December 27, 2008

In-Service Lovin'

It was really special to be able to spend time with the other Peace Corps Volunteers during IST. We don’t get to see each other very often, especially now that our budget has been reduced and our previous 15 days (In-Service Training, Project Design and Management conference and Mid-Service Training) of training has been reduced to 5 days (IST). We are all still hoping for the Peace Corps budget to increase some with the new admission led by Barack Obama, but until then this might be the last time we all see one another until the summer of 2010. That’s hard to imagine, but that might be a reality for us in our group. Regardless it has been wonderful to see everyone, our counterparts have been wonderful and we have all laughed over and over and over all week.

Leslie said it right when she said that it is a cruel joke for Volunteers to learn to love each other so much during two and a half months of training together only to be separated for two years and hardly ever see one another. IST (In-Service Training) was incredible and wonderful, but it was also very hard on each of us. We got to see some of our favorite people, hugged each other almost every hour, and then within a week had to separate once again for another six, eight, or maybe even sixteen months. Until we meet again, we will continue to text each other, call each other and hold onto all the memories we are able to have.











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Counterpart Development

In-Service Training (IST) is like Pre-Service Training which we all went through as Peace Corps Trainees over the summer in that it prepares us for our work as Peace Corps Volunteers. It is different however in that it is not preparing us for our first few months at site, but rather preparing us and our counterparts for our remaining one and a half years. We learned about how to design and manage projects, how to better communicate and collaborate with our Mongolian coworkers (who we call counterparts or CPs) and how to effectively plan and manage our time as Volunteers. At this point in our service most of us are pretty excited about the seemingly infinite possibilities in our jobs and in some cases the overwhelming enormity of all things we would like to accomplish. There are grants to write, ideas to turn into projects, projects to turn into realities and realities that we would like to make out of huge dreams.

During IST each of us is allowed to invite one counterpart from our host agency and every session during the conference is taught, either together or separately, in both the English and Mongolian languages. Munhkzul, my IST counterpart, is a brilliant Pediatrician in our hospital who speaks wonderful English and whom I was very lucky to have accompany me to the conference. She is a very busy woman, both professionally and at home with her family, but having her at the conference has been really wonderful. We brainstormed together on all kinds of projects and reminded each other of all kinds of possibilities in our hospital and health department. I learned a tremendous amount about Munkhzul, about Peace Corps, and about how to work on projects in the coming months. We have a lot of great ideas and exciting plans for the future, including seminars on time management and effective planning and goal setting which Munkhzul wants to teach to doctors, nurses and health care workers in the hospital. I will be advising her, watching her when she presents and then sharing my thoughts with her afterward to help improve her future presentations. Other plans for us include teaching seminars on nutrition, hand washing, stress management, creating resources to teach community members about how to live healthier lives and sitting down once a month to plan out the upcoming month's activities. We are both very excited and look forward to an incredible year!


December 22, 2008

Erica Beezy

While out on Saturday night after training, a dozen of us went out to eat together and then visited a tavern called Budvar. It was a lot of fun to see everyone and we laughed, told jokes, shared stories and made a shout out to one of our favorite friends who is no longer with us here in Mongolia: Erica Beezy!

Leslie decided it would be cool to take a picture of us trying to write this special girl’s name with our hands, so we did that spectacularly. To you Erica Beezy!






December 21, 2008

My Favorite Part of Lynch House

One of the greatest years of my life was my senior year of college. There were a lot of reasons for this, but I can easily say that the biggest reasons were Chase, David, Wee, Pawan, Garrett and Tim. I was lucky enough to live with these incredible guys and they changed my life. They showed me new ways to measure success, be a leader, an adventurer and a friend. We lived together for a year and saying goodbye to that year was something that was hard for all of us. We had Halo nights, fire drills, made chocolate chip cookies, experienced Wee Wan's Banana Night and Moon Cake festival, played at least 57 soccer games until sunset, played frisbee games all around the house and the campus, opened David's new MacBook, ate incredible dinners at P.F. Chang's, watched dozens of Netflix movies, camped on the beach, played tons of 6+ hour games of Risk, nicknamed Pawan "The Dictator", spied on Garrett and Kelly, stared at Chase & David's incredible ceiling, got Tim, Pawan and Andres to make peace, took Wee to Kentucky for Thanksgiving, had a Christmas Gift Exchange, watched half a dozen movies in the theater, made a movie about Gandhi Gazoo, played baseball, watched Wee and Pawan have some kind of telepathic connection when no one else could hear the other one ("Wee? Wee needs me. Pawan?"), made jack-o-lanterns, made people piss in their pants on the Haunted Trail, were astounded by Wee the crazy clown, made trips to Hickory to eat at Akito's, convinced people that aliens will come in 10 years, finally got into the basement, made oatmeal cookies and coconut cream pies, went to an interview with Peace Corps, visited the famous Fort Sumter, had phone wars between David and Pawan, visited Crabtree Mall tons, ate at Sunni Skys who knows how many times, made jerseys for Lynch United (the coolest team ever!), made Garrett laugh the funny way, ate at Hibachi Grill, ordered in pizza and played games all night, solved the Rubik's cube, saw Wee perform his recital, ate a pyramid of Chik-fil-a sandwiches, gave the Dictator the Golden Axe, had dozens of late night conversations, had an end-of-the-year gift exchange, addicted everyone to LOST, and eventually went to graduation, but not before everyone listened to quotes like "For the love of god! Wake me up!" - Garrett, "Kawasaki, Mitsubishi, ToyoTAHHHHH!" - Wee and 50 mph soccerball, "It smells like something died in the basement...animalwise." - Garrett, "It's the Da-Da-Da-Da-David Rengifo Show!" - Travis & Chase, and "There are aliens...that's a fact. Give it ten years, you'll see." - Pawan. All of this happened in one incredible place that none of us will even forget, Lynch House.


