Thursday, June 30, 2011

Monthly Montage: Wild Mongolia

Though life and some very large airplanes took me away from Mongolia I thought I'd give it one more tribute in this month's tardy but still squeaking by photo montage. Because the beauty of the country's nature is something that all its citizens are proud of I thought the theme of wild Mongolia would make for a fitting final montage. I too was struck by how stunning the Mongolian countryside could be; I have never seen a sky so big or mountains so extreme. In these photos you can also catch a glimpse of how people, Mongolians and foreigners alike, interact with the breathtaking scenery around them. Sadly the pictures don't really do the scenes justice but even so it's easy to see the splendor. Hope you enjoy a few looks at one of the most beautiful places I've ever been.
PS: Upon previewing the pics it might be worth it to click on them to enlarge- gives a much better, more accurate effect.
The river in Hovd.

Camel says cheese!

Drinking from the river.

Darkhan from a stupa.
Sunset over smiling Buddha.
Olgii from a goat trail.
An ancient cave- there are even paintings.

Mongolian Red Riding Hood in Mankhan soum.
A boy plays beer can soccer by Khovd's river.
Campfire by the river.

Relieving thirst.

Just outside of town.

The view from my first apartment.

Neighbors enjoying the view.

Camel herding.

Sunset over my host family's cow shed.
Country roads...

Sunrise at training.

Sunset from a mountain top.

My host family's view.

I'm glad Mongolia still looks like this sometimes.

Snow at training in May!

Camping on top of a mountain.

Red Goat in the distance.

I love how the rivers look like silver threads.

A rare gray day.

Snowy Hovd.

A pee/vodka break on the way to Olgii.
Sunset in a puddle.

Pregnant clouds from my apartment.

The other half of my host family's view.
Sam takes in the Tavin Bogd glaciers.

Pitching camp at Tavin Bogd.

Oh, boys.

Tavin Bogd- the Five Saints.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Back to Basics and Butter

I was roused from a deep sleep by a poke at my thigh. I don't know if it is customary for flight attendants to wake sleeping passengers for meals but apparently this one seemed to think it  necessary that I tuck into the little tray provided for me by the airline. I begrudgingly opened one eye as she folded down my tray table, set a plastic wrapped "meal" on it and wheeled away. Summoning myself from slumber I poked at the chicken salad and cherry tomato rolling around the tiny tub. I was exhausted and had little lust for the pre-packaged food. My eyes had been as rainy as the sky that morning and my body had been racked with sobs only a few hours earlier as I hugged Sam close to me then watched him disappear behind the airport security clearance. I was still reeling from the blow. But the 4am wake up time had also left me drained so I idly picked up the white roll and unwrapped the sausage-tight cellophane. Dubious of the chicken and unwilling to eat a naked roll, I dug out the little pad of butter from under the utensil packet and smeared the contents on the bread. As soon as I bit into the sweet, salty spread I was immediately struck by how far away I was going from everything I had known for the past two years. The image that plopped itself in front of my eyes was of me sitting on the  floor a mere week or so before in the little, low Kazakh dwelling we had come across on the way to Tavin Bogd and eating homemade butter that old women had painstakingly made from the milk of their animals grazing just outside the door. It took me by surprise. I let myself sit with that memory for a while and absorb the fact that I might never meet such a family again. I would never eat salty, sweet yak butter made by old women who supplied generations of offspring with virtually everything they needed by the toil of their hands. I was flying away from those who lived on the land and towards a world of highrise buildings and complicated food served to people too busy to bother with its origin. It was like I was preparing to visit the Jetsons. In recalling this memory of the Kazakh family I realized how distant my own family is from their lifestyle. The butter in our fridge, fridge!, isn't butter at all and it even comes in a plastic spray bottle. Though the phrase "bread and butter" is a ubiquitous saying to indicate basic necessities, I don't know a single American that ever chows down on this former staple. Indeed, I didn't know if there would be a time in the near future that I would ever consume this fatty, carb-y paring again in hyper health conscious America and I was struck with nostalgia. Bread and butter actually is a common meal in Switzerland and while granola and fresh berries is a slammin' breakfast, thought of the American morning repast waiting for me at the end of my journey made me homesick for sitting at breakfast with Sam and chatting aimlessly over our morning toast. Decadently, he eats butter with both Nutella and honey in addition to the more traditional jam. When I told him there was no way I'd eat such a meal at home, he was stunned. "But why?! You need some fat!" he said, expressing a concept that honestly had not occurred to me. But now those breakfasts were just shades of what had been and I had finished my roll along with half the little tab of creamy, yellow butter. So I sank back into my seat and closed my eyes again, hoping I'd slip into dreams of my butter loving boyfriend and green fields filled with fat, lactating sheep as I let the plane take me far away from what I had known for so long.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

