The Other Side of PST

Shortly after Naadam, I left my site once again to come to Darkhan for the second half of the M26 cohort’s Pre-Service Training (PST). As I mentioned in a previous post, myself, another M25 Health PCV, and a Mongolian Technical Coordinator were responsible for training the 12 Health Trainees for the remainder of PST. My first day back in Darkhan was a Wednesday, which was the day that our group of Trainees had cross-culture sessions in the afternoon instead of health technical sessions, so I didn’t actually get a chance to meet them that day. But things got off to a great (note heavy sarcasm) start when the other Health trainers and I were informed that one of our Trainees would be leaving to go back to America. So my first session with our Trainees was kicked off with the PST Director announcing to the group that one of their friends was leaving, which set a not-exactly-positive mood for the rest of the session (and PST, to be honest).

Many of our sessions during the second half were joint sessions, with the Trainees and Mongolian counterparts from their practicum sites. These sessions were the most difficult because information and instructions for activities had to be given in both English and Mongolian, so they took longer. The Trainees also had to try to communicate with the counterparts during the activities, which was complicated when different counterparts showed up to each session or didn’t show up at all.

A couple weeks into second half, we lost another one of our Health Trainees, which further dampened the spirits of the remaining 10. I obviously can’t mention details, but let’s just say our group was…interesting. I’ll leave it at that.

Our typical day consisted of going into the PST office at 9am (while the Trainees were in their Mongolian language class) and preparing for that afternoon’s session or whatever else needed to be done. Then after lunch, we would either go to the school in their training community (Mangirt) for technical session, go to the health department for joint session, or divide up to visit the Trainees at their practicum sites. Wednesdays were our “office days,” when we didn’t have to go anywhere in the afternoon because our Trainees had cross-culture sessions with another training team. We usually wrapped up around 5:30pm, though many times we had to stay much later to write up session reports and evaluations. We also had staff meetings every Monday morning.

We usually had weekends free, but sometimes we helped out with other PST activities. For example, our Trainees had a “ger visit” one Saturday, where they all went over to one of the Trainee’s ger so their LCFs and us Resource Volunteers (who both live in gers) could talk about traditions and beliefs Mongolian have regarding gers and how to live in a ger. We also went to their Host Family Appreciation Day, which consisted of a khorkhog by the river. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, khorkhog is a traditional Mongolian dish that is made by taking your skinned sheep or goat…

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Nope, things like this don’t even faze me anymore

…cutting it into pieces…

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…along with the vegetables (potatoes, carrots, onions, turnips, etc.)…

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…putting the meat, veggies, stones heated on a fire, some water, and a bit of spices into a large metal container…

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…then closing and sealing the container and leaving it on the fire for about an hour…

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…until it comes out looking like this:

Note the large stones on the ground. After taking them out of the container, it is tradition to pass them around to everyone and toss them between your hands to bring good health.

Note the large stones on the ground. After taking them out of the container, it is tradition to pass them around to everyone (while still burning hot) and toss them between your hands to bring good health.

We also had other food to munch on…

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…gave out certificates to the host families…

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…waded in the river…

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…and made water balloons:

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The last week of PST consisted of Final Center Days and Supervisor’s Conference. All the Trainees came back into Darkhan for their final sessions with Peace Corps staff. On the first day, they finally had their long-awaited site announcements!

Which we had to have in a gym instead of at the park as originally intended, since it was about 105 degrees F that day

Which we had to have in a gym instead of at the park as originally intended, since it was about 105 degrees F that day

I had found out through the Peace Corps grapevine that my aimag, Zavkhan, was only getting one new PCV from the M26 group, despite there being 69 of them swearing in and only 21 aimags in Mongolia for them to be sorted into. Only 2 other aimags only got one newbie, and one of those is a tiny aimag with a very small population. Some people say it’s because Zavkhan got 5 volunteers last year, but we’re not the only aimag that got that many last year, and those other ones got more than 1 new volunteer. A few aimags got 6 new volunteers this year, so some aimags have a total of 9 PCVs now!

And only 2 of my M26 Healthies got sent to the western region, so now there’s only 3 Health PCVs in that whole region (including me; yes, I was the only M25 Health PCV sent to the west), which is weird considering there’s now a total of 19 Health Volunteers in Mongolia, only 3 of which are in the west (and there’s only 3 regions, so it would make more sense for there to be like 6 in each region). I mean, the west is the best (our unofficial motto), but it’s also the poorest region with the worst health indicators and could really use more Health Volunteers. But whatever, I won’t pretend I understand the intricacies of the PC site placement process.

Anyway, our new sitemate is a CYD Volunteer who will be working at the school that one of our recently-departed M24 sitemates worked at (although he was a TEFL Volunteer). Originally, PC was going to put another TEFLer in Uliastai, but me and my fellow Zavkhan Resource Volunteer convinced them that our site had a greater need for a CYD Volunteer, since our only one had finished her service this summer. And we apparently (according to the other trainers) got the best of the CYD Trainees, so I guess having one super amazing sitemate is better than a handful of sub-par ones.

