> One More Stamp: 2014

Sunday, March 2, 2014

One, two, three, jump!

Discovery of the Day: I may be taking more with me to Morocco than I think... 

Fact or Fiction? 
What will Casablanca be like? I am not expecting a beautiful city by any means. It isn't very old so I do not think that it will have the mystery and what I imagine is the glamour of Marakesh or Fex. I think that the traffic will be bad and the food will be good. I am sort of hoping for some open air markets but since a trip to the Morocco mall has been planned I guess that image may never really happen. So many people have mentioned harassment from men that I am a little scared. I hope I can handle it. I am sitting in the guest room of my mother's house surrounded by my things and I can't help but feel a little sick to my stomach. There is just so much unknown.. Will I like the city, the school, my apartment, my fellow teachers? Have I made the right choice. Everyone probably feels this way before starting a new job. Perhaps my situation and feelings are commonplace just exaggerated by the fact that I am yet again moving to a country where I speak none of the language. 

I have just drawn in a breath before jumping and so my whole life right now seems to be that tense anticipation. Waiting to step off the ledge, again. The closer to leaving the more frantic my to do list becomes. It is as if I believe that if I am ostentatiously busy every moment of every day up until the second I leave that then I will of course be completely prepared for whatever eventualities come my way in Morocco. Being prepared of course implies that my time in Morocco will be without incident (raise your hand if you think that is going to happen!) Honestly, I am probably running around like this to distract myself from the fact that I am moving to Africa to a city and a country that I have never been to before... That reminds me I wated to make sure to pack antibacterial hand wipes... 

I know that I because I have made this choice my life will forever be divided in some ways into "Before Morocco" and "After Morocco". It should and I am looking forward to that. Every country that I have lived in has led me to some deeper truths about myself and I wonder what Morocco will reveal. Places live in us in just as powerful a way as we live in them. 

It is hard to get a handle on how I feel. I am excited which leads to wondering what my apartment will be like which makes me wonder if my shipment from Germany arrived there yet (I hope so!) which makes me nervous which makes me think about 15 more things that I want to make sure get done in the States before I go which leads me to the to do list again and going off on endless round of errands...

Finding Germany's Soul

"No man should travel until he has learned the language of the country he visits. Otherwise he voluntarily makes himself a great baby-so helpless and so ridiculous." 
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 - 1882) US philosopher, poet, essayist 

I should have read Emerson before I moved to Germany. I have never in my life felt the lack of language so profoundly! I spent two years in Mongolia with the tiniest amount of Mongolian (I am ,however, fluent in Mongolian taxi) without feeling the frustration and embarrassment that is and will continue to be my lot in life until I learn German. When you lack the ability to communicate in the native language, you cannot fully participate in day-to-day life, understand the culture, or communicate with the people (obviously!). The language barrier can be anywhere from slightly frustrating to outright causing insanity. When you know the language, you have the comfort of being able to successfully navigate all sorts of situations, such as: ordering meals in restaurants (and knowing what you will get) , reading your own mail and contracts, and talking to the people around you (not to be underestimated!) among many others. 

Language bridges the gap. One of the unfortunate things about being an English speaker (as well as being one of the most convenient) is that I am very rarely the person crossing the bridge. I open my mouth and it seems that people are rushing over it towards me, speaking English to me comfortingly as if to convey the message,” there now, was that so hard? We understand one another perfectly.” I feel as if I am being pushed back into a comfort zone that I am rapidly outgrowing. The problem is that I need to speak German really well, since the Germans seem to like precision and exactness. I don’t feel as if they are going to have a great deal of patience with my learning process and the fact that I am bound to make a ton of mistakes. Furthermore, many Germans speak good English and like to show it off. Unless my German is flawless, they'll switch to English and keep me in my comfort zone. 

I am not sure why learning German seems so much more essential than learning Mongolian did. Maybe because I am much more hidden here. In Mongolia people could see down the road across the street with a blindfold on that I wasn’t going to be a native speaker at best and most likely wouldn’t speak any Mongolian at all. In Germany, I look the same as all the Germans and so it isn’t until I open my mouth that they know and by that time I am already embarrassed for being so inadequate. 

I knew before moving to Germany that learning German was going to be an important part of the experience. There was a distance between me and the people in Mongolia caused because I didn’t learn Mongolian that I didn’t want to repeat the mistake in Germany. I want to be more connected to the country I am living in and less dependent upon the school community. Given my determination the actual process of learning German has been frustratingly slow. 

It started with finding a class. At first it seemed as if they were everywhere. Ads, rumors, sage advice from others who were trying to learn German. Choosing one became a sort of obsession. Some were too expensive, some were intensive classes during the day, some were far away. The possibilities began to look thin and I choose a course in desperation. There are 5 other new teacher this year who would like to learn German as well so we banded together to form a class. Then we decided that it was too expensive and so signed up for a very cheap course downtown. It seemed fairly ideal. We didn’t count on the fact that it didn’t start until 8 at night (we are all teachers and so get up ridiculously early), that it would be taught by an incompetent (teachers are really critical of the people who teach them) or that we would be spending several hours learning the phrase “Guten Tag, Ich bin Tara. Ich komme aus Amerika.” That was the end of that. So here I am having lived two months in Germany and still not speaking much German or having started a class! Not the auspicious beginning I had hoped for. 