In Which Thank-Yous Abound

Having just finished everything I could to expedite my Peace Corps exit process on Friday, a wash of emotion is rolling over me. The past two years have passed in a flash, though I remember many winter days that felt slow as molasses creeping down my window. Making any judgements on everything that has happened in the past two years is rather overwhelming but one feeling that rides aloft all my other combating ponderings and reflections is gratitude. One of my favorite quote is from Tracy Kidder's book Mountains Beyond Mountains, a study of the life and work of Dr. Paul Farmer. It simply states that "lives of service require lives of support" and it does not allude me for one second that I could ever have done what I did in Peace Corps without the scores of people who showered me with their unconditional love and support. My friends and family showed terrific understanding and kindness both on a regular basis and when I needed it the most, perhaps some even without knowing. Packages, proddings of encouragement, letters and chats that made it clear that they had every faith in my abilities were the things that buoyed me along; without them I might have sank. So I would like to acknowledge a few of those people now.

Firstly, I would like to thank YOU for reading this blog. I'm never quite sure how many people read what I post. I know 11 people officially follow it but I also know that not all of them visit regularly. However, I am told that others make a habit of returning to see what I've been up to. My mom's work friends, my elementary school administration staff and homies in New York and Hawaii have popped up on my radar as readers in the past two years. I hope they are still following. But at any rate, whoever you are, thank you. I've truly enjoyed writing my little essays these past two years and I hope you have gotten at least a fraction of the joy reading them as I have posting. Without readers, there would be no blog and believe it or not this has been a very significant and constantly positive part of my experience here in Mongolia. Thanks for your patience with my posting speed and the frequency of my comma splices.
I'd like to take time for a special shout out to Benjamin. You are the only follower I don't know but I love that you are reading my blog! You have been a subscriber for so long and I've actually dreamed up possibilities of who you could be, some outlandish, others realistic. Regardless, I'm happy to have you.

My friends have been wonderfully constant and loving throughout these past two years. The ones who sent letters bravely across the ocean never received a reply, and for that I feel shitty. But I have carefully kept each and every note that reached me from Kate, Colin, Jamie and Janelle. Kate even sent me a motley, watercolored mask that she made Spain; it lived on my wall until very recently. Many of them also kept in close contact, caring and invested as always in addition to their posted manifestations of support. And thank you to Cassie, the well-read belle who took the time and resources to send me a package that included food for thought in the form of books plus beautiful blue handwarmers and a scarf that kept me warm and good-lookin' all winter long. Thanks also to the kind Marsha Baily for the birthday package chockablock full of magazines that were gleefully devoured by both my students and I.

Other friends provided their indispensable love in a more immaterial form. Killian, Big Rachel, Mona,  Paul, Caitlin and of course Ashton were all wonderful voices from far flung lands both urging me forth into the unknown and bringing me back to my roots. Always if I felt unsure or downtrodden they were there for a good pick-me-up; these are truly special friends to have. I'm beyond lucky they're on my side and would have lost my sanity without them. I love them greatly.

Thank you also to the men who have graced my life over the past two years- you know who you are. You have cared for me immeasurably in so many ways; I am lucky to have learned so much from you and spent time in your company.

Thanks also to Carol Brantley, my original inspiration to join the Peace Corps and perpetual cheerleader. I can't wait to dish about our experiences over brunch at Ria's, the same place you told me about your adventures for the first time only a few years ago.

