We fly, drive, and occasionally walk right over lines that define boundaries between nations but you may have wondered how thick those markings on the ground actually are. Surely a border has some sort of width, especially since so many of them were drawn before GPS or highly accurate geographic measurements were possible. It turns out in many cases, borders aren’t very different from the imaginary lines Bugs Bunny would drawn in the sand to infuriate Yosemite Sam.
Borders Aren’t Created Equal
Originally most borders in the world were actually neutral zones called marshlands which evolved into the country lines we’re more familiar with today. Country lines separate sovereign nations but since there isn’t a convention on when or how a border should be drawn (usually they’re defined after a conflict of some sort) there are a lot of highly unusual international borders.
Even Google Maps has created controversy before because they didn’t know quite where to draw a border – complicated by the fact that Costa Rica and Nicaragua can’t decide either.
Literally Lines On The Ground
At the daily Wagah border ceremony between India and Pakistan you’ll notice that guards from both sides enthusiastically march toward each other, only to turn facing away, several centimeters apart. Wagah’s elegant “I don’t like you” dance demonstrates that the line separating India and Pakistan is an infinitely thin marker denoted by a fence with white painted line on concrete.
Similarly, the much more friendly border between Belgium and the Netherlands is marked in some places by a few bricks or nothing at all which Mental Floss notes has caused some weirdness:
“The official border between Belgium and the Netherlands runs through living rooms, yards and cafes, so it’s possible – indeed, it happens more often than you’d think – to sit across a table having a cup of coffee with someone who is actually in a different country…For a while, a Dutch law requiring dining establishments to close earlier than they did in Belgium laid the foundation for an absurd, nightly charade in some Baarle restaurants. At closing time in the Netherlands, patrons would have to get up and move tables, over to the Belgian side.”
A lot like how embassies get their places in foreign countries, there isn’t a set way to draw up a border, they’re validity is only as good as the agreement between the sides involved.
You might be under the impression that international borders are defined by physical boundaries, like parts of the U.S.-Mexico that happen to be along the Rio Grande River. Although the physical barrier of the river defined where the border would be, there’s actually an (imaginary) line in the waters equidistant between both the Mexican and United States shores. That’s the real international boundary although determining where shores lines are has caused numerous disputed along borders around the world, even between the U.S. states of Texas and Oklahoma until as recently as 2000.
Where Borders Bloat
Now that we know most borders are literally just lines drawn on the ground, another misconception is that they have to be lines at all. In fact, air and seaports are all considered borders themselves, which is why you’re not legally in another country until you cross the immigration line. (Remember the movie The Terminal?) When you’re in an airport on a layover, you’re technically “on the border” – one reason why your electronics are be subject to searches without probable cause in Western nations.
Next time you get a passport stamp (yay!) notice as you walk past the immigration booth, there’s probably a tape line on the floor or a small gate of some kind. Now you know what it represents.
Define The Line
There’s a good reason borders are marked with signs, lines, and people standing guard: they’re all made up. International borders are human constructs that need to be labeled to exist. For a few of you traveling wouldn’t be quite as fun without borders but let’s be happy many borders are as thin as they are – it’s always fun to hop between countries or hemispheres as you can do in Quito, Ecuador.
Sandwiched between Lithuania and Estonia, the Latvian capital city Riga retains a grittiness that’s been mostly polished in its two Baltic neighbors. Riga exists in the sweet spot of developed but edgy, leaving its hard history more exposed as the European Union’s fastest growing economy moves forward.
Despite Lativa’s switch to the Euro, it still retains a relatively low cost of living, even in Riga, the largest city in the country. That means you can see almost all of Riga on foot without blowing your entire travel budget. Whether you’re just passing through Riga or have plans for a longer trip, this is how the TL;DR version of visiting 2014’s European Capital of Culture cost effectively.
Where To Stay Without Spending Much
For a cozy spot that will cost you about $12 a night for a dorm or $24 for a private room, take a look at Central Hostel Riga. Located in a residential neighborhood a 7 minute walk from the city’s major sights, Central Hostel Riga is clean, has a full kitchen, helpful staff, plus offers free wireless.
- Remember Your Schengen – Lativa is a part of the Schengen Area so if you plan to be in Europe for more than a few weeks, you should read this crash course and learn how long you can stay legally in a Schengen member country.
Central Hostel Riga is not the easiest place to find but easily accessible from Riga International Airport (the hub of Europe’s most punctual airline) by shuttle bus or walking distance from both the train and bus stations. You can read my full review of Central Hostel Riga here.
One Place You Have To Eat
There are a lot of good places to eat in Riga (a city which likes to bizarrely combine sushi with anything) though you can’t leave without visiting Lido. Yes, Lido is a chain of about 9 restaurants located mostly in Latvia, but its a la carte selection of local dishes is an inexpensive way to eat too much and only feel guilty about your waistline.
For a quiet drink, thoughtful ponder, or place to meet new friends, near Lido’s Vermanitis location is the little wine bar Burbulnica. They offer a good selection of locally produced wines in colors red, white, and slightly in between which might be hard to choose from – except that Burbulnica’s staff can tell you the right boozy flavors for your particular taste.
