Everywhere But Home

News and musings from wherever my crazy life takes me. My body may be back in Illinois, but at least for now, my mind is still in Mongolia.


6 Comments

Guanzes: Fast Food Here and There

Fast food, as we think of it, doesn’t really exist in Mongolia. I’m not just talking about American fast food, though that doesn’t really exist either; there is exactly one American food restaurant–not chain, but actual location–in the entire country. (And it’s not even McDonald’s!) Mongolia does have a fast food chain of its own, but while Khaan Buuz has a presence in many aimag centers, it’s a far cry from the ubiquity of chains here in the US. You can’t pull off the highway to grab a quick bite from a familiar  name while driving from one city to the next, because 1) There are no highways; 2) There are only twenty-three cities in the country with a population greater than 10,000; and 3) Khaan Buuz doesn’t have non-city roadside locations. But even if the restaurant’s name isn’t instantly recognizable, its menu surely will be.

Mongolia might not have much in the way of “fast food,” but aside from celebratory dishes like khorkhog, it doesn’t really have “slow food” either. I’d be hard-pressed to count the number of times my roommate arrived home, hungry and hoping for a quick bite, while I was in the middle of cooking my own dinner. When this happened, I usually moved my food off the stove for the twenty minutes it would take her to finish cooking and resumed once she was done. It didn’t seem right to make her wait the hour it might take my split-pea soup to move from “crunchy” to “soupy” when all she was going to do was shave some mutton off of the chunk in the freezer and throw it in boiling water with noodles and salt. She and other Mongolians were often amazed by my cooking, even though the food I cooked wasn’t usually difficult to prepare. But by dint of using spices other than salt (and occasionally dill) and a more complex cooking process than heat-and-eat, my meals stood apart.

I would describe most Mongolian food as “utilitarian,” and гурилтай шөл (guriltai shöl, or soup with noodles) certainly exemplifies that characteristic. It’s one of several core Mongolian foods made from little more than meat, flour, salt, and water. Oh, and fat. Mongolians eat a lot of fat. Other typical Mongolian foods include:

  • Бууз/buuz – steamed dumplings, typically filled with chopped mutton. My own version has chicken, vegetables, ginger, and sesame oil, which Mongolians find either delicious or heretical. Traditionally served at Tsagaan Sar. The variation known as мантуун бууз/mantuun buuz have a leavened dough.
  • Хуушуур/khuushuur – fried dough pockets, more like empanadas than any American equivalent. Same dough and filling as buuz, flatter and fried instead of steamed.  Traditionally served at Naadam.
  • Цуйван/tsuivan – steam-fried noodles with meat and potatoes. City tsuivan often contains carrots, cabbage, onions, and sometimes beets, but countryside fare is usually more minimalist. Tsuivan is by far my favorite Mongolian food, but I have yet to produce a satisfactory batch in my own kitchen.
  • Банш/bansh or банштай шөл/banshtai shölbansh are basically smaller buuz, only smaller and boiled rather than steamed. Banshtai shöl is soup with more meat, bansh, and a few vegetables. In addition to a more familiar soup, bansh are often served in сүүтэй цай/suutei tsai, or milk tea.
  • Будаатай хуурга/budaatai khuurga – rice with fried meat and vegetables. Said vegetables may be limited to potatoes and onions, or they may include cabbage, peppers, and carrots.

These, in addition to Russian contributions like гуляш and mayonnaise-y салат (gulyash and salat, respectively, though gulyash bears a much closer resemblance to goulash than salat to salad), are the foods you’re most likely to encounter when eating in Mongolia, whether at home or on the road. Budaatai khuurgatsuivan, and shöl come together in minutes; buuzkhuushuur, and bansh require a little more preparation. As a result, while all the foods listed above will probably be present on the menu of your standard roadside eating establishment, the non-dumpling options are more likely to be available.

