My favorite shitholes

My favorite shitholes

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, he told me, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” -The Great Gatsby

Many years ago, I and a few other expats were hanging out in someone’s apartment in Erdenet, Mongolia, playing a game of “Why it sucks” with an inflatable globe our hostess had lying around. The gist of the game was that we’d toss the globe up and catch it, and wherever the catcher’s finger landed (I think we went with the right-hand index finger) we all had to say why that place sucks. It was usually pretty easy—I remember landing on Somalia, for examplebut sometimes we had to be creative, especially when our fingers landed on some of our favorite places. It wasn’t fair to say, “Hey, I like it there!” We had to provide a convincing reason for why that particular place was, basically, a shithole.

It wasn’t lost on us that Erdenet, the city we were in, could be described by some people as a shithole. Small, poor, and isolated, it basically is a shithole, at least by most measures. If Erdenet was a shithole, though, it was our shithole, and we loved it.

A Soviet-built cement smudge on an otherwise barren stretch of hills, Erdenet exists entirely because of its copper mine, one of the largest in the world, and the mine’s slag heap looms over the southern side of the city. It’s prettier than it sounds, though.


I don’t know, I find this Main Street attractive in a Miami-of-the-Steppe kind of way.
This was always my favorite street to walk on.


See, the slag heap is kind of pretty.

I spent a year in Erdenet, and spent a good part of my very expensive Internet connection regaling my friends back home with stories of my more most off-the-wall encounters. Like the time my friend’s cows starting grazing in front of City Hall and got sent off to cow jail. Or how I’d go to a restaurant and instead of asking for the menu I’d ask, “What food is there today?” and oftentimes the answer would be “None.” Or how my neighbor’s car would stall whenever it stopped, so instead of stopping he would just slow down as he approached intersections. I described how in the summer the ground was scorched, dry and crunchy, and in winter everything was covered in a thick layer of ice, and spring and fall didn’t really exist except that in April giant sandstorms would sweep up from the Gobi desert.

And when my contract was up, and I had to return home, my friends and family were shocked that I immediately started making plans to return. “That place sounds like a real shithole.”

Which it was. But fifteen or so years later, all of us who were there playing “Why it sucks” that day have all found reasons to go back, at least to visit.

My students were middle schoolers then, and are now all grown up. I follow them on Facebook, and occasionally we exchange emails. For kids that were growing up in a very isolated mining town on the edge of Siberia, they have done remarkably well for themselves. A few are doctors now, and there are some lawyers in the mix, too. One got a degree from the London School of Economics, worked in Singapore, and then returned to Mongolia to forge a small business empire. Another has apparently become a very successful fashion model.

My brightest student that year was the math teacher’s daughter. Her dad was a driver, which was a euphemism for “unemployed,” and they didn’t have much in the way of money, but it was a loving household and this girl was one of the most innately talented people I’ve ever met. It boggles my mind to imagine what she could have become had she grown up in an environment worthy of her abilities, exposed to all the best things the world has to offer, instead of, you know, a shithole.

She’s done quite well with herself, though. Now almost thirty, she lives in Seoul with her husband, where they operate (and possibly own—my language skills are weak) a boutique hotel. I catch glimpses of her life on Facebook, on vacation in Paris, at a family reunion in Ulaanbaatar, remodeling her kitchen, or gushing over her young son and his wacky baby adventures. Judging from what i can understand on the comments on her posts, I am not the only one who is proud and a little jealous of the life she’s made for herself.

She came to America once, about ten years ago when she still wasn’t sure which direction she would go in. She spent the summer working at a hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey. She didn’t say as much to me because she knew how much I love my industrial northeast, but clearly America was disappointing. Before she arrived she had talked about quitting her job early and spending a week or two exploring America; in the end, though, she finished her contract, pocketed her money and went home, and has never mentioned going back to the States.

She wouldn’t be the first to call New Jersey a shithole.

I like New Jersey, though. Not all of it, but it’s my kind of shithole. Then again, I’m a big fan of the Bronx, which is considered a world-class shithole. And my only complaint about Brooklyn is that it isn’t shitty enough anymore.

Come to think of it, many of my favorite places are, at least to some eyes, shitholes. I love Tajikistan, for example. I had a great time in a city called Qurghonteppa, even though my hotel was freezing cold in summer and the restaurant’s “continental breakfast” was a half a roll of store-bought cream-filled cookies arranged on a plate with a dry cucumber slice on the side (there was a much nicer restaurant across the street, which is probably why they didn’t bother preparing breakfast). I strolled through town with a local high school teacher who had been born there but grew up in East Germany, and returned home when he heard that his old school had so few teachers that it was going to close.

This is the only picture in Qurghonteppa proper.

