Sunday, September 25, 2011

Heading Into Autumn

First of all, I would like to apologize for the excessive tardiness of this post. When Ashley returned, we weren't even sure if this blog was necessary, but we have decided to keep it going, and keep it more current. Sorry for the delay.

On this Saturday evening we are resting together in Lancaster County. We’ve spent the past three weeks together again, spending time with families at home and on vacation in our favorite places (mountains and the beach). We recognize that we’ve taken an extended hiatus from blogging. This is partly due to travel, but mostly due to the transient nature of our life during these moments. Our job searching and considerations for homes new to us is still very broad and, while bearing no fruit, is calling us to go forward with patience. In the meantime, we still have friends and family to see. These joys help during the times of frustration.

Ashley and Bear made the flight from Mongolia to Pittsburgh, via Osaka and San Francisco, without delay or undue difficulty. Upon arrival, both were thankful to reunite with Justin and warm, comfortable beds. In the last weeks in Ulaanbaatar, Ashley had ample time to meet with friends and savor those times. For her last culinary experience a Mongolian friend taught her how to access the nuts/seeds of a pinecone. These pinecones are collected from Mongolian forests, boiled, dried, and readily available on the streets of the city for a healthy, albeit time-consuming, snack.

From Justin’s perspective, the return of Ashley (and Bear) was very exciting. I was like a kid on Christmas Eve the day before they returned. I couldn’t sleep….I got to the airport early and was incredibly happy to see them. The transition to being a whole family again has been fairly smooth. We have had many private, deep discussions trying to gain perspective about our situations and trying to figure out where to go on from here. In my opinion, we are in a very good place (marriage-wise). With regards to living situations, we are essentially nomads between our parents’ homes. They have been very gracious with us. As Ashley mentioned above, the job hunt has not been productive. However, I’ve been very picky about where I send my resume (job and location). I’ve had a few interviews, but no job offers. Nowadays, people apply to jobs online, with no human interaction. Unfortunately, applicants aren’t contacted or updated unless they are selected for an interview or follow-up. So, for most of the jobs that I’ve applied for, I have not had any responses. This is particularly frustrating because I’ve only applied for jobs for which I am qualified for (perhaps even over-qualified in a few instances). Ashley is very open to living almost anywhere in the US (except the south), so she is letting me take the lead. There are an abundance of PT jobs across the country, so we aren’t worried about her finding something. If I continue to be unsuccessful, then she will take the lead and I will just try to find something close to industrial engineering/business analysis in whatever area she is able to find a job. Searching for a job is almost a full-time job…..

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The End is Coming

Justin writing on Ashley's behalf:

After completing her trip to Khovd and participating in another physical therapy training clinic for a neighboring hospital, Ashley has decided to return to America. This was not an easy decision, but after extensive conversations between us, she decided it was the best thing to do. Needless to say, I fully support her decision. The hardest part will be the logistics and paperwork associated with leaving the apartment in Mongolia, going to UB for 10 days (to be explained later), then actually traveling to America. In related news, Ashley has decided to bring Bear back to the US with her. Bear has all of her shots/vaccinations/etc, but needs to be in UB 10 days prior to departure and have paperwork completed by the veterinarian and submitted to the airline. Since Bear has all of the requisite shots, she will not be quarantined upon arrival here. It is great news that she is bringing Bear back, but that also makes the logistics much more difficult because she has to account for a dog and a large crate. Peace Corps pays for Ashley's plane ticket, but we have to pay for Bear to ride in the cargo-hold of the plane (~$200). Anyways, next week Ashley will leave our town and move to UB to begin the paperwork. She will be in UB for approximately 10-12 days, then fly back. Right now, the tentative arrival date is August 20th - 22nd (flights TBD). She will either fly back to Pittsburgh or Philadelphia, to be determined also.

Therefore, she wants me to let everyone know that all packages, mail, etc should be held and not sent. It would not arrive before she leaves Mongolia. If you recently sent something, please let us know and we will make arrangements at the post office to get it or have it picked up for us.

Justin's update:
I just took a 2 week trip to Chicago, Nashville, and Knoxville. I went to Chicago with my mom to see Shannon and we visited the aquarium, planetarium, and other sites around Shannon's apartment. Unfortunately, the weather was brutally hot, but we had a nice time. Then, I drove to TN and mom took the bus back to OH. I stopped in Nashville for a day to see Dale, which was fun. We ate hot chicken at Bolton's and went to the State Flea Market. Then, I went to Knoxville and spent a week with Mike and his family. He took me to all of the cool sights/places in the area. The highlight was driving the "Tail of the Dragon" twice, then going tubing down the Y out of Townsend. It was a fantastic time. I tried to eat all of the culinary treats from each town, which including Chicago pizza (Gino's East), Nashville sweet tea and hot chicken (Boltons), Knoxville soul food (Chandlers) and bbq (pork butt), and Cincinnati skyline chili. It was all very good.
On a more serious note, I've earnestly started looking for a job. I've applied to a few positions, had 1 interview, but have had no offers. It is very frustrating. I have not found many jobs in the Pgh region that are of particular interest to me, so I am extending my search, primarily NE towards NY and Vermont, NH, etc. I don't know if I will have any more luck up there, but maybe. When Ashley returns, we will have to figure out where we want to live and what our future plans are.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Naadam 2011

- Wrestling Match in the stadium. The winner does the eagle dance, described in the blog below.

