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 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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Outreach Trip, Part VI: Identity Crisis in Uliastai

It’s amazing how dramatically a few months in another country can alter your perspective. After a few weeks of sub-zero weather (that’s Fahrenheit, not Celsius), a brief venture up to the mid-twenties is a heat wave. You cast aside your down-filled coat and myriad base layers with glee; you float about town on your daily errands, the T-shirt and sweatshirt you have deemed adequate insulation barely heavy enough to keep you on the ground. When the long-anticipated arrival of spring breaks the temperature up to a whopping 50 (that’s 10˚C, for the non-American readers), you gallivant to dance practice in a tank top.

Ulaanbaatar is the coldest world capital, it’s true, but obscene cold is not Mongolia’s only claim to fame. With 604,000 square miles (1.5 million km²) and a mere 3.18 million people to its name, it also holds the first-place ranking as the most sparsely-populated country in the world (though that falls to 5th if you count dependent territories). That’s like spreading the population of Chicago across an area the size of Alaska – the city proper, mind you, not including its many suburbs. And once you consider that more than half of these three million people live in the capital city, it’s more like spreading the population of Naperville across the same land area.

Do please note that half the country registers as having less than one person per square

Do please note that half the country registers as having less than one person per square kilometer.

Spending time here, unsurprisingly, skews your perceptions of population. I live in the second-largest city in this country – but since there are only three cites, you could just as easily call it the second-smallest. My hometown of 18,000 people is considered a small suburb in Illinois; the next stop on our outreach trip, the comparably-sized Uliastai, is a pretty big town by Mongolian standards. After days of eating lunch at the lone guanz of this or that soum, and attempted stops at those with none, it felt big to us too.

Uliastai from above. Doesn't look like much, but it felt it.

Uliastai from above. Doesn’t look like much, but it felt it.

In keeping with the size of its population, Uliastai boasted an impressive four Peace Corps Volunteers. Bianca, Bill, Brian, and (the sadly non-alliterative) Karen met us at the hotel and then led us to a place called Crystal. We followed them across town, through unmarked doors, and up a flight of stairs to find ourselves in a restaurant with beer (all in cans/bottles, but at least they had Fusion), a dance floor, and a menu that included chicken. Really, what more could we ask for?

It was at this dinner I realized I was suffering something of an identity crisis. Of the eight Fulbright ETAs and Researchers my age, six live in the capital. Consequently, Lauren and I see them but rarely; I had missed Joe’s visit to Erdenet at New Year’s, and so the last time I had seen any of my four travel companions was at Thanksgiving. Nor have I done a particularly good job of keeping in touch with them. I did not know, for instance, that Lucas had started an NGO, or that Eli had become the second ETA to have his appendix removed this year (yikes!) I knew enough about the other ETAs that the standard ground for get-to-know-you smalltalk had already been covered, but so little about their recent lives that the only real questions I could ask were of the vague, “so how have you been?” variety.

Instead, it was the Peace Corps volunteers with whom I connected. The Fulbrighters in UB have access to a large network of expats, but our scope in Erdenet is rather more limited. There are a few older, married Americans here with whom we interact less frequently, but between community English events and weekend gatherings, I see each of the 6 Erdenet PCVs (and Lauren) at least once a week. So unlike the UB Fulbrighters, I spoke the lingo already; I could ask the PCVs we met along the way about their COS dates, what they’d done at IST, and what they thought of their CPs’ English and teaching skills.

One of the things I admire about the Peace Corps is its centralization and the close-knit feeling that follows from it. All the volunteers from each round meet each other and are given phones programmed with the numbers of the other PCVs in the country; the second-year volunteers all come to Thanksgiving in UB, as do most of the first years with the time and money to do so. Even if, as a PCV, you don’t really know a certain other volunteer, you probably have a friend who does.

