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.

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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.

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.

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.