Chapter 32: The Next Trip
I’ve got friends all over the world!
Katinka, our Norwegian friend, greeted us at the door, “Howdy. Why don’t y’all come on in now?” I was expecting Sonya Henie but got Ellie May Clampett instead. I learned that our host had gleaned her English from country music with a lyrical twang accompanying everything she said. We spoke more of Opryland than Oslo, and she wanted to know about my pilgrimage to Graceland. “Did you meet Elvis? Was Ann-Margaret there too? Does he really eat fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches? Does he shake like that when he’s not singing?” My uninformed answers must have disappointed my new friend.
We chose our Scandinavian hosts from a host list, generally not really knowing where we were going. They included a real live opera diva operating a combination mini-golf /drive-in theater, one of the first women to sail solo through many of the world’s waterways. We visited Ole, a writer of Sweden’s most famous texts on psychology. He lectured me on the correct way to wash dishes: “Ve don’t stack dem. Den ve haff to vash de top and de bottom, too. Dis vastes vater!”
Getting from host to host was easy, as everyone seemed to know one another. We hitch-hiked on isolated roads; and everyone with room in the vehicle stopped. They invariably said things like, “Oh. Bjorn lives by the second ski jump. I can take you there,” or, “Anna lives in the house with the spruce trees on the roof by the salmon ladder.”
We attempted to get to Trondheim in the Land of the Midnight Sun but decided to retreat when the few passing cars were too full to allow space for us and our backpacks. As we crossed the road, an antique, dusty hearse rattled to a stop. We heard three college age men chanting, “Dancin’ to the Jailhouse Rock” repeatedly. Afterward, a disc jockey announced, “Elvis Presley døde i dag i en alder av førtito.” This was followed by “Hound Dog,” Heartbreak Hotel,” and “Burning Love”. When each song ended with the same Norwegian announcement, I exclaimed to Bette, “How about that? Not only do we get a ride as soon as we cross the road, but they have an ‘All Elvis, All-the-Time’ station.”
The driver corrected me as he translated, “No. They’re saying that Elvis Presley died today at the age of forty two.” I was surprised but not devastated. The King’s music was enjoyable and fun listening, though I never accepted him as the Savior. His untimely death helped teach me my first Norwegian phrase, but it wouldn’t be useful after that day. And it wasn’t even a good pick-up line.
Our tickets to Europe included a free stopover in Iceland. Our new friend, Ingrid Helmutsdottir, met us at the American-run airport (a perk of Iceland’s being strategically placed on top of the mid-Atlantic ridge). By law, everyone’s name ends with –son or –dottir, necessitating the telephone book’s having to list occupations alongside surnames.
As a welcome gift, Ingrid invited us to Gullfoss, the waterfall where two tectonic plates are driving the New and Old Worlds further apart, for a traditional Icelandic picnic. She used the geysers to boil eggs and sausages. For dessert, fresh bananas grown in her thermally heated greenhouse were offered.
Ingrid suggested we visit the Westman Islands. I recalled the film, Season of Fire, I had shown at school where the locals came out every morning to shovel volcanic ash in the same way we shovel snowdrifts at home. Their snow plows had sculpted an improved harbor to increase their capacity to harvest the surrounding seas. Though the five hour ferry ride was bouncy, it was worth the trip. The lava was no longer flowing from Heimaey, but it felt warm to the touch. Half of the town was inhabited, the other half a ghost town with hardened lava covering it, a modern day Pompeii with no tourists but us.
Back on the mainland, Ingrid directed us to one of the earth’s few remaining land-based whaling stations. I developed an interest in the bloody business when I taught Judy Blume’s Blubber and Farley Mowat’s A Whale for the Killing. My photos of flensers’ hacking away knee deep inside of putrid, steaming whale carcasses would make my teaching more memorable. The workers’ blasé attitudes suggested that they didn’t see many tourists.
The only Icelandic experience I regret is my sampling a certain dessert. It looked innocent enough: gleaming, shivering, and yellow. When Ingrid placed it in front of me, I thought, Jell-O: Bill Cosby’s favorite. I can handle that. But as soon as it reached my taste buds, I gagged as politely and indiscreetly as possible. Ingrid inquired, “Haven’t you tried aspic before? It’s a traditional Scandinavian dessert.” It gave me an explanation why the Vikings left home so often.
