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Last weeks in Europe and Travel Plans
Holland, 10 November 2003
As we are preparing to leave for Ecuador on November 11th, here is an update on our last weeks in Europe and our travel plans for the next months.
When we drove from Poland to Estonia, I had uncertain expectations about the Polish-Lithuanian border. A border I had crossed many times between 1992 and 1994. The fastest I had ever crossed it was in 4 hours, that was by asking a truck driver to let me go in front of him for a small donation (I refused to let the border guards profit from their delaying tactics), thus avoiding the 3 day wait.
After the last crossing in December 1994 and after both countries had again failed to open the second border crossing as they had promised many times, I vowed never to cross it again, at least for the time being. Since then we have always flown directly to Tallinn. The flight duration after all was less then the time you needed to wait at this one particular border!
Had the situation improved by now? It started out badly, since we needed to purchase road insurance for Lithuania, which unlike ALL the other countries in Europe (including Albania) is somehow not a party to the international green card car insurance (they told me this was going to change by next year).
The border crossing took us "only" 1 hour. A record! I was still wondering what the hell those borders guards were doing to need 5 minutes to process 1 car. A Latvian co-victim of this inefficiency assured me that this was the worst border of all and he was right, both the Lithuanian-Latvian and Latvian-Estonian border crossings went pretty smoothly. The only border which had been worse was the Greek-Albanian border, which took us 2.5 hours.
As I had driven the road through Poland to Estonia many times nearly a decade ago, I was hoping for serious signs of improvement. Unfortunately not much of it was visible in Poland. Though the roads did not reach the low Albanian standards, they simply had not improved in the last decade, all traffic still has to go through Warsaw, there is no road around it. Our surprise came in Lithuania which has rebuilt nearly the entire road from the Polish to the Latvian border. No more driving through big cities and no more patchy, pot-holed asphalt.
After a visit to Maris' parents, we went on to Tallinn where we rented a furnished 2-room apartment for approx. 200 EUR a month. I got myself an ADSL modem and set up a permanent internet connection for my laptop.
In the month of September and first half of October I worked part time, online, doing software development for a Dutch company on their computer systems remotely from Tallinn.
During my first visit to Estonia in 1992, just after liberation from the Soviet Union, you could not even make a phone call to the West. It was as if we were on another planet. Now I could work when I wanted day or night on computer systems in another country and I could arrange our tickets to South America through the Internet with a Dutch travel agent.
Don't tell me things don't change! The world can be a great place sometimes.
The changes I have seen over the past decade in Estonia have simply been astonishing. Immediately after independence Russia cut off oil supplies. Filling up your car suddenly cost the equivalent of one month salary. Needless to say that there were no cars on the road whatsoever. Except for our car that is. At the time we could park our car on Vabaduse Valjak right in the center, there wasn't a single other car parked there. Today it can be difficult to find a parking place in the center.
In 1992 and 1993 the country went through a deep recession caused by the collapse of communism and the Russian trade boycott. At the same time Russia refused to pull out its troops perpetuating the illegal occupation that dated back to the German-Russian carve up of Central Europe in the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact.
But things changed as Estonia and the other Baltic republics changed their focus westwards, embracing economic reform and ditching the Ruble (which locals insisted was pronounced "rubble") and introducing new freely convertible currencies with independent central banks.
Estonia opened up its markets to foreign products and foreign investment. It never had import taxes until it was forced to some years ago by the European Union as preparation for future membership. It is the only country in the world with a so-called flat tax (a single rate regardless of income). At 26% it is far lower than that of any other European country. In Holland the state took nearly half of my pay every month!
Subsidies were prohibited, inefficient companies were left to go bankrupt. The board of the national airline company was fired because they had dared to ask for a subsidy, the government had interpreted it as an admission that they had not done their work properly. Instead an investor was found and no taxpayer money was used to prop up bad management.
Everything that could be privatized was privatized, so fast that 90% of the economy was private within 1 year. Obstacles to private initiative were removed in no time, allowing everybody to participate, not just people with good connections (as has happened in certain other countries). It was all very radical and nearly everybody in the country had to find a new job or start a business.
