​​​​My Tour of Latvian Capital, with a​​
German-Thai Guilty of Being Rich

By M. P. Prabhakaran

This monument on the banks of the Daugava River in the Latvian capital of Riga commemorates those killed when police opened fire on a massive rally, on January 13, 1905. The rally was organized by industrial workers and peasants of Latvia to protest the massacre of their brethren in St. Petersburg, Russia, on January 9, 1905. The notorious St. Petersburg massacre has been recorded in history as “Bloody Sunday 1905.”

July 30, 2009—Thursday

Latvia’s early history is similar to Estonia’s. Both countries were subjected to attack and conquest by the powers that led the Northern Crusades, also known as the Baltic Crusades. Riga, the capital of Latvia, was founded in 1201 by Teutonic (Germanic) colonists. It became a strategic base for the Crusaders, especially the Livonian Brothers of the Sword. Like Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, Riga became a principal trading center in the German-controlled Hanseatic League.
Because of its strategic location and prosperity, it also became a bone of contention among four major powers of the time: The State of the Teutonic Order (later Germany), the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Sweden, and Russia. The longest period of its domination by a foreign power began in 1710, when the control over Riga switched from Sweden to Russia. By the end of the nineteenth century, thanks to its rapid industrialization, Latvia became one of the most developed parts of the Russian Empire.
The prosperity also gave rise to Latvian nationalism. What began in the 1850s as a murmuring discontent over Russian domination played out in full force during the civil war that broke out in Russia in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution. Latvia’s prolonged struggle to break away from the Russian Empire brought about its total independence in 1920.
Unfortunately, the independence proved to be short-lived. As we discussed in chapter 16, soon after World War II broke out in 1939, Latvia and the other two Baltic States—Estonia and Lithuania— were annexed by the Soviet Union. (Russia, together with the territories it grabbed after Communist rule was firmly established in the country, had been renamed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics [USSR], or the Soviet Union, in 1922.)
In 1941, as part of Operation Barbarossa, Germany ousted the Soviet Union from the Baltic States and established its rule there. After Germany’s defeat in World War II, the Soviet Union reoccupied all three states and reconstituted them as Soviet republics.
For nearly half a century, Latvian nationalism remained in a dormant state. It began to resurge in 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev became the supreme leader of the Soviet Union. The three Baltic States took full advantage of the new policies introduced by Gorbachev. Though the policies—known as glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring)—were aimed at economic and political revitalization of the Soviet Union, they had unanticipated consequences. They led to the unraveling of the country.
The Baltic States, to repeat what was said in chapter 16, were the first to break away. When they declared their independence, one by one, and when other countries of the world started recognizing their independence, the Soviet Union was left with no option but to acquiesce.
The foregoing history of the Baltic States came back to mind as I set out to explore Riga on July 30, 2009. I got out of my hostel at about 9:00 a.m. with no destination in mind. The tour of the city I had booked would start only at 11:00 a.m.
When I passed by a travel agency on the next block, a display ad on its window caught my attention. The ad announced conducted tours to India and featured an Odissi dancer, in full costume and in a beautiful pose. Could the travel agency be Indian-owned? I went in to find out.
There was only one desk and one employee inside. The employee —a young, attractive Latvian woman—told me that the travel agency was not Indian-owned. It conducted tours to India every summer, if adequate number of tourists registered for it. “It’s already July 30,” the Latvian lady added, “and none has registered so far. So, no tour is likely this summer.”
Like Estonia, Latvia was also experiencing a severe economic crunch. Business was slow in all sectors of the economy. When the economy slows down, tourism is one of the sectors that feel the pinch first.
The depressing news notwithstanding, I came out of the agency feeling good. Maybe it had to do with the woman I just spoke with. Or maybe it had to do with the display ad on the window. The Indian dancer featured in it, with the Taj Mahal in the background, was so beautiful that anyone would want to take a second look at it. The ad did India proud.
I had more than an hour to pass before taking the 11:00 a.m. tour. The tour was to start outside Stockmann, the largest department store in Riga. It was two blocks away from where I was. I decided to spend the remaining time window-shopping at Stockmann.
