On Gifts and Giving

Christmas is coming.  Many stores this year opened Thanksgiving evening, a concept I will admit that I find somewhat appalling.  Gift-giving occasions can be challenging when one is unemployed.  I’ve always been more interested in giving value rather than price, but there are extra incentives this year, so I’ve been thinking a lot about gifts, and the value of gifts, and what things we really value and treasure.

Last year my grandma told me, “I give all your cousins gift certificates.  If it’s too hard to come up with a list, I could give you one, too.”

And it’s true, I could.  But — I don’t value gift certificates in the same way that I do actual gifts.  I’m not good at spending them, and even if I do, ‘This is yarn I bought with the gift certificate grandma gave me’ doesn’t feel the same as ‘My grandma bought this yarn for me.’  Despite the fact that I might like yarn I picked out for myself better than yarn that someone else gives me.

This isn’t to say that I don’t understand the appeal of gift certificates.  My brother is intensely difficult to shop for, and compounds the issue by shoving a December birthday into the same week as Christmas.  Sometimes buying him an Amazon gift certificate looks pretty appealing.  And yet . . .

I want to tell you a story.

This story is about Otelia.  Otelia worked as a maid for the pilot’s family, coming in a couple of days a week to clean and wash dishes and do laundry and generally do the things that the mothers of toddlers wish someone else would do for them, particularly those who live in rural Africa.  I think the pilot’s family went back to Lusaka sometime after I left, because there wasn’t enough traffic into and out of Macha after Macha Works collapsed.  So I suppose that Otelia doesn’t work for them any more, but this story is about Otelia as I knew her.

Otelia’s family lives out in the bush somewhere.  I don’t know where, exactly, but she attends the smaller BIC church that I never did manage to visit, because it was too far away and someone would have needed to take me there.  It’s likely that she walked at least half an hour to get to the house of the pilot’s family.  Her English is good, particularly for someone in such a rural setting.

Otelia was a window into another world for me.  Not the only window; my world collided with a more traditional, rural Africa all the time.  But at the same time, we walked in parallel.  Anyone I interacted with in a meaningful way spoke English, and most of the people I talked to were involved with the church, or the hospital, or Macha Works — all Western-founded institutions, albeit some of notable age.  The people I interacted with had regular paychecks (ostensibly), and regular contact with the Western world, or at least with its proxies.

And it’s not that Otelia didn’t.  She worked for the pilot’s family, after all.  But whereas my neighbors bought many of their housewares in town, Otelia carried home glass and plastic containers of all kinds to furnish her home, and those of her friends and relatives.  The pilot’s children’s milk jugs carried water to and from her local borehole, and baby food jars make nice drinking glasses.  Otelia was a conduit from an economy where things are disposable to one in which everything is used until it is used up.  The parks in Choma and Lusaka are littered with dying plastic bottles, but in the villages, those bottles are washed out and refilled and sold again, and an empty metal can is as good as gold.

During my year in Macha, Otelia had a baby boy, and the pilot’s family gave her a goat, a traditional gift for a momentous event.  Every year at Christmas, Otelia received a cash bonus large enough to buy a goat, but this was the first time that they gave her an actual animal.  Otelia was overjoyed.  That goat was far more valuable than a mere 300,000 Kwacha.  That goat was an investment.  She would raise it with her son, and it would give milk, and they would not kill and eat it.

This is partly about culture.  It’s hard to keep money in Zambian culture; if your friends and family know you have money, they’ll ask for some of it, and it’s rude to refuse to share resources you have with someone who needs them.  In that sense, a goat is more permanent; it can’t be given away.  At the same time, just like the Old English feoh, wealth and cattle are indistinguishable in Tonga culture.  A goat isn’t quite cattle, but it’s a step in that direction.

But I think that it’s about more than culture.  Money is just money.  Gift certificates are just money, too.  When we give things — not stuff, not extra junk that will just pile up and get in the way and need to be dusted or moved or tended, but things that will be used and enjoyed, thoughtful gifts that mean something about us, and about the person we give them to — that’s worth more than money, or a gift certificate, or something pricey and useless that the recipient doesn’t really want or need.

I don’t think that anyone on my Christmas list wants a live chicken, nor do I think that they would have the resources to house and care for one.  And I wouldn’t know where to buy one, or how to take care of it until Christmas day.  And giving thoughtful gifts is hard.  It takes more effort, and often more time, and may require serious consideration before one comes up with a flash of inspiration.  All the same, this year, I’m going to try to give metaphorical chickens to the people I care about.



