We spoke with Andrei Blumer, President of the Association Ecotourism in Romania (AER) and one of the leaders and innovators of ecotourism development in Romania and Europe. Andrei, please tell us briefly about the beginnings of your organization.
“The Association of Ecotourism in Romania – Asociația de Ecoturism din Romania (AER – its abbreviation means “air” in Romanian), was registered officially in 2003 in Zărnești (Brasov county, Transilvania), a Carpathian town near the main gate to the Piatra Crailui National Park. From the beginning, the aim of our initiative was to bring together conservation and business. I believe we started the ecotourism movement in Romania, and through tourism we put conservation issues on the public agenda.”
Piatra Craiului National Park was the focus area of one of the most complex large carnivore conservation projects in Europe, which included a key ecotourism component – called the Carpathian Large Carnivore Project CLCP. This was before AER was funded and you were involved in this project. Would you say that this innovative project was an important starting point for ecotourism development in your country?
The Carpathian Large Carnivore Project (CLCP) implemented in 1993–2003 had four major components. The most important component was research, and this covered a much larger area then Piatra Craiului itself. The ecotourism component was centered in the northern part of the Piatra Craiului range, with Zărnești as the main beneficiary location. When the project started, the town of Zărnești had an unemployment rate of up to 50 percent The economy of the town was based on three main industries with roots in the communistic era, the largest industry was an ammunitions factory and the others were a paper factory and wood processing industries.
And you started to bring ecotourists, who were keen on observing wildlife, to the remote Carpathian region…
Due to the combined efforts of CLCP members we succeeded – in only 4 to 5 years – in attracting around 100 visitor groups from Western Europe. The tourists were excited by the prospect of seeing large carnivores. Another benefit of the CLCP project (in 2001-2002) was that a planned quarry, proposed by one of the largest state-owned companies, was banned. A key marker of success was heightened awareness towards conservation in members of the local council, county council and the Ministry of Tourism. This was when Romania was knocking at the door of accession to the EU. Through tourism, we were able to shift local development from heavy industry towards ecotourism based services. We had the support of local people, who no longer wanted to suffer heavy industry and pollution. Instead, they wanted to take advantage of nature at the entrance of the national park, in one of the most beautiful mountain ranges in Romania. Several years later, even the hunting departments of regional wildlife management organisations started turning hunting hides into wildlife viewing platforms, as they realized that the income from watching animals could contribute significantly towards their budgets. We had a breakthrough in 2007 when, for the first time, wildlife watching (at a specific bear hide) in Romania brought in the same revenue as one bear hunting. This outcome was inspired by our bear watching initiative.
You could actually say that the ecotourism movement in Romania was initiated as a part of the CLCP project. Indeed, the first meeting of the Ecotourism Initiative Group (the precursor of AER) was launched in the same project area – Zărnești.
What are the main projects and topics you work on at the moment at AER?
We currently have two major directions. The first is related to our members – because as a membership association we represent the interest of the small-scale tour operators and accommodation providers. We provide access for our members into various markets, in terms of travel shows, promote them on our website and through social media and prepare different publications and films (visit our Discover Eco-Romania YT Channel). The second main direction of AER is playing the role of a development agency based on ecotourism. We work with different regions and – based on the concept of establishing ecotourism destinations – we support the development of both ecotourism and local products. We currently work directly in seven eco-destinations of different size. Each one has a locally based management team, which works with local stakeholders and businesses and is supported by experts in the main office. We manage networking events, marketing, product development, and occasionally create soft infrastructure for nature interpretation or more complex interventions for improving visitor centers. There are 3-4 other regions with the potential of becoming eco-destinations.
Does the national authority for Tourism and the Romanian government support ecotourism and your activities?
We have been part of the process for development and implementation of the awarding scheme for ecotourism destinations that is officially recognized by the government, and which is based on GSTC Criteria (Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria). It is currently possible for destinations to ask for official recognition, and there are already five such eco-destinations certified and several others in the process. Also, we were one of the main contributors to the ecotourism strategy as part of the work performed by the National Institute for Tourism Research and Development. Its vision, main objectives and criteria have been approved by the Government in 2019, and we are one of the main voices at the table alongside the major players in the tourism industry.
What is your ambition for ecotourism in Romania?
My dream is to be able to make ecotourism marketable much more widely, to have it become commercially viable and competitive on the international market, to be able to attract enough expertise and enough tourists to the pilot areas, which I was speaking about, and which are now seven in number, in order to show that the model works, as we did in Zărnești, twenty years ago. To prove that ecotourism can provide economic development and demonstrate that protected areas should not be perceived as obstacles to, but instead catalysts for local development. To ensure that there are short production chains available at these destinations and that local products see improvements in manufacturing, marketing, sales and consumption. To make people understand and be proud of small scale local production. I would like to see that communities become empowered and are better able to distinguish between real, long term benefits compared to unsustainable short-term visions, which are good for only a few people. This is not just a wish, this is a vision. We have seen these changes in the last 20 years, but there is still much to do…
Do you think that 20 years is the right time frame to see real results from these projects related to education, raising awareness and sustainable development?
