BarbieThere are no blondes in Mongolia. And damn few tourists. Yet despite their nomadic lives and geographic isolation, Mongolians remain surprisingly susceptible to the relentless onslaught of western culture. Or so I discovered when they started calling my wife Barbie.

It was late summer when we traveled to the heart of Asia. Sande’s hair was the picture of towheaded blondeness, thanks to her Scandinavian genes, Mother Nature’s solar rays, and a little chemical jolt from Emporium Josef during our London stopover. That she was wearing her golden locks in a ponytail only added to the Mongolian illusion that the fashion doll icon had arrived in the flesh.

You might think this situation would have resulted in my being dubbed Ken, but either his character didn’t bridge the cultural divide, or I didn’t quite carry off that boyish model look.  (Undoubtedly, the latter.) Probably just as well. I always figured Ken and Barbie for little more than platonic partners on the order of Will & Grace. Who knew how that type of relationship would translate to the nomadic concept of marital bliss?

The Barbie bit was charming at first, but it quickly began to grate at me and our two female traveling companions—both, alas, brunettes. The Mongolians clearly equated Barbie with movie star and treated Sande accordingly.

In the Gobi Desert, her camel was encouraged forward by the steady hand of the camel herder himself, literally “walking it” like a pet Schnauzer, while the rest of us had to cajole the stubbornly unresponsive and notoriously unpleasant beasts into motion on our own.

In the frigid Khovsgol Lake Region, near the Siberian border, Sande/Barbie got extra blankets to protect her iconic self against the below-freezing September nights and the snowy crystals falling through the not-entirely-waterproof conical roof of our Ger tent.

On our horseback rides through the great forests of fir and spruce in search of migrating herds of reindeer, she not only got the best horse and was all but levitated on and off it by our guides, but the damn horse actually kicked me in the shin when I got too close. A couple inches higher and Ken’s sexual status could have been forever altered.

On our mini-dig for dinosaur bones in the Gobi’s Eagle Valley, Blondie got real digging tools while the rest of us scraped around with sticks and stones.

And in the cities, or what passes for same in the land of Genghis Khan, everyone wanted to have their picture taken with her. No wonder she didn’t want to come home.

Which takes me forward about one year. We had returned to Baltimore, with Sande having readapted admirably to her non-icon status.  Or, so I thought.

One day, the phone rang. I answered to the sound of a faint, foreign, female voice struggling with garbled English. I couldn’t understand a word and was about to chalk it up to either a wrong number or a crank call. Then, just as I was saying, no one here, bye-bye, I heard it clearly. “Barbie.”

Several moments of telephone charades later, I realized that I was speaking with Aya, the twenty-something Mongolian Annie Oakley who had been our guide in Asia. Somehow, she had managed to obtain a visa to attend language school in America, and she was currently in Washington, D.C. Given the immense difficulty for Mongolians to get visas for America, especially post 9/11, it was nothing short of astounding to hear that Aya, who had never before been outside her nomadic homeland’s borders, was now just thirty miles down the road.

“Can you believe it?” I said to Sande.

“How about that.” She responded, before adding with just a touch too much feigned befuddlement, “I wonder how she managed to pull that off.”

Turns out, young Aya had managed to pull it off with no small bit of assistance from Sande’s alter ego, the indefatigable Barbie, who along with the Barbettes—our two dark-haired traveling companions—had spent the past year vouching for Aya’s character and positive aspirations as she maneuvered a governmental maze of two countries separated by 8,000 miles.

Notwithstanding the inescapable reality of returning home from Mongolia, Sande obviously saw no good reason not to bring a piece of Mongolia back as well. I don’t know if she missed the culture or the adulation, but I think it’s pretty safe to say that Barbie made her do it.

Good thing Sande wasn’t similarly deified when we were on safari several years earlier in Kenya’s Maasai Mara, or we might have ended up with a tribe of barefoot herdsmen living in the backyard.




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