Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Water: the universal solvent

This evening, it was a windy and snowy -30 deg F evening as I walked home in the dark. Being that it was only 6pm, there were still a fair number of people milling, nay, walking with a purpose. As I crossed through a little alleyway into my neighborhood, I walked past a kid (~10-12 year old) who seemed to be staring intently at the metal fencing immediately in front of him. I thought it a bit odd as I passed, and decided to look back.

He was still there, staring. If it had been daytime, warm, and possibly a forested environment, I'd assume he was studying some sort of small animal life, as I many times have done. However, this was no place to linger. "Surely, he didn't try licking the pole," I told myself. I asked him if he was okay, and he gave a stunted nod, as I noticed a bloody tongue...stuck to the fence.

I couldn't believe it. I'd never actually seen this happen. I also never would've guessed that this would be the place for it to finally occur. "Hooey," I told the boy (this is Mongolian for "Ah, geez, I can't believe what's happening"). He gave weak efforts at trying to pull away. Most likely, he was worried about further damage to his tongue, as evidence of previous tries looked rather painful, especially in the numbing weather. Something in my memory told me that you're supposed to pour water on the tongue to release it, but I had a concern that the memory was incorrect, that it was too cold for that to work and the water would further freeze the bond, or something terrible that I'd have no solution for would result. However, judging by the fact that locals continued to walk by without giving the situation any attention, I took it upon myself to save this child.

I poured the water and was pleased to see it gradually separate from the fence. The kid stayed quiet and I asked if he was okay. Again, he nodded. I accepted the fact that he was a better "okay" than the first time I asked and turned down my street. I looked back to see him standing around the same area, so I had my concerns, but hopefully he knows to carry water from now on.

So there you go. Always carry water. It's good for hydration. It's good for washing things. It's good for unfreezing flesh from metal.

And don't lick poles when it's cold outside.

In further research, I found that if you don't have water with you, you should be able to cup your hands and breathe on the tongue-pole connection point enough to melt the area. Also, you might be able to stick your finger back into your mouth, get it wet, then try to melt the bonded area with your finger. Frankly, the second method sounds like a recipe for more trouble, so...carry water.

Friday, December 26, 2014

The twelfth month

The warmth of summer has long left us, though we recall its presence fondly. Precipitation occurs not in the form of that which flows through rivers, but as sparkles in the light. Even the animals outside are quieter at night. The nine nines of Winter are upon us.

December 22nd marked the start of Mongolian Winter, which is measured in what is known as the nine nines. In the tradition of the nomads, where time is estimated by the angle of the sun that shines into the ger, winter is tracked in series of nine days, each of which have estimated temperature ranges:

1st nine: homemade milk vodka freezes
2nd nine: vodka freezes
3rd nine: tail of a three-year-old ox freezes
4th nine: horns of a four-year-old ox freezes
5th nine: boiled rice no longer congeals
6th nine: roads blacken
7th nine: hilltops blacken
8th nine: ground becomes damp
9th nine: warm days set in

The third and fourth series (mid to late January) are known to be the coldest and, as we pass the midpoint of Winter, Tsagaan Sar is held in mid-February to celebrate the coming Spring. Having mentioned the approach of seasonal warmth, let me point out the fact that snow will still be present in March and possibly into May. However, I promote the idea that many should rejoice in the difference between -40º F and 15º F. Discounting wind chill (which has a serious effect here), the coldest I've seen so far was around -22º F, so there's still a bit to go in my personal record lows. However, my life has already seen new events that precipitated from the cool weather.

  • While walking around the outdoor market a couple weeks ago, I realized that my eye had frozen partially shut. Steam from my mouth had condensed, then frozen, on my eyelashes, which was unexpected. It was easily remedied and felt like those mornings where you wake up with super crusty eyes.  
  • After spending a week away from my ger (I was warm and clean in a hotel in the city for training), I returned to find items that are generally considered “cold, dry storage items” do not agree with that title. Potatoes had somewhat liquefied and left a brown pool beneath them. Fresh ginger root had shriveled a little (looked slightly dehydrated), but the inside had become juicy. Garlic cloves had swollen out of their casings, browned, and made my home smell oddly like kim-chi. A wine bottle had popped the cork out, but I'd foreseen that one happening. This is what happens when you don't keep a fire going. In another episode, I spent one night away and returned to find my water basin with a half inch of ice in it.
  • With the nearby river frozen over and the water trough near the well house in the same condition, I've found myself battling cattle while filling my water containers. An electric pump pulls the water from underground, so the water is liquid, but extremely cold. The cows tried to push me aside and lick from the hose as it filled my vessels.
  • Sawing wood when it is -20º F is extremely difficult. My double-gloved fingers went numb quickly and it's hard to catch my breath through the scarf that is protecting my lips and nose. I took advantage of this week's heat streak (we hit 0º F!) to spend a couple hours sawing yesterday. My body is adjusting to the cold, as demonstrated by the fact that I wore only a hooded sweatshirt to spend this time sawing. Next year, I will saw as much wood as possible before December. I will. Please don't let me forget.

