Monday, November 23, 2009

Season of Swine

For the past month or so Mongolia has been on total lock down because of the H1N1 virus. As many of us in this country are TEFL volunteers, we were essentially given a month long vacation. It started off with a week break with the announcement by the Health and Education Ministers, and then came another week, and then yet another two weeks.

The first week off was nice and all, a chance to relax and chill.... The second week ended with some boredom, and the third and fourth week had me swatting at flies like it was my job. Alas, we are back at work now. The older students (7th-9th) are back, and they will slowly bring in the younger ones in the coming week.

Thanksgiving is also coming up very very soon. The Dornod crew is heading out to UB to celebrate in style. Oh lordy, TURKEY!


Thursday, August 6, 2009

Summer Travels

So I lied... I'm still on my summer vacation. Hanging out in UB before my Mid Service Training because I don't want to take that 12-16 hour (9 of which is hell on wheels) bus ride back to Choibalsan. Since I have all of this free time, I'll just give all of you a brief description of my summer travels.

My memory is foggy so the dates will not be exact.

Middle July: Spent two weeks in Kharkhorin (Ancient Capital of Mongolia) with Kristen and other PCVs there. Finally got to see Erdene Zuu which is KK's prime tourist attraction. Cool and all, but the 100 or so stupas didn't really impress me. Coming from SE Asia, monasteries don't really put me in awe unless it is truly spectacular. As it is a heavy tourist season during the summer time, you can see foreigners coming in and out of the city everyday with their expensive cameras, back pack, and traveler's get up.

Hung out in Kristen's ger for the most part because it rained continously for almost two weeks. When we had a chance to sneak out, we walked to the mountain top and then went down to the river. The scenery was beautiful; a field of green, horses galloping and cows roaming with mountains in the backdrop and a river that carves through the land. It clears the mind and cheer the spirits when one is able to experience it.

End of July: Summer reunion of sort for some of the PCVs that trained in Orkhon. Tom, Leila, Alona, Rich, Kristen, and I made it out to our old stomping ground. The soum changed so much in one year! They now have a diner, two karaokes, and even streetlights during night time. The ammenities would have been useful had in been there for us last year.

Ben, another PCV from Zavkhan aimag stayed with me and my host family. He tagged along because he wanted to see Orkhon's 50th anniversary Naadam. Naadam is the Mongolian word for festival, but in this case it showcases the three manly sports of the country: Wrestling, Archery, and Horse Racing. The festival is one of my favorite holidays because there is also an abundance of khuushuur (fried meat enveloped in dough) and Khorhog (true Mongolian BBQ) for sale. Watching wrestling and eating khuushur during the festival is the quintessential Naadam experience.

After the two day affair, we just hung out by the river and had some beers and reminisced on good times.

Darkhan: On our way back to UB we stayed at Garrett's apartment for a couple of nights. City life means hot showers (which I hadn't had for a week or so). Once again, it was easy to see the marked changes in the city since one year last. There is a whole new section of town, new apartments going up and a Korean restaurant that is worthy of UB comparisons (It is very hard to find good food outside of UB). On one of those nights, we brought out the Weber grill and made cheeseburgers. Beers were on hand ofcourse, and thanks to Garrett's awesome TV reception, HBO movies!

Now: Just hanging out in UB for the last week. Nothing much to do at this point. Ran almost all my errands in the city. Planning on traveling to other sites and then coming back to UB for the inception ceremony for the new M20 PC volunteers.


Friday, July 3, 2009

On summer hiatus, see you in August with updates.


Monday, April 27, 2009

A piece for me, a piece for you!

Present day Mongolia is a very communal society, and this should come as no surprise given the history of its people. As nomadic herders for thousands of years, it was necessary for Mongolians to group together, work together, and share in the profits of their labor. This tribal mentality still lives on to this day though in a different form. As I am a school teacher, I will give you my accounts of the group versus the individual mentality in the classroom.

