Riga, Latvia

Riga, Latvia was a natural next stop after Vilnius, and we were thrilled to spend a month there given how much we seemed to enjoy Baltic culture. Riga was similarly relaxed, though noticeably more touristed than Lithuania’s capital. We stayed outside the Old Town center in a quiet area that was connected to the core through parks. Wandering around was our main activity, especially since the weather was often perfect for walking. The Old Town seems to have a church steeple down every street and a pretty building on every corner.

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House of Blackheads, European Choir Games

Hundreds of years of varied architecture are represented. From Germanic/Hanseatic influences to Art Nouveau and Soviet-era blocks, Riga has it all. Each street and square feels unique. We were near the Art Nouveau neighborhood, with its sculptured facades and wide streets.

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Memorial to the Berlin Wall and Riga’s Barricades, Three Brothers houses, narrow streets

My favorite structure is the National Library. Supposedly it is shaped like a mountain in reference to a Latvian folktale. It might be one featuring a knight climbing a mountain to a sleeping princess or another where a mountain rises out of the earth once Latvia regains it independence. The exterior is striking and unique, and the inside is full of books. Hard to go wrong.

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Latvian National Library, inside and out

Over all the city is a fabulous mix of old and new. There are recently built (or renovated) upscale malls next to centuries-old churches. Remnants of the city wall are just a few minutes walk from parks with modern statues.

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Wall of city crests, your typical chimpanzee astronaut statue

Riga’s massive Central Market was the place to find all sorts of local eats. Located in massive buildings that were originally Zeppelin hangars, it is the largest farmer’s market in Europe. The hangars are airy and bright, perfect for admiring the selections of local meats, fish, and produce.

The summer season meant berries and veggies were in fresh, including some kinds we’d never seen before. Service berries, similar to a blueberry with more noticeable seeds, and cloudberries, which turn bright orange when fully ripe, were delicious. Fresh black currants looked shiny and tasty but were too bitter to eat raw.

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Service berries, cloud berries, rye bread & cranberry ice cream, Latvian deep fried garlic bread

Latvia drinking culture also tends toward beer, and that means bar snacks. The most famous is Latvian garlic bread, a deep fried, oil-and-butter-rich snack that seems ideal for staving off hangovers. Another is ‘grey peas.’ Actually made with brown peas, it is a Latvian specialty, featuring copious amounts of bacon and onions. Let the mix simmer for hours to blend the flavors, and serve in as large a portion as possible.

Local grape wine isn’t common (or that delicious) but local fruit wines are worth seeking out. We attended a wine festival in Sabile, and had the chance to sample wines made from rhubarb, sea buckthorn, currants, raspberry, apple, oak leaves (who knew?), and quince. Many were made by small producers who were excited to show off their family recipes.

I am going to miss Riga – the moderate summer temperatures, the parks, the main market. Sadly our time in Europe’s Schengen area was up, so we had to move on. I felt more comfortable in Riga than just about any other city I’ve lived in, and I definitely hope to return.

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Trakai, Lithuania

Just 30 kilometers outside Vilnius is Trakai, a small tourist town known for castles and surrounded by a beautiful set of peaceful lakes. We scheduled a kayaking tour of the lakes (thanks credit card rewards) for a Saturday afternoon during our stay in Vilnius. We were fortunate – rain that had plagued our weeks in the city cleared and July day was warm. It was perfect for paddling.

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Skaistis Lake solitude and in front of Trakai Island Castle

We walked to the main station in Vilnius, bought tickets for the next bus to Trakai, and had just a few minutes to wait. The journey was quick, and from the Trakai bus station, it took about ten minutes to walk to the waterfront where were to meet for kayaking. To our surprise, we were the only ones on the trip for the day. Tomas, our guide from North North East, was fabulous. He took us around the castle, along the edge of the more crowded Galvė Lake and the Trakai waterfront, through a hidden passage to small ponds, and into the peaceful Skaistis Lake. Stopping for lunch on a small island, we enjoyed kibinai and apple-honey tart. My favorite portion was on the quiet out-of-the-way lakes, separated from the dozens of paddleboats and partyboats. Our arms were still feeling good after several hours of kayaking, and we had plenty of daylight left to see the rest of Trakai after returning the kayaks.

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Quiet lunch spot, going around the Castle

We toured the Trakai Island Castle, the main tourist draw. It is incredibly scenic – reconstructed red brick towers and halls on small islands connected by bridges. At one time it was completely surrounded by water but lake levels have lowered over the centuries, and we walked around it, sharing the path with wedding parties and picnickers. Inside is a small history museum and a few collections of porcelain, ceramics, coins, and smoking pipes (apparently guys in the 18th century liked to have flirty ladies put on their pipes… which is something, I suppose).

