Friday, December 14, 2012

Following a Culinary Dream: A Chance to Help Sandy Victims

Vol. I, No. 5

Many of you have asked how to help victims of Hurricane Sandy. Here's a chance to do just that, and help someone rebuild his dream. 

Brad McDonald was in college studying business when he realized he didn't want to be studying business. As a kid, he'd wanted to explore the world. He had no idea that he'd one day fulfill his dream to explore by becoming a chef - and experiencing culture through cuisine.

While still in school, Brad changed his major to something a little more creative, and he began cooking. As a matter of fact, he cooked full-time while earning his degree. And we all know a thing or two about doing what you love: when you don't have any time for it, and you make time for it anyway, magic begins to happen.

Eventually, Brad's magic arrived in New York. He began to open restaurants, teaming up with people just as passionate as he is about the exploration of food. Earlier this year, they opened Governor in Dumbo, Brooklyn. And it was the kind of success that gets The New York Times' Pete Wells gushing.

And then Hurricane Sandy hit.

Photo courtesy of Michael Harlan Turkell

Five feet of water in the restaurant destroyed pretty much everything: wood finishing, electronics, kitchen equipment, decor.

Photo courtesy of Michael Harlan Turkell

Brad and his team were devastated, but not without perspective. As Brad has commented in an interview with, "We don't want to lament our own fate too much without realizing that there are other people out there who have lost far more than we have. We can recover from this."

So, I'd like to propose a toast - to a beautiful attitude, to pursuing a dream, and, for those of us who can, to helping Brad and his team getting back on their feet. In fact, Brad says it best when he talked to me about teamwork: "When others believe in you, it is far more achievable to believe in yourself."

All you dreamers out there, let's help Brad and his team. Here is a link to donate to the rebuilding effort for Governor.

And here is a link to helping One Girl Cookies, Governor's next-door neighbor and home to the best cupcake I've ever, ever eaten. (Why? Crumb you can sink your teeth into, decadent and rich icing.)

Finally, if you're in the neighborhood of Dumbo this weekend, there will be a pop-up fundraiser for Almondine Bakery. Some of New York's finest pastry chefs (Le Bernardin, Bouchon, Boulud)) are rallying in support of Herve Poussot, owner of Almondine and one of my favorite pastry wizards (if you haven't had his blueberry muffin, you haven't lived).

Pop-up fundraiser: Saturday & Sunday, 12/15-12/16, 10am-6pm. At 85 Water St in Dumbo, Brooklyn.

Brad McDonald and his team, photo courtesy of Michael Harlan Turkell

Friday, December 07, 2012

Lang Lang: From Child Prodigy to Concert Pianist

Sinovision's WE Talk airs on Sundays at 8:30PM on WMBC 63.3

Special Edition

Lang Lang is one of the world's most celebrated classical pianists. But he's only thirty years old! Watch my WE Talk interview with this extraordinarily talented artist, who had to overcome quite a painful struggle before even his tenth birthday. If you've ever believed in something, even when no one else did, you'll enjoy watching how Lang Lang continued to believe in himself. 

Follow WE Talk on Twitter. Follow WE Talk's host on Twitter (that's me!).

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Darion D'Anjou: From a Boy's Dream to His Grown-Up Reality

Vol. I, No. 4

Until Dec. 1st: Artist Darion offers you a chance to become a character in his comic strip novel!

When you were ten years old, what did you think you wanted to be when you grew up? And by the time you you grew up, what did you actually end up doing with your life?

For Darion D'Anjou, that ten-year-old's dream of his happens to also be his reality. As a kid, Darion had a big imagination, and he loved telling stories. As an adult and approaching his fortieth birthday, Darion still has a big imagination, and he still loves telling stories, so much so that he's devoted his life to it. In particular though, Darion has honed his craft as a graphic novelist, someone who writes and creates a plot line through long-format comics. Yes, you read that right: Darion D'Anjou is a comic strip artist. His specialty is science fiction, and better than me telling you how good his work is, I'll let you see for yourself. 

