I Swear I Actually Do Work

I’ve become aware that many of my blog posts make it seem like I a) spend a lot of time away from site, or b) do a lot of non work-related stuff at site. But to be honest, that’s all just an illusion formed from my habit of only posting about especially fun/interesting/unusual things (which of course is all relative–my life here in general is probably pretty unusual to most of my readers, but for me the day-to-day stuff has simply become “normal” life for me). The truth is, my primary assignment (working at the Zavkhan health department) mostly consists of work that probably wouldn’t be super exciting to read about every month, since most days I just sit in an office working on various projects, occasionally helping with a training or seminar either at the health department or at local schools, and teaching my coworkers English.

The health department certainly does tons of work throughout the aimag, but most of my involvement is behind the scenes and at the planning stage. Let’s face it: Mongolian is a really difficult language to learn, and I’ve long since accepted that I’ll never be fluent in the language (and the vast majority of people here in Uliastai will never be fluent in English), so for any health-related projects I generally have to have a Mongolian counterpart do all the talking and presenting and facilitating, even if I planned everything. Turns out this is actually the ideal set-up for Health PCVs, since our entire purpose is building the capacity of host country nationals. Our work wouldn’t be very sustainable if we PCVs were always running the show instead of helping our counterparts build their knowledge and skills, though the result is that to an outside observer, it can look like we don’t really do much.

So to sometimes switch things up and convince myself that I’m actually doing something, I work on lots of projects outside of the health department, often with my sitemates. I love working with kids, so sometimes I’m envious of my sitemates who all work in schools and have little fan clubs/armies of adorable children, while I work in a typical office building of 30 some adults. So when my sitemates do projects at their schools or projects for students outside of school, I like to help them out as much as possible. So far, I’ve participated in some capacity in:

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  • community English classes for adults (outside of my health department classes)
  • a week-long art camp for students from herding families during a school break
We even managed to incorporate mini health lessons each day

We even managed to incorporate mini health lessons each day

  • the benefit concert we held back in spring
  • weekly “Mongolish” nights with locals who want to practice speaking English
  • various English competitions (song competition, speaking competition, culture fair, etc.) between students from all the local schools, since I’m the only impartial judge
The Belize team at the culture fair back in January

The Belize team at the culture fair back in January

I also do various things on my own outside of the health department, including:

  • editing the annual reports of the workers at the local World Vision office (World Vision is a US-based NGO, so all their reports have to be submitted in English)
  • teaching English at the Zoonotic Disease Research Center
  • editing the local news that a Mongolian reporter friend of mine translates and presents in English

And of course, I do plenty of work at/with my health department. In the nearly 16 months that I’ve been here in Uliastai, I’ve helped with:

  • making CPR and first aid brochures and planning a training for students of herder families (the parents of which spend the school year out in the countryside, meaning these students live alone in town and are responsible for their younger siblings)
  • a handwashing peer education program for students
  • College Student Health Promotion Day
Folding pamphlets counts as helping in my book

Folding pamphlets counts as helping in my book

  • our dental screening project for 1st-3rd graders back in May
  • informal computer/software assistance to coworkers as needed
  • program development (needs assessment, writing goals and objectives, monitoring and evaluation, etc.) trainings for coworkers
  • beginner and intermediate level English classes for coworkers
  • accident and injury prevention trainings for parents and kindergarten teachers
     Yes, I've discovered that Mongolian kindergartens are some of the nicest buildings in this country


Yes, I’ve discovered that Mongolian kindergartens are some of the nicest buildings in this country

  • a seminar on dealing with patients with alcohol problems for doctors at the hospital
  • a seminar on maternity care in America for midwives from throughout Zavkhan
The lady with the phone is either recording the information on the slide or recording me because holy crap this white girl is (poorly) speaking Mongolian!

The lady with the phone is either recording the information on the slide or recording me because holy crap this white girl is (poorly) speaking Mongolian!

