Imagine a village 125 years ago. Food, clothes, houses, lifestyles... Of course, the history must have recorded all of that. But, what if you come face to face with history?
Just 25 minutes drive from Edmonton in Canada, you reach a quintessential Ukrainian village by the highway. When Canada raises a toast on its 150th anniversary, the Ukrainians there celebrate the 125th anniversary of their immigration. This cultural and heritage village is a mirror image of how they lived in East Central Alberta from 1892-1930. The most number of Ukrainian immigrants were settled in Edmonton.
The entrance fee to the heritage village is 15 USD (nearly INR 1,025) per person. The elderly visitors will get a discount on the fee. The way past the huge unknown trees and grassy land leads to an old railway station--Belly's Canadian National Railway Station. A wagon as old as 125 years was stationed there.
You can check a train bulletin inside the station. Tuesday, July 4, 1929. And it has marked the train schedule from West End to Edmonton. Suddenly, we are on a time travel to a bygone era, and surprising images of over a century back unfold before us.
Workers were busy there as if they have come straight out of a vintage Russian painting. A few yards away there was a huge building. As we approached it, the fresh smell of wheat and hay covered us. "Oh, it's the granary, where we keep the grains brought in the wagon," a worker told us.
The Ukrainian village spread across many acres. A few steps ahead was a church, the first Russian Catholic church in the village. We were about to enter the church after leaving the shoes outside when Natasha, a beautiful girl, came running from the premises and welcomed us with a lovely smile.
A picture of the Holy Family hung on the wall of the church which was hardly the size of a large room. Holy mass and baptizing regularly take place in the church, Natasha said. Yesterday also we had a baptizing ceremony in the church, she said gleamingly. "The parish has 30 families," she added.
Standing on the church premises, we heard the gallop of a horse. Horse carts were the only mode of travel in the village. It had rained the night before and the mud road lay ploughed down by the horses. We took that road and it guided us to a hut in the middle of the woods. There, a woman and her daughter--Olga and Natalia--were busy working on their farm. They grow wheat and potato there.
It was their one-room house and we entered it after taking their permission. A cot made of raw logs tied together was lying there and a cotton mattress on top of it, neatly folded. Three stones make a hearth in one corner of the room. An iron case and a hanging pot to keep things...the luxury end there.
I glanced at the roof from outside. It was fully covered with some grass. Why don't they remove the grass, I asked. The reply was interesting. The grass protects the house from heavy rains. The rainwater will just run off after hitting the leaves, they explained.
A small hearth was burning on the yard as well. It was their grill to prepare the game meat. Olga continued uprooting the weeds from the potato farm even as she talked on. Natalia was plucking grass from their carrot farm.
The narrow path across the farmland led us to a large open area. A few houses, stables for horses, cattle shed, huge chicken coops, and farmland... it must be a rich household for sure. Roofed with palm leaves and grass, the house looked elegant. The vegetable garden was complete with tomato, potato, spinach, coriander, carrot and beetroot among others.
The moment he saw us in the yard, Vladimir, the elder one in the house, came out with a hearty smile. A handsome man, he looked just as he came out of old Russian films. "Welcome," he invited us to his house.
"No one in the house? Where have they gone," I quipped. "My wife has gone to a neighbour's," he said.
"Can we see inside your house," I asked. He was more than happy to let us see his rooms. He bowed and showed us the way inside as a gentle host. Two rooms had all that a rich man's house would have. There was a fireplace as well. Clothes, dyed with flowers, hung there for drying. A basketful of country eggs on the table. The tasty aroma of ethnic food wafted in the air from the kitchen. I curiously glanced at a wooden utensil there. Reading my mind, Vladimir explained: "It is for kneading the dough for bread."
Vladimir was showing us the ballroom when his wife Ivana came back home. She looked charming in her long vintage gown with numerous fleets. We bid goodbye to the couple after a while. Nearly fifty country hens were searching for food in the front yard. We heard the sounds of pigs from the pen at a distance. The sound of horse carts carrying grass gradually dwindles in the horizon.
We turned a curve on the road and there stood an old post office. The Lusen post office was just a room. The post master's coat hung from a nail on the wall. He had gone for lunch, said Natasha, who is running a grain shop next to it. The visitors were buying dry fruits and other stuff from her shop.
There were three churches nearby--St. Nicholas Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, St Nicholas Russo Greek Orthodox Church, and St. Vladimir's Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Church. Taking a tour of the village and climbing down a hillock, we reached another side of the railway station. There was an old Russian elementary school. It was a holiday and hence, we couldn't meet teachers or students.
From there, we went to a blacksmith's place which was abuzz with activities. Do you want to fix the horseshoe, the blacksmith asked us. I said no. He cleaned his hands full of rust and dust on his trousers and gave us a warm shake-hand. It looked just like an 'Ala' (blacksmith's workshop) in Kerala with numerous tools, hammers, and horseshoes...As we were heading back to the railway station from there, the Hillyards Hotel drew our attention.
Pork roast, carrots, potatoes, and Rubab pie were in the special dinner menu. The price was also exhibited there--just 25 cents (approx INR 17) for dinner! The two-storied hotel had 8 rooms with attached bathrooms. The telephone system was a century old. Maids stood there, always ready to help you. A 125-year-old bill book lay on the table.
As we were returning after seeing the police aid post, market, sawmill, and market square, a doubt still lingered in my mind. Even though it is a re-enactment of the life 125 years ago, how can the actors and actresses make us feel it so remarkably real and live?
Translated by Madhuben Geeth