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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Dear Starks, Please Shut It: Winter Ain’t Coming, It’s HERE

Given the doomsday nature of Winter in “Game of Thrones”/A Song of Ice and Fire, it seems extremely appropriate that today, the supposed Mayan apocalypse, is also the first day that the Mongolians consider winter.

The Mongolians are no more immune to the apocalypse frenzy than the Chinese; I’ve heard reports of people from China buying gers and supplies and heading out into the Mongolian countryside, where they’ll be off the grid. I guess they figure it would safer to be out the hudoo and no longer relying on electricity or running water. They wouldn’t be safe rom the cold, though, or the dark; I’ve heard predictions that we’ll have twelve days of complete darkness, or that the temperature will drop to -70˚C. Given the choice between Frost’s options, the Mongolians definitely believe that the world will end in ice.

But the weather so far today is sunny, with a forecast high of -5F/-20C. That’s a lovely improvement over yesterday’s high of -14/-25. When last I wrote of the cold, it was to complain that the Mongolians kept telling me to wear warmer clothes, which I said I would do when it got colder. Well, it’s gotten colder. I acknowledged that the weather was “kind of cold” the first time we had a daily high of 0F. Given that when I checked on Wednesday, the highest temperature we were supposed to see for five days was -2F, I’d like to revise that description to “pretty cold.”

Screen shot 2012-12-19 at 6.32.11 PM

It changes every time I check, but the forecast lows for this weekend have dropped as far as -38, and that, let me tell you, is pretty darn cold. I know I’ve experienced -10 in the states, and maybe even -15, but -20+ (or should that be -?) is a first. Or was. Now it’s a nightly thing.

And it’s only going to get colder. Today is the first day of the есөн ес ([jusən jus] or “yusen yuse” for those of you who read neither Cyrillic nor IPA), the nine nines of the Mongolian winter. Beginning with the winter solstice, their winter is comprised of nine sets of nine days. Each of these is associated with a certain level of cold, the first four being the coldest.

Нэг дүгээр ес: шимжин архи, or Mongolian vodka distilled from milk, freezes

Хоёр дугаар ес: vodka freezes

Горав дугаар ес: the tails of three-year-old yaks/oxen/bulls freeze (I’ve seen all three variations, but they’re all cattle…)

Дөрөв дүгээр ес: the horns of four-year-old yaks/oxen/bulls freeze

Тав дугаар ес: rice no longer freezes

Зургаа дугаар ес: snow melts off of paved roads

Долоо дугаар ес: snow melts off the hills

Найм дугаар ес: the ground becomes damp

Ес дугаар ес: the warmer weather starts

I haven’t tried freezing vodka outside, though I’ve been using the porch as a freezer for almost two months now. We might even exceed the levels of cold traditionally predicted by the есөн ес this year: I’m told it’s already a lot colder than it was at this time last year, and independent of the apocalypse frenzy, those in the know are predicting a colder-than-average winter, or possibly even a zud. (If we do have a zud, I’m hoping it’s the snowy kind).

So while fire is clearly out, ice is still a possibility. But if the apocalypse happens while I’m here, at least I’ll be safe from zombies. With the exception of UB, Mongolia’s population is too sparse for me to imagine the spread of an epidemic, and I think the cold here would kill most viruses. And, for that matter zombies: if you’re dead, or even undead, you are, by definition, cold. And here, cold means frozen.

Unless of course the zombies are White Walkers, in which case I, and the rest of Mongolia and Russia, are screwed. We are, after all, north of the Wall.

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Cookies, Continued!

Sometimes your day just doesn’t go how you think it will.

Last night, for instance, I just wanted to curl up in bed (or at least, next to the radiator) with some mulled wine and watch the rest of Titanic. And then, just before I finished cooking dinner, Namuunaa came home with relatives in tow – the same set as in the previous post, plus two-year-old Inguun. They had brought baking supplies with them and wanted to continue the baking lesson. The next way was Khaliun’s birthday, they said, and they wanted to make cookies.

Well, it’s not like I could say no.