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Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child

Back in September, we had a week of orientation for the new students.  In one of the final activities, students contributed to “awards” for each other, writing bits of praise or positive qualities on pieces of paper with each student’s name on it.  I and another teacher circulated during the activity, trying to make sure that each student had at least three three things written on their piece of paper.  It was all a bit chaotic, and the task was made more difficult by the fact that while we’d had a week of orientation, due to the way the groups were divided, we’d only interacted with most of the students for about two subjective days.

At the end of the activity, when people were coming back to their seats, one student walked up to me with a woebegone expression on his face — the future Mr. Articulate.  We were a bit pressed for space, and he’d been sitting in a corner.  His paper must have been obscured somehow, because it had only one word on it, and not a particularly good word, at that, but the sort of thing you say about someone when you don’t know them very well and don’t have anything better to say.  “Nice,” or something along similar lines.  Not the sort of word you want to be the best thing a room full of people can think of to say about you.

“Here,” I took the paper from him and looked at him for a while, trying to come up with something I knew about him that could compensate for and overpower the milquetoast “nice.”  I knew him to be quiet.  Respectful.  Reasonably well-spoken.  Slight.  Polite.  He seemed like a good kid, but none of the well-substantiated things I knew about him had much, if any, more weight than “nice.”  And then, as I peered into his face, inspiration struck me in a white-hot flash, and I bent my head and wrote:


and gave him back the paper.

As he read the word, a smile broke across his face like sunlight sinking into deep water, and he uttered a soft, “Awww,” like someone who has just been handed a warm and snuggly kitten.  When he looked up again, his face was filled with . . . hope.  . . . pride.  . . . determination.  As if it was the nicest thing anyone had ever said to him.  As if I’d looked into his soul and seen a person he knew was there, but no one else had ever noticed.

It’s not a big word.  But we all want other people to see and appreciate our talents.  And a lot of urban young people see talent — at sports, in music — as one of the few things that will lift them out of the narrow little worlds they find themselves in.

Later, Articulate seemed particularly comfortable opening up to me or asking me for help.  Maybe he’s just a good kid.  Maybe our personalities meshed well.  Or maybe something happened in that moment when I looked in his face and called him talented.

I firmly believe that young people will meet the level of expectation set for them (note that this is in reference to groups, not necessarily individuals in specific situations.  Case by case, the mileage can vary widely).  If their community holds them to high expectations, they will meet those expectations, or at least come close.  If they are held to low expectations, well, they’ll meet those, too.

There is a lot of discussion about the failure of urban youth, about the incarceration epidemic, about unemployment and hoodlums and teen mothers.  We’re happy to blame the teachers, or the parents, or the churches, or the “bad crowd,” or the drug dealers on the corners.  Even if they do succeed, many of our young people have very few options and nowhere to go, which is certainly a contributing factor.  But sometimes, I think that if we want someone to blame, we should look at ourselves, because as a society, we have bought into the lie that if we are successful, we are successful purely on the basis of our own merit, and so accept the corollary that anyone who isn’t successful doesn’t deserve to be so.  We are so ready to interpret the effects of centuries of racial, economic, and social oppression as the fault of their individual inheritors.

We look at our young people and we are afraid of what they may become, and they become what we fear.

It’s complicated, of course.  It’s always complicated.  We believe the things that we have been told because sometimes, in some cases, they are true.  But I want to know how we, as a society, can begin to change our narrative.  How do we look at our young people, particularly our young African-American men, and see, not dropouts and failures and criminals, but talent and potential and possibility?  How can we make that our self-fulfilling prophecy?

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My job finished about three weeks ago.  There were a lot of things I wanted to say about that time, none of which got posted, partly because I was busy, and partly because everything was very complicated, and the ethics and professionalism of using one’s daily interactions as blog fodder seem very different on this side of the Atlantic, somehow.  But I do want to say something; I don’t want to let that year of my life pass and disappear without so much as a salute.

Here are some thoughts.  It’s a start.

