My Estonia blog from 2004
Let's get back to basics: Does Estonia even exist or is it just some made-up country?
Does Estonia really exist?
Like Albania, Estonia just doesn't sound real.
I mean, c'mon, have you ever met someone from those two countries?
Do you ever see those countries mentioned in the news?
I didn't think so.
They can't be real.
Estonia sounds so unreal that Scott Adams, the guy who does Dilbert, made a comic strip with really odd characters who live in a place called Elbonia.
You might even think that Estonians are like the characters from Elbonia, but it's not exactly the same thing.
It's not a coincidence that Elbonia sounds like Estonia.
So I was somewhat dubious when I bought a ticket in Finland to go to Estonia. Was this just a hoax?
Trail magic in Estonia
On June 30 in Helsinki I sat in the waiting room to board the Nordic Jet Line, which is not a jet that goes north, but a catamaran that goes south.
It was 3PM and I realized that I had no hotel or hostel reserved in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. I would arrive at 5PM homeless.
I did not panic because this is pretty standard protocol for me, but it did dawn on me that I should probably start thinking about a place to stay.
I was flipping through my Lonely Planet guidebook hoping for some advice when a lady sat near me. Although I trust Lonely Planet, I always prefer local advice, so I asked:
"Excuse me, are you from Estonia?"
"Yes," she replied with a somewhat thick accent. "I live in Tallinn."
"Do you know of any cheap places to stay in town?" I asked.
"Yes, my degree is in hotel management and I work in tourism."
And so began a 90 minute conversation on the boat ride with this lady called Maiu. She nearly threw up on me because she thought I was so revolting, but she made up some story that it was the boat ride that was making her seasick.
She had just had a 2 week vacation with her American boyfriend, whom she had been dating for the last 3 years.
She offered to walk me a nearby hotel. Once we were nearly there, she surprised me and said, "On second thought, if you want, you can just stay with me. I am not sure what my brother will say, but we have a sofa you can sleep on if you want."
On the one hand, I was thrilled. This would be a great glimpse into the lives of local Estonians and it might save me a couple of bucks.
On the other hand, she could be some scam artist who will rob me during the night and have her big brother Herki toss me in the dumpster when they're through with me.
On the Appalachian Trail I was invited to stay at strangers houses 12 times in 111 days. So the concept was not new to me. We call it Trail Magic. But I was a bit far off the Appalachian Trail. I was in Estonia, for God's sakes.
Nevertheless, I figured I had nothing to lose except for my camcorder, a few hundred bucks, and my own life.
So I accepted her generous offer.
Herki let me live
Herki was a delight. Maiu was an amazing hostess. But the Embassy of Belarus was a pain in the ass.
Getting a visa to Belarus is awful. You gotta wonder about a country when their ambassadors respond to phone query with, "Why would you want to go to Belarus?" I surprised they didn't say, "Are you nuts? Why not just go to Iraq while you're at it."
Nevertheless, I persisted and they said they would process my visa request "eventually."
Have you ever heard 30,000 people singing?
Tallinn has an old town which is quaint and picturesque. Definitely worth seeing, especially during the summer singing festival, which comes every 5 years. Just like the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday in Dublin, I got lucky and happened to show up during this folk music singing festival. The climax is when 30,000 singers, the largest choir in the world, get on stage and belt out some good old Estonian folk tunes.
By the way, Arnold Rüütel, the President of Estonia, was there. Not that anyone really cares. I mean, c'mon, is there anyone outside of Estonia who knows who their President is?
The great outdoors of Estonia
First, here's a good map of Estonia.
I visited the Otepää region to do some canoeing on the Ahja Jõgi, which means the Ahja River. It is hard to see on the map, but it is there.
Unfortunately, I went down the wrong way down a rapid and my canoe flipped.
I got banged up on some rocks. Cuts on my feet and a nice big bruise on my left kidney. It was pretty exciting. Those life jackets really work, by the way.
But the big casualty was my camcorder. Although it did not die, it has problems now. I will try to fix it in Riga, Latvia.
Figuring that I should stick with what I know, I did some 35 miles of easy backpacking nearby. The country is pretty flat, the tallest mountain is just 318 meters high or about 1,000 feet. While backpacking I didn't fall into any rivers.
A nice family did give some trail magic by treating me to a great big breakfast. They don't call me Mr. Magoo for nothing.
Finally, I spent some time on the northern coast in Lahemaa National Park.
What are Estonians really like
They claim that they are envious and always trying to keep up with the Joneses, but I didn't detect any of this. They all said it, so it must be true. However, I just encouraged tremendous generosity and good spirits. Maiu and her family were a prime example.
Belarus accepts a tourist
Finally, the embassy of Belarus decided to process a tourist visa that day. I think they do one per day. Worldwide.
So now I am on my merry way to Riga, the capital of Latvia, the second of three Baltic countries. Then comes the dreaded Belarus...
July 17, 2004