June 29, 2008

My Mac

Michael Lee recently reminded me of how much I love my Macintosh computer. I got my Macbook (I sometimes call her Mackie) on July 17th, almost a year ago, and I still get excited every time I open it up or press the on button. I know there are a lot of opinions out there about computers, maybe especially Apple computers, but personally I am a big fan of the MacBook and feel like Apple has made an incredible product that has helped make my life more fun and effective. It helps me organize my thoughts, store all my videos and pictures in a fun way, interact with my friends and family through a convenient webcam and microphone above the monitor, easily locate wireless signals for easy access to the internet, play music and movies with great sound and video quality, interact easily with my other electronic devices and still lasts for 6 hours per charge. I think there are a lot of great computers out there with all kinds of specifications and attractive features, but I can say from personal experience that the MacBook is definitely one of those great computers. I am definitely a huge fan.

June 27, 2008

Losing Weight

This has been a pretty confusing concept for my host mom to grasp, but I want to get into better shape, eat less, exercise more and live healthier while I am here in Mongolia. Generally speaking being larger and having more fat on your bones is seen as advantageous and desirable in Mongolia, as it might be in many other developing countries I would imagine. Conversely, being thin and muscular can be characteristic of being a working man or woman who does not have an excess of money coming in from their job, making eating a lot and not having to exercise a desirable luxury. With this in mind I understand why my host mom wants me to eat a lot, but I am still standing firm about trying to lost weight and get in better shape. Almost every meal we kid back and forth about me eating more even though I say that I am full. I know that my stomach has gotten smaller and that I have already lost some weight in the first month that I have been here, but that means I am on the right track. My host mom thinks I’m a little crazy, I know, but I’m on a mission. I’m coming home to America in as good a shape as I was during football season in high school. Push-ups, jogging, sit-ups, meditation, the whole nine yards. And maybe, just maybe, a pizza or two thrown in there once and a while for good measure.

June 26, 2008

National Election

This upcoming Sunday there will be a National Parliamentary Election here in Mongolia. Even with several drawings and open dictionaries between my host family and me I still haven’t gotten a grasp on exactly what is happening, but I do know a few things. First of all there are elections every four years and it seems like every seat is up for grabs. Also, there are several parties in the country, but the two main parties are the Revolutionary Party and the Democratic Party. Currently the Revolutionary Party (related somehow to the old Communist Party) has the majority in the Parliament, but people are saying the Democratic Party might take the majority in this election. Furthermore, here in our aimag (or state) of Selenge there are three seats up for grabs. We have a lot of magazines and pamphlets in the house from both parties, which I have been flipping through to see the pictures, and I find them very fascinating. One thing in particular that fascinates me is that most politicians, in ads, on television and in print media, include pictures of themselves when they were children or babies. It was kind of crazy at first, but now it is just normal to see a picture of one of their politicians and then randomly see a picture of them a year or two old. Maybe I’ll get a better grasp on that, as well as more details about the election, this upcoming week. When I do, I’ll get back to you. Maybe I’ll even take a picture of it so you can see for yourself! How’s that sound?

June 25, 2008

Flash Flood

I have seen some pretty incredible things while I have been here in Mongolia, including beautiful mountain landscapes, countless Mongolian smiles, and dozens of horses running through the countryside, but this afternoon I got to see something I didn’t expect: a flippin’ flash flood. Although we have been having light and consistent rain for the past few days, today we got a taste of what it is like to have a team of rain clouds unleashed on a city in less than 5 minutes. Health class was cancelled early, for fear that we might not be able to make it home by meeker (microbus), and we all had to take off our shoes and roll up our pants to our thighs just to get out to the vehicle. The current was way strong, probably moving at about 10 to 15 mph, and definitely took us all by surprise. We eventually did make it home to our neighborhood, where the puddles stretched over 50 yards in some places, but we certainly had a couple moments where we thought we might be sleeping in our meeker overnight.

