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Riga, Latvia, on the Daugava River

When I first read Mystics of Riga, it brought out all kinds of emotions in me. Riga is, after all, the city of my mother’s birth, the city where I last stood on Latvian soil (and hope to stand again soon). Latvia is my other home (I have dual citizenship), where my Baltic roots go deep, nourished by many, many generations of my family.

Of course, I want my home to always shine. In this travel essay by John M. Edwards, it doesn’t quite shine. It’s a darker kind of glow, as if tarnished silver. Yet I couldn’t argue with John’s observations. I, too, on some of my visits home, have been blatantly followed by Russian spies. For whatever bizarre reason. I, too, have noted the struggling new quasi-democracy, slipping through Latvian fingers, and the Russian presence stronger in this tiny Baltic country since the years of Soviet occupation than in the other two Baltic States—for a variety of reasons. It grieves me, this threat to one of the world’s oldest cultures and still spoken languages.

It grieved me no less on my last visit to Riga to see the new occupation, the more subtle one. Not rolling in with Soviet tanks and military, but with cheap and fast food and cereal boxes covered with ads that replaced that good, dark bread and sweet creamery butter I would traverse an ocean to eat. This was, well, westernization. In this ancient city that had survived centuries of wars and one brutal occupation after another,  to see fast food burger joints and pizza parlors, with no quality standards whatsoever, and residents flocking in to taste what they somehow presumed was a taste of that legendary land of milk and honey … how sad. Oh, how sad. Threats to the east, threats to the west, both with a very different influence and style, but arguably not so different motives: to make a fast and easy buck or ruble from a country in flux, struggling to be reborn after some 60 years of Soviet occupation. I haven’t been able to go back for many years, not wanting to see the tarnishing of the world I so love. Reading John’s travel essay, I have to think—it may be time to change my mind and renew that passport. Perhaps add one more Latvian, standing on the cobblestone streets of Old Town Riga, and proudly speaking Latvian.

                                                              ~Zinta Aistars, TSP Editor-in-Chief



The Mystics of Riga

John M. Edwards takes a fair-weather friend on a tricky tour of openness in Latvia


By John M. Edwards


There is no such thing as weather for sound beautiful places, just air, breathe!

       We were in Riga, where time stands still, but which pales in comparison to Tallinn or Vilnius. Still, as a major architectural legacy city in the Baltics, this Hanseatic League city was no slouch in the world-heritage cultural-preservation department. The city “persists” even if a visit there leaves the alienated individual initially unmoved.

       Once again there was the green-suited and sunglassed Russian, whose veins near his temples throbbed menacingly with anger every time we passed. When the spy found out we were not British, but American, he pointedly had pretended to lose all interest in us.

       There, he grimaced at us again as he elbowed his way into the Latvian version of McDonald’s or Burger King, with a lame name resembling “Burger Bufet.” The iffyish burgers left nothing to the imagination and were charred down to the size of Oreo cookies, utterly lost in the creepy ketchepy buns. The shakes also sucked, watery milk.

       Here in Riga, Old followed New around like a KGB agent named Yuri in a frockcoat consumed with sour grapes. But openness here, ushered in by Gorbachev’s “glasnost” in this former Soviet republic, now meant a kind of free-for-all of thought and action. Since Americans didn’t need a visa anymore to visit, I felt very welcome indeed. As did apparently every cult on the planet.

       I felt sorry for the dour pensioners smelling of black bread and Soviet disinfectant who were lined up watching Hare Krishna people playing bongos, wondering what in the hay they were about. “Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare.” I didn’t have a clue what they were about either.

       Then in a matter of a few seconds my life changed forever. There in front of me a man with the magnetism of Christ or Manson accosted me with his weird ethereal vision, asking if I would like a free place to sleep.  

       “We have a place, but thanks.”

       “But it is free!”

       Suddenly I pretended I was interested for a few seconds. “Where is the hostel located and how do you get there?”

       I listened and blanched, by how long and involved inner-city traveling can be. However, this Svengali refused to give up.

       “You know I can teach you how to have perfect eyesight. You will throw away your glasses and feel as if you are really free again. My eye exercises will restore you."

       I supposed it sounded plausible.

       Then I got. Sven was staring at my “friend” while he was talking to me. He probably wanted to lure us way out in the sticks so he could put the moves on her. I didn’t want to end up a crime statistic in a foreign-language newspaper.

       So much for false prophets.

       Now how much better was this: we were in a café—and when I went downstairs there were some hotbod dames in line, waiting either to go to the bathroom or waiting there just for me. I lingered a little too long, and my friend glowered at me, rapidly sipping the bootleg beer. One shot of vodka and I was out of this place.

       Orbiting like an astronaut, I caught sight of a bearded artist chain-smoking Russian Cosmo cigarettes, overtly making a sketch of yours truly. I don’t know, he looked like the real thing. I dubbed him “The Mystic of Riga.” Congratulating him on his artistry, I caught sight of a troubling tattoo: a swastika. I wondered if he might be a Brahmin from India, considering Krishna was vacationing here also.

       He explained to me so my friend couldn’t hear.


       Here we had a Baltic German who had worked in Siberia for many years. He looked like he was unused to being “frei.”

       Anyway, I paid up and left the café, sure that I was supposed to be seen parading around with the Balt, acting like we were already fast and furious friends. I was American, and not complicit in the shame of the occupying forces. Unlike Estonia, which is mostly Estonian, and Lithuania, which is mostly Lithuanian, Latvia has an awful lot of Russians, one of whom looked like a friend of mine from Tulane University in New Orleans, without even the merest hint of recognition in his drunken iconic eyes.

       I stopped at a public restroom and brought my new friend inside, giving him one US dollar for the impressive caricature. He smiled and hugged me briefly.

       Out on the street again, my friend looked a little weirded out as we passed by obvious local Mafiosi, playing their part with Technicolor precision. The artist, the mystic, the prisoner handed the dollar to a man resembling a Russian Goodfella, and ended up with a fistful of rubles. Showing off, the Mafioso slapped down even more on top to make a point.

       Riga was now open and ready to do business.



John M. Edwards has traveled worldwidely (five continents plus), with stunts ranging from surviving a ferry sinking off Siam to being stuck in a military coup in Fiji. His work has appeared in CNN Traveller, Missouri Review,, Grand Tour, Islands, Escape, Endless Vacation, Condé Nast  Traveler, International Living, Emerging Markets,  Literal Latté, Coffee Journal, Lilliput Review, Poetry Motel, Artdirect, Verge, Slab, Stellar, Trips, Travelmag, Big World, Mango, Xtreme Travel Stories, Vagabondish, Glimpse, BootsnAll, Hack Writers, Road Junky, Richmond Review, Adventure Journey, DVD Express, Borderlines, ForeWord, Go Nomad, North Dakota Quarterly, Michigan Quarterly Review and North American Review. He recently won a NATJA (North American Travel Journalists Association) Award, a TANEC (Transitions Abroad Narrative Essay Contest) Award, a Road Junky Hell Trips Award, a Literal Latté Travel Writing Award, a Bradt Independent on Sunday Award, and a Solas Award (sponsored by Travelers’ Tales). He lives in New York City’s “Hell’s Kitchen,” where you can eat ethnic every night with soul survivors from Danté's Inferno. His future bestsellers, Move and Fluid Borders, remain unpublished. His new work-in-progress, Dubya Dubya Deux, is about a time traveler. He is editor-in-chief of the upcoming annual Rotten Vacations.


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