“The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.”
The following interview was originally published in Benji Knewman 12.
A few days after this conversation, legally mandated self-isolation was announced in Latvia, in order to prevent the country from short-circuiting due to the potential impact of the COVID-19 virus. Soon after, calendars and planners lost all meaning in the Western world. In the news, police urged people not to leave their homes. Travelling became the subject of dreams. Things will be different; we will have to adjust.
During our conversation we asked Māris Upenieks, the author of the travel blog Katurir.lv, about the bug that evidently and systematically drives him out of the house – in the current context this sounds ambiguous and even sad. Even if we suddenly got the travel bug, we would be forced to admit that paradise without choice is hell. Māris, like Jules Verne, has already travelled and written about his leagues, so he is in a more advantageous position than the rest of us. All we can do is try to imagine what it’s like there.
R. V. When looking from the outside in – as much as your public profile allows – a logical question pops up: “How? By what means?”
M. U. You mean I spend a lot or travel a lot?
R. V. The latter.
M. U. The answer is probably working as an independent consultant, for three years already; and balancing it all out. It seems like the expenses are huge, but they aren’t – I often skimp when I’m travelling. I mostly travel alone, so I can save, for example, on the level of luxury of my accommodations. If others come with, they usually have different expectations of life. You probably can’t save on getting to a specific destination, but to explore and enjoy it, you don’t need a lot. Certainly not as much as it may seem. Moving around on the far side of Asia, for example, can still be relatively easily done on a budget. I keep hearing about young people heading abroad and spending half a year there, while doing social media. I’m not some millionaire’s son.
R. V. Would you like to be?
M. U. Probably not anymore.
R. V. “Probably”. I like it. But anyway, if we accept that it’s not as expensive as it seems, will you explain how you do it?
M. U. To some extent it’s coincidence, and on top of that – it’s all about priorities. You give yourself permission, as esoteric as that may sound. You remove the clamps that hold you back, whatever they may be. Of course, I could just as well spend that money on new windows for the country house.
L. T. Do you hitchhike?
M. U. When I was 19 or 20. Time was worthless then. I didn’t have a proper job, had little money, and it was an opportunity. When you start working you realize that spending part of your holiday hitchhiking through Poland to destination X isn’t the best use of time. The first time I hitchhiked, I was heading to Croatia. Then Greece – via the Balkans.
R. V. I went on a tour to Croatia just last year, and will never do it again. It was horrible – cicadas, heat, everyone was dying, and on the way back my fellow travellers on the bus started drinking hot vodka. One woman pleaded with her husband, “Please, don’t.” He almost started singing “Pie dzintara jūras”, and responded, “I’ve paid for it.”
M. U. Precisely.
R. V. It’s a good vaccine against loving humankind.
L. T. Maybe you should also be sent on a guided tour.
M. U. I’ve been!
L. T. But a long time ago.
M. U. Yes, and I needed exactly one such trip to understand it all.
It was traumatic – you see nothing. Just the raised umbrella in the tour guide’s hand. That really is an occasion for drinking warm Becherovka, as nothing else can salvage the situation. Nothing.
R. V. We did that too, but even that didn’t help.
M. U. Was it research for you?
R. V. No, several people came together and decided to go. In a moment of stupidity, I agreed. The guide told us to pee once every two hours and warned that the atmosphere was so tense that it’s best not to talk about your grandchildren’s feces, or someone would get into a fight. I realized later on that he was right. Fights can break out over the crackle of a packet of crisps, because everyone is so sick of it. I promised myself to never sign up for anything like this ever again. In the mornings you feel like you’ve peed yourself in bed, because the sheets were soaked through. You’d shower and sweat simultaneously.
M. U. Maybe you didn’t like the heat?
R. V. True. I struggle with heat. Whereas Lolita lived in Israel, so she’s used to it.
L. T. You do get used to it, but I lived in Jerusalem, not Tel Aviv. There by the shore the humidity is about 80-90 percent. It’s unbearable. Like a sauna. Whereas Jerusalem is in the mountains. Regardless of how hot you get in the day, in the evening there’s shade and a breeze. Unless, of course, the desert wind khamsin is blowing, then everyone is screwed.
R. V. Knut Hamsun… Hey, but do you pick where to go by jabbing your finger at a globe? And are you more aware of what you don’t want, or what you want?
