Being Sick in Mongolia

You know what’s never fun? Being sick.

You know what’s even less fun? Being sick in a foreign country, in a new city, far far away from family and friends, without running water or a toilet, and with my doctor and all the potentially helpful medicines he could prescribe on the other side of the country.

In case I haven’t mentioned before (I have), I’ve had a cold for over 4 weeks now. I started having some mild symptoms right before coming out to Uliastai, but with the immediate start to work, adjustment to living in a completely new setting, and insane busy-ness in general, my immune system has not been able to fight it off.

I already told you about my maybe-not-so-wise decision to go hiking with my coworkers, after which my symptoms got much worse. The following week at work, I had to go home early after lunch on both Monday and Tuesday because I felt so bad and everyone could tell. In addition to the cold symptoms, I also had really bad stomach cramps. When I went home on Tuesday I laid down for a really long nap, and then that evening my supervisor came to check on me and bring me something for dinner. By then my stomach cramps were so bad I could barely move, and being in any position other than laying down felt horrible (not that lying down didn’t hurt too). My supervisor freaked out and told me to call the PCMO, which I did. The Peace Corps doctor told me I was probably just really dehydrated, which was what was causing the cramps. So he told me to drink a bunch of warm water, but slowly, and then take some medicine.

So I did just that, and promptly vomited. Where do you puke when you don’t have a toilet? When I felt it coming on (you know the feeling), I made my way to the door to head to the outhouse, but my supervisor stopped me and indicated I should just throw up in my “dry sink”…

This thing

This thing

…which just drains into a bucket underneath that I have to empty every few days. So, basically just vomiting into a bucket. By this point my supervisor still hadn’t abandoned me in my diseased state, but proceeded to cook up what she called “rice juice,” which she said is what Mongolians drink/eat to coat their digestive system and ease cramps. I tried to drink some more water while it was cooking, and when it was done I had two bites before throwing up again. I called the PCMO again to tell him I had thrown up twice in the past 30 minutes, making it kind of hard to get hydrated, and he told me to stop trying to ingest anything and just go to bed. So my supervisor reluctantly left to let me sleep.

I had the rest of the week off from work while I tried to rest up and finally get better. My supervisor was insanely helpful, bringing me lunch and dinner all three days I missed work. The thing about working with a bunch of doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and other health professionals is that they know how to take care of you when you’re sick. My supervisor is a pharmacist, so she was checking over all the medications I was taking. The director of the health department is a doctor (specifically a surgeon), and he even came over to my ger the day after my stomach cramp/vomiting ordeal to check on me (and joke about maybe needing to do an emergency surgery). Thankfully my stomach problems went away the very next day, but my cold symptoms are still with me, even a week later (it’s been almost 5 weeks now total). I’ve been taking plenty of medicine, and the PCMO even sent me some additional medicine from UB, but nothing provides more than temporary relief for my symptoms. A few people have suggested that maybe it’s just due to the seasons changing and the weird weather patterns (constantly alternating freezing temperatures with rather balmy ones). Whatever it is, I hope it resolves soon, because winter will not be fun if I’m already sick.

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Weekend Hike with My Coworkers (and Escalation of My Illness)

I told you there would be lots of hiking!

The Saturday after my third week in Uliastai, a group of coworkers from the health department and I went hiking. They had invited me earlier in the week, before I was completely exhausted, so I had agreed to go, only to be sore from tons of aerobics and tired from lack of sleep the morning of the hike.

We met up at the health department at 7am before driving over to where we would be hiking. I had originally been told we would be hiking a certain famous mountain right behind the hill my friends and I had climbed two weeks before

Yeah, that one

Yeah, that one

…which is apparently the tallest of the mountains surrounding Uliastai. But when we started driving in a different direction, straight through the valley (and all its rivers and streams, at one time getting stuck, because off-roading in a sedan is not the brightest of ideas), I assumed that the plans had changed.

We ended up driving quite far away from town and even part of the way up the mountain we would be hiking, until we ended up here:

You can just barely make out the city way out there in the background

You can just barely make out the city way out there in the background

We abandoned the car and finally started up the mountain, which wasn’t too steep at first, until it suddenly was.

Ok, break time!

Ok, break time!

It was also very cold, as the sun was rising on the other side of the mountain. Which was great for my never-ending cold (as in, the upper respiratory infection). Let’s just say my pockets were stuffed full of tissues for my dripping nose the whole time.

After a while, we came to what I thought was the top of the hill we were climbing, but ended up just being a slightly less steep part of the hill. At least it was pretty with all the trees, and we were finally up in the sun.

