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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My Trip to Govi-Altai, Part IV: Тэмээ

Camels! Camels camels camels.

Riding a camel was really one of the only expectations I’d had as far as what I’d do with my time in the Gobi, but almost as soon as I arrived, it started to sound as though I wouldn’t be able to. When Mongolians give you a possible date for something but then push it back every time you ask about it, chances are it’s not going to happen. The camels were really far away, we were told; it was too snowy here, so they’d had to go further out, where there was more food. The roads were bad and they didn’t think we could handle the ride. We would go on Friday, then Saturday, then maybe Sunday if the weather was good.

And then one day one of Eric’s counterparts informed us we’d be leaving at noon the next day. In most of Mongolia, this would mean we wouldn’t actually hit the road until two, but because Delger occupies a hole in the Mongolian space-time continuum, we actually left at ten. It’s a good thing we knew to be ready early, because bundling up for the occasion involved the time-consuming donning of many, many layers.

I could have just worn my coat, of course; since my deel isn’t lined,  it’s nowhere near as warm as my winter coat. But if you had a chance to ride a camel in the country’s traditional dress, wouldn’t you? That’s what I thought.

An hour in the car brought us past mountains, roaming herds of livestock, and a strange line at which the snow just stopped. It didn’t correspond with a ridge, or a road, or anything that I could see; nor did it transition gradually. It was like someone had laid a giant tarp across the ground and removed it after the snow ended.

Weird, right?

Weird, right?

Finally we arrived at a small cluster of gers. We disembarked from the car, pausing so I could put on my deel –  hadn’t been wearing it because I knew it would be warm in the car, and I’m more likely to get carsick if it’s too warm – and headed for the nearest one. The guard-kid bleated at us as we approached, so I stopped to take a picture.

goats wearing blankets = unexpectedly adorable

goats wearing blankets = unexpectedly adorable

What with my (utter lack of) Mongolian language skills, I didn’t really know what was discussed in the ger. Eric attempted to translate huushuur into English, and we learned that “fried pastry” is an amazingly effective tongue twister for Mongolians; as their language contains neither [p] nor [f], they tend not to be able to differentiate between the two sounds. Our hosts threw some buuz in the steamer and handed us steaming cups of milk tea. I sipped politely at mine, glad that southern suutei tsai is made without most of the fat and salt they use up north, but still unable to stomach a large quantity of the stuff. I was glad to be able to hand my bowl off to Eric when he finished his own.

While we waited for the buuz to finish cooking, Eric presented our hosts with a gift to thank them for their hospitality. This is pretty standard anytime you visit someone, but especially when they’re doing you a favor like letting them ride their camels. In that case, there is a specific protocol to follow. You present the gift with both hands; you might need only one to hold the gift, but the хадаг (the ubiquitous ceremonial blue scarf) must be draped across both. And as when doing anything important in Mongolia, you’re supposed to wear your hat.

The receiver is supposed to wear his hat too.

The receiver is supposed to wear his hat too.

Finally, the sitting and eating and talking and gift-giving were complete, and our hosts took us out to their camels. There were two saddled, but it seemed we’d only be riding the one. They’re much larger I would have thought; it’s one thing to know an animal’s big, but quite another to stand beside it and observe that its head is roughly the size of your entire torso. We were seeing them in all their winter glory, bulked out by a significant quantity of shaggy hair. In the summer, that hair comes out in patches, leaving the camels looking positively diseased.

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Sitting down, he’s almost shoulder height. Told you they were big.

I got to go first, and it was clear they had absolutely no faith in my abilities. I was pony-led the entire time, and they told me to hold onto the hump when the camel stood up – a totally unnecessary direction. Camels aren’t exactly graceful when they stand up and sit down, but the motion doesn’t begin to compare to sitting a bucking pony. Like draft horses, camels don’t seem prone to, or even capable of, large sudden movement. Besides, the humps fore and aft of you make for a very secure seat. A comfortable one, too; Mongolian camel saddles are apparently much more padded than the ones they use for their horses.

I was bound and determined to have another turn, especially after they let Eric control the camel himself. And they were kind enough to let me have one. The camel was biddable, but I suppose I would be too if I was being directed through a piercing in my upper lip. He responded to leg pressure too, which is more than can be said of many of the horses here. And he stood and sat in response to verbal commands. He wasn’t happy about it, though. From all his whining, you would have thought we were doing something much worse than walk him around in circles.

They let us ride double. That was pretty cool.

