Finding Nemo

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Alone on the Steppe, Chapter 7

Click to read Chapters 123, 45, or 6

Chapter 7: The Grass is Not Always Greener

Tummy filled, I set about getting the nest in order. I spread out the damp sleeping bag and inflated the pillow, but there was nothing that could be done about the fragrant smell of horse-sweat still steaming off the tack. Oddly, however, I found it much less annoying tonight. When I was growing up on a farm in Ohio, the spring brought wonderful smells. Blossoms on the fruit trees, flowers in the forest, and the delightful scent of fresh manure on the fields. Over the years I became accustomed to it. And when you think about it, cows and horses aren’t eating all the disgusting garbage humans put in their mouths. (Did you know that the Twinkie has 37 ingredients? Nom-nommm, Twinkies…) So if all you eat is grass, what comes out the back-end is about as natural as it gets. Perhaps horse-sweat and I were coming to a similar understanding.

Don't worry fat Americans, McDonald's isn't going anywhere
But something was wrong. It was too quiet. I looked up, and realized that for the entire time I had been busy feeding myself, Rocky had just stood there, motionless, tied to his tree. Last night at the hotel he had been busily munching all through the night. What was going on?

As I watched he walked a few feet, pawed the ground, then looked over at me. This was followed by an extremely loud, nervous neigh.

Another scream.

“Hey! Marshmellow brains! You really screwed me over this time.”

And then, incredibly, he sat down. By sitting down, I mean that he lowered himself onto all of his forelegs and dropped his head on the ground. If you ever spend time with horses, you realize that this position is very unusual. Something was definitely wrong. As I walked over he didn't even bother looking up.

My eyes looked him over carefully. He seemed OK enough, but then again I’m about as useful examining a horse as I am translating Egyptian hieroglyphics into Chinese.

Perhaps … well, perhaps he was just depressed. I mean, after all, over the last 3 days he’d been ripped from his family and home and crudely shipped off into the outback, then forced to run around in circles by a doofus. All while being completely overloaded. I had to cheer him up. I retrieved my brush and he dutifully stood back up to receive a little grooming. Afterwards he continued to blankly look at me. Katarina the horse-whisperer had warned me: horses can’t speak. When something is wrong, you must be a detective.

I stared at his nice tree in the middle of his nice clearing full of nice green food. Perhaps a little walk would perk him. I untied him and began leading him around a bit. As soon as we had left the clearing, he leaned forward and grabbed a big bite of grass. Hmm. But it was only a handful of bites and no more. We walked a bit further. Suddenly he took a few more bites. We continued to walk, and on his next snack I noticed something. He was only eating a particular kind of grass. Longer, thicker, and darker green than any of its surroundings, it could only be described as lush. I looked around with new eyes. Most of the “grass” in the area was actually cropped close to the ground and coarse looking. And in the clearing, which I assumed was the horse version of a Vegas-style Grand Buffet, there was not a single blade of the good stuff. Then it hit me: we were on a ranch, where almost all the good grass had been grazed awayAfter his long hard day, I had rewarded Rocky by tying him up in the middle of the desert.

A Horny Night

I bolted upright in the flimsy Chinese tent I’d bought from the black market. Thank Buddha it was actually protecting me the never-ending rain. I pricked my ears like a horse and waited. Then it happened again. *SNAP*. *CRACKLE*. *POP*. What on earth could it be?! I was already sleeping on knife edge, worried sick about horse thieves after realizing I was camping in the middle of a ranch. I remembered Katarina telling me how she had slept between her horses every night. After re-staking Rocky up next to the river’s edge, where the lush green grass he loved grew in abundance, I had moved my camp next to him out of fear.


After some frantic fumbling, I managed to turn on my headlamp. Where the hell was the tent zipper?! Half-asleep, disoriented, I grabbed at the zipper and yanked. It caught on something. Shit, Rocky! I turned over, my sleeping bag wrapped around me like a straightjacket, and managed to rrrrrrrrrrrip down the zipper on the other side. I spilled outside into the dewy night grass, stood up, and flashed the light over in Rocky’s direction.

A solitary eyeball reflected back.

Phew. But it didn’t answer the mystery. After walking over to Rocky and re-staking him to a fresh patch, I returned to the tent.

