Sunday, February 26, 2012

Another Perspective

It's hard to believe it's almost been a year since my last post. My sincere apologies to those who had hoped I would write sooner. And another apology since you're going to have to wait just a little bit longer for me to finish the post I'm currently working on.

However, the following link has been circulating around Peace Corps Mongolia, and despite the author having served in Ethiopia, it's uncanny how well he has captured many of our experiences and sentiments here as well. If you swap "gunfo" for "gedes" and "chickens" for "goats", you pretty much have an article about Mongolia--though I am desperately jealous of his access to guacamole. Hope you enjoy it.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A Hazy Shade of Winter

Surprisingly, despite all the buildup, at first I really didn’t have any major complaints about the Mongolian winter (even despite the first snowfall being on Sept. 4th). Unsurprisingly, that changed when our town’s main heating plant ran out of coal in early January.

While the heating plant was functioning, my apartment hovered around a balmy 50 F, and I could get the corner of the room I aimed the space heater at up to about 60 F. Once the main heating plant went out, my apartment dropped into the low 40’s—hardly the kind of environment you want welcoming you when you get out of bed, let alone a tepid shower. It’s never fun to be able to see your breath in your apartment. Briefly waking up a couple hours early to turn on the space heater in the morning quickly became an indispensible part of my morning routine. The day I awoke to find I had only turned on the fan function of my space heater was a trying moment to say the least.

Having grown up in Southern California, where “winter clothes” consisted of jeans and a sweatshirt—and you still wore flip-flops—the biggest thorn in my side here has been the ludicrous number of layers you have to wear. It’s bad enough waking up when it’s still dark to walk to work in sub -30 F weather, but losing an extra 15 min of sleep just to put on your 12+ articles of clothing really adds insult to injury.

Another issue is the coal smoke. Every night the smoke from thousands of ger fires covers the town in a stifling haze that gradually permeates, well, pretty much everything. In Ulaanbaatar the particulate matter levels in the air are regularly over 20 times the WHO recommended levels. Having spent about a month there in November and December, there were nights when just walking around outside made it feel like you had smoked a pack of cigarettes, and it took me weeks to stop coughing once I came back to my site. Even here though, in the morning the smoke hangs so heavily on the air that you often have less than 200 yards of visibility.

Of course it’s not all bad though. When you never sweat it definitely reduces how much laundry you have to do. Plus you can get by with skipping the occasional shower. My lack of a refrigerator also is no longer an issue since I’ve (accidentally) found it gets cold enough to even freeze onions on my windowsill. Most impressively though, there aren’t many places where you can carry uncovered ice cubes across town in your backpack without even worrying about them coming out of the tray.

There has definitely been a good deal of novelty in it for me too. Of course snow isn’t as much of a novelty for most as it has been for me, but how many people have experienced the interesting sensations of a frost-covered beard, having their eyelashes frozen together, or the mucus freezing in their nose?

Fortunately though, things have definitely turned the corner and it’s starting to get warmer again, and now, in late March, there’s hardly even any snow left on the ground. I never thought I’d say it, but after lows of -40 F, 0 F starts feeling pretty warm.

I’ve also been really amazed by how much you adapt to the cold. I’ve probably been eating 2-3 times what I did in the summer, and you simply get used to sensations that would have previously been uncomfortably cold. For instance, the other day I was sitting in my office and I wound up shivering (despite wearing long underwear under my shirt and slacks, and a fleece) before I noticed I was actually cold.

All in all though, I think I’ve definitely come to the conclusion that I prefer extreme cold to extreme heat, especially humid heat. The cold is much more escapable; you go inside, wear more clothes, drink something hot. And even when you are cold, it’s easier to ignore than when you are hot. Heat, especially with humidity, makes you constantly uncomfortable in a way that is much harder to forget about—not to mention all the bugs, parasites and diseases that accompany the warmer climes (which not so coincidentally is largely why the Mongolian Empire chose never to earnestly invade India).


Aside from aspects of the weather though, the winter has actually been quite enjoyable. It kicked off with three separate Thanksgiving celebrations, two here in Khovd with guests from neighboring provinces (Peace Corps even gave us a turkey), and one in Ulaanbaatar. Each year Peace Corps does a Thanksgiving potluck with the embassy there, which was a great chance to catch up with friends and enjoy the nostalgia of some pickup football—even if your perspiration did freeze in your hair by the end.

The cascade of holidays then continued with Christmas at my apartment and a fireworks-filled New Years with our favorite Mongolian family here in Hovd. However, in Mongolia that’s not even half of the holiday season. Late January and early February bring in Teacher’s day and Tsagaan Sar (“White Month”, the lunar new year and technical beginning of spring), followed by Women’s Day and Men’s Day in March, and finally Doctor’s Day in early April. Though since most of the other holidays are celebrated in a rather typical fashion, Tsagaan Sar is probably the only one worth describing in detail.

