Adventures in nomad-land

Survived nomadland! I’ve been back in UB for the past few days, basking in civilisation after a month sleeping in a ger in the Mongolian steppe. It was An Experience for sure…very different and much harder than I expected. The background:  I was staying with my host mother and father and their 4 year old little grandson/monster. I helped out where I could, which was mostly with the cooking and the poo-collecting and the cow “herding” which basically consisted of me chasing after the calves on foot. Disappointingly there was very little horse-riding. In my (abundance of) free time I read, doodled and climbed the mountains – which were just magnificent. The sense of sheer vastness you experience standing on the peak of a mountain and being surrounded for miles and miles in every direction with nothing but a beautiful but almost barren landscape is THE definition of Fucking Epic.

It was pretty difficult at times, chiefly because for days at a time I’d have very little to do and absolutely no one to talk to. Being so isolated wasn’t particularly fun. However, there were two other volunteers also in the countryside: Sena, this amazing 16 year old (!) girl from Korea, and Jennifer, a English woman who likes running and oats and travelling (so you can imagine how well we got on!). After the first week their families moved to about an hours’ walk away from mine, so I was able to visit them occasionally. These visits were the highlights of the trip, I loved going to see them (and there was always a lot more activity in their host families). They really helped me stay sane out there.

Some really cool and some really not-so-cool stuff that happened:

  • Got to attend a traditional Mongolian wedding. UNFORGETTABLE. There was a *huge* feast: towers of bread topped with dairy products, whole goats on trays, plates of salads and sweets, vats of stews and soups, endless bowls of fermented mare’s milk and 100 bottles of vodka. The wedding consisted of a short ceremony with some speeches and gifts, and then 48 hours of singing and drinking. Jennifer and I infiltrated the elder’s party and were given vodka and snuff, which was a right giggle (and, apparently, a real privilege).
    It was a shame about the circumstances of the marriage: they were only going through with it because they’d recently had a baby. It wasn’t exactly a happy, loving relationship. The groom, I was told, did not even like the bride (something which became obvious just by watching them). During the wedding he barely even looked at or talked to her – but he’d flirt with (or rather pester) other girls.
  • And then the day after the wedding (celebrations were still continuing), one of the Mongolian woman (actually Jennifer’s host mother) nearly lost her life after consuming vast quantities of alcohol. I think the men thought it would be funny to get her really drunk, and it just got completely out of hand. The poor woman was in such a state when I left, and I heard afterwards that she passed out, her heart and her breathing actually stopped, and it was only because Jennifer was on hand and knew First Aid and was able to perform CPR that she actually survived. OH THE DRAMA.
  • Witnessed a genuine Shaman ritual. A priest came after the events at the wedding, had robes and a mask and a drum and channeled a spirit which spoke to the family and everything.
  • Celebrated Sena’s birthday 🙂
  • Saw how goats and cows are slaughtered, cleaned and prepared. The slaughtering is an amazingly quick and efficient process. The cleaning is pretty grim and involves basically scraping, squeezing and flushing out the contents of the digestive system. Fun fact: they make a blood sausage by squeezing out contents of of the intestines, then pouring a mixture of blood, onion and flour into them, sealing it up and boiling it in water. I didn’t try this, but Sena said it was really nice…
  • Ate goats head (surprisingly delicious), liver (ditto), and some unidentifiable part of the innards which made me sick afterwards.
  • One of our dogs gave birth to a litter of seven puppies! Sadly, when I went to check on them the following morning, only one had survived. Three dead stiff little bodies lay nearby, and I wondered where the rest were…and that’s when one of the other dogs ran up, took one of the dead ones in its jaws, lay down and starting devouring it. OKAY THEN. I didn’t know dogs did that.
  • Helped my family “move house” to their winter location (another fun fact: it takes one car and about half a day to completely relocate a home).
  • Witnessed the most horrific alcoholism I’ve ever seen. I thought I’d seen some “extreme” behaviour, but this really shocked me. Men would think nothing of consuming a bottle of vodka before 10am in the morning. Or drinking for 2 days solid, being violently ill during the night, and then going straight back for more in the morning. They don’t have anything in the way of recreational activities in the countryside (except watching TV), and during the cold months there’s often not a lot to do. So they just drink. A lot.