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When we got to the top of that hill, we could see into the valley on the other side of the mountain, where the Bogdiin River flows into Uliastai.

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But we weren’t even close to done yet! Next we had to get up to some weird rock formation!

Onward!

Onward!

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To be honest, I had absolutely no idea where we were going or if anyone else did either. I got the sense that we were just going to keep hiking up and up and up until there was no where left to hike up to.

We had made it up to a grassy hill and someone finally showed me where we were headed:

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To that pointy rock formation up there a little to the left. Not only was that the top of the mountain we were on (finally!), but there was an old legend that if that rock formation (which actually has a name: Jinst) ever fell down, the whole city of Uliastai would be flooded. Yay!

And of course, there was an owoo shrine right beside it

And of course, there was an owoo shrine right beside it

From the top of the mountain, Uliastai looked so tiny!

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At this point we finally sat down and had a picnic with the food we’d brought.

Mongolian picnic

Mongolian picnic

But with the combination of no longer moving, being on top of a mountain, and, well, being in Mongolia, it was really freakin’ cold! The wind definitely didn’t help either. All of my coworkers laughed at me when I put on the gloves and ear warmers I had packed in my backpack (haha, silly American can’t handle a little sub-freezing windchill without dragging out her gloves!), but I saw them all rubbing their hands together and breathing hot air into them, so I know they were cold too! Just jealous that they didn’t come prepared like me…

Anyway, after eating our food, we wandered around all the cool rock formations and took a bunch of photos:

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Eventually we headed back down the mountain, but instead of going down the way we had come up, we decided to go straight down one of the rockiest, steepest parts of the mountain at a ridiculously fast pace, because who couldn’t use a little damage to their knee ligaments?

Come on slowpokes! It only took us 4 hours to get up there, you should be able to come back down in 40 minutes, tops!

Come on slowpokes! It only took us 4 hours to get up there, you should be able to come back down in 20 minutes, tops!

When we finally did get back down to where the cars were parked, we found that one of the other health department workers and her daughter had come to bring us more food! Time for a second picnic!

While we were eating, two young boys rode by on a horse, and my coworkers (who knew that I like horses), called these random boys over and asked them if I could ride on their horse. They may have bribed the boys with some of the food we were munching on, but they let me sit on their horse while one of the boys led it around for a while.

Cementing in the young children's minds that foreigners are a bunch of weirdos

Cementing in the young children’s minds that foreigners are a bunch of weirdos

But no Mongolian shindig is complete without vodka! Which our director just happened to have in the trunk of his car! Now, I’m not a fan of vodka unless it’s mixed with something into a cocktail, but we had been warned during PST that vodka would be present at pretty much all Mongolian get-togethers (even those with your boss present) and that it is customary to pass shots around. So of course I was offered a shot, which I begrudgingly took and gagged on.

Finally we piled into the cars to head back to Uliastai. But then we stopped by a random ger in the middle of nowhere to ask–I kid you not–if they had any yogurt. See, traditional Mongolian yogurt can be made with the milk of any livestock, but my coworkers informed me that the best yogurt comes from the animals belonging to the herdsmen out in the countryside. So, seeing a ger in the middle of nowhere, they (correctly) assumed that a herding family must live there and have yogurt at the ready. A couple coworkers went in to ask if they had any fresh yogurt, and when they confirmed that they did, all 10 of us waltzed into this poor random family’s ger to eat their food. As my director told me, it is perfectly acceptable out in the countryside to come to some stranger’s ger and get fed. So the family served us milk tea, bread, and the coveted yogurt and chatted a while until we finally left.

I was quite tired at this point (and still sick), and I thought we were going home, but when we got close to town they pulled over by the river and started dragging blankets and mats out of the cars and laying them on the ground. It was time to play cards!

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They proceeded to play a billion rounds of a Mongolian card game that they often play during lunch at the health department. They had tried to teach me how to play before, and did again on this occasion, but for some unknown reason they always assign one of the workers who speaks absolutely no English to teach me, and I’m not one of those people who can learn how to play a card game just by watching other people play it. Every time I thought I was understanding the game, someone would play a card that changed everything.

We eventually started to pack up, until someone remembered that there was food left over from our earlier picnics and–gasp!–we hadn’t finished the bottle of vodka from earlier! So picnic #3 commenced, as well as another round of shots. By now most of my coworkers could tell that I was tired and not feeling so well (did the constantly wiping and blowing my nose tip them off?), so we left very soon after that. I did get one last photo of the mountain that we had climbed though:

Does that itty bitty, barely perceptible rock on the top look familiar?

Does that itty bitty, barely perceptible rock on the top look familiar?

