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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Grab a tea, this is a long one!

And then we left Latvia. Our last full day, a Thursday, was an unexpected and unexplained day off, which was quite lovely. We had watched the hockey game at 3am the night before, and gone to bed annoyed with the loss, only to wake up saddened by the riots. Zane was out doing something or other, so we generally entertained ourselves by walking to the store with Pietro for food for the bus, watching Friends, and doing some work. The walk home from the store was hilarious, as it started to sprinkle with rain, and Pietro went diving under a tree to wait for a ride while we laughed and asked if he was a cat. It’s a funny thing about living on Vancouver Island, or the West Coast in general, that if you can’t see the rain bouncing back off the street, it’s basically ‘not raining’ in most of our minds.

Back at the club, we helped Pietro with dinner, which was a lovely Italian spread. First, we helped him make Tiramisu by dipping Lady Fingers into espresso and shaping them around the dish while he made the mascarpone for it. That chilling, we diced tomatoes for the bruschetta, and then toasted the bread on the BBQ before rubbing them with garlic and topping them with the tomato mix—yum! The final dish involved very cute and tasty individual-sized pizzas that we deep-fried instead of baking as there is no oven at the club. Pietro said that it was a typical way of making pizza in his area of Italy, and they were absolutely delicious—hot and thick and chewy, just topped with a tomato sauce we had made and a little bit of parmesan. We made several palm-sized ones and they were gobbled up by everyone.

After dinner, we showed everyone some photos of home, Japan, and Iceland on Facebook, and then Agata brought her hoop, clubs, and ball over and did a rhythmic gymnastics performance in the squash club, which was pretty great. She’s very cute and obviously loves it a lot. We wanted to show her vaulting, so took her inside and watched some youtube videos and she showed us a couple of rhythmic movies as well.

Then we jumped online to buy our bus ticket for the next day and saw that there were only three seats left. Unfortunately, our Canadian credit cards didn’t work online, so we figured we would buy them over the phone the next morning. ‘Who’s going to buy the last tickets between midnight and 8am?’ we thought.

Famous last words.

I got up on the Friday at 6 to work, and as soon as 8am rolled around, called the number for the ticket agency listed on the website. ‘We don’t sell tickets,’ the ticket agent informed me. ‘No reservations, only ticket buying.’ Uhhhuh. ‘I want to pay for a ticket now.’ I said, hoping that would be doable, but ‘no. only online.’ ‘but online doesn’t work.’ ‘Sorry.’

Great. I called about six different agencies, getting progressively worried as none of them spoke English or could help me, and at the same time, the website was alternating between showing three and zero seats available.

Unfortunately, there is only one bus per week to Bratislava, so I was slightly worried, but figured that being a capital city in Europe, one could get out of Riga in one of a number of ways. Well….not so much. Still hindered by its communist past, Latvia is a bit marooned in terms of intercontinental transit; not helped by the fact that its trains are on a different gauge than the rest of Europe.

Finally and after much website checking, including one that told me ‘the circuit you are looking for is unavailable, please choose another race,’ I realized that we could leave at 10:40 that morning, take a bus to Warsaw, wait overnight, and then get on the original bus from Riga, which at that point would have emptied out sufficiently, and continue to Bratislava, arriving at the already-planned 7pm.

Good enough. At 9:15, we made the decision, borrowed a car, and leapt into action, madly leaving the club, which was a shame, and bolting to the bus station. As glad as we were to get on the bus, it was sad we didn’t get to say a proper goodbye to Andis or Agata, or have our last, planned day in Riga, get our patches, or check the mail one more time. I’m going to see if Zane can do that for me though. I want my mail!!!!

In a bit of a panic, we leapt onto our bus and settled in for the 12 hour trip, which actually went fairly quickly by the time we did some reading, sleeping, Friends watching, etc. It was hard to work as there were no plugs or wifi, but I finished a book I’m meant to be reviewing, so that worked out pretty well.

We had a few rest stops, including one about two hours from Warsaw that included internet, and it was there that we found out that Zane had been on the bugle and managed to find us both a couch to surf on and a back up, all for that night. It was pretty amazing! At about 11pm, we rocked up to the Warsaw Station (the smaller of two, but still), and found….nothing. No phone, no bank machine, no open anything except one small bar, a locked hostel, and no way to get online. Fantastic. After a few minutes of completely fruitless searching in a mostly empty, depressingly-Soviet building, I suggested we ask to borrow someone’s phone, and scanned the crowd for a good looking target. A goofy-looking guy and his friendly looking girlfriend. We had a bit of a language difficulty at first, when I said ‘can I use your phone?’ and he thouht I had his phone, and I thought he was taking the piss, but we got it sorted out, and called Agata, the woman that would be putting us up.

She said that because of her baby, she couldn’t leave the flat to get us, but we should get a bus to the main station and then another bus to her, and then call her when we got there, and see you later.

Right. These things are easier with money. And phones. And not being 11:30pm. The super-friendly guy and his gf, who were just dropping someone off, not getting on a bus, asked if everything was OK, and we asked if they could show us to a city bus. And if they knew where we could get some Zlotys (the Euro was seeming SO great at this point!). After we gave them the gist of the story, the guy said something along the lines of, ‘come. I’ll be your bus.’ And so, even though we’d sworn off hitchhiking in the Baltics, we headed off with them, into their Beemer, and traipsed across Warsaw. They were an absolutely lovely couple and he couldn’t have been more thrilled when I pulled out a keychain from Victoria to give them as a thank you for rescuing us from the Station. He gave me a huge hug, called Agata to make sure she was just around the corner, and then with a hug and a kiss to a girlfriend, literally skipped around the corner back to his car. What kind, kind people!

Agata, for her part, was amazing too. She walked down to a nearby corner to get us, and brought us back to her lovely flat, where we were incredibly glad to see a bed, reserve a hostel for Bratislava the next morning, and see a friendly face. She and her husband were also an incredibly sweet, adorable couple, and it was really cute to see them snuggling and laughing together so much. They put us to bed, as our four hours of sleep were ticking, and gave us enough Zlotys to get on the bus back to the main train station in the morning so that we wouldn’t have to pay 5$ in bank fees to withdraw 3$ worth of city bus fare, since our bus out of Poland was at 6:30 in the morning and we wouldn’t be needing cash for anything else.

More famous last words.

We got to the station at 6:11 for our 6:30 bus and headed to the platform to wait. And wait. And wait. At first, we weren’t too worried—our bus had been a good twenty minutes late the night before, and we figured that coming from Riga it could have been delayed overnight. But after two hours, we were more than a bit concerned, and after going in to the information desk, which said ‘I don’t know, ask that office.’ (which didn’t open for another hour) and discovering that there really and truly is nary a payphone in the entire bloody place, we asked a man with his daughter to call the bus for us, and found out that our bus was running 5 hours late. FIVE! Which of course it wasn’t. Six hours after it was supposed to have arrived, we had set up quite a camp on the platform, taking turns lying down and sleeping on the bags, and eating through our snack supplies as well as the snacks we could use a Visa card to buy (‘cos do you think there’s an ATM there? Hahah….noooo). At this point, we were again worried, especially when no drivers from the same company could tell us what was going on, and so finally Cecilia went into the office that had been closed before, and was told by a very grumpy woman that our bus had left at 6:30. Which it hadn’t, since we’d been sitting there, but at that point it was hard not to believe her. She offered us a special price ticket to Vilnius for that night, or a bus to Bratislava on Wednesday, and that was it.

About to bail for the train station, we found a sweet, middle-aged German lady that Cecilia was able to talk to, and got her to phone the bus for us. There had been an accident on the highway, we learned, and our bus had needed to wait for the road to reopen. It was on its way.

Hunkering back down to wait, and wait, and wait, we met Elisa (or something like that) from Turkey, who was a student in Bulgaria but doing Erasmus in Poland, and heading home. They had told her, like they had told everyone for whom they had a phone number, that the bus was delayed, so she hadn’t been sitting there all day, but she was able to confirm that there was a bus, on its way. With safety in numbers, we finally stopped worrying that we had somehow missed a huge yellow bus.

Finally, at 2:30pm, some SEVEN hours late, our bus arrived and we all jumped for joy, just a little bit. The poor, haggered passengers that got off made us very, very glad to have been in Warsaw over night, despite the various stresses of that decision.