- The wrestling action

- Archery competition

- Horse-racing

- Group of morin-khuur performers, for the opening ceremonies

What a variety of experiences I had during Mongolia’s summer holiday. Locals dressed up in colorful summer deels or dresses. Meanwhile, cars boasted the Mongolian flag and I was reminded of Easter and Memorial Day at the same time. I enjoyed a traditional concert featuring varied instruments, dances and singing, with throat singing as well. The costumes were quite resplendent in color and variety. This year I had a chance to watch all sporting events: horse racing, wrestling and archery. After each wrestler wins his match he rhythmically saunters to the circular stand holding the 9 helmets of the Kings. He goes around the helmets in the clockwise direction, waving his arms as an eagle does in flight.

I watched the events with Mongolian friends and coworkers, Korean volunteers and an American photojournalist traveling around the country. Another fellow PCV was stranded in my town for 6 days, as the buses that travel to the countryside towns are stopped for over a week during the festivities. The government and most organizations closed for an entire week, mine included.

I was pleased to see trash containers amid the carnival-type set up surrounding the outdoor stadium for the event. They had typical games, food vendors, and screens for special photographs set up. The stadium seating is exceptionally hard to access, 3 feet from the ground within the stadium and no steps to ascend by. The covered seats are divided into 3 sections by metal bars welded from the top to bottom of the seating area. Thus, you must crawl under, over or through to access middle seats or pass by any section. The external access requires entrance into the grandstand area, 2 flights of steps and crossing of a short plank. In America we value convenience, while in Mongolia convenience is harded to come by in so many ways. Yet, life goes on and people celebrate nonetheless.

Since Naadam we are resuming a more normal summer schedule. By summer schedule, I mean a relaxed schedule. In Mongolia people take all of their rest days at one time, usually in the summer. The concept of spreading out time off throughout the year is not considered. Thus, people are gone for a month or more at a time, depending on years worked. Despite this, a coworker and I have put in 4 consecutive days of cooperative work on a project proposal. This diligent preparation, though it only started 6 days ago, is an improvement. We wrapped up the project in time for today’s deadline. I will enjoy getting away from a desk job and back into clinical work in America. At times the current situation is difficult and Justin and I miss each other very much. The diversions of the past weeks have definitely helped me during this difficult time. I’m finding that joy and difficulty can pass together, neither must be tempered by the other, though both are acutely present.

- Written by Ashley (posted by Justin)

Justin's Update:

I have been hanging out in Pittsburgh and Ohio for the past few weeks, trying to spend time with friends and figure out the next steps in my life. I've applied for a few positions and grad school and waiting to hear a response, if any. Right now, I'm visiting my sister in Chicago with my mom. I'm planning to visit friends in TN the next few days, then back to Ohio.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Trip to Khovd

-camels with funny faces

-our driver, the SUV and our tent with crystal

I arrived back at site yesterday. Bear got along well with her dog-sitters, but she was also very glad to see me. The town seems even more green then when I left and I always enjoy the new flowers that peak up unexpectedly. Here’s a bit about my trip.

We spent three days traveling to Khovd and drove about 30 hours during this time. We covered at least 1500 kilometers, mainly over dirt or dust roads. We had a diligent, well-prepared driver from World Vision and the

training coordinator with us. We traveled in a Ford Everest SUV. Considering the long road trip, we had the best possible arrangement. We stayed in a hotel the first night and camped on the steppe the second night. Our driver provided a nice 4 person tent that kept us dry during the light rain that evening. We got used to no bathrooms, outhouses, etc. Crystal provided a bag to encourage collection of our trash as we camped. Our driver almost left the bag sitting on the pristine steppe, but with our insistence, it went with us to Khovd for disposal. We stopped at food gers and ate with families along the way, usually one hot meal a day. The towns in the countryside are limited, with

gers scattered sparsely in between. I saw more camels then ever before in Gobi-Altai. We had two flat tires on the way to Khovd, but the driver said they were, “No problem,” and his quick tire changes confirmed this.

The training schedule changed from day 1, as it was scheduled to start at 9, but the coordinator instructed us to meet her there at 9 for set-up. She explained that participants would not come until 10. Thus, we assisted in enabling disregard for schedules in this country. (There were not participants at 9). Tea break scheduled at 11:00 arrived at 10:00 and the call for lunch at 1:00 came at 12:30. No need to worry about having enough presentation material, as the 6 pm end time got moved to 3:30, then 4 with our input. I need this reminder to not worry, as things that are planned for always change, so no need to fret prematurely. The best prepartation is an open mind and flexibility. That said, the participants, both parents and doctors were active and open with discussion and questions. I appreciated the parents’ honesty in sharing their frustrations, fears and challenges caring for their children with disabilities. The difficulties are immense for all families, but the options for these parents are so few. The information is so limited as well. I find their determination gives me great hope and we discussed options for

increased communication with teachers, school directors and social workers to work toward inclusion for their children in schools. Most of these children have no option but staying at home without education or opportunity to build social skills.

One family we visited lives in one small room of a building because they sold their ger to pay for treatment for their son. Their situation is improving, as is their son. His motor development appears nearly normal. His mother, who was at home, has finished college and will be the kindergarten teacher for the rehabilitation center that will open next month. Her son will be with her at this center. His father is also now employed.

Moments of brevity included stopping to talk with a passing driver and noting the large sheep riding in the back seat. We asked for the man with the camel at the river crossing. Apparently you can pay 10,000 togrogs and the camel will guide the car, finding the shallowest places. Unfortunately, the man with the camel was not there that day. A man got in the car to guide us across. At times it seems the vehicle was floating, not driving, but we made it.

The return to primarily Mongolian food required GI transitions, as expected. Visiting families always includes the prompting to “eat, eat” and “drink, drink.” You must actively be doing one or the other, preferably both, at all times. But, one cannot complain about kindness and hospitality. What a great gift to be welcomed openly into the lives and modest homes of these people. Life is difficult, but there is always time to sit with friends and strangers.

