Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Saturday visit from the "Disaster Expert"

by Mark

This will be a quick post - we've already covered this topic in excess. But Saturday, Kara got to accompany me and some Mercy Corps staff on an excursion into the nearby soums. Once again, USAID was in town to assess the effects of the winter weather. Our now good friend Chuck Howell from USAID just couldn't get enough of our beautiful countryside, and this time he brought another important person with him.

Ron Libby - Disaster Expert. Ron is based out of Bangkok, and has spent years going to disaster stricken regions of the world to assess what and if any aid can be brought in and how it should be administered.

The winter continues here in Mongolia, the devastation of herder family's livelihoods continues, and yet it's re-assuring to know that people around the world are paying attention. Here's a few photos from our day.

(Ron Libby, along with his translator Mendsaihan in the white cap)

(The owner of these animals had only lost 20% of his herd and we were there to ask him what he was doing differently than other herders)

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Yak Wool: the next big Mongolian export?

by Mark

Let's begin with the people involved in this day I just had. First, Jeton Starova (a Manager of the Economic Develop Programs from Mercy Corps UB) was coming to town to meet with our office staff. He did not have a translator with him. A little background on Jeton: he's from the Republic of Macedonia (of the former Soviet Union), speaks Russian and English, and as I found out today actually worked for Land O' Lakes (yes, the butter company!) for about 10 years.

Anyway, when he got to the office he informed us that he'd invited a couple of gentlemen to join us in a meeting this morning. About 10 minutes later in walk two French men and a Mongolian woman who was their translator. These men were part of a group that was interested in exporting Free Trade Yak Wool from Mongolia to Europe (particularly France), and wanted to beat the rush of Chinese product that would surely flood the continent in years to come. They were in town to meet with yak wool product producers to chat about the possibilities of a collaboration.

Long story short, I call my translator to see if she'll join us on a little excursion to the nearby soum Ix Tamir to meet with the yak wool cooperative. I looked around and realized that our entourage consisted of 2 Mongolian men (both drivers), 2 Mongolian women (both translators - one Mongolian to English and one Mongolian to French), 2 French men (one speaks English), Jeton (who speaks Russian and English), and myself (the only native English speaker). I've attached a video of the different people in our group...it's a mix of a couple snapshots from the yak wool/cashmere garment manufacturer. We spent about an hour speaking with them, watching as they produced the clothing on machines that are all hand operated.

The reason I even bring up this event was simply to write down my amazement at the spoken language dexterity it required for all parties involved. Jeton would ask questions in English, my translator would talk to the Mongolian management, then she would tell us in English his response while the French men's translator would tell them in French. Then while Jeton and I would speak in English, the Mongolians would converse in Mongolian, while French was being spoken right behind me.

I was amazed at it all. I was proud to be apart of something so "global" and yet so "backyard". I couldn't help but look around and think to myself that it takes a team of people, from all over the world, with a heart to help or even a paycheck in mind, to come together in the middle of Mongolia to attempt to help a small group of yak wool artisans. Whether yak wool exports become the next big thing for Mongolia is not what was important today - rather the orchestra of languages. It was a good day.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Tsagaan Sar: Gifts

by Mark

Gifts may not seem like a major focus of the Tsagaan Sar holiday (most people focus on the food and the greetings first, as we've done in our blog posts), but it's who is giving them and when they are given that is of note. As we mentioned in the previous post, Kara and I were given traditional Mongolian shirts to wear during the holiday. This came from Kara's co-worker (her family is shown in the picture above). We were at her house...she was not at ours. Typically, in America, if someone invites you over for a meal you offer to bring something to complement the meal, or bring a dessert, bottle of wine, or maybe a small gift to show your appreciation for having been invited. In Mongolia, during Tsagaan Sar, not only are you invited over to people's homes but you're given a gift at the conclusion of your visit.

Typically, it's something small...maybe a box of candy. But in some cases you receive a bit more (such as was the case with our new shirts). Kara and I received everything from cologne, to a small crystal candy dish, to white T-shirts with the word "MONGOLIA" printed on the front. Each home was something different, but always appeared to be thoughtful.

There's also another aspect of gift giving that is often overlooked. When you visit the home of an elderly person, along with all of the traditional greetings, sometimes people will present the elder of the house with a hadak (a piece of cloth folded in half long-wise). And most people will give them a 1000 or 5000 tugrik bill. It's a sign of respect, support, and an overall sense of giving back to those who have helped you through life.

And this is really what Tsagaan Sar boils down to. You have copious amounts of great food, invitations from friends and co-workers, wonderful traditions to witness, and it all happens for days on end. The holiday prompts you to say thank you to those around you that are meaningful parts of your life, and reminds you of those that care for you. Everyone wants you to feel like you are a part of their life. They want to feed you, chat with you, and when it's all over they want you to walk out of their home with a gift. That's what I call a wonderful holiday!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Tsagaan Sar: Attire

by Mark & Kara

Attire in Mongolia is still very traditional, never more-so than during the major holidays. Tsagaan Sar is no exception. Most Mongolians, or at least the older ones, wear traditional Mongolian dels for Tsagaan Sar. Many people have new dels made for the occasion. For many people living in our town center I think it is one of the few times during the year they wear a del, while other people who wear dels on a daily basis may adorn one of their nicer, fancier ones for this occasion.

Dels come in all sorts of colors, with many different patterns. And everyone wanted to know if we had our own to wear over the holiday. We did not, so we did what many younger Mongolians do - we just dressed very nicely. However, at the end of the first day of Tsagaan Sar Kara's co-worker generously gave us both new traditional Mongolian shirts. Kara's was even hand-made and specially tailored for her. (We'll talk a bit more about "gifts" in the next blog post...but since this was a gift that related to attire, we mention it here.)

We did fit in a bit better wearing some of the traditional clothing, but we couldn't come close to competing with Ganbat (in the picture above)...check out that hat! And speaking of hats, it's custom that men wear a hat of some sort when visiting another house. Even if you simply wear it while you enter and then take it off once you are inside. This seems rather practical as you walk from one house to another in -10 Celsius weather...