Blood, Shit, & Beers

“Pppppop! Zzzzzzzz…..zzzz….zz.”

I can hear the tennis-racquet-fly-killing-machine murdering too few of the legions of flies rooms away. The wings of one in my room stop moving as he is unable to uproot his legs from the twirl of sticky, slow, sure death tape hanging from the ceiling. I resort to a constant, slow swaying during meals outside to prevent the incessant beasts from using me as a landing pad; I imagine I resemble an interpretive dancer on weed.

My smell lingers, though I only notice some hours after a shower when my hair still slips through my fingers and smells of pine. If my odor were a perfume, it would have notes of B.O., shit (specifically cow, horse, goat, and sheep), zucchini, and occasionally some piney-grassy weed that grows everywhere on the ranch.

If I looked in the mirror, I would see dirt on 1/3 of my exposed skin, peachy-white sunscreen on hot days (earning me the nickname “lobster with hollandaise sauce”), freckles where snow white skin used to be, and scratches and bruises from I’m not really sure what.

Less Flies on a Rainy Day!

Less Flies on a Rainy Day!

Sweating, cursing flies, and digging my nails into cow shit to build fires has become part of my daily routine, and while this description could easily fit someone in summer camp detention, I chose this. I chose to live without air conditioning, Wi-Fi, or running water to see how a working horse ranch works.

How does it work?

Take a horse, a big stick, shout “CHAAAA!” as many times as necessary, until the goats trod the way you mapped out for them. You might even try calling them “Fucktards!” if they go into someone else’s vegetable patch.

Life at Anak Ranch

Life at Anak Ranch

As you leave the ranch, the grass hits your knees, the mountains grow higher, and the sound of cows chewing reaches your ears. The slow, seemingly methodical “ssccchhh”, like someone peeling a giant potato slowly, accompanies the “hoooo” of the wind, the sharper, staccato “chchut” of goats ripping off grass, and the soft “zzzz” of the steppe flies.

Hearing this, you close your eyes and breathe in the dry grass, the sandy earth, and the slightly sweet smell of animal dung. As the wind blows away the flies and your hair, the sun’s rays reach you like the first warm day after winter. Then, a fly lands on your arm.

This time, their millimeter legs feel like a feather grazing your skin. This time, you don’t kill the fly, or tell him to “Fuck off!” This time, when the fly lands on your arm, you smile, enjoying the infinitesimal massage.

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In Defense of GPS

As a self-proclaimed bibliophile, I love paper: the touch, the smell, the je ne sais quoi that bubbles up as I walk into a new library. So when a close friend and I had to decide whether to rent GPS or use a map on a road trip through Romania, I was a bit surprised at my eagerness to rent the GPS. I had to remind myself that, contrary to what Arthur Weasley thinks, you can trust an object even if you can’t see its brain.

Bran Castle Photo Credit: Maija Butler

Bran Castle
Photo Credit: Maija Butler

GPS installed, we began our road trip. On our way to Sibiu, we drove to Bran Castle (made famous by Bram Stoker’s tome Dracula), then hung a left at Highway 7C, also known as Transfăgărășan, the most beautiful road in the world, according to Top Gear.

Thankfully, I drove on the way up; I’m not completely convinced I’ve conquered my vertigo. Every other turn brought us to the edge of the mountain, trees and certain death below. We made it to the top far faster than we’d assumed given the mountain’s height.

Snakeskin Road

Snakeskin Road Photo Credit: Maija Butler

We got out of the car and looked around. To my right, a snowboarder hopped onto the railing of a staircase, then back onto the snow, slowly slowing to a stop. In front of me bikers of the vroom-vroom kind drove one by one through a small opening in a tunnel. Nearby a stream began, thickening as more and more snow began to melt. Behind me the Transfăgărășan looped down the Carpathian Mountains through poianas– or glades- and forests, reminding me of an unbroken snake skin shed for the coming Midsummer.

