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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All Things Mongolian

As a college student more focused on doing well in my studies than what I would do when I finished them, and then a resident of a country in which meeting immediate needs far surpassed the importance of future planning (must wash clothes to wear tomorrow! must go grocery shopping or starve! must get the power turned back on or have nothing to teach in class tomorrow!), networking has always seemed to me to be a supremely abstract concept, the sort of thing dealt with mostly by Professional People wearing suits and meeting by the office water cooler to discuss office politics and resume semantics. Instead, it turns out to be something that really matters to the pre-professional people desperate to find their first full-time jobs so that they can move out of their parents’ houses and feel like real adults.

Since I enjoy my 35 hours/week at the local florist, I would classify myself as anxious rather than desperate–but it is, nonetheless, the latter category with which I identify. Floral design is a fun field in which I get to exercise my oft-neglected creative spirit, but part-time employ at a small business covers neither dental nor vision-related expenses, and as a cavity-prone girl with glasses, I sort of need both. So if any of my readers know of any writing- or language-related job openings in Chicagoland, I would be deeply appreciative of a heads-up!

Weirdly, the upshot of having lived in a little-known country is that I often find myself on the other side of the networking paradigm. Even though I’ve been back in the US for six months, I still find myself getting emails and comments from folks seeking connections in Mongolia. Want advice on when/how to travel the country, how to obtain a bottle of whisky exported only to MGL, or how to get hold of the contacts you need for a research visa? Apparently, I’m the girl to ask! My reach in many of these areas is limited, especially as most of my contacts will return to the US this summer, but I promise you, dear readers, that I will always try my best to connect you to the right people to answer your strange and unforeseen questions. After all, on the grand karmic scale of things, that means that someone out there will eventually help me to find the job I’m seeking, right?

In the meantime, it also means that I find myself CC’d on all things Mongolian that cross my friends’ Facebook feeds. Mongolia has apparently been pretty trendy in the past month, so there have been a lot of these things, and some of them are awfully cool! Because I have been so shamefully bad at posting regularly this month (Mea culpa! Working on your feet for seven hours a day is tiring as all get-out!), please allow me to share a few with you while I work on generating new and interesting stories to tickle your collective fancy. (Holy unintentional euphemisms, Batman!)

FreeCreditScore “Mongolian” Slider

At some point in the last year, Mongolian made an appearance on a freecreditscore.com commercial! I thought it was cool to see this language being recognized in something so high-stakes a a US TV commercial, even if only as a novelty.

I’m afraid I can’t comment on the authenticity of the language, though perhaps some of my readers might be able to. I recognize several of the words, but the accent strikes me as… questionable.

Kazakh Eagle Huntress

BBC recently ran a story about Ashol-Pan, a thirteen-year-old Mongolian Kazakh girl apprenticed in the tradition of eagle hunting. The photos are gorgeous, even if the information is a little skimpy. It looks like I’m going to have to move the story of my own experience with a Kazakh eagle hunter up the queue to rectify this deficit!

A girl and her eagle.

Kazakh Photo Essay

For some basic information, as well as more spectacular photos, check out Christo Geoghegan’s photo essay on western Mongolia’s Kazakh population. Though they make up only a small percentage of the population of Mongolia as a whole, the Kazakh people are the majority in Bayan-Ölgii, the country’s western-most province. I was fortunate enough to visit the province during the Eagle Festival last October, and to stay with several Kazakh families. I have lots of stories to tell about the experience, but my pictures in no way compare to this professional’s! I highly suggest you check out his work.

Just one of many gorgeous photos! Seriously, go check these out.

That’s all for now, folks! Enjoy the pretty pictures while I work on generating some more content while also working and also also job searching.

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In Which I Make A Splash

“I can’t take my eyes off you for a second,” my mother sighed, reaching to turn up the heat in the car. “Are you sure we don’t need to stop at Sears on the way home?” she added teasingly, referring to the time I’d fallen into the fountain at the mall.

I grinned. “Nope, I think I’m good with just going home. Believe it or not, I’m not three years old anymore.”

