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some quick transit thoughts: Latvia to Germany, through Lithuania and Poland in 21hours on a bus with an alcoholic

Saturday, May 2nd, 2009

by the Mama, who gave away her jacket-pillow in the middle of the night
overnight (and all day for that matter) on the bus from Riga to Berlin

It would seem a little unfair to make sweeping generalisations about an entire country based only on a few hours spent driving through it in a bus….but I can jot down “initial impressions” and observations.
LITHUANIA is a monolithic monument to monoculture (this feels like a plagiarised phrase, but I’m not sure where from!). Hectares and hectares of one crop sprout from largely fenceless pancake-flat fields. Heavy machinery churns furrows and sprays fertilisers. Such a contrast to the rice paddies of Vietnam where we watched hundreds of people work together spreading manure, planting, scooping water.
Thoughts about permaculture, sustainability, large-scale food production, community, food quality, consumer awareness ~ all swirl unresolved around my head.
A small village comes into view, each house surrounded by blossoming fruit trees and vegetable gardens, and it makes me smile. As does the man following a plough behind a horse. Is he working on romantic idealism in his multi-crop field or does his method *work*?

Right from the border we enjoy a familiarity that has been absent for months – we can read all the signs, and what’s more, we even understand them.
It’s only going to be a fleeting transit visit through Poland this time, but even from the confines of the bus, we can see changes. It’s been fifteen years since we left, having lived here for a couple of years. Back then the Iron Curtain had just fallen and Polska was very much Eastern Bloc. This time, within minutes of arriving, we spot an English sign. Different. Soon we see a supermarket with shopping trolleys lined up inside. It doesn’t seem too presumptuous to assume there is food on the shelves – different. And obviously you no longer have to queue to enter – it used to be that the number of people allowed in a store equalled the number of baskets available. Not any more. Looks like you can walk right in – and I bet you can even take what you want off the shelf and not have to ask for it to be handed over the counter. Different. There’s McDonalds and Coca-cola. Different. Colourful signs line the streets, some of them advertising Komputery, many with website addresses. Different alright.
When we get to Warsaw, we’re in a totally new world. We drive past a shopping complex that spreads further than a dropped jar of honey. Huge mega-stores meander around carparks (carparks so big that it makes you realise people no longer need to wait 18 years for the government to give them a vehicle) and merge into malls. Is this really Poland?
The most distinctive change meets us at a gas station. After our two years here, we had driven across Europe with friends in their motorhome. Not expecting it, not really thinking Poland had been *that* different to New Zealand, we experienced our first “culture shock” when we got to a German gas station. Walking into the shop, we were blown away by the rows of magazines and chocolate bars. To this day we can remember that feeling of amazement – amazement first at the selection, and amazement then that we were being amazed by it! In such a short time we had become used to the choice of either one or none of a particular product. And here were dozens of just two things. We were staggered, and surprised at being so.
At the Polski gas station today, Rob commented, “We could be anywhere in the west.” The differences have certainly been minimised.

Are you wondering about the ALCOHOLIC? With a big brown bottle of solace, he wedged Mboy6 firmly and uncomfortably into the window seat early on. Later we managed to convince Mr Drinker it would be to his benefit to swap seats, thinking he would lean against the window. Mboy6 also managed to convince us he should swap with a brother, so it was Lboy8, who ended up underneath  a sprawled-out totally unaware man, as the effects of downing four large bottles of beer and the even bigger brown one took hold. At the five-in-the-morning stop, he would buy two more bottles, but only get to drink one of them – the other was dropped all over the floor, making for a sticky final two hours for any nearby passengers.

VERDICT: we had suspected four days on a train might be easier than one night on a reclining seat bus, and we were not wrong. BUT we were pleasantly surprised at how well the children negotiated together, leaning on each other and changing positions through the night without so much as a grumble. Uncomfortable and inconvenient, but they travelled really well. Not that they were planning to! Some of them had made noises about how they would be tired and grumpy and how it would be uncomfortable, and so we had suggested that it *would* be if they thought it would. Rob offered them the possibility to stay up all night if they liked – a suggestion he pointed out they would relish under any other circumstances. We told them we believed they could make it a good trip. And they did.

colliding worldviews

Friday, May 1st, 2009

by the accommodation-sorter
Riga, Latvia

On The Bus
There’s something about sitting next to a non-stop chatterbox for five hours!
For a few minutes, as Tgirl5 processes observations that the rest of the world is not exactly like our family, the conversation goes like this:

T: Heaps of people don’t say grace aye?
M: No, well some people don’t know God so they don’t understand that God provides their food.
T: So they don’t give thanks?
M: No, because they don’t know….
T: English?
M: People can give thanks in any language. How do you say “thank you” in Lao?
T: Kop chai la lai!
M: That’s right, so people in Laos could say thank you to God, couldn’t they?
T: Oh yeah!

Off The Bus
I see her. She’s the only one standing there with two small children, so I feel confident it’s her.
”Liga?” She nods, and two strangers, we embrace.
Then scramble quickly to get bags off the bus.
We have travelled halfway round the world since receiving Liga’s invitation to visit. She has travelled two hours by train to meet us in the capital, because we are not going to be able to take up her full offer of staying with her family in their village. (Having had a 5 o’clock start this morning and with a 21+ hour overnight bus trip ahead tomorrow, we don’t consider an extra two hours on a train and another 5am start to be conducive to a successful long distance excursion, so we opt for a night in a hostel instead – and settle for a day with Liga and her girls, looking round town and chatting together).
We embark on our third Baltic town in a little over a week, each unique, but all similar. Our Baltic Bash is drawing to a close.

old buildings


beautiful parks


Independence Monument
(where people were not allowed to lay wreaths during Communist times)


Off The Cards 
Home education, except under almost-impossible exceptional circumstances, is illegal in Latvia. Even for someone like Liga, who has a horticulture degree and is currently studying education. She feels passionate about educating her girls for social, familial, religious and academic reasons, but this is a freedom not afforded to her. Does anyone want to join me in writing to the Latvian government, beseeching them to reconsider their legal requirements for education?