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.


Cooking’s Got Me in Stitches

My apologies for the silence of the past week. After ten months of teaching maybe twelve hours a week, this sudden jump to over thirty  has left me with absolutely no recollection of how to manage my time. I meant to write about my recent trip to UB last night, but that was before the evening went so thoroughly awry that all thoughts of getting any work done were summarily dispensed with. I don’t mean the “the power’s out and my computer’s dead, so I guess I can’t plan my lessons” sort of awry, either; I mean the sort that results in blood on the carpet and freaking out your friends with text like, “how deep does a cut need to be to require medical attention?”

Like everything else in this apartment, our knives are cheap and shoddily made. One of the first skills I learned here was how to sharpen them on the unglazed bases of our ceramic bowls, but while you can use this method to put on an unexpectedly good edge, it never holds for more than a day or two. So I’ve grown accustomed to brute-forcing my way through carrots, potatoes, and beets with dull knives and a carelessness that nearly always earns me a few nicks on the days when I actually think to sharpen them. (Yes, I know my Scouting readers are shaking their heads and threatening to take away my Totin’ Chip. I don’t blame you; if I was my merit badge instructor, I would too.)

Today, it was not I who did the sharpening, but my roommate’s brother, and he actually used the back of another knife for the purpose. I thumbed the edge when he’d finished, unimpressed; it didn’t seem that much sharper than it had been before. But I figured it would do; at least it wouldn’t be a struggle to slice bread.

And then I attempted to cut the slightly-moldy part off of a carrot and made two discoveries. First, that the carrot was more rotten than I’d thought and offered almost no resistance, and second, that the knife was much sharper than I’d taken it to be. So sharp, in fact, that it sliced straight into my finger without causing any actual pain; the sensation was one of surprise more than anything. And then I was standing over the sink, rinsing away the dirt and holding tightly to stem the flow of quite a lot of blood. Sh*t, I thought, surveying the damage. That’s probably going to need stitches.

Brother got a look at the wound and turned away with a grimace of disgust. I’d not anticipated squeamishness from a people so tough, but obviously, some people are more easily grossed out than others. If you’re among the former category, I’d suggest you stop reading now, because I am not. And because I hang out with people who spend an inordinate amount of time discussing poop, even while eating, and so I have misplaced my that’sgrosspeopledon’twanttoknowthat filter. You’ve been warned.

Rather than go straight to the hospital, as would probably have been advisable, I sat around holding a dishrag wound about my finger for a while. I’m indecisive under the best of circumstances; under duress, I freeze, fret, and cry. My first thought upon seeing how deeply I’d cut myself was that I probably would need stitches – but I’d never had stitches, so who was I to make that judgement? Brother hadn’t suggested we head across the street, so maybe I was just overreacting. Plus I wasn’t sure how well I could navigate a hospital with my limited Mongolian, and the PCV who worked there sounded like she trusted it about as far as the students at Miami had trusted McCullagh & Hyde (which is to say, not very far; we called the place “kill ’em and hide ’em”). Also, I was pretty sure my Fulbright insurance coverage had expired the previous Friday; would that be a problem? But not going could very well be a bigger problem; that large a flap of flesh wasn’t going to graft itself back on with ease. Maybe I should take some ibuprofen while I sat here figuring out what to do, since that would help with the pain and swelling. But if aspirin was an anticoagulant, didn’t that mean ibuprofen probably was as well? Taking an anticoagulant while bleeding seemed unwise.

And so it was it about this point in the evening that I started snapping at the two-year-old niece every time she toddled into my room and making sounds of frustration when the brother tried to ask me questions in Mongolian too fast and complex for me to understand. Who yells at a two-year-old when she calls you “big sister” and asks if you hurt your hand? Me, apparently: sharp-tongued, dull-witted me, the girl who starts crying after she cuts her finger open, not because it hurts, but because she just wants someone to tell her whether she needs to go get stitches or find some gauze to stop the bleeding herself.

Well, gauze was a place to start. I didn’t have any, but the Peace Corps Volunteers all have medical kits, and those would probably have gauze. Kevin would be closest, and after coaching for so long, he was sure to have extensive medical training. So it was away from the hospital and off to Kevin’s I went (though not without first grabbing some cash in case we ended up there).

