Saturday, July 31, 2010

Language and Communication

The McGuyver side of me likes to throw myself in situations where I have to scramble and make things work with the things I have at hand. I’m pretty good at it. This goes with language, too. I can usually get what I need with a few words, some sign language, and really listening with more than my ears. I have learned it is best if I let the language around me flow over me, without trying to catch anything. A few words stick here and there, and sometimes it is enough to understand, and sometimes I just smile and say, “I don’t understand.” After a time doing this, more and more words “stick.” I do work on word lists that I need to know, things I look up over and over again, and I spend some time every day reviewing them. Most of my language acquisition comes from the other method.

As a perfectionist in my past, it is a good practice at jumping in and getting it wrong. I have the goal to get the message through, even if the grammar isn’t right. This means I usually speak Tarzan: “hot water need me.” The idea is there, and I get my hot water. I have been learning to put together some complete sentences and have occasional breakthroughs with the grammar, or a correction they have made of my Tarzan finally is retained and used. I like the way I am forced to distill what I am trying to get across down to the one or two words from my dictionary that will communicate the bigger idea. When I have something more complex to say, I will spend time on my own writing it out for them to decipher which is better than trying to go word by word in the dictionary.

I was sitting in the ger surrounded by relatives of my host family, awash in a sea of Mongolian. As the words splashed by, I understood they were discussing the weather, then asking about various relatives, then asking about the animals. I was satisfied to be able to at least know what they were talking about, even though I didn’t have the details. When I first arrived, that would not have been possible.

This method is spotty. Sometimes I understand entire streams of language that are thrown at me fast, and other times I can’t get a few simple words I know I have heard before to penetrate my thick skull. The dictionary is a huge help in those cases. When I first arrived, I always had my notebook and my dictionary with me. Now, I just go and get it when I need it, and I’m more comfortable floundering or just not knowing what is being said. When new relatives arrived and used words I didn’t know, I was lost again.

I like talking with children. They use simpler words, and enjoy pantomime and sound effects as a normal mode of communication. Often, they don’t need words at all. I have had 30 minute “conversations” with Olaka and Turo that consisted of sounds: motorcycle, car, horse, sheep, goat, cow and others. We laugh, make faces, growl and really connect with an ease that is wonderful.

My host family has taken this journey with me. They share the struggle to get an idea through to me, and find satisfaction when the gap is bridged. Enhee and I have developed our own vocabulary of words and gestures. Better than anyone else, she can make me understand something, or can translate to someone else what I am trying to say. When we hit a wall that we really need to find a way over, after several attempts from both sides we will say, “Kelly!!!” and I will try to call my friend in UB to help. When the family wanted to take me to the lake, but wanted me to pay the gas, and were throwing all kinds of ideas and plans into the mix (6 people talking at me excitedly in Mongolian) that was a “Kelly!” moment. I appreciate having that lifeline to use when I need it. It has made hard moments much easier to navigate. I have also enjoyed talking with Kelly and getting to know her. She is a good-hearted person, and I hope this is the start of a lasting friendship.

After being here 6 weeks, something has clicked for me. I’m using mostly complete sentences, and putting together new strings and learning by context new words that stick right away. I passed through some kind of barrier and things have gotten easier. I have been able to talk to all the family members directly, without needing Enhee to “translate.” That is a really fun feeling after struggling so long.

