“This is a new and different world. The challenge is to cope with it, and not just cope, but thrive . . . and when one does adapt, my god! the riches that are available!” -The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Living in Mongolia, I often have the feeling that I am living on the cusp between civilization and the wild. I can only imagine this country in very recent times, when an overwhelming majority of Mongolians lived pretty wild, gers parked far, far away from anyone else’s ger, packing up their gers and moving with the seasons to find the best pastures. And now, in just a couple of generations at most, a great number of herders have come off the land and into ger districts of cities seeking employment. And here I am, from a developed country, living in a ger district, lured by the wild, but often challenged in interacting with it day-to-day and face-to-face in the form of first generation “city” dwellers, who frequently go to the countryside to visit their herding families there. When I look at these wide open spaces, I know that they look pretty much the same as when Chinghis Khan and his men were traveling by horseback in a quest to make Mongolia even bigger. I haven’t been to many places where I could say that.
I am busy learning to live here day-to-day. This includes the many chores that meet my physical needs as well as learning how to cope in this environment: with “Mongolian time,” with unpredictability, with language struggles, with high-decibel noise both from people and vehicles. There are so many surprise changes of schedule that happen that any plan I make is up for revision always, or even for being scrapped entirely. As much practice as we PCVs get in letting go, and being patient, there is frequently something that catches me off guard, or happens when I’m tired, and I actively go into coping strategy.
Sometimes I assume something that Mongolians don’t assume at all, or vice versa. For example, my hashaa family is here to help me, providing security in an unfamiliar country, helping problem-solve issues that arise, and being a general support. When I had been gone for a few days, they knew when I was returning, and built a fire in my stove, and I walked into a warm house. It was lovely! But then they left for a few days without telling me. One of those days was the usual water pickup day at the well, which they have taken on, since I am unable to do it. I found help, so this kind of thing, not life-threatening, is only surprising, inconvenient, and at times, discouraging.
At school, we’ve just completed the first 9-week term. Throughout most of this term, it’s been difficult to pin down a schedule of observation, since the teachers’ schedules keep changing, the room assignments change, or perhaps the class has been removed from one room and not assigned to another, so I may or may not find the class and teacher wandering the halls looking for a room. Sometimes an event is suddenly (to me) scheduled, changing or cancelling the class schedule for the day. Until recently, I wasn’t usually informed about changes. However, I’m happy to say that things are improving in that regard. Mongolians are good at flowing with the unexpected, and I am trying to gain this skill, too. At the best of times, I just deal, let go, and have patience with whatever is happening. At other times, I feel a bit (or a lot) overwhelmed.
The students (over 2000 in this school) make more noise than I have ever experienced from a population of students. They run, shout, scream, wrestle, fight in the halls, and in the classrooms, too, if the teacher isn’t paying attention. These behaviors are all against school policy, yet the teachers ignore it, and it doesn’t seem to bother them. Students would be running or wrestling, and slam into me. It took me some time and active planning to cope with this. I’m definitely making progress.
In the midst of everything else, I came down with an upper respiratory infection, which was no surprise. In the past, I have contracted one every year as winter approaches. But this one lasted a while. Just when I felt I was coming out of it after two weeks, it took a new direction. The medical officer said that it’s common for first year volunteers to encounter new germs and be sick frequently. But in addition I appear to have high sensitivity to particulates in the air from the ger fires. I’m using an inhaler when my lungs feel tight. I’m trying to avoid using it frequently, so I wear an N95 mask when I’m outside. Ulaanbaatar is the 2nd most polluted city in the world, second only to Beijing. Most of the air pollution there is also from ger fires, some from coal plants. When I went to UB for 3 days recently, the air was quite difficult for me. I coughed and blew my nose a lot, even though I was wearing a mask. I’m living at the edge of a smaller city, but living in a ger district places me in the middle of the production of the particulates that irritate my lungs.Warm, cozy scene of my contribution to air quality issues
I’m told that by spring, I should start feeling like I’m more in the groove. Meanwhile, there’s still winter in the immediate future, with a whole new set of lessons. The deepest cold (down to -40F) has not yet arrived, and I understand the weather is unseasonably warm for being this late in the year. When it gets really cold, I will need to carry my computer to school with me, since my house will be cold during the day. My walk is only about 7 minutes, and my case is insulated – enough, hopefully. Some volunteers carry theirs to work inside their coats. I’ve tried that a couple of times, and, although it isn’t very comfortable, I’ll go to great lengths to keep my computer operational. At home, I’ll also be putting my computer under my covers at night in case I don’t wake up before the fire goes out.My feet will be warm!