[By the way, the only reason I can keep track of all this stuff is because we have to complete and submit the dreaded VRF (Volunteer Report Form) twice a year, where we list and describe (in detail) all the activities we’ve done as PCVs.]

See, I do stuff, I promise!

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Trip to the Gobi: Camels, Sand Dunes, and Running through the Desert

I finally made it to the Gobi! And it’s all thanks to Peace Corps/Mongolia needing to review the Health and CYD programs here!

Let me back up.

We found out during MST that the Health and CYD sectors here in Mongolia are going to be under review for the next couple of years. Apparently this happens quite often in Peace Corps and is just a chance to determine whether the programs are actually doing what they’re meant to do and to restructure the sectors to make them better for PCVs and the HCAs they work with. The project review won’t affect Health and CYD Volunteers already in country (the M25s and M26s), but for the next 1-2 years, Peace Corps/Mongolia won’t be bringing in new Volunteers for those sectors while they work on revamping them (so the next 1 or 2 PSTs will be solely for TEFL Trainees).

Before we headed back to our sites at the end of MST, we were told that PC staff would be interviewing us current Health and CYD PCVs at some point in the future to get feedback about the sectors. Well, “some point in the future” ended up being less than 2 weeks after we got back to site. Lo and behold, all the Healthies and CYDers got an email from PC saying that we would need to come in to UB a couple weeks later for focus group interviews. Oh darn, looks like another free trip to UB…

So how does the Gobi factor into all this?

During MST, one of the PCVs who lives in Omnogovi aimag discussed his plan to arrange a tour of the Gobi Desert on the weekend of the annual Gobi Marathon. I listened to his plans and considered going, but given how expensive and time-consuming it would be to go from Zavkhan to UB, then UB to Omnogovi, stay the weekend, and then doing it again on the way back, I couldn’t really justify it. But then I got the email from PC about the project review focus groups! Which happened to be scheduled for the Tuesday right after the Gobi Marathon!

Even so, it wouldn’t have worked out had there been seats available on the flight from Zavkhan to UB for the Saturday before the focus group, which is when PC had planned to fly us in (that’s what happens when you wait until 10 days before a flight to try to book seats). Had we flown in on Saturday, I wouldn’t have made it to Omnogovi in time for the tour and marathon. But since there were no seats on the plane, we (that is, me and our M26 CYDer) would have to instead take the bus from Zavkhan to UB.

I’ve already told you about the bus ride from hell that was my first trip on the Zavkhan-UB bus, but since there were no other options, I decided to make the best of the situation by leaving site a few days early and spending a couple vacation days in the Gobi. I would have to pay for the round trip transportation from UB to Omnogovi, but Peace Corps was obviously footing the bill for the bus ride from Zavkhan to UB and the return flight to Zavkhan afterward. And since I had to be in UB anyway for the focus group, I only had to take 2 of my vacation days, as opposed to the 6 or so I would have had to take otherwise.

Anyway, my sitemate and I left at 9am on Thursday morning (new PCVs aren’t allowed to leave site for their first 3 months unless for official PC or medical business, so she obviously couldn’t come with me to the Gobi, but I convinced PC to let her take the earlier bus with me so that she wouldn’t have to take it alone later in the week). Miraculously, this trip to UB ended up only taking 23 hours! For comparison, the previously mentioned bus ride from hell took 35 hours, and even that return trip took 26. So this was a new record for me.

The bus from UB to Dalanzadgad (the capital of Omnogovi) left at 4pm on Friday, so I hung out at the PC office until then while my sitemate went off to the hostel. The second bus ride only took about 9 hours, because even though the physical distance from Dalanzadgad to UB is only a little less than the distance from Uliastai to UB, the entire road to Dalanzadgad is paved and the route doesn’t require going hours out of the way to get around mountain ranges.

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So I arrived in Dalanzadgad a little after 1 in the morning, was picked up by the aforementioned resident M25, and was brought to his ger where the other Gobi adventurers were sleeping. I didn’t get much sleep though, because we were off at 7:30am for the start of our tour!