In countries that come from a totalitarian oriented society it takes much longer to make a change. But I wouldn’t say it necessarily needs 20 years. It all depends on local circumstances, on finding the right people at the right moment and having good leaders. Sometimes you can have a huge success in 3 to 5 years. When we talk about conservation, we need at least a ten year vision and actions for a whole life-time.
Last question, from a broader perspective. How do you see the connection between Romanian ecotourism and the European and Global Ecotourism Network?
There are many great and serious initiatives in Europe, in different countries – not only in Romania – but in Spain, Portugal, Italy, as well as in Switzerland, Norway, Sweden and going more to the East – in Estonia, Poland and Georgia. This is probably the right moment, when we can also benefit from EU sources to establish an ecotourism movement at European standards. There is a huge market in Europe, for this kind of tourism and especially since the COVID-19 pandemic which would now favor more hygienic excursions outdoors i.e. in nature. It is an incredibly good opportunity now – after this devastating crisis – to target those people who would like to experience quiet places, away from crowded cities, and to start local economies based on the principles of ecotourism.
I believe that there is also a need for environment and social responsibility in the sector. It was proven in this pandemic year how important it is to have clean air, and to manage a local economy in a way that it can survive despite the general lockdown. I expect that if we are clever at the European level in the coming years, we can send this message to potential clients and, on the other hand, come up with the right structures and common sets of activities, based on a shared vision, regardless of differences between the North, South, East and West. I believe that we can make a strong proposal, at the European level, to make the ecotourism destinations concept one of the established methods for sustainable development. This, as always, is a matter of time, resources, as well as good and skillful people that are willing to work together.
I agree with you, including about the ecotourism destinations. The model that you implement in Romania is really powerful and it should be promoted in Europe, definitely as a part of the European Ecotourism Network. Thank you so much Andrei for your inspiring words!
Trained both in environmental sciences and leisure, Andrei Blumer has developed his expertise in outdoor recreation, protected areas and local community development through ecotourism. He is one of the founders and the current president, since 2003, of the Association of Ecotourism in Romania (AER). He has extensive practical experience in the field of ecotourism, assisting for 20 years in protected areas, small scale businesses in tourism and ecotourism destinations in the region of Carpathians (Romania and Ukraine), Danube region (Danube Protected Area Network) and Black Sea region (Turkey, Georgia and Romania). He has acquired extensive experience in developing ecotourism certification schemes for businesses and destinations in Romanian, at the European level (European Ecotourism Labelling Standards – EETLS) and in Botswana (BEST). He was contracted as expert by various international institutions such as USAID in 2006-2007 (Romania), UNWTO in 2013 (Georgia), World Bank in 2015 (Romania), GIZ in 2016 (Moldova). He has extensively worked for WWF in Romania, Ukraine (2008-2012) and Turkey (2009).
The Ecotourism Destinations Development Program (Ecodestinations Program) accelerates the creation of ecotourism destinations and supports the establishment of a national network of destinations in Romania. The aim of the program is to contribute to the economic development of local communities, the conservation of local nature and culture and the positioning of Romania as an important destination on the ecotourism map.
The Association of Ecotourism in Romania (AER) is a partnership for nature conservation and tourism development in Romania. It brings together tourism associations, non-governmental organizations for local development and nature conservation, guesthouses and tourism agencies. The innovative concept promoted by AER is to rally the public and private sectors in a partnership for nature conservation and sustainable tourism development.
Cytaty zaczerpnięto z: Miguel Ángel Astúrias, „Legendy gwatemalskie”, tłum. Joanna Petry-Mroczkowska, Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków 1979. Denis Tedlock, „Popol Vuh. Księga Majów”, Wyd. Helion, Gliwice 2007.[:en]
*** At the foot of the volcanoes (Guatemala)
/ text: Dominika Zareba
Three majestic volcanos: Atitlán, Tolimán and San Pedro guard Atitlán – a Mayan lake as large as a sea. Atitlán, a name that’s fascinating to locals and visitors alike. A place taken straight from the magic realism prose and poetry that is associated with contemporary Latin American literature. The sky, the volcanos, handwoven Indian costumes – they all reflect in the lake’s blue and transparent waters. Such a blue color is not something you can just forget. The air is fresh and clear. The sun shines through the billowing clouds and all at once it begins to get really warm and even more colorful. I wonder what it is that makes me feel so warm and pleasant inside – is it the sunshine or the beauty that I encounter in every single corner of this land. I could spend many months here, maybe even years – I sigh to myself and wave hello to Marielena, a small member of the Tzutujil community, who inhabits the bottom of the San Pedro volcano.
Guatemala? What am I getting myself and my child into? … Maybe this isn’t such a good idea after all? … these doubts linger on right up until the day of departure. Little Jagódka whose almost 2 years old helps me to pack her toys into the backpack, not in the least aware where we’re going to be in 24 hours. My worries disappear only when we get to Lake Atitlán.
