All In The Family
Tuesday was a landmark day in my Tuvan experience: The Day My Coat Stayed Home. April has brought all the signs that Tuva is gearing up for another summer: the first tourists have arrived, the black kites have returned to the city to hunt, and old Tuvan men can play chess outside again. Just as the roads become clear enough to begin traveling in Tuva once more, I am realizing how short my remaining time here is. Despite the fact that I've been here almost nine months, there's still a ton of stuff to see. Despite the fact that I've been here for almost nine months, Tuva is still throwing some curveballs.
Last Tuesday was a good example. It was, as I say, a four-page day; that is, it took up four pages in my daily journal, something that hasn't happened since I returned from Bai Taiga last October. Spent the morning driving around town with Kongar-ool Ondar and, as interesting as he is, if I told you everything I would get bored of writing. Suffice it to say that, in the afternoon, while we were sitting in his living room and he was sucking down a bowl of soup so as not to be late for a parliamentary session (Kongar-ool has joined Bleys Kueck in the small group of people who eat faster than I do), he invited me to a sheep-kill that was to happen that evening at his mother's new house in Kyzyl's western suburb.
Drove out to Sukpak with Kongar-ool and his wife and kids and was introduced to all the rest of his relatives who have moved into the city. The first thing that happens in a conversation with a Tuvan, after the greetings and formalities (where are you from? Are you mother and father still alive? etc.), is that you start finding connections between yourself and the person you're talking to. Thus, Kongar-ool's older sister is good friends with my landlord's mother and K-o's cousin and my landlord grew up together out in the Dzun-Xem region. After a while the sheep killing got underway --- two of K-o's other cousins pulled a massive sheep ram from the back yard into the front yard and went at it. Before long, an older guy --- a neighbor --- came over and joined the party. After the greetings and formalities, it became apparent that he is from the same town as the Tuvan president. "Oh yeah," he said, "I'm his uncle." As it turned out, he is also the father of a childhood friend of Kongar-ool's wife. I'm not sure what that makes him to me, but I'm sure there's a word for it --- the Tuvan vocabulary of relation titles is really incredibly large. As Kongar-ool says, if two Tuvans don't speak to each other, they are strangers. Once they talk, they become relatives.
It was getting dark when we finally all sat down around a greasecloth on the floor of the new, unfurnished house and set into a meal of boiled blood, meat, soup, beer, wine, and vodka. I'm getting better at eating xan, but it still requires a fair bit of bread and onion, and preferably a slug of vodka to wash it all down and keep it there.
Spent a day south of Erzin a couple of weeks ago with my landlady (Hima), her husband (Orlan), and their two kids (Amir and Anita). Hima's older brother (Sergei) runs the family farm down about 15 kilometers from Mongolia. He was introduced to me as "ugaannig", an epithet built from the word "ugaan", meaning "mind" or "the sum of one's thoughts" and meaning something like "full of ideas". Sure enough, the obligatory large lunch had hardly been washed down with the equally obligatory Tuvan tea (milky and salty) and vodka when he started telling stories --- stories about the family and about the Tuvan people. My favorite was when he told me the story of Noah's ark as a flying saucer that came to Earth and landed in the Kungurtug region of Tuva as a way of proving the antiquity of the Tuvan people. As the son of Tuva's first high-ranking lama, he was also more than pleased to explain to me the Tuvan version of the Buddhist philosophy of five elements, relating the Tuvan landscape with the human body and the passage of time. The final lesson of it all was that it is best to sing xoomei between 6 and 7 o'clock; that and the world is going to end soon.
My adventures with the Tuvan language continue. Recently I've been trying to learn the particles, which rival Greek particles in their multitude and (seeming lack of) logic. My favorite particle so far is "chop", meant to draw the attention to what has just been said and also used sometimes as a pseudo-interrogative. The best translation I have found for it is "yo", though it's used for everything from "yo, you did what?" to "she's not coming; her mother died, yo."
Only nine weeks remain before the big Dembildey Xoomei Festival, Kongar-ool's international 40th birthday party. In the past couple of weeks I've started to make sounds that I can allow myself to consider real xoomei. Now I need to build up my repertoire, brush up the Tuvan, and buy my own set of traditional clothes and my own sheep killing knife and I'll be ready. For those of you who are planning to come out this summer and want to participate, if you haven't heard, applications are due by the end of the month (i.e., next Tuesday). E-mail your name, age, nationality, and the styles of xoomei you are to perform to email@example.com. For details, check out www.dembildei.tuva.ru.
Two weeks ago, after a breakthrough xoomei lesson, I walked down to Tos Deer, one of two shaman associations in town, to touch base with the shamans and see if any tourists were in. Outside, Ay-Churek, the head shaman, was cleansing someone's new car and a pigeon with a broken wing --- a fallen spirit --- was picking millet from the stones of the ovaa. After tea, soup, and a round of jokes with the receptionist, an Italian, and Natasha (one of the shamans), I was asked to give a little concert inside one of the yurts in front of the main building. As we entered the yurt, dark storm clouds were gathering in the Pii Xem valley north of town --- the first rumblings of a thunder storm. The concert was fun --- my first opportunity to play in a yurt and my igil responded remarkably, though my xoomei was in less than top form. When we came out of the yurt, the clouds had cleared and the sun was beaming through one of these desperately blue Tuvan skies. Natasha leaned over to me and said "the spirits like your playing." Gotta be some sort of a sanction.