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Week 8 68 Sunday, June 30, 2002 Sigulda, Latvia— We had booked two beds at the youth hostel here in Sigulda, Latvia. On the map it appeared a ways out of town, but, we figured, there would be a bus or something. There was a bus, but there was also a CABLE CAR that runs from the town across the river gorge. Our hostel is on the other side of the gorge. When we walked out of the train station, we could hear music and following the sounds came upon a Latvian folk dance festival in progress. I love international folk dancing anyway, but this was a real treat--locals in costume doing dance after dance. I was captivated until JF's restlessness penetrated my trance. We went straight to the tourist office, where we learned that the last cable car across the gorge would be in half an hour and we'd better hurry because it's a twenty minute walk. We hoofed it. The hostel is located in what used to be a children's tuberculosis sanitorium. It's still some kind of sanitorium, but what it looks like is a huge 19th century palace: enormous columns, formal gardens in front, and then, in a semi-circle in the yard, a wooden structure with dozens of doors leading to dormitory beds and little rooms. We seem to be the only ones at the place, except for the echoing voices of children somewhere up the wide stone steps leading away from the lobby. It feels really strange--this huge building, these little rooms, all echoing and empty, as if we had somehow entered the twilight zone. We arrive in the dining hall and two places are set. We never see anyone set or clear them. Last night's supper--okay, they had no notice that we'd want supper, but then how were we to know that there would be no store, no cafe, nothing at all over on this side?--was a small circle of bread with some kind of thin tomato sauce with--get this--aesthetically zig-zagged mayonaise over the top. The breakfast this morning was better--corn flakes, cheese, sausage, tomatoes and bread. I took notes on the train ride, to provide Beth Slaby with some sense of what the countryside is like. Mostly we drive through pine forests, pine and birch. The soil is sandy and yellow. There is Queen Anne's Lace and fireweed in the grassy places. We see some farms, and some of the fields have been left fallow or abandoned. Otherwise, the farmers here are growing wheat. We see the occasional individual house with a well-trimmed hedge, flowers (the Latvians are very big on flowers), and garden plots enclosed in fences. There are community garden plots as well, each individual's space fenced, each space with its little tool shed or plastic walled greenhouse. Often, some of those plots have been abandoned as well, and are overgrown. There were sawmills on the train route as well. Sigulda, where we're staying tonight again, is an outdoor sports center. At the cable car, before we left for our hotel last night, we met up with a bunch of guys ranging from late teens to mid-60's, most of them in tangerine colored socks. Week 8 69 They are the Sigulda bungee jumping club and they jump from the cable car down towards the river on Saturdays and Sundays. I'm hoping to catch their act this afternoon. They were very friendly and got me drunk on strong brown beer in the 15 minutes we were waiting for the car to take us to the grand and empty manor house. There is also river rafting, canoeing, babsleigh rides, skiing in winter, camping, hot air ballooning (I think this bungee jumping club also jumps from hot air balloons---sounds out of my league by a long shot) and airplane rides for $10- 15 for 6-8 minutes over the countryside. There's a national park and hiking trails past "wild" animals in large fenced areas. Tomorrow we'll rent bikes for half a day and just tootle around town, looking at various castles and maybe gawking at the wild bears and wolves. In the afternoon, we start our trek into Estonia and that may take two or three days before we're in a town with a reasonably priced internet. Until then... posted by Patricia 8:43 AM Monday, July 01, 2002 Riga, Latvia-- Books The other day in Riga, we came across a going-out-of-business sale at a bookstore. What luck! I was almost finished with the rotten science fiction book that JF picked up in the hostel in Vilnius. Tom Jones, the book I picked up there, sat waiting in my backpack, weighing a lot, it's a thick book but it's also not exactly road reading. I won't throw it away because there is nothing worse than sitting in a bus station, waiting for the next bus which is in two or three hours, with nothing to read. All the books in this store were half price and so, damn the weight, I bought up two and JF bought up two. I gulped down the last of my bad sci-fi and started Mistry's "A Fine Balance." It's an Oprah book so you American reading addicts may already have been through it. It's not a "fun" read, since it is about India since Independence and yet is so well written and so deep that it is worth braving the bummer stuff it in. Think "Angela's Ashes," though I haven't gotten to the end, so I don't know whether it will end with an up note or not. Still, it is a great book. I'm also still carrying, and reading aloud from Tom Robbins' "Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates." All these books make my backpack really heavy, so I tore out the relevant countries from my Lonely Planet guide and left the rest on the hostel coffee table. There's a whole riff about books on the road. Ya gotta have 'em, but you don't want to be so engrossed you miss an opportunity to meet the locals. Unless you're so tired and grumpy, you probably shouldn't meet anyone, much less locals. Every time you get to a hostel, you look over the books on the shelves. You leave the ones you've finished and pick up what you can. One guy I knew wouldn't trade a good book for a trash novel and Week 8 70 so carried around his already-read stash until he met someone with discriminating enough taste to be worthy of exchanging books with. Notes from the Riga hostel cast of characters: One night Gerrard-Michael Little arrived, announcing when he heard JF's French accent that he was Cajun, and that his parents emmigrated to Australia from Bayou Something or Other. He flourished a business card. International Bodyguard Service, it said. His wallet has a little badge. His jacket various insignias. He lounged in the kitchen