Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Ups and Downs

The past couple of days have been full of incredible ups and sad sad downs.

I'll start with the sad so as to finish on a high note. Today, we had to say goodbye to Leo and it was horrible. Obviously, we knew it was coming but the time came way sooner than any of us wanted. Though our time together was jammed pack full of things and laughter and fun, our time together flew. We had an early flight and so after an early breakfast in our room, we all set off to the tiny airport. All too soon our flight was called and it was time for goodbye. Warm loving hugs were shared and tears were shed. I know that I am so lucky to have seen him for the time that I did have, but as we walked away, the pain and sadness of saying another goodbye swept over me. Tears of sadness, pride, and love wet my face. I wanted to bring him home with me and have him close again. A piece of my heart will be in Mongolia until he returns home.

Sadness, of course, is only sad in comparison to extreme joy. Our days in Leo's soum have been sprinkled with moments of joy.

Imagine waking up in the coldness of the morning and heading out to the outhouse only to see Leo's hashaa grandmother chasing after a yak with a big stick. Yep it happened and I laughed.

Other moments of joy occurred everytime we walked into a classroom of children who welcome Leo with "good morning teacher" and proceed to tell him the date and the day with excitement and energy. The children who are all learning English are captivated by Leo. He is a fantastic teacher with a gift that must be genetically passed on through my family from my mom and great grandma. He leads his class with ease and joy laughing his hearty laughs as the children and he share jokes. He uses his grasp of Mongolian to translate sentences and uses years of music lessons to play "if you're happy and you know it" for his youngest students. The students care for him asking him when he'll be back from Olgi and whether he'll be leading their after school bingo sessions. It's amazing.

And more moments of joy occurred over countless feasts of mutton and arrul (curds) at the homes of people who love Leo. We laughed with Leo's friend Botakuz about Leo's funny attempts at Kazhak dancing and enjoyed fascinating conversation about retirement and living situations in Mongolia and the US. We enjoyed songs around the dinner table and sang jingle bells along with Kazak folk songs. We learned about people's families and their photos and medals on the walls. We admired carpets brightly linings the walls of homes and continued to be in amazement over the quantity of food served to us.

And lastly, the three of us had beautiful, funny moments of joy. Dad and I relished in the novelty of putting a headlamp on to use the outhouse giggling at the trek we would take. The three of us laughed at our inability to get in a car without getting a flat tire and at the amusing, unrhytmic drumming skills of a somewhat intoxicated Russian man. We shared some time in Leo's house simply talking, discussing, reminiscing and the like and it was just like we were home around the dinner table having our O'Toole family conversations.

My heart is heavy tonight--full of love and pride for my brother, and full of sadness and sorrow that our time together has ended so quickly.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012


From the moment we arrived in Tsaganuur, I knew that what laid ahead was going to be completely unknown, challenging, and eye opening. It has been all of that and more leaving me, who normally has words for everything, at a lost as to what to say. I worry that my words will not capture the rawness of the human experiences here, nor the overwhelming hospitality and welcome we've been given, nor the growing admiration I have for my brother. I fear writing more to dishonor this experience, but trust that a beginning attempt will start much further reflection on these past days.

(This is the view of Leo's soum coming in from the road past the lake.)

I have found myself humbled and not in a pretty way. Sometimes I think of humbling experiences and imagine someone simply kneeling before something or someone in a beautiful, graceful way. My humbling has come in the form of knees been kicked out from underneath me and face planting the cold ground--leaving me with a sickening understanding of where I was and where I now look to be. The bitter weather (though nothing compared to what winter will bring) has forced me to ask for help knocking me off my experienced-traveler-I-can-handle-it-all pedal stool. As a person who likes being independent and low maintenance, the idea of having to wake up your younger brother because you're cold in the night is horribly humbling. As shivers ran through my body, Leo awoke to me trying to find more layers and got out of his sleeping bag giving it to me and taking the blankets from the other area. The next night, he made two fires so that I would be warm--toasty even. I am humbled by his effortless selflessness.

And I am humbled by the way he lives his life here. Perspective granting seems one way to describe it, but it is so much more. He wakes up every morning at 6:30am to chop coal and collect dung so that he can start a fire for his house. How many times have I thoughtlessly turned a thermostat up without any thought for those who have to work so hard for their homes to be warm? He boils water for coffee and to brush his teeth and wash his face. How many time have I instantly had hot water to wash my face with and never thought twice? He goes outside to use an outhouse that all eight or so of his hashaa family use. Their is no shower to use, no faucet to wash your hands, and no running water in the entire village. How often do I use water and never think of its refreshing, life sustaining qualities? And this is just my brother's morning routine. His Mongolian life could not stand in a more stark comparison to the American life I have and many of us have. I am humbled by how challenged I feel, by how fearful I feel of a lifestyle without all the material goods, and by how little faith I have in my ability to live in such a way.

