December 24, 2010

Notes from the Road, Week Four

This week marks us being in America for more than a month! It's been a lot of fun seeing so many wonderful people (you can see weeks one, two and three here) and we've still got a few more weeks to go!

This past week was filled with some great Peace Corps discussions with friends both new and old. First Tunga, Jonathan and I were able to visit our close friend Michael Lee who teaches at Riverbend Middle School and Bunker Hill High School. There we met with dozens of ESL (English as a Second Language) students who had great questions about Mongolia's foods, culture, people, landscape, and animals, Peace Corps' history, purpose and my experiences learning another language, living in another culture and much more. 

Since Jonathan will be coming back with us to Mongolia, the students also asked him to do things for them that they wished they could do like help build a Mongolian ger, help prepare an animal for dinner, visit the Gobi desert, visit a ghost town like in the movie Paranormal Activity and of course take lots of pictures. We had a lot of fun and it brought back a lot of memories walking through the hallways, eating cafeteria food and remembering what it was like to be in school.

Last week I also had a chance to talk with Hal Rowe for an hour on WHKY, which was great! You can read a little more about that interview here. All three experiences were very rewarding and inspiring and I look forward to upcoming opportunities to share more including on Monday Night Radio in two weeks. I really love Peace Corps and feel very grateful to be part of this amazing organization.

Tunga and I also had a lot of fun this week by organizing the house together and visiting Boone in the North Carolina Mountains for my mom's birthday, driving to McAdenville with my brother and sister to see an entire town covered in Christmas lights, visiting the Art Museum,  playing plenty of video games with Elias and the boys, visiting with our good friend Amy Lee for dinner, doing lots of shopping, and even watching a few movies at the theater including Harry Potter yesterday.

It's certainly been a packed week for us, as I'm sure it has been for everyone else as well. I hope you each have a wonderful holiday and enjoy being with people that you love!

December 21, 2010

WHKY Interview

This morning Tunga and I had a great visit with Susie and Hal Rowe on WHKY, the radio station in my hometown of Hickory, North Carolina. Hal is a good friend who I visited before I left for Peace Corps almost three years ago. It was great to visit with him again today and also share a little bit about the Peace Corps with my friends and fellow citizens. We talked about everything from Peace Corps training to Mongolia's healthcare system, with quite a few laughs in-between.

Also during commercial breaks and after the show we had a lot of great conversation. I feel very lucky to know Hal and Susie (his producer) and to have had the chance to visit with them. Thank you both for such a great time and thank you Mandy Pitts as well, for introducing us so long ago. If you would like you can also listen to or download the audio of the interview. Here is a short video clip of the interview compliments of Tunga, who was there with us the whole time!

December 18, 2010

Notes from the Road, Week Three

Tunga and I have been back home in Hickory for a week now, which has been a nice change from jumping from place to place. Though those awesome places did include Disney World, Gainesville, St. Augustine, Live Oak and much more! 

Slowing down here at home has given us the chance to relax, play basketball together every morning, take the dogs out for walks, meet with old friends, cook Mongolian huushur for our family, help my dad with construction at home, take lots of pictures and even do some shopping for family back in Mongolia (which Tunga loves to do).

I'm really glad we've had that chance this trip: to highlight people rather than places. I feel very grateful to Peace Corps for allowing me such a long vacation and for Tunga being so excited to spend time with family and friends. I think the best things in America aren't things, they're people - people I'm very glad to be seeing again.

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December 10, 2010

Notes from the Road, Week Two

Tunga and I had a wonderful time this past week. We were able to visit with all of my grandparents all around North Florida, and Tunga even got to have her first driving experience (on a tractor) which she loved!

We arrived back in Hickory, North Carolina over the weekend and already had a chance to pick up a Christmas tree in the snow-covered Appalachian Mountains. As much as Tunga enjoyed seeing sights like the beach and Disney World, she said she really loves being home and relaxing with family and friends. Talking face-to-face, making breakfast as a family, spending slow afternoons and evenings together, driving on long country roads and having great conversations are certainly my favorite part of America. We're really looking forward to the Christmas season, listening to Christmas music, looking at houses covered in lights and spending time with people we love.

Last week I posted the article by Leo Babuatu, "The Case Against Buying Christmas Presents" and it really hit home with a lot of people. I think that's because the holidays aren't a special time because we buy a lot of stuff, they are special because of the people in our lives. We all have a chance to care about each other and give something every day - time, effort, help, and love. I hope you are having a wonderful holiday season with people you love, wherever you are.

December 1, 2010

Notes from the Road, Week One

Greetings from Gainesville, Florida where Tunga and I just celebrated Thanksgiving last week with a whole lot of family! We've been here in America for a little over a week and we've already had a ton of firsts: Tunga's first time on an airplane, flight airports (Beijing, Chicago, Atlanta), first time on a highway, and on and on. You can check out our pictures here.

So far we've seen beautiful autumn leaves falling in Hickory, North Carolina, President Obama singing autotunes, the ridiculousness called the Shake Weight, super 300+ Cracker Barrel menus, washers and dryers, and tasted Krispy Kreme donuts which Tunga preferred to pick the icing off. We visited the ocean twice (once in Savannah, Georgia and once in St. Augustine, Florida), had a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner and even visited Disney World with wonderful family and friends!

Today we are speaking at the University of Florida and meeting with future Peace Corps Volunteers who want to learn about this wonderful organization. We will also meet with Amy for the first time, even after working for more than a year together to help release the Unofficial Handbook this past fall. After we meet a few more family and friends we will be headed back up north to the crisp winter, wonderful mountains, and houses covered in Christmas lights in North Carolina.

We hope everyone is having a wonderful holiday season! Enjoy all of your time with family, friends, tasty food and occasional snowflakes!

