Tuesday, January 25, 2011

traveling Mongolian style

Like so many other things in life here in Mongolia, traveling around is a whole 'nother experience.... As in my youthful days of riding the Greyhound bus to and from Ohio State, I am enjoying and even at times, savoring the "autobus" as an inexpensive, though not exactly time saving method of transportation.
People here do not own cars the way we Americans do... They accept that riding the bus or hiring a car or meeker (van) to go where they want or need to get to is part of life. I recall seeing a PBS show on Mongolia prior to my arrival where it was stressed that to travel here, you need lots of time or money. A truer statement was never spoken.
With failing infrastructure, the "roads" are not so good and to many places there are no roads, and drivers must know the way. A well paying and fairly prestigous job, driving for a living must be extremely tiring here!
At one of the major bus depots in Ulaanbataar, Draegen station, individuals set up small stands and sell snacks and beverages for the long rides. I have even seen women get on the bus selling heavy duty long underwear, in case you are cold. The buses I have ridden to and from UB are very pimped out with curtains on all the windows as well as some nice storage spaces, and a big screen dvd player. You can count on seeing many Mongolian music videos and usually a movie on the 6+ hour trip. Not too shabby for a bus! The cost one way is the equivelant of around $12 US, affordable even on my PC living allowance.
Fortunately the road all the way from Arvikheer to UB is paved and fairly smooth. The disruption on the ride is usually the driver honking the horn to either chase livestock from the road, warn a motorcycle or when passing the slow moving heavily laden trucks.
On a recent weekend trip to Buyankhungor to visit some PC friends, it was a totally new bus experience. First of all, though only about 200 Km away at most (UB being being 450 Km away) it takes a minimum of 5 hours for the trip. The "road" is not paved, and reminds me of the narrow roads of my country childhood. Winding, narrow and rutted, the bus spent much of the time in low gear climbing.
Another interesting matter was that I could not actually purchase a ticket from here to there. My town is a stop in between Buyankhungor and UB, so I had to go to the petrol station on the highway (where the bus either passes or stops for fuel) and was given a 1 1/2 hour time window when the bus would pass by. Hhhhmmmmmm.... So my friend Uugnaa took me there, asked the two men waiting for the same bus to help me out and show me which bus... always an adventure. So after just a few minutes, 2 buses whizzed past the station, then a 3rd bus came and went and the attendant yelled at the men, who in turn, motioned me to follow. One of the men ran to the road and flagged down the bus, which then pulled over several hundred feet ahead. Oddly enough the men stopped to chat with two women in a car who pulled over and I rushed ahead to the bus.
The driver looked at me, pointed to a seat and said "bish", which is no... I was totally prepared for this, smiled and dragged my sleeping bag and half full backpack down the aisle, over several others seated there to find a spot to sit. I plopped down on my bag and coat in the aisle. It was surprisingly not so uncomfortable!
During the next 5 hours we stopped twice for bathroom breaks. Now a bathroom break here means in this case, we stop in the middle of nowhere (no electric poles, gers, anything in sight)... men go off to one side of the bus and women to the other, everybody just popping a squat out in the open. My parka comes to my knees so my bare cold ass is not showing to everyone though. Amazing what becomes common place after awhile as this practice has for me! We arrived safely, not frozen and within 5 hours.
On the way back I was fortunate to get a seat by getting to the bus depot early, and it was much more comfortable. These buses were not nearly as plush as the previous ones I'd ridden on, with no dvd player, a broken clock, but there was music. The stop we made was in a tiny soum, with gers and buildings around. When we got to Arvikheer the bus stopped at the petrol station where I got off. I had not paid for my fare and had to approach the driver to give him my money. One additional tiny difference here is that PC advises us to always carry supplies, especially in the brutally cold winter, such as sleeping bag, extra layers of warm clothing, food water and matches in case of the bus or vehicle breaking down and being stuck. I have a much longer journey planned for next month, to the far north of this huge country to witness the ice fest and see the reindeer people. I can only hope that journey will be as safe and pleasant as this most recent trip.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

I love these kids and this place...

