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Travel: How not to be arrested in Latvia (and Estonia)

A road trip through these former Iron Curtain countries offers natural beauty, fabulous food and situations fraught with tension

brunch Updated: Feb 16, 2019 23:49 IST
Saubhadra Chatterji
Saubhadra Chatterji
Hindustan Times
latvia,estonia,Iron Curtain
Latvian countryside is dotted with small villages and many of them have their own church(Saubhadra Chatterji)

It’s early in the morning and we’re on our way to the Tallinn airport to pick up a rented car. The cab driver apprises us in great detail about the high percentage of road accidents in Latvia and how difficult it is to drive in some areas. Then, he asks, “So, where are you guys coming from?”

India, I answer.

The ropeway in Sigulda, Latvia offers a wonderful view of the meandering Gauja river that covers a large part of that country ( Saubhadra Chatterji )

“Oh, India! Then you should not worry about these issues,” he quips.

The sympathetic soul offers another valuable tip on road safety: “Just assume everyone else on the road is an idiot.”

I tell him not to worry. I learned to drive on the horrendous roads of Noida and draw inspiration from an enervated Bengali poet who drives a Maruti car daily in Delhi.

One for the road

Tartu’s university was established in 1632 and The Kissing Students sculpture has evolved as the city’s most recognised symbol ( Saubhadra Chatterji )

At the Hertz outlet, one of the three men behind the counter greets us cordially. We have booked an Opel hatchback at a very cheap rent and I am looking forward to my second European road trip in as many years. This time, it will be across Estonia and Latvia.

We’ve seen Google maps for hours to familiarise ourselves with the directions and turns, and have a rough idea about where to expect washrooms and fuel stations. We are also prepared for possible emergency situations.

But this one is a bolt from the blue. The Hertz guy declares that my driving license is not the real one. I tell him it’s genuine, pointing out how it has been used in Spain.

When asked how difficult it is to drive in latvia, the driver advises: “just assume everyone else on the road is an idiot”

“But this is Estonia. We have a different set of rules.” He shows me a photo of an international license issued from Maharashtra, rejecting my Uttar Pradesh version that looks like an official notice.

A quick lecture about unity in diversity in India, different states having their own traffic authorities, even the political significance of Uttar Pradesh went through deaf ears.

They offer options: One, I can give them a new, Maharashtra-type driving license when I return to India. Two, if I hit anyone, they may provide me assistance if the Indian embassy in Estonia can take responsibility for me. Three, they will cancel the booking without any fee.

Indians don’t care any less about rules and laws in the homeland. When abroad, we are suddenly terrified about the prospect of hefty fines and jail terms.

I shift to the next rental office, Alamo, get a readily-available, bigger car but shell out almost four times the Hertz price.

Pärnu is a picturesque old town but is better known for its beaches ( Saubhadra Chatterji )

The lost world

Soon, highway number 2 rolls out like a carpet in a luxury hotel helping me to forget my financial woes. It’s a weekday but the traffic is sparse. The first half-an-hour is just a mundane drive past factories and houses, till the road leaves Tallinn behind and greets the green.

I take the slower lane. Cars and huge trucks zip past me, mocking my speed. But my eyes are stuck in the long pine forests and the blue sky that is so rare in Delhi.

Pärnu is famous for its flat, wide beaches that attract thousands of tourists during summer. Since Ruchira can’t swim, our hotel is farthest from the beach – right in the middle of old town.

An old manor house turned into Restaurant Põhjaka Mois, is a must-visit for road trippers ( Saubhadra Chatterji )

I park my car under two birch trees showing signs of autumn. Yellow leaves are scattered on pavements and grass. There’s a nip in the air.

The sleepy town of Pärnu has three nepali restaurants that serve hot food with a generous dose of chillies

Just for the sake of trying something different, we lunch at a Georgian restaurant. This sleepy town also has, among other things, three Nepali restaurants that serve hot food with a generous dose of chillies.

