May 30, 2007

Once Upon A Time in the Steppes - Part Two

Read Part One // Read Part Three // Read Part Four

I woke up Monday morning dry, my throat parched until I chugged the remaining half-liter of water I had left standing next to my bedside. This was to be the norm for our two weeks in Mongolia — the high elevation (about 600 meters, or 2000 feet, average where we were; the national mean is about 1500 meters / 5000 feet) and cloudless skies meant essentially zero humidity and throats sucked dry overnight. Pretty much the exact opposite of Bangladesh, where we were wading through the air last year, but I did eventually get somewhat used to it, albeit only after first coming down with some sort of throat cold on the second or third day of the trip that lasted through the first week. In any case, that first day I rolled out early — 6:45ish — on account of an open window curtain and spent the morning mentally pacing before sitting down to the hotel breakfast at around 8:00, which was sausages and vegetable soup. It was good, and we were able to load up into the vans reasonably close to on time afterwards, leaving for the work site around 9:00. When the vans arrived we met Ogi, a young woman who would be our translator on-site; she was a former student of Baynaa's, she explained, although she didn't look like she could've been more than two or three years younger than him (apparently Baynaa taught English for a time at the local college before working with Habitat). We travelled to the first worksite, where we got a safety orientation from the construction supervisor, Ghana (#1), and met the homeowner, who was also Ghana (#2). Then we went to the second site and met a third Ghana (#3), who was another construction supervisor, and the homeowner on the second site, who we called Chotto even though I'm fairly sure that's not how we were supposed to be pronouncing his name. Both sites were about a ten minute drive apart from one another, on the southeast edge of town in a rundown district of shacks and gers. Chotto's house was near what had once been Russian military base, which was completely torn down to rubble after they left in 1992; he was tall with very Slavic-inclined features, in contrast to Ghana #2, whose wide face and ponytail made him look like he could've easily been one of the Khaan's riding buddies, if it weren't for the camouflage work pants.

At this point we were waiting for a load of sand to arrive from the nearby factory, so before starting work we took a short trip around to a nearby Habitat "neighborhood" where we could see what the finished houses would look like. We visited one, which belonged to a former construction supervisor; it was pretty cozy inside, I have to say. We returned from that to the first worksite and set about hauling concrete blocks out around the edge of the foundation, shoveling sand and clearing rocks. At around 10:30 I got called away with Baynaa to make a run to the grocery store for tea break snacks. The store, Darkhan's largest supermaket, was seriously better stocked than the place I shop at here in Japan... I would make this same trip every morning thereafter and get to enjoy the giant bust of Lenin looking over me from the wall as I checked out with my bag full of Korean snack cookies and Russian biscuits. Afterwards we swung by the hotel to order lunch (unprepared for this, I had to guess at random the first time) and then stopped by the Habitat offices, where I got to watch Baynaa argue with an elderly guy about something related to mortgage payments (Habitat homes aren't free; homeowners contribute the initially third of the money from their savings, with the remaining two-thirds being paid by donations and the local affiliate; the mortgage payments after the receive the house, which continue for about five years, help go towards the financing of more homes). At least I think they were arguing — Mongolian is a pretty guttural language and it can sound pretty harsh when you have no idea what they're saying (which, in my case, was more or less all the time). We returned for tea as the sand arrived, and after a short break we started mixing the cement for the walls.

I've done a lot of different unskilled construction tasks in my seven years with Habitat but masonry was a first this time, so that was fun; the local workers got us started at the corners and then more or less let us go to it ourselves, slapping down a trowel full of cement and dropping the blocks into place. What was not fun (well, it was kind of fun, but definitely not easy) was mixing the cement in the old bathtub by hand, which I didn't do that at that point but did several more times before the trip was over. It is seriously heavy stuff, and a great way to throw out your back if you're not careful; of course, the Mongolian guys churned through it like butter, but I've learned not to try and compete with the local talent. Everybody pitched in and we had a good time, but after lunch break I think we were all feeling the burn. In the afternoon we split into two teams to start working on the second site as well, which we would continue to do every day afterwards. In the past I have seen people get very attached to the house they're working on in these situations, and I wanted to avoid cliquishness, so I did my best to rotate people around and give them a chance to work with everyone on both houses; for the most part, I think this was a success. By 5:00 a full day of carrying concrete blocks and mixing cement was definitely catching up to out-of-shape us, and we went back to the hotel to call it a day. After an embarrassing miscommunication on my part at first, we went down to dinner at 6:00 with the HFH Darkhan office staff, who had all come to welcome us. Afterwards I relaxed with some card playing and then called it a night around 11:00.