November 28, 2010

How to Be the Change with Gandhi

Monday Night Radio, an online worldwide talkshow, recently hosted a wonderful program with Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, talking about his continued work and how people around the world can be the change they wish to see. I was able to call in as a guest and share a question with Mr. Gandhi which I have included here (you can also listen here to the audio clip):

Anne: The books look wonderful. Alright we are going to let Travis, calling in about the Peace Corps and his experience with the Peace Corps to talk with you have the last minute. Here you go. Travis, are you there?

Travis: I am here. Yes.

Mr. Gandhi: Hello, Travis.

Anne: Travis, you are on the air with Mr. Gandhi.

Travis: Hi, thank you so much for allowing me to say something here. I have been serving with the Peace Corps for two years. I have one more year that I have extended beyond the normal two years of service. I am in Mongolia. One of the things I have really noticed is that other people want to make change. They see needs in the community and people who are living very normal lives have extraordinary dreams that they want to come true. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, one of the things that I have seen is that it’s part of my job to help people see... (the connection here became difficult)

Mr. Gandhi: You are breaking up there, Travis.

Travis: Oh, I’m sorry.

Anne: No, don’t be sorry. It’s a long way to Mongolia. Can you restate your question?

Travis: Sure, sure. I’ve worked with a lot of people and helping people who are very inspired to change their communities. They don’t think they are capable of doing that themselves. I wanted to ask what your experience has been when you are helping people and when you are working with others and you are trying to inspire them and see what they are capable of. I think that is also what a great leader can do is help see people what potential they have to make change themselves and do simple things in their lives to help others. If you are trying to help others and be a leader and share with others what they are capable of doing, what kind of things have you seen that are really helpful?

Anne: That is a great question, Travis.

Mr. Gandhi: One of the things that I did was to study the people and find out what are their potentials. Even the people who are volunteering to bring about the change, they have certain potential and certain capacities and we need to learn about them and project them. Very often we are motivated through change but the person themselves they don’t know how they can use their own strength and their own abilities to help that change. We as the leaders of this group we need to examine this and find their strengths and make them realize those strengths and then use those strengths to help the poor people there.

Travis: Yes. I think that is so true.

Anne: Travis, thank you so much for the call. I’m sorry to cut you off, but we’ve run over.

Travis: Thank you.

Mr. Gandhi: Thank you, Travis.

Anne: Thank you for your service as well.

Travis: Thank you so much.

Anne's assistant was also kind enough to talk with me after the program to ask more details about my Peace Corps service, my recently published book the Unofficial Peace Corps Volunteer Handbook (which they mentioned at the bottom of the transcript for that night's program) and invite me onto the program in the next few weeks to talk about Peace Corps. We will see how that goes, but if it can help promote the work of Peace Corps, encourage understanding inside and outside of America and maybe even help encourage one more person to join this incredible organization, I really look forward to the opportunity.

If you'd like to listen to the whole program with Mr. Gandhi, you can find the audio available here on iTunes and the full transcript here at

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November 11, 2010

Inside Worldview

This month, Worldview (the magazine of the National Peace Corps Association) came out with its 50th Anniversary Issue to honor the speech by John F. Kennedy which first mentioned the idea of our organization. Throughout this next year the Peace Corps worldwide community is celebrating 50 years of friendship and world peace, ending with big celebrations around the world next September.

This issue of Worldview includes great articles by Volunteers and Staff from the early days of Peace Corps all the way up until present day. I'm honored to say I got a small spot alongside other great stories as I was asked to write about what I think Peace Corps means to us today. I wrote about success and how we can make the Peace Corps experience last as long as we want it to. Thank you to Todd, Alex, Claire, Alison, Judy, and Erica for your help this summer as I tried to write something good enough to be read by 30,000+ RPCVs, PCVs, staff and people all over the world.

Anyway, here is a PDF of the actual printed article and I've also included the text below...

Peace Corps Volunteer, 2010 Edition
By: Travis Hellstrom

Sometimes a story is so good that I don’t want it to end. As the pages in my right hand get lighter, I might even flip back a few chapters to try and enjoy it again—to remember what just happened and maybe catch something I missed.

For whatever reason, I brought that blue invitation packet with me across the ocean, the same one every Volunteer gets in the mail with “Peace Corps invites you to serve” printed on the front. It’s been a long time since I opened it, more than two years. A couple papers fall out: a booklet entitled Your Assignment, a Staging Workbook, a Diarrhea Flow Chart from the PCMO (with “No pun intended” written below the title), maps and a few other handouts. It all feels like it happened yesterday, but strangely it feels like it happened to someone else. I open up the Staging Workbook to a page with the heading Personal Definition of Success. Ruled lines and blank space fill the page underneath the sentence, “I will know that I am a successful Volunteer when…”

A lot has changed since I wrote on that page. At some point during service my understanding of success and happiness (and which comes first) reversed. As my relationships grew, “being” with my counterparts, students, fellow volunteers, friends, and family became more important than “doing” and relationships became the end, not the means. It was simple but profound for me.

The point was driven home last week when I spoke with my host country counterpart and friend. I asked her what she liked about Peace Corps and she thought about it for a while. “Volunteers help people,” she said, “they’re kind and they listen, they’re talented in many areas and they stay with us for a long time.” I smiled and asked, “Don’t other organizations do that too?” I named a few organizations we were both familiar with, but she looked back at me a little surprised, “Those have people?”

In a world of budgets, deadlines and benchmarks it’s easy for me to forget about people, but a Volunteer should never do that. When someone smiles at the mention of Peace Corps they’re probably thinking beyond awesome projects. They are thinking about who they knew: the teacher who served in their village, the counterpart who became their friend, the Volunteer who became part of their community. More than what we do, people remember who we are. With that in mind, every interaction changes and so then does the end of the story.

