Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Blue Sky Seeking

So, in December I was working on a piece of writing for a contest for Nowhere zine.  Yesterday I woke up to find out that I was not one of their finalists.  This is an interesting experience for me.  Writing was never my #1 form of expression, until it quietly took over from art and music, and I find myself having more empathy for the struggles that my writer friends have gone through.  Even though it's a little different to not win a contest than it is to have your writing rejected, it still sucks, and between this and the Lonely Planet contest from this fall, I'm feeling a little pessimistic about writing (especially when a day before the finalists are announced said zine shares a story on Facebook about Mongolia written by some pretentious writer who's never been there).  This is all part of the reason why I haven't been blogging as much this year, but anyways.  So their judge didn't care for my writing?  I don't give a shit.  It didn't turn out quite the way I wanted it to, but I still think it's an interesting piece, so I'm publishing it here.  I hope all six of you readers enjoy this.
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I sat on the subway in Shanghai, rattling over the tracks while listening to Socrates prattle on about what he did on his travels, and despaired. “The nightlife was shit,” he moaned, “but I rather liked the space-age architecture. Reminded me of that video...you know, that one?” He was my would-be love, there in that slick, shiny city where an American girl couldn’t get a date to save her life, one of the few foreign men who didn’t go nuts over Chinese girls, and that was what he went in for - nightlife and modern architecture? What a bummer. He obviously read this on my face. “Oh Becky, stop being so judgmental! You should get out more often.”

Maybe he was right. Maybe I was being judgmental. I walked away from the conversation - and eventually, him - thinking you could tell a lot about a person from their motivations to travel. In his case, he was shallow. In my case...well, it took a while before I got around to thinking about that.

I’ve never gotten over the way time moves as an expat, the slipstream of my years abroad. Caught between the whirlpool of short days in cold climes and the craggy cliffs of young niblings growing up too fast and too far away, I finally found my way back to that question four years later. Why the hell was I spending the holidays on the road in Southeast Asia when I could be home for Christmas? So what if Iowa would be cold and its chief attraction was my family. I’ve been traveling so long that the bragging rights of being someplace new really wasn’t enough anymore, was it?

In the midst of this existential crisis I managed to drag myself out of bed and down snow-dusted roads onto the bus to church one Sunday morning. Being a single thirty-something in the Mormon church in Mongolia can be summed up with one word: awkward. You never quite fit. Not with the foreign families, not with the Mongolian singles, in spite of the fact that everyone is absolutely wonderful (although to be perfectly honest, absolutely wonderful people can also be alienating when you’re the kind of person who takes “snide, sarcastic bitch,” as a compliment). My religion had, in its own way, separated me from my family as surely as the thousands of miles between us; ocean, hills, mountains, they were all more comprehensible than a slightly different take on life, the universe, and everything. Still, I kept plugging away at them both.

On this Sunday, as the chill of a bleak December morning permeated the chapel’s new windows and unfamiliar words rose up around me in familiar strains, I mused over my upcoming journey, and the ones that had brought me hence. I remembered climbing the hillsides through the ruins of Delphi, deserted as the rains misted down over the Oracle’s seat. I remembered an early morning, traveling to the outskirts of Kyoto to wander through the shrines of Fushimi-Inari-Taisha, the early autumn warmth not reaching my heart through the mist hanging on countless red gates, accompanied by the cackles of crows getting drunk on sake. I remembered standing on the Giza plateau under the burning noonday sun, listening to the buzz of a million mosques calling the faithful to prayer. And it came to me like a lightning bolt thrown by a possessive god - I travel to find that moment, that place, where you can feel the world part and see a little further.  

That spiritual streak - that yearning for things you can’t see but if you’re still might just be able to feel - has always been there. As a child I used to scurry up my treehouse after church and sing hymns, clinging to that feeling. As a teenager it led me to throw in my lot with the Mormons. That turned out to be lucky, since Mormons are just about everywhere, and knowing that my spiritual home would be wherever I found myself gave me the confidence to take that big first step overseas.  I loved and missed my family, but I wanted to go to the places other people worship; to smell the incense and sit beneath the eaves of their temples as the echoes of chants long silent mingle with those still hanging in the air.  Living abroad freed me to do that.
I’ve been in Ulaanbaatar more than two years now. It’s a wild place, and exactly what I needed after my contract in superficial Shanghai was over. Where the Shanghainese were polished the Mongolians are rough. Ulaanbaatar is skirted with ger districts, small houses and felt huts which burn coal for warmth in the bitter winters and have no running water. The roads, especially (and ironically) in the nice area in which I live, are full of potholes, some big enough to swallow a car whole. Many of the buildings in central UB are Soviet-era eyesores holding over from its years as a comrade of Mother Russia, and while the city has developed a lot even in the two years I’ve lived here, infrastructure is still lacking. But even though Mongolia hasn’t exactly taken its own great leap forward, there’s a sincerity and happiness in its people that I rarely saw in Shanghai.

I didn’t really plan to stay here past my first two years, but I fell in love. I was warned that I would on my first trip to the countryside. It seems strange that endless rolling grassy hillls could be so beautiful, but they are. Each moment’s changing light reveals new depths in the colors of the steppe, which is strewn with more kinds of purple flowers than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio. To those in the know, Mongolia is known as “The Land of the Eternal Blue Sky,” and for good reason. In the winter, in the city, it’s hard to believe that blue skies exist. The smoke from those coal-burning stoves hides even the sun and seeps into everything with which it comes into contact. But drive an hour away and you’ll be blinded by skies so blue they hurt to look at. I feel like if I could open my eyes wide and stare deeply long enough into them that I could take their purity into myself and become the person I’m always trying to be - stronger, fiercer, better.