Compared with the department stores I have been to in many major cities of the world, this one, with only four floors, did not look all that large. It’s quite possible that the four-story limit had to do with the building regulations in this environmentally conscious city. The absence of offensive skyscrapers adds to the beauty of Riga.
Once inside Stockmann, I realized that, in terms of the variety of goods and services sold, it could compete with any department store anywhere in the world. Watching the employees of the store at work, I couldn’t tell whether they were Latvians or Russians. They spoke with me in English. But while dealing with local customers, they switched between Latvian and Russian, depending on what language the customer spoke. During the short time I was in the store, I heard more Russian than Latvian.
It has been said that “Riga is the most Soviet-feeling Baltic capital city.” Two-thirds of the city’s population is ethnic Russian. In the country as a whole, Russians make up 40 percent of the population. Very few of them have acquired Latvian citizenship. That makes the Latvian ethnic mix potentially very explosive, according to some demographic analysts. It didn’t reach that level in the other two states. In Estonia, Russians make up 25 percent of the population; and in Lithuania, they are a negligible 6 percent.
It was already 11:00 a.m. I rushed to the tour bus, which was waiting outside Stockmann, about to leave.
The bus was packed, and I could tell that I was the only Indian on it. I introduced myself to the person I sat next to.
“I had been to India twice,” he said.
I was surprised to hear that he was from Thailand. He didn’t look like a Thai at all. I decided not to mention it right away. I would have plenty of time to clarify it, I said to myself.
January 13 Street
The bus soon entered a street called January 13 Street. It was named so, the tour guide said, in memory of those killed during a massive protest rally on the street, on January 13, 1905. Industrial workers and peasants of Riga were protesting the massacre of their brethren that took place in St. Petersburg on January 9, 1905. (See “Bloody Sunday 1905,” discussed in chapter 8.)
The rally in Riga was also dealt with by the authorities the same way as the one in St. Petersburg. When police opened fire, many of the protesters jumped into the icy waters of the nearby Daugava River and drowned. According to one estimate, 73 demonstrators were killed and 200 were wounded. No figure is available on those who drowned. Apart from January 13 Street, there is also an impressive statue on the banks of the Daugava that commemorates the notorious January 13, 1905, police shooting.
When the tour bus reached the city hall, the guide gave us a brief history of the imposing statue in front of it. The statue, which is of two soldiers, has “latviesu strelnieki 1915–1920” engraved on it. Latviesu Strelnieki, meaning Latvian Riflemen, was created in Latvia in 1915 as a unit of the Imperial Russian Army. The mission of the unit, which consisted mainly of recruits from Latvia, was to defend Baltic territories against the invading German army during World War I.
The Latvians’ resentment toward Germans goes back to the thirteenth century, when they were conquered by the German-dominated Livonian Order. The resentment increased when the German settlers of Latvia became landowners and part of the governing elite. Later, after the Russian conquest of Latvia and systematic Russification of the land, the resentment was directed at the Russian settlers. During the Bolshevik Revolution, many members of the Latvian Riflemen unit found common cause with the Bolsheviks and joined in their fight against the czarist regime. So, the tall monument that stands in front of the city hall now is in memory as much of the soldiers who fought against Germans as of those who did against the czar of Russia.
Next, the tour bus passed by the Castle of Riga, which is now the residence of Latvia’s president; St. Peter’s Church, which has a 153-meter-tall steeple; St. Mary’s Catholic Church (the name was changed to Lutheran Cathedral when Latvia came under Swedish rule); the Trinity Orthodox Church; the Latvian National Theater; the Freedom Monument (42 meters high); and many other landmarks, the names of which the tour guide rattled off. When the bus passed through the most elite neighborhood of Latvia, the guide said that it was still known as the Russian suburb. Many streets in the neighborhood have Russian names. One of them is Muskova Street. Russian merchants and Jews settled down in the area generations ago.
One couldn’t help noticing the pro-Russian, anti-Latvian-nationalist slant in our guide’s commentary. It was obvious that he was one of those who were opposed to Latvia’s breakup with the Soviet Union. Whenever he referred to the country’s Russian past and described Russian things around, he even became nostalgic. When his commentary became too pro-Russian, the Thai gentleman sitting next to me gave me a nudge and said, “Did you hear that?”
