In response to the question “How was Mongolia?” there is only one adjective that comes to mind, pushing all other qualifiers out of contention: vast. The extent of the vastness can only be appreciated once you leave the capital of Ulaanbaatar and realize that you will be spending hours and hours, day after day, traversing huge distances in a rugged and bumpy vehicle, relying on GPS to guide you through roadless and unvarying landscapes.
Among this vastness you will see the country’s justly renowned sights, to wit:
The Monastery Complex at Erdene Zuu
The Flaming Cliffs
The Wild Takhi Horses
But meanwhile there is no denying that the days are long, the challenges of the road are many, and the novelty of the occasional settlement or camel herd is apt to wear thin. So while in Mongolia I found that the best strategy is to embrace the unexpected, and delight in the fact that you are in a country where:
There are vegan karaoke bars:
There are monuments to phalluses:
Angels perch atop baroque silver fountains at the edge of the desert:
The bartender at your ger camp is always ready to serve:
Genghis Khan (or at least his boot) still stands tall after eight centuries:
And museum placards leave you really wanting to know what else is registered in the Red Book of Mongolia…
My thoughts on attending the bull jumping ceremony of the Hamer people were these: If I were a young man about to prove myself worthy of a bride by running naked over the backs of six cranky animals, would I want hundreds of foreign tourists and at least three international media outlets there to record it? And if I were a young woman who was going to drink a generous amount of honey wine and allow my back to be beaten raw with tree branches by the male members of my tribe, would I want so many shocked and disapproving Westerners looking on? Their response, I am sure, would be utter and complete indifference. There can be few traditional people as confidently and defiantly themselves in the face of the modern world as the Hamer people of southern Ethiopia.
The bull jumper is a young man who has come of age and hopes to be allowed to marry his chosen bride by running back and forth three times over the backs of the assembled animals without incident. I’m pleased to report that our jumper was successful and that his payoff was immediate. Returning to terra firma after an impressive display of balance and agility, he scooped up his intended and together they quickly left the scene.
The ritual beating of the women is harder to watch and to understand. The Hamer women are aggressive, quite foxy, and nobody’s fools. But walk behind a random thicket at the ceremony site and you are apt to encounter a young woman, already bleeding profusely, defying a man with a switch to hit her harder. Their willingness to submit to this violence is typically described as a way of showing devotion to the men of the tribe. Why their devotion takes this form is, as far as I have been able to determine, unexplained.
There is a small but wonderful ethnographic museum in the town of Jinka, where storyboards feature Hamer women in their own words. I would have appreciated some insight into the origins and psychology of the custom. But the storytellers are, after all, community members, not anthropologists. They make it clear that refusing to participate in this ritual would be unthinkable, and that the scars thus gained are a badge of honor.
Three times over and back
Observing it all
Enter a Mentawai longhouse and the first thing you’ll notice are the fanciful animal carvings – hanging from the ceiling, emblazoned on the walls. There are birds and turtles, monkeys and boar. These are “toys for the dead,” placed there for the spirits of the animals killed for food by these traditional hunter-gatherers. The thinking is that if the spirits of these creatures are happy and entertained they will stay in the longhouse and invite others of their kind to visit. Thus do the Mentawai hope to ensure a steady supply of the game essential to their diet and way of life.
The Mentawai inhabit an island off the coast of an island – Siberut Island, 96 miles across the Indian Ocean from the Indonesian isle of Sumatra. The principal role in their society is played by the shaman – any individual, it seems, who is willing to undergo the requisite training and to endure a series of painful tattoos that eventually cover most of the body. Despite the mystery often associated with the role, the shamans assembled for our visit were an extremely relaxed and affable group of nearly naked men happy for the novelty and gracious about demonstrating their material culture. Their training seems informal – solicited from anyone with the requisite knowledge, and payable at the rate of a pig a week – leaving the impression that it continues until the aspirant has achieved the desired level of proficiency, or exhausted the supply of available pigs.
Among the traditional skills demonstrated for us was the making of poisoned arrows and darts. The lethal preparation involved some ginger, some chilis, and the lethal root of an unnamed tuber – unnamed not because it’s a secret but because our translator didn’t know the word in English. Bark was stripped from a tree, moistened, pounded and turned into the makings of a loincloth before our eyes. We watched the women head down to the river to fish wearing jaunty rattan leaf skirts designed to hide their scent; we declined their invitation to join them from an unwillingness to descend the slippery riverbank that they have negotiated effortlessly since childhood. In the evening the shamans danced, delighting us and eliciting excited squeals of “bilo, bilo” from the children as they recognized the stylized moves of the monkey.
But time spent with the Mentawai is bittersweet. With every visitor who travels the five hours by boat to Siberut from Padang, ventures two hours inland by dugout canoe, and makes the truly daunting slog through the mud of the rain forest to their longhouse, modernity encroaches a little more. It is not hard to imagine the day when the longhouses of the Mentawai will no longer be inhabited by the souls of either animals or men.
Making Poison Darts
Stripping Bark for Cloth
Preparing the Day’s Catch
Hanging at the Lonhgouse
A Reflective Moment
Azerbaijani War Victims, Baku
The recent news that 15 people have died during renewed fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh probably prompted most Westerners, if they noticed the report at all, to ask “What or where is Nagorno-Karabakh?” One of the side effects of travel is a heightened awareness of how many people have suffered and died for tracts of land that barely register on the world’s radar screen. Such is Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnically Armenian enclave under that country’s control contained wholly within the boundaries of Azerbaijan. Its current configuration is the result of a six-year war between the neighboring countries that ended with an uneasy truce in 1994.
As a traveler to the region in 2006 I experienced Nagorno-Karabakh simply as a curiosity represented by an increased military presence as we skirted its borders. The only casualty of the conflict was my Lonely Planet guide: before heading to the Azerbaijani border we were obliged to remove any maps in our possession showing the breakaway enclave as a part of Armenia.
Giving new meaning to the term in the capital of Togo
Recently, during a long and uneventful bus ride through the savannas of West Africa, our trip leader sought to alleviate boredom by asking “What’s the most widely sold T-shirt in the world?” Alas, the game didn’t last long; it didn’t take me long to figure out that it was the iconic image of Che Guevara in his signature beret. It’s a well-known fact among travelers that wherever you go, if you’re paying attention, you will find Che staring out at you not only from T-shirts, but from books, decals and mud flaps as well. That this occurs in Latin America, where citizens presumably have some historical context, is not surprising. That it occurs in places as geographically and ideologically removed as Ethiopia and Sri Lanka is remarkable, and worthy of more exploration than time and the lack of a common language have usually allowed.
There was once a very enjoyable and original web site called Che Spotting devoted to just this phenomenon, publishing traveler-submitted photos from all over the world. Sadly the site now is now abandoned, leaving me with the random assemblage posted here.
And a question for travelers: Who’s the runner-up?
Abra Minch, Ethiopia
On the road, Laos
Kandy, Sri Lanka
El Djem, Tunisia