Nomadic Homestay, Part III
After our brief encounter with Ehud Olmert, we both longed to go back – spending time in a ger with the former prime minister of Israel would have been worth a cup of fermented horse milk – but Maarla had other ideas. She pulled us into a third, sparsely decorated ger with three more beds, a short wooden table, and a lot of flies. The man of the ger appeared and presented Maarla with a large sheep’s leg, skinned but otherwise whole. (Where did it come from? Like most of the meat we ate, I’d prefer not to know.) Setting it on a cutting board, Maarla pulled a cleaver out of the table’s tiny drawer and began hacking off small pieces as flies divebombed the meat.
“At least she washed her hands,” said Peter sarcastically.
Maarla, still on an American music kick, suddenly dropped the cleaver and asked me to help her in the other ger. Once there, she reached into a corner where two car batteries sat on the floor and unhooked her cell phone. Using her bloody fingers, she fiddled around until it started playing Kesha’s “TIK TOK” on speakerphone as we walked back to the previous ger.
Then ensued another incongruous scene: the three of us singing and dancing along to American trashy pop while Maarta butchered a sheep’s leg next to a wood-burning stove.
Once we’d gone through the cell phone’s two songs – TIK TOK and Shakira’s “Africa,” Maarla decided she was done with the meat and handed the leg to her mother. We walked over to the stream. Sat on the stump again for a while. Watched the small boys – both of them on the horse this time – gallop back and forth in front of us. Just when we were getting settled, Maarla exclaimed, “Mountain?” and started walking toward a dirt road. We meandered down a ditch and to a forested area where some cows stood grazing. Maarla turned on the Kesha song again and sat down on a rock.
Our informational brochure said that we would be invited to adopt the nomadic pace of life – and perhaps that’s what this was, this combination of walking and rock sitting. Peter, unsure of what to do, took out his pocket knife and began whittling a stick. Seeing him, Maarla picked up a stick and tried to whittle it with another stick; when that didn’t work, she gave up and put the twig in her mouth. She looked bored, splinters protruding from her lips, as if someone had forced her to sit there on that rock and eat wood.
Suddenly she brightened. “Goatsheep?” she said, and jumped up from her rock, bits of bark flying from her mouth.
Goatsheep referred, it turned out, to the flocks of animals that were grazing on the steep hills above us. We walked a little further, still listening to TIK TOK and Africa. Maarla glanced upward. “Goatsheep!” she said triumphantly, pointing toward a distant white animal. Then she sat down on a log.
This time Maarla asked Peter for his knife so she could whittle. Meanwhile a brown cow had begun to approach me, its huge eyes focused so intently on my back that it looked like it was in a trance. Slowly, slowly, the hypnotized cow moved forward – then abruptly snapped out of it, walked over to Peter, and tried to eat his shirt.
By the time we were on our third rock, I was seriously confused about what was happening. It seemed that we were waiting for something. But what? A person? Godot? Just when I was giving up hope that anything was ever going to happen (or that I was ever going to get Africa out of my head), Maarla let out a much more emphatic “Goatsheep!” and scrambled directly up the hill – quite goat-like, actually – as we struggled up behind her. Moving nimbly, she herded the entire flock of animals across the hill and down toward the ger camp, where they spread across the valley like liquid seeping into cloth. And then? More rock sitting – albeit this time with a view.
Eventually we climbed back down and joined the family in the original ger, where everyone was sitting on the beds eating chicken noodle soup with minced lamb bits and watching black and white TV. No anklebones were to be seen. The mother did, however, come up with a new evening activity: thrusting babies into our arms. “Here!” she said. “Take picture! Your Mongolian baby! You take home with you!”
After dinner, it was dark out and I assumed the day was over. But instead Maarla brightly said, “Milkingcow?” and, despite the fact that we needed headlamps to see, she led us to a patch of dirt with a small wooden enclosure. The babies were inside, the mothers outside, and the drunk guy – still falling-down drunk, even though we hadn’t seen him take a sip of anything all day – sat precariously perched atop a milking stool. We could hear the babies mooing and the steady squirt of milk into buckets.
Exhausted, we finally explained to Maarla that we’d like to go to bed, and so we set off toward the gers, me, Peter and Maarla arm-in-arm, the drunk guy stumbling beside us, and one of the horse-riding boys running back and forth between us, tickling our backs. I climbed into our tent onto my already deflated pool raft and fell asleep.