Was There Any Chance of Wolves?

Anonymity is a blessing in the short term. It’s true that it means you’re far from family and friends, but it also means never having to be anywhere at a particular time and doing exactly what you wish without consultation; it’s a bit like growing up and no longer being answerable to parents. Anonymity is a key component to the traveller’s freedom, the treasure of the road.

It was the first trip to Latvia, one week, and the day arrived for that fateful tour to Bauska. I’d taken up residence with newly met locals Dzintra and her daughters, Antra and Anta. Bauska was the plan for while they were busy with school, university and work.

The largely flat Latvian countryside has something in common with Bangladesh: there are a good number of palaces from the lord-and-peasant past, what in Bangladesh would be called a rajbari. Near Bauska is one such place, Rundales Pils, a baroque palace built for the Dukes of Courland from 1736. It was the goal.

Indeed the journey was completed easily and the palace was impressive. It was on the way home again to Riga when things went wrong.

With the blessing of anonymity there was nobody to ask whether it was a good idea to take a little walk in the countryside in the belief it would not be difficult to find a different way back to Bauska town for the bus. Besides, there was a footbridge over a small river made of oil drums tied together, floating and with planks on top, which really needed to be crossed.

Entirely without care I found myself of a picturesque stretch of dirt road, entirely straight, walking merrily. But it was a strange phenomenon for the road seemed to lengthen with each step. An hour passed, then two, and all the while there were open fields without a single house in sight. Could such a scene exist in a country as small as Latvia? More disturbingly, not a single car had passed by.

There are Latvian rivers with fishermen. I just didn't find any.

There comes that point when you wonder if turning back wouldn’t be more sensible, but the oil drum bridge already seemed distant and surely it wasn’t really possible to be lost in Latvia.

The road continued and so did I.

Early evening arrived and with the sun my confidence in direction gradually set. That point comes: ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’ I started to contemplate sleeping in a field and waiting for morning. Was it dangerous to sleep in a Latvian field? It’s true the country was called the wild east back then, but surely that meant human society, in the cities. Was there any chance of wolves?

Okay: worst scenario, Latvian field, one night. I kept walking.

At about the stage where my legs felt they might refuse to go on, something exciting happened. I came to a road junction. There was no house or car, and only more fields, but for the first time in several hours I had a choice: left, right or straight ahead? On my first day in Latvia I’d made a choice for the left; this time I chose right. And I walked.

Lithuania wasn’t far to the south and with all that time for thinking I wondered how I would know if I accidentally crossed the border. Would unintelligible Latvian sound any different to unintelligible Lithuanian, in the event I met someone, somewhere?

There are houses in Latvian villages. I just didn't see any.

A few minutes later something more exciting happened. It was a sound: the oil and metal rumble of a car. Sure enough, it came along kicking up dust: a kind of red sports car. Normally it’d be courteous to stand to the side and politely flag down the vehicle, with acknowledgement it was a favour if they stopped. But the situation was not normal.

I stood road centre, hands out in a kind of ‘halt’, like a dacoit or a police officer. The car had no choice.

Inside was a couple. It was strange because when he decided to stop rather than run me down, she was rather angry about it. I’m not sure which language it was they spoke, but it sounded like Russian and there was clearly some kind of domestic dispute going on. ‘What are you stopping for you idiot!’ I imagined her yelling. She really was screaming at him.

‘What do you expect me to do, leave him here?’ I imagined him replying, marginally more calmly.

‘You never spend enough time with me! You are always with your wife!’ Or perhaps she was the wife. Whatever the specifics I was sure of one thing: I was getting in that car, whether the lady liked it or not. It’s not that I’m in the habit of interfering in other people’s domestic upheavals. It’s just that, at a minimum they could take me to a main road, wherever that might be, hopefully still in Latvia.  I could only say ‘Riga’.

Laugh if you will but after all that walking and after all her screaming the main road was but a few hundred yards further.  It was a very short ride indeed.  She was pleased I got out; the guy was nice about it. ‘Paldies,’ I said, Dzintra-taught, ‘Thanks.’

It was dark when I stood on the side of the highway.  There were cars but nobody was stopping; who could blame them?  So I walked a bit, and I’d been sure to get the sports car driver to indicate the Riga-direction of the road when he’d dropped me off.  After some time there was a bus shelter and I thought, ‘Would it be safe to stay one night in a Latvian bus shelter?’ It seemed unlikely anybody would stop before morning.  Personally I would’ve favoured the field with whatever risk of wolves there was.

Well fortunately there’s this little thing called public transport, and fortunately the international express services between Riga and Lithuania used that route.  They don’t officially stop except in major towns, except that, fortunately and like in Bangladesh, they do. They will pick up the odd stray like me for a small fee. A bus stopped and I was saved.  I was so relieved that I’d be making it back to the city that from my pocket I pulled out a few coins at random and proudly presented them to the driver.

This would have been a better road to get lost on, on account of the passerby and the house.

Latvia was using lats then, and it would have to have been one of the world’s strangest currencies, because the exchange rates gave it a huge value, with one lat worth more than one British pound I believe. The consequence was that travelling in Latvia was a tiny brown coin affair with everything seeming to cost umpteen centimes; with a whole lat it felt like you could purchase a small condominium, perhaps off the plan. 

The bus driver was a good fellow, for I hadn’t even counted what I’d dumped into his hand, so grateful I was at having been saved. There’d been a few too many tiny brown coins involved; he gave some back.

If the moss grows on the north side, Lithuania is to the south.

It was funny, that first week in Latvia. It was odd to be far from home, where I should have enjoyed the full benefit of anonymity, to have had that plaguing thought the whole time: Dzintra would be worried. By the time I reached the apartment it was approaching midnight. I rang the bell.

Well, the door swung open and there was an enormous hug. ‘I was so worried about you!’ she said, ‘If something happened… I don’t even know your surname! What would I tell your family and how would I find them?’ After that, I wrote my full name and address on a piece of paper. Needed. Multiple Lives. Latvia gets one.

Post Latvian apartment, you can take accommodation in a construction site, an Arctic cupboard or alternatively, set up your own guest house...

For the start of the Latvian story, you'll need to visit The Latvian National Academy of Science

Or follow the Baltic Way, along the sea on a trail of amber...

This article is also published in Star Magazine, here: Was There Any Chance of Wolves?

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