The Other Side of PST

Shortly after Naadam, I left my site once again to come to Darkhan for the second half of the M26 cohort’s Pre-Service Training (PST). As I mentioned in a previous post, myself, another M25 Health PCV, and a Mongolian Technical Coordinator were responsible for training the 12 Health Trainees for the remainder of PST. My first day back in Darkhan was a Wednesday, which was the day that our group of Trainees had cross-culture sessions in the afternoon instead of health technical sessions, so I didn’t actually get a chance to meet them that day. But things got off to a great (note heavy sarcasm) start when the other Health trainers and I were informed that one of our Trainees would be leaving to go back to America. So my first session with our Trainees was kicked off with the PST Director announcing to the group that one of their friends was leaving, which set a not-exactly-positive mood for the rest of the session (and PST, to be honest).

Many of our sessions during the second half were joint sessions, with the Trainees and Mongolian counterparts from their practicum sites. These sessions were the most difficult because information and instructions for activities had to be given in both English and Mongolian, so they took longer. The Trainees also had to try to communicate with the counterparts during the activities, which was complicated when different counterparts showed up to each session or didn’t show up at all.

A couple weeks into second half, we lost another one of our Health Trainees, which further dampened the spirits of the remaining 10. I obviously can’t mention details, but let’s just say our group was…interesting. I’ll leave it at that.

Our typical day consisted of going into the PST office at 9am (while the Trainees were in their Mongolian language class) and preparing for that afternoon’s session or whatever else needed to be done. Then after lunch, we would either go to the school in their training community (Mangirt) for technical session, go to the health department for joint session, or divide up to visit the Trainees at their practicum sites. Wednesdays were our “office days,” when we didn’t have to go anywhere in the afternoon because our Trainees had cross-culture sessions with another training team. We usually wrapped up around 5:30pm, though many times we had to stay much later to write up session reports and evaluations. We also had staff meetings every Monday morning.

We usually had weekends free, but sometimes we helped out with other PST activities. For example, our Trainees had a “ger visit” one Saturday, where they all went over to one of the Trainee’s ger so their LCFs and us Resource Volunteers (who both live in gers) could talk about traditions and beliefs Mongolian have regarding gers and how to live in a ger. We also went to their Host Family Appreciation Day, which consisted of a khorkhog by the river. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, khorkhog is a traditional Mongolian dish that is made by taking your skinned sheep or goat…

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Nope, things like this don’t even faze me anymore

…cutting it into pieces…

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…along with the vegetables (potatoes, carrots, onions, turnips, etc.)…

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…putting the meat, veggies, stones heated on a fire, some water, and a bit of spices into a large metal container…

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…then closing and sealing the container and leaving it on the fire for about an hour…

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…until it comes out looking like this:

Note the large stones on the ground. After taking them out of the container, it is tradition to pass them around to everyone and toss them between your hands to bring good health.

Note the large stones on the ground. After taking them out of the container, it is tradition to pass them around to everyone (while still burning hot) and toss them between your hands to bring good health.

We also had other food to munch on…

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…gave out certificates to the host families…

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…waded in the river…

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…and made water balloons:

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The last week of PST consisted of Final Center Days and Supervisor’s Conference. All the Trainees came back into Darkhan for their final sessions with Peace Corps staff. On the first day, they finally had their long-awaited site announcements!

Which we had to have in a gym instead of at the park as originally intended, since it was about 105 degrees F that day

Which we had to have in a gym instead of at the park as originally intended, since it was about 105 degrees F that day

I had found out through the Peace Corps grapevine that my aimag, Zavkhan, was only getting one new PCV from the M26 group, despite there being 69 of them swearing in and only 21 aimags in Mongolia for them to be sorted into. Only 2 other aimags only got one newbie, and one of those is a tiny aimag with a very small population. Some people say it’s because Zavkhan got 5 volunteers last year, but we’re not the only aimag that got that many last year, and those other ones got more than 1 new volunteer. A few aimags got 6 new volunteers this year, so some aimags have a total of 9 PCVs now!

And only 2 of my M26 Healthies got sent to the western region, so now there’s only 3 Health PCVs in that whole region (including me; yes, I was the only M25 Health PCV sent to the west), which is weird considering there’s now a total of 19 Health Volunteers in Mongolia, only 3 of which are in the west (and there’s only 3 regions, so it would make more sense for there to be like 6 in each region). I mean, the west is the best (our unofficial motto), but it’s also the poorest region with the worst health indicators and could really use more Health Volunteers. But whatever, I won’t pretend I understand the intricacies of the PC site placement process.