Finally, at 3am, in pouring rain, we were deposited unceremoniously in Bratislava, and decided to get a cab to the hostel, betting that it was close enough to come in under the 6Euro Cecilia had to her name. Which it was, except the Euro had jumped ship by the time it came to pay, so we spent an embarrassing 10 minutes searching through every bag, trying to explain what was going on, offering him Lats, Krona of various sorts, and Canadian dollars, trying the nearby ATM that didn’t work, offering him Visa, all to no avail and one grumpy cab driver. Finally, I sent C up to the front desk to explain the situation and see if they would add the 6E to our bill and pay the taxi driver, which they couldn’t, but eventually the guy at the front desk gave us 10E (pissed off panda driver raised his fee due to the waiting) from his own pocket to pay the cab driver, who left just in time for the Euro to turn up in an unchecked inside pocket. Of course. We managed to pay back Jakob for almost everything and promised him the last .60E (dollar CDN) in the morning.

At that point, Cecilia went to bed, and I went to work. In the end, I didn’t sleep, because I figured that I would be more miserable after two hours of sleep than none, so I just worked until 7:30, had a shower, and then woke her up again as it was time to head to Pezinok.

Pezinok is a small town known for wine just about an hour by city bus outside of Bratislava. It was really cute, but the reason we were there was for CVI Slovakia, being held at a fairly large and really nice horse park. We got off the bus around 9:30 and met Barbora, who would be our couch surfing host for that night. She was 26 and had a very, very cute dog named Coco, who was Jack Russell-mutt and liked to bark at you until she knew who you were. It was pretty cute. Barbora took us to a grocery store for supplies and then walked with us to the horse park, about twenty minutes out of town. She headed off to do…something…for the day and left us to it. We met Dieter, who we will be staying with and vaulting with in Prague, and he gave us competitor wrist bands so that we could head wherever we wanted to around the park. We started off watching junior team, and then junior freestyle, which was great. It was lunch, then, and we met back up with Dieter and sat in the little café, where we ran into Lukas Klouda, one of the top vaulters in the world. It was pretty cool to hang out with him for a little bit, and he and Dieter seem to be pretty good friends. They are from different parts of the country, but must see each other a lot. Lukas, entertainingly, has converted an old school bus into a horse trailer. I wish we could have seen that better.

After lunch it was senior freestyles, and we got to see Lukas go, with a good round, as well as Dieter’s individual male, who also had a good round. We also saw the pas de deux, which were pretty cool—Kornelia and Blanka, whom we had seen at CVI Chilliwack, competed (and won), and senior team, which was amazing. Lukas had a team, which did well, and there was an amazing German team as well. The horse they brought was the top horse at WEG, I think. Something like that, anyway.

We had a great day watching the vaulting, hanging out with Dieter, meeting some people, and just having time to do whatever we wanted to! At 6, we met back up with Barbora who walked us into town to show us around a bit—she bought us delicious gelato, which we ate while walking through the park, and then took us out for a drink in the town square. It was a gorgeous evening and really nice to spend time walking around. Then we headed up to the flat she shares with her parents (though her mom was away), and met her dad, who teaches at the police academy. I’m quite sure I wouldn’t want to cross him, but he seemed very, very sweet, despite not speaking any English. He’d made us a lovely dinner of eggs and peppers and bread (and nothing sour!) and force-fed us a STRONG lemon liqueur, which I definitely only had half a sip of before passing it off to Barbora haha. He was very sweet and we had a nice chat via her translation.

We had an early sleep as I hadn’t slept at all, and we’d had limited access to being horizontal since leaving Latvia!

In the morning, we had to leave for work when she did, around 8:30, but she brought us Horalky, which are little sandwiches of wafer, peanut butter, and a bit of chocolate dipped around the outside, as well as pears, and then walked us back to the bus. It was very sweet! Turns out that she has been on couchsurfing for two years, but we were the first people she had been able to host, due to family/timing/etc., so I think she was pretty excited to have us. We had a great time with her!

Back in Bratislava, we headed off to a coffee shop so that I could work, and Cecilia explored Old Town a little bit on her own. At about 2, we got our bags from the hostel we had original stayed at and then walked over to meet our new Couchsurfing hosts, Peter and Peter. They were really sweet, with a flat right in the very centre, and are probably together though they wouldn’t cop to it, it was pretty cute. We dropped our bags off and checked in, and then headed back out for a walk. We went over the ‘new bridge’ to this fake beach on the banks of the Danube that T-Mobile is sponsoring. It’s pretty cool! They have clean white sand, bright pink beach chairs, snacks and a bar, playground, beach volleyball, futsal, hammocks and book cases under the trees…cool place!

After that, we walked back across the bridge and went up to the castle, which was very pretty but under construction, so we couldn’t go in. We walked around it and then found a little park where we started playing with handstands and things—of course. Back in town, we wandered through Old Town, stopped by an outdoor market, and then headed over to the Slovak Pub (“it’s not a pub, it’s an institution”) and had dinner there. We were after traditional Slovakian dumplings, which didn’t entirely turn out as we thought they would—they were small and there was a LOT of sheep cheese sauce, which was good, but we were expecting pierogies/pelmini more than gnocchi, which is sort of more what we got. The pub was funny and had one heck of a full menu, including a student’s menu, which was all but gruel and broth. It was a lot of bread and soup, actually. But if you get an A on an exam and bring it in, you get a free cola or soup or something.

Back at the boys’ flat, we chatted with them for a while, and in the course of planning what to do with our day the next day, realized that we were only 11Euro return (16$) and an hour away from Vienna, home to the Spanish Riding School, so we figured we better go do that. It’s pretty cool that you can just pop on a train and get to another country in an hour! What would have been cooler would be them giving us a platform number so that we didn’t miss our train, but in any case, after a short hour of waiting, we figured out where to go and headed to Austria. By this point we were clearly running late, so we jumped on a tram and headed over to the school. We got off quite a bit early, so ended up still having to do a fair amount of walking, but we got to the Palace complex about twenty minutes into the two-hour morning program, which wasn’t so bad. Unfortunately, the afternoon tours were sold out already, but we were able to watch an hour and a half of exercise set to music in the morning. The ring is absolutely gorgeous, and seems like it should be a ballroom, except there are high walls and a sand footing. Two levels of balcony were occupied by tons of tourists watching the training and enjoying the music, which was funny as I’m sure normally you couldn’t pay most of those people to spend two hours watching dressage.

We loved it, of course, especially Cecilia, who grew up hearing about the school and doing dressage. It was certainly a must-see for her. They divided training into thirty-minute chunks, with each section having 5-6 horses. Depending on the horse they all did individual workouts, which were efficient and included some airs above the ground, canter pirouettes, and other fun things as well as plenty of work on basics. The riders all wore funny full dress uniform, including cute little hats, but interestingly, seemed to use thin sticks as whips instead of dressage whips, which was interesting.

After the training, we walked over to Starbucks, which was really exciting because we hadn’t seen one since we left Canada. What wasn’t quite so exciting was spending $8.50 on my drink! Perhaps my only Starbucks visit of the trip!

Then it was time for lunch, and following that, a wander around. Since it was so last-minute, we hadn’t had a chance to look into Vienna at all, so just walked in the centre to see what we could see. The Stephensdom was amazing, an absolutely gorgeous cathedral! They were setting up for a Mozart concert in a few days, and had coloured plastic over the windows as well as theatre lights up, which combined to make quite a stunning effect in an already-gorgeous building. Of course, the outside was under construction, but it seemed the entire city was, really. At least they have building covers that look like what’s underneath, as opposed to plain white plastic. It’s much nicer that way.

After the cathedral we bought some postcards, walked through a gorgeous rose garden, tried to look at another cathedral (shut), and then headed into a McDonalds so that I could work for a few hours. It’s kind of funny here because McD’s are really nice, have proper cafes with blended coffee drinks, aircon, free wifi, and often-free toilets, so they are rapidly becoming our go-to ‘work/internet/snack’ stop.

After a few hours of that, we headed back to Bratislava, via another post card stop, a fountain, and an interesting sculpture that had music playing from it. It was a good handstand opportunity!

We were lucky to get a train fairly quickly and then headed back to town, walking back to the boys’ via old town, where we caught the tail end of an interesting dance/acrobatic performance to Bolero’s March. In the square, we also saw a bunch of 20-something guys wearing Canadian shirts and looking rather official, so we had to ask what they were up to. Turns out it is our national ball hockey team over here for a tournament. I think they were playing in the same rink as the one used for the IIHF Worlds earlier this year. They were nice and friendly and it was cool to meet some random Canadians.

We headed back to the flat and picked the boys up to go out for dinner, again at the Slovak Pub—we both wanted another go at our dumpling ordering. I got breaded, deep-fried pierogies, which wasn’t entirely what I expected, but they were great!