So when my good friend Shaw Rowe messaged me with this message and this picture, I thought to myself about all the incredible memories (Orientation, Fall, Winter, Spring, Graduation) we were all able to create together in this special place and all the future memories will be able to create because we met.

"Lynch House is no more. To all the good times you spent in this house, pour out your best drink, toss a morsel of bread and dream a happy dream, for tonight the house will eternally rest. Thank you Lynch House, you served us well."

I am very grateful for all the incredible friends in my life and the amazing experiences we have been able to enjoy together. Thank you Chase, David, Wee, Pawan, Garrett and Tim. You are my favorite part of Lynch House.

December 4, 2008

WorldWise Schools

I just got off of Skype with two of Michael's classes in New York City (who we partnered up with through Peace Corps's WorldWise Schools) and they were wonderful! They asked tons of great questions about the culture and people of Mongolia, about my life, and about the Peace Corps. In the first class we had three young boys who were in the first grade: William, Matias and Omri. One of my favorite questions was from Omri, who asked if there were any jungles in Mongolia. I think it was Matias who jumped in and said, "Yeah, and are there any cheetahs?" I told them it was too cold for jungles here. I was about to explain it was 30 degrees below zero at the moment but we moved on to more talk about what animals were in Mongolia and what I like to eat.

The second class was 4th through 6th graders: Wan, Jacob, Leonardo, Marcus, Lev and Christopher. Their questions were impressed and some were quite advanced. They asked a lot about Peace Corps, what we do, how many of us there are, why we work for no money and when I will be coming home. An interesting question, which I'm still not sure the answer to, was if I will ever come back to Mongolia once I leave in two years. I have a feeling I will. I also have a feeling we will talk again. I told Michael I had a lot of fun and I really look forward to meeting with both classes in a couple of weeks after IST (In-Service Training) in the capital which I leave for this Saturday. Thanks for the opportunity to talk with your classes Michael, it was a blast!

Destiny Calls

Here is the newest trailer for my favorite show, LOST, which starts on January 21st. Some interesting things to note from the trailer include a logo for an airline named Ajira Airways and at the end of the trailer John Locke, my favorite character, is looking out into the valley and if you pause the frame you can see a small group of tents under his arm. Here also is the new logo for the fifth season. Things to point out: (1) there is a space on the right, which might represent a character thought to be dead such as Jin or Michael, (2) Kate and Sawyer appear to be looking at each other and (3) there is a six of lights on the building behind Hurley and Desmond. I'm excited about this new season! How about you?

November 5, 2008

Barack Obama Wins


I am very proud of our new President, Barack Obama. I believe he, his family, Joe Biden and his family, and all of their colleagues will do a lot of good for our country and help inspire us to become a better people. I have been very excited about Obama’s presidential aspirations since January of 2007 and will gladly offer my support and energy to him and his ideals for many years to come. I know that many people, including some of my very close friends, are concerned about what he and the Democratic Party will do over the coming years but I think no matter what happens our country will be what we make it. The hope and change Barack Obama has spoken of so often are things we each have the power to inspire in others and live out each day in our own lives. Some of you are students in school right now and some of you are in the workplace, but all of you are in communities and live day in and day out with friends, family and neighbors too. We all want to see change for the better, in our country and in our world, and the only way that is ever going to happen is if we are that change ourselves. Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” You may have heard that a lot, but can we really hear that too much? It could very well be one of the most important things we ever think. If we want to see more love in the world, we need to be more loving. If we want to see more justice, strength, courage, honesty, discipline, optimism, honor, and kindness, we need to be just, strong, brave, honest, disciplined, optimistic, honorable and kind. When we do that, I think our communities, our country and our world will be become what we have always dreamed it could be, better.


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Video Your Vote

My friend Chase making me curling over with laughter. Video Your Vote.