So Namuunaa and her sister and I made cookies. They turned out differently than mine – no vanilla, some pretty insipid lemon zest, and what I think was an extra cup of flour – but overall, I think the lesson went pretty well. I learned, and promptly forgot, how to say things like “fast” and “my hands are covered in chocolate; I failed pretty spectacularly at separating one egg (but really, have you ever cracked an egg and had the shell flake off, leaving the membrane intact? what are you supposed to do with that?!); we took turns at the incredibly labor-intensive process of creaming butter and sugar by hand. That one is, I think, a good thing; it means that in making the cookies, you burn off some of the calories you’ll gain by eating them. Maybe I’ll continue making them that way when I get back to the states.

… maybe.

As always, Inguun popped in and out throughout the entire process, greeting us with “shan oh!” or sometimes even “shan an oh!” each time. She correctly identified the lemon on the table, even after it had been stripped of zest, and she held out a cup, uttering the first complete sentence I’ve ever heard/understood from her: “цай байхгаа.” Laughing, her mother filled the cup for her, and she promptly spilled the water before toddling back into Namuunaa’s room. She can almost say my name now too, though it sounds more like “Kata” than “Katya.”

While we waited for the cookies to bake, we all went into Namuunaa’s room. Khaliun, her father, and Inguun were dancing, which is to say that Khaliun and her father were doing simple dance steps and Inguun was quite literally falling all over herself trying to imitate them. My god, that child is adorable. Naturally, I joined the fun with some shim-sham steps (boogie forwards and boogie backs). Inguun could sort of, almost, do the boogie forwards, but even Khaliun couldn’t manage boogie backs. I couldn’t blame here; a kick-ball-change is a confusing movement that had trouble with when I first tried it.

I also showed them my splits, which Khaliun tried and failed to emulate. I tried to explain that I had done gymnastics for 17 years, but that’s a tricky explanation to make; “Би гимнастик хийдэг” means “I work out” as much as “I do gymnastics,” and the former interpretation is far more common. So I grabbed my computer and showed them videos. Magically, I stuck my beam and bars routines at Nationals this year, so they’re handy ones for showing off. Then they wanted to see more pictures, so I showed some from camp and family gatherings.

How does one explain to a two-year-old that an alpaca is not a horse when one does not know the Mongolian word for “alpaca,” if there even is one? Inguun started shouting, “Адуу! Адуу!” when the alpaca pictures came up, and I couldn’t even say that they were llamas – a lama is a monk!

Finally, they packed up the cookies to take with them, insisting that I come to their house for Khaliun’s birthday tonight. I had planned on joining the other Americans tonight for drinks and a movie, but who am I to refuse a nine-year-old on her birthday?

I just wish my camera battery wasn’t dead. Those kids are pretty darn adorable.


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Cookies and Cards

December 13

Someday, I’m sure, someone will be able to convincingly explain to me how three women, who’ve spent several hours in the same apartment without incident, inevitably – and simultaneously – develop the sudden and urgent need to pee. In the meantime, Namuunaa and I will be doing the potty dance in the hallway while we wait for her sister (in-law?) to get out of the bathroom. (The dance, in case you were wondering, looks exactly the same on this side of the world.)

Insufficient toilet accommodations aside, we really did have a lovely evening Namuunaa came home from work around 6:30 with the relatives n tow: brother and sister (they’re married, so obviously one is an in-law, but I’m not sure which is which) and their eight-year-old daughter, Khaliun. I was in the midst of attempting Sarah’s lentil soup at the time, so they snagged the тогоо (electric wok) to make цуйван in Namuunaa’s room.

After we’d all eaten our respective meals, I offered them some of the shortbread cookies I made earlier this week. That went over quite well – they were greeted with “Ямар гоё юм бе!” which more or less translates to “how wonderful!” The sister wanted to make them, so between my Mongolian and Namuunaa’s English, I think we got the gist of the recipe across. It’s a very yellow recipe, apparently – I had to try to explain, “not the white, just the yellow” twice, once each for the egg yolks and the lemon zest.

