|The archive is where we'll be putting all the old stuff. Surprising isn't it?|
Posted December 25th, 2004
It's Christmas in Mongolia! Sorry we've been so slow to write lately. Since Thanksgiving we spent time in UB for our In Service Training conference (IST). IST was great, the Peace Corps put us up at a nice resort outside of UB where the food wasn't bad and we had hot showers and toilets with seats in our room. Besides some ok workshops, IST was a great chance to catch up with all of our friends from the summer, hear millions of stories about ger life, and be really thankful that we have an apartment.
UB was a also a chance for us to purchase a lot of nice food to bring home like mustard, curry and some very neccesary garlic powder. By far, though, the best purcahse we made was a new frying pan. It seems odd, doesn't it, that a frying pan would be our greatest consumer accomplishment thus far, but the quality of cookware in general here is weak, to say the least. When we arrived at site we set out to the bazaar to fullfill all our houseware needs. We quickly found a set of nice looking pans from China and a clean looking silverware set that came with a nice basket. It was all absolute crap. I've never seen anything disintegrate so quickly in my life. After the first egg fried in the pan we had to scrub for hours to remove the black charcoal mass seared into the bottom. The knives struggle at cutting warmed butter, in fact I think the spork we used to recieve in the middle school cafeteria is probably of a higher quality. Recently, when commiserating with Chris, the previous volunteer at our site, he explained his long held fantasy to track the origins of these things resembling silveware and burn it to the ground. Today, the pans sit in our cupboard in a mutilated state handles broken, leaking, lids warped. The silverware, what's left of it, recieves little affection from us. Thus, we've begun to extract ourselves from this cookware quagmire piece by piece, beginning with a frying pan.
We went to the state deparment store and spent about a half hour pawing through the pans and cookware on the fourth floor. This was actually a tough task since information on the products is limited. Basically after locating our four possible options we set them next to each other and felt the metal and inspected what we hoped was an actual teflon surface. Occastionlly the saleswoman would come over and mutely point at a pan and turn it over to show the price that we had already noticed. She would smile politely and then pick another pan up and run her hand over the cooking surface to somehow accentuate it's superior quality to the one that was in my hand at that moment. I was quite impressed by her cross-cultural attempts to direct our purchase and it occured to me that her mute techniques might be an great advancment in salesmanship in the rest of the world.
Finally after a dedicated analysis we settled on a pan that seemed adequate even though it was a 25,000 togriks, for comparison a soum teacher's salary is 30,000 togriks a month. This pan was expensive and we don't regret a bit. This pan is absolutely amazing and it's been in constant use since we came home and discovered it's amazing capability to cook anything and relinquish every piece of food.
Though we have a mini-tree, a string of lights, and lots of white snow, it really doesn't feel like Christmas and we really wish we were home with all of you...as much consumerism as is involved with this holiday, the joy of it still boils down to who you spend it with and the time you share together, and we're definately feeling the significance of that this year. After UB Olgii feels more like home, but we still miss Portland and all of you greatly.
Posted November 25, 2004
As you're already aware since you're reading this, we've spent some time lately putting together this website. Beyond just being a nice time consuming project, we figured it would be a nice way to stay in-touch with everyone. It's been awhile since we've written anything comprehensive about what's new with us and how we're doing for awhile because we wanted finish the site.
Since we wrote last the power came back on throughout the western three aimags because the national government decided it would step in and pay the back bill to the Russian government. Now that we're back in the 20th Century it's pretty cush. Sometime in early October the central heating came to life, which was nice because just before that on September 25th it snowed! Since then it has pretty steadily cooled off. From Josh's work he can get a nice view of the Hovd river already covered in a sheet of ice and the kids are busy playing ice hockey with sticks and old cans. The cold isn't too bad in our apartment though and it's beautiful and sunny almost every day.
Early October brought the Eagle Festival and a crew of Peace Corps friends from UB to stay with us. For a span of about 10 days we had about 9 different people stay with us, which was packed, but a good time because we know that as the winter progresses life will quiet down a bit. The Eagle Festival was a great introduction to Kazakh culture for us...I'm sure you all checked out the pictures we posted from that weekend. We're looking forward to a chance to spend some time with a family in the countryside so we can really learn the traditions of eagle hunting.
We've settled into our jobs - Josh is busy with three counterparts at the Teacher's College. They're great ladies and take a prodigious deal of care of us (quick, what movie is that from??). Nicora is "busy" at work as well, working with her counterpart to plan some nutrition workshops for the public and learning the ins and outs of Spider Solitaire. We're both learning how incredibly slow work here can be and what a great deal of effort it takes to get things accomplished.
We're in Bayan-Olgii with three other volunteers. Josh has been here for a year, he lives in a small town about three hours from the city but visits frequently and loves to keep us on the go. Tessa came over in June with us and lives in another town about forty-five minutes away...she's teaching English but mostly learning lots of Kazakh. She comes in sometimes and we always have a hoot with her. Suzanne is in the city with us, working for the Special Protected Park Office. She lives about three blocks away and we get together for dinner and to comiserate about the cold (and talk about food, of course!). There's another NGO in town and there's six Americans here that work for them. Two couples with darling little children (Ken and Grace, Jason and Glory), Mark, and Alex. They're all great and we're really enjoying spending time with them and learning from them!
