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The Road to Riga


I'd heard from a travel agent that it was possible to get a ride from the Utrecht auto market to Riga for about 100 German marks, and so I headed to Utrecht to investigate. The Eastern European auto buyers were easy to recognize, in their sweat suits and warm-up jackets, hanging out in a cluster alongside several decrepit buses and vans. I tried to make contact, but until I met Aldis, I couldn't overcome the combination of a language barrier and their suspicions. But Aldis would have gladly let me ride with him, and on the basis of that rather skimpy evidence, I decided to try my luck. Then I went home and researched all the backup possibilities - travel times and days of departure of trains and buses in the direction of Warsaw and Riga from half a dozen major cities.


Two weeks later, I bought myself some road food and headed back to the Utrecht. There didn't seem to be many Latvians around, but there were plenty of Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, and Estonians. I walked through the parking lot, repeating "Riga" like it was a mantra, and from most I received a blank stare in return. After about ten minutes, however, my inquiry elicited a more encouraging response. "Riga?" I asked, and a lanky, somewhat scruffy, long-haired man in a flannel shirt and sleeveless denim vest replied "Kaunas." 


Close enough, it seemed to me, and after we'd exchanged a few more words I realized that he also had at least a reasonable command of English. "Can I ride with you?" I asked, and he answered yes, with unexpected nonchalance. Most of these Eastern European types had the appearance of small-time thugs and hustlers, but this man, whose name was Aruydas, looked more like a hippy businessman than either a car dealer or a criminal. 


In fact, he didn't actually buy cars, but instead acted as a sort of broker for his clients. For 150 German marks, he provided transport from Kaunas to Utrecht and negotiated deals on their behalf. His vehicle was a Mercedes diesel van pulling a flatbed trailer to carry an extra car. In a previous life, the van had been used by a German jazz group as a touring bus and fitted with a double decker sleeping area behind the rear seats. The air was thick with the odor of cigarettes and stale sweat. His clients were mostly hefty men with brushcuts, except for one short stocky guy named Romualdas.


Upon our departure at about 4:00 PM, I calculated with satisfaction that I might, with luck, get to Kaunas by the following evening and Riga by Thursday morning. We drove about thirty or forty miles, and then pulled off and parked by a sort of auto depot alongside the freeway near the city of Barneveld. "Five minutes," said the Aruydas and disappeared with his colleagues into the car lot. 


Three quarters of an hour later they reappeared, got into the van, and then we started driving through the Dutch countryside, more or less in the direction of Portugal rather than Latvia. We ended up in a place called Veenendaal, which translates roughly as "bog valley", and one of the crew bought a green Opel Ascona and drove off. The others piled back into the van and we headed for Den Bosch - a city which I'd always wanted to see, but never quite got to. I've been there now, but I still haven't seen it; for the next several hours, we skirted the industrial wastelands, shopping unsuccessfully for great deals on mid-eighties recycled luxury sport coupes. Long after dark, we left Den Bosch, and if I'm not mistaken, passed by Utrecht. I was beginning to get an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach.


It was about 11:00 o'clock when we stopped at a roadside restaurant, but all that traveling in circles had pretty effectively suppressed my appetite. I felt doubly alienated - a stranger in this crowd of strangers. But at least some connection was established when I sat down at an old upright piano and did my imitation of the blues. Despite a lot of wrong notes, my fellow travellers were all very much impressed; I still might not be one of them, but at least I'd established that I was somebody.


At about 1:00 AM we ended up back at the depot near the freeway, finished off the remains of a liter of vodka, everybody got a section of mattress and we all went to sleep. In the morning, they went back into the lot and one of them bought an old but well-preserved Audi and put it on the trailer. I was looking at my watch, trying to figure out what bus or train I might be able to catch if I abandoned Aruydas, but he was continually assuring me that I needn't worry about the lost time, because Viktoras had bought a nice Mazda and I could travel with him and we'd make up for all that lost time, flying through the countryside at 90 miles an hour. But an hour later, Viktoras got into his Mazda, laid down a patch of rubber, spun his wheels, kicked up a cloud of dust, and disappeared around the corner.


The other clients disappeared one by one until, by 11:00, only Aruydas, Romualdas, and I were left. Finally, we departed, and for about an hour there, my faith was restored. Just as I was beginning to relax, Aruydas steered the van into the exit lane and said, "I know a place where I can get cheap diesel." And once again, my journey to Latvia became a discovery tour of the Netherlands.