“Cream the butter and sugar together” required a lot of frantic gesturing, but that seemed appropriate, as creaming butter by hand, while doable, is a long and tiring process. “Chill the dough so it doesn’t stick to your hands” was also a tricky concept, but based on the gestures she was making, I think Namuunaa understood. So I guess we’ll see how well the cookies turn out, if her sister makes them. Baking is such an exact science, and ‘cup’ and ‘spoonful’ are pretty arbitrary amounts here. Luckily, this is a wonderfully forgiving recipe.

After the cookie explanations, we played a few rounds of rummy. I taught Namuunaa to play it the first week I got here, and it’s her favorite game. The woman is a born card shark. We’ve played with the brother, but she had to teach it to the sister. Better her than me, though – I managed with Namuunaa because she had some English, but it still took a lot of demonstration. At least it gives me a chance to practice my numbers. Monetary transactions rarely deal with numbers smaller than one hundred, which is why I managed to go so long without learning the word for 90. Rummy drills the tens nicely, though I really do need to learn the word for ‘negative.’

It’s nights like this that make me glad I have a roommate. For one thing, it’s nice to have someone who keeps me from sitting at home by myself; for another, these kinds of evenings are probably the most beneficial for my language learning. Being surrounded by Mongolians is overwhelming, but a conversation between two or three people I can begin to digest. At the very least, I can pick out the words I know; it doesn’t wash over me in an incomprehensible mess.

More pointed posts to follow later this week, perhaps even including pictures or descriptions of aspects of Mongolian life. We’ll see how cooperative my internet is.


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Why Avoiding Food Poisoning Here is a Crapshoot

Sorry for this week’s delayed posting! My home internet now takes approximately 5 minutes just to load my email inbox and won’t load WordPress at all. The internet here at work is a little better, but my time at work has mostly been spent on things like lesson planning and teaching. So now I bring you, a few days late, my thoughts for the week.

December 10

When asked how I feel about having a Mongolian roommate, I usually answer that I like it just fine. Namuunaa and I aren’t exactly close friends, as my previous roommates and I have been, but she’s nice, and I think we get along pretty well. We’ve gotten better at talking to each other as our vocabularies have increased; a few nights ago, I managed to explain to her that my hands are always cold because I have bad circulation. And her presence has plenty of advantages: she acts as a translator and cultural mediator, she drives me to or from school on days when our schedules align, and she has almost unbearably adorable nieces who give me an excellent opportunity to practice my Mongolian.

But if there is one thing about living with a Mongolian, any Mongolian, that will drive you crazy, it’s their total ignorance of food safety. It’s a completely foreign concept here. At parties, it’s common for the host to pour the alcohol into one cup and hand it to each guest in turn, topping it off after every one. When the alcohol in question is vodka, this doesn’t seem like a huge problem – but when it’s wine, or beer, or airag, that seems like a lot of potential germ-sharing. A single case of mono could take out my school’s entire faculty if someone contracted it during a holiday.

I think the situation is even more alarming when there’s no alcohol involved. A ‘clean’ dish or utensil is one that no longer has food on it, even if the food was removed with someone’s tongue. That’s not an exaggeration; I have watched Namuunaa lick the jelly from a spoon and put in the jar with the rest of the “clean” utensils. (As soon as she left the room, I took it right back out and put it in the sink with the rest of the dirty dishes.) If they do wash the dishes, it’s often just with water, and not always hot water. We didn’t even have dish soap until I went out and bought some after I’d lived here in the while.

Similarly, the same towel might be used to clean dishes, the table, and the floor. I keep one in my room specifically so that I can control what it gets used for; if I need to wring moisture from potatoes and zucchini, or wipe my desk so that I can roll out dough on it, I certainly don’t want to do so with a cloth that, unbeknownst to me, was last used to wipe the bathroom floor.

But I think what scares me most is the total lack of understanding of the potential health problems posed by meat. While we have separate cutting boards for vegetables and meat, Namuunaa and her family will cut bread on the meat board if the vegetable one is in use, or take the knife that was just used on raw meat and slice bread with it without cleaning it first. They’ll also cut meat and then put the board back without cleaning it; last time, it was hung up face to face with the vegetable cutting board, so that both now had blood and bits of fat on them.