These eating establishments, though not part of nation-wide franchises, are often similarly named. The signs above their doors might not bear names at all, but rather, labels: цайны газар, хоолны газар, зоогийн газар (tea place, food place, meal place). Despite independent ownership and operation, they are as generic as they are ubiquitous. If there is a substantial difference between a tea place and a meal place, I have yet to see it. Instead, I referred to any small eatery serving food fast and on the cheap by a more general term, borrowed from the Chinese: гуанз, or guanz.

If asked, the Mongolians I knew would translate guanz as “fast food,” but the term doesn’t carry the same distinction there as here. The phrase makes me think of burger joints and national franchises, of establishments I visit only when on the road and in a hurry. American fast food is industrialized, shipped cross-country and cooked using griddles, deep-fat fryers, and other equipment not usually found in home kitchens. It’s saturated in fat and, at least in affluent communities, often seen as an indulgence; most of us don’t eat burgers and fries every day. It’s “fast” because it’s typically frozen and requires no preparation beyond adding heat or hot water.

Mongolian guanz food, by contrast, is exactly what you’d find in a Mongolian home. The only thing that’s “fast” about it is that you didn’t have to cook it.


4 Comments

Mongol-Fabulous

On a lovely day late last April, I sat down for lunch with one of the Greater Erdenet Area Soumers – a Peace Corps Volunteer who lived in a soum a few hours’ drive of Erdenet. The weather had been unseasonably hot this month, with temperatures reaching the 80s (high 20s, for you non-Americans), and since the fur-lined boots she’d worn for the past six months had suddenly become unbearable, she’d come into town to peruse our зах - zakh, or market.

“I found these flats for eight thousand tugs!” she said excitedly, pulling them out of her bag to show me. “They’re a little Mongol-Fabulous, but for that price, they’ll do.” (8,000 MNT, at that time, was worth about 6 USD.)

They were, indeed, Mongol-Fabulous: black and shiny, with bows on the toes and an obnoxiously large rhinestone design on the heels. Neither she nor I would ever have dreamed of purchasing them in America, much less wearing them to work. But here they would blend in nicely.

Mongolian fashion sense, to the American eye, is… a little out there. I don’t like my clothing to sparkle at all, but even if I liked the look in moderation, I’d still find the Mongolian passion for all things bedazzled a little overwhelming. Shirts, shoes, dresses, jeans, hair clips, sunglasses – if it can hold rhinestones, it will usually be covered in them.

Even the wallpaper in your average Mongolian home glitters. It is also likely patterned with enormous flowers, as in the examples below.

Mongolians like prints on their clothes, too. Specifically leopard print. In my fifteen months in the country, the only leopard-printed piece of clothing was the scarf I used as a tail for my Halloween costume, but a number of the female Peace Corps Volunteers adopted the leopard-print leggings trend so popular among the locals.

Speaking of leggings: do they spark debate in other countries, or is that specific to the American twenty-something demographic? Among college-age American girls, there’s a pronounced split between those who do and do not consider leggings to be pants. Personally, I treat them as I would tights: leg coverings that provide decent covering when paired a long shirt or short dress but are, on their own, insufficient. Most of the girls at my alma mater, where North Face jacket + black leggings + Ugg boots was practically a uniform, disagreed.

So, for that matter, do Mongolians. Most of them dress up for work but dress down as soon as they get home, and this often means swapping a dress or nice pair of slacks for leggings. A very particular sort of leggings: the kind lined with fake fur and printed with high-contrast patterns of snowflakes and reindeer.

Yes, you read that correctly. Reindeer.

These leggings are extremely warm; I owned some myself and wore them around the house and when I went camping. I would never have worn them around town, but an awful lot of people – men and women alike – did so regularly.

Perhaps it’s an issue of semantics. Team Leggings-Are-Pants does not translate readily into Mongolian because there is no separate word for leggings, or for tights: all are called өмд. I wish I had thought to cut out pictures of pants, leggings, and tights in various shades of yellow, orange, pink and purple, and asked Mongolians to sort them according to each designation. I suspect the test would result in a lot of confused, frustrated Mongolians and a random scattering of answers. The Mongolian word for orange is улбар шар, or reddish yellow, while purple is usually called хөх ягаан, or dark pink. Conceptually, the colors don’t seem to exist for most Mongolians, and so they have a hard time applying what seems to be an arbitrary distinction. The same might very well be true of pants and leggings.

