Saturday, October 16, 2010
"Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.
Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known." --J.R.R. Tolkien
I can feel the miles I have carried my back pack. All the way around the planet (left through LA, returning through NY). But I feel satisfied, grateful, and excited to see my people again. Home!
Thursday, October 14, 2010
Tomorrow I will get on a plane in Holland, stopover in Iceland, then come to NYC. The travel time is about 11 hours, though I arrive in NY only 6 hours after I leave here. In this past week I connected with women I met earlier in this trip, which gave me 3 windows into different Dutch lives.
First I stayed with Mariel, whom I met in Mongolia. She lives in student housing and is very close to finishing her graduate degree. I was able to really rest and unwind at her place after a whirlwind of sightseeing in Amsterdam. We had a fun afternoon and evening cooking a fancy (and somewhat experimental) Indian meal for 2 of her friends. The 4 of us filled the cozy kitchen, and the conversation nicely complimented the food (they were kind enough to converse in English so I could join in).
Next I stayed with Bianca and her partner Antoinette. Antoinette is a military physician and Bianca is a physician’s assistant. I met Bianca in Chomrung (Nepal) while trekking. We had kept in touch some as I traveled and she and her partner were kind to open their home to me for 3 days. They live in an upscale neighborhood with neat gardens and tidy postage stamp yards. They are avid cyclists and usually commute by bike to work. They are both world travelers and their beautiful home is decorated with sculpture, lighting fixtures, and gorgeous photographs from their adventures.
Bianca took me to see the town of Elburg, where the Van Den Bergs come from. It looked a heck of a lot like all the other little medieval villages I have been seeing since I visited Cesky Krumlov. It felt a little too spruced up for the benefit of the tourists who come from primarily Germany and Amsterdam. Like a Disney set of a village, rather than a place people really live. The highlight was seeing a man making rope in the traditional way. He was wearing wooden clogs and twisting and stretching long multi-strand jute cords. I kicked myself later for not going and talking to him about what he was doing. Felt I had somewhere more important to go, but that was the best thing and I didn’t know it until later.
We had a relaxing Sunday, with summer sunny weather. Bianca and I took an easy bike ride along the canals near her house. Antoinette is quite tall and her bike fit me really well. Caught a bug or two in my teeth because I was smiling so much as I rode. Felt free to be zipping along the waterways and farmlands. We walked around Utrecht which is now my favorite European city. It is compact, and much easier to navigate than Amsterdam. It feels like people really live and work there, using the cobblestone streets and old houses along the canal. Next trip to Europe I hope to have more time there. The next day we drove to see Kinderdike, a UNESCO heritage site of older windmills. One of them was open to see inside, and the whirling blades of the mill set all sizes of wooden cranks and gears inside in motion. Sails on each arm caught the ample breeze and it was going quite fast, making creaks and groans like an old ship. Every level of the living quarters had moving parts that were connecting the blades with the water wheel below. To my annoyance, this made me quite seasick, and I couldn’t stay inside long. Once out in the fresh air, the open green landscape dotted with windmills set me right again.
The last person I visited was Marjolein. I met her on the Nepal trek. She is a quiet beautiful woman with lively curious eyes. We share many interests, including Buddhism and nature. She and her daughter live in a home that feels like a beach house, complete with shells, beach glass, and other objects that Marjolein finds at the seaside. We reconnected as we walked through Amsterdam, and as we shared a couple of tasty meals and cups of tea at her place north of the city. I enjoyed bringing the threads from Nepal and Mongolia all the way to my last stop via these new friends. (Thanks Mariel, Bianca, Antoinette, and Marjolein!)
It feels strange to say I am coming back to the States tomorrow. I have been on my own timeline, independent of life Back Home. I will be stepping back into a “program already in progress.” Catching up with people and places I hold dear. Working on the next stage of this trip, which is writing about it, giving presentations, and working on a book. I end this entry with gratitude. Thanks to all of you that have traveled with me through my writings. Thanks to Spirit for a safe journey full of lessons but devoid of serious mishaps or injuries. I give thanks for being able to complete what I set out to do. These and more are the gifts I bring home in my backpack. Tomorrow. (And as I post this, tomorrow has become TODAY.)
Friday, October 8, 2010
Blue skies, fluffy clouds, the pleasant ringing of bicycle bells, crossing bridges over canals with swans floating by…Amsterdam is very different than any place I’ve ever been. The weather has been unseasonably warm, and I had nearly 3 days of summerish weather to do my main sightseeing of the city proper. With an I AMsterdam pass, in 48 hours I was able to run around and see all the main museums and take a canal tour. The unlimited public transport included in the pass was a huge plus, too.
The call of “Frou! Frou!” wakes me out of my pleasant day-dreaming as I wander. I have mistaken once again the bike street for a pedestrian sidewalk. I should just paste a sign (like they do for student drivers) on my back that says, “Warning—American.” Almost every street has a lane for cars, with a separate parallel bike lane, and then a sidewalk for pedestrians. Bikes have more rights than pedestrians. I look both ways several times before crossing any lane or street because the bikes come from thin air, warning bells dinging. There are multi-story parking garages filled to the brim with bicycles. There are bikes for cargo, bikes with shelves or seats for kids or adult friends. Bikes with big bucket-like boxes built into the frame. Tiny folding bikes can go on the public transport. It is amazing to see a city so entirely built around bikes.
I learned that marijuana is actually illegal here. I went on a walking tour where the guide said if as long as something follows three rules, laws against it are not enforced. If it is good for business, isn’t hurting anyone, and the person doing it is discreet, police turn a blind eye. The shops that sell weed are called “Coffeeshops.” If you actually want coffee, you go to a café. I haven’t gone in, but occasionally have swooned walking through clouds of coffee smoke coming from the open windows. In the evenings, the streets fill with people in their early 20s out doing pub crawls. Several times I saw very stoned young men confounded by the task of scanning their metro card on a moving tram. When I talked to younger people on my tour, they said with some surprise that Amsterdam had so much more to offer than the red light district and weed. Really? It’s true.
As I am not a partying type, I have enjoyed learning the history of this place, seeing van Gogh’s and Rembrandt’s paintings, and learning more about the Dutch. When I came through customs, the agent asked if I spoke Dutch. When I said no, he said, “So what’s the deal with the Dutch last name?” My great-great grandfather came from here. “Ah! You have Dutch roots. You may enter.”
Now I am south of Amsterdam, being hosted by a kind Dutch woman I met in Ulaanbaatar. We had a good hour-long talk in the coffee shop in UB, and I have taken her up on her offer to stay a couple of days. She has a nice room in a student housing development. We talked until late over a nice dinner, and found we have a lot in common. I was asking her if things we attribute to being Dutch in our family are characteristics she would think of as Dutch. “We take pride in finding good quality second-hand items. Refurbishing discarded furniture (found in the trash) and using or reselling it would be something to brag about.” She paused before responding. She thought the drive to make things and fix older things for reuse was more of a farmer/countryside impulse than being particularly Dutch, but that it is true the Dutch prefer making money to spending it. (I guess this proves I am only partly Dutch, as I have been doing too good a job at spending my money.)
Tomorrow I will visit another woman that I met in Nepal during my trek. She and her partner have offered to take me to see the little villages where the Van Den Bergs hail from. What a treat to have local hosts. I got the historical overview and experienced the capital, and now will sink into daily life and culture. The best of both worlds.
Friday, October 1, 2010
Take a moment. Check in with your senses. Be still and notice things in your immediate surroundings. Listen to your breathing. Can you feel your heart beating? What sounds can you hear? Are you really where you are? Or is your mind scurrying elsewhere in the past and future?
I have just spent 5 lovely days at a Buddhist retreat center that I found on my last trip to Ireland 10 years ago. It sits on these stunning cliffs that look out over the open ocean. Apparently there is no land between there and Antarctica. I’ll have to look at a globe. I never tired of looking at the perfect line of sea and sky covering 2/3 of the horizon.
