Friday, June 22, 2007

Along the Ider River gers were scattered in threes and fours like dirty white beads hung on a blue thread. We sat four in the backseat of a tiny Korean Excel struggling across the boulders in the road and charging through narrow streams. Our driver, a man like a preschool sculpture, a potato body with toothpicks stuck into it for legs, stopped here and there trying to locate the family we would live with for the next two days. Gathering a bit of information from each person he asked, he’d return to the car with his too much body and rattle the car a bit further down the road.
We stopped finally in a camp of four gers and waited for our hosts to come out and hold down the dogs. With each dog safely pinned to the earth we got out and stretched our crumpled legs. We were with one of my students, Nyamtseveen, who was bringing her nephew to his grandparents to complete his haircutting ceremony. Three of my friends and I were there to ride horses, play frisbee, and eat yogurt.
We arrived in the late afternoon and spent the evening throwing the frisbee bright orange against the green hillsides. Inside the ger we were welcome to all the Mongolian dairy products we could eat while the herders were out bringing the animals back in. These people are still living the traditional Mongolian lifestyle, living off their herds and moving their home three or four times a year. With the goats and sheep bleating outside we read our books under the solar powered bulb. And when it was time to sleep, afraid I’d be too cold as usual, the man of the house covered me in his deel (the long, heavy traditional robe Mongolians wear) and tucked it under my body. I slept poorly in my jeans and woke up every time the dogs picked fights with each other in the night.
The next day, we hiked and walked down the hillside in pine tree woods where the grass was thick and heavy with wildflowers. In the afternoon we prepared for the boy’s haircutting ceremony. On the table with the candy dish were dried fruits, bowls of milk tea, and of course, bottles of vodka. I knew the rest of the day would be a rough one. So it was.
We passed the scissors and cut hair. The boy ran around in his deel, king of the castle, receiving a gift with each cut lock of hair. The man passed the vodka shots and we drank the customary three drinks. We sang. And when it was your turn to sing, you drank. For a bit, it seemed things would stay in hand. The man had a lot to say. He talked about religion. My Mongolian is good enough to know that he was talking about roads and religion and that it didn’t matter to him what religion anyone practiced. My friend, whose Mongolian is very strong, explained the man was saying that he’s Buddhist, but it didn’t matter if we were Christian or Muslim or anything else, because all religions are just different roads to the same destination. We agreed and I loved that. It makes me sad to think about home.. So many people in America think they have things exactly right, are terrified to share the beautiful lives and ideas of other people.
Soon we left the ger with the frisbee to avoid the circling vodka cup, although they continued adamantly to call us back in to have just one more. My stomach was a mess, now full of yogurt, soup, and vodka, and I lay down on the felt mat to nurse it just in time for Nyamtseveen to tell me that we must go visit another of my students who lived nearby. Since I couldn’t say no, I struggled up, joined the driver, Nyamtseveen, an old man, and a child in the rattletrap car. I struggled, successfully in the end, to keep my stomach and head together. I told Nyamtseveen that she must tell the people in the next house that I would not eat, no vodka, and that I could have only a little milk tea.
The thing I’m still at odds with in this country is that after explaining to the next family that I was uncomfortably full, had had too much vodka, and was on the verge of being sick, they still made me eat and drink. It’s not ok to eat and drink on your own terms here. Had I not had a bit to eat, or touched the vodka to my lips, they would have been very much insulted by me. I had a similar problem at yet another student’s place on the way to where we were staying. We stopped for tea and she asked if I would stay with her family instead of going with my friends as I had planned. I explained why I would not stay there and told her I was sorry. “Sorry, bish,” she said back. Not translated literally, “Sorry, my ass.”
People are hard to please, and I occasionally end up offending someone. I represented well in this case, though. I ate a little, touched the rank vodka to my lips, played volleyball, and lost a game of chess to the father. He had an amazing scar that divided his face in two from top to bottom, like puzzle pieces not quite jointed to fit one another. Later, Nyamtseveen told me that while repairing a car four years ago, an axe caught him in the face. Clearly this makes no sense, but it was the only explanation I got. My stomach was finally settling when we got in the car. Back in the home ger I positioned myself on the floor and didn’t get up until morning.
At ten our bags were in the trunk with the meat from the sheep they slaughtered the previous afternoon. Half way home on the washboarded road, we got a flat. All of the bags, meat, and milk had to come out and we piled them on the roadside. We watched the driver spend an hour swapping out the tire’s innertube, rather than changing the tire, and knowing that a question would neither be answered, nor speed things along, we sat on our bags and gathered the dust of passing cars. Minutes down the road, the tire blew again, and we unloaded and again sat without a word next to a dry riverbed. Soon a car joined us, gave us their spare, and we traveled together down the road. I was in the new car which, after a few short kilometers, blew one of it’s own tires. After more tire swapping, and an innertube repair, we got back on the road and made town by evening. I hoisted my bags out of the trunk one more time and walked home in my coat of dust.

