Friday, March 27, 2015

Tallinn, Estonia: The Soviets Upstairs - March 2015

As we stood by the elevator ready to ascend to our room on the 18th floor, our colleague cautioned us to keep the conversation light and not talk business as the KGB was likely to be listening.

Unbeknownst to us, we were staying at the infamous Viru Hotel. Located in the heart of Tallinn, the Viru Hotel was built in 1972 as a "western" hotel while Estonia was still under occupation by the Soviet Union.

The small country of Estonia has a tumultuous history having been invaded by several countries due to its favorable positioning between the east and the west. The country we know today declared its independence as a Democratic Republic in 1918, before being forcibly occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940, the Nazis in 1941, and the Soviets again from 1944 to 1991.

During the time of Soviet occupation in Estonia, westerners, especially journalists, were encouraged to visit Tallinn to spread word of how modern and prosperous life was under communist rule. The Viru Hotel was the pinnacle for such Soviet propaganda and the primary accommodation option in Tallinn for westerners during this time.

When we stepped into the elevator of the 23-story hotel and made the selection of the 18th floor, it was notable that the buttons stopped at 22. We later learned that was because the 23rd floor was home to the KGB. From 1972 to after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Viru Hotel's 23rd floor served as the "Estonian" base for Soviet spy operations.

Under Soviet rule, the words and actions of locals and visitors alike were continuously monitored, likely recorded and often used as black mail. Government control was paramount. The KGB was the only entity in Tallinn to own a copy machine and all typewriters needed to be registered by the government. From their top story office in the Viru Hotel, the KGB used recording devices to spy on the guests below. Cameras on poles with long lenses were secured in pipes and microphones were hidden in telephones, behind pictures, and inside lamps, ash trays and dishes. There were also floor guards stationed on every level to chronicle the comings, goings and visitors of all guests.

While it was formally announced that the KGB abruptly left the Viru Hotel and abandoned their base under the cover of night in 1991, many believe their presence in Tallinn, and the Viru Hotel, remains to this day.


Tallinn, Estonia: Orange, Yellow & Green Amber - March 2015

Old town Tallinn is undeniably charming. Walking through the cobblestone streets of the walled city it's like you are transported back hundreds of years. Girls in bonnets stir sugared almonds in wooden carts, and shop owners decorate their windows with fresh roses.

Peaked, pastel-colored shops hawk orange, yellow and green amber, and artisans invite you in to witness their craft. Singing and dancing in the town square is as common as the archery tents set up in the grass.

Lit by only candlelight, in the medieval taverns you can feast on plates of rabbit, boar, elk and bear while swallowing lager in heavy clay jugs.

Only a two-hour ferry ride from Helsinki, Tallinn is an easy escape to another time.


Saturday, March 21, 2015

Thailand Top Ten: Flashback 2006-2011

Thailand is my favorite country on the planet. The first time I traveled there, I was enchanted, and since I've returned a handful of times. I definitely plan to visit again soon. Here's why:

10.) Shopping. Whether it's a tailor-made suit, blouse or coat, or counterfeit movies and television series, you can find it here. Cheap. Nearly every town hosts its own market where you can purchase everything from fruits and vegetables to shoes and umbrellas; there are also night bazaars where you can sift through hand-stitched tapestries or if it suits your taste, imitation designer apparel and bags. Larger cities, like the capital of Bangkok, are home to shopping palaces that would wow even the most spoiled shopper with themed floors, elaborate decor and heights towering more than ten stories.

9.) Language. A melodic tonal language as beautiful in sound as it is in script. สวัสดี ชื่อของฉันคือ คิม และฉัน รักเมืองไทย (Hello. My name is Kim and I love Thailand.) In the Thai language there are five tones: low, mid, high, rising and falling; each syllable earns its own tonal attribute, and while spelled the same, the use of tone can considerably alter the meaning of a word. ขาว, said in various tones, refers to either the color 'white', or the foodstuff 'rice' or could also be used as a greeting to indicate the sharing of gossip.

8.) Landscape. With its limestone rock cliffs towering over crystal clear waters, or dense rainforests hidden within rolling hills, the landscape throughout Thailand is breathtaking. It has it all: cityscape, jungles, beaches, mountains and farmland. Best explored by boat, train, tuk tuk, parasail or on the back of an elephant.

