Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Heart-breaking Goodbye

Well, it has been quite a long time since last we posted anything here. It's certainly not for lack of interesting things happening. It's more because of being so enmeshed in projects, Peace Corps stuff, and, especially, wanting to spend all of our time and focus "right here, right now."I (Julie) spent 4 wonderful days in a tiny town in the countryside with my 4 "sons," Turbold, Muundii, Huujii and Hatnaa (in that order in the photo), and Turbold's lovely family.

Then, Jimmy and I went with Turbold and his family back to the same tiny town for a fantastic Naadam experience. His mom and dad were wonderful hosts, and made sure to help us experience all of the best things about this ancient Mongolian holiday. (In the photo, Turbold's mom, Baterdene is on the far left, his little brothers Onobold and Ganbold are next, then his dad, Tumersukh, then some of the extended family). The highlight was one of the horse races, where we got to ride in the car that follows the racers to the starting line, and then drive like maniacs across the open steppe as we follow alongside the horses racing back toward the finish. It was exhiliarating! And we beat the horses to the starting line with just enough time to lay out a carpet on the grass and polish off a bottle of vodka (among 8 of us), have a toast or two and eat some candies before the horses showed up. Never a wasted moment! (Notice in the photo that some of the riders [all kids] rode bareback, and many had no shoes. I swear some of these kids can ride a horse before they can walk!)

In addition to those 2 extended countryside visits, my counterparts took us out for a day, and Jimmy's did later, both of which included lots of great food and great laughs. Jimmy's, of course, was a little crazier, since he works with several men who LOVE to strip down to their skivvies and get in the river, and who love even more to throw the women (fully clothed and kicking & screaming) in afterward. This is a ritual we have observed several times before: the men get in, women say they're not going in but stay next to the river anyway, then the men grab the women and take them into the water. (That's Jimmy with Boogii and Enkhee in the water, and my teachers are in the next picture: Otgo, Saranchimeg, Uyunga, Zoloo, Sarantuya and Chimgee.)
I also attended the nicest high school graduation I've ever seen. It was Turbold and Muundii's class, and it was filled with energy and hand-clapping and kids all standing and holding hands and singing together, and teachers singing songs for the kids, and just a huge celebration. It was wonderful to see so many of the fantastic kids I've gotten to know celebrate such a special day. We followed the ceremony with a Chinese dinner and then karaoke. And if you've only ever seen/done karaoke in America, you have no idea what fun it can be! Folks here LOVE karaoke, and these kids, singing on their graduation night, sang with every ounce of their energy and heart.
Throughout all of this fun and frivolity, Jimmy has been working like crazy on the Anna Home expansion project. With the help of financing and planning by a Dutch group, Anna Home is expanding. Prior to this summer, there were 2 small bedrooms, a small living room and kitchen for 25 kids. In a few months, there will be 3 large bedrooms, a woodworking shop and computer/sewing room, a bathroom with running water (there is no bathroom now, only an outhouse), new electrical and heating systems, and an expanded living room. While Jimmy did not initiate this project, he has put in hours and hours of time and effort into making it happen and monitoring/training the construction crew. The kids are, naturally, thrilled about the whole thing, and are helping with whatever aspects they are allowed to help with. During our last week in Cho, Boldsaikhan, the director and our friend, invited us to Anna Home for a farewell gathering. The kids and their teacher made us a delicious meal, sang us a special song, and gave us loads of homemade "thank you" cards. When we left, they all insisted on individual photos with each of us (that's about 50 photos!), then followed us out to the car, where they surrounded us, blowing kisses and reaching in to grab our hands one last time, and then chasing the car to the end of the street (one little boy holding my hand as he ran next to the car). It was so darned SWEET!!!
As the days counted down to our departure from Cho, we squeezed in as many visits with folks as we could. On the two days before our departure day, we had an "open house," where we made lots of food (chili, cornbread, potato salad, apple cake, brownies and sugar cookies) and said thank you and goodbye to about 50 wonderful friends, co-workers and students. We gave away everything but what our luggage could carry, packed everything else, said long goodbyes, and ended with a champagne toast to two amazing years and especially this group of amazing people.
Then, we went outside to find that 4 cars (about 20 people) were loading up to follow us to the airport, 20 minutes away! It was overwhelming and wonderful, and I cried all the way to the airport. All of our counterparts (the man in the photo with me is Zoloo, one of my teacher counterparts), 6 of my students (in the photo at the end is my 4 sons, Gantuya and Elberel, all from a class I taught during my first year here), 2 other PCVs, Boldsaikhan (PCV Sarah and Boldsaikhan are with Jimmy in the photo), and several other friends came and stayed with us
until our plane took off. We had two rounds of toasts, first with Jimmy's Ger Sanachilag counterparts, then with my teachers, did lots more hugging and crying, then went inside to board. The hugs continued until the security folks finally insisted that we come through security to the boarding area. I'll never forget all those beautiful faces, crammed together in the little entryway into the security room crying, my "sons" hugging and consoling each other as they said one, two, three final goodbyes.

