Tuesday, October 26, 2010


Biscuit bunny and new nail polish- who could as for anything more?
The newest members of the Hovd family have arrived! The adventures of Biscuit and Frat Boy have officially begun! Taking the town by storm with their fuzziness, the bunnies have single handedly won over the hearts and souls of this sleepy Mongolian aimag center without even trying or batting a fluffy little eyelash.

Well not really. But in all seriousness I did get a bunny. My site mate Suzanne got one too. They're friends and even brothers, I guess. And before you chuckle and plug 'Lapin A La Cocotte' into your Google search bar, hear me out. While I am not completely even soled on or in love with these furballs yet myself, this is shaping up like a really neat experience and an interesting part of my time here. 

Historically I've never been a big pet owner. My sister and I got fish for Chrismas one year- I think I was about ten- and if memory serves Raja (my fish) decided to devouter his brother Agaja (my sister's fish) and any other subsequent residents of the tank in a shockingly brief amount of time. Not cool, dude. Or perhaps it was the fact that rodents exposed me to my first taste of death. I can vividly remember standing in the pet store as a child with my mother and sister, confused and horrified as I watched a hamster mother cannibalisticly gnaw away on her babies. Even the memory makes me nauseous. So perhaps I got off on the wrong foot with all creatures great and small. I guess, though I loved our family dog beyond words, I never really bonded with domesticated animals due to their obviously freakish tendency to eat their family members.

But I'm giving it another go. Relatively grown up now and ready to try something new, I delved into the world of pet ownership after a night of drinking led Suzanne and I vow to get bunnies together. We were going to share one but then we realized that we would both want full custody of a single rodent and if we each had one our new furry friends could have playdates. So we decided to get two. With that choice having been firmly made, I set out to find bunnies during my most recent trip to Ulaanbaatar two weeks ago. I was pleasantly surprised when it turned out that Mongolian pet shops are only mildly more depressing than American ones and managed to pick out two male bunnies fairly easily. (Bunny periods and baby bunnies were NOT something I was ever trying to deal with. So boys it was.) Suzanne was tickled pink upon my arrival back in Hovd with our new bunny babies. She named hers Frat Boy, which totally suits his personality and ever expanding waste line, and my fluffy, white butterball I aptly dubbed Biscuit.

Thus far my time with the bunnies has been without incident. Yes, they poo everywhere and no, they don't feed or pet themselves. But they have also been endlessly entertaining and the Mongolians really do love them. During my cooking club for women on Saturday, their little paws never touched the floor. And a pretty neat cultural benefit- Suzanne and I have started a relationship with the family we get our hay from. A local Kazakh family I spotted on my morning run, they are incredibly sweet and very generous with their large supply of hay. We bring always them gifts which they accept with great reluctance. They won't let us pay. Also, having a living thing around the apartment has been very healthy for my mental state, I think. I vividly remember around this time last year showing up at Mona's door forlorn and distressed. I demanded a hug because I couldn't remember the last time I was touched by another human being. Like washing machines and pumpkin spice lattes, I don't think I will ever take physical contact for granted again. But unlike appliances and coffee, you don't feel human without it. It's terrible. Also around this time was when I began planning to ambush my 'special friend'. I needed to be loved, plain and simple. But now that my friend has left and winter is once again descending, I needed to find a way to stay sane in regards of interacting with other living beings. A bunny was a relatively low commitment and when Suzanne seemed serious about the prospect of adopting, I jumped at the opportunity.

The way I see it is this: being a bunny owner will in no way define me. Do not look for a Facebook photo only of the furball and there will be no 'My Bunny is Smarter Than Your Honors Student' bumper sticker on my metaphoric road of life. Rather I hope this experience will enrich my days in Mongolia in a new and fun way. Thus far I haven't looked back. I am, however, looking forward to falling in love with our new bunnies and exploring the world through the eyes of such a perpetually happy animal. I just really hope they don't eat each other.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Monthly Montage: Eagle Fest!

A few weekends ago I hit up Eagle Festival with some friends. Held out in Bayan-Olgii, the Kazakh-dominant province west of Hovd, the entire journey was incredibly interesting. Everything from fixing the car's engine with bubble gum to watching the hunters call their eagles down from a mountain held a flavor of exoticism. At times I couldn't help feeling a little strange about the 'human zoo' vibe of the event but then again the volume of tourists and the cash flow that they bring to the remote economy is hard to argue with. So take a walk back in time and a peek at the scenes and faces of Eagle Fest:
Our purgon required an old school crank start. We got a wee bit stranded here.
Sunset over yaks on the journey to Olgii.

