dream or reality?

            A beautiful image that keeps recurrently popping into my head is the way that rows of snow-covered gers look at night: felt living-pods draped in moonlit, shimmering white snow with small clouds of smoke dissipating into the black night from stove-pipes.  There are 1,000 reasons why I think doing the Peace Corps is meaningful, but if the sheer beauty of living in a foreign country–and the feeling in my gut that reminds me how blessed I am to be in such a unique land, one that I may never have the opportunity to come across again–were the only reason why I joined the Peace Corps, I would still feel gratified. That same thought literally pops into my head every single time I walk home at night, usually after having dinner with friends, singing a combination of Mongolian songs with nostalgia-inducing American pop songs from the late 90s/early 2000s like N’SYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye,” or stuffing myself with meat dumplings and fermented milk with Mongolians who treat me as a brother, even though I clearly came from far away.

            There’s this indescribable feeling I get that reminds me that no matter how integrated I am in my community, how well I learn to speak Mongolian, or how much every day feels like regular life, the weight of emotion that accompanies leaving being everything you know to jump into a new world is never fully lifted. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. I simply mean that while I’ve lived here for a year and a half, and Mongolia feels like home now, there are still moments that knock me flat on my back with amazement, and I can never, with full certainty, answer the question of whether or not this is really just a 2 year long dream.

            I’d like to share the following story as an example of this point. At the beginning of the school year, the teachers and staff from my school went on a retreat to the middle of the desert where our school owns a greenhouse. The purpose of the trip with both leisure and play; we would spend the day picking vegetables, which the students in the “cooking” vocation could later use to practice their craft, and we would spend the night in uproarious revelry.  When the sun was starting to set, some of the teachers asked me to help them gather and kill a goat that we would eat for dinner. I went out to where the livestock was and helped carry a goat to the back of the SUV we were cruising around in. I’ll spare the details, but being a part of the whole process of taking the life of an animal and later eating it has made me never quite look at meat in the same way. I still eat it (Mongolian boiled meat is just about as organic/grass-fed/cage-free as you can get), but nowadays I’m less able to make a mental distinction between a beef patty and a cow roaming around in the plains.

            We spent the evening chowing down on the goat that I had been carrying earlier that day, passing around a bowl of fermented mare’s milk and belting out songs at the top of our lungs. As I thought the night was winding down, I decided to go outside to look for a place to sleep. I eyed the Russian van with the long flatbed as a potentially cozy spot and curled up under an open sleeping bag in-between the wheel well and a bag of tools.

            My previous suggestion that the night was winding down turned out to be completely wrong. The teachers stormed out of the small brick house we had been singing in, hooting, hollering, wrestling, and then after someone turned on the headlights of their car and started blasting their stereo, dancing. I was curled up in this Russian van at 2 in the morning wondering if I should forget the idea of sleep and join the dance party. Right before I was about to do that, one of the teachers opened the car door and curled up next to me, squeezing me closer to the wheel-well and blocking my exit. Throughout the night, he asked me a few questions about my experience in Mongolia and kept repeating “Chi saikhan zaluu shuu!” (You are a nice young man)! He also asked me to teach his some words in English, so I started naming all of the different things in the car. While me and this teacher were huddled under one sleeping bag in the back of the Russian van, the rest of the staff was outside dancing in the blinking headlights hollering at the top of their lungs to Rhianna and Justin Bieber, and I was just staring out the sunroof at the stars smiling. This was the type of indescribable moment I mentioned earlier; the situations I find myself are simultaneously normal and unquestionably absurd, depending on how I rationalize them. Although I had no one from home to share that with, sometimes the value of randomness/indulgence/solitude/euphoria and dream-like reality can just be kept within the moment.

            While, in general, year number two has been much more comfortable than the first year, that constant feeling of wonder has persisted (and I’m thankful it has). Through all of the housewarming parties this fall in honor of coworkers who have moved into new gers, all the consumption of meat and dairy products and singing in unison with people who have been singing the same songs for their whole lives, through the expansion of my comfort zone, through celebrating Halloween (my favorite holiday) with people who were experiencing it for the first time, through dancing in a giant ger in the middle of the desert and realizing that I have made more connections in Dalanzadgad than I’m regularly conscious of, through every night burning through candles in the dark because the power it out, through all the fires to keep me warm when everything beyond my felt-covered wooden tent is frozen, I have managed to keep a smile on my face. Even occasional situations that challenge my threshold of patience are often humorous in retrospect (coming home in the freezing cold one night, only to realize that my key had fallen out of my pocket somewhere between home and the karaoke place, and then waking up my neighbor who graciously set up a bed for me on her floor). It’s all part of the journey.

            As a final note: I feel compelled to comment on the general willingness of Mongolians to help me out when I need help. There is a student at my school who greets me every day with a huge smile and shakes my hand. One day, after finding out that I was sick, he came over to my ger to chop a week’s supply of wood for me (which is hard work, especially when it’s below zero outside). No complaints, not even a shred of doubt, just the same big smile after he finished lining up a neat stack of wood inside my shed. That’s the stuff I can’t help but be thankful for. 


3 comments December 5, 2012 wheelerinmongolia

A New Level of Patience

This is a short piece I wrote for something called “Mongol Post,” a space where Peace Corps Mongolia volunteers can share bits of writing:

If you were a patient person before you joined the Peace Corps, you will become a more patient person throughout the experience. Usually I don’t like to make sweeping generalizations about how the Peace Corps will change a person’s character, but I think I can say this one with confidence: you will become a more patient person.

It only takes so many times – so many situations in which you’re with a group of people who are speaking a different language before you recognize the necessity of patience. Unless you have an extraordinary gift of language acquisition, you will often leave those group settings feeling misunderstood, invalidated, and generally frazzled. This certainly gets easier over time, but I don’t think PCVs ever fully reach a point where they’re guard isn’t up just a little bit. For example, you might be sitting in a ger with a group of your coworkers drinking milk tea, and they might be joking about the way you’re sitting, the way you’re holding your cup, the expression on your face, etc. because it’s unfamiliar to them. All of the cultural nuances that make the situation comfortable to them make it disorienting for you, particularly if you’re someone who doesn’t like constant attention directed towards you. The whole time you might be thinking: ‘Man, I just wish my friend from back home was sitting next to me to share the cosmic strangeness of the situation, rather than bearing the burden of every joke just because I’m the odd one out’.

It only takes so many shouts from kids and adults on the street: “HI!!!!!!!!!” (or sometimes less friendly things) before you realize that they’re not greeting you––the swimmer, the jazz fan, the author, whoever you might be––they’re greeting the foreigner on the street, simply because you’re a foreigner. You could be anyone, but if you look different, and if you’re a sight that they’re not used to, they’ll light up with excitement and want to greet you. Of course, the easiest approach is just to say “hi” back and keep walking, but sometimes, as human beings who feel a need to be self-actualized, we want more out of the situation. Sometimes we just want to respond, “THIS TIME, JUST THIS TIME, DON’T SHOUT HI TO ME! ASK ME HOW MY DAY IS GOING OR SOMETHING. ASK ME IF I LIKE TO EAT BANANAS. ANYTHING BUT ‘HI’!”

