A Real-Life Game of Frogger

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Just want to let you all know that I am writing this blog on Sunday morning, November 13 and the current temperature is -8 degrees Fahrenheit (-22 for you Celsius folks!)  That is COLD!  Yesterday was the first day I put on long underwear and put on a double pair of socks.  Winter is on its way!

Sorry it has been so long in between posts.  Life as a Peace Corps Volunteer continues to be busy!  My university has been busy preparing for an accreditation process.....so that involves many late hours and a lot of printing!

Life in UB
The best way to describe life in UB is by comparing to a real-life game of Frogger.  In the game Frogger, you are a frog and must cross the road without being killed by passing cars, bikes or whatever.  This is SO true in UB.  I am having to learn how to walk all over again.

It is no secret that traffic in UB is bad.  The main road, Peace Avenue, that runs east-west in the city, is nearly always congested.  My home is 7 km from the city's centre.  On a good day, a bus ride will take about 30 minutes.  If I try to go during rush hour, this 30 minute ride turns in to a 90 minute crawl in traffic that just inches (or centimeters) along.  This makes it very hard for me to plan social events because I must wait on the bus.  I never know how long the bus ride will take so I put myself on Mongolian time and say I will be there "eventually."

Bus rides are always ...well......fun.  You wait outside in the cold for about 15 minutes for your bus to come.  Once it finally does, you get shoved on to the bus along with everyone else.  You have to fight your way to your favorite section of the bus and hold your ground against everyone else trying to do the exact same thing.  My favorite section of the bus is the very back.  There is a bench in the back where all the cool kids sit and I like to think that I am one of them.  After you hold your ground, a "conductor" comes around and collects your 400 tugriks and gives you a little ticket that shows that you paid.  You then hold on for dear life as you get thrown every-which-way.  The bus is also a prime place for pick-pockets so you must try to safeguard your valuables which is tricky to do when being thrown around.  It always makes for a memorable experience!

Crossing the street is difficult in UB.  In America pedestrians have the right-of-way. In Mongolia it is more of an at your own risk sort of thing.  Most people just dart across the street when there is the slightest break between the constant flood of cars.  When I first lived here, I was hesitant to just run out in traffic and would wait on the street corners for hours trying to cross the street.  Not unlike a hooker.    Now I just run across the street with the best of them.  Sometimes the cars will stop, other times they won't and sometimes they actually speed up.  I am always amazed I am still alive at the end of the day.

Walking around UB can be a challenge as well.  Many of the sidewalks in UB are in need of repair or are torn up because they are being repaired.  Normally it is okay because the sunlight allows me to see where I can and cannot step.  Recently, the sun has been going down around 6pm and it is really hard to see.  So.....this already clumsy guy stumbles his way through UB.  Fortunately, I haven't fallen down the many open man holes!

It is also no secret that UB is the second most polluted city in the world.  I am beginning to notice this pollution more and more as the cold sets in.  UB has a city centre that is surrounded by numerous ger districts.  Each ger in the district burns a lot of wood and coal to stay warm during the winter.  Add that burning of wood and coal to the massive car population of UB along with the gigantic coal-burning power plants and it is a recipe for smog.  This smog is most noticeable in the morning and at night.  In the morning it looks like a heavy fog rolled in.  When you step outside, your nose and lungs feel the burn of the smoke-filled air.  Your eyes begin to water from the pollution and the UB cough comes back.  The Peace Corps provides us with masks that bring some relief.

It seems like everything in UB wants to make you late, run you over, or give you asthma.  This might be true but the people make up for it.  Even in a large city like UB, a little community develops around you filled with people who want to help you survive in this city.  It is that community that has helped me get through these last three months in this city and they will continue to do so for the next two years.

Mongolian Winter
So people's first reaction upon my telling them I was going to Mongolia for two years was "You know it is cold there, right?"  Yup.....it is COLD!  The summer was great and hot.  Around the end of September, the cold started coming.  Daytime temperatures would go down to the 50's and it would go to about 20 degrees at night.  No problem....I am from Nebraska and can handle this.  The cool down happens gradually, and in stages so you can prepare yourself.

I was going to try to wait until Thanksgiving to strap on the long underwear and put on my down coat.  I survived until November 12.  This was the first day of negative degree weather and I had to be outside in it.  So I strapped on my light layer of long underwear and made it double sock day.  With all the walking around I did I was actually sweating.....even though it was 0 degrees at the time.  Crazy!

Here is a little information on Mongolian winter.  Traditionally, winters in Mongolia last for 81 days. It is divided in to nine periods of nine days.  Each period has a meaning attached of the various things that will freeze during that time.
1st nine- Mongolia airag made from mare's milk will freeze (Meh...bring it on winter!)

2nd nine- Russian vodka will freeze (this sounds critical....I need my vodka!)

3rd nine- The tails of 3-year-old bulls will freeze  (Really?!  Crap.....)

4th nine- The horns of 4-year-old buss will freeze (What will freeze on a 25 year old American?)

5th nine- Boiled rice will no longer freeze (Yay?!)

6th nine- Roads begin to blacken (This is progress!)

7th nine- hilltops blacken

8th nine- ground becomes damp

9th nine- warm days set in (Actually it is still quite cold now...but mind over matter!)

So this all looks quite cold. During the coldest part of winter, it will reach -40 Fahrenheit (and -40 Celsius) for a few weeks.  I am a little worried.  It gets cold in Nebraska but the horns of 4 year old bulls don't freeze.  I am not sure when Mongolian winter starts but I believe it ends with Tsaagan Sar ( a massive Mongolian holiday that occurs with the lunar new year).  So I am anticipating this first nine to be here any day.

Let's hope I survive!

Kitty and I are ready for winter!  Bring it Mongolia!


Love and Acceptance in the Land of the Blue Sky

Hello blog readers!

I want to tell you about a phenomenal outpouring of love and acceptance I witnessed on September 3, 2011 in Ulaanbaatar.

