Sunday, June 28, 2009

My chilly weekend

So I know I haven't written much on here since arriving in Mongolia - so maybe I'll leave a quick note about my weekend...

I managed to spend the night at Kara's place on Friday night (try explaining that in a foreign language - even though it is allowed, it's still difficult to get across). I woke up Saturday morning, had some breakfast with Kara which included Cocoa Puffs in a cup of hot milk. I then took off for my place at about 10am. Typically I'd get home and expect lunch to be started, but on this particular day we had no power. My guess is this had to do with the howling winds of the past 48 hours. Needless to say, we didn't have the ability to cook anything. So my host mother throws us in her car at 3pm, drives us across town to a co-workers' Ger (small round felt tent) to feed us. I was given the biggest bowl of soup (seriously, think X-Large bowl at a Pho shop) and the rest of the family each got one small tea cup of soup. Fun times...

We enjoyed the rest of the evening in a quiet, tv-less, cold environment. But I have to say I enjoyed the experience. Sometimes I laugh at the weather here - I laugh because I feel like I'll never be prepared for it. For example, Wednesday I got sunburned in the 75+ degree sun, and Saturday I froze in the 35 degree wind and cloud-cover. Seriously, my host sister said it might snow today. It's already happened once since we've been here...

Kara's post did a great job of explaining a typical day. I'll try bringing some video of what we've been up to the next time I make it to the Post office / Internet cafe.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Life in Mongolia: Perspective from 2 weeks in

Hi Everybody!

For those who have the time and interest, I’m finally getting around to writing a big update! I can't believe we've only been here 2 weeks. It feels like WAY longer, but not in a bad way. We've just experienced so much already! The brief summary is that Mark and I are both living with separate host families in Zuunmod, a decently sized city in Mongolia, about 45 minutes - 1 hour or so away from the capital city of Ulaanbaatar in the Tuv Province. We spend most of our time in class and studying, trying to figure out what our host families are trying to say to us, and trying to effectively communicate to them. For those who are still curious for more details, I’ll provide a sketch of what a typical weekday might look like for me here in Zuunmod, Mongolia.

I wake up around 7:00 or so and usually lay in my hard bed in my room until close to 8:00. After rolling out of bed I open up my curtains and I’m usually greeted by a big blue sky and sun shining in. Next, I pull some clothes out; this doesn’t take too long since I don't have much to choose from. I regret not bringing a few more nice things to wear because Mongolians really like dressing up or at least deem it important and us Americans are being constantly reminded to bathe and dress nice. Somehow Mongolians manage to look great even though they don’t wash their clothes, hair, or body as often as I am normally accustomed to. I have not mastered this yet. Anyway, after strategically choosing some clothes I slap on some deodorant, maybe put on some earrings and a little make-up, and figure out what to do with my frizzy hair. This depends on far or how close I am to having bathed/washed my hair. I have found that bathing about twice a week is normal here. From what I can tell, the norm here with my host family is a thorough washing once a week. This means heating up water and having my host mom pour it over my head over the bath tub while I wash it. We do have running water in our apt, but it's cold. Then I stand in the bathtub with a small bucket of water and wash the rest of me. The bathtub is mostly just there for me to splash around in - water doesn't actually run into, so I have to use whatever I have in my little bucket. I have not yet mastered the skills of conserving water like Mongolians do quite well.

After that quick hygiene routine I go to the bathroom (which contains a flushing toilet and toilet paper – this is not something you can assume you’ll find in bathrooms in Mongolia) then go in to have some breakfast that my host mom (Delgermaa or Degi for short) has prepared for me. This always consists of at least one cup of hot, salty milk tea, which accompanies every meal here. It’s a little different tasting, but I’ve gotten used to it. Along with the tea I might have a little breakfast sandwich with bread, fried egg (or microwaved egg), and ham. On a good day I might get to have some bread and jam. One day she bought me Cocoa Puffs! I think she was worried about me liking the food. It was a nice little treat, though she probably spent way too much on it.

During breakfast my host mom and I usually sit in an awkward silence. Occasionally we flip through our little phrase books and have a conversation one word at a time. I’m not sure if it really qualifies as a conversation though. My host dad (Purevdorj*) is sometimes around when I get up, but is often at work. My host brothers (Bilguun - Bebi for short – age 17 and Dolgoon – age 6) are usually both sleeping still. I’m not sure when Bebi gets up, but on the weekends, like a typical American 17-year-old, he often sleeps in until 11 or 12. Oh and because I’m around and have taken the only bedroom, all four of them sleep in the living room/bedroom together. It makes me feel weird taking up so much space, but it’s a Peace Corps requirement that we have our own room. And fortunately, they are getting paid a pretty good amount of money for hosting me. It's still weird for me though. But for the most part, Mongolians don't have the same ideas about personal space like Americans do. i.e. kids don't get to have their own room, they don't feel a lot of need for privacy or alone time, and they have a much, much smaller personal bubble.

