Travel Diary — Riga: days 1 to 7

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27th June 2017 –

The walk to the bus station was eerily silent. If Tartu seemed quiet by day, it was completely empty at night. I love cities at night, walking alone with nothing but the streetlamps and moonlight. I have so many memories from Glasgow, of walking home from the pub late at night after improv, dancing down Kelvin Way to the music in my earphones, enchanted by the stillness of the night, the sense of aloneness that should be impossible within a city setting. Whilst when I walk alone at night in Glasgow my heart always thuds extra fast, wondering “Is this the night I’ll be murdered”, I felt perfectly safe in Tartu.

Safe, and tired. The Evil Backpack and the Laptop Case from Hell were soon working their magic. My shoulders ached, and I was sure the laptop case would form bruises on my thighs.

The bus station was almost empty. I sat in the still quiet, waiting, waiting, waiting…
Because my bus was late. Of course it was late. Why wouldn’t a bus at 3am in a country where I can’t speak the language be late? It was only late by about five minutes, but it was enough for my anxiety to go into overdrive.

When I was finally onboard the bus, I knew I had no hope of sleep. In my experience, nightlong bus rides are not the easiest places to find rest. There was a TV screen on the back of the seat in front of me, but I was too tired to watch anything. Instead, I stared out the window and observed the Estonian countryside as it passed by. I felt an immense sense of peacefulness, sitting on that bus at dawn, seeing the world out the window through a rainy haze, everything dark and grey and beautiful. In spite of being beyond exhausted, I felt incredibly alive. It’s moments like that where travel seems so damn beautiful, and all my tired mind could comprehend was one single thought: “I’m seeing the WORLD!”

When they say Estonia is 50 percent forest, they’re not joking. The view from my window for most of the journey was forest, more forest, and even more forest. Perhaps it was monotonous in a sense, but in the dim morning light I saw so much beauty in the consistency of the view.

After a couple of hours, the setting began to change. Where there had previously been thick, leafy forests, there were now tall pine trees, bare until half way up, where a covering of pine needles sprouted on their thin branches. The trees were planted in rigid uniformity, and beneath them was a cemetery, with small wooden crucifixes embedded in the ground, and flowers laid in front. My tired mind mentally noted that this was interesting, given that Estonia is not a religious country by any measure.

The cemetery soon gave way to the outskirts of a town, and I observed with interest that it differed from the Estonian cities I had seen. The buildings were more colourful, and the style was different. There was a brightly coloured, domed church, which looked like it was perhaps a Russian orthodox one. The change in architecture made more sense a few minutes later, when I saw the sign which signalled we were about to cross the border into Latvia. No wonder the town didn’t look Estonian!

I couldn’t help smiling to myself as the bus crossed the threshold from one country to another. I wasn’t sure why I was so excited to reach Latvia, but then it hit me: up until now, Estonia was the only country I’d ever travelled to alone. Entering Latvia was a milestone.

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The road was under construction, and thus far was made of mud. The bus had to stop at traffic lights every few minutes. I watched the sunrise through the window, struck by just how beautiful this country was.

It was cold when I arrived in Riga. I stepped off the bus into chilly air, and gathered up my bags, before heading inside the bus station. I bought a crappy black coffee from a vending machine, and stood by the large domed windows which overlooked the canal. The coffee scalded my tongue, but I was too tired to care. It was almost 7am, and through the window I watched the first signs of the city coming to life. I stared into the canal, and sensed that I was going to fall in love with this city.

But I didn’t love it yet. I could feel the anticipation of a love to come, but right now this city was a stranger to me, a stranger which I must soon navigate.

I left the bus station, and, with the guidance of Google maps, headed in the direction of my hostel. I couldn’t check in until 2 o’clock, but I figured it was a good idea to at least be in the vicinity. I had zero desire to spend the next seven hours walking around with the Evil Backback and the Laptop Case from Hell. Within a few minutes, my bags were already driving me nuts, so I decided to sit and rest for a while. After all, I had plenty of time. There were some benches next to the shopping centre outside the train station, so I sat there and took in my surroundings.

I’d been sitting for a little while when a man approached me. He was relatively young, with bright blond hair. His clothing suggested he was perhaps a painter or some kind of construction worker, given the white splatters on his sweater. He spoke at me in Latvian, and I stared back at him wide-eyed, like a rabbit in headlights. He made a gesture which suggested he was asking for a lighter, but I just whispered “I don’t understand” in terrified English, and he laughed at me and walked away. He sat on a bench nearby. I’m sure he’d meant no harm by approaching me, but I’d been awake for almost twenty-four hours and I was in an unfamiliar land. Stranger danger felt all too real, even though it wasn’t something which would normally bother me.

The area around me seemed to be populated by increasingly-dodgy looking people. I wasn’t sure if this was a dodgy spot, or just that the 7am crowd made it appear so, but I decided it was time to move on. The guy who’d approached me earlier said “goodbye” to me in English.