Fortunately, the wind seems to have shifted and another class has been found! Close, fairly cheap, only us and we get to dictate what we learn. Fingers crossed that this one is good because I am sticking with it no matter how much it sucks! 

To aid in this noble goal I have been spending a lot of time with a computer German course. I can count, recall colors and some nouns as well as string together some simple declarative sentences. With a limited amount of verbs. (okay, 3). My niece, who is two, can just about manage the same thing in English. Needless to say I am not exactly feeling as if I am an intellectual giant here… 

But still I persevere. My apartment may be in Germany but that fact will never seem more than a superficial moving of all of my things until I speak the language. Then I will truly live here. It is time to cross that bridge. 

"Die Sprache eines Volkes ist seine Seele." ("The language of a people is its soul.") 

Fichte 

Make yourself at home!

I have come to the conclusion that becoming comfortable living in a new city has a lot to do with where you are living. 

I am living in the top two floors over an Apotheke (which is German for Pharmacy and pronounced something like a-poe-teek- uh) and my landlord. I don‘t think that Germans believe in attics. There are windows on all of the roofs here. My apartment is no exception. I am pretty sure that there isn’t a right angle or a box shaped room in the whole place. My bedroom is shaped like a triangle. To be more accurate it is shaped like a prism. 
I may need to downsize

The more that I change things around and make them my own the more comfortable I am with living in the apartment and for some strange reason in Germany as well. 

My shipment was delivered (by the schools hausmeister and his son) after the HR department of my school did a bit of running around checking for it. I feel as if I should apologize to Bayaraa, the man in charge of Mongolian Express. I had no faith that my shipment would 1. Arrive, 2. Arrive on time, or 3. Be in one piece. I was the first person out of the new hires to receive my shipment. And nothing was broken. This is remarkable, if only for the circumstances under which they were packed… 

Let me take you back to Mongolia… 

On the Wednesday before I flew out Mongolian Express arranged to come to my house to box up my things and take them to storage. They were to arrive at 3:30 and I was going to be done with work at 4:30 so I had Javsun (my awesome housekeeper) let them into my apartment. I had all of the things to go to Germany piled in totes on one wall. Javsun had strict instructions that the movers were not to touch anything else. The packers were gone and so were all of my things when I arrived. That seemed suspicious. How in the world did they pack all of my crap that quickly ? I had been tossing things into the totes haphazardly for the last 3 months. There was no rhyme or reason to the system. Javsun look ed concerned and then told me that the movers had simply taken the totes placed them into cardboard 
boxes and sealed them. Right away my eye started twitching. “You should not have packed in those plastic boxes,” she told me. “It cost you many square meters even though you have little bit weight.” I explained that I didn't care about those boxes and that the company was supposed to have packed up all of my things. I was in a slight state of panic as I envisioned pretty much everything I owned being crushed into dust on the way to Germany. Javsun noticed this and hastened to reassure me, “We will fix. Also you need the carpet.” She then proceeded to roll up the carpet , drag it downstairs and stuff both it and the two of us into a taxi . We then "rushed" to the warehouse of Mongolian Express. 

I don’t know exactly what Javsun said to them. I only know that she sounded authoritative and the staff of Mongolian Express immediately started to repack all of my things in about a ton of bubble wrap and paper. She also handed them the carpet and demanded that they add it to the shipment. We left secure in the knowledge that all of my things had been packed securely. We had to carry the eight totes that my stuff had been in but that wasn't too difficult because they were able to nest inside one another. She and I celebrated by going out for Thai food. 

Getting all of my things was one thing finding a place for them was another. All of the boxes came at the same time and since I had no idea what was in any of them I ended up just dumping all of them out onto the floor. The result was slightly horrifying. When did I become that girl with all these things none of which is expendable? 
My entire kitchen.  It really is that small.

As if that wasn't enough , there was also a couple of major shopping trips to IKEA just to make sure that my place in the world as a consumer was ensured. On the list: pots and pans, dishes, picture frames and a mattress. The bed that I inherited had a mattress that was literally three inches thick. That might work for vacation but when you are going to sleep on it for the next few years things had to change. I am way too young to start having back problems! 
My bedroom is a triangle.

The true joy of shopping at IKEA is not, as you may suspect, following the arrows painted on the ground, or even the hot dog and ice cream that is apparently an essential part of the experience. It was the sheer amount of stuff. Stuff that I could buy and have delivered. Furniture, kitchen and bathroom accessories and the entire range of decorative details. It is a pretty good thing that I don’t live close to IKEA or have a car because I can see how that would become dangerous! “I might not have any money but look at my new chair!” 

But after I had sorted through it all and put it away the place began to feel like mine. True, I hadn't picked out the furniture and the kitchen is the same size as my dining room table but something about it seemed to say, “Tara lives here.” I guess I am home.

Locked out Again!

Here ' s a tip for all you ladies as you are traveling. Make sure that your bag doesn't have a huge hole in it before you head off for a full day of European adventures. You might just lose your keys. Yes, the curse of Tara being locked out of her apartment has struck Germany as well. Let me just go over both the high and low points of the adventure. 


