A whirlwind tour of the Balltics, 9-17th August 2012
I was drunk when I decided to go with Alex to Estonia, but now I’m settling into the idea. See, thing is, I had this dream, right? I had this dream about Alex. Yep, one of those. The thing is, I’ve learned over the years to pay attention to these dreams. I often have them about people before we become very close. Usually, it’s not a sexual connection – and this one is definitely not. I can feel his coldness towards me. So why am I following him to Estonia? I really have no idea. I was drunk.
Actually, I still wouldn’t have gone if it wasn’t for some quite ridiculous advice that Matthieu gave me. “I’m taking your ridiculous advice”, I tell him as we hug goodbye. He smiles – “You will have stories”, he says.
It’s not just me and Alex, Justine is also coming with us until Poland. She and I just met for the first time at the Hitchgathering, but she seems smiley and nice, with a healthy hint of mischief.
There’s a Hitchgathering post-meeting organised in a bar somewhere in Riga. We arrive late at night and follow scant directions, stopping a small group of young people to ask if they know the bar. They do indeed – one of the girls works there and they’ve just closed it. Shit! “Were there by any chance a large group of international people in the bar just now?” I ask “Yes! There were!” We all laugh over the coincidence and they try to remember where our friends were going next. Some flat, apparently, but it seems unlikely we’ll find it. “But do you have somewhere to sleep tonight?” they ask. “Um, no, not really…” For a second it seems like they’re going to invite us, but after ten minutes of chatting they say goodbye and leave us to puzzle out where we might spend the night. We do what we always do: go to a bar.
According to a certain well-known mapping software, there’s an island in the centre of Riga. It appears to be mostly forested and seems suspisciously perfect for camping. The early hours see us walking a long, long way across the city. We cross the bridge over to the island as the sky turns from black to indigo, then bottle blue. Alex goes to scout and comes back with bad news: there’s a giant fence and a ‘No Entry’ sign on the way into the forest. We camp in a small clearing opposite the TV station instead.
“I want to take pictures!” says Alex in his funny Russian spy voice. Pictures, yes, but of everything? Why do you need, for example, to take pictures of your feet? Of the wall? Of every single communist monument, every tree in every park? It takes a very long time to get anywhere with Alex. I resort to taking pictures myself.
We finally track down some post-Hitchgathering friends in Riga. They’re couchsurfing a completely empty flat and invite us to stay there too, all of us lying next to one another on camping mats. There is a sink and a kettle and a toilet and a roof: it feels like luxury.
On our way out of town, we stop for a ritual coffee and check emails. I have a message from Maali, an Estonian girl I never met in Amsterdam two years ago:
Hey Jo, nice to hear from you and funny you remember a thing such as writing to me two years ago, especially considering we never really met. Anyway, tomorrow I will be in Kabli, a small village between Riga and Pärnu, close to Häädemeeste. I’m starting the trip from Tartu tomorrow morning. If you happen to hitchhike towards Tallinn, then Kabli is almost on your way, at the seaside with a beach and stuff ;) And if you do come that way, you three could camp with me and a friend of mine at the village! It almost sounds like a plan, doesn’t it? ;)
Justine and I arrive in Kabli thirty minutes before Alex, who speeds into the village with a Russian guy on his way to St Petersburg. Maali drives us to her grandparent’s land and apologises before disappearing off to use the sauna with her friend Nele. Maali doesn’t want to explain to her grandparents how she has invited three complete strangers to camp with her, so for now we’re the invisible guests. We’re camping on a small piece of lush green land, with a small house-like hut and access to the Baltic sea across a wooden footbridge. We light a fire and drink beer under shooting stars.
It’s my first time in the Baltic Sea. The icy water slips and slides about my toes, seaweed entwining my ankles. The water is calm and still, like a mirror. I wash my arms and face in the crisp water, suprised to find barely a trace of salt on my lips.
Since Maali and Nele are driving all the way to Tartu, we decided to go with them, changing our plan again. Nele’s found us a place to stay with her friends, a Finnish linguist named Santeri and his partner, Eve.