Namuunaa has also unplugged the refrigerator before in order to defrost and clean the freezer. It needed to be done, but I would have appreciated it if she put my half-kilo of horse meat out on the porch to keep it frozen while she did so. That’s not the first extensive period that meat had gone unrefrigerated, either. The meat market at the ax is heated, and very little of the meat is kept frozen (by which I mean only the chicken and fish). The smell in there is something, let me tell you. Everything else is right out on the counter, sold by women who don’t wear gloves – or if they do, they also handle money with them. And then they weight the meat directly on scales that are cleaned who knows how often and hand it to you in a plastic shopping bag.

Then you take it home and put it directly into the freezer; when you need it, you take the entire chunk out and let it sit at room temperature until it’s softened enough for you to shave off what you need so you can put the rest back in the freezer. The meat is usually added to whatever you’re making while still mostly frozen – but then it is cooked to well done. You can’t order meat done ‘medium rare’ here, and you wouldn’t want to; it’s just not safe.

Even so, a lot of Mongolians add yet another risk factor. If you don’t eat all of the food you’ve prepared, it’s not uncommon to let it sit out overnight, meat and all, and eat it (often cold) for breakfast.

Had we a language in common, I might be able to talk to Namuunaa about some of these things instead of doing the passive-aggressive complain-about-it-on-the-internet thing. But germs and sanitation are, alas, topics beyond the scope of my language skills. Moreover, it’s not just a language barrier – it’s a cultural one. When I asked Namuunaa why she wasn’t refrigerating her tsuivan, she said that Mongolians often leave it out and eat it the next day. When you live in a ger, you probably won’t get food poisoning from doing so, as the food will likely freeze overnight. In an (overly warm) apartment, you still might not get food poisoning most of the time, but I’d prefer not to take the risk.

Now, most of you know I was a linguistics major, and you don’t major in linguistics without taking at least a few anthropology classes. The part of me that really enjoyed those three classes (or at least, two of the three) is severely displeased with the ethnocentrism running rampant throughout this entire post. But I know what food poisoning feels like, and I’d really rather not feel it again. So, anthropologists (especially those of you who studied in India!), I’d love to know – how do you balance cultural sensitivity with self-preservation?


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Travel (is a Pain)

So, I have a friend who lives out in the Gobi. He’s never had a visitor in the year and a half he’s been at his site; I’ve never been to the Gobi and would like to see it. And I have a 3-week semester break in January. So far, the math is pretty simple.

But upon investigating the logistics of thing, I’m beginning to understand why he’s never had a visitor. Govi-Altai, like much of Mongolia, is unreasonably difficult to get to. How far a distance are we talking about, and what makes it “unreasonably difficult?”

My favorite part is the directions.

My favorite part is the directions.

Do note the fun bit to the left: Google can’t calculate directions to Govi-Altai, even from Ulaanbaatar. But that’s not actually all that surprising; Google uses roads to calculate directions and distances, and most of Mongolia doesn’t have roads.

Not kidding. Those yellow lines aren’t just the main roads – they’re more or less the only ones. There’s a paved road from Darkhan to Erdenet that isn’t shown, so you can drive between Mongolia’s three cities pretty easily (yes, there are only three in the entire country). You have to go from Erdenet to UB by way of Darkhan, though; there’s no road straight between the two. But outside of what you see on this map, most roads are just ruts in the ground.

What passes for a road in most of the country. Imagine what it'll be like in January.

What passes for a road in most of the country. Imagine what it’ll be like in January.

These are not fun to drive, let me tell you. They are wind-y and bumpy and uneven – patently bad news for someone with a long history of car sickness. And driving on such “roads” is excruciatingly slow going. Even in summer, you can’t really go above 20 MPH. This means that Khovsgol, the big lake to the northwest of Erdenet, is a 12-hour drive away from me; Govi-Altai would be at least 24.

To make matters worse, you’re not spending those 12-24 hours in a comfortable vehicle. In all likelihood, you’ll be stuffed into a mikr (Soviet microbus) with almost twice as many people as there are seats. That’s not an exaggeration – they’re built to hold 13-14, and the last time I rode in one, it was with 22 of my new best friends. Or if not “best,” certainly “closest.”

