The archive is where we'll be putting all the old stuff. Surprising isn't it?





Happy Holidays

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 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.

The Latest

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


The Olgii has landed

Sent sometime in September

We’ve made it. We’re 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 we’ve 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 we’ve acquired enough stuff to make anyone’s back ache. After filling an entire minivan full we set out for UB airport. Here, I think it’s important to mention a few words in regard to what we’ve learned about flying MIAT airlines. Apparently it’s not exactly much like what we’re used to, weird. They’re notorious for overselling flights, which results in a full on rugby scrum to board the plane. I’ve 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 wasn’t 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 isn’t 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 didn’t 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 teacher’s lounge. Feeling the social weight of the invitation I entered the teacher’s 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. It’s 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.

We’ve 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 someone’s 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 you’re 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 didn’t 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.


Mongolian Godfather?

Written sometime in September

There is a distinct possibility my director may be the Godfather or possibly in his bloodline. When we first met in Darkhan things seemed so relaxed and friendly I had really no concept of the impressive stature he held within the community, which I now call home. Let me impart these few traits.
First, my director's office is a large well appointed room at the end of a long hallway. Of course, this by itself is by no means significant, however, the constant line of people waiting to speak to my director is. These are not simply teachers and students as one might expect, but rather old women with babies, elderly men seeking some type of aid and of course the Kazak "business man." They all are standing in wait for seemingly long periods of time to receive…
During one of my recent classes my counterpart interrupted with "the Director would like to see you." As most might have, I replied "fine, I'm done in an hour."
"I'm sorry Josh, he will see you now." Finding it a bit odd, but aware of the weight of the moment I abandoned my class to be escorted past the mothers, wrinkled faces, and supplicant eyes into the office of my director, which at that moment felt more like a "lair", than an office. Honestly, I wouldn't have been surprised to see Robert Duvall standing silently in the corner next to the window. Relaxing into his chair, my director began with approximately 7minutes and 47 seconds worth of greetings and blessings in a warm firm voice. For the most part, the meeting was banal, we both pledged great things for our school, discussed an impressive contract to be written mutually detailing all of the great things we might accomplish.
When it became apparent that my turn had come I made mention of our apartment's lack of wood stove and the cooking problem this presented with no power in the aimag. Slowly digesting this information my Director motioned to the door which was then opened by the Vice Principal to reveal a short dark man with a perfectly combed black mustache. As he sat across from me at the table, the following translation was related to me "this man is Acai, you are in his care, he is responsible for your safety. When you go home he will go to your house and install a stove." Pleasantly surprised, I of course nodded appreciatively. Next my counterpart turned to me and said "the Director would like to know if there is anything else you would like decided." After ideas of cars, 14 year malt scotch, and possibly some other nice additions to our apartment from Russia, Kazakhstan, and China came to mind, I simply thanked him and said "no."
Later that afternoon, as I approached the entrance to my apartment staircase a tinted, shiny black "jayer-use" abruptly approached from around the corner and deftly stopped between me and my apartment as if the driver had been waiting for that very moment. Stopping in surprise, I watched the jeep unload with the efficiency of a clown car five men, two bags of wood, a stove and a smiling Ascai. Ascai walked up to me silently smiling in a three-piece suit perfectly pressed and clean and pointed to my apartment with his head. Finishing a seemingly owning handshake, I led the way up to our forth story apartment. Turning the final landing, I noticed the line of men, stove, bags of wood all standing in an oddly, especially for Mongolia, line of attention. I unlocked my apartment door and released the army of workers in my apartment that immediately located a seemingly invisible former stove pipe hole in my wall and adroitly installed the stove. After what seemed like a whirlwind of activity that lasted maybe 7 minutes and 47 seconds, Ascai and I were standing in my kitchen witnessing a fire coming to life in a stove that hadn't been there moments before.
Ascai turned to me, smiled, clutched my hand in another possessing grip and left. Standing in my silent apartment with only the growing roar of the new stove I couldn't help but think "this doesn't suck."