-a landscape view with the Khovd mountains

-the Gandan monastery in Khovd at sunset

Friday, June 24, 2011

Road Trip Coming Up

Justin with 2 fellow business PCVs in UB on the night before he left.

Ashley with the Ondorkhaan girls in UB.

I’m writing in the midst of a heavy and windy storm that has been here all night. Bear had enough of being inside and is somewhere in the midst of it. Heavy rain is fun to see and hear, as it comes so infrequently. I skipped puddles the entire way to the morning workout. Four of us showed up in the midst of the storm. That said, average attendance has increased from 3 to 35 over the past 4 months. I enjoy seeing people around town that I recognize from the morning sessions and I’m learning new names as well.

I walked home from work on Monday to find my neighbors slaughtering a sheep in the hallway. I
imagine they chose the cooler environment over the heat outside. I’m less shocked by this by now and I’m thankful that it is a relatively clean process.

On Saturday I will leave for a road trip to western Mongolia. I’m excited for the opportunity to travel and participate in a seminar there. I’ll provide an update upon my return in early July. I’m sure there will be some interesting stories to relate.

Justin has been spending most of his time in Pittsburgh with friends. He will be heading East shortly to do some more visiting with family and friends. Thanks for all of the support during our continued transitions.

May we all welcome summer wholeheartedly!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Big Changes

As we mark our one year anniversary in Mongolia, we have some changes to share with you. Many will remember that two months ago Justin discussed his potential work options for the upcoming year. In his last blog, Justin shared some of the physical symptoms that have been very wearing over the past months. Due to these symptoms and recommendations from a doctor in UB, Justin has terminated his position with Peace Corps and returned to America on June 1, 2011. This process has been longer for us then we have indicated within the blog and other communications. Together, we decided that I would stay in Mongolia for the foreseeable future. We both see potential collaborations within Mongolia’s initial embrace of physical therapy as a treatment option for elderly and pediatric clients. In many ways it has taken the past year of being present to bring about these opportunities. I was hesitant to leave at the cusp of these projects. Secondly, as this was a difficult time for both of us, Justin can leave more easily knowing that his departure did not impact my work here. We will continue to give thanks for the advances in technology that allow for frequent audio and visual communication at affordable prices! We understand that many of you may have questions or comments about our decisions and we encourage open communication about this. We feel we can live separately because our marriage is very strong and we freely communicate with one another. We understand that this decision may have lead you to other conclusions, but wish to clear the matter up.

As many of you re-unite with Justin in the next months, I am resuming my life/work schedule in Ondorkhaan after frequent trips to UB last month. My focus will be preparation of training material for an upcoming seminar regarding children with disabilities, their families and their physicians. As everything thus far in Mongolia, this will be an interesting venture from start until finish. Also, I hope that this opportunity in a western province will invigorate my collaboration at home in Khentii. In the meantime this is a beautiful and definitively warm time to be in Mongolia. The expanses of land and sky are breathtaking and the herds of animals graced by the baby goats, calves, foals and lamb are a vibrant sign of life. I use this energy and optimism daily and hope each of you can find that joy as well.

As I take the realm of this blog, may you have patience with this new voice and may you freely share your own thoughts, observations and experiences.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Brought to You by the Letter F

Festivities: This past week was one of our sitemate's birthdays. So, we had a birthday/Cinco De Mayo party. It was Mexican themed with regards to food/drinks. Tequila and cheese were purchased in UB, we made tortillas and chips and salsa. Someone from the embassy provided garbanzo beans, so Ashley and I made homemade hummus (not Mexican), but it was tasty. Anyways, we invited the other PCVs and some friends from the community over to our apartment. We had 4 nationalities represented (America, Mongolian, Korean, German) and conversation was often in 3 languages (English, Mongolian, Korean). Overall, it was a fun evening and everyone had a nice time. Many people tried new foods/drinks and we all ate well.

Fashion: This is an interesting topic in Mongolia and worthy of a lengthy summary. Most of the rural herders wear deels (traditional mongolian clothes), with big leather boots and large, brimmed hats. Many UB residents and business professionals wear suits, or business casual clothing. The intriguing fashions come when these two styles converge, or when other styles are incorporated. High heels (on leather boots) are a fashion and health requirement. (Ashley was warned that cold heels lead to frozen ovaries). It is common to see men in dress shirts and workout pants (windbreakers). However, overall, there is the sense that you can't be too dressed up. For example, we went to go pick-up garbage behind the apartment with some neighbors/coworkers and many of the people showed up in suits (or female equivalent). The men painting the curbs last week had on nice jackets and pants, though they were covered in white paint. The cleaning ladies at the schools often wear heels to work. The use of accessories and make-up is also required. There is a word here called "goe" (rhymes with boy). It can be used as a noun, adjective, or verb. It is similar to bling, though less metallic (more plastic) and equally as shiny. Women get "goed" up for almost anything, including aerobics. There is a woman that wears pearls and make-up with her track suit to the gym each morning to workout. Another interesting conversation was had regarding the British royal wedding. Typical comments were that they were disappointed with the gown and jewelry because there was not enough "goe". The women that we talked to expressed expectations for more bling (jewelry/colors/etc).

"Fat": Recently, a few of the Americans have been asked by their friends/coworkers if they are pregnant or just fat. Speaking about being fat is a common discussion topic. It is not rude here for people to inquire about your weight or to tell you that you are "fat".