November 4, 2008

Obama for America

In about 12 hours the Presidential Election in the United States will be over. I am very hopeful for Barack Obama and have been wearing my t-shirt for good luck all day.

Tomorrow I am taking the day off of work to watch the election in Alex’s ger on her computer, probably refreshing Election Results webpages a couple hundred times to see the results. I am also sending out Periodical Obama Presidential Update Posts (POP UP’s) throughout the day to my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers who request them, giving them the best information I can find. It’s nerve-racking in America I am sure, but it is especially nerve-racking here. I don’t have a television, so this should be a very interesting experience. I hope everyone enjoys their Election Day! I am very excited about the results!

October 31, 2008

Nice and Cozy

My trip into the capital was very nice and very fun, but I definitely missed home. I missed the simpler life of Baruun-Urt, the nice cozy apartment, my coworkers in the hospital and especially my Peace Corps sitemates. Coming home was even worth the crazy long bus ride back, costing me a little bit of blood, sweat and tears. Tears because the sun shone right into my eyes for a large portion of the trip, sweat because the heater on inside the bus gets incredibly hot, and blood because, well, a large piece of wood fell out of the overhead compartment above me when we were taking a sharp turn and the corner of the board nailed me on the top of my head. Crazy huh?

Anyway, after getting back with only minor scratches, I realized that I really like where I am and I am very glad to be in Baruun-Urt. I think it's a very special place. Oh, and also on the topic of nice and cozy, I got a new winter parka with fake fur around the hood! It's so awesome! I look like one of those guys from the Arctic!

August 16, 2008

Travel Journal (Summer)

Thanks for reading my journal thus far, I hope you’ve enjoyed it! This marks the completion of Pre-Service Training and my first two and a half months in Mongolia as a Peace Corps Trainee. It also marks the beginning of my time as a Peace Corps Health Volunteer in Baruun-Urt and Sukhbaatar, about which I am very excited!

For the sake of keeping the Travel Journal more manageable, I will start splitting it into parts by season. This first part has lasted through the summer and included all of Pre-Service Training, and the next part will last through the fall and include beginning work in the hospital, moving into my new place, running Sukhbaatar’s first Haunted University, and having my first Christmas away from home in the capital of Mongolia with all of the other Peace Corps Volunteers during IST!

As always, I will try to keep things interesting and exciting and look forward to hearing what you all think about all the new journal entries! Thank you for all of your love and support. I miss you all very much and I look forward to talking to you each very soon!


July 25, 2008

The Girl I've Been Looking For

I think I found the girl I’ve been looking for. She’s beautiful, hilarious, kind to everyone, gentle, tons of fun and up for doing anything. She laughs at all my jokes, is well known in the community, and loves my host family who loves her right back. She enjoys dressing in traditional Mongolian clothing when she wants to look nice and also enjoys wearing outfits that can get dirty when we play volleyball or frisbee outside. On top of all that, she is also one of the most patient and generous people I have met in Mongolia. She corrects my language with a sweet smile, teaches me new words all the time and never gives up when she is sharing something new with me. Also, she wants to be a doctor and I think she’ll make a great one.

When she comes over to my house, my plans change. Outings with my Peace Corps friends are postponed, homework is forgotten about and we laugh, play games and talk until the sun goes down. Sometimes she stays over and talks with my little sister late into the night, long after I have gone to sleep. She doesn’t come over often, which is a shame, but she makes it over as often as she can.

I say she is the girl I’ve been looking for because every moment she is around she shows me what kindness looks like, what fun laughter can be and what goodness there is in all of us. She reminds me of who I want to be and the kind of impact I make on others as a role model and as a friend. She is a very special girl and I am very lucky to know her.

I also say she is the girl I’ve been looking for because I am always looking for people like her in the world - people who give us hope, challenge us to be better people, and show us how to be responsible and caring human beings. Guys and girls like her, all throughout the world, are the friends I am glad I have, the people I am proud to say I know and the inspirations that encourage me to do what I know is right everyday.

Today, before heading home for the night, she put her hand to the top of her head and moved it toward me to compare her height to mine. Looking up she laughed and said she was much smaller. I picked her up and lifted her high above my head before giving her a hug. She can call me her big brother all she wants, but my eight years old cousin Mohnchimeg definitely isn’t smaller than I am. As I put her down, I smiled at her. “You’re much bigger than you think,” I said, “much bigger.”




July 20, 2008

Vipassana Meditation Retreat

One of the big things I failed to write about during my last month in the U.S., but has remained on my mind since then, is the 10-day silent meditation retreat that I went to between April 22nd and May 3rd in Blue Ridge, Virginia. I have talked about it at length with most of you who are reading this thought right now, but I think it is worth writing about and sharing with anyone who is interested in it, if for no other rather than that it is one of the most worthwhile things I have every done in my life. It has really changed the way I look at things for the better.

