I woke up at 6am on Monday morning to finish packing for my 72 hour trip to Eastern Mongolia to visit Bea, the Fulbright ETA I posted a quote from earlier. Namjaa, the same woman who picked me up from the airport, arrived outside Ryan's building promptly at 6:45am. The bus to Choibalsan was to leave at 8am and I still needed to buy a ticket. Yes, I made the decision to go on this trip at about 1am Saturday night/ Sunday morning so my planning was limited. When we, Namjaa, her son and myself, arrived at the bus station Namjaa parked the car, got out and took ahold of my arm, walking me inside to buy my ticket... "Passport." she said, motioning at me to get it ready. There's no such thing as lines in Mongolia and she was ready to cut in front of everyone. I couldn't make out anything she said to the woman on the other side of the glass, except, Choibalsan. Next thing I know she grabbed my arm again, giving me back my passport and a pink slip of paper and walked me outside to where the busses were parked. First bus- not mine. Second bus- not mine. Third bus- mine. Namjaa received a nod of approval from the three men outside the door and walked me onto the bus, and down the narrow aisle to seat #23, a window seat. With a big hug, she said goodbye and quickly retreated off the bus. I was alone. Not just in the sense that I traveling without a buddy, but at 7:20am I was the only one on the bus.
There I was, in seat #23, awaiting everyone else's arrival, nervously contemplating my journey ahead... without a working phone. I wasn't worried about this until the night prior to my leaving when Ryan and myself, joined by Will, an archaeologist, Adriane, another Fulbright ETA, and two Max Planck researchers, ate dinner at Marc's apartment. After catching wind of my trip the following day, the group, minus Ryan, began to inform me of the horrific Mongolian bus rides they had taken. "Not loving this conversation," I muttered as they boasted on about their drivers drinking vodka to stay awake, someone eating a snickers bar with the wrapper still on due to intoxication, and their 12 hour bus rides turning into a 24 bus rides. I shook it off knowing that people like to exaggerate stories to make their experiences, and life, seem hard.
As Ryan and I were leaving, Marc asked if I had a phone. "No..." I said, already haven written down numbers with the intent to use someone else's phone if anything went wrong or if I was going to be delayed. Since being in Mongolia, my charades skills had improved and I felt confident enough to try to get someone's phone to use. At that point, the expression on Marc's face showed one of worry. Will chimed in, offering me his old Mongolian phone, as he was leaving Mongolia that Wednesday. All I would have to do is fill it up with 5 USD of credit and I'd be fine- so I took him up on his offer.
7:45am. Still without data on my two phones (a smartphone and a dumbphone), I sat there hoping for the best as Ryan assured me that the couple bus rides he went on were perfectly fine. At this time, others started to arrive with babies, boxes, and bounties of luggage; I guess that is what you do when you leave a large city to return to the countryside.
8:00am. It was noticeable that I was the only foreigner on the bus to Choibalsan, and everyone's stares were not discrete. Ryan gave me a tip before I left, telling me that if I brought a 'shareable' snack, people would look after me. Well, I soon found out my gender alone was going to play a large role in how people looked after me, particularly the man sitting next to me, so I ended up not sharing my shareable snacks.
Three times my size, manspreading like his life depended on it, taking up half of my space crammed next to the window, with DIY tattoos, and no skills of the English language, I admittedly stereotypically defined this guy as 'tough'. Now, these descriptive factors do not matter and I know that my initial judgement based on his physical features could not be correlated to his character or personality, but looking back with 20/20 hindsight I should have noticed the signs early on. To be honest, the first hour of the bus ride I was quite pleased with who I had to surround myself with. The man across the aisle offered me pinenuts (a sharable snack) early on, so I knew there was a sign of potential bus 'friendship'.
An hour into the bus ride I was asleep, and so was everyone else. The seats were quite comfortable, they even reclined and because I was next to the window, I was able to use my scarf as a pillow, although, I did hear that resting on your neighbor's shoulder is right of passage on long bus rides in Mongolia.
12:00pm. 4 hours in we stopped at a rest station to eat. As I walked, following the others on the bus into a roadside restaurant, a bit confused, I immediately realized I didn't know how to read Cyrillic and therefore, I could not read the menu. Think. Think. Think. I remembered how to say one word: pronounced " tsoy-vyn". I didn't know if it was on the menu but when I got up to the cashier I blurted out the sounds of the dish and the woman seemed to understand. What she did not understand was why I wasn't ordering any tea or drink with it- I guess I fooled her enough for her to think I knew how to say anything else in Mongolian.
