Travel Journal Travisâ€™s Peace Corps Adventure in Mongolia Pre-Service Training : Summer 2008
Introduction About This Journal While in Mongolia with the Peace Corps over the next 27 months, a lot of things will remain uncertain including weather conditions, regular electricity, and internet access. With that in mind, I have decided to record my thoughts on my computer and in my paper journals as regularly as possible and then upload those entries as posts to my blog when I can. So although it may seem like I haven’t written in a while based on the posts to my blog or the updates to this journal know that I am still writing and it’s only a matter of time before I get to the internet to upload all of my entries, pictures and videos.
About The Author As mentioned above, I am currently serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mongolia from May 2008 to August 2010. Specifically I am a Health Extension Volunteer working to improve the quality of life of the Mongolian people through sustainable health infrastructure-related projects aimed at general health education, health practices and community level capacity building. Outside of my primary project area of Health, I am also planning to be involved in secondary projects such as English Education and Community Development; these could be personal projects that I work on with community members, or joint projects that I work on with other Peace Corps Volunteers. When I receive my site placement and detailed job description in August of this year, I will share a lot more information about those things. Personally I am very excited to be a Peace Corps Volunteer and I feel honored to be serving in Mongolia. I think our organization oﬀers a valuable addition to the great common cause of world development and I firmly believe in the Peace Corps Mission as stated by John F. Kennedy in the Peace Corps Act of 1961: 1.
To help the people of interested countries in meeting their needs for trained men and women;
2. To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served; 3. To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of all Americans. I look forward to sharing my experiences with all of you (the third goal) as I live with my host family and eventually serve the Mongolian people as a Health Volunteer (the first and second goal). Thank you all for your love and support!
Staging San Francisco, California Friday, May 30th & Saturday, May 31st Our staging event was incredible; the people have been amazing, hilarious and very high quality across the board. We spent a lot of time together in training sessions with flip charts, getting to know one another and also running around San Francisco, which was a lot more beautiful than I had anticipated. All around the hotel there were tons of great places to eat and we were given plenty of money to do it with, about $160 for the weekend. Of that I still have about $100 I think. Saturday night in particular a group of seven of us walked a couple of miles from the hotel to see the Golden Gate Bridge at sunset and also find a nice place to eat. My pictures didn’t capture how beautiful and wonderful it really was, but they do share a little bit of the incredible view. We ate our last meal at Mel’s Diner, from American Graﬃti fame, which for me was a large cheeseburger, fries and a vanilla milkshake with peanut butter cups. It was a great last meal. I feel like I have known these Volunteers for years, but it’s only been two days.
Orientation Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia Sunday, June 1st & Monday, June 2nd Our traveling day(s) included a 13 hour flight from San Francisco to Seoul, Korea and then a 3 hours flight from Seoul to Ulaanbaatar (pronounced oo-lon-botAR), the capital of Mongolia. We left San Francisco on a beautiful Sunday morning, flew out around 1:00pm and then arrived on the other side of the international dateline at 11:00pm in Mongolia. There we were greeted by dozens of current Volunteers at the Chinggis Khaan International Airport, who we all talked and laughed with for about half an hour before leaving for our ger camp. The ger camp was awesome. We we walked into our gers they were filled with fruits, crackers and water for us to enjoy, and also included a warm fire burning in the central wood stove which kept the inside of the ger around 70 degrees while outside it was close to 50 degrees. We all relaxed together and repacked our bags so that we could leave a winter bag at the Peace Corps headquarters later the next day, which would remain at headquarters for the duration of our 3 month training. I am feeling very optimistic and comfortable about this entire experience. The people around me are incredible and there has been a lot to take in, but I am already starting to feel the welcoming spirit of the Mongolian people and the majesty of the landscape and culture of Mongolia itself. Where else can you get out of the airport and see two security guards chasing a horse as it runs through the airport parking lot?
Ulaanbaatar t0 Darkhan Tuesday, June 3rd The morning started with an incredible view of the mountains right outside our ger camp. One hundred yards away there were several horses gathered together grazing under a beautiful blue sky and soft white clouds. That was the first thing I noticed, but then I realized there were no fences anywhere, for miles and miles the horses were free to roam as they pleased. This was a new concept to me, but as the day went on and I saw hundreds and thousands of sheep, goats, cattle and horses running around the countryside I came to understand that this was not a new concept to Mongolians at all. The idea of owning land is a new one in Mongolia, people are able to come and go as they please, just like the animals. If they like a certain area one season and then decide to move on the next season, they donâ€™t have to get permission or buy anything, they just pack up their entire home which takes about an hour and then they move wherever they want to. After a breakfast of bread and jelly, fruits, pastries and orange juice we all met together in a great ger able to fit one hundred people. Our Country Director Jim and several other staďŹ€ members introduced themselves to us and summed up our activities over the coming days. We would be traveling from Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, to Darkhan which is the second largest city in the country. Keep in mind that Ulaanbaatar has 1 million people and Darkhan has 70,000. Quite a diďŹ€erence between the largest and second largest city in the country huh?
For lunch, all of us were able to meet with a very important friend of the Peace Corps, Mark, our United States Ambassador to Mongolia. He spoke to us while we ate some incredible soup, a variety of meat-filled pastries, dumplings and other hot pocket-like creations, as well as some fruit juice which I can’t identify but was good. Jonathan will appreciate that I did say “hot pocket” like Jim Gaﬃgan does and several people knew exactly what I was doing. Mark has been in Mongolia for a year now as Ambassador, having worked in Japan and Korea in the past as a career Foreign Service oﬃcer. The rank of Ambassador, I have heard from other Foreign Service oﬃcers, is the equivalent of a General in the Armed Forces so that gives you an idea of his role and importance in the embassy. From what I understand it is not uncommon for the Ambassador to visit with Volunteers in the field or invite them into his home on occasion as well. I look forward to working with him in the future and really enjoyed his talk. Most notable to me he said that he felt, “the Peace Corps is the most important we do in Mongolia. It shows the true face of America in a way that not other organization can and coming to welcome you to the country is one of the highlights of my years.” The current Peace Corps Volunteers shared a similar sentiment with us as we met with them that night in Darkhan. Following lunch we packed up our things, separating our winter items to be left in Peace Corps headquarters during our three months of training, and boarded our buses for the three-hour ride north to Darkhan (pronounced Dar-han). The view on the ride was spectacular, including the incredible tendency of the horses, cattle, goats and sheep to run across the road causing our buses to swerve this way and that. The mountains were astounding, far beyond the ability of my camera to pick up, and the simple beautiful of the country kept my eyes fixed on the window to my side almost the whole ride. When we arrived at the Darkhan the current Mongolian Volunteers were there again to greet us and take us out to dinner. I ate with Brody, Mike and Philip, all of whom were awesome, and asked Philip about 100 questions about Mongolia, politics, health, the Mongolian people and more. I have a lot to reflect on, including the state of the countr y’s infrastructure fol lowing the mo ve f rom a communist state to a democratic one, but I have a feeling that is going to be a common theme throughout my two years here.
Darkhan Wednesday, June 4th to Friday, June 6th Things have been incredible since arriving in Darkhan. Are we seeing a recurring theme of incredible things? We were able to enjoy a wonderful presentation by our local Mongolian f r i e n d s a n d co l l e a g u e s , including traditional Mongolian music, singing, dancing and even theatrical performance. We were also given a traditional blue Mo n g o l i a n c l o t h c a l l e d a “hatuck” which is a symbol of well-wishes and good luck for safe travels. It is a beautiful gift, embroidered with Mongolian symbols, Buddhist symbols and wonderful designs. It definitely holds a special place in the short list of items I have with me here in Mongolia. That and the throat singing that I was able to listen to, which I must say made me feel like I was sitting in a Tibetan monastery. That was incredible. Culture It is a bit overwhelming for us, as guests in the city of Darkhan, to understand the complex history and design of the government, environment and culture that surrounds us here. For some it is depressing, for others interesting, and still yet for others it is a beautiful place. To be fair, I think all exist and are in many ways just a matter of perspective. Take for instance, like I have mentioned before, graffiti. Adorning apartment buildings it could be interpreted as hooliganism, vandalism, a sign of anarchy and discontent and it can be interpreted as expressionism, a search for identity, a sign of freedom of speech and confidence. Also keep in mind that a lot of the graﬃti is written in English such as “New Kids on the Block” and “Backstreet Boys.” Oﬃcially I do not encourage graﬃti, but I do encourage freedom of speech and personal expression. Is there a common ground?
People So far the people I have met in Mongolia are very welcoming, just like the reputation that they have created for themselves. I see dozens of smiles when I walk down the streets and plenty of welcoming “Sainnu’s” and “Sain bainnu?’s” which equate to “Hi, hello,” and “How are you?” I also see dozens and dozens of children playing together in the parks, with volley balls, soccer balls and footballs. Family and friends are very important here, maybe even more so because televisions, computers and more high falooting tools of entertainment are not readily available. That is certainly one of the things I enjoyed most about Costa Rica when I was able to spend time studying abroad with my host family for two months. Technology was available but took a backseat to interactions with other people. They would rather play outside or sit in the living room and talk than watch television or seek fulfillment outside their family and friends. They made their own fun and were the better for it physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. I think there is a lot of wisdom in investing within the people around you, sharing your time and energy with others, and using your own creativity and excitement to make realities out of opportunities. These opportunities could be one more smile on a child’s face or a new soccer field in your neighborhood. I will have no lack of such opportunities here in Mongolia, I know this. The more I listen, the more I seek to understand the Mongolian people, and the more I become part of their lives and they become a part of mine the quicker I will see such opportunities right in front of me.
Buddhism I am absolutely fascinated by Buddhism. This is not news to a lot of people, but maybe to some it is. I am thrilled to say that I have found several like-minded people in my Peace Corps group here: one who traveled through Tibet, two who wear wedding rings from Tibet, one who built a $1.5 million meditation retreat center, one philosophy major who wants to go onto graduate studies in far east studies, another who has been studying in California temples for years, and on and on. I am also thrilled to say that I have visited a giant statue of Buddha already and I’ve only been in country for four days! I hope to not only see much more while I am here, but also experience Buddhism in Mongolia firsthand whether in monasteries, in conversations with monks and lamas, or in question and answer sessions with my host family and friends regarding their personal thoughts or experiences. I have a lot to learn and I have a feeling that might just be one of the most important things I ever do.
Host Family Tomorrow morning we will be leaving Darkhan for Sukhbaatar to live with our host families for the next eleven weeks. As far as the language goes, we haven’t learn more than basic survival phrases, but I think those will get us through the next few days with our families. What I know about my family so far is that my dad is a repairman, my mom is a chef, my brother is 19 and in school in the capital and my sister is in 7th grade. It seems like they matched me up with a family similar to my own. We’ll see what that’s like! I might need to ask Eli for advice about how to talk with 7th grade girls.
