Riga and Buses, Pankūkas and PINs

Today I ventured outside of my comfort zone of no-buses-or-trains-required Valmiera... Yes, I went to the Big City. Yes, Riga only has about 710,000 residents, but compared to Valmiera it is a giant metropolis. Slight Anecdotal Detour: When the bus pulled into the first stop in Riga, I put my jacket on and prepared to exit. 15 minutes later, still in Riga and not yet at my station, I was frustrated and shocked - "15 minutes and we're not even in the center yet!" Then I remembered that in San Jose, you can drive for probably 40 minutes and still not be at the other side... Mini-reverse-culture-shock, perhaps? But back to the beginning...
The crepe cafe (pankūkas kafejnica)

Friday night I was texting Jordan (the other American AFSer in Latvia), who lives in Kalngale (a 30 minute drive from Riga.) It's strange, the bond one makes with other exchangers. We met each other the first day of orientation and then spent two days traveling together, and by the end of the journey it felt as though we'd known each other for years. We text each other all the time, and once a week or so we'll talk on the phone for about an hour and spend all of our O!Karte credit. Last night it dawned on me that there are countless buses from Valmiera to Riga, that the buses are only 3 lats ($6), and that I had no plans for Saturday. And so I checked the time table, wrote down the bus numbers and times, and asked Mama Zane if I could meet Jordan in Riga. After some hushed debate in Latvian, it was decided that I could go. Of course, Gatis gave me the safety lecture, as well as a talk on how to get on and off a bus (quite literally - "Before your stop, you must stand up, but carefully, so you do not fall..."). 

On Saturday, I woke up at around 10:20, had a leisurely breakfast of rye bread, biezpiens, and jam with some "Teja Jauniešiem" (Teenager Tea, which I bought at a place in the country - more on that later), and then realized I was late and hurriedly got my things together and speedwalked to the bus station. There were only eight or so people on the bus, and it was surprisingly pleasant. When I think of buses, I tend to think of a sketchy moving vehicle with a tendency to crash and/or smell like pee. But this bus was just... nice. There was a large big digital clock, which actually was a brilliant feature, the seats were adjustable, there were footrests, etc. The most surprising aspect? It was pristinely clean, and lacked any sort of smell.
Wedding photos...
and some guy carrying a kayak in the middle of Riga.
As I only had two battery bars left, I turned off my phone. I spent most of the ride listening to my iPod and looking out the window, which was not nearly as pathetic/boring as it sounds. We passed farm land, villages that seem to be straight out of a fairy tale, rows and rows of Soviet-era apartment blocks, small lakes, and miles of forest. Certain parts of the forest(s, as we passed many different ones) were filled with people mushroom picking. It was quite adorable, actually. As we neared Riga, I turned on my phone to clarify details with Jordan. The night prior I had told him that I would be arriving at 1:45 at Rigas SAO, but we hadn't spoken that day. So you can imagine my panic when I turned on my phone and it asked for a PIN. A PIN! Who has a PIN for their phone?! I do, apparently! Later I learned that every Latvian sim card has a PIN - when I asked Gatis why, he just said, "For security, obviously." - and that it's written in the little packet your sim card comes in. (Remember, we buy our sim cards from convenience stores like drug dealers on The Wire.) Well, this was the first time I'd ever heard of my phone having a PIN. I desperately tried to figure it out - I tried the usual 1234, 0000, 1111, etc. combinations, but none of them worked. And that is how I officially locked myself out of my phone.
Cupcake mural outside the Laima chocolate factory.

Usually, this wouldn't be a big deal. There are always those ancient relics called pay phones, and there are always kind strangers with cell phones. It turns into a big deal when you suddenly realize that you know no numbers. None. Not your home phone, not your host parents' phones, not your host siblings' phones, not even Jordan's phone. It is a big deal when you are stranded without a phone - even worse, without any contacts. I panicked. There were 20 minutes left until we would arrive at Rigas SAO, and those 20 minutes were so stressful they probably slightly reduced my life span.

Dancing people sculptures near the music store
And then I was saved by social networking (aka, I remembered that Jordan had sent my his number via Facebook.) All I had to do was get to a computer. I began writing drafts of scripts in Latvian - I hypothetically explained my situation in detail to a sympathetic stranger and then begged for the use of a smart phone or computer. When I realized it probably wasn't a good idea to advertise the fact that I was alone and without any contacts in Riga, I boiled it down to "Do you know where the closest internet cafe is?" Ultimately, I didn't need to ask - inside the bus terminal, there are little internet kiosks. For 1,20 lats you can have an hour of internet time. In my panic, I dropped in an entire lat ($2) instead of 10 centimi.  Despite the fact that I wasted a lat, I was quite literally overjoyed. I logged onto Facebook, found Jordan's number, sent an email to Gatis with Jordan's number and an explanation, wrote Jordan's number on my hand, and ran to the nearest payphone.
The river in the park... it's actually not brown.

