Friday, July 24, 2009

Videos (Flooding & Games)

This video shows a bit of a Thunderstorm that passed over us a couple days back. I was stuck at Kara's apartment for the 45 minute hail storm (hail the size of Peanut M&M's) and this is the view I had as I was walking back to my house. The water you see should not be there, and most definitely is blocking my route home. I ended up hiking about 10 minutes north of my house to get past the "new" river that formed in the storm. We are ok, but a bunch of folks in the Capital (UB) didn't make it because of the flash flooding and poor drainage systems. It was quite the storm, the video should show the passing clouds off in the distance.

This video shows some of the learning we're doing every morning for language class. Some may appear familiar. My class has 6 people in it, and the woman in the red shirt (clue: she appears Mongolian) is our teacher (pronounced "bagsh").

Ger visits!

Kara’s Perspective

Mark has done a good job at laying out the basics of a ger visit, but I’ll fill in some of the things I’ve noticed and shared some of my experiences. I think this will provide a sample of what some of our experiences are like here, as well as some insight into Mongolian culture.

Since we’re still newbies to Mongolia any visit to a traditional Mongolian ger is guaranteed to be interesting – and awkward. From what I can tell, Mongolians who live in gers are often slightly if not greatly more traditional than Mongolians living in houses or apartments. There are a lot of customs and traditions that go along with ger life that do not accompany house or apartment life, as these latter two types of homes were mostly introduced by outsiders. Mongolians have been living in gers for hundreds of years, back to the time of Chinggis (Genghis) Khan; they are the traditional nomadic home – they can be completely disassembled in only 1-3 hours. However, many modern gers have taken on amenities like electricity; some families even have internet in their gers. But gers almost never have indoor plumbing. I did hear of a previous Peace Corps volunteer who installed a urinal in his, but that’s another story. Anyway, gers are an interesting mix of traditional and modern, i.e., visually, you can see my pictures of a ger with a huge satellite planted outside of it. Yet it’s not surprise Mongolians continue to live in gers. While they require a lot of work to live in, especially during the winter, they have been adapted over the years to become very efficient dwellings for Mongolia’s climate and lifestyle. They can stay very warm in the winter by the fire in the middle, fueled by wood, coal, and/or dried animal dung (it’s odorless), and they keep quite cool in Mongolia’s warm summers.

I’ll fill in a little bit more about tradition and culture by sharing about a recent ger visit Mark and I shared. However, remember this is just one example of ger life, and doesn’t represent all of Mongolia. As Mark pointed out, there are many things for a ger visitor to consider immediately upon entering a ger. For example, we’ve been told to always walk clockwise around the ger when entering and leaving. But what do you do when the Mongolian you are with breaks this rule? Follow her to the right (counter-clockwise) and risk breaking a rule that perhaps a Mongolian can break but I, the foreigner, am expected not to? Or don’t follow her and walk in clockwise, perhaps looking even weirder to a group of people who may not follow such traditional rules anymore? This might seem insignificant, and no matter what we know we won’t do everything correctly, but we want to do the best we can and show respect and cultural sensitivity. In the case of this ger visit, Mark and I followed my host-mom in the counter-clockwise direction (the wrong way!) and sat in the two open seats they pointed us to – in the most respected part of the ger, the northern-most part, away from the door.

For the most part, Mongolian gers continue to be set up according to custom. Not only is the placement of people important (where Mark and I sat), but the layout of the furniture also contains meaning. First of all, gers always face south. Respected or valuable items are in the rear (north) end of the ger – where we sat. In the ger we visited that day there was a Buddhist shrine directly behind us. As Mongolians left they each walked past it and spun the prayer wheel three times. (We, as foreign guests and people who don’t follow Buddhism are not expected to follow that custom.) The western side of the ger is usually the men’s side and where they store manly items like the saddle. The eastern side is the women’s side where cooking utensils and the like are kept. The stove is in the center and various chests and cupboards line the walls. From what I’ve seen there are often twin-sized beds on both the east and west sides of the ger. It is not uncommon for multiple people to share beds or for people to sleep on the floor.

