Friday, August 28, 2009


by Mark

I titled this post “Guillermo” after the gentleman I met this morning. As you may know I work part-time for Mercy Corps here in Mongolia (the other part of my work is for an off-shoot NGO named “Knowledge Network” whose address is just upstairs from Mercy Corps). As I entered the workplace this morning, I overheard English being spoken…and not English with a Mongolian accent. Instead, it was English coming from an Argentinean man. Why not wander over and introduce myself?

Meet Guillermo. He has a passion for helping those in need, wanting nothing in return other than assistance getting from one place to the next. How he ended up in Mongolia I have no idea. However, he is connected to the “Mongol Rally” – you can find information on this all over the Net. He started an organization called “The Messengers” and from what I understand they deliver goods to organizations that work with children and the disabled. He attempts to get items that might otherwise be thrown out, and delivers them to developing countries. That is the mission of his organization. And I must say, his rig is quite impressive (see video below). He lives out of, and delivers goods out of, his ambulance. I was quite impressed. The entire vehicle is covered in Spanish text and Mongol Rally stickers…and he was in Tsetserleg simply to have his front bumper repaired.

He came to Mercy Corps because, well because, Mercy Corps actually found him first. The other night on the drive in, one of the trainers for this Mercy Corps conference being held in Tsetserleg saw the vehicle in the distance, recognized the Mongol Rally logo, and stopped to say hi. Guillermo explains the situation leading up to their meeting like this:

“I was setting up camp about 25 kilometers out of town when the first of three guys rode up on a horse. He asked if I could take a picture of him, and I did. He offered me some dairy products and went on his way after looking at his image in the camera. Then a second guy showed up on horseback and did the exact same thing. A couple of hours later a third guy rode up and asked if I’d take his picture, I did, and then he motioned that he’d like to take my picture. I said I didn’t need a picture of myself and so the guy motioned that he’d like to see himself in the camera. As soon as I handed over the camera, he kicked his horse to get it going, and I dove after my camera. I managed to pull the guy down off the horse and we wrestled around for a minute before he held up the camera for me to take back.”

I looked at Guillermo in shock. And he continued “I was still shaking when the Mercy Corps jeep arrived”.

I wish him the best of luck as he continues on his trek to find people who need the items he’s hauling around. I know he’s heading south, hearing about the possibility there are more disadvantaged children closer to the Gobi. This video shows a quick shot of the ambulance, Guillermo in a brown jacket, a man in a white shirt and black jacket (my Mercy Corps director), a woman (the Mercy Corps conference trainer), and a man in a striped shirt that is the hired Mercy Corps driver.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

G-Mobile = Connected

Kara and I are officially connected to the World Wide Web via G-Mobile high speed usb dataport wireless. Of all the things to have in Mongolia...would you believe this is just about the same cost as having 128 kbps DSL in this country?! Instead we get to sound like we're blazing along on the net. I think we're at like 300 kbps on average. Anyway, enough talk about internet connection...let's talk about what we're uploading for your viewing pleasure.

First, Kara mentioned there was a video floating around of a supposed dance we were involved in...can you figure out who is who??

Second, I was tasked with giving a speech in Mongolian for our swearing in ceremony. Here is a copy of that video (though a higher quality version may surface in the future). This should give you an idea of what a native English speaker sounds like speaking Novice level Mongolian.

And lastly, during my last few days in Zuunmod for training, my host family did many special things for me. We went to a monastery nearby (Kara went earlier this summer and posted pictures), they bought me a traditional Mongolian shirt (as seen in the speech video), and my host sister made me one of the most creative breakfast meals I've ever had. Take a look...

Monday, August 24, 2009

We are now official PCVs in Tsetserleg!

by Kara

Swearing In Ceremony
On August 19, 2009 Mark and I swore in as official Peace Corps Volunteers! Not until joining the PC did I know that it’s quite a process to become an official PCV, thus, it is quite the celebration. Speeches were given by our Mongolia PC Director, the U.S. Ambassador to Mongolia, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Mongolia’s government, a few others, but most importantly – Mark! He represented our CED/CYD training group and gave a great speech in Mongolian about our two months of training. Following those speeches we performed our dance! Check out facebook for some great pictures of our costumes. I think we made our dance teacher proud. Hopefully I can get the video loaded on here. Anyway, the whole thing was a big enough of ordeal to catch the attention of the national news media. The filmed all of it and did interviews with all the higher-ups then broadcasted a 15-minute segment about it that night! My host mom even texted me and said she saw me! Apparently they showed a clip of our dance – yikes. I’m so glad all of Mongolia got to see us in our shiny, orange, leopard/zebra print outfits adorned with bells.

