Tomorrow, I leave for Mongolia. Seems crazy to write that sentence, as this trip has been a long time coming, but alas, here it is. I'll be spending three weeks there, part of the time as a member of the Bellingham Sister Cities delegation, and part of the time as a Western professor, working with high school kids on how climate change is affecting their nomadic way of life. Most of our time will be spent in and around Tsetserleg, in the Arkhangai province, right in the middle of the country. We're staying at the Fairfield Guest House, which from the description on the Internet, looks downright homey. I like homey. I also like running water and "Western-style" toilets (toilets that you sit on, as opposed to holes that you squat over). I'm funny like that.
I'm not sure what this obsession is--to travel to places where I need to bring my own water filter and hypodermic needles. It's always been difficult for me to sit still--to stay in one place for any length of time. While some like to shop, and some like to garden, I like to go. Anywhere. Preferably wild. I've tried to weave this love of the open road into my work life, to justify it somehow (morally and financially), and so far, I've been pretty successful. Between Alaska and Asia, the past few years have racked up some frequent flyer miles.
That's actually the part I dread--the actual getting there. I'm not a fan of the 14 hour flight. I tend to get stuck near the back of the plane (once in the very back, with a seat that didn't recline). Psychologically, there's something about being stuck inside a great metal tube, 35,000 feet above the surface of the earth, with 300 of my closest friends crammed in next to me. The boredom can be overwhelming. Although, I must admit, the Asian airlines are pretty swanky--plenty of food, my own remote control (complete with HBO, movies, television series, the works), hot towels, etc. But after a point (for me, it's about 8 hours), I start to get a little--edgy. I start to get that feeling like if I don't get off of this air-bus soon, I'm going to scream. So I scream inside my head. A lot. I plot my next move, either to go to the bathroom (which is always fun on an airplane) or to troll the aisles, trying to prevent blood clots from forming in my legs and exploding when they reach my heart.
I remember a comedian once talking about how we all bitch and moan about air travel, when really, we should be amazed. AMAZED! Because if you think about it, it truly is miraculous. But people are people, and they complain. Complain that the Wi-Fi isn't working fast enough, that their seats are uncomfortable, that there's a delay because of thunderstorms in Dallas. What they really should be thinking is, "I'm sitting in a chair--IN THE SKY! This is AMAZING!" And it is. It's one of those things that I don't really want to understand (I never did take physics in high school). I'm just glad that it's there and it works. (Oh, and yes, I do see the irony of jetting about the world studying the effects of climate change on delicate ecosystems. I'm working on that.)
According to my psychic, Jackie, Mongolia is a place that I'm going to fall in love with. As she told me in July, "Oh, you'll be back. Many times." (So much for my carbon footprint, eh? At least I recycle with evangelical fervor). The woman who is organizing the trip, Bolor, is from Tsetserleg, but now lives in Bellingham. She runs an amazing non-profit organization, Blue Sky Education Project, that raises funds to send Mongolian kids to school (Mongolia is known as the Land of the Blue Sky--sort of like how Montana is Big Sky Country--the places look almost identical). We'll be staying with many of Bolor's friends and relatives, sometimes in ger (or in Russian, yurt) camps like this:
I ask you. Oh, and if you haven't seen the movie "The Cave of the Yellow Dog," you should. It takes place in the area I'll be visiting, and it's a charming story. Check it out on Netflix. You won't be sorry.
As I sit here, typing away, I'm nervous. I always get nervous before a big trip. It's a combination I suppose of nerves and excitement. I've done a pretty good job of packing ahead of time. My dining room is the staging area, and I'm going to try to have everything packed before Sarah returns from theater camp this afternoon. I'm taking my camera equipment (duh) and a carry-on with all of my essentials. I'm also checking a bag that contains gifts for some of the schoolchildren we'll be working with, and some extra rolls of toilet paper (just in case).
I've heard it said that when you're in the midst of what you love to do--whether it's painting or running or skydiving or whatever, you enter a state of "flow." I feel that flow when I'm on the road, doing work that I beleive is valuable. I feel it when I'm taking pictures and telling stories and helping kids get a good education. I feel it when I'm working in cooperation with others, and when I'm hugging my daughter. Good ol' Sarah--she's excited for my trip. She tells me that it will help me "stretch my edge," a phrase that she learned earlier this summer at her outdoor adventure camp. Kids know a lot about stretching their edge. Almost every day provides them new opportunities. And the same goes for us, too, if we invite those opportunities in for a sit and a nice little chat. "Why, hello, opportunity, it's nice to see you! Have you lost weight--you look AMAZING!"
Wish me luck (and friendly yaks).