Zen and the Art of Harvesting Honey in Spiti

Far from home, it's easier to have a sense of adventure.  
honey harvesting
Beekeeper Mukesh Negi shows the writer how to extract honey. Photo: Milan Moudgill

Travel can do strange things to us. Far from the familiar, I notice I become bolder, somehow stronger, more likely to do things that make me question my sanity. On one such day plump with promise, I was travelling in the Spiti Valley of Himachal Pradesh, from Tabo to the village of Giu. It was nippy but the sun was out, and I could see mountains for miles. Adding swooshes of green to the rocky landscape were apple and apricot orchards and bushes laden with sea buckthorn. Who knew a high-altitude desert could produce so much fruit?

Just as I was asking Tsering, my guide, whether we could stop at one of these orchards, I noticed a man in a beekeeping veil by the side of the road. Even better! We stopped a few metres away hoping to score some wild honey but the smiling keeper Mukesh Negi, made me a better offer: He asked if I’d like to collect it myself.

I suspect it was my visit to Tabo Monastery the day before that boosted my spontaneity. I’d spent over an hour chatting with a young lama about his studies and struggles with faith and compassion. The planet’s biggest problem, he’d said, was that we’d lost faith in each other. It was a refreshingly honest conversation and we talked long after my pot of mint tea was over.

Pyar se karoge,” Negi said, cajoling me to take the leap, “toh kuch nahi hoga.” (Approach them with love, and nothing will happen.) Well, what the hell! How often do I get a chance like this anyway? I tucked my pants into my boots and put on a spare veil. I had no gloves, so my hands were exposed. I threw a silent prayer out into the universe and took gulps of air through gritted teeth.

This isn’t the first time I’ve landed myself in a situation that could potentially end badly. In the past, I’ve found myself wading through freezing waist-deep water; partaking in feasts that feature every single part of the pig (nether regions and all); and smearing myself with animal urine to alleviate a swelling. So I often wonder what it is about travel that fortifies my otherwise feeble guts with steel. Is it a bout of life’s-too-short syndrome? The feeling of a clean slate that comes with anonymity? Or perhaps I’m secretly reckless after all. But most importantly, I wonder, why this pluck evaporates when I’m back home?

There were thousands of bees zipping back and forth. They were clustered on my boots, my hat, and my hands. Instead of staying calm, my mind threw up memories of a terrible Queen Latifah movie called The Secret Life of Bees, where the buxom apiarist gives her apprentice the same advice that Negi gave me. “Treat them with luhve,” she had said in a thick South Carolina accent. “Everybody needs some love.” I remember rolling my eyes at the cliché then. I feel differently now.

The immaculately crafted honeycomb drips with luscious, amber honey. Held up against the sun, every drop glimmers like liquid gold. Its alchemists meanwhile, hum fervently, their sound rising and falling with operatic modulation. Negi points to an unmoving, obese bee at the centre—the queen, surrounded by her industrious drones. This honey is especially sweet because of the apple orchard across the road. “I live over there,” he says, gesturing towards a ramshackle blue tent. I swerve suddenly to look at it, and feel a sharp sting on my right hand. I squeal, fighting the urge to wave my hand about. My finger is on fire.

Negi doesn’t break a sweat. In a flash, he expertly removes the sting and continues talking while I try not to cry in pain. “It’ll be gone in a few minutes,” he says, zen as ever. “It’s only a bee sting.” And he’s right. Twenty minutes later, the throb has subsided and I’m left with a modest bottle of honey and a potent thought.

In the 20 minutes I spent with the bees, I was stung only once—most likely because I made the sort of jerky movement that Negi and Latifah had warned against. But I don’t regret taking the plunge. The exhilaration I felt was well worth the swelling. Because a large part of relinquishing control—whether it’s jumping off an airplane or harvesting honey bare-handed—is about trusting that you’ll be okay. Sometimes, adrenaline is just faith in disguise.

Appeared in the November 2014 issue as “Bee in my Bonnet”.

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    Neha Sumitran is Nat Geo Traveller India's perpetually hungry Web Editor. She loves exploring food markets or better still, foraging for new kitchen ingredients. She hopes to have a farm near the mountains someday. She tweets and instagrams as @nehasumitran.

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