Thursday, August 09, 2007

Old School Backpacking

I’m tired. My calves, after hucking around my 45 pound estimated combined total weight backpacks, are sore. There was noise from the plaza below us last night (officious small trotting dog, barking importantly and stridently for 20 or 30 minutes around 1:00am and again around 4:00am, and about 8 boys singing Beatles songs at 3:30am) which made my sleep fitful, and I kept waking up from dreams of being shot in my right calf, or stung by a scorpion, or kicked by a horse, or something else awful and inconvenient for the traveler relying on her legs as transport.

Yes, that’s right, for the first time all summer, we’ve really been leading a backpacker life. Since arriving in the Baltics we haven’t spent more than 3 nights in a single place, and that was Riga when we first arrived. A quick run-down: Riga 3, Kihnu 2, Pärnu 2, Riga 1 (more on this in a moment), Šiauliai 2, and then Cēsis 2 and Riga 1 to finish up before Sweden.

One drawback to staying such a short time in each place is that we either don’t have time to find out where to get our laundry done, or we find out but we’re leaving before they can get to it. This means that I take on the housewifely role of washing our clothes by hand while Ian works, which is fine, but doesn’t do much for my 34-year-old back that’s not used to struggles of carrying all I want to have with me, and really doesn’t recover as quickly as my 20-year-old back did. Did I ever collapse on a bed, exhausted, after hauling my bags two or three kilometers from the bus station when I was 20? I have no memory at all of such weakness.

Struggles with aging aside, we’ve enjoyed our time in the Baltics. I realize that I wasn’t quite fair to the fashionistas of these former Soviet republics—I was swayed by what I saw for sale at the giant market in Riga, which is not where the young and hip shop. The young and hip (women at least) have a tendency toward jeans and short tops (when will that trend finally make the rounds and disappear???) and micro minis whether or not they’re really fit enough to pull it off . . . so, just like home. Eastern Europeans in particular seem to have less of an obsession with keeping undergarments under, notably bras. Straps are showing all over the place (i.e. a halter top tank with a regular bra with shoulder straps under it), frequently the “invisible” ones which aren’t, but just as frequently whatever color they happen to be. Lots of tops are low-cut in the front, and the bra—which doesn’t appear to be a part of the statement—is just readily visible. It’s a little prudish of me to dislike this; after all, everyone’s wearing them. But I prefer mine to be a bit more mysterious. The other day Ian was noticing that hair color is more creative here than in Western Europe. There’s lots of blondes, of course, many of them even natural. But there are also lots of blonds with pink or blue streaks, or one I saw the other day with pink and blue and orange all together, which was pretty spectacular. I’ve seen several of the blond-on-top/black-underneath style as well.

The food in general is creamy and meaty. Lettuce isn’t that common (although cabbage is readily available). Fish is also easy to find, and often smoked. Organic yoghurt was easy to find in a supermarket in Lithuania, not so much in Latvia or Estonia.

Okay, so why the extra day in Riga? Well, Ian found out last weekend that he’d inadvertently failed to include one bit of documentation with his NZ application, so he had to make a statement and get it notarized, then send it off to London. The notarization he did in Estonia—it turned out to be surprisingly easy, and cost $1.04 (also cheap in Estonia—a 90-minute massage I had for $35. And internet—the Estonian government decided that free WiFi was a basic human right, so you see signs up everywhere. Parks, service stations, restaurants, ferry docks. Very handy.) It appeared that FedEx had an office near our original hotel in Riga, so we thought we’d arrive after our 3-hour bus trip from Pärnu, drop our bags in Left Luggage, nip out to the edge of town to FedEx the letter, collect our bags and train tickets to Šiauliai, and get to Lithuania all in the same day.