Needless to say, I am a huge proponent of human rights across the world.  I truly believe that everyone is created equally and that we all have rights as human beings on this planet.  LGBT issues are very close to my heart.  Growing up in Nebraska, I had many people telling me that being gay, or different for that matter, was wrong and it didn't make me normal.  I could care less about being normal.  I remember witnessing the election of November 2000 when Nebraska voted to amend its constitution to prohibit the recognition of same-sex marriages.  It broke my heart and I lost hope.  I couldn't understand why people could be so angry at someone for wanting to love and be loved regardless of their sexual orientation.  I am very fortunate to come from family that shows me endless love, tolerance and gave me the ambition to succeed in life no matter who I am.  Their love and support allowed me to join the Peace Corps.

I brought with me, to Mongolia, my passion for human rights.  I knew that LGBT rights were still emerging in this country.  It was only in 2002 that homosexuality was decriminalized.  On September 3, I attended an event hosted by the LGBT Centre in Ulaanbaatar.  It was called "Mr. Beauty 2011" and it was a drag queen competition.  I went with some friends to this small bar that was off the beaten path.  I didn't expect to see many people there.  I was SHOCKED when I entered!  There must have been around 250-300 people there.  The night started with the contestants coming out wearing traditional women's Mongolian clothes.  They were absolutely gorgeous!  The other portions of the competition were swimsuit wear, formal wear and then came time for the question.  Unfortunately, my Mongolian wasn't good enough to understand what was being said.  My guess is that each question and answer dealt with LGBT issues in Mongolia.

Seeing 300 people at an LGBT event was fantastic.  Watching them be unafraid of who they are for four hours gave me immense hope.  People could be who they were regardless if they were gay, lesbian , bisexual, transgender or straight.  Seeing their love and happiness rejuvenated my mission for equality.  I was speaking with a Mongolian man at the event who said this about homosexuality in Mongolia:
"This is just a normal part of human existence."  He summed it up so well and he wants to take that message across Mongolia.

As an American, it would be so easy for me to approach this with a typical go-get-'em attitude but I know it will not work in Mongolia.  They will do it their way and on their time.  All I can do is offer support and advice as best I can.

Here is a link for the Mongolian LGBT Centre.  They are working so hard to promote LGBT rights across this nation.  They have come a long way by simply becoming a recognized NGO. This youtube video chronicles their mission and the path they took to become a nationally recognized NGO.

This is a serious post but one that is very close to my heart.

In love and acceptance,


Professor Lyons.....I like it!

We need to have a discussion about my first week at school.

Staff Meetings
My first 'day' of work was Monday, August 29.  I had to attend a staff meeting that began at 9am.  It was three hours long and totally in Mongolian.  I maybe understood a few words here and there but mostly I just smiled if I heard my name or something that sounded like it.  People probably thought I was crazy.....but that is all right!  My school's general director is very nice and very welcoming.  He brought me to the front of the meeting and encouraged me to speak about myself in Mongolian.  This was where my two months of Mongolian came in handy!  I regaled everyone about my life, what I studied, how old I was and told them about my family.  My Mongolian was decent and people understood me!  SUCCESS!!

After my fabulous introduction I was whisked off to my new office.  I share a large room with the other English teachers.  They are fantastic!  I felt very welcomed, honored and privileged to be teaching with them.  They all complimented my Mongolian so I gave them compliments on their clothes and make up. Normal?!

Per usual, I now have my office desk covered in Post-Its.  I love them!  I use the recycled kind so I feel a little bit better about not being able to recycle them here.  3M, feel free to send some Post Its to Mongolia!  I fear that I will soon run out.  My co-teachers all think I am crazy and walk by my desk and laugh.  So I just give them a Post It!

First Day of Classes
So, Thursday September 1 finally came.  I was READY!  I put on my Mongolia maternity deel ( I call it that because it is big so I can "grow" in to it!) and walked to my office.  We sat around and gossiped for a few minutes and at 9 o'clock we went outside for the opening ceremonies.

It was fantastic!  The main building had been covered in balloons, streamers and a large banner welcoming all the students.  There were many speeches given.  I was told the day before that I would give a speech in English and one of my counterparts would translate for me in to Mongolian.  Right before I got up on stage I was told I would be translating it myself!

My speech in English thanked everyone and I said that I was very honored to work at a wonderful institution such as Gazarchin.  I thanked the Director for all that he has done and I wished everyone a very happy start to the school year.  I used a lot of flowery English and smiled a lot.

Here is how I translated:
Me:  Hello everyone.  My name is Chris Lyons.  I come from America.  I am 25 years old and I am an English teacher.  Yes....okay.....I want to teach you.  This I know.  (Here is where I tried to be flashy and show off some "complex" grammar) When you learn English......(here I get lost)  school.........study........work......very good......ummmmm.........English.........lesson..........I will teach.

Okay so I got lost.  I didn't know how to finish the sentence in Mongolian so I just said some random education related words and smiled.

<At this point the Director takes away my microphone and the audience of several hundred people just gives me funny looks.>

What happened next is beyond my comprehension.  I couldn't stop talking.  So........I grabbed the microphone out of my Director's hands and said (in broken Mongolian):

This brought on even more awkward looks and silence.  Eventually I was cheered off the stage and stood in the corner for the rest of the ceremony.

So it wasn't my best first impression.  I was wearing a huge deel and gave a really awkward speech in Mongolian followed by more awkwardness as I finished said speech.  Yay!

The next day was my first day of teaching.  I have been assigned to teach American Country Studies, English Speaking and Listening Skills and American and British Literature.  I am very excited about all of those classes!  My first class I taught was Speaking and Listening.  I told my students about myself and told them to tell me about them.  They all did a great job!

Ever since the first day things have been going much better.

