Dogs will be Dogs

I love how Bender just instinctually knows how to be a dog. I don’t mean like he wags his tail when he’s happy and barks at strangers and wants to murder every moving thing that crosses his path (toys, spiders, squirrels, hummingbirds) although those things actually also fascinate me. It’s that he loves the things dogs are supposed to love. It’s one of those instances where all the stereotypes are true.


The first time he stuck his head out the car window you would have thought I’d presented him with a big slab of steak that he was allowed to eat off my plate while getting a tummy rub. His tail was wagging so hard that his butt was basically bending him in half. He almost fell off the car seat. His first few car trips were not so great, he barfed on the first couple, and hated three or four after that. Then he discovered the window. It was a real game changer.


In other dogs will be dogs news, we started taking him for walks to the park now that he’s got most of his shots. Across the street from our house is dog’s best inanimate friend. A fire hydrant. He loves it so much it almost makes me sad that it’s not fire engine red. At the beginning of a walk we leave the front door, he trots around the front yard for a second, chomps on a dead hydrangea flower for good measure, and then out of the corner of his eye he sees the hydrant and all distractions are forgotten. He loves going for walks but I think if I let him, he’d just hang out at the hydrant all day. The layers of dog pee that have built up over the years on that thing are just too tantalizing.


And then yesterday he discovered bones and his little life was complete. Bender has a best friend, a mini australian shepherd named Leo who lives next door. Lucky for Leo the fence between our yard and his is only about three and a half feet tall. It took Leo about a week to master the art of jumping it, if I’m ever quick enough to get a photo of it I’ll put it up. Anyway, so now Leo visits pretty much all day, he’s a little older than Bender and every day Bender gets a little bigger than Leo. This seems to have cultivated a sort of napoleonic complex in young Leo’s head.  Because, like a bully, he has started stealing Bender’s toys. He hops over the fence, grabs a toy and then bolts back over while we scold him and Bender wags his tail. He drops his prize on his side of the fence and then comes back over to play with Bender who, naturally, has no idea what has just happened to him. Every week I hop the fence and retrieve five or six toys for an ecstatic Bender. Leo watches and plots his revenge which usually consists of stealing them back, or lately, deciding to only poop in our yard. He literally hops the fence to use our yard as a toilet and then goes home.


But I digress. A few days ago Leo must have been feeling very gregarious, or Bender must have let slip that he’s never gotten a bone to chew on, because Leo went home, picked up a huge femur bone and brought it over for Bender to check out. It was a very friendly move by the bully/bestfriend. Bender was stoked. He never chews on anything for long, but he went at that bone for like an hour.


Until of course Leo decided he was done and took his bone and went home.

Pum’s Cooking Class – Matty

Believe it or not, Dad, Nate and I were the first to arrive to our cooking class! Upon our arrival a tiny Thai girl announces that she will be our teacher and she won’t serve us any beers until we finish our homework (picking recipes to cook out of the booklet in front of us). I sped through the book choosing shrimp red curry, a chicken paste appetizer & vegetable fried rice while Mom, Newp & Willett trickle into the class. Our teacher, who won’t tell us her name until we’ve earned it, pats me on the back for being the best student at the table and I’m rewarded with a cold Chang Beer!

This class was fantastic and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone (it’s in Patong Beach though and that place is a scary dump full of prostitutes so proceed with caution).

Aside from a few unfortunate hot pepper incidents that have scarred Nate and my Mom for life, we had a great time at Pum’s. After a lesson on different Thai flavors that make up the dishes (sweet, sour, salty, something crazy called galangal, etc) we were let loose in the kitchen. The ingredients for each dish were all cut and ready to be cooked so all we had to do was add them to the woks when our teacher, Nam (we earned her name!) told us to. As it turns out, thai food is not very complicated (don’t worry, if you aren’t headed to Thailand soon, you can buy her cookbook here).

Also she made us sing…so that was fun too

Motorbikes – Matty

 After securing our luxurious room at the Secret Cove Nate and I proceeded to sit down in a bungalow (with all our valuables strapped tightly into an extremely cool waist wallet) and have lunch. The Thai food was so-so but the Indian food was fantastic! We had lunch, watched the tide go out and the dogs try to fit floating coconuts into their mouths, read some more, instagrammed, drank a few large Changs and eventually ate dinner 4 or 5 hours later with the rest of the crew.