When my Peace Corps story began, I thought there was a set number of pages to fill—twenty-seven months worth. However, more recently, I’ve noticed the story just keeps getting longer. Twenty-five months in I feel like I’m just now hitting my stride, I’m still at the beginning. We live in a changed and changing world with technology that allows us to communicate with people like never before. Now especially our service in the Peace Corps can be just the beginning of life-long and life-changing friendships, if we want it to be. It’s our choice.

Maybe that’s one of the best things about our Peace Corps stories and the relationships we form as Volunteers, they last as long as we want them to. We have our whole lifetime to finish the sentence, “I will know that I am a successful Volunteer when…” If the story is so good that you don’t want it to end, it doesn’t have to.

Travis Hellstrom is a Peace Corps Volunteer serving in Mongolia. He is editor of the Unofficial Peace Corps Handbook. To learn more visit

November 5, 2010

Two Days, Two Amazing Friends

In the last two days I have met two incredible Mongolian friends who found me through the Advance Humanity project and it has been unbelievably inspiring for me.

Last night I met with Uuree, a wonderful woman who just finished her two master's degrees at Syracuse in Public Policy and International Development. Her English was better than mine and her smile and laugh were contagious. She talked to me about growing up in Mongolia and then going to school in the U.S., working since 2003 with USAID and then developing a passion for international development. “I wanted to talk with you,” she said, “because I want to help someone. I want to know that because of me someone’s life has changed for the better.” She read about our Community Fund project after hearing about it from our friend Yoomie and she wanted to learn more, so we met together to talk it over. The idea is still young, but it has a wonderful story developing around it: a family coming together, a grandmother learning how to read and write, a community store being built and a group of friends from all over the province honoring millenia of nomadic tradition while stepping into this new century.

After speaking for an hour, it was time for us to say goodbye. As we walked outside into the chilly Mongolian night air she turned to me and said, “Travis, I am so proud of you. You are so young and look how much you have already accomplished. You have a lot to be proud of.” I told her how happy I was that, because of this wonderful family and this wonderful project, we got this chance to meet together and work to help others. If this is how the Advance Humanity project continues to develop, we will all have a lot to be proud of.

Then tonight I met with Mendy, an ambitious man who just got back to Mongolia in the spring after attending the MBA program at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. “I was the youngest in my class by about 10 years,” he told me, “and when the instructors asked the other students in class, ‘So how many businesses have you started?’ I always had to answer none. I left the program to get some experience back here in Mongolia, but I am excited to go back and finish my degree in the next 5 years.” In the past few months, he has started a business that now has 30 employees and a waiting-list of 20 organizations who want to partner with him. The projects he listed in just a few minutes floored me, it was like listening a Mongolian Steve Jobs.

Over the next few months, one project we are excited to work on together is a TEDx Mongolia event. It’s a lot to take on for sure, but Mendy is all over it. Whether he’s pitching an idea to the Mongolian Prime Minister (which worked), or starting up Mongolian Silicon Valley (now under construction), fear doesn’t seem to be in Mendy’s vocabulary. I suppose it shouldn’t be in mine either.

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November 1, 2010


I am a huge fan of ZenHabits which is a blog on simplifying life by Leo Babauta. I like the weekly articles, the clean look of his website and the helpful advice he shares with his readers.

One example is this 121-page PDF which he released this past week called Focus. You can download it for free, no catches. If you are interested in focusing in on things you care about and letting go of distractions, finding some calm in this often chaotic world we live in or if you are even just trying to let go of a few bad habits, you might like this book. I read the whole thing very quickly and found it very inspiring. I’ve even stopped biting my nails since reading it, which is one of my worst habits. I know it’s not always easy to change how we live, but that’s what Advance Humanity is all about it. Change yourself and then change the world. And focus always helps.

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October 31, 2010

You Are Going To Die

You are going to die. I am going to die. We are going to die. Tunga and I were just watching "What About Bob?" and there is this wonderful scene where a young boy named Siggy talks to Bob and says these lines. Bob, played by Bill Murray, is terrified. He already has a wide range of psychological problems which he feels define him, but this is a bit too much for him to handle. The look in his eyes is hilarious but understandable, it’s the same look that many people have when they consider the idea. You are going to die.

That’s the fact though, isn’t it? It’s not like it’s a surprise to us. It’s a part of life we can all count on, the end part. And it’s also not surprising to us that we probably won’t know when it’s going to happen. One moment we will be breathing, the next moment we won’t. It might happen in a car, in a plane, at the breakfast table, walking down the street, who knows. Very, very rarely do we have any clue when we will die. So, we know it will happen, we know we probably can’t predict when, and yet we prefer not to think about it. Why in the world would we prefer not to think about it?

I like to think the more we think about it, the better we begin to live our lives. If you consider the possibility that you will die next week, petty frustrations become obvious, life becomes less of a bother and every interaction becomes more precious. As Michael Singer writes in The Untethered Soul, a wonderful book I highly recommend,
"Let’s say you’re living life without the thought of death, and the Angel of Death comes to you and says, “Come on, it’s time to go,” You say, “But no. You’re supposed to give me a warning so I can decide what I want to do with my last week. I’m supposed to get one more week.” Do you know what Death will say to you? He’ll say, “My God! I gave you fifty-two weeks this past year alone. And look at all the other weeks I’ve given you. Why would you need one more? What did you do with all those?” If asked that, what are you going to say? How will you answer?"

Since joining Peace Corps I have started to take my life a lot less for granted. I regularly reflect on the idea that today could be the last day, remember that I probably won’t know when it’s going to happen, and try to live the best I can and not spend too much time on the small stuff.

