If you follow my blog please now switch to following Platform shift
I’ve just about filled up my data allotment on this site and will not be able to continue posting photo’s of my life in Mongolia. Because of this I have switched over to onlyihavethekhuushuur.tumblr.com . Please follow to see the last 8 months of my Peace Corps journey and beyond.
Last month I went to my friend Bryan’s soum (Undur-Ulaan) in Arhangai Aimag to help film a video with Brett (another friend of ours). After 3 days of filming and weeks of editing you can see the final product above. To learn more about the project continue reading.
The Undur Ulaan Secondary School of General Education has begun fundraising for its exciting new project to create an instrumental music department for its student body! Please help support the cause in any way you can whether donation or just sharing with others.
Direct video link: https://www.youtube.com/edit…
Donation link: https://www.generosity.com/…/through-the-sound-o…/x/14218209
There comes a point in your life as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mongolia, living in a ger, where you ask yourself… “Am I really about to shit in a trash bag?”
This past Sunday (May 1st) I woke up thinking it would be just like any other day. Nope. It was decision day. My morning ritual was going according to plans; I had just brewed some tea and was chowing down on a green apple and some yogurt (splurging on the weekend breakfast with yogurt), all while giving Freelance Whales first album (Weather Vanes) a spin. However, I was completely oblivious to what was going on outside.
That morning I had noted that it seemed especially windy, my ger had been shaking at the more intense gusts and my sweatshirt and tape window (due to one of my glass windows shattering during a previous sand storm hint 1) was being put to the test, constantly being sucked upwards but always holding. Not only was it very windy but it was still dark at 9:30… but not night dark….tanish dark (hint 2) So I really should not have been surprised when I opened my ping (think like a foyer combined with a shed) door, to complete my morning ritual at the jarthlon (outhouse), to a wall of swirling sand.
The door immediately flew out of the control of my hand and I had to fight the gusting wind to slam the door closed. I walked over to the dry sink, washed the sand that had stuck to my face from that brief exposure and looked myself in the eyes in the mirror. A decision had to be made.
Now this was no easy decision, it was a matter of pride really. All winter, no matter what time the Browns were headed to the Super Bowl, no matter that time the kids had to go to the pool, no matter what time I needed to begin construction on a log cabin I braved the cold. In -30 degrees Celcius weather I had that mud baby on -40 degree Celsius nights I said goodbye to Mr. Brown, always at the jarthlon. But this was a different matter; I couldn’t see the storage shed 3 feet in front of my ger that was about to blow over. Once again I was thankful that there are no sand tornados in the Gobi.
I debated all of these things to the sound of Freelance Whales being drowned out by the felt layers of my ger flapping and the creaking of the wooden lattice skeleton of my ger. I watched my ceiling convex and concave like those small plastic half circles you could get in grocery store vending machines that you would invert, place down while hoping they didn’t snap on your fingers, and watch shoot up into the air.
I needed a second look before making my decision. I opened my door again. This time, along with the swirling giant wall of sand in the shape of a face summoned by Imotep (That you Brenden Fraiser and Arnold Vosloo for the most accurate portrayal of a Mongolian sandstorm although I can’t speak to if it is also accurate for Egypt), snow had decided it wanted to come out to play. I watched a bird attempt to fly into the wind, lose control and slam into out hashaa fence and when I went back inside my face was covered in sand and snow.
My mind was made up. I took my trashcan into the corner of my ping and turned on the chocolate sausage maker. Decision (dramatic pause) Made.
1) Should I be ashamed?
2) Am I an animal?
A: No, they go where they please or in the corner at a zoo.
3) Couldn’t you have held it?
A: No, I’m sure any Peace Corps volunteer can attest to the strain native meals put on your colon and after a dinner of tsuivan (noodle/meat/ fat dish) and airag (fermented mares milk) time was of the essence that morning. Also the storm lasted for literally 12 hours.
