Thursday, March 31, 2011

On Driving

Driving in Mongolia is an adventure in itself. When you think about driving Mongolia, I imagine that most of you have a picture in your mind that is something like this. I know I did when we first contemplated the move to Mongolia. 

Adventure, excitement, forging forward into the wilds of the Mongolian Steppes, making your way  to your own destination without being limited to pavement.  You imagine that your are seeking wonderful exotic spots like these...

... don't you like how I managed to slip in a few  more shots of my favourite Owoos?  In any case, off roading Mongolia is a legendary pass time ( look up the Mongol Rally - their tag line is "fighting to make the world less boring"!) and is as much a part of Mongolia's lure as Chinggis Khan ( That's Genghis Khan for those of you who don't know that the transliterated version of his name was just not quite correct...).

Everyone longs for those wonderful trips out to the countryside where you are as likely to find yourself driving across a swollen river as you are to be on pavement, if you really want to get where you are going.

And when we moved here, we had exactly the same expectations and desires as most of the half million or so tourists who come through the country every year.  We were so excited to discover that it was legal to drive with just your Canadian Driver's License and your passport!  I could even drive!  This has not always been the case in our overseas postings, and I was thrilled to be able to have the freedom to be completely spontaneous and do what I want , when I want.  And there were all those wide open pastures to conquer!  So, of course, the first step was to get a car.  It took about 4 months, but finally we got our hands on our  wonderful Land Cruiser.
White to remind us of our Freeport Land Cruiser for those of you who have lived in Tembagapura.  Chelvan was tempted to paint black numbers on the side! 

Toyotas of all descriptions, but especially Land Cruisers, are wildly popular here in Mongolia as they have such a great reputation as a reliable off road vehicle.  We have always loved our Toyotas, so we were prepared to wait to have one ordered in.  When we first went to the dealer, they literally did not have one single vehicle at the dealership as they were not only sold out, but had sold out all of the vehicles they had coming in for the next two months!  This one was originally destined for Saudi Arabia, as you can tell by the lovely Arabic writing on the mirror.  I have it on good authority from a friend from the Middle East that it says         " Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear".... although I have to say it was much more fun imagining what it might say .....

So, now we had our car, our legal permission to drive, and I  ( oh, so fortunately) had had 4 or 5 months of riding around with the company drivers to figure out the rules of the road. All that was required was a little gumption and a lesson on how to actually start the car ... it doesn't have a key, just a "push to start" button.  It took a while to get used to that.

 At first, it very much appears that there are no rules.  As you get into the whole driving experience though, you see that the basic premise for driving here is that you have to be aggressive enough to get respect from the other drivers.  If you do that, then it pretty much flows like clockwork.  Well, maybe not precisely clockwork, but at least with a predictable order of operations. Of course, driving in the countryside is wonderful and airy and stress free.  In the city - not so much.

Yes, that car is squeezing between the buses - what you can't see from the still shot is that the bus was not was turning whether the car liked it or not.  Eventually, it did have to stop - about 2 inches away from the passenger door.  But, here - that is about the normal "safe" distance to keep between cars.  There are lots of little bumps and scrapes in day to day driving here that people more or less ignore.
 There are often traffic cops who help direct traffic.  Looks like a fun job doesn't it?

 ... but from time to time you do get to see interesting and strange sites on the road.  Like this one - has the UN really started wearing circus / parade costumes?  I guess it is still a secret - hence the "closed" transport.  You think they are wearing seat belts?
And yes, this is crossing at a crosswalk  - see the little guy up in the middle of the right hand side of the photo?  People don't stop for pedestrians. Again, something you can't see from the still shot - these cars were still moving and the pedestrians were just doing their best to dodge bumpers! I think this is how I knew I actually lived here - when I stopped looking for a Mongolian person to cross the street with.  One day I found myself standing on the yellow line of a major 4 lane  road, waiting for a break in the speeding traffic so I could dart across ....and I wasn't even worried about it.  Mongolian for sure....but it does present a challenge when I am back in Canada - I just want to run across the roads regardless of that pesky "walk" / "don't walk" signal. 
 Of course, like any big city there are unexpected road hazards.  This one is my favourite.  They are serious about you stopping for the train.  These barriers lie flat in the pavement when there is no train and pop up when one is approaching.  I really don't know what happens when you are stopped on top of it when that happens....people sit bumper to bumper (literally .. often only one or two inches apart) waiting for the light at this particular intersection and there is always someone on this barrier as they wait.  Maybe one day I'll be lucky enough to actually see the barrier  being raised.  In the meantime, it is only one of the many things I wonder about regarding Mongolian driving!  My other favourite barrier ( sorry no pics of it) are the missing manhole covers in the road.  You can really wreck your suspension by hitting one!  I have seen small cars stuck in them - which is pretty funny looking, but not terribly fun if it is you I imagine!  Personally, I have only hit it apparent damage to the car fortunately, but believe me, you do know that you have hit it as one corner of your car dips down into it... 
 Other, less predictable hazards... 


