Monthly Archives: June 2011

What I’m Struggling with Right Now…

So you might think that what I’m struggling with right now is being all by myself on this adventure and missing my Christopher. That’s part of it of course, but there’s more to it than that.

What I’m struggling with right now is giving a damn.

Yesterday I had one of those days. One of those days where I spent more time questioning what in the world I am doing here than I did learning from this foreign land I now call home. I don’t have any photos to go along with these sentiments, nor do I have many concrete examples to share, but I do have one.

So yesterday afternoon I walked to the VSO Office to pick up a package from my parents (wahoo!). It was easily the highlight of my day after spending the morning and early afternoon feeling disenchanted and a bit lost in Mongolia. Unfortunately, my highlight was short-lived.

I took my usual route home, behind the Sail Building, along Peace Avenue, to the Wrestling Palace and back to home sweet home. Peace Avenue is the main road through town…it’s six lanes wide (three going each direction) and has no center median. There are stop lights and crosswalks of course, but the traffic is so wild that you often see people crossing wherever they find an opening. I assume that is what was happening in this instance.

So I heard tires screeching on the road behind me, and, as you do, I turned to see what was happening. Just as my line of sight was behind me, I saw a man hitting the hood of a still moving car. I watched him fly through the air like a rag doll and land in an unconscious heap in front of the car. He was an old man. He carried a rice bag full of empty bottles that he would return for a meager bit of income. He lay motionless on the ground. I gasped at the sight and let out a subconscious Oh God! The driver stopped and got out of his car, I assume to help? And everyone else? Well, the rest of the pedestrians just kept on walking. And the rest of the cars just kept on driving. They didn’t even seem to slow down. It broke my heart.

Not speaking Mongolian and not being a healthcare professional, there was little I could do to help. I walked on, lost in thought.

The rice bag of bottles made one thing clear to me: this man was poor. He collected bottles in an effort to support someone: himself, his family, a habit, who knows? More than likely, this served as his job – his only job. More than likely he cannot afford the healthcare that he will surely need. And more than likely I witnessed one of those events that happen in a person’s life that marks a turning point (as in before I was hit by a car…). And again, it broke my heart.

The discrepancy in UB between the rich and the poor is massive. The rich can afford healthcare and often leave the country to seek adequate, clean, modern services. The poor? Well if this man was taken to a hospital that in any way resembles the one in which I work, bless his heart, he will need luck on his side. That’s assuming that he was taken to a hospital. I’m not sure how it works…he’s a bottle collector and there is some stigma attached to that…what do stigmas do in terms of access to healthcare? Again, I don’t know. And again, broken heart.

As for what caused the accident, well, pardon the language, but Mongolians drive like assholes. I don’t mean that in the sense of people in Massachusetts drive like assholes. No, these folks make Massachusetts drivers look like saints. Absolute saints.

So yeah. I don’t know anything else about what happened after I walked on, but I do know that watching a poor old man get hit by a car for no reason at all (the other lanes were empty, the car was driving way too fast, the usual) makes it really hard to give a damn.

It’s the icing on the cake right now I suppose. We’re finishing up our next set of health volunteer trainings and have had very little support from our Mongolian counterparts on this set. It’s tourist season too, so that means a lot more whities roaming the streets, which in turn means more stupid comments or actions towards the rest of us (it’s a shame there is no way to distinguish between the we live here crowd and the we’re here for two weeks crowd). Yesterday a microbus drove past me on a side street and someone sitting by the window either shot their water gun at me or spit at me…either way I wound up with an ear full of water (I smelled it…it didn’t smell…for my sanity, I assume it was water).

Yesterday was a stellar day.

Right, so I know that I will regain my giving a damn because I always have in the past. It’s just that when you watch a poor old man get hit by some idiot driving their shitty white sedan with blacked out windows way too fast down a busy street, it makes it really hard to give a damn about much else.

Progress, is that you?

Wahoo, our first batch of Community Health Volunteers are trained, inducted and adorned with their new uniforms! They’re ready to take on all the health issues of Bayanzurkh District, which is to say they are in over their heads as there are more health issues than one can count (oh dear, I’m not sure they knew what they were in for when they signed up for this).