Anyway, our new sitemate is a CYD Volunteer who will be working at the school that one of our recently-departed M24 sitemates worked at (although he was a TEFL Volunteer). Originally, PC was going to put another TEFLer in Uliastai, but me and my fellow Zavkhan Resource Volunteer convinced them that our site had a greater need for a CYD Volunteer, since our only one had finished her service this summer. And we apparently (according to the other trainers) got the best of the CYD Trainees, so I guess having one super amazing sitemate is better than a handful of sub-par ones.

The rest of Final Center Days mostly consisted of additional sessions on PC policy, admin stuff, medical, safety and security, etc., some of which myself and the other Resource Volunteers helped out with. Then on Thursday, the supervisors from the HCAs came in to meet their new Volunteers:

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Then there were more sessions, some with the PCTs separate from the supervisors, some with them together.

On Friday after the last session of Final Center Days, we had a rehearsal for the Swearing-In Ceremony. Unlike our PST last year, where we went to UB for our Swearing-In Ceremony at the US ambassador’s residence, the M26 cohort’s Swearing-In was at the theater in Darkhan. The ceremony itself was on Saturday morning, and it turned out very nicely.

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After a few speeches, the Trainees took the oath of service and officially became Volunteers. Then the Regional Managers handed out certificates to each newly-minted PCV.

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One person from each of the three programs (TEFL, CYD, Health) had been chosen to give a short speech (in Mongolian), and my new sitemate was the representative for CYD (told you she was the best). Then there were a few cultural performances, including a mash-up of the “Cups” song and a Mongolian song that we all learn during PST…

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…a traditional Mongolian dance (bringing back memories from last PST)…

…and a Mongolian song sung by one of the new Volunteers whose voice was so good that some Mongolians in the audience were literally brought to tears:

The ceremony was followed by a reception, lots of photos, and then everyone heading back to the hotel to pack their things and get on the bus to UB to head off to their sites.

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The next day, we had a short debriefing meeting before going to the river once again for a PST staff picnic, which was (of course) another khorkhog, but with a lot more fruit…

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…and failed jumping pictures:

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The next morning, we checked out of our apartment and headed to UB, where I would have my mid-service medical and dental exams before going for our M25 Mid-Service Training (MST).

Leaving the Taiga

We left the camp bright and early on Saturday morning. Our group leader used the satellite phone to inform Peace Corps staff that we were about to head out on the horse trek, only to have the Director of Programming & Training be rather confused as to why we were leaving 2 days early.

That’s right: somehow we had spent the entire week thinking we were supposed to leave on Saturday, when the plan had actually been all along to leave on Monday. We had put we were leaving on Monday on the Leave Request Forms we had submitted to PC weeks earlier, the other group who went to the West Taiga knew to leave on Monday, but somehow all 8 of us got it stuck in our heads that we were leaving on Saturday. Throughout the week there were times when we would ask each other what the date was, and the answer always seemed too early, considering I knew we were supposed to arrive back in Murun on June 30, but I never gave it much thought, nor did anyone else apparently. To be fair, everyone at the camp (including the CP who we had arranged everything with) also thought we were leaving on Saturday, though they may have gotten that from us. Again, none of us are quite sure how this happened, but both groups had been talking when we were at the ger camp in Tsagaannuur about asking PC if we could stay an extra day at the ger camp when we returned from the reindeer camps (to get some rest between the long horse trek and the longer purgon ride back to Murun). But it seems our group subconsciously was going to make us stay at the ger camp an extra 2 days no matter what.

Anyway, since we were already all packed and the horses and guides were ready to go by the time we found out about our little mistake, PC told us to go ahead and leave anyway. To be honest, I was a little upset about us leaving early, as there were other activities we had wanted to do with the reindeer herders but didn’t have time for (or so we thought), but by that point they were expecting us to leave, so we did.
The horse ride back was significantly faster, partly because it was downhill more of the way but mostly because our guides were eager to get to the drop-off point because they were going to turn around and go back to their camp that same day.

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So we spent a large portion of the trek at a trot or canter, with some of us even galloping at points. Five hours later, we arrived at the drop-off point, but since the driver who was supposed to take us back to Tsagaannuur thought we were arriving Monday afternoon, we had to call him to pick us up (which we had to wait to do since there was no phone reception on the way). He arrived 2 and a half hours later, even though it shouldn’t have taken much more than an hour.

