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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The Almost-Russian Almost-New Year

The Thursday before my Mongolian Christmas, my teacher class and I played Christmas bingo. Rather than attempt to tell the biblical tale to members of a thoroughly non-Christian culture, I opted to stick with with the holiday’s secular trappings: bells, holly, candles, Santa. I went over the vocabulary before we started, and that went pretty well until I held up a picture of a decorated evergreen and asked what it was.

The teachers conferred with each other, double-checking the words in question. Then Setgel, the star pupil, confidently called out their answer: “New Year’s tree!”

New Year‘s tree? No, I told them firmly, shaking my head. In English, we call it a Christmas tree. They repeated the words dubiously, and we moved on to the next picture. But the vocabulary didn’t stick; every time a winning row included a tree, it was called back to me as a “New Year’s tree.”

I didn’t know it at the time, but I had Russia to thank for the confusion. During its 68 years as a Soviet satellite state, Mongolia (then called the Mongolian People’s Republic) adopted a number of Russian traditions. I don’t know whether Russian yolki were originally associated with Christmas in the days before the Soviet kibosh on religion, but now, as Anna explains, they’re definitely a New Year’s thing.

And as Russi has yolki, Mongolia has шинэ жилийн мод (shine jiliin mod). Christmas isn’t really a thing in a country with so few Christians, but similar-looking traditions, stripped of their religious connotations, have made their way in anyway. I can’t blame the Mongolians for adopting any tradition that incorporates light and sparkly things into their long winters. They celebrate the new year twice – on December 31st with the rest of the world, with champagne and fireworks and drunken parties, and again at Tsagaan Sar, the lunar new year and traditional beginning of spring.

My roommate's duu in front of their шинэ жилиин мод.

My roommate’s duu in front of their шинэ жилиин мод.

The trees themselves vary widely in appearance. My roommate’s extended family had a small one covered in ornaments that closely resembled Western Christmas trees, though the Mongolian love of glitz was also evident in its multicolored fiberoptic inserts. The tree in front of one Erdenet’s shopping centers, by contrast, was not a tree at all, but a cone formed of tinsel garlands and brightly-colored, constantly flashing lights stretched taught between a tall pole at the center and the broken slabs of ice heaped around its base. I’ve seen some lovely specimens of the tradition, but this was not one of them.

I was in for more surprises at my school’s New Year’s celebration. I went home for New Year’s last year, and so I missed the fireworks and ice sculptures and other festivities held in Erdenet’s main square, but not my school’s parties. There aren’t many restaurants in Erdenet, and since they were all booked for the weekend closer to the end of the year, our parties were held on December 23rd.

Yes, parties, plural. We had one in the afternoon for the students, and then a teachers-only party later in the evening. The afternoon party was dry, save for one bottle of champagne (or shampanski, as they call it, in what I assume is the Russian fashion); the evening one was another story altogether, of which I remember about half.

But the afternoon party was memorable primarily for its entertainment. The students put on two dance numbers: one to a wordless, very pop-y version of “Jingle Bells,” another to a slow waltz. Waltzes, while not traditionally Mongolian, are nonetheless a dance party staple, interspersed unpredictably amongst the more expected pop and house music. The Mongolians I’ve asked say they learned waltzes from the Russians, who evidently did not teach them that three-beat dances do not work very well with four-beat music, nor four-beat dances with three-beat music.

We also had an appearance from a familiar character – or rather, an almost-familiar one. American traditions are quite firm on the fact that the jolly man with a big white beard wears red, though I’ve seen Father Christmas wear green in a few English depictions. But blue? I’d never seen Santa wear blue.

Then again, this wasn’t Santa Claus. He was Өвлийн Өвөө (övliin övöö) – Grandfather Winter, who I’d wager is the Mongolian incarnation of Russia’s Ded Moroz.

The white beard looked more than a little out of place in a country where I’ve never seen the elderly go white and very few are capable of growing even straggly little beards. But the fat, jolly grandfather image is plenty Mongolian. And whatever his origin, he was a welcome sight to a girl for whom Christmas would be an ordinary work day.

Even if he didn’t give us presents.

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The Birthday of Endless Cake

I. Gambir

I spent the three days before my birthday at Stepperiders, a tourist-oriented horse camp about 45 minutes outside UB. I’d stayed with them for one night last fall and done a couple of trail-less trail rides (steppe rides?), but this time, I wanted something with a greater sense of purpose. I signed on for a three day/two night trek, which brought us back to their base camp the night before my birthday.