Following the swearing in ceremony we packed up and headed to UB for the night. Mark and I went with some friends to a great Mexican/Indian restaurant and spent a ton on yummy food and drinks. We had a great evening hanging out with friends who we’ve spent so much time with over the last two months but who will now be living 10+ hours away from us. It was sad to say goodbye to all our friends but we’re all looking forward to getting together for Thanksgiving.

On the Way to Our New Home
The following morning we packed up again to cram into a meeker and make our way to Tsetserleg, Arhangay. Between all of our stuff and all the people it was a cozy ride to say the least. We were accompanied by our new supervisors, which was really nice, as well as our new sitemate Sarah, who will be an English teacher and teacher trainer.

Now, before coming to Mongolia, I decided one of my top priorities should be to ride a camel. Upon arriving in Mongolia I became even more determined. Up until a few days ago I had only seen one from a distance, but on this epic road trip, my dream came true. Our supervisors had the meeker stop just so I could act like a dorky, cheesy tourist and pay 4,000 tugriks to ride a came around the jijig (small) Gobi – basically an oddly placed small patch of sand for tourists too lazy to go all the way to the actual Gobi to enjoy. Anyway, I took them up on the offer and had an 11-year-old boy lead me around at a snail’s pace, but it was awesome.

Other than the camel ride the rest of the ride was fairly dull. We left UB at 10:15am and after all the pit-stops and dropping off Sarah at hew new ger, we arrived to our new apartment at 10:15pm and crashed shortly thereafter.

Tsetserleg is beautiful, just like everybody had told us! It’s a fairly small town, but one of decent size for Mongolia. It is surrounded by beautiful mountains and has LOTS of trees which is not that common here in Mongolia. It’s really refreshing to have so much greenery around us.

Our first few days here in Tsetserleg have mostly been spent buying stuff for our apartment (dishes, food, rice cooker, and we even found pillows!), walking around, catching up on sleep, and eating good food. We’re really excited to be cooking for ourselves again, even though we’re relearning how to do it without a refrigerator or an oven. We may try to purchase these but we’re not sure yet. A fridge is really only necessary here in the summer, which is almost over. During the fall and winter we can use our balcony as a freezer and unfortunately our apartment may be about the temperature of a fridge.

Other than cooking for ourselves, we’ve gotten some really great food elsewhere. On the evening of our first full day here our other new sitemate Zaneta, who has lived here for a year, cooked a delicious meal for Sarah, Mark, and I. She made a Filipino dish, chicken pot pie, and apple pie! It was amazing and a great welcome to our new town. Also, before moving here, we had heard about this wonderful little café in town called Fairfield Café owned by some British Christian missionaries (I believe) that serves great food. We wandered outside our apt building our first morning here only to discover it is across the street from us! It’s both a blessing and a curse though because it’s really good food but a bit expensive on the PC budget. They have doughnuts, pastries, fresh baked bread, burgers, fries, hot dogs, etc., etc.

Aside from being across from the best café in town our apartment is also a short walk to the rest of the stores as well as our workplaces. It’s spacious, much bigger than we expected. There’s a small dining room (which has a nice view of the surrounding houses/gers), a kitchen (which includes a big food poster – Mongolians seem to love these! It’s a giant laminated poster people put in kitchens that usually displays food that nobody actually eats, i.e. exotic fruit or in our case, a sort of Thanksgiving like meal), a bigger room that is kind of the main bedroom/living room (right outside our window is an abandoned building where we get to see things like 7-year-old boys smoking cigarettes or old men using it as a bathroom), and the “guest” room with a big closet and small twin-sized bed. As for everything else, it’s kind of an average Mongolian apartment with its advantages and disadvantages. So far we have hot water in the kitchen, which is great. And we think we might have a hot shower too, but the water in the bathroom is turned off so we’re not sure yet. The front part of the building is being completely renovated for some sort of office space; as we drove up we were a little unsure about just how habitable this building was, but now that we’ve been here a few days we’re seeing more and more neighbors.

