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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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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A Day in the Life

Ways in which today was successful:

  • I spent all afternoon hiking
  • I remembered to put sunscreen on my face and neck before leaving
  • I climbed a rock face that was probably a little too steep for me to do this safely.
  • I managed said climb without injury.
  • I completed about 3/4 of my intended route
  • I made some Russian friends! They were having a barbecue up on the mountain, and when I walked by, they invited me to join them at their table for food and “maybe a little vodka” (ha). So I hung out with them for an hour or two. They taught me the Russian words for please, thank you, hot, cold, and dance, effectively doubling my Russian vocabulary.

Ways in which today was not so successful:

  • I neglected to bring more sunscreen with me
  • Even though I spent five hours up in the mountains, I never managed to make it out of earshot of other people. Sound carries really really well over the steppes, and apparently Saturday afternoon is when everyone heads for the mountains.
  • I had wanted to find a quiet spot in the forest to write for a while. But since no quiet spot was to be found, no writing was done either.
  • I still haven’t found a way to listen to .wma/.odm files on my mac
  • I’m going to be late to join the other Americans at a bar across town.

Overall, I’d say today was pretty good.

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August 20

The past two or three days were the best we’ve spent so far, even if parts of them were cold, wet, or uncomfortable. We visited a tourist camp called Буянт (“Boyant,” more or less), and it was absolutely marvelous. I know we’ll be heading to the countryside again next weekend, and I hope it’s as much fun as this was.

Five of us – everyone but the two Lisas – went out for the first time on Friday. We met one of our coordinators at a place called the Grand Khan Irish Pub. The only “Irish” thing about it was that it served Jameson, Guinness, and Murphy’s – but in cans, which no self-respecting Irishman would ever drink. We had a good time regardless, especially when the band started playing “Sweet Home Alabama.” It seems we came halfway around the world just to hear the same music.

After our first round of drinks, we left for another bar Chimgee knew of. On our way, we managed to pick up a drunken Kazakh name Eric. He introduced himself to all of us in English and then followed us into the second pub. This one had already closed, though it wasn’t yet 11 pm, so we moved on to a third placed called the Golden Lounge. I hadn’t expected to go clubbing, and none of us were really dressed for it, but when we found ourselves at a club, everyone went with the flow.

Inside, the place looked like a cross between a laser light show and the set of Rent. We sat around a table on the upper deck and ordered what, split evenly, was the cheapest thing on the menu: a bottle of vodka. I’m not usually one for shots, and straight vodka’s not exactly my thing, but even the cheap Mongolian vodka is better than a lot of expensive American stuff, so it wasn’t an unpleasant experience. I did skip a couple of rounds, mindful of my last experience with vodka; I didn’t mind being the least intoxicated of our party.

Chimgee, Lauren, and I left the boys to dance at one point, while they polished off the remaining 30% of the bottle. Mongolian club dancing is very different from American. There’s no grinding – the men and women touch at the hands, if at all. There were a lot more men than women on the dance floor, most of whom bopped around in a style distinctly reminiscent of awkward bar/bat mitzvah attendees. One by one, the boys filtered down to join us, though we each took a turn guarding the table with all our stuff.

It might to have been what I expected of the evening, but it was a lot of fun There were no incidents with handsy or pushy Mongolian men, though Lucas was convinced there was trouble brewing between him and the guy who wanted our table by the time we left at 12:30 or so. The music was largely remixed pop, much of it American, and it wasn’t so loud that left feeling deafened, as is often the case at American clubs. Aside from the grumpy taxi driver who overcharged us on the way home, it was a great night.

I was up at eight the next morning to pack for our overnight trip to the countryside. Evidently, I was one of the first to rise – at least two of our party slept through their alarms and were rudely awakened at 9:30, when we were getting ready to leave. I’m glad I paced myself the night before, as I was the only one of the five who went out who wasn’t hung over in the morning. Lucas and Eli in particular were pretty miserable during our long train ride.

The train itself wasn’t much fun. We split up to fill whatever spaces we could find, which often meant cramming uncomfortably close together. I had a window frame digging into my back for most of the ride, and the car grew uncomfortably warm. Best of all, the train broke dwon for two hours with a third of the journey left to go. We were all starving by the time we arrived around 3, and very glad to disembark.

The view from the train windows, though, was incredible – shining rivers that wound between green mountains, rolling plains dotted with clumps of white gers, dust roads lined with brightly-painted buildings. I could bare contain my delight as we neared our destination, my window showing me a herd of small, stocky horses wandering along the riverside.

“This is paradise,” I breathed as I stepped down onto the platform, and I heard several of the others voice the same opinion. We were in a little valley, surrounded by green mountains and blue sky. These mountains might not measure up to those of my childhood, but they were majestic nonetheless.

So, naturally, the first thing we did after dumping our stuff and scarfing down lunch (soup and гуляш, or gouliash) was to climb one. We didn’t even stop to grab water bottles or grab walking sticks – we ambled towards the nearest mountain, and before we knew it, we were on our way up. The ascent probably took us an hour and a half, but we were in not real hurry. We stopped often to marvel at wildflowers and mountain views, or to comment on the agility of the cows, horses, and sheep that had clearly preceded us. Eli and Lucas reached the top first, followed by Joe, then me, and then Lauren. I had caught by breath and was getting goosebumps from the cool breeze by the time our teacher Bold reached the top with Bayasmaa’s 15-year-old niece, Undra. Bayasmaa herself appeared shortly after that, holding her three-year-old grandson by the hand. We’d taken lots of pictures by this point, and I had found a walking stick for the descent. It was almost six o’clock at this point, and we were supposed to be at dinner at seven, so after taking a few group pictures, we headed back down.