I will remember that day for the rest of my life. Jimmy and I both felt so utterly honored and appreciated and loved. Saying goodbye was almost unbearably painful, and at the same time, we both felt like the luckiest people alive to have had the kind of experience that led us to this point. It's so cliche, and yet it couldn't be more accurate: it's not the place, it's the people. Thinking back to our first impressions of Cho, we realized that falling in love with our neighbors made us fall in love with our dusty brown little town. Tan Soviet block apartment buildings actually became beautiful. Avoiding open manholes over unlit walking areas after dark became a fun game. Even listening to the wailing in the karaoke bar outside our apartment at midnight was no longer an annoyance. We knew that we shared these buildings, these "danger zones" and these Mongolian songs with some of the sweetest people on Earth, and being all in it together made it all worthwhile.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


Our recent break from Mongolia’s cold was filled with many great sightings, foods and laughs. In researching where to visit this winter, many friends had told us they found Cambodia to be charming and the people to be very friendly. Despite knowing about Cambodia’s challenges to recover from a troubled history, the lure of friendly and smiling people was enough to draw us there. Of course for me, good birdwatching prospects are always attractive. We were happy with our pick.

We spent our first night in Phenom Penh, only to jump a bus to Siem Reap the next morning. We really enjoyed and are thankful we chose this comfortable 6-hour method of seeing the countryside. It was a nice introduction to the landscape. Siem Reap is an emerging tourist town that’s busting at the seams with growth. Tourist towns are certainly not our style, but Siem Reap made sense for us because of the nearby temple complexes and because it was our departure point for a 5-day excursion into the wilds.

We hired a guide to take us to wetlands areas and into a section of dry dipterocarp forest in northern Cambodia; some fascinating habitats. Unless you plan to stay awhile, this was a great way to get into the countryside, efficiently. A friend of ours here in Mongolia who works for Wildlife Conservation Society told us about a WCS project down in Tmatbuoy. An eco-tourism partnership was formed between WCS and the village. WCS built a small, low-impact facility to accommodate a few dozen paying tourists (often hardcore bird finders), annually. In exchange for providing paying customers and operational support to the village, area villagers agree to avoid encroachment on these important, disappearing habitats. We had a wonderful stay and are happy to have helped the cause.

We met many sweet people, our guide was fantastic and I got to see some magnificent (and critically endangered) species. A cool, non-bird highlight was having a strange animal literally cross our path – a species some call a “Bearcat.” Curiously, it is neither bear nor cat. When we first saw it, we thought a black bear cub was approaching. Instead, we encountered a binturong, a round squat animal that’s closely-related to civet cats. Later, we were told they are very rare to see because they’re nocturnal. They can also be vicious when threatened so we’re quite happy that it posed for us, then scurried off.

We planned a few days in Siem Reap for temple visits and a day trip on the huge Tonle Sap lake. Julie was happy she chose not to join me on the water because high winds that day produced big swells. We almost dumped the boat a few times. The trip was hairy until the waves calmed in the afternoon. We eventually reached our destination, a nature reserve and floating fishing village across the lake, which were interesting, but barely worth the anxiety.

Our Siem Reap time was great fun. Some of our very best Peace Corps friends met us there and we had a ball visiting the famous Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm temple sites with them. Like us, they know how to play hard and we laughed so much. Our favorite temple was Banteay Srei because there were far fewer tourists and the stone carvings were the most intricate and impressive. Our favorite new friend was a working elephant we fed and adored. Our favorite khmer foods were the fruit and the simple fried noodles and vegetables. We’re big bok choy and oyster sauce fans. We didn’t try the fried crickets, but the roasted tarantula I sampled was kind of tough and bitter tasting.

It seems we always say that the people are the best part of any of our travel experiences. Well, that was unquestionably true for us this time, too. The khmer people are extremely friendly and we encountered huge smiles wherever we went. We really felt welcome and enjoyed being with some of these gentle souls. Cambodia has a wealth of charms and we hope the khmer people continue on a path to enduring peace and profound happiness.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Happy New Year 2009!!!

