The Tallest Poppy

Wednesday, September 6. 2006
The first time I saw him I had no idea who he was. But there he was, on the TV holding a brown snake by the tail and waving it in front of the camera. The single most venomous snake on the planet and he was shaking it like it was a toy.

So I knew he was batshit fucking loco the first time I saw him. Bless him, he saw in creatures great and small what few could and his passion, his sheer will to be happy, brought this joy to the rest of the world.

Derided for being too Aussie or embarrassing, he was not quite a hero for his commercial enterprises but what put him above and beyond the average entertainer was what he did with his success. Devoting so much to conservation, he surprised and won me with that.

While it wasnt the brown snake that did him, or his loved crocodiles, I have to think that its somehow fitting that he went the way he did. Sad as it all might be, I like to think he might have wanted to go like that, over any other way.

He will be missed, just as he was loved by more than he could have know.

All creatures great and small, there is one less champion for you now.

RIP Steve Irwin

Letting Go 02: Estonia

Wednesday, September 6. 2006
Up the coast, along the water for a short way, frequent road blocks and a decent stop at the border. It took about five hours, giving time for waiting at the road works, and I got a new stamp in my passport. I was also in Tallinn. And I was lost already. The map must be broken, because if the bus station is where the map claims then nothing else is right and if I am where I think I am then the bus station is definitely not where it is supposed to be in the LP and I have a long walk to the hostel. Well crap, what to do? I got to find a bank and change some cash too. I walked in what I decided was the right way to go and sure enough I came upon a bank. I broke out the 100 Euro note I still had from France and said, all this in whatever you use here please. They have Krones, or Krooni, or something, and the rate is something decently odd like 10 equals fifty Euro cents (I dont bloody remember) so I spent the whole time in Estonia wondering just what things were worth, knowing that it was pretty cheap, and hoping what I had would survive. It was all good in the end, but only just. As you will see.

The lady at the bank pointed me in the right direction and this proved that LP were slightly retarded. They will be getting a gently worded e-mail from me. Anyway. Tallinn too has a preserved Old Town, complete with city walls. The city was once very solidly defended and these days the walls are part of the larger picture, one of a medieval city, the guardians of which now sit at desks and watch the heritage of the town is protected. Indeed, the Soviet era suburbs of concrete and grey surround the place but the middle is as wonderful as Riga, not as big, but possibly better, just because I am a total sucker for city walls.

Hiking in to where I figured the hostel would be I passed the tourist information centre and noticed a tent on the green across the road from it, how odd. The streets of Tallinn are almost ridiculously hard to navigate at first, nothing goes in a straight line, everything curves into seemingly everything else, and the cobblestones all look the same. The architecture that makes Riga so magic is absent mostly, but the overall medieval feel more than makes up for it. I located my sleeping place and it was really cool. Not to small, not too big, it was essentially a converted house. The beds were all in the living room, the kitchen was the kitchen, and so on. The only downer is that there are only two toilets. The staff were also very cool people.

I dropped my stuff and went out for a look. I started by going back to the mysterious tent. It turns out that they run an alternative tourist information centre right next to the official one. I find this totally acceptable and infinitely cool, I cant begin to tell you. The kids who work there are helpful and fun to hang out with, so I stayed around talking and asking questions, they were more than happy to answer and put up with my presence. They run tours and while I generally despise organised anything, they deserved it, I thought, and plus, it was a bike tour. Sold. So I put my name down and took a walk about the place.

Again, lots of churches and old buildings doing things they didnt used to do. Recycling, essentially, and I like it a lot. Theres not a lot of high land in Baltia, not many hills and no mountains to speak of. There are some slight rises in Tallinn and now they provide a rocking good view of the city and all proceedings below. In so many ways it is a beautiful city to be in, the old and the new, the old and the older all blending in and making a small city heart. The sun was setting and the whole thing glowed. The sea behind is shined. Ive come to think that impressions like these shape your opinions of a city and dictate just how much fun you might have there. I havent been wrong yet.

Back at the hostel it turned into drinking with the other guests and staff. The limits were withdrawn, it seemed, and Tallinn turns it on in some way every night of the week. Buying drinks at the shop around the corner was cheap to the point of a joke, at the bar still cheaper yet than even Riga. London and three pounds for a pint can go suck my dick after that, suck it long, and suck it hard.

Things culminated in a bar that had karaoke. You know its a good night when

And then the hangover, but nothing superhuman. I went and found some food, an action followed by going to the Info Tent for the bike tour. The tour was fun, I hadnt been on a bike since Amakusa. True to their word, it went to not only the notable places but a lot of out-of-the-way spots and truly interesting little corners. Theres the old KGB building (no longer open to the public after ex-inmates kept coming in to trash the place) and the last un-re-developed old building in town (a real medieval dungeon!); the ugliest building in town, built in a hurry to accommodate the yacht events during the Moscow Olympics and scene of where the guide once got into a fight with some Drunken Russians; the old town jail that was compared in comfort to the hostels in town (hahaha) and the only submarine in Estonia. Then theres the park that used to be a mass grave, some old Stalinist workers houses and a long ride back to the tent via the market near the train station. I just gave away all their secrets, oh no.

Then it was time for lunch and further explorations on my own. The Estonian occupation museum is as horrific but not as in-depth or detailed as the one in Riga, purely because the Estonians had the easiest time of it back then not because of any reason other than they gave in easily. Having seen the brutality applied to their cousins in the south, Estonia was less willing to fight a long battle in the forests and put up with the payback that would come. The level of pain inflicted by occupiers was the same as the fight put up by the locals. But this is not to say that Estonia had an easy time, no, there is plenty of evidence that things were very, very grim indeed.

