Tag Archives: Peace Corps

The Long Goodbye

Oh man.  Twenty-four hours left in Mongolia.  Nothing much to say about my service at this point.  No lessons, no deep truths, and I ain’t thought about what I really want to write here at all but LET’S DO THIS THING.  THIS BLOG POST.

1. Goodbye, sorta!

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So my teachers scheduled my official “Goodbye Party” for April 27th, when I still had three solid weeks of work left.  Kinda weird, but whatever.  One good thing about the awkward timing is that it gave everybody plenty of opportunities to show cell phone videos of me  singing karaoke to anybody and everybody in the teachers’ lounge.  I do hope the one of me wailin’ away on “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” is preserved for posterity.

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There was eating, and drinking, and merrymaking, and singing, and a little dancing.

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And there was also some present-giving: Here you see Odsuren, Tungalag, and Tsetsegmaa, the three oldest members of the Foreign Language staff (Russian teachers all), presenting me with my goodbye gift: A silver bowl, inscribed with a nice little message from the department about how they wish me luck and happiness in the future (“We had it written in Mongolian, so you won’t be able to forget your language,” my supervisor, Batja, told me.  This was a nice idea, but the inscription is in very flowery cursive Cyrillic, which I never really learned how to read)(I did not mention this; I just arrived home that night and drunkenly demanded Ryan get out of bed to help me decipher the bowl) .

Our Close Of Service (COS) conference had been a week before this party, which was nice, because all of us  COS-ing volunteers had been armed with useful phrases for saying goodbye, and so I was able to make a grammatically correct speech about how time had really flown by, and about how wonderful it had been to work with everybody, and how I would never forget them.

I was able to avoid losing my shit at this time.

2. Goodbye, school

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Oof, this day.  I woke up early, baked about a hundred chocolate chip cookies (in our toaster oven), stuffed them (plus all my goodbye notes, goodbye photos, and Ryan’s Flip camera) into a bag, and set off for my last day at school.

So um I took a bunch of videos instead of pictures, and tried to put the clips together, to music, in a way that was not stupid?  Honestly the more I worked on this thing the dumber it seemed, but here it is and don’t judge me.

At the end of the day, I was sitting in the teachers’ lounge with Batja (who you see in the video, handing out cookies) and a couple of other teachers.  Things seemed to be winding down to a natural stopping point:  All the cookies had been eaten, I’d said goodbye to all the upper-level admin staff when they’d taken me out to lunch at a fancy restaurant, I knew I’d be seeing the English teachers again that weekend for one last hurrah, and I’d given out almost all the notes and photos and CDs I’d meant to give out.  There had also been one last corny joke made by our resident practical joker, Chunak teacher:

CHUNAK
Hey, Katie.  Ban Ki-Moon called.

KATIE
Wha…who?  Did what?

CHUNAK
Ban Ki-Moon.  He called.

KATIE
(still confused)

OTHER TEACHER
Ban Ki-Moon!  Ban Ki-Moon!  The UN guy!

KATIE
Oooooooh.  Yeah.  Uh…what did he say?

CHUNAK
He said you can’t leave.

KATIE
Oh really?

CHUNAK
Yup!  One more year.

KATIE
Well!  Okay.  He is my boss.

CHUNAK
I know right.

So I handed the last few photos to Batja and asked her to give them out to people, and to tell them they were from me, and to say goodbye for me.  “Za,” she said,  “See you Saturday at 12,” and left the room.  I sat around for a little while longer, then gathered my things and said one last round of goodbyes to the teachers in the room.

“Feelin’ good!  Feelin’ great!”  is what I thought as I started walking out of school for the last time.  “Perfectly satisfying day!  No sad feelings after all!”

And then, of course, I turned a corner and saw, for the first time that day, Zoksoo.  I’ve mentioned her before, and here she is, in the middle of this group of cleaning ladies:

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During those first, difficult months at school when I would need to retreat into my office every hour or so to chill out, Zoksoo would wander in and sit down and we’d eat candy and chat.  She didn’t have any hidden agenda, she didn’t want me to teach her or anybody in her family English; she just wanted to talk, and she was patient and friendly with me despite my toddler-level Mongolian.  She was my first real work pal.

So I round the corner and there’s Zoksoo: in her uniform, holding her mop, looking down at the photo Batja had obviously just given her, and smiling.  Immediately and against my will I lose my shit.  We hug and I manage to get out a strangled “I’LL HUH HUH HUH REALLY MISS YOU HUH HURRRK” before, like, literally running down the stairs and out the front door.  Then I cried all the way home.

Ryan was slightly alarmed when I walked into the apartment that day.

