Riga, Latvia

March 2, 2014 § 2 Comments

The colour palate of Wizz Air, which is, arguably, the world’s most creatively named airline, looks like it was chosen by myself two decades ago. The two intense shades of pink and purple that engulf the entire exterior set the plane aside from the navy blues of the Ryanair and Scandinavian planes on the runway. But more shockingly, perhaps, is the fact that the stewardesses had applied this color palate to their faces. Their makeup is reminiscent of a Baz Lerman movie, gaudy and with an intensity that suggests it has been spray painted on. One half of each eyelid is pink; the other purple. Remarkable.
I had the privilege to fly whizz air from Oslo, Norway to Riga, Latvia this last month.
As the plane took off in a snowstorm, on a runway of packed snow, I thought: What am I doing surrounded by film charecters? Where the hell am I going? What is Latvia anyways? I’ve never fucking heard of it. But, it was too late to be asking questions.
I flew over Sweeden and crossed the Baltic Sea and landed in Riga. The first stop in Latvia was a cashpoint, since I had only dollars and Euros on me.
The cashpoint seemed that it would give me only dollars or Euros. I was frustrated. I had done my research, back in San Juan with my dodgy wifi signal, so I knew what was up. Latvia had a currency known as the Lat, and there were two US dollars to every Lat. Simple!
Of course, I was right but not completely because I was also wrong. I had arrived at the very beginning of Latvia’s transition to the euro. It wouldn’t be possible for anybody to withdraw Lats again, but, of course they were still in circulation. As a result, there were two prices for everything, one in Lats, and one in Euros.
Latvia was good to me, for the most part. For 11 euros, I stayed in a room in a hostel by myself and enjoyed free breakfast and a welcome drink. And for three days, I learned what life was like in a Baltic State that had been part of the Soviet Union from 19– to 1990.
I’d received advice from the girls at the front desk of my hostel to go the black market ‘because [i seemed] to be so interested in these old soviet things’, she explained, raising one eyebrow on her pale, angelic Eastern European face. She was very skeptical of my fascination with the Russian suburbs, those rows of forsaken wooden houses in various dull colours, with a few onion-dome Russian Orthodox churches, scattered about, their insides full of gold decorations and chanting old ladies.
This turned out to be some of the best travel advice I’d received, ever.
The central market of Riga was impressive enough, sprawling nearly 4 city blocks, where giant glass buildings sold more food than I could imagine- fresh cranberries, pigs heads, heaping piles of sauerkraut, unpasturized milk- everything, really. And then there was the outdoor section, full of vendors braving the cold to sell pots and pans, house dresses and coats, tea, mittens, and housewares.
I thought one could really buy anything that they could want or need at that market. But then I went to the black market.
It was everything I could have hoped for. To say I didn’t match the demographic would be a severe understatement.
Boxed in by a metal wall nearly 3 meters tall was a world of old men, wrapped in black coats and shouting in Russian amongst piles- literal piles of…. Stuff.
Countless bicycle tyres, soviet army uniforms, gas masks, mirrors, antiquated electronics, this place had everything.
The high that day was negative sixteen and because I know no Russian opening my mouth to speak was not only futile, but also painful.
I did so anyways. Trying on a brown fur cap, I inquired how much it cost. The fat Russian man, from underneath his fur hat smiled and said something that I imagined was- “You are way too young, female, and western to be here. What year is it? Where did all the soviets go?”, and handed me a mirror, i mean a real vintage price- heavy, silver, ornate, ancient.
The fur hat fit perfectly. I could have been a head extra in the film Dr. Zhivago. I gave him the thumbs up, hoping it was a universal sign of approval, and asked again, ‘how much!?’
It was the desire and desperation in my voice, instead of the actual words I spoke that conveyed what I was asking. The man pointed to the number five on an ancient grandfather clock. Five euro. Just five euro. It wasn’t even worth haggling, I handed him six euro, took my wool cap off and put the fur hat on, grabbed a few soviet coins that he was also selling, and walked off, puffing self-satisfied little hot breaths into the cold Riga air from underneath my warm new hat.

