Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Last Blog Post from Mongolia

by Kara

I read what Mark posted earlier today and thought it was very nicely composed. I don’t want to compete with his post, but thought that maybe I should share some of my own thoughts.

For me, right now it just feels like we’re packed up to go on vacation. It’s hard to mentally process that we may never come back to this country again and even more, that we may never see some of our Mongolian and PCV friends again. I think it’s going to take some time for that to set in.

When we were applying for the Peace Corps I was so excited to live in another country and have everyday experiences like going grocery shopping be interesting and like a small adventure. Now, after two years, rather than feeling like an adventure, sometimes it’s just tiring to have a simple task like grocery shopping be a cumbersome experience. I’m actually looking forward to being able to go grocery shopping and not have everybody stare at me and to not have a confusing interaction with the cashier.

On the other hand, I still love the attention I get from kids in Arkhangai just walking around town. Everyday there are always at least a few kids who shout, “HI! HI! HI!” Other PCVs have gotten tired of this, but I still love it. The kids are adorable. Now I’m going to go back to the US and I’m just going to be another boring adult. And if I give a piece of candy to some kid on the street (perfectly acceptable here), people are going to think I’m a kidnapper. Great.

Then again, I’m really excited for Mark and I to start a fresh, new life together again in Seattle. I can’t wait to be busy learning (as a grad student at UW) and working (hopefully I’ll secure a job soon). Having struggled with a huge language barrier in my work in Mongolia, I’m especially looking forward to working with people who are all fluent in the same language as me. I know I’ll face challenges, but at least we’ll be able to communicate with one another.

Clearly, there are a lot of things I know I’m going to miss about Mongolia (it’s impossible to list them all here) and a lot of things I’m looking forward to in the US.

I can’t yet say exactly how my service as a PCV in Mongolia has changed me for the long-term. Those close to me may be able to indicate these changes better than I can. I hope that it’s made me more patient and understanding. I definitely think it’s made me more understanding of people who are living in another country and attempting to speak a non-native language. I also really admired a lot of the generosity I found in my Mongolian friends and coworkers and I’ve hoped that would rub off on me… However, I’m not confident that it has. That’s still something I’m working on.

There are little things that are with me now but may go away with time. If my foot bumps somebody else’s foot I feel the urge to shake their hand. I may be a bit pushy in ATM lines and stand a little to close to the person in front of me, worried somebody might cut. I won’t be as disappointed if the item I order at a restaurant isn’t there. (Last night we went to a restaurant called Thai Cuisine and after ordering were told that Thai food is not available.) And don’t be too surprised if you catch me loudly slurping up hot beverages.

Well, that’s all the insight I’ve got right now… I’m going to go back to looking up tips online for how to travel with a cat on a plane. Here’s hoping she swallows her pills and sleeps the whole time! Mark and I might post a follow-up post or two from the US, but this marks the last one from Mongolia! Bayartai! Thanks for following our blog!

Completing our Service

by Mark

Today is July 26th, 2011 here in Mongolia.  Kara and I have spent the past week in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar where we've been finishing up our Close-of-Service (COS) paperwork for Peace Corps.  As of July 24th, midnight, we became RPCV's...(the R means Returned...which we soon will be in actuality).

It's really hard to put into words how we feel right now.  I know my feelings are different than Kara's...and I know our memories are different as well.  Honestly, leaving Arkhangai was harder than leaving Mongolia will be.  We fly out later tonight, but in many ways it feels like our time in Mongolia has already concluded.  When we were packing our things in our apartment, it didn't take nearly as long as I thought it might.  It's a strange feeling knowing that you came to this country with two large bags and two carry-on items...and yet we'll leave carrying the same baggage.  Yes, we've swapped out our old clothes for some of the gifts we received from members of our community.  We've thrown out old shoes, and donated other items to friends, future PCV's, and even an orphanage.  And yet, we're about to get on a plane carrying the same amount of weight as when we arrived over 2 years ago.

During our last 48 hours at our site, we had many different friends and co-workers want to stop by and visit, or take us out for a meal, or give us a small gift so that we'll remember them when we've left.  It was a wonderfully kind show of affection.  The most common question we received was "when will you return to Mongolia?".  And honestly, we don't know.  It's easy to joke about returning in 10 years...or telling people we'll return when we've had children and we can all reminisce about our 2 years in Arkhangai together.  But the reality is we just don't know.  And not knowing when you'll return can make leaving even harder than leaving a place you know you'll return to.

Before we left, my co-workers presented me with the "engraved" version of the bowl they gave me when we were camping. I asked them to have the text be engraved in Mongolian so that I can at least try to remember a few words of this language whenever I look at it.  They've been incredibly giving to me over the past couple of years, and I hope that the "work" we've done in Mongolia, together, will be something they remember whether I return in the future or not.

The day we left Arkhangai we were told we'd be picked up at around 10am.  Then that got changed to 2pm. Then we got a call at 1:15 saying they were coming to get us.  Luckily, we were ready.  We packed all our things into our micro-bus, including our cat Mishka (who is coming back with us!), and prepared for our final goodbyes.  One of our friends from the community called me, asked us to wait, and said he was jumping on his motorbike and would drive down to see us off.  And just before it was time to leave, a group of my co-workers arrived in a separate vehicle, told Kara and I to join them, to leave our bags, and informed our driver we'd meet them a little ways down the road. 