I probably should have saved myself the walk and the seven-story climb. I think even Kevin knew the probable prognosis when I moved to the sink before unwrapping the dishrag. Kevin surveyed the damage for approximately a millisecond before declaring, “ooh, that’s deep. That’s gonna need stitches.”

But at least now, as I headed to the hospital, I at least had a few friends in tow, and one of them was even Mongolian. When we entered the “emergency room” (it was a room, and the door did say “emergency,” but mostly it just looked empty), Suvdaa explained to the clerk what I had done to myself and to me what I’d need to to do to get myself stitched up again. The sum total of my paperwork: my full name, age, and Mongolian address. They didn’t take my phone number or my passport number, which I’m required to produce every time I want to purchase so much as a bus or train ticket. They didn’t make a fuss about me not having insurance; they didn’t even ask if I had any. They just asked me to write down those three facts on a scrap of paper, once they managed to find a blank one.

And then I was following a doctor in mint-colored scrubs into the next room, where he sat me down on a plastic stool as he set a ceramic basin on a table covered with paper that looked clean, but probably wouldn’t be changed until it stopped looking that way. You are so going to get some sort of disease from this place, whispered part of my brain – the part that’s seen that most Mongolians don’t wash their hands after going to the bathroom and slice bread with the same knife and cutting board they just used to cut frozen, but raw, meat. But the doctor snapped on gloves before setting to work, and the syringe of anesthetic came from a sealed package; so far as I could tell, everything that needed to be sanitary was.

If I’d thought about it, I probably would have realized that injecting a digit full of fluid would a) force most of the blood from the wound and b) make the afflicted area swell to roughly twice its normal size, so that the wound began to turn itself inside out. But, never having needed stitches before, I hadn’t, and so this part of the process was characterized mostly by alarm. Also by pain. The doctor snorted at me as I winced and gasped and grimaced, asking how old I was the way you’d ask the same question of a teenager throwing a toddler-type temper tantrum. But this was the part that was supposed to make the process hurt less; how on earth could getting anesthetic injected into the cut be more painful than the actual cut? And did he really need to move the needle eight frakking times, or progress from less to more sensitive parts of my finger every time he did so?

Happily, the drugs had kicked in by the time he broke out the actual sewing materials; that part I didn’t feel at all. I couldn’t quite bring myself to look as the needle went in, but I did find myself watching as he knotted off the first two stitches. The first two of exactly how many, I’m not sure. It was at this point that the world around me began to dissolve into a vivid shade of purple laced with yellow lightning bolts, the sort of color combination that compels you to put your head down whether you want to or not. I’m dehydrated; I need water, I managed to think through the most extreme light-headedness I’ve ever experienced, but in that state, the ability to assemble and voice the phrase “Ус байна уу?” eluded me.

Happily, the doctor, having noted my distress and inability to do anything but focus on not sliding off my backless little stool, summoned Kevin and Suvdaa, and the two glasses of water Kevin brought me did wonders. The world returned to a reasonable color spectrum, and I was able to sit upright and watch as the doctor wound a roll of gauze around his handiwork.

In the end, the entire process cost me 5,000 tugriks – the average hourly wage for a teacher, equivalent to roughly $3.50 in USD. It is also, apparently, the cost of a little iodine, a syringe of Novocaine, and some surgical thread. I’m not sure how many different things you get billed for during your average trip to an American emergency room, but all the Erdenet Hospital charged me for was materials.

There’s an argument to be made, I’m sure, about the costs of healthcare and the pros and cons of the American system, but it shall have to be made at a time when I’m not exhausted and mistyping every other word because my left middle finger’s doing double duty. For the moment, I’m just glad the process was quick, easy, and cheap.

If I start to develop gangrene, I’ll let you know.


Children’s Day

My apologies for the suddenly sporadic posting! Now that the school year is over, I’m actually teaching a lot more often. I’ve also apparently lost the favor of the Internet gods; you know your connection is horrible when it won’t even load WordPress (hence Monday’s lack of post).

But despite my sudden business and inability to write about it, interesting things have been happening here. We kicked of the beginning of June by celebrating Children’s Day. I knew the day was coming and that the workers at the Children’s Palace would be giving out gifts (mostly candy), but I had no real idea of the scope of this particular holiday.