The first 2 days I attended meditation sits and went for walks and talked to the other interesting travelers staying at the hostel with me. I met a couple people I hope to keep in touch with, in particular a Kiwi (New Zealander) named Ben. Not everyone there is Buddhist, but all are seekers and most are travelers. I learned more about work exchange opportunities and couch-surfing, so my next adventure will be much cheaper than this one was. There is a great sense of space and breathing room. The weather was very Irish coast, meaning it changed on a dime from fair to wet to fair again.
My second night there, it had been raining hard (the Irish would say “it was lashing rain, like”). The first night had been cloudy, no stars. I stayed up late with some really nice conversations and made it to bed around 12. I was wound up, even though 8 other women slept peacefully all around me in their bunk beds. I lay on my side with my eyes open. A star pierced my vision through the window across from my bed. Stars! I jumped out of bed, threw clothes on over my PJs and ran out before I even thought twice about it. As I approached the garden wall with a view of the sea and cliffs, I gasped aloud. The moonlight was shining on the sea, in bright patches that swiftly moved across the surface. The stars shone cheerfully through the holes that grew wider and wider until most of the sky was set a twinkling. The sea, which had been crashing all day, had calmed to a sound like 100 librarians saying “Shhh, shhhh” over and over, slightly out of sync with each other. No one else was up. I stood stunned. I wept at the beauty of it. I laughed aloud. Then I danced. I danced with my moonlight shadow following me all along the pebbled path. I had a perfectly amazing and free 2 hours out there. A switch flipped which opened my heart a little wider and brought with it a growing calmness that stayed with me the whole week and is with me still.
There was an opportunity to do 2 days of work-exchange, and so I worked cleaning the hostel and working in the garden in exchange for my bed and gorgeous organic gourmet food. I really hope to return there in a year or two to do that for a month. It’s one of those places where any amount of time for a visit doesn’t feel long enough. Almost everyone there was staying longer than they originally intended to.
It has been amazing to be back here. I’m so grateful I had the time to do it. Tomorrow I bus to Cork and fly to Amsterdam early the next day. Less than 2 weeks until I am back in the States. I am almost ready.
Thursday, September 23, 2010
I'm in culture shock because the people here are so gosh darn NICE. I thought the contrast between Prague and Moscow was dramatic, but surely Russians and Irish are not the same species of animal? People stop me on the street if I look the least bit lost, and they walk me in the right direction. Others ask visitors if they have a good place to stay. They do this just to be friendly, not because they are trying to sell something or promote a particular place. People strike up conversations while waiting for the bus. In stores, the staff are happy to see the customers, and again with the helpfulness. It is as much of a breath of fresh air as the healing salt smell of the sea coming off the water. I have a lot more energy here, and am aware of feeling happy and content more than any other time on this journey. I think at least partly this is because getting around and taking care of basic needs is effortless compared to the other places I have been due to language and cultural barriers.
I am in Galway, on the west coast of Ireland after a couple of days in Dublin. Suddenly I am meeting tons of Americans for the first time on my trip. Lots of folks here on genealogy expeditions, exploring their Irish roots. I feel a bundle of mixed emotions about being around Americans. I have not been around native English speakers much in the past 6 months. For some reason, the American accent seems very twangy and harsh to me. I can hear it in my own voice. Not the gorgeous Irish accent or the fluid French. Not the rolled Rs of Mongolian and Nepal or the rich Indian accent. There is swagger in our accent. There is drawl. There is down home cooking and country living. There is a touch of apple pie. It's not bad, but I've never heard it so plainly before, and not so strongly in my own voice.
I love my country. I am lucky to be a woman from the States rather than so many other places where women don't have access to education, employment, or have childbearing and marriage as options...I love that we don't have to bribe our judges and most of us don't live in fear of the police. We usually have someone to appeal to if we have a grievance in almost every situation. We can express our opinions, even if they are unpopular or are against the government. I love the land in the huge variety of places and national parks, from sea to shining sea. And, whenever I am away, I see more clearly our weaknesses, the dirt under our nails, the bloody laundry hidden under the bed. This is partly why I wanted to come through Europe, so I can do some reconciling with my American-ness. I can remember more of where I come from, because I was away long enough to start to forget.
Today was "Arthur's day" which celebrates Guinness beer. At 17:59, there was a world-wide toast (1759 was the year Guinness was founded). The streets were lined with revelers, most taking full advantage of the opportunity to be loud and boisterous. I had an obligatory Guinness, with black current syrup to take the edge off the bitter. This was suggested to me by another woman who wasn't a huge Guinness fan. It didn't do much for me except make the Guinness taste like cough syrup. I'll stick with hard cider and whisky. Speaking of whiskey, I did a tour of the Jameson distillery in Dublin and learned why Irish whiskey is the best in the world (it is triple-distilled). I won a spot at the table to be talked through a whiskey tasting, where the guide talked us through the flavors and reasons for the different results. Now I can claim to be a bit of a connoisseur. I even have a certificate to prove it.
Tomorrow I take a ferry across to the Aran Islands for some cycling and time on the water. The next day I make my way to Killarney, then down to the Buddhist retreat center which was my main reason for coming back to Ireland. I will have 5 days there to think, write, walk, meditate, and talk to the other amazing people that have also come there. As the place is quite hard to get to, it attracts quiet intentional people. Not all Buddhist, either. Last time found it felt like home after feeling like an alien among my pub-hopping peers. It is good to be here as I work to make sense of what I did, while learning to talk about it in a more concise way. I have gone from feeling freaked out at the idea of coming home, to a mild ambivalence. I plan to move through to acceptance and then into excitement in the coming weeks. More soon!
Tuesday, September 21, 2010
Heidi and Ralph (a gentle, even-keeled, native Swiss man) live in a beautiful big country house. The house is 3 stories tall, with strong bones and old wood. The rooms connect together in a network of cozy burrows. When Ralph talks to the kids, it is often in German, and they will answer in German or French. In their play, they speak together in French. Heidi can speak both, but uses English with the kids. The primary language of the region is French. Fun to hear such a mix of languages. Old high school French has begun appearing from the language closet in my brain, dusty and sleepy. I understand a lot more than in Mongolia just getting around, and when people speak to me I can get the jist of simple things. Sentences and phrases occur to me to say, but usually after the opportunity to use them has passed.
Ralph and Heidi took me with their family for a weekend in the Alsace region of France. Curving byways linked little villages that looked like scenes you would see on the wrappings of fine chocolate. Every town featured a chapel with a spire surrounded by rows of brightly colored row houses with tile rooftops, wooden shutters, and flower boxes. The rolling vibrant green countryside a perfect backdrop for the towns and little castles nestled in comforting hills. We stayed in a cute little apartment in Eguisheim http://www.visit-alsace.com/eguisheim/. I was able to spend some time on my own in Colmar, wandering the cobblestone streets and walking along the little canals that are the reason that area is called “little Venice.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colmar)
Heidi and Ralph traveled widely before they started their family, so we had many good conversations about travel. Heidi and I were able to take a day and do a beautiful long walk through vineyards and get reacquainted after the long time apart (the photo is from that walk). I very much enjoyed their company and hospitality. A chance to rest and feel at home.
My idea to go overland to Ireland couldn’t work due to ferry schedules and expense, so I took a cheap flight to Dublin. I have about 2 unfettered weeks here, I plan to wander the southwest coastline. It feels really good to be here again. Ireland was my first trip out of North America in 2001. I wanted to see if I liked to travel on my own. On that trip I met many inspiring women that were traveling the globe alone, and found that I did indeed love traveling. It is fun to return 10 years later, one of those well-traveled women.
Monday, September 13, 2010
An easy 3-hour bus ride south of Prague, I passed through beautiful countryside, farmlands, and other small towns. After finding my hostel, I walked through the old town of Cesky Krumlov. It felt like a movie set, but I knew it was a real place. It looked like the town had been built on a slightly larger place, then somehow crumpled and squished so all the buildings were touching and sat upon pitching heaving cobblestone walkways that careened up and around at crazy angles. I wandered past buildings covered in bright colored plaster with frescos and some baroque details and beautiful doorways. The famous castle added to the movie set illusion as all the stone work was frescoed onto a flat plaster surface. I looked up information about this, why the castle was just painted on, but no one mentions it as anything strange. It felt like I was in the story, "The Emperors new clothes." No one else is acknowledging that the castle is just painted on? Is this common? Maybe I haven't seen enough castles.