The road to Riga from Pärnu runs along the south-western coast of Estonia. It either passes through dense forests or rubs shoulders with the edge of the Gulf of Riga. Both are fine for us. We stop our car twice at viewpoints and walk around the shore or beside streams coming out of the forests. I see locals too stopping their cars to spend time in the lap of nature. I admire them.

A woman in traditional attire at The Ethnographic Open-Air Museum of Latvia ( Saubhadra Chatterji )

We take a sharp U-turn to reach a leafy dead-end. There’s a wooden gate ahead of us and a signboard announces it’s the Ethnographic Open-Air Museum of Latvia.

It’s the ‘lost world’ of this great land, nestled in another stretch of pine forest. It’s strewn with old houses, carefully retrieved from their original places, complete with granary and a cow shed. While we quickly wrap up our lunch at the Priedes krogs pub, a large group of tourists arrive from Riga, sprinkling some life into this bank of the lake Jugla where time stands still.

Lamb with vegetables and carrot-mustard sauce at Põhjaka Mois ( Saubhadra Chatterji )

It’s so blissful that it’s hard to believe that we are very close to Riga, the biggest Baltic city. Slowly the traffic lights become frequent, the roads get narrower, tall buildings cut off the horizon and I arrive at Riga.

Call the KGB

My host has informed us she won’t be around to receive us. So she has provided some insights on how to park the car, find the keys and enter the house.

The highlights of Riga include a gripping visit to the former KGB headquarters and an enchanting play at the Latvian National Opera

To be absolutely sure, Ruchira checks with a young woman, who herself looks lost and as though she’s waiting for her dog to lead the way back home, if it’s safe to park in a corner. She confidently replies that we can park anywhere. I push my car a few meters in, under the only shade in this backyard.

Riga is not a love-at-first-sight place. It slowly grows on you. Our building – not one of those world-famous art nouveau ones – did little to help the cause. It’s one of the Soviet-era edifices. Its maintenance, at least in common areas, is as good as the DDA flats in Kalkaji. The last time this place got a whitewash must have been before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The old houses of the Ethnographic Open-Air Museum ( Saubhadra Chatterji )

Outsiders need almost five minutes to understand how the ramshackle lift actually works. After listening to some strange sounds, we find that the elevator is stuck on the third floor because someone didn’t bother to shut the door.

Aleksandra’s home is beautiful. The rooms are spacious and bathed with sunlight. The ground floor has a casino and the bus stop. It’s a nice place to live for a few days.

We explored Riga for the next three days, mostly on foot. The highlights included a gripping visit to the former KGB headquarters and, on the last evening, an enchanting play at the Latvian National Opera to end our trip on a high note.

We come to the parking lot with our baggage. We are leaving Riga, perhaps forever, for our next destination, Tartu. As we near our car, we find a challan, written in Latvian, on the windshield. There’s a big car parked behind us and it can’t be moved back.

I understand Latvian as much as Latvians understand Hindi.

There’s no one in the vicinity except an old man who has come to drop the garbage bag. He’s my only ray of hope.

He browses the note and gives a short lecture in (what I presume to be) Latvian. I tell him that I don’t know his language. In reply, he speaks more Latvian.

Oscar Wilde and his Estonian counterpart Eduard Vilde never met in real life. But in Tartu, they are found sitting on a bench together ( Saubhadra Chatterji )

Then we resort to sign language. He asks me to follow him to a grumpy, wrestler-like manager in another building. This guy only talks Russian.

Between sign languages, Latvian and Russian, almost 15 minutes are gone. Ruchira, as she seldom does, takes this opportune moment to start abusing me in Bengali.

Finally, a man arrives and he confirms my worst fear that for last three days, I have kept my car in his designated parking lot. With folded hands, I tell him at least a dozen times that I am extremely sorry and that I am a traveller from India.

Not only does he understand English, he’s the only person to laugh at such an awkward situation.

He quickly removes his car. “What do I do with this challan?” I look at the locals. The old man leans forward, takes the chit (issued by building management committee) and tears it up without a word.

Then, for the first time he smiles and says in broken French, “Bon voyage!”

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From HT Brunch, February 17, 2019

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First Published: Feb 16, 2019 21:27 IST