I was getting ready to leave a friend ' s house (late at night it should be noted) and in the midst of packing up all my things I sensibly decided to check and make sure that I had my keys. I don ' t normally do this but luck was on my side for once . Not because I actually had my keys but because I hadn't ridden on the train for forty minutes gotten to my apartment and then noticed that my keys were missing. After searching my friend ' s house high and low (we searched places I hadn't even seen before) the problem was pretty clear. My bag had a hole in its seam. We had known this before because as we were walking from a Tram to a bus that afternoon my umbrella had fallen out of it. Now my umbrella is pretty small but that still should give you a mental picture of what my bag looked like. I think I handled losing my keys fairly well. I only had a mild freak-out when my friend went to buy me a toothbrush. If the whole world could tell that something was wrong, hey, that couldn't be helped. 

I should mention that I actually had four sets of keys. One was lost to the wilds of Germany and the other three were safely locked behind my door. Still there was a bit of hope. Perhaps my landlord (who lives below me) had a spare key? No, that was not to be. He was gone (I think to France) for the whole weekend. My other neighbor (only three of us live in the building) works in a little store across the street. She was gracious enough to unlock the bottom door but couldn't help with the rest. She did however know a locksmith. My friend (who is German) called and as luck would have it he was in the area. There was still the chance that the whole thing would be very cheap. If the deadbolt wasn't locked , then the whole thing would be very simple. 

It wasn't simple. Not only had I turned the deadbolt but I had turned it twice. In essence "superlocking" my door against my well mannered and completely benign neighbors. The locksmith blew a breath out as if asking for patience and calmly went downstairs to get his heavy duty " I am breaking into this apartment drill " and assorted other tools. I was a little appalled at how quickly he was able to get in actually. So was he , I think , because he assured me that he would be putting a much better lock on my door than the one he ha d just broken. Putting the lock in took forever. Probably because I was staring at him willing him to be finished already. To pass the time I took some pictures. He drilled, he hammered, he measured, he balanced and in the end he made a mess! He also chatted with my friend in German and occasionally with me in English (of course). I found out about his children, wife, and that he had changed my neighbor ' s lock as well. Somehow that made me feel better. 

And in the end? I had a new lock, three new sets of keys and no one to blame but myself. Now come s " the part you do not like so much " , he told me. The bill.

A Dog's Life

I am followed by a white puppy to work every morning. Or at least she should be white. Because she lives outside she is pretty dirty. There used to be two puppies that came but a few weeks ago the smaller grey one disappeared. I try to make myself believe she was adopted by some nice family. Unfortunately, I am not that gullible. It was 30 below for months and she was thin. I can ' t really make myself believe that she made it. 
This is actually after school walking into the complex where I live.

The larger puppy still escorts me almost all the way to school every morning. She used to come the whole way and I would have to shut the school door in her face but she doesn't do that anymore. I think I know why. I saw one of the school guards throw a rock at her through my window after I had gone inside one day. Now she stops at the turn off to my school. 

I don't feed her. I can ' t take her home with me and adopt her so making her dependent on me is not fair. I think that she is living on garbage. At least that is what the internet claims that urban dogs eat. 

She is there every morning running towards me as I come out my door. She has that happy romp that puppies have when she sees me. She throws herself at my feet so I will rub her belly. I didn't touch her for a long time but eventually she became so comfortable around me that she began to basically demand that I pet her even if it just for a few seconds every morning. 

She thinks that my coat and bag are puppy toys and will often clamp her teeth on them which forces me to stop walking to detach her. She put a small hole in my coat yesterday which annoyed me. Still it is my own fault and anyway how can you look at the puppy grin and be mad? 
I am still not sure where she wants me to go.

For the most part she runs in circles around me as I walk to school. She runs ahead and then back to me. I imagine that she thinks that she is giving the all clear sign. Sometimes she get distracted by a stick or a rock or another person . When she notices she's been left behind she runs to catch up as if she is saying, notice me, remember me, guess what I just saw! 

After I start walking I try not to stop or pay too much attention to her. I guess my reasoning is that is isn't a good idea for us to get attached to one another. Or for me to get attached. Being a dog I doubt that she is putting quite as much angst into walking as I am. I am not sure that the plan is working. She wasn't there one morning and I was worried all day that she was gone too until I saw her again the next morning. 
Rubbing her belly

I am leaving for the US and Germany in June, I tell myself. She doesn't have her shots and cant live in an apartment, I tell myself. Adopting a dog when you work all day is irresponsible, I tell myself. I tell myself lots of sensible things but all of them seem to me like excuses sometimes. I don't want to get involved because it would be too much responsibility and money. What sort of person does that make me? 

Common sense prevails however and I realize that I cant have a dog and the life that I have chosen. Except for fifteen minutes in the quiet morning when it almost feels like I already do.

God, I Hope I Get it- The London Theme

 Who am I anyway? Am I my resume?
That is a picture of a person I don't know.
What does he want from me? 
What should I try to be?
So many faces all around and here we go,
I need this job Oh God, I need this show.
Would you hire this person?


I was in London this week but the only way that I knew that is because people kept   mentioning it.  I wasn’t there for London (this time) I was there for the Search Associates London- January Recruitment Fair 2010.  In December I gave my school in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia notice that I would not be returning in August for another teaching year.  You can probably figure out the implications of that on your own but I will lay it out there for you anyway.  I need a job.    What is not working in my favor is that there are 500 other slobs in the same position that I am in and about a 100 schools looking for teachers to teach in all four corners of the world.  But I am getting ahead of myself. Back to my arrival in London.

