I wrote two more posts for fitisafeministissue on my cycling trip:
Why do a self-guided trip?
And some practical lessons from my cycling experience.
And now I’m home!
Working away, work work work.
I wrote two more posts for fitisafeministissue on my cycling trip:
Why do a self-guided trip?
And some practical lessons from my cycling experience.
And now I’m home!
Working away, work work work.
I’m back in Tallinn, after an early morning train. This time I was sharing my little cabin with a woman who was asleep and snoring slightly when I crept in, the Conductrice shhhhing me gently with her fingers. I listened to a podcast about the Romanovs, half asleep, until we got to the Russian border, when the attendant came and woke us up. My cabin mate sprang up, changed out of her pyjamas, put on some lipstick and spoke to me in English. She was a breeder and shower of St. Bernards, on her way to a dog show in Narva. Her five dogs were in a car with a handler. Her sister lives in Houston. She was a builder of apartments the rest of the time.
I was glad for the chance to chat with someone random before I left Russia. Now that I’m officially “on my way home” (I fly back to Canada tomorrow morning), I’ve been musing on what the whirlwind trip to Russia “meant.” Curiosity, mostly, and a chance to see the Famous Things of the World — but also, a bit, engaging with the nervousness I have around certain places. I alluded to this yesterday, and I was trying to articulate the source of it. There are places where I feel a certain kind of confidence, where I know “how to do it” — places that are easy to navigate for Canadians, like Western Europe and SE Asia. And now, because of familiarity, East Africa. Even when there is real potential “danger,” like in the DRC, I’m still confident about how to navigate them. But there are places that make me more anxious, and Russia is one of them.
Part of it is the uncertainty about how much of the prevailing public temperature about places is genuinely a concern or not — how likely IS It that my devices will be hacked and my identity stolen? That I’ll stumble across some mafia deal gone wrong and end up murdered in a Russian sauna? Not very. But part of it is not knowing what channel of recourse there is if something goes badly, and part of it is simply the risk of difficult interactions because of language.
But even with those things, there’s a huge gulf between genuine alarm and what really happens. I actually get lost a fair bit in cities with different alphabets, but so far, I’ve always found my way home, even that time in Mandalay when no one knew my hotel. (Somehow, magically, in the dark, I ended up on the back of someone’s motorcycle pulling up to my hotel). I used to get very very anxious in foreign cities when we couldn’t find cabs to get home late at night (ask my poor ex about the two spectacular meltdowns in San Francisco and London), but now, I just assume I’ll find my way. I couldn’t find my pickup from the train at midnight on Wednesday; I just made sure I got rubles from the ATM before I left the station (always have local cash before you leave the airport or station), and found a taxi. I was fine.
I think Russia represented something more than basic travel discomfort, though, something about, in a way, confronting the rise of “otherness” that has emerged in the world. I hinted at this with my jokes on FB about how the gilt-dipped baroque palaces of the Romanovs seemed to be the model for Trump’s decor and his view of the world. It was a joke, but it wasn’t — there really is something nested in the space of venal excess about a worldview where the acquisition of money and power are the end in and of themselves, where displays of that money and power stand in for virtue, where might reigns supreme and the suffering of so many as a result doesn’t matter. Where, in fact, those who suffer deserve to, because they haven’t demonstrated that they are as “deserving” — i.e capable of strong-arming others.
Like so many people I know, when I let myself think about it, I’m absolutely distraught about the current state of the world, the brutality, the misogyny, the homophobia, the privileging of wealth and might. Learning more about the history of Estonia — 800 years of other powers taking over its land — Sweden, the Danes, Prussians, Germans, Russians, Soviets, more Germans, more Russians — was like nodding along to a long-repeated story. This tiny country continually invaded, seized, for access to its ports and routes to Russia, with no regard for its people. In one of the museums of Estonian history I visited, there was a little video that had little figures of the population of Estonia going up and down as different powers converted them, slaughtered them, made them flee.