4) What did I do with the trash bag?
A: I tied it up, hurled it outside and watched it fly backwards from the direction I had thrown it in, just like the bird.
5) What will I do with the trashcan?
A: Probably burn it, maybe give it a medal of accommodation for serving me well in that trying time 50/50.
6) Why is going outside in a sandstorm such a difficult decision?
A: You know nothing Jon Snow
7) Would I do it all over again?
8) What made you go with a Caddy Shack themed title?
A: Caddy Shack has one of the Top 5 poop joke scenes of all time
Mongolian herders are great. Fact.
This past weekend my site mates and I took a trip out to a rock formation in the middle of the desert about 2 hours walk from Mandalgovi. After our хөдөө rat activities had ended we set back toward civilization. On our way back the plan was to “stick to the road” to avoid wandering through the sparse but clumped together desert grass and deep patches of sand. “Sticking to the road” was soon vetoed in favor of….. BABY GOATS AND SHEEP.
In the vast nothingness that is the Gobi we spotted 3 gers, belonging to herders, and a pen behind the three. As we got closer it soon became clear that the pen was full of baby goats and sheep. Despite the fact that some of us were becoming hangry it was unanimously decided that this attraction needed further investigation. We got closer and closer to the pen wearily looking out to see if there was a khasha dog, there was not.
When we got to the fence all of the baby animals ran over and began sucking on our fingers as we placed them through the gate.
As we started debating about whether or not to go into the pen one of the female herders emerged from a ger with her child. Now try and picture this from her perspective. You come out of your home in the middle of nowhere, in the desert, and see 4 foreigners by your animals shouting things you can’t understand (mostly about how cute the animals were). What would you do? If you were a Mongolian herder, aka the coolest of the cool like this woman, you would invite us into the pen, start picking up young animals and the hand them to us to take a bunch of photos.
She did not question why we were there nor did she assume we were a gang of Gobi Goatnappers. She allowed us to turn her pen into a petting zoo for a solid 45 minutes. While there she let us help her feed many of the young goats, left us alone in the pen when getting more milk, trusted us to take care of her child (who was TERRIFIED of the goats and would scream whenever they were put down) even when she was inside, and took the time to explain to us why certain goats were being fed and not others. She showed no indication of being annoyed by us being there nor did she ever seem like she was going to tell us we needed to leave. It was only when we looked at the time and saw we had been there for way longer than we planed that we left by our own accord.
As we left we thanked her for allowing us to channel our inner child and she was all smiles; either because she thought we were incredibly strange or because she saw how much joy this interaction brought to all 4 of us. It is the random interactions like this one that make me appreciate Mongolians and Mongolia. It is also these random events that give me a different perspective on what being a Peace Corps Volunteer really consists of and motivates me to think of new ways to help better the lives of those who also call Mandalgovi home.
Spring is finally here; long johns have been shed, fires are only made once a day, it is warm enough to snow again, and showering is a thing that needs to happen again. Time to reflect on the best and worst parts of this winter.
- Going to the Capital for the weekend and coming back to all of the water, soap, oil and that one time the liquid in a can of beans frozen in my ger.
- Scrounging for food that doesn’t need to be cooked for dinner because of #1
- Waking up seeing my breath and debating if the cause was the cold or ghosts
- Waking up at 3 am and 5 am to make new fires, because 3 am fires are always half-assed
- Layering up to use the outhouse
- Watching the tower of frozen shit in the outhouse get closer and closer to being able to give me a colonoscopy
- Forgetting what my legs look like because of long johns
- That time wind blew sand in my eye and the resulting water then froze my eyelashes shut (weekly occurrence)
- Looking out at a sunny day only to step outside and realize it is still negative 40 degrees Celsius outside
- Trying to lure stray dogs into my ger for extra warmth.
