First Weekend with My Host Family

As my Mongolian language skills at this point amounted to saying hello, goodbye, thank you, and giving my name, the first weekend was pretty awkward. My host mom speaks a little bit of English, but she was gone all of Saturday and most of Sunday on a trip with her coworkers at her school. The daughters know a tiny bit of English, but not enough to communicate effectively. So pantomiming it is!

I really didn’t know what to do for those first few days, as our PST classes didn’t start until the following Monday, there is no internet access in our house*, and I can’t communicate well enough to ask what to do. So I mostly stayed in my room napping, studying Mongolian, or writing blog posts to actually post later when I could find an internet café or something. I would come out of my room every now and then to play with or watch the daughters play with the baby, which at least gave us something to share some laughs over.

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“I’m adorable, come play with me!”

They’ve been feeding me very well so far. As soon as we got to the house on Friday, my host mom served me some buuz (steamed meat dumplings, yummy!) and coffee. They continued to give me instant coffee about 3 more times throughout the day. One of the daughters brought me some little scone-like things later in the afternoon, and for dinner we had rice with mutton, potatoes, carrots, and onions. For breakfast the next morning they gave me bread with some kind of cream/cheese/something dairy-ish to spread on it, along with butter and sugar. For lunch we had more buuz. For dinner we had noodles with mutton, potatoes, carrots, onions, and bell peppers. Breakfast Sunday morning consisted of ul boov, a kind of traditional hard-as-rock pastry thing and bread with a fried egg on top. Lunch was noodle soup with—you guessed it!—mutton, potatoes, carrots, and onions. I’m sensing a pattern here…

The older daughter showed me how to cook using their stove, and I learned that all my food’s been cooked using cow dung as fuel! Yay! I got to watch my host dad and the older daughter milk their cows while the younger daughter and I played with the baby. Then on Sunday I helped the older daughter fetch water. The homes out here have no running water, so we have to fill giant jugs with water from a communal water house (which gets water brought in from a giant truck), then bring them back home to fill an even bigger barrel. All of the water they use for cooking, cleaning, washing, and doing laundry comes from that barrel. The drinking water does too, but they have electric kettles to boil the water first, so all the drinks are served very hot. The Peace Corps also provides all of us with a water filter so that we can drink colder water without dying. Several weeks into my stay, my host family also bought me my own electric kettle to keep in my room so that I can make coffee whenever I want it!

And it's pink!

And it’s pink!

They also gave me a stash of coffee, creamer, sugar, and a mug and spoon that are “only for me.” So now I have my own little coffee corner in my room, and an electric kettle, which will also come in handy at my permanent site!

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*About halfway through the summer my host family did get wifi, but I think it’s a hotspot on the sister’s laptop, so I can only use it when she’s also on her computer. But it’s still nice to get access every now and then (or else I would still be waiting to put up these blog posts).

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Off to Our Host Families!

One of these days, I will get caught up on my posts! I have over 10 new posts written, but my host family’s wifi isn’t on most of the time, so I can only put them up when I can catch it!

On Friday morning, June 6, we departed for our host communities for 11 weeks of Pre-Service Training (PST). We were split into groups of about 10 based on our sectors. Since there are only 10 Health Peace Corps Trainees (PCTs), we all got sent to the same host community: Dereven/Tosgon (the Peace Corps refers to it as Dereven, but that’s apparently the Russian name and many inhabitants don’t recognize it, instead calling it by its Mongolian name, Tosgon), which is a soum (small village) on the outskirts of Darkhan.* So we didn’t have very far to go from the hotel, but most of the other groups got sent to soums farther away or to Sukhbaatar City up near the Russian border.

Because we Health PCTs are so awesome, the mayor of Darkhan invited us to stop by his office on our way to our host community. So we got to meet a high-level official, drank tea served by his assistants, and had countless awkward pictures taken by his photographer. Fun times!

Then we were taken to the school in Dereven where we would be having all of our PST sessions to meet our host families, who would then take us back to their homes. We had received a piece of paper the day before giving us some general information about our host families, but it was very weird to actually get out of the vans and awkwardly face a bunch of Mongolians, not knowing who was who. A couple families were running late, so we continued to awkwardly stand there for 10 minutes until the Peace Corps staff member finally had each host family and their respective PCT come forward and meet each other. My host mom was the only one there, but she is apparently good friends with one of the other PCT’s host mom, so all four of us got into my host family’s car (with a ton of luggage) and drove off to our homes. We dropped off the other PCT, whose host family lives just a few houses down from mine, then went to our home.

