Tag Archives: culture

Mothers and Massages

My mother, Alice, was a lesson in contradictions. As it turns out, those lessons were the most valuable. Flexibility really is the key.

I keep my body flexible with yoga and massage-as flexible as an old body- ruled with a minimally disciplined mind- can be that is. So for this Mother’s Day I took my daughter, Anna, who is a mother also, and myself for a massage at the  local massage school.  The low price, $25.00 apiece coupled with feeling I’ve served my civic duty( they have to practice on someone), cannot be beat. massage

Ahhhh. There’s something liberating about stripping off one’s clothes and climbing onto a table for the purpose of having a stranger knead your flesh and gouge your innards with elbow, thumbs, and knuckles; feeling your flesh yield- ligaments stretch and expand as blood flows freely through them like dormant roots after they are aerated and doused by a spring rain. Yes.

Methods of massage vary wildly depending on where you are in the world-how the culture feels about naked flesh.

In Morocco I visited several hammams-gender segregated bath houses-public or private, where one is gromaged; a massage/removal of old skin, with slimy brown soap and a scouring glove rough enough to strip off old paint.

Moroccan gromage

Moroccan gromage

In Asilah, my first public hammam consisted of two large  rooms. The first one was the check- in room where you paid your fees, were assigned a gromager (or maybe a gromagiss?) and stored your clothes.

The clerk, taking advantage of my being a foreigner, apparently charged me several times the local price. A young woman standing nearby intervened on my behalf.

After an impassioned debate the price was lowered. My gromager, lets call her Hercules, was not happy. Unsmiling and outweighing me by at least double she led me, naked to the main bath area, a large, maybe 40’x30′ room with a sloping blue and white tiled, wet, slick floor. In the center were a spigot and a couple of buckets. At one end were open showers. The room was filled with with naked women.

Hercules, stopped  at an empty spot  in the middle of the slippery floor next to the buckets. Surrounded by strangers, she pushed me down (not necessarily with force, but in no way lovingly), onto the tile floor, poured a bucket of tepid water over me and began to rub the slimy soap over my submissive body. As she rubbed, my limbs and trunk slid around on the tiles seemingly separate from one another. I pretended I was a ballerina, sliding across the floor in the hands of my premier danseur as compliant as I am capable of being, before I would rise again-to applause.

female hammam

When I was sufficiently slimed Hercules donned the glove. Holding on to me with her ungloved hand she began to scrub, vigorously stimulating blood, and removing the dead skin along with the live first layer of epidermis it stubbornly clung to. When I had been  rendered as pink as a new-born piglet, she poured more buckets of water on me-to  rinse and rid my body of any leftover slime, loose skin or incriminating fingerprints before disappearing- leaving  me for dead. All for about $10.00.

In China, Angelina, a member of the hostel staff took me to a small, hole-in-the-wall-boxcar style place that was  some one’s home. The massage room was in the back. She told the masseur I wanted an hour massage found out it would cost 30 yuan, about $5.00, and left.

I was instructed to take off my shoes and climb onto the table in my clothes. Two tables from mine lay a woman, completely clothed, a light blanket across her, sleeping. “How nice, I thought.” I won’t have to hurry when it’s over. Then because I didn’t want the metal against my skin while being massaged, I reached up under my shirt, unhooked and pulled my bra out from under it. The masseur panicked. No! No! He shouted shaking his fingers at me. I shrugged, put the folded bra in my purse, and climbed onto the table. Through the material of my clothes and the blanket that covered them, he pulled and pushed my joints around, dug into the muscles of my back and legs and rubbed my skin briskly with manly pressure. Never touching any skin. When it was over he tapped my shoulder. In perfect English he said, “Done. Go now.”

Another place in China, referred to me by my TA who had never been there, looked like a place for getting a pedicure. Six lounge chairs lined up against the wall with separate movable  hassocks at the foot. Everyone looked at me when I went in.

“Welcome.” said a young man.” “Nehao.” I replied. That was it. All we had. He pointed to a sign posted on the wall.. I understood that I was to choose my massage from it.  None of them were over $10.00, but what did they mean? A pedicure in China is not what we think it is. It doesn’t involve polish, but having your corns and bunions scraped. How many different massages could there be?  I pointed to the next to the last one. OK

massage sign in Chongqing, China

I was instructed to sit on the hassock, facing the chair. A good looking twentyish young man, began to rub and manipulate my neck and shoulders. I slumped forward. He worked downward into my back, waist, and kidneys onto my lower back. Now I was bent in half, stretched across myself, my head on the seat of the chair-a position I’m not capable of under normal circumstances.