Me wearing summer clothes in winter weather Photo Credit: Maija Butler

Me wearing summer clothes in winter weather Photo Credit: Maija Butler

As I crossed the path of a glacial stream, the water swam over the bottom of my leather sandals, icing my insoles. My friend and I were relatively quiet, a considerable feat for us. Something about a view like that shuts you up.

The silence at the top of the mountain contrasted with Poiana’s chatty drive down. “Shut up, Poiana” became a favorite saying on the road. But despite, or perhaps because of Poiana’s pickiness, her awful British pronunciation of Romanian, and needless updates, we had grown fond of our navigator. 1/3 of a very competent travel team, Poiana led us to our espresso machine-sauna-pool filled Bed & Breakfast, to a new apartment block we didn’t trust to be our destination, and to one of the most beautiful roads I’ve traversed.

Though paper maps work even when their batteries die, they’ll never voice the words you’ve been longing to hear: “You have arrived at your destination”.

Hit the Road, Jack

Footsteps in the sand dunes at  Khongoryn Els

Footsteps in the sand dunes at Khongoryn Els

“You know, I told you how I have been translating the Odyssey. I always read it as a tragic tale of Odysseus’s struggle to find his way home. Now I understand more and more what Dante and Tennyson wrote about it, that he wasn’t lost, but that after the wonders he had seen, Odysseus couldn’t, perhaps didn’t want to, return home.” The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason

“We’re within inches of the perfect distance from the sun,
the sky is blueberries and cream,
and the wind is as warm as air from a tire.” “The Charm Of 5:30” by David Berman

The Van

The Van

Peeling my thighs from the seat of our Soviet Russian van, I slipped on my sandals, straps and buckles dangling and dinging like wind chimes, and hopped out. Sam had his Frisbee ready as I walked into place some meters away. Several 3-5 year-olds joined our catch-and-throw, Sam slapping his hands together like a crocodile chomping to demonstrate a proper catch. Whether or not the kids improved, we had to leave after a few minutes. Kicking off my sandals in the van, straps dusty from the sandy clay ground, I fell asleep once more.

“Do you have Backstreet Boys?” Another Gobi-ready van with blinking neon lights blasted Western and Mongolian pop music through the valley. After our first shaman ceremony, we celebrated the normalcy of dancing to catchy tunes. As “I Want it That Way” began, Petra, Sam, and I jumped around like toddlers after a lollipop. Taking the children’s hands, our Mongolian saturnalia continued until the moon rose high enough to wash away the starlight. I hadn’t seen stars like that in decades (excepting the few previous nights), but I was too busy singing and laughing to notice the moon and stars.

The Sky in the Gobi

The Sky in the Gobi

The last night, we slept outside, three S Shaped Sleeping bags spooning closer together for warmth. When I shimmied back into my bag after a predawn pee, I could feel Sam and Petra inching towards me once more, their bodies yearning for the heat of their friend.

“Whoa, did you see that one?!” Even after seeing ten shooting stars blaze across the sky, I couldn’t keep my giddiness to myself. Petra or Sam would nod or let out an “Ooooooh!” to accompany mine, the other having missed it. Then we returned to our puzzle. “A man goes into a pub in the desert, orders his meal, eats it, then walks out onto the path of an oncoming train. Why?” We hopped from question to question, uncovering more of the story until we could finally tell it ourselves. Our story told, we arched our necks backward and watched the sky’s play out until we were too tired to keep our lids open.

The Making of Shot of Petra Jumping and Sam Capturing

The Making of Shot of Petra Jumping and Sam Capturing

One last riddle: What do you get when you add a van, a reliable driver, a gracious guide, a Slovenian-Swiss girl who uses floss to repair tents and falls out of her seat as often as I do, a German guy who throws Frisbee by day and dances rumba by night, and me? Team Tao: Five humans traveling across Central Mongolia and the Gobi Desert singing, dancing, solving riddles, throwing Frisbees, farting (and yelling “Tallyho!” afterwards) eating, drinking, laughing, star-gazing, story-telling, being together ❤