I think I partly wanted to visit Russia at this moment in history to confront a little bit all of my unease at the apparently intractable divide that is getting stronger and stronger in our world. It was a welcome coincidence that it was my (late) mentor’s birthday while I was in St. Petersburg; as Linda and I said in text, what would Barnett make of Trump, of the Putin/Trump alliance, of the complete breakdown of cosmopolitan communication, any space for bringing opposing viewpoints about what constitutes good in the world together. I wanted to reduce my personal “othering” of Russia.
I got the gift of the perfect person to help me do this in the guide I hired to take me to Pushkin and Peterhof yesterday. I splurged on a driver and personal guide for the summer palaces at the encouragement of my friend Pamela, thinking it would be really good to actually have someone to talk to about everything I was experiencing. I was lucky enough to end up with a guide (who I won’t name) who was perfect for me — she said how much she appreciated that I could walk, and fast like her, so we covered all of the fountains in the lower park of the Grand Palace, and we talked about how we both love to travel, and don’t get bored with our own company. And later in the day, she opened up about her unhappiness at the regime, and how much her son hates Putin, and how although he is a brilliant student, she is afraid he will be barred from university because he’s actively protesting.
If I lived in St Petersburg, she would become my friend, and we would march briskly through the streets together. She gave me a hug at the end of the tour. But she gave me a lot more than that — she gave me a face, a name, a story, a son, to recognize that the world that feels full of animosity is filled with people I care about.
Today I ate wild Estonian mushrooms in an Oriental duck salad, had an excellent thai massage and flagellated myself with birch leaves in a Russian sauna with naked old women and small children.
It was a very improvisational day.
Yesterday I realized that I’d misplaced my dates a bit and thought I was leaving for St. Petersburg tonight, but it’s actually tomorrow. I was a bit at a loss at what to do with the found time. I put the question to my FB hive, and the majority opinion was to take the ferry to Helsinki, with a strong undercurrent of “simmer down and do nothing.” My sister asked me a good question — what will you be happy you did a month from now? — while advocating for not cramming too much in. Bonne describing the ferry as “basically a booze cruise” where a man belched right in her face was another point in favour of staying put, but I was still open-ended when I went to bed.
I woke up at 7 to the orchestral song that wakes me up and sends me to sleep every night. The first night I thought I was imagining it, but then I recognized that it happened every night. I tried googling “what is that music I hear at 10 pm in Tallinn” but that led me to apophenia, hearing music that isn’t there. I was pretty sure I was hearing it, but this place does feel like there are a lot of ghosts about. The woman at the hotel desk finally told me this morning that it’s the national anthem, which they play when raising and lower the flag on the tallest tower of old town. Tonight maybe I’ll stay up late enough to see them lower it. I should find out more about bits history.
This morning, sore from my run yesterday in worn out shoes, the anthem was a soundtrack for supreme gratitude that I had so much choice, completely unfettered time. The sky was grey and any remaining intention I had for the ferry dissipated. I started making plans, but was quickly thwarted from doing anything. The spa where I wanted to have a massage was fully booked, the excellent restaurant I ate in the first night was booked for dinner, it was grey and looked potentially rainy so I didn’t want to rent a bike. So I just decided to wander and to make up my day as it unfolded.
My first stop was a bookstore on the edge of Old Town for a new journal (channeling my friend Grace), one made up delightfully from the cover of an old children’s book. The title means “Far off over the river,” which seems about right.
Wandering back toward Teliskivi, the design-y, hipstery creative cluster where I hung out yesterday for a while, I passed the Thai Orchid Massage spa, and, channeling my sister Melissa, impulsively went in. A self-appointed doorman let me in, clearly vetting me based on the sign on the door that they provide REGULAR massage. They had room right then and I had an excellent thai massage, focusing on my poor feet and legs and neck. She was gentle and put magical healing ointments on all of my bruises.