Days are long now, the way they were when I arrived in Mongolia a year ago. The sun rises early and challenges me to stay in bed. For a few hours I struggle to stay asleep in the red room behind my eyelids. Days are long and not much to do with them. I stand on my balcony next to the remains of my woodpile. Enough wood there to remind me of the lingering cold that left snow on the mountains just a few nights ago and the cold that will sneak back in just a few months.
A year ago, I’d look down from the balcony and everything that happened below me in the courtyard was a puzzle. Now I count on the daily arrival of the donkeycart trash man and the nonsense he shouts through his bullhorn. The women in their summer house clothes – the rubber slippers, sweatpants pulled up high on their stomachs, and wornout tank tops – trailing out the apartment entrances with buckets of toilet paper and plastic bags full of potato peels and candy wrappers. Every morning the milkladies squatting on their heels next to dented metal containers and shouting their cadence up into the windows, “Soo avaarai, soo avaarai, soo avaarai.” Buy milk, buy milk, buy milk. A few of the same women join them and buy their milk by the liter, filling their own metal containers or empty beer and pop bottles
Last week, hanging out at my place with L, she sat up and asked me if I smelled burning hair. I did, and she ran around my house checking my outlets, my electric stovetop, and ended up on the balcony. Below, a man hunched over the severed head of a goat, blow torching it for the thin strips of meat that lay beneath the scorched skin. This was enough to look at for a moment, curse the smell, and return to what we were doing.
That’s what I do now. Notice the strange and return to what I was doing. Notice the drunk passed out in the middle of the market, keep walking to school. Notice a dead wolf strapped to the hood of a truck, go buy my vegetables. Notice a group of donkeys trotting down main street, back to Walt Whitman. Third flat tire in an hour, return to my patch of singed grass. I’m not surprised anymore, because when you’re at home, very little surprising happens.
It’s taken a while, but I’m home here. This dumpy Soviet apartment of the chipped paint and right angles. The condiments piled on the window sill. The underwear drying on the radiator. The hissing, leaky toilet and the furious bees trapped between the doubled window panes.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

