Jerusalem, Israel: 2009
I stared in awe up at the Dome of the Rock. The massive mosque, with its golden cap and intricate mosaic walls was a feast for the eyes. It was one of the most beautiful structures I’d ever seen. I ran my eyes over the Arabic verses along the facade and down its electric blue columns again and again. Standing there on the Temple Mount my senses were alive, the air smelled crisp and clean, the sun glistened off the mosque’s golden dome, Arabic chanting echoed in my ears as the faithful had begun being called to prayer. My revelry was shattered as I caught the sight of three armed soldiers marching in my direction, pointing at the exit to the Temple Mount and shouting in very stern Arabic. I quickly slinked towards the exit, stealing one last glance of the mosque over my shoulder as I left. The forbidden aura adding further to its wonder. The picture was clear, it was prayer time, I was a non-Muslim. I would be no where near religious practices, no matter how interesting or how beautiful I thought they were.
I squinted through my own foggy breath as I stared out towards the rising sun. Outside of my host family’s Khutul apartment it was the first day of Tsagaan Sar(White Month), Mongolian Lunar New Year. A time for renewal, rebirth, and connecting with those closest to you. I strained my eyes further, in the distance I could make out the tiny figures of people walking up a far off mountain. Scores headed uphill, making a pilgrimage to the top to pay respects at an ovoo, a religious totem of rocks and colored silk that crown the tops of many peaks and summits. The sun illuminated the white ice and snow. Watching the dozens of black silhouettes march upwards towards the sky was mesmerizing.
Jagaa, my host brother, nudged me on the arm. “Please, read again.” Apologizing, I looked down at the piece of paper my host mother had sent me outside with. A special prayer she had written down just for me and my birth year, the year of the rabbit. I began repeating the few lines yet again. The Tibetan chant was unfamiliar on my tongue, which had only grown accustomed to Mongolian. Jagaa quickly helped me sound out each word. “Follow me”, he said taking my wrist as we started the chant again. To the unfamiliar onlooker it appeared as if we zigged and zagged in nonsensical direction, I learned earlier that these steps were necessary to starting my new year and went hand in hand with the prayer that reverberated from my lips. The ritual having finished, we marched back up the steps to my family’s third floor apartment. Three rooms with bathtub and toilet, these luxuries were a far cry from how we lived together in Orkhon, my former village only 15 minutes away. My host mother and youngest brother rented the apartment every winter so my brother could attend Khutul’s private school. As we reentered, I was greeted by the bustling sight of my host mother, scurrying from room to room to throw a bowlful of milk out each window, up towards the sky. The ritual, one repeated during many occasions is an offering for safety and good fortune. Milk, a sacred liquid, for its symbolic color is often used. As the last bowlful was tossed skywards, the family gathered in the living room, lining up in front of the tiny altar. Adorned with candles, incense, an idol of Buddha, pictures of the Dalai Lama, and a small copper prayer wheel, my host family assembled oldest to youngest, each taking turns bowing and praying in front of the religious objects. I watched, grateful to just be present to witness their worship, something so unfamiliar from my own. When Mogi had finished spinning the tiny prayer wheel three times he turned to me. “Justin brother, it is your turn.” Taken aback, I didn’t know how to respond. My host mother urged me forward in front of the altar. “I don’t know how,” I exclaimed, “I am a Christian, is this okay?” My mother only chuckled at me, “Of course, just think about the new year.” Hands clasped I bowed my head and closed my eyes. I thought about my family back home, my friends I left behind, the new family crowded around me, and the new friends I’d made living across the steppe. I wished good fortune on all of them. As I lifted my head and opened my eyes, I stepped forward and spun the tiny copper wheel three times. The metal was warm to the touch.
It may seem a peculiar thing, but moving into a culture so much different then the one I came from I often compare my time spent those first three months in Orkhon as being born again. I was taught right from wrong, I learned to speak, how to cook, clean, and build a fire, how to survive the winter, and how to keep myself safe. My host family essentially raised me to be a half competent resident of Mongolia in only three months. It touches me to my core when I realize the shared impact we’ve had in each others lives. What they’ve shown me since I arrived in a land both scary and beautiful has been nothing short of love and compassion. People I know I can always turn to when I feel like Mongolia could swallow me whole. Words neither written nor said could describe the gratitude I have for them.
After three days of feasting, card games, and visiting Orkhon, friends, more family, and my teacher it was finally time to say goodbye. Hugging my brothers goodbye, they made one last attempt to get me to stay longer. If only travel were that easy. As I said goodbye to my host mother she hugged me and waved me out the door, “I will throw milk for you”, she exclaimed as the door shut behind me. Trudging out towards the oversized van that would carry me back towards Ulaanbaatar, I stole a glance over my shoulder. My host mother stood at the apartment window making good on her promise. Holding a bowl in her hand she prepared to give an offering for my safe journey. She smiled and waved at me, then with a flick of her wrist and a small gasp she sent milk towards the heavens. It sparkled in the sun as it fell.