Tag Archive | Homestay

Nomadic Homestay Part 2

(Continued from Part 1…)

Still in a bit of a fog from my visit with the shaman, I decide to investigate what’s cooking for the celebratory meal! The first course is already well underway. Beef noodle soup!

It seems universal! Every barbecue has a guy like this to man the grill, skillet, pot, etc. And he's all business when he's not pouring vodka...

It seems almost universal! Every barbecue must have a guy like this to man the grill, skillet, pot, etc.

An older relative tends the wood-burning stove the family has brought along. The rusted eight foot chimney, originally designed for venting smoke from gers while cooking indoors, has been erected in front of a row of western-style camping tents. Like most traditional Mongolian foods, there are no spices added to the dish. The one seasoning I notice being sprinkled generously into the pot is salt. It seems to be doing the trick. It smells delicious!

Beef noodle soup. Yum!

Beef noodle soup. Yum!

Goat. It’s what’s for lunch!

Suddenly, my attention is diverted to the main course. “Baaah!” Gleefully, our host father hauls a charcoal black goat over to the outdoor stove. Straddling its front quarters, he wields an ax in his right hand. He means business! His son joins him in restraining the struggling animal. As he prepares himself for the first step in the recipe, he smiles at me with a “this is how it’s done!” look. Deftly and with immense force, he brings down the butt of the ax onto the crown of the goat’s head. “Bleeah! Bleeeah! Ble-“ it cries before the second and third blow quickly silence it.

Now that the goat is limp and unconscious, the father motions to his son to help him flip it over to expose its belly. In a matter of seconds, it’s on its back. The father kneels down and uses the blade of the ax to make a large incision in the upper belly of the beast. Reaching his arm inside the still breathing animal, the herder grimaces with concentration as he searches for something. Thirty seconds later he pulls out its heart! Is this really happening? With its heart resting on top of its upturned belly, this goat is done for.

Waiting patiently for the goat to give up the ghost. Not much doubt that it's not going to live long with its heart outside of its body!

Waiting patiently for the goat to die. Not much doubt that it’s not going to live long with its heart outside of its body!

Success! The father and son duo prepare the first ingredient in the time-honored recipe which calls for: 1) One freshly killed goat and 2) salt.

Success! The father and son duo prepare the first ingredient in the time-honored recipe which calls for: 1) A freshly killed goat, 2) water, and 3) salt.

Moments later the father expands the original incision and empties the contents of the abdomen into several metal bowls. Several younger relatives look on with interest.

Looks delicious already!

Looks delicious! Doesn’t it?

No wasting time in this step!

No wasting time in this step!

"This is how it's done, my nephew!"

“This is how it’s done!”

Meanwhile, his nephew fires up a soviet-era blowtorch to singe the hair off the carcass.

Readying the blowtorch! (I made sure to line up to the side off this operation.)

Readying the blowtorch! (I made sure to line up to the side of this operation to take the this photo.)

After the innards are divided into three basins, two older women take the one containing the rectum and lower bowels and squeeze out the fecal matter inside of them.

A young family member looks on with interest as her aunts prepares the intenstines.

A young family member looks on with interest as her aunts prepares the intestines.

The pile of green grassy material comes from the animal's intestinal tract and rumen, one of the multiple compartments of the stomach that goats, sheep, and other ruminants have to digest the tough grasses of the steppe.

The pile of green grassy material comes from the animal’s intestinal tract and rumen, one of the multiple compartments of the stomach that goats have to digest the tough steppe grasses.

"Can we eat it yet?" "No! You are crazy! We can't eat that!" "I thought Mongolians were tough!" "Okay, you eat it then!" (Tempting as it was, my friend, Erdene, won the argument.)

“Can we eat it yet?” “No! Are you crazy?! We can’t eat that!” “I thought Mongolians were tough!” “Okay, you eat it then!” (Tempting as it was, my friend, Erdene, won the argument.)

Now that the blowtorch is fired up, the hair is burned and scraped off with a large knife. I’m not the only one who gets the ordeal on film!

While my host father looks on, his nephews put the blowtorch to use on its "flamethrower" setting.

While my host father looks on, his nephews put the blowtorch to use on its “flamethrower” setting.

While one directs the flame, the other scrapes off the burnt hair.

While one directs the flame, the other scrapes off the burnt hair.

This event was documented by the participants as well.

This event was documented by the participants as well.

"Dinner's almost ready!"

“Dinner’s almost ready!”

If this goat was not already dead, it would be in serious trouble. I'm glad the men with the flamethrower and knife are on my side!