Pre-Service Training Sukhbaatar, Mongolia As we packed up our things early in the morning, we said our ‘goodbye’s not only to our trainers and the Volunteers who visited us, but also to our fellow M19 Volunteers who were leaving for other communities for the next three months. Pre-Service Training (PST) is period before a Volunteer’s two years of service dedicated to language acquisition and job training. For that reason we live with other Volunteers who are in our job field (Health, Business, Youth, or TEFL). Our “meeker” (microbus) ride was gorgeous and we even got to stop by an Oboo (pronounced Ohvo) which is a place of oﬀerings to wish for safe travels. It is traditional to walk around the center of the oﬀerings clockwise three times, given something (even a pebble) each time you circle it. Many Mongolian travels had left the same blue cloths that we were given when we arrived in Darkhan. When we arrived in our host community we were each met by a member of our family, who then took us to our individual houses. My mom Otгoh (pronounced Ot-gon) welcomed me with candies, cookies, Sprite and milk tea when I arrived at the house and also introduced me to her sister-in-law who was visiting. For a couple of hours, until about five or six, we all talked together by using the few words I knew and flipping back and forth through our dictionaries and phrase books. Sign language was also very handy. After unpacking my things and getting my room situated, I retired pretty early. The sun goes down around 10:30 here, but I think I was sacked out sometime around 9.
Saturday, June 7th – Sunday, June 8th ($om paper journal) I’ve been waiting to write in this journal from Taylor until I really felt like it was the right moment and I think this is it. I am in my room with my host family who will be looking after me for the next three months. I was greeted yesterday afternoon by my host mom (or “ech” the Mongolian word for mom) who took me and all my luggage to our home. When we arrived we had tons of food, from cookies and Sprite to bread and “boats” which are chopped pieces of meat covered in a boiled flour casing. I wasn’t really hungry, which I think I accidentally conveyed as feeling sick, but I really enjoyed all of it very much. During the meal and afterward I talked with my host mom and her sister or “iktsch” for a couple of hours. This consisted in large part of us all going back and forth between dictionaries, family photos and sign language but I think I quadrupled my vocabulary in Mongolian, “Mongol hil.” After unpacking my things and making myself a little nest, I plugged in the $350 water distiller that Peace Corps gave us and laid down for a little rest...that lasted until morning. When I got up, I felt great. I was able to meet my host family’s son “hoo” and drink some milk tea as we introduced ourselves. He is 19 and a carpenter who works in and out of the city where he goes to college. His sister is in the 7th grade and she is out in the countryside with her aunt for the summer, but she will be back for the summer celebrations that start at the beginning of July. My host father is a watchman, “jujur” though I’m not sure where, so he works at night and I have yet to see him. My mom and I planted potatoes in the morning, rested in the afternoon, visited Erica (a fellow Volunteer) and her family in the evening and then played a couple traditional Mongolian games with “ankle-bones,” one that was like marbles, another like a horse race, and another like jacks. They were a lot of fun and my mom beat me mercilessly. The “ankle-bones” that you play with are also definitely real bones, which is pretty crazy. Today was also the first day I used the outhouse and I laughed when I realized that the holes in the outhouse that everyone has been talking about aren’t in a bench or on a seat, they are in the floor. My Boy Scout training of how to crap in the woods was priceless.
I just used a Mongolian outhouse yo, high fives all around!
Monday, June 9th – Sunday, June 15th (Week 2) My second week in Mongolia, and first week with my host family, has been full of new experiences. Our language classes have dominated the mornings, doing a number on the gray matter that we call our brains, but because of our hard work I think our incremental improvements have become exponential leaps in language comprehension. A week ago I knew a couple words, but now I am speaking in sentences. It’s really pretty crazy, but I can read Cyrillic now and get through my basic introductions, salutations, likes and dislikes and even a little past tense action. They work us hard and there is no English going on, but immersion works well. Maybe some of these entries will be in Cyrillic soon, who knows?
Hip Hop My family had me rolling laughing Tuesday night when they hooked up the stereo to a VCD player and busted out some crazy English pop and hip hop music. Britney Spears, Nelly Furtado, and Fergie had me smiling (and swaying a little bit admittedly) but then Timbaland really got me with Apologize. It probably doesn’t seem like a huge deal, but keep in mind that I have heard no English words while I have been in my house here, only Mongolian words one after another. I thought they were just rocking out, but then I figured out that they were playing it for me. They asked me if I wanted to take the music to my room, but I laughed and smiled saying I would just stay in the living room to listen to it. I think a couple of hours went by before I noticed and needless to say, I burned all the music onto my laptop and now I am listening to it again.
The Facebook Effect After talking to a couple of fellow Volunteers, I found out that several of the Volunteers here in Mongolia were eagerly anticipating my arrival in Mongolia thanks to the wonders of Facebook and our online M19 group, my video on YouTube and my overall presence on the internet. They appreciated my proactiveness, my excitement and my extrovertedness, so I heard. Since arriving in Mongolia I think some of those anticipations have been dashed against the wall that is the introvertness and calmness of my oﬄine personality. I am very excited to be here, don’t get me wrong, but as those of you know who know me well can attest, I am not one to jump oﬀ walls or yell out loud when I feel happy. I am proactive, but generally in a quiet way and I am also extroverted to some extend but more in a one-on-one, public speaking and adventure-planning sort of way. I love meeting everyone in a group, but usually one by one and I also laugh loud and often, but not when first meet someone. I talked with Erica about this today and she said what I was thinking myself, Facebook-based expectations of people don’t usually match up with who a person really is. This isn’t really a good thing or a bad thing, it’s just something to take note of. A YouTube video of me in my house with my sister is really me, just like my Facebook profile is really me, but the quieter, more contemplative side of me definitely comes out in a place like Mongolia where everything requires my careful attention and thought. Before getting to Mongolia one of the things Mark (an M15) told me was to be myself. I have tried to do that and I think it has helped me really enjoy my time here, even though I am a complicated creature, facebook eﬀect or not. 11
Friends and Family My host family loves looking at pictures on my iPod Touch and in fact they are getting really good at it! I was nervous at first thinking that it might come across as a high luxury that separated me from them, but that doesn’t seem to be the case at all. They see it as a way to see pictures of my family, my home, my friends and things that I love and they regularly zoom in on pictures of my brother, sister, mom and dad and say how similar we all look; they especially like my sister and mom (you reading that Anna and Mom?). In fact, they are becoming such pros at it now that I have changed things around on the Touch so that it has over 500 of my favorite pictures now. I am working my way through all of my thousands of photos, but I figure that is enough to keep them busy for now. One thing I think I should note here is that, as I would looking through all of my photos from years and years back, I became acutely aware of how fortunate I have been to have an incredible family, wonderful friends, and dozens of unforgettable adventures. I didn’t start crying (not yet anyway) as I traveled back in time flipping through pictures, but I definitely relived those experiences and felt very emotional and thankful. You have all been wonderful companions to me along my walk through life and I am very grateful for each of you. They say the best way to have great friends is to be a great friend, but I don’t know what I could have ever done to have attracted so many incredible people into my life. I feel very lucky and I love you all very much.
Gardening One of the big things in our community is gardening. On our family’s land about 80% is devoted to fruits, vegetables and flowers (including cucumbers, potatoes, onions, water melons, and carrots) and 20% is devoted to the house itself. This not only makes for very tasty dinners but also a big appetite to go with them. I have only been here for a week, but I would say I have already worked outside in the garden at least 20 hours. Taking into account that I only have about 4 hours free per weekday, I think that is pretty impressive. Also the work is totally voluntary, I was never asked to help and am allowed to do whatever I want when I do help. So far this has included aerating the soil by digging a foot down and then turning over the dirt and sand, raking through the soil to even it out, creating bordered areas with a hoe to hold in water so that the crops can soak it in, planting seeds and small plants to grow, and then watering them either by bucket or by hose (when we have the convenience of the small pump that pulls water from the well...which I think we are only borrowing at the moment). Sorry I didn’t share these skills with you and the rows of corn while I was still at home dad, but when I get back I’ll be sure to bestow my border-making skills upon you, don’t worry.
Not A Missionary I have been thinking for a long time about what separates Peace Corps from missionary work, since a lot of people have asked me if I was going on a “missions trip” over the last year and I have clarified “No, I’m going into the Peace Corps.” In my mind there are many commonalities and diﬀerences, but two particularly big ones. One of the biggest commonalities between the Peace Corps and missionary work is that both can help people in a sustainable way, gauging their eﬃcacy and value by how many people are living better lives once they as an organization are gone. Sustainability, as I am using it here, means something that will continue to work and be helpful indefinitely; as the saying goes give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime. That is sustainability. In my opinion, any organization that operates in this way for the great common cause of world development deserves my respect. That being said, one of the diﬀerences I have noticed between the Peace Corps and missionary work is that missionaries often seek to increase the number of people who believe and profess what they do. In many cases this even trumps the sustainable work they may or may not do to help people live better lives. Conversely, the Peace Corps is not interested in making anyone believe or profess anything. When a country requests Peace Corps Volunteers, they enter the host community, learn and respect its language and culture, listen to the community about what it feels its needs are and then help the community members to aﬀect change themselves.
Sports My host sister just came in this weekend from her aunt’s place in the “hoodo” or countryside, I think because she missed being home, and we have been playing games non-stop! Frisbee, soccer, football, volleyball, Spongebob Uno, poker, hearts, ankle-bones, horse-race, tic-tac-toe, and the game Anna taught me where you connect dots to make squares and if you make a square you write your initial in it, we have been playing it all! Not only that, but I am floored by how fast my host brother, sister, and mom can pick up on things like how to play a new game or how to throw a football or frisbee. Within a couple of minutes my host brother could throw the frisbee in three diﬀerent ways with both his right and left hand and my host sister could throw it perfectly from between her legs. I can’t wait to get them out onto the field so that we can dominate all the other kids, it’s gonna be crazy. We also played for a couple of hours with the neighborhood kids, but just in the streets beside our house until it got really dark and cold and we had to go in. We played soccer, volleyball, football, frisbee and some kind of volleyball-dodgeball mix I haven’t quite gotten a grasp on. Anyhow, soon this little team is gonna start traveling around to challenge all the other kids with our spiraling footballs, behind the back frisbee throws and mind-boggling Uno skills. Oh also, it took a while and a few drawings in the sand before I figured it out, it appears my host sister isn’t heading back to the countryside any time soon so it appears we are gonna be partying like this for a while!
Monday, June 16th – Sunday, June 22nd (Week 3) My third week in Mongolia has absolutely flown by! Between finding the internet for the first time in 12 days, going to language classes, cross cultural classes, health classes, and hanging out with my host family and fellow Volunteers, I have felt beat all week! I sleep a lot here, mostly because of time zone adjustment and intense language training, but I feel like I could probably sleep 12 hours a day and still be tired. The Volunteers I have talked to say this lasts most of the summer, so I am trying to accept it, but it is definitely hard to get used to. Apparently learning a brand new language takes a toll on you.