I pretended to cough and spit the spoonful into my napkin. When Bette realized that I had lost my ability to speak, she asked, “What’s aspic?”
“It’s made with fish stock, gelatin, and salt.” It probably wouldn’t have been as bad if I hadn’t mentally prepared myself for Jell-O, thinking I’d be surreptitiously swishing it around in my mouth for a while to allow the taste of the main course, herring, to dissipate. Bette covered for me between laughs as I headed off to the toilet to ensure that my tongue was still functioning. Boiled fish stock for dessert? I sat a while, fearing that tuna fish ice pops will be served next.
A summer in Japan included a free stopover in Hawaii where our Maui host began his day by hunting down a wild pig that was addicted to his crops. Did you know Hawaii had wild pigs? I didn’t.
Our diminutive Japanese host, Megumi, greeted us at the door with packaged yukata in hand. The one-size-fits-all bath robes barely covered my pubic hair. Would I have to wear them in front of my new friend? I knew that I couldn’t cross my legs as displaying the bottom of the feet is taboo in many Asian cultures.
My dilemma was solved when Megumi led us to the guest house where she indicated that it is time for the onsen. Was it an insult or just a cultural difference that she strongly suggested we take a bath before conversing with her? I removed the plastic cover to reveal a steaming tub, already filled to the brim with the water from the last few bathers. I was aware that we should lather up and rinse before entering the tub from my time teaching at Philadelphia’s Civic Center Museum, but my large American body sent half of the water to the floor. Megumi was polite enough not to mention it.
After hearing that I was a drummer, Megumi invited us to the evening’s Nebuta Festival and requested that I join her neighborhood band. I donned another yukata, one that covered enough of me to prevent arrest for indecent exposure. Shortly after, I was head and shoulders above the band of parading drummers. I quickly learned that one doesn’t just play the large rolling kettle drum. I threw myself into it with the enthusiasm of a samurai in battle. Keeping up with the rhythmic chants was easy except the long bamboo drum sticks vibrated in my clenched fists every time I contacted the drum. My hands were bleeding within five minutes. Host Megumi suggested two solutions: A first aid kit was utilized immediately, as well as a substitute, genuine local drummer, drafted well before we were within earshot of the judges’ stand.
My Unsuccessful Audition
Back in the U.S., we were warmly greeted by Al and Linda. Twenty miles of dusty, narrow, unpaved roads led to their sprawling cattle ranch. Horse-lovers Micole and Alana took advantage of the opportunity to participate in a real round-up. Since I get saddle sores after fifteen minutes, and Bette doesn’t like having only a twelve hundred pound animal between her and the earth, we offered to assist in other ways. We volunteered to play ranch hands for the day. Al instructed, “You see those depressions along the perimeter of the pen? Young bulls prowl along the fence to mark their territory. The depressions they create cause the fencing to collapse, so we need somebody to roll tires into place to provide a border between the bulls and the fencing. It’s hard work, but somebody’s got to do it. I just picked up a truckload of recycled tires yesterday. Interested?” I looked around and observe no one named “somebody”.
I thought back on tires like those I’ve changed over the years, just before they become backyard swings. How difficult could the job be? But the tires in Al’s truck were from eighteen wheelers and tractors, big enough to set myself into and roll into oblivion. Like many of life’s tasks, it was fun for fifteen minutes or so, but we soon felt stiff, sore, and dirty. We switched to clearing tangled tumbleweeds from the barbed wire. We had to look to one another and admit that, even though I’ve worn Wrangler jeans since I was old enough to choose my own clothes, we were city slickers. I was thankful that my ancestors left the family farm behind in Kirkhellen, Germany.
The roads leading to the pens were newly paved, a far cry from those we bounced along to get to Al. I mentioned my surprise to Al. He wryly answered, “I should thank you for those roads.” I asked for an explanation. “Well, the Feds need places to store their MX missiles. I offered my land, and they just have to build roads to get to the missiles in care of emergency. At taxpayer expense, of course. So I thank you.” He added with a smile, “My peacenik bride, Linda, and some of her cohorts once chained herself and friends to the security fence in protest of one of our incursions overseas. I forget which war it was.”