So we were all very tired from waking up super early, horse trekking (quickly) across 55 km of mountains and forests, and waiting in the middle of nowhere for hours. And then on the way back to town, our purgon was stopped at a bridge (a bridge that we had no problem going through on our way to the drop-off point the week before). Our driver got out and talked to the guys manning the gate in front of the bridge, who then came over to us waiting in the purgon and told us we had to pay 12,000 tugriks (about $6) to cross the bridge. He had 2 small pieces of paper with the Mongolian word for “tourist” on them along with  a price of 6,000. We tried to explain to them that we weren’t tourists, that we live and work in Mongolia (I mean, we were speaking to them in Mongolian), but they seemed to think that the Korean-American PCV among us was our Mongolian translator/tour guide and we were tourists. This went on for almost 20 minutes, with us refusing to budge, not so much because of the money (which was a tiny amount when split between the 8 of us) but because we knew they were trying to rip us off. It was especially annoying since our driver was one of the ones who had driven us up from Murun, and he knew we weren’t tourists, but he didn’t say anything to back us up. The bridge trolls finally said they were going into town and would be back in an hour, and we heard them mention the Mongolian word for “police.” We decided we would rather just get our bags out of the purgon and walk the rest of the way than pay the stupid toll, so we got out and asked the driver to let us get our bags out of the back because we were going to walk. He seemed ready to laugh at us, as we were still quite a ways from town and he obviously thought we were joking, but we weren’t playing around. Since he didn’t seem to want to wait around for an hour for the police to show up, he paid another bridge troll the toll (supposedly, though we think it was a front, as it’s not like corruption doesn’t exist here). He told us to get back in the purgon and took us into town. We needed to stop at a store in town for some snacks since we would be staying at the ger camp for 2 days. So we got out and went into a shop, only to come back out and not see our purgon or driver anywhere. We thought he had gone to get the police, but he finally showed up 10 minutes later. He took us to the ger camp, and we thought he was going to try to charge us more than the previously agreed upon 5,000 tugriks each to make us pay for the toll anyway (though, again, we saw him give the guy some money but it definitely wasn’t 12,000 and we do think it was some kind of front), but he didn’t even try that on us, probably because he figured if we were willing to walk with all our shit into town to avoid paying a toll, we were not going to be screwed with by him trying to charge us more for the ride.
The next day, the lady who runs the ger camp had us doing manual labor for most of the day. She wanted rock paths leading from the gers to the dining hall and bathrooms, and we agreed to help out since she’s always been super nice to PCVs: she gives us a discount price for staying at the camp and doesn’t charge us for using the showers or taking the canoes and kayaks out on the lake (which we did later that day). She even let us use the kitchen to cook our own meals, since we had some food left over and not enough money to pay for meals at the camp along with our lodging. A couple groups of tourists stayed at the camp briefly, and she asked us not to talk to them about how much (or little) we paid to stay there (or how we didn’t have to pay for the showers and canoes). We figured it was also nice that those tourists saw us working around the camp in case they found out about how much less we were paying, since we were doing plenty enough work to cover much of our expenses.

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Monday was a very chill day. We all slept in again, the boys finished the little that was left of the rock path, and we waited for the arrival of the PCVs from the West Taiga. They got to the ger camp a little after 7. We ate dinner and then had a meeting to debrief how the trips to both sides had gone.
The 2 purgons came to pick us up the next morning at 9. After packing up, we went into town because most of us needed to take out money from the bank. We finally left Tsagaannuur around 10:30, but one of the purgons kept breaking down. Twice we had to stop for an hour while the drivers tried to fix it up, so the normally 10-hour drive took closer to 13 hours.
The next morning in Murun I did laundry and bought my bus ticket back to UB. Our bus left at around 7 in the evening, so we had the whole night to rest for when we arrived in UB the next morning. Except the woman sitting beside me kept reaching over me and opening the window, so I was awakened by freezing cold air blasting my face throughout the night.

We got into UB earlier than expected (before 9) and spent the morning at the PC office returning the helmets we had borrowed for the horse trek (as per PC requirements), having coffee and chatting with the Country Director, and filling out reimbursement forms for travel costs to and from the reindeer camp (since PC/Mongolia has grant money this summer to reimburse some of the travel costs PCVs incur while working at camps throughout the country). Then I went back to the hostel to take a shower, followed by lunch at a pizza place. I went to the bus station to buy a ticket back to site, but all the seats were sold out until the Monday morning bus, meaning I would be in UB with some other PCVs for 4th of July weekend!
On the evening of the 3rd, we went to watch a fellow PCV and his friend perform at a local bar/cafe. Then on the 4th a few of us who were in town for various reasons went to lunch at a little restaurant popular among expats that was having 4th of July specials, including buy 1 get 1 free hotdogs and good prices on apple pie. While heading back with a few others, we stopped by an art gallery, hung out in Chinggis Square, and had drinks at a bar.

