Selections of Work

bits and bobs

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A short writing on Swann's experience in a monastery in Mongolia.

 

Mongol Monastery

I flag down a car; a mud splattered Prius fresh from the countryside. Using my broken language skills and copious hand gestures, the driver understands where to take me. He’s an old man; eyes cloudy with cataracts, a symptom of a life spent in the land of blue sky. Countryside music rings out through the open windows as the driver sings along. It’s a song I’ve heard before; a song I’ve heard on repeat during the twenty-hour bus rides to the capital, but then again, so many of the countryside songs sound the same to my untrained ear, it could be the latest hit.
The rocky surface jostles us back and forth, the beads hanging from the rear-view mirror swing, gaining momentum with each divot and stone in the earth. We drive up the hill as far as the Prius can manage. I pay five-hundred tugriks and step out into the blinding sun. The Monastery is perched half-way up the hill, an easy walk from the car. As I enter the darkness of the Monastery, I feel my pupils dilating, blinking flashes of white, readjusting to the lack of sunlight.
The pungent aroma of milk and mutton saturate the room, despite the copious amounts of burning juniper. White smoke from incense trays trails upward in delicate curls; a vain attempt to overpower the smell of meat. The sour sweat of my own body mixes and mingles with the rest of the hopeful people all of us crammed in together; waiting.
The monks dressed in saffron and gold robes spin wooden beads between their fingers. Scrolls of prayers written in Sanskrit are draped across their alters. Portraits of wrathful deities stare down at me. Fierce faces painted in blue with flaming hair are adorned with green and black snakes for necklaces. Columns of fabric hang from the ceiling like support beams, as if the entire structure could be supported by red and yellow silk instead of cement.
The rough cement walls do nothing to keep out the heat. Sweat gathers under my arms and makes my glasses slide down the bridge of my nose. My thighs stick to the wooden bench as I wait in anticipation. When I finally stand to pray, my legs peel off the seat like a band-aid stuck on too long. I gently dip my forehead until it touches every wooden alter as I bow in respect, moving along the conveyer belt of healing.
After completing the circle inside the monastery, the monk assigned to me calls me to him. He offers a tiny plastic bag full of juniper water and pours it into my palm. I sip out of my hands, tasting the saltiness of my skin mixed with the faintest essence of herbs and wonder to myself how clean this water is, and if I’ll be purified later tonight in the bathroom?
The monks begin to chant in unison. They swoop up and down together, rhythmically praying in a language no one here understands. My monk starts to ring a bell; the one next to him starts crashing large cymbals. The convoluted sounds of hope are far from peaceful. They grow in frequency and tempo, the climax of all our hopes approaches. Everyone in the tiny room is watching them with eager shining eyes. The clatter of metal stings my eardrums as the chimes ring out. A monk is moving towards the gong, the end is almost near but cutting through the ringing bells, chimes, and chanting is a familiar whistle. My monk reaches deep into his saffron robes and pulls out his iPhone to silence it.