TRANSHUMANCE – THE STORY OF THE SHEPHERDS | by Szabolcs Ivan
As the old Transylvanian saying goes:
“Women are not human,
Beer is not a drink,
And bears are not a joke!”
We entered a dimly lit local pub in Csíkszereda, deep in Transylvania, Romania, sat down at a large wooden table and before we ordered drinks, my new friend Albin, quietly apologised to the waitress. “Hmm” he muttered. “Well… ahem…you know it wasn’t me and…. I just have to say sorry.” I couldn’t make out what he was saying but after a tense and what seemed eternity of silence…. “It’s all right” answered the waitress, avoiding eye contact. “What do you want to drink?” “Bring us two palinkas,” Albin replied. She left and returned swiftly, bringing the palinka (a strong fruit brandy favoured by the locals, incredibly potent at between 40% and 70% proof!). After a couple of drinks the effects of the palinka were clearly favourable and conversation inevitably became more fluid and relaxed, or at least from my side of the table! Albin was the son of a vet, also named Albin, my main contact, who regularly visited a nearby flock of sheep to check up on them. The younger Albin was a guy well known for his untamed temper in many local circles, rough around the edges, just like most of the locals around the area. He talked in short, straight-to-the point sentences, never holding back. “I’m telling you, it’s a rough world out there,” he stated. “It’s not easy for anyone. Hard to make ends meet. Hard to make money. And the shepherds have to be tough. It’s a very tough way to make a living. But you’ll see tomorrow morning, when you go out with my father.” “I can’t wait to see them” I said with excitement. “But Albin, as I said before, I don’t want to be a burden on anybody. I heard that there isn’t much space in the shepherd huts. I’ve brought my sleeping bag and I can just find a space somewhere outside. I’ll be fine. I have travelled to different parts of the world and slept in uncomfortable places before. I guarantee it won’t be a problem.” I assured him naively. He was shaking with laughter. He flicked the ash off his cigarette, threw the palinka down his throat, shook his head and said “It’s not discomfort you will have to worry about. Or the wolves and the bears, because they won’t find you. The shepherd dogs will tear you apart in matter of seconds!” He laughed again, “Don’t worry about it. My father is going to sort out everything for you.” “I’m happy to hear that.” I answered with uncertainty. Then changing the subject “Shall we now drink some beer with this palinka?” “Beer is not a drink!” he said quoting from the old Transylvanian proverb. “But if you want to, why not?”.
After a lot more alcohol and many more stories about the dangers of wolves and bears, that the shepherds have to protect their flock from, I was grateful that the many tales I’d heard about this before, didn’t prove to be of myth or legend. These people really do have to face these beasts! I fought hard to focus on retaining all that Albin was saying. “The wolves are unbelievably strong and there is normally more than one of them when they attack,” he continued. “ They hunt in a pack and are very cunning. They always come in the worst weather, for cover. One of them runs away creating a diversion, tricking the dogs, making them run after him, while the others steal a sheep and escape. The wolves have such a strong neck and jaws meaning they can carry a sheep for kilometres. By the morning nothing is left of the poor sheep! Absolutely nothing but scattered wool all over the ground.” I was quickly sobering with every word. “When the dogs can’t scare them away and there is a fight.” he paused. “The collars of the dogs do have nails poking out like spikes, to deter the wolves when they attack and grab at the dogs’ necks. It’s not much of a deterrent. They often don’t have a chance. These are wild animals and they’re very hungry and combined with an intense instinct for survival. They have nothing to lose.” He said with a slight tone of what I interpreted as empathy. I was certainly sober now and needed to know more. “And the bears?” I queried trying to sound as normal as possible despite an unnerving feeling that I may not experience as much of the trip as I’d like due to the wolves having dined on fresh, non ovine, photographer meat! “The bears?” he asked. There was a long silence and just when I gave up on getting an answer he responded, “My friend, one swing of it’s paw and the wooden fence that “protects” the flock is shred to pieces. The bears can carry one sheep, sometimes two, eating them while running from the dogs” he finished. There wasn’t much more talk of the bears. I sensed the respect in his voice and concluded that the Transylvanian saying was not meant to be as glib as I first thought. ’Bears (are most definitely) not a joke!”
The subject was finished, so we talked about the ’esztenas’, little dwellings that the shepherds live in. They make their cheese from sheep’s milk there and use these esztena as their base while they tend to their flock. We talked more about the shepherds’ everyday life and their duties while we were walking back to his home. Before we went to bed I had to ask about something which was playing on my mind since we first started talking at the pub. “Please don’t feel obligated to answer Albin, but can I ask you one more question?”. “Cut the bullshit” was his succinct request. “Of course,” was my instant response, swiftly followed by, “so why did you apologise to the waitress at the bar?” uncertain he would offer an explanation. “Oh, just because the other night I was with a group of friends and we went to the pub after closing. The waitress refused to serve us drinks and well, some of the others weren’t too happy, but after slapping her once or twice, they got their drink. I don’t like that kind of thing. I just reminded her, that I wasn’t the one that had slapped her, and apologised for my friends, that’s all.” He finished unashamedly. “Oh, okay. Well good night then.” I was no longer puzzled at the first line of the old Transylvanian saying. There was obviously no sexual equality in this part of Romania and went to sleep knowing it certainly was a different world out here.