June 24, 2008

Week 4

The end of this week marks the end of my first month in Peace Corps. It’s pretty hard to believe that things have gone this fast, but I guess that’s just how life goes when you’re having fun. We are progressing through the Mongolian language rapidly, as we should, and we as a training group are also getting a lot closer to one another which has been a lot of fun. On an official note, I have received my official Peace Corps debit card from the Mongolian Xaah Bank (pronounced Hon), from which I will be receiving my salary over the next two years, so that makes me feel pretty legit. Also, I had my first site placement interview with my Health coordinator, so that makes me feel even more legit. Yes, I am actually a Peace Corps Volunteer. : )

June 22, 2008

My Daily Schedule

I haven’t shared my schedule yet, so I figure I should do that. Every week day I am up by 8am and off to start Mongolian language classes at the local kindergarten (which is fitting) from 9am to 1pm. Then I walk home for lunch from 1pm to 2pm. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays I have Health Job Training from 2pm to 6pm which is pretty awesome and on Mondays and Thursdays I have the afternoon off. That is when I usually when I travel into the city to use the internet. In the evenings I come home to my host family, we eat dinner and usually play games until I go to bed. On the weekends I sleep in and usually play a lot more games. It’s pretty ballin’ but like I’ve mentioned before, I am dead tired every night. They are definitely workin’ us, that’s for sure. That’s ain’t no vacation baby, this is hard work but it’s fun.

June 20, 2008

Shower Less

I haven’t taken a shower in over two weeks. I know how that sounds, but don’t worry, I am very clean. I wash my hair every morning, wash my whole body regularly and even clip my nails. How does he do it? With a dab of shampoo, a little bar of soap, a tiny washcloth and a few cups of water which sometimes has chunks of ice in it. It’s a crazy feeling knowing that I drink more water in a day than I use for showering or restroom facilities (or “fo-cilities” as Mr. Lindenson would say around 2:25), but that is exactly what I do day in and day out. In fact, for the record I haven’t sat on a toilet seat...or even seen a toilet...in over two weeks either. It’s kind of nice to know that you don’t have to have running water to feel clean, but don’t get me wrong I do like showers.

June 18, 2008

Eyelashes

Maybe every culture has some quirky physical feature that they like for no good reason, I’m not sure. What I do know is that my host sister likes my eyelashes. I know, it’s weird for me too. Starting a couple of days ago when she drew out a picture ranking everyone’s eyelashes in the house, every time she mentions it I curl over laughing. The longer and curlier the better, it appears. By this criteria I rank first, she says, followed by her, her mom, her brother and her dad. It’s a compliment, so I smile when she mentions it but I definitely can’t stop myself from laughing. I have never heard of eyelashes being a significant physical feature, for guys especially, and it still catches me off guard. Maybe I just need to come to terms with it: I have attractive eyelashes. Nah...

June 17, 2008

Without Syrup

Tonight's adventure is called French Toast without Syrup. When my host mom or ээж (pronounced ‘ech’) told me this week that she would like to learn how to cook American food, I went crazy. I have definitely be craving all kinds of different foods and with her encouragement I not only created a list of foods, but translated them into Mongolian, listed the ingredients, and drew out pictures of what they looked like. The list included hamburgers, hot dogs, pancakes, grilled cheese, salad with chicken, pizza and french toast along with their hard to translate ingredients like Bisquik, pizza dough, ground beef and syrup.

So tonight, when my ээж asked me what I would like to dinner, I smiled and brought out my list. Knowing we didn’t have ground beef, hot dogs, bisquik, cheese, lettuce, chicken, pizza dough, or tomato sauce, I figured we would go after french toast. Eggs we have, bread we have and syrup...how do you say syrup in Mongolian? I translated syrup, which sounded too much like juice, then molasses and liquid sugar, but ultimately had to show a picture of a syrup bottle which I found on my computer. The answer: we don’t have that. I sat, perplexed, wondering what I could do. Remembering the time I made flan at home with my mom, I smiled at my host sister and said, “Maybe we could fry some sugar!” Why not?