Alright back to our exciting visit. After entering the ger, as guests we were immediately served hot milk tea (“cuutai tsai”), which we accepted with our right hand or both hands. It’s also a good idea to touch your left hand to your elbow when accepting it as a sign of thanks and respect. And if your sleeves are rolled up don’t forget to roll them down before accepting food and drink. In this visit the food was sitting on a table in front of us so we got to choose what we wanted to eat. This is easier than when a big bowl of dried milk curds being passed around or something of the sort because then you are strongly expected to take some and eat it, whether you like it or not. It is considered extremely rude not to take the food and drink you are offered. In this case we munched on some yummy “bortzag”, which are deep fried pieces of bread – delicious when dipped in the tea. I successfully avoided the hard, dry dairy products in this visit.

As we are munching on our snacks and drinking our tea, surrounded in a sea of Mongolian, we realize there’s a half-full bottle of vodka on the table too, with a shot glass that could easily hold two full shots. You can guess what happens next – vodka time! Mark, being the man, is served a shot of vodka first by an old man, probably about 70 years old, the “owoo”, or grandpa. He’s a jolly, merry old man who has obviously enjoyed the first half of the bottle. He’s missing his entire row of top teeth and has the tan, rugged skin of a Mongolian who has spent much of his life outdoors. We go through a few awkward moments of him rambling in Mongolian, seeing if Mark and I can understand. We understand the question, “Do you speak Mongolian?” and beyond that didn’t understand much expect that he told us he can speak Japanese. After a little small talk Mark takes the first shot like a champ. I worry he’s setting the precedent that he’ll be drinking a lot. I get the next shot and finish about 2/3 of it, which is pleasantly received by the ten observers. The hot milk tea chaser is adequate, but my eyes are watering. It is not exactly high quality vodka. Now the shot glass gets passed round and round the room, as everybody takes shots. I’m surprised to see that most of the women cringe and make disgusted facial expressions when they drink, but it makes me feel better for probably having shown some disgust at it myself. And don’t worry - my host family brought another bottle of vodka, so we have more than the mere half bottle remaining. At this point everybody is talking and Mark and I sit contently, taking it all in, observing and trying to catch a word we understand here and there.

(On a side note, I don’t want to appear to talk about drinking in Mongolia too light-heartedly, because alcoholism is a huge problem here. Unfortunately, vodka has become all too much of a staple of daily life for many people. It is especially a problem amongst men. I have read that it is estimated that 70% of Mongolian men abuse alcohol. I’m not sure how accurate that is, but I do know it is the cause of many, many problems here.)

After a while my host-mom asks if I want to ride a horse, to which I enthusiastically say “Yes!” – “Teem!” I get the impression she’s ready to go outside; like the other women, her face contorted in ways I haven’t seen before as a result of the vodka. However, I suspect she is still recovering from the previous night’s alcohol-involved escapades. Thus we exit the ger, counter-clockwise of course, and manage not to trip on the way out (which is believed to bring bad luck to the family). There is a horse saddled up and ready for me. I haven’t got to ride a Mongolian horse yet, so I’m quite excited. My host-dad hops on and rides it around a little bit then returns, gets of, and motions for me to come over. I walk over, put my handle on the saddle, and before I can even start to jump up, the horse freaks out and violently kicks it’s back leg which slams to me, landing right on the center of my right thigh. At this point I’m both cringing in pain, wondering how hurt I am, and am terribly embarrassed, wondering what I did wrong. I manage to walk it off and they run to go get another horse. Fortunately, this gives me some time to walk it off. I suspect they brought me some 50-year-old horse that couldn’t trot if she wanted to, and I successfully hop on and get led around by my host-dad at the pace they would lead a toddler at a pony ride in the U.S. Overall, I think I can deem the experience a success, and I’m hoping for a really sweet bruise to show for the whole thing.

Alas, with horse-riding complete my family is ready to go. This is a pretty short visit and Mark and I aren’t sure if the purpose was for my host parents to see their friends or to expose us to countryside (“hoodoo”) life and test my threshold for pain. But either way, leaving is not a problem to us, given that we each polished off about 2-3 shots in the mere 20 minutes of sitting in the ger. If we were to stay and try to refuse more alcohol, it would be met with disapproval and a lot of pressure to drink more. So, with a bruised leg and bruised ego, I say thanks and goodbye, get in the “meeker” (kind of like a big van that I think belongs to my host dad’s younger brother), and we drive off on the bumpy dirt-road back to town.

Also, more pictures have been posted here:

Ger Visits - Mark's POV

The Peace Corps spends quite a bit of training time teaching us about “ger etiquette”. Enter the ger and move clock-wise, never touch the top of the entry way, try not to trip on your way in (and most definitely don’t trip on the way out – the symbolism is much more severe), don’t walk between the support posts or between the posts and the cooking stove, and attempt to gauge both your age in comparison to other guests as well as your status amongst the visitors as these will determine your seating order. These all happen within 30 seconds of visiting a ger…and the remaining rules play out over the course of your visit.