M. U. At the moment this is really on point, because after my last trip, which was to Turkmenistan, I realized that it is the essence of everything I like. You can’t figure out what you like by sitting at home with an atlas – you have to go there. I had a transit visa, which is the only way to get there without a guide. I took a ferry over the Caspian Sea. There were, unusually, many unknown factors and adventures. It turns out that you can feel like an explorer who’s stumbled upon a new land while being relatively close to Europe. I didn’t even know when I’d come home. Initially there is some discomfort, but then indescribable feelings take over; ones which wouldn’t be possible if you knew that you had a flight and a hotel booked. Everyone wants their comfort zone. In Turkmenistan there wasn’t even the internet – you just have to go and figure it out. Find some addresses in various forums and go. After all that I realized that now if I go somewhere, I want it to be on the next level, or at least a comparable one. I suppose in the Congo everything wouldn’t be clear. Everything would be strange and unpredictable.
R. V. Uncertainty as a state of being seems comfortable to you?
M. U. I’m training myself.
R. V. To what end?
M. U. I don’t know. Yes, to what end. I had, and still have, a theory, that after moments of discomfort an experience of a situation becomes clear. There will be other nuances and other rules, but you will know how to orient yourself.
L. T. What situations do you mean?
M. U. Like knowing about needing a local guide to ensure you don’t get ripped off. Or, in the worst case scenario, to get out of a slum. I even know people who intentionally keep going to slums over and over again, but once was enough for me to understand that there is no difference between a slum in Haiti and one in Mumbai – your experience of them is the same. It is worth experiencing only to admit to yourself that it can be so. What you do with that information is another question; whether you loudly express an opinion, or rejoice about how good we have it, or start fighting for something.
R. V. So you are training?
M. U. I am training in uncertainty.
R. V. When you’re walking along a street and you see a group of people, do you cross to the other side?
M. U. Sometimes. There are times when I cross. I do not act like a hero. It’s not like I came back from Turkmenistan, and now I’m going to fight 10 guys, it’s not like that.
R. V. Where else do you apply this training?
M. U. I don’t know how much you know about me…
L. T. Latvia is small.
M. U. …but I work in our small, affectionately bloody advertising industry. It’s famous for its unpredictability. If you don’t stick to templates, then even on a day-to-day basis you hit the feeling that you’ve created something worthy of development, but you’re uncomfortable and even a little scared – because it’s a road you haven’t travelled on before. And in Latvia clients are a relatively timid breed; they don’t always appreciate experiments. Maybe it’s starting to change for the better now, but there is still that daily internal discomfort and uncertainty in my job. Though this no longer has anything to do with Turkmenistan.
R. V. I have to admit that I know very little about this country.
M. U. You must know about the president!
R. V. Yes, he wrote a book about the Alabai dog breed.
M. U. In the public discourse it more or less revolves around that. All of his extravagant activities.
R. V. Have you met many people who find uncertainty a comfortable state of being?
M. U. I don’t think I’ve spoken to anyone about it. Among my acquaintances who travel, each has their own motivation. I know a girl who goes to exciting places but she, unlike me, is completely uninterested in cities and urban environments. Even in terms of architecture. Whereas I am interested in people. That is where you begin to realize your stereotypes. It turns out that I have a lot of different plugs and stereotypes. I end up in a certain situation and think, “Where does this come from?” And I don’t know the answer! Is it the media, or something I read?
L. T. Do you read travel guides? Does it not get on your nerves? Especially when it comes to places you’ve visited yourself?
M. U. Sure, when I’m flipping through magazines – if I happen to come across one – but only when it’s about places that I would want to visit myself. I’ve read Lato Lapsa’s first books.
R. V. (Laughs.)
M. U. Don’t laugh! I’m not too interested in his current activities, but those first books about Russia and Africa I read, and liked. He has his own style, of course. Half the books are local news clippings.
L. T. People who don’t go to strange and distant lands, and in the case of Africa, also expensive ones – all they ever learn is what Lato Lapsa writes.