One road led to a ghost town straight out of Little House on the Prairie. Pointing to an abandoned house, Al said, “This is where my grandparents struggled to raise rhubarb. That old windmill is still clanging and bringing water to the cattle. We got some dinosaur fossils nearby. I’m negotiating with the Japanese. They want to open a theme park, but the location’s a little remote for most people. I’ve got a paleontologist lined up in case the deal falls through.”
For dinner, Al proudly served the prime cuts from the ranch’s finest Black Angus. He had been saving them like a fine wine for a special occasion. Though mostly vegetarian, I have to admit it was tasty. I reminded myself that Mohandas Gandhi himself dined on steak while attending a London University, and he turned out all right.
We headed south to a trailer home in Mesa Verde National Park. It belonged to a ranger who provided an after-hours personal tour of the ruins. I hit my head on a low ceiling. Ancient Anasazi voices called out to me, but I am unsure what they are saying. Where was Carlos Castaneda when I needed him?
A New Orleans host’s address included the letters “PH”. We located the place within a renovated cotton mill in the warehouse district. There we learned that “PH” stood for penthouse. Our host asked, “Do you plan on going over to Jazzfest?” Of course, we did; but we nonchalantly waited to see if they had any alternative plans for us. He added, “We have VIP tickets that include backstage passes to Pearl Jam. We won’t be using them. If you want them, they’re yours.” We were also invited to test out some new recipes in the nearby gourmet restaurant where their daughter worked as a chef. I didn’t admit that I was ignorant of Pearl Jam’s music, but I can be a fast learner when free passes are involved.
Mississippi was low on our lists of places to visit, but we made a stopover after the festival. “One Mississippi, Two Mississippi” came to mind from my childhood as a way of counting down in touch football or hide-and-seek. In college, I was force-fed William Faulkner, whose sentences were as long and convoluted as the genealogies of his characters. As we grew older, we had Mississippi Burning and Weather Channel Gulf Coast hurricane reports as sad Mississippi reference points. But there we were, visiting Mennonites, Larry and Maxine, in a one-horse town two hours north of Jackson. Some of my preconceived images rang true: catfish were jumping. We waited out the afternoon thunderstorms on a wrap-around porch. We visited a massive headstone proudly memorializing the grave of a KKK Grand Cyclops. We walked the site where Andrew Jackson betrayed his former allies, the Choctaw, expelling them to Indian Country in Oklahoma. After a home-cooked Southern dinner, a boyhood dream was realized. Larry invited me to operate a real tractor!
The guest house was in a former dormitory of a “Colored Girls School”, indicated by the faded sign over the door. Victims of domestic abuse and Hurricane Katrina sought refuge there. Two teenage boys whose parents wouldn’t let them attend the neighborhood public school because “they might mix with the wrong people” served as farmhands. We discussed racial politics as I taught them to install ceiling fans. They learned of my first crush, an untouchable Black cheerleader, and of my many friends who abandoned Philadelphia’s Overbrook High School for the same reason. They told me, “Philadelphia, Mississippi is just up the road a piece.” Afterward, Larry pointed out the swamp where the Freedom Riders were found.
But I also envisioned hope. Immediately after Larry pointed out the cannon outside the polling station which was set up as a reminder that it still may not be safe for some Mississippians to vote, we stopped for coffee in a fully integrated internet café. We met many people like our hosts who are trying to eradicate the stereotypes and injustices of the past.
