Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Secret Society of the Traveling Vegetarians

It started with my director asking me if I wanted to go to lunch with her one day. My response? Hell yes! She’s an amazing cook. But when we hopped in the taxi, I soon realized we weren’t headed to her house, or any other restaurants I knew about, and finally ended up parked outside of an apartment complex I’d never been into before. We walked in to a room with a table bursting with food and more on the way. As I found a seat, more women began to trickle in, until we were a group of about 10 sitting down to a colorful, delicious-looking, vegetarian lunch. As we ate, I was introduced to everyone. I wasn’t able to understand a lot of their conversation, but instead chose to think about what a delightful (and delicious) detour my day had taken. After the meal was over, we were each given a gift by the host; a mug, a keychain, and a choco pie (which tastes how it sounds… plus marshmallows.) Before I left with a food baby, (and taught everyone that gem of an English phrase,) I was invited back the following week.

In our weekly meetings, I began to learn about these women in the same way you learn about anything in Mongolia—in layers. I began looking forward to Thursdays (okay it’s basically the social highlight of my week...) and I’ve been eating lunch with them every week for the past 2 months or so, rotating whose house we attend. Their at first seemingly random group, started to make a little more sense to me. They vary pretty drastically in age, ranging from a few who are in their mid-twenties, to a couple who are in their late 50s. And with the exception of my director and I, none of them worked together. But their common interests around vegetarian food keeps them coming each Thursday to learn about how their bodies could POSSIBLY survive one meal without the essential meat component. They ‘ooh’ and ‘ahhh’ over new dishes that have been prepared or vegetarian treats they bring in from the capital to share lovingly at our weekly dates. It’s all very high society…

I asked the ladies if any of them were actually vegetarian; two of them are (my director claims she’s allergic to meat… it makes her sneeze.) But the others answered that they were ‘1-day-a-week-vegetarians.’ Or it may have just been this one meal a week. But whatever the frequency, I still think its cool. I’m glad to be a part of the learning and the discussions. To share in their genuine interest and amazement when one woman found a sour cream treasure in one of the stores here, but didn’t know how to cook with it so just spread it across some bread and called it a day.

... and I’m happy to report I survived my first stint at hosting.

 Some of the veg ladies and I at a Young Families Conference I was 
asked to sit in on as part of a PCV panel. 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Conservation vs. Consumption… with a splash of Cool

As I was walking around my apartment the other day (which didn’t take me long because its essentially one long room of about 40 feet [okay EXACTLY 40 feet, because yes, I counted. I do these things…]) Anyway, it got me thinking about all of the 'things' that I’ve brought, bought and accumulated since coming to Mongolia and have come to find a home in my home.

It started with 50 lbs. That’s how much we’re allotted as Peace Corps volunteers to bring with us to get started in our new habitat. The items that made the cut into my two pieces of luggage were very carefully selected and fussed over… at least thrice. Some of them had sentimental value – my favorite shoes, my childhood blanket, my jacket I can rock with anything. Others were more practical; a crank flashlight, the biggest baddest hard-drive I could find, a Swiss army knife. And then there was the stuff that was just a plain waste of space. A lifetime supply of my favorite gum? Really, Brit? Where exactly did I think I was going...?! Regardless, I was both ecstatic and proud when I came in well under 50 lbs. I was soooo minimalist.

But immediately after stepping off the plane, I found myself incessantly clinging to the things I’d lugged with me halfway across the globe. I needed these things to last. And they needed to get me through 27 months.

So this led me to delve into asking myself why I had forged this seemingly dependent relationship with my possessions. I began to think about the origin of where this may have started.

As children, there is so much we don’t control. That we can’t control. But as we grow and age older, we begin to become entrusted with things. The concept of ‘mine’ is born and will forever remain. And the reason we assign so much weight to these possessions is simply because they are not shared, they are ours. They belong to us. But as we collect more and more, the items in our lives begin to evolve into so much more than mere ‘things.’ We assign them a history. We give them a story. They become symbols and reminders of places we’ve been in life. They are memories that have been forever engraved into beautiful non-living objects. I read an article recently that discussed A New Earth. In it, Eckhart Tolle says, 'the unconscious compulsion to enhance one's identity through association with an object is built into the very structure of the egoic mind.' We all do it. We're all guity of it, just to varying degrees.