The end of the scene in “What About Bob?” is fitting. After accepting that they are going to die, Bob and Siggy wake up the entire family by jumping up and down on their beds (they are bunking together that night) while screaming profanities at each other pretending to have tourette syndrome and laughing about how life could be worse. It could be over after all.

October 23, 2010

Why You Should Consult Your Advisors Often

"The best effect of fine persons is felt after we have left their presence."
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Moving to the other side of the planet probably wouldn't change who your trusted advisors were, I know it hasn't for me. They are the people who have been with us, sometimes since kindergarten, who know who we really are. If you find someone like that, even just one, they are worth holding onto.

Yet, somehow we forget to hold onto them. Now that technology has sped up our lives it's tempting for us to be doing something, anything, ever second. It’s easy to forget what's most important to us. We fight so many little fires during the day - filling up our time with urgent things that aren’t that important - that we put off that letter we wanted to write back to our friend, or that conversation we've been meaning to have.

In Stephen Covey's famous book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he uses a great example. If you have a jar, he says, and two groups of rocks – one group big and one group small – how would you go about filling the jar? If you put the small rocks in first, the big rocks won’t all fit in later. But if you put the big rocks in first, the small rocks will fall all around them and both can fill the jar. The analogy to our lives focuses on priorities – if we put first things first then all of the more urgent things fall into place around the more important things.

I would argue that your advisors, the people who inspire you, encourage you and support you, are big rocks you should always put in your life first. The technology that has sped up our lives has also given us an unique opportunity to contact others in more ways than ever before. Finding the time to Skype together, talk on the phone, meet in person or write letters will pay you back tremendously. You can start today by just making the time for one big rock - one call, one meeting or one letter - and see what a difference it makes.

October 19, 2010

How to Raise $1000 for Your Cause

Fundraising can be very difficult and frustrating, but also a very rewarding and necessary activity. Over the past few years I have watched several of my close friends raise thousands of dollars for projects and charities through running marathons, asking for money to help disadvantaged students travel abroad, and even help pay medical costs and save the lives of their friends. After watching them closely, and raising funds for worthy causes myself, I think I have seen some qualities which great fundraisers seem to share.

Being Sincere and Having Integrity
This can't be overstated. Through the life you lead and the places you put your own money, people will watch you much more closely than they listen to you. If you demonstrate your commitment to an idea by putting your heart into it, people will notice. And if you want someone to part with their money, which they have worked hard to earn, they will want sincerity and integrity from you as the fundraiser. I've been humbled by this more than once, when someone doesn't even need to hear the entire explanation behind why I need to raise money for a cause. They just smile, say "I trust you" and give me much more than I was asking for.

Giving Yourself
In a similar way, the great fundraisers I have watched gave a tremendous amount to the projects or charities they were championing. Sometimes this meant money, but more often it meant time and energy. You can demonstrate your commitment to an idea through letters, personal conversations, events and even running, swimming and cycling for miles on end. People are inspired by energetic leaders who don't say, "You first," they say, "Come on, I'll go first."

Openness to Ways People Can Help
Allowing people to help you in more ways than just giving money can be hugely... helpful. A lot of incredible people will be ready to give you their skills, time and energy if you say the right words. Being open when you approach someone and figuring out what they love to do might unlock a door into your work that you couldn't have predicted. Maybe the person you are talking with can help you make a website to promote your cause, or share your charity within a club they love, or take photos for you or get donations from their professional contacts. The list goes on and on. If you show an interest in what they love to do, they will probably return the favor and help you out in surprising ways.

Following Through
This is very personal and can be taken in creative directions, but it revolves around both the cause and the supporters. I've seen people send out monthly updates, thank you notes, certificates, personal letters and individual communication - all which help people feel appreciated. People often give without wanting anything in return, but being thanked and shown how what they did made a difference can be very rewarding. Think about why people would want to give to your cause or ask them why they did, and then try to honor that in some way. It's a nice touch that people appreciate.

When it comes down to it, fundraising is about asking people to share their priorities out in the open. Money, time and energy are resources which demonstrate what we care about and what we feel like are worthwhile causes and experiences. Not everyone agrees on the specifics certainly, but I have found that respecting others, listening to them to understand what matters to them most and trying to find out how we can work together and help each other really goes a long way. I think deep down everyone wants to do good and offer what they can to help. In fact, I am regularly surprised by how much people will give when you ask them if they could.

October 16, 2010

On Writing A Fulbright Research Grant

Just today I finished a process which began over a year ago: understanding, designing and submitting a Fulbright research grant. In January I will know if my application made it past the National Screening Committee to the final round, and in April I will know whether I was accepted as a Fulbright Fellow for the 2011-2012 year. However, before all of that I wanted to share a little bit here to catch everyone up to speed.

About Fulbright
The Fulbright Program began, much like the Peace Corps, when a United States Senator decided he wanted to help "bring a little more knowledge, a little more reason, and a little more compassion into world affairs and thereby increase the chance that nations will learn at last to live in peace and friendship." Since 1946, the program started by Senator J. William Fulbright has sent over 300,000 students, scholars, teachers, professionals, scientists and artists to and from more than 150 countries worldwide. Now the Fulbright Program includes more than a dozen different programs, including the U.S. Student Program for which I applied.

About My Research
With my intended Fulbright research I hope to dive deeper into a field which I have loved for a very long time: meditation. My research is titled Mindfulness Meditation and Health in Mongolia and the primary aim of this research study is to develop a deeper understanding of mindfulness meditation, how it is affecting the Mongolian people and what that means for the future. The findings and resources developed will bring together organizations and community members, encourage dialogue and cooperation, create publications and integrate valuable information for future generations in partnership with national and international health organizations.