I sat down with my "tsoy-vyn" at a table in the back corner with the men in my aisle of the bus. The two had seemed to either have been friends before getting on the bus, or they made friendship quickly- perhaps it was the snack sharing. I sat across from the two of them, scarfing down my meal without a drink. I tried to finish quickly because I was unsure how long we had at this bus stop. A couple of laughs later as a result of awkward exchanges, I got up and headed outside to get on the bus again. Only issue- there were two busses now and I had not paid attention to what the outside of my bus looked like at 7:20 that morning. I waited, carefully and ever so slyly observing, to see which bus someone I recognized got on, and then I followed.
12:30pm. Back on the bus, with 8 hours to go I put one of my headphones back in and held the other in my hand. This way I could hear both my music and parts of the Mongolian TV show that was being played on a rather large flat screen in the front of the bus. I guess this was a symbol of an open invitation to listen to my music because the man sitting next to me took my earbud from my hand and put it in his ear, no questions or awkward exchanges had. It just happened. Well, I thought, I hope he enjoys Norah Jones because I'm not changing my music.
As I stared out the bus window; herds of hundreds of horses grazing on the steppe passed by quickly. Rare sights flying by, only to be held on to by memory. Frost consumed the window, but I was able to use my sleeve to wipe off enough for me to peek through to the outside world. It was a surreal moment, but that moment ended quite rapidly by the unwelcomed hand of the man sitting next to me grasping my thigh. "Is he asleep?" I asked myself. I moved my thigh closer to the window to let him know this was not something I wanted, but his hand moved with it. At that point I shoved his hand off my leg and pretended to stretch and reposition. I went back to looking out the window, thinking nothing of it, until it happened again. This time, I knew he was not sleeping. His thumb affectionately rubbed my leg and so I shoved his hand off, again, and gave him a 'do not do that' look, but he was pretending to be asleep. I pulled out my book, placed it on my lap and began to read. This way my neighbor's access to my thigh was blocked, so I was in the clear.
It began to get dark and I was car sick from reading. Leaving my book closed on my left thigh with my hand on top of it to hold it in place as an effort to reinforce the message that I did not want to be touched, I leaned up against the window to try and get some shut eye. Moments later the man repositioned and the jacket that he'd been using as a blanket spilled over, covering my hand, my book, and my leg.
His hand moved from his stomach to my hand in an effort to hold it. My hand, laid flat on my book, not giving him any reason to think I was enjoying this. I quickly pulled my hand away and his arm retracted. Phew.
I put my hand back on my book to hold it in place when it happened again. His hand on top of mine. I was fully awake now. Wide-eyed, nervously recognizing that I was without a phone and one of the only people I felt comfortable asking to use theirs to call Bea, was touching me where I did not want to be touched.
He started having a conversation with the man across the aisle. They would occasionally look at me at the same time and retreat back into conversation. What were they saying?
"How old are you" the man across the aisle asked. "30".. I decided that no one would want to sex traffic a 30 year old. "Have you been to China?" "Do you have your passport on you?" "Who's meeting you in Choibalsan?" These, all normal questions, except for when the man next to you was making unwanted gestures only moments before. At this point, I may have been reading into things too far, but I could have sworn that if Bea wasn't at the bus station to pick me up- I was going to be in trouble.
7:00pm. The bus had made a couple stops after lunch, but the man next to me did not get off at any of them and I was too scared to leave my stuff, including my passport, behind with him. Therefore, I did not go to the bathroom or stretch my legs for 8 hours.
7:30pm. My nerves had settled because it had been a couple hours since the last move made by my neighbor and I knew I'd be arriving in Choibalsan shortly. I had complete trust that Bea would be there waiting like she said. All I could do was sit, listen to music, play with the frost on the window, and wait.
8:30pm. 12 and a half hours and many grey hairs later, I arrived at the bus stop in Choibalsan. The bus doors opened and people began to pile out. I was one of the last people off the bus, but Bea was standing right next to the door in a sea of taxi drivers aggressively awaiting their next customer. I took in a large breath of relief and felt the weight melt off my shoulders. Just before getting off the bus, the man who sat next to me turned around and shook my hand. With a head nod, we were on our separate ways.
I'm not sure why this situation happened, nor do I know the intent behind the acts made by this man, but I do know that this would not have happened to Ryan, or any of the males who had boasted about their horrid bus rides the night before. So I leave my questions open. What has his life been to have shaped his brain to assume that was ok? That those acts were warranted? Has he done this before? Should I have yelled at him? Should I have gotten others on the bus involved?
It's in the past now, but it's smart to acknowledge the obstacles I may face in the future due to my gender.