Everywhere But Home

News and musings from wherever my crazy life takes me. My body may be back in Illinois, but at least for now, my mind is still in Mongolia.


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Adventures in Ayutthaya

In early September, the sun sets much earlier in Thailand than in Mongolia, and faster; the afternoon comes to a close, and suddenly the sun hurls itself at the horizon, as though it too has tired of the oppressive heat it’s provided all day. As I watched it set on my day in Ayutthaya, I felt cheated; as much as I dislike the heat, I would gladly have borne it for a few more hours of exploration. Alas, it was not to be.

“Ayutthaya very small,” I was told by the staff at my hostel in Bangkok. “Maybe only three hours, you can see.” I probably would have taken the earlier train anyway, but Front Desk Lady urged me to take the 11:00, pointing out that the earlier train cost ten times as much as the later one.

I should have spent the extra $4.50.

I could have spent several days in Ayutthaya and still found things to do. The island is a curious mixture of modern city and ancient ruins, sometimes situated right on top of each other. At one point in the afternoon, for instance, I passed a school built a stone’s throw from some ziggurat-like brick structure. In America, you probably wouldn’t be allowed within thirty feet of something so old, but I saw several small faces peering down from its height, clearly quite pleased with themselves at having found the best part of the playground on which to play tag and hide ‘n’ seek.

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This juxtaposition of current and long past was part of the reason I’d chosen to come here, rather than shooting straight up to Chiang Mai as do so many tourists. I’d done my homework in planning my route through Thailand–at least, to the extent that reading the WikiTravel page counted as homework. The second capital of old Siam (after Sukothai, where I’d stop as I continued north) sounded like a place I wanted to visit, especially now that I knew it had once been the largest city in the world (in 1700, with a population of one million). And it’s a UNESCO Heritage Site, which carried some weight too.

Everything I read recommended seeing the city by bike, so the first thing I did after alighting first from the train and then the ferry across the river was to look over the rental shops thronging the island’s first street. The bicycle I ended up with was a simple fixed gear with a basket on the handlebars–a far cry from the 24-speed I ride at home, but perfectly adequate for this task. It was certainly faster than walking, and that was my primary concern.

Map in hand, I started a course that took me around the periphery of the island, marveling at the existence of ancient ruins on named, signed streets. I’d seen such things in Europe, of course, but Old European Buildings have an entirely different feel to them than Old Asian Buildings, which made this an entirely novel experience. As I meandered from crumbling brick chedi to tall stone tower, I felt constantly as though I’d wandered onto the set of The Jungle Book.

The elephants doing one-block laps were the first I’d seen in the country, but I passed on the the offer to ride them. There would be time for that later, if I found a place I was confident treated its elephants well. I also declined to enter any of the many sites that charged admission. Few charged more than 50 Baht (about $2), but I was reluctant nonetheless. With such a wealth of free sites to see, I reasoned, there wasn’t much point in paying; I had more than I could handle as it was. At Wat Phra Si Sanphet, the largest compound on the island, I made do by taking the best pictures I could from over the walls or through the gates; elsewhere, I simply stopped, observed and appreciated what I could, and moved along.

Wat Phra Si Sanphet

At the southern end of the island, my bike and I began to have disagreements. Something in the chain or gears seemed to have gone awry, and I could feel it resisting me as I pedaled. While I’m no cycling guru, I’ve biked a few thousand miles in my life, and putting a derailed chain back in place is well within my limited repair capabilities–except, of course, when the entire mechanism is encased in a metal sheath that prevents you from accessing it at all. I tried, believe you me, but the box, grown hot with the friction of the problem, would not be broached.

So I struggled onward, my gaze now fixed on a tall stone tower to the southeast, on the other side of the river. It was tall, and it was old, and it was accessible to the public, which was all that I and my deep love of high places needed to know. Alas, this was as close as I got.

When the rapidly setting sun eventually forced me to abandon my goal and high-tail it back to the rental shop, I was slightly disappointed, but not for long. My journal contains one paragraph of writing from that day of exploration, hastily scribbled while I waited for the train that would take me on to my hotel in Phitsanulok. It reads as follows:

I have spent the last few hours battling a bicycle that wasn’t particularly inclined to move. I have a large bruise I don’t remember getting on my upper arm and the beginnings of a wicked sunburn on the back of my shoulders. I have entered none of the ruins that required payment, however little; quite possibly I have missed everything of historical import. It has been glorious.