*POP*. *POP POP*. I turned the headlight onto the tent fabric. Little black dots were banging against the canvas. What the hell? I tumbled back outside and surveyed the scene. Before, half-asleep, I had missed the show. I took a step, and as my foot hit the earth a cloud of crickets exploded outwards. Another step, another explosion. Then I turned my flashlight back around, and noticed the little critters were so eager to hop about that the flung themselves with abandon into my tent.

I exhaled. It wasn’t a horse thief snooping about after all. It actually was turning out to be quite enjoyable walking among the cricket swarm. If I ran fast, the waves of flying insects grew so thick it felt like I was tramping in a cricket river. I hopped around, watching the waves of chirpers ripple outwards. I was their Cricket Overlord, their puppeteer. Flee before me and weep, pitiful insects!!! Bah ha ha ha!!!

See, look at his eyes. He needs his precious!
Growing bored of my new powers, I considered the situation. There were two threats, really. Like the previous night at the hotel, Rocky had enjoyed screaming at random intervals to attract as much attention as possible. This had undoubtedly alerted the nearby ranch to our presence. Horse thievery was common enough, but a creampuff tourist lost in the woods with a horse would be easier to steal from than candy from a sleeping baby drugged on cough syrup. And nobody wants to drug a sleeping baby. I mean, it's already asleep so why waste good cough syrup?

Are You Truly Any Different?

Since getting robbed by the police in Ulaanbaatar (a story I will tell soon), the problem of petty thievery had been knocking around in my brain. In the black market I had watched in disbelief as my friend was pick-pocketed right in front of me (luckily they picked an empty pocket). Every tourist you meet in UB has either been robbed or has a story of someone they met being robbed. It was ubiquitous in the city to the point of absurdity. And the problem extended into the countryside with the stealing of horses. Horses were almost never stolen if you traveled with a local guide, however. It was the solitary Western traveler who was a target.

I thought back to my time in India and Thailand. Scams are so common in these places, especially Delhi and Bangkok, that a traveler should always assume every taxi driver or “guide” is out for your money until proven otherwise. On a particular taxi ride in Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, my driver happened to speak good English. We chatted about his job and family; he seemed an honest hard-working man. I asked him why he thought there were so many scams of tourists.

" <Indian head bobbling…> …. Yes sir. I do see these things happening all the time. These are very bad people."

“Why do they all think it's OK to steal money from the tourists?” I was a poor backpacker after all. My clothes were tattered, my beard thick and dusty. I needed every nickel I had. Yet for some reason, every Indian I met apparently thought I shat gold bricks. (Which I can do, but it's just too painful.)

I hate being made of money. I'm always shedding
The cabbie was silent, his head bobbling grew more pronounced. Then: “Many of these tourists are having a lot of money. You know, many people here make very little. Maybe 50, 100 rupees in a day sir. Many people they are having no money at all. The tourists they are having so much I think the people believe that taking a little is not a bad thing.”

50 rupees was less than a dollar. Out of sheer dumb luck, the being called Nemo Taylor happened to be born among the 10% of the earth’s fortunate souls living in the Western world. You know, the countries in which white people, armed with superior technology and diseases of mass destruction, amassed empires of wealth by forcefully taking whatever they wanted from the Americas, Africa, and Asia. Thanks to the extermination of Native Americans by my ancestors, I sat at this moment in the back of this cab in India armed with a plastic ATM card that made me one of the wealthiest people in the country.

Yes, of course, I did study hard in college, and I did work fairly hard at my job to get enough money to travel. But the opportunity itself to go to an engineering school is something unimaginable to the filthy street urchins I saw climbing among the garbage out the cab window. You could argue they were already working harder, in more difficult conditions at 8 years old than I ever will. Yet here I sit, and there they dig.

As I have written about before, it is White Man’s Guilt. With the passage of time, I no longer hate those thieves who stole my money and left me stranded without a penny in Costa Rica. If not for the charity of a local who gave me $20 for food and a place to stay, I would have slept hungry in the street. The experience of not having that magic plastic card that separated me from all of the poverty-stricken locals made me appreciate my good fortune vividly. (Especially once I was able to buy Imperials again.)

Who is to say what would have happened to me if I had been born poor, without any chance for education, without any opportunity to live a comfortable life? Would I have been driven to steal? I would like to say 

“Never. I know who I am. I believe in living a moral life.”