A quick post to say that we are just now recovering from a flurry of holiday parties filled with many laughs, dancing, songs, games, foods and ales. Julie and I hosted a couple parties ourselves, one featuring a fish fry. Friends generously gave us a huge one caught in Dornod's Buur Lake and we sectioned it four ways with different spicings/flavors. Then we had a song share. Tomorrow, we leave for Cambodia for a couple weeks.
Now, for your Mongolian culture lesson: Right now, we are enduring the third 9 of winter. What does this mean? Mongolians refer to winter as progressing through "The Nine 9's," nine phases with each lasting 9 days. On December 22nd, winter and the first 9 begins. The temperature of each phase is symbolized by a certain possible occurence:
1st 9: milk vodka freezes
2nd 9: the stronger vodka (hordz) freezes (this vodka is distilled twice)
3rd 9: the frozen horn of a 3-year old goat would break
4th 9: the horn of a 4-yr old goat would break (the coldest nine day phase)
5th 9: rice will not freeze (getting a tad warmer)
6th 9: foot paths darken (as snow melts and the ground is exposed on trails first)
7th 9: small hilltops are brown
8th 9: sounds of water emerge (drips and sloshing of mud under foot)
9th 9: Mongolians celebrate Tsaagan Sar ("White Month" and their lunar new year)

We're heard other variations of these phases, but these are the ones related to us by our friends. We have not tested them, but have no reason to doubt their accuracy.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

New England meets Choibalsan

Recently, we performed our best Chef Emile and Julia Childish imitations and helped out some friends who just opened a restaurant here. We were asked to conduct a TV cooking show, teaching Mongolian viewers how to prepare a couple simple foods with local ingredients as a way to help promote their new business. We thought it was a good idea and we had lots of fun doing it. And we're now famous in these parts. Now, more of the stares we continue to attract everyday are coupled with grins of recognition.

We wanted to prepare foods that were relatively simple, used only locally-obtainable ingredients, are culturally-relevant to us and are tasty. Jim demonstated a New England chowder recipe, suitable for a dairy-based diet and the approaching winter (it was -25C, yesterday). Meanwhile, Julie dazzled with a delicious apple cake that drew raves and sang a beautiful Mongolian song for the audience. Of course, the best part of the experience was the eating when we were done taping.

A teaser promotional ad aired for about a week before the broadcast. The ad featured many shots of me cooking and of Julie singing. The local producer likes to play with his studio gadgets and sped up the tape of Julie's song. She sounded like one of the chipmunks, which was cute. Upon seeing the ad, the elderly mom of Julie's co-worker called her daughter and asked a perfectly reasonable question: why was Julie singing while I did all the work? For us, that's an adorable cultural reflection...besides being a pertinent question in my domestic life. Why, indeed?

Friday, November 28, 2008

His First Haircut

In the fall, I was invited to attend the hair-cutting ceremony of my counterpart Saranchimeg's 3 year old son, Zolbayar. We had learned about this ceremony during training, but I had never been able to attend one, so I was really honored and happy to be invited. In my understanding, the ceremony marks the transition from "babyhood" to "childhood" for boys and girls, and occurs between the ages of 2 and 6. Infancy, especially for children in herding families, is a vulnerable time. Many herding families have little to no access to medical facilities. So, a child making it through this time is something worth celebrating. The hair-cutting ceremony is a ritual held, in part, for that purpose. Traditionally, a lama would tell the parents which year is best for their child, and many families still consult lamas for this purpose.

As with seemingly all Mongolian gatherings, there was an over-abundance of food, including the requisite aruul (dried milk curd), potato salad, carrot salad, buuz, fruits, and suutai tai (milk tea). Saranchimeg and her husband put out a lovely and delicious spread, and their young niece helped serve food. It was a relatively small gathering -- mostly the other foreign language teachers from our school, though the ceremony is sometimes much larger and sometimes even smaller.

Passing of the airag (fermented mare's milk) got the ceremony started. The airag was in a beautiful pewter bowl, and each person took a sip before cutting Saranchimeg's son's hair.

Zolbayar walked around the table, while each guest took a turn cutting off a small lock of hair and placing it on a pewter tray. Before cutting, we wrapped a ceremonial hadaag (silk sash or scarf) around our hand and the scissors. After cutting, each person said a small "prayer" for the child's happiness and well-being in the future.

He very patiently allowed each of us to cut his hair, a glass of juice and Mom's touch making it all a little easier. When the cutting was finished, we ate many buuz and talked about life, and I felt very fortunate to be part of this special gathering. Saranchimeg wrapped the hair in silk and put it away, to be given to Zolbayar when he is older. Zolbayar, meanwhile, was given the cash collected for the occasion, and though he didn't seem to know quite what to do with it, he seemed to understand that it was something to hold on to--and he did so for the rest of the time we were there!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

My Camp Songs Obsession Finds an Outlet in Mongolia!


