Saturday, September 23, 2006

The Wonderers

Those of you who know me know that I can be, well, impatient, to put it mildly. One of the reasons is that it's just not in my nature to compromise. When confronted by practical decisions that have to be made, I usually reach my conclusions quickly and am ready to act. So it irritates me when a lot of time elapses between my own plan being formed and any actions being taken, even if that elapsed time is spent explaining or modifying. I'll grant that sometimes my plans don't work, or they lead to stupid situations, but at least they're my stupid situations, and I didn't have to waste any time getting there.

Those of you who don't know me can see by now the challenges presented to a person of my character by spending 18 days in small spaces with the same five people. But in the end, we worked pretty well as a group, I got to know some people I probably wouldn't have otherwise, and often, in the dark, quiet nights, I was glad for the company.

me and a bundle of baby

This baby was the daughter of a middle-school friend of our guide, Sophda. We stopped at the family ger after our night at the hot-springs, so this is me looking as clean as I got during the whole journey. I thought I'd do my best Sally Struthers imitation by holding the baby. Of course, this started the predictable, "When do you want to have a baby?" line of questioning. My answer, "When it becomes acceptable to keep them tied up like this till they're six years old." A joke, but this baby was really content in her bunting.

This family also had an amazing number of dairy products going in their ger: goat cheese drying on the ceiling, some kind of milk doing something in several barrels, and most impressively, mare's milk beer, and mare's milk vodka.

immediately mesmerized by TV on our return to UB

This was our guide, Sophda. She's 21, and she teaches English in UB during the winter. Her actual guide skills were lacking in the communication and information department, but she got us where we needed to go, and she's a really creative cook. She managed to make an amazing variety of dishes out of a few ingredients; carrots, onions, potatoes, garlic (sometimes), mutton, and bread, rice, or pasta. She also had a very sunny demeanor.

Gamba to the rescue

Gamba, the driver, mechanic, and owner of the Soviet issued Volkswagon-like tank we traveled in, was unarguably the hero of our journey. He started that thing with a hand-crank as often as with the electric starter. He changed tires, with the help of Rob, in seven minutes flat, he navigated off-road and on, and he did it all in a matter-of-fact manner. He spoke no English, although I know he understood more than he let on. I think he liked us, although he did sometimes chuckle to himself when one or another of us bounced right out of our seats. When Harriet's bag was lost out of the back of the vehicle, he felt so bad he tried to give her all his clothes.

Gamba's navigation skills were amazing. On the second day of our journey, when we had left all roads far behind in favor of criss-crossing dirt tracks, Sara said, "How does he know where we're going? Do you think he has a GPS?" I replied, "I doubt it, he doesn't even have a nob on his gear-shifter."

He also stopped many times to help stranded vehicles or give people rides to the nearest petrol station. Gamba's relaxed and helpful attitude seems to be characteristic of Mongolians; in a land as unforgiving as this, one had better be able to depend on a helping hand.

Gamba and Rob (Sorry Rob, didn't have another photo of you.)

Rob, Harriet's boyfriend, was ever attentive to Harry's wishes. So, a question from her, for example, "Rob, are you cold?" immediately yielded a fire for all of us. Not only was he considerate of his lady, he was considerate of all us ladies. He often carried our bags in from the truck, which is a luxurious kindness when one loads and unloads every day.On top of it all, he was a great reference for physical facts, such as measurement systems, distances, and the mechanics of things.

ladies waiting, Harry on the left, Sara on the right

Sara was resourceful in predicting the snack and creature comfort needs of everyone, and she was generous with her bounty to anyone who needed it. She could have made a fortune selling us soft, city tissue, and I would have paid her 10$ for the Snicker's bar she magically produced in the middle of the Gobi. She will be remembered by me as Sara the Snack Elf.She was also the member of the group who seemed to most closely get my particular brand of humor. As anyone who laughs at my jokes is immediately judged by me to have a great sense of humor, this was my first assesment. But as the trip went on I heard her laugh often, at many kinds of things, and I realized that she is generally a merry sort.

Harry is a vegetarian who, for the past year, has been helping her parents run their meat farm 60 miles south of London. As this fact might indicate, she gets the prize for most flexible and easy-going in our group. For someone who had only the evening before remarked that she finally had all the best travel gear, she accepted the loss of her bag calmly, and wore her replacement clothes with an impressive grace.


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