A Watermelon Lives in the Desert
Culture clash is always a tricky thing—it’s easy to grasp intellectually, but to come to terms with it emotionally is something else altogether. For certain things around here, I’ve stopped asking the question, “Why?” I know that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” but a big part of examining this cultural life in Mongolia is putting my, at times, overly analytical brain on autopilot. It’s ingrained I think, from an American education system that values critical thinking skills so highly.
I was riding home from the provincial capital in my school’s car, a Russian “purgyon” that’s favored by most of the drivers here for its rugged ability to plow through the Mongolian landscape; imagine a 4-wheel drive, outdoorsy version of a VW hippie bus, then paint it a drab military taupe, and you’ve got a pretty accurate picture. I’d already been waiting a significant amount of time to leave the city—roaming around in the car while my fellow occupants made stops all over town picking up food, furniture, clothes live animals, etc. When we finally left for our soum, I was relieved to be making progress towards home.
In Mongolia, road trips invariably need breaks. This can either drive you crazy when it’s an hour-long drive and people feel the need to stop for a bathroom break twice. I used to drive 13 hours straight from Minnesota to Ohio, stopping only for gas and once for lunch in Chicago—everything else was losing time. On our 90-minute trip from the capital city out to our soum, I wasn’t surprised when the car slowed to a stop in the middle of the desert.
The day was magnificent: the kind of day that I think must be unique to the Gobi, but is by no means uncommon here—it seems like they just come in waves of spectacular blue skies that never end. There wasn’t even a hint of cloud in the sky, and as it usually is here, the moon was fully visible in the middle of the day, like some ghostly thumbnail reminding you that this is really still the planet earth—as the only volunteer around here for many miles, it’s easy to forget sometimes.
The reason for the stop, you ask? To cut up a watermelon someone had bought in the city and eat it in the desert. This is exactly what I’m talking about—when your car in Mongolia stops at no place in particular to cut up juicy, sweet fruit and eat it, never, never ask why. What a chilling contrast to remind you of your own place in all of this, the taste of cold watermelon underneath a desert sky, with not a drop of water to be found in every direction. I’ve been treated to excellent food all over the world, especially those last few days in New York, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been pushed to existential musings on the joie de vivre just by taste. The watermelon was a little cooler than the desert air, but I had chills; there’s just no “why” about it.
All my best,