COS Conference

The last week of April was my cohort’s Close of Service (COS) Conference–aka the start of the home stretch of our Peace Corps service. It was also (at least for my cohort) the last time we would all be together.

I don’t know how other Peace Corps countries work, but in Mongolia, they typically have each cohort COS over a period of about 3 weeks so as to not have a horde of PCVs descending upon the capital at once and all trying to get their COS appointments and paperwork finished at the same time. And even though my cohort’s official COS date is August 16, 2016 (exactly 2 years after we swore in), Country Directors can move a group’s COS date up by no more than a month, typically to accommodate PCVs who go straight into graduate school at the end of their service.

So the first COS week is the second-to-last week of July, which got further complicated by the fact that Mongolia is hosting the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) Conference in the middle of July, and it’s a huge deal! The Heads of State of 60 countries are coming into UB for the conference, pretty much all other transportation into and out of the city won’t be running, and the Mongolian government has kindly asked all UB residents to go out into the countryside for a week or so to stay out of the way. The only transportation that will be running is the train line, so the 18 or so PCVs who live along the train line were told ahead of time that they had to leave during the first COS week. For the rest of us, we had a “lottery” at the beginning of the COS Conference for either the second COS week (the last week of July) or the third COS week (the first week of August), and we could trade dates among ourselves. I drew the third week, which is fine for me since–unlike many other people in my cohort–I don’t have grad school or a job or anything lined up for right when I get back to the US, and I would have traded with someone who needed an earlier date had I drawn the second week anyway. The way I see it, we’re all technically going home early, so I can’t complain about being one of the last to leave.

The conference itself was held at a very nice hotel outside of UB, although it was so far outside of UB that it was in the middle of nowhere.

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Hotel

Middle of nowhere

Middle of nowhere

But the hotel was the nicest that we’ve stayed in for any of our PC conferences, probably because they pull out all the stops for the “survivors” who make it the full two years (about 70% of our cohort). The food was amazing: our first meal when we arrived was hot pot, which is surprisingly uncommon outside of major cities here considering hot pot apparently originated in Mongolia many, many centuries ago. Breakfast and lunch each day was a buffet, and we had 3-course dinners every night. And on a non-food-related note, the hotel even had a sauna, which we obviously took advantage of.

The conference consisted of sessions for reflecting on our PC journey,

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providing feedback about our PC service, looking to the future (e.g., networking, resume writing, job search resources for RPCVs), and learning about the logistics of COS itself (which is three days in the capital packed full of things like closing our Mongolian bank account, having our last medical appointments, turning in our Description of Service [the official record of what we did during PC], and meeting with the Country Director, our Regional Manager, and other admin people). We also had our final LPI to prove how much (or how little) our Mongolian improved ver two years.

On the last day, the US Ambassador to Mongolia came to have lunch with us, and in the afternoon our Country Director handed out certificates of completion to each of us.

I have no idea what I'm looking at...

I have no idea what I’m looking at…

Then we took a group photo, the last one with all of us together:

The Survivors, M25

The Survivors, M25

Our flight back to Uliastai was the next day, but after sitting at the airport for almost five hours because our flight kept getting delayed due to a snowstorm that was right over Zavkhan, the airline finally decided to cancel the flight and have us just come back the next morning. So we spent another night in UB, and even though the same storm came over the city that night, it wasn’t nearly as bad as it was in Zavkhan, so we were able to fly back without any additional problems. Such is life in a place where no month of the year is immune to a random snowstorm messing up your schedule.

I now have a little less than three months left in Mongolia (I can officially leave the country any time after 6pm on August 3). I am excited to go back home, but there’s still a lot for me to do here in Mongolia: I need to finish up my practicum project for my Master’s International program so that I can graduate with my master’s degree in August; I need to write my DOS and update my resume to reflect the work I’ve done in PC; and I need to start focusing on job-hunting and my future career.