The tranquility of this place hits us right away. I know that we’re going to have a good time traveling over the next few weeks across the Land of the Mayas. This is a journey in two dimensions, through the eyes of the mother and her daughter. To me it’s a return to a place I first visited over a decade ago. I’m re-discovering Guatemala through my daughter’s eyes. A little child can see and experience the surrounding world in a way that is at once enthusiastic and original. She teaches me to pick out details and specifics, which often are already impossible to notice or seemingly aren’t significant to a grown-up. A bird hopping around in the branches of coffee plants, a ruddy cat hunting in the green cornfields, children flying colored kites on the steps of a white, colonial-era church … As I follow my child’s gaze I begin to realize that the magic of Guatemala is hidden in these details and colors.
Reading the symbolism of the Land of the Mayas begins with a small pattern woven onto a traditional indigenous skirt (corte) or belt (faja). – The colors and patterns on the blouse represent the four colors of a corn ear – white, yellow, red and black – explains Cecilia from the village of San Pedro la Laguna. – But this isn’t the only meaning of these colors. White stands for sunrise, red means fire, blue represents water, green symbolizes forests, black relates to night, yellow refers to corn – she details.
Every shape and color has its own symbolism, the significance of which can be found in the Popol Vuh – the holy book of the Mayas. An amazing epic which for centuries has defined the rhythm of life and calendar of the indigenous peoples.
Lake – sea
… by the Creator, the Maker,
the mother-father of life of the human species
the giver of breath, the giver of heart,
the owner, the mentor in the light, which continues on,
of those who were born in the light, borne of the light;
concerned, all-knowing, whatever it is:
This is how the Popol Vuh tells the story of the creation – a story of the beginnings of life, when light is born out of the darkness. Lake Atitlán for the Mayas is one of 4 holy lakes, which represent the four corners of their world. Located at an altitude of 1560 m a.s.l and surrounded by volcanoes reaching more than 3000 m, it is considered one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. The magic of this place is connected to the amazing mix of landscape, nature and cultural heritage of the descendants of the Mayas. According to one local story, the lake was formed in the space left after an extinct crater. According to another version, the explosion of several volcanoes in the south changed the course of three rivers in the north, which initiated the formation of Lake Atitlán.
On the slopes of the volcanoes, the natives grow coffee, maize, beans and avocado. “The People of the Blooming Land” live at the base of the volcano “set against the magic mists of the lake”. This is how Miguel Ángel Astúrias, Guatemalan surrealist author and Nobel laureate writes in one of his legends about the locals. It is not difficult to imagine that many a work of literature in the magical realist tradition could be written in such a place as this. The story – dream – poem – which is so characteristic of Latin American literature, a story that draws on the mythology, belief, use of symbols of the native peoples of Latin America.
The colors of the Mayas
The villages surrounding the lake are inhabited by two groups of indigenous Maya peoples: the Kaqchikel and the Tzutujil, each of whom communicates in their own language (they both derive from a common proto-Mayan language), and wears garments with differing colors and ornaments. Even villages occupied by the same ethnic group differ in color and pattern preferences. Tzutujil women from San Pedro have a penchant for various hues of green and blue. In the nearby village of Santiago, on market day the streets are full of a great many shades of violet and amaranth. I buy Jagoda a dress from San Pedro la Laguna. From now on people here will call her „Sanpedranita”. – Blue-eyed beauty – all local moms are quick to admit, because a child with blue eyes is a rare sight in these parts. The Maya women snap photos of us with their cell phones. We are exotic to one another. I admire their swarthy skin, beautiful dark eyes and straight, raven-black, thick hair, which they wrap in colored ribbons called cinta.
More than half the population of Guatemala are of Amerindian ancestry. In this respect, in Latin America only Bolivia has a larger percentage of indigenous peoples. In this mountainous, green land live more than 20 different ethnic groups with exotic names such as Quiche, Mam, Kaqchikel, Queqchi, Tzutujil… All the indigenous inhabitants are bilingual, at home and on the street they speak the language of the Mayas, but can out of nowhere smoothly switch over to Spanish, which they learned in school. „They don’t realize how lucky they are – so many parents dream that their children speak two languages!”– I think to myself and look over at Jagoda. Together with Maria she is counting the bananas in the basket, which Cecilia brought with her today from the market.. – Ocho, nueve y… – Marie counts. – Diez! – shouts the litte Sanpedranita.
The trees that breathe the breath of the people
There exists the belief that the trees breathe the breath of the people that inhabit the buried cities, and that’s why in keeping with the legend and tradition, those who have to take difficult decisions seek help in their shade; the lovers find comfort, lost travelers find their way and poets find inspiration. [M.A.Asturias]
For me Atitlán is also the land of trees. Coffee plant orchards grow on the steep banks of the lake and the slopes of the volcanoes. The gentle aroma of coffee permeates every nook and cranny in the villages and gardens. It’s a shame that you can’t remember or record the smell of coffee seeds maturing in the equatorial sun on volcanic soil. – Do you give coffee to Jagoda already? – the owners of a small café on the lakeside ask me. Here in San Pedro, kids starting when they’re 6 months old drink coffee mixed with milk.– Coffee is a staple, everyday drink for us, it’s a source of energy and it makes you stronger – young women laughs and packs coffee beans into a hand-woven embroidered bag. These are the types of souvenirs sold here to tourists.