But first, let me give you a chance to help Darion fulfill his dream. Unlike some of the other dreamers featured on this LIVE from Mongolia! blog, Darion still has a day job as a software contractor. I have no idea what that means exactly, but compared to creating novels out of comic strips, I think we all ought to lend Darion a hand in helping him take that final leap towards full-time graphic novelist. As Darion himself puts it, "My dream is to keep making these books...exclusively." 

So, let's give Darion a hand, and help him take that final leap of faith to fulfill his dream. But, wait, it's better than just helping! Darion is actually offering you, yes you, the chance to be a character in one of his novels! Your character might even be killed, in dramatic fashion of course, which is frankly the coolest part. What better way to spend your money than to live forever in a comic-strip novel series as someone who dies in spectacular fashion?

Of course, it's a little pricey to appear as a character in a book, but I know some of you reading this post are bankers, and I know this is just the sort of thing I'd have bought for myself or a friend, back when I was in banking. For $1000, Darion will draw and write you into his story. And then he will kill you. You'll receive a signed copy of the book, and you'll get a few other perks that you can read about here

Can't afford to see yourself killed in someone's novel? Me neither. Instead...

For $35, you'll receive a signed copy of his graphic novel. 
For $50, you'll get a signed copy, your name in lights on his website, and, shh, some insider material that you'll have to click here for. 
For $100, you'll get a signed copy, name in lights, that insider stuff, a signed DVD with trailer, and a playview version featuring the original musical score. Click here.
*International shipping is available on all items.

But enough from me! Let's hear it from Darion himself, who has guest-blogged a sample of his novel.

From GENETIKA: Gene, Book I by Darion D'Anjou

Would you risk your life to live forever?

Dr. Mia Allandressy reverse engineers the Fountain of Youth drug.

Graphic novel “Genetika: Gene, book i” addresses this high concept question in the context of a fast-paced, thought-provoking science fiction thriller.

Dr. Eugene Poulos is a young genetics whiz on the biotechnology corporate fast track. When Gene uncovers a secret group with the key to the fountain of youth among other technologies light years ahead of anything that should be possible, Gene quickly finds himself alienated from family and friends, on the run from the police, wanted by the FBI, and worst of all hunted by a group of people who see and hear farther, think and move faster, never sleep, live forever, and who will stop at nothing to maintain the privileged secrecy of their existence.

Dr. Manny Kowzslinski races to free his research data to the world

“Genetika: Gene, book i” is the first in a coming series of graphic novels which deal with cloning, immortality, and the ongoing struggle for power and technology. 

Gene enters his own dreams, looking for the code to Regen

Young Gene's vision is blurred by insecurities

Genetika dramatizes the extreme gap between those who are enlightened and the rest. Each wave of new technology confronts us with a flood of new ethical and emotional challenges, and it is at that junction that the Genetika story universe lives.

-Darion D'Anjou November 2012

Reserve your exclusive copy of the debut graphic novel “Genetika: Gene, book i” now, and be a part of launching this hip science fiction thriller series:

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Somaly Mam: A Reason to Be Thankful This Thanksgiving

Vol. I, No. 3

Somaly Mam doesn’t know when she was born, and doesn’t know her real name. She’s from Cambodia, and she grew up an orphan. For a time, Somaly survived on other people’s kindnesses for food and shelter. And then a man took her in whom she refers to as Grandfather. Eventually, he sold her to a brothel. “I was born without love,” Somaly says simply, as a way of explaining how this sort of transaction can take place between a child and an adult.

Courtesy of Somaly Mam Foundation

Somaly was actually one of the lucky ones. She made it out of the brothel, many years later, and lived to tell about it. Some of her companions did not. As one of the other women put it, who was sold into sex slavery at the age of four, “A few moments of his pleasure killed me.” That woman had contracted AIDS from one of the brothel’s clients; those were her dying words.

And herein a point: Somaly and her team of survivors and activists refer to the men who frequent the brothels as “clients”. This is curious to me, because what they are is rapists. These women and little girls have no choice in the matter of when or whether they’ll have sex, and as Somaly described it, none of the girls “was even given a teaspoon of water to wash with for an entire day spent with clients.”