Although I am enjoying the challenge of communicating in Mongolian, it’s a relief to speak to another English speaker. It helps reassure my ego that I am an articulate, intelligent person. I hope Mongolians I speak to know that in my own language, I am brilliant, humorous, and usually intelligible. When someone speaks a second or third language like a disabled child it is easy to assume that person is not very smart. I feel my host family understands this and they appreciate my fumbling efforts to communicate. They also see and value my progress and the other skills I have to offer. I am grateful to have gone through this with them.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Great Expectations at Nadaam

Nadaam is the big National festival, kind of like our 4th of July. There are two main areas for it, one in Kharkorin and one in UB. The one in UB is quite grand and showy, with huge crowds and lots of glitz. The one here in Kharkhorin was more like a country fair. More authentic for what the holiday would have been for ages past. Everyone comes out with their best horses and in their best dels (the traditional coat both men and women wear). The “three manly sports” (that is really what they are called) are wrestling, archery, and horse racing. Women also can compete in archery, and girls ride in the races, but mostly the sports are indeed manly endeavors. My host family had a couple of horses that were entered in the races, and they were proud to bring them. For the teens, it was a great time to meet up with city friends, and check out attractive members of the opposite sex. People ride around and watch the events on their horses, and the round area for wrestling has spaces for the horses mixed in with the bleachers, mostly filled with tourists.

For me, Nadaam was rich with lessons about expectations. I started out pretty well, catching a very meandering ride into town where we stopped at many relatives gers, delivering items, picking up people, going over rough terrain very slowly. We finally arrived in town, and not a lot was started yet. One horse race was coming in, and there was a brief opening ceremony, but I was disappointed there weren’t very many people. It was dusty, some gers set up as restaurants and a small round area for the wrestling. This betrayed that I had an expectation of something grander in mind, which made it hard to see what was actually there.

Then the uncle wanted me to go with him to see the horse race. He said I could get great pictures, and it would be fun because “the cars race the horses!” Knowing how difficult the terrain is, this didn’t sound like a fun idea to me, but he convinced me to go. He had me sit on one side specifically to get the best pictures. We followed the young kids on horses out to the starting line about 20 km from town. When the race started, it was exciting because the riders all started yelling and there was a dust cloud from the rumbling hooves. Then we were riding after them, hitting ditches and ruts. The uncle was yelling at me to take pictures, but I was on the wrong side, and could only see the big hats of the other passengers. He stopped and had me switch places. We were off like a rocket again, and everything was so bumpy and chaotic that I only got a couple of pictures before I gave up. He was yelling at me again to take pictures and I was trying to tell him my camera was not a fast action machine when WHAM my head slammed into the ohjesus handle above my head. It hit hard enough to feel nauseous, and I was so ready to be out of that car. I was feeling emotional and carsick with a throbbing bump on my head. I was ready to go to my guesthouse, even though I had only been at Nadaam for an hour. The day was not going at all like I expected.

I had a misunderstanding with the school teacher that translated for me the first few days, and was just ready to go to my guesthouse. I went. I rested. I went back to see what I could with the rest of the day, but things were wrapping up. I had a nice hour long walk back to the guesthouse which helped reset my mental health. The next day I saw a little more horse racing, but decided that Nadaam, at least for me, is more for the locals to enjoy.

Dead Man's Boot

I’ve taken on creating my own recycling program. Strewn on the ground on my walks I find useful things. I made a loom and a rag rug from the wood and fabric I have found. A pair of leather uppers from old horse riding boots of one of the boys made a couple of really cool boxes and some other useful items like thimbles. I enjoyed working with that leather and have been looking for more. I have found many shoes and boots, but the leather is always ruined from the elements. So when I just found one, filled with dirt but otherwise with supple leather and able to be cleaned up, I was pleased.

Apparently it is one thing (a little strange but acceptable) to use the leather when the owner of the boots is known. It is quite another to use (or even disturb) a boot when the owner is not known. It caused quite a stir when I came walking into camp with that boot. One of the teenage boys let out a yell, all the family members came out of the ger, the mom was laughing but yelling at me to throw it away. I wasn’t sure if they were serious, because they were all laughing and shaking their heads, but then the educated wealthy uncle that is staying here saw it and got really angry. He said, “This is a bad thing you are doing! Very bad! This is a dead man’s boot! In Mongolia, this is NOT DONE! This is SHIT!” He speaks pretty good English when he is ticked and has a mind to express it. I asked Enhee, “this is a dead man’s boot?” She basically said, she didn’t know, but it could be. She told me again to throw it away, so I walked it across the river to a trash heap. Not sure if I should offer to take it back to where I found it. She thought it was pretty funny that the uncle was so mad about it. I said I was sorry, I didn’t know. I’ve been here a month, and that is the first real cultural offense I have caused.

