Saturday, June 29, 2013

A quick trip to Riga, Latvia

Friday morning I was up bright and early to set out on my adventure.  The camp guard, of course, didn’t want to let me leave without producing some sort of official document verifying that I could actually leave the camp, but I played the distressed foreigner card pretty well and he let me go after leaving my surname with him in his little book of who comes and goes from the camp. After all, I’m not a camp counselor and the school, not the camp, decides my working hours.  When I’ve done the work I must do, I’m free.  It’s camp, not prison, in any case J After that little obstacle I made the 30 minute walk to the station, bought my train ticket, and then bought some coffee and a croissant from the little shop at the station. I only had a few minutes to wait for my train and then I joined the busy morning commute.  Once I got to Petersburg I realized that I definitely could have taken one train later, but it was nice to have too much time rather than not enough.  Since I would be traveling until late in the evening, I bought some food and water for the bus and enjoyed the fresh air for as long as I could before needing to board. The bus was even nicer than I expected! The seats were big with plenty of legroom, there was airconditioning and a toilet on the bus, free WiFi connection on the bus, and we could have as many hot drinks as we wanted for free.  The bus company is called Lux Express, but I still didn’t expect it to be that nice based on how inexpensive my tickets were.  I had a nice babushka sitting next to me for the trip who told me all about her family and gave me lots of advice about visiting Riga. I was doing pretty well pretending to be a Russian, but when she caught a glimpse of my passport at the border control, she was so excited to find out that I am from America.  She has a son who got a job in California and is now living there with his wife and two children (who are American citizens, she was proud to tell me).  She told me about her trip to California to visit and about how much she likes Starbucks, despite the fact that she “couldn’t sleep for a week” after drinking so much strong coffee J All in all, we had quite the nice trip together!
When we arrived in Riga I finally made it to the hostel after a slight mix-up at the bus station.  I immediately got a great vibe from the hostel, the staff, and the other travelers.  After checking in I was offered a welcome shot of traditional Latvian alcohol made from many herbs and invited to go on the Pub Crawl that the hostel was organizing that evening.  Since it was already late and I desperately wanted a shower after all day on the bus, I had to decline.  Instead I relaxed in my room and took advantage of the best internet connection I have had since leaving Germany at the end of May. 
In the morning my roommate and I got acquainted a bit and decided that we would meet up at the free walking tour of the Old Town at noon.  There were several other people from our hostel on the tour as well, so after that splendid walk through Old Riga, we headed to a café nearby to eat delicious pancakes! I think we all took salty pancakes with meat and potatoes and such and I was overjoyed to have a nice big serving of olivie (Russian potato salad).  After our late lunch I was off to join a bike tour of Riga.  No one else showed up for the tour, so I got a two and a half hour private tour of Riga.  Because it was only the two of us we were able to cover a huge amount of distance and I really felt like I saw everything! The guide also had so many interesting stories and facts to tell me, so I was captivated the entire time.  After a small “picnic” dinner and chilling out a bit in the center, I ran into some hostel friends, who invited me to join them for an evening out.  We stopped by the hostel first to get slightly warmer clothes (and bring along our recently-arrived third roommate) and then were off to have a fun night. 
For whatever reason we went back to the hostel again at some point and there we found some guys my roommate had met in the city she had been in before Riga.  Next thing I knew we were drinking beers and playing cards with them and it was obvious that we were among a very lively and rather silly group of lads.  The night turned into a long one and we returned to the hostel just after 4 AM. 
Surprisingly, all of us girls felt pretty good in the morning.  The guys, on the other hand, were having a rough go of it, but all three of us girls were up at a reasonable hour and out to see more of the city.  Pancakes we on the menu for lunch again and then I spent some more time with German roommate going inside some of Riga’s beautiful churches.  She had to catch a bus at 5, so we said our goodbyes and then I had myself a delightful little late afternoon nap. 

I was very lucky to be in Riga for their mid-summer festival.  I was pretty familiar with a lot of the celebrations because it is celebrate in much the same way in Ukraine, but I was excited to check it out.  Our festivities started off in the hostel and we were joined by a spunky and fun woman from South Africa, currently residing in Finland.  She was a fun addition to our group and stayed with us most of the night.  We checked out the festivities in the center, had some yummy food to eat (shashlik, potatoes, cabbage), and got to see the big fires being lit.  Eventually, though, we were over the crowded festival atmosphere and headed to one of the open air cafes/bars still in the center, but a safe distance from the biggest crowds.  It didn’t end up being as late a night a the previous and we were back at the hostel before 2 AM.  And just like that, it was Monday morning and I was up bright and early to catch my 8:40 AM bus back to Saint Petersburg.  I wasn’t nearly as lucky with my seat partner this time and ended up next to a rather unpleasant neighbor.  Hardly had we left Riga when he pulled out his first can of beer and some very smelly sausages.  He then spent the majority of the trio chugging beer and eating sausages, which was rather unpleasant to sit next to.  And once he was drunk from the beer he was rather clumsy and would plop into his seat with a thud.  Not to mention, he seemed to think he could take over about a quarter of my seat as well. I kindly asked him to mind his space.  Needless to say I was extremely happy to get off the bus when we arrived back in Saint Petersburg. After just a little bit of time in the city I was on a train to home sweet camp.  A weekend getaway to Riga was a perfect way to spend my few days between camps.  Riga is a beautiful city which is definitely worth checking out.  I am sure there is a lot of beautiful Latvia to check out outside of the capital, so I’ll have to make my way back someday for sure!

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