A Busy Spring

The weeks since COS Conference have been quite busy, hence the lack of blog posts.

I’ve been working hard to finish up my project for my Master’s International program, which has seen pretty much all the delays since I started the community needs assessment back in February of 2015. But my coworkers and I finally managed to conduct two first aid/CPR trainings for secondary school students in Shine Khoroo, a somewhat removed district of Uliastai where most of the families are herders and the older siblings are left in charge of the younger siblings during the school year. And since unintentional injuries like burns are a huge issue among children here, we thought some basic first aid training was important for students who often care for their little brothers and sisters (and it’s never a bad skill to have regardless).

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The project also focuses on accident prevention, so we designed a survey on household accidents for the parents of kindergarten students (2-5 year olds) to assess their knowledge, attitudes, and practices regarding childhood accidents, prevention, and first aid. The goal was to have about 350 parents complete the survey, but with all the delays, we ended up not being able to get the surveys printed and to the kindergartens until the last week of school. So we ran out of time and were only about to get 165 surveys completed, but it’s better than nothing. Now I get to analyze the results of all those surveys and use them to inform the preliminary design of future educational activities for parents (which will obviously take place after I’m gone). Then it’s just a matter of finishing up my practicum report and I’m all set to graduate with my master’s degree in August!

Another project I’d been working on was a pilot run of Happy Center, an educational and social integration program for youth with disabilities. The first Happy Center was started in Govi-Altai aimag a couple years ago, and the PCVs who developed that program published a manual detailing how to start the program in other aimags. Our M26 PCV wanted to start it in Uliastai, so she worked with our local Children’s Center to get everything organized. Each session consisted of a reading or math lesson, a life skills lesson, and “friendship time” for playing games together with students without disabilities. We ended up having sessions twice a week for 7 weeks, and it went well enough that the program will probably be continued next school year.

Paint-by-numbers math lesson

Paint-by-numbers math lesson

Playing a game similar to duck duck goose during Friendship time

Playing a game similar to duck duck goose during “friendship time”

 

This year, Peace Corps/Mongolia is celebrating its 25th anniversary! Most of the anniversary events will happen in August after our cohort has already left, but in May PC sponsored a tree-planting event. PC funded the purchase of 25 saplings for each aimag, which we (at least in Zavkhan) planted in conjunction with Mongolia’s national tree-planting day.

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But because spring in Mongolia is capricious to say the least, it managed to snow 3 times within a week or so of the tree planting. Luckily the baby trees survived and are now budding and thriving in the warmer, more agreeable weather.

 

June 1 was Children’s Day in Mongolia. My coworkers brought their children to the health department, where the kids had food and drinks and performed songs and dances.

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This adorable little chunk is my coworker's daughter AND my birthday buddy!

This adorable little chunk is my coworker’s daughter AND my birthday buddy!

After that, I met a couple of my sitemates at the local stadium, where the city-wide festivities were taking place. We wandered around for a bit and said hi to some people we know before grabbing food and calling it a day.

 

That weekend, I got to go on a short trip to UB on Peace Corps’ invitation to meet Secretary of State John Kerry, who just happened to be dropping by Mongolia on his way to China for diplomatic talks. The US embassy wanted to briefly showcase Peace Corps/Mongolia for its 25th anniversary during the event, so PC invited a group of current PCVs and former PCVs still living in Mongolia to come to the Mongolian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. All the other PCVs who were invited either live in UB or were already in UB for an event at the M27s’ orientation (yep, our newest group of Trainees just arrived!), so why the hell was I there?

Well, the weekend before that, a US congressional delegation visited UB and PC invited the handful of Volunteers who are from the districts represented by those congressmen to come as well. I was one of those PCVs, but Peace Corps ended up having to retract my invitation. The meeting was scheduled for that Saturday morning, but because of Uliastai’s infrequent flight schedule, PC would have had to flown me in the Tuesday before and flown me back the next Tuesday, and they couldn’t justify bringing me in to UB for a whole week on a account of a 2-hour meeting. So they never explicitly said it, but I’m assuming they invited me to the John Kerry thing to make up for having to miss out on the congressional delegation (which I must say, was a favorable trade).

