After ten hours of driving on the treacherous Gobi terrain, we spotted the first nomadic family campsite. The solar panel and the TV dish outside the yurt held promises of hot showers and SNL reruns. Mooggie and Bata-so exchanged pleasantries with the host who invited us inside his yurt for a drink. And while I amused myself with thoughts of chilled Riesling and icy G&Ts, the head of household poured us bowls of fresh camel's milk. I’ve never been squeamish; trying new food has always been an important part of each travel adventure, so I took small precautionary sips of the milk, and guess what? It wasn’t bad. Not bad at all. It tasted like cultured milk, which I quite like.
And what about the bed and the shower? After drinking two bowls of camel's milk, Mooggie translated that we couldn't stay at this campsite. We would have to get back on the car and look for another campsite. The family didn't have an extra yurt for guests and as it turned out, nor did they have a shower.
As we drove off, Mooggie pointed at a zinc can good 20 yards away from the yurt.
"Very good Mongolian toilet," he said.
Right before the sun disappeared behind the Altay Mountains, we found a nomadic family with a spare yurt for two weary travelers. The family was on the last day of a five-day long wedding celebration, which meant that our host had been drinking for straight four days. He smelled of vodka, but walked straight and since I don’t speak Mongolian, it was hard to tell whether he was slurring his words.
We shared cups of black coffee with the host who sat cross-legged on the gravel and carried on a lively conversation with Bata-so and Mooggie. While they talked, I took note of the host’s amazing face: sunburned and leathery-looking, eyes that disappeared under a set of heavy eyelids, an uneven mustache, two big parentheses of saggy skin framing his mouth and a vast forehead full of deep wrinkles like stab marks. He was in his early forties but looked older. His face epitomized the alien beauty of his nomadic culture. Mooggie translated parts of the conversation. Our host’s son was the groom and since that was the last day of the celebration, we were invited to partake in the party. It would be rude to turn him down, Mooggie, said, very rude.
A few hours later, we walked into the wedding yurt. There was the host, dressed in his best Mongolian attire, cleaned up and ready to celebrate. I expected more guests, but I quickly realized that it was only the four of us, the host, the groom and the bride, although the bride was busy in one corner of the yurt and kept herself out of sight.
First came the khoorog. Following Mongolian tradition, our host shared his best snuff with his guests. He took out his snuff bottle and passed it around to each of the guests, holding it in his right hand and extending it out to Mooggie as if to shake hands, left hand holding up the right elbow. Mooggie received the bottle in the same manner, opened it, took a whiff of the snuff inside, admired its aroma, removed the cap with a tiny spoon attached, scooping out a small amount of snuff, sprinkled it on the side of his hand then snuffed it into the nose. He put the cap back on and passed to Bata-so who repeated the ritual. Then, Bata-so passed it to me and I replicated their actions all the way until the inhaling bit. No siree. Not me.
Then came the milk. No biggie, I thought. I tried that earlier today and I liked it. WRONG! This was not camel’s milk. This was a different type of milk, milk for special celebrations: mare’s milk. But again, I’m all for trying new foods. I held the rather large bowl in my hands and the moment I smelled horse, I had second thoughts. "Can I share it with my husband?" I asked Mooggie. His eyes nearly popped out of their sockets. No, of course not. This was Airag, the Mongolian national drink, a very special gift from the host to us, not to be shared. As his guests, we were expected to drink his Airag and give him the silver bowl back only when empty.
I held my breath and drank the whole thing.
Airag is an alcoholic drink made by fermenting raw unpasteurized mare's milk over the course of days. The bacteria formed during the fermentation process acidifies the milk, and the yeasts turn it first, into a carbonated drink and second, into an alcoholic concoction.
It would be a lie to say that it had a lovely flavor, or that I liked it, or that I wanted to buy some and take it home with me. Let’s just say that it was salty milk, with a hint of bleach, a touch of vinegar, a note of moldy cheese, and an aftertaste to die for. Literally.
The party went on. Mooggie and Bata-so sang heart-felt songs about Mongolia and just before the host sang, his son brought out the good stuff: Distilled Airag, a.k.a Mongolian vodka, the Magnum Grey Goose of the nomads. And because it was the good stuff, and because we were special guests, and because we were celebrating a wedding, we had to drink this distilled Airag in a special silver bowl. And by special I mean gigantic.
Having been raised in South America, I have biased and stubborn taste buds, and whatever my opinion on Airag is, distilled or not, holds no water whatsoever. But, I’ll say this: Airag is an acquired taste. One that I did not acquire that night. Not even after several bowls of it.
"When does the party end?" I asked Moogie after the third round of songs. He gave me one of his mischievous smirks. "When we drunk. When we tipsy, tipsy, shaky, shaky, the host very happy."
