I spent a few more days in Helsinki, mostly just wandering around town, or hanging out with Karoline. Helsinki is the most bilingual city that I could imagine, with it's two languages being Finnish and Swedish. In some ways it goes a bit too far. All of the streets have two names, one in each language. And the names are sometimes not similar at all. To make things even more confusing, maps sometimes have a street labeled in Finnish, other times in Swedish. So when you're trying to find where you are, it can be a little irritating if you've been staring at the right spot, but for some reason that street is labelled in Swedish.
Leaving Helsinki, I took a ferry across the Gulf of Finland to Estonia. It's one of the Baltic states that was part of the U.S.S.R. until 15 years ago. I tried to get a visa to go through Russia, but despite only wanting to spend two days in St. Petersburg before heading for Estonia, the Russian embassy told me I would have to wait at least 1 week for the visa, and pay close to $200. It's a shame, because I really would have liked to see Russia.
Most of my time in Estonia was spent in the capitol, Tallinn. Like the other Baltic States, you can tell that it's still in development. From what I've heard, there have been major advances in the last couple of years, especially since joining the E.U. Still, there are entire neighborhoods that are abandoned, windows boarded up, it's quite spooky. Other areas of the city are extremely modern, with brand new towers, office buildings, shopping centers, and fancy hotels.
The hostel where I stayed was in the old town, which was separated from the rest of the city by a medieval wall. The locals consider the old town too touristic and expensive, and so the streets were quite empty. It's strange walking around such a place and not seeing anyone for blocks at a time. It made it feel even more like the middle ages, along with the preserved buildings and cobblestone streets.
The last couple of nights there I had three Irish guys for roommates. Two of them were fine, but the third was extremely loud, and quite obnoxious. The hostel was very small, so there wasn't a way to avoid him. At one point, most of the people in the hostel went out to dinner together. I ordered a glass of orange juice with my supper, but apparently every meal should be washed down with beer, and anything else is a bit strange. At least according to him. So from then on, he decided to call me Vitamin C, and made it a point to shout it out every time he saw me.
Moving along, the next stop was Riga, the capitol of Latvia. Riga is a bit larger than Tallinn, and has much more energy. Where as most nights in Tallinn are a bit quiet, there's always something going on in Riga. Unfortunately, a fair chunk of this is due to the sex trade. There are a lot of strip clubs as a result of this. A good chunk of the tourists apparently come with one thing on their minds, and the local girls are pissed off because of it. Most times they go out, they get lewd comments or are even groped, usually from drunk Americans or Brits.
If you're able to see past Riga's unfair reputation, there is a lot to enjoy. You can wander around the open markets for hours, going from vendor to vendor. They sell a bit of food or clothing on a little wooden table in a back alley. It's one of the largest markets in eastern Europe, but most of it is pretty repetitive. There might be fifteen people in a row, all selling almost identical merchandise. It's hard to understand how all of them can make a living.
Something that really surprised me was that the Latvian currency is one of the most valuable in the world, about equal to the British pound. In every other eastern European country, the currency is worth only a fraction of the pound at best. I asked around quite a bit to find out why, but no one was sure.
Something that happened on my first night in Riga struck me as a bit strange as well. I was in a bar, and I tried to order a vodka and orange juice. But the bar tender refused to sell it to me. He told me this is a 'girlie' drink. Was he serious, or just messing with the tourist? Probably the latter. In the end I managed to get a beer out of him, but I was wondering what might qualify as a manly drink there. Gasoline?
I also started to use a new web site that was recommended to me recently. The URL is http://www.couchsurfing.com. It's intended to be a way to connect people who are looking for a place to stay to those who offer their couches or spare bedrooms to backpackers passing through. Still, the idea of staying with a stranger seems a bit shady, as it would be awkward if we didn't get along. Or it could turn out downright dangerous. So I decided to use it instead as a way of meeting local people, saying in the message that I sent them that I'm not looking for a place to stay, but would instead like to go for a coffee or beer.
On the first night of doing this, I met a group of two Latvian girls [Ilze and Dace] and a Spanish guy [ack, can't remember his name] that was staying with them. They recommended some nice towns to go see as day trips from Riga, as well as some bars that weren't so touristic.
The second night I met a Latvian girl named Agnese that was a wee bit reckless, if not downright crazy. She was telling me stories of how and where she's traveled. She was very proud of never having paid a cent for accommodation or transportation. This means having either slept on the street or staying with strangers, and having hitch hiked everywhere, including Jordan and Palestine. And people say what I do is dangerous...
I took short day trips to Sigulda and Liepaja, one in the forest and the other on the sea. This was to get an idea of what life is like in rural Latvia, as it's not really fair to judge a country based on the capitol alone. These towns are very quiet, and as I expected, not many people speak English. They're not very developed. It was an insight into what life would have been like under the Soviets.
A good part of the population in Latvia and Estonia are of Russian ancestry, as the Soviets encouraged Russians to relocate to the Baltics for many years. This was probably to outbreed them. Though the tensions aren't as high as I would have expected [given the tactics of the Soviet oppression and occupation], things aren't completely calm. Strangely enough, in the small towns many men would walk around with jackets that had 'Russia' written across the shoulders. This is weird for two reasons. First of all, it's spelled with the western alphabet. Secondly, it's in an area that suffered tremendously for many years because of the Russians, with about one third of the population being killed, jailed, or abducted.
Right now I'm in Vilnius, the capitol of Lithuania. Though I've only been here for a day. I haven't really been able to get an impression of the town yet.
It's been a great learning experience spending a few weeks in countries that most people can't even find on a map. Up until last week, I wasn't even sure if Latvia was north or south of Lithuania. And now, with this new opportunity to meet local people, I'm hoping to get a better understanding of where I am than I would have thought possible when I started this trip. I've gone on about it so much, but if you only meet other tourists, you can't do much more than admire the architecture in a city.