When taking tests, students almost view it as group work. Thus, cheating is a huge problem in the Mongolian educational system. As a secondary school teacher, I’ve witnessed a fair share of students looking over another student’s shoulder for the answer. And the student that is being cheated off won’t care that it’s happening, or for the most part will help the cheater in getting the correct answer. In my classroom I have three rules while taking a test: no talking, no looking at your neighbor, and absolutely no cheating. If they do any of the three no-no’s, I dock a point from their total score. Though effective, I still have to dock points off student’s tests because the stronger students are always helping out the weaker students. Though frustrating, it’s somewhat nice to see that the better student is willing to risk points off his test in helping another student that might not even be his/her friend.

This group outlook is also translated into regular classroom activities. When one of my 5th graders answers a question correctly, the other students would clap in unison of support. Every time this happens, it gives me a boost of energy while I am teaching and it makes my day that much better. Their willingness to support and contribute to the group cause can be best seen in the “token economy.” As a way to curb hooliganism, background noise, and general misbehavior in the classroom, I’ve implemented a “token economy” in my classroom. I have two jars, one marked ‘good’ with a smiley face and the other marked ‘bad’ with a sad face. When the students are ‘good’, I add a piece of candy to the ‘good’ jar, and when they are rowdy I take the candy from the ‘good’ jar and place it in the ‘bad’ jar. When the candy in the ‘good’ jar fills up to the number of students in the class, each student will be given a piece of candy. In this way, the whole group is responsible for their desired outcome. This method has been wondrous in keeping the students under control, but what was more surprising was the collectively effort of the students to contribute to the whole.

As a practice tool for my younger students, I play many games with them; bingo, hangman, around the world, mad dash, bang bang, etc. To the winners, I usually dole out candy as a prize. Some students would win multiple pieces of candy in one sitting. They would eat their first piece, and what came as a surprise to me was that all my students would give up their second, third, or fourth pieces that they have accumulated and put it in the ‘good’ jar to help reach their collective goal. Remember that they have won this as an individual, but they are willing to give up their pieces of candy so that the whole can profit. That my friends is something else!


Monday, April 20, 2009

Medals are for winners!

Entering any Mongolian household, you are bound to find medals proudly displayed as a centerpiece in the living room. From sports medals (chiefly volleyball), to dancing and singing medals, to the all important academic medals; Mongolians are obsessed with giving out and getting these marks of achievements. I don’t know if it’s a relic of the Soviet influenced past but competitions and the presentation of medals in general are always happening in one form or another.

This past weekend I was privileged (don’t know if that’s the correct word for it) enough to be a judge for the most important academic competition of the year, the annual Olympiad. I was an English judge, but there were competitions in all subjects ranging from Physics, Mathematics, Russian, and even an I.Q. test. This yearly contest is held across Mongolia around the same time in all of its different provinces. In Dornod aimag, each school is given a quota of 1 or 2 students per subject per grade. So the students that come in for the competitions are the best in their school. Students were not the only participants vying for these prestigious medals, teachers were also involved and were competing for bragging rights and maybe even pay raises.

On the morning of the competition, which was on a Saturday, a group of VSOs (British volunteers) and Peace Corps volunteers were ready at 8 AM to begin judging the English Olympiad. As this was our first Olympics, we had no idea what to expect. What we didn’t know was that we were in for the long haul. The master copy of the test came at 8:10 or so, the test was to begin at 9. There were three different versions, one for the 9th graders, 11th graders, and a teacher’s test. We looked through the test to find mistakes (the English tests are infamously known for errors) and were happy to find that there were only a few minor hiccups that can be easily corrected. As the clock draws closer to 9, we had one copy machine to share between all the different tests. The I.Q. people got in before us and made their copies, then the Physics tests were copied, and then it was finally our chance to make the 500 or so sheets of copies that we needed. As we were making copies, we had to also come up with a rubric for grading the speaking portion of the test since the creators of the exam did not have one for us to use. By the time we finished making all the copies, it was 10 or so and the participants were restless and anxious to get it under way.