For those who become topics of discussion by the inevitable gossip mill, this isn’t always ideal; if you want to keep your private life private, don’t date someone in the Peace Corps. But for me, at this table in Uliastai, it meant that even though I had never met any of these people, I still had things to talk about with them. I could ask Bianca about her host mother in Hutuul, whom everyone at the training site had loved; back in Tsetserleg, I had already known the bare bones of a project Bryce was describing because Gracie had talked about picking it up next year. I might not have known these people, but I’d heard stories about them, or about other volunteers whose experiences were more like theirs than my own.

The Peace Corps is a community in a way that the Fulbright is not, and the volunteers in Erdenet adopted Lauren and me into that community when we first arrived at their site. After spending so much time with them, it seems that I identify more strongly with the Peace Corps volunteers than with my fellow Fulbrighters! Several of my travel companions even asked if I had thought about joining the Peace Corps after I finished my grant, since I seemed to like it so much. I haven’t given the possibility much serious though, but I do know this: I would have had a more productive and enjoyable time in Mongolia as a Peace Corps Volunteer than as a Fulbrighter.

Our time in Uliastai also served to demonstrate to me just how much a difference that sort of community can make – just to those who are part of it, but to the larger group it serves. By the time we reached Uliastai, we had been giving presentations for the better part of a week. I was grateful that the others devised a rotation that constantly switched up which presentation we were delivering, and with whom, as it kept the whole thing from getting too tedious. Even so, our visit to Brian’s school the following morning was the third time I had done the Universities in America presentation, and the second time I had done with Joe. But more importantly, it was a first: the first time that any of the students had actually taken the opportunity to ask us questions. Some of the students were even skilled (and brave!) enough to pose their questions to us in English. And even those who stuck to their native language were often asking about programs and scholarships they could use to study in America.

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Uyanga translating for our bravest and most responsive audience (not including Gladys)

Four English speakers together can do what one alone cannot: form a speaking club that exposes learners to authentic spoken English. Offer students multiple people with whom to practice, or incentive to improve their skills until they are comfortable doing so. Form a consistent schedule that doesn’t require events to be rearranged or canceled because one person is sick or swamped with work. Work together to overcome the bureaucratic, linguistic, and logistical obstacles they encounter along the way. Brian’s students, by daring to raise their hands and ask about ways to get themselves to America, showed us just how much more effective English teachers are in groups.

When I returned to Erdenet at the end of the trip and resumed participation in the seminars, conversation nights, and moving screenings my situates (another PC term I’ve adopted) organize, it would be with a renewed sense of appreciation. Neither my students nor my co-teachers are motivated enough to take advantage of these opportunities, but I’m always encouraged to see the number of others who are. I’ve learned songs, games, and teaching methods from assisting at the Peace Corps events, and I know that the folks around me have my back when I need help navigating life with limited language ability. I’m hooked into a network of friendly, skilled, and resourceful people who know what there is to see in their area and how to get there, and who don’t mind visitors crashing on their floors. Most importantly, I’ve got friends with whom to share the crazy, frustrating, amazing experience that is living and teaching in Mongolia.

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Nine Americans, six Mongolians, one Russian. Halloween in Erdenet.


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Thanksgiving in UB

Well, this weekend has certainly been… eventful, in both good ways and bad. Good things first: Thanksgiving was wonderful. Lots of people, tons of food, and a good deal of fun. You can’t really get your hands on turkey here, but we had chicken – and lots of it. We also had mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie – all the essentials. The Fulbrighters had all been invited, so I got to hang out with most of them; in a couple of cases, this was the first time I had seen them since I moved to UB at the end of August. It was loud and noisy enough that there was only so much catching up we could do, but it was still nice to be able to hug and say hello.

This weekend also gave me a chance to meet Peace Corps Volunteers stationed all over the country. I doubt I’ll see most of them again, or even get a chance to talk to them – I didn’t get their phone numbers, and most soumers don’t have particularly regular internet access. But new faces and friendly conversations were great, whether they took place at the dinner table, in the comfortable chairs at the Thanksgiving, or over a beer (or two, or three).