 The famous dust storms that wreak havoc on the country all spring.  They say that the dust clouds from these storms have been tracked by radar all the way to North America!   

So in a nutshell, that is driving in Mongolia ... sort of.  You really need a video to truly appreciate the craziness of the city drivers as well as the beauty of the off road experience.  Both of which I hope I get to keep on with. 

You see, as of March 29th it is apparently no longer legal to drive with your Canadian License and passport.  You need a Mongolian Driver's License...and the Mongolian Government has put a moratorium on issuing licenses to our company- which may just make it tricky for us to actually get a license!  We are working the system though - next week I will try to get one on my own at the local DMV.  This will be lots of fun I am sure. I think that this will be a little beyond the reach of my language skills so I am going to round up a friendly helpful Mongolian friend to come and help me through it.  Apparently, there is a sliding scale for "service" fees from $50 - $150.00.  I guess I will have to go in looking poor!

Oh, one more thing that could, if I let it, just frost me off a little wee bit... ( I like to look at it as an opportunity to practise patience!)... if you are from a country that is a signatory on the Vienna Treaty on International Driving Reciprocation then  I could be using my international Driver's License.  But guess what....CANADA is NOT a signatory on the treaty.  Which is good - I want to practise my patience...I really do..really...seriously....

So today I will be doing my volunteer teaching at the Catholic School,  tomorrow I am heading up to Dave's Cave to check out the new equipment that IWAM has purchased for him, then on to a small leather making firm run by a leader in the Handicapped Association here.... and all of it will be with me NOT at the wheel of my own car.  My car is resting comfortably in the garage waiting for this all to be resolved.  I am pretty sure that the company driving service is hoping at least as much as I am that it gets resolved quickly, because regardless of my license situation, I will NOT be sitting at home! I've got things to do, after all.

Driving is for me a critical function here in Mongolia in order  to be able to maximize what I can do to help those struggling in the community... and have a chance to see all that there is to see out there on the road.  Here at the end of the earth, it is really true that you NEVER know what you will see next...out there on the road!

 Thanks to Ernst & Kendle Leitz for some of these pictures. The trek we all went on was quite a drive, wasn't it?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Walk to Remeber

Well, I am back in beautiful Mongolia and happy happy happy to be here!  Of course, I am not so happy about the jet lag ( again! .. or is that still..??) but I think I might have the solution to that one too.  My husband swears that the cure for jet lag is serious cardio vascular activity...which happens to be exactly what you don't want when you're jet lagged, but I thought I would give it a shot this time with an energetic hike up the mountain out my window ( it is, in fact a large hill, but mountain sounds much more impressive).  The urge for this particular activity was spurred on by the fact that in the measley 12 days that I was away, winter has given way to spring and it is WARM out there.  Actually, it was above freezing overnight, and this afternoon it went up to plus 8!!  Balmy!  I promised myself when we moved in that as soon as it was possible, I was hiking up the hill / mountain in front of our apartment and strolling along the ridge line toward town.  From down here on the flat , it looked like  there should be a stunning view and I have been gazing longingly at it since we moved in.... and it is a very steep hill, so I thought it would likely meet the cardio quota as did not disappoint in either regard.  Oh, and the added bonus?.... I got a new lens for my camera while I was in Vancouver ( mother's day present !)... and this would be a great chance to try it out and see what it can do!  It's a Nikkor 28 -300 for you camera geeks out there!

