Monday, December 19, 2011

Boredom

"I'm bored" might be my Peace Corps Mongolia catch phrase. I would choose "I'm cold" but too many other people would use that too. Since I'm bored a lot, I thought sharing a list of things I do to alleviate my boredom would allow all you people to understand my day to day life a little bit better. I'm not a champion at organization, so enjoy the random list!

1. Typical time wasters: TV, books, movies
Since being in Mongolia, I have watched 4 Star Trek serieses in their entirety and 3 of the movies; I've watched all 5 Planet of the Ape movies; I've watched the Star Trek trilogy (the original 3), the Resident Evil quadrilogy, 28 Day and 28 Weeks later, and so many, many more. I've also read novels, short stories and essays of many varieties. This category takes up most of my bored time.

2. Studying Languages
I'm not a studier in general so I only do this when forced or bored. Since being in Mongolia, I've picked up phrases in English, Mongolian, German, French, Japanese, Hebrew, Russian, Chinese and Spanish. Not very many phrases...specifically "This is an apple." Anyone who knows this phrase in another language, please contribute.
I also toy around with the Rosetta stone for Chinese on a regular basis. I don't intend to visit China...but knowing how to say hello and this egg is blue might come in handy someday.

3. Cleaning or Rearranging
My house has three rooms but somehow requires constant cleaning. I attempted to keep this up last year and was rewarded by frequent comments on my messy house. I've given up this year and simply forbidden people from commenting. I do still spend an inordinate amount of time sweeping the carpet and tiles, washing laundry, cleaning dishes and wiping off tables, but a lot less than last year. Now really deep cleaning only happens when I expect guests. I also just love to move furniture around.

4. Communications
With rare exceptions, if you've received a letter from me it was probably written while I was bored. That's not to say that you aren't important, but that I'm bored an awful lot and if I'm not bored then I'm busy and couldn't be writing a letter. So please don't take offense. Each month I spend a few hours writing letters which describe my incredibly busy and useful life. Also if you've recieved a phone call or e-mail or any other form of communication from me, this was because I was bored. Or maybe because I needed to ask or say something important, but I was probalby bored too.

5. Games
I have upwards of 150 games played on all the standard windows games. Everything from Freecell and Solitare to Minesweeper and Mahjongg. I also have downloaded and played Mario Kart, Zelda and Dungeon Crawl for the computer. I received a gameboy and some games in packages from my family. In the few months since they've arrived I've racked up over 20 hours each in Pokemon and Final Fantasy and I've beaten 3 out of 4 levels on PictoPuzzle. I play card and board games with my students from school on a weekly basis and I work on puzzle books for hours on end each month.
6. Listening to podcasts, OTR plays, and audio books
This week I listened to "the Host" by Stephenie Meyers in 2 sittings. I spent 12 hours on Sunday sitting on my couch just listening... It isn't even a good book. I have some radio plays from George Orwell and the like, and they're very enjoyable. I don't have the "War of the Worlds" broadcast but I've listened to the Count of Monte Cristo. The Radio plays are condensed of course, but I'm sorry that this artform has fallen from grace. I think I'd enjoy listening to them on the radio during long road trips or whatever. I've listened to a couple other plays and books, but most frequently I listen to podcasts. A friend gave me hundreds of "Stuff you should know" episodes and I listen while playing games or while cleaning the house.

7. Walking around my town aimlessly
My town isn't big, but I've walked the length of it a few times. They've put up a new statue of Sukhbataar and a really big Mongolian flag. We've also got a few new stores which I wander through sometimes. They're pretty fancy. We have blenders for sale! and tin foil. Exciting developments.

8. Buying unnecessary things
Sometimes I don't want to wander aimlessly, so I decide that I need another package of yeast or some cookie or candy just as an excuse to go to the delguur (store). Other unnecessary (but not useless) items purchased this way include thermos, gloves, hair brushes & combs, tooth brushes, hand rags, and dry soup mix.

