Religions in Lithuania: An Eclectic Past and Present

by Dr. Denise R. Ames

I stopped at the port of Klaipeda in Lithuania on my Baltic Sea cruise. As the cruise ship lecturer, I gave a talk on Lithuania (see previous blog) and spent some time describing Lithuanian religious traditions. They have a very interesting mixture of different religious traditions that I would like to share with you in this blog. Some of them are very old, and Lithuanians seem intent on keeping the eclectic mix of religious traditions, despite the strong percentage of Roman Catholics in the country.

Vilnius Cathedral

In 2011, 77% of Lithuanians belonged to the Roman Catholic Church, which has been the majority denomination since Christianity was introduced at the end of the 14th century. The Protestant Reformation did not impact Lithuania to a great extent, as it did in Estonia or Latvia.

Lithuania has strong Roman Catholic traditions, as indicated by the number of wooden churches throughout the country.

The Hill of the Crosses is a popular pilgrimage site, which has come to signify the peaceful endurance of Lithuanian Catholicism despite threats throughout history.

Hill of the Crosses
Russian Orthodox Cathedral

Even though only 4% of Lithuanians are Eastern Orthodox, who are mainly among the Russian minority, they have beautiful churches in which to worship.

The Choral Synagogue of Vilnius (below), only synagogue in the city to survive the Nazi Holocaust in
Lithuania, was historically home to a significant Jewish community and was an important center of Jewish scholarship and culture from the 18th century until the eve of World War II. Of the approximately 220,000 Jews who lived in Lithuania in 1941, almost all were killed during the Holocaust. The community only numbered about 4,000 in 2009.

Vilna (Vilnius) synagogue
Paganism, Goddess Milda


Pagan or indigenous religions were well established in Lithuania before Christianity was introduced at the end of the 14th century, and they survived for another two centuries afterwards. Although the indigenous religions in Lithuania died out much later than in any other European country, actual information on Lithuanian mythology is incomplete.

Indigenous religions myths, stories, and customs were transmitted orally and not in written form. Yet, interest in indigenous religions has increased since the 19th century, when the narrative material began to be collected. However, the indigenous practitioners had already died, and with it precise meaning of stories and legends was lost. 

Romuva ceremony

Romuva claims to continue Baltic pagan traditions of the traditional indigenous religion, which has survived in folklore and customs. 

Romuva is a polytheistic pagan faith which asserts the sanctity of nature and has elements of ancestor worship. Practicing the Romuva faith is seen by many followers as an expression of cultural pride, along with celebrating traditional forms of art, retelling Baltic folklore, practicing traditional holidays, playing traditional Baltic music, singing traditional songs, as well as ecological activism and preserving sacred places.

Tree of life symbol

The philosopher Vydūnas is regarded by some as a founding father of Romuva. He actively promoted awareness of and participation in pagan festivals. He saw Christianity as foreign to Lithuanians, and instead he brought attention to what he saw as the spiritual vision of the traditional Baltic religion. He described this vision as sensing the awe of cosmology, seeing the universe as a great mystery, and respecting every living being and the earth. Vydunas and his followers saw the whole world and every individual as a symbol of life. The Divine is represented by fire, which is used ritually to worship the divine and itself is held sacred.

About the Author: Dr. Denise R. Ames

Dr. Denise R. Ames’ varied life experiences—teaching, scholarly research, personal experiences, extensive travels, and thoughtful reflections—have contributed to her balanced views and global perspectives. Earning a doctorate in world history education, she has taught secondary schools, universities, a community college, professional development, and lifelong learners. In 2003, Dr. Ames founded Center for Global Awareness, an educational non-profit that develops globally-focused books and educational resources for educators and students grade 9-university. She has written eight books, plus numerous blogs, lesson plans, articles, newsletters, teaching units.

Along with CGA’s Gather program, Global Awareness Through Engaged Reflection, a study and conversation program for self-organizing groups of lifelong learners and, Global Awareness for Educators, Dr. Ames is developing a new program: Turn, Transformation, Understanding, & Reflection Network. Turn encourages life-long learners to see with new eyes, learn from the past, understand others, and recognize the relationship of all things. She teaches workshops/classes and writes about Turn’s five topics: learning from the past, cross-cultural awareness, five worldviews, elder wisdom, and transformative travel.

Dr. Ames has written 9 books for the Center for Global Awareness, check out their offerings! Global Awareness Books 

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Lithuania: A Baltic Tiger

by Dr. Denise R. Ames

Lithuania, the largest in size and population of the three Baltic republics, is an interesting place, along with her sister republics—Estonia and Latvia. Through history they have been pawns in feuding northern European powers, especially Germany and Russia most recently. But the three have emerged as vibrant democratic nations from their tumultuous years under the yoke of the Soviet empire.  

I learned a great deal about the three republics during my Baltic cruise of the region and also as the cruise ship lecturer, I researched and presented what I thought would be of interest to the cruise ship passengers about the countries. I didn’t get past Klaipeda, a port city in Lithuania, to explore the rest of the country, so instead of sharing my first-hand travel experiences I would like to share with you what I have discovered through my research about Lithuania.

Lithuania is one of the hidden jewels of Europe. It takes pride in its relatively secluded landscape of clean lakes, ancient forests and coastal dunes. The capital Vilnius, which has a UNESCO protected old town, combines the romance of its breathtaking baroque architecture with the modern trappings of the 21st century.

Lithuanian coastal dunes

Since Lithuania’s declaration of independence in 1990, it has maintained strong democratic traditions but Lithuanians have vacillated between left- and right-wing governments. The current Lithuanian head of state, is Gitanas Nausėda,.

The Lithuanian economy was one of the fastest growing in Europe. According to the graph, the private sector has gradually increased since independence. A dynamic private sector includes core industries such as construction and energy, and niche industries such as laser optics and bio technology, which are among the strongest in Europe. Because of its high growth rates, the country was often called a Baltic Tiger, along with Latvia and Estonia.