The 10 of us took a purgon ride out to Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park in the western part of the aimag, where we rode camels:

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I rode the white one!

I rode the white one!

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and climbed to the top of Khongoryn Els, aka the “Singing Sand Dunes:”

The pictures don't capture just how tall the dunes are; just know that those dots are horses

The pictures don’t capture just how tall the dunes are; just know that those dots in the center of the photo are horses

I don’t know how high the specific dune we climbed was, but the sand dunes of Khongoryn Els can get as tall as 300 meters (that’s almost 1,000 feet for my fellow metric-challenged Americans)!

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That dot in the top-left is our purgon

The incline

The incline

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It. Was. So. Freakin’. Exhausting! If you’ve ever walked on sand over even a slight incline, you know how exponentially more difficult it is than walking on dirt or pavement. Now imagine that, but climbing to a height almost as tall as the Eiffel Tower. Each step required so much effort, but if you stopped to rest for too long, the wind would bury your feet in even more sand, trapping you. But finally, slowly, we made it to the top!

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The other side of the dune we climbed

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Once again, the photos do not convey just how high up we were

Once again, the photos do not convey just how high up we were

Then we ran back down the dunes (sadly, we didn’t have anything to slide down on), which took all of 2 minutes compared to the hour or so it took us to climb up:

Hope you're not afraid of heights!

Hope you’re not afraid of heights!

We piled back into the purgon, which took us to a ger camp close to where the Gobi Marathon would be taking place the next day. Luckily, the ger camp had showers, which we all took advantage of since we had sand just about everywhere on our bodies from the dunes.

We woke up super early (again) the next morning to get to the starting location for the Gobi Marathon. It’s hard to really give directions to a specific location in the middle of the desert, so we first went to where we knew the finish line would be: at the Flaming Cliffs, one of the main tourist destinations in Omnogovi and the site of the first dinosaur egg discovery (along with many other dinosaur fossils). Then we just followed the red ribbons that marked the marathon path backwards until we found the start.

Now, before you go thinking that I’m actually a real runner or anything, I must admit that I had no intentions of running the full marathon. Or the half. No, I was running the 16km. The shortest distance was the 10km, but since I had already run one of those before, I decided to up the ante. Never mind that I had gone running exactly twice since being in Mongolia and was hardly in my pre-Peace Corps running shape.

Oh, let's not forget how tired and sore I was from climbing a giant sand dune the day before

Oh, let’s not forget how tired and sore I was from climbing a giant sand dune the day before

The Gobi Marathon isn’t exactly a huge event, though a group of Peace Corps Volunteers (and sometimes staff!) do go pretty much every year. It’s organized by a German dude who lives in and runs tours out of UB, and I got the sense that he has the marathon each year simply because he enjoys it (because I can’t imagine it makes him a lot of money). There were only 2 people running the full marathon:

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A handful of people ran or walked the half marathon, including a couple elderly German women who walked with their dog:

Who of course got a racing bib as well

Who of course got a racing bib as well

There were only 2 of us running the 16km: myself and one of the other PCVs. And then another handful of people ran the 10km, including 2 other PCVs (the rest of the PCVs who came were there for encouragement and to help pass out the refreshments every 5km).

The other girl running the 16km was way ahead of me from the start, so I was literally running for 10 miles surrounded by this:

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I managed to keep a steady jogging pace for the first 5km, but after that I had to alternate between jogging and walking for a bit. The last leg of the course was the toughest, requiring getting up a fairly steep hill and then a steady incline to the top of the Flaming Cliffs.

The Flaming Cliffs: location of the finish line

The Flaming Cliffs: location of the finish line

After nearly 2 hours, I finally made it to the finish line, where I was greeted by the PCV “support team” and plenty of refreshments. Now I can officially say I came in second place in a 16km race (because is it really that important to mention that there were only 2 people in the race?).