But this is my point in writing this article: time moves forward. No matter how uncomfortable we are in a situation, or how much we yearn to show people who we really are, time will keep going, and we’ll have the opportunity to process the situation in our memory and speak about it later. Our perception of any given moment creates the reality it becomes in our life’s timeline. After the time when you were drinking milk tea with your coworkers and you felt awkward because there was a language barrier, and you weren’t sure whether or not people were making fun of you, there are multiple routes the story can go when you talk about it with your friends. You could be like, “Dude, it was awful. We were drinking this milk tea, which I don’t even really like, and I was just sitting there for like 4 hours, not really contributing to the conversation. And people were basically just laughing at me the whole time. So annoying. I just wanna go home and watch Arrested Development.” Or, you could talk about how amazing it is that you’re coworkers invited you to the event in the first place. You come from a culture they might not know much about, but they’ve taken you under their wing as one of their own. You could talk about how beautiful the Mongolian ger is – how after these 2 years, you might not ever set foot in one again. You could talk about how even though you didn’t really understand what they were saying, whatever it was, it was probably hilarious if they were laughing so hard about it! So, what do we choose to focus on?

When describing the public’s perception of you when you’re walking around outside, there are multiple angles you could take. For example: “Now I understand why famous people are often so miserable. During the time I lived in Mongolia, I pretty much dreaded going outside because I hated getting so much attention all the time. People who didn’t even know me aggressively yelled at me all the time. And the kids! The ‘hi-monsters!’ HOW MANY TIMES DO I HAVE TO TELL YOU, KID? YOU SAY ‘HI’ ONCE! ONLY ONCE! NOT 7 TIMES! ZA YU?” Or, there’s a different direction you could take; maybe something like this: “To this day, some of my best Mongolian friends were originally people who just approached me in the street out of curiosity. One guy said ‘hi’ to me and asked me what my name was, and after 5 minutes of knowing him, we went and sang karaoke together. Nowadays, he’s one of my best friends and I consider him a brother. And the kids who fervently call “hi” to me are simply looking to share a memorable moment together. The times that I taught them a new handshake, or made a goofy face, or joined in on their soccer game undoubtedly contributed to both their experience and my experience.” How do we perceive the situation? How can we accrue the most value out of any given moment?

I’d like to share a quick anecdote that I think relates to this point directly. Last spring, I moved out of my old apartment and into a ger. Before I had fully moved out, all of my stuff was packed up in boxes in the corner of the room, but because of some sort of misunderstanding, a new group of people had thought I was entirely moved out and had been given keys to the apartment (without me knowing). One day, when I was coming home from a long day of teaching classes and working on a television project, I walked into my apartment building’s entrance, surprised to hear a lot of noise coming from inside my door. When I entered the apartment, there was a group of about 10 Mongolian firefighters, still in uniform, cleaning and gutting a sheep that was laid out across the hall floor on a tarp. It turns out that they had come from Ulaanbaatar to do a training camp in Dalanzadgad and had serendipitously gotten in touch with my landlord after soliciting for a place to stay. They were training for a particular kind of race in which teams of firefighters try to get to the top of buildings as fast as possible by hoisting ladders up the successive window panes.

As I walked in, all of them looked up at me with huge grins one their faces and instantly began asking questions with a warm and genuine friendliness: “How are you? How’s your job? What’s your impression of Mongolia? Etc.” Of course, without the prior knowledge that other people would be inhabiting my home and also preparing an entire sheep in the hallway, I was baffled by the situation. But all it took was a few deep breaths, and I was ready to just ride the wave. I began asking questions about their firefighting team and learning about their passions. They showed me videos of their team practicing and also a video of the world championships. This was a sport that I didn’t even know existed, and the videos indeed looked quite dangerous and impressive.

Later that night, they fed me almost every organ from the sheep: intestines, liver, heart, lungs, everything. I don’t think that they had ever seen an American eat the insides of a sheep before, and I could tell that it was a special moment. Even though I had a visible distaste for some of the organs, they were honored by the fact that I was trying. Later that night, I slept in my bed, and all the firefighters were lined up on the floor in sleeping bags. We talked about life, about differences between the United States and Mongolia, about firefighting, and other things. After a brief period of silence, one of them asked: “Hey, Joe, would it be possible for us to have an English lesson from you right now?” I didn’t see why not. The electricity was out at the time, so I taught them simple English phrases (what’s up? How are you? How is work? Etc.) in the pitch black.

After that night, time moved forward as it always does. I moved into my ger the next day, and everything was fine. At the initial moment in which I walked into the room, my reaction could have gone several different ways. I could have said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, what is going on here! This is my home! You’re gonna need to get your firefighting equipment and this sheep out of here right away.” But I’m happy I didn’t say that. These guys were such good-natured people; I didn’t feel unsafe at all, and I didn’t want to run away from the opportunity to share some meaningful connections. Because of that, I got to learn about a new sport, see the contented expressions on their faces as I bit down on a big piece of sheep heart, and have a slumber party-esque sharing of language. It remains to be one of my favorite memories from my time in Mongolia so far. All it took was a bit of patience.

8 comments August 28, 2012 wheelerinmongolia

stargazing on the ger

Dear friends and family,

It has been a long time since I’ve posted an entry, but I think that’s a result of life simply becoming more comfortable. Not to say that the fascination with life in Mongolia has gone away, but rather I’m much more able to acquiesce and flow with things that used to put me in a deep state of culture shock. For example, yesterday I ate a sheep head with my coworker’s family. And I mean that literally; they boiled the head along with other organs in a big pot, and when they brought it out, I could see the teeth and scull and stuff. But I think that a year’s worth of experience here has allowed me to just take the plunge and eat the eyes and ears and everything happily, whereas a year ago I probably would have been more hesitant and queasy.

            The spring was an incredible season. I experienced the highs of co-creating and hosting a local English TV game show where high school students competed in spelling bees, verbal challenges, reading competitions and other activities; I experienced what it’s like to walk around during a storm where your vision is entirely blocked by sweeping brown clouds of dust. Generally, there were some high emotions and low emotions (as usual), but more often then not, I felt powerful feelings of vitality.  Coming out of the Mongolian winter and walking around in warm weather and seeing things grow again sort of made me feel reborn. And doing things like traveling up north to perform at an opening ceremony for a national sports competition and playing my little Martin backpacker-guitar in front of hundreds of people made me feel a unique euphoria – something that comes about through being on the other side of the planet; never really being able to describe what’s happening but smiling at the cosmic strangeness.

            At the tail end of the spring, I went up to Darkhan to attend a Peace Corps seminar. I was lucky enough to get accepted as a trainer for the new volunteers, which will start during the second half of the summer; so during the seminar we started planning our lessons and talking about how to be successful trainers. I was sharing an apartment with five other guys who are gonna train this summer, which was a nice change of pace from a generally quieter existence in the Gobi. We all ended up getting hooked on the card game “Monopoly Deal,” and would literally play for hours after coming home from lesson planning all day. Our apartment was also equipped with its fair share of quirks and challenges. Our toilet was clogged (and as you could imagine, in a small apartment with six dudes, that can cause some problems), and our bathroom pipes were leaking. As it turns out, they were leaking through the ceiling of the apartment below us, causing our neighboring family to come upstairs and chew us out at the top of their lungs. Before we could get a plumber to come, the situation led to some makeshift duct-tape work, and some of the guys taking night shifts to replace the buckets of water filling from the pipes.

