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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Christmas and Shine Jil/New Year’s

I briefly mentioned Shine Jil in my last post, but now that I have experienced the holiday season here, I can share what it’s like.

Health Department Shine Jil Party

Every workplace has a Shine Jil party at some point during the weeks leading up to the new year. These are almost like a mix between the standard office Christmas parties in America and prom. On the day of the health department’s party (which was a weekday), everyone stopped working about 4 hours before the party to get all dolled up. They brought in 2 hairdressers and a makeup artist, so I spent almost an hour getting my hair done, complete with tons of glitter (I’m pretty sure Mongolia is a major importer of glitter this time of year) and little stick-on flowers:

All for only 10,000 tugriks (about $5)

All for only 10,000 tugriks (about $5)

Our party was at one of the most expensive restaurants in town, and we each had to pay 50,000 tugriks for tickets to go, but when the spread looks like this:

That fruit plate alone probably cost 50,000 tugriks

That fruit plate alone probably cost 50,000 tugriks

…along with 2 dinner plates and (of course) tons of alcohol, it’s not too bad.

The party consisted of lots of food, drinks, and dancing, as well as some contests (with prizes). The people at my table forced me to participate in a dance contest with the director of the health department, but we ended up winning, so I guess the embarrassment was worth it!

Overall, it was a lot of fun!

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Mongolian Santa

Mongolian Santa

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Even after the restaurant kicked us out around 1am, most of my coworkers went back to the health department to continue the party there. But, like I said, it was a weeknight, and I wanted at least some sleep before going into work the next day, and a hangover didn’t sound too fun either, so I skipped out on that.

Christmas Dinner

My supervisor was nice enough to give me Christmas Day off from work. And because she and the other coworker in our office wanted to come visit my home at some point over the holidays, I invited them (and the other Uliastai PCVs) over for Christmas dinner. My mom had sent me my grandma’s super yummy spaghetti and meatballs recipe, and I had acquired all the ingredients I needed (including some things while I was in UB that I can’t get here). But the sauce takes about 5 hours to make, so it’s the kind of meal you can only really make when you have all day to do so—which I now had!

On Christmas morning I went to the meat market to get a kilo of beef, which I then took to the guy with the meat grinder to make it into ground beef for the meatballs (isn’t that what everyone does on Christmas morning?). Then I went home and started the sauce, made the meatballs, and tidied up my ger as best I could. I already had some nice Christmas decorations up that my parents had sent me in a care package:

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Finally my guests arrived, and it’s a good thing the recipe makes so much (and my ger is so big) since I had my supervisor and her boyfriend, my other coworker and her husband and daughter, and 3 other PCVs over.

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The food was great, and it was nice to have a taste of home on Christmas.

Bookbridge Shine Jil Party

That Saturday, we had a Shine Jil party at the library for the students in our Bookbridge English classes. All of us PCVs assumed we would just be giving out candy to the kids and watching a Christmas movie or something, until we arrived at the library and saw this:

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Apparently the head of the Bookbridge center had been arranging an actual party, so all the students had brought in food from their homes (and lots of cakes!), dressed up all nice and fancy (while we PCVs were walking around in essentially lounge wear), and had prepared tons of songs and dances to perform:

Playing the morin khuur

Playing the morin khuur

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All the girls love their K-pop

All the girls love their K-pop

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And then they forced us to go up there and dance to some random mix of songs (but I’ll save your eyes the horror of looking at those photos).

PCV Christmas Celebration

The next day we had a Christmas get-together with all the Zavkhan PCVs. Peace Corps had given someone from each aimag a turkey during the TEFL IST to bring back to their site so that we could have a turkey dinner for Christmas (since turkey is really only available in UB, and probably way beyond our price range regardless).

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We also made mashed potatoes and gravy, risotto, and roasted vegetables:

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…as well as cake and brownies for dessert!

We had arranged a Secret Santa, so we exchanged those gifts, and I got a little baby Christmas tree!

I had seriously considered buying one a couple weeks ago, but getting it as a gift is even better!

I had seriously considered buying one a couple weeks ago, but getting it as a gift is even better!

