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After we had unloaded all the hives from the old Soviet truck it was time to walk back home to have breakfast with our wives. Everyone was interested in knowing what my impressions were. My wife was kept very busy translating both ways as I recounted my experiences.  In a few short hours that morning I was privileged to be a part of a roundup that very few Ukrainians have experienced, let alone foreigners.  The final adventure would have to wait until noon the next day in order for the bees to have time to rest and adjust.

The morning of the Great Honey Harvest was filled with great expectations and bright sunny skies. It reminded me when I was a boy waiting for Christmas morning to arrive.  Today was just as special because I was being allowed to be a part of the honey harvest!

My friend showed me step by step what he wanted me to do.  I only understood bits and pieces what he was saying, nonetheless it was enough because I was aware of the danger.  I knew that the bees were not going to give up their honey without a struggle.

I was given protective clothing to cover my head, neck, arms and hands.  My moment in time had arrived to see if I would pass the final initiation of becoming an official Ukrainian Bee Cowboy.

Randy in his protective gear without gloves holding a frame of honey

The first hive was opened and the first frame of honey was removed.  It was my job to take it to the two men in a protective room to be processed a short distance away.  A blanket was hung in the doorway that allowed me to hand the honey frames to them and received the processed ones back to be returned to the hive.

I watched as the honeycombs were scrapped to expose the honey and then placed into the extractor with a handle.  I was given the honor of turning the crank for the first 6 panels to allow me to experience the process for myself.

One by one the frames of honey were removed and I continue to deliver them to a waiting pair of hands behind the blanket and an empty frame was handed back to be returned to the hive.

As we continued the bees begin to resent what was happening in spite of the beekeepers repeated use of smoke to calm them down.  After we finished removing the honey from the first hive we put the lid back on and moved on the second hive.  In the meantime the colony of bees in the first hive sent out scouts to find their missing honey.  They didn’t go far from their hive at first.  All continued to go well without any problems.  It wasn’t until we were half way through raiding the third hive that the war began.  I was now the target of their anger.  My friend had his smoke canister to protect him.

Honey being removed from the hive to be processed

I had the evidence on my gloves and it was becoming more difficult every time I took a new panel to be processed.  My protective gear was being tested and the bees were not to be deterred. They swarmed around my face trying to get at me under the netting.  My protective gloves were covered with bees.  I stood calmly without moving for a time as the buzzing of the bees grew louder and louder.  It was amazing how I could stand there so calmly and not be frightened. I hadn’t ever experienced the likes of this before.

My friend seeing what was happening motioned with his hands for me to leave the area.  He was concerned about my safety and didn’t want me to get stung. He too was under attack, but he had gone through this many times before.

As I left the area I was moving my hands wildly to keep them from following.  Many turned back to the hive. However, there were a few that weren’t through with me and followed me everywhere I went.  They were very persistent and wanted the honey I stole on my gloves.

Honey frame

Honey frame with bees

I remained outside far from the action for some time before returning.  I was replaced by one of the men behind the blanket. When I returned a few bees were still following me and I was met by more angry bees that were still defending their homeland.  After the third hive was finally harvested it was decided to stop for the day and let the bees settle down.  Today the bees stalled the inevitable, but tomorrow would be another day for the real bee wranglers without their foreign understudy.

As we drove out of the little city with jars of honey from my adventure we left with memories of Olena’s parents who took us in and made us feel like family.  To the other Bee Cowboys I have nothing but respect for them.  They allowed me the opportunity to share the magic of being a beekeeper and they accepted a complete stranger, an American traveler to come along for the ride!

Yes, I did leave with a few battle scars.  A couple of bees did pierce my protective armor and left their mark on my neck just below my right ear.

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The names of the individuals and places I have written about have been changed to protect their privacy

It seemed like an eternity before we eventually arrived at the place where the bees were encamped.  Ah, it felt good to finally climb down out of the truck and feel the earth once again under my feet.  After Olena’s father and I were out of the truck, the driver turned the big flatbed truck around and backed the rest of the way in. The way he skillfully maneuvered the truck in the darkness around the corners one could tell this wasn’t his first rodeo.