- Walking around in 20-30 MPH winds in negative 20-40 Celsius weather to get groceries….this is why people fast
- Not being able to find where I put my scarf to cover my face being an acceptable justification for not going to work today
- Snow…in the desert/ it being too cold to snow and then knowing winter is declining once it starts snowing again
- Running and sliding on ice with kids to see who can go the furthest
- Watching the fire and police departments chopping the ice on the two paved roads in town with axes
- Somehow sweating in my ger because I made too warm of a fire/ keeping my door open to cool it down
- Being lectured by my khashaa family for keeping my door open when it is so cold outside
- Random people on the street asking me if I am cold and if I know how to make a fire
- Seeing children so bundled up they slowly fall over if not held.
- Shiin Jil and Tsagaan Sar parties
At around 10 A.M I left work with everyone from the office (roughly 20 people) to go check out the newly constructed building we will be moving into in January. The office is a two story Russian style block building with potentially more rooms then employees and includes two rooms with functioning showers; a huge selling point for a ger liver currently tunpining (bucket bathing) like myself.
After meandering around the building for some time, during which the highlight was by far one of my coworkers proudly announcing while opening a random door “this room is for sex” (said in Mongolian with hand motions that made it impossible for a communication breakdown and 50/50 an example of the humor of Mongolian men). We moved the few existing tables and chairs upstairs to a room that looked just like all of the others. Once inside everyone sat down. Shortly after the furniture re-arranging a monk walked into the room and took a seat at the front of the room next to my director.
He opened an old wooden box that contained weathered, stained, and ripped sheets onto which Traditional Mongolian Script (written and read top to bottom and left to right) had been written. He immediately began chanting in a throat singing style voice. For those of you not familiar with throat singing it sounds slightly metallic and produces several pitches at the same time; check it out. As he did this he flipped through the papers. He spoke quickly and paused only to clear his throat or cough. He lit incense and pulled out prayer beads and an old discolored bronze bell all while maintaining his hypnotic pattern of speech. As time went on the flow of words shifted suddenly. As this happened the monk began to throw small handfuls of rice into all directions.
My director presented him with a hadag that the monk promptly filled with rice. It then became my directors’ responsibility to tie it as high up in the room as possible. What ensued next fit in with the typical comedic demeanor of the Mandalgovi Health Department. My director, a short man, was clearly trying to figure out how he was going to tie this hadag to the light fixture. Given a chair, he was still to short. After standing looking up at the light in dismay for a minute he took off his shoes and climbed onto the table. This moment, despite multiple distractions ex: people talking, phones going off, his own phone going off, checking his own phone while chanting, was the only moment that the monk lost composure, broke from his chanting, and let out an audible chuckle.
With the hadag now safely attached to the light fixture everyone was instructed to take a small handful of rice. The monks’ pattern of speech then changed for the third and final time. The monk, mid chant, would ring the bell several times in a row. When the bell rang everyone in the room with their left hand full of rice, arms locked at the elbows, and forarms extended would chant and move their arms at the elbow in a clockwise motion. After doing this many times the monk promptly stopped chanting and closed the old wooden box containing the weathered papers. Everyone placed their rice into napkins or candy wrappers and placed them into their pockets. The bronze bowl with incense was then passed around the room, upon receiving the bowl the individual would pass it around their bodies at the waist three times before handing it to the next person.
And with that the ceremony ended. We shared a cup of airag with the monk and then he was on his way. Our time at the new building lasted slightly longer as we continued to drink airag and what was possibly milk tea (confusion because it had yellow streaks and didn’t really taste much like milk tea tends to in the Gobi).
When I returned back to the office it was 1 P.M. Time flies when you are blessing buildings. Yet another “Yup this is Mongolia” moment for the books.
Conventional Peace Corps Staff inspired wisdom is to spend the first 2-3 months at your permanent site feeling things out. Your primary objectives are to get to known and attempt to understand the work culture of the organization you were assigned to and your coworkers, adapt to life on your own in the country you are serving, perform needs assessments upon needs assessments in order to try and understand the community you have been forcefully injected into, and figure out where you and your strengths and experiences fit in.