Or it might just be another case of Mongolian fashion sense differing wildly from its American counterpart. Some Americans are fans of glitzy wardrobes, to be sure, but Mongolians bring the preoccupation to a scale I’d never seen before.

High heels + rhinestones + leopard print: the most Mongol-Fabulous shoes I've ever seen.

High heels + rhinestones + leopard print: the most Mongol-Fabulous shoes I’ve ever seen.

I don’t know how walk through ice and snow in stilettos without breaking an ankle, but my coworkers treated it as a matter of course. Expats readers, how does the local fashion sense compare with your own tastes?

 


2 Comments

So, Where Can I Learn Mongolian?

… is a question probably asked by very few people, since the language is useful in all of two countries. It’s not an easy question to answer, either, since it’s asked by so few. But if you found your way to this blog by asking it, then you’re in luck, as I will endeavor here to answer it.

To begin with, let me clarify: most of the resources I know of teach Standard Khalkha, the  main language spoken in Mongolia proper, but there are a number of other dialects. The dialects spoken in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia, are phonologically and morphologically similar but written in Mongol bichig rather than Cyrillic; whether they are mutually intelligible, I’m not certain.

Peace Corps Materials

The Peace Corps has had a presence in Mongolia for 25 years, and most of its volunteers are placed in the countryside, among people who speak little to no English. Three of the PCVs who left Mongolia in 2013 tested at an “advanced high” language level. Obviously, you’re not going to get the same results without the two years of immersion, but I still have great respect for their teaching materials and methods.

Textbooks

If you want to go the teaching-yourself-with a textbook route, the good news is that there are quite a few out there. The bad news is that most of the ones I have encountered are, quite frankly, terrible. UCLA’s Language Materials Project has a handy, if slightly out-of-date, list of available textbooks, many of which I’ve attempted to use, with mixed results. Some of them are (theoretically) available on Amazon, but I suspect you’ll have much better luck ordering from the Language Resource Center at the American Center for Mongolian Studies in Ulaanbaatar.

  • While I have no experience with them, the three book Сайн Байна Уу? series is by far the best reviewed.
  • Colloquial Mongolian: The Complete Course for Beginners is perhaps overeager where other textbooks underachieve: in its grammatical explanations. If you are a language teacher or grammar enthusiast to whom terms like “temporal converb” and “perfective verbal noun” have meaning, I highly recommend this book; if not, you will likely find yourself staring blankly at the explanations and wondering if they’re really written in English. My copy did not come with a CD, but I was able to find the audio online.
  • Practical Mongolian-English Grammar uses side-by-side translations grouped via grammatical principle to demonstrate the workings of basic Mongolian grammar. In theory, this should allow the learner to induce the rules; in practice, I found that while I was able to observe a number of patterns, I understood very few of them and needed outside input to test my hypotheses. Which words take -d in the dative/locative, and which take -t? Is ажилчин (worker) pluralized ажилчид because it’s a people word, or because it ends in -н? I would recommend this book as a reference, but not a primarily learning tool.
  • Gateway to Mongolian, if you are able to track down a copy with a CD, can teach you a number of things but will likely leave you frustrated. New vocabulary terms are often introduced in lists without illustration or translation (and are absent from the glossary); grammatical explanations are spotty. Some are helpful, others nonexistent: the new pattern is presented, but its meaning is not discussed. And I found some of the explanations to be completely unintelligible. It’s clear that this book’s authors are not native English speakers.
  • Golden Key to Mongolian suffers from similar issues and is just as difficult to track down. I don’t recommend it.