The test was broken down into 3 portions: speaking, listening, and writing with the majority of the points given to writing portion because it included the all important essay. The writing was straightforward, the listening was a problem because the CD that was provided to us didn’t work, but was resolved with us reading the transcript, and the speaking was a challenge because we had 8 interviewers for 90 or so participants. After all the tests were collected, we had to correct all of them. We decided to mark everything except for the essay, which were to be done the next day. It was the best decision that we made because we were running out of fumes as it was closing on 6 o’clock by the time we were finished correcting the multiple choice section.

The next day, over mimosas and snacks we all convened again to make a rubric and collectively grade the essays. There were differences of opinions on how each essay was to be scored; some were hooked on the students’ ideas and creativity while others were strictly grading based on the question and answer. We started at 10 AM and ended at 4 PM. There were great essays that made us think, good essays that made us laugh, and deplorable essays that just made us cry and cringe.

The Olympiad is something else! A total mess in terms of organization and logistics (though it was not the fault of the local people because they were given the test just one hour before the test) this year, but I guess that is something to take from all of this. Next year we will be better prepared.


Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Hodgepodge Mongolia

What's new? pictures. It's a random assortment of pictures from International Woman's Day to Men's Day, and a little bit of everything else. Enjoy!



Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Tsaagan Sar

Tsaagan Sar is the mother of all Mongolian holidays. Transliterated as the White Month or the White Moon, it is the Mongolian Lunar New Year in accordance to its own calendar. This year it fell on the 25th of February and ran for three days til the 27th. On the first day of Tsaagan Sar, it is customary for people with close familial ties to visit each other’s house and pay respect and welcome each other to a new and more prosperous year. People from all over the country would make the journey home; those in UB would go back to the Aimag center (provincial capital), those in the Aimag centers would make the journey to the countryside. On the second day of Tsaagan Sar, friends and co-workers would visit each other, and the third day is a continuance of the second.

The week leading up to Tsaagan Sar is probably the busiest days in the Mongolian calendar. There is much preparation to be done, but since Mongolians generally have a laid back attitude, they usually wait til the last minute to do things. You can imagine the chaos that can ensue when hundreds of people in the market are all looking for the same things to buy. And if you are stupid enough to wait til the first day of Tsaagan Sar to buy goods, you are out of luck. Everything shuts down on the three days of Tsaagan Sar; government offices, schools, banks, grocery stores, markets, everything! If you don’t have food, count on visiting Mongolian families on the days ahead to fill that belly of yours.

With that being said, I will now walk you through my three days of Tsaagan Sar. The first day was on a Wednesday, and I was told to get ready by 10 AM to start the festivities since my school director had arranged Dure, the school secretary to help Kristen and I navigate through the customs and rituals of Tsaagan Sar. Our first stop was Oyunchimeg’s house, who is a teacher at the school and my next door neighbor. We were welcomed with the customary greetings (Since I’m lazy and since so many PCV’s have already written about the proper greetings of Tsaagan Sar, I will now link you to another website if you are interested in the full details.) We sat, ate, drank, and chat for a bit and then visited the next house. There, at my training manager’s house, whom I love dearly we were treated to a feast of enormous proportions. There were your staples of salad, ham and pickles, milk tea, sweet rice, meat, and vodka. But along side these dishes, she served up some sweet stir fry, delicious home made fruit juice, a whole sheep on a platter, and even sake. While waiting for the buuz (steamed dumplings) to cook, her daughter-in-law who was an English teacher at my school years ago and currently working in UB explained to Kristen and I some of the significant traditions of the holiday. After bidding our farewell, we were given our gifts (a phone card and key chain for me), we headed on to our next house. We followed Dure to her home which is a Mongolian ger. Had the same types of food, chat, drank vodka, a general good time with a hospitable family. Next we visited another teacher who lives in the Aimag center (7km from my house), rinse and repeat the same steps as the other houses… eat, drink, chat, and get gifts. The last house of the day was my director’s house. When we arrived at her home, there was a good company of 12 or so people there already. We performed the greetings, got ourselves seated, and prepared to eat and drink the night away. And as with any other Mongolian gatherings in groups, songs were sung and fun was had. My first day of Tsaagan Sar ended with Kristen and I passing out at 7 and waking up the next day to start all over again. This time visiting 7 houses; eating a lot more food, drank a lot more alcohol, and feeling a lot more tired the next day.


