At one o’clock, Saturday morning, I arrived in Ikh-Uul. The stars were the first thing that anyone could notice. Entering the cement silhouette of my new apartment complex, I was led up five flights of stairs to my home for the next two years. It became quickly apparent that my apartment is not just new to me, but new to my soum as well. Exploring its rooms and smiling with the drunkenness of exhaustion, I discovered my balcony. Under the many twinkles of the sky’s many stars, I lingered on the balcony’s cement wall. Peering into the dark distance, I could see the faint outline of a tall pointed ridge. My eyes followed its line to the left, and then to the right, continuing into the night for as far as I could see. Morning would come, and I would awaken to the sun hitting my back. Heading straight for my balcony, a surge of happiness filled within my chest. Ikh-Uul means, “many mountains.”
My soum is in northwestern Mongolia’s Khuvsgul aimag. Khuvsgul is known for its stunning landscapes and popularity amongst domestic and international tourists. One of the most well known geographic landmarks in Khuvsgul, is its massive lake. Mongolians refer to it as the “Dalai,” or “Ocean,” and it is where Mongolian scuba diving was born. Ikh-Uul has a population of 4082, and 849 of those residents are students that attend the secondary school where I will be teaching. I have been assigned three English teacher counterparts to assist with my community integration, to better my understanding of how the school operates, and to help me to start facilitating health lessons and clubs that I’m interested in. One club that already exists, is an Eco Club that is coordinated by a biology teacher. In addition to organizing tree plantings and eco excursions, the club encourages environmental and creative writing. With my experiences in how global health and culture, intersect with environmental conservation and sustainability, I am so, so stoked to participate and offer my skills as needed.
Since school begins on September 3rd, these next two weeks are intended for me to get settled in. After my first morning’s discovery, I unpacked for several hours before realizing that I had been ignoring the groans from my belly. It was at this time that I recognized my absence of food and cooking utensils – other than a new electric hot plate whose instructions and labels did not match a single word in my Mongolian-English dictionary. I would later learn that it was all in Russian. With two hours to spare before meeting my school’s director, all of my stuff unpacked, and the hunger really getting to me, I put aside some nerves to go out and wander on my own. After a little loop through one segment of town, I entered a store. Amidst a chaotic arrangement of unopened packages and unorganized stacks of unlabeled stuff, I managed to get a few things from a list of needs that I created earlier in the day. Of note, was a 3kg cabbage that has been a staple in almost every meal I’ve eaten so far. I’ll have to go back sometime for the freshly picked blueberries that I saw resting in a big burlap sack.
The director was very kind and clearly very excited to help me in any way possible. Following our meeting and some housing forms, my counterpart Zaya, and I went to Ikh-Uul’s main shopping strip. Along the way were pine trees whose smell reminded me of home, and plenty of children for Zaya to make smile with her silly faces and voices. Our trip was a success, and I have since been responsible for taking care of myself. The past couple of nights I have been channeling the teachings of my Mongol Eej (mother), and making variations of nogotai shuul (vegetable soup). Eej would be so proud. At least, until she found out that I haven’t been adding meat to my vegetable soup as every proper Mongolian knows to do. In Mongolia, vegetable soup is called vegetable soup because of the presence of vegetables rather than the absence of meat.
After dinner, I sit on my balcony with a cup of coffee. The mug I drink from is one that I bought from a ceramist in Ann Arbor this past school year. It’s a weird contrast to the settings of my new home, but it’s also pleasantly grounding. Pre-service training is officially over, and I am a sworn in Peace Corps Volunteer. I’ve said the pledge, danced my cultural dance, and said goodbye to my family in Baruunkharaa. They were so happy to hear I was headed to Khuvsgul, and even talked about a potential visit. Maybe one day, I’ll get a chance to make Eej some nogotai shuul. These next three months will be focused on my community integration. It will take some time before I can teach effectively in this new place, so I will mostly be focused on brainstorming, observation, and really just getting to know people. Compared to my first few months, it’s a very different experience so far, being the only native-English speaker in a community of 4,000-something people. Each day feels like a chance to be an explorer, a chance to learn something new.