That’s a quick overview – so let’s move on to my specific “ger moments”. My first real experience (read: not a Peace Corps planned visit) occurred maybe 3.5 weeks ago on a day when we awoke to no power in my house. I didn’t think much of it because usually the power comes on within a couple hours and life resumes. However, that day we found ourselves lounging around the house with zero ability to cook (all appliances are electric) and it was approaching 5pm – needless to say I was hungry, my 15 year old host sister was worried, and my 5 year old host brother/nephew was a bit cranky. My host mother comes home from work, throws us in her little car (seriously, it’s like a small version of a Scion XB) and we take off for the south part of town. One of the first things you have to consider when visiting a “hashaa” (picture a fenced-in yard with one or two gers and maybe a house inside) is whether or not the family has a guard dog…there are specific phrases for calling off the dog. When entering the ger don’t forget to consider all of the rules above. In this instance I was just considered a guest who came with my host family so I was given a chair on the west side of the ger. At first I was the only one sitting on that entire side, so needless to say I was being stared at. However, that level of un-comfort was trumped when I quickly learned that we were visiting the ger of one of my mother’s co-workers and we were there simply to “feed the American”. Haha. I was given a bowl of noodle soup that was literally the size of an X-Large bowl at a Pho shop. The rest of the family members were given cups, tea cups. It took me at least 25 minutes to finish my portion.

The next time I visited a ger “unplanned” occurred just last weekend. I believe Kara is going to speak on this visit in more depth – but let’s just say that I was given the most respected seat and along with that “gift” comes a lot of responsibility. I was sitting next to the oldest member of the family and the man who was in charge of pouring the vodka. I’ve already learned quite a few ways to minimize the intake of vodka, so we managed to look culturally sensitive whilst saving our livers. One way is to simply touch the shotglass (think small bowl) to your lips and pass it back to the server. This can work in most situations because it shows that you respect the tradition but simply don’t want to drink too much. Sometimes this doesn’t work and you can just take a small sip and then pass. If this doesn’t work, then you’re in for a long night…but this evening was very short and there was very little pressure. Both Kara and I agree that the evening was a success and a lot of fun overall. But I’m sure she’ll tell you all about it…

Monday, July 13, 2009

Sukhbaatar Square & Just Outside UB

Sukhbaatar Square: Chinggis is in there somewhere - his statue looks like a black stone version of Lincoln in D.C.

This video shows a view of part of UB and surrounding countryside from about 15 minutes outside the city.

Mark's First Month in Mongolia

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Just a bit more...

I won't add much more regarding Naadam. It's been a blast, eating a ton of Huushuur ("Hoasher") - think deep fried hot pocket with sheep meat inside. However, I do have to say that I have some video of the horses and of our family's now-deceased sheep. I know I've mentioned getting video up on this blog before and I really need to do that...however, as Kara posted in her last blog she got taken to UB and ended up being there overnight. Our laptop is at her family's house, so I'm not able to snag any video for this post.
I did get to taste some Airag (fermented mare's milk) on Thursday, and definitely have to agree that it's an acquired taste. It's quite difficult to swallow when you're staring at 100+ horses and you know it just came from one of them. But hey, who am I to be culturally I polished off an entire goblet/silver bowl of the stuff. I smiled and declined seconds.
Hope everyone's doing well. It's always great to get emails and updates from folks back home. Take care.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Gob's theme song, Nadaam, and World Vision

Before I start rambling, for all you non-facebook people, you can still view a bunch of my photos at this link:

Somehow, you may have missed the news report, but it's Nadaam time here in Mongolia right now! But before I get into all the Nadaam details, I'd like to share the highlight of Nadaam thus far. Last night there was a concert in the park in our town. My host mom, Mark, and I were waiting for it to start, sitting on the benches... then... the music started. Gob's magic show theme song from Arrested Development!! It was awesome. Following the song were fireworks too! I started cracking up and getting excited, of course my host mom thought this was because of the fireworks. I think Mongolians are secretly as in love with Arrested Development, or at least Gob, as me. There's this TV commercial that also uses a short clip of the song and I get really excited every time I hear it.