Futility: Recently, there have been 2 occupations in our town that have drawn my attention. The first is the street cleaning crew. There is a large group (maybe 20-30 people) that clean the streets each day. However, you have to keep in mind that there are only 3 paved roads and we live in a VERY dusty area, with high winds. Also, the members use hand-brooms to sweep the street, which requires excessive bending. Unfortunately, as soon as they finish a street, they have to start over again due to the dust and wind. Secondly, I was informed that there are 18 people that work at the local airport. Interestingly, the airport is closed for commercial traffic (domestic and international flights don't land here), so only emergency or private planes would land. Since this is a poor area and there are no large businesses (or mines), we have no private air traffic to our aimag. We live probably 2 miles from the "airport" (which is a dirt runway) and I have never seen or heard a plane in the past 9 months. As a matter of fact, both the prime minister and president of Mongolia drove to our town on recent visits from UB.

Health Update: The past 2 weeks I have been ill with persistent headaches, intermittent nausea, fatigue, joint pain, and lethargy. I am going to UB for blood tests and consultations with the PC medical office on Monday.

Interesting Notes:
- Bear caught a bird (it was low flying and Bear was right behind it until the end). Another dog carried it away. We were disappointed with her success.
- We had an english-speaking visitor for 24 hours. A tourist from Belgium (Elisa) was on her way through and needed assistance, so we helped her on her way.
- A restaurant can now make pizza in our town. It required pre-ordering 2 hours ahead and we went with our aerobics coach and foreign visitor. The pizza was good, but a little heavy on the meat products. Next time, we will request no meat. Also, the conversation was interesting because our coach speaks no english and the visitor speaks no mongolian, so we were translators.
- Ashley received two last minute requests from Mongolian friends in college to write their final papers for English literature classes. Ashley declined to write them, but offered to edit when they had produced a draft.
- A co-worker/neighbor went to Cambodia and came back with a lot of jewelry for sale. Ashley bought a nice silver ring. The funny part is that this "collection" traveled to multiple workplaces and people stopped working for many hours to try things on. This type of "sale" happens fairly frequently, such as this week, one of Ashley's co-workers opened an Esprit "shop" in the health department for 2 days. It seems as though many people are involved with different types of sales, either cosmetics (Oriflame), supplements (Herbalife), or clothing/fashion. Her co-workers joked that the stores come to them, so there is no need to go shopping.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Spring is Sorta' Here + Hard Choices

1) This is a group picture from a hill in Terelj. I am not in the photo because I was the photographer.

2) I am in this photo (bottom right).

It appeared as though Spring had officially arrived, then somewhat retreated. 2 weekends ago, I went with the World Vision staff to Terelj National Forest for a retreat weekend. The focus was spiritual development and relaxation. We left Friday and returned on Sunday. We stayed in a hotel that was surrounded by tourist gers. On the way through the park, I noticed small green “pools” on the sides of a few hills. After we arrived, I walked over to one and discovered that it was an artificial turf green for 2 local golf courses, the only 2 in Mongolia. The courses were short (par 3’s were ~100 yards), but they were courses. Unfortunately, it was too early in the season and they were closed. The park is beautiful and we took a short hike up a nearby hill. The park is full of mountains and a winding river, which is surrounded by trees. It is a popular destination, which is reflected in the number of tourist camps (gers, cabins, hotels) along the road. Funny Story: To enter the park costs $.30 for Mongolians and $3 for foreigners (gadaa hoon). I was in a van with 10 World Vision employees and I pulled out my $3 (which is a lot here), but the driver argued on my behalf and I only had to pay $.30! It was nice to spend quality time with my co-workers. Unfortunately, logistics were a challenge and a 4 hour trip turned in 12 hours...including a 3 hour wait at a gas station in the middle of the countryside waiting for a bus to van to pick us up (it never showed and we got into a different car).

Weather: A few weeks ago, the weather took a turn for summer. It was in the 50s/60s during the day and 30s at night. Then, last week, it dipped down again and we had a freak snowstorm on Friday. We received about 2 inches of snow and a lot of rain, but north of UB, a foot of snow fell in a few hours. The rain/snow was nice, but it turned our usually dusty town into a literal mud-pit. The lack of sidewalks and grass meant walking through mud wherever we had to go. Most of the mud has dried up, but there are still a few pools lying around.

Exercise: We are still going to the gym very early 5 days per week (5:30am for Justin, 6am for Ashley). The group of participants has increased to about 25 people, though many are part of a volleyball league that must play around 7am. The coach makes us keep a daily log of exercise, heartrate, food, sleep, and anything else important. It is good motivation to eat well, because it will be included in the log (the log is in Mongolian). I'm still doing 3 classes per week of taekwondo and we are doing 2 aerobics classes per week. Essentially, we work out everyday except Sunday, which is a much-needed break. Yesterday, due to a reschedule, I had morning workout, then back to back taekwondo and aerobics last night, with another morning workout today. Needless to say, I am exhausted and my legs ache.