But yeah, you probably shouldn’t spend an entire day hiking and various other exploits when you’re battling an illness, as I found out when I got much sicker the next week!

Weeks 2 and 3 at Site

My second week in Uliastai saw the beginning of several projects. First, Dolgor, the health policy specialist at the Zavkhan governor’s office, contacted me about a dental hygiene project that she had worked on last year with some PCVs. The Volunteer who did a lot of the work with her had just recently finished her service and had left, so when she heard that new PCVs (including a Health Volunteer!) were coming, she wanted to ask for assistance in implementing the program again. This past spring, an amazing NGO called Kids’ International Dental Services sent American dentists to Uliastai to clean children’s teeth and perform any needed dental procedures, absolutely free of charge, and Dolgor wanted to bring them back again next spring. But, being based in the US, the organization didn’t have anyone who spoke Mongolian, so she needed me to help her translate the proposal and other communications with them.

That week, I also started—or, more accurately, I was told I would start—an aerobics class for the staff at the health department. That Monday during lunch, one of the employees told me there would be a dance class in the health department’s gym at 4pm that afternoon. When I asked for more details, she proceeded to tell me that I would be teaching the dance class. Well, that was news to me. I told everyone that I would need more than a couple hours to prepare to teach a fitness class, so they helpfully moved it to the next week.

So that next Monday morning I held our first aerobics class. I may have stolen most of the moves from a Hip Hop Abs video I had gotten on my external hard drive during one of our PC media swaps, but whatever. I am not an aerobics instructor and have never taught group fitness classes before, so I need a little bit of help. Because our gym isn’t big enough to hold everyone who wanted to participate in the aerobics classes, they decided to split it into two groups. And to get maximum benefits of the workout, each group wanted to have the class three times a week, which would mean I would be teaching aerobics classes six times a week (twice a day on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday). That idea lasted for about half a week until they realized that I could not physically do that either because a) I’m just out of shape, b) I was sick with a cold, and/or c) they were working me to death and I wasn’t getting enough rest in general.

And finally, I started the much anticipated English lessons at the health department. As I am not a TEFL Volunteer and only received one session during PST regarding teaching English, I felt a little unprepared to plan and teach English classes, but I guess they felt like being a native English speaker was enough of a qualification. I knew there were at least two distinct levels of English language skills among the health department staff, so I decided to do two different level classes: beginner and intermediate. I was planning to teach each class once a week, but the HD staff told me I should teach each class twice a week. So in addition to the proposed 6 aerobics classes per week, they wanted me to teach 4 English classes per week.

And work from 8am to 6pm Monday through Friday.

And do additional lesson planning at home.

Let’s just say my third week at site pushed me over the edge. The cold I’d had for a while got worse, I was always sore from aerobics, I wasn’t getting enough sleep or “me-time,” and all of this was making me crabby.

After consulting my PC Regional Manager and some of the M24s I knew, I decided to talk to my supervisor about cutting down on some of my work. I told her that as a PCV I technically wasn’t supposed to be working at my HCA more than 40 hours a week (I was working at least 50 at that point). So she said I could just do 3 aerobics classes per week and I could leave a little early on the days I came in at 8am (the health department technically opens at 9am but she wanted me to come in early to teach classes at 8). Which sounded great, except that Friday, after noticing how tired I looked, she said I could leave at 5 that day, but then proceeded to call me into a meeting at 4:45 that ended up lasting until 6 (seriously, who holds a meeting at 4:45 on a Friday?).

Yeah, to be continued.

First Weekend Hike (Because What Else Are You Gonna Do in a Town Literally Surrounded by Mountains?)

On our first Saturday in Uliastai, two of my sitemates and I went hiking up one of the hills behind Shin Khurul, the neighborhood that one of my sitemates lives in that’s about a 40-minute walk from the center of the city.

At least it's a nice, scenic walk

At least it’s a nice, scenic walk

After fueling up on PB&J sandwiches (peanut butter is only available in UB or care packages sent from back home, but luckily we had stocked up before heading out to Zavkhan), we decided on a hill. It was already almost noon so we knew we didn’t have time to tackle one of the actual mountains, so we settled on this hill:

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Ok, you look taller and rockier up close...

Ok, you look taller and rockier up close…

Our “hike” ended up being more rock-climbing in some areas:

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And maybe I’m just out of shape, but it was exhausting! I think I’ll blame it on the thin air from the elevation though. Uliastai’s elevation is 5,751 ft (1,753 m), but obviously we were higher up on the hill. And I’m from Atlanta, where the elevation ranges from 738 – 1,050 ft (225 – 320 m), and I had spent the previous two years in New Orleans, which is below sea level in some areas, so I’m gonna make that my excuse.