I was in Jaffna just a few months after the government of Sri Lanka began allowing tourists back in. I can see from pictures that the city has since been cleaned up and restored to at least some of its former glory, but when I was there it was a postwar shithole haunted by hollowed-out bullet-scarred houses. In the middle of the street not far from my hotel soldiers dug out a covered foxhole from which they pointed machine guns out onto whoever was walking up and down that street. I had dinner at the home of a friend of a friend, a human rights advocate who sent his family to Colombo and then London but stayed there himself to speak up for others. His house was quite spare, even by Sri Lankan standards, and he described some of the hardships he faced in his line of work; but it was one of the most elegant dinners I’ve ever had, and the deviled cuttlefish was hands-down the best meal I had in Sri Lanka. Jaffna itself, wounded as it was, remained a beguiling and beautiful place, and I kept thinking to myself that this without much work this could become one of the world’s most celebrated beach towns.


Without much imagination, this could be a very lovely resort town.

IMG_3682 copy.jpgThe world is a beautiful place. Just about all of it. Beaches are beautiful, whether they are sandy or rocky, or if the water is blue or gray. Forests are beautiful, tropical or otherwise. Rivers, lakes, wide open fields, rolling hills, endless plains—it’s all quite beautiful. The austere beauty of deserts have been celebrated, and even raw wastelands in remote areas. It’s all beautiful. Cities, too, whether they are ancient or ultramodern, enormous or dinky.

So what makes one place great and another a shithole? I suppose it’s the eye of the beholder; my father, for example, once turned down a trip to Venice because he saw a picture of laundry hanging from a window and decided that made it a “ghetto,” which is my dad’s preferred version of shithole. I love New York, but I know a bunch of people who dismiss the entire city and wonder how anyone could live there. Personally, I find those sprawling anonymous suburbs to be shitholes, but that doesn’t stop millions of people from moving there. I’ve heard people badmouth Prague, Japan, and all of southeast Asia. And they weren’t just playing a drinking game with friends and an inflatable globe.

So, again, what makes one place great and another awful? I think at the end of the day it’s the people. When I look back on all the places I’ve been, the ones that pull on me the most were the ones where I made the greatest friends. And honestly, if you aren’t making friends, maybe you are the shithole. I think about my genius Mongolian student, who took a hard pass on America and is now enriching South Korea, both with her money and her beautiful family. And my friends who took their skills away from Germany and London and brought their talent and greatness to some very difficult places.

I’ve been lucky to go to all these shitholes and learn that no matter where we come from, at the end of the day we are all people, for better or worse. But mostly for better. Some of us are shitty, and some are pretty awesome, and most fall somewhere in between. We laugh, love, suffer, and deserve respect, pretty much all the same. We are all trying our best. I’ve been very lucky, indeed, and I need to remind myself from time to time that not everybody has been so blessed, and while I can judge or be upset, at the end of the day I get my best revenge by planning another trip to another shithole, and making my world that much bigger and more beautiful in the process.



Old photos

Old photos

I dug through my photo collections yesterday trying to find a particular shot that I may or may have not taken on a trip to Uzbekistan last year. I was unsuccessful, either because I didn’t take the picture, or I did but it wasn’t as good as I remembered it being.

It doesn’t matter. Once I was in my Photos app there was no reason not to keep looking. (On the contrary, there were lots of reasons to stop what I was doing and address my actual current life.)

I have a huge stack of old photo albums that I still carry with me and lug from house to house and country to country. I used to display them in a low bookshelf that has also been dragged all around the world since my parents gave it to me back in the early 1990s. For a while the pictures shared the shelf with knick-knacks and souvenirs. On the bottom shelf was a shoebox full of unsorted pictures that I promised I would someday put into proper albums. I still have that shoebox, and I still promise myself that I’ll do sort them someday.

Eventually the bookshelf overfilled, and first the knick knacks and then the box of pictures were removed to make room for more albums. (I also made it a point to start buying albums that were slim, because there just wasn’t much space on the shelves.)

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Zolzaya and the Apple Thieves

Zolzaya and the Apple Thieves

By the end they were in her dreams, too. She felt herself taken along by a warm current, a tug that seemed to come from inside of her somehow, first playful but then urgent and frightening, and finally a hard surge that forced her farther into the limitless blue void. At first she felt free, and the ocean carried her like an expecting mother; then her throat closed in terror and her muscles from her legs to her chest clenched tight and the sea dragged her down to the cold darkness of the Leviathan.

Zolzaya woke with a start and gripped the sheets hard enough that her fingers hurt. She still felt the swells even though her eyes insisted that she was home in her bed. All of her muscles, even her jaw and her toes, were clenched.

She had to make a decision, and in the still clarity of the early morning she forced herself to draw a deep, burning breath and decide.

With trembling legs she rose from her bed and got dressed, not at all calm but still somehow reassured. Her fingers shook as she buttoned her shirt. They’d been shaking for days, she realized as she looked at them. Bones rattling under thin skin. She pulled her hair back into a ponytail and got started.