Tonight’s Adventure is Called French Toast without Syrup When my host mom or ээж (pronounced ‘ech’) told me this week that she would like to learn how to cook American food, I went crazy. I have definitely be craving all kinds of diﬀerent foods and with her encouragement I not only created a list of foods, but translated them into Mongolian, listed the ingredients, and drew out pictures of what they looked like. The list included hamburgers, hot dogs, pancakes, grilled cheese, salad with chicken, pizza and french toast along with their hard to translate ingredients like Bisquik, pizza dough, ground beef and syrup. So tonight, when my ээж asked me what I would like to dinner, I smiled and brought out my list. Knowing we didn’t have ground beef, hot dogs, bisquik, cheese, lettuce, chicken, pizza dough, or tomato sauce, I figured we would go after french toast. Eggs we have, bread we have and syrup...how do you say syrup in Mongolian? I translated syrup, which sounded too much like juice, then molasses and liquid sugar, but ultimately had to show a picture of a syrup bottle which I found on my computer. The answer: we don’t have that. I sat, perplexed, wondering what I could do. Remembering the time I made flan at home with my mom, I smiled at my host sister and said, “Maybe we could fry some sugar!” Why not? Plugging in the frying pan, we went to town on a couple pieces of toast dipped in eggs. All done they looked and smelled great sitting nicely on their plate ready to be covered with fried sugar. That is when the trouble began. I poured a couple spoons full of sugar into the pan and stirred it around. My family watched me as the sugar melted and turned to a yellowy liquid. Looking good, I motioned that we needed to pour it onto the pieces of toast. They just stared back at me as the yellowy liquid turned brown. I motioned again, realizing for the first time that a frying pan that plugs into a wall isn’t something you can just pick up and pour out easily. Tilting it over as the brown sugar turned black, my host father was able to pour most of it out into a nearby pot, but I was quite disappointed. Our first attempt had failed, marked not only by the rock hard black sugar in the pot but also by the plumes of smoke that now filled the room. Wondering if it was even worth a try, I eventually poured in a couple more spoons full of sugar to go for round two. hoping to pour out the liquid while still in the yellow phase. My host sister was on board with me, turning oﬀ the frying pan when the time was right and the sugar had just melted.
A success, we now had decent liquid sugar on the plate next to our french toast. It was short-lived however, as the sugar hardened almost immediately and stayed right on the plate where it been poured. Laughing, and crying on the inside, we took our pieces of toast into my room and chopped through it bit by bit. I poured some of the remaining regular sugar on top of the french toast, which helped some, but overall I have to admit that french toast just isn’t french toast without syrup. My sister and mom liked it, saying that I did a good job, but I hope I get to show them what it takes like with syrup sometime. Maybe I can find it in town...imported from a Russian Aunt Jemima or Chinese Hungry Jack.
Eyelashes Maybe every culture has some quirky physical feature that they like for no good reason, I’m not sure. What I do know is that my host sister likes my eyelashes. I know, it’s weird for me too. Starting a couple of days ago when she drew out a picture ranking everyone’s eyelashes in the house, every time she mentions it I curl over laughing. The longer and curlier the better, it appears. By this criteria I rank first, she says, followed by her, her mom, her brother and her dad. It’s a compliment, so I smile when she mentions it but I definitely can’t stop myself from laughing. I have never heard of eyelashes being a significant physical feature, for guys especially, and it still catches me oﬀ guard. Maybe I just need to come to terms with it: I have attractive eyelashes. Nah...
Shower Less I haven’t taken a shower in over two weeks. I know how that sounds, but don’t worry, I am very clean. I wash my hair every morning, wash my whole body regularly and even clip my nails. How does he do it? With a dab of shampoo, a little bar of soap, a tiny washcloth and a few cups of water which sometimes has chunks of ice in it. It’s a crazy feeling knowing that I drink more water in a day than I use for showering or restroom facilities (or “fo-cilities” as Mr. Lindenson would say), but that is exactly what I do day in and day out. In fact, for the record I haven’t sat on a toilet seat...or even seen a toilet...in over two weeks either. It’s kind of nice to know that you don’t have to have running water to feel clean, but don’t get me wrong I do like showers.
What's On The Agenda I haven’t shared my schedule yet, so I figure I should do that. Every week day I am up by 8am and oﬀ to start Mongolian language classes at the local kindergarten (which is fitting) from 9am to 1pm. Then I walk home for lunch from 1pm to 2pm. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays I have Health Job Training from 2pm to 6pm which is pretty awesome and on Mondays and Thursdays I have the afternoon oﬀ. That is when I usually when I travel into the city to use the internet. In the evenings I come home to my host family, we eat dinner and usually play games until I go to bed. On the weekends I sleep in and usually play a lot more games. It’s pretty ballin’ but like I’ve mentioned before, I am dead tired every night. They are definitely workin’ us, that’s for sure. This ain’t no vacation baby, this is hard work...but fun work.
Monday, June 23rd – Sunday, June 29th (Week 4) The end of this week marks the end of my first month in Peace Corps. It’s pretty hard to believe that things have gone this fast, but I guess that’s just how life goes when you’re having fun. We are progressing through the Mongolian language rapidly, as we should, and we as a training group are also getting a lot closer to one another which has been a lot of fun. On an oﬃcial note, I have received my oﬃcial Peace Corps debit card from the Mongolian Xaah Bank (pronounced Hon), from which I will be receiving my salary over the next two years, so that makes me feel pretty legit. Also, I had my first site placement interview with my Health coordinator, so that makes me feel even more legit. Yes, I am actually a Peace Corps Volunteer. : )
Flash Flood I have seen some pretty incredible things while I have been here in Mongolia, including beautiful mountain landscapes, countless Mongolian smiles, and dozens of horses running through the countryside, but this afternoon I got to see something I didn’t expect: a flippin’ flash flood. Although we have been having light and consistent rain for the past few days, today we got a taste of what it is like to have a team of rain clouds unleashed on a city in less than 5 minutes. Health class was cancelled early, for fear that we might not be able to make it home by meeker (microbus), and we all had to take oﬀ our shoes and roll up our pants to our thighs just to get out to the vehicle. The current was way strong, probably moving at about 10 to 15 mph, and definitely took us all by surprise. We eventually did make it home to our neighborhood, where the puddles stretched over 50 yards in some places, but we certainly had a couple moments where we thought we might be sleeping in our meeker overnight.
National Election This upcoming Sunday there will be a National Parliamentary Election here in Mongolia. Even with several drawings and open dictionaries between my host family and me I still haven’t gotten a grasp on exactly what is happening, but I do know a few things. First of all there are elections every four years and it seems like every seat is up for grabs. Also, there are several parties in the country, but the two main parties are the Revolutionary Party and the Democratic Party. Currently the Revolutionary Party (related somehow to the old Communist Party) has the majority in the Parliament, but people are saying the Democratic Party might take the majority in this election. Furthermore, here in our aimag (or state) of Selenge there are three seats up for grabs. We have a lot of magazines and pamphlets in the house from both parties, which I have been flipping through to see the pictures, and I find them very fascinating. One thing in particular that fascinates me is that most politicians, in ads, on television and in print media, include pictures of themselves when they were children or babies. It was kind of crazy at first, but now it is just normal to see a picture of one of their politicians and then randomly see a picture of them a year or two old. Maybe I’ll get a better grasp on that, as well as more details about the election, this upcoming week. When I do, I’ll get back to you. Maybe I’ll even take a picture of it so you can see for yourself! How’s that sound?
Losing Weight This has been a pretty confusing concept for my host mom to grasp, but I want to get into better shape, eat less, exercise more and live healthier while I am here in Mongolia. Generally speaking being larger and having more fat on your bones is seen as advantageous and desirable in Mongolia, as it might be in many other developing countries I would imagine. Conversely, being thin and muscular can be characteristic of being a working man or woman who does not have an excess of money coming in from their job, making eating a lot and not having to exercise a desirable luxury. With this in mind I understand why my host mom wants me to eat a lot, but I am still standing firm about trying to lost weight and get in better shape. Almost every meal we kid back and forth about me eating more even though I say that I am full. I know that my stomach has gotten smaller and that I have already lost some weight in the first month that I have been here, but that means I am on the right track. My host mom thinks I’m a little crazy, I know, but I’m on a mission. I’m coming home to America in as good a shape as I was during football season in high school. Push-ups, jogging, sit-ups, meditation, the whole nine yards. And maybe, just maybe, a pizza or two thrown in there once and a while for good measure.
My Mac Michael Lee recently reminded me of how much I love my Macintosh computer. I got my Macbook (I sometimes call her Mackie) on July 17th, almost a year ago, and I still get excited every time I open it up or press the on button. I know there are a lot of opinions out there about computers, maybe especially Apple computers, but personally I am a big fan of the MacBook and feel like Apple has made an incredible product that has helped make my life more fun and eﬀective. It helps me organize my thoughts, store all my videos and pictures in a fun way, interact with my friends and family through a convenient webcam and microphone above the monitor, easily locate wireless signals for easy access to the internet, play music and movies with great sound and video quality, interact easily with my other electronic devices and still lasts for 6 hours per charge. I think there are a lot of great computers out there with all kinds of specifications and attractive features, but I can say from personal experience that the MacBook is definitely one of those great computers. I am definitely a huge fan.
Random Mongolian Lesson of the Day
Mongolian has no word for “please.” Instead you indicate politeness by your attitude and tone rather than words.
Mid-Center Days Darkhan, Mongolia Monday, June 30th - Sunday, July 6th (Week 5) This was a pretty special week for us here in the M19 group. We had our first set of tests, for both our language and job training, and also a trip back to Darkhan for Mid-Service Training since we oﬃcially halfway done with our Summer training. It’s hard to believe, but it’s true. At Mid-Service Training we had a lot of joint sessions on everything from the One-Laptop Per Child Initiative to Life Skills lessons and the ever-expanding list of oﬃcial Peace Corps policies. We also had a flippin’ dodgeball tournament on July 4th, which was pretty sweet.
Cinnamon Toast I am pleased to announce that cinnamon toast is not nearly as hard to make in Mongolia as french toast. All you need is bread, butter, and cinnamon and sugar mixed together. It is so easy in fact that I think I’m going to buy a huge bag of cinnamon the first chance I get and then make it the rest of my time here in Mongolia. The only catch is...I don’t think there is any cinnamon in Mongolia. I got my little packet from a current Volunteer, luckily. It’s crazy to me, but even though there is a Mongolian word for cinnamon which is “shonts”, my Mongolian host family had never heard of it, smelled it or tasted it before. The like it, but I think they still prefer to just eat sugar and butter on their bread. Pass me the cinnamon please.
New High As I heading outside in the the middle of the night to use the fo-cilities I was pleasantly greeted by the most stars I have ever seen at one time. I am a big fan of our universe (or, more precisely, a little fan in our big universe) and I love the opportunity to see so many stars just like ours filling the beautifully dark sky. Flying into the capital city of Mongolia exactly one month ago day, I remember looking out the window of the airplane like most people do when they land. As we descended close the runway, I thought surely there must be some lights somewhere. Every time I have ever landed in an airplane, there have been lights dotting the landscape all the way to the horizon, but not this time. This time there were no street lights, no house lights, no anything. I saw a dark sky above a slightly darker carpet of land. I like that about Mongolia. They are a pretty low-profile people, who are genuinely conservative about their resources. Coming from America, where we light up trees in our front yards at the night and can barely see the stars, this is a welcomed change for me.
