Friday, July 24, 2009

Ger visits!

Kara’s Perspective

Mark has done a good job at laying out the basics of a ger visit, but I’ll fill in some of the things I’ve noticed and shared some of my experiences. I think this will provide a sample of what some of our experiences are like here, as well as some insight into Mongolian culture.

Since we’re still newbies to Mongolia any visit to a traditional Mongolian ger is guaranteed to be interesting – and awkward. From what I can tell, Mongolians who live in gers are often slightly if not greatly more traditional than Mongolians living in houses or apartments. There are a lot of customs and traditions that go along with ger life that do not accompany house or apartment life, as these latter two types of homes were mostly introduced by outsiders. Mongolians have been living in gers for hundreds of years, back to the time of Chinggis (Genghis) Khan; they are the traditional nomadic home – they can be completely disassembled in only 1-3 hours. However, many modern gers have taken on amenities like electricity; some families even have internet in their gers. But gers almost never have indoor plumbing. I did hear of a previous Peace Corps volunteer who installed a urinal in his, but that’s another story. Anyway, gers are an interesting mix of traditional and modern, i.e., visually, you can see my pictures of a ger with a huge satellite planted outside of it. Yet it’s not surprise Mongolians continue to live in gers. While they require a lot of work to live in, especially during the winter, they have been adapted over the years to become very efficient dwellings for Mongolia’s climate and lifestyle. They can stay very warm in the winter by the fire in the middle, fueled by wood, coal, and/or dried animal dung (it’s odorless), and they keep quite cool in Mongolia’s warm summers.

I’ll fill in a little bit more about tradition and culture by sharing about a recent ger visit Mark and I shared. However, remember this is just one example of ger life, and doesn’t represent all of Mongolia. As Mark pointed out, there are many things for a ger visitor to consider immediately upon entering a ger. For example, we’ve been told to always walk clockwise around the ger when entering and leaving. But what do you do when the Mongolian you are with breaks this rule? Follow her to the right (counter-clockwise) and risk breaking a rule that perhaps a Mongolian can break but I, the foreigner, am expected not to? Or don’t follow her and walk in clockwise, perhaps looking even weirder to a group of people who may not follow such traditional rules anymore? This might seem insignificant, and no matter what we know we won’t do everything correctly, but we want to do the best we can and show respect and cultural sensitivity. In the case of this ger visit, Mark and I followed my host-mom in the counter-clockwise direction (the wrong way!) and sat in the two open seats they pointed us to – in the most respected part of the ger, the northern-most part, away from the door.

For the most part, Mongolian gers continue to be set up according to custom. Not only is the placement of people important (where Mark and I sat), but the layout of the furniture also contains meaning. First of all, gers always face south. Respected or valuable items are in the rear (north) end of the ger – where we sat. In the ger we visited that day there was a Buddhist shrine directly behind us. As Mongolians left they each walked past it and spun the prayer wheel three times. (We, as foreign guests and people who don’t follow Buddhism are not expected to follow that custom.) The western side of the ger is usually the men’s side and where they store manly items like the saddle. The eastern side is the women’s side where cooking utensils and the like are kept. The stove is in the center and various chests and cupboards line the walls. From what I’ve seen there are often twin-sized beds on both the east and west sides of the ger. It is not uncommon for multiple people to share beds or for people to sleep on the floor.

Alright back to our exciting visit. After entering the ger, as guests we were immediately served hot milk tea (“cuutai tsai”), which we accepted with our right hand or both hands. It’s also a good idea to touch your left hand to your elbow when accepting it as a sign of thanks and respect. And if your sleeves are rolled up don’t forget to roll them down before accepting food and drink. In this visit the food was sitting on a table in front of us so we got to choose what we wanted to eat. This is easier than when a big bowl of dried milk curds being passed around or something of the sort because then you are strongly expected to take some and eat it, whether you like it or not. It is considered extremely rude not to take the food and drink you are offered. In this case we munched on some yummy “bortzag”, which are deep fried pieces of bread – delicious when dipped in the tea. I successfully avoided the hard, dry dairy products in this visit.