Munch At Central Market
Riga’s Central Market doesn’t really give a damn if you’re a tourist which made it refreshing to get yelled at every time I took a photo. (Officially, it’s allowed, snap at your own risk.) Though it’s probably not a good idea to climb scaffolding as I did to get the shot below:
Eye candy for market lovers plus real candy if you’re hungry, the Central Market is massive, something that makes sense when you learn it used to house non-musical zeppelins.
There’s an Uzbek bakery along the path joining two of the hangars where locals pick up brick oven breads. Along the left side of the left most hangar there are homemade plates Latvia’s over-50 crowd seem to especially enjoy. Hearty foods heavy on the stomach, light on a traveler’s wallet.
Historically Interesting Museums
A lot of museums around the world have the archaic design of “let’s put a bunch of old stuff around” and expect you to be impressed. Seeing enough of these can turn you off to museums in general, which would be a shame in the case of Latvia’s Museum Of The Occupation. Latvia is a country which has spent most of the past 500 years under foreign occupation. The Museum Of The Occupation gives a glimpse into what setbacks the country has overcome, enlightening for any visitor. Entrance is free of charge with optional donations taken.
Right outside the museum, on the hour most working hours you can watch a guard change in front of the Monument To The Riflemen, free for all.
Public, Local Advice For Free
There are plenty of other things to see and do in Riga. Concentrated in the Old Town are your usual European sampling of impressive churches like Saint Peter’s. (entrance ~$8.10 USD). A bit north of there is the Art Nouveau district with free architecture for the eyes. Although all of the main sights in Riga are within walking distance, during winter average high temperatures don’t go above freezing.
In case chills aren’t your thing, plan a trip during the busier summer months or cut your transportation costs with a Riga Card. Personally, I don’t think 20 Euros (~$23) for the Riga Card is worth the discounts it offers; except the perk of 24 free hours of public transportation if your feet get tired.
You can get a lot of great local recommendations in the frequently updated Like A Local Map to be found just about everywhere remotely traveler-focused in Riga. (As well as at the Central Hostel Riga.) Even better, it comes in free, offline app form on both Android and iOS.
Finally, chances are if you’re in Riga, you’ve been to or are going to one of the other Baltic states. Here’s how to spend a short trip in Vilnius, Lithuania which is only a 4 hour, 20 Euro, border-less Lux Express bus ride away.
At the beginning of December, I began a 3 month project with the language learning site italki with the goal to be conversationally fluent in Arabic. Having now completed a third of the way, here are the raw numbers on my progress and what I’ve learned so far.
19: Number Of Course Hours
I’m taking roughly 5 hours of lessons a week, once per weekday. (I’ve tried two hours sessions but after 60 minutes I begin to lose focus.)
100%: Percentage Of Arabic Script I Can Read And Write
Although it was intimidating at first, I can comfortably read Arabic script as well as write by phonetically sounding out words.
2: Number Of Instructors
I spent some time trying out several teachers to get an idea of styles as well as evaluate which might be the best fit for me personally. I eventually fell into a good routine with two particular instructors whose structured lesson plans I’m benefiting from greatly.
1910: italki Credits Used
That would be the equivalent of about $190 for courses so far. Although every instructor sets their own rates, almost all seem to fall into the 120 italki credit (~$12 USD) range. Here’s a bit more on how italki works exactly.
At Least 100: Words Learned
This one’s hard to quantify but it has to be at least one hundred, not including various common phrases as well.
Where I’m At Right Now
At this point I can conjugate verbs in the past tense from memory and know many of these essential travel word combinations. In a relatively short time, I’ve picked up the structure of Arabic: the rules and grammar which make the language work. Early on I wasn’t sure if laying down this foundation first (prior to speaking skills) would be efficient but the thorough italki instructors have proved me otherwise.
I’ll keep you updated with my weekly progress. Please let me know if you have any questions in the comments below about the italki process, specifics of what I’m learning, or any tips you might have to make me a better student!
Today’s live chat guest, Matt Kepnes, is one of the first travel bloggers I met when I began blogging in 2006. In fact, he’s one of the first travel bloggers and his site Nomadic Matt is certainly one of the most successful. Matt recently published the revised version of his latest book, How To Travel The World On $50 A Day, and is here to answer your questions on traveling more while spending less.
Thank you everyone for participating in the chat!
Matthew Kepnes runs the award winning budget travel site, Nomadic Matt. After a trip to Thailand in 2005, Matt decided to quit his job, finish his MBA and head off into the world. His original trip was supposed to last a year. Over seven years later, he is still out exploring and roaming the world. He’s scuba dived in Fiji, was a poker player in Amsterdam, taught English in Thailand, got lost in a jungle in Central America, and broke down in the middle of Australia’s outback.
In 2009, I interviewed Matt about another book of his on how to make money; he’s back today for one hour from 5-6pm US EST to take your questions on how to travel the world for $50 a day. Ask Matt about blogging, his travels, plus smart budgeting for your next trip all in the comments right below!