Monday, August 29, 2011

The Vegatable Project - an IWAM Superstar.

 Lately I have seen a lot of sunrises.  Part of that is because of jetlag, but most of it is just because life here in Mongolia is, again, full to overflowing.  This week was no exception.

Friday morning was an IWAM morning.  Robyn and I were lucky enough to be invited along to go and check up on and help support some women from The Vegetable Project, a cooperative effort between the Khan Bank, the Women's Council of UB and IWAM to help impoverished female-headed house holds keep their head above water.  What a wonderful experience it was!
We began our visits to these first-time gardeners in Nalach, a coal mining town whose population suffer from any number of health issues due to unsafe mining practices in the past.  A lot of men are unable to work now or have died and so the burden of supporting the family often falls to the women.  With no real employment available it is a hard scrabble life for them.  Inside this unprepossessing door we found a beautiful spark of hope though - in the form of vegetables.
 This girl lives with her mother.  They were chosen to participate in the project ( as all members are) due to their diminished financial situation, lack of men supporting them and eagerness to learn and participate.  The project provides them with seeds, fertilizer, education and support to allow them to grown enough food to feed their families.  And the women love it!!

Everywhere we went there was lots of discussion about what was working and going well and what needed improvement.  Lots of questions and answers....

 I, unfortunately, know very little about gardening so I was forced to listen....and take photos.  Not too tough of a job.  This is a typical street in most towns in Mongolia and a typical scene everywhere - even in UB.  Water is provided at central wells and everyone, even the littlest ones, are expected to help get it.  Imagine how heavy these buckets are going to be when they are full....

 Our second stop was truly inspirational.  I couldn't believe that this is this woman's first garden ever!!
 She's built two greenhouses and tilled her entire yard to plant veggies.  She tells me she will have enough to keep her family in wonderful fresh vegetables throughout the winter and will still be able to sell quite a bit to help plump up the family coffers.  Wow.
 One of the things that they teach the participants is to plant lots of flowers so you get bees to pollinate your veggies...and add a splash of beauty I might add.

 Here we are in front of one of the greenhouses she built....I feel  like I was in the land of the Jolly Green Giant...with me being the giant!!  Hard to imagine that this little bit of thing has managed all this work herself...

 ....half of the front garden...
 Nothing like a beautiful, fresh tomato for a healthy summer snack!  

Of course, we need to point out the Mongolia is mostly desert...which makes gardening interesting.  Especially when these guys don't have running water..I guess you could say they have walking water because that is how they get the water to water the plants...they walk to the central well, fill up their barrel and then carry it or put it on a water dolly and haul it home..then dump it into the ground to make the garden green and then do it all over again the next day.

 Some of the people we visited lived in actual gers, others had houses - so to speak.

 But they were all extraordinarily proud of the contribution they had been able to make to the health and well being ( and survival!) of their families!  The beautiful thing was to see these formerly seriously disadvantages women beaming with pride at the bounty of food they now enjoyed.  All for the price of some seeds, manure, shovels,  a couple of classes, and an experienced volunteer to help them get it right as they plant and weed and care for their gardens.
 This lovely grandmother couldn't wait to dig up some of her potatoes to show us how well they were growing. She also was experimenting with different planting and weeding and watering strategies to see what worked best....for next year.  The ultimate goal.  "If you give a man a fish" personified.  It was awesome.  Oh, and we scored big time as well.  The women all wanted us to have some of the fruits (well, vegetables...) of their labour.  I am eating these exact potatoes for dinner tonight.  Yum.
 I think we were both as happy and excited to see the tremendous difference this project has made to so many people as the women were .

 These kids are the lucky ones...healthy food and learning how to provide for their own families later in life.  
 We also visited a woman who participated in the project 3 years ago and is now teaching her neighbours how to do it.  She also proudly showed off her root cellar where she winters the vegetables that will survive.  It was wonderful to see. 

