January 22, 2008
Mongolia has never been known for its salads, but on my first trip there in the early 90's there were virtually no green vegetables to be had in the entire country. Fruit was impossible to come by, in fact I could find nothing to eat but mutton. For almost two months I had mutton for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Occasionally the lamb would be served with a bit of onion or some sickly looking rice, but generally it was just mutton. Boiled, fried, or roasted three times a day you would be served meat on a plate until you couldn't stand the site of the stuff. You would sweat mutton, pee mutton, shit mutton. If you were lucky you could wash the mutton down with mares milk, but it was more common to be given a bowl of mutton broth. I slept in homes with sheep skin pelts on the floor. I chased sheep with kids who played games amongst the livestock in the streets. I killed sheep with a sharp knife (apparently an honor, rude to refuse).
Counting sheep did not lull me to sleep but instead sheep became the stuff nightmares in which I could feel my chemical composition tipping toward the bovid. Eventually I stopped eating all together except when starving.
If you can imagine all that, think of what it was like to take a night train away from Mongolia and waking up in Ulan Ude in Siberia and seeing a woman selling a can of pineapple on the train platform. The can's bright red Vietnamese and Cyrillic letters printed over an obscenely lush pineapple drawing hovering over a turquoise background practically shouted at me. I paid the woman, a Buryat with a pleasant open face and bright green eyes, one dollar which was probably 10 times the value of can. Still, I would have paid 10 dollars. Maybe 20. The can was marked 'Hanoi' and was 2 years out of date. It was heavy duty. Like the kind you see in 60's movies, But it opened right up. And the pineapple? Well, I close my eyes in pleasure at the thought of the first scent of that opened can. You will never known pineapple until you have only eaten mutton for a month or two. When I finished the fruit, I drank the juice and then added water to leach out any remaining flavor. For years that can would remain on my desk holding pencils until it was finally lost in a move. I don't know why I am remembering this at 2:55 in the morning but I can't stop thinking about that can, about how it felt to open it, and about how rare it is to get such pleasure from such small things.