while we cooked and ate supper, telling us all about the elite group he belongs to. "He's the least secret agent in the secret service," Judy commented. He was in town, he said, because there was to be a meeting of NATO aspirants and he and his buddies have been training the Latvian secret service how to bodyguard. He was part of the group that guarded the Dalai Lama, he said. And his wife, he dragged her shy and quiet self out of their room to introduce her, is the best shot in the service. He was a wiry little guy with a goatee and claimed that the big "knuckle-draggers" just make big targets and so they put them in front while the rest of the service can get on with their jobs. It was a hoot. The couple from Idaho showed up two days before we left. They had rented a car in Tallin and were worried about where they could park it so it wouldn't get stolen. Patrick, the longtime resident Irishman (been here seven years, he claimed), advised them to let him call a friend of his who runs a taxi service and who would look after the car for them. Obviously, our cheap hostel didn't have guarded parking. The woman had three guidebooks in two-color highlights, a notebook filled with all the information she gathered. She wrote "Tram 4" when I told them that was the way into town. They were traveling cheaply but they hadn't figured out how to travel, and so it didn't do them much good to save the money. It was the fear that got me--for their rented car, for their new backpacks, their money. "Ah, the original hitchhikers," said Patrick when they arrived with their bags. "We backpack all over the world," said the guy, proudly. Why didn't they go to a hotel? That was obviously where they belonged. They're cheap--the woman argued angrily over $5 for the room, insisted on looking at this one and that one and why couldn't they see the first one they'd been shown? They don't want to spend the money. They learned about this kind of travel too late in life and haven't absorbed its real worth. They are too isolated to sit around with the travelers of the rest of the world, so nobody will ever question out loud their lists and their obsession to see everything and troop around to museums because they're there. Week 8 71 Of course, when somebody bothers me this much, I have to recognize the hidden Me that is in there. Look at what they missed in their obsessive need to get out early, their mistrust of the "lowlife" of the hostel, the folks who could have shared the secrets of Riga with them. Oh, well, out of time. posted by Patricia 10:13 AM Sigulda, Latvia--Some impressionist thoughts written last night in our enchanted castle/tuberculosis hospital: Sitting outside on the wooden walkway in front of our room. The only sounds are distant dogs barking and the rustle of leaves in the trees. Or is it rain? They sound so much alike we have to stick out our hands to make sure. The night air is chilly- -longjohns and fleece jacket, French scarf at my neck, I'm warm enough in this northern air, but I'm thinking of when it would be this cold at home. November? The clouds race overhead, all day, all night, bringing rain, clearing, more rain. Everyone has an umbrella. It will rain soon; it will stop raining soon. My backpack carries the rain poncho I bought in Peru for our midnight amongst the ruins of Machu Picchu. My hat is always withing reach, also my jacket. When the sun comes out, the jacket is too warm. When it disappears, back on goes the jacket. Off and on, six or seven times a day. The woman who works here stays an hour to talk this afternoon. The children from this village (Is it a village? it's a cluster of bizarre buildings that look like the outbuildings for a great manor house. Massive stone gatehouses, stables, barn, servants' quarters. And then the Soviet buildings around the corner. What was this place? There are ruins in the distance, what were they? The information about it all is scanty, several paragraphs in the tourist brochure but no map. It is a tourist site that hasn't become one yet...)...the children take the cable car to school. The bus comes too early in the morning and too late in the afternoon, so they queue up for the cable car across the valley and slide down, down toward the river and then up, up, brushing the trees. Yesterday, a gaggle of tour bus Estonians came with us on our ride back to the hotel. They were thrilled at the adventure and kept up such a clucking that JF said he felt he was in a henhouse. From the Sigulda side, we could see the pale yellow building looking expensive, baronial. Up close, it looks like the children's tuberculosis hospital that it used to be. The woman from the hotel marveled that our kids make a minimum wage of $5 an hour. She makes $10 in two days. That always launches me into my economic tape. Yes, we make more but how much does it cost to live? JF thinks the food in the grocery stores here is about the same as in the USA. He's the one who buys food, but I don't think so. The woman says that she buys at the marketplace in Riga near the train station. That answers one of Karl's questions--yes, we shop in Week 8 72 the farmer's markets, except that here they aren't on the outskirts of town, they are right in the center. Today, a man sat beside the grocery story with a small jar of blueberries and one of tiny wild strawberries. In Lithuania, people lined the highways with their jars of berries for sale. We are still the only ones here. In the Soviet buildings of the village, the hotel woman told us, live old people who worked at the hospital for years, living on pensions. Tomorrow, a group of handicapped children will arrive and by the weekend, there will be more, filling all the beds. Last month, there was a librarian's conference. So maybe our impression of being in an enchanted palace, empty, echoing and mysterious, was just an accident of timing. Tonight, instead of mayonnaise pizza, we ate chewy dark brown bread, cheese, ham, tomatoes. The secretary told us about a trip she took last year to the Czech Republic. Ten days, and by the seventh, she was ready to come home. All the museums, the monuments, the long hours in the bus! And the food! We laughed because we've had a hard time with the menus we can't read and the grease and the surfeit of potatoes. "Latvian peoples like GOOD food!" she declared, "and a lot of." Some people in the group ordered potatoes and then tried to order