In the morning, after a restless night under a ratty old towel, we awoke – opted out of showering in the murder-y unlockable bathroom and hopped on some motorbikes for a tour around town. This was, in a word, terrifying. They drive on the LEFT side of the road here! THE LEFT SIDE! We all reminded each other at every turn “stay left! stay left!” (which didn’t stop Mom from speeding head first into oncoming traffic). After the initial trip to buy gas, which is sold by the liter, (aka malt liquor bottle) that’s been baking on a wire rack for hours, we headed down the coast to check out the view from the top of a lookout hill. It took awhile to get used to riding on the bikes but once I got comfortable it was like I’d been riding those hogs for years. Nate and I should probably should get some leather jackets and hit the highway permanently.

As awesome as it was to feel the need for speed on that thing, I can’t imagine how families of 4 manage to ride them, sidesaddle, with all their belongings, their dog & their hotdog selling stand along for the ride. The sheer amount of people on each motorbike was less surprising than the looks of calm boredom on their faces as they hurtled around slower traffic facing oncoming vehicles.

Up up up the hill we drove until we got to the lookout tower with a fantastic 360 view of the island. Off in the distance you could see a giant buddha sitting serenely atop a mountain, sort of reminiscent of the Cristo Redentor. Although Buddha, we learned, has only been perched up there for the last five years or so. So he’s not the most ancient of artifacts.

On the way back down we stopped to check out a rubber tapping farm. Much like maple tapping for syrup the bark of the rubber tree is scoured and a little pot hangs down to catch the latex sap which then gets collected and processed into rubber.

After a beer at the Secret Cove we hopped in a taxi with Dad to head to our Thai cooking Class.  

Digs #2 – Matty

We’ve moved from our rain shower and private pool villa to a misleadingly named “beach bungalow”. This new place is decidedly less baller than the Vijitt, though it feels more authentic or something.

Our driver dropped us off at a restaurant we thought was affiliated with our “beach bungalow”, gave us a slightly worried look and drove away. The language barrier really came into play here as we were shooed off some old lady’s porch and got a lot of shaking heads from the restaurant people. Finally one of the waitresses recognized the name of the sailing company owner (“Oh he’s my friend!!”) and called him up. She handed her cell phone to Nate and promptly walked off. That call lead us to start asking for someone named Ta or Da, turns out he was 15 feet away at the restaurant next door (edit: after further investigation it turns out the Indian dude we were calling Ta/Da was not, in fact, Ta/Da. Ta/Da was an older Thai lady). After a lot of hand gestures and short sentences we communicated the fact that we needed a room and that we were with Marcy Brown.

Dropping my mom’s name really changed our luck! The group of 3 or 4 people helping us all started shouting “Marcy Brown!! Marcy Brown!!” very excitedly and someone else pulled a Polaroid of his family and my mom out of his pocket. We were promptly shown to our room.

The room is sparse to say the least. Although we do have a bathroom! (Newp and Willet are not so lucky). There’s a shower too in the shape of a handheld sprayer sticking out of the bathroom wall. The toilet runs and leaks but at least it flushes and comes with what can only be described as a kitchen sink sprayer for your butt.

Surprisingly the room is air conditioned! Of course that was kind of downside when we realized that, while the mattress does have a fitted sheet on it, the top sheet/ blanket is just a large beach towel not quite big enough for two. It also doesn’t help that the mattress might as well be made of plywood.

Luckily the room is really the height of security. We even have a room key!! Unfortunately our back door doesn’t lock so the key doesn’t do much good.  We survived though, and head to the boat tonight.

A few days in paradise – Matty

After a two hour nap Friday night Nate and I dragged ourselves out of bed at 4am to make our 4:40 bus to the Denver airport. 5 movies, 1 sprint through a Korean airport, and 32 hours of travel later (5 or 6 of  those hrs spent sleeping uncomfortably on a slowly deflating pillow) we arrived at Phuket airport. Our bags, unfortunately, were not so lucky, but we were too tired to care about trifles like that. After being assured that our bags would arrive at our hotel 24 hours after us, we went outside to find a guy with our name on a sign waiting to take us to our fancy resort.

The Vijitt Pool

In the car we were handed much needed bottles of water and two cold scented hand towels. The ride got dicey from there as our driver hurtled (on the LEFT side of the road) down the highway past families of four on scooters and wobbling busses.

Finally we arrived at our hotel and breathed a sigh of relief. The concierge let us know that she had lots of information for us but would let us go to bed instead of keeping us. We hopped in a golf cart which took us all of 40ft to our private bungalow. Inside, exhaust forgotten, we scampered around grinning and shouting at what we saw. The bathroom (with his and hers sinks, a giant tub & outdoor rain shower) was the same size as our huge bedroom with sliding glass doors looking out at our very own private infinity pool, fully equipped with a waterfall and night lights. And the beers in the mini bar only cost $3!