Premarital Sex We had several training sessions today that reminded me that I have a lot of thoughts on the topic of premarital sex, both as a guy named Travis and as a Peace Corps Volunteer. It is complicated and personal, I know, but I think it is worth talking about because it aﬀects so many aspects of our lives. It is a relevant topic in America, even if it is uncomfortable to talk about, and it is especially relevant as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a foreign country. Dating someone in America can be very diﬀerent from dating in Mongolia and having sex while in a relationship with someone in either country can have very diﬀerent consequences. Our Peace Corps Medical Oﬃcer mentioned to us in class today that based on the average from recent groups in Mongolia, 2 or more people in our group of 64 Volunteers will marry a Mongolian national. We all looked around at one another and wondered who it would be. It’s impossible to know right now, but I think it is very interesting to think about. Even more interesting to me is how many M19’s will date a Mongolian man or woman and what that will be like. What if they don’t get married after dating, how will other Mongolians see the host national after the Peace Corps Volunteer flies back to America? Whether or not they were ever intimate with the Peace Corps Volunteer, will other Mongolians now see the host national as tainted or less suitable for marrying a Mongolian? How will the Mongolian boyfriend or girlfriend feel? One statement we were posited during a Life Skills game of “Devil’s Advocate” was “You should only have sex with someone that you love.” We stood on opposite sides of the room and tried to defend our agreement or disagreement with the statement, which modeled the kind of critical thinking that we would try to encourage during an actual Life Skills training game with older students. There are value judgements like “should” and emotional definitions like “love” built into the question which make it particularly diﬃcult to answer, but I think it deserves a lot of responsible thought.
As far as the word “should” goes, I don’t think it’s my place to tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t do on this issue. What I think I “should” do represents my personal beliefs and I’m not interested in converting anyone to my beliefs. That said, I don’t mind sharing my thoughts in case they are helpful to anyone else. If they are helpful to you, fine. If they aren’t, don’t worry about it. As far as what I think “love” means, I would say it is the idea that we want happiness for others in the world around us. Here I mean happiness in its deepest sense, in the same way that some people say profound joy or peace. In this way, I think love is unconditional and does not depend on what someone else does. Whether you please me or displease me, that should not change whether I love you and wish happiness for you. So then, do I think I should only have sex with someone that I love? Yes. I think it would be wrong for me to have sex with anyone who I did not want happiness for, in the deepest sense of the word. This would include thinking through all of the short-term and long-term consequences of having sex, including the pleasure involved, the possibility of pregnancy, the feeling of connection, the opinions of other people in the community, and many other factors, and then attempting to determine whether this would help the person be truly happy or not. In fact, I think this kind of thoughtfulness should be given to all kinds of interaction and intimacy in a relationship. The question is basically, is what I am doing helping the person I am interacting with to become a happier and more satisfied person or am I mostly just interested in satisfying myself ? In most cases, it is a complex question which requires short-term and long-term answers. After having said all of that, I think it is important to note that my personal belief is that a loving relationship without sex can be just as enjoyable as a loving relationship with sex. Figuring that the only absolutely sure way to not get pregnant is to not have sex, I also think not having sex can be a very smart decision. Having a child, or having an abortion, is a big life decision and those possibilities should be considered each time sex is considered. I know that’s kind of a bummer, but that’s the way I figure it. On the plus side, in my experience, physical connection is only one of the many rewarding aspects of a relationship. Hopefully those other aspects of your relationships, whether they be intellectual, emotional, spiritual or many others, are rewarding enough to make the relationship worthwhile.
Novice-Mid A short update: I received my first Language Proficiency Interview score back from earlier this week and I tested out at Novice-Mid, which is very good. The levels go from Novice to Intermediate to Advanced, and each one has Low, Middle and High. By August before we swear in as Volunteers we are supposed to be testing at Novice-High, so I am definitely on track. The interview felt really good and I am impressed by how much I have been able to learn of the Mongolian language in such a short amount of time. If I work really hard, I think I might even test out at Intermediate-Low by the time our second LPI comes along. Until I’ll keep crossing my fingers and practicing my pronunciation.
One Laptop per Child It is nice when I am able to identify synchronicity in my life - when things connect and happen in an unexplainably convenient way. For instance Chase e-mails me about One Laptop per Child in Mongolia last week, including a news article and photos. Then today during Peace Corps Training there is an hour and a half session on One Laptop per Child (OLPC) lead by two representatives from the Foundation, telling us every detail about OLPC in Mongolia and even letting us play with half a dozen laptops ourselves so that we get to try them out ourselves. Then if that isn’t enough, I watch a TED video of Hector Ruiz (CEO of AMD) talk about his bold company initiative to have half of the world connected to the internet by 2015, which prominently mentions OLPC as part of that initiative. Needless to say, I am psyched about the possibilities for integrating OLPC into my work here in Mongolia and I am very impressed with the organization. Here are some key bullets that I wrote down during the Peace Corps presentation today: • 20,000 XO laptops are being given out in Mongolia over the next year • 1,000 were given out to 2 Ulaanbaatar schools in January • 5,000 will be given out during this summer to various schools • XO Generation 1 Laptops were created by MIT Professor • The XO is designed to encourage child use and discourage adult use • It is made to feel more like a toy than a laptop • Company Partners include Google, AMD, Microsoft and Red Hat • Kids being targeted are ages 6 to 12 • OLPC believes in a student-centered constructionism encouraging children to explore their laptop by doing what feels intuitive, staying self-motivated and being assisted by a teacher in a guideline, not step-by-step, manner. • Each XO laptop can be connected to any other XO laptop wirelessly • If one XO is connected to the internet, any other XO can connect thru it • The battery life of the XO is 15 hours • Each XO be charged by hand crank, an outlet, or even solar power • Version 2.0 of the XO is currently completely touchscreen In short, the One Laptop per Child Initiative is flippin’ awesome and I am way excited to take part in it. I think it is a great tool for worldwide education and technological advancement and absolutely a step in the right direction. T0 learn more, visit OLPC at their website at www.laptop.org.
Boy Scouts of Mongolia I recently found out that one of our Mongolian Peace Corps staﬀ members, named Mende, was involved in the Boy Scouts of Mongolia and was able to talk to him today for the first time. As it works out, he is not only involved in Scouting, he is two steps below the Country Director of the Mongolian Boy Scouts. Specifically his job is Program Assessment and Management, monitoring the country’s Scoutmasters and regional and national activities. He was very excited that I was an Eagle Scout and we had a long conversation about Boy Scouts in Mongolia, its history, its current status in the country, its similarity to Boy Scouts of America and most important to me, how I might get involved and help out while I am here in Mongolia. Boy Scouts in Mongolia started in 1991, following the transition from a communist to a democratic state. Since then it has grown to around 10,000 members today. From what I understand, which will no doubt be refined over the coming months, Scouting in Mongolia has basically the same organizational structure as the Boy Scouts of America, starting with Patrols, with then make up Troops, Districts and Councils which are represented in each of the 21 aimags (or states) of Mongolia. As far as levels of Scouting, Mongolia has Cub Scouts (ages 8 to 12), Boy Scouts (ages 12 to 16), Ventures (ages 16 to 18) and Rovers (ages 18 to 25). Cub Scouts have basically the same three ranks that they do in America (Bear, Wolf, Tiger), but Boy Scouts here rank based on three arrows rather than by Tenderfoot and so on as in America. Apparently in Mongolia it is the Venture and Rover Scouts that advance ranks toward an Eagle Scout-type award. This not only seems very interesting to me but also presents what I think would be an incredible opportunity to influence a very excited and capable group of young people. Imagine, if you will, taking a group of 16 to 20 year olds on a three-day horseback ride into the mountains of Mongolia to learn survival skills. Amazing? If that wasn’t enough, Mende also tells me that he will bring me to the capital city of Ulaanbaatar in August to visit the Boy Scout Country Oﬃce where he works full-time to sit in on one of the National Council Meetings. There he says he can give me a better idea of what goes on during the year with Scouting, including the National Jamboree where all of the Scouts get together, Summer Camps which run in several locations throughout the country and also the weekly Troop meetings and monthly regional Council meetings. It’s even possible, he mentioned, that I could help out as an adult leader or even Assistant Scoutmaster. I think that would be incredible. Also, their Scouting uniforms are apparently my favorite colors: a light blue shirt and dark blue pants. Can’t get much better than that.
July 4th and Dodgeball Thanks to the hard work of our Peace Corps Volunteer Leaders (PCVLs), Language and Cultural Facilitators (LCFs), Peace Corps Trainers and Administrative Staﬀ, we were all able to enjoy a really wonderful 4th of July on our last day in Darkhan. After our last class session on Friday, we were all taken to a nearby gymnasium where they had prepared hamburgers, hotdogs, watermelon, pizza, and soft drinks for all of us. It’s hard to imagine, unless you’ve been in a country like Mongolia for a month, but these kinds of foods were an incredible thing to see and taste. The hamburgers weren’t beef and the pizza wasn’t exactly American-style, but they still tasted great and were obviously the best that our friends could do for us. After our dinner we all began the dodgeball tournament that we had signed up for the day before. All of us, the Volunteer Trainees, went up against our teachers (LCFs, PCVLs) and Trainers, in teams of 12. We had a ton of fun from round to round and then in the end had an everyone-against-everyone game where we pitted 50+ Trainees against 50+ Teachers and Trainers. There were incredible saves, plenty of balls in the face and several hilarious moments that I think we will all remember for a long time. Next year I know several of us will be back to play on the dark side, pitted against the M20 Trainees as they go through Mid-Service Training as well. After the tournament was over and everyone began to leave, a couple of us stayed behind to play basketball in the gym during the remaining time which Peace Corps had reserved that evening. It was a 4-on-4 game between Tom, Matt, Chris, Trinh, Rich, Garrett, Nathan and myself and by the end of it we were all sweating buckets. It was a great feeling to have an hour in a nice gym all to ourselves. So, all in all, because of the work of many people we were all able to enjoy a very nice July 4th here in Mongolia. We may not have had fireworks, but I think we all felt very lucky and very proud to be here serving as Volunteers. Thanks again to all of the Peace Corps staﬀ that made this possible for us.
Water Balloons As featured in several Facebook pictures, Matt one of my fellow Volunteers, brought a three-person water balloon launcher with him here to Mongolia. Coupled with old apples or water bal loons, that launcher ha s pro vided many hours of entertainment for us over the last few weeks. It has a range of about 200 yards and is perfect for the wide-open spaces of Mongolia where the sky and fellow Volunteers are the limit. The only trick is the water balloons themselves, which require slightly pressurized water from either a faucet, hose, or someone’s mouth. Luckily we have had a couple of hose or faucet occasions (such as in our hotel during Mid-Center Days) where we were able to fill up a couple balloons which found a home on the heads of unsuspected individuals throughout our three day stay.
Monday, July 7th – Sunday, July 13th (Week 6) Back home with my host family after Mid-Center Days in Darkhan, this week has included some much needed time for rest and relaxation as well as, oppositely, one of the most anticipated and high energy holidays Mongolia has all year: Naadam. Those things, mixed with a little bit of drama and plenty of rain, made for quite a week.
Angier Independent Kim Lambert, editor of the Angier Independent, recently notified me that an article was printed about my Peace Corps assignment in her Campbell University-area newspaper. I met with Mrs. Lambert back in March of this year to share some details with her about Mongolia and my future service in the Peace Corps and we had a wonderful conversation. She was genuinely interested in my adventure with the Peace Corps and was very encouraging. I really enjoyed the article, which was printed the week I left the United States for Mongolia, and would like to say thanks again to Mrs. Lambert and the Angier Independent for their personal attention and genuine encouragement. To read the article, visit http://updates.travishellstrom.com.
