Mongolia

Capital: Ulaanbaatar
Population: 2,921,287 (ranked 140th)
Size: 603,909 sq mi (ranked 19th)
Language: Mongolian
Money: Togrog (MNT)

Mongolia holds a very special place in my heart. Serving there as a community development and education volunteer with the US Peace Corps, I lived there for over two years on the eastern steppes of Khentii province in a little town called Omnodelger. I fell in love with the wilds of the grassland and vastness of the steppe. The frigidness of the winters, kindness of the people, and the simple nomadic lifestyle humbled me to my core and changed my life forever. Its a place I’ll think of fondly until I die and always be longing to return to.

That Time We All Ate Marmot

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.

The yard I shared with Tuya and Dawkraa.  My ger is in the center, their home is out of frame to the left.
The yard I shared with Tuya and Dawkraa. My ger is in the center, their home is out of frame to the left.

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.

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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.

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“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.

 

 

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What the Mongols Taught Me

The tiny microbus honks a third time as I exit my friend’s apartment and head across the street to my waiting ride back to Omnodelger. Sitting under a street light flurries sparkle like falling jewels in the van’s headlights. Loaded up with my backpack and two baggies of purchased city goods I stride towards the microbus, walking through my own breath as it materializes in front of me. I clutch the handle with a gloved hand and yank open the sliding door.

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The microbus. A staple of virtually any long distance Mongolian travel.

The tiny bus is packed floor to ceiling with all manner of goods and items. House paneling, stacks of foam insulation, towers of baby diapers, a disassembled bed frame, wooden crates of fresh vegetables, piles of plastic bags full of every eclectic item imaginable. To say the tiny space left for passengers was overcrowded is an understatement. Seven people were packed into a space that looked like it might uncomfortably hold three. To make room for the influx of goods the seat was slightly inclined forward causing the people on it to lean forward into a spine stiffening position. Men crushed and crammed onto one another. A woman and her baby sat leaning against piles of bags, the arm not being used to hold the child was raised above her to keep goods from collapsing onto her head.

As I pushed the door open all the way a bag rolled out and onto the ground the man closest to me flailed an arm and checked himself to keep from cartwheeling out of the microbus.

I blinked twice at the sight before me.

No way, absolutely not.” I said aloud to no one in particular.

Mongolia taught me a great many things but patience is at the top of the list. It was no gentle lesson, either. For over two years the central Asian nation tried, tested, and shoved every impatient inducing scenario down my throat. All of this pretty much from the get-go.

My first couple of months in Mongolia were spent in the sleepy town of Orkhon. I lived with a Mongolian family who taught me all the ins and outs, dos and don’ts of Mongolian culture.

One Saturday morning I got up early and hurriedly began packing a day bag. Last night my host brother had promised that today would be the day he would take me to the neighboring town of Khutul. To me Khutul was like the Land of Milk and Honey. In more populated Khutul, there were commodities such as a working post office, sit down restaurants, larger grocery stores, and best of all the coveted internet cafe. All these things were unavailable in Orkhon.

Orkhon
Orkhon

Excitedly I stuffed my laptop into my bag and slung the pack onto my shoulder. Shutting the door behind me, I ducked through the entryway of my family’s house out into the sunshine and usual noisy racket of the surrounding yard. As my eyes adjusted to the summer Mongolian sun the sight before me instantly soured my mood and wiped the smile from my face.

There, in the middle of the yard our family’s car lay dismantled. It sat in a pathetic heap, its two front tires removed, the whole front end was propped atop tiny pyramid stacks of red brick. The fenders were missing, laying in a plastic pile off to the side. The hood was open, revealing near emptiness underneath. Spread out on an oil stained tarp was a collection of parts that I could only assume used to make up the space under the car’s hood. All manner of gaskets, fuses, tubes, metal casings, and twisted wires sat sprawled out before me. This was my family’s only mode of transportation. With the current state of the family car it didn’t look like my anticipated Khutul visit was happening anytime soon.

In the middle of this mess sat my older host brother, Moojig. Holding up two unrecognizable parts, his arms were black from fingers to elbows in oil and grease. He held the pieces in front of his face slowly trying to fit them together.

Good morning, Justin!” he said with a smile, apparently missing my dumbfounded expression.

He got up from the tarp with the two parts in hand. I let the bag fall from my shoulder and followed him across the yard. As he knelt down with the two parts preparing to weld them together I searched my limited Mongolian word bank.

What are you doing?” I asked, trying to hide my disappointment.

He stood up and let out his signature high pitched laugh.

The car is broken.” He gestured towards the gutted hulk as if I had missed it.

