Adventures in Latvia

One of the earlier Lonely Planet travel guides I was commissioned to update was to Latvia. At the time, blogging was just kind of starting to take off (Facebook had been invented, but wasn’t available outside college dorm rooms, and Instagram and Twitter were non-existent); so Lonely Planet had me keep a blog of my adventures researching the book on a website called www.mytripjournal.com. Reading them again today is quite funny. I share a few your amusement: 

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Pre Departure:  Boulder, Colorado

Okay, I’m starting to feel a little stressed. I’m leaving for Latvia in two days and I’m nowhere near ready to go. My house is a mess. I’ve got to buy the dog more food, make the house sitter a spare key, photocopy maps, print my author brief and finish queries for another book. I guess I should also pack. And learn more Latvian. Maybe I should listen to my Latvian tape while packing. That would kill two birds with one stone. I hate packing; I always bring the wrong stuff. I usually do it last minute, after a few cocktails, which is probably why I’ve ended up in South Africa in the summer with a bag full of sweaters but no shorts (it was winter at home…) or in Switzerland with heaps of ultra cute heels but no hiking boots (cute shoes are my downfall, no matter how fat you feel they always look good, so it’s really hard not to pack all my favorites). This time I’m going to pack right – no cocktails, only two pairs of shoes. Yeah, I guess you could say I’m a total disaster the few days before I leave for a research trip.
I love the months leading up to the trip, when you’re reading everything you can get your hands on about the destination and getting dreamy thinking about the adventure awaiting you there, it’s just the moments before I leave that I could do without. Gosh, I sound ridiculous and spoiled, don’t I? I promise I’m not, just a little high strung. If packing’s my biggest complaint about my job I must have it pretty good. And I love what I do. While not always as glamorous as it sounds, writing for Lonely Planet is never dull. I get to see places, experience things most people only dream about. Every book is a rush. Latvia’s going to be a challenge though. I don’t speak the language and I’ve never been there before. Researching a place you’ve never been too can cause some serious pre-trip nightmares: What if I leave out something important? What if no one understands what I’m saying? What if I miss the big picture? I shouldn’t be freaking out about this. I mean I’ve done the parachute into the unknown thing before. The initial jump is scary, but the rest of the ride is pretty damn thrilling. I love the feeling of visiting an exotic country for the first time and soaking it all in. I don’t have to worry about getting jaded, because everything’s so brand spanking new. Sure it’s a bit more challenging, but I love challenges. Plus, when you’re researching a place you don’t know that well, it just makes you want to work harder. I’m sort of a perfectionist, especially when I know that thousands of people are counting on me to get everything right. I just have to remember that a fresh look is a good thing. I’ll arrive void of any preconceived notions of what something should look like, of any negative past experiences. I can just concentrate on painting pictures with my words, on playing the detective searching for the latest “in spot.” I’ll get to speak to lots of travelers, pump them for tips, ask them what they liked and what they didn’t. Meeting new people is one of my favorite parts about traveling, and I’m really looking forward to all the folks I’ll meet in Latvia.
I’ve been reading about Latvia for the last two months now, and everyday I get more excited. I want to know if ultra hip Riga is really the new Prague. I want to see if Balsams (a potent alcoholic drink said to knock the hind legs off a donkey) is really as hard to swallow as the previous author says. I want to immerse myself in the country’s culture; understand what makes it tick; get a grasp for its often tumultuous, oppressive history. Plus, I’ve always felt connected to the region. I’m half Russian. My dad’s parents immigrated to the USA when they were kids and I grew up listening to my grandmother’s stories about her childhood, about her long, difficult, cold, sad (her sister died on the way over) journey over here.
If only Latvian was a little easier to learn. I’ve never been good at languages, and getting the hang of this one feels impossible. I’m taking my boyfriend, Aaron, with me on this trip, however, and I’ve told him he has to pay his way by learning Latvian. He’s actually gotten quite good, so hopefully we won’t have too much trouble. I guess I should get back to work now if I want to make my flight on Thursday. It’s going to be a long trip – Denver to Dallas to New York to Riga. Flying has always terrified me, which sucks when you make your living writing travel guides, so I’m not really looking forward to a long-haul flight on Uzbekistan Air.