M. U. You mean that he puts everything in a box of sorts?
L. T. Yes, you talked about stereotypes. Where do you meet locals?
M. U. Turkmenistan is a good example. It was during this trip that I discovered the value of conversation. Prior to this I’d assumed that I was an introvert. People drain me, and at the end of the day I have to drink wine and recharge alone in my hotel room. In Turkmenistan I ended up in situations where I was the centre of attention, because I was that rare foreigner. Conversations were so lively and really deepened my understanding of the country! They and I all spoke Russian. One guy with a broken nose – he looked as though he had just come out of prison – determinedly marched up to me and announced that in 1983 he was the bass guitarist for Laima Vaikule in Jūrmala. He came because he’d heard a rumour that a visitor from Latvia had arrived. We ended up having a three-hour-long conversation about Turkmenistan, over eight pints of beer. From his perspective, of course, but thoroughly interesting.
R. V. You hadn’t discovered this before?
M. U. It seems that it was specifically in Turkmenistan that I realized how cool they can be. I was only there for five days, but had plenty of conversations, and they weren’t trivial.
R. V. I mentioned you to someone, and they said, “He is arrogant”. What do you say about that?
M. U. I am not.
R. V. (Laughs.) That is clear.
M. U. Well, maybe I appear to be sometimes.
R. V. So you’re saying you’re not?
M. U. Who would ever say so about themselves?
The training in uncertainty during my trips is also training in humility. You can really train your humility in moments when you find yourself next to a genuinely cocky Westerner. Someone who insults the locals. And I always think: why would I be, I don’t know, more intelligent than the local?
R. V. And why wouldn’t you be?
M. U. I don’t know.
L. T. Stop. That is the worst.
M. U. The extent people go to, to assert their superiority.
L. T. When I hear travelling Latvians who are convinced that no one around them can understand Latvian, I have no doubt. Or when I hear Israelis in Asia. You don’t even need to strain your ears to hear them; they are loud. It is utterly shocking – arrogance and casual racism. I find it hard to listen to.
R. V. Can refraining from telling a person your opinion of them spoil them? If they were told by everyone, perhaps they would change.
M. U. I’m not one of those. Though, of course, if he’s walking along a street and kicking kittens, it’s another matter.
R. V. That’s a categorical example, but one merely needs to mention Hitler and the conversation immediately enters another level.
M. U. There are limits. If I’m on a bus and I can’t stand a group of people, what am I supposed to say to them? “Why are you so loud and stupid?” Who am I to say so? Am I right? Perhaps he is representative of his hotblooded culture, and they are loudly rejoicing over what they see.
R. V. The philosopher Mamardashvili sat by a kiosk drinking beer and talked about the soul. A tipsy man heard the musings and said, “There is no soul!” Mamardashvili turned to him and said, “You don’t have one!”
L. T. But when you travel, do you recognize how privileged you are? Young, white European. And you’re not a woman; women experience travel differently. And there are others of different genders travelling through the same places.
M. U. Absolutely.
In Turkmenistan you meet people and it’s clear – they will never get out. At times the contrast is mind-boggling.
L. T. I’ve travelled through Jordan and in the Sinai peninsula in Egypt, both alone and with a guy. And the sense of safety is incomparable. Alone, it’s constantly like a war. You’re rude, unpleasant, immediately snappy – you can’t relax. Unless you end up with tourists, hipsters, or hippies. I see where you’ve travelled, especially Haiti, and can’t imagine doing it alone, in some criminal neighbourhoods.
M. U. It would be dangerous even for me to walk there alone. I haven’t been anywhere else like Haiti, where it is completely unclear how this bubble even works. How do you get from point A to point B in such a place? Only with a guide.
L. T. How did you decide to go there? It’s not like any tourism guide book names it as a “country not to be missed”.
M. U. I went to see the region, not just Haiti. I understood enough to know that I needed to get a local guide. I got this man, a priest and director of an orphanage. Through three acquaintances. How many handshake acquaintances are there usually?
R. V. In Latvia? Probably two.
L. T. One and a half.
M. U. Exactly. He came to meet me, and although he definitely tried to charge me more than usual, it was worth it. Even just to experience the Haitian orphanage alone. I brought a bag of sweets and saw so clearly what mega privilege is – the difference between our reality and theirs. I can’t speak for us all, but in that moment I realized how much I should appreciate it all.