something else to go with them. They ended up ordering another sort of potatoes. Potatoes with potatoes! We all laughed. That's why we loved the Lido in Riga--you could see all the food and could point. Whenever they have a special occasion to celebrate, she said, they go to the Lido in Riga. In Sigulda, she said, everything has become expensive. That's one of the little known facts about the development of tourism, we told her. The tourists come, and they have money to spend, and they are willing to pay the high prices, and soon the locals have to pay high prices, too. We had this great plan for today...up early, over on the 9 o'clock cable car, rent bikes, spend a half-day tootling around, catch a 4 p.m. bus to a little coast town and pick up the bus to Parnu, in Estonia. Except that when we finally rolled out of bed, the sky was laden with black clouds and it was raining and it was going to rain. All our optimistic planning went out the window. JF doesn't want to bicycle around in the cold rain. Well, but in this part of the world, you have to expect cold rain. That's the weather. Grump, grump. We ended up taking the first train back to Riga, booking a late afternoon bus to Tallin in Estonia and taking ourselves out to the Lido for a copious and delicious lunch. When in doubt, eat--one of my cardinal travel principles. Week 8 73 But this time, the infusion of vitamins didn't really improve the mood. JF has, at least from what I can tell from here, had it with the Baltic States of Europe. It's cold, and he's a boy from the Sahara Desert. It's rainy and ditto. The countryside is flat--well, except for the river gorge we traversed back and forth in the cable car, full of forests broken occasionally by fields, some with wheat, some abandoned, and Soviet buildings. The old cities are good for a lookaround. Riga was certainly the most impressive and stately of any we've seen so far. But they have 16th century towns in France and he can understand the language and read the menus and see his friends. And it doesn't rain every day and it isn't frigging November in the middle of the summer. Are we having a temporary sagging of spirits? A tinge of road-weariness? A jaded eye cast upon the possible adventures coming down the pike? I would have to say yes. The joy of discovery is dimmed in the lowering dark clouds. And long johns in July? Well, we wore long johns in Peru last summer because it was winter there. Back and forth. I get out the map of Europe and look with speculation at southern Poland. Warsaw, everyone says, is depressing and huge and ugly and not worth it. But Krakow...now that is supposed to be the artistic center, the cul-cha hub of Poland. And I do know how to say my seven words in Polish, so it wouldn't be like learning a whole new language. And we have a big Servas list from Poland, all over the south--even a guy who loves motorcycles. Well, we will go to Tallin. We get in about midnight. We have a reservation at a hotel that might be really expensive or might not. I mean, it's 291 EEK per person, but how many EEKs to a dollar? JF went out just now to change money so we wouldn't have the same situation we had in Latvia, where we arrived without a penny to our names. And we will see. There is an island off the west coast that was off-limits to foreigners during the Soviet time because of some communications stuff they installed there, and even Estonians had to have a special permit to visit. So the place, says the guidebook, is emerging from a time- warp. It is what Estonia was before the Soviets. Windmills. Nature. ("We can see nature in France and it isn't raining," says JF.) Till then. posted by Patricia 9:45 AM Tuesday, July 02, 2002 Tallinn, Estonia— Entry into Tallin Caught the 6 p.m. bus from Riga, Latvia to Tallin, Estonia. The bus stopped exactly once, at the border, in six hours. Luckily, I had visited the incredibly stinking WC in the bus station before we left. Beth asks what we see out of the windows of the buses and trains. I hesitate to admit that I really only looked out twice. Once, we were traveling through The Forest, which has been ubiquitous since Poland, and once I could see the Baltic Sea and some neat little wooden houses with enormous very neatly stacked woodpiles in the yards. Do they heat Week 8 74 with wood? If so, this must be the prime season for getting your wood in. We are not talking three or four cords here. We are talking 10, 20 cords. This is also the land of the sauna. The harbormaster´s conference room, where we stayed in the coastal village in Latvia, had a sauna available, but it was ten dollars to fire it up, so we passed. Green, green land. The rest of the ride, I was in India with Mistry, engrossed in the book I am reading. I don´t know if it actually got full dark last night. It was late twilight when the bus finally arrived, at 11:30 p.m. Everyone got off and disappeared and JF and I were left with our bags on a bench, trying to make out the streets and to orient our Lonely Planet map with our surroundings. As a rule, we don´t schedule evening rides where we will arrive in a new city at midnight like that. It is the devil´s own to find a hotel and you are already so tired and fed up, you are likely to grab almost anything, pay far more than you would if you arrived at noon and calmly looked for a place. Anticipating this, I had called ahead from Riga in the afternoon and booked us dorm beds in a bed and breakfast. We would be paying 20 dollars apiece for the night, but it was theoretically within walking distance from the bus station. Actually, the bus stopped four or five times in Tallin. One of them could have been the bus station that is on our Lonely Planet map, but the place where everybody got off the bus definitely was not. None of the streets had names I could find on the map. The midnight sky was streaked with darkening pink. The all-night liquor store across the street yielded advice that sounded like, take the tram tracks at the end of this street and then go four blocks. We deduced later that she was telling us to take Tram 4. It was a mile´s walk into the city. We walked. I didn´t spot any taxis or I would have put in a vote to take one. JF said later he had seen one or two but kept quiet because we are tough travelers and we can damn well walk into a city in the middle of the night. After about half an hour, I found the street name we were on on