Bear: She is doing well and we seem to be in a good pattern. She leaves with me at 5:30am and meanders around the school/gym/yard until we return, then she eats breakfast and promptly goes back outside. Then, she stays outside (usually rolling with other dogs) until Ashley leaves for work at 8:40. I put Bear on her leash and we accompany Ashley for most of the walk. We go back home and I put Bear inside the kitchen from ~9:15-12:30 (lunch break). She goes back outside until ~2pm when I go back to work. She stays inside until ~5pm when one of us return home. Then, she stays out until ~8pm, then comes inside and we play for a bit before we all go to bed at 9pm. On a good note, we were informed that there will be no "dog kill" campaigns this year in Ondorkhaan. So, we feel more comfortable with letting Bear roam free outside. She spends most of her time playing with the junk dogs or chewing bones while laying on dirt piles beside the apartment. She has the best of both lives (freedom of stray, food/shelter of pet). Unfortunately, on Sunday, one of our neighbors (while he was very drunk) informed us that his children (teenagers) are afraid to play outside because of Bear. Let me give you some background into the dog situation and attitudes. Bear is about 25 lbs and fairly small (especially compared to most dogs here). However, she likes people and doesn't run away when someone gets close. In fact, she often walks up to people to smell/lick/whatever. Sometimes she barks at people, but she is very non-threatening. On many occasions, I have seen grown men/women freak out at Bear (yelling, screaming, hiding behind things/people, throwing objects, etc), especially when we walk her out of the apartment or when she walks back to the door by herself. The reactions are so extreme that they are hard to comprehend. Some people won't even come into our apartment if Bear is in there, even if she is uninterested or in the other room. Ashley and I are starting a public campaign to educate kids (primarily) on how to interact/behave with pet dogs (not guard dogs or strays). In the meantime, we are not letting Bear play "free" outside during prime kid-playing times. She will either be chained to a tree behind the apartment or inside during those hours (6-8pm).

Hard Choices: This is a very difficult topic for me to discuss, but I want to be open to all of the readers about our experiences. Unfortunately, this has come front and center to our lives here. To be honest, I'm having a very frustrating work experience. My original NGO officially shut down a few weeks ago and the staff has scattered (1 went to WV, but is pursuing other opportunities). The people at WV are great, but it is a very bad fit for a Peace Corps volunteer. What I mean is that WV is very structured and driven to deliver projects/outcomes that are specified by the central office, using predetermined methodologies. The purpose of a PCV is to build capacity, assist on projects, teach co-workers, etc. The WV model does not have a place for me to fit in, particularly capacity building or project assistance. Essentially, I have very little work (basically none). The little work that I do have requires translation assistance from WV staff, who are already over-committed. WV needs someone to take a project, on their own, from start to finish using the prescribed methods. I can't do that because of my limited language skills...and most importantly, that doesn't build capacity or teach my co-workers new skills. Since they are down a few staff, the interactions between myself and others is very limited (they are often traveling or in seminars). Unfortunately, the lack of work/training has made me (and Peace Corps) very frustrated. I've talked to the PC program managers and essentially, there are 4 options:
1) continue to work at WV, hope for things to get better
2) become an English teacher in our town
3) move to UB and work at an economic ngo (Ashley TBD)
4) leave the Peace Corps (Ashley TBD)

The lack of other options in our community leaves me in quite a predicament. Also, Ashley is working well at her site, so I don't want to disrupt that. Ashley and I need to discuss these options and figure out what makes the most sense for us. If I move to UB, she would stay here, which would be very difficult. Also, if I leave the PC, she may or may not leave. However, since I missed all grad school deadlines for Fall 2011, I have no definitive options for when I return. This is weighing very heavily on me and Ashley. We will talk to others over the next few weeks and hopefully have a decision in June.

Enjoy Spring!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Vacation and Re-Integration

Picture 1: An example of the produce in a Barcelona market.
Picture 2: Ashley and I standing on Las Ramblas.

We are back to Mongolia after a wonderful European vacation. We went to Spain, Portugal, and Morocco on a cruise with our families. The cruise left from Barcelona, went to Casablanca, Agadir, Las Palmas, Funchal, Malaga, and back to Barcelona. We also had a day of rest in Barcelona on either side of the trip. The vacation was much appreciated for multiple reasons, the first of which was seeing our families (siblings included). Next, the warmer climate and exotic food much desired. My favorite destination was Funchal (Madeira) because of the amazing topography of the land, and lushness of the flora in the area. Overall, Funchal is just a beautiful city. One of the things that amazed me was the old districts in the cities. Most of the cities had an area that dated back hundreds (or thousands) of years. These areas were usually full of cafes, narrow cobble-stone streets, and the iconic plants or laundry hanging from balconies. It was great to wander these old streets and see where they took us. It is interesting to compare of the old cities in Europe with our location in Mongolia. Many of the Mongolian “towns” that we have visited are hundreds or thousands of years old too, but the nomadic lifestyle and lack of permanent structures (until the 20th century) has not left the same old districts to wander through. Prior to our trip, we traveled to UB (Ulaanbaatar) for a day of preparation and spending time with friends. Our flight from UB to Moscow was 90 minutes late and we missed the connection to Barcelona, so Aeroflot rerouted us through Paris, then to Barcelona. It was a nice trip, except that our luggage arrived a day late. The next morning, our families arrived and we spent the day seeing the city. Barcelona is very beautiful, particularly the Las Ramblas area, which is a wide pedestrian thorough-fare flanked by shops, restaurants, and hotels. It is a very touristy area, but still fun to visit. We introduced our families to tapas, which had mixed reviews. Our return trip featured a 24 hour layover in the Moscow Airport, terminal D. With only 1 flight to UB each day and no Russian visa, we were stuck in the airport for an entire day. Overall, it wasn’t that bad, but not an enjoyable day. There are no couches or long benches in the airport, only individual seats separated by metal armrests, so we had to contort ourselves into a sleeping position. The food was INCREDIBLY expensive ($10 for a small sandwich, $3 for a very small bottle of water) and there are no drinking fountains. The saving grace was free WIFI and the use of a friends’ computer. Her computer (an Apple) stopped working in Mongolia, but there is no Apple repair store in Mongolia, so I took it with us to Barcelona for repair. It was fixed in Barcelona, so we had a computer to use in the airport. Needless to say, I watched MANY episodes of Colbert Report and the Daily Show.