My school was on break during January, so when most of my sitemates were headed into the city en route to SE Asia, I decided to join them and to visit my friend Luke at his work site in the Gobi Desert. Since the business was for pleasure, there was no free plane ticket on Peace Corps’s dime. It would all have to be local transportation at my expense. These “pleasure” trips are something I now realize I won’t do more than a couple times a year.
Luke’s site is a seven hour bus ride away from UB on relatively smooth roads and paths. Even so, the trip to his place was not a treat. We drew two of the worst seats on the bus. We sat in the middle of the long bench in front that faces the back of the bus. On these trips you find yourself getting mighty cozy with the people you’re sitting next to. I didn’t mind Luke’s arm around my shoulder for most of the drive and when I needed to lean forward, his knee was the perfect place to rest my hand. I didn’t feel the man-love coming from the old guy on my right. He was fat, not like a water balloon, but like a sandbag. He sat there in all his meatiness with his legs spread and his arms piled on top of his spherical paunch. The whole time crushing me against a metal rail on one side and Luke on the other.
Seems that having a person in the car to complain to makes these trips infinitely more tolerable. Saying “this sucks”, and being understood is a relief. Hearing “I’m miserable, too”, brings comfort. When there’s no one to bellyache to, and no one to share your discomfort, things suddenly become far less tolerable. A few days later, I left Luke’s and soon made the trip back out west to my work site. This time I was the only American in the car. Among the many awful things about this trip, the worst was that there was no one to tell how awful I felt, where I hurt, or how crazy I was going.
The first night they let me sit up front for a few hours because when they asked if I was cold I said, “Yes, I’m cold. My feet are freezing.” It’s something I’ve learned to say well in Mongolian. I felt awkward taking the warmest seat in the car, but figured I deserved it for a little while. The driver told me our car would leave the black market in UB at 3 o’clock, so that’s when I went to meet him. At 8 o’clock, when we actually left, my feet were already frozen through my fur-lined Mongolian boots and two pairs of socks.
While I waited restlessly those several hours for the car to move I also watched the driver’s passenger tally rise from the agreed upon ten, to eighteen by the time we left the city. The car we were in was a Russian microbus, the most common form of countryside transportation in Mongolia. It looks a lot like a cargo van, but perches up higher on it’s wheels. In the backseat I sat with four other adults and a child who often laid across us. On the middle seats, which face each other, were four adults apiece and one more kid. In the posh front seat were the driver, his wife (replaced by me for the last few hours of the first night), and his kid.
When the car finally moved and I thought we were beginning the long journey back west, we proceeded to run around one of UB’s ger districts for two hours doing mysterious errands. People were picked up and dropped off, goods were exchanged, goodbyes were said. This is all in the normal course of things, I know. These folks probably get into the city only once or twice a year and there are lots of things to be done, but I couldn’t step outside my American perspective on this one – If you have something to do, do it, but not on my time. I’m cold and tired and if we stop at one more ger I’m gonna shout at someone.– At around 10 we finally got on the road and I slept fitfully until we made our first food stop a few hours later.
We got out of the car circus-clown style, one after another for minutes until the last cramped legs hit the ground. The drivers mostly stop at the same places, so the little restaurants are open all hours of the night. I can handle most Mongolian food pretty well, but road food it is not. You have your choice of meat, lots of it, cooked this or that way, with more or less fat, and rice and pickles on the side. The food’s heavy enough to put me to sleep, but soon I start filling with a malodorous gas, and that is not delightful, not good for anyone.
I woke up the first morning, warm in the front seat. We stopped on the path for a bathroom break. Men just find a spot and take care of business. (As a side note, that goes for anytime. It’s not uncommon for me to look out my window and see a guy peeing on the corner of the next building. Broad daylight, people walking by.) Women use their long coats or dells to cover themselves up. When everyone was through, I took my place in the back again and we jockeyed against each other for position. It’s not a competition. We’re all on the same team. Everyone’s trying to give each other a little space here, a place to lean there. But, no one ends up happy or comfortable. No matter how uncomfortable, it was always a good moment when the car started moving again.
That’s the rest of the trip. Sleep, food, bathroom, stop for a girl to puke, and repeat until your soul is ground to a fine, grey powder. Forty hours after I got into the car at the black market in UB, I got out in front of my apartment. I b-lined up the stairs, put down my bags, undressed, got in my sleeping bag and put on a movie. I didn’t move for hours. I knew the drive was rough on me when I nearly started crying repeatedly while watching Grey’s Anatomy. I couldn’t bear watching people cling to life. And all I wanted was for Dr. Grey and Dr. McDreamy to get together dammit and stop playing with my emotions. Finally, I slept for hours with the feeling that I was moving slowly down a washboarded path crushed against strangers.