7.) Wildlife. You don't have to look very far to see something slithering, stomping or swinging by. The Thai people share their land with elephants, monkeys, snakes, tigers and an assortment of other creatures in near-perfect harmony.

6.) Religious Preservation. Buddhism is the country's most widespread religion, however, in Thailand all religions co-exist and are revered. Temples, monasteries and other religious artifacts dot the nation as abundant as the stars in the sky. Centuries-old temples can be found around every corner ripe for you to explore. Many of the sites continue to house practicing monks and nuns, and invite the community for ritual ceremonies and celebrations.

5.) Bang for Your Buck. Your dollar extends far in Thailand. Currently one U.S. Dollar will buy you a little greater than 30 Thai Baht (THB). With 30 THB you can buy a plate of noodles or stir-fried vegetables over rice. 1,000 THB can get you a decent night's accommodation on the beach. Internet access at a local café is typically 1 THB per minute and four mangoes will set you back 15 THB.

4.) Marinelife. The underwater world surrounding Thailand is captivating. Fish and sea creatures of all colors and sizes play off the coastline. It's an ideal spot to get scuba certified with countless accredited schools and well-preserved dive sites. Day trip and live-aboard scuba excursions are touted at all the popular beach destinations in the southern part of the country: Ko Phi Phi, Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan - to name a few. 'Ko' is Thai for 'island.'

3.) Food. If your palate craves spice, look no further. But adventurous foodies beware: 'Thai Hot' will set your taste buds afire. Traditional Thai dishes that are popular with travelers include: Pad Thai: stir-fried rice noodles with chopped peanuts, Pad Kee Mao 'Drunken Noodles': stir-fried rice or noodles with basil and pepper, and, of course, THE Thai Curry. Thai curry, with its rich coconut milk base and use of fresh ingredients, differs greatly from its Indian cousin, and typically comes in the varieties of red, green, yellow, matsaman and phanaeng. In the eastern parts of Thailand mangoes and sticky rice is a common dish, while at the bar shooting pool you can nibble on a bowl of salted crickets.

2.) Culture. Sawatdi. Unwavering devotion to the King. Thai boxing. Rice fields. Full moon parties. Respect and harmony between the old and the new. Karma. Night bazaars. National Elephant Day. Ladyboys singing on street corners. The third gender. Floating river markets. Long ingrained social customs and norms. Respect for elders. Ramakien. Massage parlors. The Thai New Year in April with water festivals and squirt guns. Temple art and architecture. Street vendors. Ancient Siam.

1.) Hospitality of the People. Where ever you travel within Thailand undoubtedly you will be greeted with a smile and the wai. The wai is the traditional Thai welcome comprised of a slight bow and the pressing of the palms of the hands together in a prayer like fashion. The wai is almost always accompanied by the melodic and beckoning 'sawatdi' which is a pleasant wish of well-being. The Thai people are proud of their culture and welcoming to foreigners. Many like to practice their English and to teach you a word or two of Thai. As with every person, in every country around the world, behind each smile, each has a story. If you are fortunate enough to hear it, the story may just change your life.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Liechtenstein: Largest Exporter of False Teeth - March 2015

Liechtenstein is a difficult country to visit. Only 62 square miles in area, it is landlocked between Austria and Switzerland. In order to travel there for many, it's likely needed to employ the use of a plane, train, bus and taxi.

We elected to explore Liechtenstein for the day by bus from nearby Zurich. Before visiting, my limited knowledge of this nation was that Carmen Santiago was often found hiding within its borders discovered with clues like "this micro-state is the size of a postage stamp."

Liechtenstein, in fact, is a fascinating place. Still ruled by a royal family who lives in a castle perched atop a mountain keeping watch of the capital of Vaduz, the tiny country has more registered companies than it does citizens. Suspicious, yes. It is also a desirable place to establish an additional bank account or secondary 'residence' for some. Additionally, Liechtenstein is the largest exporter of false teeth due to its fruitful ceramics industry.

A brief visit and a passport stamp was just enough for us.

Zürich, Switzerland: Cheese, Chocolate & the Alps - March 2015

Swiss cheese. Swiss chocolate. Swiss Alps. Our weekend getaway to Zürich, Switzerland, tucked into the foot of the Alps, was a rush. We dined on rich cheese fondue, marveled at the bricks of chocolate and were thoroughly enveloped by the towering mountain scenery around us.