The next day was more blocklaying in the morning, up to the final tenth row — two days and we had finished the walls, which was pretty amazing to see. We continued after lunch by filling the cracks in the blocks with cement, which was fun and comparatively easy work. On the way back in the evening we stopped at the supermarket for more shopping, and ran into a WorldVision puppet show taking place outside — there seems to be a fair amount of NGO activity going on there, as we were sharing the hotel with a pair of older dentists (one from Wisconsin, the other Mississippi) who were also in town for two weeks pulling teeth. In the evening some people went to the nearby internet cafe, others watched tv — we actually had an amazing array of international channels, with the BBC news, HBO movies, National Geographic documentaries, and weird Russian MTV music videos all on regular display. (I did see one cool hip-hop video though, so if there happen to be any Russian readers out there who know the song by the guy wearing the 1920s newsie-style cap rapping with his two bandmates and then taking up the guitars to rock out, all the while interspersed with Soviet historical stock footage, please let me know what the song's called in comments here.) In a way this was kind of unfortunate, as it tended to cause people to lounge around in their rooms rather than visiting with each other, but down time is important when you're stuck travelling together with a group 24/7 and I wasn't about to push it.

Our third day we continued sealing cracks inside and out along the walls and also began mixing a special kind of cement — this one with rocks in it! — that we laid as a cap around the walltops and also as a slab on the floor where the stove would sit. We had a good morning of work and then after lunch went to visit an elementary school in Old Darkhan. The school was one of Darkhan's smaller but we got a chance to visit one class, which was (if I understood this right) a group of second-graders. The kids were, of course, adorable — after we played a few games and sang some English songs with them, they sang back to us in Mongolian, breathlessly recited some poems, and of course asked us loads of questions. Besides the free English class we brought donations of school supplies from our students back in Japan, who loaded us down with all the cute Engrish notebooks we could carry. After about an hour of visiting we said our goodbyes and returned for a little bit of work on the houses, nailing together some beams that would become part of the ceiling. We ordered dinner at the appropriately named "Nice Cafe" — by this point everyone was ready for a break from the hotel menu, which we were eating from breakfast, lunch, and dinner — afterwards and had dinner with Baynaa and our drivers there.

Thursday we began plastering the exterior walls with a seal of two inches or so worth of cement; slap a trowel full of cement onto a flat board, smack it against the wall, and sort of shimmy it upwards in an attempt to keep it from all falling off again in a clump before sanding it smooth with a wide circular motion of the board. This took a while for us all to get the hang of, and we had to do a few walls a second time the next day; by lunch time I was pretty exhausted. There was to be no rest for the weary, though, as after lunch I and every other guy working with Habitat Darkhan got called away for some seriously heavy lifting. Together, the fifteen or so of us managed to haul off a (rough guess) one-ton water tank and a two-ton shed, using nothing more than some scaffolding, wooden poles, and brute force: it was a pretty amazing process to watch as everybody threw in their opinion on the best way to heave these things into the back of the aging Russian dump truck that had come to transport them to a new area where HFH Darkhan would be building another neighborhood of Habitat houses. When I finally left some two hours later, the shed was hanging off the back of the truck suspending by a single metal cable.. but they're pretty resourceful guys there in Darkhan, and apparently they did finally manage to get it to their destination, somehow.

Friday morning we had something of a minor catastrophe involving laundry service at the hotel — clothes went missing initially and then after three days the bill turned out to be something on the order of twenty-five dollars for a load (the charge was per item, not per load; apparently laundry is a fair luxury in Mongolia, as we later found there were no public laundromats anywhere), which was not what we had expected, to put it mildly. People were, not surprisingly, not happy by this, but then it looked like maybe the poor bellboy who had taken the clothes might be the one who would have to pay when people refused. The whole thing was an awful miscommunication from the start and definitely not good times, but I think in the end we did manage to come to some sort of solution where we were not going to be taking six months of this poor boy's salary on account of the fact that we didn't get our clothes back on time. After that we washed our clothes in the sink. Again, not a pleasant situation, and one I was glad to be done with. We continued plastering through Friday afternoon; on the first house they were already working on roof frames, but the second site went a little slower. In the afternoon, we made a visit to a poor area of Old Darkhan, to see the kinds of shacks many Mongolians have to live in, which was hopefully an eye-opener for all of us.