Monday, February 9, 2009

Don't Worry, I'm Still Alive

Sorry for the absence and irregularity of postings. Nothing new really from this side of the world. The weather is still cold, but surprisingly we have had sun shine and a lack of winds for the last 2 or 3 weeks. We have passed the coldest part of the Mongolian winter and much to my delight, it was not nearly as devastating as I thought it would be. The snow is beginning to melt, and I'm not falling on my ass every time I walk on dangerously un-shoveled ice.

Work is good as usual. Social life is good. I'm happy... And now, a list of things of interest because I'm too lazy to write coherent and thoughtful sentences anymore.

- 1 Week off in January: Elaine (Sukhbaatar PCV) and Lindsay came to the aimag. We ate out, cooked, watched innumerable episodes of "The Office." Good times!

- Teacher's Day: a 2 or 3 day celebration where students get to play the role of teacher, director, or administrator of the school and culminates in yet another drunken party (without the students).

- Life Skills Seminar: Alex and Travis (Sukhbaatar PCVs) came to Dornod with health specialists from PC. Had a seminar, took them out to get pizza and goboroo! In return, I got 110+ gigabytes of movies and tv shows! Life is sweet.

- Access: I've been administering an aimag-wide test for 8th graders that wants to join an exclusive English class that is taught by PCVs and Mongolian teachers at our aimag library. Started with 83 applications. Picked out the best 40 students judging by their grades, personal statement, and reccomendation. 40 students take a test, best 20 then goes on to an oral exam. Then from the 20, we pick 10 based on their test scores and financial burden.

Mongolia Observations:

- Mongolian made boots are really warm! best 40,000T that I've spent thus far.
- Mongolian students go to school on Saturdays. Why you ask? Extra classes, meet up with friends, what else is there to do?
- Mongolians love medals and certificates. Maybe a remnant of Soviet influence, but every formal event has a portion that is dedicated to the handing out of medals and awards.
- Mongolians love 80s and 90s music. Examples; Last Christmas, anything ABBA, Westlife... the list goes on.
- When gum is not being chewed, it is put into ears as a reserve for another time.
- Makeup is not only for girls.


Sunday, January 4, 2009

Shin Jiliin Bayariin Mend Hurgeye

Shin Jil: (noun) - A week long celebration in Mongolia that gives joy to all the tinsel manufacturers, vodka distillers, and George Michael's record company.

Car Trouble:

My Shin Jil (New Year) actually began the weekend before the appointed date. It was on a Saturday and boy was it a trip getting to the restaurant. After the school concert that featured a clown as an MC, Grandfather Winter and his Snow Girl, and a troupe of kindergartners dressed in panda, lion, and bear costumes, the teachers and I headed for the mikro (bus). At first there were 6 or 7 of us that were in the bus, which in a vehicle that is designed to fit 15 or 16 people is quite the luxury. As time passed, more and more teachers came, first a group of 3, and then 1 or 2 came to comfortably fill the seats. The engine started so I thought that we were making our way for the restaurant, boy was I wrong. For the next 30 or so minutes we drove from one apartment to the next picking up other groups of teachers. So they came and sat in 3s and 4s. Now there are at least 20 teachers meshed together and under the dreadfully cold circumstances it made for a much more toasty ride. After picking the teachers from the apartments and their homes, we should be on our way right? No, no, no… There are of course teachers still waiting at the school. We drove to the school, 1 teacher filed in, and then another, and another, and another. To make room, the four men in the back row each had a female teacher on his lap, me included. The other seats probably had to do the same in order to make room for all the teachers. So after all of this we finally made our way, driving along the bumpy, icy, and quite dangerous dirt road. When we made it to the paved road, the bus under tons of pressure gave way and broke down, which was no surprise to anybody there. We filed out of the bus one by one, and when I did a head count, there were 30+ people in the mikro, which is my personal record now. To complete the journey, we called for taxis and in a flash we were at the restaurant.

