Ecotourism & communities

Ecotourism & communities

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COMMUNITY-BASED ECOTOURISM – SUPPORTING LOCAL PEOPLE AND THEIR ECONOMIES

text: Dominika Zareba

Introduction

More and more local communities across the globe are struggling to maintain the uniqueness of the places they live in and at the same time to balance this with their economic development. Ecotourism may serve as a tool for enhancing quality of life, increasing opportunities for environmentally responsible economic development, and conserving fragile natural resources, cultural heritage and landscapes. At the grassroots level ecotourism is a tool to foster economic development based on local resources, improve the livelihoods of local residents and at the same time strengthens cultural and social identity and sense of a place.

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Ecotourism and local communities

Ecotourism is the most environmentally friendly form of tourism and is at the core of the concept of sustainable tourism. It is organized in areas which are rich in natural as well as cultural resources, the people who are involved in it have a high level of appreciation for the environment and a strong ‘desire’ to discover and learn, while the profit that comes from ecotourist enterprises goes directly to the local community and drives local economies. The three most important features of ecotourism which make it distinct from all other forms of tourism are:

  1. Ecotourism is a form of active and in-depth exploration of areas which have superior natural, landscape and cultural value;
  2. Ecotourism actively contributes to the protection of natural and cultural heritage;
  3. Ecotourism is a part of the sustainable development of a region in that it brings real economic as well as societal benefits to local communities and improves the quality of life of their inhabitants.

All definitions of ecotourism underline its crucial role in supporting the well-being of local people. Ecotourism is about local communities. Ecotourism developed in parallel with other forms of sustainable tourism and in combination with healthy food production, traditional and artistic crafts and other services can be a powerful impulse for reinforcing the strategy of environmentally-friendly economic growth. First of all it brings direct economic benefits for local communities in rural areas and improves the quality of life (tourist expenditures are invested directly in the local economy). Also it actively strengthens local identity and sense of place (ecotourism is about telling stories of a place and its people). Furthermore, ecotourism empowers different generations, especially young people and women, maintaining the social equity in the region. Therefore we could describe ecotourism using both parallel terms – nature (and heritage) -based tourism as well as community-based tourism. The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) identifies several important characteristics of ecotourism related to its social dimension (see below). Richard Denman (UK) in a report published by WWF International recognizes that ecotourism is community-based tourism “where the local community has substantial control over, and involvement in, its development and management, and a major proportion of the benefits remain within the community”.

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Ecotourism and local communities by UNWTO

  • Involving appreciation not only for nature, but also of indigenous cultures;
  • Containing education and interpretation;
  • Minimizing negative impact on the natural and socio-cultural environment;
  • Providing alternative income and employment for local communities;
  • Increasing local and visitor awareness of conservation.

Source: Denman Richard, “Guidelines for Community-based Ecotourism Development”, WWF International, 2001, The Tourist Company.

It is essential to refer to the special role of ecotourism in protected areas and their buffer zones. Economic objectives deal with building the case for sustainable economic development in the most fragile, pristine and valuable regions of the world, which helps boost the national economy, tackle unemployment and raise funds for nature and landscape protection. Town and local government authorities lying within the boundaries or in buffer zones surrounding protected areas increasingly see the benefits for the local economy and community that come from making the most of being in a unique location. According to the World Council of Protected Areas of the IUCN, protected areas as the basic tools essential for protecting biodiversity cannot be run in isolation from regional development strategies and broader policies supporting sustainable development and spatial development that impact regions where these areas are located. Managing protected spaces has to go hand in hand with creating opportunities for and meeting the needs of local communities and the society at large, which benefits indirectly from the existence of legally protected areas. It is the core idea of the document called “Parks for Life” (see below).

Parks for Life”

In 1994 the World Council of Protected Areas of the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) developed an action plan for protected areas in Europe called “Parks for Life”. The action plan, which was founded on the premise that protected areas can only properly function if their management is tied and interlinked with regional, national and international socio-economic and political developments. In the first part of the „Parks for Life” publication, one can read about the important piece of the puzzle represented by ecotourism, because it is this form of tourism which offers „tangible benefits, if sensibly developed on or near protected areas, especially since it embraces widely recognized natural and cultural values. A healthy and attractive natural environment is essential for the sustainability in the long-term of any form of tourism”.