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Riga

CNN is running loops on the TV. Elections in Lebanon, the war in Iraq, school children in Afghanistan. I’m staring bleary eyed at the screen, counting the minutes on my watch until the hour ticks over to 7am and I can go to breakfast. My eyes feel heavy, gritty, like someone shoved my face into a pile of sand. The sun’s been up since before 4am, but I don’t think I’ve slept since I put the book down at 2am and tried to will myself into slumber. Jet lag. Can’t live with it, can’t travel without it. I’ve never been good at sleeping when it’s light out, even if I cover my eyes with a little black face mask I picked up in United Business Class the one time I got upgraded. The room feels sterile. Next to me my boyfriend, Aaron, is breathing heavily, rhythmically, oblivious to the sun streaming into the 18th floor hotel room. I envy him. This is our third night in Riga, and the first we tried to go to sleep sober, before 5am. The first two night’s sleep was easy, the result of too much vodka and Riga Balsams at too many Old Town bars. I guess I’ll have to go back to vodka and bars to get any sleep in this country. I get up and walk to the mini fridge, maybe there’s something in there that will knock me out. Bottles of coca cola and airplane size shots of whiskey and rum. I decide I can’t stomach booze right now. I’d rather have a cracker or something. I reach my hand into the back of the fridge and come across a condom. That’s a first, condoms in the mini fridge at a 4-star hotel. Maybe it’s a joke, but no, there it is listed on the price sheet. One condom, 1 Lat. I wander back to bed, flip the channels. The light is what’s really screwing me up. It never seems to get dark here. The sun doesn’t set until right before midnight, but 4am it’s bright as day again. I guess the light isn’t really bad. It’s quite conducive to researching.

 

For once Lonely Planet has sent me somewhere at the right time of year. I’ve researched Thailand in a monsoon, Switzerland in the dead of winter, it’s nice to have almost 20 hours of light to mark up my maps, check out my restaurants, party at the bars. And Riga is packed with bars. I think we’ve been to almost every one. There’s a little Latvian cafeteria near the hotel that’s our favorite. We went there for the first time a few nights ago. Aaron had the late night munchies and we couldn’t find any other place that was open. I was sort of craving food too, but my idea of a good late night nosh is a greasy piece of pizza. This place only had hot dog like things and pieces of fried fish. Aaron gobbled down both. I opted for vodka. The woman at the cash register didn’t speak a word of English, and I guess Aaron’s Latvian wasn’t quite as good as he was bragging it was before we left. We tried to say ice. We tried to say tonic, but all we ended up with was a giant glass of Stoli vanilla vodka. Warm. With a straw. I figured maybe it was the Latvian way, so I sipped it slowly, letting it burn down my throat and trying not to gag. The women behind the counter just started at me like I was crazy. Needless to say, I slept well that night. We returned the next night for another warm vodka nightcap. Aaron says its growing on him. Not me.

Riga’s a lively place. There’s an energy about it. Aaron and I spend hours wandering around, getting a feel for it. I run words through my head as we drift down cobbled streets, trying out different introductions to see what feels right. The buildings look like someone built them for a movie set, it’s sort of like Prague, but not quite as cutesy. Both remind me of fairytale cities, but Riga’s got a bit more grit. The evidence of Soviet occupation isn’t completely gone. You can see it on the faces of the old babushkas begging for pennies on the streets, in the old school concrete apartment blocks with broken windows and strange smells and sad looking people climbing the rotting stairs.

I give up on sleep, decide instead to pick out an outfit to wear for the day. I was so good about my packing, I left all my cute shoes behind, opting to only take my flip flops and hiking sandals. Totally backpacker shabby chic, and totally wrong for this glamorous to the max city. If there was one place where my spiky heels would have looked fabulous, it’s in Riga. Why didn’t I give into my craving and bring them along? Why did I have to be sensible for once? At least with heels I would have had a chance of looking less than invisible in a town filled with more beautiful women in one mile than in the entire United States. The women here are enough to make me want to run away and hide. I feel short. I feel fat. I feel overwhelmed. Aaron can’t stop staring. Every woman seems to be at least 6 feet tall, with legs longer than me, toned thighs, perfectly flat stomachs. It’s like being trapped inside a Vogue cover shoot. Aaron says none of the women compare to me, but he also can’t stop looking. Not that I can blame him, if the men were as hot as the women I’d be staring too. If I were a talent scout, I’d head to Latvia to discover the next movie star. Aaron says he should start organizing tours for single men, not that most men would have a chance next to these beauties. Not only are they tall, but they also have no problem flaunting their perfect bodies by wearing the tiniest of skirts and the highest, most gorgeous pairs of shoes. It’s all rather discouraging. I try to remind myself at least I’m not here alone. At least I’ve secured my man. It makes it all a little less depressing on the self-esteem. Now if I could just sleep. Oh, 7am, I guess I can go get breakfast now.