Of course none of this would be possible without my wonderful family. Firstly thanks to my cousin Linda for having a baller lingerie style, the adorable birthday package and being a faithful commenter on the blog. Your blog is always uplifting and fun, such a nice way to spend time online and a neat window to your world. And as for someone else- every time I heard from my little sister my whole world became brighter, even in the darkest of winter days. Hearing about your adventures in India and Portland gave me a respite from my own realities and filled me with joy for her story. Though it was difficult to communicate regularly, I always looked forward to our talks and couldn't wait to hear the peels of your laughter from so many miles away. I'm still sad I never made it to your graduation. Also, I think it should not go without recognizing, my grandmother was so dedicated to keeping in touch that she bought a computer, internet service and printer. She has faithfully sent e-mails about once a week, which I very much look forward to. Grandma, in tough times I try to channel your lifelong gusto and energy, hoping desperately it's in my blood, too. You sent care packages and greeting cards so unflaggingly and are without a doubt the most admirable, motivated and excellent grandmother a girl could hope for. Finally, none of this could have been possible without my parents. From my shampoo to my shoes, I owe it all to them. They spent inordinate amounts of time and money enriching my mental and emotional well-being and poured their lives into my education, tools which without I would never have been able to succeed here. Thank you for countless packages, Mom and Dad, and always being ready to chat about anything from answering my boring banking questions to dispensing words of comfort during the occasional meltdown. You were my rocks, always ready with jokes, stories, encouragement and advice, all of which I sought from you during these two years. Not to mention, you were the most faithful readers of the blog. To everyone else: they don't believe that I couldn't have done Peace Corps without them but it's true. Don't let them tell you any different.

I'm sorry if I missed anyone. There are so many people who have supported me it's mind-boggling. Countless people from our elderly family friends to our 6-year-old neighbor have lent a hand in my life here. I am eternally grateful to everyone. Thank you.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Odysseus Goes Glacial

It's a strange feat walking the streets of Ulaanbaatar trying to remember what my life was like last week. The trip to Tavin Bogd was amazing but even so staring at the freshly tarred streets of the capitol it's funny to think that just a few days ago I saw nothing but dirt roads littered with holes and rocks. The landscape we drove through in Olgii was starkly beautiful though almost completely unpopulated. Being jostled on the sidewalk now, I am struck with a little nostalgia picturing the gers we passed, lone dwellings in a sea of grass with not another place of shelter within sight or memory. We spent a significant amount of our time on the trip driving. On the way there we drove for about ten hours and coming back about six. The reason it took so long to reach our final destination was because we had to stop at many different, very out of the way checkpoints to obtain official permission to reach the park. Though it was a rather painful ride at times, there were six of us and a feline besides the driver wedged into four seats, it was stunning. The scenery was surprisingly varied, rolling from deserts peppered with angry, green shrubs to breathtaking green mountains cut by gurgling brooks. Though our way was long and the metal parts on the ceiling were not kind to bare heads, we had an excellent adventure snaking our way slowly towards the mountains. I felt like Odysseus in our little vessel being tossed around on the empty plains. And every time we stopped, we ran into fascinating characters. Each tiny outpost had it's own pulse, every town felt something all it's own- in some places the entire population echoed the lethargy and apathy of the Lotus Eaters, while others were as fun and fascinating as Sirens. Our final permit had to be obtained from a Kazakh herder family which turned out to be rather incredible. After finally reaching the spot, the women invited us in for tea, and being in a frustrated vertigo of bumpy road induced anguish, I was happy to oblige. We sat on the floor of their low, mud house as the grandmother laid out a spread of fried bread and dairy products, including crunchy milk curds and a sweet, thick butter. It then hit me that these people probably make everything they eat. In fact, they sustain themselves almost exclusively from their herd of goats and sheep, literally the only thing they ever buy is flour. The grandmother smiled sweetly as she bounced a toddler on her lap who was fingering a crib in which lay an even smaller child and I was floored by the life she must live and how different it is from mine-- even though we both live in Western Mongolia. But alas when the milk tea was slurped to the dregs, we had to pile back into the Jeep and set off on our way.