Eagle hunting is a family oriented tradition. It is passed down  through the eldest boys.
A makeshift market.
Passing down tradition.
Cooking is woman's work here. They were making huushuur- meat in fried dough pancakes.
Such a proud papa!
The ties that bind.
The hunters would ride down off the mountain and call their eagles to them.
A spectator.
Baby's first camel ride!
Sweetest mustache at Eagle Fest no question.

The women were also quite present at the event.

An eagle hunter in his furs. To give some perspective, just the lining on some of these hats (see the shot 4 pics above) takes 25 foxes to make.
Hanging out with some friends.

They captured a young wolf and let the eagles kill it at the end of the festival. Not one of the more pleasant parts about the weekend. I wanted to free it E.T. style but then reconsidered.
Interesting old/new juxtaposition.
Hugely arid terrain, bright Central Asian sun.
The bearers of history.
With an eagle! Those things are actually incredibly heavy.
I thought this young girl was striking. The Kazakh look is so unique.
A young boy in traditional dress.
Horseback Contrapposto.

Our crew!
The judges panel sat in a raised truck bed sort of thing and presided over the event.
A game in which women chased men on horses in an attempt to beat them with sticks. Some things never change. I loved this woman though. She was the only older woman who participated in the entire event and was so very Eleanor or Aquitaine.
A game that was essentially tug-of-war with an animal skin on horses.
A victory.
This man was quite intoxicated and curious about the cadaad huun or foreign people.
A rather dusty ride back in our old school Russian van.
The road back to Hovd.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Shout Out to the Courageous

I wasn't planning on posting today but I read something that was so moving I couldn't help it. Today's CNN International page featured what I think is a very important article about blogging around the world and the challenges bloggers face in restrictive countries. It featured photographs and mini-biographies of five courageous men and women from all over the world who have been persecuted for their blogs. In their blogs they broach a variety of controversial topics- some post videos of police brutality, others speak out for homosexuality, all are advocates in their own right. Because of their free speech many have been jailed, some faced torture and even more were detained without cause. One of these people is a 19-year-old Syrian girl. Blogging is something I just happened to fall into. It is something I truly enjoy but not something that defines me. Yet I am struck by the camaraderie I feel with these people who also 'take up the pen' online. I admire their staunch perseverance and brazenness courage and feel slightly honored to be amongst the ranks of a community called 'bloggers' of which they are also a part. So in honor of these people who tempt the unspeakable by speaking I'd like to pay tribute to their lives in reverence and solidarity. May we all have the courage to be so brave and may the five here, added to countless others the world over, never stop blogging for justice.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Shades of Edith

We have reached October and thus my favorite time of year: fall. There is something about it- the changing of the seasons and the way that the world explodes in vibrant colors is so intoxicating. There's a crisp breeze in the air and everything feels fresh. My inner foodie dreams of frolicking naked in a ball pit of fresh picked pumpkins, apples and squash. In Hovd all of the leaves turn a luscious gold color, lining the streets with brilliant flaxen cascades. And later, when the leaves drift downward, they litter the ground to like a wild west miner's sweetest dream. I can't help but shuffle through the leaves on the side of the road, relishing the organic smell and the familiar crunch. Feeling the foliage underfoot and the wind on my face conjures memories of autumns past. I don't quite know why wanderlust sets in so steadfastly in fall. Maybe it's the wind, maybe it's the drop in temperature or maybe it's something purely biological that is so invigorating; perhaps it is simply nature making my bones yearn for motion. When I was growing up, the chill in the air signaled to my family to load up the car and head to Highlands, North Carolina for long weekends filled with hiking, long dinners and boutique scouring. Later, in college, I drove with friends to Ultimate Frisbee tournaments where we played til we dropped- only the prospect of later parties put us back on our feet. And last year, in perhaps my fondest of fall field trips, college girlfriends and I would head up to Gettysburg, PA to visit one of my best friends, Ashton. Making the leaves swirl in our wake, we drove through long conversations and soulful ipod singalongs, then subsequently tore apart the antique town with debauchery and girl talk. No words can really describe how strange it is to eat a rather tequila saturated brunch at a table across from Civil War reenactors dressed to the nines. Once we even went to the local Apple Festival. So bumping over dirt roads on the way to a neighboring province for Eagle Festival  last week felt right, foraying out into the world to see something new with the autumn breeze at our backs. Gazing out at the stark landscape I was moved to listen to Edith Pilaf's 'Autumn Leaves'- a classic for any time of year, but espeically apropos now. Her deep warble washed over me and transported me to a different place and time. It drew my mind back to a half forgotten place I didn't expect: fall two years ago when a friend and I spent a week in France. Visions of autumn leaves falling over street markets, delicate marble facades and classic scenes along the Seine, complete with street painters and lovers nestled into their scarves, floated in front of the rocky hills before me. It was a wonderful trip, I don't think you can ever go wrong staying in the French Quarter and exploring Paris on the cheap with other youngsters. My memories from that time are truly escapist and I allowed myself to become saturated in them. Thinking about autumn journeys past made me anticipate later trips and the six hour journey was easily passed with fantasies about forays with friends State-side and wondering what fun there will be next year when I venture southward. It is truly comforting to know that fall will always come, though I will probably not be in the same place for any length of time in the foreseeable future. But looking forward to fall and the vigor that it brings is a wonderful constant no matter where I find myself. It imparts the same richness of feeling and feast for the senses the world over- across oceans and over thousands of miles. And now, as I sit at my desk, smiling at the adventures of years past and wondering what future Octobers hold, I can't help but gaze at the leaves bathing in sunlight and luxuriate in the aureate glow.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Spectrums and Slaughter

