Wednesday, June 8, 2016

One Year In

(Our first vista in Mongolia on June 1st, 2015. Sally is taking it all in. )
May 30th marks the anniversary of our arrival in Mongolia. It is amazing how fast this first year has gone by. It is equally amazing to think about who I was when I got off of the plane and who I am now. There is no doubt in my mind that this has been a life-changing, wisdom-growing, mind-altering experience. All in all, it has been a good year; a year full of lessons, frustrations, joys, and new unique experiences. This post shall be a retrospection of last year’s successes and lessons.

(On a Mountain outside of Darkhan Last Summer.)
What is Missed and What is Not Missed (In no particular order)

1.      Nature: I still find myself missing the green growth of Alabama. The wind in the trees, and the compelling power of spring and summer, but I covered this adequately in a post a few months ago titled “Springtime Blues.” Still there are moments when I wonder if the future for me should be in psychology or forestry, perhaps a combination of both.

(Sacred Mountain at CYD Camp last summer.)

2.      Driving: I miss the convenience of jumping into my car or Sally’s car and taking off across town to complete some errand and the joy of knowing that if we want to leave town for the weekend we have only to pack our bags and take off down the highway. I don’t miss the stress, worry, and frustration that comes with driving. My life and stress level has improved significantly without traffic and bad drivers. It is literally like a weight is lifted off of your shoulders during the first few months without a car.
(View from the Sacred Moutian. 
3.      Friends and Family: Sure, I do miss the folks back home, but PC has been a reality for Sally and me for a long time, so we were prepared for this. I have not felt any home sickness on this journey, but this is because I am sharing it with my beautiful wife who is my family and my home. This aspect of PC service is much easier for us, because we have each other. I think for some PCVs it is very hard to leave friends and family behind. I also rejoice in the fact that everyone state side is remaining healthy and alive. I hope you all continue to do that for many, many years to come. For me the only loss I have suffered while in service is that of my childhood dog, Merlyn, but I knew when I hugged him a year ago that the odds of us seeing each other again were not in our favor. He lived a long fulfilling life. 
(Countryside outside of Chinggis town: September, 2015)
4.      Language: Being understood in one’s native language all the time and the assurance that a conversation is not just one huge misunderstanding.

5.      Material Possessions: with the exception of some of my musical instruments that I feel I would have time to practice with now, I miss none of my material possessions. This is funny, because one of the biggest sources of stress prior to leaving was packing up our apartment and getting rid of stuff we didn’t need anymore. It is amazing how little one misses this stuff. That’s not to say that we wouldn’t enjoy getting it back when we return, but the material life we have led is not really a necessity. And one does truly feel a joy in leaving things behind.
(October, 2015 on "Warm" mountain 12 km outside of Chinggis.)
6.      Food and Convenience of Food: Wow, this is a big one, and I could spend a lot of time fantasizing about American food on this blog post, but I think I will just take one example. In Birmingham, some nights I would say to Sally, “I don’t feel like cooking tonight. Do you want to get some Taco Bell?” She would enthusiastically agree and the two of us would hop into a car, drive to Taco Bell, go through the drive through, park in the parking lot beside the large neon sign, and enjoy our feast. I miss this. The simplicity of this. Here when I don’t feel like cooking the question is “Do you want kimchi ramen, or chicken in a cup ramen?” It is just not the same thing. At all. I’ve often thought that I would be completely satisfied if a Taco Bell was built right outside our apartment, so that in the dead of winter I could throw on my parka and shuffle to the industrial heated building. I would enter with a broad smile of anticipation on my face and the cashier would say in perfect English, “Hello Mr. LaRue, What can we do for you? Would you like your usual?” After contemplating the menu for a second I would reply, “No, I think I will try something different this time…” And then I would order whatever was the latest creation that Taco Bell had produced with the same five ingredients. And it would be marvelous and simple, because I didn’t have to walk a couple miles to acquire the ingredients and then spend an hour or so creating something good from complete scratch.
(Park in Chinggis: December, 2015.)
Expectations meet Reality