Finally he tapped me gently on the shoulder motioning that I should move onto the chair- facing  him.

He started on my feet and legs. Oh my. Was I in a funky little storefront massage place somewhere in Chongqing, China or had I gone to heaven? I was not alone. The man next to me was slouched back, his head slightly tilted, his mouth open-snoring. Obviously it was the latter. Anywhere snoring is accepted openly might be heaven.

Wandering a month through Thailand, for under $3.00,  I treated myself to a massage every day. Everyday!! Sometimes just my feet and legs, sometimes I changed into into loose wrap-around pants and shirt and lay on a mattress for a full on ‘metta.’

Thai massage

Thai massage

Your Thai  masseuse will climb around you on the mattress, stretching your limbs with a rhythmic pressure, pulling your body into yoga positions like the arching cobra, push your boundaries, pressing spots that sync to others you’ve forgotten about since you were six. Massage is a loving thing in Thailand that brings kindness and awareness to the masseuse as well as to you.

Which brings me to Allen and Cecil, the two healers, masseurs of the first order in my life. Allen massaged my son’s crooked body, stiffened and brittle by cerebral palsy. Kirk relaxing as never before drooled with abandonment through the hole making a puddle below him. If he could have had a massage every day he would not have needed Valium. And Allen kneaded my muscles through many a difficult time, or as a gift- pouring love into every healing stroke as only someone who loves you does.

And Cecil-The Masseur. He massaged my daughter, Alice, when her back ached  from carrying  my soon to be born grand daughter. And worked miracles on my achy  friends. And me. Time and time again, the sharing of warmth, healing, hands-on, giving of self. The precious gift of touch.
Pass it on.


“Food is our common ground, a universal experience.” James Beard.


Chinese New Year Dinner in LiJiang, China 2012


chicken soup

And, chicken soup is said to cure a cold, and good for your soul.

No one would argue that food is necessary to live, and if you have good food, life is infinitely better.

Food brings us together, tempts us, identifies us, frustrates us. Some people get rich off it-others work hard to provide it and still others have to steal basic food  to feed their families.

Roasting chestnuts in Chendu

Gandhi said, There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot apper to them except in the form of bread.”

A humble American grandma will say, ‘It isn’t perfect,’ when you praise a dish. 
My mother gave a recipe box filled with her most popular recipes as a wedding gift to brides- an intimate gift of herself. When my son lost his first tooth he asked the tooth fairy to bring him pie. My daughter makes my mother’s pinwheel cookies every Christmas. Students from around the world decorated my grandmothers cookies for Christmas in 2011.
 Our family lives on through food. 

Because of my Irish heritage I salivate just thinking about real Colcannon; mashed potatoes with cream, sauteed cabbage and crispy onions topped with lots of butter and black pepper.

The smell of fresh tomatoes takes me back to my mom’s kitchen in late summer when she labored to can jars of tomatoes, beets, peppers and  vegetable soup-summer in a jar during a snow storm. 

 I can taste her love steeped in the red sauce she taught me to make for  stuffed green peppers or pasta. At a request of a friend in China, I made spaghetti for him and his girl friend. He had thirds and finished off the sauce in the pan with the heel of the french bread I’d bought. “I had spaghetti at an Italian restaurant in Beijing, he said, but yours is better.”  Mom would be so proud.

Food is the highlight of my travel. I can’t describe nearly as much of what I see in museums, as I can the food of a country, and the people I share meals with.

Decorating Christmas cookies at EF International 2011

In Tangier I was admiring the sensual aromas and rich colors of bins of spices when an elderly man came up to me with a flat aluminum pan  full of what looked like cornmeal mush. I said, “No thank you.” A passerby said, You should have some. It’s delicious. He was right.  I ate the baked meal with my fingers, scrapping the small piece of paper it was on to get every grain.

In Fez, Morocco,  I was invited for dinner to the house of a man I met on the train. Actually, I went to Fez because he persuaded me to see the ancient Medina. Fortunately his marriage proposal came after the delicious meal his sisters cooked-so I fled on a full stomach.

