Teo Alens doesn't at all fit the conventional image of a shaman. A youthful 43-year-old, he is usually to be seen in jeans and T-shirt and wearing a broad smile. But appearances can be deceptive, and this is one Latvian with a very unusual history who claims very unusual talents.
Visitors to Latvia are often impressed by its sparkling airport, the elegance of Riga's art nouveau architecture and the picturesque Old Town, but despite all this sophistication Alens' more elemental skills are in increasing demand in a country still strongly attracted to paganism.
But his rituals, such as healing the sick, blessing a marriage or looking into the future are of a stranger pedigree than those practiced by the wise men or women who Latvian villagers have traditionally turned to.
A palm reading in Riga with Alens involves little in the way of elaborate ceremony, but even here the firm grip of his hand communicates a wisdom and experience gained among some of the most obscure and far flung tribes of Russia's Far East.
Born to Latvian parents who were deported to the village of Transportnij, 300 kilometers from Russia's Pacific coast in the Stalin era, Alens has spent much of his life imbibing the teachings and mystical traditions of the Siberian shamans.
Now, when clients are in most need of help, it is to the Latvian countryside that Alens will take them and where he will weave ritual dances dressed in animal skin and deer's antlers and lapped by the flames of a great bonfire.
In the more mundane setting of a cramped studio in central Riga he recalls the difficulties of a childhood in exile and the early adventures from which he still draws inspiration.
"Exiles such as ourselves and the local nations lived quite separately and the contact we did have was not at all positive. The Yakuts lived in special tents and would come to buy alcohol and spices, and their deer would often take vegetables from people's houses," he remembered.
"I liked very much to stroll in the tundra - there were great mountains there and once, when I was seven, I came across several deer skin tents. I dared to enter and inside it was dark and full of smoke. One of the men came to me and in Russian said, 'Come to me son.'
"I sat down and he put his hand on my forehead. I slowly closed my eyes and saw small sparks flowing into me, but I was not harmed. My head started to spin, I had the feeling I was flying and saw strange landscapes, and in my mind I reached a Buddhist temple.
"In the temple I had the feeling I was a monk but in another skin and another monk was sitting next to me. Then my head started to spin again, the walls I saw around me started to sway, the ceiling collapsed and steam rose from the ground. I felt a dull pain and than everything was over.
"I opened my eyes and asked the old shaman what I had seen. In an obscure language he explained that it was myself in a previous life. I thought just an hour had passed in that tent but when I stepped outside the sun was setting and the day was almost over."
Looking into the future
And so began Teo's education as a shaman.
"Of course I returned next day and little by little we became friends. He taught me shamanism - shamanic rituals - and taught me to look at auras, to travel to invisible worlds, he taught me about the creation of the world, how to heal, what are the possibilities, what are the dangers and what are the limitations - he taught me to understand this delicate world, beyond what we see with our eyes.
These skills learned at the knee of "an old Yakut with oblique eyes, many wrinkles and a fondness for rolling tobacco," stayed with Alens, even through his later studies with a Bhuddist priest or lama.
His introduction to Buddhism began in a Siberian city called Ulan-Ude during a long journey home from the military high school he attended far from his parents' home.
"I was between trains and walking through the dirty streets and felt a strange light following me. I walked until I reached a house and an oriental looking man opened the door - broad-shouldered and tall. He was a former shaman still much influenced by shamanism and I went to see him often, once a month, when I was in school.
"Mahajan Buddhism gave me an answer to why the spirit creates this kind of material world. I learned a lot."
Having studied to become an electrical engineer at Irkutsk University, he worked in Siberia for some years before eventually fleeing the Soviet Union.
Then, after working as a shaman in Sweden and Finland he finally decided to settle in independent Latvia where he now makes a comfortable living working with clients from all walks of life including some of the country's top politicians. Five or six days per week he reads their palms, heals their ailments and when necessary helps them communicate with the dead.
Tuning into people's thoughts is much like tuning into a particular radio station, he says.
"I just simply change frequency in myself," explained Alens. "When I tune in I can see and feel an aura about a person. It's possible that I had these faculties innately more than an average person but of course most of my skills were given me by my first teacher.
"His language was very primitive and as a child it came to me very easily. He also taught me completely practical things, about local wild plants, their medicinal properties and how to preserve them, for example."
And so now clients come to him with every kind of problem, from relationship difficulties to possession by evil spirits. The secret to solving them, says Alens, lies in the four elements - earth, air, water and fire - from which all life is created.
"Occasionally there are cases where I cannot solve the problem. Then I keep my distance, as if working with rubber gloves, and when I cannot overpower that evil being I have to find a compromise, think how to trick it so that it leaves a person and lives on somewhere else."
Ever keen to develop his skills Alen now has a new teacher in Finland. Strong demand for shamanic wisdom is proof that the wisdom of the Russian Far East remains alive and well, he says.