Cow intestine appetizers and other cultural surprises

A crash course in Mongolian nomadic life is an eye-opener for American student
By Catherine Meyer (Duke Univ.) Student Correspondent Corps

MUNGUNMORIT, Mongolia — My host’s 3-year-old daughter grabs the cow intestine and shoves it into her mouth. She turns to me and smiles, offering an uneaten piece with her chubby fist.

It finally hits me: I’m in Mongolia.

After having spent barely more than a week in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, my study abroad program sends me out to live with a nomadic family in the countryside as a crash course in traditional Mongolian culture.

My host family lives in a circular felt tent called a ger and herds cattle, moving to a new location about four times a year in search of better grazing. While their homes lack running water, many nomadic families now have electricity and television.
A nomad herder with his ponies

Thanks to solar panels and satellite dishes installed around the countryside about 10 years ago, they don’t have to rely on candlelight come evening and can follow the latest news without traveling to the nearest city. Yet life is still difficult for these families, and, as I am discovering, it is especially tough for a foreigner like myself who has never lived in this sort of culture with its harsh physical demands.

People never knock on the door before entering a ger, and with neighbors constantly coming and going, I am puzzled to figure out how to get dressed without causing a local scandal. I already get stared at enough as neighbors pile into the ger to see the funny American girl who wants to pet the livestock and wears her winter coat indoors.

Every daily task in Mongolia is a challenge, and sometimes a frightening one. My first time on a horse becomes a panicky situation as the horse gets spooked by a guard dog and starts galloping toward the mountains. I hold on for dear life as I shout a few choice words that I’m glad my host father cannot understand.

The father of the host family gallops after me and grabs the reins of my horse, pulling it to a stop. The stunned expression on my face makes him chuckle, and I later discover that because of this fiasco, I am prohibited from holding the reins of my own horse for the rest of my stay.

Even going to the bathroom is a treacherous task. Toilets are little more than a pit in the ground with two parallel boards of wood to stand on as you squat over it. At night, the boards freeze over with ice and I pray that I don’t slip, as one misstep would land me face first into the poop pit.

As I settle in, I also learn that life moves a bit slower in the country. At times, the pace drives me crazy as I find myself at a loss for things to occupy my time. I would be happy to help my host parents with their daily chores, but because I am their guest, they refuse my offers.

My host’s little daughter entertains herself by running around the inside of the ger in circles, taking periodic breaks to open the door and squeal at the guard dog.


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