Mongolians have long worshipped this sky, among other things. The melting pot that makes up Mongol spirituality includes elements of Animism, the belief that everything physically created has a spiritual essence. It took me a while to understand that the colorful silk scarves tied to bridges and cairns of stones weren’t just the Mongolian equivalent of Tibetan prayer flags. Mongolians also use them to show honor, both to people as well as to the spirits in things. In the hills above the school where I live and work is a tree covered in them. Nobody has been able to explain what it is that makes that tree special, but that didn’t stop me from taking a hike up to visit it in my first year here. My friend’s directions had been a little vague, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to find it, as I crunched over fields of snow and dried grass. I climbed the hill and the world was made up of the blue sky, the golden needles of the larches, and the white of the snow, and when the tree came into view its brilliant colors - red, yellow, blue, green, white, and even black - made it all too easy to spot. They were roped around its trunk, and knotted to its branches. I pulled out my scarf – red for fire, warmth being something I was definitely wishing for that frigid first year – from my bag, and tied it around a knot coming out of its branch. I was becoming a part of Mongolia, and it a part of me.

During its years as a communist country the powers that be tried to beat this out of the people. One site, Mother Rock or Eej Khad as she’s called in Mongolian, was forbidden, and they even attempted to demolish it, but it remained and the people just kept coming, offering her milk and vodka as they whispered wishes in her ears. The monasteries and temples of Buddhism didn't fare as well. During the Stalinist purges religious teaching was banned. In the Political Persecution Museum you can see the bullet-holed skulls of some of the 18,000 monks who were killed. Across the country, monasteries and temples were destroyed, and in fact the only functioning monastery throughout Mongolia's communist years was Gandantegchinlen Khiid, in Ulaanbaatar. It was strictly for show, of course, kept running so they could present traditional Mongolia when visiting foreign dignitaries came to town, but it kept the fires going til freedom found its way back to the steppes, borne thence on the wings of Beatles tunes.

I visited Gandan during my second Tsagaan Sar, the Mongolian new year celebration. The cold was – as usual for Mongolia in January – brutal, and I was swaddled in layers as I bused into town and walked up the hill. I probably would have been better off staying warm in my apartment, but just like Christmas Tsagaan Sar brings religion out in people, and I came out to witness it. I walked through the main hall, spinning prayer wheels and hoping to see some sand painting, since a student had told me they'd seen it there once. The statue of Avalokiteshvara looked down on us from the gloom, smiling benevolently on our hopes for the new year. The Mongolians were dressed in beautiful new deel, brilliantly colored silk coats lined with horse hair or sheep's fleece. I followed them into some of the smaller prayer halls, where the monks chanted in saffron robes, bestowing blessings on the supplicants.
Since coming to Mongolia I've kind of been chasing Buddhism. Although it's not for me and I've never been under any illusion that it was, there are things I can learn from it.  The fact that Buddha is okay with sharing like that is one of the things that appeals to me. Thus we went out to the Naadam stadium one evening in mid-May to celebrate Visak Puja, the day when his birth, enlightenment, and death are remembered. The sun was still fairly high above the horizon when we set our packs on the dry grass. The smooth surface of the field for the national games was punctuated by candles on poles. As night slowly fell, we were joined by monks, and the meditation began, accompanied by their chants, the blaring of their horns, and the crashing of their cymbals. We knelt on the grass, bowing, letting the calm wash over us. Finally, it was dark, and volunteers brought around fire to light the torches. After more speaking, or preaching (it's hard to tell when you don't speak the language), a large white paper lantern was given to each group. We unfolded it and stuck the wishes we'd written onto its surface, then held it over the torch to light the block of wax underneath. Like a tiny hot-air balloon, it filled with air, and at the word we released it. They rose shimmering into the night, carrying our dreams.

Having realized the soul is what's been leading me by the nose around the world, it seems so obvious. After all, I spent my first summer off from Mongolia learning the names of the different boddhisatvas and their poses and the stories about them from sassy lady guides in Tibet and Bhutan. Before I wandered around with Buddha, it was Allah; I lived two years in the Middle East and still have a soft spot for minarets and muezzin. So I was happy to come across this old friend while visiting Bayan-Olgii province.

My friends and I went there, to Mongolia's own Wild West to see the Eagle Festival. We'd been dreaming of weathered-faced men on their horses, eagles nobly perched on their arms, and we were not disappointed. But as a bonus, we got a blast from our pasts: the call to prayer drifting out on the evening air from the town's mosques as we wandered the streets looking for a good restaurant. Western Mongolia is less than thirty miles from the eastern border of Kazakhstan, and home to a sizeable population of Kazakhs. In many ways, Bayan-Olgii is more Kazakh than Kazakhstan; the same communist rule that was so hard on Buddhists was satisfied to leave this minority to their own devices. Kazakh culture in its own country was not as lucky as part of the USSR.

Having seen the hunters in action, we hired a driver and cook to take us to visit Altai Tavan Bogd, the highest peak in Mongolia. As we drove out over rough and tumble roads, it became clear that the muezzin wasn't the only sign that we weren't in Kansas anymore. Topping out over a pass, we saw no stones piled in an ovoo to greet us and celebrate the fact that we'd come that far safely. Instead, strewn occasionally along the way between the rugged mountains we came across cemeteries. Marked graves are few and far between in Central Mongolia; the traditional way of sending your loved ones to their next life was to leave the body on a mountain side. You'd know if they were eaten by a creature of the sky that they would be reincarnated in a higher state; those eaten by dogs and other earth-bound animals would find themselves in a lower plane of existence. Since Kazakh Mongolians are largely Muslim, this would be sacrilege.  We asked our driver to stop, and we wandered in the gate of the cemetery. Walls of stones surrounded piles of stones atop the graves, and one wall held a long pole topped with a crescent. We took in the solitude with reverence, then moved on.

