Its been a long time coming, and its a long one…

Year 2 of my service is off and in full swing and winter is quickly descending upon Mongolia.  Its been a while since I last posted.  In fact, my previous post was in the dead of last winter (not that that’s saying much since winter here is 8 months long.)  However, its been difficult to sit down and write a blog post for family, friends and everyone else back at home because I never know where to even begin.  How do I explain why I’m feeling this way or why this thing that happened today was significant or funny?  It just always seems exhausting to try to explain because life here is so entirely different than back at home.  Even as I write this post, I’ve gone back and rewritten it about 6 times already because its so difficult to figure out what to say about what I’m going through here.  But as Year 2 kicks off, I am realizing more and more how important it is to document my time here.  Most of Year 1 I felt that I needed to experience every moment rather than getting caught up trying to document it all.  I didn’t take many pictures or write blog posts because I was too busy ‘living in the moment.’  However, these moments won’t be around forever and I am now confronting the fact that in less than a year I will be back stateside and all these moments will just be memories.  This year I have to be more proactive in documenting my journey.  The highs and the lows and all the craziness that happens in between.

Best trainees EVER!

Best trainees EVER!

In the last 8 months so much has happened.   My two female site mates/best friends got sent home because our site has been deemed no longer safe for female Peace Corps Volunteers.  I trained teams and individuals from my school to compete in regional and national English competitions and was very proud of the numerous medals my students and teachers won.  I traveled back to Darkhan, where I lived and trained last summer, to train the newest group of PC-Mongolia Volunteers.  For two months I worked to teach my group of the most awesome trainees, what it takes to be an English Teacher in Mongolia, and more importantly, what it takes to be a successful Peace Corps Volunteer in Mongolia.  I met (for the 3rd time) the US Ambassador to Mongolia, and later this summer had lunch with the Peace Corps Chief of Staff (Second in Command!).  My mom and sister came to Mongolia, and they saw and began to understand what life is really like for me out here in the Mongolian countryside.  And then we went on a luxury vacation to China (Thanks, Mom!!).  And now, after an emotional week-long Mid-Service Training (MST) at the end of August with all 70 of the other PCV’s in my group, I am back at my site in the second week of the school year.

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Hiking up an extinct volcano

Having my mom and sister visit me in Mongolia showed me how much I’ve changed in my 16 months here.  Everyone expects this to happen and knows that it does, but while we’re surrounded by people who are experiencing similar struggles and challenges, these changes aren’t as apparent.  I’ve grown harder and colder.  I don’t laugh as easily.  And when I do, my jokes are often more stinging and mean.  I’ve become more skeptical and cynical.  Its just part of what happens when you’re on guard 24/7.  There’s a certain self-assuredness that comes with surviving these daily struggles and still managing to do the work we came here for.  Every minute of every day of every week is spent performing, trying to be the best PCV I can be.  Add to that the pressure we put on ourselves to go above and beyond in spite of living in this challenging environment.  This environment where we’re devoid of the human contact and affection we’re used to in the States.  Where we’re constantly yelled at and gawked at on the streets.  Where many students don’t really want to learn English and our counterparts’ attitudes towards work are sometimes extremely difficult for us.  And through all of this, we’re pretty much all on our own.  No Mom and Dad to call when you have a bad day.  No boyfriend or girlfriend to talk to when you’re feeling lonely.  Add to the constant mental struggle, all of the physical challenges we face everyday living in gers through Mongolian winters, and you get hard, cold, tough almost cocky Volunteers.  And after going through what we’ve gone through, who wouldn’t be all of these things?  While understandable, these negative attributes don’t have to be part of who I am though.  Talking to other volunteers during our MST, I realized that I wasn’t the only one who felt like they had changed in these ways.  That through the challenges of the last year, we have all become these people that we didn’t expect or necessarily want to become.  But we all agreed that we need to take a more proactive role in helping each other get through the tough times and to become the positive people we once were and want to be again.

To try to begin to explain what I’m feeling as I begin my second year is almost impossible.  I left MST a mix of emotions. Full of new ideas and excited to start new projects at school.  Dreading returning to site and living without the two people I’ve grown closest to.  Sheer exhaustion at the thought of another year, specifically another 8 months of winter in my ger.  But also a confidence that comes from having already survived one year.  Questioning whether I really want to do an entire second year with all the struggles.  Eagerness to return to the US and back to “normal,” but at the same time a severe anxiety about returning to the “real world.”  That being said, I’ve got about 10.5 more months until I have to face the challenges of returning stateside.

