Tragedy has struck as, not five minutes ago, I broke my camera trying to take a self-timed photo of myself writing this very entry in the world's worst hotel room. So the photos you see here will most likely be the last I take. Basically the camera, which I unwisely had standing on end, fell off a two-foot-high table with the lens extended. The plastic shell of the inner lens, which was fully extended at the time of the accident, has a big crack in it and it's stuck in the extended position, as if it were on viagra. It looks bad - the equivalent of a horse with a broken leg. That camera has served me well ever since I bought it in advance of my Kamchatka trip two years ago. I guess this is a sign that it's time to upgrade to an SLR. Sadly any photos I take from here on out will be taken with my mobile phone. Before you get too sad at the loss of my great photography, however, do realize that I have only 7 days remaining in my Odyssey.
Back to my hotel room here in Klapeida, this town has by far the worst-value hotel rooms of any city or town I've stayed in so far. Last night in Siauliai, home to what is arguably Lithuania's most famous sight, the Hill of the (hundreds of thousands of) Crosses, I stumbled into the best value I've had all trip, a perfectly clean double with free wifi with a clean shared bathroom for only 30 lita (about $12). Here in Klaipeda, by contrast, the cheapest room I could find was 150 lita ($60). Until, that is, I stumbled into the notorious Viktorija. Here is what one previous LP author wrote: "Shabby old Viktorija is so horrendously awful it's hard to believe it's really open ...." The local In Your Pocket Guide opines: "Positively ghastly, and what's more the staff actively discourage people from staying here."
All of that is absolutely true. With hideous Soviet furniture (including the creakiest, saggiest bed you're likely to find anywhere), a slight but pervasive odor of smelly feet, walls covered (barely) by pockmarked wallpaper, and a cold water-spitting sink, Viktorija is bad, for sure. But it's actually a lot more livable than I expected. It does have an outlet for my computer, a writing table, dresser, reading tables and, for good measure, an old 70s Soviet phone that actually works. I have a clean sheet, albeit one with a gaping hole in it. And of course it helps to know that the people in the room before you weren't having sex here because there's no way anybody could EVER have sex in this room. Or at least nobody who could afford 45 litas per night. Though come to think of it that's only $15. But hell, hotels like this - even worse than this - were the norm in Yalta and other provincial Ukrainian towns during my early days in Kiev. Indeed they are still the norm over much of the former Soviet Union. Yeah, I could afford to spend 150 litas ($60) on a room, but one measure of the success of a Lonely Planet gig is profit, and a couple nights at that price really cuts into your profit. If I'm going to spend $60 (which I have not yet done -- usually I spend $30-$40 in the big cities, half that in the provinces), it's going to be a splurge on something really special. And there's not a whole lot of special lodging here in Klaipeda. Furthermore, I don't spend any time in my room anyway, so really I just need a place to lay my head, and Viktorija fulfils that role, albeit barely. If nothing else, it has nostalgic value for anybody who used to live in the FSU.
So I was taught a lesson the other day when I tried to turn in the Ford Scorpio (my beat-up 10 euro per day car rental), only to have its replacement break down 20 km out of Vilnius. On the way from Kaunus to Vilnius last Thursday, the Scorpio's automatic transmission was acting funny. That was on top of its propensity to stall when switching in and out of reverse (which made parallel parking a nightmare). The guy I'm renting from - the charismatic Rimas (see photo) - met me in Vilnius and gave me an equally old bright blue Ford convertible, also with well over 300,000 on the odometer (which I recently figured out likely means well over 1,300,000, since rental cars usually accumulate well over 100,000 per year, and both these cars were early-'90s jobs). This was a piece of work, with the engine roaring so loud I couldn't even hear the radio, and the cold wind whipping through the soft-top. Well, the piece of work took no time to overheat and I had to pull over on the highway engulfed by a cloud of white smoke. Luckily, Rimas came to the rescue in the Scorpio, which I thankfully took back from him and continued on to Jurmala, near Riga. This is the site of that beach frisbee tourney the Meltdown used to go to every year. It's a summer town, not much happening in winter, but the drive north from Jurmala up to Cape Kolka, domain of the ancient Liv people, was interesting. There are only 10 people remaining in the world who speak Liv, which is in the Hungarian-Finn-Estonian family, as their first language. Then it was back to Riga for my fantasy baseball draft on Saturday night (priorities, priorities), and 24 hours tying up a few of the many loose ends in Riga. Yesterday I ended up in that gem of a hostel in Siaulia, and today here I am in Klaipeda.
The weather has been a buzzkill, as usual. It's been raining and/or foggy for nine straight days now, with the exception of that little window of spring I caught in Druskininkai. I'm burning through the rest of Lithuania at warp speed because on Thursday I catch a train in Vilnius to Kaliningrad. Lithuania's coastal strip, where I am now, is anchored by the Curonian Spit, a 4km-wide sliver of sand pounded by surf and inhabited by elk and all manner of migrating bird. By all accounts it's Lithuania's best nature highlight. But the coast is a summer kind of place, and I can only do so much when I'm wet, can't see anything, and can't review many places because they are closed. I'll have to defer to my predecessors for much of the material on this region's beaches.
I head to the Curonian Spit tomorrow. Without my camera, I'm bound to finally see a stank varmint or two. Stay tuned. The next posting - likely my last before heading home - will be from Kaliningrad.
Oh yeah, and in case you haven't heard the news yet, It's a girl!!!!
ps, I post this having (barely) survived the night in the Victorija. They should definitely market a T-shirt: "I survived a night in the Viktorija Hotel, Klaipeda". It's at least as bad as prison. The street noise, the stench (which I determined was a mix of stale cigarette smoke, mildew and human sweat), and bed (which wouldn't have been claimed off the street in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina) are certainly much worse than prison. The rest competes, minus the cornholing.