Transitioning back to Mongolia was not too difficult. We arrived in UB at 7am and nothing opens until 8:30am (including coffee shops), so we sat on the front steps of our favorite breakfast spot until it opened. Then, we dragged our luggage to a guest house and passed out for a long nap. We had spent the previous night on a red-eye flight from Moscow to UB and the previous night to that in the Moscow airport. We needed to sleep. The rest of the day was spent running errands around town and meeting friends. It was very enjoyable. The bus ride home was uneventful, but we returned to apartment problems. While we were gone, a few PCVs lived in our apartment due to the conveniences of water and good windows (sunlight). There was also an English competition, so the countryside PCV teachers crashed at our place for a few nights. It was no problem for us. Unfortunately, the apartment decided to “act up” while we were away. As I had mentioned before, we had a leaky main water valve. About 3 days after we left, the valve burst. The kitchen was flooded, but it was graciously cleaned by a fellow PCV and a Mongolian neighbor. The water company was called and they attempted to fix it. Rather than put a new valve on, they wrapped the entire section of pipe (including the broken valve) with rubber and taped/tied it tightly. This stopped the leaking. However, 3 other leaks sprung-up in the bathroom (water heater joint, toilet, bathtub drain). The water pressure was causing these places in the bathroom to leak. The water company solution was to leave the water running in the sink (all the time, full on). Well, this “solution” lasted until we got home. Upon inspecting the situation and finding the solution unacceptable, the water company was called out the next day and a new valve was purchased for them to install. It was installed and the water is working properly with no leaks. Also, one of the electrical outlets “blew” while we were gone, the main door handle came loose, and the ceiling in the bedroom is becoming dis-attached. The landlady has been called and we have received some of the necessary items, but are still waiting for others.

The week we came back was PC site-visit week. The country director, regional manager, and translator visited each of us at home and tried to meet with our co-workers/boss. My work visit was unsuccessful (World Vision meeting came up). The site-visits are nice and allow for candid conversation about what is going well and what isn’t. Work has been up and down for me. I was informed last week that World Vision has a policy that prohibits non-employees (volunteers) from participating in certain meetings, functions, trainings, etc. I am trying to determine how I can help and be part of the team when I am limited in my abilities. Right now, I am working on advanced trainings regarding smoking and alcohol. The trainings are for health professionals (countryside doctors) and explains the biological mechanisms that occur. Ashley was asked to provide advanced trainings for a new gerentological division (old people) of the ministry of health in UB. Specifically, she was asked to create training regarding osteo-arthritis exercises and targets for older populations. She may go to UB next week to present the material. This weekend I am going to a national forest with members of the WV team for a devotional retreat. The speaker is Mongolian and I’m not sure if any of it will be translated, but I am going for the relationship building aspect and because I will be able to spend some quality time outdoors. I am hoping to go hiking during our free-time.

We are back into the exercise regimen of early March, but with some minor modifications. I met with my taekwondo coach and now he wants to meet with me everyday. My biggest issue is flexibility. I stretch every morning and evening, but it’s still not enough. So, I have started meeting him at 5:30am during the week to stretch and practice taekwondo, then I join the group exercises at 6am (which includes Ashley). The 6am sessions have become popular and there are now about 8 people that participate, including one of my co-workers and one of Ashley’s. It is nice to see community people taking action to improve their health. We have started discussing potential community projects with our coach regarding health in the community. More to follow on this later. Also, my coach is leading a training series and taekwondo competition in a nearby town in June. Coaches from Korea and Russia will attend and he asked me to accompany him. I am planning to go (dates TBD).

The weather has been really nice since we came back. The daytime highs are in the 40s and 50s, with nighttime lows in the teens (sometimes lower). I think the heat to our apartment has been turned off, but it is still very comfortable inside, especially with the south-facing windows. Ashley replanted our herbs/lettuce/spinach because much of it died over the winter. We also purchased a few colorful plants from a local vendor (no idea what they are).

Last night I did the voiceover for a Mongolian commercial. Our local aimag government branch put together a really nice 5 minute tourism video/commercial and they asked me to do the voiceover. Hopefully it will be posted online and I can share a link. Our M20 (previous class) of sitemates are getting ready for their close-of-service conference at the end of April. They will be leaving in June, which is only 6-8 weeks away. Prior to them leaving, the new class of M22 will arrive. We are planning to head to UB to greet them at the airport (similar to what the previous class did for us). It’s scary to think that we will be the “mature” and “knowledgeable” volunteers in this country. It’s almost been a year since we arrived already. Neither Ashley nor I applied to be summer trainers, so we will be staying in our city and working for the most part. We are planning a few outings, maybe a short hiking weekend in May to a neighboring mountain. I’m also planning a rafting weekend with some of the fellow PCVS. More to follow on that later too.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Purchasing Differences

Even the common practice of shopping is different in Mongolia. For one, this is an entirely cash based society. Most people have an ATM card, but that is only used to get cash from the bank. There are 2 ATMs for our bank (Khan Bank) in our town, but often one or both of the ATMs are not working or out of cash. Most stores, especially in the countryside, do not take credit cards. However, many of the local stores do give store credit. For example, if I need to purchase food but don’t have cash, the store owner will log the purchases in a notebook and I can pay for them later. I don’t know if there is any interest or what the repayment terms are. Often, the ATM gives out 20,000T bills (about $17). Many of the stores won’t accept 20,000 bills unless your purchases are large. So, it means that we have to “queue up” many small items so that we can break a 20,000T bill. For example, we may wait to buy eggs, milk, bread, peppers, onions, and hyam (sausage for Bear) at once so that we can use a 20,000T.