For now, work is off to a pretty classic Mongolian start.  My schedule’s changed pretty much everyday last week and I’m still not sure if its set yet.  I’ve come to school expecting to teach certain classes and spent the day sitting at my desk while we re-do the schedule for four hours again.  But all these struggles and challenges suddenly seem like nothing when two days in a row, you walk into a class of more than 50 twelfth grade students and successfully solo teach for two hours.  Or when you spend the day with your hashaa family baking cookies and pizza and showing them a bit of American culture for once.  Or when you find out that you scored Advanced-Middle on your Mid-Service language interview and maybe your language skills are as good as people say.  When life is as unpredictable and challenging as it is in Peace Corps, you learn pretty quickly how much those little victories mean.  They are what make your service.

All dressed up for the First Day of School

All dressed up for the First Day of School

I’ve got a lot planned for Year 2.  But the most important project to me is to be there for my fellow PCV’s and to work hard to improve our post for future cohorts.  We’re the ones who live this life everyday and understand the struggles so we have to support and lift each other up when things get rough.  We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us in order to make our post as great as we want it to be.  But if there’s any group of hard, cold, mean and tough PCV’s that can do everything we need to, its my fellow M-25’s.  Bring it on Year 2.

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Surprise Break and A Fresh Start

Lighting candles to make New Year's wishes to Buddha

Lighting candles to make New Year’s wishes to Buddha

Buddha's view from the top of Bulgan Mountain

Buddha’s view from the top of Bulgan Mountain

Not too much has happened in the last two weeks since I posted my first blog post. The weather during our New Years break was pretty warm for Mongolia, so the sitemates and I took our first hike to the river since the summer. Also we had a special visitor from a different province come spend the holidays with us. Our good friend and fellow PCV, Sandra, made the difficult trek to our province to spend four days with us. Sandra taught us how to cook lots of new food and was just a joy in general to have around. School was back in session for a week after the New Year’s break, before the Ministry of Education announced that the semester break would be moved to this week. Originally it had been “scheduled” to begin at the end of January, and was to be staggered for different grade levels. Primary students would get six weeks off, middle schoolers would get 3 weeks and high school students would get 2 weeks off. However, in true Mongolian fashion, last Thursday the Ministry of Education announced that due to the number of students who were already out of school for sickness, and the low temperatures in many aimags, it would be better to start break this past Monday. So for the past week I have not taught my regularly scheduled classes and all my co-teachers are in UB attending seminars and visiting with relatives.

38 degrees?  Perfect river hiking weather.

38 degrees? Perfect river hiking weather.

Horses drinking from the river

Horses drinking from the river

Although I’ve been on break, I have not been without work! The English Olympics are approaching and I have been having 3 hour training sessions with 6 of my top scoring students every day to help them get ready for the Olympics in March. The Olympics are a national contest that is held annually, in which students take tests in every subject to qualify and compete against other students. Students from each school are given an exam, and the best in each grade from the school get to compete in the regional competition where students from the entire province come together to compete. The three best scoring students from the province then move on to compete at the national level in UB. The English Olympics tests measure students’ proficiency in grammar, vocabulary, reading, writing, speaking and listening. We’ve been doing a lot of intensive grammar lessons, trying to develop speaking, writing and critical thinking skills, and playing lots of games. This is only the beginning of our training, but it is the only time I will have their undivided attention for 3 hours a day so I’ve been doing my best to teach the grammar points and test taking skills that I think will help them most. Despite the lack of resources, and without the support of my Mongolian speaking counterparts, we’ve already made huge strides in writing and speaking. Several of the students who are competing in this year’s Olympics have been in my English club since October, and their writing has improved remarkably. I used to have to explain writing topics in detail and give lots of example responses before they were comfortable enough to write on their own. But now, I can write a topic on the board and the responses I get are incredible. Not only do the students astound me with their creative and insightful answers, but many of their common grammar and vocabulary mistakes have almost disappeared entirely. I could not be more proud of them and their growth motivates me to be the best teacher I can be, so that they are as prepared as possible for the Olympics and future competitions.

Other than that, I’ve spent much of my break reading and watching too much TV. Yesterday, my haschaa family (the family whose yard I live in) gave me early Tsagaan Sar (“White Month” – its an important Mongolian National Holiday) present. They presented me with a beautiful green winter Mongolian Deel that my haschaa mom sewed for me herself. I had been saving money to buy myself one in the near future, and I was simply thrilled when they gave me one as a gift. My haschaa family has been extremely gracious and helpful over the past several months. They have taught me to chop wood, haul water, how to clean a ger properly (apparently I was doing it wrong…), milk yaks, and countless other ger chores that were new to me. Most weekends, I now spend at least a few hours bonding with and helping my haschaa dad with some chore around the yard, their house, or in my ger. This past week we worked together to try to figure out why the fridge they got me doesn’t work and we also spent several hours reinforcing my ping (a small, wooden, mud-room-like structure on the front of my ger that I store wood and frozen foods in) with metal plates so that there are no longer cracks in the roof and walls for wind and snow to get in. My haschaa dad has two daughters, and I think he is finally glad to have another guy around the house to help with manual labor and to serve as a son-figure. From the first weekend I moved in last summer, he has called himself my dad and always tells me I’m his son. Its truly very touching and cute. I also eat dinner with my family usually once a week, which is a nice time to practice my Mongolian speaking/listening skills, and I get a free meal out of it. While a lot of the time I get frustrated and find living in a ger difficult, my haschaa family definitely helps me to make it as comfortable and easy as they can, while also respecting my privacy and personal space. They have been a real gift.

