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.


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Lopburi: An Unexpected Arrival

Sorry for the delayed posting of Thailand Tuesdays these last two weeks! Grown-Up Life Stuff, it turns out, doesn’t care whether you have a blog post due, so Thailand posts should go up Tuesday and Thursday of next week.

Also, I should take this opportunity to warn you: if the implications of the phrase, “that’s definitely not pomegranate juice” alarms you, you might want to skip this post. Check out last week’s Adventures in Ayutthaya instead, or my attempt to break down the complicated rules of Mongolian card games.

As you may recall, I wrote very little in my journal on the train to Phitsanulok. Partially, this is because I was in no hurry to start writing once aboard, but mostly it’s because of my fateful decision to snack after only a paragraph of writing.

A pomegranate is a messy fruit under the best conditions, and difficult to eat under all of them. If there is no table on which to put it, I would not recommend holding one in your hand while you slice it open. I especially would not recommend doing this with a new knife you acquired at the black market earlier in the week (though, of course, most people don’t need to worry about their knives being confiscated during an accidental venture onto Mongolian presidential property).

Before I could get halfway through the fruit, the train jerked, the knife slipped, and the sticky red liquid dripping from my hand was definitely not pomegranate juice. “Sh*t,” I said, inspecting the damage. “I think that’s bone.”

I had gotten stitches on a different finger of the same hand barely three months earlier after an incident with a rotten carrot and a freshly sharpened (and previously very dull) knife; the most stressful part of that process had been debating whether I need to go to the hospital for stitches or not, since I didn’t want to brave Mongolia’s largely undeveloped health care system unless I absolutely needed to. This time, there was no cause for debate. The cut was deepest at the base of my left ring finger, right in the crease of the joint, and continued in a small crescent shape onto the lower-most segment of my pinky. There isn’t much flesh at the hinge of a joint, even on the inside, and I had clearly cut through all of it; whether it was tendon or bone, I don’t know, but seeing white at the bottom of the wound didn’t seem like a good sign.

Balling my left hand tightly, I fished around in my bag for a few napkins and used them to stem the flow of blood as I made my way to the train conductor. “Excuse me,” I said, calmer and more clear-headed than I would have thought possible. “I cut my hand, and I’m going to need to go to the hospital.”

Had this happened in Mongolia, I would have been completely SOL. Mongolian trains are impressively slow, and towns with hospitals are few and far between, so it would likely have been hours before I was able to reach one. Once there, the language barrier would have rendered me unable to communicate much beyond, “I’m hurt, please fix this” – both because my Mongolian is limited and because most Mongolians outside the capital speak so little English. Just asking the train conductor where the nearest hospital was and how to get there would have been an undertaking.

Thailand was an entirely different experience. My conductor spoke accented but entirely understandable English, though he wouldn’t believe I needed to go to the hospital until I showed him the wound. Reluctantly, I unclenched my fingers and removed the wad of napkins to show him, provoking a shudder and a grimace. It didn’t seem to bleed at all so long as I kept the area constricted, but as soon as I opened my hand, the flow was renewed, and I replaced the napkins quickly.

“Paper?” he said, and then, “no, bad,” tearing open a plastic-wrapped pillowcase for me to use instead. The next town the train was to stop at didn’t have a hospital, he said; it would be an hour before we reached the next one that did, but he’d make sure I got off the train there. He walked me back to my bunk and asked for my ticket and passport: he had an accident report to file and Lopburi to call, to make sure medical assistance would be waiting when I got there.

I lay back on my bunk, keeping my hand elevated, and waited.

Having done it twice now, I’ve observed that it’s remarkable how little a cut from a very sharp knife actually hurts; the primary sensation I felt at the time of both injuries was surprise rather than pain. The conductor, when he returned, seemed unnerved by how calm I was. If I really needed to go to the hospital, shouldn’t I be crying? But I didn’t that evening, not even while they stitched me up.

Mostly what I felt was embarrassment. Never having needed stitches once in my childhood of tree climbing and fort building, or even in my adolescence of camping and set construction, I was humiliated at having injured myself. Two rounds of stitches in three months, both from stupid knife handling, after twenty-four years without? I must have gotten awfully stupid this summer.

But the other thing I felt, funnily enough, was lucky. Lucky that of all the places where I could have cut my hand open, I picked a train car overseen by a conductor who spoke enough English for us to communicate. Lucky that said conductor did everything in his power to help me: calling ahead to the station at Lopburi, carrying my backpack off the train for me so I wouldn’t have to try to manage it one-handed, even writing a note on the back that allowed me to redeem it in Lopburi for the remaining portion of my journey to Phitsanulok, as long as I undertook it at the same time.

