Jessica Healy 858-272-0706 jlhealy@gmail.

com Riding the Cultural Boundaries The first time I galloped, it felt like flight. Before me stretched the steppes of Mongolia, vast plains diminishing to an impossibly low horizon, while to my right lay the barren pines bordering the lower slopes of the Altais. Rising above the sparse tree line, the mountain peaks glared gray against the brightness of the sky, standing solitary and sharp in contrast with the ubiquitous blue. Beneath me, impossible motion, as the mare¶s legs pounded, gathered, leapt« pounded, gathered, leapt « pounded, a soaring rhythm of motion leaving me hanging at each cycle, suspended somewhere between the steppes and the sky. I wanted to reach my arms out and fly, fly, fly ± except, of course, that I was scared half to death of falling. My concerns, at that moment, were only tangential to beauty and flight and awe. For example, I was much more interested in finding something to hold on to. The simple death lock I had on the flimsy woven reins just didn¶t seem adequate. Twining my hands through the nag¶s mane didn¶t give any extra degree of security, only an added worry that the horse would try to bite my arms off. Falling would be very bad, I knew ± this far out from civilization, I¶d be helpless if I needed any medical attention beyond curing paper cuts. Damn me for my parochial viewpoint, but there was no way I¶d be letting shamanistic rituals replace stitches and setting bones. With my luck, not only was I going to fall off, some marmot would come along while I was flailing about in agony, gnaw on my arm, transmit a dose of rabies, and probably black plague to boot ± and the local ³cures´ for deadly diseases made their treatment for broken bones look high-tech. Obviously, these fears were transcribed upon my face. My guide laughed and kicked her horse, leaping ahead. My horse responded to the pace change (³Dear god, these things go faster?!?´), quickening her rhythm to match the lead horse. Shaking her head ruefully at my chalk-white grip, my guide shouted back at me: ³Stand!´ Right. Not only do I get a suicidal guide, I get one who¶s insane. What fun. I just stared blankly at her. She rolled her eyes and slapped her own boots, raising the hem of her dell to show her legs standing straight up in the stirrups, as if the saddle beneath her was just coincidentally present. ³Ga-ahh,´ I managed to articulately reply, elegantly raising myself off the saddle and shakily balancing my weight on my legs. Now I really was flying, I realized with a shock. All movement made by the horse was absorbed by my bent legs ± the result was a smooth bound that seemed to never reach the end of arc. ³There is no way I¶m going near that thing,´ Nick insisted, eying the yak with distrust. ³It¶s so«´ ³Cute?´ I brightly interjected. There was something irresistible about the eternally lolling tongue and shaggy coat.


Nick shuddered. ³I really don¶t want to know about your childhood, do I, if you think that«.creature«is cute«´ Turning its head slowly, the yak balefully stared at Nick, chewing its cud stoically. Sizing up my travel companion, the yak snorted arrogantly, dismissing him as simply another tourist disguised as a student. We might be pretending to be here for cultural education, but the yak knew better. We wanted the stories and the pictures, bragging rights and an easy way to impress people once we returned to our lives in America. Shrugging my shoulders, I quickly slipped between two of the logs that formed the rails of the fenced enclosure, my milk pail clinking against the wood as I slipped on a fresh pile of dung. Several cows, as well as my Mongolian companions, turned at the noise, watching in amusement as I windmilled my arms frantically, fighting against gravity. Grabbing a handful of the nearest pelt in reach, I managed to stop my fall with the support of a nearby yak ± which then promptly shied away, nervous. Still trying to stand upright from the first trip, I could only watch helplessly as my feet oozed sideways through the muck, while my arms clung to the yak, now intent on retreating to the opposite side of the pen. ³Don¶t forget the bucket!´ Nick shouted, watching with glee as I lost my grip on the yak and landed in the mud. Smiling weakly, I kicked the bucket across the pen. Pulling a calf away from its mother, I secured it to the fence, tying the rope around its neck to a wooden post, before squatting down next to the mother yak, milk pail wedged between my thighs. Unfortunately, yaks are harder to milk than cows. Lots harder. I had gained a crude mastery over cows during my first month with nomads; milking them successfully was mostly a matter of teaching your fingers to behave ± the cows were dumb and docile. Apparently not all bovines were created equal, with yaks receiving the oxen¶s share of the brains, but absolutely no patience to speak of. This leads to an exciting wrestling match as the yak delicately skitters away, coy, and you hop after her, bucket held clenched between your legs. Sometimes, when they are feeling especially ornery, the yak leaps forward before trotting around the pen, leaving you wobbling in midair, the haunch your shoulder was resting on suddenly gone. I reconciled myself to this process by creating a milk mantra, to remind myself why my shortcomings in dairy did not matter: ³Yak¶s cheese does not please.´ It made the other students laugh, and it made a great memory ± even though I felt a bit of an ache, indefinable, as if I was missing something every time we laughed, instead of choking down the handmade curds I was offered. Sometimes, we do what we need to. The first flakes lazily skirled downwards, swirling in slow wide arcs. Enchanted with my first sight of falling snow, I tilted my head back, staring up into the slate sky. I put an arm out, childishly awestruck, trying to catch the flakes on my hand. It¶s so beautiful, I thought, watching the snow settle on the trees and grasses, dusting my mare¶s ebony mane a crystalline white. I wish it would never stop! ³Dear«lord« When will this snow go away«´ After about half an hour, the enchantment had worn off. After about an hour, I was jaded. After an hour and a half, I was tired, sore, and chilled. After two hours I was cold. Beyond cold ± after two hours, I