Wait, I take that back. I had one other smaller issue with the uncle. He came into my ger and saw that I had a weathered sheep bone on my meditation altar with my Buddha and other stones and natural treasures. He asked why it was there, but before I could explain, he launched into a reprimand that it was “very disrespectful.” If I had a new bone, or a piece of meat, that would be okay, but “seeing an old bone with the Buddha would be very upsetting to a visiting lama.” I tried to explain that the bone to me was a powerful symbol of our impermanence and also how beautifully we are made and unmade in the cycle of life. I told him I follow more of a Zen Buddhist path, rather than Tibetan. I put the bone elsewhere, but hope to have it on my altar again once I leave Mongolia. I think he felt a little bad about scolding me, and brought me a gift of a new bone he had cleaned the flesh from for my altar. I tried to be appreciative, though I feel the way about the new bone as he does about the old.

Every culture has its sense of what is clean, what is dirty. What is blessed and what is cursed. Here they use the same kitchen implement for meat, dairy, cutting dirty rope…usually without washing it or at the most rubbing it on a dirty cloth between uses. This is standard practice and not seen as unclean. They’ll milk the cows, come in with a handful of dung for fuel, and start eating without washing their hands. This is also not seen as unclean. So I am pretty sure my snafu with the boot was related to something other than cleanliness. I called my new and very helpful friend Kelly in UB to have her clarify, and I offered to take the boot back where I found it, in case there is some superstition about having that boot nearby. Enhee explained that “Mongolians just don’t like old things,” and now that it is in the trash, it is okay.

It has also given them something new to tease me about. One of the relatives walked by today with a child’s boot at her side, then waved it at me laughing. I said, “Odoo, bi midden” which means “Now I know.” So much fuss over an old boot! I’m sorry not to have the leather, but at least I was able to “recycle” it into a story.

Time and Space

It is a cool day, maybe 70 degrees, and there are almost no flies. The air is fresh and the breeze almost has a chill. The canvas roof cover flaps and gently thumps the felt canvas ceiling. There is the occasional nicker of a horse, or a dog barking, or a bumblebee passing. Simpson’s clouds drift overhead, hawks circle. It is a lazy day. I slept in until almost 9, and everyone is napping this afternoon. Enhee is away in town, and there don’t appear to be any big projects to be done. I walked to the Artesian spring, which is a very nice 1.5 mile walk up the valley. I go there to get the most pure delicious water I’ve ever tasted. I know how to go now to avoid people’s properties and their dogs. Often, people come to talk to me or children come along for the walk. Today, a little 8 year old girl I have seen before walked with me, holding my hand, singing, reciting poetry, asking questions, and then finally just launched into a breathless monologue that lasted 20 minutes. No idea what she was saying, I think she needed to talk, and I was able to listen.

People live so close within the family. Six to nine people sharing a small space means there isn’t the privilege of privacy…but it also means that privacy is not a value they have. If they see someone alone, they assume that person is lonely and come to join them. Rarely do you see anyone walking alone. Women usually are in pairs, and link arms. Boys and men can do the same with no meaning regarding sexuality. When one of the women or girls come to talk to me, they sit right next to me, and lean on me, while they are talking. I had to learn not to back away. Now I am so used to it, that I am starting to enjoy it rather than see it as an encroachment into my space. I feel included, and see it as a sign of acceptance.

