Monthly Archives: December 2010

Chinggis Christ, it’s Christmas!

Back to that little holiday I mentioned in the last post…Zul Sareen Bahyer…or зул сарын баяр as we have come to recognize it.

Merry Christmas from Mongolia! And as we are currently sandwiched between the two holidays, шинэ жилиин мэнд хүргэe too. I’ll leave you to figure that one out.

So Christmas in Mongolia. They don’t celebrate it, but they are absolutely fascinated by it. There are Christmas trees throughout the city, and Coca Cola Santas sprinkled here and there too. They refer to them as New Years trees which I think is particularly amusing. They also listen to Christmas music, but again, it’s New Years music. Mariah Carey’s All I want for Christmas is you? New Years music. Awesome.

Anyways, the packages had arrived from home, the Christmas grow-a-tree was in our big pot growing to 600 times its original size (as its packaging said it would), the Christmas lights were strung and the stockings were hung (by the crappy flat screen with care). We were ready! And it turns out so was the Orchlon School.

So Chris had been talking about a Christmas concert at his school that was originally scheduled for Christmas Eve. Well on the 23rd, the concert was rescheduled…to the 23rd. The foreign teachers were instructed that it was required for them to attend (much to their chagrin). I required no such convincing. A Christmas Concert in Mongolia? Is there any question? So yeah, we bundled ourselves up, wandered over to the school (which had a giant Christmas tree out front!), and headed to the show. We walked in the auditorium/cafeteria door to a room full of Mongolians as well as a small, candlelit table of white people in the corner. Our seats? Duh, with the whities in the corner. Those were the best seats too, not because of the giant speakers behind our heads contributing to early hearing loss, but rather because the table was covered with cookies, chocolates, and some weird waffle sandwich things (the filling of which might have been marshmallow?). Really. It was incredible. The students from the school sang and danced for a good hour and a half, all in English, all songs familiar to any school Christmas concert. Well maybe not any school Christmas concert. At one point Snoop Dogg let out a few f-bombs and a lot of bitches…I don’t think you would hear that at a Christmas concert at home. But anyways, it was wonderful and an incredibly thoughtful Christmas gift from Chris’s school to the foreign teachers (who at the end of the concert felt bad about complaining about their required attendance).

Christmas Eve I refused to work, as any good Kilpatrick would. Instead I met up with a friend for coffee, then Chris joined us for a beer and a burger (my first burger since arriving in UB…it wasn’t bad!), then another friend joined us for another beer, and then in carrying on good old family tradition, many others joined us and many more beers were drank. It was nice. Don’t get me wrong, it was no Mary Sue Christmas Eve, but as far as Christmas Eve goes in Mongolia, we had a fine celebration for ourselves and a lovely Christmas morning hangover to go with it.

Christmas morning marked the beginning of Bloody Merry Christmas. In a land of such quantities of vodka, you would think bloody marys would be a popular drink. They aren’t, but Chris is hoping to change that, one travel mug at a time:

Mmm…vodka before noon. What you can’t see is the collection of pickles and olives in the mug too. Grandma always said that if you’re going to drink, you need some food in your stomach too, and you can’t disobey Grandma.

Here’s one of Chris and Vincent, our Dutch VSO friend, enjoying a smaller version of the same beverage:

Anyways, following presents and some bloody marys, we made our way over to our friend’s apartment to meet up with the rest of the group for a big Christmas celebration.

Here’s Becky…she made the pumpkin soup (and it was delicious):

She also murdered the pumpkin.

And here’s Alex. He spent more money on bread and cheese than we spent on the turkey. I chalk that up as an excellent decision. Add wine to the equation and you’re really onto something.

And Jon, he’s sleeping before dinner. That’s a new tactic to combat the post-turkey dinner nap.

And wonderful Jo, who stuffed, cooked and carved the turkey:

And here’s the whole group of us, including the two Dutchies (Vincent and Dymphy) and the lone Aussie (Merryn) I didn’t have single photos of.

Following dinner is where things went downhill (or became really funny, depending on how you look at it). We had our own little Yankee Swap gift exchange. I got the best gift of all. Unfortunately the photos do not do my nose justice, as the blinking light does not show up.

Then the British folks fed us Christmas Pudding, which is really just a clever way to eat booze for dessert. So far as I could tell, it’s dried fruit soaked in wine and then covered with whipped cream that has been mixed with brandy to the point that you’re eating about a 4:1 ratio of brandy to whipped cream. It was boozy. It was also good.

And at long last, we assumed our “we’re stuffed” positions on the couch and spent the rest of the night sharing horrid stories and laughing until we cried.