the map. A couple more stops under street lamps to get oriented and we were golden. I snuggled into the very clean white sheets of our dorm room and my mind went back to the bed in the empty enchanted palace where we had slept the night before. And the grumpy, rainy, dispirited day we had had until we got to Riga and ate at Lido and I spent a couple of hours on the internet. This morning, one of our dormmates´ alarm went off at 8 and he reset it for 8:30, when it went off again. He is a kid from New York traveling just a few yards higher on the hog than we do, and apparently he doesn´t know that you don´t set your alarm in a dorm unless you have an incredibly early flight or bus or train to catch and are unlikely to get yourself out of bed. Setting your alarm to make sure you get to enough museums and stuff is not at all considered cool. Especially when you reset the sucker for thirty minutes later. But we had a nice chat over breakfast. They had pitchers of drinkable yogurt and kefir-buttermilk and milk, cornflakes, coffee, tea, a big block of white cheese, tomatoes and cukes, black and white bread and toasters, two toasters! We haven´t seen toasters since Berlin! Ah, the glorious pleasure of Week 8 75 melted butter (okay, margarine but we aren´t picky) on toast. And this stuff they called Kava, which looks like a brown powder and tastes nutty. The little placard claimed it is a traditionally Estonian breakfast made of peasemeal, wheat and rye, I think. I liked it. The kid with the alarm clock didn´t but he also had it with buttermilk the day before and buttermilk is an acquired taste for those not born and raised in the South. We paid our bill this morning and threw ourselves at the public transportation system to find the considerably cheaper hostel out in the suburbs. Even if you count the trolleybus fare for a couple of trips into town a day, it is still much cheaper. We have a double room instead of a dorm bed and instead of paying 20 USD a person we are paying 10. But it ain´t cute. The B&B was right downtown and luscious in cuteness--supermodern showers that look like something out of Star Trek, ultra clean toilet, hardwood floors, intimate little dining room off a kitchen where you can microwave stuff and heat your own water for tea. The beds were Scandinavian wood style, with the blanket in the sheet pocket deal that we have seen since Germany. Cosy. Nice, though everything felt small, as if the modern tables and toilets had been squeezed into a space just a little too small for it. It is imperative that one get with the public transportation system in a city the minute one arrives. Or, in our case, first thing in the morning. We, as Americans, are so used to jumping in our cars, that getting onto a trolley or a tram feels particularly intimidating. But the prices for hotels are much cheaper out in the ugly suburbs, we have found, and the ride into town can sometimes produce delights in their own right. The street in from the Riga hostel, for example, was lined with Art Nouveau buildings. I used to think I needed a map of the bus system and that I ought to have some sort of overview of what ran where. Not so. All I know today is that Trolleybus 2 and 3 will take me out to the hostel and in to town and that my internet place is about halfway in and you hand 5 Thingies to the driver. Thingies are another point. When you zip through a bunch of countries, you end up not having the actual name of the local currency on the tip of your tongue. I used to call everything Rupees, the name of the Indian currency, and JF one- upped me by calling them Merdiers, which is a fairly impolite French term referring to excrement and used in mild expressions of annoyance. Merde! Beth was asking about sounds...We were sitting on the B&B stoop this morning having coffee and a cigarette when a car rumbled by on the cobblestones. I realized that I have become accustomed to that sound on this trip and never really heard it before. Car tires roar on cobblestones. They clatter. I don´t like walking on cobblestones, especially not at midnight after a six hour bus ride because it is so easy to hit one wrong and twist something. Ever walk on railroad ties? They are spaced too close and too far apart for easy walking. I wonder if this is on purpose. Week 8 76 I am off to explore beautiful downtown Tallin. I hear Bill Clinton paid the place a visit recently. A couple of Aussie girls we met had introduced themselves to him and then met him crossing the park later that night and he remembered them. The alarm clock guy had A Razor´s Edge by Somerset Maugham and I traded Tom Jones for it. I am still smiling at the deal. posted by Patricia 8:56 AM Wednesday, July 03, 2002 Tallinn, Estonia— Back at my stool in the mall internet cafe, with observations of downtown Tallin and the Soviet Way of Life. I met a Czech photojournalist in Lithuania who had visited both Tallin and Riga before landing in the hostel in Klaipeda with us. He likes to evaluate the progress from Soviet times to westernization in each place. He said Tallin felt like a western European city to him, while Riga still made him feel eastern European. Now that I´ve seen Tallin, I see what he means. JF and I agreed, walking the immaculate cobblestone streets, noting the numbers of terraces with tourists sipping coffee on the main square, looking up into restored and pastel medieval buildings with their coats of arms over the entrances, checking out the art galleries and souvenir shops, that Tallin has all the look and feel of a chic little medieval town in any of the western European countries. There was Brazilian samba music coming from a courtyard, but we couldn´t see the musicians for the crowd of tourists. These are mostly Scandinavian tourists, with a sprinkling of Europeans, judging by the sounds of their languages. Well-dressed, middle-aged, sometimes with children in tow. Tallin has been discovered and has risen to the commercial task. Numerous buildings are swathed in green or blue mesh, the workers sanding the grime off their facades, cementing, plastering and re-doing ornamentation. Sidewalks are being replaced. New traffic patterns created, street workers industriously manning heavy machinery even as late as midnight. Restaurants of all varieties, Thai, Chinese, Italian, dot every lane. The souvenir shops sell the ubiquitous amber necklaces that we began seeing in Gdansk