Idries J. Abdur-Rahman, MD
Latvia was the first stop on an 11-day adventure to three countries; Latvia, Holland and Nigeria. My brother and I were filming three episodes of our video travel blog, The Globe on Call. As physicians by day and travel junkies by night, The Globe on Call is our attempt to marry the worlds of travel and medicine. Our first episode in Latvia examined alternative medicine in Latvia ranging from traditional Latvian sauna therapy to the burgeoning rapid alcohol and heroin detox industry using implanted medications that is increasingly drawing folks from around the world to the ex-Soviet republic. We documented the changing perception of sex and sex workers in Holland and even had a chance to interview the world famous Folken twins while we were there. Our last stop was Nigeria where we visited the Nigerian village of Igbo-Ora which has the worlds largest population of twins. So yeah, it was a whirlwind week and half and Latvia was our first stop.
If you are an aerophile like us, you will want to check out part 1, The Journey to Latvia, right HERE.
If you want to check out our episode of The Globe on Call in Latvia, you can right HERE. We will have another link at the end of this blog as well, so feel free to read on.
Day #1: Vintage Stirrups and a Two Headed Dog!
After scrubbing off all of that airplane and airport grime, our first stop was the Paul Stradins Museum in central Riga.
Dr. Stradins, for whom the museum is named, was a cutting edge physician and surgeon who was best known for his work helping to produce the first serum for blood transfusion in the Soviet Union.
The Stradins museum had oddities in every corner including this vintage chair used for Gynecological examinations. As uncomfortable as modern stirrups are (or so I hear), I’m sure our patients would run for the hills, gown and all, if they found this little diddy in our exam rooms.
Speaking off oddities, this is probably the oddest oddity and the exhibit for which the museum is best known for. No, you are not seeing things and yes, that is a two headed dog.
In case the completely different fur colors didn’t clue you in, this dog was not actually born with two heads. Soviet Scientist Vladimir Demikhov surgically attached the front half of one dog onto the neck of a second dog by combining their circulatory systems. While this experiment was no doubt a bit freakish, it actually helped the good doctor pioneer some of the techniques that are still used today in organ transplant surgery.
Here is a file photo from LIFE magazine when the magazine and the dogs were still in existence. The poor host dog on the bottom didn’t seem too thrilled.
While the two headed dog definitely took the cake, this circa 1800’s Latvian midwife birth registry put us to shame. She clearly put in some long hours!
Soon the jet lag caught up with us and it was time to trudge through the snow blanketed streets of Riga back to the Mercure hotel for a sound, if not short, nights sleep. Tomorrow morning we were going to be tourists for a few hours before heading to the Alusten rehabilitation clinic to start filming.
Good night from the Mercure Hotel.
Day #2: Beautiful Riga and Rapid Detox.
We awoke to a beautiful though somewhat chilly morning in Riga. It was a long underwear, North Face coat, puffy knit hat kinda of day.
See, the morning light yielded proof that we really were in Riga.
There really was something unique and charming about Riga. It definitely had an old Soviet feel while simultaneously feeling sort of hip and modern.
Just dial 67000000 if you need a taxi in Riga.
Here is my bro, aka Dr. J, trying to get some B-roll as we toured central Riga.
While the facade was kind of plain, there was still something striking about this old church.
The architecture in Riga really was phenomenal.
The city reminded me of something a little Swiss,…
a little German but still…
distinctly Soviet. Well, technically ex-Soviet. Here my brother and mother got a quick history lesson from our tour guide.
After a few freezing hours on the streets of Riga, we made our way to Riga Black Magic, home of Riga Black Balzam. What is a Balzam you ask?
Balzams are traditional Latvian herbal liqueurs that mix various natural ingredients with pure vodka. Balzams are considered traditional medicines and are said to be good remedies for colds and poor digestion amongst other things.
I don’t drink but I thought the traditional Balzams bottle was pretty darn cool!
Luckily alcohol wasn’t the only thing on the menu.
So I got to warm up with a nice hot chocolate.
Tootsies and tummy nice and warm again, it was time to head out to the “Panorama Riga” observation deck at the Latvia Academy of Sciences. I was really digging the traditional Latvian dress.
The views from the deck were spectacular and I have to say that I really fell in love with Riga from this perch.
At this point I decided that I would definitely have to come back to Riga sometime soon but I’m thinking a summer time trip is in order next time. I mean who needs two sets of snowy Riga pics, right?
Nothing says Riga like the city Policija right?
Now, it was time to check out Latvia’s burgeoning and cutting edge rapid detox industry at the Alusten clinic. On the way to meet our taxi , I had to admire the architecture and I’m not an architecture buff but…
Riga had some really striking architecture both outside and…
I swear this staircase almost hypnotized me.
As the did the building’s entryway.
A quick taxi ride dropped us off in front of a very nondescript building that really could have been mistaken for a run of the mill apartment block.
We were there to meet with Russell Hughes and his wife Dasha, both of whom were recovering alcoholics and now directors at Alusten. They were remarkably candid about their struggles with alcoholism and about the benefit they derived from the cutting edge therapy at the Alusten clinic.
After our interview with Russell and Dasha, we toured the facilities including the operating room and the inpatient rehab ward. There we were lucky enough to speak with one of the physicians who performs the implantation procedures (more on that in a moment). He explained to us that Latvia is unique is it’s high rate of substance abuse, in particular alcohol. This apparently is a hold over from the Soviet era.
Something else thing that makes Latvia unique is the fact that the government pays for both alcohol and drug rehab treatment. Now, why in particular did we go to the Alusten clinic? Well, Aluston is one of the few places in the world to use implantable medications to rapidly detox patients. We were fortunate enough to be able to actually interview patients and their families, many of whom came all the way from the US and Canada for the groundbreaking treatments.