As a nomadic people, moving on is something Mongolia understands. Someday I'll take one last flight out. I contemplated this as I waited to board my flight out for the holidays, finally at peace with my decision to spend my time traveling. Someday the steppes will roll out behind me, instead of before me, but the marks they have left on my soul will remain. 

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Straight Up Trippin'

I have dreamed - and continue to dream - of being a travel writer.  I don't mean the kind who travels full-time, because I know myself well enough to realize that 3 weeks of flying solo is about as much as I can handle before I need at least one familiar face.  But occasionally when I'm writing about my travels I'm kind of clever (when I'm not being obscene) and maybe one day maybe someone will figure that out, so I keep plugging away at my blog.  I have also dreamed at least twice of being a tour guide.  I would either make a fantastic guide, or a terrible one.  Fantastic, because I'm pretty damn good at making plans and finding my way around.  Terrible because my style of travel tends to involve feeling places out and reading about them later, if I'm so inclined.  I actually loathe guides for this reason, and I only allowed Evil to hire one when we were traveling in India is because she promised hers was willing to shut up and take our pictures, if that was what we wanted.  But whether I make a great one or a horrible one, I'm giving it a shot anyways.  As I've mentioned, I organized a school trip for my darlings to Turkey.  I've been there before, in 2008, and have wanted to return ever since, and although I'm not going back for what I wanted to go back for (namely, visiting Pamukkale and Cappadocia), I can't wait to go back.

Well, on my way back from Greece I had a 20-hour layover, so I took the opportunity to get out and double check on a few points of our itinerary.  I've been meaning to write about making this trip happen, and I guess the time has finally come.  We leave four weeks from today, so I suppose it's about bloody time.

I was aided and abetted by the fact that I'd been at the school for almost two years when I first mentioned the trip to the Powers that Be, so I'd had some time to prove that I wasn't
a.) some idiot who couldn't handle the logistics of a simple field trip, or
b.) some freak who was going to sell kids off in another country.  The real planning finally started last May, when I realized that flying our kids to Turkey would only cost a little more than flying them to Hong Kong (my original plan), and they were a lot less likely to have been there.  There have been concerns since I started planning - my principal had heard about protests last spring and in the fall everyone was panicking about ISIS being on the border - but we re-evaluated in January and everyone agreed to go ahead and proceed with the trip.

There is probably a lot I should have done over the summer, but the sum total of work I did towards this end was buying the Lonely Planet guide to Istanbul.  Getting back and getting into my classroom again helped kind of light the fire under me, and I put together a brochure with information for students and their parents, as well as a slideshow with the info, which I shared in an assembly and during two parent info nights.  This meant some persuasive writing about why this was good for our students with links to curriculum ("Because travel is cool" doesn't quite cut it), putting together a workable itinerary with room for the students to give input if there was something that they wanted to check out (but only in the evenings), researching hotels and bus companies because we needed to get in from the airport and wanted to take a side trip to visit Gallipoli and Troy, checking out costs for different sites (some of which may be incorrect - I visited the Basilica Cistern on my way back from Greece and I'd had the wrong admission price for it) and putting together a trip budget, which was based on 20 students and two chaperones...since we are now down to 12 students, a lot of the money they've fundraised has to go to that difference.

And speaking of fundraising, I've spent just about every Monday morning since October helping my kids run a coffee shop, which offered Starbucks brew, cookies Engrish was kind enough to bake, as many different varieties of cupcakes as I could come up with (Dreamsicle is this week's invention), tea, hot chocolate, and smoothies, which the kids have to bring fruit for.  We've raised about $1000 with only about 40 minutes a week, and the kids have had a lot of fun with it.
Right now I'm bogged down with the last minute logistics - getting payments in, last minute checks, getting medical info and notaries, because apparently you can't leave the country with minors unless their parents have given you temporary guardianship.  Champ has helped a lot in this area - since she's in charge of our sports teams she's already dealt with it marvelously and has let me tweak some of her documentation and answered all sorts of questions at all hours of the day.  Our Go-To Girl has also helped a lot - Turkish Airlines, for example, is a lot easier to deal with in Mongolian over the phone than it is via email, and she's helped us order our hoodies.  I wanted something that would help me spot our kids in a crowd so this is where the rest of the fundraising money is going.  They'll also be part of the school uniform for next year, so the kids were pretty excited that they were getting them before everyone else, and I hope the parents will appreciate one thing they don't have to spend money on.

Currently at the top of my to-do list is finishing a travel journal for them with some information on the sites we're visiting and space for writing and drawing (with exercises to help them get started).  This will also include safety and cultural information that I'll go over with them in a meeting before we go.  Originally I thought we'd have this meeting in a local Turkish restaurant, but I'm thinking it may just be better to do it after school some evening.  After that, I'll just be getting final information in and triple-checking everything.  It's been a lot of work and a lot of stress, but if any kids have ever deserved it, these kids do.  I can't wait to share traveling with them, and I hope they'll enjoy it.

Friday, March 6, 2015

This Camel's Straw

If I had a tugrug for every time I curse the person who came up with, "Getting there is half the fun," I'd be able to pay for my students' trip to Istanbul...

My trip to Greece over Tsagaan Sar ended up being even more of a mad dash than it was originally supposed to be.  The timing of it couldn't be helped - when Western and Eastern calendars magically line up, you have to seize the day and hope that everything goes according to plan.  It just so happened that in this case it didn't, exactly.