I started to get an idea of what I was in for when I headed over to check out the festivities at the Children’s Park at the south end of town. While I see plenty of people going about their business every day, their business doesn’t usually take them all in the same direction. The princess dresses and balloons were also a new addition.


Except for the girl in the left-hand corner, of course. Not sure where she’s headed.

Upon joining the throng, I quickly rediscovered something Mongolia had thus far allowed me to forget: my hatred of crowds. This parade, full of parents walking hand in hand with their young children, ambled along at a painfully slow pace, blissfully unaware of the frustrated foreigner trapped behind them. For so small a crowd, this one was also strangely impermeable – groups holding hands offer few gaps to dart through if you’re unwilling to play hurdles or red rover. So for most of the walk, I was stuck shuffling along with the rest of the crowd.

But that, I realized upon reaching the park, was only beginning. The Children’s Park, no longer the desolate place I remembered from the long winter, teemed with people. A sea of bright colors stretched before me: kite flyers, toy vendors, and more Mongolians than I have ever seen in one place, even in the capital. The ferris wheel and carousel that had so long stood as silent sentinels over the south side of town had suddenly whirled into life, and the air was thick with the smells of woodsmoke and fried food.

People everywhere!

People everywhere!

I texted the friends I was supposed to meet and began to wander, knowing I had absolutely no hope of finding them on my own in this throng. Our fair-haired group is unmistakeable amongst the Mongolians, but that was of little help with so many Mongolians between me and them. Half the city seemed to have descended on the fairgrounds.

In some ways, Children’s Day was a carnival like any other: vendors hawking all manner of cheap and useless toys, most of which would probably find their way into the trash by the following day; long lines that wound their way around the rides to which they led; games like pop-the-balloon and ring toss; cotton candy and fried food.  But there was more than just the language and predominant hair color to keep me mindful of where I was. The ring-tossers aimed for foot-tall wooden blocks carved in the shape of horse heads, and plenty of the emees (grandmothers) shuffling through the crowd wore  deels. A few people had even ridden their horses to the event and left them, fettered, to munch happily on the fairground grass. And some of the food vendors I passed offered fare unlikely to be well-received in the States.

Grilled sheep fat and guts? Yum!

Grilled sheep fat and guts? Yum!

Eventually, I met up with my friends, and we purchased tickets to ride the ferris wheel. They allowed all five of us to board, despite the presence of only four seats, and clipped a flimsy little chain across the entrance. It was only when we reached the top of the wheel that we observed that parts of the structure appeared to be held together with tape. We pointedly ignored this fact, choosing instead to admire the view afforded by our vantage point. From here, we could see the long row of gers lining the back edge of the fairgrounds, each with a table placed before its door.

The Mongolian equivalent of food stands.

The Mongolian equivalent of food stands.

It was from these gers that most of the smells originated: woodsmoke from the stoves, hot grease from the pans above them. A Mongolian crowd at a summer celebration hungers for huushuur and thirsts for milk tea, and the industrious owners of these gers had set up shop to provide just that. When I wandered by this food court of sorts, I found every table full of Mongolians slurping their tea and hungrily awaiting their plates of fried mutton pies. I passed by without eating; I wasn’t particularly hungry, and while I do enjoy huushuur when it’s not too greasy, I’m sure I’ll have my fill and more at Naadam.

Instead, I contented myself with taking pictures, petting horses, and marveling at the general excitement of the atmosphere. The Mongolian winter is long, slow, and generally quiet, but when the country springs back to life again, it does so with great gusto.



This is not the first foreign country in which I’ve lived, but it is the first in which things like inflation have had a directly observable impact on my life. the only price I’m used to keeping an eye on is that of gasoline – and having grown up in Chicago and gone to school in rural Ohio, I found that even that usually had more to do with geography than the fluctuating price of oil.

Things are different here. I have no idea how much a gallon of gas costs in Erdenet; I’d have to convert from liters to gallons as well as tugriks to dollars, and since I don’t drive here, I’ve never bothered to note the price, much less do the math. What I have noticed, though, is the rising cost of food. A kilo of potatoes, carrots, beets, or turnips cost 800 ₮ last September; cabbage, onions and garlic, 1000. Since then, potatoes and carrots have gone up to 1000; beets and turnips are 1300, and onions 1500. That the price of onions is still dirt cheap (less than a fifty cents a pound) is beside the point. The point is that onions now cost fifty percent more than they did just nine months ago.

