We drove south across the border into Latvia and immediately things changed. To be fair, the grim, sleety weather didn’t help but the roads became more potholed as our ‘motorway’ hugged the steel grey Baltic Sea which we could see through the white trunks of the silver birch trees. We drove through little villages of wooden houses – blink and you would miss them – and we went straight to the capital of Riga, stopping on the outskirts in a MacBurger place so that we could use their free wifi and track down a hotel for a couple of nights.
crossing into Latvia
S drove MAGNIFICENTLY through the horrible, devious and extremely stressful one way system of Riga whilst I fast approached a meltdown as we went round and round, but we eventually ended up at a small hotel a fifteen minute tram ride from the city centre with some not so dodgy parking in a compound behind it for the van.
After a decent night’s sleep I wanted to do some sightseeing so leaving S in bed I jumped on a trolley bus which ran past the hotel and I went into the old town. First impressions are that the old town of Riga is bigger than the old town of Tallinn, but like Tallinn it is stuffed full of churches with ornate spires, castle towers and turrets and parks. As well as the old stuff (I think it is predominately baroque) there is a large art nouveau element to the architecture and everything is very pretty.
architecture in Riga
I poked around in the Museum of War which is housed in the Powder Tower and also in the National Museum of Latvia which took me a few attempts to track down as there is an unimpressive doorway besides what appears to be a high street bank. The first museum was ok, the second one didn’t have that much information in English so I got a bit bored. For lunch I ate at a small cafe which served traditional Russian dumplings – you choose what type and how many you want from the large pots of boiling water and you then weigh your bowl at the till. I walked some more around the Freedom Monument which was glinting in the sun and the old houses and buildings before taking my aching feet and the trolley bus back to the hotel.
The Powder Tower
Unfortunately the next day S was still not well, so to give him and myself some space I checked out with my backpack and I went and found a hostel right in the thick of the old town. As I checked in I met Nick and Frankie who told me about a free walking tour that they were about to go and investigate so I tagged along with them for what was a tour of Riga that was a little bit different.
The tour concentrated on things that were mainly outside the old town. We went to the huge food market which was made out of old zeppelin hangers and we saw the big squat Soviet designed building that is known as Stalin’s birthday cake. I learnt that beavers live in the river that flows through the city (hence why many of the parks trees are protected with iron fences), and that the mound of old stones which looks positively medieval was not a castle tower but rather a dump for the stones and soil when the ancient town walls were dismantled.
Stalin’s birthday cake
We saw the little wooden houses which still remain outside the old town walls. Most of them look quite ramshackle now, but it is a matter of pride for the residents that they are still there. The ancient town rules were that no stone buildings could be built outside the city walls so that if an advancing army approached, the wooden homes could quickly be burnt to the ground so as not to afford the enemy any advantage. The people got fed up of being displaced time and time again as their homes were burned but when modernisation took place and the government wanted to replace the houses with stone or brick buildings they stubbornly refused to allow their homes to be bulldozed and demolished yet again.
Back at the hostel I met Caitlin, a US citizen who currently lives in Germany with her husband and who loves to travel. After a meal out we decided to team up the following day and visit the Turaida Castle complex at the town of Sigulda. As we set off in damp drizzle I thought that I could remember where the railway station was but after 25 minutes we were still wandering around in the rain. It was hidden inside a shopping mall, although when we arrived back later that evening and exited through the main door we couldn’t believe how we had been unable to find anything so massive!
visiting Turaida castle
But after a train ride and a cramped minibus journey later we got to Turaida castle which is on the edge of the Gauja National Park. It was quite beautiful even in the drizzle and it must be simply spectacular in the summer when everything is green and the red brick towers rise out of the surrounding forest. We happily wandered around the museum and the grounds and then, after getting the minibus back to town we went for a walk to find the Sigulda castles (old and new) – although we succeeded in getting lost yet again.
