The Mongolian steppe in the summer is awash in color. The spring rains, cold though they are, bring forth a dizzying array of blues, purples, reds, yellows and greens and the smell of lavender and jasmine mix sweetly with the scent of sweaty animals. My brother and I rise early to drive the yaks, sheep, and goats out to their daily pasture. What little dew there is clings precariously to my saddle as my horse, Lunchbox, chomps idly at his bit. We mount and in a flash we are galloping across the steppe, racing toward the distant collision of color and sky. We reign in the horses and swing back to get the animals. The initial gallop was just to settle our beasts into a long days work.
We drive the animals about ten kilometers southwest. Here, the large river that bisects my town flattens out, shooting precious tentacles of water across the constantly too dry Steppe. We sweep through the herd a last time, checking to see if any of them have come up lame and to check on the condition of the newly born animals. All seems well so we turn back to our camp.
Again, we let the horses run.
Only a year ago, this morning would have terrified me. Lunchbox threw me twice last summer and both times were at less than a gallop. The first time he was just being ornery and took a hard right toward a fence, sending me off his dusty left flank. The second time, he anticipated a “yak head fake” that I did not (yes, yaks throw head fakes) and I went flying off his right flank. Today, I am confident in my saddle and happy to let the fresh morning air poor down my lungs.
It takes us forty minutes to return to the camp and de-saddle our horses. The steam rising off Lunchbox reminds me of the dying remainders of a ger fire. I lead Lunchbox to the river and he takes a long drink. My brother and I tie off our horses and return to the center of camp which is a semi-circle of small gers with a large circular cook house in the middle.
I go in to make coffee and chat with any participant of the perpetual hive of activity that is the cook house. My sister asks me how I slept as she heaves a ten gallon bucket of fermenting mare’s milk to the “dairy ger”. She seems exasperated, but then again, all seventeen year old girls seem exasperated. The other workers greet me warmly and my host Dad greets me with his routinely enthusiastic English phrases, limited to, “Hello, how are you?” I smile and answer in Mongolian that I am fine and that this morning’s ride was extra fine.
I take my coffee back to my ger and slide my laptop aside to make room for the stack of GMAT books that have been eyeing me for a week. I begin where I left off: data sufficiency questions. The juxtaposition is not lost on me. I am aware that I live in a small felt tent. The same tent that people have been living in for eight hundred years. Nor does the irony of herding yaks as preparation for my GMAT morning study session elude me. Rather, I have come to live with it. These are just two more of the many contradictions that compose my life.
In the winter I split wood and heat my house with a wood stove, I then fire up my laptop and write lesson plans. My students can be seen riding horses to school while using their cell phones to check out Akon’s latest music video. We have a computer lab but no chalk. A projector but intermittent power, the list goes on and on.
After a while the contradictions become less abnormal, less glaring. And a little time after that, they become normal. “Of course I will herd yaks before studying” I think, “how else would I do it?” America fades further and further into my memory and sometimes I catch myself dreading the day I will have to leave my ger, my family, my horse, and my village. That is however, the nature of the beast. Or so I am told.