Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Destination: Riga

Travelling has its definite upsides. But, as you learn when peering through sleepy eyelids in a desperate attempt to get some of that conditioner into that minuscule bottle safety regulations allow you to have on you in the middle of the night, only hours before you're expected at the airport, there are some downsides, too. Or, as you're forced to display all your possessions for the whole world to see at the X-ray machines (do not, I repeat, DO NOT ever travel with handcuffs. Just don't). "Any liquids? Electronics? Sharp objects? Some dignity still left?"

Guess the baffled answer of yours truly when asked if I had any tablets on me? "Sure, but they're all prescription-free..." (And none of them say Apple or Samsung!)

One of the best thing about travelling is exploring new places and meeting new people, but as the last-minute packing operation drags on I find it increasingly difficult to feel any sympathy for people whose idea of in-flight entertainment is a terrorist attack. Seriously - you can always switch the channel! You don't have to watch those dreadful Canadian hidden camera shows!

(Why is it by the way, that the packing always gets left to the last possible moment? You've been counting down minutes to the holiday ever since you booked the flights, yet it always comes as a surprise that pajamas are still not the desirable attire anywhere in the world?)

What ever the destination is, excitement fills me with such giddiness I find it hard to sleep the night before anyway.What if I forgot to pack something (the only time in West Bank I didn't pack my trusty little black dress just in case, I got invited to meet the President)? What if I fail to wake up (that's happened too and so I missed a plane to Ireland)? What if I've packed all wrong things (yes, that too is possible...)?

I learnt a lesson in the last example during my first summer Israel. I had carefully built a capsule wardrobe that was supposed to see me through any occasion. Key colour being my favourite at the time: orange. As I got to Israel I congratulated myself on a good choice - orange seemed to be the trendiest colour around and the locals welcomed me with such warmth it was unheard of. 

A couple of days into my visit I learnt why. That was the summer of Gaza disengagement and orange colour had become the symbol of resistance to it and it was used to show solidarity to the settlers that faced eviction from Gaza. Whoopsydaisies. Though, how often do you ever have a politically pressing reasons to hit the shops in the search of a new wardrobe?

Due to the strange course my life has taken, my travels have followed the same pattern year in, year out. A couple of trips to Tallinn and Stockholm, summer somewhere in the Middle East and Spain every chance I got. I can't even remember the last time I travelled somewhere For The Very First Time

See, first times are always special. Be them... well, you get the point. Special. 

I was so ashamed to realize how little I knew about our next destination. The only thing I knew for a fact was that it was the Baltic country that wasn't Lithuania. I wouldn't have even been able to put it on the map!

So, in case you too are as ignorant, here's some information on the country that, until July, will act as the President of EU:

- Latvia became independent in 1918... and again in 1991 as the Soviet Union that had been occupying it since 1940, crumbled at last.
- The population of Latvia is about 2 million, out of which at least 300 000 (up to 30% according to some, though) are Russians. So, not entirely tension-free then.
- The written language was formalized in the late 17th century. Latvian language is related to neighbouring Lithuanian language, but not to Estonian (?) 
- Latvia's flag is among the oldest in the world and dates back to 13th century. According to a legend it was born as a white cloth was wrapped around a local chief who'd been wounded in a battle. His blood coloured the edges of the fabric red, leaving the centre white. 
- The national bird of Latvia is white wagtail, but the bird they're most famous for is stork. At least 10% of world's stork population nests here.
- Latvia gets its fair share of rain that falls mainly on the plain - the highest point of the country only measures 312 metres. So, if you intend to set up a base camp for your Mt.Everest training... this is probably not the country for you.
- Mikhail Baryshnikov (you know, the sculptor guy on Sex and the City) who defected the Soviet for Canada (and ballet dancing for acting) was born in Riga. The most popular Latvian though? Arvīds Blūmentāls from Dundaga. Oh, never heard of him? Well, maybe you've heard of the film that was modelled after him? Crocodile Dundee...?
- Latvia is also home to the widest waterfall in Europe. Ventas Rumba, located in Kuldīga, measures a whopping 110 metres in width. Though only about 2 metres in height...
- As far as gender equality goes, these guys rock. Out of those in senior managerial positions 44% are women. In Germany for instance that figure is  about 14%.
-Latvians are a nation which love to sing. Every five years they host Latvian Song and Dance amateur choral festival that brings together tens of thousands of performers for 3-day-festivities. Next one will be held in July 2018.

So, travelling in the countries close by really does have its perks. No visas, no stressing about which way to move the clocks. No lengthy flights, no hours and hours spent waiting in transit halls... a perfect weekend mini-break is just an hour away!

At the same time everything is new and exciting and yet, as globalization shrinks the world and brings down barriers, strangely familiar. The radio blasts the same hits everywhere, only language they're introduced is different. Everywhere you go, you're greeted by the same shops, only with price tags in different currency. The cinemas all show the same films, only with the names transformed to suit the local alphabets.

Latvia turned out to be the perfect destination in every way. The journey there took way less than a ferry to Tallinn and the beauty of the city in all its Art Nouveau glory was incredible. Same time zone, same currency, same voltage. Our first time will definitely not be the last.

Hey - do look outside for a moment! One of the things I never tire of when on a plane is the clouds. Still today, after hundreds of planes I've sat in, I giggle like a little kid as the plane dives into the them and hey presto -  I'm on cloud nine. Literally.

Just as I'll never understand how the planes manage to stay on air, I'll never understand the clouds. What do you mean I can't touch them? What do you mean I can't walk on them? What do you mean I can't wrap myself in them? What do you mean they "probably wouldn't taste like vanilla soft ice cream"?

But ooh - would you just look at them! Much like the eerie volcanic landscape of Cappadocia or the out-of-this-word-scenery at Nerja caves imagination is the only limit when deciphering the formations. 

Like these little babies. They look just like little sheep who just decided to take a nap...

Look at me, totally derailed. I'd better stop babbling as we don't have much time - you can already see the land! So, fasten your seat belts and get read for landing. The holiday is about to begin!

Laipni lūgti Latvijā - welcome to Latvia, everyone!

How familiar are Latvia and Riga to you guys? Recommendations? Suggestions? Where to now - shall we check out the hotel or start exploring Riga's beautiful Old Town straight away?




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