Faraway: Get Out of Your World
How faraway would you like to go? How about Mongolia? You can go there right now through the magic of great storytelling.
Shebana Coelho traveled to Mongolia on a year-long Fulbright Research Grant and wrote a wonderful story about her experience in the latest edition of “Travelers’ Tales: The Best Women’s Travel Writing”. I’ve been living vicariously through her story while commuting on the subway. People around me probably wonder why I am smiling so much as I am reading, but I can’t help it. Shebana’s story, “Snow in Mongolia” is so well-written and so generous with detail that a smile remains plastered on my face for the whole trip to San Francisco from Berkeley.
She tells the reader what she intends to do for her year in Mongolia:
I’d like to see the steppes, live with families and record sounds. Of what? Anything. Everything. Stories and songs and sounds of everyday.
And why Mongolia? She tells us:
I’ve had Mongolia on my mind for years, I say, since Bombay where I was born, and the U.S. where I now live. Don’t ask me why. I just know I saw a photo of the steppe in a geography book when I was ten, and that was that. Maybe it was a city girl’s longing for space; maybe it was something in the blood, kin stirring to kin as if I knew those spaces of old. It felt like a calling, I say, and so I conspired to make it possible.
The first family she stays with live in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, whom the locals don’t even try to pronounce, simply calling it “UB”. Upon her arrival, Shebana shares with us what the mother of the family said, a heartfelt attempt to connect their humanity, which the teenage daughter of the family translates, “There is so much I wish I could share with you but I don’t have words, I’m sorry.”
Words. It is always about our words. And it is such a challenge when you travel to a foreign country and want to communicate, but cannot even begin. Shebana beautifully tells us how the year went along, season-by-season, and how in the end, she was able to master the language good enough to converse with the mother in UB. Here is what she said about the joy of finally being able to communicate:
Suddenly I could talk to Norov, my Mongolian mother, without needing Onika to translate; suddenly we were speaking to each other. Some afternoons, we would sit in the kitchen and have suu-tei, a milky tea with salt, and talk. Bor ohin min, she would start, my dark daughter, and ask me questions like how did the day go, when was I going next to the hoodoo - the countryside - what did I think of Mongolian men, what did I remember about India, was Bombay like UB?
There were times I forgot we were speaking Mongolian. It was like that feeling you get when you’re reading a good book, and the world it describes is so vivid that you forget you’re accessing it by reading. You forget what separates you.
Time, distance and language separate us. Storytelling overcomes all three.
At the end of Shebana’s story, she relates how she feels years later about losing the connections she made in Mongolia - the loss of language and memories:
I know there are ways to compensate for losing language: practice more, study more. And I know loss of words does not have to equal loss of memories. Except for me, they’re connected. Those moments when people offered up something true and unguarded were in a language common to them, rare to me.
What to do? I write. I share what I can, while it is vivid. I write to honor the generosity with which people made themselves known to me. In retelling their stories, I feel I’m continuing a process in which our connections expand, the world contracts, and far away becomes close.
You can pick up a copy of Travelers’ Tales: The Best Women’s Travel Writing, Volume 10” at your local bookstore or have them order it for you or you can visit the Travelers' Tales website to make your purchase. Then you can read the whole story that Shebana wrote. Immerse yourself in that world she is sharing and a smile will spread across your face as you feel your heart light up with the stories, songs, and sounds of Mongolia.
Shebana Coehlo is a writer and director, once a nomad, now rooted. Her documentary work has been broadcast on BBC Radio Four, NPR, PBS, and the Discovery Channel; her writing has been published in Vela, Chronogram, Madcap Review, Lummox, Sin Fronteras, and Word Riot, among others. She likes going far away, to places that feel like the ends of the earth. If you asked her why, she would refer you to the city motto of Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, which is: fin de mundo, principio de todo, the end of the world, the beginning of everything.