Online Resources

  • Bolor-toli is probably the most comprehensive online dictionary I’ve found.
  • Byki is a notecard-style program that’s great for basic vocabulary. No grammar and a limited number of vocabulary lists, but it’s offered in Cyrillic or the Roman alphabet, and the basic model is free.
  • Glovico.org offers online, Skype-based lessons. It’s not free, and I’ve never tried it, but I’d be fascinated to hear a review!
  • LinguaMongolia has a detailed breakdown of the Uighur (Mongol bichig) script, as well as grammatical explanations particular to that writing system.
  • Mazaalai (Mongolian for Gobi Bear) is a Mongolian dictionary app available for iOS or Android. It’s not particularly comprehensive but still faster to use than the average paper dictionary, especially if you’re less than familiar with the order of the Cyrillic alphabet.
  • MongolHel is a YouTube channel with basic lessons for English speakers. There are only seven videos, but the one on vowels is a great supplement for those impossible-to-pronounce diphthongs!
  • MongolUls.net has a few basic tutorials, though the Cyrillic is illegible unless you download the font. More helpfully, it offers a number of short articles on elements of Mongolian culture which, although obviously written by a nonnative English speaker, are still entirely readable.
  • Omniglot has some basic information about the language, including a breakdown of the Mongol bichig alphabet in its initial, medial, and final forms. It also lists a number of language resources.

Colleges, Classes, & Libraries

There are, of course, other lists of resources: this one from “So You Want to Learn a Language” is particularly extensive. It is not, however, concise, and I’ve tried to focus on what will be most useful.  If you’ve got resources you particularly recommend, I’d love to include them here.

Hope this is helpful!


3 Comments

Potty Talk: Squatty No-Potty

As the title suggests, the “Potty Talk” series will discuss defecation, digestion issues, and related parts of everyday life not usually discussed in polite company. If the thought offends, I suggest you read no further. Please enjoy my review of Dijon in ice cream instead.

Why, you may well ask, do I want to talk about poop, on the Internet of all places, where my future children, if I have them, will be able to find it someday–or worse yet, my future in-laws? Because A) it’s a universal experience, B) different cultures approach it differently, and C) I have fun stories to tell. And a good story is a good story, regardless of how puritanical our culture feels about the subject. Frankly, I’ve wanted to do this series for months now, but other topics always seemed more pressing. With my Facebook feed one more abuzz regarding the virtues of squatting, however, it seems the time has come.

-

I have a friend who’s a radio DJ, and because he’s the new guy at the station and therefore works the crummy weekend shifts, I like to call in to his show with song requests, answers to his questions, and veiled references to the camp where we both worked. The first time the temperatures dipped below 0˚F this winter, he asked his listeners about the craziest thing they’d ever been stuck doing out in the cold, so of course I had to call in.

“Does using an outhouse for a week in -20˚ weather count?”

Shuddering audibly, he assured me that it did and asked where in the world I’d been to have to do such a thing. And then he made the comment I’ve heard so many times from people trying to contemplate using an outhouse in below-zero weather: “Did you have to hover above the seat? I bet it must have been awfully cold!”

Seat? What seat?

I suspect most Americans imagine outhouses to be like the one in Shrek: wooden buildings with raised seats, ideally with a lid to cover the the seat, and probably with a cute little moon-shaped cutout in the door. Those with more camping experience might picture latrines like the ones found in the boundaries, which are decidedly more… exposed in nature.

Image credit: M. Byers

Image credit: Voyageur Canoe Outfitters(Left, a lovely cedar seated outhouse; right, a more minimal BWCA latrine. Image credits in the alt text.)

But even the bare-bones outdoor latrine has what I would consider the defining feature of a Western-style toilet: a seat.

This is not the case in Mongolia, where the setup is usually a wooden floor with a missing slat in the middle, through which you can see (and pee) down to the pit below. A nice outhouse is one with four walls, a door that can be latched closed, and a deep pit, but many lack doors and roofs; in the countryside, there may be little more than a shallow pit with two slats to stand on and three almost waist-high walls to provide a modicum of privacy.

Squatting over a hole in the floor instead of sitting on a porcelain chair isn’t a uniquely Mongolian thing, either. Even indoors, I’ve seen plenty of ceramic squat toilets in China and Thailand, some equipped with a flush mechanism and others simply with a bucket of water and a ladle. Generally speaking, I’d simply categorize this as a cultural difference between East and West.