The new addition to my family and the big freeze

Okay so that title is a little dramatic.  A few days ago I got a cat.  She is three years old and came from a family of ex-pats that moved back to the states.  She is very affectionate and just sleeps on my stomach all the time and judges me for eating in bed.  Her name is Ааруул (Aaruul) which is the Mongolian dried milk curd that everyone eats and enjoys.  I wanted a random Mongolian name......and it worked!  She has been great company because things are starting to cool down in Mongolia.

Yesterday was the first day I began to notice the change.  I walked outside just wearing a light jacket and, for me, it wasn't enough.  I went back inside and put on light gloves and a scarf.  I got so many strange looks and comments.  People were asking me why I was wearing winter garments when it wasn't winter yet.  In my opinion it should not be freezing in September!  So I endured the comments and was happy I was warm.

Today when I left for school it was only 29 degrees outside.  This necessitated the use of my down winter coat, a scarf and leather gloves.  The comments were even worse today!  My co-teachers even asked me why I was wearing such things and they asked me if I knew it wasn't winter yet!  I responded by saying this is "normal for Americans."  They just laughed and tried not to walk beside me as we went to lunch.  They were just wearing long-sleeved shirts and seemed perfectly fine.

This is me and Aaruul trying to stay warm.  Even she is judging me for wearing winter clothes!

In the mean time I will continue to stay warm, eat more food and teach more classes!  I hope everyone is warm and well!



Livin' Life and Torchin' Towels.....Mongolian Style!

Well as promised I would deliver a blog showing you my fantastic Soviet apartment in Ulaan Baatar.  I have been here for little over a week and things have been....interesting.

I still have no idea how to cook but I am getting better!  Last night I was making rice on my stovetop and I was so proud of myself.  I put the pot on the stove and turned on the burner and walked away.  I return hoping to find a boiling pot of ricey-goodness but instead I return to a towel on fire.  Christ!  Can't a boy just make a pot of rice?! Apparently I didn't pay attention during cooking class at Community College.  I though magic elves just took care of the food.....like in Harry Potter! So I took the burning towel and threw it in the sink.  Once the air cleared I continued making rice with a sanguine attitude and was determined to enjoy that damn pot of rice.

I have also been dealing with a massive head cold.  It could be due to an actual cold but I am convinced it is made worse by all the pollution here.  When Vice President Biden was in town I was stuck in a cab for two exciting hours with many trucks and motorcycles blowing their fumes in to my face.  Yay!  So yesterday I did nothing.  I took copious amounts of cold medicine and accidentally watched the entire second season of Community.  Needless to say, I am a hot, coughing, snotty mess!

Let's commence the tour of Château Lyons

Congratulations on finding building Number 2.  Unfortunately it is trash day.  But at least I have trash day!

This is my fun stairwell.  It has no lighting at night so I just fall up or down the stairs as needed.

And apparently everyone in my building loves one another!  I hope my name ends up on this wall.....or any wall really.......maybe a bathroom?

Look who is there to greet you!  The ultimate Myspace picture!

The view when you walk in the front door!

My awesome bed with mirrors and bedding from 1984.
Since my bed has mirrors I had to take advantage of it!  Just waitin' around to teach some English while wearing a scarf!

My awesome bathroom with an the always-running-Mongolian toilet. Notice the water heater?  Yeah.....I have really cold but running water!

My fire extinguisher and rice cooker I don't know how to use and smoke alarm that should be installed by now.  Oops!

My refrigerator and teensy sink.  It works!  Notice the bright "window" from the bathroom!  It is like stained glass.....

My simple table with some nearly finished banana bread.

My little stove and the poster that is the reason I get up every morning.

So there you have it......a quick tour of my home.  I start working at Gazarchin University very soon and am eager to be a university teacher!  Time to go make some macaroni and cheese from scratch.  Hope I don't torch another towel!


I am officially a Peace Corps Volunteer!

Hello world of the interwebs!

I realize it has been a while since my last posting but I hope to cover the following points:

  • The End of PST (Pre-Service Training)
  • Swearing In as a Peace Corps Volunteer
  • My new life as a PCV 
Finishing PST

For those of you who are current PCV/Ts or RPCVs, you know how long, challenging and rewarding PST can be.  Every day is filled with learning Mongolian, preparing last-minute lesson plans and teaching English.  By the end of each day I was absolutely exhausted!

I was lucky enough to get a little reprieve from PST by being called to go to Ulaan Baatar for a few days for a medical check up.  It was very last minute!  On August 4, our Country Director came to my training site to do interviews.  She informed me that at 1:30 that afternoon I would be accompanying her back to UB for a medical appointment.  Needless to say I ran back to my ger and literally threw clothes in a bag.  Off to UB I went.  I was allowed to ride in the Peace Corps vehicle which was very comfortable

I spent August 5 through 8 in UB as I underwent a few evaluations.  This gave me a lot of time to site see and walk around a very cool city. Unfortunately, this meant I missed the host-family appreciation weekend.  My training site and their families all went to Amarbaysgalant Monastery.  It seems like they had a great time......even without me!  I hopped on a bus on August 9 to head back to my training site.

Friday, August 12 was, essentially, the end of PST.  We had our LPI (Language Proficiency Interview) and TAP (Trainee Assessment Packet).  After those interviews were completed  I would be finished with training.  Unfortunately, my body decided to have fun with me!  I woke up Friday morning and felt really sick to my stomach.  I spent the entire morning throwing up whenever I would move or think.  Oh what fun!  Fortunately I had both of my interviews relatively early.  My TAP started at 11am and by that time a fever hit me so I was sweating and shivering during the interview.

In between my TAP and LPI I went to our local café to take a little nap.  This nap lasted for quite a while and someone woke me up at 1:50pm to tell me that it was time for my LPI (which started at 1:45). My teachers told me to just go home but I literally ran and sat down for my LPI.  The proctor was very nice and very helpful as I struggled to gain enough mental capacity to speak in Mongolian for 30 minutes.  Finally, I was finished with that interview and went home to sleep.