And then we chatted and sang songs to some guitar and ukulele music:

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The next day was even a holiday, so we had some time to chill before going back to work.

New Year’s Eve

And I was back at work for all of one and a half days! On New Year’s Eve, I went to the health department just to find out that everyone would be leaving early in the afternoon to go home/shopping to prepare for whatever they had going on that evening. But first, we of course had to drink several bottles of champagne and a bunch of cake (sooooooo much cake this time of year! The students in our Adult Beginner’s English Class even gave each of us teachers a whole cake!)

That evening, my khashaa family invited me over to their home to celebrate, along with a bunch of their relatives. We had tons of food, as well as more cake and champagne. And I finally got a picture with my khashaa parents!

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Then my supervisor picked me up and we went to the stadium, where there was a concert, a bunch of ice sculptures, ice skating, and even some fireworks.

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Ice ger

Igloo/Ice ger

Ice Christmas/Shine Jil tree (with a real one behind it)

Ice-sculpture Christmas/Shine Jil tree (with a real one behind it)

Next we went over to my supervisor’s home and ate even more food and played khuzur (cards) with her relatives until midnight, when we opened more champagne and cut into more cake.

Luckily the next two days were holidays, giving me a nice 4-day weekend!

Happy New Year (Шинэ жилийн мэнд хүргэе)!!!

UPDATE: I made a YouTube channel where I’ve uploaded some videos, included a few from my Shine Jil parties, if you want to check them out here.

Swearing-In Ceremony

In Ulaanbaatar (UB), we stayed in university dorms, way up on the 9th and 10th floors, with only one working elevator, making it really fun for all 87 of us PCTs to drag all our luggage (including our winter bags that they decided to give us back at that very moment) to our rooms.

Which at least had a nice view of the city

Which at least had a nice view of the city

Then we split into groups, each lead by one or two current PCVs who knew their way around the city, to go to different restaurants for dinner. My group went to a very yummy Cuban restaurant called Guantanamera. Then we went back to the dorms to try to get some sleep, because we had to wake up early the next morning for the Swearing-In Ceremony.

True to Peace Corps fashion, there was some miscommunication about when exactly we needed to be ready to head over to the PC office, so many of us ended up rushing and not having time to eat breakfast before we had to leave.

Shortly after arriving at the PC office, those of us who were performing dances at the ceremony were taken to the US ambassador’s residence early to prepare. This was the first year the Swearing-In Ceremony was held at the ambassador’s residence, which was a swanky apartment complex with dozens of security guards roaming the premises.

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We had all put on our deels that morning because we assumed there would be time to change into our costumes before we actually performed, since the cultural performances were the last thing on the schedule. But then we were told that we had to go ahead and put on our costumes and wear them during the ceremony. Well, good thing I spent all that money to get a deel made for Swearing-In…

At least we looked snazzy in our costumes as well

At least we looked snazzy in our costumes as well

Then we were shown the “stage” that we would be performing on, which was much smaller than we were told it would be and had several poles holding up the canopy that we had to maneuver around. Well, we would just need to practice on that stage beforehand, right? Except we weren’t allowed to since people were already arriving. Oh well! Well do it live!

The ceremony consisted of speeches by the PC Mongolia Country Director:

(plus translator)

(plus translator)

The US Ambassador in Mongolia:

(plus translator)

(plus translator)

And Mongolia’s Vice Minister of Health:

(plus English translator)

(plus English translator)

Then we said the oath of service (making us official Peace Corps Volunteers!) and were called one by one to go up and receive our certificates. After everyone had been called, the cultural performances began. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get photos or videos of the performances before ours since I had to stay “backstage.” First was another group’s dance:

Well ,here they are before the ceremony

Well, here they are before the ceremony

Then two people sang a Mongolian song. Finally, our group performed our dance. I’m told people got video of all the performances, so I’ll try to snag those when I can. Overall, I think our performance went well, especially considering our lack of practice with the stage we were given (or at least people said we did very well).

After the official ceremony we mingled with our supervisors and the other guests, ate the food being served, and snapped more photos.

Healthies with our certificates

Healthies with our certificates

My director and I

My director and I

I did end up changing back into my deel soon after the performance because I was really hot in the long-sleeve costume and because I bought it for the ceremony dammit!