But that is a dangerous assumption. During the Holocaust most “good” people went along with the regime out of fear. Anyone familiar with the Milgram experiment or the lurid story of the Donner Party, where the majority of survivors resorted to cannibalism, will know that each person possesses the capacity for evil, and that the context one is placed is usually more powerful than a person’s inherent character. Only the rare person is the exception. David Sloan Wilson's great book Darwin's Cathedral explains through group selection why all humans possess both altruistic (good) and violent (evil) aspects, (shout-out to my brother Nathan for recommending it).

As the Mighty Mighty Bosstone lyric says,

I'm not a coward,
I've just never been tested
I'd like to think that if I was, I would pass …
I'm afraid of what I might find out”

So when I thought of the pick-pockets roaming Ulaanbaatar and the horse thieves creeping around the countryside, I didn’t necessarily blame them. But those thoughts didn’t help me sleep either.

All through the cold black-as-ink night, yaks and cows bawled, twigs snapped, hooves thumped, and the swarm of crickets “Pop pop pop!”-ed into the canvas. Each time, I bolted upright, fumbled with the zipper, checked for Rocky’s shiny eyeball. And laid blearily back down.

Another sleepless night in Mongolia. On the bright side, at least my fingers weren’t about to freeze off. With that comforting thought, I lay eyes wide shut, nerves frayed like a badly knitted sock.

In the Mongolian summer, dawn comes too early and too late. You want the night to end so you can stop worrying about thieves and set off. But when the sky starts to lighten at 4am, you are too tired and cold to do anything but stay socked in your sleeping bag. Checking your watch every few moments seems to have the interesting effect of slowing down, and possibly reversing the earth’s rotation. There were a few times I was sure the sneaky minute hand had snuck backwards.

Flying in dreams is hard, because I have to flap my arms
The earth shook. I was flying above a smoke-belching volcano. It rumbled again, and an enormous cloud of gray ash began to rise and grow until it was larger than the volcano below. I was a speck of life before the irresistible force of death. The cloud, which had seemed to move so slowly before, was suddenly hurtling towards me at an impossible speed. I flapped my arms and tried to fly away but it was faster. And faster. It grew dark. And then, right before I was incinerated, I was sitting up in my tent.

The rumbling continued. Leaves rustled, brush snapped. Then a soft maaaaa-ooooo-eeh. It was sort of like a moo, if the cow had swallowed a cat in heat. I spilled out of the tent into the darkness. When my eyes adjusted, I realized I was nose-to-nose with a massive horned Yak bull. A large booger hung from a nostril. It was almost pretty, shining in the moonlight. He grunted and breath steamed out of his nose onto my face. Despite the fact that I was paralyzed in fear, I noticed that he had likely been eating wild onions.

I froze. He tilted his head so that he could get a better look. Then, after a beat, he turned away and started munching on the ground. My right leg was wet. I had peed myself.

Now, in my defense, my bladder was quite full at that point and an 800 pound animal had just about wiped its nose on my forehead. I hadn’t peed my pants since I was 5 years old. And technically, I suppose that was still true since I wasn’t wearing any pants at that moment. I looked around and noticed that an entire herd of animals was now grazing the clearing. Yaks and cows munched the top of the grass, followed by a parade of goats and sheep nibbling the stalks to the nub. They were a machine, a wall of teeth before which no blade of grass survived. No wonder poor Rocky hadn’t been able to find a single mouthful around here.

I watched nervously as the animals came right towards my tent, then parted as they streamed around both sides. In a few moments, they were gone, mowing down whatever was left in the forest beyond.

“How about that Rocky? You weren’t scared in the slightest, were you?” He leaned forward a bit, then began gushing out a volume of pee that only horses are capable of doing. He also had a full bladder, and clearly, he wanted to show that at least one of us was potty-trained.


  1. "So when I thought of the pick-pockets roaming Ulaanbaatar and the horse thieves creeping around the countryside, I didn’t necessarily blame them."

    Being totally nonjudgmental is my hardest goal. I guess I need to mp3 that book. I cannot help but think that if nobody blames them, nobody is punished, and there no need to tighten their legal system, and no reason for them to not just continue to teach occupational crime to their next generation of kids. In the long run there is a benefit to being judgmental. It is, ironically, the purest form of altruism, since it doesn't help you.

    1. Jason good comment. I should have made it more clear that of course I support the rule of law. Therefore I support punishment for crime. What I was trying to explain that even though you can punish someone for a crime, you can simultaneously be curious as to what circumstances drove a person to such an act. So I guess it's important to distinguish between empathy, which I'm arguing for, and sympathy, which I am not necessarily arguing for.