Saturday, July 17, 2010

Baltic Heights

The area around Otepää in the south of Estonia is famed for being the skiing capital of the Baltics, which, quite frankly, isn't saying much as the highest "mountain" in the region is a meagre 318m - although it still dwarfs the tallest "peaks"of both Latvia and Lithuania. Nevertheless it is a pleasant place, with gently rolling hills and forests dotted with lakes both large and small, perfect for a bit of strolling and relaxing by the water (whilst swatting away the mosquitoes and horse flies) to recharge the batteries. I was lucky enough to be staying there with an inspiring couple: Sigrit and Helgur. Avid travellers and environmentally conscious, they decided to actually live their convictions and not only built their own home in the country from scratch, complete with dry toilet and recycled building materials (yet not without your essentials such as broadband wi-fi), but are also setting up a hostel in Tartu which they are furnishing entirely with second hand and recuperated fittings and furnishings. It was very encouraging to see that it is possible to follow through with your principles and properly live by them, even in the face of doubt and ridicule from others.

DIY eco-house in the forest.

The silver lining to losing my debit card is that at least I lost it in the Baltics where it is possible to pay for the majority of things by credit card and the few that require cash (my credit card does not permit me to make cash withdrawals), such as bus travel, can be circumvented, for example by hitchhiking. Unlike in Scandinavia, hitching is still relatively common here and I had no real trouble getting rides to take me all the way to Sigulda in Latvia. The two countries are very similar in appearance and, with both being part of Schengen, crossing the border is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it event, but there was one big difference I noticed almost immediately as I entered Latvia: people are far more willing and happy to speak Russian and less likely to know English, and so I had to dust off my memories of the Caucasus and start to tentatively govorit po ruski (speak Russian). There are sizeable Russian minorities in both countries, but in Estonia language is a nationalist touchstone and ethnic Estonians will often refuse to speak Russian. They have also imposed stringent language tests for citizenship, leaving many ethnic Russians who came over during Soviet times in limbo with no legal citizenship. In fact the two communities rarely seem to mix in Estonia, with Estonians (not without cause) resentful of historical injustices suffered under the hands of the Russians and the latter unwilling to learn a new, difficult language causing them to turn inwards and to the east and to congregate in monolingual towns and neighbourhoods.

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