I can damn well see that I thought, “Will we go to Khutul?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

Ah” he answered with a nod as if I had just reminded him of the trip.

We’ll go, we’ll go.” he picked up a welding mask. “Later.”

With a cheerful greasy pat on my shoulder he donned the mask and knelt before the metal pieces.

Moojig (left) ever the mechanic could repair anything from cars to the family tractor.
Moojig (left) ever the mechanic could repair anything from cars to the family tractor.

I did end up making it to Khutul. Though “later” turned out to be in a weeks time. I also climbed in that overcrowded microbus and endured the four hour neck kink. You see, Mongolia taught me the lesson of patience by forcing it on me. I got in that overcrowded microbus because if I didn’t I’d have no ride. I watched Moojig reassemble the family sedan like it was an adult LEGO model because it was my only option. I became patient because I was helpless to do anything but.

We as Americans are inherently impatient. Its ingrained into our society and nature. We tap our feet waiting in line for coffee, we want our pizza in thirty minutes or less, internet downloads must be instant, streaming TV must be seamless, we blast down highways and scream at traffic lights. Any hold up in our high speed lives is met with customer service tantrums and scathing online reviews (“I’d give it 0 stars if I could!”).

The moment when the patience light bulb turned on in my head happened during a particularly long drive back from the capital, Ulaanbaatar to my remote village of Omnodelger. In the dead of night our tiny car slowly bounced and crawled its way across the steppe. The spring thaw leaving the roads muddy and gouged.

Already eight hours into the ride, the time we should have been arriving in town, our driver halted at a river bank. The waters, swollen with freshly melted snow had widened the river making it deep and dangerous to ford. Up and down the bank we moved, searching for a safe place to cross. It was almost three in the morning and I wanted to be in my own bed, I had to teach early the next day.

Typical river in my home province of Khentii.  Water moves at a trickle or a torrent depending on the season.
Typical river in my home province of Khentii. Water moves at a trickle or a torrent depending on the season.

Finally, I resolved myself to the situation. It was all out of my hands anyways. We’ll get there when we get there I thought. I leaned back against the seat and closed my eyes. This line of thought would soon become my mantra.

Another eight hours and a sketchy river crossing later we finally make it into town. I’m forced to rush right to school. After teaching a hastily thrown together lesson I sit down with a co-worker, Kherlen in the teacher’s room. Curious about my latest epiphany I ask her if Mongolians have a proverb similar to my patience mantra.

After a lot of thought she answered, “This proverb, maybe, we don’t have.”

This is life.” she added.

Her words rang true. During all my impatient scenarios the Mongolians around me never seemed to bat an eye. Here on the steppe things happened when they happened and no one ever minded or put up a fuss. To Mongolians things taking awhile was just part of their day to day existence.

Omnodelger
Omnodelger

Back home in America, my service in Mongolia at an end, I toss and turn in bed at night. Unemployed and living at home. Frustrated with people I no longer relate to and with a job market that doesn’t value me. My experiences reassured me more than ever about the person I am and the kind of life I want to lead. I’m still young. I’m eager. I’m ambitious. I wanted to move forward now. I knew I was at that pivotal stage in my existence where a new chapter was about to open, the page just wasn’t turning.

This is life.” Kherlen’s words echoed.

I relaxed my head on the pillow.  

Only one thought crossed my mind as I closed my eyes.

We’ll get there when we get there

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What sorts of lessons have people from other places taught you?

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A Nomad’s Paradise: Ulaanbaatar

Imagine two worlds.

One of nomadic herdsmen, living in sheep felt gers (yurts), fetching water from wells, going from place to place via horseback.  Another of smartphones, slick cars, six inch high heels, and glass skyscrapers.  Smash these two places together and you get Mongolia’s eclectic capital, Ulaanbaatar.

The Blue Sky Tower dominates the southern end of Sukhbaatar Square
The Blue Sky Tower dominates the southern end of Sukhbaatar Square

With its delightfully Soviet translation “Red Hero” Ulaanbaatar has been experiencing a boom in recent years.  Mongolia’s natural resources and precious minerals have been targeted by the developing nations of the world propelling this small corner of central Asia into economic progression.

The city, which serves as the only nexus for getting around the rest of the country has been funneling this newfound cash flow into expansion.  Ulaanbaatar has exploded outwards and upwards.  Crystalline hotels dot the skyline, chic restaurants line the streets, and neon nightclubs illuminate sidewalks.

