Angry Dogs and Dusty Roads
Kuldar Morel carries the world (and a local paper, too)
Estonian Kuldar Morel could be a real estate agent, a political candidate, or even a rally driver.
Real estate agent: "This house just sold," he says, pointing out the driver's side window to a green wooden structure. A Tallinn musician just bought it as his summer house."
Political candidate: "In the winter, I'll take bread or groceries to pensioners too old to get out. Sometimes I'm the only one they'll see for days."
Rally driver: "I've thought about a motor scooter," he says, piloting his Opel safely but swiftly down the most remote country roads. "But I could only use it three months per year."
But despite his encyclopedic knowledge of homes for sale, pensioners in need, and the back roads of southern Estonia, Kuldar Morel isn't any of the above. He's a rural mail carrier. A postman in Misso Parish, a community of 841 a few kilometers from the Russian and Latvian borders.
It's hard to say whether the post office or the parish government is the attraction, but the building that houses them both is where most of Misso gathers. Upstairs, the parish government keeps its offices. Downstairs holds a two-room post office, a part-time family doctor, and Ãœlle's store, which stocks a healthy supply of beverages, cigarettes, and candy. Signs posted in the hallway bulletin board announce the collective holiday of the parish government (10 July â€“ 6 August), the constable's reception hours (don't get in troubleâ€”you may have to wait for justice), and a "Quit and Win" poster publicizing an international tobacco quitting contest.
The day I arrive, four men gather around a tractor trailer parked in the shade, speculating on whether the problem is the battery or the starter. A man with a remarkable resemblance to Marlon Brando's Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now crouches to pet my Siberian Husky, Mondo. The man switches without warning from Estonian and Russian. He is shirtless and the scars of a belly woundâ€”navel to sternum with wide stitch marksâ€”are visible under a large silver crucifix he wears on a black leather cord. Two men use small household brooms to sweep the large parking lot of the building, creating a dust storm which drifts and coats us all.
What do people do in Misso? I want to know.
Everyone grins. "Not much," they seem to say.
"Some work at the border station," says a man leaning on a yellow Peugeot motor scooter. "There's the clay factory." After a moment of silence: "A lot gather at the bus station and drink."
But where does the money come from? How can they afford to drink?
The men laugh. They say they've always wondered the same.
Is there state aid? I ask.
"Some," the truck driver says. "But only three or four hundred kroons per month. That doesn't last long."
"There's Russia," Colonel Kurtz says in Estonian.
"Right!" says the man on the scooter. And he launches into a typical business plan. "The people's smoke, Prima, costs 18 kroons per pack here. It's only three in Russia."
"Gasoline," adds the truck driver, "is 14 kroons per liter here. It's only eight in Russia."
To listen to these men, the entire parish is engaged in business with Russia, buying goods in small quantities and bringing them back to Estonia for sale. A multiple-entry visa for Misso residents costs 4,000 kroons they say. There are cheaper alternatives, too, if you have relatives on the Russian side of the border.
What they describe is the Estonia of the early 1990s. Chaos was everywhere, and speculators looked for small gaps to exploit the system. Tallinn has moved on to a new phase of more structured capitalism, yet Misso remains, seemingly caught in the previous decade.
Until 2003, Estonian Post employed a horse in a remote region of Tartu County. And not so long ago, five mail carriers in Misso Parish covered 150 post boxes using bicycles. They were dispatched six days a week (except Sundays) from the Misso Parish government house.
In the post office, the station attendant, Urve, explains how the population of Misso is dwindling. There may be 841 official residents, but there are far fewer in actuality. Some are registered there to take advantage of cheap visas to Russia. Many of the young people live in Viljandi, Tartu, or Tallinn. There are only eight children enrolled in the kindergarten.
