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.