Greetings from Seoul

My journey started at Halifax airport at 6 am Saturday.

I’m sitting in the Korean Air lounge at Incheon Airport in Seoul after a 13.5 hour flight from Toronto…which was preceded by a 2.5-hour flight from Halifax.  Just one more flight to go: Seoul to Ulaanbaatar.  I just had a shower — one of the amenities Incheon offers.  The shower is free, but I paid the equivalent of $21 US to use the lounge, and it was well worth it – an all-you can eat buffet, all you can drink (in my case, Coke Zero, which seems to be more popular than Diet Coke around here) and a nice, spacious place to go online.

As for the flight — it was certainly the longest one I had ever been on, and probably the biggest: nine seats across and more than 50 rows.  When I arrived at my seat, I found a blanket, pillow, paper slippers, bottle of water and real earphones — not those ear buds Air Canada charges $3 apiece for.  We were fed more than once — the first meal was bimbibap — a mixture of beef, rice, shitake mushrooms, cucumbers, and bean sprouts, served with a tube of hot sauce. Delicious.  Later on, there was fish – also very good.  And the flight attendant came around multiple times with water and orange juice.

What does one do on a 13.5 hour flight.  Many people sleep, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t.  So I watched movies — Water for Elephants, Kung Fu Panda II, and one of my all-time favourites, Fiddler on the Roof.  I had to restrain myself from singing along!

Arrived at Incheon pretty tired, and one of the first signs I saw was “showers” (In English, not Korean).  Yes, the Korean Air lounge provides showers and I immediately took advantage of the opportunity to take one – you feel pretty grubby sitting on a plane for more than 13 hours!

Joined my colleague Sarah Feldberg (seen here checking in at the Korean Air desk at Pearson around 10 am Saturday) for the flight from Toronto to Seoul.

The shower was free, but I paid the equivalent of $21 US to use the lounge.  It was well worth it – a buffet which included some excellent bulgoki (Korean beef), egg rolls, dumplings, etc.  And all you could drink, which in my case was Coke Zero, since there was no Diet Coke.

3 p.m. Sunday (!!!): I arrive at Incheon Airport in Seoul, Korea

It’s a cliche to say that something is study in contrasts, but Incheon certainly be described that way.   A “traditional Korean cultural centre” is kitty-corner  to a Starbucks.  Chanel, Gucci and Dior compete with little Korean bookstores and restaurants with pictures of the food in the windows.  Most of the commercial signs…not to mention “showers” are in English, but the electronic departures list is in Korean only so I had to look up my flight number to know if I had the right gate.  Fascinating.

Well, I’m pretty tired and it’s time to start getting ready to board the last and final plane.  Onward and upward…


One day to go!

I’m sitting in a campsite cafe (free Wifi!) about 10 minutes from my cottage in Nova Scotia…and thinking about Mongolia.  In a mere 17 hours I will be on my way:  Halifax to Toronto, Toronto to Seoul, Seoul to Ulaanbaatar.  I leave Halifax at 6:55. tomorrow morning and arrive in UB at 10:10 p.m. local time…on Sunday!  I look at the unfamiliar airport abbreviations on my itinerary — ICN (for Inchon, the Seoul airport) and ULN (for Ulaanbaatar) and still can’t quite believe that I’m actualy going.  I have spent the past two months reading everything about Mongolia I could get my hands on; practically dreaming about gers and steppes and the sound of the morin khuur, the traditional Mongolian instrument colloquially referred to as the “horse fiddle”.  And now it is on the brink of happening for real.

Our cottage in Nova Scotia. Mongolia seems so far away…and yet so close….

My husband Jim tells me that when we were out shopping at Chapters the other day, he looked at Mongolia on a globe…and then it sank in: I’m going halfway around the world.  While I have done this before (I was in Japan in 1990), this kind of travel always seems new to me…and I can barely contain my excitement.

The credit union coaches have already been there for almost a week, and I am enjoying receiving their blog posts and pictures — internet access permitting — for CCA’s official blog, The View From Here.  Given the 11-hour difference between Halifax and UB, I get up every morning and quickly check my Blackberry to see the latest story from Bruno Dragani or Ken Doleman, which I then post on the site.  Their stories are vividly descriptive and make me even more excited about being there myself.

This morning, I packed and unpacked my suitcase three times; I brought much too much stuff from Ottawa and some of it will stay at the cottage until I come back here on Labour Day weekend.  I check the Mongolian weather reports — warm days, cool evenings — and figure out what kinds of clothes I need.  I buy lots of camera batteries and stuff them in my backpack, together with the granola bars that will keep me going on the long car journey into the Mongolian countryside.  I pack a small towel — as a result of Bruno’s blog comment about having to use his t-shirt as a towel in a small Mongolian village; but I don’t know whether I’ll need it where I’m going.  And toilet paper, which several people recommended for the rural part of my adventure.