Swedbank in Vilnius, the capital

An interesting tidbit, according to the Speedtest.net website, Lithuania ranked first in the world according to internet upload and download speeds (second to South Korea). The high speeds were largely due to Lithuania having Europe’s most extensive home broadband network.

Lithuania is the most ethnically homogenous of the Baltic countries. In 2017, the population of Lithuania stood at 2,775,000, but experienced a disturbing -1.63 % decrease from the year before. Ethnic Lithuanians make up 86.7% of the population, and several sizable minorities exist: Poles (5.6%) and Russians (4.8%).

The official language is Lithuanian. Other languages, such as Russian, Polish, and Ukrainian, are spoken in the larger cities. A survey found 80% of Lithuanians can speak Russian and 38% can speak English. Most Lithuanian schools teach English as the first foreign language, but students also study German, French or Russian. 

In 2015, Lithuania had a sub-replacement fertility rate of 1.59 children born per woman. The age at first marriage in 2013 was 27 years for women and 29.3 years for men. A not so impressive statistic is that Lithuania has seen a dramatic rise in suicides in recent years, and now records the fourth highest suicide rate in the world, according to the World Health Organization. It also has the highest homicide rate in the EU.

Vilnius University, one of the oldest in Eastern and Central Europe

The World Bank designates the literacy rate of Lithuanians aged 15 years and older as 100%, 93.3% of the people have attained a least a secondary education. Lithuania has twice as many people with higher education than the EU average and the proportion is the highest in the Baltics. Also, 90% of Lithuanians speak at least one foreign language and half of the population speaks two foreign languages, mostly Russian and English.

As with other Baltic nations, in particular Latvia, the high number of higher education graduates, coupled with the high rate of second languages spoken is contributing to an educational brain drain. Many Lithuanians are choosing to emigrate seeking higher earning employment and studies throughout Europe; hence, a falling population.

Religion has played an important role in Lithuanian life since the Neolithic time. I will devote the next blog to this topic.

About the Author: Dr. Denise R. Ames

Dr. Denise R. Ames’ varied life experiences—teaching, scholarly research, personal experiences, extensive travels, and thoughtful reflections—have contributed to her balanced views and global perspectives. Earning a doctorate in world history education, she has taught secondary schools, universities, a community college, professional development, and lifelong learners. In 2003, Dr. Ames founded Center for Global Awareness, an educational non-profit that develops globally-focused books and educational resources for educators and students grade 9-university. She has written eight books, plus numerous blogs, lesson plans, articles, newsletters, teaching units.

Along with CGA’s Gather program, Global Awareness Through Engaged Reflection, a study and conversation program for self-organizing groups of lifelong learners and, Global Awareness for Educators, Dr. Ames is developing a new program: Turn, Transformation, Understanding, & Reflection Network. Turn encourages life-long learners to see with new eyes, learn from the past, understand others, and recognize the relationship of all things. She teaches workshops/classes and writes about Turn’s five topics: learning from the past, cross-cultural awareness, five worldviews, elder wisdom, and transformative travel. Dr. Ames has written 8 books for the Center for Global Awareness, check out their offerings! Global Awareness Books 

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Klaipeda, Lithuania: A Baltic Sea Port City Ordinaire

by Dr. Denise R. Ames

Back to the Baltic Sea. I am continuing with my series of travels on the cruise ship Nautica to different ports along the Baltic Sea.

After boarding in Stockholm, Sweden, the Nautica steamed its way to the medieval city of Tallinn in Estonia. Next, we headed for a three-day excursion in St. Petersburg, Russia, a memorable experience. Then a short sail to Helsinki for a whirlwind day of sightseeing and quickly absorbing as much Finnish culture as possible. My anticipated exploration of Riga, Latvia was by-passed due to high winds and a storm at sea. Our next destination was Klaipeda, Lithuania.

If you have never heard of Klaipeda, I am not surprised. It doesn’t spring to the lips of a tourist wanting to explore Lithuania as a must-stop place. But it is the third largest city in Lithuania and the country’s only seaport, so it is of importance to Lithuania and the cruise ship-line has a place to dock.

Klaipeda, Lithuania

During my day at sea, I went to explore the options for sight-seeing in the seaport city. A tour of a nearby Lithuanian village popped out as a very interesting outing. I rushed to the tour counter to sign-up. I was shocked to find out that the tour was full. I tried to throw around my prestige as the cruise-ship lecturer as somehow entitled to go on the tour. The tour director was not impressed with my pleas. Alas, I was not able to go on the village tour.

My travel companion, Susan, and I decided that we would spend the day exploring the city on our own. There was an Old Town and historic buildings, and numerous museums. It looked as though that would be our best option. When traveling it is always good to be flexible and creative, not always needed on a every-detail-planned cruise ship, but it would be a plus in Klaipeda.  

It didn’t take long to explore Klaipeda. It didn’t see that the Lithuanian tourist board was intent on making Klaipeda a memorable tourist destination. Although the old architecture was worth seeing, just off the beaten streets there were many decrepit buildings awaiting the bull dozer or possible renovation.

We ventured into a few museums. One had old Soviet propaganda posters on display, harking back to the days Lithuania was a reluctant part of the Soviet empire.

The Lithuanian people appeared at a superficial glance to be very determined, with a set of the jaw that said to others I am doing something, didn’t matter what, it was something. For instance, there were friendly tussles among the passengers, each vying to get a good spot on the public transportation trolleys that cross-crossed the hub of the city.

The Akmena-Dane River flowed through Lithuania and emptied into the Baltic Sea at Klaipeda. The river was channeled through canals in the city, lined by parks on its way to its final destination, the Baltic Sea. The parks provided a peaceful and relaxing spot to sit and watch the people pass by, wondering what their lives were like, especially in the long, dark winter months.  