As some of you know, my friend Kevin and I have been working on a project to create a cd and songbook for Mongolian and Peace Corps English teachers to use in the classroom. Now, after several months of scheming, proposal writing, budget planning (with LOADS of help from the budget-master himself, Jimmy, of course), materials purchasing, RECORDING, editing & mixing, printing and burning, our project is (practically) complete! We're burning the final of the 275 cds, and distribution of the cd/songbook 53-song sets will begin next month.
Kevin and I are both really happy with how the cds and songbooks turned out. And the process of creating them, while peppered with snafus and moments of frustration, was satisfying and loads of fun--especially the hours spent recording with my students. Kevin brought his laptop to Cho (he lives in Selenge aimag, north west of Ulaanbaatar, a 20-hour bus ride away), and we recorded everything on his Garageband program in classrooms.
One of the 4th grade classes we recorded with. They sang "My Grandfather Had a Farm" (we've been learning family names) and "Bingo," which featured "my grandfather" as well.

Most of the songs were sung by my 8th grade students, immediately after learning them. They're remarkably fast learners! Sometimes I would sing the song just once, they'd sing it 3 or 4 times, then we'd record. Now, I won't say they sound professional, and there are moments that my high school choir director would have had heart palpitations over, but the teachers and students who listen can easily follow along with the words and tunes of each song.

My 8th
graders in one of our smaller sessions.
The impetus for the project was a desire to share songs with Mongolian teachers that can be easily sung and memorized, in order to increase students' speaking fluency. Many teachers use full-length songs from pop singers to help with vocabulary and grammar study. But often those songs are really difficult to learn well. So I decided to use my love of camp songs, and (after 15+ years as a camp counselor) the vast storage of songs that dance around endlessly in my brain to create this teaching cd for English language teachers. Kevin, my exceedingly talented friend, agreed to take on the project with me and was just as enthusiastic about it as I was. He is a whiz with Garageband, and was able to turn a bunch of kids singing in a classroom into a real live, high quality cd. And, considering he has always hated "camp songs," preferring to write his own music in the vein of Pearl Jam and Tool, he was an awesome sport, even agreeing to sing a few of the songs (including "Itsy Bitsy Spider"!) himself. And speaking of "guest singers," Jimmy even puts in a performance or two (you should hear his sheep noises --uncannilly real)

Kevin & I during the "scheming" phase, in his ger in Selenge.

So now, as we receive help from our friend Boloroo at the Peace Corps office in UB in the form of cd burning, we have turned much of the project over to PC staff who will distribute the cds and songbooks to volunteers and schools. We are happy to say that Peace Corps Mongolia is also very pleased with the final product and has endorsed it and offered their help with it enthusiastically. I think that in the years to come, as I look back on this Peace Corps experience, this cd and the creation of it with my students and Kevin will be the thing I feel was our biggest achievement. I have such a great sense of satisfaction about it, and I look forward to sharing it with folks back in the States when we return next summer!

Following are just a smattering of photos from recording sessions and times when we made music JUST for fun!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Anna Home

Did we tell you the kids here don't come any cuter? In our short time, we've been fortunate to play and work with the kids and staff of Anna Home, a safe haven for neglected children. This is a special project that offers much hope for a few kids and the Choibalsan community.

In 2006, the home's director Boldsaihan took the initiative to rescue homeless or neglected kids from the city's underground water tunnels. Without stable homes, people of all ages find warmth in bitter cold winters huddling near hot water mains. Manholes are their doorways. Boldsaihan first housed the kids in a basement and scraped together resources to feed and shelter them. In 2007, VSO volunteer Maarten Stoffels entered their lives.

Maarten, with the generosity of his Dutch contacts, helped Boldsaihan buy a house and land establishing the Anna Home residence. Foreign contributors meet the housing, food and development needs of 25 children who now share this very modest space. Last spring, upon his departure from Mongolia, Maarten asked Jim to assist with communications, project development activities and in the home's operations. Jim also serves as Boldsaihan's management mentor helping to develop long-term skills so that Boldsaihan may eventually operate the home as a fully-capable director.

Anna Home has experienced some big successes this year, not least of which were the drilling of a well, the building of a well house and piping of running water into the house.

Now, we are preparing for three major projects. In the spring, we hope to develop a property that will serve as a transitional home for young adults. When the children reach 18, the goal is to have a home and support in place where they can learn work and life skills in a semi-independent setting. They would be prepared for supporting themselves as capable adults in their lives beyond Anna Home's embrace.

Next summer, one project will be renovating the existing interior with new energy-efficient windows, new doors, trim, flooring and paint. The second summer project is huge: a building addition which would include giving the building a bathroom, storage space, a large classroom, computer and sewing classrooms and a carpentry shop. We believe it is not enough to improve the current living standards for the kids. The children must be prepared with social and vocational skills as well to help break the stranglehold of poverty here.
To the left, we've added a link to Anna Home's website, which Maarten maintains from The Netherlands. For the home, the long-term aim is to create an enduring refuge and training ground for Choibalsan children who have no other options and doing so with sustainable local support. Until then, maybe you'd like to pitch in.