Pay-It-Forward Sheep Purchase Day 1

By Bob Figlock & Danny Wolf
Published: Tuesday, May 24, 2011

After weeks of planning and fundraising, we finally arrived at Division 5 on Saturday morning to discuss the arrangements that the recipient families had made for purchasing and transporting their sheep. Our cohort consisted of Bob, Danny, Bavaasan the translator, Enkhbayar the veteran of such undertakings, and John and Joel for support. Most of the families were able to show up, explain their plans, and make the initial contractual agreements. Five families had already selected a seller and had their documentation in order, so we made the necessary travel arrangements, produced a hand-drawn map of our contorted route, and agreed to set out early the next day.

We left Choibalsan in a porragon (a 1960's Russian Jeep) Sunday morning. The wind was picking up and dying down spasmodically, and rain, snow, and hail were taking turns at falling. We barreled along a path that at times consisted of a pair of dirt wheel-tracks pressed into the grassland, and at times was merely the grassland itself. We were trying to get 40km southeast to the dwelling of a herder who would be selling us 60 sheep from his flock of more than a thousand. As it can be extremely difficult to find nomadic herders in the countryside, our driver had to stop at every home we passed and ask where the family was. Conversations usually progressed along the lines of:

Driver: Do you know Boldbaatar?
Woman: Which Boldbaatar?
Three children and a man have walked out into the rain to open the porragon door, stick their heads in, and gawk unblinkingly at probably the first foreigners they've ever seen for 30 seconds straight.
Driver: The one with the sheep.
Woman: Oh, he lives that way.
She points to a spot on the blank horizon absolutely indistinguishable from any of the other 359 degrees that she could have chosen. She might well have been pointing back to Choibalsan for all we knew.
Driver: OK.
Woman: OK.

During several of these stops, the ubiquitous guard dogs wanted to attack our porragon and would chase us unto the very end of their strength. One large dog in particular chose to chase us… from the front. Our driver was careful not to run it over but at times we were going over 30km/hr and the dog was zigzagging in front of us, barking over his shoulder all the while. He made it close to a mile before tiring out and letting us pass. We weren't even within sight of his home any more.

Finally we made it to the ger we were looking for. Shortly after arrival we discovered that all of the sheep were still out to pasture and we therefore couldn't make the purchase. An ironclad rule of our project was that all sheep were to be selected by the recipient prior to payment so we could personally ear tag them. It would be a few hours before they could be corralled for selection. Luckily, the next seller was only 20km away, so we decided to move on so the sheep could be chosen in the meantime. On the way we saw a herd of camels so we stopped and took pictures. The camels were pretty curious about us, but tried to keep their distance, especially when Bavasaan tried to get close enough for us to take a picture of them together. This was the first time Danny had gotten this close to a camel outside of the zoo. The camels tired of us before we tired of them, so we continued on our way.

When we arrived, the two families who were making the purchase showed up 5 minutes after us. The seller already had his livestock on hand and waiting for selection so some of us went out to choose and tag the sheep while others stayed in the ger, sipped milk tea and ate biscuits, and handled the particulars of signing the contract. One of our previous families had opted out at the last minute, causing us some alarm, but fortunately here we encountered an old man who had lost all but 50 of his clan's livestock and is supporting 7 children and over 30 grandchildren with these animals. He had been vetted and chosen to receive a ger from a World Vision project last year. After Enkhbayar conducted a long interview, we determined that his family was eligible to participate.

The two families who were buying sheep that day had small, young herds and preferred to purchase 15 two-year-old mothers with 15 lambs instead of 20 three-year-olds as most recipients were doing. This way they could appropriately stagger their herd for sustainability. They agreed that they would pay back the same 20 3-year-olds that everyone else would, and Enkhbayar approved of this modification, so it was put into place. Once the sheep were tagged and the contracts were signed, we handed over the gargantuan stacks of tugriks (there is no checking system out here) and received a shower of gratitude for creating a project such as this. The two herder families were all smiles and couldn't thank us enough. They were clearly very excited to have these animals, and spoke enthusiastically of driving them home this week.

