Hannah Goes Fishing

A Fishing (and more) Blog

This Peace Corps Life – Mongolia

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Thousands of Peace Corps volunteers serve across the world in countries as different from one another as Alaska is from Florida. As part of my blogging goals for 2015, I hope to bring you volunteer interviews from every Peace Corps country. This month, I am excited to introduce to you a volunteer from Mongolia.

Greg Schroeder – Age 34


Greg with his host family.

Where are you from?
I’m from California.
What country and program do you serve in? 
I serve in Mongolia in the Community Youth and Development (CYD). While all sectors inevitably do some English instruction, CYD’s focus is to ready the youth to be independent adults and to work with the local service providers (parents, teachers, administrators, etc) to create sustainable programs that will build the skills necessary to prepare the younger generation to be responsible members of society.  Typical CYD programs in Mongolia include presenting Life Skills trainings (e.g. emotions, communication, planning, empathy, etc) with the school social workers, encouraging disability awareness, environmental awareness, and peer-mentoring programs, and introducing the teachers to methods of Positive Youth Development for their approaches to education. In general, the school social worker is a CYD volunteer’s primary counterpart (CP), but we’re free to make a CP out of anyone, whether they be in or out of the school environment.  Our country’s program also has Health and TEFL volunteers.
What is your housing like? What amenities do/n’t you have? What are some of the biggest challenges of your lifestyle? 
PC Mongolia volunteers live in a variety of housing, which is determined somewhat by personal preference and availability at site. I live in a ger, which is the traditional Mongolian nomadic housing. It’s very similar to what Americans know as a yurt. It’s a 16′ diameter circular structure and lined with felt. The ger is located within a hashaa (Mongolian for fenceline/property) which I share with a family that lives in a house next to my ger. Some volunteers have smaller gers. I have electricity, which is usually functioning (thanks to my proximity to the capital city), but I have to collect my water from the well down the street. Other ger-dwelling volunteers collect from rivers, especially in the winter when the wells freeze over and close. I have a stove that I use for burning coal and wood, which, during the 7-8 months that we average below-freezing temperatures (deep winter gets to around -40 degees C), is quite necessary. I saw and chop my firewood from the scrap lumber that is delivered to my property. Other volunteers live in gers, wooden houses, dormitory rooms (at schools), or apartments. With the exception of the apartment-dwellers, we all use pit toilets for bathroom needs. In terms of bathing, we’re issued a tumpun, which is a small plastic tub that we use for bathing, washing dishes, washing laundry, and all sorts of other tasks. Baby wipes are very popular for daily maintenance.
The biggest challenge to this lifestyle is staying warm. I sleep in a sleeping bag on a couch in my ger, sometimes with a hooded sweatshirt on. More often than not, I wake up around 3:00 or 4:00am because the fire has grown too low and I need to add more coal. A few weeks ago, I decided to be lazy and not keep the fire going through the night. Everything inside had frozen over by morning. Any overnight trips away from my home also require a bit of planning. Whether I’m going to be gone for one night or many, anything left inside with fluid must be considered, which isn’t limited to liquids. All water in my water filter must be boiled and bottled so the filter candle doesn’t fracture when the ice expands. The same goes for my water vessel that stores unfiltered water from the well. Both must be emptied. Regarding the non-liquid items, I’ve learned through experience that some food products commonly used in cold, dry storage don’t freeze well. Potatoes and ginger root become juicy messes and garlic cloves darken and burst through their skins. We just celebrated the lunar new year this past weekend and, upon returning to my ger after three days, found my vegetable and olive oils completely frozen through. A lot of this lifestyle is learned through personal experience. That’s the easiest way to sum it up.
Mongolian cuisine is centered around meat (lots of boiled mutton) and dairy products, often with wheat flour-based doughs. However, I prefer a vegetarian diet. For purposes of community integration and participating in cultural celebrations, I will eat meat cooked by others, but I don’t eat meat at home. Vegetarianism is a fairly foreign concept to Mongolians, who believe that I will freeze in the winter and die because the body gets energy from meat. My site is only an hour from the capital city, so my town’s markets have a decent variety of offerings. I regularly eat eggs, bread, potatoes, carrots, onions, and garlic. Many canned goods and dried spice packets are imported from Russia, Kazakhstan, and Poland. Other volunteers in more remote sites have significantly fewer options: One PCV told me that the only things he can buy at his site are vodka, candy, and rice. Everything else requires a three-hour microbus ride to the provincial capital to stock up.
What are the people of Mongolia like?
Mongolian people are known for the unquestionable hospitality. As a nomadic culture, an unexpected guest was always welcomed in, offered food, and lodging if required. I had a 6-year-old boy, whom I didn’t know, take my hand one day, lead me into his house, and sit me down at the table with his parents while he watched television. We were both a little shocked at the situation, but they gave me tea and candy before I left for my home.
I live in an aimag (provincial) center an hour from the capital, so my community probably has a bit more of an urban influence on it than other volunteers, but the daily lives of the locals seem to really focus on the daily routine. Get up, go to school/work, go home. Children (female, primarily) are generally responsible for tending to household chores and cooking while the parents are at work, but these are handled after school. At first, I wondered about this daily repetition, but found myself slowly moving into the same daily routine. Also, there aren’t a lot of things to do outside of the house when it’s -40 degrees C and the culture is incredibly family-oriented, so this adds to the sense of spending your time at home.