All in all, Christmas was a great day. Lots of delicious food and wine, good company and hours upon hours of laughter. So far as Christmases away from home go, I’m not sure that this one can be beat. It wasn’t home, but it was pretty great nonetheless. We couldn’t have asked for much more.

Anyways, our Christmas festivities had not yet come to an end, as Sunday evening we had tickets to attend the Nutcracker. Really. The Nutcracker. In Mongolia. It was great. Boring as ballets usually are, but also entertaining and ridiculously novel to see Mongolians ballerina-ing their way around the stage wearing blonde wigs (because all white people have blonde hair). And that was that, a very Chinggis Christmas in Mongolia.

Onward to New Years we go!

Here’s a hoping this isn’t a train(ing) wreck

Apologies for the delay since my last post; we were busy celebrating this little holiday called Zul Sareen Bahyer. You people might refer to it as Christmas. We say to each their own.

Anyways, prior to Christmas week I ventured into unknown territory here in Mongolia: I held my first trainings at work, and dare I say, made progress! Really. The trainings were originally planned to happen in late October, but then we had other project workshops going on then, so I got delayed until November, but then we had other project workshops going on then too, so I got delayed again until December. That’s how things work in these parts. Then Wednesday morning (the morning before my trainings were to begin), my counterpart (the Mongolian woman I work most closely with) told me that the training room was booked for Friday morning (Day 2 of my training) for a training she was holding that had been rescheduled. It was a training for pregnant women, and she argued that the pregnant women couldn’t reschedule because they were pregnant and uncomfortable. I argued that I couldn’t reschedule because I do not speak Mongolian and my interpreter was going on vacation for two weeks the day after the training ended. Long story short, her argument won, so I wound up shortening Day 2 of my training and squeezing a whole day into a half day. So it goes.

Anyways, the workshop covered Volunteer Recruitment and Management, as I am tasked with the creation of a Community Health Volunteer Program for the District in which I work and live. This was the first step in getting that program rolling. Day 1 covered the basics of volunteers…who they are, what they do, who they aren’t, what they don’t do. Then we broke it down a little further into how volunteers could help in Bayanzurkh and what issues they could address. The morning session was great – really interactive, people were interested, we were learning and learning is fun! Then the afternoon hit. The post-lunch, God this is boring, afternoon. Even I felt it. It dragged. Who designed this course? Oh…it was me. Damnit. So yeah, learning point of the day: revise the afternoon session before offering the training again. On a positive note, the afternoon did involve the creation of a Role Description for the volunteer, so we left Day 1 with a tangible document to be used for the volunteer program.

As for Day 2, we started late and thus hurried a bit through what would have been the morning session. Turns out that was a good thing though, because (I hate to say it), like Day 1 afternoon, it was a bit b-o-r-i-n-g. Learning point #2. The afternoon was the saving grace, as the energy level returned once we started work on a training plan that the clinics will use for the volunteers. Each group was given a specific health topic to develop a training plan for; those training plans will ultimately be combined into one large training plan that the entire district will then use as the foundation for further training plans. They were interested, engaged, and kept asking for more time. I felt like a hero. They liked it, they really liked it!

So yeah, we started on a high note and ended on a high note which I suppose is preferable to the alternative. As for me, the trainer who had never really given a training before, I learned a lot. There are parts of the training that I will keep and use again; there are parts that will make their way straight to the recycle bin. I suppose that is the way it goes. It’s also one of the beauties of working in a context where progress takes time, work is slow, and patience abounds.

Alas, here are some photos of the wonderful participants. There were 25-26 of them from each sub-district of UB and a few NGOs we’re partnering with on the project (don’t they look enthralled?):

And here is one of my wonderful interpreter. She is unbelievable in terms of how quickly she can work. As the Mongolians speak, she is directly translating to me what they’re saying while at the same time listening to what’s coming from their mouths next. Sometimes I catch myself not listening to what she’s saying, but rather staring in awe as she continues to hear things in one language and spit them back out in another. It’s incredible. Not to mention she’s a wonderfully kind person, so that helps too.

Working through an interpreter is challenging on a number of levels. It’s really weird not being able to communicate with my colleagues on my own. At times it feels like I have reverted to infancy in that I listen to things being spoken right at me, and I have no idea what is being said. Along the same lines, it’s really, REALLY weird that I feel my brain learning new things not by being taught them, but simply be hearing them day in and day out. That’s a new experience for sure. So yeah, it’s not easy having to work through an interpreter, but I am thankful everyday that I have a great one to work with (not all volunteers can say that). I’m lucky for sure.