It was still quite dark and the bees were still in their slumber mode as all of us wranglers walked the short distance into the encampment by the light of cell phones to begin the batten down the hatches to protect the bees for their ride back home.

The bees had spent the past 90 days working hard collecting pollen and making honey from the grechka (buckwheat) fields.  Their home was in a beautiful spot well protected from the elements by fruit trees that ringed the camp, creating a giant canopy.  There was also an old building that was crumbling.  It served as a place of storage for the beekeepers.

The men moved quickly to shutter the entry and exit holes the bees used. They had their smoke canisters handy to calm the bees when some of them found other ways out of the hive and the holes very plugged very quickly.  It was remarkable how precise and orderly the bee wranglers went about their business.  It took them less than 30 minutes to have the 27 hives ready to load on the truck.

Victor, who could speak English, was very helpful keeping me informed what was happening.  It made him feel good that he could once again practice his English.  When it came time for loading they felt like I was a guest that I shouldn’t help with the loading.  I told Victor to tell them, I grew up working hard.  What we were doing, carrying hives to the truck to be loaded was easy.

They had their system of doing things and didn’t want me getting in the way because every hive had to be arranged on the truck for easy unloading later.  However, some of the older men didn’t mind my helping.  This allowed them to clean up the area around the camp.

Before we left the wranglers wanted me to experience a man milking his cow in the field.  I smiled to Victor and said, “I had milked a few cows in my day. I told them that not ever American lives in a city and has soft hands like a woman!”

Olena’s father must have been feeling guilty about having me ride in the big truck because he suggested that I ride back in the car.  The trip back in the old Lada was as memorable as my experience ride in the soviet truck.  I was asked to sit in the front seat with the driver and in the backseat were three others.  Victor was very talkative and asked me about Montana, where I grew up.  I told them that Montana was very similar to Ukraine.

But what stands out about my first trip in an old reliable Lada, was my first impression of seeing a car full of policemen in one of them in Kiev and how uncomfortable they looked.  Nonetheless, the trip was enjoyable and the company was great.  The driver was a pro at maneuvering his dependable old Lada over and around the ruts and holes in the dirt road on our way back without slowing down.  What a fun filled morning of adventure I had and it wasn’t even 10 in the morning!

Story to be continued

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The names of the individuals and places I have written about have been changed to protect their privacy

Rumbling through the early morning darkness in a vintage large Soviet era style military truck on the way to pick up 27 beehives before sunrise was a once in a lifetime experience for any red blooded American living in Ukraine.

The trip to round up bees was planned a month and a half earlier on the 4th of July when my wife and I were returning  home from the Carpathians we stopped to meet the parents of one of my students for the first time.

It was 4 in the morning when I started to get ready for the Great Western Ukrainian Bee Roundup.  I had often helped my father and brothers to round up the cattle on my parent’s ranch to be branded and vaccinated. It was an annual ritual and a chance for me to be a real live cowboy, as a boy.

My wife was sound asleep and was oblivious to my stirring.  I got dressed and went outside to wait for the foreman of Bee Roundup, Olena’s father to return to give the orders to move out.

The weather was quite comfortable early in the morning as I waited outside in the quiet of the morning.  My tranquility was soon broken when a couple of strangers entered the yard and started to ask me questions. In my best Russian I attempted to tell them that Olena’s father went to make arrangements for a truck.  To my surprised a few questions later I heard a familiar language, “Do you speak English?”  I love it when that happens!  Life is so good!  I now had someone to talk with who spoke a little English.

We are finally assembled and the order was given to move out. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the truck we were taking. It was huge and looked old.  With a little help, I climbed into the cab and I mean it was a climb to get in. I sat in the middle of the big flat bed truck’s cab with sideboards as diesel fumes and smoke belching everywhere as we lumbered down the road tossing my body to and fro as my other two companions were smiling at my first experience riding in an old Soviet military truck and asked me if I was okay. I answered, “Horasho!” (Fine)

Western Ukraine

The truck sure wasn’t build for comfort or speed.  After we left the pavement we travel at an even slower pace because the road was quite narrow with trees on both sides.  There wasn’t a lot or room because the size of the truck and the poor condition of the dirt road.  Nonetheless, the truck lumbered along like a well oiled machine going into battle.  The other 5 members of our party followed in an old small Lada.

