Raphael Kessler

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South East Asia 1999

  1. Vietnam - February 1999
  2. Thailand - April 1999
  3. Malaysia and Singapore - May 1999
  4. Indonesia - June 1999
Africa to home, the long way
- Africa
  1. South Africa
  2. Namibia and Botswana
  3. Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and Kenya
  4. Uganda
  5. Ethiopia
  6. Egypt
- Middle East and Balkans
  1. Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey
  2. Balkans
  3. Turkey
  4. Iran
- Asia
  1. Pakistan
  2. China
  3. Tibet
  4. Nepal
  5. India 1
  6. India 2
  7. India 3
  8. Sri Lanka
  9. Bangladesh
  10. Myanmar
  11. Thailand
  12. Cambodia
  13. Laos
  14. China, Macao and Hong Kong
  15. Mongolia
- North America and Caribbean
  Caribbean, USA, Mexico and Canada
- Scandinavia and Eastern Europe
  1. Russia
  2. Sweden
  3. Baltics
  4. Poland and Czech Republic
South America 2002
  1. Brazil
  2. Argentina
  3. Chile and Easter Island
Central America and Mexico 2002
  1. Panama
  2. Costa Rica
  3. Nicaragua
  4. Honduras
  5. El Salvador
  6. Guatemala
  7. Belize
  8. Mexico
South America 2003-4
  1. Trinidad and Tobago
  2. Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana
  3. Venezuela
  4. Colombia
  5. Ecuador and The Galapagos Islands
  6. Peru
  7. Bolivia
  8. Argentina
  9. Uruguay and Paraguay
  10. Bolivia 2
  11. Peru 2
Specific Pacific
  1. California to Fiji+ French Polynesia & Cook Islands
  2. Samoa, Niue and American Samoa
  3. Tonga and New Zealand
  4. Australia 1
  5. Australia 2

The Baltic Countries


Over the next days I mostly wandered around visiting various parts of the city which is charming and medieval in a way I had not previously seen. There are some good viewpoints and the city walls and watchtowers are all in a good state of repair. I visited various museums that gave some background to the history of Tallinn and Estonia and a little insight into the mentality of the people. Estonia has had very little independent time being conquered by the Danes, Swedes, Germans and Russians. As a result it is fighting for a bit of its own identity at times and this comes through in some of the exhibits and when talking with the locals. When talking with locals of Russian extraction they generally say how everything was built by the Russians and other occupying forces whereas the more indigenous Estonians cite the impressive influence of the Finno-Ugrian people (which they constitute a part). The truth is somewhere between the two, but where is difficult to say.

From Tallinn I headed to the South-East of the country to Tartu, a university town that has been integral in Estonia’s history for centuries. Although only a small town it does have a few points of interest including a nice town square, some old buildings and the snow makes it that bit more picturesque. The girl at the Tourist Information centre gave me a map for a walking tour of the town which she said would take about half an hour. That was perhaps a bit ambitious, still I managed to complete the tour which takes in the main sites and views as well as a couple of diversions including walking across town to buy a ticket for the bus to Latvia the following morning (the only bus is at the ridiculous time of 6.45), generally ambling at a sedate pace but still finished it in about two hours. This is not a big town by any measure.

My time in Estonia was rather brief (largely due to weather and transport constraints) but enjoyable. Although generally reserved and so difficult to get chatting with, the people I chatted with were charming and the women are exceptionally good looking. Moreover the place is comparatively cheap, considering it is in Europe and if it weren't for the nasty biting cold would have been even better. Estonia did manage to break a record of mine though. Over the past more than two years (yes, it really has been that long, I left for Cape Town on 4th December 1999) it has rained in every country I have spent more than a day in, but not Estonia. Perhaps it was too cold, but the only rain of any kind was a bit of snow blowing off the trees or roofs on me.

