Kiev was the end of one thing and the start of another. I had not planned on coming to the Ukrainian capital, but the chance to visit Chernobyl proved worth the detour. Now I had to decide my route back to Warsaw. It was not simple. I could backtrack through Lviv, then head into eastern Poland, perhaps to Lublin for a visit. I could purchase a visa to transit through Belarus, then back into Poland. While Belarus interested me, paying an extortionate fee for the quick turnaround on a visa did not sound appealing. Furthermore, the visa fee would go to a dictatorial, anti-democratic government. Belarus had been in the iron grip of Alexander Lukashenko ever since the Soviet Union fell apart. Some called it the last dictatorship, though Vladimir Putin’s Russian regime would soon supersede Lukashenko in the villainy department. I decided against Belarus, but scolded myself for not taking the opportunity to visit a proto-communist state. Minsk would have to wait.
Mutually Elusive – Losing My Way To Latvia
I spent an evening studying the map. Above Belarus and to the northeast of Poland lay the Baltic states. I had enough time to visit a couple of them if I so pleased. The question became how to find a last-minute flight at a decent rate. The advent of cheap carriers across all of Europe has been a boon for those looking to country hop. Baltic Air, the flag carrier of Latvia, offered a reasonable one-way fare from one four letter capital to another. I proceeded to book a flight from Kiev to Riga. I knew next to nothing about Latvia. For many years, I got the locations of Latvia and Lithuania mixed up. Latvia was an in between state, wedged in by Estonia and Lithuania. Often forgotten because it did not offer the medieval treasures of Tallinn, Estonia’s capital or the splendid history of Lithuania, which once ruled a kingdom stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea, Latvia did have Riga, by far the largest city in the Baltics. It was known for a splendid Old Town, an extremely restive Russian minority and a climate somewhat akin to Scandinavia. It also had quite a pagan heritage, as one of the last places Christianized in Europe. I imagined Latvia as a land of misty forests, rough shores and mysterious villages. Imagination informs reality, but also can betray it.
Flying to Latvia from Kiev was not the least bit difficult. I turned up at Boryspil Airport in Kiev with ticket in hand. The flight was short and uneventful, taking about two hours. The airline I used, airBaltic was cheap, but the flight accommodations were not spartan. It offered just as good or better service than major American airlines, which considering the comparison is not saying much. If a country that had been under the iron grip of the Soviet Union for three generations could learn to run an airline well after just two decades of capitalism, then surely America’s airlines could do the same. From my experience, airBaltic seemed to believe that quality service and profitability were not mutually exclusive, in America profit triumphed over service. If there is one thing I have learned from my travels in Eastern Europe, it is that America is more than often not the best, but the biggest.
Perpetual Autumn – Where The Sun Rarely Shines
Looking down from the plane I noticed the Baltic Sea in the distance with white caps breaking under leaden skies and heavy clouds. Leaves were turning on the trees. Kiev had been enjoying an Indian summer, Riga looked to be suffering a perpetual autumn. From above this looked like a land where the sun rarely has shined. All of nature’s colors were deep and penetrating. There was an ominous magic to this landscape. The kind of place where the forest consumes and the sea swallows. A land always on the verge of winter. The kind of landscape that silently envelopes everything and everyone. I felt the allure of this dark magic, I could hardly wait to land as the plane began circling the Riga airport.
Once on the ground I made my way to passport control. I was surprised by the fact that it was all but deserted. I was one of only a few non-Europeans to be entering Latvia and by extension the European Union here in Riga. The officer was almost silent as he scanned and subsequently stamped my passport. The airport was pristine. All the surfaces shined. Cleanliness of public spaces was something Latvians obviously took very seriously. The condition was helped by the fact that hardly anyone seemed to be in the airport. I walked down a nearly vacant corridor, picked up my luggage and made my way to a bus stop. The air was chilly, my nose immediately started to run and I felt the start of cold suddenly coming on. A likely product of both the climate and the flight.
A Welcoming Silence – Down Payments
As I stood in the chill air shivering I was suddenly heartened by the sight of a bus fast approaching. This would transport me to the city center or so I thought. I dug into my pocket for money. All I had were a few larger denominations of Latvian currency. This would not do as I soon discovered. The bus driver demanded that I pay in smaller bills or coins. His demeanor was stiff and unyielding. Though I understood the driver’s point – after all he was not a change machine – I hoped he would show a bit of leniency. No such luck. He stared at me in silence, as did every passenger in the bus. I felt like I was being watched and I was. Stares are the opposite of welcoming, they imply guilt. I was certainly guilty of not having the correct currency and the penalty was that I did not have the proper means to pay. Thus, I had to leave the bus.
This introduction to Latvia would inform my opinion of the country going forward. A pervasive silence, small frustrations and a dreadful cold would stalk me in the coming days. I had no other choice, but to make the best of a less than desirable situation at both the airport and in the immediate future. I stomped back to the airport and promptly got change. Soon I was on the bus heading into Riga. Everyone on-board was silent, including me.