Tsagaan Sar is an interesting combination of the Tibetan Lunar New Year and the Chinese Lunar New Year (though don’t let any Mongolians catch you saying that). To prepare for it, families will usually purchase a goat or sheep to slaughter, then save the back of the animal to serve during the holiday (the tail fat being the best portion). The rest of the animal goes into making buudz (“boatz”), the steamed, mutton-filled dumplings that some Mongolians will claim they literally need to eat regularly to survive. Usually the women in the family spend weeks preparing the buudz, making up to around 1000 depending on the anticipated number of guess, which they freeze until the holiday. Homes and offices are also immaculately cleaned, and people buy new clothes with the belief that your state at the beginning of the new year will determine the course of the following year.

Unfortunately this also means that debt always peaks before the holiday as families struggle to afford all the proper preparations and gifts, and the pressure to appear prosperous even turns some to theft.

The holiday itself is steeped in tradition regarding virtually all its aspects. The table spread usually consists of sheep-back, potato and sausage salad, mayonnaise-covered apple and raisin salad, pickled vegetables, buudz, and the iconic Ul Boov, a tower made from enormous cookies and topped with sugar cubes, candy, dried milk products, and anything else edible and white, representing the holiday’s namesake, which stands for happiness, purity and the abundance of milk products.

Everyone wears ornate deels (“dels”), the traditional Mongolian robes, along with the traditional, 15 ft long, brightly colored, cloth belt, leather boots, and cowboy hats for the men. Then over the course of several days, one visits the homes of friends and family, repeating the elaborate greeting ritual of paying respects to your elders, ceremonially trading snuff bottles, and exchanging small gifts, while being served and endless stream of mutton, mayonnaise laden salad, buudz and vodka. Needless to say, that while the holiday is enjoyable, by the end you’re glad White Month only actually lasts about five days.

As spring has rolled around I’ve also found myself increasingly satisfied with my work. After my several months here, I’ve come to understand the expectations surrounding work better, which has saved me much frustration, and I’ve been able to network effectively within the development community here giving me many more opportunities and resources.

Currently my good friend, Tim Jenkins, and I are designing a Sexual Health Week in May through the Peace Corps HIV/STI Taskforce. Sexuality in general is something that is kept very hush-hush in Mongolia—though the culture is quite permissive of pre-marital sex, and even extramarital affairs to some extent. As a result you have a very sexually active population with terrible condom usage and many serious misconceptions regarding sexual health, such as the belief held by some ethnic groups that eating horse meat can prevent a man from getting HIV. Currently approximately one in three reported communicable diseases in Mongolia is an STI.

My other major projects are currently organizing a provincial training of trainers for alcohol education, helping a local NGO start a small business development project, and beginning a computer skills class for local medical providers. I’m also very excited to be serving as a health sector technical trainer for the next round of volunteers coming to Mongolia this summer. It’s going to be a great chance to see some old friends, visit a new part of the country, and meet the new volunteers.

Another aspect of work here is that you never know when you’re going to be called upon for a good afternoon of manual labor in one of the only four dress shirts you have in the country. The first instance was when the whole office dropped everything to go oil the fence outside our building. When I asked why we were doing this, the response was simply, “So it looks nice.” Then just the other day, a few of us spent several hours hauling a dozen ancient, heavy, half-broken, Russian motorcycles off the back of a massive truck. Considering the circumstances, I was impressed no one was crushed as we tipped these 300+ lbs bikes off the side of the 8 ft high truck—though admittedly at this point I couldn’t say the lack of safety precautions really surprised me. Whether it’s the broken glass at the bottom of a children’s slide, the lack of soap in the Health Department’s public restroom, or the uninsulated coils of wire draped over the power lines, it’s pretty clear it’s “safety third”—at best—here in Mongolia.

We certainly have our work cut out for us.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

And I Can't Help but Wonder Where I'm Bound...

It was easy enough not to think about during the first half of training. We were all busy adjusting to the new culture, getting to know each other, our teachers and our host families, and galvanizing our stomachs against the new food. But by the time the second half of training rolled around, it became the question on everyone’s mind: where on earth am I getting sent for the next two years?

To be fair, we did get some say in where we went. During the summer we had placement meetings where we got to express our site preferences. Like any selfless Peace Corps volunteer with a mild savior complex, my top priority was of course to be at the site where they felt I could do the most good. Then, all other things being equal, I wanted to go somewhere with other PCVs I could collaborate with (and hangout with, and commiserate with…), especially a business volunteer since I want to get more into the economic development side of things after I finish here. And just in case the powers that be were feeling especially generous, I’d also take some nice mountains and rivers if it wasn’t too much to ask. That’s good, they said, usually if you can come up with a few different things you want we can probably give you at least one of them—but of course it’s good not to get your hopes up too much.

