Snowdrifts to salsa: far-flung Latvians

  • 2002-06-27
  • Philip Birzulis, RIGA
Insects. Floods. Crime-ridden streets, tropical birds and scorching heat.

These were just a few of the initial shocks greeting two young women who have just returned to Riga after 15 months working in Venezuela.

However, Baiba Aprane and Ieva Lusina are not pushovers. Their period working as teachers for the small Latvian community in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, was just the latest in a series of journeys through extreme climates and situations to help their compatriots.

And, being young and adventurous at heart, they say they are not ready to sit at home just yet.

Now in their late 20s, Aprane and Lusina went on student exchanges to Denmark and Norway respectively, before departing for a more distant destination: Siberia.

Their goal in that vast land mass was the village of Augsbebri in the Omsk region. On the surface, this tiny place is similar to the neighboring Russian settlements, but there is one crucial difference. It was established over 100 years ago by Latvians, and many of their descendants there still speak the ancestral tongue and strongly consider themselves Latvians.

During the Soviet period, links between Augsbebri and Latvia proper were restricted, but since the late 80s teachers from the homeland have been spending year-long stints in the village.

Lusina was selected for this demanding job in 1998 and Aprane went over one year later. They survived temperatures of up to minus 50 degrees celsius, seriously strong local vodka and other tests of character, emerging with a great love for the village and its people.

After Aprane returned to Latvia in mid-2000, she and Lusina both found themselves in a bit of a rut. After Siberia, mundane nine-to-five jobs didn't hold much appeal. Studying a map of the world one night in Riga, they started fantasizing about where in the world they could go and decided to write a letter to the leader of the Venezuelan Latvian community offering their services as teachers.

The answer was "yes," and soon they were jetting off to a place that held plenty of surprises.

"Venezuela was a lot more of a shock, it was completely different to anything else we had experienced in our lives," said Lusina. "The climate and nature in Siberia are more familiar, and in a sense it was like revisiting the Soviet Union, which we know all about."

Radical moves

Not surprisingly, the culture shock that greeted Aprane and Lusina on arriving in Venezuela also afflicted the first Latvian emigrants. After World War II, about 700 moved there in the great postwar emigration that saw Latvian communities established in Latin America, Canada and the United States.

Within a decade, just 200 of them were left, as the others sought out the northern climates to which they were accustomed.

But those who stuck around are a very tightly knit group and have led very successful lives. Despite the fact that Venezuela is a relatively poor country, thanks to their work ethic and high education levels the Latvians own businesses ranging from real estate development and hotels to the manufacturing of packaging materials. A sign of the influence they wield is that some of the most prestigious office buildings in downtown Caracas have Latvian names.

They have made waves in fields other than business as well. The Angel Falls in Venezuela are some of the highest rapids in the world and the first person to explore them after the war was a Latvian, Aleksandrs Laima. A grateful Venezuelan government allowed Laima to name some landmarks around the falls and so some of the streams feeding into them bear the names of the Gauja, the Daugava and other rivers in Latvia.

Aprane and Lusina said that Laima had the status of a famous explorer in Venezuela. Accordingly, they said that many Venezuelans knew quite a bit about Latvia, in contrast to the blank stares the country attracts elsewhere in the world.

The Venezuelan-Latvians are also intensely proud of their origins. They celebrate Midsummer Eve and get together regularly for other events as well.

The Latvian language classes organized by the teachers attracted about 30 enthusiastic students. Most were younger people of Latvian descent who wanted to brush up their language skills, and some of their spouses of other ethnic origins also came along. A surprise was a young man with no Latvian connections whatsoever, who used the presence of Aprane and Lusina to bone up on his language skills because he is coming to Latvia on a student exchange program later this year.

Sadly, however, the days of this small but energetic community may be numbered. After fleeing persecution in Latvia half a century ago, they are trying to get away from tyranny brewing in their adopted land.

The problem is the current president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez. After being elected by a large majority several years ago, he has earned a reputation as an oddball on the international stage with state visits to Saddam Hussein and other dictators.

At home, he has caused chaos with populist rhetoric urging Venezuela's many poor and illiterate inhabitants to seize the property of the rich.

After a failed coup against Chavez several months ago, massive demonstrations against the president have been put down with gunfire.

Lusina and Aprane felt extremely nervous as they watched live television broadcasts of this state violence taking place in Caracas.

The Venezuelan-Latvians say that, while the country has had its fair share of corrupt governments in the past, this one is in a league of its own. A president who openly says that Fidel Castro's Cuba is his model is not good news, to say the least.

Accordingly, many of them are seeking refuge in the United States.

Despite these tensions, Aprane and Lusina say they had an unforgettable time in Venezuela and are preparing to go globetrotting again. While they say they love Latvia and are always happy to return, they have been badly bitten by the travel bug and cannot wait to see other corners of the world.

"I want to keep traveling, and I can't stop now, and I'm a bit scared about whether I will ever be able to settle down," said Aprane.

She is leaving soon for a month-long visit to Augsbebri again. Afterwards, she is considering the possibility of working in Australia for a while.

For Lusina, Latin America is beckoning again. Yet another group of unusual Latvians lives in Brazil, and she is looking for funding to work as a teacher there.

The story of these Brazilian settlers goes back more than a century, when a group of Baptists from Latvia decided that the end of the world was approaching. They left for the New World, and their descendants live in two villages about 400 kilometers apart in central Brazil.

And if this doesn't sound off-the-beaten-track enough, Lusina would like to visit an offshoot settlement from these Baptists, who have established a village in the jungles of Bolivia.

Both young women joke that perhaps they could set up a Latvian colony of their own in some distant corner of the planet.

Antarctica, perhaps?