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A hundred years

A hundred years

In Mongolia once I met a woman who was a hundred years old. This was fifteen years ago, so doing some simple math has her born in 1902, give or take.

The story of the twentieth century has been told many times by sources more eloquent than I, so I won’t bother to even try, but I ask you to keep any of those narratives in mind as you consider this woman, born somewhere on the Mongolian steppe at the dawn of the American century.

She was born in the waning days of the Qing Dynasty, and was nine years old when her country broke away from China. The ensuing battles lasted until she was about twenty. Mongolians had originally rallied behind a Buddhist theocracy, but when the dust settled they were a Socialist state about to launch a massive nationwide purge against religion.

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[The pages of this journal were found by a tourist near the border of Omnogobi (South Gobi) and Dundgobi (Middle Gobi) provinces in Mongolia. They appear to have been torn out of a standard composition notebook. The text is translated by Edgar Johnson, professor of Central Asian Studies at CUNY. -Ed.]

from Bulgan soum. One of them had a little boy, and brought a jar of buuz1 to give him. The father tried his best to make the buuz sound exciting. He took the top off of the jar and gave it a huge sniff and said “Delicious!” I don’t know how he did it. I could smell the buuz from where I was standing. The little boy ate one and then started picking at his mother’s tsoivan. The father was unhappy about buying another plate to serve his son, but Father did his trick of pretending to offer the plate for free; the man paid, as they always do.

Afterwards Father opened a bottle of vodka and shared it with the men. They toasted Batmönkh2, Sodnom, Mongolia and the Party until the bottle was dry and the men said it was time to go on. Akhaa3 whispered to me, “I wonder if they know which revolution they are toasting.” I told him to be quiet and began to wash dishes. I hoped they wouldn’t talk about it again, and they didn’t. When Father came back from seeing the travelers off he had Bankhar with him. He said that he thought a few animals might die tonight in the cold, and he didn’t want Bankhar to be one of them. It would be hard to find a good guard dog in wintertime. Then Father opened another bottle and he and Akhaa began to drink it. They talked about the cold and the animals and the travelers, and Akhaa told a story about Ulaanbaatar and Father told a story about Moscow, and they were still drinking and talking when Egchee and I went to sleep. Bankhar is sleeping next to my bed, as he always does.

35143 February 1990

Without travelers coming there really isn’t much to do. The ger4 is unbelievably clean. I even took the slats out of the cabinet to clean in the grooves. Only five animals have died so far, and Father and Akhaa both agree that they were going to die regardless of the weather. I’m very proud of us for building the shelter last summer. The old one is crumbling, just as Akhaa said it would. At school there were fewer boys this week, as they were trying to save their animals. Father said that they should be punished for not thinking ahead, for damaging the Revolution; Akhaa joked that the dead animals clearly weren’t good proletarians. And so it always starts again. It’s been so much worse since the incidences in Ulaanbaatar began. If Akhaa was still in the City, would he be out there, too? I wonder if even he knows for sure.

Comrade Tuvshinbayar came to visit today. He is traveling the soum5 to talk to people and assure them that the disturbances in the City are under control. Even Akhaa knows better than to disrespect Tuvshinbayar. Father insisted that he stay for lunch, and Comrade said he would have stayed whether we invited him or not. Then he told a story about his son’s wife. “I took one bite of her buuz and bit something hard. I thought, ‘Did she leave a bone in here?’ Then I took it out. What was it? It was a nail! Now, her grandfather was at Khalkhyn Gol6, and her father worked under Tsedenbal7 and Batmönkh, so I know she’s a good Communist, not one of these troublemakers in the City. I know she wasn’t trying to kill me. But if she isn’t an assassin or a Western agent, what is she then? A bad cook! But I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, so do you know what I said? What could I say? I said, ‘I was looking for this nail!'”

We all laughed. He continued. “Do you know what the problem is? She is tall and thin. The best Mongolian women are short and fat. They work harder. But then, the women in your family are beautiful, and they can cook. We should send your tsoivan to the City, give those protesters a taste of what a true Revolutionary family can do for Mongolia.”

Tuvshinbayar asked Father about any travelers passing through, and Father said that we hadn’t seen very many, which is true. I think people are afraid. What is happening in the City? Is it like Berlin or Beijing, or something else? The rumors are hard to understand. Not that many rumors make it here. Unless the animals have a way of spreading them. After Tuvshinbayar was gone Akhaa said something disrespectful about him. I didn’t catch what it was but Father slapped him across the face. Mother had to jump in to separate them. Egchee pretended nothing was happening, like she always does. Akhaa left on his horse and said that he was going to check up on the animals, though it was already too dark to see much, and the animals were all in the shelter anyway. Father opened another bottle and drank it by himself.

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