So yes. *Very* glad to have had the experience, but it’s not something I want to repeat. Enough talk! Got some really nice photos (mostly taken by Sena & Jennifer). Here are a few…

Tomorrow: SRI LANKA. 😀

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Last day in Ulaanbaatar

So, teaching placement has come to an end. Had a brilliant time with my kids, they’ve given me so much happiness over the last four weeks, and I’m glad to have been able to do the same. It makes my day when as soon as I open the classroom door I’m greeted by screams of “TABBY TEACHER!!!” and am immediately swamped with hugs…or when they just randomly come up to hold my hand or give me a hug or a kiss or a little present…or when at break time they grab me and Christophe and drag us outside yelling “play game!” They all have such beautiful hearts, you just can’t help but fall in love with them. And now I have to leave them behind to go and live in a yurt in the middle of absolute nowhere and milk goats for a month! Hard to imagine now that this is actually what I came to Mongolia for in the first place… :p

Other stuff that has happened…

  • The new teaching volunteer, Christophe, is a massive hit with the kids. They are fascinated by his arm hair and the first time they saw it they ‘oooh’ed and ‘aaah’ed and kept stroking it! Pretty novel in Mongolia apparently. :p
  • We had a brief but harrowing glimpse into the life of Mongolia’s lower class. People in Ulaanbaatar tend to be either wealthy or poor, not much in between, and one of the girls from my class comes from one of these poor families. Her father’s an abusive jobless alcoholic who’s disappeared off into the countryside, and her mother is pregnant, partially blind, partially deaf, and has four kids, the oldest of whom is 12. She goes around the street collecting bottles to try and get enough money to feed the family. Pretty dire. We visited their home to make a donation of food and goods, which is a small ger hut which had nothing in it but two filthy mattresses, some crockery and a TV which I think was broken. When the girl saw all the food we’d brought them, she just kept hugging and kissing us and whispering ‘thank you’. I just cried at this point. The boy said his bigget wish was that he could grow up faster so he can take care of his family. What a childhood to have… It was all so simultaneously tragic yet beautiful to see how these kids who had nothing cared for and looked after each other. There was none of the petty selfishness that you often get with children (and adults, for that matter) when it comes to sharing what they have. They gave everything they had to each other, even though they had so little themselves, without hesitation or expectation. It was incredible.
  • A few of the children stopped turning up to the lessons a while ago, and I learned recently that the reason for this was because some of the parents suspect that these  these “free English classes” have an ulterior motive behind them – i.e. that we are part of some religious organisation trying to indoctrinate their kids… yeah, seriously.
  • My host sister told me that last year she was not allowed to wear yellow or eat fish because of something the Buddhist monks read in the stars. This year she can wear yellow but is not allowed to eat fish or pork. I love Buddhism even more. :p
  • Had my last night at my host family yesterday. To be honest, I’m quite glad to be out. I felt quite uncomfortable around them towards the end of my stay. They’d barely talk to me, leave me to eat dinner by myself half the time, and not once offered to go anywhere or do anything with me. I felt really awkward every time I had to ask for anything. Don’t know if it’s just cultural differences or what. Either way, I feel relieved now I’m not living there any more.

Got mugged on Friday night. Was about 11pm, had taken a taxi back home, but they got me just feet from my front door. I was unhurt but the camera, along with hundreds of photos, is gone. Going out to get a new one in a bit. A shame, because this city had just started to grow on me.

Ok, that’s all for now. Off to the countryside tomorrow morning. The next update (if I survive the cold) will probably be from Sri Lanka. Love to all back home, take care and see you in a month 🙂 x

 

Best day so far.

Things are going really well, got loads of stuff to tell and pictures to post – just no time to do it! This week a new teaching volunteer has started, we’ve done songs and I’ve been taught how to dance by a 10 year old, there was a charity event at the school today, and I’ve even managed to squeeze in some site-seeing as well. So yeah, lots of stuff happening, but what I really want to post about is something that happened on Thursday last week.

