Thursday, October 11, 2012

Disappointment Leads to New Opportunities....

Yep, just when you think you know what you're doing next, the universe surprises you with unexpected changes!  I had spent recent months since prior to completing my Peace Corps service planning for my next adventure in the beautiful country of Georgia...then *poof*...

A week and a half ago I received an email from my recruiter stating that the program in Georgia (Teach & Learn with Georgia) had passed on my application.  I was stunned, disappointed, angry and dismayed.  

Since that time I got a phone call from the recruiter telling me that because of the change in government and the recent election, the program is being discontinued until further notice.  Suffice it to say that I was skeptical, but after doing my own investigation, have found this to be accurate.  Just this morning a friend in the TLG program confirmed she and other current TLG volunteers have been notified that because of the elections, the program for new volunteers is on hold at least until January.

So for me, that translates to continue seeking other jobs as I can't see waiting around that long.... I have been applying for other overseas teaching jobs and have found China to be the most "age friendly" for those of us over a certain age, and those lacking a TEFL certificate.  I have had several positive responses from China (and initial interviews with a second interview today) and this leads me to think I may be heading back to Asia!

Currently the only other interview is for a position in Ukraine, which is also quite interesting to me.  That initial interview is this afternoon.  Thank goodness for Skype!  

For the time being, I am trying to relax and enjoy the companionship of family (that new grand baby makes it awesome) and friends.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The old and the new....Similarities

Being back home in Ohio has been great for catching up with loved ones, old and new..... The old being my mother Marguerite and the newest my grand daughter Gretchen.  This adorable baby, though a "surprise" to her parents is a delightful, easy going little bundle.  Marguerite saw her when she was one day old, but sadly doesn't remember.

Marguerite has been suffering with Alzheimer's disease (a form of dementia) for several years and has noticeably declined in the two plus years I've been away living in Mongolia.  At first she would occasionally respond to one of my letters or post cards with a short letter.  By the start of my second year, no word from Mom.  At one point, my sister Sue brought Mom over to her house so we could Skype.  She was pleasant and it was good to see and talk with her, but she did not remember it later.  At all.

For the first few days I saw Mom she constantly told me how good I looked (who doesn't love that?) and kept asking me how long I would be home.....where I was going next...and repeating the same comments about how exciting my life is, great I'm not bored...etc.  After the first few days, she stopped telling me how good I looked (now that she was used to seeing me), but has asked continually where I'm going next, how my boys are and commenting about my exciting life.  Bless her little heart.  

Baby Gretchen is all of the wonderful things babies are.... cute, tiny, cuddly, sweet, beautiful, adorable, and I could go on and on...  Since it's my choice to live far away and get to know her and watch her grow up via Skype with visits to Ohio in between, I'm enjoying hanging out with her, holding and admiring her as much as possible while I'm here.  

I have noticed that there are some similarities between a baby and an old lady who can't remember...... they get frustrated and have limited ability to communicate... a baby cries and fusses, my mother cusses and rants... 

Understandable in both, but definitely more disturbing with Mom.  Her standard rant I discovered while hanging out with her a lot... "oh my god, *heavy sigh*, jesus christ.....*heavy sigh*.....repeat.

So with the baby, you pick her up, "oh what is it"?  hungry?  diaper need changing? tired?  ... And you can fix it, usually relatively quickly with little discomfort for all concerned.

Not so with Mom.  When you ask her "what is it? " She may or may not remember what it is that just upset her.  Then because she can't remember, her frustration mounts and the cycle repeats itself.  She frequently remarks "i don't remember", followed by a nervous laugh, "it's terrible getting old", "this is my hell" and of course the litany of "oh my god", followed by the *heavy sigh*, "jesus christ".....oy.  This all seemed funnier to me while I was relaying the story to my sister after having stayed overnight at my Mom's..... Now it seems sad, freaky, weird and funny all together.  Guess the nervous laughter or seeing the humor in the situation is the same coping mechanism in Mom that it is with me.  
Marguerite with her favorite baby girl, Pookie the cat
me with Gretchen, my favorite baby girl:
Other similarities between babies and old people include an inability to feed one self.  Not that Mom can't cook  or should I say she is perfectly capable of heating food in the microwave, though in very strange combinations.....Well,  she used to be able to cook...aside from the fact that she kept forgetting food that she put in the oven to heat, and we ended up flipping her breaker for the stove before she burns herself and her cat up.  She now tells the story that her stove stopped working and the apartment complex won't fix it because she has a microwave.  I repeatedly told her that she can't use it because she forgets to turn it off. 

Unfortunately sometimes old people either lose control of their bodily functions or just don't realize they need to go.  Unlike babies who haven't learned this yet, old people lose this skill.  Case in point, poor Mom sometimes has accidents and doesn't even realize it.  She has some adult diapers and says she wears them all the time, but actually she doesn't remember that she does not wear them.... So it's good to check the back of the pants before leaving the house with your old loved one.   I don't mind changing a baby diaper.... but not the other kind, thank  you.  Mom of course then gets angry, frustrated and annoyed when you tell her...oops, better wear a depends and some clean drawers before we go out in public.  The rant begins, "oh my god" *heavy sigh*, jesus christ, *heavy sigh*....

I've heard that as we age we revert back to the beginning; the circle of life.  oh my god *heavy sigh* jesus christ, *heavy sigh* repeat.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Back Home Again....for awhile

Bangkok airport is beautiful

Thailand loves their King and shrines are seen everywhere, even at the airport

see you later girls:) at Tokyo airport
Finally done travelling for awhile!  Though I thoroughly enjoyed my Peace Corps stint and my vacation with Shar and Britt, it feels good, comfortable and familiar to be home.

I have been back in Ohio for a week now... adjusted to the time zone changes and the travel weariness, busy catching up with family and friends!  

In the past week, I was surprised at the airport in Cleveland by not only my sister Sue and her hubby Tom, but also my Aunt Marilyn and Uncle Jack!  They are my Mom's siblings and Mom has Alzheimer's so it would be too confusing for her to pick me up.  Marilyn lives in a Cleveland suburb, and Uncle Jack came to visit from California.

We have enjoyed lots of  time with the extended family from Mom's side, cousins, etc... I've also met my new grand daughter, Gretchen Victoria, who made a timely arrival earlier the same day I arrived home! Sue surprised me with the news by saying she had a picture to show me!  