Story to be continued

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Local sacred place

The names of the individuals I have written about have been changed to protect their privacy

We begin our trip homeward from the Carpathians on the weekend of the 4th July. The marvelous thing about teaching English to professionals is, it allows my wife and I the opportunity meet and become friends with many of my students.

On our trip home we had made arrangements to stop and meet the parents of one of my former students, who had gone to America to do a year internship in New York City.  While there, she met a very nice man, fell in love, and has since married.

I have been blessed to meet many wonderful students while teaching English as a second language.  Olena is one of the most special.  When she smiles her aura and personality radiates with warmth and kindness.  You can’t help notice that she is an uncommon soul with a zest for living and adventure. When she speaks, you know instantly that she isn’t just another pretty face.  She is a young lady, who is extremely positive with a lot of talent.

Unfortunately, when my wife and I flew to New York, we weren’t able see Olena and her new husband because of airport security. However, when she returned to Ukraine with her husband I greeted her with a hug and said, “Good job, life is good!” And turned to shake hands with her husband, Mark for the first time, I was beaming like a proud father and took an instant liking to Mark. We all met again this past Christmas season on our way back home to Kiev and stayed a few days with them in New York City.

SightseeingOlena’s parents live in a small town in Western Ukraine.  It is an interesting place with lots rich history that goes back many centuries.  After a few cell phone calls and some misguided directions from a few of the locals we found Olena’s mother waiting for us near one of the city’s landmarks, a short distance from her home.  She got into our car and we drove the short distance to her home.

Her husband arrived home a short time later after helping to move his friends and his beehives to a field of grechka (buckwheat).

The first thing I wanted my wife to translate to our guests was, “I was the one who encouraged your daughter to go to New York and do you like the young man she married?”  They answered, “Very much so!”

By the river

Having met Olena’s parents I understood better what makes Olena so special.  Her parents were great in every way.  The four of us had a terrific first visit and we set a date to meet again when it was time to roundup the beehives and harvest their honey.

Story to be continued

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It is not far from Truskavets to Skhidnitsa as the crow flies.  However, we found the going somewhat more difficult than a crow due to the condition of the road. We had to pull over often to allow impatient drivers the chance to pass because they were in a big hurry and didn’t like to be inconvenient by having to slow down. Ukrainian drivers are always in a hurry and like to drive fast and dangerous.

Skhidnitsa view

Finally we got our first glimpse of Skhidnitsa as we came down a step grade filled with more potholes than pavement. Before descending the mountain into town we decided to go explore the forest park.

Once outside the park we moved our car to a safer place and decided to set out on foot to investigate a large hotel a short distance away.  The road leading to the hotel was also filled with potholes and broken up quite badly in spots.  As we round the last corner we could see the grand hotel standing tall overlooking the valley like a magnificent beacon for all to see.  The property around the hotel was nicely landscaped with a large fenced paved parking lot with big expensive cars parked inside.

There was a rumor that the hotel was going to have one the football teams for Euro 2012 stay there.  There were lots of rumors that echoed up and down the remote valleys and canyons during our stay. They all add to the charm of the area!

We had stopped at many places along our long journey by foot before we found a little place we liked, called “Рай” (Heaven in English).  It was newly built, clean, comfortable, affordable, with a great view overlooking Skhidnitsa, served meals 3 times a day and was locally owned with wonderful hosts.

Our little piece of Heaven was an easy walk to go mushroom hunting and a 5 minute walk to a mineral spring that flowed slowly out of a small pipe that people came few times a day to collect its therapeutic elixir. You didn’t need a watch to know what time of day it was because tourist would make the long hike up and down the mountain like a stream of ants.  The trip wasn’t without its peril.  One had to be on the lookout for people in cars driving the narrow poorly paved road to collect water to and from the spring.  There were other springs located around the valley that claimed to provide different health benefits that attracted visitors.

