Taking the Scenic Route

Empty airplanes always carry a bit of competitive spirit. As you realize you’re the only passenger on your row, a wave of childlike excitement passes over you. If it’s a particularly long journey, imaginations of stretching across your row, wrapped in a prepackaged blanket sweep through your mind. Reality soon follows that everyone in economy class on a 14-hour flight wants to lie down, and you can be certain they are all eying your row. For example, I woke up to a stranger’s feet inching towards me only moments ago. It’s hard to say how long he’s been here, enveloping the three seats next to my one, but I was more than a little miffed. Like, share the road, buddy. I’m en route from Melbourne to DC via Abu Dhabi, a 15,000-mile haul I don’t think I noticed I signed up for. But who’s counting miles when you’re discount shopping tickets home? For nearly the same price (and time), I flew Mongolia to Melbourne on suspect airlines, so $530 for 28 hours of Etihad is pretty much a dream. Oh, and the liquor is free. (more…)

Something Thoughtful for the Road

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My first two months at site remain in my mind, somewhat blurred by time and nostalgia. What I remember most are the sports tournaments. I remember the first Saturday I spent in entirety in a dusty gym with my school’s teachers. We were hot, sweaty and bruised from 10 hours worth of rivalry, but we had grown closer through laughter and competition. Soon the calendar had rolled over to the provincial teachers’ tournament, and I again committed two days time to hard fought games, shared dumplings and tea. My final initiation to the world of sports competition in Mongolia was playing on the provincial basketball team. It was a collection of teachers from all over the area, representing nearly every subject area, as well. Our melting pot of ages and personalities crammed into vans, faced the snow and impending winter and won gold after three days of challenging 10 other provinces. (more…)

After Four Month Hiatus, Volunteer Updates Blog

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Let’s review.

Twenty three months ago, I was packing way too much stuff to bring halfway around the world. Twelve months ago, I was coordinating a Special Olympics competition with 78 kids. And four months ago, I was leaving Mongolian soil for the first time, wondering if I had the stamina to return. Traveling in Vietnam was both refreshing and frustrating. More often caught in swarms of tourists than not, I stupidly expected to be able to set myself apart from the average traveler. Instead, I resigned myself to being another faceless dot in a crowd, consuming the space designed exactly for that.

Three months ago, I turned 31. That is all. (more…)

Stumbling, Tumbling thru Việt Nam

IMG_7992Have been wanting to describe and explain my trip to Vietnam for days and days now, but I just can’t seem to find the words. May have had a mild panic attack on the way to the airport on my way out of town. Felt like I was breaking the rules or leaving Mongolia too soon. Chinggis Khaan International likes to think its bigger than it really is. Beyond the ticket counter lies a mass of undirected travelers and empty shops. I’m pretty sure I checked in through the ‘Diplomat’ entrance and received only mild resistance. Stumbled into a handful of volunteers that had also made escape plans. Shared a few beers at the one cafe with a tiny keg of Mongolia’s most basic beer. Flew the first leg on a half-full flight, sitting next to two friends on their way to Colombo, probably my favorite Asian city name. Makes me picture detectives in long overcoats and fedoras investigating sari-clad women serving savory dishes of meats and vegetables. I’ve probably just been away from good food for too long to find that story line interesting. (more…)

Hi, Yes, I’m Still Alive.

Time gently slips by, and I haven’t slept in my bed in nearly a month. I don’t miss the temperatures, but I do miss my closet. I’ve been wearing the same three shirts for four weeks, and I think people are noticing. Maybe not. They are the same three shirts I’ve worn for the past 17 months. How do I do it? A creative sense of fashion and a strong sense of apathy. You can’t teach this stuff.

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Let’s catch up a little. I spent the weekend before Thanksgiving living on a friend’s floor. I ran out of firewood at my adorably frigid home, and no one seemed to notice that I kept asking for a saw. It must be my soft spoken-ness. I moved to the capital as a trainer for new volunteers and spent a weekend alone in a large, shotgun three-bedroom. After three very full (more…)

Another Art Carpet

IMG_3342A year ago today, I implemented my first small project at my school here in Mongolia. With the help of some motivated teachers in America and several trusting Mongolian teachers, we were able to organize an art event connecting schools throughout Virginia, some of the U.S. and three schools in Mongolia. The Art Carpet project was designed by art teachers in Richmond, Virginia, as a way to connect classrooms, cultures and ideas. Students are able learn about cultures around the world that use temporary media, such as sawdust and sand, to create large-scale, celebratory ‘art carpets.’ Using this knowledge, students then create their own cultural carpet using chalk. Projects are done outside, using the community as both inspiration and audience. (more…)

Dignity Lost, Reality Restored

I was deep in thought as I ambled down the pathway to my house. The crisp air kept my nose just the slightest hue of pink. I passed a man in military garb, struggling to connect with the party on the end of his phone. As the gravel crunched beneath my shoes, I heard it. Dirt and stones quickly slipping away, a sharply bated breath and the feeling of all dignity stripped away.

