The Baltics

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August 24, 1994. I make arrangements with Family Hotel Services in Tallinn for a room in Riga and another in Vilnius, five days apiece. Then I go to the Chinese restaurant next door for lunch, before hitting the road to Latvia. Family Hotel Services — like their competitor, Bed and Breakfast — is a Baltic service that hooks up travelers with people who rent out rooms in their homes. The average rate is US$10 per night. I’m staying in more expensive places, US$15, because these homes have certain advantages; they speak English, or the are near the city center, or they have a secure place where I can park my car. Of the US$15, the family sees US$7. Breakfast is extra.

Now why is it so inexpensive? Because, to the families who rent out their rooms, US$7 is a lot of money. In Estonia, the average monthly income is US$145. In Latvia, it’s about US$160. In Lithuania, it’s US$80. Latvians actually seem to be the poorest because prices there are typically three or four times higher than in Estonia or Lithuania. This is mostly the result of high import tariffs and value-added taxes.

The Chinese restaurant, one of only a couple in Tallinn, is probably only in business for lack of competition. The restaurant is clean and the service is adequate, but the food is bland and heavy with oil. After a spring roll and a greasy plate of noodles, I’m off to Riga.

Steppin’ Out

The 300 km drive from Tallinn to Riga takes about four hours. The speed limit is 90 km/hour in the country and 50 km/hour in towns and cities. There is no such thing as a freeway in Estonia (though Latvia and Lithuania do have a few) and the main roads pass through small towns every 20 or 30 km. The border crossing requires four separate stops. If you’ve crossed the border between America and either Canada or Mexico, you know that none of these countries care what you are taking out of the country. To go to Mexico, you don’t need to talk to U.S. officials. In the Baltics, you talk to Customs and Passport Control for the country you are leaving, and then Customs and Passport Control for the country you are entering. Mainly they are interested in writing down your license plate number as part of an ineffective attempt to catch stolen vehicles. In addition, it is against the law to export items considered to be of cultural significance.

One of the big news items this week was the recovery of 3 kg of smuggled Uranium in Estonia. Apparently, Estonia is the prime transit route for smuggling radioactive material out of Russia. When nuclear scientists and border guards have incomes barely at the level of subsistance, bribery is pretty simple. A couple hundred bucks to look the other way and they’ve doubled or tripled their income for the month.

Hitchin’ a Ride

There are a lot of hitchhikers in the Baltics. Hitchhiking is apparently a common way to get from one town to the next, since it is cheaper than the bus or train. This would not seem unusual except that there are just as many women hitchhiking as men. In fact, just outside of Tartu on the road to Tallinn, the young women often dress provacatively to make it easier to catch a lift.

Coming from America, where hitchhiking is considered unsafe — and downright suicidal for women — this is both surprising and refreshing. On the road from the Estonian border to Riga, I gave a lift to an old woman and her daughter and grandson. They were going six kilometers; home from the store. The young boy stared at me the whole time with a look of wonderment. I think maybe he had never seen anyone who didn’t speak Latvian. The women smiled a lot and tried to say a few things in English.


Riga’s Old City is picturesque, but the rest of the city is pretty scary. Riga is the largest city in the Baltics, and it is terribly run down. The roads are in bad condition everywhere and the government has no money to repair them. For that matter, Latvia actually has no government right now. A couple of months ago, the existing goverment abdicated power, and a new government has not been established yet. Of course, people are still running the country but, officially, there is no government. Riga also has a terrible pollution problem, with over half of the city’s sewage flowing untreated into the Daugava river and Riga’s bay.

I stayed in the home of a wonderful young Latvian couple. The fact that they are Latvian is somewhat surprising because Riga is two-thirds Russian. They gave up their bedroom to me and slept in the living room. One thing I had to adjust to is a lack of hot water during the day. Hot water was only turned on in the morning, until about 9:00am, and after 5:00pm. When it was on, it was just a trickle. Bathing was a real chore. Still, this was better than the apartment in Tallinn that had no hot water at all. Bathing from a pot of warm water is even harder.

This couple took me to a small town called Sigulda. Sigulda is described as Latvia’s Switzerland. This is a ridiculous exaggeration, but Sigulda does have a more dramatic landscape than the rest of this flat country. They have skiing in the winter. In the summer, people bungy jump from an aerial tram over the river.

Sigulda is a popular hiking spot, with lots of trails and many small caves. Legend has it that a young woman known as the Rose of Turida used to meet her lover, the castle gardener, in one of these caves. When a suitor lured her to the cave with a forged note from the gardener, she told him that she would give him her magical scarf if he would let her go. The scarf was a powerful shield she said and, to prove it, he could swing his sword at her. His sword killed her, and the suitor ran and hid in another of the caves. Today visitors place flowers at Turida Rose’s gravestone, under the trees that were supposedly planted by the gardener. The caves are made of a soft stone, covered with carved grafitti from the last century.


In Lithuania, I stayed in the home of a retired Polish couple who spoke no English. The woman spoke a little German, and we communicated in broken German with the aid of English-German and Russian-German dictionaries. I remember a bit of German from high-school, but only enough to get a hotel room or a meal.