When we speak about community-based ecotourism it is important to mention its role in strengthening social equity, especially in so far as it empowers women. Ecotourism is a brilliant opportunity for women to grow both professionally and personally, while remaining a part of the local community where they live and work. Ecotourism can empower women in many ways. Its multidisciplinary concept can engage women with different skills, interests and passions. Working in an ecotourism setting can be an important added value to everyday life. Ecotourism is based on local resources, heritage, uniqueness of a place. That is why it allows women to find the sustainable livelihood that brings not only the economic benefits but also the joie de vivre and satisfaction. Ecotourism also links women with the place they live, which benefits the whole community and all its generations.

Women and ecotourism

Women are very often the natural leaders in their local society, they are very sensitive to the issues related to the environment, society, heritage, and sense of place. Ecotourism in a broad context, connected with other activities (such as sustainable farming, handicraft, art, education, etc.), can provide opportunities for women to find a sustainable way of living. Participation of women in the development of sustainable tourism industry at the local level is very diverse – from running accommodation services, cafes, restaurants, and shops, to working with handicraft, art and food processing, guiding and interpretation. Apart from running small businesses, many are involved in tourism development while working for cultural centers, municipalities, NGOs, and schools. Ecotourism can be a perfect tool to initiate women’s active participation in sustainable community development. Building international networks and projects is one of the best ways to overcome the challenges that women encounter, as it allows them to have access to more information, as well as the opportunity to show their work to broader audiences outside their local community.

Sustainable tourism, including ecotourism and heritage tourism, can mobilize local communities – encouraging enterprise, creating green jobs and additional revenue streams, restoring and protecting traditional vocations and styles of life. The aim is to improve the livelihoods of local residents, spreading the principles and support for sustainable tourism and making sure that various groups in the community and society at large can reap the benefits.

Promoting local products, art, handicraft and local traditions; landscape stewardship initiatives preserving the unique natural heritage; creating educational farms, thematic villages and festivals; building an offer based on storytelling and poetry, folk culture, music and deliciously varied cuisine – these are just a few of the many examples and creative ideas on how ecotourism, implemented in synergy with other forms of entrepreneurship in rural areas, can involve and support local communities while contributing to long-term economic development.

Local community-based stories

Several examples below explain how local communities across Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) over last two decades have been trying to link sustainable tourism development with protection of the uniqueness of the places where they live. Case studies of community-based initiatives illustrate the grassroots movement based on cross-sector partnership of community leaders, NGOs, governments, entrepreneurs, schools, cultural centres, protected areas administrations and other stakeholders.

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White Stork Trail – the ecotourism product of northeastern Poland

Northeastern Poland may be viewed as the “cradle” of Polish ecotourism, with the Podlasie White Stork Trail as a magnificent example of a supra-regional ecotourism product. The 412.15 km long heritage trail, which forms part of the Greenways routes, links four spectacular national parks (Białowieża, Narew, Biebrza and Wigry NP) and is distinguished by the huge stork populations nesting in the valleys of the Narew and Biebrza rivers as well as over 270 other species of wetland birds. The idea behind the trail is to build a cross-sector partnership between the tourism sector (agrotourism farms, local restaurants, travel and active tourism agencies), local governments, NGOs and administration of protected areas in order to build the ecotourism and active tourism offer based not only on the well-known attractions presented in and around protected areas but especially on the heritage of small (undiscovered) towns and villages outside main tourism destinations. The trail’s main axis is marked as a bicycle route, but in many places it is also possible to rent kayaks, swim a traditional row boat (called “pychówka”), ride on horseback or watch and take pictures of birds and other animals (such as elk, beavers etc.). The heart of the trail is in the European Stork Village – Pentowo, where as many as 36 occupied stork nests can be found in a single agrotourism farm with a hundred-year-old wooden manor house on the bank of the Narew river. (more: http://www.podlaskiszlakbociani.pl/en).

Railroad bikes in Bieszczady Mountains, The Carpathians, Poland

In 2000, local partnership group from southeastern Poland (Bieszczady Mountains) started a program called Green Bicycle in order to support local community green tourism and heritage initiatives around the Eastern Carpathians Biosphere Reserve. The project was a vehicle for activating local people and entrepreneurs to build a sustainable brand of the region and animate small centers and villages in the Carpathians outside the the Bieszczady National Park (main tourism destination). One of many successful examples is the village of Uherce Mineralne located far from main tourism routes. Brave and imaginative local entrepreneur (owner of the art-eco farm and hotel, Janusz Demkowicz) – thanks to the strong support of local municipality – started the project on railroad bikes that were created on the unused railway track – line no 108. The old railway building was renovated and turned into a cultural center and railroad bikes rental. The project animates and continues to animate and inspire other forms of local community entrepreneurship – such as cafes, open-air bars and souvenir shops around the railway. (more: http://drezynyrowerowe.pl).

