The Reek of Riga

fernweh n. An ache for distant places.

I loved Tallinn, but I wouldn’t have wanted to stay any longer.  Remember, I have that philosophy that I’d rather leave a place wanting to see more of it than leave sick of it.  Staying any longer in Tallinn could only dull the memories I had made there. Naturally, I was given a proper travel sendoff, and by that I mean, some complications that almost didn’t allow me to leave.  As I went to get on the bus, I glanced at my ticket and noticed the date was wrong.  My ticket was for the following day.  There in line to board the bus, I started to panic.  How could I make such a stupid mistake?  When I book stuff, I check, double check, and triple check dates.  On my itinerary, scribbled down on a piece of torn and crinkled notebook paper, I was meant to be leaving Tallinn today and all my bookings henceforth were contingent on that.  I had to get on this bus. My best hope was to keep going, hand over my ticket, and hope the driver wouldn’t notice.

He did… eventfully, but it took a remarkably long time.  After a solid twenty minutes (okay it was more like five but it felt like twenty) on the phone with what I could only assume was his supervisor, he finally saw the date error.  I put on my best face of surprise, which was aided by the very real panic I could feel swelling within me, and asked if there was any way I could just take today’s bus instead.  He said something in Estonian into the phone, listened for an excruciatingly long second, then turned to me and said, “Seat 38.” Cue breathe release.   So that was my first booking issue of the trip.  There has to be at least one and I could only hope that would be my last.

Settling down in my seat was an incredibly relieving feeling and as the bus began to fill fuller and fuller, I began to realize how miraculous it was that there was even a seat left to give me on it.  I tried not to think about what would have happened if not.  Instead, I focused the landscape that rolled by.  Estonia is mostly rural and driving through it reminded me a little bit of home.  The roads were lined with miles and miles (kilometers I guess?) of green fields and forests, though the forests were oddly spaced with very little underbrush, which I soon found was caused by the fact that they were growing out of prehistoric sand dunes.  We passed through only a handful of cities, like Parnu and one that literally translates from Estonian to mean “Placeless”.  I guess you could say we were in the literal middle of nowhere.  But the peaceful was soon interrupted.  No sooner did we cross the border from Estonia to Latvia that the road construction started, and then I really felt like I was back in Montana in the summer.

Over an hour late, I finally made it to Riga, Latvia.  Now usually, making it to a hostel after a long day of travel is a huge relief.  It means I can finally put my pack down, kick off my hiking boots, and relax.  Not in this case.  In fact, arriving at the hostel elevated my anxiety level about 3,000%.  To start with, it was located over a McDonald’s and to get to it, I had to climb about a bazillion stairs.  I later counted these and narrowed that estimation to exactly 120, but when you have a giant pack on, 120 feels synonymous to a bazillion.  When I arrived, I was greeted by a very sweet receptionist who made a point to all but pay for my stay there.  She even complimented me on things which I couldn’t imagine deserved any sort of compliment.  “I really like your hair!” “Umm, thanks? I haven’t washed in like two days.”  At first I thought this was simply because she was awestruck by the fact that I was American (according to her, they didn’t get a lot of Americans in Latvia), but I soon found out this was just an overcompensation for the shit I had just walked into.

She showed me to my room where I was greeted by the overpowering scent of body odor, a blast of heat that made me start sweating right away, and two old half naked Russian men.  Fantastic.  The minute the receptionist left, one of the Russian guys approached me and started trying to talk to me despite the fact that he didn’t speak English (outside the word Minneapolis for some inexplicable reason) and I sure as hell didn’t speak Russian.  Usually, if I smile an nod enough, people just assume I’m an idiot and leave me alone, but not this guy.  For the rest of my stay, every time he would see me the process would repeat.  “Minneapolis!  Minneapolis!” Mate, come on, it’s clear neither of us has any idea what the other is saying so please just stop trying.  I guess I should have been glad that he seemed to regard me such excitement, which was much better than I expected from a Russian toward an American at the moment.

Beyond all that, the hostel was extremely unsecure.  The rooms had no lockers nor locks on the doors at all and virtually anyone could waltz in and make off with anything they desired.  As such, I carried just about all my valuable items with me any time I left the hostel, and let me tell you, carrying around my laptop got to be quite the pain in the neck (literally).  But I could survive this, I told myself.   So it was a little hot and stinky.  So I got a workout everyday getting to my room.  So I was rooming with some less than desirable people.  So I had to carry all my valuables with me at all times.  So what?  I was also only paying 6 a night.  It was the perfect embodiment of the statement, “You get what you pay for.”  I would just be sure to spend as little time there as possible.

Unfortunately, Riga didn’t offer much in the way of things to do though either.  While the hostel was conveniently located just outside the Old Town, I managed to walk around and see almost all of the Old Town within a couple hours on my first night there.  Sure it was pretty enough, but it wasn’t quaint like Tallinn and at the same time, it wasn’t exciting like Stockholm.  What on earth was I supposed to do for the next day and a half?  That would be when the Apsara Tea House came to my rescue.  Between my hostel and the Old Town was a cute little strip of park lining both sides of a stream that branched off from Riga’s main river.  On the shores of this stream was a circular building, with glass walls and two levels of cushion filled benches that wrapped around the building.  After I had explored Old Town, I popped into to this tea house, ordered myself some recommended plum pastry and a peace juice (that tasted like real pureed peaches) and settled onto the upper floor cushions where I sat and read for the next several hours until my stomach told me that it needed more than a plum pastry.  Once I discovered I didn’t need to actually buy anything so long as I sat on the outside benches, this place became a sanctuary for me while in Riga.  If ever I wasn’t sure where to go but needed to get out of the hostel, it was there for me.  All in all, I likely spent more time in the teahouse than I did at my hostel.