3.  Goodbye, teachers, take some stuff willya

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So then!  That Saturday was our scheduled “Come to Katie’s Apartment and Take Her Extra Stuff and Then Drink Some Beers” day, and it was swell.  Below you see Dulguun, the reason one of my teachers has been out on maternity leave all year.  She and her mom are in the bedroom, where I’d spread out all the goodies (teaching materials, clothes, accessories, other random crap) for my teachers to take turns digging through.  I believe Dulguun is chowing down on a Sharpie:

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Then we rolled deep to da club:

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It was a fun last night out with my ladies.

A few weeks before this day, our Regional Officer had come to Erdenet to do one last round of site visits.  Before she went to my school, she asked whether I thought they should get a new volunteer in the fall. I told her of course.  I told her my teachers were great.  I told her that I’d never had to beg to get them to work with me; from the very beginning through the very end, they were eager to lesson plan with me, create materials with me, and teach with me.

Sidenote: I sometimes feel like a boob for not ever doing any big projects at my school.  We never wrote any grants, we never got new books or computers or other stuff, we never started any new programs or clubs or anything like that, and even my weekly (ha yeah right) teachers’ class didn’t really improve anybody’s language or teaching methods (after a while, I figured out what my teachers actually wanted out of these lessons: An opportunity to, every once in a while, sit down and open up their notebooks and practice their English for an hour.  And if I’m being honest with myself, I’m lazy, and so I was more than happy to take the pressure off myself to create a curriculum and assessment tools and etc for this class, and instead just have a random grammar lesson in my back pocket at all times).  But then I remember how fortunate I was to be  able to spend so much time on the basic nuts-and-bolts of language instruction with my teachers.  It’s not glamorous and it doesn’t look that good on a resume, but team teaching (and team lesson planning, and team materials creating) is really solid, capacity-building, sustainable work, and I am thankful, like more thankful than I can say, that so much of my service was just about being in the classroom with my ladies.  They were generous; they let me in.

Anyway, I said yes.  Yes yes yes!  Give them a new volunteer!  They’re so easy to work with!

Then, surprisingly, she said she wasn’t so sure it would be a good idea.  She said when a school gets its first volunteer (which is what I was) and things go well with that volunteer, it can be difficult for another volunteer to come in right away.  Because the teachers’ experience with PCVs is limited to one, they often expect the new volunteer to be just like the old one, and then the new volunteer has to deal with a very intense “Why aren’t you more like Volunteer X?” period.  Which would obviously suck.  I hadn’t thought about this before she mentioned it.  “Maybe my school won’t get an M23 after all,” I thought.

But then she visited my school and  met with my teachers, all of us crammed into my little closet-office that I’d abandoned long ago.  I followed some of the conversation and it was surprisingly bittersweet, sitting in on one last meeting between my teachers and Peace Corps Staff, listening to them  say nice stuff about our work together (some of the stuff was true; some of it was smoke blown up my Regional Director’s butt, but whatevs).

Afterwards, she said it might not be such a bad idea, after all, for my school to get another PCV.  I asked her why; she said that the English teaching staff had a very unusual quality that she doesn’t often see: They all seem to like each other.

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I took a while to get to the point, sorry about that.  But while we were dancing I was reminded of what my Regional Director had said.  My teachers really do like each other.  They like getting together and having fun and cutting loose; nobody’s excluded, nobody’s gossiped about, and while there are different groups of friends, everybody enjoys everybody else’s company.  Ugh man I hit the jackpot with these women.  I hope another PCV gets to hit the jackpot, too.

At the end of the night, everybody walked me home, all the way to our apartment building.  We had a big, drunken group hug, and I was on the verge of losing my shit again when somebody said, “We’ll come meet you in UB in July!  We’ll all come to the train station when you leave for China!”

I was pretty grateful for this little fiction, in the moment.  “Okay!”  I said.  “So…see you in July?”

“Yeah,” they said.  “We’ll see you later.”

4. Goodbye, training

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The next morning, I left for Darkhan and spent two months there, helping to train the new TEFLers.  I’m running out of time here so I dunno how well I can explain what training is like for a trainer, but anyway, it involves one PCV trainer and one Mongolian trainer getting in a microbus in Darkhan, riding two hours out to a training town in the countryside, getting out, co-facilitating a three hour session about Community Development (What does it mean to work as a Peace Corps volunteer?) or TEFL methodology (How the hell do I teach English?) to the group of ten or so trainees who are living in that town for the summer, then getting back on the microbus, riding two hours back to the office in Darkhan, walking home, stuffing your face with whatever is on hand in your trainer apartment and then going to bed at, like, nine thirty. Trainers do other stuff, too (prepare the sessions, evaluate the trainees,  collect trainees’ feedback and respond to it, observe the trainees’ English lessons with local kids, try not to shoot ourselves), but that’s the gist of it.  It’s a lot of work.

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But whatever, this was my second summer so I knew what I was signing up for.  This probably sounds insincere but I do think that training, as flawed as it can sometimes be, is incredibly important and it’s a privilege to be part of the team that (tries to) prepare new volunteers for their service.