We think that because we both usually travel solo we relaxed when out with each other and we took no individual responsibility for directions so instead of being aware of our surroundings we chatted away and subsequently continued to get lost. Coming across an Orthodox church in the middle of nowhere we asked a lady who was talking to her friend on the street how to find the castle. We obviously didn’t look too competent at understanding her directions in Latvian so she indicated that she would give us a lift in her car. Not wanted to look a gift horse in the mouth we piled in the back and she kindly drove us to our second castle of the day.
Sigulda new castle (the old one is tucked behind)
The next day we set out via two buses to Rundale Palace. Imagine Versailles near Paris and this was something like that, just on a much smaller scale. There were 40 or so rooms open to the public that had been renovated and decorated and which were quite beautiful. I have been in many manor houses and castles but I have never seen anything like the heating systems which are employed in this part of the world. In a corner of each room was a large ceramic tiled ‘box’. A furnace behind would burn wood and service 3 or 4 rooms via this forerunner of a modern day radiator as opposed to the large open fires which would burn logs or coal in houses and castles in the UK.
the old ceramic tiled ‘radiator’
The palace gardens were newly planted up and all ready for spring and very bare but we saw pictures of them when everything is blooming. I would love to retrace my whole journey in the summer months when everything must have quite a different feel with flowers and green grass and blue lakes.
Returning to the nearby town of Bausca we jumped off our bus and we went to visit yet another castle. Disappointingly not very much of this building was open during the winter but it was still good to wander around. Despite the fact that there were hardly any other tourists there were plenty of staff dotted about between the various rooms. They were hilariously quick to try to shepherd us through and back out, frantically gesturing that we should pass through doorways or go up stairs, and they got themselves into a real tizzy if we decided to double back on ourselves.
You will be pleased to know that we didn’t disappoint after leaving the castle and this time we actually managed to mislay the entire town centre and the bus station (yes I know that nobody we asked spoke English but bus usually translates into any language). We finally found a bus trundling along the street which we jumped aboard and luckily it took us back to Riga.
We went out for a lovely meal that evening in a typical little Latvian restaurant where as well as a very tasty meal we sampled several shots, including a cranberry liqueur and the brain-blasting Riga Black Balsam. Caitlin had an early bus the next morning and she wanted an early night, but she reappeared in the hostel kitchen at about 11.30pm – dragged there by a matriarchal Russian lady who had just checked in to her dorm with her husband and child.
Newly arrived from Paris and hungry, this lady was not going to leave Caitlin sleep and she ordered her to get out of her bed and to join them in the kitchen for cake and yogurt. I was working on my laptop but I got roped in too; the whole time the pair of us were talked at loudly by this domineering but kindly lady. Caitlin escaped and went to bed and then later it was my turn to be woken by an extremely loud drunken New Zealander who was attempting to clamber into his top bunk above me. Threatening him with sudden death if he dared to vomit on me in the night he then chose to climb back down and hold a conversation with me at the top of his voice for the next half an hour. Sleeping in dorms is certainly not for the faint hearted!
On my final day in Riga I went to buy a second hand netbook as mine was playing up again. Guided by the staff at the hostel I found Second-hand-electronic-street and in one of the little shops I found a cheap netbook. Getting it back to the hostel I was relieved to find that Anna on reception spoke both Latvian and Russian and could re-organise it for me (although it does still lapse out of English). The computer had very obviously been acquired by the shop by illicit means – the owner was still logged onto his Facebook page – but there was no way I was going back to confront or accuse the two hard faced looking men in the shop who had sold it to me of stealing it.
I sat and chatted for ages in the hostel with Anna who spoke frankly about politics and I learned a lot about the ethic makeup of the population of Latvia. I also learned how despite being born in Lativa she is often made to feel that she doesn’t totally belong because Russian not Lativan is her mother tongue and she is sometimes viewed with suspicion or non-Latvian by others based on her ethnic heritage.
I have to confess to being pretty ignorant about the history of the Baltic countries prior to this trip. I clearly remember the recent events at the beginning of the 1990’s when they each won their independence from the USSR but I was totally in the dark about the horrors and the occupations that they had all suffered throughout history. They saw some of the worse atrocities during the Second World War when a massive percentage of their population were either killed, conscripted into one foreign army or another or later deported to Siberia. They were denied their religion and their language and while each country has a very clear identity and a pride in their independence and history, people will simply shrug if you mention the possibility of any future conflict, as is currently being mentioned in the press. They have seen it all before. They are resilient.