Of course, this is all very difficult to comprehend, isn’t it? It’s distant and surreal to imagine a parent figure selling a child into slavery, sex slavery no less. But it is real, and we actually can help.

For starters, Somaly’s story is not just a devastating account of evil. It’s a story of a woman’s journey from a terrible past to a present of empowerment and joy and light. As she puts it, she “believes in real and true love without any conditions.” And yes, this means forgiveness. All the things you can’t believe someone can talk about when they’ve lived what they’ve lived. Somaly and her team of survivors and activists have rescued more than seven thousand enslaved women! (To read more about how they do this, click here.)

Courtesy of Somaly Mam Foundation

And this is where you come in. You can actually help Somaly. Those survivors, the ones who’ve grown up in the brothels and have been rescued, are also creators. They craft handmade sterling silver necklaces, beautiful scarves, cufflinks, and other gift items that would be so very meaningful to receive this holiday season. And, Somaly has actually published a book about her journey. Just in time for the holidays, you can make a real difference.

What could Somaly’s dream be, you ask? After all, this is a blog about people who follow extraordinary paths in life. Well, as Somaly puts it, “My dream is to have more and more survivors.”

Let's help her achieve just that.

Read more about Somaly at

Somaly Mam, right, and me. Photo courtesy of Andrea Reese

Monday, November 05, 2012

The Funny Indian: From Corporate America to Comedian!

Vol. I, No. 2

“Basically, I’m just waiting for millions of people to know what I already know: that I’m awesome.”

When Rajiv was thirty years old, he flipped out, although he probably shouldn’t have. Rajiv was working as a marketer for consumer products giant Procter & Gamble and earning six figures. He had a nice car and lived in a nice house. He had everything he thought he should want. But, he’d run into an old friend.

You?” the old friend had said. “I’m so disappointed in you.”

Of course, the remark had nothing to do with Rajiv’s success. And, it hadn’t surprised him either. Ten years earlier, Rajiv had made a late-night declaration at a diner – we’ve all been there, the forgettable nocturnal remark, made over pancakes and eggs, that evolves into an unforgettable oath. One day, Rajiv had sworn back then, he’d be famous. But, he’d said glumly, “There are no famous materials engineers!”

His friend, the one who’d declared her disappointment in Rajiv, had aptly pointed out all this and more to him, and she hadn’t been the only one to do so. Rajiv’s own brother had told him he didn’t want to end up like Rajiv had ended up, giving up on his dream.

Harsh words, but not untrue.

For many years, Rajiv had dreamed of becoming a comedian, a ‘comic’ as the funny folk say. While at Procter & Gamble, still in his twenties, Rajiv had even performed late-night stand-up. And he’d always kept his “number” in mind, the amount of money it would take to leave his job behind to pursue his dream. For Rajiv, that number was $25,000.  

So, right around the time he turned thirty, Rajiv reached his financial goal. And, he said, something struck him: “At thirty, I knew I didn’t want to be forty knowing I could’ve done it.” And “it” was what people all along had been telling him makes his eyes light up: comedy.

And here I’ll insert a personal note. Of all the people I’ve met and interviewed from New York to New Zealand and China and even to North Korea and Mongolia, I’ve never met a single person, not one, who’s talked about the thing they’re passionate about without their eyes lighting up or welling up. Not a single person. It’s like they’re suddenly switched on

But back to Rajiv, whose seminal moment had come.

After a frank conversation with his boss, Rajiv bit the bullet and resigned from his job at Procter & Gamble. Without much adieu, he doubted himself and took another corporate job, where he lasted only a few months. And then he wrote a very un-comedian-like sixty-five-page action plan detailing how he would achieve his dream. 

Another personal note: in my experience, people who follow dreams don’t walk in a straight line. They, we, have doubts. We sidestep, backtrack, stumble, and occasionally fail miserably. But, we march on. And that’s just what Rajiv would do.

Anyway, after simultaneously quitting and getting fired from that new corporate job, Rajiv embarked upon the path he'd always dreamed of. He sold his house and moved from Cincinnati to Los Angeles. He began performing stand-up regularly. He started getting gigs in a lot of places: Ottawa. Oman. Switzerland.