After about twenty minutes, we came to the station, tanked up, and then drove off even further into the sticks - an isolated farmhouse on 20 or 30 acres, with an acre or two of cars on an oily fenced-off lot. Only then did Aruydas finally explain to me that, in addition to cars, he was also looking for a missing person - a driver who had disappeared the previous week with a Ford Transit van and a trailer. He'd expected him back in Kaunas but hadn't heard a word. There were ominous intimations of foul play. 


That did put a different spin on matters, but it didn't explain why Aruydas seemed so insistent on my staying with him. It seemed almost as if he wanted me along and didn't want to tell me anything that might make me decide to leave. At any rate, he wasn't able to get any more information on his driver, and so we headed for points east sometime around 2:00 PM - nearly 24 hours after I'd first arrived in Utrecht. 


And for at least two hours, it was steady progress. Then we pulled off the freeway once again, and rolled to a stop in the parking lot of a small supermarket in a non-descript German city. "Ten minutes," said Aruydas, and I prepared myself for another delay. This must have been the supermarket equivalent of the diesel station. A constant stream of Eastern European cars appeared and disappeared. About three quarters of an hour after we arrived, Aruydas and Romualdas returned, with a heavy load of ketchup, cigarettes, beer, and a variety of other unlikely and unrelated grocery items from the processed foods and cleaning supplies sections. And with that, we finally did hit the road for real, heading past Hanover, Braunschweig and Berlin towards the Polish-German border in the gathering gloom.



"Can you drive?" asked Aryudas. When I told him I could, he asked me if I'd be willing to drive the Audi across the border. "It makes it shorter at the border," he said. Now, it could very well have been that the Audi was stuffed with cocaine or plastic explosives, but somehow, quite irrationally, I'd come to trust Aruydas. I was only worried that the customs officials might wonder why an American with a Dutch residence permit and a Latvian visa was driving a car purchased the previous day in the Netherlands to a city in Lithuania for an absentee owner. Aruydas handed me the registration papers. "It's ok," he said. "No problem."


We pulled the Audi off the trailer. Far off, the lights of the German border post lit up the sky. We inched forward, a car length at a time, sometimes stopping for a minute, sometimes a quarter of an hour, shutting the engine off with each pause. When I restarted the engine, I noticed, with alarm, that the fuel gauge barely budged, and I started to worry that I might not even make it to the border. Meanwhile, I was trying to keep straight in my mind what I needed to say if they started asking difficult questions. 


The last mile took about three hours, but when I finally did reach the German checkpoint, the officer barely glanced at my passport. On the Polish side, they gave the car papers a cursory examination, and waved me through. I pulled off the side of the road to wait for Aruydas, but he drove past me, so that I was forced to catch up and follow. The gas gauge was at the very bottom of the red zone. I tried to alert Aruydas to my distress by honking my horn and flashing my lights, but he didn't notice. We pushed through the night, on a two- lane winding country road. The more I drove, the less I wanted to stop driving this fine machine, but if I didn't do something soon, I might be stranded in the Polish countryside for the night, which was likely to be worse than Barneveld.


When we eventually reached a long straightaway, I shifted down and blew by Aruydas at about 85 miles an hour and then pulled over to explain. He let me drive ahead, and I had another fifteen minutes behind the wheel before we arrived at an all-night gas station.We had gotten through the border some time after midnight, and it was close to 1:00 when we'd tied the Audi back down on the trailer. I got back into the van, wedged myself into the upper sleeping compartment, Aruydas pulled the van back out onto the road, and I fell asleep almost immediately. It seemed that I'd only just closed my eyes when it was morning, and we were several hundred kilometers clear of the German border, rolling through the flat Polish countryside.


And rolling and rolling. The road from the German border to the Lithuanian border stretches for some 500 miles, little of it is freeway, and even bypassing Warsaw, it passes through numerous cities and towns. We could average little more than 30 miles an hour - not including the extra hour required to negotiate our freedom in one town when a Polish police officer spotted us parked illegally by the post office. In the end, Aruydas bought him off for five German marks.


We continued on through a more textured landscape, crossing the broad Vistula River and then winding along the Narew River in a shallow valley with numerous villages and small cities. Compared to a previous visit to Poland in 1989, the streets were clearly livelier and the people better dressed, but the costs of boom-time in Poland were also visible - bums sleeping in doorways, and grandmothers shuffling along the street, looking lost in the world and in time. And in the countryside, slow-moving horse drawn carts remained a ubiquitous road hazard, the end of communism notwithstanding.


