There were five Americans in the hotel: Casey Minter, Reuben Unrau, Dahlia Bazzaz, myself and our professor, Dr. Peter Laufer. We were staying in Riga, Latvia — in the Radi un Draugi (Latvian for “family and friends”) Hotel — for the week surrounding World Press Freedom Day 2015 in early May.
We attended the international conference as representatives of the University of Oregon’s UNESCO Crossings Institute, a program that offers the opportunity for international dialogue and reporting in conflict-prone regions around the world. Previously, the Crossings Institute produced dispatches from Paris; San José, Costa Rica; Tunis, Tunisia; and Baku, Azerbaijan.
Dahlia spoke with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, who was just named UNESCO’s Goodwill Ambassador. Casey and Reuben spent time with Hamid Mir, the Pakistani journalist known for bringing 17-year-old peace activist Malala Yousafzai into the public eye and for his post-9/11 interviews with Osama Bin Laden.
Reuben and I met with the Ecuadorian political cartoonist Xavier “Mr. Bonil” Bonilla, whose cartoons have infuriated President Rafael Correa. I also spoke with Ukrainian news anchor and journalist Anastasia Stanko, who co-founded Hromandske.tv (one of Ukraine’s few independent television stations) and became famous for live-streaming the unrest in eastern Ukraine in early 2014 — an action that ultimately led to the kidnapping of Stanko and her cameraman.
But perhaps the most jarring introduction to World Press Freedom Day came during a panel discussion on physical security for journalists in violent situations. Journalists from Egypt, Liberia, Ukraine and several other regions were present. For them, the topics covered were commonplace: how to dress a head wound, how to identify different firearms and how to protect yourself from tear gas.
A journalist named Maryam, who works in Copenhagen, said she always brings a spray bottle of milk with her when she covers protests that could potentially turn violent. If tear-gas canisters are released, she said, milk can ease the effects.
“Raise your hand if you’ve never been exposed to tear gas,” Caroline, the woman leading the discussion, asked the classroom. I looked over at Reuben and Dahlia and realized that we were the only people in the room with our hands sheepishly raised.
In the evenings, we attended social gatherings catered with glasses of red and white wine. We met people our age from countries that I could probably locate within about half a continent.
We met a World Press Freedom Day volunteer named Tatiana, who hails from Moldova and goes to school in Riga. “She speaks English like she grew up in Salem,” my professor leaned over and whispered to me. “It’s annoying.”
Near the end of our time in Latvia, Reuben offered a joke to our friends from Moldova and Belarus: “What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? American.”
I shook hands with Latvia’s foreign minister, whom I knew only through the VICE News stories I had read about him. (My friends actually met the president of Latvia at an after-party, but I was 15 feet away, asking some locals to translate a Latvian children’s book for me.)
We took a trip on a yacht around the Riga canal to see the city from the water. A few days later, we walked through Riga’s Museum of Occupation, which the Russian KGB used for detention, interrogation and execution of prisoners of war. We stood at the Freedom Monument for Latvia’s Restoration of Independence Day on May 4, which marked Latvia’s 25th year of freedom from Soviet occupation.
My colleagues flew back to Oregon while I stayed behind to spend an extra week in the Baltics. I walked down cobbled alleyways too narrow for the Peugeot taxi vans that shimmied down them. I saw some of the most handsome architecture I’ve ever witnessed, like St. Peter’s Church with its rusted mint-green spire in Riga, the pink Parliament Building in Tallinn and Helsinki’s Temppeliaukio Church, which is literally built into solid rock.
On my way out of the country, I neglected to book a hostel bed for the night, so I slept in Radi un Draugi’s lounge and airport seats until I could finally check my luggage and board a 6 a.m. flight to Frankfurt. There, I had a seven-hour layover before an 11-hour flight to San Francisco. My sister sang the praises of a cafe with “the most amazing coffee” in the Frankfurt airport, so I made it a goal to find it. The promise of good coffee was too hard to pass up.
But the German security guard sort of smirked at me when I posed a question to her that was all too comfortable in my native tongue: “Which way to the McDonalds?”