My Dream Bathroom

We woke up the next morning to the sun shining on our pool and birds chirping outside. Down at the beach we ate our complimentary breakfast as we watched boats sailing back and forth on the glinting water. The jungled covered islands here are not gradual but protrude from the water like bent knees in a bathtub, which is weird because the beaches stretch for hundreds of feet at low tide.

Time to wake up!

We spent the rest of the day lounging poolside at our villa and seeing who could cannonball-splash more water out of the infinity pool. Sometime after lunch we decided it was greedy to keep this place to ourselves and invited the rest of our crew to visit for cocktails and a dip in the pool. (Their room came fully equipped with a drunk lady and her dog passed out in the bed at check in at 3am, so we were living on slightly different planets)

Our Private Pool

The really impressive thing about this place is the outstanding entertainment… I didn’t know classic rock, jack johnson , and build me up buttercup could sound that way…but the Thai band at dinner proved me wrong. There were also some pretty sweet shouting fire spinners and enthusiastic hula dancers (are we in Hawaii already?) But really this place is paradise.

Now my sunscreen should be dry so I’m going to drink a crappy Asian beer for $3 and cannonball into the pool.


View on our walk to breakfast
Nate and the “beach” at lowtide

Dung Drying

For two nights we were in the Autumn house. The family we were to visit had moved from their summer house, which was a ger on the side of a lake, to their autumn/spring house which was an adobe building separated into a kitchen and an eating/bedroom with two beds. They had two kids, an 8 year old girl and a 16 year old boy who stayed with them in the summer and then headed to town to stay with relatives and go to school in the summer. They also had a 2 year old granddaughter staying with them. The kids all helped with the chores (of which there are many). 

Each day the grandfather headed up the scree mountain to his winter home to prepare it for the winter, collect cut grass for the animals, and dung for the stove/heating. The autumn/spring house is lived in for 6 weeks each season and has great grass to fatten the animals and a stream to help in the spring birthing. The place is basically a canyon with a small valley running between mountains on either side. And, as mentioned before, a stream. We went hiking in the morning and then at night I helped out our hostess with her chores. First we untied the baby yaks and retied them to the milking rope area. Baby yaks, like baby camels and horses, need to suckle their moms to get the milk flowing so one can milk. 

We then headed up the mountain, I thought to get the big yaks and bring them back down. (Although generally the baby yaks put up such a fuss the moms come of their own accord). As we trudge up the mountain my hostess begins to pickup dried dung and put it into the bag she is carrying. She then shows me the sticks that will also burn so I proceed to pick up sticks. Slowly the bag fills as we get higher on the mountain where the dried wood has yet to be harvested. 

Suddenly we proceed back down and deal with the fresh piles of dung and I come across a steaming pile. She indicates by stomping her foot that I should squish it (read: flatten it)! Noticing the amount of crevasses in my boot I refuse, but tell her I will use a tool to do the flattening. I pick up a rock and, unfortunately, I flatten a little too zealously. Dung starts escaping all over the place! My Hostess then runs sideways and comes to a pile drying, rotates it, and stows the pieces that are burnable in her bag. I am not kidding that woman knew where every pile of dung was on the mountain and its dryness!!! 

Close to home we picked up all the fresh dung with a shovel put it in a common area and flattened it. Amazing as we have passed winter homes to see piles of dung stacked like cords of wood. Now I know all the work that goes into all those stacks!!! Tomorrow we leave for Russia.

Mongolian Eagle Hunters

We are finally out of the countryside and will be here for two days before we make our trek to Russia to fly home. Unfortunately I am unable to pick up any e-mails sent past the 14th so I have no idea what is going on. 