I met Rajiv back in the summer, when things were looking very, very up for him. He's 36 years old now, and quips that he's a “Recovering Corporate American”. As we talked, I had to ask him several times to just...stop. I was nine months pregnant then and every time Rajiv spoke, I had to gasp for air; I was laughing that hard. For instance, as Rajiv himself explained, he's overwhelmed by the thought of Helen Keller, whom he finds completely uninspiring. As he puts it, “She was deaf, dumb, and blind, and has accomplished more than I have.” 

By now, Rajiv has repeatedly opened for the likes of Dave Chappelle, Tim Allen, Kevin Nealon, and Russell Peters. He co-founded the world-touring Make Chai Not War (A Hindu/Muslim show that traversed seven Indian cities in 2012, and is sponsored by the U.S. State Department and the Standpoint Agency). He has spoken to audiences from Fortune 500 companies to NFL players - on subjects ranging from innovation, diversity, and personal branding. Yes, he can make even those subjects funny. Rajiv has garnered more than two million Youtube views, performed on three continents, and been featured on NBC and NPR, and in the Wall Street Journal, The Huffington Post, and the L.A. Times. He does stand-up at dozens of colleges each year and at comedy clubs all over L.A. Rajiv records a weekly podcast, acts in funny commercials, and writes humorous ads. His favorite sites in the whole world are...his own. You can follow him on Facebook at and on Twitter at Make sure you check out his website!

As Rajiv says himself, he’s good at getting people in a room to do what he wants. Which, of course, is laugh. His ultimate goal, the real nod of approval from the comedy world, is to get his own late-night television gig. Watch this space as he does just that. Come to think of it, don’t take it from me; watch the video of Rajiv’s act to see for yourself!

This blog will be following Rajiv’s story so make sure to tune in for updates. Follow me on Twitter at Also, be sure to check out my book, which is now available on for pre-order. No surprise, it's the true story of what can happen when you follow your wildest dream in life! 

Friday, October 26, 2012

Introducing the Dream Series!

Vol. I, No. 1

It all started in Mongolia. 

In 2006 in Ulan Bator, the Mongolian capital, I met an intrepid Irish couple with an unusual dream. Back then, I was pursuing a dream of my own. I'd just resigned from a banking job on Credit Suisse's New York trading floor to move to Mongolia. I'd always dreamed of working in television and news. In Ulan Bator, I'd found an internship at Mongolia National Broadcaster, the country's state-owned television station. As luck and irony would have it, one of the first stories I covered was of someone else pursuing their own dream. 

It was that intrepid Irish couple. They too had just left their corporate jobs behind--to pursue their dream to cycle, yes bicycle, from Ireland to Mongolia. 

What will her dream be? (Photo by Joe Sexton)

Anyway, I began to meet a lot of other people following unusual dreams. Really unusual dreams: an Italian man who left his textiles job to make the world's finest mozzarella cheese in Mongolia, a Frenchwoman who left her corporate job to track endangered horses in the wilds of Khustain, a Mongolian student who left agriculture school to become a rapper. And so on. 

Eventually, I returned to New York, where I wrote a book about my journey--and their journeys. LIVE from Mongolia! is the true story of what can happen when you follow your wildest dream in life. 

And now, all these years later, I continue to meet people pursuing some really oddball paths. And that's where this Dream Series blog comes in! Together, you and I will journey all over the world to meet people, people just like you, who are pursuing unusual dreams in life. Who knows, maybe one day it'll be your story we read!

Stay tuned next week as we journey from Cincinnati to Los Angeles, where we'll meet an engineer-turned-comedian! 

Sunday, July 01, 2012

My U.S television debut - a show about following your dreams!

In March, I began working for SinoVision's Cosmo Times as a television host! My debut episode features a Chinese woman following her dream all the way from northeastern China to here in New York City where she would work for a while as a banker until one day she finally...(watch the video!)

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

"Khailmag", a Mongolian sweet cheese with raisins
"Byaslag", a semi-firm Mongolian white cheese

How you helped a little Mongolian girl follow her dream...

