Finding Nemo

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Alone on the Steppe: Chapter 11

Click to read Chapters 123, 456789, or 10

Fear of the Other

I took some small pride in the fact that I broke down my horse and watered and staked him without any help from the guide. He was plenty busy with the four horses in his own group and I was happy not to be a burden. I quickly had my tent pitched and walked with my food to the side of the brook. Here I was pleased to be greeted by a pile of nomad fire stones. These stones were often left at good camping grounds and their presence saved the time and effort of gathering new ones. But it was more than that. To me, they were a greeting: “This is a safe place to camp, weary traveler. Welcome.

As I was about to light up a fire, I glanced up to notice our guide had finished with all the horses save his own. He lifted his saddle and an incredible sight was uncovered. His gorgeous black stallion had a horrific saddle sore, the size of a small dinner plate, pink and oozing blood and pus. I was shocked and disgusted. In the western world, even a small patch of worn hair and scarred skin under the saddle is cause for alarm. The horse must be rested and allowed to heal. To allow a saddle sore to progress to this point was simply unthinkable.

A bad saddle sore. At least this horse is seeing a vet
I thought back on the pace of this group, how the guide probably had to be back soon to meet the next tourist group. He had worked this horse day after day after day, never allowing it to heal. For Mongols, animals are simply a source of income. They are a commodity. When that commodity no longer produces, they are discarded. To allow the horse to heal would probably cost the guide more money in lost revenue than to work it death and buy a new one.

I tried to look away but could not. It was incongruent, this beautiful strong animal and its gaping wound. The guide obviously did not share my concern, and quickly broke it down with practiced efficiency.

I busied myself with collecting wood and lighting a fire, taking my mind off the horse. With little problem it was lit and my meal was cooking. I offered the fire to the guide, but he shook his head. Without another word, he re-saddled his commodity and rode off to the gers. Presently the girls finished with their tent and joined me. I mentioned the guide had left.

“Oh, that’s what he did last night,” said the blonde. “He’s going off to get drunk with his pals.”

I nodded. I suppose this wasn’t a surprise, really. I finished boiling my pot of water and offered the fire but the girls also declined. Damn. My one chance to offer something to the group had been a complete Fail. Instead, the grumpy Butch pulled out some plastic containers and proceeded to mix together various colorful tubes with a white paste. Upon finishing, they both tucked in with some spoons and made happy “mmmm-nnnmm” noises.

“This hummus is delicious! I can’t believe you managed to bring basil into Mongolia,” purred the blonde. 

“Yep ... *nosh* ... didya know the hummus is pesticide-free too,” replied the Butch. “We’re safe from the horde! Ha ha ha *snort*!!!” Apparently this was a very clever joke.

They giggled at their ingenuity in avoiding any chance of contamination from local food. I had to bite my lip to not burst out with incredulous laughter. Holy shit! I thought. They were f-ing vegetarians. And they had come to Mongolia, of all places! The land of meat, milk, and more meat and milk. I secretly prayed that they ran out of pesticide-free organic hummus and sun-dried vegan tomato paste, and I would have the pleasure of watching them force down dried yak.

I admit, I do like the thrill of sipping on the occasional snake blood cocktail or munching down a fried cockroach. But its much more than that. The whole point of getting your feet blistered, your nails dirty, and your hair twisted into a bird’s nest half-way across the world is to experience something different! It’s about seeing what those strange faces on the Discovery channel actually do for fun when the camera's off. It’s about the sudden realization that the tired old man plowing the rice paddy with his water buffalo, covered in muck and burnt under the sun, wants nothing more at the end of the day than to drink a beer and fart on the couch. Which is pretty much what I like to do.

It's one thing if you are stuck in your little pretentious bubble-world of organic hummus and kale smoothies at home. (Full disclosure: I love hummus and kale is strangely growing on me.) But it's quite another to take your bubble with you halfway around the world. How the hell are you supposed to reach out and make a meaningful connection to the local people if you are hiding in a tour bus? Well... you won't. It's not enough to walk in another man's shoes. If you want to understand another culture, you have to eat like them, drink like them, and yes, sometimes you have to squat above a slippery Chinese cliff and take a doodee.

For most people on a short trip, I understand it's not easy. They are there for the beautiful scenery. They aren't there to see how the locals live or, God forbid, make a connection. So I realize I'm ranting a bit. But it's a damn shame, really. I mean, going local is a total blast! You get to try new languages that make your mouth hurt, wear ridiculous clothes, slap new handshakes and bob new greetings, shout new drinking salutes, and perhaps most importantly, chow down on weird foods that somehow all taste a bit like chicken. The weirder the better in my opinion. There is nothing more fun than tucking into a revolting plate of “ants climbing trees” and being pleasantly surprised to find it tastes a like delicious soy-drenched Portobello.... mixed with chicken.

"Ants Climbing Trees." Yes it's real. Real good.
The people of Earth are full of wonders. Yet, we choose to remain divided. So few attempt even a small step across the gaps.

So, when I wanted my new lesbian friends to be forced to gnaw on dried yak, it was partly out of the knowledge that such a traumatic experience would become the best story of their trip to their horrified tofu-munching friends back home. But mostly, I just wanted to watch some vegans squirm as they ate meat.

As soon as they were finished, the Butch escorted her femme back to their tent. My hope of having pleasant conversation in real red-blooded American for the first time since I could remember quickly ended in disappointment. Once again, I was on my own for the night. I broke down the cooking fire to make a new bed of embers, and then plunked down a nice fat log. Just as the evening chill began to set in, the fire grew and the warmth from the flames began to pleasantly spill onto my face and arms.

I was alone, but it was a contented loneliness.

Fire Song

I pull out my tattered journal. The coarse, beautiful Nepalese home-made paper is golden yellow in the light. I am here, now. The rain has passed. Cold drifts near, it settles close to me. Hello bonfire! Ahh. Such a perfect companion you are on this crisp night. I write, my fingers and toes warm.

The stars yawn, stretch, and light. How I miss these stars! It has been too long.

The sky becomes ink. So black and clear that I can see deep into infinity, into formless void itself. Somewhere in there, beyond my human sight, all creation arose. The stars burn so bright and clear I can see their hidden colors. One reddish, one tinged with blue. A cup of silver glitter is spilled across the ceiling: the milky way. I greet the big dipper, the north star, and the summer triangle. (Or summer Dorito, as I prefer to think of it.) My oldest friends, from hazy summer memories when I was only a ball of dirt and snot, chasing fireflies, tumbling on the dewy night grass of the farm. You are still with me, after all these years.

Old friends, hello.

Astrophysicist Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson was asked by a reader of TIME magazine, "What is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the Universe?" This is his answer.

And now, a horrible poem. A-hem ... ok, ready. Here we go:

Fire Song
Dancing flame, fingers smoke
Burning keys they play
A billion stars on purple cloud
Body sagging, warming rays

The stream softly sings
Tinkling liquid, dark
Munch, munch the horses
Harmonies their part

So far away from
things I thought I knew.
Now, I am connected
To something strange and new

FIRE! Wild you are
Wild like we were
Today we all are caged
So together let us burn

(Wasn't that painful was it? OK, OK, maybe it was. Just wait until I put music to it...)

The last time I saw a sky this bright was under the shadow of the north face of Everest. But even that awestruck night did not have the warmth of the fire or the music of the stream.

Ahh! The troubles of traveling, the freezing rain, the horrible endless cramped buses, the lack of sleep, the dirty noisy dorms, the soul-ripping pain of being robbed.

All is made up for and more by these rare, heart-breaking moments of beauty. It is that unique and most treasured gift.

It is Traveler’s Zen.

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