Thursday, December 27, 2007

donuts all day

The bus from Vilnius to Rīga revved up, started backing out of the bay, went two meters, and crunch...bumped into another bus. We had to wait over an hour while they picked up paint flecks from the pavement. No one knew when we would be leaving for good, so most of us just stayed on the bus. I steadily worked my way through most of the snacks I had packed for the 4.5 hour trip, but managed to reserve one cheese sandwich for later. At the border I was the only one who needed a passport stamp, so delayed us again, but just for five minutes. The border guard seemed to be in a really good mood.

Rīga fairly sparkles with le beau Art Nouveau architecture. Something is always watching as you stroll the streets and it isn't the KGB, not anymore. Just a gargoyle or a wood nymph cast in plaster. It's not just in the old town, either, it's all over the place. Walking around and gawking at it all is tiring, so I got a hot chocolate at Emihla Gustava chocolateria. I don't think that's a proper word, but whatever.

I also got an assortment of truffles to munch on while walking around. None of them were dazzling, but gave me enough energy to take on the Paul Stradin Museum of the History of Medicine. A good number of the instruments and apparatuses there wouldn't have looked out of place in the KGB Museum, although the two-headed dog would have been enough to pause any interrogation session. There were a couple of confusing lines in the case caption, but if I read correctly, what was on display was the taxidermied result of experiments in the 50s to join the front end of a small dog to the back of a larger one, combining their circulatory systems. I don't know what they hoped to gain from this, but they did it, and I suppose they can be considered mildly successful. Hmm. There was also an unexpected exhibit of Biology in Space, with a number of items from the Russian space program, including food packets, track suits, and...the capsules for the animals (dogs and monkeys) that blasted off. Sadly, the only documentation was in Latvian and Russian, and while one of the docents was freely dishing out information, it was also in Latvian (or Russian). Judging by reactions, whatever she was saying was pretty interesting. Dang. She did open the dog capsule for me. Weird. And sort of disturbing. There were a number of unexpectedly edgy objects on display there, quietly sitting amongst the customary forceps and prosthetic limbs – jars of fetuses and a photo of smallpox. And trepanned skulls in a special exhibit.

I also went to the Museum of Occupation in Latvia to educate myself on the occupation in Latvia. It was another extremely extensive exhibit with loads of documentation, but after two hours my brain was glazed over and I wasn't reading anything thoroughly. If I ever go back, I'll start at the end. I made an attempt later that day to catch the bus to the Rīga Motor Museum, but was misled by information in Lonely Planet. I've been using a selection of guidebooks, whatever has been available, and have steadily lost my faith in LP, which has proved unreliable more than once. Yeah, I know that that prices change, and businesses go out of business, so I expect a certain amount of inaccuracy, but too many times their information has been too wrong, and it's persisted through multiple guidebooks. Almost as if it wasn't acquired first-hand, or minimal effort was invested in updates. I should have done better homework on how to get there before heading out for the day, but why else did I spend $20? In Your Pocket are far superior guides; they're limited to eastern Europe, are updated frequently, can be downloaded for free, and are full of snarky comments that make for entertaining reading, even if you don't plan on visiting any strip clubs. No, I'm not getting paid to advertise, just credit where credit is due. Anyway, back at the bus stop wondering why the bus wasn't showing up, I first figured out I was at the wrong bus stop, and looking at the Lonely Planet map, realized where the museum was shown didn't match up to the address. The afternoon was over, and I decided I didn't have enough time to head out to the burbs when I didn't even know where I was going, so I scrapped the mission and spent the rest of the evening in one café and one pancake cafeteria. None of the pancake signs were in English, so I just chose a couple at random, and went back for seconds from the same tray. I ate twice as much as everyone else, but it was my last night in town and I was trying to get rid of all my Latvian coins. I saved only a two Lat coin because it has a cow on it, udder, teats, and all.

Rīga has the prominent Freedom Monument, which should under no circumstances be used as a pissoir. Incomprehensible as it is, there have been tales of folly, where young men with evidently only a thimbleful of brains and a bladder size to match, chose to relieve themselves on the monument instead of heading into the bushes (it's in the middle of a park). There are two formal guards, with rifles, stationed in front during the day. At night it looks deserted, but I'm pretty sure there's at least one military guy or gal lurking nearby to snare ne'er-do-wells and chuck them into a Latvian prison. The Baltic capitals have unfortunately become one of the prime destinations for British bachelor parties, bands of boys who spend their money on a cheap weekend flight simply to drink expensive beer in a different country, and tied to this business is the unsavory side of prostitution and sex trafficking. In Kiev I had a conversation with two guys about traveling as a solo female versus as a solo male. In most places, being a single woman will draw more attention, but they were quick to point out two places where the tables were turned on them – southeast Asia and the Baltics, both prime places for sex tourism. Even so, being a single woman traveler on the streets in these areas can be enough to be mistaken for a prostitute. I was wearing way too many layers of clothing for anyone to make that error. Anyway, I didn't see any crowds of boozy Brits, so it was either not the season for bachelor flings, or else they were all being taken advantage of by the local mafia in a strip club, hopefully the latter. And besides, Rīga isn't cheap for beer, food, or accommodation. British bachelorettes have an equally bad rep, but they go to the Mediterranean instead of the Baltics.