By now, you wonder: How do two public schoolteachers get to experience so much of the world on our meager salaries? Here’s the roundabout answer:
I was thinking that Halloween parties never get old. I must have had a few beers because I found myself dancing. At least, it was a version of me bouncing across our parlor parquet dance floor. I was an unconvincing Aunt Jemima, well-padded and brown-faced long before it became unfashionable at best and racist at worst for white people to revel in costume as Black people. Despite my uneven skin tone, other men at the party found my get-up attractive. Liberace groped me every time he sashayed by. And Herve Villachaise, an odd combination of the “This Old House” and “Fantasy Island” hosts, bedecked with a loose belt full of carpentry tools, salaciously whispered “De Plane” every time we passed. It was hard to take him seriously because, groveling on knee pads, he only came up to Jemima’s voluminous waist. I was considering writing a transvestite version of Black Like Me when a mysterious woman, face obscured behind a peacock-feathered, Mardi Gras mask, asked me to dance. (Women are even more mystifying on October 31.) I accepted. Halfway through “Boogie Nights”, she bellowed, “Don’t you recognize me?” How could I? The flashing discount disco lights allowed only occasional glimpses of her bright blue eyes. The thumping bass line made recognition of familiar voices impossible.
Summoning my increasingly diminishing perceptive powers, I responded, “I don’t know who you are, but I might have seen that dress at a party on Ninth Street three or four years ago.” Bette taught me that women like to hear about their clothes.
“That was my party on Ninth Street!” I had a good excuse for sketchy recollections because that Halloween bash was my first real date with Bette. All other celebrants remained far off in the background. “It’s me, Nini!”
Not wanting to admit to my faulty memory, I followed up, shouting, “Where have you been?”
“I left Penn Treaty to travel around the world for three years!”
I understood the leaving Penn Treaty part. Most staff members left as soon as they could. I adjusted my bra strap as I asked, “How did you travel for three years on your small salary?” I thought I heard the words “working the galley on a shrimp boat in Austria” and “joining service”, but I nodded as if I heard everything. A trio of ninja brandishing nunchaku gliding across the dance floor captured my attention. Were they invited? Would they become the guests who hang around well after the music ends, too drunk to help straighten up? I concentrated and remembered the numbers, 9-1-1, hoping I’d be able to recall them if the situation warranted. Desperately needing to board a new train of thought, I excused myself and headed toward the dining room bar.
I reviewed the short conversation with Nini as Bette and I sleepily rehashed the party the next morning, only I called her Tugboat Nini. “I talked to her, too. Only it’s not ‘Nini’. It’s Mimi. And she worked on a shrimp boat in Australia. You don’t remember her from Penn Treaty?”
Ah. Australia made more sense. I was having trouble imagining the Von Trappe’s kids’ pulling marionette strings and singing, “High on a hill stood a lonely shrimper….” The masks and the alcohol-in-the-blood level provided convenient excuses for my lack of attention to detail. “And it’s Servas. S-E-R-V-A-S, not ‘service’, but that’s what it means in Esperanto. Mimi (M-I-M-I) told me about it too. It does sound too good to be true. She said that she stayed with people in fourteen different countries for free.” Many Halloween party conversations sound incredibly intelligent and witty at the time, but seem pretty inane upon sober reflection. We pledged to find out more about Servas the following week.
A phone call and subsequent letter led to an interviewer in a renovated carriage house on a side street in center city Philadelphia. Maybe I should have worn something dressier than Wranglers. I wondered if Servas was only for rich people. We soon discovered that the interview process was to help us decide if Servas was right for us.
The concept is surprisingly simple. People around the open their homes to travelers. No money is exchanged between traveler and host. What we give is time. What we show is an interest in learning about differing cultures. What we hope for is peace because people who know and respect one another are less like to declare war on one another. Though Servas provides (almost) free accommodation, its members want it to be known as a peace organization. After signing up, we bought discounted Icelandic Air round trip tickets to Luxembourg and requested host lists for Scandinavia. Each detailed contact information and brief personal descriptions. We sought those who spoke English. The meetings described at the start of this chapter were all Servas visits. We’ve been traveling with the organization since 1978.
I also got to fulfill every traveler’s dream of writing travel articles. It began inauspiciously with a phone call. A Southerner drawled, “Do you think you might want to join our Board of Directors? You’ve been recommended as a strong candidate.” That only meant that I attended a few meetings out of curiosity.
“I don’t know.” I confessed, “I’m not very good at finance or technology, so I don’t think I’d be of much use.”
