“Let’s go to Russia today!” I suggested to Mrs. Mingus. The heat was really getting to her down here near Võru. Our car is air-conditioned, so wasting gas seemed like a reasonable thing to do on a day like this. “Russia? But I don’t even have my passport,” she replied. —Me, neither. That’s why it will be fun, I prodded in thirty-six-degree enthusiasm.
The drive to the border south of the village of Värska was only just under an hour, so we decided to make it a mini-American road trip. Anything interesting on the way, we’d check it out. I had no idea Southern Estonia could be so fun.
The first thing we randomly came across was a meteorite crater in a place called Ilumetsa. One thing I’ve noticed about Estonia—space debris loves it. The country is covered in craters. Each one is lovingly maintained by the State Forest Management Centre (or RMK in Estonian). Nice, new boardwalks help you navigate the bog on your way to the final destination: a big hole in the ground.
This point of interest, not really visible on most maps, was dotted with wooden sculptures of devils and other make-believe animals, such as man-sized frogs. It’s fantastic really, even though RMK neglects to provide any information whatsoever in terms of how long the hike from the parking lot is, or where the other craters are. The map in the log house didn’t even show where we were at that moment. It did, however, include several photos from Saaremaa, on the other side of the country. But this crater is just off the road from Põlva to Värska, by the train tracks near a village called Niitsiku.
When we arrived in Värska, I pulled over in a parking lot to check the map. Turn right when you get there, and keep going straight. There’s not a lot to do here in terms of tourist attractions, except for the Seto Museum and, well, a quick drive through Russia. The sign in the parking lot advertised that there was a Swedbank cash machine. Local hangout.
So up the road, past the museum, between the villages of Lutepää and Sesniki, the road crosses the Russian border for a brief instant. Signs tell you not to stop or walk, there are fences visible in some areas, and a nice green stick that says “Estonian Border” on it. I was really hoping for a “Welcome to Russia” sign, but that didn’t happen. If you didn’t know where you were, you would assume it was the Latvian border, which was also nearby. I stopped the car briefly, opened the door and stuck my foot on the gravel road. The pavement starts again on either side of the border. I have now officially been to Russia.
But there’s nowhere really to go once you’re back in Estonia. Not if you’re hungry, that is. We turned around and went back to Värska. I have now officially been to Russia twice. “I wonder if the Seto Tea House is at the museum we saw back near Värska,” Mrs. Mingus wondered aloud.
—What’s that? I asked.
“Just some restaurant. I read about it in a magazine. I read about Seto stuff all the time now.
—Really? I didn’t know you were that interested in it.
“I’m not. But it’s everywhere. Everyone keeps talking about Seto-this and Seto-that. It’s the new fad.”
—What’s so special about them?
“They’re basically part Estonian, part Russian. They have their own dialect, an off-shoot of the Võru language.” Like most Tartu women, Mrs. Mingus studied philology in university.
—So all their words end in the letter õ?
“Maybe. I only speak Võro.”
The Seto tsäimaja, or Tea House, is between Värska and Russia. The first building from the parking lot, it sits in a traditional farm complex, now a museum. Directly behind it is a traditional Seto cell phone tower. The whole museum shows how stuff was done in the olden days. Only I somehow suspect those olden days weren’t so long ago. The smaller the animal, the slower the perception of time. That’s why it’s so hard to kill a fly. We move in slow motion for them. By the end of the swat, a decade of fly time has passed. Jupiter blinked its eye a few million years ago, and the Setos—all five thousand of them—recently got cell-phone coverage. I paid by card.
When we entered, most of the dining room was reserved. There’s a sign that reads, “Groups which inform in advance about their visit will be given priority.” You order at the bar, so we went and browsed the menu. The only main dish available that day sounded good—a pork chop—so we tried to order. A middle-aged waitress kept running in and out of the door, ignoring us.
“Excuse me,” I politely spoke up.
—Grrd, replied Kristõ the waitress.
“We’re ready to order.”
At that moment, two Finnish men decked out in bicycling attire approached the bar. “Beer! Õlu! Olut!”
—How many? Kristõ replied.
“Twenty-three.” Ten minutes after we started waiting to order, a large Finnish tour group had entered and been seated at the reserved tables.
—Just a minute.
“Excuse me, we’d like to order.” I interrupted.
—We give priority to groups which inform in advance about their visit.
“But we were here first.”
“We’ve been waiting here for a long time, long before they arrived.”
—I know, she stated, before going back to the kitchen. I still didn’t know what color Kristõ’s eyes were.
Mrs. Mingus told me to take the kids outside and grab the last free table, and she patiently waited at the bar to order. Fifteen minutes later, she came out with two bottles of Värska water. “I finally ordered,” she said. Värska water is presumably bottled locally, with local water. It tastes like seawater to me, only palatable if extremely cold, which fortunately our bottles were. Our family caught a violently nasty stomach virus a couple weekends ago, and we all drank Värska water to replenish our salts. Electrolytes. It worked. A lot of Estonians swear by this stuff. I now associate it with the intricacies of our toilet.