After restorative tea, I headed for the food trucks in Teliskivi, and had an excellent salad with chicken while christening my new journal. I then found a coffee shop and wrote and read for a bit more.
Then channeling my friend Jessica, I headed for the authentic Russian sauna. Men and women separately, with beer and sodas available downstairs. As utilitarian as it gets, but right in the heart of history.
The ritual is simple: you can rent a towel and get a little sitting on mat, for about 3 euros. You walk up two flights of stairs, past some ancient faux leather loungers. There’s a steel door, and inside, a sagging changing room with wooden lockers. Beyond that, a room filled with benches and taps and plastic basins, a couple of showers and a seriously questionable jacuzzi. Beyond that, another small version of the shower/basin room, and then the sauna. That’s it.
I cannot over-emphasize enough the importance of the shower shoes.
I watched for a bit in the basin/shower room, but basically people were just washing themselves. I followed the old woman with the toque who came in at the same time as me, and went into the sauna with my watch, a bottle of water and my little mat.
It was… searingly hot. Dark, hissing, like the breath of a dragon hot. In my usual way, I crawled up to the top bench, my feet generating new words for “zowie that’s hot” as I climbed — and then I scampered right back down to the bottom bench. My old lady companion with the toque began to whack herself with a bundle of leaves. Another woman came in with her own bundle of leaves, and little droplets flew off them as she whacked. Back, front, legs, thighs, whack whack whack.
It was unbearably hot for me, and after 5 minutes I went out, let a cool shower wash over me. Two women were covered in mud. BYOB and BYOM. Bring your own branches and bring your own mud.
I went back into the source of all that is true, lasting about 6 minutes this time. I once outlasted all of my colleagues in a (culturally appropriative) sweat lodge in a misguided leadership ritual in the late 90s. These russian ladies were another-species level of more stoic than me.
After my second turn, I was kind of at a loss. I was baking from the inside out, like being heated in a microwave. In the small basin room, I just sat on my little mousepad mat, unmoving and absorbing. The second, non-toque lady, sat across from me, both of us just… sitting.
I showered again, and decided that I was done. Some kind of heart exploding event felt very possible. I wrapped myself in my towel and went to sit in the locker room. Five minutes passed and I couldn’t stop sweating. I felt good, but.. boiled dry, like a teakettle left too long on the stove.
I went downstairs to return the towel and I saw the basket of birch branches I’d missed on my way in. Sticks! I could have my own sticks! I paid for a second towel and a bundle of sticks and went back up.
I waved my sticks at the old ladies. “I have my own sticks!” Now they were my friends. One nudged at me that I should put my (truly gross) keens in the locker so no one would steal them. The toque lady showed me how to soak my sticks before using them, and kept saying massag! She pushed a basin toward me and said Foot.
I went into the sauna with my wet sticks and started whacking myself.
It was blissful. Like flossing the outside of your body. With nature.
Whack. Whack. Whack.
I did three turns through the sauna with my own sticks, and was then both thoroughly baked and basted. Between the thai massage and the russian birch leaves, all of my blood had visited the edge of my skin over the course of the day and trembled back again.
I sat in the chair in my towel for a while , watching a few more Russian ladies come in. After their saunas, they just sat in the change room for a while, just being. Steamed, whacked, whole.
If I lived here I’d come here once a week. With shower shoes.
“Are you happy?” I asked my cab driver after a delicious meal tonight.
“NO! he said. “I am happy in Espana!” He was born and raised in Tallin and had just finished telling me that everyone in Estonia has a vitamin D deficiency. Considering his English wasn’t super high level, it was a very sophisticated train of thought to wander down.
