My sister's adventurous life

My children's photos hang in a hut in the Gobi desert because of her

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By Susan Konig


My sister and I grew up side by side in an apartment in New York City. Though we both still live in the area, her life has become vastly more adventurous.

She married a paleontologist and, when they take vacation, they tend to travel a bit farther than the Jersey shore. When they go out of town, they go way out of town: Mongolia, the Canadian Arctic, or South Dakota (the parts with T. rex bones, of course!).

She’s also my kids’ favorite baby sitter. She has watched them for days at a time and is always willing to come straight from her job at the natural history museum in the city and stay for the night so my husband and I can go out.

And she works cheap — or, I should say, free. My sister doesn’t have children, and she always tells me she doesn’t know how I do it, managing four kids all day every day. But when she comes, they go on long hikes, cook elaborate meals, bake desserts, have movie marathons, and exhaust themselves. I order pizza, yell, and make everyone go to bed early.

My sister’s most recent adventure took her to Mongolia and through the Gobi Desert. She and her husband had heard that the nomads who live there enjoy having their picture taken. She had also heard that if you give them a photo of themselves on the spot, it’s a huge hit.

She borrowed our daughter’s pink Barbie Polaroid camera and took a good supply of film. When one desert family invited them into their ger, a round felt house, she took instant photos of the kids who lived there.

The family was so appreciative they offered their American guests camel rides. But my sister’s camel actually had floppy humps. “The humps didn’t stand upright; they flopped over, and they were the only thing to hold onto,” she wrote to me on a postcard. “I had to put my hand underneath and it was all sweaty.”

The Mongolian family that provided the camels asked if she would prefer another mount but she declined. “I didn’t want to be rude,” she said. That’s my sister, never wanting to make waves, even in the desert. In the ger, my sister showed the lady of the house photos of my kids — their Little League shots she keeps in her wallet. With the language barrier, the woman thought my sister was giving the pictures to her and immediately displayed them prominently in the rustic home. My sister said she didn’t have the heart to ask for them back.

I asked my sister to get me a digital photo of the Mongolian kids to display in our home, in our own place of honor: the refrigerator.

Having grown up in New York, my kids have never cooked a marmot for dinner, they can’t ride horses bareback, and their yogurt comes in cups from the store, not from the family yak’s milk.

The kids from the nomadic family probably have never seen a shiny SUV, don’t own cell phones, and don’t watch “SpongeBob SquarePants.”

Yet our kids’ photos are in a home in the Gobi Desert, and a picture of the desert children is up on my fridge — their smiling faces in their woolly, colorful clothes. That brings the world together a bit for all of us. I bet they’d be flabbergasted by many elements of our lives here — a trip to an American supermarket or the bounty of a Thanksgiving table would be overwhelming. But I’m sure they’d have a ball playing in the backyard with my kids.  CD

Susan Konig

Susan Konig is the author of I Wear the Maternity Pants in This Family (2007) and Why Animals Sleep So Close to the Road and Other Lies I Tell My Children (2006). Visit Konig's Web site at susankonig.com, and on Facebook at facebook.com/susankonig