Latest update from my sister in Mongolia. Yes, it is quite long, but you should read it…..all the way to the end….:)
July 21, 2012
This is a big one so grab a cup of coffee and a comfy seat…
I will begin with my most recent adventure to the reindeer village in northern Mongolia. A few months ago, the Peace Corps volunteer (Nick) serving in a countryside town not too far from me told me about a project he and an English teacher were planning. The goal was to create a “mobile library” for the reindeer people. (for more about the reindeer- Dukha- people: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dukha
) Although I was hesitant to make that crazy horse trip for the second year in a row, I was seriously considering joining in the project. I told Erka about it thinking he could help me decide. His response: “Can I do it?” And so my mind was made up; not only would I be joining Nick and Serdamba (the English teacher), Erka would be as well.
The plan was for all the boys to come to Murun on July 4th so we could get a car out to Tsaagan Nuur on July 5th. By the afternoon of July 5th, everyone was in town and pumped. We headed to the market to find a ride and buy some noodles and dried meat (our food for the entire trip). We found a car that was set to leave around 7 that evening. The driver kind of weirded me out, but I was travelling with 3 men so I felt I would be taken care of if a problem arose. No luck, however, with the meat. Not wanting to be the leader of this outing, I kept my worries of starvation and creepy driver men to myself and hoped that someone else would find a solution.
We grabbed some dinner and headed back to my house to wait for the car. 7:00 came and went. 8:00 came and went. 9:00 the driver called and said he was having some food then would be over to get us. 10:00 came and went. 10:30 the driver had turned his phone off. 11:00 came and went. I was trying really hard not to be the pessimist. I provided candy and broke into the snacks I had bought for the road. We played cards. We watched television. Nick and I quizzed each other on 80’s trivia. Finally at 11:30, I started getting out blankets and make shift pillows for everyone. And by midnight we were asleep.
I awoke the morning of the 7th to Alison, the house guest I had forgotten about. Alison (my site mate from last year) was coming for one last visit with her Khovsgul friends and we had planned on her staying in my ger since I would be gone. She had just finished the 16 hour bus ride and was tired so I let her take over the bed and I sat on the floor watching television until the boys were up and moving. And so there were 5 tired and crabby people in my tiny ger.
We headed to the market and found a new car. We found Judy too. Judy was an M19 volunteer (I’m an M21). She is a retired business woman. She served her 2 years then went back for 6 months. She then returned to Mongolia for 9 months to work more (this time coincided with my service so I had the pleasure of getting to know her). She left last January and is now back for a month to work again. She is an amazing woman and one of my heroes. She is 69 years old. My 27 year old body hates Mongolia some days so I can’t imagine how her 69 year old body can do it, year after year. But she does and she does it with joy! Anyway, luckily we found some dried meat too, so I decided that was the reason why we had not left the night before…food. Unfortunately, the meat was looking kind of rough and seemed pretty expensive so we only bought a little over a kilo. If I had been the cook for the trip, the kilo would have been fine for us…
July 7th, 7:00pm- we were finally on the road! Around 11:00 we stopped for food and finally arrived at the guest house in Tsaagan Nuur at 5:00 in the morning. We crashed for awhile then went to go check out the “White Lake.” It was gorgeous. We weren’t able to get the horses that day so we planned to leave the following morning. That meant we had a night in Tsaagan Nuur and as is custom for some Mongolians before beginning a project, unfortunately there was vodka. I’m a big baby nowadays when it comes to alcohol and can’t handle it, so the next morning did not go well for me. When we left on horseback around 11:00am, I had a pounding headache and had already vomited multiple times; but I was determined not to let myself be the cause for any delays. Just a couple hours later, a rain and hail storm hit. We just kept riding. It was pretty slow at first. Occasionally the guides would stop to tighten the ropes on the pack horse, at which time my horse (whom I named Red Lips after the horse from one of my favorite movies, “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken”) would simply sit down. It was pretty freaky the first time but I got used to it. Erka said the horse must have thought I was tired of riding and was trying to make it easier for me to get off. Another couple of hours later, I was still feeling a bit queasy. And with that the vomiting began again. I’m confident that if I could have had an extra couple hours of sleep and couple of greasy jack-n-box tacos I would have been fine, but instead, I was leaning off the side of my horse producing the most vibrant colors of puke I have ever seen. Finally around 6:00pm the guides told us it would be best to stop and camp. We were maybe half way there and the upcoming half was much rougher. They were afraid the horses wouldn’t be able to see well enough to maneuver through the rocks and mud. Even though this meant I would be paying double what I had planned, I wasn’t going to argue. I was feeling a little better and I was starving and still wet from the rain. And so we camped. (Check out my pics on facebook, it was next to a giant glacier!)
