Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Very Gery Christmas

by Kara

There's no doubt this Christmas was a little different than most Christmas's for Mark and I, and truth be told, it didn't totally feel like Christmas. However, we did the best we could to celebrate the day with our new family, our friends here in our town. Our families also did their best from afar by sending us Christmas decorations and presents to open. We also got to see and talk to them via skype; my family even tore themselves away from their 16-person Wii bowling tournament, which says a lot. All in all, the day turned out as good as we could have imagined. Plus, we had a new little family member to celebrate with, featured in the pictures below. :)

Our new kitty checking out the Christmas tree that the Esteps sent us.

Again, our kitty inspecting the goods we received in this great package from my parents.

Prepping food in Sarah's ger.

Zaneta showing off the wonderfully made pumpkin pie! Even though Sarah's oven doesn't actually have temperature settings beyond off and on and we made this in a cookie tin, it turned out delicious and tasted just like we remember them tasting at home.

Mark, Sarah, Zaneta, and Ochgoo enjoying our Christmas meal.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Shiin Jil '09

by Mark

I've just uploaded a photo album to Facebook with pictures from my workplace's Shiin Jil (New Year) party. Yes, the new year celebration occurred on the 26th of December...but that's ok, we've decided to continue the celebration all week. In fact, we went to lunch together today...and tomorrow we're supposed to be going to play in the snow - sledding, ice games, snowball fights, etc. Anyway, the pics of the party can be found here. Enjoy.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Elf Yourself

by Mark

I just wanted to say quickly we had a wonderful Christmas here in Mongolia. There will be pictures of all the food and presents we received, and probably some video (it may or may not involve a blow-up Christmas tree!) posted on here soon.

But, right now I'm going to leave you with the two videos that I created online for my workplace New Year's party. One of my counterparts suggested we do this...and I was happy to assist. Sadly, it took nearly 3 hours on Christmas Eve to create these because our workplace computers are a tad slow. We actually had the big party last night (of which there will be pictures of that as well...soon), and these two short videos were played for some light-hearted entertainment. They involve 8 of my co-workers...and I have to say it was quite a hit.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

"Balloon" Day

by Mark

Last Friday our Aimag center celebrated a Buddhist holiday by having one of about three candle-lighting days of the year. Basically the large hill ("Bulgan Mountain") on the north edge of town gets covered in candles. People take carved out potatoes full of wax up the mountain side, light the wick, maybe say a prayer, place the candle in a crevasse, and then climb back down. Since Kara works for the Department for Children, she and a co-worker were responsible for the kid's candle-lighting portion of the event. This started at 4pm with kids wandering over the face of the hill...

This video is a view from about half way up the mountain - just behind the large Buddha statue you may have seen in past pictures. You have to realize it's about -15 C at this time of day, and no matter how many layers you've got on, you stay out there long enough you're going to get a bit chilly. Kara was kind enough to give some of the Mongolians with what must've appeared to be magic dirt - also known as those little Hand Warmer packets. I decided that I'd arrive to the event just before the scheduled start time of 6pm. It quickly became dark as the program began. After issues with the microphone were fixed, hundreds gathered for the first ever "balloon" release. Now, these aren't really balloons per se...they're more like nylon parachutes with a candle at the base - the heat from the candle burning assists in the rising of the "balloon". 2009 was the first year they attempted this and I have to admit I was quite shocked that it basically went off without a hitch. (Except that I don't think anybody was designated as part of the clean-up crew because the next day hundreds of balloons were scattered around town.) Here's a couple videos of the first "balloons" being released a little early (sorry, it's a bit dark) - everyone was trying to get the "show" started early. I can't blame them, it was freezing.

It quickly got colder as the sun went down, so at about 7:15pm I was freezing...so you can only imagine how cold Kara had gotten by then. We lumbered back down the hill, frequently turning around to see the spectacle that was dozens and dozens of lighted parachutes. We decided pictures would have to tell most of the story because we were so cold we probably don't remember half the walk home...so enjoy!

One kid as he received his potato candle to place on the hill.

Kids and adults placing their candles on the hillside.

Men in their dels (traditional Mongolian clothing.
I'm pretty sure the men with the big maroon wraps are lamas.

People releasing a balloon into the air.

A glimpse from a distance of the hundreds of balloons floating away.

Thursday, December 17, 2009


Our friend Aleta (a fellow CYD PCV), Mark, and I in UB
by Kara

As Mark mentioned, we recently traveled to the capital of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar (pronounced "u-lawn-baaa-tar" with emphasis on "baaa" and the "u" sounds like the "oo" in "food" -- or just call it UB for short, like we do). It was really fun to get to see all of our other PCV friends again and have some time in the city to hang out together. I thought I'd share a little bit about our experiences in UB.

