Monday, March 21, 2011

A Trip to the Hudoo

(hudoo = countryside)

by Kara

A little over a week ago I was told my coworkers were asked to do a training in a soum (a district of our province) about 2-3 hours away. On Monday I came to work and checked to see if the trip was still on, as I’ve been told this before and suddenly the trip has been cancelled, but this time, the trip was still a go. I went home at noon to get my stuff so I could come back in time to go to our coworker’s house for lunch at 1:00 and leave at 2:00. One of my strategies I regularly employ at work is to ask different coworkers the same question separately to see if I get the same answer. Every coworker I asked said declaratively we were going to leave at 2:00.

We got back to work from lunch around 2:30 and since I had already dropped my laptop off at home, I sat at my desk waiting for the call to go. I’m still not sure exactly what we were waiting for and I never even bothered to ask, but I ended up sitting at my desk waiting for the next 4 hours, until we left at 6:30.

After making a couple of stops we arrived at the school dormitory, where we’d be staying, around 9:30 pm. A very sweet woman who is the director of the local parent’s organization and who helped organize the training greeted us and welcomed us with a bottle of vodka and box of candies. This is a very common thing to do, but I still felt very weird having to take a sip of vodka with dormitory children running around the halls outside our room. Nobody drank much, it was mostly just about the ceremony, but still…

My coworkers didn’t let our late arrival affect their plans. We began some games and activities with the kids and at the end, left them watching a movie we’d brought. They all seemed excited to have something different to do for the evening. Most, if not all of these kids, are the children of herders. Their parents live too far out into the countryside for the children to be able to commute to school so they live in the dorms. It houses 80 kids, ranging from 1st to 11th grade.

My coworker leading games with the dorm kids.

The next day was spent doing trainings. My coworkers led all of the lessons and I served as staff photographer. Since none of them speak English and therefore can’t even get close to being able to translate for me and I don’t speak Mongolian that well, it’s impossible for me to lead a training. Anyway, my role as a PCV isn’t to lead trainings, it’s to help develop the capacity of my coworkers, but still, it’s sometimes frustrating not being able to contribute in more ways. However, I was pretty proud of their work and I don’t think they needed my help. They led trainings with parents about good parenting, and other trainings with teachers, social workers, the soum governor, and students. They didn’t use any powerpoint presentations and had games, activities, and small group work! I’ve seen way too many extremely boring presentations to be able to appreciate the better ones.

Meeting with the Governor
My coworker Orkhoo talking to parents

After the trainings and some more activities with kids it was already 7:30pm and it was time to get ready for the volleyball tournament. Upon further reflection, I think this is the real reason I was asked to accompany them on the trip – to play on the volleyball team. That suited me just fine though.

We walked into the gym and I immediately saw a man drinking straight from a bottle of vodka, by himself. Even in Mongolia where vodka is a huge problem, that was not a good sign. He continued to roam the gym, onto the court during games, and yell at people the entire night. I think he yelled at me in particular (“Foreigner!!” and after I made a mistake, something like “Geeeeez, what happened?!”) Having a huge drunk yell at me didn’t help the fact that I was already getting stared at more than usual. I get stared at regularly (staring isn’t considered rude here), but I could definitely feel even more eyes on me than usual in this small town, as I don’t think any foreigners live there and few even visit. It doesn’t really bother me, it’s just a bit unusual.

Anyway, we played many rounds of volleyball and finally at about 12:30am our team played in the championship game! However, our team fell apart against our opponent, who was better than us anyway, and we came in 2nd place. By then it was 1:00am and I was ready to hit the sack, but no… it was time for table tennis!

The only volleyball photo that was taken - and of course I'm not in it. I think I had just served.

Two hours later the table tennis portion of the tournament concluded (I definitely did not play) and we could finally go to bed, around 3:00am. I got back to the dorm room I was sharing with my other female CPs and we all got in our pajamas. Just when I thought it might finally be time for sleep one of my coworkers brought in a bottle of dessert “wine” (think super sweet cough syrup) and a box of candy. Somebody had dropped it off as a present for us. He said, “Should we drink it?” In my head I thought, of course not, we’re going to bed, and we might as well save it (they like it after all) for a festive occasion, but my coworkers all readily agreed to open it. So we all had a little wine and finally got to go to sleep around 4:00am.

I had been told repeatedly by my coworkers we’d planned to leave at 8:00am the next morning. Now, I knew we wouldn’t actually do that, but I was hoping for 10:00am. But by the time we rolled out of bed, they spent an hour or so putting on make-up while I sat and waited, the guys warmed up our van that’d been sitting outside for two days by lighting a fire underneath it (literally, on the ground, underneath the engine), we visited the local kindergarten, saw the governor once more, etc etc, and we left at 11:45am.

