Things were getting a little rape-y on the rape farm. Devi was screaming, the old shepherd with a broken nose smeared across his face was all grabby, and from a stone-cold cha-cha passout I sprang into action to clock the wrong guy in the face. That shepherd started trying to hit me, scrappy Devi somehow rescued me while fighting off her attacker, I was busy trying to Turtle Possum hide back into oblivion, and lecherous old Captain Rapes was still at smashing everyone. It was a situation.
The next day was a long, painfully hungover hike through… through a very large physical landscape… with no food… but also through that treacherous psychological landscape of, “What am I doing here?” But even my sluggish, pained brain knew the answer to this question: Donkey. I’m here. To find. A Donkey.
My back hurts and I want a donkey. A donkey to carry my bag. A donkey to camp with. A donkey to tuck me in at night, sing me soft stories around the campfire, and a donkey to do the dishes. A donkey to keep me company and trek with while I wait for better weather in Central Asia. So I wandered out here into this desert, where every winter Georgian, Toosh, Azeri and Chechnyan shepherds drive their flocks down to out of the high Caucasus mountains, to see if I couldn’t buy a donkey.
It took me and my intrepid guide/friend Devi three days and special military approval just to get to the remote Land of the Shepherds. If she didn’t explicitly forbid me from writing about her, I could write a whole piece about the crazy 44 year-old Indonesian Muslim grown up in East Germany absolute insanity of a life story ran away to live with Chechnyan shepherds and wander the deserts and mountains of some of the world’s most isolated places penniless and totally bonkers – a woman with a distorted world/self view rendering her somewhat difficult to take but with a heart of pure gold… But I’m not allowed to write about her… because she threatened to shoot me… and I know she’s reading this…
The first night sleeping in a beautiful mountain hut was cold as a dead Yetti’s womb. Waterbottles frozen solid, toes beyond working order for a day, Devi’s hair froze out from her head like a deranged ice-queen. If I had a donkey, I would have sliced its belly open and crawled inside for warmth. I think we would have turned back had either of us had a place to turn back to. But we didn’t. So from there we hiked a day across frozen landscape to the most ludicrously shitty (literally and figuratively) little village which I’ve ever seen. Rustville, I’d like to call it. Imagine a painfully isolated rural Soviet (am I using the term right?) serviced by transportation down rutted washed out icy roads twice a week – a place where the wives and families of shepherds live only during the cold months. Then imagine the Soviet Union collapsing, everyone being dirt-broke, 25 years of decay and collapse, buildings rotting themselves over, giant… things… rusting everywhere – skeletons of weird commie building projects dead in the pipeline, an omnipresent atmosphere of defeat and failure, and everything everywhere covered in a 6-inch layer of feces (animal and otherwise). Or, if it’s easier for you, just imagine a Monte Python sketch of dirt cretins digging around in a comically filthy Soviet apocalyptic rural wasteland. An old woman dressed in poop-crusted rags whose face, I’m pretty sure, was a shriveled toothless latex mask cackled at us as she herded a flock of turkeys around the streets. Other than that the village appeared (and smelled) dead dead dead to me.
But I’m making fun of people’s homes here, and those very same people opened their door to me with a gruff yet palpable warmth. As we stepped out of the freezing cold and into the bare, simple room of an Azeri family I was profoundly struck with a moment of “Woah. We’re not in Olympia, Washington anymore.” A stark concrete box, furnished with a simple plank table, a wooden sleeping platform (on which the old woman was about to flip heavy wool sheet back, flop down a hunk of mean, and hack it up with a hatchet), and two wooden stools next to a small smokey stove. A battered TV in the corner played a weird old bugs-bunny-dressed-as-an-Indian-chief cartoon, and the only decoration was a pink princess wedding Barbie doll from the 1980s, still in the box, nailed to one wall. But decor be damned, it was looking at the people that sent my head spinning into “what century/planet/reality is this?” Clustered around the stove were three or four generations of Azeri women and little baby. Simple wool, felted or knitted rag-garments lovingly cared for, heads wrapped in scarves more gypsy-style than what I was used to in Turkey. Everything about the place felt surreal.
We settled in around the stove and before long a couple young boys in outgrown well-worn wool patterned clothes came beaming home. We played cards, and soon their life treasures were being taken out and displayed proudly. They were: 5 marbles (two of them cat’s eyes), a smiley-face kitchen magnet, a broken old Atari-type game consul – not working other that the joy of pressing the ‘eject’ button and watching something mechanical happening deep within the machine – an early 2000’s flip phone which was broken in half and missing the battery, and a small baseball-card type picture of a cartoon car which looked like it might have come out of a Cracker-Jack box after the company decided it didn’t give a shit anymore. That was it. The compounded life wealth of two happy little boys (9 and 13) living in rural rural Georgia. Of this treasure, this priceless stash, I was presented as gifts three of the marbles, the magnet, and the broken phone. I tried to protest but they wouldn’t hear of it. The heartbreaking beauty of people with so little giving so much was compounded at dinner time. A small bowl of boiled meat was set down – an American sized single portion – to feed 6 adults and 3 children. As visitors, Devi and I were forced to eat first – literally taking food from the mouths of a hungry family. Again we tried to protest, only taking one small piece of meat each, but they were quite insistent in their hospitality. Their kindness was stern, harsh and rusted like the decaying world where they lived, but in was very real, very overwhelming, and touched me deeply. In its own special way, set against the bitter cold outside, the house was cheery. That night we were taken into the house’s one other room, where ancient rusted bed frames were stacked high with mattresses to be flopped on the floor – the whole family squeezed together, and us as guests given the nicest beds and blankets. They tucked us in with warm smiles, and I drifted off to sleep as the sound of a bitter raging battle exploded between the family in the next room.
This was the village, though, and there was no donkey to be found here. So the next day Devi and I awoke to trudge into the frozen landscape of the shepherds. If the village was beyond the reach of electricity, running water or time, the shepherd outposts would prove to be beyond the reach of civilization itself. But, there’s only one way to find a donkey….