Toward the end, I spent a lot of time sitting on the windowsill and knitting.  I find this funny, because that’s what I did when I first got there — sat on the wide windowsill overlooking Broad Street, or on a chair in the corner, and knit, and watched my new coworkers teach, and tried to get my feet under me.  It’s a very different feeling, though.  As my boss said when I mentioned this, “This is different.  Then, you didn’t really know where you fit, and you were sitting there because you didn’t have something to do.  Now, you have your own class to teach, and you’re sitting there because it’s not your time to be in charge of the class, and you can help out if somebody needs it, but you don’t have to.”

With the new batch of students, I taught Professional and Postsecondary skills.  It’s mostly a good class, incorporating the best bits of Business Writing along with things that are more fun, like presentation skills and group work and deep conversations.  One week we worked on cover letters and talked about time management; another, the students presented skits on good and bad interview skills.

One day, a student broke down in tears.  Typically, this is not something I would be proud of, but this time it was.

One of the projects I assigned is “Student and Term Association.”  I gave each student a word, a personality trait, something picked specifically for them as a skill that they have demonstrated but need to work on further.  I tried to explain the project to my mother, struggling to explain why it’s such a positive experience.  Partly, it’s the framing of the project, that I don’t say, “This is a thing you’re bad at.”  But it’s more than that: I eventually realized that this word is a positive trait that a figure of authority has picked for them and told them that they can excel in.  Many of them have never been given something like a word before, and that makes it special.  The students were proud of those words, even those who acknowledged that they weren’t there yet, and the Student and Term Association presentations were some of the best I saw in my last session of teaching.

I gave the young woman in question the word “Confident.”  I see within her a lot of talent and ability, really strong group skills, and a very fragile sense of self that occasionally expands to encompass the breadth of her personality.  Come her presentation, she stood up, defined her word, and explained to the class that she didn’t consider herself at all confident; she’d been struggling with an eating disorder and with her sense of self-worth.  I was as floored as the rest of the class — while a lot of the homework (a written exercise to guide the presentation) had been emailed, I’d also allowed hand-ins at the beginning of class, and I hadn’t read hers yet.  She promptly started sobbing so hard she could barely talk, much less finish the presentation.

I was astounded by her vulnerability, by the piece of herself that she had pulled out and laid bare before her peers.  As I stood to usher her back to her seat, Mr. Articulate also jumped to his feet.

“Group hug,” he declared, and the whole group surged forward to enfold Ms. Confident until she got herself under control.

Mr. Unflappable, a young man who has a lot of self-control and ability to take anything we throw at him at school, but who I knew really struggles in his home life, refused to identify with his word.  “That’s not me.  I don’t do that.  I let stuff get to me.”

“Excuse me.”  Ms. Perspicacious raised a hand and looked at him tartly.  “Can I say something?  Because, Unflappable, I think that is you.  You have all this stuff going on at home, but you come in to school, and you don’t let it show.  Maybe it affects you, but we can’t see it in the way you act.  You’re always respectful, and you help anyone who needs it.”

Or Mr. Exemplary, who took his word in a direction I never imagined: “I look at the two meanings of my word, and I see two options laid before me.  I can be that shining example, or I can be a warning to others, a sign post showing which way not to go.  And my decisions determine which I will be.”

I was so proud of them.  I was proud of the work they did with their words, and their degree of self-reflection.  I was proud of what they saw in themselves as a result of the project, and on the whole very pleased with my choice of words.  But above all, I was proud of the space they created together, of the safety and community and trust they had in each other.  I won’t say that there haven’t been rough patches, and that they didn’t get frustrated and disagree.  But any group has its difficulties, and a group like my students, who have been out of formal schools for so long, perhaps has more than most.  But despite the flaws, I saw them BECOMING, even when they couldn’t always see it themselves, and what they can be together is so much more than the sum of its parts.  No one else can take that away from them.  And I sincerely hope that as they grow and change over the rest of this year, they will not take it away from themselves.

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I lied to an elderly gentleman at the bus stop the other month.

I was reading a science fiction novel, one of those 500-page monsters that might double as a lethal weapon in a pinch.  The bus was late.  I interacted briefly with a few of the people loitering at the bus stop, but mostly stayed immersed in my book.

An elderly gentleman came up to me.  “Is that the Bible?”

There was clearly only one right answer to this question, but while I’d left the dust jacket at home, and while my novel might look like a Bible to a quick glance, anything more than cursory inspection would prove it to be otherwise.  And . . . there are some lines I’m not willing to cross.  “No.”