The rest of Final Center Days mostly consisted of additional sessions on PC policy, admin stuff, medical, safety and security, etc., some of which myself and the other Resource Volunteers helped out with. Then on Thursday, the supervisors from the HCAs came in to meet their new Volunteers:

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Then there were more sessions, some with the PCTs separate from the supervisors, some with them together.

On Friday after the last session of Final Center Days, we had a rehearsal for the Swearing-In Ceremony. Unlike our PST last year, where we went to UB for our Swearing-In Ceremony at the US ambassador’s residence, the M26 cohort’s Swearing-In was at the theater in Darkhan. The ceremony itself was on Saturday morning, and it turned out very nicely.

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After a few speeches, the Trainees took the oath of service and officially became Volunteers. Then the Regional Managers handed out certificates to each newly-minted PCV.

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One person from each of the three programs (TEFL, CYD, Health) had been chosen to give a short speech (in Mongolian), and my new sitemate was the representative for CYD (told you she was the best). Then there were a few cultural performances, including a mash-up of the “Cups” song and a Mongolian song that we all learn during PST…

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…a traditional Mongolian dance (bringing back memories from last PST)…

…and a Mongolian song sung by one of the new Volunteers whose voice was so good that some Mongolians in the audience were literally brought to tears:

The ceremony was followed by a reception, lots of photos, and then everyone heading back to the hotel to pack their things and get on the bus to UB to head off to their sites.

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The next day, we had a short debriefing meeting before going to the river once again for a PST staff picnic, which was (of course) another khorkhog, but with a lot more fruit…

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…and failed jumping pictures:

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The next morning, we checked out of our apartment and headed to UB, where I would have my mid-service medical and dental exams before going for our M25 Mid-Service Training (MST).

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Wrapping Up PST

The last few weeks of PST went by very quickly. Language classes became more difficult as the LCFs started blowing through entire sections of the book in a single lesson, whereas before we would spend at least a couple days on each section. As a result, it was difficult to keep up and I felt like I wasn’t really learning anything in a way that would allow me to remember it in the long-term.

It also really started to sink in that I would be leaving my host family soon, which was made even harden by the fact that most of them had left on a 2 ½ week trip to visit a sick relative, leaving me with just the 2 sisters and an uncle who had come to stay with us. They didn’t come back until two days before I left for Final Center Days.

The Saturday before our last week in Dereven, we had Host Family Appreciation Day. We had a picnic by the river with our host families and LCFs.

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Each host family brought a Mongolian dish to share, and we PCTs planned to share some American food culture with our families by having a hotdog roast and s’mores. Except we couldn’t exactly find all the needed ingredients in any of the stores in Darkhan: hotdog buns, graham crackers, and regular old marshmallows do not exist here. So we improvised with cut-in-half hamburger buns, Mongolian crackers that were as close to graham crackers as we were going to get, and Haribo Chamallows.

Eh, close enough

Eh, close enough

Our attempt at Mongolian s’mores actually turned out better than expected, and our host families seemed to like them.

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The hot dog roast didn’t go as well since “hot dogs” here are not exactly Oscar Meyer franks and don’t do so well when removed from their casing and put on a stick over a fire.

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Oh well. We also bought a cake, and everyone loves cake!

Even if it's a birthday cake at a non-birthday event

Even if it’s a birthday cake at a non-birthday event

On our last Tuesday in Dereven, we had our final LPI (Language Proficiency Interview) and TAP (Trainee Assessment Packet). I was nervous for the LPI, because even though I had done well on my practice LPI back in July, I knew I hadn’t been grasping the more recent material as quickly. I tried to balance studying with not stressing myself out too much, and by the time Tuesday came around, I just wanted to get it over with. We didn’t have class that day because we all had 30-minute slots for the LPI and for the TAP scattered throughout the day. My TAP wasn’t until 1:30, which meant I got to sleep in, but after I woke up and studied for another hour, I was just so ready to get it over with.

Unlike our practice LPI, where the interviewer was one of our LCFs, this time we were interviewed by a Mongolian lady we had never met before but had apparently been a Peace Corps language tester for 10 years. It’s hard enough to understand when someone speaks Mongolian to me, but then when it’s someone who I’ve never talked to before and whose accent is completely new to me, it’s almost impossible (and it doesn’t help that so many Mongolian women speak so softly that I can barely hear them even when they’re speaking English). She started the interview by asking me to introduce myself. Then she asked me to talk about my Mongolian host family, my American family, and a friend. The interview was 30 minutes long, so I was trying to eat up as much time as possible by babbling on about my family members, but my limited vocabulary prevented me from talking about that for too long. Then she asked me some other random questions, and had me ask her a bunch of questions. Finally, we did a dialogue where I had to pretend to be a teacher and she was the director at my school and I had a headache and needed to ask if I could leave early to see a doctor. Overall I think it went pretty well. We found out the first day of Final Center Days how we did, and I ended up getting Intermediate Low! Novice High is considered passing, so I did even better than I needed to! I’m not exactly sure how the scoring works though, because the two guys in our group who have amazing Mongolian (and make the rest of us look like losers) also got Intermediate Low, so who knows.

After that I had my TAP, which was much less stressful. They told me that my LCFs, technical trainers, and host family only had positive things to say about me, that I had done very well during PST, and that they thought I would be a very successful Peace Corps Volunteer. Yay!

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.

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.