A ski trip in Norway

January 31, 2014 § 2 Comments

           I had completely given up. I sacheted my skis to the side of the trail bad let yet another Norwegian pass me. This one was about eighty years old, and her white grey hair ruffled in the wind as she whisked past me.
         Ugh, I groaned. The little voice inside me said, that’s right, you can lump this in with all your other insecurities. You’re lousy at cross country skiing. And the fat kid inside of me said- you’d probably be better off eating a toasted strawberry pop tart uand drinking a cup of Swiss miss. I had just skied 6km from songsvann to ullevetseler and had been told that I could get cinnamon rolls, really good ones at the lodge in the woods that flew a red flag labelling it as Ullevetseler. However, life is unpredictable and sometimes just sucks, and of course the lodge is closed every monday, so I decided to study a sign that could hopefully lead me to food.
          When it was beginning to become obvious that the Ullevtetseler would have been the only option, the man next to me said something time in Norwegian. I felt myself flush from the inside. Normally, I would not be embarrassed that I don’t speak the local language, especially considering I was in a country that’s population is about the same as the whole metropolitan area of Washington, DC, but the thing is, every Norwegian I have met also speaks flawless English. What? I said, and he asked me if I knew anything about the trails. I was a bit surprised thought I was Norwegian in the first place, because not only is my skin several shades darker than the majority population, but I didn’t see anyone else in the country who had curly hair like mine.
         No, I told him, I was just a tourist, but I’d skied from Sonsvann. And how long did that take? He asked me. I told him, 90 minutes, and he was unable to control his laughter. 6.5 kilometers in 90 minutes, he asked me. What’s is wrong with you? Well, I told him, that’s exactly what I’ve been asking myself.
         The man introduced himself as Ten and offered to watch me ski. And when I showed him, he couldn’t hold back his laughter. You have sticky skis! He said. You might as well be walking.
        Ten taught me that waxing skis is science- really it’s an art form as well. The wax that you apply the area under your skis is meant to be sticky- it helps you grip the snow when you are going up hill. But the wax you apply to the front of your skis is a lubricant, and helps you gain speed going down hills. Both waxes are temperature sensitive so that you must apply the one that corresponds withy the temperature that it is outside. Norwegians, he told me, can become really obsessed with different kinds of waxes and spend hundreds of kroner on them. I had applied the first, but not the second, which would explain the fact that I had a bit of  handicap.
         Three hours later, I was back athe the Songsvann metro stop. I had skiied for 18 kilometers, 4 of them on Ten’s skis, screaming like a little girl as I crouched forward onto them and sped downhill. I wasn’t quite on the level of the guys in full spandex with icicles hanging off of their moustaches, but I had made progress, and that was enough.

Bear Prints

June 20, 2013 § 1 Comment

In August 1999, I turned eight years old. I also became a Yellowstone Junior Ranger. And in June of 2013, at the age of twenty-one, I became a Junior Ranger yet again. Days later, in Glacier National Park in Montana, I was able to find practical application for my new found junior ranger skills.
Let me preface this story by telling you that Winter is still heaving its last dying breaths out west. Tourist season in the last three National Parks I’ve visited- Glacier, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton National Park has not yet started – campgrounds are closed on account of tourists not wanting to brave the nights which dip below zero, and Glacier’s quintessential drive on the the ‘going to the sun road’ is not possible because there are snow drifts still covering it. Chloe, Evelyn and I confirmed this when we went as far as we could on the road, until snow banks were two meters high along the side of the winding road and we found a Visitor Center (closed for winter) and turned the car around in a parking lot where two kids tumbled around in the snow wearing parkas, and a couple snowboarders, still tripping on adrenaline, were telling any one who would listen about their epic trip down the mountain.
I hope I won’t lose my credibility when I say that in this day- our only full day in Glacier was the only properly warm day I’ve experienced in the last three weeks. Yes, I did submerge my body in Lake Michigan momentarily, but had to immediately put on a wool coat. Therefore, I took hold of the opportunity to bring my shorts out to experience this unseasonable Montana day.
And so, I found myself, in shorts, hopping about for the last two miles of a twelve mile hike to a frozen lake, in old running shoes donning a Junior Ranger patch on my rucksack and about to use some Junior Ranger knowledge I’d recently gained.
“It’s a grizzly bear footprint” I told Chloe, knowledgeably. “Junior Ranger book, page seven”, I said, referencing the page in which I had traced my foot over a print of a grizzly bear footprint. A bit down the path, a little pile of fresh, brown, steaming kaka confirmed my educated Junior Ranger guess. We waled in the opposite direction that the bear prints were headed and I smugly patted my junior ranger patch, already affixed to my daypack with red thread.