After Thanksgiving dinner, we went salsa dancing – not just me and my gallant host,  but almost all of the PCVs, and a few of the Fulbrighters as well. I didn’t get to do much actual salsa dancing; there were few people who really knew what they were doing, and they all had other people to dance with. I’m terribly out of practice in any case, so I  wasn’t following particularly well. But the dancing was very fun anyway.

My other dancing experience didn’t go nearly so well. Most of the PCVs, plus a number of other expats, went to Aer Club on Friday evening, resulting in a very packed dance floor and the first grinding I’ve seen since I left the states. Putting so many expats together in a city like UB is like piling dryer lint on top of birchbark; when sparks started flying between Mongolian men and American women, the whole place was ablaze in moments. Someone threw a punch, someone else threw one back, people waded in to pull them apart and got hit themselves – it got ugly very fast. The fighting had broken apart and restarted twice by the time the police arrived.

All the Americans who hadn’t already fled were busy looking for their things and their friends so that they could do so, but I was unable to join them. My host had jumped right into the thick of it and was throwing both punches and words, so I was stuck waiting. In the end, the police grabbed three foreigners (two Americans and my host’s British friend) and three Mongolians to haul them off to the police station. And since none of the foreigners really spoke Mongolian and my Mongolian host speaks fluent English, he accompanied them to translate. So I accompanied them as well, since I couldn’t exactly go home without them.

This was my second Mongolian police station in less than a week, and it was not an enjoyable experience. At 1 am, all we really wanted to do was go home, but instead we were stuck waiting while both sides wrote out depositions and filed complaints.

I also missed my train back to Erdenet on Sunday night, having given myself about five too few minutes to walk to the station; I arrived just in time to watch the train pull away from the platform.  At some point during our mad rush to the station, we also made an unpleasant discovery. I had carried my stuff around the city all afternoon without major incident – which is to say that while two people had made an attempt at opening my backpack, neither was successful. I had been careful to put both zippers all the way at the bottom, where they’d be difficult to get to; the zipper to the computer compartment was more accessible, but with such a full backpack, I knew from experience that it would be difficult to extract my laptop. Those first two attempts on my backpack were obvious, and I whirled around and smacked the offending passersby.

It’s harder to guard your belongings at night, though; when the temperature drops well below zero, the extra layers you throw on muffle your hearing and obstruct your peripheral vision. I was in a hurry, and walking with a friend, and both of those things distracted me enough for someone to get my backpack open. Only the things at the very top were lost; I wasn’t too upset about losing  a packet of star anise or my fleece gloves, since they weren’t nearly warm enough anyway. But my bag full of chargers and  cords is now also gone as well: my camera battery charger, camera/computer cable, Kindle/computer cord, phone charger, my iPod cord, the handy iPod charger I wrote about here, and the European outlet adapter that goes with it. It was a terribly inconvenient loss, but all in all, I’d say I was lucky; all these things are replaceable and reasonably inexpensive. Between my US phone charger and my external hard drives, I still had the cords I need to connect to everything but my iPod. A new phone charger and iPod cord/charger ran me about $14 today, though sadly the charger is only compatible with European outlets. A new charger is only $12, but the world adapter kit is closer to 40, and I still have most of the inserts. I’m not sure if it’s possible to buy only the European one. Still need the camera battery charger, though.

Having my stuff stolen wasn’t much fun, but all in all, it was still a good trip to UB. I went to see a movie with a new friend during my extra night (Hotel Transylvania, not the new James Bond) and spent some more time getting to know PCVs. Not quite what I expected out of this trip, but still plenty of fun.


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Thanksgiving

Last year, I celebrated Thanksgiving twice. I’m hard-pressed to recall the specifics of our big family celebration; we’ve had so many, and they do run together. Last year my dad’s youngest sister and her family hosted one major holiday, and we were late because the pumpkin pie wouldn’t set. My family hosted the other, and we stayed up late talking to the visiting members of the Burke Zoo Northern Branch. I was also serenaded, repeatedly, by my father and uncle with the Evans Sweetheart song, a bit of god-awful sentimentality straight out of the 1950s. But as I had recently started dating an Evans Scholar, an order of which my father and both of his brothers are members, I suppose it was sort of inevitable. My point, I suppose, is that while I do remember scraps of both those holidays, I couldn’t tell you which was Thanksgiving and which was Christmas.

