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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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!

 

Project Design & Management Seminar

Back in February, the PC/Mongolia training team told all of us PCVs about an upcoming Project Design & Management (PDM) seminar for PCVs and one of their HCA or community counterparts to work on the design and planning of a specific project. In order to be invited to the seminar, we first had to conduct a needs assessment in our community to determine the most pressing issues and then come up with a project idea to address those issues.

So my supervisor and I (who really wanted an excuse to travel out of Zavkhan on Peace Corps’ dime) worked hard to complete a needs assessment before the deadline, which was right after Tsagaan Sar of all times. We reviewed statistics and health indicator reports from the Ministry of Health, along with hospital records and health department reports from here in Zavkhan. We also conducted key informant interviews with the director of the Public Development Division at the Zavkhan Governor’s Office, the treatment director at the Central Hospital, the head doctor and advisor of the Children’s Division at the Central Hospital, and the director of the Children’s Hospital. We conducted informal interviews and discussions with staff members and parents of patients at the Children’s Hospital, and we examined what medical equipment was available both in the Central Hospital and the Children’s Hospital.

Our needs assessment revealed that the infant and under-5 mortality rates are significantly higher in Zavkhan aimag than both the country average (all of Mongolia) and the aimag average (all the aimags minus UB). So basically, lots of babies and little kids die in this part of the country.

Sorry, that was depressing. Please look at this cute Mongolian puppy playing in the snow

Sorry, that was depressing. Please look at this cute Mongolian puppy playing in the snow

This is believed to be due to the fact that there are no emergency facilities for infants and children in Zavkhan. The Central Hospital has an emergency department, but it is not equipped to treat infants and children and is not staffed with pediatricians. So if a parent comes to the ER with a very sick child, they will either have to wait for a busy pediatrician to come there from another part of the hospital (and even then, there will likely not be the necessary medical equipment) or they will be sent to the Children’s Hospital, which is a few blocks away. But the Children’s Hospital does not have an emergency department at all, so even if the parent was able to finally get a pediatrician to look at their child, they wouldn’t have a monitor to see what was wrong with the child, or a respirator to hook the child up to, etc.

Our main project idea is to develop a children’s emergency department at the Children’s Hospital. We have identified 3 rooms on the first floor of the Children’s Hospital that could be converted into a 5-bed ER, and there are 6 doctors and 8 nurses from the Central Hospital that could be transferred to the new department so that it could be staffed 24 hours a day by at least 1 doctor and 1 nurse at all times. There is even a medical engineer at the Central Hospital that could train the staff on how to use the emergency medical equipment.

But what we need is—you know—the actual medical equipment. The Ministry of Health has a list of “hospital standards” that specify what equipment and supplies are deemed necessary for each ward/department of the hospitals. There are sections of that standard for infants and children and for emergency facilities, but of course our facilities don’t have most of that equipment, or the money to get it. I’ve looked into some of the numerous NGOs that collect used hospital equipment from developed nations and donate them to clinics and hospitals in developing nations, but those organizations generally send the medical equipment in those big 40-foot shipping containers to the nearest sea port, and the receiving organization is responsible for getting it the rest of the way. You may recall that Mongolia is a land-locked country, so going through one of those programs would require us to have the container shipped to a port in China, then put on a train on the railroad that comes up to UB, and finally put on a giant truck coming out here to Uliastai. So, just a bit of customs and legal paperwork and crossing our fingers that it wouldn’t just disappear somewhere along the way (as so many care packages do when they’re sent to Mongolia through China). Oh, and somehow paying for the shipping container’s long land-bound journey. So only slightly more complicated than finding a pot of gold to just pay for new medical equipment directly.

Anyway, there’s your background for our project. We and 20 other PCV/counterpart pairs were selected to attend the 3-day PDM seminar, which took place last week. It was held at a “resort” about 30km outside of UB, in a quaint little mountain area that had plenty of what looked like summer vacation homes nearby.