Throughout Morocco I devoured roasted camel, and bowls of fava bean soup from street vendors. Come evening I sat alone with  6 to 10 different colored bowls spread out before me, each holding a unique flavor in restaurants for dinner. 

The gracious Thai people think it is sad to eat alone so they don’t let that happen. I’ve had a Thai businessmen join me for lunch to discuss American politics, families invite me to join their table, and even the cook on the island of Ko Semet sat with me after she had cooked my meal. The following day she invited me into her kitchen to observe to learn how to make Thai chili paste -her way. 

In China I cooked traditional American Christmas and
Thanksgiving dinners for twenty plus students, staff and friends on a two burner stove with no oven. It’s amazing what you can do in a wok.

A pot, A Wok. And a bowl=a double boiler!.

Almost every weekday I ate at least one meal at the dining hall. Because all of the meat and vegetables, including fish with bones, are chopped into  one inch pieces it is extremely difficult for a novice like me to determine origin.  It became a game of ‘guess that food.’ resulting on me eating mostly vegetables. The cafeteria workers, though, monitored my intake. One day I was sitting with a student, having lunch when a tiny woman came up to her. “Tell her she isn’t eating enough meat.

On several occasions I was invited to a hot pot restaurant. Hot pot is a cauldron of hot spicy, oil one dips skewers of meat and vegetables into.  It’s not for sensitive palates.

Offered a pig snout from a street vendor, I couldn’t do it- just couldn’t bring myself to bite into a big pig nose.

I laughed as my students read the yellow mustard jar at our traditional American picnic featuring hot dogs. “Is this American mustard. Ruby? I thought mustard was green.”  ” Ah. You are thinking of Japanese wasabi.  Not even close.”

 Eating with people on the road is the sharing of cultures, the acceptance of one another’s differences, the acknowledgement that we are the same. As a stranger, when I’m  invited to dine with a family or new friend in a country where I barely speak the language, I’m humbled and grateful.
When traveling, food is the adventure; everything else comes after. I was 23 when I first flew outside the US mainland to Puerto Rico. My date, an impossibly handsome man, bought us blood sausage from a street vendor. Oh my god, I said. Cooked blood! I can’t possibly eat that! Next came the whole fish with a sunken eye peering at me. “The muscle behind the eye is the best.” he teased. I put a lettuce leaf over it. He ate the eye muscle, I devoured the delicious fish. And then there were fried plantains, squid and pineapple freshly picked. I probably still wouldn’t eat the eye muscle, but the rest-piece of cake!

Last week I took my grand kids, six and nine to an Asian market. “Ooohh. Look at the pigs feet. What is that? It’s a block of congealed blood? Oh gross. What’s an eel? ” Who eats this stuff, the boy said?” “Many people-all over the world, Honey-even in your own neighborhood.”  

Living in Mexico I found myself at the same taco stand, several days a week  eating fresh fish tacos with crunchy cabbage, cilantro and avocado – a balanced meal for a buck fifty.

In Lisbon it was bacalhau -salted cod,  sardines, squid on a stick; in Spain I ate my weight in tapas, washed down with red wine. In one bar the tiny fish bones kept sticking in my throat. Agh. Agh I coughed. Laughing, the bartender and two other patrons urged-mas vino, mas vino.

My family’s staples were potatoes-roasted, mashed, or fried and home baked bread. My southern husband introduced me to rice and grits- my housekeeper/cook to heavenly greens, black eyed peas, chitlins, and corn bread-soul food. Isn’t it all food for the soul.

  In Asia I watched folks work in rice paddies- small and large. I  heard stories about cobras’ weaving among the thick fields, and the cobra hunters who catch them and milk the venom.  I’ve shared  unidentifiable food  on trains, buses and boats with people I knew for an hour or a night.

 In Central America I talked to coffee farmers who pick the berries and spread them out in the sun to dry, and women sitting on the ground surrounded by baskets of vegetables, fruit or a few chickens to sell.

Food is as essential to our souls as to our health.  I agree with J.R.R. Tolkien who said, “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world. ”

Domestic Violence- A Family Affair.