If this goat was not already dead, it would be in serious trouble. I’m glad the men with the flamethrower and knife are on my side! (At least they were until the wrestling started.)

Bon appetit!

Bon appetit!

While the three men continue with the labor-intensive endeavor, my host mother takes the massive pot of beef noodle stew from the burner and doles out bowls to everyone else. We kneel and sit cross legged around the same tarp used for the ankle bones game earlier. White bread is passed out and I help myself to several pieces. Offered another bowl by my host mom, I can’t refuse!

Finishing the first course, I watch as the meat with singed skin still attached is butchered and thrown into a cooking pot. The highly prized internal organs are saved for later meals throughout our stay. (Goat brains for breakfast, anyone?)

"Let's throw in a bit of this  just for flavor!"

“Let’s throw in a bit of this here meat, just for flavor!”

The second course goes on the stove.

The second course goes on the stove.

Drinking Time!

As I snap photos of the final steps of the meal preparation, I’m beckoned into the main tent by the older relative who has been diligently manning the stove top. Seated on the ground are two other elders with an opened bottle of vodka between them. Two more full ones lay on the ground nearby. My friend and interpreter absent, I’m left to fend for myself.

The men in the tent inspect me carefully and begin to chat in Mongolian as they finish passing around a red thermos cup full of vodka to one another. They’re probably debating how much this white guy can drink… Before I can think too much more about it, the man in charge pours between four and five shots of Chinggis Khan into the cup. That is a LOT of alcohol!

With keen interest, the three Mongolians watch intently as I’m offered the cup. “What’s he gonna do?” they’re asking themselves. This could be a bad idea, but… “Bottoms up!” Without hesitation, I down the entire cup. Whew! Grimacing and wiping away the drops of vodka dribbling down my chin with my sleeve, I quickly hand it back. Thankfully we just ate and this is not on an empty stomach. 

Immediately the men’s eyes open wide with surprise. Smiling and shaking my head, I see they also have the biggest grins I’ve seen on their faces so far. Even the killing of the goat didn’t have this effect. They start laughing and punching each other on the shoulders. “I told you he would drink it all!” “Wow, you were right!” I imagine they’re saying.

Having proven myself, the next few rounds they pour less than a shot for me. Thankfully, my friend comes to rescue me soon.  “Peter, your face is bright red! How much have you drank?” “I dunno, less than them!” I laugh. He’s offered the cup shortly afterwards. A non-drinker, he touches his lips politely to the cup, but our hosts are not very pleased with his lack of enthusiasm. However, I’ve proven myself enough to have a full on conversation with the men, with my friend as translator.

After a twenty minute conversation about the differences between Christianity and Shamanism, we get up to check on the main dish cooking outside.

Meal Time!

An uncle adding water to the cooking goat dish.

An uncle adds water to the cooking goat meat.

After several rounds of salty milk tea with my new friends back in the ger – which thankfully cuts the edge off the vodka quite nicely – the main course arrives. The boiled meat is fairly tender and has a lot of fat on it, the best part of any meal for most Mongolians. Voraciously hungry, I help myself to a goat rib and part of it’s hind left leg. My hosts watch my efforts to cut small pieces off, and insist that I make several cross-cuts to be able to more easily rip it off with my canine teeth. The strategy works and, although I feel I’m eating like a caveman, apparently I’m doing it right.

There’s something very satisfying about this whole process, something elemental. How many times in the U.S. have I really seen where my food comes from? Especially meat! Here I know that the goat lived a full and free life on the steppe and was killed as quickly and painlessly as possible.

The main dish is served steaming hot inside the ger. Notice that there are a few mats laid down, but otherwise the grassy ground serves as a sufficient floor.

The main dish is served steaming hot inside the ger. Notice that there are a few mats laid down, but otherwise the grassy ground serves as a sufficient floor.

Plates, utensils other than knives, and napkins are not necessary! Generally, several blades are placed in the serving dish for people to share in order to cut off desired pieces of meat.

Plates, utensils, and napkins are not necessary! Generally, several knives are placed in the serving dish for people to cut off the desired pieces of meat.

Watermelon for desert!

Watermelon for desert!

Packing up!

After the feasting commences and several more rounds of ankle bones and a small wrestling tournament (which I’ll write more about later) ensue, it’s time to go!

Nomads doing what they do best, packing up and moving out!

Nomads doing what they do best, packing up and moving out! First, they take down the sheepskin outer covering.

"Anyone home?"

“Anyone home?”