Well,that’s a brief introduction to life here in Tsetserleg! Hopefully we can share more about our jobs soon. We haven’t really started work yet except for a meet and greet and tour of town. More to come soon!

More facebook photos here:

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

How I Called My Husband a Dog in My Mongolian Language Exam

and more…

by Kara

A few days ago Mark and I received the very exciting news that we will be moving to Tsetserleg, a city in the Arhangay (also spelled Arkhangai) aimag (aimag = state/province). Tsetserleg is the “aimag center” or capital of this aimag. It is located in just about the very middle of Mongolia. Every Mongolian we have talked to about it has told us how beautiful it is (“amar goy!”). It is surrounded by gorgeous mountains, lakes, and rivers. It is located about 500 kilometers of Ulaanbaatar which takes about 10 hours via bus (the road there is paved in some areas not in others). Mark and I are very excited about this placement. From what we’ve been told, Tsetserleg seems like the kind of place we pictured living as PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers – get used to that acronym). It is in a beautiful location and it is somewhat remote but not entirely remote since it is still a city and the capital of an aimag. Also, we’ll be with two other PCVs in town, an English teacher and a health volunteer, and one other person who lives in a soum (smaller town/village) but comes into town often.

We don’t just get to hang out, ride camels, climb mountains, and experiment with cooking and baking for the next two years. (But I will definitely be riding a camel at some point.) With the announcement of the locale also came the announcement of our jobs. Mark will be working for the Knowledge Network, a small non-profit that was developed by MercyCorps and works with agribusinessmen developing business plans and providing trainings and technical assistances. He’ll also work directly with MercyCorps RASP (Rural Agribusiness Support Program). He’ll may be helping some tourism businesses. Because Tsetserleg is so beautiful it is a huge tourist destination but none of the tourism businesses are locally owned – they are all owned by people from UB. He’ll have to provide you all with some more information later, because I know I’m not doing a very good job at summarizing this.

I will be working for an Aimag Children’s Center (ACC)! Each Aimag Center has an ACC; it is a state-run organization. I don’t know much about it yet because each ACC is a little bit different, but I hope to be doing a combination of direct work with kids (Life Skills lessons, English classes, sports, camp, working with at-risk youth like kids who have dropped out of school, working with disabled kids, and working with kids who have been forced into labor, i.e. mining) and some program planning, research, fundraising, and community education. In addition, Mark and I will most likely be doing some sort of English teaching or tutoring in our workplaces and/or in our communities. I imagine that with a big tourism industry in the area that speaking English is a marketable skill. In addition to our daily work at these organizations we’ll also be figuring different community projects we can do on our own. There is a World Vision office in our town so I hope they are some of the people I can partner with.

Lastly, we found out that we will be living in an apartment! This is what we expected (the other options were a small house or a ger). Living in a ger gives you major street cred amongst PCVs in Mongolia and is pretty bad ass, but it’s a LOT of work. However, we know apartment living here has its downfalls too -- i.e. the govt controls our heat and thus it is often very cold. However, our paperwork we were given says our apt has running hot water… I’m really scared to get my hopes up, but if it does, I will be incredibly thankful. I will gladly welcome the luxury of hot showers back into my life. But if not, I’ll just be thankful I don’t have to do things like go outside to use an outhouse in -30 degree winters like I would if I were in a ger.

Before we received this very exciting site placement news we also received the news that we both passed our Mongolian Language Exams! (The test is called the "LPI", as Mark explained.) The requirement is for all PCVs to reach “Novice High”. This is still a very low speaking level, but shows that you should at least be able to survive in Mongolia. Mark received the Novice High score and somehow I managed to get Intermediate Low, one notch up on the scale. I’m not quite sure how I did this since I definitely made some big mistakes… This is where the title of this blog post comes in. At one point the tester and I were talking about my family and I thought she said, “Ta nohoi te?” – “Do you have a husband?” So I said yes, his name is Mark, he’s 25 years old, and then when I started explaining that he’s a business volunteer she gave me a funny look and I realized what had happened. You see, the word for “husband” and for “dog” in Mongolian is very similar – “nohor” and “nohoi”. I might have been able to get away with saying I had a 25-year-old dog named Mark if I left that business part out. J Anyway, I realized what happened and we laughed. I knew it must’ve been pretty funny to her when my language teachers made fun of me for it later because she told them all about it.