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Island Castle courtyard; my favorite ceramics in the museum

We saw the rest of Trakai fairly quickly. The waterfront is crowded with restaurants and souvenir stands. Other streets are quiet with colorful houses. We wandered back to the bus station to catch the next transfer back to Vilnius. The bus arrived quickly but the driver waited until it was full to start; not a big deal to us since we had the time.

 

 

August Update

After several weeks on hiatus, I’m finally catching up on our recent European travels. The next blog about Prague will be published next week.

Part of the reason for the gap after Uruguay was the launch of a new blog, Awayfarers. My husband and I are working on this new project together. It has a much different and more formal feel than this blog, which I started for family. The pace of articles will be a bit slower, and we will be looking back on our 20 months of travel so far. Feel free to check it out – while some of the content will overlap, it will also feature more about the experience of living in each country. In the meantime, we will keep traveling.

Punta Arenas – Part 2

Since Punta Arenas is a town where visitors usually spend a few days, it doesn’t have the tourist focal points a larger city would. We managed to enjoy our entire month, even though you can feasibly see the entire city in a day or two. There is no real tying this post into any semblance of a narrative, it is just a miscellaneous collection of the little things we did around the area.

On recommendations by Chileans we met in Santiago, we visited the municipal cemetery, the Cementerio Sara Braun. Some travel publications list it as one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the world. Tradition dictates that Sara Braun donated the land but on the condition she would be the last one to enter the main gate. Even today, the main doors are shuttered and people use an entrance to the side. There are large mausoleums and outdoor columbariums, and many rows have massive, well-trimmed evergreens. Families seem to spend a lot of time there, keeping graves clear and reminiscing. Since the environment is so harsh, many flowers are fake, but even those are kept fresh and brightly colored. The overall effect is to make it seem less dreary than most cemeteries I’ve been through.

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Sara Braun Municipal Cemetery

Many days we walked along the waterfront to enjoy views across the Strait of Magellan and to look for whales and dolphins. Many of the buildings are covered in murals celebrating the seafaring and industrial history of the area. Stray dogs also hang out on the boardwalk. Some seem intent on adopting any family that walks by – one particularly stubborn one followed us for more than half an hour, until he was distracted by another group eating lunch. Apparently the food made them the better option. The largest monument is to Magellan and others along the shore commemorate shipwrecks.

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Mural and mirador

Austral claims to be the southernmost brewery, but I think the Cerveceria Artesanal Hernando de Magallanes might be winning that title by a foot or two. We first noticed it when we were walking around on our cruise-stop day in town, but it was closed on that Sunday. They have a small operation – their fresh-tasting beers are all hand-bottled. I liked their barley wine the most, but when we stopped in a second time, it was already sold out. Next time we know to stop back in sooner…

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An even more local beer than Austral, San Pedro – patron saint of fishermen – at the Mercado, monument to Magellan

We happened to be in Punta Arenas for the February 26, 2017 solar eclipse. While it was a total eclipse farther to the north, we still managed to see the sun about 70% covered at the peak. Since we didn’t have welding goggles, we projected the eclipse onto the ground though a pinhole in a piece of cardboard. But, since Patagonia is famous for quickly changing weather, clouds soon covered the sun (we were lucky the sun was out at all). Amazingly, the clouds were just dense enough that we could watch the eclipse though them without needing thick glasses and still see the moon crossing the sun’s face. The entire event lasted a couple of hours. For having almost no advance warning – we only learned it was occurring the day before – we were thrilled to witness it. This is doubly true since we will probably miss the total eclipse that will be crossing the US in August.

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Feb. 26, 2017 – Annular solar eclipse

Punta Arenas was the nearest we’ve come to winter in more than a year. Temperatures in the 40s are about as close as I like to actual cold, especially with the severe winds that Patagonia can produce. Now that we’ve moved on to Uruguay, I have to say that 75-80 is much more enjoyable for me.

A Year Out

A year ago we were just arriving at our first home abroad in Chiang Mai, Thailand. We haven’t set foot in the US since, just waved at the east coast from 37,000 feet while en route from Frankfurt to Cancun. We’ve been on four continents and on the shores of three oceans. Every few weeks is a new country, new language, new currency, new culture, new foods. We are incredibly lucky to have the chance to experience so much of the world. It feels like hardly any time has passed at all, despite all we’ve seen.

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In many ways, it is still easier than we thought to keep up this lifestyle. Airbnb, Skyscanner, and cost of living websites make it simple to figure out where we can afford. The internet naturally provides plenty of photographic inspiration and easy ways to keep in touch with family and friends. Connecting with locals and other digital nomads through Meetup or Facebook is easy, even if we are only in a place long enough to attend an event or two. I thought our destination list would be getting shorter, but each month we hear about other places to see, so that’s been trending in the wrong direction.