The meditation technique we were taught during the 10-day course is called Vipassana (vi-POSH-ana) meditation and it goes back more than 2,500 years to the time of Siddhartha Gautama the Buddha. Vipassana means “to see things as they really are” and is a process of self-observation to understand universal truths through continued awareness. Buddha, meaning “Enlightened One”, is said to have taught this technique to hundreds of thousands of people around what is now India during the last 40 years of his life. It has everything to do with how you live and very little to do with what you believe. In fact I think Buddha sums it up well with his famous line, “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” The retreat provides participants with the time and space in which to concentrate, observe one's thoughts and then move past them to a deeper state of awareness. There is minimal instruction, less than one hour a day, and maximal time for meditation, about twelve hours a day. There are also times built into the day when you can ask questions of the meditation teachers who are present during all of the group meditations. Below is our daily schedule, which is the same for all Vipassana meditation courses throughout the world.

4:00am Wake Up
4:30-6:30 Group Meditation
6:30-8:30 Breakfast
8:00-11:00 Meditation
11:00-1:00 Lunch
1:00-5:00 Meditation
5:00-6:00 Tea Break
6:00-7:00 Group Meditation
7:00-8:00 Teacher Discourse
8:00-9:00 Group Meditation
9:00-9:30 Question Time
9:30pm Lights Out

I was nervous about the course at first. I worried about meditating for hours a day when I had only previously meditated for a maximum of 15 to 30 minutes at a time. I worried about eating vegetarian food for 10 days straight when I had never even eaten for one day on vegetarian food alone. And I worried about the people who I would be sharing my time at the retreat with, what they were like and what living with complete strangers would be like for ten days. Everything turned out great, but I think these were very valid concerns - ones that might even keep someone from attempting the retreat in the first place. So when I got back from the retreat I wrote down a lot of questions that I had as I went through the process and the answers I came to:

How hard is the course, am I really going to be able to sit for that long at a time?
The course is as hard as you make it, meaning if you really dig deep and give a lot of effort and attention to what you are doing then it will be quite a challenge. However, if you complain a lot and don’t actually pay attention to what’s really going on, the course will be more frustrating than difficult. Personally I found that pain and discomfort were very necessary tools for me to get to where I needed to be mentally. When I was too comfortable, such as when I was sitting in a chair during a meditation at my cabin, the actual physical act of sitting became too easy and it became harder to concentrate my attention. When I sat on the floor the coarse, painful sensations were there for me to study and experience and then they gave way to more subtle, pleasant sensations and on and on. It was hard to understand at first, but pain is not the enemy and comfort is not the goal. In fact, for me, both became irrelevant in terms of causing a reaction within me. The first step in meditation, as I experienced it, was being able to focus all of my attention on the present moment and to experience the present moment within the framework of my body. Thinking about the past and the future, singing songs in my head, fidgeting around in response to discomfort, as well as a myriad of other distractions only took me away from the present moment. Pain in the present moment, pleasantness in the present moment, itching, stinging, pressure, heat, cold, these are doors to understanding what is really happening around me. There are some cases where chairs or back supports are necessary for meditators, but one of the best people to make that call is your teacher. Talk with your teacher during the question and answer sessions each day, try out new poses and meditation benches, and most of all give each session your honest attention and best effort. Coming into the 10-day course the longest I had ever meditated was 10 minutes straight. Sitting for longer than that seemed like it would kill me. I talked to my teacher and he recommended working little by little to build up my mind’s ability to handle it. He was absolutely right. By the end of the course I was sitting for an hour and a half without moving an inch, blinking an eye or making a twitch. I was also doing this in more than one position. You can absolutely do this and you will amaze yourself.

Is eating vegetarian for ten days difficult?
I found the food provided to be very enjoyable and healthy. I had never in my life eaten vegetarian for more than a day or two, but even after eating vegetarian for ten days I didn’t feel like I was skipping a beat. I felt very healthy and well fed. During any given day we had several choices of cereal, breads, jams, peanut butter, salads, fresh bananas, oranges, apples, milk, soy milk, rice milk, pasta, water, coffee, tea, orange juice, oatmeal, granola, soy beans, and cookies.

What are the people like who attend these courses?
I can obviously only speak for the course I attended regarding this question, but I found that the people I met were from an incredible variety of backgrounds. In my cabin of eight people we had a retired surgeon, a carpenter, an artist, a linguist with the Department of Defense, a graduate school student, a recent high school graduate, a computer programmer and me, a Peace Corps Volunteer. Religious beliefs represented in our cabin alone included Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Atheism, with the course overall including Taoism, Islam, Sikhism and Catholicism. Also in the course at large (I probably met about 1/3 of the attendants), there were teachers, chaplains, ministers, stay-at-home moms, graduate students, returned peace corps volunteers, high school, college and graduate school graduates, engineers, government employees and law enforcement officials. In short, I was very impressed by the people I met during my particular retreat. They created a diverse array of personalities, cultures, beliefs and professions that I found very enjoyable.