In summation; acclimate by observation. Or you can do what I did.
Early into my service (weeks in) I realized that there were very few healthy/constructive activities for the youth of Mandalgovi to participate in after school. The absence of activities was directly contributing to the unhealthy behaviors displayed by the youth of the city. I decided to combat this with a healthy and structured activity that occupied much of my youth, soccer. Along with another volunteer and two locals who run an NGO called Positive Youth Movement I set out to create the first soccer league in not just Mandalgovi but all of Dundgovi.
From the start we decided that the league should have a secondary focus on healthy behaviors such as exercise and proper nutrition. The primary focus and goal was and continues to be promoting gender equality and cooperation. I do not want to turn this post into an in depth discussion of gender roles in Mongolia but if you are interested in the gender disparities we are attempting to combat through the voice of soccer I encourage you to research them. The league was designed to divide players by their schools to also increase school pride and increase integration between the students from the countryside who live in dorms during the year and their in-city dwelling classmates. In my last post I provided a dropbox link to our initial league propoal (this copy is in English) and I highly suggest you look at it to better understand what we were and are trying to accomplish.
Despite the need being apparent and the growing soccer fever amongst kids in Mandalgovi, the creation of the Mandalgovi Co-Educational Youth Soccer League was the furthest thing from easy.
There were obstacles at every turn including but not limited to:
- The person in charge of the only soccer field in the city (made of turf and surrounded by a locked gate) wanted to charge us per hour for field usage and due to field schedule conflicts prevented the start of our league for 2 weeks.
- Getting the school coaches to give up free time on their weekends for no monetary compensation
- Getting coaches to attend the necessary league rules and injury prevention training
- Making sure all schools had enough boys and girls on their team
- Making sure the players knew when their games were and showed up every week
- Scheduling conflicts with other events such as school break and the English Olympics
- The cold weather setting in as our league came to an end
- Operating a league on no funding and no resources besides a field
Although at times it seemed like the league would at first, not get off of the ground and then later that it might implode at any point between the games our Fall League was a success. The kids were incredibly excited to play every game and it shows on their faces in the photos that I took at every game, which can be found here:
Successes included but are not limited to
- We ran a league on almost no resources
- Our Let Girls Learn Grant has been approved and is in the funding stage (see last post)
- The kids skills improved from week to week
- Girls became more involved as the weeks went on and coaches started using them in more positions than just defense
- We would see kids practicing on their own time in the streets or on dirt/sand fields around town.
- People in the community heard about the league and parents started coming to games
- The official soccer governing body of Mandalgovi liked our Facebook page as did the government (showing that people were talking about us)
- Coaches became more invested as time went on
- The team that I organized practices for the most went from not winning a game during the regular season to winning the entire 8-10 year old division tournament.
- I am still here
The last point is the main point of this article. That without this league I can not say if I would still be a Peace Corps volunteer in Mongolia. It is widely known in the Peace Corps community that Mongolia is one of, if not the most difficult posts due to the weather (it has been in the -10 to -15 degrees Fahrenheit all week and wont reach the 40s until April), the language (also known as one of the hardest to learn from English), the total lack of cultural overlap, and the pace of work (and i’m sure past and current volunteers might name other reasons these are just ones I can speak to). Had I not gone outside of my place of work and created this project with other invested community members it is likely I would have very little to show for my first few months of service and with other opportunities presenting themselves in my life it would have been hard to not have strong thoughts of leaving (especially coming from a New England work environment of these 10 things needed to be done yesterday).
But the creation of the Mandalgovi Co-Educational Youth Soccer League occupied a large portion of my time. Forming the league, writing the grant, attending games, holding practices, creating the tournament, hosting the tournament, planning various trainings, and all sorts of other smalls things that occur behind the scenes to make a league run kept me busy when otherwise I would have been left twiddling my thumbs.
