I Play an Anthropology Student in Real Life

Lesson 1: There is both a microbus schedule, and a crumbling shelter that marks the pick up spot for a van that takes townspeople between the town and the capital. Ignore both. Instead, listen to your host when she tells you,”Don’t bother with the microbus stop, go straight to the driver’s house. And [laughing], 8 a.m.? Be there at 7 – at the latest!”

Lesson 2: If it makes you feel uncomfortable sharing intimate knee space with the stranger sitting across from you for two hours, don’t take the microbus.
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I know the minute I open my mouth, everyone in the van is going to know my secret. But the brick of a Nokia cell phone I’ve rented from ACMS is literally shaking for my attention, and the person on the other end, Chimidee, my interpreter, is my lifeline during my first stint at solo fieldwork. These two things cannot be ignored.

“Sainu? Chimidee? Are you on your way?” My cover is blown. I’ve gone from incognito to full-fledged foreigner in the space of a simple greeting, betrayed by my American accent. I am the center of attention in a very crowded van, in the center of a very crowded city, and I have a feeling I will be a creature of curiosity all the way back to my field site, a little town by the Tuul River, named Altanbulag.

It’s been sort of a game of mine to see how well I can “pass” as a local when I travel abroad. So far, if I don’t give away my American-ness by speaking, I’ve been claimed by the Kazakh, the Uigur, the Chinese, and the Uzbeks. When I was in London, a would-be British compatriot sidled up to me under a dripping awning in Trafalgar Square and complained to me about all the tourists. I smiled knowingly, and kept my mouth shut.

For those who are unaccustomed to traveling this way, a few hours in a hot, stifling, cramped, microbus that smells like sweat, mutton, and the sheepskin wool piled high behind the front seats, might be enough to make them wish their parents had left them in infancy, atop some ragged cliff, Spartan-like, to succumb to the elements. I’m a pro, naive, seasoned traveler, though, right? Anyway, it will be good fun swapping transportation stories when next I see my friend Yevgeniy, who is traveling overland in Africa, on his own unfolding adventure.

There are only a handful of reasonable ways to get from Altanbulag back to Ulaanbaatar, and I neither have a horse, nor the competence to ride one this distance; and Dr. Zukosky left a stern directive that I was not to give in to the temptation of accepting a ride on a motorcycle (which I eventually did later, but that’s another story). 100,000 tögrög will get you a hired private car, or for much less, you could try to catch a ride with whatever car happens to be going in your direction. In fact, once you get into the city, you don’t really hail a taxi. It’s standard practice to flag down any car willing to offer you a lift. And payment? Whatever’s fair, of course.

Chimidee and I opted for a fifth option, and paid 3,500 tögrög each (roughly $2.60) for a spot on the microbus that shuttles townspeople back and forth from the capital, Ulaanbaatar, once a day and twice on Tuesdays. I washed my hair and the one pair of jeans I brought with me from the States, and at 6 a.m. one bright Thursday morning, I felt cleaned up enough to switch hats from researcher to tourist and spend some time in the big city. After many days of mutton in tsuivan, mutton in hushur, mutton in broth, and just plain old mutton, I was craving an espresso and a buttery, flaky croissant from the french coffee shop. Plus, I really needed to check my Facebook use the Internet.

In the States, I grew up riding buses and trains, so public transportation etiquette is relatively straightforward – you enclose yourself in a human pod. Unless you are looking for a fight or a date, you keep your eyes averted and pretend to read the emergency exit signs or study the smiling, remarkably stress-free couple on the Planned Parenthood billboards tucked into the sign holders above the seats, and whatever you do, you avoid all unnecessary physical contact with your neighbor (and apologize, often profusely, if you do). Apparently, I am unfamiliar with the norms of riding in a Mongolian microbus, because I am still adjusting, two hours in, to being crumpled wedged like a lump of dough, shoulder to shoulder and knee to knee in-between two women who have settled nicely into the substantial physique of matron-hood. And the man with the scar on his chin, who is going through some pains to blow his cigarette smoke out of the cracked windom, I’m certain will still be staring at me, not in an unfriendly way, until Chimidee and I disembark in UB. Whatever. I like his track jacket.

It’s the nature of my job as a researcher abroad, albeit a student researcher, to talk to people, a lot, everyday, in order to tease out stories, memories, history, different ways of understanding the world. I ask questions, I point to things, I nod my head, I record, I interpret, I wonder, I giggle when in the middle of an interview, I realize I have no idea what to say next to the leather-skinned herder sitting across from me. Chimidee knows me well enough now to recognize the look on my face that always precedes a question, and I know her well enough to recognize the look on her face that says, “I have an answer,” or, “Ash…” Today, it’s the latter, so I’ll let her be as we are jostled around on the washed-out road to UB. I’ll stop trying to feign any sort of understanding of the conversations around me, I’ll turn up the track(T Plays it Cool) playing on the cheap Juicy Fruit-sized I picked up before leaving Beijing, readjust my cramping legs, accept that my shoulders will just have to pushed up to my ears for the rest of the ride, and be okay as long as I am still able to crane my neck for the view just beyond the lace curtains of the microbus, of the gers, the herders, the stupas, the metal gates painted sky-blue, the half-feral dogs, the wild-eyed children, the treeless and endless steppe, the abandoned soviet-era housing and the sometimes garish post-communist buildings next door. For the rest of my fellow passengers, it’s business as usual. But for me, the foreigner, the student, the aspiring researcher, it’s the answer to the question I was asked two year previous, by an Anthropology professor who was helping me to suss out some kind of academic direction. As far as anyone knows, we are just two young Mongolian women, taking a break from the rural obligations of the countryside, for the gritty, exciting din of the capital city. With a notebook full of postcards, and a head full of inquisitiveness, I am a curiosity. But, no one has to know that, until the ride back.

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