Ulaanbaatar’s recent prosperity coupled with economic hardship outside of the capital has sent the majority of the country’s populous migrating to the city.  Generations of nomadic herdsmen flock to the capital hoping to cash in on the city’s wealth.  The result is thousands of ger districts that ring the city’s center.  Families living off the grid of the city’s heating and plumbing live as they have for centuries.  Setting up their felt and wooden dwellings within a network of hodgepodge wood fencing they burn fires for warmth, wash clothes by hand, and tend livestock.

Do your lungs a favor and steer clear of Ulaanbaatar during the country’s bitterly cold winter months.  The burning of coal by these thousands of outlying gers for warmth envelopes the city in perpetual smog for over four months a year.  Be prepared to cough up black soot and bumble about through the haze searching for your hand in front of your face.

Sukhbaatar Square
Sukhbaatar Square

In Sukhbaatar Square, the city’s epicenter and government seat you can watch as suit wearing politicians meander about with briefcases in hand and smartphones to their ears.  Watch as they skirt past men sitting by the sidewalk dressed in deels, the Mongolian traditional robed garb, sipping milk tea from bowls and polishing their riding boots.  Just across the street you can see women in skirts and heels, lining up to get into a nightclub, gradually queuing around a women selling meat from the back of her car.

To the western traveler it can be totally justified standing in the middle of this hustle and bustle, scratching your head in wonder of a city that seems unsure of exactly what it wants to be.  For all its grit and glamour Ulaanbaatar continues to define itself as a modern capital, blending the old and the new into a cultural mish-mash worthy of any travelers eye for a far flung destination.

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Ulaanbaatar

 

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Goodbye Mongolia, Goodbye Peace Corps

Khentii, Mongolia
Khentii, Mongolia

“Justin We, love you.”

I read the engraving through teary eyes. The words, misplaced comma and all was too much to handle. Lowering the silver bowl from my face I looked around me. A gigantic carpet spread out on the green grass. The sun beat down over the steppe. The peaks of the Khentii mountains on the horizon at all sides of me. Crowded around the blanket adorned with a vat of meat, bowls of candy, and arranged bottles of vodka sat Omnodelger. My co-workers, my friends, my neighbors.
They were all there.
For me.

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As my goodbye present, my last hurrah and final send off my school had put together a special countryside barbeque just for me. Complete with all the games, gusto and cooked goat that can be expected from any Mongolian occasion. I stood at the front of the blanket with my school’s director as I was presented with my gifts. One by one people took turns at the microphone thanking me and recounting specific memories we shared together. Finally when it was my turn to speak I was so overcome with gratitude and emotion I found myself at a loss for words, much less Mongolian ones. I beckoned to Saruul, standing by my side gently rocking her newborn baby in her arms. She translated as best she could. I blubbered and thanked them from the bottom of my heart. For opening up their homes, their school and their whole town to me. For teaching me more about myself and the world than they realized. For giving me the opportunity to share my story, my knowledge, myself with them. The day ended in revelry. The goat consumed. The vodka flowed. The people I’ve come to know and love for two years gathered around me. I’ve never felt so special.

Two days later

I sat in my ger. Gutted, for all but the bed and table. The same solitary pieces that had existed in it when I first entered it two years ago. Unable to transport every aspect of my Mongolian life with me back home I had donated much of my things to my Mongolian friends and neighbors. They eagerly took everything offered. Even the lightbulb was stripped from its socket. As the sun set, shadows danced across the lattice of my home. My backpack and guitar at my feet, any minute my ride would arrive and whisk me away from Omnodelger. It was hard imagining that I wouldn’t be coming back, that there was the possibility it would only remain in memory. As insurance to myself that I”d return I buried a time capsule. Secretly digging a hole in the corner of Dawkraa and Tuya’s hashaa and burying away a tiny container full of small keepsakes of my time here.

Northwest corner.
Four paces from post.
I won’t forget.

Headlights danced on the street. Tires skidding on dirt. Two quick horn blasts. I picked up my bag and guitar with a sigh. The moment I never really prepared myself for had finally arrived. No words can describe the mix of emotion that stirred in me. Looking past the reality and sadness of goodbye I focused on the excitement ahead. I was leaving Mongolia, a place that had become familiar, a place I had grown to love. But I was embarking on a new adventure, a new chapter of excitement, experience and growth. My journey back to the States would be no easy hop, skip, and jump across the globe. No time warped plane ride.  It would be the trip of a lifetime. To get back west I opted to travel overland from Beijing, China to Moscow, Russia, a journey of over 6,000 miles. I would board and ride one of the longest railways in the world, from end to end.

The Trans-Siberian Railroad awaited.