Things I notice: Estonia has a lot of trees, mostly fir trees, it seems. It has small, Scandinavian-style houses and an awesome sing-song language that’s closer to Finnish than other Baltic languages. Bus stops fascinate me: one carved like the front of a boat, another like a little house with a painted roof.
We stop to forage food in a forest, the floor a spongy mattress of vibrant green moss and wild blueberries. It’s impossible to step anywhere without crushing handfulls of berries. We return to the car clutching bags and containers of mushrooms and berries, red-handed, blue-lipped and smiling. Finnish music on the car stereo. Grey clouds and green fields. I trace a line across my map: we’re now the same latitude as northern Scotland.
At Santeri and Eve’s beautiful old house, we set about cooking up a feast. Justine and Alex make blueberry pierogi and Maali makes wild mushroom sauce.
I found an anarchist Couchsurfer in Taillinn and he’s accepted us. We’re sleeping in the social centre in the South-West of the city. It’s a smallish place with internet and a lot of sofas: perfect. We meet him first for a drink and discuss social movements in Estonia. There’s a small vegan collective, arranging a monthly people’s kitchen to promote veganism.
Fortunately, we’re in time for a vegan picnic on Sunday, with gourmet quality food that the collective spend an entire day preparing. We arrive late after getting lost, as usual, and they’re nice enough to save some for when we arrive.
Back to Vilnius, where again, we don’t have a host. Back to that evil mapping software. We find a perfect-looking park close to the centre. The trouble with G**gle maps is you can’t see where the hills are. Our park largely consists of steep cliffs, a river through the centre. We follow a small path close to the river. It’s late again and I’m exhausted. Justine and I are waiting with the bags while Alex scouts ahead, when suddenly the other side of the river is dotted with flashlights. I try to fight through tiredness to the logical thing to do, but everything is working in slow motion. We cower behind a tree until Alex comes back. “This place isn’t safe at all!” he tells us. We wait, hushed, to see what will happen next. The flashlights seem to stay over the other side. Alex goes again to check, me feeling guilty that it’s somehow always him that does this. He comes back to inform us that the other side of the river is in fact a building site, the flashlights must be the nightwatchmen and we are – probably – safe over this side. We find a clearing and pitch the tents.
My first impression of Vilnius on the way to the Hitchgathering couldn’t be more different from now. Suddenly, it’s not the zombie alcoholic PTSD hellhole I originally suspected, but a vibrant, artistic city. There is even a self-proclaimed autonomous republic in a district in the old town: Lithuania’s answer to Christiania. We can’t leave without visiting the Republic of Užupio.
According to the Wikipedia article, “In 1997, the residents of the area declared the Republic of Užupis, along with its own flag, currency, president, cabinet of ministers, a constitution written by Romas Lileikis and Thomas Chepaitis, an anthem, and an army (numbering approximately 11 men). They celebrate this independence annually on Užupis Day, which falls on April 1st. Artistic endeavours are the main preoccupation of the Republic; the current President of the Republic of Užupis, Romas Lileikis, is himself a poet, musician, and film director.” Apparently around 1,000 of the 7,000 residents are artists. It’s also worth reading the Užupis Constitution.
We pass a crowd of drunkards, who call out merrily to us. We stop out of politeness and I get chatting with a Latvian punk who’s just come back from travelling. He seems very pleased to meet other travellers and basically insists on sharing his liquid LSD with us. He wraps it up in a small piece of plastic bag, using a technique I’ve never seen before. He singes it closed and offers it to us with a quirky grin.
Later, we’ll arrive late at night in Bialystock, in north Poland – our last stop with Justine. Her father will collect us from a gas station on the outskirts of town and her mother will feed us endless delicious food. It seems only fitting that we explore the Latvian punk’s present before we part ways. The following day we will go to a small village to eat what Justine claims is the world’s best pierogi, which she assures me will be vegan. Actually, it will be fairly good pierogi and not vegan at all, but I will eat it anyway. We will puzzle over how on earth to open The Present and sit on benches waiting for something to happen, then laugh at Alex when he is the only one affected. We will drink our last beers together, our Baltic adventure over.