After searching for a quiet place for lunch, we finally decided to take the short walk back to the ship for lunch. After some nourishment, I felt energized to take a brisk walk along the port and canal and outside the tourist areas before our ship departed. I enjoyed feeling the sea breeze tussle my hair and the sun’s warming rays penetrate my light jacket as I explored the city on foot for the next couple of hours.

Although nothing dramatic stands out during my excursion, I thoroughly enjoy people watching and absorbing a flavor of the city that one often does not get from the tourist hubs. It was a seaport city that was experiencing a declining population, and it felt as though the city had seen better days in the past. But the people were friendly and I felt safe as I wandered about.

Klaipeda will not land on Lonely Planet’s list for must see port cities, but I enjoyed getting a glimpse of the lives of ordinary people living in Lithuania.  

About the Author: Dr. Denise R. Ames

Dr. Denise R. Ames’ varied life experiences—teaching, scholarly research, personal experiences, extensive travels, and thoughtful reflections—have contributed to her balanced views and global perspectives. Earning a doctorate in world history education, she has taught secondary schools, universities, a community college, professional development, and lifelong learners. In 2003, Dr. Ames founded Center for Global Awareness, an educational non-profit that develops globally-focused books and educational resources for educators and students grade 9-university. She has written eight books, plus numerous blogs, lesson plans, articles, newsletters, teaching units.

Along with CGA’s Gather program, Global Awareness Through Engaged Reflection, a study and conversation program for self-organizing groups of lifelong learners and, Global Awareness for Educators, Dr. Ames is developing a new program: Turn, Transformation, Understanding, & Reflection Network. Turn encourages life-long learners to see with new eyes, learn from the past, understand others, and recognize the relationship of all things. She teaches workshops/classes and writes about Turn’s five topics: learning from the past, cross-cultural awareness, five worldviews, elder wisdom, and transformative travel.

Dr. Ames has written 8 books for the Center for Global Awareness, check out their offerings! Global Awareness Books 

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Cranes Along the Winter Bosque

By Dr. Denise R. Ames

Sandhill Cranes in field, photo Denise Ames

Winter in Albuquerque, New Mexico is a sea of brown vegetation and bright blue skies. The sun warms, not scorches as it does in the summer, covering me with a penetrating comfort. I am not the only one who likes Albuquerque winters, the sandhill cranes and numerous other geese and birds flock here by the thousands for their winter get-away.

We are lucky to have trails that wind through the woods (bosque) bordering the wide and shallow Rio Grande (Grand River). Part of the New Mexico state park system, the area is home to a variety of wildlife.

Porcupine in tree (a little fuzzy) photo Denise Ames

On my last hike, I saw directly above me a porcupine nesting comfortably in a tall tree. On another hike I spotted an eagle perched on a branch overlooking the tranquil river. The crows were not happy with its presence and a cacophony of loud warning chirps wafted through the woods.

But the sandhill cranes are the real story of the bosque in the winter. Over 18,000 cranes fly in to Albuquerque like clockwork every year during the fall and winter months. They migrate here and up and down the Rio Grande to nest in the winter by the thousands. They must like cold. Their breeding grounds are in the higher latitudes—Alaska, Canada, Siberia, and northern US—but they seem to like Albuquerque and the Middle Rio Grande Valley, traveling thousands of miles from as far away as the Arctic Circle to reach our scenic environs.

They teeter around on spindly legs, but miraculously can grow up to four feet tall. With their long necks, and prominent beaks, they look like a pre-historic bird species. And indeed, they might be one of the oldest birds still alive. In Nebraska, where they also winter, a crane fossil estimated to be about 10 million years old was found to have the identical structure as the modern Sandhill crane. Presently, the Sandhill cranes visiting Albuquerque are not on the endangered list.

Although we just call them “the cranes,” their scientific name is Grus canadensis. They live to about 20 years old and mated pairs stay together for the year. They will start having young between two and seven years old. Sporting light gray feathers, they have a distinctive red patch around their eyes and above their beak.

The cranes were abuzz on our Saturday hike, February 13. A big cold front was moving in and the dark gray clouds had an ominous look and feel.

The forecast was for freezing rain, snow, and plummeting temperatures. But the cranes had their own built-in forecaster that sensed this change in weather and were anxious to take flight to a safer location. Their deafening honking conveyed their sense of urgency and distress. Hundreds of birds took to the skies, circling and swirling about before they formed a V-shaped flight pattern and headed north.

I was mesmerized by the cranes that morning, as they circled about in the skies before honing in on their destination. It seemed to take a while for them to stop their circling and chaotic swirling to fall behind a leader who seemed to know where he or she was going. What powers were guiding them I wondered?

I hope they come back. I will find out their status on Saturday, as I search for them grazing on the muddy islands dotting the middle of the Rio Grande. I only have a few more weeks with them. By the end of March, they have all departed. I will miss them.

Cranes on the Rio Grande

About the Author: Dr. Denise R. Ames

Dr. Denise R. Ames’ varied life experiences—teaching, scholarly research, personal experiences, extensive travels, and thoughtful reflections—have contributed to her balanced views and global perspectives. Earning a doctorate in world history education, she has taught secondary schools, universities, a community college, professional development, and lifelong learners. In 2003, Dr. Ames founded Center for Global Awareness, an educational non-profit that develops globally-focused books and educational resources for educators and students grade 9-university. She has written eight books, plus numerous blogs, lesson plans, articles, newsletters, teaching units.