was frigid and beginning to worry that my limbs would never fully function again. We were in Siberia now, on a horse trek to find nomadic reindeer herders, and the blizzard was just starting. We still had two days left to travel. Growing up in southern California doesn¶t give one much exposure to frigid weather. Siberia in the winter was a big leap from the beaches and deserts I knew from home. As the temperature continued to plummet, I got a very disconcerting impression that I hadn¶t actually managed that leap, and any moment I¶d find myself at the bottom of a very, very large cultural and geographic impasse. My legs ached, dully thudding against the flanks of my mare as she trudged along stoically unruffled by the steadily increasing snowfall. Carefully, almost daintily, she picked a path through the scrubland, her unshod hooves clicking bluntly against rocks on the trail. To our right, rising northwards, were a swell of hills, snow-dusted pines rising slowly over their face. The land dropped away to my left, a tangled snarl of undergrowth softening into indeterminate white hummocks. ³Jess ± you ok?´ Graham, from somewhere to the ± right? Shifting in the saddle, I turned my entire torso to face the air to the right of me. Peering out from the scarves wrapped around my head, I tried to discern my friend, but all I could see was white and tree trunks flashing by. ³This side,´ came the tap on my left foot. ³Mrrhrmm,´ I replied. ³No problem. So, you ok?´ No, I was very much not ok. But I was determined to hide that from all the East coast-raised, hockey-bred, ice skating-trained, snow angels who comprised the rest of the group. ³Just fine,´ I mumbled, struggling out of the layers swathing my mouth and nose. I lit a cigarette, trying to appear nonchalant about the blizzard, a feat made slightly more difficult by the horse¶s uneven slipping plod through frozen mud, and the wind howling past my face. After a brief struggle, I had it lit, and inhaled deeply, trying to appear smug and in control, although the icy air filling my lungs tore at my throat with chill claws, making the entire attempt rather pointless. ³Uhh, Jess? You sure you¶re ok with the cold?´ ³Of course I am!´ I snapped, teeth chattering slightly as the wavering cigarette clenched in trembling fingers traced a rather impressive scrawl in the air before my face. A brief silence passed. I smoked aloofly and Graham walked along next to my horse, watching me. ³Uhh, Jess?´ ³Yes?´ ³Do you know where your nose is?´ Rolling my eyes, I poked a finger in the general direction of my face. Truth be told, I had lost feeling in my facial features nearly half an hour ago. After a bit of fumbling, my finger encountered a numb lump which I assumed was my nose. ³There,´ I proclaimed triumphantly. ³Oh,´ Graham shrugged. ³Just wondering why you¶re trying to smoke through your nostrils.´ ³I think I¶m going to walk for a bit«´