But about the slums… I felt so uncomfortable that I needed a companion. If you look at famous explorers, they also don’t pretend to be heroes. They all have “fixers”. I stayed in a mysterious humanitarian camp, not even at a hotel, where behind barbed wire, rooms were rented out. One option was to tour the area on a motorcycle taxi, but that same evening someone told me that they had badly burnt their leg on the exhaust, and I changed my mind. I asked whether they could get a person for me. The next day a young guy arrived and agreed, since he had time. We agreed on a price, though of course he tried to get money from me immediately – for phone credit, apparently. I get all these moves. We walked for a while, and then he said, “Now we’ll get into a taptap. It’s like a local minivan.” And I asked why. He said, “I don’t control these three blocks.” How could I have known that, had I been alone? Then, completely unexpectedly, we end up in the region’s worst slum area, or at least it was deemed as such in the media in the ‘90s. The road was concrete, so there is some progress, but while I didn’t think someone would immediately kill me, I certainly didn’t get out with my camera still in hand. Every once in a while someone yelled something along the lines of, “Who does that white man belong to?” The guy would joke back, he’s used to it.
L. T. What are these unknown people showing you?
M. U. Nothing. They’re not showing me anything. They gaze at you with a quiet and empty look. OK, the kids chase you. They have some code word for chocolate, as Americans have been there. And the guide said, “You shouldn’t give them chocolate. They are already spoiled enough.”
I don’t have a voyeuristic desire to visit slums in order to remind myself that we’re good here. It’s the opposite for me, actually. It’s horrific. But seeing it is sobering.
R. V. Do you put pads in your boots?
M. U. What for?
R. V. To dry your shoes. Do you have other tricks? I’m talking about travel basics. For example, on a hike, one of the most important things is water.
M. U. In my case, hiking for survival isn’t a primary aim, so I don’t usually have to think about how to get drinking water. Although that would be an interesting direction to try out. But I do think about safety a lot; how to not get mugged.
L. T. Have you been mugged?
M. U. Not in the sense that something was snatched from me, but things have been taken from my bag. In Jamaica I stayed in a couch surfer den. In this case I mean that literally, with a Rastafarian. At the time Kingston was a very stressful place. The owner said: if someone takes your camera, don’t worry, we’ll get it back by nightfall – though I didn’t really believe him. He had kids, teenagers, and one of them likely nicked a sum for a rainy day – EUR250. Enough that it was rather unpleasant. You realize that your bag has been ransacked, and you have a dilemma – if you kick up a fuss, it will cause offense. So you bugger off!
R. V. The spoons are found, but the resentment remains.
M. U. I weighed the advantages and disadvantages, and decided that it was probably more important for me to get to the point when I actually have to leave, and think about it then. In the end I couldn’t bring myself to call them out on it. It was very unpleasant.
L. T. Are people happy to have their photos taken, or have you been punched in the face?
M. U. I have not been punched in the face, but it is always different. Sometimes you have to take photos candidly; for example in Haiti. The locals were very aggressively disposed toward the art of photography. You can only do it while riding a tuk-tuk-like mode of transportation, with your legs hanging out, a bag covering your camera, and what you manage to snap is what you will have. So some shots are right in the faces of the subjects.
R. V. Birds, for example, are afraid of the sound of the shutter, and now there are new mirrorless cameras that don’t make that noise. One photographer told me that if you take photos of people without the click, they don’t understand that you’re taking a picture of them, and that is uncomfortable.
M. U. Another big travel epiphany is about clothing.
Bring as little clothing as possible. Two or three quick-dry t-shirts, three pairs of underwear, and two or three pairs of socks. In the evening, at your hotel or wherever, in the sink – splish-splash and by the morning they will be dry. Last winter I had a longer trip to Asia, and I got so sick of those t-shirts!
L. T. I was in New York and for two weeks, and I washed jeans and everything else in the bathtub. And you realize that people have lived like that for thousands of years.
M. U. I was just thinking: what did that one host in Sri Lanka think? For three months I rotated three pairs of underwear. Due to a lack of time I realized I had to figure out how to dry them faster. I checked to see where air circulation from the fan was best, and found that it was on the headboard. And, of course, I left one pair there. That guy probably came and thought, why is there a pair of underwear left on the bed, in such a perverse location?
L. T. But where is the biggest concentration of shitheads?
M. U. I have to think about it. There was an overnight train from Baku to Tbilisi. Now it has all been renovated, but at the time it was all still Soviet style. I’d celebrated New Year’s Eve with locals in Baku, and wanted to go on to Armenia, but there was no direct route.