The best thing I did in Cesky Krumlov, other than relaxing by the river and taking a nature walk up a small mountain, was to take a tour of the old Baroque theatre which is one of only 2 left in the world. It has 17 sets, costumes, props and the old mechanized stage for doing fast scene changes. It has been nearly completely restored. The theatre was dimly lit with electric lights that mimicked candlelight. The smell of old wood with a bit of musk thickened the air. The stage was set with a forest scene, clouds and cupids hung down from the sky. The use of perspective made the stage look much deeper than it was. The guide showed us sound effect machines used to simulate a storm, and invited volunteers to help make a storm. I got to use the machine that made the sound of rain. When I went up, she said "What is your name? Where are you from?" I said "Rain, from the United States." She said, somewhat under her breath, "The Americans always volunteer." Not sure what that meant. I thought she would have reacted to a woman named "Rain" coming up to play the rainmaker. I enjoyed being able to sneak a closer look at the old stage as I made the sounds. Exceptional place. You can see pictures of the town and sights at ckrumlov.info/docs/en/kaktualita.xml.
Finally over the culture shock of leaving Asia and landing in old Europe, I feel I am re-Westernizing. I also get to talk to many other travelers and get to practice telling the story of my journey through Asia for different kinds of people. This will help to crystallize and make some sense of what I did, in preparation for doing more writing and talks about it when I get home. Now I am back in Prague for a day before catching a night bus to Geneva. I will visit my cousin Heidi about an hour from Geneva, then September 20 head to Ireland.
I have had a good stay at a hostel in a female dorm. The place is clean and a 10-minute tram from the historic old town. I visited the castle twice. First on a tour I wouldn't recommend, then on my own. The highlight of the castle complex is a huge cathedral dedicated to St. Vitus. I've never seen anything like it. The old section was begun in 1344, with work and a dramatic additions being done through the 1600s. How do those spans of stone arches hold up the ceiling without pillars? It is beyond my understanding.
I splurged on a ticket to hear Vivaldi's Four Seasons performed in a gorgeous art deco concert hall. The sound was crystal clear, even though I was in the cheaper seats. Nude white people from the 1930s frolicked in garden frescos on the ceiling. Marble women in sweeping gowns contorted to hold up the balconies. The detailed inlaid wood of the stage glowed deep brown in the lights as the small symphony whirled through the seasons. It is one of my favorite pieces of music and seemed a perfect thing to do in such a fine old European city.
I have been endeavoring to learn more about communism, as it has been a thread running through China, Mongolia, Russia, and here. With my capitalist biases, I read the information at the communist museum, including the propaganda posters against the evil West that Russia used after WWII. One shocking thing is that Marx’s principles are widely believed to be the cause of over 100 million deaths. The push for industrialization and increased production seem so far from what I understand to be the ideals of communism. Maybe I am confusing socialism and communism. I need to learn more about it.
In the Jewish part of town, there was a ghetto for many hundred years before WWII that limited the work and lives of the Jewish inhabitants. In 1389, a local priest accused the Jewish community of "host desecration," that they had attacked a monk carrying a wafer. All 3,000 Jews in the ghetto were killed. It took awhile for the community to rebuild, but in the 15th and 16th centuries it was a thriving city within Prague. When the Nazis came, rather than razing it, they planned to keep it as a museum of an extinct race. Because of this, some very old synagogues, graveyards, and historic buildings survived the war. Tragically, most of the Jews from that time died in concentration camps. It was good to understand more about the persecution the Jews faced in Europe throughout time. Hitler was extreme in his plans to exterminate, but came out of a long history of vilification.
Prague has seen many wars and conflicts related to religious tensions between the Catholics and the Protestants as well. This has left the current population rather disenchanted with religion. Over 60% of Czechs don't believe there is a God. Though the city is full of beautiful churches and cathedrals, most of them are now used as concert venues rather than places of worship.
Sunday, September 12, 2010
Technology is also a trap. Snap! Click! I have a picture to prove I was there, that I’ve “done” it. This is part of the drive-through life I have been working to avoid. It’s the easier thing, to run around breathless snapping pictures. To see, but not to look. To rely overmuch on the visual sense, rather than soaking in with the others. What did the Taj Mahal smell like? Did I notice? As the guide rattled off some interesting facts and took me to the places where I could get the best photos, did I notice the feeling of the place? Now I’ve “done” the Taj, what does it mean to me?
In Europe I’ve entered a stream of other travelers, most of which are trying to “do” Europe in 1-2 months. They can rattle of lists of place names, common or not, and they have the photos to prove it. Did they, as my grandfather demanded to know, find out “what the local people eat?” Did they talk to the locals at all?
Everywhere on my trip (less so in Nepal and India) I have been in exceptional places surrounded by people with their noses buried in their cell phone, sending messages, pulled away from the now. One particular example was when the teenage daughter of my Mongolian family was trying to sort sheep while texting. After a few got through that were supposed to stay in the corral, her mom curtly told her to put her phone away. It is one way I check in if I find I’ve drifted away in my mind. “Are any sheep getting away in my distraction?” I can hear Enhee’s voice pulling me back into the present.
Sometimes on this trip I was somewhere I wasn’t allowed to take a picture. I felt stripped somehow. The reflex to click moving my finger of my camera-less hand. I’d try to take a picture with my mind and my senses. What is there to see and feel here? Other wondrous moments I would be immersed then think, “Oh, I should take a picture!” In Nepal, Niraj and I walked past 5 ladies young and old sitting on their porch of a stone house doing some kind of sewing work. They laughed and chatted in the sun, a wall of bright colored flowers ran beside and below where the house sat on a rocky ledge. I stopped and smiled, waved at them, and they greeted me warmly with “Namaste!” Niraj said, “you can take a picture,” but I had the feeling it would cheapen that moment. Instead I worked to fix the details of it in my mind.
In Asia, most of the time I wasn’t around other Westerners. With the exception of the Taj, I was able to sink in with my senses and soak it in. My pictures trigger memories that inform the surface image. Now that I am one of many travelers, in a cultural norm of passing through and checking off lists, it is much harder to remember to use all my senses. It makes me wonder how well I will carry what I’ve learned into the drive-through culture of the US. I have the picture. I must have been there, right?
Wednesday, September 8, 2010
Once all the flights had been processed, they took me and the other man to get our luggage and then through a series of hallways and security checkpoints. We arrived at a consulate services desk, where I thought I would have to buy the visa with a penalty. Instead, the guy had to go there, and the agents kept walking with me. The Russian agent, who kept throwing disgusted glances at me, knocked on a door that was answered by a Russian man. They exchanged a heated dialogue where the only word I caught was “transit” several times. It was as if he didn’t want responsibility for me, but she insisted. Finally, he waved me through the doors, and though he appeared angry with her, he was neutral to me. He even spoke a few words of English. I still didn’t know what was going on. My flight was due to leave in 1.5 hours. He led me to a waiting area, a large room with windows and many chairs, and told to wait until someone came to get me. A Belarusian women sat there in a uniform. “Will I be able to board my plane? How will I check my luggage and get my boarding pass?” She went and got someone to help translate, and finally after 1.5 hours of mystery, it looked like I was going to get through without even a fine.
The time came for my flight to board, and no one had come. I went searching and found the Russian man. He pointed stiffly back to the waiting area. “My flight is leaving in 15 minutes, and I need to check my luggage.” He looked up at the clock. “Your flight was delayed one hour. Someone will come for you. Please, (the stiff pointing again).” Thirty minutes later, someone from the airlines came for me, along with a customs agent. I was escorted through the airport, checked my bag, frisked in security, and taken to my gate. I was so glad to be getting on the plane without further incident, when I looked at my seat assignment. It was 001C. “Uhh, isn’t that first class?” I asked the flight attendant and she kindly showed me to my seat right up front in a cushy first class section. I didn’t argue, just enjoyed. The whole time until we were in the air I thought someone might come and say there had been a mistake, so I had my diet coke and read my English language newspaper. Then I had a nice chicken lunch. More diet coke. No mistake. It was excellent. I felt very grateful and also kept thinking, “lucky, lucky girl.” I think Niraj (my guide in Nepal) would say it was the dimples on my cheeks showing their power again.