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Wine sustainable tourism in South Moravia, Czech Republic

Rolling hills with patchworks of fields, vineyards and orchards, picturesque streets lined with historical wine cellars, quaint villages and small towns with a vibrant musical heritage, especially the music of cymbals and fiddles, wine festivals and unending wine tasting at local wineries. There are over 10,000 family-owned wineries in the Southern Moravia region. Thanks to the initiative of environmental NGO – Nadace Partnerstvi – the region became the model example of a sustainable tourism destination in Central and Eastern Europe. This initiative began in 1999 as a collaborative effort on the part of 280 wine towns & villages led by environmental NGO (main leaders were a tandem of the mayor of Vlkos village Anna Carkova and Greenways Manager Juraj Flamik). They started by creating the network of 18 wine routes and building quality products around them combined with professional marketing strategy. At the height of the season, half a million tourists a year go biking on the Moravian Wine Trails, staying at family-owned B&Bs (often run by wine makers), taking part in wine tasting workshops and cultural events (concerts, festivals, handicraft workshops etc.). A major draw to the region outside the holiday season is a festival of open wine cellars, which takes place twice a year – in late autumn and early spring. (more: www.stezky.cz).

Ecotourism in the Belorussian village

Belarus is a land made for ecotourism. The Belarussian village has stayed practically unchanged over the past hundred years. More than half of the villages are hamlets with no more than 50 residents. A particularly impressive feature is the traditional wooden architecture, painted window shutters and fences, a rich and authentic folklore, but first and foremost – Slavic hospitality and Belarussian openness. The Belorussian Association Country Escape led by Valeria Klitsounova, was founded with the express mission of building a professional ecotourism offer based on a network of family-owned guest houses from across the entire country. Today, the network consists of over 500 accommodations which offer also healthy food, heritage interpretation, art and culinary workshops, rent kayaks and organize local events and active green tourism trips. Theme villages, ecomuseums, cultural festivals are organized by local community leaders who emerged thanks to this impressive initiative (more: www.ruralbelarus.by).

Final conclusions

Most of the ecotourism community-based initiatives all around the world are still small-scale, grassroots efforts, based oftentimes on local initiatives of individual environmentally-conscious entrepreneurs, active citizen groups and NGOs, protected areas administrations or local governments who realized that only a clean natural environment may attract tourists in the long run. It is crucial to build cross-sector partnerships and quality tourism products. Community-based ecotourism initiatives should be linked to a broader strategy at the local, national and regional level. For this we need to set out national and trans-national guidelines, standards and polices for long-term development of tourism that will help balance out economic, ecological, social and spatial priorities. Ecotourism – implemented in synergy with other forms of sustainable tourism and entrepreneurship in rural areas – may become our important contribution to the preservation of heritage and landscapes, enhancing the quality of life as well as assuring a more equitable share of benefits among local communities across Europe and the world.

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Taleb Rifai, former UNWTO Secretary, once said: Sustainable tourism can contribute to combating poverty, climate change and environmental problems as well as ti supporting local communities. Your culture is your story. Travel, Enjoy, Respect… (Krakow, 3rd International Congress on Ethics and Tourism, 2017).

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References:

Denman Richard, “Guidelines for Community-based Ecotourism Development”, WWF International, The Tourist Company, 2001.

Whelan Tensie, ed. “Nature tourism”, Island Press, Washington 1991.

“Parks for Life. Action for Protected Areas in Europe”, the IUCN Commission on Natural Parks and Protected Areas, Gland 1994.

Zaręba Dominika, „Ekoturystyka”, PWN, 3rd edition, Warszawa 2010.

Zaręba Dominika, “Ecotourism development in Poland – best practices”, in: “Ecotourism facing global challenges”, 3rd European Ecotourism Conference, Społeczny Instytut Ekologiczny, Warszawa, 2015.

