He picked us up directly from the bus station driving a white Lada matchbox that he referred to as his “Russian Jeep.” He hesitated, first, in front of the автостанция entrance, then hummed up, presumably when he noticed the lime green hiker’s pack. He offered a serious smile when we got in the car, then stoicism. I joked about the little red-and-black flag above the air conditioning unit: “Batman?” No, he replied; the bat silhouette was the symbol of his army unit.
I was traveling with Cosma, an excuse to see Moldova’s countryside. Earlier that week, my host mother’s sister went to visit a horse farm in Ceadir-Lunga; my organizational partner took a wandering Italian photojournalist just after. We decided to bandwagon, and took down the number of Konstantin Kelesh.
“To work with horses,” said the man of few words, “you have to love them.” Konstantin started working at the farm when he was 20 years old. It’s been 34 years, now.About a mile from the bus station and up into the town’s outskirts, Konstantin first careened us through low brush on a hill across from the farm. He stopped just below the ruins of an old колхоз. We walked its periphery a few meters to the herd of horses – mares and foals – grazing. I asked, are they his horses?No, he’s the manager. Konstantin’s got his dog, his car and his paintings. (I found out later – he has a wife and a son, too. The son works at the farm as a veterinarian, and he teaches veterinary studies at the university).
He didn’t like that I tried to touch the mares – my curiosity and his cautiousness clashed, I guessed. Maybe he didn’t want me to get kicked. Or maybe he was just looking out for the horses. So he urged us back to the car, down to the farm.
The first part of the tour was quick. He pointed out his “Afghan” dog (likely a Koochee), the year-old horses untrained, guided us round to the side of the main barn to introduce us to the trained 2- and 3-years, then took us inside to the stallions. Konstantin hadn’t been keen on letting us close to the babes, though he let us pamper the stallions with sugar cubes. One horse gazed with imperial presence, “getting used to us” (I never expected that kind of horse side-eye). Another “talked,” huffing his greeting at Konstantin.
We soon trailed behind Konstantin and away from the barn. When Cosma inquired about horse prices, Konstantin was evasive. They go for not much. Apparently, the ranchers don’t have the right to sell their horses in Europe. They’ve saturated the Moldova market, and it seems Moldova didn’t sign some international-law-or-another (excuse my poor Russian) allowing the ranchers to expand business.Konstantin took us into a small museum-house and straight to a makeshift gym. Still a strong man, this Moldovan man! He said he’s old, but doesn’t want to lose his strength. Cosma and I stared when Konstantin tossed his yellow kettlebell into the air with a wrist-flick. I was nervous – the motion was unrealistically fluid. I didn’t believe he was doing what he did.
Then he led us to the room where his artwork proliferates. Konstantin has the place covered with his oil paintings, stacks of graphite drawings and their copies littered around the tables. This, he told us, is where students from Comrat State University study animal husbandry. And I began to ask my questions.He served in the army for two years, as commander. Konstantin pulled out a picture of men in stripes and cockeyed hats, where his red stripes (contrasting with blue) signified his rank. He painted while he served, but he never told anyone in the army of his hobby…He started drawing when he was small, even before he began wrestling at 14. But he’s only been painting with oil for three years.
**Scroll to the bottom of this post for a “gallery” of Konstantin’s work**
By now Konstantin has held exhibitions in Italy, France, Moldova and Russia. He sells in these countries, and in Spain too. He remarked that it’s a rare thing, this business of depicting horses. Apparently there are only ten or so artists on the European continent who do this kind of work…
…Then a quick call shook Konstantin from his little exhibition, and he recommended we stay and enjoy his work; another tour group had made its way from Chisinau.
How he brightened when he walked in with the tourists! Maybe 20 minutes after he brisked away, he was shining for the group, crow’s feet crinkling during his animated performance.
