Monthly Archives: November 2013

It’s a Funny Thing, Being an “Advisor”

I’m working on a grant proposal this week, but more of my time is spent being on call for questions that come up. Now is the time that the UN agencies here are setting up their plans for 2014, and the organization I work for does a lot with UNFPA, the UN Population Fund, so my colleagues are setting up projects and budgets for next year. It’s easiest to submit these in Mongolian, so I can’t help directly, but I answer lots of questions about how to present information. We’ve also spent a big chunk of time this week talking about how to improve the work habits of two of the junior staff. (Another time I will vent about how “capacity building” should mean more than just getting people to show up for work, but this is where things are.)

When I came back from lunch today — IMG_0832 they worry that I’m not finding enough to eat nearby, so I took a picture of my sandwich to show them — there was a young woman talking to my colleague/interpreter, and I was asked to sit with them. The visitor is a former tv journalist, now finishing her Masters and wanting to do a series of tv programs about this NGO; can we provide funding for that? Weeellll, I said, not sure we could/would/should fund that ourselves…but then the conversation went on to the idea that she develop her idea for a short series of episodes on gender-based violence in Mongolia. I talked a bit about how to structure a proposal and who might fund the project, and we all got pretty excited. No idea what will come of it, but it would be really fun to watch and help something like this take shape.

THEN they called me in to show me a picture of a perfume box on someone’s phone. Apparently her husband’s got a friend who’s offering to sell this for about USD 80.00, and she wasn’t sure it was real Chanel. (Just for the record: they have no idea I have an insane perfume collection; I think it’s just that I’m a westerner who might know.) My — strong — guess was no, because the box wasn’t right, and since I’m going through duty-free this week, I offered to get her some of the real stuff. Yes, please! At which point I made a poorly-recontextualized and hard to translate joke about drug mules – perfume mules – camels – perfume camels and thought maybe I’d better shut up and go back to my grant proposal.

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Learning Activism in Mongolia

sasa-logo-300x145 The organization that I’m working for just held a three day workshop on preventing violence against women, using training methodology developed by a Ugandan NGO called Raising Voices. SASA is a Kiswahili word that means now, and in the training context it’s also an acronym for Start Awareness Support Action. Here’s where you can get more specific information about how it works, but in general the methodology considers positive and negative uses of power, starting with participants’ personal experiences. There’s a real emphasis on taking action and avoiding what Raising Voices astutely describes as “the chronic cycle of awareness-raising.”

I’ve participated in a lot of similar workshops over the years, and this was one of the best, even in translation. The SASA structure is very well done: the progression of activities and information makes sense to bring people along. And the facilitators were great at generating discussion and contextualizing the exercises for Mongolia, where domestic violence is a big problem. IMG_0831I was glad to have the opportunity to learn about SASA, because conducting these workshops is a big part of “my” NGO’s work and understanding the methodology will help me help them with planning and fundraising. Personally, workshops are also a great way for me to learn about a country and what civil society is doing. There were representatives from two ethnic minority organizations, the LGBT center, multiple women’s organizations, the homeless services center, a children’s rights organization and a group that advocates for access to education. These are exactly the people I want to meet here, and it was so interesting to hear about their work.

However…I certainly miss a lot by not understanding Mongolian. One of my colleagues translates for me at meetings, and she’s great, but translation is really hard, and I usually settle for getting the gist of what’s said. Which means I missed nuance and pretty much all the jokes, plus I was unable to do the simple task of counting off when we divided into smaller groups. (Mongolian is a hard language, but I have to learn to count at least to five, if not ten. Right now I only know the word for one, which is embarrassing.) We also laugh about how I’m regularly surprised about what’s happening next.

The third morning we were telling what we’d learned the previous day and tossing a ball from one speaker to the next. One woman dropped the ball, and my translator whispered to me that now she’d need to sing. She stood up and said something like, “I am a product of the Soviet system, and people who went to university only studied. Other people were workers, and I chose singing.” She then casually sang a song a cappella in a beautiful, classically trained voice. Oh, my god, amazing — I had chills listening to her, just there in a nondescript hotel meeting room. Applause, and then we continued on to the next speaker, while I was left assuming that everyone else already knew her background and talent. As I say, constant surprises.

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Our Stuff Arrived (And It Was Frozen) — UPDATED

It hadn’t occurred to us that, of course, one of the things that happens on a slow rail trip across China and into Mongolia this time of year is that stuff freezes en route. Which is pretty funny, when one of your things is a snow globe enclosing a photo of your dog, and inside, where the “snow” is, is full of real ice. Fortunately, our various chile sauces, maple syrup (duh) and sherry vinegar are fine, but poor Phil had a leg fall off. The movers were horrified that they’d broken him somehow, but we think the glue gave out in the cold.

