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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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!