in Poland. Amber is continually washed up on the shores of the Baltic Sea and has been for centuries. Here we are seeing Russian painted eggs and papier mache lacquer boxes with folk tale scenes, knitted sweaters in the Scandinavian style. And wood carvings of varying quality. There is a Baltic tradition of beige linen clothes, crocheted little hats on the girls, crocheted and knitted blouses with matching beige linen skirts. Since I´m not a shopper, I haven´t gone looking for really fine handcrafts, but I suspect I would fine better wood carving and knitted wool sweaters. And amber, amber, amber. Merevaik, the name of our hostel in the suburbs, is the Estonian word for amber. JF, enjoying a fermented cider on the bandstand of the central square admiring the oldest town hall in northern Europe, was approached by a stern policeman who made him understand that open bottles of alcoholic beverages were not welcome Week 8 77 on the streets of Tallin. What a change from Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, where guys with beer bottles are everywhere, every park bench, getting on buses, seeing people off at train stations. Tallin, at least, has cleaned up its act. Lonely Planet says that Tallin, because of the cheap alcohol available here compared to the Scandinavian countries, suffered many years of Finnish and Swedish and Norwegian drunkenness. The place has definitely gone Upscale. Yesterday, when we were admiring the view of church spires and the medieval jumble of rooftops over the parapets of the medieval wall, a blonde guy with longish hair came up and started into a rapid-fire spiel about the buildings around us--parliament and prime minister´s residence. We were ushered, at breakneck speed into the upcoming music festival and before we knew it, he had brought out a portable CD player and was letting us sample just a tiny morsel of all the CD´s he was carrying in the pockets and pouches and many-faceted sack he had slung over his shoulder. He had Estonian bagpipe music. He had traditional Estonian sea shanties. He had accordian folk music accompanied by jew´s harp. He had World Class classical musicians of Estonian origin. We took his email address, telling him that we never buy stuff en route because we don´t have enough room to carry it. He wrote that, but also made a list of must-hear artists, an Estonian beverage we needed to sample, and the names of various towns on the western islands we shouldn´t miss. In a way, I wish we could spend the weekend here and hang out at the music festival, but JF and I sat down last night and did finances and looked at the calendar and actually got a Plan on paper. I reproduce it here both for the edification of my readers and for their amusement as the Unplanned Duo attempt to actually follow a Plan: July 4-5: the western islands of Estonia July 6-7: university town Tartu July 8: travel to Riga and spend the night July 9: travel to Vilnius and spend the night July 10-11: long bus ride to Krakow, in Poland, where we will recouperate from covering so much ground. The rationale is that we don´t like doing marathon bus or train rides, so we have simply broken the trip from the northern tip of non- Soviet Europe to the south of France into chewable segments, and since we already have cool hotels in Riga and Vilnius, we can take it fairly easy and still cover the ground. "The kids" tend to do these 14- and even 24-hour trips, arriving blurry-eyed at 5 a.m., sleep it off and then go out to party that night. As long as our reading material holds out, we prefer days with only six or seven hours of travel and then sleeping in a bed at night. The kids are trying to save themselves the hotel expense. We don´t need to do that, at least not until western Europe. Besides, we have these delicate old backs and neck muscles and knee joints! July 12-14: Prague July 15-16: Munich, which we figure as a good mid-way stop and hope to have some of those friendly German Servas folks to hang with while we´re there. July 17: Long train ride to Marseille July 18-20: Friends in the south of France Week 8 78 July 21-24: Visit with our friends in the alps July 25-time to come home: Chateauroux and the bosom of the family Some of this will depend on the possibility of Servas visits in the big cities. My job today is to email everyone who could host us and see what we can come up with. We had originally planned to have Servas visits throughout the trip, but we have found that the Servas friendliness and openness just hasn´t taken root here. One host in the book wants three MONTHS notice before a guest arrives! One of our hosts suggested that the Scandinavians, of which Estonia in many ways is a part, with Latvia and Lithuania not far behind, are reserved, suspicious people, mistrustful of strangers, not easily warming up. This reticence is something we have certainly felt here. It isn´t easy to get a smile out of a fellow bus passenger, kiosk salesperson or coffee shop waitress. The Merevaik, our hostel, gives us a fascinating view into what the Soviet Way of Life must have been like. The desk clerk cannot tell me where a phone is that I can use to call my Servas people in Tallin. Does she never leave the building? Could one not anticipate that travelers might need to use a phone? It is not her job. Her job is to fill out the forms, to collect and hand out keys and to sell candy bars and soft drinks from the glass-doored cabinet. Down the hall, the bistro waitress and the cook sit in functional furniture, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee. When a customer arrives there, the waitress gets up to go behind her counter and the cook retreats into the kitchen. But do not ask to see any of the food. The cook isn´t in the business of selling you anything, nor the bar waitress. The walls are red, the furniture black, the worn and wrinkled indoor-outdoor carpeting faded green. Brown polyester tablecloths and blue plastic placemats. They are obviously not going to get any richer if you come back. The sheets on the bed don´t quite cover the mattress, missing the top and bottom by an inch on either side. You can just see the Soviet sheet rationer deciding that if they cut the sheets in half, they will have twice as many. Everything is functional, though lacking in the kind of industrious maintenance you might expect from a hotel that wants your business. They have a laundry on the same