The afternoon had started innocently enough. We’d driven down to Evanston for her to give a presentation on Lightroom, and after lunch, she’d asked if I wanted to drive over to the lake to take pictures. I agreed, since even on cloudy sixteen-degree (F) days, the snowdrifty ice sculptures are usually worth seeing. We parked the car and trudged across the oddly porous surface of the beach, whose sand-like color and texture belied the fact that it gave underfoot like week-old snow. We paused briefly to admire the marbling of colors that occurred where the wind had mixed snow and sand, and then she headed for the erosion wall while I made for the shoreline.

Lake Michigan is too wide to see across, deep enough for tallships to sail through, and located in area where winter temperatures hover close to freezing, so the ever-present wind has plenty of chances to toss up large waves before the surface alongshore glazes over with a thin coating of ice. The twenty feet of beach nearest the waterline had disappeared beneath irregularly-shaped hills of ice. Have you ever let wet sand dribble between your fingers to form coral-like castles? Beneath their patchy coating of new-fallen snow, these ten-foot hills had the same knobbly texture.

I made my careful way to the top, climbing at an oblique angle to avoid losing my footing and wishing I hadn’t left my new phone in the car; to my right, the wind and water had created an overhung cavern bedecked with icicles, and I wanted to take pictures of it. But I wasn’t going to go back and get it, so I turned my back to the wind and contemplated the surface of the lake before me as I waited for mother – who is, after all, the photographer – to catch up. The steely grey water near the horizon was in motion, but everything I could see clearly had frozen over. Twenty feet out, I could see faint inklings of the tide in the in-and-out swirling of the bubble just below the ice, but the ten feet closest to shore were opaque and lighter in color; clearly the ice there was thicker.

Photo credit: Jan Burke

When Mom reached me, I pointed out the cavern, and as she lay across the crest of the icy hill to get a few pictures of it, I picked my way down to the waterline. There was a reasonably flat spot that looked like a good seat, so I eased into it and swung my feet over the edge so that they dangled a few inches above the ice. I found good handholds to either side of my hips, settled my weight into my hands, and scooted my right foot down.

The ice held firm upon light contact, and so I made to tap it to test its strength. It gave almost immediately, shifting my weight beyond the point where I could support my weight with my arms, and then sh!tsh!tsh!t I was going down.

My left hand lost its grip as my left foot foot broke the ice, but I hung on with my right and found myself turning as I went in, so that I ended up dangling one-handed facing the wall of ice, waist deep in the half-frozen lake. My frantically-kicking feet did not touch the bottom, so I’d gone in somewhere more than waist-deep.

I was not inclined to test how much more. Yanking my left arm out of the water, I seized a likely-looking knob of ice, to which my wet glove clung helpfully, and hauled.

You know the moment in the first Pirates of the Caribbean when Jack, catapulted into the rafters of Will’s forge, hangs from both arms for only an instant before flying fluidly to his feet? (At 3:18 in the clip below; the link is cued, the embed isn’t.)

That doesn’t happen in real life; they had to use wires to make it happen on-screen. In real life, that maneuver involves pulling yourself up to chin-up height, awkwardly repositioning one elbow at a time until both are above the surface in question, and then pushing down with all your might until you can swing a leg up and over, all the while flailing your feet in a frantic and unconscious manner that leaves you with scrapes and multi-colored bruises you don’t remember getting.

The water was probably cold, but I didn’t notice the temperature any more than the beating my knees were taking; I was too focused on getting out of it. I didn’t make it up on the first try, or the second, but I didn’t fall in either. And so eventually I clambered out of Lake Michigan and made my soggy way up to my mother, who was still taking pictures.

“Mom, I did something stupid,” I said. “So it’s time to go back to the car.”

I hadn’t said anything during the mishap, nor fallen quickly enough to make an audible splash, so I had to explain to her that I was now soaked from the waist down. “Well, sh!t!” she said, tossing me the keys. “What’d you do that for? I haven’t hardly gotten any pictures!”

“Sorry,” I said, and began sloshing my way back to the car, abandoning the circuitous route I’d taken to the shoreline in favor of something more direct. But high school geometry, I remembered when  the snowdrift through which I’d been wading suddenly topped my kneecaps, tells but half the story. A straight line may be the shortest path between two points, but rarely is it the easiest. So by the time I made it back to the car, my left hand was no longer cooperating enough to unlock it, and creases on my pants and left sleeve had frozen stiff.