London clean, orderly, and expensive!  I have never gotten through customs so quickly and easily and I only had about a 30 second wait for my bag (which was my timing more than organization but made me happy nonetheless).  At this point I am batting a thousand in the London-like-a-pro contest.  Then I made a severe tactical error.  I took a cab to my hotel.  You may be smacking your head at such an amateur move and you would be justified.  I forgot to take into account that the cabs in the UK would be slightly more expensive than in Mongolia.  What would be an 8$ fare in Mongolia was 80$ in London.  Oops.

I arrived a day and a half early because of the wonky flights in to and out of Ulaanbaatar to Moscow.  Three flights a week.  One on Wednesday, Friday and Monday.  I had to be in London actually doing things on Friday which left Wednesday as my only option.  I did have one interview on Wednesday evening but aside from that I was left with too much time to obsess with preparing for the interview.  What were they going to ask me? What was I going to ask them?    I may not have been perfectly prepared but I was able to work myself up into a respectable panic attack.

God, I hope I get it, I hope I get it!
How many people does he need? How many people does he need?
God, I hope I get it! I hope I get it!


Teachers are friendly.  The registration for the fair was interesting because if you saw someone with the nametag on (which was pretty much everyone) the conversation started.  What do you teach?  Where are you now?  Where are you trying to go?  The n  of course there were the tense minutes in the hallway waiting for interviews where you would talk to the person who was waiting for the school across the hall.  A false sense of intimacy perhaps but I can think of worse ways to start a friendship.

Look at all the people, at all the people
How many people does he need? 
How many people does he ...


                Of the whole weekend the interview sign up was the most bizarre.  I had gotten written invitations for a bunch of schools and that meant I had an automatic interview with those schools but I still had to go up to their table to schedule the time.  Which became difficult as the process wore on and both my and their schedules started to fill up.  I also waited in line for a couple of schools that I was interested in who hadn’t sent me an invitation.  I had to go up with my resume and basically in 30 seconds convince them that they should interview me.  Intense.  But I got my interviews (my situation was helped by the fact that there were a whole lot of special needs positions and not a lot of us at the fair).  It was crowded, chaotic and just plain confusing.

I really need this job
Please, God, I need this job!
I've got to get this job!


                The Interviews began.  I am not sure that you have ever had 27 interviews in about 36 hours but I can honestly say that I don’t recommend it.  I am not sure that I will ever be able to make a good impression ever again because I am pretty sure that I used up my entire lifetime ' s worth this weekend.  The fact that all of them took place in a hotel room was just another level of surreal to layer over the whole experience.  Interviews are just weird anyway.  You are trying to be yourself and not just say what you think that the interviewer wants to hear.  Is telling the recruiter that you work best with primary kids when asked stupid or just honest?  I said it but almost immediately had a brief but intense mental debate with myself on the honest/stupid issue but really wasn’t able to resolve it before the next question came.


God, I really blew it, I really blew it!
How could I do a thing like that? How could I do a thing like ...?
Now, I'll never make it 
I'll never make it!


Not everything went smoothly, of course.  There was a lot of rejection.  Not being married took me out of the running for 3 of the schools.   It is cheaper for school to hire like that and couples tend to last longer.  Of course finding the combination of jobs that you need as a couple is much more difficult. Not having a ton of experience  took me out of several others.  A few I didn’t have enough secondary experience (which I couldn’t really argue with).  Out of the 21 schools that I interviewed with 10 of them told me no for various reasons . Seven of them didn’t give me any sort of indication of where I stood.  I was half hour late for my interview with the International school of Dusseldorf, I completely blanked out when asked about various reading strategies that I employed in the classroom in one interview,

God, I think I've got it, I think I've got it!
I knew he liked me all the time


But offers did start to come in.  Or at least hope.  I was called back for five different schools.  I was shortlisted to the final two a couple of times before losing out.  The sheer relief that I felt after that first offer was not to be believed.  Oh, thank you God, I am going to be employed next year even if it isn’t my first choice school  I would be near tears from a particularly difficult rejection (the schools that I REALLY wanted) when I would get an offer and then be high as a kite.  I hardly know what to do with myself so I just keep   interviewing until 6:30 at which point I am done for the day and collapse into a heap.  But the hard part was still to come.

I've come this far, but even so: It could be yes, it could be no.
How many people does he...?
I really need this job 
Please, God, I need this job I've got to get this show.


Monday and the waiting game began.  I had four offers to consider (one unofficial) and had been told by a few schools that they wouldn’t be deciding until next week.  I was not going to gamble but still there was more. Before making my choice I had to wait for three other schools to let me know if there were going to be other offers to consider.  And then there are all the factors to consider.  What was the actual position offered?  Health insurance, cost of living, savings potential, size of the school, number of host country students, salary currency, the list seemed to be never ending and started spiraling out of control in my head until I was dizzy, sick to my stomach, and so tightly wound that I was barely coherent.  Fortunately there were a hundred other people wandering around in the same condition.  I just got an offer from this school?  What do you know about that school?  And in my case, do I really want to go somewhere difficult again?  Just as an aside any math person out there who wants to put together all the variables and make an algorithm that will give you the mathematically best answer would make a killing.  I would have paid an embarrassing  amount for something like that and I suspect that there are others in the same boat!
But in the end it came down to a choice between a school in Singapore and a school in Germany.  I went back and forth, weighed the options and in the end leapt with instinct as usual.  Which is why I will be teaching at the International School of Dusseldorf starting in August and for the foreseeable future.  I think the fact that I have a hundred dollars of books on Germany in my cart on Amazon already should give you an indication of just how excited I am about how the whole thing shook out.