Pete and Nicole with baby Gretchen
The family gatherings have been a good time, as well as catching up with some of my daughter's friends...Courtney, Cody and baby Carter, Heaven and her daughter Wynter, and Joanna, expecting a baby girl soon!

The Merstik Clan (my sons are absent)

Courtney with Carter:)

JoJo's baby shower, lots of pink!

Good thing I have at least 6 more weeks to go...I have yet to see my younger son Zach (who lives in Southern Ohio) and so many other friends before I head off again.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Murphy's Law: Vacation Tally

I'm not so sure I really believe in Murphy's Law, "anything that can go wrong, will"; but I do believe that I lose and misplace things, as well as injure myself on a regular basis.  The losing and misplacing happened frequently on this trip, with me carrying too much stuff in my backpack and not having it well enough organized.

At one point we were keeping a tally of my things that I had lost (most of which were found, of course in my bag) and it looked like this:

-pen             -shoes           -flip flops       -coffee (yes I brought a jar of instant coffee as well as creamer and sugar cubes, all of which I never used)
-notebook (that I later found, but think it's gone missing again)
-carmex for my lips was never found but I did buy a new one
-safety pins (turned up but never used)     -passport photos (left in big suitcase in storage at airport, needed one for Cambodian visa)
-watch, also left in suitcase                     -pillow (yes really, small travel)
-Dove soap (later found after buying a new bar of soap)
-camera charger (found among my stuff)     -earrings (lost one)

The best one of all was my train ticket.  We were taking an overnight train and it was delayed four hours.  After a long day of traveling and waiting around, we went to the station just to get to wait until 1 a.m.  We were all hot, cranky and sleepy.  I was so tired and my main concern was getting to sleep, that I forgot the conductor would soon be around to check and punch my ticket.  I'd just taken off my shorts (I knew the ticket had been in there) but had also just used the toilet.  He peeked in at me and he ended up giving me his flashlight to search for it.  I was nearly in a panic thinking, either I'll have to pay again, or they'll throw me off the train!  Long story short, after fiddling around and moving everything, the ticket was right there under the blanket.  I waved him back, showed it to him and went to sleep.  It was a restful night on the train.

Injuries for me are a life long pattern of tripping, bumping into things and just generally being a little too clumsy.  Thus far in the past 3 weeks, I slipped and fell onto the beach at the Full Moon Party, just getting to the beach.  The only injury was wet sand all over my clean shorts.

Brittany stubbed her little toe on coral and ended up with a cut which she had trouble keeping sand out of.  It healed nicely.

When crossing the border in Cambodia with my sneakers on, I slipped on a wet muddy patch of slippery sidewalk after navigating a couple blocks of the same without injury.  This hurt my pride more than my right knee, which scabbed over and was fine.

A couple days later, I banged my head at Angkor Wat while playing with my camera while leaving a temple.

In Thailand while trekking in the rain forest/jungle on our way to a waterfall with a guide and several other tourists, while drinking my bottle of water, I tripped and banged my left ankle.  It was a narrow path and my left foot slipped and slammed into a pipe, cutting it in two spots.  It bruised pretty quickly, but I poured some of my water on it and Toby our guide put band aids on and Brittany found some ibuprofen from another group.  It's given me issues since then, with the ankle swelling quite a bit.  Then both my feet were swollen and after resting and elevating them the other night they're mostly normal, though the bruised one is all scabby looking.

Fortunately, nothing too major, though right now I am missing a wad of cash that I'm hoping turns up soon:)

Saturday, August 18, 2012

South East Asia...what a variety of fresh food

coconuts on left....fresh juices and fruits abound...heavenly:)
Wow.  One of my favorite words and a good way to describe my travel fun with Shar and Lil B after Peace Corps.  I cannot believe the amazing food we have been eating....veggies we haven't seen for the past two years as well as an abundance of delicious tropical fruit..yum.

Thailand and Cambodia have been sources of delicious healthy food and a great transition from the limited food available in Mongolia to the abundant deliciousness that I'm looking forward to upon my return to Ohio!

a sideways pic of bananas growing

star fruit (sideways....)

enjoying our creations after cooking class....
I've enjoyed sweet corn twice here, roasted over an open grill, but it's not as tender and sweet as what I remember at home.  Oops, starting to drool on my computer.  Here in Thailand there are "long beans" which are huge swirly green beans and we used them in our Thai cooking class yesterday.  I'm excited for fresh green beans as I remember them, picked right from the garden!

lunch on the train, purchased from ladies at the stop who get on carrying trays...fresh pineapple, sticky rice and a tasty chicken leg, all for less than $3.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Kingdom of Cambodia

It really is called the Kingdom of Cambodia and what a gorgeous place!  Rice paddies abound in this lush tropical paradise, and the soil is red and muddy where ever there is no pavement.  For our brief visit here, the day long traveling and the $20. Visa fee was worthwhile.

The girls and I traveled here to experience the ancient Angkor Wat complex of temples.  Built in the 11 th century, it is a huge complex of small and large temples spread across a vast area of land.  We opted for a one day pass and chose to see the major and most commonly known temples.  Angkor Wat literally means City of Temples.

The big temple is the most commonly recognized and is even the symbol on the country's flag.

US dollars are welcome here, though the local currency is the Riel, with a dollar being worth 3,800 Riel.

Children begging/selling things was difficult to witness here.  Immediately upon arriving at a temple in Angkor Wat, a swarm of small children would descend upon us and ask, "madame, you buy my post cards?"  They were 10 for a dollar and lovely.  When we told them "no thanks", they had a sad face on and said,"I need money to go to school".  It was confusing and tough to decide to buy or not to buy.  

We each ended up buying a small thing one time from a different child.  Then today we found a brochure in a store explaining that it's illegal to make children work, that the parents should earn and children learn and NGO's  can cover any school expenses though elementary education is free.  To me it's kind of like do you give money or food to a homeless person or ignore them?

