Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving, all!

Today I’m celebrating with the other PCVs in our aimag. The rumor that Peace Corps sends us turkeys every year has not, as of yet, proven fruitful; instead, for reasons not entirely clear to me, we are eating fish tacos.

In honor of the holiday, here’s a list of things I’m grateful for here in Mongolia.

1. A monthly stipend that is guaranteed to cover my living expenses, and that would be adjusted (for the next set of PCVs, if not for me) if it didn’t. In the U.S., a job is worth whatever it’s worth per hour or year, and if it’s not enough to make ends meet, well, you have to work more or give things up. And while the tugrik-to-dollar exchange rate means I’ll never build a savings account worth carrying over to the States, I’ll be given a fairly substantial “adjustment” sum when I finish my time here.

2. On a similar note, although medical facilities are more limited in Mongolia than in the U.S., my health care is entirely covered by Peace Corps. There are two doctors on staff, with a regular office number and an all-hours emergency number. In case of a serious medical issue, Peace Corps arranges for any necessary transportation and appointments — whether at a local hospital, with Peace Corps doctors, or with a specialist in Ulaanbaatar. It’s a weight off my mind to have competent professionals dedicated to our needs and no need to worry about the logistics of expense.

3. A flexible schedule/set of projects and priorities that I define in collaboration with my supervisor and counterparts. I am super motivated to complete projects I care about, but I struggle when forced to spend large amounts of time on activities when I don’t see the benefit. (I have a vivid memory of my tenth-grade Spanish teacher almost begging me to do an extra credit assignment that would bump my final grade up three points — and I refused, because I wasn’t going to learn anything from the assignment and it would bore me.) Likewise, I work very well with a schedule that allows me to take breaks or work at home during hours when I’m not actively collaborating with someone.

4. The chance to flex my fledgling wings as a teacher and learn that not only am I pretty good at it, I actually enjoy it. I’ve been wrestling with teaching as a profession for most of my (brief) adult life: my interests and values mean I gravitate toward it, but I was never sure I had the personality type to love it. While I think I will always struggle working within a public school curriculum — for the same reasons I mentioned above — I expect that when I settle down, I’ll end up teaching in some capacity. I firmly believe that mentoring and passing on knowledge is one of the foundations of community. Learning new things is a joy for me, and I really do enjoy the opportunity to pass on that joy when I can.

5. The opportunity to learn not just one, but two new languages. Language is one of my favorite things, but I’ve never had a motivator to learn one before. Having experienced some of the difficulties of a second-language speaker, I’m all the more impressed by the excellent non-native speakers I’ve met, both in Mongolia and in the U.S.

6. The experience of traveling to a new part of the world, and the chance to see more of Mongolia with my vacation time this summer. Taking risks like travel opens my eyes to opportunities that never would occur to me, in the States.

7. More immediately and mundanely, the fact that I will be going to UB for in-service training next month. I miss Western food and the American friends scattered across the country.

8. My fellow Peace Corps Mongolia volunteers. I’ve made friends here that I know I can rely on, who have seen me — especially during PST — more vulnerable and in need of support than I ever like to be. Some of them have come through for me magnificently, and I know at least a few of the friendships I’ve made will last well beyond our end of service.

9. My host community. My counterparts have invited me into their homes, introduced me to their families, checked that I am learning the language (көп жайырақ) and that my apartment is warm (very), brought me to their celebrations, told me about their traditions, asked about mine and the friends and family I miss…the list goes on. The teachers at my school sometimes ask a lot of me, just as they ask a lot of themselves, but I have never doubted their sincere care and appreciation for me.

10. Y’all reading this blog. As much as I enjoy being here (and as hard as I can be to reach sometimes) I do miss home a lot. Sometimes I worry I’ve left people behind for good in coming here — or that people will move on without me. And, well, in some cases I’m sure that’s a reality. But every comment you make, every like or favorite you mark, and every private email or message you send me serves as a reminder that there are people in the States who are interested in what I do and want to stay in touch.


And here are some things I will not be taking for granted when I return to the U.S.:

1. Washing machines and dishwashers. It’s amazing how much time they save.

2. Instant meals and takeout — ditto. While there are guanzes — small cafes that serve Mongolian or Kazakh food for cheap — pretty much everywhere in Mongolia, they are sit-down and often only serve meat-and-flour staples and tea.