I fell into the trap yesterday of making a generalization on Facebook about Latvians vs. Estonians based on my vast 10 days experience here. Several people commented that they knew a lot of nice Estonians — and I have encountered many nice individuals. But there was a huge contrast between total exuberance of encouragement and helpfulness I had in Latvia (see my post from my first day of riding), and much more stoic acceptance of my presence since I crossed the border. Of course individual people have been kind, and I never had a bad experience in a single place I stayed, with the mild exception of indifferent, slow service in a restaurant in the more touristed town of Haapsalu. And I think the Estonians I’ve encountered have less English than the Latvians, and are just relieved to make it through a conversation. But on the whole, no one expressed joy at my riding alone from Riga, and no one offered to help. That was fine — just interesting, in contrast. And since I’ve been in Tallinn, I’ve met lovely people — a young server in a restaurant last night who is about to go study at Imperial College in London, and who drew a maple leafs/heart icon on my bill; another server who ran after me to make a suggestion for a non-touristy coffee shop. But there is just an air that is less… joyful. Exemplified by my cab driver, and the weariness of the town I spent the last night of my ride in,
It’s a curious thing — according to the world happiness Index, Estonia is way down the list at 66. Particularly interesting when you realize that Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Iceland (and Canada) are in the top 10. (Latvia is 54th, which isn’t that far off so statistics mean nothing really lol). I suppose this is a result of history, and edginess at the uncertain state of the world given its role as a buffer between Europe and Russia. Karl-Ander, my lovely young server explained to me that the huge amount of restoration going on right now in Old Town is for two reasons — it’s Estonia’s turn to be part of a presidential trio of leadership of the EU in the second half of 2017, and next year is the 100th anniversary of the Republic of Estonia — “but with Brexit,” he shrugged, “the future is uncertain.”
What is certain is that Tallinn is a remarkably lovely city. The medieval old Town is miraculously preserved given all of the backings and forthings of history, and even though parts of it are a bit thronged with tourists fro cruise ships and the like, they stick to certain spots. There are parks everywhere, and I stumbled across an amazing installation of plants in one of the parks for the Tallinn Flower Festival. The weather has been perfect, and there is a visible spirit of contemporary design everywhere. Really interesting jewellery and clothes everywhere.
Today was a recovery day for me, more in spirit than in body. I walked more than 18 km, tromping around the city on a self-guided walking tour through old town and on a shopping quest. I needed a new bag because I threw away the cheap duffle I brought as a carry on after my flight over, and I wanted some clothes that weren’t completely scruffy. I found the fringes of Estonian design, and bought a really interesting … garment … (kind of an indoor coat), some tshirts, a bracelet and, at the Estonian equivalent of the Bay, a very sturdy carry on bag. I also found an excellent bookstore with good English books, now that I can take a couple of paper books with me instead of just my ipad. And at the end of the day, I went for a run through the park around the medieval wall, chasing some children through a hedge maze.
I had dinner at a well-reviewed place that would take me out of the touristed area, and I went perhaps a bit too far — it was a beautiful restaurant in an old manor house on the edge of the park named Kadriorg (Catherine’s Valley), after the czarina. Another reminder of the Russian history of this place. The food was excellent but the service a bit lonely — at one point I was the only person left on a freezing terrace, shivering under a blanket, and my server had disappeared. I did not feel like a princess.
The wanderings, the finding interesting things I needed, a short but settling run, good food — this all put me back in rhythm for another day to get ready to go to Russia on Tuesday night. I realized I have a blip in dates on my visa (my train gets in at midnight of the day my visa is for, but now I’m worried they might not let me board), so I’m trying to make a plan B without fretting. And continuing to read Anna Karenina. Is it wrong that my favourite character is Levin?
Well, last night in my Soviet-style guesthouse? The one above the butcher shop? The one where I had my own apartment, but one of the doors was mysteriously locked, and there was a kitchen with an unplugged fridge, and the shower room felt like it had echoes of being used for a felony? And I had the little room with the twin beds that didn’t have a lock of its own? The one with the big steel door downstairs I had to lock with a key I then had to keep near me while sleeping in case of fire? Along with my headlamp so I wouldn’t perish while trying to find the keyhole? That guesthouse?
