On the beach of Pärnu, an arrow on a changing cabin points at Ainaži. 66 kilometres, it says.
Latvia is less than 70 kilometres away. Not that the Estonians have such a passionate relationship with their neighbours. It’s one of a brief hello in the hallway – no more, no less. But since Jevgeni Ossinovski, the former Minister of Health, raised the excise duties on alcohol, the Estonians like to make weekend trips to the SuperAlkos of Ainaži and Valka. Children and dog in the back of the van and the road trip can begin, towards cheaper alcohol! Ironically, the Estonians have made fun of their Finnish brothers for years when the latter went on yet another booze cruise towards Tallinn. Those Finns now also have to travel one stop further for affordable drunkenness.
We lived in Pärnu for almost two years. One of our projects at the time was to walk from our apartment to Latvia. Without a deadline, or even we would have already rounded off that meagre distance. We left on foot in the winter, when the first snowdrops broke through the winter carpet, and took a bus back as soon as our bodies got too tired or too cold. The next time, we took the bus to that last stop and we continued from there.
Cheap Latvian alcohol was never our goal. We had other motives, perhaps less prosaic, or at least less straightforward. We simply wanted to put one foot in front of another, in a sort of act of silent protest against the impossible haste and hurry of society. Strap on our hiking boots and see where we’d get. The plan was to vaguely follow the coast, but we didn’t have a real path. We turned into dirt roads and ended up in streets that ran dead on the Baltic Sea, or on forest paths that suddenly seemed to change their mind and turned around. We walked in all seasons – sometimes over ice, then with our faces in nice sunshine, the next time looking for mushrooms during the fall. But always with our gaze more or less to the south.
In the meantime, I have travelled that way to Latvia in every possible way. Rattling on a bus along the Via Baltica, towards Riga, to catch a flight or visit a friend. In the car via the quieter old highway between Tallinn and Riga – which runs parallel to the Via Baltica – to Kabli, to count birds, or to Treimani to attend the concert of an Estonian hippie who makes music with a tree trunk. Occasionally the weather was so beautiful that I could admire the contours of the Estonian coast from my seat in a plane.
But it is something completely different when you put your boots on the ground and walk through the landscape. The reality changes entirely. Or as Justin Petrone described it in a recent column: “Once you get off the roads though, once you venture into the forests, the distances between minor topographic changes – a hill, a valley – become enormous. (…) There are endless discoveries to be made. Every tree here has its own biography.”
When we recently returned to Pärnu for a while, we wanted to continue our journey from an abandoned bus stop somewhere between Võiste and Häädemeeste. During my online research, I was surprised to discover that there is an official hiking trail along the Estonian coast, part of the European hiking trail E9, which connects Cape St Vincent, the southwesternmost tip of Portugal, with Narva-Jõesuu, the Estonian seaside resort that borders Russia. That you can walk from Estonia to Portugal, I think that’s a magnificent idea. The older I get, the slower I like to go. The E9 had sneaked away from the coast in Pärnumaa, to wind its way through forests, inland dunes and bogs, but would return to our path in Häädemeeste.
We set off where we stopped two years ago. In Luite, where we picked the final mushrooms, delicacies that disappeared into our bellies long ago. A journey in time, as well as a physical trip to a starting point that once seemed our final stop. We stroll on dusty pathways through the countryside, where a hare can safely cross the road and where wildflowers of all varieties grow. Where women in soup dresses peel potatoes on stools in front of the door – ladies who’ve never heard of Skype or e-residency, but who instead dream of their glory days on the village swing. Where barely any motorised traffic passes, or it should be a Finnish motorhome looking for the scenic route to cheap alcohol.
“Damn it, I forgot my bank card at home,” curses a customer in the Häädemeeste supermarket. “I’m going to get it and come back to pay.”
“All right,” the cashier replies, “And take your groceries with you. I know where you live anyway. “
That’s the kind of village Häädemeeste is. Teenagers leave their bikes unlocked in front of the door, chickens roam around the bus station, everyone knows everyone. I once met someone from Häädemeeste who claimed that there were no men in her village – only youngsters under 18 and pensioners. She had fled to Pärnu. Ironically, Häädemeeste literally means “good men”. A good man is hard to find in Good Men. The village got its name when a boat suffered shipwreck off these coasts and the villagers received the unfortunate sailors with open arms.
Perhaps they did so from a sense of guilt. Chances are that the boat was made in the vicinity. The inhabitants of this coastal region, from Häädemeeste over Kabli and Ikla to Ainaži, concentrated on shipbuilding and sailing in the 19th century. Many Estonian peasants learned the craft at the nautical school of Ainaži. At the beginning of the 20th century, things went downhill for the shipping industry in these regions. The shipbuilders of Kabli manufactured their last ship in 1930. The motor sailing boat Neptun got stuck in the Kiel canal in 1938. The captain left his ship at once to get drunk in a bar. Bad idea! A captain who leaves his post in the event of an accident asks for problems. That was also the case for the Neptun, which later sailed on a sea mine and broke in two.