Exactly two minutes later, the food was served. Traditional Seto food. I immediately noticed the difference between Estonian and Seto meals. In Estonia, the meat is on the right. In Setomaa (-maa means “land”) it’s on the left. As a left-handed individual, this provided me with a certain comfort in dining. This food though—this Seto food—was exactly the same as any other bar food in Estonia. Pan-fried pork, beet salad, boiled potatoes and cabbage salad.
However—and this is a big however—while the chef may have been rather unimaginative in her culinary choices, she really knew how to make this food. The meat was delectably tender, and for the first time in my life, I enjoyed eating beet salad. The porridge was also very tasty. Mulgipuder in Estonian (mashed potatoes with grain). Mrs. Mingus makes the best, but what the Seto Tea House served was noticeably better than any restaurant mulgipuder I’ve had. The main dish was gigantic for sixty-four kroons. The same meal in Võru would not be quite as good, and the price would be twice what we paid here.
It must have been made with local ingredients. A recent study revealed that Estonian salaries are one-fourth that of Brussels, but food in grocery stores is only marginally more expensive in Belgium. We’re all eating our salaries. Dipped in sour cream and sprinkled with dill.
Driving back through Värska on the way to the highway, I started looking for the famed Värska spa. I found the building in this image. My heart grew disheartened. Across the street was an amazing church, in the next image.
We made our way to the Piusa caves, north of Obinitsa. Twelve years in Estonia, and I’d never been here before. Originally a mine for glass sand opened in the Sixties, it’s been closed to the public for a few years due to the danger of caving in. Because that’s what caves do. “The mine is liable to fall down”, reads one sign in English. The nature is stunning. Sand, pines, rolling hills. In this heat, the air was thick with the scent of pines. An old sand quarry now hosted a swimming hole, and there was a new complex under construction at the caves themselves. Very modern. I look forward to visiting again when it’s completed.
The caves themselves were a bit of a disappointment, because you could only enter the first chamber underground. Remember, they’re liable to fall down on you. Thirty-five kroons will grant you entrance. Next year it will be two euros fifty cents, or thirty-nine kroons. What they don’t tell you, however, is that while the temperature was thirty-six outside, and everyone was half-naked and sweaty, the temperature in the mine was eight. Briefly refreshing, then just plain cold. Take a jacket with you.
Next stop: Härma müür (müür means “wall”, or in this case sandstone bluff) in the Piusa River Valley (Piusa ürgorg). Ürgorg is usually “primeval valley” in English. I’m very loosely translating these names so it’s easier to understand if you’re not an Estonian-speaker. I’ve been to Oregon in the States, and thought that nothing in Estonia could compete with it. I was wrong. This bluff was just amazing. There’s a campfire site next to it, free camping.
On the way back to Võru we stopped in a village called Lasva for a picnic. Wonderful wooden sculptures again, some built on the exposed root structures of mammoth pines surrounding…a volleyball court.
One common theme I noticed at each of the places we visited—and indeed any beach, forest or picnic area in Estonia—is the garbage. Bottle caps, cigarette butts, candy wrappers, sunflower seed shells, beer cans, ice cream packaging—you name it, it’s been littered there in the past few days. Every time I go out in a canoe, I can see through the water. I can see tires, furniture, household appliances, abandoned on the lakebed.
Estonia promotes itself internationally as a country that loves the environment. Maybe it should promote itself domestically in the same way. When I was a child in the Boy Scouts, our rule was that we always had to leave the campsite cleaner than when we found it. Even if it’s not your trash, you have to pick it up and carry it down the mountain with you. I think that’s a healthy philosophy to practice.
National clean-up movements like Teeme ära! (Let’s Do It!) might just result in court battles about who has to pay for the garbage trucks, but the idea is right. A lot of Estonians respect and love their land, and want to clean it up and keep it clean. It’s the other lot of Estonians who crap in their own backyards and go jump head-first in shallow water while completely wasted. Whether or not these people are in the majority is irrelevant. It only takes a few to trash the whole place.
So allow me to announce: The Mingus Initiative. Let’s start small, sustainably. Every day, take the initiative and pick up just five pieces of trash, and relocate them to a trashcan. See a bottle cap? Put it in the trash. Find a candy wrapper in the woods? Carry it back to the parking lot and put it in the trash. Spot a reminder that a dog was in the area? Well, maybe leave that alone. Better to clean up after your own dog.
This will take less than a minute of your day, but you’ll feel good about it. I promise. Socialized health care means we take care of each other through taxes. Let’s clean up after ourselves, too. Keep Estonia beautiful. Yes, this might be very American of me, and very naïve, but have you looked around lately?