Brian Johnson, the Philosopher I have talked a lot about Brian Johnson with my family and friends, especially regarding the Vipassana Mediation retreat which he inspired me to do, but I have never written about him on my blog. So here it is: Brian Johnson, the blog post. Brian Johnson is the founder of the website Zaadz.com which was recently bought by and assimilated into Gaia.com, a website operated by the multinational corporation Gaiam - who you might recognize from their famous yoga products. It was through Zaadz that I was first introduced to Brian over a year ago. I read his personal blog posts, received some of his group e-mails and friended him on the site, but that was about it. Then at the end of last year Brian wrote about a Vipassana Meditation retreat that he went to with his fiancee and it intrigued me so much that I decided I would try it out myself. It would be several months before I was able to attend my first retreat in Virginia, but it was well worth the wait. As I have written before, learning Vipassana Meditation was one of the best things I have ever done and I highly recommend it to anyone and everyone. When I got home from the retreat it was May and I only had one month before leaving for Mongolia with Peace Corps. I wrote a short “thank you” to Brian on Zaadz and then headed to Mongolia. During that time Brian had moved on from Zaadz.com/Gaia.com and started a new adventure called PhilosophersNotes.
His plan with PhilosophersNotes is to read a Ph.D.-equivalent quantity of spirituality, self-improvement, philosophy, and personal eﬀectiveness books and then write 5-page Cliﬀ ’s Notes-style summaries of each book. These are then made available as PDF and mp3 files, purchasable both individually or on a subscription basis. I read about this idea in an e-mail a couple of months back from Zaadz/Gaia.com and thought it sounded great so I signed up to receive updates, but I didn’t think I would be able to aﬀord a subscription anytime soon. Then this week I received an unexpected e-mail. After reading my auto-response from Gmail which explained that I am currently in serving in the Peace Corps, Brian sent me a message which read, “Hey bud: I love it! I would love to support you and your work with a free subscription to PhilosophersNotes! Let me know if you'd like it and I'll hook you up. - bri.” Stunned, I wrote him right back and told him a subscription would be incredible. If anything about Peace Corps is universal, it’s that we Volunteers have plenty of time to read good books. Within a day I had a response from Brian with my subscription, and since then then I have downloaded over a dozen of the PDF and mp3 PhilosophersNotes, including ones on The 7 Habits of Highly Eﬀective People by Stephen Covey, A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle and Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, among many others. So far I am very impressed, but I guess that’s not a surprise. Brian Johnson is a quality guy and I have a feeling he is going to continue surprising me for quite some time. Thank you Brian, for being so helpful and generous. I appreciate your support and look forward to reading many PhilosophersNotes to come.
Naadam Mongolia wraps their own equivalent of March Madness, the Super Bowl, and the World Series into one big celebration every year called Naadam. It features wrestling, horse-racing and archery oﬃcially, while also including some basketball, volleyball and even competitive “ankle-bones” flicking contests. My host family was great about bringing me out to all the festivities this year, filled with Coca Cola, meat pastries called “hoshur” and even a little ice cream or two. We sat in the stands to watch wrestling, stood beside the archers as they shot their arrows and talked with our family and friends while all the horses raced around the countryside. Later that weekend, once the oﬃcial events had passed, we went to our uncle’s house and ate an entire goat during what was pretty much a family reunion. Every part of the goat is eaten...every part. I mostly hung out with the little kids and played games, while avoiding the popular intestines as long as I could. Imagine what intestines filled with fried blood would taste like...it tasted worse than you think, I promise.
Mountaintop Matt, Trip and I finally scaled the highest mountain in Sukhbaatar (technically we don’t know), which we have been wanting to do it since we first got here. The entire trip took 6 hours, including 3 hours from the base of the mountain to the top, and it was really awesome. We saw Russia to the north, as well as the entirety of the city of Sukhbaatar. I’m really glad we did it and I have some awesome videos of the ridiculous climb!
The Thunder Rolls “The storm goes on out of control, and in her heart, the thunder rolls...” It was like a Mongolian version of the famous Garth Brooks song, except between girl cousins who are twelve. It started as a simple game of Uno during the largest electric storm we’ve had since I’ve been here: lightning, rain, hail and all. However, after adding several days of tension between two young girls confined to small living quarters, the situation quickly devolved into a worse indoor thunderstorm. It reminded me a lot of myself and my cousin Jared when we were around the same age. After a couple of days of putting up with each other’s nuanced annoyances, we finally snapped over something stupid that I can’t even remember. There were remote controls thrown back and forth, subsequent hurt feelings and a tear or two before the adults came in to rectify the situation with a couple of scolds, spanks and forced apologies. The same thing happened last night, minus the remote controls, and it also happened in Mongolian so I can’t tell you what was said. What I can say is that my sister was expected to apologize to me this morning, I suspect because it was considered rude for them to have argued in front of me. I smiled and told her it was all right. If I could have spoken better Mongolian, I would have told her the last time I argued with my cousin I threw a remote control at him.
Alcohol I have not had a lot of experience drinking alcohol. I have drank alcohol on many diﬀerent occasions, but never more than one beer or more than three shots of any given thing. This isn’t for any religious reason or particular belief; I don’t drink much because I don’t think alcohol tastes very good, I have never really desired to achieve any particular feeling that alcohol might provide, and mostly because I don’t want to be unable to control my thoughts and actions. I have heard several people over the years tell me things like, “I wish I hadn’t drank as much as I did...I shouldn’t have started drinking in the first place...I can’t remember what I did...I don’t want to remember what I did...I think I’m going to regret this tomorrow...and I don’t want to do that again.” That is the side of alcohol and other abuse-able substances that really scares me. If a chemical, or combination of chemicals, has the ability to impair my ability to think and act then how will I know when will I am going to lose control? Then when that happens, what am I capable of doing? While I haven’t had a lot of experience drinking alcohol myself, I feel like I have had enough experience with other people who drink plenty of it. I have seen people, including friends and strangers, become confused, hilarious, paranoid, loud, happy, angry, aﬀectionate, insensitive, excited, violent, honest, forgetful, lonely, rude, embarrassed, regretful, sad, embarrassing and profoundly stupid all with the help of alcohol. There are times and places in which these behaviors can be rather inconsequential (notably indoors with close friends), but oppositely there are times and places in which these behaviors can be reputation destroying and life-altering. With that in mind, I think the act of drinking should be approached in a measured and responsible way. Especially here in Mongolia, where alcohol and alcoholism are an unavoidable part of everyday life.
Monday, July 14th – Sunday, July 20th (Week 7) Mongolia is full of surprises, some happy and some sad, but almost all of them very quick. Take, for example, Mike who is an M18 and one of the coolest Peace Corps Volunteers I have met in Mongolia. He greeted us when we first arrived in country, oﬀered great advice to me and a couple of other Volunteers as we ate our first dinner in Darkhan at the Texas restaurant (which for the record has pretty much nothing to do with Texas), and always smiled and was quick to pat you on the back to let you know that he was excited for you and happy that you were here in Mongolia. One day we are playing frisbee and talking about all his plans this upcoming year, and literally the next day we are saying “goodbye.” His flight back to America was one week later. Mike is a married Volunteer and he and his wife found out, later that afternoon, that they were pregnant. As per Peace Corps policy, all married Volunteers expecting a child are immediately sent home so that they can receive the best health care in a safe environment. It’s great for the Volunteers, but an emotional roller coaster I can only imagine. Needless to say, I told Mike that I really admired his personality and hoped to treat next year’s incoming Volunteers as great as he treated me. I also told him that I would keep up with he and his wife as they share updates on their blog about their pregnancy and future baby. If that’s not enough to show you how quickly things can happen here, take Erica, my good friend and fellow M19 Volunteer. In just over one month, we have watched LOST together, ridden in meeker buses more times than we can count, traveled far and wide for internet in the city, taken taxis with extremely shady characters, walked back and forth from town which is an hour each way, talked about crazy things until late into the night, been there for each other when the going got tough and the drama got tougher and then today said “goodbye” because Erica is heading home to America tomorrow to be with her family. Some things are more important than Peace Corps, and family is one of them. After having talked with her family back home and thought over the decision for some time, Erica called our Peace Corps staﬀ today and had they had her plane ticket purchased for the next morning. They move quick here. We all gathered up at Erica’s house, hugged and said our goodbyes to her. It’s only been a month and a half, but it’s amazing to me how much we all love her. We are going to miss her very much and we hope to see her again very soon. You hear that Erica?
Water Fights My sister and cousin had a lot of fun today, playing in the water. Buckets, pots, barrels and water bottles were all fair game and when it’s hot as the dickens outside, it’s a great idea.
TED Talks (Ideas Worth Spreading) I was first introduced to TED talks by my good friend Chase last year. He was a huge fan and even wrote a compelling post on the incredibleness of TED, but it was really this summer in Mongolia before I star ted to understand what Chase has been telling me about for over a year now. TED is a yearly conference that brings together most of the greatest minds of our time. They talk about the future of our planet, the incredible things that we can accomplish together, and the things they have done in their specialized fields which they find most exciting and life-changing. Some of my favorite speakers so far have been Al Gore, Bill Clinton, J.J. Abrams, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Cliﬀord Stoll, Yves Behar, Hector Ruiz, Stephen Hawking, Jane Goodall, Tony Robbins, Rick Warren and Richard Dawkins. There are many ways to see the videos of these incredible speakers, but my favorite is through downloading the video podcasts on iTunes. You can also view them on TED.com as well. The beauty of TED is that it brings together people from almost every field in the world and gives you, the viewer, a chance to see them all together in one place. You can watch presentations by world famous professors, producers, theoretical physicists, spiritual leaders, politicians, architects, CEOs, ecologists and even a rock star or two, all while eating a slice of pizza in your boxers and house slippers. Nice life huh? Such is the power of the ambition, telecommunications and a belief in the power of the human spirit...not to mention a love for pizza and the internet. Speaking of which, why hasn’t pizza made it’s way to Mongolia yet? I need to write Papa John or DiGiorno an e-mail.
This is where we had all of our group meditations. I nicknamed it “a-werness hall.” I’m a dork.
Vipassana Meditation Retreat One of the big things I failed to write about during my last month in the U.S., but has remained on my mind since then, is the 10-day silent meditation retreat that I went to between April 22nd and May 3rd in Blue Ridge, Virginia. I have talked about it at length with most of you who are reading this thought right now, but I think it is worth writing about and sharing with anyone who is interested in it, if for no other rather than that it is one of the most worthwhile things I have every done in my life. It has really changed the way I look at things for the better. The meditation technique we were taught during the 10-day course is called Vipassana (vi-POSH-ana) meditation and it goes back more than 2,500 years to the time of Siddhartha Gautama the Buddha. Vipassana means “to see things as they really are” and is a process of self-observation to understand universal truths through continued awareness. Buddha, meaning “Enlightened One”, is said to have taught this technique to hundreds of thousands of people around what is now India during the last 40 years of his life. It has everything to do with how you live and very little to do with what you believe. In fact I think Buddha sums it up well with his famous line, “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” The retreat provides participants with the time and space in which to concentrate, observe one's thoughts and then move past them to a deeper state of awareness. There is minimal instruction, less than one hour a day, and maximal time for meditation, about twelve hours a day. There are also times built into the day when you can ask questions of the meditation teachers who are present during all of the group meditations. Below is our daily schedule, which is the same for all Vipassana meditation courses throughout the world.