“For a class?”

An acceptable alternative to Biblical scholarship.  “Yes.”

He praised me a bit for being so studious, clearly a good girl, then asked where I went to school.

“Smith.  In Massachusetts.”

“What English classes did you take?”

Science Fiction, Speculative Fiction was again clearly the wrong answer.  Old English seemed unnecessarily obtuse, quite clearly a useless course of study.  But I had taken a literature class, if not strictly an English class (Inklings was, in fact, offered by the Religion department).  “I took a class on Christian literature.”  ‘Oxford,’ again, seemed an unnecessary complication.

“You did!”  His faith in me was restored.  “Is this for that class?”

In for a penny, in for a pound.  I assented.

“How long have you been doing that?”

I took this to mean that he wanted to know what year I was.  And if I was reading books for class, clearly I still needed to be in class . . . “I’m a junior.”

“No!  You can’t be that old!”

Actually, I’m about five years older than that.  I took the compliment in the spirit it was intended, and smiled and nodded.

“Is your father a pastor?”

Perhaps only pastors raise good Christian daughters.  “No.”  (It was only later that it occurred to me that I could have told him that my parents were church treasurers.)  “My grandfather was one.”

“Oh!  Your father’s father?”

“My mother’s.”

“You’re following in her footsteps!  That’s good!”

I never did figure out how we established that I was going to be a pastor.  Maybe taking a class on the Inklings shoehorned me in.  And here I thought I just liked Tolkien and Lewis and Sayers.

The conversation went on for a while, him telling me how smart I was, and how good it was that I was getting my degree, and how I shouldn’t stop learning, and always follow Jesus, and he knew that I was going to be successful, but if I wasn’t, well, that was all right; I was storing up treasures in heaven.  I smiled, and nodded, and said the proper things at the proper times.

He seemed to be wandering away, and the bus STILL hadn’t come, so I opened my book again and resumed reading.  But after a few sentences, he turned back.  I didn’t close the book quickly enough, and he took hold of one side and tilted it so that he could read it too.

It hadn’t occurred to me that he would read the book.  If that had been part of the range of social etiquette I’d been expecting, I would have closed the book and put it in my bag when it became clear what sort of conversation we were having.  As it was, I was mildly flabbergasted.  A quick scan of the next few paragraphs reassured me that I was not at a grossly unsuitable part of the book — but it was still clearly fiction.

“This is a part where they use stories to illustrate their points.  Sort of parables.”

“What’s that?”  He pointed to the text.

“Cleopatra.  It’s the name of the place they’re at.”  I breathed an inaudible sigh of relief.  Perhaps the indecipherable nature of science fiction would keep my deception from being revealed.

We puzzled over a few character names, him very impressed by my erudite reading material, and me worried the whole time that my web of falsehoods would come crashing down around my ears.

The bus came, and I escaped with relief.

I would like to say that I am not the sort of young woman who lies to complete strangers, particularly not her elders.  At least, I used to be.  I value my integrity and truthfulness.  It’s part of who I am.  Or it used to be.

The Miriam who went to Zambia two years ago would not have lied to that gentleman.  She would have selected her truths very carefully, and perhaps have found elements of her life that he could approve of — or perhaps not — but she would not have lied.

I’m not that Miriam.  I lived for a year in Zambia, where the relationship, the feeling of the relationship, is far more important than the literal truth.  And the only regrets I felt were when I feared that my lies would be revealed.  Not because it’s so important to me what he thinks, or because I care that a stranger thinks me a liar — but because he would be disillusioned.  My careful construction, the story I was crafting for him — albeit half-unintentionally — would be destroyed, replaced by the exact opposite of my intention.  And it’s only that potential for disillusionment that makes me feel guilty.

I’ve thought about that a lot, since I met that man at the bus stop.  And I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not that truth is less important to me.  I still value truth, and truthfulness, and integrity.  But Zambia taught me to grow the definition of a “little white lie,” the socially acceptable lies that make our society run more smoothly.  Because there’s fact, and then there’s truth.

My friend the elderly gentleman met a Christian young woman at the bus stop the other week.  She was raised in a Christian family, and her faith is an important part of her life (even if she does not have any plans to become a pastor).  She worked hard in college, and reads a lot of challenging, intricate books.  That’s the truth.  And if most of the young people he sees are like my students: haven’t finished school, not going much of anywhere, probably have kids — then I AM an incredibly successful young woman.  And the fact that I exist, and live in his neighborhood, SHOULD be heartening to him.

