. . . LAND ROVER OVERLAND EXPEDITION

. . . AROUND THE WORLD 2001/02
     
Home
Africa 1999
Around-the-World 2001/02
 

The Team

Jeff Willner
1. Start: Recipe for Adventure
2. Zimbabwe: Hyperinflation
3. Namibia: Southern Circuit
4. South Africa: Circuit 2
5. Zambia/Malawi: Sketches
7. Kenya: Bandit Country
8. Ethiopia: Diary
9. Ethiopia: Border Run
10. Sudan: Across the Sahara
11. Egypt: Cape to Cairo
12. Jordan/Syria: Sept. 11th
13. Turkey: Hospitality
14. Bulgaria/Romania/ Hungary
15. Slovakia/Austria/Poland
16. The Baltics & Russia
17. Scandinavia
18. Western Europe
19. Brazil: Clearning Customs
20. Argentina: Revolution
21. Argentina: To Ushuaia
22. Patagonia Disaster
23. Buenos Aires Beautiful
24. Uruguay: Beaches
25. Chile: Expedition Life
26. Bolivia: Atacama
27. Peru: Transit
28. Galapagos: Gorgeous
29. Ecuador: Jungle Run
30. Knifepoint
31. Dubai: Lay over
32. Singapore/Malaysia
33. Thailand: Hospitality
34. Cambodia: Ankor Wat
35. Vietnam: Hanoi & Halong
36. Laos: Back to Basics
37. China: Beijing Tour
38. China: Shanxi
39. China: Western Province
40. China: Tibet
41: Nepal: Mountains
42. India: Driving Struggle
43. Pakistan: Dodging War
44. Iran: Overcharging
45. End: One Last Laugh

Sally DeFina
1. Cape Town: Robben Island
2. Zanzibar: Mike & I
3. Kenya: African Driving School
4. Sudan: Mud Crossing
5. Patagonia: Goodbye Max
6. Malaysia: Mike Update
7. Thailand: Ko Phangan
8. Cambodia: Phnom Penh
9. Vietnam: By Train
10. Laos: Vang Vieng
11. China: Meet Mr. Chen

Jody Finver
1. Start: Surreal Solipse
2. Great Zimbabwe
3. Brokedown in Kenyan Desert
4. Egypt: So Should I Hyphenate
5. Poland: Home is Where the Truck Is

Gulin Akoz
1. Start: Bits and Pieces
2. Zambia: Diaries
3. Egypt: Africa Memories
4. Turkey: For Your Information
5. The Team and The Bean
6. Somebody Else's Child
7. On My Own
8. Long Lost Memories of Childhood
9. The Tree and the Boy
10. Jealous
11. The Aftermath

 

Panamerican 2003
Various Trips
Planning an Expedition

 

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#16 - The Baltics & Russia
Jeff Willner - 31 October, 2001

(St. Petersburg, RUSSIA) - Sally peered through the windshield in amazement, "Oh my gosh he's taking a piss!" That's how we first met Kalev. After five days of wandering through the Baltic countries, we'd decided to head into the Estonian countryside for the weekend while our Russian visas were being processed. Autumn leaves crackled in the stubborn cold, the forest smelled of earthy comfort, and the Baltic Sea lapped on a black pebble shore. There was only one problem, the summer season was over and we couldn't find a decent place to stay. Kasmu is a seaside town with a highly recommended hotel - that was closed. And so as we drove forlornly through the tiny village hoping against hope to find some other place to stay, we came up to this drunken Estonian, peeing on the side of the road.

"Hey, hey, shtop! I want a ride to Tallinn," he slurred. "Sorry we just came from there." We began to pull away. "No! I am the police! Show me your passports!" he hiccupped. He was so whipped we had to laugh. "No passports, but can you tell us where there is a place to stay?" "Of cooourse!!" his eyes opened wide. "I know the perfect place, come, I will get in and take you there." We paused. Janet opinioned that she would rather not ride with a high vomit probability. "How about you walk ahead and we just follow you." "Oh! OH! I will ride on the front bumper of your beautiful truck!" And up he went. So we started driving and as we did we passed his friends, Mihkel, Andres, Joak, they all climbed up and were belting out the lyrics of "Smooth Criminal" as we bumped down the road. Turning onto a grassy lane, we pulled next to a snug summer cottage, the guys piled off and crowded around the truck windows. "This is the Villomann summer house, we are here for the weekend, you must come and have some apple wine!" You know that feeling you have standing at the top of a high-dive platform, where you have to pause to suck up your gut before you take the plunge - we had one of those, and then piled out and went on in.

Fate is a funny thing. A few sips of homemade apple wine (delicious), turned into an invitation for dinner with homemade smoked fish, and then board games Estonian style (cheating is encouraged, breaks are frequent, and the game is abandoned halfway through). Tarvo and Ann Villomann were our hosts, their son Andres was one of the young twentysomethings we'd picked up. They twinkled, more guests showed up (beautiful women), and we were taught how to toast in Estonian - basically it sounds like 'terrible sex', so that's what we yelled as the rounds went round. Though only twenty-two, Kalev turned out to be Estonia's most popular TV sportscaster, though you'd never know it watching him work through the potato juice (vodka). Three hours into the party our host announced, "And now, sauna!" So we did. Tramped out to the little wooden house, stripped down, and talked sports (Tarvo works with Kalev at TV3). He may be in his fifties but Tarvo can take the steam! He poured enough water on the hot rocks to scar the inside of my nostrils and talked away like it was nothing. I made a break for it when he went to get more water.

