Underestimation of vintage microwave wattage had been my doom. A peaceful cup of afternoon relaxation had been nuked into a scramble for paper towels. While my host dad hustled outside to find anything absorbent, I tore off some toilet paper from a nearby roll, and began my redemptive journey of blotching and scrubbing. At the dining table with microwave platter and tissues in hand, I sat across from five year old Iderei. Feeling the weight of his gaze, I glanced up from my cleaning. His eyes remained fixed on the brown, coffee-saturated tissue in my hand. Then, with all time standing still, he shifted his eyes towards mine and said one word, “baas.” I stared at him in disbelief before my lips broke into a smile. Then came the laughing. So much laughing. In a month of several transitions, its been reassuring to learn that “poop” is a universal staple of humor.
From microwave mishaps, to figuring out how many plugs I can have in my extension cord before my lights begin to flicker, my new life in Mongolia has largely been centered around a theme of trial and error. This experimental learning curve extends from electricity, to Mongolian food and language. While Mongolian food has been so, so delicious, there have been a couple of times when my host dad approaches me with an earnest expression on his face, and a questionable meat in his hand. Out of curiosity, respect, and fear of what it might actually be, I save my question of, “what is it?” for after “it” has been consumed. This way, I can respond to his answers of “goat intestine salad,” or “boiled sheep blood onion cake,” with a smile and an, “ahhh, I see.”
Language practice follows a similar pattern. For example, if one says that they like to eat “huhni mach,” they may receive several nods of approval. On the other hand, a declaration that one enjoys eating, “hooni mach,” may lead to several looks of concern (particularly on the faces of one’s language instructors). While eating sheep is fairly common out here in Mongolia, human is a bit frowned upon.
This new life that I find myself in, has a habit of keeping me on my toes. I wouldn’t have it any other way. In each bout of trial, there have been errors, but also success. A typical day for me involves four hours of Mongolian language, three hours of technical training for my future role as a health teacher, meals with my family, games with my brother, and hikes in the surrounding mountains. I’ve seen the sunset every day since arriving in Baruunkhaara. I’ve played soccer with school kids, and pulled weeds with my family at their green onion plot in the country. I’ve laughed with my grandpa when I struggle to fold dumplings, and I’ve felt inspired by the material that we’ve learned in technical sessions. Each day is filled with spontaneity, and also a sense of purpose. I truly feel that I’m in a position to positively apply what I’ve learned in school, and I’m incredibly grateful for how accommodating my language teachers, host family, and community members have been. They have truly helped me to polish the skills that Peace Corps wants me to have before mid-August, when I settle into my permanent site.
The other day, a fellow volunteer and I were tasked with leading an activity for some kids in the community. Conducting the icebreaker was intended for us to develop comfortability leading a class of Mongolian children. Understanding that our language skills are limited, and that the kids are currently on summer break, we aimed to keep the activity simple, and hopefully something that they would have fun doing. Since my drawing and language skills aren’t good enough to expressively differentiate between a “Duck” and a “Goose,” it was then that, “Camel, Camel, Goat,” was born. We taught them the English words by using pictures that I had drawn, coupled with the phonetic sounds of each spelled out in Cyrillic. After clarifying that yes, my fat dog with reindeer antlers was in fact a goat, we taught them the game. It was a big hit. Older kids helped the younger children to understand, and all were laughing. One little boy, instead of running away from his chosen, “goat,” would completely freeze, and then hug the person he’d selected. With time, the game evolved into variations of, “Coffee, Coffee, Dog,” and “Water, Water, Banana,” but “Camel, Camel, Goat,” will always hold a special place in my heart.