Around 9:00 the next morning, we were back in the saddle, and boy was that painful. It wasn’t more that 30 minutes before I knew the horse guides had been telling the truth the night before. The “path,” if you can even call it that, was rough to say the least. There were big rocks and little rocks and giant boulders and lots of mud and lots of trees. It was way more intense than my trip last year. (Last year I went to the East Taiga and this year to the West). My horse was still going at a snail’s pace so Erka took the rein and tried to pull us along. The second time my horse fell, we decided, slow or not, it was better for me to go it alone. Luckily, Nick’s horse was even slower than mine so I wasn’t alone. I still think the horses can sense when a foreigner is riding him as opposed to a Mongolian, so they slow down a lot and ignore all our attempted commands and whips. But hey, it was painful and frankly, kind of scary, so slow was fine with me. Slow was not always fine with the guides though. Our woman guide fell back behind me and Nick at one point and began herding our horses. Unfortunately, my horse wanted to beat Nick’s but Nick’s was ahead on the path so my horse took its own path….under a very low branch. Since I am not used to driving a horse, my reaction was to duck and cover as opposed to pulling on the reins to stop the horse. I stayed on for a few seconds but quickly found myself standing next to my horse, still afraid of letting go. The “cover “part was a good idea though; I realized this when I saw the massive scrapes on my arm. And with that I was proud of myself for packing an easily accessible first aid kit. I wanted to stop and rest and clean my arm and cry a bit. I wanted to real bad, but I didn’t. The words of Tom Hanks kept running through my head, “Are you crying? There’s no crying. There’s no crying in [horse riding].” And within seconds, I was back in the saddle with Nick, Erka, and Serdamba all looking back at me wide eyed, jaws dropped.
Around 5:00 that night I saw my first teepee, and Tom Hanks returned telling me to stop being a girl and start trotting. We stopped at the second little teepee village we saw. Serdamba talked to the people and learned that this village had no children so we should keep moving. We stopped at the 3rd one and were happily invited in for some milk tea and straight up warm reindeer milk. The tea was amazing. The milk was soooo thick though. I could barely finish one cup, but was thankful since I was so hungry and cold. As we finished the milk and some reindeer cheese, another storm set in. I just kept thinking about all our stuff still packed on the horse, getting soaked.
When it let up a little, we headed across the river to set up camp. Erka and I set up our tent quickly and threw all the bags inside. Nick and Serdamba’s tent was a piece of crap so they decided they would just sleep in the library/teepee. We all began trying to set up the teepee, as the rain picked up again. Luckily, the men and older boys came pouring out of their homes to help us. With the help of close to 8 people, we soon had a teepee to sit in. Everyone was literally dripping wet. We built our fire and started dinner. The rest of the night is now a blur since I was so tired at the time. All I remember is that the ground provided little comfort for my aching joints.
The next morning the rain had stopped and every bit of everything we had brought was now baking in the sun trying to get dry. Nick and Serdamba walked a ways to some of the further villages to introduce the library while Erka and I tried to clean and prepare everything.
In the late afternoon, several children came. They came in the teepee without hesitation, with the exception of one. One boy, Shinehuu (“New Son”)waited in the doorway. Erka told him to come in and read. He just stood there. I thought for a second then asked him simply, “Can you read?” He said no. I told him to come in and sit next to me and he did. I asked him how old he was. He didn’t know. The other children looked at us nervously, as if we had discovered a secret that was meant to stay hidden. Finally, a girl told me that he was about 14years old. So I took out my small marker board, handed him a marker and asked him to draw me a picture. He was ecstatic. He would look at something and draw a small line, then look again and draw another line. Over and over in the same fashion…with intense concentration. He was happy to be in the library with the other kids. I later learned from his mother that he had attended school in Tsaagan Nuur with the rest of the children for a few years, but was often confused and had a hard time living in the dorms with no supervision so she pulled him out. She was happy we had come and hopeful that Shinehuu would benefit from us somehow.