After dinner, they took us to a wine bar so that Cecilia could sample some local, Slovakian wine. By this point, it was after 10, and we were hot and full, and therefore I could barely keep my eyes open. It was a bit of a problem. We made it back to the flat, though, and fell into bed with another early morning ahead of us.

The next day (Wednesday, I think), we had to leave when they did—around 8:30—so it was back to McD’s for a couple hours of work before our 11am bus. This trip went much better, and we spent the morning enjoying the free cappuccino, leather seats, and English channel playing ‘It’s Complicated,’ one of my favorite romantic comedies from the past decade. When I grow up, I’m going to be Meryl Streep, I’ve decided. <3 her.

In Budapest, we left our bags in the luggage check, got some cash, bought 72-hour transit passes, picked a station that looked like it was in the middle of town, and headed out. Turns out we had mis-judged by one station, so we popped out not entirely sure where we were, but we found a hostel where we got a free map and directions to McD’s (are you seeing a pattern here?) and went down there for lunch (Tzatski wraps, a Hungarian specialty, apparently) and work time.

Thus fortified, we headed off to St. Stephan’s Basilica, an absolutely massive cathedral capable of holding 8,500 people (though that must be an incredibly tight fit!). We climbed its tower and got some great views of the city, and then checked out the inside, which is beautiful and ornate. After that, we walked over to the Parliament buildings, which are right on the river and also gorgeous, and then took a tram to the ‘green bridge,’ which we walked across to see what was what. We happened to find a church built into the mountain, and though we didn’t have time to go in, it was cool just to poke our heads into the visitor’s centre, anyway. Cecilia had got a tiny cut from doing a handstand and meeting up with some glass, but they had iodine and bandaids and a sweet guy that spoke English, so she was well taken care of. By this point it was time to head back to the bus station and meet our new Couch surfing host (what a great idea, this is!), Frederika. She was there with her boyfriend Peter, and they had a car, which was handy with all of our stuff. Both of them were also very nice, and we headed back to her very cute flat just outside the city. They fed us a lovely dinner including an egg thing that goes on crepes (which she made with chestnut flour, which was cool), a lovely huge salad, and yummy bread. Mmmm fresh food haha.

We originally thought we were going to sleep in the next morning, but realized that was never going to work if we wanted to get our to-do list accomplished, so…We left the house around 8:30 and I did a couple of hours of work, before we headed off to some Turkish-style baths, a tradition Budapest is known for. We went to Schenzyi (or something along those lines), one of the biggest bathing complexes in Europe. With three huge outdoor pools, 20 or so indoor pools, a hotel, cafes, massage places, saunas, etc., I can that it might be! It was a pretty grand old place, built around the turn of the (past) century, I think, and a pretty cool place to spend the morning, even if it was a bit ridiculous to be going in the hot pools when it was 35C outside. We worked on our flexibility a bit though, which was desperately needed given all the working, walking, and sitting we’ve been doing, without stretching much since we left home. Oh dear.

After the baths, we headed to subway for lunch, and then embarked on an epic transit adventure. First, we took a tram to a cog railway line, which we rode from end to end up through the Buda hills. It was a gorgeous green ride, and a pretty cool form of public transit. After that, we walked over to the Children’s Railway, which was super cute. Apparently popular in the Soviet Era, children’s railways give kids the chance to run a small railway, with adult supervision. It’s a little locomotive that travels a relatively good distance, and while adults are actually the ones driving, the kids sell and take tickets, run the switches, make the announcements, do the conducting, and various other jobs. It’s pretty cool, and apparently fairly hard to get into. There is also a four-month initial training program and then yearly recertification, and during the school year, railway ‘employees’ get one day off from school every 15 days in order to work the rails. Cecilia has decided that she wishes she was a small Hungarian child who could work as a conductor.

After our ride on the rails, we hiked for 15 or 20 minutes up a shaded hill to Elizabeth’s Tower, which wasn’t too tall, but on the top of the top of a hill, as it was, still afforded a great view of the city. We randomly decided to practice handstands there, and then walked down to the chair lift, which was going to get us off the mountain. It was pretty fun to step onto a chairlift without skis or boards, though we were glad to have lots of lift experience back home. Cecilia was a little worried about losing her flip flops, but overall we enjoyed our fifteen-minute offload down the mountain, which featured some views of the city and nice cool trees. We found a bus, then took a tram, then a metro, and eventually ended up back in the centre, where I worked for a couple of hours, and we met up with Frederika. She took us to a very cool hostel, which is in an old apartment block built around a square. The square, which is very garden-like, is now home to a cute bar, and we had a couple of drinks with her and her friend Laszlo, and also ate dinner under the trees. He’s a nice guy that works for Apple, and has a friend from Germany that just moved to Canada—to Victoria, actually, and has a job with one of the whale watching companies. Small world!

We headed back to the flat after that for some very exciting clothes washing. Sadly, it was the first time since leaving Iceland a month ago that we had managed to find a washer! We did all our laundry and fell asleep, deciding to use the next day as a sleep-in one. We left the flat around 11 and headed into town for an early lunch and work, and then bought our bus tickets for the next day to Prague, as well as going to a funny second hand shop so that Cecilia could try, and then buy, a lovely blue dress hanging in the window. We saw lots of great clothes, but they were typically one size wrong in either diection—very frustrating! We then went to a huge marketplace near the centre. We got our patches and a few little souvenirs, and dinner, and decided that instead of going to the night at the museums, which was our original plan, we would climb up to the top of a small mountain near castle hill instead. We found a pretty cool statue of a woman to take photos by and some lovely city views.

After that, we climbed back down, and paused half-way to take some photos. I wanted to do a handstand on a bench, so that you could see the city, instead of the railing, behind me. There were some Chinese tourists around, but also a woman who gestured to me, gestured to her parents, and then said something about a shashin (photo), so I knew they were Japanese. I said sumimasen (excuse me), which they didn’t really seem to notice, and then did my handstand and got my photo. They, not so surprisingly, wanted to get a photo of me doing my handstand, and were then pretty shocked when I asked them in Japanese if the place was OK and if their photos were OK or if they wanted another one. They were really sweet and from Shinjuku. We had a brief, not very fluent conversation in Japanese where they asked me where we were from, if I’d been to Japan, how long I’d lived there for, where, what I was doing, etc. It was nice J How funny to speak Japanese on a hill in Budapest!

Back at the bottom, we found the funicular, which was cool to watch go up and down the tracks, and then stumbled upon the Duna Party, which, as far as we could tell, was some kind of concert/dance thing. It was rather bizarre, though there was a cool shooplatla (sp?)-related dance with lots of men hopping around and hitting their legs and shoes for the sound.

We walked back over the bridge, ended up in the shopping district, and tried on some clothes, which was fun, before having a nightly rest stop/internet check (no internet at the flat), and heading back for around 11. It was quite funny, as Frederika was away as of Friday morning, but left us to our own devices in her flat, and left us with a key to have. It was quite lovely, really.

By the time we showered and packed all of our lovely clean clothes, it was 2am and bed time! This morning (yay, I’m finally caught up!!) We got up early, took a bus and a metro to the main bus station, and got on our bright yellow Student Agency bus at 9:15am. It generally seems to be a good company with free hot drinks and decent movies, and cheap tickets (25$ to go from Budapest to Prague, an 8 hour trip), so if you’re looking to travel around Europe….

Right now, we’re somewhere just outside of Bratislava, off to Prague, where we’ll meet Dieter and settle into our new digs. It’s Cecilia’s last city already! L

I’ll try and keep going without being quite so long between posts next time. No more novels!



Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Monday was a pretty non-descript sort of day. Lots of raking and moving of roots and dirt, lots of rhubarb in sour milk, and a spectacular loss by the Canucks, but Game 7 tonight (at 2:30am), so lets not dwell on that absolute drubbing, shall we? Other than talking to Toryn before he went to work, I honestly don't think we did much worth noting Monday, but maybe Cecilia will remember and set me straight.

Yesterday I was tired and sore and my back hated me, so I managed to not get up and work, which was frustrating especially since it hurt too much to sleep, so I wasn't getting anything productive done at all. Cecilia is fighting a cold, so between the two of us, we made quite the pair!

