I was tidying up the kitchen one day—I swear to you, United Planet needs to thoroughly coach their volunteers to assure they all pick up after themselves. Wiping off the jelly they've smeared on the plastic table cover, putting the milk back in the refrigerator or just washing their tea cups once in a while would help.
Anyway, I was tidying up when I found a volunteer handbook I hadn't seen before, and in it I read about the Pro Vita sheepfold. The paragraph said we might have an opportunity to go visit the shepherds and taste the cheese they make, and it all seemed so appealing. I asked Mihail about it—he's the big chief in charge—and he said he'd arrange for a quick trip for anyone interested.
So, me, Emily, Maggie, Lea and Ram decided to go. Mihail and Don (one of Pro Vita's employees) divided us up between a Land Rover and a rugged pickup truck, and we headed down the main road until we came to a turn off, a dirt patch in the grass, mostly, and we headed off into the field on something similar to a dirt road that soon turned into a mud patch. It was so thick, this mud patch, that the Land Rover got stuck, and we all had to get out and push. We pushed it out of one patch only to watch it land comfortably into another, one that proved too tire-sucking for us, so we had to give up. This is what the LR looked like from the inside after a hefty smattering of mud:
The pickup didn't even attempt getting through, and we were all deposited into a clearing while we waited for someone in a 4x4 to arrive to save the day. This is the view we had while we waited patiently, eating unripe plums from a nearby tree and wondering what we'd do should a driver never arrive to retrieve us:
Gabriel showed up in his 4x4 with an open top, and we piled in to climb the hill—I should have suspected a rough ride when I saw the driver's seat belt was nearly a full-body harness. It wasn't long before even the mud path disappeared, and we were off-roading over bumps and into gullies. I was sitting in the front, and as I saw a big dip or steep climb coming up, I would turn around to make sure everyone hanging on in the back was still actually in the back to hang on.
Finally, we reached the sheepfold at the top of the hill. We met these three shepherds who live up there, isolated but for their own company, all season with just a day off per week to go to the village to see their families. They spend their waking hours tending 300 sheep and goats, milking them and making cheese to feed all of Pro Vita, more than 200 people relying on the provision.
The shepherds had made an unusual kind of cornbread that was dense and moist, and they offered it to us with a sampling of the cheese they had made. It was soft like fresh mozzarella but flavorful and salty. The oldest of the three demonstrated how they make the cheese with the milk they've gotten from the sheep, working in this small hut they could dismantle and move as they move the sheep across the hillside from time to time.
Here's the hut, a basic wooden structure with plastic sheeting for walls. It was dark inside, lit only by a kerosene lamp hanging from the roof and furnished with a couch of sorts and a table. The hut held all their food provisions, finished cheese stored in large crocks and medicine for the animals:
Here is the stall where they milk the animals two at a time:
And here is the cheese-making demonstration:
The shepherds sleep in small wooden boxes just big enough to hold a full-grown man, and they cook under a little shed:
They feed their two pigs:
And they use this wagon hitched to a horse for transportation:
And this is Eustacia standing in front of one of the sheep pens. The mud caked on her shoes is from pushing the Land Rover:
There was a lovely moment when Maggie picked a wild daisy and gave it to the older shepherd to thank him for sharing his time with us, and he immediately began the Loves Me/Loves Me Not thing people do with daisies—it's universal, evidently—and he ended with Loves Me. It was then that he pointed to his sleeping box and invited us to spend the night. Understandably, I think, I took that as a creepy invitation, but our guide explained he was simply trying to share with us what little he had as an act of generosity. Hmmm, I wonder.
The return trip back home was less eventful, but all in all, this was one of my favorite experiences in Romania. These men were so generous and so happy to see visitors. They don't lead a very easy life, and they do this job because it was the job their fathers did and their grandfathers and so on. We were honored to get just a glimpse of how they live. Plus, the cheese was great.