Sunday, May 27, 2012

Gardening in the Gobi...

..and other foolish ventures..Thus continues the story of my gardening in Mongolia, year two.  Last year, here in Arvaikheer. I had the plan to make a garden out of some hardscrabble weed strewn land (consisting of sand and gravel and weeds) ,though fenced in areas in front of the school dormitory.  This was a mutual goal and part of my work plan between myself and my school director and man was I excited!!!

Gardening for me has been a sanity saving well loved pastime of mine for many years.  From starting plants from seed in a makeshift set up in my basement to enjoying the fruits/vegetables of my labor.  The feel of the earth in my hands, the meditative calming effect of gardening is an integral part of who I am.  The joys of watching little seeds turn into tiny plants, then produce lovely flowers and food... priceless.  The habit of taking food scraps and building a compost bin which then turns into beautiful soil which helps enrich the earth, feed the plants and use what many people consider garbage, a deeply ingrained habit.  My gardening has been more a passion of mine than a pastime. I've even seriously considered trying to earn a living from it in the future.

Back to last years' gardening....I worked on this in my usual slow, meditative relaxing pace.... Meaning it took me  month of work to get things planted with the help of my all girl English Garden Club.  This was after some assistance of dorm students and staff, helping me throw out rocks, and dig out weeds and grass, a very big undertaking....  I had also worked with the Eco Green Club at my school and set up compost bins in the yard.  It was gonna be a great gardening season!!!  Having found a carpenter where I could get free sawdust to dig into the sand was another plus.  The sandy rocky weedy patch needed all the help it could get!

I also planted in the big blue planters in front of the school.....Two large metal urn type planters painted a very bright blue which were mostly sporting trash and acted as large cigarette ash trays.  Those took a long time for the seedlings to germinate, and it was a constant battle with birds pecking in them for the seeds and moisture and kids throwing trash in them, adults throwing cigarette butts there.... heavy sigh.  Eventually the planters yielded some nice salad fixins' which I enjoyed:)

The garden itself provided me with lots of fresh peas, which I froze and just finished eating, as well as some green beans and great quantities of fresh lettuce, spinach and other salad ingredients which wa,s savored by myself and my site mates.

Unfortunately, only one side of the garden was planted after I tripped on a tent line in early June and bruised my ribs..... gardening was minimal to say the least....It takes a good six weeks for ribs to heal up nicely enough to return to business as usual.  Ow.

On the down side, the garden was not the thing of beauty which I envisioned..  I did have other challenges along the way, including a helpful school worker who took all the dried animal dung the Eco Green Club and I had collected and put in the beds and threw it in the trash, never to be seen again.  Talk about cultural differences.... I have to laugh about it even though I was livid at the time. I believe there is an old blog called, Who took my Sh*t.....Gardening is not a very popular hobby here and I finally got the workers to understand that if there was animal dung in the garden it was because I intentionally put it there....... Actually a plastic greenhouse is pretty much the concept of gardening here, and a wise idea with all the erratic weather, and the extremely windy conditions, even in summer.  No greenhouse for me; I'm doing it old school.

The dozens of tomato plants which I lovingly started in my apartment, hardened off in the windy out of doors and planted did not thrive.  By September most of them had fruits which promptly died in a frost September 10th... Ugh...

This year has provided it's own unique challenges....  By late fall, I realized my compost bins (made of wire fencing and secured by bricks) were gone, vanished, disappeared.  I took my small bucket of compost to throw it in and it was gone.  I never did find out who took the compost, where the bins went, etc.  I can only hope someone actually used it to help grow plants but I suspect not.

Many of my little flower seedlings were blighted by aphids/plant lice and I'm not sure that was quite worth my efforts this year.  I hope to salvage some of them for transplanting outdoors, but just not too sure.

The month of May has been mostly warm, so I decided  to start the planters about two weeks ago.  I lovingly mixed together many flower seed packets and threw in some seeds I'd collected from last years flowers, mixing in a little sand.  I took a bag of goat poo I'd collected in the winter and mixed it into the planters, wet them well, sprinkled seed then covered it all, adding a little more water.  On top I placed my own little plastic greenhouse cover, consisting of at least a dozen small plastic bags, cut and taped together.  The plastic was then secured down on top of the planter with large rocks along the sides.  I was very pleased with myself, knowing I'd figured how to keep trash, birds, kids and cigarette butts out, and the flowers would start growing much quicker and better than ever.  Gardening here in Mongolia has caused me to question my gardening skills and spite of my highly successful, productive and beautiful gardens of the past.

Well, it wasn't two days later that I could be heard yelling Who took my freakin' plastic?! to my English speaking counterpart on the phone...Not one of my finer moments......I then asked her to pass the word to the workers that I put it there to hold in moisture and heat and keep out kids and birds.... Several days later I made other plastic covers which have now remained for three days.  Oh happy day....maybe these flowers will eventually grow!!!