They let us ride double. That was pretty cool.

I’m not sure what I expected a camel to sound like, but this one certainly defied all my expectations. He moaned and whined and squeaked, emitting noises that doubtless have been used for aliens in movie sound effects. I mean it; that’s the closest comparison I can come up with.

Camels make funny noises. Fancy that.


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Hudoo, Here I Come!

As of the time this entry is published, I’ll have been on the road for over a day. The Embassy arranged an outreach trip for the the Fulbrighters that will take us through Arkhangai and Zavkhan aimags. We’re starting in Ulaanbaatar, then heading west to Tsetserleg, Tariat, and Uliastai, looping back up to Tosontsengel, and then making the long trek back to UB.

 

Our itinerary. Tsetserleg on Monday, Tariat on Tuesday, Uliastai on Thursday, Tosontsengel on Friday. Then two days for our return to the capital.

Our itinerary. Tsetserleg on Monday, Tariat on Tuesday, Uliastai on Thursday, Tosontsengel on Friday. Then two days for our return to the capital.

Google maps puts the trip at around 70 hours, which might be too much, but which also might not be enough. I have no doubt we’ll cut across the country between Tariat and Uliastai instead of going way out of our way to take the actual roads that Google thinks we should – but while that will certainly cut our distance, it might not make the trip much faster. I certainly hope we’ll take the roads back the way we came during our return trip, as driving cross-country is, to put it lightly, a rough experience.

I’ve discussed the difficulties of travel in Mongolia previously, but mostly they boil down to this: nothing in this country is well-made. Cars are usually shoddy imports, shoddily maintained; roads are practically potholed out of existence if they exist at all. The drive from Tariat to Uliastai will probably mean following the tire tracks of those who have driven that way previously; in most of the хөдөө, or countryside, those are what pass for “roads.”

I do not do well when driving through the backcountry even in the states, as my family will readily attest. I can handle hills, or I can handle switchbacks; I can’t handle both at once. The next week is likely to give me plenty of both, probably simultaneously, along with a healthy helping of bumps and jolts from the lack of pavement. I can hardly wait.

To make matters worse, I don’t have any motion-sickness medication. And I can’t buy any, either; apparently it just doesn’t exist in this country. I asked the medical officers from the Peace Corps as well as the ones at the Embassy, and this was the closest thing I got to a helpful answer:

Actually Meclazine should be available but, Valium 5mg tablets one or two tablets every six hours works pretty well. It is the preferred drug of choice for Labrynthitis and I just used some on a patient this week who loved it. I think you can get a prescription for Valium and try it.  Scopolamine is an excellent drug for motion sickness and it is sold as a patch but, I do not think you will that in UB.  But, I am sure you can find Valium and that will help a lot.

Valium? I’ll pass, thanks all the same.

So I’m headed off to the wild this weekend, with only peppermint gum and candied ginger to settle my stomach. But we’ll be giving presentations at schools and playing games and making crafts with kids, which ought to be lots of fun. And apparently there are hot springs somewhere along our trajectory. Now that I am looking forward to.


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My Visit to Govi-Altai, Part III: Delger

As vacations go, my visit to Delger wasn’t particularly eventful. I was staying with a friend, after all, and of the two of us, I was the only one on vacation. Exploring on my own wasn’t really an option, either; there’s not a lot to see in a soum, but I wasn’t about to venture outside of it. I may have lived in this country for almost eight months now, but my spoken language abilities, at best, rival those of a two-year-old, and my navigation abilities are, shall we say, notoriously lacking. I do a decent job if I’m paying attention, but if someone else was leading the group from point A point B, I won’t be able to find my way between them, even if I’ve walked the route five times. And I rely heavily on the sun to orient myself, which means I’m SOL at night or on overcast days. And this is Mongolia in the winter we’re talking about – sunny, but snow everywhere you look, and cold enough to kill you pretty quickly . Nope, I definitely wasn’t venturing out on my own.

So rather than sit around in Eric’s room all day, I helped him teach. It was a lot of fun, because it allowed us to show the kids what interactions between native speakers sound like. I wish I was able to do that in my own classes – to demonstrate “repeat after me” instead of having to translate it, to have a partner whose idea of team teaching wasn’t to sit at the back of the room on Facebook and translate as needed. I also liked getting to see how he managed his classroom: how he turns the usual “what day is it?” into a pronunciation exercise, for example (most Mongolians pronounce 2013 as ‘two tousand turty’). I came back with new ideas for games and tongue twisters to use with my classes, additions that are always appreciated.