From Estonia I headed to Latvia, more specifically to Riga its capital. Riga is the largest city in the Baltics, not really that big, but it's relative with an attractive old town. In the old town there are some attractive and interesting Art Nouveau buildings and impressive churches. St. Peters Church has an odd steeple in three tiers with a viewing platform at the top (at seventy two metres) with great views of the old town and further out. As the temperatures at street level are at least minus ten degrees, the wind on the viewing platform makes it uncomfortably cold, but worth it. The town itself is pleasant to walk around and I managed to see most of the sites wandering about in the space of a day. The museums however needed extra time, particularly the Occupation Museum. As with many other countries in this area Latvia has a history of occupation. The ones covered in the exhibits at the museum though are the Soviets who after the Molotov - Ribbentrop Pact with the Nazis divided Europe into spheres of influence, the Baltic Republics all fell within the Soviet sphere and in 1940 the Red Army aggressively colonised these countries. Just twenty years earlier the Soviet Union had recognised their independence "in perpetuity". The Baltic Countries "elected" to join the Soviet Union then the Soviets started with deportations and subjugation, changing overnight the systems and liberties in these places. When the invading Nazi army came in 1941 many of the Balts understandably saw the Germans as their liberators from oppression and welcomed them, even fighting for them. It wasn't long however before they realised that not much had really changed and that in many respects things had gotten worse. The Latvian Jewish population estimated to have been as many as 100,000 were killed as were many of the other unwanted types such as intellectuals and gypsies. After a little while of Nazi occupation, the Soviets were back and with a vengeance, mass deportations to Siberia and the Gulags occurred and the "independent states" were regarded as territories with second class citizens and there was migration of massive amounts of Russian workers to colonize and Russify the places. The museum deals with what happened and shows the as yet unhealed scars particularly in Latvia where the Latvians are still a minority in many of their own towns and cities, the Latvian language is only spoken by about fifty three percent of the populace, Russian being the Lingua Franca.

Just a short way from Riga is the town of Sigulda, where the Soviets built there bobsleigh run. Something the Latvians were I'm sure happy to inherit. There are also some nice old castles and tranquil spots but bobsledding is what I was there to do, so I'll try to get to the point. When I got to the place one can see the track which is essentially a half tube type of thing covered in thick ice snaking its way down the hillside. One could then go up to the viewing platforms and start position for the men which is much higher up than the women’s starting spot. Its a long way down. During the summer it is possible to take a wheeled training bob down the track, which sounds like fun but too much like a roller coaster, skates sliding on ice sound so much better. In winter, they have training during the week and at the weekend it is possible to go down the track in a rubber raft which is a soft, cushiony, comfortable thing that sits on rubber tubes instead of skates and goes quick but not exactly scary looking - more "for the kids". So, when I got to the women’s starting point with a couple of Australians I had met, I expressed how unimpressed I was at what was on offer. Not only did we have to start from the girls starting point but in a rubber raft, this was not bobsleighing. The driver of a two man bob appreciated this so offered to take us in that, which we all duly accepted.

Lee decided to go first, as he was having the helmet pounded to the correct fit I thought I'd ask our driver in a jocular manner 'So how many people have died here recently?'

Our driver turned to me with a kind of expression that said 'Don't ask me that question' and just said in a disparaging tone 'you joke, yes?'

After some brief instruction, Lee went off and the acceleration compared to the rubber raft thing was well, incomparable - he just disappeared as soon as it dropped off the edge of the run up bit. Three minutes later he was back up top in the back of a truck with the sleigh and an ear to ear cheesy grin. Georgina was next off and just a few minutes later she was back with an equally cheesy grin.