I spent my last weekend at site hanging out with my host family and friends.  Many games of huzer were played and I had a few shots of vodka in celebration.  On Monday, August 15, all 12 of us went from our site to the training center in Darkhan.  It was a bittersweet day saying goodbye to our families but......by the end of the day we would all know where we would be living and working for the next two years.

Site Placements

That Monday  seemed to just crawl by.  All 66 of us were eager, scared and excited to know of our placements. We received the results of our LPI and I ended up getting an Intermediate Low which is a step higher than the minimum of Novice High.  I was very happy with that result and it felt like all my hard work paid off!  Anyone want to chat in Mongolian?!

Finally the time came for us to go to the big children's park in the center of town.  That park had a HUGE map of Mongolia divided in to the the different aimags (provinces).  One-by-one they called our names and announced our site and our school.  I watched my friends and colleagues walk to the far reaches of the map. From Bayan Olgi to Choibalsan, all the aimags were covered.  Finally it came time for my announcement.  The winning site is.................Ulaan Baatar!  I was so happy when they finally announced it.  I will be working at a private university for the next two years to help the teachers and students improve their English.  I am not alone in Ulaan Baatar.  There are many other PCVs there and the main Peace Corps office also calls UB its home.

We all spent that night reading through our welcome packets which contained a wealth of information about our sites and schools.

The rest of the week was spent learning about medical issues as well as safety and security issues.  Finally the big day came.....swearing in!

Swearing In

Friday, August 19 was the big day for all of us.  It was the day we had been waiting for since we got our invitations to become Peace Corps Volunteers.  At 10am all of us walked to the Darkhan theatre in our finest Mongolian clothes.  The ceremony began at 11am with speeches given by our country director, the US Ambassador Jonathan Addleton, and two members of the Mongolian Education Ministry.  Here is a link to a press release about the swearing in ceremony.

The rest of the ceremony consisted of the Ambassador administering the oath to us.  It was a moving moment to repeat after him and officially become volunteers.  After that, speeches were given in Mongolian by new PCVs and there were many talents displayed with traditional Mongolian dancing, singing and instruments.  All of this was performed by the new PCVs.  I was honored to watch all of my friends go up on stage to sing, dance and have fun.

After the ceremony, which lasted two hours, we were treated to a wonderful reception.  There was SO much delicious food!  Unfortunately, we couldn't stay too long because we had to load up our buses to go to UB at 2:30.  55-or-so volunteers loaded buses to head to UB before they flew or rode in a meeker to their respective sites.

A few of my fellow volunteers!

This is the last picture of the Khutul trainees with our school director and Language Instructors.  I miss them already!

I was lucky and got to move in to my new apartment that Friday evening.  It was a relief to finally be someplace I can call "home" for the next two years and begin unpacking my bags.  I felt like it was Christmas as I opened up my winter bag that had been in storage for two months.  It contained many sweaters, a very warm down coat, long underwear and some well hidden beef jerky from my family.  Oh....it also had three rolls of duct tape so my Uncle will be proud!

My Life as a PCV

So far things are going really well.  I would consider myself moved in to my apartment and settling in to a routine.......for now.  I have met with my school supervisor a few times to discuss how I can be of help to the university.  He is very excited to have me and I am quite excited to start working.  My first official day will be Monday, August 29 when I give a presentation to English teachers about how to improve their English and how they can best help their students.  This is what the Peace Corps drilled in to me all summer and I am glad to put it to use.

For those of you who know me, I am not a great cook.  I enjoy baking (who doesn't?!) but dealing with full meals scares me.  Back in the states I would eat box after box of Mac-N-Cheese or just go out for dinner.  This isn't really an option here as my Peace Corps budget doesn't allow it.  Fortunately, the Peace Corps volunteers have compiled a fantastic cook book that will get me through the next few years.

Yesterday I made a really good loaf of banana bread and then made a large pot of rice and beans which will be my staple until it runs out.  I made way too much......so it might be a while.  Where are hot pockets when I need them?!

I will make another post this weekend and give you a tour of my apartment.  It is pretty fancy!

Let me know if you have any questions of certain things about which you are curious!  I enjoy sharing my experiences with you!

Be well,


The Light at the End of the PST Tunnel

Well, I cannot believe that I am nearly finished with PST (Pre-Service Training). It "began" the minute I landed in Mongolia on June 5, 2011. It lasts from June 5 until August 19 which is the date we "swear-in" and become Peace Corps Volunteers.  This has been a very long and tough process. Each day brings a new challenge and allows me a lot of time to grow.

The Mongolian language continues to be difficult for me!  The more advanced I become, the more things start to sound the same.  This evening I was eating dinner with my family trying to say that the food was really good.  They kept correcting my pronunciation of the word for food which is хоол.  Apparently my 'o' vowel wasn't quite right.  I couldn't hear the difference in their vowel and mine.  So this is an on-going battle.  Unfortunately, time is not on my side.  We have our LPI (Language Proficiency test) on Friday, August 12.  Someone comes in and we have a conversation, in Mongolian,  with them for 20 minutes and that conversation gets recorded and sent to Ulaan Baatar.  Once in Ulaan Baatar it gets analyzed by people trained in language assessment.  To be sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer we are expected to hit a Novice High Mark.  On a scale of 1-10, we are expected to be at a 3.  According to a book, we need to:

  • be able to ask questions and make simple statements based on memorized sentences.
  • Understand conversation fragments and simple commands
  • Express daily needs
  • Speak in short, direct sentences with some longer phrases if given time to think about them
  • Behave considerately
  • Understand nonverbal cues
At first, this list seemed impossible.  As time wore on, it seems quite achievable.  I feel like I have a good grasp on the language and shouldn't have a problem passing this LPI as long as I keep studying and working hard.  All-in-all, Mongolian is fun to learn and I get a lot of bragging rights by being able to speak it.  :)

Practice Teaching
So as you all know, I am in the TEFL sector of the Peace Corps.  The last week has been spent practice teaching.  This is a chance for the trainees to practice teaching English within the context of a real class room.  As a training site, we held open registration for students in grades 4-12 to come and receive free English lessons.  Four of the trainees took the youngest kids, four took the middle group and four more took the oldest students.  All together, we have about 80-90 students coming to these lessons!  Our turnout is FABULOUS!