Volcanic soil, tropical forests, the humid air, the altitude and the temperature are so varied here, that Guatemala produces seven different types of Arabic coffee. Supposedly the finest coffee is grown at altitudes higher than 1000 meters, where there is plenty of sun and rain. – As much as 95% of our coffee comes from small, 12 ha plantations – Eligio, who works in the San Pedro Spanish School tells me. – Farmers in San Pedro, just as their grandparents, cultivate coffee using traditional methods, without applying artificial fertilizer. The beans dry up in the sun, which we have no shortage of – he smiles, taking another big gulp of his morning coffee. How many cups of coffee a day can you drink? During my stay in San Pedro, I figure out that the norm here is 5 to 6. You can get addicted, but the native populations brews a weak, delicate version of coffee – I console myself and glance over at the huge jug, which Ingrid is carrying with her from school. I look over to the coffee tree growing in the garden and immerse myself in Asturias’ „Guatemalan legends”: The breath of trees pushes off the mountains, where the road undulates like a band of smoke.
Confrontation of beauty and sadness
…such a deep resonance has in this sleeping landscape a falling leaf, or a bird, whose song awakens in the soul the Specter from Dreams [M.A.Asturias]
This beautiful land also holds within it many sad stories. The proud Mayas don’t want to talk about the recent times of the civil war, the humiliation they suffered at the hands of the military junta which ruled the country for 36 years, and the death squads sowing terror in the villages. From the time of the first free presidential elections in 1995, Guatemala is very slowly moving along on the path to democracy, trying to leave behind the period of decline and violence. – Big social disparities between a handful of rich families, descendants of the Spanish conquistadores, Ladinos who rule the economy, and the impoverished indigenous province – says Nicolas Juarez Mendoza, a Spanish and salsa teacher, himself of Tzutujil Maya stock. – In Guatemala, corruption continues to be commonplace at the pinnacles of power, along with crime, mafia wars and drug trafficking – Nico lists. Sometimes it’s hard to fathom, why after so many years of suffering and humiliation, Guatemalans continue to vote for former military officials or politicians with clear connections to the old regime. The indigenous peoples for example are able to put their support behind people from the circle of the former general Rios Montt, who is responsible for the greatest war crimes, torture and ‘disappearances’ of thousands of Guatemalans, primarily descendants of the Mayas…
We talk with Nico about politics, Latin American literature and belief in magic. – Did you know that every indigenous Guatemalan has his own guardian spirit, called a nahual – says Nico.
Nahual, which always takes on the form of an animal, personifies the greatest gift of humanity, a God-given talent, and is also our life energy and an element which binds and connects us to nature. Nahual can take on the form of e.g. a jaguar, wolf, hare, eagle, owl, parrot, hummingbird, toucan, dolphin, monkey, bee etc. Nico doesn’t want to say what his nahual is. He wants to one day become a radio journalist. This 23-year old native Guatemalan, apart from his native Mayan language and Spanish, also is conversant in French and English. He dreams of traveling, he has criss-crossed Guatemala, but he’s never been abroad.
– For me, a resident of San Pedro, journeys will remain forever something in the realm of dreams – he sighs, looking down at a map of America spread out on the table. When he talks in this way, the large barrier between us, that sad divide between peoples from countries with contrasting economic and social conditions, grows even larger.
I tell Nico about a half-century of Communism in Poland, to try to narrow this divide. I have a funny feeling and hope that people like Nico or Marielena will one day set out into the world, driven by a strong desire to learn and discover. Just as Herodotus portrayed by renowned Polish essayist Ryszard Kapuściński discovered his worlds with the enthusiasm and delight that only a child has.
Meanwhile, Jagoda and Marielena have ran off to watch some boys who are constructing yet another colored kite and making preparations to release it to the wind’s care.
text and photos: Dominika Zaręba
San Pedro Spanish School:
Quotations freely translated into English from Polish translations available in:
Miguel Ángel Astúrias, „Legends of Guatemala”, trans. Joanna Petry-Mroczkowska, Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków 1979.
Denis Tedlock, „Popol vuh: the definitive edition of the Maya book of the dawn of life and the glories of gods and kings”, Wyd. Helion, Gliwice 2007.
Sajnbajnu is a Mongolian greeting, which translates into English as: Good day, how are you, are you all right? … You cannot respond to it in the negative. Talking about sadness is considered to bring bad luck. In Mongolia, you have to believe and think positively. As an old Mongolian saying has it: a good thought covers the entire steppe…
Today’s Mongol is the same Mongol as his grandfather and great-grandfather. But time hasn’t by any means stopped here. It continues as it has for hundreds of years in an unchanging rhythm. Maybe the steppe world of the descendants of Genghis Khan simply hasn’t lost its wits yet?
