Time was running out on my study abroad trip and I could feel the pressure to live every moment like it was my last. A bus ride to Lithuania would count as my final test as an independent traveler.
I’m sitting on a bus, staring out of the window on a gloomy, rained filled day in Europe. My enthusiasm for travel was all but spent, but I had a few more days left of my study abroad trip and I wasn’t about to waste them. So feeling exhausted, and refusing to spend money on silly things like food, I pressed forward. I decided to visit the Baltic States just south of Estonia, and was on a bus to a town called Kaunas in Lithuania.
I had a long list of activities planned and sights to visit, so my expectations were high. In my head I was thinking I would have a full day to be a tourist. But actually, now that I think about it, I spent one night in a hostel and left the next day! God, this trip was ALL journey, no destination, but anyway…
Upon arrival, getting lost and dragging my luggage through the rain for over an hour, I found my hostel and could finally rest. The next day I jumped on a city bus to take me to IX Fort (Nine Fort, formerly a Soviet Union prison, then a Nazi concentration camp, now a memorial and museum).
I rode the city bus for hours not understanding where I was, and eventually pointed on a map to the driver where I wanted to go. He stopped on a busy highway entrance ramp and just pointed out the door. I had no clue what was happening. I left the bus feeling like I was in the middle of nowhere, beside the road. Very weird. I walked 5 minutes in a random direction and stumbled upon the memorial. Ohhhh, that’s why he abandoned me on the side of the highway, the Fort is right here!
Excitement bloomed as I finally reached my destination, but was quickly halted as I read a sign that said “Closed on Wednesdays.” Yeah… it was Wednesday. (I did little to no research on my travels back then. My mind just said, “GO, go, go, I’ll figure the rest out later.”)
So I spent that afternoon walking around an empty, open air memorial. The energy there was powerful, solemn, and very, very still and quiet. It was a place that demanded great respect and humility for those who were killed during Nazi occupation of Lithuania. I’m very glad I visited. I prayed silently as I turned a corner and, with my own eyes, saw a concrete wall filled with bullet holes from what I assumed was an area meant for executions. Very sad. I have heard of concentration camps from school and movies but to actually see one and try to imagine what it must have been like? No words.
Side note: a really good book regarding concentration camps and the power of positive thinking is Mans Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl.
Eventually, I looked at the time and realized my bus back to Tallinn left in a few hours! Did I really come all this way to see one thing, only to turn around and head back? It certainly seemed that way. My trip to Lithuania was brief, confusing and mostly travel time. Such poor planning on my part yielded only one of the many things I wanted to see and do. I left on the bus back to Estonia feeling happy I was able to see the IX Fort, but disappointed in myself for not managing my time. Like… at all! But, I learn from life experiences and surely this was a lesson that didn’t bear repeating right? But wait… there’s more.
It never dawned on me what time I’d arrive back in Tallinn. We rode into the bus station at midnight, obviously all the hostels were closed, and I had no money for a cab or a place to stay. My flight back to the U.S. left the next day so I decided to spend the night in the airport. I looked at a map and realized it was a mere 3.5km away.
So, I hauled my luggage down the highway, in the middle of the night, and stopped only once to eat a super-gross, gas-station egg salad sandwich before I reached Tallinn airport. Dizzy from exhaustion, I spent the night on the cold, tiled floor, curled up in an emergency space blanket (That I bought cause I thought it was cool), and wearing my camo shorts (that I wore even though they weren’t). I boarded the plane after 10 hours in the airport, (which doesn’t break my record of 18hrs at Heathrow) and took a big breath. My 2008 study abroad trip to Tallinn, Estonia had come to an end.