Plugging in the frying pan, we went to town on a couple pieces of toast dipped in eggs. All done they looked and smelled great sitting nicely on their plate ready to be covered with fried sugar. That is when the trouble began. I poured a couple spoons full of sugar into the pan and stirred it around. My family watched me as the sugar melted and turned to a yellowy liquid. Looking good, I motioned that we needed to pour it onto the pieces of toast. They just stared back at me as the yellowy liquid turned brown. I motioned again, realizing for the first time that a frying pan that plugs into a wall isn’t something you can just pick up and pour out easily. Tilting it over as the brown sugar turned black, my host father was able to pour most of it out into a nearby pot, but I was quite disappointed. Our first attempt had failed, marked not only by the rock hard black sugar in the pot but also by the plumes of smoke that now filled the room. Wondering if it was even worth a try, I eventually poured in a couple more spoons full of sugar to go for round two. hoping to pour out the liquid while still in the yellow phase. My host sister was on board with me, turning off the frying pan when the time was right and the sugar had just melted.

A success, we now had decent liquid sugar on the plate next to our french toast. It was short-lived however, as the sugar hardened almost immediately and stayed right on the plate where it been poured. Laughing, and crying on the inside, we took our pieces of toast into my room and chopped through it bit by bit. I poured some of the remaining regular sugar on top of the french toast, which helped some, but overall I have to admit that french toast just isn’t french toast without syrup. My sister and mom liked it, saying that I did a good job, but I hope I get to show them what it takes like with syrup sometime. Maybe I can find it in town...imported from a Russian Aunt Jemima or Chinese Hungry Jack.

June 16, 2008

Third Week

My third week in Mongolia has absolutely flown by! Between finding the internet for the first time in 12 days, going to language classes, cross cultural classes, health classes, and hanging out with my host family and fellow Volunteers, I have felt beat all week! I sleep a lot here, mostly because of time zone adjustment and intense language training, but I feel like I could probably sleep 12 hours a day and still be tired. The Volunteers I have talked to say this lasts most of the summer, so I am trying to accept it, but it is definitely hard to get used to. Apparently learning a brand new language takes a toll on you.

June 15, 2008

Sports

My host sister just came in this weekend from her aunt’s place in the “hoodo” or countryside, I think because she missed being home, and we have been playing games non-stop! Frisbee, soccer, football, volleyball, Spongebob Uno, poker, hearts, ankle-bones, horse-race, tic-tac-toe, and the game Anna taught me where you connect dots to make squares and if you make a square you write your initial in it, we have been playing it all! Not only that, but I am floored by how fast my host brother, sister, and mom can pick up on things like how to play a new game or how to throw a football or frisbee. Within a couple of minutes my host brother could throw the frisbee in three different ways with both his right and left hand and my host sister could throw it perfectly from between her legs. I can’t wait to get them out onto the field so that we can dominate all the other kids, it’s gonna be crazy.

We also played for a couple of hours with the neighborhood kids, but just in the streets beside our house until it got really dark and cold and we had to go in. We played soccer, volleyball, football, frisbee and some kind of volleyball-dodgeball mix I haven’t quite gotten a grasp on. Anyhow, soon this little team is gonna start traveling around to challenge all the other kids with our spiraling footballs, behind the back frisbee throws and mind-boggling Uno skills. Oh also, it took a while and a few drawings in the sand before I figured it out, it appears my host sister isn’t heading back to the countryside any time soon so it appears we are gonna be partying like this for a while!

June 14, 2008

Not A Missionary

I have been thinking for a long time about what separates Peace Corps from missionary work, since a lot of people have asked me if I was going on a “missions trip” over the last year and I have clarified “No, I’m going into the Peace Corps.” In my mind there are many commonalities and differences, but two particularly big ones.

