Listening for the Alien Heartbeat

I take the early morning train to Võhma (€1.06). An old town, chimneys, market gardens, small greenhouses. Men in cloth caps on bicycles. The only shop I find sells fertilizer and shovels. No breakfast for me.

Estonia, Suure-Jaani: Child on SwingI set out on the 22km walk to Suure-Jaani. Cross the Navesti river. An old grain processing plant on right, a stone warehouse on the left. This is flat, glacial land, fields greening, surrounded by walls of pine and birch. Wood farmhouses open to the welcome sun.

Late afternoon I arrive at Suure-Jaani, pop about 1,000. My guesthouse is on the river opposite the church.

Estonia, Suure-Jaani: Church on LakeAbove the church, a cemetery; graves topped with soil, not sealed.  They don’t leave picked flowers here, they plant them.  Color everywhere, birdsong.  Resting among the trees:

Estonia, Suure-Jaani: Graves with FlowersFolks in twos and threes, planting, raking.  Many graves are of people born around the same time as me, buried 5 years ago, being raked.

Estonia, Suure-Jaani: Gazebo on LakeTwo kids flash past on bicycles, leaving hardly an image:

Estonia, Suure-Jaani: 2 Kids on Bikes Flash PastAnd evening houses reflect in the lake, ephemeral, against a long empty sky:

Estonia, Suure-Jaani: Evening Reflections on Lake

(events 3 May 2013)


Early evening.  I persuade a friendly Estonian officer who owns a kebab house to make me a fishburger.  This being Estonia, there will always be a hunk of salmon lying around somewhere. This man has served in Afghanistan and in Africa, and will again.  He takes me through his numbers: he has risked everything on this Kebab place, over a hundred km from his home.

The economy of Estonia is not great.  So risking his life to earn some money, then risking that money on a remote venture, is the only way he sees of escape.  His restaurant is on the corner of this street.  I like him, and would not want to live in his shoes.

Estonia - Turi: sun setting on street

I pass an old cemetery marked by crumbling stone crosses covered in lichen.  But there are also many rusting metal crosses carrying no names.  I guess something bad happened here once.  And if you read the history of Estonia, and the long oppression of its people, there is no shortage of candidates.

Estonia - Turi: Cemetery without names

Before bed I drop in and ask the landlady about my planned next stop: Vohma.  I say I will walk there tomorrow.  She looks at me and talks slowly and carefully:

“Vohma small place, only have cows… & pigs.

…You understand?”

She has come to the conclusion that I am not very bright.

Next morning a transparent half-moon in a cold blue sky.  Pine trees.  Old women walking bicycles, sweeping steps.  Early morning is a time for old women.

Estonia - Turi: sun shadowsAnd a cool time for walking.

(events 2 May 2013)


The town square of Paide (pronounced  bp-aii-de) has a church on one side, a town hall on the other and a small park in the middle. People are out for spring; there is a fire truck, local boys eyeing local girls and little kids in funny costumes.

But the only restaurant is closed, so I keep walking. Moss grows on the roofs of wood houses:

Estonia, Paide: Moss Growing on Roof of Wood House

There is the smell of pine trees and wood-smoke. This is roughly the centre of Estonia.  Life is old but cosy:

Estonia, Paide: Cosy Old Wood House

Today I want to reach Turi (dt-oo-ri), 13km. I pass the cemetery of Reopalu, sitting quietly amid tall trees. Its stone walls are covered in moss.  There is a small stone chapel with a bell. The first grave here is dated 1774:

Estonia, Paide - Reopalu Cemetery

An old woman in a big coat walks amid her memories.  My heart walks with her a moment.  A worker trims bushes. Pink, red, purple, blue flowers grow on many plots:

Estonia, Paide - Reopalu Cemetery - flowers, fence

I walk under a blue sky, in a carpet of blue flowers. I try not to walk on them, but it is spring and they gather about my feet:

Estonia, Paide - Reopalu Cemetery - carpet of blue flowers

Estonia, Road to Turi - Stork NestingI pass signs telling me that there will be Mooses Crossing Next 5 km. I hope these half-tonne hormone-barrels don’t find me attractive. An idiot in a bright blue jacket passes me on a bicycle. I relax. He looks much more like the kind of guy a spring-struck moose might eye.