My host family consists of my host dad, Chuka, who is a carpenter who works for a construction company; my host mom, Dawaa, who is an English teacher and can speak a fair amount of English; a 22-year-old host sister, Boloroo, who is a PE teacher and has a 13-month-old son, Ochralaa, who also lives with us; a 19-year-old host sister, Bakana, who is a college student but is home for the summer; and a 15-year-old host brother, Suuna, who was out in the countryside for the first half of the summer training for horse racing for Naadam.

The cutest member of our family

The cutest member of our family

The grandparents on the mom’s side also live in a different house in the same hashaa, as does one of the mom’s brothers. The hashaa is basically the entire fenced-in area or yard and often has multiple houses and/or gers. Our hashaa includes the 3 houses (my family’s, the grandparents’, and the uncle’s):

My host family's house

My host family’s house

a ger where my family cooks food during the summer to prevent the main house from getting too hot and where they do their laundry:

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my family’s outhouse and another one for the grandparents and uncle:

Just in case you weren't sure what an outhouse looks like

Just in case you weren’t sure what an outhouse looks like

a vegetable garden where they grow carrots, cabbage, and potatoes:

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gooseberry and sea-buckthorn bushes; a pen for their 10 cows and 4 calves:

Moooo

Moooo

and miscellaneous other smaller shacks for storage, etc. They also have 2 guard dogs and a cat.

Meow

Meow

My room in their house is almost a quarter of the entire building, the rest consisting of the kitchen, the living room (which also has a bed and functions as a bedroom at night), and one other bedroom. I’m kind of thinking I took over someone’s bedroom, because there are a lot of people sleeping on the floor, and I’m not one of them. They did eventually put another bed in the ger, so one or both of the parents usually sleep in there.

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My desk (the big blue thing is my water filter)

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My bed and dresser

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Little bookshelf where I keep my toiletries

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My wardrobe and mini clothesline (so my delicates don’t blow away in the wind on the line outside!)

The kitchen

The kitchen

More kitchen

More kitchen

The stove

The stove

The "sink," which, in places with no indoor plumbing, consists of a small funnel you put water into and push up on to have the water come out, a basin with a drain, and a bucket underneath for the dirty water that you have to empty every now and then

The “sink,” which, in places with no indoor plumbing, consists of a small funnel (the green thing) you put water into and push up on the skinny white part at the bottom to have the water come out, a basin with a drain, and a bucket underneath for the dirty water that you have to empty every now and then

The living room

The living room…

...which also functions as a bedroom

…which also functions as a bedroom

The other bedroom

The other bedroom

Well,now you finally know where I’ve been living for the past month and a half!

*Darkhan is a bit of a confusing city. There are two main sections of the city itself: New Darkhan, which is—you guessed it!—newer and “nicer” (this is where the Darkhan Hotel we stayed at is located) and Old Darkhan, which is older and doesn’t have as many nice fancy buildings. To get to our host site, Dereven, you have to go all the way past Old Darkhan and into the outskirts of the city itself, although Dereven is still considered part of Darkhan at the administrative level.

Orientation Continues in Darkhan

Note: More catching up with posts. But my host family just got a modem, so now I have wifi and will hopefully be able to get caught up the rest of the way!

After our few days at the ger camp, we got back on the buses for the 4-hour trip north from Ulaanbaatar to Darkhan, where we would finish our Orientation.

The aimags (provinces) and aimag centers of Mongolia (Darkhan is a city but also it's own aimag, Darkhan-Uul)

The aimags (provinces) and aimag centers of Mongolia (Darkhan is a city but also it’s own aimag, Darkhan-Uul)

During the bus ride, we saw lots of hills and livestock and not much else.

Hills

Hills

More hills

More hills

Cows

Cows

Horses

Horses

 

Guy riding a horse

Guy riding a horse

Sheep and goats

Sheep and goats

You get the idea...

You get the idea…

Finally we arrived in Darkhan…

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…where we were greeted by some of our trainers.

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We stayed at the Darkhan Hotel and had our orientation sessions at a school roughly a 15-minute walk away. Sessions introduced us to Peace Corps medical and safety information, sector (Health, TEFL, or Community & Youth Development) information, and language and cross-cultural classes. We got to see several cultural performances, and I took lots of photos and videos of them, but unfortunately I left the USB cable for my camera at home because I thought, Oh, I can just download images from my camera to my computer using the SD card slot on my laptop. Except the videos won’t transfer that way, so no videos for now! Maybe if I ever get the cable sent to me or get a new one or something I will upload them later. Anyway, there was Mongolian throat singing (khoomei) and playing the horse-head fiddle (morin khuur):

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Contortionists:

Yes, one of them was an adorable little girl

Yes, one of them was an adorable little girl

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Two dance routines (I got videos of them both but only one photo):

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And more singing:

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Sorry, I know still photos don’t really do much justice when it comes to music and dancing, but I promise I will upload the videos once I find a way to get them from my camera to my computer.