The next day we tackled the mountain. Now, we've discussed my climbing ability, or lack thereof, but on this occasion I felt full of piss and vinegar, ready to conquer the world. But we didn't even get ten minutes away from camp before we were forced to ford a freezing rock-bedded river barefoot. In her terror and confusion upon crossing, one girl tossed her shoes into the rapids, drenching both shoes and losing a sock. She also her her leash-bound cat in tow, which complicated matters and baffled the locals to a very entertaining degree. Sam, always gallant, dashed into the river and fished out her floating shoes, soaking the boots he had managed to keep dry during his river crossing. And from there it was a whole lot of walking. We walked for literally hours but it was the scenery was stunning. Cars weren't allowed to touch the landscape and wild flowers in a riot of yellow, purple and white bloomed everywhere underfoot. The most special moment of the hike was when we finally crested a huge hill after walking for about three hours and a spectacular vista of Tavin Bogd's peaks and the glaciers curving gently between them reveled itself above the yellow grass. From there an unfortunate three more hours of walking thrust itself between me and our destination but with some encouraging words from Sam, I made it.  Sadly we were temporarily thwarted by  the blood vessels in Sam's nose inexplicably exploding but I played nurse to my valiant guide and we were able to continue on our journey. We climbed down a rock slide to the lowest point, Sam walked boldly with me following gingerly, then I was shocked when there I felt a cold crunch beneath my feet and I found myself actually standing on the glacier. The part of the ice closest from whence we came was covered with dirt so it was well camouflaged, but beneath the thin layer of pebbles lay the first glacier I had ever touched. A freezing air radiated from the surface, chilling me to the bone and rivers of chilling runoff ran down the face, slicing the ice from it's path. Exhilarated to have reached our destination, we frolicked on the frozen surface, taking pictures and throwing shaved ice balls through the brisk atmosphere. The whole space felt alive, with water rushing all around, air breathing up on us and ice crunching under every step, it felt like we were treading on the back of a frosty giant. We wandered across the glacier, which proved rather treacherous when I readied myself to leap across a river but quickly found the snow beneath me giving way as my foot and ankle became engulfed in icy water. The fact that I was hiking most of the way in my beat-up Chuck Taylor All Star Converse did not help much, though they did dry quickly in the sun, an unexpected boon. Sam and I ate a wee snack on the banks of the fiercest glacial river then decided to head back. I was originally unsure of how exactly I would get up aforementioned rock slide after championing it's downhill slope. It proved not as difficult as imagined and we headed confidently back through the flowers, no less beautiful the second time, on our way. As we walked back, we caught up with the other contingent of our group, who we had somehow misplaced earlier. They proved to be exhausted and slowly my tiredness began to match theirs. Sam took a rather entertaining video of my sad, sad attempts to walk near the end of the hike. My ankles were weak, the slightest bump in the grass sent me reeling and at more than one point I stumbled to the ground. In a stroke of drama, I channeled American Indians on the Trail of Tears. How in the world did they walk all that way?! I'd been walking for a whole day and was about ready to die. Good lord, I surely would have been shot on the Trail of Tears for excessive snack breaks and delirious hilarity. After face-planting solidly in the grass and declaring I couldn't walk any more, Sam good-naturedly sat by my side and waited until I was ready to take his arm, welcoming much of my weight leaning on him, though he was carrying a huge backpack and I nothing. He smilingly indulged me when I made up a game called  'list all the things you hate' and suggested we start with hiking. My mood was drastically improved, however when we not only saw our camp but also when I took a minute to appreciate the beauty around me. The sun was sinking towards the mountains, casting a golden net over the hills and painting a lone man leading a camel along the ridge of a cliff. Finally, much to my surprise, we finally made it back to camp, though not without yet another trudge through a large, frigid creek, of course. I felt victorious on the inside but on the outside I looked like Sam's 17th century Chinese grandmother, hobbling along impotently behind him. Upon staggering to the tents, I was ready for a self-administered foot rub, some blister popping a lieter of water, a cold beer and a good pee when I heard an earlier arriving friend explode the words "thank God the cook's here! What do we do?" I turned around and she was staring at me with panicked eyes. I sighed, steeled myself and lorded over, by request, one darn good dinner.