The idea that girls are less valuable than boys-women less valuable than men- makes me crazy. Thinking about my female students in China, I recall an incident that happened to one of my students. It’s a common one-still happening in all cultures, all countries- regardless of laws,women’s rights, or women’s lib.

One morning, my student Cassandra texted to say she wouldn’t be at class because she was ill, and she had something important to do. What, I wondered, other than going to the hospital or doctor, would be important for a sick person to do?

 The following day her roommate came to class alone. She explained that Cassandra stayed home because she was recovering from the bruises she incurred when her jealous boyfriend beat her up two nights before.

I asked if the police knew about it. “They do. But, they say it’s a family matter. They don’t get involved in family matters.”

It was such a broad statement that I had trouble wrapping my head around it. She wasn’t related to the boy. She didn’t live with him. Yes. She knew him. Yes. She dated him. Does that qualify him as family? Is hitting a female member of your family OK?

Becaue she was afraid he would come back, Cassandra asked another boy she knew if he would sleep on the couch for the next few nights just in case. Against campus regulations, he agreed to. The boyfriend apparently heard about this so when he showed up again, he brought a partner with him to back him up.

The fight that ensued caught the attention of the campus police.The following day the boyfriend’s parents were called. He was warned that he would be expelled if he bothered her again.

The girls told me that his threat from the university was not because he had beat her up, but because he had been overt about it-had made too much noise. Had it been kept quiet it would have remained a family affair.

Wang Xingjuan, a women’s rights activist in Beijing says,

“Chinese women feel ashamed when this happens to them, and there are still so many people who think it’s a normal event. It’s a slow process. We’ve had hundreds of years where men were simply allowed to beat their wives,” she said. “The culture is deeply rooted, and for many, it’s still taken for granted that women are inferior to men.”

That is China, a developing nation.

Here in the US where we think we have already developed, RAINN, a national organization on rape, abuse and incest, reports that every two minutes someone is sexually assulted- an average of 207,754 women and girls over 12 each year!
54% of these cases are not reported to the police. 97% of rapists never spend a day in jail. 
2/3 of them are known to the victim.
Why is this?

Women still feel ashamed and somehow guilty when they are violated. Whether it’s been two hundred or five hunderd years, women’s feelings of inferiority are deeply rooted.

Men still make most of the laws in the world. They make more money and have more infuuence. Conservative media wonks like Rush Limbaugh are allowed to slander respectable women bcause they advocate for women’s rights.

Not enough women are demandng respect and equality. Not enough of us are speaking out. Women are the only ones who can make the family safer. We must.

Just Girls

“We’re just girls,” Mimi stated, defending her behavior in a situation where she believed she and her female colleagues were powerless. Just girls.

Mimi was one of four young women, all recent college graduates that made up the support staff of the ESL company I taught for in Chongqing, China.

For the first three months, William was also there ostensibly as a recruiter. His role was never completely clear to me. William was tyrannical to the females and rude to us, the three newly arrived teachers. He spoke no English-in a program that advertised total English immersion. It was undetermined whether he blatantly refused to or couldn’t. Since Chinese students begin studying English in middle school, we suspected the former. We talked to the owner of the company who in turn, repeatedly, discussed his behavior with him. One of the teachers left in frustration within a few days. Finally, when the other teacher and I threatened to leave, which would have shut down the program, he was let go.

One afternoon, a month or so after he was fired, William returned to the office. He ordered the young woman who was working at his former computer to get up- he wanted to use it. Without question, she did as he commanded.
I happened to stop by the office on my way to class. When I saw him, I told him to leave, that he did not work there- that he was not entitled to any company information. His lips curled into a malicious smirk-unmistakably disdainful of being told what to do by the likes of me. But he didn’t move. I told the office manager, who was at her computer a few feet away to tell him in Chinese what I had just said-so there would be no mistake. She bowed her head, avoiding my request. I was astounded. All four girls sat at their desks with lowered eyes as if they were submissive concubines. I told the manager that if she couldn’t tell him to leave she needed to call security and have them tell him-immediately. I reminded her that her allegiance was to the company, not to him.
I needed to get to my class; my students were waiting.