Peace Corps gives COSing Volunteers two options for returning home: you can either have Peace Corps purchase a plane ticket for you to send you straight back to your “home of record” (with no input from you regarding dates and airlines) or you can take a flat $1400 and arrange your own way home. I plan to travel some more after I COS, so I decided to take the money and run! Which leaves me with another thing to add to my pre-COS to-do list: planning another trip!

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IST in UB

If you have no idea what the title of this post means, you clearly haven’t checked out the new page on my blog called “Peace Corps Acronyms,” right there at the top of this screen. Go ahead, give it a look. I can wait.

So, now you know that IST is short for In-Service Training, the week-long PC training each Volunteer cohort has after about 3-4 months at site. And UB is short for Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia.

Because my M25 cohort is much larger than previous Volunteer cohorts to come to Mongolia, they decided to split us up by sector and have two ISTs. TEFL is by far our largest sector, with almost 60 PCVs, so they are having their own IST starting this weekend. But the 10 of us Health PCVs and the 12 remaining CYD Volunteers had our own intimate little IST at the beginning of December.

Because there are only 2 flights a week between Uliastai and UB during the winter–and because of when those flights are relative to when our training days happened to fall–I got to come into UB 2 days before IST and stay 3 days after, giving me plenty of relaxation and shopping time!

And 4 hours of pretending I'm flying over Antarctica

And 4 hours of pretending I’m flying over Antarctica

Each PCV gets to bring one of their Mongolian counterparts with them to IST (so that they can actually be included in what we learn through the training), so I brought my supervisor, with whom I’ve done most of my work so far. Conveniently enough, she has relatives who live in UB, and since Peace Corps only provides us with hotel rooms during the actual training days, we both stayed at her relatives’ apartment during those extra days in UB. (Note: I could have stayed at a one of the many hostels in the city for pretty dang cheap, but free is cheaper than cheap, and includes free breakfast and dinner thanks to good old Mongolian hospitality.) Yes, I did bring her relatives a gift to thank them for letting me crash at their place, and then they proceeded to give me a gift before I left, as if to say, “Thanks for sleeping on our couch, using our water and wifi, and eating our food!” only in a completely sincere, non-sarcastic way (because this hospitality thing is no joke).

Anyway, my supervisor and I spent our first few hours in UB chilling at her relatives’ apartment, watching a terrible Mongolian dub of The Starving Games, a parody of The Hunger Games, because Mongolian television is weird. Then we all went to the home of some other relatives of theirs, whose daughter had recently had a baby. They live in one of the many ger districts that surround the center of UB (over half of the residents of UB live in these ger districts). So one minute we were driving along a major city street, and the next we turned right onto a dirt road lined with hashaas (fenced-in yards with wood houses and/or gers), where the people live without access to running water or the sewage system. It literally looked just like a road in any other town or village in Mongolia, except it was right there next to the huge apartment buildings, shopping centers, and tourist attractions of the center of UB.

Like this, but with less greenery and more snow

Like this, but with less greenery and more snow

We spent the next day eating Cinnabon and admiring the Christmas* decorations at the State Department Store, a large, Western-style shopping mall.

Yum!

Yummy!

Pretty!

Pretty!

Then we proceeded to go shop elsewhere, because the State Department Store is one of the more expensive places to shop in UB. We ended up at Sunday Plaza, an insanely crowded, multistory building filled with hundreds of stalls where you can buy all kinds of clothes, accessories, home goods, etc. My supervisor needed a new winter coat and I needed some nice warm fuzzy winter boots, so we spent the better part of the afternoon wandering from stall to stall, trying things on, and realizing that–even at this moderately-priced shopping center–we could not afford much of what UB has to offer. She couldn’t get the coat she really, really liked, and I found out that the fur boots that everybody and their grandmother seems to own cost like 350,000 tugriks (or about $190, aka waaaaay more than I would ever spend on a pair of shoes, even in the US). Turns out they’re made from reindeer skin, hence the hefty price tag. But I did find some cheaper, even furrier boots, so I succeeded in acquiring that staple of the Mongolian wardrobe.

The actual training took place at the Park Hotel, which is super nice (especially by Peace Corps standards; the hotel we stayed at during the summer trainings was not even comparable).