The Freedom Monument
So, after an initial few days spent settling into Medellin I jumped on a local bus on a Sunday lunchtime and I headed off to the little mountain town called Amagá which is just 45 minutes south of the city. After being deposited in the bustling central parque an entire family helped me to locate one of the Willy’s jeeps which would take me up the rough track to the hostel.
And there I fell into another little slice of paradise. I struck gold with the location of the hostel, the owner, the other volunteers and all of the residents in the town of Amagá.
The EcoHostel Medellin is fast establishing itself as a permaculture farm and guests here have various options. My week (and that of most of my fellow volunteers) went something like this:
On a good day I would get out of bed just as the mountains were turning a blue grey as the dawn broke and the soft mist would saunter up from the valley below. I would often attempt to meditate or I would join in a yoga session. Breakfast would be at 6.30 and then me and Nat (and later Mat) would head off up the tiny path up the massive hill to the little one-room primary school where we would endeavor to deliver an English lesson to up to eighteen adorable children. I take my hat off to their full time teacher who taught on four separate blackboards to an age range of between five and twelve year olds, all at the same time. She had the patience of a saint and a smile to go with it.
Spanish lessons in the outdoor classroom
After the English class we would have an hour and a half of Spanish classes with Paola in the most perfect outdoor classroom. It is tough trying to conjugate those bloody Spanish verbs but it was made far more bearable with the backdrop of the mountains rearing up over us, the vultures circling above us and the insects and birds squawking and chirruping away.
I also worked on the farm for two hours a day – and we usually managed to fit all of this in before a wonderful hearty healthy vegetarian lunch. The farm work varied hugely but could be anything and included planting and weeding, collecting cow poo from the field opposite, collecting leaves down in the jungly bamboo forest, clearing new paths with machetes, digging terraces and making Japanese bocachi (a quick compost).
one of the vegetable plots
Some of the volunteers would head off to teach English to the secondary school children in the afternoon, but having done my bit at the primary school in the morning I would either hang around in a hammock and recharge my batteries or I would head off in the other direction into the town. We would also take it in turns to attend an intercambio group consisting of adults and children in Amagá and which usually ended in a beer or two once the little ones had left.
Paola also organised various field trips and experiences for us all. I will tell you about these trips in a future entry but they included a visit to a panela factory, soap and clay workshops and a trip to the local roof tile factory.
our volunteer family
Permaculture is as old as the hills but seems to have got forgotten along the way as human beings have ‘progressed’. More and more people around the world are turning to this method of farming which involves working with the land, geography, climate and the natural resources. Water is used wisely, waste composted and the food is organic. It is a complete way of life and if you want to know more you should visit Paola’s place and do a stint here.
Although every batch of guests going through Paola’s place are great, I know that I was with the very best of the bunch. We were an unusually large group as some volunteers had just turned up to check out the place and ended up staying. Some lunchtimes there were sixteen of us around the large dinner table – the guests, Paola and her novio, Tia (aunt) and Mauri our juggling, acrobatic, samba drumming gardener.
our juggling gardener
We, the volunteers were a diverse bunch but we had the best of times. As well as the yoga and the meditation I had a massage from my Texan friend in the little outdoor schoolroom during the most spectacular thunderstorm, reiki and crystal healing from LL and I have it on good authority that a baby may even be named after me!
I had a magical twenty minutes in our darkened dorm room with my Swedish pal – no.. wait.. where we were totally mesmorised by a firefly which had somehow got in and which treated us to a Disney-type neon green dance as it floated and flashed around our heads whilst we oohed and aahed. Tinkerbell has to have been modelled on this phenomenen of nature and then on other evenings we would spend ages up on the high bamboo platform as dusk fell, watching the magical sparkles as the glittering bugs floated and swooped and danced in the trees and bushes, made all the more magical by their silence and the intensity of their green, orange and white lights.
the mountains go on for ever
With no internet, TV or radio at the hostel we would head into town to connect with the outside world. Often, walking along the track we would overtake horses or cows which were grazing along the grass verges, clamber up the ridiculously steep roads to the market and, past the outdoor area where you would see women doing the laundry, lads washing their motorbikes off and miners black with coal dust showering under the freshwater spring where the water gushed freely out of the mountainside. And there were of course many many times when a passing motorbike would stop and with no helmet I would jump on the back, or one of the Willy jeeps would stop, fully laden but would allow us to hang off the back ladder for free.