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The Badlands

June 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

The fastest animal in North America is the prong-horned antelope (which is neither an antelope or a deer; but I’ll spare you the taxonomical explanation). It sprints through the badlands at 60 miles per hour. The thing that surprised me about this fact, however was that something would be able to actually live in the harsh badlands environment. If I was supposed to come up with just one word to describe the reddish-brown , dry, unearthly, terrain of the badlands, ‘uninhabitable’ would definitely be in the running.
The night we arrived in the badlands, the clouds, the colour of plumbs, hung low in the sky, and, although the orange sun shone down tenaciously behind them, we could tell that a storm was impending. This was to be the first time in my adult life that I was to be camping.
The storm started just after I’d entered that preliminary, hazy, dreamless phase of sleep. Lightning turned the campground in a giant lighting studio, momentarily and perfectly illuminating the tent with white light. As my eyes flickered open I became conscious of the wind, blowing swollen rain drops horizontally onto the tent. I shivered and braced myself to be soaked- it seemed that the roof or the floor would soak through and I’d find myself in the middle of a cold desert swamp.
It happened. I felt cold moisture on top of me and knew that, surely, the roof had given way to the rain. However, I was wrong. The roof had indeed, given way, but rather to the wind. The tent had turned itself inside out in the manner of an umbrella during a hurricane. For the duration of the storm, the three of us fought, claustrophobically to keep the roof of the tent up. But like everything on earth, the storm was condemned to die and we woke up in dry sleeping bags to a cloudy and colourful badlands sunrise.

Michigan

June 13, 2013 § 1 Comment

When George W Bush visited Captain Sundae in 2003, he ordered their signature sundae, the Tommy Turtle, consisting of soft serve vanilla ice cream, hot caramel and chocolate sauces, buttered pecans, whipped cream and a cherry on top. if you want, you can have all this with a doughnut underneath. But I have not finished creating your mental picture- this sundae, in an all American fashion is of course- to go, and in a pint size. That’s right, the pint, 486 millilitres, the size favoured by frat brothers and fans of red solo cups and beer pong. If the size and contents aren’t enough isn’t enough to tempt potential customers, there’s a picture of George W himself, with his arms wrapped around two young blondes wearing red sailor hats. He’s not looking at the camera, but instead, was smirking down at one of the blondes.
‘Were you guys unable to take a more flattering picture of our former President?’ I inquired, cautiously. After all, this is Michigan, and where people seem to have rather drastic political leanings,divided fairly evenly between right and left.
The the blonde behind the counter in a red sailor hat in 2013 looked at me vacantly, her eyes opening slightly and her lips making a little ‘o’ before they pursed shut.
At that moment, my friend Paul Produced an ice cream, covered and sprinkles, produced a birthday ice cream cone with a candle on top of it to his girlfriend, Carlye, who he’d met while we were all in India together.
I arrived at Captain Sundae with a group of seven great friends, on the way back to Grand Rapids, from the alarmingly massive white sand dunes that loom over Lake Michigan.
I was to leave Grand Rapids the following day after an enjoyable week of exploring, drinking local beer, listening to lots of good music, and completing one of my summer goals of doing a habitat for humanity build. Grand Rapids is at the heart of the Bible Belt, and as a former logging town, appears to be a melting pot of different denominations- there’s Greek Orthodox Church next to an Iglesia Latino next to an evangelical centre.
I stopped in an evangelical Christian shop and was, for lack of a better word, amused by its contents. There were countless books aimed at making the bible more interesting and accessible to those who, perhaps don’t want to read the bible. And so, there are books such as Claudia, wife of Pontius Pilate, along with a myriad of inspirational posters, and even a waterproof book of devotions.
Perhaps it was the Pennsylvania in me, but I was most interested in the Amish romance novels. A decade ago, there were only a couple amish romance novels on the market, but the number of Amish romance novels has increased exponentially, and in 2012 alone, 85 new Amish romance novels were published*. Valerie Weaver-Zercher, who has done extensive research on this phenomenon, suggests in her book, ‘thrill of the chaste’ that the appeal of Amish romance novels lies in the content, which seems to contrast with modern day culture. They are after all, in her words, ‘chaste books, about people in a chaste culture, leading chaste lives’.
That’s all for now, folks!

