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Sunday, 24 May 2015

"I was never going to go, if I waited for someone to go with me"

Tallinn, Estonia
As much as I love solo travel and as much as I promote it to others, there are times when I run into the most bizarre situations. Situations so uncomfortable and strange that I'm wondering what the heck I am doing in this random country all alone!

This was one of those times...

Vilnius, Lithuania


For those who know me or have had the unfortunate experience of being around me on a cold winter's day, you will know how much I absolutely detest cold temperatures.

I often day dream about snowy mountains and charming little villages with beautiful white covered trees and catching magical snowflakes on my mittens. The reality is so very different and so very ugly. I am one hundred percent, a bright, colourful, sunshine, heat loving kinda gal. I do not mix well with the cold whatsoever. And yet, I always seem to find myself in cold destinations, bundled up more than a five year old about to spend the day making snow forts. While the setting is beautiful, no doubt, the reality of the coldness sets in and I find myself thinking, "What the heck am I doing here!?".

This was my trip to the Baltic States - A mix of beautiful destinations, rich history, and a freezing cold girl left wandering around the windy, frosty streets dreaming and promising myself that my next trip would include a beach and swimsuit!

Despite the unfortunate timing (that being the dead of winter), I am happy I was able to visit this unique part of North Eastern Europe. After returning from Christmas in Canada, a near missed flight in Zurich and lost luggage in Milan, I finally made it to Vilnius, Lithuania - just in time to ring in the New Year.
Vilnius, Lithuania

I stayed at a charming, family owned hostel and bunked in the attic. Strategically I chose the bed next to the space heater, snuck the blankets from the free beds and placed on my body every article of clothing I had in my little carry on bag. I was in for a cold week and another crazy solo adventure.

The owner of my hostel - a young Lithuania single Mom, made my stay so enjoyable. She and her two sons prepared traditional Lithuanian treats and along with fellow hostel guests from Mexico, Sweden, Brazil and the Philippines, we had an international potluck, followed by story telling, traditional board games, and champagne in the park with fireworks above to ring in the New Year. January 1st marked Lithuania switching to the Euro. This meant that all of the local banks also put on their own light shows and celebrations. It also meant that ATMs and trying to figure out how to pay for things became total chaos as the old currency immediately became useless (a fact I didn't know until that night).
Vilnius, Lithuania
The beauty of traveling solo is that you have these amazing experiences with complete strangers who are from totally different walks of life.
Soon after ringing in the New Year, hugging total strangers and finishing our champagne, a snowball fight ensued. My beautiful Italian gloves were destroyed (who knew they weren't made to handle the snow), but in that moment I was having too much fun pub hopping with new friends to care about gloves or the cold!

The following days in Lithuania included Christmas markets, local food markets, and a bonfire atop the lookout point of the city. Old Castle ruins sit high above the city. The Military were out in full force to celebrate the Nation's Flag day. A slippery walk up an ice covered cobblestone path and I was greeted with a huge bonfire and beautiful panoramic views of the city.
Vilnius, Lithuania
Lithuania would be the first country on my seven day journey across the Baltics. After leaving Vilnius behind, I boarded a five hour bus ride to Riga, Latvia.

Riga is a total gem. I stayed in a party hostel in the Old Town and with the short hours of daylight experienced this far North, I tried to soak in what I could. A snowstorm soon hit which made sightseeing on foot pretty tricky for someone who hates venturing into the cold. I did my best to suck it up and see as much as possible. The Old Town is completely beautiful and I kept thinking how amazing it would be on a blue, sunshiny day in the summer.
Riga, Latvia
Riga, Latvia
The two things I had planned for my stay in Latvia were dog sledding and a visit to the AK-47 shooting range. Sadly, the snow melted over night and dog sledding was cancelled. Even more sad was a poor decision to be adventurous and partake in a local Latvian moonshine tasting event at a local pub. Needless to say, an early morning wake up call to go to a shooting range just wasn't going to happen.

While in Riga, the employees at my hostel warned me to absolutely avoid the Riga Black Market - also known as the Moscow Black Market (nicknamed this, as it was traditionally a common stop for those on route to Russia). In fact, all of the maps had a big blacked out area with an 'X' crossed through it. When I asked why to avoid this place, they summed it up by saying if I were to brave it I would either end up with an unwanted hair cut (so my golden locks could be sold) or - I, myself would be sold! I later read in a guidebook that if you're lucky enough to return, you'll most likely return with only one kidney. I'm not sure how much truth there is to any of this, but a fan of my hair and organs, I stuck to the Old Town.
Riga, Latvia
Riga, Latvia

Riga, Latvia
Soon it was time to continue my journey and head further North to Estonia. I booked an early morning bus and woke up to trek through the snow to get to the bus station. I decided to go a bit early so I could sit, have a coffee and relax. Well, that couldn't have been a bigger mistake.

I consider myself incredibly lucky. I have felt safe and have had mainly positive experiences throughout my travels. This luck seemed like it was quickly changing. Without generalizing or judging too much, I will sum up my experience in the bus station by saying I felt like I had walked into a men's prison. The stench of alcohol and body odor hit me the second I opened the door. I hugged my laptop bag closely as I felt eyes from all directions gazing my way.
Thankfully, a fellow traveler I met at my hostel was with me. The two of us (both well traveled and not normally nervous people) couldn't have felt more uncomfortable.

I waited for my bus, counting down the seconds. After saying goodbye to my fellow traveler, I boarded my bus and looked for my assigned seat. Upon finding it, I also found a drunk man in the seat next to mine - a paper bag with a bottle of vodka in hand. He began speaking Russian to me and I knew I was in for a long trip.

What should have been approximately a five hour bus ride ended up being much longer due to a snowstorm. It was bumpy, damp and stunk of alcohol. The chairs had built in televisions with a movie selection. As if this experience couldn't be creepier, the drunk man next to me was watching the movie 'Taken'. A true bus ride from Hell!

I sighed a breath of relief when the bus pulled into the Tallinn bus depot in the late evening. I couldn't get away from that bus fast enough.
Tallinn, Estonia
I checked into what looked like a cozy hostel in the upper part of the Old City. I could immediately tell I was going to love Tallinn. Unfortunately, my bad luck was following me. Upon checking into the world's noisiest hostel and finding out I would be sharing a room with five less than friendly looking men, I had just had enough! I looked for a hotel, but it was too late. Too uncomfortable to sleep, I spent the night in the hostel kitchen watching 'Friends' on my laptop.

Traveling as much as I do means being a budget traveler. While I am by no means a picky or luxurious traveler, I do not put a price on my safety. Knowing I couldn't stay in this hostel one more night, I broke out my credit card and treated myself to a beautiful hotel in the centre of the Old Town for the following nights. I nearly cried tears of joy when I was welcomed with smiling faces, a Christmas buffet, and a huge, clean, comfortable room!
Tallinn, Esonia

I later found out that Russian Christmas was the next day. My hotel was full of Russians on holiday and everyone was so cheery and friendly. Unfortunately, due to the holiday, many of the museums and places I had hoped to see, were closed. One of the main attractions in Tallinn is the Old Soviet Prison. I had read over and over again that it is a must see. This too, unfortunately was closed.
I did however, manage to spend an afternoon in the WWII Museum, took a walk on the city wall, and frequently found cafes to shelter myself from the blasting winds coming off of the Baltic Sea.
Tallinn, Estonia
The Baltic States are incredibly interesting countries to visit, with such dark and rich histories. Although, my experience started out rough, I loved it by the end and would love to return someday when the weather is a little more welcoming.

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