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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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.

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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.)


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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.


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Sorry We Stole Your Winter, Moscow! Most Americans Would Happily Return It.

So apparently it’s been unseasonable warm in Moscow of late – and presumably elsewhere as well. Well, as my international readers may not know, there’s a reason for this, and it’s one my American readers have been hearing about for the past week: America stole Moscow’s winter. Sorry, Moscow.

Winter storms Hercules and Ion hit the Chicago are with nearly two feet of snow, as well as  a phenomenon that the media called a “Polar Vortex” – an area of low pressure that pulled a wide swath of arctic air over most of the country for several days. While places like Moscow and Alaska experienced unusually warm weather, Chicago and other mainland American cities were hit with the coldest temperatures they’d experienced in twenty years.

You’d have thought the world was going to end.

Weather emergencies were declared, people told not to go out unnecessarily. The commuter trains in Chicago were severely delayed, or in some cases, canceled altogether, because the rails were freezing, shrinking, and even breaking. The Chicago Public Schools canceled two days of classes, as did my own school district – a truly unprecedented event. (By contrast, in my twelve years in that system, I never once got a snow day because the snow removal systems are so efficient.) Three Amtrak trains en route to Chicago were stuck in twelve-foot snow drifts for over twelve hours; the passengers, including my friend Sarah, were eventually bussed to Chicago when six locomotives failed to dislodge the stuck trains.

And to a certain extent, I understand the hubbub. An 8˚F/-13˚C day in Atlanta is in many ways more dangerous than a -30˚F/-34˚C day in Mongolia because Atlanta and its people are not prepared for such weather; my friend Charlotte had never owned a real winter coat before she went to college in Ohio because she’d never needed to, and I’m sure she’s far from alone. -17˚F is ten to fifteen degrees colder than Chicago is used to enduring (and that for only a few days a year), and its extensive mass transit systems don’t handle it well. The large homeless population, even with a concerted effort to shelter all of its members during the polar blast, is also at obvious risk.

But I still think it was all blown way out of proportion.

Yes, cold is dangerous, but it’s a manageable danger; it won’t kill you if you’re properly prepared. But you wouldn’t know that from the reactions of the media or the general public. Slideshows of weird and beautiful weather phenomena are cool; public service announcements about frostbite prevention and proper layering are necessary; updates on the innumerable and inevitable airport, traffic, and rail delays are useful. But it’s one thing to provide useful and relevant information  on a current and far-reaching event, and another to treat it like the end of the world.

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The image at left, for instance, is from a Weather Channel listicle entitled, “10 Photos That Show How Insanely Cold Chicago It Is in Chicago.” The story was also carried on other news networks – CNN, WGN, and whatever radio station we were listening to at the time. When decontextualized, as at left, it’s a shocking, even frightening statement. But the oversimplification misses an important point: it’s too cold for a Chicago polar bear, one who doesn’t have the fat reserves put on by her cousins up north. Some news carriers included this detail, but others went for shock value and omitted it. Unsurprisingly, it was the simplified version that made it into social media.

Another example of public overreaction, this time a Facebook post by a friend of a friend: “Please say a prayer for all those who are working out in this horrid freezing weather, including my brother, those working to restore power, working on water lines, delivering mail, picking up garbage, etc. etc. It’s too dangerous out there for any human.”

She had me up until that last sentence. I don’t want to minimize the suffering or sacrifice of the people impacted by this winter; I know it was, and is, real. Not everyone has the resources or the know-how to protect themselves properly from this kind of weather, and for these people, Hercules and Ion were truly disastrous. And I certainly agree that the good people braving the cold to allow American life to continue as normally as possible do deserve our prayers, thanks, and recognition. But while the sentiment is well-intentioned, its conclusion is alarmist and just plain wrong. No, people shouldn’t be sent to work outside if they aren’t properly protected; no, they probably won’t be comfortable, even if they’re not in actual danger. But from the average American’s reaction to unexpected inconvenience, you’d think that uncomfortable and unbearable were synonyms.