It was now late in the day and we had a long way to walk back to our car. In the morning we returned to Skhidnitsa to begin our adventure.

The first thing on our agenda was to go mushroom hunting.  It is a hobby my wife and I enjoy very much.  When we visited the local outdoor market the day before, we talked to several people that were selling mushrooms. They were pretty secretive about their mountains and where to go to find the tasty morsels.  The sellers told us it was a little early to be looking for mushrooms. Nonetheless, we were going to take advantage of the possibility anyway.

After lunch we went to the nearby forest that our hostess told us about.  We had to walk past the mineral spring before beginning our climb.  We found the going difficult because of heavy brush.  One thing for certain, the mountain side was full of huckleberries; so we stopped to enjoy some of the blue berries before moving on.

Good mushroom of Skhidnitsa

Once we got through the thick brush and found an open area to go hunting, we started to find mushrooms that looked familiar. However, we found one that was new to us, so we picked a couple to take back to ask our hostess. She told us we had found a variety of mushrooms called “Mad Bruisers.” They appear to be good mushrooms but aren’t.  We learned a valuable lesson and continued to go out every morning and brought back only good mushrooms to dry and take home.

During our evening walks and while out mushroom hunting we discovered many parts of valley had been settled by wealthy Ukrainians.  The locals lament that several years ago there weren’t many inhabitants living in the valley.  Because of the land rush they are being trampled by the rich who have come to stake their claim to the land.

From the very first moment my wife and I stepped out of our car and looked out over the valley, as far as the eye could see, new construction projects were popping out of the ground everywhere, like Mad Bruiser mushrooms after a tempest.  It is all too surreal what is taking place.

Mad Bruiser land rushes are happening all over Western Ukraine by a new breed of people, who don’t share or care about the generations of Highlanders who have a deep-rooted bond with nature.

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I feel at peace whenever I am in the mountains because I was raised in their shadows in a remote corner of Northwest Montana, not far from the Canadian border. The mountains surrounding my folk’s farm remind me of my father’s large weathered hands gently cupped into a shape of a bowl.  Those mountains remain a part of me and a link that binds my indelible spirit.

My wife and I had returned to the mountains of Western Ukraine to relax and drink Naftusya (oil mineral water) once again before exploring the Carpathians by car for the first time.  The previous year we stayed at one of the local sanatoria and promised ourselves when we returned to Truskavets again we would stay at a more modern place.

Hizhina Spa Hotel

The skies were overcast and the smell of rain was in the air as we set out on our journey from Truskavets to Kosiv.  It was early Friday morning and my wife was at the wheel.  This allowed me the luxury of sitting back, taking it easy, and enjoying the beauty.

We had left early because we wanted to take our time to sightsee along the way.  We had planned to stay overnight in Kolomya and get a good night’s sleep before heading out early the next morning to arrive at the Hutsul Craft Market in Kosiv by 6 AM to look for products to market in America.

Arriving in Kolomya our first task was to find a place to stay for the night.  We didn’t see any sign of a hotel, so we parked and got out of the car to stretch our legs and to ask directions to find a place to stay.  We got back into the car and using the directions we were given drove around downtown 3 or 4 times in a circle looking for a place to stay.  Every time we stopped to ask for new directions, we got a different answer.  Axiom, when traveling the back roads of Ukraine, be prepared to encounter a few dead ends, because as hard as we tried, we couldn’t get there from here with any of the directions we were given.  Finally, a person told us if we continue to drive down the street 2 blocks there was a hotel to stay across from the bus station.

At last, we parked and went to investigate our new home for the night.  It was a nondescript Soviet looking concrete building.  The interior of lobby was bare except for a few signs with directions.  We found the hotel office on second floor and were met by the cleaning lady, who was also the administrator of the hotel.  We were lucky as they say.  We had two large rooms with a refrigerator, a television that didn’t work and the last bathroom with hot running water.