Me in my new Deel with my haschaa dad.

Me in my new Deel with my haschaa dad.

Tomorrow, January 17, I will start the Whole Life Challenge (WLC). My good friend and fellow PCV, a woman I truly look up to and admire, Joanna, has invited me and several other PCV’s to participate in this 56 day health challenge. Unlike most “get healthy” regimens that focus only on exercise or healthy eating, the WLC, as the title indicates, focuses on getting healthy by improving all aspects of your life. You score points each day by eating healthy, exercising, stretching, drinking enough water, reflecting on your progress thus far, and by completing the weekly Lifestyle Challenge. The first weekly lifestyle challenge is mindfulness, where participants are encouraged to spend 10 minutes a day meditating, praying, journaling, or reflecting in some way on the day, the moment, and the future. I’ve been feeling somewhat stagnant and stuck in the mud lately, and I’m optimistic that this challenge will be the push I need to feel more happy in general. Relationships with people at home and challenges at work have begun to wear on me and I look forward to devoting my time and energy into this challenge to improve myself, physically, mentally and emotionally. For more information about this program, visit http://www.wholelifechallenge.com.

Well, thats all the news I have for now. Till next time!

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New Year’s Resolutions

One of my resolutions for this new year is to start documenting my time here in Mongolia better. While it sometimes seems like I’ll be here forever, I know that when it’s over it’ll feel something like a dream. And as time passes and this whole adventure gets farther and farther behind me, it’ll become harder and harder to remember all the random, crazy things that happened to me here. That being said, for the past week I’ve been taking a lot more pictures and today I am writing my first blog post ever. This blog will be as much a journal to document my thoughts and feelings, as much as a way to share my experiences and adventures with friends and family state-side.

So where do I begin? I guess the best way to start my blog is to briefly, or as briefly as I can, recap my first 7 months in country. After a year long application process, this life long dream officially began on May 29 when me and 91 other people traveled to San Francisco for a day long orientation called Staging. Our group is the 25th cohort of Peace Corps Volunteers to come to Mongolia, hence we are called the M-25’s. There are three sectors that PCV’s in Mongolia work in: Health, Community & Youth Development, and teaching English. Our Staging event was a day of ice breakers and a bit of preparation for the intense feelings and changes that we would be experiencing in just a few short days. On the morning of May 30 we all got on a plane and flew for 30 long hours to Ulaanbaatar, the capitol city of Mongolia. We spent a few days in a ger (pronounced “gair” – the Mongolian equivalent of a yurt) camp receiving brief language and culture training, basic safety and security instructions, and just getting to know this huge group of people who would serve as our family for the next 27 months. From UB, we traveled a few hours north to Darkhan, one of the few cities in Mongolia, and spent another couple days being inundated with information to help us integrate and build our lives here. After a week together with our group of 92 trainees, we were divided into small groups of ~10 and sent to our training sites where we would spend our first months in Mongolia.

The first 11 weeks in-country are known as Pre-Service Training (PST) and we were all Trainees, not Volunteers, until we swore in on August 16. I was sent to Khutul with nine other trainees to live with host families for the duration of PST. Those first days were some of the hardest. We were cut off from each other for our first weekend at site, completely immersed into our Mongolian families and just had to make the best of it. My host family, as all Mongolians are, was extremely gracious and hospitable. They immediately adopted me into their family as if I was one of their own. I lived with a family of 5 – Mom, Dad, a 16 year old sister, a 8 year old sister, and a 3 year old brother – and our grandma and grandpa lived next door to us. I still talk to them often, and hope to be able to visit them at least once before I head back to the states. For the two plus months of PST we spent 4 hours a day studying the Mongolian language, and another 4 hours a day learning and practicing techniques on how to teach English. Our days were busy and life was tough as I struggled to adapt and get used to the idea of living in this country for the next 2+ years. I missed my family, my friends, and the person I was head-over-heels in love with. I missed American food, and people speaking English, and wifi, and so much more. Needless to say, those first few months were the hardest thus far.

