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The Dangerous Business of Going Out Your Door I am often tired of myself and I have a notion that by travel I can add to my personality and so change myself a little. I do not bring back from the journey quite the same self that I took. - W. Somerset Maugham

Riga Reflections and the Numbers from the Baltics

LATVIA | Tuesday, 12 April 2016 | Views [478]

I usually have an impression of a place before arrival, and that often predetermines whether I will like it. The impression may or may not be based on anything very substantial. Perhaps I have tucked away a vague memory of a news report or a photograph, maybe I know someone who has been there or I've met someone from there, or maybe the place just has a reputation. Sometimes the impression is based on nothing factual whatsoever, but rather just the way the place's name rings in my ears and feels in my mouth. The impression is further influenced by how I liked my previous destination and whether I was ready to leave it. If I leave a well-liked place too soon, the next place is probably doomed. I don't deny that it gives some places an unfair advantage and others an unfair disadvantage, but so it is. 

I expected to like Tallinn, Estonia. It felt good to say those smooth names.

  • Tallinn: taaaaa-lin, something small and round, accented with cute little points, just like the towers on its old town wall.
  • Estonia: es-tohhh-nia, very princely with an almost Italian flourish.

I did not expect to like Riga, Latvia. Those names felt awkward and scratchy.

  • Riga: reee-gah, something dirty, grey, and probably smelly.
  • Latvia: lahhht-via, flat, drab, and probably corrupt.

I left Tallinn too soon, so Riga's chances were not very good.

But Riga surprised me! It refused to be outdone by its smaller northerly neighbor. What it lacked in Tallinn's charm, it made up for in its intricate art nouveau and its feeling of living history. While Tallinn took the path of the fairytale town, Riga took the path of a major metropolis with thick city blocks of impressive design and every possible type of restaurant or cafe you could imagine - with food from such places as Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan! 

As I walked around the first evening, Riga filled its streets with church bells and practicing choirs. The melodies seemed to come from all sides, like celestial music emanating from the buildings and streets themselves. The trams were sleek and modern with the lines being nicely integrated into the cobblestone streets, but the overhead wires did get in the way of all the photos I wanted to take. There were flower shops everywhere, and people walked around cradling their freshly-bought bundles. The locals stared down into the flowers, ignoring the magnificent buildings all around them, while the tourists stared up.

Young people looked like young people everywhere else, and seemed full of optimism and energy. They have only known the good times. But the older people wore the worried, worn out, tired look of oppression, struggle, occupation, and war. And they walked - whether old, deformed, slow, dependent on a cane, or laden with bags, they walked anyway. Whether the streets were icy, uneven, cobblestone, or steep, they walked anyway.

Here's what has happened during the lives of those older people. The Soviet Union occupied them in 1940, deported 15,000 of their citizens OVERNIGHT, and began a year of terror. Thinking nothing could be worse than that, the Latvians welcomed Germany. Nazi Germany occupied them in 1941 and they learned that things could indeed get worse. When Germany lost WWII, the Latvians expected the Western Allies to support their re-independence. Instead, the Soviet occupation resumed in 1944 and they remained part of the USSR for almost the next 50 years. Their economy was destroyed. They lost more than 500,000 of their citizens - close to ONE-THIRD of their pre-war population. The Soviets moved 800,000 foreigners into their country who did not speak their language and gave them positions of authority. 

The Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991 and the Latvians finally gained true independence, but there were major economic collapses during the transition from a communist to a market economy. They had lost a substantial portion of their population, especially among the educated. It took half a decade to start to find stability, but they finally did. Around this time, I, a teenaged girl half a world away, heard the name of this country for the first time as I set myself to memorize the states of the former USSR. Estonia-Latvia-Lithuania: Those three were always easy to remember before I struggled through the more obscure-sounding -istans.

Latvia was accepted into the European Union and NATO in 2004. Twelve years later, and just one generation into their independence, I decided to visit them, low expectations and all. Riga proved me wrong. I found a very modern, impressive city, and I joined a free walking tour. Just 25-30 years ago, public gatherings like that walking tour were illegal and could get you sent to a gulag in Siberia - this was within my lifetime! But now we can gather and we can walk - whether through the worn out, tired, uneven parts of the city or through the newly renovated areas, we can walk anyway - just like the older people were showing us.


The Numbers

It was nice to be in cheaper countries again after expensive Scandinavia! 

Tallinn Numbers: Includes 3 days 

  • Ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn (one-way): $42.55
  • Private room with private bathroom in a hostel for 3 nights: $75.00
  • Daily expenses (food): $42.11

Tallinn Total: $159.66

Tallinn Average: $53.22 per day  

Riga Numbers: Includes 2 days

  • Bus from Tallinn to Riga (one-way): $11.08
  • Private room with a shared bathroom in a hostel for 2 nights: $41.00
  • Guidebook: $7.00
  • Daily expenses (food, laundry): $39.29

Riga Total: $98.37

Riga Average: $49.18 per day

Combined Average for the Baltics over 5 days: $51.61 per day

Very happy to see this be below my Trip 1 average of $66.93 per day, but I'll be moving around a lot in the coming weeks, so expenses will certainly go up again. 


Tags: budget, latvia, riga, sabbatical, solo, travel


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