snow in the gobi. snowby.

November 4, 2011 wheelerinmongolia

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,
Joe

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8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Barbara&hellip  | 

    I just realized that a letter is long overdue, so I’m on it. I know it may not help in the immediate sense, but in the ethereal sense know that love is coming to you from far away. Pink light, as it were. By the way, Dave O says investing in Mongolia is the predicted best risk because the people are young, they have a lot of natural resources, they are situated between two countries that want them. For what it’s worth. So we’re thinking of you on many levels. And I’m glad you are getting the occasional burrito between the horse and camel meat. Not guilt! Love, Barbara

  • 2. Bev Holman&hellip  | 

    Oh, Joe, and your head is so high up there! You are a lucky guy to have never experienced loneliness before. It is part of the great adventure you are on and each part will change you. As the holidays approach, we will miss your visits here but hold you in our hearts. Thanks for writing us such great insights into your experiences.
    Love, Bev

  • 3. anne lowe&hellip  | 

    Hello dear darling son, it sounds like you are coping with the loneliness by staying present with your experience and giving it all you’ve got. I’m so proud of you! We think of you every day, and love you so much, mom

    Hi Joe,
    I’m visiting your mom for the weekend after doing some work at a group home in Jasper. It’s great to be in your home & hear about all you are accomplishing with your life. You sound wise for your years. Matthew is living at my house & working at Stanford so I feel like I’m living with a part of your mom again, just like college.
    Eat well & laugh often & get a burrito whenever it suits you!
    Frannie

  • 4. bev holman&hellip  | 

    dear Joe;

    Ah, loneliness…In the Tibetan Buddhist lineage I follow loneliness is presented as the practitioner’s greatest ally. Accordingly, solitary retreat stands at the center of this practice tradition. It is in solitude that the student is inescapably confronted with himself. Loneliness is the primary early symptom of this confrontation: welcome loneliness and you come face to face with your true self.

    From your email I can see you are making a good start on this journey.

    Love and a great warm hug you, Joe of the snow.

    Sabin

  • 5. Sarah Lowe&hellip  | 

    Dear Joe,
    Once again I feel very connected to you through the strong tentacles of your writing and that probably goes for all of us reading your blog. Thank you for being so honest. I also appreciate the humor that comes through.

    Out of curiosity, what else do they eat in Dalandzadgad (besides horse and camel meat)? Any herbs, greens of interest, or anything grown inside?
    love, aunt Sarah

  • 6. Elan&hellip&hellip  | 

    It was a group of TSL Costa Rica campers that presented to Tawonga upon their return that introduced me to the idea of a “spectrum of levels which we can relate to others”. It went something like

    apathy–sympathy–empathy–solidarity

    solidarity comes from being in the same state at the same time

    empathy comes from having experienced the state yourself at another time

    sympathy comes from your ability to imagine what someone else is going through without ever having personally experienced it

    apathy comes from not using your imagination at all

  • 7. Corina&hellip  | 

    Hi Cuz, I look forward to every one of your blog posts! I always read them and exclaim to my friends, wow I can’t believe what my cousin is doing! I understand that feeling of loneliness that sets in after awhile in a new place and the need to continually re-focus and remind yourself of your intentions and goals there. I am glad you have Thanksgiving to look forward to and I hope you cook a delicious feast! (Mongolian tempeh loaf???)

    Love, Corina

  • 8. Mary Lowe&hellip  | 

    Hi Joe, I’m with your mom, Sarah, Lianne and Fran at Fran’s in Palo Alto heading down to your second cousin’s wedding in San Louis Obispo tomorrow, (Matthew just left). Sounds like things are a bit but once you get over this hump I think things will start going smoothly and you’ll be home before you know it. I can relate to what you said about loneliness, have felt that deeply before for extended periods. Love reading your blogs and see you before too long. I love you, Aunt Mary

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