Along the Ider River gers were scattered in threes and fours like dirty white beads hung on a blue thread. We sat four in the backseat of a tiny Korean Excel struggling across the boulders in the road and charging through narrow streams. Our driver, a man like a preschool sculpture, a potato body with toothpicks stuck into it for legs, stopped here and there trying to locate the family we would live with for the next two days. Gathering a bit of information from each person he asked, he’d return to the car with his too much body and rattle the car a bit further down the road.
We stopped finally in a camp of four gers and waited for our hosts to come out and hold down the dogs. With each dog safely pinned to the earth we got out and stretched our crumpled legs. We were with one of my students, Nyamtseveen, who was bringing her nephew to his grandparents to complete his haircutting ceremony. Three of my friends and I were there to ride horses, play frisbee, and eat yogurt.
We arrived in the late afternoon and spent the evening throwing the frisbee bright orange against the green hillsides. Inside the ger we were welcome to all the Mongolian dairy products we could eat while the herders were out bringing the animals back in. These people are still living the traditional Mongolian lifestyle, living off their herds and moving their home three or four times a year. With the goats and sheep bleating outside we read our books under the solar powered bulb. And when it was time to sleep, afraid I’d be too cold as usual, the man of the house covered me in his deel (the long, heavy traditional robe Mongolians wear) and tucked it under my body. I slept poorly in my jeans and woke up every time the dogs picked fights with each other in the night.
The next day, we hiked and walked down the hillside in pine tree woods where the grass was thick and heavy with wildflowers. In the afternoon we prepared for the boy’s haircutting ceremony. On the table with the candy dish were dried fruits, bowls of milk tea, and of course, bottles of vodka. I knew the rest of the day would be a rough one. So it was.
We passed the scissors and cut hair. The boy ran around in his deel, king of the castle, receiving a gift with each cut lock of hair. The man passed the vodka shots and we drank the customary three drinks. We sang. And when it was your turn to sing, you drank. For a bit, it seemed things would stay in hand. The man had a lot to say. He talked about religion. My Mongolian is good enough to know that he was talking about roads and religion and that it didn’t matter to him what religion anyone practiced. My friend, whose Mongolian is very strong, explained the man was saying that he’s Buddhist, but it didn’t matter if we were Christian or Muslim or anything else, because all religions are just different roads to the same destination. We agreed and I loved that. It makes me sad to think about home.. So many people in America think they have things exactly right, are terrified to share the beautiful lives and ideas of other people.
Soon we left the ger with the frisbee to avoid the circling vodka cup, although they continued adamantly to call us back in to have just one more. My stomach was a mess, now full of yogurt, soup, and vodka, and I lay down on the felt mat to nurse it just in time for Nyamtseveen to tell me that we must go visit another of my students who lived nearby. Since I couldn’t say no, I struggled up, joined the driver, Nyamtseveen, an old man, and a child in the rattletrap car. I struggled, successfully in the end, to keep my stomach and head together. I told Nyamtseveen that she must tell the people in the next house that I would not eat, no vodka, and that I could have only a little milk tea.
The thing I’m still at odds with in this country is that after explaining to the next family that I was uncomfortably full, had had too much vodka, and was on the verge of being sick, they still made me eat and drink. It’s not ok to eat and drink on your own terms here. Had I not had a bit to eat, or touched the vodka to my lips, they would have been very much insulted by me. I had a similar problem at yet another student’s place on the way to where we were staying. We stopped for tea and she asked if I would stay with her family instead of going with my friends as I had planned. I explained why I would not stay there and told her I was sorry. “Sorry, bish,” she said back. Not translated literally, “Sorry, my ass.”
People are hard to please, and I occasionally end up offending someone. I represented well in this case, though. I ate a little, touched the rank vodka to my lips, played volleyball, and lost a game of chess to the father. He had an amazing scar that divided his face in two from top to bottom, like puzzle pieces not quite jointed to fit one another. Later, Nyamtseveen told me that while repairing a car four years ago, an axe caught him in the face. Clearly this makes no sense, but it was the only explanation I got. My stomach was finally settling when we got in the car. Back in the home ger I positioned myself on the floor and didn’t get up until morning.
At ten our bags were in the trunk with the meat from the sheep they slaughtered the previous afternoon. Half way home on the washboarded road, we got a flat. All of the bags, meat, and milk had to come out and we piled them on the roadside. We watched the driver spend an hour swapping out the tire’s innertube, rather than changing the tire, and knowing that a question would neither be answered, nor speed things along, we sat on our bags and gathered the dust of passing cars. Minutes down the road, the tire blew again, and we unloaded and again sat without a word next to a dry riverbed. Soon a car joined us, gave us their spare, and we traveled together down the road. I was in the new car which, after a few short kilometers, blew one of it’s own tires. After more tire swapping, and an innertube repair, we got back on the road and made town by evening. I hoisted my bags out of the trunk one more time and walked home in my coat of dust.