The resort

The resort

The lobby

The lobby

The view

The view

Yeah, Mongolian homes do not look like that

Yeah, Mongolian homes do not look like that

The seminar consisted of sessions on writing goals and objectives, creating a logic model and action plan, identifying resources, monitoring and evaluation, budgeting, and proposal writing. There was also a session on Peace Corps funding resources, which wasn’t as helpful for me and my supervisor because our (admittedly large-scale) project is not eligible for those smaller grants. So my one qualm with the seminar was that they didn’t cover other funding sources. If we do end up going the route of having an NGO ship us a bunch of medical supplies overseas, most of those programs do require a sponsorship fee of up to $25,000. Obviously our hospital does not have that money, so I’m looking into other entities that could help fund the project, but I have no experience with waltzing up to a company and asking them for money, and my counterparts didn’t even think about that as an option, so I’m assuming they don’t have much experience either. But outside of that, the seminar was extremely helpful. There was plenty of time for us to work in our pairs to apply what we learned in the sessions to our own projects. But now there is a lot of work to do to move forward.

According to the seminar schedule, we would be heading back into the city on Saturday morning. But since our flight back to Uliastai was at the ungodly time of 6:50am on Saturday, me, my sitemate, and our counterparts were supposed to be taken back on Friday evening after the last sessions. But then, during the closing session, we were informed that our flight had been delayed until Sunday morning (on account of a snowstorm that had gone through Zavkhan on Friday and was heading toward UB). So we hung around at the resort for another night and left with everyone else Saturday morning, with the snow already coming down.

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But having our flight delayed meant an entire free day to spend in UB! It would have been nicer if that day hadn’t been marred by a snowstorm that I did not have the appropriate clothes for (It’s supposed to be spring! It was in the upper 40s when I left to come to UB!). Nevertheless, I managed to trek to several places, including a yummy café for brunch:

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French toast and a chocolate milkshake (with a shot of espresso)

And several stores that sell stuff you can’t find out in Zavkhan, like cheddar cheese, popcorn, peanut butter, Vanilla Coke, etc., along with American goodies that can only be found in a select few places in UB, like cereal and Kraft mac & cheese. Yes, I managed to find what I’m pretty sure was the last box of mac & cheese in the entire country. I didn’t even know they sold it in UB, and I always get tons of it sent in care packages because I could probably live off the stuff. Then I saw one lone box on a shelf in one of the stores and asked a worker if there were any more. She informed me that there was a currently a shortage of the stuff.

Seriously, a shortage of Kraft mac & cheese in Mongolia.

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I’m not sure if it had something to do with the recent recall by Kraft, though I can’t imagine Mongolia being a place that pays too much attention to things like recalls due to tiny pieces of metal possibly being in processed foods. But I also can’t think of any other reason for the shortage. When I tell Mongolians about macaroni & cheese, they seem to be unfamiliar with the stuff. And I know there are a fair share of expats who live in UB, but unless they’re all my clones, I can’t imagine them eating enough of it to cause a shortage. Anyway, while visiting a few other stores I looked for any more of the blue boxes, with no luck. I was either told about the shortage again or ensured they would be getting more in next week. Thus, I may have gotten the last box of Kraft mac & cheese in Mongolia, and definitely ate it for dinner the day I got back to Uliastai.

After shopping, I headed back to one of the city’s hostels that at any given time are likely to be filled with PCVs.

...and their stuff

…and their stuff

I paid for my bed (the equivalent of about $4) and took advantage of the free wifi until dinner. A group of us went out to a really nice bar & grill, where I got an actual Caesar salad (in a lot of restaurants, even if they have “Caesar salad” on the menu with a picture next to it looking all appetizing, you’ll get…something else…that should be illegal to call a Caesar salad), shared a pizza, and had a tequila sunrise and a B-52 that I didn’t know was really a Flaming B-52 until the waiter came with a lighter to set my shot on fire.

