Today I indulged my lizard brain in a big way. For my site mate's birthday we all went to the sauna and it was glorious. There were actually only 4 of us- 3 boys and I, which definitely led to some very interesting assumptions made by the attendants at the shower house. But I would have braved a million judgy stares for the sheer bliss of letting my body melt in the heat of the sauna. Lying on the wooden bench, my muscles let go of their frigid rigidity for the first time in months. I breathed deep in the hot air, surrendering to my hunger for heat. I felt like a snake in the sun letting my body marinade in the sweat and warm as my eyes hooded themselves in sheer bliss. These days the temperature has been hovering around -10F and gets down to as low as -40F at night, so needless to say the heat of the sauna was something of a welcome shock to my system, much less the challenge of trying not to be confused in so few clothes. But sadly the warmth and happiness inside the little wooden box only lasted an hour.
I showered and got dressed but no sooner had I pulled a (relatively) clean t-shirt over my head than I was filled with disgust. My shirt smelled like some kind of fried food and my hoodie bore the same stench. My heart deflated knowing that I had to pile back into layers upon layers of smelly clothes after such a cleansing experience. I grossed myself out. It made me think of an episode during my recent vacation in which I lent my scarf to my mom. She took it then returned it rather quickly. I was puzzled and asked her why she wasn't cold anymore. She looked at me and said "that scarf smells like a meatball." Which is, sadly, how I think most of my clothes, and therefore I, probably smell. Definitely not one of the more glamorous parts of the Peace Corps, I have gotten used to less frequent clothes and body washing. I get a weekly shower at best, the most exhilarating 15 minute slice of heaven you can imagine. And the clothes...well...perhaps best not to talk about the clothes. But the clothes washing options are 1) wash by hand in unheated bathroom with freezing cold water or 2) use a friends washing machine in which you have to heat, load and drain the water yourself. Both are rather time consuming and not very through avenues to cleanliness, espeically in a world where everything takes about twice as long as it normally would.
Over time I have tried to surmise why Mongolia smells the way it does and the best I can come up with is because of the animals everywhere. We live in very close quarters with all sorts of animals; it's not unusual to see donkeys, cows, horses or packs of dogs just hanging out in the street. Herds of sheep and goats trot through town regularly and camels visit occasionally, too. Also, the local diet is overwhelmingly animal based, everything from frying oil to the main feature of all meals is derived from animals- mostly sheep. This may or may not be why I probably smell like a meatball factory most of the time. But here's the thing: we all do. I got so used to it that I didn't notice any sort of smell when I pulled on that t-shirt earlier in the morning (for the record, it passed the smell test with flying colors) and the rest of my site mates had a similar experience when putting their clothes on post-sauna. The distinct odor of our life here in Mongolia is something foreign to American sterility and we have merely gotten used to it as much as we are used to getting stared at or going through the list of greetings and questions in Mongolian before having any conversations. It is a fact of life at this point. To put it anecdotally, getting off the plane in Hovd, I was struck by how farm-y the airport smelled whereas when I got on the plane nothing seemed amiss. I am not saying I enjoy smelling like the sheep skin vest I sleep with for warmth, which perhaps also contributing to my mammalian odor. Inhaling scents of tropical flowers when I raise my arms would be lovely, however I think that's an ability that has abandoned me for America. Tomorrow night I'll go to wash my clothes in my friend's machine. But even though my black pants, scarf and shirts will be squeaky clean, I don't have much hope that they'll retain that fresh, soapy smell for long. Eau de meatball is never far away.