Upon arriving in this grand city (which holds half of the population of Mongolia and up until Greenland decided to become it's own country was the coldest capital city on earth - I guess it's second now - if you count Greenland), we realized we are a bit more like countryside folks than city folks here in Mongolia (though the opposite was true in the U.S.). We've only been at our site for a few months, but being an 8-hour drive away from UB, it's a lot different. As we got off of the bus in UB we were surrounded by taxi drivers offering us rides into the central part of the city. Although already a little overwhelmed, we were accompanied by PCV friends who have lived here for a year and know the routine. They instructed us that they think it's better to cross the crazy four-lane road and catch a cab on the other side. So there we were, looking like tourists with our backpacks full and heavy on our backs, trying to dart across this highway of cars going at least 40mph. Cars do not stop or slow down for people here (unless they are unoccupied taxis) and crossing roads feels like risking your death. Anyway, we made it across - alive. And by the end of the trip we learned how to cross roads like pros - standing in between lanes of traffic and darting across, enjoying the adrenaline rush.

Next, taxis in Mongolia do not have meters therefore you have to negotiate the price to where you are going every trip. We expect to be ripped off a little bit, being foreigners, but don't want to lose all our money to cab drivers. So when you get in you have to ask how much it costs to your destination or how much a kilometer costs (should be about 500 tugriks/$.30 a km). Also, you can check the odometer when you get in to make sure they aren't lying about the mileage when you arrive at your destination. And if you put your stuff in the trunk, the driver could try to hold it hostage until you pay when he demands. All of these factors are a little overwhelming initially, especially given our limited language skills, but by the end of our trip we were pretty comfortable with the process. A couple of days in a group of us forgot to ask what the price would be until we arrived at our destination. Our cab driver told us an outrageous price and we said no way, and gave him a more than generous amount, but didn't match his demand. We all got out before he could lock us in and my friend tried to cross the street in front of the car and the driver tried to hit him! It was a kind of startling experience. However, later that night we took another taxi and had the polar opposite experience. This other cab driver was really nice, told us a fair price, and we had a nice conversation about UB, Mongolia, the weather, and the Beatles. We even had a little group sing-along!

Anyway, we did do things other than just take taxis around town. For one, we ate lots of great food. Of course, we spent a lot for that food, but it was worth it. Allin all, we went to a German bakery, French bakery, "Irish" pub, Mexican-Indian restaurant, Chinese restaurant, and Korean restaurant. Unfortunately, while we happened to be in UB, the government mandated that all bars and restaurants close at 9:00pm every night to prevent the spread of H1N1. (Although I'm not really sure how much sense that makes.) Some places would stay open later and just close the blinds and lock the doors, but it still made for an early curfew a lot of nights. 

Mark and our friends Ashlee and Scott outside of Michelle's French Bakery

While we were in UB we stayed at the UB Guesthouse, which is like a hostel. We stayed in a room with 8 bunk beds and it cost 6000 tugriks a night which is about $4. The nice thing is that it had great hot showers, a small breakfast in the mornings (bread and jam), nice owners, internet, and a kitchen where we could to cook our Thanksgiving potluck dish.

Another part of UB that's different than our little town of Tsetserleg is the feeling of safety and security. PC staff warned us until our ears bled about how dangerous UB can be, mostly regarding pick-pocketing. So at first, I felt a little nervous and always guarded my purse vigilantly. However, after a week of being there, I became more comfortable. After about two weeks there, Mark and I both got to leave without having been pick-pocketed or seriously harassed. But I felt relieved to come back home to my town and have my biggest worries being avoiding really drunk men and scary dogs.

One other interesting part of being in UB was being with tons of other Americans and seeing lots of other foreigners. Being in a restaurant with 10-20 (or 30-40 one night) other Americans suddenly makes you feel a lot more self-conscious about your behavior. In my town I'm out with 3 other Americans at most and we're a pretty tame group. I've never been too worried about Mongolians having a negative image of me. But in UB, when surrounded by tons of other Americans, many of whom have been drinking when we're out in the evenings, the image we're presenting as Americans and PCVs is a lot different. In a big group we all feel safe and less aware of attention we may be receiving. Many of us, including me, also forget how many Mongolians speak English in UB and that many of them can understand everything we're saying.  Why does it matter what they think about us? Because how Mongolians perceive us can affect our work. Even if just one Mongolian sees us acting like idiots, word might spread that all PCVs and maybe all Americans are idiots. The Peace Corps goals include spreading peace and friendship and sharing in, hopefully, positive cross-culture interactions. Now don't get me wrong, I love my friends here and loved hanging out with them. But I'm happy to be back here in my small town where I have more control over people's perception of me.