I wanted to write about this trip because spending so much time with my coworkers on a trip like this (even if it was less than 48 hours) is kind of an intensive experience. For me, much of the trip is spent in silence, simply trying to understand what’s going on around me, so I spend a lot of time observing. Even after having been here for nearly two years, I still find myself surprised at times, learning new things about my coworkers and Mongolian culture. Spending a lot of time together without a break seems to highlight our similarities and differences. I find it interesting that my coworkers seem to have little to no desire to be alone and more so, that being a part of a group is vital. My female CPs always went out to the bathroom together (a latrine outside, which made me again, thankful for the indoor plumbing I have at home), they all brushed their teeth at the same time, put on their makeup at the same time, and even for their trainings, all coordinated matching outfits. While I feel the need to express my individuality and independence, they seem to express a desire to show they’re part of a group and a community. (I am, of course, making generalizations.)

By the end of the trip I was ready to come home to the comforts of my home, eat fruit and vegetables again, speak English, have some alone time, and have more control again (over time, what I eat, etc). It also made realize I don’t think I could survive as a PCV without the supportive network that I have here in my town (Mark and my fellow PCVs). Still, the trip was great. I was proud of the work my coworkers did and happy to be a part of it, even if I was just taking pictures and playing volleyball (but hey, we did get 2nd place).

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Koh Lanta & our return

by Mark & Kara

Our next destination was Koh Lanta – a small island a few hours from Krabi. This was the relaxing part of our trip. It was the first time we were in one place for more than two nights. Our time at the beach was very relaxing and low-key. We finally had our appetites back and spent a lot of time thinking about where and when we’d be eating. Mark tried a different Thai dish at every meal and I did at almost all of them. I also really enjoyed the fruit shakes and had one almost every day. The plethora of fresh fruit was amazing! One day we indulged in perhaps the best burgers we’ve eaten in years – in any country. Kara's burger involved avocado and crispy chicken, and Mark's was called the Garlic Sauce Cheeseburger made with a half pound of some of the best ground beef he's ever had. It must have sat a good 6-7 inches off the plate when it was brought out. They were expensive, but well worth it. We had to take a nap afterwards we were in such a food coma and didn’t even eat much of a dinner that night.

This was our view just 50 meters from our bungalow.  Don't mind the baby stroller...

We could lounge all day and into the evening.  It was wonderful.

The island we stayed on was very touristy, but beautiful. In the future I might like to visit a more remote locale. The beach was filled with Europeans – in fact, we only saw a few other Americans the entire time. There were especially a ton of Germans. We suspect many had been there for weeks, as they walked around sporting their perfect tans. We played a game of, “Who can find somebody as pale as us?” most of the time.  Bonus points were awarded for finding somebody even paler than us, but that was a rare accomplishment.

This is a picture taken from about 75 meters out into the sea.  It was so shallow you could walk out this far and only be up to your waist in warm, salty water.

One day we ventured out to explore some caves we had heard about. When we arrived they told us we each had to pay about $10 for the tour with the guide. I asked if we could go without the guide and the woman laughed and said no. So we waited a bit and ended up going with two young German women. After hiking for a while we got to the caves and realized we didn’t exactly know what we’d signed up for. We were given head lamps and realized this would be a bit more intense than we had anticipated. The exploration through the caves involved squeezing through really small crevasses, crawling on our knees, and scaling down rocks. Meanwhile, we were sweating like crazy in the extremely thick, humid air. It was pretty awesome though and worth it. The tour concluded with the site of hundreds of bats hanging from the ceiling – very creepy.

Pro spelunkers!  Headlamps, sandals, sweat-drenched t-shirt: check.

We kept trying different foods and different restaurants throughout our 5 days on the beach. One night we decided to do the "grill on the beach" option where the restaurant staff have you point to the items you'd like to have grilled and then brought to your table. Kara went with a huge kebab of chicken, onions, and peppers and a huge ear of corn dipped in garlic butter. I went with the whole tuna and a baked potato. We ordered drinks and watched the crowd of people grow, and soon after the corn came off the grill. Then more time went by and we got to thinking maybe we should ask about our food. The place was hoppin' and our waiter took about 10 minutes to figure out our food never hit the grill - unfortunately they were now all out of chicken kebabs. We watched as they put the tuna, potato, and the replacement beef kebab on the grill, knowing full well it'd be another 30-40 minutes. I'm not sure that Kara's side of the meal was the greatest, but when that full Tuna came out and I began picking away at it, it almost made the wait worth it. I'd been craving seafood for years really.