            After the seminar, three friends and I had the chance to go to Howsgol province, an area widely recognized as one of the most beautiful of Mongolia. The lake and trees were strongly reminiscent of Oregon actually. There’s one particular experience that stands out. The four of us were sitting by the lake when we heard some drumming and chanting sounds in the distance. Naturally, we followed the sound up to the top of a hill, where we saw a large, covered structure of bent-over trees, all of which were covered in “hatigs” (Mongolian prayer flags). At first unsure whether to walk away or try interacting with the people inside, we decided to just go for it. Our question, “orj boloh uu?” (may we come in?) was met with overwhelming enthusiasm. The wife of the family in the tree structure turned out to be a shaman, and they had just been doing a healing ritual for a visiting family. Her, her husband and their son see hundreds of tourists every summer because the shamanism and the fact that they own a pack of reindeer is a high point of interest, but I think it’s really rare for them to find foreigners who can speak Mongolian, so they were quite taken with us. The husband in particular loved the fact that we actually live in Mongolia and have been studying the language, and he exploded in laughter pretty much throughout all our interactions with him. He’d ask something like, “So, do you have a girlfriend?” and then no matter what our response was, “BAHAHAHAHA!” After hanging out, eating candy and drinking some milk tea, the shaman Enkhtuya invited us to stay one night with her family in their tepee. She described where she lived: “down the path 5 kilometers, then up a dirt road going into the mountains, in the woods next to two gers.” So, after we did some more hiking around the lake, coming back to find Enkhtuya the shaman was like a treasure hunt. A kid on a motorcycle helped point us in the right direction; a herder with his pack explained how many short hills to go over before cutting into the woods. We were just 4 scruffy Americans with backpacks trekking through the wild to find the shaman’s tepee.

            Before two long, we found their home, and they served us some bread with reindeer cheese and soup with reindeer meat. We were sitting outside, and the majestic creatures with huge antlers were just chilling right next to us. It was an occasion in which you frequently need to remind yourself where you are and what you’re doing. Their son, who I think was about 7 years old, served us bowl after bowl of reindeer milk tea, even after we said we were full; I think he was thrilled to be the host for his guests. He took us for a walk to show us some of the nearby nature, and kept repeating over and over, “ta nar sain! Ta nar sain huumuus baina aa!” (you guys are good! You are good people!). So stoked. My favorite part of our interactions with him was having a dance party outside with some car speakers, doing really silly moves, and then having him replicate the moves with a huge grin on his face. The night ended with us sleeping in the tepee by crackling firelight.

            The next day Nick had the idea to offer help with moving their tepee and herding their reindeer, which was an awesome suggestion. I don’t think I’ll ever forget walking along the dirt path with my buddies, holding reindeer on both sides of me. After we help them set up the branches and felt coverings, it was time to say goodbye and continue on our journey. Aside from the pure novelty of the situation, I really enjoyed becoming friends with their family and how they treated us as peers.

            There are many wonderful things to look forward to. One of my buddies from Whitman, Ben Gourlay, arrived in Mongolia at the beginning of June. Since he started his training experience living with a host family, I haven’t had a chance to speak with him directly yet, but I’m hoping he’s enjoying it and soaking it in. It’s pretty cool (and indicative of just how small a world this is) that someone from such a familiar setting like Whitman can join in on an experience so esoteric and far away. Also, this week, my brother Dan will be entering the land of the steppes. I can’t wait to show him my lifestyle, the stunning vastness, and the openhearted people I’ve met. Mongolians are generally stunned and amused by my height, so I can only imagine how they’re gonna react to Dan. It’ll be awesome.

            Other exciting news: I’ve moved into a new ger, which I love. The weather has been hot, so I’ve been climbing on top of my ger at night to lie down and watch the stars. These are good times to reflect on the challenges and struggles; but most importantly, I’ve realized that aspects of my life in Mongolia that used to be challenging don’t need to be that way anymore. There are infinite opportunities to have positive experiences in initially uncomfortable situations. Sometimes it just takes a little extra risk and willpower.



4 comments June 24, 2012 wheelerinmongolia

some things didn’t change

Hello all,

It’s been a long time since I’ve written, so I feel like it’s time for an update on what has been an eventful winter. This entry’s a bit long, but the past two months really have been incredible, so I hope I can accurately reflect the juiciness of the experiences in my descriptions.

Back in mid-December, I went up to UB for an in-service training (IST): five days packed full of sessions on teaching, Mongolian culture and community development, and then a lot of silliness and celebration as it was the first time that all of the TEFL volunteers united since the end of the summer. The training was actually a bit outside UB at a spot called Terelj: a beautiful, resort-type location surrounded by hills and trees. It was nice to get a dose of trees because, as you could imagine, the Gobi desert does not have many.

All of the volunteers came with coworkers from their Mongolian institutions, and one of the goals of IST was to elucidate the reasons that American volunteers are here, thus making our working relationships with our Mongolian counterparts smoother. One of my favorite aspects of being there (aside from the physical comforts of sleeping in a nice bed and taking hot showers) was the comingling and cultural exchange between Mongolians and Americans within this huge group of people. We closed out the week with a trivia night, talent show and dance party. How could that not be awesome? The only downside to the week was that I caught an intense fever; although, thankfully, it was short-lived (only lasted like six hours). Probably an adverse reason to a flu shot.

IST totally rejuvenated me physically and mentally after what had been the lowest period in my service so far. For the first two weeks in December, I had basically no electricity in my apartment, and the temperature was low enough that I could see my breath indoors. But with the wisdom from my friend Heather Swope among a bunch of other people, I eventually came back to feeling like my regular self; and since IST, I’ve been feeling more adjusted to my life in Mongolia and generally happier.

To celebrate Christmas, the volunteers of the South Gobi had a reunion at my apartment for the weekend (with the exception of Ben Cunningham who’s out in a desolate village near the northeast border, whom we missed). Mostly we just relaxed and unwound. On Christmas morning, we did a white elephant-style gift exchange, but my site mate, Ben, received his own Stephen Hawking book, “A Brief History of Time” from Rob, which he had lent out a few months prior. Then, we took a walk outside of town to the “dream tree,” a small, leafless tree covered in hatigs (Mongolian scarves that carry symbolic significance). Out at the dream tree, if you looked one direction, you would see the Guruwinsaihan mountain range which basically borders territorial Mongolia; if you looked the other direction, you would see the town of Dalandzadgad, and above it a solid, thick black line below the clouds from factory smoke, which made for a captivating contrast. The fact that we took this walk on Christmas day made me particularly happy because it kept in harmony with a Wheeler family tradition of taking a hike outside on Christmas, usually at Spencer’s Butte or Mount Pisga in Eugene.

The festivities continued through New Years, or “Shine Jil” in Mongolian, a huge holiday over here. Walking around Dalandzadgad, you could can see Christmas trees everywhere and silver streamers hanging from inside every building. One of my friends named Uuganaa who comes to my English club invited me to a Shine Jil party out in a small town north of Dalandzadgad with her and some of her friends from work, so I happily said yes. I sat in the front seat of a Russian van, sharing it with two adorable and remarkably polite kids and chatted with them for most of the ride, giving me a good chance to practice my Mongolian.  These kids were cracking me up because the tone of their questions was so adult, like we were sitting in a cubicle drinking a cup of coffee; things like, “so, my Mom tells me you’re an English teacher. How’s that going for ya?” Or, “Yeah you know the weather around here gets really cold this time of year.  You really gotta make sure you wear a lotta warm clothes.” It killed me how sophisticated these kids were, and I think they were only about nine years old.