Lastly, although I loved spending time in UB, seeing friends, eating great food, going shopping, and having some days out of the office, another reason I'm glad to be home is because of the kids! Even if I don't get to work with kids all the time, everyday on my walk to and from work I get at least one cheery "Hello! Hi!" from some little kiddo trotting to or from school. I didn't get that in UB! For one, I didn't see as many kids wandering around town by themselves, and two, they don't seem so amused at seeing a foreigner. And who knows, maybe the kids here in Arkhangai are just a little bit cuter too. :)

Thanks for reading my ramblings! And Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas!!!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

In-Service Training (IST)

by Mark

Like I mentioned before, we had multiple reasons to head into UB for a couple weeks. We left our site just before Thanksgiving so that we could spend the holiday with other PCV's at a big shindig being thrown at the Star Apartments. A lot of the diplomatic/ex-pat community lives in this housing...gated entry, landscaped yard, even a skating rink somewhere on the premises. But the other thing it promised was a large enough gathering area for something like 80+ people. The food spread was fantastic, covering 3 large banquet tables. We even managed to have turkey for the big day - thanks in large part to our new ambassador who we all met that afternoon. Nearly everyone brought a dish to the party so there was plenty of food to go around.

The Monday following Thanksgiving we began our In-Service Training. This is a 6 day seminar that included all of the Economic Development, Youth Development, and Health sector PCV's. Each of us was to bring one counterpart from our workplace to join in on the training. Some of the seminar sessions were held with our counterparts joining us, others had us broken up into separate rooms for trainings in our respective spoken languages.

Every morning we were at breakfast at 8am and sessions began at 9am. Every day we had a mid-morning tea break (sometimes including entire pieces of cake for a snack!), then more sessions, then lunch at 1pm. Then you can probably guess we had more sessions...and then a mid-afternoon snack...followed by more sessions. And lastly dinner at 7pm. Oh wait, then at 8pm there was an optional session on different topics that Volunteers can work on as secondary projects in their community.

This is the hotel we stayed at (Nukht Hotel)...and when I say "stayed at" I should say "stayed in" because we only left the building twice in the 6 days there. The first night there we decided it would be fun to use a nearby hill for sledding...only we didn't have sleds. So we used some plastic bags, cardboard, anything we could sit on that had a flat surface. Then we hiked up into the woods, got cold, hiked back down and went inside...not to see the outdoors for another 60+ hours (when we went for a 20 minute walk to take these photos).

It was a great time to catch up with volunteers we really hadn't seen in months. A time to swap stories, hang out, laugh...oh and work. The training was valuable in that nearly everything we were taught was also taught to one of our co-workers. They now have that knowledge as well, and when we reference something in the future, they will be able to explain the concept to our other co-workers. I am fortunate enough to be working for Mercy Corps - and there are two other volunteers working in Mercy Corps offices across Mongolia as well. So our three counterparts hung out, having another common interest.

(my counterpart, Azaa, is on the left)

On our final night at Nukht, our counterparts decided to put on an event. There was dancing and games, some singing, and a "performance". It was entertaining to say the least...

(I heard this referred to as the "Towel Dance" - catchy huh!)

(Limbo contest!)

(What can only be described, not named - a contest where a string is tied to the back of your pants with a pen dangling from the string. You then attempt to drop the pen into a bottle as quickly as possible - quite amusing!)

(This video is extremely short - but this is about 5 seconds of the 30 second "performance" I referenced. Of all the counterparts that came to IST, only 3 were male. Those three men showed us all what a little make-up, black long underwear, and a white towel can produce! This had me laughing for quite awhile.)

After we left our training site, we took the 45 minute bus ride back into UB for a couple more days of time with friends. We decided to grab dinner at a restaurant called Ix Mongol, where we were treated to a live performance from the band Altan Urag (they did a large part of the soundtrack to the movie "Mongol").

The next day we hopped an 8 hour bus ride back to Tsetserleg...and we're now back to work!

Friday, December 11, 2009

In UB (a sidetrip)

by Mark

So it's been awhile since we last posted. That's largely due to the fact that we were in the capital city Ulaanbaatar for 2 weeks. Our main reason for going there was for a Peace Corps led training called IST (6 days long), the second reason for going to UB was to celebrate Thanksgiving with PC volunteers and staff...but the 3rd reason for going is the one I'm going to write about in this post.

We wanted to re-visit Zuunmod...our training site, the place where our Host-families live, our Language trainers live, and where we spent our first 2.5 months of our Mongolian lives. It was a quick trip - only about 3 hours spent with "family" and friends...but it was good to see everyone, to catch up on what had happened since we all went our separate ways across the face of Mongolia. Here's a few pics:

This is a group of PCV's with our three language trainers (my teacher, Oogii, is in the center; Kara's teacher, Enkhee, is on the left)

This was the greeting spread in my host families house. From left to right you have Milk Tea in the thermos, vodka in the center, and juice in the glass decanter. My host-grandma even pulled out shotglasses for the vodka (she really dislikes the stuff) because of the occasion - culture demands it. We each took just a small amount and then laughed at the fact that none of us wanted to drink it...

And here we are again - happy family, minus mom (she had to work unfortunately).

We'll be posting again soon with more information on happenings over Thanksgiving and during our IST seminars. Oh and we should be uploading more pictures to Facebook in the near future. Until then...