I hit it off with an adventurous man named Ian from UK that had just spent 2 months motorcycling solo from UK to Mongolia and Russia. We shared stories and drank cheap Russian beer. The next day we toured around Moscow by boat, foot, and subway together. Fun to have a partner in crime for the day. We took a river boat for an hour and saw many of Moscow’s famous buildings from the water. Next we walked to see the largest cathedral, and an old ornately tiled apartment building that I really liked. We made our way to the Kremlin, but because of a holiday, Red Square was closed. I was able to get a picture with St. Basil’s (the crazy candy striped cathedral in everybody’s Moscow pictures), just not from the Square side. Alas, when you have one day only and that’s the day it is closed!
After the walking tour, we went underground and toured the amazing subway stations under the center of the city. The trains are clean, fast, and frequent. This means it is easy to hop off, take some pictures and enjoy, then hop on the next train. Some stations are quite extravagant, like cathedrals underground. They mostly have a nationalist theme, many mosaics of the hammer and sickle, Lenin, and Stalin. They were built huge to help house the population of the city in case of nuclear attack or cataclysm. Apparently there are several secret lines built for KGB and to run supplies during emergency. They have glitzy chandeliers, ornate and gaudy grates and sculpture. Many have huge mosaics on the walls and ceiling. Each station was designed by premier architects and artists of the time, mostly between 1930 and 1970. I had a lot of fun doing this, and loved that the 2 hour tour cost $1.50 (one ticket lasts the whole time, until you come above ground again.)
I was impressed with how grand Moscow is. In the city center, the buildings look very European. Colors are bright and varied. Not the cement square bunkers that Mongolia inherited from them--though these are also in the suburbs of the big cities. What I found difficult and surprising is that the people are very harsh and unwelcoming of visitors, as a rule. Every encounter in stores or restaurants was unfriendly. If I asked for help, or asked if anyone spoke English, they were very offended. If I had to ask a second time because I didn’t understand their reluctant Russian response to my initial question, they became irate. I found 2 metro workers that were neutral and helped me, 4 very sweet Russian girls at the hostel, and 2 random people on the street that helped me, but otherwise interactions with locals were cold or openly hostile. It was wild to arrive in a country of white people after so long in Asia and have them be more foreign to me than anywhere I have ever been. I didn’t mind having so little time there. The people in the Czech Republic as a people are wonderful, especially so in contrast. But I get ahead of myself. First, I have to share my gratitude for not being jailed or sent back to Russia in Belarus for a visa violation.
I was on a Russian train, where all the cars are sleeper cars, either economy (4 beds per cabin) or business (2 beds per cabin). I heard from other passengers it is much nicer than the Mongolian train. It is kept fairly clean--though my car was run by a couple of blokes that weren’t as tidy as the other cabin crew. My bunkmates were 2 nice Mongolian girls on the way to a University outside of Moscow, and a woman transporting goods. This woman got off at the first stop in Russia, so most of the trip there were only 3 of us, which helped a lot.
The bunks are 6 foot long vinyl upholstered benches, and they give you a little mattress and sheet sets and a towel and pillow. Quite cushy! In China, that little mattress would bump you into “soft-sleeper” class, which costs more. On this train, the upper bunks were always down, but there was room to sit under it without scrunching. The top bunk people usually share the bottom bunk during the day, and move up to sleep. The 5-day journey (really 3 full days with a half day on either end) cost about $200. (The Beijing-UB ticket was about $350 and took 2.5 days.)
I got on the train with Mongolians that had enormous packages and baggage. Immediately, the bags were opened and there was a mad dash to unwrap the items they carried, and get other people to stash them, a little in each cabin. The smugglers kept the info in little notebooks: where they had stashed each item and how many. One woman with a lot of goods kept putting stacks of packages on my seat. I was feeling claustrophobic with all the goods and people coming into my cabin, and I started putting the stacks back in her cabin. I also didn’t really understand what was going on, I just thought I would start kicking someone if I didn’t have some breathing room. The woman in our car was taking jeans across the border. We helped her take them out of the packages and remove the dangly tags. I saw people stashing jeans in their beds, stuffed in the sheets. They put on multiple pairs of jeans. Other smugglers came around with jackets, wallets, socks, sweaters, shoes of many varieties, purses and backpacks, bottles of vodka…sometimes they were quite pushy for the cabin mates to take their items. People hid 3-10 in their various bags, and the jackets were hung on our coat hooks, so that each cabin all the way down had the same set of 11 different jackets on their hooks.
I helped with the tags before I really understood what was happening, but refused to help hide any goods. On this trip I usually looked at what the locals were doing and then did that, but in this case I did not support the community effort. Turns out I could have made 50 Rubles per pair of jeans I stashed, but compared with the penalty and forfeiting my journey through Russia or worse consequences, I refrained.
The train goes through some stunning Mongolian countryside where I said goodbye to seeing the gers dappling the landscape. Lake Baikal, the largest inland sea in the world, was amazing. We spent 4 hours just going around the edge of the southern tip. For those of you interested in the Trans-Siberian rail, taking a stopover in Irkutsk and Lake Baikal would be the top of the list. After Irkutsk, it is long stretches of woods and farmland, dotted with small settlements of darling wooden cottages painted in cheery colors. I enjoyed time to nap, write, and visit. I read over my journal and notes so I can start to make sense of it all and prepare for travel talks I want to give.
The main downside of this leg of the Trans-Siberian was the amount of drinking the Mongolian men did. There were a couple of fights, and the bathrooms got kind of sketchy from many drunk men attempting to use the toilet while the train bumped and jostled along the tracks and they were sloshed. Not a good combination for aim. I had to set a limit with my cabin mates that their male friends could come in when they were sober, but not drunk. Otherwise, I would have had up to 6 drunk Mongolian men squeezing in to hang out in our cabin. If I had gone at a different time, or started in Moscow (as long as it wasn’t in June when all the students come home to Mongolia for the summer) this would not be part of the ride.
Also, after making it through 5 months of crazy hard travel, my camera suffered an attack. One of my cabin mates accidentally smashed it in the seat after she got something out of her suitcase stored under my bed. Only the edge of the screen works, and my camera doesn’t have a viewfinder. At least it still takes pictures, so I can limp through the rest of my trip. But I can’t get to any of the settings, and have to just point and shoot like a blind old school camera since I can’t see much to line it up. My travel insurance should replace it, but not until after I get home. I handled it really well, just felt a little bummed.
Saturday, August 28, 2010
As it was for Bilbo, it is for me. Smaug is dead, the mountain recovered. I have done what I set out to do on this trip, and now will make my way home. My path home is assured to have more stories, learning, and adventures, but the main things I set out to do are done, and I am Coming Home. It feels perfect to make my way there rather than hopping on a plane. The Trans-Siberian Rail runs from Moscow to Beijing through Ulaanbaatar and I’m grateful it worked out for me to complete it. The train will cross most of the Asian continent in 5 days. It will pass lake Baikal, the largest inland sea. Many landscapes and bioregions and cities will pass by the windows. I’m curious to see who my cabin mates will be. We’ll have five days together in close quarters, so keep your fingers crossed for courteous, interesting English-speakers.
Russian visa is in hand, after much effort. I have a train ticket (thanks to Kelly for her help in talking to the manager and getting me a seat on a sold out train). An e-ticket from Moscow to Prague sits in my email. My extra stuff I wanted to keep is on its way to the States. This simplified my load for the trek through Europe. I moved from Anu’s friend Bayara’s house to a hostel downtown for my last few days in UB. Time to wander and think and talk to other travelers. I will continue my blog through Europe, though updates may not be as frequent as they were for the Asian portion. Thanks to all who have been following my tale and traveling with me in spirit and mind! Though this has largely been a solitary journey, I have appreciated knowing my sharing was heard across the sea.