In Zambia, I learned that truth is bigger than fact, and that sometimes, you tell the truth — the overall, big-picture truth, what you really mean — by lying.

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Further Thoughts from the Rocket Ship

When talking about re-entry into your home culture, people tell you that the culture shock may be as great as your initial culture shock in the country you visited.  They tell you that your home will look different and feel strange.  You are reminded that the people and places you knew will also have changed while you were away, so that you are not going back to the same place, and that you yourself are different, and will see them differently.

No one warned me that the US would remind me of Zambia.

I look at the Happy Holow Park or and compare it to a Hair Saloon or a Tarven.  What about Temptations Banquet Facility and Restaurant, near my house, or South Side Pizza — which, so far as I can tell, isn’t on the south side of ANYTHING, except perhaps the rest of the neighborhood.  What differentiates it from the Downtown Shop (on the side of a road with nothing else nearby) or any of the other incongruous store names that so amused me in Zambia?

Surely the fish truck at Wayne and Berkley, with the fish mural painted across one side, complete with a little ACCESS card in the corner, would be as charming and picturesque to a stranger as I found the man in Mazabuka, advertising his wares by grabbing the tail and waving them in the street?

The stores painted red and green, free advertising for Airtel or Zamtel, always seemed delightfully, uniquely Zambian.  But surely the product placement on the signs of many of the local beer establishments comes from a similar arrangement.

I am standing at the bus stop in the morning, and a young man wanders up.  “Which bus are you waiting for?”
“The 53.”
Silence for a bit, then, “You look nice.”
“Thank you.”  I did think that the black vest added a nice touch.
“I see you around sometimes.”
I nod.  “I live around.”  I wave a hand in the general direction of behind me.
“Maybe, if I see you around, I could get your phone number.”
“Maybe.”  I mean no, but why disturb the congeniality of the conversation by being blunt?
After a bit, he wanders off again, and I conclude that he wasn’t waiting for the bus — which implies that the entire point of that interaction was to chat me up.

That was a very Zambian conversation.  If we replace chat about the bus with chat about what country I’m from — both things immediately obvious to a casual glance — and replace the request for my phone number with a marriage proposal, it would only require a few changes to phrasing and syntax to make it one of numerous marriage proposals.  “No, I do not want.”  “All right.  Next time!”

I look at the people who set up stalls on Broad Street, selling clothes or shoes or this-and-that, and wonder how substantively different they are from street vendors in Zambia.  These stalls are usually movable, and collapse to be taken home every night, rather than sturdy, immobile constructions of logs, tin, and grass, and the vendors may be more or less officially sanctioned, but doesn’t it come down to the same thing?  My coworker G chats with the vendors at Broad and Girard as she passes; I just wave or nod, a brief acknowledgement.  She’s a better Zambian than I.

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Let’s talk about culture shock

To be honest, of all the culture shock (and reverse culture shock) I’ve experienced in the past few years, I have to say that the culture shock of interacting with my students — inner-city former high school dropouts, mostly African-American — has been greater than Zambia, greater than Spain, greater than coming back home.  It’s funny, because they’re only about five years younger than I am, and most of us grew up in the same city, some in the same neighborhoods, and one would think that they are not so different from the children I went to elementary school with — but somehow it is.  I don’t know if the differences are more apparent as we get older, or if I just wasn’t paying attention back then, or if somehow it is different.

Part of what makes it harder, I think, is that culture shock is expected when moving from country to country.  Who expects it a 20-minute bus ride away, or even just a walk of a few blocks?

When I arrived in Zambia, I effectively had the skills of a three-year-old.  I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t cook, I couldn’t wash my clothing.  I didn’t know how to get water.  I stumbled over the most basic human interactions.  I could barely wash myself.  But this was normal — this was expected — this was accepted.  The people I interacted with understood that Ba Miriam did not know how to be a Zambian because she had lived all her life somewhere else, and accepted that I had the skills needed to behave as an adult in my own society, but would require time to learn them in  Zambian culture.

The cultural differences between my students and I are not nearly that large, but no one sees that they are there.  Many of my students have barely been outside their neighborhoods in any significant kind of way, and often have no concept that there might be more than one way to live one’s life, and that just because I don’t do things their way doesn’t mean that the way I do them is wrong.