I have been humbled as we have been honored. With Leo being the only American in this village and the only American to have lived in this village, Dad and I have been welcomed as royalty because of our connection to him. The way we have been welcomed speaks not only to the gracious hospitality of this village, but also to the relationships Leo has built. We were welcomed at the school where Leo teaches with what was called a welcome tea. It was far from a tea. Dad, Leo, and I were seated at the head table with the director of the school and other administrative folk. Every other teacher was seated on long benches leading up to the head table. Our table was covered in its entirety with food--bread, fruit, sweets, cheese, horse sausage, pickles, cucumbers, and more. Throughout the tea, we were continually encouraged to keep eating as speeches and toasts were made honoring our presence and speaking the praises of Leo as a good teacher. We were even given the gift of a performance of Kazak and Mongolian dances and songs by students in their traditional ware. To close, we took a group photo and then almost one by one the other teachers asked to have their photos taken with us. It was overwhelming and heart filling and more food than could have been consumed by an army was left over. We were reminded over and over again of their pride in their school, their gratitude for our visit, and for the care they have for Leo. We were honored and yet humbled by such generosity, such thought, and such care that had taken place to organize the event. I was humbled by what my brother has begun to build and humbled by a culture who welcomes with their all.

And lastly, I have been humbled as I am reminded constantly that God comes with many different faces and in many different climates and in many different situations if only we have the eyes to see. God doesn't simply reside in Latin America where it is easy for me to see Him. God is present here too yet in ways I have not previously experienced. With new eyes, keen to see Him, I am challenged and humbled by a God who cannot be limited by past experiences, but asks for us to seek Him in new ways and within new faces wherever we go.

All my love.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

This is "normal"

Today has made me begin to reconsider, once again, my idea of what is normal. In the states, I think we have some idea of what is normal and what is a comfortable living situation and so forth. We come to a conclusion based on what we know and equate that to normal. Normal, however, I’m coming to realize more and more is so relative. Many would say life here in Leo’s soum is normal, but for us it is completely out of the normal.
In Leo’s soum where we arrived today, we saw and moved into Leo’s house for the night. Leo’s house is a 10 by 20 feet rectangle with a wood burning stove, a twin sized bed, some shelves for books and food, and a small closet in the corner. His entire material life in Mongolia is in this space. Lit by one light in the center, the space depends on the wood burning stove for all of its heat. The toilet is an outhouse where you stand on two planks and do your business into a hole in between. It is cozy and has tell-tale signs of Leo living here like coffee on the shelves, a French-English dictionary, and a head light on the desk. This has become Leo’s normal. It doesn’t phase him that cows and yaks live right outside of his house or that there is no shower here. It doesn’t phase him that in the morning its frighteningly cold and that his house isn’t very well insulated. This is normal for Leo. I see this, I see Leo and my pride in his hardiness and resoluteness to do this year of service increases. He is incredible not blinking an eye at having to boil water to drink or brush his teeth, not grumbling at all at the small space that is his, not taking for granted anything that he is able to have and having such a simplistic perspective of what he actually needs. He lives in such a simplistic and grateful manner than he gives me a model for which I hope to strive. This home is normal to Leo.

Leo’s soum, Tsaaganuur, has also become normal to Leo. T is remote, isolated, and poor. It is composed of hashahs which are simply walled compounds that are home to families. The houses are made from clay walls, and cattle and yaks are present everywhere. There is much in disrepair and the pathways are dusty and rocky. It is very spread out and there are mountains upon mountains surrounding the village. There is also a beautiful lake on the outskirts for which the town was named. We have only spent a couple of hours here this afternoon, but it is fascinating and beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time. When we arrived here, I was mostly struck by the isolation of this village. For Leo, however, this has become normal. T has become home and the chilliness of the wind and the homes and yaks are common sight. For us, it is a blast to all the senses and a challenge to understand and see our Leo here in this foreign town.

For now, I will end. We’ve spent all night and afternoon visiting with the Director of Leo’s school and his family and it has been wonderful. We’ve many stories to share and we’re seeing in beautiful ways how Leo has made a life here.