This is my first encounter with begging children and I can't even imagine the mixed feelings people must have when confronted with them daily in other destinations.  I have apparently been a sheltered traveler, and as always just when I think I have learned or understand something.....nope.  Another insight I have recently gained is that all languages that are not written in the Latin alphabet look like gibberish to me...not just Mongolian, and certainly not just Georgian!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Bum Blaster

....and other weird Thai delights... ok that doesn't sound quite right, but let me say that a bum blaster is a like a "butt bidet".  A common thing here in Thailand, and from what I understood from my site mate Puyja, also in India.  Puyha said that toilet paper is not used to clean one's self after toileting, only water.   I'll be sure to report further about the toilet situation in Cambodia once I explore the facilities there.
After two years in Peace Corps Mongolia, I've seen some rough toilets.  From my own apartment facilities which worked sometimes, to the worst outhouse ever that my friend Shar had.  Shar lived in two different hashas and both had the frailest, falling down bungalows to ever pass as a jorlong.

Though I don't really know what this sprayer device is called, it was coined the "bum blaster" at our guest house on the island.  It's just like a sprayer in a kitchen sink.

the familiar Western toilet

Turkish stand on the sides, squatting over the top
Some photos to illustrate the variety of toilets, all with the accompanying sprayer.  Western style with the seat is what we're used to, then the Turkish which I hear is also quite common in Georgia.

I've had many different toilet experiences since leaving the USA, from squatting along side the road on long bus trips, to using less than sanitary outhouses, to bad smelling indoor toilets and now this new fangled water blaster thing.  Life sure is an adventure!  I applaud diversity in all things, even toilets and am thankful I can squat when it's called for:)

Monday, August 6, 2012

Planes, Trains, Boats, Taxis.....

Still in of surf, sand, heat and humidity, plus amazingly happy easy going people.  What a wonderful transition before returning home to the USA.  Just finishing week one of a three week vacation and so far it seems we've taken most forms of transportation available.

A plane from Ulaanbataar to Bangkok, via from airport to hostel, and the air conditioning was heavenly!

We booked the "overnight train" from Bangkok to come down south to the island.....we got the package deal of train, then bus to dock, then ferry to the island. (about $26.) 

Sadly for us, the only tickets left for the night train were 3rd class.  We'd read on line to try to get a sleeper, but they were sold out.  What the hell, part of the trip is the adventure, right?  We needed to get to the island, so we took the 7:30 p.m. overnight train.  3rd class are padded benches, no air conditioning, windows that open and fans blowing the hot air around. Surrounded by many other foreigners and some locals, we hunkered down to attempt to catch a few zzz's......We figured we slept maybe 10 minutes per hour....

The first few hours were too hot to actually touch or lean on your seat mate....and the train jostled way too much to sleep sitting up.... Later with our window stuck open, it was almost too cold.  All part of the adventure!

At one point in the night I was certain there was a reclining seat open in the next car and in stealth mode snuck in and relaxed and closed my eyes for about 2 minutes when the lady next to me tapped my arm.... her husband who'd been in the toilet returned.  They had a good laugh and I shrugged my shoulders good natured and slunk back to my bench. 

If I never take another overnight train sitting up trying to nap, that would be great.  Uncomfortable, sleep deprived and giddy by the time we arrived for the bus (2 hours late) we were whisked away to the dock and loaded onto the ferry.... 

Luckily for us, we have sleeper car reservations on our train back tomorrow.  Though no air con (which we've enjoyed here all week in our dorm room with the huge comfy beds) we each have our own roomy bunk and a fan in the room.  I look forward to my continuing good night's sleep.....(around $33. is worth the extra few baht).

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Greetings from Thailand

Or in the words of the Thai, "saw wee", which translates roughly as hello, or how are you?  After two years in the relatively low humidity and high altitude of Mongolia, I am now in the very humid and lower altitude of Thailand.

Worn out from the goodbyes, packing and re-packing, only to still have to pay extra for overweight baggage, and finally arriving at our guest house at close to 2 am.... I'm running on excitement right now.  Oh yea, I'm officially an RPCV!!!  .and on vacation in Thailand!

Sharayah, me and Brittany leaving Mongolia

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Is it August 1st yet?

Yep, that's right, you heard it here first....Now that it's almost time to leave, I'm waiting for the day.  After being in the city for a week, doing lots of Peace Corps paperwork and preparation to become a RPCV (returned Peace Corps Volunteer), it's almost done.

Two more days and I'll be on the way to the airport with my huge suitcase and new easy to carry backpack, and it's goodbye Mongolia.  I have loved my time here, and when being out and about the city I'm having little pangs of nostalgia....the last times to go places, eat foods, see people.  In the words of David Bowie......Chchchchchch CHANGES.....turn and face the ch changes....

Soon I'll be writing from the beaches of Thailand:)

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

One step closer to leaving...

The leaving and goodbye process here is nearly as bad as leaving America.  There is the common thread of saying goodbye to people, celebrating the time here and the friendships developed.  There is also the same feeling of "isn't it time to leave yet?"  

I can only go through the process for so long before I am feeling crazy.... ooops too late.  I decided to be proactive and hosted a leaving Mongolia party at my place. I bought lots of snack foods, some vodka and mixers and invited all my site mates as well as some of my Mongolian counterparts and friends.  I advised the site mates we needed to do it up right and we could enjoy all the drinks if no one else showed...

I considered the party to be a success with 10 Mongolian friends stopping by and my site mates and I drinking, laughing, playing a couple games of dice and  then dining at our favorite restaurant one last time.  This was followed by the photos on the statue, a couple more drinks at my place then dancing at the local club.  It was a good send off, until we meet again....

Next, one week in Ulaanbaataar to finish up Peace Corps paperwork and such, then off to Thailand.  Still a few more goodbyes and celebrations here.
My school director Otgon rode with me on the bus from UB to Arvaikheer two years ago, so it was fitting that she saw me off on my last bus ride to UB

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

You Can Close Your Eyes...

In the words of the gorgeous and talented Johnny Depp, "you can close your eyes to the things you don't want to see, but you can't close your heart to the things you don't want to feel".  Wow, handsome and insightful.

This quote really resonates with me as I pack, sort, give away, throw away, clean and attempt to mentally prepare for leaving my home of the past 2 years.  I am stressed out beyond normal capacity worrying about the looming changes.  Good thing I don't have much going on now except preparing, enjoying, traveling and spending time with my local friends.  I have now gotten a cold/sinus infection, my first in over a year, and it's probably due to self induced stress.  This is how my body reacts to such things.... headache, inability to sleep well, and green snot in my head....