How is waking up at 4am every day?
I actually found this to be very enjoyable as well. In fact, I wish I could do this more often in my every day life. I found my day to be much more full and productive when I woke up early and went to bed early. It’s a little hard at first, but I really am glad they have the schedule for the course the way that they do.

How is this not a cult?
Michael Lee asked me this question and I think this is a very important question to ask of any organized religion, meditation retreat, course, group, club or organization. In my experience cults are groups believe that what they think is absolutely correct and superior to the beliefs and practices of others. Also I have found that in a cult reason and personal experience is treated as inferior to faith and the experiences of someone else. The faith could be in anything or the experiences could be those of a religious leader or the author of a scripture.

On faith and reason, opposite of a cult, this meditation retreat stated what the Dalai Lama himself has said, “Buddhism relies more on one's own effort, on reason rather than faith.” Also, on the value of personal experience, both the retreat and Buddha himself stated, “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” I like both of these insights very much and think that they made the entire retreat very comfortable for people of all faiths as they spent time on their own self-awareness. Closing the course Vipassana teacher stated very clearly that there are many ways to arrive at truth in the world and that an individual’s personal experience is more important than anything that was said or done during the retreat. He also repeated what he had said several times over the course of the retreat, “Take what is helpful from this meditation practice and leave what is not helpful.” The Dalai Lama has a similar saying which I really admire, “If anything I’ve said seems useful to you, I’m glad. If not, don’t worry. Just forget about it.” Truth be told, I did hum the Dharma Initiative song from LOST when I first got to the camp...

Where there times when you wanted to quit?
There were certainly times where I felt frustrated at my lack of progress, or felt like I should be achieving something that I wasn’t achieving. But ironically, these were also the moments where I was closest to a breakthrough, as I later found out. A very important part of meditation for me was realizing how influential desire had become in my life. I wanted to experience something incredible, I wanted to feel something special and I felt like I was supposed to be somewhere other than where I was. For me the important thing to realize was that the present moment, no matter how un-incredible or un-special, no matter how incredible or special, was what needed my attention. When my mind became sharpened to the point that I was truly experiencing the reality around me, the sensations on my body, the experiences happening every moment, that is when I started to make progress and notice the changes that were always happening every moment. Words of wisdom can enter the mind as a thought, but experiencing wisdom is something else, I think. This happens naturally for everyone, but wanting it to happen can slow it down significantly. The sooner I let go of my expectations and desires, the more I was able to experience. I suppose that also helped me get through the moments of frustration very quickly. I am very glad that I stayed and that I experienced the entire course, I think staying open-minded and eager to learn was the best thing I could have done.

To find out more about Vipassana meditation, you can visit their website at www.dhamma.org and sign up for a retreat of your own at any time. Good luck and let me know if you ever need any help!

July 14, 2008

Alcohol

I have not had a lot of experience drinking alcohol. I have drank alcohol on many different occasions, but never more than one beer or more than three shots of any given thing. This isn’t for any religious reason or particular belief; I don’t drink much because I don’t think alcohol tastes very good, I have never really desired to achieve any particular feeling that alcohol might provide, and mostly because I don’t want to be unable to control my thoughts and actions. I have heard several people over the years tell me things like, “I wish I hadn’t drank as much as I did...I shouldn’t have started drinking in the first place...I can’t remember what I did...I don’t want to remember what I did...I think I’m going to regret this tomorrow...and I don’t want to do that again.” That is the side of alcohol and other abuse-able substances that really scares me. If a chemical, or combination of chemicals, has the ability to impair my ability to think and act then how will I know when will I am going to lose control? Then when that happens, what am I capable of doing?

While I haven’t had a lot of experience drinking alcohol myself, I feel like I have had enough experience with other people who drink plenty of it. I have seen people, including friends and strangers, become confused, hilarious, paranoid, loud, happy, angry, affectionate, insensitive, excited, violent, honest, forgetful, lonely, rude, embarrassed, regretful, sad, embarrassing and profoundly stupid all with the help of alcohol. There are times and places in which these behaviors can be rather inconsequential (notably indoors with close friends), but oppositely there are times and places in which these behaviors can be reputation destroying and life-altering. With that in mind, I think the act of drinking should be approached in a measured and responsible way. Especially here in Mongolia, where alcohol and alcoholism are an unavoidable part of everyday life.