When we first arrived here, because there were so many uncertainties and unknowns about what these two years might bring, I clung to the things that were constant and tangible; my treasured possessions from home. Looking back I can clearly identify that I did this out of fear. Fear of the unknown, of the undefined. And it’s easy to see why. It’s human nature to prepare. But even in my attempts to expect the unexpected I was still left with a lot of uncertainty. I can remember back to my Pre-Service Training when myself and other volunteers stealthily stashed cookies distributed to us at tea breaks into our bags and purses. For all we knew, it might be the last delicious morsel of food we would know for the summer. I just didn’t know what to expect. None of us did.

As time went by here in Mongolia, my little bundle of possessions began to grow. I’ve added to it things I’ve purchased while being here and things that have been given to me, either by other volunteers or by my Mongolian friends and family. As I took stock of things in my wandering about my apartment, I started to realize how many of these items wouldn’t be making the trip back home with me. My possessions had mushroomed and completely overflowed my two pieces of baggage. 

What I've noticed is that as my time is coming to an end here, I’m transitioning from conservation mode to full throttle consumption mode. I’ve adopted the use-it-or-loose-it mentality.

Witnessing a year come and go has helped to alleviate those thoughts of fear and doubt. They’ve begun to dissipate a little leaving room for knowledge and experience to take form. And it’s been during this dance that I’ve discovered a healthier balance between indulgence and excessiveness. After all, what’s the point of having anything, if we don’t allow ourselves to use it?

It’s also comforting to note the change in the value of these items I brought with me 6,000 miles to this place. And I’m not talking about their monetary value, but what they mean to me… their intrinsic value. What they represent. I’m no longer clinging to my possessions as I did when I set foot here. I’ve made peace with the unknown and done my best to meet its acquaintance.

I’ve also come to the revelation that these things are not what define me.

Yes, they can be viewed as reflections of myself, and I relied on them heavily when I first came here, to help paint the story of who I am to my Mongolian friends and family. But at the end of the day, things can only take us so far. They can’t feel, taste, smell, or touch. They don’t have the ability to live this life. That’s on me.

And this notion of consumption isn’t just ‘thing’ specific, but can be extended to many of my relationships as well. In my first year, there was a part of me that I conserved and held back a little, simply because I just didn’t know what the next day would bring. I was reserved in a way that looking back actually limited my experience and affected my relationships. I didn’t know what to expect and was unsure of my role in it all. But then, change happened. And I’m not going to say that I’ve mastered ‘consuming’ people, because, well, that just sounds weird. I just hadn’t realized how much of myself I had to give away to others. Being consciously more present in my relationships has helped this, but I’m still painfully aware of my limited time here.

And so, I’m consuming. Attempting to ring the most out of this experience as is humanly possible. Letting the moments really sink in so that I can look back on them later and know that I acted with little reservation and a genuine effort to assimilate to my community. That I wasn’t holding back but was invested in each moment with every part of my being.

As for my ‘things,’ the ones that do make the cut to return home with me. Those things will be viewed altogether differently. And that view won’t stem out of dependence, but out of love and memory of a place that has watched me grow and changed me in many ways. I trust that life will provide; which leaves me free to consume and not worry about the need to conserve.

View of our town from the monastery. My new favorite thing...

… aaaaand here’s the ‘cool’ component that was promised. A little project my site mates and I have been working on pay tribute to the traditional Mongolian deel and a few problems we may face while dressing ourselves. Njoi!

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Mongolians Move as One

While accompanying Anthony to his shin jil (New Year’s) party, a revelation hit me. It’s not that these parties are all the same. It’s just that they are so fundamentally different from the way Americans celebrate. Where we come from, when you visit a party, you pretty much get to be the boss of your own decision-making. But here, while there is room for some interpretation, Mongolian parties share common denominators that follow a predetermined pattern of events. Which actually kind of makes it easier. You can predict what’s coming.

