Saturday, June 6, 2015

Darkhan/Orientation Days--06/04/15

We have now spent the last two days here in the city of Darkhan getting our initial training with the Peace Corps. It seems that with the Peace Corps an enormous amount of time has been spent preparing us for the training that we will begin to receive on Monday. As a volunteer there is a part of me that wonders if they could be more productive, since we have received an abundant of training regarding our training. With further reflection, I began to realize how much thought is placed into these Orientation days. The Peace Corps has been slowly bringing us into the culture of Mongolia in a manner that makes me think of easing into a warm bath rather than jumping into a cold pool. We started out in a doubletree in San Fran, then we moved to a decent hotel in Ulaanbaatar. Here in Darkhan we seem to find ourselves in a land of mixed convenience and sacrifice. The hotel being a few more steps in the right direction, but still pretty nice. It seems that the food has followed the same pattern. Starting out with Asian imitations on American food and moving to just solid Mongolian cuisine that has both its ups and downs like any other culture would taste to an unaccustomed palate. This gradual de-sensitization seems to be taking place in the training as well, which started out with broad reflections in gender roles Stateside to an enlightening and entirely necessary discussion on Diarrhea earlier today.  

So while it does feel like we have just been traveling from one hotel to the next, and sometimes the sessions are frustrating, I do feel that everything so far has been entirely necessary and planned out in a manner to give this group of Americans the smoothest transition to a completely foreign world that could be achieved.

Darkhan (when  I figure out how to do Cyrillic on this computer, I will start adding it to the blog) is a city of about 100,000 people approximately 230 kilometers north of Ulaanbaatar. When the Soviet Union collapsed in the eighties, Mongolia, a communist state at the time, stopped receiving income. The result of this sudden lack of funds is that a lot of the infrastructure came to a grinding halt, leading to a city that seems to have stopped doing any maintenance or building anything for 30 years. It is not an ugly city, there is a lot of beauty in the old parks, soviet architecture, and proud people who inhabit it with grace, yet there are a lot of empty plazas and ghostly remnants of a time that was once more prosperous.  The city has at least 10 colleges and technical schools that assist in training a work force. There are also a number of restaurants that cater to tourists, a hospital, several market places, and a variety of internet cafés. Each day of training we walk to one of the colleges that is about a mile away. The walk takes us through a variety of old soviet apartment buildings, markets, and along sandy walkways. We have been told that in Darkhan it is not uncommon to have dust storms in the summer. The traffic in Darkhan can be bad, because no work has been done on the roads for such a long time. Some roadways have become dirt roads, but are still used frequently. It is not uncommon to come upon an open manhole in Darkhan, so caution must be exercised when walking.

It is easy to describe to you the ware and tear of a place that has not received what we Americans would describe as adequate financial support, but how do I convey to you the strength of its people; the pride in the Mongolians who are rich in ways that we do not see at first. The Mongolians seem to have great taste in fashion and dress well. They are connected with the world through cell phones, TV, and internet. It seems like they are pushing toward a modern culture, yet there is a deep heritage underneath all of the modernization that is over a thousand years old. They are a ceremonious people with details in the small things, each ritual full of meaning. They are a wise people, proud people. They say what they like, yet I think there is a caring collectivist center.

Today has been an interesting day in our training. In addition to learning how to treat Diarrhea, we had an amazing afternoon of cultural discussion. After a lunch of Salisbury steak that may have been liver and onions, we returned to the conference room at the school we have been having sessions at for a cultural fair. This involved a variety of cultural demonstrations, we heard the traditional two stringed instrument with traditional dance. (I don’t have the ability to find proper words for this right now, so I will just describe and perhaps edit later.) We also were exposed to a contortionist due that involved possibly an older sister and a very cute younger sister of maybe 6. (The Mongolian children seem to be the cutest children Sally and I have ever seen.) Finally a variety of traditional instruments were played with accompanied throat signing.

After the show were split up into groups and were sheparded from one classroom to the next with different cultural topics in each ranging from food, to dress, to hospitality, and games. The food classroom was particularly interesting because it contained boiled sheep head a delicacy in Mongolia. I regret that I did not take a picture to share with you, but next time I am offered I will. The texture was a little off, but the taste, was not bad. We also sampled dried cheese curds. ( I have had this twice since then, and the first time was the worst. Fresh dried cheese curds seem to be better, having a deep blue cheese taste that is a little sweet.) There was also Mongolian yogurt, candy, and donuts. The final item was dried camel jerky. At the moment, I can only say that this must be an acquired taste.

After training, I went with a couple of other volunteers and exchanged some of the money I had from San Fran for Tugriks (the Mongolian currency.) Current exchange rate is about 1,900 Tugriks for one dollar, so you can imagine how rich one feels after exchanging just $60. The wealth is an illusion because it depends on what you are buying. For instance Coke seems to run at the same price as America, but it can only cost around $6 to dine well at a higher end restaurant. Our language guide dropped us off at a Khuushuur café that where we dined well for about 1.5 dollars. Khuushuur is like Mongolian fast/traditional food. It consists of a deep fried flour casing filled with meat or potatos or kemji(fermented cabbage, spelling is probably off.) I tried one of each and found all three to be delicious.

 Tomorrow, we will move into our host families that will accommodate us for the summer. It is here that we will begin to behave and live like true Mongolians. Sally and I are placed into two different families in two different communities to better allow us to integrate and learn the language. I am going to be placed in Enerel a suburb of Darkhan, and she is in Ophoom Jiim (SP?) about 45 mins north of Darkhan. We will be able to stay in touch through the Peace Corps issued cell phone, but we will still be separated about two weeks before our first potential visitation weekend. It is difficult to place into words the level of anxiety, sadness, and excitement we feel.


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