“You can see that type in every country,” I told him. “We have Indians who masquerade as more British than the British. They are still nostalgic about the days of the Raj. We call them “brown sahibs.” We have characters in Goa, the former Portuguese colony, who still hold a grudge against India for having liberated them from Portuguese rule.”
How a Thai Got European Features
After the tour ended at about 3:00 p.m., I told the Thai that I was very hungry. “Why don’t you join me and have something?” I said.
We walked into a nearby pizzeria. Over pizza and coke, we had a long conversation. He opened up when I told him, “You can never pass for an ethnic Thai. I took you for a Scandinavian or German.”
“You are absolutely right,” he said and went on to narrate the story of his mixed origins. He had a German father and Thai mother. His father had fought in World War II.
I didn’t want to embarrass him with the question whether his father was a Nazi soldier. It was obvious that he was. After the war, he decided to take a long break and wandered around Southeast Asia. The country where he spent most of his time was Thailand. A few months into his stay in Thailand, he met a Thai woman and married her. “I got the looks of my German father,” he said. “Both my father and mother are dead now.”
He had his college education, partly in Germany and partly in the United States. He specialized in computer programming. When he sold a program that he invented to an American company, he came into big money. He didn’t tell me which company he sold it to and how much he sold it for. He might have made a fortune. Or else he wouldn’t have quit the job he had in Bangkok to spend the rest of his life pursuing his “life’s dream” -- traveling around the world.
He was on a three-month land tour from Bangkok to Lithuania. He had already passed through Myanmar, Mongolia, China, and Tibet. “In Tibet, I found more Chinese than Tibetans,” he said.
“Tibetans resent it,” I told him. “You read about frequent protest demonstrations against Chinese domination of Tibet. Some protesters are even resorting to self-immolation. But there is no letup in the Chinese attitude. According to the Chinese, Tibet is part of China. I am sure you are aware that the Tibetans’ spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, has been living in India ever since the Chinese overran his country in 1957. How much impact can he have when he protests from outside? Moreover, lately, his protests have been somewhat muted.” The German-Thai was in full agreement with my views on Tibet. I decided to veer our conversation back to where we left off, when he mentioned his life’s dream. “You said you are on a tour by land from Bangkok to Lithuania,” I said. “Are you going to fly back to Bangkok from Lithuania?”
“Not immediately,” he said. “From Lithuania, I will be flying to Prague. From there to Berlin, and from Berlin, back to Bangkok.”
“I envy you,” I told him. “The dream that you are pursuing is my dream too. The only difference is that I am not able to do it as often, and as free of financial worries, as you are. During the past ten years, I have traveled extensively. I return from every travel completely broke.”
When he took his video camera off his shoulders and placed it on the table, I couldn’t help noticing some exotic features on it. I had never seen such a camera before, and I told him so.
“Yes, it’s an expensive camera,” he said. “It cost me six thousand euros. With this, I have been documenting my experience all over the world. There was one place where my conscience wouldn’t permit me to do it.”
“Which place was that?” I asked him.
“The slum of Mumbai,” he said. “It was early in the morning.”
“Oh no!” I said to myself.
I feared that he was going to give a graphic description of what he had seen that morning at Mumbai’s Dharavi, the largest slum in Asia. Foreigners have talked and written about it: some amusingly, and others, to the embarrassment of most Indians. Indians themselves avoid going through that area in early-morning hours. That’s the time the open spaces in the Dharavi slum turn into public toilets.
I felt relieved when he started talking about some other aspect of Dharavi. “The man who would be my guide the next three days picked me up at the airport,” he said. “When we reached the slum area, he said that the film Slumdog Millionaire was shot there. When I saw people sleeping on wooden benches outside their shacks, I put my camera back into my bag. I said to myself that with the money I spent on this camera, I could easily feed a few families like these for more than a year.”
“But,” I replied, “don’t you agree that the first step toward solving those problems is to make the world aware of them? Your camera would play a useful role in doing it.”
“Maybe you have a point,” he said. “The problem I have can be called guilt. There was a time when I had five cars, including a Mercedes and a Porsche, and a twenty-two-room house. I was not at all happy. Even a scratch on one of my expensive cars would keep me upset all day. Now I have just one car, a Toyota, and a three-bedroom apartment. I am very, very happy. I carry this camera out of necessity. I try not to use it in places where its use could be mistaken for flaunting.”