So I chose a spot and sat down at the party for Anthony’s co-workers. Even me being there was out of the ordinary, as most spouses aren’t invited and attendance is reserved exclusively for the staff. But as I’ve worked quite a bit with Anthony’s HCA this past year, it was almost as if I was one of the gang. And also, we’re foreigners, so we can get away with pretty much anything. The table is set with bowls of candy, bottles of champagne and vodka, a beautiful bowl of fruit, and of course, the fanciest cake you ever did see. Originally, there were 4 separate tables set up, but to make it more inclusive for everyone, people quickly started moving and rearranging tables so that we formed one massive, long table. The vodka shots started at the head of the table and everyone stood up to join in on the toasts. Then one by one we went down the line and took our shot and weren’t allowed to sit down until we finished it. It was unacceptable to just sit down and not take the shot, and the pressure you felt as everyone stared at you to finish your shot was extreme. And quickly, you silly American, you’re holding up the party. Repeat 3+ times. As I saw the vodka disappearing for my eyes as if evaporating I whispered to Anthony, ‘we miiiiight run out.’ He replied you don’t run out of vodka. Today’s the one day of the year you never run out of vodka. True. 

... look how fancy

From here, it’s on to the dance floor we go. And create a giant circle. Circles are inclusive. No one is left out. And we dance. The bold ones make their way into the middle of the circle to be put on display as they bust out a few moves. Usually another unwilling accomplice is dragged in to do this, as the awkwardness becomes diluted if there is more than one person making the leap of faith.

Back to sitting.

First course is served, and it’s always some version of a mayo-based salad. As you nibble on the salad, you’re periodically asked to waltz by a man or woman no matter. Then prizes and awards and games take place. And even through there are less than 30 people present, a microphone is still necessary. And the games, Mongolians LOVE games. And the lure of winning makes them do just about anything for a coveted prize that may or may not even be awarded. Including a mad dash for the first person that could locate, remove, and wave around someone else’s bra. Yea, you heard that right, even though this is a formal event (think prom night complete with up-do’s and add to that copious amounts of glitter,) I was still flashed by 2 people.

So we made our way through more shots, dancing, and eating until the party fizzled out (okay, they kicked us out of the restaurant.) So we drove back to Anth’s work for a few more rounds of rounds at the table where meetings are usually held. By this point we’re sloppy. Everyone is feeling fuzzy in the tip of their brain stems and speeches and toasts are happening. In front of us lies a mangled cake and we are all literally just clawing at it with our fingers in hopes that our trajectory lands it in or around our mouths.

When Anthony stood up to say a few words, I found myself overcome with emotion. When we signed up for this crazy adventure, 27 months seemed like a long time. It sounded long. It felt long. But now that I’m actually living it, I’m realizing we are only afforded the opportunity to do everything a first and then a last time. And being on the ‘last’ cycle of things is sad. I won’t get to celebrate with these people next year. This year is all we have left.

So I cried.

And the harder I tried not to cry, the more people around me joined in on the crying. It was a very real moment. I felt the love in that moment. And these relationships I’ve formed have become so much more than just work relationships. Sure these are my co-workers, but they are also my community, my teachers who help me to navigate my way through a culture, and most importantly they are my friends. I’m going to be a mess when I have to leave this place…

Oh, and Anth won a water boiler. SCORE!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Meet Bilgee

On a recent, impromptu trip to visit Kharkhorin (Mongolia's ancient capital,) I made me a new friend. The 6 hour bus ride seemed ordinary enough, until everyone settled into the monotony and I became aware of the small, six-year old boy sitting on his mother's lap across the row from me. I could feel him staring at me, so I looked over at him and gave him a sly little wink. His face changed instantly. He was entranced by my slick facial gesture coupled with my alienness. I was then assaulted with his back-to-back attempts to return the wink, which turns out he is only able to do with his right eye; his left eye wink effort is essentially just a violent blink. Kid's are hilarious...

Our relationship then evolved in the same way any good relationship does. We discussed our favorite colors. We practiced our winks. We shared nuts, and candy, and gum. We took pictures. We made silly faces. We traced things into the ice encrusted windows. We listened to music. Kid's are fun...