My thanks to my mother for her help retouching my terribly over-exposed photographs of a very sunny place. Had she been there, she would have taken much better pictures!


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Thailand Tuesdays: First Impressions

Thai, if you have never heard it, is one heck of a language. It has particles you affix to the ends of words to denote politeness and the gender of the speaker. It has trills and aspirated consonants and sounds I’ve never heard of, and then it has tones on top of that. It has a beautiful, bewildering alphabet (well, abugida) with forty-four consonants, many of them duplicates. To call it musical would be terribly cliché, because all tonal languages sound musical to English-speakers, but apt nonetheless. Thai English sounded to me like rain on a metal roof: rapid, with hard-hit consonants that created a staccato effect, and yet melodic.

It’s a good thing so many Thai people, particularly those in the tourist hotspots, speak English, because I learned a grand total of four words during my two weeks there: hello (sa-wat-dee-ka), thank you (cop-coon-ka), yes (chai), and no (mai) – and no, those are not the correct spellings. But with these few words and my Mongolia-honed pantomime skills, I got on just fine.

Aside from their mutual foreignness to me, Mongolia and Thailand have very little in common. One is tropical, the other cold, arid, and elevated; one’s food is known for its complex flavor combinations, the other for its lack of spices; one packs 67 million people into 198,000 square miles, while the other spreads 3 million over 604,000.

One thing they do have in common, though, is Buddhism. They’re entirely different schools of Buddhism (Mongolian Buddhism is Mahayana, Thai Theravada), but it’s still a point of commonality. Unschooled in the finer details of Buddhism as I was, I needed some sort of cultural touchstone around which to center my experience in Thailand, and so I spent a lot of time visiting temples. Such a chore, to drown in an abundance of opulent architecture.

I’d visited a few of Mongolia’s major temples, but Thai temples were another beast entirely. Most of them lacked the bodhisattvas I’d seen in Mongolia, but they more than made up for it in the extravagance of the decor. Finely carved details, temple facades I could never fit into a single camera frame, and elaborate rooflines on the exterior; inside, gold and mosaics prevailed. Thai, it seemed to me, is the Baroque of Buddhist temples.

To the locals, I’m sure this eventually fades into the background, in the same way that the Grand Canyon is just a backdrop when it abuts your backyard. But to me, it was all shiny and new (and did I mention shiny?), and I have a couple hundred temple pictures to show for it.

None of them do the experience a lick of justice.


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Thailand Tuesdays: Zoom Zoom

Zoom zoom.

I’m pretty sure my Uncle Mike has written this at the close of the written message on every card I’ve ever received from him. He says it aloud too, on the phone and in person, usually as we finish discussing something that’s happened since the last time we talked. It’s his verbal representation of the passage of time—a self-deprecating reference to the fact that his household’s Christmas cards typically get mailed in April, perhaps, but a more broadly applicable statement as well. When you live several hundred miles from your extended family, it’s all too easy to let several months go by in between conversations with them.

Zoom, zoom. That’s the phrase that comes to mind when I contemplate the date. A year ago, I had just arrived in Thailand for a visa run vacation utterly unlike the life I’d been living in Mongolia. It hardly seems possible that an entire year has gone by since then, but according to the calendar, it must be so. To think: a whole year, and I still haven’t written anything here about my two weeks in Southeast Asia. Shame on me.

But I spent last Sunday working out a writing plan for the month, and so I’m introducing a Thai Tuesdays series to get those stories out of my head and onto this blog. It’s high time I told you about the monkeys, the elephants, the food—oh man, the food. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Why Thailand?

A lot of seasoned travelers seem to regard Thailand with a certain degree of scorn. Thailand is where the tourists go. And it’s true, they do—they have for many years, and in great numbers. After so many years as a tourist destination, a lot of the paths to, from, and through Thailand have been worn pretty smooth. A quick Google search will show you several Thai-language phrasebook apps, though you can traverse the country without ever learning more than “hello” and “thank you.” The Lonely Planet guidebook on Thailand is a whopping EIGHT HUNDRED pages long, nearly three times the length of the Mongolian edition. Everyone has heard of Bangkok and Phuket, if only in reference to the vaguely dirty sound of the names in English. If you’re looking, as my generation so often is, to blaze entirely new trails, Thailand is blasé.