 ...little cherubs amongst the green.  An unusual ( for now!) sight here in Mongolia.
 The neighbours were very entranced by our visit - and the Nikon. One of the cool things about taking pictures here is that  these folks likely either don't have a camera or can't afford developing if they do have a camera so when I take nice pics of them I try to get them developed and taken back to them.  These prints ( and a few dozen more that I took) will be developed and given to the families when they come in to UB later in September for the big festival celebrating the 10th anniversary of The Vegetable Project.  IWAM will be there with bells on and you know I will be too! 

And so will they!  Happy and healthy kids - what a truly inspirational outcome from this project.  Lovely, lovely day visiting these ladies and their kids.

As we left the last home laden with sun warmed vegetables and these gorgeous gates closed behind us I was truly moved by what I had seen.  Such hard-working and dedicated mothers, grandmothers and sisters all working together to help the whole community.  It really doesn't get any better than that. .

Friday, August 26, 2011

Friendship and Photography - a Wonderful Combination

Now for something completely different.  Well, kind of different. This is largely a photo blog and today I have some more really stunning photos for you to enjoy. The only difference is that these photos, I didn't take.  Now, I know this is supposed to be a blog about my life...well, these photos are kind of about my life.  You see one of my oldest friends, Lyn, took these pictures.  Lyn and I have known each other for (gulp!) thirty or so years, have worked together, shared apartments and most importantly (for the purpose of the blog!) taken photos together.  Lots of days tramping out through wet foliage to get that lovely shot of the rain dampened flower or climbing that huge hill for the sunset view over the city.  In fact, it was Lyn who really made me realize how much I loved animal / nature photography.  And she had a better camera than I did she forced me to upgrade - a move which I have been extraordinarily grateful for.  Without that upgrade and the experience of really searching for that beautifully composed and technically perfect shot, the quality of my photos here in Mongolia ( and around...) would have been greatly diminished.  So thanks  Lyn for making me shell out all that dough for a good camera, and then learn how to use it!

To the point, however.  Lyn is starting a business using some of her great photos for cards and calendars - the calendars should be available by November.  So, if any of you are looking for a supplier for cards and calendars...just let me know and I'll pass it along. 

So. here is a quick preview of some of the shots she will be using for her cards and calendars.

They were all ( I think) taken in and around Vancouver where Lyn lives....some of them I was even there with her for.  Which makes it almost like I took them.....doesn't it?


This is the beach just below the University of British Columbia where I got my degree oh so many years ago.  I can't tell you how many hours were idled away here....lovely to see it so beautifully showcased!

 Thanks Lyn for the pictures and a chance for me to point out to people that photography stitches friendships together in a way that few other shared interests can because you end up with a visual record of time spent together. In fact, as it has evolved, many of my very close friends are also avid amateur photographers - a fact which truly decorates my life. in hanging on the wall decorating! For Lyn and I, it sure is a beautiful visual record ... maybe some day I'll post some of my pics from those great days clambering around Vancouver searching for the perfect shot.

In the meantime, I think I'll go clambering around Mongolia doing the same. Maybe some day Lyn will come and join me.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A Philosophical Look at Warning Signs. No... Seriously.

The international airport in Beijing, built for the Olympics, is quite a marvel of engineering and not at all what I was expecting the first time I traipsed though it.  On my first time through I was expecting some no frills version of a modern airport with a large dash of  Soviet cement brick for good measure.  Wrong wrong wrong.  It is as modern (and commercial!) as any other major airport I have been in with all of the designer stores that one could hope for...maybe even a few more than one could hope for!

Sunday when I was at the airport for a six hour layover I had some time to really look around and check it out. Maybe it was just fatigue, (I had just spent a dozen or so hours in the air)  but this time  I was struck by a variety of interesting signs....and moved to blog about it (so what else is new??)  Check this one was almost like Beijing Capital International had my name written all over it!  I followed the arrows, but didn't find myself....
This one over the luggage carousel really cracked me up.  

First because they tell you the baggage carousel is slippery and you are not allowed to climb it....if you are not allowed to climb it, why does it matter that it's slippery? And what is that "Overweight" warning for?  In case you forgot that you packed a lot of crap in your suitcase? It is  your suitcase after all - you should know how heavy it is.  I mean, you did bring it to the airport at the beginning of your journey!!