But let’s backtrack…

So in April and May we recruited 134 CHVs. Those 134 individuals then attended training at their local clinic to learn about the facility, meet the staff, learn to take blood pressure, all that. Come the beginning of June, those trainings ended (for the most part), and the CHVs were ready for the next part of their training: a six-day course led by a whole slew of people including healthcare professionals from the District Health Unit, me, Jess and Jo (all VSO). Jess’s counterpart arranged the trainings in a ladder-type schedule so that they took place in three different venues but were off by one day in each venue (Day one of training took place Thurs, Fri, Sat of one week all at different venues, and the following 5 days fell in line behind). It seemed like a fairly simply way to train a lot of people in a short amount of time. And it was. Except that Mongolians do not like planning – not one bit – so needless to say Jess, Jo and I had our hands full of the logistics and organization. But we did it (we had to!). In the first group about 75, almost 50 attended enough days to be considered fully trained (read: they only missed two days at most). In terms of Mongolian standards, that’s pretty good.

Have a look:

Learning how to care for a baby:

Jess knows how to work the crowd (giving trainings is fun!):

Our littlest CHV (best to get them early when they’re really impressionable):

And then there was this guy, “sleeping” outside ALL DAY on our first day of training. It was an odd juxtaposition to offer a health training while right outside your window there lies a man passed out from alcohol for literally the entire day (he did shift positions a few times so at least we knew he wasn’t dead):

It’s unfortunate that he chose to pull that stunt on the introduction day of training and not the alcohol awareness day. He would have made a good living model. But anyways.

So following the trainings we scheduled our CHV Induction Ceremony. And by scheduled I mean we pushed and pushed and pushed for our Mongolian counterparts to book a venue, schedule some activities, you know, plan the ceremony, but they simply didn’t want to. Not until the morning of the ceremony of course.

Right, so the day of the event, our manager calls us into her office to inform us that the City Health Department has mandated that each district hold some certain meeting at 2pm on Wednesday, June 15th. And when is our ceremony scheduled? Duh, at 2pm on Wednesday, June 15th.

But fear not, we can hold them both at the same time!

“What a brilliant plan!” they think.

“We can see this going horribly wrong already,” we think.

Ho hum. So yeah, it turned into a bit of a mess, complete with a hail storm and power cut, but all in all the CHVs were happy (once the speeches ended). They received their uniforms, equipment bags and certificates (Mongolians love certificates – and they must be stamped in order to be official).

And here we have them, the Health Promotion Heroes (aka Community Health Volunteers):

This one is with a few of the Social Workers we work with:

CHVs again:

Please note that I am a GIANT. I mean, I’m not simply tall; I am massive. It’s funny. The woman next to me in this next shot actually requested that we take a photo together (just us, she insisted as she pushed the others out of the way) because I’m not sure she had ever met another woman as tall as her. The photo came out a bit blurry, but it was still pretty great.

And one final one of me, Altai, and Saruul. Altai and Saruul are two of our wonderful interpreters without which we would accomplish nothing. We’re in the back of the ambulance on our way back from the ceremony.

Now we’re back at it – trainings begin again on Wednesday. We’ll repeat the same six-day training for another three groups, follow it up with an Induction Ceremony, and then somehow we manage and motivate these people. We’ll figure it out…or at least we better!

You Win Some, You Lose Some…

So during the Induction Training for our Community Health Volunteers, we asked the volunteers to design a health promotion material that would be entered into a contest with the other volunteers’ designs. Most of them did a really great job; we were quite impressed with what they came up with! Some of them…well…it seems that perhaps something was lost in translation?

Talking Twin Tub and Water Filter

So one of the oddest parts about being in Mongolia these days is just how normal my life feels here. Parts of my routine should feel weird – really weird – but they just don’t. Not anymore.

Two of the biggest ones that come to mind are the twin tub and the water filter. When we arrived last August, I can remember hearing people talk about their “twin tub” and what a nightmare it was. Not wanting to sound naive, of course I responded with a casual uh huh, and the conversation moved along. And now here I am, about to tell you about the twin tub. While I wouldn’t call it a nightmare (it washes my clothes after all), it has surely given me a new appreciation for any sort of washing machine not called a twin tub.

Have a look:

The tub on the top is the wash and rinse area; the one on the bottom takes care of the spin cycle. Sounds easy enough. But this is the twin tub we’re talking about.

So before your clothes even hit the tub, you must fill said tub using a crappy plastic tube that connects (and on a good day stays connected) to the shower hose. The tub is then filled, the machine plugged in (on the other side of the bathroom) and away we go; we’re doing the wash!