All the children read some and practiced a little English and played A LOT. Luckily I had had a last minute thought of packing toys. Little Gaana played basketball on the side of the teepee while Shinehuu flew the kite. Buyna jumped rope while Tul and Sara played with the Frisbee. It was nice. And then the rain came again so the big kids read inside while Gaana napped on my lap. When the rain stopped, they all went home (school bus Nick carried a sleeping Gaana all the way across the river and up the hill) and I was exhausted again. We had our first meal of the day, dried meat and noodle soup. We played some cards then went to bed early.
The next day was the first day of Nadam, one of Mongolia’s biggest holidays. So we all headed to one of the teepees to watch Nadam on television (powered by a car battery and a satellite dish). No children came that day. The next day, Erka and Serdamba went back but Nick and I took a walk to pick some more wild onions to spice up our dried meat and noodle meals. A few children came and played for maybe an hour then left again. Day 4 in the village…no children and….drum roll please….no meat. That’s right. Thanks to the men deciding how much we put into each meal, the idea of rationing had been tossed aside. Thanks to the horse guides leaving it behind, we still had a small bag of noodles and we also had a bag of rice, salt and sugar. So Serdamba asked if we might buy some milk so we could make rice with milk and sugar (a meal here in Mongolia). One small jar was 3,000 tugriks. Nick and I decided we would have to be hungry a little, but this would be fine for us for the rest of the trip. The Mongolians, however, needed their meat! And so we also purchased a kilo of reindeer meat from the family for 15,000 tugriks. I felt bad taking food from them even if we did give them money for it. They were a 12+ hour horse ride from the nearest store so money wasn’t very useful. But the reindeer meat was delicious so…
Day 5- Erka, Nick, and I went for a hike. We wanted to waste some time and we needed to gather more firewood, because…drum roll again please…we ran out of firewood too. It was a nice break from my frustrations of running out of everything and being lazy. When we returned, we sent Serdamba over to the village to gather some kids and convince them to come. These are hard working kids who help with the cooking, cleaning, milking, and herding. Multiple times already, I had watched Tul and Sara, the two 3rd graders, herding sheep and goats. But they squeezed in time for us and again, we had a crowd. The kids stayed for several hours.
Day 6- They were back. Shinehuu came in without hesitation. A newer boy (who had been away for the past few days) tried to take care of Shinehuu by telling him not to touch things. Shinehuu grabbed the marker board and told his friend that I was his teacher so it was ok. The men taught everyone else but I was his teacher. He was so happy. I believe that comment and his smile managed to make the last of my horse soreness disappear…just in time. It was our last day. We were out of food again. Luckily, a few visitors from neighboring villages came, noticed our low supply and returned with some dried reindeer meat. God always provides.
The meat was actually really gross. I think it had turned. I ate a bit anyway, assuming it was better than nothing, and thank God, I did not get sick. Around 7:00pm that evening, the horse guides returned for us and brought us more food. It was the best meat and noodle soup I have ever tasted. We took down the teepee and re-setup a little fort thing that would be easier to take down at 4am the next morning. Before bed, we returned all the materials people had loaned us. I gifted a box of crayons to Shinehuu and American coins to all the children. Gaana got the kite and Buyna the jump rope. We headed to our favorite family to say goodbye and thank you. The grandmother thanked us for coming and told us we were welcome to return anytime. She also shared her freshly cooked reindeer meat…and I mean fresh. The reindeer had been killed that day! It was soooo delicious. Just think, early in the day I had been starving and trying to convince myself I wasn’t because the food was gone. And then 3 more times food was given to us. Again, God always provides.
I slept good that night and was up before dawn at 4am to begin packing the horses. We were on the road a little after 6:00. It was super foggy. It was super cold…I mean my horse’s reins were covered in ice. It began to rain again. And misery set in. Nick and I had switched horses for this trip so now I was riding the horse who I had named “Frances Houseman,” “Baby” for short. Baby was tired. Erka stayed behind me and offered several seemingly helpful suggestions that managed to make my blood boil. I insisted he stop talking to me. My feet went numb from sitting in the metal stirrups in below freezing temperatures. The fog was so deep that I could no longer see the group in front of me. My stupid arthritic Judo knees felt like bursting and it was less than 2 hours into the 12+ hour trip. The path was unrecognizable to me. I worked at keeping Tom Hanks at bay as I searched for dry land to walk on. Parts were a little marshy and parts were a lot. Just when I thought I would make it, I went through a not-so-shallow marshy patch that was so deep, in fact, my horse sunk deep enough for my shoes to go under. But “nobody puts Baby in a [marsh],” so he danced his way out, keeping me relatively safe in the process. Not 5 minutes later, I had reached the top of the mountain where the group was waiting for me and we all got off and walked our horses back down the other side as the sun began to shine. I could breathe again. In no time at all I was shedding my 6 layers of clothing and we had made it to our previous campsite. It was only noon.