The first stop was the little  Owoo  ( pronounced O woe) just up the hill from our house.  This is where every Sunday, and on special occasions like Tsagen Sar, Mongolians, in their Sunday best del ( the traditional long belted coat) head up to  pray.  Owoos are a big part of Mongolian Buddhist tradition.  I know that the locals build them along in the high places and they go up there when they need guidance or solace.  I think it is wonderful that their "churches" are on mountain and hill tops all around the country...and if there isn't one where you need it, just build it.  It was only about 1/4 of the way up the mountain, but I was very happy to reach our little local Owoo...turns out that when you don't really exercise ( and you are a burgeoning mistress of the second half) your heart has quite a bit to say about sudden, unplanned exertion!

I didn't quite make the peak, but sort of sidled across a little valley to the downhill ridge line, but this view of our apartment is from about 3/4 of the way up.  If you look closely you can see our Owoo - it looks like a little triangle on the hill in front of the right side of our apartment building.

It was a wonderful blustery afternoon and the trip to the "top" of the hill took about 25 minutes..including a number ( unspecified number !) of stops to "smell the roses" and admire the view.  They climb up was very steep but oh, so worth the view!  As I approached the top I realized that this was the perfect chance to check out how the new lens functioned in the real world - it had been great at the shop - zooming in on people in the parking lot, but somehow, that was not as satisfying as actually composing and taking pictures that you really want.  So here's how it works ... AWESOME!  I was very pleased with it..and you all should be too, as it augers well for the quality and variety of shots I will be able to get for the blog. Just to give you a taste of what I mean, have a look at the following four pictures.  The first and third pictures are taken at no zoom, and the 2nd and 4th ones are at full zoom.  Just  for fun, try and find the zoomed part of the picture in the original... might take you a minute or two.

Cool huh!?  I love this lens!

The "walk to remember" ( first time up on the ridge and first time with the new lens... I will be remembering this one!) had a number of other highlights.  The first one was the Owoos that I saw... big and small...rock and cloth..they were all beautiful and peaceful reminders that we were walking in the lands closest to God.  I was only on the ridge for about 25  minutes but I saw 5 or 6 of them!  Of course, the first one is the one by our house..the next one was a gaily festooned riot of prayer cloths flapping and snapping in the wild wind and carrying their prayers to heaven with each gust. I like to think of it as the 'Rainbow Owoo'!  Each of the colours represents an essential element and thus an area of the supplicant's life that they would like help with.  Blue is by far the most popular and represents health, joy and peace to everyone on earth.  Hard to argue with that!
 On this peak there were  three Owoos  together , each of a different style. It seems that each Owoo is either a pile of rocks with prayer cloths and other offerings interwoven, a pile of rocks with a long pole covered in prayer cloths or the blowing payer flags. I am not sure if the different styles represent different  Buddhist attributes, but I am going to find out! Here are a couple more that I saw.

Forty minutes or so into the adventure and feeling quite relaxed and happy (going downhill at that point... the heart rate was much more comfortable!) when I came upon the back of a sign....what could a sign up here possibly say???

..Never let it be said that I am a rule follower!!  It also inspired me to seek a little of the Zen that the hilltop obviously was offering so many of the previous Owoo makers .... so I created one of my own!  Right beside the sign.  It is small, because I think I will follow the traditional hikers tradition and add a stone each time I pass by the prohibited area sign.  As I am hoping to head up to the hills on a very regular basis here, I predict that by the time we leave Mongolia it will be a big pile! I'll keep you posted on its progress!

My Owoo
....and a couple of scenery shots for good measure!
This is the Tuul river in breakup.  Soon it will be glittering burbling motion again and full of those tiny beautiful flashing fish!

 Our apartment building and the Summer Palace of the Last Boghd Khan ( Imperial Ruler of Mongolia) ....and way way back there is the President's house. 

It is so hard to believe that this shot was taken just above our apartment building which is at the edge of  a huge, crowded city!
And what walk to remember would be complete without a sheep in your window well? Yes, you heard me right .... I have seen this guy hanging around before, and it turns out that his herd abandoned him so the workmen who are fixing up this apartment are feeding him hay and what not out of the window! When he is not out grazing the hillside, he is hanging out there in the window well. It is a particularly Mongolian kind of building mascot!