So my afternoon class arrived, if possible even more hyperactive than usual, and begged my supervisor (Ono) to ask me to end the class an hour early because they wanted to prepare for a ‘surprise’ – but not to tell me what it was. All would be revealed at 3pm, when my other supervisor (Zulaa) was due to arrive. Intrigued, of course I agreed.

So we had a lesson, finished early, and they all ran off and I went up to the staff office. One of the girls (Solomee) came up too in order to, I think, keep watch over me. She’d stand in front of me and gabble on at me in emphatic Mongolian punctuated with random English phrases (favourites were “good morning teacher!” (it was the afternoon) and “my name is Solomee”). If I tried to go outside, she’d attempt to stop me. Occasionally I’d be visited by another student who’d come in, point to something (a pen or a piece of paper), take it, then disappear again.

After about an hour of this (by which point I was dying to know what this was all about), a group of my girls came into the office and thrust a pair of flashing pink plastic bunny ears into my hands. I dutifully put them on. They then grabbed my arms and physically dragged me outside into the courtyard. As soon as I’d stepped out of the door I saw my entire class;  they yelled and cheered and ushered me to a small table, where Zulaa was seated (wearing a pair of flashing red plastic glasses and looking as bemused as I felt). Laid out upon the table were sweets, fruit juice and home-made dumplings (they explained that they wanted to give me a taste of traditional Mongolian food). They’d decorated the backdrop with balloons and flowers and a sign that read “We love our teachers”. Things hadn’t even begun and I was already stunned.

Once I was seated, one of the girls stood up, made an announcement in Mongolian, and then to my astonishment…they put on a little play. From what I understood it was a comedy sketch from a Mongolian TV show, in which a husband who’s been having an affair with another parent from school gets found out.

It was hilarious, I’ve got a couple of clips of it here:

CLIP 1

CLIP 2

A group of them then stood up and sang some songs in Mongolian. There was also a solo act by the naughtiest boy in class, and then a song in English (consisting of the single line “Good morning, good morning, and how are you do?” – awww). And once the songs finished…the girls performed a dance for us!! I’ve got videos of all of these as well but haven’t had a chance to upload them yet (it takes so long) – when I do I’ll post the links.

It was so surreal and wonderful and just the most brilliant and inspired thing, and left me completely in awe. It was all executed in this slightly shy but eager-to-please manner that they have when they attend my classes, which makes them such a joy to teach and just be around generally. Zulaa was actually in tears at one point. They had came up with the idea and put it together all by themselves. Neither of my supervisors knew anything about it – apparently they had the idea the day before when I’d taken the afternoon off sick. They told Zulaa they loved the English classes so much they want them on Saturdays and Sundays as well…!

AND THEN THERE’S MORE.

It was about 5pm, they’d all gone home about an hour earlier after lots of smiles and hugs and and I was sitting in the office feeling incredibly warm and fuzzy, when I heard a thundering of footsteps up the stairs and half a dozen of my kids burst through the door and screamed “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!” I was slightly taken aback (it was a day early) – but who cares!

They then rushed downstairs (dragging me along with them) and into the classroom, which had the lights off and blinds drawn. Standing at the back were the rest of the children holding little candles, and one of the girls at the front holding a GIGANTIC cake. And they all sung happy birthday (in English!) and thrust some sweets and a stuffed doll (“it looks like you”) into my hands and hugged and kissed me! For the second time in an afternoon, MIND=BLOWN.

They explained that many of them had a concert to attend on Friday and so they decided to celebrate my birthday a day early instead. In fact, they had only actually learned it was my birthday about it a couple of hours earlier when I told them we’d play some special games and have a fun day, so they  must have ran out and got the cake and stuff after their little performance had ended, and come back to give it to me in time before I left work…

I don’t even have the words.

I honestly wasn’t expecting much from the teaching placement – pretty much just considered it a precursor to the nomad project (which was the reason I had chosen Mongolia in the first place) – but this one day alone would have made the entire Mongolian trip worthwhile. And that was last week – this week has actually been the best yet!