I turned on the heat and leaned out the window to wring the water out of my yak-wool socks while I waited for Mom to join me. “I guess it’s a good thing I left my phone in the car!” I said as she buckled up. She just shook her head.

“You want to go to Homer’s?” she asked on the way home, referring to the old-fashioned ice cream parlor we’d pass en route.

“Sure!” I said.

Alas, it was not to be. Apparently she felt I’d had enough ice today already.

Photo credit to Jan Burke for both pictures.


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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.


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Random Ramblings and Cold-Weather Acclimation

Duly noted: chicken tacos do not sit well when ingested immediately after working out. I knew they weren’t going to after the first few bites, but I finished my plate anyway; they were delicious, and I was hungry, and I was going to get my money’s worth. Besides, chicken tacos. An everyday thing stateside, but definitely a treat here.

And I can deal with some gastric grousing, so long as it’s not actual food poisoning. I leave UB in two days, and a train is not a good place to be when your stomach declares war. Not as bad as, say, a bus or an airplane (or worse yet, a meeker – see below), but still not good.

I've been packed into one of these with 22 of my closest friends; I think it legally seats about 14. Thank god it was only for an hour.

The cheapest form of transportation hereabouts, but you get what you pay for.

Besides, I’ve got stuff to do tomorrow: laundry, packing for my trip to UB, making cranberry sauce for Peace Corps Thanksgiving, baking cookies for the friends hosting me, acquiring the ingredients necessary to make said goodies, planning out my lessons for Thursday. Ironically, Thanksgiving is the only day I’m working this week; I don’t have classes Monday or Tuesday, Wednesday is election day (which is a national holiday, unlike in the US), and I’m taking Friday off to travel. Tough life, eh?

I used the first day of this non-work week to have the Americans over for dinner. The high school teachers among us midway through a two-week break, so we’ve been taking turns having everyone over for dinner. I made chili and cornbread, which were very well received by all but the Mongolians, who thought the chili too spicy. It’s the first time I had people over, and I think it went pretty well. I probably won’t play host to such a large group very often, though; there was barely enough space for us all to sit in my room, and nowhere near enough seating. And I think everyone now knows that I mean it when I ask them to bring their own cups/bowls/spoons if they don’t want to eat in shifts. I don’t even have enough bowls for us all to make one do double duty, as the Mongolians do (they don’t have separate words for “cup” and “bowl;” both are an аяга). Besides, that would have meant being unable to enjoy the chili and Nathan’s fantastic horchata simultaneously, and clearly, such things are meant to go together.

It could have been the body heat of so many people in such a small space, or it could have been a variety of other things: the extra layer of tape now gumming up the leaky seals in my windows, the fact that it’s actually stayed above 0*F for the past few nights, someone somewhere cranking up the radiators. But whatever the cause, it is now significantly warmer in my apartment. By “significantly warmer” I mean that my room now averages 75*F, otherwise known as “too dang hot!” It’s at least ten degrees warmer than I’d like it to be, seeing as a comfortable sleeping temperature for me is about 60.

And that’s before my body kicks into cold-weather mode, which it has apparently done. Today’s forecast high was only about 27, but it was a sunny 27, so I dressed appropriately when leaving the apartment: no gloves, hat, or coat, just a sweatshirt over a T-shirt. A short-sleeved T-shirt. I think my little brother would be proud. And no, as I repeatedly told Mongolians, I wasn’t cold.

This week’s teacher lesson is on weather, and for “snow,” I plan on showing them the picture of LSD (Lake Shore Drive, for the non-Chicagoans) during the Snowpocalypse. You know the one:

I really wish I'd been here to see this.

Never mind that this is not a typical Chicago winter, and that I was in a different state at the time. I just want some cold-weather street cred so people will stop telling me to put on a coat. I’ll put on coat when I’m cold, and I ain’t cold yet.

Nor, I’ll bet, are Mongolian babies. We have officially entered what Nathan likes to call “starfish baby season” – the time of year when Mongolian toddlers are so bundled up they can’t move. And I don’t mean they can barely move; they’re legitimately immobile, spread-eagled like a little starfish. Their parents sometimes carry them sideways under their arms, as you might a package. It’s an adorable and hilarious sight, and unfortunately it appears not to have made it onto Google Images. I’ll sneak some surreptitious pictures and post them when I get a chance.