The People That You Meet

 wonder about the people that I meet or walk by or attempt to talk to in the course of a day. The edges of their lives just barely touching mine. People that I remember and think about but don t really know. The woman who checks me out at the grocery store, the man I pass on the street walking home, or the man I see living in the steam pipes across the street. Who are they? What is their story? Even when we talk I don ' t always know and the connection doesn't always last. 

For example, my next door neighbor came to my door the other night. I don ' t generally get unexpected visitors , and since all the doors of the apartments in my building are clustered together , at first I just ignored the knocking. Finally, however, I was forced to accept the fact that the knocking just might be on my door. 

I opened the door to a very nice Mongolian woman who asked me if I worked at the International School. I admitted it and she proceeded to go into a spiel about looking for American teachers. I didn't really understand what she was talking about and thought that she wanted me to tutor or something in English (which I can ' t do because of my contract but wouldn't t anyway as it would be more trouble tha n t it is worth ) . So I explained about my contract which distressed her and made me feel guilty. Because of that I felt the need to help her find a solution. 

It turns out that she had lived for nine years in Wyoming (yeah, I thought that was a weird choice, too) and wanted to start a 4 H club here in Mongolia. While she was explaining this to me standing in my doorway, her daughter, who was three or four years old kept trying to get into my apartment and I kept having to physically block her while attempting to make appropriate and intelligent remarks. It was surprisingly difficult to so while defending your doorway from invasion by a very small explorer and blocking the door as if you were a goalie. After making a plan for her to meet the director of my school she went back to her home and we haven ' t run into each other in the hallway since. 

Some encounters of course are not so simple or pleasant. I went to the little store that is close to my apartment today. It is the actually in the same building. A man was there and picked up a bottle of vodka and a bottle of coke. He didn't buy them though. They were lying on the counter and the man (who was smoking inside the store) was 5 feet away standing just inside the door. Crying. Loud sobs like a kid would. The whole thing was sort of disturbing and uncomfortable even before he came back inside the store as I was checking out. He stood directly behind me (as in about 5 inches behind me) talking to the clerk and occasionally sobbing. I just stood there feeling like a deer in the headlights with my money out trying to pay. I was a little afraid that I would be robbed. This is the problem with not speaking the language (yes, I know , shut up already about the language thing). I didn't know what was going on so in my mind I sort of started preparing for disaster. Couldn't he afford his item and was that the reason he was crying? Was there some sort of personal tragedy? I didn't know and as he came out of the store right behind me I was again all paranoid that he was going to follow me. The whole thing really disturbed me. Adults don ' t usually cry like that. Even in great grief there is an element of control that this situation lacked. It made me wonder if he was crazy, which made me want to try and help which conflicted with my fear and had me just wallowing in guilt. This time there wasn't a connection but there was definitely an impression. 

Of course the people that I have the most encounters with are the people who drive the taxis. There is something so awkward about sitting in a car with a stranger in horrible traffic that people are compelled to fill the silence with something. The taxi drivers sometimes like to chat me up. Sometimes in Mongolian, which doesn't t work so well. Mitquea Mongol (I don't understand Mongolian) . On the plus side I recognize the question when they are asking me where I am from and can now answer. Lots of times they want to know about the States or when they find out that I am not just visiting why in the world I am living in Mongolia. The international school isn't all that well known in the Mongolian community and I have yet to be able to communicate it to someone who doesn't have a kid who attends it. I sit in traffic and talk with people who tell me about learning English in India or about their reasons for driving a taxi in the city. Short simple conversations with people who I don ' t see again but whom I base so much of my opinion on about Mongolians in general .

Fighting the Good Fight for a Hot Shower

I am in a new apartment this year. This is cause for celebration. Actually I moved at the end of last school year. It is much nicer than my old apartment and close enough to the school that I can walk which is great because that means that I don’t have to deal with Mongolian traffic five days a week. It takes about ten minutes to walk school even though it looks as if they are right next to each other. I will probably be sad about this in the winter when it is nasty cold but I keep telling myself that I managed in Alaska and I can manage here. 
Cows on the road

My landlord speaks English. This is a good thing because about a week after I moved into my new apartment the hot water turned off. How water is provided by the city and is generally turned off in the middle of June but this year it was the first of June. Lest you think that a cold shower in June is acceptable I will point out that the first weekend I had to be without hot water it snowed. I was pissed. Here I am paying crazy amounts of money for an apartment and there is no hot water. So I started harassing my landlord. When I would try and shower at 5:30 in the morning and it was one degree above sleet he would get a call. Throughout the day when I had a moment, he would get a call. Three or four times in the evening, he would get a call. This seemed to have little effect on the situation as a whole but was somewhat cathartic for me. Then I had the brainstorm of telling him that if there was no hot water there would be no rent. I am not sure that that was a bluff on my part (I hadn’t had a decent shower in about two weeks at this point) but he folded. Two days later workers arrived to install a hot water heater. Not just a little boiler as I had in my old apartment but my own tiny little hot water heater hooked up to my shower. It took five hours to install and they put in the hoses backward (hot is cols and cold is hot) but I didn’t care. A hot shower… Bliss. 
Living room/ dining room

It is now the middle of September and I still don’t have hot water in my sinks (which makes dishes a pain. I have to boil water first and then wash them. Nuts to that!) so all in all the epic battle of wills concerning my hot water needs was worth it. 