Saturday morning we said goodbye to two of our team members, as both P. and Ms. Riddarfjarden were unable to stay for the full two weeks and had to catch a flight back to Japan that evening. They drove back to Ulaan Bator after a visit to the work sites in the morning to say goodbye; checking out was a little rushed and I didn't think to give them money from the group fund to help pay for their meals and such in UB, but otherwise they got there and back home fine. After they left we continued with yet more spackling; by this point in the week we were all dragging, and we were a hot and dirty bunch at lunch time. We broke early at around four and had dinner at the Nice Cafe again. That evening was the social highlight of the week — yes, that's right, we went to the disco in Mongolia. Some of the more enthusiastic team members ended up inviting just about everyone — homeowners, Habitat families, hotel workers — so it ended up being quite a crowd that rolled into Club Scorpion that night. I could say that I had a great time dancing and partying it up with the Darkhan folks... but the truth is I hate dancing and I spent most of the night sitting in a corner squinting into the glare of what seemed to be about a thousand blinding strobe lights while bad techno boomed around us. Everyone else did seem to have a good time though, so I sucked it up. It certainly was an experience, although not necessarily one I was keen to repeat.


This is running long so I'll save the aforementioned stuck-in-a-river-in-the-middle-of-nowhere story for Part Three, in which I also hope to finish recounting our second week of work, our three days of R&R bouncing around in a bus all over Mongolia, and my experience on horseback.

May 21, 2007

Once Upon A Time in the Steppes - Part One

Read Part Two // Read Part Three // Read Part Four

It has been two years since I organized and led a Habitat for Humanity volunteer trip. What was once regular practice — one of the dominant themes of my college social life, actually — has been relegated to anecdotes and memories during my two years expatriation in Japan. Last year's trip to Bangladesh offered a brief building fix, but then as participant rather than leader; it was enjoyable in its way, but also not what I had been used to. I doubt anyone would've predicted it during my quiet high schooler days, but three years in a position of responsibility with the Boston University Habitat organization definitely has changed me — for all the stress involved, I'd still rather be Fearlessly Leading. The unpredicted complications in the run-up to our departure were many, but "then I spent two hours wading through the Japanese post office bureaucracy" or "the correspondent bank in New York didn't have enough account information to forward our $2000 of tour money to the bank in Mongolia" doesn't make for a very thrilling travel narrative... so I'm going to begin at our date of departure and simply note that, for me anyhow, the adventure had already begun a good while back. I had booked (and re-booked) tickets, sent long exhaustive e-mails, collected donations, corresponded with our hosts, fought with my Board of Education, and chipped in about $5000 of my own money in the hope that I would eventually get it back (I did, eventually). Now it was time to actually make it happen.


We left from Fukuoka International Airport on the evening of Friday the 27th; we had originally planned to leave on a flight the following Saturday morning, but that waitlist never budged. Golden Week, four national holidays in the span of seven days, is probably the busiest travel season in Japan outside of maybe New Year's, and apparently a lot of people were heading to Seoul to stock up on kimchi and Yon-sama t-shirts. Luckily for the eleven of us, we were able to get onto a flight late enough in the evening that no-one would have to take off work Friday in order to make it to the airport. I caught the bus with Ms. Riddarfjarden and Erin and got to Fukuoka around 6:30; everyone else was there ready to go, so I handed out passports and tickets and we checked our bags through to Ulan Bator. The airport was pretty empty that evening so I had figured we would have no problem; but after delays changing money, having to repack a bag with all of our liquids, and there being only one grumpy guy at the emigration counter, the plane was starting to board by the time we finally got through, hot and tired. We were able to relax on the quick plane ride over, though, and got into Seoul around 10:30 in the evening. I had booked rooms at the Incheon Guesthouse, and although our initial attempt to call and have them come pick us up failed — nobody spoke English on the other end — we did get help from the airport information services. Two vans showed up not long after, whose drivers did speak English, and they whisked us away to the guesthouse, which like the one I stayed in on my trip to Busan in February, was located in a large apartment tower complex. Even so, it was pretty nice, with a kitchenette and everything — probably meant for longterm stay, I guess.