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Liepaja

Gosh, I haven’t been very good at keeping up with this, it’s just I’ve been so busy, flying from town to town and the Internet has been a bit sporadic. The last week has been a real whirlwind. Once we left Riga, everything changed. When I was in Riga, Latvia didn’t seem that big, but once I got into the countryside, well it just seemed enormous. The Latvian countryside is beautiful – I’ve seen the Baltic Sea, I’ve relished the scent of pine in the early morning, driven through fields of yellow flowers, and met some of the nicest people.

Last night I partied with Latvian rock stars. I stayed at this funky guesthouse – the Fontaine – in Liepaja, which is Latvia’s third largest city, but feels much more like a small town, and the rock stars were also staying there. Aaron and I had consumed the most delicious dinner at this quaint fisherman’s restaurant and then retired back to the guesthouse. Aaron, tired from the shots of absinthe we’d consumed (no it doesn’t make you see fairies like they say, at least not the Latvian kind) and went to bed in our bright blue room that was totally kitsch, not altogether comfortable, but so retro it was beyond hip and definitely the most unique place I’d seen in this country. Anyway, going off on a tangent. The rock stars. I was just sitting on the couch in the lounge, reading up on the next city I had to check out when they all came in the door. They’d just played a gig at a local club, and before I knew it the vodka was flowing and everyone was singing. They all had the most beautiful voices and they tried to teach me this famous Latvian folksong. I have a horrible voice, so I just smiled and decided not to horrify them with how out of key I sing. I asked the lead singer to translate the lyrics for me, and it was something about how this young man was drafted to go to war, and didn’t want to, but the only way he could get out of it was to pay a bribe to the army officials. He asked his parents to sell things to pay the bribe, but they wouldn’t (or it wasn’t enough – the translation was a little difficult, it was English mixed with German and some Latvian thrown in for good measure), so then he asked other relatives and friends, but no one would help him out, so finally his fiancée sold her virginity to keep him from going to war. It was all rather sad.

Let’s see, what else. We spent Midsummer’s night in the middle of nowhere. Midsummer night is a huge national holiday here, and you are supposed to stay up from sunrise to sunrise or you will have bad luck all year long. Everyone heads to the countryside and eats specially made cheeses and sings and drinks beer and burns bonfires all night long. I thought it all sounded wonderful, so Aaron and I headed to the woods, hoping to join in. Sadly, we didn’t realize that because everyone is taking to the fields, everything in the small towns (well it seemed pretty much every town except Riga) was closed. Including the hotels. After a few desperate hours of searching, I figured maybe we could just go to a field and join in the celebration, I mean you are not supposed to sleep anyway, but since our Latvian is still not great, I didn’t know if it would be insulting to just impose on someone’s celebration and Americans already have a bad enough rap for being rude anyway, that I didn’t want to contribute to it more. Luckily, we found one place that was open, in the small town of Valmiera. It was the strangest place I have ever stayed, part campground, part hotel. The roof of the hotel also doubled as part of a ski run in winter. I guess they get enough snow to ski, but don’t have enough vertical drop, so you just sort of ski off the roof. It was hard to picture in the middle of the summer, but the roof also made for a lovely picnic spot. We had a fabulous feast of sausages, special cheese, bread and Latvian beer and listened to the distant chants of folk songs mixed with the closer-by blasting of Russian rap. The Russian rap, which blared relentlessly all night long, was a bit of a holiday buzz kill – it sounded a bit like tinned Britney Spears pop meets Vanilla Ice with a little heavy house mixed in for good measure. The later it got, the louder the music seemed to get, and the more obnoxious it sounded. But I can’t really complain, because it kept me up all night, so I guess I’m safe from bad luck or laziness for another year. Hurray!!!