My ger
Баяртай гэр.  Goodbye home.  
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Bird In A House: Antics With My Mongolian Family

"Ger" (Home)

“‘I’m gonna smash my way out that’s all, cried the bird and smashed from wall to wall, ‘There must be some way out!’, he cried, and his desperation echoed down the hall,  just another bird in a house, dying to get out.”  -Todd Scheaffer

Orkhon, Mongolia

A lazy summer evening. Me and my host family sat in the living room. Me in the large comfy armchair, which was always conceded to me without my asking. My host mother sat on the couch next to Jagaa and Moogi, while my oldest brother Moojig played a computer game from the nineties. The sun, fighting to stay skyward as it did every summer evening struggled to keep the last of its light above the mountains. The TV droned Mongolian into my ears that I couldn’t understand, moths hovered around a single lightbulb. I was roused from my stupor by a familiar flapping. Not one but two tiny chickadee sized birds flew from the room with the pingpong table into the family room.

In other houses, even in Mongolia this may have seemed a peculiar occurrence, but in my house it was commonplace. My mother would often boast of how safe Orkhon was, “Not like the city!” she’d exclaim. As a result our door would idly sit open all hours of the day. Besides the frequent Mongolian visitors, everyday would also welcome in birds who would flap and hop about investigating every part of the tiny house. On more than one occasion I would have to shoo them from my room after their poor sense of direction would get them hopelessly trapped.

So I didn’t give it much of a second glance when the two little birds fluttered above my head and began repetitively darting from one corner to the next looking for the exit. With the sun down the two little birds had no beacon to guide their usual way to the door. So they flapped and bounced off the windows and walls until my oldest brother growled something under his breath and both Moogi and Jagaa got to their feet and began trying to coral the two little birds to the doorway. Jagaa wielding a broom and Moogi waving his shirt only caused the birds to seek different routes in their endless circumnavigation of the room. They clattered behind the TV, flew through flowers and hopped over the family’s altar. Dipping and diving over my two brothers heads as they laughed, side stepping and ducking out of the way.

It was too much for me to not partake. I stood up, discarded my shirt and began working up a sweat trying to shoo two birds from a house. We laughed jostling between each other trying to get in the right strategic position to get the birds towards the door. Moogi, who having climbed on the arm of the couch to improve his stature, hobbled backwards on one leg loosing his equilibrium as a bird wizzed past. Jagaa, one minute swinging the broom formidably would cringe and transform it into a mock helmet when a bird dived too close. All the while my mother rocked back in forth with laughter on the couch at our comical attempts. The irony did not escape me, here I was with people born of some of the best herdsmen in the world, attempting to herd two tiny chickadees. Finally a bird clattered against the door frames and fluttered out into the night. Me and my brothers, exhausted, panting, and sweating, clapped each other on the back in congratulations. The noise carried on as we realized the second bird was still trapped. We all exchanged tired glances. My host mother having gone silent, stood up, quietly walked over to the windowsill where the tiny bird had found a perch and calmly picked it up. The bird did not struggle or chirp, merely resigning itself to be carried to wherever my host mother chose. Me and my brothers watched dumbfounded as she then casually walked to the doorway and released the bird into the darkness. She came back into the room and no longer able to keep a straight face burst out laughing.  Me and my brothers couldn’t help but join in. “Yaaj?”(How?) I asked. Still laughing through teary eyes she replied, “Bi eej baina.”

“I’m Mom.”

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Transportation Frustration Pt. II

It was the slowest week ever.  Same old teaching routine, but it crawled by.  Each day dragged.  It was the light at the end that made this week slower than most.  Vacation.  Warm weather, beaches, fruit, cold drinks, trees.  Cambodia.  A country I had often read about during high school and college but never saw myself ever having the opportunity to go there.  Yet here it was.  And I was going.  Relax on the southern beaches, explore the ruins of Angkor, take in a new culture, a new language, a new climate, a new exciting place in the world.  All I had to do was make it until Saturday.

Saturday came.  The busiest this year.  Omnodelger was hosting the Khentii Aimag Western Soum’s Olympics.  Students from small towns all over Khentii flocked to my tiny town to compete in a variety of school subjects.  As the only native speaker present I was to be the chief judge for the English portion.  In between proctoring exams, judging speaking, and reading off listening portions to students I found time to find a ride that would take me away towards Ulaanbaatar to get my vacation started once the exams were finished.  My driver told me he’d leave “later” the usual answer.  In my experience this meant from anywhere between 6:00pm to 10:00pm.  This being the one time where leaving later would work to my advantage as I wanted to finish up with the Olympics.