Sara’s younger brother is a Shaman, and some guests were coming to consult him. Kelly and I were invited to participate in the ceremony. Shamanism has been practiced in Sara’s family in an unbroken line back through the generations except for the last 2 generations due to the Stalinist purges. Sara’s family is proud her brother has restored the tradition and answered the call. Mongolian Shamanism has roots that go back thousands of years, and most Mongolians identify as Shamanist, Buddhist, or both. The Shamans are believed to channel spirits that can be consulted for advice, or asked for blessings or healing.
We entered Sara’s family’s house, and were guided to a living room sparsely furnished. Along one wall the Shaman had prepared for the ceremony. A trunk served as an altar with a simple mask of an old man hung above. A large hand drum, small bowls, vodka, cigarettes, airag, stones, prayer beads and other tools of the trade covered the trunk and spilled out to the sides. The Shaman asked if any of us women were menstruating. The 3 of us that were had to tie a red thread around our right wrist and left ankle as a protection. We sat on cushions on the floor, the men on one side, and the women on the other. Sara acted as her brother’s assistant. She helped him put on his heavy black cloak covered in black fabric ropes with bells on the ends. The ropes are symbolic snakes that help protect the Shaman from evil spirits coming through as he connects with the spirit world. His headdress had more symbolic snakes and fringe that covered his entire head and face. Eyes were beaded onto the mask, which otherwise was completely black.
During most ceremonies of this kind, the Shaman can have up to 10 spirits in turns come through to speak with the guests seeking guidance or healing. In our time, 2 came through, the first only staying briefly to talk to one woman. To start and to bring in the next spirit the Shaman would dance and yell, the bells on his cloak ringing in time to his steps and loud drumming. Once the spirit was in, he would sit down, and the spirit was offered vodka, airag, and cigarettes. Sara managed this and called the seekers up in turn to ask their questions.
When it was my turn, Kelly went forward with me. We sat before the Shaman, and talk had to go from Shaman to Sara to Kelly to me and back again in a game of spirit telephone. It felt as though someone was looking hard at me through the beaded eyes of the mask. The Shaman/spirit had a sense of humor and joked a lot as he smoked and talked with us. He said he had been a big man in life and appreciated me as a big woman. He said he hadn’t been as tall. He said he had seen me with the animals near Kharkhorin and that I was a very different kind of visitor than most. I had deep connections with the land here. He blessed my trip home and told me not to hurry, to enjoy the journey back. When it was Kelly’s turn, after a couple of others had went, he said, “Oh, you were here before with Baraa (Rain). It is good you are helping her, she has a good heart.” After Kelly had her question answered, we slipped out as it was getting late. I don’t know how the ceremony ended, and I left with many questions about Shamanism unanswered.
Kelly and I talked about the experience on the way home. It was her first time to see a Shaman, and both of us weren’t sure what we thought of it. She said she was listening really hard and couldn’t understand the Shaman but thought he was using a really old form of Mongolian and said Sara had used an old form to translate back for him. It was interesting how the shaman took on very distinct personalities with each spirit. We agreed the advice was sound, but pretty general. I have read a lot about South American and some North American shamanism, and there were many similarities in custom. I was glad to get to see an example of how it is practiced here. This is a short YouTube clip of a Shaman and his assistant which is similar to what I saw. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=arCsSdibW5s.
Friday, August 20, 2010
I was reeling the first evening and day back, but now the summer is slipping away from me, and in some ways it feels the time with Enhee's family was a dream. On the bus ride, and the first night away, I kept saying to myself, "I did it! I spent the summer with Mongolian nomads!" It is something I wanted to do for so long, and now it is done. There is one remnant that lets me know I was there. When I need to get up to pee in the night, I find I'm waiting half asleep and cozy for an hour or longer, postponing going outside the ger to deal with it, until I realize I just have 10 steps to an indoor toilet. With light and running water and everything.
I have been navigating, in kind of a zigzag way, the process of deciding what I'm doing. Kelly again has been a huge help, calling the Russian embassy many times with my questions and brushing up on her Russian skills. I had hoped to have an open itinerary arriving in Moscow, but then it was looking like I wouldn't even be able to get a Russian visa from here. I thought I needed a letter of invitation, so I got one online for $45 (nonrefundable), then realized it was best to use a transit visa, which doesn't require the letter. Ah well. At least the train will be less than I thought, and skipping any stopovers will save $$$ too. With the advice of friends (Thanks Andine!) and random Europeans in the cafe I like, I selected Prague as my first city on the way to Switzerland to visit relatives.
Monday I'll go back to the Russian embassy with my train ticket to Moscow ($200 for a bed in a 4 person sleeper car), and my ticket to Prague ($240). Friday 8/27/10 I will leave Mongolia on my last leg of the Trans-Siberian Railway, and have 4.5 days where the world is moving around me and I don't have to do anything. I'll cross most of the continent of Asia, write, think, talk to other passengers, sleep, and read. It feels like the best way to leave my time here and arrive in the Europe rested and ready to explore.
I'm glad I will slowly be making my way home, slowly re-Westernizing. The idea of flying to the States from here feels simply impossible. American media I see frightens me. Is that really where I'm from? Pictures of my office before I left startle me. Was that really my life for 7 years? It feels the time with the nomads has unhinged my sense of time and continuity a bit. Coming home slowly gives me time to weave those threads together, and to better understand what this trip has been about.
I got up and had a good breakfast, the main meal I will miss. Three pieces of good dense white bread spread with urum (like fresh butter) and sugar. I had my cup of coffee and an extra cup of milk tea. I did my laundry—on days they make vodka there is lots of hot water left over so people wash their hair and do laundry. Grandmother had made vodka, so I got my washing done.
The day was warm and sunny, a return of the weather we had in July after several really cool days. I wanted to go for a long walk on my last day. Say goodbye to the land here that has hosted me and that I feel so connected to. I longed to head up the valley to the mountains where we went strawberry picking. I had some trepidation about this, as there are many gers along the way with guard dogs. I knew the people back up in that valley were less exposed to foreigners, and may be more alarmed by the sight of a lone white woman walking along for no apparent reason (the people here really don’t take walks for enjoyment, and don’t usually walk alone). I decided to brave it. I had a good heavy walking stick, and knew how to pick up heavy stones to throw if a mean dog came to me. I focused on putting out relaxed, calm energy. I walked for almost 2 hours over rolling foothills, with the sparse forested mountains just beyond. Wild flowers danced in the grasses and peaked out of the rocky outcroppings. Artesian springs reflected the clear blue sky. A fresh breeze cooled me. I passed many ger camps, and was careful to walk on the opposite side of the road, and say, “San banuu” to the people who came out to watch me pass. Usually the greeting was returned. A little boy on a bicycle followed along with me for a time, curious. The dogs I encountered didn’t see me at a threat.
Once I felt half done with my walk, I headed back the same way. I wanted to try my wits at language and cultural competence and go into one of the gers. I prayed for guidance to know which one would be best. When I was more than half way back, one camp caught my eye. It had a small log cabin and two gers. Children played outside, and one little boy saw me and got really excited, jumping up and down and yelling. Seemed an invitation. I walked up and could see the elders in the cabin. I said “San banuu” and they returned the greeting and came out. There was an awkward pause, and I said, “Suu-de-tsai bagaa?” (Do you have any milk tea?) This kicked them into hosting mode, They invited me in, and I was able to ask about their animals and ask if they knew Enhee and Tsigmee, let them know I was living there. We each asked questions the other couldn’t understand, then let that question go. The old man said, “I’ve seen you at Tsigmee’s place shoveling the ‘bass.’” (Bass is the other word for dung.) I said, “Yes, that is one of my jobs. Fine work that needs to be done.” He seemed satisfied with that answer. I finished my tea and thanked them, and headed home feeling I had passed the test I set out for myself. I told Enhee and Grandmother I had visited a ger, and where it was. They knew the family, and thought it was funny I had stopped in. It will be a point of conversation between the two families in the future, I’m sure.