Two days ago noticing the many weeds that had recently sprung up in the garden, I decided I'd better get out there and start weeding.  Friday was my lucky day as I lazily began weeding, my amazing c/p Altai, the dorm teacher asked me if I needed students help.  Yes, please I said and for the next three hours a couple dozen dorm kids came and went, digging, weeding and throwing out rocks.
boys shoveling the dirt

the process of carrying the bags of soil, dumping and digging/spreading was lots of hard work!

this looks so much better than the rocky sand!

are we done yet?
So after hours of me squatting in the gardening, heaving the shovel and demonstrating the easiest way to dig, plus the smoothing of the soil, man did I ever work out muscles that have long been forgotten this winter.... In fact, I've been more sedentary this winter than last and have found some of that weight I lost my first year here.

So Altai c/p to the rescue again... She asked if I needed help again on Saturday and I said yes, at 11 we need to spread and work in the soil/dung brought from the countryside.  Go figure, I was sore and grouchy and a real slave driver that day....  Hoisting the bags of stuff was not the boys idea of fun, but they did it, and did a great job of it too!!!!  Thank goodness because this would've taken me weeks to complete at my leisurely pace.  Mind you, back in Ohio I would've been out there working on the garden plot early in April and would be enjoying peas and salad by now.

So tired as I was, I was not very patient on Saturday.   I think I was wearing my Mean Teacher Face as I tried to show students what to do, and answer a million questions.....  Most then wanted to plant something.....seeds on the big side, and potato tubers on the other. and they did!.....It was interesting and aggravating to me to continually tell kids not to stomp all over everywhere.  With so many students coming and going, they didn't realize where things were planted....  Really, I need to focus on their enthusiasm and willingness to take part; a great sign they may be interested in gardening after I leave

 I started contemplating what gardening is to me - a solitary hobby that I enjoy when done by myself and at a very leisurely pace.  No wonder I didn't garner my usual enjoyment from this weekends' garden experience, though I really need to cultivate my attitude of gratitude .. for all the work and participation added by the kids.  During this ah-ha moment, I realized I need to share this and not be so selfish about gardening.  Later that afternoon I put white yarn as row markers (hopefully the wind won't blow it all away) and will hope that if the garden is in bloom when the kids return to school September 1st (I'll be long gone by about 5 weeks by then) that they will be motivated to garden more.  After all, this is supposed to be their garden.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Good bye and Good Luck!

Like most people, I really dislike goodbyes. . . the emotions evoked by kind words, hugs and lots of last time hand holding. . I successfully avoided emotional goodbyes when I left America, but it's impossible here.  When I left home and joined the Peace Corps, I figured I'd keep in touch with and see my family and friends again (god willing and the creek don't rise..and this has been so), but not likely with my Mongolian loved ones.   I may never pass this way again.

wonderful thank you gifts from the dorm:)
Last year I missed the fact that younger students finish school earlier and I didn't have a proper goodbye with them.  This year I planned ahead since I know it's my last opportunity.

So we had a fun filled and exhausting (for me) day together.  Our last cooking club made lots of french fries which we all enjoyed with coca cola!  The fries were soggy and not up to my expectations, though the students enjoyed them!  Not a healthy snack, but an American one.
After me giving out some hand made awards for club members (garden, knitting, cooking and arts and crafts), photos, and a lottery drawing for many art items, some books and DVD's, etc (where everyone got at least one thing), the students then gave me some beautiful gifts and performed!  I'm including a few of the videos here; they are great, just like the kids!  There were some tears from me, especially when two of the girls gave short speeches in English about how much they all love me and will miss me.  I'm getting misty just writing this now!

After a quick soup supper at 7:45 p.m., we headed to the children's park across town.  Though the rides were closed, kids ran and jumped on them for photos.  We finished up by going to the flower park with the huge statue to Zanabazar, famous Mongolian sculptor and spiritual leader.  As we walked back toward the dorm, I casually said goodnight as I went down the alley to my apartment.  Perhaps I'll see some of them again before they leave to return home for the summer, run into them at Nadaam, or that may have been our last goodbye.   I love them all and will miss them, and bid them goodbye and good luck!


Sunday, May 6, 2012

Ring the Bell!

Bell Day as it's called in Mongolia, is actually graduation!  The differences don't end with the name either.  Here it's held weeks before the school year finishes, and includes graduation from 5th, 9th and 11th grades.

each homeroom has their own uniform, this is 9D
All the students attend, rather like the opening day ceremony September 1st.  There are many speeches, interlaced with musical performances.  I especially love that different grades and homerooms have their own particular uniforms.  The 9th grade class of my teacher friend Chukka, chose a smart skirt suit for the girls with a lovely blue trim.  Boys wear shiny suits!
these younger students all have matching jackets and white shirts

these 9 class girls have cute plaid skirts, ties and jackets

The Mongolian school system has been changing to become more Westernized, albeit a 12 year education, instead of the current 10.  Right now kids attend separate kindergarten, then grades 1 - 5.  Grade 6 is to be added in the coming years, so right now 5th grade graduation moves a student from elementary school.

graduates sport their medals/awards

dorm student graduating from 9th grade

Grades 7 -9 are middle or secondary school, so the 9th grade graduation promotes a student to high school.  High school currently consists of grades 10 and 11.  Certain homerooms of students are earmarked for the change and will have the added years of education. 

