Emergency in a Foreign Land: The Horse and the Fall (Part 1)

After a massive adventure and hangover the day before, and feeling just a little antsy for some alone time (since I’d been traveling nearly 24/7 with my guide and driver) I may have felt a slight premonition of what was to happen that morning, but it was buried under other more mundane irritations. I even remember sleepily staring out across the waking plains and thinking that this appeared idyllic, but simultaneously recognizing just how far we were from any kind of serious city infrastructure like a hospital. While my host mother casually sliced goat meat off a bone for my breakfast (since I didn’t have the experience or dexterity) I wondered what happened if someone was badly cut or injured. Did they do their own first aid? Ride horses to the closest tiny town 20 km away? Or motorbikes? That might have been it, that wandering moment of curiosity, my only moment of clairvoyance and warning and like nearly everyone I know, I didn’t heed it in the least.


Herds Mongolian steppes

Beautiful. And miles and miles from emergency infrastructure.

Breakfast was in my host family’s ger. And I, and my driver Saka, were seated on their bed while their four year old son still slept wrapped in blankets and flushed with sleep inches from us. Later he would slowly wake and play hide and seek with Saka before eventually rising. Meanwhile his mother and father had been up for hours milking cows and preparing food for their guests. The family cat was curled into the patch of sunlight shining from the vent at the top of the ger, and the pet lamb wandered about in front of the door. Another tour, this one a group of about 10 from Poland, were already packing their belongings and preparing to leave and the neighbor had already driven out the flock of goats and sheep to a further patch of land where the grass was long enough to graze.

Mongolia ger

As my host father led me to the horse I was to ride as part of my tour there were no further warnings. Just sleepy, warm, steppes slowly waking to the days’ chores.

I never actually rode the horse. And I couldn’t properly tell you what happened. Maybe I was a bit overambitious in mounting, I had certainly slid a bit too far forward on the horse and maybe he saw me in the corner of his eye and panicked. Maybe I should have been more judicious in planning as I knew other horseback tours had weight limits for their riders and I exceeded them. Maybe the horse just got spooked by something we will never know.

Either way, I went from straddling a horse, to straddling a bucking and upset horse, to landing on the hard packed ground with no small amount of force.

The next 15 minutes or so I can only recall in flashes. I know the Polish tour didn’t leave because not only was I surrounded by many more people than my host family, but one of them turned out to be a doctor and helped examine me for broken ribs and a broken arm. From the way I was screaming initially I think everyone was certain something had broken.

I remember people pulling dirt and stones from my hair. I remember not being able to breathe at first. And I remember being in serious pain, while having completely non-sensical thoughts like “damn, I probably just broke another pair of sunglasses” and “I guess my pain tolerance isn’t as high as I thought.”

It took me another 30 minutes to get my thoughts better sorted, and then reaction started to set in, making me a bit emotional. My host mother had clearly had daughters though and not only gently helped me pin up my hair, but helped fashion a sling from my scarf and sat with me and pet my shoulder and arm while I shook with reaction and tried to get a handle on the pain and clear my head. I was certain something was torn, I thought it was in my back, but maybe it was just the worst bruise I had ever had plus the fright. Just as the Polish doctor had suggested through his fellow tourist who acted as a translator.

I must confess, these are the moments I later recall when reading my social media feed or the news and which make me feel as though I live and see a completely separate universe. Instead of the hate and fear, the nastiness and the violence the news reports, I find these moments in the middle of the plains, 80 kilometers from a city, with a family where no one speaks English, and people who know exactly how to comfort another hurt human being. A entire group delays their tour and surrounds me to see how they can help. A mother holds my hand. A little boy comes over to both see that I’m ok (my fall also scared him) and bring me one of his toys to comfort me. How has the world spun so far from people forgetting this incredible ability we have to connect and comfort one another? Do we not meet enough strangers anymore in our lives?

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My host mother and son. Wishing me a traditional farewell with a blessing of milk

The rest of the day obviously doesn’t go as planned. I call International SOS, in enough pain that for a few moments I’m tempted to say “send the helicopters and airlift me out of here.” But I take painkillers, and hesitatingly agree to sit in the sunshine and take a short walk while holding onto my stalwart guide, Ching. Eventually we depart for Ulaanbaatar. It’s part of the day’s itinerary, but I think we also all feel that being back in the city is the best plan in case something serious has happened and we don’t know yet.

Part 2