Many of the houses in Amagá have no running water and residents use the outdoor spring to collect drinking water, shower and laundry. It was always a bit disconcerting walking back from the town after dark and bumping into a silent cow or horse, but the show of stars above and the many glittering lights from the hundreds of houses scattered among the mountainside plantations gave the whole place a cosy feel.
The town has no museum or attraction to visit and there is no reason to stop there as it sprawls up the mountainside – BUT this is what makes it such a magical place and the EcoHostel Medellin perfect for a weekend stop or a more extensive break. Apart from the guests at the hostel you will be hard-pressed to find anyone from outside Colombia in Amagá and therein lies its secret, and of course it is just an hours bus ride away from the magnificent metropolis that is Medellin.
Amaga on a Sunday afternoon
The people here have to be the friendliest, most inquisitive, most generous people in the whole wide world. Whether you are sitting in the market trying to skype home, having a drink in one of the hundreds of little street side bars or shopping, people will come and talk to you. Men, women and children are inquisitive and so proud that you are in their town. They want to practice their English, invite you into their homes for dinner or pay for your beers or coffee. And always they have the widest smiles and the happiest manners.
And I can’t omit to mention the little town library. It is a little hub of activity and with the cutest little courtyard which is lovingly tended by Julio the great librarian, this has to be the prettiest library in the world.
the little library courtyard
After initially planning to stay for just five weeks I extended my visa and I remained in and around Amagá and Medellin for twelve which will give you some indication of how I fell head over heels in love with this place. I need to move on so next is Cartagena and the Caribbean coast. I need to move on so that I know if I want to return.
I could write forever about Amagá and the region of Antioquia, but I will try not to bore you. This area and its people wove a magic around me. Here I eventually found an inner peace and I am moving towards an acceptance of things that I am unable to change.
We arrived in Popayán at eight in the evening but our cab driver was unable to get us close to our hostel due to road closures. Assuming this would be because of roadworks we were amazed to discover that the entire town centre was closed off and the streets were packed with spectators who were waiting for a procession.
Me and M and now our new friend Pablo tried making our way through the crowds with me bashing small children on my head with my rucksac and M taking out toes and ankles with her humungous wheely case.
The roads were lines with police and soldiers but one eventually took pity on us and hoisting M’s case onto his shoulder opened the barricades and hustled us down the centre of the road.
Popayan at night
Feeling like penguins in a zoo as EVERYBODY watched us and still puzzled, we walked down through the middle of the roads which were edged with silent crowds four deep until our policeman eventually got us to our hostel which was just a quadra from the main plaza and on the procession route. After checking in, we were thrilled to discover that our dorm had a balcony overlooking the street, so we went out and stood there and we waited to see what on earth was going to happen.
These things are VERY heavy
Out of the dark (by now it was nine thirty pm) a drove of drummers appeared and with enough noise to raise the dead they thudded and hammered their way very slowly past us. They were followed by a brass band and squadrons of soldiers, police, and then little groups from each of the major churches in the area who were all carrying massive religious icons which had been decorated with flowers and gigantic candles. They would walk a few steps and then pause to allow the bearers to rest on long wooden poles balancing the whole thing in a very wobbly way on the ground – these things were massive – and then they would set off again. The crowds by now had lit their candles and were patiently and quietly watching. The whole thing took over two hours to pass us by, but actually it took more like five hours for them to complete the whole route of the town, snaking around and up and down the streets. The following day I saw posters which instructed any observers to observe and participate in total silence in order to preserve the spiritual and religious meaning of the occasion. The silence, apart from the drums or the bands was initially eerie, broken only by the sound of marching footsteps and the occasional organ music (organists were rather bizarrely wheeled along on little carts playing church music to accompany some of the icons).