But I had just spent a year in a country 80% of Americans probably couldn’t place on a map, where the roads were mostly unpaved and the language, at least to the rest of the world, mostly unknown. Trailblazing 24/7 is exhausting, and while I pride myself on my ability to rough it, I was looking forward to smoother paths.

I don’t even mean that metaphorically. I went to Thailand, in large part, because I knew it had widespread paved roads and the infrastructure that accompanies them. If this was my vacation, I wanted to take it in a place where travel could be said to zoom rather than bump bump shake.

I was not disappointed.


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This is a Ferguson Omnibus

everywherebuthome:

Readers,
This post is not about Mongolia, or my travels therein, or even my experiences elsewhere. I know that this is not what you come to my blog to read. But it’s too important not to share.

Originally posted on Disrupting Dinner Parties:

If you’ve looked at a computer or television screen in the last week, you’ve probably heard something about Ferguson, MO and a boy named Michael Brown. Perhaps you’ve heard a lot of conflicting stories. Let’s gets some facts straight.

This is Michael Brown. He was 18 years old when he was murdered by Officer Darren Wilson.

This is Michael Brown, on the right. He was 18 years old when he was murdered by Officer Darren Wilson.

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Once and Always Camp Staff

As the readers who’ve never met me IRL may or may not know, I worked at a Boy Scout Camp in northern Wisconsin for three summers before my adventure in Mongolia. [1] My summers there were a big selling point in my Fulbright application process: I had worked extensively with horses (animals central to Mongolia’s culture); I had experience roughing it and making creative and resourceful use of limited supplies (as I would likely need to do in a non-first-world nation); I knew how to handle unruly teenaged boys unwilling to learn the material I was supposed to be teaching them. But even as I explained the experience and its many contributions to my skill set to my interviewers, I had no idea of the extent to which my years of scout camp would color my experiences in Mongolia.

Some background first: The staff at MaKaJaWan are not sleepaway camp counselors in the typical sense. We don’t sleep in cabins with randomized groups of kids; they come to camp as a troop, with at least two adults leaders to supervise them, and sleep on cots in platform tents. Instead, the staff focus on providing good program. We teach merit badge classes, run afternoon/evening activities, and keep the kids entertained in the dining hall, where we eat and talk with them and lead them in songs.

Yes, you read that right: Songs. It is indeed possible to get teenaged boys to do something as uncool as singing together. Every meal at camp ends with a staff-led song, most of which are ridiculous and all of which have accompanying hand gestures or full-body movements. After-breakfast songs tend to be especially movement-centric: “Alive, Awake, Alert, Enthusiastic” has hand motions, “Big Tub of Glue” involves clinging to a partner for balance, “Button Factory” and “The Penguin Song” result in full-body flailing while hopping, nodding, and sticking out your tongue, and “My Bonnie” and “The Grand Old Duke of York” involve copious amounts of high-speed sitting and standing.

I could go on about the lunch and dinner repertoire, but I think you get the point: I have an awful lot of these up my sleeve. And while I somehow managed to work at camp for three summers without once leading a song, I think I more than made up for that in Mongolia. Once I learned of the cultural importance Mongolians attach to singing, this stuff became my bread and butter.

As anyone who’s ever taught knows, songs are great warm-up and review activities, especially when they tie into the subject of your lesson. Teaching parts of the body? “The Hokey Pokey” and “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” are classics, the former working especially well if you include nontraditional body parts like elbows, ankles, and so forth. Directions are a perfect time for “The Grand Old York” with MaKaJaWan’s typical side of TPR: stand for the word “up,” sit for “down,” half-squat for “halfway up.”

The grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men,
He marched them up the hill and then he marched them down again.
And when you’re up, you’re up
And when you’re down, you’re down
And when you’re only halfway up, you’re neither up nor down.