floor, to do the sheets, but no, there is no laundry service for the guests. I asked the desk lady if it would be possible to clean the toilet this morning since it stinks( ..stinks? reeks.) She nodded aimiably. The contrast is striking with Placis, the place we stayed in Riga, which is so clearly cut from the same dough but is actively seeking success. At the Placis, there is a public phone in the hallway and the desk clerk sells phone cards. There is a reasonably priced laundry service (3 dollars for all our clothes). The place is kept immaculate by dumpy, rosy-cheeked older ladies who are valiantly trying to learn enough English to speak to their guests. Both places are far from the city center, but finding the Merevaik is definitely a challenge, since it is on the third floor of an entryway that is all the way through the loading dock and around the back and then around the corner in an enormous complex of seemingly empty buildings. Week 8 79 It is fascinating, seeing and being able to piece together the way an entire of way of life can change, finds it impossible to change, leaves pockets unchanged while the rest races forward to take on the future. We have never known anything like this, I think, even with the plunge into the Depression that my father went through and the climb back out. posted by Patricia 6:19 AM Thursday, July 04, 2002 Kuressaare, Saaremaa, Estonia— Those of you who have been just too lazy to get out those maps to follow our progress better do it today because we are way, way out in the middle of the hinterlands. Or perhaps I should say hinter-islands. We are in the major city of Kuressaare on the island of Saaremaa, which is the big island off the west coast of Estonia. The student hostel here is lovely, manned by one of the smiling Russian ladies whose English is pronounced as if every word were a major triumph, which it is, which it is. We are in a classic student dorm room, two desks, two wardrobes (bigger than our students get, though no closets), and two...uh...beds. Narrow little things so that if the sheets are Soviet half-sheets, they will still fit. The floor of the shower room is heated. The shower runs for about four seconds before you have to push the button again. No danger of losing oneself under the delicious hot water. The fun Fourth of July has been spent getting up at the irrational hour of 6:30 a.m. (it is hard to believe that JF actually managed it), and crossing town to the bus station and then a longish bus ride-- a ferry ride-- and another bus ride here. The student hostel where we are staying has free internet. How perfectly exciting, and saving us enough for a nice dinner. The hostel is just under ten dollars apiece. I was glad to get out of Tallinn. It has been discovered by the tourists of Europe and yesterday, with the sun out, the place was wall to wall and shoulder to shoulder. This place is more to my liking. A cute little town that hosts local Estonians as tourists. My guidebook says that the island during the Soviet era was closed to foreigners and that Estonians needed special permits to come here because of an early warning radar system and rocket base. Consequently, according to the book, this is what Estonia would be like if the Russians hadn't invaded. The bus ride here was your basic scenery--flat land with thick forests and smallish farms, many of the fields lying fallow. Karl wanted to know whether anybody ever mentions September 11 or the war in Afghanistan. The term 9-11 doesn't come up, and nobody refers to anything about it, but then nobody says much of anything about America when we tell people that I am American. Keep in mind that we haven't had much contact with the locals since Week 8 80 we got to Estonia. The Servas situation is a complete bust, with the Servas Secretary and Host Support people both having taken their phone numbers out of the phone book entirely. The host book itself is zeroxed from a zerox from a zerox and is in about 4 pt. type with letters that run together. Plus it is a list from 1995, and all the phone numbers have been changed since then. So any hope we had of actually talking to an Estonian went out the window with that. These are not chummy, talk-to-strangers types. These are closed-mouthed, avert-the-eyes Scandinavians around here. Reminds me of Garrison Keilor and Lake Woebegone. I have been following the climbing temperatures and the coming storms in the eastern US with interest. In Estonia, the day started sunny without a cloud to be seen and we had rain on the ferry boat and in the bus and now the sun is out again. Which, if you have been followin this log, is about par for the course. The temperature hasn't risen above about 70 degrees this entire week, though in the sun it gets a little warmer. We are thinking of renting scooters or a scooter and tootling around the island tomorrow. The last time we had a bright idea like this was in Sigulda (in the enchanted deserted palace across a river gorge by cable car from town). We were going to rent bicycles. The next morning was socked in entirely and wild horses couldn't drag JF out of bed. But the prospect of being motorized might light his fire a bit. He is keeping the receipts for all the transport on this trip in order to ascertain whether he could have brought his motorcycle over and used that instead of local buses for equal or less money. I always say that your own vehicle isolates you from the people in a country, but hey, these people aren't climbing over the bus seats to look at my photo album or even smiling as we walk down the bus aisles. Maybe a little strategic isolation on a motorcycle would be a good thing. At least then when it rains, JF regards it as a challenge, a gauntlet thrown down by the forces of the universe, a mighty taunt he has to meet with daring-do and bravado. Those of you who remember us setting off for our Texas motorcycle trip in March with rain, cold, and wind predictions echoing behind us like so much laundry flapping in the breeze will know what I am talking about here. Once again last night, our paths crossed with our friends Gary and Judy from New Zealand. I admit we agreed that when we got to Tallinn, we would try to stay at the Merevaik and they did too. They are the folks hovering around sixty- something, who live together but aren't married, whose relationship for the past -- uh, just how long have you two been together?