Behind the bus station are five zeppelin hangars that house Rīga's Central Market. I was hoping for a massive flea market, but it's mostly just food and clothing. I bought a Russian navy shirt, all white and black stripes, and it's debatable whether it makes me look like a sailor or a convict. Everything edible is for sale, and there was always a long line of elderly people holding jars at the milk stand where it was being ladled out of a steel urn. I wasn't in the market for cow's tongues or jars of pickled vegetables, but I discovered the donut dive – a little stall off to the side of one hangar where two ladies lorded over an automatic donut machine and dished them out, piping hot. It was really fun to watch – a bowl of batter dropped batter rounds into a little canal of oil, the donuts traveled down the canal getting cooked on one side, were automatically flipped over, traveled down the opposite lane of oil, and were fished out. They cost .08 Lats for a plain donut, and .10 Lats for one that had been subjected to the six-pronged jelly injector. I went back three days in a row for jelly donuts, and the place always had customers noshing away. They really were just oil being held together in a lattice of batter, but so yummy. I was tempted to get a bag of them to take away, but they were the kind of treat that you had to eat fresh. They wouldn't have been nearly as tasty a few hours later.

I did prowl around all the hangars, and took a few surreptitious photos in the fish section. The entire market was doing booming business, but something about the air in the meat hangars was really unappetizing. It wasn't exactly stomach-churning, more just knocked it off its axis. I didn't really want to eat anything at all after being in there. Good thing I went to the donut dive first. I did buy some fruit and vegetables over a couple of days. As noted, Rīga isn't necessarily cheap, but since the Lat is valued at around .49 Lat to one US dollar, it's a very small change economy when it comes to buying a kilo of potatoes or three onions. No matter how many times I got rid of one and two santīmi coins, they always seemed to respawn in my pocket.

On my second night in Rīga I heard the distinctive pop pop of fireworks from my attic room in the hostel, but was too lazy to go out and find them. Later that night I realized it was December 21st, and the Baltics joined the Schengen zone, so the display must have been a doozy over the river. I kicked myself for not having gone. And no wonder the border guard was in a good mood when we passed, his job was probably about to get a lot easier. Slightly miffed that I missed the celebrations, I proceeded to miss two more fireworks displays on the following nights. After the first one I had no reason to expect there would be more, and I actually don't know why they happened. Each night it was at a different time, and a judging by my ability to either partially see or not see them from the window, they must have happened in different locations. I don't know why I was annoyed at missing them, since I never go out for fireworks at home. But that's usually because I associate them with big crowds of obnoxious drunkards, so I just hide out at home.

Having to be at no particular place at no particular time is a relaxing way to travel. When I'm ready to move on, I catch whichever mode of transport is the most convenient, and if I miss it, I just catch the next. Having a deadline injects some amount of urgency into the schedule. No matter how much my itinerary changed over the last few months, the goal has always been to reach Tallinn. There was never any doubt that I'd make it there, but during the last couple of weeks, I've had to be more mindful of how long I was spending in each place, and to research the most efficient way to get to the next. It's difficult to decide how long to stay in one place before even arriving; reading guidebooks is all well and good, but it won't tell you how you'll respond to the vibe of the town. That word makes me cringe, but I suppose it's the best one to illustrate the point. All the people I've been meeting travel in different ways. Some plan on doing a traditional tour, then fall for one town and are still there months later. The other extreme are those who spend only a few hours or one night in a place, repeatedly, before moving on again, which I really don't understand. Unless they are purposely conducting a tour of European public transportation hubs, I fail to see the point of getting to a town just to take a nap and then catch the next bus out. It's as if they are traveling without knowing how or why, or that their understanding of travel is that it's merely a list of placenames visited. Whether or not they can speak of anything in town is irrelevant. A whole bunch of tourists visit locations armed with a checklist of famous sights, dutifully check them off, and catch the next air-conditioned luxury coach out. If that's what floats their boat, I can't argue. My take on traveling around is that I don't know when I'll be back, if ever, so better to stay a little longer to soak up as much as I can. I hate leaving a place with a sense of unfinished business, like there's something I missed. I too have my list of sights that I want to see, but I also like time to get a general feel for the place, which means wandering around residential or industrial neighborhoods, and doing plenty of café time. If I decide I don't care for something and am getting bored, it's easy to move on sooner than expected, even more so because I'm solo. For the most part, I've think I've planned my time in towns well, although there are a couple I could stand to have been in longer, and a couple that I probably should have left sooner. I started thinking about all of this in Rīga, since it's the penultimate stop of this trip (I'm not counting London). Suddenly I started thinking in terms of hours, not days, of how long I would have to visit towns, which is ultimately a futile way of looking at it. A few hours here or there may make a difference, but not if you spend hours worrying about it. Sometimes it's just a matter of taking whatever time you have, and making the best of it.

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