In 1989, distant descendants of the shipbuilders in Kabli built a bus shelter in the shape of the Neptun. In the landscape, sporadic remains of the legacy from that glory period can be seen – look at the Häädemeeste logo, the boats on the beach and the memorial stones of fallen sailors in Kabli. On the aforementioned bus stop, someone has pasted a poster with advertising for a new alcohol store in Ainaži.
It must be that some people in Häädemeeste never got over the wilting of their industry. Otherwise, it’s difficult to explain why residents observe so many paranormal phenomena in the environs of Häädemeeste, from UFOs to aliens. Doctor Ivo Kolts from the University of Tartu even moved to Häädemeeste in 2010 to study the symptoms. Kolts saw how “the angels came and the whole sky was on fire.” He took pictures of the flashes of light, which ended up in a photo exhibition in Tallinn. But Kolts’ five minutes of fame was short-lived (five minutes, to be precise): a ufologist pointed out that Kolts had been photographing the lights of passing ships all along.
We don’t see UFOs on our way through Häädemeeste, but luckily we find our way to the local tavern. In Estonian rural villages, you can still order a generous dish for a few euros. And that is necessary because moments later we are leaving civilisation again for the great unknowns. On our both legs, through the pine forests that circle Häädemeeste. Walking is the purest form of travel. The most democratic too – you literally don’t need anything for it, except for the shoes around your feet. And walking has a great tradition in Estonia: Kristian Jaak Peterson, poet and early advocate of the Estonian language, regularly walked from Tartu, where he studied, to his hometown Riga. So we follow large footsteps.
On your own, without mechanics, you appreciate distances so much more. I am thinking of the electric scooters that nowadays zoom through our cities, the toddlers in their electric cars and the people who drive to gyms and leave hundreds of euros a year to walk on a treadmill. You would almost forget that things can be done differently. We walk through a green tunnel of pine forests, only interrupted by a summer house here and there. I think of the withered cliché about time that stands still. Nonsense, there will always be places where development goes slower than elsewhere, and that’s fine.
To really experience the forest, Henry David Thoreau thought, you have to walk through it. He saw walking not as a useful activity, a means of transport or a physical exercise, but as a pure spiritual undertaking. Walking offers different perspectives, which we usually run or ride past. If you walk, you can still stop to smell the flowers, rest on a bed of spruce needles or follow the calls from nature. All examples of what British author Elizabeth von Arnim described as “a thousand delicate joys that were waiting for you by the wayside.”
Two hours later we are hiding under a tree whose leaves can no longer bear the gravity of the drops of water. We are slowly turning into boiling-hens. A woman drives her jeep onto the access road to her holiday farm. She stops and suggests to take us somewhere. We kindly turn down her offer – convinced that we will return home with the last bus anyway. Our backpacks are soaking wet, sleeping bags and mats damp with rain. Our tent has never been tested to its limits. But as soon as it stops raining, and we stumble towards the next bus stop, overconfidence takes over and we continue. Although it’s still hard to swallow when we see the last bus to Pärnu pass by and we realise we’re on our own.
It is the prelude to one of the most tragic camping trips ever. That morning I had told Anete that I wanted to write a more thoughtful, contemplative blog post about our ramblings through the countryside, instead of always goofing around in a failed attempt to be funny. She immediately burst out laughing. “You’ll never succeed,” she joked. Because she knew that the farces usually piled up during our trips and we always ended up in a kind of slapstick film anyway, which could only be described as a comedy.
That morning, we had checked three weather reports. They all mentioned partial clouds with sunny moments and a few showers. 4 mm of rain, it said. According to the internet, that is moderate rain. Nothing to worry much.
Enter the subtitle of this blog post: Never trust a weatherman.
I just lit the fire on our RMK campsite when it starts raining. Cats and dogs. It doesn’t stop for hours. Then there’s thunder, lighting. Chilling to the bone, we sit at a picnic table under a shelter and try to warm ourselves with sweet instant coffee and wine. We wait as long as possible to set up our tent, bought from the discount supermarket. I have no fate in it. Fortunately, it is one of those wonderfully long Baltic summer days. When it stops raining, we finally experience a bonfire moment. But as soon as I want to set up the tent, the rain starts to clatter down again.
We shiver through the night and wake up under a bright sun. In the Kabli bakery, we stuff ourselves with pastries and pour generous amounts of coffee into our bodies; we warm up on the local beach. We agree that Ainaži can wait. On the way back, our two-day progress flashes by in half an hour.
First published in Dutch on Tom’s blog.
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