* Weaver-Zercher, Valerie, The Thrill of the Chaste: the allure of Amish Romance Novels, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012

Gaylord, Michigan

June 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

According to my friend Gwen, the proper name for a person residing in Michigan is a ‘Michigander’. I suppose if I was to stay here forever, or even just for a while, I would become one too.
I’m in Gaylord, Michigan now, in a housing development on a lake no longer than a city block. Gaylord is a Swiss-themed, self described ‘Alpine Village’. I’m staying at the home of my friend Gwen’s Grandparents, who have been putting up with me graciously, despite the fact that i have already been flagged as being an ‘unknown stranger’ by the neighbourhood watch when I wandered, lost in amongst rows of identical brown cottages on my morning walk.
Gwen had proved herself to be infinitely fun and patient when she lived with me in the foreign student hostel in Pondicherry, as well as as when we backpacked in Thailand together. This is the girl that held my hand one time when I went into anaphylactic shock. We have a great time together.
It was a long drive up from Detroit to the Northern part of the state, but was quite a lot earlier than the day before, when I had taken a seventeen-hour Megabus journey through five states and the District of Columbia, with a brief layover in Pittsburgh, where I’d visited the Warhol Museum. Andy Warhol would have turned over in his grave if he’d known that the museum bearing his name was to permanently reside, not in his beloved New York, but his despised hometown of Pittsburgh. I discovered that laminated poster replicas of his work simply don’t do it justice, but I was most surprised to learn that Warhol was a fairly devout Catholic, who went to Church on Sundays throughout his entire life and volunteered at a soup kitchen.
Tonight, we’re headed to Putoski, another touristy town on an inlet near the top of Lake Michigan. The air is fresh and cool, and road there is lined with red pines planted by the the Civilian Conservation Corps during the depression to make up for deforestation due to logging. Gwen and I will roll down the windows let Michigan surround us completely.

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Brussels & Bruges

June 17, 2012 § 1 Comment

I’m in Belgium and here’s why: 1)I got a one pound megabus ticket to Brussels from Paris, which is a hard thing to pass up, and 2) I have heard that Bruges is one of the most charming cities (which IT IS) and 3) I have been curious about Belgium ever since they survived for several years with virtually no federal government.
I got off my coach just as the rain storm that has been ravaging Europe during my few days here was letting up a bit. Even with an extra 13 kilo load in the form of my beloved green rucksack, I enjoyed walking across the city, popping in an impressive cathedral for an afternoon symphony performance, and walking slowly through a perfectly manicured park. I’d never seen Belgian architecture before and spent a great deal of time looking up and enjoying what I saw. I spent the evening strolling around, consuming, hands down, the most fantastic waffle I had ever seen, and making a point to see Brussels’ #1 tourist attraction, the pissing boy. This one-foot-tall statue is probably as you imagine it, a boy with a stream of water coming out of his tiny copper member.
And then, it was time for beer. Fantastic Belgian beer from the corner store at just 2 euros a pop and then beer from a pub that was aptly named ‘delirium’ where my mind, (which was functioning at a level just one notch down from sober) had to choose from 250 beers from around the world. I chose to have a small glass of ‘belgian buffalo stout’, one of the 27 Belgian beers on tap. I laughed and laughed with other travelers. It was a great night.
I woke up so excited to take a train to Bruges. The place is known as an ‘outdoor museum’, which is actually a quite on target. In Bahasa Malaysia as well as Bahasa Indonesia, the word ‘jalan jalan’ literally, street street, signifies happy aimless wandering. That’s just what I have been doing today, and within the last hour, have had no less than two ice cream cones, (because the flavours were the local specialty: belgian chocolate and speculoos, which is basically a snickerdoodle cookie) which were delightful despite the fact that it is still unreasonably cold and I am still wearing a knee length parka. But hey, the fact that I am in a town that looks more like a fairy tale than anything I have ever imagined is almost enough to make me forget that it’s thirteen degrees outside. I shiver, and close my eyes, just so I can open them and see this beautiful place again.