I arrived at the airport on February 19th to be greeted by one word, "CANCELLED."  Apparently it was snowing in Istanbul and for some reason this was a problem.  I've never had a flight outright cancelled, and lacking better coping mechanisms I sat down and cried a little before calling Enkhaa to ask if he could come back and get me.  While I was waiting, an airport worker came and told me I should go upstairs to the Turkish Airlines office, where I was told the next flight was on Saturday.  I told them I couldn't wait that long, and when they said they'd have to put me through Beijing or Seoul, I begged them to put me on the flight to Seoul that night.  They sent me away, promising to call and that they would try.  Four hours later I was booked on the next afternoon's flight through Beijing and would arrive 1.5 days later than I was supposed to, not to mention the fact that it meant I would be traveling with the Chinese, who are not my favorite seatmates, to say the least.  I was pissed but there was nothing I could do and 1.5 days late is better than 2, so I resigned myself to another day in UB.  Which had lovely weather for a change but even with the best weather is still not Greece.

The next day I came to the airport, checked in, and was faithfully waiting to board my flight, when it was announced to be delayed, and then five minutes later, cancelled.  SON OF A BITCH!  I joined the queue of people waiting to talk to Air China, and then figured, "Screw this, I'll call the guy from Turkish Airlines," who it turned out was on his way to the airport to deal with those of us who had been added to this flight.  The unfortunate people who were just going to Istanbul were switched to the next day's flight, which was predicted to leave 5 hours late and treated to a taxi ride back to a complimentary hotel.  I once again begged to be put on a flight to Korea - for once, Korean hadn't cancelled a flight when China had, and I can handle pretty much anything if I know there's a bath house in my immediate future - and this time succeeded.  In the end I would get to Athens two days late, but as long as I got to spend time with Bronte, got to stuff my face with Greek food, and got to go to Bourani, I could cope.

After my breakfast at Butterfinger Pancakes got #rekt by Seol Nal (they open late during Lunar.  Who knew?) I went back to Incheon to wait and wait and wait.  Boarding time came and went, while we waited on some sort of delay.  I was starting to get nervous, because I only had an hour in Istanbul to make my connection, but after 15 minutes, we started to board the plane.  And THEN we sat on the tarmac for at least another half hour, waiting to take off, which I figured basically destroyed my chances of making it to Athens that night.  As we flew over central Asia, I watched the clock and counted the minutes we made up.  I had the vaguest hope that maybe, just maybe, I might make it on my flight.  Probably not my luggage, which I was kicking myself for checking at that point, but again - Bronte, Greek food, Bourani, so life goes on.

It was 45 minutes to take off when the plane touched down and started to taxi out to the back 40, because apparently that's how Turkish Airlines rolls.  When we were finally deboarding I managed to get on the first shuttle, the classy one, and got into security 30 minutes before take-off, while the screens flashed, "FINAL CALL" on my flight.  I crammed my stuff into the bins, and of COURSE set off the buzzer when I went through the metal detector.  I explained to the frisk-ee lady that it was my shoes, so she made me take them off and go put them through the x-ray.  When I was finally cleared I started shoving things in my pockets, grabbed my boots, and ran off while someone was still trying to give me back a handful of paek-won coins that fell out on their way to my pocket.  Honestly lady, I don't give a crap about 50 cents.

I ran.  I ran through the main part of the airport, and ran down the moving walkway, until the treads hurt my socked feet enough to make me stop and slip on my boots - precious wasted time.  I ran and ran and ran until I got to the gate, number 303, where the staff replied to my breathless, agitated state with, "It's okay, one more shuttle is coming."  When the shuttle got there, I got on.  And then a member of the flight crew got on.  And then we went to the plane.  As we pulled away from the gate, I saw the entrance to security, a mere fifty feet away from the door I'd just walked through.  I made a mad dash across the airport, and the damn gate was RIGHT THERE.  And I was the last passenger to board, but that was okay, because Bronte and Greek food and Bourani.  So there.

As we were sitting and waiting to take off, the announcement came on that we were waiting for some luggage to be loaded.  Say whaaaaa?!?  Was there a possibility that one single thing would go right on this trip?????  I got to the baggage claim in Athens, and the answer was, "NO."  My luggage was not there.  I went to the luggage counter and made my claim, and after telling them I wouldn't be in Athens the next day was promised that they could put it on a bus to Larisa.  Finally, FINALLY I walked through the doors to see Bronte's sunshiney, smiling face.  And then we went to Gazi where we stayed out all night eating and drinking and talking before catching the first train to Larisa, and if I had no luggage it didn't matter, because I was in Greece, at long last, and we were in a compartment by ourselves so we could stretch out and sleep and after setting my phone to go off a half-hour before we should have arrived, we were gooooood.

Or she was, anyways.  I was jetlagged, which goes along with traveling and is just as well, because a half-hour before the alarm was set to go off, I poked my head up to see which station we were coming to, and it turned out to be Larisa.  I nudged Bronte awake, asking if this was our Larisa, and we shoved our boots on as we grabbed our backpacks and hopped off the train.

Let me just stop here for a minute to say that in spite of being very good friends with Bronte and having worked together for almost three years in South Korea, we have only traveled together once, on a very tightly controlled Adventure Korea trip to Geumgangsan in North Korea.  After the luck I had during this trip, she may never want to try it again.  I have had the occasional bout of bad travel karma, particularly when it comes to delayed flights (even without throwing Mongolia into it), but it has never, EVER been this bad.  It's possible that my jealous God didn't really want me going to Dionysos' revels, but what can I say?  I've gotten good at kicking against the pricks lately.  And since that last sentence sounds a lot less religious in this context than it was meant to, I guess it's time to move on.