But we did venture out of the school grounds on a couple of occasions, and not just to have dinner at a counterpart’s ger or wander from delguur to delguur in search of eggs, potatoes, and candles. We spent one afternoon hiking to a local landmark called surguul (cургууль) – “the school.” I guess that’s where the school was located once upon a time, though Delger’s school, like the rest of Delger, is now located on the other side of the lake. Its location means it’s a lot easier to reach in the winter than the summer; rather than having to take the long way around the lake, through mud and quicksand, we just walked straight across the ice.

There were large cracks in the lake’s surface where the ice had clearly melted and refrozen, which gave us some trepidation about walking upon it. But water in a Mongolian January, even a warm one, is pretty thoroughly frozen. The ice ma not have been ten feet thick like the surface of Khuuvsgul, but most of this lake was a lot less than ten feet deep to begin with. So we weren’t too worried.

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All the pictures that follow are actually from Eric’s camera, since mine ran out of battery as soon as I tried to take pictures of us in front of the rock. Camera batteries do not like cold, and they definitely don’t like Mongolian cold.

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“School” seems like a misnomer – that rock looks like a camel to me!

We actually climbed all the way to the top of the rock formation, the part that looks to me like a camel’s head. In doing so, I learned that I’m a lot more cautious about clambering around on rock formations in the winter. I’ve lost a lot of the mountain goat fearlessness I possessed as a child regardless, but I’m even less confident in the season of snow and ice. Even minor impacts are more painful in the cold, not to mention more likely. The clothes don’t help, either; it’s hard to clamber around in a knee-length coat, and Mongolian boots are not known for having good traction.

But we made it to the top anyway, even if we had to make our way carefully across the final gap instead of leaping it as we would have in the summer. We stayed there for a while, talking and taking in the view. And catching our breath: walking through snow, even shallow snow, requires more exertion than we’d anticipated. I shed several layers during the walk there and spent a good part of the walk back alternating between zipping and unzipping my coat, not to mention pushing back my scarf (I was too hot with it on) and pulling it back on (my ears were cold without it). Yep, that’s right: I can overheat even in a Mongolian winter.

I'm overheating; his breath is freezing on his scarf. This is why I came to Mongolia and not Thailand.

I’m overheating; his breath is freezing on his scarf. This is why I came to Mongolia and not Thailand.

We did have one more adventure, the much-anticipated highlight of my trip. But that one deserves a post of its own.

 


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So you’re tired of hearing about “rape culture”?

This this this. Thank you, Rant against the Random, for putting all of this together.

Rethink the Rant

TRIGGER WARNING:

The following includes descriptions, photos, and video that may serve as a trigger for victims of sexual violence.
Please be advised. 

Someone asked me today, “What is ‘rape culture’ anyway? I’m tired of hearing about it.”

Yeah, I hear ya. I’m tired of talking about it. But I’m going to keep talking about it because people like you keep asking that question.

Rape culture is when a group of athletes rape a young girl, and though there are dozens of witnesses, no one says, “Stop.”

Rape culture is when a group of athletes rape a young girl, and though there are dozens of witnesses, they can’t get anyone to come forward.

Rape culture is when a group of athletes rape a young girl, and adults are informed of it, but no consequences are doled out because the boys “said nothing happened.”

Rape culture is when a group…

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We Interrupt this Program to Join the Outraged Chorus

If you’re here to read about my latest adventures in Mongolia, I’m afraid you’ll have to come back on Friday. This post is not about Mongolia; it’s about something my friends in the States have recently brought to my attention, to which I feel obligated to respond.

Last month, The Onion came under fire for a tweet calling a certain 9-year-old actress a certain derogatory expletive. Now, I’m not a fan of that word; in fact, it’s probably my least favorite word in the English language, and I’m hard-pressed to come up any acceptable circumstances in which to call a woman that. But in this case, I wasn’t particularly offended. This is a satirical newspaper we’re talking about, after all; their job is to say things so ludicrous that you can’t take them seriously.

Two years ago, they ran a video that probably caused a similar amount of outrage, “College Basketball Star Heroically Overcomes Tragic Rape He Committed. I’d embed it if I knew how, but since I don’t, you’ll just have to click the link.

The video’s content is just as ludicrous as its title. It features sappy music and lauds the athlete in question for continuing his basketball career after he “overcame the trauma of committing a terrible rape” and for “refusing to let what happened to the girl he raped define him.” The girl in question is mentioned only twice, and fleetingly; instead, the coverage sympathizes with the athlete. He gets painted as a victim of an unfortunate circumstance, while the real victim is completely glossed over.

