Eastern European Adventures Part III – Dazed and Confused in Underground Ukraine

Continuing deeper into Eastern Europe after our Moldova/Transnistria stint, we wound up in the Ukraine. While the country may be at war along its eastern front, we situated ourselves in Odessa, a cosmopolitan and generally peaceful city ringed on its southern end by the Black Sea. As Ukraine’s fourth largest urban area, Odessa is famous for its parks, architecture, artistic contributions, and port. However, the city is also home to the largest series of underground tunnels in the world, estimated to be at 2,500km (though it hasn’t been fully mapped), known as the Odessa Catacombs. So Nick, Christine, and I were ostensibly going to be spending a lot of time underground.

 The catacombs are so vast that every year people get lost down there, never to return. We heard stories of New Year’s parties where each time one unfortunate soul would not make it back to ground level on January 1st (or ever). Sneaking in and getting lost in the catacombs of Ukraine appealed to me none in the least, so shunning prejudices against acquiring paid information, a guide in this case would be necessary.

We hit up the main tourist information center (really a stall run by one of today’s energetic youth) to inquire about catacombs tours. It was a Monday afternoon, approximately around 1:00pm. He said he didn’t really know about them but would call someone we could talk to for more information, and asked us to return in twenty minutes.

We followed the provided instructions and came back to his stall a few minutes before half past one. At around 1:30pm, a young Ukrainian women in her early twenties ran up to us and said in English “ok, let’s go!” A little perplexed, we tried to figure out who she was and where exactly she wanted us to go. Somewhat taken aback by our inquisitive nature, she explained that there was simply little time to explain. This standoff continued for a few moments until it was made clear that this was the person the guy manning the tourist information had called, who apparently during the call also relayed that we foreigners were in desperate need to go on a catacombs tour today, without delay. This was unbeknownst to us, as we understood we were merely obtaining information for a potential future tour.

The girl, who for lack of an easy name to remember, will be referred to as Tanya, explained that she had just abruptly left work to take us on the tour, and we had to leave immediately as the tour would begin at 2pm. Feeling rushed into this, the three of us dithered, inquiring more about costs and potential times for tomorrow. She was clearly in a hurry and becoming agitated by our lethargic approach, repeating the urgent need to get on the move, and reminding us that she left work for this. After a few minutes we consented, considering that we had little else to do that afternoon, despite the fact that trying to get an exact price out of her proved to be impossible, and that she was to take us to a different catacombs entrance than the one we had originally inquired about.

We quickly set off walking, as Tanya explained the catacombs would only be opened at 2:00pm sharp and was 30 minutes away. It was 1:45pm by the time we left, so all of that already seemed impossible, but we kept our mouths shut. We literally walked across the entire city of Odessa for 45 minutes, arriving at the catacombs entrance at 2:30pm, well past our 2pm target. At times during the walk we murmured to ourselves that little about this made sense – why were we walking if it was so far away and we were already so late? Many buses and taxis had passed us – and why were the catacombs only opened at 2pm? Tanya said there was one guy with the key she had called to go there ahead of us – if it was just one guy with a key, couldn’t he adjust his timing somewhat? However, we decided while none of this made sense, it was better not to dive into it – a theme that would become readily present throughout our time underground in Odessa.

We were greeted by a cheery mid-40s male, henceforth referred to as Anton, who handed us a hardhat with flashlights and opened the door. We realized we hadn’t eaten much of anything that day and were about to go 60 meters underground for three hours – but Tanya assured us we’d be fed tea and cookies.

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We paid to walk through this for hours??

The tour was, to put mildly, utterly ridiculous. Not in the sense that it was poorly run, uninteresting, or of bad financial value, but simply because nothing, literally nothing, made an iota of sense. For three hours in underground darkness, Anton guided us through the catacombs explaining things in Ukrainian, while Tanya attempted to translate into English (a service is accompanied by an extra fee, as translation into Russian comes at no extra cost).