Now it was my turn, first getting the helmet on which was of the one size fits all, if you give it a bit of a push and thump variety. Then sat in the back "seat" of the two and securely put in place. Now for the instructions 'Firstly you must never hit my helmet with yours, this is very important. When we are going down the track just look at the track or around but do not even tap my helmet, okay' I assured him it was. He then went onto explain where I keep my hands and feet and my job as brakeman. 'So when I shout out "Brake!!!", you pull hard on these' pointing to handles next to my hand rests, 'now practice' Which I dutifully did pulling back on these levers that then twist the blades at the back into the ice, raising the back of the sled up. 'Now remember these things it is very important, but most importantly do not touch my helmet at any point, this is very important, you must not knock against my helmet!' I was pretty convinced that he didn't want me knocking against his helmet, something I managed not to do over the next forty five seconds or so. The driver was sat in front of me, between my legs whilst we were pushed or perhaps launched is a more appropriate word off the run up by another bloke. As soon as the sled starts on the downhill bit it is accelerating and dramatically so. Within seconds we were travelling at over 100km/h and flying through corners. The sled goes at a phenomenal speed and also tanks to the drivers skill at interesting angles from left to right with incredible rapidity, which makes the G-force push ones stomach half way through your arse, and from side to side. At points as we would come onto a straight I would look with incredulity at the drop we were about to do and the corner we were going to negotiate, when before I could think of anything more, we were hurtling through it and my stomach felt like it was trying to make its way south. When we got to the bottom and the track eased the driver turned and shouted the agreed braking signal at me 'Brake!!!!!!!!'. I did my best to stop the thing as quickly as possible and the scraping noise of skate against ice was atmospheric. Apparently I had not heard the drivers original command to brake which is why we overshot the exit point a bit. When after a brief truck ride up the hill in the truck I got up to rejoin the other two I'm sure I was wearing as cheesy a grin as the others had when they got back to the start point.

We thanked the staff, and headed off to have some lunch and then see a bit more of Sigulda which is a pleasant looking place. We watched some local guys playing ice hockey on the local pond and chatted with them for a bit. We asked who's job it was to test if the ice on the pond was thick enough to skate on, to which we were told that as soon as the temperature drops to or below minus ten, it is okay to skate on. So how much of the year can they skate there then? Five months of the year, that is far too cold for someone to live in a place where it is that cold for that much time. After a bit more walking about we headed back to Riga and the Aussies were getting a bus to Tartu, Estonia so I joined them for a beer at the bus station as I also wanted to find out about bus connections. When it came time for them to leave, the bus decided to go early so we headed into the bus office where they said we should have been earlier, argued for two minutes then called the driver back who duly picked the pair up and hopefully took them to Tartu.

Back in Riga I visited the Jews in Latvia museum which was interesting as it showed how integrated the Latvian Jewish population was. There were Jews in prominent positions throughout Latvian life including government ministers, composers, doctors, administrators, etc. Then with the assistance of some of the local population the Jewish population disappeared within just a few years. This is not so different to the history of much of the rest of central or eastern Europe, one of the more interesting bits is how the post-independence government and people seem to be making an apology and statement about what happened, even making a point of constitutionally outlawing anti-Semitism in addition and separate to racism in general as well as supporting and encouraging the re-establishment of the Jewish population and commemorating its past. The next day I went from Riga on a short day trip to Salaspils - site of most of the slaughter and deportation of the Jewish and unwanted populace by the Nazis. Having missed the stop on the train, I had a half hour walk back to the station I had missed through nice quiet snowy woodland. This helped set the scene a bit for what was to come. The memorial there is a bit of peculiarly Soviet Socialist one. All the buildings were destroyed but the Soviets built something that looks like a long concrete block at an angle. One walks up inside this thing (supposedly reminiscent of the cattle cars many were deported in, at least symbolically) to a small exhibition (which the custodian and I had to scrape the ice from the glass of, in order to view) of metaphorical pictures and maps of the site, as well as a short explanation. The site itself now is a level grid, with a short tree lined part and several large blocks commemorating different bits of the camp and a number of large Socialist style statues. These are of Mother, Solidarity, Unbroken and Humiliation. Somehow this is supposed to represent all that went on there. The most evocative part of the memorial is a very large black granite block that has a slow metronome loudly ticking a constant heartbeat. I hitch-hiked back to Riga and from there headed next day to Lithuania.