It’s not just root vegetables, either. Our favorite wine (so designated because it’s the only stuff under 10,000 a bottle that even approaches “palatable”) recently jumped from 6,800 to 8,600 at the wine shop. Maybe they thought no one would notice if they just switched the numbers around. And while I don’t frequent any one restaurant enough to point to any particular spikes in prices since my arrival, Lauren informs me that she’s noticed them at at least three of our favorite restaurants. The menus aren’t much help in identifying how recently prices have jumped, as the the orange stickers that mark where a price has been covered and rewritten are so widespread I no longer note their presence.

And restaurant owners have to worry about more than just the rising ingredient prices when trying to meat their increasing overhead costs. Our friend Marco (of the fabulous pizza) complains that although his two-year lease stipulated a fixed rent cost for both years, the landlord has since demanded more money for the second year. In the States, you could contest the violation of such a contract, but so far as I know, the  legal process to do so just doesn’t exist here.

People respond to the problem in a number of ways. When a friend of mine wanted to buy a converter for her Mac, she was perplexed b the request that she pay in cash, in dollars. “Wouldn’t you rather have the money in tugriks, so that you can actually spend it?” she asked. No, she was told; he wanted it in USD. She was confused by this, but he had what she needed, so she went to the bank and exchanged some of the local currency for dollars and forked them over.

She later learned that this man acquires US currency whenever he can, squirreling it all away somewhere. This struck most of the Americans to whom she related the story as surprising and impractical, but given Mongolia’s turbulent economic history, his actions are certainly not without reason.

Mongolia was  a Soviet puppet state for the better part of the 20th century, and the Soviets were loathe to share their newfound source of lumber and minerals with other trading partners. Nor were they particularly inclined to share the industries they established with the locals; it was the Soviets who ran the mines and lumber mills and factories. When the Soviet Union collapsed, it took something like 80% of the Mongolian economy with it, plunging the country into a recession far deeper than the American Great Depression. Livestock outnumber people in this country by a ration of nearly 30 to 1, so the population never starved – but people had precious little besides their animals. Jobs disappeared. The value of the currency plummeted. Factories were stripped, their machines melted down and sold for parts because Mongolians had never learned how to use them. These abandoned shells are still scattered across the country; while the soums in which they were built need the income they could provide, they often lack the money or expertise to refurnish and run them.

Mind you, most of this is hearsay history. Wikipedia goes on for pages about Genghis Khan’s [sic] empire and the Khalkha people but devotes a scant paragraph to events after the country’s democratization. There is a page on the economic history of the People’s Republic of Mongolia – but like the People’s Republic itself, it ends at 1990. I found exactly one sentence mentioning the existence of a Mongolian depression, and it did not include details. So I cannot give you exact facts and figures, because I don’t have them. They’re out there somewhere, I’m sure, but since they’re  in either books I don’t have or a language I don’t speak, that “somewhere” is not one I can access.

Even so, people and places speak for themselves. I’ve seen the now-defunct buildings in Khyelganat and Tonsontsengel. I’ve heard the stories from people who remember when 1500 tugriks was enough to furnish a ger instead of buy a kilo of onions or half a cup of coffee. Some of them were lucky or far-sighted enough to pull their money from the banks and put it all into furniture and other goods, but others awoke one day to find their life savings worth less than a few days’ worth of groceries.

They used to have coins for denominations less than 1 tugrik. Now 1000 tugs (the blue bill) are worth about 70 cents.

They used to have coins for denominations less than 1 tugrik. Now 1000 tugs (the blue bill) are worth about 70 cents.

Hoarding American currency is, I suppose, the same sort of act. It’s a guarantee that even if the economy bottoms out again, the hoarder will still have something of value. The mining industry boom has done a lot to get Mongolia’s economy going again, but as the 10% inflation rate and 30% unemployment rates show, it’s got a long way yet to go. Under those circumstances, I’d want some sort of a guarantee too.