Discomfort and cold are a way of life for a lot people. Trains and buses might have been running behind schedule, but at least we have them. My car was reluctant to start during the cold snap, and its windows froze shut, but I still had a car – as do most Americans. Waiting for a delayed train in the bitter cold is not fun, but it still beats walking that distance along unpaved roads in even more frigid temperatures. And no matter how cold it was outside, the vast majority of us were not dependent on wood- or coal-burning stoves to keep us from freezing to death.

If my time in Mongolia has changed me in any single, lasting way, it’s by changing my perspective. That’s a big part of why I picked Mongolia in the first place: I wanted to experience life outside the first world. I returned with a new appreciation of just how easy things are here: washing clothes and dishes, cleaning the floor, traveling across the city, the state, or even the country. When I’m stuck in traffic now, I’m more likely to be frustrated by the people around me who are frustrated at the traffic than by the traffic itself.

And when it’s not just a little traffic – when it’s a near-total log jam of transportation in which flights are grounded, highways closed, and trains stuck in snow drifts or canceled for fear of derailment? A lot of people turn downright ugly. Sarah told me, and the reporters who swarmed the passengers when they finally arrived in Chicago, that while arriving nearly a full day behind schedule was certainly less than ideal, the conditions on the train were reasonably comfortable: they had heat and light and were at least fed dinner, though there were no snacks and only limited water. The conductor made the rounds of the train and kept the passengers up to date on what Amtrak was doing to try to get them out.

The conductor’s attempts to maintain communication and keep things light were not reciprocated by all of the passengers, however. The conductor learned many new things from angry passengers, including “who she was, where she should go, and what she should do with herself,” including a number of word she hadn’t heard during her time in the Marines. In her shoes, I probably would have told the passengers in question that if they thought they could do a better job of getting the train unstuck, they were welcome to go out and push. There were also rumors of a fistfight, though Sarah did not witness it. The news was rife with interviews of similarly bilious grounded airline passengers.

I understand that the travel delays impeded people’s ability to go on carefully-planned vacations, or visit sick or dying loved ones, or to attend important career events. In their shoes, I’d be frustrated and angry too. But there’s only so much anyone can do when the puts a twelve-foot snowdrift in the way of your train, and taking your anger out on the conductor does nothing to fix it. It is not the railroad’s fault that the train does not have the supplies to feed its passengers several unscheduled meals; did no one think even to bring snacks with them?

These things happen. Winter happens. And while it doesn’t usually happen this badly in Chicago, it happens a lot. Winter inconveniences are just one of the hazards of living here, and I think if more Americans knew just how soft we have it and reacted accordingly, they’d be a lot more pleasant.


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Cold

If you ask me what Mongolia was like, my answer will likely be flippant and short: “Cold.” Fifteen months’ worth of experiences cannot be condensed into a brief but all-encompassing summary with any degree of ease or accuracy, much less at the drop of hat. Thoughtful, targeted answers will be given only to those who ask thoughtful, targeted questions; all others will be met with the simplest, broadest truth I can muster.

I’ve given this answer more times than I can count in the past few months, but now, as I find myself watching the swirling of our new-fallen snow, calling in to the local country station to share the craziest thing I’ve ever been stuck doing in the cold, and helping to move the drinks in from the screened porch to prevent a repeat of the Exploding Pop Incident of ’99, it occurs to me that I’ve never really addressed what “cold,” in the Mongolian context, means.

I could tell you that a Mongolian winter means three solid months below freezing, bracketed on each end by two months of flirtation with the freezing point (better known as spring and fall). It means that there will be weeks in the heart of the season where you never once see temperatures above 0˚F. That none of my winter clothing was waterproof because there’s no such thing as slush or sleet in the middle of winter, when liquid water is a dream that exists only indoors. That at -22˚F (-30˚C), a cup of boiling water thrown into the air will disappear into a mist of snow and vapor.

I could tell you that one of my friends in the hudoo made do without a refrigerator by storing milk on the windowsill and meat in a plastic bag dangled out the window, and that my ger-dwelling friends had to sleep with their computers inside their sleeping bags so they wouldn’t be damaged by the temperatures inside their homes. That on multiple occasions, I underestimated how long it would take me to run a few errands and wore only one pair of yak-wool socks inside my fur-lined boots, a mistake that meant a twenty-minute soak in warm water to return the circulation to my frozen feet. A painful twenty-minute soak.

