Thursday, June 18, 2009

Remote Mountain Adventure!

For days, Panagiotis (my host and head of Peliti’s seed community) has been telling me he will take me on a surprise trip to the mountains. Yesterday, the day finally came. Panagiotis picked me up at 5 am and we began the journey with excitement. Along the way I learned about the people we were going to visit. Starting in 1997 Panagiotis began travelling to the Pomak villages in the Xanthi province in Northern Greece. The Pomak are an ethnic minority in Greece. They are Muslim, speak Pomaki, and live in a drastically different way from the rest of Greece. They were isolated from much of Greece as a result of their religious and linguistic differences. However, their extreme isolation is also due to the remote areas where they live and their close proximity to the borders of Bulgaria and Turkey. For generations the three countries have fought over these people and their land. The entire history is too complex to explain, but today the people are still a mix of these various cultures. They are a part of Greece, but many speak Turkish and all are Muslim.
During and after the Second World War it was difficult to travel in and out of their area because of their close proximity to the Bulgarian border (which was communist).

As a result of their isolation, Panagiotis found an impressive diversity of plants, seeds, and animals when he first began travelling in this region. Since 1997, these people have been a source of seeds and knowledge for Peliti. I listened to tales of the Pomak people and Panagiotis collecting missions as the fog cleared over the green hills. The area suddenly felt different as we began to observe people in traditional Muslim clothes. Not typical in Greece, many people were out working very early in the morning. At this hour, most Greeks are still sleeping off their souvlaki, wine, and music from the night before (partly joking, but often true). Along the way we stopped in a larger village to buy bread from a local bakery. The people had a distinctly different look, with blue eyes and often blonde hair. Sadly, much of the land was covered in Tobacco fields. Even at this hour, the fields were full of men with black caps and women with colored scarves and gowns weeding and spraying the tobacco. None of them wore protection while spraying and old ladies with extreme osteoporosis still bent over to weed. Like much of Greece, most of the young people leave here to go to the cities. Not exactly the bucolic mountain village I was imagining.

After a few hours of driving through lush valleys filled with rivers, cotton, and a few old men riding their donkeys slowly down the road we got to our first destination. We were now high in the mountains, far from the cotton fields below. All around us, animals grazed happily. As soon as we stopped an older man came out to greet us. He had a calm smile and embraced us warmly. This man was a friend of Panagiotis. One farmer we met earlier had been hiking up this valley and he had stumbled on Achmed’s farm. The village is small and extremely simple. There are no large concrete houses like the rest of Greece and many houses are still made of stone. The families are largely self-sufficient and grow almost all their own food. Rye is the principal crop in this area. It was exciting for me because it was the first area I had been to where Rye was grown. Ached had both winter and spring rye. He showed us the seeds and explained when he planted and harvested each. The rye was used to feed their animals (goats, cows, and sheep) but was also important to the human’s diet. It was primarily made into flour for bread. Achmed explained how the winter Rye this year had been destroyed by dogs and weather. Luckily, he had plenty of Spring Rye seed to plant in the same field.

