Archive for August 3rd, 2009

Relief

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

The morning of the 23rd, I (Matt) drove us across the Latvian border and into Riga. I felt relief that we had been able to contact the Millers regarding our financial plight and the ol’ Volkswagen had withstood the strenuous drive north without a mechanical breakdown. Little did I know, the capital of Latvia would ultimately add to my relief.

A little before noon, I found a parking space along a busy street near the train station and a block from our previous parking spot during our visit several months before. This time I had the same intention, finding a free Wi-Fi connection. We hung there for several hours, sharing the computer. When I fell asleep, Dan left to inquire at the station for two train tickets to Moscow for the next day. He returned with a couple price figures and the two times trains would leave each day. We agreed to leave the next night at 6 pm on the lowest class train for only 22 Lats or about $44 each. So far so good. Instead of following through and purchasing the tickets, we were distracted by the wonderful World Wide Web. I returned to the station with the group debit card to make the purchase but, after visiting two information desks and three ticket counters, I discovered the tickets had seemingly jumped in price to about 56 Lt each. Alarmed, I returned to the car, and we began discussing alternatives like air and bus fare. We had to make it to Moscow by the 27th to catch our expensive Trans Siberian Railway train. We weren’t, however, willing to pay roughly $230 to train there. Stress.

After each of us had made several more intensely stressful trips to and from the station, we understood that Dan, when he originally found the ideal tickets, hadn’t been informed of the seats’ availability, only of their existence. The one friendly clerk told Dan that only six similar tickets were next available for the 26th. That inspired more stress as we tried to determine whether a train departing that evening would allow us to make the TSR’s departure the next day. Dan searched his e-mail account but couldn’t locate the crucial time of departure from Moscow. Sweating, I returned to the ticket counter to find the clerk had taken a fifteen minute break. I was ready at the counter when she returned to confirm that the tickets were refundable and sell them. Smiling, she informed me I had purchased two of only four remaining tickets. Back at the car, I sat there, overwhelmed and holding a pair of tickets to Moscow at noon on the 27th. Then Dan found the TSR itinerary in a previously undiscovered e-mail, the moment of reckoning… We would make the TSR’s departure. Utterly relieved, we high-fived from our seats in the car. We had two of the very last four affordable tickets to make our connecting train. A few minutes later and we would have had to spend nearly three times as much. Instead, we would travel for the lower price, arrive in time to pick up our tickets, and possibly see Red Square. Relief.

We celebrated with two McDonald’s apple pies. We finished on the Internet, I fell asleep, and Dan drove us a little out of the city and parked in a pull-off. We woke the next morning early, determined to sell our car. We emptied the car, packing our main bags and collecting a significant trash pile until noon. We followed a Google map Dan had loaded to two junkyards and a couple car repair ships. No one bought used cars and I began feeling a little stress. We didn’t want much for the car; we merely needed to dispose of it somewhere before training across Asia. The next shop bought such cars, including Volkswagens. Dan received an offer from two rough-looking Latvian men eying the Passat, of €600 and successfully asked for €700. A little shocked, we grabbed our stuff from the car. We walked away with Euro bills in our pocket and our current possessions on our backs and in our hands, before they could change their minds and refuse the deal. I am in awe of the Lord’s provision on this trip. This includes my disbelief in the fact that our station-wagon, purchased in England for about $2 thousand, returned $1 thousand off the Baltic Sea, three months and 20,000 miles later. Relief.

Suddenly without wheels of our own, we caught a bus back to Riga’s train station and walked to a youth hostel in Riga’s old town. Our day’s goal completed, we settled into a comfortable dormitory room for a two-nights stay before our train journey began the 26th. Dan and I spent some time on the Internet and I walked around the old town, seeing the touristy shops and restaurants, buying some provisions at a grocery store, and touring the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. The Museum outlined the plight of Latvia under the German and Russian regimes from 1940 to 1991. The country, centrally located between the East and the West, has seen its fair share of occupation and oppression. We shared the 12-bed hostel room with a man who was studying the result of Russia’s practice of deporting thousands of citizens in the Baltic States to scatter them across Russia and replace them with Russians. As a part of his Master’s thesis, he had researched for three weeks in Riga before soon moving to Estonia for two more.

Still rebuilding from its Soviet past, Riga is a pleasant city. The next two days, Saturday and Sunday, allowed us to explore its back roads. Saturday night I left the hostel and its frustratingly sketch Internet connection and intentionally got lost in the confusing network of roadways. I enjoy getting intentionally lost and I believed I could easily find my way back to the hostel by following the three impressive church steeples in the old town. Not so when, an hour and a half later, I ended up in a residential part of the city with only apartment buildings and only business buildings on the horizon. I tried to ask a few people but no one could direct me in the direction of the old town or the train station. Several people gave me the numbers of the buses I would have to take. I had gotten lost on purpose; I wouldn’t concede defeat by busing back. Finally, I had a young woman point the general direction and two hours and 45 minutes after I had left, I walked, into our hostel room. Relief.