Anyways, the volunteer management training went well but can be improved for sure before it is offered again next year. In the meantime, onward I go to the next sets of trainings…they just keep multiplying from here!

It isn’t much, but it’s home…

So I realized that I have been a horribly rude hostess and not offered up a tour of our abode (aside from the orange couch of course). Given that we have just past the four month anniversary of our arrival in Mongolia, we’re long overdue. Here we go…

You’ve been in this room before, but now it looks a little more…lived-in shall we say? (please pardon the clutter)

It’s cozy and warm despite the fact that the heater over there by the flat screen (which displays human beings in oompa loompa colors – yep, she’s a fine piece of equipment) doesn’t seem to put out any heat. I would begin to worry, but it’s thirty below outside and we’re still warm in here, so it seems like we’re doing okay.

Onward to the “reading room,” if you will. Please take note that, yes, Mongolians use toilets much like our own. You can breathe a sigh of relief now (I know I did when I stepped into my first Mongolian bathroom).

That machine is the lower left corner is a twin tub washing machine. It ties clothes into the most impressive knots you have ever seen. It also needs to be prompted into each and every cycle from wash to rinse to – switch the clothes over to the other tub – spin. Despite it demanding more effort than a washing machine at home, it’s a washing machine, a glorious, glorious washing machine.

Out the reading room door, back into the kitchen we go:

It’s little, but we do okay with our two burner stove top. No oven to speak of which is a shame as far as I’m concerned, but so it goes. We have to rough it somehow. That tall silver thing on the counter is our water filter. The water doesn’t look terrible (usually) before you boil and filter it, but it’s amazing what is left behind in the filter. Floaters, metal, red stuff. Blech.

Onward we go, back through the living room (about three steps) and into the bedroom. Again, it’s little, but it’s all we need. That said, I sleep on the outside so I imagine Chris might have a different opinion about the amount of space that we need. Oh and they have really weird sheets here. When you buy a sheet set, it comes with a duvet cover and a flat sheet that is just big enough to cover the top of the mattress. Literally. Nothing to tuck, not even if you wanted. It took some fancy cutting/sewing upon arrival to finagle a functional sheet. Anyways, here you are:

You might have noticed that we are still in need of a laundry basket, and that we have a new friend. That’s penguin, and he’s a humidifier that we inherited from the land of migratory friends.

Anyways, before I show you to the door, I would like to show you to my cellphone which offers me temperature readings at various points in the day. It doesn’t matter that you (I imagine) cannot read Mongolian. You can all read numbers, and the numbers speak for themselves. Sometime in the last week it got COLD. Not cold like brr, it’s cold, cold like I show up at work with ice boogers (not icy boogers – actual ice chunks in my nose that feel like boogers until you blow your nose and really it’s just ice balls coming out). Here you are:

And here’s our door (the inner one). Thanks for visiting and sorry it took so long for us to invite you in.

Thanksgiving and The Mongolian Ryder Cup of Curling

Well, we did it…we made it through our first big holiday in Mongolia. Thanksgiving was wonderful – entirely not traditional – but wonderful all the same. We decided to enjoy a nice dinner, just the two of us, since we would not be able to spend the day with family, and for one reason or another most of our American friends were out of town. We also don’t have an oven, so even if we could have found a turkey, we would have had no place to cook it. Such is our plight.

Next to having a full-on, real Thanksgiving dinner with all the fixings, our second best option was to head downstairs to our favorite Indian restaurant (there were Indians at the first Thanksgiving after all…oh…wrong Indians? Oh well). So yeah, we had a nice strawberry infused vodka drink upstairs before we left. That’s one of the nice bits about having heaps of vodka everywhere you look. You can toss in into a pickle jar with some frozen strawberries, and soon enough the vodka is red and tastes a lot better than its former self. Add soda water and a squirt of squeeze lime, and you’ve got yourself a party. Here we are (a party of two):

Bottle of wine in hand, we wandered downstairs for a lovely dinner. It really was nice. The restaurant itself is super cozy and always just a little bit too warm on account of the tandoor oven they use, so it feels like you’re sitting in front of a fireplace on a cold winter day, even though really you’re just sitting in a hot restaurant in the middle of frigid Mongolia. They do a good job of making you forget that. And speaking of forgetting, we forgot to take pictures until the end of our meal, but you can judge for yourselves with a quick glance at our plates as to whether or not we enjoyed the food:

Following too much food, we met up with some friends for the return of the pub quiz. It has been gone for a while now since the British Pub that used to house it closed, but it was back for one night in a new location, so off we went. It rounded out Thanksgiving nicely…a walk in the cold did our full bellies some good, more beer made it feel just like a real holiday of overindulgence, and our glorious, glorious team enjoyed a glorious, glorious victory. So yeah…it was fun. And in true American fashion, we enjoyed a full day of laziness on the orange couch on Friday (no, we did not go shopping on Black Friday).