As the volunteers and I sat playing cards after dinner that evening, my guide surprised us with an improvised cake: gambir slathered with off-brand Nutella, upon which the words “happy 24” had been carefully inscribed with jelly. The two candles present being our sole source of light, I’d nothing to wish upon, but they sang me “happy birthday” nonetheless.

The staff joined us for cake and airag and whisky and cards, and when they left, we sprawled across our beds and challenged each other to imitate horses in various human situations: wedding speech-giver, air traffic controller, zumba instructor, rap artist, first horse on the moon. The game left us paralyzed with giggles and wondering when someone would come to investigate the source of the hullabaloo. But no one did, and so we carried on until the last candle flickered out and left us to drift contentedly off to sleep.

II. Pizza

I arrived back in Erdenet in the late afternoon – too late to assemble the potluck I would have liked to, but plenty early enough to assemble at Marco’s Pizza. Marco is an Italian expat with more generosity than business sense who tired of his job at the Ministry of Agriculture in Rome. “I thought, ‘this is not life,'” he says of the decision that brought him to Mongolia, where he now runs a pizzeria with his Mongolian wife, Gerlee. His is the restaurant most requested by friends visiting from the countryside, and with good reason. Marco has always treated the Greater Erdenet Area Peace Corps/Fulbright community and has on many occasions closed early to privately host our birthday celebrations, going-away parties, and even an early Christmas dinner.

The pizzas take forever because there’s only one oven, but Marco brought us a plate of the day’s leftover pasta as an appetizer. The two large pizzas – one bacon, one chicken – were delicious as always and cost us a mere six thousand tugriks per person (about $4). The Nutella pizza he brought us after we’d finished, as he always does on on such occasions, was free. We’ve protested on previous occasions, saying that he’ll put himself out of business with such generosity, but he says only that his business “is a trattoria, not a ristorante” and refuses all offers of payment for the extra food. And he sings us “happy birthday” on the appropriate days, even if it’s already been sung.

III. Tradition

For as long as I can remember, I have had the same cake at every birthday. The friends who attempt, in the days before my birthday, to discreetly discern my favorite kind of cake are always frustrated when I tell them it’s not something you can buy in stores. It’s a granny smith apple cake, full of spices and not overly sweet, whose recipe my grandmother must have clipped from some long-ago newspaper.

It’s supposed to be made in a bundt pan, an instrument I always deemed unnecessary when packing for college but whose absence left me unsure how to adjust the baking time and temperature of the old recipe. Questions to friends about how they might attempt such an adjustment have, on two separate occasions, led me to receive a bundt pan as a birthday gift. I still don’t really know how to adjust the recipe, though I do know that the use of a bundt pan means that, in the absence of proper birthday candles, a jar candle can be substituted, a la the “I fixed it!” moment in My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

I did not have a bundt pan on this occasion, but I was determined to follow tradition nonetheless. My first stop upon arriving in the city was to pick up apples from the discount shelf at the fruit delguur favored by the Russians (and, for that matter, Americans). I knew that, when baked, they’d taste every bit as good as the absurdly priced bright green ones in the main display.

I was right. The cake took forever to bake in the toaster oven but filled the entire apartment with a delicious aroma, and when when sliced it up later that night, everyone agreed it was delicious.

IV. The Generosity of Friends

Although my host knew of my birthday cake tradition, having allowed me the use of her oven to bake one the year before, it seems neither she nor the others knew of my intent to continue it this year. Upon arriving at another friend’s apartment after dinner, I found that they had purchased another cake for me, a standard white cake with large frosting roses.

I’m not a particular fan of frosting, and Mongolian cakes have a very hit-or-miss reputation, but when they dimmed the lights to bring out the cake and its single flickering candle for a third chorus of “happy birthday,” I still found myself ducking my head and grinning ridiculously. It wasn’t the taste of the cake or the excess of frosting that mattered, but the presence of friends new and old, people who wished me well whether I’d been part of their lives for a day or a year.

As we settled to the floor for a game of Cards Against Humanity, stuffed to groaning with cake and good humor, I was grateful for the friendship and generosity of those around me. Even here, a world away from the people and places I know and love, I am truly blessed.