I am in the group that teaches the oldest students.  I find it challenging and rewarding all at once!  We give a total of 10 forty minute lessons.  My partner, Leo, and I will team teach six of those lessons.  The other four are spent alternating solo teaching sessions.  Today was the first of my two solo sessions.   I think it went really well!  Unfortunately, our unit topic is sports so I am out of my league.....but the students don't know that....I hope!  I spend all of my free time lesson planning and meeting with my partner to make sure our lessons will go off smoothly.  It is a real dose of the eventual reality once I get to my site.

Speaking of site placement.....  We find out VERY soon!
Tomorrow, August 3, is my site placement interview.  This is my chance to speak with a Peace Corps official about where I would like to be.  Honestly, I don't really have a preference.  Wherever they place me I will work hard and be the best volunteer possible.  I have the chance of living in a ger, an apartment or a two-room house.  Both the ger and the two-room house will not have running water and require a fire to stay warm in the winter.  This mean....chopping wood....something I really don't want to do.  But time will tell where I end up!  They make our site announcements on August 15 when all the trainees reconvene at our training site.

Martha Stewart...in Mongolia?
For those of you who know me, it is a commonly known fact that I LOVE and ADORE Martha Stewart.  She has everything I want.....gorgeous homes, a good sweater collection and the ability to cook really good food.  Sometimes I humor myself and try to cook.  Usually I would rather just throw a hot pocket in the microwave and call it good. Mongolia has no microwaves or hot pockets.  This boy needs to learn how to cook!
Yummy huushur made by my host mom!

Our training site had a cooking class the other day.  We bought the necessary groceries and went to the house of a trainee whose dad is an accomplished cook.  We made huushuur (The Mongolian version of hot pockets with mutton and green onion).  The filling is easy to make as is the dough for the "pocket."  The tough part is filling the pocket with just the right amount of filling and pinching it shut.  There are a variety of ways to pinch huushuur.  Some people make it Martha Stewart gorgeous with a fluted edge.  Other just roughly pinch the edges together and others, like myself, just sort of push the edges together and throw it in the oil.  This results in a lot of splattering oil as the filling pops.  Needless to say, I was put on cleaning duty and pushed out of the kitchen.  That was fine with me!  I could eat our huushuur without having to work too hard!

About one week ago one of the mothers of a trainee wanted to show us how to shoot a Mongolian bow and arrow.  I didn't take bow and arrow class at community college and I was a little scared about the whole thing!  We all met up and watched this old man shoot an arrow with a rubber tip at a line of cloth balls.  After he hit them, he let us go!  Surprisingly, it wasn't that hard for me.  I managed to hit the balls all three times!  Only one other person did that.  It was a good feeling!
My bad attempt at trying to be an archer!  Watch out Robin Hood!

I also climbed the stupa hill again.  It was sunset and the lighting was GORGEOUS!  I enjoyed the walk up the hill and the sunset was so visible and so gorgeous.  The golden prayer wheels were glistening with the pink and orange hues that were given off by the sun.  It was very peaceful and gave me time to think, sort through my crazy thoughts and go home relaxed and ready to face the next day.
The gorgeous stupa at the top of the hill.

I will keep you all posted on the results of my LPI and any other information that I feel would be fun to pass along!  I hope you are all well!



Naadam Take 2

Well I wrote last time that my community celebrated its local Naadam.  In my American mind that would be it.  The local celebration would be enough of a celebration to keep everyone happy until next year.  It turns out I was dead wrong!  There is a national Naadam celebration that happened in Ulaan Baatar from July 11-13.  We had no school and everyone gathered with their friends and family to join in the drinking of vodka and watching the sports on tv.

On Monday, July 11, my family knocked on my ger door at around 5am to get our Naadam party started.  Let's first talk about cultural differences in knocking.  Mongolians are very polite when knocking at your door.  They might just use a finger or two and just sort of brush it against the door so it moves.  This barely gets noticed by me, particularly at 5am.  Americans will beat down your door when trying to arouse you from sleep or to get your attention.  So, I eventually woke up from the brushing against my door.

Let's also take a quick minute to analyze me at 5am.  Due to a high number of beetles flying around my ger I now sleep with a mosquito net to keep them from falling on me when I sleep.  This mosquito net is mustard yellow and allows me to live out my dream of having a princess bed.  Also, the sun comes up VERY early in Mongolia.  I think sometime around 4:30am.  Due to this early arrival I wear eye shades. Eye shades+mosquito net+5am wake-up-door-brushing= Chris stumbling in to the mosquito netting, answering the door with eye shades still on and really bad hair.  It looked like I should have been auditioning for a part in The Lion King on Broadway.

The minute I opened the door I knew I was in for an interesting day.  My entire family (host mom, dad, aunt, uncle and cousin) were outside my door completely dressed and together.  They were smiling and ready to begin the Naadam festivities.  I quickly threw on Naadam appropriate clothes (read: jeans and a t-shirt) and got myself mentally prepared for the day!  Unfortunately I forgot about my hair and it was a hot mess.

First we started preparing meat that would serve a later purpose.  I walked in to the house to see an entire sheep spread across the table in various stages of being cut up.  It was like an anatomy class I took at community college.  You started with the head and worked your way down.  There was a separate bowl for the offal.  None of this phases me anymore.  My host mom told me to sit down and we would chop meat together.  I like to think of myself as good in the kitchen when it comes to cooking Macaroni and Cheese or a hot pocket.  However, I am not good at chopping up big pieces of mutton.  My host mom smiled as I struggled to power through it and eventually she gave me a bowl of tea to distract me and finished the job in record time.  Now I know I am useless when it comes to certain things like reading road maps or doing simple addition.  For both of those cases it is better to not get involved.  But I thought I could at least cut meat.  My hair was still a wreck and I was worried that they would look at me and think he can't cut meat and his hair needs help.  Fortunately my host family is FANTASTIC and they just kept smiling, feeding me and telling me about all things Naadam.

