Ways of Seeing by Sas Carey: Finding the way

To me, one of the benefits of living in Middlebury is attending readings at Breadloaf Writers’ Conference. I drive up to the campus as many evenings as I can during the ten-day session to hear famous writers read their work. Meeting student writers from other cultures and places is a highlight of this experience.
Sitting behind me is a row of women whose faces are all shades of brown and whose clothes brighten the room.
“Where do you live?” I ask one woman.
“Montclair, New Jersey.”
“I guess it’s pretty different here.”
She laughs. “You can say that again. I’m a runner. Someone told me about the Robert Frost Interpretive Trail, so I figured I could run down the hill and then veer off into the woods. I usually run on roads, but I thought, why not? It’s only a one-mile trail. But when I got inside the woods, I couldn’t find my way out. I kept saying, ‘It’s only a mile long. How can I get lost?’ But I couldn’t hear any traffic to find the road. All the trees looked the same.
I called my husband on my cell phone. He said, ‘Open your map and then move and you can see the direction you are going.’ I suppose I was taking the same wrong fork each time because when I watched the dot I found the road. My phone died and I couldn’t call my husband back to let him know I was okay. He was about to call the police. I had been in there for two hours. I nearly missed the morning lecture.”
Something sounded familiar. I was transported back to an experience I had in Mongolia last month and began telling her about it.
My film crew of four was following a young woman named Khongoroo to the Naadam Festival horse races. So many cars are parked on the steppe land for this event that the sun reflects off them like from a gigantic lake.
We can hardly see the horserace for the crowds. When the thousand horses go over the finish line, we walk through the fair-like atmosphere. Vendors in booths are selling clothing, food, and toys. Chimedee says, “Let’s get some khushur!” This is the traditional festival food of flat fried dough with meat inside. We crowd into a steamy ger (yurt) where a woman rolls out dough, spoons in the meat, and drops it with others into hot oil. A man lifts them out of the oil, wraps them, and hands the package to a customer. We sit at a low table while Chimedee, our translator, stands in line. Marcin shoots some video. We talk for a while. The short line isn’t moving.
Chimedee trades places with Khongoroo, sits, and says, “The problem is that everyone is ordering about twenty or thirty khushur, enough for the whole family.” My grandson Dune, our sound person, Marcin, and I step outside where it is cooler. They say they will wait here. I have the brilliant idea of walking around the fair. Along one row, past many gers, I enjoy the Mongolians in their bright silk traditional costumes. I buy a watermelon, ready to head back.
Only I don’t know where back is.
I try to find landmarks. A ger with a table and awning outside. A banner. A bridge. But there are many of these. I try to call Chimedee, but my phone doesn’t work. I berate myself. This is my eighteenth trip to Mongolia. I should be able to manage it.
Okay, now what? I stand still. A family of fairgoers asks if I am okay. They offer me their phone. Chimedee answers. “Where are you?” I hand the phone back to the Mongolians standing with me. They describe the spot. “Just stay there,” she says to me.
We watch people pass. I tell the family that my grandson is tall with long blonde hair. They nod. He’s probably the only tall guy with long blonde hair in Mongolia so we can’t miss him. Still we don’t see them.
One of the Mongolians beside me suddenly starts and points ahead. “Is that your grandson?”
I take a deep breath. Yes.
It seems like a two-hour wait. Yet the greasy khushur in their hands are still hot.
I don’t get lost in the woods. Maybe the Breadloaf student has no trouble finding her way at crowded events. Stepping out of our comfort zone creates challenges for us and precisely those experiences give us an opportunity to grow and map our world differently.
Sas Carey’s fourth feature documentary with the working title “Transition: Nomads at Risk” is in the postproduction stage — now that she has found her way home to Middlebury.

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