The Shine Jil party reminded me of the bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah parties I went to in middle school, complete with the chicken dance, performances, and a bunch of limbo/hula-hoop-esque games, although this party had way more waltzing than I’ve ever done at a single event. My waltzing skills are getting better, but I haven’t quite mastered the spin. I hope I will before too long because this is a crucial move for Mongolian parties. At one point in the night, the hostess (who ended up being my friend Uuganaa, which I didn’t know before we got there) said something along the lines of “and now, we will have a performance from our American volunteer, Joe” (pronounced Jo-ay). A woman told me a few minutes before that I might be performing, but since I’m communicating everything in a second language, I never really know what’s going on for sure.  So, I thought, ‘what the heck, I’m gonna try to give ‘em a show.” When I got on stage, I could see the couple hundred people in the room turn to their friends sitting next to them in unison and ask questions about this strange tall man on stage.  I started speaking in Mongolian to the crowd, which garnered some surprise and amusement, then I sang “We are the World” (such a clutch, go-to in Mongolia), and one of the only Mongolian songs I know, “Ainee Shuwuu” (Traveling Birds).

When we got back to the spot we were staying at for the night (a café with a few extra vacant bedrooms), the Mongolians continued partying, but I was feeling pretty frazzled and disoriented from the night’s events, and exhausted from communicating in different language, so I just played some chess with the kids before going to bed. I ended up sleeping in an adjacent garage-type room with five or six beds in it. It was freezing cold in there, so I removed all the blankets and sheets from the other beds and slept under a heavy pile of about 13 layers.

In the same week, workers from my school had an enormous Shine Jil bash that took place at the fanciest hotel in DZ. Again there were many games (some of which were a bit promiscuous), a lot of waltzing, tons of awards given out, and some performances. The teachers requested that I get up and sing something American, so I busted out “We Wish you a Merry Christmas,” another tune that many Mongolians are familiar with. During the night, the emcee called up five volunteers to the front of the room, and the people sitting at my table nudged me up there. Before I knew it, the four other participants around me were dancing vigorously, so I just assumed to follow suit and whip out every goofy dance move I could think of. Before too long I realized it was a dance contest. I even got some people in the room chanting my name (“Jo-ay! Jo-ay! Jo-ay!”). I was happy to win a large box of mandarin chocolates, but regrettably I forgot them in the hotel before going out with the rest of my coworkers to continue the festivities in one of my school’s classrooms. Definitely a silly night.

After the first week of January, I took off north because my school had a 2-week Winter Break. So, I thought the vacation would be a good time to see other volunteers and work on a few projects. My first destination was Har Horin, the ancient capital of Mongolia and home to Nick and Heather Swope, legends among the current group of volunteers in Mongolia. This place had beautiful scenery–snow covered hills and trees at every angle–and an incredible monastery; understandably, it’s a popular site for tourists traveling in Mongolia.

I stayed 3 nights with the Swopes in their ger. They decked it out with Christmas lights, and Nick even crafted a brick oven around the ger-stove, which we used to cook a pizza. I slept on the floor next to the stove, and I loved the way the fire softly glowed against the ger’s canvas and crackled as I drifted off to sleep. Also, I got the chance to hang out with the family who the Swopes share a hashaa (fenced off plot of land) with, which was great. I played a lot of patty-cake type games with one of the girls, and had a chance to teach some guitar to one of the older boys. The kids come to hang out in the Swopes’ ger all the time, and they told me that the Swopes make them do their homework before they get to play games and clown around, which I got a kick out of. On my last day in Har Horin, I led two seminars–one for English teachers in the town, and one for all of the teachers at Heather’s school–both of which were about how to use music as a tool to help teach any topic.

My next destination was Bayanchandmani, a small town just outside of UB, and home to my friend Justin Mugits. When I got there, Justin and all of the teachers from his school were playing basketball, so I joined them wearing two layers of long underwear top and bottom, jeans, and winter boots. I think that the teachers enjoyed the fact that a new random American suddenly appeared. One of the highlights of being in Bayanchandmani, in addition to catching up with Justin and spending more time in a ger, was going on a horseback trek into the woods. Justin’s hashaa family arranged for me to get picked up, and a 14 year-old boy who was related to one of the school’s teachers led the ride. This kid was very talkative, and I got to know that he had been racing horses since age 4, so I felt like he was a trustworthy teacher. He told me that he wakes up at 4 o’clock every morning, does the ger chores (chopping wood, fetching water, gathering coal, making fires), takes care of the herd, and helps his mother and father with their shop. I asked him if he enjoyed being so busy all the time and he said that he loved it with a huge smile on his face.  I gotta give props to this dude. He’s got an impressive work ethic for age 14.

After Bayanchandmani, I bussed up to Erdenet, a beautiful city full of some amazing PCVs. I was delighted to take part in the regular projects that the Erdenet volunteers have going, including volunteering at an orphanage, where they lead games, music, and all kinds of activities for the kids, and a “Monglish” night, which meets twice a week and gives English speakers a chance to practice their English in a casual setting. While I was there, we watched the movie “Hook,” stopping it periodically to ask concept-checking questions, and the level of English among the attendees was so good that they hit the nail on the head with every question. I was particularly blown away by a group of young kids whose English was perfect, and they mastered it just by watching a ton of cartoons.

During the last part of my stay in Erdenet, I was lucky enough to team up with my friend Cliff Hurt, who is an amazing musician, and help lead a session on music therapy at the hospital where another volunteer named Gracie Storm works.  We gave two PowerPoint presentations, one for doctors and one for nurses, on the cognitive effects that music has, and the ways in which it can potentially be applied in a hospital setting to relax patients and help aid recovery. Then, we gave two short concerts, one for the trauma ward and one for the children’s ward. This was my favorite part of the day. Mostly we played acoustic guitar and sang, but I mixed in some beat boxing, and we threw in some active songs like the Hokey Pokey.  I loved watching the excitement from the people who really decided to get into it.  During the performance for the young ones, I went up to a little girl and asked her what her name was and learned it was Namaantsetseg. Cliff and I sang “Hallelujah” but replaced Hallelujah in the chorus with “Namaantsetseg,” and she became a little star, smiling and clapping along with the music.

The last stop on my voyage was Shaamar, the town I lived in during the summer with my host family. It was both surreal and nostalgic to return to a place that holds so much meaning in life: the place that was my first introduction to Mongolia in a transition that was, by far, the biggest I have ever taken in my life.  An influx of memories came up from the summer although this time, everything was covered in snow and the temperature was far below zero, smack-you-in-the-face, ridiculously cold.

When I walked inside to greet my host family, from their point of view it was like a new person was entering because back in the summer, my hair was short, the scope of what I could say was severely limited, and everything was so new that I was constantly in a state of shock; but now, it just felt like I was home.  From a first-person perspective, I think it’s difficult to monitor how much our language abilities have changed, but they seemed genuinely surprised at how much more I was able to say, compared to the summer. But some things didn’t change; I ate a ton of boiled meat, played basketball with my host brother, and shot the breeze with my host Mom just like old times.

Taking a nine-hour train ride back to UB from Shaamar, I had a lot of beautiful rolling hills to look at and a lot to think about. In those long stretches of transportation among the never-ending vast landscapes, there’s a lot of time to reflect and it’s like everything gets intensified: the thrill, the discomfort, bliss, pain, curiosity, everything. In route to DZ, I had a one-night stay in UB full of seeing friends, wandering, Indian food, clubbing, and no sleep. Then, I hopped on the bus to DZ the following day for a 16-hour bus ride.

