The Big Trip. Week Two: The Significance of Insignificance

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The ferry docked in Tallinn, I filled up with fuel and headed into town to find some accommodation. A young English-speaking businessman pointed me in the direction of a ‘value’ hotel. Just for the record, it is easy to misunderstand the no-entry signs in Estonia. I went down several roads the wrong way and found myself in pedestrian-only streets. No one seemed to care.

Whenever I’m out on a trip I deliberately make myself available – even vulnerable – not just to the rewarding opportunities and interactions with the people and the places, but to my own inner heart and mind. I’m a firm believer in a God who is not just ‘out there’ but also ‘in here’, so I listen naively (or wisely, depending on your own perspective) to the thoughts I’m having.
Enjoying a warm shower and washing my clothes in the back-street ‘€16 Hostel‘ in Tallinn where I’d booked a night at the cheapest rate (of €38!), and wandering round the cobbled streets of this typically ‘Central European’ old town, chatting to the waiters and waitresses, the leaflet distributors and the students I mused on the phrase that had first made its gentle presence felt in Finland:

“The significance of insignificance”

It seemed a very weak phrase to base my thinking on for this trip, so I logged it, and thought some more. “The significance of insignificance.” You’ve got to be joking. Insignificance by its very definition cannot be significant. More thought required.
Yet this phrase would not be so easily dismissed. Like many life-changing thoughts, it would not be denied. It demanded my serious attention – and may infiltrate into your thoughts too as you read this, so beware! The significance of insignificance.

Here I was a tiny speck of humanity on the earth. A grain of sand on the beach. A single traveller exploring the world. a two-metre bike on a 230 miles-a-day journey. So insignificant. Yet, as I mused, I realised I had missed a trick. Each grain of sand is not ON the beach, it IS the beach. If I were to remove each grain of sand from the earth on the basis of it being insignificant, there would be no earth, for the earth is made up of such tiny insignificances. The grain of sand of itself may be removed with little apparent effect, but the surrounding grains would notice, and were I to get into the habit of declaring each grain insignificant and removing it, I would be wreaking a destruction of very significant proportions, one grain at a time.

With that thought in mind I went to bed, and woke to a new day. My first in the Baltic States and back in mainland Europe. I loaded the bike and left Tallinn, heading due south, determined to find a beach and paddle in the Bay of Riga. I hadn’t gone ten metres before a van tooted at me. I turned to see that I had left both panniers outside the hotel by mistake. It would have been a long way back.
Riding out of town I headed due south towards my ‘farthest point’ destination a thousand or so miles away – the Black Sea. The thought of seeing with my own eyes this huge ‘inland’ sea mattered to me. But when I’m riding I can easily be so focussed on my destination that I miss the pleasure of what is immediately in my view, so I drew my attention in to the more immediate: the long roads through forest and agricultural land.

The road I’d chose took me near the coast of Estonia and on into Latvia as I’d decided a paddle in the Gulf of Riga was called for. I’m not a swimmer (though I can swim a short distance) but I love paddling, strolling for miles along the shore with the sea lapping over my bare feet. Brilliant. And on the way… perfect, a ‘service area’. Well, a little hut with a couple of tables on a veranda planted to the side of a rough pull-in from the road. Perfect. I parked my bike so it could be clearly seen from the road, and ordered a coffee and burger. At least the coffee tasted good.

And then the sound of a slowing fellow motorcycle traveller. I love these chance meetings. He had seen my bike and wanted some company. We chatted freely and decided to find a beach.
I remember a solo traveller telling me one day that, when you travel with a friend, you have a friend. When you travel alone, all the world is your friend. So here was a new friend, and we shared our lives for a morning. Great. We also found the beach, just off the A1 near Saulkrasti, brewed up filter coffee in my ‘kitchen’ sunbathed for an hour and finally got on our respective ways.

Riding through the Baltic States in August is a bit like riding through the UK countryside in the 1960s. Hardworking farmers doing their best to bring in the crops. The occasional horse and cart. Tended wooden homesteads, with logs dumped in the front gardens awaiting storage for the winter. Old tractors pulling old farm equipment, little old combine harvesters with no cabs or air conditioning. The people too concerned about this week’s grocery budget to be distracted by the West’s fixation with pollution.

I thought up a dubious joke as I rode along the comparatively narrow roads: Where does UK farming equipment go when it dies? To Latvia and Lithuania,it seems. (I was later to decide that if it is really naughty it probably goes to Romania.) I took many photos of this stretch of the road, touched by the leftovers of a shattered communism-based economy – rusting deserted factories, cold characterless buildings, old 80’s cars, poverty breathing its chill breath over the village communities – but I lost my camera in Bulgaria, so you only get secondhand ones on this part of the blog.

Yet each one of the people I met in these central european countries (they hate to be called Eastern Europe) matters to the people they feed – their families and other loved ones. And I mattered to them too. My ‘insignificant’ custom of food, fuel, bottles of water, and the occasional ice-cream was a part of their essential income.

I loved the entrepreneurial spirit that was around me too. Some of these people had become very successful. No 80’s cars for them. New Skoda Octavias and posh 4x4s would occasionally whip past me as I journeyed on.

The significance of insignificance.

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2 Comments

  1. Always intriguing, quirky, challenging, refreshing and life building – as well as envy inducing biking away to your hearts content! Thanks Andrew

  2. Thanks for coffee at the Latvian beach Andrew! I was little worried about your trip, so quiet on blog, hopefully trip went well. I have rainy one week trip around Baltics.
    Best Regards from almost icy Finland,
    Aaro, the other biker

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