Finally we approached the top of the hill:

You can tell it's the top because you can see the blue hadags on the owoo shrine

You can tell it’s the top because you can see the blue hadag on the owoo shrine

We stopped to rest and eat a bit before taking a bunch of photos.

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Then we headed back down the other, less rocky side of the hill.

It was a lot of fun and I have a feeling I’ll be doing plenty of hiking during my 2 years here!

The Fridge-Eating Ger

My first Thursday in Uliastai was quite interesting. On Monday I had noticed that my fridge had stopped working (yes, the day after I moved in).

You remember this beauty, right?

You remember this beauty, right?

Luckily I hadn’t put much in it yet, because the next day when the electrician came to fix it, he determined that the motor was broken and would need to be replaced. So on Thursday morning I was told to go back to my ger during lunchtime so that the electrician could fix my fridge—except the power was out (we’ve been having a lot of power outages–supposedly because they’re busy working on the electrical system in town to improve it), so he couldn’t fix it then. So I went back to the health department, where I got to sit in on a 4-hour seminar for doctors in soums throughout Zavkhan. I couldn’t understand most of what was being said, but it was still interesting.

That evening, I received a text message from my supervisor asking if she could come to my ger. I said “sure” because that’s the Mongolian thing to do (actually, stopping by unannounced is the even more Mongolian thing to do, but thankfully she at least gave me some warning). So she stopped by to give me some cleaning supplies (I guess she thinks my ger is a pigsty) and Mongolian yogurt. Then she spent almost an hour scrutinizing my ger (apparently I didn’t hang my hadag in the correct place; why am I sleeping in a sleeping bag? etc.), asking if I needed anything else (why don’t I have more food? Do I have winter boots? Was I able to steal my neighbor’s wifi?), and telling me what she wanted me to work on at the health department the next day.

Then, upon discovering that my water containers were close to empty, she told me how to get more. There’s a well in our hashaa that I had already gotten water from, but I was told that water was just for cleaning laundry. To get water for drinking, cooking, etc., we had to go to a small river right outside town. So my supervisor told my hashaa dad that I needed water, and we headed off. With my supervisor translating, my hashaa dad told me that I was not allowed to go get water alone because it was dangerous (he thinks the stray dogs will eat me, but I see several times more dogs just walking to the health department each day than I did walking to the river). If I ever needed water, I was just supposed to let him know, and he would go get it for me. He also told me to feel free to come to their home and watch TV, learn Mongolian, etc. whenever I wanted.

After our water-fetching adventure, my supervisor and I went back into my ger to talk some more. I was starving by this point as I hadn’t eaten dinner, and just as I was hoping my supervisor would head home soon (I love her and all, but I need to eat! I wouldn’t even have minded cooking dinner for both of us, except she had already eaten before coming over), the electrician and his wife came in. It was almost 9pm, but he was determined to fix my fridge, dammit! While he got started on the fridge, my supervisor hinted that I should offer the electrician’s wife a seat and that I should offer them all candy (in Mongolia, you absolutely must have a bowl of candy always at the ready for when guests drop by, and luckily they had already prepared me one when I moved in). After we determined that my hosting skills are abhorrent (sorry, I’m not actually Mongolian so I don’t have the whole hospitality thing ingrained into every fiber of my being), we sat around for what felt like forever watching the electrician fix my fridge (the motor had to be replaced, so it took a while). My hashaa mom and dad also stopped in, and as time went on, I seriously considered just eating my dinner in front of everyone; I didn’t have enough for the 5 unexpected guests sitting around my ger, but I was starving.

But before I could do anything about my hunger, our attention turned to how freakin’ cold it was in my ger. I had offered to start a fire in my stove earlier, but I was told not to as the electrician would have to move all of his work tools. But as it got colder by the minute, we all agreed that a fire was necessary. Yes, it was August, but it had been rainy and windy all day so it was colder than normal that evening (and, y’know, it’s Mongolia). And my ger isn’t very well insulated yet (they “winterize” the gers usually by October, meaning they add more layers of felt and weatherproof tarps, pile sand up against the outside walls, insulate the door, etc.). So we started a fire and huddled around the stove while the electrician finished up.

Everyone finally left around 10:30, and I immediately shoveled in some food. I had planned to spend the evening writing new blog posts, so I wrote out a few paragraphs before calling it a night.

And then, as the title of this post probably tipped you off, the fridge proceeded to break again two days later! I think the health department gave up on that fridge, because they had their accountant (who was on vacation in UB) pick up a brand new fridge for me. So a few days later the health department’s watchman and driver came with me to my ger to get rid of the old fridge and install the new one. Yay! Brand new fridge! How could this possibly go wrong?