I often find myself most comfortable initiating conversation with children here. They are still in the zone of being exposed to new things, new ideas, and the intricacies of language and communication. They answer your questions and make an effort to understand you. Kid's are patient... 

After the bus pulled off the road to stop for food, I walked into the guanz (small restaurant) to find my little friend had saved me a seat. We ordered our food and since mine was meatless, it came first. By the time everyone else got their food, I was pretty much done. Bilgee commented on this and told me that I eat fast. After a swift smack and glaring eyes from his mother (who thought this was rude,) he clammed right up. But I told him he was right. I was hungry. I did eat fast. Kid's are honest...

After we ate, I took a quick trip to the outhouse. As I was walking back to the bus, I saw my little friend running after me screaming 'Brittany yawlaa' (we're leaving;) he was afraid the bus would leave and I'd be left behind. Kid's are caring...

As we arrived at our destination and got off the bus, he took me by the hand and dragged me over to meet his father who was awaiting his arrival; clearly proud of the new foreign friend he'd made. We said our goodbyes and went our separate ways, but not before he gave me his last cookie for the walk I had ahead of me. Kid's are kind...

A few days ago, I received a call from Bilgee. He'd stealthily used his mother's cellphone to contact me and hearing his sweet little voice on the other end of the line was enough to make my day. Kid's remember...

Bilgee now appreciates hip-hop

Monday, November 5, 2012

... a few words on integration...

Integration – this word is a big Peace Corps buzzword, one that I’ve almost become desensitized to. Some people define it in different ways, but to me its how well you acclimate yourself to your surroundings. In my circumstance, it’s the degree to which I’m able to immerse myself in Mongolian culture.  Some days are easy. Some days you can’t get enough of the attention, the milk tea, the being pranced around from event to event as the trophied American. But some days are more taxing and really do drain you.  The days you're called upon for another impromptu tutoring sesh with your neighbor on their English homework, when all you wanna do is watch Dexter. Or when you're in a total groove at work and instead the day takes an unforeseen twist and you're getting drunk with your co-workers and celebrating a hair cutting ceremony at 2pm on a Tuesday. (And yes, both happened to me this week.)

But today was a different kind of day. Today Anthony and I did our usual round to the Black Market, our town's large outdoor market (where you can get linoleum AND sheep innards,) to get our groceries for the week. It just so happened that this particular week, we didn’t have much to buy, but it was a nice day and we wanted to get out anyway. The sun was shining, the snow was melting, and the day rocked a friendly feel that was all too eager to invite us out to join.  The first place we stopped into, the shop owner (who I visit practically everyday,) greeted me with a nice, warm 'sain uu naidzaa' (hello my friend) and followed it up with a hug. Whatever happened to grocers just hugging you for no particular reason... ?

As we continued on to the Black Market, we split up and I went looking for some nails as Anth was left with the very important task of nabbing tomato paste. I found some in the ‘hardware aisle’ and picked out 6 or so and asked the woman how much they were. She looked at the nails, looked at me, flashed me a smile, and said I could have them. She asked me all the routine questions, if I lived here, what I did for work, etc. She had a really warm smile and seemed genuinely interested in me. I wandered out of that aisle convinced that the world really is full of good, decent people.

We got the rest of the things we needed and headed out of the market. As we were walking to yet another store one we’ve lovingly dubbed the ‘Cheese Store,’ my friend Boloroo pulled over and asked if we wanted a ride. We hoped in and she dropped us off at the store after telling us that if we ever need a ride, to give her a call. Welp, no cheese was to be had today, BUT a big box full of brown bananas caught my eye. With thoughts of banana bread swirling through my mind, I picked a few up and asked how much and the lady told me that they were bad. I told her I’d still like to buy some and she ended up giving me as many as I could carry. 