 I was also amused by the fact that they put up the international signs....and then followed them with both English and Chinese (presumably) - I guess that Ukrainians, Finns, Namibians and the like are smart enough to figure out what the international sign means without benefit of written clarification, but those anglophones as well as the locals...better spell it out.

...No trolley beyond this line?  Really?  I am not sure that a trolley could fit in the six inches beyond that line...just sayin' .
"Trust bird flu here!"
This was the only sign I could find in the whole airport that did not have English and Chinese under it.  I guess MacDonald's is now an official language! it is a little self promoting (or something like it..) but it was kind of cool to find a Canadian- made train taking us back and forth (several times!) from one terminal to the other.
I did not know that entering and exiting a train was fraught with so much danger!!  Loved the fact that the warnings were listed on each side of the opening so as to really not  be missed.  It made me think about whether or not I had ever seen a warning sign like this in Mongolia...I don't think so.  Can't think of any.  Which just goes to show that you can learn a lot about a society / government by the kinds of signs they choose to display. One of the things I really love about Mongolia is that there is not (yet) a lot of beaurocracy in day to day life.  People are really independant and self reliant and it shows up in all facets of the society...even the signage. I think here in Mongolia,for example,  the thought is that if you are stupid enough to put your hand in the door, you deserve to lose the odd finger whereas in China it seems that you don't have to worry about taking personal responsibility for anything - the government has already figured out ( and posted!) the list of what could go wrong in your life.  
Oh OK...enough philosophy!  Some of the signs were just fun!
A little confusing...An elevator is not the place I would expect to find a reminder to care for the more vulnerable members of society, but hey, whatever works.  Oh, and nice to know that there is no bird flu in the elevator either.  I wonder if they also disinfect the  airport floors, walls, posts, ticket counters, windows,door knobs etc.. "regularly". Hmm.
Looks like Chinese elevators are as risky as their trains!  Wait...they didn't warn me to avoid the gap!! (not the store, silly!)  What if I slip into it and crash to the bottom of the elevator shaft???
The interesting thing is that architecturally, this is a very daring building.  The roof span is reputed to be one of the largest in the world and when you are there it is really striking.  Seems like it was pretty risky for them to go so high tech and modern when they built it.  Especially since their worried about everybody lifting their own suitcases, getting their fingers caught in all sorts of doors, parking their trolley on top of the baggage claim and all those sorts of hazards. 

So there you have it.  A glimpse into the rambling thought processes of a travel weary mind.  But it did keep me amused ( and awake!) for the full six hours!  Now I really have to hunt around Mongolia and see if I can find any warning signs here.  Who knows what I'll turn up.  

Monday, August 22, 2011

Joe Biden and international encounter ( sort of).

OK...I just have to rant.  Just a little.  The topic today?  The personal side of international relations.

I remember the good old days when the U.S. Vice President visiting a  country in the developing world was a lovely, feel good codicil at the end of the news.  I remember thinking how lovely it was that he was getting out there and seeing how it is in the real world.  I never thought about what that meant to the people in those developing nations.  Now, I don't mean what it meant to the tens (hundreds?) of thousands of people who are helped by US aid in each country or the useful business contacts that are established on these types of visits...I mean what does it mean to the tens (hundreds?) of thousands of little people who happen to be in their  car when Mr. V.P. shows up.

Well, today, I found out.  Because I was one of them.  What people in the first world might not realize is that the security surrounding a visit like this and the lack of infrastructure in a country like Mongolia combine to create a situation in which the unbelievable happens.  Roads are closed (lots of roads!) so that the VP may pass through the town unencumbered.  This seems pretty standard right?  Well, here at the end of the earth, a closed road means a closed detours, no alternatives, no way around it, no way forward and no way back. In other words, you wait.  And wait.  And wait.  There are no other options - no way to back up and take the ring road ( what ring road?)  ,  no alternate freeway ( what freeway??!!) not even a friendly neighbourhood back road.  Nothing.  The road is closed for the U.S. V.P.  and so you wait.  For an hour... or two.  Or however long it takes. Eventually you decide...what the heck I'll just walk.