About The Process
The Fulbright application for a research grant (in addition to a personal essay and lots of background information) requires a detailed proposal which explains the who, what, when, where, why and how behind the research you plan to do. Here you can view my application, including my personal essay and my grant proposal. Additionally an applicant must have letters of recommendation and letters of affiliation from organizations inside the host country where they wish to conduct research. My proposed affiliation in Mongolia will be with the National University of Education's School of Psychology. 

Thank You's
Since I began tracking my activities a year ago, I have had the encouragement, help and support of many incredible people. These included close friends, professors, monks, fellow Peace Corps Volunteers and lots of new friends along the way. Thank you Dale, Annie, Dr. Metz, Tunga, Dr. Weaver, Shaw, Jim, Taylor, Tsoogii, Terendondov, Brian, Chase, Amy, Darren, Mom, Dad, Katie, Dr. Guzman, John, David, Ankhaa, Dr. Barry, Jenn, Dr. Bartlett, Nomin, Dr. Hubbard and Erica. We still have a long way to go, but it's been wonderful so far and I know it will keep getting better. Thank you all so much!

More Information
To learn more about my intended research visit
And to learn more about the various Fulbright Programs visit
Also, to received monthly updates on this and other projects visit

October 12, 2010

How The 80/20 Rule May Matter For You

You might have heard of the 80/20 rule. Also known as the the Pareto Principle, the 80/20 rule has a variety of interpretations and implications throughout business, economics and popular teachings. In general the rule states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

For instance...
  • In health care in the United States, it has been found that 20% of patients use 80% of health care resources.
  • Several criminology studies have found that 80% of crimes are committed by 20% of criminals.
  • In Microsoft by fixing the top 20% most reported bugs, 80% of the errors and crashes were eliminated. 
  • In his book, Tim Ferriss recommends focusing one's attention on those 20% of things that contribute to 80% of a person's income as well as letting go of those 20% of customers who take up 80% of one's time and cause the most trouble.

In my life I have found an 80/20 situation which you might find you are in sometimes too...
  • I can get a tremendous amount of work done (80%) in a very short period of time (20%) when I am passionate, focused and free of worry. 
  • However, when I worry, procrastinate and nit-pick at stuff I find myself spending a huge amount of time (80%) on a very small amount of work (20%). 
  • I found this was especially true with the Unofficial Handbook, writing on this blog and working on projects.
The take home lesson for me has been focusing on the passionate 20% time and letting go of the worrisome 80% whether I am writing, working on projects or trying to prioritize my time. If you find yourself worrying, agonizing over the tiniest details, or getting stuck in some random fear, feel free to label it as that 80% and let it go. It's probably not worth it in the long run.

October 9, 2010

Starting Our Unofficial Community

The Unofficial Peace Corps Volunteer Handbook has been a long-running project that I began almost four years ago when I was applying to become a Peace Corps Volunteer. It is based on the idea that we (applicants, trainees, volunteers) all go through experiences that are shared around the world and make us part of the Peace Corps community. I kept track of my questions, as well as questions that other people have shared with me, and then wrote down answers to those questions a little bit every month. In August, the Unofficial Handbook was released as a paperback and hardcover book and there are already copies on several continents around the globe!

It took a lot of time and hard work, but it's been very rewarding and especially wonderful to connect with so many volunteers worldwide. We had an incredible team of people come together to share stories, advice and wisdom and we have received wonderful comments and support from dozens of readers. It's really been amazing to be in contact with so many great people all around the world including returned volunteers, experienced volunteers in the field, trainees leaving America, applicants getting their invitations in the mail from Peace Corps, and people just starting their applications. I feel very fortunate and humbled to have access to technology that allows us to share our experiences and reach out to help each other no matter where we are.

This really is only the beginning. We are raising hundreds of dollars for Peace Corps projects, starting great conversations about an incredible organization and sharing wonderful experiences with people all over the world.  I look forward to connecting more with incredible people in our Unofficial Peace Corps community for many months to come.

September 26, 2010

Life Is Barely Long Enough

This guy has got me laughing out loud! I really like what he said in this short clip.

"Life is short. We don't have that much time. And it's too short to do what we feel that we have to do. It's barely long enough to do what we want to do."

Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar teaches the most popular classes at Harvard, nicknamed Happiness 101, about Positive Psychology including discussions on Mindfulness Meditation which is what I hope to study with a Fulbright Scholarship after Peace Corps. I've still got my fingers crossed on that. To see more of what Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar has to say check out his page on BigThink.

September 19, 2010

Accelerating Our Lives

Maybe it's hard for any generation to imagine what it was like to live in generations past. We live better than kings lived hundreds of years ago, but it's just another day for us. We can communicate with hundreds and thousands of people while sitting at home on our couch, we can eat food that has been flown to us from across the world, we can fly across oceans at hundreds of miles per hour or cover distances in a day that used to take months. We live in an amazing time and yet some people are still looking ahead of where we are to see where we could be.

I admire Chris Anderson and his work with the TED community, a worldwide conference-based group of incredible individuals living amazing lives. In his recent TEDTalk he spoke about crowd accelerated innovation and the idea that the internet, especially now with streaming video, is pushing humanity forward so that we now compete, learn, and share ideas at a world-class level. Before speakers were limited to small groups or, with select media, maybe hundreds of thousands of people. Now "millions of hits" on a video or website happens overnight and anyone, absolutely anyone, can be heard, watched and shared by millions of people. I know this technology has changed the way I look at Peace Corps (with this blog being a perfect example), and I believe it offers all of us an incredible chance to accelerate and innovate our own lives for the better. 

What do you think? What inspires you to live a better life and create the world as it should be?

September 13, 2010

New Life In The City

Our new apartment has really been a blessing for Tunga and I, a wonderfully large place with room for many people to sit, talk, rest, eat and play together. It has a large living room, kitchen, separated shower and bathroom and large bedroom with a wonderfully large bed. I've never had anything larger than a twin sized bed, from childhood all the way through college, so it's pretty crazy to be able to roll around and not roll off the bed.

