Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Shopping in the Big City

This past weekend I went into Ulaanbaatar to celebrate Thanksgiving. The Peace Corps staff members made turkey, and everyone brought food to share. It was a lot of fun! I thought you might be interested to know what I bought in this land of plenty (a quarter of the population of Mongolia lives in the capital, so it really is a pretty sizable city) after having been living the small-town life for three months.

Things Meghan bought in UB:

A weird-shaped eggplant
Gouda cheese
Peanut butter
A ger-shaped keychain
A camel-shaped magnet

A tin of sardines for my cat
A bright orange cat carrier

A copy of Harry Potter translated into Mongolian
A book of English idioms with Mongolian explanations

A hat with little fur pompoms on it
Lots of delicious restaurant food (including Indian, pizza, and Japanese), fancy cocktails, and a latte from a cafe every day I was there!

I also got to see the Peace Corps office, get hopelessly lost with friends, and spend a whole day trying and failing to buy an Internet modem. All in all, it was a great trip to the big city - but I'm definitely glad I live in my cozy small town!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Halloween Party

I promised to write about how my Halloween party went. I know, I know, it's almost Thanksgiving. But after Halloween there was the end of the semester, followed by a school break (which for me means an internet break). So better late than never, right?

The weeks leading up to Halloween were filled with, for me, Halloween-themed lesson plans, making decorations, stocking up on candy, planning games for the party, and supervising dance and skit rehearsals. The party was on Halloween itself, and was supposed to start at 6 o'clock. Of course, since we are in Mongolia, it actually started at 7:30. (The bigger the event, the greater the time discrepancy, in my experience.) The students' party was first, followed by the teachers' party.

As the students filed into the gym, my club members were stationed in the Hallway to jump out from behind doors and yell "Boo!" I, in my zombie get-up, got to join in on the scaring. We blasted really loud haunted house sounds from the speakers, and turned off all the lights. After the students stumbled into the gym, our announcers (two of my club students) explained the evenings program and introduced the performances.

First up were the dancers, who did an amazing "ghost dance" in black capes to a techno remix of the theme from Halloween. Then came the skit, which suffered from some technical difficulties. The students were a little bummed, because of the problems with the microphone and a few forgotten lines, but I think they did fine. Both groups performed at the second party (for teachers) as well, and those went off without a hitch.

The performances were followed by games. We saw which class could wrap a friend into a mummy with toilet paper the fastest, which class could win a silly spider relay race, and awarded prizes for best costume, fake pumpkin, and scary poster. Also, there was a scary story contest. I learned from the winning story that a surefire way to get rid of a ghost is to urinate. (No joke.) This was a story "from real life." (And very well written too!) Other highlights included a girl dressed as some sort of blood-covered sheep (winner!), Jack-o-Lanterns made out of peeled turnips, and a poster decorated with real human hair.

After much candy had been given away, the teachers came in (the club students really enjoyed hiding in the hallway and scaring the principal!) and we did the whole thing over again. This time we gave wine for prizes along with candy and danced in an awkward circle. (I've heard this is a feature at teachers parties, which I hope is true. It was hilarious.) My coworkers seemed to have a good time and I didn't get home until after midnight!

My Club Students
It was as good a Halloween as could be had anywhere, and I couldn't stop smiling all night. I think everyone had fun and learned a little something about American culture. Now I'll just have to figure out how to top it next year.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Halloween!

Happy Halloween!

The English teachers are throwing a party for the high school students this evening, with skits, a "ghost dance," games, costumes, and candy, candy, candy. This will be followed by an afterparty for all teachers and staff, with even more candy.

It will be awesome. I will take photos, and post an update about how it goes soon.

For now, here is a Halloween story I wrote for my students to turn into a skit. They made a car out of cardboard and scotch tape, and are working on their costumes now.