Moreover, I could tell you that all of this was true in an unusually warm winter, most of it in one of the warmest cities in the country. To my great disappointment, I never once saw -40, the temperature at which Fahrenheit and Celsius collide. Multi-day stretches in the negatives were not unusual though, and -35 was a familiar nighttime companion.

That is what winter, what cold, in Mongolia means:  the awareness that if you are not careful, the very air outside will kill you.

But what does it feel like?

Imagine that you are heading to work, a trip that takes 15 minutes on foot in the summer. But today the roads are icy, as they have been for the past two months, and you have no desire to find yourself sprawled on the frozen, unforgiving ground, so you give yourself 25 to make the journey. The stars have not yet faded from the still-dark sky, and the nearly-full moon reflects off the snow to illuminate the streets in an absurd contrast with the sky. The effect is one of high visibility within the impression of darkness, of a world that appears to have split itself in two, with only the stars and the moon-cast shadows defying the separation of dark and light.

The sun will not rise until nearly 9 am for most of December and early January, with actual daylight holding out until almost 10.

You step outside, and before you can gasp at the cold, your nostrils are assaulted by a curious prickling sensation as all your nose hairs freeze. The sudden exhalation, when it does come, condenses in the frigid air before you face to form a comically large and opaque cloud, and you wonder when you learned to breathe smoke and whether your new dragon-like abilities include heat. Your eyes begin to water, and you blink to clear them – but quickly, lest your eyelashes freeze together. You understand why the women at work wait to apply their mascara until after they’ve arrived at school.

Within a few minutes, the exposed skin on your face begins to hurt, and the slightest breath of wind sends icy needles shooting into your flesh. Every inhalation sears the insides of your nose, your throat, your lungs. You can’t cover your nose without being blinded by the condensation that will freeze on your glasses, and your mouth goes dry after a minute of breathing through your mouth.

Time slows down in this kind of cold; the space before you expands as your destination recedes before your watering eyes, and an eternity passes between each ragged breath. The ethereal landscape that so enthralled you blurs from focus. The fish-eye lens of extreme cold allows you to see only the path before you, to hear only the muffled crunch of your own footsteps in the hard-packed snow.


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Zuds and their Ghosts

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The only post-2000 grave I recall seeing.

We stood at the base of the hill, considering how best to satisfy the needs of both curiosity and decorum. The gloriously blue sky overhead was a brilliant lie, giving the impression that this wasn’t a brief break between the downpours that had predominated our time here in Khatgal, and throwing the engravings on the headstones at our feet into garish relief.

I’d seen ovoos and stupas aplenty in the past ten months, but a cemetery was a new sight. I’d been told at some point that Buddhists usually burned their dead and accepted without question that Mongolians, even the ones who weren’t Buddhist, would do the same for pure practicality’s sake. Mongolia is a country of permafrost, where lakes freeze solid to a depth of four feet or more in winter and don’t thaw completely until June, and the snows that fall in late October have no chance to dissipate until February, when the temperature finally edges above freezing once more.

It doesn’t stay there, either, but flirts with both sides of the divide for the next three months. The first rain of the year fell on April 20th, but the snow continued intermittently until May 27th (when we got nearly a foot of it). Even in April, workers wishing to dig so much as foot-deep trench to lay cable were first obliged to literally set the ground on fire in order to soften it. Digging deep enough to lay a grave would be possible for a few months of the year, no more.

So it was with great curiosity that I moved about the remains of Khatgal’s dead, noting the differences between these graves and those I’d seen elsewhere. They lacked the space-efficient grid pattern that makes it impossible to walk through an American cemetery without stepping on someone’s grave, sprawling haphazardly in every direction. No marble angels here, either, nor a single imposing obelisk, though one solitary cross sat surrounded by its mostly-rectangular brethren. Some markers were of stone, others of a metal that, though tawdry in appearance, bore better witness to the lifetimes it marked than did its more traditional weatherworn counterpart.

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Not enough Cyrillic for me to read the name, and I can’t read the Tibetan.