One of the biggest commonalities between the Peace Corps and missionary work is that both can help people in a sustainable way, gauging their efficacy and value by how many people are living better lives once they as an organization are gone. Sustainability, as I am using it here, means something that will continue to work and be helpful indefinitely; as the saying goes give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime. That is sustainability. In my opinion, any organization that operates in this way for the great common cause of world development deserves my respect.

That being said, one of the differences I have noticed between the Peace Corps and missionary work is that missionaries often seek to increase the number of people who believe and profess what they do. In many cases this even trumps the sustainable work they may or may not do to help people live better lives. Conversely, the Peace Corps is not interested in making anyone believe or profess anything. When a country requests Peace Corps Volunteers, they enter the host community, learn and respect its language and culture, listen to the community about what it feels its needs are and then help the community members to affect change themselves.

June 13, 2008

Gardening

One of the big things in our community is gardening. On our family’s land about 80% is devoted to fruits, vegetables and flowers (including cucumbers, potatoes, onions, water melons, and carrots) and 20% is devoted to the house itself. This not only makes for very tasty dinners but also a big appetite to go with them. I have only been here for a week, but I would say I have already worked outside in the garden at least 20 hours. Taking into account that I only have about 4 hours free per weekday, I think that is pretty impressive. Also the work is totally voluntary, I was never asked to help and am allowed to do whatever I want when I do help. So far this has included aerating the soil by digging a foot down and then turning over the dirt and sand, raking through the soil to even it out, creating bordered areas with a hoe to hold in water so that the crops can soak it in, planting seeds and small plants to grow, and then watering them either by bucket or by hose (when we have the convenience of the small pump that pulls water from the well...which I think we are only borrowing at the moment). Sorry I didn’t share these skills with you and the rows of corn while I was still at home dad, but when I get back I’ll be sure to bestow my border-making skills upon you, don’t worry.

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June 12, 2008

Friends and Family

My host family loves looking at pictures on my iPod Touch and in fact they are getting really good at it! I was nervous at first thinking that it might come across as a high luxury that separated me from them, but that doesn’t seem to be the case at all. They see it as a way to see pictures of my family, my home, my friends and things that I love and they regularly zoom in on pictures of my brother, sister, mom and dad and say how similar we all look; they especially like my sister and mom (you reading that Anna and Mom?). In fact, they are becoming such pros at it now that I have changed things around on the Touch so that it has over 500 of my favorite pictures now. I am working my way through all of my thousands of photos, but I figure that is enough to keep them busy for now.

One thing I think I should note here is that, as I would looking through all of my photos from years and years back, I became acutely aware of how fortunate I have been to have an incredible family, wonderful friends, and dozens of unforgettable adventures. I didn’t start crying (not yet anyway) as I traveled back in time flipping through pictures, but I definitely relived those experiences and felt very emotional and thankful. You have all been wonderful companions to me along my walk through life and I am very grateful for each of you. They say the best way to have great friends is to be a great friend, but I don’t know what I could have ever done to have attracted so many incredible people into my life. I feel very lucky and I love you all very much.

June 11, 2008

The Facebook Effect

After talking to a couple of fellow Volunteers, I found out that several of the Volunteers here in Mongolia were eagerly anticipating my arrival in Mongolia thanks to the wonders of Facebook and our online M19 group, my video on YouTube and my overall presence on the internet. They appreciated my proactiveness, my excitement and my extrovertedness, so I heard. Since arriving in Mongolia I think some of those anticipations have been dashed against the wall that is the introvertness and calmness of my offline personality. I am very excited to be here, don’t get me wrong, but as those of you know who know me well can attest, I am not one to jump off walls or yell out loud when I feel happy. I am proactive, but generally in a quiet way and I am also extroverted to some extend but more in a one-on-one, public speaking and adventure-planning sort of way. I love meeting everyone in a group, but usually one by one and I also laugh loud and often, but not when first meet someone. I talked with Erica about this today and she said what I was thinking myself, Facebook-based expectations of people don’t usually match up with who a person really is. This isn’t really a good thing or a bad thing, it’s just something to take note of. A YouTube video of me in my house with my sister is really me, just like my Facebook profile is really me, but the quieter, more contemplative side of me definitely comes out in a place like Mongolia where everything requires my careful attention and thought. Before getting to Mongolia one of the things Mark (an M15) told me was to be myself. I have tried to do that and I think it has helped me really enjoy my time here, even though I am a complicated creature, facebook effect or not.

