Our dear friend Ochgo extended a wonderful offer to visit with her family on the first day of the Tsagaan Sar holiday this year. She did this last year as well. Typically this day is reserved for the younger family members to visit their oldest siblings' place or their parents' residence depending on the living situation. But Kara and I, as well as our site-mates Tim and Kaede, and even another PCV visiting at the time (John), were all invited. It was like our very own PCV family going to visit one of the families that has been the kindest to the volunteers of our community over the years. We were quite grateful for the invite.
Of course Tim, Kaede, and John came prepared in their traditional Mongolian dels - maybe just to make us look bad. But seriously, they looked great and we definitely got quite a few looks from locals as we hiked about 20 minutes out of town to Ochgo's mother's house. For these three volunteers accompanying us this was their first Tsagaan Sar. It felt as if we should prepare them for what was about to happen. And really, and I know I'm speaking for myself here, I felt relieved to know that I'd done this all before. Ochgo and her family would never pressure us or make us feel like we did something wrong, and that knowledge was all the relief we needed.
The traditional foods of milk tea, buuz, salads, candy, and the tail meat of the sheep were all presented to us. Ochgo was of course a wonderful host and her English knowledge made this a great reintroduction to the holiday. We were then treated to a beautiful walk home (on a side note we've been experiencing temperatures in the mid-20's for the past week - this is not normal for this time of year, but it made for a warm holiday).
We weren't really sure who might invite us on the second day. Really the way it all works is you wait and hope for a text message from a co-worker or friend telling you that they're available and would love to have you come over to their place. Last year this happened in spurts - we'd get 4 invites one afternoon, then nothing one day, then 3 more the next day. However, Day 2 this year worked out perfectly. Kara received a surprise text message from a woman named Tunga who works at one of the World Vision offices in our town. Kara taught English to the staff at her office last year and occasionally helps Tunga translate sponsor letters from Mongolian to English. I'd never met her before, but Kara told me she was great...so off we went.
Tunga made us feel comfortable, offered us all of the traditional food/drinks, and introduced us to some of her family that was there. She's in her late 20s and isn't married yet so like most Mongolians in this situation, she lives with her parents. In the background of the picture above you can see her nephew playing a computer game, supposedly he's quite the gamer.
The third day was meant to be the day you visit with co-workers. However, it was a Saturday which threw off everyone's schedules. This meant we were once again not quite sure where we might end up, but we knew that my co-workers could call at any moment and we'd likely end up going in different directions. We thus planned ahead so well that when I got the call to meet up with my staff, I decided to rely on their camera thinking that Kara might need ours. She ended up not needing it. Thus, we have no pictures from Day 3...not yet anyway...it's still possible my work camera will provide a few with me in it (but we'll have to wait until after our trip to upload those).
I did however go to two more houses on Day 3. I attended a child's hair-cutting ceremony as well. And in one of the more interesting moments of my time here in Mongolia, I watched as my counterparts all sprinted (not joking...sprinted!) out of a house. I quickly followed, not knowing if I missed something about the house having caught fire, or maybe we were "dining and dashing" Mongolia style. Once outside I realized that everyone was facing the now sliver of a moon that had appeared nearby our aimag center's mountain. They had all opened their wallets/purses, verified there was money inside, and were waving them in a circular motion toward the moon.
Kara was beginning to wonder if any of her co-workers were going to invite us over before she had to go back to work on Monday. Day 4 we received a call from Orkhontuul asking us to meet her husband outside waiting in a car. He would take us to their ger.
We spent nearly two hours looking at great old photos of them from before they met, during their time at University together, and even more recent photos of their children. They really fed us an incredible amount of food - including some prime slices of beef. I believe we were even invited to ride horses with their family this summer.
Having spent time with all the different friends/co-workers this year I can say I was happy, relieved, and amazed at how far we've come since last year. Now that we've been here a year and a half we were able to understand 90% of the conversations, Kara (and much less so I) was able to answer intelligibly, and overall we just felt a sense of calm surrounding the holiday. We were able to enjoy the holiday by having the invites spread out, and we got to visit a couple of different places we didn't see last year.
We may not have another Tsagaan Sar in Mongolia, but we are proud to say we've experienced it in all it's glory. We are especially grateful to the members of the community who felt close enough to us to invite us to share a meal. The holiday doesn't end after 4 days - no it continues for what seems like weeks. Kara was invited to share a meal with co-workers on Monday, and I spent the entire day getting up and down out of my chair to greet many of the Mercy Corps clients I see every month. I can truly say we've both gotten pretty good at placing our arms in the correct position, muttering the greeting "Amar baina uu?", and sniffing both cheeks. Dare we say we've integrated...