We received a note the other day in our e-mail box. Our kind correspondent had a simple request: more Field Reports, more stories of dirtbags doing their thing. So here's a little story from the archives. This one's for you, Kelly:
Perhaps it was the ten-hour trip off-roading over the rutted steppe in a Russian Jeep. Or maybe weeks of eating mostly fried bread and the rich dairy products squeezed from cows and yaks. It could have just been the biological karma that extracts a pound of flesh from every privileged traveler to the developing world. Whatever the reason, I now find myself on my hands and knees at midnight in the packed-dirt yard outside a Mongolian ger, puking my guts out in the ash pile.
All that evening I’d languished on the floor inside as everyone else bustled around the single room. I watched the family members circle the ger, no motion wasted, no empty corner, no materials tossed aside. Everything here gets used. One arm jostles a stoic-faced baby while the other one dices potatoes. Girls stuff the stove box with the sheep dung they gather from the hills and stack in neat drying-piles in the yard. My husband sits with the men, herders in from their flocks, all downing cups of salty, bitter tea, then wiping the dishes clean with the hems of their dels.
I feel useless here in the corner, ensconced in my purple nylon sleeping bag, but a bit too miserable to care much. The ger smells strong—ubiquitous frying mutton, lanolin from the rug I’m laying on, the slightly cloying scent of burning dung. The man of the house sits across from me; he’s a herder and father and seasonal ranger who patrols the nearby park for poachers; brother to the eagle-hunter who lives next door; and cousin to the translator who arranged our trip. The man smiles as I watch him cleaning his nails with his homemade knife—handle of bone, blade of forged re-bar. Everything here gets re-used.
Later, midnight in the ash pile has a sky sharp as a knife edge and the dogs circle around me, whining. I’m too weak to think about the Lonely Planet’s rabies lecture, and as post-nausea relief sets in, I realize what the dogs are after. Three of them pawing the ground, one licking my face, wiping clean my bitter-tasting lips—no calories go wasted in nomadic Mongolia. I feel proud, out here in the cold, doing my part.
Author Bio: Christine Byl lives, works and writes in Interior Alaska, just northeast of Denali National Park in the shadow of the Alaska range. Her one-room cabin sans running water seemed to endear her to many disbelieving Mongolians.
[Photos: Christine Byl]