Anyway, we finally dragged ourselves out of bed and downstairs for eggs and toast, and then went back to raking. Cecilia, lucky panda, got to work with Vitas, the hilarious Lithuanian grandfather type who is making, we're quite sure, various lewd comments 24/7. He's a sweetheart though and they enjoyed piecing together their collectively iffy German into some semblance of a working conversation and making a bunch of bench ends. Meanwhile, Pietro and I moved dirt, and more dirt, and some more dirt. We got a good lunch though--pork and potatos and no sour milk to be seen (with the exception of the rhubarb, caramel, and kafirs 'shake'), and then Zane went into town and told us to finish when we felt like slashing our throats. Nevermind that I'd passed that point at 11am, we worked until about 4 and called it a day.

I had a much needed shower, though its less than fun when your hair ends up smelling like rotting eggs after you shower, had a 'tricks' date with Cecilia and three of the littles, and sorted out couches for Pezinok, Bratislava, and Budapest, our next three stops.

After dinner of Pelmini (yay!) Cecilia, Pietro, and I headed off to the local pub for a drink and dessert. Nora's stupid dogs followed us and then proceeded to chase cars, run barking up to women walking alone, and generally cause problems. We got yelled at at least three times by angry Latvians and just shook our head and tried to convey that they weren't our dogs. Stupid things hung around the pub for awhile before FINALLY heading home at some point during our snack.

I had a lovely rhubarb cake/crumble (they sure love their rhubarb around here!) and an icecream 'cocktail,' which was peach juice and blueberry icecream, of all the flavors, all mixed together. The cake was great, partly because it had a ton of lovely fresh fruit on the side, which we are generally a bit short on this trip.

After the pub, Pietro went to the flat with Zane and Andis, and Cecilia and I walked home, getting only partially and temporarily lost (what is it with shortcuts actually being longcuts?) and then watching a Friends before falling asleep in preparation for another 6am morning this morning.


Sunday, June 12, 2011

Hmmm sorry for the lack of blogging!

Friday we got to sleep in a little bit, which was really nice, and we had most of the morning off to wait for the person who was tilling up the bank to get here and do that so that we could finish off the raking with it. It was a little bit annoying as we had been told we would start at 11 but it was more like 2, so there was a lot of hurry up and waiting, which seems to happen quite a bit with Zane.

As opposed to the light raking we thought we were getting in for, it was hot, hard work, and more than that, really boring--we've already dug up all of this land once, so digging it up again in the 30+ weather was a bit...ugh. Especially when the new guy started making cracks about it being a 'man's job' to dig up some of the roots while we did other work, and commented that he'd turned up for the hard parts since he was doing what we hadn't been able to do. Le sigh.

Luckily I think everyone was annoyed and hot and frustrated so we didn't do too much, only a few hours, and got sprung around 6. After showers and getting changed, Cecilia and headed on a grand adventure on the bus to SPICE, which is a local mall. Zane had suggested it because she knew I wanted to look for a bikini, and they were having a special shopping night where they stayed open until 2am, and had events and sales. It was pretty crazy, like a really busy boxing day, but I got a bikini that I love for only 15$ and Cecilia and I found Buffs! We'd been so excited to find them in Iceland but hadn't bought them as we didn't like the very touristy patterns which were the only ones we could find in stores, but this sports store had some great patterns, and they were 30% off, so we each got one, which made us very happy!

We left the mall at about 11, got back to Riga Central and sprinted across the station for an 11:30 bus that didn't exist, and ended up on the last bus back to Kekava at midnight. By the time we walked home for 20 minutes, convincing ourselves it wasn't really dark and there weren't going to be bears or boars it was nearly 1am. I don't think I've come home from too many shopping expeditions at 1am but it was really fun!

On Saturday (we get weekends off here), we walked across the road to the neighbour's farm to watch their driving competition. There were some verrrry cute ponies and carts and a really cute kid acting as navigator for a farm that seemed to like their adorable welsh ponies. We watched a few of the dressage tests, which was pretty interesting, but unfortunately couldn't stay for the cones courses or cross country--the show was scheduled to go from 10am to 7pm as there were a lot of horses, but we had other plans, so needed to get going.

Andis had offered to take us to Sigulda, a neighbouring town, for the day, so around 2 we packed up Miks and the four of us headed out. We stopped for a drive through lunch which was funny because I think there's a good chance it was the first time Miks had ever experienced coke, and potentially even bubbles in his drink, given by the hilarious expressions he was giving me every time he tried it. Between that and figuring out straws, it was a bit of a labour intensive drinking experience for the poor guy, but he seemed to enjoy it OK.

We dropped Miks off with Andis' brother, who lives in town, and then headed to a 13th century castle, which was pretty cool. We got to climb its tower and then visit a museum explaining how it was used by the Archbishop of Riga back in the day. It was called Turaida castle and there is a legend about the 'Rose of Turaida,' a woman who got double-crossed at a cave nearby, so in the midst of a thunderstorm we had a quick walk down to the cave, and had a nice warm shower in the process.

After that, we headed to Tarzans, which is an adventure park sort of like Tree Go back home. We didn't do the ropes course, but took a ski lift to the top of the Baltic State's longest run (ha.ha.ha. it was like 70m and not very steep whatsoever) and then rode a little yellow plastic car thing down a track. It was really fun, especially since you get to control your own speed. After that, and I'm not entirely sure how, Andis convinced us to go on the catapult, which is basically a reverse bungy jump. You get strapped in and told to hold your teeth tight, and then a machine tensions the many, many bungy cords attached to you, based on what you weigh, which was making me hope we'd converted to kilograms correctly! Once you're tensioned in and terrified, the guy pulls a string and sends you sky rocketing into the sky, 20m straight up. On the way down you do some flips, unintentionally, and also impersonate a rag doll, and then bounce around a bit before finally coming back down to earth. I kept my eyes shut for most of it haha, but Cecilia said it was quite the experience to see the earth rushing at you as you went head first for it.

That adventure successfully dispatched with, we met back up with Miks and Andis' brother, who had come to the park, and walked over to take a cable car across the river, but by the time we got there, you could only do it if you wanted to bungy jump. Which we didn't. So after a quick coffee in their flat, where Miks seized on being undiapered and watered the floor, which was hilarious, we headed back into Kekava. We got back and had a lovely dinner cooked by the Italian--spaghetti carbonara, and relaxed for the rest of the evening.

Sunday was the first day since leaving Canada six weeks ago where we haven't had a plan, so it was lovely to sleep, and sleep, and sleep. Until noon. Haha. We eventually crawled out of bed and headed to the store to pick up a few things that Andis needed for a party he was overseeing (they rent the squash club and playground out to parties) and also got a couple of snacks for ourselves. Once his food had been delivered, we changed into bikinis and together with Pietro (the Italian workawayer) walked down to a little beach/swimming hole they've opened this year about 2km away. It was lovely to lie in the semi-sun and read a book that I'm reviewing for work for a couple of hours.

We headed back and started a movie, and then much to our (happy) surprise, were left all alone from about 5:30 yesterday as everyone including Pietro went back to the flat. We finished the movie, made pasta for dinner, looked for couches and workaway places for the next little while, and generally had a lovely end to a relaxing weekend.

This morning I'm up early to catch up on the blog and do some work, and we aren't entirely sure what the plan is, probably moving and raking more dirt, over and over again. It's looking much cooler out there, though, and it's cloudy, so it should be much easier work out of the sun.


Friday, June 10, 2011

Yesterday morning I got up to work and then when Zane arrived we started doing the dirt moving and digging again. There wasn't sooo much left to be done, but it was still hot, hard work. We had to get it finished though, as the guy who is doing the tilling is meant to be coming by today, so we were trying to get it ready for that.

We broke for lunch and Zane made us omelettes, which was really nice since she knows we aren't crazy about the bright magenta fermented milk soup she made before, and that's what they were having for lunch. We had a very pleasant sit in the shade and chatted over lunch before going back to finish up the earth moving and plant watering and whatnot.

We finished work at about 3:30 and then hung around the club while she went to pick up the Thai girl and the new Italian guy. I fell asleep in the hammock, and then stubbed my toe so hard while swinging that I peeled off a chunk of skin. It was yuck! Slamming my head into multiple low pieces of wood definitely made me want to go back to sleep pretty quick yesterday!

Once they all showed up, we headed over to the sister's house to help the Thai girl cook for everyone. There were ten adults in all, and she made a great spread for us! Red and green curries, basil with garlic and chicken, omelette, rice, etc. So good! After we'd finished chopping things up, Cecilia and I went to play outside with Agata, which is always funny when she is trying to think of the word in English, she seems as though she is physically giving birth to it as she contorts her body and flutters her hands in frustration. For 8, her English is pretty good, though, especially compared to our Latvian.