Oh, and the ceremony was featured on the Mongolian news that evening! And there was also an article about the ceremony on the US Embassy in Mongolia’s website (which is a thing).

Later that day we wandered around UB looking to buy any last minute items we knew we wouldn’t be able to get at our sites. Some people left for their sites that day, but I think most people, including myself, left the next day.

UPDATE: I did finally get a video someone had taken of our dance. It–along with some other videos–are up on my new YouTube channel.

Learning a Traditional Mongolian Dance

Near the end of July, our Cross-Cultural trainers told us that Peace Corps would be selecting a few cultural performances by PCTs for the Swearing-In Ceremony at the US ambassador’s compound, so a few of us in my group decided to learn a traditional Mongolian dance. It turns out that one of the students who had just graduated from the school where we have our classes is a dancer who had performed during our Orientation and during the opening ceremony at Naadam. Our LCFs knew her and were able to convince her to teach us that dance. The only problem was that she was on vacation with her family almost the entire week before the audition videos were due, so we couldn’t get her to come teach us until the day before we had to turn in the video (yes, Peace Corps was only going to give us a week and a half to throw together a cultural performance). So a group of 5 of us (including myself) stayed after class that Thursday to quickly learn the beginning of the dance.

Lovely bruised knee from the very first day of practice (there's a few parts where I have to do kneeling stuff), which still hasn't healed almost a month later because it kept getting worse every time we practiced

Lovely bruised knee from the very first day of practice (there’s a few parts where I have to do kneeling stuff), which still hasn’t healed almost a month later because it kept getting worse every time we practiced

I was chosen to be the lead female dancer who dances with the guy, and unfortunately most of our parts were different from the other 3 girls’ parts, so we had to take turns with the teacher showing us the steps, which definitely slowed us down. After almost 3 hours, we had learned the first third of the dance, which we videotaped us performing to show the judges that we were at least learning something. The next day we tried to turn in the video to our Technical trainers, but they told us that Peace Corps had decided to extend the video deadline for another week (nice of them to realize at the very last minute that we were not given enough notice of the whole cultural performance thing).

So we practiced literally every day that week for 2 to 3 hours, as we soon found out there were other groups learning dances too, and that competition would be fierce because they didn’t want just any old fools to perform in front of the ambassador. The dance teacher was even able to get us costumes to rent for the video and (if we were chosen) for the actual performance.

Dress rehearsal with our dance teacher

Dress rehearsal with our dance teacher

We did have to pay 5,000 tugriks each (which is less than $3—really breaking the bank there!) to rent the costumes, and we decided to each give the teacher 5,000 tugriks for taking so much of her time to teach us. We finally managed to learn the entire 3 ½ minute dance, but then the day we were supposed to videotape it, one of the girls was sick, so she couldn’t come. But the video was due the next day, so we had to do it without her, which required us to change around the formations a lot at the last minute. After a few practice runs, we finally started to videotape, but we could not get a single shot where none of us messed up at least once. We did at least 5 takes, and on each one, we did some parts perfectly and at least one part we screwed up horribly, but it was different parts each time. If only we could have stitched together the good parts from each of the videos, we would have had a solid performance. But after nearly 3 hours, we were exhausted, sweaty (it was like 90 degrees in the freakin’ gym we were dancing in, and we were wearing costumes with long sleeves), and losing daylight. We decided to go with the final take because it had the least mistakes, and submitted it the next day.

On Wednesday of the next week (the week before Final Center Days), we found out that we had been chosen to perform! Yay! So we got back into our routine of practicing every day, because now that we were set to perform at the Swearing-In Ceremony, they wanted us to be perfect. The girl who hadn’t been able to make it to the videotaping session ended up dropping out of the whole dance, so that was a bummer. And then Peace Corps told us that we needed to cut down the time of our dance to between 2 and 3 minutes, so we ended up just cutting out the first section of the dance where just the other girls perform, which they were happy about as it lessened their stress about the whole thing.

Note: The Swearing-In Ceremony, including our dance performance, was earlier today, but I will have a whole post later on about that ceremony.