Honey. Death. Hugs.

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The bees are perfectly happy on Edwin´s urban farm. The days from now through May will be warm and mild. Their hive is situated nearby rosemary bushes and other herbs. Their colony has been continuous for nearly 10 years.

They have their queen, and they have their work. Their gift. That which only then can create. Purity. Sticky sweet. Gold fallen to amber. Honey.

When they feel like something different, they are free to wander in search of richer pollen. But now, in the dry season, such a disembarkment would not yield much more in the way of inspiration. Come springtime, they will indulge on citrus and flowering herbs and other plants. They will get drunk on pollen from a rich misture of all that resides within 100 yards of their hive. And they will always return home. To work. For honey.

The net is white and new, as are the gloves. Across my chest and arms lies two modest layers. I am poked to determine if I am sufficiently protected. It appears that I am.

The smokes settles them. Enough of it will sedate them. Not enough, and they are enraged.

Each box holds 10 slats upon which hives are reconstructed and then filled with their manifestation. This time of year, it takes around 40 days for the bees to gift enough honey to occupy the combs contained in a single box. If they fill the slats, they begin building on the wooden sides of the slats. Though not nearly as practical from the point of view of the harvester, it is nevertheless perfectly viable real estate for the bees. And besides, their work ethic does not call for stopages. They do not stop. Ever.

The buzzing is deafening and the smoke suffocating. Once you have handled any part of the hive, you are a marked target. Once you are stung, hell is unleashed. The Huns, Romans, Persians — none rose in such resolve to protect their homes as do bees.

Though they are protective and angry, they depend on the harvest to provide a clean slate upon which to keep building. Call it job security.

You can tell when the comb is full, as the bees cover the holes with wax when they are done. A smooth opaque sheet covers the comb, like tiny individual seals over each tiny pot of honey. Left to age, darken, and sweeten. The bees are shaken off the slats, and are quickly occupied with fresh ones upon which to begin again.

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The heavy, honey-laiden slats are carried inside and generous portions of the comb are cut away gooey-ly and passed around. The sweetness is overpowering as the honey is sucked from the comb, and the remaining “sera” (like brown sugar) is spit out and collected. This is returned to the hives for the bees, in the absence of plentiful springtime pollen. After the sampling, the thin layer of wax is scraped away from the comb to liberate the honey. The slats are then placed in a centrifuge and spun, as tiny golden globes spray the sides of the barrel and gradually dribble down to the bottom. It takes about 45 minutes to sufficiently empty the tiny, waxy storage units of their holdings.

The barrel is then placed on a table with a large bowl and strainer set underneath. When the valve is opened, the dark amber lava flows generously along with shards of wax and crystals. What collects under the strainer is one of the freshest, richest, purest treasures found in nature.

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It is an act of nobility on the part of the bees to on the one hand part with their gift with such ferocity, while on the other counting on the harvest to provide an ongoing supply of fresh canvas.

Despite their protests, the bees need to gift their honey away. If they don’t — if the honey is not harvested in time, if their gift is not received — the bees will leave. And the hive, along with its gifts, will die.

***

Jaime is a gentile man with a sweet if not awkward way about him. His English is pretty good, though he keeps asking forgiveness for it. He is a do-all. Anything you need here at the hotel, he can get for you. Among other things, Jaime is a storyteller, a jokester, and a gentleman.

He was born in the jungles of Peru, and as a young man migrated to the mountain region near Cusco. He worked at a hotel in the housekeeping department, and it was there that he met Edwin who as a bellboy at the same hotel. They became friends, and soon Jaime´s mother referred to Edwin as her “other son.”

Years later, both men became successful. Edwin became a success in the hotel industry, which eventually led him to create his own hotel here in his hometown of Urumbamba. Meanwhile, Jaime owned and operated a factory that produced Next Cola – a company that became successful enough to draw a lawsuit from Coke over the particular type of script they used in their logo for the word “Cola.”

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It is Jaime´s broken and pause-riddled English that makes his narratives simultaneously delightful and excrutiating. But his kindness is so genuine, all is quickly forgiven.

I´ve learned about his sons and daughter, his two homes in the mountains, and his theory on where the Inca´s lost gold is hidden. I´ve also learned about his taste in music, and his adoration and respect for his good friend Edwin who hired him after his cola factory went bankrupt.

During my stay here in Urumbamba, Jaime has served as my concierge, tour guide, and cab driver. I feel we make an odd pair, but a good one nevertheless.

The road between Urumbamba and Cusco is one switchback after another. This was the Inca Mixer route I wrote about earlier, that is treachorous by day at the very least. At night, it´s downright frightening.

We dropped Edwin off at his home in Cusco so he could see his physician the following morning. He was stung three times during the honey harvest, and as a diabetic wanted to take precautions. Jaime took the wheel of the Jeep Cherokee, and headed off into the darkened hills away from Cusco on our way to Urumbamba.

Unlike the U.S. highway systems, there are no guardrails around curves or much in the way of reflective devices to guide your way at night. You have to depend on the tail lights in front of you, and absent those you have to just drive slow and operate your high beams on a hair triggler all the while watching out for people walking alongside the road, and livestock crossing in front of you.