Anyway, enough of my blathering. I know what you guys really want is the pictures 😀

First week in pictures

Loving how easy WordPress makes managing pictures. Ok, here are some photos from the first week. (Click for more detailed descriptions. :))

 

First week

Survived my first week in Ulaanbaatar! So far I have:

  • Gone out for dinner (twice). Witnessed a steak served with strawberries. Not even kidding.
  • Eaten traditional Mongolian food (and enjoyed it – much to my surprise. Worst vegetarian ever and loving it.)
  • Gone bowling with the other volunteers (my first time!)
  • Gone to a Mongolian nightclub…yeah, I think I’ll stick to clubbing in London for now.
  • Visited a monastery – now THAT was much cooler.
  • Been shopping in the city center. Found this amazing little clothes store that looked like it had dropped straight out of Camden. Cue MASSIVE SQUEE and impulsive purchasing of hotpants :p
  • Had the floor of my room flooded with water from two floors above.
  • Read 2 great novels (The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt and Virtual Light by William Gibson)
  • Done some drawing, and some running. 🙂
  • And of course, taught a bunch of utterly adorable Mongolian kids the alphabet, numbers, shapes, colours and basic English words. Trying to get them to say “th” was hilarious. (me: “say ‘thirteen'” boy: *sticks tongue out, makes face of fierce concentration* “th-th-FTEER-TEEN!”) They are definitely my favourite thing about being here right now.

So quite eventful! And now, just as I’m getting over the epic jetlag and my stomach bug has progressed from “violent” to merely “painful”, I’ve been floored by a stinking cold. Time for tea and rest.

I can’t say I have any love for UB as a place yet. As far as cities go, this ranks somewhere down there alongside Beijing. The Mongolians themselves though, that’s a different matter. You meet them randomly, get talking, exchange numbers, and the next thing you know they’re taking you out on a tour of their city or inviting you round for dinner! Really friendly  bunch, crazy hospitality, and equally as fascinated about my culture as I am of theirs. It’s a nice kind of relationship to have.

Plans for the coming weeks: visit more monasteries, go to the Black Market,  get out into the countryside, go to one of their “cultural shows” (traditional singing and dancing I think) and visit a couple of museums (particularly the “Intellectual Museum”, which is a museum of puzzle games – sounds really interesting). Gotta teach my kids an English song they can sing for a concert as well. Coming up short of ideas. I don’t think Headhunter would go down well. Suggestions welcome…

Sain uu from Mongolia!

Internet at the flat is broken, so figured I’d do a quick update from an internet cafe.

All good here, Ulaanbaatar is dirty and noisy and pretty much a complete dive but it’s great to be somewhere different and you can see mountains wherever you are. The flat I’m staying in is lovely, and makes it very easy to forget you’re in a third world country until you look outside the window…

Host family is away until tonight but I’m being looked after by the elder sister, and I made a friend on the plane who offered to show me around Ulaanbaatar before I even told him my name, which I thought was a little forward until the exact same thing happened with a couple I met on the next flight, and then the woman at the airport who sold me my sim card insisted she give me her email address so I could contact her if I needed help, so no shortage of the famous Mongolian hospitality here.

My induction is on Monday and I start work on Tuesday. They’re putting me in a children’s protection center, which is a government organization that provides support for troubled children or kids in disadvantaged families (there are a lot of problems with alcoholism in Mongolia). Have been told I’m the only English teacher, so suddenly feeling the responsibility.

I asked my host sister about the music scene in UB, and apparently Mongolian pop culture is 10 years behind ours: it turns out Westlife did a gig in Ulaanbataar a couple of days ago (I think they are pretty big here). However, managed to find a nightclub with “trance” and “techno” in its music policy, so all is not lost.

Back to my tour of the city. Hope all is well back in the UK… 🙂

Hello world :)

Can’t even go to a third world country and not escape an internet connection these days, so partly to avoid being logged into FaceCrack the entire time and partly so I actually remember what I get up to this time around, I figured I’d do the travel blog thing. Hi.

Itinerary here, but in summary, plan is: 3 months volunteer work (Mongolia + Sri Lanka), 1 month party timez followed by one month meditation retreat (that order), and probably a month or so farting around India. Deadline for returning to the UK is Easter.

Departing 10:55am Friday 7th September. BRING IT ON!!!