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Then we went our separate ways, with me going back to the hostel, where a larger group of PCVs were busy getting drunk and later going out, while I just chilled out for the rest of the evening (until a couple of the girls dragged me out for a mojito). There were some fireworks that were shot off from the square (which is conveniently half a block from the hostel), so that was a nice end to the 4th.
The next day was my last full day in UB. Most of the others at the hostel headed back to their sites, so I had a day of chilling out and eating in to make up for all the money I’d spent the previous few days.
The bus to Uliastai left at 9 the next morning, and I was at least riding with one of my sitemates. The ride was significantly shorter than the ride from Uliastai to UB I had taken 3 weeks earlier: something about not having the bus break down on a regular basis and not stopping to take breaks every 2 hours do a lot to make a bus ride shorter. The only issue we ran into was that the bus got stuck in sand at like 4 in the morning, so everyone had to get off the bus into the chilly night air while a bunch of people tried to push it out of the sand. But on the plus side, the bridge was fixed so we didn’t have to walk across it in the dead of night while the bus went around. In the end, the bus trip only took 26 hours compared to the 35 hours of before.
Since my ger had been taken down, I was still having to stay at the health department. Which meant all my coworkers knew when I got back and expected me to just hop right back into work, despite getting very little sleep on the bus the night before. But then it was Naadam, which meant several days of vacation. Unfortunately, the entire weekend and into the next week was nothing but chilly, rainy weather. Because the weather was so bad (and because the health department is much further away from the stadium than my khashaa would have been if I was still at my ger), I really only got to see the opening ceremony. But you can check out my post from last year’s Naadam if you really want to see what it’s all about.

Later today I am heading back to Darkhan to begin my stint as a Resource Volunteer for the second half of PST. Let the next adventure begin!

Training of Trainers

The last 2 weeks of May I spent in Darkhan for Peace Corps’ Training of Trainers (ToT). Earlier in the year, PC staff sent out the trainer application to all the current PCVs who wanted to work during the upcoming PST for our new group of PC/Mongolia Trainees (the M26s). Current Volunteers could apply for trainer positions (or what PC calls “Resource Volunteers”) for each of the 3 technical sectors here in Mongolia (TEFL, CYD, and Health), Cross-Culture, and/or Language. Always looking for a way to travel on Peace Corps’ dime, I applied to be either a Health or Cross-Culture Resource Volunteer for the second half of PST (they split PST into two halves so that the Resource Volunteers aren’t away from their sites for the whole summer).

Then about a month later I found out that I had been selected to be one of two Health Resource Volunteers for the second half! Yay! In previous years the Health and CYD sectors only had one Resource Volunteer each per half of PST, but there are slightly more incoming M26s in both of those sectors (and it’s just a lot of work in general for one person), so this summer they’re having two trainers for each half.

So all the Resource Volunteers (first and second half), along with the LCFs (who teach the daily Mongolian language classes to the Trainees) and the Technical Coordinators (Mongolian professionals who work with the respective Resource Volunteers to facilitate the technical sessions that Trainees attend in the afternoons) gathered in Darkhan for the two-week ToT. Many of the LCFs and Technical Coordinators (TCs) had worked with PC in the past: our Health TC has been a counterpart to two PCVs in the past at the hospital and health department she’s worked at, and one of our LCFs from last summer’s PST is also an LCF for this new group of Health Trainees. Our other LCF from last summer is back again as well, but she’s working with one of the CYD groups this year instead of the Healthies.

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The first week of ToT consisted mainly of long, information-packed sessions, standard at most PC trainings. We discussed PST logistics, policies, trainer facilitation skills and team teaching, lesson planning, etc. while sitting in our groups (based on the site where the new PCTs we would be training would be living throughout the summer). Many things about this year’s PST are different from previous years, including the fact that all the the training sites are either in or close to Darkhan. In past years trainee groups have been sent to Sukhbaatar city up by the Russian border, but this year there are 3 trainee groups in ger districts on the outskirts of Darkhan, and the remaining groups are in soums within about 60km of Darkhan. All the TEFL groups are in the soums, while the 2 CYD groups and the 1 Health group are in the Darkhan ger districts (they need to be closer to the city where there are more places for them to have their summer practicums). My training site from last summer, Dereven, is where one of the CYD groups is staying this summer, along with another ger district next to it. The Healthies this summer will be in Mangirt, a ger district on the opposite side of Darkhan.

The Saturday of our first week of ToT, we had Host Family Orientation to prepare the Mongolian families that would be housing the new Trainees this summer. We Resource Volunteers helped out by answering questions the host families had about American people and culture and by performing skits illustrating some common “issues” that can arise when fresh new American Trainees are suddenly thrown into a new culture and family without being able to speak the language. Some of the families had hosted PCTs before, but many of them were new (as there were new training sites this summer, including our Health training site). There are only going to be 5 Trainees in Dereven this time around (as opposed to the 10 of us last year), so my host family didn’t get another Trainee, but those that did remembered me and Kathy (the other M25 Health Resource Volunteer) and came to chat with us afterwards. Hopefully I’ll be able to visit my host family at some point when I come back for the second half of PST.