June 10, 2008

Hip Hop

My family had me rolling laughing Tuesday night when they hooked up the stereo to a VCD player and busted out some crazy English pop and hip hop music. Britney Spears, Nelly Furtado, and Fergie had me smiling (and swaying a little bit admittedly) but then Timbaland really got me with Apologize. It probably doesn’t seem like a huge deal, but keep in mind that I have heard no English words while I have been in my house here, only Mongolian words one after another. I thought they were just rocking out, but then I figured out that they were playing it for me. They asked me if I wanted to take the music to my room, but I laughed and smiled saying I would just stay in the living room to listen to it. I think a couple of hours went by before I noticed and needless to say, I burned all the music onto my laptop and now I am listening to it again.

June 9, 2008

Second Week

My second week in Mongolia, and first week with my host family, has been full of new experiences. Our language classes have dominated the mornings, doing a number on the gray matter that we call our brains, but because of our hard work I think our incremental improvements have become exponential leaps in language comprehension. A week ago I knew a couple words, but now I am speaking in sentences. It’s really pretty crazy, but I can read Cyrillic now and get through my basic introductions, salutations, likes and dislikes and even a little past tense action. They work us hard and there is no English going on, but immersion works well. Maybe some of these entries will be in Cyrillic soon, who knows?

June 7, 2008

My Paper Journal

I’ve been waiting to write in this journal from Taylor until I really felt like it was the right moment and I think this is it. I am in my room with my host family who will be looking after me for the next three months. I was greeted yesterday afternoon by my host mom (or “ech” the Mongolian word for mom) who took me and all my luggage to our home. When we arrived we had tons of food, from cookies and Sprite to bread and “boats” which are chopped pieces of meat covered in a boiled flour casing. I wasn’t really hungry, which I think I accidentally conveyed as feeling sick, but I really enjoyed all of it very much. During the meal and afterward I talked with my host mom and her sister or “iktsch” for a couple of hours. This consisted in large part of us all going back and forth between dictionaries, family photos and sign language but I think I quadrupled my vocabulary in Mongolian, “Mongol hil.” After unpacking my things and making myself a little nest, I plugged in the $350 water distiller that Peace Corps gave us and laid down for a little rest. That lasted until morning.

When I got up, I felt great. I was able to meet my host family’s son “hoo” and drink some milk tea as we introduced ourselves. He is 18 and a carpenter who works in and out of the city where he goes to college. His sister is in the 7th grade and she is out in the countryside with her aunt for the summer, but she will be back for the summer celebrations that start at the beginning of July. My host father is a watchman, “jujur” though I’m not sure where, so he works at night and I have yet to see him. My mom and I planted potatoes in the morning, rested in the afternoon, visited Erica (a fellow Volunteer) and her family in the evening and then played a couple traditional Mongolian games with “ankle-bones,” one that was like marbles, another like a horse race, and another like jacks. They were a lot of fun and my mom beat me mercilessly. The “ankle-bones” that you play with are also definitely real bones, which is pretty crazy. Today was also the first day I used the outhouse and I laughed when I realized that the holes in the outhouse that everyone has been talking about aren’t in a bench or on a seat, they are in the floor. My Boy Scout training of how to crap in the woods was priceless.

June 6, 2008

Ride to Sukhbaatar

As we packed up our things early in the morning, we said our ‘goodbye’s not only to our trainers and the Volunteers who visited us, but also to our fellow M19 Volunteers who were leaving for other communities for the next three months. Pre-Service Training (PST) is period before a Volunteer’s two years of service dedicated to language acquisition and job training. For that reason we live with other Volunteers who are in our job field (Health, Business, Youth, or TEFL).