Saturday we were up early to meet some friends and head to Terelj, the National Park about an hour and a half from UB. Once there, we hiked to Bert’s Gers, the same place we stayed last time we went to Terelj (our first ger adventure way back in September). This time we took the bus, then a taxi, then walked the remaining few km through the snow to get to the gers. It was beautiful…snowy and peaceful and just amazing how many footprints made their way through the snowy woods. You don’t really see that at home.

Once there, we set out on a hike up the nearby mountain. It was kind of a hazy, foggy day, but the hike was nice nonetheless. Any outdoor activity outside the pollution of UB is nice.

After lunch and some warming up back at the ger, we headed out on our next adventure, small broom in hand. And our next adventure was?

The Mongolian Ryder Cup of Curling! All you need to create your very own Mongolian Ryder Cup of Curling is the following: three Europeans, three Americans, one small ger sweeping brush, one frozen river, 12 river stones, and a small bottle of vodka. And there you have it…

You might be wondering who took home the Mongolian Ryder Cup of Curling Trophy? Duh, the Americans. And our prize? It was vodka. More damn vodka. I’m not sure if that is a reward or a punishment.

Anyways, after curling we headed back to the ger for a celebratory beverage before dinner. Dinner was an absolute pile of pasta. It was so much food. Needless to say we retired to the ger with warm, full bellies and drooping eyes. The boys solved that problem pretty quickly with a moonlit return to the curling court (the result of which was America 2, Europe 0). The girls took advantage of a boy-less ger and hit the hay. It was a good night.

Sunday morning was another big meal, followed by a walk by the snowy river, and then a ride back to Nalaikh to catch a bus to UB. But how did we get to Nalaikh? Right, of course. Well the three intelligent ones in the group rode inside of the Dutch ger owner’s Japanese fire truck (newly imported to Mongolia), and the three, err, more adventurous ones took the more adventurous way home. Have a look at their before and after, and decide for yourselves just how enjoyable of a journey it was (did I mention that I had heat blasting on my feet the whole ride?):

Back in UB, we spent the last week recovering from our days out in the snow and cold. The pollution was pretty bad this week…it smells just like you’re sitting in the fireplace when you walk outside and looks like you’re stuck in pea soup fog. I’m pretty sure it isn’t healthy…at all. Work has been good though; it’s picking up and I’m getting into the swing, so things are good. This weekend we have a quiet, relaxing few days in UB…we need the rest. Next week marks 4 months away from the States. Part of me feels like I have been here forever, and the other part of me feels like we just left home yesterday. The really wacky bit is that 4 months is 1/6 of the way done…when it’s put that way, it seems like the time really will just fly by. We’ll see!

Anyways, I’ll leave you with a funny story. So this week, I had a note in my mailbox at VSO that a package for Chris and me was waiting at the Post Office. Usually they deliver the boxes straight to the VSO Office, so the note meant that the box was held up at customs for some reason. For what reason you never really know. Anyways, last time I had to go to the post office to pick up a package it was a nightmare in terms of me not speaking hardly any Mongolian and the post office lady trying to charge me an arm and a leg to retrieve my box of dried fruit and candy corn. This time, it was a man customs guy all dressed up in his official Mongolian Customs outfit. He had a package for me from Chris’s mom. The customs sheet didn’t look like it had anything on it that would make the box get held up at customs, but held up it was. So he brings me the box, tells me to open it, and behold:

She sent us pot. Not really, but you should have seen dude’s eyes light up when I opened the box and there was a giant bag of oregano sitting right there on top (“no really, I swear it’s oregano”). So yeah, he smelled the package, rifled around the rest of the contents, smelled the package again, and then looked at me and said, “En you way?” What is this? Good grief. Okay…I don’t know how to say “it’s not pot,” nor do I know how to say “It’s herbs de provence,” so I settle upon “it’s for soup…it’s food?” I must have looked convincing enough, because he then taped the box back together and off I went, giant bag of oregano in hand. Needless to say we got a big kick out of the package. And we will have nicely flavored soup for quite a while.

On that note, off I go. I hope everyone is happy and healthy at home. We’re just hanging out on our happy side of the globe, hacking up a little pollution. Not much to report.