R. V. Why not?
M. U. Armenia and Azerbaijan. They have a complicated relationship. I’d brought a small bottle of Riga Black Balsam, to make it more fun. It was close to bedtime. A group came in and invited me to join them in the restaurant car. I agreed. It wasn’t too late. Of course, it ended with everyone off their faces, but a lot of fun, everyone friends. I don’t remember how I got up to my bed. The morning was rough for everyone. And then we got to the border, where we had to wait for ages, so someone said it’s better to go on a taxi, since you can get to the border in cars much easier. So let’s go all the way to Tbilisi; why wait in this train? I agreed, because it’s all going well, we set off. A Zhiguli through fields of goats, like a documentary film. It’s all great until I realized the border crossing is meant for citizens of Georgia and Azerbaijan. So I had to go back.
But the border guards were there already, and they started asking questions. And I knew that everything was really bad – I had to start playing the stupid tourist, in English, not Russian.
I was there answering questions, and I saw the guy from the restaurant car speeding past, and he saw me: “Aha!” And the scheme immediately hit me: they didn’t pay for yesterday’s drinks! They’d all run off, and I was the only idiot left standing. He yelled, “Come here!” Hold on a second; I wasn’t used to being yelled at like this. I went back to the restaurant car and we sorted it out. In the end it was about EUR30. I said, “Calm down. I’m a decent person. Let’s get to Tbilisi first. I need a cash machine to pay the bill.” But while we were waiting at the border the thick man from the restaurant car had gotten so angry that waiting for me to get to a cash machine wasn’t enough – he took a taxi to Tbilisi and somehow found them! And got his money! I was forgiven. So there you have it, the tale of the shitheads on the train.
R. V. Are you ascetic?
M. U. While travelling? No, it would be silly to not allow yourself anything, but you can save on hotels.
L. T. And where is the best coffee in the world?
M. U. You know, I’m no gourmand, nor can I say anything clever about coffee. I’ve given it up for a while already.
R. V. But you can highlight something anyway!
M. U. I think that Japan is excellent at everything. Anywhere you go, even the simplest eatery, everything is delicious and interesting.
L. T. And where are the most horrible toilets?
R. V. I was in the toilet at the Daugavpils train station – oh dear! It had cold water and a hole in the ground. I returned to the 80’s, even though I haven’t even lived in the ‘80s.
L. T. You haven’t, but I have.
R. V. Yes, Lolita remembers how the bike was invented.
L. T. Of course.
R. V. She even remembers the Bermontians.
L. T. All of them. Individually. I have a theory about toilets. When you started visiting the West, I was traveling around Belarus and Russia. The more a country talks about spirituality, the worse its toilets are. And the closer you get to the West, the more likely it is that the toilets have toilet paper.
M. U. I would highlight Iran. It was completely without alternatives!
And there they have the so-called poop slippers. You don’t even want to think about who has worn them and where. Giant rubber shit slippers.
L. T. Rvīn, shit slippers!
R. V. I want a tattoo of them.
M. U. You could manufacture Iranian shit slipper magnets. At any Iranian toilet, which is also something like a shower, they have size 47 rubber slip-ons. The thought being that you use them at the same time as the toilet. I was so sad! You need the toilet and realize that this is the only option. I saw in a segment about Saudi Arabia that understanding the gender icons for bathrooms is really difficult.
L. T. We [the Žanis Lipke Memorial] have triangle icons, and only Eastern Europeans understand those. Everyone else thinks they are the opposite of what they are, and they mix them up. But when you open the door and see a urinal, surely it can’t be for women! There are no universal icons.
R. V. Hey, how do you combine everything with your personal life, which, I guess, you might have?
M. U. When I was in my frequent travel period, I didn’t have this problem. But in general, if one just disappears, but the other, watching sullenly, saves their four-week holiday, then combining it is impossible. Maybe it wasn’t the exact reason the relationship ended, but still. There are people who are more possessive. And then there are those for whom it isn’t a problem, and I have experienced both. The latter is, of course, more pleasant.