The school party was at a Chinese restaurant that was decked out with a Christmas tree (they don’t celebrate Christmas here), tinsel strands that are individually taped on to the ceilings, and booming renditions of “Last Christmas.” On the tables waiting for us were fruit bowls, salads, and bottles of vodka and juice to quench our thirst. Throughout the night we ate well, sang Mongolian songs, made speeches, presented gifts, and danced the night away. More bottles of vodka came out the woodwork as the night progressed, and like the vodka, the champagne was also flowing well that night. The party ended at 12 and we made our way back to our town. Once there, a group of teachers wanted to extend the party longer, they asked me to stay but as I was sick, my excuse worked and I was able to dodge a very dangerous bullet.

New Year with a Mongolian Family:

On the actual New Year’s Eve, I celebrated the night with Tumee (my teaching counterpart) and her family. She invited me over for hooshor, my favorite Mongolian dish. At that time I didn’t even realize that it was the day before the New Year. I brought over some beer, soda, and borsik (Mongolian sweet bread.) We ate, drank, and talked until 11:45 when the fireworks began bursting in the air. From our town, which is 7 kilometers away from the Aimag center, we saw the sky lit up with yellow, red, blue, and a variety of other colors and shapes. We also had our store of fireworks, so we joined in the celebration and lit the dark sky with a myriad of colors. After the pyrotechnics, we came back in for a typical Mongolian New Year celebration meal; buuz (steamed dumplings), cake, and champagne. It was a good end to a good night.

PCV and VSO parties:

The next day I went to the Aimag center to celebrate the New Year with PCVs, VSOs and a group of Mongolians. All of us were invited to Raj’s house, a health VSO member from India. The bachelor pad was bumping with music, and we celebrated once more with beer, vodka, champagne, and chocolate. Everybody had a great time, so much that we decided to do it again the next day at Jim and Julie’s house.

Jim and Julie had a beast of fish (at least 15lbs) that they didn’t know what to do with. That day I was staying over their place so I became the third host of the party. While J&J was away on errands, Julie had me bake apple bread. It was my first time baking, yikes! Julie knew this, so of course she left me unsupervised with a recipe book and all the ingredients for me to play around with. I peeled and then diced the apples, mixed the sugar, oil, lemon juice and all the other necessary items. Then I carefully poured out the flour, salt, and added 4 tbsp of baking powder in another bowl. If you are a baker, you would have caught my mistake already… yes, 4 tbsp of baking powder, ahahah. I thought that the tbsp scooper was the tsp, honest mistake since the damn thing was labeled. Luckily I hadn’t mixed and was able to scoop out the extra baking powder. Then I added the three mixes together and baked, desperately hoping that it wasn’t ruin by the mistake.

While the apple bread was in the oven, Jim and I worked on the ginormous fish. Jim gutted the beast and we decided to cut it into four portions. Each part would be seasoned differently. One of Jim’s two pieces was dedicated to curry fish, the other one was doused in butter and garlic, lemon juice and assortment of Italian spices. As for my part, I had one piece in a mixture of olive oil, salt, garlic salt, vegetable flakes, some Italian seasoning. After we took out the apple bread which was still un-tasted, we broiled the 3 portions. The last piece was left to the frying pan and with a little salt, garlic butter, and oil it was fried to perfection. While doing all of this, we were also preparing mashed potatoes and vegetables as a side, Jim the main chef, and I his sous chef. As the guests began to arrive we finished up the preparations and had them test out our experiment. They tasted, marveled, and then had seconds, thirds, and fourths. Tremendous triumph! Considering that this was the first time that we handled fish. Though Jim’s test was over, my apple bread was still under review. After gorging on fish and wine, the crowd moved on to dessert. Judy, another health VSO member was the first one to try my apple bread. She cut herself a piece; put it in her mouth, and from watching the expression on her face, 2 for 2! Twas a success. Not bad for a day of firsts. As the night rolled along, Julie got out her guitar and played for us. We sang, we drank, we had a good time! One of my favorite nights in Mongolia thus far.