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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I am Thankful

My yoga teacher ended today’s class with the following quotation: “Happiness comes when we stop complaining about the troubles we have and are thankful for the ones we don’t.” And so, rather than writing another post about the difficulties of readjusting to life in America, I’d like to take today’s post to give thanks for the good things about being back. Conclusion to the hiking story to come soon, I promise.

I am thankful to be home for this, my favorite major holiday, which I so hated missing last year. I am thankful to have been able to get here while the trees were still awash with color and the grass startlingly green. I’m thankful to once more be able to taste the full flavors of the season in all their glory, without endless searching for unsatisfying substitutes.

I am thankful to have spent the past weekend in the company of many old friends from all over the country, dancing until  ridiculous hours to some of the best musicians in the genre. I’m thankful to once more have this outlet for my energy and creativity, without which my sanity suffered greatly during my time in Mongolia.

I am thankful that I flew through LAX on Monday, and not during the shooting that took place there four days later. And I’m thankful that my friend’s brother-in-law, who was shot in the leg during that event, has since returned home from the hospital.

I am thankful for all the things I’ve learned not to take for granted in the past year and a half: paved roads, running water, stable currency, washing machines, the availability of exotic foods and a wide variety of spices. I’m thankful to live in a city that doesn’t poison the air with toxic smog, and that I no longer have to worry about heavy metals in my drinking water.

I am thankful that, for the first time since I before I went to Mongolia, my brother and I are both home for Thanksgiving, and that we’ll be flying him back from Japan again for Christmas. I’m thankful that he’s so far gotten through jump school without injury despite starting with a sprained ankle, and I’m especially thankful that we’ve started actually talking in the past few months.

My life right now is largely without direction, and that’s a difficult place to be. But I’m grateful for the friends and family who are supporting me while I work that out. I am grateful not just for the troubles I don’t have, but for the many blessings I do.

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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.


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Random Ramblings and Cold-Weather Acclimation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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