Like I said in my previous post, Naadam is about the three manly sports.  Now back in the states I find sports to be as much fun as a cold sore.  In Mongolia I couldn't get enough of them.  Watching the opening ceremonies from Ulaan Baatar on tv and watching the skilled archers hit their targets is fascinating to me.  I couldn't get enough of it!  Eventually, I found out what the meat was for.  We were going to eat хорхог (khorkhog).  This is really good food!  You take a wood burning stove and get it red hot and then add a lot of stones.  Once those are red hot you throw them in to a big metal container (like a cream can) and then add the cut up mutton, vodka, potatoes and onion.  The lid is turned on and it sort of turns in to a pressure cooker.  The whole contraption is then put back on to the blazing hot fire to cook for an hour.  While you are waiting you drink a lot of vodka and take a nap.  Thank goodness I had my eye shades with me!

This is a picture of me enjoying Chinggis Gold Vodka.  Very smooth!

This is a picture of me and my host-grandmother.  She received two medals from the governor for having a certain number of children.  A fun woman!

After an hour or so, the khorkhog is ready.  Everyone gathers inside to partake in the feast.  The contents of the cream can are put in to separate bowls including the hot stones.  Everyone takes a stone and tosses it back and forth in their hands as it cools.  According to Mongolians, this is good for the body.  I was tossing those stones like a pro which means I should be healthy for life!  Finally the food was passed around.  The potatoes were peeled and SO delicious!  The mutton was particularly delicious.  Every piece was tender and succulent.  I ate my fill!  Then out came more vodka and the entire family did several toasts.  My Mongolian was gone by this point so I just smiled and toasted with them.

The vodka ready to be passed around.

Everyone enjoying all the food and festivities!

It was a great introduction to the culture and I made many new friends and am now considered an official member of the family.  My mother's side of the family hosted this and it was very well attended!  We sang many Mongolian songs and I introduced them to American songs like "Bad Romance" by Lady Gaga.  We all danced and had great fun!

The next two days of my Naadam break were spent relaxing and going on a hike.  Going on a hike is not my normal definition of fun and I would rather staple my hand to a wall.  But my friends Bianca, Matt, Leo and I went and I told myself I would have fun.  Matt and Leo are dedicated hikers and Bianca and I are not.  She and I stopped at a store to grab a coke, twix and ice cream.  You know.....the essentials for hiking!  We were gone for about four hours and had a great time talking and just looking around at the gorgeous country side.

Our last night of break was spent playing kick ball with the children in the ger district.  It seemed like an easy game to teach to the children and I enjoyed it growing up.  There were five Americans playing and around 10-or-so children joining in.  Everyone had a good time and they understood the rules and point of the game.  It was a great way to spend the last day of my Naadam break!

Mongolian Language

So I have now been learning Mongolia for about six weeks.  Compared to day one when I knew nothing I have come a long way.  I feel fairly comfortable with daily conversations and as long as people speak slowly I understand them.  However, I am realizing that learning Mongolian can be like Dante's Inferno. First there is consonant hell.  There are some consonants that English doesn't have and I have to make my mouth do tricks to get them to work.  Also, going a level deeper, there is vowel hell.  Mongolian has seven vowels and four of them are variants of O that gets progressively more closed until it becomes oo like loose.

Now I have many verbs and nouns under my command.  I can conjugate them in to four different tenses.  But now I have discovered homonym hell.  The words for river and fire are VERY similar. One tiny vowel changes them all.  My parents are confused by my poor pronunciation and I am worried that we will start a fire instead of go to the river!  I am hoping that there are not many levels of Mongolian language hell I can discover.  I am fortunate to have great teachers and very supportive friends who help me with my language troubles.  Also, many of my young family members take it upon themselves to help me.  We study, dance and listen to Mongolian pop music which I download from the internet.

Here is one of our "study" sessions!

Also, here is one of the bugs that I try to keep out of my bed by sleeping in my princess bed.  The bugs are coming!

I hope you all are well!  I am off to go "study" Mongolian.  I feel some power dancing coming on to a popular Mongolian club song called  Хаврын анхны хайр. Here is a link to the youtube video!

Enjoy your weekends!



One Month and Counting

So I have been in Mongolia for one month and three days.  I look back at my time here thus far and just have a huge smile on my face.  This doesn't mean that every day was a walk in the park but I have learned so much and grown in many ways that I smile at it all.  But this means that it has been one month since I have been in America and one month since I have seen my beloved family and friends.  It is their strength, encouragement and love that allowed me to come to Mongolia and it will continue to inspire and push me to grow more.

Last weekend, July 2 and 3, found Khutul celebrating its Naadam.  Naadam is one of the BIG national holidays in Mongolia.  It is a celebration of the three manly sports: horse racing, archery and wrestling.  On Saturday morning, a family friend stopped by to show me one of his horses.  I got on and asked if I could ride around the ger district.  He said yes and got on another one of his horses and the two of us rode around the ger district for about 30 minutes.  It was great.....except the horses here are shorter than their American counterparts and the saddle stirrups weren't long enough for my legs.  I was a little stiff getting off but it was so worth it.  After that we ran down to the finish line of the horse race and watched about 20-or-so children race their horses.  They were SO talented and quick....and very young!

That evening, there was a concert held in the cultural center.  For about one hour we were treated to traditional Mongolian dance and music.  It was a great time and fascinating to see their traditional songs be set to a pop music context.  They mix their styles well! Starting next week, I will be going to the cultural center to receive Hammer Dulcimer lessons.  I am hoping to perform for the swearing-in ceremony on August 19.  Should be fun! This is a picture of one of the groups performing.  The lady in the middle is playing the hammer dulcimer and she rocked!

