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 Legend of the Seven Gods

I talked about constellations with some of my more advanced students this summer, and we looked at the legends about Cassiopeia and Orion. It’s hard to explain to them the extent to which classical culture underpins the western world, since Mongolia’s history is so very different. But they were more familiar with the Greek gods than I had expected – some of them referenced “Hercules” (the Disney version), while others mentioned Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief. Not exactly authoritative sources on Greek mythology, but still better than nothing.

I picked the topic of stars because I like their universality. We all look up at the night sky and connect the dots to draw pictures – sometimes the same pictures, and sometimes different ones. The stories behind the constellations have lost a lot of their importance to Western culture (I say, though it clearly isn’t monolithic as I’m implying it to be), but we know they’re there, even if most of us couldn’t explain why Scorpio chases Orion around the night sky, without ever sharing it with him.

Naturally, I ended this class with one of my favorite activities: Now You Tell Me. I like giving my students a chance to be the teachers, as it gives me a chance to learn about Mongolian culture while they practice their English. I wasn’t sure how much overlap to expect when I asked if any of the Mongolian constellations are the same as ours, but it exists. The Big Dipper appears to be a pretty universal constellation: they picked it out straight off, though it’s apparently called “the seven gods” in Mongolian. Here, in their own words, is the legend that accompanies it.

Ones upon a time there were orphan eight boys lived. The monster stole the king’s queen. Then king was sad. King called the eight boys then “If one of you can rescue my queen, I will give my golden arrow”. The boys together rescue the queen. They fought with the monster for 2 days and 3 nights. Finally they could kill the monster. The boys sent king’s queen. King couldn’t cut the golden arrow so he shot to the sky then he told “who is first one of you he will the own of the golden arrow”. The youngest boy took the golden arrow he changed to north star. The brothers changed to 7 gods.

THE END

Not the most poetic or detailed retelling of a myth I’ve ever heard, but fascinating nonetheless. Apparently the monster was some sort of bird, though that seems not to have made it into their typed draft. Were they native speakers, we’d be having some discussions about the known-new contact, among other grammatical issues, but as they’re Mongolian teenagers, we’ll grant them some slack.

So if you currently reside in or are of a culture that a) recognizes the Big Dipper/the Plough/Ursa Major (yes, that’s slightly different, but we’ll count it) and b) calls it a name other than those previously listed, please share: what’s the story behind these stars and how they came to be there?

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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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My Visit to Govi-Altai, Part III: Delger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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Greetings and Annou- er, Messages

I still think twice about saying that word. Even on Wednesdays.

Anyway, hello from my new blog location! Trying to work with tumblr was getting to be more trouble than it was worth; I think WordPress should be much more suited to my needs. Anywho, I did promise I had things to announce.

Message the first: I will now be posting content on a regular schedule. This month, you can expect new posts on Mondays and Wednesdays – barring issues like internet unavailability, of course. That’s always a possibility here.

Message the second: I’m not promising long blog entries because I’ll have other things to work on. I’m going to attempt NaNoWriMo this month, and I’m posting that here so that I have to follow through with it. Ideally, of course, NaNoWriMo would have taken place in October, when I had tons of free time, instead of November, when I’ll actually be teaching, but oh well. This will still be the least busy November I’ve had for a long time, so that story that’s been bouncing around in my head for four years needs to make it onto paper, even if it’s virtual.

Message the third: I’ve got a few blog entries on Mongolian culture drafted for future posting, but be prepared for some filler from Barbara Kingsolver. I’ve been reading (and loving) a lot of what she has to say about writing – and it’s good, so I’ll be sharing.

This week, as our warm-up activity, I taught the kids a song and then asked them to underline the verbs in the past simple tense. The song in question? “Би Уржигдар Баавгай Харсан” – “The Other Day I Saw a Bear.” I think that explains the dining hall nature of this post.