I walked past what seemed to be another bus station, and recognised the name of the street on which my hostel was located. I didn’t see any point walking all the way to my hostel this early, but I was glad I at least knew how to find it now.

Instead, I ventured down another street, into the city centre. The buildings were much taller than those in Estonia, and Riga had a completely different feel than Tallinn and Tartu. Sunlight shone down upon my shoulders, and I found myself grinning up at the buildings which surrounded me. In spite of the weight of my bags, I was filled with an unexpected sense of unadulterated joy. I was falling in love with Riga far quicker than I’d anticipated.

I soon felt the need to rest again. (Those damn bags!!) I didn’t want to sit somewhere random like before, because I didn’t have any particular desire to be approached by random men again. So what to do? I was in an unfamiliar city, carrying heavy bags, and I still had about six hours left before I could go to my hostel.

Then it struck me: I may not be in Estonia anymore, but I was still in the Baltic.

I checked Google maps, and discovered with great joy that there was a branch of Caffeine only twelve minutes walk away.

With the aid of Google translate; I managed to order myself a coffee. (Yes, I know people in customer service jobs can speak English, but I have ~issues~ about speaking English in foreign countries. I don’t want to come across as a British-supremacist colonialist or cliché tourist. I would rather struggle to communicate in languages I can’t understand).

I sat in Caffeine for a couple of hours, relieved to have somewhere to rest. I caught my reflection in a mirror, and was horrified to see my face. There were huge bags under my eyes, and I swear I had developed about 30 new wrinkles overnight. On the rare (increasingly less rare, tbh) occasions when I get drunk, I look in the mirror the next morning (complete with smeared mascara and faded lipstick) and feel like I’m about 30 years old because my skin looks so wrinkled. I didn’t realise that overnight bus journeys have the same ageing effects and gin and cider. Damn.
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When I finally got bored of sitting in Caffeine, I went to the park across the street. It made me miss Kelvingrove Park in Glasgow (literally every park I go to makes me miss Kelvingrove. I didn’t expect to be this homesick). There were pretty pink and purple flowers, and I saw a cat scurrying around beneath them. I sat peacefully for a while, making an attempt to write poetry. Then a random man approached me. (Is anyone sensing a theme here?)

He was older than the one who’d approached me earlier, perhaps in his seventies. He spoke to me in Latvian, I responded in English saying “I don’t understand”, but he kept talking to me in Latvian. Even if he couldn’t speak English, and didn’t know the meaning of my words, you’d think the fact I responded in a different language would have at least given him a hint that I did not understand him. He continued talking at me for a few minutes, before finally giving up his endeavours and leaving me alone to wonder why I am such a magnet for Latvian men.

Not just men, it seems. Some time later a woman approached me. She had a girl of about ten years old with her, so I assumed she was pretty safe. She spoke to me in Latvian, and I responded with my usual “I don’t understand.” The woman then sat beside me and took hold of my hand, stroking my palm. I suddenly remembered that I’d read online about this being a popular tourist scam, where a woman will approach you and offer to read your palm, and then charge you an extortionate amount of money. I snatched my hand away quickly, and said a forceful “No!”

The girl said something to her mother, which sounded like “Angliski”, so I’m guessing she’d figured out I was speaking English. The woman tried speaking to me in broken English, asking for money. I said “No”, repeatedly and forcefully until she finally left me alone. It suddenly occurred to me that my bags were making me too much of an obvious target. Walking around with a large backpack practically screams “fresh meat” to anyone looking for a victim for their scams. I still had two hours left till I could go to my hostel.

I decided to go to the bus stop place I’d seen near my hostel. I figured that I’d be less conspicuous there, and there were benches were I could sit and rest. I’d been there for perhaps half an hour when a woman approached me. She had a young boy with her, who was perhaps ten years old. Alarm bells were already ringing in my head; I could tell she would also try to scam me. The woman started speaking to me in Latvian, and I firmly told her I didn’t understand. She continued talking. Then a woman on the bench behind me addressed her in rapid-fire Latvian, clearly telling her where to go. The woman scowled at my saviour, but finally left. By this point I decided I would just glare at anyone who so much as looked in my direction, and hopefully that would stop every creep in the city from approaching me.

I was so relieved when I finally reached my hostel. I changed out of my travel clothes, and removed all signs of touristiness (yes I know that’s not a word. Shakespeare invented words, so can I) from myself, before heading out to find food. I’d hardly eaten all day, and I was absolutely starving. As expected, I got very lost. I had no idea where I was, but it looked mildly dodgy, and I felt rather scared. Normally I trust my intuition, but I didn’t know if this was intuition or if I was just on high alert because I was so tired. I walked around in circles for what seemed like hours, until I eventually found a supermarket.

Judging by Latvian supermarkets, veganism doesn’t seem to really be a thing here. I thought that Estonia was obsessed with meat and dairy, but in Latvia it’s on a whole other level. Wow. At least they have rye bread.