You, yes you, have helped a little girl and her mother follow their dreams. And a thank you has come all the way from Mongolia.

You remember the story of Urangoo and her mother, Oyunbadam. Urangoo was just six years old when she decided she'd like to pursue a career in the circus, and so she convinced her parents that that's just what she'd do. Not long after, the family picked up and left their teepee home in the reindeer-herding region of northern Mongolia (a very cold, very harsh place to live), and moved to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia's capital. As many of you know, Urangoo's father went in search of work in order to purchase a circus costume for his determined little daughter. Sadly, in so doing, he was robbed and murdered, and the family was left destitute. Things didn't get much better from there, at least not yet, and you can read about the family's plight here.

But, one thing eventually led to another, and suddenly there was a fundraiser in New York aimed at helping this family out. And that's where you came in. From Singapore to Ulaanbaatar and Cincinnati, upstate New York and Washington D.C., even the Upper East Side and the Deep South - dozens of you donated your time and money to help this family continue to follow their dreams, despite the odds that have stacked up against them. In this post, you'll see photos of the event's organizers making cheese (myself, Charles Bibilos, and Byambakhuu Darinchuulun), followed by the event itself, and finally all that money getting delivered directly into the hands of Oyunbadam, the mother who lost her husband to a dream.

So what now for Oyunbadam and Urangoo? Oyunbadam happens to be the very last (as I understand it) teacher of the Tuva language of the reindeer-herding Tsaatan people, from which she comes up in northernmost Siberian Mongolia. Without their language teacher, this ancient culture is at risk of dying. It is Oyunbadam's dream to return to her people to teach Tuva, and I'll follow her progress as she tries to do so. For now though, the money she's received from us, via the Mongolian Mission to the United Nations and the Foreign Ministry in Ulaabaatar, has covered her medical bills ($810 was delivered back in March, and the great news is she's cancer-free!) and the $1587 of donations from the NYC fundraiser will help her cover some household expenses - and help her to pursue her dream, as well as her daughter's.

I'll keep you posted! For now though, know that you have changed a few lives.

Delivering the donations to the United Nations
Byambakhuu with our Mongolian grandmother "buuz" maker

Mr Ganbold, from the Mongolian Mission to the UN,  writing a receipt for the donations
Oyunbadam, Urangoo's mother, accepting our donations from the Foreign Ministry

Thursday, April 19, 2012

NYC Fundraiser for Mongolian Circus Girl!


by Charles Bibilos. Accomplished glutton, traveler, and food blogger who has eaten meals from over 120 nations! Charles's dream is to eat authentic cuisine from every single nation in the world, without leaving New York City!

So, I hear that you want to try real Mongolian food. Homemade cheese curds, perhaps, or fermented mare's milk? Or caramelized clotted cream?

Yes? Well I do too. And here's your chance to join me, while helping us raise money for a young artist in Mongolia.

Here's the short version of the Mongolian artist's story: at age 6, a Mongolian girl named Urangoo - the daughter of reindeer herders in a remote region of Mongolian Siberia - decided that she wanted to become a circus contortionist, and she taught herself how to contort by watching a video over and over again. Eventually, her family dropped everything, literally rode their reindeer toward the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, and enrolled Urangoo in circus school. Now 13 years old, Urangoo has thrived as a performer, but her father was murdered trying to mine enough gold to pay for Urangoo's education. And, Urangoo's mother is ill, and struggling to support her children. For the full version of Urangoo and her mother's story, read here

And here's where we need your help, hopefully in a fun sort of way! At 1:00 on Saturday, May 12, in partnership with Byambakhuu Darinchuluun and "LIVE from Mongolia!", we're hosting a food-friendly fundraiser at Jimmy's No. 43 in the East Village. Suggested donation is $35, and all proceeds will be sent to Urangoo's family to pay for her schooling as well as her family's expenses. 

As part of the event, you'll enjoy...

