JOURNEY TO LATVIA -- Part 8 in a 20-part series
(To read the full series, visit Zinta Aistars: On A Writer's Journey in October and November 2010 archives)
by Zinta Aistars, photography by Andris Silis and Zinta Aistars
"Taisni laika!" Right on time, Anita called out as the red Passat wagon pulled up on Katolu Iela, directly in
front of the house.
I was dressed, had finished breakfast, and had my duffel bag packed and ready to go for a couple nights in Jurkalne, at
my cousin’s summer house on the Baltic Sea. Anita had packed a second bag of food for me—an impossible amount
to consume in so short a time. Two loaves of dark bread, butter, cheese, slices of baked ham, a pickle jar filled with homemade
soup, at least a dozen pears from the tree in her garden, and a large covered dish of mouth-watering and tender strips of
pork in a cream sauce with golden potatoes. I could feed a small army at Jurkalne, even as I looked forward to a couple days
of silence and solitude.
Andris and I dropped by Sumata, the gas station just outside of Ventspils, to pick up the keys to the Jurkalne house from
Anita’s daughter, Solvita, who worked there. Solvita leaned over the gas pump, grinning at us as Andris filled the tank
for the day’s drive, dangling the keys like tasty grapes. I felt a quick twinge of guilt at leaving my loved ones behind
for the coming days, but it passed as quickly as it had come. The older I grew, the more I needed time away. Time for silence.
Time to be alone. Time for the chatter to die down and tune my ear and my heart to the voices of the world around me—the
trees, the sky, the grass, the sea, the rocks, the earth. Bypass this too long, and I became edgy and a little crazed. At
my very core, I am something of a hermit …
My connection to nature is essential to me, and this, too, came from my ethnic background. Of all the European nations
over the ages, the Latvians had been among the very last to accept Christianity. Some still called us pagans. Our folk songs
were laden with songs sung to the spirits of the earth, believing everything to be alive, even the rocks, in their own way.
Nature was a living being, and we were dependent on her. What the rest of the civilized world seemed only now to be fully
realizing, as our environment suffered a heavy toll from our blatant disregard, was that nature provided us with sustenance
not only as physical beings, but also on a spiritual and emotional level. Lost in the wilderness of technology and man-made
cities, too many had lost their way, wondering at that inner sense of being lost, of growing depressed, of feeling somehow
disassociated from the earth.
While the Soviet years had taken an ecological toll on the Baltic States as well, using and abusing and rarely replacing,
Latvia was beginning to see green again. Logging was still a major industry, but the country was still covered with far more
forest than city. Outside of Riga, it was almost all countryside, much of it untouched, or touched with the lightest hand.
City streets, too, were impeccably clean. No litter anywhere, as men and women moved about from cobblestone street to alley
with their long-handled dustpans and brooms. What was known as LEEDS-certified in the States was the norm here: facilities
that used as little water as possible to get the job done, buildings that were naturally cool or warm, as needed, for their
thick and sturdy walls, building supplies that were made from natural materials, and foods that were organic because
no one had even thought to add anything alien to their table in the first place.
Driving north, Andris at the wheel, I took in the thick forest to either side of me. Asphalt road soon turned to gravel
and dirt. We rarely saw anyone else on the road. It seemed the day and the countryside belonged entirely to us.
Kolkas Rags, or Kolkas Point, was at the northernmost tip of Kurzeme, the western province of Latvia. Kurzeme’s entire
western border was Baltic Sea shoreline, with Kolkas Rags at the top, Ventspils some 75 kilometers south, the village of Jurkalne
another 45 km south, then the larger city of Liepaja as one neared the southern border of Lithuania. Kolkas Rags was the point
at which the Baltic Sea met the Gulf of Riga, and when the day was clear, one could see the two strong currents crashing up
against each other in a straight line of battling waves.
As we drove north, the forest thickened and filled increasingly with tall, straight pines. The clear blue sky wisped with
mist, clouds gathered, and after an hour of driving, we entered a deep fog. Near the Point, we parked the Passat and got out
"Kaut kas mistisks,” I whispered. Something mystical … as we felt the moist mist wrap itself around
us, and we followed a sandy path deeper into the pine forest, toward the soft shushing of waves. The air was cool and fresh
and damp enough to gather in tiny pearls in our hair and on our clothes.