Coming from America and a pretty spoiled life, I am finding myself physically challenged by the weather and much more, but also spiritually and emotionally challenged as I begin to reconcile my way of living with the way of life here for so many Mongolians and for my brother. I am challenged by Leo’s life here, by the life that has become so normal for him and for the courage with which he has taken on this experience.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Life granting

I want to try and fit one more blog in before we leave for Leo's soum in an effort to continue to bring you all closer to our journey and what we are experiencing. Some of the other blogs have been what we've done which is important as well, but I wanted to invite you all in to the personal journey I've been taking too.

The book I mentioned earlier in my blog could not have been more perfectly placed in my life and has begun to help me frame some of the experiences I'm having. The author, Barbara Brown Taylor, when asked about her prayer life responds by talking about the practices that sustain her life and enable her to view her body not as good or bad, but as dead or alive. She closes this section by saying, "There are times when dancing on tables grants more life than kneeling in prayer. More to the point, there are times when dancing on tables is the most authentic prayer in reach, even if it pocks the table and clears the room" (47). I think my prayers during this trip may have come in those moments not kneeling in prayer, but in moments of joy, tears, and bumpy roads.

Riding along the bumpy roads on the way to Tsengel was life giving and life granting in more ways than could be expected. When my camera battery died on the way home (much to my dismay), I had a chance to finally free my eyes of the camera and sit back and take it all in. As we bumped along and frequently found ourselves thrown from one side of the car to another, somehow Leo and Dad fell asleep. I put my Ipod on and started listening to Mumford and Sons and the sun began to set over the mountains and through the clouds. I had a chance to simply sit, listen, think, and gaze mouth wide open at our world. Everything in the scenery here is so large, so vast, and it is easy to feel very small in the midst of it all. Feeling small is a wonderful feeling when one cannot help but experience the infinite size and magnitude of our God and his love for the small things.

Jumping on a camel and riding it around the eagle festival was life giving, laughter inducing, and joy filling. I don't remember what it felt like to ride a horse as a child but I imagine that it may have been some of the same emotions. The camel beautifully clad in a decorated saddle sank down to the ground for me to climb on top and then with a little struggle came up to standing. I found myself on top of the camel giggling, laughing, giving a thumbs up to Leo as he took my picture, and feeling on top of the world. I looked out to see mountains stretching far, eagle hunters surrounding me and I literally had to stop and tell myself this was real, this was my life. My joy of this experience only increased as Dad got on board and rode around with a huge kid like smile and then Leo, who can be quite serious, also jumped on board and was given a Kazak hat to wear for his ride. All of his descended from our individual rides giddy and in disbelief we had ridden a camel. Feeling childlike joy and glee is one of the most beautiful forms of prayer.

Beginning to realize that a community here might love your brother almost as much as you do is also beautifully humbling and life granting. On our first day arriving here in Olgi, we climbed off the plane onto the runway and leisurely took some pictures as our luggage arrived from a pully cart. When we entered the building, Leo found some people he knew and we got a chance to meet them. One was a man from Olgi who according to Leo speaks the best English in town. After introductions and small talk, he closed our conversation by saying "You will go to a town named Tsaaganur and you will see that Leo is very loved there. They all love him." I had tears come to my eyes as I tasted the fact that we will be traveling to a village where Leo is loved, where he is valued, and where he is treasured. When our love is far from those we love, God steps in to bring it closer. A prayer of gratitude was whispered.

And so I haven't kneeled in prayer this trip or been to church, but our daily experiences have brought my emotionally to my knees in awe of the love and goodness of God.


Without trying to sound disrespectful, I'm not sure that I've ever placed a high importance on tradition. Yes, I enjoy traditions for times of bringing people together or remembering history, but rarely do I equate the value of tradition as high as I do other values. Today, I was taught anew the beauty, value and wonder of tradition in a beautiful celebration of a piece of the Mongolian Kazak culture, the annual Eagle Festival.

The Eagle Festival takes place on the plains of Western Mongolia surrounded by breathtaking mountains and miles and miles of land. Eagle hunters from all over Mongolia and from Kazakhstan too come to this festival to compete in their sport. Eagle hunting has been a part of the culture for years upon years yet the festival only started about ten years ago. As the years have gone on, more and more tourists have flocked to this festival eager to photograph the experience or simply share in it.