Daily Schedule Each day we had quite a lot of time for meditation. Here was our typical day:
4:00am 4:30 - 6:30 6:30 - 8:00 8:00 - 11:00 11:00 - 1:00 1:00 - 5:00
Wake Up Group Meditation Breakfast Meditation Lunch Meditation
5:00 - 6:00 6:00 - 7:00 7:00 - 8:00 8:00 - 9:00 9:00 - 9:30 9:30pm
Tea Break Group Meditation Teacher Discourse Group Meditation Question Time Lights Out
I was nervous about the course at first. I worried about meditating for hours a day when I had only previously meditated for a maximum of 15 to 30 minutes at a time. I worried about eating vegetarian food for 10 days straight when I had never even eaten for one day on vegetarian food alone. And I worried about the people who I would be sharing my time at the retreat with, what they were like and what living with complete strangers would be like for ten days. Everything turned out great, but I think these were very valid concerns - ones that might even keep someone from attempting the retreat in the first place. So when I got back from the retreat I wrote down a lot of questions that I had as I went through the process and the answers I came to:
How hard is the course, am I really going to be able to sit for that long at a time? The course is as hard as you make it, meaning if you really dig deep and give a lot of eﬀort and attention to what you are doing then it will be quite a challenge. However, if you complain a lot and don’t actually pay attention to what’s really going on, the course will be more frustrating than diﬃcult. Personally I found that pain and discomfort were very necessary tools for me to get to where I needed to be mentally. When I was too comfortable, such as when I was sitting in a chair during a meditation at my cabin, the actual physical act of sitting became too easy and it became harder to concentrate my attention. When I sat on the floor the coarse, painful sensations were there for me to study and experience and then they gave way to more subtle, pleasant sensations and on and on. It was hard to understand at first, but pain is not the enemy and comfort is not the goal. In fact, for me, both became irrelevant in terms of causing a reaction within me. The first step in meditation, as I experienced it, was being able to focus all of my attention on the present moment and to experience the present moment within the framework of my body. Thinking about the past and the future, singing songs in my head, fidgeting around in response to discomfort, as well as a myriad of other distractions only took me away from the present moment. Pain in the present moment, pleasantness in the present moment, itching, stinging, pressure, heat, cold, these are doors to understanding what is really happening around me. There are some cases where chairs or back supports are necessary for meditators, but one of the best people to make that call is your teacher. Talk with your teacher during the question and answer sessions each day, try out new poses and meditation benches, and most of all give each session your honest attention and best eﬀort. Coming into the 10-day course the longest I had ever meditated was 10 minutes straight. Sitting for longer than that seemed like it would kill me. I talked to my teacher and he recommended working little by little to build up my mind’s ability to handle it. He was absolutely right. By the end of the course I was sitting for an hour and a half without moving an inch, blinking an eye or making a twitch. I was also doing this in more than one position. You can absolutely do this and you will amaze yourself.
Is eating vegetarian for ten days difficult? I found the food provided to be very enjoyable and healthy. I had never in my life eaten vegetarian for more than a day or two, but even after eating vegetarian for ten days I didn’t feel like I was skipping a beat. I felt very healthy and well fed. During any given day we had several choices of cereal, breads, jams, peanut butter, salads, fresh bananas, oranges, apples, milk, soy milk, rice milk, pasta, water, coﬀee, tea, orange juice, oatmeal, granola, soy beans, and cookies. What are the people like who attend these courses? I can obviously only speak for the course I attended regarding this question, but I found that the people I met were from an incredible variety of backgrounds. In my cabin of eight people we had a retired surgeon, a carpenter, an artist, a linguist with the Department of Defense, a graduate school student, a recent high school graduate, a computer programmer and me, a Peace Corps Volunteer. Religious beliefs represented in our cabin alone included Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Atheism, with the course overall including Taoism, Islam, Sikhism and Catholicism. Also in the course at large (I probably met about 1/3 of the attendants), there were teachers, chaplains, ministers, stay-at-home moms, graduate students, returned peace corps volunteers, high school, college and graduate school graduates, engineers, government employees and law enforcement oﬃcials. In short, I was very impressed by the people I met during my particular retreat. They created a diverse array of personalities, cultures, beliefs and professions that I found very enjoyable.
How is waking up at 4am every day? I actually found this to be very enjoyable as well. In fact, I wish I could do this more often in my every day life. I found my day to be much more full and productive when I woke up early and went to bed early. It’s a little hard at first, but I really am glad they have the schedule for the course the way that they do. How is this not a cult? Michael Lee asked me this question and I think this is a very important question to ask of any organized religion, meditation retreat, course, group, club or organization. In my experience cults are groups believe that what they think is absolutely correct and superior to the beliefs and practices of others. Also I have found that in a cult reason and personal experience is treated as inferior to faith and the experiences of someone else. The faith could be in anything or the experiences could be those of a religious leader or the author of a scripture.
On faith and reason, opposite of a cult, this meditation retreat stated what the Dalai Lama himself has said, “Buddhism relies more on one's own eﬀort, on reason rather than faith.” Also, on the value of personal experience, both the retreat and Buddha himself stated, “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” I like both of these insights very much and think that they made the entire retreat very comfortable for people of all faiths as they spent time on their own self-awareness. Closing the course Vipassana teacher stated very clearly that there are many ways to arrive at truth in the world and that an individual’s personal experience is more important than anything that was said or done during the retreat. He also repeated what he had said several times over the course of the retreat, “Take what is helpful $om this meditation practice and leave what is not helpful.” The Dalai Lama has a similar saying which I really admire, “If anything I’ve said seems useful to you, I’m glad. If not, don’t worry. Just forget about it.” Truth be told, I did hum the Dharma Initiative song from LOST when I first got to the camp...
Where there times when you wanted to quit? There were certainly times where I felt frustrated at my lack of progress, or felt like I should be achieving something that I wasn’t achieving. But ironically, these were also the moments where I was closest to a breakthrough, as I later found out. A very important part of meditation for me was realizing how influential desire had become in my life. I wanted to experience something incredible, I wanted to feel something special and I felt like I was supposed to be somewhere other than where I was. For me the important thing to realize was that the present moment, no matter how un-incredible or unspecial, no matter how incredible or special, was what needed my attention. When my mind became sharpened to the point that I was truly experiencing the reality around me, the sensations on my body, the experiences happening every moment, that is when I started to make progress and notice the changes that were always happening every moment. Words of wisdom can enter the mind as a thought, but experiencing wisdom is something else, I think. This happens naturally for everyone, but wanting it to happen can slow it down significantly. The sooner I let go of my expectations and desires, the more I was able to experience. I suppose that also helped me get through the moments of frustration very quickly. I am very glad that I stayed and that I experienced the entire course, I think staying open-minded and eager to learn was the best thing I could have done. To find out more about Vipassana meditation, you can visit their website at www.dhamma.org and sign up for a retreat of your own at any time. Good luck and let me know if you ever need any help!
Monday, July 21st – Sunday, June 27th (Week 8) There isn’t much time left now before we are oﬀ to Darkhan for our Final Center Days and all the ensuing excitement that will come with our site announcements. It’s hard to believe that training is already coming to a close! We have a little more language class to get through, as well as Health sector training, but in two weeks we will be having our final, oﬃcial, tape-recorded Language Proficiency Interview (LPI) and our final Training Assessment Proficiency (TAP) Interview as well. Then, oh and then, we will be sworn in as oﬃcial Peace Corps Volunteers!
Cinnamon Bing While there are definitely things that are not getting any easier to eat (like sheep for breakfast), some foods here are really a pleasure. Take for instance cinnamon bing, which I think I just invented. First you have to get some bing. To make it you take one part flour, one part flattening it out and then one part throwing it into a frying pan. Then you cut it up and bing! Variations include putting green onions into the mix to give it a garlicky flavor and, my new favorite, adding cinnamon sugar to it and eating it like a slice of pizza. My mind went wild when I randomly tried it; I’ve started adding cinnamon and sugar to a lot of things. Cinnamon bing, if you ever get a chance to try it, tastes like a cinnamon pretzel, covered in cinnamon toast crunch, inside of a cinnamon roll in the shape of a cinnamon dessert pizza slice. Cinnamon bing is my new favorite thing.
Things I’m Glad I Didn’t Bring • Power converter/adapter (readily available / universal outlets) • Medical supplies ($ee / issued by Peace Corps) • More than a week of toiletries ($ee / easy to get / issued by Peace Corps) • Sleeping bag (way high quality one issued by Peace Corps) • Water treatment supplies ($350 Water Disti+er & $150 Water Purifier issued by Peace Corps)
Things I’m Glad I Brought • MacBook laptop (wonderful for writing down thoughts) • iPod and iPod Touch (very popular, fun to share photos, music and videos) • Shorts and exercise/play clothes • Casual dress shirts • Smaller sized pants (losing weight like crazy) • Books, books, books (tons of time to read) • LOST : Seasons 1-4 (Volunteers here love this show) • Backpack with room for water bottle and laptop • Leather messenger bag (great for looking professional) • Luggage that straps and rolls together (envy of other Volunteers) • Blow up earth ball (very fun and useful as portable globe) • Photos of my family, friends and childhood (Mongolians love photos) • Sports equipment: frisbee, soccer, football • Patience, a sense of humor and openness • A desire to lose weight and become more fit
Things I Wish I Had Brought / Need to Get • A reliable digital camera (sma+, easy to charge, long battery life, fast, durable) • Good, loud speakers (white, clear sound) • Apple Airport Express (might be nice when I have my own place soon) • An external hard drive (Apple Time Capsule plus tons of DVD-RWs) • Powder and mixes (pudding, gatorade, cinnamon, etc) • The cartoon show Home Movies • Smaller sized shorts and jeans - 38 waist (I’m shrinking!)
Random Mongolian Lesson of the Day
No restroom/outhouse, no matter how public, has free toilet paper. You are expected to always bring your own.
The Girl I’ve Been Looking For I think I found the girl I’ve been looking for. She’s beautiful, hilarious, kind to everyone, gentle, tons of fun and up for doing anything. She laughs at all my jokes, is well known in the community, and loves my host family who loves her right back. She enjoys dressing in traditional Mongolian clothing when she wants to look nice and also enjoys wearing outfits that can get dirty when we play volleyball or frisbee outside. On top of all that, she is also one of the most patient and generous people I have met in Mongolia. She corrects my language with a sweet smile, teaches me new words all the time and never gives up when she is sharing something new with me. Also, she wants to be a doctor and I think she’ll make a great one. When she comes over to my house, my plans change. Outings with my Peace Corps friends are postponed, homework is forgotten about and we laugh, play games and talk until the sun goes down. Sometimes she stays over and talks with my little sister late into the night, long after I have gone to sleep. She doesn’t come over often, which is a shame, but she makes it over as often as she can. I say she is the girl I’ve been looking for because every moment she is around she shows me what kindness looks like, what fun laughter can be and what goodness there is in all of us. She reminds me of who I want to be and the kind of impact I make on others as a role model and as a friend. She is a very special girl and I am very lucky to know her. I also say she is the girl I’ve been looking for because I am always looking for people like her in the world - people who give us hope, challenge us to be better people, and show us how to be responsible and caring human beings. Guys and girls like her, all throughout the world, are the friends I am glad I have, the people I am proud to say I know and the inspirations that encourage me to do what I know is right everyday. Today, before heading home for the night, she put her hand to the top of her head and moved it toward me to compare her height to mine. Looking up she laughed and said she was much smaller. I picked her up and lifted her high above my head before giving her a hug. She can call me her big brother all she wants, but my eight years old cousin Mohnchimeg definitely isn’t smaller than I am. As I put her down, I smiled at her. “You’re much bigger than you think,” I said, “much bigger.”
