Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Daily Life in Tsetserleg

Daily routines, daily ponderings, daily challenges...
by Kara

Sometimes life here in Mongolia feels, well… normal. A few months ago feeling normal seemed like it may be an unattainable for me in this country. Yet today I find myself, one month into living in our new home in our new town, having found routine and some order to life. Fortunately, each day’s routine is accompanied by a dose of unpredictability; we are still living in Mongolia after all.

We wake up each morning with plenty of time to enjoy a leisurely breakfast and each other’s company. Breakfast is usually suutai boda (hot rice with milk and sugar), bread and jam, or on occasion something fancy like eggs or pancakes. After breakfast we walk to our respective work places, strolling in around 9:30 or 10, which is a pretty average arrival time for most of our coworkers.

Like I said, we’ve been here a month, but that doesn’t mean we’ve really figured everything out at work yet. I’m still trying to put together a solid to-do list each week to keep myself busy. A few of the random things I’ve done include participating in a big, grand first day of school ceremony, visiting classrooms, tallying hundreds of surveys recently completed by children in our town, helping teach some English classes to kids, and occasionally serving as the IT person at work. I also got to help out at a camp that one of my sitemates helped plan. It was a short two-day camp and was specifically for kids with disabilities. It was a really great experience and good time spent with a group of wonderful kids and teens, as well as my sitemates. (Unfortunately though, I managed to get food poisoning which set in during my night at camp, so my second day of camp wasn't quite as exciting...)

Anyway, back to work stuff... I also have started daily English lessons with my coworkers, which has actually been pretty fun so far. I am hesitant to sign up for too much English teaching because it’s easy for a Community Youth Development volunteer to turn into a full-time English teacher and tutor, but it’s a valuable skill that I have to offer so I think it’d be selfish to not share that skill with my coworkers at least. Plus, it helps me get to know them all better and eventually will help our communication with one another. Right now there are only a couple of beginner-level English speakers and the others only know Mongolian and maybe Russian. Given my limited Mongolian skills (and no knowledge of Russian!) this results in a very slow communication process. Sometimes I wonder how I’ll ever get any work done with such a language barrier, as well as a sometimes equally confusing cultural barrier. Fortunately, I have an excellent counterpart/coworker who I share an office with. Even after only four weeks together we have learned to understand each other pretty well.

Over the upcoming year I believe my biggest project will be to help raise funds to renovate a nearby summer camp, as well as help coordinate and plan both the renovation and the logistcs of the camp. Our organization recently acquired the use of the camp and we plan to open it up next summer. It’s in a beautiful location but has become very run down over years of abandonment. I’m looking forward to helping with this project more. I also will get to help more with our organization’s activities working directly with children starting next month.

I have some more ideas of things I’d like to get started within my organization, as well as some projects I’d like to do outside of work in my community. First though, I’m trying to spend time getting to know my community. It’s difficult for me to feel so unproductive at times, but I’m doing my best to be patient, yet proactive, and flexible.

Anyway, after a morning of trying to figure out what to do at work, Mark and I meet up and go home to have lunch together. During our walk we get to hear a chorus of greetings from adorable little children on their way to and from school. The brave ones who say hello to us are eager to practice their English, but usually don’t have too much to say beyond hi and hello, except for the occasional kid who introduces himself as Kobe Bryant or Chinggis Khan’s brother. Peace Corps Volunteers have said they get tired of this constant attention from children, but I’m not quite that jaded yet; these kids still brighten my day.

After a relaxing hour-long lunch at home Mark and I head back to work for the afternoon. We usually finish around 5 or 5:30 and one or both of us heads to the market to buy food for dinner. Without a refrigerator and since its not consistently cold enough here yet to use our balcony as a fridge, we end up grocery shopping everyday. Some days I love the adventure of going to the market, while other days I’m tired and I just want to be able to buy some vegetables without having a confusing, awkward moment with the vendor. Today for example I was given a piece of gum as change instead of the 20 tugriks I was owed. Twenty tugriks is equivalent to about one penny, so I didn’t really care about the change, but I didn’t know exactly what to do or say when the cashier just handed me some gum. So I did the only thing I really could do, ate it and left.

On the walk home the town is usually filled with people shopping, running errands, and heading home for the day. This is when I get to see a ton of different people (and when I’m often stared at by a handful of these people). Today I saw a woman pushing a cart down the road; lying upon the cart was her very drunk husband (I presume) who was nearly passed out but still conscious enough to be mumbling to himself. The other day I saw men going down the road on horseback, on wooden saddles, wearing dels (traditional Mongolian clothing), and to me, given their mode of transportation and attire, they looked the same as men who lived here hundreds of years ago – yet they were riding to the tune of Smack That, an American rap song being blared by a local cell phone vendor. In those moments I look around and wonder where I am and how I got there…

Anyway, when I finally make it home after the captivating walk, Mark and I make dinner. Although our ingredients are pretty limited here, especially given our minimal Peace Corps salary, we’ve enjoyed learning how to cook with them and make meals together. I didn’t really like cooking that much back in the States, but I’m learning to appreciate it more here. If nothing else, I’ve learned to appreciate eating food that I enjoy after a summer of not doing any cooking and always being forced to eat whatever was placed in front of me. Plus, we don’t have too many other options. There are plenty of days where I cook only because I don’t have the Pho shop or Thaiger Room down the road to grab some food at.

After dinner we are usually reading, on the internet, or watching TV shows or movies on our computer. In truth, the entertainment we watch on our computer is a form of escapism, where we don’t have to think in Mongolian and we can maybe even forget we’re in Mongolia for a moment, which is a bit of a guilty pleasure. Don’t get me wrong, we have fallen in love with Mongolia, but it is very mentally tiring at times. Oh, and as of this week, I’ve started trying to work out a bit more. I do not plan on gaining a bunch of fat to stay warm this winter, much to the chagrin of some of my coworkers and my host mom.

When we’re not following this routine it’s usually because we’ve been whisked away to the hodoo (countryside) with coworkers, which always serves as an adventure. (Which is actually where Mark is at this very moment.) And though our jobs may sound boring, and well, they are sometimes (but aren’t all jobs occasionally?), they are also fun and exciting. Speaking Mongolian all day can be exhausting, but I’m always challenged and growing. And finally grasping the understanding of what my coworker has been trying to communicate feels very rewarding! Also, trying to better understand the Mongolian culture can be confusing, but it’s also fascinating. And just when I think I can make some blanket statement about Mongolians, somebody defies my logic and I start all over.

As I’m trying to figure out all these details of surviving daily life here in Tsetserleg I also find myself pondering the bigger picture. What am I doing here? How can I help? Are they giving me back more than I’m contributing? Will I ever feel like I totally understand my coworkers and will they ever understand me? Will I ever learn to like drinking airag and Mongolia’s plethora of dairy products? I’m not sure if I’ll ever totally be able to answer these questions, but I’m okay with that. I’m just glad I’m in a place where I’m able to constantly learn, be challenged, and ask a lot of meaningful questions. And obviously, I hope that during all of this personal growth I’m able to serve Mongolians in a meaningful manner. I just don’t quite know how yet…

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