The next morning a little foggy from the previous night’s palinka drinking experience, I felt slightly more prepared for what lay ahead. We picked up Ignác, one of the owners of the sheep that the shepherds look after and we started our shaky journey to the esztena by four wheel drive. There are two other forms of transport that can reach these remote mountainous places; tractors or horse drawn carts! We reached the esztena and I instantly found out that Albin wasn’t exaggerating about the dogs! As soon as they noticed us they started to run with aggressive intent, barking at the car. Nobody wanted to be the first out the vehicle. We unwillingly pushed each other out of the jeep and stayed in a back-to-back formation. I tried to count how many dogs there were, but the pack were moving so fast that I lost count after about six or seven! I didn’t know which way to turn, they were circling around us, barking viciously! These were large bodied, long haired, ferocious looking mongrels. Ignác was scanning the nearby floor area trying to spot an object or something that he could scare the dogs off with. He resorted to tearing up a piece of turf from the ground to threaten the dogs with.
Thankfully, one of the shepherds approached us and the ring of savage dogs around us dispersed and the situation was quickly diffused. Ignoring the fact that I was indeed close to becoming what I assume to be a tasty treat to Romanian Sheepdogs. I was somewhat amused by the comparison of the British Sheepdog you see on the television and what I’d just survived. Using that far friendlier image and grabbing my camera gear, I was then taken down to the sheep enclosure, which the shepherds call the ’cage’ to watch them milk the sheep. This small shepherding community consisted of a family of four and two other workers. Three of the men were milking the sheep, while the fourth was encouraging the flock into the milking pen with a whip. There were roughly three hundred sheep to milk, a process repeated three times daily. Everything was going well. Everyone was working hard and concentrating on their work. I was getting some great shots in the warm morning light and the only cardinal rule that I had to adhere to, whilst focusing and figuring out the right exposure I wanted to use, was that I could not go further than a meter and a half away from the shepherds, because of the dogs!
I soon I had to ask the question, even though I suspected I already knew the answer. “Could you please tell me where the toilet is?” As I asked the question out of instinct, hearing it out loud, I realised how stupid it sounded. The shepherd looked at me and I saw that he was racking his brain to understand my clearly laughable question. “We do not have one,” he answered politely to my obvious stupidity. “Just find anywhere you can by some bushes or trees,” he continued whilst pointing in the direction of the nearest bush. “Okay” I said slinging my camera over my shoulder and started to wander off in the direction of some bushes. “Wait! The dogs!” shouted the shepherd. I retreated, back nearer to the shepherd, with the experience from my arrival still fresh in my memory. The elder Albin came over. “Don’t worry,” said the vet. “Robi will escort you.” “No thanks,” I replied. “You know what? I don’t have to go anymore!” “Are you sure?” he checked. “Absolutely” I answered, while a bead of sweat rolled down my temple.
When the shepherds were finished with their job of milking, they took the milk to the esztena, poured it into a wooden tub and covered it with a white cloth. I now had the chance to study and capture the hut. The little dwelling had two separate spaces. The first one was a small room with a wooden table, a bench, a stove and the tub filled with milk. Slightly above head height, there was a wide shelf with large round cheese lined up. The walls of the room been painted at some point with a reddish colour, that had faded over time. The room was perfect for photographing with the soft light that seeped through the tiny window. The other room was even smaller and very sparsely furnished. This was where most of the community slept and this room contained only two tiny beds, one of which the family shared. The wooden planked floor was uneven and there was a wide gap between the floorboards and the wall. There was also a sizable patch where the mud had flaked off the wall, revealing the long, rib-like wooden planks.
I had been told that the community stays at the esztena until the weather turns warmer. Travelling further into the mountains later in the season, arriving there in early spring after the snow has melted, they don’t return to their original dwelling until mid-autumn. I hadn’t been in the esztena long, when a little mischievous head popped round the doorway. Little Erika, I introduced myself and to her mother as well. I had to listen very carefully to understand them, as they spoke an old dialect of Hungarian. It was music to my ears.