Just don’t trip on the cord…

So yeah, a wash and two rinses later (all of that is done manually – you fill the tub, empty it, fill it, empty it…you get it), you are left with clean clothes that are tied in a magnificent knot.

I am holding the clothes from the top – you can’t see my hand – but they are ALL connected. By grabbing a single shirt, more often than not you can shift the entire load from the wash/rinse tub to the spin tub. It’s that simple.

But it does horrid things to your clothes. You should see the shape of some of our t-shirts…they’re stretched into the most awkward oblong shapes. That said, it’s great if you have a shirt that is a little too small – it’ll surely come out a size or two bigger than it went in.

Ahh, the twin tub. Love it or hate it, it’s better than hand washing!

But enough about that, let’s talk about the British Berkefeld. What in the world is a British Berkefeld, you might ask? It’s our trusty water filter of course, and when you have a glimpse inside, you quickly realize that it’s necessary.

But first a tour:

There she is in all her glory. The top part contains the filters, and that is where you put your water (after it has been boiled of course – which happens every morning in our case). The bottom is the reservoir – that’s where the boiled, filtered water stays until we need it.

Just this week I replaced the candles (what the filters are called):

Gross, right? That set of candles served us since September. You can clean them by scrubbing away all of the sediment – which we do about every 3-4 weeks – but at some point you reach the point of no return, and it’s time for a new batch. And the new ones?

Right. They look quite different from the old ones to say the least.

So what is it that is in our water? Well, it’s a little bit of everything…and a lot of lead…which, of course, is why the British Berkefeld is our trusty companion during our time in Mongolia.

They sure do make a dynamic duo, the twin tub and the water filter.

Summer Conferencing and a Lonely UB

I’m not sure where the time has gone since I last wrote, but it seems to have been a while (aside from the desk drawer of millions, of course).

Anyways, the beginning of this week marked two events in our lives in Mongolia: Chris took off Monday morning for his turn in the States (he won’t return until June 30th!), and I ventured out into the countryside for our VSO Summer Conference.

The conference couldn’t have come at a better time, not only because Chris had just left, but also because we have been quite busy with our CHV trainings recently, so an escape to the countryside was much needed. The meetings consisted of all kinds of VSO talk, some helpful, some not, but the real beauty of our time away was the countryside itself.

Living in UB, it’s easy to forget that there is a magnificent, untouched land out there…vast, empty, and – at long last – green. A reminder from time to time is necessary and invariably reminds me that Mongolia is beautiful, despite the concrete dust bowl that is Ulaanbaatar.

We stayed in beautiful wooden gers…

Lulled about in the grass…

And I finally got to go running!

The first night after our meetings ended, I went out for a jog in which I got chased by the same dog on my way out and back, got waved at by the locals, and helped a herder herd his animals (my help was unsolicited though I don’t think it was unappreciated…or at least I hope it wasn’t!). It was an hour of bliss despite the burning lungs and the chasing dog. It was peaceful, pristine, and joyous. It was what running is to me at home: an outlet of relaxation. And I loved it.

Wednesday evening we returned to the city, stinky and tired but content too. Thursday and Friday were busy with trainings (I’ll write about those later) and settling into a quiet apartment for one. It’s weird being here alone…quite lonely of course…but it’s okay. I’m rather busy for the whole month of June with the trainings I keep mentioning as well as reporting and budgeting for the up-coming quarter. Time will go quickly I am sure, as it always does, and before I know it Chris will be back, and I will return to my perch on the orange couch.

That is one odd detail since Chris left: for some reason I have not sat on the orange couch. Perhaps it is because our cable is not working right now, or perhaps it is because it’s a big couch for one person…but either way I haven’t sat there. Weird…

Just an Average Desk Drawer…

Aside from the fact that it contains my millions.

That’s right. In my desk drawer of late I keep two million tugrugs. That’s about $1600, and the vast majority of it is in denominations equivalent to having about $1000 worth of bills valuing 75 cents each.


Well, because we’re training our Health Volunteers, and they receive lunch money for each training day attended. When you’re training over a hundred volunteers plus facilitators and all of them attend six days of trainings, that’s a lot of lunch money.

And all of it is stored in my desk drawer.

But at least the drawer locks?