Sunday, August 31, 2008

Mad Dash for School

The first day of school will start tomorrow. So ofcourse everything had been put off till the last week before the students arrive. All the teachers, construction workers, custodians, and anybody with a helping hand has been at the school for the last week or so making a mad dash to wash, clean, and move their rooms around. Going in to the school each morning, you can see a marked improvement... and sure enough, with each passing day, the school is almost ready for the students.

Tomorrow will be exciting. First time seeing the students and all. There is also the ceremonial welcoming introduction, followed by my speech in Mongolian and song to be performed with my counterparts. Oh boy, it will be fun.


Tuesday, August 26, 2008

You too can learn Mongolian

In order to gauge the effectiveness of our Language and Culture facilitators and our own ability to learn a new language, Peace Corps has Language Proficiency Interviews (LPIs) before Mid Center Days, and once more before we swear in as a volunteer.

The language learning program that the Peace Corps has is probably one of the best that I have ever seen. Using local teachers as facilitators, the Peace Corps Trainees gain invaluable language and cultural experiences. The other factor that is also important to note is that when you are forced to live in a new environment (Orkhon) with no language (Mongolian), it makes it necessary for you to pick up conversational and important phrases or else life can be tough.

After Mid Center Days, all PCTs were in the range of Novice Low, N Mid, and N High. I was tested as Novice High, which is the minimum requirement for language proficiency before you can head out to the field as a volunteer. After the Final Center Days and the second test, I am now an Intermediate Low. According to the Peace Corps language handbook, now I can do all of these things in Mongolian: introduce myself or someone else, initiate and close conversations appropriately, and can discuss simple topics with friends. Cooped up in my apt, I feel that my language is slipping a little bit now; I need to get out there and talk more.


Friday, August 22, 2008

Riots, Wrestling, and Monks

As promised, my new update. I will add more, but I think this entry will be enough for now. Enjoy!

Mid Center Days 7-5-2008

Back with the host family after 3 full days in Darkhan for Mid Center Days which was a nice break from the monotony of small town (soum) life, with the added benefit of seeing the other M19ers again. The bulk of the days were spent on training; cultural diversity, medical info, and our own specific sector. But the nights were ours, or so we thought…

As luck would have it, the week that we left for Darkhan happens to be the day after the 2008 Parliamentary elections, and results were starting to come in. As it was announced, riots started forming in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. In dispute were the 18 or so seats that could have went either way, which were mostly won by the MAXH (Mongolian Communist Party.) Bodies were flailing, stones were thrown, and fires started. The next day, the Mongolian president Inkhbayer declared a state of emergency and forcefully banned the sale of alcohol and created a curfew of 10:00 PM. Though the riots were isolated incidences in UB, we in Darkhan suffered the consequences too. Though there were no curfews, alcohol was banned in Darkhan, effectively killing the night life. Yeah, so three semi-dry days.

Not all was lost though; the fourth day in Darkhan was fun. Finally got on the courts again for basketball, and had a ginormous game of dodge ball with the trainers and Peace Corps staff. Basketball made my day, but I definitely felt the aftermath. My legs are so sore right now, kinda reminds me of the first day of cross-country practice. Tomorrow is Naadam.

Naadam: 7-8-2008

This past week, our soum celebrated the annual Naadam festival. It was a two day affair that brought out all 2,000 Orkhonites, from newborns to the oldest grandmothers. It was nice seeing everybody out and about.

Just some background on festival: Naadam is a sports competition commemorating the three manly sports of Mongolia; archery, wrestling, and horse racing. Out of the three sports, wrestling is probably the crowd favorite. There is a whole arena built the day before to accommodate all the necessary seats. The festival begins with an opening ceremony of songs and dances, and then immediately goes into the wrestling competition. Since our soum is small, there were 64 wrestlers allowed to enter. In larger Aimag centers and in UB, the number of wrestlers can reach up to 512 competitors. Out of the 64 wrestlers, 4 were Americans. Kevin, who is a PCV and teacher in the soum had his friend Chris, fellow M18er along for the ride. They had the full outfit, while Tom and I, M19ers that learned about Mongolian wrestling the day before with the help of our Language and Culture Facilitator was thrust into competition the very next day. I lasted longer than expected though, given the fact that I was sore as hell from the previous basketball/dodge ball session that we had in Darkhan. Out of the 4 wrestlers, Kevin with prior experience managed to muster a win, but was promptly demolished the very next round.