After class I went back to the office and asked what had happened. No. They had not called security. No. They had not told him to leave. He had stayed there until he had found what he wanted-had left when it suited him..
I was aghast. “How could you think of allowing an ex-employee to take over your computer-to obtain information he is not entitled to? Who do you work for? Who pays you? Don’t you feel any loyalty to your employer?” I told them I felt they should all be fired-that in America they no doubt would be. When I was finished postulating; when I had run out of what I considered legitimate reasons for my point of view, the room grew quiet.
Finally Mimi spoke. ” We’re just girls, Ruby. We had no choice.”

Stoned On fumes

Art can be defined as using skill and imagination to produce beauty. OK then. Define beauty. We all know beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Personally I’m not a fan of body piercings, but my granddaughter is. I used to have a beehive hairdo held in place with hair spray-same thing as glue. Once I thought the piled up mess was a thing of art. Yuck.

Hair as art.

If I had appreciated tattoos, and now don’t, I’d have lumps where my tattoo art had been.

You can find art anywhere and everywhere. Just look and listen.

Art can bring you to tears,

Bound feet from old photo.

 make you laugh,

Funny mirrors


think, or react. It has gotten artists killed. You don’t have to like it-or the artist. But, if you open your mind, even just a little, allow the art to enter, to penetrate your senses, it will affect you.

Photos of events can teach you history

much easier than memorizing dates and names ever will. Sculptures can be so real they take your breath away or funny.

 Paintings have documented human life since a Neanderthal held a piece of slate and drew a picture on the walls of her cave while her husband was out chasing a Woolly Mammoth.

In China I frequently visited the Sichuan University of Art. My friends, Vivi and Eeta, who is an artist,
took me to the art district.

Apartment building in Chongqing..

Vivi & Eeta with long blue legs.

 Nothing taught me more about the gracious, persevering Chinese people who in spite of enormous difficulties for centuries live life fully and creativity.

Never mind that the students are isolated by the communist party, students are still students.

               The Three S’s: Spitting, Staring, Shoving

It’s the little things. My first day in Beijing, China, I noticed a sign on the wall next to me in a restaurant. In both English and Chinese it read:
Spitting spreads tuberculous.  I thought, ” I know that, but do we need a sign to remind us? Turns out we do.

Chinese men and to a lesser degree, women, spit freely- anywhere and everywhere. The streets are dotted with clumps of hockers in various stages of moisture. I was on the top deck of a Chinese cruise ship heading down the mighty Yangtze River to the Three Gorges Dam when a guy spit on the astro turf floor. Oh my God! I thought everyone would be up in arms, because all around us kids were playing.

But, no one paid any attention to him or cleaned it up. I related the incident to my students who agreed that it is a disgusting habit. ” Be patient, Ruby, change takes time.”  So, at any moment, almost any place, one might hear the sound of a guy clearing his lungs-or where ever that stuff is stored. Arrrrgggghhh. Vanessa, a German girl I met on the cruise said, “I will never get used to that.”  Me either.

Three Gorges

Outside of Beijing and Shanghai I was stared at as if:
1. I was a celebrity.
2. A circus freak
3. Had spinach in my teeth
4  Was a foreigner.

I’m not talking about sly glances. I am talking about full-on staring- straight into your face without blinking kind of staring. It happened on the metro, in stores, on buses-everywhere I went.

On several occasions men came within two feet of me to stare up close. In my culture, that is invading my space; in China apparently any space is community space.

Let me be clear. I am not a beauty, but neither am I ugly. I am a perfectly respectable looking grandmother of a certain age-dressed appropriately for it.

I’m not used to being stared at. I’m uncomfortable with it. I find it rude. Nothing seemed to work to make them quit. I tried staring back, smiling, ignoring them. Occasionally I got a smile back, but not often enough to make it a rewarding experience. Please stop.

To get into Chongqing from the campus required the use of a campus bus and the metro. Teachers are supposed to have priority on the buses; but as the bus pulls up, the students mob the door, pushing and shoving to get through. Ditto for the metro. Stand behind the line and get ready to dash onto the car, pushing anyone: young, old, frail, out of the way so you get a seat.

It took me a few weeks of riding standing up, or waiting for the next bus to use my dangerous elbows as the weapons they’ve always been; I just didn’t appreciate them until they were needed.

Stand and stare at me all you want while I sit here relaxed reading my book.   