As I child, I was taught that you measure water and rice, bring the water to a boil, add the rice, stir, and then cover it for twenty minutes.  (You can also do it in the oven, if you have lots of time, or some people use a rice cooker, but we’re not fancy like that.)  But you MUST NOT stir the rice after that first time, or even lift the lid, or you’ll ruin the rice.  I didn’t really understand what that entailed, but it would be RUINED.

And yet, in Spain, my host mother stirred rice the whole time she was cooking it.  (And made really good rice.)  Her idea of plain white rice was rice cooked in chicken broth (and stirred the whole time); she could not conceive of something more plain than that.  In Zambia, no one measures; you just put rice and water in a pan and stir it sometimes, and if you run out of water, you add more.

Maybe I’m a rice Philistine, but I have to admit that I can’t really tell the difference (though both the oven rice and the chicken broth rice taste better).  It was pretty shocking to me to realize that you COULD stir rice while it was cooking without the kitchen exploding or something, but Pepi clearly knew what she was doing, so I kept my mouth shut and learned.  I’ve become pretty blase about cooking rice, and these days I mostly just dump rice and water into a pan and measure Chinese-style, with my finger.

While I was in Puerto Rico with my students, I tried to cook rice — and was immediately shouted down for not putting oil in with the rice and water.  (Apparently you CAN’T cook rice without oil.  Who knew?  Certainly not me, or the Spaniards, or the Zambians.)  And rice isn’t the only place I see it, although food is where it comes up most: there is One Right Way to Cook X, and generally I’m doing it wrong.  We bumped into that a lot on that trip: the bacon was cooked wrong; we didn’t put Sazón with the chicken; the students can’t eat x without y . . .

“Why did you dump the pan scrapings on the eggs?”  (Clearly implied: I had RUINED them; they were now unfit to eat.)

“Well, some people like them,” I floundered.  “Take from this side, where there aren’t any.”  It wasn’t until hours later that I realized that it wasn’t about liking or disliking; it’s a habit learned from my mother, learned from her parents who grew up during the Great Depression: I don’t waste food.

It even comes up when talking about my lunches: something that I consider as normal as veggies with peanut sauce is a foreign concept to my students, and probably not edible.  Forget tatsoi or quinoa or goat cheese anything with a name in a language other than English.

I think the amount of judgement from is part of what makes it difficult.  In other countries, I am strange, yes, but I’m a strange foreigner, which gives me a certain amount of license to be strange, and means that most of the people involved expect that I will be experiencing culture shock.  Most of my students see me as unreasonably strange, existing in some sort of weird incomprehensible lifestyle that maybe isn’t even possible.  It’s an odd thing, to interact daily with people who view you as an impossibility.

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More bees with honey than vinegar

WARNING: This is another post that features a lot of photos of insects, so if that’s not your cup of tea, you may just want to keep scrolling.

My mother acquired an opportunity to go on a beekeeping tour, and I was lucky enough to be included in the adventure. The tour was given by one of our neighbors; he and his bees live less than a mile from our house.

We met at the Wissahickon Charter School, where there are four hives, and ten lucky students a year are selected for the beekeeping program.

Suiting up

Suiting up

I was given the “hook,” a metal spatula-cum-hook tool, first, and got to open the first hive, a Langstroth hive (as designed by Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth in the 1850s, in Philadelphia. If you’re curious, there are lots of nice diagrams available if you do a Google image search), so there are no pictures of that. It was cool, though, after I got the hang of levering up the frames.

A Langstroth hive, with top (and upper levels) removed.

A Langstroth hive, with top (and upper levels) removed.

After a bit, I yielded up the hook to my mother, and took over photography, instead.

Mom holding up one frame.

Mom holding up one frame.

Did I mention that my bus home goes by this place every day? I never even knew that there were beehives there, though I think that they may be visible from the road, if you know where to look.

This frame is not very "built up," so what you're seeing is a shaped piece of wax that can be put into the frame as a guide.

This frame is not very “built up,” so what you’re seeing is a shaped piece of wax that can be put into the frame as a guide.

Mom got stung, probably through sheer bad luck, but luckily she’s not remotely allergic to bee stings. She had the distinction of being the first person to get stung this year working those hives, but I think it’s an honor she would have forgone.