So back onto Nadaam. It is a the big national celebration that involves the three manly sports (their term, not mine): wrestling, archery, and horse racing. Yesterday was local Nadaam so we got to see some of that in our town. Tomorrow is national Nadaam meaning it's crazy busy in the capital city, Ulaanbaatar, with all the festivities. It's kind of funny because yesterday we sat through about an hour and a half of "opening ceremonies" involving dancing, singing, and monks chanting at the local stadium, then when wrestling began we got up to go get food. It was kind of anticlimatic. Mark and I went back later to walk around and watch some wrestling though. I'll get some photos up soon - the wrestling outfits are awesome. It's also really fun to see lots of people in the traditional Mongolian clothing. It is called a "del". It's even more interesting to see the mix of super traditional and modern - i.e. young guy in his 20s wearing a traditional del but also sporting huge fake diamond earings, Air Jordan tennishoes, and holding a cell phone.

I'm actually in Ulaanbaatar (UB for short) with my family. I got to come here last Sunday with Mark's family too. It kind of feels like entering a whole different world. It's a big, busy city with Louis Vuitton billboards, a Kenny Rogers restaurant, fancy condos, and nice cars - which if I stay here long I'll most likely get hit by - the driving is crazy. I'm at the apartment of my mom's niece (she's about 25 I think) and it's super nice. It even has a hot shower! I thought we were just coming for the day (it's only a 45 minute drive away) but apparently we might be staying the night. Who knows. This is kind of how Mongolians roll. If plans are even made, they are then usually broken. I don't have any plans for tomorrow, it just would've been nice to bring a toothbrush. Oh well! I'm enjoying the internet here in the apartment she is letting me use. And she speaks English really well, which helps lessen the confusion. Oh and like I said I came here last week with Mark's family too. We spent the equivalent of about a week's worth of spending money on this shower/sauna thing at a hotel here (not really our choice, his family's choice to do this). It was cool, but weird. You basically get this room with a shower and sauna for a while, then when you're done you put on these weird lounging clothes and hang out in a living room like place at the hotel. Other than having a nice hot shower, the best part was lunch - fried chicken, coleslaw, and a few french fries. YUMMMM!

Oh and because of all of the Nadaam festivities Mark's family butchered a sheep in their yard 2 nights ago. (Sorry for stealing your thunder Mark, but you're not updating this blog very frequently, so I'm sharing the excitement.) They brought the sheep alive to the house, waited for the butcher to arrive, then Mark had to tackle the sheep which got out and was running around the yard, trying to escape it's immenient death. I guess his family was really thankful he caught it because if it ran off they'd probably have wasted all their money buying it and it'd be gone forever. Remember, there's no dad in his house, so it was him and the mom, sister (age 15) and brother (age 5). So after tackling it, he watched the entire butchering and cleaning process. Then, to no surprise, he got sheep innards and blood sausage for breakfast the next morning. On the other hand, I had a delicious cream-filled chocolate covered pastry at my house. :)

Oh I guess another highlight of this week was that we did a presentation we did to about 20 World Vision employees. My group, two other CYD volunteers and I, presented for 1 hr, 20 minutes! This includes translation though (we spoke in English, NOT Mongolian). We gave them a session on how to teach youth to resist peer pressure. This was the topic they wanted us to present on, not our choice. But my I'm glad I gleaned as much knowledge as I did from SDRG (former workplace) because it's coming in handy for things like this! I think it went well. It takes a little getting used to the Mongolian audience style though. To make a broad generalization, Mongolians have a different style of showing their attentiveness. THey always, always answer their cell phones, no matter who is talking or where they are at. There is also just a lot of talking over one another. None of this is considered rude here, so we just have to get used to it. Oh and at the end of a play or something they usually clap in unison - i.e. everybody on the same beat. Anyway, after the presentation the employees invited us to play volleyball at the school with them that night. About 5 of us went and it was really fun! You really don't have to speak the same language to play sports together. It was co-ed, which was good, and of course the men were much more competitive. There were times when the ball would be coming right to me and they'd run up and hit it themselves. It was mostly funny though, only mildly annoying. Similar to playing sports with American men. It was a great way to get to know them all though and they invited us back to play with them every week, so that's cool. On a cultural note, volleyball and basketball are really popular here.

So, overall, life is going pretty well here. We're all starting to fall into a rhythm and feel more and more comfortable with our families. I still miss having independence and freedom and regular hot showers, but I'll regain the first two back eventually. As for showers, I'm adapting. I also miss you all! If you really miss me, you can send a care package. :)