Hours later around 2:00pm I had just finished grading a speaking portion of the exam when my driver called.  He wanted to leave now.  The exams weren’t finished, I couldn’t leave.  I cursed my luck, the one time I actually wanted to leave late is the one time I have an opportunity to leave at a reasonable hour.  I regrettably told him to leave without me and I would find another ride.  Explaining my misfortune to Saruul I tasked her with finding me a new driver while I gave the next round of tests.

Later that evening I sat around grading the exams with my counterparts and all of the other soums English teachers.  It was fun and lighthearted, as we competitively joked with one another as we tallied up the scores.  To my delight Omnodelger took three gold medals and one silver.  As I was giving myself a mental pat on the back two of the other soums teachers began arguing with one another.  Quick fire Mongolian, hand gestures, and one of the teachers snatched up two tests and put them side by side.  I quickly saw their predicament.  Two students from two different soums got tied scores.  They were both tied for a bronze medal.  I slowly slunk back trying to make myself less noticeable, but I was too late.  Munkhkherlen pushed the papers across the table towards me, “Justin, you must choose who will take the bronze medal.”  The two competing teachers eyed me sternly.  C’mon man I just wanna go on vacation I whined in my head, aware that now one of those teachers would be directing anger towards me.  I scanned both tests and made a decision based on the students ability to comprehend the question in the essay portion.  After picking a winner I was delighted to see everyone shake hands and congratulate each other.  During the revelry Saruul looked up from her seat and smiled at me, “You better go home and pack your things, your ride will come soon.”  I practically skipped and whistled my way home.

I sat on my bed.  My bag packed by the door.  My ger clean and put together for when I would return.  My coat was on.  My boots were on.  The fire was beginning to die.  The familiar waiting game.  Six o’ clock turned into seven and then into eight.  This was normal though.  Drivers claiming they’d leave at six would not actually leave until many hours later.  I’d never learn though.  The American in me was always packed and ready to go at the allotted time.  Eagerly sitting by the door like a little kid told he would be taken out for ice cream soon.  It was around 9:30 that I started to get irritated.  I went over to Tuya’s and gave her my driver’s name.  She said she had his number, she’d call him and find out when he was coming.  I went back into my ger and sat waiting for her to text me.

It wasn’t until a little after 10:00pm that I got her text.  Reading the words, I saw spots in my eyes.  Clenching the phone so hard I was afraid it would break.  He had decided he wasn’t going to go tonight.  He made this decision hours ago but neglected to tell me.  Now it was too late.  All the other drivers were gone.  I would have to wait until tomorrow.  This set my preparations for leaving back drastically.  In an frantic fury I fired off messages to all of my counterparts seeing if they knew anyone who was still in town that would leave for the city that night.  An apologetic message from Munkhkherlen was my only reply.  Defeated, I resigned to just watch a show on my computer and try to sleep.  I tried and couldn’t, I needed to blow off steam.  I threw on my sweatshirt, boots, gloves, and put on my headlamp.  Stepping outside I grabbed my axe and at 10:30 at night I began chopping wood.  Whack!  The axe hit the stump with a satisfying crunch.  Whack!  The log split in a shower of splinters.  With no rhythm or method to my chopping I cut into the wood like a mad man.  Two headlights blinded me from my insane chopping spree.  Sweating and panting I glared up at the vehicle, angry for being interrupted.  Expecting to see Dawkhraa and his hunting buddies to come piling out I was shocked when I saw every one of my counterparts come climbing out of the jeep and running towards me instead.  Each one with a big smile on their faces.  Saruul opened her mouth to speak but then stopped and raised her eyebrow when she saw what I had been doing.  Regaining her train of thought she went on excitedly.  “Justin aa, we have found you a ride!”  Bolormaa came running up behind her, “It is a microbus from Binder soum, it was going through our town, we stopped it for you!”  Saruul waved her arms towards my ger, “Get your things, hurry.”  Together me and all of my counterparts, Munkherlen, Saruul, Bolormaa, Oyunchimeg, and Enkhtor took off into my ger.  They hurriedly grabbed up my things.  “You have to dress very warm.”  Saruul exclaimed as I put on my coat.  “The microbus is very full with people, you will be uncomfortable.”  I didn’t care, I was too overjoyed.  “You have to sit on the meat!”  Bolormaa shouted as she pulled the blanket from my bed.  “Sit on this, the meat will be cold.”  We dashed out into the street where a microbus was waiting.  As Munkhkherlen pulled open the doors I could see every inch of space was crowded with either people or frozen slabs of livestock.  They passed my things into the vehicle and one of the passengers offered up his seat for me so I wouldn’t have to be banished to the meat.  My counterparts wished me safe travels and as I climbed in Munkhkherlen whispered in my ear, “Text me when you get to Baganuur, we don’t know these people, they aren’t from our town.”  As I sat down I felt emotional.