Monday, July 28th - Sunday, August 3rd (Week 9) Snake Water Tonight we went over to my aunt and uncle’s house for a short visit. I am familiar with my aunt and two younger cousins, as they visit our house often, but this was the first time I met my host uncle and oldest cousin. The visit started with my uncle handing me a little bottle with a tiny scoop attached to the handle. I examined it a little but then handed it back smiling, asking what it was. He proceeded to scoop out some brown powder and then sniﬀ it oﬀ the side of his finger...ahh, looks like snuﬀ. It wasn’t too rude not to take it, so I told him no thanks and ate some candy instead, including a really good lollipop which I got from my aunt. As I looked around the room I noticed a lot of familiar things, decorative carpets on the walls, a television in the corner, pictures of family and friends, and...a big glass mason jar holding water and a snake on a stick. I couldn’t tell you what kind of snake it was (other than the dead kind), but it was about two feet long and wrapped around the brown wooden stick leaning against the inside of the jar. Decoration right? Wrong. The water inside was actually vodka, which we proceeded to drink by the shot as they welcomed me into their home. Wearing my Pre-Med shirt with the caduceus logo of a snake around a stick I laughed before I drank my first shot, wondering what kinds of chemical processes surround a dead snake, but for the record I didn’t notice any particular dead snake aftertaste to the vodka. After welcoming ceremonies concluded, everybody kept on with the business of having fun and talking about things in Mongolian. I chimed in every once in a while but mostly I just stared at the snake and ate my lollipop. What an interesting place in which I find myself.
The Mongolive Garden : When You’re Here, You’re Gerbule Here on the other side of the world, my desire to eat American food consistently overrides my otherwise critical culinary faculties. This can be witnessed in my illegal drug-like protection of a little bag of cinnamon, my growing love for bags of hard, chewy donut-hole things that aren’t really donut holes at all and my willingness to try and create anything that seems like something I would eat back at home. Case in point, tonight’s garlic bread creation and a can of tomato paste. Ingredients include: • Bread (talc) • Butter (maslo) • Garlic (cermus) and • Tomato paste (tomat) Put it all together by melting the butter and diced garlic, throwing some bread at it and then dipping it in tomato sauce and you’d swear you’re at the Olive Garden. In fact stay in Mongolia long enough and you will probably start to think it taste better than the Olive Garden...The Mongol Olive Garden, or The Mongolive Garden if you will, where we always say: When You’re Here, You’re Gerbule. Gerbule, as you may have guessed from my witty reference, is ‘Family’ in Mongolian. Hey, I wonder if The Mongolive Garden gives out those little Andes after-dinner mints too? I need to find the chef.
Things That Surprise You Sometimes, during a class break outside or on a walk, my sitemate Leslie asks people in our group what things they have experienced in Mongolia that seem normal here but would be pretty surprising to us in America. It’s a great question and people have given some pretty great answers. Here are some of my favorites: • Seeing the brain of a goat through the back of it’s head while looking for a midnight snack in the refrigerator at night (not me) • Not being able to exchange money at the bank because there is a crease in the bill (not me) • Walking through two feet of water during a flash flood (me) • Randomly losing electricity several times during the week for no apparent reason (me) • Falling in a manhole (not me) • Drinking vodka out of a glass container with a big dead snake in it (me) • Not being able to use the bank because “it’s not working today,” (me) and • Pushing several gallons water out of the ceiling onto your floor while laughing hysterically because the roof isn’t quite working like it is supposed to (me) Today walking home from class I saw another one that was surprising to me: seeing dozens of horses racing after each other through the street. They belong to someone I’m sure, but like all the other literally hundreds of animals that roam around every day they are let out in the morning and come back on their own in the evening. Dozens of people continued walking down the street like it was no big deal while horses of every size and age ran up and down the neighborhood dirt roads as fast as they could run. There’s no one to call, nothing to worry about and nothing to consider. Horses, cows, goats, sheep, pigs, dogs and camels cover the land, from pasture to mountains to city streets, and they outnumber humans 40 to 1. Pretty wild, huh?
Baquay Our time together as Trainees in our little neighborhood is coming to a close. We have a few more days together and then we are out to our sites for quite some time. We have had challenges in our group, with strong personalities clashing and so forth, but I have a feeling that a couple weeks from now we are all going to miss each other a lot. That’s right, we are a+ going to miss each other. We will miss our laughter, our jokes, our quirks, our criticisms, and even our drama. When the M17s and M18s greeted us at the airport they told us they envied us. “I wish I could be back at training,” they said. I wondered what they meant, but I think I am starting to understand it now. Training has been a lot of fun and a great experience. There are times when we get frustrated, of course, but I think those are pretty few and far between. In such a short amount of time, it’s amazing how many things we have been able to accomplish and how close we have all become. When it’s “baquay” or all gone, I know I will miss it.
Monday, August 4th - Sunday, August 10th (Week 10) Final Interviews I just finished my final Language Proficiency Interview (LPI) and my final Training Assessment Packet (TAP) Interview with an oﬃcial Peace Corps interviewer and my Pre-Service Training (PST) Health Trainers, respectively. Both interviews went very well and I am excited to hear the results next week. In language we are expected, as Trainees, to receive a rating of Novice High on a language scale including Novice (Low, Mid, High), Intermediate (Low, Mid, High) and Advanced (Low, Mid, High). I will know for sure on Tuesday, but think I got Novice High. I have a lot of improving to do with my language skills and I look forward to doing just that over the next few months at site. Peace Corps reimburses us for having private Mongolian language tutors, so that will be really nice and just like when I was in Costa Rica, speaking the native language all the time really helps language skills enormously. As far as the TAP interview went, all of my trainers and language coordinators were very positive about how I have been doing during training. Only a couple of days from now I will be swearing in as a Volunteer and moving in to my new place! I really look forward to seeing where that is!
Host Family Appreciation Day This past weekend we were able to enjoy a wonderful day with our host families and teachers as we celebrated all of the time we have been able to share with them over the past two months. My host family, including my host mom, sister and cousin Mohnchimeg, were able to come with me which was great. To start we drove in buses together to a place called the Mother Tree, which is a sacred spot near our community. There with our host families and our teachers we paid our respects with rice, hatucks (the blue clothes), incense and candies. After that we were oﬀ to a little tourist camp where we all laid back and relaxed in the sun. We played several games of volleyball and basketball on courts made available to us, played pool, games like tag and Uno, ate traditional Mongolian food like hoshur and goat which was cooked right there on the spot, and even drank a little vodka from some kind of animal horn. Then, to seal the deal, we had the craziest wind storm the Mongolians say they have seen in fifty years. At the end of the day, the sky turned black, the winds came howling in and the place was torn apart. We were all safe inside the main brick building, but the summer gers outside, the canvas tops on all the tents and just about everything loose on the ground was ripped up, twisted and flung thousands of feet. We aren’t sure exactly how fast the wind was, but we all agree it was somewhere between 80 and 100 mph. When it finally died down and we were able to go home we found about one quarter of all the hashaa fences in our community toppled over and ripped from the ground. Kind of crazy huh?
Mongol Paradise A Little Parody Written by Travis He+strom Set to the Classic Gansta’s Paradise by Coolio As I walk through the steppe and exhale a deep breath
Tell me why are we so blind to see
I take a look at my life and realize there’s two years left
That the ones we help are you and me
Cause two months of trainin’ has lasted so long
We’ve been spending most our lives livin’ in an American paradise
That even my LCF thinks my mind is gone
‘Til we said “goodbye” to our lives livin’ in an American paradise
But now I’m novice high and even if I deserved it,
We got on our westward flights leavin’ from an American paradise
Me without a tutor? You know that’s unheard of
For the next two years of our lives we’ll be livin a Mongol paradise
We have to improve our talkin’ cause when we’re walkin’ You’ll never know when a Mongol’ll talk
Hardly any money, lots of rice and flour, Minute after minute, hour after hour,
I really hate to leave but I gotta go
Everybody’s hungry, in our cookbook now we’re looking,
From my training site to my awesome placement site, fool!
What’s goin’ on in the kitchen, I don’t know what I’m cookin’
I’m the Volunteer the little Trainees wanna be like After swearing in all right, now I’m oﬀ to my fly site
I know I gotta learn, so a tutor’s gonna teach me, But then while I’m learnin’, what should I do be?
We’ve been spending most our lives livin’ in an American paradise
I guess I’ll teach, I guess I’ll cope,
We had internet day and night livin’ in an American paradise
I guess I’ll prep, that’s why I’m here for two whole years, fool
We ate pizza instead of rice livin’ in an American paradise We gotta say it was pretty nice livin’ in an American paradise
We’ve been spending most our lives livin’ in an American paradise Now we’ll spend two years of our lives livin’ in a Mongol paradise
Now the situation they got me facing
There’ll be snow and lots of ice livin’ in an Mongol paradise
Gotta move into my site, say “Sainuu” to be polite
But helping people’s worth the price of livin’ in a Mongol paradise
But I still don’t know half of the things they say, So I smile and I nod and I say “Mitgway.”
Tell me why are we so blind to see That the ones we help are you and me
I’m an educated fool with one thing on my mind Gotta tugriks in my hand and a gleam in my eye
Tell me why are we so blind to see
I’m a low paid PCV with a place now
That the ones we help are you and me
And with 300 dollars to furnish the whole place, how?! Winter ain’t nothing but a couple months away If I’m living in a felt tent, what can I say? I’m 23 now but will I live see to 24 They way things is goin’ I don’t know.
Final Center Days Darkhan, Mongolia Monday, August 11th - Sunday, August 17th (Week 11)
This, our last week of Pre-Service Training, will surely be one of the hardest weeks we have had here in Mongolia. It is at once sad, exciting, nerve-racking, wonderful, scary and invigorating all at the same time. We leave our host families whom we have been with for two months, we get our final language scores in for a summer of Mongolian language lessons, we have elections for our Volunteer Advisory Council, we find out where we will be living, what we’ll be living in and what job we will have for the next two years, we meet our host agency supervisors for the first time, we swear in as oﬃcial Peace Corps Volunteers and then we say ‘goodbye’ to all of our fellow M19 Volunteers and our dedicated Peace Corps Trainers and Peace Corps staﬀ as we all split up and travel to all corners of Mongolia. Long sentence, but very short week.