After sitting down for a few minutes in the cafe at the station, we decided to go to the Hotel Achillion, which I'd booked and then cancelled in a panic because I thought I was going to get stuck in Mongolia.  Here, at last, was a ray of sunshine - the old papous who ran the hotel noticed that I had booked it, cancelled, and then showed up anyway, and the 30 or so euro that were forfeit because of my late cancellation he applied to our bill when we left.  It was not a luxury hotel, because that's not how we roll, but it was clean and convenient and they served a good breakfast which Bronte assured me was Clean Monday appropriate and were helpful.  Even if they hadn't put the cancellation toward the bill, I would have been happy with the Achillion.

And hallelujah! - the wifi worked!  When we got to the room I called on my skype credit to the baggage company (Bronte's phone had stopped working some time the night before...possibly my bad luck striking again).  Yes, my luggage had arrived!  Yes, they could deliver it Larisa!....but not until Tuesday, thanks to the holiday.

...it took me a minute to process this...

Well, I guessed I'd just have to pick it up that day on my way back to Mongolia and I'd be spending pretty much five days straight in the same clothes and stinky because Bronte didn't have deodorant because she didn't USE deodorant because of her awesome Korean genes but that's okay because BRONTE AND GREEK FOOD AND BOURANI!!!!!!!!

And it was.  We had a great time and talked pretty much non-stop for three days and ate some good food - buyurdi is my new Greek love - and after one last dinner in the shadow of the Parthenon on Tuesday evening, we went back to the airport so I could claim my luggage.  I followed the instructions - went to Info, went through a door, picked up a phone, went through another door, was sent to get my suitcase and tried to go back the same way.  And I finally, FINALLY lost my shit when the lady told me I couldn't.  No.  I had to go ALL THE FUCKING WAY DOWN TO CUSTOMS AND COME ALL THE FUCKING WAY BACK TO MEET BRONTE.  I don't think she understood the severity of the situation - that this was the worst travel experience of my life to date, and why the hell did I need to go through customs when I was just going to take the damn thing upstairs to re-check it???  I, however, did - I was in a secure area of the airport and if I went nuclear at that point like I really wanted to, I was pretty likely to find myself enjoying the hospitality of Greece on an extended basis, and although I'm sure the food in Greek prisons is probably better than anywhere else in the world, I didn't really want to find out.  So I stomped off, swearing under my breath, and after putting on deodorant and putting on fresh new clothes for the first time since leaving Mongolia, I made Bronte go with me to get my hair chopped off at the airport salon, which was surprisingly good (in fact, she decided to go ahead and get her Emeli Sande haircut there this month on her way to the States) and actually calmed me down a lot.  Which is good, because I still had three hops including a long layover to get me back to Mongolia.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Soundtrack for a White Moon

An old saying tells us that music soothes the savage beast.  It has a nicer ring to it than "music soothes the slightly off-balance ginger," but that happens to be true, too.  This is a story about a night Engrish, Time Lady, and I spent in Hell.  Not, sadly, the warm-fuzzy kind of Hell I lived in for three years under the devil of an ahjusshi whom I honestly found kind of sexy (and to whom you and I both know I'd probably sign my soul away again if I was given the chance).  No, this is a Hell we unknowingly walked ourselves into.

A week and a half ago the office Go-To Girl (who is amazing and without whom my Big, Fat, Mongolian Student Art Show probably wouldn't have happened) sent around an ad for a special Tsagaan Sar event organized by the Ambassador's Club at the Square Pub.  The Square Pub - in case I haven't told you - is one of those places where you pay for the view.  The food and drinks are alright, but overpriced.  However, every time we go there for live music, it knocks us out.  We saw Arga Bileg play there last Tsagaan Sar and fell in love.  So the fact that folk band Domog was playing hooked us.  I knew we'd seen them before - we went to a big Mongolian concert last spring, and they were among the many bands that played - but I couldn't remember them specifically, and both Engrish and I were eager to hear them again.  Time Lady wasn't so sure, but I talked her into giving it a chance, and by the end of the first set we were all in love (they throat sang "Time to Say Goodbye" later - I mean, c'mon, what's not to love???)

Which is a good thing, because the night seemed doomed to end badly (as in, me with blood on my hands) before it even got started.  I don't know if you've picked up on this from my assorted ramblings to date, but I'm not exactly the easiest person to get along with.  If you're not a total dumbass, or a megalomaniac, or completely incompetent, I can probably sit at a table with you for a couple of hours and get along.  And even if you are, if you have something else to offer, I might be able to manage.  Unfortunately, there are a lot of people in this world that I just can't stand, and quite a few of them work at my school.  I don't have the patience to put up with their bullshit, especially after the kind of action-packed six weeks we've just finished.  So when Time Lady said her friends - with whom I can deal on a good day - wanted to sit with us, I was just like, "Eah," and left school with Engrish.  We got to the pub around 6:30, and were seated at the best table in the house.  Which with 8 chairs was one of the small tables set up for the night.  So I texted Time Lady and said, "On second thought, you three go ahead and sit with us."

Seven o'clock came and went with us being the only ones there, and just before Time Lady's entourage got there, two of my favorite - that word should just absolutely drip with sarcasm - people walked in.  I didn't look at them, because I was hoping that the staff at Square Pub would take them somewhere else.  Wild Ass said it best when she told us she'd rather shoot herself than spend an evening with these guys, and here they were, being brought to sit right next to me.  The gag reflex I'd been trying to master since cleaning up vomit earlier in the day threatened to win out.  See, it's bad to be incompetent and megalomaniacal.  It's even worse to be butt ugly (maybe I'm being shallow, but a pretty face will cover a whole host of sins).  There is a small chance that I can forgive a person for being boring, ugly, and stupid, but don't you dare fuck with my favorite students.  So I spent the evening sending Engrish snide texts, not making eye contact, and speaking only when directly addressed.