I live in Marshalltown which is apparently the Ritzy complex to live in and I have to say that it is really trying hard to be impressive. Unfortunately “impressive” includes way more gold leaf than you want to know about and landscaping that included fake flowers. I mean it. They planted fake flowers. I know that the whole idea of landscaping is a fairly new one here but shouldn’t common sense at some point reign? A unique and quirky part of my Mongolian experience and that I can’t help shaking my head over it every morning. On the plus side my apartment does not reflect the general tackiness of the place and I am really very comfortable here. 
My kitchen

The road I live on is a main road for Japan town (the part of town I live in) but because my building is the only thing past the first turn off a mile or so away there is little to no traffic. That means that it is the only place in the city that is safe to run at. This means that I am constantly passed by runners on my way to and from work. The same group passes me almost every day and I strongly suspect that they are the Mongolian national track team. There are also less likely people running down the road. Old men in traditional garb, middle aged women power walking backward and occasionally a man herding sheep down the street. I am coming across some interesting new locals living here. 
This is why my power keeps going out.

I accidently broke the glass door leading out of the building the other day. Since I have been there it has been propped open. Now I know why. There is no such thing as shatterproof glass in Mongolia and when the door swung shut behind me all of the glass in it shattered. I wasn’t hurt but I was both shocked and embarrassed. I found a security guard at the gate but since all I could tell him was “Door… door… door … bad… no!” in Mongolian needless to say he just gave me a look that told me he was about to fetch a butterfly net and went back to his breakfast. I tried to pantomime it next and he nodded gravely at me as if he understood. Eventually he must have understood or more likely someone else told him about it as it was all cleaned up when I got back from school. 
A hummer in from of the image of Chingis Khan on the mountain.

The incident has made me really touchy about shutting any glass door in the school lest I accidentally cause a door to shatter on a child. That wouldn’t be the best start to the year. It is fire drill season at school which is always hilarious. Every time we do one I have this mental image of a scene from Kindergarten Cop where the teacher is running out of the building with a kid under each arm and the rest of the class following while screaming. Of course it is nowhere near that disorganized but scorched cupcakes this morning had us out on the field for a good twenty minutes. This is a big deal when there are three year olds around. I was helping with the preschool class because my students line up with their classroom teacher once we are in the meeting place. Trying to contain 15 three year olds in an open field for 15 minutes was an adventure in itself. And of course the whole thing was complicated by the fact that I had chosen today as the day to wear really high heels. That being said the fire department here responds insanely fast which is a miracle considering the traffic (people don’t pull over for emergency vehicles here) so I actually feel pretty safe. 

I am off to enjoy my weekend. I hear rumors of a salsa dancing party at the American Ger’ll tonight…

The Deep Questions You find in Nazca

The theme of Peru was long drives and dead people.
 Notice the headphones which I used to listen to the exhaustive explanation of the lines... "monkey...monkey... spider... spider..."

We drove south along the Pacific coast.  On the right was the ocean with spectacular surf and a somewhat forbidding aura.  The large amounts of sharp rocks jutting out of and into the water might have had something to do with the aura thing.  The sand of the beaches when we stopped was fine, and powdery and somewhat soothing to the touch.  On the left of the bus was the desert.  The Atacama was unlike anything that I had ever seen before.  We drove for hours and there hasn’t  without seeing a plant, bird, animal, or sign of humans.  Just rolling sand dunes, gravel and rock with the mountains in the distance coming steadily closer.  It was what I imagine that the moon looks like.  After awhile we passed the remains of an adobe wall and above it I watched what I assume was some kind vulture gliding in circles.

The sands of the Pacific

Nazca Our first day in Nazca started with an earthquake.  Just a little one that sort of woke me up but not enough to get me out of bed.  Basically, I rolled over and went back to sleep.  Looking back that was probably not the best way to stay alive if perhaps the building had been less stable that I thought it was.  My survival instincts seriously let me down… I decided to take one of the little planes up to see the Nazca lines.  The lines were created by the Nazca culture probably between 200BC and 700 AD.  There are hundreds of individual figures. They  range in intricacy from simple lines to pictures of animals.  The pictures are very unique and when you see these pictures reproduced it is easy to know what they are.
Look a monkey!