While we were able to wrestle, horse racing is strictly for the children. From what I know, our course was 26 km long, meandering through pastureland and hills. The winner was no older than 11 years old and he had the field beat by at least 30-40 seconds. The final manly sport is archery, probably the least competitive of the three. The set up: you have a bow and arrow and you try to shoot @ a target from a distance of 60 to 70 feet. It wasn’t that interesting to me.

But of greater interest were the hooshor stands. The fried meat in dough is the food of choice during Naadam. It also happens to be my favorite Mongolian food. Each delicious morsel of goodness was 300T, or about 27/28 cents. So you can imagine that I went to town that day. If there was a hooshor eating competition, I would stand a better chance of winning.

Monastery Trip: 7-20-2008

Probably one of the best days that I have had in Mongolia thus far, and no… it wasn’t because of the spiritual enlightenment. The trip started early in the morning, around 5 am when the PCTs, some of our family members, and our LCFs were sandwiched into 4 cars with each packing 8-10 people for the ride. The whole ride to the Amarbayasalant Monastery took close to 3 hours, but we could have made it there in 1 ½ hours if it wasn’t for unforeseen obstacles. From our town, we needed to take a dirt road to the “highway”, then after 20 or 30 minutes on a nice paved road, we were back on the bumpy dirt road. The ride for the most part was fun, you just have to think of it as a series of mini roller coasters.

Along the way, there were many pit stops, some necessary while others were just a drag. Our first real stop was for an Ovoo, the Buddhist shrine made from a pile of rocks high on a hill. It was necessary to pay our respects; grabbing three rocks and walking around the shrine three times, while throwing one rock each time around. The first rock is for the people that came before you, the second is for yourself, and the third is for those that will come after you. Oh, and it was perfectly fine to pop open a bottle of vodka @ 6 in the morning and having each person take a shot, as it is a matter of respect.

Other stops were not nearly as fun. Since the roads that we were traveling on were essentially made from dirt, grass, and rocks, when it rains, it makes for an interesting dilemma. Some of the cars got stuck on many occasions, and would only budge when extra man power in applied. Looking back, the car ride ordeal made the trip much more entertaining.

After making it to our destination, we decided to set up camp in a valley close to the monastery. We gathered wood and made fire. Had some breakfast which consisted of ham, bread, some vegetables, and downed it with some cold refreshing Hite (Korean) beers. The campsite was beautiful; a tiny freezing stream ran through the valley with wild flowers in full bloom, and the mountains were patched with evergreen trees.

After some breakfast, we headed out to the monastery. It was cool being there, but coming from Southeast Asia, monasteries are a “been there, done that” kinda deal to me. Though there were some cool stuff that I haven’t seen before like the prayer wheels which is a Tibetan tradition. Walking around the place, I felt as though it was all too touristy. There was no way I can gain a sense of spirituality in a place that had visitors outnumbering monks at least 5 to 1. Oh, and the monastery had a gift shop, go figure!

After spending an hour so doing the touristy stuff in the monastery, we headed back to the campsite for the beginning of the real fun. We busted out the Chinggis Khan vodka, the premium stuff in Mongolia which is 13-15 bucks a bottle, and commenced with out singing and dancing. The vodka & beer flowed and was only interrupted when the main course of Horhog was brought out. The sheep meat (bones and all) was prepared with hot river rocks as the main cooking agent. The aroma permeated the air, and we dug in. Meat, bone, fat and all… it was a delicious feast that was only rivaled by the amazing company.


Tuesday, August 19, 2008

I'm on Mongolian Time

I apologize once again for my lack of updates, but it has been hectic for the last 2 weeks. I've moved out of my host family/community, got sworn in as a Peace Corps volunteer a couple of days ago, and is now in Choibalsan to teach for the next two years.

I promise that the next time I post, it will be more info than you would ever want to read.