“Ah, don’t you mind about that. Commitment to the organization is the most important qualification.” I volunteered, and within a few years was Board Chair. It may sound like an impressive title, but it mostly meant that, during conference calls, I got to tell longwinded board members what everyone else was thinking, that it was time to move on.
I represented U.S. Servas at the 2009 international conference in Argentina. It was held in Mar de Plata, a summer resort as pretty as its name. Unfortunately, the limited Servas budget precluded that we meet in early spring complete with wind and driving rain, so we had to imagine how nice it could have been. My greatest impression was that Servas was run democratically. Yearly membership fees go toward having the poorer member nations attend the tri-annual conference. The talkative group, representing fifty countries, discussed and voted upon policy and budget.
After the meeting, Bette and I put the Argentina host list to good use. We started in Bariloche, the gateway to Patagonia. The Andean ski resort is the get-away destination for every single high school senior in the country. The reveling Argentinians make one feel very old or very young. Thanks to power of google, we caught up with a long lost Allekotte, a nuclear physicist. Our great grandfathers were cousins who took different ships out of Hamburg. I could have been a gaucho pronouncing my last name “A-ja-ko-tay”.
Bette found a woman named “Gevertz” in the host list. We visited and asked if she might be related to Bette. She answered, “I hope not, for your sake. You wouldn’t want to be a part of my family. Most of my relatives have mental problems.” And she would know because she worked as a tango therapist, telling us, “It takes a lot of trust in your partner to do the tango properly.”
Many years ago, circa 5 B.C. (Before Children) we visited Nepal as part of an around-the-world-in-a-summer trip. A guide pointed out Mount Everest’s location. He may have been telling the truth, but we could not be sure because of the seasonal dense fog. We promised ourselves a return trip.
In post-retirement, we are free to travel in seasons other than summer. We reconsidered places like Nepal. We had written to Servas hosts prior to the previous trip, but the Nepalese postal service was notoriously unreliable. The internet makes planning easier, but was Nepal safe for American tourists? The U.S. State Department had been issuing warnings to stay clear of Nepal because of Maoist terrorist activities.
We e-mailed eight hosts and got positive replies from six. As it turned out, all six had Indian backgrounds. They all lived with extended families with daughter-in-laws following the Nepalese custom of moving in with the in-laws. Most rented out the ground floor and lived on the two or three stories above. The rooftops were used for excellent dining al fresco, hanging laundry, and viewing the snow-capped Himalayas.
We made daytime visits to the two hosts who could not accommodate us overnight. Bishwa escorted me on the back of his motorbike and bounced along occasionally paved roads to Bhaktapur’s Durban Square to see ancient carvings of Kama Sutra positions. The second, Rajinder, invited us to his son’s coming of age initiation, but the impending national day of inaction made getting there difficult. Assuring us that we would be safe, he sent a driver to get us. We trusted Rajindar’s judgment and were rewarded accordingly.
We were consumed by the strong allure of incense as soon as we arrived. Then we witnessed a naked adolescent boy surrounded by chanting swamis’ tossing holy water and rose petals over him. This continued for half an hour. I am sure that the events were highly significant among Hindus, but we had no clue what they mean. Once the initiate became a man and put his clothes on, the entire village provided trays of food, and we happily joined the buffet line.
In between a series of Servas visits, we bathed with the royal elephant herd in Chitwan National Park and trekked. The groundwork began when we contacted Peter Owens (from our summer in northern Pakistan). His home base had become Kathmandu. A series of e-mail conversations ensued.
“Hi, Peter. Remember us? You led us and our two young girls through Pakistan about ten years ago? The kids are now in college, so we are thinking about coming to Nepal. Are you still leading trips? Can you get us into a group that’s not in too much of a hurry? You may remember we can be pretty slow.”
“I left Pakistan a few years ago. Too many weapons and occasional fanatics. Bad combination. I’ll let the tribes fight over it without me.” Peter explained that Kathmandu is his full-time home base (when he wasn’t heading back to the U.S. for a dose of medicine or the New York Metropolitan Opera). He added, “I’m no longer leading treks, but I’m still organizing them. Some of your old guides are still working for me.” Peter provided good paying jobs and benefits in a land where unemployment is nearly fifty percent. “And I’m setting up an American couple about your age. They stop to take lots of pictures, so you can easily keep up with them.”