*Side note: I have a great story about the first time I met Purevdorj – someday, ask me about it. It’s at least in my top 5 most awkward cross-cultural experiences.

After breakfast I leave my big Soviet built concrete apartment building to make the short walk to class. On the way to class I walk past two little stores (“delgoors”), like mini-mini-markets, a kindergarten (more like what we’d call a daycare), a sports center, a handful of scraggly stray dogs (that the Peace Corps has made me terrified of because of the threat of getting bit and getting rabies), and a bunch of Mongolians on their way to work. My host mom is one of these people, as she walks to work at the town Hospital. I can't quite figure out what she does. She's not a nurse, but she must do somethign that involved adminstering shots because random people show up to our apt in the evenings and she gives them shots. Not sure what that's about yet.

I get to school and hang out with the other students (there are 15 of us total), then we roll in to start language class at 9:00. Class goes from 9:00 to 1:00 with a couple of breaks. There is a LOT to learn. At times it is overwhelming; at other times it’s really fun and interesting. There are only 4 of us in my class though, so we get a lot of attention from our teacher and can ask lots of questions, which is nice. It’s also kind of nice that we all started out at the same level, so we’re all (in my class) learning at a similar pace. Everybody in my class also speaks Spanish and it’s funny how often our minds revert to that. I’ll be talking to the teacher or my family and I realize I don’t remember the word for “and” so I say “y” or I say “o” for or, thinking it should be the same. Or just tons of other Spanish phrases come to mind. Unfortunately, Mongolian is not like Spanissh (or English) – not at ALL.

After language class I walk back to have lunch at home with my host family. As with every meal, my host mom prepares it for me. Lunch is, again, milk tea, and usually some sort of noodle dish. The most common dish is tsuiven (pronounced soy-ven) which is basically really greasy noodles and meat, in my home, always mutton. It’s pretty good but I can see how it will get old after a while. I actually think the mutton tastes fine; it’s like beef, just a little different. It’s the chunks of fat mixed in that I don’t enjoy (but most Mongolians consider a yummy little part of the meal).

After my nice little lunch break I walk back to school for a CYD class or a cross-cultural class, depending on the day. Class gets out sometime between 5 and 6 and we (all students) usually mill around after class to talk. I might go to the Post Office (“kholboo”) to use the internet. If not, I usually head home for dinner.

Dinner usually involves some sort of noodle or rice and meat. There’s usually a lot of grease, oil, and or fat involved. There’s an unfortunately small amount of fruit and vegetables in my diet. I do occasionally get potatoes and sometimes carrots, and I’ve had a little cucumber and pickles. One of the more common dinner entrees is buuz (pronounced like “boats”) which are like little dumplings or potstickers. My host mom makes the dough, rolls it out into little circles, then we put meat in them and pinch them closed. Mongolians are experts at making buuz. My host mom is nice enough to let me help, but I’m not so good at it. You can definitely see the “Kara buuz” (as she calls them) and the regular buuz. They’re pretty yummy! I just have a hard time when I get dished a plate of at least 10 of them. I’m starting to get more comfortable with not finishing everything they feed me. It’s just too much. Oh, and don’t forget, more milk tea with dinner.

So far, over dinner not a lot of conversation takes place between us. I’ve started trying to practice things we learn in class but they are things like “I’m from America,” which sound stupid saying to them now that I’ve lived here and a while and it’s pretty clear where I’m from. We mostly flip through our phrase books and dictionaries and try to mime things. It can be fun at times, but also pretty frustrating. Bebi (older brother, 17) speaks decent English, so if he’s around that helps. Occasionally I know they are all talking about me and probably discuss some cultural norm I broke, at least that’s what I’m guessing. I just know they talk, look at me, giggle, keep talking. It’s pretty sweet.

After dinner I usually just study. There’s homework, trying to memorize words, figure out grammar, look over tomorrow’s language lesson, and then any CYD homework I have on top of that. It keeps me pretty busy, but I’m glad to stay busy. As for the family, Bebi (17-year-old) is usually gone out hanging with friends or something (i.e. basketball and computer games), the mom switches between cleaning, preparing/cleaning up dinner, and watching TV. Watching TV is a pretty major past-time. On a side note, I think I heard about Michael Jackson's death surprisingly quickly. I'm in Mongolia, but not cut off from the rest of the world entirely. Although that's pretty much the only news I've picked up.