Yeah, I will confess here that I pulled the other twin bed against the door.
Slept like a baby.
I was eager to get on the road this morning, with a “let’s get this job done” air about me. My calves are very tight and sore, and I had to stretch and massage and then use my “white monkey eating peach” hot rub I bought in Laos.
I was also a little iffy about the route. I saw in my trip notes last night that there was heavy construction in the first 15km which was the only road out of town. Since Paldiski is a port, there are a lot of trucks along that road. My trip notes suggested I might want to take the train to Klooga (cutting off about 20 km) or all the way to Tallinn — but also noted that the railway was also under construction, and I might have to transfer to a bus part way, which might not take my bike.
Along the main road, Tallinn was only about 50 km from Paldiski, and after fuss/conferring with my sister and a friend last night, I decided to just ride.
And of course, no construction at all. Smooth road, okay shoulder, trucks in nice predictable little clusters.
About 15 km in, I saw a sign for a Holocaust memorial, 2 km off to the right. I knew there was something Holocaust related in the town I was in last night, but I hadn’t been able to find it. I figured I needed to go see it.
Down a narrow forest road, a moving memorial to a death/labour camp I’d never heard of, where Estonian Jews were mass murdered. I thought I knew a fair bit about this part of history but I think east-of-Poland has always felt like a bit of a blur.
The memorial was several long concrete formations like shards of glass, over a long pathway, each exhibiting a significant part of the story, with two larger memorials, one on the site of the single day murder of 2000 people. I walked around the bird-chirpy lonely woods and thought about all of these dark craters of history just behind those rows of trees.
Part of me was wondering a bit about the location for the camp, but when I got back to the road, I realized that there were railroad tracks just beyond where I’d turned. Of course. The same tracks that ferried people here in cattle cars, still in use. The same tracks I’d have taken my bike on.
When I was in Riga, I went to the museum of occupation, and there was an exhibit about cattle cars, how some people were shunted back and forth across Latvia in the cattle cars for months as territory changed hands between the Soviets and the Germans. There was an account from one woman who lived in the car for months. This would be one of the places those cars ended up.
I rode on, glad I’d stopped.
The next major leg of the ride was idyllic. Perfect cool, sunny, clear weather, the vast majority of the distance on actual bike paths next to a main road. I ate my cheese sandwich next to a tiny waterfall about which a big deal was made. There was supposed to be a lunch place, and I wanted a cup of tea, but when I approached the door, a woman yammering on a cellphone at one of the outdoor tables got up and closed the door, not meeting my eye. I guess she was on her break? There was also no place to throw out any garbage, and the porta-johns were beyond foul and depositories of people’s lunch waste — like a cardboard box for a whole pie. That’s what happens when you don’t give people a garbage can.
After the waterfalls, it was really the outskirts of Tallinn. It’s Saturday, so lots of road bike riders heading out of town. I noted that of the dozens of cyclists near Riga, during the week or today, only two of them were women. And only the women returned my greetings.
I finally caught a tailwind for part of the ride, and was downright gleeful about it. Good flow, everything working — until the cycle trail ran right into massive construction in front of a mall on the edge of the city, and I found myself first riding on sand, then inside the barriers of a serious road-digging operation. (I skedaddled). That threw me off my instructions, and I ended up totally the wrong way at the beach, where women in bikinis pumped up inflatable kayaks and dozens of pale Estonians sunbathed, despite the 15 degrees.
Finding my hotel was tedious and involved a lot of squinting at google maps (which has weirdly decided to be black), through my sunglasses (making it harder), while navigating traffic. I found the place, anti-climatically. No cheering crowds of people, no one handing me a freshly squeezed passion fruit. Just me looking like a chaotic mess trying to sort out the bike, the bags, a need to put it in the garage and lock it somehow.