The trip back wasn't so exciting as the one going. It's normally like that, though I don't know why. There's not so much excitement, I guess; things are more predictable. Recently, particularly throughout this Tavin Bogd trip, I've been thinking a lot about journeys in general. In ninth grade we studied 'the heroes quest' as a literary theme and it's stuck with me ever since. Seeing my service in this light, as a trip taken by a traveler who leaves home to fumble through distant lands and again return home, I kind of feel a kinship with folks like Odysseus. I've always tried to live like Alfred Lord Tennyson narrated for Ulysses in his 1833 poem. He said the famed traveler sought "to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield". However, I know very well my life is not so grand as this great man's although sometimes it is pretty to think so, especially when faced with something as spectacular and humbling as a glacier that, like my hero, surpasses me by thousands of years.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Photos Worth Seeing

Signing in briefly from Olgii surrounded by napping friends and travel buddies. Foreign Policy published a stellar photo essay on Mongolia and the "environmental refugees" that are migrating from the countryside to the ger districts. The photos are stark, beautiful images of the Mongolia rarely seen but deserves to be known about.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Bare With Me Through the End

It's started: the shit show that is my last few weeks in Mongolia. And as such, tragically this is not a great time for prolific blogging. There has been so much in the past few days I'd love to tell you about. How the trees are laden with sweet, fuzzy pollen-balls that blows across sunsets and the town square, making life look far more like a Disney move than I ever though possible. I want to tell you about the rain that drenched town recently, flooding the streets and theater and making everyone a little bit Gene Kelly as they laughingly leaped over the rivers rushing through town. I wish to describe the heat that has settled in to stay and how Yoda-eared dogs pant in the shade. How I am wonderfully elated to have new followers on the blog! But today I depart for a week-long trip to Bayan Olgii on a quest to conquer the country's biggest mountain and the glacier that it cradles in its bosom. So needless to say spare time and internet connectivity will be difficult to come by. When I come back I have maybe 24 hours in which to pack up my entire life and depart for the city. And apparently it is imperative that the library staff have  picnic in my honor during these 24 hours, because clearly I won't be very busy. Upon arriving in UB I then have four days in which to complete all my Peace Corps paperwork and interviews, apply for and procure a Chinese visa, visit my host family for the first time in two years and still make time for Sam, who is following me to the city on a plane though it is seriously in violation with his environmental sustainability principals, without driving him crazy or abandoning him. So off I go. Wish me luck! I sincerely wish I had more time to blog; it has become such a great outlet. There are so many things to say, so many reflections yet unpublished and ideas half formed. However, I'll do my best to keep posting throughout this chaotic month and will update you whenever possible, I promise.
Also, just as a note, I plan on continuing the blog during my travels this summer and throughout my stay in Cambodia. I really hope you keep reading!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

From Hitler to Harvard: A Recent Success

Joyfully, happy tidings have rolled into town of late on the back of the beautiful weather. My student, the one who once confused "Heil Hitler!" with the phrase "great praise," has made some serious moves in life. No longer exhibiting any anti-Semitic tendencies due to some serious Come-To-Jesus chats we had, she has done something no other student from Hovd has ever done: get into the United States Student Achievers Program. This is a highly prestigious program that selects a handful of rising 11th grade students, in this case 13, from the whole country to preen them for attending university abroad, specifically in America. Unfortunately, my student will have to attend extensive monthly meetings in UB, meaning that though she loves life here in our little town and is the only family her mother has in Hovd, she will have to uproot and move to the city to live with her sister. She is both thrilled and terrified at this whole turn of events. Ten of the students selected are from UB, 1 is from one from the second richest city in the country, leaving just my student and another kid who hails from the countryside, a place where the academic rigor is nonexistent. But though it will be difficult time both emotionally and otherwise, I have every confidence in her. I just hope that the Harvard Fever that presides over so much of the education system here does not go to her head. I keep trying to tell her that Harvard isn't the best place on earth and she should look for what's right for her. I don't know if she fully believes me.