The lines were made in the ground where the reddish gravel that cover desert has been removed, revealing the paler ground underneath. The largest are over 660 ft across.  They really can only be seen from the air.  I flew up in a tiny little plane much like the one that I used to fly to the village in Alaska in.  Of course the Peruvian plane was much nicer and to get into the plane you didn’t have to climb over the wings.  I think that the reason for this feature is so that the gaping tourists (i.e. Tara) can look out the windows without having their view spoiled.  The flight was about an hour long and covered a much larger distance that I had imagined.  The lines are quite spread out.  I had thought that they were all sort of lined up one after another, like the geoglyph version of Easter Island.  Because of the lack of contrast between the lines and the surrounding ground as well as the  bright sun made getting a decent photograph of the lines almost impossible.  I can’t tell you how many pictures I took that turned out to be crap.  It was an exercise in futility and eventually I just decided to give it up so I could enjoy the ride and view.  The plane circles each of the lines which was a maneuver that I was not used to even though I have lots of small plane experience.  After about forty five minutes of this I was a healthy and attractive shade of green and more concerned with keeping breakfast down than the impressive lines that I was supposed to be paying attention to.   I managed to keep my dignity but after the flight was over I spent about twenty minutes with my head between my knees.  And yet it was so worth it… mysterious lines from adead culture.
Quiz: Can you see the Owl-man?

To see that dead cultures dead we travelled to Chauchilla which is an ancient Nazca cemetery.  But not a cemetery like we would normally think of it.  The corpses are in deep pits covered with awnings.  The bones are bleached bright white from the sun.  Looking around the broad flat valley you can see tiny bones glinting in every direction.  This is a testament to the grave robbers that have ravaged this area. Chauchilla cemetery has been  looted by treasure hunters and local farmers for centuries.  The valuables and artifacts are a much surer way to make money that trying to eek a living out of the  desert.  Grave robbers have only left behind the corpses.  It is the only archaeological site in Peru, in which ancient mummies are seen in their original graves.  The mummies aren’t well preserved and Peru boasts much better examples but the setting makes the experience powerful and uncomfortable.  Who were these people?  What were they like?  Was it ghoulish and weird to stare at their remains like this?  I don’t know the answers  to these questions but I do know that the cemetery is something that will stay with me for a long time…
Am I back in Togiak?

Back on the bus: The pacific continued to throw itself against the bare rocks of the beach.  Watching it along with the sway of the was almost hypnotic and the whole scene felt almost primeval like watching fire as if there is something about the rhythm of the ocean  that brings back memories of earlier ancestors…

Bienvienidos a Peru! Donde la Historia vive!

This blog is belated. You can tell that it is belated because the last one that I wrote was in April. Seriously April?! What is wrong with me? Okay, new goal for this school year. One blog a week. It may not actually happen but I am setting this as my goal anyway. Let me assure you that in the time that I wasn’t writing thing were actually happening. Not all of them were interesting but still… Anyhow… on to Peru! 

As you can probably tell from the title of this blog my Spanish (while pretty darn bad) is much much better than my Mongolian. 

The flight to Peru was much shorter than I thought it would be. Just short of seven hours from Newark. The plane was also not the monster that I have become used to taking on jaunts around Asia. This might be insignificant but I think that it was demonstrative of the fact that South America and getting to South America is nowhere near as intense as Asia. Peru had a consistently low key atmosphere that I found very refreshing.

I decided to take a tour around Peru. I wanted to see too much 

in too many cities to do it on my own. Okay, I could have done it on my own but I’m lazy. I got into Lima at 11 pm and didn’t have to meet anyone until 2 the next afternoon . Wanting to take advantage of every opportunity I spent the morning wandering, getting lost, finding the hotel again and repeating this pattern about five time. Lima is only 12 degrees south of the equator and I was halfway expecting it to be warm even though it was winter in the southern hemisphere. It ended up being sort of cold and misty. Apparently the mist has a name… garua. Lima is the colonial capital of Peru so most of the interesting buildings are Spanish. 

We got up at 3 the next morning so that the bus could leave by 4. Driving south along the pacific coast we were barely out of Lima when it happened. We were on our way to the Ballastas Islands and we were stopped by a protest. There were tires burning on the road and a crowd of people. In front of the bus, but not too close to the protesters, another crowd of people gathered. They mostly looked like tourist who are pretty easy to pick out here. Actually, when you really think about it do tourist really blend in anywhere? I think that being the odd one out in a crowd might be half the fun of being a tourist. There was a van with what I assumed was a television station logo on it driving up the median to the fires. Later on we heard that the station had been showing the whole thing live and that we were all on Peruvian TV. Why am I so entertained by that? The people milling about were having endless variations of the same conversation. “Who are these people?” “What do they want?” or even perhaps, “How long is this going to take?” No one (tourist or Peruvian) seemed to know the answer to any of these questions. As the sun rose I got to stare at the mist wrapped foothills of the Andes and think of the sleep I could have gotten if only I had known that this was going to happen. Funny how getting up and three in the morning and then stuck on a bus with no bathroom makes you wistful for a hotel room… The column of smoke from the burning tires are oddly hypnotic as I watch and listen to a man on the radio speak Spanish at the speed of light. I was picking up about one world in ten. “Curito”, “Importante” and “ quinto” and just listening to it made me a little dizzy. 

The group leader, Fernando spent most of the time talking on his cell phone trying to save the day at the islands. I probably would have been more annoyed or worried but for two things. One: I was not the one who had to deal the logistics and two: I was way way too tired- even though I couldn’t really sleep. I was also bored as nothing had changed except for the light in over an hour. Suddenly the police arrived and Fernando is yelling at everyone to get on the bus and to roll up the windows. Several tear gas bomb later the crowd has been dispersed and the fires put out. Four hours of waiting for the police and the whole thing was over in less than ten minutes. There were still tons of large rocks that had been thrown on the road to black traffic to deal with but a little off roading took care of that. 