Cooking in that kitchen was a fiasco.  To begin, it was definitely not clean and I’m pretty sure the dish soap they had out was actually heavy duty kitchen cleaner (so, you know, maybe not the best thing to ingest).  While hostels greatly vary in how well equipped their kitchens are, this one was absolutely pathetic.  There wasn’t even a pot for me to boil rice in and a I ended up using a frying pan because it was the best I could do.  If you can’t make white rice, then something is definitely wrong.  While I was cooking, I met a young couple from Italy who were just as unsatisfied with the hostel as I was, and after they were chewed out by another old Russian man for not doing their dishes right away (God forbid they eat their food while it’s hot and wash things after), they were even less happy.  After the most painstaking process of making rice I have ever endured, I vowed I would just eat out the next night.  No way was I going through that again. 

I planned on Facetiming with a friend that night and rather than sit in my smelly room until then, I went down to the hostel lobby, which was no more comfortable and filled with some slightly sketchy people, but at least smelled better.  There I sat eating the Estonian version of Nutella (called Poesia) straight out of the jar with my finger, as people gave me looks mingled with pity and judgment.  A part of me felt as though I had stopped to a new low but the other dominant part of me just didn’t care at this point.  It was right then that that wifi decided to cut out and stop working for me.  Great.  Luckily, I knew McDonald’s always had free wifi (one of the great similarities across countries and cultures) and thus I went downstairs and sat in the McDonald’s for a while, watching Archer and waiting to hear from my friend.  As my laptop battery started to die, I went to go back upstairs to grab my charger and found the door to the hostel staircase was now locked at this time of night and I had been given no key.  I buzzed the hostel several times.  No answer.  After a great amount of cussing, pacing, and angry waves at the little camera, I finally buzzed another hostel a few floors lower but over the stupid dubstep McDonald’s was now blasting I could barely hear the instructions of the person who answered, which basically led me to yell at the little speaker box like an Old Person talking into a cell phone while frantically pulling at the door until it opened.  So far, I was doing great at making the Latvians like Americans. 

I didn’t want to risk going back to McDonald’s and having to repeat the struggle of getting back in.  So that’s how I ended up sitting in a windowsill of a gungy stairwell at 2am, bumming McDonald’s wifi, Facetiming, and acting as the fucking doorman since apparently none of the hostels could bother answering the buzzer.  I was liking this hostel less and less by the passing minute, but talking to a friend at least took a little bit of the frustration away.  By the time hung up, it was 2:30am for me and I hoped that the exhaustion bred by my struggles and the hour would let me drift into a fast sleep so I wouldn’t have to smell the B.O. for as short a time as possible. 

The next day, I woke up, got dressed as fast as humanly possible, grabbed the complimentary “breakfast” (an apple, banana, and a package of biscuits) and rushed out.  I had no specific plans for the day but anywhere was better than the hostel.  Since I didn’t really have any plans, I figured I might as well take the free walking tour of Riga so at noon, I met outside the main cathedral of the Old Town and meshed myself into the group.  In the next two hours, we wandered a bit through Old Town, then to the outskirts of it, where the beautiful facades of Old Town Riga turned to remains of unaesthetic Soviet architecture, creating a really strange dichotomy.  But all in all, no matter where we went, Riga just feel friendly to me like Tallinn did.  I simply couldn’t get myself to love the city.  And during the entire tour, what did I learn about Latvian history?  Absolutely nothing.   Unlike other walking tours I have been on which are usually quite interesting and engaging, I simply couldn’t force myself to be interested in the tour or the city. 

The best part of the tour for me was our trip through the city market, which is considered one of the largest in Europe.  Taking up four old airplane hangers, the Riga market has just about anything you can image, including some of their major claims to fame: cherries, pickled everything, and smoke meat and fish.  Incidentally, it also ended up being the best scented place I had thus far found in Riga because it masked the occasional wiffs of body odor I would get while walking through the city.  I was beginning to think it wasn’t just my hostel but the city itself (and I promise it wasn’t me- trust me I was quite paranoid about checking).  Before the end of the tour, I actually ended up diverting off back to the teahouse where I spent the remainder of the day.  I felt a bit bad about disliking Riga.  I hoped the hostel experience wasn't tainting my perception of the city too much, but sometimes, the crossover between things like that are a bit unavoidable.  It was unfair, yes, but I couldn't help it.  But hostel aside, I have to think I would not have found Riga very interesting.  Places are like that.  Some really just click with a person and resonate with you, but at the same time, not for someone else.  That's why travel is tricky because it's such an individual thing.  Perceptions of cities vary as widely as the people perceiving them.

So you know the whole “You need bad experiences to appreciate the good” thing I talk about on this blog quite often?  Well fuck that in this case. I was beyond over this hostel.  Sure, I could have switched hostels for this second night.  The building I was in had about three of them on the floors below me.  Unfortunately, between my stubborn pride and my unwillingness to lose the money I had already paid for the second night in the hostel, I refused to switch.  I would endure this last night in the hostel if it killed me, to which I still wasn’t sure it wouldn’t.  The problem is, there’s not really any lesson to be learned from this.   There is no hostel rule of thumb that states, “If it’s under 10€, avoid!” No, some of the best hostels I’ve stayed in were under that price.  The Montenegro Hostel for one was actually cheaper and that was probably the nicest hostel I’ve ever experienced.  Hostels are often a total gamble, which is part of the fun of budget travel.  The all too present fear and worry about the possibility of getting a bad hostel makes each new city a little bit thrilling and when you do get nice hostels or the occasional hotel, it makes you feel like royalty.  But unfortunately, I’ve never been much of gambler and while I feel as though I have been remarkably lucky in my hostel experiences over my travels this year, I simply can’t avoid all the bad ones.  Hopefully, Riga filled my quota for a while.