Dinner was hearty – four хуушуур (hoshoor) is a lot – and lunch had been only four hours previous. But the hike had given us an appetite, and nearly everyone finished the flat, fried dumplings full of meat, onion, and cabbage.

We were in for a special treat after dinner: one of the staff members asked if we’d like to see her milk the cows. We agreed enthusiastically, and with a little persuading, we even got her to let us give the milking a try. I did reasonably well, I think, though I could certainly do better with more practice. The cow she let us milk was called ‘small one;’ besides being small, she was the gentlest and the least likely to fuss and upset the milk. This was an important factor, as the bucket was nearly full by the time we got to try. It was warmer than I’d expected, verging on hot, and capped with a thick layer of frothy cream.

That pail of milk appeared on our breakfast table the next morning, in the form of homemade тараг – yogurt. This was thick and sweetened, and I disliked it less than the other Mongolian dairy products I’ve tried, but even so, I could only manage a few spoonfuls before it started to make me queasy. Everyone else found it delicious, and I’m beginning to fear there is no hope for me where Mongolian dairy is concerned. Everything has a strong, gamy aftertaste that I just can’t stomach. And if I can’t manage freshly-made yogurt, I don’t think there’s anything I can. I can’t abide сүүтэй цай, for instance, even though everyone in Mongolia seems to enjoy this salty, buttery milk tea. You’d think a tea-lover would be in paradise in Asia, but Mongolia seems to be the exception to the rule.

On the other hand, Mongolia has a lot in common with other Asian countries (particularly India, from what Corry tells me) where the toilet situation is concerned. I learned the hard way at this tourist camp that it’s always a good idea to carry toilet paper with you. I’m pretty used to latrines, but at least they usually have seats and toilet paper. The outhouse at Буянт was more of a Turkish toilet, which is to say, a building with a hole in the floor. And no TP. City buildings usually have more standard toilets, but even they are not always equipped with toilet paper. Note duly taken; I shall be better prepared for our three-day journey to the countryside this weekend.

We were also disapointed by the lack of showers. It’s not something I would have expected had I known more about where we were going, but we had been told they would available and were rather counting on that fact. Our dorm has been without hot water for almost two weeks now, so a hot shower would have been a lovely departure from the cold shower/warm basin bath combination I’ve resorted to.

At least the train ride back was nice. We were cold and wet by the time it arrived, and my toes were going numb; it had been raining for a solid twelve hours at that point, and the temperature was probably down to the high forties. But the setup was much nicer once we were onboard. Lisa B., Lucas, Eli, and I had our own compartment – a vast improvement over the cramped quarters on the previous ride. We curled up under the blankets they provided, ordered Russian-style instant coffee (which is more sugar than coffee), told embarrassing stories, and played with Bayasmaa’s grandson, who kept popping in and out. The landscape appeared a little more drab than before, overshadowed by the dreary sky, but we enjoyed our journey and the view nonetheless. We all wished we’d been so comfortable for the longer ride out, but it was a great way to end the weekend nonetheless.

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Rambling Reflections from Galway

European cities are oddly deserted in the early evening. Everything closes except the restaurants and the pubs, to which the people on the street are indubitably headed. I walked down the street this evening knowing that I was going to get to the restaurant early and looking to kill time on the way – only to have my designs thwarted as shopkeeper after shopkeeper closed the door in my face. 

The darkened shops and brighter streets created a strange illusion in the windows. I spend some time looking into the windows of shops I would like to visit another time: a bookstore, a soap and candle shop, etc. It was difficult to see all the way to the back of the stores, however, because the windows superimposed a reflection of the street onto what I could see of the interior. This meant that again and again, I watched people behind me emerge from the back wall of the store into which I was gazing, as though they were stepping out of some secret world. Apparently the people of Galway all know the secret way to Narnia. I wish some of the students would take their partying there, because Gort na Coiribe is awfully loud at night!

Loud drunks aside, I’m having a good time in Ireland so far. Catharine, Celina, Katie, and I spend most of our free time hanging out together, and dinner’s have been a group effort almost every night we’ve been here. I wonder how long that will last before the novelty wears off – or how long it will be until we’re whipped into faster, more efficient cooks by growing time constraints!

It’s raining now, as I have a feeling it will be almost every day we’re here. Seven of the next ten days predict light rain, showers, scattered showers, or some other name for water falling from the sky. We heard someone in Dublin joke that Galway will be under water for the next few months, which looks to be a fairly accurate description. We did have a few days of lovely weather over the weekend, however, which we used to start exploring the town and picnic down by the coast.

I haven’t really met any Irish students yet, but I’m looking forward to doing so once my classes actually start up. Assuming I get a chance to talk to people in any of my classes, that is – most of them are enormous lectures. Smaller seminars are few, far between, and hard to get into here, but I’m doing my best. And within the next week or two, I may even know what classes I’m in.