Since then, I’ve been staying busy with classes, clubs and outside projects. The emotional ups and downs continue, but that’s how life goes. Sometimes it’s exciting; sometime’s it’s mundane. Sometimes it’s difficult; sometimes it’s not. But no matter what, it’s always different from what I’m used to, and that’s what I came for.

All my love,

7 comments January 30, 2012 wheelerinmongolia

once upon a time, it got cold. then, it stayed cold.

Life is getting busy. While I’m not teaching English lessons, I usually either study Mongolian, do some sort of personal health maintenance activity like exercise or housecleaning, or keep in touch with someone and attempt to explain the intricacies of this experience: the beauties and frustrations, highs and lows, victories and failures. Free-time is becoming so valuable that sometimes I have to allow myself to not answer my phone and the dozens of random questions about English vocabulary and grammar. I think that being this busy is a good thing though, so long as I keep smiling throughout the process.

The power outages remain relentless. In the past 6 days, I’ve had electricity for a few hours each morning, but not at all at night. Although frustrating and inconvenient, it has become something I joke about, and my buddy Rob who lives in a village about 2 hours away can relate to the struggles of having a faulty power plant (last May, he went almost an entire month without power). The other night, I had a dream that combined two distinct time periods of my life. I was at a pub in Germany that I used to go to during my study abroad experience, but everyone in the pub was speaking Mongolian and saying “tog baihgui!” (power’s out!). I think I woke up with a big smile on my face.

The biggest event that I’ve gotten to experience recently was the Peace Corps Thanksgiving celebration in Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar (UB). To get there, I took a 15-hour bus ride which wasn’t exactly an experience I’m looking forward to repeating, but still it was pretty hilarious. Practically none of the roads in the Gobi are paved, and since I was sitting on the back of the bus, I was getting major air every time we hit a big bump. It was like being on an inner-tube strapped to a motor boat doing figure 8s and flying off the wake, except rather than an inner-tube I was squeezed on half a seat between two fairly robust men. The bus broke down a few times, which I was actually thankful for because I could rest my body. We also made a few stops at some small cafes on the side of the road. A monk cut me in line while I was trying to get some huushuur (fried pockets of meat), which was unexpected. The passengers also passed the time by breaking out in several song sessions, a nice backdrop to the bumpy desert excursion.

I consider UB to be a world in and of itself within Mongolia. I guess it’s analogous to comparing a big city in the states to a small, rural town, insofar as the sights, sounds, business and availability of goods is completely different. I definitely took advantage of the opportunity to indulge in a variety of food from nice restaurants. The temperature is starting to drop well below zero, and it really hit me for the first time in UB while I was sliding around the city in my adidas. Next time, imma wear some boots!

On my first day in UB, my friend Alison Boland, who lives there now, took me to see the biggest monastery in Mongolia. She explained some of the Buddhist traditions and practices such as walking around the perimeter of the monastery and spinning  these gold-colored, rotating cylinders full of books (I forgot the appropriate name) three times to acquire the wisdom from within them. Then, we got to go inside and sit in on a session of monks chanting and praying. On both ends of the monastery, there was a monk blowing into a long, thin horn, about twice the height of my older brothers. There were several drums being played around the room, and the chanting was both discordant and beautiful. It had a heavy rhythm, and I found myself kind of closing my eyes and nodding to it. Towards the end of the chant, some older monks brought around trays full of cookies and chips to accompany the bowls of airag (fermented mare’s milk), and then basically the monks got their snack on in a big, big way. One monk deliberated his choice between cookies or chips for a really long time before finally jumping up from his seat to grab the cookies.

At the actual Thanksgiving celebration, each volunteer made a dish and brought it, and there were something like 100 people there, so we had a mega-feast. Peace Corps roasted something like 12 turkeys for us. I made a big, green salad, and since lettuce is pretty hard to come by in Mongolia, I think it was well-received. Unexpectedly, about halfway through the festivities, a volunteer named Tim Jenkins, who came to Mongolia last year in the group before me, stood up on a chair to make an announcement. He said that every year at Thanksgiving, the Peace Corps does a tradition called the “Beacon of Hope” where a volunteer who has shown a lot of hard work and dedication to serve gets a funny Christmas sweater passed down to him or her. This year, Tim decided to give the sweater to me, and I couldn’t be grateful enough for that gesture. That was definitely a moment I wont forget.

Other than that, I generally consider life to be a roller coaster of ups and downs with an overall net positive. I had my first real in-depth conversation about politics in Mongolian with a cab driver in UB – made me realize that the language stuff really has come a long way. I’m continuing to do some extra music classes on the weekends with students from my school. Next week, my school director assigned me to be a judge for a singing/dancing competition. I have a feeling I’ll be hearing a lot of “We are the World.” And, I actually get to go back to UB again next week for an in-service training. Stoked about that! The adventure continues.



PS- I just watched a documentary film called “Genghis Blues” that I highly recommend. It’s about a blind American blues musician named Paul Pena who falls in love with the region of Tuva, a small territory bordering Mongolia that is now part of Russia but was an independent state for a few decades in the early 20th century; and, it was the birthplace of multiple-tone “throat singing.” Paul Pena dedicated himself to learning the Tuvan language and learning how to throat sing, and eventually he got to travel to Tuva and perform. It’s pretty cool to see the connections he made with the people there. Also, a lot of the land in Tuva looks similar to the village in Northern Mongolia where I lived over the summer.

8 comments December 5, 2011 wheelerinmongolia

snow in the gobi. snowby.

Today was the first day that I woke up to look out the window and find everything totally caked in snow. The white layers give a new aesthetic to Dalandzadgad: the black smoke emerging into the sky from the coal factories near my apartment is starkly contrasted against the white; the snow-capped mountains to the south provide a beautiful town horizon; and the snow seems to exaggerate the nothingness to the north. On a day to day basis, the weather has usually been clear and cold enough to see my breath. I’ve really been enjoying it, even though I know that it’s about to get way colder.

I’m more or less starting to fall into a daily routine. The things that at first struck me in one way or the other are now becoming normalized into everyday life. For example, when I walk to school, I usually look across the street and think to myself, ‘Oh, yeah. There’s a group of cows feasting on a large pile of garbage. Hey guys.’ Now that Dalandzadgad is no longer a place where everything is brand new, but rather my home that I’m acclimating to, I’m constantly looking for ways to reinvigorate my experience and continue thriving.

To be honest, I have been experiencing much greater degrees of difficulty since the last time i wrote. I think that I’m beginning to understand what loneliness is for the first time in my life, which is maybe not such a bad thing. I think that part of being able to empathize with other people involves walking different paths of life and being immersed in different emotions, including those that are difficult. Also, I need to keep in mind that the original reason I came here was about more than just my own experience; it was about doing what I can to be helpful in some way, and if I put that intention forward, then maybe it’s more important than my emotion in any given moment.

But, with that said, it’s crazy how quickly emotions can change. I remember one particularly hard day I was having, and I spoke to my friend on the phone and he said something as simple as, “Dude, just enjoy it while we’re here,” and it made me feel instantly better for some reason. I’ve found that it’s important not to compare this experience to other times in my life, but rather to look for value in all things that are present. There is always something to be thankful for.