Our “meeker” (microbus) ride was gorgeous and we even got to stop by an Oboo (pronounced Oh-vo) which is a place of offerings to wish for safe travels. It is traditional to walk around the center of the offerings clockwise three times, given something (even a pebble) each time you circle it. Many Mongolian travels had left the same blue cloths that we were given when we arrived in Darkhan.

When we arrived in our host community we were each met by a member of our family, who then took us to our individual houses. My mom Otгoh (pronounced Ot-gon) welcomed me with candies, cookies, Sprite and milk tea when I arrived at the house and also introduced me to her sister-in-law who was visiting. For a couple of hours, until about five or six, we all talked together by using the few words I knew and flipping back and forth through our dictionaries and phrase books. Sign language was also very handy. After unpacking my things and getting my room situated, I retired pretty early. The sun goes down around 10:30 here, but I think I was sacked out sometime around 9.

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Host Family

Tomorrow morning we will be leaving Darkhan for Sukhbaatar to live with our host families for the next eleven weeks. As far as the language goes, we haven’t learn more than basic survival phrases, but I think those will get us through the next few days with our families. What I know about my family so far is that my dad is a repairman, my mom is a chef, my brother is 19 and in school in the capital and my sister is in 7th grade. It seems like they matched me up with a family similar to my own. We’ll see what that’s like! I might need to ask Eli for advice about how to talk with 7th grade girls.

Buddhism

I am absolutely fascinated by Buddhism. This is not news to a lot of people, but maybe to some it is. I am thrilled to say that I have found several like-minded people in my Peace Corps group here: one who traveled through Tibet, two who wear wedding rings from Tibet, one who built a $1.5 million meditation retreat center, one philosophy major who wants to go onto graduate studies in far east studies, another who has been studying in California temples for years, and on and on. I am also thrilled to say that I have visited a giant statue of Buddha already and I’ve only been in country for four days! I hope to not only see much more while I am here, but also experience Buddhism in Mongolia firsthand whether in monasteries, in conversations with monks and lamas, or in question and answer sessions with my host family and friends regarding their personal thoughts or experiences. I have a lot to learn and I have a feeling that might just be one of the most important things I ever do.

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People

So far the people I have met in Mongolia are very welcoming, just like the reputation that they have created for themselves. I see dozens of smiles when I walk down the streets and plenty of welcoming “Sainnu’s” and “Sain bainnu?’s” which equate to “Hi, hello,” and “How are you?” I also see dozens and dozens of children playing together in the parks, with volley balls, soccer balls and footballs. Family and friends are very important here, maybe even more so because televisions, computers and more high falooting tools of entertainment are not readily available. That is certainly one of the things I enjoyed most about Costa Rica when I was able to spend time studying abroad with my host family for two months. Technology was available but took a backseat to interactions with other people. They would rather play outside or sit in the living room and talk than watch television or seek fulfillment outside their family and friends. They made their own fun and were the better for it physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. I think there is a lot of wisdom in investing within the people around you, sharing your time and energy with others, and using your own creativity and excitement to make realities out of opportunities. These opportunities could be one more smile on a child’s face or a new soccer field in your neighborhood. I will have no lack of such opportunities here in Mongolia, I know this. The more I listen, the more I seek to understand the Mongolian people, and the more I become part of their lives and they become a part of mine the quicker I will see such opportunities right in front of me.

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Culture

It is a bit overwhelming for us, as guests in the city of Darkhan, to understand the complex history and design of the government, environment and culture that surrounds us here. For some it is depressing, for others interesting, and still yet for others it is a beautiful place. To be fair, I think all exist and are in many ways just a matter of perspective. Take for instance, like I have mentioned before, graffiti. Adorning apartment buildings it could be interpreted as hooliganism, vandalism, a sign of anarchy and discontent and it can be interpreted as expressionism, a search for identity, a sign of freedom of speech and confidence. Also keep in mind that a lot of the graffiti is written in English such as “New Kids on the Block” and “Backstreet Boys.” Officially I do not encourage graffiti, but I do encourage freedom of speech and personal expression. Is there a common ground?