I felt Andris’ presence always near, occasionally moving to one or the other side, sometimes circling me, sometimes
a few steps behind, other times ahead. We talked little, and didn’t need to. This was the comfort and ease I remembered.
At times, we could talk hour upon hour, through the night and into dawn, an unstoppable river of words and ideas and thoughts
to share. At other times, we walked together in deep silence, not needing words to communicate.
I didn’t need to look around to find him. I could feel him near. We both had cameras in hand, and snapped photo after
photo of this mystical world, of forest and seashore sunk into thick fog, at moments revealing itself and then disappearing
again. At moments, I looked up to see Andris snapping a photo of me, but his attention did not disturb me. He was as natural
a part of this world as the trees and the sand and the rocks and the waves. I saw him disappear into the mist ahead of me,
then a moment later appear again somewhere behind me.
Was it the mist? The cool waters? The lapping of the waves? The sand crunching beneath my every step? I felt connected
and simultaneously apart, fully in myself while fully connected to another. It one instant it occurred to me—I hadn’t
known this kind of inner peace for a very, very long time.
Rocks and the detritus of long ago seashore buildings, perhaps an earlier lighthouse, littered the Point. I squatted down
to touch the rocks, sea-battered bricks, chunks of mortar, and shells. Cool, damp, rough and then silky smooth.
Not so very long ago, I knew, this area had been all under Soviet military guard. The entire Kurzeme seashore was an open
escape route for refugees, including my father’s family, during World War II, and throughout the Soviet occupation of
51 years. These were backwards boundaries, in which a government patrolled its perimeters to keep its population locked in,
rather than to keep others from entering from outside. I had many times heard Andris’ story of his grandmother taking
him to see the Baltic Sea at age 5, only to be able to look at it from a distance, through barbed wire, strung between Soviet
military guard towers. The entire country had been like a prison.
I ran my hand over the broken bricks and mortar, cement blocks and occasional iron bolt. The sea was wearing them away,
bit by bit.
The fog was too thick for us to see the clash of the two currents, sea against gulf. But as we turned east again, just
beyond the point, in the direction of Riga, the entire beach was littered with fallen trees. We both stood, still, looking.
These fallen giants, pine trees, lay in the sand and some into the water, black figures, dark limbs, branches curled and reaching
like hands, grasping for the beyond.
Our hair was dripping with water from the damp sea air. We climbed and moved between the fallen trees, mesmerized. There
was a sense of moving into a world of spirits, their damp selves brushing against us, their silky gray skirts slapping against
our shins, their cool cheeks glancing across our own, their steps washed away by the waves the moment we turned our backs.
Time evaporated; neither of us had any sense of it, or cared. It did not exist here. We moved through the world of spirits,
one of their own, before emerging again into the world of the living.
Back into the silvery woods … and the sense was a bit like Hansel and Gretel, only wanting to be lost, no breadcrumbs
to leave behind. Tufts of fog caught in the sweeping branches of the tall pines, swirled into the distance and erased it.
There was no horizon.
We followed the trail south again, at least one might guess so, and did it matter? Groundcover was almost entirely moss
in a thousand shades of green, and lichen in silver tones. Mushrooms sprang up everywhere, all kinds, and I didn’t dare
pick, only a master could … but Andris, like any good Latvian, knew his ‘shrooms and knew my love for them, and
picked a prize.
“Baravika!” he called out to me, and handed me this gift of the forest. A boletus mushroom, big as
his hand, thick and meaty for my later lunch, sautéed in butter with a slice of dark rye. Heaven.
Onward. Still more. The path would wind and fork and weave back in again. The path would break toward shore, and we would
emerge from the woods to walk on sand, then lose ourselves in woods once more. It was endless, and I wanted it to be. The
day unfolded slowly in its mists and was a soft and cool blessing, a gift, a breath of cool sea air that washed away a lifetime
of hurt places and made all new again, wrapped in a balm of ages.
(To be continued ...)
To read the full series of my Journey to Latvia,
visit Zinta Aistars: On a Writer's Journey.