Along with CGA’s Gather program, Global Awareness Through Engaged Reflection, a study and conversation program for self-organizing groups of lifelong learners and, Global Awareness for Educators, Dr. Ames is developing a new program: Turn, Transformation, Understanding, & Reflection Network. Turn encourages life-long learners to see with new eyes, learn from the past, understand others, and recognize the relationship of all things. She teaches workshops/classes and writes about Turn’s five topics: learning from the past, cross-cultural awareness, five worldviews, elder wisdom, and transformative travel.

Dr. Ames has written 8 books for the Center for Global Awareness, check out their offerings! Global Awareness Books 

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Latvia: A Fleeting Glimpse of a Baltic Parkland pt.2

by Dr. Denise R. Ames

As can happen on cruises, the weather often does not permit docking at scheduled ports. Unfortunately, this was the case with docking in Riga, Latvia. The port was just a distant speck viewed through the gray skies, churning sea, and mist as we sailed by. But, Latvia was one of my lectures on the cruise, and I did lots of research for the program. Thus, I would like to share with you what I found out about this captivating country, even though I did not personally experience setting foot there.

Small farms—a departure from large-scale, Soviet style, collectivized farms—are still important to the national economy of Latvia and includes 29% of the total land area. Approximately 200 small farms are engaged in what they label “ecologically pure farming,” what we say in the U.S. as organic agriculture, which means using no artificial fertilizers or pesticides. 

Train built in Riga during the Soviet era

Latvia had a well-developed infrastructure and educated specialists before becoming part of the Soviet Union. After Latvia was annexed to the Soviet Union in 1940, Moscow decided to base some of its most advanced manufacturing there. During Soviet rule, Latvia manufactured trains, ships, minibuses, mopeds, telephones, radios, electrical and diesel engines, textiles, furniture, clothing, bags and luggage, shoes, musical instruments, home appliances, watches, tools, aviation, agricultural equipment and a long list of other goods. It even had its own film industry and musical records factory (LPs).  

GDP Growth 1996-2006

The newly built factories, however, did not have enough skilled people to operate them. Thus, an influx of laborers, administrators, military personnel, skilled workers and their families migrated from the Soviet Union to fill the jobs in Latvia. This migration decreased the proportion of ethnic Latvians in the republic. By 1959, about 400,000 people arrived from other Soviet republics and the ethnic Latvian population had fallen to 62%. The use of the native Latvian language was restricted and Russian was favored as the main language.

Old Town Riga

Latvia has continued its high economic performance since independence. Privatization from Soviet collective ownership is almost complete. Virtually all of the previously state-owned companies have been privatized, leaving only a small number of large state companies. It joined the World Trade Organization in 1999 and the European Union in 2004. In 2014, the Euro became the country’s currency.

Art Nouveau building

The Latvian economy grew by 5.6% in 2012 reaching the highest rate of growth in Europe. However, unemployment remains high. Also, troubling is the labor productivity level in Latvia, which is one of the lowest in the EU.

Riga, the largest city in the Baltic region, boasts of an impressive Old Town that has been designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Drawing hordes of Western Europeans visitors around the year, Riga reveals in its cultural treasures for all to see.

Riga’s Christmas Tree

Riga’s Old Town has a stunning array of historic buildings, oversized churches and cobbled lanes. Best of all are the many sunny squares filled with beer gardens and street cafes, which in summer throng with the cosmopolitan clatter of locals and tourists. In winter Old Rīga does its best impression of a scene from a Christmas card – which is fitting for the place where the very first Christmas tree was erected.

For fans of Art nouveau architecture and design, there’s simply no better destination than Rīga. The city’s architects were enamored with this trend when it swept Europe around the beginning of the 20th century and, despite wartime damage, over 750 art nouveau buildings remain.

Gaze up as you wander the streets and you’ll see a great many facades decorated with the swirling nature motives, bare-breasted goddesses and mythological creatures typical of the style. If you want to delve deeper, visit the period apartment which serves as the Rīga Art Nouveau Museum. For art nouveau furniture and fabrics, head to the Museum of Decorative Arts & Design.

Much of the old town was either destroyed by fire or ransacked by the Germans in World War II and remained in ruins until it was rebuilt in the late 1990s, mainly to make Riga attractive as a tourist destination. Since independence, public and private investment have funded ambitious new projects. 

I would like to wrap up this blog by showing some of the natural beauty of Latvia in their impressive National Park system. They have five national breath-taking parks.

Guija National Park

Devonian sandstone cliffs in Gauja National Park, Latvia’s largest and oldest national park

Venta Rapid in Kuldīga 

It is the widest waterfall in Europe and a natural monument of Latvia

Ķemeri National Park

It is home to mires, natural mineral-springs, muds and lakes that are former lagoons of the Littorina Sea

Slītere National Park at Cape Kolka

It includes several Livonian fishing villages off the 
Livonian Coast, Cape Kolka is the northern tip of Latvia in the Gulf of Riga. 

Rāzna National Park 

This national park was created to protect Lake Rāzna, the second largest 
lake in Latvia, and the surround-ing areas. 

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Latvia: A Fleeting Glimpse of a Baltic Parkland pt.1

by Dr. Denise R. Ames

Our ship, the Nautica, chugged out of the port of Helsinki and into the turbulent Baltic Sea bound for Latvia. I was looking forward to seeing Latvia in person. I did one of my cruise ship lectures on Latvia and wanted to see it up close. But, alas. 

The night was anything but tranquil. I was glad I was in bed and didn’t have to face the squalls and torrential rains. Our smaller than usual cruise ship had many amenities to offer, but riding rough seas was not one of them. Although certainly bearable, I felt the boat pitch and roll more than my stomach wanted. I woke up to see a gray and threatening sky with winds blowing sideways. I suspected that we would not be able to dock in Latvia for our day’s excursions, and the ship’s intercom soon announced that very fact. I was disappointed.

