Lockdown - part 1
The day our world was turned upside down, I was at an airport. I had just written one of my last exams of vet school and couldn’t wait to see my friends in Estonia again.
It’s Thursday, March 12, 2020, eight a.m., Hanover airport. My flight has been cancelled. What now? For a moment I consider taking the tram back home, get back to my desk and study on, like all my classmates. Apart from the exams, there is this new disease to worry about that has rapidly spread from China over half the world already. It’s because of this that half of the flights are being cancelled.
But one of my friends has come to Estonia from the Netherlands, she has booked us a hut in the forest and is waiting for me. We want to hike in the middle of the Northern wilderness, maybe get to see some wildlife. I’ve been eager to finally get back to Estonia for months.
So I decide to travel on, on a train to Berlin and a plane to Tallinn, where she is already impatiently waiting for me. We definitely won’t make it to our forest before sundown. There have been put up some hand sanitizer dispensers, some people are wearing protective face masks. As of now, nobody knows what exactly this virus is we are fighting against.
So off we go to the wilderness. The owner of the little hut awaits us in the darkness and drives us the hut on his quad, as it’s dangerous to walk there now. It’s very muddy and starting to rain. The ride is not much longer than half an hour, but we get stuck in the mud every once in a while, and as the smallest person, I ride in the back. This means that I am shielded from most of the rain, but have no seat left. As we arrive, my legs are frozen, my fingers stiff and my butt is numb from sitting on the luggage rack. So we start the fire and have some snacks and a beer with the guy. He’s a friendly, shy Estonian hunter with great stores to tell. He’s pleasantly surprised that I speak a bit of Estonian and that my friend knows a lot about Estonian wildlife. He jokes, “So you basically aren’t tourists anymore” and lights a discussion about what this means. There are few roads that my friend hasn’t driven on in this country, few corners she hasn’t seen. I, on the other hand, haven’t seen that many places, but find my way through the streets of Tartu and can have basic conversations with the locals, I’ll always find a couch to sleep on and can show other visitors the way.
Once the guy is gone, we heat up the sauna. Barefoot and wrapped only in our towels, we run outside, hoping to see some deer feed nearby with the thermal imaging camera. But the loud engine before has chased them all away.
When I switch on my phone for a moment, I see that I’ve missed several calls and received countless messages: Estonia has closed the borders. There are no busses or trains going in or out, and almost no flights. Mine of course was cancelled as well. It is official: This new virus has caused a pandemic, every state wants to protect their people, they just don’t know how yet. I try to contact the airline: how will I get back? I have never wanted to leave Estonia, but I have just one more exam to write! Also, right now nobody wants to have contact with foreigners, so many of my friends have asked to meet up with me another time.
The next morning, my friend and I begin to fight. We had wanted to get up early and look for wild animals in the morning. But the long journey, stress of the day and long evening have taken their toll on me and I just can’t get out of bed. Not exactly happy with the overall situation, we take walks individually, then head back to the car. Most of the time, we can just follow the deep tracks of the quad, but sometimes we also have to walk across fields without any sign of a path. The woods and the grass are still in their winter grey and a lonely dead birch tree stands tall before the white sky.
We leave Jõgevamaa and drive to the Alam-Pedja nature reserve. What I hadn’t realized about: it is a swamp. Which I normally wouldn’t mind, except that our next hut is located in a very remote area without regularly tended to walkways. In the past weeks the snow has melted and it has rained a lot, so our path looks very much like a stream. After about an hour I give up on walking around the puddles and simply wade through, soaking my boots and socks. My friend is afraid to get stuck in the muddy ground and also tries to avoid the deeper patches of water. It is an exhausting hike and we have to concentrate on our feet so much that we can’t enjoy the nature around us. And again, sunset is coming closer. If we never take a wrong turn, we will just so make it before dark.
Unfortunately, both of us are already pretty moody. She is mad at me for not following her advice to bring rubber boots and instead insist on my hiking shoes, and I am mad at her for moving so slowly. And then we stand in front of a sort of lake. The kind of lake that is not supposed to be there between the trees. The water is knee deep and even wellies aren’t very helpful. And we can’t make out where the path is coming out on the other side. So I fight my way through the brushes and try to find a spot where we can cross this lake without being completely wet. But still, I can’t find the path on the other side. So which direction? We have one hour before it gets dark. The GPS signal is too weak to help us, the phone reception too weak to make a call. If we went fast, we could make it back to the car just before it gets too dark. But what then? Where would we spend the night so far away from any city?