We spent an afternoon strolling around the nearby town of Rapperswil, known as the "Town of Roses," visiting its 13th century castle set as the backdrop to a medieval village.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Copenhagen, Denmark: Airport Roulette - March 2015

We woke up early on a gray Saturday with no plans for the three-day weekend. Tossing around a few ideas, we quickly agreed on heading to the nearest airport for an adventure.

Lappeenranta is a city fewer than thirty kilometers from Imatra and home to a small airport hosting one or two budget airlines. We threw a change of clothes and toiletries in a backpack and headed there hoping to score a cheap flight somewhere fun.

As we rolled up, the airport was dark. Apparently closed to thrill-seekers all but Sundays and Wednesdays. We considered going back home but instead persevered on another two and a half hours to Helsinki.

At the Helsinki Airport we had far more options. Factoring in flight time, cost and stops, we chose to lay down our Euros for two economy tickets to Copenhagen, Denmark. In less than an hour from arriving at the airport, we were boarding our flight. We pulled up some travel pages for a quick read on the flight and headed to Copenhagen.

 Having not heard a lot about the city, James and I were instantly captivated with its charm. Cobblestone streets, brightly colored buildings lining canals, and countless landmarks hinting to the country's rich and storied history. Over the course of a day, we logged over ten miles walking to Hans Christin Anderson's iconic Little Mermaid statue, Nyhavn Street, up and down Rundetårn Tower and to Christiansborg Palace.

For a midday snack we hailed a taxi to Malmö, Sweden just over the Øresund Bridge where James found himself caught up in a multi-cultural woman's rights march through the town square. After I got him to put down the picket sign and stop chanting, we headed to my friend Lisbeth's home.

Lisbeth, a good friend whom I had met dancing in the ocean off Thailand ten years ago, now lived on a commune in Copenhagen with her boyfriend and two small children. We caught up over wine before boarding the metro to the nearby district of Copenhagen referred to as Christiania.

Lisbeth's boyfriend said that a few hours in Christiana would change our lives. It did. Freetown Christiania is a large commune of 850+ Danes living in discarded military barracks declared autonomous from the rest of the nation. Within the gates of Christiania, photos are forbidden, colorful graffiti is ever present, and although technically illegal, the alcohol and drugs are passed freely. In contrast to the smoking twenty-somethings we saw crowded around picnic tables, Lisbeth told us many professionals lived there with their children enjoying the gardens and schools on the grounds. If only for an afternoon, it was incredible to peek into this seemingly mythological micro-culture and imagine day-to-day life within its gates.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Reykjavik, Iceland: Northern Lights & Glaciers - February 2015

It's after midnight, pitch black and well below freezing in our jeep. I can't feel my toes. After feasting on a pile of garlic and pepper lobsters and hunting for the Northern Lights for hours, we are now stuck in deep wet snow seemingly in the middle of nowhere Iceland.

We've been searching for the Northern Lights, a.k.a. Aurora Borealis, which is a natural light display in the sky most commonly seen in the Arctic and Antarctic regions. I've been told that the "auroras are caused by charged particles, mainly electrons and protons, entering the atmosphere from above causing ionisation and excitation of atmospheric constituents, and consequent optical emissions" or something like that. However it happens, the Northern Lights are a must-see dancing light show with brilliant greens, purples and pinks.

Before long, back in the jeep, there's hope for my little toes. Our guide drops our tire pressure from 30 to 3 psi, and we manage to roll out of the ditch. We keep up the hunt a little while longer before returning to our hotel cold, tired and without having caught the slightest glimpse of the elusive lights.

The next day we saw Iceland in an entirely different light ... daylight. We were picked up by our guide with only a few hours sleep but eager to explore. We hopped into a jeep with tires fit for a monster truck rally and headed to the great mid-ocean divide: the area where the North American and European tectonic plates collide. After taking in the sights and walking the treacherously icy path from one continent to the other, we loaded back into the jeep to warm up and check out the next stops on the Golden Circle circuit. We admired the blow of erupting geysers and inhaled the heavy sulfuric wafts, went off-roading onto the Langjökull Glacier into hurricane-force winds, and witnessed the crashing waterfalls that hid in the gorges aside the snow-covered hills.
That night we climbed back into the jeep to resume our search for the Northern Lights. Fortunately, this time, we got lucky.