See more:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/164g-lVh55yTngSR1Uf1JkriTfaLHdgkp/view

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Białoruska dusza

Białoruska dusza

[:pl]tekst: Dominika Zaręba

Z każdą podróżą wiąże się jakiś zapach, smak, kolor… Białoruś pachnie drzewem, ziołami suszonymi na słońcu, herbatą parzoną w samowarze z widokiem na las z sosen, jodeł i brzóz. Smakuje bakłażanami i ostrą adżyką, którymi witaliśmy Nowy Rok w Krolowej Chacie, serowymi racuszkami u Ały na śniadanie, rybną sałatką pod buraczaną pierzynką u Olgi, zupą z kociołka nad brzegiem Niemna podczas spływu tratwami… Namalowana jest błękitem jezior i okiennic drewnianych domów, opowiedziana wierszem i legendami, wyśpiewana prastarą białoruską melodią…

Gościna po białorusku

Z Białorusi zawsze wracam nie tylko porządnie najedzona, ale też z poczuciem, że moja dieta była zdrowa, różnorodna i bardzo „domowa”… – Dzisiaj na śniadanie usmażę wam serniczki, czyli racuchy z twarogiem i powidłami – uśmiecha się Ała Choreń prowadząca gospodarstwo gościnne w Klaścicach na bajkowym Pojezierzu Rossońskim, w północnej części Białorusi. Ganek drewnianej chaty, rozświetlony czerwcowym słońcem, służy za letnią jadalnię. Czekamy aż w srebrzystym samowarze zaparzy się herbata… To się nazywa „slow food” w czystej postaci!

W podróży najlepiej zatrzymać się w jednym z tutejszych gospodarstw gościnnych, by poczuć autentyczną atmosferę białoruskiej wsi. Kwater u gospodarza, zwanych po białorusku „wioskową siedzibą”, a po rosyjsku „sielską usadbą”, jest ponad czterysta w różnych regionach kraju. Można tu nie tylko przenocować czy smacznie się posilić, ale także skorzystać z sauny – tradycyjnej „ruskiej bani”, pożyczyć kajak, rower albo narty biegowe, nauczyć się białoruskich pieśni albo lokalnego rzemiosła, w którym specjalizują się gospodarze, a przede wszystkim poczuć prawdziwą „białoruską duszę”…

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Nie zapomnę wieczoru sylwestrowego w „Krolowej Chacie” u Aleksandra i Wery Krollów w wiosce Zaborze na Pojezierzu Rossońskim. Za oknem prószy śnieg, przy kominku Timur i Sasza wygrywają na gitarach białoruskie i rosyjskie melodie, reszta domowników i gości przygotowuje potrawy na przywitanie Nowego Roku. Buterbrody, czyli kanapki z kawiorem, bakłażany przykryte pomidorem, marynowane borowiki, draniki, czyli placki ziemniaczane z grzybami, kołduny z mięsem i grzybami, adżyka – ostry sos z czosnkiem, papryką, marchewką i jabłkiem, rosyjski szampan… Stół ugina się pod tymi smakołykami, a Wera ciągle dokłada jakieś nowe sałatki i owoce. Za chwilę mamy wybrać się jeszcze do sauny – ruskiej bani nad brzegiem jeziora zrobionej w ziemiance, a potem zanurzyć w przerębli…

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Poezja ze smakiem

Białoruś jest krajem stworzonym dla ekoturystyki. Białoruska wieś pozostała w stanie niemal niezmienionym od stu lat. Ponad połowa wiosek liczy mniej niż pięćdziesiąt mieszkańców. Ujmuje tradycyjna architektura drewniana, malowane okiennice i płoty, bogata i autentyczna kultura ludowa, a najbardziej – słowiańska gościnność i otwartość Białorusinów.

Podróżując przez Białoruś najbardziej pamięta się właśnie ludzi, którzy chętnie opowiadają swoje historie, używając przy tym cytatów z literatury, przysłów, legend, poezji ludowej. Pamiętam jak zasłuchiwałam się w opowieści z regionu lepelskiego. Wiktor cytował Puszkina, Olga opowiadała legendę o magicznym drzewie, a Walery śpiewał starą białoruską pieśń o różach. Potem zgodnie twierdzili, że Białorusini mają duszę, specjalną energię. Takie „energetyczne miejsca” są podobno wszędzie – niemal każde drzewo, kwiat, dom, opowiada tu swoją historię… – My, Białorusini, mimo trudnych warunków życia, jesteśmy narodem pogodnym, świadomym swojej historii, tożsamości i dziedzictwa – opowiada Olga Machanenko, która zajmuje się kulturą i teatrem, a na Lepelszczyźnie krzewi prastare tradycje i język białoruski. Pewnego zimowego wieczoru Olga Machanenko, Wiktor Trufanow i Walery Tuhta zabrali nas na saniach do lasu by pokazać „energetyczne” miejsce mocy w okolicy. Kiedy tam dotarliśmy, zawiesili na drzewach latarenki, a przy ognisku przeczytali jedną z miejscowych legend – opowieści. Trudno opisać magię tej chwili. W mroźny zimowy wieczór słuchamy poezji w świetle olejowych latarni i księżyca w pełni, nieznacznie zakrapiając go domowym samogonem… To możliwe jest tylko na Białorusi…