But that wouldn’t happen in real news coverage, would it? Would reporters really lament the potentially ruined futures of the perpetrators of a rape, rather than the victim?

Apparently they would.

Due to the sluggardly nature of my Internet, I’ve only been able to watch CNN and NBC’s coverage of the Steubenville rape case (ABC’s just won’t play for me), but the following viral graphic summarizes the coverage quite well.

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At least NBC’s coverage talks about the victim’s future and laments the common occurrence of this sort of crime, even if it waits until the very end to do so. But the CNN footage is infuriating. It stresses the emotional nature of the courtroom and the verdict’s delivery and focuses on the impact the conviction will have on the defendants’ young lives.

I don’t care if the boys’ football careers and reputations have been ruined. I’m not sorry that the “registered sex offender” label will follow them for the rest of their lives. They committed a crime, and they’re getting off lightly by being tried as juveniles rather than adults. I hope their apologies are heartfelt, and that the tears they shed expressed genuine contrition for their actions rather than sorrow at having “watched as they believe their life fell apart” [sic].

But it seems the reporters at CNN feel differently. They’re so busy focusing on what this sentence will do to the lives of the two rapists that it takes them over five minutes to acknowledge that the rape itself might have had consequences for another person. They mention the victim a few times prior to that five-minute mark, but as an object rather than a person: “the rape of a sixteen-year-old girl,” “a photograph of the victim laying naked on the floor” [sic]. When they do mention the victim and what this crime might have done to her, she’s still subordinated to the consequences suffered by the perpetrators: “when that verdict is handed down,” says CNN’s legal contributor, “there’s always that moment of just, lives are destroyed – and lives have already been destroyed by the crime.”

Yes, lives have been destroyed, but the life destroyed by the crime itself should be the focus of our sympathy, not the lives “destroyed” by the verdict. The victim of the actual crime should not be an afterthought, as she so clearly is here.

From a writer’s standpoint, I can begin to understand why they’ve chosen to present the story this way. Since the victim is also a minor, her name is not being publicly disclosed, nor are any details which might reveal her identity. It’s hard to create sympathy for a Jane Doe, and you can’t center a story around the victim if you can’t actually say anything about her.

But that doesn’t mean that you turn the story of a rape into a lament for the “promising futures” of the young rapists. If we’re going to lament anything, it should be their poor choices and the impact their actions will have on the life of the girl they raped. To turn the defendants of this case into victims does a disservice to actual victims – of this rape, and of all others.

This is not the first time I’ve talked about rape culture on my blog, and unfortunately, I’m sure it won’t be the last. When someone can leave a flyer about “The Top Ten Ways to Get Away with Rape” in a men’s dorm bathroom as a “joke,” there is something wrong with our culture. When blame is placed on the victim of a rape instead of the perpetrators (“she was wearing provocative clothing; she was asking for it”), there is something wrong with our culture.

In the last election, America made a number of steps towards removing rape culture perpetuators from positions of political power. I was heartened by this pattern; it gave me the impression that a number of people were dissatisfied with the status quo, and that we might soon see more efforts to dislodge rape culture’s hold.

I am likewise glad to see how much outrage there is at the main news media’s coverage of this trial. My Facebook news feed is abuzz with indignation, and a Google search for “Steubenville rape coverage” turns up more articles about the media’s slanted reporting than actual articles about the trial – including a petition for CNN to publicly apologize for its coverage. But these responses are found on Gawker, HuffPost, ThinkProgress, and the like, rather than the media stations most Americans rely on for their news.

That needs to change. How must that poor girl and her family feel, watching reporters sympathize with rapists on the nightly news? How must other victims of rape feel when they, too, are implicitly blamed for destroying the lives of those who attacked and violated them?

Rape culture is already firmly ensconced in America, and the last thing we need is for the media to perpetuate it like this.


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Миний Захирал (My Director)

I meant to update last Friday when I got home from school but was prevented from doing so by an unexpectedly long and flustered day. Fridays are already my busiest day of this week, and this one was even more so because of an event that could have long-lasting implications for ХАА-н МСУТ: the labor minister came to call.

From what I understand, the situation is as follows: the most recent election brought a different political party to power, and with that came a change in the prominent government positions. The new labor minister is reviewing all the institutions of “higher education,” a term I’m using generously, and a number of directors have been replaced. My director is not a member of the newly-powerful Democratic Party, and as a result, she’ll be particularly subject to scrutiny.

