“You can take a trip to China or take a boat to Spain. Take a blue canoe around the world and never come back again…”
We sat around a small table. Crowded with food, tea, wine and vodka we chatted after a hearty meal. A fire crackled in the small stove that heated the one room house. The house belonged to Enkhtor, one of our school’s newest English teachers. Her, myself, Kherlen, Saruul, and Bolormaa spent an evening meal and drinks together, as fellow English teachers, colleagues, and above all, friends. Conversation had lapsed into a now new but reoccurring topic, my inevitable departure from Mongolia. Trying to convince me I should stay another year they playfully argued with one another. “He can move his ger into my hashaa.” Kherlen suggested “Its the biggest!” Bolormaa cut her off before she could continue, “Justinaa! Move into my yard, it’s closer to the school!” Trying to remain neutral I laugh and give them an impossible task, “The first person to build me a house, I’ll move into their hashaa.” The room erupts in laughter and Kherlen jokingly smacks me on the shoulder. When quiet seizes our group again, Saruul looks at me and asks in all seriousness, “What will you do when you leave Omnodelger?” Before I could even ponder this Kherlen interjects on my behalf. “He’ll go to America, he’ll get a job, he’ll find a wife.” She counted each task on her fingers, like each action was already preordained. “Will you go to another country after Mongolia?” Bolormaa enquired. Kherlen once again acting like my press secretary intervened. “No, he’ll buy a home and live in America.” She looked at me expectantly as if to say, isn’t that so? Her words sent a pang of emotion through my chest, that pang of emotion you get when someone just told you bad news. I gathered my thoughts as quickly as I could. Took a breath and opened my mouth to speak.
There is a book out there. Its by Ken Jennings. You know, the Jeopardy guy. Its called Maphead. I gave it a try out of curiosity and my inherent love for geography. This short well written book happens to be all about people just like me. A curious if sometimes nerdy group of individuals who happen to take a keen interest, a slight obsession, a refined passion for maps, geography, places. People who memorize the shapes of states and countries. Who list capitals and cities. Can ramble on about interesting factoids about the lesser known places of our world. People who go beyond just memorizing locations on a map but sit and create geography of their own. From the imagination of a child to the mind of J.R.R Tolkien. When I finished the volume I certainly considered myself to be thrown in with the lot the book described but something inside me told me I took it further. While sitting and memorizing places on a map is good fun, I wanted more. I wanted to go to these places.
“But traveling don’t change a thing, it only makes it worse. Unless the trip you take is to change your cruel course…”
There’s an English word adapted from German. Wanderlust. The strong desire or impulse to wander or travel and explore the world. Before I had crossed oceans. Before I had known what it was like to be in places like Berlin, Galilee, Bayeux, or Jerusalem. Before I floated in the Dead Sea, crossed the Danube or waded in the Jordan I traveled stateside. Working in archaeology had me visiting a different town almost everyday. Small farm towns, quiet New England villages, landscapes of backwoods Americana. I took pleasure in traveling, living, and working in these lesser known nooks. Brandon, VT, Frenchtown, NJ, Clark’s Summit, PA, Delmar, MD. Every town, no matter how small was special if only briefly adding to my nomadic pleasure. The Ramat Rahels, Orkhons, and Omnodelgers of the world only broadened my knowledge further. A whole new level outside my comfort zone, I was traveling, I was subconsciously checking these places off in the map in my head but at the same time I was learning. Absorbing culture, religion, and language, I didn’t just want to understand these places I wanted to be a part of them. What I didn’t count on was them becoming a part of me.
“Cause every town’s got a mirror, and every mirror still shows me…”
Now sitting across from my co-workers and friends that pang of emotion tore at my chest. I don’t want this to be it. The atlas in my mind spread out to show the possibilities were endless. “I think I’ll want to see more of the world.” I said in a low voice. “I’ve learned so many things from Mongolia and all of you, I think I’d like to learn from other places too.” Bolormaa pondered this, “Where? Africa?” I couldn’t help but smile at this knowing the reaction my answer would instigate. “Wherever. I would like to go to places in Africa.” Kherlen let out a little gasp, “Oui, Yanaa, who will you go with?” I shrugged my shoulders in indifference, “I don’t know, maybe I will go alone.” Another gasp. “You can’t go to those places alone, it’s too dangerous.” I spread my arms out before myself, the gesture made words unnecessary. Here I sat, the lone American in Omnodelger, as I have been for more than a year. “Sometimes you learn more when you are alone.” I added. They all seemed to nod in understanding. “If I meet people in other places as kind as you have been to me I know I will be okay.” I added for reassurance. Bolormaa made a clucking sound with her tongue and said with a smile, “Other countries will be lucky to meet you.” Truth or not this made me smile right back.