Today, two postmen use cars to cover the 150 post boxes, Kuldar's route being 90 boxes and 82 kilometers, which puts 2,000 kilometers on his car each month. In the mornings, the men collect from the public post boxes throughout the parish and report to the Misso office for a bag swap with the van from VÃµru. Today's post is packaged in one large Santa Claus bag, newspapers packed separately. Two postmen spend an hour sorting the mail, beginning with the largest newspaper a customer will receive with all his other mail tucked neatly inside it, his first name marked prominently in pencil on the outside. Today, there are five colorful copies of the magazine Naisteleht, and the postal workers double check to make sure these go to the right people.
"A pensioner will let us know if she doesn't receive something," says Urve, when I ask if old ladies in the countryside help keep them honest. "But we'll never hear about it if we deliver something we weren't supposed to!" For pensioners, which, at least in my mind, seem to form a lot of Misso's rural population, a magazine is a true luxury. "Most can only afford a newspaper," says Urve.
And in rural Estonia, the post office is more than just the post. It's the bank, too. Hansapank once had an office in Misso, but it closed it. It closed the one in Vastseliina, too, which surprised the locals. Now there's not even a cash machine. "If you want cash in Misso, you come here," says Urve.
In Misso, the post office is the center of the universe. If you're new in town, you better stop in to introduce yourself. If you want post, that is.
And there are some new arrivals. Russians from Tallinn have been buying up apartments, using them as summer residences. "A three-room apartment just sold for 25,000 kroons," says Urve. "That's serious money here."
But Urve is not complaining. No one in Misso is complaining. Urve's son works in Finland, she says. But he'll come back some day. Of that she's certain.
The mailbag is heavy at the beginning of the month. A mail carrier's bag is filled with bills. (He doesn't like carrying them any more than you like getting them.) The beginning of a month is also time for pensions, of which many are delivered by Kuldar Morel. Since he wouldn't want to carry too much cash, and because a signature is required, delivery days are staggered. Everyone knows when it's his day to receive.
Today, I am riding with Kuldar.
"Go up that road one kilometer," he says, "and you'll find a good lake. Steep bank. Excellent for swimming."
"That man was a tractor driver," he says as we pull away from a farm, pointing to his own forearm. "Lost his hand right here."
"They built this gated area to park semi tractor-trailers," he says, gesturing to a gated area at the side of a paved road. "But nobody's ever used it."
If you've ever wondered Where could that road lead?Kuldar Morel has been there. If you've ever wondered Who lives here? Kuldar Morel knows him. Kuldar Morel has lived in the region all his 41 years, but his running historical commentary makes it seem like many more.
Today is a tour of rural Estonia. The temperature is 35 degrees Celsius, or it would be idyllic. We see every back road in the parish, one which snakes around so close to the Russian border that we could dash across it if we wanted. Without the car, of course.
Kuldar stops to show me the smokestack of a factory from the first Estonian independence. One smokestack is all that's left, everything else has decayed. Kuldar tells me he's from Luhamaa, and his first job was working in the potato warehouse at a collective farm. After that, he worked at the chimney rock factory, until that closed. Then he was offered the postal job, and he's been at it for the last twelve years.
I suggest that he's been lucky to have employment all these years in Misso, that he hasn't been forced to emigrate to the cities. He doesn't react. He doesn't seem like a man to worry about such things. He gets up every day, does his job, end of story. His family is still in Luhamaa. And they're not going anywhere. It seems to be an invention of a city journalist looking for a story, perhaps trying too hard to paint the small town as a dying institution. People come and people go. But much like the post, Misso remains.
And today we're on a tour of bucolic Estonia, small farms scattered throughout a hilly, grassy landscape. Every farm has at least one dog. And they charge Kuldar's car when he pulls up. He has to cover several meters from his car to whatever receptacle the farmer has concocted and strapped to a tree to receive the post.
"Do the dogs ever bite you?" I ask.
"Oh, yes!" he laughs. "In the beginning, they all bit me. But they got used to me, and now we all just get along."
Kuldar closes his door, shutting out the sound of a barking mutt. He puts the car in gear. And the post carries on.
By Scott Diel