Jordan answered on the second ring, and I breathlessly explained my predicament. A 20-something-year-old punk walking by giggled/smirked (he was totally eavesdropping), but I could have cared less. I don't think anyone understands just how stressed I was... I was about to call the American Embassy. Yes, I could have just taken a bus back to Valmiera. But then I would have left Jordan sad and lonely, and I would have wasted 4 hours and 6 lats, and I would have felt like a failure. Anyway, Jordan answered, I talked for about a minute while constantly shoving coins into the payphone, and then I asked him where he was. He said he was inside the terminal, and we played a game of "Can you see the red sign? No, not that one, the other red sign. Can you see the guy with dreads? Move to your right... can you see him now?" When I finally saw him, I literally dropped the phone (don't worry, the bungy cord caught it) and ran Hollywood-style to squeeze the living daylight out of him in an "I-was-about-to-call-the-embassy!" hug.
Newlyweds' locks on the bridge
I needed to calm myself after such an adrenaline rush, and so we walked to Old Riga. Jordan goes to school in a modern orange and grey building in Old Riga, right in the center of everything. We walked there and then decided to eat at this amazing kafejnica (it's like a cafeteria/buffet/cafe in one) he knows. All they have is crepes. Crepes with mushrooms, crepes with biezpiens, crepes with Nutella... crepes galore. I had a biezpiens crepe and a cherry crepe... so fantastic. Afterwards we walked through Old Riga, looking at the sites and just talking. When we came across the Occupation Museum, I really wanted to go in, but Jordan was being lame and and said that all his Latvian friends had said it was boring. So we compromised and decided to go to the gift shop (the best part of any museum, as everyone knows.) I bought a book, "Unpunished Crimes," about the Nazi and Soviet occupations of Latvia, which I have been reading for most of today. 
Year-round Christmas tree (the Occupation Museum
is on the right.)

After the museum, we walked over to the main park and sat on castle ruins and watched a couple take wedding pictures. There's a tradition in Latvia (and I think Russia too) where newlywed couples put a symbolic lock on a bridge. One small bridge in the park is covered in locks, and Jordan and I spent about fifteen minutes inspecting them. Some people had Chinese characters, others had a simple lock that was from a hardware store, and some (Konstantin and Tatyana in particular) had engraved golden locks.

From there we wandered over to Jordan's favorite music store in Riga. Despite the sketchy alleyway entrance and the fact that it is in a dimly lit basement, it was actually one of the coolest places I've been in Riga. It wasn't that exciting of a store - there were two cheaply built and overpriced ukuleles and a bunch of guitars and some basses - but there was a playing room where you can try out the guitars and amps. We watched two guys jam on electrics for a while, and they were incredible. Then Jordan played "his" $1000 bass (which he apparently visits weekly). Needless to say, I was blown away again. I had no idea such melodic sounds could come out of a bass... That kid is genius, I tell you.

Jordan in the music shop

It was already closing time at the music shop, so we reluctantly left after about half an hour. We started wandering, and eventually we realized we were lost. The Art Nouveau buildings stopped and old wooden buildings began cropping up, as did the Laima chocolate factory. That made getting lost better - it smelled like chocolate for blocks. I brought out my map of Riga after Jordan finally decided to admit we were lost, and we found our way back to the head street. From there we followed the Freedom Monument to get back to Old Riga. (Jordan's comment, in response to their monument celebrating freedom and liberty: "Ours is bigger.") 

Back in Old Riga, we decided to have another meal. We ate some pretty good pizza at an Italian restaurant in a prime people-watching spot... all I'm going to say is that there was quite the crowd. For dessert, I decided to go for a banana split, which I hadn't had in years but was suddenly craving. At first Jordan refused to eat any. Then he decided to take a "little taste," using a mint leaf as a spoon. Then he brought out the fork and stole all the strawberry ice cream. (That's okay, because I don't like strawberry ice cream anyway.) At this point, it was almost time for me to head home. My bus left at 19:20, and it took us longer than we thought to walk there... and it's a big terminal.... Yes, we were those people running through the terminal to catch a bus. I made it with about a minute to spare, bid adieu to Jordan, and secured my seat on this bus. This time, it was pretty full, but I managed to wrangle two seats (one with my conveniently placed purse.) On the ride back, I listened to Bob Dylan and read my new book from the Occupation Museum. I arrived home in Valmiera at 9:30, and sat with Mama Zane in the kitchen for a while and was successfully able to describe my day completely in Latvian - no Russian or English needed! After some more Teenager Tea (next post, it's a long story), I went to the computer, typed this, and went to bed. (Now it's Sunday, and I am planning on having a lazy day in my pajamas reading the museum book. And of course, more Teenager Tea.)

In the middle of Old Riga: a knockoff Obama poster, Twilight, and Michael Jackson.
Remember what I said about American pop culture being big in Latvia? Here's the proof.

2 Response to "Riga and Buses, Pankūkas and PINs"

  1. Mama Kangaroo Says:

    Sounds like a fantastic day, and, in true spirited traveler style, you figured out a solution to the phone problem. It must have been the Teenage Tea (and Gatis!)

  2. Allie Says:

    Hey, it was all my critical thinking and problem solving skills - don't give the credit to Gatis! Teenager Tea, however...

Post a Comment