And not just with cake.


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I fail at hiking.

Or, to be more specific, I have thus far failed abysmally at hiking the hills around Erdenet. This is hard for me, as an avid outdoorswoman, long-time Scout, and veteran of several backpacking trips, to admit, but it’s true. And for this, I blame one trait: my hatred of wet feet and squelchy hiking boots.

“I must be cursed,” I recently commented to a Swedish long-time resident of this town. “Every time I try to set foot out of doors, it starts to rain.”

“That’s not a curse, it’s a blessing,” he replied. “Rain is always a blessing in Mongolia.”

He is, generally speaking, correct. If you look up Mongolia’s climate, chances are that one of the words your’e going to find describing it is arid. Even this far north of the Gobi, rain is still considered rare and special. The first rainfall of the year is considered especially lucky; when it fell on April 20th this year, during my friend’s wedding, we were told that this was a particularly auspicious sign for their marriage.

But while the rains did not begin until late this year, with skies that seemed not to remember how to deliver liquid precipitation and continued to dump snow on us until May 27th, they have fallen with a vengeance in the two months since. I would estimate that it has rained at least four or five days out of every week since that final blizzard; much to my dismay, the weekend always falls into the wet side of that statistic. It has rained on every single Saturday and Sunday since May.

The internet, in typical fashion, offers widely conflicting statistics as to Erdenet’s average rainfall and, so far as I’ve found, precisely none regarding this year’s actual rainfall to date, but all the Mongolians I’ve asked agree: this year has been unusually cold and wet.

Case in point: there is water in this rock. It has not yet rained today.

Case in point: there is water in this rock. It has not yet rained today.

Thus, I haven’t made much of an effort to get out onto the hills. When you’re on a week-long backpacking trip with a campsite to get to before nightfall, you trod onward through rain and muck, seeking shelter only when the conditions grow too dangerous for you to do otherwise; you’ve no other choice. But who willingly starts a day-hike in the rain, especially in the Land of Eternal Blue Skies? Especially especially in three-year-old hiking boots that only two weeks ago demonstrated how very not waterproof they are, in their old age?

Today, I vowed, would be different. I would set out in the morning and get a good chunk of the “trails” beneath my feet before thunderstorms started rolling in around noon, as they are wont to do.

Then, of course, I slept later than I’d intended, dallied about on the Internet, and decided to have one more cup of coffee before I left. I finally packed up the essentials (full Nalgene and knife, toilet paper and hand sanitizer, camera and phone, journal, walking stick, and some snacks) and headed out the front door around 10:30, just in time to hear the first rumble of thunder. I paused on the threshold, debating. The day was warm and, so far, sunny. I had a plastic bag to protect my journal and electronics, and if it rained, I’d end up with wet feet whether I had a raincoat or not. I was clad entirely in quick-drying synthetics (except for the wool hiking socks); did I really want to schlep my raincoat along with me?

No, I decided, I did not. The rain might not fall for hours, if it fell at all; the skies overhead were blue, and the sound of thunder carries a long way across the steppe. That storm was probably still far away. If, in despite of all this rationalizing, it rained anyway – well, then I’d just get wet.

How could it possible rain on such a lovely (albeit hazy) summer day?

How could it possible rain on such a lovely (albeit hazy) summer day?

Within minutes, I’d made my way beyond the roads and garages that circle Erdenet and started uphill. Grasses and wildflowers swayed in the light breeze, and the buzz of grasshoppers served as a pleasant – and, blessedly, quieter and less annoying – reminder of the cicadas that would be singing incessantly at home. I let my thoughts wander to previous hiking trips as I rambled back and forth in search of easy passage uphill. I stopped to take pictures of flowers and Tibetan prayer flags, mentally composing an entry I meant to write about the many scripts of Mongolia, and almost managing to ignore the continued grumbling of thunder from the west.

Pretty prayer flags. Not-so-pretty skies.

Pretty prayer flags. Not-so-pretty skies.

As I approached the first peak along the ridge I meant to follow, the clouds shifted to cover the sun, and the wind began to pick up. The temperature dropped from uncomfortably warm to noticeably cool, and when I turned my eyes westward, I found that the clouds from the foreboding bluish-grey that threatens rain to the streaky, lighter hue in the process of delivering it. The clouds directly overhead, meanwhile, had begun to darken. Don’t be a baby, I told myself. It’s just rain.