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I have both more and less faith in humanity than when we started. Less in humanity en masse because of where the world seems headed at the moment. We’ve had to explain US electoral politics too many times to count and it only gets more difficult post-election. Arriving in Ireland the day of the Brexit vote, we witnessed streaks of nationalism present in other countries that also threatened to diminish the world we live in. Many people we meet – granted, usually in our generation and often fellow nomads – are likewise disappointed and worried about what the future may hold.

To counter it, at least this trip has give me more faith in individuals. Most people are kind and helpful and polite in person. The rare few that aren’t stand out glaringly as exceptions. Someone is always willing to point us to the right bus, randomly ask if we are lost (maybe, or maybe just catching a Pokemon), or try to answer questions through a language barrier. Uber and taxi drivers offer up advice about the best local dishes and are happy to find you love their city. We haven’t felt unsafe in any place we’ve visited. (Arguably, I feel more insecure in a movie theatre in the US than I have in any city we’ve been to outside of it. Is some of that rose-colored glasses? Absolutely. But much is basic statistics.)

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We are privileged to speak English, which means we can communicate with people all over the world. We learn the most important words in the language of the country we are in – please, thank you, sorry, and basic numbers go a long way. The fact that I could state – in poorly accented Croatian – the cost of fish I bought from a Ribanica in Dubrovnik thrilled the woman who behind the counter. So many tourists never made the effort and she was used to handing over the receipt to provide the total. My fumbling confirmation of the amount of money I handed over was an amusing treat.

Spanish is the first language we are making an effort to learn to the level of actual communication ability, since we plan on being in Latin America for at least 6 months. Of course, we still do a lot of signing and smiling over parts we don’t understand, but any effort on our part to speak like a local is always met with appreciation.

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I haven’t been acutely homesick, but I’m becoming nostalgic for Pacific Northwest hiking. Most of what I miss are small things. My books, currently locked in a storage unit outside of Seattle, are presumably lonely and sad at my absence. My other cravings lean toward junk food: Strawberry Poptarts, Cool Ranch Doritos, pershings from Sentry, and peanut butter (I now believe pb is the most American food – and is now what I recommend anyone headed to the States try).

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We set out a budget in advance, and were pleasantly surprised to find out that, for this first year, we came in under it. 🙂 It is still mind-blowing to be traveling full time and live on a smaller amount of money than we would in Seattle.

That all comes together to mean that for now, we’ll be keeping this up. The world will hopefully continue to get smaller and more interconnected, but there is always more to discover.

 

Cancun

Let it be known right away: Cancun is not my favorite spot. Kevin cares much more about beaches and ocean than I do and neither of us are fans of resorts. We spent a couple of days closer to the tourist enclaves, but enjoyed the local life away from the beach a little more. (Bonus: The more distance between you and the shoreline, the cheaper everything is.)

I will say that Isla Mujeres was worth a day-trip on the ferry from Puerto Juarez. The great thing about the island is that you can do everything in half a day, then relax. The southern-most point, where small cliffs drop into gorgeous turquoise waters, has a sculpture park. But since it costs to enter, we admired the metal art from a bit further down the shore.

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Around Isla Mujeres and mamey fruit.

Ten minutes away by golf cart from the tiny cliffs is the Tortugranja, a conservation effort. It costs just a few pesos to enter but has a dozen tanks turtles and other sea creatures. Outside in a protected sand pit are small wire enclosures protecting different sets of eggs that are soon to be hatched. Once the little turtles pop to the surface, they are taken inside to pools where it is safe for them to grow. A couple different species are kept in the building and in larger tanks outside. You can feed them, or, if you are outside, you can try to feed the turtles and see how much the greedy gulls get instead.

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Tortugranja on Isla Mujeres

Other than those two things, the island and Cancun both offer beaches. And they are NICE beaches; the Hotel Zone has miles of sand. In some spots there are small shells and barefoot walking is a little pokey, but in other areas the sand is smooth sugar. Meandering along in front of the hotels isn’t quite peaceful though. Every three hundred meters down the beach is an identical stand selling parasailing and jet ski time. It felt like we passed the same day-drinkers, beach volley ball games, and people buried in the sand every few minutes.

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Beach in the Hotel Zone, Pepsi v. Coke (hint: Coke won)

The best part of Cancun is the local street food, normally only available in neighborhoods well away from the water. We had amazing pork and cabeza del rey tacos for only a couple of US dollars, the meat super tender and smothered in spicy sauces and lime. And at XB Burgers, the hamburgers and lamb burgers were juicy and cooked just right. Other carts on the sidewalks sell sweets, snacks, and sometimes things like marquesitas (crunchy crepes filled with chocolate and vanilla creams).