The walk here is long and flat. Husband Storks stuck in their domestic eyries look down on me, no doubt thinking: “Now there’s a good idea.”

Finally a small river, marking just 5km left today.

I arrive in Turi late afternoon and head to the place I am staying, sitting beside the river. The landlady eyes me, and asks for the money upfront.

She tells me she will make me an English Breakfast.  I request:

“But no bacon or sausage.”

She gives me one those looks:

“So what’s left?”

Later we chat and she becomes friendly. She tells me the reason she asked for the money upfront is:

“You look like a man with no money”.

Have I really so cast off my earthly shackles?

(events 1 May 2013)


After a month or two, the sun comes out on a bare but sunny park;  dead grass reviving, optimism in the air.
Kids gather on old railway tracks:

Tallinn - Spring - Kids on the TracksA tram trundles through a quiet park;  trees pull their souls back up from the cold earth:

Tallinn - Spring - Tram in a ParkThe city, buried for months beside a frozen sea,  emerges; just as this country now emerges from 800 years of subservience.[1 ]

Tallinn - Emerging from the SeaBut despite the still bitter wind from the north, the evening is beautiful.

Tallinn - Spring - Icy Stream

I walk home along frozen stream and quietly singing grass.

(events April 2013)


[1]  Estonia was independent only from 1920-1940, and now from 1991.  In one struggle in the 1600s, more than half the population died.


In one of my usual displays of poor judgement, I arrive in Estonia in Winter.
In winter people here drink hard drink and go ice fishing:

Estonia - Ice FishingThe parks and harbours freeze up,
and the line between land and sea gets blurred:

Estonia - Frozen Land, Frozen SeaEven walking around the capital, my face freezes up and I am unable to speak.
So I decide to take an apartment and wait it out, sitting beside my window:

Estonia - SnowfallThe upside is it makes for elegant evenings.

Estonia - Elegant after a SnowfallI regret there is no tuxedo in my backpack.
The evenings here really call for a dinner suit.

(events 30 Mar 2013)


Today the lonely journey home.  A weary man regrets what he has not done:

Sri Lanka: Man Walking Home on Railway Tracks

At Kandy I seek my last Sri Lankan Tea: thick and sweet.  In beautiful Singhalese script I am offered:

Tea-time Cake Rs150/=

Jujubes Rs60/=

Hindus sit on the ground fixing umbrellas. Muslims corner the pastry market.  Dogs wander, bereft of social purpose, sad.

I negotiate the Byzantine railway rules, the friendly suicidal tuktuks, little girls in bonnets, plump babies dressed regrettably, 3rd class carriages, “No Riding on the Footboard” and join a train:

Sri Lanka: Boys Hanging Out of TrainEven at the stations there are coconut palms, banana trees, mangoes, forest cashews, small red temples.  How can an island so bountiful have so many poor?

Sri Lanka: Kids and Cow on Train TracksWe pass old English railway stations, palms, red flowering trees, a woman in a print dress running with her cow:

Sri Lanka: Woman Running with Cow Near TrainWe followed the warm rails into the red sky, my last here.  But trains, even when the rails are warm, do not turn back, do not err.  And for this, I was melancholy.

Sri Lanka: Sunset on Warm Tracks(events 18 Jan 2013)


Taking a train down from Nanu Oya.  Beautiful women fly past like flocks of lorikeets, blue green yellow red:

Sri Lanka: Flashing Saris from a trainClothes dry on tea bushes.  Hills and hills of wild tea.  A skinny dark girl, unexpected in a bright pink long dress – a benign djinn smiling down at me.  A good omen, and I am grateful.

Kids, women, buildings flash past in 300 colors:

Sri Lanka: People at train platform, colorsEven a woman struggling with bags raises one arm to fly:

Sri Lanka: Woman in Sari getting on trainI mark a rundown station on my private map.  When the end of the world comes, this is where I will return to live:

Sri Lanka: Overgrown jungle railway stationWe race past a dusty girl in a dusty ochre dress, her wild hair a tangle.  She laughs teeth and waves.  Brings more joy and good fortune.

The train stops at a gate.  It takes less than an instant for this kid to grin.  I click and wish I could toss her a copy.  I toss her my heart instead.

Sri Lanka: Smiling kid at railway gate(events 18 Jan 2013)