For more basic classes, asked my students to identify the “b” sounds in “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.” For every word starting with the letter “b,” I asked them to stand if they were sitting or stand if they were standing. As you can see, the song results in a lot of movement:

My Bonnie lies over the ocean
My Bonnie lies over the sea
My Bonnie lies over the ocean
Oh, bring back my Bonnie to me
Bring back, bring back,
Oh bring back my Bonnie to me, to me
Bring back, bring back,
Oh bring back my Bonnie to me

I was also fond of “The Bear Song” when teaching the past tense. This one’s much longer, so I usually printed out the lyrics with some of the words blanked out, sang it a few times and asked the students to fill in the blanks, and then asked them to identify the verbs in past tense. Not the most creative lesson plan, I’m afraid, but the kids liked the story and it surprise ending, as well as the repeat-after-me format, so I suppose that something. [2] If anyone has suggestions as to a more engaging way to teach this song, I’m all ears!

The other day
I saw a bear
A great big bear
Oh, way out there
The other day I saw a bear,
A great big bear oh way out there

He looked at me
I looked at him
He sized up me
I sized up him
He looked at me, I looked at him
He sized up me, I sized up him

He said to me
Why don’t you run
I see you don’t
Have any gun
He said to me, why don’t you run
I see you don’t have any gun

And so I ran
Away from there
But right behind
Me was that bear
And so I ran away from there
But right behind me was that bear

Ahead of me
I saw a tree
A great, big tree
Oh, glory be!
Ahead of me I saw a tree,
A great big tree, oh, glory be

The lowest branch
Was ten feet up
I’d have to jump
And trust my luck
The lowest branch was ten feet up
I’d have to jump and trust my luck

And so I jumped
Into the air
But I missed that branch
Oh, way up there
And so I jumped into the air
But I missed that branch oh way up there

Now don’t you fret
And don’t you frown
‘Cause I caught that branch
On the way back down
Now don’t you fret and down’t you frown,
‘Cause I caught that branch on the way back down

That’s all there is
There is no more
Unless I meet
That bear once more
That’s all there is, there is no more
Unless I meet that bear once more

And, of course, my favorite song to teach never had anything to do with the curriculum at hand, but the kids enjoyed it because it was just fun to do.

Little cabin in the woods
Little man by the window stood
Saw a rabbit hopping by
Knocking at his door
Help me, help me, help!” he cried,
Before the hunter shoots me dead
“Little rabbit, come inside;
Safely you’ll abide.”

The bolded words all have accompanying hand motions, which the kids know quite well by the time you’ve finished singing: The song is sung not once through, but nine times. The first time you sing the entire thing; the second, you skip the word “cabin,” doing only the hand motion; the third, you sing neither “cabin” nor “window,” and so on, until every bolded word has been replaced by silent gestures. Because competitions always went over well, I often added the rule that everyone had to stand at the beginning, and anyone who sang out of turn would have to sit down. This was, of course, all but impossible to enforce, but as it made the kids  pay closer attention, I considered its purpose served.

In the end, I don’t know how much my students actually learned from these songs. In teaching them, I learned the Mongolian words for “bear,” “hunter,” “rabbit,” “ocean,” “up,” and “down,” so I hope they learned at least that much in English. But I do know that my students were always happier and more engaged when working on songs than the exercises printed in their books, and so I consider that a success. It helped me to combat my own homesickness as well, and I get a kick out of the idea that there are kids in Mongolia who might still remember a few American camp songs.

Fellow English teachers, I’m curious: What are your favorite songs to teach, and how do you work them into your lessons? Non-teachers, what songs are central to your memories of childhood?

[1] IRL friends all know this because I won an entire drawer full of shirts and hoodies bearing the words “MaKaJaWan Scout Reservation,” and wearing any of them invariably causes people either to tell me about their experiences at the camp, or to try and fail miserably at pronouncing the name.

 [2] I do wish I’d been able to team-teach this song with a teacher who spoke better English, so that we could demonstrate, little-kid-copycat fashion, what “repeat after me” meant. Without a collaborator, this was often unexpectedly difficult to explain!


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Songs of My Land and Yours

Teachers have their own holiday in Mongolia, and the vocational schools of Erdenet traditionally celebrate it by giving a joint concert. “Concert” being a more loosely-applied term in Mongolian than English, these programs often bear more resemblance to what we might term a “variety show.” The show the schools put on during my stint in Mongolia included a fashion show and several dance acts in addition to the expected assortment of songs. Nearly every teacher participated, even if it was only as part of a large chorus.

