Trip 32 -- Hiiumaa Walk
Sunday, June 19, 2022
I found Hiiumaa Island by moving Google Maps around and looking for landmasses that might be suitable for perimeter perambulations. Several criteria go into invoking an island into the Abecedarian Walks. It has to have a name that starts with a letter I haven't used yet; it has to be of a size that takes about four to 15 days to circumnavigate; it has to have a place to stay at least every ten walking hours; and it has to be navigable. Some islands are the right size but made of steep mountains, for instance. Brazil's Queimada Grande seems to be a "Q" possibility but it's infested with dangerous snakes. (There are other Q's.)
Estonia's second-largest island, Hiiumaa has roughly the form of a westward-flying goose. I didn't know the country had islands despite having been there twice before. The first was in 2002, barely a decade into the country's independence after the breakup of the Soviet Union. I stayed only in Tallinn, marveling at the city's evolution from Russian repression to a modern capital housed in buildings dating to the 14th century. "At the Museum of Theatre and Music," I wrote back then, "...the scene seemed typical of old Russia as the two babushkas running the place, overwhelmed when I handed them a 100-kroon note to pay the 15-kroon admission fee, took out their tiny purses and painstakingly counted out my change using 12 notes and three coins, all the while figuring the math with a pen and paper." This time the currency is the euro, and I'll be shocked if I can't tap in to any museum with a credit card.
The standard way to reach Hiiumaa is by ferry from the western tip of mainland Estonia at Rohuküla. There are also flights from Tallinn, and in the winter one can drive for about 15 miles across the frozen sea. While it is generally safe to join this caravan, it's not unheard of for a storm to make one lose one's bearings and fall off the ice edge on the way to Sweden. The term for an ice edge in Estonian is "jäääär," unofficially the only word in any language to contain the same vowel four consecutive times, although the two "ää" sets are usually separated by a space or hyphen.
I'll take a somewhat more circuitous route starting with a flight to Stockholm and then the overnight Silja Line to Tallinn. From there a bus will bring me to Rohuküla, where I'll board the Hiiumaa-bound ferry. I wanted a couple of days in Tallinn after my time on the island, but I'll stick them in on arrival instead: Marriott has been extending the validity of the annual free-night certificates provided by my associated credit card throughout the pandemic but is adamant that I use them all by the end of June. And there are no Marriotts -- or any major hotel chains -- on Hiiumaa.
The first post-Soviet-era Peace Corps Volunteer in Hiiumaa was Douglas Wells, in 1992. He arrived on the ferry the day the Russian army was leaving. He was assigned to Hiiumaa to reform their agriculture system, presumably on the assumption that because he was from Nebraska he had absorbed some knowledge about farming. In fact he grew up in Omaha and knew nothing about tending land or animals, and it soon became clear that he needed to find another way to leave his mark. He spent almost four years "In Search of the Elusive Peace Corps Moment," the title of his memoir.
Back then the entirety of the tourist information available on Hiiumaa consisted of a few pages handwritten by a Canadian and transcribed via typewriter by someone who didn't know English and couldn't read the handwriting. The result was virtually unintelligible. Wells established the first tourist office in the main town (really the only town) of Kärdla. He published a 42-page tourist circuit known as the Lighthouse Tour, which in addition to lighthouses takes in churches, farms, museums, and a castle. He also wrote what would become a hit song in Estonia, whose title translates as "Do You Speak English?"
Wells hit some resistance to his work: Not everyone on Hiiumaa wanted tourists to visit their island. When he put up bilingual directional signs, people took them down. When he established a program to install garbage cans as a convenience for visitors, people didn't empty them as they had agreed to. And nothing ever happened according to the agreed-upon schedule. He soon came to dread the phrase "Ootame, vaatame," the Estonian for "Let's wait and see," which the island's inhabitants used as a way to avoid committing to doing anything.
I've got the Hiiumaa map loaded onto my phone, but I do hope to make use of some of Wells's signs and his garbage containers, and in the days following the summer solstice I think we can rule out any surprise blizzards.
Go on to day 1