But it wasn’t. As I watched, a bolt of lightning streaked through the clouds to the west. It was still far away, but was it far enough? Did I really want to be on an exposed mountaintop in a lightning storm? Or even one of the larch forests growing on the mountainsides – would that be better, or worse?

Bayan-Undur is the shorter peak at the center. Not too far - I should be able to make that!

Bayan-Undur is the shorter peak at the center. Not too far – I should be able to make that!

I changed my game plan. I’d summit this little mountain, circle its ovoo, and then head for Bayan-Undur. I hadn’t seen that spectacular ovoo since the fall, and I wanted pictures in a different season. Just those two peaks, I decided as I started uphill once more. I should be able to do both of those before the rains hit.

Then I heard a new sound from the west: not a crack or a boom, but a long, drawn-out rumble, the kind that lingers like a lion’s roar. It was answered in kind by a louder rumble just east of me before fading into a faint, scratchy crackling to the west. Either the western storm front had just thundered so loudly that the sound had echoed off the mountain on which I was standing and then been bounced back again by the mountains to the west, or the storm fronts to the east and west had begun to thunder in concert.

The skies overhead do seem to be getting awfully grim...

The skies overhead do seem to be getting awfully grim…

Either way, the message was clear. I picked my way over to a narrow, twisted track, the kind trod by many little hoofed feet, and started down the mountain. Sheep and goats might not have a whole lot in those tiny brains of theirs, bless them, but they do have the sense to seek shelter from the elements, and to create wonderfully nettle-free trails to places in which to do so. Without even pausing to tuck my camera and journal into the Ziploc bag I’d brought to protect them, I began the downward climb in earnest. IMG_1364

I made it home just as the first few drops began to splatter on the pavement around me. So far, as I sit and type this in my warm, dry apartment, it’s done no more than drizzle; the thunder has stopped, and the skies above this little valley have turned gorgeously, infuriatingly blue. But the sky to the north, above those hills I long to hike, maintains its threatening cast, and until it clears, I think I’ve tempted fate enough for the day. The heavens have spoken, and I shall obey.


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Hiking

I started to go on a hike the other day. I did this quite often in the fall; Erdenet is nestled between several mountains, and since my home is on the northern edge of town, I can be out the door and at the top of the nearest one in under half an hour. Since I had scads of free time on my hands, I spent many an afternoon wandering the slopes with camera in hand, meandering amongst  larch and aspen and searching diligently for a good walking stick.

And then the snows started.

I’m no stranger to hiking in the snow; I joined the mountaineering club during the semester I spent in Ireland, and a number of the mountains we traversed in November and December had at least a thin coating of the stuff (even if it was only at the top, as was the case when we hiked Ben Nevis). But a wintry Irish day could be mistaken for summer here, and hiking is a lot less fun when every breath pierces your lungs like a knife. Besides, I’d had other people to hike with in Ireland. It’s one thing to go it alone on a sunny day in September (though even that worried my roommate), but quite another to do so in December. The chance of slipping on ice, breaking an ankle, and then freezing to death was not one I was willing to court.

But it’s spring now, though the snow is still fighting to maintain its title as predominant form of precipitation. They turned the heat off yesterday, after all; that must mean it’s almost summer.

Spring, like this statue, is of divided mind here.

Spring, like this statue, is of a divided mind here.

So a few days after the thick, stinging snow of the most recent spring storm had dissipated, I picked a sunny afternoon to head back up into the hills.

Earlier that day, my mother had asked whether leaves and flowers had begun to make an appearance here yet. I said no; the slow greening of the grass was the only reappearance of color I’d yet witnessed. But almost as soon as I left the town limits, I found that I was wrong. A few brave flowers had indeed begun to bloom – tiny, groundhugging blossoms of yellow and pink, as well as larger purple blooms.

There were a few reminders of death scattered amongst the stirrings of new life, of course. In a country where herd animals run free, dogs run wild, and even city-dwellers slaughter sheep in their yards or on their balconies, you can’t walk far without tripping over bones. Usually its the dogs who move the bones about, but people will as well, to adorn this or that ovoo with the skull of a horse, sheep, or cow.

No ovoo in sight, but someone must have brought this horse's skull up here deliberately.