Anyway… Mark and I are excited to be done with the language exam, know where we’ll be living, and start a new adventure together there. We swear in as official volunteers on August 19! Then we head to UB for a night and leave for Tsetserleg on August 20. Leaving Zuunmod is bitter sweet. We’re excited to live together again, cook for ourselves, make our second home together, and start our new jobs. But we’re sad to be leaving our host families, the other 15 PCVs we’ve been training with and spending every day with these past 2 months, and our Mongolian language teachers who have been so wonderful to us. Both of us have families who are very loving and caring. Though it was stressful and terrifying to move in with them at first, now it feels like home (relative to everywhere else in Mongolia). In addition, they provided great insight into Mongolian culture and great daily language practice. I’m going to especially miss my super-caring host mom and little 6-year-old brother because they are the ones I spent the most time with. Although, I suspect host mom may have considered my time here a little bit of a failure because she didn’t fatten me up quite as much as I imagine she wanted to. I know I’ll miss her comments from my meals, “Eat, eat, eat! Do you want more? Is that enough? Here, eat more. Eat, eat, eat!” But I’ve got their phone numbers and promised to come back and visit them. The same goes for our language teachers. As for our fellow PCVs, we hope to at least get to see most them at Thanksgiving and then again at another training point next December. It’ll be hard to be away from them though! Experiences like this help bonds form quickly.

On a side note, I know some of you were really more interested in learning about Mongolian culture and hearing our insights more than you really care about whether or not we passed our language test. I think we’ll be able to provide more of this later on, but right now we’re still figuring everything out. I would hate to make too many generalizations and put Mongolians in a box, only to be proven wrong later.

Thanks for reading! Keep Mark and I in your thoughts and prayers – especially as we are traveling, settling into our new home away from new friends we’ve made, getting to know our new coworkers and community, starting new jobs, and always for our health. We’ve both very thankful to have had pretty good experiences so far. Despite lots of ups and downs, it’s been great.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Friday ("LPI & TAP day")

So our entire 9+ weeks of training - hard to believe we've been gone that long - basically boils down to a couple of interviews. We get "assessed" on our ability to cope in Mongolian culture and specifically within our job sectors. This interview is called the TAP. 20 minutes of hearing about how you were good at one thing, could work on another, and if necessary given feedback about how you need to "change". But the TAP interview would be categorized as the easy one...

The more challenging of the two is the LPI, or Language Proficiency Interview. This is 20-25 minutes of "conversation" with an internationally certified language tester. We are given basic questions asking about who we are, what we like, and what we did yesterday or today or will do for the next two years (i.e. Minii neriig Mark gedeg. Bi enk taivni corpisiin sain doriin ajiltan. Irek hoyer jild mongold jijig dond biznesd ajillan - also known as "My name is Mark, I am a Peace Corps Volunteer...for the next 2 years I'll be working in small & medium businesses"). That's just the first 20 seconds of the interview.

Really it's a crapshoot as to what sort of questions you'll be asked. The conversation is largely guided by us, as the questions are tailored to our ability to understand. Some of us were given scenarios and asked to describe how they'd handle them. Maybe you're wanting to rent an apartment room - ask how much that's going to cost and when you can move in. Or someone might be asked to guide someone around the town who has never been here before, showing them all of the "attractions". Of course this is just in conversation so the visual aids were lacking. The difficult part of the entire interview is knowing that no matter how much Mongolian language you know the testers are going to push you until you don't understand. This is the only way they can assess your limitations. So basically everyone comes out of the interview feeling like they didn't understand...

So I speak of all of these "stresses" because I am proud to say that Kara and I have just completed our interviews!! Yeah for us! We find out our scores tomorrow...along with a bunch of other rather interesting information pertaining to our next 2 years here. We will post about what we learn as soon as we can. Thanks for keeping us in your prayers...