At least, I was able to unpack my suitcase that had been lost for five days in the mysterious innerworkings of KLM airlines. As the concierge promised, the suitcases arrived safely in Helsinki and had been efficiently transported to our ship and then whisked to our room. My travel companion, Susan, and I were thrilled. At least, I had a waterproof spring jacket to wear about the ship, if I decided to bravely venture onto the deck and into the squall.  

So, my blog today will not be about my delight at setting foot in the charming city of Riga, the capital. I will not be able to describe my wonder at seeing the UNESCO preserved Old Town, and its treasures from the past. Instead, I will write a blog based on my research of the country that I used for my cruise ship lecture. Not quite as personal as I had hoped, but I don’t want to skip over such a fascinating country.

Riga Cathedral, Old Town, Latvia

Latvia is an enticing mix of old and new. From its well-educated workforce to the treasures of Old Town Riga, Latvia blends its fascinating past with an optimistic future.

The tiny country bordering the Gulf of Riga is a tapestry of sea, lakes and woods, and this inviting country is best described as a vast parkland with one center—its cosmopolitan capital, Rīga. Western Latvia is rich in virgin forests and gently undulating landscapes that become wilder further east.

Wind-swept northern coast of Latvia

Most of the country is composed of fertile lowland plains and moderate hills. In a typical Latvian landscape, a mosaic of vast forests alternates with fields, farmsteads, and pastures. Arable land is spotted with birch groves and wooded clusters, which afford a habitat for plants and animals. Latvia has hundreds of kms of undeveloped seashore—lined by pine forests, dunes, and continuous white sand beaches. 

Latvia has the 5th highest proportion of land covered by forests in the EU, just after Sweden, Finland, Estonia and Slovenia. Forests account for an astonishing 56% of the total land area.

The Environmental Performance Index is a method for evaluating and ranking a state’s environmental performance. The 2016 index ranked Latvia 22nd, Lithuania 23rd, and Estonia 8th, based on the environmental performance of the country’s policies. Finland ranked number 1, Iceland 2, Sweden 3, and Denmark 4. My country, the U.S., ranked 26. A little side note here, sadly the most war ravaged and dangerous countries, such as Somalia, Mali, Haiti, Lesotho, and Afghanistan were at the bottom of the index in 2014. 

Approximately 30,000 species of flora and fauna have been registered in Latvia. Common species of wildlife include deer, wild boar, moose, lynx, bear, fox, beaver and wolves. The white wagtail is the national bird of Latvia. 8

The Soviet Union began their occupation of Latvia in 1940 during World War II, wrestling it from the Germans. In the post-war period, Latvian farmers were forced to follow farming methods of the Soviet Union and collectivize their farms. Small, family farms were wiped out. With the dismantling of the collective farms after the collapse of Soviet rule in 1991, the area devoted to farming decreased dramatically–now farms are predominantly small.

But agriculture is still important to the national economy and includes 29% of the total land area.  Approximately 200 small farms are engaged in what they label “ecologically pure farming,” what we say in the U.S. as organic agriculture, which means using no artificial fertilizers or pesticides. 

Stay tuned for part 2 of Latvia on Friday, February 12.

About the Author: Dr. Denise R. Ames

Dr. Denise R. Ames’ varied life experiences—teaching, scholarly research, personal experiences, extensive travels, and thoughtful reflections—have contributed to her balanced views and global perspectives. Earning a doctorate in world history education, she has taught secondary schools, universities, a community college, professional development, and lifelong learners. In 2003, Dr. Ames founded Center for Global Awareness, an educational non-profit that develops globally-focused books and educational resources for educators and students grade 9-university. She has written eight books, plus numerous blogs, lesson plans, articles, newsletters, teaching units.

Along with CGA’s Gather program, Global Awareness Through Engaged Reflection, a study and conversation program for self-organizing groups of lifelong learners and, Global Awareness for Educators, Dr. Ames is developing a new program: Turn, Transformation, Understanding, & Reflection Network. Turn encourages life-long learners to see with new eyes, learn from the past, understand others, and recognize the relationship of all things. She teaches workshops/classes and writes about Turn’s five topics: learning from the past, cross-cultural awareness, five worldviews, elder wisdom, and transformative travel.

Dr. Ames has written 8 books for the Center for Global Awareness, check out their offerings! Global Awareness Books 

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The Embudo Canyon Trail: A Winter’s Landscape in the High Desert of New Mexico

by Dr. Denise R. Ames

I am going to sidetrack from my recent blogs about different ports-of-call during my Baltic Sea Cruise. I just took a fun hike along the Embudo Canyon Trail in the foothills of Albuquerque, New Mexico and I would like to share with you my experience and some pictures. I will get back to the Baltic Sea cruise on Tuesday.

Embudo Canyon, Albuquerque, New Mexico photo Denise Ames

The foothills are a name given to the area at the base of the Sandia Mountain, which stretch across the eastern flank of Albuquerque. The Sandia Foothills Open Space, its official name, contains approximately 2,650 acres of steep sloped hills intersected by gravelly drainages at the base of the Sandia Mountains. The highest point on the Sandia range is 10,679, located at the Sandia Crest. However, elevation ranges from 5,720 to 6,800 feet above sea level in the area where we hiked the Embudo Canyon just south of the Crest.

overlook of Albuquerque, NM from Embudo Canyon Trail photo Denise Ames

When it comes to hiking in the Sandia Foothills, it seems as though most of the attention is given to the La Luz Trail and Elena Gallegos area (my favorite), but the Embudo Canyon Trail gets less attention. Although not as dramatic as the other trails, it is fun to hike its barren landscape and view the city from different vantage points.

There is no forest cover in the area we hiked, so early February is a perfect time. It was also a cloudy day, so no intense sun to sap your energy. But it is the high desert, and there is plenty of cacti ready to snare you in their steely grip, so we had to pay attention to staying on the trail. The plant species include a variety of grasses, cane cholla, and prickly pear cactus. Single-seed juniper and piñon trees dot the landscape.