I know I have said this same phrase many times since my arrival in this vast country 7 months ago, and it bears repeating..... I love these kids and this place! Every day that I spend time with the students here, especially my dorm kids, my heart is full.
Though it may be difficult to inspire change, a great change has taken place in me in the short time I have been here. My heart has never been this open and loving before (with the exception of my love for my own children). At my age, I think I have now become what I officially term "a crier"...Sometimes I feel so emotional and overwhelmed with warm fuzzy feelings for them that my eyes fill up.
Many of these children do without a lot of things, just by virtue of living in the dormitory. They live there during most of the school year (Sept. 1 through May) with only a few breaks to return home. Some are orphans, some from trouble families, and all are from neighboring soums (small towns out in the country).
Some of these students are there only because their tiny soum does not have a school, or because their local school does not go past 8th grade. To complete their education, they must live in the dormitory.
The dormitory in my aimag center houses 100 children. These kids live there with minimal supervision, and minimal love and attention. Not to say they are neglected or running wild; that is not the case. However, I don't believe that American children under the same circumstances would behave so well.
Of the 100 residents, approximately 60 are boys, 40 girls. They are housed on separate floors. Boys on the first/main floor, girls and "family units" on the second. The first floor also contains a large kitchen, dining hall, offices and storage space.
The only working toilets in the whole building are located on the first floor. This is one small bathroom with two toilets,no stalls and is shared by all the kids. (Think about that for a minute......I used to think it was horrendous to share two toilets with my three children....) Perspective.....
There are actually other toilets upstairs (an entire bathroom designed for small kids, 6 and under with the tiny toddler toilets).... which has been closed off since 2004. The shower room, has also been closed since 2004 when the water heater broke and the solution was to turn it into a storage room.
There will be more ranting about plumbing later.... The school is more interested in new windows for the building which are desperately needed. I am slowly working on a grant for this need.
The second floor houses girls and what I call "family rooms". If there is a whole family of children, all the siblings share a room. I found it weird at first, but now see that it works pretty well for all of them. Mongolian children appear to have more responsibility toward siblings and the older ones are always looking out for and caring for the littler ones, related or not. I believe newer younger students without siblings are placed with older girls as well. (My limited understanding of the language is burdensome...)
The entire dormitory is financed by the Ministry of Education. There is a small amount for food per child, equal to about one dollar and housing costs are covered. Not all the children come from poor families, but it's not evident who may or may not...... Personal possessions here are minimal. I learned that early on from my young host family over the summer. Though they were a family and had a tv, and a dvd player, they owned one photo album, one game, and had a couple albums covering their school years.
The dorm kids may have cell phones and those who do keep in touch with their parents. It does not appear to be a status symbol. Clothing is all pretty equivalent, and none of them have extras like i pods, etc.....
They have chores at the dorm, must keep rooms clean, rotate helping and cleaning after meals. Discipline and structure is here; although I tend to be concerned about extra attention from adults.
This is where I come in... there are two dorm teachers, both of whom are great though have different styles of interaction with the kids. They are there day and evening, switching shifts on a rotating basis.
Not much going on in the way of extracurricular activities, which has been a thrilling opportunity for me...Some days it appears I've become an art teacher after all! That's just one arts and crafts activity a week, and they are thrilled to make and display artwork!!! I love seeing their joy, though it's difficult to get them to smile for pictures...
Movie night on Wednesdays is a favorite for everyone, with sometimes 50 kids attending....Recently story time has started on Monday evenings for the littler kids, right before the teacher and I have life skills class for the 12 and older crowd. We are discussing relationships, dating, love, etc... they are quite interested.
After our int ital life skills class Monday, several of the students came up to me after class to say in their Mongolian way, "thank you Jo teacher"... No wonder I love these kids and this place so much.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

MLK day appliance sale only at Sears....