1.      Peace Corps Moments: I think that when people think of service in a developing country with PC they imagine a volunteer dressed in light breezy clothing standing on a dirt road in a remote village in Africa. Surrounding the volunteer are a dozen children with the biggest smiles on their faces.  The picture conveys the message that this person is making a difference. That this volunteer is loved by his/her community. That the world is a better place because of what he/she has done… Service in general is not like this. Sure there are moments when you look up and feel like you could be on a PC calendar, but these moments are sometimes few and far between. The day-to-day life of service, is just that service. It is work. It is pushing against a variety of forces that constantly prevent projects from reaching conclusive ends. It is frustration and sacrifice. This is not to say the service is not rewarding, but those PC moments take a lot of work to achieve and are only a small part of the overall experience. Prior to communing to Mongolia, I thought that service would be full of these picturesque moments. This wasn’t a mindset that I articulated, merely an unconscious expectation of what service in a developing county might be like. It took me about six months to toss this image away and realize that the joy of PC service is not always a success that is immediately apparent; sometimes it takes years of reflection to realize how important your work is/was, and oftentimes a picture of a “PC moment” is just that: a picture.
(Өндөрхаан Mountain: Late February, 2016)
2.      Language Fluency: Prior to coming to Mongolia I was convinced that after two years we would be able to speak Mongolian perfectly or at least really well. I was sure that for the rest of our lives Sally and I would have a secret language that we could go to in the presence of annoying guests, bratty children, or other people you don’t want to understand you. The reality is that Mongolian is an incredibly difficult language. Sure it could be worse, but there are only a handful of languages that might be more difficult for a native English speaker. There are vowels that have minute differences, and consonants that seem alien to the English speaker’s mouth.  The other reality is that it takes more than two years to acquire fluency. One must settle instead with a sort of functional understanding of the language. Most of the time I can make myself understood now, but there are still moments when a taxi driver has absolutely no idea what I am saying because my pronunciation is just a little off.  It takes time and work.
(Windy Mountain: Late March,2016)
3.      Beautiful Mongolian Countryside: When Sally and I found out we were going to Mongolia, we google imaged the country and scroll through the mass of picturesque landscapes. A part of me had accepted that this would not be reality, that these images were just really good photography. I am happy to say I was wrong. Mongolia is amazingly beautiful with wide open landscapes in every direction. Right now in spring with the steppe turning green, the land takes on a collage of colors when the sun sets. Sally and I were disappointed that we didn’t get mountains that are closer to our site, but Khentii is still really amazing. We take every chance we get to go into the countryside to breathe the fresh air and immerse ourselves in the land. The immensity of this planet is conveyed here in ways that can only be compared to the ocean. Just the other night, I was in a small soum in north Khentii. The power was out, but I took the opportunity to look at the stars on a moonless night. It was awe-inspiring. The Milky Way was so clear, and the number of stars was so immense it was difficult to see the constellations.
(Turtle Rock, Tov Aimag: recently.)
What would I do differently?

1.      This list is small. Life is not what we could have done, but what we did do.
a.       Different techniques to learn the language better in the beginning.
b.      Not brought a ton of useless books that I could easily read on my kindle. The paper copies just aren’t worth it in this day and age.
c.       Would have brought that concertina, I’ve been meaning to learn for years now.
d.      Finally, to all future PCVs, if I could go back to the time prior to leaving and tell myself to chill, relax, all will be fine, I would do that. Pre-departure was unnecessarily stressful.
(Crossing the Ohon river outside Dadal soum, Khentii: recent, more to come in future post.)
As we come to a conclusion of the first year there is no doubt in my mind that this will continue to be a rewarding and life-changing experience. I recently completed my VRF report, which is a PC quarterly report. In it I was pleasantly surprised that I felt I could rate myself as integrated instead of somewhat integrated. Chinggis Town has become a home for Sally and me. It is strange to look up one day and realize that not only has a year of service passed, but one is also comfortable with one’s site. Sure there are still the stares and miscommunications, but there are also enormous amounts of “Hi!” from literally every student you pass in the city. The people seem happy to see you, and life is good. Sally and I recently watched the first season of Netflix’s Daredevil. In the last few episodes a character offered wisdom that really stuck me. “Growing to love a place is forgetting the things you don’t like about it.”


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