Wildlife in the foothills includes mule deer, coyote, black bear, cougar, rabbit, rock squirrel, lizard, and rattlesnake—plus a wide variety of birds. Although we didn’t see any of the wildlife, I have encountered hair-raising rattlesnakes on different segments of the foothill trails.

The Embudo trails crisscross a big swath of the canyon, so it can be disorienting if you want to stay on one particular trial. However, the parking lot is visible from the heights of the canyon, so no fear of losing your way.

Embudo Arroyo during a flash flood

After parking, we paced ourselves as we hiked a moderate incline up to the flatter area of the canyon. There was a huge catchment basin for the water that cascades down the mountains. During intense rainfall when the water overflows in the basin, it channels into the Embudo Arroyo, one of the numerous concrete arroyos that flows downward to the Rio Grande River, helping prevent Albuquerque from being inundated from flash floods.

Albuquerque view, Mt. Taylor in the background

Although I love the azure blue skies in Albuquerque, it was mesmerizing to see the different cloud formations ebb and flow across the gray southwestern sky. Indeed, the sky seemed to expand as we climbed upward. It was a mind-expanding perspective that I don’t get when I am at a mere 5,000 feet above sea level in my home in the middle of Albuquerque.

As we meandered up and down the trails, I reminded myself to be grateful that Albuquerque affords us so many natural areas that are located within a short distance from my home. Especially during the coronavirus over the last year, being out in nature has been a godsend for me and my partner, Jim. The foothills are truly spellbinding and the many trails that interlace its terrain are a great way to enjoy nature and receive its wonderous gifts.

About the Author: Dr. Denise R. Ames

Dr. Denise R. Ames’ varied life experiences—teaching, scholarly research, personal experiences, extensive travels, and thoughtful reflections—have contributed to her balanced views and global perspectives. Earning a doctorate in world history education, she has taught secondary schools, universities, a community college, professional development, and lifelong learners. In 2003, Dr. Ames founded Center for Global Awareness, an educational non-profit that develops globally-focused books and educational resources for educators and students grade 9-university. She has written eight books, plus numerous blogs, lesson plans, articles, newsletters, teaching units.

Along with CGA’s Gather program, Global Awareness Through Engaged Reflection, a study and conversation program for self-organizing groups of lifelong learners and, Global Awareness for Educators, Dr. Ames is developing a new program: Turn, Transformation, Understanding, & Reflection Network. Turn encourages life-long learners to see with new eyes, learn from the past, understand others, and recognize the relationship of all things. She teaches workshops/classes and writes about Turn’s five topics: learning from the past, cross-cultural awareness, five worldviews, elder wisdom, and transformative travel.

Dr. Ames has written 8 books for the Center for Global Awareness, check out their offerings! Global Awareness Books 

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Helsinki, Finland: An Egalitarian Oasis, pt. 3

By Dr. Denise R. Ames

We only had one day in port in Helsinki, Finland. I could have spent much more time exploring the city and talking with the people, many of whom spoke English. But I would have to be content with a one-day tour of the city with Darren, our excellent guide. He greeted us with hardy handshakes, certainly different from the St. Petersburg guides.

Church in the Rock, Helsinki, Finland, photo Denise Ames

We left the Senate Square in the heart of Helsinki and ventured to the Church in the Rock. The church was an underground house of worship that was blasted out of native granite and capped with a ceiling made of copper wire and 180 windows. Although it has superior acoustics and is the site of many concerts, I found the place rather cold and dreary, I couldn’t wait to get out. Luckily for me, we had almost an hour to see the church and explore the surroundings. I bolted out of the church and started to explore the neighborhood.

Finnish children photo Denise Ames

I lucked out. I encountered several troops of pre-k children out for a stroll before lunch time. There was also a classroom near by the church. The children were adorable. I immediately thought of my 4-year-old granddaughter who was also in a pre-K classroom back in Brooklyn (also adorable). The Finnish children were all in a row clutching each other’s hands wearing bright green vests for safety purposes.

Finnish children photo Denise Ames

Our guide mentioned that children start school as young as three, all free public education. The point of early education, according to our guide is to socialize the children into getting along. There is no homework but cooperation is emphasized. He went on to add that in a country such as Finland with a harsh environment that cooperation has been a central part of the values system of the country for centuries. Survival depended upon it. It is a well-entrenched value and not easily jettisoned in a modern age. The school system reflects these values.

photo Denise Rmae

He said in the upper grades there is close cooperation (once again) between the educational system and industry. Students are trained to accommodate some of the needs of industry. Our guide went on to say that in a land with few natural resources that the knowledge of their citizens is an important resource; therefore, a great deal of investment is made in this resource. Public education is free through the university, but there are strict requirements to get in and to continue. It is hardly a “free ride.”

Teaching is perhaps the most important job in Finland. All teachers must have a masters degree and the education program has the highest standards for acceptance of any college program. There is no ranking of teachers, schools, or students according to testing standards, so this eliminates the stress of your school being at the bottom of the pile. Students start the day around 9:00-9:45 and end around 2:30. They also take lots of breaks and have time to de-stress. Although it seems counterintuitive to Americans, this system actually works for them.

photo Denise Ames

I would argue that the reasons for their success is their social equality, work ethic, and personal initiative. I think it would be hard to replicate in many countries.

Our guide unconsciously expressed Finland’s egalitarian ideals when he motioned for all of us to get on the bus together or let’s all walk together to see this site. Together was in practically every sentence he uttered. It is not a word that Americans use very often, unless in a political campaign slogan.