Tunga and I spent a lot of time our first few days cleaning, rearranging things and organizing the new place how we would like it the most. Now we spend most of our time just living and relaxing, which has been really nice. I can sit in the living room writing on the computer while Tunga and her friends enjoy a nice snack around the kitchen and a Peace Corps friend takes a hot shower. This is quite a change from our relaxed countryside life in Sukhbaatar but so far it's been really wonderful and fun to experience together.

The past three weeks have been full of Peace Corps training events for our first and second year Volunteers. I was able to participate in sessions that closed Pre-Service Training for our newest Volunteers before they swore in and left for their 70+ new homes all around Mongolia, as well as help lead Mid-Service Training for our wise group of 50+ Volunteers who have just finished up their first year. It was really great to see so many new people and get to know them over the course of these few weeks. As PCVL, I will have a chance to work with them all year which I think will be a blast.

Now that all our Peace Corps trainings are over for a few months, we have started to relax a little more in the headquarters office this past week. We have a lot of work to do, but it's all great work supporting Volunteers and thinking of ways to improve our country. The capital is a huge place, very different than what my last two years have been like, but I'm excited to explore the incredible opportunities being here offers me. I'm very humbled by being PCVL and I feel very fortunate to serve all of our volunteers, staff and host country friends this year. 

September 8, 2010

The Before and The After

It feels like Peace Corps moves faster than anything in my life has ever moved. When I sit down with my Peace Corps friends and talk about arriving in Mongolia two years ago or when I think about how much has happened since I first opened that invitation packet, I become more and more confident in telling current Volunteers that it will fly by. Maybe because it has been fun, new, exciting, unbelievable and confusing or maybe because it's been unlike anything else I have ever experienced in my life... two years in Peace Corps goes by amazingly fast.

I had a wonderful dinner tonight with great friends, the first Volunteers I met and shook hands with more than 30 months ago as we flew across the ocean together to serve in Mongolia. As Judy, a wonderful Peace Corps Volunteer who I admire greatly, said tonight, "Sometimes it feels like it was yesterday and sometimes it feels like it was an eternity ago." I couldn't agree more. As I looked into the eyes of my fellow Volunteers, my friends, it's almost as if I could see both people - the before and the after. I can feel that in myself. I am the same as I was and I'm different. I'm still naive and crazy, even though I do know better now in many cases. I still eat crazy foods and don't exercise as often as I should, even though I weigh 60 pounds less than I did before Peace Corps. And I still have the same unreasonable idealism, even though I have seen more difficulties and inequities now than ever.

Maybe it feels like yesterday and an eternity ago because, at some level, there is a part of us that is still experiencing every moment as if it is the first time. Almost as if the soul doesn't experience time at all. And if there is anything that I can say about the Peace Corps Volunteers I saw tonight, and all the ones I admire, they have a lot of soul.

August 19, 2010

Micro-Financing Redemption

I've been reading a lot about microfinance over the last few months - what it is, what it isn't, how it works and so on. Thanks to Judy Gates I recently read this great speech on microfinance which goes really well with a great article Kara Estep shared with me on the new face of microfinance. There is a lot happening and, especially in our work here with the Sukhbaatar Social Business Community Fund, there is a lot we have to remember as we move forward. 

Here is a quote from the end of the speech, a quote from George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman:
This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one, the being a force of nature, instead of a selfish, feverish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me, it is a sort of splendid torch which I've got a hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.

August 16, 2010

They'll Call Me Freedom

Most people know that Wavin' Flag by K'Naan, in its multiple versions around the globe, has experienced a tremendous amount of success and popularity worldwide. However here are some things about the song you might not know...

They'll Call Me Freedom 1
When K'naan was 11 years old he and three of this friends were attacked and fired on by gunmen in Mogadishu, Somalia. His friends were all killed, but he survived. The chorus of the song, "When I get older / I will be stronger / They'll call me freedom / Just like a waving flag" is his response to this experience.

K'naan says, "At some point it becomes a was hard to look back on that experience, but then you write it and you make it a melody and all you have left is a beautiful melody and it's a song now....I have redrawn my whole life that way."

As Somalia looks to its future I hope K'naan provides encouragement to his people, "As someone who is from Somalia, and has a strong community at home, I have more affinity to my people than to my career," he says, "Music opened an eye or my own life, written as a country disguised as a person. If you pay attention to how I write, what I write, it's almost as if I'm writing about a collective experience, rather that just my personal life... trying to make sense of our identity. A lot of my songs are still weighty, but they don't stay there, they don't stay in anger, they don't linger in sadness, they address it and kind of fall into the light... That's the sentiment that people care about."

And We All Will Be Singing It 2
With over 3 billion people watching the World Cup, the song played before and after every game, and two ads running throughout the tournament in 160 nations, Wavin' Flag is playing everywhere. There are now more than 20 duet-versions of the song including Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin, French, Greek, Japanese, Nigerian, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Thai, Haitian, Arabic and Mongolian. I've included the Mongolian version here if you want to check it out and here is a good playlist if you want to hear other languages. I hope you all have enjoyed the song as much as I have.

August 12, 2010

JRC Sports for Peace

JRC Sports for Peace, a non-profit charity founded by Returned Peace Corps Volunteers from Mongolia in honor of James Robert Campbell, has been an inspiration to us here in Mongolia over the past two years. They have helped with great projects including...

  • Center for Disabled Children in Bayankhongor, Mongolia
  • English Resource Center in Khovsgul, Mongolia
  • Basketball Program in Hovd. Mongolia
  • Scholarship Program for Students and
  • Sports Complex in Suhkbaatar Aimag

It is currently being led by Mike Prelaske who is a great former Volunteer and a great friend. Thanks for all of your hard work Mike, you are doing great things and we really appreciate it!