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Dzięki Oldze trafiłam do wioski Anoszki. W piękny zimowy, słoneczny dzień w progu drewnianej chaty z oknami pomalowanymi na niebiesko, przywitała nas Walentyna Krickaja. Całe popołudnie śpiewaliśmy i tańczyliśmy u niej w domu i na ulicy, tańczyło nas kilka pokoleń – od lat pięciu do dziewięćdziesięciu. W Anoszkach po raz pierwszy doświadczyłam tej nieuchwytnej „białoruskości” – słowiańskiej energii pomieszanej z tęsknotą i ulotnością chwili.

Prasłowiańskie korzenie

Współcześni Białorusini bardzo często odwołują się do prasłowiańskich wierzeń i tradycji, kultu przyrody i świętości natury. Wiele legend, mitologii, świąt i pieśni przedchrześcijańskich zachowało się do dzisiaj w obyczajach lokalnej społeczności i jest ważnym wyróżnikiem autentycznej i żywej kultury ludowej. W wioskach obchodzi się prasłowiańskie święta związane z cyklem życia przyrody od wiosny do zimy, takie jak Święto Jaryły – przesilenie wiosenne, Noc Kupały czy Święto Godowe Kaliady – przesilenie zimowe. Można spotkać Białorusinów deklarujących swoje wyznanie jako rodzimowierstwo słowiańskie, czyli nową formę religii etnicznej odwołującej się do prasłowiańskich wierzeń.

Nie zapomnę słynnego wesela w stylu starosłowiańskim, które zorganizowała Olga Machanenko i Wiktor Trufanow na rozległej polanie wioski Stare Ladno. Na wesele zjechała grupa rowerzystów – gości weselnych z Holandii, Belgii, Francji i Wielkiej Brytanii, uczestnicząca w międzynarodowym rajdzie rowerowym. Młoda para holendersko-francuska wymarzyła sobie taki prastary ślub na Białorusi w lnianych strojach i wiankach. Na początek para musiała przejść „na szczęście” kwiatowym korytarzem po dywanie z lnu. Pan młody wiózł swoją wybrankę na koniu, młodzi przytulali się i wyznawali sobie miłość pod starym dębem, który miał dać im siłę i zdrowie, a potem „oczyszczali się” w ogniowym kręgu, by ich smutki uleciały z dymem a pozostały tylko dobre i szczęśliwe myśli… Był to niesamowity spektakl w przyrodzie. Wszystkiemu towarzyszyły białoruskie śpiewy, tańce i uczta na brzegu jeziora Lukszyna, składająca się z dwunastu potraw symbolizujących dwanaście miesięcy roku… Na koniec ceremonii na sierpniowym niebie ukazała się tęcza, otulając całą polanę, błękitne jezioro i gości weselnych.

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Kuchnia z kociołka i muzyka nad Niemnem

Lato kojarzy mi się ze słodkimi pomidorami i ogórkami z ogródka podanymi z białym serem ze szczypiorkiem i ciemnym żytnim chlebem na zakwasie. Te smaki to wspomnienia związane ze spływem tratwą rzeką Niemen. Śniadanie na środku rzeki, wesołe poranne śpiewy radosnej kompanii, wokół piaskowe skarpy i sosnowy las. Właściwie podczas tego trzydniowego spływu jemy bez przerwy, delektując się sierpniowym słońcem, przyrodą, kąpielami w Niemnie. – Dzisiaj na tej polanie rozbijemy obóz – oznajmia Igor Marcul, nasz kapitan. – Szykujcie się na ruską banię w namiocie na brzegu rzeki i zupę z kociołka!

