopped the wood in half! My host brother then eagerly kept placing wood to be chopped since I was now in the swing of things. At the end, when it was clear I finally understood a technique that worked for me, all three of my onlookers shouted бaря хүргэe (congratulations!) and clapped loudly. It was quite the accomplishment.
Later that week, with my host parents still MIA, we all went to the river. The scenery was beautiful: a lush river with a ger on the bank surrounded by mountains all around. However, the only aspect that dampened the view, was the trash. All across the ground in various clumps were piles of trash. Considering this was a camp ground and the overall lack of responsibility by most Mongolians regarding trash on the ground, it was not very surprising, but was still quite disheartening.
Throughout my time here, I have been constantly saddened by the treatment of the environment. While there seems to be a great respect for nature and animals, there is a disconnect when it comes to trash. Children know not to throw candy wrappers on the floor in the house, yet as soon as they walk outside, they release the wrappers, which either fall sadly to the ground or are taken away by the wind, most likely ending up on the ground or in a river somewhere. Occasionally, entire trash bags or plastic bags from stores are left on the streets, only to be eaten by unsuspecting cows. The smell of burning plastic is a constant in the smaller baghs (towns surrounding aimag centers) as trash pickup is not frequent or even nonexistent. As I would walk from my home to the mountain, I would take a deep breath of fresh air, only to start coughing as I breathed in the burning plastic. The remains of these burned piles of trash can be seen in yards, on mountains, and along riverbanks. This is not to say that Mongolians do not care about the environment, but rather the means of making trash collection simple, which would increase the probability of healthy trash disposal, are not common in Mongolia. In fact, many of the Mongolians whom I have met, are eager to help clean up the environment. In preparation for Нaадaм (Naadam – the three-day summer festival involving archery, wrestling, and horse racing that I mentioned in an earlier post), the entire bagh was painted and rid of all trash. Volunteers went around to the river bank the weekend before and the park two days before the event began, in an effort to beautify the bagh. The other Trainees and I also went with a group of local children the day before the festival to clean up the river banks again. All the children were excited!
This group of children had been the group we taught for all our practice teachings. To thank them for attending these, we planned a three-day camp focused on life skills and games. The fourth day consisted of volunteering at the river, an activity chosen by the campers! Throughout the three days, we focused on values, decision-making, and volunteerism. There were also many creative activities during the camp. We had been told that in schools, Mongolian children are typically told what to do and not given the opportunity for critical thinking and creativity. Obviously, this is not always the case, but from our Mongolian trainers, this was common method of teaching in Mongolia. As a result, we Trainees decided to incorporate creative and critical thinking activities. We played the “Human Knot” game (pretty common in the US), made dough figures which were painted the next day, and taught the children what a relay race is by holding a water relay (my team won!)! The camp was a success and a great opportunity to get to know all the children on a deeper level than in class. By the end, we were so familiar with the kids that during Нaадaм when we saw many of the children at the stadium or the nightly concerts, we always stopped to talk!
Now onto Нaадaм. The entire summer, we had heard about Нaадaм as the climax of the summer. All the other training sites had already had their local Нaадaмs, but our site had moved Нaадaм later to have it coincide with the soum’s 80th year anniversary of foundation. In preparation, we all bought дээлs (deels – traditional Mongolian outfits) to wear. My host father unfortunately was not a huge fan of Нaадaм, so my family did not attend. Luckily, they had invited their PCV from last year to visit. I was able to go with him to Нaадaм and saw many of the Trainees from the other training sites in our region, as this was a huge event. We watched the wrestling, the end of the horse racing, and the beginning of the archery competition; some Trainees even tried нум cум (noum soum – bow and arrow). The main attraction though for the Americans, was the appearance of new delicious foods: Mongolia’s version of hamburgers, real ice cream, iced fruit drinks, etc. We also walked around to various stalls. This is where I bought my cool new hat for about half the price it typically is in the soum. Overall, Нaадaм was a great cultural experience with new American friends from the summer!
After the excitement of Нaадaм was over, it was basically a straight-shoot to the end of PST. There were some ups and downs. A couple downs: I tried to get my hair cut in layers (layers are an entirely foreign concept in Mongolia) so my hair looks like it has two different lengths, my host nephews left, and I got sick for the first time (this included diarrhea, vomiting, and fainting). Luckily, I survived both ordeals. A couple ups: completion of the Language Proficiency Interview (LPI – a conversation testing at what language level we are in which TEFL Trainees are expected to reach Novice High and Health Trainees are expected to reach Intermediate Low, which I met woot woot!), making a shagal (traditional Mongolian ankle bones game… I thought the pieces were bought and didn’t realize that each family makes their own by breaking of parts of the sheep or goat’s leg bone and eventually flicking off the ankle bone; my host parents were extremely proud of me for completing this process), and Host Family Appreciation Day. We held a lunch for our families. The Trainees made tacos; there were some spices in the taco meat which we hardly tasted, but our family members, used to relatively simply spiced foods, thought the meat was almost too hot and spicy. Some other Trainees’ parents could not eat the meat as a result, but my parents were strong and braved the spices!
Last night, my host parents and I went to a new mountain and had a photo shoot as our last special evening. We watched the sunset and then played pool at my host father’s work.
This morning, the other Trainees at my site and I woke up to watch the sun rise. Of course, Ask came with us for one last hurrah! The sunrise was beautiful; although we should have listened to one of the host fathers about from which mountain to watch the sunrise, but the experience was a nice way to end PST.
I’ve just finished packing all my belongings extremely heinously into my various suitcases. I’m sure my clothes will be wrinkled when I get to Final Center Day with all the other Trainees and Peace Corps Staff. Tomorrow we leave our training site to go to a larger city where we will find out our permanent sites, and two days later we will meet our supervisors for the first time! The start of actual service is about to begin!