We arrived mid morning to a barren wilderness transformed gently into a festival ground. Tour companies and visitors had parked their cars in a long line and local vendors had laid their goods on the earth to sell. A handful of culinary fiends had set up tents and were cooking up kebabs and hashads (fried hot pockets as described to us). Behind the food vendors stretched out a massive area where the events were set to take place. As we wandered around and gained our bearings, eagle hunters on horseback began appearing everywhere. The eagle hunters dress in their ethnic dress and its incredible. Each different ethnic group in Mongolia has such a different style of dress that each man was dressed differently. Some wore big furry hats, others colorful cloaks, and others darker colors and serious boots. At first, when we spotted one it was like a Disney character at Disney, but as the festival drew on they became normal to see.

The festival started with the presentation of the riders and their eagles. And then continued with the eagle hunters showing off their skills. Each rider left his eagle at the top of a mountain. The rider then waited below with us with a piece of fox tail or fox meat as bait. His eagle was then set free up above and the rider then tried to get his eagle back to his person as quickly as possible. Some eagles made a bee line to their riders proving their rider very proud and other eagles went rove making their rider gallop out of the area and into the parking lot to retrieve their eagles, not quite so good, but probably more entertaining. The three of us stood in amazement as we watched it all take place. It was incredible and unlike anything we had seen before

We ventured over to the vendors to buy some gifts and to eat lunch from one of the tents and managed to meet a lot of Leo's friends and fellow Peace Corps volunteer members while we were at it. Every where you looked, we saw Eagle Hunters and their horses and beautiful Mongolian and Kahzak goods.

We also got to ride a CAMEL! Dad, Leo, and I each took a turn riding on this beautiful camel and it was incredible. His humps were so furry and he walked with such a strange gait. It was so fun being up above everything and seeing it all go on and we all giggled and laughed as we maneuvered onto the animal and as it squealed when trying to get up. It was so fun seeing Dad on the camel. Pictures will come soon.

In the afternoon, we watched as the riders participated in a sport that involves riding a horse and swooping down from your saddle to pick up a coin while keeping going on your horse and coming back up to sitting position. It was quite scary to watch, but they were great!

Throughout the whole festival, there was a beautiful reverence for the history and tradition of the eagle hunters. The men and women wore their dress with pride posing for photos heads held high with their eagles by their side. The riders prepared diligently for this festival and some traveled for miles to get there. The air was filled with an excitement in part from those that had traveled miles to compete, but also from those who had traveled miles to see this piece of tradition in action. A shared reverence and admiration for this moment, for this day with all its colors and animals and people transcended us all. It was a day where tradition brought forth culture and bonded together a group of people from all over Mongolia and the world into a shared moment of awe. I'm glad we got to be a part of it.

Tomorrow, we finally head out to Leo's soum (village). I cannot wait to see him in his element. Its a 2.5 hour drive from Ulgi and starts our three day streak of no showering :) We're also not sure about our internet capabilities, but we'll do our best.

Love to all at home.

Friday, October 5, 2012

"Below My Feet"

The Mumford and Sons' new album could not have come out at any better time. In fact, so many songs on it have been running through my mind or on repeat on my Ipod. One of the songs, Below My Feet, in particular has capitvated my heart. I love it. I love the music, the energy, the emotions it evokes, and mostly the words. The chorus goes..

"Keep the earth below my feet
For all my sweat, my blood runs weak
Let me learn from where I have been
Keep my eyes to serve
My hands to learn."

Today, we spent a day where the earth was either under our feet or under our tires. We ventured out to Tsengel Soum, a small village about 2.5 hours from Olgi, that is home to a spring and absolutely breathtaking scenery. With much time in our journey and then an invigorating hike to the spring, I feel like today was a day full of thinking, being in awe, and just resting in nature.

Our journey, though not far, took us a long, long time. We traveled in a Soviet style Jeep car on roads that were simply roads because other cars had once taken the same path. The bumpy dirt roads stretched out and wound through each other like spaghetti leaving us completely baffled by our drivers ability to pick the right one. I could not put my camera down for more than a minute on this drive. We passed incredible mountains covered perfectly in snow. We saw yaks and horses and camels--oh my! I was so excited to see these ragamuffin camels blocking the way of our car just like sheep in rural farms at home. We saw eagles flying peacefully and powerfully through the air and we saw as the clouds rolled in and darkened with threatening rain. With two and half hours of journeying, we had a chance to be in the midst of this untouched land and to simply admire it. So many times I feel as though I am busy multitasking or so preoccupied that I barely notice whats around on my drives to work or about. I wonder what beauty I'm missing right at home. Today, we had the chance to open our eyes widely and curiously to our surroundings. We couldn't stop saying how beautiful it was and I literally shrieked like a little kid when we saw the camels. I easily took 150 photos on the journey.

