Woody Packard

Words + Pictures

Mr. Fixit Meets Mongolia

Music Teacher, Broken Yatag
For several months now I have been spending a day a week at Lotus Children's Center trying to repair a few of the many things that come undone there. I volunteered because I'd like to help with something I am good at, and to do something that is needed. (In addition to the many things that are broken, there are many, many other needs!) What seemed like an obvious matching of needs and skills has refreshed my appreciation for how easy it is to get things done in the United States.

Lotus Children's center is just at the edge of Gachuurt, a village just east of Ulaanbaatar on a hard bend in the Tuul River. Depending on the day and your bus connections, it usually takes between one and two hours to catch connecting buses and hike the mile of dirt road up the hill to the center. (I usually leave mid-morning and plan to arrive at eleven or so.) Most days there is a list of things to work on that would not seem like a big deal if I were living in the United States. Three years in Mongolia have taught me many things, and expanded my imagination for the difficulty in completing simple tasks. It turns out that much of my "skill" in fixing things depends on knowledge of the proper tools and materials. In this country, where both tools and materials are in short supply, that knowledge becomes a relatively useless starting point.

There is no good translation here for a hardware store, and there certainly are no Home Depots or Wall Marts. (Well Mart—several stores scattered across the country, is not the same.) Certainly it is possible to get tools, but it is also possible and likely to lose them. It is common for tools—bought to accomplish a specific project—to disappear with the people hired to use them, which is why I have spent a fair amount of time driving nails with stones. There is a toolbox at Lotus that I have been entrusted with which contains screwdrivers, pliers, and some combination wrenches. Some weeks it contains a hammer. Other tools have been purchased, including power tools—saws, drills, air nailers—though it has been hard to keep track of the parts needed for these to be useful. Cordless tools end up with batteries or chargers missing. For several months many tools were locked in a small room inside the bakery, which protected them from theft. Then one day the keys to that room vanished for six weeks, leaving the staff here practically tool-less.

For these reasons and more, when I go to the Children's center I take and guard my own tool kit that contains a utility knife, a pair of sturdy needle-nose pliers, a screwdriver (blade reverses between straight and Philips) a plastic drafting triangle to use as a square, two tape measures (one metric, one feet and inches,) and most guarded, a Japanese dozuki saw that I brought from the US. All but the saw fit into a fanny pack.

Door Repair, Before Dough
Material, including parts, are also hard to find, which requires you to improvise, and often do the kinds of things you might think you would never do on a repair project. Several weeks ago I found myself late in the afternoon with the back door to the kitchen propped open, with lock parts scattered around on some rubber matts that are keeping me dry above a large freezing mud puddle. I am trying to figure out how to jam a lockset into a steel door that has been pried apart many times, welded back together, and pried apart again. The threaded part of the door that holds the lockset is long gone. The machine threads in the lockset that have not been drilled out to take pop rivets are stripped from having a drywall screw forced into them, but one such screw could hold it in place if there were a shim to keep it from wiggling back and forth. A child is now smashing ice with a hammer at my feet, another has just borrowed my tape measure. The sun is getting low in the late winter sky, leaving the door unlocked is not an option.

While I hold the lockset in place with one hand, I am scratching my head with the other. I have many good ideas, but no parts or material to make them work. Here, behind the kitchen, there is no shim, no wood, no cardboard—only what the cook has thrown out for the dogs. But in that, is some old dough. It is dried out but still pliable. Good ideas having failed, it's time to resort to a bad idea. It is the first time, and I hope the last, that I will fix a door with bread dough.

Frustrating as it can be, I have come to terms with the process, doing whatever I can do every week. With or without my repairs, the important work continues at the children's center. I have worked on cars, doors, plumbing, musical instruments, vacuum cleaners, cabinets, beds, and gers. None of these tasks matches the daily care provided by the staff for the many children here.

Close Story—Back to Pictures

Mr. Fixit Meets Mongolia

Click below to page through enlarged images or read the story.


Improvising, Cabinet Door Repair

Didi and Girls

Making Valentines

Making Valentines

Defunct (Table) Tennis Tables


Message in a Bottle

Repeat Volunteers/Bike Repair Clinic

Replacing Door Jambs


New Lockset

Small Parts Department

Large Parts Storage

Sorting Day, Shoe Container

Music Lessons

Music Lesson

Bed Repairs, Inventory

Hand-Made Tenon

Afternoon Snack

Watch Dog