We also got to taste some actual Mongolian food, which was a first since the Darkhan Hotel was pretty much just feeding us their interpretation of American food. I didn’t take pictures, but thanks to Google Images I can show you what it was! We had some aaruul (pieces of dried curd):

Yum yum! Salty, curd-y goodness!

Yum yum! Salty, curd-y goodness!

Suutei tsai (milk tea):

Ah, suutei tsai, the Mongolian water

Ah, suutei tsai, the Mongolian water

Boov (deep-fried pastries):

Which is hard as a rock, so you usually have to dip it into something first (usually suttei tsai, because there's always suutei tsai)

Which is hard as a rock, so you usually have to dip it into something first (usually suutei tsai, because there’s always suutei tsai)

Some kind of cheese (byaslag), yogurt (tarag), and sea-buckthorn (chatsargan) juice:

OMG, a fruit native to Mongolia!

OMG, a fruit native to Mongolia!

And of course, sheep’s head, which I will spare you from looking at a picture. If you really want to see what it looks like, you can look it up on your own time, but just imagine a sheep head, shaved and boiled, and you get the picture.

The aaruul and suutei tsai were both extremely salty, the aaruul so much so that I literally could not finish my piece. The cheese was pretty tasteless (it was nothing like the cheese I’m used to). The yogurt was actually okay; mix some fruit, sugar, and/or honey in there, and it would make a decent breakfast. The boov was basically like extremely stale, dense bread, but it was definitely edible. The juice was amazing, and I was very surprised to learn that there’s actually some kind of fruit that grows in Mongolia. And how do you eat sheep’s head, you ask? Take a knife and just slice a sliver of the meat/fat right off the skull. Yum!

During one of our evenings in Darkhan, some of the current PCVs took us to the giant Buddha statue near our hotel.

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It was up on a hill and gave us a great view of the whole city.

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Then we walked back because we were getting eaten by mosquitoes.

UPDATE: So, I ended up just creating a YouTube channel to make it easier to add videos from now on. But you can check out the videos from my Mongolia orientation there.

The Mongolian Hills Have Eyes (Or, Our Brief Stay at a Ger Camp)

Note: Yet another catch-up post.

As I mentioned in my last post, we spent our first 2 days in Mongolia at a ger camp, which is a tourist camp made up of traditional Mongolian gers. We arrived late at night, so we couldn’t exactly see the scenery, but the next morning, we were greeted by a spectacular view.

Ooooo...!

Ooooo…!

Aaaaahhhh!

Aaaaahhhh!

Even though we were literally just a 15 minute drive from Ulaanbaatar (a ginormous* city by Mongolian standards), it felt like we were in the middle of nowhere (in a good way). There were 6 of us in each ger, and the gers themselves were really nice, even though the beds were hard as a rock (I’ve learned that all beds in Mongolia are hard as a rock) and our water heater wasn’t working so showers with anything other than ice cold water were out of the question. It’s amazing how quickly you’ll realize that showers and bathing in general are overrated when your options are a) possible frostbite and b) baby powder for your hair and baby wipes for your body.

Our first meal in Mongolia was your typical breakfast of hotdogs, eggs over easy, corn and pea medley, bread and butter, coffee, and juice boxes.

This is what Mongolians apparently think Americans eat for breakfast

Seriously

This is obviously not what Mongolians eat for breakfast, so I’m pretty sure the Peace Corps staff just told the workers in the ger camp restaurant to cook up something for 91 Americans. This is pretty much how most of our meals at the ger camp went: slowly easing us into what we would actually be eating for the rest of our time in Mongolia. We had some more meetings, got a couple more vaccinations (like rabies! Yay for rabid animals!), and went to the Immigration Office in Ulaanbaatar for immigration processing (which involves photos and fingerprinting).

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We also had a little bit of free time, so some of us went hiking up the beautiful hills surrounding the ger camp.

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I don’t exactly go hiking much, but I’m not out of shape either, so I’ll blame the fact that I was completely winded the entire time on the high altitude where we were. It was a lot of fun though, I got some great photos of the scenery, and we even found some bones! You read that right: we found 4 different bones scattered around the hillside, hence my oh so clever post title.