It was right then that I knew without a doubt that what they felt for me and what I felt for them was nothing short of love.

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Sunrise On the Steppe: A Mongolian Funeral

Om mani padme hum
 

I remember the day I met Choijamts. It was my first August as a Peace Corps volunteer in Omnodelger. It was a hot summer day. Cloudless blue sky. It was sunny. Really sunny. I was bustling back and forth around my ger, the Mongolian yurt dwelling I now called home. I had just received furniture. I was scurrying back and forth trying to organize my life into the small space I’d be calling home for the next two years. Bluegrass music twanged from my laptop. My ger door hung open. The sun’s ray’s burst through to soak the vinyl floor in its brilliance. I was so caught up in giving my Mongolian home some American flavor that I didn’t even hear him come in.

“Oui!” My head shot up, startled.

I looked towards the doorway and squinted against the vibrant rays. A hunched silhouette filled the entrance to my ger. He shuffled out of the sun’s grasp chuckling to himself, having caught me by surprise. Dressed in a dark purple traditional Mongolian deel, camouflage pants, and a tattered cabbie’s hat the aged figure came towards me. He grasped my hand introducing himself. He gripped my palm and patted my wrist with his other weathered hand.

“My name is Choijamts,” he said.

It was hard to understand much after that. My poor Mongolian mixed with his low, mumbled voice caused me to strain to understand every word. He said the weather was nice. It was hot. It was sunny. He gestured towards the bright doorway slowly with a crooked finger. Did I like the furniture? Do I need more? Is there anything else I needed? Can I make a fire? He said he’d come back when it got colder and teach me. Just like that he was gone. He shook my hand again. Waved goodbye then moved at a snail’s pace onto the sun dried grass and back into the street.


I stood in my sunny doorway and watched him go.

A creaking. Plastic and wood stretching, then a clatter. Metallic rustling of knives, spoons, forks and utensils tumbling down as the shelf of my food cabinet collapsed in on itself.

“Damnit, again?!?” I shouted aloud.

My furniture had been on its last legs for months now. It was the middle of winter and the Chinese furniture I inherited from my predecessor was worse for wear. My kitchen cabinet’s shelves continued to collapse and break apart on regular intervals. My clothing dresser was also in shambles with the doors detaching every time they swung on their hinges. I decided to take action. I stormed off to school. I found a co-worker, Kherlen. Explained my predicament. The American wanted furniture and he wanted it now.

She just shrugged at me. “Lets go see Choijamts.”

So we did.

We trudged from the school through the snow to the dormitories where we entered a tiny room upstairs. I was met with the sound of a rasping cough as I entered. Simple Mongolian furnishings lined the walls. A painted chest, carved coffee table, a decorated mirror. I passed an altar with piles of spent incense. There in the back of the room on a wooden bed was Choijamts. For the first time I noticed I could see my breath in his room. It was freezing. He was huddled on the bed clutching the purple deel up to his chin and stifling another cough. I could see he was ill. He reached up to shake my hand from the bed. Suddenly my trivial problem of cheap furniture was forgotten.

Forget me, someone get him a blanket! I screamed in my head.

But it was already too late. Kherlen, without any introduction began rambling off my grievances. I waved my arms behind her whispering under my breath for her to just forget it, it wasn’t important. The point had already come across though, he nodded from his bed.

“I’ll find you good Mongolian furniture.” he said, coughing into his deel.

I remember being so grateful, I didn’t know how to show my gratitude. I don’t know why but I said the first thing that popped into my head.

“Do you like to play Mongolian cards?” I asked.

His eyes lit up. “Of course!” he exclaimed.

“But I have no cards.” he added, downcast.

Fifteen minutes later I was back in his room, having fetched a deck of cards from my home. He sat up on the bed and we played cards on the tiny coffee table. I never won.

The next day I was in my ger grading papers. A knock resounded against my door.

No sooner had I opened it then a convoy of school workers burst through, all carrying beautiful pieces of Mongolian furniture. Setting them down where I asked, they turned to leave. As the last worker exited my ger he turned to me.

“Choijamts says if you need anything else please tell him.”

Days went by. Weeks went by. A year and five months went by. Every time I saw Choijamts he greeted me with that handshake. Always sporting his signature purple deel and cabbie hat.

“Do you have enough wood?” he’d ask.