One hobby that has been developing since I’ve been here is cooking. Now that I don’t have access to the glories of the supermarkets that I grew up with, it’s kind of like a fun puzzle to see what I can concoct with the stuff that is available – a bunch of random imports, mostly from Germany, China, and the US. I feel conflicted after having learned about how environmentally degrading it is to purchase internationally transported food from monopolized, agricultural corporations. But at the same time, if I were truly just eating locally, then I wouldn’t be eating much besides horse and camel meat. Sometimes the ability to make a burrito takes precedent over ethical rationale.

One of my biggest challenges as a teacher so far is that some of my students don’t seem to have any desire to learn English, which can make the rewards of my job invisible. But, for the students who do care, I want to be there for them and do everything I can to help them learn. This week, I met with the school director and he agreed to let me set up times where students can take optional English classes, so that those who want to can have the chance to really develop their language skills. For those who don’t care at all, I certainly don’t blame them; I think that they should be interested in anything that they want. However, throughout the school year, I hope to provide some new perspective or resource that helps in some way. If nothing else, there’s one thing that I definitely know I can do: be a goofy and enthusiastic man who loves to teach music and games.

Since I’ve been here, my appreciation of the Peace Corps and the people who do this has only grown. I love talking to my friends on the phone who are spread out all over Mongolia doing amazing things. Two weeks ago, volunteers on an Alcohol Task Force committee facilitated an “Alcohol Awareness Week” and distributed resources to every volunteer to then conduct projects about alcohol abuse, a problem which is at the forefront of Mongolian health issues. In Dalandzadgad, Ben and I walked around and distributed a youth-targeted video about the health effects of alcohol use to all the schools and local TV stations. Just about everyone we talked to was enthusiastic and receptive, and the video has been shown to the students and broadcasted on the local channels.

Other than that, I’ve been staying busy teaching private English lessons to a variety of people. Through all the struggle I’ve been going through, there’s still a lot to look forward to. This month, the Peace Corps will be sending me resources on STIs/general sexual health information, which will then be used to conduct a series of seminars; that’s my next project. In a few weeks, my school agreed to give me a couple vacation days to go to Ulaanbaatar for a Thanksgiving celebration – should be totally awesome.

keepin’ my head up,

8 comments November 4, 2011 wheelerinmongolia

candles and camels

Many Peace Corps volunteers have told me that time has a strange way of working while going through this experience; on the hard days, time can seem to move very slow, but other times of satisfaction, joy and/or euphoria, you might wish that time would slow down a little. I now understand this idea a bit better because even though I’ve only been in the Gobi for slightly over a month, I feel like, in some ways, I’ve already lived and experienced another world.

For the first week after my arrival, and before the first day of school, I met some of my coworkers and started getting introduced to the community. I kind of felt like a lost tortoise who ended up in the middle of a grocery store or something – I frequently had no idea what was going on. Despite a confusing influx of new people, sights, sounds and experiences, I soon realized that my coworkers are really sweet and fun to be around, and I think that they were surprised but appreciative of the fact that I can speak a little bit of Mongolian. Before school started, the whole staff worked hard to clean the school’s rooms, paint the walls, and refurbish everything; that was a cool thing to get involved with right off the bat.

On the first day of school, the director gave me the honor of giving a speech (in Mongolian) in front of the staff and entire student body of about 750. I was a bit nervous, but it felt good to be up there, and I think the students enjoyed seeing this new, strange foreign man. The gist of the speech was that I feel very lucky to have the opportunity to live in Mongolia, and I hope to teach as much English as I can and learn as much Mongolian as I can over the course of the next two years.

One of my favorite parts about being here so far has been spending time in the classroom. I’ve learned that teaching English as a foreign language is no walk in the park and requires a great deal of patience, but still I’m enjoying it. Even though the language that I can use is limited, I still look for ways to have fun and be goofy with the students. My goal for each lesson is to squeeze as many games and activities as I can into an 80 minute period – I definitely learned a lot from my training buddies over the summer in this regard. Also, I promised to teach the students one song of their choice every month. This past week, I taught “We are the World” because almost every Mongolian, for some reason, seems to be familiar with and enjoy that song; at occasions in which people are singing (which there are a lot of), it’s usually the song that people request me to sing.

Other news – my living situation is different from what I thought it would be at the outset. At first, I was set up to live in a ger (Mongolian yurt), but my school director changed his mind and ended up renting an apartment for me. Although I was really looking forward to the experience of living in a ger, there are some upsides to having the apartment that I’m thankful for. Some of the first people that I met when I arrived in Dalandzadgad were all of the neighborhood kids who live in the apartment building. Before it got cold outside, the kids would play basketball every day, and I joined them a few times. I had a fun time clowning around and pretending to be Kobe Bryant with them. They loved the fact that I could dunk (the hoop’s only an 8-footer or so). Every time I’d walk by, they’d yell, “Joey! Joey! Slam dunk! Slam dunk!” One time, about 20 kids came over to my apartment. We were all packed in one room playing guitar and singing songs. They sang some Mongolian songs, and I sang “Stand by Me” and a few Beatles songs for them. That’s a pretty awesome memory for me.

The apartment’s also great for having visitors. Two weekends ago, four other PCVs–one of whom came from way up north–stayed over the weekend to help lead a seminar for English teachers as well as run in the Gobi Marathon. The intent of the seminar, spearheaded by a PCV named Ben who has lived in Dalandzadgad for a year, was to introduce and explore new methods for teaching English. We split the day up into four sections: music, games, speaking activities and classroom materials. Myself and a PCV named Clifton, the one who lives in northern Mongolia, led the section on music. Clif taught some fun and energetic camp-like songs that would be great to use in classes with younger kids, and I talked about using rhyme/rap in classes for advanced students. At the end, we taught “Hello Goodbye” as an example of a fun way to teach greeting/farewell vocabulary. Overall, the seminar was a great success, and many teachers from Dalandzadgad as well as nearby towns attended.

The Gobi Marathon was also an incredible experience. None of us ran the full, but still it was pretty epic; I ended up running the half. It’s organized annually by a German guy who leads tour trips and stuff like that, and all of the participants were a random mix of Mongolians, volunteers like us, tourists and travelers who happened to be in the area. The run was peaceful and desolate, with nothing but a mountain range in the distance. A half marathon is the longest distance I’ve ever run, and on Gobi terrain it was particularly difficult. The third 5k-leg was mostly sand, and before the last kilometer, we ascended up a cliff. After having just ran 20k, that climb was tortuous. But, at the top, I got an incredible view of where we were, which was the “Flaming Cliffs,” a famous tourist site in the Gobi. I remember thinking to myself, finish line in sight, ‘Am I really here right now?,’ while looking out over these vast, bright cliffs into the desert. I ended up coming in second place at 1:43, which I was really happy about. I hope to do some training before the end of next summer and run the full marathon next year. Really the whole weekend was like a constant celebration. After going through communication challenges every single day, and then suddenly having an apartment full of people who speak your language, it’s like this glorious opportunity to extrapolate your thoughts and tell jokes that you know people will understand.