Soon the work will start back up again. Evaluating the Fall League to see what could have went better and what needs to be changed and the Planning the Spring League. The entire time consuming process from the fall seems that it will repeat itself, hopefully with less obstacles and then when the Spring work is done we will dedicate our time to creating a Summer Soccer Camp.
My advise to all Peace Corps Volunteers current and future is this; don’t be content to sit around even if you are told it is okay to. Create a project that you love and that would be useful to your community. Combine your interests with those in the community. Because of this league I can not walk around town without some child and player in our league shouting my name. Soccer has in large part made Mandalgovi my home instead of just a place that I stay. Do not let 3 months go by with nothing to show for it because there is no guarantee that work will ever pick up in your primary position. Do not set a precedent for yourself of being okay with not working because it will lead to you questioning why you are here and if the country you are serving in is really benefiting from your service.
Find something you love and adapt it to the needs and desires of a specific group in your community.
You can either acclimate by observation or throw yourself into the mix, get way in over your head, and sink or swim you’ll at least have gone from a passive observer like a shy middle school boy at a dance to an active participant dancing with their crush.
Thank you to Melissa, Elijah, Elisha, Nymka, Ulzii, Muno, all of the coaches and players for not only a successful season but for also making it easier to stick around.
During my first few weeks in Mandalgovi it became very clear that there was very little for kids to do outside of school. I decided that this was an area where I could stand to make a long-lasting impact in my community during my Peace Corps service. Soccer has always been an important part of my life and along with another volunteer and two locals, I set out to bring the first soccer league to not only Mandalgovi but all of Dundgovi.
The creation of the Mandalgovi Co-Educational Youth Soccer League was no easy task. We faced roadblocks at every turn and for awhile it seemed that the league would never get off of the ground. But eventually we succeeded. We were able to create school teams in both an 8-10 year old division and an 11-13 year old division. All teams, as alluded to in the league name, were co-ed, and all teams were required to field at least 4 girls out of the 9 players on the field.
When we first created the league we decided our purpose was:
to create positive, healthy after school activities for youth of Mandalgovi. The desired outcomes for the league participants include; creating a co-ed environment that will both empower girls through athletics and teach boys to treat girls as equals both on and off of the field, enhancing school pride and teamwork, and the existence of an atmosphere of healthy lifestyle practices through promoting exercise and better eating habits
and for coaches:
enhancing community involvement especially with the youth of the community, having coaches who are trained to be positive role models for their players, and having coaches who can safely mitigate injuries.
These were our main areas of focus for the Fall season and will continue to be our main goals through the Spring season and Summer soccer camp.
If you want to learn more about the league and what we specifically do please download this document via dropbox: Click Here
What we need now is funding to keep the league going to continue to provide a safe weekend and after school activity for the children of Mandalgovi. We recently applied for a Let Girls Learn initiative grant and were successful in our efforts. Half of the money we requested was given to us and the other half we need to raise ourselves. It is my hope that you, the reader, will identify with our cause and contribute whatever you can.
The money that we are asking for will be enough to buy; nets for our goals, 40 soccer balls, helmets for our goalies, pinnies to differentiate team from team, field time for games and practices, practice equipment for teams, and safety resources. It will also continue our practice of keeping the league free for all players.
The link to donate is as follows:
Also here is a link to our facebook page to see all of our game photos:
If you have any questions about what your money would be going to please do not hesitate to ask. Also if you wouldn’t mind helping spread the word that would be great too.