It makes for a journey that is hot, cramped, and loud if there are little kids packed in there with you. All of these exacerbate my car sickness and help to make for a thoroughly miserable journey.

Now, the good news is that Altai has an airport. Two hours in a plane instead of twenty four on the road, not counting the inevitable delays and breakdowns? Done.

… or it would be, if I could actually find any information on ticket costs. Aero Mongolia has a website, and some of it is accessible in English – including a flight schedule (albeit one that differs from the one all the travel websites seem to think it runs on). What it does not have is any information about actual tickets: how much they cost, where you can purchase them, etc. Байхгуй. Ditto for the travel websites. There is a telephone number, but given my nearly-nonexistent Mongolian language skills, that sounds like a good way to waste нэгж (phone credit) without actually accomplishing anything. Time to enlist the help of my Mongolian friends, methinks.

And now y’all know why I haven’t done very much traveling, even though I’ve already been here for four months: it’s complicated. And frustrating. And, above all, time-consuming.


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Mongolian Time

When I lived in Ireland, my roommate Celina and I liked to joke that our apartment ran on Mexican time—which is to say that we were always running late. Her family is Mexican, so we could get away with that kind of joke (or at least, she could).

Well, let me tell you: when it comes to being late, Mexicans ain’t got nothin’ on Mongolians.

My brother joined the Marines last November, so I had some time to get accustomed to the “hurry up and wait” way it operates. It’s a good thing, too; otherwise, I might have gone mad here. To come here from America, land of “if you’re early, you’re on time; if you’re on time, you’re late; if you’re late, don’t bother” takes some getting used to.

My lessons at school, for instance, are scheduled to begin at specific times: 9:30, 11:20, 12:50. In an American school, this would mean arriving in the room as soon as possible after the last class had ended, ideally being ready to teach at the scheduled start time. Here, by contrast, my co-teacher and I leave the teacher’s room when the start bell rings. Once we’ve made it to our scheduled room, we usually spend the first few minutes arguing with someone else who’s trying to use the same room. Sometimes we win, and the other class streams out; others, we’re the ones trooping out in search of a place to hold class. When this happens, we might have to try as many as three rooms before we find one where we can actually teach.

And incredibly, there are still students who walk in after all of this negotiating is over. It’s not uncommon for students in the 9:30 class in particular to show up over half an hour late for an 80-minute class.

Earlier this month, I went to see a play at the Erdenet Children’s Theatre (which is to say, Erdenet’s only theatre; we don’t have a cinema). I arrived at the doors at 5 pm, the scheduled start time, to find that nothing was ready yet. I walked upstairs and socialized with the visiting representatives from the Embassy while we waited for my friends to join us. When they arrived, we talked for a while more before wandering into the theatre, and once seated, we continued to talk and wait. I don’t think the performance actually started until at least 5:45.

When I visited a ger camp with my teachers in September, I was initially told we’d be leaving at four. By the time I left school that day, the departure time had been pushed back to 5:30. Namuunaa and I left the apartment at 5:30, walked the 20 minutes to school, and waited with the rest of the teachers. I think we actually left between 6:30 and 7.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Schedules are a very fluid thing here; start times are guidelines rather than rules.

The easy conclusion to draw would be that Mongolians are a patient people, but anyone who’s seen drivers in Ulaanbaatar will disavow this in a heartbeat. They fly down the roads at unreasonable speeds, driving in the wrong lane (or in the bus lane) to pass those not going fast enough for their liking. They honk at anything or anyone that gets in their way—even if the car they’re honking at is part of a long line and can’t actually go anywhere.

That last “if” should really be a “when” – traffic in UB is terrible, and getting halfway across the city to the train station can take over an hour. It’s really a crapshoot as to whether bussing, taxiing, or just plain hoofing it will be fastest; the buses are fastest in theory, but if people are driving in the bus lanes, a taxi might be faster. But sometimes there are just no taxis to be found, so you end up walking anyway. And then running, and then arriving at the station just in time to watch your train pull away.

Because there is only one thing in this entire country that leaves exactly when it’s supposed to – and that’s the train.