Our trip has definitely been interesting! The Altai Mountains are gorgeous and the area is very lush (THOUGH NO TREES) there are many gers nestled in together. In the Valley where the Eagle Hunter lived there were over 50 gers that were all in family groups of two to five gers together. As the area is so lush it is able to support many more animals in closer proximity than the Gobi.
The Gobi also was basically inhabited by Mongols and the Altai mountains are basically inhabited by Kazaks. Kazaks also have Yaks which is a cross between a cow and a horse. Lots of fur!!! The kazak ger is bigger than the Mongolian one and the inside is very colorful and hung with many embroideries. Very cool! 
We stayed with the Eagle Hunter's family for three days. The first day he showed us his eagles and then demonstrated their hunting abilities. Right now the eagles are fat! During the Winter (hunting season) they keep the eagles thin enticing them to hunt! After he showed us the eagles' abilities we all dressed up in hunting gear (read: wolf coat and fox fur hat) and held the eagle. Pretty cool but would be really cool to see the eagle hunt during hunting season while the hunter is riding his horse and holding the eagle. May have to come back some October when there is the eagle hunter festival. 
We then met up with our horses and camel. Instead of a pack horse we had a pack camel. It was unbelievable how much stuff we had and the camel carried all of it. We then rode for 6 days camping along the way. Covered about 20 Kilometers a day and stopped to stay in people's gers or their spring/autumn homes (which were generally empty adobe buildings). Again passing through absolutely gorgeous countryside. But very windy and two nights it snowed! Snow in August oh my! 

Mongolian Alcohol

So yes, as you have all heard, they do milk horses (every two hours during daylight for the summer months of the year) and ferment the the mare’s milk. As a matter of fact that is all they use the mare’s milk for – alcohol. 

So it begins by allowing the mare’s foal to suckle to begin the milk flowing. Then the foal is removed but left next to the mare so that she can still smell him or her. Afterwards the milk is put into a large plastic container (33 gallon container to be exact) and then it is churned to aerate it many many times (some one said 1000 times but I am sure that that is an exaggeration). 

One family had a leather bag made out of an entire cow hide (which is only to have you imagine how big a container it was). It took three weeks to cure and three days to sew together. At any rate, within 24 hours the milk is fermented and they are dipping it into big bowls to drink. 

Everyone is handed a bowl. Typically the Mongolians drink it right down leaving some in the bowl for luck. And frequently they get another bowl full. The first airag (as it is called) tasted like a vodka milk as opposed to tonic – YUCK. Seemed very alcoholic to me. 

The next airag we tasted was actually made from Camel’s milk and it tasted pretty good, kinda like sour yogurt. At any rate when the fermented mare’s milk gets old (ie almost yogurtfied) they boil it on the stove, put a large open ended metal pot on it with a pot hanging in the middle, and a pot full of cold water on top to distill vodka from it. Which I must say was not that bad. 

So all of their homemade alcohol comes from mare’s milk. With the exception of Camel milk airag, but I think that may be rare. At any rate, drinking of airag is a huge social occasion (read: party ger!). Everyone even close to being in the area stops by for a drink. 

And after disassembling the Ger we had to drink. And when we drove off they threw airag at us. And our jeep broke down and we were sitting by the side of the road and up drives a car – they pull over and out comes the airag and a party begins! And when the Jeep is fixed we drink again. And everyone in the bus back to UB had airag. Kinda like the national drink. 

We were told that during the winter they freeze the airag but we were also informed that the last airag was drunk for the lunar new year (usually in January) and at that time the leather bag is cleaned using whey (which, as you all know, is the liquid that is drained off of milk as it is solidified to make curd). 

So Mongolian Alcohol. When Bob and I get into villages we go in search of cold beer!!!!

Love to all. We are about to head back out so do not know when I will write again. Suffice it to say have had a great time in UB expanding my food palette!!!!

Moving Mongolian Gers

I am really needing a long swim in the ocean it is really dry here! Yesterday we were staying in a tourist Ger camp in front of a running river it was beautiful and so nice to hear the running water.

We have completed our first half of our trip and the next three days are travel/wash days. Really good for me because I have picked up a cold and it is the perfect time for me to have nothing to do to try to feel better. 

We are now in Maldagovi a sleepy nothing of a town waiting to take the bus back to UB tomorrow. Our jeep driver was crazy fast. Definitely went airborne over the bumps and hit my head on the roof at least once…so glad to be out of the jeep. 

Today was way cool. Our hosts yesterday decided to move back to their summer home. They had moved from it a month a go in search of better pasture and decided to move back because it has rained a lot in the past two weeks and grass (read: plants – goats, sheep, etc will eat it, hard to really call it grass) has sprouted. At any rate, yesterday they moved one of their Gers (they have two) and today they were moving the other. (Can you imagine moving and then having people for dinner and the night???) After they fed us breakfast: Sugar Toast (Newp, kinda like sugar sandwiches – remember those at the Dorrances??) and made us a picnic lunch: fried dough with meat inside (I had mashed carrots and potatoes) then they moved the truck and began to move our two of the cabinets. The altar cabinet took a bit longer to disassemble. 