On my last evening, I helped with the calves during milking and helped gather them up in the corral just before dark. I wanted to share some vodka to celebrate the good summer. I had a small bottle, and the family was in watching TV. I brought in the bottle, and Enhee laughed and Grandfather’s eyes lit up and he gave the “thumbs up” sign. I sat in the place of honor and poured in the traditional order. It goes first to the eldest male, then the next oldest, then once all the men have been served (in this case, Grandfather and Tsigmee’s brother—Tsigmee wasn’t there), the women are served, oldest to youngest, with the one pouring going last. This process is repeated until the bottle is empty. A single shot glass or nice cup is used, and is topped off between each person. It is rude to down the whole amount, and it is fine to take a tiny sip or a pretend sip when it is your turn. The glass is offered in the right hand, being supported at the elbow with the left, and received the same way. During this little ceremony, Enhee used the dictionary to tell me she was glad I had come, and they wanted me to come again. The grandparents looked at me with real affection (and that was before the vodka kicked in). In the dim flickering light of the TV, I watched all their faces and thought of how far we had come together. Despite the distances of culture and language, we had made a deep connection. It is why I came.
Today, Enhee and Grandmother and Enhee’s girl Bayara tagged along in my taxi as I came for my last overnight in Kharkhorin. I’ll catch the bus to UB in the morning. We parted ways at the market. Grandmother was wishing me a safe journey with real emotion, and Enhee kept holding onto my arm. It was much more of an emotional goodbye than I have seen with any other family or visitors. My heart leapt into my throat and caught there, blocking the well of tears that wanted to flow. My attempt to be nonchalant like they usually are at partings was just enough to keep me from crying. I don’t know what our future connection will look like, as the language barriers and distance are significant. We’ll keep tabs on each other through Chimgee. I told them in 5 years I hoped to come back to Mongolia. Maybe my first book will be published by then…
Monday, August 16, 2010
I never tried milking the horses, but milked all the other animals. The goats were the most cantankerous, moving around and trying to sit in my bucket. I had some very frustrating evenings trying to help, and Kelly was kind to remind me that as I wasn’t making a new career out of milking, it was OK that I didn’t do it with great skill. By the end, I was able to adequately milk a cow, but still struggled with it. In this video clip, Enhee is showing her expert milking skills after more than 30 years of practice. (Push the "Play" symbol on the bar you can see in this entry and the video clip will pop up.)
Some interesting milking facts: Horses, sheep, and goats have 2 teats, cows have 4. Horses and cows require their young to be nearby when being milked. The cows are milked from April through November, twice a day. The horses are milked June through October, 5 times a day. The sheep and goats from late May through early July, once a day.
With my clothes through the wash cycle, I use the still-warm water to wash my floor. The floor of my ger is made of a patchwork of old linoleum that is taped together with packaging tape. I sweep it with a small horsehair broom, and use an old piece of a stove as a dustpan. Next I wash the floor with the brown laundry water and an old rag. Now I struggle to carry the heavy tub over to the grass and dump the water. I use a little clean water to clean out the tub, and I’m ready for the rinse cycle. One more bucket of water up from the river, swishing, wringing, swishing, wringing, and the clothes are done. I hang the clothes on the horsehair rope that runs around my ger to hold it together. In the dry warm air and sunshine, it will take about 4 hours for the clothes to finish.
I have gone back in time. I spend most days in the space that could be the 1800s.
I have used some herbal remedies, and refused others. For a sore throat, I drank a bitter herbal concoction instead of drinking urine (either treatment being acceptable to them, and one being highly preferred over the other for me). No matter how often I clean, the dirt and dust blow into my ger. Knives, dishes, and kitchen implements are washed in hot greasy water and then polished with the cleanest rag available, which is sometimes not very clean. There is no refrigerator, so the meat is hung and hacked at for up to a week. Flies and beetles share every space. Everyone here is covered with mosquito bites. We collect and use dung for fuel when the wood pile gets low. There is always dung to shovel, wood to chop, water to haul, food to prepare, animals to milk, milk to make into cheese or butter or khummis or vodka. There is usually time to steal a nap, go for a walk, visit the grandparents, or work on an art project. The night sky is as dark as it would have been one hundred years ago, with the Milky Way running down the center, stars spilling every which way. Family is everything, and neighbors are always there to lend a hand when needed. Bonds are tight. The mother is the center of this stable wheel that turns and keeps things working. The ger offers warmth and shelter. When it is full of people and laughter, it is wonderful to be there. Life, for the most part, is in balance with the surrounding environment.
In some small ways, the future is also here. I write on a netbook computer, talk on a cell phone right from the ger, and can hear the TV piping in media from Russia, China, Korea, and the States. A solar panel powers rechargeable batteries that power the TV and cell phones. Soon, I will go back to my place in the future; with soft beds, hot water, reliable electricity, automobiles, and indoor plumbing. I’ll be returning to a land that aches from disintegrating families, and that is rabidly consuming an unsustainable amount of the world’s resources. The night sky blocked out with light in the cities that are growing closer and closer together. I’ll have 30 kinds of laundry detergent (or any other product) to choose from. The thought of all that freaks me out.
But I miss my people. That is the thread pulling me back to the future. It’s the 500-test fishing line that will haul me across Asia and Europe, flying the kite of my plane to New York and then landing me in the boat of Denver. Flying directly from the 1800s to the future present in the US would give me the bends. I’d be like a deep bottom rock fish brought up too fast, bloated and in shock, gasping for air. Better to be slowly reeled in, different but familiar ways reminding me of my home and place in the future. Re-Westernized when I arrive in New York. Home. From my ger, with the flies buzzing and the chewing of a calf outside my wall, home feels very far away indeed.
One night, I got up to pee, and I was midstream when I heard the sound of a heavy chain being dragged along the ground. The mean dog had gotten loose. His eyes glowed in my flashlight as he approached me, his head low, but making no sound. It was eerie. I spoke in a gentle voice, reassuring him and myself, that I was a friend. I kept talking until I was back in the ger, with him following me to the doorway. The next morning he had been re-secured. Later that day, the sun was making me lilt, and I thought of the mean dog. With his black coat, he must be roasting! I decided to take him some water. Carefully I approached, letting him know my intention. He was panting heavily, but just watched as I set down a bowl of water. He lapped it up and so I got him another. After day 10, they let him off his leash and he was free to roam. I decided I would try to befriend him, partly because I had a different feeling about him than the family, and partly so I would feel more safe when I encountered him in the dark.
I gave him little bits of fatty meat I’d pulled from my meals. I took him water whenever he was chained up. Some days he had a wild look in his eye, and I could see how that kind of wild could lead to his mean reputation if provoked. I made a deal with him. If he was having a good day, he would wag his tail, and I always approached slowly, and got down low, and he liked me to pet his belly. Other days, if I approached and he did not wag his tail, I kept walking. It was a good system. Enhee didn’t like it. She made the biting her rump gesture and growled. I knew I did not have all the information, but I also felt in my bones that I could tell when he was wild and should be avoided. All the family members yelled at him and threw things at him now and again. The big dog would growl and occasionally fight him if Bankar came too close to the big dog’s favorite places to lay. It seemed to me this kind of treatment was at least partly to blame for his “meanness.” I told Enhee I was always careful, but that he was my dog friend, and wouldn’t bite me. She laughed at the idea of a “dog friend,” and shook her head. Dogs here are kept for protection only. In Mongolia, the saying is “Horses are man’s best friend.” Dogs are never allowed inside the ger, and are treated harshly so they are wary of people and will growl and bark to protect the camp. I formed my friendship slowly and carefully so as not to make a pet out of him and violate the cultural norms, but also so I knew he wouldn’t hurt me. I found him to be a good-hearted dog that was a little wild.