She was hilarious when she was explaining and Cecilia was talking to one of the dogs, she was like 'Cecilia!' in a very sharp 'are we listening?' voice. She was trying to explain a complicated game involving throwing a ball in the air, catching it, calling someone's name, them taking 14 steps back, and the ball thrower trying to get the ball (in this case a stuffy) through a hoop made by the person's arms.

She also asked us if we liked dogs and then told us she knew where two, long, smart, miniature ones lived, and proceeded to climb a tree. We were a little confused, to say the least, but then it was dinner time which was great. Mix wandered by and stole a sip of someone's 28% alcohol and then proceeded to scream about it, which was kind of hilarious and karmic, really.

Cecilia and I ended up having an hour and a half long singalong to him, first running through our limited lyric repertoire of Christmas carols and Somewhere Over the Rainbow-type songs, and then realising we could look up lyrics on our phones. That meant we could do a good chunk of the Christmas oeuvre before adding backing tracks courtesy of our iPods and graduating to a random assortment of songs by Coldplay, Joni Mitchell, the Ataris, Dido, Leonard Cohen (covered by the good people at Shrek), and a few others. He was fast asleep by the time he was collected to go home around 11.

Since we didn't have to get up too early today we watched a Friends and hung out for a little bit before getting some sleep ourselves.


Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Yesterday we got a bit of a sleep in (Cecilia) and longer work session (me) as no one showed up until 9 (so actually 9:30). Andis and Mix turned up, and after breakfast, we were tasked with babysitting the little bub. Given how child-phobic we are, we were a little unsure about the whole thing, but it was actually OK. We couldn't get him to settled down at all (he's a whiny little guy!) but after a little bit we got him in C's lap and I pushed both of them on the swing, which he loved, until he fell asleep, which we loved. We've worked out that the poor kid is probably getting less than 8 hours of sleep a night, and doesn't get regular naps (he's 1.5), and is largely left to his own devices most of the day, so it's no wonder he's a grump, especially because in Mix's world, being a grump = getting good food.

Anyway...after Zane left to do...something? We packed him up in his stroller (he was droopy, but awake again by now) and set off for a local swimming hole, which we didn't make it to haha. He was fast asleep by the time we passed the turn off for it, and so we kept walking into 'town' to get a couple of snacks, at which point he'd decided to get up. We gave him a snack and then tried to take him into the blow up bouncy castle thing that was randomly set up in the parking lot, be he's a little young, or was a little too asleep, or something, so didn't really enjoy it.

Back into the pram he went and we trundled back off to the beach, but half way there we realised just how late it was getting and headed back. It was about a 5.5km walk in the 30º heat, but not so bad with a bit of a breeze. We came back and as he started to fuss started singing him songs, except the only ones we actually know are Christmas carols. His favourite, by far, is Rudolph. When I had him alone, he got quite the medley of Secret Revolution, The Ataris, and RENT. He was a Seasons of Love fan.

We dipped his toes in the sister's pool and then brought him back for lunch. After that, we downloaded Kung Fu Panda for him to watch, but he wasn't so into it, though he didn't seem to mind chilling in C's lap too much until he passed out there, too. Seems that when he's with us we'll be giving him the chance to catch up on his sleep. He's really quite cute when he isn't exhausted and therefore screaming.

At about 3, we got sprung from our babysitting duties to go into town--Zane and Andis also host a lot of couch surfers, and there was a girl from Thailand, Tukta, who arrived yesterday and is spending two nights with them, so Zane thought we could spend some time showing her around what we have seen already and hanging out with her.

My first stop was to the central post office, where my mail hasn't arrived yet :( at least we know where to go now, and hopefully some or all of it arrives before I leave in 9 days!!

Then I had to take care of a 6-week old craving and get a Big Mac haha. After those two important errands were taken care of it was off to the Freedom Monument to meet up with Tukta. She's a sweetie and traveling around Eastern Europe on her own. She's been studying technology in Germany, and this was her graduation trip, I think. We walked around Old Town and then got a picnic from the grocery store (eating out in Riga is the same price as at home, but groceries are about half the price, so we've decided this is our new tactic) and went to one of the huge parks to eat. We walked down an embankment to eat by a canal but after about five minutes two pissed off cops came and barked at us to eat 'in the park. Don't sleep.' Ummm OK? Upshot: get off the embankment you foreigners. So we did and it was fine, kind of ridiculous. Reminded me of Japan, where I had a student say 'in your country, grass is for walking on, in my country, grass is for looking at.'

Anyway, Soviet jail avoided, we headed over to the Art Nouveau section of town, which was very cool. Riga is known for it, and the buildings are pretty sweet. Grampa, there will be photos soon, I promise!

After that we headed back over to the minibus we take too and from town to the squash club when we can't get a ride, and took Tukta with us, so that we could drop her off at the stop for the flat. Unfortunately, we weren't entirely sure how to stop a bus with no stop button in it (we get on and off on the first and last stop, usually), so we ended up just yelling 'ummm stop?' in a bit of a panic, which was embarassing, but effective. Seems you just walk up to the driver and ask him to to stop, usually. Funny system of tiny buses rocketing around the city, but they are efficient and seem to be about the same size.

After our two km walk home from the stop, with a gorgeous sunset keeping us company, we just watched a Friends and then I passed out while C watched another one. Getting up at 6 every morning to work is A) ridiculous and B) cramping my late-night style!

Today is interesting as we are getting another workawayer. An Italian guy. Should be interesting!

Tuesday, June 07, 2011


Today was more dirt-moving. Zane said she would be here for 8, but didn't get here until about 8:30, which is becoming a pattern. At least this time we had milk and butter and bread, so breakfast (including iced coffee) could be made. She made the mistake of showing us how to make sweet, milky iced coffee in the blender, and has created a bit of a monster out of me!

Anyway, once she showed up it was back to the dirt pile, which is moving along well despite the sauna-like conditions of this place. Everyone seems to be surprised it is 30+, which is at least slightly reassuring--maybe it will cool down a bit?! I was working close to Zane again, and this time learned about retirement funds, taxes, and the cost of medical care in Latvia. We also talked about the summer camps she went to as a kid in Soviet Times (she was 16 during the collapse). She called them 'Pioneer Camps' and I guess they weren't mandatory, but pretty standard--hers was near by, at an old farm house (that is now a guest house). She said they were lots of fun, but they included a mandatory 4 hour per day work session on the fields of the local kolkhozy (collective farm). She said the fields were so endless it was pretty depressing as you could never see the end of your work, but fun to be with all of your friends.

We wrapped up at about 12:30 because of the heat and had lunch (that milky soup for me; I'm getting good at swallowing before tasting) and spaghetti for C. We got a rest after that, and then set up a slip and slide for the kids. It was going really well until we had to move it down the hill (for no good reason) and the kids lost interest in it. Oh well. Luckily Zane decided it was too hot to keep digging, so we moved on to bathroom cleaning, which was basically just washing mirrors and showers in the two squash club change rooms, and then I did a bit of work while C started to pick classes for next semester. I also started to look for workaway places for the couple of weeks I have free after she leaves and before I go home. There is a horse holiday/cooking school in Portugal which would be pretty cool!

Mid-afternoon, Zane packed us and the kids up and we headed to a beach, which was lovely. There was a strange wind pattern rendering the water at the Baltic sea a comparatively frigid 9C, so we went to a lake instead. It still had a huge, lovely, sandy beach, though, so we mostly lay in the half-shade and read/listened to podcasts while the kids and Zane played in the water, but we went for a brief swim, too. It was quite lovely.

On the way home, we drove past the largest chicken farm in the country, a holdover from Soviet Times. Row upon row upon row upon row upon small-town-sized row of concrete chicken houses. Surreal. Efficient, if nothing else, I suppose!

Back home, we headed up to our loft and I did some work/trip planning before dinner. Dinner was typically Latvian, apparently--boiled potatoes, cottage cheese, and cold smoked herring packed in oil. Considering I don't eat fish or cottage cheese, it was pretty good, and at least filling, which isn't always the case around here--Zane doesn't seem that interested in carbs. It was also nice to avoid fresh veggies. While the E. Coli out break hasn't reached Latvia (from what we've heard, anyway), since it's pretty bad and no one seems to know what is causing it, we're generally trying to stay away from lettuce/tomatoes/cucumbers/sprouts, and you know, all of Northern Germany.