Though I am totally excited for what lies ahead, I cannot keep the feelings of loss and sadness at bay. 

It was more than two years ago I was on the other side of the world, having similar thoughts and feelings.  Coming here to Mongolia, joining the Peace Corps, leaving my home, family, friends, pets.... My comfort zone.  Even though I had to put things to bring into two large suitcases, I still have loads of belongings in Ohio... furniture, clothes, kitchen wares, household items, etc. stacked in my friend Kay's basement.  Here when I leave, I must reduce the goods to the suitcases., 

In one week I will be on a bus to the city, with my one large suitcase crammed with a few clothes and lots of gifts and memorabilia from Mongolia...(I may be taking one large and one small suitcase.....always worry about having more than I can handle by myself).  And carrying a equally stuffed backpack for a vacation to SE Asia, then at last home to America for a few weeks.  

Many last times  are approaching...the last time I'll ride that bus with the loud annoying music and crying babies... the last time to eat at my favorite restaurant in town, last times with friends.

Now, similar thing, different place.  Hard as I might try, I cannot close my heart to feelings of sadness at leaving here and moving on to my next adventure.  My heart and my being has been enriched by this experience.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Countdown is On!

Though I continue to seemingly be in denial about how soon I am leaving Mongolia, Arvaikheer, my apartment, my site mates, my counterparts, Peace Corps... My entire life for the past 26 months is changing!

With less than two weeks until I am on the bus to UB with the stuff I am taking back to America, it's kind of hard to remain oblivious about it.  However, I like to cope with such things by procrastinating.  Thus, here I am doing much thinking about cleaning my apartment and going through my things, (and blogging about it) without actually doing a whole lot of work.

Over the past few days I've developed a head cold so I feel even less motivated, but scared of running out of time, frightened to leave the comfort of my old soviet block building and sad to leave my friends here.

Time to face the music..... is it Mongolian throat singing, perhaps monks chanting?  Or is it the little finger cymbals of Thai music, and the sound of the roaring surf I'll soon hear there?  Or maybe the country music from the radio stations back home, or America the Beautiful; the only patriotic song I know and is in an easy range that I've belted out to my counterparts on a couple of occasions.  Oh my it's a combination of all of them and time to get to work!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Farewell My Friends

A very large part of being a Peace Corps Volunteer is learning to go with the flow, swim with the tide, roll with the punches,  and just generally be chill.  Sometimes the daily challenges experienced as an American living in a foreign culture can seem overwhelming.  Relaxing and not getting your panties in a bunch or your knickers in a twist is the key to success and adjustment.

While maintaining friendships back home can be a lifesaver, it's the relationships we forge here that really make a difference!  I have kept in touch with family and friends back in Ohio and when I said goodbyes I didn't want tears.....  Now with my plans in place for leaving Mongolia, I intend to see them all soon.

Therein lies the difference with friendships fostered while living abroad.... Will I ever see some of these amazing pals again?  When my Mongolian friends ask me when I will return to their beloved country, I tell them I don't know if I ever will.... (perhaps if there is a PC Response position available in the future matching my qualifications)... but I in all likelihood may never pass this way again.  Wow.

Joyce C., me and Erin L.
Regardless of seeing them again or not, keeping in touch may or may not happen, via email, facebook, friends here have touched me in innumerable ways, buoyed me up when I felt down, and shared lots of great times together.  With fond memories and lots of love, I will hold them in my heart.  To all of you I say, thank you for enriching my experience here, I will miss you!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Part 4 of Traveling Mongol Style...

And now, the long awaited final episode of Traveling Mongol Style.... ok, maybe not so much, but boy was I ever glad to get home to Arvaikheer!  There were a few highlights and low lights of the last couple days. 

We slept in a school building on the floor on night 6, me in my sleepy out of sorts states, when the ladies in my group chose beef instead of mutton for dinner.  I was informed I'd need to eat meat tonight (they kindly worried about my lack of mutton consumption) so I said sure, shall I cook? 

Well there was some culture clash, and if only I had photos of some of their facial expressions as they watched me attempt to sear small pieces of meat as well as brown and saute some onions (one said I don't like onions) and kept trying to pour water on it.  We ended up with what I found to be a tasty concoction, (using my precious Knorr French onion soup mix, throwing in rice) a flavorful meal.

Not the reaction I was going for, I received many turned up noses, and no thanks, as not one other person ate the food I fixed!  They watched in distaste as I devoured 2 bowls of the concoction.  Wow.... On the bright side, one guy teacher kept telling me "san ban" (good) and giving me the thumbs up....I was humbled by the experience, although I have eaten Mongolian food and ate the food at the eco camp, all of which was made with beef.  Guess this is how they feel when I say I don't want any... though I have at least tried mutton many times and just can't make my taste buds change their minds...

Of course I was again the first to bed while the others got out the vodka and stayed up.  The next day was another long one on the road, with many stops.  There was a minor crash when one of the micro buses nearly hit a guy on a motorcycle and his bike fell over and his nose was bleeding.  They all seemed more adamant arguing whose fault it was and I was internally freaking out about the rider and head injuries... no one seemed to be concerned he was not wearing a helmet.  yow.

That last evening on the road found me excited to know it would be our last night of traveling!  As it were, our micro bus ended up getting separated from the other 5, attempting to find a ger camp by a lake.  We drove and drove and by 2 am, declared to be lost, we parked.... I was like a little kid, so over tired that I couldn't sleep, with my legs feeling twitchy and achy.  Half our gang jumped out and pitched tents and the rest of us, snoozed with our legs up for 3 hours.... Then we discovered the camp was literally just down the road....  Of course I was awakened, got out peed, got back in, ate a couple cookies for breakfast and said, I'm going back to sleep, which I did for another 3 hours till we reached Khar Khorem, ancient capital of Mongolia and home to the oldest monastery in Mongolia.

We visited the Turkish Museum outside of town and the monastery eventually after an entire afternoon spent at a dorm, where groups cooked, ate and waited for the return of our driver.

My conclusion about my inability to keep up with the Mongolians, is that I'm just an older spoiled American, who likes my sleep (all in a row ) and gets tired when I drink during the day, (especially the traditional toasting for a safe journey, which happens any time of the day or night) and likes to relax over a cup of coffee in the morning:)  In the words of the Bearanstain bears, this trip was "too much vacation"!