Spływ tratwą po Niemnie w rejonie lidzkim to niezapomniana ekoturystyczna przygoda. Tratwa na dwanaście osób została zaprojektowana i zbudowana przez Igora Marcula z Mińska i Jurija Ogarko z Dokudowa, który z żoną prowadzi tutaj także gospodarstwo gościnne. – Przeprawa może trwać od dwóch do dwunastu dni – opowiada Jurij. – Na dłuższych odcinkach płynie się rzeką Berezyną i a potem spławia już Niemnem. Wyprawy organizowane są regularnie od czerwca do sierpnia; nocujemy pod namiotami, biesiadujemy przy kuchni z kociołka na wyznaczonych polach biwakowych – dodaje. Już wiem, że tego wieczoru nie obędzie się bez śpiewania białoruskich, rosyjskich i polskich pieśni. Przypominam sobie, że także tutaj nad Niemnem tworzy Żmicer Wajciuszkiewicz – jeden z najbardziej znanych współczesnych muzyków i piosenkarzy, artysta zakazany w swoim kraju. Zawsze kiedy podróżuję przez Białoruś nucę jego piosenki.

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

Między Wschodem a Zachodem

Podczas takich podróży rzadko rozmawia się o polityce. To zbyt ponury temat. Tutaj na wsi trzeba żyć po swojemu, cicho, spokojnie, tu i teraz, z dnia na dzień, cieszyć się „tą” chwilą. Białorusini mają do siebie i swoich narodowych przywar specyficzny dystans. – Paczemu wy niezależna Biełaruska Republika? – Patamu szto od nas nicziewo niezależno… – taki narodowy dowcip…

Białorusini nauczyli się żyć po swojemu, lokalnie, poza państwem i jego „carem”. Przez ich tereny zawsze przetaczały się bitwy i wojny. Naród istniał gdzieś pomiędzy Wschodem i Zachodem. Przez wieki był częścią jakiegoś mocarstwa – Rosji, Litwy, Polski, ZSRR… Zawsze był zależny od kogoś, nie miał rewolucyjnych tradycji jak Polska czy Ukraina. Ludzie musieli sobie jakoś radzić, by przetrwać – żyli gdzieś „z boku”, w swojej wiosce, z sąsiadami, w domu, z rodziną. Codziennym antidotum było spotykanie się, wspólne śpiewanie, celebrowanie tradycyjnych świąt, a także czytanie. – Mówi się, że Białorusini albo piją albo czytają … – żartuje Lena Wietrowa, propagatorka ekoturystyki z białoruskiego Stowarzyszenia „Wypoczynek na Wsi”. – Bardzo nam zależy na kontaktach z Polską. Jesteśmy sąsiadami a tak mało o sobie wiemy. U nas na Białorusi można naprawdę ciekawie spędzić czas na łonie przyrody, blisko ludzi, poznać naszą bogatą kulturę. – dodaje.

„Białoruska dusza”, zjawisko trudne do opisania, jest kwintesencją genius loci tego kraju. Żeby ją zrozumieć trzeba tu przyjechać, zasmakować, posłuchać i zachwycić się. Tak po prostu.

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Posłuchajcie piosenek białoruskiego barda – Źmicera Wajciuszkiewicza!

 

Godne polecenia:
Turystyka wiejska i sieć gospodarstw eko-agroturystycznych – Stowarzyszenie „Wypoczynek na Wsi” założone przez Walerię Klicunową (www.ruralbelarus.by)

Copyright: Dominika Zaręba[:en]

Every trip is associated with some smell, taste, color… Belarus smells of wood, herbs drying out in the sun, tea brewed in a samovar with a view out onto a forest of pine, fir and birch. It tastes of eggplant and spicy adjika, which we enjoyed while celebrating the New Year in the Regal Hut, cheese racuchy (pancakes) at Ała’s for breakfast, fish salad covered with grated red beets at Olga’s, soup from a pot on the banks of the Niemen River during a day of whitewater kayaking… The country has a dominating blueness of its lakes and the window frames of its wooden houses, its story is told in poetry and legends, and it’s defined by an ancient Belarussian melody…