One of the biggest challenges so far has been this yearning for people in Dalandzadgad to get to know who I really am, although sometimes it’s hard because of the language barrier. For example, last week the staff of my school went to a housewarming party to celebrate a new home of one of the teachers. We spent the day eating, singing, and passing around bowls of fermented mare’s milk. This is the kind of situation that is right up my alley – friends, food, and singing; it felt like it was in the spirit of Thanksgiving, although in a completely different cultural context. But, even though  I know enough Mongolian to get by in basic situations, I can’t get the quirks, the intricate jokes and telling of life experiences – and that’s the stuff I love and thrive on. And, that’s the stuff that people can’t get from me when I walk by on the street and they call “Hi!” or talk about why it is that there’s now an American living in town. So, when I can’t hang with the conversation, I find myself in situations where I’m silent for hours at a time, just contemplating my own thoughts. This is not necessarily always a bad thing, but I think I have a better understanding now of how important it is for human beings to feel self-actualized and like their expressions are understood.

The challenges have certainly been matched by high highs and other whirlwinds of new experience. For the first three weeks, the power rarely worked and I spent most of my nights by candlelight. Other significant moments include experiencing my first earthquake while sitting in a restaurant, and having a pack of 30 camels just stop what they were doing and stare at me while I was going on a run in the desert.

I’m excited about the future, and there are many projects coming into fruition.  I host an English-speaking club every Saturday, and that has been a fun way to meet and connect with people in the community. This Sunday, I teach a guitar lesson at an up and coming music center for youth. And in late October/November, I’ve been asked to do some work on sexual health education.

I’m blesed to be here, and even though I can’t say it’s easy, I’ve seen many rewards in the past month.



10 comments September 30, 2011 wheelerinmongolia

my new home is the gobi

Yesterday, I received some exciting news: my two-year site location has just about everything that I could have hoped for. I have the privilege of moving to the provincial center of the south Gobi, Dalandzadgad, an area famous for its dinosaur remains and old temples. Even though I’ll be in a desert climate, the terrain is varied with mountains and trees nearby. My housing situation has positive qualities of two worlds; I’ll be living in a ger (yurt), so I’ll have the chance to get a traditional aesthetic and experience the arduous labor of maintaining a ger in the winter. But, at the same time, I’ll be living in a town of about 20,000, so I’ll get the benefits of accessing a diversity of imported foods – a luxury that usually isn’t available in the small villages. One thing I’m excited to try is camels’ milk; I’ve been told that it’s delicious and easily accessible. Also, I’m pleased by the fact that the south Gobi is the warmest region of Mongolia. “Warmest” is a relative term, but maybe the average day in the winter will be like negative 20 instead of negative 40 degrees. I suppose that when it’s necessary to spend several hours of every day building fires and keeping a consistent supply of chopped wood, coal and dung, every difference counts.

As far as my job goes, I’ll be working at an organization called the Vocational Training Center (you can check out its website at http://www.umnugovitvc.com). The institution offers 13 different degrees for specialized skills such as hairdressing, mining rehabilitation and furniture carpentry. My primary responsibilities will include developing English curriculum, training English teachers, and tutoring students in conversational English. One of the reasons why the college needs English speakers is that the biggest coal mine in Mongolia is right next to my site, and the provincial center is aiming to provide mining companies with an English-speaking workforce. The mining industry is consistently changing the economic, political and environmental landscape of Dalandzadgad (probably for better and for worse), and I’m curious to see what sorts of issues come up and what sorts of projects my counterparts will feel a need to work on. I have a feeling that the combination of roaming camels, desert sands and an enormous mining industry will constitute a fascinating living experience.

So, that’s been the latest big news among the PCVs; everyone’s bustling with excitement about the cities, provincial centers or villages they’re going to and whether they’re living in an apartment, wooden house or ger. The site placement announcements were like an even more exciting cap to an already exciting conclusion of pre-service training – passing our language proficiency exams and interviews to swear-in as a fully trained PCV. But, let me step back a little. I feel that because there was no internet in Shaamar (my training site) for the past month or so, I should give an update on how the second half of training went.

As part of our training, we were required to teach ten English lessons to students who, after we wrote advertisements and spread them around the village, voluntarily showed up. I had a good time getting to know the students, and I’ve discovered (or perhaps already knew) that my teaching style thrives the most when I play as many games as possible. After practice teaching, it was cool to walk around the village and see kids, maybe playing volleyball or basketball on the paths outside, turn around and yell, “Hi Joeeeeee!” (emphasis on the extra “eeeeee” syllable).

In addition to teaching, Peace Corps gave us the responsibility to conduct a community development project. Myself and 3 other PCVs wanted to focus on unemployment because at the beginning of the summer, many of our host families identified it as a serious problem in Shaamar. We decided to facilitate a village-wide seminar on unemployment, hoping that people would show up and brainstorm ways to create jobs in the community. Although the meeting was not well-attended, the governor came, and if anything, it was a great learning experience for the Americans. We talked about how focusing on “unemployment” (or our conception of the word) maybe isn’t the most helpful approach because the nature of employment in Mongolia is completely different from that of the US. In rural Mongolia, employment is much more seasonally based (when you can grow and sell vegetables), and the culture is often much more reliant on barter and trade (e.g. if you can fix my car, I can keep you stocked in dairy products for a while). I think that problems arise when farmers are out of work for portions of the year, or there is a lack of will/motivation to produce trade-able commodities, or when issues of alcohol abuse come into play. When I get to site, I hope to attentively observe the conditions of employment and listen to what people have to say about how those conditions could be improved.

I think that my time this summer has been educational both in terms of technical knowledge from Peace Corps, but also in terms of less explicit education that comes solely through experience. For example, I learned what it feels like to hold a cow udder and milk it (it was surprisingly difficult and required a particular strength and finesse). I also learned what it feels like to get food poisoning and spend a 24-hour period running back and forth between bed and the outhouse. I’m not really eager to do that again.

Through everything, I look back on the summer fondly; on one of our last nights in Shaamar, a big group of the Americans and our host families watched the sunset by the river, chatted, clowned around and ate some grilled goat limbs. Now, time is moving forward, and I’m about to get a big taste of what desert life is like. This Friday, all of the 68 trainees who came in this year are having a swearing-in ceremony in which we’ll officially become Peace Corps Volunteers (it might even be on Mongolian National Television). I’ll be doing two performances: one is a traditional Mongolian dance and the other is a mash-up of a traditional Mongolian song with a new-school hip-hop remix. “Street Meets Steppe” is the title.

I miss everyone back home and think about home all the time. Sometimes, I have dreams that combine elements of my life back home with Mongolia. In one of them, I turned the corner of a dirt road to see my housemates from last year–Kai, Cam, Dan, and Andrew–sitting outside of a ger milking cows. After they said, “Hey, what’s up, man?” I woke up with a happy and disoriented smile.

Much love,


9 comments August 17, 2011 wheelerinmongolia

07/02/11 – I can see Russia from my house

Shaamar, the village that I’m living in for my summer pre-service training, is a hidden gem. To find the village, you have to pull off the highway onto a winding dirt road that goes through a sparse and hilly forest. To explore the area, some of the other ten volunteers living in Shaamar and I have enjoyed going on runs – picking a direction and seeing what we come across. The outskirts of town look like a Peace Corps promotional brochure – beautiful, vast farmland, roaming livestock, sandy pathways and rolling steppes in the distance. There was a moment, taking a break from the run, standing in the plains, when I realized that from a 360 panoramic view, there was nothing in sight except distant hills and a pack of wild horses next to us.

