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Living Green and Loving it in Ukraine

My first visit to Ukraine in the fall of ’03 was a whirl wind of activity to see and experience as much as possible in 30 days.  One of the major activities was going shopping for food.  In America the environmental conscience prides themselves on all the farmer markets that are open in the summer time to sell fresh organic produce from peoples’ gardens.

Well, the farmer market concept I discovered operating in Kyiv was one doozey free enterprising outdoor marketplace that makes those weekend wonders back home in America seem pathetic in comparison. Here the outdoor markets are open year around.

Vegetable Market in Kiev

There are hundreds of these markets operating throughout the capital city of Kyiv. The first one I visited was quite large where you could buy literally almost anything, except what you really needed. You quickly become a master of improvisation to make do with what is available.  If they don’t have it, it is your problem not theirs. Ah, who doesn’t love a good mystery or challenge?  Little things I took for granted were missing here.  However, if you find the right person they probable can make anything you want at a reasonable price.  This is a land where you still can have something that is broken fixed or repaired and I mean anything from the very simple to the most complex.

I am getting ahead of myself.  I was anxious to see how the locals shopped and variety of foods that was available.  We had to walk approximately 10 minute to get to the market.  I had my trusty backpack on to carry the groceries we would be buying home.   when we arrived the market was filled with thousands of people.  I was astounded to see all the fruit and vegetables on sale. Certainly there wasn’t a shortage of food, as there was a shortage in variety.  All the produce that’s sold anywhere in the city is controlled by one supplier.  Not a bad business to control.

Being a foreigner from across the pond is wasn’t difficult to see that health standard or regulation didn’t exit.  I didn’t mind because I grew up on a farm so I wasn’t shocked by what I was seeing.  Many Americans would be quite disturbed how things are done over here.  They probably would become squeamish seeing flies all over the fresh meat, as the sellers attempt to brush them away with a small tree cutting under a hot sunny sky.  Then there were pesky little yellow jackets that have a fondness for ripe fruit were buzzing around everywhere. Americans would be running for cover, but the calm Ukrainian shoppers goes about their business without concern.

Selling fish at the market

The Ukrainians haven’t a problem with living green. It was a way of life before globalization. The majority of population is not concerned about consequences of mass produced food or about political correctness of the western world.  They are more concerned about more heady matters, like improving their day to day lives and enjoying the quantity and variety of food and goods the new market economy has provided.

However, Ukrainians are losing their organic lifestyle quite rapidly because naturally produced food is being replaced by large global agriculture conglomerates whose farming methods are far from being green.

When I first arrive to Ukraine farmers markets were filled with organic field tomatoes, vegetables, poultry, meat, and fresh fruit.  In spite of lacking sanitary safeguards it was wonderful to eat food that actually had taste for a change. You don’t hear of people dying or becoming ill from the food they eat here.  More than likely they have developed a tough constitution and have adapted quite well to their environment throughout the years.

Now when you buy vegetables at the outdoor markets from individual gardens that are grown in rural villages and pay twice as much for the pleasure, you don’t know if they are organic or they have been purchased at the local wholesale food market and resold as organic.

Seasonal fruits and vegetables from private gardens

If that isn’t sobering enough, how about falsified products produced by greedy local businessmen who bribed officials that are responsible for insuring all products meet safety and health standards. When a TV channel recently done an investigation of local butter it found that 50% of all samples of butter on sale at major supermarket chains were falsified and really wasn’t butter.

Living in Ukraine may be a lot like playing the deadly game of chance, Russian roulette or eating a Forest Gump chocolate, you don’t ever know what you are going to get.

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Bee Cowboy – The Great Honey Harvest

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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Bee Cowboy – Encampment. Part 3

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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Bee Cowboy – Roundup. Part 2

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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Bee Cowboy. Introduction

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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The Back Roads of Ukraine

Ukraine is a land of endless possibilities waiting for its moment in
time to come. Six years ago I decided to put my life into two suitcases
and along with my trusty cat Pepper John flew across the pond from
America to Kyiv in early March 2004. This was my second trip to Kyiv in
6 months to meet my future bride at the airport. We had met on an
Internet web site and corresponded over a 4 year period before meeting.
We married 4 months later in July.

I didn’t take my wife back to America. We stayed in Ukraine to make our
home. Her friends are still mystified why I chose to stay and even more
surprised that I still can’t speak the language after 6 years. Hey, I am
an instructor of English at an IT company. All my students speak
English. I only know one other American here. I didn’t come to Ukraine
to be surrounded by other Americans. I came to enjoy my life’s second

I enjoy living here because of the opportunity to go wondering along
Ukraine’s back roads to discover and explore its many hidden treasures
and see the real Ukraine up close. I invite you to come along on my
life’s second adventure.


Continue reading The Back Roads of Ukraine