Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Babushka with the Weighing machine

Though I have wanted to write about the old lady in Ulan Bator I have put it off because I couldn’t find any neat insights or conclusions to present. In fact, I haven’t even been able to make sense of it, which perhaps is the whole point. Writing about the Chiclets vendor of Cancun reminded me of her again and this time I decided to write anyway.

I've forgotten many details of my Mongolia visit this past May, but I remember the old lady with the weighing machine. I still remember her because of what I saw her earn.

In Ulan Bator, we stayed at the Khongor Guesthouse on Peace Avenue, which is the main street. For 4 days, we stayed at the hotel and walked to the various sights in the city. Each day, we'd walk in and out of the hotel at least two or three times and we'd have to pass the State Department Store every time. On the pavement right outside that store there was an old lady, a stocky babushka who stood with her back to the wall. She stood in her shoes, wearing a black coat and a long black skirt, a red scarf wrapped around her head. Mostly she was looking down. Right next to her, on the sidewalk was a weighing machine with a hand-scrawled sign. For 50 Togrogs anyone could get their weight taken.

Once, I saw a woman getting her weight taken. The old lady carefully removed the cardboard she had placed on the weighing machine. The babushka made the lady take off her shoes and step on the machine in her stockinged feet. The machine was made mostly of glass and looked very new and sleek. It was the kind you can get a Wal-Mart store for around $10 or $15. That was the entire business capital.

Though it was May, it was surprisingly windy and cold in UB. Day after day in that cold the old lady stood stoically, waiting for customers. I saw her everyday in the same place holding essentially the same pose. I remember having an unchristian thought, wondering if she had some illegal side-business going on, perhaps peddling drugs.

The reason for that thought was that in May, the exchange rate was over 1000 Mongolian Togrogs for each US dollar. So the old lady was earning less that 5 cents per weighing. We were right outside the State Department Store where the prices for fruit and vegetables were materially higher than what we pay here in Chicago. You couldn't have bought anything at all for 50 Togrogs.

In my 4 days of coming and going, the only time I saw the babushka earn anything was from that one lady.

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