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Failing NaNoWriMo

Today is (or was, as of when I penned this; I had neither power nor Internet yesterday) the last day of my first NaNoWriMo, and I stand here before you (metaphorically, of course) to declare that I have failed at it utterly. I’m not sure how many words I managed because most of them are handwritten, but I don’t think I made it anywhere near the halfway mark.

And you know what? I’m OK with that. I started doing some research on my story topic in mid-October and was eager to write, but by the time November rolled around, my enthusiasm had waned. Lesson learned: when inspiration knocks, grab it and run with it. Don’t wait for arbitrary dates. Also learned: trying to write a story set in Ireland while living in Mongolia is sort of a doomed endeavor. So my attempt at NaNoWriMo was pretty half-hearted to begin with. When I started falling significantly behind on the wordcount within the first few days, I grew quickly disheartened.

Part of the problem was that i wasn’t really feeling the story or my characters, but a bigger part was that I’m just plain out of practice when it comes to writing fiction. I took two creative writing classes in college, but neither required me to write more than a page or two of anything at a time. Creating a scene is easy; creating an entire storyline, not so much.

Moreover, I’ve been reading a lot of Barbara Kingsolver lately, and I’ve found her nonfiction to be both inspiring and incredibly intimidating. For example:

The business of fiction is to probe the tender spots of an imperfect world, which is where I live, write, and read. (Small Wonder, np)

For example:

With a pile of stories on my lap I sat with this question, early on, and tried to divine for myself why it was that I loved a piece of fiction when I did, and the answer came to me quite clearly: I love it for what it tells me about life I love fiction, strangely enough, for how true it is. If it can tell me something I didn’t already know, or maybe suspected but never framed quite that way, or never before had socked me so divinely in the solar plexus, that was a story worth the read. (Small Wonder, np)

For example:

The artist whose medium is fiction does this in words. The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words.

This baffling manifesto is a command that rules my writing life. It believe it means there are truths we all know, but can’t make ourselves feel: Slavery was horrible. Love thy neighbor as thyself, or we’ll all go to hell in a handbasket. These are things that cannot be said in words because they’re too familiar to move us, too big and bald and flat to penetrate our souls. The artist must craft missiles to deliver these truths so unerringly to the right place inside of us we are left panting, with no possibility of doubting they are true. The novelist must do this in story, image, and character. And make the reader believe. (High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never, 233-334)

For example:

The fear of being perceived as idealogues runs so deep in writers of my generation it undoubtedly steers us away from certain subjects without our knowing it. The fear is that if you fall short of perfect exectution, you’ll be called “preachy.”

But falling short of perfection when you’ve plunched in to say what needs to be said–is that so much worse, really, than falling short when you’ve plunged in to say what didn’t need to be said? (High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never, 230)

[apologies about the inability to cite properly – most Kindle books aren’t paginated]

That last one is what really gets me. I am good at saying things well; I’ve been told that for a long time. I know how to take words and shape them to be powerful, or persuasive, or beautiful. But these excerpts struck me to my core; they made me question why I was writing in the first place. Yes, I can say things well – but in the light of such conviction, I’m unsure whether anything I have to say is worth saying.

There’s nothing like that sort of uncertainty and lack of confidence to gum up the works, and my ability to work on my story grew more and more impaired as the month wore on. But my ability to write other things was unaffected. This is the most active my blog has ever been, and I have a lovely long list of future entries waiting to be written. A bout of anger and nostalgia, unintentionally coupled with the new Taylor Swift album, led to the beginnings of a poem that I won’t inflict upon the Internet. It’s bad, and it’s pretty standard post-breakup material, but even so, poetry is not usually the medium I reach for when the need for self-expression calls. For one to pour forth like that is a noteworthy event.

And I’ve written a lot of things that haven’t made it onto this blog (yet) – journal entries, responses to articles friends have posted, and so on. when presented with the choice between working on a story that has yet to come to life and recording and analyzing an event that actually pertains to my day-to-day life, or that I want to remember, I think I know which I’m going to choose. My estimated output for today is probably about 1800 words – they’re just not in my novel.

So maybe I failed at National Novel Writing Month. But if you take out the “Novel” bit, I think I did alright.