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But I didn’t do this again for only selfless reasons, haha, that’s hilarious.  My selfish reasons are as follows:

1.  It was nice to be a trainer at the end of my first year, because leading trainees through these sessions actually clarified a lot of things to me about my service.  It’s weird and kind of a shame, but I think it’s true: The trainers get a lot more out of the sessions than the trainees do.  The sessions about Community Development, especially, are strangely uncompelling as a trainee, and way more interesting after you’ve been in country for a while and struggled to understand where your place is, and what you’re even doing here.

Similarly, being a trainer at the end of my service helped me wrap my head around the last two years.  Something about leading these sessions, talking with the trainees, trying to manage their expectations while still setting them up to succeed, discussing the sessions with the other trainers and wondering HEY what the hell are we trying to say here, what do these people need to know about being a good volunteer anyway argh: It was helpful.  I look back on my service and I know I could have done some things differently, but I did the important stuff right.  I have no regrets.  I am at peace.  Maybe I’m delusional?  Whatever man.

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2.  Also, training is fun!  I mean, parts of it are fun.  The parts that are fun are real fun, though.

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Yep.  Americans and Mongolians workin’ hard, playin’ hard.  Good times.  Love all these people.

3.  Another nice thing about training: I got a pretty good photo of some trash cows.

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Word.

5.  Goodbye, Ryan’s people

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The morning after my job was finished I took a taxi back to Erdenet, walked into the apartment, dropped my bags, said hi to Ryan, and then we headed right back out to Ryan’s Countryside Goodbye Party.

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As you can see, Ryan’s coworkers put on a mighty fine barbeque bonanza at a local ger camp.  Presents were exchanged (for them, photos and notes from Ryan; for us, yak wool sweaters that we sent to the USA the other day, so they’ll be waiting for us in wintry Cleveland), multiple kinds of meat were consumed, there was singing and forced drinking and it was all very Mongolia.

Also everybody brought their kids.  The kids found Ryan irresistible.

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6.  Goodbye, Erdenet

Ah, the most emotionally wrenching goodbye of all.  Good thing I waited until now, 20 minutes before we need to go catch our train to China, to write about it.

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First up: The sitemate goodbye.  This was a months-long goodbye in itself, full of gatherings and karaoke-ings and “Am I going to see you before we leave” ings.

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But really, saying goodbye to PCVs is not too hard.  We hate all these people.

JUST KIDDING what I mean is, we will probably see everybody again, somewhere, somehow, and so I wasn’t too sad.  It’s sad to come to the end of an era, though.  The Erdenet PCVs had a good time together these last two years.  Not everybody gets sitemates who are fun to hang out with, good to talk to, who support you, who understand.  I will miss everybody.  I will miss rollin’ with our crew.

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Next up: Saying goodbye to our city.  We had one week in Erdenet to pack up our shit and get our other shit squared away, and luckily enough, Naadam was happening that same week. So in between bouts of cleaning and packing, we went to the stadium and met with some friends and watched some big fat men wrestle in tiny little outfits.  Erdenet does Nadaam up right, and it was a fun time to be in the city, to say goodbye to our home.

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And finally: The last goodbye to my teachers.  I saw a few ladies at Naadam, and I’ve seen a few more since we came here to Ulaanbaatar, but on our last day in Erdenet, Enkhmaa (below, second from the left, wearing my dress) was kind of our leaving midwife.  She, with Ryan’s boss, helped us gather the last of our things and head to the bus station; once there, she called up everybody who was in town and told them to head to the bus station.

We all stood around and chatted for a while, and I thought I was going to get out of it without losing my shit again.  But then the bus was about to leave and we had to get on board and it was time to hug everybody and say goodbye for real, and I cried like a small child.

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In front of everybody!  What a dirty trick they played on me.

Oh just kidding.

We were so lucky, in everything.

Goodbye, Mongolia.

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Kickin’ it in Erdenet

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One night, a few of us were at a volunteer’s apartment, painting the walls of a poorly ventilated room, listening to tunes, as we do.  A catchy song came on.  Somebody complimented it.  Gracie mentioned a fun video that a dancer made for the song, and we all gathered around the soft glow of YouTube to watch it.

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“OH MY GOD THIS IS SO COOL LET’S DO IT HERE IN ERDENET,” we shrieked, possibly high on paint fumes.  “IT’LL BE EASY! IT WON’T TAKE LONG AT ALL!”

That was four months ago.

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But it’s done now, and in case you haven’t seen our posts all over Facebook (heh sorry), please enjoy:

Well!  There you have it.  The (non-Peace Corps Volunteer) dancers are, basically, those nearest and dearest and most likely to humor us: Coworkers, teachers, students, Movie Night regulars, kiddos from the orphanage, hashaa family members.  In the beginning we envisioned having random people in it (which was delusional; did we really think we would just walk up to old guys in deels on the street and have them do the Dougie for us?) but that’s okay, because this video ain’t about randos anyway.  It’s about remembering the people we know, the people who really matter, the people who are awesome enough to let us film them dancing and then post it on the internet.