Lucky, also, to have done this in a country known for medical tourism. With my experiences in Mongolia fresh in my mind, I was very impressed with what I saw of Thailand’s medical system. The one doctor in the emergency room who spoke good English was called over repeatedly as the staff asked important questions like what I had cut myself on, whether I was allergic to iodine or penicillin, and whether my tetanus shots were up to date. The doctor who stitched me up said only three words to me – “I will suture” – but she was quick and thorough, and I didn’t have to worry about sliding off plastic stool as she worked.

I left the hospital that night with seven stitches, a Thai medical ID card, one packet of main meds, and one of penicillin. The entire visit, including the medication, cost me about 20 USD – less money than I would have spent on drinking in the week of antiobiotics when I now couldn’t. And less than it would cost me, even with insurance, to get a cortisone shot shot a year later in order to resolve the case of trigger finger that would result from the damage to my tendon.

And now I had a day to spend in Lopburi, a town I otherwise would have skipped.

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Adventures in Ayutthaya

In early September, the sun sets much earlier in Thailand than in Mongolia, and faster; the afternoon comes to a close, and suddenly the sun hurls itself at the horizon, as though it too has tired of the oppressive heat it’s provided all day. As I watched it set on my day in Ayutthaya, I felt cheated; as much as I dislike the heat, I would gladly have borne it for a few more hours of exploration. Alas, it was not to be.

“Ayutthaya very small,” I was told by the staff at my hostel in Bangkok. “Maybe only three hours, you can see.” I probably would have taken the earlier train anyway, but Front Desk Lady urged me to take the 11:00, pointing out that the earlier train cost ten times as much as the later one.

I should have spent the extra $4.50.

I could have spent several days in Ayutthaya and still found things to do. The island is a curious mixture of modern city and ancient ruins, sometimes situated right on top of each other. At one point in the afternoon, for instance, I passed a school built a stone’s throw from some ziggurat-like brick structure. In America, you probably wouldn’t be allowed within thirty feet of something so old, but I saw several small faces peering down from its height, clearly quite pleased with themselves at having found the best part of the playground on which to play tag and hide ‘n’ seek.

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This juxtaposition of current and long past was part of the reason I’d chosen to come here, rather than shooting straight up to Chiang Mai as do so many tourists. I’d done my homework in planning my route through Thailand–at least, to the extent that reading the WikiTravel page counted as homework. The second capital of old Siam (after Sukothai, where I’d stop as I continued north) sounded like a place I wanted to visit, especially now that I knew it had once been the largest city in the world (in 1700, with a population of one million). And it’s a UNESCO Heritage Site, which carried some weight too.

Everything I read recommended seeing the city by bike, so the first thing I did after alighting first from the train and then the ferry across the river was to look over the rental shops thronging the island’s first street. The bicycle I ended up with was a simple fixed gear with a basket on the handlebars–a far cry from the 24-speed I ride at home, but perfectly adequate for this task. It was certainly faster than walking, and that was my primary concern.

Map in hand, I started a course that took me around the periphery of the island, marveling at the existence of ancient ruins on named, signed streets. I’d seen such things in Europe, of course, but Old European Buildings have an entirely different feel to them than Old Asian Buildings, which made this an entirely novel experience. As I meandered from crumbling brick chedi to tall stone tower, I felt constantly as though I’d wandered onto the set of The Jungle Book.

The elephants doing one-block laps were the first I’d seen in the country, but I passed on the the offer to ride them. There would be time for that later, if I found a place I was confident treated its elephants well. I also declined to enter any of the many sites that charged admission. Few charged more than 50 Baht (about $2), but I was reluctant nonetheless. With such a wealth of free sites to see, I reasoned, there wasn’t much point in paying; I had more than I could handle as it was. At Wat Phra Si Sanphet, the largest compound on the island, I made do by taking the best pictures I could from over the walls or through the gates; elsewhere, I simply stopped, observed and appreciated what I could, and moved along.

Wat Phra Si Sanphet

At the southern end of the island, my bike and I began to have disagreements. Something in the chain or gears seemed to have gone awry, and I could feel it resisting me as I pedaled. While I’m no cycling guru, I’ve biked a few thousand miles in my life, and putting a derailed chain back in place is well within my limited repair capabilities–except, of course, when the entire mechanism is encased in a metal sheath that prevents you from accessing it at all. I tried, believe you me, but the box, grown hot with the friction of the problem, would not be broached.