-- at least ten years has been traveling and planning to travel. We met them on the bus coming into Lithuania from Poland and we have been hopscotching each other ever since. Making good friends is not all that rare on the road like this, and is one of the reasons we love to travel. I cherish James and Netta from my sailboat trip, David the Aussie from our family trip to Turkey, and, bless her, Gilda, from my round the world trip in 1978. Still, it is a great pleasure when it happens. When Gary and Judy go off into another of their "When we were in Hanoi last..." stories, it just warms the cockles of my heart. Last night, we said goodbye to them for the last time on this trip. Week 8 81 They will take a ferry today to Sweden to see some folks they met in China and who visited them in New Zealand ten years ago. The Swedes were kids then, and now have married each other and had two kids. We had our last beer together last night and our last hug and our last promise to write and email and come visit. They are just such cool people, living on a budget smaller than ours, but taking the Trans-Siberian railway in another month or so, and then spending three weeks in a jeep with a local driver in Mongolia. Just amazing people. They have taught me to bring a little stove so we can always cook in the hotel rooms and keep our food costs down to next to nothing, to wear silk, to have cups and an immersion heater so we can boil up a cup of tea in a minute. And they have taught me to drink more tea. They have a great towel system which I have described somewhere down in the archives. They have reaffirmed my own penchant to travel slowly and not see so much. Their energy has inspired me to get more done...well, at least think it would be a good idea to get more done. Here's to Gary and Judy. Long may they wave. posted by Patricia 10:54 AM Friday, July 05, 2002 Kuressaare, Saaremaa, Estonia— I woke to daylight at 5:30 a.m., looked at the clock and thanked the Universe I had a couple more hours to sleep. At 7:30, I rolled over, thinking, "Just another half hour or so." At 9:30, it was pouring rain, the kind that was going to rain all day, that insistent, gray sky, low clouds kind of day. I KNEW I wasn't going to get Jean-Francois out on a motor scooter. I could see the day unfolding: Reading in bed until noon. Internet. Walk downtown for something to eat. Back for more reading and listening to the rain. I couldn't stand the thought. This is supposed to be a beautiful island, nature, a rustic way of life, windmills, seashore. And because of the rain...again...I wasn't going to see any of it. We would leave on the bus tomorrow and I'd have seen the inside of my blinking hotel room plus one or two eateries within walking distance. Okay, we had a row about it. I wasn't gracious. I cursed this infernal weather and my husband's seeming inability to rise above it. He cursed my infernal need to be doing something, going somewhere, accomplishing instead of being. I thought of just buying the damned raingear and renting a scooter anyway. He dismissed this as idiotic. I proposed getting on a bus and getting to someplace where it didn't rain every day. He was perfectly willing to do that if I wanted to, but left to himself, he would read his book. We sloshed into town, still arguing. I hate that. Couples bitching at each other in their native tongue in front of everybody. We grumped through coffee in this adorable art gallery-coffee shop. Excellent coffee and applecake. Okay, let's rent a car. Spend 56 European Euros, just about the same in American Dollars??? Am I crazy? Are we made of money? Week 8 82 I had given serious consideration to the option of checking the Yahoo Satellite map for a place in Europe that had no rain and then just getting on the next bus and the next one until we got there. When I thought about it, though, I knew I would resent not having seen this place, this island, this Estonia. I missed the one museum in Tallinn I wanted to see because of roaming all over town to find the bus station so we could figure out how to get here. I don't want to miss this. Damn the money. The car is a little red Mazda and it is gorgeous. We zip back to the hostel to pick up the picnic lunch we'd bought at the grocery store last night, I spread the map out over my knees and prepared to NAVIGATE! The long, bleak, dreary day that would have been turned into a great day: beautiful scenery, a complete surprize discovery of an eatery, lots of good photos, and a window into a very different way of life. Let us start by praising really good maps. The introduction to this one says that "Man has invented three suberb means of communication - language, music and maps, maps being the oldest of the three." (Can this be true?) I spent the first half hour just learning how to read all the information in this Estonian Atlas, but then it was just a dream. It has peat bogs, cliffs, open land, bus stops, GPS coordinates, manor houses, windmills, castles, boat landings, and even sacred stones! Along with red roads and oops, yellow roads, which are gravel. About that time, we bumped onto gravel. We drove to the tip of the peninsula, stood in the wind off the sea and watched seven swan couples dipping their long necks beneath the waves, up and down. Wild swans. The wreakage from the fierce WWII fighting on this coast was everywhere, half bunkers, machine gun slits slanting into the water. Blue wild flowers waving, swallows swooping, gulls screaming. The houses on this part of the island are few and far between. Living out there must be like living in remote parts of Alaska, something silent and fierce, something that feeds on windsweep and salt air and no one for miles. The houses were wooden, painted green or dark red or--most often--baby poop yellow-brown. Wide bogs and rocky beaches and cliffs that had signs about how much history could be read in the layers. A lot. Another swan colony. A wrong turn down to a pier and four open fishing boats moored there. The road muddy and slippery in places, so that I got short glimpses of getting stuck and nobody for miles. The little red car just kept chugging though, past wooden windmills and stone fences. A fox crossed the road in front of us. I remembered that this was what Alaska was like for miles and miles, this flat, this windswept, this lonely, this beautiful... Week 8 83 We got off the peninsula and started seeing