My New Home Part 2: Arriving at Site

With an 8-hour trip looming ahead, I had ample time for a lot of people watching. Basically, the bus ride demonstrated the communal culture within Mongolia. At the beginning of the trip, the bus riders did not particularly talk. It seemed it was an “each person for himself” setting. It was like a guessing game, wondering what each person would bring on the bus. I saw: 4 dozen eggs, a toddler’s bike, and khuushuur to name a few. As the trip progressed, children began walking up and down the aisles, and adults were conversing. A 5-year-old boy in front of me began playing peek-a-boo with me, while a 2-year-old behind me came up on his bike and excitedly stared at me. Upon reaching the halfway point for a restroom/eating break, everyone dispersed. The 5-year-old boy’s grandmother left him in the care of my supervisor, whom she had just met on the bus 4 hours earlier. At the stop, I met two students who attended my school. One of them had graduated the year before and was also on my bus. The rest of the trip, I sat next to him and had long philosophical discussions about why Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez broke up (my insight: they were too young to have a relationship in the spotlight. Brilliant, isn’t it?). We listened to the Justin Bieber songs he had saved on his phone and only stopped when the music videos on the bus switched from traditional Mongolian music to a Rihanna song. Once the song was over though, we were back to the Biebster. The second half of the trip felt a bit longer than the first. Take a gander why…

Anyway, we eventually reached my aimag center where my supervisor’s sister was waiting to pick us up. We drove to their mother’s house; she had prepared tsuivan for me, as my supervisor had asked what my favorite Mongolian meal is: tsuivan. Then it was time to go to my apartment!

My apartment turned out to be very big. It’s on the first floor, about a two-minute walk from my school. My friend, Valerie (Valerie’s Blog), lives on the third floor. Her apartment is a very different set-up. Luckily, she has an oven, and I have a fridge, so we have everything we need. I am fortunate because my apartment has hot water, a microwave, a queen-sized bed, and a semi-automatic washing machine!

I slept extremely well after having arrived so late that night. My supervisor let me sleep in before taking me to the market. Since my school and Valerie’s are so close, our supervisors have taken us to do a lot of activities together. We checked out the market the first day and also went to local immigration and housing to register in the aimag center. So far, we have mainly bought cheese and supplies for our apartments, like cups, plates, and pots and pans. The apartments are relatively bare, but they are starting to feel cozier! For example, a drying rack and shower curtain are now present in my apartment! I’ve even been able to cook! This is especially impressive considering I had only cooked five times in my life before coming to Mongolia. My first meal here was over-salted pasta. I’d read online that you could never add too much salt when making pasta, so obviously I proceeded to add too much salt. However, my second meal, chicken, green beans, and mashed potatoes turned out extremely well! See for yourself… or as much as a picture can demonstrate deliciousness.

Valerie and I have hung out a lot. The first night we made pizza from scratch. It turned out alright…


Valerie made a great point in our group message with the other PCVs from our training site. She said that she thinks we are having a uniquely different experience being able to live so close to one another. The feeling of impending solidarity hasn’t hit us yet. Not only do we have each other, we also have two site-mates in the aimag center, one of whom was a Resource Volunteer for another training site this summer. We have gone on two hikes so far: one with our site-mates and one with the few Mongolians we know. These included Valerie’s supervisor and counterpart (my supervisor was busy painting the new house her family had built two days before) and two neighbor girls who like to explore the aimag center with me.