After a month in Greece, I would never believe that a place like this existed here...
For me, Greece seems very developed and modern. Even the small gardeners use rototillers, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides. However, here everything is done by hand with no chemicals. Like so many countries I’ve visited, animals plow the land. Donkeys or mules are the beast of burden in this region and the farmers continue to use them not for fun, but for survival. Until recently they did not have electricity and were isolated from Greece. In turn, the knowledge of how to prepare the land, grow food, preserve food, and live in a community has remained central. Even today, the villagers become largely cut off from the rest of the world during winters. After showing us his rye seeds, Panagiotis collected a range of traditional corns from Achmed. All the seeds were stored in a barn made from local wood, with a roof of the rye straw. To this day, they still select the rye not just for taste or history, but also its ability to grow well in the mountains and its use as thatching for roofs. Achmed explained to his that the rye comes from his grandfather and even farther back. He said they have never stopped growing it in this area, and it is important for both the animals and humans. Achmed and his wife also save seeds from beans, tomatoes, peppers, and onions. He never buys seeds and was confused when I asked if he had ever tried growing hybrids. All seeds he grows are from his family or community. If something ever happens he acquires local seeds from his neighbors.
We got a tour of Achmed’s fields, which were scattered over the hills. I felt like I was back in the Andes again as we scampered through steep fields to try to keep up with the farmer. They had just finished cutting a large field of grass by hand to store for the winter (with a scythe). Achmed showed me the rye fields and explained how the cut the crop with a small sickle and then thresh it by beating it on wood. Like nearly every place I’ve been the grain is then winnowed by pouring it from above and utilizing the natural wind to blow away the chaff. I thought that I would never find a place in Greece where people still harvested the grains by hand, but here it is! I have been disappointed when various wheat farmers showed me their combines from America or special new equipment (not to say this is all bad, but I could learn about large combines in America if I wanted). It is amazing to see that once again the mountains are the last place where not only seeds, but traditional knowledge still remains. I could spend years learning from Achmed all he knows about the land, growing rye, raising animals for both milk and meat, grafting fruit trees, etc.
We enjoyed a fresh glass of milk (amazing), loaded up the car with corn and white cherry trees (a special Greek Variety) and continued on our journey. Achmed was amazed that an American had travelled around the world to see his seeds and I was joyous to have been able to come here and learn a small bit of the traditional knowledge. After driving for about an hour we stopped at one of the many hot springs. It was nice to see the local men and women walk to have their daily bath in the thermal water. The water was much too hot for me, but an interesting experience nonetheless. Sweaty and dazed we continued our voyage, stopping to take photos of various rye or oat fields, high mountain villages, and unique breeds of cows. We enjoyed a late breakfast of warm bread, olives, cheese, and fruit.

All of a sudden, Panagiotis turned sharply off the main road onto a small dirt road. He explained that we were now beginning our journey to the next village of the day, much farther and more remote. We stopped a man in his truck and Panagiotis asked directions. The man refused to give us directions for over five minutes and kept saying the village we wanted to go to was too far. He said it was dangerous and we get lost on the dirt roads many times. The first time Panagiotis came here in 2003 there was not a road to the village. He hiked to the village with a photographer friend. After getting lost many times, he finally arrived. They stayed one day, collected seeds and took many photos. These photos were spread through Peliti and journalist friends came to do a story. Soon after, the local government apologized and put a “new road” to the village. Today we had the luxury of driving to our destination, but still had many hours on dirt roads and possible wrong turns with no people to ask.

This area was markedly different from the last. It was much drier and hotter. Instead of lush, green hills there were steep, harsh mountains. Along the way we saw a few very isolated villages high in the hills and stopped various old women who pointed us in the right direction and continued to tell us it was too far. Miraculously we reached the village after a few hours. Many of the stone houses were abandoned or dilapidated and the place had a strange, sad feel to it. Panayiotis may have sensed my feelings of disappointment after such a journey and explained that even if a place appears poor when you arrive, you have been given the beautiful trip here and can always find something of value.

My sense of apprehension dissipated as our second kind host greeted us. The man lives in a beautiful, incredibly simple stone house with his wife. It is built into the hill under a large tree and is surrounded by a vegetable field, fruit trees, and many animals. Our hosts were extremely happy to see the photos which Panagiotis showed of his previous visit here. These astounding images of bean seeds, tomatoes, and their traditional farms and houses were featured in various articles and Peliti publications. Both the husband and the wife beamed with joy as they looked over the photos and welcomed an American into their home. They were ashamed to let me see inside but filled with pride that I had come to see their seeds and farm. The border of Bulgaria was within eyesight and over a glass of slightly fermented milk they explained how hard times had been before. The majority of people had left as a result of this. During the war, they would be yelled at by Police for even looking at the Bulgarian border. Up until a few years ago they had no road, electricity, etc. All supplies they needed had to be carried up the steep mountain from kilometers below. Due to both the lack of a road and the politics they were extremely isolated from any neighbors. I couldn’t believe that the path we had come up was the “new” road, which they were so happy about. It was an extremely challenging, rocky road but at least they could drive supplies up with a 4X4 whenever they needed them.