We were seen off by another round of handshakes and waves to go back to the first seller with whom we had met. This time we arrived to find the animals had been selected and everything was ready for the contract signing and tagging. As with the previous purchase, several people went outside to chase the sheep around the corral while others filled out and signed the contracts. The sheep were docile once tackled, but were naturally averse to having an oversize hole-punch used on their ears. Since we caught the slowest ones first, and couldn't separate the sheep that had been tagged from those that hadn't, the last few animals proved very difficult register. In spite of being the only member of the flock without a bright orange earring, the very last sheep took five of us to bring down, at one point jumping clear over another (standing!) member of the flock.

Much like at the previous handovers, everyone was highly and demonstratively appreciative of what we were doing. Once the contracts were finalized and the payment was given, we headed back to Division 5 to get more signatures for the contracts, as everything is signed by each adult member of a recipient family in triplicate. We were greeted by some of the family members who had stayed home. They made us Mongolian soup containing dried sheep-jerky and milk tea as a gesture of gratitude. Although we were exhausted by day's end, we had had what we felt was a legitimate Mongolian adventure out in the countryside and were looking forward to purchasing the other half of the animals next weekend.

To view more photos, please visit our album here.

Jagaa, the dog.

Sorry I haven't been better about updating! I would like to share with you all my best story of late. I hope you don't mind blood and guts. Seriously, don't read this if you do. Just be assured that the story has a happy ending.


So my site mate John Russell's dog keeps trying to kill itself. It was I who first found her a day or two before Christmas, collapsed in the middle of the biggest intersection in town during a fairly heavy snowfall, and it was just because her impending doom was so immediate that she is the one puppy to which I've given in and that I've taken home. Fortunately, John was willing to atone for my mistake and adopt her. Her name is Jagaa, short for Jargal noghoy (happy dog.)

She has stopped to pee in front of several rapidly advancing cars. She leans right down into open manholes. She scales furniture to poison herself on large quantities of chocolate. While we were walking along the frozen river a month ago (which was holding our weight just fine,) she managed to fall through the ice behind us while we weren't looking and was dramatically rescued by a herdsman.

John and frozen Jagaa

So, we figured she shouldn't reproduce. The local Choibalsan veterinarian volunteered to fix her for free so that her students could get some experience and exposure. The alternative would have been a slightly-less-than-200k tugruk (about $180, or 80% of our monthly salary) procedure at the real vet in UB. John decided to go with the free one.

So last Tuesday we took her in to the Technical college and she got fixed. She was not completely anesthetized through this procedure (apparently they don't do it that way here) so four vet students were holding her down while the vet and her protege did the fixing. She was clearly displeased.

Friday night, the time of evening comes to change her bandages. This is the third night of doing this so no biggie. We're over at our other site mate Danny's house, and many of the soumers (village volunteers) are in visiting. We take the dog into the kitchen to swap gauze, when we notice that there's a lot of blood. We flip her over onto her back, and carefully undo the Ace bandage. The gauze is super bloody. And then her intestines pop out.

I'm not talking about a little bit here. At first there were several inches out. Jagaa is freaking out, as is, understandably, John. I rush into the other room to grab help from the other volunteers. I tell one of them to start iodizing water and grabbing gloves from the med kit. I try to call the Choibalsan vet three times on her number and several more times on the numbers of her co-workers. It's 9pm on a Friday, so nobody answers.

I call the vet in UB and ask for advice on my phone while continuing to make calls on other people's phones. She says it's not life-threatening so long as we can wrap the whole mess up. We start flicking the iodized water across her guts to keep them wet and clean and avoid oxidation. By this time the dog is throwing up, and every time she does more intestine comes out. The protruding amount ends up being larger than two baseballs but smaller than a football. A soum volunteer, Jason, is in gloves and is holding the guts on the dog's stomach so that they don't touch the kitchen floor while John and Danny hold her top and bottom halves so that she stays on her back. She is... agitated. Jason soaks fresh gauze in iodized water and uses it to cover the pile.

