Sunday, October 28, 2012

Tests and a resolution

I don't know why it had to be so hard. Of course, "hard" is relative and it could have been a lot worse. But our recent trip to Estonia felt like it brought test after test. We had days with endless solution-seeking that felt like waves of labor pain (I'm allowed to say that now) with no baby in sight.

David's visa was due to be ready on Friday, and we were planning to leave that very day. We thought out all the possible scenarios. The city where we were staying (Johvi) is just a few hours from the border, but we had to go into Tallinn first for the visa and then go back the same way we had come, toward Russia.

So in order to fit this all into one day, we needed to take the 6:00 am bus again. But we had done this several times already and knew the drill.

That is, until we had the complication that nobody counted on...


Those of you in the U.S. that were hit by last year's October snowstorm may be able to relate. But for us this was yet another link in an almost month-long chain of events. I had left Russia during a period of mild autumn weather, with just 1 or 2 changes of clothes. And here we were suddenly heading into winter. Andrei and I both piled on sweaters and David was fine in his snowsuit.

We left the apartment we had been staying in at a little after 5am and prepared to walk to the bus station. We had worked out how to carry everything, but we had a suitcase on wheels and that wasn't so compatible with the snow that had fallen overnight. Luckily, this was Estonia, and they clean things, so once we got on the main road, it was easier going.

I was tired after about 10 minutes (Andrei may have been too but didn't broadcast it), and lo and behold, a city bus pulled up. We hadn't ever caught a bus during our stay, so here we finally got a break. We rode the rest of the way and got to the station 15 minutes early.

As we rode along towards Tallinn, the roads got icier and the snow heavier. Meanwhile, it was gradually starting to get light outside. At one point we were on the highway, and the bus was having a little trouble, and as we looked up ahead there were frightening accident scenes: jackknifed-tractor trailers, cars scattered across the road and in ditches. No one had been prepared for wintry weather and had chosen to travel anyway with their summer tires.


A few stuck cars sat there with their wheels spinning as their drivers desperately tried to break free. On at least one occasion our driver went outside and fiddled with something. (In these situations, I often remember the train explosions between Moscow and St. Petersburg, when people were left stranded in the countryside in sub-zero temperatures. ) Looking out the window, I thought to myself, "this is a matter of life and death." I let my plans go and prayed, "Lord, thank You that we are ALIVE."

Even though I had let go of my expectations, our plan had been to hit the morning hours at the Consulate from 9-10, and make a 1:45 bus back to St. Petersburg. We were due to arrive in Tallinn at 8:30.

8:30 came and went and we weren't even in Tallinn yet. But as we got into Tallinn, it was a mess with traffic jams everywhere (there were also rumors of rams on the loose due to a Muslim holiday). We sat in traffic, inching along. 9:00 came and went, as well as 9:30. It was nearly 10 am when we pulled into the bus station, and the Consulate was perhaps 30 minutes away. One of us could have hurried and gotten there a little faster, but we had an infant and all our luggage in tow.

Why not take a taxi? Under normal circumstances, this would have been an excellent idea. However, it quickly became clear that taxis were not only few and far between, but that they also were subject to the same traffic jams. We dragged everything over to a corner where one was stopping, and a woman pushed in front of us (not seeing the baby/luggage?) saying "I was first!" But the taxi had another assignment and drove off.

A block ahead were the tram tracks. The wind was cold, but the bus station was under construction and there was nowhere to take shelter, so we started toward the tram. On the way there, we spotted the bus ticket office and decided to see about changing our tickets. In the ticket office, they said they we could cancel our reservations and get 50% of the price back. That seemed like better than nothing, although I wanted to argue about the baby and the weather and maybe get a better deal. We asked them how their buses were running and a sales representative said "on time" in sort of a snippy voice. Then it turned out that they could only return the money in the physical location where we had bought the Johvi, from where we had just traveled 4 hours by bus! We thought about having a friend pick up the refunded money for us, maybe give it to the church as humanitarian aid...but something told us not to cancel our tickets just yet, especially if nothing was guaranteed in return!


We got on the tram headed toward the center, somehow ending up in opposite ends and separated by crowds of people. We kept looking at each other to see which one of us had an inkling of where to get off. Eventually I recognized where we were and gave Andrei the signal to get off.

McDonald's was just down the street! I can't tell you how many times we've taken refuge in McDonald's, oddly enough. I sat down with the baby and all our things and Andrei ran to the Consulate. It was 10:30, half an hour past the time their window closed. I imagined the bars on the doors and windows.

Andrei was back in what seemed like no time. At first he feigned disappointment, but then he reached into his pocket and pulled out an American passport. I realized that it was David's passport, with the visa in it! The Russian Consulate had given us a lot of trouble, but this time they had listened to Andrei's plea and made an exception.

It didn't seem real that we actual had David's visa and were free to leave Estonia!

We took a taxi (now they were plentiful) back to the bus station and boarded our next bus, this time bound for St. Petersburg! Only a mere 6 hour-ride separated us from our own apartment with our own bed.


But the buses were not "on time" as the girl had boasted. Though we left on schedule and the border crossing   was painless (aside from our screaming baby), the roads were snowy and icy and it started to get dark again. A few hours from St. Petersburg, we got into some bad traffic jams. On one "highway," the line of traffic going the other way was at a standstill for several miles. This particular road had just two lanes and there was no breakdown lane. There was no way to turn around and seemingly no way for emergency vehicles to get through. We listened to the sound of spinning wheels. Those people would likely be stuck until morning.

At least our lane was moving ahead, slowly, but surely. We were tired and poor little David had had enough. For the last 30 minutes or so, Andrei and I sang Christmas carols to him to keep him from crying.

We finally arrived about 90 minutes behind schedule, which doesn't seem like much. But it concluded perhaps 12 hours of bus time that day, longer than it takes to fly from the U.S.! And, of course, a few unplanned weeks of sojourn in a strange country.

We learned that there HAD been fatalities, including on a bus like ours. At least for me, the trip was difficult psychologically because we kept encountering so many setbacks. And seeing people in a form of distress as we entered Russia was sobering.

And so, having traveled so far, we are overjoyed to be back.


  1. Wow, Elizabeth! What a story! I guess I won't feel sorry for myself for a while!

  2. We were talking at Bible Study about trials. Sometimes you think yours is the hardest and at other times you look at someone else's trial and think there's NO WAY you could live through what they're experiencing. I can't imagine having YOUR life. I guess God knows what's what.

  3. Oh my, after reading all your stories I just can't WAIT to get to Russia, hehe. ;P
    Trying to brace myself...

  4. If you have a visa you can pretty much keep a low profile and avoid bureaucracy! :) What kind of visa are you going for?


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