  • Authentic Mongolian food samples! Nothing against corner-store "Mongolian BBQ", but it isn't actually Mongolian! Real Mongolian delicacies include steamed mutton tail, fermented mare's milk, and dried camel meat. We can't promise that any of those three items will be served, but we will offer samples of authentic Mongolian dumplings (buuz), homemade Mongolian cheese (byaslag), caramelized clotted cream (khailmag), and perhaps "dried mass of cheese" (eeghzi), or fresh Mongolian cookies. The khailmag and buuz are supposed to be particularly delicious. And whether you find the food delicious or just fascinating, all of it will be based on ancient Mongolian recipes!
  • Authentic Mongolian entertainment! Live performances by Mongolian artists, and a video appearance by Urangoo the contortionist!
  • Live auction! Featuring Mongolian artwork! A thoroughly entertaining auctioneer will be selling one-of-a-kind Mongolian calligraphy and Mongolian leather art, among other items. 
  • Beer! OK so the beer isn't Mongolian, and it's a cash bar. Sorry, beer isn't included in the price of admission. But our friends at Jimmy's No. 43 serve some damned fine craft brews. And a legendary international culinary expert will provide craft beer pairings. Wanna find out which microbrew goes best with homemade Mongolian cheese curds? Here's your chance!
  • And maybe a few surprises... No promises but we're hoping to feature a cooking demonstration by a renowned Mongolian dumpling-maker and possibly a live performance from a Mongolian calligrapher. And you'll definitely have a chance to sign up for NYC's only Mongolian culture and language class, taught by Byambakhuu Darinchuluun, a charismatic Mongolian scholar. 
So, here are the details:

Contorted Mongolia
Fundraiser for Urangoo the Contortionist
43 East 7th St. (between 2nd & 3rd Ave.)
*suggested donation: $35 per person (beer not included)
Saturday, May 12

Advance reservations are strongly recommended. Capacity at Jimmy's is limited, and we'll be happy to see you if you spontaneously appear at the event, but we can 100% guarantee admission to the event if you RSVP early. 

(We can also guarantee that we are not sketchy thieves who will steal your money and spend it on fermented mare's milk. All proceeds will be collected by the Mongolian consular officials, who have generously agreed to transfer all funds to Urangoo's family via diplomatic pouch...and our friends at the Permanent Mission of Mongolia to the United Nations have also generously agreed to make us look less sketchy.)

Contact Charles Bibilos ( 202.489.2731) or Patricia Sexton ( to make reservations, and we'll be sure to save some homemade Mongolian cheese curds for you!

Thanks for your support, and happy eating! 

To read more from Charles Bibilos and his culinary masterpiece blog, click here

Friday, March 09, 2012

Still following her dream: from Mongolian Siberia to Washington, D.C.

The announcer's voice cracked as she introduced Urangoo. And for good reason. For those of you who aren't yet familiar with Urangoo, the Mongolian circus girl, hers is a story of dogged determination in pursuit of a dream, even in the face of poverty and a terribly tragic loss. 

After Urangoo's parents chose to take a leap of faith and pursue their six-year-old daughter's dream to work in the circus as a contortionist, the father was robbed and murdered. He'd been panning for gold in the Mongolian mines, and had only wanted to collect enough gold to pay for Urangoo's circus costume. (For more on Urangoo's story, click here.)

Urangoo, sitting on her father's lap, Bat-Erdene

It was this story that the announcer alluded to on Friday night March 2 at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., where Urangoo was about to perform. She'd been flown to America by Ed Nef of Santis Productions, who has produced a film on the mining sector in Mongolia. Described as a "rising star" in the competitive world of Mongolian circus contortion, Urangoo definitely would not disappoint her standing-room-only crowd.

Approaching the stage, she affixed two miniature crutches to a platform. Turning upside down, Urangoo then balanced her entire body weight on the wobbling crutches. And, for good measure, she wrapped her toes around her face to touch her nose. But that wasn't all. Dismounting, she removed the two crutches, and replaced them with what looked like a giant Q-tip. On top of the giant Q-tip, which Urangoo put into her mouth, she balanced, inverted, and contorted backwards. Confused? Me too. Watch the video above!

