Wow, my past month here in Latvia has been simultaneously delightful and exhausting! Since it takes awhile to adjust when moving to a new country, I have tried to give myself ample time to unpack Riga as I may. I’ve found that going in one new store, exploring one new museum, or having my signature Americano at a new coffee shop a day has provided more than enough to digest contextually and culturally. I’m sure those of you that have spent significant time abroad and/or are going through the Fulbright experience right right now can relate.
By getting to know Riga in this slow fashion, I feel that I’ve really started to grasp the deep history, political structure, and culture here. However, the past couple of weekends have also been focused on adventures outside of this city. In leaving the neighborhoods and streets that have already begun to feel comfortable to me, I’ve been able to also explore the many other environments, communities, and people that make up this beautiful country. As the weekly schedule of my two Riga Fulbright counterparts and I usually consists of being in the city teaching at our schools, going to events, and helping out with other community engagements, we have made a concerted effort to take the weekend to get away. Some of our past trips have included going biking in Jūrmala, going to the beach, and traveling to see the bogs in the Ķemeri National Park. And, this past weekend consisted of castle exploring, a bike race, and seeing Pope Francis.
During those first weekends I quickly came to realize how peaceful and idyllic the Latvian countryside is. Our inaugural train trip outside Riga was to Jūrmala which is the beach region that is located in the central, coastal part of the country. There we visited the beach and forest park of Dzintari. We liked it so much that we went back the next day, this time traveling there on bikes escorted by a medical professor from Rīga Stradiņš University. It was a great introduction to the country as time spent leisurely outside is considered a very Latvian activity. The next weekend is when my five other Fulbright English Teaching Assistant colleagues were visiting Riga for orientation at the U.S. Embassy. We also decided to spend time outside, and a weekend trip with them included visiting Ķemeri National Park, also in the Jūrmala region. This was something we were all very eager to do as visiting Latvia’s bogs was on a somewhat “top 10” list provided by previous Latvia Fulbrighters who we met this past summer at the program’s Washington D.C. orientation. Different than any natural area I’ve been in before, we were able to walk the luscious bogs on raised boardwalks. The prettiest part of the park is when we got to an area of the bog that had small ponds interspersed among the greenery. After our walk we got doused in a rainstorm as we made our way back to the train station. With some desperately fast walking (or slow running) and good fortune we arrived at the train platform just in time!
So, going into this past weekend I knew I wanted to again take advantage of the unseasonable (and wonderful, warm, sunny) weather to visit one of the many castles/palaces that are scattered in the Latvian countryside. After some consultation, my roommate Megan and I decided to take the bus to Bauska and then see where our adventure went from there. Besides nearly missing its departure in Riga, the bus ride was such an efficient and cheap way to get outside the city. During travel, I looked out the windows upon the cloudy morning and could see miles upon miles of farmland and scattered patches of Scots pine, Norway spruce, and silver birch trees. It so easily reminded me of the millions of car rides where I’ve looked out upon the early autumn fields of Minnesota and Iowa. It always surprises me how these simplicities can be what most often reminds us of home.
We picked our adventure well as the castle in Bauska was absolutely fascinating. Including both the older ruins of an earlier fortress and a newer palace, the building grounds are situated in the narrow peninsula at the confluence of the Mūša and Mēmele where they form the Lielupe river. Apt placement for a building meant to fortify the surrounding area, the castle was intended to strengthen the Livonian Order and protect their border with the European state of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. It also helped control the trade route from lower Lithuania to Riga as the castle was a military and administrative stronghold. Today, the castle has been fully restored since 2008 with E.U. funds and offers a unique view into ancient times.
After exploring the castle and surrounding grounds, Megan and I darted back to the bus station in pouring rain. Something I have learned here is to always carry an umbrella/rain jacket as this is the second time we’ve been caught in a Saturday storm.
Sunday, I had a grand adventure in Ikšķile, Latvia riding in their SEB MTN Marathon 2018. Their website lists it as “one of the largest series of MTB marathons in Europe with about 1800 – 2300 riders participating in each stage,” and I easily believe it. When we got off the train we took from Riga to Ikšķile, we came across a town flooded with European bikers. Fulbrighter colleague, Khalid, and I had rented mountain bikes in Riga beforehand but didn’t exactly know what we were getting ourselves into. The whole race was on rugged terrain consisting of farm fields, forest trails, meadow paths, train tracks, and water obstacles. After exhaustingly crossing the finish line, we came across the other competitors, some of which we noticed were bearing the Olympic rings on their coats and gear. Little did we know we competed against some Olympic athletes that were from all around Eastern Europe!
Luckily, this past weekend extended into three days as it was declared a Latvian National Holiday because Pope Francis was visiting. Monday morning the other Riga Fulbrighters and I walked downtown to the Freedom Monument to see the Pope lay flowers at the site. I still cannot believe how close we were. What a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see such a renowned international figure. However, I was even more eager to see how many citizens of rural parts of the country had ventured into Riga to see the Pope. It gave reason to our weekend excursions, as during our adventuring we get to meet people like these. Not just other foreigners/expats who live in the city, but individuals who have lived their whole life in places like Bauska and Ikšķile.
All-in-all I would say my weekend adventures have been one of the best ways I’ve gotten to explore this beautiful country. It has also proved as an effective method to parse through Latvia’s differences and similarities in comparison to the places that I have come from. Walking in a bog and visiting a castle is unique to what I’ve seen in the U.S., but traveling into the rural farmland reminds me so much of home. Although Latvia is a small country, being the size of West Virginia, we must remember diversity exists everywhere. My fellow Latvia Fulbrighters and I will have vastly varied encounters even in the same city or region. By exploring such diversity and seeking to uncover all we can within our experiences, however, we will best come away understanding the nuances that are hard to articulate. Then, perhaps, we can start to advocate for the grayness that constantly exists in a black-and-white notion of stereotypical peoples and places. I have realized that traveling slowly around the countryside is an important aspect of my year here and weekend adventuring allows me to do just that.