Cultural Baggage

(Written on request for the Pet Connection blog, 2009)

One lesson that I learned early on when I started to travel was that circumstances which might mean one thing at home could very well mean something quite different in another country. One example is the treatment of animals. I’ve had the good fortune to travel to Mongolia four times (going again in July for six weeks) and found very quickly that I had to leave my ideas about domestic animals at home. Does this mean that I accept cruelty if I see it? No, of course not. But   I’ve also realized that it is unwise to make assumptions about animals as with many other things.

For example, dogs. In America, many dogs have become family members. Some get better medical treatment than many people. Some owners lovingly cook their dog’s meals from scratch. When they die, they are often said to have “crossed the Rainbow Bridge”. Cruelty to animals is a crime that doesn’t carry nearly the penalties that many of us believe it should.

In Mongolia, the per capita income is $3200USD per year. The average life expectancy is 67. It is a poor country with a proud history (think Chinggis Khan). Western standard medical care for the average person is essentially unavailable.

The Mongols are, of necessity, practical people and, especially in the countryside, they are not sentimental about animals. Dogs have a job, which is to protect the ger (what we know as a yurt) and the family who lives there. They never see a vet or are vaccinated. They eat whatever they can find, along with scraps left over from the slaughter of livestock. They don’t go into the gers, but live outside, where it gets down to -40F in the winter. Grooming? Baths? Not that I’ve seen. And I suspect that when they die, they are dead, without any euphemistic thinking.  Is all this good or bad? I’ve found that it doesn’t really matter what I think and that I can learn more if I suspend my judgements and opinions and simply observe.

If you are uncomfortable with the above, consider this: Mongolia is largely a Buddhist country. One of the tenets of Buddhism is to cause no harm. The Mongol herders’ diet consists mostly of animal protein, preferably mutton. They long ago figured out the most humane way to dispatch an animal. I witnessed this in July of 2009. The sheep was flipped over on its back. A small incision was made in the chest. The herder reached in, hooked the main artery with his finger and ruptured it. The sheep was dead in maybe 30 seconds with no visible struggle or distress. Was this easy to watch? No. Did I set down some cultural baggage? Yes.

Then there are the horses. The Mongols are an ancient horse culture. Horses are buried deep in the Mongol identity, whether they live in town or the countryside. The breeding, training and racing of horses has been an intrinsic part of life there for over a thousand years. None of it looks very sophisticated on the surface, but then you find out that these often scruffy looking little horses can travel up to 140 miles in a day.

On my last trip, the guide for a tour I was on told our group a story about an American woman who went on a horse trek tour he was in charge of. She was very insistent that she was highly experienced and demanded a energetic, spirited horse. In a classic case of “be careful what you wish for”, the local herdsman who was providing the horses acquiesced, with the result that she was on the ground in seconds. The Mongols thought it was hilarious. But consider the opportunity she missed with her “know it all” attitude, born of coming from a country that, in many ways, thinks it has everything figured out.

We are all creatures of the the culture we grew up in. And that “cultural baggage” goes with us when we travel. The difference is between those who assume that other countries, if they are reasonable places, will be just like home, and those of us who sincerely hope they aren’t.

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