Then as the diabolical and prolific Peace Corps rumor mill got spinning, there of course were hints. Rumor had it most of my language class was getting sent to the East. East, I thought, well not much in the way of mountains or rivers, but hey, who doesn’t enjoy a vast, featureless steppe? We had been told there also weren’t any health sites in UB, the capital, or in Bayan Olgii, the far western province that was almost entirely Kazak and required switching language training at the end of the summer. This again seemed to confirm my going east.

And there was also what we could deduce through reason. As one of the few health volunteers, I knew I had a pretty high chance of being placed in an aimag center, i.e. a provincial capital, and hence I would probably live in an apartment. At first I found this a little disappointing since a part of me was looking forward to the experience of life in a ger—not to mention the extra hardcore points you rack up living in a felt tent during a -40 F winter. Though in time I came to realize, as much as I wanted that experience, more so I wanted to be as effective a volunteer as I could, and that probably wasn’t going to be the case if I had to spend a huge fraction of my time and energy shoveling coal, building dung fires, and thawing my toothpaste every morning.

It wasn’t until our second site placement interview though that things really started to get interesting. Have you ever heard the expression, “Don’t do something well because you’ll probably get asked to do it again?” Because I’m pretty sure the Mongolia site placement staff certainly have. Our meeting started out with some unsolicited praise of my resume, which I appropriately took as a sign to brace myself.

We see here you’ve volunteered in quite a few developing countries… (nod) …And that your undergraduate studies were also very relevant for the type of public health work Peace Corps focuses on… (nod) …Which is why we’ve decided to almost certainly send you to a “fix-it” site. (quizzical single eyebrow raise)

Now there are basically three types of Peace Corps sites a volunteer can go to: a new site whose host agency has never had a previous volunteer, a site whose host agency had a good relationship with its previous volunteer, or a site whose previous volunteer is making the host agency consider never speaking to Peace Corps again. I’ll let you guess which one a “fix-it” site is.

Now don’t worry, they said, of course it’s hard to know how much the problem stemmed from the volunteer or the host agency, but we’re sure you’ll do fine. Oh, and by the way, no one at your health department speaks any English. Good luck on your language proficiency exam!

Marvelous, I thought. Good thing my evening study time has been replaced by practicing the Jalam Har till my lungs collapse every night.

Then as the summer wound down everyone, including myself, became increasing ambivalent of the prospects of shipping out to site. On the one hand, by the end of training, each day seemed more of an exercise in patience than language, culture or technical knowledge. Yet at the same time we had all come to recognize the cruel joke that all the people you had trained with, and grown closest to over the summer, composed the only small group of people you were guaranteed not to get placed with at site.

Like it or not though, site placement day finally rolled around, and when they unfolded the giant map of Mongolia that covered about half the gym floor, it quickly got a lot more tangible. And then when someone said if you’re within arm’s length of the person next to you, that’s about a five hour commute, it started making sense why we’re one of the few Peace Corps countries that gives out cell phones for emergencies and our sanity.

Well, East, I thought as I waited to hear my name called, the longest site that way is only about 12 hours by bus. Not terrible considering some of the western fly-sites are about three straight days on a bus when Peace Corps won’t pay for a flight. At least this way I can afford to meet up with people in UB every so often.

Then, to my surprise, I was one of the first people called. I looked at where the other people at my site who had already been called were standing—about two feet away from the western tip of the country. I started reading my info packet. It began: “***** is remote, even by Mongolian standards.” Fly-site, approximately three straight days drive from the capital, under good weather conditions, if the bus doesn’t breakdown. About as far west as you can go before everyone starts speaking Kazak. I looked across the map at my friends as they slowly got called. I couldn’t have even hit any of them with my six foot lacrosse stick, let alone touch them. So much for that.

Disappointing as it was at the time though, I’ve since come to realize I’ve actually probably got one of the best sites in Peace Corps. Firstly this aimag center is in many ways the capital of western Mongolia so to speak. It’s fairly large at about 30,000 people, gets a decent amount of amenities from trade with Russia and China, and has a beautiful, mountainous, desert landscape with a nearby pair of parallel rivers. It’s also a secondary head quarters for many NGOs outside of Ulaanbaatar, which means lots of people to work with and good potential sources of funding. It also means there are several other foreign researchers and volunteers (Swiss, Russian and Danish), which on top of the other 6 PCVs living here, means we are some of the few volunteers who have something resembling a normal social life. Plus we’re on the standard Central Asia travel route so we even get the occasional couch surfers as well—such as the French Canadian, self-proclaimed gypsy couple that played the accordion for tips to fund their adventure across Asia.