There are other shifts happening. Time is strange out here. I experienced a similar kind of time disorientation in my solitude experiment in Alaska. There, small tasks like hauling water, what the light was doing, what the tide was doing were what defined the time. Hours and days didn’t mean much. Here, the tasks and projects for the day matter, and milking time matters, but otherwise time is slippery and strange. I struggle to remember how many days since I was in the city, and how long in general I have been here. It feels like anywhere between 5-7 weeks, when I have actually been here 4. Sometimes I call Kelly in the city to verify the date and day. She works a regular M-F job, and has a better grip than I on this calendar business.

People are slippery too. Relatives come and go. Children appear for a week or a month, then new children come and the others are gone. I rarely see them arrive or leave. We are in a huge open space…it seems it would be easy to see when someone was coming. I will often be on a walk thinking I am alone and then there is suddenly someone right near me walking, on a horse, standing. Gives the feeling that people can beam in and out.

One of the reasons I came here was to experience this kind of time. To be here long enough to really sink into the rhythm of this place. Sometimes I feel restless, and need to invent a new art project or do some physical work (there is always cow dung that needs shoveling or collecting). I have strong feelings I should be “doing something productive” and working to “earn my keep.” I would like to find a new relationship to those things. To work to contribute to the community, rather than to demonstrate worth. My worth here is inherent and not in question to anyone but me. The here and now is what matters. Unless I am specifically taking time to plan for the future, I try to stay in the now. If I am off in the future, thinking of a life I’d like to create in Alaska, I do it knowing I am indulging in fantasy. After a short time, I remind myself to be HERE while I am here. I dreamed of coming here for 10 years. Silly to dream of Alaska while I am finally in Mongolia. I am quicker to recognize I am away, and more mindful of how I am choosing to “show up.” I appreciate that this place both gives me a mirror to see these things, and the time and space to try on different ways of being.

Magic time

I call it magic time. The day has almost passed, and the sun is nearing the horizon and lights everything up with this honey amber light. The sky becomes a deep powder blue, and all the colors in the landscape are intensified. For about 20-30 minutes, an energized stillness comes. If I am inside my ger, I can feel it happening, and I ask myself, “Oh, is it magic time?” Children and adults alike take on a playfulness and they suddenly feel like running around, tumbling with the children or playing basketball. The animals get frisky, especially the young. I watched 3 new calves, less than 2 weeks old, running leaping back and forth, going further and further from their mothers with each pass until she called them back. Still awkward in their bodies but thrilling with life. Everything is bathed in liquid joy. I like to sit outside my ger during this time, or take an evening stroll. It is achingly beautiful. Magic time is often followed by an amazing sunset, so it’s a good hour of breathtaking color and light.

The sky is huge, and we are far enough from any city lights that the stars make me feel small and aware I am a speck in a huge universe. The milky way really does look like a spilled bucket of light, and on a moonless night, there is a discernable glow of starlight.

There is always something going on around here. Guests come and go, new family members arrive, others leave. Animals are coming or going or being milked or giving birth, and always talking to each other in their baa-baa neigh whinny growly squeals and cries. Though I have enough language to cover the basics, I’m at a loss for explanation of the people’s activities, and haven’t quite figured out the patterns of the lives of the animals. So mostly I just watch, try to help wherever I can, and stay out of the way when that seems the best course of action.

I have started making things out of the detritus I am finding. I found some old boot uppers, the leather worn and tough but in fairly good condition. As no one here needed them, I used the leather to make a beautiful leather box. It took 2 days, and I felt very happy to have my hands busy with an artistic endeavor. As something like that would never occur to them, my host family found the whole thing very strange. They all appreciated the artistry, but overall it left them a little puzzled. I plan to build a simple loom and make a rag rug out of all the scrap fabric that I come across on my walks. Not sure how it will turn out, but my hands have been telling me they need something to do in the down times. The days are long, but many gaps where people nap or work on repair projects. Enhee understands my need for a bigger project, but is struggling to understand my vision of a loom. It has been fun to think about. I went on a three hour hike, to the forest I could see in the distance and then back along the ridge line of the mountains by our camp. I was looking for the right size branches to make the loom. I had been eying that ridgeline since my first day here, it was fun to walk it. It was also soul feeding to have some time on a solo adventure, with a mission to find certain objects. I came home tired but deeply happy.