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Tselmeg's B-day (Aug 1)

Tselmeg (my little brother/nephew) turned 6 on August 1st. This was the celebration. My Emee ("grandma") is in the flowery black and white top, the woman in a white shirt is my aunt and her daughter is the little girl with the shaved head. Tselmeg's mother is in the pink and white striped shirt - she's been visiting for a few weeks on break from her doctorate studies in Korea. It was fun having everyone at the house...and there was cake! Yeah!

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Family Photos

This past couple of weeks have been incredibly busy. Both Kara and I have decided to take on many different roles, along with our everyday language courses, technical classes, and cross-culture meetings. We are now on the Family Appreciation Day committee, learning to dance, writing speeches, etc. However, we still find time to spend with our families and it's been incredibly important that we try and document as much as possible. The Peace Corps asked us to dress up and take photos with our families (mostly for PC's own records) but this is what came of that day.

Mark's Family (left to right): Khongoraa (sister, age 15), "Emee" (grandma), Tselmeg (nephew, age 6), Tsolmon (mom), Ganbayar (brother, age 17).

Kara's Family (left to right): Purevdorj (father), Dolgoon (brother), Delgormaa (mother)

Nearing the End of Training…

Hi Everybody! Sorry it has been a little while since our last posts. Life here in Zuunmod has been busy! We are finishing up training right now, which entails a lot. We have one week of language classes left and are scrambling to study as much as we can before our big language test next Friday, August 14. We are all trying to reach at least the “novice high” level, per PC requirements. This is attainable, but we’re all still pretty anxious to do as well as we can. In addition, we’ve been planning our host family celebration party which takes place this evening. It’s a time to eat, (maybe drink), and celebrate with our families. It’s hard to believe we’ll only be living with them for another week and a half! In addition, 8 of us (including Mark and I) have been learning and practicing a Mongolian dance to perform at our Swearing-In Ceremony on August 19. It’s pretty much the best workout possible for 2 or 2 ½ hours every night. Hopefully we can post a video of the final performance for everybody. You’ll all get a good laugh out of it - the boys will be shimmying.

In addition to all of this daily craziness, I had my first Mongolian birthday celebration yesterday! The day before I was feeling a little sad I wouldn’t get to celebrate with my friends and family back home, but everybody here did their best to make it a great Mongolian birthday and they succeeded. In the morning, I got a really cute little present from my host family. It is two little wooden figurines, a Mongolian man and woman. They pointed to them and said, “Ta (you), Mark!” I don’t know how much to read into it but it feel like it was a small sign of some cultural immersion, like by pointing to the Mongolian figurines and saying I was one of them, I’ve earned the right to be a little bit Mongolian. Regardless of some greater meaning it was super sweet of my family.

Later, Mark surprised me at the end of our language class by bringing all our students and teachers together and presenting me with a birthday cake from UB! (see video) He sneakily had our trainers purchase it for him the day before and snuck it through the window in the morning so I wouldn’t see. Then, between all the students and teachers, happy birthday was sung to me in 5 languages – English, Mongolian, Russian, Spanish, and French! And our teachers bought a bottle of sangria and a box of chocolates for me.

After classes Mark and I went back to my apartment for dinner. My host mom surprised me with a wonderful spread of food including grapes, bananas, cucumbers, tomatoes, cake, and beer! Plus the traditional main course of buuz (boats), the little Mongolian pot stickers. I also shared some treats from my recent care package with them.

After relaxing after dinner we headed to the park to watch a rock concert – yes, an actual rock concert. The band has apparently been around for 20 years or more and started as a sweet 80s hair band. The lead singer was decked out in all leather. It was nice of Zuunmod to throw a concert for my birthday.

In sum, it was a wonderful day thanks to my caring husband, friends, teachers, and host family!

The next time you hear from us we’ll know where we’ll be living for the next 2 years and who we’ll be working for! Actually, we’re pretty sure we know where we’ll be… but I was pretty sure of this one time before and it then changed, so it’s not really final until that day. We’re all excited and anxious. I’ll try to get another post up soon with that info! Best to all of you! Thanks for following our blog and keeping us in your thoughts and prayers.