View from our RTU dorm
Flying over Riga in January, you’ll notice two things immediately: the sweeping flat land stretching to the horizon and the pure white snow blanketing it all. After the sweltering 40-degree summer heat in Australia, the sub-zero weather in Latvia was a definite shock and it showed on all of us students as one by one, we trickled into our respective dorms to hide from the cold and sleep off the jetlag. The dorms were well-equipped as well, with doonas, towels and a kitchenette. Not to mention, three-person rooms were spacious and open whereas, the six-person rooms have individual rooms. So, everyone was more than content to hole themselves up in their rooms. However, the languor lasted only that day as Sunday brought with it a whirlwind of action.
The Ghost Sculpture
To kick off the program, we were whipped off on a personal sightseeing tour of Riga. Led by a local guide, we winded through the cobblestoned streets of Riga, exploring the famous historical sites and monuments such as the Swedish gates and the Bremen Town Musicians statue. With the snow eddying around us, our tour guide unravelled the storied past of Riga, spinning grand legends about the old statues around Vecrīga, or “Old Town”. For example, the haunting sculpture next to the rebuilt fortification walls — aptly titled “The Ghost” — carries a tragic tale of two star-crossed lovers. My personal favourite was the local legend on the founding of the popular Black Cat House. It’s said that the structure was built by a merchant that was rejected by the Merchant’s Guild across the street. In revenge, he littered small black cat statues across the rooftop with posteriors aimed pointedly at the guildhouse. Listening to all those stories, — both historical facts and the less factual legends — I honestly felt I had stepped into the set of an adventure fairy tale, cheesy as it sounds. All around, the bright colours of the buildings — lemon-yellow, pastel blues and pinks — accentuate the iconic Art Nouveau architectural style of most of Riga’s buildings. It was clear Latvia’s history ran deep and each step in the city just revealed more of its storied past.
View from the top of St Peter's Church
After the layered introduction to the capital, Monday brought an invigorating modern welcome to Riga Technical University (RTU). Classes began with us diving straight into concept generation for our robots with a coordinator from the Design Factory, RTU’s hub of innovation. Over the next two days, the rough design concepts developed were brought closer to realisation as we explored the software side of robotics through lectures by Professor Leslie Robert Adrian, a leading researcher in the field of robotics. From his thought-provoking discussions on the relationship between neurons and intelligence to lessons on basics of fuzzy logic, Professor Leslie’s lectures were funky, genuinely enjoyable and useful not only for our course project, but for our future in the industry.
Though, Thursday and Friday served us a breath of fresh air as we got our hands dirty in the Industrial Design sessions with lecturer Charles Bušmanis, one of the founders of Design Elevator. Having someone who works extensively with clients in product design and development really helped us evaluate the true practicality of our ideas. Who we were designing it for and why were always asked and we were challenged to produce a suitable and marketable dirty prototype out of the materials available to us. At the start, repeatedly exercising our imagination in concept development and test marketing was admittedly grueling. However, by the end of the week, when each team sat down with their snacks and pillows to discuss the next steps for the project, we were hit by how much each exercise aided with cultivating a clear direction for the construction of the robot.
Being in a whole other country, we weren’t content with just exploring in class. Outside of class hours, all of us bonded as we scouted out great Rigan eateries, nightlife and everything in between. Some yummy Latvian dishes I would definitely recommend would be steaming sour cabbage soup served in a bread bowl, the Latvian staple grey peas and black balsam drink. Whilst bar-hopping across Old Town on uni nights perhaps isn’t something to recommend, it was really entertaining watching everyone’s varying aptitude for walking on slippery ice after a long night. On the weekend, the fam would gather to watch Dinamo Riga, the local ice hockey team, play in the Arēna Rīga in front of the most raucous crowd. It was my first-ever sports game and I have been told that that kind of raw energy is rare. On the other hand, when everyone would be flopping around in bed after a long day of classes or long night out, our cohort would host small movie nights in the dorms. Having ten kids huddled around a tiny laptop screen watching Netflix cushioned on a bed whilst passing around cheeseballs made me and I’m pretty sure everyone feel like they’ve settled right at home in Riga and on the road to forging some lasting friendships.
On the streets of Riga
I’m sure anyone on the program would agree the greatest highlights this week have been the excursions. On Friday, we filed into a small bus and got driven to a manufacturing plant in Ogre. There, we were transported into the fast-paced world of Hansa Matrix: a leader in electronics development and manufacturing. The plant was lined with cutting-edge automated assembly machines and the insides of the assembly flow were detailed thoroughly by our guide. It was crazy to see how automated the processes are these days and the prospects of robotics in further increasing efficiency. We hustled back onto the bus after the tour and watched the snow-capped pines flitter past on the way to Riga Motor Museum. There, we were steered through a gallery of vehicles by the Motor Museum guide. Starting from the simplest wooden wheel to the fastest race car today, we saw the evolution of motor vehicles and engines through the ages. We travelled to the once-secret Soviet Bunker on Saturday. Several of us were picked to roleplay prominent figures and there were cackles all around as we stepped into the roles with enthusiasm. With concrete walls cementing us in and the charismatic guide setting the scene as if we were fellow contemporaries of those times, we were given an amazing immersive tour of the shelter originally intended for the Communist elites.
The cohort at Hansa Matrix
At the Secret Soviet Bunker
However, even with all these memorable activities, husky dog sledding was without doubt, the favourite amongst the group. When we arrived to the snowy expanse in Drabeši, Riga, all eyes were immediately glued to the huskies frolicking in the distance. Everyone ran squealing to the huskies, eager to shower the doggos with lots of belly rubs and love. There definitely were unashamed pleas from more than one person to just stay with the huskies for the rest of the program. With such clear skies that day and glistening soft snow, dog sledding was a must-try. As some stepped into the sled to be pulled by a pack of adorable huskies, the rest explored the surrounding historical structures while awaiting their turn. When the sun dipped lower in the sky, we, regrettably, had our last hour of play with the huskies. After, hosts from Dodkepu company shared their delicious apple crumble bites and the Latvian signature “Hot Drink”. We left that breathtakingly beautiful snowfield with full hearts and fuller stomachs.
Our group on a frozen lake
And that was the first amazing week in Latvia done! With such rich history set alongside incredibly fast-paced innovation, Latvia so far has definitely been a pleasant surprise. After such an eventful first week to set the mood, I think all of us are just keen to see what other magical and modern wonders our program in Riga will deliver us next.
Atā, (That’s bye in Latvian!)
Hi, I’m Sheryl! I’m a second-year Mechatronic Engineering and Computer Science student at the University of Adelaide. I adore different cultures, funky people and immersing myself in the local lifestyle when I’m in a new country (particularly, getting very, very well-acquainted with the food). Aside from my obsession with discovering new culinary delights, I’m a hardcore sci-fi geek, avid reader, artist and aspiring polyglot. Just one girl out to explore and eat my way through the world.