20140207-135424.jpg

Storm door handle during the Vortex. No touchy!

In the case of the Mongolian outhouse, however, the design also serves a distinctly functional purpose. Imagine, if you dare, sitting bare-cheeked on a -20˚ seat–ow! At that temperature, just touching a door handle barehanded is painful enough, as I was reminded during the (overhyped) Polar Vortex. Worse yet, contemplate the possibility that the outhouse’s previous user was a little splashy, and that liquid hasn’t quite frozen yet. We all know what happens when you touch an ice cube with wet hands–it sticks. I suspect that the same thing could happen with a splashed-on outhouse seat, except that with that much skin involved, detaching oneself would be much more difficult. And if you can’t get unstuck yourself, and assistance is not forthcoming, you could literally freeze to death in the outhouse.

I can think of ways to die with less dignity… but not many.

So while using a Mongolian outhouse in the winter was a decidedly brisk experience, I was very glad not to risk freezing to the facilities every time I decided to use them. And a few months into my grant term, I learned that squat toilets had other benefits, too.

When this video first made the rounds, I was skeptical. As a long-time Girl and Venture Scout, I’d been using the outdoor “facilities” for years even before I traveled to Asia, and let me tell you: if you’re used to using a toilet, relieving yourself without one is NOT easy. Most Western women, when asked to pee in the woods, would probably do the same thing we do with dirty public toilet seats: hover in an approximately seated position–not because it makes much sense to do so when there’s no toilet to hover over, but because it’s what we’re used to. I did this at one point too.

The problem is that it doesn’t work very well. It’s extremely difficult to tense the muscles needed to hold you upright while simultaneously loosening the ones that release your bladder.

Even if you know you’re supposed to do a full squat, and that it supposedly allows you to void your bowels with less effort, it’s easier said than done. Most of us Westerners are apparently doing it wrong, since we ceased squatting in childhood and have let the necessary muscles atrophy:

Our on-the-toes method of squatting is less stable and harder to sustain, and I suspect instability is the last thing any of us want when crouching over a pit full of feces, especially if the boards we’re crouching on are icy.

I got this lovely diagram from an article on the health benefits of squatting that’s currently making the rounds on Facebook, but if you haven’t seen it and can’t be bothered to click through, the  reasons it lists to squat are:

  • ankle mobility
  • back pain relief
  • hip strengthening
  • glute strengthening
  • posture correction
  • (possibly) decreased risk of arthritis

Whether I’ve seen any of these benefits from the time I spent squatting in this or that outhouse (and over the course of a year, it adds up!), I can’t say for sure, nor have I bothered to check out the medical studies cited for the Squatty Potty’s claims. But I can say that my ability to do a full squat has vastly improved in the past eighteen months, even if they only way I can sustain it for any length of time is by bracing my elbows against the insides of my knees à la malasana, the yoga prayer squat:

Keeping your arms straight forward also helps with balance, but that's not malasana.

Keeping your arms straight forward also helps with balance, but that’s not malasana.

And the Squatty Potty’s claims that a “sensation of satisfactory bowel emptying” is easier to achieve when squatting, once you’ve learned to squat properly? Totally true. Which is especially important when emptying your bladder and/or bowels means putting on several layers, trekking out to the outhouse, and then taking some of them off (at least partway) in below-zero temperatures. Believe me, you don’t want to have to do that any more often than necessary.

So while I strongly appreciate the ability to use indoor facilities once more, there are times when I actually miss squat toilets. Amazing what some time abroad will do to your perceptions and preferences–even the most alimentary ones.

(You know I had to crack at least one poop joke in there. Sorry I’m not sorry.)


5 Comments

A Land of Milk and Snow

“What’s your favorite color?” I used to ask my students in English and my acquaintances in Mongolian, and more often than not, I was surprised by the answer: white.

