The Mystics of Riga
John M. Edwards takes a fair-weather friend on a tricky tour of openness
By John M. Edwards
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.
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, Salon.com, 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.