You know how! This brand new fridge also proceeded to break just a couple days after it was installed! By this point I figured there was some issue with the electrical wiring in my ger and maybe random power surges were frying the fridges’ motors. Both fridges had been plugged into an extension cord that was already in my ger (not the one Peace Corps gave me), so my guess is that it didn’t have a surge protector. So after trying to revive it a couple times, they dragged that fridge away too. They said they will try to get it fixed, but so far I still have no fridge. I guess this is what I get for going on about how posh my ger is.

First Week in Uliastai

Unlike the TEFL and CYD Volunteers (who work in schools that don’t start until the beginning of September), we Health Volunteers have to start to work right away. So on Monday morning, less than 24 hours after I arrived in Uliastai, I went to the health department for my first day on the job.

Earlier that morning, I was awoken by banging on my door. It had started to rain and my hashaa mom wanted to pull the flap over the roof of my ger (which has windows that don’t exactly keep out the rain). But to pull the flap over, she first had to come inside to take the stove pipe down so that it wasn’t poking up through the roof. After that was dealt with, I went back to sleep for another hour, before I had to get up to start the day.

One of the employees at the health department, Ganaa, is the niece of my hashaa parents, and she stayed at the hashaa next door with her sister (all the hashaas surrounding ours belong to relatives of my hashaa parents) for the first week so that she could walk with me to the health department in the mornings until I learned all the ways to get there (because there are several).

The health department

The health department

The health department is about a 20 minute walk from my hashaa, through the center of town, and Ganaa pointed out what all of the buildings are that we passed along the way (and since we took a different route each morning, I got to learn about many places in town). She also speaks a decent amount of English, which definitely made it easier.

My first day at work consisted of a long staff meeting in the morning where the director introduced me and discussed what my role would be and how everyone would be working with me (or at least that’s what I got from it—it was all in Mongolian). Then my supervisor, a young woman named Mandakh, gave me a tour of the health department and introduced me to everyone there.

Then it was time for lunch. At the health department, lunch is cooked in a cafeteria right there in the building and all the employees eat together (which is nice because that’s one meal I don’t have to worry about each week day, but can be bad if I don’t like what’s being served on a particular day). There’s one woman who cooks most of the meals, but apparently other employees sometimes prepare the lunch, and I was told I might be asked to cook at some point.

Later that afternoon, Mandakh showed me around town a bit. We went to the police station, where I had to register as a resident of the city.

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Next she showed me where the post office is, and then she took me to some of the different markets and shops to buy some things I needed for my ger. After we dropped the purchases off at my hashaa, she took me to another part of town to see a park with sports fields and a playground and the new stadium being built (which will be ready for next year’s Naadam):

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Then she invited me over to her family’s house for dinner. After dinner, I went with her family down to one of the two rivers that flows through Uliastai.

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By this time it was getting dark, so she walked with me back to my hashaa (luckily she doesn’t live too far away). I was absolutely exhausted, so I went to bed soon after that.

For the rest of the week, work consisted of translating the health department’s work plan for me, translating documents regarding local and national health initiatives, and sitting in on a seminar for doctors throughout Zavkhan about the “21 Healthy Habits” they’re trying to promote. I was asked multiple times by several different people when I would be starting English classes, so those will definitely be happening soon.

On Wednesday, Zak (one of the M24 Volunteers in Uliastai), gathered us newbies together for a tour of the city. Joel, the PCV out in a soum about 45 minutes away, also came in so that he could buy some stuff he needed but wasn’t available in his little soum. I was at the health department that day, but when I told them Zak wanted to show us around, they had no problem letting me leave early (Zak seems to know everyone in town, including the people I work with).

He took us around to all the hot spots of the city and showed us which shops sold what.

The Uliastai Hotel, the nicest one in the city

The Uliastai Hotel, the nicest one in the city (complete with expensive restaurant!)

The sports center

The sports center

The Museum of Famous People (seriously)

The Museum of Famous People (seriously)

The Zavkhan Museum

The Zavkhan Museum

The “Old” Theater (they’re in the process of building a new one)

The “Old” Theater (they’re in the process of building a new one)

 

The public library

The public library

Shopping

Shopping

 

The giant market conveniently right across the street from my hashaa

The giant market conveniently right across the street from my hashaa

The traffic circle

The traffic circle (yes, my town’s so fancy it has a traffic circle)

One of the bridges

One of the bridges (or, two I guess: the footbridge we’re walking on and the bridge for cars)

We stopped at a restaurant for lunch…

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…and after our tour of the town, Zak invited us to his ger.

Good times all around.