So now it is 8:15 p.m. and I am still awake.... looks like the hike has fulfilled its purpose and kicked jet lag to the curb, at least for today!  All that remains is to go to bed and hope I can sleep. If not, I can always count sheep... one...

Monday, March 28, 2011

Things I've Left Behind

I emerge from radio silence.  I have spent the last four days in Northern British Columbia, visiting both my family and my history.  Both are wonderful to see and touch again. As I write this blog I realize that many of you think that living as an expat  in Mongolia is all upside..and while it is true that there is a LOT of upside to it...there is also, as always, the downside. This trip I came up close and personal with one of the huge downsides of international living...leaving your loved ones behind.  After I left New Orleans, I made a stop in Salt Lake City and  visited my  beautiful golden retriever lab cross who was with the family through three countries and two continents ( Australia, America and Canada) and just wasn't up to the rigors of life at the end of the earth. When we moved over we decided she would be better off with some of our dear friends in Salt Lake City and their kids...and dogs and cats (which she has made peace with - proving that you can, in fact, teach old dogs new tricks!) ...and she is extraordinarily happy.  This of course, makes me happy...but kind of in the same way that it makes you happy when your kids do just fine without you.. it is the kind of fine that comes wrapped in tears. 

Here's a shot of the heroes who are taking such wonderful care of our  canine family member, Jadzia. I am not exactly sure what we would have done if they hadn't volunteered ( and no...we didn't force them!) to take her on.
And Jadzia herself....
Jadzie and Molly ... best friends for a long time and very happy to be growing old together!

This week I also got to see my parents...they still live out in the country in a beautiful spot in northern BC where I grew up.  They heat their home with wood, host at least one old time fiddle music jam per week, buy their eggs from the neighbour up the hill and still have the same coffee maker they had when I was living at home 30 years ago. . As my mother put it, they live in the " long ago"   - a beautiful way to say that along with all of the previously mentioned country attributes,they don't have internet .. or even a computer for that matter - which, while it is lovely and serene, does make keeping up with the blog a challenge!

The view from the driveway  - the road that leads away that I spent most of my teenage years staring at and yearning to be on.  I did get what I wished for!
The view from the neighbours overlooking my parents property and beyond to the Fraser River. That big cottonwood is reputed to be over a hundred years old. It is a really gorgeous corner of the world and I love visiting!


And this, this is simple country courtesy at its finest.  We were delivering the paper to the neighbour - the paper is delivered a couple of miles up the highway and involves a drive to pick up ... every day... so my Dad gets both his and the neighbour's. The added bonus of course, is the chance for a chat every afternoon - in this case, a moment to share 40 years worth of  knowledge of the best  fishing spot on a local lake...detailed directions free of charge.
Because my parents live so beautifully and completely in the long ago,  I was forced to drive to the nearest town, 8 kilometers away and connect to the the only  wifi available in the town - it was at a local campground. The lady who owns the campground was lovely and extraordinarily helpful and kind especially since she was not even technically open for business. It was pretty surreal though, sitting on the front porch and logging on to upgrade my flight from Vancouver to Korea - really seemed like a clash of cultures! Anyway, if you're in the Prince George area looking for a place for the tent or  motor home... I highly reccomend this place!
Mom holding the computer .. she said it was the first time she had ever actually had her hands on one! 

One of the really cool thing that happened on this trip is I got a chance to connect with some of the people who read the blog and want to help.  As a result I collected a donation for the Veloo Foundation, got the first dibs on about a railcar full of English books that I will be working to bring across to Mongolia and donate, and a lead on a possible collaboration with a group of businessmen in my hometown to help repair the gym for  School 63 (The Rolling Hills Academy for Disadvantaged Children...for regular readers of the blog) My brother, Darrell, (seen here in his new location....fabulous custom made jewelery for those of you who might need something done!) is one of those great people who has been motivated to help.  It will be wonderful working with him on some of these projects...and I guess that is the "give back" of  this expatriate lifestyle ... you might not see people every day or on  a routine basis, but you get the opportunity to see a side of friends and family that you wouldn't otherwise see.