It’s surprising how quickly you can start to feel integrated in a new place. The two neighbor girls are eager to show me around. They have taken me to the amusement park twice. The first time they wanted to pay for me since I forgot money, which I didn’t allow, so we went back the next day. We rode the Dragon Twin ride together; however, they left me to ride the merry-go-round by myself as they watched from the sidelines… no worries, I enjoyed it though (always love horseback riding, no matter if the horse is real). We also went to the local garden and some nearby stores. During the walk to the garden with the two girls, I ran into my supervisor’s sister leaving the bank! Earlier that day, I had seen the 5-year-old boy from the bus and his grandmother at a дэлгүүр (delguur – small shop). It’s crazy how small the aimag center is starting to feel. Yesterday evening, one of the girls held an origami lesson for the two of us at my apartment, and I have already made friends with a sweet lady who sells vegetables at one of the stands at the market! Furthermore, when I mentioned that Peace Corps recommends apartments getting new locks as a safety measure, two school workers came and immediately switched the lock (it probably helps that my landlord used to be the school director). However, the next day, my key wasn’t working. I called one of the English teachers from my school to inform her, as well as talked to one of the neighbor girls. I went from being alone in the hallway to having 8 Mongolians show up: the neighbor girl, a random boy from the apartment building, the school worker, my supervisor, the English teacher, and the English teacher’s husband and two children.  The lock was quickly fixed. My school and aimag center are already so welcoming. I can’t wait to see what the year brings! By the way… I’m now officially a Peace Corps Volunteer, forgot to mention that!

My New Home Part 1: Swearing-In

One week… that is how long I have been at my permanent site. I am already settling into a comfortable life with fruits, cheese, an amusement park, and even coffee shops (although I just get juice since coffee isn’t my thing)! But first, you need to know how I got here.

I left my training site Tuesday afternoon. After a teary goodbye (even Aав cried), we loaded onto the meeker to drive to Darkhan for Final Center Days and Swearing-In. The drive took about 2 hours.


When we arrived around 1:45 pm, we eagerly greeted everyone and waited for the other meeker with our bags to make it to the hotel. I was lucky enough to room with my same friend from Staging in San Francisco! After lugging every bag up to the hotel room with the help of some other Trainees, I checked the time and noted I had enough time to shower. This meant that I was about to have my first hot shower since the first week in Mongolia! The anticipation was killing me. I’d had warm tumpun baths and cold showers throughout the summer, so this shower would be a nice relief. The best part of the shower? Not only was my body finally relaxed, but my hair and back were the cleanest they’d been in two and a half months (you don’t realize how difficult it is to wash your back without a shower-head until you don’t have one). After the shower, I donned my usual business casual clothing (my new favorite clothing… by necessity) and walked over with other Trainees to the location where permanent site announcements would be held! The rest of my time in Mongolia was about to begin…

At 4:30 pm, site announcements began. Starting from the Eastern, Central, and Western regions of Mongolia, one aimag’s new residents were announced, respectively. My aimag was announced third (first Western aimag). I eagerly went up to the front of the room to receive my site packet and waited, wondering whether any other people would end up near me. As I heard my friend’s name being called to live in the same aimag center with me, my excitement levels rose! This was one of my two closest friends from my training site! To top it off, the third name called was also a close friend’s (she is placed about two hours from my aimag center). We went to the map of Mongolia and pinned our pictures to our locations. We then returned to our seats. As I waited to see where my friends would end up, I looked through my packet. I would be living in an apartment with amenities, an aimag center that occasionally sells peanut butter and whipped cream, an aimag that has a horse festival, and working at a school focused on language and mathematics!

Once the site announcements were finished, we were given free time to digest the information we’d been given on our lives for the next two years. Most people continued to scour their packets to pick out as many details as possible, but I was not one of them. I hadn’t expected to be so confused upon finding out my site. My friends remarked that I was really quiet, why wasn’t I talking? Was I okay? I wasn’t sure what to think and didn’t want to start forming ideas about my site without having spoken to anyone from my school or having seen my new home. I decided to go out to dinner with friends instead of pondering the possibilities.

At dinner, most people brought their packets and continued to discuss what they’d deciphered. Once again, I stayed quiet and contemplated life. Specifically, why did the restaurant insist on putting barbeque sauce on every meal (meat lover’s pizza should not have BBQ sauce…)?? That night, I went to bed in a state of confusion and anticipation for the coming days.