My first stop in Lithuania was the town of Siauliai. There is not a lot to see in the town itself, but about twelve kilometres from town is the "Hill of Crosses". This is a bizarre site where there are many thousands of crosses, crucifixes and rosaries planted across a couple of mounds and the surrounding ground. There are crosses made of scaffold, wood, plastic and a huge range of styles and materials. Some are planted in the ground, others are hanging from other crosses to the extent that some of the crosses have a bulbous look created by the number of smaller crosses hung on them. In 1993 the Pope blessed Europe from the point and sent a large crucifix that stands out front. The way the whole thing got started is in dispute, a popular version being it was to commemorate the fallen of a battle that took place in the area. The modern version though was a protest of sorts against the Soviet occupation. The crosses were removed by the Soviets and the hills (more accurately hillocks) were bulldozed a couple of times to remove all the crosses. A guard was even put on the site to prevent crosses re-emerging but the local populace was not to be discouraged and the numbers of crosses would increase despite the guard until it was cleared again. After independence and the unchecked planting of crosses (and the encouragement of traders) the hills have become totally covered in crosses and the like to the point that it is spilling into the surrounding area. It is a strange place to visit with what I thought was a slightly macabre feeling to it as I wandered through the forest of crucifixes with the wind whistling through it and rattling and rustling the rosaries and smaller crosses. Certainly one of the stranger religious sites I have visited, at least in Europe.

With not a lot more to do in Siauliai I went onto Kaunas which has a very large pedestrian precinct (allegedly one of the largest) and a few sites of interest. The reasonably short bus journey would have passed quicker if it weren't for the fact that the right hand side of my body had turned numb from a cold draft coming down the bus, thankful to arrive I managed to find a warm hotel to defrost.

On the evening I arrived I decided to go out for a Chinese meal which turned out not only to be rather good food but interesting as I got talking to the cook in my basic Chinese and the waitress in my basic German about what the guy was doing in Lithuania being from Chengdu in Sichuan province in China where I spent several weeks and where the best Chinese food is to be had. Although he was a pleasant enough person it was a bit depressing talking to him as he had no friends or family in Kaunas but had somehow come to Lithuania of all places to work. Having been there for two years he misses his family and friends and wants to go home but doesn't know when or how he will manage it.

Other than just a pleasant atmosphere, there was not a huge amount to see in Kaunas. I visited the Military Museum of Vytautas the Great which apart from having a very impressive name has the wreckage of the Lituanica plane. It was in this plane that Lithuanian aviators Steponas Darius and Stasys Girenas attempted to fly non-stop from New York to Kaunas in 1933. It is a bit odd how they have tried to recreate the crash scene, including bits of wreckage against trees etc. but I was getting a feeling that the Lithuanians are a bit odd, after all who else would be able to suffer the ridiculous cold in the country. When looking around Kaunas it was minus fifteen, an unnecessarily low temperature. To lend extra weight to the argument I visited the Devil’s Museum. This place has literally thousands of devils of different shapes, sizes and origins based upon the personal devil collection of Lithuanian folk artist and zealous collector Antanas Zmuidzinavicius (Very impressively long multi-syllabic name involving 'Z's deserves to be recognised). As Lithuania was the last European to adopt Christianity which it did in 1387 supposedly renouncing its pagan past, but much of this seeped through, especially in its interpretation of the devil who is seen as an unfortunate incompetent as opposed to evil.