Unlike Merida, there isn’t a deep cultural history. Our hosts reminded us that Cancun has really only been a city for the last 40 years or so. Most of it is concrete apartment buildings and industry supporting tourists in large resorts. I prefer places with a little more variety. But to get a break from doing anything for a while, Cancun is perfect.

And it was the first time we rented a single room in a house rather than an entire place on Airbnb. Our hosts were a wonderful couple with adult children (hence the extra rooms). They made us breakfast each morning and had great stores about the city growing. It was a perfect opportunity to practice our Spanish a little more before moving on to South America.

Chichen Itza

We spent a whole month in Playa del Carmen avoiding packaged tours to Chichen Itza because we knew it would be easier and cheaper to visit from Merida. The bus station nearest our home has three buses that leave each morning and stop at Chichen Itza’s main gate. At 5:30 in the evening, another bus that makes the return journey. The best part is the tickets costing between $3 and $5US per person each way, far cheaper than booking a tour.

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El Castillo, gorgeous clouds, a jaguar carving that managed to retain a bit of paint.

We opted for the 8:30am departure that got us to the ruins about 10:30. This gave us about an hour before the hordes of tourists arrived from the coast. Entrance is 232 pesos per person (currently about $17US/person). Visitors are a semi-captive audience and hundreds of souvenir hawkers compete for attention all around the temples. If you really need a jaguar call or festive blankets, you can take the opportunity to stock up (it’s cheaper than Cancun, so there’s that).

Beyond the first gauntlet of vendors are the actual ruins. The steeply rising El Castillo pyramid is the largest and best-known. It is hard to give a sense of how imposing it is in photos, or just how narrow the stairs up its sides are. We weren’t there on an equinox, but it was clear that the builders intended the snake symbolism to match with the year’s solar cycle.

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Temple of the Warriors and the Observatory

Immediately behind El Castillo is the Temple of the Warriors (with the famous Chac Mool statue awaiting human hearts) and the Group of the Thousand Columns stretching off to the right. Many structures, including the columns, used to have roofs. It’s hard to imagine what the city would have looked like at the peak of its power. Not to mention that much of it would also have been brilliantly painted to awe the viewer. Only a few carvings retain small sections of rich blues and rust reds. Bare stone conveys the immensity but not the more personal human touches.

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Crowds in the Great Ball Court, leafcutter ants, stone faces on La Iglesa

Off to the right is one of two cenotes inside the site; vines and ferns climbing the walls make it feel Jurassic-Parklike. Further in this direction is the Observatory, one of my favorite buildings at Chichen Itza. It was probably used to make astronomical observations and is more eclectic in style with several levels of platforms in front of the round tower. in the far corner are buildings named La Iglesa and the Nunnery. Great stone faces peer out from their facades. Hooked noses jutting out from the structures call Pinocchio to mind.

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Group of the Thousand Columns, snakes guarding temple stairs, part of the Nunnery, carved scene at the ball court showing a beheaded player

Going the other way from El Castillo, we first stopped at the ball court. The acoustics inside its walls were planned carefully – converse at one end and it can be heard at the other more than a hundred feet away. Probably useful for cheering and calling fouls. This was definitely a serious sport. The small goal hoops are 25 feet off the ground and a relatively heavy rubber ball would have been used. Rules forbid the use of hands but with the addition that losers might also lose their heads. I suppose you learned to play very well, very quickly.

A few images of the necks of beheaded players shooting out snakes are just a small taste when compared to the Platform of the Skulls. This low platform makes no bones (sorry, I had to) about its purpose. Human sacrifices needed to be put somewhere (apparently), and this elevated space was the perfect spot. All sides are carved with skulls and the occasional eagle ripping the heart out of its human victim. Ah, subtlety.

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Vendors, the Sacred Cenote, Platform of the Skulls

From here another narrow path between tables laden with t-shirts and stone turtles leads to the Sacred Cenote. There are a few small ruins right at the edge of this cenote, which is the more impressive of the two. It is a vivid, violent green. The sides drop away though white stone in a near-perfect circle. The Maya thought it might be an entrance to the underworld. I could easily imagine the same thing: anything might be under that water, looking up.

Chichen Itza was just about everything I’d hoped. the temples and stonework was far more impressive than guidebooks convey. In many places the remaining carvings and stonework face are gorgeous and clearly the work of vast amounts of artisans’ time. It would be nice if the site had fewer vendors inside. Of course, the local economy depends on visitors’ money and most of the sellers probably barely earn a living despite this. Before the heaviest crowds arrive the site is still relatively peaceful (and the vendors are occupied by setting up) and it is mind-numbing to contemplate the amount of stone moved under the burning sun and all the years of devotion that went into the temples’ planning and construction. During the middle of the day the tour groups and high temperatures make it less pleasant, but many people don’t make it to the far corners so it is still possible to find a spot to yourself, even then.

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Casa Colorado and El Castillo