For the rest of the afternoon, I was mildly grumpy. Partly there are more tourists here and I had to search for a table for lunch, and dealing with my bike in the hotel was confusing, and the guy who came to pick up my bike was downright pissy — but mostly, my sense of purpose was suddenly gone. I feel done with riding right now. I don’t know if my legs could take a ton more of pushing that load — my feet hurt, I am flirting with sciatica in my right leg, and the backs of my calves are scraped up from catching on the wrong side of the pedals. But seeing this country this way, winding my way around the sea, making friends with the wind, feeling this world from the ground up, finding my way without drama, moving completely at my own speed and under my own locomotion over more than 500 km — it lets me be the me I most like.
I’m not going home for another week — I have a few days here in Tallinn then St. Petersburg — and I will find my new rhythm. Grateful for this time and space. And for an excellent vegan meal with the delightful server Karl Ander tonight.
Today started out sublime. Haapsalu was one of the favoured resorts of the Russian Tsars for decades, and the promenade and many fin de siècle buildings are still standing. It’s one of those towns that wears its tourism standing well, like Hoi An in Vietnam and Luang Prabang in Laos. Not overrun, not overdeveloped, just graceful, accessible, good food and pleasant surroundings. (“Boring in the winter,” though, complained the woman behind the desk at my hotel this morning).
Because it was such a lovely morning and the promenade was right there, I took myself for a walk along the sea before I left. I hadn’t done that before — most mornings I’m hopping to get on the road, after breakfast (where I squirrel away a cheese sandwich), 15 minutes doing the NYT crossword while listening to the BBC world news morning update, then off. Today I did the breakfast, theft and crossword rituals, but spent half an hour going for a walk. It was my second last morning on the bike part of this trip, and I wanted to slow down.
The sea was flat, the terns and gulls were busy, a few older men were fishing, one tourist was running, two or three people were walking with physiotherapists in front of the beautifully situated neuro rehab centre next to my hotel. (I told Danny that if I get a brain injury, this is where I want to come). I wandered, took photos, breathed in a day of perfection.
I had a fleeting thought that I could stay in Haapsalu an extra day and then take the train to Tallin. After all, 400 km on a loaded bike was nothing to sneeze at. But I’m a weird completist so I packed up, got on the bike and left.
Like leaving Parnu, I found the instructions to find my way out of Haapsalu frustrating. “Find the city centre and at the main junction turn left toward Tallinn and Paldiski.” No mention of *roads*. I figured it out, but needed google, despite the pile of maps stuffed into my bike bag.
The first leg was about 12 km along the main road to Tallinn, on helpful, easy bike path separated from the road. Seeing distance-possible signs to Tallinn made me wonder again if I should just keep going — 95 km along this road would be tedious, and possibly truck-y, but not impossible. But when the bike path ended, I turned, as I was supposed to.
I’m going to take a turn into my inner dialogue here — the thing that was swirling for me in this ride, other than sheer pleasure in a truly beautiful, relatively not-windy, blue sky day — was a gnawing sense of the ending. I get like this as I start to finish things — I get impatient to be done, and then in the last moments as the time has run out, I have a deep pinch of sadness that it’s done. I noticed this a lot when I was scuba diving, always tracking with one part of my brain how long I’d been down, even as I was oohing at what I was seeing. As the 50 or 60 minutes started to get closer, I would get restless to be done. And then, as soon as I got the signal to surface, I would be suffused with resistance to ending.
I think about this a lot, about how hard it is for me to just be where I am, not be thinking about where else I might like to go someday, or what I will do when I get to Tallinn. (Some spa pampering, some different clothes). I don’t think I’m alone in this. But just being in the moment is such a vital practice for me about being peaceful with uncertainty, letting go of trying to control the uncontrollable. (This is what I teach and coach, often, but it’s certainly an example of something that’s in the centre of my life because I have to learn and relearn it).