..Don't miss the MLK day appliance sale only at Sears... so said the commercial on the internet when Babs (friend and site mate) and I were attempting to check out the Peace Corps story that had aired on ABC's 20/20 Friday evening in the US...
I started giggling and said to Babs, doesn't that just make you laugh? Isn't that some funny stuff? Appliances!!!! He agreed that appliances seem like a very silly thing to get excited about here in Mongolia.
It's a whole different perspective when you're living in a developing country. Babs like most Mongolians, hand washes his clothes. Literally, hand washes clothing in a tub scrubbing the fabric together while squatting over it. Then rinsing an item takes time, along with wringing it out enough to lay it out or hang it out to dry... A clothes dryer here is the rack you hang the freshly laundered clothing from.
Above are pictured my favorite appliances here in Mongolia. On the left is my toaster oven, gratefully received from my friend and site mate Caitlin when she went home. On the right is my amazing washing machine. Though not the same as a washer in the US, it is a wonderful, time saving device! In spite of the fact that you have to fill it up with water one bucket at a time and after it's done soaking and washing, you have to drain the tub one bucket at a time (there is an attached hose for this) it is great! On the right side of it is the spinner compartment. After you wring out the clothing, you put it in to spin and it comes out halfway dry! The iron pictured there is also the nicest and newest iron I've owned in years!
Not shown are my water distiller and my water heater. Both of these are used to purify water before drinking and major necessities here! They are used constantly!
So back to MLK Day... Is an appliance sale really what our national holiday intended to inspire in our citizens? I think not. I think Dr. Martin Luther King was one of the greatest Americans in our history. An inspirational speaker and a natural leader, he still today sparks idealism in many. I am one of the many inspired by Dr. King. Just thinking of the phrase "I have a dream" and Dr. King saying it, gives me goosebumps.
He was a man who left a legacy of love and hope. My dream is that each and every person can come to realize that each and every one of us have our own legacy of love; to share, to inspire others, and to leave behind when we are gone from this place.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Christmas in Arvikheer

I know we are past Christmas, New Years and the holiday season in general, but I still have many photos to share. Here are some of the actual holiday where we had a party at my house. Top left is my pal Ihab, with the purple scarf I got in the white elephant gift exchange, but that he ended up with...a group photo later in the day wishing you all happyholidays...then up left.baatmaa (VSO translator) and her husband Toogge, Right the boys learning how to use chopsticks. Left is the girls, me, Leah (VSO from Austrailia), Erin and Joyce. On right, me with my "harem" of boys...Ihab (VSO from England, Terrence, Babs, Jack (VSO from Kenya) and Andrew (hubby of Leah)..
A good time was had by all... later several of us wanted to go out for a drink (it was about 10 pm) and nothing was open to the public, because everywhere was reserved for and hosting private sheen jeel parties. This is the same difficulty I experienced with friends in mid December in UB...

Sunday, January 9, 2011

my school teachers party

Me and "B" a young homeroom teacher, cheesing it up..and on right I'm dancing with the smooth PE teacher (it was his house warming from an earlier post)
these young men are guards at the dormitory, surrounding my counterpart Chokeu, an English and Russian teacherc
Oyun himeg English teacher and the physics teacher
lovely young English teachers
So one of the cultural snippets of information given to us PCV's during training, was that holiday teacher parties are lots of fun. I can now say that is certainly true from my limited experience. We were also advised that due to cultural differences, we may find some games that are played during such parties to be embarassing. I can say fortunately at my school shindig, the most embarassing thing was the dancing and drinking (perhaps just on my part!!)

I did arrive at the appointed time, 6 p.m., though hardly anyone was there yet. So I parked myself in the social workers office (to which I have a key but hardly use)...This led to me being taken to the director's office by one of my teacher counterparts to participate in some holiday toasts. Yes, those would be holiday shots of vodka. I continued to sip in spite of the heckling that was good naturedly directed at me!

Following a couple rounds, another teacher came and got me and we returned to the social workers office. At this point several other counterparts had arrived and two of us got our nails painted while we waited!