We're hosting our first ever Thanksgiving dinner in our apartment today (kind of interesting that our first Thanksgiving is in Mongolia!) and we'll be thinking of you all (and your TURKEY) as we eat our camel roast
Sent sometime in September
Weve made it. Were now at site and somewhat successfully living in our apartment here in the nether regions of Mongolia, which says a lot since Mongolia itself is really in the nether regions. The flight here was bumpy and trying, but since weve been here it has been pretty smooth sailing. At 4 AM on Wednesday in UB we got up and hauled our gear out to the front of the dormitory for pickup by our counterparts along with two other volunteers (Suzanne and Tessa) who are heading to Olgii with us. Unfortunately, by now in the journey weve acquired enough stuff to make anyones back ache. After filling an entire minivan full we set out for UB airport. Here, I think its important to mention a few words in regard to what weve learned about flying MIAT airlines. Apparently its not exactly much like what were used to, weird. Theyre notorious for overselling flights, which results in a full on rugby scrum to board the plane. Ive heard stories from previous volunteers who admitted to giving ol grandma the elbow just to make it on the plane. All of this is further exacerbated by the fact the Mongolians do not participate in the funny Western custom called the line. If your at the bank, train station, check out line, or wherever people simply walk or shove their way to the front and demand service (this is where being tall is exceptionally nice) thus, with this in mind we prepared for our initial flight experience.
Luckily our first experience was much more undemanding. We unloaded our luggage onto an army of airport carts and were led to the front of the mob like a military convoy moving through a riot area by our counterparts. The only major difficulty came when we were presented with our bill. The total ended up coming to around 650,000 Togriks. We grudgingly paid this and boarded the plane in a mostly calm fashion. Surprisingly enough, there wasnt an in-flight movie and the snack was a random candy bar. We successfully landed in Olgii four hours later on a bumpy dirt runway.
Olgii is surrounded by large desert mountains reminiscent of something from American Southwest with the Hovd river running through it. In the center of the city are large concrete apartment buildings and government offices. The concrete buildings give way to mud and wood houses in the surrounding neighborhoods. The population is somewhere around 20,000.
The next morning was the first day of school, which in Mongolia is a pretty big event. Every one dresses up in a suit and there is a large performance with music, dancing and speeches in front of the school. I was introduced to the student body and then I spent the rest of the day wandering from class to class. The first day isnt much like school at all. The first day is when the schedule is created and so neither the students nor the teachers know what classes they have or where. The scheduling usually goes through multiple iterations during the day. Thus, I spent the day wandering around the school with my counterpart looking for classes that didnt take place. Kafka would have loved it. We also met with director and the two Vice Principals. Essentially nothing was accomplished in this meeting. It was mostly a formality in which we both pledged great things for the school. As lunch time approached one of the older teachers invited me to drink airag in the teachers lounge. Feeling the social weight of the invitation I entered the teachers lounge to a jubilant air of teachers passing glasses around a massive container of airag. I had never thought Mongolian teachers would party like frat guys!
Our apartment is on the fourth floor of a large Soviet era concrete apartment building. Its quite large, bright and recently painted. Our organizations outfitted the apartment quite well with nice furniture, carpets and probably the softest bed in all of Mongolia. At first there was nothing to cook with since the power is out, but after a conversation with my administrator two men showed up and installed a wood stove for us to cook on.
The power is out in the western three aimags (provinces) because the governments failed to pay the bill to Russia (where our power comes from). No one has any clue when the power will come back, but we imagine at the latest sometime in October. Mostly because that is when it becomes exceptionally cold and without power the massive central heating systems in the aimag centers cannot run. The post office and a few random places around town have generators that seem to run 24hrs a day which makes things like this email possible.
Weve met a few other people from the states who are working for other relief organizations and some French and Japanese people. We usually get together a couple of times a week for dinner at someones house.
Just yesterday Nicora and I went to the countryside with all of the teachers and administrators from my college. We drove for about an hour out into the mountains. After driving through Mad Max like terrain we came upon a small river and oasis like greenery. The three vehicles crammed with people drove across the river and unloaded everyone in lush chunk of grass by the river. Huge blankets were spread filled with bread, candy and salads. People began to build fires to cook the horse meat. My boss commanded me to sit next to him and we played chess which was actually checkers. As has happened so many times, a bottle of vodka appeared and shots were passed around with long toasts preceding. We spent the entire day eating, joking and drinking. All of the new teachers had to stand and show their talents. Nicora and I put together an impressive rendition of Itsie Bitsy Spider and If youre happy and you know it. After the singing and eating the group began to select victims for tossing in the river. I think only Nicora and a few older and pregnant women survived dry. This transitioned nicely into the next most popular Mongolian countryside activity, wrestling. After getting the 20 minute guide to Mongolian wrestling from my supervisor I won and lost once. This was followed by surprisingly more food, accordion music, and dancing. Somehow in the midst of this I agreed to eat sheep brain, which didnt taste like anything. Nicora ate the brain as well as some tasty soft palette. At about 9:30 we all piled back into now only two vehicles and made our way back to town. Nicora and I made it home at about 10:30 exhausted and very full.
Written sometime in September