I say ‘attempted’ because that is the nicest way to describe it – Tanya spoke in English at a pace rapid enough to be considered fluent, not struggling with basics such as putting a sentence together or conjugation a verb, as many of us do when still not comfortable with a foreign language. In addition, she had a vast vocabulary of English words at her disposal, beyond what I would expect from myself in any foreign language I dabble in. Unfortunately, however, while she could string together a bunch of English words together in a rapid fashion, none of them were coherent. Individually they were legitimate words you could find in a dictionary – strung together in the manner she did, they were reduced to utter incomprehension. Combined with the oddities of the tour itself given the diverse array of activities which have taken place in the catacombs, the enhanced confusion brought about by our translator who had rushed us here in the first place, only seemed fitting.

As far as we could tell, the Odessa Catacombs are part science fiction fantasy setting, part planned potential refuge in the case of nuclear bombardment during the Cold War, and part hideout for revolutionary subversives, criminals, and World War II soldiers alike. That overarching explanation, however, was neglected, and rather we walked directly into a dark and perplexing place, relying on our own wits to piece little bit of information together into a coherent narrative. The following occurred during our three hours underground, either aided by no explanation at all, or one that rendered us more confused than had we been in silence.

  • After walking down several flights of stairs, we were deep in the heart of the catacombs, and immediately walked into a bunker. We were unaware there were even bunkers down here and walked past them without explanation, so I asked what the catacombs were used for. Tanya quickly dismissed the question, saying “everything will become clear in the tour.” That did not prove to be an accurate statement.
  • We walked past a room where a generator used to be. It had apparently been stolen. To this day I am unsure of who put the generator down there, what purposes it was used for, and how someone managed to steal a two-ton piece of machinery nearly four stories underground.
  • We continued walking down the hallway when Anton told us to wait a minute. He went into the next room, and then said he was ready for us. We walked in and saw neon paint all over the wall, with a bunch of fake plastic mutant-type mannequins. Tanya then immediately points over and says this was the attack scene, and to look around the corner to see who won. There stood a lonesome, plastic midget mutant. This is all apparently a recreation of a scene from a famous Russian science fiction book that took place in a catacomb (it was unclear if it had actually been set in the Odessa catacombs, or the scene was just adopted for here), but the book was not mentioned until we had left the room in our stunned confusion.

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One of the literary characters

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The victorious gas-mask clad midget

  • We then saw a room with a ton of machines, which apparently even had an air machine for people. We started asking some questions to ground our experience, as we had transitioned from some science fiction fantasy tale into a room with machines seemingly designed to allow people to live in the bunker. Christine thankfully asked a clarifying question, and we discovered that the bunker was set up to house 2,000 people during the Cold War, in case they needed it. There was no set list of the chosen people, it was more on a first come, first served basis. Christine also said if there was any food provisions, which elicited the obvious reply “Food? No, of course there was no food here.”
  • We proceeded to walk into another room that had a desk. Anton stopped us and asked us what we thought the purpose of this room was. We meekly threw out some unbefitting answers, which clearly revealed our continued confusion about all these catacombs. Anton gave up listening to us and stated it was “an office for the head guy,” before promptly walking out of the room. We were let to speculate what head guy was lucky enough to get such an office with a view.
  • Anton and Tanya showed us a hole in the catacomb which was used to bring cement from the surface down. Belatedly it was realized that this hole also allowed air from the surface to come underground, likely rendering this whole ‘escape from the contamination of Cold War bombs’ project useless.
  • We walked past a room, when Tanya exclaimed something to Anton along the lines of “what about the thing in the room?” She then turned to us and asked “who is the volunteer?” Somehow I got picked/shoved to the front for this plucky assignment. She made me turn off my flashlight and took me into the dark room. In the corner was a bucket, which she demanded I put my hand into without looking. After protesting a bit, I halfway did, feeling cold water. She insisted I put my hand further in the bucket to which I did, and pulled up something slimy but plastic. I held it out and looked at it, asking if it was a snake. I quickly dropped it but peered into the bucket with my light, seeing an array of floating plastic snakes and centipedes. We exited the room and Tanya asked Nick and Christine to also go in, which they refused. She then told us a four-year-old girl had even done it, and that we were scared of everything. We left, with the logical transition from head office guy’s desk to random bucket of wet plastic centipedes in the corner left to the imagination.
  • Finally we entered the mining area. This was the one part that made sense, as the catacombs originally had developed when Odessa residents used the limestone found underground to build their houses in the 1800s. This of course was not explained to us on the tour, but was something Christine had read prior.
  • We continued past hallways with all sorts of random posters that were ignored, to an area that was a replica of a tunnel further down. Here a famous criminal had escaped to, but when the police came down here to find him he had fled, leaving only a pile of old bones. The police took the bones to the surface, where they were examined and discovered to be ancient animal bones of a glyptodont. Apparently the main police officer who had been chasing the criminal for so many years was so enthralled by the bones that he left the police force and became an archaeologist. Naturally.
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Perhaps we shouldn’t be down here . . . .