They left pretty early (9:30ish) and since we hadn't been in the sun quite so much, I had enough energy to pick classes for next semester (all on Monday and Tuesday), which was probably a bit silly, because there is the whole paying for tuition thing...(and before the peanut gallery comments, thanks to this whole dirt digging, cow milking lark, these few months are about the same cost as living at home for me, including flights). It was good to know that four of the seven required courses I need are there, and in a great schedule, next semester, so we'll see what we can do to actually take them...

And that brings us basically up to date. Up at 6:30 to do this and work, and then people are meant to start showing up around 9.


Monday, June 06, 2011

Yikes: sorry for the lack of blogging! Catching up now...

Forgotten from the fair day: When we were walking around we came across a huge (maybe three feet high) ant hill that had clearly been made by humans, and Zane's sister picked up a long pieces of grass and put it on the hill so that it was converged on by a couple of dozen ants. From there, she flicked off the ants (who had apparently peed on the grass by now) and then sucked on the grass before passing it to Zane to suck on. They claim this is some type of traditional medicine, but when we pressed them on what it was medicine for, her sister was like 'I don't know. Google it.' Haha.

Monday I got up and did a little bit of work before getting Cecilia up so we could be ready for Zane to turn up for 'dirt moving.' We had a bit of a trauma in the morning when I made iced coffees for us with the last bag of milk they'd left in the fridge, only to discover that instead of milk it was some kind of pourable sour cream stuff. Yuck. By this point we were out of milk, bread, butter, and toilet paper, so it was getting a bit desperate (and hard to make breakfast). Luckily when I mentioned this to Zane later, she did go to the store for us so breakfast this mornign should be better than the oatmeal and salt we made yesterday.

Anyway, by mid-morning we finally started to work on the dirt moving. Basically they have a canal down one side of the property line, and beside it, a shoulder about 5 feet wide. Right now it's all uneven dirt and sand and roots, and we're taking out as many of the rocks as possible and spreading the dirt out as much as we can so that it can get tilled and then seeded for grass soon. Its hot, dusty work, especially since it has been 30+, so we did a couple of hours of work and then passed out in the shade for half an hour, and then did another 45 minutes of work before lunch, and had a break, and then did the last hour once it had gotten very slightly cooler.

Lunch was another adventure--cold soup again, this time with ham and I think some potatoes, which would have been good if not for the reappearance of that horrible sour milk I'd tried to use for my coffee. Cold fermented milk soup isn't our cup of tea!

I was working with Zane for more of the day while C worked on a slightly different area, and I had a chance to ask her some questions about Soviet Times, which was really really interesting to hear about. It's weird to be here and see something that at home we would semi joke about 'wow, is that gas can from the Soviets or something? Look at that Soviet apartment building' ha.ha.ha. Except these buildings and tractors and gas cans and paranoias really are from them. I say paranoias because, for example, we're in the middle of the country in a low crime country, where our only close neighbours are Zane's sister's family, yet the sister's family alarms their house every night (the alarm is shared with us), and when we all go out, this place gets alarmed too. And bikes are hidden in a locked garage around the corner, and just little things that are hard to explain, but interesting. Funnily, though, Mix got left in his stroller outside of one of the historical buildings at the fair for several minutes and no one thought anything of that, and the 5-8 year old kids bike all over the place without helmets or telling anyone where they are going, so it's all a bit of a wash, I guess.

Anyway, at about 3 we got released from the dirt pile due to impending sunstroke on everyone's part, and after a quick shower, walked over to the sisters to sit in her pool for a bit. It's one of those full size blow up ones, and was really quite lovely. Her husband came home and we chatted for a bit about various random things, and then came back over to see if we were meant to be doing anything.

We weren't, but Zane asked us if we wanted to go to a 'home zoo' with her, where she was dropping off some papers. It was pretty interesting--a large dog rescue, including an awesome Rhodesian Ridgeback named Jordon who was always getting into things he wasn't meant to. They also had a three week old orphaned deer (cutest thing EVER!), pigs, goats, foxes (their babies were adorable), ferrets (one looked like Bandit!), a gorgeous wolf, some funny things that looked like marmots, some other funny things that looked like a raccoon and a weasel got jiggy with it, and two black bears, one of whom did a hilarious bum wiggle/jump when dinner was being prepared. It was a funny place and since it basically seemed like it was in her backyard, I'm going to say not one we would be allowed to have at home!

After that, we stopped for some kind of Russian 'junk food' -- Pelmini. After the soups, we were a little worried, but these were amazing--dumplings that were sort of a cross between pierogies and Chinese dumplings, boiled in a yummy broth.

While they were being cooked, Andis (the dad) and I played squash. It was really fun and he taught me the gist of how squash is different from tennis. Just enough to screw properly with my mind, but not enough that reverting to tennis (strokes/ready position, etc) seems to actually be too much of a problem.

They didn't get out of here until 10:30, so we just watched Friends and went to bed after that...

xx D

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Today was long, but fun! We were, as instructed, ready to go by 9 am (for me after a couple of hours of work), but our ride (host mum and youngest kid) didn't turn up until 10:20 so we waited for them outside and did gymnastics and chatted with friends back home on ping (best iOS app ever!), which was lovely.

When Zane and Mix finally showed up, we went to get her sister from next door, and then drove about half an hour away to an absolutely massive outdoor living museum. It was started in 1921 and has over 100 buildings on over 87 hectares. It's pretty crazy! The buildings are from all over Latvia and from different regions and time periods, serving different purposes. They were all actual buildings before getting picked up and moved to the museum in a continual and ongoing process.

We went today because they were having a huge fair, with tons of craft stalls and also food and performances (we saw some traditional dancing, which was fun), and people dressed in traditional Latvian costume, etc. We also saw the President of Latvia sitting around having lunch, which marks the second time in less than a week that we've seen him out and about. Funny.

There were some gorgeous arts and craft pieces there, lots of jewellery, fine leather work, some woodworking, crocheting, etc. Also tons of gingerbread cookies decorated like cars and cartoon characters, small instruments, pottery, etc.

There were a few sets of pony rides, which were interesting because instead of a couple of older scruffier ponies and their older, scruffier owners, they had these sleek and expensive show horses with riders in full seat johds leading them around. Nevermind a change from home, it was miles and miles away from the pony rides we gave at Dunhaghi in Iceland!

Some of the buildings we went into were VERY interesting (and made for not very big people, back in the 1700s) and one of the churches we went into was absolutely gorgeous with intricate scroll work and paintings on the ceiling, and lovely fresh flowers all over the place.

We hiked all around for several hours, with a pause to let the little one swim in the big lake it's beside, and then headed home around 4:30. I haven't been getting much sleep recently, so I fell asleep in the car, and then when we got home and Zane asked if I wanted to have a nap, I gratefully fell up the stairs into our loft for the next three hours.

There was a party at the club, so I think we were meant to stay out of the way anyway--we watched a Friends, chatted with T, and then ate a yummy pasta meal Zane cooked us. After that, we did some plant watering for her and then ended up playing with Aguta, the 8 year old rhythmic gymnast who lives next door. She was very cute and came by and said 'are you good for the tricks?' and when we said yes, she smiled and said 'in 14 minutes.' We were like sure....14 minutes it is haha. Playing with gymnastics was super fun, except for the gazzzzzilllion mosquito bites I got, through my clothes, and despite my OFF. Her friend was there too and we ended up getting on our bikes and riding over to the friend's grandparents house across the canal to play more. I felt very much like a 9 year old, except no one called me in to bed at 10:30 with the other two.

We're calling ourselves to bed, though, as tomorrow we start actually working--moving dirt around the canal or something.


Friday, June 03, 2011

Didn't feel like blogging yesterday, but I'll try and catch up...

We slept till about 9 and then got ready to start working, which we began at about 10. Our job was to figure out how to make the climbing structure we had started yesterday and then put it together. Thanks to youtube, we learned a couple of different ways of making cargo nets, and after practicing with a small piece of rope, decided we were ready for the real thing. We made a net with nine rows of loops, alternating between three rows of dark green, three of light green, and another three of dark green.

We had a good system going using a play structure's ladder as a guide to make sure we were getting the loops consistent, and after a brief lunch break for liver (um, yum?) and salad (watch that European E-coli outbreak!) we hung it up on it's frame. Unfortunately, the rope stretched way more than we anticipated so the whole thing was too stretchy and we had to un-knot the bottom third of it and then wrench it down to the bottom frame.

However, after that we just needed to water some plants and weed some cucumbers and we were done for the day, which was nice--so different from Iceland! Zane was headed into town with her mum for a play so she offered to take us into town with her while they went, which was great--we went to an Irish pub, walked around Old Town, did some window shopping, saw a fabulous brass quartet made up of cross-dressing tuba and trumpet players, and had desert at a cute little cafe where you paid for your cake by the weight of the slice they cut for you.