Though I know this it's selfish, I was happy she got in because it makes me look like a rock star. In Mongolia they say "good teachers make good students," a mentality I have some serious issues with. But in in light of her success I look awesome and the Ministry of Education seems pleased; it feels good to have a little validation. However, on a much more genuine, personal level I am thrilled because I thought myself more of a mentor to her than a teacher and now she will find new, better mentors. Having these professionals whose job it is next year to make sure she goes far in her education both academically and geographically makes me feel great because it's a job that I so badly want to do for her but can't. I have neither the expertise nor ability to guide her though this process. In the Shirley Temple movie "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm" her warden tells her "I taught you everything I know" to which she retorts sadly "I guess that just wasn't enough." While the old man in the movie was comically miffed, I am okay with this maxing out of knowledge. I am happy if my student grows out of me. Handing her off to people who can take her to the next level feels wonderful, and I have found a deep happiness from this sustainability. In all fairness, it should be a natural progression, to send a high achieving and precocious student on to college guidance counselors. But sadly here in the developing world, that's a pipe dream for most. I am so supremely happy I have gotten to guide my student to the next step; she is a young woman I am lucky to know. Look out, world, here she comes.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Sweet Summetime

Ironically, though I am about to leave, this is the fist time I've really been able to take advantage of being on a school schedule during the summertime here in Hovd. Last year I jetted off on vacation before the school year ended but this year I am lucky enough to have stuck around and am truly relishing the slowness of the season. My windows haven't been shut for weeks now and I wouldn't dream of closing out the cheery bird songs and fresh, sunny air night or day. This is a radical change from having my windows locked against sand storms and tapped against cold for months. I live next to the town theater so now it's been a privileged to wake up each morning to the sound of live opera or morin khuur lilting through the open window as I curl back into the covers, happy to let part of the morning float by. It has truly been a rediscovery of the world: I forgot the sound of wind running though tree leaves and the amount of shade that has overgrown the walkways around town is astounding. Perhaps the loveliest of recent events has been the luscious summer rain. Rolls of thunder rocked me to sleep last night and I woke up to a downpour this morning. Though I have many errands to run today, I hope the heavens don't dry up any time soon. Summertime in the South where I am from is a time of great abundance and relaxation and though I am eagerly looking forward to fat farmers markets and ambling, honeyed night, this Western Mongolian summer sure is sweet too.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

To Climb a Mountain

Outdoor sports are not my forte. There. I said it. I've always had a rather tenuous relationship with nature and the idea of exposing my vulnerable, sweaty self to it's angry bugs and biting rocks strikes me as rather unappetizing. So it was with great reluctance that I agreed to  follow my sitemates up the mountain just outside of town for one last camping trip before everyone left for summer or forever. The mountain they set their sites on isn't just any mountain. It's name is Red Goat and we have a relationship. At the beginning of the year, we hiked up Red Goat and camped on top. That trip, however, was not fun for me at all. It was nice to be with friends and the little bit of sunset we caught on the way up was beautiful to be sure. However, the three hour trudge to the top was more like a cruel and sandy reenactment of  the Bataan Death March than the lovely jaunt in the sun that it was sold to me as. I had never really done an overnight camping trip that involves hiking and backpacking to the site as opposed to driving with coolers full of beer and a bikini. As a consequence, I had no idea how to pack. Furthermore, once we got to the mountain, I had absolutely no idea how to tackle the beast. There were no hiking trails and the landscape in Western Mongolia lends itself to disguising mountains as really tall landslides of pebbles and prickly bushes. And up this distasteful terrain I had to drag both my ass and provisions for my ass. Most of my sitemates lithely hopped from rock to rock, happily creating their own switchback trails invisible to me as I struggled and lagged behind. This compounded itself with my rather frustrating weight gain amassed in the Peace Corps and years of shit given to me for being a little chunkier than my peers in school, resulting in a rather tortuous ascent. So, you understand, I received the news with frustration and sadness when my sitemates decided to return to my rocky nimisis for a voluntary round two, especially when they knew I had recently injured my ankle.

I really didn't want to go. Really. The thought of having to once again watch my friends disappear over the top of the mountain while taunting voices from my youth echoed from somewhere behind my hulking backpack made me want to either cry, take a nap or both. But I was lucky, I have Sam. The reason I didn't punk out of this whole expedition is because of him. We have been together for a few months now and he adores the wilderness in ways I cannot even begin to understand. And when, with knitted brows and pleading eyes, I told him I really didn't want to climb that mountain he looked absolutely crestfallen and promises to carry everything I needed spilled out of his mouth in his sweet Swiss-German accent. I considered taking him up on his bargain; Sam is used to this sort of thing. His family does baffling things for fun, such as hiking up a huge, snow-covered mountains with skis and all the supplies; they dump their skis half way, hike to the top, hike down and then ski the last fourth of the trip. What, pray tell, would ever posses someone to do this? But apparently it's fun. That's just how they  roll, I guess. He assured me we could go up an easier route he found, he also climbs Red Goat and times himself for fun, just the two of us. And he'd take care of my ankle. I couldn't possibly say no.