After the ominous foretelling of a fix-it site, work has also been surprisingly smooth—though I can’t say as much for my introduction with my director, Dr. Jamsran. Having missed the formal introduction ceremony and luncheon due to flight trouble, the only time I spent with him before coming to Khovd was a brief afternoon of mildly awkward Peace Corps group workshops, usually sans translator. Then before parting ways we agreed on when I would meet him to take our taxi to the airport. “Margash bid nar heden tsag yawen we?” (“Tomorrow we what time go?”), I asked in my broken Mongolian. “Dzorgan tsag,” (“Six o’clock”) he answered. Just to be sure, I rephrased my question and asked again, after all I certainly didn’t want to start my relationship with my boss for the next two years on the wrong foot. Same response: six o’clock.

After far too short a night’s rest, I woke up at 4:30 am to give myself plenty of time to shower, eat, and hit the ATM before we left. Not a minute after my alarm went off I heard a knock at my door. Must be one of my friends with an earlier flight wanting to say good-bye, I thought to myself, or maybe just someone with the wrong room. So I stumble to the door half-wake, disheveled from the previous night’s revelries and wearing only my boxers. As I open the door, the only thing that keeps my jaw from hitting the floor is the surge of adrenaline that hits me as I discover not only my director, but his daughter and toddler grandchild patiently waiting for me in the hall. Apparently six was when we're supposed to be at the airport.

My brain instantly starts reeling as it leaves my body paralyzed in the doorway. No call, no text. How did he even know where my room was in this enormous dormitory?! I stammer out an “uchlaarai” (“sorry”), as I swiftly close the door on him, his daughter and his grandchild, and begin furiously dressing and trying to get my hair to not look like I’m impersonating a homeless Conan O’Brien. Having broken several land speed records packing and hauling my immense amount of luggage downstairs, I then got to suffer the further embarrassment of having to ask to stop at an ATM on our way to the airport.

Despite that possibly being the most embarrassing moment of my life, you'll all be happy to know I’ve made a full recovery, and surprisingly I don’t think my relationship with my director actually suffered much because of it. At the time he really took it in stride, and since then I’ve learned that since Mongolians have traditionally been housing entire families in gers the size of large camping tents, privacy is something that is virtually non-existent in Mongolia. And then on top of that, since during our New Year’s Party several men in our health department sacrificed their pants during a women's cross-dressing competition, I’d say my own faux pas wasn’t in fact too big a deal.

As I’ve worked here, my relationship with my director and coworkers has been very amicable. From what I’ve gathered, the tensions with the last volunteer a few years ago came from the fact that she felt underutilized since the Health Department never gave her much to do, and the Health Department thought she was lazy since she never did very much. Fortunately however, though it may not be as easy or efficient as getting a specific assignment, I’m quite ok with finding my own work to do. So far, aside from my requested English and computer classes, that’s included iodine deficiency education, helping children with disabilities, sex education, alcohol seminars and installing enough free anti-virus software to make Norton rollover in his grave. Unlike the TEFL volunteers who make more of a measured impact everyday with their classes, I feel like my most lasting impacts will come from projects that I do that are more high risk, high reward. I’m sure most of my pursuits will be dead ends, but I think if I can get a few projects to stick, I’ll feel like I did my part.

Like my work, my apartment was also pleasantly surprising—even despite the occasional sheep slaughter on the sidewalk outside. It’s quite large, four rooms, about 700 sq feet—pretty much the size of my old host family’s actually. It was fairly well furnished, aside from the kitchen, which more or less consisted of a sink, rice cooker, hot plate, uneven card table, and a duct tape patched pot, which created some excitement the first time I tried to cook with it. Despite the separate living room and bed room, I moved everything into one room to conserve heat, an indispensable strategy in winter I’ve heard, especially when the electricity and/or hot water goes out, as it briefly does a few times a week. I figure the smaller bedroom can serve as a walk-in fridge. I also have a TV, with cable, which means I get all the fuzzy Mongolian television I can watch. Aesthetically the apartment is pretty nice too, though the wavy, light blue and white wallpaper makes you feel like you’re in a glacier, which I fear may be a little too prophetic. However, it still beats my friend’s place which literally has shining gold leafed walls, and a golden shag futon. It pretty much feels like you’re in 70’s version of King Tut’s tomb.

The town itself here also has quite a lot of character. Like most areas of Mongolia there are occasional, scattered animal remnants, and the packs of stray dogs perennially battle the cows for the scraps around the garbage pyres. The local outdoor market is enormous and constantly bustling year-round with people selling everything from sheep heads to camel-wool vests to Pantene Pro-V. The dual rivers on the edge of town are beautiful and make for a wide, lush plain where people go to play, picnic and do laundry when the weather allows it. Though what I’m sure I’ll always remember the most about Khovd is Red Mountain, a craggy, crumbling mountain on the edge of town that looks different every hour of everyday, and which cradles the sun and the moon as they rise each day and night.

Though perhaps less than glamorous, I could still certainly think of much worse places to live for two years.