Simply amazing.  Probably took me about 40 minutes to eat, but it was all kinds of fresh/delicious!

At the end of our meal that night we befriended a pregnant black cat (hard to see).  We fed her bones from the fish, and a few extra pieces of meat that we couldn't finish.

Finally, our peaceful stay at the beach had to come to an end and we headed back to Bangkok on an overnight train. Arriving in Bangkok around 8:30am, we had one last day to spend there before our 10:45pm flight that night. It being Saturday, we went to the Chatuchak weekend market. We had heard it was huge, but even we didn’t expect how big it was. They give out color-coded maps. It's like the Puyallup Fair grounds in size, but the entire thing is just stalls and stalls of everything from designer clothes, to birds/fish/puppies, to used books. It was fun at the beginning but in the afternoon I had made the mistake of not buying something I saw earlier and I wanted to go back and find it. We got lost in the maze of the market and started to get overheated and cranky. We actually think we both got some sort of heat rash from the whole experience. However, in the end we walked away with a bag full of souvenirs.

This is another shot from Khao San Road where we had a few last meals and watched this band perform and get interviewed.  I'm fairly sure we're in the background of some indy band music video now.

We finished up our day in Bangkok with a couple of happy hour beers and a smattering of street food – phad thai (Mark may have eaten two whole plates), chicken kebabs, corn on the cob, and fresh fruit. We're gonna miss those food options, the shorts/t-shirt weather, and the allure of exploration. But we’re back in Mongolia now, happily reunited with our cat Mishka, and planning out our last 5 months we’ll be here in Mongolia! Our vacation flew by as we know our remaining time here in the land of Chinggis will as well.

How could you pass this up?  It was just a couple bucks to get a plate of phad thai and spring rolls.  You pick the meat (if any), the noodle type, and the spices.  Takes like 3 minutes and you've got lunch!

Though this marks the end of our blog posts related to our trip to Cambodia/Thailand, Kara has posted dozens more pictures on Facebook.  Check them out here: Thailand & Cambodia.  And we'd like to thank all of our family who really helped fund a large part of our trip with your wonderful Christmas gifts.  Thank you.  We're just grateful we could share our experience of South East Asia with all of you through the wonderful technology of camera and blog.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Krabi, Thailand

By Mark & Kara

The evening we left Bangkok we were riding an overnight bus south to Krabi Town. We got to ride one of those double decker, air-conditioned, sleeper buses. It seemed as though all the foreigners were put on the upper level in the very back (though this may have been a result of ordering tickets later than domestic travelers). Some of our neighbors on the trip were quite amusing, and listening to others' stories of travels throughout South East Asia provided for many good laughs and a few "oh i'm glad that didn't happen to me" moments. Seriously, how do you get your wallet/money stolen 7 times in a month?

Get it?!  Krabi!

After arriving and settling in we decided to go to the Tiger Cave Temple. Upon arriving we were greeted by a bunch of monkeys!!! After taking a million pictures of the monkeys we thought, hey, let’s climb up to the top of this mountain. Everybody else was doing it and there was supposed to be a great view point at the top and a huge Buddha. And 1237 steps isn’t really that many, is it? Only a couple hundred of steps up and we were already asking ourselves why we were doing this. We stopped every 2 minutes, or whenever we found shade. We used up our water bottles in the first 600 steps. We pulled ourselves along literally climbing up steps using all four limbs. Needless to say, we pushed ourselves to the point of exhaustion again. The view at the top was nice, we got great pictures, but in the end we were very relieved to be off the mountain.

Just before heading toward the Tiger Caves, we walked along the river's edge - beautiful rock formations, warm weather, and the calm water made for a lovely stroll.

Monkeys!  Baby monkey!

Seriously, Kara loved the monkeys...and they were so friendly.

I think we have better pictures of this Buddha, but this one shows how immense this structure was and just how high up we had climbed!

We were so tired we hired some taxi driver to take us back into town. Not the cheapest option, but at that point we could barely stand without our legs quivering and cramping. We got back to our little hotel, showered, rested, and then decided to walk all of 100 feet from our hotel to a restaurant that was supposed to be one of the best in town. We arrived at 5:01, not really knowing it opened at 5:00, and wandered around the two-story open air restaurant looking for someone who would be interested in helping us. We quickly realized that this place must be popular with locals, as tourists didn't seem to be plentiful in this part of town. After minutes of confusion, a man who we're not even sure worked there asked us what we'd like. We both ordered, got our food, enjoyed that...and then got presented with an entire platter of "goods" made from soy bean as far as we could tell. We think it was dessert, but we were so full we couldn't partake. No one really came to ask us if we needed anything, except for one repetitive instance of hospitality - whenever we took a sip of water, a waitress would walk over and fill up our glass. It was one of the strangest things...we couldn't get them to take our order, or bring us more of anything, or bring our bill/accept our money, but they made sure our water was full almost all the time.