  • Then we went to the ‘Partisan’ room, a group of people who at some point also stayed down here. I saw a printing press and asked if they made a newspaper, which elicited the astounded reply “Yes, of course they made a newspaper!,” apparently common knowledge to anyone who sets foot in Odessa aside from yours truly. I then asked who exactly the Partisans were and what they were doing here – Tanya replied “you won’t understand.” Thus we exited the partisan room without further discussion.
  • We then came to a room with World War II paraphernalia, including an enigma machine (a la the movie The Imitation Game). Many bullets, helmets, guns, and grenades were laid out on a table, some of which seemed like they may be functional.
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Anton and his underground stash of old but semi functional weaponry

  • Afterwards we walked to a room that had a lightly-clothed female mannequin on a bed. We were told “criminals also came here to hide their stuff,” which apparently included basically naked plastic females.
  • We walked past a pond in which Anton and Tanya asked us to drink from, which we promptly refused. That again brought up the fact that we were scared of everything. There was also a black spot on the ground where “someone had tried to keep a fish, but he died, and now this is black.”
  • Afterwards we came to another lake with a table and chairs set up. We sat down and were told to be quiet and listen. Nothing happened for a few minutes, which caused Tanya again to say something about our fear levels, and we left, never knowing what fearless humans would’ve heard there.
  • At that point, Anton and Tanya decided I should lead us back out of the underground maze that was the catacombs. I did for a while, until they laughed and showed us the ‘right’ way.
  • That apparently led us to the party room. There was a long table with chairs – we sat down and Anton gave us tea prepared from the herbs of his garden (he had been carrying a thermos the whole time). Who knew this middle aged miner-type also home brewed his own tea? With the tea came a cookie each. It was at this spot that Anton noted a Ukrainian TV show featuring extreme wedding proposals had been filmed here recently, in which the groom proposed to his bride on an inflatable raft in one of the lakes we had just passed. You see, Anton explained, “In America you guys go to abandoned factories and fight – here in Ukraine we do extreme weddings.” I couldn’t have summed up the contrasts between our two divergent cultures better myself.
  • It was at this table that Anton decided to pass around some old, out of circulation, money, and that we also found out he wasn’t from Odessa at all, but actually Crimea. Left unexplained, however, was why he was one of four people in all of Odessa entrusted with keys to the catacombs.

And that ended our excursion. We walked back to the surface after three hours of perplexing underground tourism. Never rude, our guides either were little versed in the art of explanation, or assumed a deep level of prior knowledge to allow us to immediately partake in the advanced catacombs tour. Or perhaps the Odessa Catacombs are simply beyond explanation to the human mind.

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Nick and the guard of the catacombs

In all, the catacombs were apparently many things to many people at many different times, which partly had been transformed into an eclectic museum still in the process of figuring out who it really is. We literally left more confused than when we had entered, and if you found this blog post rambling and incomprehensible, well then now you know how we felt.

