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.

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