Never Say Never

” The best baby-sitters, of course, are the baby’s grandparents. You feel completely comfortable entrusting your baby to them for long periods, which is why most grandparents flee to Florida.” -Dave Barry

It’s a quote steeped in truth-and American culture. I used to joke that my grand kids would see my Mini Cooper passing on the freeway and say, “There goes a Mini Cooper. That could be Grandma.”
My female students in China would not think these jokes are funny. They all assume their mother’s will take over the responsibility of rearing their children after they graduate, begin working, and start a family. Thats the norm in their culture.

It was evident on campus. The teacher’s who had a child had at least one set of grandparents living with them. During the mornings when the kids were in pre-school learning English or French or both-and the rudiments of reading, writing, and arithmetic, the grandparents practiced Tai Chi, gardened, and bought ingredients for the evening meal-that they would cook.

Grandparents and kids in the community garden on campus.

 When school ended around noon, they were outside, sitting on benches, gossiping with friends and neighbors while the kids played.

One of the teachers whose mother and father lived with her, told me, “I feel frustrated sometimes because my daughter seems to like my parents better than she does me. She certainly listens to them better. But it is the way it is.”

My students and I had many discussions about my life style. They  were curious and intrigued about  me, a woman of my advanced age- older than some of their grandmothers– living in China-on the other side of the world away from my family-my home.

“Who watches your daughter’s children?” they asked. Who helps them out when they need help? Wouldn’t they like for you to be there? Don’t you miss your family? Aren’t you lonely?”

” In America we have after school programs, summer camps, and day care facilities. They do fine without me. I spent many years being a mother. It’s not my job to watch my children’s.” I explained. I was adamant. I couldn’t see myself in that role. It’s not on my bucket list, in the game plan. Won’t happen.
Never say never.

Back in the states I went to my youngest daughters in South Carolina intending to visit a month or two before I continued on to California where my stuff is in storage and most of my friends are. ‘Welcome home.” she said, hugging me at the airport.

That was nine months ago.

As her husband moved out, I moved in. For nine months I’ve been the nanny, tutor, and basic domestic Gramma for my daughters’ two children ages six and nine.

Ireland with flowers for garden

 We shop and garden together. We’ve cooked, discussed sex, divorce, racism, and our ancestry. We don’t always agree. I’d forgotten that children so young have definite opinions and I respect theirs-mostly. I’m the bad guy who forces them to study, eat green things and look at issues from different angles. We’ve also adopted a rowdy puppy. Training him has  taxed all our patience but, the process has made us allies.

Trace & Paws

 Because there was an election going on when I got here the boy and I discussed politics. He would have voted for Obama and can’t imagine why everyone didn’t. And this is the conservative south. I’m proud of him.

The six year old girl tells people I know everything. Yesterday she asked, Where is your house?” “I sold it. I don’t have one.” “Oh, she said, then this is your house.”

It’s been a difficult adjustment for both them and me, but we’ve prevailed. However, the truth is I don’t have enough patience or energy for this complex job. I’m falling short of my own expectations; on the other hand maybe they don’t expect perfection. Perhaps I’m taking it all to seriously.  I just don’t feel nearly as serene as the grandma’s on campus appeared to be.

I’m an American woman. I like the old way-visit awhile, love them and go home for a rest.

Soon I’ll be leaving the country again for several months. When I come back I’ll find another house to buy, however, in the mean time, I have a home that if I have to go there-they have to take me in. No questions asked.

Three Manly Games-Naadam Festival, Mongolia

The annual Naadam Festival held every July dates back seven centuries to 1300.  Equestrian Archery Wrestling–the three manly games. I’ve wanted to go there since I was a child, a half a century ago. I’ve always been smitten with both horses and archery. Wrestling? Well, I had to take out a rude boy or two occasionally, but they weren’t my poudest moments.


The Mongols were then, and are still the best in the world at these events. Highly skilled Mongolan archers on horses are the reason Genghis Khan and his ancestors built the largest land empire in human history- from the Sea of Japan to Turkey!

The opening ceremony for the Naadam felt mystical as Buddhists and Shamans together thanked their Gods and prayed for the safety and good fortune of their country and its people. As smoke from a giant bronze caldron rose to the heavens, the packed crowd reached out in reverence.

