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...

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Summer Ketchup (.... see what I did there?!)

I apologize in advance for the length of this post, but there’ve been a lot of happenings on my end and people have been asking so consider yourself informed. It’s been quite the summer so far, and I’ve tried to keep this brief, but let’s face it, ima talker!

April-May: Children's with Disabilities Program
This is has been arguably one of the most satisfying things I've been involved with since coming to Mongolia. The program ran for 6 weeks every Friday for a two hour block. The kids color, play games, get to know each other and what Mongolian outing would be complete without tea and snacks?

The children vary greatly in age, appearance, and mental capacity. Some have problems that are more physical, others that are mental. But despite their differences they have a lot in common and are rapidly befriending each other. All of the kids seemed to immediately recognize and love Anthony, so it was natural for them to quickly trust him.

I felt lucky to be able to be a part of their lives, if only for those two hours and I really hope to get to know them better over the coming months. Also really proud of Anth for getting everything set up and working with his Children's Dept on such a cool project; one that he hopes to continue and strengthen in our second year of service.

April 23rd – 28th: The Big Event
This is the schoolwide event I've been yackin about for several months now. It all started when we noticed that the five schools in our town are very divided and don't really work or come together very often, or well... ever. 

In Altai you attend the same school from grades 1-11 (there is no 12th grade.) Coming from the states were friendly(ish) competition has been ingrained in us from a very early age, we thought it appropriate to create a week long school wide competition. In January we had a meeting with Anthony's Children't Department and all of the school directors. They were very interested in working with us and hear our ideas, which was really encouraging.

Monday - Health Day: I wasn't able to attend this day, but heard it was well organized and the kids were into it. Each school had a group of 8 students who were given a health related scenario and had to react to it.

Tuesday - English Competion Day: For me, this was the Mac-Daddy of the event and the only day I could really follow/understand. Each school participated in a group song, an individual song, an English skit, a poem recitation, and a 5 minute speech about what they think can be improved in their community. A group performance of "A Whole New World" literally brought a tear to my eye, but I'm a baby and have a soft spot for Disney so are we surprised? Another standout was a girl who talked about littering and gave an awesome presentation complete with a community survey, graphs, and passed out tips on how we can keep our community clean. She signed out with a very powerful, yet appropriate captain-planet-tribute 'the power is YOURS,' which for me accomplished two things. 1 - an incredible amount of nostalgia for my youth and 2 - the urge to go around collecting trash.

Wednesday - Art Day: The groups were given 2 hours to collectively work on a poster with the theme of Mongolian culture. It was really great to see the teamwork and communication happening within the groups, and all of them came up with some great artwork.

Thursday - Business Day: My director and I were selected as judges as groups of students prepared and presented different crafts they made that day.

Friday - Sports Day: This day consisted of a basketball competish, a relay race, and tug-of-war. Buuut, we got so wrapped up in all the excitement and general madness, we forgot to watch who actually WON the relay race. Chaos ensued, so we just called it a tie – after all, we’re all winners... right?!

Overall 247 students from 5 schools participated and there was a ton of involvement and support from the community. We were able to see what things worked and what didn’t quite pan out, and were left with how to make improvements for next year’s competition. The winning school got a trophy that will be rotated every year to the new winning school. Congrats school #5, HOLLLAAAA!

April 28th: Mongolian Wildebeest Race
Due to lack of planning on my part, we only scrounged up 11 participants for our 5k race around Altai to coincide with the Wildebeest Race that happened in Flushing, MI. It was still really fun to run with Mongolians; I've spent so much time just being stared/pointed/honked at on my runs around town. The course was through the main part of our town so naturally people took notice and even began cheering for us as we passed by, 'sain bain!' On the last leg of the race I heard someone shout my name and glanced behind me to find one of my students Dorj sprinting frantically to try and close the gap between us. I let him catch up to me and thought it would be nice to finish the race together, but he just kept going straight on passed me and threatened to take my podium spot. Well I just wasn't having this... we both pushed it hard for the last block, but poor Dorj didn't have it in him to sprint in the last bit of the race, so I edged him out at the last second. The person who got second place ran in a leather jacket, jeans, and dress shoes...

May 5th: Cinco de Mayo 
And so, with the Big Event behind us, my sitemates and I headed north to the nearby soum of Tashir to spend Cinco de Mayo in a ger camp for one last night of bonding before we all head off in different directions for the summer and the M21s get on with their American lives.

We were joined at the last minute by 2 honorary sitemates and we had a blast camping out by the river and visiting the only hydroelectric dam in Mongolia.

May 15th - June 11thAmurica
In a whirlwind of a trip, I was lucky enough to see one of my best friends get married to an amazing guy, another bestie become a Dr. Bestie,

... got to meet Braden's first grade class at Central (we've been pen-pals with all year,)

.... spend some time at my happy place on Lake Huron with my momma,

... not to mention spend lots of time with family and friends. It was pretty awesome, but I found myself antsy to get back to my Mongolian life, which I’m taking as a good sign.