Surprises

Mongolia is full of surprises, some happy and some sad, but almost all of them very quick. Take, for example, Mike who is an M18 and one of the coolest Peace Corps Volunteers I have met in Mongolia. He greeted us when we first arrived in country, offered great advice to me and a couple of other Volunteers as we ate our first dinner in Darkhan at the Texas restaurant (which for the record has pretty much nothing to do with Texas), and always smiled and was quick to pat you on the back to let you know that he was excited for you and happy that you were here in Mongolia. One day we are playing frisbee and talking about all his plans this upcoming year, and literally the next day we are saying “goodbye.” His flight back to America was one week later. Mike is a married Volunteer and he and his wife found out, later that afternoon, that they were pregnant. As per Peace Corps policy, all married Volunteers expecting a child are immediately sent home so that they can receive the best health care in a safe environment. It’s great for the Volunteers, but an emotional roller coaster I can only imagine. Needless to say, I told Mike that I really admired his personality and hoped to treat next year’s incoming Volunteers as great as he treated me. I also told him that I would keep up with he and his wife as they share updates on their blog about their pregnancy and future baby.

If that’s not enough to show you how quickly things can happen here, take Erica, my good friend and fellow M19 Volunteer. In just over one month, we have watched LOST together, ridden in meeker buses more times than we can count, traveled far and wide for internet in the city, taken taxis with extremely shady characters, walked back and forth from town which is an hour each way, talked about crazy things until late into the night, been there for each other when the going got tough and the drama got tougher and then today said “goodbye” because Erica is heading home to America tomorrow to be with her family. Some things are more important than Peace Corps, and family is one of them. After having talked with her family back home and thought over the decision for some time, Erica called our Peace Corps staff today and had they had her plane ticket purchased for the next morning. They move quick here. We all gathered up at Erica’s house, hugged and said our goodbyes to her. It’s only been a month and a half, but it’s amazing to me how much we all love her. We are going to miss her very much and we hope to see her again very soon. You hear that Erica?







July 12, 2008

The Thunder Rolls

“The storm goes on out of control, and in her heart, the thunder rolls...” It was like a Mongolian version of the famous Garth Brooks song, except between girl cousins who are twelve. It started as a simple game of Uno during the largest electric storm we’ve had since I’ve been here: lightning, rain, hail and all. However, after adding several days of tension between two young girls confined to small living quarters, the situation quickly devolved into a worse indoor thunderstorm. It reminded me a lot of myself and my cousin Jared when we were around the same age. After a couple of days of putting up with each other’s nuanced annoyances, we finally snapped over something stupid that I can’t even remember. There were remote controls thrown back and forth, subsequent hurt feelings and a tear or two before the adults came in to rectify the situation with a couple of scolds, spanks and forced apologies. The same thing happened last night, minus the remote controls, and it also happened in Mongolian so I can’t tell you what was said. What I can say is that my sister was expected to apologize to me this morning, I suspect because it was considered rude for them to have argued in front of me. I smiled and told her it was all right. If I could have spoken better Mongolian, I would have told her the last time I argued with my cousin I threw a remote control at him.

July 11, 2008

Mountaintop

Matt, Trip and I finally scaled the highest mountain in Sukhbaatar (technically we don’t know), which we have been wanting to do it since we first got here. The entire trip took 6 hours, including 3 hours from the base of the mountain to the top, and it was really awesome. We saw Russia to the north, as well as the entirety of the city of Sukhbaatar. I’m really glad we did it and I have some awesome videos of the ridiculous climb!

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July 9, 2008

Brian Johnson, Philosopher

I have talked a lot about Brian Johnson with my family and friends, especially regarding the Vipassana Mediation retreat which he inspired me to do, but I have never written about him on my blog. So here it is: Brian Johnson, the blog post.

Brian Johnson is the founder of the website Zaadz.com which was recently bought by and assimilated into Gaia.com, a website operated by the multinational corporation Gaiam - who you might recognize from their famous yoga products. It was through Zaadz that I was first introduced to Brian over a year ago. I read his personal blog posts, received some of his group e-mails and friended him on the site, but that was about it. Then at the end of last year Brian wrote about a Vipassana Meditation retreat that he went to with his fiancee and it intrigued me so much that I decided I would try it out myself. It would be several months before I was able to attend my first retreat in Virginia, but it was well worth the wait. As I have written before, learning Vipassana Meditation was one of the best things I have ever done and I highly recommend it to anyone and everyone.

When I got home from the retreat it was May and I only had one month before leaving for Mongolia with Peace Corps. I wrote a short “thank you” to Brian on Zaadz and then headed to Mongolia. During that time Brian had moved on from Zaadz.com/Gaia.com and started a new adventure called PhilosophersNotes.