A wide steppe is a man’s happiness
If you want to find out where the real Mongolia is, you have to head for the steppe. “Steppe” here means not only the grassy plains which stretch beyond the horizon in the east and west. It is also the rocky terrain of deserts and semi-deserts intersected by fields of golden dunes and the wild Altai mountain range which extends from the south in a westward direction. The definitions extends likewise to the green hills and valleys of central Mongolia covered with thousands of edelweiss, pasque flowers, bluebells and asters. Even the clearings in the larch forests growing in the taiga in the northern part of the land are covered by this term. The truth about the steppe is in the glistening eye of the Mongol’s galloping short and stocky horse. You look into these eyes and you can tell there’s happiness there. The essence of happiness for the nomad is pride in the wide, limitless expanses and pride in being free. Because freedom means the steppe. It has everything one could ask for. Nourishment – meet and milk from herded animals. Transportation – a strong and hardy horse. Fuel needed to cook up a meal and warm oneself when it is freezing outdoors (since most of Mongolia is treeless, the fuel of choice is dried up cow dung). Last but not least: shelter. A cosy yurt tent, which can be disassembled in a matter of minutes and set up tens or even hundreds of miles further away. Nomads travel freely in search of the best possible grazing grounds for their herds of goats, sheep, horses, cows or camels. The steppe belongs to the Mongolian nation, and the nation belongs to the steppe. A covenant for all time?
The truth about the steppe is hidden in the tenderness of the Mongolian melodies and songs. They are sung here by everyone, and most often you hear them on the bus. Imagine the standard bus, packed to the ceiling with people and goods, rushing across the endless steppe, the sun setting over the distant hills, lighting up grazing herds of horses. Out of nowhere, just like that, the urt-duu steppe song begins to sound. Someone in the back makes a first, timid go at the melody, several people at once join up and next thing you know the entire bus is involved. Like a well-rehearsed orchestra, old and young, women and men sing their musical stories.
-What are the songs about?- I ask Chureł Baatar, whose by far the loudest singer.
– About how calmly life flows on the steppe.
Listen how Urna interprets Mongolian songs
There may not be any centenarians here, but there are thousand-year old words
It may be hard to believe, but the medieval accounts of travelers who saw Mongolia haven’t lost much in terms of their validity. Discovering the world strikingly similar to the one that Marco Polo, Carpine Giovanni da Pian or Wilhelm Rubruk saw has a magic quality to it. Coming face-to-face with the might of the Mongolian tradition brings about unease and awe at the same time. Just like the first European discoverers of Central Asia, we have to – for example – take care not to step on the doorstep when entering a yurt (doing so is a very bad omen) and be sure to flick the first few drops of archi (Mongolian vodka) in the four cardinal directions as a sacrifice.
Noho hor! Silence the dogs! – I shout out as hard as I can as I approach the patterned doors of the yurt standing in the middle of a boundless meadow. And while no ominous bark can be heard, these are the first words you are supposed to holler when paying someone a visit in the steppe. Noho hor is meant first and foremost to make known that weary travelers are approaching, although sometimes it may actually spare you an encounter with a not all too friendly sheepdog. Still absorbed by the fact that this is my first visit to a yurt, I frantically go over in my mind the ‘rules of good behavior’ I read up on before my trip. These rules may well be a thousand years old. How did they go again? All right, the guests all sit on the left hand side. When we’re handed a snack with both hands, we’re supposed to take it with both hands as well. If they pass us food with their right hand and use their left hand to hold up their right elbow, one is supposed to respond by doing the same gesture … My hands are getting all tangled up in the process, while the host family is clearly having a good time looking on as I do my best to keep up with the Mongolian savoir-vivre. Several pairs of black, cheerful eyes are fixed on us. We don’t doubt we’re none the better. We take in their dark hues and sharp facial features. Our gaze settles on the silk dresses of our hostess and her daughters. And so there we are, sitting opposite each other like creatures from two different worlds, not a word is spoken, we communicate with our grins. Two generations of round eyes and four generations of slanting eyes.
This is usually how a first visit to a yurt goes. After that it only gets better. It’s enough to learn a few Mongolian words and expressions to have a nice ‘chat’ about how the sky today is very blue, that you don’t get this kind of wind over in Poland and that my home country is five times smaller than Mongolia but has fifteen times the population Mongolia does. And you can even get used to salted tea with milk. Yes, when you come back to the yurt thirsty and tired after yet another day of traveling in the great outdoors, you can’t think of anything else excepting having a nice bowl of suutei tsai.