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We determined (or seriously hoped) that they were the bones of some livestock that had died/been killed elsewhere and wolves or rabid stray dogs feasted on their bodies and dispersed the bones throughout the area…**

The view was great though!

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*Spell check had nothing to say about my use of “ginormous” and even offered synonyms, so I’m left to believe that it’s an actual word.

**I’ve since learned that there’s just random bones everywhere here. Mongolians eat a lot of meat, and most of it is straight off the bone, so when they toss the bones the stray dogs just get to them and carry them all over the place.

The Long Trip to Mongolia

Note: This is another catch-up post from several weeks ago.

We left the hotel for the San Francisco airport at like 5:00am, even though our flight wasn’t until about 11:00am. Apparently trying to herd over 90 people through the airport takes some time. The first leg of our flight was from San Francisco to Seoul, South Korea. I wish I could say the 11-hour flight was bearable, but we were stuck on an old United Airlines plane that didn’t have those cool little personal screens in front of each person so that you can ease the boredom with tons of movies of your choosing. They did have 4 movies over the course of the flight on a few larger screens throughout the cabin, but of course 2 of them were movies that I had just watched on my flight from Atlanta to San Francisco. So instead I tried to sleep as much as possible (I always have trouble sleeping on planes), read a little, and did some word puzzles.

We finally arrived in Seoul for our 4-hour layover. I have to say that the Seoul-Incheon airport may be the nicest I’ve ever been to. They actually have free shower rooms where you can freshen up during your seemingly endless travels, so many of us took advantage of that since we knew showers (at least warm ones) were soon to be scarce in Mongolia.

The flight from Seoul to Ulaanbaatar (the capital of Mongolia) was the exact opposite of our previous flight. We flew Korean Air, and it was amazing! The plane looked brand new, it had the personal screens so I could watch a movie, and even though our flight was only about 3 hours, they served us a full meal, a snack, and freakin’ wine! Which left us all kinda wondering why we couldn’t have taken Korean Air on both flights (or at least the longer one).

We arrived in Mongolia at around 11pm on I don’t even remember what day they’ve all kind of run together. We are 12 hours ahead of the East Coast, and so we lost half a day in all our travels and are therefore seriously jet-lagged. We got onto buses that took us to a ger camp right outside of Ulaanbaatar where we stayed for the first 2 days in country.

Staging in San Francisco

Note: This is the first of my catch-up posts for the month that I haven’t been updating the blog with my experiences. I wrote most of these a while ago but am just now able to post them and the accompanying photos.

I headed off to San Francisco the day before Staging so that I could see some of the sites. A group of 4 of us early arrivals shared a hotel room at Hotel Bijou. We got some lunch near the hotel then walked over to the pier where the ferry would take us to Alcatraz. This sounded like a great idea at first, but I guess I never realized just how hilly San Francisco is! I don’t even know how the cars can get up some of those hills!

SF Hill

Anyway, the Alcatraz tour was a lot of fun and very interesting. We even ran into some other Peace Corps Trainees (PCTs) while waiting to get on the ferry. And although I didn’t have time to go to the Golden Gate Bridge, we were able to see it from the ferry.

Totally counts, right?

Totally counts, right?

And after Alcatraz, we went to Pier 39 to see the sea lions! Yay!

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And finally, we had dinner at Bubba Gump. Overall, a very nice day!

The next day was Staging. But first, a couple of us tried to navigate the public transportation system to get to a coffee shop that was highly recommended. We finally got on the correct MUNI train (which is different from a BART train as we found out) and got our yummy breakfast. Staging was at the swanky Parc 55 hotel, which is conveniently right across the street from Hotel Bijou, so we didn’t have to drag all of our luggage too far. Staging was basically a 5-hour orientation on general Peace Corps stuff. Nothing too exciting. And with 91 of us Mongolia PCTs, it was (and still is) impossible to learn everyone’s names.

I AM Alive!

So, I know this blog was supposed to be a way to share my Peace Corps experiences in Mongolia with family, friends, and random interested strangers, but internet is not exactly super available where I am currently. I have been taking notes and outlining blog posts for my experiences in country thus far, I just haven’t had the internet access or the time to actually post them. But we are currently staying in a hotel for Mid-Center Days, so I will have wifi for a couple more days (but only during the limited amount of time when we don’t have tons of sessions scheduled). So I will try to make a few posts during the next 36 hours before I head back to my site (I’ll keep them separate so it’s not just one long super-post of everything from the past month). So be on the look out!