As we got home and I emptied my bags, I thought back on our outing and the goodness of the people who helped make my day better. I think that is what integration is all about…

Represent Gobi-Altai... REPRESENT!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Pumpkins, Pizza, and Napkins

Just wrapped up our fall site visit. PC staff travels all over the country, to check up on us and make sure we are safe, warm(ish), and our work plans are being carried out. We invited Naraa, our safety and security officer, Mogi, our regional manager program assistant, and Usukhuu, their driver, over for pizza. I always try to invite the staff over for dinner when they are in town since they may not know the area, and also to get to know them a little better. I guess it’s my way of thanking them for traveling to visit each and every one of us and for taking time away from their families. The road in Mongolia is no picnic. 

So last week, I busted out all of my Halloween decorations; my apartment is filled with pumpkins, ghosts, and witches - most of which were made by students last year. Oh, and one of those fancy orange, black, and white ring-chain banners…. classy! So we all sit down to dinner and they can’t stop playing with all my Halloween stuff and I’m being bombarded with questions. “When is Halloween? How do you celebrate?” etc. I then handed out all these fancy Halloween napkins I have, (when else am I going to use them?!) as we enjoyed our dinner. The amazement and reaction I got in relation to those napkins was amazing. They unfolded them, gasped, and Mogi even said she wasn’t going to use hers, but take it home to give to her son. I then watched as Naraa unfolded the napkin she was given and ripped it into 4 squares and passed it out to each of them. I told her I had more and she could use it. Her response, ‘I only need this little piece for my one mouth.’ Sometimes, I prefer the way Mongolians phrase things. 

And it didn’t end there. 

After dinner, they started posing with all of the decorations and were taking pictures and they even opened up the napkin (again!) to create a backdrop for this Halloween scene they had created. I guess this is exactly what it feels like to share my American culture with Mongolians, and I hadn’t even planned on it. 

Thursday, August 30, 2012

A Joyous Homecoming

I'd wanted to be here all summer. But I knew going into it, that all of the things I had planned, all of the visitors, trainings, trips, builds, races, and seminars would keep me in and around UB for the better half of 4 months. That still didn't make it easy. I was broke. And big cities aren't my thing. 

But I made it through and returned to Altai in good spirits on Sunday. I got off the plane and literally couldn't wipe the smile off my face. It was a beautiful day. I was happy to be here. 

In lieu of a taxi, I decided to make the walk from the airport to my apartment, bags in tow, simply because I didn't want to miss a beat. Children waved, recognition set in, and I saw many familiar faces light up at the sight of my return. It's nice to feel missed. 

Before getting to my apartment, I noticed a Mongol Rally vehicle and two guys standing outside of it. I asked them what they were up to and they briefly told me of their road trip from London and how they were almost to their destination -UB, where their journey would end and they would donate their vehicle to Mercy Corps (an annual event.) They asked what I was doing here, and seemed surprised when I told them I live here. I got the feeling Mongolia hadn't exactly impressed them, but it could have been the fatigue of a long journey. But I've gotten used to this. I'm used to foreigners being unable to see Mongolia's charm. But the pride I felt in claiming it as my home is one I've felt many times throughout the summer when meeting new people and describing my role here. 

When it comes down to it, I'm just so happy to live here. I'm so happy that I get to live here. I'm excited to try and give back to my community a fraction of what it's given me over this past year. In some ways, it makes me sad to think I only have a year left to make that happen. 

Glimpsing around my town, it was amazing to see the change 4 months had brought. There were new buildings, fences, businesses, and other signs of progress. Having only my memory to compare it to, I struggled a bit with identifying new buildings versus fancy fresh paint jobs. 

I continued on to my house, walked in and just sighed in relief at the fact that I'd made it home. I felt like a weary traveler looking for a place to rest her head, and I found everything I was looking for in the comforts of my own bed. I spent the remainder of my day walking around my apartment and attempting to transform it back into a habitable space; putting things in their rightful place, cleaning up, finding a home for new summer treasures. It's funny how some places just feel 'lived in,' and after so many months of emptiness, the place just had a deserted, hollowness to it. This became more evident as I walked over to my calender, (that still read May,) and slowly turned each page until I landed on August. I paused to reflect on everything I had done over the summer and how good it felt to have it behind me and be able to return to a routined life. Summer was certainly an adventure, but I think the same can be said for simple living in a place you've come to love...