I fell down. And not one of those ‘oops, I tripped and caught myself’ falls. It was a hard, graceless uncooperative landing. Keys flew from my hands, and glasses jumped from my face. Like any self-respecting adult, I hopped up and pretended it didn’t happen, unwilling to discover if anyone had seen me. I hobbled home and excitedly learned I had not yet bled through my pants. What a relief! Only the inside was stained with flesh. (more…)

A Bus, a Map, an Experience.

Just when you think you have a handle on things, Mongolia strikes again. With approximately two days notice, UB overhauled its entire public bus system to ‘reduce redundancy.’ Now, I happen to consider myself a confident city bus rider. I grew up within spitting distance of a bus stop – a stop which, in my opinion, gave me access to the more interesting parts of the city. The bus line also gave me access to all the government locales that one eventually must visit – for example, City Hall, Public Utilities or the 4th Circuit Court (on rarer occasions). The most satisfying part of it all was that I didn’t have to find a parking space. I have always defended my public transit system, even when it didn’t show up or mysteriously chose not to finish a route (I haven’t forgotten about you, #14.) I defended it because I didn’t have a car, and sometimes, even on your most determined days, you don’t want to ride your bike in a business suit. As a casual rider, I fancied long, lazy days exploring a different corner of the city, endlessly people-watching. And yes, I know that’s weird, but not as weird as some of the people you meet on a city bus.

Screen Shot 2015-08-18 at 1.17.47 PMThe pleasures of bus riding in Mongolia aren’t as easily appreciated, even for the veteran rider. Like this easy to read map on the left. (This is the old system.) The buses are overcrowded and overworked. The drivers will probably pull away from a stop even if you are tapping on the door, and waiting to squeeze onto one in the dead of Mongolian winter is basically asking to feel the cold grip of frostbite slowly overtake your toes. My dad was even pick-pocketed on one recently, which I chalked up to thievery expertise and a pair of ill-fitting Dockers. The hardships are great, but I refuse to give up on it. I support the transit system because the taxi system remains unregulated, continuing to breed swindling drivers of its own. I ride it because if a community stops riding, the government will take it away. And for every exterminated bus line, there are another 50 cars jamming up a road. I ride it because I like to see young people give their seat to the elderly. I savor the long moments spent drifting out the window; I laugh when a driver’s heavy foot creates a bus-length human sandwich. And I’ll continue to support the human sandwich just as soon I figure out which one of these effing things takes me downtown. Apparently, none of them.

North by Northwest (and then some)

IMG_3028You haven’t experienced true helplessness until your horse has carried you into a tree branch, and you’ve never been truly remote until you’ve traveled to the Taiga in northern Mongolia. The Taiga refers to the northernmost coniferous forests and is also home to the Dukha, Mongolia’s reindeer herders. In 2012, two Peace Corps Volunteers made the 17-hour trek to visit with the families of the Taiga. With a few years of dedicated PCVs and long-suffering Mongolian counterparts, the trip has grown into an annual project committed to providing education, health resources and youth development to Mongolia’s smallest ethnic minority.

IMG_2860Our trip began with 16 volunteers congregating in Murun, Khuvsgul’s aimag center. There we spent two days finalizing lessons plans, purchasing materials and food, and generally accepting the close quarters we would have for the next eight days. The first leg of the trip was from Murun to Tsagaannuur, the closest soum to the Taiga. After 20 minutes on the paved road north, we spent the next nine hours off-roading through rivers, forests and open plains. Exhausted and swearing off nausea, we (more…)

Special Olympics Erdenet

In early January 2015, we organized the first of many meetings regarding a Special Olympics competition in Erdenet. We presented to the Children’s Palace and some members of the community, hoping that our proposal would spark some interest in the city. The response was immediate and abundant. The governor’s office graciously offered locations to host the Special Olympics coaches’ training and practices. Students from the university signed up to volunteer. In the Children’s Palace, we found an event coordinator and a method of communication with the entire aimag. Local organizations, businesses and schools contributed in various ways to make this event a success. The Sports Complex gave us a gym and the outdoor track, while School 5 and the MCYT (vocational school) prepared lunches and snacks. Through months of planning, presenting and organizing, we finally arrived at May 13th.

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