No man is an island

  • 2006-09-13
  • By Elizabeth Celms

SWEET ESCAPE: Zalite (bottom left) spends as much time as he can on his floating home, which bobs up and down on the Daugava River.

RIGA - Edmunds Zalite lives on a raft in the Daugava River. "Well, not exactly," the salt and pepper bearded man admits as we putt away from the Kipsala shore in his dinky motor boat. "I live there in the summer." Once I catch a close glimpse of the makeshift houseboat, which consists of a standard picnic tarp, two-person tent and weathered wooden table and chairs, I understand that living there year round would be crazy. But apparently, Zalite's already earned this title.

"People call me crazy for living out here. But that's not the only nickname I've picked up. They also call me 'macitajs' [priest] 's who knows why, I rarely go to church," he says.

Perhaps it's because Zalite, who works freelance on modern technology and computer projects, lives by his own theology.
The man is mostly self-educated. After finishing high school, Zalite went on to study at Riga's Polytechnic Institute in the 1980s. But realizing that he already knew everything being taught, he abandoned the life of academia to pursue his own projects. The Latvian has been self-employed ever since.
Zalite is also a fervent inventor, and had been toying with the idea of building a houseboat for ages. "I've always wanted to live on the water," he says, gesturing to the choppy waves around him "One day it occurred to me 's I'm constantly coming up with ideas 's why not build a raft and anchor it in the Daugava?"

Three years ago, he decided to make it happen. The project began with research. After a few months of municipal investigation, Zalite discovered that the water 30 meters beyond Kipsala, on the Daugava River's left bank, was not owned by the City of Riga. This meant that the municipality couldn't fine him for anchoring there, and rent was out of the question.
"Where I'm floating is technically state water, but the Latvian government has more important things to worry about than kicking some crazy man out of its waters," he says with a laugh.

Once sure of this legal loophole, Zalite began to sketch out the blueprints. The design was simple 's a wooden raft, six meters by eight meters, buoyed on 20 plastic barrels with an anchor to keep it from floating away. It took Zalite a week to build the aquatic adobe, and cost him only 1,000 lats (1,441 euros).
Since then, the Latvian has spent three summers, May to October, on his floating home, which can be seen from Vansu Tilts, its threadbare white flag whipping in the wind.
Zalite admits that the longest period he's actually lived on the raft is three days. "I still have to work, you know."

Lazy days
I spent a good hour on the raft with Zalite, enjoying the early autumn sun and cool river breeze. At one point my thoughts digressed to visions of this man laughing with his children as they cannon-balled into the river. I imagined him waking up to a splendid sunrise, the pale rays of light filtering through Riga's church-steeple skyline. I saw floating dinner parties with friends, children huddled in the tent whispering ghost stories and lazy afternoon beers. But I could just as easily imagine raft life on a bad day.

"It can get pretty stormy out here," Zalite says. "But to be honest, those are my favourite times on the raft. I just love the excitement of a big storm 's the shrill wind, the choppy waves. It's better to be alone in such weather. Normal people are scared to death."
Taking a closer look at my surroundings, I notice that there isn't much to protect one from the elements. The bench I'm reclining on, hand-carved by Zalite's father, was nailed firmly to the ground, as was the small tent behind me. Yet according to the raft's owner, he's never had serious problems with nature, only people.

"Earlier this summer, I found my raft stranded on the shore beneath Vansu Tilts. Some vandals had cut the anchor and my house just floated away. Thank God the tide took it into shore, otherwise it would have been carried out to the Baltic Sea."
That wasn't Zalite's first experience with vandals. On previous occasions, thieves have stolen things from his raft. "It's very upsetting to arrive and realize somebody's come by on their boat and taken my barbecue or tent. That's why I try to keep as few possessions out here as possible."

Scarcity does seem to be the raft's dominating aesthetic. Besides a jar filled with sand and sea shells, the houseboat's only decor is a cluster of tiki torches.
"But it's very cozy, don't you think?" he asks me ingenuously. "It's especially wonderful at night, I often sleep right here on this bench rather than in my tent."
I ask Zalite if there's a certain life philosophy he follows. The man twists his face at the question as if he's never considered it before. "I don't know. I suppose I just live as I like."

"But I hope I'm a positive example to my kids," he adds. "I hope my children learn to be brave and follow their dreams."
The importance of this statement resonates once Zalite tells me he's the father of eight children.
"I think that the best way to teach children about life is through example. Children don't always listen to what their parents say, but they watch what their parents do. And this leaves an impression."
He adds that his youngest children, ages six, seven and nine, get the most joy out of his houseboat. "They love it out here. It's a place to swim, camp overnight, laze away the day. They bring their friends as well."
Now that his children have started school, Zalite mostly spends time alone on the raft. Soon he'll put it away for the winter, "once the weather gets bad 's probably in October."

Zalite stores his houseboat in a public garage on the Riga side of the Daugava River. But before he tows the raft away, the Latvian throws a farewell party.
"I invite all of my friends, it's an end of the summer blast," he tells me as we putt our way back to Kipsala. "You are more than welcome to come."