What are some of the most rewarding parts of your service? What have been some of your greatest challenges? Has PC service met/surpassed/trample don your expectations of what service would be like?
You learn to really appreciate any successful lesson and I tend to get excited about potential new projects, even if they don’t pan out. Having been derived from a nomadic culture that removed appointment/arrival times from the picture (i.e. you’ll arrive when you arrive), Mongolia is a land of constantly changing schedules (if you can call it that). We often find out about competitions, changes to school breaks, regional mandated testing, etc as they are happening or perhaps a couple days in advance. These events take priority over planned lessons and clubs and make it hard to hold consistent lessons. I’m just starting my 10th month of service (of the 27), so it’s too early to draw conclusions on what service has done to my expectations, but I had hoped to be doing significantly more than I’m currently able to do.
As a male volunteer, I encounter more aggression from men in the street (not at my HCA – Host Country Agency), especially the drunks. On that note, I’m expected to drink more vodka at parties/holidays because I’m male. There’s also a greater challenge to spend time out of the workplace with my coworkers because they’re almost all female and we’re not able to meet at our homes, even for lesson planning. Female volunteers are held to a higher standard of appearance in the workplace, including makeup (you’ll be told by female coworkers that you’re ugly that day if you choose not to wear makeup on any given day). Sexual harassment isn’t a topic here that has much awareness, so I often see female HCN’s (Host Country National) being touched in what I consider inappropriate ways. However, I believe that it is made very clear not to treat PCVs this way.

Greg works on ger construction.

Why did you join Peace Corps?  Looking back, do those reasons still apply to you now?
Prior to joining Peace Corps, I had a job that allowed me to travel. Though I enjoyed the position, I wanted something that would allow my travels to continue, but also enable me to be a bit more productive to the world. Working with youth after they’ve aged out of the foster system is something that I’m thinking about doing post-PC, so working with the CYD sector here is giving me more experience in the field. Ten months in, I’d say that those reasons still apply and are what keep me going.
Do you feel like Peace Corps is still a worthwhile program for the U.S. Gov?
Yes, I feel like the program is worthwhile. The challenge is to find HCAs that will follow through on their interest and aren’t sounding attractive just to acquire a volunteer as a trophy or free teacher. For the teachers and students that are interested in working with us, it’s a great program. I continue to meet people in the capital that tell me how a PCV taught them English as a child and improved their lives.

If you had to give a piece of advice to someone thinking about applying to PC or getting ready for staging, what would you say?
I know the application process has been streamlined and now allows you to pick a country. The concern that many current volunteers had upon hearing about this change is that the old application was lengthy and country selection was out of applicant control, which forced you to demonstrate the two most essential qualities necessary for Peace Corps service: patience and adaptability. We have to use those two every day.

Any plans for post-Peace Corps?
Still open to multiple ideas. I could do a third year here (Peace Corps Response), apply for another country, go back to the circus, or work with foster youth. Too many ideas and too far off at this point.

Thanks Greg!

Do you want to represent your country through an interview?  I’m still looking for people to talk to! Get in touch with me here.


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