9. Building or Baking unnecessary things
I built a pinata! which was unnecessary but awesome. I built a second one too, which is still sitting in my house with no purpose (next year's birthday I guess). I'm knitting a pillow...but it will never be finished. I finished knitting a silly woolen christmas tree. I bake cookies and cakes whenever I have the ingredients and the desire and the will. That happens surprisingly often. I made chocolate cake the other day in about 30 minutes. Delicious.
10. Hopeless projects

11. Playing with the cat
I adopted a cat from another volunteer who left. I spend some of my free time convincing him to jump very very high to catch a toy mouse. I spend some of my other free time rescuing mice that he's torturing. Catch, release, catch, release, catch, release and then I take the mouse outside. It's too terrified to run anymore...
12. Spacing out
Staring off into nothingness, which I've done a couple time just while typing this.

Now, after reading all that (if you read all that) you're probably convinced that I don't do anything productive here in Mongolia, but I promise that I also teach lessons for during the school day 20 hours a week or so, and have a few clubs and extra lessons after classes. Add to that my daily chores of fetching water, chopping wood, making fires, and cooking and my ability to slack off this much is actually kind of impressive, in my own special way.

Anyway, Happy Holidays to everyone out there. Enjoy the Christmas lights and the pretty wrapping paper for me.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

My Frozen Home

Mongolia is a cold country. Not many people will try to debate that statement. Temperatures here in the winter probably average around the -20s and get down to the -40s not even including the wind chill. The ground is frozen for most of the year and rain is only a summer phenomenon. Most people fight the cold with fire. The center of the ger is a large, usually metal, stove which is used to keep the freezing temperatures at bay. My house has a similar stove attached to a wall which serves the same purpose. With enough effort and attentiveness, a person can keep their home sufficiently warm throughout the 8-9 months of freezing temperatures.
Anyone that knows me knows that I am lazy. I frequently choose to simply be uncomfortable rather than put forth the effort required for comfort. Mongolia has been testing the limits of my laziness since I arrived, but still has not broken the habit. Mongolians, and reasonable foreigners, are expected to build a fire at least twice a day during the fall and spring and three times during the deep winter. This means that someone must chop a lot of wood and build a lot of fires. Doesn‘t that sound like an annoying amount of work? In Mongolian families this work is divided among the family. The father, sons and grandfather might chop the wood. Someone else will chop some pieces into kindling. And whoever happens to be around when the fire dies out will build a new fire. I live alone, and so I would have to do all of these things myself (actually my school workers are willing to chop the wood for me, I just don’t like to impose on them).
I do chop wood; I do make kindling; I do build fires. I just don’t do them with the frequency that is required for a truly comfortable house. Most Mongolian homes probably have average temperatures roughly equal to a home in America, 60-70 F (I’ve never seen a thermostat inside a house so that is a completely made up number). My home varies greatly. On days when I feel like putting forth the effort or on days when I expect visitors, it hovers around 60 because I build a good fire and keep it going. Slightly lazier days, the temp stays around freezing. I can see my breath but my food stuffs remain unfrozen. Then there are the days which supply most of my Mongolia anecdotes, when my home is colder than any freezer I’ve ever seen. Essentially because I haven’t built a fire for a day or so, my home adjusts to the same temperature or maybe even colder than the outside temperature. My water freezes in its container, the oil freezes on my shelf and my eggs freeze in their shells. These things freeze due to prolonged exposure to the cold, but my favorite freezing stories are the stories of things that freeze instantaneously.
When the ground is covered in snow, you’re bound to track snow and dirt into the house. One day I decided to clean some of this mud off of my floor with a rag and soapy water. I poured the water into the bucket and began to dip a rag in and wipe the rag across the floor. I noticed after washing for a while that some of the dirt marks weren’t coming up and scrubbed at them harder. Eventually I took my finger nails and started scratching. My finger nails broke through a layer of ice that was covering the dirt. My washing water had been freezing as it touched the cold, cold floor. I built a fire after this incident and tried washing again later when it’d warmed up a bit.
Another cleaning story, I’d been away for a day from my house and so of course hadn’t built a fire and my house was cold. The cat had stayed in the house and had pooped and peed on my floor. I decided that the smell needed to be cleaned away more than I needed a fire, so I poured some water and soap into a small tin box. Less than a minute later I returned with my cleaning rag and noticed crystals of ice inside the tin. I started my water boiler (which actually had ice in it) and added hot water before cleaning.
Most of my other fun freezing stories take place outside, so I’ll make that a topic for another day. I just want to say again that most Mongolian households don’t have these issues. I am a lazy housekeeper and thus have a cold, frozen wasteland of a home, but don’t be afraid of the country in general. If you come to Mongolia and visit any home, it will be warm and comfortable and the people will stuff you full of hot food and drink.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Gobi

