Monthly Archives: October 2010

No, really, what do you do in Mongolia?

I’ve been at my job for about two months now, and I finally feel like I can answer the million tugruk (which would be about $750) question from before we left home: What are you going to be doing in Mongolia?

Well, I’ve figured out what…I’m just not sure how.

So I have written before that I am working in the Bayanzurkh District of UB at the District Health Unit. I’m a member of the Public Health Department, and I am tasked with setting up a Community Health Volunteer (CHV) Program for the 24 sub-districts (that will split into 28 come January) and serve a population of 280,000 people. This population represents one tenth of the entire country. That’s a lot of Mongolians.

The way that the project is set up, there will be four years of work that ultimately leads to a sustainable Community Health Volunteer Program. The volunteers will be trained in all manners of health promotion, from sanitation (basic hand washing even) to preventative health care. They will reach the farthest of the far in their district and offer services to people that would otherwise not reach the Family Group Practice (FGP). They will lessen the strain and workload for the already overloaded FGPs. They will educate the public, improve overall health, and serve as a link between the community and the health care professionals. In short, they will be little Health Promotion Heroes!

But where do we find them?

Excellent question…especially in a community that does not understand the concept of a volunteer. As of now, some FGPs boast hoards of volunteers, or people that they call once a month and ask for help making some phone calls. These are no Health Promotion Heroes, that’s for sure. And that’s okay…for now. But my job is to educate the staff at each FGP about volunteerism and what role a CHV can play at their FGP. This seems easy enough…offer some trainings, educate them about volunteers…but the health care system here is so darn hierarchical that often doctors won’t listens to nurses, nurses won’t listen to social workers, and no one will listen to a measley little volunteer. Needless to say, there is some basic educating to be done.

Following that basic educating, there will be recruiting, training, inducting, and managing of volunteers. And then there will be more training…more recruiting…more inducting…and on and on and on.

Now. This seems like a big task with lots to do in two years’ time. What makes it even more interesting is that since I arrived in my office of three non-English speaking Mongolian women and me, I have not had an interpreter. For a brief moment this week, there seemed to be hope that one would soon arrive. Then that hope was dashed. Two of the best candidates declined an offer on account of the salary being too low, and the other two…well…the other two didn’t speak English. I mean they kind of did, but not really. So they won’t work.

Alas, here I sit. This week’s breakthrough was telling my coworkers in Mongolian that I was heading to VSO for a meeting in the afternoon. It’s funny though…whenever I speak in Mongolian, they always respond, in English, what? And then I say my little sentence again, and they’re shocked to realize that the words coming from my mouth are not English but Mongolian. It’s a fun game to play.

Anyways. Work is work for the time being. It is frustrating and overwhelming and some days I wonder when I will make any progress whatsoever. And then I have a silly little Mongolian/English exchange, and it makes my day, and suddenly that feels like important progress all its own. From where I sit now, two months into work, I can only picture what my role will be 2 years down the line…what progress we will have made…how comfortable this odd little place might feel to me. For now, it still feels frustrating with a healthy dose of optimism, and one of my main goals for the two years will be to retain at least some of that optimism. I try to maintain realistic goals, and I’m very good about realizing that this experience is as much for me as it is for the people I work with here, but I do like to remain hopeful that I can make something positive happen. For now I just wait and see…

As for this weekend, we’re heading out and about to the countryside once again. Saturday Chris and I will hike south to Zuunmod (we hiked from Zuunmod to UB a while back – the one time we went camping in Mongolia). We’ll meet a bunch of friends there for a night in a ger. It should be fun. Last time we stayed in a ger, it was just the two of us; this time it’ll be fun to have a big group. Sunday we’ll catch a ride back to UB with the rest of the group, and then next week we do it all again…

Kidnappings and basketball

So this past weekend we opted to stay in UB…a little downtime in our new home. Friday a group of us treated ourselves to a delicious Indian dinner at the restaurant by our apartment, then Chris went out with a few friends and I headed home for a quiet night and some skyping. Saturday morning started out leisurely…Chris had basketball, and I went to meet up with a friend for coffee at the French bakery in town. My walk home from there is where things turn interesting.

