We All Fall Down
Last week’s Arkhangai Naadam figured to be my last competition of the trip. The main competition in Ulan Bator had ended, signaling – or so I thought – the end of Mongolia’s Naadam festivals. I’d also had friends headed into the country, the tentative game-plan being for us to motorcycle and initiate impromptu matches against people we met on our route. However, in a turn of luck I was able to find and schedule another Naadam in Moron, the capital city of the Khovsgol Aimag near Khovsgol Lake, one of the most popular tourist locations in Mongolia.
When we arrived in Moron I asked our guide (and mechanic … and communicator) Jargal (pronounced: Jah-Gah) to help me track down the local officials who would ultimately decide if I could enter their tournament, which ended up being one of the largest and most competitive outside of Ulan Bator. Jargal was brilliant as he wrangled every contact to assist in my cause; his wry smile and charm even managed to get one of my college teammates – nicknamed CoCobayar for the trip – into the tournament.
The morning of the competition Jargal picked us up from the hostel with his signature red cap and smile, chatting endlessly about the various Mongolian traditions taking place during Naadam. He wore the expression I’d seen in my grandparents when they’d travel to watch me wrestle in college. It’s easy to recognize the difference in the support a wrestler receives from parents versus that of his grandparents. The former tend to worry about the details of a competition, including the quality of a performance or the impact it might have on standings and rankings, while the latter enjoy the effort of their loved ones regardless of outcome and without fail. Jargal was here to support without fail.
We found a tent to hide us from the sun as we waited through the opening ceremonies and as Jargal made his rounds to ensure our draws were included in the day’s wrestling; with Mongolians it’s always best to trust, but verify. He joined us in the tent and eventually resigned to a corner man of sorts, even taking my deel – the traditional overcoat worn by most Mongolians in the countryside and by every Mongolian wrestler – and holding it tight to his chest before handing it to a friend. “Hold strong at collar,” Jargal said. “So he wrestles strong.”
CoCobayar made his way onto the field along with myself and 12 other wrestlers. His draw was set quickly and he was soon tied up with a 280 lbs. grappler. He knocked his opponent on the head a few times – a tactic far more effective in America than Mongolia – and managed to get the crowd to notice his efforts. The big man batted away the distraction as a horse does a fly, but Cocobayar didn’t give ground, maintaining the attack until he ultimately fell to a post high single.
My match took several more moments to actualize. Referees were yelling and disagreeing but there was little I could do to understand and thus absolutely no way I could influence their discussion. All Mongolian wrestlers are given a minder upon entering the field. You show your affiliation to the minder with your welcoming eagle dance, placing a hand on his shoulder; he then takes your hat and is supposed to be your impartial advocate should there be a disagreement. Before my match even started, the discussions seemed to be boiling into arguments – a punch was thrown by an opposing minder into the shoulder of my own. I was clueless as to why this was going on, however I was acutely aware that I was the topic of an argument in the middle of 10k people whilst wearing a tiny red speedo and chest-less blue jacket – a unicorn would garner less attention.
My opponent’s advocate eventually coalesced to something and I was directed to my first challenger, a 170 lbs. 50-year-old man who was game for the competition. I looked back to a referee I’d met earlier in the day to make sure this was the correct assignment and he shooed me forward. We locked up and the man stabbed for a single, which I easily blocked as I contemplated how best to handle this delicate situation. At that moment another official entered the arena and told me to stop wrestling. I once again stood uncomfortably by my advocate in little more than superhero shorts and a very white set of gams.
The referees eventually sent me further south on the field to meet another opponent, a 6-2, 200lbs lean and fit competitor. We tied up and he immediately secured my left sleeve at the shoulder, and never let it go. I was knocked off balance after a little more than a minute, the result being a snap down that sent my feet corkscrewing past my head.
Once off the field I began to feel the rush of emotions I’d felt in high school and college – an utter disappointment that always accompanied a bad loss. This time it wasn’t just that I’d lost a match; it was that I’d forfeited an opportunity to extend my project further because I didn’t act quickly enough to block his sleeve grab. It’d been a long 10 weeks, and it felt as if all the research and training had come to a rather anti-climatic finale.
Jargal drove me home and recounted the last minute switch-a-roo, something that hadn’t much bothered me but that I had known was suspicious. (Had I beaten the older man it would have stood as an argument for the region’s objective pairing system; the officials decided to make the change due to their sensitivity to losing face – especially to an American. If I’d wanted to win, I should’ve beaten the better wrestler). Cocobayar had competed well and enjoyed the unique experience, but I was still holding onto the loss and as I got out of the car Jargal kept repeating “It’s okay, you try hard. Don’t worry, you do good many times.”
Back in the room I sank a little further into disappointment as I drank some airag and laid in bed – I’d selfishly wanted to do more, but ended up looking like a tourist getting whipped (we later found out that the matches were broadcast on national television … so that was special). I’d ended this whole project with a loss, something that I hated and left me with the bitterness of any loss I might have suffered in America, but without the opportunity to come back and prove myself.
About the time the bed covers were being pulled over my face there was a knock at the door. It was Jargal. He’d been waiting outside watching his son ride his bike in the parking lot, but said he wanted to tell me a story. I sat up and took note.
Though he uses plenty of solid English words, Jargal’s ability to monologue a complex thought isn’t especially wonderful, and like most people he gets nervous expressing new or complicated ideas in his second language in front of native speakers. Still his sincerity always pokes through, and remaining patient as he finds his way through the language hasn’t been a problem. He’s spent large swaths of time delivering beautiful Mongolian stories – usually with universal lessons about what to prioritize (hint: it’s not money) to us while simultaneously scratching his head in search of words and refraining “Do you know this?” Jargal is a treat.
“A wrestler can lose to just one growth,” Jargal said as he made the gestures to indicate he was talking about a blade of grass. “Boom, he can lost to just one growth from ground. He fall and he lose. Under the blue sky only one man not fall this time, only one man go home still standing.” He continued on, laboring to express to me that it wasn’t the end of the world, it was just a wrestling match.
I nodded to say that I understood “this” and hoped he recognized the effort hadn’t landed on deaf ears, that I just needed a minute to process and contemplate, to recover and rebound. I needed a moment to absorb the lessons of the day and the trip at-large. Jargal interrupted my momentary reflections that must’ve seemed to border on self-hatred…
“You don’t worry anymore,” he commanded. ”All people fall down.”
Jargal was right, without fail.