I asked, “Speaking of weapons and fanatics, should we have safety concerns? The State Department—“ If it had been a conversation instead of e-mail, Peter would have interrupted me.
“The so-called ‘Maoists’ come from the villages. They wouldn’t know Mao if they fell over him. They can’t read anything, let alone Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book. They just charge a fee (I call it a toll.) when trekkers use the trail they maintain between their villages. Since the government also charges fees, they feel entitled to a piece of the pie, especially since the government fees go to buy weapons to suppress them.” Peter assured us that his guides carry receipts showing that he had paid off the right people (just like in Pakistan); we should have no problems. “But you may get delayed at the airport when you’re leaving.”
I asked for an explanation. “Your names will be on the trekking permits, and the officials know I pay off the Maoists. So, technically, I’m supporting terrorism. They may delay you, hoping for a bribe. Just wait them out. They want to go home to their families as much as you want to get on the plane. They’ll give in.”
The “guerillas” we met along the way engaged us in trade at the markets, rented out sparse lodgings, prepared Western-style meals like pizza, apple pie, and cheese omelets, and participated in chess tournaments organized by our guides. No one asked for toll money. All flashed wide Nepalese smiles.
The State Department recommended avoiding large gatherings, political rallies, and all roads during national strikes. They also suggested keeping a low profile and not making our western background obvious. We knew that since the average Nepali is barely five feet tall, following the last request would not be possible. But thanks to help from our Servas hosts, we find Nepal to be friendly, exotic, and not too logistically challenging. Closing our eyes during the hairpin turns along the arduous Himalayan bus rides allowed us time to reflect upon our new Servas friends.
In between our trips to Nepal, we took the girls to sanitary, English speaking New Zealand. New Zealand is Nepal with money. Like Nepal, the bus system and a good day’s walk can get you almost everywhere, except the roads in New Zealand were well paved and had guard rails! The drivers did not appear to be suicidal and relying on reincarnation in case of a fatal accident. The bus seats were covered with sheepskin cushions, and the drivers delivered mail, newspapers, and fresh meat along the way. They made unscheduled stops, providing riders a chance to perform group hugs around giant kauri trees. The Waitomo Caves served as a bus depot where tourists can walk through caverns lit by glow worms between rides.
As in other countries, our hosts led us to new experiences. In Hawera, we witnessed the birth of twin lambs and met the world’s number one Elvis fan, winner of many international trivia contests. His home was a miniature version of Graceland filled with memorabilia and trophies in recognition of his celebrity status. We discussed the King. Upon returning to Philadelphia, I sent him some of my parents’ old 45’s.
In Napier, an art deco town rebuilt after the 1930’s earthquake, we clawed through the sand for shellfish and ground them into a pipi fritter breakfast. I should have known better when our host invited me to join a friendly rugby game. I couldn’t forget my American football training and constantly had to be reminded not to block for the runner. I think the locals enjoyed seeing me shed blood a few minutes into the game. The “friendly” part didn’t start until intermission when the chocolate flavored Imperial Stout ale was rolled out. I don’t remember how I played after the intermission.
Many people, embedded in a lifetime of negativity, ask if there have been any bad Servas visits. Though I look back upon a few fondly, I’ll relate the stories and let the reader decide if they were negative experiences.
In Hong Kong, we stayed in the New Territories with a quail farmer. In impeccable English, he calmly related that he had once been a university professor but was forced into farming after spending years in a re-education camp. We thought of many follow-up questions but didn’t get to ask because every time we saw our host, he was bounding by with a plastic bag full of dead birds. The farm may have had avian flu before the disease had a name. The rest of the family spent their day swatting flies (thick as the raisins on a Pennsylvania Dutch cinnamon bun) from every flat surface on the farm. The flies were then recycled into bird seed.