Monday, February 05, 2007

I need two hands and a foot to count the number of years it’s been since I’ve gone sledding. It was the thing to do in winter, really the only thing to do, growing up in rural Iowa. All the kids from the neighborhood, around ten of us, would gather on the street in our garish, reflective snow suits, boots, facemasks. And when we were all accounted for, ten neon astronauts would plod across town to Cemetery Hill, each one dragging their sled behind them on a string -- there were the generic, red plastic two seaters, dented metal saucers, runners that had been used by parents, the toboggan, and for the daring, ill-conceived snowboards with no feet holders.

Cemetery Hill is the only decent hill in Dows. From the top, I could view most of the small town and miles of snow covered farm land out to the interstate. I can’t imagine how we spent so many hours going up and down that hill. What I recall as a blistering dash down the slope, with the skin of my face pulled tightly back and a cloud of snow rising behind me, could really only have been a five second scrape down the bunniest of bunny hills, and that with a running start.

My friends and I in Mongolia met in exactly the same way the neighborhood kids used to meet. When the sixth swaddled one of us came through my door we headed out on our journey to the sledding hill. It’s a few miles out there. The river, steaming in the cold, was surprisingly not frozen at points. Many people haul their water from the river, so places where they’ve broken through, but left alone for a while, are covered by only a thin bandage of ice. Jess and Kelsey both busted through and got their feet wet the first time we went out. And David, who lived his whole life in L.A. and is experiencing his first winters in Mongolia, shuffled across the river, frozen with each creak and crack of the ice.

After the river, there’s a short scramble up a hillside, then a walk to the spot where the sled guy’s place is. As far as I know, there’s only one kind of sled in Mongolia. It’s welded out of pipes and scrap metal with a piece of wood wired to the top. It’s puzzling to behold, uncomfortable to sit on, but seemingly sturdy. Dragging these junkyard contraptions up the mountain was itself a trial. Despite the cold, by the time we reached the top we were sweating through our first couple layers of clothes.

Sledding in Mongolia approaches the way I recall sledding back home as a kid. The hill in Dows was called Cemetery Hill because it was next to the cemetery, but the name makes more sense for our hill out here, where I feared for my life and the lives of my friends each time a sled was set in motion. It’s as if the realistic dangers of going out on the hill have been scaled up to fit the way I perceived the dangers as a kid. I don’t believe I could have hurt myself sledding in Dows, but then the hill was towering and it seemed probable that I’d go home bleeding or with a broken set of teeth, something to make my mom ban me from ever dragging another sled out of the garage.

On Cemetary Hill Mongolia, there’s no way to clear all the boulders off the mountain and there’s enough snow to hide a significant number of them. There’s no one to yell at the kids to get out of the way. No one to tell you to stop being stupid and to sled from where you are. You can just keep going up, and so it’s immensely fun. Some of the most fun I’ve had in years. Each afternoon we’ve gone up we've only had enough time for 3 or 4 trips up and down. The cold and climbing make it difficult to do more. I haven’t bled, but the first time we went I broke my sunglasses and cell phone, tore my coat, and cracked the sled I was on. Never before have I destroyed so many things and been so happy about it.

At around six o’clock, with the sun tucked behind a mountain, it starts getting cold. The trip home is much less arduous than the trip up. There are Mongolian kids to follow, and unlike us, they know exactly where to cross the branches of the river. No one gets wet and we get home fast. At my apartment, none of our moms are there, but one of them sent us hot chocolate, and there’s no dryer, but my radiators are usually warm enough to heat up coats and socks. With a fire lit in the stove, a pirated movie bought in UB, and glass of cocoa each we settle in front of the laptop the way would have in front of the Nintendo and space heater back in Dows.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