Anyway, that's basically a little version of my life here! I left out some more of the extreme awkwardness, but that's just a party of daily life here. More stories to come soon!

Thanks for keeping Mark and I in your thoughts and prayers. I'll bug him to post something soon!


Thursday, June 25, 2009

Quick post - more to come soon!

I just wanted to give you all a quick hello and let you know that Mark and I are alive and healthy! I'm going to work on a substantial update at home now that I've snagged our laptop from Mark and try to get that up and posted soon - maybe even with a picture or two!

The quick update is that things are going well here in Zuunmod! Mark and I are both in classes and learning a lot. We get to see each other every day, sometimes for a while, sometimes just for a few minutes before/after class. We're in different language classes and he's in the Community Economic Development (CED from hereon out) and I'm in the Community Youth Development (CYD) classes. We're both learning a lot and we keep pretty busy. We have class from about 9-5:30 with breaks. Then we have to report back to our host families and let them know what we're up to in the evenings. Usually, that's just a lot of studying (mostly studying the language). Both of our families are really great though. The language barrier is pretty frustrating though!

Like I said, sory this is short, but more will be coming soon!

Monday, June 15, 2009

We're in Mongolia!! Yeah!!

Hi Everybody! We made it to Mongolia! This will be a quick post because I have dinner soon and there about 15 other volunteers waiting for computers. A few notes about the trip so far.

- Mongolia is BEAUTIFUL! We're in a somewhat large town surrounded by gorgeous rolling hills.
- So far we've just spent time in introductory sessions on things like safety, medical issues, and our first language session.
- Mark and I got great news - we get to live in the same town for training! We thought we'd have to be really far apart and only see each other a few times over the 8 weeks but they changed things this year and CED (Business) and CYD (youth) volunteers just happen to be training in the same town. So we'll be living with separate families but get to see each other pretty much everyday. Yeah!
- The weather has been great - in the 70s I think.
- I've got to see gers (yurts), horses, cows (wandering around town), lots of scraggley dogs, and goats.
- The food has been GREAT! Granted, I had low expectations and I think they are easing us in, but it has been really good so far. I don't think anybody has really gotten sick yet. But tomorrow we start getting all of our shots. :(

I think that's all for now. But I have to give a shout out to my little bro - HAPPY 18th BIRTHDAY JARED!!!

Best wishes!
Kara (& Mark)

Saturday, June 13, 2009

We've made it to Korea so far!

Hey Everybody!

We're waiting in the Korea airport right now! It's 2:15am to us but 6:15pm their time. Needless to say, we're all a little confused.The good news is that the 12 1/2 hour flight here wasn't as bad as I thought it'd be. We each watched 4 movies, more than I've ever watched in one sitting. And we got seats in an aisle that had the little flight attendant area in front of us, not a row of seats, which mean way more leg room. I could stretch out my legs entirely ahead of me! And we got 2 full meals. I tried to be adventurous and get the Korean meal the first time which was interesting... The flight attendant had to explain what to do with it all. Our digestive systems are all pretty confused already. I guess we should get used to that though.

A brief update on our last couple of days...
June 10: tearful goodbye in Seatac airport, took plane to LA and stayed with our dear friend Lindsay. It was great to have a little time to adjust and settle in and spend time with her. And when walking around we even spotted a star - that woman who is the star of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. And we had one of our last American meal for a while - sushi!(SYMers - be proud!)

June 11: we had a whirlwind of a session, learning the basics of the Peace Corps and meeting everybody over the course of 8 hours. Everybody was pretty exhausted by the end. But it was really fun meeting all the other volunteers. There are some really great people! Overall most volunteers are in their 20s and there are 3 older men in their 60s-70s;
there are also 3 other married couples. Mark and I actually feel kind of old amongst a bunch of recent college graduates. It's been really fun to talk to so many other people who have had the same experience as us though - getting asked the same questions about Mongolia, people who have the same anxieties, but who have also become excited about the same things, etc. And I don't think we've found anybody yet who actually chose Mongolia, which is actually kind of refreshing because we're all in a similar boat. I was comforted to find out that pretty much nobody else has studied the language. But we realized that Mark and I did a lot more reading and studying about Mongolia than many. Oh and we learned there are a TON of teachers in our group (people who will teach English and people who will be "teacher trainers") and very few who are in our groups. Out of 70 people there are less than 10 Community Economic Development volunteers and less than 10 Comm Youth Dev volunteers. That made us feel kind of special to be in a small group.

