Peace Corps Volunteer Michelle Toon writes: From the West Side to Mongolia
"I've been in Mongolia for seven months. After landing in Ulan Bator, I and 56 other Peace Corps trainees were bused to a "ger camp." A ger is a traditional Mongolian home that can be described as a round felt tent supported by wooden poles. Though it was June, it felt like February. It had snowed two weeks earlier. Mongolia is a country of extremes. Its sun is as oppressive as its poverty. The summers are short and blazing and the winters long and bitter - 30 degrees below zero bitter. Its people are generous to a humbling degree. Nothing is mine or yours. They consistently say the word manai, which means our. Our Mongolia. Our project. Our Michelle. Waking up that first morning in the ger camp, the mountains were staggering. There is something familiar yet inexpressible about the landscape here. The people are reflections of it. They build little mountains on the roadsides in the form of Buddhist shrines. And with their ceremony and solemnity they are mountains themselves." Read more.
Stephanie Trafton serves as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mongolia
In June 2006, Stephanie arrived in Khujirt, the 13th century capital of the great Mongolian Empire. She arrived somewhat overwhelmed. In a cell phone interview to her in Mongolia last week, Stephanie related the following: "Picture this," she explained. "You're dropped off in front of a ger (a nomadic felt dome tent) that is completely bare (sans a wooden futon that is broken, and two cabinets), you don't know anybody besides the director of the school who knows absolutely no English, you're hungry but have no electricity yet, and no wood for the stove.
"The only water you have is the stuff in your Nalgene bottle because you don't know where the well is yet, and school wasn't starting for two days. The director said you should be 'amarij bain' (resting)." That didn't dissuade her from changing her mind. To her, it was a way of experiencing life. She left her ger, went for a walk, found the girst delguur (little shop) and made friends with the owner who told her about the town.
Scarfs and hats are no longer a fashion statement. She wakes to a frozen water bucket and almost everything else in her ger. She's had to chop off blocks of ice and put them in her water boiler to make her morning tea everyday trying not to think of her frozen toes. "Jumping from Florida weather to this makes me think that I just might have skipped a few baby steps," Stephanie laughingly said, "but all of this is making me stronger. I go to bed with three pairs of socks, long underwear, pajamas, two undershirts, and a sweater. "I find that cocooning myself inside my sleeping bag liner, zipping myself up all the way and covering myself with another thick blanket on top does the trick."
She teaches grades 6 to 11 but does other projects as well. One of Stephanie's goals is to build a Resource Room. Currently the students don't have pencils, and sometimes lessons are made up by her. She said it's difficult. With only a handful of books, she is trying to get books for the 1st grade to 4th grade levels and nothing above that. Books such as Dr. Seuss or grammar books with no more than 30 pages and large letters are needed for this project. She also has an English club in the afternoons where the students play games. Although there is one school from Kindergarten to grade 11 with a dormitory next door called a Hudoo (phonetic spelling) which means countryside, children from other villages stay at the dormitory. Classes are separated by grades. The children speak Mongolian and have a different alphabet. But Stephanie is persevering in teaching them and feels that she is accomplishing something. "It's amazing. You learn so much about the people," she said. "Mongolians love foreigners, especially in the villages. A lot of my students have never seen an American before," she continued. Read more.
Tschetter visits Volunteers in Mongolia
Peace Corps Director Ron Tschetter completed his four day visit to Mongolia, where he met with Volunteers and staff and discussed Peace Corps' program with government officials. "The Peace Corps program in Mongolia is flourishing thanks to the welcoming spirit of the Mongolian people, and I’m excited to witness the growing friendships between the people of our countries," said Director Tschetter. Tschetter and his wife, Nancy, who is accompanying him on his official visit, were Peace Corps Volunteers in India from 1966 -1968.
The Director met four of the 14 Peace Corps Volunteers working in community health. This program focuses on working with individuals and communities in Mongolia to improve their health and well-being through preventative health education programs. Volunteers working in the rural areas have developed dynamic strategies to promote health awareness and prevention behaviors, including HIV/AIDS prevention programs. After visiting Volunteer sites in some of the rural areas of Mongolia, Tschetter visited the host village of San Francisco, Calif. native and Peace Corps Volunteer, Sean Speer. Director and Mrs. Tschetter stayed in Speer’s village for the evening and spent the night in a traditional Mongolian ger, a style of felt tent that many Mongolians and Peace Corps Volunteers call home. Read more.
Four weeks after Kathy Davies returned from Mongolia, she is ready to expose the public to the nomadic lifestyle in an exhibit of watercolors, photography, and folk art
For Kathy, the photographs and paintings recall her stay in Mongolia. "It was definitely educational, in a way that no classroom could ever touch. ... For two years, it was a different life, but it was still my life, and I had a different experience with noticing the cultures, and everyday things that actually stood out because I was a foreigner in a different place. "I've come back to America with that same attitude. I think [I am] looking at everyday things with a different set of eyes and just kind of appreciating how beautiful it is here a little bit more."
Kathy adds that she came back wanting to educate more people about Mongolian culture. "The Mongolians are really impressive people, and I'd like more people to appreciate that. [The Peace Corps experience] gives you a different perspective on the world, and I wanted to share that with other people. If you do that through images, I think it's a lot more effective and powerful."
The art exhibit will include an ovoo, a cairn made of rocks or sticks and blue silk scarves, which Mongolians build as sacred sites, and Kazakh wall hangings, which are elaborately embroidered wall coverings used to warm the walls of gers, or yurt-like homes, in western Mongolia. "All the threads they use for [the wall hangings] they sell in the market," Barbara says. "I did a whole painting on that. It was a line of different types of threads they use and it made a wonderful photo as well as a painting." Read more.