Luckily Time Lady and company got there before it could get any worse.  When a third group of coworkers entered the pub, there was only one seat left at our table, so we were spared the addition of hokey jokes to the awkward conversations in between unbelievable sets of music.  Which is good, because Engrish might not have forgiven me for abandoning ship.  As it was I was out of my seat saying, "AW HELLS NO," before I could figure out that we only had one seat, and they were three people.

And this is good, because abandoning Engrish would have made me a terrible person.  I'm on shaky enough ground as it is.  One of my many nicknames for Engrish is "Dalai Lama," because she is a trooper - she deals extremely diplomatically with shitty situations and people (I'll let you figure out how I refer to myself, but here's a clue...it ain't Mother Teresa).  So while I was sending her snide texts and ignoring the scary eyes on my right, she was making conversation.  She's good people, and I'm sure there are people out there who say that because she puts up with me.  They're not wrong.

All that said, the music actually made everything worth it.  After two sets by Domog we were blown away by a band we'd never even heard of - Mongolia's first ukelele band, TigerFish.  They were so great that after making cinnamon swirl pancakes for my nearest and dearest I went out and bought a copy of both bands' albums, to which I am listening to it as I type this.  That last post, about where to shop for souvenirs in Mongolia?  I went to HiFi for this music.  You should too.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Mongol Gifts

Tsagaan Sar is coming soon - in fact I am counting the days.  Not because I am looking forward to eating lots and lots of buuz (steamed mutton dumplings), but because I am getting the heck out of town and visiting Bronte in Greece.  Lots of other people are looking forward to a local celebration, though.  Before you know it, every store will be flooded with displays of sweets (and I might actually be able to find my favorite Russian chocolates) and those fried bready-things that go along with the festivities.  There will be lots of gift sets, and Mongolian traditional clothes, deel, for sale, as well.  To meet this need, some marketing genius three years ago decided they should offer a national product expo, with everything at wholesale prices, and it's been happening every year ever since.

This year, Engrish, Blondie, and I decided we would go.  It's being held at the Misheel Expo these days, and Blondie wanted some new furniture, so this worked out well.  The Enkhaa Express picked us up around 2 and we headed out via the airport road.  I was stoked to check out all the Mongolian products.  Since I began planning the event that may prove once and for all that I am completely insane (henceforth to be called "Spring Break Shenanigans With Twelve Hormonal Teenagers" or SBSWTHT), I've been more than usually interested in local crafts.  This year's fundraising has not gone as smoothly as I would have liked, but if I ever try this again (ha) I want to be prepared.

But here's the thing:  pretty much everybody in UB was there.  Okay, that might be an exaggeration, but this was the first - and hopefully last - time I've felt like I was in China without leaving Mongolia.  You could not casually browse anything.  You had to mean business.  You had to be ready to stand your ground.  There was pushing. And shoving.  I had one hand on my purse at all time, because this would be prime pickpocket territory.  And disappointingly, there was nothing to really interest or inspire me.  There were a lot of gorgeous deel and boots, but a sturdy woman like me can't just walk up and buy much of any clothing in Asia, and I already had a pearl headdress.  So it did not take me very long to say, "Forget this!" and move as quickly and politely as I could to the end to wait for my two friends.

IF you are in Mongolia and you want some great souvenirs to take home, this is not the place to go.  Sorry.  You will not see Mongolia at its best (a fact I decided even before we passed a huge snarl of cars trying to get in/out as we were leaving).  You might save yourself a couple of bucks, but let's face it - if you are traveling in Mongolia, you can probably afford to spend a little more money.  Do yourself a favor and try:
1. The souvenir center on the top floor of the State Department Store:
They have everything.  I'm not exaggerating this time.  Bow and arrows, shagai (sheep anklebones used for fortune telling and games), clothing (traditional AND t-shirts), embroidery, quilts, furs, felting, shoes, paintings...  They have more than the Mongol Gifts expo and there are fewer people.  And while you're in SDS, you can stop on the second floor to check out their selection of cashmere, although I've decided it's not my favorite place for cashmere (keep reading).
"I saw the sign" - in the middle on the left side of the picture
2. Mary and Martha:
If you like your souvenirs to come with warm fuzzy feelings, this is the place to go.  Mary and Martha is a fair-trade organization, and deals directly with artisans and good organizations that do things like get women out of prostitution.  They have a LOT of Kazakh embroidery, some of it antique, my favorite felt slippers, AND they're very helpful.  It's a little hard to find them, because you'll have to turn north off Peace Ave about a block before the State Department Store, but there's a nice big sign to help you, and it's well worth leaving the beaten path.
3. Tsagaan-Alt Wool Shop:
This place has hats, scarves, slippers, toys, wall-hangings...just about everything you could want made out of wool - all very high-quality and with tons of selection.  It's less than a block down Beatles Street from the State Department Store, on the right hand side.
4. Gobi Cashmere:
Remember what I said about not being able to buy readymade clothing?  Gobi actually carries larger sizes - I bought a cashmere deel there this fall, and although I'm still trying to figure out what to wear with it, the fact that they have things I like in my actual size gets them tons of points.  Mongolian cashmere is awesome and you should definitely buy some.  Gobi has lots of locations, but there are two right in the middle of UB - one block south of the post office, and less than a block west of there on Seoul Street.