Monday, December 15, 2014

A day in the life

I live where ice builds on the inside of windows. Mother Nature doesn't approve of us having our heat, so, as condensation collects, the temperature of the glass freezes it. This happens inside bus windows and on my skylight, six feet above my fire. Some nights, my fire maintains enough warmth for me to sleep through until morning. Other times, I awaken, chilled, in the darkness, possibly 03:00, possibly 05:00, to build the fire anew.

The success level of the fire dictates how my day will start. A warm morning means that I don't have to throw two or three jackets on just to climb out of my sleeping bag. Some of my friends wake to find water-filled vessels frozen over in their sleeping quarters. Music is essential and something with a beat serves to jump-start my motivation. First, however, the fire must be paid devotion. I burn primarily coal these days, but – should wood be my sweet apothecary – then heat be thy poison, swiftly acting out its intended purpose.

A morning review of the online news generally accompanies my breakfast of eggs or bread. Distracting me from my meal, however, the shadows, like ravens passing overhead, speak of a victorious blaze. The natural illumination in my ger goes light, dark, then light again, and, shortly after, the drips of melting ice from my skylight onto the stove sizzle with the promise of coming warmth.

Bundling up (details on that later), I exit my ger, give some quick love to the hashaa puppy, and make the 10-minute walk to my school. Mongolian winter doesn't officially start until December 22nd, but I manage to arrive at work with frost on my mustache and eyelashes. Beauty tip: Frozen eyelashes give that morning sparkle when your eyes can't do it themselves.

The first half of my day at the school consists primarily of planning, as all my classes are technically after-school clubs. Not much to speak of there. I have noticed that the very accent that makes my English easier to understand by Europeans proves to be a challenge to Mongolian ears. While staying at a hostel last week in the capital, I spoke with a few Englishmen, an Italian, and a Washington resident, of which none believed I was from California based on my accent. It's a mystery.

Depending on what I get caught up doing during the morning and what time my afternoon sessions start, I get an hour or two for lunch, during which I have to walk home to keep my fire going, since it would be an icy place to return to after a full day away. This is the best time of the day to saw and chop wood. One of the major lessons that I will bring to next year's experience is that I should prepare as much wood as possible before December. While I could spend two hours sawing in a light long-sleeved shirt last month, it is now a struggle at -20 deg F, double-gloved and triple jacketed, to saw for even half an hour. Fingertips go numb from inactivity and iced breath saps my energy. And it's not yet winter.

As I look out at my class, I consider the appropriateness of their names in connection to our lesson topics. American names – though historically beset with meanings that are forgotten once the baby name book is closed – are often chosen based on popularity, ancestral connection, or the attractiveness of the spoken form. Mongolian names, however, are generally composed of words in everyday language, that speak of positive qualities. How fitting it is that my lesson on managing emotions has
Peaceful, Cheerful, and Happy participating and Wisdom Key, Aspiration, and My Physical Strength/Energy take part in discussions on leadership. Translated into English, these sound like names from the hippie era, but the Mongolian versions resound with strength and tradition. My coworkers' names translate to such things as Peaceful-Happiness, My Honest/Innocent One, Treasure-Ornament, Precious Flower, and Beautiful Mind. My name roughly translates to “Watching Twin Peaks”...

With me dressed in black and four layers deep, the dormitory students are laughing as I put my bandanna on to cover my mouth: the Stay-Puft Marshmallow ninja readies himself for the walk home. The moon has not yet risen, and the terrain – illuminated by my silver-tinted cellphone light – appears lunar in nature. Today's snow-dusting smooths the frozen rocks just enough to feel extraterrestrial in the glow. There are no lights out here, save the occasional car that passes by me. Along my trail home, I pop in at one of the delguurs (independent shops) in my district to purchase a few dirt-covered potatoes and a green bell pepper to get some color in my diet.

Tonight, the wind chill has won against my dying fire and I try to concentrate on writing while constantly turning to inspect my stove, hoping to see the blaze that will defrost my typing fingers. Wood heats faster than coal, but I keep my dwindling timber pile in mind, as well as the outside conditions that I'd have to face in the event of a shortage, so I throw another layer on myself and choose patience over exertion (I mean...um...wasting resources).

A meal and some time reading, writing, or movie-watching later, it's time to retire to the sleeping bag of survival. I shove coal into the stove with hopes that the chunks are large enough to simmer through the night. The lights are out and possibly I've dozed a bit, but my mind kicks off, processing ideas and plans, foregoing sleep in exchange for creativity. The availability of endless material to enrich my mind calls to me, and the debate between lying in darkness while working through thoughts and facing shrunken pupils in the glow of the monitor becomes moot.