No ovoo in sight, but someone must have brought this horse’s skull up here deliberately.

Even the mine seemed decked out to celebrate the changing seasons. It had never seemed anything but ugly to me before; the great grey hills with their unnaturally flat tops might be the reason this town exists, but they do little to improve the scenery and less to improve the local water quality. You can always find southeast in this town, even on a cloudy day. That scar on the land is unmistakeable.

Today, though… today I was seeing the mine through new eyes. The weather of the past few months had gone to work on it, streaking its sides with rust red and pale blue-green patina. Erdenet’s mine is not the largest or the most famous in the country, with a name as uninspiredly utilitarian as the Soviet bloc architecture of this town – GOK. (It’s a Russian acronym, though what the GO stand for, I can’t say; the K is kompani.) Looking at it from the mountains on a sunny spring day, however, I could see why the great copper mine in the Gobi had been called Оюу Толгой – Turquoise Hill.

IMG_0958

My hike never made it past the foothills. Sunny it may have been, but the wind that day was vicious once I left the shelter of valley and apartment buildings. In my halfhearted ascent of the first hill, I also noticed a Mongolian man making for the ovoo atop Bayan-Öndör – my destination as well. I decided I didn’t want to disturb his praying, or drinking, or both. Besides, Dances with Dragons was calling my name. Another day, I thought, and headed back.

IMG_0941

Just so long as that day doesn’t look like this.


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Rain

It tried hard to rain on the 22nd.

I looked out the window at midday to find the sky bisected by a streak of ominous grey, feathered along its northern edge with the striations typically indicative of rain. I quickly headed out the café door, knowing I still needed to stop by the school that day and wishing I’d had the sense to go earlier. I have no love for early spring rains; I can handle getting wet, and I tolerate cold with aplomb, but combining the two leaves me shivering, achy, and thoroughly miserable.

I felt a few drops spatter wetly across my face as I trudged up the hill to school. Here it comes, I thought, preparing to pull out my raincoat. But the precipitation I saw was coming down too erratically, in little fits and starts and the occasional swirl. After a few seconds of confusion, I realized it was also falling too slowly to be rain.

The snow, coming down in little balls not fluffy enough to be termed ‘flakes,’ melted instantly upon reaching the ground, which helped to create the illusion of rain. But though the clouds coughed and sputtered, it seemed they’d forgotten how to produce liquid precipitation. Theirs was a valiant effort, but a failed one nonetheless.

By five o’clock, the skies had given up on any pretense at rain. The dark clouds of the early afternoon had been replaced by a flat white blanket; the snowflakes, having grown thick and fluffy enough to house Polly Pocket and several of her friends, fell purposefully earthward in the absence of a breeze on which to tarry. Within an hour, cars and grass alike sported over an inch of the stuff, though the streets still remained stubbornly bare. I checked the weather on my desktop and chuckled at its naive insistence of 40-degree rain. The snows had no intent to relinquish this town so easily.

But I awoke this morning to an unfamiliar sound, one which even the insistent chirping of birds could not disguise. And the light was wrong; surely it should be brighter than this at 6 am? I knew what I would find when I dragged myself to the window to peer around my hideously-patterned floral curtains, but still I felt compelled to do so. I needed the visual confirmation to convince myself of what my other senses were telling me.

I’m not usually one to make a big deal about a little rain; Chicago’s no Seattle, but we still get plenty of the stuff. Rain floods our streets in the spring, cancels summer sports events, prevents outdoor recess for schoolchildren in the fall, and washes away snowmen and hopes of a white Christmas.

But not so here. Rain is not our constant companion in this land of high, cold desert. When you live in a place where the temperature drops below freezing and stays there for four straight months, and when that time is bracketed on either end by an additional month or two of snow, the first rain of the year is a big deal. It’s the long-awaited assurance that summer is finally on its way, that the grass will grow and the sheep will get fat and we won’t all freeze or starve (or both).

Its arrival is anticipated, noted, and celebrated – not ceremonially, perhaps, but personally. The week of the Boston bombing aligned with the week I was scheduled to teach my students about the news. After discussing the various media by which the news can be conveyed and obtained, I asked each class what had happened in the news that week. Over the course of the entire week, approximately three students answered my query with cries of, “Boston,” though a description of what had happened in Boston far outstripped their English abilities. (I was also highly impressed by the one student who called out, “Bad Korea.” Not a bad distinction when you don’t know the words for north or south.)