In 1992 and 1993 people hardly had enough money to buy food. The average monthly wage was equivalent to 25 Euros. I can't image how people survived, but they did. There were no protests, for people knew that the only alternative was Russian domination over the country.
I admire the strength of the Estonian people, they really should be proud of their achievement. They entered into the new world at great speed, for example it was only the 3rd country in the world to issue a 3rd mobile network license and embraced the internet so fast that at one point there were more Internet users amongst the 1.5 million inhabitants of Estonia than in the whole of France (maybe France was a bit slow but still). There is also a fair chance that your mobile telephone has actually been made in Estonia.
On September 14th, the Estonian people made the historic decision to join the European Union. Before the summer polls had never shown a clear majority in favor as people are quite skeptical and do not like the bureaucratic monolith Brussels is becoming.
But in the end nearly 66% of voters voted in favor. Estonia is finally back in Western-Europe. The rest of Europe will have to learn to compete.
After our world trip we are planning to move to Estonia to take advantage of the opportunities there. But for the time being, after having driven nearly 19.000km through 19 European countries since August, there is still some traveling to do. Here's the plan:
On November 11th, we will fly to Quito, from where we will travel together with our friends Erik and Chisako, probably all the way to Buenos Aires.
One of the first things we will do is visit the Galapagos Islands, it's expensive to visit but surely worth it. This is after all the place that made Charles Darwin come up with the theory of natural selection and evolution. The animals are supposedly extraordinary and this is one thing I am really exited about.
In Peru, there is of course Machu Picchu, the Inca Trail and Lago Titicaca on the border with Bolivia. From there we will head on to La Paz (Bolivia), hoping that things will be a bit more peaceful then they were these last months.
We will then travel on to Santiago and Buenos Aires. Around this time, Erik & Chisako will return to Europe while we will continue traveling in South America, trying to visit Patagonia, in the middle of the southern summer.
The end of January, February and beginning of March will be spent in Brazil, where we will visit the Iguassu Falls, Recife and the North East coast, venture into the Amazon and of course we will just happen to be there during carnival!!!
It all sounds very exiting, unfortunately we had to make a big sacrifice, in order to be able travel on. Leaving my job was easy, selling the house was easy, getting rid of the furniture was easy, leaving our hometown was easy, during the first 10 months of our trip I never missed any of these things, nor anything else that we left behind.
But this time is different, we had to leave behind Dulcio, the dying kitten we had found nearly 3 months ago in Ohrid, Macedonia. He turned out to be a male cat after all, unlike what the first vet had told us, so we changed his name from Dulcia to Dulcio. He also became a healthy well fed cat.
He traveled with us for nearly 3 months, from Macedonia all the way to Estonia and later to Holland. In these short months he traveled with us through 13 European countries and stayed in 10 different "homes".
We had only taken care of him in order to save his life, but after spending 3 months nearly every day and night with him and taking him along with us on our trip, we came to love him a lot. He would sleep on (and sometimes in) our bed. Whenever we returned "home" he would be waiting for us and greet us with a lot of meowing. He would start to purr as soon as we took him in our arms. He played endlessly, was very inquisitive and enjoyed life a lot.
As of November 8th, he lives in Elim, The Netherlands, with my former boss at the ABN AMRO, Jasper and his wife Alexa, who happily adopted him. They love cats. Together with Dulcio, they now have 24 cats! As well as 2 dogs and 1 parrot.
We miss Dulcio a lot!
Our return flight is scheduled on March 9th from Sao Paulo. Will that be the end of our world trip or not? By that time we will have visited more than 30 countries in 16 months. It's difficult to say, it depends on so many factors the most important of which is simply what we will feel like doing at that time. But there are other factors, will we have enough travel money left, are there good jobs available or is there a business to start?
Who knows! That's the beauty of it. Life is unpredictable anything could happen. I love it, it makes me feel very much ALIVE!
If you want to be notified when we write more about our trip, just send us an E-mail.
e-mail Otto de Voogd
More photos of Estonia.
To my knowledge the information provided here was accurate at the time of our visit. However time passes and things can change.
(ATMs for Maestro/Cirrus bankcards)
Poland: all ATMs.
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