A few children carrying bags of blankets run out of a nylon shack. They are the children of Gusti Covaci, a 42 year-old Roma cattle herder. They bring the bags over to a nearby truck. The family’s fortune – clothes, furniture, stove, ducks, chickens and pig – all have a designated spot in the truck.
The Covaci family is disassembling the temporary shelter they call home for eight months each year. They’re going back to their home village of Sâncrai. It’s the fifth year in a row they have made this pilgrimage.
I visited the family on the eve before they left their makeshift dwelling. Gusti, his wife Frăguța and seven children have lived in a tiny hut for the past eight months.
They give us a warm welcome, as if we were famous football stars. We tell them that we came to learn more about what they do, what causes them hardship, what brings them joy and sorrow, and ultimately, how they are looked upon by members of the Tur community.
“I’m a gypsy who likes humanity”
In the shack, the gas lantern and the photographer’s panels cast a blinding light upon the seven children. Two of them come closer, the others have gathered around Dani, the eldest of the eight children, while quietly watching a movie on YouTube.
“How long have you been coming to work in Tur?” I asked Gusti.
“For five years. I take care of the Romanians’ cows around here. And they’re pleased with my work, so they call me every year. You know how it is? I’m a gypsy who likes humanity. I’m not a thief. And that’s why the Romanians call me every year – they trust me.”
“How is the life of a cattle herder?”
“It’s hard, very hard. But I like it. During the summer I set out at 5:30 AM and in the fall I start at 6:30 AM. I work when it’s cold, rainy, sunny or windy. During the summer I take the calves out as soon as day breaks. I go to the edge of the village and pick them up from people’s homes. My responsibility starts there – I take care of the animals until I bring them back to the people in the evening. It’s hard, but I’m happy. I never went to school, didn’t attend a university. So as they say, where can I go? I’ve been shepherding cows since I was nine and now I’m an honest bread-winner for my family, for my kids. My family is with me and I’m at peace.”
Frăguța, Gusti’s wife, interrupts the discussion. She’s no taller than a meter and a half. She has a dry sense of humor and is quick with her tongue.
“Let’s give these people something to drink,” Frăguța offers. A bottle of beer instantly appears out of nowhere. There is only one cup in the hut, so they offer us beer straight out of the bottle. Gusti says, “It’s not polite to make Romanians drink from the same cup as the gypsies.”
The family business
There are about 150 families in Tur that own a cow. Gusti earns 150 RON per cow for the season, which adds up to an annual income of 22,500 RON. His older children do odd jobs to earn another 1500 RON each.
Gusti says “I got into cattle herding in order to earn money for me and my family. From what I earn, I have saved enough money to purchase a home in Sâncrai, buy bicycles for my children and a used Audi A6 from England.
He has also earned something he cherishes more than money. He has earned trust from the Romanians in Tur.
“He loves animals and takes care of them accordingly. We get along well with him. He understands the meaning of responsibility. He’s punctual. I don’t remember him ever being late, and he’s never caused us problems. There were other cattle herders in the area, but they weren’t serious like Gusti.” (Ioan Țiplea, nicknamed Nonu, owner of 11 bulls).
“Gusti is a good guy, anyone in Tur will say the same thing about him. He has a real passion for animals. He loves them, and he takes care of them. He’s a serious guy and he helps people. Whenever he sees elderly people, he helps them. He behaves like a man with a good heart. He’s a fine man.” (Gheorghe Fane, owner of cattle)
Gusti eventually warms up to us and shares more of his thoughts.
“I get upset when people accuse me of being a thief, because I’m honest before humanity,” says Gusti. “The Romanians let me into their homes and trust me. And I taught my kids not to steal. If they need something, they know to ask for it rather than to steal it. That’s why I work, so they’ll want for nothing. If they were thieves, I wouldn’t have the courage to come back to Tur. I’m not one of those gypsies. I don’t need people like that in my home.”
I ask Gusti if has ever thought about leaving Romania.
“I’ve thought about leaving, but I truly don’t want to go. What would I do in Germany or in France? Steal or beg? I don’t want to leave my kids. I want to show them that they can have what they need by working hard, not by stealing.”
Caring for the family
Since Gusti is the breadwinner, Frăguța, who’s barely weighs over 100 pounds, is the homemaker. She takes care of the little garden near the hut and makes enough food to feed nine people on a daily basis.
“It’s hard, very hard. Every day I have to make four gallons of food, either stew or soup” says Frăguța.
In the stew, she puts at least eight pounds of potatoes. If she makes pasta, she needs an entire bucket. On a good day, she’ll cook four whole chickens, or eight pounds of wings.
