A bus trip to Latvia, because the train from Vilnius to Riga runs through Belarus, and they are a bit paranoid about foreigners. There was the most annoying American tourist on the bus seat behind me, he started making comments about "blacks not trying to integrate into white society" etc etc, so I started to argue with him and pummelled him on racism, lack of welfare, reduced rights for homosexuals. I don't think he really expected it and keep on saying things like "well... I can see that you have a point, but I don't think it would actually work", which I loved because I could use Scandinavian examples to demonstrate that it would. I disliked him (he was a really racist Texan military supplier in Iraq, a self proclaimed "fundamentalist conservative Christian) so I kept calm and used a debating style to crush him. Some of the people around started to laugh at him.
Yes, it is mean, but anytime someone tries to tell me that "blacks are criminal by nature", that "homosexual marriage degrades the holy tradition", "you can't trust Muslims unless they are afraid of you" or uses "y'all", then not disagreeing is tacitly agreeing. I don't see why only ignorant bigots should be outspoken. On gay marriage he actually changed his position, first he agreed that they should have the full rights of a married couple, as long as they didn't call it marriage (a big jump for a Republican Texan). I then asked why shouldn't they call it marriage, and he said that it destroyed the holiness of marriage. He was surprised to find out that Christians didn't actually invent marriage, so it should at least be considered to be a multi-religion event, and grudgingly accepted my argument that once the State was allowed to marry atheists without any religious personage involved, marriage stopped being a purely "holy" event. Luke stopped feeling sorry for him later on in the trip, when he stopped talking to me and started to badger the poor girl next to him into letting him sleep at her house that night. It was disgusting to listen.
In Riga now. Hop off the bus, and try to organise transport to St Petersburg. Hmm... all the buses booked until the 24th of August? Oh dear. But it was okay - the trains had spare first class seats for tonight, so a day and a half to look around, then off to Petie. Accommodation was harder - I have heard that it is tough in Riga, but I was still surprised that every single place in the Lonely Planet was booked out. We went to the information office, and she said (with a shocked look on her face) "you want accommodation in Riga". Luke and I fell in love with her as she rang up every place around, finding us a hotel room in a town close to Riga, and then (even better) two beds in Riga itself, even if it was above a stripclub.
That settled, we wandered around the streets of Riga, the usual routine in a new city. Riga is full of churches, giving it a beautiful skyline of spires, and the most gorgeous Art Nouveau buildings with elaborate design. One of the cute little surprises was the number of cats - we saw three kitten chase each other in and out of grates leading into the basement. So cute. At nightfall, Riga really came alive, but I found it rather unattractive. There were strip clubs everywhere (and we were constantly hassled to visit), and while sitting drinking in a bar we watched a group of girls pretend to have a hen's night, visiting each pub and asking tourists if they would give the bride 5 Lats ($10) for a kiss, to "help pay for the wedding". Would have been endearing if it wasn't a scam. Walking back to the hostel, the sky was the most magnificent swirl of black and the deepest blue you have ever seen.
Last night this crazy guy walked into the dorm and slept on someone else's bed. They weren't happy about it. He snored really badly.
Today we kept on investigating the city. We saw the 14th century Powder Tower, which still has Russian cannonballs embedded in it. We visited the House of Blackheads (the guild of unmarried merchants), originally built in 1344 but ripped down by the Soviets and rebuilt in 2000. We saw the Dome Cathedral, with the forth largest organ in the world, and the small and rather unimpressive Riga castle. St Peter's Cathedral was nice, built in 1209 it has a excellent viewing tower that we went up to look down on the city (it is not as nice from the sky). The tower kept on burning down when it was built, in 1667 they rebuilt it, and threw a sheet of glass from the top. The number of pieces it landed in was the number of years it would last. It landed on a bale of straw and didn't break (this seems rather unlikely to me...), and the next year burnt down again. When it was rebuilt in 1973 they threw another sheet of glass down, moved the straw, and it broke into thousands of pieces.
We visited the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, which Luke really enjoyed (I thought it was good too). Quite a similar history to Lithuania, with Soviet-Nazi-Soviet occupation (until 1991). We saw the Freedom Monument which was illegal to visit during the occupation. While waiting for Luke I had lunch in a Turkish restaurant, served by bellydancers.
Oh, and Latvia has bankomats too.
Not long now until... Russia!