All in all a fascinating welcome to Peru. 

And for those of you who care- we did indeed make the islands before the currents turned nasty for the day… 

Getting my year fixed

Javsung, my housekeeper is very worried about me and has been since I went to her home for Tsaggan Sar.  Why is she so worried?  Well, I was born in the year of the Rooster and Tsaggan Sar marks the beginning of the year of the Bull.  According to her this is bad bad bad and needs to be fixed.  Fixing my year (that is how she put it- although she isn’t very fluent in English so I could probably use my own phrase) involved going to one of the many Buddhist temples in Ulaanbaatar in order to have a lama give me advice.

About 70 to 80% of the people in Mongolia say that they are Buddhist.  Buddhism in Mongolia is basically Tibetan Buddhism of the Gelugpa school.  In the 1500’s a Mongol military invited the head of the “Yellow Sect” of Tibetan Buddhism to Mongolia. He gave the Tibetan leader the title of the Dali Lama which the head of Tibetan Buddhism  still hold.  My schools driver even now has a picture of the Dalai Lama glued to the wind shied of the school van.  In the twenties, about one third of the men in Mongolia were Buddhist monks although many of these lived outside the monasteries and did not observe their vows..  Not of them lives inside monasteries though.  Before communism there were about 750 monasteries throughout the country.  After Communism was established the government repressed the religious practices of Mongolians.  The leader of Mongolia at the time Khorloogin Choibaisan obeyed order from Stalin and destroyed most of the Monasteries and killed thousands of monks.    In the 1990’s after the fall of communism here there was a Buddhist revival and many of them were rebuilt and reestablished.


The big temple is at the edge of town but there are a bunch of smaller temples around it and one of these is where Javsung goes with her family and where she took me.  She likes the lama there.  A Lama is a title for a Tibetan teacher of theDharma. Lama can be used as an honorific title conferred on a monk, or may be part of a title such as Dali Lama.  It seems here that all the monks are called lamas but again Javsung’s English isn’t that fluent and my Mongolian is just embarrassing so I might have misunderstood.

I had never been to a Buddhist temple before so I found all the little things fascinating.  The buildings inside and out are painted with bright reds, greens, yellows, and blues.  I am used to a much more subdued place of worship and so the lights and colors were a bit jarring.  The Eight auspicious symbols of Buddhism were painted all around the temple.  In case you were wondering the symbols are I will tell you.  There is a Lotus flower which represents purity and enlightenment. An Endless knot, or, the Mandala that shows harmony. A Golden Fish pair is next and that represents married happiness and freedom.  Is it me or is that just an oxymoron?  There is also a Victory Banner which sort of speaks for itself and a Wheel of Dharma which represents knowledge.  Inexhaustible treasure and wealth is shown by the treasure vase which is again strange as much of the point of Buddhism seems to be avoiding attachment to worldly goods.. Then there is the Parasol and this represents the crown, and protection from the elements.  Which crown I am not sure of though… Last there is a Conch shell and inside the conch shell is where all the thoughts of Buddha are supposed to be.

Outside there were several prayer wheels. A prayer wheel is a cylindrical 'wheel'  in this case made from metals. Traditionally, the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum is written in Sanskrit externally on the wheel.   I wouldn't have recognized the Sanskrit or what was written but there were people’s names on the wheels.  They were put there by their families after the person dies so that others can pray for them.  According to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, spinning the wheels will have much the same meritorious effect as saying the prayers out loud.  It was also sort of fun to walk around the whole building with Javsung spinning wheels.
The temple was crowded.  You had to wait in line but because the concept of line in Mongolia is a bit fluid the waiting was a bit less placid than I had expected.    The benches were tiny, only about two or three inches wide.  We sat there while Javsung told the lama about me (or at least that is what I think she did) and then the Lama gave me his advice for fixing the year. He told me that it is a good thing to be open to Buddhism and that I would never forget Mongolia.  He also told me not to forget my own roots and religion.  I am supposed to carry a white handkerchief with me at all times.  I should not swim in very cold water and avoid all Mongolian food.  That last piece of advice is something I plan to shamelessly exploit in the next year.  I am also not to make major purchases which I suppose will help me save money.  The whole think was interesting and felt almost as if I was having my fortune told.

After that we went to the incense man in the corner to buy incense and a bottle of oil that you are supposed to wash your face  in.  He was very interested in me and I am pretty sure that he would have talked my ear off if we could have found a common language.  He very nicely let me take his picture.  I then sat down with another monk who had the list of “books” that needed to be read for me to change my year and sat there while he chanted them for me and this other woman who was sitting next to me who Javsung came to some sort of agreement about.  I am still not sure what language the books were in.  Javsung didn't know but I suppose that it is either Tibetan or Sanskrit.  While he chanted he used a rope of beads to keep track of where he was in the prayer.  Very similar I suppose to a rosary.  These beads are called malas and there are are 108 beads in the string one mala counts as 100 mantras, and the 8 extra are meant to be dedicated to all people.  He Chanted for about half an hour which Javsung told me is fairly short.  She told me that is because the first lama that I saw thought that I was basically a good and harmless person so recommended a short book.  After the chanting a pile of incense was lighted and the monk smiled and basically indicated that I should go home and be good.


And that is why I can tell you with great authority that my year is now fixed.  The lama told me so and Javsung is much more at ease.