We were ecstatic to see the mosquito netting over the guest bed, especially after noting that the window frames lacked glass. I fell into a gentle sleep despite the constant buzzing of numerous winged creatures until I rudely awakened by Bette’s blood curdling scream. Like most people, she has the occasional nightmare and she’ll say, “Whew. That was rough!” But this scream seemed to come from a Halloween movie. It was too dark to see, so Bette shouted, “Rob. There’s something on my head!” I shook the netting, and we heard “Caw! Caw” as a crow flew away. This was the first of three times where we broke the Servas mandatory two-night stay rule. Our host provided directions to a “Retired Seamen’s Hostel” not far from the Night Market. We recovered amidst ancient Chinese mariners while he tended to his diminishing covey.
In Estonia, we were instructed to take the daily bus to an isolated area outside of Tartu where our host would meet us. She drove another twenty minutes into the woods on a dirt road barely wider than her Saab. We spent the first night talking, drinking, laughing, playing with the kids, and other standard Servas stuff. Early the next morning, after our hosts left for work, we found a note. “We are sorry. Our pump broke, and I won’t be able to work on it until tomorrow. There is drinking water, but you must not flush the toilets or take a shower. Thank you. See you about 6:00 tonight.”
Not trusting our rebellious digestive systems, we wrote a response: “Thanks for hosting us. We hope you don’t mind that we decided to go see Lake Peipsi.” We knew it is to the east. Our guidebook described the village of Kallaste as a transcendent tourist mecca popular with Russians living across the border. We decided to try hitchhiking. If we didn’t get a ride, we could always return to our hosts and tear up the note.
Our first problem was we didn’t know which way to go. The labyrinth of woods was identical in every direction. I offered, “Maybe there’s an intersection nearby. We can head out and take any ride.” Bette didn’t say anything, but her look suggested that she had no better ideas. I carried both suitcases as wheels don’t roll too well on gravel roads. Bette applied many coats of insect repellant as we traipsed along to the buzzing of Estonia’s many hummingbird-sized mosquitos.
We held a mini-celebration when we happened upon an intersecting narrow road. We waited, used the encompassing woods as toilets, and waited some more. Finally, we smelled diesel exhaust, then heard, and then observed a rusty Soviet era Lada puttering to a halt. The driver, straight from central casting with a Lech Walesa moustache and loose-fitting, striped, gondolier shirt, didn’t speak English. I knew few Estonian or Russian phrases, so I showed the driver a map with Kallaste, the town we sought along the lake. He understood, reached through the window, and opened a clanging door from the outside, removed a dozen, aromatic smoked fish from the rear seat, placed them in the trunk, and motioned for us to hop in.
Bette maneuvered her way into the back seat, and my two companions, by trial and error, discovered a common language, German. Our driver spoke it as, perhaps a fifth language, and Bette knew enough Yiddish to convey basic ideas. I followed along as best I could while keeping my nose to the partially opened window in an effort to combat the lethal combination of fumes and fish.
Our driver emphatically dangled a mangled right hand and pantomimed that had been a fisherman forced into sales. With his good hand, he produced a picture of his family and haltingly counted out his daughters’ ages. We stopped in numerous villages where he sold fish to market peddlers. By the time we got to Kallaste, it was late afternoon and a misty rain blanketed the quaint town. Our fishmonger friend pulled to a stop at the closed tourist office. To show our appreciation for our deliverance, I handed him a five euro note. In return, he wrapped a hefty smoked bream in newspaper and handed it to me. I smiled and said, “Danke. Das Vadanya.” We checked the bus schedule, noted the time of the single mid-afternoon bus on the following day, and proceeded downhill toward the village.
The guidebooks were accurate in their assessment: the town had a mystical Chagall quality about it, but there was no mention of its shutting down after the summer season. Other than a few workmen tapping away on a rooftop, it appeared to be deserted. By picking up a few provisions in the general store, we knew we wouldn’t starve. The owner pointed us toward a lakeside bed and breakfast featuring the luring aroma of a woodstove. We asked about a room. The wrinkled, heavily rouged landlady apologetically played Estonian charades and called for her young grandson to act as interpreter. He made it clear that he had better things to do, as he explained “No room tonight. She, go tonight. I, school tomorrow.”