As we wound our way up through the hills, the radio played and I was audience for Jaime´s translation of “Besa Mi Mucho.”

“Eh, ah, thees song, in ah English, means (singing now) ´Kissamee…Kissamee, ah, sooooo much…Eh, ah…last night, was such a night of good and nice…Kissamee…Kissamee some more now very please…”

I´d pay a thousand dollars for a recording of his English rendition.

We kept winding and chatting and I kept getting new renditions of Jaime´s greatest hits. We soon approached a small darkened village that marked about the half-way point of our trip.

I saw the headlights and sensed their trajectory before Jaime did. We were right in the middle of the village, and the Jeep had momentarily fallen quiet of Jaime´s songs and stories.

The lights began to creep, and converge with the path of ours.

WHUMP!

In a split second, the car crossed the middle of the road and, had it not been for Jaime´s absolute-last-second response, we would have been hit head-on by the other car. The margin of error was inches. The car sideswiped us, and scooted us over a bit, and then kept right on going.

“Sleep! Sleep! He was asleep!” Jaime heaved, and then kept driving.

After a few minutes to collect our nerves and curse the other driver, we pulled over to inspect the damage.

Nothing. Only white paint on the tires.

Now, I don´t mean to overdramatize this event. Anyone with a good number of years behind them has had at least one near death experience in their lives, so I don´t hold my latest one in any particular high regard as such incidents go. But it made me think of something that I seem to only think about during such times.

I feel like, from time to time, the Universe gets a little frustrated with our complacency and decides to ring a bell. It´s just a bell. Nothing to get too crazy over. At some point in the not-so-distant past, perhaps we hit the Snooze button on our life, and it was time for an annoying song to blast over the loud speakers to remind us to get up. Otherwise, we have to just lay there listening to a song we hate.

Funny, though, I would not have thought myself to be complacent of late. Wandering and heavy in grief, yes. But this event shed light on a few unrelated partitions of my life — parts rendered miniscule by the scale of my loss, and this experience in Peru, but still those requiring my attention. Traveling provides a good time and place to clear out such cobwebs. But I obviously wasn´t getting on with it at a pace to the Universe´s liking.

So, point taken, Death. Well played, and touche´.

I wonder if the other driver ever woke up.

***

One after another, they walked into me with a heartfelt embrace and kiss.

“Buenas dias, Patrick!”

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Twenty of them. From 7 to 18 years old. Twenty hugs. Twenty kisses. Twenty orphans.

The orphanage has been gradually updated over the years. It recently got a new shower room, a new dining hall, and a new laundry.

The girls living here under the care of nuns are without families. They were orphaned by their families, or by the courts. Each of them has been at the orphanage since infancy. Not one of them has ever known a family other the one at the orphanage.

This was my introduction to the girls, to see what needs might be met during my stay. It seemed to me right away that the most obvious and immediate need was simple attention and affection. The little ones crawled all over me, giggling, and vying for attention and hugs. The older ones wanted to practice their English, and tease the little ones over their smothering. But all of them had care in their eyes, and smiles across their mouths.

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They danced and sang, and wrote their names in my journal, and whispered in my ear, and covered my eyes with their tiny hands. If there is anything that could wash away any worry, it surely was the outpouring from these 20 little girls. I have never – never – felt so much love.

Edwin walked me around and told me about things they were still raising money for. Among them is a new playground, and new school desks. They also are in need of books for their library. He went on to tell me that the girls had been invited to Cusco to be part of a community performane at the local theater. Though the invitation had been extended without any means of getting the girls to Cusco. So I agreed to pay for the bus to take them in October so they could perform. For this gesture, I got an exclusive preview of their talents.

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They dressed themselves in elastic-banded skirts that came up to their armpits. They stood square in front of me, looked me in the eye, and poured out their hearts in song. The little ones tried to reconcile their bashfulness with their wish to perform. The routine seemed to be: step forward, sing, smile, cover your mouth, twirl around, and then quickly escape to the side room. No time for bows.

The common room where I was serenaded and danced for was in desperate need of painting, and the orphanage has been waiting on a group of volunteers to come paint. Rather than have it wait, I bought paint and supplies this yesterday morning as we went back to finish off the room for them. A few of them snuck in to help paint with me, get an extra hug, and practice saying my name a bit.

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Tomorrow, I´m renting another bus for us all to go to Cusco just for fun. I´m trying to imagine how incredible it will be to sit on a bus with 20 giggly little girls for an hour on our way to ice cream. I´m already crediting just making the arrangements as one of my top life moments. I cannot wait.

They were so happy to have attention. So happy and grateful for simple gestures. I allowed them to take my camera around and snap photos. They dug in my satchel and took off my watch. Like 20 little hearts all beating against me, it was one of the most magical things in my life.

There really is so much beauty in the world, and it always seems to appear from the most unexpected and remarkable places. I´m glad I found one more. Make that 20 more.

Love,
p

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