A parade of proud competitors: stunning women dressed in traditional costumes that their ancestors might have worn centuries ago, topped by hats that would make English royalty envious today, rotund wrestlers, handsome archers, and stately matched horses marched by the spectators  into the arena. Goose bumps rose on my skin.

Directly in front of us the wrestlers

                                                                                                             gathered, anxious for their time in the spotlight. Wrestling in Mongolia is not a performance farce as it is in the US. Suma wrestling takes years to master. Like Tai Chi, it’s about patience, balance and strength. A match only lasts a few minutes.

At the festival these huge men also wrestled with soldiers whose rippled muscles contrasted with their tight pink briefs and flouncy off the shoulder blouses. Although I asked, I never quite understood the point, but we hooted for the underdog, and watched amused as he struggled with his prodigious opponent.

The final contestants were two small boys with big aspirations.

These future champions- pouring their heart and soul into the match-wrestled each other in earnest drawing much deserved adoration from the crowd.

The days before the festival I thought a lot about the great empire of Genghis Khan as my small group of six treked leisurely through Mongolia’s expansive countryside. How he had conquered so much in such a relatively short time,  how his massive army had traveled through the harsh environs of Siberia and the Gobi desert in huge caravans ruling fairly-allowing religious freedom and social equality, how he had spread his seed among more cultures than any other man in history.

At one point on the steppe a lone rider, endurance training, whizzed by our small party at breakneck speed so fast that within seconds he was a mere pin point on the horizon. Dotting the landscape were camps of families in temporary gers and their horses. Most of them had traveled long distances to compete.
There are no fences to obstruct riders in Mongolia. Mongols are free to ride and set up camp where they wish. The land belongs to them.

Camped one evening at the foothills of Terelj National Park, we were eating the all too familiar mutton and rice dinner when two young boys, maybe six and eight sped by wearing only pants-barefoot on their ponies. Seeing a captive audience they showed off their rodeo tricks- swinging and dipping and standing up! while their ponies galloped along, still as skilled as their ancestors must have been.

Boys, and lately a few girls, begin racing the cross country event as young as age four. The younger the better because of their light weight. By the time they reach thirteen or fourteen many of them are too heavy for the endurance races. Two year old horses race for 10 miles, older ones up to seventeen!

‘The children race barefoot. Our guide explained that shoes are heavy and could hurt the horse if they are kicked, and the riders use light wool pony pads instead of leather saddles. Before the race the child-riders circle a shaman cairn three times while singing to their ponies- to give them luck, and to ward off bad spirits.

As the horses began returning to the finish line we saw several of them without their riders. I can only imagine how worried the mothers must have been watching their young children take off at a full gallop; having to wait hours for their safe return.

My favorite manly man event was horse archery. Far and away the most glamorous of all the competitors, dressed in stunning tunics of silk and satin brocade, they sat astride their handsome horses, relaxed and friendly, ready to rock and roll.

Their bows are still made as they were in ancient times using horn and sinew; the arrows finished off with the tail feathers of unlucky birds.

The crowd watched, spellbound, as the archers galloped full speed while removing arrows from the quiver, aiming and hitting the target -more often than not dead on the bulls eye. They didn’t just sit on the horse and ride by the target- like the boys we’d seen while camping, they were all over their horses, sometimes hidden along the side invisible to us.

All archery  is to beyold  the combination of  focus, strength, and precision, but watching the women archers I found myself holding my breath and occasionally felt the goosebumps again as they hit the target time after time.

 Examples of strength and fortitude-warrors all. Daughters and grandmothers, more than twenty of them formed a single row of skill to be rekoned with. Wearing colorful deels, the traditional caftan type gowns women and men have been wearing for centuries in Mongolia, they represented a variety of individual ethic groups and Mongolian cultures.  Some deels also indicate by color and design, the geographic area the woman’s family comes from.

Above an expansive field filled with proud people and their horses whose ansestry boggles the mind in time and accomplishments, flew hundreds of kites soaring and swooping against a Robin egg blue sky. I was grateful to be there, to have shared just a minute in time with these legendary resilient people who were unfailingly gracious and welcoming to us. Fifty years. Worth waiting for.

girl at festival

Our horses relaxing.

Bayanmonkhbat and my horse, Rowdy Brown.

Kites and crowd

Interior of my ger in base camp.


Bayanmonkhbat, horseman and Amaara, owner of horsetrailsmongolia.com