What followed were three days of training. The first day was separate from our supervisors and focused on paperwork and policies of Peace Corps Mongolia. The second day, we met our supervisors. The supervisors are people who work at the assigned schools (one supervisor per PCV) and guide and help the PCV. Some supervisors do not work as counterparts (CP) with the PCVs while others, like mine, also work as a CP. My supervisor is my school’s social worker. During one of the sessions, we were told to express our worries to one another using Peace Corps Staff translators. With the help of a Peace Corps Staff member, I learned that my supervisor is looking forward to working with me and would like to be friends but is worried about the language barrier. She would also like to gain fluency in English. Furthermore, we discussed my housing. I would be living in the same apartment building as my friend!


Each night in Darkhan, I went out for pizza and occasionally found milkshakes, in an effort to eat the closest food to American food that I could find before heading out west. I probably put on a couple of the pounds I lost during PST, but the food made it worth it. We also checked out the black market and bought backpacks with my friends so that we could fit the extra stuff we had acquired throughout PST.

After the three days of training, it was finally Saturday: Swearing-In Day! At 9 am, we all headed over to the theater dressed in our дээлs (deels). We had done a run through the day before, so everyone was prepared. We started outside with pictures of the entire cohort and were then sworn in by the United States Ambassador to Mongolia.

Afterwards, we filed into our seats. As the speeches began, I anxiously looked around, checking for my host parents. Eventually, I saw Ээж walk in with another Trainee’s host parents from my training site. Now, you need to know that I cry extremely easily… think, the type of person who cries during the trailer for War Horse and then watches the trailer after having seen the movie and bawls again and more intensely than during the saddest part of P.S. I Love You… Anyway, as I saw Ээж enter, I got tears in my eyes and continued to watch, hawk-eyed, for Аав. My first tears of the day were shed when he entered and looked around for Ээж (they ended up not finding one another and sitting on opposite sides of the audience).

Once the speeches were over, the presentation of certificates of completion of PST and officially becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer began. My name was called third by last name, and I nervously, excitedly, and on the verge of tears walked up the steps, shook the Ambassador’s and Peace Corps Mongolia’s Country Director’s hands. A quick picture was snapped, and I attempted to calmly walk down the stairs. As I went to return to my seat, I passed my friend’s host parents and Аав. They stood up as one, and one by one shook my hand. At this point I was crying lightly, but lucky for me, I was nowhere near dehydrated, so more tears were about to come. I continued on, and upon seeing my Resource Volunteer who would be returning to the US a week later, I began sobbing whole-heartedly. After a long hug, I returned to my seat. What followed were two performances from different training groups. One group performed a traditional Mongolian dance, and the second group mimicked the music video to a famous Mongolian pop song as our resident best singer in the cohort sang the lyrics in Mongolian (quite impressive really). After closing statements, Swearing-In was over. Quick pictures were snapped with my supervisor before I went to find my host parents.

The host families from my training site were all standing around one table, but my host parents, true to form, were already in line for food. Ээж started crying as she hugged me and led me over to Аав, who, in an effort to remain free of tears, told me to hop in line and get some food. Back at the table, we ate ravenously. My host parents met my supervisor, each of them having a long one-on-one chat with her. After Аав’s chat, he informed me I would have to buy plates and mugs, which were apparently non-existent in my apartment.

As the event drew to a close, we all exited for more pictures. All the newly sworn in Health Volunteers got a picture together, and my host parents asked for a mini photo shoot. Random friends dropped by for pictures too. Luckily, we all looked great that day, so the photos turned out beautifully. Then it was time to leave…

My host parents accompanied me to the bus. We hugged about 5 times, which consisted of Аав attempting not to cry, while Ээж and I bawled. After I got on the bus, I continued to cry and walked to the other side of the aisle to wave to my host parents. They eventually came to my side of the bus. We were making hearts with our hands and arms, Аав wiped tears off Ээж’s face, and then we all cried again. As the bus pulled out of the parking lot, I reflected on how close I had become with my host family.

