"Your people like chicken, right?" I did not know the hunched, wrinkled figure before me. This was the first line of our first conversation. I liked it. I told him that we—Americans—did. He seemed relieved as if I had settled some long unresolved bet. He had a worthless resource—three live male chickens—and now, someone stupid enough to pay top dollar for them.
Ordinarily I might have taken issue with "your people;" but lately, I don't mind being pigeonholed from time to time. The more Mongolians tell me that I am one of them, the clearer it is that I am not. Every now and then, you need to be reminded that you are part of something, even if that something is chicken.
My roots are problematic. At age six I watched a Civil War documentary with my grandmother. After several attentive hours of Sesame Street-framed comprehension, I exclaimed in terror, "Gram, we lost." My grandmother, a Jewish woman from New Jersey, assured me with some conviction that we had most certainly won that war.
There are tables covered with ranks of books near the entrance to the market in the industrial city of Darkhan, 120 km south of Russia in northern Mongolia. On one side, there are Russian novels with stained cloth covers and monochrome illustrations of dog sled adventures. Several anthologies of poetry celebrate the beauty of the Mongolian countryside or the glorious victory at Khalkh River, Mongolia’s brief foray into World War II.
On the other side, there are brightly-colored Learn English! guides and glossy textbooks for the recently-revived old Mongolian script. A bookseller pointed out a sharp-looking softcover with the Mongolian title “The World is Not Round.”
I found a phrasebook lying across the otherwise-sharp line between the socialist past and the varied present. It was missing the first 14 pages and a copyright date, but it still had the Mongolian, Russian, Chinese, German, Polish, and English translations of the phrases “We should like to talk to the workers” and “May I have a closer look at this lathe?” I had to have it. Marked inside the cover was the price ’40 togrog.’ I bought it for 1500, at the modest inflation rate of 375% over 30-some odd years.
The List of Commonly Used Words in the back of the phrasebook is a delight. It's helping establish the foundation of vocabulary I would need if I stopped teaching English and started preaching Class Struggle.
It is refreshing to see that there was time for romance between the liberation movement and carrier rockets. Socialism wrote much better and funnier poetry than I do.
"You can get so confused
that you'll start in to race
down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace
and grind on for miles across weirdish wild space,
headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.
The Waiting Place…"
Dr. Seuss's Oh, the Places You'll Go!
On the beginning of the first day on the bus, both the sky and the road were gray and unremarkable. Drab hills were as loosely slung around the road as I was tightly packed between a middle-aged doctor and a listless young man. I badly wanted to be somewhere else. I was getting there very slowly.
In a high valley one thousand km and at least two mountain passes away, five of my friends had already come together. Despite the distance, I knew I was missing the party. The bus crawled out from the capital, Ulaanbaatar, with two drivers and the 28 passengers. If the tires held, if the beleaguered engine soldiered on, if the weather stayed mild, I'd join my friends in the western Mongolian, alien-sounding province of Zavkhan sometime after noon the next day. Early April seemed to be cooperating with my impatience.
We continued at a 50km/h pace that would not be bothered and made what peace we could with the ride. I passed the first hour composing all the predictably uninspired poems about journeys on slow buses. I passed the next five minutes forgetting them as I looked out the window.
NOTE: This is not about Mongolia, it's about Bolivia, but I'm including it because it's a Reason To Hope. It's for readers who sometimes feel, as I do, that there is little reason to hope for a better planet and a better future--specifically, a better American presence abroad. And it's also for readers who, you know, get off on Paul Farmer.
After spending decades as the last doctor in California's Santa Ynez Valley willing to make house calls, after starting a home for Alzheimer patients, an elementary school, and a café on the side, Louis Netzer retired and set off not on an ocean cruiser, not on a tour of the world's greatest golf courses, but on a journey to the far corners of world. He didn't get any farther than the village of Rurrenebaque on the banks of the Rio Beni, a remote tributary to the Bolivian Amazon. On his annual two-month visits to the Valley in the following years Lou spoke often of his first moments on that smooth river, of the surrounding jungle, of the faces of the warm-hearted local people whose ailments he knew how to cure, of the moments he realized he would be staying until he did cure them. In subsequent years, at talks he gave all over Santa Barbara County raising money for the Rio Beni Health Project, Lou said that he didn't have hope, because hope implies expectation. He just had faith. Lou's faith was the power behind his conception of the Project, which began in 1997 with "basically a boat and a motor." Lou's faith is what drove him to reach tens of thousands of the poorest people in South America's poorest country, often their first experience receiving regular medical care before succumbing to cancer himself in October of 2002.