Friday, June 29, 2012

Part 3 -Misadventures Traveling Mongol Style

I really don't intend for this to come off all negative....I did enjoy myself, bond more with my counterparts and visit some amazing places!  I rather enjoy a more relaxed, slow paced kind of trip, and not to be in a sleep deprived brain fog....(however, my surly sarcasm must have an outlet) 

Day 3 finds us having camped out near a lovely river....up at dawn (well, they were up at dawn and let me sleep in till 6:30) and clearing our camp site in preparation to head further north to our final destination, Lake Huvskgul.  (Well, I mean them..... I was bleary eyed and barely conscious)...I was impressed at seeing everyone gather our trash, only to take it to the dump spot  in the open.  Well, at least it's all in one place.  Below are a few glimpses of the gorgeous views we traveled so far to see; well worth it.

 The lake is so pristine and clear, you can see the rocks way out into the water.  
Major culture clash... littering is  common here.  During the course of this time in the micro bus with a captive audience, I tried to convince all that every bit of trash does matter, that bottles and plastic don't decompose, but potato peels do.  However, I was openly laughed at... leaving me to sulk silently and wish I'd just kept my mouth shut.....(a difficult task for me at times).

We finally made it to the Lake, at 2 am Day 4.  This ger camp was an Eco Camp, aimed at teaching reforestation, caring for nature and no littering was strictly enforced!  It was a heavenly place and I finally rested well the next two nights.  When someone told me to get up, I said thanks, I'm going back to sleep and I did.

brief glimpse of the bonfire.... the video I attempted to load (all 24 seconds) was not finished loading even after 24 hours..
Much hiking, oohing and aahing at the lake, climbing up rocks to look out over the lake, a fireworks show (and bonfire) on the beach.

Day 6 had us up early to take a boat to the next town.  Their had been lots of rain every day and the poor rutted road into the camp was sure to be hellacious, so only the men rode in the micro buses, so they could push them out once they got stuck.

Funny story, our boat , an old Russian looking thing pulled too close to shore (even though we were taken to it by rowboat a few at a time)... We  were urged to "rock the boat" back and forth; these antics at the behest of the captain to  get us unstuck.  It did finally work:)

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Misadventures in traveling Mongol Style - Part 2

I'm not sure that I actually listed any misadventures on that first day of the trip.  (but I sure liked the catchy title, and must note that even after two years some basic differences still amaze me, and I'm amazed to still be amazed:) However, here's an incident that left me shaking my head in wonder (and cross cultural confusion).    

One of our many stops was to a "sacred mountain", where we hiked up and then walked around the ovoo (oh whoa)  and threw a stone each of the three times around.  Kind of like praying for a safe journey; I believe ovoo's are actually more Shamanistic rather than Buddhist, but I cannot get a straight answer.

At any rate, there was also vodka toasting and candy sharing as part of this momentous site visit.  When I told my counterpart I needed to relieve myself, she told me I'd have to wait, as this cannot be done on the sacred mountain. Ok, I said, I can wait (knowing full well we'd probably be stopping again within the hour.)

Though this is a sacred site, I noticed with disappointment, a small gully  filled with empty vodka bottles and witnessed one of our group add another to it.  When I asked why this is acceptable, I got the usual, who knows, it's what we've always done.

That first day on the road started at 8:20 am (after being summoned to school at 7 am) and ended around 10 pm when we arrived at a school dormitory where we were staying the night.  After cooking some packaged soup,and quickly eating it, I was the first to crash, and the last to awaken the next morning.

Day 2 had us up at 6 am, and we commenced to use the outhouse, then walk down to the river to wash up and brush our teeth before returning to pack up all our stuff from the room and have breakfast.  I was already in a brain fog even though this was only our second day!

About 2.5 hours after being awakened, we were finally leaving. . . to go find an open petrol station.  This wasted at least another 45 minutes.  I could have been sleeping...wah.

We arrived at the area of the Lake, of which no one could tell me the name in English or why there were all these volcanic rocks around.... Is this an inactive volcano?  We hiked up the mountain to see the crater....which sure enough my instincts were right I verified later by reading up, was the ancient volcano pit.... and many volcanic rocks.

Inquiring minds want to know...? .not the case here...only me.. Another cultural difference I've noticed time and again....why ask why is the way of the Mongolians, never questioning why, only saying it's their way.  Hard to progress as a nation and people if you never ask why or what or how?!

A few hours later heading to the actual lake, which we could view from the volcanic crater, our micro bus broke something underneath and we had to stop while our driver repaired it.  Afterwards, he realized he lost his wallet with his driver's license, passport, etc and dropped us off while he drove back to have a look at the shelter area of the park where he was sitting.

our grateful group.... the lady on the left holding the thermos and the old man in the deel and hat were our heros!
In his absence, a hail storm blew in, and we women ran for cover, simultaneously giggling and cursing (ok, just me cursing..)  The driver returned, picked us up and we then drove to the nearest ger and discovered a little old man had found his wallet.  We all shook his hand and thanked him, giving him gifts of food, juice and vodka, and the driver gave him a 20,000 T reward.  A happy ending:)

We had yet to find the lake..... and when we finally did, everyone else was already cooking their lunch and so we hurriedly did too.  There were so many bugs it was a wonder no one was eaten alive, though one man did pass out from a little too much drinking and another cut his foot on stones in the lake.

When we left, we made it down the road for 10 minutes before stopping so some of the group could walk down to a cave.  I opted to wait in the van and thus missed this sudden rain storm which drenched most everyone who got out.

This night we ended up camping and sure enough I was the first one to bed and was fortunate enough they let me sleep in till 6:30.  I did awaken once later when the two teachers who were sharing the tent with me tried to glean my cooperation in moving and so they sandwiched me in the middle...I would have stayed in my sleeping bag but they were taking down the tent around me. Thus began day 3......