About mid-afternoon, Aruydas called Kaunas. The missing driver had finally called in. "Mafia," said Aruydas, with no further explanation. Aruydas barely acknowledged his relief - he seemed to belong to that breed of stoics that gravitate to the transport industry. Although we were rarely certain that we understood each other completely, we had talked intermittently for the entire trip. I learned he was married, liked rock and roll, and had a child and a Honda Prelude. He spoke Polish, English, and Russian as well as Lithuanian, and even a bit of Turkish, which he'd picked up when he'd travelled to Istanbul as a trader. But that had been earlier, before independence. "It was better then," he said. "Then we had money and jobs. Now - no jobs. And no money." He had been driving for about 28 or 29 hours when I asked him if he wasn't getting tired. "Yes, I feel tired," he replied. He smiled a bit and added, "It isn't the first time."


We reached the Polish-Lithuanian border in the early evening. This was a far more chaotic mess than the well-behaved traffic jam at the German border. A good percentage of the vehicles waiting to cross were towing cars or hauling trailers packed with goods - in many cases almost surreal piles of rusted scrap. A row of shacks extended right up to the control post, housing a string of money-changing shops and little stores and snack bars. 


Since Aruydas was only going to Kaunas, we'd agreed from the beginning that I'd try to find a car at the border that could take me to Riga, but we found no one willing and able to take me. I'd pretty much given up hope of making a connection when a couple of large buses came through, doing the Warsaw- Riga route. Aruydas arranged to get me on board one of them for the regular fare of $17, but only if I could manage to catch it after it crossed the border. Aruydas manuevered his vehicle up close to the bus, and at the exact moment the inspector stepped on board, Aruydas said "Come on," and we jumped out of the van and ran toward the bus. When we got to the door of the bus, I pressed a fifty mark note into his hand as we shook hands and wished each other well, and then I stepped up into the bus. Never once during the entire trip had he even mentioned money, and I'm certain that if I hadn't offered it to him, he wouldn't have asked. 


It was about 9:30. I was greeted by suspicious stares as I stumbled down the narrow aisle, manuevered my way past bodies and bags, and handed my passport to the immigration official. I wedged myself into an uncomfortable seat, with one bag stuffed underneath and the other jammed in front of me. Despite the cramped quarters I managed to sleep until we'd reached the outskirts of Riga. The early morning sky was just beginning to lighten ever so slightly as we rolled into the central bus station. The streets and the nearby central train station were deserted but I located the 24-hour money changer across the square from the station, and then I caught a cab. The ten minute ride cost $8.



West Africa 2011:

I left West Africa on a Black Star Lines freighter in 1978, certain I'd be back soon. But it took nearly 34 years to get back to Ouagadougou.


China 2010: An annotated album


Soviet dis-Union, 1989 

Scenes from just before the revolution 
In 1989, I was a semi-accidental witness to history. Reflecting back on what was an amazing four-month sojourn in the Soviet Union, I decided to add an annotated photo album to stories I'd previously published on this site.



Don't Be Afraid 
In what was still known as Leningrad at the time, I found out that people weren't accustomed to feeling like they could say what was on their minds. 


Things falling apart 
The almost unbearable heaviness of being Soviet 

A White Night in Leningrad 
Pondering Russia's future in the midnight glow

Georgian hospitality and the love of Stalin 

Armenia's only shell game operator speaks of his life ambition



Burma, 1992-93:

A Day in Pagan - Burma, 1992

Thousands of pagodas rise from Burma's ancient capital. The people love to talk about their nation's past, but they are not so forthcoming about the present or the future. 


The Dance of the Nat Kadaw - Burma, January, 1993 

On the far side of the Chindwin River, across from a river port called Monywa, an ugly woman dances for the demi-gods


Kyaitio - Burma, January, 1993 

Making a pilgrimage to the golden rock miraculously held in place (ostensibly) by a hair of the Buddha


Cuba 2000

I had to see it before it changed ... 



The Road to Riga 

Amidst smugglers and (perhaps) thieves between Holland and Latvia 

Incongruous Riga

Buffalo News, 1996


On the Road in Albania, 1996

A rough ride


A room with a view? 

Immediately following a perfect beach day - Turkey, 1998 


End of the road 

A different sort of Florida - Cedar Key, 2001 

Ancient (early 80s) history from my hometown:

Niagara's other wonder

Bright lights above the falls



Yes, I do have a job, sort of. Free-lance writing, journalism, editing, translation. If it's English words you're looking for, I can help you out. Click here for more information. It pays the rent.



Katvanger — dubious blues, twisted roots, counterfeit country & western, improbable jazz, and more ...


plus Jim Wake & Sleepwalker (1994-2014) — blues with a twist, rock and roll with a hop and a skip, country and western with tongue in cheek, quasi-tango, pseudo-Caribbean, proto-klezmer, etc.



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