Jõesuu, Estonia – August 2008
I watch the bus putter up the road and disappear. Next bus is tomorrow morning. I walk through the tiny village. I see no one. It takes me five minutes to locate the hostel. It’s a long cinder block building with perpendicular wings. As I approach it, I notice that the shades on most of the windows are drawn. I grasp the doorknob. It’s locked. I pound on the door. No answer. I make a lap around the building. No noise or shadows from within.
I had an email just two days ago from the manager. There would be room and I was welcome. Everything is okay. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a tall, big-boned woman standing in a vegetable garden. She chirps something at me.
“Tere. I’m sorry. I don’t understand.” I point to the hostel and shake my head.
She smiles. Her teeth are large and perfectly square with big gaps in between. She beckons me to follow her to the back door, which she slides open. “Manager come later.” She leads me down the long corridor and pushes open a door. The room is empty except for a single mattress on the floor and a small reading lamp next to it. It appears clean – no grime or dust and the mattress is unstained. Under the mustiness is the scent of fresh wood. Although it appears to be in the midst of renovation, this place hasn’t seen guests in a long time. The woman returns with some linens. She hands them to me and leaves, casting a final glance over her shoulder. Curiosity mixed with some disapproval. Nothing I haven’t seen many times before.
I put my backpack on the floor and walk towards the common areas. Three cement-floored showers are across the hall from my room. The reception desk is piled with papers and books. The small couches are hidden behind a bicycle, some tools, and yet more stacks of books. A backpack and a pair of mud-caked boots lie on the floor behind the reception desk. The mud is fairly fresh. I breathe a sigh of relief at this sign of life. A reek of decay wafts out of the kitchen. I peer around the corner. The garbage bins are overflowing. The jubilant buzz of flies breaks the silence. I back away and return to my room.
The reviews on the hostel website were glowing – a real adventure hostel, awesome hospitality, etc. This is the only place to stay in Jõesuu, so I must be at the right place. I lie back on the mattress and close my eyes. I will never trust hostel reviews again.
Some time later, the front door creaks open. I wait a couple of minutes and then venture out. The young man introduces himself as the manager, and then apologizes for the confusion. He returned from a hiking trip in another part of Estonia this morning and had to rush into work. He works at Soomaa National Park visitor’s center. He informs me that the hostel has actually been closed since April, but the listing needs to remain on the hostel website for a few more months because of the contract. The renovation has been abandoned, because a recent inspection showed that it would cost less to tear the place down and build anew.
I nod. This would explain the residue of desertion, of failed ambitions, which casts a pall over this place.
He tells me that the computer is in the kitchen. I follow behind him with a grimace. His face reddens when he sees the filth. “The cleaning woman was supposed to come,” he explains. He drags the garbage bins outside, muttering under his breath. I type a hasty email to my husband to let him know that I’m still alive.
After the manager calms down, I ask him about the park. There’s no public transport, but he offers to drive me to the visitors center. Then I can walk to Riisa Bog, eight kilometers on the way back to Jõesuu. It’s an Estonian holiday – the Day of the Restoration of Independence – so the park will be quiet. Everyone is in Tallin for the festivities. I might even have the bog to myself. He retreats to his room and closes the door.
At night, I lie awake and watch the blue flicker from his television set through my window. The sound of singing drifts down the corridor. The Night Song Festival. There is pop music, then a choir. The songs become chanting – melodic and mesmerizing. Solemn and defiant. It’s the sound of winter winds and hope in the incessant darkness.
At the visitor’s center, I watch the short film about Soomaa’s fifth season – the flood season – and then I head for Riisa Bog. I pass by a tiny village, nothing more than a couple of buildings by the side of the road, but it also appears deserted. It is early afternoon when I reach the Riisa Bog trailhead. A couple of cars are parked at the entrance. I follow the wooden path through a small forest and then emerge into the bog. In the distance, I see other humans.
The wooden path narrows to a single plank. The ground on either side looks solid, but one false step and there’s no way out. One can take organized bog shoeing tours or canoe trips. It would have been much easier, but I feel a sense of satisfaction that I got here on my own.
A thick gray blanket covers the sky. The air is still and humid. In the distance, I hear the voices of those other humans. They are following another trail back to the exit. Soon, I will be alone out here.
Soomaa National Park is the largest intact peat bog system in Europe. I can’t help but wonder what lurks beneath, waiting to be unearthed. The word “bog” is like the sound a creature that lives in its depths would make. A murky, primeval sound.
For a short time, the path is framed by thick patches of purple flowers. A silent, invisible sensation hits me – not a smell or a haze, more like an emission that seeps into my pores. My head spins. In the distance, thunder.
I circle the ponds and head back to the forest. It’s a five kilometer walk back to Jõesuu. I didn’t bring an umbrella.
The road unfurls ahead of me, passing through farmland and forest. The old wooden houses look too well-maintained to be abandoned, but still I see no one. Every so often a car passes by and faces turn to watch me. Then they are gone. It would be easy to contemplate everything that could happen to me out here. But I don’t. My legs grow tired and fat raindrops begin to fall. Just a couple of kilometers to go.
A Jeep pulls up next to me. An older gentlemen pushes the passenger door open. I jump inside. “I can take you as far as Jõesuu,” he says in English. The Jeep is full of hiking and other equipment. He has the air of a field scientist – precise, yet unpretentious, but his impassive demeanor invites no conversation. Out here, he could be anyone and so could I. He lets me off at the bus stop and then drives away with a wave.