Thank you in advance,
Several days ago I found myself simmering some bones, carrots, and spices in a pot on my electric burner to make stock for chicken-apple curry (which I still have not had the time to make) at around 9:00 at night when all of a sudden I found myself thinking “Hmm did it just get darker in here?” Reminiscing on a film professor at UNH and his frequent “Did it just get brighter in here?” acid flashbacks I gave my water a judgmental glance before realizing that my multi-burner hotplate had also shut off. Once again confident in the water supply of Mandalgovi I checked my power strip, which has been known to kick its killswitch when it is pulling too much power. Killswitch was intact. Next I checked the breakers in the ger which were still showing red, contrary to what one would think red is good and green is bad in this scenario.
Now although this was the first power outage I had experienced at this point, almost a month at site, it was understandable. Mongolia is not known for having the strongest power grid and blackouts and brownouts are regularly scheduled in most cities. However, when I stepped outside into the fading light of the day I could not help but notice every хашаа (khashaa) in my neighborhood still had power and I could see my neighbor watching their flat screen through the crack in the wooden fence (sidenote I have never seen this individual NOT watching their TV).
As I turned to head back into my ger to decide what to do my now non-stock-making mixture on the burner-not-burning I heard someone calling my name…either that or describing the size of something (problems that arise when your name is the word and identical spelling for the word big). I recognized the voice as that of my хашаа mom (peace corps term) and could vaguely make out 2 figures sitting in the sandy dirt in the fast encroaching darkness (the lovely landscape of when steppe meets desert). As I walked closer I recognized one figure as that of my хашаа mom but had not met the other. I was soon introduced to the second person that turned out to be my хашаа mom’s director. It was soon explained to me that there was no electricity…I had not noticed and that it would not be back until tomorrow. Before I could ask why things got interesting in the way they have tended to in my Mongolian Experience to date.
My хашаа mom pulled a half empty bottle of vodka from beside her and poured me a cup. I attempted to get away with just taking a sip but was not so fortunate. After downing the rest a cup was poured for the director. When she refused my хашаа mom began to call her a bad boss and a bad friend as well as a chicken for not drinking more. It was at this moment that it became more and more apparent that both women were rather intoxicated. I was made to drink the second cup, thankfully this one was much smaller and then things got more story-worthy.
My хашаа mom was soon embracing me, calling me her new son and saying all sorts of things I did not understand, well that and her reminding me that the power was out still every 10 minutes. She would bring me in for a sniff, a sign of affection and family hood during which the sniffer is always older than the person being sniffed and I would get a giant whiff of the increasing presence of vodka on her person. She continued to call her boss a bad boss to her face and I continued to laugh awkwardly. She started to say things about her husband the cop, cops are not in high regard here, and I can only assume they were rather negative given past encounters (which will be explained when I backtrack at a later date), her semi shouting tone, and her repetition of spitting into the dirt after saying either his name or the words “Police” and “Officer”. I was able to understand more and more as the night went on, not because my Mongolian rapidly improves in power outages but because the conversation followed a half hour long loop of these exact same instances occurring in the exact same order.
As this conversation made its third full circle I had a sudden realization. It was Monday…. It was midnight…. I was sitting in this sand-dirt cross breed of topography instead of in either of the homes on the properly….in the dark, with two drunk middle aged women who can barely understand me and I can barely understand them, stuck in a conversational loop like someone was hitting rewind on their favorite scene in a movie, drinking vodka that could dissolve limestone….IN MONGOLIA.
That is as far as my thought process got as I was stirred back to reality by my хашаа mom attempting to pour more vodka, missing the cup entirely, and coating my left arm and leg in the potent alcohol. I used this as my excuse to return to my ger to in order wash off but also in order to escape what was bound to be the return of “You are my son let me smell you and tell you about the lack of power and the career choice of my husband” (okay so maybe “Return of the Jedi” is catchier), although I was unable to get the smell of vodka off of my body….which may have been an improvement, until today (Thursday).
So once again I chalk it up to “Well this is Mongolia”. Where it seems like the extent to your night will be making some stock for some killer apple chicken curry and you end up learning drunken secrets that you can’t repeat; not because you made a promise…but because you don’t have the slightest clue as to what was said.