Driving in Latvia
This is the third time I have been to Latvia, and I have driven all three times that I have been here, but this was the first time I was alone, navigating and fighting heavy traffic while trying to find a parking place in downtown Riga.
Let me start by telling you what Riga does not have. Riga does not have lines on the streets that are two lanes wide. It is hard to tell when a street is two lanes or four lanes, and the other drivers are not very friendly about foreigners making that mistake. The second problem I had while driving was that Google Maps told me that the movie theater I was going to was actually 3 kilometers from the one I was supposed to be at. So despite arriving an hour early, I was now going to be late!
Traffic was at a standstill. People were walking and honking, and lights were flashing. All the roads are at odd angles with one another, and some go one way but not the other. Eventually, I think I would understand, and it would be simpler, but as it was, I was struggling to find my way even with GPS guiding me.
Riga also does not have parking lots. In fact, it is just short of a nightmare, but it might well qualify as one of Dante’s circles of hell… right between the blasphemers and fortune tellers. Where can you park? You don’t know. Is it legal? You aren’t sure. Does it cost money? Maybe. All of these are questions that only a seasoned driver in Riga could answer, and I was a novice on my own.
At one point, I drove on some railroad tracks… I couldn’t be sure if it was a road or not, but I saw several cars in what looked like a parking lot. The number one rule of Riga is that, “You can’t get there from here.” So despite seeing a parking lot, after driving around and around, I couldn’t find an entrance. Instead, I found myself at the dead end of a hotel, where a cab driver was busy backing into me. They don’t have reverse lights in Latvia. The cars just go backward, and you have to pay very close attention. So the cab driver and I did this synchronized reversal, and it wasn’t until he turned around that I realized that I was in a dead end, and would have to do the same.
Let’s just say that I got across the busy street, and no one died. But now I had to find the garage. I tried to get into one at Stocktons (the huge building where the theater was supposed to be), but an old man was standing at the entrance waving his hand at me. I guess I wasn’t good enough to park there. So I found another entrance… I got to the gate, and there was some kind of machine blinking at me in Latvian, but no ticket came from it. The arm went up, I drove in, and thought… lucky me!
Pickups would not survive in Latvia. Every road is narrow and you have to drive up steep ramps with low ceilings. It’s all built for small cars. I was in a Honda CRV, and it was just small enough to make it through the snaking garage. I found a parking spot, and made it in time for the start of La La Land.
I’m not going to write a review of the movie here, but it was enjoyable on the surface level and some of the songs were nice. I enjoyed the dancing.
After the movie, I did a little shopping, and found some strange fruits that we do not have in America. The little ones have a spiny, hard shell, and a strange white inside not unlike the skin of a dead person. But they taste delicious. I haven’t tried the giant tomato-looking apple yet, but I’m told it’s quite tasty.
Finally, I made my way back to the parking garage to figure out exactly how I was going to get out, and how I was going to pay without a ticket.
Back down the ramp I went, and when I got to the gate, another car was waiting. The woman was on the phone. I drove up, and the screen screamed at me in Latvian again. No ticket. No payment options. Just blinking lights.
I played the backup game with the Mercedes behind me as my friend proceeded to call the number on the gate. Luckily, I had some Latvian assistance to find out what was going on. Listen to this: the parking garage automatically takes a photo of the license plate. Then it records when you got there, and to get out, you pay at a machine by entering you number. Then it records your payment, a camera reads your license again, and voila, the gate opens and you are free! Technology is a wonderful thing when you know what the heck is going on!
So after a brief drive across town, I was back on the road to Ansis’ house (after one wrong turn onto a one-way street), and it was all good. The thirty kilometers from Riga to the country are okay as long as you can guess what the speed limit is (and no one else even tries to follow it). At one point, I was driving 70 km/h (as posted) when a car came flying up behind me and just whizzed past me. It was a police van doing at least 100.
Everything is dramatic in life. Or maybe it’s just me.
The movie theater itself was very cool. In Latvia, there are many shops where everything is combined… kind of like our American malls, but much more confusing and fluid. The supermarket and movie were adjacent to one another, and the theater had many vertical levels. It was a bit disorienting, but the screen was incredible, and the seats were very comfortable with wide aisles. However, they don’t just put ice in soda. I guess you have to ask for it. I don’t know if they have ice in Latvia other than the frozen tundra that is the entire country.