I think it’s probably safe to say that most Americans, unless they’ve studied or worked with lighting design, think of white not as a color, but as the absence thereof. It’s ceilings and doors and moldings that frame brighter-colored walls without calling attention to themselves; it’s a canvas not yet painted, a page not yet filled. It is, metaphorically and literally, a blank slate, a color whose only cultural connotations are of purity – which is to say, absence.

Mongolians feel very differently. Not only is white a color, it’s one of immense significance; after blue, it’s probably the second-most ceremonially important color.

That fact is particularly evident at this time of year. This Friday marks the beginning of one of the biggest holidays of the Mongolian calendar: Tsagaan Sar, which literally translates to white moon/month. That’s some cultural heft right there; while we westerners affiliate certain colors with particular holidays, we don’t call Christmas “red and green day.”

But what makes this month “white?” The moon itself? That would be my first guess, especially if the holiday fell on a full moon. But it doesn’t; it marks the beginning of the lunar cycle, starting the day after a night devoid of any moon at all. During Tsagaan Sar, even a clear night is frightfully dark out in the countryside, since the moon’s only presence is the tiniest of slivers.

The snow? That might be your next guess, and it wouldn’t be a bad one. Snow blankets the Mongolian landscape unmelted from the beginning of November to the end of February and can continue to color it as early as August, or as late as June. For countryside-dwelling herders, it is the color of half their world for up to half of the year, a ceaseless sheet of brilliance that turns many of their eyes blue with cataracts by the time their grandchildren are born. Snow is a source of beauty, but also of danger; too much of it will keep their herds from being able to graze on the dead remnants of last summer’s grass. It is also more likely to fall after Tsagaan Sar than in the two months previous, during which the weather is often too cold for snow.

But while snow is a fact of life in Mongolia, it’s not a sustainer of life, and so white is most strongly and importantly associated not with snow, but with milk.

When I’ve stayed with nomadic families, I’ve noticed that the first thing they do in the morning is to light a fire in the stove; the second, to heat a big bowl of water over that fire and draw off what they need for other uses; the third, to add the tea leaves, milk, and salt needed to make suutei tsai, or milk tea, which they’ll pour into a thermos to be drunk throughout the day. It’s what they give to a visitor the moment he crosses the threshold, what they socialize over and warm their hands with, and what they drink with meals, since they largely believe that drinking cold water with hot food will make you sick.

But the fourth thing nomadic families do, before anyone gets to drink the prepared milk tea, is take a ladle-full outside and fling it skyward in an offering to Tenger, the shamanist sky god. Even apartment-dwelling city folks lean out their windows with full spoons to participate in this ritual. The Mongolian gods must like milk, because their religious sites are soaked in it: splashed across ovoos and shrines, neatly collected in cups around their bases, and even illuminating temples in the form of milkfat-based candles. Seeing these religious applications was what helped me to understand that milk, and the mind-boggling array of things made with it, are much more than a mainstay of the Mongolian diet. You don’t make a point of sacrificing cheap gruel to a household god, no matter how much of it you eat; you give the gods the best of what you have.

You welcome important guests and occasions with it, too. When I visited the Mongolian countryside on an outreach trip with the other Fulbrighters and some higher-ups from the Embassy, the mayor of Tosontsengel greeted us with a copper cup of milk, which we passed between us peace-pipe style. On my last day at the school where I’d taught for a year, I was presented with a similar cup, also filled with milk. And when an American friend married a Mongolian woman, his father-in-law handed him a silver cup of milk as part of the ceremony, from which he and his new bride then drank.

After witnessing these and many other ceremonial uses of milk, I eventually learned not to be surprised when my students told me their favorite color was white. To me, it’s the color of the stuff I put on my cereal or in my coffee – but to them, it’s life.


2 Comments

In Which I Make A Splash

“I can’t take my eyes off you for a second,” my mother sighed, reaching to turn up the heat in the car. “Are you sure we don’t need to stop at Sears on the way home?” she added teasingly, referring to the time I’d fallen into the fountain at the mall.

I grinned. “Nope, I think I’m good with just going home. Believe it or not, I’m not three years old anymore.”