An Emotional Goodbye All of our families walked us to our meekers this morning to send us oﬀ to Darkhan. It’s hard to say when we will see them again, but I hope to see my family once in the next year at least. Before I left this morning I gave my host mom and dad, my host brother Uuganbayar, my host sister Uugantsetseg and my host cousin Mohnchimeg presents to say thank you. I gave my host mom and dad a white hatuck (a ceremonial cloth just like the blue one I received when I first arrived in Sukhbaatar) because white is meant especially for moms, 10 4x6 pictures of times we have had over this summer and one of my Peace Corps magnets. To Uugantsetseg I gave a new volleyball because she loves to play, to Mohnchimeg I gave one of my Life is Good squeezy balls because she loves them and to Uuganbayar I gave a brown leather notebook and pen because he is heading oﬀ to his first year of college in a few weeks. I could tell by the look in their eyes that they weren’t expecting anything from me, but that is one of the big reasons I wanted to give them something. They have been really wonderful to me over the past two months and have always given everything they could to me. As the meeker pulled away I was reaching out the window touching my host family’s hands with mine. I looked into their eyes and we all smiled. Silently I think we were all thinking the same thing, “I look forward to seeing you again.” Novice High! One of the first things we did when we got to our Final Center Days in Darkhan was get back our final Language Proficiency Interview (LPI) scores. I am excited to say that I got Novice High! It was a little scary, since Peace Corps wanted everyone to at least get Novice High, but even those people who got Novice Mid (about 9 out of 59) will be okay; they just have to take the exam again in December and get Novice High. After living around Mongolians day and night for four months I think we will all have better scores by then, so no worries. With two months of language training under our belts, it’s now time to go out into the wild world of Mongolia and ask the all important questions: “Sain bainnu?”, “Chiny ner hembe?” and “Gemisen tortay?” Or, for you English speakers out there, “How are you?”, “What is your name?”, and “Do you like fruit?”
Volunteer Advisory Council Shortly after arriving we also had elections for the Volunteer Advisory Council (VAC), which is a group that meets with the Country Director and Peace Corps staﬀ several times a year to address issues related to Mongolia PCVs. Three Volunteers represent each group (3 M19s & 3 M18s this year) and they serve one-year terms after being elected by their fellow Volunteers. This was done by secret ballot and we were all asked to write down the names of the three people we wanted on the Council. This year for the M19 Volunteers Darren Roth, Patrick Hamilton and I were elected to the Council, with Zaneta and Elaine elected as alternates. I will write more when I know more about the VAC and how it works, but for the moment I can say that I will do my best to represent the interests of the M19 Volunteers and work to improve Peace Corps Mongolia for the benefit of all the Volunteers who are currently serving and will serve in Mongolia. I feel very honored and excited!
My New Home It was the moment we had all been waiting for, our site announcements! All 59 M19’s gathered in the Children’s Park around giant map of Mongolia, sitting in anticipation. One by one they called our names, our host agencies and our sites and then walked us to our new homes. “In the Sukhbaatar aimag, in the capital city of Baruun-Urt working with the Provincial Hospital, Travis Hellstrom.” The name Sukhbaatar is normal to me now because I’ve been training in the city named Sukhbaatar for two months now, but come to find out Sukhbaatar is a very popular name in Mongolia. The reason for this recurrent name is that the founder of the first political party in Mongolia’s history, the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP), was named Damdin Sukhbaatar. In 1941, with the help of Russian forces, he led the people of Mongolia into it’s current era free of Chinese influence. Similar to George Washington in America, Sukhbaatar is seen as a founding father in Mongolia and many things are named after him; most notably, Sukhbaatar Square which is at the center of Ulaanbaatar (the capital of Mongolia), Sukhbaatar the capital city of Selenge aimag where I trained, and Sukhbaatar the aimag (or province/state) where I will be living for the next two years. As I walked out to my new home state, I thought about how from now on when I say Sukhbaatar I will be talking about the aimag. Sukhbaatar aimag is located in the far east of Mongolia, situated between the southern Gobi Desert and the northern Mongolian steppe. It has shifting sand dunes, inactive volcanic craters, large rock formations, knee-high grass that sustains huge herds of gazelle lands and a surprising overall population of only 50,000 people. It is not a popular tourist destination, but from what I understand the people there love foreigners and are always excited to see Americans. In fact my new supervisor informed me that the hospital where I will be working has been applying for a Peace Corps Volunteer for the last 10 years. It appears that they have been expecting me for quite some time. I will be living in the capital city of Sukhbaatar, named Baruun-Urt, with two other Peace Corps Volunteers. One is Alex, an M19 Community Youth Development (CYD) Volunteer, who I have been training with during the past two months of PST and the other is Chris, an M18 University Teacher (UT). Alex is a wonderful girl and Chris seems like the kind of guy who I will really enjoy getting to know. I feel very lucky to have them so close by in the city, rumor has it that we can walk to each other’s places in 15 minutes or less. Also in our site, but about 15 miles outside the capital, is an M19 TEFL Volunteer named Elaine who will be teaching in a secondary school. She seems like a sweetheart and I think we will have a lot of great times together over the next two years. During a short conversation over the phone yesterday, Chris mentioned that Baruun-Urt is a really nice place with a great Chinese restaurant, three internet cafes and stores with owners that love to meet Americans. Out of the four Volunteers in our aimag of Sukhbaatar I will also be the only one in an apartment. Both Alex and Elaine were assigned gers and Chris decided to move into one after spending a year in an apartment. Surprisingly this isn’t too uncommon for PCVs in Mongolia, since ger living can be a very enjoyable and exciting experience that a lot of people want to try out. Plus, if they ever want to take a shower, use a washing machine, or poop in a toilet they know they can always come on over to my place...so that’s nice.
My Dwelling It was nerve-racking. I opened up my site placement folder and asked my Trainer, “Where does it say what I’ll be living in?” He flipped through a couple of pages and looked around, but then I saw it: on the top of the page there were spaces next to Ger, House and Apartment and there, beside Apartment, was a big ol’ X. It is just what I asked for. For a while I wasn’t sure about whether I wanted a ger or not, but ultimately I said that I thought an apartment would be nicer for me for now. Now there is a lot to be said for living in a ger in Mongolia. It is a circular felt tent that Mongolians have been living in for thousands and thousands of years, and the majority of Peace Corps Volunteers live in them, especially TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) Volunteers. People love them for a variety of reasons; they are symbols of the nomadic lifestyle, allow people to live in just about any terrain hundreds of miles from any established city, and are said to have a magical feel about them. Plus, it sounds pretty bad ass to be able to say that you lived in a ger in Mongolia for two years. That said, living in a ger comes with plenty of responsibilities and I for one am not quite ready to live in one yet. As a ger dweller you have to fetch water on a daily basis, summer and winter alike, heat the ger yourself with coal, wood or dung, and deal with the elements whether they be summer winds, winter snows or spring rains. Everything becomes a little harder in a ger, whether it’s washing clothes, cooking dinner, washing yourself or just getting up in the morning. Almost everyone who deals with these things is the better for it in the long run, but you definitely have to be in the right mindset to start living this way. After being here for a year here in Mongolia, I think I might live in a ger. I’ll get back to you on that one. So, anyway, starting next week I will be living in my first apartment ever! I have lived at home with my family, lived in a dorm with a great roommate (Michael Sellers) as well as by myself as an RA, and lived in a house with some of the awesomest guys ever (Lynch House) but I have never lived in an apartment. I am very excited about having a place to paint, to fix up, to install shelves in and to make my home. The Hospital/Health Department where I am working has already filled the apartment with some “new things which show they have plenty of money to spend on you” said my M18 sitemate Chris, who is a University Teacher in my home city. I imagine this means chairs, a bed, a dresser and so forth, but I won’t know for sure until I get there on Monday night. What I do know is that I am very excited and I want to make a list of things that I really need in my place.
Random Mongolian Lesson of the Day
To receive a PCV a host agency has to agree to cover housing costs, including furnishings, for their Volunteer.
Things For My Apartment Here is a list of things I would like for my place, if it isn’t already provided: • High quality frying pan (₮ 15,000) • Shared Washing Machine (₮ 120,000 split 2 or 3 ways) • Bed sheets & pillow (₮ 15,000) • Cooking pot (₮ 5,000) • Rice cooker (₮ 15,000) • Cutting board (₮ 5,000) • Lounging chair (₮ 40,000) • Desk and chair (₮ 50,000) • New paint for walls (₮ 10,000) • Surge protector (₮ 5,000) • Kitchen Utensils (₮ 5,000) • Plates, Bowls and Cups (₮ 15,000) • Frames for My Favorite 8x10 Photos (₮ 10,000)
My Workplace At the moment I only know a limited amount about my workplace, but here is what I do know: I work in the Health Department of the Sukhbaatar Provincial Hospital under the direction of my supervisor, the Deputy Director of the Health Department. My counterparts, who I will be working with closely over the next two years, including two nursing specialists, one gynecologist, one pediatrician, and one family physician. I share an oﬃce with my two nursing specialist counterparts and am told I have a desk and computer with an internet connection. Nice huh? I also know a little bit about the hospital: it has about 300 staﬀ members, including 60 doctors, working in 15 departments. It oversees 3 local clinics within the capital and 15 clinics throughout the aimag of Sukhbaatar. I will certainly leave more when I get to site, but that is a pretty exciting amount of information so far!
Random Mongolian Lesson of the Day
Mongolians love rally racing and award points by top speed, lap time and most important, number of passengers. Cars, meekers and buses are all eligible and competitions occur daily. Winners are, unofficially, those who are still alive at the end of the year and prizes include steering wheel covers, hatucks and air fresheners that look like coconuts.
Peace Corps Swearing In Ceremony Our Swearing In Ceremony went great, I must say. Not only did we become legit Peace Corps Volunteers inside of a pretty sweet theater, we also got to play dress up! That’s right all you Abercrombie jeanwearing, American Eagle t-shirt-having Americans, we went old school...2,000 years old school! We donned dells (traditional Mongolian clothing) given to us by our host families, which looked pretty awesome and felt even cooler to wear. Truth by told, I walk around my place with it on all of the time. It’s very comfy... First all of our fearless leaders, including our Training Managers, Country Director and United States’ Ambassador, said their peace. Then one by one we all walked on stage, snatched our certificates legitimizing our eleven weeks of training, and then got clobbered by our host agency supervisors before we could make it back to our seats. Some of us got bouquets flowers, some got stuﬀed animals like camels and horses, and some (like me) got chess sets and knife holders. Pretty flippin’ sweet. After that we had performances put on by our fellow talented Volunteers. Lucky for all of you out there, I recorded those said performances and you shall see them in due course. Following the final individual performance, we all were called on stage to sing together as an M19 class to a traditional Mongolian song which we had been practicing for a few weeks in our training sites. Everybody in the audience sang along with us and made it that much more fun. It was a wonderful event, but I have to admit it was bittersweet. It was the last thing that we would all be doing together until Christmas when we have InService Training (IST). As much as we were all excited to get to our sites, we were sad to leave our friends. Training has been a wonderful experience and I know we are all going to miss one another. I guess there is only one thing left for us to do: learn how to send text messages to each other on our new cell phones like it is going out of style...
Summer 2008 Pre-Service Training Completed! Thanks for reading my journal thus far, I hope youâ€™ve enjoyed it! This marks the completion of Pre-Service Training and my first two and a half months in Mongolia as a Peace Corps Trainee. It also marks the beginning of my time as a Peace Corps Health Volunteer in Baruun-Urt and Sukhbaatar, about which I am very excited! For the sake of keeping the Travel Journal more manageable, I will start splitting it into parts by season. This first part has lasted through the summer and included all of Pre-Service Training, and the next part will last through the fall and include beginning work in the hospital, moving into my new place, running Sukhbaatarâ€™s first Haunted University, and having my first Christmas away from home in the capital of Mongolia with all of the other Peace Corps Volunteers during IST! As always, I will try to keep things interesting and exciting and look forward to hearing what you all think about all the new journal entries! Thank you for all of your love and support. I miss you all very much and I look forward to talking to you each very soon!