Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Language Continues to Dominate Our Lives

Quick update: I am almost recovered from a sinus infection. I was actually sent to UB to the medical office for review...nothing major, just some medication for it. I did get a real meal out of the trip, a cheeseburger from a joint called "American Burger and Fries". It was a good burger...especially at that time. This past weekend was "GI Issue Weekend"...almost everyone had some sort of GI issue....Ashley and I included (only minor though). Also, school is out for the summer, so the internet cafe at the post office is PACKED....we waited for 30 minutes tonight to get online. There are 6 computers and 14,000 people in this town....not great odds. With our busy schedules, it is not likely that we will be able to wait each time....so the blog updates may be more irregular. The calzone went well...except that it was fried instead of baked (the oven didn't work). No one in this town has ever had mozzarella cheese, so I am going to buy some in UB ($6 for 2lbs). The weather was very hot the past week (upper 90's), but broke yesterday and it has been in the 60's/70's. Language is incredibly difficult for me, but Ashley seems to be doing well. I seriously think it is harder than any calculus that I took in college (including differential equations). We study for a few hours each night and I am totally spent by 10pm. We now know past, present, future tenses and probably 50 verbs...which we can conjugate. Our vocab is growing and a fine example is below: The first week here we went to a Korean restaurant and one of the trainers had to order for us (we couldn't read the menu). We went back on Saturday with a friend and were able to do everything ourselves...including reading the menu (we ate a meat-free meal). The food is ok....but I would pay a lot of money for a good pizza or chicken sandwich right now. I've also been having problems with my water filter (algae), so I have been buying water, which is eating into my tiny paycheck. I don't have my camera with me, so I will try to post more pictures and stories this weekend, hopefully of my host family. Also, next week begins the annual Nadaam festival, which should produce some cool stories/pictures. Take care and thanks for the support and messages.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Things to Watch and to Watch Out For

The past week has been intense...primarily language, technical, and cultural training. We usually start classes at 9am and end around 5:30, then do homework. We're also trying to integrate into our host families and spend time with friends. The language progression has been amazing...we can exchange pleasantries, ask/answer basic questions, and read Mongolian cyrillic, though we still probably don't know the vocabulary yet. We were told that to be "fluent" in a language, you need a working vocabulary of 2,000 words and my best estimate is that we know ~200 words and growing rapidly. Our teachers are very good, but demanding. Even the most experienced language learners are at their limit of comprehension. Host family integration is quite an experience because most of our basic choices are in the hands of people that we do not know well yet (food, sleeping arrangements, community events, etc). Each person is having a different experience and the arrangements are extremely varied (house, apartment, traditional ger). We will get into the specifics in a later post.

Per the title of this post, we have spent lots of time this week watching and watching out for. Per the pictures, the scenery is fantastic and the sights around town are not what we typically see in the United States. We found time again this weekend to go hiking in a nearby forest and below is a picture (notice the trees). We've also been doing a lot of watching of the community, to understand how to culturally integrate and how to technically integrate (our future jobs). Each place is different, so we need to observe a lot and synthesize that into action plans.

The image to the left is a Buddhist monastery in the hills of our town. During the 18th and 19th century, there were over 20 buildings, but the Stalinist religious purges in 1937 decimated the area and left only a few standing. This is one of the very cool sites that we walked to (about a 12 miles round-trip hike).

As you are probably well aware, the primary mode of transportation in Mongolia is walking (at least for Peace Corps volunteers). The sheer amount of walking that we do (many miles per day), requires that we become aware of our surroundings and learn to indentify any potential dangers, so that they don't become a problem. Below is my list of the 5 common things to watch out for while walking (seriously):
5. Animal skeletons (unfortunately this past winter was brutal)
4. Potholes (big enough to bottom a car out)
3. Construction holes that were not filled in after the job was finished
2. Animals (usually cows, but sometimes sheep, goats, horses or dogs) (example picture below)
1. Missing man-hole covers in the road

Food Update: I am starting to want American food, so I have offered to make a calzone for my host family this week. I got most of the ingredients, but one thing that can not be found is Mozzarella or Ricotta cheese. The only cheese is American and it is very expensive. I'll have to make do. Also, fruits (citrus in particular) are very expensive. 1 lemon is the equivalent of $3. I'll let you know next week how it turns out (i'm planning a veggie-calzone because I've reached my meat threshold for this week). By the way, we learned the phrase for "meat-free" food, so the next time we go out to eat, I expect Ashley to try it out.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

First Big Update

Ok, so here is the first big update to the blog, with photos.

The first few days were spent in orientation, which is a compact introduction to the country, language, and culture. It also included sessions on health, safety, technical skills (job), and expectations/responsibilities. These sessions are used as a crash-course for host family living. After 5 days of orientation, we were split across 6 different cities (aimags or soums), based upon job type, and then each person was placed with a different host family. The host family accommodations ranged from traditional ger to stand-alone modern house. Justin was placed in a house and Ashley in an apartment, though only about a mile apart. The host family living is used to get us up-to-speed on the culture and language. It also teaches us useful life skills for Mongolia, like building fires and handing washing clothes in a tumpan (small plastic tub).
Food: many of you want to know the food situation, so here is a brief update. We have been eating traditional Mongolian food and have been pleasantly surprised. The food is based around meat, dough, and some vegetables (carrots, onion, potato) and some meals have included tomato, cucumber, cabbage. Most of the food so far has involved boiling or steaming and many are soup based. Funny story: Ashley ordered "vegetable soup" at a local restaurant and it was beef stew. The other soup on the menu was "meat soup", which meant it had no vegetables. Overall, we are being fed very well.
Outdoor Pursuits: As you can see from the picture, our town is surrounded by large hills and valleys. We have taken a few hiking trips up some of them, with the largest being around 900 feet elevation gain. The base altitude at my house is 5,044 feet (close to Denver altitude), and the thin air really affected me running/hiking the first few days. We seem to be getting more accustomed to it each day. Most of the landscape is barren (no trees), but we did find a small forest behind a neighboring range and all of the trees were pine with short, tight (close together) needles.
Language: This has been the hardest thing for me so far. Mongolian is a very complex language and has multiple sounds unlike anything in English. I am feeling good about reading cyrillic, but long words are still tough to sound out. Now that I can read the word, I have to look it up in a dictionary to see what it means. Fortunately, there are some very similar sounding words to English (pizza, engineer), but most are not (supposedly there are 12 words for dung, depending upon the animal, though I have not been able to verify that yet). Each days pushes our knowledge of the language and it is amazing how far we have already come in 1 week (we can exchange pleasantries and identify common items/food).
Well, I need to head home for buuz (traditional Mongolian steamed dumpling), so enjoy the pictures below.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

In Mongolia and Training

We arrived on July 5th and have been in language, culture, and sector (job) training everyday. It has been very busy, but very cool. We are still trying to adjust to the jetlag and diet changes. Just wanted to say a quick hello. I'll spend more time posting pictures this weekend (there is a line waiting for this computer). Take care, Justin and Ashley