During one meal, the family devours eight loaves of bread. When she has no bread, she makes focaccia, which the children eat together with the soup or whatever else they find in the home or garden.
She makes polenta from at least four pounds of cornmeal. “It’s really hard, but with God’s grace, anything is possible,” says the little woman.
“The kids are my life”
In the nylon shack things are warming up. The lamps are getting dimmer and the cattle herder stands up. He dominates the room.
In the soft light, his dark, marble eyes and handlebar mustache summon images of fictional characters.
From the corner of the room where the children are gathered, some giggling escapes. They’ve just taken a selfie, and the older ones are sharing their opinions about how it came out.
Dani (19), the oldest of Gusti and Frăguța’s children, orchestrates the event. Next to him are Samir (18), Timi (15), Babi (13), Francesca (11), and Crinuța (6).
Dani, Samir and Timi help their father with the herd, but in the summer months they work odd jobs during the day. They’re up to date with what’s new in the world of smartphones and tablets as well as the trendiest hairstyles and clothes.
Dani and Samir got haircuts this past summer, and their hairstyles resembled those of the young men you see in city pubs and bars. However, none of this has helped them get through the weather this week. Their rubber boots and hats are indispensable in the cold wind and squishy mud that makes its way into the shack.
Gusti tries to persuade his sons to become electricians, contractors or chefs and for his girls to become salespeople or seamstresses. I ask him why he doesn’t send his younger children to school.
“Well Mr. Journalist, we’re with the herd eight months of the year. That means that they’d only get a few months in school and it’s not worth it. To send them to school in Sancrai and leave them there while I’m with the cattle, I don’t want that! I want them to stay by me. They’re my life.”
However, one of Gusti’s wishes is that Dani and Samir “learn to read just a little bit” so that they could eventually get a driver’s permit. In order to do this, Gusti says he’ll hire a Romanian to teach them.
The head of the family has always wanted to have a horse. He saw the horse in his dreams. He reminisces about the day the horse in his dreams passed by his herd. The red mare was big, strong and beautiful. It belonged to Peter in Tur.
“If that mare were mine, I wouldn’t even need a roof over my head. Just thinking about it makes me want to cry,” Gusti begins the story.
“It makes us want to cry,” interrupts Frăguța.
Gusti continues the story.
So I went to the Romanian’s house and I said to him, “Hey man, will you give me that mare?”
‘I’ll give it you” Peter said.
“How much do you want for it?”
“Hmm, how much should I ask you for it?”
And next thing I know, he pulls out his belt to whip me. So I raced to the door, but as I was exiting the door, he yelled after me, “Hey, Gusti, come back here!”
So I thought: “What does this guy want from me. He tried to hit me and is now calling me by my first name?”
“Tell me how much you’re willing to pay for it,” he said.
“7,000 RON,” I replied.
“Listen, gypsy, even if you wrap that horse up in money, I won’t give it to you.”
Then he asked, “Do you drink Palinca?”
“Yes, I drink”
After two shots I said, “If that mare isn’t meant to be sold, it’s not meant to be sold. Take care good of it.” And I left.
Gusti’s Dream – One year later
The incident was on its way to being forgotten until one of the Gusti’s cows abandoned the herd as the cows were heading home at dusk.
The owner of the cow accused Gusti of theft.
Gusti said to him, “Hey Romanian, you think I got into the herding business to win or lose? I didn’t sell it. If you don’t believe me, then I’ll go with you to the priest.”
A little bit of time passed and the owner called to tell Gusti that he found the cow grazing by the mill.
And since good news always comes in pairs, Gusti got more good news. When Peter, the owner of the red mare, heard that Gusti had spoken the truth about the lost cow, he sent Gusti word that he would sell the horse for 3,500 RON, half of what Gusti had offered.
The journey home
Midnight is fast approaching. In the shack that is situated on the outskirts of Tur, the heat of the stove invites the nine souls to sleep. Tomorrow, bright and early, another year will be closing for the family of herders. It’s time for them to return to a real house, with walls made out of brick.
Four months later, in March for 2016, I visited the family in Sâncrai. The Covaci family lives in a modest home that is clean and tidy. On the roof of their home, an improvised antenna reigns on its throne. The family has spent most of the winter resting and watching television.
Soon, their little transhumance movement will begin once again. They’ll have to put up the nylon shack on the edge of Tur for another season of herding.
“We’re heading back as soon as we get a hint of warm weather” Gusti shares with a big smile.
About the photographer
Remus Țiplea describes himself as the father of Vlad and a passionate photographer. This project, which he began in 2015, made him attach himself to the simplicity of the people living in the nylon shack.
You can find out more about Remus on remustiplea.blogspot.ro