The next day we attended a Thai cooking class! This experience was what I had been waiting for in Thailand. Kara and I love Thai food, and I love making different kinds of to see how simple it could be to mix flavors to get so many good dishes, it was fantastic. The teachers made it impossible for us to screw up any of the dishes so they were all delicious. We got recipe books so hopefully we can try to recreate the food… though it’s nearly impossible here in Mongolia because we’re missing so many ingredients. By the end, we'd prepared something like 10 different we sat down with an Australian couple on their honeymoon who had joined us for the class and enjoyed a feast. It would appear that our appetites were coming back. We really love Thai food!

Our teacher Mrs. Ya (not pictured) used this "prep" time to inform us on the proper technique for "Chop chop, Bang bang".

I know when you make a meal you appreciate it so much more - but seriously those were some of the best fried spring rolls ever!  We even made the hot dipping sauce from scratch...I mean crushing-red-peppers-in-a-stone-mortar type of work!

Quite the spread...I don't think the 4 of us finished half of it.

Later that evening we spent our first real time on a Thai beach.  We rolled up our pants and shirt sleeves, walked and splashed in the warm water, sat at a restaurant overlooking the sea, and captured our first really good sunset of this entire trip.  If anything, it was a precursor of our time on the island of Koh Lanta.  We were heading there the very next day...

The final chapter of our vacation story will be coming soon...

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Bangkok & Ayuthaya

By Kara and Mark

We had thought that Phnom Penh was a big bustling city, but Bangkok is in a category all its own. It is a HUGE city of about 11 million people – that’s more than New York City. And a huge tourist destination too. At the conclusion of the "VIP" mini-van ride from the border, we got our first taste of the traffic in Bangkok. It took us over an hour to wind our way through the city, dropping off passengers, and ultimately ending up at Khao San Road - the mecca for backpackers. It was here that we enjoyed our first taste of Thai food. We knew we'd regret it later, but we couldn't pass up a wonderful plate of Phad Thai and another plate of grilled chicken and vegetables.

This was the Khao San Road area during mid-day.  It's gets much, much crazier in the evening.  And it's incredibly difficult to capture it in a few photos.

The next day we took a bus up north to Ayuthaya to see some more ancient temples. However, our energy was still low, it was about 95 degrees, we were both wearing pants because we thought we had to in order to see temples (really, it was only necessary at one that we visited, which we could have easily avoided), and after seeing the temples in Siem Reap, the ones in Ayuthaya paled in comparison. I would say the highlight of the day was seeing some elephants and seeing a little wild crocodile in a river. I'm sure the ancient city is noteworthy, but unfortunately for us the day just felt underwhelming.

Welcome to Ayuthaya

Elephant rides - would have been a wonderful (albeit expensive) way to get out of the 95 degree sun!  We chose not to indulge.

An incredibly large sleeping Buddha at one of the Wats (temples) of Ayuthaya

Isn't that awesome!  These are the little versions of tuk-tuks that drivers used in the Ayuthaya area.  We rode in the back of one similar to this, but ours was just plain green.

The next day we were going to leave on an overnight bus at 6:00pm but we had the majority of the day to spend in Bangkok. We had planned on seeing all the temples and touristy things but after the previous days experience we had a change of heart. We decided to have a more relaxing day exploring Bangkok – riding the Sky Train (kind of like the monorail, but functional and useful), riding a river ferry, and just wandering around. It was delightful. We still hadn’t quite regained our energy, but we pushed through and made of a day of it. We were a bit frustrated that we still didn’t have our appetites back with all of the delicious and pretty cheap food surrounding us, but that didn't stop us from ordering anyway. But suddenly things like Club Sandwiches and plates of just fried rice sounded good...we were beginning to wonder when we'd have the stomach to dive into the spicy curries and noodle dishes we'd been craving for months. We were hoping soon, because in the next leg of our trip we'd be encountering a lot of down-time (read: time for checking out all the beach restaurants), and we knew we were going to take a cooking class. It was time to leave Bangkok...

More on our trip through Thailand coming soon...