I’m somewhat ashamed to say that I rather fell out of the habit of diary writing whilst in Riga, and most of the week kind of merged together in my head, so from the 28th through to the 1st I don’t have specific details of each day. I know that I walked around a lot, got lost frequently, and spent a lot of time getting soaked by the rain. There was one day where I went to the Museum of Occupations, and another where I went to the National Library, and got a library membership in order to use a computer to upload my blog. But I can’t say what occurred on what day. Have I learnt my lesson and written regularly in my diary since then? Not entirely, but I’m now forcing myself to at least bullet point each day so that I have prompts of what to write, even if no proper diary entries. At least I took a lot of photos on the days where I didn’t write.

2nd July 2017 –

Well this was it, the day was finally here. For the first time in over a week, I was going to actually see a familiar human. It’s strange, seeing people I know from Glasgow in their home countries. And the friend I was going to meet was someone I’d never spent more than about ten minutes alone with before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect, and was therefore a bit nervous. I arrived 35 minutes early, when normally I arrive to things about 20 minutes early (anxiety is fun, kids).

I sat in the park and wrote poetry as I waited for the time to pass. Then I walked around in circles near the freedom monument for the remaining fifteen minutes until my friend arrived.

How do you describe someone when you’re pretty sure they’re probably going to read what you’ve written? Ah, I could have so much fun with this…

My nervousness subsided when I finally met my friend. Whilst the usual whirring of anxiety buzzed in my head as I walked towards him, it quickly disappeared. I threw my arms around his neck and gave him a big hug (a typical Eliza greeting. Hugs are my favourite thing about life. I have not had enough hugs recently), and soon I was chattering away at a ridiculous speed, making up for the lack of conversation I’d had in the past few weeks.

Sometimes, when around people I don’t know too well, I don’t know what to say, and fall into silences often. But one of the things I like most about this friend is that he is a very good conversationalist, and asks lots and lots of questions, meaning that there is always something to say and to talk about. I often find it hard to think of questions to ask people (because anxiety), but it became easier as the day went on, even if the questions I asked were sometimes weird.

We went to an art museum, and spent more time talking than actually looking at the art (just how I like it), and then we walked around the Old Town in the rain for a while. By the time we left the museum, my friend seemed to have realised just how easy it is to make me rant about things, and he would casually make provocative statements, which would in turn make me go into full-on rant mode, and then he’d whisper “triggered” in a satisfied voice, and I would realise I’d fallen into the trap, just as he wanted me to. This continued all afternoon.

I find it interesting how different people bring out different aspects in me, and after a couple of hours I realised that the side of myself I expressed while in the company of this person was a side I rarely showed. As previously mentioned, I’m very prone to ranting about things (anything from politics to the lack of male nudity in Game of Thrones. You name it, I can rant about it), but I also love a good debate.

And boy did we have a lot of debates! The thing is, I’m used to debating with people who only care about being right, and therefore it’s no fun. But this was different, because he actually seemed to respect my opinion, and listen to what I had to say. It was also a much-needed challenge, because often I state opinions without actually having to defend why I have those opinions. And all of a sudden I was talking with someone who asked WHY I thought those things. And I loved it. There is nothing more enjoyable than talking with someone who actually makes me think!

We went to a café for lunch, and he made me try this drink called kvass, which is basically a bread-flavoured soft drink. It tastes exactly like rye bread, which is so weird. But, much to my surprise, I actually liked it. I guess there’s something appealing about strange things. Plus, rye bread is the great love of my life, so it makes sense that I should like it in all its forms.

The more we talked, the more I felt at ease in my friend’s company. Most of the times I’d met him previously had been at poetry nights, so we’d never had much opportunity to have long conversations. But now I found that not only was I able to fully be myself, without any anxiety, but I was able to express the sides of myself that had lain dormant for a long time. Nothing feels better than finding people with whom you can be yourself. I was so glad that we’d met up, and I wished we’d been able to spend more time together. All I could think was that I wanted this friend to stay in my life for a long, long time.

3rd July 2017 –

I woke in a very philosophical mood. It was my last day in Riga, and I felt strange about that. There was a lot on my mind. I sat in the common room of the hostel, drinking cup after cup of peppermint tea, and writing poetry. For the first time in weeks, my writer’s block had finally disappeared, and I was able to express how I actually felt about things. I wrote three poems all in a row, and then I took all the purple pencils and crayons from a jar on the table and drew random patterns in my notebook. I was feeling strangely frustrated and I wasn’t sure why. Eventually I held all the pencils at once, and scribbled over and over and over in multiple shades of purple until the entire page was covered.

I spent the afternoon walking around the city. I didn’t go anywhere new; I mostly retraced my steps from yesterday, returning to streets and parks and bookshops I’d been to before. There comes a time, whilst travelling, when there’s no space left to make new memories in a place, and all you can do is return to settings of significance and cement the memories you’ve already made until they’re embedded in your mind. Because you never know when, or if, you’ll return here.

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