Eventually we arrived back at the hotel where we changed and got on the bus to go to Ulaanbaatar (UB). Upon arriving in UB, we were given our fire extinguishers, fire alarms, and winter bags. Then we had free time to explore the city. While most PCVs went to MexiKhan, I was still craving pizza, so guess where I went? Pizza Hut!! The meal was definitely the right way to end the last week before permanent site.


The next morning, most of the PCVs left. My supervisor was coming at 12:30, so I had time. Unfortunately for me, this meant I had a lot of time to cry as I got to say goodbye to everyone. It would’ve been a lot easier had I left first… too bad. When my supervisor arrived at the hotel, we loaded all my luggage into a taxi and drove to the bus station where we had khuushuur for lunch. Then we packed onto the bus, ready for the next eight hours.

To be continued…

My Last Few Weeks as a Trainee

With the end of Pre-Service Training (PST) coming up, the last couple weeks have been hectic. My host parents left for a week to visit family in Khovsgol, so I stayed with my two host nephews and my host brother. Peace Corps had instructed my family to teach me how to make a fire and to chop wood so that I would be prepared for ger life. Luckily, my host brother took on the challenge. Aав had already taught me how to make a fire, but the prospect of attempting to chop wood was daunting. My host brother easily picked up the ax, swung with impeccable precision, and chopped the wood straight in half. He then handed me the ax with an expectant look. Having never chopped wood before, I struggled trying to figure out how to hold the ax. Eventually, my host brother showed me one method. I swung the ax… and the piece of wood promptly fell off the chopping block, my ax not having even made a dent. What followed was a series of different techniques for holding the ax, methods of garnering enough momentum to pierce the wood, and a chorus of giggles at each failed attempt from my host nephews. Eventually, I was able to get the ax stuck in the wood. This meant I was on the right track. After a couple more swings, I finally chopped the wood in half! My host brother then eagerly kept placing wood to be chopped since I was now in the swing of things.  At the end, when it was clear I finally understood a technique that worked for me, all three of my onlookers shouted бaря хүргэe (congratulations!) and clapped loudly. It was quite the accomplishment.

Later that week, with my host parents still MIA, we all went to the river. The scenery was beautiful: a lush river with a ger on the bank surrounded by mountains all around. However, the only aspect that dampened the view, was the trash. All across the ground in various clumps were piles of trash. Considering this was a camp ground and the overall lack of responsibility by most Mongolians regarding trash on the ground, it was not very surprising, but was still quite disheartening.


Throughout my time here, I have been constantly saddened by the treatment of the environment. While there seems to be a great respect for nature and animals, there is a disconnect when it comes to trash. Children know not to throw candy wrappers on the floor in the house, yet as soon as they walk outside, they release the wrappers, which either fall sadly to the ground or are taken away by the wind, most likely ending up on the ground or in a river somewhere. Occasionally, entire trash bags or plastic bags from stores are left on the streets, only to be eaten by unsuspecting cows. The smell of burning plastic is a constant in the smaller baghs (towns surrounding aimag centers) as trash pickup is not frequent or even nonexistent. As I would walk from my home to the mountain, I would take a deep breath of fresh air, only to start coughing as I breathed in the burning plastic. The remains of these burned piles of trash can be seen in yards, on mountains, and along riverbanks. This is not to say that Mongolians do not care about the environment, but rather the means of making trash collection simple, which would increase the probability of healthy trash disposal, are not common in Mongolia. In fact, many of the Mongolians whom I have met, are eager to help clean up the environment. In preparation for Нaадaм (Naadam – the three-day summer festival involving archery, wrestling, and horse racing that I mentioned in an earlier post), the entire bagh was painted and rid of all trash. Volunteers went around to the river bank the weekend before and the park two days before the event began, in an effort to beautify the bagh. The other Trainees and I also went with a group of local children the day before the festival to clean up the river banks again. All the children were excited!