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


by Kara

Ever since the seemingly never-ending, bitterly cold winter last year Mark and I have been dreaming about taking a vacation to SE Asia and that dream came true last month! We spent about two and a half weeks in Cambodia and Thailand. It felt so good to be in warm weather again and we practically felt naked at first walking around in only one layer of clothing and revealing so much skin in shorts and tank tops. We spent our time in Cambodia focusing on seeing the historical sites – memorials and museums in Phnom Penh and the ancient temples in Siem Reap. We did some more site-seeing in Thailand and also spent some time relaxing at the beach. Thanks to Mark’s very thorough planning everything went really smoothly. It was exhilarating to be in new countries again, seeing, smelling, and tasting so many new things for the first time. That’s the quick summary, but below are more details about our trip.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Our first stop in our trip was Phnom Penh, Cambodia. We only had one full day to explore the city. We started out the morning by roaming around the streets near our guesthouse. Wandering around in a new city, hearing Cambodian, seeing thousands of motor bikes zooming past us, smelling the aromas of the street vendors’ food, I was immediately filled with a rush of excitement over being in a new country. I haven’t felt that way in Mongolia for a long time now – as we are not just tourists traveling in Mongolia, we are living there. There’s something really exhilarating about exploring a new place.

We hired a tuk tuk driver to take us to the popular tourist destinations for the morning. We went to the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Museum. I was shocked to realize how little I knew of Cambodia’s history, specifically, about the Khmer Rouge. The Killing Fields were where the Khmer Rouge took thousands of people to kill them and bury them in mass graves. The Tuol Sleng Museum was a school that the Khmer Rouge turned into a place to torture people. It was very difficult to see this and contemplate how human beings can do these things to one another. There were still blood stains on the walls and floors of the museum and there were skulls and bones at the fields. In addition to the deaths that took place at these places we learned that many people died from starvation, disease, and forced labor during the rule of the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979). Nobody is exactly sure how many people died but estimates are 1.5 to 2.2 million people – out of a population of 8 million. That’s 1/5 to 1/4 of the population. I could spend way more time talking about this… Obviously it was a very sobering start to our morning in Cambodia. Later that day we moved on to the National Museum, the Central Market, and some more wandering around town.

Our tuk tuk driver and his friend.

I know it's weird to post this picture, but this is what is at the museum that was once the killing fields. These skulls and other bones were unearthed from mass graves.

The Khmer Rouge heavily documented information about the people the tortured and killed. These are photos of the victims at the Tuol Sleng Museum.

The National Museum

The view outside our guesthouse -- look at all that green!!!

Siem Reap, Cambodia
The next day we left to go to Siem Reap via bus. We got there in time to see the sunset at Angkor Wat and hired a tuk tuk driver for the next day, beginning with the sunrise at the same location. Unfortunately, it was so cloudy that we couldn’t really see the sunrise… but at least we got an early start to the day (leaving our guesthouse at 5:30am) and got to see some of the other temples before the rush of tourists. These ancient temples, built in the 12th century, were definitely a highlight of the trip. They were one of those historical sites and major tourist destinations that actually lived up to all the hype.

We finished our morning tour pretty quickly and got back to our guesthouse by noon. What had started as a wonderful Valentine’s Day, one that I had said would be very hard to top in the future, took a turn for the worse. We suspect we got some form of food poisoning or something from the water. We were stuck in our beds for the rest of the day with headaches, body aches, fever, chills, stomach cramps, and diarrhea – diarrhea that decided to stay with us for almost the entire trip. We were disappointed to have to waste so much of a day stuck in bed.

Though only feeling a little better, we stuck to our travel itinerary and took off at 6:00am the next morning to head to Thailand. In Mark’s very thorough research he had read online that getting from Cambodia to Thailand can be a bit difficult, but we had no problems at all. It helps that our travel standards are pretty low after dealing with travel in Mongolia – unlike some of our fellow passengers on the trip. When the microbus driver tried to fit one extra person on the bus a passenger started yelling at him and saying that was completely unacceptable. We laughed, thinking that in Mongolia, we would’ve easily had an additional 10 people in the bus. We also got stuck at a gas station with car problems and were forced to wait for over an hour which led other passengers to loudly complain, “What are we going to do!? What’s your plan?! Are we going to camp out overnight here?!”, yelling at our innocent driver after only a half hour of waiting. Lovely. However, he got it back up and going and we headed on towards Bangkok.

Angkor Wat

Monks at Angkor Wat

It seemed much steeper in person than it appears in this photo.

Giant trees taking over the temples (that's me if you can't tell)

Mark enjoying a delicious meal. Who knows, this might have been the meal that got us sick.

The sign read: "Dr. Fish Massage - Have you ever seen the fish can massage?
If our fish can not make you happy We'll not charge. Don't miss the unique experience.  $3"
How could we resist? It ticked like crazy at first. It wasn't quite like the pedicure we were promised, but it did make us happy.

Posts about Thailand coming soon.