L. T. Have you travelled as a couple and lost it?
M. U. I haven’t travelled much as a couple.
R. V. Have you stuck wallpaper as a couple?
M. U. No.
L. T. What does a good travel buddy look like for you?
M. U. The first thing that comes to mind is quite practical – you have to have the same understanding of the fact that there are different ways to travel. I was in Africa with another traveller, who had decided to be the first Latvian to have visited every country in the world, but then he gave it up, because it was too complicated. We decided to go to Africa together. Just over wine with a complete stranger. And it was totally OK! In some ways I am more modest in my day-to-day needs, and everything was fine only because there was a mutual ability to compromise.
L. T. Can you name three things worth leaving your house for?
M. U. It gets boring at home. But I understand what you’re saying. I think you shouldn’t go, if you’re not interested.
L. T. And what do you gain when you leave home, Latvia, and cross borders?
M. U. During my last four trips I started to realize that it is great to shape each trip in a way that you find out or learn something new. So that you don’t just change the scenery while experiencing the same thing over and over.
In Haiti you learn what it’s like if social management is really bad. Whereas in Bangladesh you can learn what overpopulation is. In Turkmenistan you find out what that paranoid feeling of being watched feels like. It is worth leaving home to conduct research.
R. V. One girl recently asked me, “When was the last time you had a day when you didn’t leave the house at all?” And I couldn’t remember, although I am not opposed to such an option. That evening, I realized that during the course of the day I had ended up in ten different environments, and felt a sort of masochistic sense of satisfaction. Why can’t you stay at home? What’s wrong with you? Looking at it from a bigger-picture point of view, there must, indeed, be a reason. It is a pathology. What are you running from? I don’t think you are running, but still.
M. U. I’m not running. But I have theories. When speaking of pathologies, the causes are usually unpleasant, but in my case it comes from the fact that there was a time when I couldn’t go anywhere. At the time I had to travel like Jules Verne. I am from Preiļi; I came to Riga maybe once a year – my dad came for work and I just wanted to see what Ogre looked like out of the car window. And no one ever thought to stop and actually see Ogre. I think in some way it’s connected. It builds, and builds, and then explodes. I’ve had my fair share already. It won’t continue so manically anymore. Though when I think about my next trip, I think that it could be beautiful, with previously unknown adventure!
R. V. Are you searching for beauty?
M. U. It is not aesthetic beauty. A situation that is pleasant and interesting. Binding.
L. T. If someone asks you about Latvia and places that are worth visiting here, what do you say?
M. U. It wouldn’t mean anything to them.
L. T. “Write it on a piece of paper. So when I land at Riga airport I have a list.”
R. V. Please don’t say “Turaida in the autumn”.
M. U. This makes me think back to when I tried to get into Papua New Guinea. Due to visa issues I was stuck at the border for a few hours, which in and of itself is a beautiful adventure – you sit on a bench, surrounded by officers in tracksuits and with red saliva. They were chewing that psychoactive nut.
R. V. Betel nut.
M. U. They have a lot of it. Locals call it buja. And they all suck on it; their eyes also red. While Papuans from Indonesia walk by like in a fashion show. It was just wonderful.
R. V. With bamboo on their penises?
M. U. It wasn’t so extreme. They were in t-shirts. Beautiful, with stunning hairstyles! A local guy sat down next to me and wanted to have a conversation in broken English. He showed me Raja Ampat, corals and the big reef on the beach, really beautiful. It will soon be destroyed by tourists, but isn’t yet. And I showed him Dome Square – I found it on my phone. And he exclaimed, “Oooooh!” I obviously tried to find something that wasn’t the architecture of Ogre. It seemed to me like he saw it as something special.
As for other places in Latvia, they would be peace and tranquility. That could be recommended to an inhabitant of Jakarta.
L. T. You can also say that next to a house there’s a dog, and no one else around.
R. V. Has your extensive travel experience brought anything into your daily life? Can you say that you have understood something?
M. U. Of course, I could come up with a list of things, but mainly it is a much more comfortable feeling in my own realities. After that which has been experienced beyond, you feel better in the everyday. I can’t even find any disadvantages. And the feeling-good muscle gets trained all the time.
R. V. Do you sleep well?
M. U. Absolutely. I don’t struggle with sleep.
R. V. When you wake up at 5am you don’t think about what to change in your life?
M. U. I think about these things during the day. There are plenty of cockroaches in my life, to put it simply, but, if I weren’t travelling, there would be many more.