Sibelius steel monument, photo Denise Ames

We made one more stop before the end of our tour, Sibelius Park. This lovely urban park is home to an unusual stainless-steel monument dedicated to the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. It was lovely to see such pride commemorating one of their hometown heroes. The park was filled with activity and fun as the Finns were out to enjoy the remaining days of summer before another harsh winter set in.

I said goodbye to our guide as the bus pulled onto the dock near our cruise ship. I then took a stroll through a market set up nearby and enjoyed the colorful displays of food, clothing, and trinkets. Then I meandered my way to the ship, reluctant to leave Finland. I took a big inhale of the salty, sea air and smiled as I turned my back on this fascinating country that was making its mark on the world in the educational arena.

Finnish market, photo Denise Ames

As I made my way up the gang plank I thought about my lost luggage. I wondered if it would finally surface. I quickened my step, I opened the door to my room, and there it was. My long-lost luggage. My travel companion, Susan, also had her bag. I saw the monstrous bag but I didn’t know what to do. The trip was 2/3 over and I didn’t need all the extra things I brought. Actually, I was a little disappointed. It was so easy to just rotate my clothes and not worry about what to wear next. My make-up bag was packed away so I had no need to “look presentable.” It was with trepidation that I unpacked about 1/3 of my suitcase. The rest of my clothes would be unable to experience the Baltic Sea cruise.

photo Denise Ames

As we set sail for our next destination, Latvia, I went up to the top deck to see the expanse of islands dotting the Finnish coast. I was thankful though for my warm jacket that I just unpacked, as a cool breeze reminded me that a harsh environment shaped the lives of the lovely Finnish people that I had the pleasure of spending a day with.

About the Author: Dr. Denise R. Ames

Dr. Denise R. Ames’ varied life experiences—teaching, scholarly research, personal experiences, extensive travels, and thoughtful reflections—have contributed to her balanced views and global perspectives. Earning a doctorate in world history education, she has taught secondary schools, universities, a community college, professional development, and lifelong learners. In 2003, Dr. Ames founded Center for Global Awareness, an educational non-profit that develops globally-focused books and educational resources for educators and students grade 9-university. She has written eight books, plus numerous blogs, lesson plans, articles, newsletters, teaching units.

Along with CGA’s Gather program, Global Awareness Through Engaged Reflection, a study and conversation program for self-organizing groups of lifelong learners and, Global Awareness for Educators, Dr. Ames is developing a new program: Turn, Transformation, Understanding, & Reflection Network. Turn encourages life-long learners to see with new eyes, learn from the past, understand others, and recognize the relationship of all things. She teaches workshops/classes and writes about Turn’s five topics: learning from the past, cross-cultural awareness, five worldviews, elder wisdom, and transformative travel.

Dr. Ames has written 8 books for the Center for Global Awareness, check out their offerings! Global Awareness Books 

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Helsinki, Finland: An Egalitarian Oasis, pt. 2

by Dr. Denise R. Ames

Helsinki, Finland stood in stark contrast to St. Petersburg, Russia. I had just arrived in Helsinki via the Nautica cruise ship from our last docking port in St. Petersburg. While St. Petersburg was big and flashy, full of intrigue and ostentatious show, Helsinki was plain, unpretentious, and quiet. St. Petersburg symbolized hierarchy, patriarchal attitudes, and brute authority, while Helsinki seemed egalitarian, emitted a feminine vibe, and emanated peaceful attitudes. On first glance, Helsinki was actually dull compared to St. Petersburg, but I knew this was not true and I would just have to look beneath the austere surface to see what really made the city tick.

Senate Square, Helsinki, Finland
Bicycles everywhere, photo Denise Ames

My first stop on a tour of the city was at Senate Square in the heart of Helsinki. It was modest by St. Petersburg standards, but its three main buildings told me a lot about what the Finnish people value most: a university building, a protestant cathedral, and the Senate building—education, faith, and egalitarian governance. All spoke to the fact that it was the Finnish individual who made their own decisions, not the tsar, landowner, or church authority. These buildings emoted an air of egalitarianism, democracy, and individual responsibility. The people were not oppressed but free individuals to make their own way.

I glanced around the square and noted the number of bicycles darting back and forth across the brick-laid grounds. They were not just ridden by back-packing youth out to get some exercise, but many middle aged and gray-haired seniors intently guided their bicycles to their planned destination. They knew what they were doing, no frills. The public transportation was also efficient-looking, clean, and even painted green, sustainability the obvious goal.

Finnish tram, photo Denise Ames

We made our way up the steep steps to the cathedral perched on a hill overlooking the square. It obviously took the center stage of the square, directing the operations of the government and university. Built 1830-1852, it is called the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Cathedral. It was built as a tribute to Tsar Nicolas I of Russia, but its name was changed in 1917 when Finland won independence from Russia during their Bolshevik revolution.

Happy Finnish youth, navigating the steep steps to cathedral
photo Denise Ames

Its spartan but elegant interior spoke of Finland’s egalitarian and practical roots. According to our guide, the Finnish people have largely shunned religion and feel they are able to continue to have the proper values without the imposition of the church and clergy. I wondered if his words would ring true when those humanitarian values would be challenged at some time in the future. Or, if perhaps not constantly reinforced by the church these values would fade away with time.

The last point of interest on the Senate Square was a statue of the Russian tsar Alexander II. Yes, it is the same Russian tsar who initiated reforms in Russia during his long reign from 1855 until his assassination in 1881. (I wrote a blog about the Church of Spilled Blood in memory of his death in St. Petersburg a few weeks ago.) I found it rather a strange juxtaposition of an autocratic Russian ruler being commemorated in the egalitarian Senate Square, but as our guide explained it was to remember the Finns close ties with Russia through their long history of strife and friendship.

Interior of the cathedral, photo Denise Ames

I wanted to learn more about the Finnish educational system, since it is ranked as the world’s best. But that will have to wait until next Tuesday’s blog.

