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

July 3, 2011 wheelerinmongolia

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.




Entry Filed under: Uncategorized

14 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jonas Myers&hellip  | 

    Truly inspiring, Joe, really.

  • 2. benny amon&hellip  | 

    Thanks for sharing Joe. I am glad that you are happy. Seems like you have a great attitude and will make the most of the experience. Take care.

  • 3. Tess Cappel&hellip  | 

    I continue to be captivated by your ability to create beauty in any and every situation. I am so happy for you!

  • 4. anne lowe&hellip  | 

    Joe, you are such a fantastic writer, and I’m enjoying your stories so much. I particularly loved the hair washing story. I feel blessed that you are with a family that really cares about you and takes good care of you. That makes me really happy. Love you, mom

    • 5. Bev Holman&hellip  | 

      Joe–Thanks for the colorful and detailed update.
      We love hearing about your life and great family and what you are learning, and we love you.

  • 6. Matthew Wheelhouse&hellip  | 

    Joe— You’re a massive comet of positive energy.

    I love hearing about your bathing tray. Can’t wait to hear more details about your host family.

    How’s the food? What’s it like?

    I’ve been telling people about Wimpard. I’m excited to see what else you write while you’re out there.

    The long days are bizarre ain’t they? I don’t think the sun ever fully went down when I was in Russia.

    Body surf that wave my man,

    Peace and love from San Diego,


  • 7. sky321&hellip  | 

    Joe, I’m super proud of you. And I love you’re pila (spanish term for water basin) story. Sean McNulty gets flack for doing his own laundry too. Sounds like you’re seizing the moment in the best of ways. Keep it up! Love, anna

  • 8. Elan&hellip  | 


    Did you intend to write the word “not” in the sentence “a host community here who I’m not becoming really close to”?! That doesn’t seem like something to be thankful for to me!!!

    Johnny good dear fellow, Johnny good!


  • 9. Elan&hellip  | 

    P.S. I can’t wait to hear that McCartney Record!!

  • 10. Sarah LOWE&hellip  | 

    Joe- I’m loving reading your blog… you really seem to have the gift of appreciating every moment.
    I look forward eagerly to your next entry.
    Aunt Sarah

  • 11. Aaron Mandel&hellip  | 

    Joe I’m loving these posts and updates and sending lots of well wishes your way. -Aaron Mandel

  • 12. Daevon&hellip  | 

    Hi Joe, I’m so happy for you that you’re doing so well and having fun in Mongolia. I just want you to know that I miss you so much and I hope the best for you. I bet you’re going to meet a lot of people and make a lot of friends!
    Hope to see you soon, Daevon

  • 13. Barbara&hellip  | 

    Thanks for keeping us in the Peace Corps loop. We are all with you in spirit. The veil is thinner than we know. Love you,


  • 14. Donna&hellip  | 

    Joe, I finally found you and have loved reading your posts. Thanks for sharing this remarkable experience with us. I look forward to more. Also let us know if the snail mail method will be the same once you get your assignment.
    Much love, admiration and awe, Donna

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