Anyway, we had to arrive at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs early in the morning and wait for Secretary Kerry and the Mongolian Foreign Minister to arrive. They went away for some private discussions, then came back for a press conference, which we got to attend (but PC was pretty adamant about not having us all whip out our cameras and phones to snap a bunch of photos, but there were plenty enough photographers from news stations and the embassy anyway).

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He even mentioned us (Mongolia Peace Corps Volunteers) in his comments, the transcript of which can be found here.

After the press conference, Secretary Kerry and the Foreign Minister came into the next room to shake all our hands, make a few remarks, and take a group photo:

Secretary Kerry Poses for a Photo With a Group of Former and Current Peace Corps Volunteers in Ulaanbaatar 1

Then like that, he was gone. He was only in Mongolia for 6 hours, and he had to get on to other things like lunch with the Mongolian president and some cultural events. But I got to meet a famous person and shake his hand, and got a free trip to UB out of it! I would call that a worthwhile weekend!

Weekend Hike with My Coworkers (and Escalation of My Illness)

I told you there would be lots of hiking!

The Saturday after my third week in Uliastai, a group of coworkers from the health department and I went hiking. They had invited me earlier in the week, before I was completely exhausted, so I had agreed to go, only to be sore from tons of aerobics and tired from lack of sleep the morning of the hike.

We met up at the health department at 7am before driving over to where we would be hiking. I had originally been told we would be hiking a certain famous mountain right behind the hill my friends and I had climbed two weeks before

Yeah, that one

Yeah, that one

…which is apparently the tallest of the mountains surrounding Uliastai. But when we started driving in a different direction, straight through the valley (and all its rivers and streams, at one time getting stuck, because off-roading in a sedan is not the brightest of ideas), I assumed that the plans had changed.

We ended up driving quite far away from town and even part of the way up the mountain we would be hiking, until we ended up here:

You can just barely make out the city way out there in the background

You can just barely make out the city way out there in the background

We abandoned the car and finally started up the mountain, which wasn’t too steep at first, until it suddenly was.

Ok, break time!

Ok, break time!

It was also very cold, as the sun was rising on the other side of the mountain. Which was great for my never-ending cold (as in, the upper respiratory infection). Let’s just say my pockets were stuffed full of tissues for my dripping nose the whole time.

After a while, we came to what I thought was the top of the hill we were climbing, but ended up just being a slightly less steep part of the hill. At least it was pretty with all the trees, and we were finally up in the sun.

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When we got to the top of that hill, we could see into the valley on the other side of the mountain, where the Bogdiin River flows into Uliastai.

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But we weren’t even close to done yet! Next we had to get up to some weird rock formation!

Onward!

Onward!

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To be honest, I had absolutely no idea where we were going or if anyone else did either. I got the sense that we were just going to keep hiking up and up and up until there was no where left to hike up to.

We had made it up to a grassy hill and someone finally showed me where we were headed:

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To that pointy rock formation up there a little to the left. Not only was that the top of the mountain we were on (finally!), but there was an old legend that if that rock formation (which actually has a name: Jinst) ever fell down, the whole city of Uliastai would be flooded. Yay!

And of course, there was an owoo shrine right beside it

And of course, there was an owoo shrine right beside it

From the top of the mountain, Uliastai looked so tiny!

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At this point we finally sat down and had a picnic with the food we’d brought.

Mongolian picnic

Mongolian picnic

But with the combination of no longer moving, being on top of a mountain, and, well, being in Mongolia, it was really freakin’ cold! The wind definitely didn’t help either. All of my coworkers laughed at me when I put on the gloves and ear warmers I had packed in my backpack (haha, silly American can’t handle a little sub-freezing windchill without dragging out her gloves!), but I saw them all rubbing their hands together and breathing hot air into them, so I know they were cold too! Just jealous that they didn’t come prepared like me…

Anyway, after eating our food, we wandered around all the cool rock formations and took a bunch of photos:

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Eventually we headed back down the mountain, but instead of going down the way we had come up, we decided to go straight down one of the rockiest, steepest parts of the mountain at a ridiculously fast pace, because who couldn’t use a little damage to their knee ligaments?

Come on slowpokes! It only took us 4 hours to get up there, you should be able to come back down in 40 minutes, tops!