Meanwhile we untied the Ger top, then the three ropes that encircle it, and we took off the canvas, the plastic under, and then the layers of felt (two total layers). Our hostess and her sister-in-law spent that time putting the kitchen stuff away and washing dishes (while, of course, the two year old is getting in the way) and the older children are taking rugs off the walls and putting away the altar. 

Finally the altar is carried out. We are continue to remove felt and take the door posts off and then remove the sticks that make the roof. Our interpreter is holding up the roof center poles. The chimney is removed, and we begin to untie the accordion side. Fold them up and the door comes out and then the stove is carried out and put on the truck. All that is left is the floor: two rugs over four pieces of linoleum over a piece of felt (an old piece that at one time had been the roof) and a tarp. Oops! No it was an advertisement (read: big piece of plastic) for one of the politicians in last years election. Then small things remain to be packed and it all is put very organized into the truck. 

Meanwhile, the kids are sitting and eating by the truck because the rest of their day will be spent herding the animals to the new place. Our hostess cuts curd to be dried and our host finishes placing things in the truck. Nothing is left, they even make sure there is no trash. We then have more to eat and drink Airag (fermented mares milk). And we are off as are they.

The whole process took 1 1/2 hours!!!!!!!!!! Can you imagine?

Too Many Informations from Mongolia

Wow so much to write about I am not sure that I can do it justice right now. 

All I can report is that we are doing well though Bob has lost his appetite and I am so tired of noodles, milk, fried bread, curd and rice I could scream. In the past ten days I have had carrots twice, some cabbage I got to look at before it was put into the mutton stew, one salad (then had the explosive runs), cucumbers (which I hate!), and a few potatoes and onions. Other than, of course, the above. Needless to say the diet is incredibly limited. 

[An Interjection from the Facebook of Bob Atwater 
Mongolia Bob says: Mongolian Beer Not so Bad – but enough with the Mutton already!]

Today we are in a village that is 2/3rds empty because the nomadic Mongolians have moved out for the summer. (Think Water Street – or Bay Head in reverse!!!)  

In the Gobi region it is safe to say there is no agriculture. I was taking pictures and happened to see a squash plant, I had to take a picture, it is the only agricultural plant growing that we have seen (except for a green house in one of the villages full of bolting lettuce). One woman we were with did forage for mushrooms and our driver took some of the kids out to cut onion grass which they then chopped up and put into jars with salt to keep it. But that is the full extent of vegetable materials I have seen. In the last ten days I have counted 15 trees!! (So of course I had to take a picture of them!!!)

At any rate the lifestyle is amazing. The nomadic Mongolians live in round felt gers (think Yurt) which are faced South. The door being the only opening save one at the top for the stove pipe to go out and for light. The ger is incredibly comfortable because the wind is almost constant and the sides of the Ger can be rolled up to produce great ventilation. 

Inside the ger to the west is the man’s side and his gear is hanging: bridles, saddle, deel (his long coat) belt etc. To the North is the altar. On the altar are Bhudda artifacts and maybe family pictures. To the East is the woman’s side and her gear is there with the Southeast corner being the kitchen. Hanging are utensils there is also frequently a cabinet with food stuff. Three large circular pots (think wok) are stored outside. One is used for milk products and one for meat. All cooking is done ion the stove in the middle which is a big metal box that opens from the front into which they put twigs from plants in the desert and, when the fire gets started, dried dung. The top opens up and on the roaring fire the pots fit completely and food is cooked. 

Basically the culture is totally dependent on their animals. The goats and sheep provide the meat, all (and I mean all) the animals provide the milk: goats, sheep, horses, cows and camels (yes AND the camels). It was amazing to milk a camel. They milk one side while the baby suckles on the other. Felt is made from the sheep fur, ropes out of sheep, goat, or camel hair. It is really amazing to see a culture that is so tied to their animals -much as the Masai in Africa.

Need to end now so just want to say that it has been an eye opening experience. CAN YOU IMAGINE MOVING 4 TIMES A YEAR!!!! You would really pare down your belongings!!! Each day we have visited two gers one for lunch and one for dinner and the night. We camp in tents though one night it rained and we were given a Ger to sleep in.

OH and if you have to go to the potty you just walk a distance away and squat. Men turn backside to women front side!!!! I pack out all my tp. The outhouses in town are horrible you have to fight the flies to use them and the smell well enough said. We all vote on the countryside for relieving ourselves over town.

Love to all