By Stephanie Woodson
Sveiki! (Hello!) from Riga! It is now 2:54 AM in the city of Riga (7:55 PM at home in Fort Wayne), and we have conquered our first night in Latvia.
Although the mental and emotional journey began well over a year ago, our physical journey began yesterday, Sunday July 13, 2014 at approximately 1:20 pm. All of the rehearsals, training, planning and fundraising had come to this very moment. We were on our way to pursue and defend the gold at the 8th World Choir Games in Riga, Latvia. Several young travelers were taking their first flight on an airplane, as well as their first international trip, similar to when the choir traveled to China in 2010. This year’s group is considerably younger than the group that traveled to China, but the excitement is no less intense.
Each of the travel team leaders, including tour managers Gemma McClendon and Chris Stockamp, tour nurse, media personnel, chaperones and choir vocal section captains were required to meet on the campus of Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne at 11:00 AM to ensure a smooth check-in process for the students when they arrived at noon. When students arrived, they were given color-coordinated ribbons to place on their luggage and to signify their chaperone group for the remainder of the trip. As check-in continued and the luggage collected outside the Rhinehart lobby, students and their family members filed into the choir room which acted as our waiting room for the day. Journalists from News Channel 15 and Fox 55 came to document the beginning of our trip and interviewed our director and UNITY’s CEO, Mr. Marshall White, and students Alivia Croxton and David Alvarez.
As check-in came to a close, and the choir room was filled to capacity, Mr. White explained to the choir how he had written a vision to take this group to an international level, and planned for it to happen by the organization’s tenth year, and it came to fruition. He gave profoundly encouraging words to the choir, reminding them that they were ambassadors of Fort Wayne and of our great country. After Mr. White addressed the choir, Mr. Tim Ash, who donated $175,000.00 toward to group’s trip to Riga, addressed the choir. After receiving a roaring applause and cheerful shouts, he stated: “The applause you just gave me, I return back to you.” He expressed his deep love for the organization and encouraged the students to continue to make the city proud. Jamie King, a choir vocal section captain and recent South Side High School graduate presented Mr. Ash with a manila envelope full of hand-written letters addressed to him from the choir, expressing their gratitude. Mr. White’s daughter and Voices of Unity alumna, Kamia White, summed up the moment by stating, “It was just a powerful moment. Hearts were on one accord. It was really a time to cherish and celebrate the accomplishments of the organization thus far. It was beautiful to see not only choir members, but board members and parents come together.” Finally, as tears flowed and good-byes were said, it was time to board the buses to Chicago.
We boarded our buses, Bus 1 and Bus 2, and were on our way, when about 25 minutes into the trip, we had to pull over due to Bus 2 not having proper air ventilation. We pulled into a Bob Evans parking lot, and the occupants of Bus 2 hurried out the unbearably hot bus to find relief under a nearby shade tree. Chaperones and our tour nurse were close by, providing water for them as well. The bus drivers were able to fix the bus, and after about a 30 minute wait, we were back on the road. Many students watched movies, listened to music and read books, while others slept or talked to their seat partner.
Nearly 3 hours later, we arrived at the Chicago O’Hare International Airport and filed into the LOT Polish Airlines doorway. We organized our luggage by group and waited for the check-in desk to open. Once it opened, the 53 travelers were able to check-in relatively quickly. Our next stop was customs, as we had to unload laptops and take off our shoes to go through the security checkpoint, with passports and boarding passes in hand. We then had time to sit down to dinner in the international area of the airport. Many of the shops and restaurants were internationally themed at this point. While dining, some travelers took the time to exchange American dollars for European euros. At 8:00 PM, it was time to board our first flight to Poland. As the sun was setting, we left from Gate M37, saying goodbye to the United States for the next 9 days.
Our flight to Poland was about 7 hours long. Though long, it was relaxing and enjoyable for most travelers. Each seat had a screen on the back of the headrest and was equipped with a remote control, and headphone jack. Each seat had a pillow and blanket for each traveler. As we took our seats, the strikingly stunning Polish flight attendants greeted us and proceeded to help us get settled in. The flight instructions were shown on the screens in front of us, in Polish and then again in English. Once the instructions were over, and we were greeted by the pilot, it was time to take off. Several travelers watched movies, tv shows, played games and listened to music provided by the airline. I personally watched Happy Feet Two and listened to Polish Soul music. It was great! We ate dinner, had snacks and then ate dinner before leaving the plane. As we left Chicago, the sun was setting, and as we approached Poland, it was rising again.
We landed in Poland and filed into the airport and had just enough time to make it through customs again, and then use the WiFi kiosk to use WiFi for the first time in the past 7 or so hours to update our Facebook and Instagram with details about our trip thus far. Although our time in Poland was short, we had enough time to capture parts of the Polish culture by way of the people, shops, signs and restaurants. Our surroundings were unfamiliar, yet we still were able to come in contact with a “piece of home,” as Justin Sheehan and I were greeted by a couple from Marion, Indiana who had traveled to Poland for a Psychology Convention.
We left Poland from Gate 42 and were on our last stretch of the trip to Riga. We boarded a much smaller plane, much like those used at the Fort Wayne International Airport and had arrived to Riga within two hours. As we approached Latvia, we could see the coast just off the Baltic Sea. It was absolutely beautiful! We had finally made it to our destination!
The weather in Riga was beautiful upon landing; sunny skies and about 75 degrees. Once we made it past baggage claim, we were greeted by our official World Choir Games Tour Guide, Liva! Liva is a computer science student at the University of Latvia, and volunteered to be part of this event in order to make new friends from across the globe. We had Skyped with Liva only two short days prior to our arrival, but it was exciting to finally meet her face to face. Liva gave us instructions on how the rest of the night would unfold, and we piled into busses which took us to our beautiful hotel. On the ride to the hotel, the sites were great. We shared stories about our time in China four years ago, mentioning that our bond with our Chinese friends had grown over the course of the trip and still continues to this day. Liva emphasized that she too, had already fallen in love with us!
Riga is a beautiful, modern city with a very historic presence and dignity about it. Many of us noted how we felt as though we were still state-side, as much of what we were seeing reminded us of some of the larger cities in the United States. The most common vehicles seen driving the streets, however, were Mercedes, BMW, Volkswagon, Audi and Lexus. We had finally made it to our hotel, Hotel Tallink. The lobby was nicely decorated, and there was a game area for children to play. We waited in the lobby as our tour managers made sure we were checked in, and then waited for Mr. White and Mr. Stockamp to go with Liva to check-in at the World Choir Games registration site. During this waiting period, we had just enough time to check out our hotel rooms. Though extremely nice, we were surprised at the small size and how close the beds were in the twin rooms. The beds were so close together, it seemed as it was made to be a full size bed instead of two separate beds.
Once we were registered, it was time for dinner. We walked through a special market area, set up especially for the World Choir Games, filled with booths of homemade goods, and made it to our bus stop. We boarded a bus again and headed to the Riga Congress Center, the official lunch and dinner site for all participating choirs to dine together. We had a tasty meal of rice with carrots and chicken, pickles, cucumbers, soup and bread.
After dinner, on the bus ride home, the choir serenaded our tour guide and a few other riders with a rendition of “I’ll Be There,” led by recording artist Wayne Starks and VOU alumnus, Jordan Applegate. Liva sang along as she recorded us on her phone. It was a great moment. A perfect ending to our first night in Riga!