Streams of rain on a spring night
Hammer the water of the lake in the gloaming
And, having entered, lend strength to grass just born
And render the fate of new grass so fragrant
The horizon was almost a watercolor
Yes for a moment the rain may have left this world
Why are the birds flying
On the other side of the sky
My autumn melancholy
Do not give it to another
You will need it, bring it with you
I have imagined I stepped into the river of ancient men
And taking them by the hand brought them back
Always I am thinking of my own homeland
Always I am living in yours
March 15, 2008
Things have been quiet on this blog, mainly because I have been working on Dog of Heaven: Truths and Myths of Blue Mongolia's Blue Wolf, a [ed. words missing here] the manuscript of Mongolian National Library Director Dr. Akim in order to have it ready for publication next week.
The task of "editing" a really bad, sometimes nonsensical, very un-literary English translation has amounted to rewriting the entire book manuscript sentence for sentence. It has its fun moments, though. Sometimes the translation has moments of unintended, but still brilliant, comedy. Here's a sampling of the manuscript that fell in my lap:
"Wolves catch marmots very adroitly. It was on Five hills mountain (in the near of Ulaanbaatar) in autumn. I was watching a wolf through binocular. On this side of slope five or six marmots were grazing. The wolf sniffed their traces and run towards them from behind a hillock. The marmots didn’t notice it. But the wolf was running and waiving with its tale. It was waving with tales as hunters wave to provoke marmots. Marmots got provoked and were whizzing."
Whizzing marmots! Brilliant.
Tumen-Ulzii Bayunmend, Inner Mongolian dissident writer, when he was younger
There's nothing to remind me of how far I still need to go with studies of the Mongolian language like trying to say to someone who knows no English: "the dominant language is a symptom of political authority." He is a writer in exile, and he has just asked why I wanted to learn a little, 'unimportant' language like Mongolian. After all, it's not like Spanish, which half the population of my home state speak. Hardly anyone who does not grow up speaking Mongolian endeavors to learn it, something I learned while looking for a summer language course and finding only one official one in the USA. But it has become more important to me every time I travel to a developing country and see some scantily clad blonde actress on the side of a bus to find ways to participate in regional culture in the ways I can. Now, to be clear: I love American pop culture. I think it's hilarious and totally entertaining and my favorite movies are romantic comedies. But I am, as Slug puts it, trying to find a balance, and since I am better at language than I am at herding camels, learning the Mongolian language is my way to honor regional culture--and express a little political subversiveness.
Mongolia, often referred to as Asia’s last unexplored frontier, is also described as the land of Asia’s cowboys. Indeed, the rugged culture of “felt tents” embodied by the nomadic family of Genghis Khan is one still practiced by almost half of Mongolia’s 3 million people today, only now sometimes there’s a TV receiving scratchy images inside the ger. The difficult lifestyle is one that’s gone virtually unchanged for centuries, and at no time is this more evident than the month of February.
The national holiday of Tsagaan Sar, “white month” or “white moon,” is a holiday the exact date of which Mongolian astrologers argue over. This year it is celebrated on the three days of February 7-9, and mothers in city apartments and gers alike have been at work making buuz, or mutton dumplings, for weeks in preparation. The country quiets down from mid-December through to the end of February, since holiday and December 31st festivities are followed so closely by this very Mongolian celebration of the lunar new year. Through the month of February, family members visit each other far and wide over this frozen desert full of Buddhist nomads, greeting by layering their palms face-up and asking, “Amar bain uu?” Instead of the usual “Cain bain uu?” (literally, “Are you easy?” instead of “Are you good?”) and showing off their very best deels, traditional coats in the style of Chinggis Khan that stretch almost to the ground and that many Mongolians still wear normally, even to business meetings.