A Halloween Story

On Halloween a man was driving home late at night. It was very dark, and the man was all alone. He wanted to get home soon to eat his dinner, but on the way he saw a young woman. She was wearing only a white dress even though it was very cold outside.
"I should stop and give her a ride in my car," the man said. He stopped the car and opened the door. The young woman sat down. "Where are you going?" he asked her. She said nothing. Some time passed. "Are you lost?" the man said. Again, the young woman said nothing. She just looked at the man sadly. Suddenly, the woman disappeared!

"The man was so surprised he drove the car off the road. "A ghost!" he shouted. As he drove across the grass, he almost hit a man standing nearby. He stopped the car quickly and rolled down the window. "I'm sorry," the driver said. "I didn't see you!" The strange man came closer. The driver saw that his body was covered in bandages. He was not a man; he was a mummy!
The mummy reached for the driver and groaned. He was reaching for the driver's neck! Fortunately, a car is faster than a mummy. The driver drove away, steering the car back onto the road.

"I'm almost home now," he said, and drove as fast as the car could go. A bat swooped past his window, but he did not stop. A black cat jumped on top of the car, scratching with its claws and howling. Still the driver did not stop. He heard the mummy following him. He heard its horrible groan! He drove faster and faster.

Finally, the man came to his home. His wife had made dinner, and he sat down to eat. "You'll never believe what happened to me tonight!" he said to her. He took a big bite of his food.

But outside his home, all the monsters were coming. Here comes the bat; here comes the cat. Here comes the ghost girl in her white dress. And, finally, here comes the mummy, his bandaged hands outstretched!

Here come all the monsters, right up to the man's front door!

The End


(I know, the height of literary achievement. Speaking of literature, don't forget that National Novel Writing Month starts tomorrow!)

Monday, October 17, 2011


My Ger with the Top Covering Taken Off
 A couple of weekends ago my counterparts and hashaa family came together to get my ger ready for winter. The Mongolian translates to "warming up" one's ger. I hovered around trying to be helpful, more or less like the four-year-old that wants to help in the kitchen, is given a pot to bang a wooden spoon on, and told it's a very important job. Eventually they just laughed every time I asked what I could do to help, and sent me to make milk tea.

Winterization takes an afternoon of work. First, the top layer of fabric covering my ger was removed. Thick pieces of felt were brought out of storage, and my counterparts stitched them up (while I hovered nearby saying "I can sew! Honestly! We do that in America, too!") and they were piled on top of my ger. A new, heavier flap was attached to the top for covering my skylight when it rains and snows. One of the children who lives in my hashaa climbed up on top of my ger to tie it on. Finally, a little fence is built and filled with dirt, so the base of my ger is now packed in nice and snug.

Quentin Enjoying the New Dirt Around My Ger
It's amazing how much of a difference these few things make! My ger is noticeably warmer, heats up faster when I start a fire, and I no longer have to break through ice on top of my water jug in the morning like I was doing the week before we winterized. (Although in a month or two everything will be freezing, no matter how well winterized I am! Good thing my sleeping bag is nice and warm!) Also, the whole ger smells rather pleasantly like a sheep thanks to my extra felt. Very cozy!

While I may not have been able to help much with winterizing, I did succeed in making milk tea. No one drank it except my hashaa "grandmother," maybe because they knew I'd never made it before and didn't want to risk it, haha. But hashaa-grandma said it had "a nice taste," which is high praise, and she is undoubtedly a milk tea expert.

So, in apology for not having blogged in a while, here is a milk tea recipe for you:

Mongolian Milk Tea Recipe

First, take some plain black tea in tea bags. Boil water with a tea bag or two (depending on how much you're making) until it becomes tea-colored. Add salt. Add milk, stirring, until the tea is white. Bring back to a boil. Taste. It should taste salty; if not, add more salt. Take the tea bags out. Remove from heat and enjoy!

Monday, October 03, 2011

My Classes

In case you've forgotten, I am actually working here, and not just having fun drinking fermented mare's milk and hanging out in my snazzy ger. I actually teach 25 hours of class a week. (Not counting grading and lesson planning, of course!) Four of those hours are team teaching together with my counterparts (my school's English teachers), and some are devoted to English clubs (three of them!) and loosely defined "extracurricular activities."