This group of children had been the group we taught for all our practice teachings. To thank them for attending these, we planned a three-day camp focused on life skills and games. The fourth day consisted of volunteering at the river, an activity chosen by the campers! Throughout the three days, we focused on values, decision-making, and volunteerism. There were also many creative activities during the camp. We had been told that in schools, Mongolian children are typically told what to do and not given the opportunity for critical thinking and creativity. Obviously, this is not always the case, but from our Mongolian trainers, this was common method of teaching in Mongolia. As a result, we Trainees decided to incorporate creative and critical thinking activities. We played the “Human Knot” game (pretty common in the US), made dough figures which were painted the next day, and taught the children what a relay race is by holding a water relay (my team won!)! The camp was a success and a great opportunity to get to know all the children on a deeper level than in class. By the end, we were so familiar with the kids that during Нaадaм when we saw many of the children at the stadium or the nightly concerts, we always stopped to talk!

Now onto Нaадaм. The entire summer, we had heard about Нaадaм as the climax of the summer. All the other training sites had already had their local Нaадaмs, but our site had moved Нaадaм later to have it coincide with the soum’s 80th year anniversary of foundation. In preparation, we all bought дээлs (deels –  traditional Mongolian outfits) to wear. My host father unfortunately was not a huge fan of Нaадaм, so my family did not attend. Luckily, they had invited their PCV from last year to visit. I was able to go with him to Нaадaм and saw many of the Trainees from the other training sites in our region, as this was a huge event. We watched the wrestling, the end of the horse racing, and the beginning of the archery competition; some Trainees even tried нум cум (noum soum – bow and arrow). The main attraction though for the Americans, was the appearance of new delicious foods: Mongolia’s version of hamburgers, real ice cream, iced fruit drinks, etc. We also walked around to various stalls. This is where I bought my cool new hat for about half the price it typically is in the soum. Overall, Нaадaм was a great cultural experience with new American friends from the summer!

After the excitement of Нaадaм was over, it was basically a straight-shoot to the end of PST. There were some ups and downs. A couple downs: I tried to get my hair cut in layers (layers are an entirely foreign concept in Mongolia) so my hair looks like it has two different lengths, my host nephews left, and I got sick for the first time (this included diarrhea, vomiting, and fainting). Luckily, I survived both ordeals. A couple ups: completion of the Language Proficiency Interview (LPI – a conversation testing at what language level we are in which TEFL Trainees are expected to reach Novice High and Health Trainees are expected to reach Intermediate Low, which I met woot woot!), making a shagal (traditional Mongolian ankle bones game… I thought the pieces were bought and didn’t realize that each family makes their own by breaking of parts of the sheep or goat’s leg bone and eventually flicking off the ankle bone; my host parents were extremely proud of me for completing this process), and Host Family Appreciation Day. We held a lunch for our families. The Trainees made tacos; there were some spices in the taco meat which we hardly tasted, but our family members, used to relatively simply spiced foods, thought the meat was almost too hot and spicy. Some other Trainees’ parents could not eat the meat as a result, but my parents were strong and braved the spices!

Last night, my host parents and I went to a new mountain and had a photo shoot as our last special evening. We watched the sunset and then played pool at my host father’s work.

This morning, the other Trainees at my site and I woke up to watch the sun rise. Of course, Ask came with us for one last hurrah! The sunrise was beautiful; although we should have listened to one of the host fathers about from which mountain to watch the sunrise, but the experience was a nice way to end PST.

I’ve just finished packing all my belongings extremely heinously into my various suitcases. I’m sure my clothes will be wrinkled when I get to Final Center Day with all the other Trainees and Peace Corps Staff. Tomorrow we leave our training site to go to a larger city where we will find out our permanent sites, and two days later we will meet our supervisors for the first time! The start of actual service is about to begin!