They insisted we must sleep there for the night. By hour five, Sally, who had sampled the liquid hospitality a bit too enthusiastically, announced that she was 'Done!', turned into the living room and toppled onto a couch. More food, more laughter. Hour seven, the beautiful women had to drive back to Tallinn an hour away, I was sad, all the men were sad, it was just quite sad. A little after midnight we curled onto couches, and so the party faded. A memory crossed my mind from Sudan, when Gulin had said "Jeff, sometimes you have to accept the kindness of strangers!" It was an unexpectedly great night with some amazing people that capped our trip through the Baltics. And it was wrong!

You see, in order to keep the Baltics straight in your head there are certain generalities that are assigned. Allow me to enlighten. First the similarities, all three countries are small. Lithuania (bottom), Latvia (middle), and Estonia (top) are stacked on top of each other with the Baltic Sea on the west and Russia on the east. Roughly the same size, they are primarily farming countries with gorgeous showcase capitol cities. All fled the Soviet Union in the early 90's (led by Lithuania) and all are eager to formalize ties with the west including joining NATO. Oh, and one other thing (and I am not alone in making this observation), Baltic women are beautiful.

Now for the differences. Lithuania is at the bottom of the stack next to Poland. Did you know that in the 1500's, Lithuania was a dominant power in Eastern Europe and even Russia was cowed by it's presence - and that after joining with Poland the combined countries ruled territory from modern day Finland down to the Black Sea! Lithuania is different in that it remains predominantly Catholic like Poland, while the other two Baltic countries are Protestant. And Lithuanians are the most emotional of the three, described as the 'Italians of the Baltics'. Their friendliness is reflected in the fact that we didn't need visas or car insurance to visit - which I thought was rather decent of them.

Latvia is in the middle. It doesn't have any large trading partners on its border (except Russia and they don't count) and like Lithuania it is not heavily industrialized. But, it has Riga! Riga is the biggest and most beautiful of the three Baltic capitals. All of them have a cobbled old city with churches, old guild halls and shops. But Riga's charm extends concentrically for a dozen more blocks outside the old city, with the largest collection of early twentieth century Art Deco buildings in the east. We only spared one day and night for Riga, but the city is a charmer - I could have stayed a week.

At the top is Estonia. Actually it is at the top more than just geographically, the country is a poster child for globalization in the 90's. Exploiting its proximity to Finland, the country has attracted a flood of foreign direct investment and as a result boasts an average GDP twice as high as it's Baltic neighbors. So it is the economic powerhouse in the region. Tallinn, the capitol city, is also very nice and a short ferry ride away from Helsinki. But Estonians are famous for their reserve - the opposites of the Lithuanians. So you see, it was quite unexpected to find ourselves in the thick of a terrific party in 'reserved' Estonia.

After breakfast and fond goodbyes we found a converted country manor in Palmse where we lounged in comfort for the rest of the weekend. Walks in the woods, dinner beside a crackling fireplace, a Jacuzzi tub in the bathroom, a wee dash of civilization in our otherwise hostel to hostel existence. That morning as we left the house the band of lads piled into their cars to dash back to the city. "Be sure to tune in at 7pm!" roared Kalev as they pulled away. So we cranked up the hotel set and gathered round to watch. Sure enough, at 7:20 the sports show started and by gosh there he was intoning like a professional - he was quite good. Fate really can work strangely at times.

As with most of the other countries on the State Dept. watch list, we'd been told horror stories about driving in Russia, the bribes demanded by police, the state of the roads, and on and on. But on our return to Tallinn we found our visas ready and processed (2 days, $80/ea) and the drive across to St. Petersburg was hassle free.

Constant rain dampened the allure of Russia's fabled gem. We tramped up and down Nevsky Prospect, the main shopping street in the city, visited the Hermitage (truly one of the world's greatest art museums), saw some mindblowing mosaics inside the Church on the Blood, and toured the Museum of Art with its dazzling array of Russian painters. For a change we had a couple days in the same place, and so I ducked off on my own and had a luxurious afternoon in the terrace lounge of the Hotel Europa. Not being on an expense account, I reluctantly passed the caviar bar, the private billiards room, the spa, and the formal dining hall. But I sprung for 'Afternoon Tea' on the terrace, an assortment of little sandwiches, smoked fish, pastries, fruit, and fresh coffee. A couple hours of nibbling and a fresh copy of the Economist, it was like recharging mental batteries.

Janet is a die hard Halloween dress-upper. She had met a Russian woman while shopping and had gone with Jody to have lunch. They returned Halloween evening with 'costumes' which consisted of glitter masks and alien antenna thingys that clip on the head. Four other Russian friends had joined the ranks and we all set off to find a St. Petersburg Halloween party. However, after slogging through the rain and shivering in line for half an hour we ended up at the Metro club where antenna thingys looked totally dorkish. Or I thought they looked dorkish till mine were confiscated by a Russian beauty who compensated me with a kiss. Did I mention the beautiful Russian women? Anyway, we were definitely ready for bed by 3am but our Russian friends said that they had to stay, the drawbridges over the Volga are open from 2am to 5am and they couldn't get home. No wonder the nightlife goes all night.

It is strange to watch the sun begin to set at 4pm, evening comes so early in the winter. I can't help but think that's a catalyst for the parties and social life that are a fixture in the region. We were a bit sleep deprived when we set off toward Helsinki and the start of our Scandinavian adventure, but happy. I added Vilnius (Lithuania), Riga (Latvia), and Tallinn (Estonia) to my list of undiscovered tourist treasures, and thanked the kindness of strangers that made our visit to the Baltics and Russia truly memorable. Here's to you Estonia, 'Terrible Sex'!

PS. By the way, if you are looking for a good book to read, "The Wind-up Bird Chronicle" by Haruki Murakami is a stunner.

 

Copyright January 1999-2011
All rights reserved - Jeff Willner
Contact: jeffwillner@yahoo.com