Come on slowpokes! It only took us 4 hours to get up there, you should be able to come back down in 20 minutes, tops!

When we finally did get back down to where the cars were parked, we found that one of the other health department workers and her daughter had come to bring us more food! Time for a second picnic!

While we were eating, two young boys rode by on a horse, and my coworkers (who knew that I like horses), called these random boys over and asked them if I could ride on their horse. They may have bribed the boys with some of the food we were munching on, but they let me sit on their horse while one of the boys led it around for a while.

Cementing in the young children's minds that foreigners are a bunch of weirdos

Cementing in the young children’s minds that foreigners are a bunch of weirdos

But no Mongolian shindig is complete without vodka! Which our director just happened to have in the trunk of his car! Now, I’m not a fan of vodka unless it’s mixed with something into a cocktail, but we had been warned during PST that vodka would be present at pretty much all Mongolian get-togethers (even those with your boss present) and that it is customary to pass shots around. So of course I was offered a shot, which I begrudgingly took and gagged on.

Finally we piled into the cars to head back to Uliastai. But then we stopped by a random ger in the middle of nowhere to ask–I kid you not–if they had any yogurt. See, traditional Mongolian yogurt can be made with the milk of any livestock, but my coworkers informed me that the best yogurt comes from the animals belonging to the herdsmen out in the countryside. So, seeing a ger in the middle of nowhere, they (correctly) assumed that a herding family must live there and have yogurt at the ready. A couple coworkers went in to ask if they had any fresh yogurt, and when they confirmed that they did, all 10 of us waltzed into this poor random family’s ger to eat their food. As my director told me, it is perfectly acceptable out in the countryside to come to some stranger’s ger and get fed. So the family served us milk tea, bread, and the coveted yogurt and chatted a while until we finally left.

I was quite tired at this point (and still sick), and I thought we were going home, but when we got close to town they pulled over by the river and started dragging blankets and mats out of the cars and laying them on the ground. It was time to play cards!

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They proceeded to play a billion rounds of a Mongolian card game that they often play during lunch at the health department. They had tried to teach me how to play before, and did again on this occasion, but for some unknown reason they always assign one of the workers who speaks absolutely no English to teach me, and I’m not one of those people who can learn how to play a card game just by watching other people play it. Every time I thought I was understanding the game, someone would play a card that changed everything.

We eventually started to pack up, until someone remembered that there was food left over from our earlier picnics and–gasp!–we hadn’t finished the bottle of vodka from earlier! So picnic #3 commenced, as well as another round of shots. By now most of my coworkers could tell that I was tired and not feeling so well (did the constantly wiping and blowing my nose tip them off?), so we left very soon after that. I did get one last photo of the mountain that we had climbed though:

Does that itty bitty, barely perceptible rock on the top look familiar?

Does that itty bitty, barely perceptible rock on the top look familiar?

But yeah, you probably shouldn’t spend an entire day hiking and various other exploits when you’re battling an illness, as I found out when I got much sicker the next week!

Project at a Children’s Summer Camp

A couple days after Naadam we were told that we would be going to a children’s summer camp one day next week with our LCFs and our technical session trainers and that we needed to prepare activities for the kids. Well, that sounds like fun, right? Except no one seemed to have any details on how many kids would be there, how old they were, how long we would be there, etc. One person told us there would be over 100 kids, but they still weren’t sure of the ages. So we decided to split the kids into 6 groups and do rotations through 6 different activities, with 2 of us leading each activity. One station would be dancing, one singing, one drawing, one playing games, one playing soccer, and one teaching English. The day before the camp there were still no more details on the number and ages of kids that would be there, but our LCFs told us to be at the school by 8:45 so that we could leave at 9:00 to head to the camp, which they said was about 30 minutes away, and that we would be returning late in the afternoon. So that night I told my host family that I wouldn’t be coming home for lunch the next day because we would be eating at the camp, but that I would be back by late afternoon.

The next morning, we all gathered at the school at the agreed upon time, and they told us that there would actually only be about 30-something kids, so we had to figure out whether to have really small groups or to just cut a couple of the activities. We didn’t leave until after 9:30 because that’s just how things roll in Mongolia, but finally we all packed into a meeker (a Russian van often used for travel here) to head out. After we got out of the city we pulled onto a dirt road and proceeded to go off-roading for another 45-ish minutes (I told you, time is not really an important concept here), surrounded by nothing but grassy fields and rolling hills.

