Today I took part in the Estonian garbage clean-up campaign called Teeme Ära which means something like "get it done". To be completely honest, I have no idea who organized the campaign, although I am fairly sure that the Tartu rapper Chalice had something to do with it (see advertisement above).
As an Estonian resident the campaign reached me via online media, radio, television, newspaper, and word of mouth. I had heard stories that the mysterious organizers behind Teeme Ära, including perhaps Chalice, had used high resolution satellite imaging to pinpoint every last empty bottle of Laua Viin in the forests of Eestimaa.
Maps were organized with larger dump sites. The Teeme Ära supply chain was activated, so that sometime around 9.45 am this morning we rolled into the village of Koosa northeast of Tartu to meet up with local organizers who would direct us to the trash and give us the correct bags to put it in. In our car were Ilona and Leena. Ilona is the same age as me and a mother of two. Leena's age could not be guessed, but seeing as she was introduced as being somebody's grandmother, in Estonia that would make her around 35 or older.
Maybe I was tired, but for whatever reason I just couldn't understand what Ilona was saying in Estonian. This happens sometimes. I understand the woman on the radio. I understand the contents of the article. I can read the ingredients on the cereal box. But some people I just can't follow. They speak too quickly or they slur their words. So Ilona, instead, practiced her English on me.
The road to Koosa is surrounded by a mix of leafy forests and farm lands. The tilled earth of the farms is black and pungent. For weeks now the days have been sun-kissed and today was no exception. When we reached our destination there were two guys there, neither of whom I could understand well, who haggled with Ilona about bags and directions.
It must have been a bad day for my language skills. I tried focusing on their lips, but all I heard were vowels tumbling out. Infrequent consonants, which might have acted as linguistic signposts to let me know that this word starts with 'k' or that one starts with 't', were given the once over. Instead, it seemed like 90 percent of what they were saying was either Õ or Ö.
We were sent, along with a caravan of other people bedecked in old, paint-marked clothing that said "I'm here to clean some shit up", to a place called Keressaare, where it turned out there was no garbage. Then, we turned around and went back to the gas station at Aovere, which was a few kilometers back. You see, the map had said there would be a gas station in Koosa, but it was closed. The map also said that there was a gas station in the neighboring village of Vara, but according to the clerk at the store I stopped in -- who I understood perfectly -- it wasn't there anymore.
On the way back, we started to get restless. It seems pathetic, but I could tell my passengers, Leena in particular, were dreaming about being directed to a huge, smelly, unhygienic mound of garbage. They didn't come all the way out to Koosa to eat a sandwich and visit a gas station. No, they came to "get it done." This, in a way, is a very Estonian thing. The British have the joy of sex. The Estonians have the joy of manual labor.
After yearning for heaps of bottles and dirty diapers our prayers were answered by a site halfway between Vara and Koosa at Sookalduse. Here Leena and Ilona were put to work clearing bottles and glass while I was called on to haul old tractor tires out of the marshy woods. At last, my hands were dirty. We were getting what we had come for. And then ... it was finished. That's it? I thought to myself, as I ate another pastry my wife had bought for me the night before.
Ilona instead directed our prügikonvoi to another site, this time in Peipseääre vald, which, with 981 residents, is mostly forest and field. The road in Peipsiääre vald was unpaved, and traffic by larger vehicles had left a hump in its middle littered with larger rocks that unpleasantly scraped the bottoms of our cars. One member of our caravan had their car breakdown because of this, but with a little mechanical prowess he was able to get it back on the road.
Teeme ära had been here too. Someone had already cleared this garbage site. In fact, you may be surprised to learn that we greeted the lack of garbage in Tartumaa with some sadness. We had come to haul car batteries and old couches, and all we had to show for it were some broken bottles and tractor tires. There simply was not enough garbage to sustain our enthusiasm. Discouraged, we drove back to Koosa.
In the parking lot, Ilona again haggled with those who were supposed to know things, while Leena, her thirst for garbage picking unquenched, proceeded to pick up small pieces of broken glass from the adjacent lawn.
By this point my head was hurting because I had mostly been immersed in a real Estonian language environment for several hours and my brain was getting tired of breaking down verbs and looking up meanings from my internal sõnaraamat. "Could you imagine speaking Estonian all the time?" I thought to myself. "Could you imagine if the word tõenäoliselt (probably) set you apart in the world?" It seemed the more words I learned, the less fluent -- in my own mind -- I became. The goal posts were forever moved. I would never be able to say the word pärast (after) the correct way.
I remembered how our friend David told us that when he first moved to Estonia and began working in Estonian, and often in Russian as well, that he felt like icing his head after a day at the office, the way football players ice their limbs after a brutal game. After several hours submerged in eesti keel my brain needed a little Bengay too.
We finally found a place to contribute to Teeme Ära several kilometers west of Koosa. There were already others there, gradually cleansing the roadside of bottles and cans and old bags of chips. We parked and joined them. Somebody had a radio on in their car that was playing swinging Estonian country music. In between the songs, the announcers gave updates on how many tons of garbage had been collected and how to sort the garbage you found.
I thought at first that it was a worthless job and that the place had already been picked clean. But then I noticed a bottle. Then another one. Then a can. Then a shoe. It seemed I couldn't walk ten feet without finding more garbage. I couldn't figure out where it all came from. Did people just launch their empty bottles of vodka from the car as they sped through here at night? Who dumped all those used Libero diapers near a creek? How did a pair of flip-flops wind up this deep in the woods? Were all of Estonia's forests like this? Did every pristine forest floor really conceal the discarded plastics and rubbers of our disposable civilization?
While the stretch of roadside we cleaned today is certainly looking better, I couldn't help but think that we could keep going on like that, from Koosa to Tartu and from Tartu to Viljandi and from Viljandi to Pärnu, picking up trash from the side of the road. It was a sobering thought.