I teach two speaking electives, for 7th and 9th grade respectively. These have no set curriculum, no textbooks, and essentially consist of me trying to come up with ways to trick my students into speaking English. Fortunately, they are an enthusiastic bunch and seem to like me despite my often being reduced to flailing my arms around to try to get them to understand directions in English.

I also teach a Concourse Preparation class for 11th grade students. The concourse is an important Mongolia-wide English subject test. This class consists of even more flailing as I try to explain test taking strategies in English and am usually met with (justifiably) blank stares. However, we are marching our way through practice tests and hopefully by the summer exam they will all get A's. (Or else.)

I teach three mixed-level adult classes, two for my school's teachers and one for local government workers. These classes are harder because the adults won't spend half an hour playing games like the twelve-year-old kids will, haha. Also in the adult category is my class with my fellow English teachers, where I am working with them to prepare them for the teacher's Olympics exam, a competitive Mongolia-wide English test complete with essays and grammar questions.

As for extra-curricular activities, so far I've organized a Spelling Bee. (In which two of my ninth-graders placed!) This month, we're working on planning and celebrating a Halloween Party, hopefully complete with a scary poster contest, carved watermelons (no pumpkins in Mongolia!), a haunted house, and a dance. So you can look forward to a blog post about that!

That leaves the English clubs! There are three of them, divided by age level. So far we've baked an apple pie (no cinnamon but still delicious), learned the lyrics to Kelly Clarkson's "Because of You" (student's request), and played a lot of relay-style games.

In conclusion, I would like to say that I actually really like my students. When I found out my job was "Secondary English Teacher" and that "Secondary" in Mongolia includes middle schoolers, I began wishing with all my might that I would only have older students. I was a little apprehensive when I found out that in addition to a couple of classes with the older students and adults, I would also be teaching 7th and 9th graders by myself. I mean, I remember what I was like in 7th grade. (Poor, poor Mr. Monforte.) I also remember what some of you were like in 7th grade. I imagined horrible scenarios of rioting students, yelling in English and being ignored, fights breaking out, things being set on fire, and paper airplanes being thrown.

While I can't say my students are quiet when I want them to be (or ever), or never throw things or hit each other, I can say they're a lot of fun and enthusiastic about learning English. They are also incredibly nice to me, and patient with my inability to understand them when they speak Mongolian at warp speed. This sort of linguistic weakness in a teacher is the sort of thing I totally would have exploited at their age, and I am always surprised when they don't band together against me. They're a good bunch.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

My Ger

Now that I have secured my very own ger, allow me to give you a tour.

The view from my front door shows the back half of my hashaa, or fenced-in family complex. I live next to my school principal's house, and her mother and brother also live in gers in the same fence. There are two guard dogs that are always tied up outside to scare off trespassers. After washing my laundry by hand in my tumpen, I hang it to dry on those fence posts you see. All ger doors face south.

This is my kitchen. I am super lucky to have a refrigerator and a rice cooker, not requirements by any means! As evidenced by the refrigerator, I have 24/7 electricity, another perk. All Peace Corps Volunteers are required to have electricity, but some only have it for a few hours a day.

This is my kitchen table. The chair without the TV on it is the one I sit in to eat and drink my coffee. (Thank goodness for coffee singles!) All of my cooking utensils were gifts from the teachers at my school, including the electric kettle, by which I am able to make coffee and tea, and which is therefore one of my prized possessions. The TV gets four or five Mongolian channels, and although I never turn it on, I probably should because it might be good language practice.

My wood stove is my means of keeping my ger warm and cooking meat and veggies. My current diet consists of vegetable soup with meat, potatoes, carrots, onions, and salt, or a stir fry of the same ingredients over rice cooked in my rice cooker. Yum. Once I've had a chance to scope out the stores in town I might be able to get more creative! As for heat, it's still pretty warm here, but I usually make a fire in the morning since it's starting to get cold at night. A wood fire lasts less than an hour unattended, and that's the only source of fuel here, so I'm glad I have my hardcore Peace Corps-issued sleeping bag for those long winter nights!