5. Hi-Fi Records:
You owe it to yourself to bring home some Mongolian music.  If you don't care much for traditional straight-up khoomi (throat singing) or morin khuur (horse-head fiddle), try some fusion.  There are a lot of great groups, but my favorites are Altan Urag's take on rock and Arga Bileg's jazz.  There is a branch of Hi-Fi in the SDS and one a little east and opposite on Peace Ave.

BTW, sorry about the long hiatus.  Two words: art show.  Maybe I'll write about it one of these days.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Temple Trip

I've been traveling long enough that I should know better.  I've lost my luggage before, but it hasn't happened in a long time, and never when time was limited, so I guess I was lulled into a false sense of security.  When I left Mandalay, I put pretty much everything into my checked suitcase and carried light in my backpack.  So, when I got to Siem Reap and my suitcase did not, it wasn't exactly the best day ever.  I had no clean clothes.  I had no toiletries.  I had no sunscreen and no hat.  Basically I was screwed, and it sucked.  It would have been okay if Bangkok Airways had brought my luggage that evening, but in actual fact it was almost 1 the next day when my luggage finally did arrive.  Live and learn, I guess, but Cambodia was a rough leg of the trip thanks to that start.
I arranged with one of the drivers from Shadow of Angkor Guesthouse to take me around to the temples.  The first morning was another early roll-out...we left at 5:30 in order to be out at Angkor Wat before sunrise.  And then we got to Angkor Wat and I saw the hordes of tourists and I developed a new philosophy on sunrises, and it goes something like this: Fuck the sunrise.  Of course it would have been ridiculous to turn around and go back, so I asked him if we could go somewhere else to see the sunrise, and he took me to Sa Srang,  It was once a royal bathing pond, and it made for a nice sunrise, since there were almost no tourists.
Another nice thing about Sa Srang is its proximity to Ta Prohm.  From what I'd read about the Angkor group, this was the temple I was most interested in seeing.  I was fascinated by the way nature had pretty much raised her middle finger here regarding what humanity built up.  You can see the devastation of time in most of the Angkor temples, but Ta Prohm has really been wrecked; trees started growing and basically just strong-armed their way through the place, roots pushing between the blocks of stone and taking it over.  Walking through its wildness in the post-dawn glow, nearly alone, I could almost imagine myself as an archaeologist-adventurer.  And although other parts of the Angkor group were nice - gorgeous, or impressive - I think Ta Prohm really was my favorite because of that untamed feeling it had.
When I was finished imagining myself as Lara Croft, we went on to Angkor Thom, which is actually the largest complex in the Angkor group, since it was not just a temple, but rather a city, where the sacred and the profane walked together.  My driver urged me to have breakfast, so I stopped for some fried rice.  I wasn't particularly hungry, since it was so hot, and didn't get my appetite back until I returned to Thailand, but the coke I drank with it did me a world of good.  Then I started exploring Angkor Thom with the Bayon, followed by Ta Phuon, and took pictures of the terraces of the elephants and the Leper King before calling it a day.  I explained that I needed to go back to the guesthouse so I didn't get sunburned, and since he had to get up even earlier than I did, I think he was glad to oblige me.  We made a plan for the next day, and I settled in to wait on my luggage.
At 7:30 the next day we headed out to see #2 on my list: Banteay Srei, which is considered the jewel of Khmer art.  It's way the hell out of the city, and I told myself that maybe it wouldn't be too crowded.  This was a lie.  As we puttered down the road we were passed by bus after bus of Chinese tourists.  I remember a time when Japanese tourists with big cameras were the traveler's bane, but those days are long gone.  I had to maneuver around groups of 20-30 people, all listening raptly to their guides and taking tons of pictures.  The carvings on this temple were totally worth it, though.  I wished we were allowed to get closer to the central buildings, though, because the carvings were really spectacular.
After a couple of other temples I finally made my way to Angkor Wat in the afternoon.  I asked my guide when it would be the least crowded, and he said that people start to thin out around 11, and that they get busier again around 3, leading up to sunset.  We got there maybe around 12:30, and it was immediately apparent to me why there are fewer people in the middle of the day: it is hot as hell.  All I'd eaten that day was a cherry coke and a banana and I still wasn't hungry, but I allowed myself to be persuaded in favor of, "Cool drinks, madam?" and sat at the "Harry Potter" stall, which should have been numbered 9 3/4, but was disappointingly #5.

When I finished my drink and the afternoon's entertainment of watching tourists beseiged by 5-year old touts, I moved on to visiting Angkor Wat in earnest.  Unlike its brother and sister temples, Angkor Wat was never abandoned, so you're seeing the temple as it has always been, minus expected wear and tear.  It's the largest religious structure in the world (by which I assume they mean the entire complex rather than just the temple proper), and it's a doozy.  The temple has three levels to it, the third of which you access by some pretty steep stairs.  As I stewed in my own juices under the roasting sun, I asked myself if I really needed to climb up there.  I'd seen lots of carvings and appreciated the architecture just fine from where I was, right?

In the end I decided I would regret it if I didn't climb up there, and I was right.  The view of the grounds was stunning.  The temple itself was stunning.  It wasn't swarmed with tourists, and the climb down wasn't bad, although I recommend doing it backwards (your feet fit better that way).  I sat up there for a while and just took it all in.

As I was gearing up for the trip, I came across some comparisons between Angkor and Bagan on WikiTravel.  They were quite poetic and also accurate, but missed out on what I thought was the real difference between the two - while both are tourist sites, the Bagan temples are used by actual spiritual seekers.  Maybe it was my imagination, or maybe my passive-aggressive loathing for Tourists, but I think there's something about taking your shoes off that makes a place special, that inclines you to feel more.  Don't get me wrong, I liked them both and wouldn't have wanted to miss either, but there was just something breathtaking about Bagan.  