The next day, July 3 was a big day for Naadam.  The morning activity was archery.  I wasn't able to watch it because we had to go to another training site to receive more vaccinations.  I wish I could have watched it!  We were back in time to experience wrestling which is great!  My host family took me to the wrestling stadium and we watched it for an hour.  The traditions that are wrapped in to Naadam are fantastic.  The winner of each match does the eagle dance to show his dominance and then gets a cool Mongolian hat to wear.  Here is a picture of the wrestling: 

My Mongolian language lessons continue to go well.  My pronunciation gets better every day and I am becoming more confident in my language skills.  I have also latched on to many children in the ger district who help me with my Mongolian if I help them with their English.  Children are great cultural and language guides!  They are so eager to learn and to teach.  I am grateful for their help and encouragement.

So after being here for one month I can look back and see how much I have changed.  I am beginning to speak a new language, I don't have running water, I use an out house (!). I also hand-wash my clothes in a tumpin and bathe in a tumpin.  This also means I might only bathe three times a week!  In many ways I am different but still the same.  My love of music is still strong and my devotion to family and friends is as strong as ever.  I look forward to being sworn-in on August 19 and beginning yet another new chapter in my life titled Peace Corps Volunteer! I am thankful for all the cards and mail I have received.  Each letter is so special to me and gives me the encouragement I need.

I am also learning to appreciate the smaller (sometimes not so small!) things in life.  I haven't seen a cable tv show in one month and I don't miss it.  Also, I can take time to enjoy my 20 minute walk to school and take in the gorgeous views that are found all throughout Mongolia.  My favorite thing is to just watch the weather.  Mongolia is SO open that you can literally watch a storm develop and blow through.  And Mongolia has GORGEOUS sunsets!  I always thought Nebraska had fantastic sunsets but I must say that Mongolia beats it.  What do you think?

Thank you all so much for your encouragement and support!  You all honor me so much with your comments and thoughts.  I appreciate them so much!

I hope you all are well and warm!  I will keep you updated with my Mongolian life and will soon post pictures to Picasa and will put a link on this blog.



Best cure for culture shock and irritation? Music!

Over the last three weeks (wow!) since arriving to Mongolia I have experienced varying levels of culture shock.  At first it wasn't that bad.  The training site where all 68 of us were together sheltered me from full immersion in to the culture and I felt at home with my American friends.  That only lasted one week.  Since June 9 I, and 12 other trainees, have been living with host families at our training site.  The 12 of us learn Mongolian together every week day from 9am until 1pm.  Living with a host family truly allows me to experience an authentic Mongolian culture.  I am learning the customs, traditions and rules that govern everyday life and the interactions within it.  As you will well imagine, this gives me a case of culture shock.

Sometimes this shock is due to another trip to the outhouse or eating an unfamiliar part of a sheep.  Other times the things that would be really easy in the states are very difficult to accomplish in Mongolia.  The other night I asked my host mom if there was a Gmobile shop nearby where I could pay for the monthly plan for my modem.  Things got lost in translation and we walked over to her sister's house and I tried to ask again.  She tried to have me explain a modem in my broken Mongolian.  All of this led to an unexpected phone call to my Language Facilitator who answered my question.  This took place over the course of about two hours of me trying to explain, mime and eventually give up.  I appreciate all the love, effort and support that my host family gives me.  But in the end, culture shock rears its head.

The Mongolian language continues to help increase my culture shock.  I find the language frustrating and am trying to find an effective study strategy that works for me.  Not being able to make yourself understood adds to the shock.  Some days I really struggle with the frustration and continue to get angry at myself and others if I cannot make myself understood.  But, I am learning to cope and deal with the overwhelming emotions of being homesick, not being able to communicate and struggling to see the bigger picture.

On Sunday, June 26, I turned 25.  I was dreading this birthday for two reasons. 1. I was turning 25 which, in my book, was old.  2.  I was in a foreign country and felt homesick.  My fellow trainees threw me a birthday get together at the Lotus Cafe.  They ordered pizzas and gave me a gorgeous cake.  After the pizza and frivolity we went to the Nice Bar for a good (?) Mongolian beer.  It made for a fabulous day with my new friends.  They are so special to me and I appreciate all of them very much.

When I got home in the evening from my birthday celebration my host family had another party planned.  They whipped up my favorite meal which is tsuivan.  To accompany the tsuivan they served me some vodka and another delicious cake at the end.  It was a great time filled with my host family and many of their  friends who are my new friends.  I was also able to Skype home to my family back in the states which made for the perfect end to my day.

Monday, June 27, found me in Mongolian class.  I had a bad case of the "Mondays" and found everything really irritating.  I stepped back and realized that I wasn't mad at my friends, my language teachers or anyone else.  I was irritated with me for being irritated and irrational.  By the end of our morning session those emotions were wiped away.  My language teachers and my fellow trainees bought me a delicious chocolate cake and my favorite marmalade candies.  My language teachers also bought me a gorgeous leather knife holder (it must have a better name than that) and a leather key holder.  Very thoughtful gifts indeed!

Our afternoon session was titled "Mongolian Culture Through the Arts."  We learned a traditional Mongolian Song called Аяны Шувууд.  It is about missing a distant lover and is expressed through metaphors of migrating birds and the sights and sounds they experience.  The melody is Pentatonic and simple and quite pretty.  The minute I began to sing all of my feelings of irritability, distress and anger melted away.  It felt really good to do something musical again.  It is a favorite among Peace Corps volunteers.

Our swearing-in Ceremony is August 19 and we are encouraged to learn a traditional Mongolian art and perform it during the ceremony.  I have decided to learn the Mongolian harp.  I forget its actual name but the sister of one of my language teachers plays and teaches it.  I am very excited to start to learn it!  Will be totally different from the pipe organ, but music is music!

That is my update for now.  I will continue to persevere with my Mongolian language skills and just accept my feelings of irritability and frustration as they come.  In the mean time I will keep enjoying everything that my Mongolian life has to offer and will enjoy its music.

