Ah, you complete me.
Don was aghast when I said I wanted a regular drip coffee maker to replace the recently departed, and not a French press. "I thought you were a connoisseur," he chided. "No," I replied. "I'm a drug addict." Took me this long to find a maker under 50 bucks. This was $17.08 at one of the snazzier shops in town. Getting pretty close to my shopping merit badge.
OK so, yeah, the Gobi.
I’d been prepping for Tsagaan Sar. I’d gotten little gifts lined up for people. I had Erka teach me all the ritual greetings. Though I’m not the world’s most social creature, I’d steeled myself for endless rounds of visits with little common language; I’d cleared out my hollow legs for the perpetual introduction of buuz, the ubiquitous Mongolian mutton dumpling, and gallons of suutei tsai, the equally ubiquitous milk tea.
We arrived at the monastery about 8, and luckily one of the young women in the car spoke English, complete with British accent. One of the lamas, Baatar, greeted us at the new guesthouse and I asked, “What’s the program for today?” He said the lamas would gather at the temple at 10. Perfect. Time for a little nap.
I sauntered over to the temple at 9:55, figuring there’d be day-long chanting to create auspicious conditions for the new year. By 10:20, my only company remained a sharp, cold wind, so I returned to my room.
I saw people wandering about out my window (about 12 families live on the monastery grounds). I imagined they were visiting one another, but I had no idea what was expected of me. As a monk, I’m trained not to go anywhere that I’m not invited. No invitations came. I went nowhere.
By mid-afternoon, I was making good headway through A Concise History of China and I was awfully grateful for the surplus snacks from my train ride. They staved off what would have been my particularly ignoble place in history – to be the first person ever to starve during Tsagaan Sar.
Soon, I saw that the lamas were gathering at the temple. Fine, I thought, let’s make something good of this day, and I went to join them. I sat next to Enkhjargal, the irrepressibly boisterous father of 10 (one of whom is in the group we sent to India) that I spoke of in writing about my cave retreat as well as the joke he provoked when Palzang and I visited Khamar with Khamtrul Rinpoche in June '05. As the ceremony wrapped up, he shouted across the two feet that separated us, “GONCHIG OO! My dacha! You come!”
Well, fancy that. An invitation.
On my way out, though, I got buttonholed by Baatar, who conveyed me to his family’s ger. The buuz flowed, and starvation became a little less imminent. Among the small gifts I was given, Baatar handed me a DVD with no explanation. Hmm.
Overcoming my shyness, I wandered from there to Enkhjargal’s. As soon as my head popped in, it seemed that Enkhjargal was trying to get my attention across a broad valley.
“GONCHIG OO! COME IN! SIT! EAT! DRINK!”
I came in and sat and ate and drank.
The funniest detail I noticed was the t-shirt sported by one of his daughters, maybe 14 years old. It was dominated by a big red heart that looked like it was rubbed with a thick piece of chalk on a sidewalk. Emblazoned across the heart were the following declaration and plea: “I am NOT a Terrorist! Please don’t arrest me.” Took her at her word and let her be.
The topic Enkhjargal found endlessly remarkable and (like everything else) shout-worthy was his mother’s gift to me of camel milk last November. Even boiled me up a bowl of it. That was when I realized I’d had a Stupid City Boy Moment last time. I thought the milk was warm because it had been freshly milked. Duh. It was warm because, for hygiene regions, it had recently been boiled. But it sure was just as delicious as before.
It became an ongoing linguistic joke, too. Temee means “camel” and suu means “milk.” To make it possessive, you add -nii. Thus, temeenii suu is “camel milk.” Well, Enkhjargal’s strengths lean a bit more toward bellowing than listening. No matter how many times I repeated the English for him, we finally had to settle on a carefully enunciated “kah-mel-nii meelk.” Which was fine with me, cuz it was funny every time he said it.
Enkhjargal made it clear that I was to accompany them to visit Grandma that evening, and about 7 I was summoned. I mentioned Enkhjargal has ten kids, right? And one beat-up Chinese jeep. He drove, his wife riding shotgun with two or three small charges. I was placed in on the back bench with no fewer than eight children, most stacked three deep.
I have no earthly idea how we got to Grandma’s ger, as we drove for many kilometers through identical saxaul bush scrub. But soon we arrived, and as we all piled out, one of the younger boys immediately took a whiz in the sand (didn't notice if he wrote his name). In fact, the air was permeated with L’Essence du Whiz and I had another Stupid City Boy Moment, thinking, “Huh. Does everyone just whiz right out the front door into the yard?”
In we piled. Grandma’s face, aged by the Gobi elements 20 years past the 67 she was said to be, creased into a perpetual smile as she shoveled food at everyone. At one point I was offered cole slaw. I asked if there might be a fork. All heads turned to me in laughter – Stupid City Boy! – and I just nodded and used my ten natural utensils.
Grandma must’ve had a windmill (Enkhjargal does) because she lives beyond the middle of nowhere and had a couple lights burning, as well as a small TV and DVD player. So, what else do you do in a tent in the Gobi but check out the DVD you got for Tsagaan Sar? Turns out it was a music video filmed at Khamariin Khiid. One of Mongolia’s singers many young male tenors warbled some tale of the monastery that apparently involved a handsome young lama who fell for a local lovely (and she for him) and tried to run away in a fit of passion, only to be foiled by a stern elder lama, played perfectly by Baatar. Smash hit. We played it twice.
Piling out again, once my eyes adjusted to the starlit yard, I discovered my City Boy mistake about the source(s) of its pungent aroma. All around were shifting and slumbering camels, sheep, goats, and dogs.
Later, to my great consternation, I found that the setting I chose on my camera to take a couple family portraits – “Indoor/Party,” which seemed pretty logical – rendered the pictures a blurry mess. Maybe that is logical, though, since that’s pretty much how I used to come home from indoor parties. Anyway, I did get some other good snaps, which I’ll share with more Tsagaan Sar stories, in which I move out, and things look up.