The family works with incredible efficiency to take down the ger erected earlier that day for the ceremony.

The family works with incredible efficiency to take down the ger erected earlier that day specifically for the ceremony. Next, the painted wooden roof poles are removed.

One man holds the main support two beams holding up the crown upon which the beams rest. Traditionally, the two pillars are sacred. Walking or standing between them in an erect ger is sacrilegious because they represent the channel between the earthly and the supernatural. Only the most revered lamas and shamans with special powers are permitted to sit in this position.

A man holds in place the main support beams that support the ceiling. Traditionally, the space between the two pillars is sacred. Walking or standing between them is sacrilegious because they represent the conduit between the earthly and the supernatural realms. Only the most revered lamas and shamans with special powers are permitted to sit in this position.

After the roof is taken down, the doorway is removed and the collapsible siding pieces are neatly folded.

After the roof is taken down, the doorway is removed and the collapsible siding pieces are neatly folded.

In the midst of the operation, a girl pauses to collect her thoughts.

In the midst of the operation, a girl pauses to collect her thoughts and belongings.

Almost down!

Almost down! Total time: 10 minutes.

While traditionally the pieces of gers were loaded onto horses, a Japanese truck will do!

While traditionally the pieces of gers were loaded onto horses, a Japanese truck will do!

Securing the ger gear.

Securing the ger gear.

Preparing to load up the truck.

Preparing to load up the truck.

After the camp has been taken down completely, the elders in the family pay their respect to the spirit of the mountain and their ancestors.

After the camp has been taken down completely, the elders in the family pay their respect to the spirits of the mountain and of their ancestors.

Paying homage.

Paying homage.

Honoring the spirits, a man kneels and bows in the direction of the shrine we visited earlier atop the hill.

Honoring the spirits, a man kneels and bows in the direction of the shrine we visited earlier.

Thanks for taking the time to read a bit more about my home stay! Still plenty more material to come from that short but busy visit!

Nomadic Home Stay Part 1

After over a half an hour of driving around aimlessly in a large valley, hopping from ger to ger, we finally find the first of four host families with whom we Fulbrighters will stay for the next three days. I suppose that’s one problem with arranging home visits with nomads in advance, they pack everything and move at a moment’s notice!

"Hi! I think we're here?"

“Hi! I think we’re here?”

Our hosts could be anywhere out there...

Our hosts could have been anywhere out there…

Our drivers help the first two Fulbrighters unload their gear and move it into their host family’s home. “Let’s walk from here,” our student coordinator, Erdene, suggests. “Sure, it doesn’t look too far,” I reply, nodding in agreement. We haul our backpacks and sleeping bags out of the back of the truck and begin to walk across the pasture.

Ten minutes later, we approach the next camp. Two gers stand side by side. “I think this is the right one, but I don’t remember! It’s in a different place this time.” Of course it is. 

Our host family's twin gers. One is home to the kitchen, eating area, and tack room, while the other is home to the family's shrine and main sleeping quarters.

Our host family’s twin gers. One is home to the kitchen, eating area, and tack room, while the other holds the family’s shrine and main sleeping quarters.

No one answers the doors when we knock. Peaking our heads inside, they’re empty. More worrisome, there were no livestock anywhere in sight. No sheep, goats, or horses. “Are they out moving the herd?” “No idea!” He looks as confused as I do.

Circling the back side of the gers, we find a baby goat tied to a broken down truck. This is a good sign! “Think that’s our dinner?” I ask Erdene, only half-joking. “No! We don’t eat baby animals here. You Americans are so weird – you eat baby sheep!” “Yeah, lamb is delicious! So tender and flavorful.” “Ew!” There’s no point in arguing, he’s just gonna have to come visit me sometime.

We sit patiently waiting until we remember the Frisbee Erdene brought. After a few minutes tossing around the disk, a rusty old Japanese truck pulls up and a teenager wearing sweatpants , a leather jacket, and Nike high-tops jumps out. “He says his family is having a mountain ritual today on the other side of the valley. Do we want to go?” Erdene interprets. “Of course we do!”

After hopping into the cab of the sputtering old truck we barrel along for a few minutes of silence. I try to ask a couple of questions through Erdene, but the kid doesn’t have too much to say. “We don’t have the idea of awkward silence that you Americans have. It’s normal here. He’s just very masculine.” And apparently I’m being a girl right now by trying to be friendly…

Eventually, we come across two men walking across the valley a few hundred yards apart. Our driver stops to speak with each and motions for them to jump in the back. After the second one hops in, we turn back towards the gers. “He’s going to give them airag. The family we’re staying with is famous for it.” Airag is fermented mare’s milk, a staple beverage among herders. As an airag fan, this is a very good sign.