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Eastern European Adventures Part II – Halloween in a Breakaway Republic

When we decided to go to Moldova because we found cheap plane tickets and figured it was one of the least traveled destinations in Eastern Europe we could hit up (second least in the world according to this FT article), I immediately thought we could make this trip even more unique. That is, of course, by also visiting the unrecognized breakaway independent region of Transnistria, which occupies much of Moldova’s eastern border. Given that we’d be traveling there on 31st of October, I could literally think of no better way to spend Halloween in Eastern Europe.

Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria, is only two hours away, and surprisingly despite the political situation, public transport travels the route just about every twenty minutes (there was a brief war in the early 1990s, but no signs of violent conflict since then). Thus getting there was no problem, but what about getting in? Everything we read ahead of time said border officials would give you anywhere from ten to twenty-four hours to experience the wonders of the breakaway region. Being subject to the whims of a border official is rarely a position I strive to be in, but hey, it’s a breakaway region after all – not everything will be roses.

Getting in was actually a breeze. Besides the three of us foreigners in the van, only one other passenger even got out at the border to do formalities. The immigration officially simply asked us how long and where we were planning on staying, then issued us a migration card (basically a printed receipt) outlining 24-hours of freedom (no stamps on the passport were necessary – which in the past could be an issue getting back into Moldova if you continue to cross into Ukraine as we did, but Moldova has started recognizing Ukrainian entry stamps as de facto Moldovan exit stamps given that it doesn’t effectively control its actual border – but I digress from that overly complicated and seemingly unnecessary explanation). Our required departure time was detailed to the second even – this breakaway republic operated at a rather unexpected level of efficiency.

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24 hours in Transnistria

All of that went on without a hitch, for us at least. At the customs post a few meters away, our van was stopped and the officials made a young man about 20 years old get out. We waited for him for a bit, until he came back and said something (in Russian? Romanian?) to the van, which elicited much laughter. With that we left him behind to his apparently hilarious fate, while we continued onwards to the unknown.

We arrived in Tiraspol and found a sleepy town, full of broad avenues and few people upon them. We had booked the fanciest hotel available, as we read they would help customers with visa regulations in case we were only given mere hours to explore. Aptly called Hotel Russia, we checked in and toyed with the idea of extending our time in Transnistria even longer, until the reception told us it would take three hours to process. Given that the clock was already ticking, we decided to go explore instead.

The town was stunningly normal. It had all the aspects you expect from a provincial capital, with a central market, main square, some monuments to wars past, and even a river promenade in which we saw not one, but two wedding photos shoots. We had read that visiting Tiraspol was like going back into a Russian-themed time warp, but little of that proved accurate. Rather the paved roads, decent infrastructure, and general pleasant appearance made everything seem rather modern, even more so than Chisinau (the Moldovan capital) in certain respects.

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Tiraspol downtown

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fun with tanks

The take on modernity was further confirmed, when we stumbled upon Tiraspol’s bowling alley. Decorated for Halloween, the alley was attached to a club, and boasted a food menu that served mussels and sushi, unlike any bowling alley food menu I have ever seen, nor likely ever will. We played a few rounds on the sleek lanes, to the amusement of our wait staff, which seemingly did not get many non-Russian speaking foreigners in these parts (I would recount in detail the scores of the evening, but I am historically a poor Halloween bowler).

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Bowling (without mussels)

Exiting the bowling alley, we visited one of the cities best restaurants, where, you guessed it, the place and staff were all dressed up for Halloween. After dinner, we asked them where in town the Halloween parties are, to which they explained the best is at Hotel Russia. How convenient for us.

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Halloween is alive in breakaway Russified republics

Returning to our hotel, we made our way downstairs to the party area, where again the wait staff were all dressed in costume. The Transnistrian residents who were in attendance, however, were not, making it an odd halfway take on the dress up aspect of the tradition. There was no candy in sight either, but then again, we had eaten plenty of pickled eggplants in the market that afternoon, so we were good.

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Hippest Halloween party in all of Transnistria

We stayed up late through the night to fully partake in Transnistria’s finest Halloween festivities, but still managed to make it back to the border the next morning ahead of our visa’s expiration. Given our good timing, getting out proved to be as easy as getting in, making travel to the region remarkable incident-free.