Dan and I walked another hour, tentatively looking for a cheap restaurant before returning to pub near the train station. We enjoyed mushroom pizzas and soups while discussing acceptance and correction according to the Bible and their role in the intended Body of Christ. Fascinating. After attending two churches the next morning (merely because I slept in), we ran into each other, Dan walking with four people from his earlier English-speaking service. We joined them for a delicious meal of Latvian potato pancakes, delicious courses with sour cream or jellies. Keith Trampe, with his wife Andrea, were Nebraskans, nearly done with their year-long post as minister at the Riga Lutheran church. We shared a wonderful conversation about Latvian, Nebraskan, and Indonesian culture and our European travels with them and another couple, an Indonesian woman and a German man, the German police liaison to the entire Baltic region. I thought visiting 40 countries was impressive; the German had spent time in over 90. Fascinating.

We finished, exchanged contact information, headed for the hostel, late, and checked out. Lugging out bags behind us, we found a bench in the park by the train station. Dan read while I walked an hour to a cheap grocery store before we cooked a meal of ham, tomatoes, and macaroni stew. Soon, we left for the station, two hours early. On the way, I gave our large pot, with the stew we were unable to finish and a plastic fork, to a homeless man on the other side of the park. Dan reminds me that he may not have been homeless. Perhaps he was just a normal guy who enjoyed digging through trash cans. He accepted the pot gladly and it felt good to share out humble dinner. I explored the station and wrote a postcard to my family. Unfortunately, I only had 20 Lat cents, 30 short of those necessary to mail a postcard to America. Wolfers, if you’re reading this, know that I still have your Roman Colosseum postcard and I’ll send it asap. I returned to a nervous Ziegler, 10 minutes before the train’s departure. We walked nearly the entire length of the long train and struggled to work our way into the full car to our seats with our stuffed bags. The car portion of the trip had satisfactorily completed and the train portion had successfully begun. Relief.

Matt

On Our Way North

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

Leaving Turkey we had quite a push ahead of us. We had to get to Riga, Latvia by Thursday so we would have enough time to sell our car, buy train tickets to Moscow (we had checked online while in Istanbul and found tickets for the equivalent of about $30 and were pleased with that price), and get everything repacked into our much smaller space for hoboing our way across Russia. Because of this we had only 4 days to make the 3000 kilometer drive from the Mediterranean to the Baltic. It was going to be our longest straight drive ever and we were doing it with only two drivers. So, we began.

We crossed into Bulgaria early Sunday (19/07) evening with no difficulties and headed North-West. It was a rather un-exciting evening and we passed it driving over relatively nice roads, listening to some NPR programs we had downloaded in Istanbul, and snacking every once in a while on some bread with Nutella or jam. We slept in the early morning south of the Romanian border in a rather muddy spot just off the road. The next morning, bright and early, we were off heading North. We entered Romania that morning, paid for a Vignette and drove off. We soon realised, however, that the cost of the vignette for Romania had not been worth it. In fact, the roads were terrible. Just a little after we passed the border we got on a road which was alright, but we did have to dodge a few potholes. Then… Matt, who was driving, didn’t manage to dodge one. It hit hard and as we citröened away from it, something was wrong. The car started wobbling a bit and jerking to the right as a loud thumping came from the right-hand rear wheel-well.

Matt held it together well and pulled us off to a good spot along the road. Our right-hand rear tyre had been going a bit bald because it was cambered in pretty badly, so we were rather expecting it to go at some point. When we got out to examine the situation, however, we discovered that the pothole had bent our rim at least an inch out of place at one point, which explained how quickly the air had gone out of the tyre.

We replaced the tyre with the spare (which had a slightly wobbly rim, but not bad), topped up on air at a nearby filling station and made our way up to Bucharest, drove through Bucharest rather quickly, and made the turn North-West and headed for the Carpathians. Driving through the Carpathian mountain range was beautiful. Winding mountain roads didn’t make for quick driving, but they made for many interesting sights. We drove through Transylvania, thankfully avoiding Vlad’s hot-spots especially that evening when we spent the night just outside his territory and departed the next morning, glad to not have been impaled.

Hungary was next on the list. We passed through yet another border, praised the Shengen agreement that allowed us to pass so easily between so many EU nations, bought a vignette and set off to explore Budapest. The twin cities of Buda and Pest and full of beautiful sights, not the least of which is Danube River spanned in several points by scenic bridges. Our first stop was the top of a mountain at the center of the city where a castle and Victory Monument stood guard over the city. We then made our way into the center of the city to a cathedral where the mummified hand of St. Stephen, first king of Hunagry who lived around the turn of the first century, was preserved in a gold and glass reliquary.

After exploring the rest of the city a bit, including the Hungarian parliament building, modeled after the British parliament building in London, we made our way back to the car and left. North again, toward Warsaw where we arrived the next morning, passing through Slovakia in the night (paying for yet another vignette). After just a few hours in Warsaw using the internets. We also had to try to get in touch with David so that he could transfer the rest of our money out of the group’s savings account to our checking account so that we could actually access it. We were unable to make contact with David, but succeeded, eventually, in getting in touch with David’s dad. Relieved, we made our way north yet again, drove through Lithuania, and arrived in Riga after long hours of uneventful travel on Thursday the 23rd, right on schedule.