There was a time during my one-year stint in Mongolia’s capital city when I would return home to my apartment and find my freezer unplugged, the door wide open and a bloody hunk of meat thawing messily inside.
This happened several days in a row. Each time, I would throw out the food that had been spoiled by dripping red goo, shut the door and plug it back in. The next day, it was the same thing — wide open door, bloody dripping meat.
The culprit was no mystery. It was my landlady, a bright-eyed snippet of a woman named Alima who also cleaned the apartment once a week. I knew she used the place as a makeshift meat locker; I occasionally arrived home to find some unidentified animal carcass stiff on the back porch, preserved by the minus 25 degree winter chill. Still, the dripping meat was alternately disgusting and puzzling.
“You’d better clear it up,” warned my brother, Danny, who was visiting me and had been confronted with the mess himself.
And so we did. After many profuse apologies, Alima explained herself: turns out she’d stashed the meat for a family festive meal in the freezer, where it had frozen so solid she couldn’t pull it out the door. “Alima is very...unique for a Mongolian woman,” admitted her friend Tul, my next door neighbor and an English teacher, who we enlisted to translate.
Most outsiders view Mongolians as nomadic cowboys living off the land in the round tents Russians call yurts and Mongolians call gers. And it’s true that some Mongolians still adhere to this traditional and centuries-old lifestyle.
But many are urbanites, living an entirely different life in the chunky, chock-a-block apartment buildings, a legacy of 70 years of Communist rule and the slapdash Soviet architectural concepts that reigned in this Central Asian republic. On the outside, most buildings, roads and sidewalks are crumbling. Inside, hallways are uniformly scary, dark, uneven, urine-scented and covered with graffiti.
Before I arrived in Ulaanbaatar for a year of teaching, I was given a choice of a flat with cable TV or one with a piano. Once I got over the shock that I would have a choice of either, I picked the latter. Although the piano was out of tune, and my contact failed to mention the electric blue fuzzy furniture covers, cockroaches and creepy Madonna-and-Child painting on the wall, I stayed. Partly because I realized that five other expatriate friends had the same bizarre art scene, so I was unlikely to avoid it. But mostly because of Alima, with her quirky and oddly generous ways.
The Price of Kindness
Though Alima is indeed, as Tul says, a unique woman, she is also very Mongolian, particularly in her struggle to get along and support her two children in a post-communist society.
She speaks no English, but somehow manages to communicate her point, accompanying her rapid-fire Mongolian with dramatic gestures befitting a Shakespearean actress.
She bustled around the apartment with the air of a fussing mother hen, mending my clothes, fixing my boots and lounging about when I wasn’t home. I knew this because I once came home from a countryside trip a day early to find Alima watching television in her housecoat and slippers. This didn’t disturb me in the least. The place was, after all, her home before it became mine, and it was only the financial possibilities of privatization that had driven her into a much smaller and less comfortable flat. Besides, it discouraged burglars.
Alima would often leave me little presents around the house — three pairs of new underwear, a French World Cup pencil eraser, two apples, a purple beet-colored potato salad. When my parents arrived for a visit, she left another large, frozen hunk of meat on the kitchen counter, pointed to my parents and pantomimed eating it. When I was sick with the flu, she bought me a milky, medicinal herb that left a strange, tinny aftertaste but made me feel quite better. She once planted her pet, a very pregnant and loudly indignant cat called Kisses, in the apartment for several days. I think she was worried I felt lonely.
Once, in a fit of absentminded stupidity, I walked into one of Ulaanbaatar’s ubiquitous open manholes, falling 15 feet down into waste-high sewage water and gouging a small but nasty hole in my shin. When I limped home, Alima happened to be there. She immediately administered an effective antiseptic compress consisting of cotton balls, gin, and the remains of a plastic bag.
I’m sure Alima liked me well enough, but her motivation ultimately was mercenary. She insisted I pay rent three months in advance. Mongolian art painted by her son was given for free, with the caveat that I could “leave the paintings here and show my foreign friends for sale.” And when I thanked her, with the English-speaking Tul present, for sewing a torn jacket, she shrugged and said something to the effect of “well, I know if I do nice things, foreigners will stay in my apartment.”
Welcome to the free market economy, Mongolian style.
Alima would ask for every last dollar owed to her, but never more. When she collected money for the phone bill, it was in an exact amount, and I always got the receipt afterwards. On her weekly cleaning forays, she carefully piled in a corner money I had left around the house, sometimes even organizing by color and country.
“I remember a Canadian man was staying here once,” Tul told me. “And Alima called me over to translate. He thought she’d taken $10 from his bedside table. She was ready to go to the police to say she didn’t do it, and he eventually found the money in his pocket.”
“But” and Tul leans forward, in a conspiratorial tone, “she did say to me ‘His suitcase was completely empty.’ That’s why I say Alima is unique. I don’t think she’d take money, no, not at all.
But I think she is a little...how do you say...nosy.”
I found my own proof of this trait: shortly before I left the country, I came home and found her nearly crying with emotion as she flipped to the back of one of my photo albums and pointed proudly to the pictures I’d taken of the apartment.
When you go home to your country, show these photos to your foreign friends, she made it understood to me, eyes glistening. And when they come to Mongolia, they’ll rent my apartment. The next day, a pearl necklace, bottle of champagne and musical greeting card were laid neatly out on my bed.
Last month, I returned for a brief visit. It had been a year since I’d left Mongolia. The day after I arrived, Alima called a friend of mine — one of her colleagues had spotted me walking down the street. “Tell Leah her Mongolian mama is calling to see her,” she told this friend of mine.
Tul was again enlisted. She called several times at the flat where I was staying, though I never was at home when she rang.
“So, how long is Leah here in Mongolia?” she asked in a casual way during the third phone call.
“Oh, about a month,” my friend replied.
“Ohhhhh,” Tul replied, and after a pregnant pause, added “Will she need a place to stay?”
“No, she’s staying with me,” the friend said.
“Ooooooooooh,” Tul said with obvious consternation. Another long silence. “Well, goodbye,” she said brightly, and hung up. Never heard from either of them again.
Apartment Available: Ulaanbaatar
The choice: A flat with cable TV or one with a piano.
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