I nodded in agreement. I could tell that he was not the flaunting type. When the waitress brought the check, I offered to pay for both of us.
“No,” he said. “Why should you? We’ll split the bill.”
We exchanged our addresses, promised to stay in touch, and said good-bye to each other.
I walked toward my hostel, but my mind was still on some of the things the German-Thai said: about his finding happiness when he gave up his ostentatious living for a simple one, and about the guilt he felt when he saw the wretched condition in the Mumbai slum. I have heard similar stories from many Westerners. That has been the motivating factor behind many of them turning philanthropic. I wished he too had turned his guilt into a worthy cause. “Wasn’t it guilty consciousness that made Alfred Nobel establish the Nobel Prizes?” I asked myself.
After an hour’s rest in my hostel room, I went out again. It was my last day in Riga, and I wanted to enjoy everything around as long as I had the energy to walk. I walked toward the Daugava River.
The Daugava, which empties into the Baltic Sea, has played an important role in Riga’s growth and development as a port city. The river has been a transportation route to Central Europe for centuries.
Riga’s importance as a port city goes back to the days of the Vikings (from the eighth to the tenth century). Since Latvia’s independence from the Soviet Union, there have been regular ferry services between Riga and the Swedish capital of Stockholm. Cruise ships and private yachts arrive regularly from Stockholm. With about four thousand vessels arriving every year, Riga has once again become the bustling port city it once was.
I walked a short distance on the suspension bridge over the Daugava, just to get a feel of it. As I had been told that there was nothing important to see on the other side, I returned to the Old Town side. When I reached Stockmann, again, I decided to go in for the last time.
Next to Stockmann is the largest supermarket in Riga. Next to it is the train station from where one can take trains to all parts of Europe. I spent the remainder of the evening in the area, feeling a little sad that my stay in Riga was coming to an end. I was tired, and it was time for me to head back to the hostel. I went into the supermarket to pick up a beer but was disappointed to learn that all stores in Riga were prohibited to sell alcohol after 9:00 p.m.
Though disappointed, I did express to the manager of the store my appreciation for the city rule. Not that I had witnessed any untoward alcohol-related incidents on any street. “I wish Moscow and St. Petersburg had similar rules,” I told the manager. He smiled.
My disappointment at not being able to have a beer didn’t last long, though. The next thing I wanted to pick up was something light to eat. When I saw a menu, with “Tandoori Chicken” in bold letters, displayed on the window of a fast-food restaurant, I thought I found exactly what I was looking for. I went in.
To my pleasant surprise, I saw two Indians working in the grill area of the place. I asked them whether the place was Indian-owned.
“No,” one of them said. “This is a franchise, with branches in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The franchisee here is Indian. He is from New Delhi.”
“And which part of India are you from?” I asked them. “I am from Bangalore,” one said. Pointing at the other, he added, “He is from Mumbai.”
“I have lived in both places,” I told them. “I am originally from Kerala.”
We chatted for a while. In fact, they were the only Indians I met in Riga. Their families were back in India.
“Are you happy here?” I asked them.
“So-so,” the man from Bangalore said. “The money is OK.”
After a few more minutes’ chat, I asked him to help me order something light. “I can’t eat anything heavy,” I told him, “because I have to get up early in the morning. I am leaving for Warsaw tomorrow.” He suggested salad with a few pieces of chicken. When I said yes, he placed the order for me with a waitress standing nearby.
“Oh, you speak Latvian, eh,” I said to him.
“Yes, I do,” he said. “But what I spoke just now is Russian. She is from Moscow. I spent two years in Moscow before coming here.”
“You have had a colorful life,” I said and shook hands with him.
The waitress arrived with my take-out food. The price was very reasonable. It was quite possible that my Indian connection got me a special deal. I headed for my hostel feeling great.

(Published on March 30, 2018. This is a slightly edited version of Chapter 18 from the author's book, 
An Indian Goes Around the World – II: What I Learned from My Thirty-Day European Odyssey. The book is available online at amazon.com and xlibris.com, and can be ordered through any Barnes and Noble store. The India edition of the book is available at amazon.in, Flipkart and Pothi.com)

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