So how much do you know about Lithuania? Probably not much if you are like me—just another one of those small, obscure, European countries that were part of the Soviet Union and a forgotten land trying to struggle along on its own. Over the course of the next three days, I was reminded once again how wrong we Americans are to discount many countries as inferior without much to offer, only because we don’t know much about them or care to know. Embry and I have visited over 50 counties over the course of our marriage and with few exceptions have come away with appreciation of what each country has to offer—along, of course, with awareness of the dark sides of their experience. I am continually reminded of how small and fragile our lonely, blue planet is and how much there is to celebrate and protect but also how easy it is for life to turn from good to bad. In that category Lithuania is Exhibit A, but more on that later.
On day two, after strolling the winding, narrow cobblestoned streets of Old Town bustling with activity–coffee shops, cafes, restaurants, and fancy shops– we decided we would make use of our rental car and head out into the countryside. Various guidebooks identified a large national park (Aukstaitija) near the southeastern border with Belarus as a must-see place if you are in Vilnius though it is almost 120 miles away. Using our Google Maps app, we made our way out of the city and very soon found ourselves on a mostly deserted, two-lane road winding through towering pine forests and occasional small farms with modest farm houses amidst fields of wheat and grain. Lithuania is a poor country compared to most other European countries and certainly to the U.S., but nowhere have we seen anything close to abject poverty or seen any panhandlers.
We had put the name of the park in the Google app on my iPhone and followed instructions. After a couple of hours on the road, Google told us to take a sharp right onto a narrow, paved road. That road took us through several scenic villages with modest but well kept homes surrounded by fields of green. Nowhere was there any sign that suggested we were in a national park. Nor did we pass a single vehicle over the course of the several miles we were on the road. Then as we passed though one of the more quaint villages, with a dozen or so houses, the paved road abruptly ended and turned into a one lane, dirt road with no signs of any kind—certainly no indications that we were in a park. We forged ahead hoping we would not encounter another vehicle headed in the opposite direction, which would require one of the vehicles to back up for what would seem like miles. The farther and deeper we inched our way into the primeval forest, the more it resembled a path, leaving open the questions where were we headed and how were we ever going to get out of there.
After about a half hour, Google Maps lit up with the announcement, “You have arrived at your destination!” We looked around. Towering pines lined the dirt road with lakes barely visible behind them on both sides. There was no other sign of human life anywhere or for that matter that humans had ever been here. The closest experience I could think was our adventure in Siberia in 1992 when we visited our son, Andrew, who was living in Moscow, and who had arranged our own private tour with friends to explore the Taiga Forest. Both spots were totally unspoiled and beautiful and absent any hint of human activity except for the deserted, one lane road we were on.
“So we are here!” Embry exclaimed, “Hooray for Google Maps.”
The device had indeed led us to the exact center of a desolate but extraordinarily beautiful, national park covering over 150 square miles. All I could do was marvel at what kind of algorithm could figure all this out and know where this “road” was and whether it could also lead us out of this wilderness.
Soon after the announcement that we had arrived at our destination, we parked our car at a opening next to a lake where there was one picnic table and then followed a tiny path along the lake that eventually took us back to the dirt road we had been on. We decided to follow that road, walking in the opposite direction from our car, and after a half mile or so met two actual human beings, 30-something hikers, a man and a woman—with two small dogs—hiking towards us. As we greeted each other, I wondered what the chances were that they could speak English. The answer: close to 100%. Almost everyone in Lithuania seems to speak at least some English since that has become the de facto universal language on the planet and since there are fewer than three million people in Lithuania who speak that language. If you want to get by, English is now your best bet for a backup language. Of course, this was not the case even a few decades ago, and we Americans tend to forget how lucky we are to be able to get by speaking our own language.
When we answered the guy’s question as to where we were from, he threw his head back and laughed in disbelief, exclaiming in perfect English, “How on Earth did you end up here?”
We responded that we had no idea.
He told us that if we kept walking in six or seven kilometers we would come to another village and that as long as we stayed on the dirt road we would be ok and eventually come out of the park. After walking for another 30 minutes, we decided to turn around and head back to the car. When we got back, we turned on the Google app and following its instructions slowly made our way out of the park. Google took us through the wilderness, alongside lakes, sparkling in the afternoon sun, and through several small settlements, some with pretty fancy homes that we concluded must be vacation homes. In a couple of hours we were back on a paved road, headed back to Vilnius and thinking about how beautiful and wild this extraordinary country is.
We spent the next day walking the streets of Vilnius and visiting several museums, two dealing with the Holocaust in Lithuania, which will be the subject of the next blog—a horrific happening and a reminder that life on the planet Earth is a two-sided coin. More on this to follow.