In Peace Corps training, we had a discussion of the concept of “Locus of Control.” As we compared and contrasted our lives in America with our lives here in Mongolia, it became abundantly clear that we have a lot less control of factors in our lives here than we did at home. This seems to be a core element in culture shock as well as in feelings of general malaise and overwhelm before we come to grips with it. Informed by my perspective on what I can or can’t control in my environment, I have found that taking active steps that I can control, ones that would be unnecessary at home, help a great deal. Just making a choice to take a walk can go a long way to helping. And a small thing like a trip out to the shop a few doors down just to buy a roll of toilet paper can shift my perspective.Mongolian toilet paper – not so soft.
So here I am, living a step away from ger living, since I have electricity (though gers now usually have power, often with solar panels) and windows in my walls. I feel like I have a foot in both realities – the wild and the civilized. Although I’ve been removed from some of the environmental wildness I loved while I was in training (sharing lanes with livestock, horizon to horizon vistas of gorgeous country in daytime and of stars at night), I’m learning how to live in an area that is more populated, cutting off the panoramic view of the surrounding mountains. I can see the sky and some mountains south of my district. I also suspect that I am under a bird migration path, so I am very excited for spring. Under the blue tarp is my wood.
Bit by bit, through the ups and downs, I’m making my way through to a life here. I doubt that I would still be here, if I hadn’t experienced repeatedly, sometimes at very critical moments, the kindness of the people here. I doubt any of us would be. I have to say, Peace Corps has consistently chosen well for me, starting with placing me in this amazing country and continuing on through the various choices during the 5 months. It’s now up to me to make a life for myself here as I work the assignment I was given. If I ask myself what I can do that might have a positive effect on the quality of my life here, I would say this:
1. I can make my home more comfortable, introducing elements (like internet, lamps, cooking pans) that will help make it feel less like I’m camping for 2 years. Much as I love camping, this is neither the time nor the situation for that.
2. I can continue to build my social life here, not just with ex-pats, but with Mongolians as well. Several of my counterparts have shown that they are interested in spending time with me.
3. Finally, I can be more assertive in my pursuit of the Mongolian language. Up until now, I have not had much luck with teachers. But I can establish exactly what I need from a tutor, and insist on that. I want to get the language off the back burner, to where it’s been relegated.
One day, I was at my internet café, the American bakery run by Swedes. At one point, I approached the restroom, and saw a sign on the door in Mongolian. I recognized the words for “work” and “not”. Uh-oh! Public toilets are hard to come by. Then I turned to the lovely Mongolian women that work there, and asked where they were going today. They both got smirks on their faces, and hesitantly told me that there was a Mongolian toilet near the building they are in – a wood toilet, one added. I asked if they would show me, and one agreed. I grabbed my coat and a length of toilet paper from the roll in my backpack, and I followed her out the door. We walked until we came to a fenced-in construction site that was currently not being worked on. There was a big pit in the center, as if a building had been removed. I looked across the way, and saw that, kitty corner from where we stood, a little wood shack was hidden behind some tall weeds. I walked on a trash-strewn path around the perimeter of the pit, and as I approached, I saw that none of the wood panels I’d seen from afar was, in fact, a door. But I gratefully used the “Mongolian wood toilet,” in full view of anyone who cared to look out of the buildings across the way. The truth? No one cares.See it way back in the corner?
