September 12, 2008

9/12/08 My 1st week in Mongolia

Wow, I've been here a week already. In some ways it seems like I just got here yesterday and in other ways it seems like I arrived here ages ago. [smile] Well, this is going to sound like a rambling journal entry, but I wanted to show you the kaleidoscope of experiences I'm having here.

First, I couldn't be happier with everyone here at Shendrup Ling, the Buddhist meditation center where I live and teach. Everyone from the director to the guards have been so welcoming. Tsetsgee, who teaches the Beginner English level classes has done a lot to help me fit into my role as a teacher. This place has such a great energy about it. But that's not to say it's like Shangrila here, the needs of the community are so great that sometimes it seems overwhelming what should be done to help and that can be very stressful for all involved. In only a few days, I have already been approached to expand my English teaching to include even more people. Even if I was ten people, I wouldn't be able to scratch the surface of the need. For now though, I'm content to do the best job I can with my current students and let the future take care of itself when it arrives.

I have to be honest, my first day of teaching was exhausting, mainly because I was so anxious. Each day brought highs and lows but by the end of the week I think I can see that I can really make a difference and that I have the ability to 'do this job.' My students range in age from 8 to 49, they are pretty evenly spread out from high school through college to professionals. I even have a few medical doctors in my classes and a few monks too. Some students actually have a great grasp of English, both in speaking and in writing. Sometimes my exercises really bomb (my textbook is British and written almost 20 years ago) but at other times the students really get into what we are doing. I know that as I go through each lesson, I will learn more about my students and what works best for them to learn the best English.

My classroom

So far in my classes, the Mongolian names have been tough for me. The Mongolian alphabet has 36 letters but our English alphabet only has 26. So, there are not enough English letters. For example the English letter 'u' is used for three different Cyrillic letters used in the Mongolian alphabet. The use 'tse' alot which sounds more like 'tz'. And 'kh' sounds like you have a hot potato in your mouth. Maybe soon I can start some Mongolian language lessons. For now, some students have taken pity on me and I can use their nicknames or shortened given names.

I spend a lot of my day in my room working on my lesson plans. I have a huge window that overlooks the courtyard of the school behind the center. The school has every age, from grade school to high school. Every day, maybe more so because the weather is so nice, phys-ed teachers bring out the kids to do drills and play games like soccer. I like hearing them. I think I'll miss that once winter arrives. Plus, I found a great patch of land below my window that has a lot of potential for a garden next year. That could be nice, yeah!

Kids during exercise class

Naraa is the cook. She can't weigh more than 75lbs dripping wet and is very tiny. But she seems a lot larger because of her energy and enthusiasm. She doesn't speak much English but that doesn't stop her from chatting away with me in Mongolian. Maybe once I start taking some Mongolian lessons, I learn even more from her. She cooks lunch for most of the staff during the work week. Being a Buddhist center, it's all vegetarian. It's been good food but I have noticed a total lack of green food, mostly whites, yellows, browns and reds. Naraa said she's very happy that I've eaten everything she's put in front of me. It's been different but very good.

I read somewhere that if you wanted to change US dollars into Mongolian currency, they should be new bills, printed in the last five years. That recommendation was a bit incomplete as I found out going to several money exchangers and banks. What they failed to mention is that the bills needed to be in crisp condition and preferably of higher denominations like $100 bills. Today's exchange rate was about $1=1140tg since I didn't have anything larger than a twenty and they had gotten crumpled up in my wallet (so looked old). A crisp hundred would have gotten me $1=1155tg. Just to give you an idea how much a tugrugs is worth, a cup of tea in our Stupa Cafe costs 300tg, a slice of pizza costs 1000tg. I haven't had a chance to buy anything elsewhere but I'll keep ya' posted on relative prices here in UB.

My schedule is a little off kilter. Lunch can be anywhere between 1 to 2 and my first class starts at 4:30pm. So it's almost too early to eat anything for dinner. But then I don't finish till sometime 7:30pm. By then I've been up all day and almost too tired to fix anything to eat. Evenings can be a bit lonely too. There are only two of us living here at the Center right now. Roy overseas the Dolma Ling Community Center where they have a soup kitchen for the poor and a health clinic. His responsibilities also include the Dolma Ling Nunnery. So, besides the guard down at the reception desk, the center seems very empty when compared to the energy it has during the day-time hours.

I'm still taking cold showers, which isn't really that bad when you consider the outside temperatures are in the 60s. Lately Roy had been working on getting individual electric water heaters installed in all the rooms. The installation had just been completed on the first one Monday, so Roy and I went to check it out. I think he was going to volunteer to be the first to test it out (He said he really misses long hot showers). Only when we turned it on, it tripped the breaker. No matter what he did, every time he turned on the hot water, the fuse blew. Oh well, no hot shower today. Guess they'll have to go to plan B (yes there is a plan B) so I know we'll have great warm showers before the cold weather arrives.

Wednesday night, Roy told me about a 'cultural night' being held at a Cafe Amsterdam, so we went along with Nikki, an East Coast artist who has fallen in love with Mongolia while she's been here. It was a packed house of mainly westerners there to listen to National Geographic photographer David Edwards. His slide show and talk was on Shamanism in Mongolia. It was a fascinating presentation that spanned some 3o years of photographing Mongolia, it's culture and people. I'm looking forward to going back to more 'cultural nights'.

Young Kazakh Eagle Hunter by David Edwards

Well, the weekend is here and I'm hoping to go out shopping tomorrow. Not sure what I'll get but it should be fun exploring.