After those long two and a half months, we were all gathered back in Darkhan for one last week to receive a last bit of information, to get our 2 year site-placements, and to finally officially swear-in as volunteers. That last week together was a crazy blur of emotions and parties. It was the last chance for many people, before moving to site, to be together and to let loose with other Americans. Our swearing-in ceremony was a breath-taking and incredible experience held on August 16, 2014 at the US Ambassador to Mongolia’s residence in UB. It was the achievement of a life-long dream to be sworn in and to finally become a real Peace Corps Volunteer. After that long, emotional, and crazy week with everyone in Darkhan/UB, I was ready to get to my site and start living what would become my life for the next 24 months.

My site placement was, and has been, a blessing. I am in the most beautiful aimag (province) in Mongolia, Arkhangai, and living in the aimag center called Tsetserleg with one (and a half – one lives only 30 minutes away) other M-25’s and three M-24’s who have been here for a year already. Our aimag center has around 15,000 residents along with a decent population of Japanese, Korean, French, Finnish and Indian volunteers, as well as an Australian missionary family who run an amazing cafe and hotel. The Australian family’s restaurant has been a god-send. The food is among the best you can get here, plus they let us shower and do our laundry in the hotel whenever we want (for a small fee, of course). I teach at a complex school of almost 1800 students and 115 teachers, with 8 English teachers that I work with everyday. Our school has won the title of ‘Best School in Mongolia’ twice, most recently in 2008, and our students and teachers are consistently recognized for their hard work and success at the provincial, regional, and national levels. Just this past week one of our history teachers was awarded a medal by the President of Mongolia himself, which resulted in the cancelling of classes so the teachers could celebrate properly. I have over 400 students that I teach each week and while I sometimes struggle to keep them under control and on task, for the most part, they are extremely fun and are constantly making me laugh (even when I know I shouldn’t be).

For the past four months, I have been teaching students from fifth through twelfth grades, running two English clubs for students, as well as helping my teachers to lesson plan and to improve their English skills. Until the end of summer, while the weather was still nice, my sitemates and I would go hiking in the mountains, walk to the river and just enjoyed the natural beauty Arkhangai has to offer. However, its gotten much too cold recently to spend a lot of time outside. During the short 10-15 minute walk to school in the morning, my eyelashes freeze from my breath and the snot in my nostrils freeze. Its even gotten too cold to snow. Now we just spend a lot of time at my friend Brittany’s apartment watching movies and TV shows and we’ve recently started cooking meals together.

A few weeks ago, I left my site for the first time in 4 months and traveled back to UB with the other M-25’s for Peace Corps In-Service Training. We each brought one teacher/counter-part (CP) that we work with and spent a week learning new teaching strategies, building relationships with our CP’s, and planning new projects and techniques we want to bring back and implement at our sites. The first four months at school are mostly spent integrating into our community, getting the hang of how things work at school, and identifying areas and ways that we as PCV’s can best assist our teachers and schools. Going to IST gave me a lot of new ideas and tools I want to use to help improve my students and teachers English skills. It also filled me with a renewed sense of motivation and drive to do my best for my community and to help in any way I can. It also helped that we stayed in an extremely fancy hotel with big beds, ate delicious food, and took real showers for the first time in months.

After getting back from IST and celebrating my first holiday season away from home, I’ve finally come to accept the fact that I live in Mongolia and will be here for 20 more months. The holidays were tough, and I still have bad days when I miss my family and sometimes wonder what life would’ve been like if I had never left, but those feelings are limited to just a few hours or maybe a day or two. Most of PST was spent adjusting and getting used to the idea that Mongolia was going to be my life for the next 2 years. It seemed like such a long time and I still struggle imagining what I’m going to do for the rest of my time here. As of today I have less than 20 months left in country, and I’m simply taking it one month at a time. Its too early to start counting down, so these days I’m working on enjoying and truly experiencing life here, rather than waiting for and anticipating my return to the US. Some days its great and some days its hard, but I’m figuring out each day what to do with myself and how to live the best life I can while I’m here.

Over these last 7 months, I’ve gone through so much and learned more than I have in the last few years of life in the States. I’ve fallen out of love with someone I thought I could spend the rest of my life with. I’ve learned a new language. I’ve learned how to live in a ger with no heat or running water, and spotty electricity and internet. I’ve learned how to be alone and how to fill my time productively. I’ve learned more about what my strengths are and what I continue to struggle with in life. I’ve learned and experienced so much already that its crazy to think this is still only the beginning. I’m only 25% of the way through this adventure and its amazing to know that there is so much more that lays ahead of me. I can’t wait to see where this adventure takes me next and I look forward to sharing more of my observations and experiences as I go through the next 20 months!

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