In Shaamar, there are many things I feel lucky to have, one of which is the Orkhon river, about a 10 minute walk from my host-family’s house. Some of my favorite times, so far, have been in the river: swimming in it, bathing in it, playing guitar next to it, and watching sunsets reflect off of it. The sun sets behind some Russian mountains in the distance around ten p.m., then rises around four a.m.; there’s more daylight than I’ve ever experienced. I’m always surprised when I walk outside to use the outhouse before bed, and the skyline is still brilliant, shining, and multi-colored. If I stay up late enough, I can see the amazing sky full of stars.

I’m also thankful to have a host family that is loving, welcoming, feeds me plenty of food, and is not at all shy to help me through the process of cultural adaptation. The first time that I bathed in my tumpin (plastic, saucer-like tub), I sat there in my shorts with my head dunked underwater, while my host mother and 19 and 14 year-old sisters scrubbed my hair and face and talked simultaneously. I was sort of laughing underwater. Sometimes you have to just stop and appreciate the humor in the moment.

The first time that I hand-washed my clothes, my host family sat around me, observing my technique. As I scrubbed, my host father was saying “stronger! stronger!” and sort of laughing at the fact that I was doing it completely wrong at first. But, I kinda get the hang of it now.

My host mom, Nara, has been incredibly helpful in my learning of the Mongolian language. Every day when I come home, she asks me to open up my lesson notebook so she can review everything with me and make sure I understand it. I’m thankful that she takes a lot of time out of her day to make sure I’m studying diligently.

My host dad, Sergelen, is the PE teacher at Shaamar’s vocational college. Every once in a while, he opens up the gym so that my nine year-old host brother and I can go in and play basketball and volleyball. One day, Sergelen wanted to introduce me to his boss, the director of the college, so we went to his house and hung out for a bit. He’s awesome. When we realized that we share a love for music, and the Beatles in particular, he took quite a liking to me. He gave me a Paul McCartney record, the writing on which is entirely in Russian. He explained that it is an extremely rare record that can’t be found in America, and there are only two other copies in Russia. The record is sitting in my bureau; definitely hanging on to it for the rest of my life.

The rest of the afternoon consisted of a one-on-one basketball game, followed by sitting by the river practicing Mongolian language. He wanted to teach me the vocabulary of everything in sight: trees, grass, flowers, river, clouds, sun, sky, etc. Every time I got a wrong answer, he gave me a little slap with a stick (in a playful way; it didn’t really hurt). Every time I answered a question correctly, he would say, “Johnny good! Johnny good!”

As our first big assignment, the Peace Corps has asked us to do a summer community development project. Based on some interviews that volunteers did with their host families, unemployment seems to be a significant problem. I have an idea to start something like a career center–or at least a space where community members could post help-wanted ads and contact information to which job-seekers could respond–in the college. I’m hoping to do an interview with the director next week and see if I can get to work on it.

Other than that, I’ve just been working hard and trying desperately to learn the language. I walk two hours every day (30 minutes up the hill to the school for language lessons, then back down across the railroad tracks to my house for lunch, then repeat for evening technical sessions). So far, I’ve had three practice microteaching sessions with ten year-old Mongolian students. The lessons have been fun, but also really challenging to plan and teach. The reality is beginning to settle in of how difficult it will be to teach English as a foreign language for two years; but, that’s what I came here for – challenge and growth. And fun.

Every day is a blessing. I’m beginning to get into the rhythm of routine. I walk by the packs of neighborhood cows who I share the street with in the morning, then try not to disturb them when they’re sleeping at night. Through all the ups and downs, hard times and amazing moments, I’m happy knowing that I have family and friends back home who I love, as well as a host community here who I’m becoming really close to. The Mongolian kids are going crazy over the camp games we’ve been teaching them. “Slide” is a big hit.

I’m in the city of Darkhan right now; I just got a few more shots. The next time I’ll have internet access with be in two weeks, back in Darkhan for some workshop days. Until then, much love to everyone back home – I miss y’all. Riding the wave and trying to appreciate every part of it.



14 comments July 3, 2011 wheelerinmongolia

6/7/11 – wu-tang in mongolia

It has only been a few days since I’ve been here, and I already love Mongolia. There is much to say, and I don’t know where to begin. I suppose I’ll begin with the tumpin. Yesterday, I received my tumpin, which is a small, plastic tub (about two feet wide and half a foot deep) that I will be using to bathe myself. I took my last hot shower for a long while during a one night layover at a Best Western motel in South Korea. Until I get used to it, I will certainly be flopping around like a goofy salmon and splashing water everywhere. But, I kinda like that idea.

During our first night in Mongolia, we stayed at a relatively lavish, somewhat touristy ger (yurt) camp. The first thing I wanted to do when we got there was hike up one of the steppes and watch the sun set. Joined by a bunch of other volunteers, we sat and stared as the sky turned to pink and covered the vast, beautiful rolling hills. My mind was at peace.

The next day, we took a four-hour bus ride north to the city of Darkhan for more orientation activities. Darkhan is the second largest city in Mongolia, next to the capital Ulaanbaatar, which has a population of about 1.4 million, almost half the whole country’s population. Darkhan’s population is only 100,000, giving you an idea of how sparse Mongolia is outside of the capital.

Walking around Darkhan, I discovered many things that made me smile. I enjoy looking at graffiti to better understand some of a city’s urban social issues, counter culture, and generally what people in the streets are thinking about. When I turned a corner and saw a giant Wu-Tang “W” tagged on the side of a building, I nearly lost it. Out loud, I exclaimed to the Peace Corps volunteers walking with me, “No way! The Wu-Tang Clan is one of my favorite rap groups! I’m so happy that people in Mongolia listen to them, too! My friends in Eugene would be going nuts right now!”

Another highlight of the walk happened when I came across Darkhan’s Children’s Park, a beautiful and strange park overlooked by a statue of Buddha on a hill. In this park, full of painted gazebos and soviet play structures, there was some loud, resounding Mongolian hip-hop coming from somewhere. I was really grooving to it, and I was curious about where the speaker was. Then, I noticed a small statue of a panda with a speaker in its belly, hiding in the shrubs. The first thing I want to do when I get back to the states is install one of those in my yard.

Our orientation opened up with a show of traditional Mongolian performance art, including some incredible throat singing. As the singer’s loud, multi-toned voice resonated throughout the room, my synesthesia was going crazy. I found myself completely engulfed in golden tones.

In addition to attending long meetings concerning health and safety, I’ve also begun learning the Mongolian language. The Peace Corps has informed us that Mongolian is one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn, and the only two PC-Mongolia volunteers to master the language both had ph.D.s in linguistics. Still, I’m determined.

Tomorrow, I move to my pre-service training summer location: a tiny village (not on the map) called Shaamar, north of Darkhan, quite close to the Russian border. During the summer, 11 other volunteers and I will be living in separate host families and going to four-hour language sessions, followed by several more hours of job training, every single day. I’m pumped. My host father is a PE teacher, and him and his wife have four kids (age 3, 9, 14, and 19). None of them speak any English, which I’m happy about because I’ll have to practice my Mongolian. I’m pretty sure that there is no internet access in Shaamar, so letters will be the best way to stay in contact. If you’d like to send me any letters over the summer, you can send them to this address, and Peace Corps will forward them to me:

Joe Wheeler

Peace Corps

Central Post Office

P.O. Box 1036

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia 15160 (via China)

I’m off to find some Mongolians to play basketball with. Much love to everyone back home!

A lot of fun, a lot of struggle, and a lot of mutton is coming my way!


7 comments June 8, 2011 wheelerinmongolia

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