I wonder about internet access — Bruno sent his latest post via a cellphone modem because in the village where he is working, there was no internet.  I’m told that Ulaanbaatar has excellent access, and there are internet cafes in several of the other places I will be visiting.  So I’m hoping that I will be able to keep this blog — and The View From Here — going for most if not all of the time I’ll be there.  But if you don’t hear from me, you’ll know why.

Farewell to Nova Scotia…hello to Mongolia.  I can’t wait!

Meeting (some of) the coaches — part 2

Today was the second day of the briefing for the four new Mongolia coaches, and we spent the morning talking about telling stories.  If you’re wondering what storytelling has to do with coaching Mongolian credit unions, the answer is simple: we want the coaches to write and talk about their experiences when they get back to Canada.  This has little to do with the culture shock/re-entry issues we discussed in CIL training…it’s actually about engaging the public in the international development work that CCA does. This kind of public engagement — having mission participants talk, write or be interviewed about their experiences overseas — is an integral part of CCA’s ID program.  While co-op and credit union employees and members are a key target audience for our public engagement program, we also encourage participants to speak to community groups, service clubs and, of course, the local media.

I was facilitating the session, and the first thing I did was ask Sophie to tell the group how she met her husband.  Out of respect for her privacy, I’m not going to go into the details here.  But she had told me the story over dinner last night at Johnny Farina’s, and I thought it had many of  the ingredients of what makes a good story: passion, the unusual and the potential for conflict, since she lived in Quebec and he lived in Manitoba.  Another element of a good story is impact or transformation — and needless to say, Sophie’s story also met those criteria.  It was a good illustration of the kinds of things the coaches should be looking for when they are developing their own stories about their experiences in Mongolia.

We talked about ways of sharing stories — blogging, writing articles for credit union newsletters or intranets, making public presentations, and so on.  And I was delighted to discover that Bruno is a blogger.  He hadn’t actually posted anything yet, but had set up the blog and said he would start posting soon.  It can be found at

We spent the afternoon with our resident Mongolia expert, Erin Mackie, who talked about everything from gender equity to the history of the Mongolian credit union movement.  It was wonderful that we could tap into her amazing well of knowledge about both the country and the kind of work the coaches will be doing.

Tomorrow morning, the coaches leave for Mongolia for the first week of the mission.  To Sophie, Bruno, Ramune,  Gary and the other six I will be meeting in Ulaanbaatar,  I say sain yav-aarai (have a good journey).  As for me, I’m off to our family cottage in Nova Scotia first thing tomorrow morning for a week of R&R, and fly to UB out of Halifax on August 13.

Meeting (some of) the coaches — Part 1

John Julian (right) briefs the coaches on the history of CCA's ID program

Today I had the opportunity to meet four of the credit union coaches who are going on the Mongolia mission, and what an impressive group they are! While the other six coaches were in Mongolia last year and didn’t have to attend the Ottawa briefing, these four are new to that country…and only one, former Alterna Savings CEO Gary Seveny, had previously been on a CCA international mission.

Gary, who is one of the most active “retired” people I have ever met, is also on the board of the Co-operative Development Foundation of Canada (CDF), so he already knows a great deal about the international development work we do. The other three are Bruno Dragani, Chief People and Administration Officer at Coastal Community Credit Union (how nice to see Human Resources referred to merely as “People”!); Sophie Ethier, VP Corporate Services at Caisse populaire groupe financier in Winnipeg; and Ramune Jonusonis, Commercial Morgage Officer at Parama Lithuanian Credit Union in Toronto.

Sophie, Bruno and Ramune chat about the upcoming mission over lunch

The group spent a good part of the day learning about CCA and its international development program. There were briefings by our Executive Director, Carol Hunter, as well as CCA ID staffers John Julian and Michael Wodzicki and CDF staffer Kate Weatherow. Laurie Tennian, our Member Engagement Coordinator, took a break from her vacation to join us for lunch at the Savana Cafe. And a highlight of our dinner was the presence of Erin Mackie, a CCA ID program officer who worked on our Mongolia project and is more familiar with that country than any of my other colleagues. And the whole thing was put together by Sarah Feldberg, our Volunteer Coordinator and my soon-to-be travelling companion in Mongolia.

It was a terrific day. Even though I live, eat and breathe CCA on a daily basis, I learned a great deal from both my colleagues and the coaches. Tomorrow morning, I’ll be giving a session on “Telling Your Story”. But judging from all the stories I heard from the coaches today, they aren’t going to need much help from me!