We finally had a day off, but then it was back to work on Monday to begin the second week of ToT. We spent each day of the second week working with our training teams to update old session outlines from last year’s PST, create new session outlines for things that have been added to the curriculum, and other sector-specific tasks.

The Health trainers hard at work

The Health trainers hard at work

Our Health training team consists of Doogie (pronounced “daw-gee”), our Technical Coordinator and team lead, and us 4 Resource Volunteers (2 first half, 2 second half). The Health Program Manager for Peace Corps/Mongolia was also there to guide us through the preparations but won’t be working with us on a regular basis during actual PST since she’s also in charge of all the current Health PCVs and those PCVs who live in the central region of Mongolia. And we have our 2 LCFs who will be teaching the Health Trainees, but they were mostly in a separate room doing practice teaching with the other LCFs.

In addition to going through all the session outlines, we had to create a budget for PST, do practice facilitations, find and assign practicum sites (clinics, the hospital, the health department) for the Trainees to work at throughout the summer, arrange locations for joint sessions (where the Trainees and their practicum counterparts attend sessions together), and organize a new peer education program where Trainees will be partnered with peer educators (secondary school students and first-year nursing students) to help them facilitate sexual education lessons. There was a lot to do and it got stressful at times, but we at least got out of the office several times to visit the Darkhan Health Department, several clinics, the Darkhan governor (who remembered us from last year), and our training site, Mangirt. Since it’s a new training site, none of us knew where the Mangirt school was, which is an important place to be able to find since that’s where all the Healthies’ PST sessions would be held.

So after our hard week of getting everything finalized for the newbies, some of us also came into the polytechnic college on Saturday to organize the rooms where Orientation sessions would be taking place and to decorate for their arrival to Darkhan (like our group did last year, the M26s spent a couple days outside of UB before coming to Darkhan for Orientation).

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Oh, and we got to stay in sweet apartments during ToT!

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Granted they shoved 4 people into each apartment, but only for ToT: each apartment had 2 first-half trainers who would stay until Naadam in July, when the 2 second-half trainers would return to the apartment once more. So even though the one-bedroom apartment I shared with 3 other girls only had two small pull-out sofas–meaning we had to take turns sleeping on the floor–the apartment had a hot shower, fancy washing machine, and wifi! The building is also at a prime location right between the Nomin Department Store and the “Orange Market,” a large shopping center where you can get all your groceries and other necessities and also houses a Good Price, a store that offers many foreign goods such as…

This may be all I eat when I come back to Darkhan

This may be all I eat when I come back to Darkhan

Then I went down to UB for a couple days before my flight back to Uliastai. The Monday after ToT was International Children’s Day, which is a big deal here in Mongolia. And since I was in UB that day, some fellow PCVs and I walked around the city to see all the festivities:

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Tomorrow I will fly back to site, where things will return to normal (or as normal as my life can be in Mongolia) for a short time, before my next adventure!

 

Final Day with My Host Family (and Fun Trip!)

On Friday evening (the same day my host family came back from their long trip) they told me that the next day (the last full day with them) we would be going on a trip up to the Russian border. So the next morning at 9:30 all 7 of us (baby included) crammed into the car to head out. We first stopped at the market to pick up food for the picnics they had planned, and then we proceeded to go back home (apparently they had forgot some things). So around 10:30 we finally left Darkhan and headed north up to Sukhbaatar City. Shortly after leaving we passed Tsagaan Nuur (White Lake), and there were camels! I didn’t think there were camels in Mongolia outside the Gobi Desert, but my host mom told me that at one point there were only 7 camels in the Darkhan-Uul aimag, but since then the population has grown to a few hundred. Of course we passed by before I could snap a photo, and they were gone by the time we came back that evening, but I saw camels!

Like this, but with dozens more camels

Like this, but with dozens more camels

Right before we got into Sukhbaatar, we took a detour to Eej Mod (Mother Tree), which is an important spot among adherents of Shamanism. The large tree was struck by lightning a few years ago, but it is still believed to grant wishes to those who visit it. The tree (and many around it) are covered in tons and tons of khadags (silk scarves), and there are a wide variety of offerings placed around the tree (including bricks of tea, matches and incense, cakes, cartons of milk, and bottles of vodka). There were tons of Mongolians there, and I felt very awkward not knowing what to do. So I followed my host family around while they walked in circles and threw rice and spoonfuls of milk all over the place (which turned out to be what they had forgotten at the house and had to come back for). Unfortunately I didn’t get any good photos because I wasn’t sure if it would be disrespectful to be snapping pictures while people were bowing and praying to the sacred tree, but I later found this post by another blogger who did manage to get some nice pictures if you want to check it out.