As he signed prints of his pictures (“Take what you want! I’m not running a business. I’ll sign for you.”), I snuck away to play with the babes we had passed on our pre-group tour. Frisky! but curious, especially when handed the grass they couldn’t reach.Konstantin called me away from the older trained horses (I had migrated to the friendlier ones) and led the group to the farm’s 100-year-old well. Another horse farmer was already trudging down to the hole, mares and foals galloping from their far rest above the колхоз.
Following the show at the well, Konstantin gathered his tourists back to their Chisinau маршрутка and left to show them a picnic spot, assuring us he would make it back soon with our bags, stashed in the back of his car.
When he returned, Konstantin sat with us for a moment for a short conversation. I asked whether he considered the horses his friends. “Of course.”
We talked personality for a bit: all horses are different, like people. The big boys in the barn are all stallions; they stay there for breeding. “Free” males in the corrals are geldings, and one harnessed fella, 20 years old, wanders the property like a dog (Koochee did’t get the same liberty). He’s free, Konstantin said, because he knows the place and he’s not looking for anything from the ladies. When training, it’s the females who are the most difficult: the more beautiful and talented, the more troublesome they are. I quipped: “Capricious?”
And then we asked him about a place to camp. Konstantin offered to show us somewhere not far from the horse farm. He seemed hesitant, at first. He said: “Yes, you have a man, but…” (Camping is not common in Moldova.) I explained that we usually plan – or rather, don’t – spontaneously when we travel. He said all would be well. In Russian, we had ourselves a “лёгкая рука”.
He drove us right back down to the center to get our supplies.
We drove past the bus station, where we stopped briefly – Konstantin told me to hop in the back, and a woman took my place from her spot on the sidewalk. He explained that we were guests, looking for vegetables, and brought us out past the center to a small stand (like the old ladies who camp in front of any bazaar, but they had no bazaar), and we got our produce there: tomatoes, green peppers, a melon and some hard pears. Our other passenger hopped out and meandered away.
We wanted some drinks, too, so we turned a couple blocks back to a bar that’s a store and grabbed some cold brew. The cashier was welcoming – and Konstantin introduced us as guests, again.
He drove us right back up to the farm to take us to site.
There we were, camping! He took Cosma’s number, and Cosma took his, just in case. He insisted – twice – that we call in the night were anything to go wrong.
And fortunately, the only wrong that did go was the poor snail I crushed as I sat on a blanket to read the next morning (but forgive me, please – he was unavoidable! The sizable beasties were thick all over the campsite, often only a meter apart).
By the time our time was through, we had seen more than a farm with dedicated workers and rich history. We stumbled upon a man of dedication and talent whose character was like the art he hid from army contemporaries. The serious role chipped slow, until his hospitality cracked through the last. Konstantin called us that night as we camped, just to make sure we were good – and rolled up at 8 that morning to honk us out of bed. He thought it would be hot! he said. And shouted his intention to leave the farm with a jolly goodbye – the last time we saw him, checking in on his way out, again.
Perhaps he’s the standard Moldovan. Cosma thought as much. The people here don’t plaster on the fake smiles of retail America – if they’re gruff, you know it. But beneath that is an unfailing element of Moldovan hospitality.
Horse Farm Advice:
1. Visit Konstantin! (Call if you can get his number…) He’s met many past volunteers, and he’s friendly, a great guide, and speaks in Russian.
2. The full tour includes: horses (mothers and babies) in a field at the beginning; a tour of the ranch premises, with the younger steeds in a fenced-in enclosure, the trained horses to the side of the main barn and the stallions inside; and the museum/veterinary school.
3. Round the side of the house, there is a Scarecrow who protects just potatoes and trees. He may be lonely, scaring his birds and resting sans color… He gets excited in the wind, pay him a visit.4. Konstantin can show you the old Soviet air field (no longer operating) where a military plane and some smaller planes rest. They’re right up the road from a large tobacco field. There’s a monument, too, to the Moldovan and his Venezuelan friend who both died in a crash in Soviet times.