August 9, 2010

Shipping Out

Two very exciting things are shipping out this week: the first orders of the Unofficial Peace Corps Volunteer Handbook and... me. We just launched the online ordering system for my first published book and several copies are already shipping around the country and even around world - one new Volunteer named April just left for her Peace Corps assignment on Saturday and had her handbook shipped all the way to Africa to meet her when she arrives. So cool!!

I myself will be shipping out on Thursday, leaving my comfy apartment here in the eastern steppe for a deluxe apartment in the blue Ulaanbaatar sky. In the capital I will be serving as Peace Corps Volunteer Leader (PCVL) this upcoming year as well as working closely with the World Health Organization. I'm very excited and I will be sure to share more information soon. It will take me a week or two to set up internet in my new place, but once I'm all settled in I'll be sure to post some pictures, answer my emails and Skype like a madman!

Oh, also, if you order the Unofficial Handbook, please let me know what you think! I'd love to hear your thoughts and ideas! Thanks!

August 5, 2010

Helping Aiman

This update comes from Matt Becker, Returned Peace Corps Volunteer from Mongolia, who has been working very hard to help his friend Agii whose sister Aiman is having a very difficult time....

As of today, we raised $1,030 dollars, which I just transferred to Travis Hellstrom. As soon as Travis is able to withdraw the funds, he should be able to start transferring them to Agii's bank account. Hopefully, this money will help out at least a bit, allowing Agii to not go bankrupt and/or sell everything in order to pay for his sister's medical care. I sent Agii an email a few days ago but haven't heard a response to I may try and call him soon. I heard through Scott Burt (my friend and former site mate), who is a Peace Corps Volunteer in Bayan Olgii and works with Agii, that Aiman and their older sister had made it to Almaty, Kazakhstan, that she had to undergo a lot more evaluations, she will have the operation soon and that doctors seem optimistic. As soon as I hear back from either Scott or Agii, I'll post another update. I just wanted to give a huge THANK YOU to everyone that made a donation. Thank you to Jordan, Cathy, Eric and fam, Ryan, Sean, my mom, Nik, Andy and Debbie, Melissa, and my dad and stepmom. Also, a big thank you to Travis Hellstrom for being my 'man on the ground' in Mongolia, for being an awesome help and friend. Hope I didn't forget anyone! Thank you so much for your generosity and for recognizing that this is very important to me in so many ways.

Concerned Consumers

Something I have learned in Peace Corps, and had reinforced during many conversations with my family and close friends back in America, is that we have a huge impact as consumers. Beyond anything we could imagine. Action expresses priorities; purchases express priorities. Whether you buy from this store or that store, this brand or that brand, you are telling an organization that you support what they do - paying workers 10 cents an hour, paying executives 10 million a year, raising animals humanely or inhumanely, respecting or destroying the earth.

In my opinion one of the best things we can do to change our world is be informed and make wise decisions which express our priorities. Whether it’s by watching documentaries like The Corporation, Capitalism: A Love Story or Food, Inc. (all of which I highly recommend) or asking hard questions and searching for the answers, it has never been easier or more important to be a concerned consumer. Especially in America, where we hold a huge percent of the world’s wealth, we have a tremendous opportunity to make a difference every day.

August 2, 2010

Keep Moving Forward

I am absolutely fascinated by people who do extraordinary things. People like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mahatma Gandhi, Brian Johnson, Muhammad Yunus, Walt Disney, and the list goes on and on. They are people with vision and they inspire me to create, imagine and to see what is possible.

With people like this leading the way, isn't it exciting to think about how our future may look? In the Disney movie Meet the Robinsons, which I saw a long time ago with my brother Eli and my sister Anna at the $1.50 theater, the future is incredible and amazing - something children can easily imagine.

I think that's why I love watching children's movies so much, they aren't used to the world the same way adults are. Children see how full of wonder the world really is and how wonderful things can become. I appreciate people that continue to inspire the children in our world and the children inside each of us.

"Around here, however, we don't look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things because we're curious, and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths." - Walt Disney

July 29, 2010

New Address

Along with my exciting move next month comes a new address. If there is anything you would like to send to me here in Mongolia, like the occasionally postcard, birthday card or jar of peanut butter, here it is:
Travis Hellstrom (PCV)
Peace Corps Mongolia
Central Post Office
P.O. Box 1036
Ulaanbaatar 15160, Mongolia

Oh and just kidding about the peanut butter, I have plenty of that.

July 26, 2010

Dariganga Village Water Project

After seeing several effective projects organized by my Peace Corps friends Esayas, Kara and Lindsay through Water Charity, I thought I'd give it a shot too. The Dariganga Village Water Filter Project's aim is to provide clean drinking water for hundreds of children at the provincial summer camp where I have worked for two years. I'm very excited to be taking part in this project and it's really been a pleasure working with Water Charity. It took less than a week from submitting the application to receive the money here in Mongolia, which is absolutely astounding. I highly recommend working with them if you are a Peace Corps Volunteer anywhere in the world. You can read more about the project at, but I've also included some details below...

July 22, 2010

Living A Life of Service

I recently had the privilege of talking with Shannon Ryals from my alma mater Campbell University. She is Assistant Editor at Campbell Magazine and wrote a beautiful piece in the magazine highlighting Peace Corps here in Mongolia. I really hope it inspires others at Campbell to consider this amazing opportunity that our country offers us. It's really changed my life and I hope it changes many more for years to come.

Thank you Shannon for a great conversation and for writing such a nice piece.