I have been here 3 weeks. An ease has developed between me and my hosts. They treat me like a member of the family, which is what I hoped for. I have complete conversations with the little 3 year old boy Olaka, who has become quite attached to me. We make animals noises, pretend to ride horses or motorcycles. I talk to him in English and he says, “huh?” When I talk to him in Mongolian, he laughs. When he sees me he yells “Baraa! Baraa!” (“Rain” in Mongolian) and makes motorcycle noises. Other times he tells me elaborate stories, which I can’t understand, but I appreciate them and laugh when I’m supposed to. We spend about an hour a day doing this.

When guests come and are asking about me, my family are kind of protective in their body language and glances. Even though they find me strange, and we have occasional gaps where we can’t understand each other, I am no longer a “them.” I have become “us.” This careful fabric we are weaving with our time together is luminous cloth to my spirit.

The Flies

You know that old Hitchcock film, The Birds? Well, out here on the Mongolian prairie it is all about The Flies. On a hot sunny day, the flies swarm and buzz around every living thing in a cloud that looks like Pigpen from the cartoon strip Peanuts. I have been trying different things to deal with them. I can assume a zen expression and let them be everywhere and not be bothered by them. Mostly they don’t bite, just annoy, though there are horseflies in the mix that can get in a good nip. I can do the zen thing until one gets stuck in my ear buzz buzzing or tries to go up my nose, then I wave in front of my face like a crazy person with both my hands, take a deep breath, and resume the detached acceptance. I have been working to appreciate them. When I have a reaction of disgust, I try to rewrite my perception. Remind myself to look for the beauty even there. I have noticed some of them have a beautiful blue iridescent sheen. They are excellent recyclers of organic matter. They encourage me to exercise (there are less flies when you are moving).

At some point, there are too many for my patience to abide. If I’m tired, I can nap under a sheet which keeps most of them out. I can hear them buzzing and see them crawling all over the fabric. Occasionally one wheedles in through a gap and tickle tickle buzz buzz even there I am not free of them.

If I’m working indoors, I do what the locals do and get some dry cow manure that is the type burned for fuel. It has to be dried out but still green. I take a few pieces of this, put hot coals in it so it starts to smolder. It doesn’t smell at all, just makes a thick smoke which drives off the flies. I think of it as my special Mongolian incense. In a matter of a minute, a ger that was full of hundreds of flies is empty of them. Blessed quiet reigns, and there is just some smoke to contend with.

I have found it is best to spend my time in my Western-style outhouse in the early morning or late evening, if I can. At these times, the flies are too cold to move. Otherwise, the tickle tickle buzz buzz is in a lot of places you don’t want flies doing that sort of thing. When I leave the outhouse, a cloud of flies follows me all the way back to my ger. I imagine I am a movie star, and these are my paparazzi and my fans. They just can’t get enough. I have to be patient, and keep smiling, and give the occasional wave to the throng.

The animals deal with the flies in different ways. The horses keep their heads constantly bobbing up and down so it looks like they are all enthusiastically agreeing with something. The cows swish their tails, and chew their cud with an air of indifference, letting out an occasional bellow if a horse fly gets them. The dogs bury themselves in the dirt and occasionally try to catch them in their mouths. The sheep and goats just keep moving.

As with difficult things I encountered in India, the flies give me daily practice in monitoring my reaction and perception to challenges in my environment. I can ignore them, I can freak out, I can appreciate them, or I can send them away with smoke. Makes no difference to the flies. It does make a difference to me, to find better ways of handling internally that which I can’t control. Today, it is overcast and cooler, which means the flies won’t be as intense. As with life, there are usually little breaks between challenges to let you catch your breath. I take a grateful, slow, deep breath.
Note: Since I wrote this a couple of weeks ago, it has been much better. The flies in their sheer numbers have been replaced by grasshoppers. The grasshoppers are everywhere, but much less keen on intimacy, and contact is usually accidental.