Don’t cross the water without asking about the ford
As I sit on a bus, which has gotten stuck in a wide and fast-flowing river with water slowly beginning to pour in through the windows, I remember these words of warning from Mongolian ancestors, and find they are quite ironic, given the situation I’ve found myself in. What’s more, outside is a dark and moonless night. Meanwhile, all the passengers, as if nothing had happened, are calmly moving their bundles from the left side of the bus, which is getting more and more stuck in the muddy water, over to the right side. Little kids nestle comfortably on the armrests of their seats. We’re all – including the driver – waiting for some type of liberator, who maybe will show up and deliver us from our oppression. Well saying it’s oppression is taking it too far – this is a part of everyday life on the roads of Mongolia. Why build bridges, when there are only a few crossings daily, and the river bursts its banks only after a major downpour. Luckily, not far from here there are several yurts and as chance would have it one of the people staying overnight is a driver of a tank truck with gasoline en ruet to the city of Altai. This is just the „emergency road assistance” we need. A few minutes pass and after having this refreshing bath, the bus is ready for the road. I am trying to recollected whether during the two months already spent in Mongolia I have ever come across so much as one Mongol who has lost his cool or shown even the slightest sign of irritation. An old proverb instructs: „if fire burns in your breast, don’t let out the smoke through your nose” and this is the moral code instilled in those for whom the steppe is home. This peace of mind is enviable. For a short moment, you let yourself be charmed by this harmony, rhythm of life, and you inevitably laugh to yourself at the contrasting Slavic impulsiveness and hastiness. But this Mongolian composure and patience is something more than just a trait of character. It’s an entire philosophy and way of life, a way of thinking and perceiving the outside world. In a way, it’s the essence of the entire nomadic culture. A culture so different from our Slavic one it’s pretty much impossible to really have an in-depth understanding and appreciation of it.
It’s a shame that one can’t have a vivid memory of tastes and smells of the places one travels to. Were this possible, one could not only show photographs but share with others the mysterious smell of the herbs on the meadow next to the shore of Lake Khövsgöl where we set up camp after another day of really pushing our Mongolian horses. Or the smell of soup cooked up on the fire by Gambataara – our guide – with some wild chives picked up along the way. Or the taste of tea brewed in water from the cleanest lake in the world…
But the number one taste in the world of the descendants of Genghis Khan is airag, otherwise known as kumys, or fermented mare’s milk. Airag is a cure for everything – says Baasan, an older professor and our companion to the far-away lands of the Mongolian Altai region. And his opinion sounds authoritative. If your stomach’s giving you problems, if you are suffering from headache, you are having trouble falling asleep, you’ve lost your appetite – drink airag! Sounds like a cool advertisement. It doesn’t take much to convince us. We are just finishing the second cup’s worth of this milky drink. A short, 20 minute break before we continue on our journey. I’ve lost track of how many breaks we’ve had. The bus driver along with the passengers have just decided that it’s high time for a refreshing bowl of kumys. We stop at the first available yurt and are in the process of ‘healing’ our poor stomachs, which are all shook up after a particularly bumpy road experience, with some airag. Airag taste a bit like kefir, except it’s a bit more tart, and in some regions of the country, slightly bitter. Everyone drinks it here, small children included, even though it has slightly over 2% alcohol. The mare is milked a few times a day, with the foal kept close to its stomach. The caring mare will allow herself to be milked only when it feels the presence of its own nearby. The milk is poured into leather sacks and mashed until it begins to froth. After fermenting overnight it’s ready to drink. You can never refuse kumys when it’s offered to you. Doing so would be like holding the ancient history of the Mongolian nation in low regard. Who knows, maybe the strength of this tradition is hidden in mare’s milk?
Once you get to drinking kumys in Mongolia, you’re treated as one of your own, all barriers and cultural differences break down. In one small bowl of mare’s milk you can find a piece of the Secret History of the Mongols along with a sense of the wild and primeval nature and a gust of the wind, which long, long ago founds its home in the steppe.
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…
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.
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…
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…
– 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…
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.
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.
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)
We stop over to have a picnic underneath a blooming coral tree with a vista spreading out before us of seemingly endless rocky bluffs of the Sabie River Valley, somewhere in the middle of the High Veld plateau which envelops a considerable part of South Africa. A scarlet-chested sunbird perched above is drinking the nectar from the red flowers. My daughter, Jagoda, draws a picture on the first page of her travel diary of a little bird with a curved beak and scarlet tummy. I will always have this image in front of me when thinking about the South African spring, which starts right about the time that in Poland we slowly say goodbye to the summer. Warmer days are ahead, and mild weather at night means comfortable conditions for camping, allowing you to really enjoy and get the most of nature and its nocturnal sounds. On the golden savanna, on the vast plateau lands and in the so-called Dragon Mountain range (Drakensberg) – everywhere here thorny trees and bushes are flowering, and amidst the still yellow grass, there are many tens of species of exotic flowers and herbs.
Giraffes on demand and lion roars at bedtime
The most important aim of our trip with young travellers is to observe the animal life and learn about African nature. Children mark off in an animal atlas what species they’ve been able to spot or… hear. Almost every day we are in some park or nature reserve, which South Africa is famous for, as is the small neighboring country of Swaziland.
Mom, remember when right after we crossed into the Kruger National Park, Staś said: „I wanna see a giraffe”. And a couple of meters down, next to the visitor center a giraffe was just standing there and grazing on the savanna like a cow or something? – Jagoda recalls.