3. Clean air. I’m glad everybody is staying warm this winter, but the air pollution gives me an impressive cough if I go outside during prime coal-burning time.

4. Water that doesn’t have to be boiled or filtered. To be clear, it’s not that the water in Mongolia is somehow especially dirty — it isn’t — it’s that the bacteria in it are different from the bacteria in U.S. water. While the water in our part of the country doesn’t usually make us sick, and I can usually get by with drinking the pot of water I boiled for tea all day, it’s a pain to haul my filter out when I have company, and to have to rely on bought bottled water if I travel.

5. GREEN THINGS, in the sense of landscape as well as vegetables.

6. Central heating that is controlled by a thermostat in my reach, rather than whatever temperature the government of Mongolia says my building ought to be at.

7. Free English-language public libraries. There is only one in Bayan-Ulgii, and while its contents are pretty impressive for a place in which English is not people’s second but their fourth language[1], it would fill up less than one wall of even the tiny local branch I lived near in the States.

8. Good mattresses. Right now I sleep on an air mattress, and am super glad for it. It’s fairly common, in Mongolia, for beds to consist of one or two mattress pads (which, to give a sense of the thickness, can also be used as comforters) balanced on a frame by way of wooden boards or planks. My mattress during PST was literally held up by two-by-fours.

9. Being able to walk into a shop or a meeting certain I will understand what’s going on and be able to communicate my needs and desires — though hopefully I will be able to achieve this before I even leave Mongolia.

10. Chicken.


[1] Obviously, Kazakh is the first and Mongolian the second. As I understand it, kids start Russian class either slightly before or concurrently with English.

On Russian jeeps and the Kazakh question particle

Last weekend, at the end of our term break, another PCV and I went to visit a friend in a soum about two hours from the aimag center.

Public transportation is interesting in Mongolia. Although the vast majority of the roads are not paved, there are a bunch of ways to get around.

For long distance:
Planes fly from Ulaanbaatar to some aimag centers. It only takes three hours to fly from Ulaanbaatar to Ulgii center, but it costs about 200,000 tugriks one way — a round trip is more than my monthly stipend. PCVs generally only take plane trips when someone else is paying.
Bus routes run through major population centers and theoretically operate on a regular schedule (though breakdowns are regrettably frequent). Visitors to Bayan-Ulgii take the bus from Ulaanbaatar along the paved road west, which hits most of the southern aimag centers. This is the cheapest way to travel long distances, although for us it would be a two- to three-day trip.

For travel within the aimag, or to nearby aimags, you go to the square where drivers congregate, pick a vehicle you like the look of, and chat with the driver to book a seat. Drivers often have a routine destination and departure time, for which they charge a fixed price, but if you have a big group and are friends with a driver, you can sometimes hire them for special trips.
Mikrs are the most common transport, in most parts of the country, for daylong or weekend trips. The word mikr comes from the Mongolian cognate for microbus. These are vans (usually silver) which seat around 8 people.
– In the west, the roads through the mountains are a little rough, especially in winter. So we have purgons, which are like mikrs except Russian, uncomfortable, and virtually indestructible. Private drivers often own Land Cruisers, and some public drivers use the indestructible equivalent, the Russian jeep.
Taxis are usually used to get around within an aimag center or a city. You can drop by a taxi stand or hail one on the street and pay a couple hundred to a thousand tugriks. People don’t usually take taxis long distances, although it’s theoretically possible.

In my aimag, drivers come to the aimag center around midmorning and leave in the late afternoon. Jake and I agreed to meet at the drivers’ plaza in the market at noon to claim our seats.

When I arrived at the market, Jake was already waiting next to a powder-blue Russian jeep. “I like these,” he said, and since I had no preference I agreed. Jake got the driver’s attention and asked, in Kazakh, when he was leaving. The driver held up — I thought — four fingers.

“Үш,” Jake said. Three.

The driver put down his hand and nodded enthusiastically. Jake checked that the driver charged the usual price, shook hands, and prepared to go.

“Үш ме?” I asked, just to be sure.

The driver nodded again and held up three fingers.

We returned to the plaza at three and, predictably, sat around in the jeep for forty-five minutes. Finally a third passenger embarked and we drove off…only to pull over a one-minute drive down the road, so the driver and the other passenger could spend twenty minutes trying to call people. Finally the other passenger got out, and we left again…only to stop at the supermarket, where he loaded some packages into the trunk of his jeep.

