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Friday, May 6, 2016

Roughin' it in Mongolia

Thursday, November 6, 2008


The ups and downs of 'Ger' life
"Hey Brett. I've got a question for you," an average Chronicle Times reader says.
"What is it Chronicle Times reader?" I ask.

"I really want to know. What's it like to live in a ger?" he or she asks as they picture one of two scenes in their head.

One being, me standing next to my ger with smoke billowing out of the stove pipe as my horse slowly grazes on the vegetation and the sun is creeping down below the horizon leaving a red glow in the sky. And two being, me standing next to my ger, my arms wrapped around my body, searching for any warmth and or food I can find, as the snow whips my face and icicles hang from my nose.

"Ger life? Good question."

As I type this I am lounging in my ger as a fire crackles and pops in my stove. It's chilly outside and the heat from the stove is toasting my body with a warm red glow. If my eyes follow the stove pipe to the top of the ger where it exits I can look out the windows and admire the stars and a moon that are lighting the entire Gobi desert. So as you can see, ger life has its perks. However, it isn't all reading books next to a warm stove and sipping tea as incense lingers through the air (although that was the scene before I started writing this). It turns out ger life is tough. And to show you just how tough it is, I now present to you "A Week in the Life of Brett: In a Ger" (catchy title, huh).
The first topic I will tackle is food and food preparation (I won't talk about Mongolian cuisine here. We will allow that an article all its own). Food preparation takes time. Cooking a meal can take over an hour sometimes so planning ahead is the key to survival. I usually spend at least two hours cooking the healthiest mea... oh who am I kidding. It's time to let the cat out of the bag. I am what some people might consider a procrastinator. I do occasionally prepare tasty, time consuming meals for myself, but (and don't tell my mom this) Ramen noodles have been a key staple in my diet thus far. So my food situation really hasn't been any different from college, but I can tell you with confidence that most of the rest of my life is and to prove this I will move on to the next issue.
Topic number two (no pun intended) will be the outhouse. Now I know what you're probably thinking right now, so I will make this as quick and painless as possible. A Mongolian outhouse consists of a small shack with a 2x4 missing from the floor. It's as simple as that (no frills around here). Now I won't go into the specifics (you're welcome), but I will say that my squatting skills have gotten good and a common past time for Peace Corps Mongolia volunteers has been squat offs (a contest to see who can stay in the squat position the longest). So, whether I like it or not, training has begun for Squat Off 2009. So, I guess that's all I have to say about that.
Next topic: water. This is an easy one. As you may have guessed, there is no such thing as running water in a ger. My running water consists of me pushing my 10 gallon barrel to the well, filling it up with water, and then pushing it back to my ger. If I don't do laundry, that 10 gallons can last over a week (used for cooking, dishes, and drinking water). So this is a once a week activity, which is actually too bad because it's one of the easiest survival tactics in my life.
While we are dealing with water, we might as well take up the topic of bathing. I recently discovered a shower house in my town (which was one of the happiest moments of my life). There isn't any water pressure (it really just drips) and it's only open once a week, but it's hot and it's not a tumpin bath. A tumpin bath is a bath in a little wash basin, the same basin I do my laundry in. It is about two feet in diameter and about one foot deep, so it should really be called a tumpin rinse, because I don't actually have any room to bathe in it, it's just a lot of soaping and splashing. Well, that takes care of bathing, but while we are on the tumpin, let's talk about my arch nemesis, laundry.

I used to love the stories older people would tell about how hard their lives used to be. For instance, how they had to walk to school both ways up hill in three feet of snow with no shoes. I always told myself it wasn't true, that they were just exaggerating a little, right? The first day I did laundry by hand was the day I realized that they probably weren't lying. All I could do was picture my grandpa sitting in school staring out the window at the hill he was supposed to walk DOWN to get home, but watching it slowly rise to the sky, so high into the atmosphere in fact that three feet of snow instantly dropped to the ground, and since shoes didn't exist then, all he could do was sigh and mutter to himself, "I can't wait till I have grandchildren so I can tell them how hard my life was".

I guess it would be helpful for you to know that laundry is done by hand and the last time I did laundry I washed 15 pieces of clothing, and it took me four hours. That's right, FOUR HOURS! I should also mention that each piece of clothing equals one new blister on my hands. So the moral of this story is that I will never complain about having to do laundry in a machine ever again, but I will definitely complain to my grandchildren about how hard my life used to be.
Let's move on to topic number six. My stove. At this point in time my stove is the love of my life. It has just started getting cold at night. It's not too cold, but just cold enough for a fire. So I haven't had the deep winter experience of jumping out of bed at 5 in the morning, dusting the frost off of my sleeping bag, and then trying to start a fire. I have heard horror stories of the cold from other volunteers though. Stories of frozen solid toothpaste, frozen solid wells, and my favorite, frozen solid Peace Corps volunteers (that's my exaggeration for the day). I'm not thinking of any of that right now though. Right now I am on a romantic honeymoon with my (oh, so hot) stove, but we will see what the winter brings when it suddenly stops putting off heat in the middle of the night and the in-laws, Snow and Cold, start coming over more often. I'll keep you all posted.
The last topic I will touch on is free time. Ger life, although time consuming, does allow me a lot of free time. Although TV's do exist in Mongolia, they don't exist in my ger. I came into this experience expecting to read a lot, and well, that's what I've been doing. I've been reading, and I've been reading, and I've been reading some more. I've also done some hiking and played sports with other teachers to keep me busy. However, once winter rolls around, outside activities will be nixed, and after spending two entire winters locked up in my ger all alone, well lets just say someday I might end up being "that uncle."

Well, that is the conclusion of "A Week in the Life." If I'm forgetting some important information about ger life, I will be sure to address it in a future article (I'm picturing a very happy "ger life" article at some point in January). I guess I should end by saying that ger life is really an adventure. Mongolia is one of the last places in the world where this style of life exists and Mongolians have been living this way for thousands of years.

This is the wild west of Asia and although it's not an easy life, the peace, solitude and slow pace of life create an environment where much soul searching can be done. Soul searching that can easily lead to the realization that the non-stop, hectic American lifestyle can sometimes be in vain, especially if you don't stop every once in a while to admire the stars.

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Nice to hear that you are doing great! I can imagine how you jump out of your bed at 5 in the morning.

I used to visit my grandma in the mongolian midwest every summer when I was a kid. I remember my grandma used to put to stove a lot of dried cow poop at night before sleep. It is like a charcoal keeps heat until morning and you will feel much warmer in the morning. But in the winter may be it is hard to find a cow poop, and I don't know how abundant it is in your place.

-- Posted by mongol in sf on Sat, Nov 8, 2008, at 1:38 AM

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