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Travelling Mongol Style-Misadventures Day 1

As my time here draws to a close,  I was excited to go on a trip with the teachers from my school.  Last summer there was talk of a group trip, but it didn't work out.  This being my last summer in Mongolia, and the end of my time with all of the lovely people I've worked with at School #1, I figured this would be a trip not to be missed!  And boy was it ever, in so many ways!
our chariot awaits

Foreign language teachers rule!

for our entertainment... the 3 stooges:)
The plan was to journey from our town all the way to Lake Huvskgul, the largest fresh water lake in Mongolia and the second largest on the continent; number one being Lake Beikel in Russia.  Unlike the desert surroundings here, up north the terrain is rich with trees, rivers with actual running water (unlike our "river" here in my town, which at it's peak, is a barely wet stream) and of course the lake.  It's been a place I've wanted to visit since arriving here, and now was my chance to go!

I was fully aware that this would be an interesting and probably culturally challenging adventure, being the only foreigner amongst 72 Mongolians.  All the arrangements were made and I just asked when and where to be and how much to pay.... Each of us paid 100,000 T (around $78) for the transportation and some lodging.  The plan was to camp out at least a couple nights.

Food was going to be an issue, as they mostly eat mutton, boiled and very fatty, so I said no worries, I'll bring my own food.  After some pondering what would be easy, I took individual yogurts, peanut butter, crackers, apples, oranges, a lovely trail mix I made, biscuits, individual coffee packs and several different dry soup mixes.  A little camping pan with a lid, a couple bowls and spoons and I was ready!

We were to leave on Friday morning: I was informed we'd leave at 7 am.  Knowing Mongolian time is not exactly punctual time, I decided to get up at 7.  I received a phone call from Chuka, one of my English speaking counterparts at 6:45 telling me she was on her way to the school and to save her a seat on a micro bus.  I had to confess that I wasn't even out of bed yet!

So, I get to school by 7:20, and sure enough there are 6 micro buses there, loading up. These vehicles are like extended vans and have seating for 12 plus a driver; which usually means about 18 people sandwiched into each.  Fortunately for me, we each had our own seat!!!  In my group were 4 English speaking teachers, 2 history teachers, 4 physical education teachers (3 of them men I like to call the 3 stooges:) one music teacher and me.  A pretty fun group to be certain!

After lots of confusion, etc, I had to track down one of our volunteer tents from my VSO friend Jo, as the teachers said, oh, we may camp a few nights but only have 2 tents.  By 8:15 we were on our way, stopping by Jo's to pick up the tent.  Wow, was I ever impressed that we got such an early start!

However, within about 5 minutes I got the true taste of the flavor of the upcoming trip as we got just outside of town, the entire caravan stopped at the little monument by the "Arvaikheer" sign gate to have a photo session and some vodka toasting to a safe journey.  I informed them I'd pass on the vodka thank you and if I'd had my wits about me more, perhaps would have then said, hey grab my pack off the roof please, I'll just walk back home thank you.

Not to say it was a bad trip at all; but in the words of the Grateful Dead, by the end I was singing to myself "what a long strange trip it's been".  Tune in soon for more on this amazing journey by micro bus!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Cultural Difference-Crazy Foreign Neighbor

Even after living here for 2 years, I find that I still say some wacky things to neighbors I know have a very limited understanding of the English language.  Is it because I know they can't understand me or is it because when I get just a little freaked out by my lack of ability to communicate I start babbling in English.  (just comes naturally to me).

Yesterday I returned home around 3 pm after an uncomfortable bus ride.  It was my own fault that my legs were squished for the entire 7 hour journey, as I didn't want to put my new "North Face" backpack in the luggage compartment underneath the bus.  Of course, it just doesn't fit in the tiny storage area above the seats and it won't quite be crammed under the seat... right there in my leg space is the only place it can really go.  I had my computer in it and really didn't want to stick it in the aisle....

The bus ride had the added fun of sitting next to a grandma with a puking child (second bus journey in a row with a poor sick kid next to me)... To top it off I peed on my jacket tied around my waist when I ran out to relieve myself after 3 hours....Must not have gauged the wind right... ooh.

So I get home to Arvaikheer and figure maybe my usual taxi driver will be there and we'll recognize each other and I'll get an easy ride home.  I didn't see him, but instead saw my old man "friend" Z, whose calls I had to ignore for 7 months after ending our fling a year ago.....So in my awkward hurry, I decided to test run the new backpack and hoof it home.  

It's about a 20 minute stroll to my apartment.... This bargain of a backpack (65K T, about 50 bucks)...was not as comfy as I'd hoped.  I was tired, cranky and hungry, and just wanted to get home and nestle in for the rest of the day!  

Two short breaks later, both unsuccessful attempts to re-adjust the pack so it was more comfy.. I was almost there!  I stopped at the closest delgur to pick up yogurt and pasta and then was at my door!

Yea, I made it, but where was the freakin' key!?  hhhmmmm... not carrying a purse and not being familiar with any small crannies in this new pack, I must have hidden it somewhere in the pack where it wouldn't get lost and I could find it easily..... Sounds logical, eh?

By now, I am systematically taking things out of the pack... ooooh here's the bag of fresh spinach and broccoli I so excitedly bought.  The broccoli just cause it was there and I love it and the fresh spinach which I bought along with half kilo of cheddar cheese to make that  baked dip recipe I've been dreaming of, finally all the ingredients.

The broccoli, since putting it in the pack early this morning and having it on the hot crowded bus, now smelled like rotting produce...filling the hallway with a bad odor.... Next, I get out the bag with the clothes, not there, how about the toiletries bag....crap, not in there either.... Soon I have the entire contents of my bag sprawled in front of my door and pull out the computer bag, and there's my key!  Yea!!!

Right now my neighbor, the nice lady whose family owns the sporting goods store in the market and whose English I know is limited to "hi" and whose husband thinks I'm a crazy foreigner ever since we had a dispute over me putting my garbage in the hallway on collection day (he was right, dogs got in and what they didn't eat, they left all over the hall).......... and she looks at my stuff all over and tries to nod and leave and I proceed to babble......

"Hi, I just got home and couldn't find my key....and....take everything out".... and as she nods and rushes out....."and that horrible smell of rotting vegetation is actually sacred vegetables that I brought all the way from Ulanbataar cause I'm your crazy foreign neighbor and I like to eat this smelly weird sh*t".  Have a nice day!"

Friday, June 8, 2012

Food Revolution - Final Episode

Ah, yes, I've been obsessively talking about food and this will be the final in this series (threat or promise you ask?)....

Now this is the one where I blather on about foods I miss and can't wait to eat once I return to American soil.  I haven't been back for two years now and there are many dishes that just cannot be found and/or replicated here.  That will be in late August where I'll be visiting family and friends for about 5 weeks.

