by Douglas Wells (Estonia 1992–96, UNV 1996–98)
Learn about Estonia.

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Want to travel to Hiiumaa Island?

IT WAS A SPRING DAY on Hiiumaa Island and the first tourists were just starting to arrive. I was at my usual post in the tourist info center and looking forward to my third tourist season since my arrival as a Peace Corps Volunteer, charged with facilitating economic development on this small, beautiful and somehow, mysterious island. Actually, it was really the third tourist season for Hiiumaa, as Estonia had just regained independence after 50 years of occupation and the islands were no longer closed border areas of the Soviet Union.
     I had run across my share of interesting characters during my time on the island. Hiiumaa’s closed conditions had, over the years, produced a unique and fascinating local culture. However, nothing could have prepared me for the next guest who burst through the door of the information center.

A curious guest
He looked to be about 70, bald on the top of his head with great shocks of white hair bursting up on both sides like smoke coming out of his ears. His piercing blue eyes quickly took in the room and then focused on me. He was a pretty big guy and when he approached the counter, he had to look down slightly to speak to me. Gripping the edge of the table, raising one bushy white eyebrow and speaking in an excited voice he said in Estonian “Are you Douglas Wells?”
     “Yes, how can I help you?” I replied in my halting Estonian.
     He glanced quickly from side to side, lowered his voice and bent down slightly. “Do you still have that metal detector?”

Me and my metal detector
Now this was a strange question for a tourist to ask and I didn’t answer right away. I did have a metal detector, which I had ordered from home so I could explore the sites of some of the World War II battles that had taken place on the island in 1941. The front of the war actually swept over Hiiumaa Island twice — once in 1941 when the Nazis took over on their way to Moscow, and again when the Soviets pushed them back in 1944.
     Most people reacted with quiet amusement or words of caution when they heard about my poking around old battlefields in the forest, but I had some real problems with the local national guard. They feared that I was going to pillage ancient religious sites or find some guns or something and not tell them. They actually went so far as to demand that I keep the metal detector in their armory. When I wanted to use it, I had to go to there, and tell the duty officer why I wanted it and exactly where I was going to go. Then they would open the weapons cabinet, push aside a few Kalashnikovs and, with great ceremony, hand over my fearsome metal detector. Needless to say, this mandated proceedure cut back on my forays to the forest and I just wanted the whole thing to blow over. After all, Hiiumaa was a small place and I didn’t want rumors going around that the local Peace Corps Volunteer was a pillager of ancient local culture.
      When I finally answered the old man’s question, I answered slowly and in a guarded tone, “Yes, I still have it. Why do you ask?”
     At this point his arm shot out and he grabbed my wrist. In a low, husky voice he said urgently, “You’ve got to help me. We must find the clock.”

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