More interesting are the local purchasing habits. In America, we are used to bulk purchases, the 50 roll toilet paper pack from Costco or 5lbs of cheese from Walmart. Well, here, the exact opposite is done. People typically only buy what they need for that day and will stop by the store everyday. For example, people often buy individual cigarettes or individual feminine products (1 days’ worth). The buyer will tell the clerk what they want and the clerk will remove the number of desired items from open packages from behind the counter. The most extreme case of individual purchasing that I have witnessed is individual pieces of gum. I don't think there is anything that can't be broken down for purchase. Also, if a store or restaurant doesn't have exact change, they will supplement the difference with pieces of gum. It is not uncommon to get a few pieces of gum with your change at a restaurant.

Similarly, purchases are not planned ahead more than 1 day, so there are mad-rushes for items the day before a holiday or major event. For example, yesterday was Women's day and most stores were closed, so there was a rush on alcohol/vodka/cake/flowers the night before. I don't know the rationale for daily purchasing, but it would be an interesting topic for an anthropologist.

Hot Springs Trip

This a picture of the tops of the hot springs huts with the temple in the foreground. The mountains in the distance are in Siberia.

This is the entrance sign for the Khan Khentii Protected Area (similar to a national park).

I was excited to be invited along on a trip to Northern Khentii a few weeks ago. We left in utter darkness at 5:40 AM to drive along tire tracks for 5 hours to reach the soum/town of interest. We were greeted warmly at the soum hospital with soup, berries and vodka. The berries were frozen from the summer crop of wild mountain berries. There were three varieties, all of which I’ve never seen before. Thus, I could not provide their English names. After lunch the real adventure began, as we entered complete wilderness, the closest I’ve come to tundra, or maybe that’s what it was. We drive off road, over frozen streams, on steep grades and over bumpy grasslands for six hours. I was truly thankful for the Land Cruiser I was in. We had to disembark once when we slid off an icy overpass and later were briefly stranded on large chunks of ice and water in a stream.

Just before dusk we arrived at a small cabin on a ridge overlooking the flatlands we drove through. This was surrounded by the largest mountains I’ve seen thus far in Mongolia, and Russia, as we were just South of its border. As we arrived there were comments about the 6-7 vehicles already parked. Turns out you don’t make reservations where no cell phones work. It would be a cozy night. We arrived to offerings of milk tea and hard cookies and had a tour of the area. Walking down the ridge brought us to six small wooden huts that sat along the natural hot springs. Each hut had a ‘bathing’ pool to fit 2 people and there was a well to drink the water from. After returning to the cabin a large bottle of vodka emerged. I slipped away to the other side, as this was the fourth offering of the day. Instead I spoke a mix of English and Mongolian and shared dinner and card games with the members of the other room. They happened to be the family of a coworker that was vacationing there. I slept next to ‘Grandma’ that night, toasty warm in my PC issued sleeping bag on the wooden plinth.

The next morning some of the group went to bathe, but I deferred, as it was nude bathing. I did have my swimsuit (on the top of the Land Cruiser), but in a cabin of 25 and the brisk wilderness without an outhouse, I deferred changing. So, I wandered around, enjoyed my first time back in a true forest with tall pine trees and a thick blanket of snow beneath. We left early due to limited sleeping space, driving along the frozen river for the first few hours. We stopped for photos and to collect natural mineral water, formed between two layers of the river’s ice. At three o’clock we stopped at an eight by ten foot cabin set up for cooking along the drive. After a filling lunch of bread, meat, veggies and milk tea, they announced the nine of us were staying there through the night. There was time for another jaunt and there were no wolves to be seen, though my coworkers were sure I’d be eaten. Time for relaxing, singing and more vodka led to an early bedtime followed by a long, extra cozy and uncomfortable night.

The next day we made our way back to the soum, stayed a bit, and eventually drove back to Khentii. We drove in the dark again. This time, there was more indecision regarding which tire treads to follow. At one lonely ger our director departed for 45 minutes when asking for directions. There is the custom of staying for tea and often dinner. This is another opportunity to be present in the moment, not worried by frustrations or delays. Sometimes I think, “what will be, will be,” is an apt phrase for this culture, for better and for worse. We arrived home safe, sleepy and dirty. I look forward to more unexpected adventures.

-written by Ashley

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Just in case we aren't already strange enough....

Bear: So, since Bear is a female dog and we don't want puppies, we made the decision to have her spayed. There is a vet in our town, but she does not do anything for dogs, so Bear had to make the trip to UB. There is a very good vet in UB and it is very similar to vets in America, including the price and care. I explained to my co-workers why we were taking Bear to UB and the comments were strange to say the least. The most common response was along the lines of "she should be able to have puppies if she wants". I then asked questions regarding who would care for the puppies and what is their opinion of the over-abundance of puppies/dogs in the community already. (About 3 weeks ago, we took a walk down 1 alley and saw ~15 frozen puppies/dogs.) At this point, we agreed to disagree. We scheduled the appointment and had to address the challenge of traveling to UB with a dog. Dogs are not allowed on the main bus, so we had to charter a taxi. Taxi traveling is precarious on many levels, including un-reliable times, poor drivers, bad conditions, etc. We were fortunate enough to find a neighbor willing to take us, along with 2 other people. We had 3 people (including a very wide woman) and Bear in the backseat of a tiny Hyundai. It was a mildly uncomfortable ride. We put Bear's blanket on top of Ashley and I so that Bear would sit on our lap. When the woman first got in the car, we received many stares and comments. She was not happy to be sharing the back seat with a dog. However, Bear was amazing on the ride with no accidents and only 2 stops in ~5 hours. Towards the end of the ride, the woman told me that Bear was good and that her dog was bad. We received similar comments throughout the trip. The driver stopped at Narantuul (huge market) and would not drive into the city, so we had to walk with Bear and our bags to the vet, then the hostel. It is probably 3 miles each way, and is a pleasant walk except for the CRAZY traffic in UB. Pedestrians have no rights and drivers don't stop or yield, even if walkers have the green walk-symbol. Every intersection is a life-threatening experience and even scarier with a dog. (We made a leash for Bear out of rope and she walked very well on it.) The combination of 2 Americans carrying bags and walking a puppy on a rope leash across some of the busiest intersections in the country caused many drivers/people to stare or comment....
We dropped Bear off and picked her up 2 days later, only to backtrack the exact same path to Narantuul, then the taxi ride home. Once again, she was an angel in the car and slept most of the way. She has to stay inside for a few days with only supervised walks so that she doesn't rip open the stitches or get it infected by rolling in garbage or wrestling other dogs. Also, we met the American veterinarian and she gave us her private number so that if anything happens in the "countryside", we can call her and she can help us, which is a huge benefit.