It was fairly recent, this graveyard, with only a few birthdates predating 1900 and at least one resident who’d not moved there until the turn of the millennium. A few stones bore inscriptions in Tibetan, but all the names we found had been engraved after Mongolia adopted the Cyrillic alphabet in the 1940’s. The dates bespoke the same communist era as the cemetery’s Spartan sensibilities: most of them marked lives lived in the sixties, seventies, and eighties.

After only a few minutes of wandering, I noticed that one date was starting to sound awfully familiar. The birthdates differed, of course, but surely the last grave I’d looked at also marked a life ended in 1983 – and for that matter, so did at least four of the last ten. In fact, nearly half the stones in this section of the graveyard dated from that year, many of those from its first few months. Assessing each marker with new purpose, now, I noticed another pattern as well: a disproportionate number of the 1983 graves were heartbreakingly small.

What happened in 1983? I wondered aloud, and my companions murmured their mutual curiosity. And then someone made the inevitable suggestion: Maybe there was a zud.

None of us had witnessed one of these devastating winters, the last having occurred in 2010, but I’d learned the term within a week of arriving in the country. Tornados, earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions – most of the natural disasters familiar to us are (almost) completely absent in Mongolia[i]. But they do have winters so cold the livestock freeze to death, or so snowy they starve for lack of forage. A zud is not measured in degrees below zero or centimeters of snow, but in cost: I’ve heard it defined as a winter in which over a million head of livestock are lost to the elements. The zud of 2010 took over eight million, more than 17% of the country’s livestock population.

For the many urban residents of developed countries (as I assume most of my readers are), it might be hard to translate that number into more understandable terms. Yes, that’s an awful lot of dead animals, but what exactly does that mean in terms of human suffering?

A lot. In a country largely populated with subsistence herders, that’s a catastrophic loss. It means that at least one animal corpse for every three people lies frozen on the steppe, to rot there in the coming summer. It means that thousands of herders and their families will have to move to the city, having lost their livelihoods with the death of all or most of their livestock. It means that eight million animals will not contribute their monetary value to Mongolia’s economy, nor their meat to its people: Mongolians will eat no animal that died of natural causes, not even hypothermia. The fattest cow, once dead at hands not human, will feed only the varmints. Some herders will slaughter their animals themselves in the face of insurmountable cold, that their flesh might still be fit for human consumption – but once wiped out in this matter, neither herd nor livelihood will regenerate.

Even now, for most Mongolians outside the three largest cities, meat is the primary source of sustenance during the long months of winter. Permafrost is not particularly conducive to agriculture, so the few vegetables widely available in this country (potatoes, carrots, cabbage, onions, beets) are recent, mostly imported, additions to the Mongolian diet. Mongolia’s three “national foods[ii]” require only meat, fat, flour, and salt; anything else is a recent addition, and in the most isolated parts of the country (a phrase akin to ‘the hottest parts of the Sahara,’ perhaps, or ‘the wettest parts of the ocean’), those additions often remain unavailable. Take the meat and animal fat out of the equation, and you’re left trying to survive the winter on flour, rice, and little else.

That might not mean complete starvation, but in my mind it certainly constitutes famine, and that level of malnutrition would also leave people vulnerable to the first spark of contagion to come wandering through the community. People compromised by malnutrition, its accompanying ailments (scurvy, rickets, and so forth), and exhaustion are also more prone to accidents. A zud doesn’t result in the sudden, large-scale loss of human life that we associate with most natural disasters; its toll is slow and insidious, taking months instead of minutes to end or alter lives.

We did not ask our hosts, nor anyone else in Khatgal, what had happened in 1983 to end so many lives; by the time we made it back to our lodgings, we were more concerned with not getting struck by lightning than unraveling the mysteries of years past. But I wish now that we had. Excepting its major interactions with the rest of the world, Mongolia is not a country whose historical events may be uncovered by a casual perusal of the Internet, particularly if the peruser doesn’t speak Mongolian. The story of Khatgal’s difficult winter of 1983 most likely exists only in the memories of those who survived it.