Now that it’s over, I just don’t know who I’ll boss around what I’ll do.

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All play and no work

Quick!  Another blog post before rushing off to Ulaanbaatar again!

Did we seriously have another round of visitors last month, you ask? And I sayeth unto you that the answer is yes.  Behold!  Ryan’s parents, in Mongolia, at long last:
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It was extra nice to see them, because:

  • This visit was a long time coming and, for a little while there, it seemed like it might not happen at all;
  • When we go home, we’ll have two more family members with a pretty good idea of what our lives were like here;
  • Charlie bought a fancy new camera for the trip and I relish it when people in my life drink the DSLR Kool-Aid;
  • We had yet another chance to do fun touristy things; and
  • Jan and Charlie possess secret magic powers and lucky shit kept happening, everywhere we went.

I shall now give a full account of the lucky shit.

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Here we have Charlie, sippin’ on some fermented mare’s milk during our visit to Ryan’s host family in Zuunmod.  Airag is a summertime treat, and we had warned Jan and Charlie not to get their hopes up about trying some (a visit to Mongolia without airag!  Horrors!)(I am kidding but also kind of not kidding).  But people freeze a bunch of airag at the end of the summer and then thaw it out for the Tsagaan Sar holiday, see, and so this was the very last bit Ryan’s host mom had on hand.

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Sanja got down on some airag, too.

This is what duder looked like two years ago, by the way:

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Aw.  I imagine it is easy for Ryan to get wistful for little Pre-Verbal Sanja, but — and he mentioned this in his biannual blog post —  he did have this delightful exchange with Post-Verbal Sanja during our visit:

RYAN
Hey, Sanja.

SANJA, LEANING ON RYAN’S ARMREST
Huh.

RYAN
How’s my beard.

SANJA, SMILING FAINTLY
…ugly.

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(Ryan and Sanja, watching two-year-old videos of themselves, GAH)

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Look, it’s all my in-laws!

2. The coolest band in Mongolia
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On Megan and Jay’s first night in Mongolia, when they were loopy with jet lag, we made them sit in a hot, smoky, loud restaurant for more than two hours, insisting that it was worth it, that they couldn’t come to Mongolia and not see Altan Urag.  The band never played, though.  Instead, there was a girl band that did Adele covers.  This was bullshit.

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When Jan and Charlie were here, though, we got the best seats in the house, the band went on right on time, and they played an extra-long set.  This was awesome.

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3.  Photo ops with exotic creatures

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On our way into Terelj National Park, we came across Kazakh Eagle Guy, who I remembered as a persistent roadside presence during my training summer in a nearby town.  Here he is, putting a goddamned vulture on Ryan’s arm:

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(vulture photos will set you back a few more tugriks than eagle photos, FYI)

And then on our way out of Terelj a couple days later, what should we happen upon but everyone’s favorite snout*:

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*The Five Mongolian Snouts: sheep, goats, cows, horses, and camels

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When we drove up, the guy holding the reins was hanging out in the ger camp by himself.  Maybe he was a guard or something, who knows.  When we pointed to the animals out in the field and asked him if Ryan’s parents could go for a little ride, he stuck his hands in his pockets and looked around, craning his neck.  “The camel’s owner isn’t here.  How much?” he asked. “How about 5,000 per person?” we said.  “Yeah okay” he said, and then made the easiest money of his life, I’m guessing.

Sorry, rightful but absentee camel owner!

4. Eternal blue sky

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In between the eagles and the camels, we spent a couple sunny, warm days in the park.  The weather was incredibly mild for Mongolian spring.

Plus, there were kiddos who happily monopolized our time:
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(Ryan is an expert hide and seeker)

And there were horsey rides, which I am not supposed to refer to as “horsey rides” per Jan and Charlie’s request but, I mean, let’s get real, children were leading said horsies for us:

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And there was my favorite photo of the trip, which I will call “How many McGibonys does it take to light a fire?”

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4. Random archery competition in Erdenet, oh man just look at these guys

Look at them!  Holy shit!

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Yeah so we came back to Erdenet and all these awesomely-dressed dudes were milling about in a field, having an archery competition.  There were zero spectators besides us, for reasons I will never understand.  We made some friends, as you can see.  The guy in the gold deel with all the medals was 90 years old.  Ninety.

5. Impromptu concert at the orphanage

Our fifth and final lucky thing:  When we showed up to the orphanage on Saturday morning, it was mayhem; kids were running around, dressed in crazy costumes and frantically practicing dance moves.  People from Coca-Cola Mongolia Headquarters were on their way, we were told.  And so it came to pass that we got to sit in on the most adorable dance recital ever.

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You will be seeing some of the kids’ moves very soon, because they have been incorporated into our Super Secret Erdenet Video Project that is almost ready to be unveiled.  To prepare yourself, please watch this:

Thank you.  And now we are off to Ulaanbaatar for our Close of Service Conference, where we will talk about feelings.  Have a wonderful weekend, please.