villages again, little clusters of wood frame houses and stone fences and picket fences. Sheep in the compounds and fruit trees. "This is the way my grandmother lived," Judy said about their trip into the countryside in Latvia. My grandmother lived in Alabama, where it never rained this much at once and if July ever saw temperatures this low, they'd have KNOWN the Lord was about to end the world. But I can see this peasant life for her, the one cow, the constant farm work, the town something far off and only occasional. I've never been to northern Minnesota, but I can imagine that this place must look like that. You can just see people from here and other Scandinavian countries getting there and thinking, ah. This is home. This is a trait of travelers, I think. You see someplace and you think, this reminds me of the area around Asheville, or this reminds me of eastern Ohio, or something. It's especially weird when the people in the place don't look ANYTHING like the folks in eastern Ohio, and are contstantly erasing that familiar feeling. These people in Estonia, on the other hand, are just like rural Americans from the far north. The houses aren't very different and the stone walls and hedges aren't very different. Maybe in Minnesota they have individual bus stops like these. The wonderful map has bus stops marked in tiny red letters, so all day I kept track of where we were from bus stop to bus stop. Near the city, they are alike, just open shelters, but out in the country, they are like little masterpieces, with doors that close and each one looking only like itself. I could imagine curtains on the windows of some, with a tiny little stove inside for those long winter waits at the bus stop for the country children. Coming back to civilization, the big city of Kuressaare, we stopped at a road house with a red sign called Artek, completely unprepared for what we discovered. It's a bar, restaurant and dance hall on weekends, devoted to a tongue- in-cheek, ironic homage to communism. Honest. There are communist flags draped down the center of the room, newspapers from the communist era and paper money decoupaged into tabletops and bathroom walls. There are several bookshelves with Russian tomes extolling Lenin, busts of Lenin. The DJ's stand is backed with Russian Army uniforms, with a gas mask draped over one and a cap over another. The waitresses wear Red Army jackets. There is a samovar, flags from the sailing Olympics in Tallinn before independence, even an old phone from the era. Photos in August. I talked to the owner, who told me that Artek was a summer camp in the Ukraine for the very top athletes and students, "only the very best." The walls have diplomas and certificates issued by the Soviets. And there is one incredible huge painting showing the struggling Communists in battle, pushing on the victory. The owner said she was 25 when the government changed here, and that she and her husband and a friend who is an artist had the idea for this nostalgic-sarcastic theme. Most of the tourists who come are Estonian or Finnish, though there are Week 8 84 Russian tourists who come. The old people don't react, she said, but the young people think it's really cool. We were on our way to a few of the sites mentioned in our guidebooks, so we just had coffee that time, but we did go back later for supper. I had October Revolution meat dumplings and JF had Capitalist sausages and sauerkraut. It never did stop raining until we got back to town. We did wooden windmills photo op in the rain, 14th century gothic church in the rain, and quaint north island town in the rain. It rained particularly hard during our 7500 year-old-crater visit. Really, it looks like a wimpy little lake with some man-made mounds to keep the water in, but it isn't. It is the site of a wild-ass meteorite landing, one so spectacular that it has been handed down in Estonian mythology as the Sun's Grave. This, the story goes, is why the Estonians are blessed by God, since he chose this very spot for the burial place of the sun. There were many conflicting theories about this hole in the ground until the early 20th century, when geological analysis of the fragments of meteorite confirmed the hypothesis that it was one massive chunk of metal that went boom. We are talking 1000 tons on entry into the earth's atmosphere and 80 tons when it finally hit. It was going about 10-20 km per SECOND when it landed. After dinner, the sun briefly showed up, just in time to light up the Bishop's castle on the south end of the city while we were having our after dinner walk. JF admitted that it had been a really good day, that we never would have discovered Artek without the car and that it was worth every Euro we put into it. And we don't have to turn it in until noon tomorrow, though knowing us, that means roll out of bed and hurry on down to the car place. I admitted that I would have been miserable had we attempted to do anything near that on a motorscooter. The minute I realized the yellow roads were all gravel and mud, we would have been severely limited in scope. We'd have completely missed the swans, the fox and the feeling of the Far North. Great news from Servas: We now have Servas homestays lined up in Krakow in the middle of next week, Prague over the weekend, and Munich for the beginning of the next week. After tomorrow morning, we will be hard traveling, just moving and moving and moving down the map. There will be internet in Riga and Vilnius, so I will be checking in, but the next phase of the trip is definitely going to be a Servas immersion in three beautiful cities. Then the French connection, and home. Waaahhh...the trip is almost over. I can feel the breath of Real Life hot on my neck. Or is that just another hot flash? posted by Patricia 5:23 PM Saturday, July 06, 2002 Week 8 85 Kuressaare, Saaremaa, Estonia— This morning, the Universe mocks us. There is not a cloud in the sky. It looks like summer on the French Riviera out there. Will I be able to get Jean-Francois out of bed to take advantage of it. Not bloody likely! We don't have to take the car back until noon. Aside from my early morning craving for coffee, I am also rarin' to see what the place looks like in the light of day instead of the gloom of yesterday. Maybe I am too harsh on the old boy. I take my leave, high hopes in hand. posted by Patricia 12:18 AM
"Week Eight - TravelerTrish"