It might not have been something so widespread as a zud, after all. Perhaps that specific part of northern Mongolia was particularly cold or snowy that winter, and the local livestock populations were devastated, or the roads (such as they are) did not permit the transportation of food. Perhaps the soum was struck by disease, and the residents of the nearby aimag center preferred to watch their neighbors waste away rather than risk infection themselves. Perhaps a spark from someone’s stove caught in the felt or floorboards of a ger and the fire leapt from khashaa  (yard) to khashaa, the smoke inhalation taking its toll on even those whose homes survived the blaze.

I wondered, as I wandered amongst the thirty-year-old graves, what it had been like for those who dug them. How many infants went into the ground that winter, before their first haircuts or even their first steps? How many children were left to those grieving mothers, and for how many was the loss of a hungry mouth a terrible sort of blessing?

What did they do for those who passed in March and April, that time of transition when the ground remains frozen, but the air is not? Did they cremate them, as they must have cremated those who died in the months so cold that one might freeze or burn without knowing which was which? Or did they strew smoking coals along the ground, chipping desperately at the half-frozen earth in order to carve out a space large enough to lay the dead to rest?

Did they curse that brilliant blue sky for its ghastly cheerfulness, wishing that it would weep, as they did, while they watched their loved ones fade away?

I don’t know; in all likelihood, I never will. Perhaps the people of Khatgal would prefer that I didn’t go digging about in their graveyard, uncovering old grief to satisfy my curiosity. But I can’t help but believe that some of those ghosts might want their stories told.

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[i] The few volcanoes are long dead, and the earthquakes too weak to do much damage.

[ii] The term mostly annoys me, since the standard textbooks would appear to conflate national and traditional, but as what Mongolians call their “national foods” do not include the milk products that compose most of the traditional summer diet, the term is useful here. The “national foods,” for those interested, are бууз (buuz), хуушуур (khuushuur), and цуйван (tsuivan).


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Rain

It tried hard to rain on the 22nd.

I looked out the window at midday to find the sky bisected by a streak of ominous grey, feathered along its northern edge with the striations typically indicative of rain. I quickly headed out the café door, knowing I still needed to stop by the school that day and wishing I’d had the sense to go earlier. I have no love for early spring rains; I can handle getting wet, and I tolerate cold with aplomb, but combining the two leaves me shivering, achy, and thoroughly miserable.

I felt a few drops spatter wetly across my face as I trudged up the hill to school. Here it comes, I thought, preparing to pull out my raincoat. But the precipitation I saw was coming down too erratically, in little fits and starts and the occasional swirl. After a few seconds of confusion, I realized it was also falling too slowly to be rain.

The snow, coming down in little balls not fluffy enough to be termed ‘flakes,’ melted instantly upon reaching the ground, which helped to create the illusion of rain. But though the clouds coughed and sputtered, it seemed they’d forgotten how to produce liquid precipitation. Theirs was a valiant effort, but a failed one nonetheless.

By five o’clock, the skies had given up on any pretense at rain. The dark clouds of the early afternoon had been replaced by a flat white blanket; the snowflakes, having grown thick and fluffy enough to house Polly Pocket and several of her friends, fell purposefully earthward in the absence of a breeze on which to tarry. Within an hour, cars and grass alike sported over an inch of the stuff, though the streets still remained stubbornly bare. I checked the weather on my desktop and chuckled at its naive insistence of 40-degree rain. The snows had no intent to relinquish this town so easily.

But I awoke this morning to an unfamiliar sound, one which even the insistent chirping of birds could not disguise. And the light was wrong; surely it should be brighter than this at 6 am? I knew what I would find when I dragged myself to the window to peer around my hideously-patterned floral curtains, but still I felt compelled to do so. I needed the visual confirmation to convince myself of what my other senses were telling me.

I’m not usually one to make a big deal about a little rain; Chicago’s no Seattle, but we still get plenty of the stuff. Rain floods our streets in the spring, cancels summer sports events, prevents outdoor recess for schoolchildren in the fall, and washes away snowmen and hopes of a white Christmas.

But not so here. Rain is not our constant companion in this land of high, cold desert. When you live in a place where the temperature drops below freezing and stays there for four straight months, and when that time is bracketed on either end by an additional month or two of snow, the first rain of the year is a big deal. It’s the long-awaited assurance that summer is finally on its way, that the grass will grow and the sheep will get fat and we won’t all freeze or starve (or both).