No, the word I heard again and again was “Khovsgol.” Erdenet had received only snow that week (several inches of it, at that),  but it had rained in Khovsgol, I was told time and again. Students in every class felt the need to inform me of this momentous event; the arrival of the spring rain was exciting and newsworthy even when a twelve-hour drive would be required to reach the area that it had fallen.

This morning’s rain was actually the third we’ve had this year, but it was the first to do more than drizzle lightly and leave a few puddles on the pavement. A steady, if light, fall like this was something I hadn’t seen since December (in Tokyo; our last real rainfall in Erdenet was in September). I stared for a while, wondering how something so simple could seem so momentous. And then I sighed in relief as I watched it turn once more to snow, glad that I could walk the half an hour to work without getting soaked.


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So, what do you do all day?

I get this question a lot here. Not from the locals, naturally, but from friends and family back home – especially friends in the throes of grad school, for whom “free time” a sort of long-lost fantasy, one coveted almost as highly as sleep. (Almost.)

And they certainly have a point. My workload, compared to theirs, is comically pitiful. I teach five 80-minute classes a week – meaning I teach the same material to five different groups of students. Real teachers, I know, are forever working on lesson plans, but you don’t have to do a whole lot of that when you teach the same lesson all week. I meet with my co-teacher on Monday or Tuesday to plan the lesson, tweak it slightly over the course of the week according to its success or failure, and simplify it for my Friday morning hellions. And that’s about it for time with my actual students.

Of course, that’s not all the teaching I do. I also do one lesson a week for the teachers at my school (at least, the 5-10 who deign to attend), and I work with the director for two hours a week; we spend one on her English, and one on my Mongolian. I teach the Children’s Palace director for three hours a week in exchange for two hours of morin huur lessons. And I attend the Peace Corps community events – conversation night on Tuesdays, movie night on Thursdays.

Even so, that doesn’t add up to a whole lot of time – about 18 hours of scheduled time commitments. I had more than that in college, when you factored in my extracurriculars and the two executive boards in which I took part.

My schedule for the week.

My schedule for the week.

So, what do I do with all that free time?

Well, I blog (obviously). I’ve tried hard to get posts up on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for the past few months, though I’ve certainly missed a few Fridays. This takes a surprisingly long time, though it becomes much less surprising when you consider my tendency to handwrite entries in my journal before transcribing and editing them for online posting. Also, uploading photos takes forever when your internet is so painfully slow.

I hang out with the Peace Corps volunteers and the other Fulbrighter in Erdenet. We hang out at each other’s apartments; we go out to eat; we go to bars or karaoke bars. In a given weekend, I usually spend two of the three evenings in their company. One of the PCVs is getting married this weekend, and five of us are performing a Mongolian dance at his wedding, so we’ve been meeting three or four days a week to practice said dance.

I study Mongolian. On paper, mostly, as my listening skills are still pitiful and many of the sounds continue to escape my command. My book doesn’t have exercises, so I spend a lot of time recopying and sounding out sentences like these:

We came from the city by bus last Sunday. Бид өнгөрсөн Нямд хотод автобусаар ирсэн.

I will go to America during summer vacation. Би зуны амралтаар Америк руу явна.

Which of these children broke this window? Эдгээр хүүхдүүдийн хэн нь энэ цонхыг хагалсан бэ?

(Having recently learned the dative-locative, accusative, genitive, instrumental, ablative, and comitative cases, I spend a lot of my practice time trying to jam as many of them as possible into one sentence, despite my complete inability to construct something so complicated in conversation.)

I wander the city in search of internet connections strong enough to support a Skype conversation. I have weekly Skype dates with my parents and my ‘sister,’ though my brother’s pretty much off the radar.

I spend ridiculous amounts of time on the internet, when I can get access to it. I follow four web comics and several blogs – a few written by friends, most written by people I’ve never met. A few in particular tend to broach complex issues and copious links to other discussions about those issue, which I follow, read, contemplate, and then usually discuss with Sarah during our weekly Skype date. I continue my slow but steady progress through the vlogbrothers YouTube Channel (they’ve been posting regularly since 2007; I’m midway through 2008). This one’s particularly time-consuming, since the speed of my home internet means a four-minute video can take upwards of twenty minutes to buffer fully, at least in the evening.