On my birthday I woke up to a familiar noise. The snow shovel scraping on the frozen ground made me forget where I was. It wasn’t my dad shoveling out a Pontiac station wagon, but a Mongolian clearing the way for a Russian jeep. It was a strange time to forget that I’m in Mongolia, because only recently, I think, I’ve settled on the idea that I’m home here. With that settling has come a slow downward swing in my mood.
The euphoria of the first few months in country has slowly worn off as my work and daily life has become more routine. This is a common feeling when living abroad. I’ve been told that my mood will vary from religious-experience highs to huddled-up-in-sleeping-bag lows. The problem at the moment is understanding when I’m experiencing a huddled-up-in-sleeping-bag low, and when I’m huddled in my sleeping bag simply because I can’t bear to stand in my freezing apartment. I guess one is a subset of the other.
Of course, I use the word "routine" loosely. I can still count on jarring cultural moments. For instance, the Russian teacher at my school recently interrupted my class to ask if I would write an English composition for his sister who was preparing for an English competition. After several minutes he couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t be party to cheating, and why I wouldn’t do two hours worth of cheating on one hour’s notice. Also, when a drunk man steals my mitten from off my hand in the middle of a cold night, I tend to stop putting my life in the context of a "routine". At least I was close to home.

We recently celebrated Thanksgiving. We all invited Mongolians from our work to join us. We were puzzled as, slowly, many of the Mongolians we had invited cancelled on us. Our attendance dwindled from an expected 14 to 11. The six Peace Corps volunteers, two German volunteers, and three Mongolian work counterparts. We were puzzled until we remembered that it was Mongolia’s independence day. Celebrating an American holiday on a Mongolian holiday scores a 3 out of 10 on cultural sensitivity if you are keeping track. A 1 out of 10 is telling a Mongolian that you prefer ancient Rome to the Empire of Genghis Khan, and then adding that you think milk and mutton suck.
Despite the cultural blunder, the meal was nice and enjoyed by all. We had to explain that while we ate the "traditional amount" of food, the "traditional type" of food was difficult to prepare in these parts. We had one box of stuffing my parents sent from America and mashed potatoes, but from there, the menu became somewhat eclectic. A nice chili was present, a meat and potatoes dish, tuna salad, egg casserole, and an unexpected pineapple souffle.
The only turkey in Mongolia was at the U.S. Embassy in Ulaanbaatar, and I wasn’t lucky enough to attend that party, though many volunteers were. I began considering our poultry options. There seemed to be two. Once I heard a chicken in town. I thought about tracking it down, but then remembered that, in Mongolia, if it looks like a chicken, and sounds like a chicken, it’s probably something else. I rested my Thanksgiving dreams on the flapping wings of the nightmare crows that shriek here in great numbers. I planned to crouch on the balcony with my axe until one of them landed on my woodpile, when we would pit, once and for all, axe against talon, for Thanksgiving glory. Then I heard there would be mashed potatoes and decided that would be enough.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Am I Not a Man? Can I Not Clean My Own House?