I had a very small part to play in the inspection process: I hung out in the director’s room while we waited for the labor minister so that I could greet him with her when he arrived. As a foreigner, I was definitely a status symbol, and she wanted to make sure he knew I was there. After that, all I had to do was rejoin the other teachers and wait for them to make speeches I couldn’t understand.

I can’t imagine that they would replace Tsooj. She’s the most motivated and enthusiastic Mongolian I’ve ever met, and one of the most Western-thinking as well. When she gets an idea, she follows through with it; when she schedules a meeting, she expects you to show up on time – a truly novel concept in this country, as I’ve discussed previously. Obviously, the fact that she’s acted as my benefactor biases me in her favor, but I don’t just like her for her generosity. She’s caring and conscientious and committed to her job – she’s usually there from 8 or 9 am to 6 pm, and I’ve never seen her wasting time on Facebook and the like.

If the labor minister does choose to replace her, it will make my decisions about next year much easier. While I haven’t discussed it here previously, I’ve been contemplating extending my stay in Mongolia to a second year, and which way I’m leaning changes on a daily basis. But if they replace Tsooj, there’s no question about it: I’m gone. I want no part of an education system that would fire someone so good at her job out of politics, and I wouldn’t want to live in Mongolia without her friendship and support. It’s thanks to her that my apartment has, through the additions of a hot plate, a mattress, a toaster oven, and a vacuum cleaner, become more livable. She’s the one who has taken over my linguistic and cultural education: adopting me for Tsagaan Sar, giving me lessons in Mongolian, teaching me to make buuztsuivan, and huushuur, and now arranging music lessons for me. And while she credits me with the remarkable improvement in her English, all I’ve done is give her the motivation to study (and all that required was being here). She’s done all the hard work herself.

So best of luck to you, Tsooj. If they’ve any sense at all, the board will decide in your favor.


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My Trip to Govi-Altai, Part II: Buying a Deel

Although stopping for food was certainly a necessary part of our trip to Altai’s zah, it was not our primary objective. That had long since been established: we were going to get me a deel.

The deel (transliterated from the Cyrillic дээл, but pronounced more like “dell”) is the traditional dress of Mongolia. It’s a wrap-style outer garment that reminds many Americans of a robe, though it’s worn more like a coat. (Albeit a coat with a very useful front pouch in which you can put things like your wallet, or a bottle of vodka, or the adorable rabbit you’re petnapping from the vegetable store.)

Deels come in two varieties: summer and winter. The summer ones are lighter, though not exactly breathable. Of old they were supposedly made of silk, and some of the fancy ones still are, but most of the ones you find these days are synthetic. Winter deels, too, are usually synthetic, but the nicer ones are made from lambskin. It’s also pretty easy to get a woolen lining, which makes even a cheap winter deel considerably warmer.

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Inguun hasn’t really got the “smile for the camera” thing down, but little kids in deels are pretty much the cutest thing ever.

In the countryside, many people wear their deels every day, but city-dwellers typically don them only for Naadam, Tsagaan Sar, and special occasions like weddings, graduations, and haircutting ceremonies. They also tend to favor updated styles for these special-occasion deels; they’re often cut much closer and are pulled over the head or zipped close rather than wrapped and tied. Even the ones with front closures bear as much resemblance to a dress as to a traditional deel. I wore one such garment for our Teacher’s Day concert last month, and I’d like to buy one before I leave the country to wear on special occasions back home.

Me in my Teacher's Day concert finery.

Me in my Teacher’s Day concert finery.

But our search that day was for something simpler: just a common winter deel. Preferably a blue one, to match my eyes and approximately half the clothing in my wardrobe. Even so, this proved trickier than expected. While the lady at the first place we went to was very friendly and helpful, the deels she showed us were all turquoise. I like turquoise, but not like this; these were flat, unpatterned, and eye-smartingly loud. We did spot one swath of ice-blue fabric way up on a shelf, but it was far too ornate and definitely out of our price range.

I tried a few on anyway, shrugging reluctantly out of my coat and pulling them on as quickly as possible. An unheated Mongolian store in January, even a mild January, is not a comfortable place to be without a coat. Especially when the “warm” clothes you’re trying on have been chilling on those freezing cold shelves for goodness knows how long.