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Juulchin bi*

To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.

— David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster

So hey, my sister and her boyfriend came to visit!

Here they are, imposing themselves on some camels.

I kid!  What I mean is: Here they are, riding some badass camels on our super fun, five-day trip through the countryside.  I thought about that DFW quote a lot, when I wasn’t thinking about how to warm up my feet, or about when my body was going to stop tormenting me and let me shit on the bare, cold ground already (the answers to those two questions, in case you were wondering: take off one pair of socks; Day 3, midmorning).

I think he’s right. Everybody loves to travel; nobody likes being a tourist.  By “everybody” I of course mean “people exactly like me,” i.e. privileged, self-obsessed kinda people, who want to see the world and experience new things and accumulate photos for their Facebook albums, but who also want to differentiate themselves from all the other assholes doing the same thing.  If you’re a Peace Corps Volunteer in a country that sees any number of tourists, you basically win this pissing contest, all the time, for two years.  Oh yeah, that’s really cool how you’re passing through for a couple weeks with your backpack and your gross dreads.  You know, I’d love to stay in this guesthouse common room and talk with you some more, but I have to get myself and my proficiency in the language and my knowledge of the local customs to the bus station, so I can go home to my site where I live and work and do lots of authentic things every day with people in my community.  But have fun on your little Jeep trip to the Gobi!  Douchebag!

(I try not to let my thoughts about tourists/myself get quite so dark and slimy [mostly because, from July to November, we too will be thrillseeking short-timers passing through with our backpacks and our gross dreads], but you see what I’m saying)

Given these attitudes, it probably seems weird for a Peace Corps Volunteer to fork over a bunch of cash and become a greedy, parasitic tourist in her own host country. What is happening to my cred right now? is what I wondered in that van as we bumped along the roads.  Who am I becoming?  Am I…existentially loathsome?

Probably, but who gives a shit!  I’m so glad that, twice now, we’ve had the chance to do touristy things with family.  I could go on about the concept of authentic travel, how it’s different here than in other countries, what it means to have an “authentic” travel experience anyway, and whether it is perhaps about “having a big emotional experience that validates privilege,” but whooooooooo really cares here is Ryan with a puppy:

Now then!  Some highlights.

When I e-mailed Khongor about arranging this trip, I said we wanted the following things: 1) A driver, 2) a guide, 3) a horsey ride, and 4) at least one family homestay.  We got what we asked for…and more.  To wit:

1.

Here’s our driver, Lhagva, with his Russian steed.  Here are the facts about Lhagva:

  • He was a good sport about letting Jay kick his ass in Uno
  • He maybe didn’t like the Mongolian hip-hop cassette tape we bought at a roadside stand?
  • He was pretty tickled when, during a card game, Ryan had to declare himself the prettiest lady in Mongolia
  • He didn’t lose his cool when the van got stuck in that hole
  • If the rocks you gathered for the hot-rock goat barbeque are shitty, he will tell you so
  • If you want to take a picture of a small child with a stuffed pony, he will arrange the child and the pony just so for you
  • He is a treat

2.

Here is Hoogii, our guide, with one of the many delicious baby animals we encountered on this trip (as it turns out, visiting Mongolia in March is good for one thing: Lambs and kids e’erywhere).

Hoogii was in charge of keeping us well informed and, more importantly, well fed.  I’m still having dreams about the fried dough she made us for breakfast.

So here’s Hoogii, scaling fish for our lunch:

This was in a ger we stopped at for an afternoon; our host was the caretaker of a tiny museum near the Turkic Khar Bukh ruins:

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Somewhat of a character, is what this guy was.  While his silent wife served us tea and Hoogii prepared lunch, he showed us his photo albums, his awards and his certificates.  Bustling around, he said, “Now I don’t have anything else interesting to show you!”  But then he thought of something else. He turned to Ryan and asked, “Would you like to translate some of my poems?”  Ryan was like “…sure?” and the guy was all “GREAT give me a second, they’re out in the car.”

He returned with a stack of papers and notebooks and picked out a poem about Tsogt Taij, a soldier, nobleman, scholar, poet, gentlemen, et cetera, from the 17th century, and we (mostly Ryan and Hoogii) labored over the thing for what seemed like forever (probably two hours).  I reproduce the finely wrought fruit of our labors here, for you, and for posterity:

Tsogt Taij

Mongolia’s bravest young men
Drank of the Tuul River
Its waters swiftly flow past the banks
In my homeland, birthplace of kings

Heroes fought valiantly
To protect the king’s vast treasures
As he sat on the mountain, Tsogt’s mind awakened
And a poem for his sister flowed from his pen

He devoted his life to his country,
Home of heroes
Where the archers’ arrows whistle
Through the summer air

Beneath the twinkling stars
He was a teacher and a poet
Beneath the mountain’s rainbow
Young minds blossomed at his school

The sun still shines upon the eternal poem
Carved into stone by his people
Inspired by his leadership
In his youth

He punished his son for his betrayal
He respected his nation’s history
He lived virtuously
And died for his country

Time flows through history
In Mongolia, land of many spirits
But the iron will of Khalkh Tsogt, grandson of Ochir Khaan
Will never be forgotten

Dude
We just stopped here so we could cook lunch
And look at the ruins real quick
WTF

(We didn’t really add that last part)

3.