The day finally arrived. I actually found it fun packing for the adventure, thinking about what we would need in the great outdoors, tossing Swiss Army Knives, frisbees and trail mix about the apartment. In the end,  poor Sam's backpack felt about as heavy as a pregnant elephant while mine looked like something Beaver Clever might take to a half day of school. But he insisted it was a normal weight for his outdoor exploits and I trusted him. So away we went. Not to be a whiner, but actually getting to the mountain sucked. To be fair, my very athletically inclined sitemate agreed that this was the suckiest part. Red Goat is surrounded by scorching sand dunes littered with bones and broken vodka bottles; if Satan had a sandbox as a child, you can bet it looked a lot like this. Once you finally arrive at the foot of the mountain, you've spent all your energy walking though ankle deep sand and wondering what sort of animal could possibly yield a skull that strange. But Sam was optimistic and hopeful, so we marched onwards and upwards.

Delightfully, this trip was a easier than the first time. Perhaps because of my ├╝ber light bag, maybe because I'm in better shape, possibly because after two Mongolian winters I'm well seasoned at sticking things out. Also, it might have something to do with my cheerleader-Sherpa who patiently acquiesced to as many water and vista appreciation breaks as my rapidly beating heart desired. It was still tough though. My pink fingernails and my soft, white forearms looked comical against the hard, brown landscape as I pulled myself up the rocks. I was cheered a little when Sam finally admitted "this route is miserable;" at least it wasn't just me. I persevered, channeling a group of recently returned veterans featured in Outside magazine who had made it to the top of one of the world's highest peaks. If a blind dude and someone with one leg could climb a peak in the Himalayas, then I could tackle this paltry hill, right? To keep my spirits up during the long hours I employed a skill I finely tuned while undulating in particularly tough Pilates classes: listing things I am good at. It might sound egotistic and narcissistic, but try it sometime when you're doing something that makes you want to throw yourself under a rapidly approaching Metro. It does wonders for the morale. I geared it towards the past two years; I figured that if I were not in Mongolia in the first place, I also would not be on that effing mountain.

I cannot: climb mountains good. While we're at it, my spelling is not so hot either.

I can: juggle naked, recognize the smell of an animal being butchered, live alone without going crazy, live with a man without going crazy, make a pie from scratch in 30 minutes, rock other culinary hardships like being creative with only root vegetables and whipping up excellent dinner parties with a serious lack of resources, handle awkward silences and power outages like a pro, fix a broken bike with roadside metal scraps and bones, make a palatable shandy out of Korean beer and Christal Lite, survive on less than $160 a month, squat pee like it's my job....

Not bad, no? Anyhoo, this little game fueled me along the rocks and between my list and Sam,  always ready to rest on a rock and hold my hand, I actually made it. The camping part was fun, as promised. We scrambled around on windy ledges, watched the sunset and ate s'mores around a fire. I even enjoyed my first night sleeping out under the stars. I was thrilled to discover that I had gotten a fair bit of sun, too. Finally it was time for our descent. I don't know if it was my readiness to get the heck off that pile of rocks or my shapely thighs working in pitch-perfect unison with gravity, but I very quickly and gracefully hauled ass down that mountain. I did pretty well, actually- better than maybe half of the group, a really great feeling. Granted I was pretty sore for days but I left that mountain feeling pretty good.

They say what doesn't kill you builds you. Whoever thinks that clearly has not talked to some of those aforementioned vets with PTSD. And while the first climb up Red Goat didn't kill me, it certainly didn't make me a better or happier person; in fact it made my self-esteem plummet and my arm pits smell raucous. But the second time was not so bad and I really do think it built me. I'm glad I don't have to do it again but I consider that last climb something akin to triumph. I went my own pace with someone who cared to support me (indeed, finding such a person is a victory in itself), reached within, girded my loins and made it to the top. Though I will still try to mold my future more after Kofi Annan than Sir Edmond Hillary, I might slowly reconsider my stance on outdoor sports. Maybe.