We pitch the tent right after sunset at a neat little campsite on the southern side of the park in the lower reaches of the Sabie River. It’s a warm, August evening, the cicadas are singing, my birthday’s today and it’s our first night in Kruger National Park that I’ve read so much about. Before falling asleep the kids hear the distant roar of a lion, an elephant trumpet and the howling of the hyenas.… The next day we find out from the park rangers that there was in fact a lion prowling in the vicinity. We’re glad the roar of the ‘king of the beasts’ wasn’t just a figment of our imagination but the real call of the savanna… – The lion, after the tiger the largest cat in the world – the male lion can weigh up to 250 kg – I read to my kids from my nature notes. It lives in prides, each of which is ruled by a head lion. What a shame these magnificent animals live for such a short time – somewhere between 10 and 15 years… – I sigh as I celebrate my „lion” birthday.
Kruger National Park, the most famous national park in South Africa stretches 350 km along the border with Mozambique from the Limpopo River Valley to the Crocodile River. It was established in 1898 to protect African fauna against uncontrolled hunting. It was founded by Paul Kruger, the then President of the former South African Republic, which was part of today’s Republic of South Africa.
The monotonous, grassy savanna is bristling with thorn trees. Silence, wind and all around us a home without walls for wild and free animals. In amongst the hostile, thorny vegetation, you get frequent glimpses of herds of charming impalas and zebras, elephant families communicating with booming grunts amongst themselves, pairs of giraffes munching on thorn tree leaves, crazy warthogs with their babies as well as hippopotamuses with bloodshot eyes hidden deep in lush swamps… We’re slowly getting better at identifying the different species of antelope – greater kudu, blue wildebeest, bushbuck, duiker… on occasion a troup of Chakma baboons crosses the road we’re travelling on, in the process eyeing us in a rather hostile way. We feel like we are in a never-ending nature film. I can remember bone-chilling accounts of baboons in one of Alexander Lake’s books, which he referred to as „grey villains”. They’re intelligent, even dangerous, especially if they become furious. Even leopards feel respect toward them. Baboons supposedly have a habit of throwing their victims over a cliff edge… – On the upside, they are very caring and protective of their offspring – I make this point to my kids, so they’re not overwhelmed by the intense description of the species I’ve given so far and I look over at a baby baboon holding on to its mother, which is sitting some 50 meters away from our car.
Kids enjoy listening to stories about animals. I often read out to them from my own notes. We’re travelling with a book full of African folk tales illustrated with photographs by the Polish reporter and traveler Ryszard Kapuściński. In every tale there’s an animal – you could say it’s the age old synergy of humans and nature in Africa.
– The crocodiles were the most terrifying – says Jagoda after an encounter with the reptiles in the Mlilwane Nature Sanctuary in Swaziland. It gives you the chills. When zebras, giraffes or antelopes have gathered to drink from a small lake or river, a crocodile can drag these creatures into the water where it will suffocate them and then leave in a swampy area for it to rot. Only then does it tear it up into shreds and swallow its victim in pieces, because it can’t chew its prey. The more spoiled the meat is, the yummier it is for the croc… yuck! – the young student of nature has a telling grimace on her face. – We once stayed over with a super family, who took baths in a small lake, where crocodiles and hippos were swimming around. There was always someone on the lookout for them. They invited us to go swimming with them, but luckily we got to the lake when it was already getting dark. The only thing looking at me from the water were the eyes of the crocodiles and hippopotamuses – Jagoda remembers.
A meeting with a rhinoceros
– Staś? What are you favoritre animals in Africa? – I ask.
– Rhinoceros is the first…that’s easy… Second place is the hippo, third place goes to the elephant. That elephant which showed its butt to us on the savanna… – replies the little discoverer with an Innocent smile…
Staś was four years old then, and he really did take a great liking for rhinoceroses. We saw white rhinoceroses – the largest species, with a wide mouth, and black rhinoceroses – a critically endangered species. Efforts to save these remarkable animals from extinction are being undertaken on the most ambitious scale by the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi National Park in eastern South Africa, the land of the Zulus. After a couple of hours driving around the park we stop in the middle of the main road and start studying the map to see where else we can go to look for rhinos. All of a sudden Staś shouts – Hey! All three of us almost at the same time pop our heads up from under the map…and what we see leaves us speechless. There, a female white rhinoceros, which is calmly chewing on some thorny twigs taken from a bush, is passing by in front of the hood of our car with a baby rhino as if nothing had happened. Right behind them follows an enormous male with huge curved horns; the larger of the two horns has got to be literally a meter and a half! The three animals look like they were the essence of gentleness and calm – hard to believe that when on the run they can somtimes reach speeds of even 50 km/h! – You know, Staś, that rhinos live a long time, some 40-50 years. Maybe one day when you come back here, you’ll meet the same rhino, and I think the baby one may even be around your age…
To the delight of our youngest traveler, we end up seeing these spectacular animals a few more times. Staś keeps a memento of his trip to South Africa – a 10-rand banknote. The front has an image of Nelson Mandela, while the back – an image of a white rhinoceros. What an interesting combination!