Bi mongol khel üzej bain

I have been fascinated with languages all my life.  I learned French at an early age, and studied enough Spanish in university to become almost fluent, although I have lost much of it since that time.  Over the years, I have learned bits and pieces of Hebrew, Japanese, Italian, Russian, German, Czech and Polish – usually in conjunction with a visit to the countries in which those languages are spoken.  The fact that I sing in Italian, German and Russian has done wonders for my accent, even though I  have hardly enough vocabulary to back it up.  I can say “I don’t speak Russian” (ya ni govoru pa-Russki) so well that people immediately start talking to me in Russian and I don’t understand a word they say!

So it’s not surprising that one of the first things I did when I found out that I was going to Mongolia was do some research on the Mongolian language.  Thanks to my Lonely Planet Mongolian Phrasebook (I think I got the only one available at Chapters in Ottawa), I know that the title of this post translates as “I am studying Mongolian.”  Perhaps “studying” is putting too fine a point on it, because I really don’t have enough time left to study it seriously.  But I am learning about the language and can now actually say a few words.

Mongolian is distantly related to Turkish, and has some things in common with Hungarian, but has no relationship with any language I already speak.  Today, Mongolian is usually written using the Cyrillic (Russian) alphabet, which was introduced in the years when the country was dominated by the Soviet Union.  (But traditional Mongolian script can still be seen, especially in the southern part of the country). My rudimentary Russian is enough for me to sound out the letters, but that’s not much use if I don’t know what the words mean.  My one comfort is that if I see a sign in Ulaanbaatar that says PECTOPAH, I’ll know it is a restaurant — the same word is used in Russia.

The first Mongolian expression I learned didn’t come from a book; it was taught to me by Batta, a Mongolian woman who was in Ottawa in June as part of CCA’s mentorship program for women credit union managers.  Sain banuu means hello, and I suppose hello is as good a place to start as any.  She then taught me bayarlaa (thank you).  Armed with “hello” and “thank you”, I then went on to tiim (yes) and ügui (no).  And of course, the food words: buuz (steamed meat dumplings – the Mongolian equivalent of fast food), makh (meat) and airag (fermented mare’s milk, a popular drink that is more potent than it sounds).

You’ll be hearing more about my progress in learning Mongolian in future posts.  In the meantime, there’s a pretty good Wikipedia entry for those of you who want more information on the language.

CIL training – day 3

“Education is the path from cocky ignorance to miserable uncertainty.” – Mark Twain

I suspect that Jas had her tongue firmly planted in her cheek when she wrote that on a flip chart just before the end of today’s third and final CIL session.  And while I have long appreciated Mark Twain’s clever aphorisms, I didn’t see much in the way of “miserable uncertainty” among the participants in this week’s training.  I suspect that most, if not all, are even more enthusiastic about their upcoming journeys than they were before arriving in Toronto. And although uncertainty is always a factor when charting unknown waters, we are all far from miserable about the prospect.

Today’s sessions dealt with the practical side of intercultural effectiveness — dealing with culture shock, how to collaborate with international partners, perceptions of international development and, when necessary, coping with failure.  We saw an excellent TED Talks video featuring David Damberger from Engineers Without Borders, talking about the need to recognize and articulate development failures as well as development successess.  He gave the example of a highly-touted project to give people in Malawi greater access to water – the engineers came and built the water system, only to discover that a year later, many of the pumps were broken because there had been no plan for how they would be maintained. In Damberger’s view, international development initiatives are ineffective because donors demand success, and failure is swept under the rug.  As a result, the same mistakes are repeated again and again.

While I am not as pessimistic as Damberger about the state of international development, I get his point.  But from my own observation of CCA’s international development program, CCA is doing all the right things: working very closely with international partner organizations, taking the time to understand what’s happening in the field, and sticking closely to its mandate: improving lives and livelihoods through co-operatives.  The fact that we have a proven business model with internationally-recognized guiding princples is one advantage.  And the fact that we constantly consult with our partners to determine what works and what doesn’t is another.

Next week: briefing sessions in Ottawa with some of the coaches on the Mongolia mission.

CIL training – day 2

He goes by the nickname “Rex”, but his real name is Batkhuu Regsuren.  He’s a 36-year old Mongolian with a PhD in law (from a university in Budapest, Hungary) and a community college diploma in computer science. He now works in high tech in Toronto.  And today (I guess as I write this it was actually yesterday), I was privileged to spend four hours with him, as my CIL “resource person” for my destination country.