They drove us out to the archway/gate at the edge of Tsetserleg where the rest of my staff was waiting to see us off.  We all shared one last toast of Chinggis vodka, passed around some candy, and waited for our ride to appear through the gateway.  I had a really hard time keeping it together.  I couldn't say anything to my co-workers for fear that I'd really start tearing up...so instead I just tried to smile.  When it came time for us to go, Kara and I were gripped with heart-felt hugs from everyone.  And then we drove away.

I've had a lot of time here in UB to think about the completion of our service.  To ponder what it means to "finish" something like volunteer development work.  Our period of service is finishing, but what we've been doing and why we've been doing it will not end when we get on the plane.  There are thousands of volunteers all over the world that are continuing to do what we've had the privilege to experience these past 2 years.  And more importantly, we have friends that will stay here for at least another year.

As I was typing this I received a call from our sitemate Tim Jenkins.  He will be the only volunteer in Arkhangai until the incoming trainees get placed.  He used to tell us all the time that he's not sure how he feels about being left alone.  He used to joke that we should stay to keep him company.  And when he realized that we were really leaving he would just randomly quote the phrase "one man walks alone".  But his phone call this morning was to tell me the following, "last night I realized that it won't be 'one man walks alone' when that man has the spirit of his friends with him all the time".

Our time here is coming to an end, but I hope that the spirit of what we've done here in Mongolia continues to live on.  And I hope that our friends, of every nationality, know that Mongolia will continue to be a part of our memories for the rest of our lives.  So it is with a mix of sadness, hope, joy, and amazement that I am saying goodbye to our relatively short time in Mongolia.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Blowtorching Marmot

by Mark

I might as well warn you up front...if you don't like seeing or hearing about small animals being prepared as a meal, don't bother to watch or read on.  Though really these animals had been dead for awhile, it's still a rather "uncivilized" form of food prep.  But hey, they're still considered a delicacy...and it takes a long time to prepare them.  My staff considered it mandatory that we get one last taste on this most recent trip to Blue Lake.  I know we've talked about having marmot in the past, but this time I decided to take some video of the preparation.

First, the heads are cut off and innards are removed.  The choice pieces of "innards" are then placed back inside, along with a handful of onion.  Then you take stones the size of baseballs that have been heating in the coals of a fire and stuff them down inside until the animal is "full".  Tie off the neck.  These hot rocks serve to cook the meat from the inside out...then the outside is cooked using the following technique (enjoy the "barbarity"!):

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Хөх Нуур (Blue Lake)

by Mark

Kara and I just returned from a 3 day trip to Hukh Nuur (Blue Lake) here in Arkhangai.  We were told it's not a very common trip for foreigners to take, other than on horseback, and we soon figured out why.  Between the massive boulders, rivers that were easily 3-4 ft deep in spots, and the absolute middle-of-nowhere location, it's not an easy trek to make no matter what form of transportation you have.

It was beautiful countryside we passed through, and other than the massive number of flies and mosquitoes, it was great to be outside sleeping in tents and walking through such untouched land.  There were 15 of us that went on the trip - it was partly a summer getaway, a thank you to some of my staff, and partly a goodbye trip for Kara and I.  We swam in the rivers, cooked over an open fire for every meal, shared traditional meals as well as some of the more rare ones (marmot!), and generally baked in the 80 degree sunshine!

My staff presented me with a couple of gifts.  First, they gave me a signed certificate from the governor of Arkhangai acknowledging the past 2 years of work I've done here.  Then as a gift from all of the staff members I've worked with I was presented with a blue "hadak" (symbolic blue cloth) and a brass cup or "ayag" that is presently being engraved with a short message.  In return I gave a short speech, mentioning some of my favorite memories of each of my staff members and then concluded by giving them a photobook with pictures of memories from the past 2 years.

As expected this trip reminded us rather starkly of all the things we find beautiful and fascinating about Mongolia and it's people...but it also reminds us of some of the hardships we/they face on a daily basis.  We have learned to have an incredible level of patience in this country - sometimes because "waiting" will bring about the best moments, but other times the "waiting" is simply not worth it in our minds.  But that's ok.  In the end, we have the memories to look back on...and of course the photos:

(no sound, only pictures)

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

More Naadam - photos/video

We figured we might as well give you as much audio/visual stimulation as possible.  Here is a photo slideshow of the 2011 Naadam festival in Arkhangai set to some really cool Mongolian music by the band Altan Urag.  Make sure to have your speakers on for each of the following videos.

If you would like to see the individual photos used in the slideshow and read a few more descriptive captions for each please check out Kara's FB photo album "Naadam 2011".

Also, here is a video of a dance during the opening ceremonies.  The quality is poor and it's only about a minute of the full dance, but essentially what you're seeing is a large group of choreographed women dancing with 6 small bowls stacked on their heads.  The dance involves them taking them off, putting them back on, spinning around, moving all over the place...and obviously NOT dropping any of the bowls.

And lastly, here's a quick video of the final 4 wrestlers prepping for their matches by walking up to the flagpole, waving their arms in the traditional eagle dance, and basically offering thanks/respect to Mongolia.

In just a few short hours, Kara and I will be traveling with 20+ of my counterparts to Blue Lake for a 3 day retreat/camping trip to celebrate our work over the past 2 years.  Upon our return, we'll only have 2 short days left in Arkhangai.  Hopefully we'll have some beautiful pictures to upload following this final excursion as well.