Then he crossed the road, hopped in a taxi, and left us.

Meanwhile, the third passenger returned. He asked Jake[1] where the driver had gone.

“Білмеймін,” Jake said. I don’t know. At the other passenger’s puzzled look he added, “Такси.”

Eventually the driver returned. He pulled a jacket out of the engine of his jeep, which he used to blanket a big chunk of scrap metal that he tied to the back of the vehicle. Then a woman got into the jeep and we were off…to drop the woman off at her home.

Jake asked the other passenger when we were leaving, and the other passenger laughed and said we were sleeping in the aimag center tonight.

We drove to the edge of the city and stopped in front of a хашаа. The driver got out, and Jake asked the other passenger, again, when we were leaving. The passenger looked at his watch and said, “Бір сағат” — in an hour. Then he said, “Сегіз, тоғыз” — eight, nine — and gestured to the seats.

Jake asked, “Төрт, төрт?” and indicated that there would be four people in the front, four in the back.

The man laughed and gestured that there would be people sitting on our laps. “Кем жоқ па?” No big deal?

“Кем жоқ,” Jake affirmed.

We collected a few people from the хашаа, and then the driver stopped at a gas station. He got out, talked to the station operator, then returned to the door and stared at me.

I stared back.

Jake passed over money for both of us.

I had a brief moment of hope that, finally — around 6:00 — we were leaving. But then the driver pulled into another хашаа and loaded up two more people. I was wedged between Jake and the corner of the jeep. And then, at the next хашаа, three more people lined up outside the door.

The driver opened the door and stared at me.

I asked, “Німіне?” even though I knew what was coming.

Jake edged me out of my seat, and, resigned, I sat in his lap.

Finally, at 6:30, well after sunset, we began our trip down an unlit dirt road.

Within fifteen minutes, one of my legs had gone numb. Despite the height of the jeep’s ceiling, I had to bend my head to keep from bumping it, and eventually just rested my chin on the driver’s seat.

“Кем жоқ па?” the third passenger asked Jake after about half an hour of this.

“Кем жоқ,” Jake repeated.

The passenger — who also had somebody on his lap — laughed a little and said, “Маған кем жоқ емес.” It’s not nothing to me.

“Менде,” I muttered. Me neither.

“Сенде кем жоқ емес па?”

“Ие.”

The whole jeep started laughing, and everyone brought out their favorite adjective. “Жаксы емес па? Жаман ба? Өте жаксы ма? Тамаша ма?”

“Жоқ! Тамаша емес!” No, it’s not excellent!

Shortly after this, the driver stopped in the middle of the steppe so that we could all stretch our limbs. When we got back in, I arranged myself so that I was fighting to stop my knees from bruising against the door latch instead of fruitlessly attempting to maintain feeling in my legs.

Now, there is a soum approximately halfway between the aimag center and our destination. We knew from our friend that it was not uncommon for people to be dropped off here. I figured that was why there were so many people in the jeep — surely the driver didn’t intend to torture us for two hours straight? — and was excited when we got into cell range and one of the passengers placed a phone call describing his location.

We approached the line of lights that marked the soum’s existence. We drove into the lights. We drove through the lights. We drove over a bridge, and though I strained my eyes, I could see no further lights in the distance.

As the soum receded behind us, I gave up hope of even a moment’s comfort on our journey.

We finally reached our destination around 8:30. Our friend met us at our dropoff point. She’d been worried, since we’d taken five and a half hours to make a two-hour trip and had been out of cell range for the majority of it.

“Oh,” she said when she saw our vehicle. “You took a Russian jeep. You never take the Russian jeep!”

Suffice to say that I had learned my lesson.


[1] Out of those of us working in the Kazakh region, Jake has the best grasp of the language. This is partly because he goes out of his way to make small talk in Kazakh. People mostly addressed him on the trip, rather than me, because he chatted with them and made it clear he understood what was going on.

Perspectives

I gather that the end of the last post was a shocker for some of you reading this blog. Those of you in the States, reading a basically funny story, weren’t expecting the troublesome goat to die.