As we are munching on our snacks and drinking our tea, surrounded in a sea of Mongolian, we realize there’s a half-full bottle of vodka on the table too, with a shot glass that could easily hold two full shots. You can guess what happens next – vodka time! Mark, being the man, is served a shot of vodka first by an old man, probably about 70 years old, the “owoo”, or grandpa. He’s a jolly, merry old man who has obviously enjoyed the first half of the bottle. He’s missing his entire row of top teeth and has the tan, rugged skin of a Mongolian who has spent much of his life outdoors. We go through a few awkward moments of him rambling in Mongolian, seeing if Mark and I can understand. We understand the question, “Do you speak Mongolian?” and beyond that didn’t understand much expect that he told us he can speak Japanese. After a little small talk Mark takes the first shot like a champ. I worry he’s setting the precedent that he’ll be drinking a lot. I get the next shot and finish about 2/3 of it, which is pleasantly received by the ten observers. The hot milk tea chaser is adequate, but my eyes are watering. It is not exactly high quality vodka. Now the shot glass gets passed round and round the room, as everybody takes shots. I’m surprised to see that most of the women cringe and make disgusted facial expressions when they drink, but it makes me feel better for probably having shown some disgust at it myself. And don’t worry - my host family brought another bottle of vodka, so we have more than the mere half bottle remaining. At this point everybody is talking and Mark and I sit contently, taking it all in, observing and trying to catch a word we understand here and there.

(On a side note, I don’t want to appear to talk about drinking in Mongolia too light-heartedly, because alcoholism is a huge problem here. Unfortunately, vodka has become all too much of a staple of daily life for many people. It is especially a problem amongst men. I have read that it is estimated that 70% of Mongolian men abuse alcohol. I’m not sure how accurate that is, but I do know it is the cause of many, many problems here.)

After a while my host-mom asks if I want to ride a horse, to which I enthusiastically say “Yes!” – “Teem!” I get the impression she’s ready to go outside; like the other women, her face contorted in ways I haven’t seen before as a result of the vodka. However, I suspect she is still recovering from the previous night’s alcohol-involved escapades. Thus we exit the ger, counter-clockwise of course, and manage not to trip on the way out (which is believed to bring bad luck to the family). There is a horse saddled up and ready for me. I haven’t got to ride a Mongolian horse yet, so I’m quite excited. My host-dad hops on and rides it around a little bit then returns, gets of, and motions for me to come over. I walk over, put my handle on the saddle, and before I can even start to jump up, the horse freaks out and violently kicks it’s back leg which slams to me, landing right on the center of my right thigh. At this point I’m both cringing in pain, wondering how hurt I am, and am terribly embarrassed, wondering what I did wrong. I manage to walk it off and they run to go get another horse. Fortunately, this gives me some time to walk it off. I suspect they brought me some 50-year-old horse that couldn’t trot if she wanted to, and I successfully hop on and get led around by my host-dad at the pace they would lead a toddler at a pony ride in the U.S. Overall, I think I can deem the experience a success, and I’m hoping for a really sweet bruise to show for the whole thing.

Alas, with horse-riding complete my family is ready to go. This is a pretty short visit and Mark and I aren’t sure if the purpose was for my host parents to see their friends or to expose us to countryside (“hoodoo”) life and test my threshold for pain. But either way, leaving is not a problem to us, given that we each polished off about 2-3 shots in the mere 20 minutes of sitting in the ger. If we were to stay and try to refuse more alcohol, it would be met with disapproval and a lot of pressure to drink more. So, with a bruised leg and bruised ego, I say thanks and goodbye, get in the “meeker” (kind of like a big van that I think belongs to my host dad’s younger brother), and we drive off on the bumpy dirt-road back to town.

Also, more pictures have been posted here:

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