Monday, September 7, 2015

The First Week of Work

The walk to school from our apartment is about a mile for me. Sally’s school is maybe a hundred yards away. I don’t mind the walk, but I have found in the case of last week that sometimes I ended up making the trip to school twice for meetings or lunch break. Sometimes my Social Worker and I walk to the primary school in the town center. On days like these the two miles there and back become four or six miles. Still I do not mind, I enjoy walking around town and the forced exercise that comes with living without a car.

When the weather is bad, I can easily catch a cab that, while cheap, is not an everyday luxury. I believe that we saw the 80’s for the last time last week. The weather is slowly getting colder. The nights remain consistently in the 50’s and the days have become pleasant with highs in the low 70’s. I am anticipating the winter to come. A part of me is excited to face the cold, to walk to school in the cold bundled up in every article of clothing I have. There is a romance and adventure to facing the Mongolian winter. As a fan of Mother Nature, I love seeing all aspects of her personality. I look forward to the cold. (Stay tuned for future blog post where my attitude to winter is not nearly as accepting.)

“Тэмүүжин Цогцолбор Сүргууль” Temujin Complex School seems like a really great school. I usually start my days off walking to school in the morning. Lately I have been in an observant and needs assessment phase of my volunteering. My main counterpart is the school’s social worker who does not speak much English. It will take time for me to figure out, with his help, how I can best help the school. I have a number of other counterparts who are English teachers. They are excited to have my help in continuing their English education and perhaps even doing some team teaching in the classroom. The staff has been very friendly and supportive of my efforts to speak Mongolian. I think I made a good first impression on opening day by giving a small speech in Mongolian.

The school has graciously given me a large office/meeting room attached to the social worker’s office. I spent an afternoon last week translating some of the wall hangings in the office. The largest sign reads simply “Нар Хэнйиг Ч Ялгаж Тусдаггүй” and roughly translates in English to “The Sun shines upon no one who is not worthy.”  If that doesn’t sum up compassion, then what does?

On Sunday afternoon, I wandered out to the Naadam Stadium where my school had a track meet. After watching a few races, it became evident that the male teachers would run against each other in 400 meter relay teams. I was selected and told to go the part of the track where the third leg would start with two other guys. It is an odd experience to run a hundred meters and not know who was giving you the stick and who you had to give it too.  Fortunately, body language is always reliable, and as I raced to the group of men who would run the last leg, I maintained the lead that my teammates had given me. There was one guy who was ecstatic to see me coming to him. I made the correct assumption that he was my teammate. He stood on the inner lane, I had been running the outer lane, but I had enough of a lead that this was not a problem. We won.

On Saturday, Sally and I had a Mongolian style adventure that led to us stopping at a herder’s ger many miles to the east of Chinggis Hot “Чингис Хот.” We had just left a river party with Sally’s teachers and were on our way home with the school jijuur “жижүүр,” a woman who may have been his wife, and a small baby. (Jijuurs are awesome! They act as the school’s security guard, key keeper, janitor/maintenance men.) We found ourselves riding in the back seat of a car that was bouncing over flat, green, luscious grasslands. Behind us lay a line of shrubs that marked that passing of the river through the steppe. In the distance to the east, north, and south mountains could be seen. The fresh air created the illusion of closeness, so that the mountains seemed attainable but a keen eye could see the slight bluish tint that gave away their distance. Far to the east, we could see only one indication of Chinggis Hot as it disappeared over the curve of the land. The top reaches of a single tower and construction crane standing like a lighthouse on a sea of grass. (When finished this tower will be the tallest building in our small city with 16 floors.)
As our car bounced west, Sally and I noticed the tower sinking over the horizon, but chose to place our trust in our Mongolian friends. We encountered an annoying stream that forced us to travel upstream for a mile before finding the place where it emerged from the earth and the car could cross. We came to a ger that was not our destination, and after consulting with the women who lived there, we continued to another ger far in the distance. Our destination located, we entered the ger of an ancient Mongolian man who could not hear very well. Also present was an older women, who was probably his daughter.
I write this in an attempt to capture the feeling that both Sally and I shared in this moment. We found ourselves seated on a pallet bed across the ger from this elder and the jijuur who were opening a bottle of vodka that was a present to the old man. Hanging from the wall of the ger were two racks of raw meat, what was once a sheep or goat’s rib cage. The felt walls were lifted around the edge of the ger letting in the cool late summer breeze and exposing wooden lattice frame. The ger was decorated with festive colors that seemed dark and blue compared to the open doorway that opened up upon the whole world: the grass, the distant river, and even more distant mountains. Miles upon miles of isolation, a communion of mankind and nature, we found ourselves in a strange world eons away from what was home. We felt a sense of integration of belonging, as we listened to the jijuur talk loudly into the elder’s ear, as we drank a small amount of vodka that was offered to us. For me, the moment was strangely third world, but comfortably human. Here I was, on the other side of the world, sitting and smiling with my wife next to me. An elder, a slightly less aged elder, a grandmother, a baby feasting on dried cheese curds, a daughter, and two strange Americans welcomed as guests. To capture a feeling in one word…. Beautiful.



  1. That's wonderful. How did you end up going to the ger in the first place?

  2. A wonderful experience and you shared it well. Thanks

  3. We went to the Ger after leaving the Teachers Party by the river. Sally just updated a post on what we ate at the party. We were traveling back to the city with the jijuur and he decided to look for this old man that he knew. As in all things Mongolian, you learn to just go with it.