We rested about 30 minutes then were back on the road. When we were just about 15 kilometers outside of town, my knees couldn’t take it anymore. I told Erka that I needed to take a walking break. He told me no. I told him yes. He told me no. I told him yes. He said ok and helped me off the horse. Now this has never happened to me in real life before and I have only seen it in movies, but when I stepped on that ground, the pain was so intense I thought I was going to vomit. OMG it was horrible! As I stabled myself, Erka looked at me and told me to walk as long as I needed to; and he walked along side of me with his horse. After 10 minutes or so, the rest of the group was beginning to gain some distance so I hopped back on. Correction….there was no hopping. I put my right foot in the stirrup and counted to 3. As I tried and failed to independently throw my left leg over, Erka did it for me. I almost fell off the other side he pushed so hard. We quickly trotted up to the others, just in time for….drum roll please…thunder!
A big storm was coming and it was coming in fast. The entire group ran over to a nearby home (note that we were still 10 kilometers outside of town…essentially we were in the middle of nowhere). We tied up the horses as the giant balls of rain pounded down and jogged over to house. We walked in and sat down. Note: none of us knew these people. It was the home of a young couple, no more than 23 years old. The young woman served us all milk tea and biscuits and we sat quietly until the rain stopped. We said thank you and were out the door again less than 20 minutes after entering. Mongolians are so flippin’ hospitable. It’s amazing!
At 4:00, I spotted the guesthouse. That’s when Tom Hanks officially hopped in the saddle with me. I wanted to cry tears of joy and relief, but I didn’t. Erka and I kept trotting through the steppe as everyone else headed to the road. He was pulling me again and my feet stayed stretched out to the side, avoiding the stirrups as much as possible. And then I believe Erka, Tom Hanks, and I transitioned into a scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. You know the one where Sir Lancelot is running to the castle and guards are watching. He keeps running and running but seems to not get any closer. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GJoM7V54T-c&feature=related
That was us and I was not pleased. I had also quickly discovered why the rest of the group had headed to the road. The mud and spontaneous rivers were sometimes impassible. Multiple times we had to turn back and go around a different way. Tom Hanks seemed to be jabbing me in the side. Erka kept whipping the horses to go faster. I had to put my feet back in the stirrups to help hold my balance, so my knees continued to scream out in pain. Objects may appear closer than they are.
5:00pm- We made it! Erka helped me off. The horse guides laughed at me and called me old. Erka told them I was not old and hugged me as we walked in for tea…effectively kicking Tom Hanks out of the game as I slashed the mocking guards (and 8 wedding guests in all).
An hour or so later, the owner of the guesthouse drove us to the shop so we could buy some much needed chocolate and coke. When we came back, his wife had made us dinner…more soup. Then I laid down, squirming to find comfort in the boards that made up the mattress of my bed.
We had wanted to leave by car that evening, anxious to get home, but there was a problem. Tsaagan Nuur was out of petrol (gas). They were given word that the gas was only to be given to the ambulance and government workers and that more gas may not arrive for another 2 weeks. Luckily there was no shortage on diesel so we just had to find a car that ran on diesel. We were again in luck, kind of, because the guesthouse owner’s jeep ran on diesel and he was planning on heading to Murun so we could just go with him. But he was a traditional Mongolian who thinks it is bad luck to travel on Tuesdays. And so we had one more night. But this gave us time for the Shaman!
