"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.
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
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."
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.