TALLINN - I'm running through a forest, a gun in my hand. There's a man barking at me in guttural Russian. It's an energy-sapping humid day, and my breath comes heavy and Darth Vader-like through my stifling mask. And somewhere in the back of my head is a voice reminding me I'm supposed to be having fun.
Welcome to paintball, Estonian style. Considered a kids' birthday party game in other parts of the world, here in the Baltics paintball is serious business.
Estonia's largest paintball club is SPK (it stands for Sniper Paintball Klubi), a group that runs its regular meets with military-like organization. They gather every Sunday of the year regardless of the weather 's rain, snow, or stifling heat.
I joined them on a scorching Sunday afternoon. While the rest of the nation fled to the nearest body of water, I pulled on a thick camouflage jumpsuit and headed for the forest.
I expected a small group of enthusiasts. I found almost 75 hardcore paintball addicts, some with their own specialty-order equipment and walkie-talkies. The size of the gathering surprised me, and this is only one of twenty clubs in Estonia, and many more across the Baltics.
"That guy used to be a general in the Soviet army," my host tells me, pointing at a gruff man a few years past middle-aged. Many regular participants are serving or former military officers, I was told. It's at this point that I realize I am way out of my depth. I've never fired a gun or even an air rifle. How am I supposed to beat men who have served in Afghanistan at capture the flag?
Another friend leans over to offer some advice: "Don't bother trying to speak Estonian here." "Do you mean don't bother, or don't dare?" I ask. Russian is the lingua franca of paintball, and somehow that seems rather fitting. I'm given a crash language course 's there are only two words I need to know. I'm on Team Krasniy (red), and I must shoot at Team Zelyoniy (green).
SPK meets at a different location each week, most of them former army bases or prisons. Crumbling military infrastructure makes for fantastic paintball territory. Today we meet at a former army training camp on the outskirts of Tallinn. Hidden in the pine forests are several old bunkers. There are hills to climb, rocks to duck behind, holes to jump and razor wire to beware of. I hurriedly try to remember the last time I had a tetanus shot.
We are given a gruff translation of the rules of the game. The red team must defend a bunker as the green team tries to overrun it. We take up our positions and wait for the first shots. I pick a spot under a window and pretend to look like I know what I'm doing.
The green team announces its arrival with a series of deafening "grenade" explosions. They lob several firecracker-like missiles into the building, letting off colossal bangs. Then the shooting begins. Paint splatters the concrete above my head, spraying bright colors onto my visor. I try to find the source of the pellet spray, while around me my teammates are firing frantically. Before I've had a chance to fire a bullet, I feel a hard thwack to my back. I've been hit, so I hold my gun in the air and run off the course.
Back at base, I check myself for paint spray. There's nothing there - the pellet that hit me failed to explode. Technically, I wasn't "killed." I surrendered unnecessarily, someone tells me.
Over the course of several hours we play out several scenarios 's all variations of capture the flag and storm the tower. In one particularly fun episode we are to defend our "president" as he attempts to move our flag from one base to another.
I realize that the key to having fun at paintball is to take a few risks. There's nothing gained by hiding behind a tree 's sure you won't get hit, but you won't get to shoot others either.
And that's where the sadistic fun of this sport is found. My crowning moment was when I cornered an opponent behind a rock and delivered a shot to his chest. He ruined my high by returning a shot to my arm 's technically a violation of the rules, but who's to argue with a man with a gun?
At the end of the day we strip off the claustrophobic camouflage suits and examine our bodies for bruises. I've gathered three terrific red welts, while others around me are far worse for wear. I'm strangely proud of my battle wounds.
Clubs like SPK can be found right across the Baltics. Last month, a giant pan-Baltic paintball battle in Latvia saw helicopters and paintball "tanks" introduced into the game.
Attending a Sunday afternoon session costs 400 kroons, including equipment hire and a large bag of pellets. SPK also organizes bookings for private functions and corporate team-building exercises.
SPK paintball club, Tallinn
Every Sunday afternoon
at various locationswww.spk.ee