In the land of the Zulu
“The family that takes baths in a small lake with crocodiles and hippos”, which Jagoda talked about earlier consists of: Ronell, Charlie, their son Felix and a friend of the family – volunteer by the name of Pushi. They live on the Mbazwane dunes, a few kilometers from the shore of Indian Ocean, near Sibaya lake, in the land of the Zulu people. Through the couchsurfing service they have invited us to stay at their home, which is located on a small organic farm atop a sandy hill and surrounded by the savanna, where a warm and strong wind is constantly blowing. A wind turbine provides them with electricity and is also used to pump up water from a depth of almost 100 m underground. Ronell Mostert is a native Afrikaner who speaks Afrikaans, a language originally spoken by Dutch settlers who came to what is today South Africa in the 17th century. She helps the local Zulu community run cultural and environmental projects. She set up a local organization, a cultural & meeting center and a community vegetable garden. – My dream is for ecotourism to flourish in the region – she says – I’ll show you what we’re planning on doing. Ronell takes us to some friendly neighbors who are local Zulu – to the house of Nomosanto and Nokwanda Zikhali. A dozen or so cheery kids are running around with our kids in the courtyard. Language and cultural barriers practically disappear, they even end up dancing together. Jagoda looks on with amazement at the smoothness and harmony in the movements of the native South Africans. Their sense of rhythm is truly something to envy! In the meantime, the grownups are looking at a collection of mats made of plaited grass and rush and a Zulu round reed hut in the shape of a beehive, which is to be rented out to tourists. As the sun sets, we all take part in a photo session. Ronell to this day continues to write to me on a regular basis with updates on what’s going on ‘on the ground’, what they’ve been able to accomplish together, what problems and challenges they’re up against*. I look on with hope at how people of different colors in South Africa are building relationships with one another. I talk with Jagoda about apartheid. I tell her about Nelson Mandela, how he fought for the freedom and equal rights for black and white South Africans – All people have to be treated equal, no one’s better or worse, more important or less important… – declares Jagoda. In South Africa, after the end of apartheid there are 11 official languages! You know, Jagoda, that the Zulu language is spoken by one-fourth of the population of South Africa, and half the population of this country understands it?
It’s hard to end on a few pages the story of my African adventure, as if it wasn’t quite over yet. I wouldn’t want to miss out on telling these stories. There were many. How the mischievous mongooses settled on the beachside bar in Sodwana Bay with its brilliant view onto the Indian Ocean, and what trouble they caused at sunset. How a band of intrusive monkeys planned to break into a beach-house to get bread, bananas and corn flakes. How 200 meters from our tent, snorting hippopotamuses were walking around in search of food. And finally, how small African penguins were participating in swimming races on one of the southernmost beaches of Africa, not far from Cape town…Oh, and also about a certain ostrich, which was in the habit of posing for photographs on the Cape of Good Hope.
When you’re on the road with kids, you see the world through their lens – it’s a more diverse, peculiar, unpredictable world full of details that would often be overlooked by an adult. – What’s Africa’s color? – I ask Staś – A bit of blue, because it’s so big that it almost reaches the edge of the sky. And green as well as golden … I like golden and blue. But mom, the animals from Africa I like the most are actually grey.. Fine, grey is also an all right color. And these animals, I’m sure they love the color green best, just as the color of the grass on the savanna…
copyright: Dominika Zaręba / English translation: Piotr Szmigielski
Worldwide there are currently ca. 209 thousand protected areas, which span almost 15,4% of the land area and 3,4% of the ocean area (32 million km2 according to 2014 United Nations List of Protected Areas, UNEP, 2014). Ecotourism is a form of travel that aims to protect the most valuable natural areas on Earth. It stands for a new form of symbiosis between humans and the natural environment. Nature brings us tourists joy and in exchange we have to make sure it is protected and can be preserved for future generations.
Dominika Zaręba – publicystka, autorka książek i przewodników turystycznych, z wykształcenia ekonomistka. Propagatorka ekopodróżowania, autorka pierwszej w Polsce książki o ekoturystyce („Ekoturystyka”, PWN, IV wyd. 2020). Współzałożycielka Wydawnictwa Bezdroża. Stworzyła program zielonych szlaków – greenways w Polsce, współtworzyła greenways w Europie Środkowo-Wschodniej i zainicjowała powstanie zielonych szlaków na Białorusi i Ukrainie. Jest związana z Funduszem Partnerstwa i międzynarodowym Stowarzyszeniem Environmental Partnership Association, członkiem sieci Global Ecotourism Network. Współpracuje z licznymi organizacjami promującymi turystykę zrównoważoną na świecie.
Dominika Zaręba – economist, freelance columnist and traveler, author of tourist guides and books. Author of Poland’s first book dedicated to ecotourism (“Ekoturystyka”, PWN, 4th ed. 2020). She works with with civil society organizations from all over the world, especially from Central and Eastern Europe. She laid the foundations for the greenways program in Poland and initiated creation of greenway networks across Central and Eastern Europe (including Ukraine and Belarus). She is active with many environmental NGOs and ecotourism networks in Europe and world-wide, associated with the Partnership Fund, Environmental Partnership Association and the Global Ecotourism Network.