“If you live in harmony with nature you will never be poor; if you live according what others think, you will never be rich.” This is one of our favorite quotes by Seneca.
Zizira explorers recently visited Mawsynram. Known as the wettest place an Earth, Mawsynram also is known for its honey. And quite literally, we experienced living with the bees.
It was still dark on a Thursday morning on 16th January 2020, when we started from Shillong. We set out on a three days trip to the most remote villages in Meghalaya to explore what lies in secret in the corners of the jungle.
Our explorers on this trip were Ralph, Bipul, Badshai, Khraw, Peter, and lastly, Me. I'm Chan, by the way, and today I want to share my experiences with you from this trip.
We travelled 60.7 km towards Marsynram, where we met Kong Elvira's husband, our beekeeper. He was our guide to the villages. He took us to a 25-minute drive to Kenmynsaw, a village famous for bamboo craft. We drove by the mountain canyon roads, that had deep drop cliffs on the sides. The view of the mountain ranges was breathtaking.
As we entered the village, we witnessed the life of a villager's busy day – men loading sacks of bay leaf into a mini lorry. A couple of sumo cars and pickup trucks were seen, which were packed with goods, lumber, and people sitting uncomfortably on the roof. We could smell the bay leaf aroma filling village as it was still harvesting season.
As we began climbing to the top of the village, we came across a grandmother sitting on her porch. This lady was weaving cone bamboo baskets called "Khoh," in Khasi. Her name was Kong Ephlon Pdah.
She makes up to four to five baskets a day. She makes them only after her she completes her chores. The money that she gets from one Khoh is just enough to meet her basic household needs, but not enough to make a living.
We later met Kong Sruda Kynter (a basket weaving leader) and her husband. We learnt that their ancestors began this art of making baskets many years ago. Since then this village has become famous for this skill.
Basket making is the primary source of income for the villagers in Kenmynsaw. Everyone in the village knows to weave a Khoh, right from the age of 10 years. Neighbouring villages can also weave, but Kynmynsaw has the highest population of weavers.
Young women would come to meet Kong Sruda Kynter for basket weaving training from 10 am - 4 pm every day. There are around 200 weavers who have enrolled with the department of Handicraft, amongst the others who are unregistered. Sruda shared with us that the weavers are learning other new designs; however, the learning process is slow.
The men of the village take up the more substantial role of collecting 'Siej' (bamboos) and 'Thri' (canine) from the forest. They hunt for two types of bamboo for the baskets: "Siej-Shken," a greenish color bamboo which has a slippery texture used for big products like Khoh, and "Siej-Lieh" a lighter color bamboo which has more grip, for smaller products like bamboo handbags and small bamboo baskets.
The bamboo is preserved by boiling in natural Turmeric or Tea. Turmeric gives a yellowish color, and the Tea gives a green finish to the products. It is preferred to use natural dyes to chemical dye since the products might be used for food packages.
We left the village and went back to Mawsynram to begin our nearly 2 hours trek to a remote village called 'Thieddieng.'
It was a downhill trek, and we had our loaded outdoor backpack and supplies to carry. Our journey was beautiful. We were mesmerized by the majestic cliffs, canyons, and the eagles that were soaring down in the valleys.
Thieddieng village has around 80 houses. The village felt calm and peaceful, as it is far from the humming town and market.
After the long trek down the mountains, we reached Elvira's home around 4 pm to camp for the night.
Elvira and her family and some curious children welcomed us to the village.
If you recall, Elvira is our famous Mawsynram Honey farmer who raises honey for Zizira.
As soon as we step on her porch, we saw almost twenty beehives in cemented containers sitting under the orange trees. The bees surely did not forget to welcome us with their endless buzzes.
Elvira has always been a sweet lady, and her hospitality made our visit even more delightful. She served us tea with tapioca, and plenty of fresh oranges to replenish our energy.
We didn't waste much time as it was getting dark quickly. We rushed into the jungle nearby, where Elvira had more hives to show us.
We learned that Elvira expanded her beekeeping business from 40 hives to 100 in two months since she met Zizira. She kept most of her hives in the jungle.
Elvira's husband taught us wild bee scouting and showed us how he searched for new queen bees from the wild. He would shove his hand inside every hollow tree trunk, hoping that he would find hives inside.
We learned that bees prefer to build their hives in empty places with a tiny entrance. It makes them feel more protected from predators.
We are passionate about connecting with farmers, and it is moments like these that we can get to the core of our vision to build relationships with them.
We learn about their journeys, share knowledge, and listen to their challenges.
That evening, everybody sat down on the wooden floor in her tiny hut. We shared stories and raised numerous curious questions about bees.
We couldn't wait to hear from our traditional bee experts.
How did you start your beekeeping business?
Beekeeping, in her family, is traced back to her father's hobby. As a young girl, Elvira learned how to raise bees from her father. Her father taught her all of the beekeeping tactics that she possesses. As her father grew old and weary, the business started dying.
Several years passed, as Elvira had to pursue her school and studies in Shillong. However, after Elvira married her husband, her husband gave this bright idea of reviving the business to earn their living. It was a challenge, as they had to start the business from scratch. Her husband would go to the forest every day in search of a queen bee and some sampling to start a new hive.
Elvira's stories got us even more engrossed.
But, where does the Queen bee come from?
Her husband, the real expert, explained that before the "Ngap Kiaw/Syiem" (queen bee) is formed, the bees prepare the "Ngap Tung" (male bees) first. The bees have a unique way of knowing when to make what first. He believes that the bees from the hives understand if they are strong enough to have a male bee and a queen bee. Hives that have a queen bee can yield more and are more productive.
Don't the bees sting when you extract the honey?
"Yes!', she said. The bees sting, but sometimes they understand that the owner needs the honey.
Elvira's husband takes care of the bees sincerely. He understands well what the bees like, and what they don't. He knows when the honey is ready for extraction, and how much to leave for the bees. Elvira's husband has learned the technique of extracting honey with care. He blows some of the honey scents back into the hive so that the bees will go back in.
Is the honey throughout the year the same? we asked Elvira.
She explained to us the different factors that determine the quality of the honey. Bees tend to work more in summers and less in winters.
Mawsynram has the highest rainfall in the world. Hence the monsoon honey is lighter than the winter version honey. However, most of the bees do not return in the monsoon when it rains heavily.
Each hive would produce up to 8-10 kg of honey but this varies from season to season.
Can you tell us how has Zizira impacted your life?
Elvira gave a heartfelt response and expressed her gratitude that Zizira has made her life more convenient.
It used to be challenging to find a good sale, despite carrying ten bottles to the market and walking for 2 hours every week. She would often have to stay in the towns nearby the market overnight. Zizira helped her find a promising market, where she doesn't have to worry about earning money. She has expanded her beekeeping business from 40 hives to 100 in two months since she met Zizira.
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Later that night, before dinner, we had raw honeycomb tasting.
Raw honey, which is collected three times a year, has a light color, and taste fresh. However, the honey that is left in the hive for a year turns brownish and feels dry. It has lesser honey compared to the fresh one.
Camping Outdoors, Next to The Bees
After dinner, we unloaded our bags and had our tents and sleeping bags set up. It was quieter at night, and bees must have slept.
The next morning, we were awakened by the sound of bees buzzing, like an alarm without a snooze.
We packed our tents and made a quick stop at the Orange Blossom orchards near an old church. There were plenty of orange trees filled with delicious ripe oranges.
We gathered a few oranges for our journey and began our 2-hour hike to the top of the mountain for our next village.
But, that's a story on my next blog. I'm curious to know what struck you the most about this story of our Epic Trip.
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