I somehow managed to not catch my face on fire (yeah, I don't drink flaming drinks very often...or any kind of drink...)

I somehow managed to not catch my face on fire (yeah, I don’t drink flaming drinks very often…or any kind of drink…)

After dinner, we went back to the hostel. While others were being sociable, I went to bed to try to get at least a few hours of sleep before I had to wake up to catch my stupidly early flight. But I did spend most of the flight sleeping, and then proceeded to spend a large portion of the rest of the day napping, waking up to get groceries and to eat my mac & cheese dinner. Then it was straight back to a regular ol’ work week.

Final Center Days and Site Announcements

Sunday, August 10 was the beginning of Final Center Days, our last group training before becoming official Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs). It was very sad to pack up everything in my room and leave my host family, and it was made worse when I got really sick the night before and barely got any sleep because I had to keep getting out of bed to barf my guts out. I was still sick in the morning, so my goodbyes to my host family were quite interesting. All of us in Dereven were supposed to meet at the school with all our luggage and take meekers over to the good old Darkhan Hotel, but because the Peace Corps Medical Officer (PCMO) had told me she wanted me to lay down and get some rest as quickly as possible and not wait around for the bumpy meeker ride, my host mom just drove me over to the hotel herself (granted, it’s only like a 10-minute drive, unlike the other groups of PCTs who were coming from much farther away). So I checked into the hotel while one of the current PCVs in charge of Final Center Days recruited some big strapping guys to help my mom carry all my luggage upstairs (of course my room was on the fourth floor of a hotel whose elevator doesn’t work). Then I took a much-needed nap, missing the first day’s sessions (which I was told were absolutely riveting).

I did want to go to Site Announcements though, where they would finally reveal where we would each be living and working for the next two years. It was later that afternoon, and since I was feeling a little better, the PCMO said I could go. But she didn’t want me walking all the way to the park where it was being held, so I got a ride in one of the Peace Corps cars with one of their drivers. At the park, we all gathered around a giant map of Mongolia, going insane with anticipation.

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Aimag by aimag, current PCVs announced the PCTs who had been placed in the aimag center and soums. As names were announced, each person received a packet of information about their site, host country agency (HCA), and housing. Then they went over to an even bigger “map” of Mongolia that was made out of concrete lines representing the aimag borders and statues representing each aimag center.

You can't really tell, but we're standing in a giant map of Mongolia

You can’t really tell, but we’re standing in a giant map of Mongolia

As I briefly mentioned in an earlier post, I was placed at the Health Department in Uliastai, the aimag center of Zavkhan province. I am the first Health PCV to be placed in Zavkhan, and apparently the Health Department has been hoping to have a Volunteer for a while now. There are already three M24s in Zavkhan, two of which are also in Uliastai. In addition to myself, four other M25s were placed in Zavkhan (all TEFL Volunteers), three of which are joining me in Uliastai.

I will talk more about Uliastai and Zavkhan in an upcoming post, so for now, back to Final Center Days.

The next two days consisted of more sessions and trainings. But on Wednesday, we got to meet our supervisors from our HCAs (or some other representative of our HCA), who had come in for a Supervisors Conference to learn how to work with PCVs/Americans.

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We all gathered in the gym of a local school, and PC staff one by one announced our names and our HCA, at which point we had to go forward and meet our supervisor for the first time. The director of my health department had come, even though he is not my actual “supervisor” and I won’t be working with him directly very much. Then we had an extremely awkward hour to talk with our supervisors, but luckily my director speaks a fair amount of English. The directors of the schools where the other Zavkhan PCTs will be working also all know each other, so at least we could all awkwardly stand in a circle together. For the rest of that day and the next day, we had some sessions with our supervisors and had to eat lunch with them at the Darkhan Hotel.

Then on Friday, all of us PCTs, our supervisors, and PC staff got onto buses to head to Ulaanbaatar for the Swearing-In Ceremony (to be discussed in the next post).