So I struggled onward, my gaze now fixed on a tall stone tower to the southeast, on the other side of the river. It was tall, and it was old, and it was accessible to the public, which was all that I and my deep love of high places needed to know. Alas, this was as close as I got.

When the rapidly setting sun eventually forced me to abandon my goal and high-tail it back to the rental shop, I was slightly disappointed, but not for long. My journal contains one paragraph of writing from that day of exploration, hastily scribbled while I waited for the train that would take me on to my hotel in Phitsanulok. It reads as follows:

I have spent the last few hours battling a bicycle that wasn’t particularly inclined to move. I have a large bruise I don’t remember getting on my upper arm and the beginnings of a wicked sunburn on the back of my shoulders. I have entered none of the ruins that required payment, however little; quite possibly I have missed everything of historical import. It has been glorious.

My thanks to my mother for her help retouching my terribly over-exposed photographs of a very sunny place. Had she been there, she would have taken much better pictures!


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Happy New Year!

If you read don’t already read Anna‘s blog and have any interest in worldwide Christmas traditions, I’d suggest you check out her great recent posts on Russian holiday celebrations. I’ve been following them with fascination because it gave me a glimpse into many of the origins of Mongolian Шинэ Жил (shine jil, literally new year) traditions. When I told her that Mongolians had lifted many of the holiday trappings directly from the Soviets, she said she’d like to hear about them. I will write a post on the subject, but it’s going to have to wait until Russian Christmas or so, since my own New Year’s plans have gotten in the way.

Around noon yesterday, I found myself sitting in a coffee shop and considering my NYE prospects. As I grew up in the WASP-y (well, mostly Jewish, so WASJ-y?) upper middle class sort of suburb that offers twenty-somethings neither opportunities to socialize nor affordable housing, most of my high school friends have vacated the premises. Most of those who do reside either in the surrounding suburbs or down in the city itself all have significant others, and I was less than thrilled at the prospect of being the only one at the party with no one to kiss when the ball drops at midnight. I have dance friends in Chicago, but most of them are in South Carolina for Lindy Focus, a dance extravaganza I lack the income to attend.

So, completely on a whim, I decided to join the college friends convening near Akron, Ohio for the holiday. I hoped on the internet, bought myself a bus ticket, and called the appropriate friends to arrange pickups. Less than 24 hours later, I was on the train, and an hour after that, I was on the bus.
I do regret missing my brother’s last day before he returns to his post in Okinawa, but let’s face it – there are other people with whom he’d rather spend this holiday.

It’s an eight-hour bus ride, but the roads are paved and the bus has a bathroom and electrical outlets and even wifi. Public transit in the US has got nothing on Europe, I know, but it’s a far sight nicer than Mongolia. I’m visiting a city 400 miles away, hanging out with friends I haven’t seen in a year and a half, for half the cost of gas. Sounds like a good deal to me!

But I didn’t bring my computer and don’t much fancy trying to format posts with pictures from my phone, so the Шинэ Жил post shall be postponed.

In the meantime, here’s me wishing you a safe and happy new year! Шинэ жилийн мэнд хургэе!

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Reverse Culture Shock

I fully expect that three months from now, I will still be finding wads of toilet paper tucked into forgotten pockets and corners of bags and backpacks. After all, I spent the last fifteen months in a country where the availability of toilet paper was never, ever a given. You need only forget it once to make the lesson stick: always take TP everywhere.

Now that I’m back in the US, I don’t have to, and that is something of a revelation to me. It’s one of the many little things I used to take for granted here but which I must now consciously remember. Other daily revelations:

  • I can drink water straight from the tap.
  • People will look at me weirdly if I try to shake their hands after stepping on their feet.
  • Toilet paper can be flushed down the toilet!
  • Most people don’t drink hot water.
  • People in public places can actually understand what I’m saying, and I need to moderate myself accordingly.
  • Tipping
  • YouTube videos do not require half an hour of buffering before I can watch them.
  • Peanut butter is not worth its weight in gold here.
  • Getting carded for alcohol – problematic when you lost your driver’s license in Mongolia.
  • The hot water always works. Heck, the water always works, hot or cold!
  • Non-instant coffee is widely available.
  • I can talk to friends without first calculating whether it’s the middle of the night where they are.
  • Apparently wearing my scarf babushka-style is likely to draw the ire of people who think I’m Muslim.
  • People actually follow traffic laws here.
  • I can watch major sports events without having to search out a decent internet connection and a (probably illegal) streaming site that actually works.
  • Fresh fruit!

