Benefit Concert for Tumentsogt Soum

Back in April, there were huge wildfires across large areas of eastern Mongolia. One of our PCVs who lives in Tumentsogt soum in Sukhbaatar aimag shared some photos of the devastation the wildfires caused in his soum and the surrounding steppe:

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Over 75% of the countryside surrounding Tumentsogt was burned

Over 75% of the countryside surrounding Tumentsogt was burned

At least 60 families' gers (and everything inside) were completely destroyed by the fires

At least 60 families’ gers (and everything inside) were completely destroyed by the fires

A huge number of livestock were killed in the fires. As many people in soums are herders, their livestock are their livelihood

A huge number of livestock were killed in the fires. As many people in soums are herders, their livestock are their livelihood

So when my sitemates and I heard about this, we decided to hold a benefit concert to raise money for the people of Tumentsogt to help them rebuild their homes and purchase new household items and livestock. We planned the concert with the help of our Bookbridge center; the head of the center really took charge and got a lot of the stuff done (including handling all the money, since PCVs aren’t allowed to handle money for projects like this), and our students were very excited to plan performances for the show.

Uliastai has a theater that holds concerts quite regularly, and though it costs quite a bit of money to rent the theater for a concert, we were able to talk the theater director into letting us rent it for half the usual price since it was for a charitable cause. We decided to have each of Uliastai’s 5 schools put together 15 minutes worth of performances (singing, dancing, etc.) from their students, and to have each school try to sell 150 tickets to both of the showings (we had one at 6pm and another at 8pm on a Friday). Our Bookbridge students were also given 15 minutes for their own performances.

While we did run into a couple issues (like one of the school’s director refusing to allow his students to participate or to even sell tickets because they were busy getting ready for their school’s open house or something later that weekend), everything somehow managed to come together in less than a month. We were able to sell most of the tickets (making enough money to pay off the theater rental and have about 500,000 tugriks [roughly $250] in profits to donate to Tumentsogt) and the concert itself went very well. I took lots of photos and recorded videos of some of the performances and uploaded them to my YouTube channel, but here are a few of my favorites:

Students getting ready backstage

Students getting ready backstage

A young student dressed in traditional Mongolian costume getting ready to sing

A young student dressed in traditional Mongolian costume getting ready to sing

The first-place winner of our English Song Competition from the week before:

One of our 11th grade students singing and playing guitar

One of our 11th grade students singing and playing guitar

A student performing a traditional Mongolian dance

A student performing a traditional Mongolian dance

Although $250 may not seem like much, that amount of money goes a lot further here in Mongolia than it would in America, so I’d like to think we helped at least one family get back on their feet. And because the concert was such a success, we’re thinking of maybe doing another benefit concert next spring for some other cause.

The concert was the evening before one of my sitemates and I flew to UB, then took a bus up to Darkhan for Training of Trainers, which will be the subject of my next post (yes, I know I said that at the end of my previous post, but I’m serious this time).

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Spring Has Sprung!

After roughly 7 months of winter, it looks like spring has finally arrived here in Uliastai! And by “arrived,” I mean one week it was still frigid with sub-zero temperatures during the night, and the next I could comfortably walk around town with jeans and a thin long-sleeved shirt. Now I only have to make a small fire in my stove in the morning to get the chill out from the night before and maybe a small fire late in the evening depending on how long I plan to stay up. I somehow still have over half of my firewood left, probably because it was a relatively “mild” winter by Mongolian standards. The sun doesn’t set until almost 10pm, so even accounting for daylight saving time, that’s an extra 3-4 hours of light during the evening. But unfortunately, the warmer weather means my ger spiders have come back. Stupid spiders.

Most of the snow on the surrounding mountains has melted…

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…and some parts of the rivers have completely thawed as well.

Although the rivers are still frozen in some parts, given that 2 feet of ice takes a while to melt

Although the rivers are still frozen in some parts, given that 2 feet of ice takes a while to melt

The weather was even nice enough yesterday for us to go on our first hike of spring!

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Those white splotches are ice on the still-frozen parts of the rivers

Those white splotches are ice on the still-frozen parts of the rivers

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Top-of-the-mountain photo with perfectly-timed bird soaring behind me

Top-of-the-mountain photo with perfectly-timed bird soaring behind me

It was a nice little excursion, but I didn’t even think about how my ghost-white skin would react to seeing the sun for the first time in over half a year. I remembered to put sunscreen on my face and neck, but completely forgot about my arms. So now they’re sunburned. 😦

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.

Neighbor’s House Fire

Around 12:30am on the Monday after Naadam, while lying in bed but not quite asleep yet, I received a call from the PCT who lives right down the street from me. I was obviously a bit confused, but I answered my phone to have her tell me that there’s a really big fire near my hashaa! I had been wearing a face mask, so I didn’t notice anything, but as soon as I looked out my window I could see an orange glow and huge plumes of smoke coming from the direction of the front of my hashaa. I stayed on the phone with my friend while she told me about how she saw the fire from her house and noticed it was near my hashaa and suggested I wake up my host parents if they weren’t already. I ran out of my room to find only my host sisters in the house, both seemingly asleep. Then I ran out to the ger and found no one in there. Finally I ran towards the front of the hashaa to find my host dad standing on top of the cow pen watching the fire, while my host mom, brother, grandma, and some other people who were staying at our hashaa were standing by the gate. I then saw that the house in the hashaa across the street was what was on fire. My friend (who I was still on the phone with at this point) told me that she had seen people throwing buckets of water on it earlier, but with no plumbing system, there wasn’t anything else they could do. By the time I had gotten outside, a fire truck had arrived, and it looked like they were using some kind of hose, but again, there are no fire hydrants, so the only water they had was what was in the tank of the truck. I tried to get my host mom to tell me what happened, if anyone was still in the house, etc., but she didn’t seem to know much either. As the fire finally started to go out, some of the relatives and I went to get a closer look. We could see that the entire house had been burnt to the ground. A man and woman (I assumed the people who lived in the house) were standing around the cinders, the woman occasionally falling to the ground in despair. I felt really uncomfortable, and since there wasn’t anything I could do, I went with my family back into our hashaa and went back to my room. I sat in bed for another 30 minutes, just thinking about how those people had literally just lost everything. There’s not exactly such a thing as fire insurance here, so I had no idea how they would start over.

The next morning on the way to school, I looked over at their hashaa, and saw the remains more clearly. The whole house had truly been burnt to the ground. There was police tape around the perimeter, and I saw the same couple from before crouching by the ashes. At school, my friend and I told our LCFs about what had happened. Let’s just say their reactions were unbelievable. One of them actually let out a quick laugh, and they both seemed to think it was no big deal. I don’t know if people’s houses burn down here all the time or what, but I saw absolutely nothing funny about it. We tried to ask them what a family does when this happens to them and how we could help them, but they either didn’t understand our questions or just didn’t care. Later that day I tried to ask my host mom about it. I asked her if she knew those people, to which she replied no (how can you not know your neighbors?) and if everyone got out of the house ok, to which she replied that she didn’t know.

A few days later, though, they had already put up a new ger in the hashaa, so even though they still lost everything that was inside their home, at least they quickly got a new place to sleep.