You might think that this news is rather sad, but sometimes you just have to laugh.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Behind these eyes, there is madness

[written a couple weeks ago]

I live in a constant state of indecision. This is the one thing that I know. This evening, my mind can't stay focused on a movie about the full course of a relationship – origin to termination and everything in between – so I give in, pour my ears some Bitches Brew, and set out to chronicle my thoughts. First off, I'm committed here; I'm not skipping out on Mongolia, so don't start to plant that thought.
I can't stay focused. I'm watching a movie, but I pause to stoke the fire, cook a snack, then peruse the latest “news” on Facebook and news from Slate Magazine. The film has been pushed aside for now, replaced by this attempt at writing, but I still find myself wanting to learn more. Three articles are open in the other window, waiting to teach me about why solar technology is becoming more affordable, the biggest monopoly in the porn industry, and Alaska's highly-controversial “predator control” program. I realize that Davis' “Pharaoh's Dance” may not be conducive to my writing, but it perfectly represents the state of my mind: Thirteen musicians at times playing in sync, but often providing different themes, moods, and tempos all at once. The song has, amongst others, three keyboardists, two bassists, two drummers, and two percussionists.

I can't stop learning. The dangers of the internet present themselves much like the mirror of Erised: Some are fascinated by Hollywood drama, others by rambunctious felines, and I by all manner of things scientific, news-related, and unexpected. No matter the form, it is easy to get lost in the vastness of information.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Ode to the man with the gold watch

There is nothing more dangerous than the unbridled voice
Shouting to the masses with his one-sided noise
And for those who would much rather sit and listen
The point arises where the reluctant jump in
It is not the soapbox that the new voice does crave
But the chance for impressionable ears then to save
Cover both ears with the sea-given shells
And you'll never find out what the others might tell
Close your eyes and relax to the waves' soothing lull
And you won't see your briefs rising up the flagpole.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Spiced With Happiness

Someone in America asked me last night if I was happy. At the time, I thought it an odd question. I'd given no hints of my state being otherwise, and I'm generally a happy guy. To me, the question usually stems from a concern of the opposite being true, or at least a possibility, as in, “...but are you happy?” I don't know if that means that I see the world as such a positive (at least potentially) thing that the question doesn't need to be posed, or that I'm secretly a pessimist, but I hate to use the filled-cup metaphor. However, you know it's coming...

I like a nice spiced chai. There, I said it. It's public now in case it was ever a secret to be kept. Never much the coffee fan, I haven't shed too many tears for the quality of coffee offered in my town. For those curious, it comes from a single-serving bag that has sugar and cream pre-mixed with the instant coffee grounds. However, the downside of having a lack of artisan coffee houses is that the same stands true for teas. Mongolia is truly a tea-drinking culture, but it generally comes in teabags or bricks and doesn't offer much variety beyond straight, with cream/sugar, or as the traditional suutei tsai (salted milk tea).

Yesterday, I went for my first solo venture in the capital city, Ulaanbaatar, on a quest for some new flavors in my diet. One of the more important bounties from my successful mission sits next to my computer as I write this. The container suggests that I “try our other spices and eat more tastefully” which I greatly appreciate even though I find it a bit sad that here I am so close to what used to be a spice trade region and I'm enjoying cinnamon that is distributed by a company in Bayonne, New Jersey. The front of the label has images of San Francisco, Japan, India, Egypt, Greece, and Turkey. Where's the New Jersey representation?!

Spiced irony aside, this colder season(ing!) calls for more hot beverages, and a selection of new spices and a creative streak (a.k.a. I'm pretending to know what I'm doing) led me to try to emulate a homemade chai that a friend once made for me. Fresh ginger, cardamon, cinnamon, and black tea isn't quite right, but it made me a happy guy and got me writing this. The cup empties itself quickly, for the tea cools swiftly in this environment, but hot water can be plentiful and it is sometimes too easy to find that my cup hath runneth over.


I recently shared a photo of the second annual Mongolian Pride Parade, which consisted of about 20 young adults. The response to the post confirmed what I never had to question. I have a loving group of friends, many of which stand under the LGBT flag. These are my friends, my children, my family that I've collected over the years, without which I would be at a great loss. My parents never taught me that these were other people – love is love – and I wish that those who think that someone who cares for a person of the same gender somehow negatively impacts those around understood that it matters about as much as the pattern of socks that he's wearing. If anything, it's a positive effect on those nearby, for those who love and feel loved must surely be more inclined to be productive.

I asked this year's participants what the attitude of the public towards the LGBT population is here. The capital city, Ulaanbaatar, holds approximately half of the country's population, which is disproportionately young and is more progressive than the more rural regions. In general, most don't pay attention, but there are the occasional individuals looking for trouble. Last year, someone went into the gay bar and demanded that each person stand up and be punched. Fortunately, the owner of the establishment explained that these were paying customers and didn't have to be treated this way. The aggressor was asked to leave, but waited outside until he had the chance to beat someone up to the point of hospitalization. Charges were pressed and nothing happened. These days, the problem seems to be more with those in authority. Police officers will sometimes come in the bar looking for someone who might be making the smallest legal offense. As a club, the bar must legally have a bouncer, but because of the stigma attached to the LGBT community, they are finding it increasingly difficult to find bouncers/security guards who are willing to work their establishment. Really, these issues are no different than the ones we hear about happening in the United States.

As an ally, I can't stand directly under the LGBT flag, but I can surely help hold it up, be proud of those who are proud, and hold an open ear to those who must whisper.