So from Kaunas I went to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. Vilnius also has a very nice old town with interesting buildings and is quite attractive. The hostel where I was staying is also a very good place for meeting people and thankfully the majority of those I have met there have been good fun. On the first night in Vilnius, I went out to a club with someone I'd met at the hostel, met some decent Lithuanians there and didn't get back until after midday - a good fun town. This meant that the following day was a bit of a rite-off as a result and was dedicated to careful ambling and recovering. The day after though a group of us clubbed together to rent a minibus and go to Grutas Parkas near Druskininkai in the south of the country, where there is an interesting sculpture park. This is a resting place for the old soviet sculptures and it is very well presented, in a woodland setting with informative histories of the subjects. Of over two million (yes a ridiculous quantity) of Lenin and Stalin statues and busts produced there were only two of Lenin in a seated position, one of which they have at the park, which is novel. Due to the way in which Lithuania was occupied the information is not necessarily one hundred percent objective, but it is still interesting. From there we went to Trakai, where there is a nice castle that has had a lot of restoration on a lake. As the lake is frozen over at this time of year it was easier to walk straight over it than to take the bridge. The castle itself is pleasant and there is also an interesting museum of Lithuanian history inside as well as a large display of pipes, I don't know the relationship between smoking and Teutonic fourteenth century castles but apparently there is one. Once again headed back to Vilnius for another night of general socialising. Over the next days I wandered around town some more, checking out the views from the fort in the centre as well as visiting the Genocide museum, which explains how the KGB imprisoned, tortured, deported and killed many thousands of Lithuanians in the former prison at the bottom of the old Vilnius KGB headquarters. I also went to the Holocaust museum which details how the Lithuanian Jewish population was almost entirely obliterated by the Nazis with the complicity of the locals. Jews trace their origins in Lithuania back to the days of Grand Duke Gedeyminus, who founded the first Lithuanian state in the 14th century. By the late 15th century, there were already thriving communities. In time, Vilnius became known as the "Jerusalem of Lithuania," a great centre of Jewish religious learning. The Lithuanian Jewish population was particularly vibrant and produced world renowned artists such as Mark Chagall, Chaim Soutine and Levitan, A couple of presidents of Israel Chaim Weitzman and Zalman Shazar, The father of modern Hebrew Eliezer ben Yehuda, and the creator of Esperanto L. Zamenhoff. In addition to these secular celebrities were a number of eminent theologians, most notably the Gaon of Vilna, Eliyahu ben Shloime Zalman who is recognised as probably being the last great Rabbi. It was also here that Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who issued about six thousand Japanese transit visas to Jews in order to allow them to escape the holocaust, many of whom ended up in Shanghai which was under Japanese control at the time and then continued onwards to the US and other countries. With all this wealth of Jewish past the museum does a good job of showing what was the situation before the war years and what then happened. It is also not shy in implicating a number of Lithuanians in the slaughter of about two hundred thousand, about 94% of the pre-war Jewish population, the highest proportion to be wiped out anywhere during the holocaust.

In the evenings of the last couple of nights, we discovered a good snow covered hillock around the corner from the hostel where we could toboggan down it on some old boiler covers I found which was excellent fun and surprisingly fast, one of the benefits of the cold and snow.

There seem to be recurring themes in these Baltic Republics, the language is different as are the cultures and their histories, apart from recent Soviet domination. But, they all seem to love monuments to anyone they can label a national hero. This is sometimes taken to ridiculous lengths for example in Dundaga, Latvia where the Latvian Consulate in Chicago gave a huge statue of a crocodile because there is a suspicion that the story was slightly based on former resident Arvids von Blumenfelds, a local who fled to Australia during WWII and spent his days hunting crocodiles in the Outback. Anyone seems to be able to get a statue in these parts as long as they have a good claim to being local at some point. The other recurring theme is Lego, which seems to have a shop in every Baltic high street, seems the marketing people have really sewn up the Baltic market for toys you can build yourself.

You may also have noticed that there seems to be a bit of a recurring theme referring to the cold. I am sure that you would notice it as well if you were in these parts too. The cold has made some bits of the travelling better, namely that things aren't busy (usually no-one but me there) and sometimes more picturesque. However it has also meant that certain attractions were closed and also that it has been less sociable as I seem to be very much in the minority of those who are foolhardy enough to brave this part of the world at this time of year, something that a number of locals have pointed out to me. Still, it has given me to see the side of these places that most wouldn't bother with.

Off to Poland, more cold (not quite as extreme though, hopefully) and onwards.



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