Hospitality Belarussian-style

I always come brack from a journey to Belarus with a full stomach, but also with a feeling that what my diet there was healthy, diverse and very ‘home-made’… – Today for breakfast, I’m going to fry up some serniczki, that is pancakes with cottage cheese and jam – Ała Choreń tells us with a big smile on her face. She runs a bed&breakfast in Klaścice, which is nestled in the amazing Rasony Lake District, in the northern part of Belarus. The front porch of a wooden house, brightened up by the June sun, is the place for an afternoon meal. We wait until the tea finishes brewing in the silver samovar… this is “slow food” pure and simple! When on a trip in these areas, it really pays to stop at one of the local b&b’s to get an authentic feel for the Belarussian village. There are over 400 such b&b’s – which are known in Belarussian as “vyoskova sediba” and in Russian as “sel’ska usad’ba”. There’s much more to these places than just a place to stay overnight or have a sumptuous meal. You can relax in the sauna (the traditional “Russian banya”), rent a kayak, bike or cross-country skis, learn Belarussian songs or local arts & crafts, which the hosts specialize in, but above all, you can get an appreciation and feel of what the “Belarussian soul” really stands for.

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New Year’s Eve at the “Regal hut”, Aleksandra and Wera Kroll’s B&B in the village of Zaborze in the Rasony Lake District was a night to remember. Outside, it’s snowing, next to the fireplace is Timur and Sasha playing Belarussian and Russian melodies on the guitar, while the rest of the host family and guests are making dishes to ring in the New Year. Buterbrody, or sandwiches with caviar, eggplants dressed in tomatoes, marinated porcini mushrooms, draniki or potato pancakes with mushrooms, kolduny (dumplings) with meat and mushrooms, adjika – a spicy sauce with garlic, paprika, carrot and apple, Russian champagne… The table was groaning under the weight of all these yummy foods, and Wera kept adding some other salads and fruit. In a moment we’re supposed to go to the Russian banya on the lakeside, which has been constructed inside a dugout, and afterwards dip into the lake via an ice hole…

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Poetry with taste

Belarus is a land made for ecotourism. The Belarussian village has stayed practically unchanged over the past hundred years. More than half of the villages are hamlets with no more than 50 residents. A particularly impressive feature is the traditional wooden architecture, painted window shutters and fences, a rich and authentic folklore, but foremost – Slavic hospitality and Belarussian openness. When travelling up and down Belarus, what impresses itself most in your memory are the people, who are open to sharing their life-stories, which are usually sprinkled with quotations from literature, proverbs, legends and national poetry. I remember how eagerly I listened to tales from the Lepel region. Viktor quoted Aleksandr Pushkin, Olga told the legend of the magic tree, while Valery sang an old Belarussian song about roses. They all agreed that Belarussians are a soulful people and hold a special energy within them. Indeed, these ‘local energies’ are apparently everywhere – almost every tree, flower, house has a story to tell…

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– We, Belarussians, despite difficult living conditions, are a cheerful people, aware of our history, identity and heritage – explains Olga Machanenko, who is active in cultural activities and the theater, and in the Lepel region is involved in promoting ancient traditions and the Belarussian language. One winter’s eve, Olga Machanenko, Viktor Trufanov and Valery Tuhta took us by sled to the forest to show us a nearby “energetic place”. When we got there, they hung lanterns from the trees, lit up a fire and read us a local legend. It’s hard to describe the magic of the moment. On a frosty winter evening, we’re listening to poetry by the light of oil lanterns and a full moon, with a bit of homemade samogon (moonshine) to keep us warm… This can only happen in Belarus…

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Thanks to Olga I was fortunate to reach the village of Anoshki. On a beautiful winter, sunny day on the doorstep of a wooden hut with windows painted over in blue, we received a warm greeting from Walentyna Krickaya. All afternoon long we sang and danced in her home and outside on the street, several generations partook – the youngest was 5, the oldest 90. In Anoshki I for the first time got to experience this elusive quality of being Belarussian – a Slavic energy combined with a sense of longing and the transience of the moment.