Keep my eyes to serve

Our drive took us to the soum of Tsengel. I cannot even begin to describe how remote this village is. We drove for miles and miles past what seemed like untouched land only to find this small civilization bustling and going on with life. Children left school and giggled together on their walks home. Kazak women with scarves covering their heads walked to the neighbors house and old spicy looking men drove motorcyles down the bumpy streets. Despite the amount of activity, it is by far the most remote untouched place I have visited. We left our driver and began our hour hike to a spring of water. We walked by flocks of sheep grazing and cows mooing! We hiked up a path that ran parallel to the river that emerged whose banks were the home of beautiful yellow trees.

Every second step, I would stop and simply be in awe of the beauty of our world. You just couldn't help but stop and be keenly aware of the beautiful masterpiece of our Creator. Our hike took us to a spring where fresh, ice cold water poured out and the park sign was covered in prayer scarves.

Keep the earth below my feet

As we returned, we called our driver, Amenjoel, to come pick us up and began out wait on the side of the rocky path. Minutes went by and we called again to only have him tell us he was still on his way. All of our luggage was in the car with him and the winds that had seemed reasonably cold now felt bitterly cold. We called again and for a third time were reassured he was on his way. After another twenty minutes, we tried calling with no response. I found myself feeling very small and vulnerable. There we were in the middle of Mongolian wilderness relying entirely on one man's willingness to return to pick us up. Very rarely have I felt my well being and future so deeply in a stranger's hands. After an hour of waiting and no response, we started walking to find some shelter and all kinds of "if this happens, then..." thoughts ran through my head. As we began walking, a car horn rang out and he was back after having unexpectedly been sent to pick up a doctor for a woman giving birth. I think sometimes I am so used to being independent that I can forget or at least place second the need for dependence and trust. Here in Mongolia, Leo and this country are beginning to show me the importance of depending on another. Dependence here is not seen as a weakness or a strength. It is simply viewed as a way of life. I hope I can learn to trust and rely on others as well as Leo seems to have.

Let me learn from where I have been

Day of Firsts..

One of the things I love about travelling are the new things I get to experience and to see. Yesterday, our first full day in Olgii was a day jammed pack full of firsts.

To even get to Olgii, we flew at sunrise over some of the most beautiful scenery I have experienced. Mountains stretched for as far as the eye could see--some with snow, others shrouded in the shadow of clouds. Frozen lakes met our gaze and the occasional ger popped out of the landscape. I spent probably half the flight looking out the window at this...

First time I've ever taken over 50 photos on a plane.

After arriving in Olgi, we wandered to the market and around to get to know the town. Its a little smaller and more manageable than Ulaan Bataar so we were able to walk everywhere and explore. We saw the post office where Leo gets his packages and saw the main square with its communist red star statue and quotes from Lenin. Leo brought us next to the market where you can literally buy everything imaginable! Walking from vendor to vendor, we saw Kazhak carpets, make up, and fresh fruit. We then happened upon the meat room. In all its glory, every part of animal hung from the ceiling and was laid out on tables with five women as their proud owners. I asked to take a picture of this scene and before I knew it, I was taking pictures of each women and her stand. First time I've taken portraits of meat sellers.

After our ramble around town, we went to the Turkish restaurant in town to meet up with Leo's fellow peace corps volunteers. We enjoyed learning about their experiences and getting to know them better. We also got to eat one of the specialties: horse. First time I've ever eaten horse.

In the afternoon, Dad and I finally felt the lack of sleep and jet lag catch up with us and we retreated for a five hour afternoon nap. It was epic--and desperately needed. And where did we nap? Oh, in a ger. A ger is a traditional Mongolian nomadic home that looks like a mini circus tent home. Inside our ger were three beds and then a small wood burning fire in the middle. The door frame was tiny and so you had to crouch down to get through. It was incredible and such a unique experience. At sunset, a sweet Mongolian man came in to light the fire and within minutes, our ger was warm and toasty. First time I've stayed in a ger.

(And yes, this time, that really is our ger and our photo).

I'm sure that many more firsts will occur on this trip as we step more and more out of our known world and into this new, beautiful way of life here in Mongolia. This country is breathtakingly beautiful in its vastness and simple majesty. The people are gentle and friendly and curious. And I am so glad to be here.