My life in a ger has come to an end. I am, once again (as of yesterday), an apartment dweller– though still in Mongolia. The reason is, simply put, a safety and security issue that made my living where I did not the best option for me. Thankfully, Peace Corps and my beloved school manager worked together to find me an apartment in town for me to spend my last few months. It is closer to my school, to stores, to the train station, to everything except to my old hashaa. I am quite content with the convenience of it all.
Yet the sudden transition has brought to mind a lot of contrasts–namely, between a ger and an apartment. Just to make it clear: living in a ger is completely unlike and is not at all living in an apartment. I have only seen one apartment that contests the difficulty of ger life, but most do not. In fact, living in a normal, pretty standard Mongolian apartment with mediocre heat and cold running water (with no access to hot water) is far, far easier (and, in many ways, better) than living in a ger.
For example: going to the bathroom.
Going to the bathroom no longer requires the internal process of weighing the costs and benefits of making the necessary trip outside to the outhouse. It doesn’t require walking past two other gers and potentially ten people, repeatedly, just to relieve oneself. It doesn’t require a change of footwear or an additional layer of clothing. It merely requires the acknowledgment of a bodily signal and the taking of but a few steps before relief comes. That is all. No makeshift toilet made out of the dry sink bucket for those times the costs outweigh the benefits of leaving the ger (example: sandstorms, too many people outside, too many visits already that day, too cold, too dark), no squatting over said bucket, nothing. Just some steps, and relief.
I’ve also come to realize that ger life requires the reverse of taking things for granted. For example: running water. In a ger, I would have to ration out my water use, conserving some for a hair washing or that ever-so-rare clothes washing moment, washing my hands and dishes with as little water as possible, not cleaning my ger and everything in it to keep my water longer. No more! I didn’t realize it was so much a part of my life, this rationing, until I had running water again. It feels like a small miracle every time I turn it on. I can finally be clean again! My dry hands are bearing the consequences of that, but I don’t care.
Fires, too, have become obsolete. Now, the only fires in my life are those from the scented candles in my apartment. My morning alarm is set to one time rather than to two because I don’t have to worry about making a fire and giving it an hour to warm up my ger before I can leave my bed the second time. I don’t have to sleep in my sleeping bag and in layers of blankets and clothes for when the temperature inside the ger dips to approximately the same temperature as outside. And I don’t have to worry about maintaining the warmth of the room throughout the day, even if there are times when I can’t help but feel the urge to add more coals to the fire– the fire that isn’t there. I was compulsive about it for so long that such an compulsion is hard to shake. This is an apartment, I have to remind myself; it’s already heated. Everything’s taken care of. But I had gotten so used to taking care of everything.
Honestly, I never had any desire to live in a yurt. I once read an article on a couple who lived in the Yukon in a round yurt with no electricity and a fire to stay warm. They chopped and collected wood for fuel and somehow made it into a nearby town through the thick snow to restock occasionally. It made an impression on me. How could anyone live like that? I thought. They lived off the grid and so in touch with their surroundings. I was both awed and intimidated. I didn’t think I could ever live like that.
Yet here I am, having lived just like that through two Mongolian winters. That couple still have me beat because a) they chose to live like that, whereas I had no say in the matter; b) they lived in a snowy place, whereas I live in the desert; and c) they chopped and collected their own wood, whereas I relied on others for both. Still, I didn’t survive just because others made me. I had a part in my own survival, too.
I even grew to love my ger. I loved it because it was so different, so particular to this part of the world and to a unique way of life. It was open during the warm months for my hashaa kids to run in and out, keeping me company. It was a good experience. But I can’t say I would choose it for the rest of my life.
I’m grateful for that experience. It taught me so many lessons about life, about others, and about myself. I think that, usually, I am one who prefers ease over hardship and luxury over challenge, which is perhaps why the ger experience was all the more necessary for me. I had to learn that, deep down, I can do it. I can muster an inner toughness when I need to, and I can adapt to a more difficult lifestyle of living with less and of working harder for it.
Now that I don’t have to, I will count my blessings. I have windows! I have so much space to practice yoga! I don’t have to rely on people for wood and for coal and for water! I know how to keep things clean without worrying that the coal soot or sand will settle on everything two minutes after I clean it. I feel safe and warm and secure. I am happy. And there are always more reasons to be than I even realize…
An apartment just happens to be a pretty big one.