Unfortunately for me, fastening a deel is an acquired skill – one which, needless to say, I had not yet acquired. Common deels do not zip, and while some of the nicer ones have buttons, most don’t have those either. Instead, they close with small loops of trim through which you slip knotted trip affixed to the other part of the garment. The system is button-like, to be sure, but less secure; the knots are far more likely to slip from their holes than your standard button. It’s also more difficult to master, as the trim is somehow simultaneously slick enough to slip between your fingers and rough enough to hurt that one nailbed that was exposed when you broke a a nail last week. The placement doesn’t help either: two on your collar, two to three along your shoulder, another two to three along your thigh, and one under the armpit. The shoulder and thigh fastenings are easily visible and accessible, but the other two locations are not, even if you hoist your arm awkwardly to try to peer under it. And they’re all on the right side of your body. Being a lefty is a definite advantage when it comes to getting deel-ed up.

Eric helped me fumble through the process, but even after all that trouble, we were forced to admit that these were not the deels we were looking for. We did find a very nice white fur hat (to the back of which, I swear, the rabbit’s ears were still attached), but hats are apparently one of the things for which the price mysteriously doubles when a white person does the asking.

So on to the next delguur we went. This one, thankfully, prominently featured a little space heater. By no means was it roasty-toasty in there, but at least I wasn’t covered in gooseflesh the instant I unzipped my coat.

It only took a few moments of browsing for us to identify the deel I wanted to try on. A shade or two darker than cobalt, with white-gold trim and embroidered blue flowers outlined in white, it matched my specifications much better than anything I had seen thus far.

This time, we has a shopkeeper’s assistant to help me into my deel. She made quick work of the fastenings, though she clucked in disapproval at the apparently inadequate length of the deel itself, and especially of the sleeves. Hudoo deels often have extra-long sleeves with flared ends, which can be rolled back to free the hands or extended to keep them warm. Mine is not a hudoo deel, but the little boy’s in Gracie’s adorable photo is.

Shopkeeper-lady apparently though I needed one. She extended one of my arms, taking my hand to demonstrate – and gasped, clutching both of my hands in hers and exclaiming at how “хүйтэн” they were. I get this reaction a lot: from friends, from boyfriends, even, when I was in UB for Thanksgiving, rom a a drunk man on the bus on whose foot I tripped. Mongolians seem particularly concerned by it and often make much over the temperature of my hands even when I don’t find them noticeably cold.

Eventually, she stopped fussing about my hands and started fussing over my choice of бүс, or belt. They wanted to give me one in construction-sign orange. It’s a common belt color, and my father the faithful Illini fan would have heartily approved the color combination, but I was not a fan. The next one they tred to give us was green. But while the tattered leaf-green sample sash we’d used when I tried the deel on went nicely with my blue deel (and dark green Mongol boots), the fabric they had for sale was much… brighter. Acid-green belts might be just as common as fluorescent orange ones, regardless of what color deel they’re holding on, but that didn’t mean I wanted one.

Finally, we persuaded the shopkeeper to cut us a strip of white fabric, which I thought looked better with the trim and embroidery on my deel. Helper-lady wasn’t pleased with this one either, declaring it neither long nor wide enough. It was just long enough double knot when (tightly) wrapped around me twice; the more elaborate tying methods would have required a few extra feet of sash. I’d like to have that option, but fabric is easy to buy, so I shouldn’t have much difficulty finding a longer bus. So we paid and headed out to catch our ride. I had my first deel.

Horse, snow, countryside, fur, deel, mountains - Mongolia in a nutshell.

Horse, snow, countryside, fur, deel, mountains – Mongolia in a nutshell.

A final picture with my director's parents, both of whom donned their hats and matching deels just for the picture.

A final picture with my director’s parents, both of whom donned their hats and matching deels just for the picture.


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Happy (Belated) Women’s Day!

Friday was Women’s Day, an international holiday that I had never heard of until I came to a country that actually celebrated it. In honor of the occasion, there was no school that day – or postal service, or anything else done by an employee of the government.

In addition to canceling classes on Friday, my school had half-classes the day before. This allowed us to finish teaching around noon so that we could all prepare for the evening. The women went to salons and each other’s houses to gussy up while the men prepared a party for us. At 4:30, the women of my school, myself included, regrouped at a café to hear a lecture of some kind. I don’t really know what it was about, since I was only able to catch a few words here and there. I do know that the words I heard most often were “woman” and “mother,” and also that the speech made almost everyone cry. After the speech, a few toasts, and the reading of a poem about almost ever teacher (I didn’t get one, but that’s just as well, since I wouldn’t have understood it anyway), we headed off to the party.

