Close of Service and Back to America

Wow, time flies when you’re having fun (and busy)! I know I haven’t updated this blog in a couple months, but I’ve been a little wrapped up with COSing, another trip to Japan, and returning home to America!

First up: Close of Service (COS)

Saying goodbye to my coworkers, khashaa family, friends, and sitemates was obviously difficult. Anywhere you live for 2 years will start to feel like home to you, but I can say I felt like it was time to get back to my American home. I really did enjoy my time in the Peace Corps and in Mongolia, and I definitely grew as a person through all the adventures and struggles I experienced, but I was ready to see my family and friends stateside again.

I could go into all the details of my last few weeks in Mongolia, but with all the other things that have already happened since then, this post would never end. I can, however, attest that things stayed interesting up to the very end. The health department had to take down my ger 2 weeks before I was to head to UB to COS (long story), so I ended up living in the health department (again) for my last bit of time.

Apparently it's easier to dismantle a ger and then take the furniture and everything else out afterwards

Apparently it’s easier to dismantle a ger and then take the furniture and everything else out afterwards

Then, after packing up my bags and saying my goodbyes, it was off to UB for all the fun paperwork, medical stuff, and exit interviews you have to complete before you can leave the country. This takes 3 days, and at the end you “ring out your service,” literally.

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After that, you’re free to leave the country, which for me meant going off to Japan once more for my COS trip (many PCVs travel after they COS before returning home to take advantage of being relatively close to travel destinations). I had really enjoyed the Japan trip my sitemate and I went on back in March and wanted to see more of the country. Plus, I could justify it by the fact that it was technically on the way home, whereas if I ever wanted to go back to Japan in the future, I’d be shelling out close to $2000 to get there and back from the US east coast. I made it slightly less “on the way home” by staying there for almost an entire month, which my family did not exactly appreciate.

Since I'd already been to the big cities (Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, etc.) on my first trip, I decided to explore southern Japan, including Hiroshima, Matsuyama, Beppu, Takachiho, Kagoshima, Yakushima, and Okinawa

Since I’d already been to the big cities (Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, etc.) on my first trip, I decided to explore southern Japan, including Hiroshima, Matsuyama, Beppu, Takachiho, Kagoshima, Yakushima, and Okinawa

It took me until just over a week ago to finally finish uploading all the numerous photos I took during my trip, so I couldn’t even begin to try to select a few to post here, but I can say it was an amazing trip, and everywhere I visited was absolutely beautiful. After 2 years in frigid, landlocked Mongolia, I really appreciated the ocean and beaches like never before.

Returning to America

Finally, it was time to head home. I flew from Okinawa to Shanghai, then to Los Angeles. But while I was at LAX waiting for the final leg of my flight to Atlanta, I got a great welcome back to America. An armed airport guard came up to our gate and demanded that everyone get up and go back out past the security check. Well, when a guard carrying a rifle tells you to get the heck out of there, you tend to do as they say. Our gate was at the end of the terminal so we had to walk past all the other gates on the way out, which had already been emptied. At the end of the terminal and spilling out of the exit were the hundreds and hundreds of passengers who had been in the terminal before being evacuated. I won’t lie: the first thoughts running through my head at the time were that there was a bomb or a gunman on the loose and that I didn’t want to die when I was so close to finally getting home. No airport officials were telling us anything, so obviously people started taking out their smartphones and looking to see if there was any news about what was going on. We heard reports of an “unconfirmed shooting” that had taken place at the airport, but as we continued to wait around for almost an hour, the news updated to reveal that the whole shooting thing had been a false alarm. Apparently people in another terminal had heard a “loud noise” and thought it was gunfire, leading to panic and people calling 911 to report a shooting at the airport. So obviously the police had to respond to the 911 calls and they ended up searching all the terminals. Oh, and a guy dressed up as Zorro with a plastic sword was involved somehow. The whole fiasco delayed my flight two hours (and all the other flights as well), which caused a lot of people to miss their connections in Atlanta, but all I cared about was that I was home!

My parents were there to pick me up, there may have been tears shed upon seeing them for the first time in over 2 years, and then we went off for breakfast at IHOP (it was early in the morning and I wanted me some stuffed French toast). When I finally got home, I slept for most of the day before we went back out for dinner to eat more food I hadn’t been able to enjoy in Mongolia.

I feel like I had an easier time adjusting to life back in America because I had spent so much time traveling around Japan, which served as a buffer between my vastly different lives in rural Mongolia and suburban America. I was very jet-lagged for quite a few days, it did take some practice to get used to driving again, and all the options available in grocery stores and restaurants was a little overwhelming, but I don’t think I’ve experienced as severe reverse culture shock as many other RPCVs. I’ve spent most of my time so far visiting with family and friends and researching and applying for public health jobs, so it’s been a bit more chill than a lot of my RPCV friends who went straight into grad school or a job as soon as they got home.

I wish I had something more poignant to add about my COS and readjustment. I don’t think this will be my last blog post, but considering how long it took me to get this one out, I can’t say for sure. At any rate, I figured I should get this one posted before another 2 months post-COS have passed me by! And then maybe I’ll be able to collect my thoughts and add a new post later about my reflections on my Peace Corps service!