Today the club we are staying at held a women's squash tournament, so we helped out with that a little bit--first we took the bikes down the ridiculous washboard road to the store to get groceries for the girls to snack on--it was funny bringing home two kg of coal and two kg of grapes and cucumbers and milk and bread and cookies, etc., on our bikes. We spent most of the next few hours helping to make iced coffees, clearing and washing dirty dishes, and grilling up some marinated chicken wings we had bought. It was so ridiculously relaxed compared to the cow farm that I thought she was taking the piss when she thanked us for 'helping so much.'

Oh, I can't believe I almost forgot, but we got talked into yoga this morning, which we agreed to fairly readily, thinking that our poor muscles could really do with stretching for the first time in six weeks, but it turns out it was Kundalini yoga, which is verrrrry low on the stretching and very high on the chanting of things. It was an interesting experience and involved mantras, bouncing around for a bit, and nearly falling asleep on the grass (that part was good!).

Anyway, after the tournament finished midday, most of the women stayed to hang around and we played volleyball (just keeping the ball up in a big circle) and Cecilia and I took advantage of all the lovely grass to do gymnastics and acro, which everyone found entertainingly impressing.

After that, we piled into the car and took a slightly terrifying drive down a gravel highway to Zane's mother's and step-father's house (he's the one building everything around the club) for a sauna. We weren't entirely sure what to expect from this, except we were worried about the 'you don't need your bathing suit' directive. The house was on a plot of land taken from a soviet-era co-operative, where you were given land to farm for personal use. It was a pretty interesting hodge podge of tiny old houses and holiday homes tucked away in gardens and mini-farms.

Their house is amazing and built entirely by Vikas, in just a couple of years. It is gorgeous! He also built a traditional sauna room, where they heat up rocks and then pour water over them to make one ridiculously hot room. Well it was only 50C, which they told us was nothing, but I barely lasted two sets of 3-5 minutes each before bailing permanently. I only did slightly better than the kids, who sit in tubs of cool water at the floor of the sauna getting used to it. We all wore little tea-cosy like hats on our heads in order to stop our hair from getting too hot, and scrubbed a ridiculous amount of black crap out of our skin. And not just us backpackers from a cowfarm, either--they all do it once a week and get this much out. Crazy. Once I got out, they gave me a traditional Latvian drink--Birch Juice. It's slightly fermented and more than slightly vile, I have to say. It reminded me a little bit of natto (fermented soy beans in Japan) but I suppose tasted approximately like you might expect from fermented forest.

I didn't stay in for the full meal deal, but Cecilia did, so she is going to guest blog her experience:

"We joined the mum, sister, grandmother and children in the sauna for a couple of rounds of hot sauna, cold shower. This included a loofa mit round in which the granny took it upon herself to exfoliate our backs. I really appreciated it, but Dani's poor sunburned shoulders certainly did not. After the loofa mit round, Dani bailed and I thought we were all pretty much done so I got dressed too (did Dani mention we were all expected to be totally naked?). Then out came the ladies from their most recent round in the sauna and told me I couldn't possibly bow out now or I was going to miss the best part. So I stripped down again and went and sat in the sauna, not knowing what to expect.

The next thing I know this strapping young man (husband of the sister) comes in wearing only his towel - which I was told was a courtesy so that I wouldn't be shocked. I sat on the bench and pretended I wasn't completely naked and alone with a strange man in a sauna, and he prepared some buckets of water and some birch branches. He laid a bunch of wet, leafy birch branches on the bench at one end and I was instructed to lie front down on the bench with my face on the branches. He then took two more bunches of the leafy birch branches soaked in water and shook them vigorously over me. This had the effect of spraying me with water (nice) and bringing all the hot air from the very top of the sauna wooshing down on me (nice... ish). It was VERY hot!! He did this several times. Every time I thought it was too hot to stand, he would stop, re wet his branches and start over again. The water it splattered was a relief but it got hotter and hotter! At some points in the middle he ran the wet branches up and down my body and pressed them into my back. I think it's supposed to be like a massage. Finally when I really didn't know what to do if this grunting, sweating man didn't stop waiving branches and incredibly hot air over me, because really I was seriously cooked and about to die, he picked up a large tub of cold water (I was unaware of this because I had my eyes shut and was focusing on steady breathing) and doused me head to foot! I yelled in shock, but it was such a relief. Then we were done and he opened the door and I went staggering out wearing nothing but a multitude of birch leaves and all the assembled people chuckled at me and told me to take a cold shower.

Once I cooled off it was back in for the next step. The host mum and I sat in the sauna with her sister and it was salt time. We took pinches of salt from a bowl and scrubbed ourselves with it.
Once we were thoroughly salted we sat back and let our bodies sweat like crazy and 'melt the salt off'. When we couldn't stand it any more we staggered out and I took the coldest shower of my life. It felt so good and now my skin is, as promised, very soft. All in all an experience I won't forget that's for sure!

Oh, and by the way, I disagree with Dani's assessment of the birch bark juice. Forest would taste good. This stuff tastes like your mouth after you puke. Revolting! But the kids were downing it."

Haha thanks Cecilia!

After that we caught a ride back to the club with the sister's family, and chatted with their 8 year old about gymnastics. She is in rhythmic 18 hours a week and we are going to play gym sometime soon, and then back in our little cottage we cooked our first real meal since breakfast 12 hours ago, and are now falling into bed for a quick rest before we go to an open air museum having a fair of some sort tomorrow.


Thursday, June 02, 2011

Well today was our first official day as workawayers at the squash club, and it couldn't have been too much different from at Aufbrekka! I got up at 8 and did a couple of hours of BAB work before waking up Cecilia for a quick breakfast. We knew we didn't have to be back until at least noon, so we took the two bikes to the little town near us to check out the grocery story and buy a brita water filter (the water smells and tastes like rotten eggs here). We spent about half an hour looking at the (generally really cheap) food, bought 65 cent ice cream sandwhiches, and then headed back. We made a small snack and then took our books out to the sun for an hour or so, until Zane showed up.

She fed us lunch, too, which was a cold soup that I can't say I really enjoyed--beets, radishes, pickled stuff, and lots of dill in a milky base. Other than the milk, I'm not really a fan of any of those things.

We were then asked to actually--you know--do some work, and cut the lawn for them. It's pretty big, all told, at least an acre, but they have a riding mower, which Cecilia manned, and then a push mower, which I used to do the edges and playground area. It was a relatively benign way to pass the afternoon, with the exception of the lovely burn I got myself. Time to get out the spray sunscreen I picked up yesterday!

After that we got the very fun job of building a prototype for a rope climbing structure we're going to build properly tomorrow. We basically got to spend a couple of hours making enormous dream catchers in the playground, and in the end came up with a pretty good method of putting it all together, which I think we may do properly tomorrow.

And that Crazy. We decided to play squash, which was great fun. I dragged C into it for a while and then when she went to shower I had a good game with the wall. She managed to get it stuck on the railing between the two courts, which apparently is fairly common, but was still funny and we spent quite some amount of time trying to throw a water bottle at it to get it down, until we were told that they could get it down somehow. It's been too long since I played a racquet sport!! I'm hoping to play with the host-dad soon, he can teach me a lot, I'm sure!

After that, it was time for dinner, which was luckily much better than lunch! Hot dogs (they sure are popular over here!), potato pancakes, and a tomato salad, yum! Everyone else left in a bit of a rush today because one of the kids got hurt by bouncing on a trampoline and hitting her teeth onto the scalp of another kid (or something?) so we had the place to ourselves starting around 9. We made fried egg sandwiches (dinner was good, but small) and since we've been told there is AC upstairs (thank god!) we're going to head up there and watch some Friends soon. It should be better than last night, which was absolutely sweltering. We kept our travel towels wet with cold water and wrapped around as much of us as we could, but it didn't really help all that much. Luckily we were tired and slept anyway, but we're excited for AC tonight, the slight decrease in mossies (must be all the ones I killed!) is appreciated too!


Wednesday, June 01, 2011

We woke up from a very deep, on a ship with no lights or sound-induced sleep around 8:30 this morning and all met up for breakfast, having decided to splurge/spend the last of our Swedish Krona on the breakfast buffet, so we ate that while watching the last hour of our trip into the harbour go by.