Not knowing how to respond, I freed the fish from its newspaper wrap. Grandma’s blue-shadowed eyes widened as she spoke rapid Estonian. Grandson translated, “She, cook you.” I excused his lack of verbs and prepositions, assuming that we were not to be starring in a remake of “Hansel and Gretel”.
I explained “No. She can keep the fish for herself.” After some familial Estonian negotiating, we were escorted to a small room. Grandson directed, “You, Room. Shower. Hot water, no. Food, no. Tomorrow, you go.” We had a deal!
After munching on our store-bought yoghurt, cheese, and pumpernickel, we passed numerous clapboard houses and hiked along the gently lapping shores of Lake Peipsi. The rugged coastline was punctuated with caves where prehistoric fishermen painted clay hieroglyphs of their catches. We approached a cemetery with Coptic crosses adorning the grave stones. When the rain returned, we cautiously entered an onion-domed church. It wouldn’t be a restful visit as there were no pews. A bearded priest, barely visible through the haze emanating from enough burning incense to heat the village, emitted guttural prayers sounding like those I previously heard in Eyes Wide Shut. The sopranos, cloistered behind a wall, weakly chanted repetitive Latin phrases. I snuck a peek through the smog to see if they were high heeled and naked like the hookers in the Kubrick film. Disappointment. The tourist in me viewed the ceremony as spooky and spectral rather than spiritual.
We returned to the bed and breakfast and slept very well. After another round of yoghurt, cheese, and dry, day-old pumpernickel, we returned to the road. I sketched a “Tartu” sign to reinforce the image that, despite being at Lake Peipsi in the off-season, we really did have somewhere to go in life. We were astonished when a large RV stopped beside us. The passenger window rolled down and a smiling woman said, “You can hop in the back with the boys.”
The boys were two young, round-faced, blond Slavs who apparently welcomed our company. Simultaneously they held out their arms and repeated the only English words they knew, “Zombie killers! Zombie assassins!” I studied their parents and found them to be quite ordinary with no stab wounds or disfigurements. No apparent blood stains. We joined what we hoped was a game, alternating the shooting of imaginary weapons, faking our own deaths, and miraculously coming back to life to chat with their parents who told us they were heading to a historic castle, half-way to our destination of Tartu. After a tour, some tea, and a thank you, we returned to the road and accepted an uneventful ride back to Tartu.
Bette and the Estonian Killer Zombie Family
Our only other one-night Servas stand was in a hilly mountain town in Argentina. Carlos, using staccato English, had e-mailed specific directions. “Get off bus. Cross street. Take path along river. Look out for canes.” Canes? Maybe it was a retirement village. Carlos’s words seemed within the realm of possibility until we realized that we would be arriving at dusk. We did our best to drag our bags along what we hoped was the correct path. But with a thickening, threatening darkness hiding any hint of civilization, we had to feel our way back toward the only hotel in town. The proprietor, hosting a family dinner, seemed surprised to have guests. We phoned Carlos and got an incomprehensible recorded message. We paid for the room and joined the savory Argentinean barbecue. Sensing no alternative but hunger, this was another time when I was forced to temporarily bid adieu to my vegetarian beliefs.
We slept soundly until awakened by a knock at the door. It was Carlos, our perspective host. He asked “Didn’t you get my last text? I wrote I would meet you at the bus in Cordoba.” We had not yet joined the world of texting.
As our host drove us to La Casa Carlos. I asked about the canes. Carlos explained, “Don’t you hear them? Everyone here owns a cane, but they are harmless.” We finally figured out that Carlos was using the Latin “canus” for the upscale neighborhood’s many watchdogs. He was also happy that the barking dogs, as well as town’s name, didn’t scare us off.
Bette inquired, “Why? What does ‘Salsipuedes’ mean?
“Salsipuedes? Leave, if you are able.” Do I remember hearing that in a Three Stooges movie?
Carlos offers a rational, historical explanation: “The original settlers wanted to keep the place to themselves.”
Besides asking about bad trips, people often ask, “What was your favorite trip, the best place you’ve ever been?”
That’s a much easier question. The answer is always, “The next trip is always the best one. How can I be so sure? I have friends all over the world!”