I’m walking down Peace Avenue, the main road through town, and a young girl stops me and asks if she can ask me some questions for her English school. I begrudgingly say sure, and we proceed through a long list of my favorite color, my siblings, my favorite singer (somehow she decided to write Justin Bieber down for that one – I hadn’t said a word), and other assorted favorites. We finish, she asks where I am going, and I respond that I am going to meet Chris for lunch. Ahh, lunch, she responds…and starts to walk alongside me. She keeps motioning something about a picture, and I keep saying, sure, do you have a camera? Yes, of course…camera…and we keep walking. Well we make it to Sukhbattar Square, and I attempt to carry on my way, but no, she is telling me that I must follow her to the camera. Oh brother. I try to explain that I must go, she explains that it will be “quickly” and finally I relent…let’s go take a picture…but where…but how? Then she starts yelling, which if my Mongolian was better would sound like “Photographer! Photographer!” but to me simply sounds like yelling. Anyways, Photographer turns around, we snap a photo with Chinggis behind us, and then awkwardly part ways. Kidnapping number one of the day has come to an end.

I carry on with my walk home and meet Chris along the way. We stop by the store and head upstairs to cook up a feast – we’re starving – but no sooner do I begin cooking than his phone is ringing and his basketball teammate is telling him to hurry, come quick, the game starts in ten minutes. So he leaves, headed off for the big game, and I finish up cooking the feast and doing the dishes. No sooner am I washing the last dish than the electricity shuts off. The heck with this, I think, and head out the door to find the basketball tournament.

Just when I think I find the place, I hear a couple of Chris’s coworkers hollering my name, so I cross the street to chat. They take me by the arm and say, come on, we’re going out for food, you come with us. I stutter and stammer and try to say, but wait, where’s Chris? To which they reply, oh he’s coming too…come on, let’s go! So there I go, kidnapped for the second time that day.

Well we wind up sitting at a big long table, me next to the Vice Principal of course because who else would I sit by (they cleared room for me). There are about thirty Mongolians…and us. Recall I had just completed cooking and eating a feast, so now I sit, eating a second feast in two hours time. Mutton is filling. And not delicious.

Anyways, Saturday night we go out to a party thrown by Chris’s coworker. It’s uneventful for the most part aside from us drinking more than our share of beers and not going to bed until 3:30 in the morning. Poor choice, but it seems like a good one at the time…it always does.

Sunday…sleeping in, relaxing, cooking breakfast…oops, it’s time for basketball. Off we go again, to the tournament. Much to Chris’s dismay, he plays in all three games of the day…the only white boy, the only English speaking player in the place.

Here he is looking dapper in his warm ups, thrilled to be having his photo taken:

And now, tossing up some beautiful foul shots:

And here, in action (he’s number 15, the white boy):

Needless to say, by the end of the day he was one tired guy (and still thrilled to be having photos taken).

Now we’re back to work for the week…at this point the week is half done. I’ve lost my interpreter on account of his school schedule being such that the could rarely work during the workday. That’s a big bummer because now I sit in an office of Mongolians, and our conversation is limited to the few phrases I have picked up in the past two months. My proudest moment yet was learning to ask for the bathroom key:

Me: “Jorlomgeen toolkhur han been ooh?”

Them: “Be medexgui been.”

Oh, you don’t know? Damnit. I guess I’ll hold it…again.

That’s usually how it goes at least.

On that note, off I go for now…to look for the bathroom key.

More random thoughts on the quirkiness of our new home

Something magical happened since I last wrote.

So recently our cozy little apartment had turned a bit less cozy on account of the hot water disappearing. It was understandable – we could peer out our window and see men tearing pipes (lead pipes) apart on the street below. We could also hear them working, working, working away…all day and all night. The labor here is incredible. It is so less reliant upon machinery and so more dependent upon manual labor that it amazes me. The men work so hard and do the vast majority of work by hand. In the case of our hot water problem, by the looks of things they had turned the road below into a giant game of Operation. The street was dug up (by hand) in a big U-shaped manner, a U-shaped pipe was soddered together and carried to the U-shaped hole, and then deposited within. It became more Operation-like in that they then covered and buried the pipe only to uncover it, remove it, sodder a bit more, replace it and recover it. Voila. And all without any type of safety equipment whatsoever. I don’t even want to mention the construction workers building the new tall buildings…gulp.