Those four hours were, without a doubt, the highlight of the CIL program.  Rex has lived in Toronto for six years, but returns to Mongolia annually to visit his family.  So he’s up to date with just about everything going on in that country, and his knowledge was more valuable to me than anything I could get from a book or an official briefing.

What did we talk about?  Where to begin? It would be impossible to recount the full breadth of our conversation, but here are just a few of the things I learned.

Rex and me

  • Unlike most Asians, Mongolians generally address each other by their given names, regardless of age or social status.
  • Mongolians are relatively casual about time and schedules.  As Rex put it, “In Mongolia, they joke that ther are only two times – before noon and after noon”.
  • Mongolia is much better than many Asian countries in terms of gender equity; in fact, Mongolian women were granted the right to vote in 1924.   That said, there are some traditional divisions between men and women that still exist, and at certain events, the men sit with the men and the women with the women.
  • When I see a dog in Mongolia, I should resist my natural temptation to pet it; many dogs are wild and can be vicious.
  • The best Mongolian food in Ulaanbaatar can be found at a restaurant with a name that translates as “Ancient Land”.
  • I might see a yak if I travel to the highlands northwest of UB.
  • Some of the greatest “Japanese” sumo wrestlers are actually Mongolian.
  • There is a national park east of Ulaanbaatar where people go to replicate life in 13th-century Mongolia – sort of like a Mongolian Upper Canada Village.
  • I don’t have to wear a skirt to meetings – pants will do just fine.
  • The morin khuur is a traditional Mongolian stringed instrument that has two strings and is played with a bow.
  • Not everyone in the rural areas of Mongolia  lives in a ger (traditional Mongolian tent); some live in low-rise apartment buildings. But many do.
  • I should watch out for pickpockets in Ulaanbaatar.

And that was just the beginning….bayarlaa, Rex.  I am looking forward to my adventure in co-operation more than ever!

CIL training – Day 1

Today was the first day of my pre-departure training program with the Centre for Intercultural Learning, a course required for all participants in CCA international missions.   The program is about intercultural effectiveness, and participants ranged from a group of interns heading off on their first international placements to the dean of the Perth campus of Algonquin College, about to retire from that position to take a three-year posting in Guyana with the Association of Canadian Community Colleges.

It was a fascinating day.  Jas, our facilitator, is originally from India and shared her own experiences navigating intercutural waters.  We talked about cultural tendencies:  attitudes toward such factors as time, power and justice.  And we played a game of cards. Each table of four or five participants was given a deck of cards and the rules to what looked like a simple trick-taking game.  We were asked to spend five minutes reading the rules, after which the rules sheet was taken away from us. 

Then we started to play.  When Jas clapped her hands, the winner and loser at each table went to another table…and then the fun really began.  I didn’t really get what this was all about until one of the new arrivals at our table, Kristiane, told  us we were playing by the wrong rules — why were we taking tricks with diamonds as trump?  Then it dawned on me — each table was given a different set of rules, and when people from different tables got together, chaos ensued. A simple message — different cultures play by different rules — but we learned it in a way no lecture could .

More to come…

Welcome to Donna’s Mongolia blog

In less than a month, I will be leaving for Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia as part of a Canadian Co-operative Association’s credit union coaching mission.  Participating in the mission are ten credit union professionals from across Canada, who will head for Mongolia during the first week of August.  CCA’s volunteer co-ordinator, Sarah Feldberg, and I will be joining the mission on August 14, to provide staff support for the coaches and to meet with some of our credit union and co-operative partners.

But before I talk about this specific mission, a few words about CCA and its coaching program.

The Canadian Co-operative Association is a national association representing co-operatives and credit unions across Canada. It’s mission is to promote, develop and unite co-operatives and credit unions for the benefit of people in Canada and around the world.  In addition to its work in Canada, CCA manages an international development program which works with partner organizations in other countries to help alleviate poverty through co-operation.

The international program receives much of its funding from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), as well as from such organizations as the Canadian Red Cross and the World Bank.  This funding is supplemented with money raised by the Co-operative Development Foundation of Canada (CDF), which is essentially CCA’s fundraising arm.  In many ways, CDF is the co-operative sector’s charity of choice, and donations come in from both co-operative organizations and individuals across Canada.

Over the past few years, CCA has been managing credit union coaching programs in four countries:  Uganda, Ghana, Malawi and Mongolia.  The Canadian participants are volunteers with extensive experience in credit union management.  It is a privilege for me to have an opportunity to join this group, and I will be forever grateful to those who selected me for the mission.

Before my departure, I plan to use this blog to talk a little about how I am preparing for my journey, and what I have been learning about Mongolia.  While in Mongolia, I hope to report at least daily (internet access permitting) on my experiences in this fascinating country.