Any minute two of my students will knock at my door. They are coming to clean my house and I am terrified. I spent the past 45 minutes feverishly cleaning up my place trying to make it look like I hadn’t cleaned anything. It was ridiculous. I moved most of the clothes, books, and miscellany from the extra bed, but left a few school books and a teacup to maintain the illusion that I hadn’t cleaned. I didn’t sweep the floor, except in Mama’s (my cat) room, because she has made the entire entryway her litterbox. I finally unpacked all of the packages that I had gotten from the states in the past month. They’ll still have enough work to make an evening of it.
I don’t know how this happened. My school director visits my house often, and during one of her visits I was explaining to her that this is the way the average young man lives in America. There is a system in the madness. I know that my cell phone is under the stocking hat, that the guitar pick is somewhere near the incense, and my coffee cup is behind the bag of sugar. She either didn’t buy any of this, or didn’t like the idea of it and began insisting that some of our students come clean my house for me. Eventually I agreed and here I am, sitting on the bed ashamed of myself.
I’m pleased now that it’s done. They did an incredible job. They seemed to have a good time doing it. The way I live is hilarious to them. They would burst out laughing, then call me into the room where they were working. "Do you need this?" A can of tomato paste and a jar of blueberry jam, both topped with a thick layer of mold. "No, I don’t need them anymore." This followed by another bout of laughter.
They became less amused when they got to my bed. I sleep with my bed against the stove wall, which gets hot after the fire’s been lit for a while. Lately I’ve been making such blazing fires that one evening, the wall charred the parts of my blanket that were touching it. "Don’t worry. There was no fire, only smoke." They shook their heads in what I think was dismay.
I can’t think of a relationship I’ve had in the past that compares with the relationship I have with my students. I’m their teacher and they treat me with a lot of respect, but, as above, I’m a careless foreigner who doesn’t seem to be able to care for himself. So, I’m like their little baby boy. I was sick and tired last week, and one of the other volunteer said she heard my students discussing my well-being at length.
It’s so strange and fantastic. We communicate nothing complicated with one another, because neither of us can communicate complex thoughts in the other’s language. Yet, these girls and women are the some of the most important people in my life right now. Without them reminding me to wear my warm clothes, I would be walking around Mongolia wondering why I am so cold. If they weren’t willing to share their impressive housekeeping skills, I’d be sleeping on piles of books and using a shoe box as a dining table.

Excuse Me Jesus, Do You Have a Cigar?