Anyways, Operation game complete, the magical occurence was that our hot water finally returned after a 16 day hiatus (with the exception of two days of hot water in the middle). Needless to say my reunion with the bar of soap was glorious. Someone asked me if I got a haircut. I felt foolish replying that no, I had simply washed my hair properly. Such is life.

Next story…

The money here is funny. The exchange rate is 1350 tugrugs or there abouts to one dollar. The largest bill they circulate is 20,000 tugrugs…less than twenty US dollars. When you bring US Dollars to a bank or money exchange, they carefully sort through the money and then hand you back any bills with the slighest tear, fold, crinkle, anything. Along with your returned cash, they hand you Mongolian Tugrugs that are torn, taped, destroyed, and in all sorts of disarray. We find great pleasure in handing back the torn bills and requesting perfect ones. An eye for an eye…

Oh, I don’t have photos to go with all these odd little tid-bits, but photos make reading more fun, so I’m including some random ones just to give you little glimpses of Mongolia. In all of its quirkiness, it is quite a pretty place (once you get outside the city). That said, sometimes the city itself is quite pretty too. Mind you, looks can be deceiving as the Sail Building, as it’s called, is not functional due to a problem with the foundation (it sure does look pretty though).

Food…what do we eat? Well…CRAP. That’s not entirely true, but it does just about sum up how the food makes me feel. I’ve been eating lunch with co-workers recently, so we go to little Mongolian cafes here and there. Really it doesn’t matter which one you walk into because the food will be the same wherever you go. It’s all mutton, noodles or rice, and fat. Fat, fat, fat. You have the get the flavor somewhere.

At home we’ve done a pretty good job of finding some nutritious things to eat. Cabbage is everywhere, as are potatoes, carrots and onions. Other vegetables are growing a bit more scarce as it gets colder, but peppers and tomatoes are still around sometimes. Sweet potatoes are popping up and little pumpkins too.

The market behind our home is where we get most of our produce and meat. The produce there is much fresher than in stores, and the meat…well…the meat…you buy it in a room of meat. Women sit at little tables with massive hunks of animal in front of them. There’s all different kinds: sheep, goat, cow, sometimes pig, and always horse. Mongolians love horsemeat. We haven’t tried it yet, but I imagine at some point we will. Anyways, you walk up to the woman of your choosing, select a slab of meat and ask for whatever quantity you would like. We usually go for hagas kg, about a pound. She slices you a slab, weighs it (and is always right on the dot in terms of her slice and how much you asked for), and tosses it in a bag. You then bring it to the meat grinder room and pay a man 50 tugrugs (next to nothing) to send it through a grinder that has been running all day and you don’t want to ask if it is ever cleaned. That said, we haven’t gotten sick…yet.

Speaking of meat, here’s how they dry it in their gers. You can understand why they have horrible problems with food poisoning in the gers in summertime.

What else? The weather has grown a bit colder and it’s actually raining a bit outside right now. The rain feels more honest here than the sun does…somehow it fits in with the drab city. I’m not sure if the same holds true in the countryside…somehow I imagine it doesn’t.

As for the weekend we have little on the docket. We might venture back to the Black Market, a market that sells anything and everything but that is not, as the name suggests, a place for contraband. We went last weekend too to buy some things for our home. It’s pretty amazing…you can buy an entire get if you would like. The tricky bit though is that you cannot buy it all from one man. You buy each bit from a different person. That includes the chimney for your stove. Stoves do not come with chimneys, but that guy over there might be able to help.

Oh, one more funny bit. So this week I was traveling around to the FGPs (small clinics) in Bayanzurkh. We got to one, and a girl and her dad were waiting in the hall for their turn with the doctor. The girl – probably age 3 or so – stared, stared, stared at this weird white woman in her FGP, and then turned to her dad and said something. My interpreter instantly started laughing, and when I asked her what the girl said, she replied, “Daddy, that woman looks like Jesus!”

We got a good chuckle out of that one.

Off I go for now…here’s one more photo of a man driving his kid around the Square in a big remote control car. Sweet.