Time to admit I’m a little tired of writing this every day. Time for a break. The risk of finding a picture and thinking what to write becoming another task that I only enjoy marginally more than the tasks I regularly do because I feel someone else wants me to was always there, and now I find myself doing my best to keep it from my mind and out of my day. That’s not where I want it to be, so I’ll go and putter around doing something else for a bit, until I feel ready to return here again.
How best to describe the state of Mongolia at the present time? There is the tradition of merging religious cultures, there is the landscape and the nomadic lifestyle adapted to the landscape. There is the incredible rapidity of development that the country is experiencing now, and the eagerness of its young people to know how others live and incorporate that into their own country’s life. The three generations of Soviet isolation, and before that, the isolation of being on the fringes. What is the picture of all these things together, but some kind of magnificent, colored, moving jumble of things.
Barsbold here was contemplating the power of the attractions of the foreign and how to deal with it; as well as the limits of his own power. He had just met a young American girl who had come to visit a relative. I didn’t know the girl, but I knew her relative. Barsbold did his best to get an introduction through me, but I felt too uncomfortable, so he tried another route: following her and her cousin and trying to talk to her directly; this also was not successful, and she left the country without leaving contact information for him.
On a sunny, warm day in September last year I went to what I thought was a small medical clinic serving the rural population of Darkhan. I arrived to find a small room with strange massaging machines, a heat lamp, and some kind of machine that looked like it was sold on a late night infomercial, called an ionizer or something that claimed to do something with toxins and cause weight loss. While I was there two twin children with bow legs came in with their mother and older brother for a massage, and a session with the heat lamp.
There’s a famous passage of John Kenneth Galbraith, where, writing about the American society of the late fifties, refers to the litter adorning the fringes of cities, reading which I realized that the waste I see abroad, thrown as it were into the face of the traveler, was more the default condition of a consumer society; that in face or culture was the achievement, not the others the deterioration, of the civilized condition, and even that the waste that seemed to be thrown in my face wherever I went was my own waste, thrown into the face of these others.
The first few days or months in a new place almost invariably take longer and have more in them than all the rest of the time no matter how long you stay. The cameras are used more then, and the few pictures you take home were taken then, but even without that the memories are deeper and brighter all around. If you continue to move from place to place forever, will the rest of your life get longer, or does that first time just stand as the image of the deeper, fuller changes that take time to come to be?
The physical culture of Armenia, though of course it has its ties to other regional cultures, includes the concept of the khachkar, or cross stone, which have been produced at a high rate since the middle ages, seemingly only by Armenians. They are everywhere, easy to find, and often interesting even when not attractive. I miss seeing them everywhere, in collections, piles, or alone, old, simple, irregular, or new, complex, regular, or any other combination. It’s like a physical instantiation of the unique reality of a culture, in the teeth of which it’s difficult to speak of broad regional affiliations.
I don’t know much about small children, and hadn’t spent much time around them for years until Peace Corps exposed me to more multigenerational encounters, and then my peers started having families. Being an infant means constantly experiencing sudden attacks of uncontrollable misery that no one around you shares. This is poor Batzorig, who was nearly a year old when I left Mongolia, and his father Tsogoo, whose resolute good mood never seems to be impaired by anything, not difficulties at work, not health problems, or weather, conflicts among family members, or a child’s unexplained, inarticulate but painfully visible suffering.
There’s an element of performance, of course, in any tale of a traveler on returning to his home country. There’s costume play, choreography, and, for the listener, the eerie or pleasing sense that all of this has happened before. The stories get repeated so often that the aura comes naturally to them. But the stories also fit a mold that has the musty smell of many previous uses, like an outfit rented from a theatrical supplier, because there are few kinds of news from abroad: and they each must match its reaction, in that complicated interplay of artist and audience.
Here are two staff members from my Darkhan school setting the mattresses for the overnight kids out to dry. Mongolia having a large nomadic population for much of the year, many students live at school while school is in session. These students live as many as eight or more to a room, in a small annex to the school that is full of mosquitos in the summer and drafty in the winter, uncomfortable all year round. The students never did seem to complain, and I suppose the advantages of being away from home outweighed the difficulties for many of them.