some things didn’t change

January 30, 2012 wheelerinmongolia

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,


Entry Filed under: Uncategorized

7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. anne lowe&hellip  | 

    Dear Joe, what a wonderful letter! I can’t wait to see you waltz, in fact can’t wait to waltz with you. It makes me happy that you take part in fun loving and goofy celebrations, and I’m really curious about those promiscuous games. Thanks for giving us such a slice of your life. Love you, mom

  • 2. Gus&hellip  | 

    I loved the long train/bus rides involved in traveling and the introspection and reflection they just seem to inherently cause. It seems like you’re on the same page – hearing your descriptions made me quite nostalgic. I haven’t really found a way to get that same experience outside of traveling, but now that I think about it maybe that’s more because I’m just not willing to force myself into sitting for 9 hours with nothing else to do. Either way I miss it. I love reading this blog dude, it inspires me every time. Miss you big guy.

  • 3. Mary Lowe&hellip  | 

    JOE. Dude, what an entry. Your letter is rich with joy. We are all proud of you in America and we miss you very much. Now that you’re approaching the half-way point of your adventure, I’m already looking forward to having you come visit Palo Alto, see our old house, and bike around Stanford in the 70 degree sun. However, for the time being I’m enjoying imagining how your roots are expanding and growing deeper in connection to Mongolia. There will be many, many years to enjoy a comfortable temperature. Might as well be one of the few people to truly know what the severest conditions on earth are like. I can’t wait to share more of the perspective you’re gaining from being in such a distant and unique culture. Keep doin’ what you’re doin’. Sounds like the comet of good energy that in Joe Wheeler continues to float on from town to town.

    —Mid Bro

  • 4. Matthew Wheeler&hellip  | 

    Oops…this is Matt not Mary….

  • 5. Elan&hellip  | 

    Jo-ay! I feel like I just traveled all over Mongolia and experienced so many things in such a short time. I think my favorite part was the nine-hour train ride back to UB from Shaamar. I loved looking out the windows, feeling the beautiful landscapes and solemnly contemplating what life is about. I could do that forever.

  • 6. mary lowe&hellip  | 

    Hi Jo-ay. So wonderful to read your letter! I’m so impressed with your beautiful energy. They are lucky to have you over there! Love Aunt Mary

  • 7. mattiehfattie&hellip  | 

    Jo-ay Piscapo-ay,

    You are really a gifted writer. I hope you know that!

    Miss you bunches, man. This surely isn’t the first time I’ve read this post and I’m still amazed. Keep living and receiving those beautiful experiences. You’re so good at it.

    Much love,

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January 2012
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