Then we got back in the car and headed into Sukhbaatar, where we stopped at a shop to get some special bread that’s apparently only available there. We then drove out of the city and even further north up to the Mongolian-Russian border, to a place called Saikhani Khutul.

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It’s basically a park up on a mountain overlooking the border into Siberia.

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The river down there is

The river down there is Selenge Gol, one of the longest rivers in Mongolia, which eventually flows into a lake in Russia.

We ate lunch at one of the pavilions then went around to the many animal statues at the park.

Boloroo, Suuna, and Ochralaa

Boloroo, Suuna, and Ochralaa on a horse

Ochralaa and me

Ochralaa and me on a leopard

Boloroo, Bakana, Suuna, and Ochralaa (hiding behind the reindeer's leg)

Boloroo, Bakana, Suuna, and Ochralaa (hiding behind the reindeer’s leg)

My host siblings and I even ventured over to an eagle statue that required some treacherous climbing to get to:

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Then we went over to the main viewing area for more photo ops:

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As we headed back to the car, we stopped by one more statue, which I think is supposed to symbolize the friendship between Mongolia and Russia:

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On the way back to Darkhan, we stopped at the Orkhon Gol, the longest river in Mongolia, for another picnic and some card games.

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Some horses even stopped by

Some horses even stopped by

We finally had to head back home so I could finish packing, but it was really amazing to get to spend so much quality time with my amazing host family and to see some great sites!

My First Naadam

Thursday, July 10 was the first day of Darkhan’s Naadam (the national Naadam in Ulaanbaatar started on the 11th). There was actually one event the previous day that our LCFs took us to see: a shagai competition where they fling shagai pieces at targets using what look like mini crossbows.

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We had the day off from classes so that we could go see the events. My host family wasn’t going to the stadium that day, so I went with some of the other PCTs instead. We got to watch the opening ceremony in the stadium (which is conveniently located in Dereven near the school we have classes at, so it was within walking distance for us).

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Then the mayor of Darkhan invited us to his ger for huushuur (which is apparently the food of Naadam), mutton, and airag (the fermented mare’s milk). I really could have done without the airag, but the huushuur was really good, and it was nice to get all the food for free versus having to buy it from the vendors.

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Inside the mayor's ger

Inside the mayor’s ger

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The mayor is the one directly behind the tower of bread, wearing the white shirt and hat

After we left the mayor’s ger, we walked around the stadium to see all the tents and booths that had been set up.

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Then we went back inside to watch some of the wrestling.

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The winner of each match does a little "eagle dance" around the shrine thing

The winner of each match does a little “eagle dance” around the shrine thing

Then we met up with the mayor again, because he wanted to take us to see the archery (which is in a different part of Darkhan) and to have someone show us how to shoot a bow and arrow. So me and one of the other PCTs got to ride in the mayor’s car (nothing super fancy, but he did have his own driver). At the archery site they had us sit under a tent to watch the archers do their thing and fed us more huushuur and airag.

The men

The men

The women

The women

The children

The children

The red things on the ground there in the middle are the center of the target

The red things on the ground there in the middle are the center of the target

More food

More food

Once the competitions were done, the mayor had one of the archers agree to show us all how to shoot the bow and arrow. There were four of us, but only one guy, so he got to go first (because Mongolia is a very male-dominated culture), even though it was one of the other girls who was super excited about learning archery and she was the one who had asked the mayor at all our previous meetings if he could find someone to teach her archery. But anyway, the archer shows our guy how to hold the bow and arrow and lets him shoot it toward the target.

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Then after they retrieve the arrow they let him shoot it again. But this time he shoots the arrow into an area of concrete, breaking it in half.

Eh, we can duct tape it, right?

Eh, we can duct tape it, right?

Whoops! Well, just get another arrow, right? There’s literally dozens of them with all the archers gathered together. Except apparently the arrows are pretty rare because they’re made with some special wood that has to dry for a year before it can be used and there’s only like 10 people in all of Mongolia who make the arrows. So the competitors are not willing to lend their precious arrows out, meaning not only did our guy break one of the nice archer’s super rare arrows, but there was no way we were going to get another one. So none of us three girls got to even hold the bow and arrow, let alone shoot it, because the stupid guy had to go first and break everything. Needless to say, the girl who really wanted to do archery was not happy at all (neither was I). So if that guy happens to go missing anytime soon, you’ll know why.