About the Author: Dr. Denise R. Ames

Dr. Denise R. Ames’ varied life experiences—teaching, scholarly research, personal experiences, extensive travels, and thoughtful reflections—have contributed to her balanced views and global perspectives. Earning a doctorate in world history education, she has taught secondary schools, universities, a community college, professional development, and lifelong learners. In 2003, Dr. Ames founded Center for Global Awareness, an educational non-profit that develops globally-focused books and educational resources for educators and students grade 9-university. She has written eight books, plus numerous blogs, lesson plans, articles, newsletters, teaching units.

Along with CGA’s Gather program, Global Awareness Through Engaged Reflection, a study and conversation program for self-organizing groups of lifelong learners and, Global Awareness for Educators, Dr. Ames is developing a new program: Turn, Transformation, Understanding, & Reflection Network. Turn encourages life-long learners to see with new eyes, learn from the past, understand others, and recognize the relationship of all things. She teaches workshops/classes and writes about Turn’s five topics: learning from the past, cross-cultural awareness, five worldviews, elder wisdom, and transformative travel.

Dr. Ames has written 8 books for the Center for Global Awareness, check out their offerings! Global Awareness Books 

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Helsinki, Finland: An Egalitarian Oasis

by Dr. Denise R. Ames

Next stop on my cruise of the Baltic Sea aboard the Nautica was Helsinki, Finland. Situated on a peninsula on the southern coast, overlooking the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic Sea. Helsinki has a natural seaport, and is kept open year-round thanks to powerful icebreakers. Interestingly, icebreakers are one of Finland’s major manufactured products, providing 60% of the world’s total. In the “heat” of summer, there were no icebreakers visible today.

Finnish ice breaker, Polaris

Although I would only have one day to explore the city of 1 ½ million people, I was excited to at least get a glimpse of all it had to offer. As an educator for many years, the education system in Finland is always touted as the best in the world. During my tour of the city, perhaps I could get a brief indication of why this is so.

We sailed by night the short distance (300 km) from St. Petersburg to Helsinki. The two countries have a long and contested border with each other, but their cultural heritage is starkly different. Russia is a huge, land-based country with an entrenched system of hierarchy and authority among the ruling elite. Finland has a Nordic history and culture defined by its boreal forests, thousands of lakes, frigid weather, and access to the sea that has contributed to an egalitarian spirit in which the community must bond together for survival.  

Sami indigenous people of Finland, date around 1900

My first choice as far as an excursion was concerned was to visit the Sámi people in the northern part of Finland, often called Lapland. The area defies national boundaries, and also encompasses the northern parts of Sweden, Norway, and northwestern Russia. The Sámi are indigenous people numbering between 80,000 and 100,000 who live by fishing, fur trapping, sheep herding, and most famously, nomadic reindeer herding. Although only about 10% of the Sámi are reindeer herders, it provides them with meat, fur, and transportation. But alas, no such excursion to visit the Sámi people was available, or even considered, so I set my sights on a “Highlights of Helsinki” tour, which also allowed time for me to do some roaming.

Sami with domesticated reindeer, photo around 1900

I quickly finished my breakfast and downed the same outfit I wore for the last six days. Our luggage, lost somewhere in the Scandinavian region of Europe, at least it wasn’t the whole European land mass, had yet to be located. At least, the Nautica concierge was kind enough to provide my companion, Susan, and I with free laundry service, so the garments, although far from cruise-ship stylish, were at least clean and pressed. My warm jacket packed in my luggage would have been welcomed today, it was breezy and cloudy. So, I layered what I had: two T-shirts, a light-weight sweater, and my thin sweatshirt, set off by a colorful turquoise bandana. I had the turquoise bandana wrapped around my camera for protection, but I quickly added it as a colorful accessory. One always has to be creative when accessorizing in a pinch.

Main building of University of Helsinki in Senate Square, photo Denise Ames

Enough thinking about luggage, I was in Helsinki for the day! I made my way to the queue of buses waiting to take passengers on a variety of tours. Since I was an “assistant” to the tour guide—part of my cruise ship lecturer duties—I helped count the passengers and then settled back for the guide to start. I immediately noticed a big contrast between the St. Petersburg guides and our Helsinki guide. The St. Petersburg guides, although competent, had regurgitated a litany of facts and information about our sights but failed to give personal stories that made it more meaningful. They were guarded as far as answering my stream of questions, and gave pat answers or ignored them completely. Our Helsinki guide was just the opposite. Although he had information to convey, he was warm, open, and willing to answer even the most convoluted or probing questions. I knew I would get a good sense of what Helsinki was like from his remarks.

I was excited to see the city!

About the Author: Dr. Denise R. Ames

Dr. Denise R. Ames’ varied life experiences—teaching, scholarly research, personal experiences, extensive travels, and thoughtful reflections—have contributed to her balanced views and global perspectives. Earning a doctorate in world history education, she has taught secondary schools, universities, a community college, professional development, and lifelong learners. In 2003, Dr. Ames founded Center for Global Awareness, an educational non-profit that develops globally-focused books and educational resources for educators and students grade 9-university. She has written eight books, plus numerous blogs, lesson plans, articles, newsletters, teaching units.

Along with CGA’s Gather program, Global Awareness Through Engaged Reflection, a study and conversation program for self-organizing groups of lifelong learners and, Global Awareness for Educators, Dr. Ames is developing a new program: Turn, Transformation, Understanding, & Reflection Network. Turn encourages life-long learners to see with new eyes, learn from the past, understand others, and recognize the relationship of all things. She teaches workshops/classes and writes about Turn’s five topics: learning from the past, cross-cultural awareness, five worldviews, elder wisdom, and transformative travel.

Dr. Ames has written 8 books for the Center for Global Awareness, check out their offerings! Global Awareness Books 

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