I had no idea my students would get so excited about Halloween. I first mentioned to them that all of the Peace Corps volunteers in town would be going out to the club in costume on the Friday after the holiday. We told them they should all come with us to celebrate and they agreed. Sometime after this they learned about "trick or treating" and the Halloween madness began.
I invited them to come to my house for candy and I got a few of the other volunteers to do the same. I had no idea what ridiculous heights trick or treating would reach. It was our intention to treat them with the best candies Mongolia could offer, but they had treats sweeter than Russian cookies in store for us. For each of our houses they had prepared a separate, vaguely Halloween related drama.
At my house, Harry Potter and his friends conjured ghosts by candlelight. Elvis Presley sang a popular Mongolian song. Charlie Chaplin didn’t say anything, of course, but he gave a very elegant bow to all of the guests in my house before he left. When Hitler came, Harry Potter and his friends stood at attention. Hitler was more polite than I imagined. "Guttentag. Thank you for inviting me to your Halloween party."
At David’s house we had a dance party with the witches and the ghosts. Dance pairs included an Arabian Shah and Harry Potter, Jesus and Hitler, and Snow White and a dwarf. At Jenny’s, a creepy witch drugged Snow White with "special candy". This play ended abruptly, with Snow White passed out and the witch delivering a cryptic message. "Now you will only be mine."
We sat in on a surreal passion play at Jess’s house. Jesus was crucified against the wall of Jess’s ger. His wife and mother were with him. Soon an Arabian Shah entered.
"Jesus, give me one hundred wives," he demanded.
"I’m sorry, I only have two wives," Jesus replied as his mother offered him a drink of water.
Next, a pirate took the stage.
"Jesus, do you have a cigar?" asked the pirate.
"No, you should go to Thomas’s house. Ask him how much they cost and come back here," said Jesus.
This is an inside joke. Thomas is a German who lives in town. Apparently it is widely known that he smokes large cigars.
Finally a witch approached Jesus.
"There are many cars and motorcycles that are faster than my broomstick. Jesus, can you attach my broomstick to the electricity to make it faster?" she wondered.
"I’m sorry," replied Jesus, "the electricity won’t be back on until 8 p.m."
This is another inside joke. The electricity here is awful. It goes on and off at new and exciting times everyday. Not even Jesus can fix it.
They had me in tears and I can’t imagine ever having a better Halloween than this. Halloween is a good time at home, but I don’t recall a fraction of the excitement that last night carried with it. My students only got a small handful of candy the whole evening. Children in America would cry tears of rage if this were the case for them and that is unacceptable. Furthermore, I don’t believe I will ever again see Hitler walking next to a ghost, or Jesus on the arm of a clown. When I get home, "Trick or Treat", is not going to cut it. I demand entertainment and you should, too.
Oh, you’re Superman? How cute. But if you want candy, you better come back with a telephone booth and a change of clothes.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Last week we had our first snowfall. I walked to the sports gym at the Economics College in a dust storm. When it hasn’t rained, the wind picks up sand and carries it to places such as my ear canals and window sills. There is always enough dust in the air to make the insides of my shirt collars filthy no matter how hard I scrub the back of my neck. I would have stayed inside, but my school was having a sports day for the students, so I had to face the dust.
Sports with Mongolians has been a strange and sometimes terrifying experience. Each game is played essentially the same way we would play it back home, but with the added element of fisticuffs. On our sports day, we split up into three teams: first course students, second course students, and teachers. All of my students are girls. Very docile and shy in the classroom, but furious maniacs in competition. In one game I was punched in the face no less than twice, once a forearm across the nose and mouth that my nose is still tender from. After yoga class the day before our sports competition, one student told me to "prepare for bump", while shaking her little fist at me. In a certain way she was kidding, but I attempted to prepare myself for the many bumps I did in fact take.
On my team, I was the only one who knew how to play basketball, so I had to take the ball up the court every time, and every time I encountered a circus of hands that, after pushing me aside, would steal the ball and take it down to their end of the court. A game of basketball with no fouls is a different game entirely, and not one that I’m any good at. We lost all our games, but I felt fortunate to have finished without a getting a bump that resulted in a concussion or falling on the uneven floorboards.
When we went back outside, the wind had died and the dust storm had turned into a light mist. The mountains were dusted with snow and the students were all excited and talked about how beautiful it was. I agreed. So, it’s the start of a long winter. It warms up to around 60 in the afternoons some days, but as soon as the sun goes down at 7:30, it drops down below freezing.
Today I walked across the river and the slow moving streams were frozen over.
Every Sunday my director, Seeligma, feeds me lunch and gives me a Mongolian lesson. Afterward I always play her son, Otgonbayar, in chess. He’s thirteen and up on me two games to one. It was a wash this afternoon. He beat me up and down the chessboard, playing little tricks on me, but he’s really sweet about kicking my ass. He has sleepy eyes and I want him to be my friend.
After lunch at Seeligma’s, I was invited to Pujee’s, one of my students, for an early dinner. She made buuz (pronounced "boats"), a steamed dumpling which Mongolians eat on a very regular basis, with horse meat. They were delicious, but she wouldn’t let me stop eating them and I was uncomfortable by the end of the session. After we ate, she asked if I wanted a beer, and I told her I was O.K., that I didn’t need one right then, so she sent her husband out to buy a couple.
At five, I told Pujee that I needed to leave to clean my house. She seemed genuinely disappointed when I wouldn’t let her clean it for me. I got a similar reaction from two of my other students who offered to clean my house and wash my clothes. I feel slightly uncomfortable even fielding the question and I can’t seem to explain myself to their satisfaction. It doesn’t work to tell them that I’m a grown man, and despite the fact that I’m clearly a slob, that I can do housework on my own. They’ve been doing these things since they were little girls, and, to my understanding, it would be their honor to help me out. Neither of us seem to know how to react when I can’t allow them the honor.
My students and co-teachers are my best Mongolian friends. Whenever I’ve needed something, they are the ones who’ve helped me. When I meet them in the market, they always follow me around, telling me where I can buy certain things. When I don’t know how to get somewhere, they come pick me up at my apartment and show me the way. I told them how much I love Mongolian yogurt, and the next day, a student brought me a jarful. I was looking for a kitten, and soon one of my co-teachers brought one to me. They are the sweetest folks. In light of this pattern, it might be smart to mention how I don’t like being pummeled across the basketball court.

