Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Quote-of-the-Week: 2006 June 12-18

"This stuff is better than orange juice."

-Marc, from New York, referring to drinking Altai (Mongolian berry wine) with breakfast

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

David and Craig

Craig and David, from the Gold Coast of Australia, came up to the ranch Monday night.

On the train ride up, I broke out a bottle of Altai early. As we were sitting in the cabin with the door open, a pair of train cops passed by a couple times, staring at the bottle. We joked that they must want a drink. Then they came to the door and asked for passports. I stood up and went to the door and handed them my passport, then they walked away down the corridor, waving at me, and I followed them to their cabin at the end of the carriage.

We sat down. I asked if they spoke English or Russian, and they said they knew only a few words of each, so we talked in Mongolian. They asked questions about who I was and who the other guys were and where we were going. I was sincerely congenial, because I live in Mongolia and so it is easy to be happy, and I mentioned the rain outside and how there had been a lot of rain this spring. I asked them where they were from and how long they’d worked on the train. I still didn’t know what the problem was, or if there even was a problem. Maybe they were just curious, I thought.

Then the one guy said that drinking, as well as smoking, are not allowed on the train. I was sincerely surprised, because I had drank on that train nearly every time I had ridden it. But I quickly realized that I probably shouldn’t be surprised. And I realized where all this was headed.

I had the thought then that no smoking and no drinking is actually good policy. I also then thought of the couple occasions I had encountered drunk people on the train, but knew that it would not be helpful to mention that. Instead, I said that I hadn’t known that drinking was not allowed, and that it was only one bottle, and that those Australians were good guys, and that no one was drunk, and that we would never drink on the train again. They said that there needed to be a fine. I made like I didn’t understand, and reiterated my protests. They said that the fine was 5,000 togrog. I kept rambling, in my ridiculous broken Mongolian. The one guy pulled out his ticket book and showed it to me. It was printed in both Mongolian and English, and printed on it was the sum of 500 togrog. The second guy looked like he was bored and left the cabin. The first guy then said that if I didn’t pay, he would keep my passport. I said that it’s my passport, and I need it. He smiled a rather sickening grin and said that the fine was 5,000 togrog. I said again, calmly, that it is my passport. He put my passport into the breast pocket of his jacket and buttoned down the pocket flap.

I said, “It’s my passport.”

He said, “5,000 togrog.”

I started to say again that I didn’t understand, that no one was causing any trouble, that the Aussies are good people, but in the middle of that he produced his badge and held it right up to my face.

“Do you see that?” he said.

I said, “Yes.”

“Do you know what that is?” he said.

I said, “I understand, but that is my passport,” and I pointed at his breast pocket.

He put his badge away and looked out the window. I said then that I had a copy of my passport, and he could have that. I searched in my pocket for my folded photocopy, which I always carry with me specifically for the purpose of giving to cops when they ask for a passport, and I cursed myself in my head for ever letting him get his hands on my real passport. I found my copy and unfolded it and offered it to him. He stood and walked to the door of the cabin, not looking at me. After a moment, he turned to me, pulled out my passport, handed it to me, and said, “Here. Go.”

It was very difficult not to smile then, but I succeeded, and never let the confusion pass from my face. I said to him that we had bread and sausage and onions in our cabin, and that he and his partner should come down and join us. He said that we should come to his cabin. I went out the door as the second cop came in, smiling.

Back in our cabin, I related the incident to David and Craig in as somber a tone of voice as I could muster, not wanting to sound my triumphant elation, which might reach the ears of the cops, offend them, and bring them back with a vengeance. I cut a couple hunks of bread and sausage and onion, and took it down to the cops later. The second one was already asleep, and the first one, who was reading a newspaper, simply accepted the food and set it on their table.

* * *

Had very enjoyable conversation with David and Craig on the train. Of the most interesting parts were some of Craig’s stories of working in security, providing personal security for singers and celebrities in Australia, such as the Spice Girls and Kylie Minogue. He said that his and the other security personnel’s favorite—the nicest, friendliest guy—was Michael Jackson.

He said that first thing, Mr. Jackson asked everybody’s names and a bit about their lives, whether they were married, and so on, and that from then on he remembered their names and who they were.

When Jackson was there, he was, you know, wearing the surgical mask. But after a couple of days of being with him 24 hours a day, they eventually asked him, “So… what’s the deal with the mask?”

And he replied that thousands of people come to his concerts for his voice. One time, he got a throat infection, and had to cancel much of a tour, disappointing thousands of people and affecting thousands more who work to arrange the hotels and concert venues and so on. He said so much hinges on his voice, so many people are affected by what happens to his voice, that he has to take care of it, that it is too much of a risk to get a throat infection.

Which, we agreed, when explained that way, is understandable and even admirable.

Craig also said that Mr. Jackson spent a lot of his time in his hotel room playing PlayStation. When Mr. Jackson complained that no one plays with him, Craig called in a second shift and spent a few hours playing PlayStation with Michael Jackson.

Craig summarized that Jackson seemed like just a big kid, that he’d never grown up, that he wasn’t an adult like other adults are, and that that is maybe why they enjoyed doing security for him so much, because it was very much like babysitting.

* * *

After the horse ride from the train station at 3 a.m., we sat up in the ger for a while. David remarked that the unfamiliar stars of the Northern Hemisphere add a dimension of exoticism for them to Mongolia and to China, where they had just come from. We stepped outside and I pointed out the Big Dipper, how it points to the North Star, and Cassiopeia. I couldn’t find Orion’s Belt, however.

I asked if there was an equivalent of the North Star in the Southern Hemisphere, and Craig replied, with a blank face, “The Southern Cross.” I was then inwardly shocked at the foolishness of my question, nearly as shocked as I had earlier been at the foolishness of relinquishing my passport to a shifty cop.


* * *

View photos of the ranch on the day David and Craig arrived