On the second day of Naadam, my host family and I went out to the countryside (not too far—it was only about a 15 minute drive, but you couldn’t even tell you had just left the city). My host brother was racing in the Ikh Nas (meaning the horses are over 5 years old) horse race, which is 25 kilometers across the open countryside. My family was running late, so we got there just 5 minutes before the end of the race. I took pictures of the first group of finishers, but I couldn’t tell which one was him (but my host family kept yelling his name so I know he was one of them).

Is one of you Suuna?

Is one of you Suuna?

Maybe you? You look like you have a yellow shirt.

Maybe you? You look like you have a yellow shirt.

He ended up in 8th place out of like 150 riders, which I thought was pretty amazing, but apparently he was pretty bummed about it. Only 1st through 5th place get prizes, and I guess after winning one of the races at the Orkhon Naadam the previous week, 8th place doesn’t seem too great.

It looked like the kid who came in 1st place was only like 4 years old.

Yeah, I'm talking about you

Yeah, I’m talking about you

Apparently it’s very common for really young kids to ride in (and win) these races. I mean, they barely weigh anything so of course a horse can run faster with only 20 extra pounds on it versus 100. I’ve heard the government is trying to set new rules where riders have to be at least 14 years old to race (because there are apparently a lot of injuries), but I have no idea how they would enforce that. My host brother, who’s 15, is apparently pretty old for a rider, so I don’t know how they would basically tell all the younger kids (who make up the vast, vast majority of the current riders) that they can’t race until they’re older.

Since I wasn’t sure if I had gotten a picture of my host brother approaching the finish line, I wanted to get one after the race when we went over to meet up with him. But he got off his horse right as we were coming over so the owner/trainer could cool it down, and then when I saw how bummed he looked, I didn’t want to shove a camera in his face.

Here's his horse though

Here’s his horse though

We hung out for almost an hour before heading back home for lunch. After resting a bit at home, we went out to the stadium.

Host dad and Ochralaa on a donkey

Host dad and Ochralaa on a donkey

Ochralaa in a toy car

Ochralaa in a toy car

Tattoo!

“I ❤ Mongolia” tattoo!

We barely stayed for an hour though, just walking around to the different booths outside. I guess my family’s just not too into Naadam outside of the horse races. We did get a picture taken with camels though!

Gaahh, why is no one else smiling?! (On left camel, Suuna; on right camel, a cousin; standing, left to right: Bakana, mom, dad holding Ochralaa, me, and Boloroo)

Gaahh, why is no one else smiling?! (On left camel, Suuna; on right camel, my host mom’s younger brother; standing, left to right: Bakana, mom, dad holding Ochralaa, me, and Boloroo)

Oh, and by the way, you can totally fit 7 people plus 1 toddler in a sedan (though I don’t recommend it anywhere there are actual laws preventing stuff like that).

UPDATE: I created a YouTube channel where I’ve uploaded some of my videos from Naadam. Check them out here.

Mid-Center Days

Beginning on July 2nd, all of the M25 PCTs came together again in Darkhan for Mid-Center Days, which is another 3 and a half days of Peace Corps training approximately halfway through PST. We stayed at the Darkhan Hotel again (which has wifi in the lobbies! Score!) and had lots of training and informational sessions all day long at the Humanities University. Then in the evenings we had free time to get dinner, go shopping, etc. On one of the nights we had a media exchange to share movies, TV shows, and ebooks between each other’s hard drives. On Thursday all of us Health PCTs and a few of the current Health Volunteers went out to dinner at a restaurant that actually served pizza (which is obviously not available in little Dereven). It was absolutely delicious, and I probably had 5 or 6 slices!

Then Friday was the 4th of July, so when we went back to the hotel for lunch, we saw that the Peace Corps staff had decorated the dining room with American flags and had gotten the chefs to make us all hamburgers, hotdogs, and French fries!

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Then in the evening a group of us went on a “hike” to a big field right outside the city to have a picnic, chat, throw around a Frisbee, kick around a soccer ball, and play with one of the current PCV’s adorable puppy!

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Of course a ukelele was involved

Of course a ukelele was involved

View of the city from the field

View of the city from the field

On Saturday we had a half day of sessions and then headed back to our respective sites. It was really nice to get to see everyone from the other sites, especially since we didn’t see each other again until Final Center Days and Swearing-In in the middle of August. Oh yeah—and on two of the nights we stayed at the hotel there were crazy parties going on until the wee hours of the morning in a giant tent right in the parking lot (which was conveniently on the side of the hotel my room was on…), so we all got very little sleep and barely made it through all the long sessions. As soon as I got back home from Mid-Center Days I took a glorious, much needed 5-hour nap.