“Do you need more coal?” he’d inquire.

“Lets play cards!”


When I encountered him on the street he’d greet me and walk with me to school. He’d wrap one hand into the crook of my arm and I’d walk at a snails pace with him chatting the best I could while minding the ice. As my second Mongolian winter set in, he came with a bundle of cardboard, pulled up a stool next to my stove and proceeded to make a fire.

Between one of our frequent card games I paused to demonstrate a card trick to him. He cackled uncontrollably, rocking on his stool with laughter after the convoluted magic trick finished and I revealed the only remaining card on the table to be the one he had chosen. Times beyond counting I remember being seated somewhere in our teacher’s room. Caught up in grading or lesson planning, mesmerized in some task, when I’d look up to see his hunched figure over me. Hand extended. Ready for that handshake.

This year I celebrated Christmas in the Gobi Desert with other volunteers. After the holiday was finished I made the trek back east, alone. A fifteen hour car trip, I sat on the bus and listened to music. Snow drove out of the sky, whirling outside my window and beating against the road. My daydreaming was interrupted when I pulled my phone from my pocket. I had a text message. It was from my neighbor, Tuya. It was about Choijamts. Two words together stuck out to me. The first being “nas”. The second being “barsan”. Separately I knew them both, (age) and (expired). I didn’t need a dictionary to understand that when you put them together in Mongolian it translates to “deceased”. Downcast after confirming my suspicions with Tuya. I just rested my head on the window, let the music drone on, watched the snow drive on, and let my thoughts carry me on to Omnodelger.

I dragged myself from my bed at seven in the morning. Bundled up as warmly as I could. I trudged out into the morning darkness. I headed to meet at Kherlen’s home, not understanding why I was instructed to leave so early. I only knew we would meet to say a last goodbye to Choijamts. The morning was cold, the air crisp and frozen.

I walked across town and met Kherlen outside her yard. Together we walked to Choijamts’ family’s ger. As we approached I saw how crowded it was. People huddled in deels and winter jackets congregated outside of the yard’s wooden fence. Cars were parked at every which angle all throughout the street. It seemed as though the whole town was here. Either through tiredness or the somberness of the occasion people were quiet. Hushed whispers and mumbled conversations. We stood and waited with the crowd. I bounced back and forth slowly on two feet to keep my blood moving.

“Whats happening?” I asked another co-worker, Enkhtor.

“What are we waiting for?”

She gestured with her hand towards the eastern horizon.

“We are waiting for the sun,” she explained.

“Then we can say goodbye.”

The beauty of what she said dazzled me. I didn’t know how to respond. I could only nod. From the crowd the school director’s wife, Naranjargal took me and three other teachers by the arm.

“My home is right there,” she said, pointing at the yard over.

“Lets have tea and wait inside, its warm.”

We drank tea in her house in silence. I sipped the white milk tea slowly, letting the steam rise and warm my face. Pulling back the curtain Naranjargal turned to us.

“It’s time, lets go.”

When we got back outside everyone was lined up side by side flanking the entrance of the wooden gate. We stood in with the long rows of people and waited. Everyone was quiet. All eyes to the horizon.

At first just stains of pinks and oranges. Long streaks of watercolor yellows and reds. Then suddenly, a burst of illumination came from the peak of a distant mountaintop. Then another. And another. Until the tell-tale rim of humanity’s most precious star lit up the horizon.

As if on cue a chanting began sounding from inside the yard. As the sun continued to rise a procession exited. Men bore the simple wooden coffin on their shoulders as they made their way from the gers and into the street. Behind them walked two monks, bareheaded and in simple red robes. Chanting in Tibetan and ringing an old tarnished bell. Behind the monks walked two women in deels. One carried a large platter of Mongolian boov, a ceremonial arrangement of fried dough and milk curd. She held it out in front of her, moving the plate in tiny circles. The other woman carried a bowl of milk and as she followed the coffin she ladled little droplets out, tossing them up towards the sky.

The coffin was hoisted into the back of a waiting microbus, the men jumped in behind it to hold it in place, then the large van pulled away slowly at a crawl. The crowd turned and followed. The deel clad people of Omnodelger clutching their prayer beads and walking in silence followed the procession towards the town’s limits. The monks chanted. The bell rang. The women offered their boov and milk. When we reached the edge of town the microbus picked up speed and drove out towards the steppe. No doubt silently giving one final goodbye to Choijamts, the crowd stopped and we all looked on.

I stood on the sunny street and watched him go.

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Reflections On Wanderlust….with Mongolians

“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.

