Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Coming home is easy. Coming down is not.

I’m suffering withdrawal pains. Adventure withdrawal, I suppose.

When I finally realized (with help) what an anti-social SOB I have been for the past two weeks, I started looking for the source of my irritability. I found it in Mongolia.

I spent the first two weeks of June chasing Chingaas Khaan (aka Genghis Khan) across the dry landscape of one of the world’s most remote countries. It was part of a University of Missouri program that may rank as one of the best means devised of developing international awareness. The Global Scholars program joins teams of Mizzou academics from across the campus with scholars from other campuses for intense study tours of different countries each year.

Not to teach, but to learn. Few of the scholars selected have any previous experience with the country. But on their return they spread the knowledge of another culture across the curriculum.

And the trip to Mongolia certainly hit the mark for me. I will include snippets of information about the Mongolian press, political system, weather and religion in my curriculum for years.

So why am I such a curmudgeon?

While the Global Scholars program irreversibly changed my attitudes toward Mongolia, it temporarily transported me to a new life. Not a life I long to keep, but one I enjoyed more than I realized.

To step out of a comfortable American cocoon into a world that constantly challenges your senses is both breathtaking and overwhelming. I was bombarded with imagery and ideas foreign to both my scholarly mind and my writer’s imagination. Countless books and movies tried to give me a taste of “adventure”. But Indiana Jones and his friends are just the hors d'oeuvres that hint of the banquet.

But the new places were just a portion of the experience. The new faces that soon became familiar friends were equally important.

For two weeks I spent day and night – and even bunked – with people that I would have never met and less likely would have socialized with. I explored the back streets if Ulaanbaatar and our minds with Marty Walker, the retired Marine colonel who now keeps the College of Engineering shipshape. Nicole Monnier, the Russian professor with a disarming pixie stature and delightful a smile, would set me back on my heels with her acerbic wit and criticism. Physical therapy professor Marian Minor looked perfect for the stereotype of gentle grandmother – but then she wowed us with tales of scubadiving and world travel.

There were 12 of us in all. Twelve very different souls packed into bouncing Russian vans, aching from the hard beds in Mongolian gers and trying to smile as we ate another meal of over-boiled beef and noodles.

But we also looked together in awe upon the Eternal Blue Sky and the sheer vastness of the Mongolian countryside. And we sat wide-eyed as historians told us about an amazing genius our culture dismisses as a ruthless barbarian.

And we talked. I plowed the fields of my mind with an adventure but cultivated it with unexpected friendship.

I had never met a scholar on Buddhism before Jim Hubbard. I laughed with Amanda Sprochi over the challenge of being a vegetarian in a land that proclaims “meat for man, grass for animals.” Monika Fischer was gracious when I tried my high school German. The elite academic status of noted Amazon expert David Campbell at first intimidated me. But his amazing range of knowledge and his glimpses into the core of humanity worldwide captivated me.

We all talked and talked and talked. About heady concepts from our academic worlds and about the inane in our real worlds. By the end of the two weeks, my mind was just as full of visions, sounds and ideas as my camera was full of photos and my heart was full of emotion.

That was a few weeks ago. Now it is unbearably slipping away – leaving me unbearable.

I vowed to keep in touch with my new friends, to retain every bit of my new knowledge and to hold tightly to my awakened sense of adventure. But I don’t talk to the gang, other than to share an occasional e-mail. Every time I look at one of my pictures, I find another I can’t remember enough about to write a caption. And I sit at this damned computer day after day rather than riding the steppes or even exploring my own neighborhood.

Withdrawal hurts. I’m not a stoic; I tend to share my pain far too freely. So my family and friends suffer this summer for the enjoyment I had. Knowing that fact hurts even worse.

But the up side of fading memories is that life goes on. And gets better. Some friendships rekindle and memories unexpectedly return with a few notes of a song, a once-again familiar smell or a rediscovered scene in a photograph.

Then I’ll smile. Patience, Clyde. The true reward of past adventures is in the future.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Surprises from nature and man

So remember how I wrote about how dry Mongolia is? And how peaceful Mongolians are?

And then I left the country.

Just as we were packing up, it started to sprinkle. The drizzle turned to downpour that kept up for five days. Look at this comparison of how I saw the Selbe River compared to the shot Brian White took just a few days later:

Mongolia started to turn green again. Pasture was assured for the herds. A pleasant democratic election was a few days away. Life looked good.

So much for the idyllic. When the former Communist Mongolian Peoples Democratic Party declared victory, the rival Democratic Party cried foul and alleged voter fraud. Some people were more than a bit politically peeved -- a crowd attacked the MPDP headquarters and burned it. The riot left 400 police injured and pall of smoke -- and dread -- over Ulaanbaatar.

And now madness has set in. Someone torched the Cultural Palace and National Art Gallery, damaging the artworks students were unable to save from the flames.

I cannot tell you how sad I am to hear this latest turn in events. Both parties had defensible policies -- but different version of how Mongolia should develop its new-found natural riches.

Political anger is an emotion I understand well. I can recall my rage at Richard Nixon and the sick feeling in my stomach when I read of the Bush Administration's attacks on Constitutional rights.

I'm writing this from Charlottesville, in the Shenedoah Valley of Virginia. They know disagreement here -- locals in gray helped VMI professor Thomas Jackson "stand like a stone wall" until Phil Sheriden's boys in blue ripped through. Thousands died within a few miles of me over a political disagreement.

I know that many of the landmarks of the South were lost in the battles, as they always are in war. But to turn your anger pointedly on the cultural archive of a people who have influenced the world for 800 years or more is insane. And very sad.

Brian White is providing continuing eye-witness reports on his blog. More on-scene reports on the situation are from Radio Australia and The Associated Press.