But most of that extra time is spent just… living. Keeping up with daily life takes twice as long when you have half as many convenient time-saving devices.

Take cooking, for instance. My appliance options are as follows: a hot plate, a toaster oven, a тогоо, a rice cooker, and a tea kettle. Only one of these appliances may be operated in the kitchen at one time, lest we blow a fuse. I can fry an egg, boil water, and make rice all at the same time – but only if I move the tea kettle and rice cooker to different rooms. When you have only one burner to work with, you eat a lot of one-pot meals (which in my case translates to a lot of soup). A meal like, say, meatloaf with mashed potatoes and a vegetable is out of the question; it would take hours, and I’d never manage to get it all hot at the same time. Even soups can be tricky, requiring careful attention to the order in which ingredients are added and cooked,  since I can’t have two pots going simultaneously.

And I’ve always been a “from scratch” kind of girl, but there’s “from scratch” and then there’s from scratch. I have no problem throwing together pancakes or a cake without a mix, but how much time does it take to whip up a bowl of batter? A craving for Mexican food, by contrast, requires a saga of cooking to satisfy. I have access to meat, rice, beans, vegetables, and even hot pepper and cumin (thank you, Mom – apparently I cannot live without cumin). But none of it’s prepared. If I want tortillas, I have to make them myself. The same is true for refried beans, and usually for salsa as well. The quest for fajitas becomes an odyssey in which I prepare individual elements over the course of several days so that I can finally, gloriously, assemble them into that sought-after ideal of deliciousness.

Even tracking down the ingredients can be a time-consuming process. One-stop grocery shopping does not exist here; even the chain grocery stores in this town are limited in size, and a great deal of their space is devoted to candy and alcohol. Delguurs are ubiquitous, and most of them sell almost the same things – but not quite. This one carries alcohol; that one doesn’t have noodles. You learn where to go for what items.

Accordingly, I go to one delguur for vegetables and another for fruit (the Americans refer to their respective owners as “the veggie man” and “the fruit lady”). The fruit lady also sells chicken and brown eggs; in fact, I go to her more often for these two items than for overpriced, often overripe, fruit. I cruise the Russian-oriented mini mart near them for honey, jam, spices, and brown eggs (when the fruit lady doesn’t have them, which recently has been often). For cheese and pork, I go to Food Shop (which also caters largely to Russians); for bacon, smoked fish, Russian beer, tea, and other spices, I go to another Russian delguur. Coffee, peanut butter, and beans I get from Good Price, a store on the other side of town that specializes in American goods (its name, alas, is a misnomer). I get red meat from the market on the south side of town. Bread, flour, milk, sugar and other things I didn’t realize I was out of I usually grab from the delguur closest to my apartment – when it’s open. To visit all of these places in one day would take hours and require a full circuit of town – and half of what I bought that day would, in all likelihood, go moldy before I managed to eat it. So I do the Russian circuit (which is blessedly close) several days a week; I go to Good Price only in search of specific items, and only on my way home from work. I haven’t been to the meat market in over two months, and won’t until I finish my current kilo of horse.

4-19 Shopping Map

And then there’s cleaning. My school’s provision of a vacuum cleaner has, thank heavens, drastically reduced the amount of time needed to keep my room in a passable state of cleanliness. No more spending hours scrubbing at the carpet with a wet rag or swiping fruitlessly at it with a broom – hallelujah! But even so, cleaning the floor often takes a lot longer than I’ve bargained for. Namuuna uses the vacuum as well – and while she’s good about emptying the container after she uses it, she doesn’t usually clean the filter. And after a thorough sweeping, the filter is often so clogged as to drastically reduce the efficacy of the vacuum cleaner. Thus, the time I meant to spend sweeping is often spent washing out the filter instead – and then waiting for it to dry, since I fear the potential repercussions of using it wet.

You get the gist. Even the simplest task often takes forever here. I haven’t even started on laundry. To do that herculean task justice would require me to write another whole post devoted to the subject. And so I shall – at a later date, when I have pictures to illustrate and your patience hasn’t already been tried by 1500 words of my rambling.

And that, in short, is your answer: In my copious spare time, I ramble. Around town, around the Internet, on the Internet. I ramble, and I learn, and I live.


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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.