His plan with PhilosophersNotes is to read a Ph.D.-equivalent quantity of spirituality, self-improvement, philosophy, and personal effectiveness books and then write 5-page Cliff’s Notes-style summaries of each book. These are then made available as PDF and mp3 files, purchasable both individually or on a subscription basis. I read about this idea in an e-mail a couple of months back from Zaadz/Gaia.com and thought it sounded great so I signed up to receive updates, but I didn’t think I would be able to afford a subscription anytime soon. Then this week I received an unexpected e-mail. After reading my auto-response from Gmail which explained that I am currently in serving in the Peace Corps, Brian sent me a message which read, “Hey bud: I love it! I would love to support you and your work with a free subscription to PhilosophersNotes! Let me know if you'd like it and I'll hook you up. - bri.” Stunned, I wrote him right back and told him a subscription would be incredible. If anything about Peace Corps is universal, it’s that we Volunteers have plenty of time to read good books. Within a day I had a response from Brian with my subscription, and since then then I have downloaded over a dozen of the PDF and mp3 PhilosophersNotes, including ones on The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle and Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, among many others. So far I am very impressed, but I guess that’s not a surprise. Brian Johnson is a quality guy and I have a feeling he is going to continue surprising me for quite some time. Thank you Brian, for being so helpful and generous. I appreciate your support and look forward to reading many PhilosophersNotes to come.

July 8, 2008

Angier Independent

Kim Lambert, editor of the Angier Independent, recently notified me that an article was printed about my Peace Corps assignment in her Campbell University-area newspaper. I met with Mrs. Lambert back in March of this year to share some details with her about Mongolia and my future service in the Peace Corps and we had a wonderful conversation. She was genuinely interested in my adventure with the Peace Corps and was very encouraging. I really enjoyed the article, which was printed the week I left the United States for Mongolia, and would like to say thanks again to Mrs. Lambert and the Angier Independent for their personal attention and genuine encouragement. To read the article, visit http://updates.travishellstrom.com.

July 6, 2008

Week 5

This was a pretty special week for us here in the M19 group. We had our first set of tests, for both our language and job training, and also a trip back to Darkhan for Mid-Service Training since we are officially halfway done with our Summer training. It’s hard to believe, but it’s true. At Mid-Service Training we had a lot of joint sessions on everything from the One-Laptop Per Child Initiative to Life Skills lessons and the ever-expanding list of official Peace Corps policies. We also had a flippin’ dodgeball tournament on July 4th, which was pretty sweet!

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Water Balloons

As featured in several Facebook pictures, Matt one of my fellow Volunteers, brought a three-person water balloon launcher with him here to Mongolia. Coupled with old apples or water balloons, that launcher has provided many hours of entertainment for us over the last few weeks. It has a range of about 200 yards and is perfect for the wide-open spaces of Mongolia where the sky and fellow Volunteers are the limit. The only trick is the water balloons themselves, which require slightly pressurized water from either a faucet, hose, or someone’s mouth. Luckily we have had a couple of hose or faucet occasions (such as in our hotel during Mid-Center Days) where we were able to fill up a couple balloons which found a home on the heads of unsuspected individuals throughout our three day stay.




July 4th and Dodgeball

Thanks to the hard work of our Peace Corps Volunteer Leaders (PCVLs), Language and Cultural Facilitators (LCFs), Peace Corps Trainers and Administrative Staff, we were all able to enjoy a really wonderful 4th of July on our last day in Darkhan. After our last class session on Friday, we were all taken to a nearby gymnasium where they had prepared hamburgers, hotdogs, watermelon, pizza, and soft drinks for all of us. It’s hard to imagine, unless you’ve been in a country like Mongolia for a month, but these kinds of foods were an incredible thing to see and taste. The hamburgers weren’t beef and the pizza wasn’t exactly American-style, but they still tasted great and were obviously the best that our friends could do for us.

After our dinner we all began the dodgeball tournament that we had signed up for the day before. All of us, the Volunteer Trainees, went up against our teachers (LCFs, PCVLs) and Trainers, in teams of 12. We had a ton of fun from round to round and then in the end had an everyone-against-everyone game where we pitted 50+ Trainees against 50+ Teachers and Trainers. There were incredible saves, plenty of balls in the face and several hilarious moments that I think we will all remember for a long time. Next year I know several of us will be back to play on the dark side, pitted against the M20 Trainees as they go through Mid-Service Training as well.

After the tournament was over and everyone began to leave, a couple of us stayed behind to play basketball in the gym during the remaining time which Peace Corps had reserved that evening. It was a 4-on-4 game between Tom, Matt, Chris, Trinh, Rich, Garrett, Nathan and myself and by the end of it we were all sweating buckets. It was a great feeling to have an hour in a nice gym all to ourselves.

So, all in all, because of the work of many people we were all able to enjoy a very nice July 4th here in Mongolia. We may not have had fireworks, but I think we all felt very lucky and very proud to be here serving as Volunteers. Thanks again to all of the Peace Corps staff that made this possible for us.

