i n t r o
p h o t o g r a p h y
w r i t i n g
v e n u e s
b l o g
a r t i s t s
o u t r o
a f f i l i a t e s

Riga

by Colin Mulligan | 2003

There is a wonderful café in the space beneath my hostel here, and yesterday, a crew of my fellow guests and I spent several hours outside, drinking, eating and talking about life. During the course of our conversation, we spoke at length about the western world's preoccupation with wealth and success, and it was agreed that this ethos survives partly because life back home is just too secure and familiar. "Travel," one of my companions opined, "is an important element of self-growth because it forces you out of your comfort zone." The other guys didn't seem too taken with his thought, and he certainly didn't think he was being profound, but it struck me as a tremendous insight. There are few things more liberating than the act of casting yourself out into the world and letting go of all that makes you feel safe and comfortable. To me, when your body is both the object and instrument of your survival, you experience life as it was meant to be lived—simple, free and one errant step away from disaster.

After two uneventful weeks spent traveling through Sweden and Estonia, I was starting to question the wisdom of my chosen path through Europe. I set out on this trip to escape from my comfort zone, but the clean, safe and well-maintained cities of northern Europe left me feeling more domesticated than ever. All of that changed when I arrived in Riga, which is a hypnotic, beautiful city, but not in any conventional sense. The twentieth century was not kind to the Baltics, and scars from Latvia's recent brutalization are visible beneath the easygoing way of life here. Communism's collapse and the promise of EU membership have revitalized the country, and the general atmosphere seems to be one of hope for a brighter future, but this new optimism has yet to translate into widespread opportunity. As evidenced by Riga's startling levels of alcoholism, enduring poverty and strong undertones of post-Soviet gangsterism, life here continues to be tinged with depression and danger.

The other day a man died in the street, just outside of the bus station. I wasn't there to see it, but a number of witnesses told me how the man's half-shrouded body lay in the street for almost an hour before being deposited into a makeshift hearse and carted away to the morgue. In spite of all the pedestrian activity in the area—markets, cafés and bus patrons—it seems like such a lonely place to die. I can't say why a stranger's passing had such an impact on me, but in some ways, the event represents Riga in all its gritty splendor: amidst all the hustle, anticipation and regrowth, it becomes easy to forget those who suffer in silence. As I sip my sixty-five cent beers, party all night and stuff myself with meat and potato pancakes, I can't help feeling like the scores of pedestrians who walked past this man's body, paying his silent vigil only the slightest of attention as they went about their business. And so it goes, as the days here pass by with an intoxicating combination of excitement, healing, hope and tragedy.

Send all comments & inquiries to notes@borderhopping.net.