This is the fourth teachers’ party I have attended in the past 2.5 months, and I confess, I’m not really looking forward to the Men’s Day party next Sunday. These parties are pretty much all the same, regardless of occasion: you get together around a large table covered with baskets of fruit and candy and bottles of alcohol and listen while the people around you make toasts and speeches and sing songs you probably don’t understand. Then you eat large quantities of food and attempt to fend off the roving pourers who try to ply you with vodka, wine, and beer. There is club-type dancing and more traditional Mongolian waltz-type dancing, which confuses me immensely because they tend not to distinguish between 3/4 and 4/4 music.These parties are kind of fun once the dancing starts, though it’s hard to appreciate everything leading up to that point when you don’t know the songs and can’t understand the speeches. But hey, free food, right?

The problem for me is not the party itself so much as the preparation involved. Mongolians like to dress nicely for work, and they enjoy glamming up  for special occasions even more. The women put on nice dresses and pantyhose and high heels. They go to salons and get their hair curled and styled. They put on even more makeup than usual.

My director, knowing the limitations of my wardrobe and budget, has been immensely helpful in keeping me from looking woefully underdressed. She has, on several occasions, found friends from whom to borrow dresses and shoes for me, and she has taken me with her to her hairdresser (her sister) before every party. And I’m grateful for that. But I’m also sick of it.

I have spent more time in hair salons in the past three months than in my entire life before Mongolia. Granted, that’s not saying much; “getting my hair cut” has been mostly limited to my mother trimming my hair, my first college roommate did my hair for our two Charter Day Balls (she did a fantastic job), and I went to all of two dances in high school. But there’s a reason for that: I am very much a tomboy.

I hate the crunchy feeling of hairsprayed hair, and the fumes give me massive headaches. I don’t have the patience to mess around with a curling or straightening iron, and the closest I’d come to dyeing my hair is dousing it with lemon juice and sunlight. Honestly, all I’ve ever wanted from my hair was for it to grow longer and faster (and possibly tangle a little less). While I do enjoy dressing up now and then, I feel the same way about getting my hair done on a regular basis as about wearing makeup every day: I am so very not interested.

I don’t mean to sound like an ungrateful party pooper, but the fact of the matter is that I am just not a party girl. I’d rather spend an evening curled up with a good book or watching a movie with friends than at a drunken banquet. Living in Mongolia is not going to change that, no matter how many parties my school throws.

 


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My Trip to Govi-Altai, Part I: A Geography Lesson

I realize these posts are coming to you rather out of order, and for that, I apologize. I have a giant backlog of things to talk about, and I’m hoping (probably in vain) to get caught up on it soon. It’s hard to write about the arrival spring and how you wish for more winter when you haven’t really done winter justice in your writing yet. But in writing about winter, I get caught up on things like what it’s like to use an outhouse in the winter, and that should properly go in my yet-to-be-written entry on my visit to Govi-Altai. But if I’m forever trying to catch up with where I should be, I don’t bother to write down the things that are happening currently, and then I lose the better part of those details. Baugh. I suppose that’s why I have a journal and a blog. I just have to make the time to write in both. And now that I’ve done my typical pre-entry ramble, let’s get on with the topic of today’s post!

For those of you who don’t know me from real life, or who I haven’t talked to much, I flew down to the southwestern corner of Mongolia in January to visit a friend who lives in Govi-Altai. Mongolian geography 101: Mongolia is divided into 21 aimags, or provinces. I live in Orkhon, the smallest; Govi-Altai is one of the largest. It’s also one of the five aimags named after the desert that sprawls across them. (And yes, it’s called the “Govi” here, not Gobi; in Cyrillic, the /v/ sound is written is /в/, which I think is where the disparity arose.)

This aimag is so called because it contains both the Govi desert and the Altai Mountain Range. I love me some mountains, so I was very happy about getting to see those, even if it was just from the air.

None of my pictures do the sight justice. Though the way the wind flattens the snow at the top does look pretty cool.

None of my pictures do the sight justice. Though the way the wind flattens the snow at the top does look pretty cool.

My flight landed in the aimag center, Altai. An aimag center is not centrally located within an aimag; rather, it is that aimag’s largest town and the center of its administration. Aimag centers often share names with their aimags, but not always; Erdenet is the aimag center for Orkhon, for example. Eric, however, does not live in an aimag center; he lives in Delger, a soum about an hour from Altai. Soums are smaller than aimag centers; essentially, they’re small towns out in the countryside. They have schools and small shops and lots of dwellings… and not much else. For anything other than the most basic groceries, Eric has to go to Altai.