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Back in Boulder

I’m back in Colorado now. It feels strange to be home. It’s so hot here that I feel like I’m constantly wilting. I’ve been spending the last week trying to readjust, always the hardest part of ending a trip. One minute you are floating around an exotic land, slowly wandering from one new adventure to another, and the next you’re back in a land where everyone can reach you, where you have a house to clean and food to cook and a dog to take care of and what seems like tons more adult responsibilities. I’ve been gathering my thoughts together to start writing up; trying out different intros in my head. I’ve also been spending a lot of time at my friend Danielle’s pool. I think of it is a little decompression time. Gosh, I miss Latvia. I didn’t appreciate the long, cool days quite enough. It’s been above 90 degrees here in Boulder for the last 10 days straight, or so says the weatherman on my TV set (another strange thing to readjust too – TV in English, no more Russian dubbed episodes of the Simpsons). We don’t have air-conditioning in our house, so spending much time inside is a rather grim experience. I find myself falling into a listless sleep with the fan on full blast and dreaming of pine scented forests and crashing waves in the Baltic Sea.

Aaron and I had a great end of our trip, well mostly great. We managed to get completely lost trying to find a youth hostel in Riga the second to last day. He was trying to read the map and I was trying not to hit any of the pedestrians constantly streaming across the streets in an apparently random fashion and somehow I missed the sign with the little red circle and white stripe that means “do not enter.” Instead, I turned and found myself in the middle of a cobbled street, with people bumping up against the car and others screaming at me. I started to panic and yell at Aaron, who started to panic and yell back and then there were sirens and lights and we were being told to pull over onto the middle of a sidewalk and the police officer was yelling at me in Latvian and shaking his head and trying to tell me how stupid I was and how now I was going to have to pay a 40 Ls fine. I kept asking him if he could just cut me a little slack, but this didn’t go over well, or at least he pretended not to understand and kept thrusting his finger into my chest and shouting “you get money at bank NOW!!!”. It was all slightly demeaning, considering it was taking place smack in the middle of a crowded sidewalk, and I really felt like 40 Ls was a rather large fine for turning the wrong way down a street, especially since about five other cars had done the exact same thing since I had been pulled over and only one other had been stopped. I guess the driver of the other stopped car had some Lats on him, because he slipped something into the policeman’s hand and was off in a moment. We, of course, had no Lats, so Aaron went off to search for an ATM that would actually take my card – for some reason ATMs in Latvia hate my bank card and most usually just spit them out with a little note (sometimes accompanied by tinned ATM music) that says “insufficient funds,” even though that is an outright lie. I sat in the car and waited. The police officer leaned against the car, also waiting. I think he was enjoying this little escapade. I tried talking to him again.

“Can you at least write me out the ticket?” I asked.

“No, you pay from bank.” he replied.

“Well, how about we go down to the police station then and I’ll pay there,” I tried, feeling this price was rather high and that the money was never going to go anywhere other than his pocket.

“No,” he shook his head. “You pay here. NOW.”

Okay then. I went back to staring at my finger nails. Aaron eventually returned and the policeman promptly pulled him over to his cop car. I guess he kept pointing at passenger side door, which terrified Aaron, who thought he was being arrested and tried to climb in. When he did this the policeman just shook his head harder, pointed to a 20 Ls bill and then to the little pocket on the side of the car door and pushed Aaron’s hand, with the bill in it, into the pocket thing. When Aaron had dropped the bill, the police officer smiled, hopped into the car and drove away. We’d just bribed a Latvian cop without even knowing what we were doing. I can’t really complain though, 20 Ls is a lot better than 40 Ls.

So that was the big adventure at the end. Afterwards it was pretty smooth sailing – checked out a few last places. Ate my last Latvian pancuki. Shopped a bit more. Bought a pair of those wonderful high spiky Latvian shoes. Headed home. Now it’s time to start writing.

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3 thoughts on “Adventures in Latvia

  1. I have been to Latvia a couple of times, and my Dad was born in Riga. I feel really connected to this little country and always enjoy my travels there. Perhaps you may like to read some of my articles on Latvia? Do you still write for Lonely Planet?? What a great gig!!! Envious!!! I love my writing and hoping to expand and ideally GET PAID to write, now that would be living the dream. 🙂

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