Overall, it shouldn't go unstated that the past few days have been a whirlwind of emotions too! For us and for our families. But things are going well. We're looking forward to finally be in Mongolia after so much talk about it. But today we're just feeling tired. I suspect a whole new set of emotions will set in when we actually arrive, then another new set when we get sent to host families, then more later, etc etc.

I'm not sure when you'll hear from us again - hopefully soon! The next time I write, it will be from Mongolia!!

Thanks so much again for all your love and support and prayers for us. It's so comforting to know we have that.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Awaiting the Adventure!

Sain Bainuu! (Hi!)

Mark and I are hanging out right now, enjoying our last evening in Seattle together before our 2 year adventure in Mongolia. (Not our last evening together in Seattle ever. We plan to return! And our next 2 evenings will be spent with family in Puyallup.) For those of you who just recently heard about this adventure of ours, let me give a quick recap. We decided to apply for the Peace Corps for a lot of reasons but mostly because we wanted to travel, to serve, and because this is a great time to go since we don't have a house, kids, pets, etc.

Frequently asked questions:
Did you choose Mongolia?
No. In fact, I never would've guessed I'd be living in Mongolia for 2 years. But, we decided we were doing the Peace Corps to truly serve, and we wanted to go where there was a need and where we were called. Turns out, this is Mongolia. I was hesitant at first, but now I'm really excited.

What will you be doing there?
I will be a Community Youth Development volunteer. They say I'll be a "Life Skills Trainer". I don't really know what that means yet though. Basically, I think I'll be working with kids or teens in some capacity; in a school, non-profit, government agency, etc.
Mark will be a Community Economic Development Volunteer; specifically, he'll be a Small Business Advisor.
We both decided to rank the type of work as more important than where we did the work during the application process. We're both really excited to be working in these sectors.

Where will you live?
We don't know yet. We'll be training in a town just outside of the capital (Ulaanbaatar) for 10 weeks. After getting to know us better and what skills we have to offer, they'll assign us jobs somewhere. We find this out at the end of training. We live separately during training for 8 weeks with host families and will then live together for the next 2 years. We'll most likely live in a yurt ("ger" in Mongolian), apartment, or wood house. We anticipate that we'll live in a provincial capital, meaning we won't live in the most remote of areas, but it will still be a relatively small town.

Will you come back?
Yes! Our service with the Peace Corps (PC) ends in August 2011. We may travel a little bit after that if we can, but ultimately we plan to return to Western Washington - somewhere in the Puyallup-Tacoma-Seattle area. We hope to come back to the U.S. once during our service to visit. This is allowed by the PC, but we have to pay for it on our own. (Flights are expensive!)

What will you be eating?
Lots of meat (especially mutton), lots of dairy products like goat milk, fermented mare's milk, goat cheese, root vegetables like potatoes and carrots, and some rice and noodles.

So, not like the Mongolian Grill?
Unfortunately, not at all like the Monoglian Grills.

What do they speak?

Do you know Mongolian?
Not yet! But we have intensive training for 10 weeks.

Those are some of the questions we seem to have been asked the most. I hope that helps! I also hope that all of you enjoy reading our blog. We're planning on doing separate posts and not really proofing each other's - so one of us might say something quite contradictory from the other. But most of you are probably used to that anyway. And you'll probably notice that I overuse quotation marks (but they just seem so handy to me). We've been told to expect very limited internet access during the first 10 weeks of training, but after that we hope we'll have more regular access. But we'll just have to wait and see. You'll have to forgive us for our grammatical and spelling errors, as we may be in a rush to publish a post sometimes.

Thanks again to so many of you who have been so supportive! We're so thankful to have so many people in our lives who are so caring. Thanks to many of you for all your prayers too.

Bayartai! (Goodbye!)

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Flying Out

Well, as if most of you didn't already know...Kara and I are leaving for Mongolia soon. We fly out June 10th in fact. Our trip starts out with a jaunt down to L.A. for "Orientation" on the 11th, then we fly to Ulaanbaatar on the 12th (oh, and we have a 4 hour layover in Seoul, South Korea!!) to start "Pre-Service Training" (PST). This "trip" will be an adventure - no doubt about it. Everything about preparing for Peace Corps service has been an adventure.

We look forward to keeping everyone up to date on our experiences, and even though we may have limited internet access for the first few months of service, please know that somehow we will manage to get pictures and information posted for everyone to see.

Thanks for all your love and support!!

p.s. I think this may be our welcome gift!?