Driving is a good way to make money in Mongolia, so you can nearly always find someone who’ll take you where you need to go. Some drivers make the journey from one major city to another, or from an aimag center to nearby soums, on a daily basis. But while there would certainly be drivers going from Altai to Delger, neither Eric nor I trusted that I would be able to find one with my limited Mongolian language abilities. So he met me at the airport, and then we hung out in Altai for a few hours before heading to his soum.

We went out to lunch with the PCVs stationed in Altai (there are several) and hit the zah for groceries. We were thwarted in our attempts to find meat other than mutton, but I did get to pet the resident rabbit at the produce store. (You’d think he’d eat the merchandise…) And we had one other important errand: the acquisition of a deel. It occurs to me that I have yet to write about Mongolian traditional clothing, so I will relate the story of purchasing my own in a subsequent post.

And then, suddenly, we had to go. Delger is apparently located in a rift in the space-time continuum, in which the laws of Mongolian Time operate in reverse. Concerts take place two hours before the posted start time and are just ending when you arrive; buses that were supposed to leave at 3 depart at 2. We took our time about getting lunch and heading to the zah because our driver had said we wouldn’t be leaving until 8. Then, as we headed to lunch, he called to say we’d be leaving at 5. And when we ran into him at the zah, the departure time had been changed to 3.

So we piled into the car with four other people, a number of bags and packages, and an accordion, and started down the road to Delger.


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It’s official, at least as far as I’m concerned: spring has come to Mongolia.

In Chicago, the transition point between seasons is pretty arbitrary. The first appearance of crocuses and snowdrops could mean spring has come and that mud and rain shall reign hereafter, but it’s just as likely that those brave little flowers will be bured under six inches of snow the day after they begin to unfurl, and that they’ll be encased in ice for another month.

Here, it’s a lot more clear-cut. Forget what the Mongolians say about winter beginning on December 21st (especially since January was much, much warmer than December); to my way of thinking, it started a few days before Halloween, with the first snowfall that didn’t melt. In the last week of October, the temperature dropped below freezing–and then it stayed that way until this week.

Temperatures continue to fall to single digits and below at night, but during the day we’ve got puddles on the streets, slush on the sidewalks, and mud everywhere else. As far as I’m concerned, that means it’s spring. When the liquid water disappears, it’s winter; when it comes back, it’s spring. Quite a simple distinction, really.

The thing is, I liked the water better when it stayed frozen. Walking was a lot less perilous, for one thing. Packed snow is packed snow, which in time gets worn away to dirt or pavement or whatever. But puddles are messy, especially when cars drive through them, and they freeze into ice slicks overnight. Walking to school in the morning in January was cold and kind of unpleasant, but now it’s downright dangerous.

And I’m told that’s just the beginning. Every PCV who’s already been here for a year or more has told me that spring is the worst season in Mongolia. The temperatures vary wildly, the wind is unbearable and kicks up the newly-exposed sand, the heat shuts off both too late and too early. You get mud in your shoes and grit in your teeth. I’m more than prepared to believe it.

But most of them rejoice at its coming anyway, since it means the end of the winter. I attribute this to their disproportionate origin from warmer climes; of the eight other Americans in Erdenet, two are from Oregon, one from Kansas, one from Kentucky, one from North Carolina, one from South Carolina, one from Los Angeles, and one from Florida. The North Carolinian and I are the only ones who are used to snow in any large quantity (he grew up in southern Wisconsin). And even he is more than ready for the end of winter.

But I actually enjoyed winter in Mongolia. While I do wish we’d had more snow, I didn’t miss the slushy streets and unending bleak grey skies of winter in Chicago. I liked the sunshine; I liked knowing that the weather today would only from the weather yesterday and the day before in its degree of coldness. Because it’s cold here, it’s cold. Throw-a-cup-of-boiling-water-into-the-air-and-watch-it-turn-into-snow cold. And as long as I’ve got enough layers on, I like the cold. I would rather it be too cold than too hot, which is why every part of me except my toes is glad I came to Mongolia and not, say, Thailand.

But my toes are glad it’s spring. And even if the rest of me would rather temperatures hover between, say, 0 and 15˚ Fahrenheit for another month or so, I suppose that’s still something.