Into the Black Hole of Mongolia

The Zavkhan group of M25s (minus one*) left for our sites on Sunday, August 17. Zavkhan is what Peace Corps calls a “fly site,” meaning it’s so far away from the PC office in UB that we have to fly back and forth. There are buses and meekers that regularly go to and from Uliastai, but they can take anywhere from 35 to 60 hours depending on road conditions, and generally any site that’s more than a 12-15 hour bus/meeker ride from UB is considered a fly site.

Which brings me to the question I’m sure you’ve all been asking: “Why did you refer to Zavkhan as the black hole of Mongolia?”

Well, I first heard that nickname from one of the Cross-Cultural Trainers who is a PCV out in Khovd, another one of the far west aimags.

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Interesting side note: Peace Corps no longer sends PCVs to Bayan-Ulgii and Uvs aimags because of how far removed they are from everything, so those of us in Zavkhan, Khovd, and Gobi-Altai are now the farthest away

That Cross-Cultural session was about transportation in Mongolia, and at one point he referred to Zavkhan as “the black hole” because of how difficult the terrain is for vehicles and how the result is that very few people go into or out of the aimag. Zavkhan is very mountainous and there are very few land routes in and out of it, even to the bordering aimags, making flying the best (but also very expensive) option for travel.

So we were of course flying to Zavkhan (yes, Peace Corps paid for our plane tickets as well as our supervisors’). We each had a small mountain of luggage, so it was fun to see our supervisors’ faces when we dragged it all down from the dorms. It wasn’t so fun when, at the airport, we had to stand in line at the baggage check for about an hour because they had never seen so much luggage before and weren’t sure what to do. Luckily the plane we took (a small propeller plane with a max occupancy of about 40 people) was only half full, or else our luggage probably wouldn’t have fit.

We then went out onto the tarmac to board our itty bitty plane (definitely the smallest one I’ve ever been on).

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It was about a 2 hour flight, and I slept or listened to music pretty much the whole time. There were some great views of the landscape down below, and I could have gotten some nice photos if my camera hadn’t been in my bag up in the overhead compartment and I was too lazy to get up.

A couple hours later we landed on the single, unpaved runway of the Donoi Airport (the only airport in the entire aimag).

Walknig over to the itty bitty airport

Walking over to the itty bitty airport

We waited around while everyone’s luggage was unloaded into a small room, and then we went in separate vehicles with our supervisors to our sites (3 of us to Uliastai and 1 to Aldarkhaan soum). My supervisor had arranged for one of the Uliastai hospital’s ambulances to come pick us up, so I got to enjoy the 40-minute drive from the airport to the city in an authentic Mongolian ambulance (I sincerely hope I never need to use one for its intended purpose). During the ride, I got some photos of the countryside:

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As you can see, it's absolutely beautiful, so it's a shame it's so hard to get to

As you can see, it’s absolutely beautiful, so it’s a shame it’s so hard to get to

Finally we arrived in Uliastai:

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We went on to the hashaa where I would be living, and my hashaa family and some people from the health department helped bring all my luggage into my ger.

My home for the next 2 years

My home for the next 2 years

They served me suutei tsai and some soup while they talked in Mongolian over my head. After about an hour they left so that I could start unpacking. I wasn’t able to get everything unpacked that first evening, but I did get some photos of the inside of my ger, even though it was still messy and I have since added some new things.

My sink and toiletry area

My sink and toiletry area

My closet and one of my armchairs

My closet and one of my armchairs

My desk and other armchair

My desk and other armchair

My bed

My bed

Shelves and cupboard for household and kitchen supplies

Shelves and cupboard for household and kitchen supplies

Kitchen table and electric stovetop

Kitchen table and electric stove top

Fridge, water container, trashcan, and broom/dustpan

Fridge, water container, trashcan, and broom/dustpan

My stove and fuel bin (which they filled with tree bark and scrap paper prior to my arrival, but will eventually be filled with wood and coal)

My stove and fuel bin (which they filled with tree bark and scrap paper prior to my arrival, but will eventually be filled with wood and coal)

You may notice that I have a pretty sweet setup (or you may be thinking, jeez, who could live in that dump for 2 years?), but apparently my ger is not only larger than the gers most PCVs live in, but it is very nicely furnished. My ger is actually brand new (the health department built it just for me) and they put a lot of nice furnishings in it I guess because they were so excited to finally have a Volunteer and wanted me to be as comfortable as I possibly can be in a ger. So no, most PCVs living in gers don’t have fridges and plush armchairs, I am just very lucky.

The only downside of my ger is that it is filled with spiders (mostly daddy long legs). Now, anyone who knows me personally knows that I have a deathly fear of spiders. I got over that a little living with my host family during PST because, even though my room didn’t have too many spiders, the outhouse was always full of them. But my ger is like a daddy long leg breeding ground or something. I have to kill at least 20 a day, which is definitely helping me get over my fear little by little (or at least I haven’t run screaming out of my ger or set it on fire to kill them all yet). I know it’s just because the ger isn’t completely sealed up like it will be come winter (there are little holes along the bottom of the walls where bugs can easily crawl inside). But if you happen to have a crippling fear of spiders that you’d like to overcome, may I recommend joining the Peace Corps? (It’s much cheaper than therapy!)

*One of the guys placed in Uliastai actually came into town later with his supervisor and his supervisor’s family, who had decided to make a family road trip out of the whole thing and drove from UB to Uliastai, taking the PCV with them.

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.