After the young host entertains the neighbors back at the ger, it’s our turn to hop into the back of the truck.

Erdene in the back of the truck as we depart for the mountain ceremony for the second time.

Erdene smiles as we depart for the mountain ceremony the second time. Soon, we stood up and braced ourselves with our arms on the roof of the cab as our host brother floored it across the plains.

After dropping off the neighbors at the biggest intersection around, the crossing of a dirt cattle path and a stream bed, we continue to the base of a large grassy hill.  After parking by a cluster of tents and a ger, we climb halfway up the slope to where a group of people have gathered around a circular pile of rocks. A slender metal pole juts upwards from the middle of the heap. Colorful prayer scarves tied to the beam flap wildly in the wind. Getting closer, I spot cheese, cigarettes, and vodka bottles resting on West side of the shrine. Offerings.

Through my host brother and Erdene I’m introduced to our host mother and father. We shake hands and they smile a bit inquisitively. (Later I learn that I’m the first American they’ve met and the first white person some of their relatives had ever seen in person.) After introducing myself by my explaining where I’m from and telling them about my family, we eventually turning back to the proceedings.

The presiding spiritual authority is the family’s Shaman, a woman dressed in a traditional black “deel.” She sports a black mask and a headdress decorated with eagle feathers. [See photos below. I wasn’t allowed to take pictures at the sacred site on the hill.] With drum and rattle in hand, she greets us kindly and nods approvingly as we patiently observe. As I look on, each family member walks around the shrine three times, throwing a small pebble onto it during each pass. One man generously sprinkles vodka onto the rocks  as he walks around it.

“We’re really lucky. I had no idea this was happening. I’ve never seen this sort of ceremony,” Erdene says. “Me neither!” This doesn’t exactly happen regularly in Boston or Seattle. As the last family members finish the rite, our hosts motion for us to pay our respects. I circumambulate the shrine, doing my best to imitate the family members. Then, kneeling before the altar, I bow low three times, accidentally placing my forehead into the pool of sticky, cheesy vodka. I doubt Smirnoff makes this flavor… probably for a reason! Thankfully, no one seems to notice the droplets rolling down my face. I carefully brush it off my cheeks and forehead and into my hair. Makes a good hair gel!

 Satisfied with our efforts to honor the spirit of the mountain, the group marches down the hill to their day camp. The children in the family run around and play tag and the general demeanor changes from reverence to revelry.

This ten year old girl wasn't shy!

This girl wasn’t shy! She came up to me right after the ceremony to take a photo with me using her smart phone. I got one too! (Clearly.)

“We just happened to show up for the biggest family celebration of the year, didn’t we?” I exclaim. “Yeah! This is amazing.”

Arriving at the ceremonial ger erected for the day’s activities,  I sit next to the eldest relatives out of respect. A plump man doles out airag into a single bowl from a bright orange five-gallon gasoline container. After downing half of it and passing it to my friend, I pass the empty bowl back to my hosts, who seem quite pleased. Refreshing!

Taking stock of their strange white guest, the men motion for me to flex my bicep muscle and then point towards a younger relative my age. The oldest man makes the universal gesture for arm wrestling! Oh, it’s on! Seizing the chance to bond with my hosts, I roll up my sleeve and quickly approach the small stool.

Round 1. Win.

Round 1: Win.

While, surprisingly, I beat the first man quite a bit bigger than me, my arm is tired. I haven’t been training enough for this… His cousin, a full-time herder jumps right up and challenges me next.

Round 2. Begin!

Round 2. Begin! (Note: While his “deel” and sash are the colors of the monks robes in Tibetan Buddhism, this is a herder’s formal wear. He stripped off the top part to show off his guns. Deels are also very practical and most older nomadic men wear them every day.)

Fail!

Fail! This guy was way stronger than his older cousin and wore me out.

After the arm wrestling match, I’m invited over to a large tarp where hundreds of sheep ankle bones are spread out. Relatives of all ages gather on the edges, kneeling or propping themselves up with their arms or elbows. I’ve seen ankle bones before but have never learned how to play. “There are many different types of games,” Erdene informs me. I kneel next to my host dad and quickly become engrossed in learning the rules.

The shaman is stead to my right. She looks a bit different with the headdress!

The shaman is seated to my right. She looks a bit different without the headdress!