UB: While in UB, we met with friends, shopped, ran errands, and Ashley visited her host family in Zuunmod from last summer. I stayed in UB and met with people at the PC office. It was a productive and fun trip. We stocked-up on food that can not be found in our town, including salsa, tortilla chips, cheddar cheese, lemon juice, cheap oatmeal, etc. It was nice to eat hamburgers and pizza, though very expensive. We also picked up a few Mongolian language books from the office and Ashley bought a Mongolian-English medical dictionary, which will be helpful for both of us.

Job Update: I am officially working at World Vision, which is cool. Unfortunately, all but 1 of the business/economics projects were cancelled, so I now have 5 health projects. The projects are primarily education/training such as personal hygiene, diarrhea prevention/care (I know a lot about that topic), etc. Actually, Ashley has some free-time, so I am collaborating with her on a few of the projects (ex. dental hygiene). Since the presentations will be in Mongolian, my objective is to gather the relevant data, create a presentation with materials/activities/etc, then help translate it. One of the World Vision staff members will actually present the data since my language skills are not that advanced. Most of the target audience are located in the outer villages, where health is a big priority. On a larger scale, I'm hoping to get a recycling project and water sanitation project planned, funded, and moving in the next few months. It is taking an incredible amount of time just for the assessment and planning stages, so I'm probably way over-ambitious with them.

Exercise: The winter really limits outside exercise other than brief walks between buildings. We were "walking" to episodes of Glee, but that gets very boring. I tried joining the local fitness center, but the random hours (sporadic) and cost made me decide to cancel my membership after 1 month. I had expressed an interest in learning martial arts since judo and taekwondo are popular here and our town supposedly had an academy that closed a few years ago. Well, our exercise fortune has changed! A few weeks ago I was invited to an aerobics class with World Vision employees (only women go). I went to the class and it was awesome. The teacher is great, the facility is adequate, and the price is reasonable. It was the hardest exercise that I had since arriving in June. The aerobics class meets twice a week. Well, I found out that the aerobics teacher is also a 5th degree blackbelt in taekwondo. I talked with him (more like stuttered incoherent sentences and a few words) and he agreed to teach me, privately. We negotiated a price (once again, very reasonable) and we meet 3 days per week for 1 hour. Well, it turns out that he also exercises every morning at the sports complex, so he invited me along to run/stretch/exercise at 6am for 6 days per week. So, I started taekwondo and morning workouts 3 weeks ago with him. I am NOT a morning person, so for me to get up at 5:45am and get to the gym is a miracle. Now, Ashley has started joining us for the 6am workouts and 4 other PCVs (including Ashley) are now part of the aerobics class. They are all a great workout and I am very glad to be part of it.

There are a few interesting aspects about learning taekwondo here:
1) My teacher is Mongolian, does not know any English, and taekwondo is a Korean sport. Therefore, I am learning the Korean and Mongolian commands for everything.
2) Since my Mongolian is elementary, he has to demonstrate almost everything. (He is INCREDIBLY patient and a great teacher.)
3) Mongolians are known for being on their own schedules. Meetings are scheduled for 1pm and people will start arriving ~1:45pm. This is part of the cultural and hard for Americans to become comfortable with. However, this does not apply to my teacher. The first 6am run, I walked into the gym at 6:01 and he pointed at his watch, shook his head, and had already begun. Since that day, I am always early.
4) Taekwondo places a very high importance to flexibility, and when I started, I was unable to touch my toes. I need to be able to do a split in ~6 weeks, so this is very difficult for me.
5) I wear the taekwondo uniform (white with v-neck) and no t-shirt underneath. Well, the top of my chest hair shows and I sweat a lot. The little kids who watch class are enthralled by my sweating (it just pours off of me) and my chest hair since most men here do not have body or facial hair. I think the kids watch just so that they see me sweat.
-Overall, I look forward to each class and I truly enjoy my teacher. I think this will be a very positive experience in Mongolia.

Hot Springs: Ashley will provide a summary in our next post.

Weather: Mother Nature teased us 2 weeks ago with warm weather (30F) and sunny skies. She can be cruel and has decided that winter is not over here yet. Today the high is 5F and the low -20F. It snowed about 1 inch yesterday, but there is a stiff wind, which negates the warmth of the sun. The forecast looks good starting Thursday, so hopefully it will turn soon.

Travel: Ashley and I are going to Spain in 2 weeks! Our families (parents and siblings) are coming over from America and we will spend about 2 weeks with them in that area. We are so excited to see them, but also to eat Spanish food, drink good wine, and visit a beach! Additionally, it will be my 30th birthday during the trip, so we will celebrate that. There are many things that I want from home (new shoes, jeans, etc), and my family is generous to be a pack mule for me. I plan on taking 1 suitcase and returning with 2.