So it's been almost a full year since my last blog update. I guess I should apologize for that. It isn't that nothing interesting has happened, just that I never feel like typing out blogs about any of it.

I've been trying to keep a journal and I've been writing letters, so that's where I put all the cool stories. That said, sorry for not updating if any of you actually wanted to read this thing.

I just got back from my first real vacation in Mongolia, so the topic I wanted to write about is getting supplanted by a vacation summary.

I went to the Gobi last week to the Southern Gobi province of Mongolia, Omnogobi. In total I took a week off from school (during the school break, so all I really missed was cleaning), 2 days of that was just for travel, but the other 5 nights I spent in or around the provincial capital of Dalanzadgad. I was visiting some of my closest Peace Corps friends and seeing one of the most well-known sights of Mongolia. Aside from the Great Wall of China, it's probably the only Mongolia-related landmark/place that most Americans have heard of.
The Gobi is huge, so I only saw a small portion of it (practically none at all) and the part I saw wasn't even sandy or really flat. Parts of it reminded me of my home town in Texas: lots of yellow grass and scraggly bushes that stretch on for miles (kilometers). But the mountains made all the difference; my part of Texas doesn't have mountains. The grass and bushes stretch on for ages until mountains rise from horizon. It really was a beautiful backdrop. But not quite the prettiest thing I saw in the Gobi.
For two nights, I stayed with my friend in a soum (village) just outside of the capital. I went on a hike one of those nights and while exploring probably stayed out too late. The sun went down and the moon came up. My friend and I had a lovely (and cold) moonlit stroll back to the village. The moon hanging over the (not actually) dunes of the countryside was a striking sight. Because I'm not very poetic, the best comparison I can come up with is lunar. It looked like I imagine the moon to look. I'm also a bad photographer, so I'm afraid that I have no pictures to supplement my incredibly detailed imagery.
That was the most impressive natural sight I saw, though I'm sure many would claim the 'three beauties,' the mountains of the southern Gobi are far more impressive. My friend and I took a drive with some of his fellow teachers out to the middle beauty (named for its location not relative prettiness) and walked/climbed around for a few hours. This was my first time climbing around a snow covered mountain and after the Mongolian summer, I had forgotten how cold snow can be. We went in search of a snow cave which supposedly has a frozen waterfall or two all year round. We saw plenty of frozen waterfalls and frozen rivers and streams, but the cave eluded us. I managed to get some decent pictures at the mountain until my frequent falling finally frustrated my camera into shutting itself off. It was a lovely trip.
Non-natural wonders of the trip included a Monastery where i discovered that the Lunar Zodiac is more complex than I thought. I now have a necklace depicting the god who supposedly protects my birth year. Or maybe he's just supposed to be a spiritual guide or something, I couldn't really understand the saleslady. I missed out on visiting the museum, but saw lots of tributes to the city's history all around town. Dinosaur statues are all throughout the city park and even in the movie theatre and outside of one of the shops (that one glowed).
Of course no gathering of Americans in Mongolia is really complete without a lot of baking (at least not in my opinion). Another of the trip highlights had to be eating homemade apple bread (rather similar to banana bread) on an old Soviet tank that was riddled with bullet-holes. The apple pie was also delicious, and the cheese cake (from a box, provided by my dad) couldn't be topped.
Overall, it was a splendid trip. Between the train and the bus, the trip takes over 24 hrs each way, but I'm glad that I got to see where my friends live and spend some time with them.