I believe that two of the bees slightly to the left of the center of this picture are drone bees -- males -- unlike the rest, which are workers, and female.  The drones are a little bit bigger, and their eyes are bigger, too.

I believe that two of the bees slightly to the left of the center of this picture are drone bees — males — unlike the rest, which are workers, and female. The drones are a little bit bigger, and their eyes are bigger, too.

After looking at three Langstroth hives, and seeing lots of bees, but not as many eggs or larvae as expected, we opened up the fourth hive, an experimental design.

The top bars, which the bees build comb on, are sharply triangular, unlike a top bar hive, which you'll see later.

The top bars, which the bees build comb on, are sharply triangular, unlike a top bar hive, which you’ll see later.

This style of hive design doesn’t use any guide wax; the bees just go for it and start building. They can start in more than one spot, and the cells will line up perfectly.

Some of the cells in the center of this picture are filled with larvae, slightly yellowish coiled grubs, and if I zoom in very close to the center-left of the picture, I can see little white dots that I think are eggs.

Some of the cells in the center of this picture are filled with larvae, slightly yellowish coiled grubs, and if I zoom in very close to the center-left of the picture, I can see little white dots that I think are eggs.

Our guide Matt got stung, too, and the bees were becoming agitated, so we packed up.

Putting the lid back on

Putting the lid back on

We all shucked out of our protective gear, drank lots of water, and headed over to Matt’s house to see some top bar hives.

A top bar hive with legs.  There were two more without legs.  This one belongs to Matt's daughter, who's ten.  He was careful to point out his state-of-the-art hive covers.

A top bar hive with legs. There were two more without legs. This one belongs to Matt’s daughter, who’s ten. He was careful to point out his state-of-the-art hive covers.

We all arranged ourselves on the roof of the shed, and cracked open the first of the hives.

The first one wasn't as neat, and there were a few places where the comb was coming away from its rows.  Of course, the cool thing about beeswax is that you can often just shove it back into place (carefully!) and the bees will stick it back on and make everything shipshape.

The first one wasn’t as neat, and there were a few places where the comb was coming away from its rows. Of course, the cool thing about beeswax is that you can often just shove it back into place (carefully!) and the bees will stick it back on and make everything shipshape.

The first hive was “irreparably queenless” — a worker bee can lay eggs and take on some of the role of the queen, but the eggs are unfertilized, and only drones will hatch from them. Sometimes if fertilized eggs are introduced into the hive, the hive can raise a new queen, but this one wasn’t managing to do so. The second seemed to be thriving, and we saw eggs and larvae, but no queen. So we moved on to the third hive.

On the left, you can see the edge of the smoker, to slow the bees down.  There were a lot of smoking jokes throughout the afternoon.

On the left, you can see the edge of the smoker, to slow the bees down. There were a lot of smoking jokes throughout the afternoon.

The cells in the upper right of this comb contain honey; you can tell by the flakey white wax covering.  Bees put honey on top, for insulation.

The cells in the upper right of this comb contain honey; you can tell by the flakey white wax covering. Bees put honey on top, for insulation.

Worker brood -- sealed cells with developing larvae inside.  The darker cells are starting to be filled with nectar, and the leftmost bee has just hatched.

Worker brood — sealed cells with developing larvae inside. The darker cells are starting to be filled with nectar, and the leftmost bee has just hatched.

Of course, sometimes things get a little twisted around.  If you didn't see the larvae before, look closely at the edge in the center-left of the picture.

Of course, sometimes things get a little twisted around. If you didn’t see the larvae before, look closely at the edge in the center-left of the picture.

Bees create their own plumb line by hanging onto each others' legs and dangling, in a process called "festooning."

Bees create their own plumb line by hanging onto each others’ legs and dangling, in a process called “festooning.”

In our continuing search for a queen, we came across numerous queen cells, larger cells that hang pendant from the rest of the comb.

These are empty; you can tell by the hole in the bottom.

These are empty; you can tell by the hole in the bottom.

Sellers will often mark queen bees with a red dot, to make them easy to spot.

And then, at last we found her!

And then, at last we found her!

We quickly put that bar back in with the others, to keep the queen safe and secure.

After the tour, we had a honey tasting.

After the tour, we had a honey tasting.

I’ve now tasted honey from Dubai, and also eucalyptus honey.

Our host and his father-in-law.

Our host and his father-in-law.

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