I hope your lives are enriched by music wherever you are and that you take the time to appreciate it in its simple or complex forms.



Thoughts on Mutton and Music

Сайн байн уу? (Hello, how are you?)

I hope this entry finds you all well, warm and happy!  This blog is a combination of ideas, thoughts and happenings so bare with me on the rambling and scattered thoughts.  They are many!

Let’s start with food.  The Mongolians love mutton (хонины мах). To be honest, I am fine with it.  Coming from Nebraska I haven't had a lot of mutton but it doesn't bother me.  They mask it with onions and other vegetables and pasta so I don't really taste much of the «essence» of the meat.  Which is okay. 

My host mom is really a good cook.  I have enjoyed all of the meals.  I have many favorite dishes so far.  Хуушуур (huushuur) is a meat and vegetable filling that is encased in a basic dough of flour and water and is fried.  This is a staple in the Mongolian diet.  They usually include a good bit of fat in with the meat.  So I get my daily intake of fat and meat.  Which is good because I need it for my long walk to and from school.

Цуйван (tsuivan) is very good as well.  It is meat and vegetables (potatoes, carrots, onions) that are cooked in oil and then fresh noodles are added and they are all fried together.  Above all this is my favorite meal.  I really crave carbs here and the pasta definitely helps!  Бууз (buuz) is also very good.  For all of you Nebraskans out there this reminds me of a Runza.  It is a dumpling made with yeast dough that is filled with mutton and onions and is then steamed.  Very filling and very good.  On a good day I can knock back about 6 huushuur or maybe 5 buuz in one sitting.  I never go hungry!

Last Saturday was a very big day for me.  I truly felt like a Mongolian.  After lunch my family (host mother and father) and I loaded up in to the car and drove out in to the country side.  We visited my host uncle’s ger.  He has very few amenities there.  No electricity, just kerosene lanterns.  I was in love with it all!  After arriving we killed a goat and I watched the family prepare the meat for cooking.  But this was not to be my dinner.

We played the traditional Mongolian game called Шагай (Shagai) which is tossing the ankle bones of sheet and goat.  After this game we sat down for dinner and I was in for a treat.  All day there was a stove going that had some container on top that was just boiling away.  My mother pulled out the delicacy that I am going to describe as Mongolian pot roast.  First she pulled out the root vegetables, which were potatoes, carrots and turnips.  Then she pulled out some bones and meat and then came the Piece de resistance.  A sheep head!  It was in there just simmering away.  The fur had been stripped away but everything else was intact and apparently edible.  My stomach and brain were doing flips at this point as they were unsure how to react.  This was a big deal to be served this meal so I couldn’t really refuse.

I started with a bowl of vegetables and meat that contained a lot of fat.  Again, mutton doesn’t bother me so this was no problem.  The vegetables were very tender and they were enhanced by the mutton.  Then came time for the head. My host mom, dad and uncle were working their way through it but left bits for me.  I just put my hands in there and smiled (Put the spoon to your mouth with a smile as my Aunt Jayne would say!) The parts I picked through were good.  Very, very tender and the fat added a nice flavor to it all.  My father tried to serve me the eyeballs but I just couldn’t do it without getting sick.  I refused by saying that I was full and wanted him to have the best part.  He understood and ate them with much delight. 

It was a great day all around.  I learned a lot about Mongolian tradition, culture and customs.  I truly felt like a Mongolian yesterday.  We all laughed, smiled and shared some vodka.  Also a lot of milk tea was spread around. It is tea made with milk instead of water.  They also add a good amount of salt to the tea, which is interesting. J

The Culture Gap
It goes without saying that the differences between Mongolia and the United States are many and I am having to re-learn how to do everyday tasks like do my laundry, brush my teeth and bathe myself without running water.  I am becoming an expert at limiting my water use while still managing to stay relatively clean and groomed.  I enjoy the change from America.  Things happen slower here and that is okay with me.  I have been struggling with how to bridge the culture gap that exists between my Mongolian family and friends and me.  They don’t understand where I come from or how I have done things in the past.  And I am still learning about their way of life and how things operate on a day-to-day schedule. 

I have found that music, of all genres, can quickly build a bridge between cultures.  Whenever we are my family’s house they have the t.v. on to some sort of music channel.  This channel plays everything from Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez to traditional Mongolian songs that have been turned in to pop songs and rap.  It is really quite fascinating.  I asked my family if they like music and they said yes so I took them in to my ger and walked them through my iTunes library.  My host-cousin likes Lady Gaga so we went through all of my Lady Gaga songs as we danced, smiled and laughed.  I have all the children I meet listen to my iPod and they all seem to like Lady Gaga as well.

They were intrigued by my vast collection of organ music.  I am not sure if they know what a pipe organ is but I showed them many pictures and had them listen to many pieces from Bach to Widor and Messiaen.  I hope they liked it!

My host-mom really liked the choral music.  It took me a while to explain choral music (thank god for Mongolian-english dictionaries!) We listened to “Water Night” by Eric Whitacre which always causes me to weep.  My host-mom listened to it several more times and I think she caught on to its beauty.

So to Eric Whitacre and Lady Gaga, thank you for being cultural ambassadors and helping me to bridge the culture gap between America and Mongolia.  The Mongolians may not understand Lady Gaga’s message of acceptance and love but they like her music and dance to it!  Eric Whitacre’s choral music is gorgeous in any language and place and they appreciate its beauty and ability to tug at many emotional heart strings.

I also learned something from the sheep head.  When it came out of the pot it had an odd smile on it (weird, I know!) but his life ended quickly but he still had a smile on his (or her) face.  So throughout this experience of Peace Corps Mongolia I hope I can keep a smile on my face through the soaring highs and the deep lows that I know I will face.

Thank you to you all for supporting me and cheering me on!  Your words and thoughts honor me greatly and I am so thankful for your love and understanding!


(Sorry for the really long post!  It has been a long time coming!)