This particular couple came from Canada to have a Disulfiram implant placed to treat alcoholism. I have to say that I was totally impressed by the facility, the availability of substance abuse treatment in Latvia and the willingness of patients to share their stories with us. And with this final interview it was a wrap. Not to toot our horns but our episode of The Globe on Call is a good watch, check it out here HERE
Day #3: An Old Zeppelin Hanger and Costume stop Celebrate Winter!
The snow continued to fall on our next day in Riga but we weren’t complaining, it made the landscape feel uniquely Latvian, whatever the heck that means!
We made a quick stop at the Riga Central Market because it is Europes largest market and bazaar and because…
it is housed in old Zeppelin hangers. We came for the fruits and vegetables and we stayed for the Zeppelin hangers!
Alas, we only had an hour or so to explore before leaving the warmth of the hanger to check out the Martin’s Day festival.
By the time we reached the Martin’s Day festival, the tundra was definitely even more snowy. The Martin’s Day festival is a traditional Latvian celebration of the first day of winter and let me tell you, it is quite the party.
A big part of the Martin’s Day festival is the costumes which could best be described as interesting. This particular costume had the ancillary benefit of some added warmth so I was a happy camper.
The costumes are dedicated to both the spirits and life beyond the grave as well as to the harvest season. So we had costumes and…
we had music and…
ew had free food, so yeah, it was definitely a party!
Don’t ask me if the different costumes have a particular meaning but some of them were most certainly eye catching.
Patty over here! Click HERE
Party over there! Click HERE
After the revelry of the Martin’s Day Festival (although I still can’t imagine why anyone would want to celebrate the coming of winter but any who), it was time to head back to the hotel to edit, eat and catch some ZZZ’s. We would spend our next day at the world famous Poking forest in search of it’s mythical healing energy.
Day #4: A Magical Forest an a Naked Polar Plunge.
The forest is believed by many Latvians to have healing powers and for this reason Pokaini has played a huge role in Latvian culture for years. It wasn’t until the 1970’s however, when NASA noted unexplained periodic bursts of energy, that Pokaini was on the map for non-Latvians.
Spiritual healers have long said that Pokaini has a special healing energy and legend has it that you can feel it’s energy radiating from the many stones scattered throughout the forest.
Maybe it was the power of suggestion but I really did feel a subtle energy coming from the stones, especially the larger ones. Here my brother was trying to tap into the energy.
Whether it was the spiritual healing powers or just the beauty and solitude, Pokaini did have a feeling of peace and serenity.
Is the very odd shape of some of Pokaini’s trees due to it’s mystical healing energy? Who knows.
We ended our day in Pokaini with traditional Latvian music performed by the next to a very inviting fire. The combination of her voice and the scenery left me so mesmerized that I forgot just how cold I should have been. I really couldn’t imagine anything topping Pokaini but our next stop was a traditional Latvian Sauna and it sure gave Pokaini a run for it’s money.
We journeyed for about an hour on back roads through the isolated Latvian countryside before we finally pulled up to a very nondescript wooden house in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere. The pitch-black starry skies made for an excellent backdrop but crappy pictures. On the inside, the sauna was warm and inviting if not a bit musty.
Saunas play a huge role in Latvian culture and in traditional Latvian medicine. Our host for the evening was a Sauna Master and a trained medical doctor practicing Psychiatry. He explained to us the importance Sauna’s have in Latvian medicine including their roles in pregnancy, childbirth and the postpartum period. He even explained to us how he uses the sauna in his Psychiatry practice. Apparently his fluffy liked listening to the stories while chilling in front of the crackling fireplace.
Part of the Latvian sauna experience involved stripping down to literally nothing, submerging our bodies in an almost frozen lake followed by a tub (also outside) that was filled with ice cold water before finally…
getting back to the refuge of the Sauna and to have a traditional Latvian treatment. The Sauna master and his son were almost as naked as we were and I still haven’t decided if that made the experience more or less awkward. The ice cold part of the treatment sucked, I have to be honest, and the warm part of the treatment got a bit warm at times, but the overall experience was actually pretty cool and very relaxing. Traditional Latvian sauna crossed off of the list, we made the 60 minute journey back to the center of Riga and our hotel for our final Latvian dinner which consisted of…
A burger and fries. What can I say?, I’m still an American, but with a black bun, Latvia is known for it’s traditional black bread, the last meal was a bit Latvian. The bun looked kind of gross but it made up in taste what it lacked in appearance.
After dinner we took one last stroll through the streets of Riga. We had to be up at zero dark thirty to catch our flight to Amsterdam the following morning and we only had 24-hours in Amsterdam to film the world famous Folken twins, a clinic specifically designed to serve sex workers and of course the Red Light district, so a little bit of sleep was a must.
We were up bright and early (and by bright I mean it was still pitch black!) to catch our airBaltic flight to Amsterdam. While I’m not a huge fan of green (unless it has some dead presidents on it and it is in my pocket), the airBaltic green did kind of light up the otherwise monotoned checkin lobby.
Check-in was quick and easy and we soon had our boarding passes in hand and made our way through a very quick and efficient security line. Yup, that’s my mother eating an over-priced airport pastry, but she carried us for 8 1/2 months and managed to push us both out so I think she earned it! Now were even.
Pretty respectable departures board, especially for the time of morning.
Our Boeing 737-300 was dutifully waiting on the freezing tarmac to take us to Amsterdam.
If you want to check out Part 1, the journey to Latvia click HERE.
If you want to see our episode of The Globe on Call in Latvia, click HERE.
If you want to checkout our trips to Amsterdam and Nigeria, check back because they will be post soon!