Today, like yesterday, I stopped when I saw things that made me happy. A bench along the promenade honouring Tchaikovsky that played one of his symphonies. Fieldpoppies. The sweetest little pieces of land with cabins and outbuildings that look like they grew from the ground. The ruins of a 13th c monastery. My first glimpse of the sea after a day mostly inland. I played podcasts for a while but turned them off, because it felt like everything on Ideas was about an intractable problem. I just breathed where I was.
I knew nothing about where I was going tonight, but I should have felt a hint when I was buzzed by two fighter jets about 25 km from my ultimate destination. It felt strange to realize that I’m close enough to the Russian border I can’t be sure they were NATO jets. The unease about the state of the world tickled my underbelly again.
As I got closer to Paldiski, I saw shipyards, petrochemical and oil tanks, ships, large trucks, people in military uniform. The wind got whippier off the sea, and as the town unfolded, I realized I was in the most working town I’ve been yet. Everything was 5 or 6 floor soviet-style apartment blocks, utterly utilitarian.
My directions were vague, but I was reassured that the B&B I was headed to was in google. After some hoo ha (and encountering the least appealing sushi restaurant I’ve ever seen), I found the address.
There was no sign. There was an ancient little shop with two pigs heads thrusting out of the top, curtains drawn. A place I inferred was a bar because of the stylized P with a beer foam head on it.
This is the moment where “travel” transmutes into “adventure.” Tentatively standing up my overloaded bike, I went into the bar. “Hotel?” I said to the only man in there, who was eating potatoes and watching tv. He grunted and pointed behind him, in the direction of the shop.
I went into the shop. It had a huge case of meat and some candy behind the counter. “B&B?” I sad to the woman, thinking wildly, I don’t want to sleep in a butcher shop! She shook her head angrily and grunted, sweeping her arm in a half circle.
I went back outside and found a tiny sign that said “rooms and apartments for rent.” I opened the gate and went around to the back and knocked on a huge steel door. It opened and I asked “B&B?” A woman up a flight of stairs nodded. I pulled out my voucher for the night. “Am I in the right place?” Yes.
All right. Soviet era utility it is.
Mariska showed me my apartment — twin beds, a defunct kitchen, a WC and a horrifying shower room. She turned on the boiler, and when asked, showed me the wifi and made me a cup of tea.
I showered, happy with the hot water, glad I had my own soap, contemplating surprise. Haapsalu, the guesthouse by the sea in Varbla, the food in Parnu — all excellent surprises. This one, a little more disconcerting. But bracing. A chance to see a town that isn’t oriented to tourists, to eat good Russian food in the one restaurant among a sword and dagger collection, to feel the edges of constraint in a country I really haven’t felt much but landscape in yet. The perfect last night before I arrive in Tallinn.
Today was the longest day — just under 100 km — and the day I finally found my “just be here” presence. Yes, I’m headed for Haapsalu. Yes, it’s far, and it’s still windy. But I was just riding. That sensation where “I’m going from A to B” transmutes into “this is what I do — ride this slightly unwieldy, mostly obedient, sturdy bike, with all my things on it. I have nothing else to do and nowhere else to be.”
And at the end, my favourite town yet, Haapsalu, where I ate an enormous piece of rhubarb cake and drank a pot of tea at the foot of a castle. Where today’s random Estonian soundtrack included a Josh Ritter album that was one of my dissertation-writing playlists. (Lunch was ABBA)
Haapsalu is little fingers of land clustered around a bay, a resort town for the last century and a half. A favourite of the doomed Russian royal family, apparently. Sweet winding streets, colourful wooden houses, happy blonde families eating on patios. Sparkling blue sea all around. Big enough to have a bike shop so I could get a new lock.