Then there's my bed, which is comfortable and has a nice stack of blankets and sheets and a rug on top. No pillow, though! Next to it is my water filter, which provides water I can actually drink.

This is my desk, where I write letters and type things like blog posts and study Mongolian. Above it is hanging a map of Mongolia, where I've marked the new sites of my friends from training, with a big star on my own new site! I also keep my photo album with pictures of family and friends from home right there. My closet has all of my clothes in it, predictably. It also has hooks for my coats and scarves and a shelf where I keep my books, Mongolian language resources, and teaching materials. 

Next to that is my dry sink. As you've probably worked out, I have no running water. The dry sink works by pouring water in the metal basin above the faucet, which then will run out in a stream due to gravity. The drain flows into a bucket under the sink, which I then empty out into a pit next to the outhouse as it gets full. Water comes from the well in the middle of town, but I haven't had to go fetch it myself yet; there are a few children who live in my hashaa who have that responsibility. Another stroke of luck!

Finally, there is the center of the ger. There are two beautifully painted posts holding the roof up, and a round window from which protrudes my stovepipe. When it rains, you have to take the stovepipe down, go outside, and pull the felt cover on top of the ger to cover the window.

And that's my ger!

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Swearing In

Swearing In

 It's been awhile since I've updated, and a lot has happened!

First things first, I left my training site on August 15 to head into the city for the end of training conference days. That Monday was an eventful day! We got the results of our language test back in the morning (I passed!), then were on pins and needles until the afternoon when site announcements were scheduled.

After a few sessions on community development and staying healthy that were really hard to pay attention to, all sixty-something of us walked through the city to the giant map in the park where site announcements were set to occur. We all stood around, nervous and excited, as each person was called one-by-one and told where they were going to be living and working for the next two years.

I was called in the middle, and led onto the map to stand in Uvurkhangai, an aimag (province) that is southwest of Ulaanbaatar. It is not in the Gobi, but it does border the Gobi, so camels aren't too far away even if none live in my town! Once I knew my aimag, I was given a packet with all the information about my town, job, and housing.

I am living in a ger! In fact, I am typing this blog post in my ger right now. :)

My Town
As for the rest of the information (yes, I flipped right to the housing section to see if "ger" was checked off before I read anything else!), my town is fairly small. The population is around 6,500 people and 30,000 yaks. I am the first Peace Corps Volunteer to be assigned here, and as far as I can tell, the only foreigner in town. As for the work information, I'll save that for another post about the first few days of school.

Back to site announcements: After I had skimmed the information in my packet, I started looking around to see where other people were placed. None of my training sitemates are in my aimag; in fact, there is a Volunteer from my training site in each of the farthest western, eastern, and southern aimags. Almost everyone was happy with their assignment and excited. And we all went out to celebrate, along with some current Volunteers who came into the city to welcome us to their aimags, at a dance club that night. The current Volunteers from Uvurkhangai even brought us candy!
Our Dance Costumes

The rest of the week went by really fast, with lots of sessions and meetings, including meeting our new supervisors (mine is very nice). In between all of this, there were four of us from my training site rehearsing our traditional Mongolian dance, set to be performed on Friday.

Friday morning, August 19, was Swearing In. We all got dressed up in our dels (traditional Mongolian clothes) that our host families had made us, took an oath, and walked across the stage to receive certificates. It was a little like a graduation ceremony, complete with slideshow! And we all had our pictures taken with the ambassador.

Me and My New Waterfall
Some trainees gave speeches in Mongolian, and then it was time for performances! There were several dances and songs performed by representatives from all of the training sites. I wore neon orange pants and remembered all the moves, and the audience clapped and cheered, so I'll call our performance a success!

After the ceremony, there was a reception with lots of tasty food, and then it was time to leave for site. Many tearful goodbyes later, I piled my suitcases, tumpen, and water filter into the back of my supervisor's jeep for our roadtrip to my new home.

Which is also the home of a waterfall; see the photographic evidence! I'm definitely one of the most beautiful parts of the country.