July 5, 2008

Boy Scouts of Mongolia

I recently found out that one of our Mongolian Peace Corps staff members, named Mende, was involved in the Boy Scouts of Mongolia and was able to talk to him today for the first time. As it works out, he is not only involved in Scouting, he is two steps below the Country Director of the Mongolian Boy Scouts. Specifically his job is Program Assessment and Management, monitoring the country’s Scoutmasters and regional and national activities. He was very excited that I was an Eagle Scout and we had a long conversation about Boy Scouts in Mongolia, its history, its current status in the country, its similarity to Boy Scouts of America and most important to me, how I might get involved and help out while I am here in Mongolia.

Boy Scouts in Mongolia started in 1991, following the transition from a communist to a democratic state. Since then it has grown to around 10,000 members today. From what I understand, which will no doubt be refined over the coming months, Scouting in Mongolia has basically the same organizational structure as the Boy Scouts of America, starting with Patrols, with then make up Troops, Districts and Councils which are represented in each of the 21 aimags (or states) of Mongolia. As far as levels of Scouting, Mongolia has Cub Scouts (ages 8 to 12), Boy Scouts (ages 12 to 16), Ventures (ages 16 to 18) and Rovers (ages 18 to 25). Cub Scouts have basically the same three ranks that they do in America (Bear, Wolf, Tiger), but Boy Scouts here rank based on three arrows rather than by Tenderfoot and so on as in America. Apparently in Mongolia it is the Venture and Rover Scouts that advance ranks toward an Eagle Scout-type award. This not only seems very interesting to me but also presents what I think would be an incredible opportunity to influence a very excited and capable group of young people. Imagine, if you will, taking a group of 16 to 20 year olds on a three-day horseback ride into the mountains of Mongolia to learn survival skills. Amazing?

If that wasn’t enough, Mende also tells me that he will bring me to the capital city of Ulaanbaatar in August to visit the Boy Scout Country Office where he works full-time to sit in on one of the National Council Meetings. There he says he can give me a better idea of what goes on during the year with Scouting, including the National Jamboree where all of the Scouts get together, Summer Camps which run in several locations throughout the country and also the weekly Troop meetings and monthly regional Council meetings. It’s even possible, he mentioned, that I could help out as an adult leader or even Assistant Scoutmaster. I think that would be incredible. Also, their Scouting uniforms are apparently my favorite colors: a light blue shirt and dark blue pants. Can’t get much better than that.

July 4, 2008

One Laptop per Child

It is nice when I am able to identify synchronicity in my life - when things connect and happen in an unexplainably convenient way. For instance Chase e-mails me about One Laptop per Child in Mongolia last week, including a news article and photos. Then today during Peace Corps Training there is an hour and a half session on One Laptop per Child (OLPC) lead by two representatives from the Foundation, telling us every detail about OLPC in Mongolia and even letting us play with half a dozen laptops ourselves so that we get to try them out. Then if that isn’t enough, I watch a TED video of Hector Ruiz (CEO of AMD) talking about his bold company initiative to have half of the world connected to the internet by 2015, which prominently mentions OLPC as part of that initiative. Needless to say, I am psyched about the possibilities for integrating OLPC into my work here in Mongolia and I am very impressed with the organization. Here are some key bullets that I wrote down during the Peace Corps presentation today:

• 20,000 XO laptops are being given out in Mongolia over the next year
• 1,000 were given out to 2 Ulaanbaatar schools in January
• 5,000 will be given out during this summer to various schools
• XO Generation 1 Laptops were created by MIT Professor
• The XO is designed to encourage child use and discourage adult use
• It is made to feel more like a toy than a laptop
• Company Partners include Google, AMD, Microsoft and Red Hat
• Kids being targeted are ages 6 to 12
• OLPC believes in a student-centered constructionism encouraging children to explore their laptop by doing what feels intuitive, staying self-motivated and being assisted by a teacher in a guideline, not step-by-step, manner.
• Each XO laptop can be connected to any other XO laptop wirelessly
• If one XO is connected to the internet, any other XO can connect through it
• The battery life of the XO is 15 hours
• Each XO be charged by hand crank, an outlet, or even solar power
• Version 2.0 of the XO is currently completely touchscreen

In short, the One Laptop per Child Initiative is flippin’ awesome and I am way excited to take part in it. I think it is a great tool for worldwide education and technological advancement and absolutely a step in the right direction. T0 learn more, visit OLPC at their website at www.laptop.org.

July 3, 2008

Novice Mid

A short update: I received my first Language Proficiency Interview score back from earlier this week and I tested out at Novice-Mid, which is very good. The levels go from Novice to Intermediate to Advanced, and each one has Low, Middle and High. By August before we swear in as Volunteers we are supposed to be testing at Novice-High, so I am definitely on track. The interview felt really good and I am impressed by how much I have been able to learn of the Mongolian language in such a short amount of time. If I work really hard, I think I might even test out at Intermediate-Low by the time our second LPI comes along. Until I’ll keep crossing my fingers and practicing my pronunciation.