The afternoon had started innocently enough. We’d driven down to Evanston for her to give a presentation on Lightroom, and after lunch, she’d asked if I wanted to drive over to the lake to take pictures. I agreed, since even on cloudy sixteen-degree (F) days, the snowdrifty ice sculptures are usually worth seeing. We parked the car and trudged across the oddly porous surface of the beach, whose sand-like color and texture belied the fact that it gave underfoot like week-old snow. We paused briefly to admire the marbling of colors that occurred where the wind had mixed snow and sand, and then she headed for the erosion wall while I made for the shoreline.

Lake Michigan is too wide to see across, deep enough for tallships to sail through, and located in area where winter temperatures hover close to freezing, so the ever-present wind has plenty of chances to toss up large waves before the surface alongshore glazes over with a thin coating of ice. The twenty feet of beach nearest the waterline had disappeared beneath irregularly-shaped hills of ice. Have you ever let wet sand dribble between your fingers to form coral-like castles? Beneath their patchy coating of new-fallen snow, these ten-foot hills had the same knobbly texture.

I made my careful way to the top, climbing at an oblique angle to avoid losing my footing and wishing I hadn’t left my new phone in the car; to my right, the wind and water had created an overhung cavern bedecked with icicles, and I wanted to take pictures of it. But I wasn’t going to go back and get it, so I turned my back to the wind and contemplated the surface of the lake before me as I waited for mother – who is, after all, the photographer – to catch up. The steely grey water near the horizon was in motion, but everything I could see clearly had frozen over. Twenty feet out, I could see faint inklings of the tide in the in-and-out swirling of the bubble just below the ice, but the ten feet closest to shore were opaque and lighter in color; clearly the ice there was thicker.

Photo credit: Jan Burke

When Mom reached me, I pointed out the cavern, and as she lay across the crest of the icy hill to get a few pictures of it, I picked my way down to the waterline. There was a reasonably flat spot that looked like a good seat, so I eased into it and swung my feet over the edge so that they dangled a few inches above the ice. I found good handholds to either side of my hips, settled my weight into my hands, and scooted my right foot down.

The ice held firm upon light contact, and so I made to tap it to test its strength. It gave almost immediately, shifting my weight beyond the point where I could support my weight with my arms, and then sh!tsh!tsh!t I was going down.

My left hand lost its grip as my left foot foot broke the ice, but I hung on with my right and found myself turning as I went in, so that I ended up dangling one-handed facing the wall of ice, waist deep in the half-frozen lake. My frantically-kicking feet did not touch the bottom, so I’d gone in somewhere more than waist-deep.

I was not inclined to test how much more. Yanking my left arm out of the water, I seized a likely-looking knob of ice, to which my wet glove clung helpfully, and hauled.

You know the moment in the first Pirates of the Caribbean when Jack, catapulted into the rafters of Will’s forge, hangs from both arms for only an instant before flying fluidly to his feet? (At 3:18 in the clip below; the link is cued, the embed isn’t.)

That doesn’t happen in real life; they had to use wires to make it happen on-screen. In real life, that maneuver involves pulling yourself up to chin-up height, awkwardly repositioning one elbow at a time until both are above the surface in question, and then pushing down with all your might until you can swing a leg up and over, all the while flailing your feet in a frantic and unconscious manner that leaves you with scrapes and multi-colored bruises you don’t remember getting.

The water was probably cold, but I didn’t notice the temperature any more than the beating my knees were taking; I was too focused on getting out of it. I didn’t make it up on the first try, or the second, but I didn’t fall in either. And so eventually I clambered out of Lake Michigan and made my soggy way up to my mother, who was still taking pictures.

“Mom, I did something stupid,” I said. “So it’s time to go back to the car.”

I hadn’t said anything during the mishap, nor fallen quickly enough to make an audible splash, so I had to explain to her that I was now soaked from the waist down. “Well, sh!t!” she said, tossing me the keys. “What’d you do that for? I haven’t hardly gotten any pictures!”