As you have seen by now, we got to ride a whole lot more than horsies.

Oh baby.

This was Day 2; we showed up to our host family’s homestead in the afternoon and learned that, yes, they had a herd of camels, but no, they hadn’t seen them lately.  Like, for months.  Dad and son were already out on a motorbike, searching the countryside for them.  At some point, Mom told Hoogii and Lhagva to play some anklebone games with us, and then she just…walked out into the hills.  So we played our games and wandered around a little.

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Two hours later, she came back.

No idea how she did this.

Dad and son returned later that night, with no news of the rest of the herd.  Hoogii told us a story about a family that couldn’t find their herd, either, so they called around for a while until they talked to somebody who’d seen the camels 500 kilometers away.  Did you know camels were so wanderlusty?  Me neither.

We also learned that camels don’t just spit when they’re angry; they also projectile vomit.  For Your Information.

The next morning, we got some pony rides in while Lhagva warmed up the van.

Our guide was the son, who cuts quite a figure on his horse:

Up until that morning, he had mostly been eyeing us warily; once he and I were trotting around the hills, though, he had lots of questions about Erdenet.  Was it big?  Was the weather nice?  Where did I work?  How many kids went to my school?  Did Erdenet have a winter Naadam celebration?  And so on.  It was a real nice chat.  By which I mean, we had a mutually understandable chat, and that fact is nice to me.

Oh man, I have 15 minutes to wrap this shit up.  OKAY!

4.

So!  Family homestays!  We did not one, but three.  These were our hosts for the first night:

It was there that we manhandled our first baby goats, and where we taught Jay a phrase that would become very useful for the rest of the trip:  “Would you like to drink a beer?”


Our second family was the family with the camels.  The third family was special: They were complete strangers to Lhagva and Hoogii, and had no idea we were coming.  We just drove up and asked to stay the night.  They said yes, and then spent the evening playing Uno with us and plying us with massive amounts of homemade milk vodka.  Mongolia!

(how old do you think the parents are?  We guessed 19)

There are so many other things to say but I have to go now because we have MORE VISITORS!  Holy crap!  Bye!

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*”I, tourist.”  This title is, basically, an inside joke for just Ryan and me, as it refers to a song called “Uurhaichin bi” (“I, miner”), which my coworker’s miner/singer husband is semi-famous for singing, and the music video for which is on a bitchin’ “Songs of Erdenet” DVD he gave us last year  (sadly, this video doesn’t seem to exist on the internet, although you can watch a less-awesome version here).  Do you see how marginally clever my blog post title is, now?  Good.

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Spring has sprung

Hello there.  We are spring-ing well in Erdenet, now that Tsagaan Sar has passed and winter is (officially, but probably not really quite) over.  ‘Tis the greatest of follies to start bragging about how warm it is this soon, but whatever, it’s consistently above zero Fahrenheit and I ain’t been wearing my long johns for the last week and this is a glorious thing indeed.

Like my fellow member of the Peace Corps Mongolia Full Frame DSLR Ballers Club, I’m going to just go straight to the photos:

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Here we have Bat-Erdene (far right), his family, and their alcohol- and animal-product-free Tsagaan Sar spread.  They own a vegan cafe here in town that the Peace Corps Volunteers are constantly eating at (especially me; Bat-Erdene gave me some shit about how I get takeout buuz from his place just about every damn day), and it was a treat to visit them and eat of their delicious-ass food.  Whenever I tell people that we visited a family for Tsagaan Sar that doesn’t consume vodka, meat, or dairy, they scoff and say, “They’re not real Mongolians.”  Yeah well whatever, man.

This is Bat-Erdene’s daughter, who was too much of a diva to be in the family picture.  Work it, girl.

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Here is my coteacher Lhagva with the oldest resident of the 1st Microdistrict, i.e., her granny.  Grams is 88 years old, has 40 great-grandchildren, and is the sweetest little old lady, so don’t be fooled by her Stoic Mongol Photo-Face.  According to Lhagva, for the rest of the holiday, Grams delightedly informed all her guests about the foreigners that came by.

Lhagva’s niece and daughter, all dolled up for picture time.