First, Erka and Serdamba visited the Shaman, named Gustav. This man is said to be one of the most powerful Shaman’s in the world and is from the Dukha tribe of the west taiga from which we had just returned. He has recently had a stroke affecting the left side of his body so he spends much of his time in Tsaagan Nuur center where life is easier. Gustav was featured in the documentary “The Horse Boy” which I recommend to all of you. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1333668/
It’s about an American couple taking their Autistic son to Mongolia to explore the idea of Shaman healing, all while riding horses, which is activity calming to their son. Anyway, Gustav now uses playing cards to help read people. Erka asked about his life and work in the future. His cards came to be a red 10 and a red King. Gustav told him everything would be good. Later Nick and I, although skeptics, also visited Gustav. Nick went first. Gustav’s helper first accidently dropped the cards on the ground so we thought that was a bad sign. Nick asked what would happen in the next five years of his life. Gustav said his work would be good (which is funny since Nick is a hippie skater boy who spent the past year before Peace Corps volunteering in a record store) but he would have problems elsewhere. He told him his girlfriend would leave him. Yikes. Again, I’m a skeptic, but this made me nervous to get my answers, especially in front of Erka who is not a skeptic. When it was my turn, I was dealt a black 10 and black king. I asked about my health in the future. Gustav told me my health and life and work would all be good. My husband’s health and the health of my children would all be ok. Just hours after my horse ride, my knees were disagreeing with him, but overall I guess I was relieved; mostly because I could see the relief in Erka’s eyes. And I believe his red 10 and red king match nicely with my black 10 and black king.
When we returned to the guesthouse, I managed to completely avoid the celebratory vodka. When Serdamba tried to convince me to just take 3 shots, I reminded him of the glowing yellow color of puke as a result of our previous 3. And with that, I was asleep by 10. At 5 the next morning, we were up again, ready to leave by 6 like we had been told. 8:30am- we were finally on the road. The old man who owned the jeep was nervous about driving on the rough roads so he asked a driver to come along and drive for us. In retrospect, even though it was a stick, which I have only drove once in my life (thanks Nyki), I think I could have drove better than this man.
I could detail all the 15+ times we had to stop, including the random Canadian cyclist and my needing to puke (this time from car sickness), but I am noticing this email is on page 7 already so I will spare you. Long story short on that one, a 10 hour drive took 16 and we didn’t get home until 1am.
I was out of money so they agreed to let me pay them the next day after I could go to the bank and get some from my American account. The next day, long story short on that one: my card was eaten by an atm…twice, a young bank security guard who is also a judo player (who fights adults not children, as was boasted several times) got my phone number and will most likely be my new stalker, and my account was locked. Luckily I was able to combine money from my Peace Corps account, my secret stash, and my friend’s internet bill money to pay the car. And with the help of the amazing internet, my mom, and my sister, I was able to get my account unlocked and take out money from a different bank the following day. Thank God. I made myself a delicious celebratory fettuccini alfredo dinner with a twix and a coke on the side. It was amazing.
And now my trip is finished and I am rested and almost fully recovered. I should have a temporary wicked scar on my arm and should still have the bruise on my knee (where Erka tried to give me a piggy back ride across the river and slipped) for another week or so. Other than that, I am good to go.
But I have just one more tidbit to add to this marathon email. It’s about me coming home…
Drum roll please (a lot of drums in this email)…I’m not coming in August. And probably not in September either. You see, I’m in love and love makes you do crazy things…like consider marriage. Erka and I have applied for a fiancé visa for him and we are still waiting for approval. We were hoping to come back together when I finish Peace Corps on August 20th, but it seems we won’t be ready yet. You know how slow the government can be sometimes. In the beginning I had thought I could go back alone and get a job and work hard to save a bunch of money so that when he came, we wouldn’t have to worry as much about that. And then I thought some more. “Am I really considering leaving my possible future husband indefinitely just so I can make money?” I don’t want my life to be about money. I want my life to be about love. With that being said, our lawyer (former classmate, St. Pius Class ’02) seems to think we should be able to come home before the end of the year. Nothing is set in stone though. The fiancé visa indicates that we need to be married within 90 days of getting to America or he will be sent back…so….I guess you know what that means.
On August 20th, my work with Peace Corps will be finished. Erka and I will take a quick little vacation to China. When I return I should be able to get a new Mongolian visa with no problems. Then I will move in with Erka and his family in the countryside of Khovsgul. Intense!
Anyway, I do miss you all so much. There are some people that I may even miss more than pizzas and bubble baths so that is some intense missing. I can’t wait to be home and I can’t wait for you to all meet my…fiancé!