The next day I went with the elder Albin to another esztena to help inject some sheep with medicine. The journey there was an interesting one. The vet was unsurprisingly nothing like the typical British vet that you might imagine. He started to share a story about a ‘crafty’ horse. “Listen, a crafty horse is the worst thing. It lets you down when you need it the most, like a whore wife!” I had gotten used to the coarse language! “When you have finished loading your cart, there is no way that you can make him pull the god damn thing! He even starts to walk backwards! God save me from a crafty horse!” he finished, or so I thought. “And a whore wife!” To which he ironically crossed himself. All I could do was laugh! He hadn’t finished, “Alright, we are going to pick up my assistant, Aron. He is like a crafty horse too if he drinks. That is usually the case at the end of his workday, when all he will do is sing folk songs and drink more. Yesterday, I had no money, so I had to pay him with wine. What else could I do? If I had to guess, he will have drunk it and is still lying in bed unconscious. I am fond of him though. He is honest and most of the time he has a good head on him. If only he drank a bit less!” We stopped in front Aron’s house and Albin was surprised when we saw him coming out, ready for work. He was smiling like a sly fox with a red face, revealing all his golden teeth.
After the workday was finished, the time had come for me to go back to the first esztena, which I was to travel to by cart, with Robi. Old Albin put his hand on my shoulder and instructed Robi to look after me as if I were his son.
The huge, smoky haired dogs welcomed us back to the hut with their threatening bark. There was no sign of them remembering me from my previous visit, but I was far better prepared this time, showing no fear. We arrived back to find the small community sitting at the wooden table in front of the esztena having a drink and a quiet rest. They deemed it only necessary to talk when they had something worthwhile to say. “Let God give us good health, a lot of stronger dogs and stronger ones still,” said one of the Shepherds. “Egeszsegere!” they cheersed and then finished their drink with a single swig. We sat down at the table inside the esztena to eat dinner and I was thankful for the heat from the iron stove. An electric torch hung from a rope overhead and was the only source of light. The dinner consisted of bread, cheese, onion, lard and soup, their typical diet. Only on a special occasion would they slaughter a sheep.
I definitely can’t recall seeing them drinking any water either, only palinka and beer! That evening they again offered me to stay in the hut, but I chose the loft in the cow barn along with the Romanian shepherd Babi. They gave me a large warm sheepskin as a cover and I slept very soundly on the hay until dawn.
My following days took on a welcomed routine of going out in the field with the sheep. I struck up a bond with the dogs, who at last had accepted me. My days were filled spending time with Janos, a seventy three year old shepherd who liked to sing while out on the fields tending to the sheep. “Oh, this is life, the shepherds’ life,” he sang. Janos was very relaxed and looked at the vast landscape with endless confidence and calmness. His posture and body language exuded serenity and he definitely seemed as if he was a king in his own land.
I was now getting quite friendly with the dogs, to the point that I could even stroke them. I often scratched my palm on the three inch rusty nails that they had around their neck under the dense fur. It was a relief to move freely within the area and finally go to the toilet by myself! After we returned from the grazing land, the milking started all over again and when they were finished, they poured all the milk together started to make cheese.
Some sort of clotting agent was sprinkled into the wooden tub and it was stirred by hand while it formed into clotted lumps. To complete the process they took the lump of partially formed cheese out of the liquid with cloth, before pressing it between a stone and a plank of wood to remove the left over moisture. This left over liquid wasn’t wasted either, it was boiled on a fire, skimming off the milk product that floated to the top. Not a drop was wasted. Any other left over liquid, the dogs ate. When the cheese finally matured and was ready. The family prepared the horses, got the cart ready and put most of the cheese wrapped up in a blanket ready to sell in the nearest village. This was their main income. The milking process was repeated three times a day and grazing in the fields with the sheep twice every day.
On my second night, I slept in a small shepherds watch box. The locals called it the verebes, a coffin-like box made of flimsy wooden planks. It is covered with a plastic sheet, which is nailed to the side to keep dry throughout the night. These watch boxes, for the purpose, of being closer to the flock, in case of attacks. They are located near to the pen so the men can jump from it in the middle of the night, if they need to protect the sheep. Chasing the wolves or bears with torches and axes to protect their lively hood.
‘The shepherd that holds the door from inside is not a good shepherd.’
It was incredible to meet these people and to see how they go about their everyday lives, they were so welcoming and interesting. I loved capturing their life and the small details made it all worthwhile. Their layered clothes, their hats, their interesting weather beaten faces, the rubber boots, the horses bridals that were hanging from the nail on the wall, the dripping cheese that was hung in the white cloth and the chipped bucket that collected all the excess fluid from it. All this telling the story of a different world, suspended in time.
Life is tough in these communities, family bonds are strong and there is a real sense of pride, but life is also delicate. Stabbings and conflicts within the community are the normality.
I thoroughly enjoyed being involved in this project, the people that I met in this part of the world were intriguing and inspiring. I was lucky to be accepted into their world and to have a glimpse into their day-to-day life. Theirs is a tough life, born from hundreds of years of survival in a region where conflict and nationalism is strong, but loyalty is stronger.
After couple of weeks documenting this project, I returned to London. As I travelled on the busy train from the airport to the city, in this completely different world, I was thinking over the experiences I’d had over the last few weeks. I knew how lucky I was to have met all those amazing people, make friends with them and to be able to document their everyday life and culture. I have been fortunate enough to return to Transylvania a couple of times since, and this will continue to be an ongoing project, documenting their lives.