Dear all, six months since I departed from Auckland Airport. I have been to 11 countries, traversed 15 international borders and am still unmarried without dependants. After departing St Pete’s I took the bus to Estonia and am now sitting in a hostel in Riga, Latvia.

Estonia. Estonia is a former SSR and like many, still striving to create a stable identity acceptable to all its citizens. It’s on the Baltic sea and has a population of only 1.3 million. It has been called the Baltic tiger for its very high growth rates post-independence and has established a framework legal, economic and political in nature to enable it to position itself as an open economy keen for FDI. One feature of a world recession is that they tend to hit small, export-oriented economies hard and Estonia has been suffering, with an official unemployment rate hovering just under 12%. I stayed in Tallinn, the capital, with the high flying Oksana who is busy conquering the world on behalf of Skype (their largest office is based here).

There is a nicely restored old town complete with hokey medievally dressed actors beckoning alcohol-laden Finn’s to come into their restaurants. Effectively the Estonian tourism industry is funded by alcoholic Finns. The old town was cobblestoned, dotted about with restored Hanseatic buildings and phlegmatic Estonians. I also attended the 1st Tallinn Autumn Sauna and Lounge Party put on by the local CS community. It was great! Lots of heat, occasional nudity, lubricated by wine and beer as well as a hookah. Just quietly, I think sauna parties are the next bit thing…

Estonia is still scarred in ways and dealing with the legacy of being effectively a small rubber ball being hit between various countries over the last thousand years including Sweden, Germany and Russia. During World War II they were unfortunate enough to be first occupied by the Red Army, then the Germans, then the Red Army again. Many died and many were sent to the gulags. There is an interesting museum of occupation in Tallinn which documents it all, up to their independence in 1991. Of course the only thing that people hear about Estonia is the soldier and the attempts by Russian politicians to use it to their advantage in the great geopolitical game being played between NATO and Russia, when in reality its more complex. Ethnic Russian Estonians make up a significant minority, mostly having been relocated to Estonia after WW II to Russify the region and repopulate the area after the war. Many younger Russian Estonians are still grappling with this identity business. Good luck! I also visited the Kumu contemporary art museum which was fantastic. I can honestly say I now know more about Estonian art 😛

Round-up. Well-met unknown personage. I am a traveller, not a tourist and its a role I am revelling in six months on. Indeed I left Auckland amid teary scenes at the airport from Tristan’s family (my own had wisely decided to depart earlier). What a journey, and one which has only whetted my appetite for more. Many people  have invited me to visit them and who am I to decline? My journey has taken me to Australia, Thailand, Malaysia, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, back to Thailand, Macau, Hong Kong, SW China, Tibet, Nepal, NE China, Russia, Estonia and now Latvia. I have suffered dollars, baht, ringgit, kip, dong, riel, patacas, dollars again, yuan, rupees, rubles, kroons and lats.  Highlight, lowlights and plain inscrutable events the significance of which wholly escape me have occurred. Like any great odyssey, awards are important to recognise these achievements of all stripes.

And the winners are!

*offbeat and bouncing drumroll*

Pentax shot of the day award for most beautiful place – tie between Koh Phi Phi at sunset and Olkhon Island, Siberia.

Biggest ‘Small World’ moment – Walking into a restaurant in Lao Tingri, Tibet and seeing Nan from work sitting there enjoying some tea!

Most debauched traveller(s) – tie between Belgian lad in Khao San Rd (a veteran now of AIDS tests every time a condom breaks for him…) and Mark in Nha Trang with his saucy session in the surf in front of about 150 onlookers…

The Dorothy ‘I wish I was somewhere else’ red shoes for sleaziest moment – sitting on beach in Cambodia next to a pasty, overweight Aucklander on a sex trip surrounded by women ‘young enough to be my daughter’.

Best and cheapest beer – Beer Lao, Laos.

Lonely Planet Gold Star award for dirtiest accommodation – The Green Hut in Kuala Lumper. I can’t get the image of bedbugs crawling down the wall towards me out of my head. Thanks LP!

Most luxurious accommodation – Oksana in Tallinn, hooray chocolate banana cake!

Closest to death – 2 hours of hell on a bus in Vietnam.

Plunger of the day for worst toilet – some hick Tibetan town public toilet which doubles as the place they dump dead dogs.

Best overall food – Thailand

Best meal – Close tie between grilled Mekong fish and pork Laap both in Vientienne, Laos.

Farang Shuffle toilet roll of honour for worst food – Tibet

The ‘wrong approach cockroach’ medallion for worst drink – cocktail at Brownie’s in Hue. Free but have some professional pride!

The subjective choice award for most beautiful women – Russia.

The ‘WTF’ electric shock endowment for most surreal moment – 3am rentboy wakeup call in Hanoi.

Best non-verbal communication moment – toasting with Rosa the Russian lubricated by a bottle of vodka in Zaibaikalsk.

Intrepid Travel voucher for commoditised mass tourism and despoilation – tie between Dali and Lijang, Yunnan, China.

Best museum – Hermitage, St Petersburg.

Non sequitur secateur of the day for oddest moment – finding a cake office on the fourth floor of an office building and being invited to eat the best damn chocolate cake I think I’ve had in years.

‘Good on ya mate’ badge for adventurism – Phil biking around China on his own.

The ‘Warren Buffet One Ton Biography’ Book Club stamp for best bookshop – Bookworm in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Nicest guest house staff – Giant Guest House, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

The Rattle Your Dags Medallion for mangling phrases in another language – Ilona 😛

The Green Leaf of Happiness for bar with the best ‘view’ – High Bar, Koh Tao.

Self-Awards

‘Chump Tick’ for eating a meal in a restaurant in Bangkok and then realising I had lost my wallet and couldn’t pay. They are still waiting for the money I think…

The Kashmiri Golden Fleece(d) for buying a carpet even when I told myself I was only going to look, in Kathmandu.

The ‘One More Beer’ Tankard for sleeping in and missing my train to Russia.

The ‘Red Bull Bucket’ for dodgiest experience – Koh Tao outside the 7/11 grappling with Thai thief.

If you’re not prepared to be wrong you’ll never come up with anything original.

Sir Ken Robinson. TED


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