II. Change is the Only Constant
A couple of weeks ago on a Friday, I was all set to enjoy my weekend. I usually go to town to the internet on Saturday morning. Then the rest of the weekend is mine to do with as I please. Of course it also entails doing laundry (yes, I’m still doing it by hand!), cleaning the house, getting my school things in order, chopping kindling, hauling wood, and shopping for groceries. And of course, giving the dog whatever treat I found for him at the meat market! I might also have time to read with the cat on my lap.My internet cafe, with lovely Mongolian servers/bakers
This weekend was different. On that Friday, I was told that my winter supply of wood was being delivered as we spoke. Good thing, too, since my supply of fall wood was almost gone. I then learned that Tanya, my main counterpart, would be bringing school boys to my house to chop the new wood at noon on Saturday. Since my internet source opens at 10, that was already cramping my style. And it’s closed on Sunday. But, I thought, winter wood arrives once a year, and is critical, and the community is rallying, so internet must take a back seat. Then there was a further plan. Another counterpart, Ganaa, would be picking up Tanya and me at 3:30 and we’d be having dinner at her house. Yet another counterpart was picking me up on Sunday for dinner at her house. I surrendered my weekend. School break was coming a week later, so I’d get some good down time then, I figured. Besides, the bottom line is that Peace Corps service is 24/7. It doesn’t all happen in the school.
I’d just gotten to the internet cafe Saturday morning for my abbreviated visit when I received a text from Tanya that her sister-in-law died and she wouldn’t be coming with the boys after all. But she said she was calling around giving my address to the boys so they could still come. I got home at the appointed time, and there were no boys there. At 2 o’clock there were still no boys. At 4 o’clock, Ganaa picked me up for dinner, and there had been no boys.
At Ganaa’s house, I was charmed. Besides being a lovely person herself, she has twin girls who are 5th graders, and a 5-month-old baby. The girls were very attentive and loving with the baby. Her husband was a real gem. Their house was beautiful, and she said her husband had worked hard on it. They heat with hot water, though I’m not sure what their heat source is for the hot water. But it was unusual to be in a Mongolian home in the ger district without a woodstove cranking away in the kitchen.
Ganaa’s accent is heavy, she struggles with vocabulary, and her speech is interspersed with Mongolian space-fillers, so she’s very hard to understand. For 2.5 hours I strained to follow her. Finally, I was exhausted and told her I needed to go home. She had told me that her dog had just had puppies. That should have alerted me. If I were in America, I would have been very aware of the dog, and cautious. But I was tired, and my mind was occupied by many things. In another culture, I find my conscious mind is overloaded with things that my unconscious takes care of when I’m in my native country. So I walked out to the car with her, and the dog, for some reason untied, came up behind me and bit me in the calf. This meant I had to go to UB immediately to get a series of 2 rabies shots (following up the three I received in the summer), and have the bite looked at. Ganaa felt terrible, but I assured her that I would be fine, and that her dog was just being a good mother. With all the stray dogs that roam this country, I thought if I were to suffer a dog bite, it would be from a hungry stray dog in the middle of winter. But this was a hashaa dog. I think I’m the third or fourth volunteer in my group of 42 M24s that has been bitten in the past 5 months.Stray dogs abound here.
I may not have had my weekend, but I had an unexpected excursion a six-hour bus ride away. Aside from the time I spent outside walking in the polluted air, my visit to UB was fun. I spent two days working at the American University of Mongolia, where I’d spent two weeks before coming to site. They had a project for me that was exactly the right length for the time I had. I visited with friends. And, of course, I had great coffee and pastries. Thank you, dog!!Visiting friends in UB. Lee expounding, Rosemary serving, Laura, who I was staying with.