No sooner had we finished our last bowl of airag than the host pulled out a bottle of real vodka. "No way Jose," I whispered to my husband. "Yes way," he replied, sounding very tipsy and very shaky. Sure enough, before I knew it, I had a bowl of real vodka in my hands. Warm, neat vodka, which to be honest, tasted like heaven after an overdose of airag.
The host and Beauty and the Beast sang some more. We had a few more rounds of fresh mare's milk, airag, and neat vodka, in that order, then they sang some more. I hope we made the host happy because we felt spectacularly shaky.
Before we left, the host's wife came into the yurt with yet another special treat: Homemade candy-like morsels called aruul. They looked delicious and saccharine, the perfect dessert. Just what the doctor had ordered to cleanse my mouth and mare-detox my pasty tongue. I plopped one in my mouth with gusto, but hard as I tried, I couldn't moisten the thing. The candy was hard, caulky and sour in a mouth-contorting kind of way. Aruul is curdled milk, dehydrated and thoroughly dried in the sun. Yet, it tasted familiar, like something that I was intimately acquainted with.
"You like?" Mooggie asked.
"It's very interesting," I said. "What is it?"
"Curd," he said. "Curdled mare's milk."
...and then, it all made sense.
Because it's old and even the most inconspicuous alley carries within its cobbles 1,100 years of history.
Because even modern doors devoid of pomp or notoriety seem to have been knocked on by the whole of humankind.
Because it is Romanesque and Gothic and Romantic and touched by Renaissance and Modernism and nobody cares which period was the best or the worst.
Because Prague's story is terribly violent and deeply religious and fiercely secular and outrageously literate and devastatingly beautiful....it could also be defined in any variation of the above. That's why.
Because these men sat on a park bench at the Old Town Square to swig an unidentifiable drink out of a paper bag, chain-smoke, and share a loaf of dry bread while peacefully soaking in the wintry Praguian sun.
Because these winos, we tourists call Praguers, Praguians, Czechs, have Celtic blood running through their veins and can very well be descendants of their ancestral Roman Emperors.
Because I found these two men with wrinkled faces, yellow finger nails, cheap cigarettes and bagged brew chitchatting right where the Protestant Reformation was conceived; probably right on the same spot where a few centuries ago eleven political leaders were sentenced to death by defenestration; that so Praguian habit of throwing nasty politicians out of the window.
Because in Prague I was reminded of the universal commonality of friendship. Like the old men I photographed in Sicily, in Timbuktu, in Costa Rica, they represent what getting old and having a pal is all about.
Soak in the sun. Pass the booze. Shut up and breathe
I stared at an old woman
took note of her nasolabial folds, the creases forming an accordion on her upper lip, the stab marks of her frown and remembered something that happened to me sometime ago.
I’m not supposed to call it a wrinkle.
My girlfriend, a Botox/derma-fillers/fat-transfer/implant veteran tells me it’s called the nasolabial fold.
“You have a fold not a wrinkle,” she tells me as she stretches the right side of my face. When she does, the wrinkle disappears and I’m young again.
“See? Folds are reversible. Two shots of Juvederm and you’ll be like new.”
This particular day, we are afflicted by a sort of Latin melancholy and decide to hit a salsa club nearby. I have second thoughts as I look at myself in her bathroom mirror. The skin in my face wasn’t sagging yesterday, I'm sure; it started sagging five minutes ago as I watched her struggle to tuck her brand new breasts into a tiny bustier. Her skin is flawless and the Botox has paralyzed some muscles just enough to keep her face looking natural. Her body is taut from cosmetic surgery and long hours in the gym. She’s older than I’m and wrinkle-free.
"You don't have to look like crap just because you are old," she says and I wonder if she means that I look like crap. She hands me a business card.
Botox Parties When you Want Them, Where you Need them.
“Repeat after me,” she says. “I don’t have a wrinkle. I have a fold.”
Tonight, all the beautiful women in the world show up at the club, a dizzying parade of rock solid bodies, cheeks bursting with collagen, curves and dimples. No nasolabial folds in sight. I tap on my newly found wrinkle after the first mojito, follow its crease all the way from the tip of my nose to the corner of my mouth. It’s not so bad, I think and I treat myself to a second drink. By the third mojito I’m definitely digging the wrinkle. It separates my cheek from my upper lip. It’s got purpose. I need this wrinkle, I say to myself. Then I order another mojito. -------- -------------
I hope this beautiful old woman doesn't use euphemisms to describe the evolution of her skin. I hope she looks at her nasolabial folds and says, I've earned you wrinkles; I hope she doesn't freeze the deep stabs of her frown with botox. I hope she goes to some Amsterdam centrum bar and has many mojitos, not to forget how old she is, but to celebrate it.