But that was my second Thanksgiving celebration, and I remember the first much better. My roommate and I “pre-gamed” the holiday – not by getting drunk before going out drinking, as the term usually implies, but by celebrating with our friends at school before going home to celebrate with our families. We invited a bunch of our friends over (I think there were around ten of us all told), spent the entire day in the kitchen, and used every casserole dish that kitchen had.

I mean that literally. You can’t even see all the food in this picture.

It was completely worth it. This was my second family we were celebrating with, my home away from home. It wouldn’t have felt right not to celebrate with them in some way. I don’t think we said grace, as is traditional at Thanksgiving dinner, but we certainly felt blessed. To show how blessed, we each took a leaf (I had gathered and pressed a large number of colorful leaves earlier that autumn) and wrote the things we were thankful for upon it. Quite a few of them referred to the family we had created there.

Turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes and apples, cranberry sauce - we even had green bean casserole.

And the food was delicious.

This Thanksgiving, inevitably, has been rather different. Once more, I’ll be celebrating it twice. Round one was last Sunday, when the nine American residents of Erdenet gathered at a Peace Corps Volunteer’s apartment. We had to make do with chicken instead of turkey, but the food was still delicious, and I ate far too much of it.

Still, it wasn’t the same. I managed cranberry sauce of a sort, but it lacked the bite of the real thing. More importantly, the atmosphere was different – companionable, but nowhere near as close-knit. I made friends at Miami whom I counted as sisters; I have yet to find sisters here. And though we had all the trimmings of the traditional dinner, some of the spirit of the holiday was missing. There was no acknowledgement of the things we were thankful for, and I missed that.

In my classes today, I tried to make up for that. I thought about playing “Over the River and Through the Woods” for them, or trying to teach them some Thanksgiving-related vocabulary, but neither would be particularly meaningful to them. So I replicated last Thanksgiving’s leaves: I broke out the construction paper, gave each student a piece, and asked them to write the things they were thankful for upon it. It took some translation to get the message across, but they did it. Some of their responses:

  • I am thankful for family.
  • I am thankful for education.
  • I am thankful for mother, father, brother.
  • I am thankful for Mongolia.
  • I am thankful for horse.
  • I am thankful for sportsman.
  • I am thankful for winter.
  • I am thankful for Chinggis Khan.

Rather a mixed bag, but they clearly understood the point of the exercise. And they didn’t copy the list of examples I’d provided straight off the board, either; I saw them checking through their notes for vocabulary words and asking the other teacher what words were. That’s a lot more engagement and comprehension than they usually show!

As for me, I’m thankful for a lot of things. For my family, even if I can’t go home to celebrate this glorious holiday with them. For the snow and trees and mountains that beautify the earth and the sunny days that make winter bearable. For cats and the way they always make me smile. For living in an apartment where I don’t have to worry about going to the bathroom outdoors in sub-zero weather and can (almost always) take hot showers when I want them.

But the one that hits most urgently this year is that I’m thankful for my friends – for the old friends who’ve kept up with me and supported me through a rough October, and for the new friends I’ve made here. I would probably learn Mongolian faster if I had no one to talk to in English, but I would be awfully lonely in the process. I am incredibly grateful for the Americans here; seeing them at least three times a week, even if two of them are to run English activities for the community, is part of what keeps me sane. I am grateful for the Russian and Mongolian friends who have opened their homes and their hearts to me, and I am deeply indebted to them for helping me with things like navigating the postal service and giving me a place to stay during this weekend’s trip to UB. I would be completely lost here on my own.

Whether you celebrate it or not, Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.