“Sorry,” I said, and began sloshing my way back to the car, abandoning the circuitous route I’d taken to the shoreline in favor of something more direct. But high school geometry, I remembered when  the snowdrift through which I’d been wading suddenly topped my kneecaps, tells but half the story. A straight line may be the shortest path between two points, but rarely is it the easiest. So by the time I made it back to the car, my left hand was no longer cooperating enough to unlock it, and creases on my pants and left sleeve had frozen stiff.

I turned on the heat and leaned out the window to wring the water out of my yak-wool socks while I waited for Mom to join me. “I guess it’s a good thing I left my phone in the car!” I said as she buckled up. She just shook her head.

“You want to go to Homer’s?” she asked on the way home, referring to the old-fashioned ice cream parlor we’d pass en route.

“Sure!” I said.

Alas, it was not to be. Apparently she felt I’d had enough ice today already.

Photo credit to Jan Burke for both pictures.


5 Comments

Siamese

After Thailand’s initial temperature shock had worn off, and I’d sighed in gratitude at both iced beverages and spicy food, I began to notice them. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. They were everywhere – lurking in corners, watching from the shadows, draped across doorsteps and sidewalks and curled lazily in the sun. Some fled at my approach; others welcomed me, coming out to greet me with tails held high. Most took in my presence through half-lidded eyes, twitched their the tips of their tails, and continued their repose.

In the preceding year, I’d grown unaccustomed to seeing cats with any regularity. There were a few to be found in the streets of Erdenet, mostly in the Russian districts, but the sight of approaching humans sent most of them running for the crevices that led below the apartment buildings, the warm dark spaces too small for most pursuers. Some Mongolians hudoo-dwelling Mongolians keep them for pest prevention, but few in the cities have such a use for them. And the vast majority would never keep them as pets.

Most Mongolians, when I tell them that cats were my favorite animal, shudder or grimace in surprise and disgust. They’re not afraid of cats, per se, but they definitely don’t like them. Their eyes are scary, they tell me; their eyes will put curses on you. My protests that cats were smart and independent and graceful, and their hard-won affection heartwarming, fell on deaf ears. “Муур муухай,” they answered; “муур муу.” Cats are ugly; cats are bad.

Most Mongolians are definitely team “cats will kill you in your sleep.”

The Thai people, by contrast, love their cats. I’d see them at fruit and vegetable markets, napping on boxes behind counters and in stores; I’d see them walking the city streets like they owned them. I especially saw them at temples, where they lurked in droves. All, owned or stray, seemed sleek and well-fed – nothing like the scrawny, mangy moggies cowering in Mongolian courtyards. And most, I noticed, watched me with bright blue eyes.

I was, after all, in the country that brought us the Siamese.

The presence of cats made feel both at home and homesick. I’d missed cats during my year in Mongolia, stopping far more often than was wise to pet the strays who didn’t bolt the moment I took a step in their direction. It was nice to be among people who loved these animals as I did, but each new pair of blue eyes sent a pang through my heart as I remembered my own Siamese.

Bailey was an irritable little old lady for most of her life. Her meow was nasal and unpleasant, and she wasn’t particularly playful, though she grudgingly tolerated the dog’s tendency to lick her ears until they were sopping wet. She liked to crawl beneath the covers and bite my parents’ toes at night. We’d had her since before I was born, and it wasn’t until I was in my teens and she grew too old and senile to remember how I’d put a hairclip on her tail when I was three that she began to warm up to me.

I loved her anyway. She was a fixture, not only of my childhood, but of my adolescence as well; it wasn’t until I turned twenty-one, nearly three years after we’d had to put Bailey down, that I was finally the older of the two of us.

I hadn’t thought about her in a while when I arrived in Thailand, but I had plenty of time to do so while I was there. I sat down in a temple and counted the number of cats within sight – sixteen, at least – and petted the ones who let me for a while, remembering my cranky old cat. I’m told she used to play with my grandparents’ long-dead golden retriever as a kitten, running behind the couch and then coming out the other side and smacking him on the butt when he stuck his head behind it to look for her. I hope they’re playing now, reunited at long last.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 893 other followers