By this point and having spent quite some time reading about the TB and tick-borne encephalitis and other fun things Latvia had to offer, combined with not knowing much at all about Riga has to offer or what the story with the Workaway place is, I was getting a little nervous about what to expect.

We got off the ferry and saw a very cute looking town in front of us, but we weren't entirely sure who we were meeting, except that it was a guy named Zane, so we stood around in the terminal looking a bit lost, and were just on our way out to look at the car park when we saw a very nicely dressed woman with a sign saying 'Daniel and Cecil.' Close enough.

Turns out that she 'wouldn't dream of having us work on your first day,' so she dropped us off in the centre of Riga for about 7 hours of exploring. We spent a couple of hours just walking around the gorgeous Old Town, which was lovely! It was a gorgeous, hot day today, about 30C, which was kind of ridiculous and a bit too hot, but it was nice to get thrown into summer finally.

We ended up finding a nice park by a huge statue (Freedom Statue) and walked around there for a little bit before popping back out by the statue to discover the Military honor guard, representatives of the army, navy, and air force (we're kind of guessing with that, but there were definitely three branches of people with guns represented. It was pretty obvious that someone important was about to rock up, so we hung around for a minute and pretty quickly a relatively small motorcade arrived and let out two men, who walked up and put two wreathes on the statue and then went and shook hands with some other official looking people before walking away. We headed away slightly confused but found out later that it was the President of Latvia and the Prince of Monaco. Not a bad welcome to the country, really.

We ate lunch at TGIFridays because we knew it would satisfy our salad cravings and we could sit outside, and then did some more walking before heading (via the Train Museum, as we got a bit lost) to the Museum of Occupations. Man Latvia has had a tough go of it! It was a very interesting but gruelling and dense museum--I definitely left feeling like I'd been reading a history textbook for two and a half hours, but we learned about the Soviet Occupation and the Nazi Occupation and the second Soviet Occupation, and that it in its entire history, Latvia has only had something like 40 years of independence, total. A good chunk of that has been since 1991 when they got themselves back from Russia.

We eventually met back up with Zane and her one year old Mix and headed out to the squash club, which is about 20 minutes from the city. It's a lovely property with a huge, very cool playground, two squash courts, a little cottage-like apartment, small garden and swimming pool, and friendly people and dogs. Zane's sister lives next door (they are her dogs) and you can really see that when they get it finished, it's going to be a great place.

We were sort of expecting to be put straight to work, but instead we were invited to play a game of croquet, which we did--badly--Cecilia managed to whack her ball into the pond and had to go wading to get it, and then hit one of the poor dogs (10 points?) but we made a comeback at the end and only lost 4-2 to the team of Zane and her sister.

We had a lovely BBQ for dinner and watched the squash club tournament that was going on--a fairly informal affair--it seems they get together to play for fun once a week and tried out the playground a bit while avoiding the vicious mossies around here. It seems they, more than ticks, are the big concern right in the area where we are. There was a lovely sunset and the whole thing was rather relaxing and very un-cow farm!

We aren't entirely sure how it is going to play out, but we have the morning off tomorrow, anyway, which is good because we will need all of that time to scratch our stupid mossie bites! We're sitting in our little living room with wet towels on our stomachs trying to cool off and avoid adding to our bites. It seems tomorrow is meant to be a bit cooler than today, which would be nice! We're also going to use our time off to cycle to the small town 2km away from us and pick up some citronella candles or something to try and ward off the little suckers.

We're going to climb up into our super cute playroom/sleeping loft and head to bed pretty soon. I'll be working in the AM, so sadly not much of a sleep in, but it will be lovely not to be up with the cows, at any rate!


So I just realized that very frustratingly between my computer and my blog, it looks like I may have lost all of the blog entries I wrote on the last ferry, a total of 4 days L. If I can’t find them, I’ll try and find time to summarise them at some point—the Faeroes, especially, were lovely!

Anyway, this morning I got up at 6:30 and did a couple of hours of work as the morning sun streamed in the windows and I looked over a river separating Gamla Stan from a little neighboring island that does brisk business in museums. I could get used to this! I did love Stockholm, though we only had 24 hours there, it was a city I could see spending some time there, though perhaps not without a full time job as a banker, or something! Though we did well, considering, Scandinavia isn’t exactly inexpensive.

Everyone else woke up just after 8, and we enjoyed the free hostel breakfast (cereal and toast), and tried to convince one of the guys we had been sharing the dorm with to enjoy his free cornflakes more. His friend, the one who started the whole ‘free cereal is exciting’ thing is from Northern BC but was on exchange to Stockholm and heading home soon.

Nothing was open when we left the hostel at around 9:30, so we wandered around the museum island a little bit and then headed to our first destination—the Palace. It was pretty great! It’s huge, with some 608 rooms, and 5 different museums you can visit. We got a combination ticket for about $12 (yay for being students) and decided to just whiz through as much as possible, hoping to see the maximum amount possible. We started with the Tre Kronor (Three Crown) Museum, which looks at the old Palace (from the 1300s and then 1600s), which was mostly destroyed by fire before being replaced by the current building. It’s underground, in part of the remaining original building, and very cool to be standing in the cellar from way back when. We zipped through that part and then headed to the apartments, which are incredibly opulent. There are three blocks of apartments, but we weren’t allowed in one because the King was using it. Fair enough, really. It was quite cool as the two other apartment blocks we did get to go in are also used from time to time, which is very cool—usually you can’t go in castles they are still castling in.

There was an interesting photography exhibit on the Scouts and their role in helping draw different cultures together around the world, in honor of a big Jamboree happening in Stockholm in July (and also because the King is the honorary head of the whole Scouting organization), which made Cecilia (a former Scout herself) pretty excited.

We then took a brief tour past the Royal Carriages, which were very cool, especially the royal sledges, used when the streets were icy. They were all amazingly ornate, and the model horses were very well done up! We headed upstairs and saw some armour and also clothing, including some amazingly cute kids clothing. Hoka and Cecilia learned how to tie a tie, and we all failed miserably at learning how to tie a bow tie. There was also a special vintage clothing exhibition, which was pretty cool, though not so Royal, per se.

We saw the Royal Chapel, which was absolutely stunning (and where you can attend services, apparently), and then the crown jewels, which were fabulously glitzy, of course. At that point, we noticed people lining up all over the place and found out that the twice-weekly changing of the guards was about to start. Cecilia managed to find a garbage can to stand on, and I found a couple of columns to balance (rather precariously) between to watch. It was a pretty elaborate ceremony involving a brass band on horseback, complete with a drum horse (very cool!) and about 40 other mounted guards and then several foot soldiers. It was definitely worth hanging around to watch.

After that and in order to keep to our very strict time schedule, we had about 12 minutes for lunch, so we just went to a hot dog stand at a nearby park. I got a ‘French hotdog’ that is basically a hotdog in a hollow tube of baguette bread, so your hotdog is in a bun with no opening along the side, if that makes sense. A weiner condom, if you will.

We ate while walking along the river, and went to the Nationalmuseum, which is the major art and design museum in town. I was most interested in two of the exhibitions, first the 19002000 exhibition, which looked at the past century of Scandinavian design, which I love. There were some pieces I recognized and lots I’d never seen before, and then a great collection of glass art, which was very cool. I love glass!

There was also an exhibition examining the role of Lust and Love (and Sex) in art. It was very interesting and had some pretty, um, interesting art. No shunga, though, which would have added a certain something to the whole thing. There was a lot of 18th and 19th century art, but some modern stuff too, including some work by Susan Sontag. I really enjoyed the exhibition, which must have been really interesting to curate, and would have liked to have bought the catalogue, except it was in Swedish (and far too big to lug home).

Sadly, that brought our time in Stockholm to a close, so we got our bags from the hostel, got on a bus, and headed to the terminal to get on our cruise ferry. It’s big and exciting!! There are 700+ cabins that hold 2,500 passengers, but I don’t think it’s very full at all. We went to our cabins (we seem to have accidentally booked three single cabins and are spread out around the ship) We had a quick snack on deck and then explored the ship. There are several restaurants, a two-deck theatre, shop, etc. It’s not far off from a small cruise ship, really.

We had dinner in the cafeteria and then came to watch the shows, which are some kind of funny quasi Broadway dance routines interspersed with lounge music. There are some very cute couples dancing off and on, and one Granny totally rocking the dance floor, it’s pretty awesome.

We’re sitting in the balcony watching the shows and making use of the not-so-good internet on board (but it’s free, which is pretty sweet). We’re busy doing some research about Latvia, which we know very little about, and preparing to start our next Workaway assignment tomorrow.