Happy, me and Altai flanked by two graduating dorm guys!

only part of Happy's class, those that took English with me!
I spent a fun morning with my friend Happy's class of 11th grade graduates!  First the ceremony, then lots of picture taking in the classroom as well as a nostalgic lesson from a first grade teacher. 
requisite class photo on monastery steps

The students then continued on to lunch at the Wedding Palace, which I enjoyed with them.  At this point, I went home though they were going to the Horse Monument and many other photo op stops. The day's celebration was to conclude with a dance party at school.  As I told Happy's class,"Congratulations class of 2012!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

My Apartment: A Love/Hate Relationship

Can I really have a relationship with my apartment?  Isn't hate a really strong word that I don't especially like, or like to use.....  No, (well maybe) to the first and yes to the second question.  However, my apartment/home/place of refuge/rest and relaxation for the past two years has been at times,  both a blessing and a curse.

ah the windows!!!

some of my seedlings

This apartment has been so good to me in so many ways... it's convenient location, close to both my school and dorm, shopping, and the town center; it's excellent heating system, it's coziness, it's toilet and cold running water, it's south facing windows (heavy sigh).   I have been blessed with water I don't have to fetch (like so many people without running water who have to have to cart or carry jerry cans to the local well, fill them up, pay for them and carry them home here), electricity that mostly works, a functioning toilet (though it didn't work for periods of time at least it's not an outhouse!), heat that I don't have to work for (making and tending a fire like most house and ger dwellers) and those glorious windows which have allowed me to grow many plants, enjoy fresh herbs and salads and bask in the abundant sunshine!

Now the biggest complaint/pain/hate part of this relationship, is my front door.... innocuous enough looking, isn't it?  Well, let me tell you that this door has caused me much cursing and anxiety, though conversely has sorta helped in the area of patience.  The problem is the door is a little warped, and the working lock is that bottom one..... It's not centered on the door, the locks are poorly made, and currently I am on replacement lock #9.... That's right; in 20 months of living in this apartment, my locks have a shelf life of a little over two months!  I think every single male employee of the dorm and school have assisted in changing a lock.  I have a reputation as the foreigner who keeps breaking her door lock:(  The worst times have been when I was away and others were watering my plants and the lock broke... Yes, this has occurred 3 times... Yikes!  Not only a pain in the arse for me, but also my thoughtful plant minding friends as well.

The bathroom is not a bathroom at all.  In fact what I have is a toilet in a closet.  Yes, I guess the Brits would call it a water closet.  Exactly what it is.  The large pink tub I placed on the floor is called a tumpen and it's what I bathe in.  Filling the tub with partly boiling hot water then mixing in cold tap water to get to just the proper bathing temp, I ladle the water on me with the red scoop in the tub.  Ah..some days I long for a shower.  Many apartments here do have showers, and some of my friends reside in them.  I am just not comfortable showering in someone else's house.  To the left of the toilet is the water valve which is currently leaking again and usually has a big bowl under it to catch the drips.  This valve actually started dripping last spring after I thoughtfully turned the water off and on with it, as my kitchen tap (my only sink) broke yet again (it's on number 4) and rather than waste water, I'd shut it off.  Because it was soon summer vacation, and I was lax in nagging to quickly get it fixed (the art of which I have mastered with the front door lock), I ended up using the valve all summer.  My visiting sister will attest to this inconvenience.  So, now the pipe leaks again, after having it repaired once as well as the toilet.  The pull/flush on the toilet was finally replaced after it was fixed three times. 

Speaking of the kitchen sink, I didn't include a photo of it, but suffice it to say, it's so small, that I don't even wash dishes in it, though it's good for washing your hands, brushing your teeth and even washing your hair.  Thank goodness for cold running water!

the electrical hub in my entry way

This electrical box thingy is very scary looking but just a brief glance into the world of electricity in a developing country.  Mind you, my apartment building is old and built in the Soviet era.    Thus far, I have had the following electrical calamities:  The light switch in the bedroom pulled out of the wall and disconnected, twice the only outlet in my room has malfunctioned (right now it's pulled out of the wall because it's clear across the room from my bed and the long extension cord was stretched just a little too much),once the same outlet had a sudden jolt of electricity and fried.  Both my kitchen outlets have fried at separate times, and had to be replaced.  The kitchen light (my bare bulb) zapped and stopped working .  OK, fairly minor incidents....

 The framed picture is of the 4 lucky animals (Buddhist), an elephant, monkey, hare and bird and the multi colored hadags (scarves) are to bring good luck.  I think they are working.... My apartment hasn't burned down, totally flooded or been broken into.  It really has been a home, sweet home to me:)