I was not exempt.

As you may gather from the costume, I was not singing in English.

The song I performed is called Аяны Шувууд (Ayanii Shuvuud), and it is apparently THE song to teach foreigners; if you’ve learned a Mongolian song, it was probably this one.

I learned it from my school’s director during our language exchange – and by “learned,” of course, I mean “memorized.” I know it’s a love song about migrating birds, and I can pick out a number of the individual words, but I’m far from being able to provide a translation. Happily, an English version of the song already exists.

I was made to perform this song over and over again: the Teacher’s Day concert, the staff Shine Jil party, my friend Nathan’s wedding, the students’ graduation party. The first three, at least, were planned, but the last one was a cold call; I was as surprised as anyone else to hear that I was about to sing for the entire school, especially since my memory of the second and third verses had grown a little fuzzy! After that experience, I kept the notecard on which I’d written out the lyrics in my wallet, just in case. If Mongolians know you can sing, they will ask you to do so on a regular basis – especially if they know you can sing in Mongolian. This wasn’t a case of me singled out as a foreigner, though; I was just being treated like everyone else.

Mongolia is a land of singers. That’s not to say that they’re all gifted with perfect pitch and mellifluous voices; far from it. Believe me, there are plenty of tone deaf, raspy-voiced Mongolians out there. But vocally gifted or not, Mongolians sing all the time. Having or attending a party? You can bet that someone will lift a shot of vodka and croon the opening lines to song. The rest of the group will then join in, and not just for the chorus or the first verse: they’ll sing the whole thing through, after which someone else will likely start the process again. Walking the streets at night? You’re bound to  pass a number of karaoke establishments with music spilling out doors and windows. Even on weeknights, you’re likely to hear voices raised in song from the windows of brightly-lit apartments.

And Mongolians have songs for everything. Songs about love and loss, of course, but also about horses, and teachers, and mothers. Lots of song about mothers. And a song or two for every holiday, at least. When I taught Mongolians about an American holiday, they’d always ask for a song about it. “Sing a Thanksgiving song! An Easter song! A Fourth of July song!” It was hard for me to explain to them that we might have a couple of songs that are likely to be sung on Еaster or the Fourth of July, we don’t really have songs about them. The idea that we don’t have songs for every occasion just didn’t compute.

It wasn’t just in classes that I, and the Americans around me, felt stymied when asked to sing, either; it happened all the time during social outings. A typical scenario ran as follows:

  1. Mongolian person begins a (Mongolian) song.
  2. Other Mongolians in group join in, singing the entire song from memory.
  3. Repeat steps 1 and 2 several times, with different songs and song-starters each time.
  4. Well-meaning Mongolian, seeing that the foreigners have been left out, turns to the Americans and asks them to sing “an American song.”
  5. Americans look at each other, perplexed and dismayed.

Things usually came to a screeching halt at step five, as all the Americans in the group racked our brains for a song we would all know (a difficult enough task in itself!) that was also in some way evocative of America. What were we supposed to sing, the “Star-Spangled Banner?”

We could have, I suppose, but I don’t know that any of us thought of the national anthem as a song, per se. I never considered it, or any other patriotic song, for a number of reasons. To begin with, they’d sound awfully short to the Mongolians, because we certainly wouldn’t be able to sing them in full. Everyone knows the words to the first verse, but how many people know that the second, third, and fourth even exist? Moreover, patriotic songs are not embedded in the popular psyche of the American people in the way they seemed to be in Mongolia. You don’t hear “America the Beautiful” or “America” (“My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” to a lot of people) on mainstream radio in America; for that matter, Americans, when’s the last time you even remembered the existence of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” or sang any patriotic song outside of a sports event? These are songs most Americans sing only in very specific contexts, and because “sitting and drinking with friends” is not one of them, neither I nor any of my American friends ever thought to suggest them to the group.