So, therein lies the dichotomy.  For most of this trip, as I visited those that I have (at least phyisically) left behind, it seemed that the price for the exotic expat life is being something of the outsider in cycles of life that were  once as much a part of me as my own skin. This visit, in many ways, that was more apparent to me than ever.     During my brief visit home I witnessed and, in  a small way, shared in  major life moments for a number of friends and family members, I saw  family memers struggling with major illnesses, kept the homeside vigil while another underwent (and survived) heart surgery,   and was there for the phone call that another family member who had been ill had lost his  struggle and passed away.  It makes me realize the extent of all the little threads that make up the tapestry of  family life that are being woven in my absence, and my whirlwind visits in make very little impression on that pattern.  And yet, living in Mongolia has enriched and altered my relationships in a myriad of complex ways..   So it turns out that while I have sacrificed my "niche", as it were, in the family routine,  I have carved out a new one - and that works just fine. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Views of New Orleans

Here I am in another airport (Salt Lake City) waiting for a flight (to Vancouver) and blogging.  Turns out that visiting friends allows for a lot of fun, but not a lot of blogging time...whice h is good.  Life is about living.....However, now that I am here in yet again, another boarding lounge with nothing to do, I  still have a few great shots of New Orleans that I want to share with you all.  I thought I would just do a  pictorial blog with a minimum of explanation.  Suffice it to say, New Orleans did not fail to impress me, from its architecture, restaurants, friendly people, and overall quirkiness.  Oh, and for history buffs like me  there appears to be no end of interesting areas and stories.  So, here are 40 or so of my favourite snaps from my time there.  Hope you like them!

And everywhere you look is art.or, at least, something interesting....even the window displays for a voodoo shop present stunning contrasts and its own charm.

Some of the houses that are being built in the 9th ward where Hurricane Katrina destroyed everything.  This one is one of the ones being built by the "Make It Right" foundation funded by Brad Pitt.

A doorway left standing on a vacant lot.  9th ward code for "I am coming back to rebuild my house one day:....and another "Brad Pitt" house.

You gotta love a city where regular folk decorate their balcony railings with beads...just for the heck of it!
Jazz History oozes from the pores of this city and  pools at corner stores where local new jazz musicians float their songs onto the night air. Nowhere is the river of history thicker than at  Preservation Hall...scene of  innumerable iconic performances in early years of Jazz. these were our guides for the tour of the oldest cemetery in New Orleans...which one would you choose? I had Midge...really, that was his name..guess which one he is?  The elderly gentleman.  Very knowledgeable in interesting...and still going at 78!
Art everywhere.  I loved this shot of a display in the window of a cigar shop. 
And who doesn't love fresh craw fish from the gulf available from the back of a cart at the side of the road...

..and here are some of the pictures from my ramble through the oldest of New Orleans' above ground cemeteries.

A traditional "voodoo" style vault in the above ground cemetary.
The vault of a voodoo princess...perhaps Marie LeVeau's daughter.  People still bring offerings and honorings to her.  There are approximately 3000 practitioners of voodoo in New Orleans.

Views of the voodoo princess's vault

OK, so this is weird. I went on two tours while I was in New Orleans.  Each one told me something significant about the life of Nicolas Cage.  The first photo is Nicolas Cage's final, eternal resting place.  He has designed and built a pyramid in the St. Louis 1 Cemetery to abide in for time and all eternity... 
...and this is his terrestrial home... So now I officially have more information than I ever really wanted about Nicolas Cage...but my sons are fans, so I post this for them !!  

In the early days, the architects of these wonderful tombs and the engravers who made the elegant covering plates were often free men of colour.  The cool thing is that they signed their work, as shown in the following
two pictures.

Voodoo practitioner in front of Marie LeVeau, the Voodoo Queen's Vault...and the vault itself , below.

On the way back to the French Quarter, we saw more signs that Hurricane to Katrina continues to have a profound economic impact on the town.


So, with everything I got to experience (including, by the way the tremendous TESL conference!!) It was a great 4 days in New Orleans... I think these last two pictures illustrate what kind of a town New Orleans was for me....I hope I'll be back  again one day.  There's still so much to see and do.  In the meantime, I will remember it as a city full of....