We park our car in the secured parking lot behind the hotel and went sightseeing around Kolomya.  We found all the nicer hotels we weren’t able to find situated in the walking area of the city.  We had dinner, bought some fruit at the local farmer’s market and went to bed around 9 PM.

A few hours later we were awaken by loud music coming from the parking lot where we had parked our car.  We look outside to our amazement a group of people were eating, drinking, toasting, dancing and having fun as the security guards looked on.  The party went on all night and finally broke up around the time we were going to leave the hospitable city of Kolomya for Kosiv.

Reflecting back on that night, we now have a better understanding why the television didn’t work in our room.  There isn’t any need to watch television when you have reserved bedside concert seats to a concert going on outside your window all night!

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Looking out the window of the airplane that brought me to Kyiv I was surprised how small its airport was as we taxied up to the terminal.  It sure wasn’t built for the comfort of the passenger in mind because of all the steps you have to walk up and down after being off loaded at the terminal door to pass through border and custom control.

My first trip into the city of Kyiv from the airport has left many indelible impressions.  I had traveled half way around the world and what I was seeing for the first time didn’t surprise me.  I sense a little apprehension coming from the lady I had just met for the first time after all the years we had been corresponding.  The cab pulled up in front of a sterile looking building and we got out.  When she unlocked the door and I walked inside for the first time it was an entirely different world, a world where I felt at home, and a place where I belonged.  Her home was so different from all the pictures my mind captured coming into the city.

Arriving in Ukraine was like taking a step back in time to my youth.  I saw similarities that should have been out of place in a city of some 3 million plus people who live in the nation’s capital.  However, one such fetish seemed to come up over and over again.  I soon became fixated on its toilet culture.  At first I didn’t give it much thought because the flat of my future wife was modern in every way, right down to its toilet.

I grew up on the farm without running water until I was 12.  Behind our farmhouse we had a two seated out house where we used old Sears and Roebucks catalogues and newspapers as toilet paper.  You might say I am a pioneer accustom to the old way of living and later discovered the joys of soft toilet paper when the folks drilled a well and modernity came to our large two story farmhouse.

During my first journey into the heart of the Kyiv’s underground mall I received my first introduction to the joys of a Ukrainian public toilet.  What started out as a routine event quickly turned into an adventure without any equal.  I noticed a familiar barnyard odor, an odor you don’t ever forget, however, this one was coming from a public toilet in a modern mall.  As I walked down the passageway leading into the bathroom my eyes began to tear up and my nose began to run.  To my utter amazement I saw four sets of steps leading to four separate stalls with doors.

This was something new, so I walked up steps to the nearest one and opened the door.  I had found the source of the odor and looking down at my feet I saw a white basin with a hole in the floor.  Wow, we didn’t have anything like this in Montana!  Our out house was crude, but this was something else. I had seen pictures of such things, but I thought these were used only in Japan and China.

I continued to survey the situation and practiced the many ways to best use it.  I could stand over it or turn around and squat over it like in the forest until my sense of smell and tearing of my eyes had reached a point of no return, as was my tummy.  I was beginning to feel nauseated.  I quickly balanced myself and squatted over the hole.  Okay, so far so good. My joy was short lived when I couldn’t find any toilet paper.  This was a major problem.  What to do?  Ah, the humiliation that comes from such an experience. I would have given anything to have had a Sears and Roebucks catalog at that moment.  I was desperate and all I could think of was my shorts to use.  I stood up and removed my pants to take off my shorts.  After I deposited my underwear in a trash can I went outside to meet my friend in the hall to tell her my experience.  Without so much as a smile she simply said, “We always carry some toilet paper with us.”  It didn’t occur to me that I needed to.

It is amazing how you don’t ever take toilet paper for granted after an incident like this or for that matter having to use outdoor public facilities that people are forced to use in spite of their unsanitary conditions. Thanks to McDonalds many public restrooms are now more sanitary and have toilet paper.

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