Back at the hostel I found all the guys who worked there gathered in some kind of celebration, so I joined in. It was a very fun night not at all bad for a Tuesday and it culminated in a cellar bar, followed by a late night hamburger. Good times, good times.

I awoke and went back to the bus station to buy a ticket. Next stop was going to be Sareema Island. I chose the three forty bus so I had time to go back and take one last look around. I went to the biggest of the churches and climbed up for the view. It was spectacular. The hundreds of steps up the tower werent much fun, but thats part of the adventure. I had a chat to the girls at the tent, grabbed my bag and jumped on the bus.

Outside of Tallinn, the landscape is all the same. Flat, flat as anything, trees, forests, farms. All the way to the south, where we paused and took a brief ferry ride over to the island. Onto the town of Kuressaare, which is as much fun to write as it is to say, and into the hostel. Its not much of a town, and what they do have is totally tourist oriented. Plenty of overpriced B&B places, a few expensive looking restaurants. I asked at a shop where to go and I found it no problem. Its on the school grounds and is totally Soviet in look and feel. Brilliant. All function, no artistic merit, it feels cold and is cold. I was all alone both nights in a five-person dorm. So I had a little sojourn in the country, I did, that could have been more streamlined and cheaper had I planned a little. But we will see that I didnt, and thank the heavens for that.

My plan was to stay there two nights, affording me one full day of doing whatever, then go down to the bottom of the island to get the ferry down to Ventspils in Latvia. I was out of luck, because it runs five days a week and Friday is not one of those days. So I was condemned to get the bus back to the mainland and re-trace my steps back to Riga. It turns out that there is not so much to do there if you are of limited means and have no car I would have been just as well off staying one night and taking the ferry the next afternoon, since it leaves about six pm. But I didnt know the times until the first morning there and it was only a small thing. I bought a bus ticket to Parnu, after which I could get on a passing vehicle to Riga, then rented a bike. I rode all the way to the islands famous meteorite crater and back. The countryside is ever present and never changing. The weather was fine and conditions for riding great. While the crater itself was something less than amazing, it was all part of the experience. Such wide skies and open green pastures, I hadnt seen in years, nothing like that in years.

Back in town I went next to see the beach and castle. The beach was not much, but once again the Baltic came to see me, and the castle was superb. The design is not your grand dark stone edifice, but like something out of a fairy-tale, such is the shape of the roof and walls. Truly special. Inside is the local history museum. I went inside, mostly for the prospect of the view from the roof, and was blown away by the whole thing. The rooms and corridors are as ever, the history fascinating and the exhibition inside about the local experience during occupation was the whole sad story from a different angle yet again. Kuressaare is essentially a rural place and so more than forced deportations and Sovietisation of the city, it was collectivisation and farming techniques that were forced and coerced onto the local population. It exposes the means and the failures and the reasons behind the crumbling of the entire system. Propaganda videos from the time and endless photographs tell the story you cant see elsewhere. The ideas were sound enough but the practices they had no choice but to adopt for their farming resulted in nothing short of disaster.

So I had some food and went to bed. It was going to be an early morning, since I had to be on the seven am bus out of there.

And make it I did. The return trip to the mainland was the same as the one there and less eventful. If thats possible. Arriving in Parnu, I had to get off because the bus wasnt going to Riga. I found the ticket office and managed to get a seat on a bus passing through at five thirty. This gave me about half a day to look around the town. It was another beach resort, so I walked down to the water and waded out. I walked down the end of the beach, noting a large number of naked old ladies. At the end of the swimming beach is the breakwater that goes all the way out into the water, about two kilometres. I walked all the way out just for the view. It was worth it. Then I walked back, back along the beach to where I started. The beach is just as it is at Jurmala, all soft silky white sands and calm water. Flat as ever, even here on the exposed coast. Only now there were even more naked old ladies, and a couple of not so old ones. Just as naked, though. I felt like I might be in the wrong place somehow. I looked around. There werent any guys about. And just as a few came along I saw the sign that Id missed because I was walking in the water. It was a ladies only beach along there. Oops. Sorry about that. I cant say Im too proud of that mistake. Well, Im a little proud.

I went back towards town. Parnu is a lot of long, lazy streets lined with leafy trees. The sunlight filters down and it all looks golden and green, a nice warm summers day. Lots of parks around add to the laid-back atmosphere. I sat and read in one of them. This is Estonias premiere beach resort and it is indeed nice. I bet you could even find a few drunken Finns about.

I needed to eat before I left. So after a look in the modern art gallery, I wandered main street and saw a likely place. I had thirty-five krooni left. I asked if this would buy me anything. It did, the daily special was exactly that much. Score.

And just in time to get on the bus. It pulled in and a bunch of people got off for a break. One girl stood out as not at all bad looking. But other people on the bus, what was I to do. I found my seat, it happened to be behind pretty girl. I was destined to look at the back of her head until Riga came around. I considered briefly sitting next to her, but as I dithered someone took that seat. Ah well. I slept most of the way anyway.

So it was back to Riga. I got off the bus and made a beeline for the Old Town hostel. I wasnt staying there but it was Friday night and I was determined to make a scene of it. The plan was to hit the bar there and make friends with some other travellers, form a posse and find some action. I called Alise on the way and told her I was back, so expect me home at some point. It was all cool with her, and so I found myself in the mood to party.

What happens next? To think now, it makes everything else look like nothing much.