July 17, 2010


I just experienced my third Naadam celebration this past weekend, this time with just Tunga and her family which was a nice change of pace. It was very relaxing and tons of fun to spend time together. We watched horse races (with children wearing helmets thanks to Alex's hard work), national wrestling, archery and thousands of people from the community getting together to celebrate, wear traditional clothes, eat their favorite foods, and have a wonderful time.

Naadam festival is an annual summer celebration in Mongolia which is like March Madness, the Super Bowl, and the World Series wrapped into one big celebration every year. It features wrestling, horse racing, archery and ankle-bones, with some basketball and volleyball thrown in there for fun. My first summer with my host family was great. They introduced me out to all the festivities, filled with Coca Cola, meat pastries called huushuur and even a little ice cream or two. We sat in the stands to watch wrestling, stood beside the archers as they shot their arrows and talked with our family and friends while all the horses raced around the countryside. Once the official events had passed, we went to our uncle’s house and ate an entire goat during what was pretty much a family reunion. Every part of the goat was eaten...every part. I mostly hung out with the little kids and played games, while avoiding the popular intestines as long as I could. If you can imagine what intestines filled with fried blood would taste tasted worse than you think, I promise. Two years later, I'm still playing with kids and avoiding the intestines...

Here are some long lost videos from my first year in case you want to check them out!

July 15, 2010

Helping Azgarig

Esayas Wureta served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mongolia from 2008 until 2010 where he worked in Ovurkhangai as a Community Youth Development Volunteer. During his service one of his friends and students named Azgarig became paralyzed during an accident and Esayas has been raising money to help him receive treatment abroad. Here is more from Esayas...

Azgarig Oyunbola is a nineteen year old male living in Arvikheer town in Ovurkhangai province Mongolia. He was my student until he graduated high school in 2009 and began studying medicine in UB at ACH School of Medicine. A few months into his study he became a paraplegic. Azgarig Oyunbola has lost feeling in his myelophafy from G7 till Th2. After various doctor appointments, the doctors informed him that he can not receive treatments in Mongolia and would have to seek treatments in Inner Mongolia, China. He received his first consultation in July of 2010 and has shown significant signs of improvement. Unfortunately the treatments cost thousands of dollars and he still has four more treatment sessions to go, but the funding is lacking. We are taking donations to support his treatments. We would greatly appreciate any contribution. Also if you are a doctor and can assist this young man in his treatments feel free to contact us. To make a donation or learn more, please visit anytime. Thank you.

July 13, 2010

Summer Camp

This year's summer camp was amazing, crazy, rewarding and exhausting. We did a tremendous amount of work in preparation for the camp this year, but after last year's camp I really was only prepared for ten days of craziness. Instead I would end up staying for twenty, which felt something like training for running a mile and then trying to run two miles. We (all of us Peace Corps Volunteers, Mongolian English teachers and friends) did a great job I think, but it was truly exhausting. 

Since it was an English language summer camp we had language classes in the mornings (two 1.5 hour classes), followed by swimming, 1.5 hours of life skills, 1.5 hours of speaking and then evening activities like scavenger hunts, capture the flag, dances and other crazy things. Our first ten-day camp had over 90 children and 10 teachers, while the second camp had over 130 children and 10 teachers. We also had assistant teachers who helped a lot, but considering last year's camp only had 60 kids this was quite a step up. 

We had a tremendous amount of Peace Corps support for our camps thanks to Alex, Elaine, Todd, Claire, Terrence and Lindsay. Everyone did an amazing job and it was a lot of fun to be together, especially considering it was our last big project/activity together before Alex and Elaine finished their Peace Corps service and went back to America (they left the week of July 12th). I loved being with everyone, my fellow Volunteers, our Mongolian friends (Nema, Tunga, Enebish, Aldermaa, Khisgee, Tumbee, Sege, Tuvshee, Anuka, and Bocha) and especially all the amazing kids. Thank you all for making it so enjoyable, you all are  so great. We will miss you like crazy Elaine and Alex!!!!

To see more pictures from camp, visit Facebook and Google Photos.

July 11, 2010

Helping Aiman

This is a guest post by Matt Becker
Peace Corps Volunteer in Community Youth Development
Bayan Olgii, Mongolia (2008-2010)

Matt, a good friend and fellow Peace Corps Volunteer here in Mongolia, has a very important project which I would like to share. His closest friend in Mongolia (Agii) has a sister named Aiman who was recently diagnosed with a brain tumor. Matt is raising money and awareness to help Aiman, if there is anything you can do (including sharing any medical expertise you may have in this area), please contact Matt anytime. Here is a little bit more from Matt, who was willing to take some time to share his thoughts with us. 

July 8, 2010

Exciting Move

I suppose one of the biggest challenges right now, for many Volunteers including myself, is transitioning through the end of our service. I will be extending for a third year as PCVL, but since I will not be at site in many ways this feels like leaving my home and starting all over again. I'm sure it will go well, but it's always a little uncertain when you start something new and you're not sure what to expect.

I look forward to next year, to helping the new and current Volunteers, in helping everyone improve our Peace Corps post, in celebrating the 50th anniversary of Peace Corps and the 20th anniversary of Peace Corps Mongolia and I also look forward to starting work with the World Health Organization and other great organizations in UB. It will be a certain change of pace for me (moving from the slower and easier pace of living in the countryside), but I think it can also be really enjoyable to be in the city with people who I love being around and to be engaged in work that is definitely worth doing. It's exciting and challenging at the same time.

July 5, 2010

Water Charity

This is a guest post by Kara Estep
Peace Corps Volunteer in Community Youth Development
Tsetserleg, Arkhangai (Mongolia)

Kara, who we mentioned last month with her Mongolian Helmet Project, is also working to provide better facilities for children at her local summer camp. Here is a little bit more about her project.