One day, Enhee and I went for a walk, and as we crossed the river, she pointed to a bush and laughed saying my “dog friend” had been attacked in the night by 4 other dogs. He looked awful. His face was so swollen, I didn’t recognize him. He was panting and in pain. I wanted to go to him, but Enhee was worried he’d bite me and told me to stay away. I later learned it had taken Enhee, Tsigmee and the grandmother all working with rocks and sticks to break it up. Enhee didn’t know what had provoked it, and she didn’t know who owned the dogs. I waited until later in the day when Enhee was milking the horses and slowly approached. He wagged his tail. I went to him. He whimpered, couldn’t find a position that didn’t hurt, and he couldn’t move himself very well. I offered some water from the river in my cupped hands, and he lapped up all I could bring. I agonized over if I should pay for a vet to come out, but knew that just wasn’t done here. Vets were for horses and cows, not for sheep, goats, or dogs. I had to do what I could to make him comfortable, and let things play out. That night, a cold rain came in, and I took an old blanket and raincoat down to cover him. He was still under it, and still alive, in the morning. I sat with him on and off through the day. He let me clean the wounds on his face and head with soapy water. I could see he relaxed when I was there. He refused all food, only drinking the water I’d bring every 2 hours. Enhee didn’t like my actions, but she allowed them. I think she was mostly worried I would get bit. At first there were signs he was getting better, and then I saw the open wound on his leg and later one on his back. I realized he was not going to make it. The next morning, I went to take him water, and he was still.
That other dog is the same lazy dog, lolling about camp during the day. I have been calling him “The Dog Who Lived” (Harry Potter reference). I felt guilty asking “why ‘my’ dog, and not this one?” There are no answers to questions like that. I have become more comfortable with death here. Seeing sheep and goats killed and processed for food on a regular basis has given me more detachment about death. It is impossible to hide from death here like we do in the West. Once it was clear Bankar was going to die, I released my feelings about it, and accepted. I haven’t been torn up about it; I just miss him.
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Roasted goat (allow 3 hours for preparation)
One goat, entrails removed to be cooked separately
50 round stones, each about the size of a medium potato
7 potatoes, some carrots if you have them (vegetables can be omitted altogether)
Woodstove, brought outside the ger into the lawn
Hanging pole (this is not required but makes gutting the goat much easier)
Metal slats for seering the head
Large needle and cotton twine
Get a good fire going in the woodstove, and put all the stones inside to heat for about an hour. Kill the goat, hang it upside down and remove entrails for later cooking. Fill the belly cavity with the stones, and vegetables if you want to use them. Sew up the belly using the large needle and cotton twine. Make sure the gut is completely sealed airtight. Use the blowtorch to burn off all the hair. It works best if one man passes the blowtorch over the skin, while another scrapes the resulting ash with a long knife. If there is a third man, he can stand and smoke while making occasional encouraging comments, and then he can spell one of the others if they tire. The metal slats are used on the head (see “Cooking with Enhee” for more details on that, the process is the same). The hot stones cook the meat from the inside out, and the blowtorch cooks it from the outside in. This process takes 1-1.5 hours of blowtorching, so make sure you have enough cans of fuel.
After the goat is thoroughly cooked, open the belly cavity and collect the tasty meat juices in a bowl. Cut up the goat and serve on a platter. The broth can be served for drinking from a bowl.
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The Uncle was leaving for UB with his wife, daughter and granddaughter in tow. Time to throw a party, to celebrate the ending of a happy summer in the countryside. All the tables and stools from the gers were put together on a piece of linoleum in the yard and the feast was served. In addition to the goat, there was cabbage salad, pickles, vodka, airag, bread, and cheese. Friends from Khorkhorin came, and some of the neighbors that are close with the family. There weren’t quite enough stools for everyone, so some folks sat on the flooring. Altogether, about 24 people attended.
After the feast, the men and teenage boys teamed up to play football (i.e. soccer). Large plastic jugs marked the sides of the goals, the river was “out of bounds” on one side, and the other side boundary was more vague. The Uncle, a fit sturdy man of 70, had many impressive soccer moves as he roared around the field. He did great, and his team won the game after a hard hour and a half of playing. Other neighbors had come to watch, and the game ended with more vodka and laughing around the table. With less than 2 weeks left myself, it felt a little like a going away party for me, too. It was a fun evening.
Wednesday, August 4, 2010
I had 4 days in a row where I never knew what time it was. People came and went and I engaged with them if I felt like it, ignored them if I didn’t. I hauled water, took naps, chopped wood, went for walks. There were goodbyes (my little buddy Olaka went back to UB with his dad and brother) but I didn’t struggle against what was happening. I accepted when it was raining, when I had fresh cow dung smeared on my leg, when I didn’t know what was happening or when. I looked without alarm at insects crawling on me. I had long stretches of stillness where I peacefully watched the Mongolian film outside my door, the light sweeping across the gentle undulations of the land. I wasn’t anticipating, worrying, judging. I was actually doing whatever it was I was doing, with my mind for the most part there with that task instead of off in the future or the past or elsewhere.
It’s that living in the moment thing. It is a feeling I get during a meditation session when I have been able to stay present. It is being able to recognize and dismiss things not relevant to that moment with ease. I also gained a better understanding of how they relate to time.
I see that my host family lives more this way every day. I asked when they will move for their fall camp, and Enhee has no idea. Since they aren’t leaving that day, it is an irrelevant question. Time is slippery to them. They will say a time, a date, or “now” and I have learned it doesn’t mean what it would mean if I said it. “Now” is anytime between now and 2 hours from now. “Leaving August 4th” is anytime that week. “Going at 2:00” means anytime between 10 am and 4 pm. “Going to Kharkhorin,” 20 minutes away, can take anywhere between 20 minutes and 2 hours, depending on how many stops your driver needs to make. They roll with all this.
I have had versions of it my whole trip through Asia, and was exasperated by people giving a time they didn’t mean. Why give a time if it is just a placeholder? Feeling that accurate information about time helps me be more in control, when that belief is an illusion. Enhee and the others out here in the countryside are completely comfortable with the reality that time is an illusion. They live closer to flow, and don’t try to wrestle and control things the way I usually do. For 4 days I was in that space, also able to roll with whatever was happening. Then it was time to come to town for my last break before I leave. I hope coming in doesn’t break the spell. I want to have long enough in that space so it is stored somewhere in my bones. I want to find a way to weave the wisdom of that way of Being into my life in the States, where time and schedules and hustle bustle “matter.”
Now that I am here in the city, a voice in my head says, “10 days! 10 days! Only 10 days left!” This stirs up some emotions; a little anxiety, a little excitement, some sadness. It takes me away from the moment. I hope to use my 10 days well as an opportunity to practice still being in the countryside time and space, while also needing to attend to what is next. What is next involves actual dates, and tickets, and timing, and money. It will be interesting to see if I can find a good balance with that.
Olaka’s dad has a minivan and was willing to take me and other family members to see some of the local sights. I paid the gas and we all went the 75 km to the lake, as well as seeing several other attractions. It was good for Enhee to get a break and leave the camp in Tsatsa’s capable hands for the day. The roster of who was actually going kept changing up to the last minute, and I was relieved they didn’t fill every available space in the car with passengers like they usually would. Other than dropping off the grandparents in Kharkhorin, there were no other detours before we were underway. Tsegmee, Enhee, Olaka’s dad Otga (Tsegmee’s younger brother), Ma (Enhee’s younger brother), Olaka, Nassau and myself made up the final crew.
They took me to see Erdene Dzuu Monastery, which was started in 1586 and was the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. A woman who wanted to practice her English asked if she could be my guide. She was enthusiastic and knew a lot about the monastery, but her English was very hard to understand. The family waited for me as I looked around, and I politely nudged the woman along if we stayed too long in one place. I saw some beautiful silk Thankas of Buddha, famous lamas, and many of the Tibetan guardians and creatures of the afterlife. In the main temple, they had 3 large Buddhas, one of the past, one of the present, and one for the future. The present Buddha had a gemstone in his forehead that appeared to glow from within. I found out from my guide that a well-placed mirror reflected the sunlight from outside to hit it just so. The effect was striking. I was a good tourist and took many pictures, and I said my Om mani padme hum mantra as I spun the many prayer wheels on the grounds. It is an active monastery, so monks as well as tourists were doing their thing. The place had an old peace wrapped around it like a cozy del.