Monday, September 04, 2006

When I wake up here in the morning it is because the sun is blasting me in the eyes. On the mornings I don’t have to be up early I fight back the red of my eyelids by curling into myself or by shrouding my face in a blanket, but the sun seems to soak into these places, too, and I sit up. A morning shower is out of the question since the water in my apartment runs frigid. All I can muster at this point is a few splashes on the face and a bit through my hair. When this wretched task is through, I move on to preparing my cream of wheat, toast, and tea, a much warmer and more pleasant task. I waste no time getting dressed. The steam heat isn’t on yet and the cement walls pull in the already brisk morning air.
My work is a fifteen minute walk through the market from my house. Later it will be an eight minute, bone-rattling jog. I am working for a small branch of Orkhon University, which is based in Ulaanbaatar. Before you imagine me on campus of any university you’ve attended, let me tell you that the entire school is two classrooms full of wobbly desks and difficult chairs, and so far no electricity. On the first day I had ten students. A few days before work started, my boss told me that my main teaching counterpart wouldn’t be returning to work this year and that we would have to hire a new teacher in the two days before school started. This gave me the feeling that I would be teaching all of the English classes to start off the year, but in one afternoon, all interviews were complete and my supervisor had hired one full-time and one part-time English teacher. Both are excited to work with me and both seem to be motivated teachers.
This is a lucky placement and one I couldn’t be happier about. Orkhon University is largely a language school, and my students are working to become language teachers or translators in the best case. Though I will have few students, they will all be motivated learners. From what I’ve heard, this is not necessary true of students at non-language focused schools or secondary schools. I will be team teaching one or two classes each morning and will be spending the rest of the morning observing and advising the other teachers and giving private English lessons. For now, the afternoons are mine, but eventually I’ll use this time to develop community projects.
We got here a week before work started. We spent most of the week consulting our co-workers and the volunteers who were already here about where to go to outfit our homes. Everything is a wild-goose chase. Axes are in the hardware store, which is across from the electronics when you first enter the market. The boots you want are in the back of the second floor of the big clothes building. The second fruit stand has green peppers again today, but they will probably be gone tomorrow. If you like milk, it is cheapest at the vodka and beer store. The nature of this means that, for now, I buy only the things I am in search of, only the things I need. When I need a container of Korean raman, I don’t also buy five cans of Campbell’s Southwestern Chicken and Rice Soup. I come back home with a bag of items I will use fully and very soon.
Of the six volunteers here, I am the lone apartment dweller. Four people live in gers and one lives in a small duplex house. Living in an apartment affords me my usual standard of slobbishness. I’ve been home for over a week, but many of my things remain packed in the bags they arrived here in. For several days, despite the fact that I had guests often, my belt and jump-rope sat tangled together in the middle of my living room floor. Two piles of unfolded clothes lay on the extra bed, the clean distinguishable from the dirty only by leaning in and taking a sniff. It’s so cold in here that the food I accidentally leave out takes twice as long to rot and stink, and thus, is usually saved.
Though my inner surroundings are little to look at, they don’t reflect the beauty of the scenery just outside my door. The town sits in the bottom of a bowl of mountains. I can see no further than a few kilometers in any direction from within the city. The mountains are mostly rugged and dotted with large boulders. They are occasionally wooded and in a few places smooth, sheer faces drop from the mountain’s peak to the ground. The city teems with a population of lumbering dogs. The shady side of every building is occupied by at least one of these massive hounds. So far I’ve met the two-fold challenge of feigning confidence and not wetting myself when they approach.
Having grown up in Iowa, where the only things that obstruct your view of the plain are barns, grain bins, the corn when it’s high, and a rare, subtle hill, I find it confusing to have such a short sight of what’s around me. This is an indicative physical reminder of my situation at large. Just as living in Mongolia puts me in limited contact with my own culture and the events of the world and forces me to look closely at only the people and happenings that occur immediately near me, the mountains that cloister me in force me to look at and examine only them. And for now, that’s best for me and comforting. Future hikes up the mountains will afford me the longview I will eventually need. For now, there’s plenty to take in in the valley.