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Really, I Swear I’m Not Cold (Yet)

Mongolian people have thus far proven to be very protective of me where cold is concerned; in fact, “overbearing” might be a more accurate word for it. I’m forever being told that I should put on slippers if I’m indoors, or a hat or a coat if we’re so much as passing through the courtyard on my way to class. More than a few of them have looked at my current cold weather apparel (a raincoat layered over a sweatshirt) and told me that it isn’t warm enough and I need to switch to my winter coat.

I beg to differ. I know they’re just trying to look out for me, and in January, I will doubtless heed their wisdom gladly. I’m sure that the dead of a Mongolian winter will teach me the real meaning of the word “cold.” But for now, I wish they’d lay off. I don’t think they quite grasp that America is a pretty big place, and parts of it, Chicago among them, get pretty darn cold. A Chicago winter has nothing on a Mongolian one, certainly, but it’s no picnic at the beach either. While I haven’t seen a temperature north of freezing for at least a week and wouldn’t be surprised if I don’t again until spring, the weather here hasn’t been exactly frigid – daily highs in the high teens to mid-twenties, nightly lows around 0. (All temperatures in Fahrenheit; if you’re a Celsius-user, convert accordingly.) To me, it still feels like an average December week in Chicago, except a month early. This is nowhere near the coldest weather I’ve ever experienced. We’ve yet to equal the coldest week I remember from college in southern Ohio, much less Chicago (or for that matter, Minneapolis or Colorado at New Years’, both of which I’ve experienced on multiple occasions). Thanks for the advice, friends, but I know how to manage this level of cold. It’s the Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina residents you should be worried about.

Moreover, I know my own body and how it handles changes in temperature. My body is excellent at heating itself up and terrible at cooling itself off, which means that I overheat quickly and easily. My ideal weather for any sort of outdoor activity (with the exception of beachgoing, since sunbathing does not qualify as an “activity,” and Lake Michigan never gets “warm,” only “less cold”) is 65 and sunny. Most of my friends would prefer it a good ten degrees warmer, but not me. It was 40 degrees when we hiked up Maol Réidh, and so foggy that the mist was condensing in our hair; I started the hike in a rain coat over long sleeves over short sleeves, but by the time we’d been walking half an hour, I’d stripped down to a T-shirt. That’s why I prefer cold to heat: you can always put on more layers, but there are only so many you can take off.

I’ve even found myself too warm here, outdoors, in the past week. When I walked to the gym on Monday morning, the temperature was probably around 0 (the Internet said -1 when I left and -7 when I returned, so who knows), and the walk to the gym was a good 15 minutes, so I’d layered up: tights under my pants, raincoat over sweatshirt over long sleeves, and my bank robber hat instead of the usual Russian grandmother way I wear my scarf. (A million thanks for that, Corry – it’s the warmest scarf I own, and I wear it nearly every day here!) And man, was I tempted to remove a few of those layers by the time I’d been walking for five minutes.

So please, coworkers, do note: my current “coat” is perfectly sufficient for the moment; it’s what I wear all winter in Chicago. It’s my fingers, toes, and nose that are more problematic, and no coat is going to keep them warm.

I think a big part of the reason the cold seems minimal so far is the weather that accompanies it. I lived through 13 full Chicago winters, plus a few weeks in the middle of another four – and let me tell you, they are a drab and dreary affair. The cold is so much colder when it’s accompanied by clouds and that vicious wind.

But the sun and the wind most come from different directions here, so it’s usually possible to walk on the lee side of a building without having to stay in the shadows. And there almost always are shadows, because there is almost always sun. Mongolia is known for its blue skies. The last few days were completely cloudless, with only a few to be seen today or yesterday – no uniform skies of grey stratus here! It means colder nights, without clouds to trap the days heat, but it also means the days here are infinitely more cheerful. And being in the sun makes a huge difference in the apparent temperature. We’ve only had one miserable day so far, and it wasn’t the temperature (probably around 15) that made it so, but the sharp wind and blowing snow. It felt more like 0; in fact, I’ve felt warmer in 0* weather.

Earlier this week, a friend asked if I fear the coming winter. A little, I said. I’m nervous about January. But for now, I’m doing just fine.