After the monastery, we drove the 75 km to the lake. They made a lunch of mutton stew with a little propane camping stove, and stripped down to their undies for a dip in the lake. I was feeling a little shy about it but the hot sun and splashing sparkling water won me over. I knew they didn’t care, so I shouldn’t either. There was a rare sighting of a big white woman in her skivvies that day. Olaka and I played, and there was time for a magnificent 15 minute doze in the sun after I went for my last swim. Everyone was very relaxed, Tsigmee even cracked a smile on several occasions. I felt like one of the family, and rarely had to use my dictionary.
A couple of days later Tsatsa got her turn for an outing when she, Otga, Ma and I went to see the sand dunes and camels kept for the tourists. I had hoped to find a camel herding family south of where I am to stay with for a week. That turned out to be harder than I thought to arrange. Kelly pointed out that the way they live would be nearly identical to what I have been doing, just the animals were different. Her statement helped me release the need to force it to happen. Our day trip took us to the dunes, and Tsatsa and I had a half hour camel ride on those strange lumbering animals and then I climbed in the scorching hot sand dunes with Otga and Ma. We brought back 100 pounds of that good sand to make a sand box for the kids.
I feel satisfied with my sightseeing for this trip. There are many places I wish I could go and see, but the distances and lack of roads and infrastructure make it very hard to do. This is why most people see Mongolia as part of a tour group. I have had to remind myself many times that my purpose this trip was different than most visitors. I wasn’t here to speed through and “see everything.” I came to BE here. To live with nomadic herders and to learn how things work. Going with the family was also a much better way to see the sights than on a tour, thanks to Otga for driving! I have great ideas for future trips here, and many reasons to return. I am at peace with that.
Other areas I have had to slowly improve in. I am getting much better, with the daily opportunities to practice, at going with the flow. I have given up trying to understand the plan, and just stay curious about what will happen next. This is after many frustrating days of working hard to understand, then realizing I had it all wrong, then realizing I had part of it right…I was going to town to use the internet. Enhee said we had a ride, so we started walking, and the neighbor waved us off. Car wasn’t working. So we walked to the road to hitchhike in. At one point, she tried to get a guy on a motorcycle to at least take me, but he didn’t want to. We got a ride with a truck, which after about 10 minutes stopped for 15 minutes to talk to a friend. Eventually, we were underway again and made it to town. The internet wasn’t working, so I did another errand. I wandered around trying to find Enhee, and eventually did. We ended up catching a ride in the back of a truck filled to the gills with people and possessions. I handled all of this great, with ease and curiosity. My USA usual “need to know” so I had some sense of control was absent. Then we got home, and I hit one of my edges I think is immobile.
The teenage daughter had prepared lunch in my ger, and had left bits of meat, blood, flour and dough all over my bed. (Note: The bed is the only flat surface in my ger available, and the bedding is put away every morning, so the mess was not on my bedding, just on the wool blanket I put my bedding on top of.) I had been telling myself how great it would be to get back and rest in my ger, which I had just cleaned in the morning before we left. So when I came back and the floor was a mess, greasy pans and food on my bed, I got really upset. I got my dictionary out and started writing the three sentences that would communicate my irritation. It is hard to write an angry note in a foreign language. By the end of the first sentence I was just annoyed. By the end of the second sentence I was feeling absurd. By the last, I was laughing at the situation. My 10 minute dictionary-aided dissertation read: “You can cook in here, it is fine. But you MUST clean up after. I do not like meat on my bed.” (If I ever teach an Anger Management course, one technique will be to ask that before they speak in anger, they have to translate what they want to say into a foreign language they don’t know.)
It has been a challenge for me here because I think they think of this ger as the shed, and I think of it as the only toehold of ground and reality that is mine in this great foreign swirling Mongolian world. I moved a lot as a kid, and my main coping mechanism was to make a little space that was mine wherever we landed. If I had that, I could deal with all the other changes. Didn’t matter if it was behind a couch, part of a bed and wall… I came thinking I was going to have my own ger. We worked through that. I adjusted to sharing my bed, as long as I still had my part of the bed. They simply don’t think in the same terms, so I have navigated that the best I could. I was glad I didn’t have to call Kelly to translate in this situation. Enhee helped clean things up, and after that when they have prepared food in my ger, they put plastic down on the bed to keep it cleaner. I appreciate these kinds of things to accommodate my silly foreign ways.
Anu sent an email in response to one of my blogs, that she was sorry for my struggles and would try to intervene. I responded that this is all part of what I signed up for, and that the bumps are what make it interesting and a good learning experience. It’s a personal journey through adaptation and culture. The issues that have come up are common on this road, and I knew what I was getting into. Even in moments I am hitting a solid edge and it’s difficult for me, I am grateful for the lessons. It is part of the deep colors in the tapestry I am weaving. I can see important different things about Being from the angles I have here. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.
The people here seem to experience emotion in the same way as the storms. Someone will get upset, and there is a big fight. There is yelling, tears, sometimes fists, and then it passes. Once it is gone, it really seems to be gone. The people around the drama react with open amusement at the display, and for the most part don’t get involved. Bystanders may say, “There, there. Calm down.” Otherwise, they don’t intervene. After the storm has passed, they don’t go to therapy or sit and discuss their feelings. They don’t have a big “making up” drama. They just go back to normal. I have looked for signs of grudges or lingering animosity and can’t see it. One minute there could be screaming, tears, running out of the ger and slamming the door, and 20 minutes later, the two people who had the fight are sitting next to each other watching TV. If the subject of the fight comes up later, even the people who were fighting think it was funny.
One day was the day of conflicts. People in my family weren’t getting along. Three altercations in my host family ended in tears. I left to go for a walk, and from a distance I saw a man on a horse driving a woman and girl along with a whip. He wasn’t seriously hurting them, but there was a lot of crying and screaming. The relative of Tsigmee’s I was with just laughed and shook her head. I couldn’t tell if this was a frequent thing…but the non-interference policy seemed to stand firm. I saw horses quarreling, squealing and kicking each other with full force. I was washing my clothes near the river and this puppy that lives with the grandparents was nipping at me and got a mouthful of arm in its puppy teeth. I reacted by hitting it with my shoe hard enough to make it yelp. I immediately felt awful, and even though it is right in line with what any of my host family would have done as acceptable behavior, I kept thinking, “who was that? I don’t hit puppies! This is not a cultural norm I can absorb.” The teenage boys were watching and laughed. I apologized to the puppy (in Mongolian of course, as the dog doesn’t understand English), which just made them laugh harder. In this case, I laughed too. It was kind of absurd.
Affection between friends is the most visible form of physical expression. Friends of the same gender can hang on each other, walk arm in arm, wrestle, even hold hands. It is not any kind of sexual thing, and does not mean the people are gay. (This norm has been true across Asia.) Adults also show physical affection with small children. They are carried and cuddled and comforted. My biggest surprise of the trip so far was when I was sitting in a ger with 14 people squeezed in, and the 65-year-old grandmother whipped out her breast for a 3-year-old kid to suckle. I later learned it is quite common for female relations to offer comfort this way to nursing kids, and that she was not actually offering milk. Children here are taken care of, but they are not coddled. If a child is crying, adults will come to check, but as long as the child isn’t in any danger, they let the child cry. It is a tough place to live and kids are expected to be more independent earlier than in the West.
There is much less contact between members of the opposite sex. Even between Enhee and Tsigmee, there is just an occasional touch or they will walk or stand very close. They can curl up together to sleep, but otherwise there is almost no public physical contact. From what I have seen and figured out from asking, when married people need privacy for intimacy and they are in a ger full of family members, they have to wait until everyone is asleep. If someone in the ger isn’t asleep, they would pretend to be. A couple of times I saw someone in tears and taking a moment to themselves in a ger full of people. They turned away, and everyone else turned a little away from them, and because a “wall” was observed, it essentially was there until that person re-engaged and the “wall” disappeared.
Living without physical walls was a challenge for me. People just come in to your ger at any time. I could be sleeping, dressing, crying (only once)…I got better at being ready for the door to open without it being a source of anxiety. I dressed turned away from the door. I took walks when I needed to be alone (though often ended up with a companion). I learned to create a space in my mind in lieu of physical space, while understanding that was still a Western need to create the space at all. I won’t be here long enough to lose the need for that space to be there. I wonder what that is like?