I ducked through my ger’s doorway with a yawn. Rubbing my groggy eyes, I stretched my arms into the crisp October air. Having fallen asleep while reading, I woke from my nap to find time had elapsed into the early evening, propelling the lazy Mongolian Sunday towards a quick end.
A light breeze rustled the dying fall grasses of the yard I shared with my two neighbors, Dawkraa and Tuya. In the distance dogs barked and horses whined. The fading evening light was broken by a bright flickering. Searching for its source it came from the partially closed foyer of Dawkraa and Tuya’s tiny wooden house. Darkness and then a flash of light, flames flickering and loud expulsions of air came from the entryway. The light died down again and then another whoosh and blast of light.
Curious, I walked towards the foyer. As my steps neared I could hear muffled voices and light laughter. There crouched over a wooden cutting board was Dawkraa. As I got closer I could see the board wasn’t empty. It was filled with the small body of some headless mammal. Round and rodent like it was about the size of a football, legs outstretched, it had clawed hands and a spindly tail.
“Tarwaga!” Dawkraa said excitedly, as he saw me approach, pointing towards the creature.
I’d never heard the word before. I knew the names of all the animals that made up Mongolian’s daily diet; horse, cow, sheep, goat, camel, but this word and this creature were unfamiliar. A quick thumbing through of my pocket dictionary revealed that the creature was a marmot, a prairie dog like mammal that made its burrow out on the steppe.
Suddenly without warning there was another whoosh and flames jetted from a blowtorch in Dawkraa’s hand. The flames charred and curled the marmot’s fur as Dawkraa liberally doused the animal in flames. I recoiled from the heat and grimaced as I watched the marmot’s body become black and burned.
Tuya appeared in the doorway.
“Can you eat marmot?” she asked, handing Dawkraa a knife.
I admitted that I had never had before. Roasted marmot wasn’t the first thing that came to mind when I thought of barbecue.
Dawkraa had dropped the blowtorch and had begun scraping off the creature’s singed hair with the knife. The fur seemed to give way into a black powder of disintegration. The smell that emitted from the charred marmot was in no way comparable to the aroma of burgers and hot dogs. I was starting to believe that I could not, in fact eat marmot.
“I shot it!” Dawkraa beamed with pride, miming a gun firing action with the dull knife.
“Go inside, Justin!” he added, hunching back over his kill, “We’ll all eat marmot together!”
I followed Tuya into their house not feeling as enthusiastic about eating marmot as Dawkraa sounded. Moments later the oversized rodent was brought in on its wooden slab. We all sat on the floor, Dawkraa, Tuya, their daughter Misheel, and Dawkraa’s two hunting buddies. Crowded around the little wooden cutting board Dawkraa cut into the creature. Carving up chunks of this apparently special treat. Dawkraa’s two friends reached forward, their hands greedily searching for the largest piece.
“Oui!” Dawkraa snapped. The rebuke causing them to withdraw their hands. “My favorite neighbor eats first.”
I groaned inwardly, he had just unknowingly guilted me into taking this culinary adventure farther then I would have liked. Dawkraa, smiling handed me a particularly large slab of marmot meat. I took the greasy bit in my fingers and inspected it. It was rubbery and thick and comprised mostly of gelatinous fat. It reminded me of the Italian rainbow cookies my family would make for holidays back home. Except instead of sweet multicolored cookie goodness the layers here were made up of thick blackened skin, fat, and burnt meat.
My face must have betrayed my apprehension as I paused with the piece in front of my mouth.
Dawkraa laughed, clapping me on the back. “All Mongolians love to eat marmot!” he exclaimed.
“It will be very cold soon.” he added, “The marmot fat will keep you warm.”
I didn’t quite agree with his logic but with the putrid smelling, fat dripping, hunk of marmot hovering in my face I remembered what brought me to Mongolia in the first place. How I wanted to be brought to do things I normally wouldn’t. Experience things with people I would have never connected with before. Wear clothing I thought would look goofy on me or eat food I thought I’d find disgusting.
There is a quote out there by Douglas Coupland, “Adventure without risk is Disneyland.” A big part of cultural immersion is jumping in head first, opening up your mind and taking the plunge. I didn’t want to regret missed opportunities later in life when Mongolia was behind me and I certainly didn’t want to miss any chances at connecting with my host neighbors and new friends. It meant jumping headlong out of my comfort zone. It meant eating dead marmot.
If I couldn’t practice what I preached then I would just be kidding myself. I should just pack it up and go home to Disneyland.
I took a deep breath and popped the piece into my mouth.