June, Election Day
Somewhere in Sukhbaatar Province, Mongolia
I could only blink at the two tires and clench my fists. No need to ask questions. No need to even speak. I knew what it meant. Staring at the two deflated tires I new it spelled doom for the rest of the evening. The fact that all of the cars passengers were wandering aimlessly around the steppe, arms raised, cell phones pointed skyward, like technology obsessed zombies was no consolation. It would have looked comical, if I didn’t know what they were searching for. A drop of service. A bar of signal. To call for help.
Earlier that day: Ondorkhaan, Mongolia
Me and Elliot stood at the bus station, waiting. We had been waiting well past the time the bus was to arrive. On its way from Ulaanbaatar we sought to hop aboard the bus and ride it a short five hours to Baruun-Urt, the capital of Sukhbaatar province to help out at a summer camp put on by one of our fellow volunteers. Except the bus never came. Contributing this to elections, we sat, half irritated, half unsurprised. When up pulls a car. “Going to Sukhbaatar?” the driver asks. We sure are, accepting his offer for a ride and thanking our good fortune. After a handful of errands, packing the car to bursting with passengers, and a small intermission at the drivers home we set off for Sukhbaatar. I turned to Elliot commenting how at this rate we’d be there while the sun was still up. In a way I was right.
Afternoon: East of Ondorkhaan, Mongolia
I saw it coming. It came on almost in slow motion. Out of all the rocks that I spied out the windshield this one seemed to glow. Seemed to stand out amongst its stony brethren. Perfectly positioned it sat, then it was upon us. I cringed as it approached. A sickening thud. The sound of metal smacking against the resilience of stone. We skidded to a halt. Assessed the damage. One tire deflated, the foreboding sound of hissing air could be heard before I even stepped from the car. The driver set to work, taking tools out of the trunk. The rear tire, also having not been spared the impact sat askew in its rim. He gave it a short inspection, a little kick then moved on to the flat front tire. After about half an hour the spare was on. A spare that looked like it would be more at home on a ride around lawn mower than an automobile. We continued our journey. Each bump made me wince, always expecting our John Deere sized tire to explode upon the slightest disturbance.
The mountains that had always served as the backdrop to Khentii disappeared. Now just horizon, blue sky over a sea of grass. Flat expanse. Nothing. Sukhbaatar. We hadn’t been driving long when the driver suddenly made a hard right off the main road. Instead of east towards Baruun-Urt we were now headed south. The tall waves of grass, rippled in the wind as we left that main artery to our destination behind. “Where are we going?”, we asked. “Don’t worry my two friends,” the driver exclaimed jovially, “I have to vote.” Not wanting to be one to withhold the man from his civic duties I sat back as we sped two hours out of our way to the nearest soum. We arrived in a tiny town nestled between rare changes in elevation, but no one voted. Instead we stopped to repair the damaged tire. Elliot and I munched on a loaf of bread and watched. With new peace of mind and a full sized tire we set out the way we came. This time veering off again into nothingness to stop at a lone building. An island in a void of grass. This is where our driver would vote. In under thirty minutes he cast his ballot and we were off again. It was after 9pm. My head rested against the car window. I no longer cringed with every bump. The sun crept below the horizon. Still far from the main road we had turned off of earlier I knew we’d never make Baruun-Urt before dark. The bumpy road and soft radio began to lull me to sleep. I started to doze.
I was jolted awake. Familiar sound. Metal against stone. Skidding tires. The hiss of rapid expelled air. Next thing I know I’m standing aghast, blinking dumbfounded at our newly crippled vehicle. Our pathetic spare could only remedy one of the lame tires. We were stranded. It wasn’t until after dark that we got the news. The driver had found signal on his phone. His friend would come get him. He’d be back later with a new tire. After midnight he was finally fetched by an old Russian truck. We watched as it sped off into the night. So with nothing to do but wait we sat in the car. Hours crept by. The other abandoned passengers slept. Our minds raced. Would he come back tonight? Would we be stuck here until tomorrow? We were truly deserted. Lost in a sea of grass. At least in the ocean you drift. It was after 3am when Elliot stirred me from attempted sleep. “I think I see lights!” I sat up. Indeed two beams shown in the distance. We watched in awe as a truck pulled up and out hopped our driver. In no time they had two new tires attached, and after a cigarette and small talk with our rescuers he was ready to go again. As we got back in the car to continue to our destination I saw the light of dawn begin to creep above the horizon.
6:00am: Baruun-Urt, Mongolia
Baruun-Urt was sleepy at 6am. Streets were quiet. No dogs barked. No engines groaned. We pulled into the bus station. As we exited the car our tired looking friend came around the corner to meet us. The driver handed me my bag and guitar and I took them greedily, fearing that a moment longer in the car’s possession might trap me again with its next ailment. Exhausted and frustrated I wanted to kiss the paved streets of Baruun-Urt and kick our unlucky instrument of transportation all at the same time. As the car began to pull away, the driver stuck his head out the window. “Call me when you want a ride back,” he exclaims happily.
I could only fake a smile, blink, and clench my fists.