In the event, we couldn’t buy a train ticket to Šiauliai (we found later that buses were available); FedEx was gone (although still listed in the lobby of the building); Latvian free WiFi on a random dusty street on the industrial edge of town detailed several UPS options including hotel lobbies which we checked but none checked out; we bought a phone card and slowly ticked down $2 worth of time on hold with the UPS number before giving up; at this time, realizing we’d have to run to get a bus to a town where we didn’t have lodging worked out yet and we still needed to mail this letter and it was almost 6pm, we called a hotel close by in Old Town Riga and booked in for an unexpected nights’ stay.

It was awesome. A giant room, breakfast included, quiet, internet. With a place to shower and lay his head, Ian recovered his equilibrium and found more UPS information, so the next morning we successfully mailed the letter then caught a midday bus to Šiauliai.
We’ve read that the Lithuanians, who are more emotional and outgoing than their near neighbors, are the Italians of the Baltics, and while we haven’t spent quite enough time in either Italy or the Baltics to cast judgment on this statement, I will say that when we were seated on the bus waiting for it to leave, several middle-aged very drunk Lithuanian men boarded in a boozy cloud and a series of ins-and-outs and movement of bags clearly designed to trick the driver into thinking they had five tickets when all they had was four. This behavior seemed somewhat Neapolitan from my perspective; the fact that the driver did notice, and did make them buy a fifth ticket did not, however. I’m sure they could’ve been worse, but a couple sturdy matrons fixed them with the evil eye early on and they mostly passed out as soon as we left the station. At one point someone’s bottle of some kind of amber booze tumbled down the aisle and several people cracked up.

In Šiauliai, we walked directly to the Soviet-era Hotel Šiauliai, described in our Lonely Planet as “spectacularly ugly but with amazing views from the 14th floor”, and booked into a room on that illustrious floor. It is glorious—a huge refurbished room with separate rooms for toilet and bath, a desk, a mini-fridge, and a large TV (which shows a depressing array of Western movies and TV shows that have been dubbed Eastern Europe-style, which is one monotone male voice speaking all the words not even on a separate track, but just a little louder than the English going on under him so you can almost make out what Grace is saying to Will; and a bemusing channel called “SPECTRUM”, which simply shows a spectrograph). Our view is spectacular . . . except in the middle of the night, when the square 14 floors below is evidently very popular with all sorts of creatures trying out their voices. It seems that 14 floors of concrete do nothing to dull sound.

The elevator is the only other issue we have with our hotel. There are three, and each one is separate from the others. If you’re in the lobby, there’s a monitor that says which floor each elevator is on, so choose wisely or you could be in for a long wait. There are also at least two young women’s soccer teams staying here—evidently there’s some sort of tournament going on in the town—and so frequently there are already 8 or 10 girls waiting to get on, too. These elevators are pretty old-school. I’m not sure how an analogue elevator works, but these seem to use that technology. First, when you call the elevator you push a black bakelite button and it stays in. It pops out when the elevator arrives, but you don’t really notice the sound because of the soccer girls all around you. Inside the elevator, there are several other bakelite buttons. You push “14” and up you go, getting slower and creakier and jerkier the higher you ascend. At floor 14, the button snaps out sharply and the elevator grinds and judders to a halt, making you jump and wonder if, in fact, you’re going to make it out into your hall, or if the narrow metal box you’re currently stuck in is going to give up and plunge back to earth. So far we’ve made it out.

The other day we were descending and all of a sudden, on floor 12, the button we’d pushed, for floor 1 (an aside—they count floors like we do here—1 is ground, etc), popped out loudly and unexpectedly and the doors opened. I got out immediately because clearly the elevator didn’t want us in anymore, and Ian followed me. We punched a different button and finished our journey in a different lift. Ian suggested though, and this seems likely, that a bunch of girls on floor 12 pushed buttons for all three elevators, and since ours was going to pass 12 on its way down, its analog system was reset. Nothing sinister, but a bit unnerving at the time. We’ve decided to take separate elevators down with our bags tomorrow, because things seemed particularly difficult on the way up the first time.

And I’m going to stop here because this has gotten way too long, and because I’m done.

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