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When the girls running the 10km finished up, we all took plenty of photos of the beautiful scenery:

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And after ensuring that the half-marathon walkers (including the dog!) made it back safely…

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…we piled into the purgon for the ride back to Dalanzadgad. The eventful, exhausting, amazing Gobi weekend came to a close, and I went back up to UB for the project review focus groups.

I won’t bore you with the details of that, but there were focus groups for the M25 Health PCVs, the M25 CYD PCVs, and the M26 Health and CYD groups. Peace Corps had also asked a small group of M25 TEFL PCVs to come in. The focus groups were facilitated by experts from the PC headquarters in Washington, D.C. and Health/CYD Program Managers from other PC countries in the Eastern Europe/Mediterranean/Asia region. We were asked questions like “what is working well for you professionally/culturally,” “what isn’t working well,” “what suggestions do you have to make the program better,” etc.

Our focus group took just 2 hours (though we definitely could have kept the discussion going for a lot longer), and since PC did manage to get us seats on the flight back to Zavkhan (which happens to not be until Saturday), my sitemate and I got a few extra days to hang out in UB. For those counting, that’s 10 days away from site for a 2-hour interview. Such is life in Peace Corps/Mongolia.

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!

 

Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Response Drill

Yesterday there was a planned emergency response drill here in Uliastai. A couple days earlier had I noticed a large, camo military pack next to my coworker’s desk in our office. As she is not in the military (that I know of…) and camo is not quite her style, I asked what it was for.

Unless all pharmacists keep one of these in their office

Unless all pharmacists keep one of these in their office

She told me there would be an earthquake drill later in the week and that she’s part of the emergency response team. Now, earthquakes aren’t super common here in Mongolia, but when they do occur, they’re generally here in the western region.

There's Uliastai, right under that nice big band of red

There’s Uliastai, right under that nice big band of red

My coworker opened up her pack and showed me what was inside: your basic emergency response stuff like food, water, whistle, flashlight, medical supplies, gloves, etc. She also had a set of military fatigues that looked very similar to the American military uniforms with the pixellated camo pattern. I found out on the day of the drill, when she was wearing them, that they were old US Marine Corps combat utility uniforms. They even had little “USMC” acronym in some spots of the pattern.

When it was time for the drill, the loud emergency sirens went off through town. My coworker put on her uniform and pack, and I followed her out because I wanted to get pictures of this. Then I realized that almost every worker in the health department was part of this emergency response team.

Some of my coworkers, getting ready to head off to the site of the drill

Some of my coworkers, getting ready to head off to the drill site

The drill took place at the big square in front of the government building. And there were a lot more people there than I was expecting. There were, of course, the police:

Including freaking riot police (and what I assume is a search and rescue dog)

Including freaking riot police (and a police dog)

firefighters:

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a monitoring/inspection/control (sorry, the Mongolian word has like 20 possible English translations) “brigade”:

And of course there was lots of marching involved

And of course there was lots of marching involved

a “communication brigade”:

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my coworkers from the health department, who made up the “psychology brigade” (you know, to calm people down after an earthquake destroys the city) and the “health staff,” along with another group of health workers from–I assume–the hospital:

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and a bunch of other groups of people whose roles I was not aware of:

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After all the marching and getting into formation, everyone had to quickly open their packs and arrange the contents so the head honchos who walked by could inspect and make sure they had everything.

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I love how the police uniforms say "POLICE" in English

I love how the police uniforms say “POLICE” in English

After everything had been inspected, they were allowed to pack everything back up. Then they were just…done. I’m assuming they had actual training for their specific duties at some point and that this was just a drill to see how quickly everyone could gather and make sure they had all the right materials. One of my coworkers told me that when they did it last year, it took an entire month, so I’m assuming that involved training. And it’s nice to know they have some kind of emergency management system in place, though it will be even nicer if they never have to use it for real while I’m here.

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.

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.