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Once we got closer to the camp, there were also tons of trees, which don’t seem to exist in Darkhan

Once we got closer to the camp, there were also tons of trees, which don’t seem to exist in Darkhan

Our meeker was also a nice fancy one that had a TV screen where they would play music videos, so we got to listen to everything from Mongolian pop to PSY to Pitbull and Kesha.

I don't know what this is, but we watched it

I don’t know what this is, but we watched it

Finally we arrived at the camp!

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The camp staff took us to a large room in one of the dorms and told us to rest for about 45 minutes because the kids weren’t ready for our sessions yet.

Resting...

Resting…

They later came in and told us that we would only have about an hour and a half with the kids before lunch and that we couldn’t do any sessions with them after lunch because there would be other stuff going on. So we decided to only do 3 of our sessions in a rotation with 3 groups based on age (since there were kids ranging in age from 7 to 18): singing, dancing, and games. I was in the singing group, where one of our guys played the ukulele and we taught them a couple American songs:

"Take Me Out to the Ball Game"

“Take Me Out to the Ball Game”

“Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay”

“Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay”

And then the kids tried to teach us the Mongolian version of “If You’re Happy and You Know It,” but our Mongolian language skills were much worse than their English skills, so they at least had fun laughing at us.

Here’s us pretending we know what’s going on

Here’s us pretending we know what’s going on

Since I was busy with the singing group for all 3 rotations, I didn’t get to see the other activities, but they supposedly went pretty well.

We then had lunch in the camp’s cafeteria, which actually was not too bad: vegetable soup, something that looked like huushuur but was apparently some kind of Russian food, bread, and tea. After lunch we were told to take another break, so a couple of us taught our LCFs and a couple other Mongolians how to play UNO. After that break our LCFs gave each of us a sheet of questions that we had to ask to 4 different kids to have us practice our Mongolian. Once that was done, we were given free time with the kids. The boys went off to play soccer while some of us girls played volleyball with a few of the kids. There was one little girl who wanted to play volleyball with us for almost 2 hours, so I got quite a workout from that.

How can you say “no” to that face?

How can you say “no” to that face?

By this point the mayor of Darkhan had also shown up with his family, because apparently he has nothing better to do than hang out with us Peace Corps people. His 2 kids were a couple of the ones we played volleyball with! He had come to prepare dinner for us, which consisted of kebabs and khorkhog, which is a traditional Mongolian meal where pieces of meat (we had mutton, of course), potatoes, and carrots and a bunch of stones heated in a fire are placed in alternating layers in a cooking pot that’s then sealed and regularly shaken while it cooks for about 30 minutes. Then after everything is cooked and taken out of the pot, they pass around the stones (which are still burning hot at this point) for each person to juggle between their hands “for good health” (because nothing says “good health” like 3rd degree burns!). But the food itself was amazing! It’s crazy how just cooking mutton differently can make it taste so much better.

Taking the veggies out

Taking the veggies out

Taking the meat out (those black things are the stones they cooked it with, and what we had to pass around)

Taking the meat out (those black things are the stones they cooked it with, and what we had to pass around)

Before we left the camp, we saw the kids participating in a group dance exercise that they apparently do every morning and evening. It looked like a lot of fun so we joined in!

By this time we were already much later than we had told our host families that we would be, and of course there was no phone reception where we were. But then the mayor wanted to take us to a family’s ranch right next to the camp where they would let us ride one of their horses, and we certainly wanted to do that!

Oh yeah, I could definitely live there!

Oh yeah, I could definitely live there!

It ended up being more of a pony ride, because Peace Corp’s policy is that Trainees and Volunteers must wear a helmet when riding a horse, and since we didn’t have helmets with us, they agreed to just let us sit on the horse while the owner led him around in a circle. It was still lots of fun though, and I got to ride/sit on my first Mongolian horse!

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After everyone got a chance to ride the horse, we finally headed back to Dereven. It was after 9 (and almost dark) when we finally got home, which you may notice is about 4 hours later than we had told our families we would be. They were pretty worried, but it was worth it for all the fun we had at the camp!