IMG_0827We spent this weekend unpacking and trying to put everything away. The plan is to give the landlord’s kitchen stuff and linens back and phase in our own things, which sounds simple, but there’s just. so. much. I did find my bread baking equipment and baked for the first time since August. The sourdough starter — our other pet — travelled here in my suitcase, and I’ve been feeding it, just haven’t baked with it. Someday I’d love to take a class with a real baker and learn how to gauge temperature and hydration properly; being self-taught in the the tropics has not prepared me for the far colder and drier conditions here. To make the whole project riskier, I used an unknown flour that could be pretty much anything. If anyone can read the label and identify it, please let me know. My best guess is that it’s rye or something close: it was very dry and dense while kneading and made a dark loaf. (This is 1/3 mystery flour and 2/3 white.)

Anyway, it’s Sunday night, and all my clothes and personal things are put away. We shored up the bookcases, and Mr. Handy is switching our tv for the landlord’s. Overall? Just like Christmas.

UPDATE: The mystery flour is barley! I look forward to experimenting further…

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Going to Mars for Cat Food


The pet store at Mars

We’ve been looking all over central Ulaanbaatar for premium cat food. Why? It’s complicated.

For one thing, retail shopping is not so straightforward here. There are stores and malls like you’d find anywhere, but a lot more stuff is hidden. Stores have small signs (mostly in Mongolian, of course), little or no window displays and are often inside bigger buildings that could enclose pretty much anything. I’m not sure whether this interiority is about the extreme cold or a leftover socialist-era lack of advertising. And there are a lot of small stores that display signs of various brand names they sell, meaning they aren’t actual, say, Uniqlo stores but stores that have some Uniqlo stuff available. Much of what is sold here is brought by hand from China and sold in these small places. People, mostly women, travel abroad and return with boxes or those big red and blue woven rice bags filled with things to resell here. This is known as “dragging pigs,” as it’s reminiscent of, well, you get the picture. The small stores sell whatever mix of brands brought from China — i.e. much of it is counterfeit — by the sister-in-law on her last trip over.

This is also how non-supermarket pet food comes into Mongolia. People bring in big bags of kibble and sell it portioned into small plastic bags. You don’t always know what you’re getting, and pet supply stores are just as randomly sited as anything else. I found one when we first arrived tucked into the entry area of some shops above a parking garage. We needed a scratching pad, and the proprietor was so excited to sell to me that she then brought out a hideous pink fuzz bed and a kitten. (“Oh, god, pleasepleaseplease don’t show me a kitten…I’ll be divorced if I bring it home, and I don’t want to worry about its fate if I DON’T bring it home…”) We found another entry-area place that sells a premium brand and actually found ourselves bargaining with the guy for the whole 15kg bag. Because who would pay $110 for 33lbs of cat food?!
The husband somehow found another place that sells the fancy stuff, way at the back of the fourth floor of a dingy, bustling building called Mars filled with individual vendors selling women’s clothes. And I bought 2kg/4.4lbs of kibble for $14.72. Which — I did the math for you — means I paid exactly the same price as the other place charged.

So, why? I’ve spent a lot of time wrestling with this. Of course we love our cat, and there are good reasons to worry about Chinese-produced pet foods, but is there really a difference between these brands? (There’s another kind here called KiteKat that’s probably meant to be pronounced “Kitty Kat” but that we obnoxiously say as that thing you fly.) Almost all the food we’re eating comes from China — definitely all the fresh vegetables and fruits this time of year. And if I really care so much about pure, uncontaminated food, then WHY AREN’T I EATING THE DAMN MUTTON?

Once again, expat life shines an unflattering mirror. All my sneering at people who think they can control every aspect of their health, those juice-fasters and colonic cleansers — am I not engaging in the same magic-thinking, that fancier cat food is somehow going to make a difference? Maybe not, but leave me alone with my fantasy.

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Sorry for the long silence, I’ve been sick for the past several days with an unpleasant combination of chest cold and migraine. (In case you’re unfamiliar with this little slice of hell, anything that makes a migrainey head shake repeatedly is BAD.) I left work midday Friday, so cold and miserable on my only-two-and-a-half-block walk home that I decided not to go out again until April.

But the migraine broke this afternoon, so I feel better even though the cough is still hanging on. This is my second cold since we got here, we’re both sick, and now our pharmaceutical supplies are low. One of us is sure we can easily replace the Theraflu and prescription migraine pills here; the other has more of a scarcity mentality, but either way our shipped stuff is — finally — scheduled for delivery Wednesday so we’ll have more.

My theory is that when you’re in a new place, you get sick a lot, but my sweet colleagues have a different theory. I got this message this morning, which I thought was adorable.

“I am so sorry (frown). hope you will get well soon (smile). I am out off mobile unit, so couldn’t reply. Take a good care of you and see you (smile).

We are so sorry for the cold room (frown).”


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