But back in Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian capital, Urangoo's mother is sick. And that's why I'm writing again today. As many of you know by now, Oyunbadam may have a brain tumor, but could not afford an MRI, or any specialty treatment. In the past month, several of you have made generous donations to Oyunbadam's family. For that, they thank you - deeply. With $810 on its way to Mongolia from donors from Singapore to Cincinnati and New York, Oyunbadam will be able to afford an MRI. 

Better still, a few of us who have been following Urangoo and her mother's story are trying to put together a fundraiser in NYC for the family. I'll keep you posted! If you're out of town, and still want to help, share this story. As KONY 2012 has proven, "Nothing is more powerful than an idea," and change is just one person - you - away.

Urangoo, now 13, says "bayarlaa", or 'thank you!' on Friday Mar 2 at The Kennedy Center

Friday, February 10, 2012

Update on the Mongolian circus girl:

I have some wonderful news, and some bad news. First, the good news!

Urangoo, the little Mongolian girl who wants to be a circus act, is getting an amazing shot at her dream. She is coming to the US to perform, I kid you not, contortion, in Washington D.C., and Arlington, Virginia. Santis Productions has funded her visit, and will be screening the documentary they produced about the Mongolian mining industry, the very industry that unwittingly played a part in the death of Urangoo's father. Urangoo will be performing at the screening: 2/29 at the Arlington Artisphere, and 3/2 at the Kennedy Center.

So, that's the good news. Now the bad news.

Urangoo's mother is sick. Oyunbadam has been in and out of the hospital, and doesn't have enough money to pay doctors to diagnose what, unfortunately, may be a brain tumor.

Many of you have asked how you can help. For that, a giant thank you. Now you can. Santis Productions, the filmmaker, will be receiving donations on behalf of Urangoo and her mother. No, Santis is not a charity, so you're not going to get a tax break. Like you, Santis is taking a risk and doing the family a favor. If that prevents you from donating, I understand, but I'm sorry to hear it anyway. However, if you're willing to risk $10 or even $50, you can send cash or a check to:

Santis Productions LLC
124 Madison Place
Alexandria, VA 22314
(Be sure to write "For Oyunbadam" in the memo on the check)

You know, I also wanted to get some certainty about what Urangoo and her mother needed in order to get by, so I asked them to provide me with a budget. Along with line items for food, clothing, and fuel for a cold winter, there were two costs that they were very concerned about: an MRI, and pencils.

Wrap your head around that, readers. The family is in dire need of an MRI. And pencils, for school. Can we dig into our pockets, and offer this girl and her mom the chance I know most of us have ourselves?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Following a dream: from Mongolian Siberia to the Mongolian Circus

Urangoo, center right, contorting on top of a reindeer

Urangoo was just six years old when she decided what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. One day at school, in a remote village in northern Mongolia, she watched a video of circus acts, and "just wanted to be exactly like them." The performers were contorting, twisting their bodies into completely unnatural states of pretzel. Right then and there, Urangoo knew: she too would be a contortionist. Not 'one day', but that very minute.

I probably don't need to tell you that the average human being has an approximately zero percent chance of succeeding in the field of contortion, but I may need to explain to you why young Urangoo had the already-stacked odds stacked against her. 

Urangoo is from East Taiga, a frigid and harsh region of northernmost Mongolia, near the Russian Siberian border. She grew up in a teepee made of reindeer skins. Her parents herded reindeer, rising every morning well before dawn to milk the deer, and then doing so again and again every two hours. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner consisted of hunted meat, reindeer meat, boiled reindeer milk curds, and maybe some potatoes come autumn. Water came from melted snow. Everything about this lifestyle is austere. It's not the sort of place where dreams are entertained.

But little Urangoo is nothing if not determined.

Urangoo and family in the Taiga

So, for hours and hours on end, by carefully watching the circus video that had inspired her, she taught herself to contort. To get an idea just how difficult this is, try balancing on nothing but your chin while wrapping the rest of your body into a C. 