Sunday, December 28, 2014

All that Glitters...

They say that all that glitters is not gold.  As an art teacher I've got enough experience with glitter (which never, ever goes away) to know the truth of this saying.  However, I also know that nothing has quite the same glow to it that gold does.  And across Mandalay and heck, let's go ahead and say it - all across Myanmar - you will see gold glittering.
Enough gold to draw the attention of a dragon (AAGH!  HOW EXCITED AM I TO SEE THE FIVE ARMIES IN THE NEXT DAY OR SO WITH DOUGIE-POO?!?)  Kristen had a philosophical disagreement with all this gold, but who am I to judge...I belong to a temple-building religion and they don't come cheap.  On my final day in Myanmar I decided I needed to visit one more of these temples, because at the Mahamuni Pagoda, they did a special ceremony every morning - the washing of the Buddha's face.
My driver from the day before told me he would pick me up at 4am to take me there.  It's funny that I keep getting up early - traveling is not exactly a relaxing time for me like it is for other people.  We got to the pagoda around 4:30, where he had me wait to be let in by the gate, where people were selling flowers and snacks to give as offerings during the ceremony.  There were plenty of mosquitoes and they all seemed to think my ankles were a great place to grab a snack.  At 5 they opened the gates and let us in.  My feet (bare for the last time!) were struggling after I spent a good long while wandering around on them the previous night, so I did not hot-tail it down the corridors where vendors would be hawking their wares in a matter of hours, but I was close enough to the front of the pack that I got to sit in the women's enclosure (behind, of course, the men's section, but since I could still see just fine we'll let it pass.

After sitting for another half hour (in which more mosquitoes dined on my sweet, sweet blood), the ceremony finally started.  The monks opened the room where the statue waited and set up a scaffold just in front of the Buddha's chest, then brought in offerings of flower arrangements, which they set up on the scaffold.  Helpers in white robes came in and mixed up the liquid that they used to wash the gold and removed the flowers so that the monk could climb up.  Three sheets of saffron silk were draped around the statue's shoulders, reminding me of a bib, especially with all the food offerings that people had bought, but I attempted to squelch this thought.  Finally, the bucket of suds was passed up and the monk began to bathe the Buddha, gently rubbing the wet sponge over his glowing visage.  The water which ran down and dripped from his chin was caught by the cloth, preserving the gold which covered his chest.  When the Buddha was clean (or as clean as you can be without scrubbing behind those big ol' ears), the monk dried and polished his face, using two or three different cloths to buff the statue until it had a countenance like lightning.

I finally got up and unfolded my legs, stepping out of the little sitting area.  I returned past the shops, some of which were beginning to open, until I made it back out to my taxi.  As we drove back through the pre-dawn streets, I couldn't help but notice who was out at this hour - monks and pilgrims - and contrasted it with the saying I tried to remember about how drunks and whores are the only ones out before dawn.  Meanwhile I was growling with hunger.  I'm so accustomed to the cold that in these suddenly hot climates I haven't had much of an appetite.  However, there's nothing like rolling out at 4 in the morning to make you remember you haven't eaten much since yesterday afternoon.

After winding down post-python the previous day, I decided to go out for a walk and find the Shan noodle shop that Kristen had taken me to the night before.  She and her friends knew the best places for food, and the Shan noodles were no exception, so I wandered over in the general direction and eventually found it for an encore (with the yogurt she introduced me to for dessert).  I decided to go ahead and see the Moustache Brothers show that night, which didn't start til 8:30, but I thought I might just wander til then.  Eventually my feet let my brain know this was an idiotic idea, so I went back to the hotel and chilled for a couple of hours before walking over.

The Moustache Brothers are fairly well-known for their political satire.  Two of the three served prison time for telling jokes in a country that didn't find them funny.  I may not be a great student of history, but I wanted to understand Myanmar better, so I chose to go to their show instead of the puppet show, which I'd been considering.  When I got to the house where they perform, I was greeted warmly by Lu Maw and his niece, Par Par Lay's daughter.  The night's show could more easily have been the Moustache Sisters, since Lu Maw was the only one of the original performers that night - the rest of the ensemble was largely his wife, his granddaughter, his sister.  Par Par Lay died in 2013, and the third brother, their cousin Lu Zaw, was absent.  After the show, I talked to some French people who were looking for a taxi at the same time as me, and they asked what I thought.  I told them I enjoyed it, and then they started talking about how hard it was to understand him and that they weren't sure if it was right for such a serious subject.  Which I guess I can understand, but the fact that he can maintain a sense of humor after all his family had been through instead of being bitter and angry is remarkable to me.  If I'd been going to see a kickass comedy routine, I probably would have been disappointed.  Lu Maw had some good jokes, but I could feel the absence of his brothers...he was one man doing the job of three.  What happened instead was that I got to feel something, a part of history, a subversive agent against corruption, a memorial to a moment in time.

I was going to share a taxi with them, but beyond the fact that they didn't get it, they just stood there waiting when no one was coming, and I'd rather at least be walking in the right direction, so that's what I did.  After about 3 blocks Par Par Lay's daughter rode up and asked if I needed a taxi - the vocation she had chosen rather than comedy.  I was thrilled to have a ride, to get back that much of the sleep I needed before the next morning's early roll out but also to contribute a little more.  Someone on TripAdvisor was disgruntled with the fact that the family sold their services after the show, as if it was a scam, but I was ecstatic.