[How the game worked: First, all players selected an equal number of ankle bones from the massive communal pile. It could be any number. In the first round I watched everyone took twelve. Naturally, when I was invited to play during the next round I took the same number but my host quickly added more to my pile. Like most things here, the rules are flexible.

Every player then contributed the same number of bones (generally 2 or 4) to the middle of the playing surface. One by one, players took all of the donated bones and, using both hands, cast them down onto the tarp. The ankle bones rolled and landed with one of four distinct sides facing up. The player who tossed the bones must then, using his thumb or forefinger, flick all the ankle bones into one another that have matching sides facing up. While this was quite obvious to herders who butcher sheep routinely, I struggled at first to identify the matching sides.

I look a bit confused, they look fairly amused. The basic storyline of the visit!

I look a bit confused and they look fairly amused. The basic story line of the visit!

Once the player knocks two bones together, he adds both to his personal pile, thus winning them from his opponents. If he is skilled and is able to flick all of the matching bones into one another without missing or hitting any incorrect bones, then all players must again contribute to the pile. He then tosses them again and flicks matches together until he makes a mistake. Once he messes up, then the player to his left gets a chance to roll the bones and try his luck flicking the matching bones. The game continues until one player wins all of the bones from the other players. This can take a long time depending on how many bones each player starts with and how many players there are!]

During the middle of our match, gasps rise unexpectedly from the relatives. The shaman, who had left the game and disappeared into the ger, suddenly begins to beat her drum and dance rhythmically outside the main ceremonial ger. “She’s being possessed!” Erdene explains in a quick, very serious tone.

Family members quickly surround her with outstretched arms as she spins violently, rattle in hand. Then, as she careens out of control, they catch her before she falls and bring her gently down to a cross-legged position. Shortly, the eldest male in the family appears from the ger with a large platter of cheese, cigarettes, and vodka to offer to the ancestral spirit.

After she settles into a deep trance, her relatives approach here with gits - cheese products and a bottle of airag in the foreground.

After she settles into a deep trance, her relatives approach her with gifts. The basket contains dairy products like cured camels milk. The water bottle next to the shaman’s sister is filled with airag.

The shaman cackles and chants in an ancient Mongolian dialect. “No one knows what she’s saying,” Erdene comments. “How can that be?” “Only the shaman’s sister can comprehend the language she speaks,” he clarifies.

Family members gather to watch.

Family members gather to watch the proceedings.

After receiving the offerings, the shaman invites the relatives, one by one, to approach. With heads bowed they kneel low before her. Some light cigarettes and insert them into the end of her long pipe. Others pour vodka into a small metal bowl for her. One woman sings a traditional folk song that prompts the possessed shaman to giggle in a very high-pitched tone and convulse violently with laughter.

A woman talks to one of her ancestral spirits which has taken over the body of the shaman.

A woman talks to one of her ancestral spirits which has taken over the body of the shaman.

The girl in the background is more interested in the door to the ger than spirit possession.

The shaman drinks from a small bowl of vodka in between drags on her cigarette pipe. The girl in the background is more interested in the ger than in spirit possession!

Pipe-smoking.

Pipe-smoking in deep contemplation.

Strangely, most of the men with whom I’d been playing continue their game, completely uninterested in the spectacle. Happens every year I suppose!

Ankle bones is more important. Let's face it.

Ankle bones are pretty awesome! Let’s face it.

At one point, the wife of one player calls him up and, reluctantly, he walks over to the shaman and pays his respects.

Blessed by the rattle.

This man is being blessed by the spirit who taps each approaching visitor on the back with a rattle.

“Peter, they want you to go up!” Erdene tells me. Doing my best to copy what I’ve just witnessed, I kneel low before the shaman. She whispers to me in a forceful, wheezy tone. Her sister, who also speaks some English, serves as an interpreter.

I’m told to bow before her. As I do the shaman places her hand on my back. Then, she has me sit up and place my hands in front of her open-faced so she can study my palms.

After a few nervous moments, she begins to tell me things about my past. Things she had no way of knowing! Then, seamlessly, she changes gears and advises me about my future. A shiver runs down my spine. I almost began to tear up. I’m still perplexed by the brief encounter and am not sure what to make of it.

Following local superstition, I will not share what the shaman has disclosed for fear of negatively influencing my fate. Let’s just say it was uncanny how much she seemed to know about me. I had not had a single conversation with the shaman beforehand, who spoke no English, and very little interaction with her sister.

(To be continued. Next I’ll focus on the food and drink during my outing!)