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Darkhan

Things have been incredible since arriving in Darkhan. Are we seeing a recurring theme of incredible things? We were able to enjoy a wonderful presentation by our local Mongolian friends and colleagues, including traditional Mongolian music, singing, dancing and even theatrical performance. We were also given a traditional blue Mongolian cloth called a “hatuck” which is a symbol of well-wishes and good luck for safe travels. It is a beautiful gift, embroidered with Mongolian symbols, Buddhist symbols and wonderful designs. It definitely holds a special place in the short list of items I have with me here in Mongolia. That and the throat singing that I was able to listen to, which I must say made me feel like I was sitting in a Tibetan monastery. That was incredible.

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Introducing My Travel Journal

While in Mongolia with the Peace Corps over the next 27 months, a lot of things will remain uncertain including weather conditions, regular electricity, and internet access. With that in mind, I have decided to record my thoughts on my computer and in my paper journals as regularly as possible and then upload those entries as posts to this blog when I can. This offline compilation of journal entries is something I am calling my Travel Journal.

When I can't update my blog (because the videos or photos take too long to upload, for instance), I will still upload the newest version of my Travel Journal as a PDF so that you can read all of my offline journal posts in one place. So, although it may seem like I haven’t written in a while based on the posts to this blog know that I am definitely still writing and it is only a matter of time before I get to the internet to upload all of my entries, pictures, videos and all. Thanks for reading and I hope you are enjoying everything. I am having a wonderful time here in Mongolia and I hope you are having a great time back home in the U.S.!

June 3, 2008

To Darkhan

The morning started with an incredible view of the mountains right outside our ger camp. One hundred yards away there were several horses gathered together grazing under a beautiful blue sky and soft white clouds. That was the first thing I noticed, but then I realized there were no fences anywhere, for miles and miles the horses were free to roam as they pleased. This was a new concept to me, but as the day went on and I saw hundreds and thousands of sheep, goats, cattle and horses running around the countryside I came to understand that this was not a new concept to Mongolians at all. The idea of owning land is a new one in Mongolia, people are able to come and go as they please, just like the animals. If they like a certain area one season and then decide to move on the next season, they don’t have to get permission or buy anything, they just pack up their entire home which takes about an hour and then they move wherever they want to.

After a breakfast of bread and jelly, fruits, pastries and orange juice we all met together in a great ger able to fit one hundred people. Our Country Director Jim and several other staff members introduced themselves to us and summed up our activities over the coming days. We would be traveling from Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, to Darkhan which is the second largest city in the country. Keep in mind that Ulaanbaatar has 1 million people and Darkhan has 70,000. Quite a difference between the largest and second largest city in the country huh?

For lunch, all of us were able to meet with a very important friend of the Peace Corps, Mark, our United States Ambassador to Mongolia. He spoke to us while we ate some incredible soup, a variety of meat-filled pastries, dumplings and other hot pocket-like creations, as well as some fruit juice which I can’t identify but was good. Jonathan will appreciate that I did say “hot pocket” like Jim Gaffigan does and several people knew exactly what I was doing. Mark has been in Mongolia for a year now as Ambassador, having worked in Japan and Korea in the past as a career Foreign Service officer. The rank of Ambassador, I have heard from other Foreign Service officers, is the equivalent of a General in the Armed Forces so that gives you an idea of his role and importance in the embassy. From what I understand it is not uncommon for the Ambassador to visit with Volunteers in the field or invite them into his home on occasion as well. I look forward to working with him in the future and really enjoyed his talk. Most notable to me he said that he felt, “the Peace Corps is the most important we do in Mongolia. It shows the true face of America in a way that not other organization can and coming to welcome you to the country is one of the highlights of my years.” The current Peace Corps Volunteers shared a similar sentiment with us as we met with them that night in Darkhan.