June 18th – Women’s Business Training
Sooo, after 20 grueling hours of travel back to Mongolia, I had to get my butt on a bus for 40 straight hours to Uvs province. Oh and Anth and I didn’t get lucky enough to nab an actual seat, so we spent those 2 days in the aisle literally perched on top of a bunch of luggage. At one point, I had a Mongolian lying on each shoulder, one across my chest, and another on my stomach, with Anth camped out on my lower body. I couldn’t have moved if I’d wanted to…

              We squeezed 45 on a bus for 33 for our forty hour trip. People even sat on the stairs...#mongoliansarebadass  <- (that is my first time doing that I promise... and it won't happen again)

My good friend Krissy and I, along with the Business Women’s Association of Uvs, have been working on a training for local business owners for a few months now. 

It went really well and we had 26 participants over the two day training that included sections on Management, Accounting, and Customer Service.

June 25th – 30th: Erdenet Baseball Camp
Two friends of mine, put together a two week youth baseball camp in the city of Erdenet, so we made our way up there for the week to help out. It was really fun learning how to play baseball myself, and seeing the kids learn a thing or two. We ended the week with an American vs Mongolian game, that was off the chiz-ain!

July 2nd – July 7th: Habitat for Humanity Blue Sky Build
For the first week in July, I was lucky enough to be able to build a home with a few other PCVs and alongside of the Mongolian family who will be living there. Even though I only took part building one house, 20 homes were built in all with 100 local volunteers and approximately 150 international volunteers. It was a grueling week, but worth it.
The main construction worker, Jagaa, and Naraa the homeowner.

 I also made a new friend in the translator, Naljaa. She is one sassy lady...

We're either workin hard, or hardly workin....

July 6th: My Birfday
This year I had me one of my best birthdays in recent memory. It started and ended in amazing ways. At 530am, Gracie and I woke up and went on a monster run south of the city until the city ended and nature began. We ran along some mountains near a river and it was really gorgeous. After that, Gracie and I went our separate ways and I ran to the Palace Hotel to meet up for the bus ride out to the Habitat build site; I was greeted by everyone singing me happy birthday and a giant card signed by many friends. The fun continued on the ride, where we literally had ourselves a rowdy 7am dance party in the aisle of the bus. 

My birthday balloon that reads 'Happy Birthday' in 7 languages.... RAD.

After a whole day of building, I met up with 20 or so volunteers for dinner and drinks and then headed off to a foam party….. that’s right, FOAM! Add that to the list of things I never thought I’d do in Mongolia…

July 5th- July 14th: Brother Ben visits Mongolia
We had our first visitor come and check out a little of our lives here and he survived, so the rest of you can come visit now…. We spent the first few days wandering about the capital then headed up north to visit our host families so he could catch a little Nadaam action (yearly Mongolian festival,) and see a little of how we spent last summer. It was really fun having him here…

Awwwwwwww.... Ben's first horse ride

July 22nd: Ulaanbaatar International Half Marathon
I decided last minute to run this race and ended up doing the 10k versus the half marathon since I was still having some issues/pains with my hip. I ended up getting third place out of the female finishers and was awarded a medal, certificate, AND trophy... how typical Mongolia! First place got a horse. Looks like I’ll be pushing a little harder next year…

 Even the losers get lucky sometimes....

Aug 1st: Sunrise to Sunset Marathon
Lake Hovsgol was an amazing and beautiful place to visit. We decided to camp for a few days before the race for a little fun. We found an amazing trail on a mountain cliff right along the water – which is the clearest fresh water lake I’ve ever laid eyes on. Then it literally rained on our parade…. then it rained harder. We decided to give up on the slick path in search of a road, and just as we were crossing a meadow to do so, lightning struck no more than 100 yards in front of us, so we started sprinting. We found a little house and stuck out the storm there and made some food and had some coffee to warm us. We decided to ditch the rest of the hike and hitched a ride to the ger camp from there. Camp Toilogt was awesome and we got to spend the 3 days leading up to the race in awesome company. Gracie’s parents joined us and we partook in some kayakin, sauna sittin, and I mastered my first horse back ride.... like a CHAMP!

Camp Toilogt. Gracie and her parents rocked the house in teepee #2.

My good pal Gracie and I have been planning this beast of a run for a while, but we still found ourselves sorely unprepared. Not only did we not know we would be tackling this 42.5 km race with a total elevation gain/loss of 2255 meters, but also that we would be doing so with backpacks on, and starting at 430 am…. in the dark. Given all of this, I wasn’t too disappointed when we cartwheeled across the finish line at 6 hrs 16 minutes with smiles on our faces after surviving 26.4 miles, 2 mountain climbs and descents, 1 fall each, and countless stumbles. We ended up being the first and second female finishers for the marathon, and 2nd and 3rd overall (there was also a 100km option for CRAZY people.)

Now I head back to the motherland once more to partake in more wedding festivities and usual shenanigans. In an attempt to save a few bucks, I decided to fly the other way around the world through Turkey. Very excited to catch up with some people on this short little trip; its always good to be home, no matter how brief =) If all of my friends and family don't greet me at the gate with junk food in hand, I will be sorely disappointed. KIDDING! It's perfectly acceptable to meet me at baggage claim; I know airport security can be a pain...