From the Russian/Estonian border, greetings.
I’ve been reading horror stories of it taking upwards of six hours to pass into Russia, so at 1.35 am when the EuroLines LuxExpress bus pulled up to the Narva, Estonia, I armed myself with a cup of complimentary on-board coffee, The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad, and prepared to wait it out.
It’s 2.38 am, now. We’ve re-boarded the bus having successfully gained entry into the Russian Federation and are still on track to reach St. Petersburg by 7.30 this morning. My breathing has slowed considerably.
The entire journey through the Baltics really started as a means of avoiding having to get a Belarussian Visa. Now that it’s come to a close I feel like I should thank the Belarussians for making it so difficult to pass through their country.
While we generally lump all three countries into a common unit, each has it’s own unique identity: Lithuania’s position at the political/religious crossroads of Eurasia lends it an exoticism that I found wholly unexpected; Latvia is the most developed of the three and is struggling with how to reasonably manage economic growth (see below for more); Estonia is more Scandinavian than Eastern European and as cosmopolitan and sophisticated as any mid-size Western European city (Tallinn’s the birthplace of Skype, you know.)
With a population of 1 million Riga, Latvia, is the largest city in the Baltics and home to half of Latvia’s total population. Old Town Riga was designated an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. In 2001, unbridled downtown development, caused UNESCO to warn that city that these things can be rescinded. When Ryan Air added Riga as a destination in the late nineties, the city began catering to the hordes of British Stag parties who found Riga to be a cheap and exotic destination for a quick weekend of bacchanalia. I found Old Town Riga to resemble Kansas City’s Power Light District more than a World Heritage Site.
Luckily, I had planned to only spend one night in the metropolis. My second day in Latvia, I took a commuter bus 45 minutes outside the city to Jelgava where my first couchsurfing host, Ediite, lives and works. Couchsurfing.org is an innovative social networking site that seeks to connect local hosts with intrepid travelers looking for a little more local color than places like Old Town Riga can supply.
I couldn’t have asked for a better host than Ediite. Her English was impeccable having studied at Shaker Heights High School in Cleveland and graduated with a degree in Anthropology from the University of Hull in England. She’s just started her second of two years as an English with Teach for Latvia, a program modeled after Teach for America, and so has her finger on pulse of Latvian education, culture, and politics. I was shocked to learn that Latvian teachers make only 200-300 Lats a month; that’s the equivalent of $400-$600. While the cost of living in Latvia is low, it’s not that low.
Since this is only the first week of school, I got to go in and be the special guest for grades 11, 8, and 5. We drank tea and talked about American geography. Each class wanted to know if I had been to Hollywood or Las Vegas and I was surprised to learn that Latvia covers approximately the same area as Maine with only a slightly larger population (2.2 million in Latvia; 1.2 million in Maine). We also had interesting discussions about why it’s so valuable to learn English. Ever the arrogant American, I had assumed most of the world learns English because it’s so important to communicate with us. Turns out, it is about communication, but the motivation isn’t all that americentric. With only a million or so native Latvian speakers, a second language is imperative if one wants to travel any distance, have varied work options, and consume media. Imagine if each of the fifty states had its own language.
(Incidentally, Russian roads are atrocioius.)
From Jelgava, I took the bus north to Tallinn, Estonia, which turned out to be charming town pulled from a Scandinavian Fairy tale. Some of the themed restaurants were a little kitsch, but there was plenty of other independent retail to balance their effect. Also, the ever present Irish pub. Where else could an American, Slovenian, Australian, and Finn find common ground?
I didn’t have much time here, so besides wandering the only other event I schedule was a trip to the sauna. While most of the nice hotels in Old Town have them, I chose to go to the one literally on the other side of the tracks – an old Soviet-era carry over. Upon entering, I quickly found myself stripped naked and beating myself with birch twigs in a steaming 100+ degree room filled with half a dozen men who didn’t speak a word of English. In keeping with the theory that utter ignorance often has its advantages, I was laughed at, but also was offered smoked salmon, complimentary birch twigs, and tips on how to sit without roasting my bum.
Russia promises to bring the adventure to a whole new level. It occurs to me that nothing I have done the past six weeks has been that disorienting. Russia promises a new language, alphabet, culture and customs the likes of which I have never had the opportunity to run into before.
I’ll spend the next two days in St. Petersburg, then Moscow from where I’ll leave to help with the potato harvest at a provincial orthodox monastery. Then, the Trans-Mongolian railroad.