Ancient Slavic roots

Contemporary Belarussians very often harken back to ancient Slavic beliefs and traditions, the cult of nature and the celebration of the sacredness of nature. Many pre-Christian legends, mythologies, festivities and have survived to this day in the traditions of the local communities and stand out as a defining factor of an authentic and vibrant folk culture. Villages celebrate ancient Slavic festivities connected with the cycle of natural life from spring to winter, such as the Day of Jaryla – marking the spring solstice, The Night of Kupala or the Day of Koliada – the winter solstice. You can come across Belarussians who declare their religion to be Rodnovery, or Slavic Neopaganism, a new form of ethnic religion which draws on ancient Slavic beliefs. I’ll never forget the famous wedding celebration in the old Slavic style, which Olga Machanenko and Wiktor Trufanow organized on a spacious meadow in the village of Stare Ladno. A group of cyclists from Holland, Belgium, France and the UK – who were taking part in an international bicycle tour – came as guests to the wedding. The Dutch-French couple dreamed up an ancient wedding ceremony in Belarus with linen costumes and wreaths. At the beginning of the ceremony, the betrothed went “for good luck” through a flower-decked pathway on a carpet made of flax. The groom carried his chosen one while riding a horse, the newlyweds then hugged one another and declared their love for one another under an old oak tree, which was to give them strength and health. Afterwards, they ‘cleansed themselves’ in a bonfire-lit circle so their sorrows could disappear with the smoke and only good and happy thoughts remain. Apart from everything else, the traditional Belarussian music, dances and 12-course Belarussian style feast made this into a truly amazing spectacle, right in the heart of nature, on the shore of Lukszyna Lake… The ceremony was topped off by a rainbow, which appeared in the August sky, stretching right over the entire meadow, the blue lake and the wedding guests.

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Meals straight from the pot and music on the Niemen River

Summer makes me think of sweet tomatoes and cucumbers from a local garden, served with white cheese and chives and black sourdough rye bread. These are the tastes I remember from the time we went rafting on the Niemen River. Breakfast in the middle of the river, merry company singing songs in the morning hours, all around sand banks and pine woods. In fact, the entire three days out we’ve been constantly eating, enjoying the August sun, nature, baths in the Niemen. – Today, we’re going to set up camp on this clearing – Igor Marcul, our captain, tells us. – Get ready for a Russian banya in the tent by the river’s edge and soup straight from the pot! Going down the Niemen by raft in the Lida region is an unforgettable ecotourist adventure. The raft, which fits 12 people, was designed and constructed by Igor Marcul from Mińsk and Jurii Ogarko from Dokudow, who is running a B&B with his wife here. – The trip can take anywhere between two and twelve days – explains Yurii. – For longer sections we take the Berezyna River and then we float down the Niemen. Rafting expeditions go on regularly from June all the way to August; we stay overnight in tents, have our meals outdoors at designated campsites – he adds. I now know that tonight we’re going to get our share of beautiful sung Belarussian, Russian and Polish songs. Then I remember that Żmicer Wajciuszkiewicz – one of the best known contemporary musicians and singers, an artist who’s prohibiting from officially performing in his own country – does his creative work here by the Niemen River. Whenever I’m travelling through Belarus, I catch myself humming his songs. Between East and West Między Wschodem a Zachodem[to nie bylo w formie zdania, bo nie ma w wersji PL kropke, wiec nie wiem czy to jest tytul piosenki, czy co?] On such trips you rarely talk politics. This is too gloomy a subject. Here in the countryside, one has to live as one sees fit, quietly, calmly, day by day, and try to enjoy the moment for what it is. Belarussians have a specific perspective on their nation and their national habits. “Why are you an independent Belarussian Republic? – Because everything is independent of us – so goes what you might call a national joke… Belarussians have learned to live according to their own rules, locally, outside and beyond the reach of the state and its ‘tsar’. Their land was always crisscrossed by armies and where innumerable battles and wars took place. The nation existed somewhere between East and West. For many centuries it was held by this or that power – whether Russia, Lithuania, Poland or the Soviet Union… It was always dependent on someone, it never had the revolutionary traditions of Poland or the Ukraine. The people had to learn how to live and survive – they lived somewhere ‘on the side’, in their village, with their neighbors, in their homes, with their families. The daily remedy was to meet, sing together, celebrate traditional holidays and read. “They say, that Belarussians either drink or read…” – jokes Lena Wietrowa, promoter of ecotourism from the Belarussian „Country Escape” Association – Our contacts with Poland are very important for us. We’re neighbors and yet we know so little about one another. You really can have a great time in Belarus, at one with nature, close to the people who live here, and get familiar with our rich cultural treasures. – she adds. The „Belarussian soul” is a phenomenon hard to describe, but is the quintessence of the genius loci of this land. To understand and appreciate it, one has to come and see it for oneself, taste it, listen to it and let oneself be delighted. As simple as that.

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Listen to the songs of Dzmitryj Wajciuszkiewicz

(Please, have a look at the webpage of the Belarussian Association „Country Escape” led by its President Valeria Klitsounova: www. ruralbelarus.by)

tekst © Dominika Zareba

English translation thanks to Piotr Szmigielski

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