I get Merrie, the volunteer from the technical college, to come over, and call the vet from her phone. It finally gets through, so I put Geoff, our best speaker by far, on the line and he explains the situation. She wants to wait until tomorrow morning. We explain that no, this needs to happen now. I concede to the demand that I come pick her up in a taxi. At 10 o'clock, Merrie, one of our Mongolian friends Munkhtuya, and I get a taxi and race to the vet's house, her protege's house, and the school to pick up medical supplies.

We get back around 10:30pm. Her guts have been out for just under an hour and a half. We clean the kitchen table and start sterilizing stuff. Jagaa gets two shots of local anesthetic, which don't appear to do very much. Danny and John continue to hold her down while Jason continues to keep the intestines in place while the vet carefully threads them back inside. I'm running around cleaning and grabbing things like scissors and antibiotic ointment, and cleaning up dog puke from the floor. The dog doesn't seem too agonized during this part. The guts are back in by 11:15.

Then came the bitch, as it were. The vet had poor eyesight, and could therefore not do the stitches. She hadn't been able to perform the original ones either. Causality? Perhaps. The vet student had to sew her stomach muscles back up, and then her skin. The dog was thrashing. By this point John, Danny, and Jason are using their actual bodyweight to hold her down. She is a 20 pound dog. Adrenaline's a hell of a thing. Things actually got worse near the end because there appear to be much more nerve endings in skin than in organs.

She was all sewn back up at 12:15pm, three hours into the incident. We thanked the vets and paid for the drugs and their taxi ride back. We agreed that it was the worst night of several of our lives. John got Jagaa safely huddled into a corner where she passed out while giving all of us the evil eye.

And then we drank.

We were gun-shy of the ordeal happening all over again-same stitches and stitcher after all-and I was flying in for a conference on Sunday anyway, so I took the dog with me to get redone at the vet in UB. The logistics of flying with a dog in Mongolia were a big hassle, but less than I imagine a repeat would have been. The original procedure had only removed her ovaries, not her uterus, and due to the possibility of cancer that's apparently a big reason to get a female dog fixed in the first place. So John ended up dropping more than 200k on the UB procedure, plus another 100k for round-trip airfare that wouldn't have been necessary if he'd just driven in with her under less critical circumstances. Jagaa was none too pleased with her third surgery in a week, but is now pretty healthy aside from still being on antibiotics. The UB vet found the beginnings of a serious internal infection when they opened her up, so it turns out that the UB trip was definitely the right call.

Lesson learned. Guys, pay for the expensive surgery from the beginning. It's worth it.

The post-op victory picture. Stone Cold Jagaa is a Stone Cold fox.

Happy 50th Birthday, Peace Corps!

and congratulations to the 200,000 Americans who have served as Volunteers. I'd like to express my deep gratitude towards JFK, Sargent Shriver, Director Williams, and all of the other American and foreign leaders to whose efforts we owe our wonderful program's existence. To our amazing staff here in Ulan Bator, all of my fellow PC Mongolia Volunteers, and the host country nationals who make our experiences possible: from the bottom of my heart, thank you all for enabling the most challenging, inspiring, and rewarding experience I've ever had.

Kennedy Signing Executive Order 10924, Establishing the United States Peace Corps

Ladies and Gentlemen...

Introducing Mongolia's very first Elvis impersonator. This is my English teacher training counterpart, Nargie, impersonating Elvis on Darkhan public access television.

New Updates!

Hello everyone! The thick of Pre-Service Training is upon me, and I have had little to no time for eating, sleeping, or posting. What I do have is a massive backlog of pictures from last year. I apologize that I can’t write more context for these, but I hope that they will tide you over until I can return to musing in this space once again.

[[editor's note]] The next 5 posts or so are all new updates, be sure to read them all!