Cooking Mongolian with Enhee

I watched with fascination and some discomfort as Enhee prepared this complicated delicacy. While I admired how everything from the slaughtered sheep was used, it was hard for me to get past my Western norms.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Sheep’s head stew (allow 2 hours for preparation and 3 hours for cooking)
Prepare in a well ventilated area, as the seering process generates a lot of smoke
One sheep head, esophagus still attached for ease of handling
4 sheep forelegs with hooves
One sternum section of ribs
One whole sheep’s stomach, well cleaned
2 onions
2 potatoes
4 TB salt
4 liters of water

Get a medium fire going in the woodstove. Stick sheep head in the flames, dangled by the windpipe, for 15 minutes. This burns off most of the hair and kick-starts the seering process. Remove from fire. Place metal slats in fire to heat them. Use these to seer all surfaces of the head, sternum, and feet. Seer until all hair is removed and flesh is mostly cooked. Remove hooves from feet after burning (they should pop right off). Briefly boil and scrub all pieces until black is completely removed. Remove the esophagus from the head at the jaw line.

Put all pieces in the well-cleaned stomach; add 2 chopped onions, 2 potatoes (peeled), and 2 liters of water. Take a handful of salt, stick your hand into the stomach and rub it on the head and feet and stir it into the water. Tie the stomach firmly closed with a piece of cotton string. Place the stomach and its contents in a large metal pot, filled half way with water. Cook over a medium fire with lid on at a low boil for 3 hours. Enjoy!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
I made it clear to Enhee that I would eat some of my own food for dinner, but did end up tasting a bit of tongue (similar to cow tongue) and some of the meat from the sternum (just tasted like rib meat). After that I enjoyed a Clif bar and some dried apricots in my ger. This morning, I saw the stripped skull on a plate. Not sure how or what all of it was eaten, but I can live with that mystery unsolved.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Olaka and Rain: Delicious or Bad food game

I was working outside on my netbook when my little friend Olaka came to see what I was up to. He started playing this game we play where he gives me different pretend food to taste. Sometimes it is delicious (Amstay bain!) and sometimes it is very bad (blech!). In this video he is feeding me nasty food, while telling me it is "Goi" which means "good." He doesn't notice at first that he is being filmed. We play around a lot, and he has a great laugh, so it was fun to capture it.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Picking Wild Vegetables

I dream of fresh produce. To eat a bowl of bing cherries or a fresh peach…steamed kale or a spinach salad…incredible. Here, "vegetables" means cabbage, potatoes and the occasional carrot. When an uncle arrived from Ulaanbaatar bearing gifts of tomatoes and cucumbers for me, I almost wet my pants. The color of that tomato stirred some deep body memory. Biting into it almost made me weep it was so good. I knew it would be like this, so I brought powdered supergreen food that I mix with milk to get 3 servings of green vegetables. I have a stash of dried apricots and mangoes that I enjoy with lunch. Though these things help fill the nutritional gaps, they are not the same as fresh.
When Enhee was getting ready to go somewhere, and I asked where she was going, she used the dictionary to tell me she was going to pick wild vegetables for 2 hours. Wild vegetables! I pictured a big plate of steaming greens of an unknown but tasty variety. Can I come help? We set off. About a mile from the house, I could see a large corral, and she motioned that we were headed there. I thought, "They can’t be terribly wild if they are in a contained area." As we approached, I realized it was a community garden of some kind. I verified that they had a section, actually 4 rows, that their family cared for and harvested. It was all one crop, potatoes. We were there to weed their rows.
So, I was disappointed. No wild vitamin packed greens for me. Weeding is not as much fun as picking exotic produce, but it is something I am good at. We weeded for 2 hours, and headed home. I have been watching for opportunities to be part of the community here, and this was a great way to pitch in and help keep Enhee and Tsemgee’s winter food stores healthy. For now, the need for community is more important than fresh produce.