So Halloween in a breakaway Eastern European republic did not prove as weird as imagined – in fact it was so normal, that that actually made it a bit weird. Sure there were a few oddities about the area – credit cards were not accepted anywhere, we had to change cash into Transnistria’s own currency (which could literally be done on any corner), and the signs had all switched to Russian. The clock was also ticking on our visit to the point were we had to be back at a border post by the exact second we had come in. In addition, many things such as its own currency, border posts, and government really made us question what makes a country. But the whole trip was oddly normal, as if Tiraspol went out of its way to prove that it could make it on its own. At least for the three of us oblivious foreigners visiting on Halloween, it surely worked!

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Good-bye Tiraspol – until we get another 24 hour pass

Eastern European Adventures Part I – Escape to the Estonian Islands

As our South America travels ended, we somehow wound up in Europe. While initially underwhelmed aside from the cheese (so much enchanting stinky cheese), I was delighted to learn that occasional fun things actually happen in Europe (specifically the Eastern half). I am as shocked as you, but I offer the following as proof. Chapter two begins . . .

At one point in recent life, I found myself in Estonia with Christine and my cousin Mariam. Estonia is a small country but we only had a few days to do it justice, and essentially had to decide between a trip south to a university town with lots of cafes and a hip feel, or a mad dash to the island of Muhu, an isolated land mass of less than 1,800 people 7 km off the coast, accessible by ferry. Enigmatic island people versus Internet-addicted youth? The remote and reportedly mysterious versus the YouTube-inclined and Facebook-afflicted? You can guess which one we chose.

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The ferry to Muhu

Mariam was flying back a day before us, so we just had 24-hours to explore the island. Christine found a random guesthouse online the night before our journey, which largely influenced our decision to make it out there, as the tourist season had largely passed. This particular guesthouse, however, explained while it was scheduled to close for the season the day before our arrival, it would stay open one more night, just for us.

We arrived at the ‘town’ of Liiva, consisting of a little more than a convenience store and a bakery renown throughout Estonia for its bread (upon later consumption, the dark, rich Muhu bread lives up to the hype – ask any Estonian). Our host picked us up and took us to her house, where we’d be spending the last night of this wild, wild season.

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The entirety of the town of Liiva

Unsure of what to really do on this sparsely inhabited island, most recommendations revolved around biking. While we general struggle with biking, this isolated island possessed few cars but decent amounts of paved, flat roads – it was the perfect spot really. Unfortunately Mariam hadn’t biked in 20 years, but was willing to try it out.

We selected bikes from our host and went off on a route she recommended. She cheerfully let us know she would pick us up if needed, but I internally dismissed such polite assistance – what could happen to us amidst the tranquility of Muhu I figured?

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Peaceful Muhu island

We set off, and about 20 feet in, the chain on Christine’s bike fell off. We fixed it, impressing myself thoroughly with our bike repair skills, but then it promptly fell off again. No matter, we went back to the guesthouse, switched out the bikes, and were off again.

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Early biking success

We biked on a large deserted road for a bit, while Mariam became more comfortable, then turned onto a path which was supposed to take us to some old ruins. Unfortunately this road was rather narrow, and all seven of Muhu’s cars decided to pass us at the same time. While attempting to get out of the way, Mariam fell off her bike and injured her ankle. We were lost anyway, so we took a bit of a break to have lunch and figure things out. I decided to bike ahead to find the main road to help geolocate us, but during that process my bike imploded. The back wheel came off alignment and I couldn’t adjust it – so every time I biked the tire grated against the back fender, chipping away at the rubber and serving as a natural, but constant brake. I eventually made it back to Christine and Mariam, a half kilometer ride that took over 20 minutes because the state of my bike, and admitted that it may be time we utilize our lifeline.

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Broken bike lunch

Our host arrived, seemingly annoyed that we appeared to have broken yet another bike. She only had space for one of us in the car, so it made sense for the broken person to go with the broken bike. Thus, Mariam went along with our host for what surely must’ve been an uneasy ride home. The host asked Christine and I if we were going to come straight back to the house or continue the tour, before quickly suggesting we come straight back. We agreed, but didn’t necessarily follow that plan as stridently as our agreement would’ve implied.