The first dish I want to make when I return is spinach/cheese dip and serve it up with white corn chips.... Oops, just drooled on my computer.  For those not acquainted with this awesome delight, it's very easy.  A one pound tub of sour cream mixed with one packet Knorr vegetable soup mix, a pound shredded cheddar cheese and one box frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained.  Mix it all together, bake it at 375 till brown and bubbly and enjoy.....

There are a few restaurant foods I miss.... Bloomin' Onion from Outback Steakhouse to go with a big fat juicy fillet, medium rare please.

Olive Garden...endless salad bowl and the creamy sausage soup.....

A real fresh crispy pizza from anywhere!!!!!

Broasted chicken and jo jo's with cole slaw from Dravenstott's Restaurant in Orrville:)

Long John Silver's fish and fries, smothered in vinegar....

A burger and fries from Five Guys in Kent.

Sandwiches....lots and lots of sandwiches... a Reuben, crispy and smothered with Thousand Island dressing.  Crispy Italian sub sandwiches with the bread so crunchy it drops crumbs all over you when you eat it.

Pork chops.... that I'll bread and bake at home.  A roast beef, slow cooked with fresh mashed potatoes and gravy.  A pork roast with sauerkraut and mashed potatoes.  

Lay's potato chips, regular, original in the yellow bag....

Oh, I could go on and on, though these are the highlights....I must now finish getting ready to go meet my site mates for dinner at our favorite restaurant in town.  If I'm lucky, they'll have pizza tonight (though they didn't the last 2 times we've gone), and I'll enjoy and savor it, even if it does have pickles, corn and kidney beans on it!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Food Revolution - Part 3

Yep, still talking about food here.....  I want to share a little bit about the wider variety of food available here.  The small city of 28,000 where I reside is an aimag center, like a state capital.  We are located a mere 7 hour bus ride from Ulanbataar all on the paved road!  We get a good variety of foods, but not nearly as much as the big city.

Though I like to eat local food, it's just not so possible here.  In this part of the country, there's not much water and what grows well is the usual desert scrub grass and plants; not exactly edible fare.  Meat and dairy products fresh, not so tasty in my opinion.

What is local that I consume is flour, bread (made in a factory in my town), yogurt, and some potatoes, carrots, cabbage and onions.  Much of the produce for sale locally is imported from China. Although Mongolia in general does not like China (the old hard feelings passed down from generations when China ruled Mongolia), much of the fresh goods, including fruits and veggies come from there and are purchased and enjoyed here.

In the past two years, I've noticed an influx of imported foods.  My favorite cheese is imported from Luxembourg, corn flakes from Thailand, instant coffee hails from Germany as do the hot dogs in a jar, tuna- Netherlands, crackers imported from Malaysia, and most of the fresh fruit from China.  The fruit in jars, like that below come from Russia, as do many of the spices I buy.

jar fruit from Russia, fresh from China, blueberries from USA
some of the latest available items in Arvaikheer
One of my newest discoveries here is sour cream.  It was in one store last summer and only this month has resurfaced in our city.  A small one sells for about a dollar (the little carton on it's side in bottom photo), but worth the price!  I now have a stock pile, just in case!

Raisins here are tricky.... Many packaged varieties are available and imported from various places.  The cheapest ones are dangerous, as there are sometimes tiny pebbles in the package, along with the raisins.  The story goes that many a PC volunteer has broken a tooth on these tasty treats....

The corn flakes are a welcome treat to me!  I love crunchy foods and this cereal is a wonder of crispy deliciousness!

The organic flour is a new item on the scene and is actually made in Mongolia!!!!  

I certainly don't starve here, though there are many foods I miss and crave and can't wait to indulge in upon my return to the USA..... yep, that's my next blog...coming soon:)

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Food Revolution- Part 2

pasta with homemade pesto

spicy pad thai with fresh cilantro

vegetarian buuz  with chunky tomato sauce

eggs with bacon bits, fresh tomato and broccoli sprouts

lovely fresh salad from my garden with freshly made croutons, served with feta cheese and Good Seasons Italian dressing made with balsamic vinegar, accompanied by fresh hummus and flat bread
I find that I spend a lot of time with food.  Thinking about it, shopping for it, cooking it, eating it and enjoying it.  I like to think I am an earth friendly/environment conscious person; one who wants to be part of the local food movement, eating only locally grown, produced, raised foods, but definitely not in Mongolia.  However, to do my little part, I grow lettuce, spinach, tomatoes and many herbs on my lovely south facing windowsills for my own personal enjoyment.

My food obsession (if one can actually call it that, yea probably) is nothing new.  I've always loved to eat, eat, eat, smell, touch, taste, savor and enjoy.  I attempt to live a rather healthy lifestyle overall, and to eat plenty of veggies and fruits, which though challenging, is possible in Arvaikheer.  We get a much larger variety of foods here now than we did two years ago when I first came to town.

Real cheese, as we know it in the West, is available here in Arvaikheer, at least some of the time...Mostly it's Elam or Gouda cheese, which have a nice texture and a milder taste.  Very expensive indeed, going for close to $6 a pound or more, it's a worthwhile extravagance on the PC budget.  Homemade mac and cheese, with a white sauce and cheese added is a lovely option, as well as grilled cheese and just plain old cheese and crackers.  They don't call it cheese, glorious cheese for nothing.  Usually I buy a big hunk, cut it and freeze some and enjoy the rest very quickly!!!!

Cereal, the crunchy, crispy kind I enjoy has now come to town.  At first, no sign of such luxuries; we had to wait for a trip to the city for cereal other than mushy bitter oatmeal.  Now we regularly get Corn Flakes, Froot Loops and a nice Granola cereal as well.  These are also pricey but worth the cost!  I just finished a lovely bowl of corn flakes, with milk and a fresh banana for breakfast!  Yum:)  

We are very fortunate in our town that fruits are available year round, with apples and oranges being the staples.  Warmer weather brings fresh bananas, kiwi, grapes, pineapple, plums and peaches.  Fruit in jars in heavy syrup are available most any time in stores.  

These photos illustrate some of my culinary creations and a good sampling of what I like to make and eat.  Soups are a favorite of mine as well and though beans are not usually found in town, I stock up when I go to the city and I cook large pots of soups, freezing some for later . 

