To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.
— David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster
So hey, my sister and her boyfriend came to visit!
Here they are, imposing themselves on some camels.
I kid! What I mean is: Here they are, riding some badass camels on our super fun, five-day trip through the countryside. I thought about that DFW quote a lot, when I wasn’t thinking about how to warm up my feet, or about when my body was going to stop tormenting me and let me shit on the bare, cold ground already (the answers to those two questions, in case you were wondering: take off one pair of socks; Day 3, midmorning).
I think he’s right. Everybody loves to travel; nobody likes being a tourist. By “everybody” I of course mean “people exactly like me,” i.e. privileged, self-obsessed kinda people, who want to see the world and experience new things and accumulate photos for their Facebook albums, but who also want to differentiate themselves from all the other assholes doing the same thing. If you’re a Peace Corps Volunteer in a country that sees any number of tourists, you basically win this pissing contest, all the time, for two years. Oh yeah, that’s really cool how you’re passing through for a couple weeks with your backpack and your gross dreads. You know, I’d love to stay in this guesthouse common room and talk with you some more, but I have to get myself and my proficiency in the language and my knowledge of the local customs to the bus station, so I can go home to my site where I live and work and do lots of authentic things every day with people in my community. But have fun on your little Jeep trip to the Gobi! Douchebag!
(I try not to let my thoughts about tourists/myself get quite so dark and slimy [mostly because, from July to November, we too will be thrillseeking short-timers passing through with our backpacks and our gross dreads], but you see what I’m saying)
Given these attitudes, it probably seems weird for a Peace Corps Volunteer to fork over a bunch of cash and become a greedy, parasitic tourist in her own host country. What is happening to my cred right now? is what I wondered in that van as we bumped along the roads. Who am I becoming? Am I…existentially loathsome?
Probably, but who gives a shit! I’m so glad that, twice now, we’ve had the chance to do touristy things with family. I could go on about the concept of authentic travel, how it’s different here than in other countries, what it means to have an “authentic” travel experience anyway, and whether it is perhaps about “having a big emotional experience that validates privilege,” but whooooooooo really cares here is Ryan with a puppy:
Now then! Some highlights.
When I e-mailed Khongor about arranging this trip, I said we wanted the following things: 1) A driver, 2) a guide, 3) a horsey ride, and 4) at least one family homestay. We got what we asked for…and more. To wit:
Here’s our driver, Lhagva, with his Russian steed. Here are the facts about Lhagva:
- He was a good sport about letting Jay kick his ass in Uno
- He maybe didn’t like the Mongolian hip-hop cassette tape we bought at a roadside stand?
- He was pretty tickled when, during a card game, Ryan had to declare himself the prettiest lady in Mongolia
- He didn’t lose his cool when the van got stuck in that hole
- If the rocks you gathered for the hot-rock goat barbeque are shitty, he will tell you so
- If you want to take a picture of a small child with a stuffed pony, he will arrange the child and the pony just so for you
- He is a treat
Here is Hoogii, our guide, with one of the many delicious baby animals we encountered on this trip (as it turns out, visiting Mongolia in March is good for one thing: Lambs and kids e’erywhere).
Hoogii was in charge of keeping us well informed and, more importantly, well fed. I’m still having dreams about the fried dough she made us for breakfast.
So here’s Hoogii, scaling fish for our lunch:
This was in a ger we stopped at for an afternoon; our host was the caretaker of a tiny museum near the Turkic Khar Bukh ruins:
Somewhat of a character, is what this guy was. While his silent wife served us tea and Hoogii prepared lunch, he showed us his photo albums, his awards and his certificates. Bustling around, he said, “Now I don’t have anything else interesting to show you!” But then he thought of something else. He turned to Ryan and asked, “Would you like to translate some of my poems?” Ryan was like “…sure?” and the guy was all “GREAT give me a second, they’re out in the car.”
He returned with a stack of papers and notebooks and picked out a poem about Tsogt Taij, a soldier, nobleman, scholar, poet, gentlemen, et cetera, from the 17th century, and we (mostly Ryan and Hoogii) labored over the thing for what seemed like forever (probably two hours). I reproduce the finely wrought fruit of our labors here, for you, and for posterity:
Mongolia’s bravest young men
Drank of the Tuul River
Its waters swiftly flow past the banks
In my homeland, birthplace of kings
Heroes fought valiantly
To protect the king’s vast treasures
As he sat on the mountain, Tsogt’s mind awakened
And a poem for his sister flowed from his pen
He devoted his life to his country,
Home of heroes
Where the archers’ arrows whistle
Through the summer air
Beneath the twinkling stars
He was a teacher and a poet
Beneath the mountain’s rainbow
Young minds blossomed at his school
The sun still shines upon the eternal poem
Carved into stone by his people
Inspired by his leadership
In his youth
He punished his son for his betrayal
He respected his nation’s history
He lived virtuously
And died for his country
Time flows through history
In Mongolia, land of many spirits
But the iron will of Khalkh Tsogt, grandson of Ochir Khaan
Will never be forgotten
We just stopped here so we could cook lunch
And look at the ruins real quick
(We didn’t really add that last part)
As you have seen by now, we got to ride a whole lot more than horsies.
This was Day 2; we showed up to our host family’s homestead in the afternoon and learned that, yes, they had a herd of camels, but no, they hadn’t seen them lately. Like, for months. Dad and son were already out on a motorbike, searching the countryside for them. At some point, Mom told Hoogii and Lhagva to play some anklebone games with us, and then she just…walked out into the hills. So we played our games and wandered around a little.
Two hours later, she came back.
No idea how she did this.
Dad and son returned later that night, with no news of the rest of the herd. Hoogii told us a story about a family that couldn’t find their herd, either, so they called around for a while until they talked to somebody who’d seen the camels 500 kilometers away. Did you know camels were so wanderlusty? Me neither.
We also learned that camels don’t just spit when they’re angry; they also projectile vomit. For Your Information.
The next morning, we got some pony rides in while Lhagva warmed up the van.
Our guide was the son, who cuts quite a figure on his horse:
Up until that morning, he had mostly been eyeing us warily; once he and I were trotting around the hills, though, he had lots of questions about Erdenet. Was it big? Was the weather nice? Where did I work? How many kids went to my school? Did Erdenet have a winter Naadam celebration? And so on. It was a real nice chat. By which I mean, we had a mutually understandable chat, and that fact is nice to me.
Oh man, I have 15 minutes to wrap this shit up. OKAY!
So! Family homestays! We did not one, but three. These were our hosts for the first night:
It was there that we manhandled our first baby goats, and where we taught Jay a phrase that would become very useful for the rest of the trip: “Would you like to drink a beer?”
Our second family was the family with the camels. The third family was special: They were complete strangers to Lhagva and Hoogii, and had no idea we were coming. We just drove up and asked to stay the night. They said yes, and then spent the evening playing Uno with us and plying us with massive amounts of homemade milk vodka. Mongolia!
(how old do you think the parents are? We guessed 19)
There are so many other things to say but I have to go now because we have MORE VISITORS! Holy crap! Bye!
*”I, tourist.” This title is, basically, an inside joke for just Ryan and me, as it refers to a song called “Uurhaichin bi” (“I, miner”), which my coworker’s miner/singer husband is semi-famous for singing, and the music video for which is on a bitchin’ “Songs of Erdenet” DVD he gave us last year (sadly, this video doesn’t seem to exist on the internet, although you can watch a less-awesome version here). Do you see how marginally clever my blog post title is, now? Good.