Our flight on to Ulan Bator Saturday wasn't until the evening as well so we had almost a full day to kill in Seoul; we slept in and lounged around until around 11:00ish at which point we dragged ourselves down to check out and see the city. The guesthouse drivers took us back to the airport, where we all checked buses and took one in to Anguk in Seoul, about an hour and a half away — with the plan being that some people would split up but that we would all be meeting back at the airport no later than 6:00 PM. One person split off in Anguk to meet a friend and the rest of us had a delicious Korean-style lunch; Korean food continues to be one of my favorites, especially for eating in groups. After that about half of us split for walk the Insadong street arcade and window shop at art stores, and the other half (with me included) headed to Gyeongbokgung Palace. It's Seoul's largest and grandest, until the Japanese got to it — twice, once in 1592 and then again in the 1890s. The city has crept up around it but it's currently being restored and several of the buildings are still quite impressive; also cool were the "royal guards" stationed at the gates, whose costumes visitors were able to try on. I didn't have time to see the War Memorial Museum (I was apparently the only one who wanted to go) so I'm going to have to come back to Seoul some day and check that out (and go on a DMZ tour).

The two groups met back at around 4 and we caught the bus back to the airport — although the ride was pretty jarring ("he's driving this bus like a taxi" was how Ms. Riddarfjarden described it) we did get there exactly on time, at 6:00. Unfortunately, we then proceeded to have a small panic over the fact that J., who had gone off to meet her friend, was not back yet. After several pages over the airport PA system I finally told the others to head up and start checking in, but not to leave without me and J. — I don't know what would've happened if she hadn't made it back in time, but I was not about to leave anyone behind, so it probably wouldn't have been anything good. She did finally make it there by 7:00, having missed the bus and taken an $80 cab in order to get there about 45 minutes before our plane was to depart. We got through security fast, I dashed into an electronics store to buy a universal plug adaptor, and then onto the plane we went! This was probably the most stressful moment of the trip, and it did introduce a bit of tension in the group, but ultimately luck was with us.

The flight was almost empty so I attempted to nap a little bit, but no luck; we arrived into Ulan Bator at around midnight on Saturday after a three and a half hour flight. Our first taste of Mongolia was pretty bland; the immigration hall was small and the process slow (not helped by the fact that ours closed right as we got to the front). When we did get through our bags were waiting for us, and outside so was Batbold and the rest of the Habitat team, with the van and car that would be our team's transportation for the week and a half we would spend building with the Darkhan Habitat for Humanity affiliate.

Batbold greeted us with a friendly smile and an accent that (like most Mongolians) was very Russian-sounding to my ears; he mentioned that English has only been a popular language of study since 1992, when Mongolia gave up Soviet-style socialism. We piled into the cars and strapped our bags to the roof to head off into night for our hotel in central Ulan Bator; I sat up front wedged between Batbold and the driver and we chatted through the drive. I attempted to learn a bit of Mongolia and learned that "thank you" is very hard to say (what we eventually learned sounded something like "bar-shlah", and whether that was even close I'm still not sure — a lot of tricky gutturals and blends in Mongolian). I also learned that, incidentally, tomorrow was apparently the first ever emissions-reduction day in Ulan Bator (on account of the bad smog) and maybe we wouldn't be able to drive anywhere? But we'd figure out something. (Last year in Dhaka, oddly enough, there was a similar sort of case, except that in that case it was striking opposition parties blocking the streets.) We did get to our hotel, the Amure, at around midnight, and collapsed into several rooms.

The next morning we had breakfast at the hotel (sausages and some sort pancake blobs which were better than that sounds) and then an orientation session with Batbold and Baynaa the Darkhan Affiliate Development Officer (who would be our host and my counterpart in Darkhan) in the hotel. Batbold was funny and did a very good job explaining Habitat, its mission, and its programs in Mongolia, particularly for an audience like ours where most people had not worked with HFH before. More than one wit had remarked to us before we left that "you're going to build houses for nomads?", but the reality is that since the end of socialist control and the resumption of free internal migration within the country after a seventy-year freeze, urbanization has increased rapidly as the population seeks jobs in cities like Ulan Bator and Darkhan. Over half the population lives in the cities now, where unemployment can be as high as 40%, and limited building resources (materials are often imported from China), aging and overcrowded Soviet-era housing, and high loan rates make home ownership very challenging for a lot of Mongolian families. HFH Mongolia has been in operation since 2000, with three Affiliates (building new houses) and another five Program Centers (renovating older houses) throughout the country. To date they've built 575 new houses and renovated 110, with goals for 800 this year. Two of those, we would be helping complete, and our group's donations (over $6000 worth) would go towards the construction of several more.