  1. “I am my own ragged company.”  -Grace Potter

   

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Snowed In: Trapped In a Ger in Central Mongolia

I have lived, dwelt, worked, and breathed Mongolia now for one year four months and eight days.  From the inspiringly uplifting to the teeth grindingly frustrating.  I’ve spent the majority of that time doing things I never imagined myself doing.  Living in ways I never imagined myself living and forging relationships with people I never imagined meeting.  I’m in my second year so when a member of the Peace Corps staff dropped by for a site visit he exclaimed that visiting second year volunteers was a lot easier.  We seem less stressed, more settled in, more savvy.  I’d like to think that true for the most part, fires start a little quicker, conversations are a little less confusing, goat innards are a little more tasty (not much), car rides are a little less frustrating.  For all Mongolia has given me it still tests me everyday.  Its one of the aspects of living here that makes it all so rewarding.

October in New Jersey was always mild.  Sporadic windy days that sent the golds, oranges, and browns swirling about.  As a kid I remember jumping in the leafy piles and flailing about spastically trying to pluck the colors from the air.  In Vermont it was even more spectacular, colors that painted landscapes and mountainsides.  I remember working on the ferry gazing out the window as we chugged across Lake Champlain, streaks of red and gold dripping down the Adirondacks.  I remember thumbing through a book about Aztec history as the tourists from down south, the “Leaf Peepers” fired off photographs.

Omnodelger doesn’t have trees.  Well we do but there is like four, and they were planted, and all the same color.  So it isn’t exactly the color show of rural Vermont.  October usually brings on the first of various snowfalls that would mark winters coming.  I awoke this morning, throat scatchy, body aching.  One of many imminent winter colds, my own personal mark that winter was coming.  I also awoke to a peculiar sound.  Like the tiniest most minuscule of pebbles being softly dropped on glass.  Frequent gusts rocked my ger and my stove pipe clanged.  I got up and dressed, warmer than usual.  I knew what the sound meant.  Mongolia couldn’t pull a fast one on me this morning.  I exited through my ger door, then through the door of my wooden shed I use for storing wood in winter.  Outside the wind blew, snow fell in a swirling fury with each gust.  The wooden planks of our hashaa’s fence swayed, snow caked in its weathered cracks.  I sighed into the snowy abyss.  Not yet!  I’m not ready!   It was warm and sunny only days ago.  Winter had come and snatched Omnodelger in its grip, I knew it would be a great long while before it let go.

I taught my classes.  Attendance was pitiful.  The further dwelling students not wanting to brave the trek.  Still feeling under the weather I immediately went home after teaching.  The blustery blizzard still raged on.  I made a fire.  I took a nap.  I awoke in the early evening.  Pulled on some boots and a jacket prepared to make my cross hashaa journey to the outhouse.  I exited my ger into my tiny supply shed.  Into almost a foot of snow.  The winds persistence had sent the tiny flakes blowing through every crack and crevice in the wood.  My wood was snowy and frosty, my ger door entombed in a white blanket.  I sighed and kicked through the powder to the sheds door.  Unlatched it.  Pushed.  Resistance.  I tried again.  The door opened a crack then stopped.  The wind had formed a snow bank outside my door, higher and deeper than my waist.  I was trapped in my own home.  Snowed in.  I stuck my head through the crack and saw movement in the yard.  Dawkraa was trudging to the family car in an old worn grey deel.  “Dawkraa, help!” I yelled sticking an arm through the crack to wave him over.  He trudged towards me chuckling at my predicament.  He started kicking at the snowy bank with his boots.  “Go get a shovel!”  I demanded.  He kept on kicking, “There is no shovel.”  I laughed and rolled my eyes, “of course.”  Finally freeing me from my house, he pried the door open and upon seeing the snow accumulation in my supply shed made a disapproving groan and went about kicking the snow from my wood back outside.  We both flailed about kicking snow and ice until the shed was as snow free as two men can make it using only their boots.  As Dawkraa turned back towards his own home he asked, “Are you okay?  Is your ger warm.”  I thanked him and told him I’m fine.  “Good, come to my home tomorrow.”  he added, “We’ll eat marmot!”  I laughed as he walked back towards his house, of course we will.  Closing the door against the biting wind and snow,  I shook my head at the damp wood and icy door.  Man, I still got a long way to go. 

Now late in the evening the clock ticks towards midnight.
One year.
Four months.
Nine days.

I wouldn’t give a single one back.

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Dirt Drive Blues: Tales of Transportation Frustration

June, Election Day
Somewhere in Sukhbaatar Province, Mongolia

9:30pm

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.

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