More to come as I readjust to life in the first world.


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Some Observations From My Travels

After all this time without a word from me, you might be expecting some astute, well-worded posts. Surely I’ve had time to put something like that together, after all.

Sorry, folks. No such luck. Mostly I’ve spent the past two weeks in Russian van getting shaken half to death on mostly non-existent roads, which is not conducive to writing, typing, or really anything besides keeping your eyes on the horizon and trying not get sick. But it does give you plenty of time to think, to yourself or to those around you, and here are a few of those thoughts.

  • Desert or no, the Gobi is awfully cold in October. In related news, I’m really glad I brought my deel.
  • The Gobi is not particularly sandy, for the most part. However, the one part that is will kill your camera faster than you can protest.
  • Camels make funny noises. And funny faces. Really, camels are just hilarious creatures.
  • IMG_3014Yaks are, if possible, funnier.
  • There is an enormous difference between long-term travelers and couples on vacation for a month. The former are far more fun to travel with.
  • Kazakh milk tea > Mongolian camel milk tea > Mongolian cow milk tea. However, fermented camel milk < fermented horse milk.
  • Horses are more difficult to milk than cows, and cows are no walk in the park.
  • I miss American autumn. Khovd is well-treed, and the golden leaves everywhere made me amazingly homesick. IMG_3158
  • Kazakh sounds remarkably Slavic. Which is to say that a Slovakian and a Kazakh can have what sounds, to a speaker of neither language, like a conversation, but does not successfully communicate anything.
  • I have misplaced more things in the past month and a half than in the previous twelve combined. Some I have been able to get back; others, alas, are gone for good.
  • Goats have a talent for mischief. Sheep have a talent for poor life choices.
  • Eagles are enormous. And surprisingly heavy. IMG_3044
  • You never really need to pee until the land around you has gone absolutely flat, with no cover to be had. Happily, extended travel makes you and your companions really good at not seeing people in need of privacy.
  • Mongolia is really freaking gorgeous, even when it’s thwarting your need to pee.
  • Sheep have funny butts that bounce when they run.


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Back in Mongolia!

Apologies for the long silence, everyone! Thailand was marvelous, and marvelousness is not particularly conducive to blogging. Convalescence is, but I’ve been lazy for the past week. My apologies.

On a related note, did you know that when you Google “Thailand diarrhea abdominal pain,” it gives you a helpful list of diseases you may wish to research further, and that said list includes names like choleradysenterymalaria, and typhoid? Thanks for that one, Google. Highly reassuring.

Happily, I’ve now gotten Thailand almost entirely out of my (digestive) system, so now I’m off to explore Mongolia. I won’t be bringing my computer with me for the next week, which I hope to spend mostly on horseback, so (Internet willing), allow me to provide you with some photo-heavy filler to keep you occupied until I can regale you all with tales from the land of elephants. And, of course, the conclusion to the Hiking Fiasco cliffhanger.


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Thailand: A Snapshot

Sorry to leave you all hanging on that last story, but I’m in Thailand now, and my plan to catch up on blogging while in transit did not go as planned (foiled by an inkless pen!). So perhaps I will catch up on writing while I head north on the train today. In the meantime, I present you with a mental picture of Thailand:

It is swelteringly, unbearably hot, a word whose meaning my body has forgotten. I raise my wrist to check the time, and even that small movement sends rivulets of sweat coursing down my arms. The searing heat on the top of my head reminds me that I will have a killer burn on my scalp – who thinks to put sunscreen in their hair?!

I’m sitting on a plastic stool in a street kitchen, one of what must be thousands dotting the roads of Bangkok. The posted menu, if there is one, is meaningless to me, written in a swirling and utterly indecipherable script. The air is perfumed with hundreds of spices and the sweetness of fruit: vendors at adjoining stalls hawk mangoes, watermelon, cantaloupe, pineapple, pomegranate juice, and even coconut milk, sipped directly from a shell in whose top they’ve hacked a small hole with a frightening but deftly-handled cleaver.

The chopsticks slip clumsily between my fingers, which have grown unaccustomed to this unfamiliar mode of eating. The food between them is brightly colored and unfamiliar – dark green verbiage, fiery bits of chili, oddly-colored noodles in a Crayola-colored sauce, chunks of meat of unidentifiable origin. It is sweet, and sour, and spicy, and salty, all at once. I have no idea what it is, but it is delicious.