For the past 12 days I haven’t been able to feel my toes. Okay, that’s somewhat of an exaggeration… they feel swollen even though they look normal sized and touching the toes gives sort of a dull sensation, almost as if Novocain is wearing off, though I can move them normally and walking isn’t a problem.
Here’s what happened: From my Aimag, flights to the capital are only available Tuesdays and Fridays. That meant that I had to arrive in UB Friday for the Peace Corps In-Service Training (IST) for TEFLs, which began the following Monday. (I found the training super informative and I plan to write about it in the next few days.) The background info is that buses in UB are 400 togrogs, whereas a taxi ride from the airport would be at least 15,000. That enormous difference in transportation cost partially explains my decision to brave the bus, but generally speaking, I am a proponent of public transportation and taking taxis is something I seldom do, wherever I happen to be. Additionally, the Mongolian “taxis” are often simply people who own cars… you flag them down and they take you where you want to go and charge you, but there are no regulations. I have no qualms about couchsurfing or hostels, yet I can’t put into words why this car-sharing makes me uncomfortable. Furthermore, my site mate with a year more living-in-Mongolia experience drew me a map with walking directions to the bus stop and assured me it was “the only way to do it.”
The two-hour flight from my Aimag was uneventful and I found the bus stop with little trouble. However, on the ten-minute walk there I could see that I was just missing a bus and found myself waiting in -35°C temps wearing two layers of socks and hiking boots. After about 20 minutes I got on the first bus that came, even though it wasn’t the most direct bus, just to get out of the cold. That ended up not mattering much because, as it turns out, this time of year the UB city buses are equivalent to an ice-box with a sheet of frost on the inside of every window—obscuring the view from all but the windshield. (I thought it curious that they would paint the windows white; it wasn’t until I saw that someone had scraped a treble clef into the frost that I understood what I was looking at.) Unfortunately, there is no picture of this because removing my mittened hands from my pockets, and then removing the hands from the mittens, and then unzipping my coat where my camera was around my neck (to keep it from freezing), and then unzipping the camera case, each seemed either unsafe for my fingers or requiring more finger dexterity than I had.
I like to think of myself as a methodical and reasoning individual, but one trait that surprises even me, and that I continually exhibit, is impulsiveness. On this Friday night it reappeared when I got off the bus because everyone else was getting off the bus. Of course, having gotten off the bus, and not recognizing anything, I then decided that I needed to walk in a random direction in the hopes of seeing something that looked familiar, in a city that accommodates over a million people, in which I had spent only 5 days, three months before. I trudged along with my large suitcase rolling behind me, following a woman who didn’t know she was my guide. It was a good twenty minutes before I reconsidered and turned back to the bus stop, another twenty or so minutes waiting at the bus stop before asking which one gets me to Sukhbaatar Square and being told that I am on the wrong side of the street. Another ride in the ice-box-on-wheels, just 3 or 4 stops, and I was there! Almost. I couldn’t find the hostel, which didn’t matter because we (the entire training site gang) were actually staying somewhere else. A few phone calls made with frozen fingers and someone came to fetch me and take me to the room.
Saturday morning, I was surprised to find my three big toes still numb. After breakfast, I stayed inside a full 30 hours, forgoing the plans I had to see a movie and eat popcorn, willing my feet to thaw.
On Sunday morning, once again I awoke with numb-ish toes. This time, I soaked them in warm water as the medical staff instructed us during summer training. I also rested them against the radiator which felt good but didn’t make a difference. When I did get out in the afternoon, I picked up some camel wool socks since everyone swears by them… while they might keep the cold out, I can tell you they don’t take the cold out once it’s in.
Monday was our first day of IST, which was in a beautiful part of UB—surrounded by pine trees—about 45 minutes from the hustle and bustle of downtown. We would stay for 5 days and 4 nights and with all meals provided there was no reason for me to venture out until Friday afternoon when the buses came to take us back to the city.
Though I’d soaked my feet in the hotel tub a few times, they felt far from normal so many days after exposure that by Wednesday I was concerned enough to ask the medical staff to take a look. They were concerned that my toes looked white, but then I always look more pale than not being one who avoids the sun. With a few pokes, the tiniest bit of color came into the toes. And since I could move them and had sensation when touched, even though it was dull, it was a good indication that, while damage was clearly done, it wouldn’t be permanent.
Today is a full week after that, and still my toes feel thick and dull. I’ve been soaking in warm water once or twice a day for the past 4 days. Yesterday I thought my middle toes were much better, leaving just the two big toes of each foot feeling thick and dull. If I had to quantify it, I’d say maybe 50% sensation in the two big toes, 80% in the middle toes, and the two small toes are 95%.
It was a hard lesson to learn. At so many points I could have turned things around by making better, indeed smarter and safer, decisions. I didn’t know the temperature in UB that Friday night, but I didn’t need to to know what I was feeling in my feet. There is an entire Mongolian winter ahead of me, so perhaps this scare was necessary for me to understand first-hand how easy it is to take such risks. I already know how easy it is to avoid them.