Anyways we felt bad since Mariam was handicapped by her ankle (largely due to our insistence on biking) and returned after quickly trying to see the other Muhu sites – which consist of a small windmill from way back when, an old wall, an ostrich farm (naturally), and a fishing village (i.e. more than one house by the water). Given the injury, the rest of our afternoon activities were limited, but we managed to enjoy ourselves in the serene setting that is Muhu.

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Guesthouse

Fast forward to the evening – dinner is a communal affair at this guesthouse, and our host said another patron, a ‘bus driver’ would be joining us. Seemed like an oddly specific fact to know about her client, but sure enough at some point in the afternoon a large but empty bus drove up and parked in her driveway, taking up most of the space. The rest of the passengers were nowhere to be found – I assumed the bus driver had eaten them, but then dismissed that notion as he would’ve been too full for dinner (unless we were the scheduled dessert on this mysterious island . . . ?).

Anyways, at night, the ‘bus driver’ appeared for dinner. This ‘bus driver’ was not your typical bus driver (well he might be for Estonia, given how few Estonian bus drivers I have met in my lifetime) – he spoke fluent English, had traveled extensively abroad, apparently doubled as a musician and once flew to the Caribbean to partake in a cruise choir, and had his own summer home on another one of Estonia’s island. His friendly, outgoing presence at the table drastically changed what would’ve likely been an awkward dinner between us ragamuffin guests who destroyed all two wheeled vehicles in sight, and our elderly host who had been convinced to stay open one more night for this. Anyways, after dinner, our ‘bus driver’ friend requested a guitar from the host. He proceeded to perform a number of Estonian folk songs, goading our host into interspersing some Finish ballads from her home country as well (I was also ‘forced’ to strum along something at one point for a few minutes, until everyone involved collectively decided it was better I stop). It was a wonderful impromptu local concert, and unbeknownst to us, occurred on the eve of Estonia’s national music day.

But the musically-induced fun didn’t stop there! The bus driver was on the island because a group of early 20 something musicians from Tallinn were to perform a concert at the local primary school the next morning for Estonia’s national music day (where these magically young musicians would materialize from I had no idea – but I had ruled out the bus driver’s belly by this point). He invited us to attend, which were delighted to do so the next morning.

Following the concert, a mix of classic tunes with a jazzed up, lively style, the bus driver had another proposition for us – he was continuing to the further island Saareemaa with the musicians that day, before heading back to Tallinn. We could tag along if we wanted to see the other, more popular Estonian island (which had originally been our target, but decided it was just a little too far to make on public transportation for one night). Mariam needed to make it back to Tallinn for her flight that afternoon, so we put her on a bus in the other direction, waved good-bye, and never looked back (ok well maybe just once).

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Concert time!

Likely to the confusion of all the 20 year-old musicians on the bus, two elderly and untalented (likely in comparison, also very dirty) individuals who spoke 2.4 words of Estonian got on and rode over to Saaremaa. And just like that, we became band groupies. While they performed another two shows at elementary schools there, we toured the town and visited the main castle. Once they were done, so were we, and we met back up with our bus driver friend for the 4 hour ride back to Tallinn (while they performed another impromptu concert during the 45-minute ferry ride to the mainland). The whole situation could not have worked out better, as I fulfilled two of the eleven life goals I made upon graduating from college – visiting both main Estonian islands in the Baltic Sea, and becoming a classical band groupie in a foreign land.

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Becoming band groupies

During our short time in Estonia, we broke my cousin and two bikes, but on the other hand we got to tour the islands, riding the heels of young musical talent, and befriended an interesting local polymath. Both worlds we previously debated combined – the liveliness of Estonian youth alongside curious, remote island cultures – and true to form, choosing the less known option resulted in an outcome we could not have predicted during the planning phase. So next time faced with a choice between the mundane and the weird in Estonia, weirder than already randomly being in Estonia, be sure to double down and choose the latter!