A Day in the Life of a Mongolia Health PCT, Part 1

So, what exactly does PST (Pre-Service Training, remember?) consist of?

Monday through Friday we have training sessions at Dereven’s school.

School #4 (In Darkhan--there's only this one school in Dereven)

School #4 (in Darkhan–there’s only this one school in Dereven)

The building we have classes in

The building we have classes in

From 9am to 1pm we have Mongolian language class with our 2 LCFs (Language & Culture Facilitators). Then we go home for lunch from 1 to 2:30. From 2:30 to 5:30 we have Technical Sessions (training specifically for the Health Sector) every day except Wednesdays, when we have Cross-Cultural class instead.

We all live in different parts of Dereven, but the school is kind of a central location. It takes about 15 minutes to walk from my house to the school, and it’s a constant obstacle course, simultaneously trying to avoid the cow shit that is literally everywhere, giant shards of broken glass, and huge puddles of water and mud that never seem to dry up. Plus it’s already gotten up to at least 95 degrees F that I know of, so forget any notions you may have had of Mongolia being a permanently frozen wasteland (sure, the winters do last like 8 months, but in summer it often gets to the opposite extreme). And I get to walk through all this in my business casual attire! (Yes, we have to wear business casual to our Technical and Cross-Cultural sessions.)

A few weeks into PST we started going to our individual practicum sites to get a taste for what it will be like when we first arrive at our HCA (Host Country Agency) at our permanent site. Two of the PCTs have their practicum at the Darkhan hospital, two at the Darkhan Health Department, and the rest of us at various family clinics throughout the city. We have to take taxis (alone, but Peace Corps gives us money each week specifically for this) from Dereven to wherever our practicum site is (mine is in New Darkhan). We go about once a week to our practicum site, where we try to use our not-too-great Mongolian language skills to shadow or get involved in something going on.

The first day at my family clinic, I literally felt like the doctors and nurses there had no idea what to do with me. One of the patients who was waiting to see the doctor noticed that I was an American (how did she know?!) and started talking to me in perfect English! I told her that I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer and she told me she used to work with Peace Corps! She talked to the nurses in Mongolian and told them to give me a tour of the clinic, with her translating the whole time. Then the doctor called her in for her appointment, but she gave me her phone number in case I ever need a translator! But then the staff no longer knew what to do with me and brought me into a room where one of the nurses tried to talk to me for a while. I tried to ask some questions about the clinic, but eventually she needed to get back to work. So as I’m sitting in the room alone, another random lady comes in and shoves her phone at me, indicating that I should talk to whoever is on the other end. I say “hello” and it’s some random Mongolian lady speaking to me in somewhat broken English. She asks me what’s going on, and I tell her (keep in mind, I still have no idea who this lady is), then she tells me she is heading over to the clinic at that moment. Sure enough, she shows up soon after and comes in the room to talk with me. I’m pretty sure one of the clinic staff just called someone they knew who spoke some English to come talk to me. Apparently she is a nursing student who has been teaching herself English for the past 10 or so years. We talked about differences between the Mongolian and American health systems, and she also gave me her phone number in case I ever need a translator (well, at least I’m making connections!). So that was interesting, even if it had nothing to do with my practicum site. The next time was a little better: I at least got to shadow some of the doctors and nurses and practice a little bit of Mongolian, but I’m still not exactly sure what we’re supposed to be doing there for 3 hours at a time.

For some of the other Technical Sessions, we have Joint Sessions, where we, along with people from all of our practicum sites, come together to learn about some topic related to needs assessments, behavior change, etc. At one of the sessions, we (the PCTs) even got to give a 30-minute presentation to all of them. We’ve also gone to the Health Department to interview some of the workers, to some of the NGOs in Darkhan (including the Red Cross and World Vision), and to the Education Department to learn about health curriculum in Mongolian schools (particularly focusing on sex ed). I was surprised to find that the health education here is pretty good. It starts in 6th grade and students have to take it every year throughout middle and high school. On the other hand, I only had one health class in middle school and one semester of health in all of high school. The sex ed could be more comprehensive (they don’t start getting into those topics until 8th or 9th grade, which is after many of them start having sex), but I was overall impressed with the curriculum. The next week we were put into groups of 2 PCTs and 2 health teachers to design a mini sex ed lesson using a nifty lesson book that Peace Corps designed. Then we had to help present the lesson to a group of teens they managed to corral from around Dereven (since school was out for the summer). So I got to help teach about proper condom use (complete with condom demonstration!), which is something that most health teachers here don’t feel comfortable doing. Fun times!

I will talk about what weekends are like in my next post.

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.