So if patriotic anthems are out, what’s left? My next instinct would be to reach for folk and campfire classics like, “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” and “When I First Came to this Land,” or even “Yankee Doodle,” but those never felt right either, because they’re associated with childhood. These are songs most of us learned in school or at scouts and sang around campfires before proceeding to forget their existence entirely. I, personally, have quite a few of them at my disposal from my years of working at a scout camp, but in those years I also witnessed firsthand just how few people remember these songs more than a few years after elementary school. And if your average teenage scout camp counselor can’t remember the words to one of these songs, your average adult certainly won’t. So these were out of the running too; a song recognized by everyone but known by no one, however great its historical importance, is probably not that representative of the country’s current people and culture–and is impossible to sing as a group.

By the end of my time in Mongolia, I had settled on a suggestion for these scenarios: “This Land is Your Land.” It’s still a campfire song, and few people know more than the chorus and possibly the first verse, but it’s widely-recognized, explicitly about America, and more recent than most of our patriotic repertoire. It wasn’t being put on the spot and asked to sing that brought this song to mind, however; it didn’t become my go-to until after I did a presentation on American folk music on our outreach trip.

I think it says a lot that it took me until March to come up with an answer to the question of the “American song.” Partially, of course, it’s that the American music industry is much larger than its Mongolian counterpart; sheer diversity makes it difficult to find a song we all know and love. But even so, it’s safe to say that music holds a very different place in the culture of Mongolia than America.

Readers, what songs or genres would you consider quintessentially representative of your country, and why?

 


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Side Trip into Flower Land

Once upon a time, there was a little girl who liked to sing. She liked singing so much that she did it everywhere she went – at home, at church, in the grocery store. She liked to stop by the flower shop on her way home from school or the weekend farmer’s market, and because she was an audacious child, she somehow managed to talk her way into an arrangement whereby she sang for the florists, and they gave her flowers. Nothing too expensive–mostly the flowers that had broken or been cut too short to fit into arrangements–but to her thinking, a good deal nonetheless.

Many years later, she graduated college and needed a part-time job to fill the summer before she left for Mongolia. Unsurprisingly, “I’m only here for the next three months, and also I want to volunteer at camp for a week in July,” was a bit of a hard sell, and most of the local places didn’t bother to call me back. And then, one fine day, I walked back into the flower shop and asked if they were hiring.

“Not really,” said the manager, “but I can take your name and number and call you if anything comes up.”

And then he took a closer look at me, and I watched a grin break across his face as he asked, “Are you the girl who used to come in and sing for us?”

Blushing deeply, I nodded.

“Mother’s Day is next week,” he said. “Want to start tomorrow?”

I spent that summer doing a lot of grunt work: processing and preparing flowers, schlepping stuff from point A to point B, making deliveries. And helping to set up weddings, which doesn’t really count as “grunt” work but almost always happens at odd weekend hours when the regular employees have absolutely no desire to come in. It wasn’t the most consistent or best-paying job out there, but it was fun and allowed me to work on my own terms, which was really all I could ask for at the time.

So when I had yet to find a degree-related job 2.5 months after returning to the US, I decided it was time to visit the flower shop again. Naturally, this decision coincided with the imminent arrival of Valentine’s Day; timing is everything when looking for a job, they say, and while I have no idea what factors might make me more less likely to land this internship or that full-time position, the busy season for flowers is pretty predictable.

Yes, I was told, they did need an extra pair of hand for Valentine’s Day, and how long had I been back in the country? Why hadn’t I come in earlier?

I made these things! I’ve taken a few steps up the ladder, from driver to rose stripper to underling designer. And that’s what I’ve been doing for the past three months instead of writing. Or rather, this is:

February 24: Valentine’s Day
March 31-April 4: Supposedly a slow week because of spring break, but in fact, parties and birthdays and mitzvahs up the wazoo and a phone that never stopped ringing.
April 14: Passover
April 20: Easter and Orthodox Easter
April 23: Administrative Professionals’ (*couch* Secretaries’ *cough*) Day
May 11: Mother’s Day
May 17: Prom

April was a busy month – we had at least one holiday or massive party every week, on top of our day-to-day business. And while May’s been much calmer so far, we’ve yet to get through prom.

So I should have a nice, Mongolia-related post out for your reading pleasure in the next week or so. In the meantime, I’ve got boutonnieres to make.

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