There was a weird (but no longer surprising) moment when the mother of the girl in pink looked at the girls sitting together, let out a satisfied sigh, and said, “Brown and yellow!”  She was referring to their skin tones, with “yellow” being the way people here describe caucasian-looking skin.  If you’re a politically correct, liberal-arts type of whitey, this always makes for disorienting conversations that take you to the absolute frontier of what our kind are comfortable talking about:

YOU
Well, so, white people —

MONGOLIAN
Wait, who are ‘white people?’

YOU
Oh!  Uh, well, white people are people who look…like me?  You know?  With my skin color?

MONGOLIAN
You’re not white!  You’re yellow.

YOU
I’m yellow?  Haha that’s funny because…oh jesus never mind.

Anyway.  I could live here for 50 years and still not come close to understanding all of the cultural undercurrents running beneath that “brown and yellow,” but I’mma just go ahead and say that lady was being an a-hole.  She also made a couple of loud, prideful comments about how her kids “look like Russians,” while Lhagva’s daughter just kinda sat there and squirmed and felt really good about herself, I’m sure.

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Yes well enough about girl children and the slow, inevitable destruction of their self-esteem: Look at this!  It’s my favorite photo from the holiday, because it has everything:  Dude bringing it with his deel and his hat; TV with holiday programming on (i.e., people in traditional clothing striding around the countryside and singing); Chinggis Khaan’s family tree hanging on the wall; Mongolian flag in the corner; table piled with food and drink; traffic cops laughing at me for taking photos.

Thumbs up for Tsagaan Sar!

(Although I really want you to believe that Ryan and his boss are giving each other a mutual thumbs-up in this photo, I will tell you the truth:  They’re playing a game kinda like rock-paper-scissors, except with fingers, where certain fingers “beat” other fingers)

(I lost a few seconds after this)

The haircutting ceremony.  We actually got to do two of these in one day; the other kid was awake for her ceremony, which was much cuter.  Her mom would hand her the scissors and a little bag for the money, and she would trot up to a guest and hold still while they cut off a bit of hair and gave her a crisp bill.

So that was the last official day of Tsagaan Sar.  But wait!  There’s more!

Here’s our department, visiting a retired Russian teacher for lunch one day last week.

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We had Mongolian Deel Day at school, where everybody dressed up all nice and took millions of pictures and greeted each other with the traditional “Amar baina uu?”

This is Chunak Teacher, a notorious flirt and joker.  We have this thing now where I’ll ask him, “Who do you love today, Teacher?”  And he’ll say, “Only you, my darling.  And our director.”

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Our school’s carpenter and electrician.  If you’re having trouble recognizing the guy on the right, it’s because he was wearing makeup the last time you saw him.

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Me and my new boyfriend.

(My camera battery died right at the beginning of Mongolian Deel Day, which was a huge bummer.  But, on the other hand, it was very satisfying to march into the training manager’s office the other day, thrust my flash drive in his face, and demand all his photos.  If only I knew how to say “My, how the tables have turned”)

My supervisor, looking super cute.  This shot is actually part of an ongoing video project we’re doing here in Erdenet, and it will be amazing, I mean it already is amazing, it’s pretty much all we think about these days and don’t worry, you won’t miss it, because we will be obnoxiously posting it all over the internet when it’s finished.

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And here’s my supervisor again, hosting the English teachers at her home, handing around some fermented mare’s milk.

On the way out, I was thanking her and her husband for inviting me, and the other teachers started teasing me.  “Ask Batja when she’ll invite you again!” they said.  “Ask her!  Ask her!”  Batja grinned and said, “You guys can come to my home on Women’s Day. We’ll have a big party.”

But Women’s Day is this Thursday, and so I shan’t be coming to the party, because I’ll be at the airport picking up our visitors!  Megan and Jay, if you want to be greeted with a big bowl of fermented mare’s milk, just let me know, I’ll make it happen.

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Kiddos

1.

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Ah, teachers’ day.  This photo was taken at some kind of ceremony honoring three of our teachers (one from each ‘generation’ [young, mid-career, and recently retired], although I couldn’t tell you why these three teachers were chosen); the girls were acting in a skit about the retired teacher’s life, I think.  The previous sentence gives you a good idea of how much I know what’s going on at any given time.

All four of these girls are teachers’ kids.  Thanks to Mongolia’s lack of hangups about keeping work and family separate, I see them scampering around the teachers’ room every day: Preening in front of the mirror, practicing their cursive at the table, waiting for their mothers to finish work and take them home.   They used to stare at me in silent horror, but now we are buds (when I’m doing anything interesting on my laptop).

The three honorees.  From left to right: Baaska, math teacher and insanely good basketball player; Mystery Retired Physics Teacher I’ve Never Been Introduced To; and Doogii, English teacher and possibly the kindest person I’ve ever met.

One of the first units Doogii and I taught together this year was with a group of no-good middle schoolers.  I walked into the room that day and immediately recognized them as the kids I’d most hated to teach last year.  Glued to their cell phones.  Openly disrespectful to their teachers.  Slobberingly servile to their Alpha Mean Girl.  Cretins, every last one of them.