Well, after just a week of this, Urangoo was ready to present her new skill to her parents. Who were frightened of what they saw. Wouldn't their daughter would hurt herself? Shouldn't this sort of livelihood be left to the professionals? But Urangoo pressed on for her parents' approval, learning more complicated contortion tricks until, finally, she was granted their blessing. "I saw in my daughter real ability and talent," her mother Oyunbadam, then 32, said.

So, the family did what nobody does in their difficult situation. They packed up the kids and moved to Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia. This was no small task. Not only did Oyunbadam and her husband have almost no money, but they didn't have any transportation either. But never mind. Gathering their belongings, they hopped on a reindeer and rode it to the nearest town, eventually making it four days later to the big city.

Once they did, they found themselves in a predicament. Not only is Ulaanbaatar expensive, but it is very, very cold, and this nomadic reindeer-herding family from the remote countryside could only afford to live in a traditional ger (or yurt). Gers don't have running water, and few have electricity. On top of that, Urangoo's parents could not find work. Back home in the Taiga countryside, Urangoo's mother had been the region's very last teacher of Tuva, the language of the Reindeer People. Tuva is a unique and dying language, which bears no resemblance whatsoever to the Mongolian language. For example, Oyunbadam proudly told me, "Sain bain uu" is 'hello' in Mongolian, while it is "Eghi" in Tuva. In other words, she'd given up her own dream in order to make her daughter's dream come true. And as for Urangoo's father, he was about to pay the ultimate price to help Urangoo; he would pay with his own life.

But, for a little while anyway, things were looking up. By 2007, Urangoo had been entered into circus school in Ulaanbaatar, where she was learning how to contort, trapeze, and acrobat. And by January 2008, she was competing in her first national contortion championship. One night that month, while temperatures dipped into the minus 30s, Urangoo performed inside while her parents waited outside for her, shivering. According to Oyunbadam, she and her husband were not permitted to attend Urangoo's competition because they looked too poor. But that didn't stop Urangoo's father from beaming tearfully with pride for his daughter. "She's performing in a big, glass building. I can hardly believe it," Oyunbadam recalls her husband saying that night. And that night, Urangoo won her first national gold medal.

Video of Urangoo contorting, with her mother watching on

Still though, Urangoo's father needed work. His daughter required a contortion costume that they simply could not afford on Oyunbadam's meager salary, even though she'd finally found a steady job. So, he made a difficult decision to work illegally in the mines. Illegal mining is common in Mongolia, and has become much more common in recent years with the arrival of mining companies and the wealth they promise. Because Urangoo's father wanted to make just a little bit of money, enough, say, to buy a contortion costume for his daughter, he snuck into the mines to pan just enough gold to pay the bills. Once he'd done so, he left the mines with his booty in hand. No sooner than he did, he was robbed and murdered.

When word of her husband's death reached her, Oyunbadam lost hope. Without him, and with three children to feed, she wanted to go home to the Taiga, to her people. "I was lost," she said. "I didn't know how to live anymore, so I gave up." But her new colleagues and boss urged her on, and she eventually decided to stay with her children in the capital so that Urangoo could continue to contort.

And this is where their story both ends and begins. Urangoo is 13 years old now, and her mother is 39. They still live in a ger in Ulaanbaatar. Oyunbadam has two other children, and a disabled niece whom she cares for. With five mouths to feed, money is very, very tight in their one-room home. Urangoo is now with the Mongolian National Circus, and she dreams of performing internationally. And Oyunbadam dreams of one day returning to the Taiga to teach the language that she so loves, the Tuva. The death of their husband and father is a burden to both of them, but also a reminder that they must carry on. 

Incredibly, Urangoo may be coming to the US to perform contortion! On Feb 28th and Mar 2nd, she's hoping to be at the Arlington Artisphere and the Kennedy Center as part of a film screening and a performance of Mongolian talent. In fact, the film is what's made all this possible. Santis Productions' coming "Mongolia: Mining Challenges a Civilization" is what brought together those of us interested in helping Urangoo. In the film, Executive Producer Ed Nef goes to Mongolia to seek greater understanding of the impact of the mining boom on Mongolia, as well as the dangers of gold-panning, which is how Urangoo's father died. 

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