When we travelled in Mongolia in June, we had the good fortune to meet several young American ex-Pats who generously agreed to post for us about their lives and work. Each will post for a day this week beginning tomorrow. We have no idea what they'll write about, but we do know that their days are full and that they are a talented and dedicated group. We hope readers will enjoy these posts and comment on them. -- Eds.
Ed. Note: Next week we will be running dispatches from current PCVs -- Peace Corps volunteers -- in Mongolia. Here's a poem in their honor by one who knows them. -- DL
How It Is In the Peace Corps
Shy idealists come, sing,
study strange languages:
High hopes, seeking friends,
"am I tough enough to stay,
and can I bear the isolation?"
Hot summers surprise;
goats are slaughtered for the feast,
their arteries plucked out by crooked fingers
thrust into blood and guts.
Dust devils blow sand into our hair;
friends pull together, eyes smiling,
to hold up tent poles in the storm.
Later, loneliness and frost arrive,
bodies stiffen and turn numb
hunching over a coal stove,
heating water for weekly bathing.
Winter comes: "I'm so fucking cold}
and sick of mutton and miss home;
I've never smelled so bad and, by the way,
does anyone really love me?"
We go from ger to outhouse,
strange, coldweather beetles
busily building our shit stalagmites,
rolling up our small possessions in a ball.
Fermented mare's milk, vodka,
whiskey, wine --
the blessed release of friends,
my fellow kind:
talking over each other's words on weekends,|
arms around each other's necks:
they say we're too unruly and it shows,
but we need this and
we need it bad!
Visitors come and we put on a jacket
and a show:
to lead our class through songs and recitations,
and showing what we do.
We fetch the cattle from the field,
the water from the river;
we clean our space or not
and bake plum pudding for the VIPs.
At Christmas, deep depression,
we get a sack of coal from neighbors
and shed bright tears of gratitude and pleasure.
Our host's children, our students, are our family;
we love them but feel sometimes like pets,
playing a role called "young American,"
fed and led but kept outside the house.
Our hosts are strong and brave and keep us close,
but have been known to disappoint us:
they can be brutal, think us naive,
shock us with lies and petty vices,
while we seem soft and callow.
Still, we suffer what we love:
we asked for this and still think it is worth it;
we will miss it when it and we are gone,
and we become just ordinary again,
instead of being small celebrities.
We'll always remember this life until we don't,
or at least until we board the plane for home,
when we will start a family in the suburbs
forgetting that old young savage on the steppes.
All now is strong emotion, love and anger,
a pride and testing ground to prove:
I am a man, I am a woman and can make
a better world if I just meet this challenge.
I'm in the stream, beating against the current,
making headway, showing my resiliance;
I sense the other swimmers all about me|
and will not forget this unforgiving river --
until I'm returned to the safety of my shore.
And that's how it is in the Peace Corps.
– Mark Minton
The Mongolian poet G. Mend Oyoo introduced me to a Mongolian verse form known as "the Universe's three" or "the three miracles." The form consists of three lines (a "triplicit") in parallel syntactical structure.
Among my favorites is "The Missing Three":
A column is missing from the sky
A lid is missing from the ocean
A belt is missing from the earth
Consider, too, "The Three Empties":
Though you can hear it, an echo is empty
Though you can see it, a mirage is empty
Though you are living it, a dream is empty
See The Best of Mongolian Poetry edited by G. Mend-Ooyo with translations by Simon Wickham Smith. I would like to write a few of these myself.
For the events leading up to this spectacular photo of our man in Mongolia, watch this video:
We took a ride last Thursday night to the country outside Ulaanbaatar. Along the way, we encountered this camel. The voices you hear in the background are of the young Mongolian man trying to negotiate the terms of a ride; U.S. Ambassador Mark Minton; Kevin Nolan, an intern in the Embassy (whose speech moves fluently from English to Mongolian); David; me ("I don't want to get on") and the compliant camel.
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.