Soon I was led back to the director's office for another round by another counterpart.... Oh my and the party had not even started. Add to the drinking the fact that I was wearing "dressy shoes" though low heels I just can hardly walk in anything other than flats or wedges anymore... Or so I thought... I managed to dance for hours in those shoes, even though I did take them off two or three different times, but when I did a counterpart usually fussed at me, telling me my feet would get cold and I should put my shoes back on.

I finally went home at 3:30 a.m., and there were still teachers there having a good time. phew...

Friday, January 7, 2011

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Dormitory holiday fun!!

Ah, the amazing dormitory students! I was invited, through formal
invitation to attend their party/performance. It was held December 26th and slated to begin at 5 pm. As is common here, the event actually started about 45 minutes late..... my patience is expanded through my living here.
The Santa boys, or Father Winter, as he's also known as, had some fun with sparklers while waiting for things to begin. For their performance, they did an entertaining coreographed dance to the tune of Jingle Bells.

The event was scripted and kept on track by the emcee's, an older boy and girl who live in the dorm. Many of the students were dressed in their finery, with dresses/gowns reminiscent of a formal dance or prom, boys in suits. I was seriously undressed, but they are mostly accepting of such faux pauxs from me as the American volunteer.
Dancing, singing and the excitement of the children made for a very enjoyable evening! The kids are so sweet, they even gave me a gift of a lovely chess set, complete with felted case and board! I was surprised, humbled and thrilled and it reinforces my ability to make a little difference here!
After the program, we danced (yes, I danced with the kids and had so much fun!)! I twirled around to the Mongolian waltz with a few of the boys, and one of their dad's that was in attendance), and hip hopped it around with all the kids. Many of them are great dancers, and the techno stuff they do is mesmerizing to watch! (guess that's why it's called trance).
More photos of this event to follow, my computer is having trouble uploading,

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Happy Christmas- the holiday spirit is here

Happy Christmas is what the British say, and so it is in Mongolia. Most of the English text books here are actually British. Spelling, grammar and English language here in general reflect the British influence. Though as I've said before, here Christmas is not actually celebrated, it's hard to distinguish at times because of the decorations and themes seen around this time of year.
One afternoon I ventured into the market place looking for glitter and garland. Here such places are called "black markets", though not all with the same connotation that it invokes in Americans' minds. Our market place in Arvikheer, is called a "Container market", because many of the little shops are actual "containers" that would be hauled on the back of a semi truck. Though there are some actual stores, much of the buying and selling takes place at the various containers and stands, which are located mostly outside in the elements. I know I don't have the stamina to attempt to eek out a living in the elements!
Though this day was not so cold by Mongolian standards, about 15 above zero F, it didn't stop the vendors, nor the shoppers. I found the glitter and flashy garland for the dorm kids to use in their happy new year coloring posters that I'd copied for the arts and crafts time that evening

The masks and fireworks in the upper right picture are mostly used by children at Sheen Jeel.
These little girls pictured above followed me around the market for awhile, saying hello and giggling. Perhaps one day I will tire of being stalked by the "hi monsters" as some other volunteers affectionately refer to such little ones; but I appreciate and enjoy their curiosity and friendliness. Eventually I may meet all the children in town, but considering that there are four schools, plus countless kindergartens, maybe not.

Shown above left are some of the completed happy new year signs the dorm kids made, though the amount of glitter on them is difficult to see here, there was lots and lots of it!

Happy Sheen Jiil continued

Happy Sheen Jiil, still! What a lapse in posting lately I've had. However, I attended no less than three school performances for new year so this is the highlights of the first. (In addition to the big teachers party, and a new years eve performance and fireworks outside...yes, in the negative 20 air)
Literally and figuratively speaking, this performance was put on by and at 1st 12 year secondary school, my host country agency. This show was on Christmas Eve and was lots of fun! Controlled chaos would be an accurate description for the children in the audience!
The gym was very festively decorated and there were so many talented and cute children, both performing and in the audience, that I had great difficulty choosing only a few photos.