Both the husband and wife were very excited to show us their vegetable fields. They save their seed from everything they grow and explained to me that the varieties were all very old. They have never bought seeds from down below, but they once bought chickens. The purchased chickens could not survive more than a year here because they couldn’t fly and escape the predators. Their local chickens are able to evade hawks, survive off little food, and produce excellent eggs (which are tastier and they say have little cholesterol). They grow three varieties of tomatoes. One is grown and saved because it is fast and produces early, the other is excellent for sauces, and the third is their favorite. It grows very tall and produces tomatoes like none they’ve seen anywhere else. The inside of tomatoes sparkle and our host explained they taste excellent no matter how you eat them. They said that there is no reason to try new varieties because these grow well here with only manure and little water, and produce better tasting tomatoes than they could ever buy. They also grow 2 types of potatoes, 2 types of pumpkins (one is black), 3 types of corn, and at least 8 types of beans. Our hosts excitedly explained why they are good (whether for taste, fast growing time, or color). When I asked about how they prepare the land for planting our host immediately showed me his aged manure and the equipment they use to plow. He then asked me if I wanted to see how they do it. Before I could answer he had ran to get their work mule. It was wonderful to see the simple process of how they harness the mule and use it to plow. We each got to take a turn plowing and they were full of pride top explain their methods and tradition.

After plowing, the wife called us over to the shade where she sat with their bags of seeds. I was blown away by the bean diversity they still grown and consume. Beans are my favorite seeds, not just because of their beauty and diverse colors. In one form or another, beans are crucial to nearly all self sufficient people or ecological farmers. They are extremely nutritious (protein) and also help to restore the land by capturing nitrogen for the soil. Through a series of three or four languages we learned as much about the beans as we could. The husband translated from Pomaki to Greek and Panayiotis then translated to English for me. Some of the beans were excellent dried in soups, while others were fresh. One variety could survive with no water, while others grew very tall up the corn. They continually told us how old these beans were and said their grandparents had used these beans here and their grandparents too. After collecting some corn, bean, and potatoes we got a tour of the animals. The chickens, sheep, goats, donkeys, and cows were all very unique and were adapted to live well in these harsh conditions, with only a bit of cracked corn as a supplement.
We ended our visit by sharing another glass of milk and I asked every question I could think of. It was very inspiring to see these people still lived here and kept the seeds and knowledge alive. However, it was very sad to hear that only about 5 people remained in the village. They told us stories of the hard times and how their sons are now working in England, Germany, or Athens. It is a strange irony how they were proud to tell us of their sons Mercedes, but they continue to live in such a simple way. They didn’t answer when I asked what would happen to their farm and seeds later. Luckily Panagiotis has met these people, but there are many other villages in this area with no young people. As the old people get sick or pass away we lose not just the seeds but the agricultural systems and extensive knowledge of how to live and farm in an ecological way (they use no chemicals and their crops looked great!).

I asked my last question about how they preserve their food for the winter and we spent the next half hour hearing recipes and seeing their various canned products. A few of the things they make are cheese, yogurt, pickled vegetables, tomato sauce, and various canned meat products. As another gift, they gave me one jar of goat meat in a bottle from last year (looks extremely unappetizing, but I’m sure it’s good). We bid our sad farewell and continued the journey through rough mountain roads.
The road improved slightly as we got down into the valley. The heavy rain began all of a sudden and we spotted a shepherd standing in the rain. We asked him for a ride and he politely declined, saying he had to stay with his animals. The rain covered him as he smiled from ear to ear and wished us a good journey. Like their animals and plants, they are very hardy people! For over an hour we guessed which dirt road to take, hoping we would make it out. Miraculously we emerged onto the paved road that brought us to the closest town. We were very happy to have made it out of the rough mountains and rain (the car badly needed oil), but shocked to be thrown back into busy urban life. In only an hour we were transported to another world. The rough mountain roads, mule-plow, and colorful beans seemed like a world away!

I am very glad Panagiotis took me to see these special people. They are some of the last in Greece still retaining and farming their ancestor’s seeds. For them, the seeds still mean survival and their historical story has not been broken. Many have started to grow traditional seeds again through Pelitis’ work, but very few retain the agricultural knowledge and continue to grow the local crops on the same land their ancestors did, with no machines and no chemicals. These remote areas were more developed than most places I’ve been this year and the people do buy flour and many other things from the market. However, the connection to the land and much of the knowledge still remains. This morning I ate the eggs from their chickens and fondled my new bean collection. Another magical adventure!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

thank you for this description. Have you finished your travels?