candles and camels

September 30, 2011 wheelerinmongolia

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.




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10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Barbara&hellip  | 

    Thanks so much for keeping us in the loop. Reading this brought tears to my eyes. The Peace Corps, your new family and friends and neighbors, and your camel and desert companions are lucky to have you.
    Love each day your way.

  • 2. dave o&hellip  | 

    Hello Joe,

    just read your post and I commizerate with your sense of being isolated by lack of language skill. Your usual command of language, the jokes, your ability to guess what someone may be trying to say, all that is gone.I know you will break through in Mongolian and begin to get and give back some of the nuances that make life enjoyable. But, it will be a while… Keep putting yourself on the (Mongolian) spot. Avoid saving it all up for English speakers! Enough unasked-for advice!

    At least you know that you don’t know what the other is saying to you. That reality can be obscured with a facile mind and a shared language!

    The isolation your lack of language brings will sharpen your other senses, too, if you can stay present.

    My thoughts are with you, brave Joe. Way to put yourself out there beyond the cultural bubble that once surrounded you.

    There are scores of us here that are rooting for you to take root and thrive in your new place. “Let it out and let it in,”


    Dave O

  • 3. anne lowe&hellip  | 

    Joe, that was a wonderful, spirited and wise letter. I’m so grateful you take the time to really share your experience with all of us. I’ve heard a lot about how kind the Mongolian people are, and it seems to me thats a perfect match with you. Miss you

  • 4. Tess Cappel&hellip  | 

    I love love love reading your blogs! They are so detailed and I feel like I better understand what you’re doing. It sounds incredible… you are doing an amazing thing. The language barrier is very stressful but it will come in time 🙂


  • 5. mary lowe&hellip  | 

    Hi Joe, you are such a good writer. I admire your ability to see the big picture even when immersed in some huge challenges. The time is going to fly by the longer you are there. What beautiful images and experiences you will always have..

    Love you, Aunt Mary

  • 6. Fattie&hellip  | 

    That’s the Joe I always remember. Inspiring smiles, enjoying vistas, taking chances and saying yes to everything. Somehow, you’ve managed to include hip-hop, too. No surprise.

    Your soul shines always!

    Much love,

  • 7. Elan&hellip  | 


    I read this aloud to a few friends in the kitchen at my co-op. They all loved your descriptive writing and empathized with your struggles. Afterwards we blasted “We are the World” and I freaked out!! I had never heard it before; I can’t believe how many of the best singers ever came together to sing that one song!!! Talk about inspirational. Holy shit!

  • 8. Elan&hellip  | 

    That last post was missing some exclamation marks:

  • 9. sky321&hellip  | 

    I really enjoy following your blog. I’m so proud of you and I feel very fortunate to know you. Your hard work is truly an inspiration. You’re doing a wonderful job of staying positive and doing your best to connect when it’s difficult. Keep it up and know that your friends back home are thinking of you always.

  • 10. Aaron Mandel&hellip  | 

    Joe, so great to read your blog, sending you good wishes and admiration from Camp Tawonga office and San Francisco Bay Area – Aaron Mandel

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