scouts from Cali on a pilgrimage
When we finally got out exploring the town the next day we were all really pleased to discover that we had rocked up during the Semana Santa celebrations. It turned out that Popayan is renowned throughout Colombia for having the best processions which mark the death of Jesus. Like Bethlehem at his birth, there were few rooms left at the inns and those that were available were overpriced but despite this we ended up opting to stay for three nights.
an impromptu geography lesson
With Pablo we walked down to the old stone bridge and then we climbed high up to the park which overlooked the town. Here I stopped to chat to a group of scouts who were, as always, immaculately turned out in their uniforms, despite having walked over the past week from the city of Cali on a pilgrimage. We all took photos together and then we continued up to the top of the hill where there was a huge statue and lots of people milling around.
icing sugar buildings
On our hike up I had given away a tub of green mangos with salt to a group of three little girls who had been sitting on the grass, and later, whilst we were sitting in the sun and admiring the view, they came over to talk to us. We then spent half an hour chatting to the eight, nine and ten year old and we even had an impromptu geography lesson when Pablo (Picasso) drew a picture of the world and we showed them where we had all come from. Pablo was from Chile, I was from the UK and M from Poland, and whilst the girls knew where Chile was, they didn’t know about the UK or Poland. They were adorable and so interested and interesting, and as usual, it struck me how we expect people to know all about Europe or the United States, when in fact, their more important and relevant world consists of Latin America.
the children’s parade
Semana Santa week marks a major holiday in Popayan with all of the churches stuffed full of cages of icons and hordes of people flowing in and out to view them. Armies of priests were directing proceedings as every day the icons were re-decorated with a new flowery colour theme and all of the public buildings and university buildings were open with free exhibits and squadrons of volunteers manned doorways and stalls, keen to give tourists guided tours of their respective spaces.
The processions would kick off in the late afternoon with the children who carried tiny versions of the icons and then the grown up versions would begin at about eight-ish every night. People would wait patiently whilst the procession curled its way around the town, often walking alongside with their candles. The children especially must have been exhausted by the end of the week because it seemed that the entire town plus all the tourists stayed up until midnight each night. Music and dancing were supposedly banned during this time but we did find a little salsa club which turned the music up and got swinging once the tail end of the parade had passed its doors.
its tough showing tourists around your university
Popayan is a very pretty town and not the first that I have been to in South America which is called the ‘White City’ but unlike those other towns this one really does deserve that reputation. The buildings are a sparkling white and at night under the floodlights appear to be made of icing sugar. The town reminded me of a film set made for a children’s programme with its cobbled streets, little balconies and ice white churches and at every corner I expected to see some TV presenters dressed up in bright clothes or dancing teddy bears.
We had to change hostels after two nights and find another, and we did end up sharing a room in both places with the most weird American guy that I have met yet, but to give him his due he was out there travelling solo. Dorms can be strange spaces and these had extra beds crammed in to accommodate the hordes, but even so, in my mind, your own bed is sacrosanct and you do not perch on the end of somebody else’s unless invited to do so first.
At the beginning of the week a bomb had exploded by the roadside on the way into Popayan and as many of the government and high ranking officials were attending the celebrations, the place was swarming with heavily armed soldiers and police, toting big automatic machine guns. I am a firm believer that guns should be removed from communities and police forces should not be visibly armed such as in the UK but it is very strange how quickly you get accustomed to seeing so many weapons on the streets. And they are not neatly holstered either but held ready for firing in many instances. And coming from the UK where knives are also not tolerated or allowed it is odd to see so many people walking along swinging machetes – although now that I have been using one on more than one occasion I have to agree that a machete is possibly the best tool ever invented.
In many countries, Semana Santa and Easter is a bigger deal than Christmas and I was very pleased that we spent it in one of the best towns and experienced the atmosphere and saw the processions. After three nights in Popayan we were to continue to head north and to Cali where me and M would go our own ways for a couple of weeks. I had arranged to stay with a family here and M was off to stay with friends of friends.