My ride today was steady, persistent effort, but less of a tussle. Hard to say if it’s because I finally gave in and just accepted what is, I’m feeling stronger, or the wind was less. Probably a combination of all of them, though I can say with certainty that I have yet to feel a tailwind. The pedalling was effort, but I took the time to wander a few kilometres off course to see a random village — where I was intrigued that wooden buildings had historic markers on them in both Estonian and English, to stop to eat sour Russian soup and pancakes for lunch in a restaurant by the side of the road, to go 350 m off the road to see a view.
I’ve seen a lot of signs indicating a view, but they are usually 3 or more km away, and no view in western Estonia is worth an extra 6 km on a gravel road on a 97 km day. But I figured 350 m was doable… and found a very elaborate, mobility-accessible, viewing platform for migrating cranes and greylag geese and breeding great snipe. In September and October this place will be rocking. But for now, it’s more farmland. But I was glad I stopped to see it, glad that I felt so in flow that I was comfortable taking my time, looking at the world.
When I ride like this, I start to feel a little bit of the women who inspired me to start riding in the first place. About 25 years ago, I started to read books by women who just sort of got on their bikes and just kept going. Dervla Murphy, who left her unhappy life of caring for her aging parents in Ireland in her 30s to just go for a bike ride and eventually became a travel writer doing astonishing things by bike, trekking, by trans-Siberian railroad. Anne Mustoe, who retired from her life as a headmistress in an English girls’ school and thought she might ride to Italy on the bike the girls gave her as a gift — and didn’t stop until she’d gone around the world. Many times. The tiny perky Josie Dew who rode across Japan, the US, the Sahara, New Zealand. They are the ones who made me believe it’s possible for a woman to ride alone, to travel alone in unexpected places, to love other people but prefer your own company while immersing yourself in a new place. I’ve written before about why I like traveling alone, and it’s these women who inspired me to take that leap.
I think one of the most important things these women made possible for me was trust that other people are much more likely to want to help you than to hurt you. When I went to Myanmar, one of the first things someone told me was “people want to help — just ask them.” In my experience, this is almost always true. And it’s a much better way to navigate the world than with a flare of fear.
It’s fairly common for people — especially women — to say that I’m “brave” for traveling alone. I don’t feel brave, but then I suspect people mean a lot of different things by it, depending on the nature of their fears and anxieties. Fear of getting hurt and no one helping, fear of the unknown, fear of being not at your best when you don’t sleep or eat well, fear of not getting your needs met, someone stealing your stuff, discomfort with not knowing how things work, fear of what happens in your inner soul when you’re alone too long? I am not a stranger to anxiety, and I spent a whole lot of my life not doing things because they scared me. I can be impatient, especially when I’m hungry and service is super slow. But somewhere along the way I realized that travel was a practice to work toward grace with whatever is.
I’m a fan of this podcast called My Favorite Murder, two women talking about true crime. They have a huge following of mostly women who call themselves “murderinos.” It’s actually a very funny and fun podcast, but the two women and the community around it are really leaning into a very real fear and belief that the world is a dangerous place, especially for women, and that dark murdering strangers are lurking around every corner. Their tag lines — like “stay out of the forest!” and “stay sexy, don’t get murdered” are expressions of real, everyday anxiety. When I went on my first solo bike trip, a co-worker said “Aren’t you afraid you’ll get snatched!”
I think I felt that fear once — but I don’t now. The world is mostly a warm place, a friendly place, maybe sometimes an indifferent place — the Estonians really don’t smile and say hi — but most of the things that scare us are in our heads. And when I’m on a bike riding nearly 100 km through fields of hay and canola, through tiny villages, past old women tending to thriving gardens , feel the layers of history in this land — I feel this more than any other time. I feel strong and so grateful even for the effort and the flickers of boredom. I do have moments where I think, hm, that truck carrying bales of hay is kind of leaning — wouldn’t it be a weird and absurd death if I were crushed to death by hay in Estonia? But that’s not scary, just… absurd. In the best way of life. So I ride on.