Nothing is completely analogous to a rock crashing through your window. It feels like nothing else in the world. The otherwise silent night being sliced by shards of glass cascading into your seemingly safe, impregnable space makes you jolt. It shakes you to the core. The idea of someone actively choosing to shatter your world is confusing and you feel deeply violated. True, it's not like being physically assaulted in any way, but the violent surprise and ensuing shock takes you back to being startled as a child when the wind was knocked out of you. Like a childhood spill, you cry a little because of your shaken state.

One night last week, I had the misfortune of experiencing a rock soaring through my window. Taking a 'chill' night, I had headed home after work and was slaving over a project proposal. All of a sudden, I heard a crash and glass showered everywhere. Before I had time to think, my body reacted, sinking out of my chair and onto the floor. Though my room was covered in a surreal glitter, the strangest part was the silence. Crouching on the floor, I strained to imagine the person on the other side of the glass but the night was eerily silent. I expected something: running, yelling, vomiting, high fives? There was a nothing. Shaking, I called my site mate in the next building and he came over to help with damage control. He scouted the area behind my building and found no one. He helped me clean up the mess, gave me a firm hug and went home. Later I started talking to my Mongolian friends about what had happened and a guy my age confided in me that he used to throw rocks through windows to either kill the boredom or avenge his latest break-up. Having a rock thrown through your window was not uncommon, he implied. The casualness of his admission and his cheeky grin got me thinking about the widespread violence in Mongolian culture and why it's accepted.

Mongolia is a country built on the backs of warriors. The national hero, who celebrates a near God-like status, is arguably the most prolific serial rapist of all time: Chinggis Khaan (or to the rest of the world: Gengis Khan). It is an intensely physical culture- sitting in a dog pile is expected in crowded Jeeps, shoving en route is not a faux pas and a fist fight is something many little boys never really grow out of- in short, the space bubble is nonexistent. It is something to get used to but not something that normally bothers me. What is extremely difficult to grapple with, however, is when the custom of lack of physical sensitivity spills over to other places. For example, at the Eagle Festival last weekend, someone brought a wolf for the eagles to kill. True, wolves pose a serious threat to the livelihoods of many people here, but the wolf they brought to the slaughter was barely more than a cub. Stolen for it's mother at an early age, it was an uncomfortable feeling knowing that the smiling people around me were perfectly comfortable seeing this rather defenseless animal die in an unfair fight after being extremely roughed up for two days. My urge was to free the it E.T. style, but a physical fight, no matter the odds, was a thrilling prospect for the locals.

I am not saying every Mongolian has a lust for violence. Not at all. It is absurd to think I can make an accurate blanket statement about a whole culture. However, there is certainly a back and forth that keeps my thoughts about the resistance and acceptance of Mongolian brutality in perpetual swing. Many of my students think it's rude to push and plenty of my friends were aghast when I told them about my startling experience last week. However, the bitter irony of having someone throw a rock through my window while working on a community development project is a tough one to shake. This feeling of betrayal was exacerbated by the three gentlemen flagging down cars of foreigners on their way to Eagle Fest and making us pay an exorbitant fee to line their pockets, all the while ignoring buses full of locals and the fact that we are low-salary development workers. Having someone throw their weight around for unjust reasons can feel like a physical blow and can smack of violation just as much.

Through all this I strive to remember that this is a life I have chosen for myself and one that I chose again every day. No one owes me anything and I am not a victim. Self-righteous rage is not my style at all and never has been. I think what is throwing me off is the process of getting used to a different cultural spectrum. In the West I know what is normal behaviour and what is not- here everything is altered. Even after living here for a year already I stumble upon things and have trouble placing them in either the 'appropriate' or 'inappropriate' box in my head without judging them by Western standards. Cultural relativism sticks like glue but is a force worth fighting against. And while I now know where wolves and windows stand, I think my next year will remain a puzzle of collecting events and attempting to place mentally them where they belong.