I was told I might find Vilnius depressing, so I was surprised at how much I actually liked it. The people seem friendly and hospitable, and the city center is quite charming, if not as old and magnificent as Riga’s or Tallinn’s. Perhaps the most striking thing about Vilnius is the number of churches. Looking at the cityscape, you can count at least a dozen spires rising from the city center. Inside, these churches are some of the most lavish and ornamental I have seen.

They say Vilnius was founded when Gediminas camped here on a hunting trip and dreamed of an iron wolf with the howl of a hundred wolves. He took this to mean that he must build an impregnable fortress, as strong as a hundred wolves. The city was built around Gediminas Hill, atop of which sits Gediminas Tower, part of the old fortress which now houses a museum. While in Lithuania, I also visited the town of Trakai. Trakai is built on a peninsula in a lake about 30 km west of Vilnius. At the end of the peninsula, on a small island connected by a footbridge, is a large, well-restored brick castle. The history museum in the castle has an impressive collection of artifacts, arranged chronologically, dating from the middle ages to the early part of this century.

This was the last really nice day I saw in the Baltics. In Trakai, I laid on the grass and watched people rowing and paddle-boating on the lake. The next day the weather turned cold and it began to rain. It has stayed that way most of the time since.

The eight-hour drive back to Tartu, Estonia was interrupted only by a couple of difficult border crossings. At the Latvian border, the ten or so cars in front of me took about an hour to cross. The border guards were in no hurry. At the Estonian border in Volga, I tried three different border crossings before I found the right one where I would be allowed to cross. The border guards spoke no English, but some Estonians coming the other way were kind enough to lead me to the right crossing.

Light My Fire

The three cultural traditions of which Estonians seem most proud are their folk costumes, their folk songs, and their saunas (pronounced “sow-nah”). An Estonian sauna is a unique experience. The sauna itself is usually a small wooden building, like a tiny log cabin. Inside the front door is a small anteroom. This functions much like a decompression chamber; it is a place to cool off without going outside and it keeps the hot air from escaping entirely. The main room of the sauna is just large enough for a brick, wood-burning stove and boiler, plus some wooden benches where you sit and work up a sweat. There are stones on top of the stove for making steam. Here’s how it works. First you start a fire and let it burn for a few hours. The fire has to heat up the entire structure, as well as the air inside. By the time you go in, the inside air temperature is about 100 degrees celcius. That’s right, boiling temperature!

You go in naked and sit for a while to work up a good sweat. When you can no longer stand it, you go to the anteroom and cool off for a bit. Then you go back in, pour hot water on the stones for plenty of steam, and beat yourself vigorously with a large whisk made of birch leaves.

We took a sauna at Eerik’s summer cottage; a small farmhouse in the country near Oteapaa. This being my first time in a sauna, Eerik lent a hand. He poured the water on the stones and beat me with the whisk while I lay on the wooden bench. Well the pain of the whisk and the raw steam hitting my body was more than I could endure. I panicked. Without really knowing what I was doing, I jumped off the bench and ran outside. I may have been screaming something like “I gotta get outta here!” Eerik was confused. He really had no idea why I left. Meantime, our companion Wally, who was sitting in the outside room waiting for his turn to get beaten, was probably getting worried, since he had never experience this either.

After a few minutes to cool off, we tried it again. This time, Eerik was a little slower with the whisk. It was extremely intense, but tolerable. After an all-over beating we went outside and Eerik doused me with a large pan of cold water. Again, intense. I understand that, during the winter, they go outside and roll in the snow.

After the sauna, we made dinner with Eerik’s mom. Barbequed pork, Chicago-style pizza, roast sausages, tomato salad, boiled beans from their garden, beer. Wonderful.

Sometimes a Banana is Just a Banana

September 6, 1994. Estonia is truly a small country. I don’t just mean the fact that they have a population of only a million people with their own language and culture. I mean that things happen here that simply don’t happen in larger countries.

First, I find that often when I meet someone, they know the other people I have met. Several times I have met two people independently — in different cities, even — only to find out that they know one another. In one case, I met a man in Otepaa and a woman in Tallinn and, a week later, saw them walk into a bar together. I would chalk it up to coincidence, except that things like this happen again and again.

Second, in a country this small, people in high places are not as insulated as they are in larger countries. Last night I was at Hell Hunt having drinks with people from the Foreign Ministry. At 1:00am, the Chief of Policy Planning made a phone call and then said she had to go meet with the President. I drove her and a colleauge to the President’s manor. They said I could come in and meet him if I liked, but it didn’t seem appropriate. I’m just a tourist, but they were there to discuss business.

Also, coincidentally, two different people have jokingly speculated that I probably work for the CIA — The Pickle Factory, I’m told it’s called — because technically savvy Americans just don’t show up and hang around with no apparent source of income for long periods of time. I must be a spy. Tomorrow morning, I’m taking a ferry to Germany. I plan to spend a couple of days in Hamburg and then head to Munich for Oktoberfest.

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Copyright © 1994, Kenn Nesbitt