The First Baltic Adventure: Part #3

The First Baltic Adventure: Part #3

Most of the following morning passed uneventfully. I cut it pretty close for catching my bus to Riga but fortunately found enough time to pick up a bunch of bakery strudel-like things before I left to cover my Breakfast/lunch. Then it was time for the long, cushy ride back with the bus that was even more empty than on the way there. More hot chocolate, more non-descript snowy fields, more  relaxation. I was a little sad though, Tallinn had been a real treat and I wasn’t sure that Riga could compare, especially now that it was a Monday and I only had one night there. This slight uneasiness about Riga not been so fun didn’t go away when I got back to Fun Franks Hostel again, as the place was almost totally deserted and I didn’t have anybody there to do anything with. It wasn’t that I didn’t think Riga was a cool city, more it was a case of bad timing. Famished, I requested a decent, cheap dinner venue from a staff member who marked it down on my map before heading off again. Franks is, among many good things, in a fantastic location right on the Daugava River and just on the edge of the Old Town.  A minute after leaving you come out into a enormous square which is dominated by an Orwellian looking statue of 2 soviet soldiers, who ironically stand right next to the Latvian Museum of Occupation, which perhaps needless to say is a rather recent addition. Immediately adjacent to this is the faithfully and beautifully reconstructed House of the Blackheads which was originally built in 14th century before been bombed to ruins by the Germans, and then tore down completely by the Soviets in 1948. The Blackheads themselves were a guild, made up specifically of unmarried German merchants, who despite their seemingly obscure status, obviously once had considerable influence as to be entitled to such a fantastic building. A few minutes from here I found the Latvian Restaurant which had been recommended. It was indeed cheap but as I browsed over the buffet I saw absolutely nothing which looked appetizing. Grudgingly, I left to find somewhere else, now in the mood simply to stop at the next place I came by. On this night it happened to be TGI Fridays.

The place was pretty much empty, which was great since it meant I was served immediately by a lovely dark haired Latvian girl who happily took my order of fajitas, then after relaying it, came skipping back to chat with me. Not being the stupidest guy on Earth and sensing an opportunity to have a slightly more interesting Monday night, I suggested to Ance that we meet up for a drink after she finished her shift. She agreed and took my number. Karma says this was because I’d just paid 15 lats (€25) for fajitas that sucked. A couple of hours later we met up and went to a bar where Ance insisted that I try the Latvian speciality – Black Balsam liquor and Blackberry juice. It tasted like cough syrup but I pretended to be ok with it. Over the next two hours I hardly said a work, this girl just kep talking and talking. I found listening to her accent entertaining enough though, so I just spent most of the time nodding, smiling and responding with appropriate gestures and facial expressions. Around midnight most places were closing so I walked her back towards her bus, said goodbye in an intensely intimate way and  headed back to Franks. Although I had all of the next day in Riga here, this would be the last time I would see Ance since she had some training thing on for work all of the next day. Oh well.

Riga guard change
Riga Guard Change

Getting up rather early, I went down to the Front desk of Franks to sign up for an activity which had caught my eye the day earlier – AK47 shooting in an old Soviet Bunker. I’d never fired anything more advanced than a paintball gun in my life but figured if an 8 year old Ugandan child could operate one, there was no reason I couldn’t also.  But this activity didn’t kick off until 5 and my plane back home didn’t leave until 9, so I finally had some time to stroll round Riga properly. After another satisfying brunch at Double Coffee/Latvian Starbucks I decided to check out the Freedom Monument just outside the old town. Built in 1935 as a memorial to the lives lost in gaining independence bloodily from Russia in 1920, it would only see 4 years of freedom before yet more occupation. None-the-less it remained a symbol of hope for Latvians in dark times and is now under military guard with the soldiers changed hourly in – as is every countries changing of the guard – an over-the-top spectacle with funny walks. I arrived just in time to see it.

Inspired by the engravings of soldiers firing heavy machine guns on the side of the monument I went off to the Latvian Military Museum only to find that it was closed really early on Mondays and that I’d just missed out on last entry. After listlessly wandering about the old town again I went to check out the Museum of Occupation (specifically the most recent Nazi/Soviet occupations as opposed to the eons of occupation before then.) It turned out to be pretty interesting. The Museum is certainly detailed and much larger than it appears on the outside, with reconstructions of gulags and various interactive touch screens. It also manages to make the years 1939 – 1991 seem like an absolute eternity – perhaps intended – as indeed they must have been under such brutal regimes. There was so much information that I had to skip a lot but the last thing I was presented with upon leaving was a large plaque that sums up Latvia’s former misery: That 550,000 people were killed under German and Soviet occupation – over a third of the country’s population.

AK-47 time
Shotty time

With that thought in mind it was time to go shoot something. As it turned out – I was the only person who’d signed up for shooting this day, as it was very quiet at the hostel. The location itself was a little far from the hostel and I was escorted there by one of the staff, it was also a scary location. The tiny Terranean entrance was literally an old bomb shelter which lead down a dimy lit stairway to a heavy vaulted door. A torture chamber on the other side alla the movie Hostel wouldn’t have been surprising. As it turned out the entire underground area had been heavily renovated and we were cheerfully greeted by a tall, middle aged Latvian guy with ammo belts draped from his shoulder. He didn’t speak any English (a first in the Baltics) and my guide informed me that I could choose 3 different weapons from different classes to try out with a full round of ammo for each. I leafed through a booklet and picked the Glock, the M3 shotgun and – of course – an AK47.  He then gathered up the weapons and led us to a room which opened up into a long, bullet ridden warehouse. After miming how to use each weapon to me, I donned earmuffs and was allowed to go full metal jacket on targets at the far end of the room. This was an enlightening experience. Having never fired real weapons but seen their use ad nauseum on screens I was really caught off guard. The noise and power of each firearm was far greater than I thought it’d be, and I kept thinking that I would absolutely HATE to see what effect any of these things would have on an actual person. It was pretty fucking badass though.

Unfortunately my time in the Baltics was up. No sooner did I get back to the Hostel did I realise I had to get to the airport. I took the bus this time, spotted yet another TGI Fridays at the airport and reminiscing about the previous night – decided to eat there again. While there was no hot waitress to have fun with, I did correctly order the much tastier ribs. It almost felt like a last meal – I was genuinely sad to be leaving. But then at the same time oh so glad that the risk of serious illness hadn’t stopped me from coming in the first place. I would be back though.


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