It’s my second full day in Mongolia.
I am already working on being a regular at the cafe closest to my apartment in Ulaanbaatar. Before now I would have called myself a pretty competent traveler. I have spent all of my summers during college and the last three and a half years since then on the move. I’m a thorough and light packer, I don’t mind asking for help, I can get lost and enjoy it, I am not one to mind gunk around a strange shower’s drain. But Asia is a totally new challenge. Nearly all of my attempts so far at seemingly basic, easy, normal things meets failure. I arrived to my new place late Friday night and aimed to cook my last U.S.-originating meal (an Annie’s Mac and Cheese that I had packed). Instead I nearly lit my kitchen cabinets on fire with the temperamental propane range. I temporarily give up on the mac and cheese. In the morning I go to open my front door to walk around. I discover that I have no idea how to undo the lock. Twenty minutes and a few half-baked plans to shimmy down a gutter drain or climb down between window sills later, a very simple slide of a metal lever frees me. Maybe there is less discoverability in Soviet-era deadbolts than the ones I’m used to, but I felt pretty silly. I went to a Mongol version of a small grocery store where I can’t determine what most things are, so I end up purchasing an apple and a sort of sausage that I ate half of before considering that it might have needed to be cooked. I kept eating it. I can’t say “hello” or “please” or “thank you” or “good-bye.” Maybe that is the most uncomfortable part.
While these are the discomforts in traveling to a place that is really different from what you know, they are also the source of the little moments of discovery, of confusion, learning, of the smallest successes. Perhaps it is in the details of these minutiae where you find the excitement of a new place. Maybe it is the subtle things that help us get out of ourselves when we go to unfamiliar places.
-Zoë Lieb, November 13th 2016