Reindeer are not meant to be ridden. Only the very desperate or very foolish would ever try to harness and saddle these poor creatures up. They are strong enough and large enough ± it¶s simply that their fur and skin is separated from their body by an insulating layer of fat. The saddle just can¶t stay on their frame without slipping from side to side. Trying to ride one is like trying to sit on those ladders at carnivals, the ones that wobble back and forth and net you a giant teddy bear if you manage the climb to the top to ring the bell. Then again, if you are a reindeer herder, perhaps you learn. They live in Siberia, where the winters are as cold as ±50 Fahrenheit, without wind chill accounted for. Their houses are crude canvas teepees heated by small wood-burning stoves inside. Various skins and blankets help keep them warm as they sleep. They eat bread, roots, nuts and berries ± sometimes reindeer meat, if the year has been good and the herd has grown. Many have not eaten meat in a long time. I brought a can of tuna fish as a gift to the woman who housed me. Eyes narrowed, she peered at me suspiciously before turning her back and hiding the can in a safe place away from any children or neighbors. Smiling apologetically, she then served me bread and tea for four days straight. At the time, I grumbled, whining about the paltry variety. Only later did I realize that the food she had served me was her normal fare, doled out to the stranger with golden hair she let into her home, and stacked blankets over at night. I remember drifting off, meeting her eyes before I slept, and seeing them glint like embers in the glow of the woodfire. A sad smile stretched across her face; her children had left the community to find the city, and a visitor from the civilization that had stolen them was now her child for a week. She brought me out to gather the reindeer from the woods, as the day was falling slanted through the pines and darkness was reaching out over the forest. I led the docile creatures by their rough woven halters, and they crowed close to me, brushing their thick, velvet-soft coats against my hips, licking the salt off my fingers. Tetsighe (Little Flower her name translated to) pulled me to a bush, pointing out the blue berries. Tentatively I picked one, ate it, cautious, suddenly afraid that I was poisoning myself, realizing just how isolated I was from modern convenience. Heaven. Pure, subtle, delicately sweet, the fruit frozen with a skin like satin. I had never tasted anything so exquisite; after dining in London, Rome, New York, here now, stunned by a simple berry plucked off a tree in the wilds of Asia. For a moment, everything appeared perfect ± the evening sunset filtering through the trees, highlighting the delicate lacing of snow on the bushes, Tetsighe smiling shyly, the reindeer comfortably pressed against me, nuzzling my hands, the taste of berry, sweet and icy, on my tongue ± it felt as if the world were holding its breath until I could imprint the memory; with a regretful jolt, I knew that it would remain as that ± a mnemonic photographic of my time spent awkwardly intruding on these lives. I wondered what recollection they would retain of me. Back on the steppes, we needed water. Bodagt, the father, harnessed a yak up to an enormous cart, and hefted three old oil drums into the bed. The children, red-cheeked,


chattering, wisps of sooty hair curling around their dirty faces, all swarmed around me, pulling my hand, climbing onto the cart. Bemused and caught up in the excitement, I clambered up, taking the reigns that Bodagt offered me. Chiggis, the youngest son, sat next to me, twining his arm through mine, his small hands clutching the ropes beneath my large calloused ones, helping me steer. Sharoza, the eldest daughter stood behind me, her knees braced against my back, pointing out directions and calling out orders. It sounded like music, the Mongolian wheeling above the laughter and babble to catch on the wind, so only the falling and rising inflections carried through. I couldn¶t understand more than a handful of the words, the meaning of most trickling through my mind leaving simply beautiful vessels resonating in my ears ± I didn¶t need to. They were children. For them the importance was not in difference or sameness ± all they cared about was who would play along. Returning with the water barrels full and clothing freezing from spilt water, I grinned widely and absently at the families. Haltingly, I tried to say I wanted to help with the dinner. Tucking my notebook and portable CD player away, I pantomimed slicing vegetables, my tongue tripping over the foreign words. My host mother and I sat, heads close, her dark hair falling over her shoulder to drape and mingle with my darkened blonde, and she whispered to me with a smile. ³Osen,´ she murmured, touching my shoulder lightly. Daughter. ³«and that¶s us making dinner«´ ³Please tell me you cooked it first«´ I stared absently at the picture, cocking my head as I took in the image of the dead sheep, neatly dissected, the organs laid out on the inside of its own skinned hide. What to say? The truths I had learned during my acclimation into the role of an inept herder? Or the lovely fictions of savages and foreign incomprehension? I decided sterilized boiled mutton was a tale even more bland than the meat tasted. ³I¶m pretty sure we did«but it¶s hard to remember, sometimes, after all the fermented horse¶s milk they had me drinking«Here¶s a tip, don¶t try to go riding a horse after a Mongolian wedding«´ But one picture, I save for myself. Titsengt, my host in the plains, stands on a basket, her baby in her arms, her slight figure casting a tall sunset shadow, as she scans the horizon for the distant dust cloud that heralds the return of the herd, and the men. Beyond her, the mountains jut upwards, their western faces blushing beneath the streaks of gilt cloud above. Behind me, I remember, the sun was sinking with a brilliant flare, falling into a sea of grass instead of the ocean I grew up next to. After I took the photograph, evening came, and the herds were led into camp with the dull thunder of hooves and lowing bleats. We lit the candles inside, Bodgt kissed Titsengt, and we ate dinner, before laying down to sleep, the rustles and muffled breathing of the animals outside a comfortable, familiar noise.


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