Gee, I wish I had had my camera ( I believe I have pointed out in previous posts that it is imperative here to always carry your camera with you..I have been reminded of that today!).  The big problem for me was that I was on one side of the river and my English lesson ( where I was supposed to be teaching.....) was on the other.  I talked to one of the police men....they were stationed every 10 feet along almost every main road in the town all day and were pretty hard to miss...and couldn't convince him I wasn't a member of Al Quaeda, so they wouldn't let me walk across the bridge.  Well, to be fair, they weren't letting anyone walk ( or drive!) across the bridges...the only two bridges that will get you from my house to the city.  Which meant that there was literally no way to cross the river...unless.....I did like the local folk and balance-beamed it across the  six inch steam heating pipes that traverse the river under the bridge.  Literally hundreds of people were leaping up and inching ( sometimes bounding...but that resulted in some very very wet people!!!) along. It was quite a sight!  The pipes bent and swayed under the weight  and I kept waiting for them just to snap under the strain!  I decided that discretion was the better part of valor and opted to return ( on foot) to the car to sit in a variety of locations for about another hour and a half trying to make the 10 minute return trip home.

The most annoying wait was  at the intersection close to my house...for an hour.  Somehow just more frustrating because I was only a kilometer or two from home.  Waiting and waiting for the motorcade with the VP (presumably) to head over to the President's house.  I have to say, I did see it go by. Again, no camera with me so there's no record of it.  You'll just have to take my word for it.  A pretty unremarkable combination of dark vehicles and flashing lights whizzing by at well above the posted speed limit.  And then we were allowed to go. 

 So, three hours or so after I left to go and teach my lesson I arrived back home, with  the lesson untaught (is that a word??) but with  a new appreciation of the impact of this sort of international interaction.  An entire city of around a milllion or so on more or less complete lock down and tens (hundreds?) of thousands of people completely inconvenienced.  The local news reported that the V.P. was here to thank Mongolia for their contribution to the war in Iran and Afghanistan.  A lovely and worthwhile reason for a visit.

We all just wish he could have done it without all the driving around the city.  One word for you Mr. Biden ...  Helicopter.  Next time try it, you'll like it...... And so will we!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


So let's talk inspiration.  Well, actually, let's talk about my inspiration - there are a couple of people I know who really have set an example of how to manoeuvre your way through this obstacle course called life with grace and dignity and generosity.  I hope that someday I too will be standing looking back on what I have accomplished and will be able to, like them, smile and be content with the way it has all gone. So who are these paragons of virtue that I so admire?  My parents.  Yup, schmaltzy but true.  We all ( and I do mean all!) just got together to celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary and I was struck by how much they have given to all of their kids, grand kids, great grand kids and, of course, sundry familial stowaways....also known as in-laws.

They are a beautiful couple and have arrived at this milestone with their sense of humour well intact.  Maybe that is a prerequisite for the journey.
The cake, crafted through a combination of discount shopping, the baking talents of my sister, the engineering talents of her son and a lot of luck.  Tasted good too!

 There are no celebrations at my parent's house that don't involve some home made music...again, maybe that is part of the secret recipe of a happy marriage...a family that plays together stays together?....

...Still the band leader...this one is intergenerational though - kind of cool.

Random hand holding...something I grew up watching and it hasn't faded....lovely.
All together - for the first time in a very long time!  We had people from up North, Quebec, all over BC and, of course, from Mongolia.  A really long trip for some of us - and the special prize goes to those who travelled 5000 or so miles with 3 1/2 kids - but really well worth it!
Family by any other name...

...and it appears that I am not the lone hobby photographer in the family.. here's the difference a generation makes.  My parents had six kids.  Between us we have been able to come up with seven-and here they are.  Doesn't she look lonely?  Tough job being the only girl cousin! 
They are doing their part to expand the family though...well, at least some of them are!...

 A couple of Mongolian vests for a little added sparkle...

 And it was lovely to see the "other" grandpas having a lovely time with their grandkids....

 Well....I did call this blog "Inspiration" now you know where I get my wacky sense of humour from!!  

Well, that's a peek at what 60 years of love looks like. Now it is time to pack up and head back to Mongolia and see if I can follow their example...25 down, 35 to go..yikes!!