Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Deep Mysteries of the Strawberry Choco Pie

Hung out with my host mom and sister today in UB. The occasion: my sister is starting college in UB (she will study social work, my host mom's occupation). So, after eating some delicious, I argue the best, vegetarian tsuivan in UB we went over to a monestary to see the largest statue of Buddha in the country.

It was, big.

But that wasn't the interesting part. Hundreds of prayer wheels surround the giant statue. People spin the wheels as they circumvent the Buddha in a clockwise manner. Chanting (a recording? possibly monks hidden on the second or third story balcony?) provided a backdrop.

Half way through this circular journey we encountered a small altar with a package of strawberry choco pies placed on top as an offering. Tiny Buddha statues lined the walls. Candy strewn about their little golden crossed legs. I know that I am often appeased by means of candy.

Leaving the temple I ask my mom what the Buddha was holding in his hands: a large pitcher and a silver spherical object. Mom had to think a bit before she (seemingly honestly) replied that the pitcher "contained" holy/pure water. The silver thing: no idea.

Moving on to another temple in the same complex we see some of the lamas chanting. The kid monks (maybe 10-17 years old) look back and forth giggling, some chanting at strange intervals with the leading monks, another text messaging someone on his dinosaur of a Nokia.

Enlightened by the situation, I'm enjoying time with friends in the Peace Corps office to the accompaniment of guitar improv before we leave for home tomorrow.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


Got off the plane from Bayankhongor yesterday and thought, "Why not take the bus into the city instead of a taxi and save 9,700 tugriks?" Seemed like a brilliant idea. Being a Sunday, lots of people got on the bus at each stop resulting in absolutely no free space. Every time the bus stopped or started we all fell all over each other: I almost killed a little girl ("I can't breath! Please move...").

Anyway, on the way into the city I see this sign: "USE OIL" written in huge block letters with the American flag used as letter filler.

Possibility #1: The letter "e" in Mongolian sometimes sounds like the long english "a". Maybe the attempt was so say USA using half mongolian half english lettering (?).

Possibility #2: This place is just really unabashed about encouraging the use of oil. I guess this shouldn't surprise me: this is their product, they want to sell it, so to promote its consumption makes a lot of sense. The States have simply become concerned enough with oil and its effects that such advertising would work less then wonderfully.

Possibility #3: USED OIL but they forgot the "d"?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Gelato; or: The Lack Thereof

Yes friends I was recently reminded of the fact that there is a place (or rather places) where people eat wondrous desserts (or make meals of desserts) for a simple euro per cone. This reminder of what I am currently not experiencing made me think that it is time to present the three things that Peace Corps volunteers discuss. *[Note: there is controversy about whether these items are limited to Bayankhongor volunteers or are universal to all Mongolian PCV's, I feel that the latter may be the case though I have not as yet found conclusive evidence. Working on it, I assure you].

Item #1) Food. Discussion begins with one of the following questions:
a) What did you make for dinner last night?
b) When was the last time you ate instant pad thai?
c) How many meals of the aforesaid pad thai have you eaten in succession (current honors go to Fahd with 4).
d) What if we combined X delicious exotic food from a warm place with Y traditional food from Mongolia. Sometimes this results in people making curry cheese...
e) Discussions surrounding what we "will" make this coming year. Take Peder for example who recently bought an oven. The list of "to be made" items is tremendous.

Item #2) Other volunteers. They may live in Bayankhongor, or not, it doesn't really matter. They may even be return Peace Corps volunteers, that's not going to stop us from discussing/judging/wondering/and otherwise commenting on them. We only came to this realization this summer with the arrival of American siblings (three of them between those of us in BH). They all mentioned that this is all we talk about (obviously an untruth as there are TWO other items...).

Item #3) The fact that we have nothing to talk about besides food and other volunteers.

This being said I recently participated in a discussion of the existence or non-existence of universal ethics with two other BH volunteers. This is a reason for hope, enlightenment, and possible social survival for a second year...

Take care,
Eat well,
and discuss something for our sakes.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Countryside and Self

"Only the modern city offers the mind a field in which it can become aware of itself."
-Mr. Hegel

Ran across this quotation (in the Myth of Sisyphus) while I was in the complete opposite of the modern city: the Mongolian countryside. A number of other quotations and ideas sprang to mind which seemed to justify Hegel's position:

1) Heidegger's idea of Dasein. A large part of our existence, (indeed most of it) is spent doing "tasks": laundry, dishes, paperwork, etc. When doing these "tasks" we usually aren't reflecting on the task, rather we are "in" the "task". For example, if we are mopping, we are considering things like the length of the mop, size of the floor, condition of the mop water, etc. We see the mop as a tool used to complete the task and don't ask ourselves metaphysical questions about the mop like: what is the essence of a mop? In the countryside I observed plenty of this form of Dasein. People milking goats, boiling milk, chopping wood, gathering dung, etc. Completely absorbed in their tasks, unaware of their "selves". In the city, nearly every task that I observed in the countryside is done by someone else, somewhere else, allowing more time for contemplation/reflection. [Unrelated note: potential definition of tourism: "observing Dasein"?]

2) Going to combine similar ideas from Goedel, Escher, Bach and Sartre here: other people are essential in creating the "self". Our identity is created (mostly or completely) via our interactions with others: someone tells us that we have x quality, y talent, or z characteristic. Through these interactions we observe others and our own reactions and come to see patterns of behavior. The number of varied encounters, experiences, and opinions that one can gather are limited in the countryside where you will likely see the same 10 (or fewer) people for months at a time. An obvious contrast with city life where, if only for work and the acquisition of daily needs one interacts with a large number of people and is constantly meeting new people.

3) On a similar theme, a Wilde quotation will suffice:

"My dear boy," said Lord Henry, smiling "anybody can be good in the country. There are no temptations there. That is the reason why people who live out of town are so absolutely uncivilized. Civilization is not by any means an easy thing to attain to. There are only two ways by which man can reach it. One is by being cultured, the other by being corrupt. Country people have no opportunity of being either, so they stagnate."

While perhaps a bit harsh and obviously exaggerated, the point is that, from the limited number of people with whom one can interact arises a limited number of experiences and thus decision making both of which help create the "self".

4) One can't leave out Ferdinand Toennies in a discussion like this. The Gemeinschaft/Gesellschaft distinction allows for the individuation of the self which arises from awareness of the self in the first place.

The distinction between the city and country is quickly blurring even here. A perfect example is the ger-dwelling family in my yard. In order to be with their children during the school year they move their ger to Bayankhongor. As soon as school is over it's back to the countryside, allowing them time in both spheres. This distinction is also relativistic. Take for example the UB-dweller I met recently who considers Bayankhongor to be "countryside". Or, from the countryside dweller's perspective: usually three or four families live relatively close to each other. This group of usually three or four gers is called: a city.