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Is that a freakin' bathtub?! With running hot water?!!

Is that a freakin’ bathtub?! With running hot water?!!

Each training day consisted of 8-9 hours of various seminars including technical sessions (regarding our respective health or CYD work), Mongolian language classes, cross-culture sessions, and administrative stuff. We went to about half of the sessions with our counterparts, and the other sessions had the PCVs and counterparts separated.

We were provided with 3 meals a day by the hotel: buffet breakfasts and 3-course lunches and dinners. They even had real, non-instant coffee, which does not really exist in Mongolia outside of UB, so of course we proceeded to clean the hotel out, until there was absolutely no coffee left (brewed or instant) in the hotel by our last day. Oh, and I got to have lunch with the US Ambassador in Mongolia one of the days (like, sitting across the table from her) and even got a picture with her, but I’m not sure if it’s appropriate to post it online so I won’t.

Our evenings were spent exchanging media on our external hard drives, watching movies, playing games, and just chilling out with the people we never get to see anymore because we’re spread across the country.

After all of the seminars were over, we went to the Peace Corps office, where they let us all rummage through huge piles and boxes of office supplies and books donated by the embassy for us to take back to our sites. But because my supervisor and I were flying back to Uliastai (and each passenger is only allowed to take 10kg of luggage on the plane), she decided that we would fill up 2 giant boxes of printer paper, binders, miscellaneous other office supplies, and resource books to take back to our health department, but just put them on a truck heading to Uliastai instead of the plane.

So the next day, with the help of some men from a medical equipment company that my supervisor knows/works with, we went to…uh, I don’t even know what to call it. An enormous “parking lot” where rows and rows of trucks heading out to all the different aimags are loaded up with supplies for the shops in each city/soum. A truck depot, I guess? We found a truck that was leaving for Uliastai later that day and had just enough room left to fit our boxes and excess baggage.

Then we went to the Black Market, which is not the underground market for buying illegal drugs, but is  probably one of (if not the) cheapest place to shop in UB, to get a few more things we wanted. We would have stayed longer, but the cheap prices come with a toll: the entire market is outdoors, so with the stupidly cold Mongolian winter temperatures, it’s difficult to stay there too long before you feel your body screaming for warmth.

For my last full day in UB, we went to Chinggis Square (formerly Sukhbaatar Square) to get some pictures with the Chinggis Khaan** statue:

Got my fuzzy hat and furry boots: I'm a true Mongolian now!

Got my fuzzy hat and furry boots: I’m a true Mongolian now!

and the statue of Damdin Sukhbaatar, a famous revolutionary:

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Then we ate lunch at Pizza Hut, because pizza:

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My flight back to Uliastai was the next morning (my supervisor was staying a few more days for a Ministry of Health-sponsored training happening in the city). And luckily I had left my hashaa family a spare key to my ger so that they could light a fire in my stove before I arrived so it wouldn’t be -20 degrees inside (a ger left to itself for 10 days in winter is not something you want to come home to).

*Most Mongolians don’t really celebrate Christmas, but they have adopted a lot of the traditional Christmas decorations of the Western world and use them for Shine Jil, or New Year’s. In fact, Mongolians generally don’t realize that what we call Christmas and New Year’s are two completely different holidays that just happen to fall within the same week. So even though they’re not really celebrating Christmas, Shine Jil in Mongolia is quite a big deal and is almost comparable to Christmas in America (in terms of how many people celebrate it and the extent of commercialization). Look forward to hearing more about Shine Jil after we have our health department’s Shine Jil party in a couple weeks!

**Yes, his name was Chinggis Khaan (pronounced ching-gis haan). The whole Genghis Khan spelling/pronunciation comes from centuries of horrible transcription of the Mongolian language. It doesn’t help that the letter “х” in the Mongolian Cyrillic alphabet, which is like a harder, throatier English “h” sound, is generally transliterated into the Latin script as “kh,” which we read and pronounce like an English “k.” So yes, the “k” in his name is silent (or at least not pronounced like the “k” we’re used to).

 

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.