Right away I’m thinking, “Oh, great, I can’t wait to watch these boneheads walk all over sweet, sweet Doogii for the next 40 minutes.”  But they were quiet, and attentive, and on task.  And then — and then! — the next day, when it turned out none of them had done their homework, Doogii folded her hands and gently lectured them about responsibility, hard work, and the importance of taking charge of your own education.  Heads bowed in shame, and hands fiddled guiltily, and on Alpha Miss Thang’s face, I saw actual remorse.

So that’s Doogii.  What a gangsta.

Here’s part of Doogii’s career retrospective display.  We spent hours setting this thing up before the ceremony.  I show you this mostly because I want you to see the “анхны төгсөлт” and “3 дахь төгсөлт” slips of paper, which were hand-lettered by yours truly.  My supervisor handed me the papers and the pen and told me, “You will write these, because your letters are the nicest,” and thus came to pass the most triumphant moment in my Mongolian language learning.

(They kind of translate to “first graduation” and “third graduation,” because those are pictures of her first and third, um, class classes, like a group of students she not only taught English to but also was kind of a homeroom teacher/den mother to?  For many years, each?  I don’t know why I thought I needed to explain this part of the Mongolian  Education System just now, forgive me)

Back to the children, please!

2.

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That’s better.  This is Namuuntsetseg, the biggest, most shameless flirt in the hospital children’s ward.

A couple of traveling PCVs came through town to put on music therapy seminars, and so we got to hang out and take some pictures and listen to some tunes.

This baby is having his mind blown by the hokey-pokey.

3.

At the orphanage last Saturday, Erdenekhuu (reclining, peace sign, striped shirt, cool guy expression) grabbed my camera and went to town.  Every time I asked for it back, he waved me away with a “hold on a minute.”  Things devolved into a posed-photo fest as all the other kids yelled for him to take every possible group photo (“Now me!  Now me with her!  Now the three of us!” etc etc etc):

But he got some pretty awesome candids too, I thought:

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I’ll have to thank him for taking my Picture Of The Day for me.

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The week in photos: I like being inside

But then, who doesn’t.

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I’ve spent way too much time thinking about winter footwear in this country.  Pictured above are the fifth and (half of) the fourth pairs of boots I’ve bought since moving to Mongolia.  It will be a miracle if these guys last the rest of the winter.  The fake leather is starting to flake off in ways I can no longer disguise with shoe polish. The Shoe Repair Guy, who is a chilly, inaccessible iceberg of a man, has seen me so often lately that he actually twisted up his mouth into a semblance of a smile the other day and begrudgingly asked, “So…what do you do?”

I mean, I guess it’s nice that I’m making friends with Shoe Repair Guy but THESE GODDAMNED BOOTS.

I’m going to stop myself before I write a treatise on overpriced crap Chinese-made boots, so if there are any incoming PC/Mongolia lady volunteers reading this, hear my cry: Consider bringing a pair or two of nice, high-quality, knee-high leather boots with you.  They will save you a lot of grief, and a lot of tugriks.

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Ryan came home from work on Monday and asked, “How was your real birthday?”  I said, “It was okay.  I took a nice picture of myself.”  He said, “Well…I guess you deserve it.”

(I also bought myself a bottle of fish sauce)

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This is what the courtyard looks like late at night, when you’ve just realized that you haven’t taken your daily photo yet.

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This is what the refrigerator looks like late at night, when you’ve just realized you haven’t taken your daily photo yet, and you’ve already taken a picture of the courtyard.

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This is us, having a moment of weakness on Thursday.  Ryan was out at our weekly English Movie Night with the other volunteers; I was home, being sick.  At around 8, he burst in the door with an insane gleam in his eyes.  “What’s going on?” I asked.  “There’s a puppy in the stairwell,” he said.  “And I took a video of it!”

So we watched the video, and wrung our hands for a little bit, and had our usual conversation (“Can we bring it inside?  We can’t bring it inside.  That’s a bad idea.  Maybe just for a little bit?  No, we can’t”), except this time, we did not make the mature decision.  Look how cute she is!

She did us the favor of acting like a total shithead right away, gnawing on our heels and tearing at our rug and barking at us.  “Oh right!” we said.  “We just remembered: You can’t stay here.”

So we made her a plate of rice and milk and took her outside.  “So long, Shithead,” we said.  Ten minutes later, she somehow made her way back inside the stairwell and showed up at our door.  So Ryan took her outside again.  And we haven’t seen her since.  Good luck out there, Shithead!

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The sun comes up at about 8:40 these days.  Which makes it easier to sleep in on the weekends, at least.

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Here: Evidence that I went outside.  I think I should limit myself to one “livestock in the city” shot per week.  Please hold me to this.

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I’m going to try some sneaky shooting from the hip this year.  Mostly because I still can’t get up the courage to ask the really cool-looking old timers for a photo.

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