Following lunch we packed up our things, separating our winter items to be left in Peace Corps headquarters during our three months of training, and boarded our buses for the three-hour ride north to Darkhan (pronounced Dar-han). The view on the ride was spectacular, including the incredible tendency of the horses, cattle, goats and sheep to run across the road causing our buses to swerve this way and that. The mountains were astounding, far beyond the ability of my camera to pick up, and the simple beautiful of the country kept my eyes fixed on the window to my side almost the whole ride.

When we arrived at the Darkhan the current Mongolian Volunteers were there again to greet us and take us out to dinner. I ate with Brody, Mike and Philip, all of whom were awesome, and asked Philip about 100 questions about Mongolia, politics, health, the Mongolian people and more. I have a lot to reflect on, including the state of the country’s infrastructure following the move from a communist state to a democratic one, but I have a feeling that is going to be a common theme throughout my two years here.


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June 2, 2008

Traveling Day(s)

Our traveling day(s) included a 13 hour flight from San Francisco to Seoul, Korea and then a 3 hours flight from Seoul to Ulaanbaatar (pronounced oo-lon-bot-AR), the capital of Mongolia. We left San Francisco on a beautiful Sunday morning, flew out around 1:00pm and then arrived on the other side of the international dateline at 11:00pm in Mongolia. There we were greeted by dozens of cheering Volunteers at the Chinggis Khaan International Airport, who we all talked and laughed with for about half an hour before leaving for our ger camp. It

The ger camp was awesome. We we walked into our gers they were filled with fruits, crackers and water for us to enjoy, and also included a warm fire burning in the central wood stove which kept the inside of the ger around 70 degrees while outside it was close to 50 degrees. We all relaxed together and repacked our bags so that we could leave a winter bag at the Peace Corps headquarters later the next day, which would remain at headquarters for the duration of our 3 month training.

I am feeling very optimistic and comfortable about this entire experience. The people around me are incredible and there has been a lot to take in, but I am already starting to feel the welcoming spirit of the Mongolian people and the majesty of the landscape and culture of Mongolia itself. Where else can you get out of the airport and see two security guards chasing a horse as it runs through the airport parking lot?


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June 1, 2008

What's The Agenda?

Staging has been great; it was a two-day orientation provided by Peace Corps before our group flight out to Mongolia and included sessions on "Personal Definitions of Success", "Anxieties and Aspirations," "Crossing Cultures," "Safety and Security" and many other important things. We were very lucky to have our staging event in the incredibly beautiful city of San Francisco, of which I have a few pictures and video below. So far I must say I am very impressed with the quality of our group, we have great people that I am very proud to be serving with and I look forward to getting to know them more as the weeks go on during training.

Tomorrow we will be leaving the San Francisco airport at 12:40pm, arriving in Mongolia around 9:00pm (on Monday...yeah I know, international date line, it's crazy). We will meet tons of current Volunteers there at the airport, which is going to be awesome. They, the Volunteers, have said that it is the highlight of their year and I think that is really saying something in an incredible place like Mongolia. Right after that we are going to be spirited off to a stunning ger (or yurt) camp for a few days of relaxed orientation and jetlag recovery and then it's off to one of the largest cities in Mongolia for two weeks of informational sessions, vaccinations and so forth. We have a lot ahead of us, that's for sure, but it is going to be great I know.

As far as internet connections and how much I will be able to communicate with you all, I'm not sure right now. What I will say is that I should be on the internet within the next month, hopefully blogging here, writing e-mails and also using Skype. If you would like to download Skype and sign-up to use it (it's free and easy, don't worry), I would love to chat with you via webcams. My name on Skype is TravisHellstrom, so just as me as a friend as we will be all set. So far I have been able to talk with Wee, my mom, Anna, Chess and Elias and it's only been two days! Give it a try, I think you'll like it. Thank you all for your well wishes and excitement, I look forward to sharing more pictures and videos soon and I hope you all have a great week!


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