I’ve been playing it off as a bit of a cruel trick on my part — my laugh at your expense. But the truth is, I had forgotten to take your perspective into account. Pets aren’t really a concept in Mongolia; all animals are workers, dairy producers, or meat. And then the goat got eaten is a punchline most of my Peace Corps friends would anticipate.

I mean…it was shocking, in my first few weeks, to see a discarded goat head or a random thighbone by the side of the road. When my host mom slaughtered a sheep in honor of relatives visiting from Ulaanbaatar, I hightailed it off to class. And — yes — it was upsetting, after the goat was taken away, to hear its mate pace and bleat next to my ger all night.

But at the end of the day, these animals represent their owners’ economic livelihood, their ability to eat. They’re not pets. They’re not companions. They’re for looking after, not for interacting with. And you get to understanding that, after a while, or at least tolerating it.[1]

So I guess I’ve developed a sort of callousness when it comes to the animals here. Is that a sad thing? I don’t really think so. I haven’t lost the ability to empathize or to care about animals; but I recognize the necessity of protein to a limited diet in a cold country, and I see the advantage of laughing about slaughter time. It would be prohibitively exhausting to grieve over every meal.

The dissonance between my perspective and some readers’ was an eye-opener, though. It brought home to me that I’ve changed in the last five months without realizing it. And last week, as I was doing the preliminary paperwork for our December training session, I realized that the majority of people who share this experience — the network of PCVs currently serving in Mongolia — live two, three, four days’ travel from me, and can expect to see me maybe three or four times total before we leave Mongolia for all corners of the globe. My three months of PST were the most time I was ever going to spend with volunteers (excepting my sitemates, of course), and I’m not sure I completely understood or appreciated that time while I had it. That’s the hardest thing, for me, about living in the most distant aimag.

It’s funny, though, how you manage to meet kindred people everywhere you go.

There are a handful of other Americans living in the aimag: volunteers, tourists, and expats. I had the distinct pleasure of meeting up with some of them this past weekend.

On Saturday I got lunch with a couple working in the aimag on sabbatical. The woman was an RPCV and had met her husband in her country of service. They’re leaving in a week or two and wanted to pass their unfinished projects on to those of us remaining in the aimag. It was funny, listening to the RPCV — she’d served in a completely different country, but her stories had a familiar thread. You develop a keen sense of the absurd, working in an unfamiliar language with unfamiliar customs and no idea what’s going to happen next. Even stories about being tired, frustrated and homesick become funny in the telling. For a little while I felt myself as part of a community that stretches all across the world.

On Sunday, I helped out with an aimag-wide Halloween party for students, run by another PCV. The other PCV had randomly met an American tourist earlier that day, and she came to the party and hung out with us afterward. She was from New York (albeit the eastern part of the state) and it was both strange and refreshing to get the perspective of someone from outside the Peace Corps system.

Among other things, she criticized some Peace Corps policies — the requirements for taking vacation days (which are pretty strict) and the universal rule that PCVs may not ride motorcycles. “It seems — almost paternal,” she protested, and in the middle of arguing the reasoning behind the rules I remembered how, before I came here, I would have said (and did say!) the same thing. I’m not sure what changed, or when. Have I stopped taking a critical perspective because I spend so much energy trying to make sense of an unfamiliar culture, or do I understand Peace Corps logic better after being mired in it? And are either of those a good thing?

This is a bit of a disjointed and reflective post, but it’s a good time for reflecting. First term has ended and I’m in the middle of my weeklong break. I was a bit burnt out and frustrated by the end of term, and last week — when I had a bit of a breather due to exams — I talked with my supervisor about retooling my schedule to give me time to recharge (and study Kazakh!). I’ve been reconnecting with friends here and home, rethinking my priorities, and trying to brainstorm ways to build better social bonds with my Kazakh community next term. There’s a lot of opportunities for projects at a big school filled with hardworking teachers, and I’m starting to realize that I have to set boundaries, make my priorities clear, and put a bigger emphasis on balance if I want to stay in this for the long haul. Hopefully next term will start on a good note.


[1] Dogs and cats are a different story. Feral dogs are a problem in some parts of the country, dog training is not really a concept, and Mongolians/Kazakhs are in general afraid of dogs. This continues to make me sad. Cats are generally completely disregarded because mice are not a problem and, well, what do you do with a cat that’s not a mouser? I still see them around town sometimes, though.