Pizza is a tough to find item here, and there is only one restaurant in town that makes it, though it's not always available.  The crust is nice and crispy, not too thin, heavy on the cheese and the toppings are good, yet odd combinations.  The house specialty pizza has bacon, chicken, peppers, onions and sliced peaches (from a "tin") and is quite delicious.  The veg pizza has any number of veggies on it, depending on availability; sometimes there is even corn (yes, kernels of canned corn sprinkled on it) as well as kidney beans and even sliced pickles!  Surprising what you can learn to enjoy!

This is just a small glimpse into my world of food in Mongolia...expect more to come on one of my favorite topics!

Friday, June 1, 2012

Food Revolution - Part 1- Mongolian Food

I love food, always have, always will.  At times in my life I've been thinner, more health conscious, more physically active, but my love and enjoyment of food never wavers.  What food revolution you may be asking?  Well, mine I guess.... My collision with the Mongolian foods, the ever increasing amounts and types of Westernized foods available here and what is a typical diet here versus what I generally eat.

This started out as one post, then I quickly realized that one post is not enough for me to dish up this topic.  This first installment will start at the beginning with my introduction to Mongolian food and all about the food consumed here.  Disclaimer:  if this post lacks my usual positive attitude, never fear, it's still there and will return shortly.  Food is a very serious topic!

When I initially discovered I was coming to Mongolia with the PC, one of my worries was, what's the food like?  Will I like it?  Will I gain weight?  Will I go hungry frequently?  I read the typical diet consists of meat, dairy and tea.  Having been raised on a dairy farm, I adore dairy, am a big time carnivore and tea, well ok.

My sister Sue looked up a recipe online for a dish called buuz.  (pronounced like "boats")Buuz are a little steamed dumpling made with flour and meat.  This particular version was tasty, filled with ground beef, cabbage, onion and garlic.  After tasting these, I thought...hmmm not bad!  She also made tasty little fried dough cookies and milk tea for my going away party.  What a thoughtful sister I have!  Little did I know the strong smell of mutton wafting through the air was not far ahead.

Fast forward to PC training....after the first three days I just could not stand the taste of, let alone the smell of mutton.  I quickly asked the training manager if it was too late to change to Vegetarian.  Thankfully, it was not and all summer my host family honored me by 1) not slaughtering a sheep or other animal in the yard for me and 2) fixing me vegetarian food!  Not much variety in this option, however no fatty meat!

Back to the Mongolian diet and the Mongolian National Food dishes.  There are a few, and all involve mutton and flour.  In a nomadic society, meat is the main staple.  In Mongolia herders use their animals (sheep, goat, cow, camel and horse) for many purposes including food.  With the harsh weather, especially in the winter, they believe the fat to be good for you and will help you keep warm.(I personally dispute this belief, especially seeing all the skinny Mongolians and even the not so skinny ones who constantly complain of the cold...) Thinking of the nomadic lifestyle, harsh climate and poor rocky soil, it makes sense that the most common veggies grown and used here are potatoes, carrots, onion, cabbage and some garlic thrown in.

Mutton is the most common meat available in most areas.  In the far West horse is eaten more frequently than other parts of the country (though I have eaten and liked it!), camel available more in the Gobi areas and goat and beef is around as well.  The method of slaughtering and butchering are different here as well.  For a sheep, the animal is held down, chest cut open and the heart pulled out.  Blood is not drained (so as not to spoil the ground) and the method of cutting the meat appears to be rather haphazard.  (not the steaks, roasts, chops, etc)    Huge chunks of meat, fresh in the markets and pulled out of peoples freezers to be hacked off in bits for use.  Recently at my friend Uugnaa's house, she pulled a huge hunk of meat from her freezer.  I asked her if it was mutton or what?  She didn't know, and said it was fresh when she bought it, so it didn't really matter to her.

Buuz are one of the Mongolian National Foods.  A small steamed dumpling filled with lightly seasoned meat, it can be made from mutton, goat, horse, camel or beef.  I have had all but camel while here, and in spite of my aversion to mutton (it's smell, taste and greasiness) in buuz it's not too bad.  This popular food can be found in most restaurants, as well as all the small guanzes (cafes) in towns and at little stops along the paved road.  These dumplings are especially popular at Tsagaan Sar, festival of the White Moon.  As part of the ceremony of this holiday (New Year) families make hundreds or even thousands of buuz to serve their guests.  I must add that I have concocted my own version of veggie buuz, filled with shredded veg and soy meat.

A second version of the mutton/ flour combo and another Mongolian National Food is the khuusher.(sounds like hoe-sure)  Khuusher is a  deep fried foldover stuffed with (you guessed it) mutton.  These are an integral part of the other huge national celebration, Nadaam.  Nadaam is the summer celebration featuring the three manly sports, wrestiling (my fave), archery and horse racing.  The Nadaam khusher are exceptionally large and stuffed full.  These are on every menu and vegetarian options are available in some places, most of them rather tasty.  I haven't tried making these, preferring french fries if I'm going to bother deep frying at home!

Tsuivain is a third popular dish.  (sounds like soy vin)I don't think it's called a national food, but it's available most everywhere.  The tsuivain is a noodle which my host family frequently made.  The dough is rolled out extremely thin.  It can be used fresh or dried, and is sold in almost every little delgur around.  The meat version includes lots of fatty meat mixed in with the noodles and a little veg, mostly carrot, onion, potato and seasoning.  Vegetarian versions usually include soy meat and my favorite local restaurant makes an amazing dish with a variety of veggies for around $2.50.  Ive tried making this at home and don't have the seasoning right.... hhmmm. The noodles are great in soup however!

The most famous drink here (aside from vodka which I am sooooo over!) is Tsutee Tsea, (sue tay say) or milk tea.  Traditionally this is made on a ger stove with fresh milk which doesn't boil, due to the constant dramatic ladling action.  Salt and loose tea are added.  Some folks put animal fat in for an extra added dimension, which is something I can do without.  To me, it tastes like salty warm milk with a very slight tea flavor.

So I don't care for the national foods, except in vegetarian versions and I don't care for milk tea or vodka, so what do I eat and drink here? Tune in for Food Revolution Part 2 for the answers to this and other burning questions....