Its arrival is anticipated, noted, and celebrated – not ceremonially, perhaps, but personally. The week of the Boston bombing aligned with the week I was scheduled to teach my students about the news. After discussing the various media by which the news can be conveyed and obtained, I asked each class what had happened in the news that week. Over the course of the entire week, approximately three students answered my query with cries of, “Boston,” though a description of what had happened in Boston far outstripped their English abilities. (I was also highly impressed by the one student who called out, “Bad Korea.” Not a bad distinction when you don’t know the words for north or south.)

No, the word I heard again and again was “Khovsgol.” Erdenet had received only snow that week (several inches of it, at that),  but it had rained in Khovsgol, I was told time and again. Students in every class felt the need to inform me of this momentous event; the arrival of the spring rain was exciting and newsworthy even when a twelve-hour drive would be required to reach the area that it had fallen.

This morning’s rain was actually the third we’ve had this year, but it was the first to do more than drizzle lightly and leave a few puddles on the pavement. A steady, if light, fall like this was something I hadn’t seen since December (in Tokyo; our last real rainfall in Erdenet was in September). I stared for a while, wondering how something so simple could seem so momentous. And then I sighed in relief as I watched it turn once more to snow, glad that I could walk the half an hour to work without getting soaked.


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The Land of Perpetual Snow

My father is well-known, within my extended family, at least, for his propensity to rename that which is new to him. Thus, he refers to the ghost of Gryffindor house as “Almost-Headless Frank,” and that game they play on broomsticks as “wacky badminton.” So when I told him the Mongolian version of “how are you?” it came as no surprise that he did the same thing.

“How are you?” is sort of built into the Mongolian “hello;” сайна байна уу? translates roughly as “are you good?” Their follow-up question, therefore, is more like, “how was your rest?” (Cyrillic: Cайхан амарсан уу?, Latin: Saihan amarsan uu?; sounds like sa [like sat, without the t] han amarse no).

My father’s rendition? “So, how much snow?” As the first two examples illustrate, how well the dad-isms fit varies pretty widely. But this one’s pretty darn accurate.

To wit: In Chicago, and probably in the rest of the world, Chicago is primarily a winter phenomenon. Sure, we might get the occasional flurry in October or May, but in your average year, the majority of the snow falls in January or perhaps early February.

Not so here. A friend of mine once explained that she dislikes snow because it means that it’s too cold to rain; here, snow means that it’s relatively warm. For much of our winter, it is simply too cold to snow. We got the occasional flurry in December and January, but never enough for any serious accumulation. All we ever got was a thin, glittery layer of dry white powder that rendered sidewalks a deathtrap. Seriously, who decided tile sidewalks were a good idea in a country that’s frozen half the year?

The extreme cold and amount of ice crystals in the air do result in a number of cool atmospheric phenomena, like these parhelia. Photo credit to Jonathan Tavennic Renich.

If you’ll recall, my definition of Mongolian winter was pretty straightforward: winter starts when the snow stops melting and end when it starts to. But the presence of snow in both fall and spring are implicit in this definition; that the snow has started to melt does not mean there won’t be more.

The snow started on September 26th, and by the time Thanksgiving rolled around, we’d had at least twelve days of snowfall. December and January gave us a hiatus, but now it’s back. We got at least as much snow in February as in December and January combined, and as much again in March. Halfway into April, we’re still getting snow at least twice a week, though it’s now interspersed with several days of 40-60 degree weather.

And unlike the snowfall we got in the winter, this stuff means business. Spring snow doesn’t mean a flurry of the minuscule ice crystals we got in winter, but the big, thick flakes that weigh down your eyelashes and sparkle surreally in the presence of even a little light. The Friday before St. Patrick’s Day brought us five inches of the stuff; the last eight hours have given us at least another four, with drifts over a foot tall in some places.

As someone who enjoys cold and snow, I don’t really mind, but I know a lot of the Peace Corps Volunteers are pretty sick of the stuff.  This morning, I asked the director of the Children’s Palace when the snow usually stops. “Maybe May?” she said. “But last year it snowed on July 1st.”

So get used to the snow, folks. It doesn’t look like we’ll be rid of it anytime soon.