After our orientation we hit the streets of UB — side streets, on account of the aforementioned traffic restrictions, but it didn't turn out to be too much of an inconvenience for us. Ulan Bator was looking very dusty and very post-Communist; lots of drab concrete and industrial decay, but also interspersed with new construction, SUVs on the streets, and some pedestrians in chic European fashion. Unlike poor Bangladesh, Mongolia appears to be a developing country that actually is developing, however unevenly, thanks to the influx of Western assistance post-1992 and the commodities industry boom. We joined the ranks of millionaires after converting all of our team money into tugrug notes (a little over 1000 to the dollar) and used that to go on a short shopping trip at a local grocery store where we stocked up on bottled water. From there we made a side stop at our tour guides' offices to pay for the R&R portion of our trip, which we would be taking for our last three days in-country, and then crammed ourselves into a very tight van for the three and a half hour drive to Darkhan.

Although the legroom situation didn't get much better, the scenery did — we gradually left behind the dusty pall of UB and came out under the huge blue sky Mongolia is famous for. I've never seen a landscape quite like it before — huge expansive plains and hills stretching out from the potholed highway, dotted every now and then by a ger camp or a herd of cows, horses, or goats. Baynaa later said that, in summer, it all turns lush and green, but with spring only just beginning in Mongolia (we saw a few small patches of snow) the grasses were mostly tan and sparse. We stopped at a highway diner and after discovering the joys of open-pit toilets enjoyed a hearty meal of lamb burger and rice with ketchup... and got to check out the Mongolian high police outfit as well on some of our fellow diners, which is very Red Army-esque: military-style cap, white T-shirt with field jacket, black combat boots. I paid for lunch from the biggest bag of money the little boy next to the register had ever seen, and then we hit the road again.

We arrived in Darkhan at around 4:00 and checked into the Urtuuchin Hotel, which would be our home for the next week and a half. As I was one of only two guys on the trip (story of my Habitat career, to be honest) there wasn't much doubt as to who my roomate would be; the rest of us paired off and stowed our bags, then went down to the hotel restaurant to place orders for our dinner that evening before heading out for a tour of the city with Baynaa and "Bob", a member of the Darkhan HFH board, English translator, and teach at the local 800-student Darkhan College, which I gathered is a hospitality university. In the course of placing our orders, we met a Korean couple (the husband of which I believe was there on a mining contract?) who were either a little crazy or a little drunk or possibly both; in any case after we explained what we, a group of 11 young foreigners, happened to be doing here in Darkhan, they insisted on giving us one of every tugrug note (T10 on up through T20,000). The orientation that morning had mentioned our giving gifts to the locals — generally, it's preferred that we do it through the Habitat organization, so as to reduce dependency and potential pressure on future GV teams — but nobody told us what to do if someone was trying to give a gift to us. We eventually established that they didn't want to give us this money (it was worth at least about $35) as a donation but rather a "souvenir" to remember Mongolia by. After several protestations that Darkhan HFH could use this money much more than us — which were emphatically brushed aside — I finally caved in and took the money, which I promptly offered to Baynaa as soon as we got outside. After going back in to talk to the couple some more, he returned and said "this is your problem", which was worth a laugh at that point. So we took the money.

After this little episode we got in the van and car (which were a lot roomier now without the luggage) and took a short tour of the city, visiting a hill topped with a Buddhist stupa monument that overlooked both the old and new sections of town; another hill across the road featured a statue of a rider playing the horse fiddle. Darkhan has only existed since the 1960s, when it was planned and built by the Russians as an industrial town — the name means "blacksmith" in Mongolian. Today the population is around 100,000, and most of the Russians have gone home; a lot of industry has closed down but there is still some left (they pointed out a thermal power plant, sheepskin factory, and a few machine factories on our tour). We went back to the hotel and visited an internet cafe before dinner, which was good. Exhausted, I headed to bed soon after that, and so ended our first full day in Mongolia.


In the next part, I'll talk about our first week of work; our visit to an elementary school; and getting stuck in a river in the middle of nowhere. Excitement abounds!