Family Life in a Ger

Gers (yurts) are said to be the most energy efficient structures. They are sturdy and cozy homes. The walls that look like an expandable child safety gate are made of strong thin wood jointed with bits of leather. The center supports, roof wheel, and spokes that run from the center wheel to the walls are made of a different wood, thicker, and painted or carved with beautiful designs. There is a layer of felt, dense enough to repel water and thick enough to insulate in winter. A heavy canvas covers the felt to help protect it and to handle the strong winds that sweep across the plains. The whole ger is secured with two strong braided ropes made of horsetail hair, that runs from the door frame around the ger about a foot from the top and 16 inches from the bottom. Fabric and heavy blankets are hung on the inside to add a little more insulation and to hide the checkerboard slats.
A lightweight wood stove sits in the center of the ger, with beds and other furniture lining the edges. In the center of the roof is the roof wheel which is half covered, and the other half has the stove pipe exit and a moveable flap that can be wrapped around or left open for ventilation. When it is very hot, the bottom of the canvas outside can be rolled up to allow air in from the bottom of the ger. The shape causes the air to vent right out the roof opening. When it is cold, the stove easily heats the small round space with just a small amount of wood or dung.
Two of the brothers of the grandfather came to visit for an extended time. One of them had a ger in storage in Kharkhorin and the family spent a day getting it ready for him. The ger has many parts to it, but the whole thing fit in the back of a pick up truck. It took several hours to wash all the individual pieces of it, as where it was stored was underground and it was filthy. Then a wooden platform was fetched from somewhere else, and the ger went up in about 2 hours. The uncle’s ger is quite grand, with elaborate carved designs carved into the ceiling spokes, wheel, and door. Next time I'm able to upload photos, there will be a slide show of the ger going up to watch. Technical problems are stopping me now.
Inside the ger, the beds double as seating for family and guests. Every day all the bedding is put away into cabinets or rolled and placed in special covers that turn the bedding into pillows for the daytime couches. Almost everything in the ger has multiple uses. Throughout the day a bucket will be used to fetch water, used as a milking pail, and as a sink for washing up. The cheese cloth rags can be used to strain milk or water, wipe up tables, and dry clean dishes. The stove always has some kind of dairy product going on it, or a meal, or water to be used for cleaning or bathing.
Guests drop in anytime, and just walk right in and seat themselves to the left. Hospitality demands that they are offered a little food (a plate of sweet breads and dried cheese is kept ready for this purpose). If there is milk tea available, that is even better. If it is an older person visiting, airag (fermented mare’s milk) is offered. Children are given candy. Often very little is said. When the guest wants to go, they just get up and walk out without any formality or parting words. As I’m not quite set up for all that in my ger, I keep a small bowl of candy to give any visitors that come into my ger. The gesture is more important than what is offered. When friends visit, there are more pleasantries exchanged, and more conversation, and better food and drink come out. Snuff bottles are exchanged, gifts are given and received, and usually vodka or airag is shared.
At bedtime, the bedding comes out, people pile into the beds or onto felt pads on the floor. In the ger next to mine, usually there are 6-9 people sleeping on 3 twin size beds (and the floor) and in my ger, one or two teenage girls share my double size bed. Some of them change into nightclothes, some strip down to their skivvies. One of them kicks and throws ineffective punches in her sleep. I have gotten good at ducking and covering my face coming out of a hard sleep. It’s just like sleeping with sisters.
I got used to some very hard beds traveling across Asia, but after three weeks on a bed of boards I admit I need a little more padding. I hope to find something I can use when I am next in town. The combination of hard physical jobs like chopping wood or wrestling animals doesn’t combine well with a board bed. And my dad was quick to remind me that I am nearing 40, so can’t just sleep any old place anymore…speaking of which, it is time to sleep. Goodnight readers, until next time!