Saturday, August 28, 2010

Smaug is dead, the journey home begins

I am at a crossroads. Many roads I have traveled, and I can see many paths at my feet. I have picked those that I know will carry me back toward home. When I was out in the countryside I thought a lot about the book The Hobbit. I finally asked my dad to send it to me, but didn’t get it until I was back in UB. It had been over 20 years since I read it. In it, Bilbo the hobbit takes a huge adventure to help the dwarves destroy a dragon named Smaug and take back their mountain. After they accomplish this, he still has to come all the way home (no airplanes in Middle Earth), and he comes back a very different hobbit than when he left.

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.

The Mongolian Shaman

I went to visit Olaka, my “jijig nadz” (little friend), to see his UB home and say goodbye. Olaka’s dad is Tsigmee’s younger brother Otga. I got to know both Otga and his wife Sara this summer and found them to be lovely solid people. Kelly took me out to where they live in a ger district and helped with some light translation. We wound our way through alleys lined by wooden fences which lined each yard. The housing is a mix of gers and simple houses. Olaka’s family (along with Enhee’s daughters) live in a ger in the yard with Sara’s parent’s house. I thought Olaka might be shy since it had been several weeks since he left, and now we were in a new place. He came right over and jumped on my lap and talked to me as ever he did. It was fun to see him. His parents introduced me to other family members there as “Olaka’s American mother.” It had been a running joke in the countryside, but the thought crossed my mind, “I hope they don’t expect me to pay for his college!”

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.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Back in UB and What's Next

Six hours riding on a posh new bus over bad roads (relatively good roads by Mongolian standards) and I was back in UB. Traffic. Smog. Horns blaring. People asking me for money. Closed faces. Fancy shoes. General bombardment of the senses.
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 said goodbye today. It was harder than I thought it would be, and I didn’t think it was going to be easy. But first, I want to write about my last full day.

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

Milking time

Almost every day I was here, I helped with the evening milking in some way or another. I would usually milk 1 or 2 cows, and help wrestle the calves back and forth. First, you tie the front legs of the cow, then let her calf suckle until the calf’s mouth is foaming with milk. Then you milk the cow. Once it runs out, you repeat the process with the calf. When you are done with the second milking, you let the calf and mother go. There are 11 cow/calf pairs to deal with. As the summer went on, the calf-wrestling job got harder as the calves grew bigger and more stubborn. Enhee and Grandmother got a big kick out of watching me try to move the biggest 2-year-old calf away from his mother. I could barely do it.

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.

Life in the Wild, Wild East

I think a lot about the pioneers settling the “Wild West.” I am living in a very similar way to those folks, but living with (instead of killing off) the indigenous people. Today is a fine day, about 70 degrees with a pleasant breeze. The horses are hanging out, tails swishing the flies I can hear buzzing around. The calves walk around looking for mischief and have to be shooed away from chewing on the laundry Enhee hung this morning. The old bull is tied to the corral and is bellowing now and then with indignance. I haul two 2-gallon buckets of water from the river up to my ger. I heat the water on the wood stove and then pour it into a small baby bathtub. I secure my door with a rope from the inside and take a sponge bath with a washcloth and soap (not washing my hair, which is much more of a project than I can deal with today). Next I add powdered laundry soap to the water, and take it outside to do my clothes. I’ve developed a good technique after 5 months of doing my laundry by hand and can actually get my clothes clean. Although Enhee sometimes cannot help herself from jumping in to wash a collar or a seam she feels I’ve neglected, stopping dramatically to show me the dirt with a “tsk, tsk” before scrubbing with vigor.

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.

Bankar and the Dog Who Lived

There are two dogs here at camp. One is the favored dog, a big boy who lays around outside the main ger and gets all the best bones. The other the “mean dog” who apparently has bitten people before. He was called “Bankar.” When I first arrived, I saw him tied up to a post out in the yard. For the first entire week, he never was let off that line. When I asked, Enhee said he was mean and made growling snarling noises to emphasize her point. She gestured that I should avoid him, or he might bite me (making her hand “bite” her rear end to demonstrate). I started watching, to see if he was fed and watered. I saw them take him food, and assume they took him water. He looked healthy, and had a beautiful glossy coat. He never barked at me when I walked by.

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.

Cooking Mongolian with Tsigmee

Here’s a manly meal that requires men to prepare it. When there is reason to celebrate, the thing to do is throw a party and roast a goat. Whole. With blow torches.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
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)

Equipment needed:
Woodstove, brought outside the ger into the lawn
Hanging pole (this is not required but makes gutting the goat much easier)
Sharp knives
Metal slats for seering the head
Large needle and cotton twine
2-3 men

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.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

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

The Mongolian film outside my door

I often take breaks and lay on my bed looking out my open doorway. I have come to see it as the Mongolian film playing outside my door. Moments of relative excitment include horses fighting, boys wrestling, family members walking by or motorcycles purring or clickclacking past. The usual sight is the open plain, animals grazing or discussing current events in their grunts and noises. This day, it was rainy and not a lot was happening at camp. I made a short clip of it. Watch it like you are meditating, or like you are just waking from a lovely nap. That is what it feels like when I watch from my doorway. (Click the "play" symbol on the bar below to see the clip.)

Hearing subtle rhythms

Time is speeding up, only 10 days left with my host family. This past week I feel I finally heard for a sustained time the underlying rhythm I had hoped to hear and experience. I came for 2 months, with the idea it would take a month to get into the groove of their daily patterns and flow, leaving a month to live and be in the flow. It is one of the main reasons I came for so long. I had moments where I was in it, but at week six I finally was in it for a sustained time.

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.

Daytrippin’ with my Mongolian Family

After an hour of hard roads, the minivan climbed a small ridge and we could see the lake about 3 miles from our high view. To properly greet the spirits of the place we did several things. An ovoo marked the entrance to the lake area. An ovoo is a pile of rocks usually with a large branch in the center which makes a kind of altar. To show respect, it’s proper to bring another stone to the ovoo and then walk around it clockwise 3 times. We also gave small amounts of money by placing the bills under stones on the ovoo. Enhee threw milk to the four directions, and they had Olaka’s older brother Nassau yell out three times with all his might. We all piled back in and made our way to Ogii Lake for a swim and a picnic.

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.

Finding my edges

Stepping out into a realm where most of what you know is no longer relevant helps you see everything from a different angle. I have found areas I thought I could not change are changed in a moment, where things I assumed I would adapt to seem immobilized. My first day here, when I had my bucket toilet but no privacy screen, I was able to adapt their social norm around basic bodily functions. There I was, a normally modest person who prefers to take care of this aspect of life in my own bathroom, sitting in a wide-open space in plain view of other people (far enough away to blur the details). Pants down, sitting on a bucket, body working fine because I told it I was in my own bathroom. I was able to understand a cultural norm and apply it quickly to an area I thought was non-negotiable.

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.


There are these storms that come sweeping along all of a sudden. The day will be clear and bright, and then this strong wind whips along, and the weather shifts. The rain comes, and is followed by another wind, and the storm is passed. When I first arrived I would be enjoying the day, the wind would come, and I’d just watch as people burst into action bringing in things from outside and securing the gers. I quickly learned to also leap into action when that wind came.

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?