Monday, October 28, 2013

Fateful Bike Expedition

I had set aside the last full day of my European trip for biking the Dutch countryside north of Amsterdam. As stated before, I get a better feel of the country when seeing the rural areas. Thankfully, the countryside is only a ferry ride and 5 km of pedaling away, and what's better way to get the Dutch experience than on a bike? I rented a one-gear bike for about 16 euro, received instruction from a dreadlocked dutch bro and was off. Once the ferry docked into North Amsterdam, I continued northward into Waterland shortly after 11 AM. 

Smaller village a hop, skip, jump and a couple of pedals from Amsterdam

I was surprised at how quickly the scenery changed. Within five kilometers, the urban scenery gave way to quaint villages, farmlands and canals. The smell of livestock was also present. It was exactly what I was looking for: rustic settings for photography and a break from the crowds of Amsterdam. The only thing lacking were the tulips, for they were late this past spring. I worked up quite an appetite and stopped by a local cafe in Broeck in Waterland where I tried some typical Dutch snacks and hot tea. 

Top: The lumbering iron foal I rode in on
Bottom: The Holland of my childhood imagination sans tulips,
because the adult version mostly conjures up vices

After the fuel injection, I was off pedaling again. My target was to see the famous lighthouse in Marken but was unsure if I had the time to pedal there and back to the bike shop which closes at 5 PM. It was crucial that I returned by then because not only would I get charged extra (they have a copy of your card for security), but I had no time to return it the next morning. My flight was at around 10 AM and the shop did not open until 8. I would have missed my flight because the airport was nearly an hour away from the hostel and security for an international flight can be difficult. So I had a bit of paranoia in regards to time.

Elderly Dutch man pulling himself to his floating abode

I was feeling confident however, due to an extremely strong wind coming from the south that was pushing me northward. Since the topography was flat, I could literally pedal hard for a few seconds and the gusts would carry me for nearly a kilometer. By 1 PM, I reached a bit of a cross-roads to get my bearings. A mile marker indicated that I was about 13 km from Amsterdam, but Marken was still a ways off. 

I pedaled quite a few kilometers out

I decided to try Edam instead, a town known for its cheese which was 7 km from my current location. The road to Edam meandered alongside the dams where the strong gusts became more noticeable. I was a bit paranoid about the wind blowing me into the water so at times I was on foot, carefully guiding the bike. The winds were the strongest I have ever faced, no wonder the society was built by windmills. Check out the video below to hear the wind howl.

The going was a bit slow and in my mind perilous, so I decided to retreat back to Amsterdam. The wind became seemingly stronger and cut right through my two layers of fleece. During this ride home, did my biggest error occur to me: renting a single gear bike. I spoke earlier of how the wind carried me for a km, and now, I was facing that very same wind. It took so much strength to pedal against it, that I would tire after 4 labored pedals and resort to walking. The paranoia of being late creeped into a panic as I tried in vain to pedal. I calculated that at my current pace I could still make it back to shop by 4 PM, but I did not want to take a chance. I hurried back, taking no pictures, stopping only at the same cafe to get some precious calories.

Oh how did I regret renting a gearless bike, because even slowly churning on low gear would have still been faster than walking with the bike in tow. I even got passed by an old lady because she had a much coveted bike with gears. I could have used a solid windbreaker as well, because the gusts chilled me to the bone, and it was not even a frigid day. Eventually, I found my way back to Amsterdam, returning the bike with 45 minutes to spare. No one missed their flight or was charged late fees, but at times it did seem like there would be some sort of disaster. I was however, extremely tired by the expedition and was in bed by 10:30 PM, missing out on a final night in an unforgettable city. 

Monday, October 21, 2013

Stereotypes: Amsterdam Edition

When you mention Amsterdam or the Netherlands as a whole, a few things come to mind, especially vices. So this post will be dedicated to discussing the stereotypes that I myself have heard or witnessed during my stay.

Amsterdam is Expensive

True. The daily cost of visiting Amsterdam is almost double compared to Prague's. This was not a surprise, anyone who's ever gone or planned to go know that western Europe is costly. 

The Dutch Speak English Well

True. Tourists from English speaking countries would not have issues communicating with the Dutch. On a fateful bike ride, I was lost in a community full of immigrants and they were able to give me directions. I would even say that most Dutch people speak better English than Americans. My actual job requires me to talk to people and some of them (in the deeper south), I cannot understand.

The Dutch are Tall and Good Looking

I read somewhere that the Dutch average to be the tallest people on Earth and it sure seemed like it. I am short and felt even shorter during my stay. Of course the good looking criteria is subjective, but I would agree. It also doesn't hurt that most Amsterdam residents commute via the bicycle so they get more exercise than the average American. I honestly cannot say anything negative about the Dutch people I interacted with during my visit. Except if you walk onto the bike lane, you would get a warning in the form a "ding" and have to dodge a passing bike.

The Food Scene

I've actually never heard anyone praise nor criticize the food scene in Amsterdam or Holland as a whole. I do know that world famous cheese is produced there and I did try some. However, I'm not a cheese connoisseur and not a reputable source on the subject. I did hear that herring was a seasonal favorite. The fellow tourist I met from Australia did join me on a quest lasting a few hours hunting down a herring vendor. Allow me to narrate my findings:

The reason we even recorded the video was because spent so much time looking for it that we wanted to remember the moment for eternity or as long as Al Gore allows the internet to exist.

Marijuana is Legal

I have no clue. I've heard so many different stories on what is legal there in terms of pot. Honestly, I didn't care, isn't it legal in colorado now? If I wanted to smoke weed in public, it would save me time and money if I planned a trip there instead. But back to the point, although trying to figure out the legality of weed is confusing, it is not criminalized. As in law enforcement don't actively hunt people down who may carry/use it. My own hostel had a ventilated smoking room that could fit up to 20 guests and it reeked of cannabis. My aussie friend and I did accompany a tourist from Malaysia for his first smoke, so I can impart a tidbit of knowledge: If you are searching for the sticky green, you must find a "cafe", if you want to avoid it, go to a "coffee shop". It's funny, but there didn't seem to be any need for code words a la phish groupies looking for "molly". The barista simply gave our companion a menu from which to select. You may have heard about the tolerant society that the Dutch are proud of, and this hands off approach is a clear example. According to a tour guide, what isn't tolerated however, is the use of harder drugs (presumably cocaine and opiates). The open use of those would leave you locked up abroad in no time.

Prostitution is Legal

Yes, civilization's oldest profession is legal in Amsterdam. If you wander into the Red Light District, you will undoubtedly pass a building with large windows, each with a woman inside showcasing her goods. Reportedly, rates were at 50 euro for 15 minutes, workers are frequently tested and it is considered a legitimate trade. Once again, you can attribute this to Holland's tolerant society. However, there is a zero tolerance policy towards "pimping". The girls are in essence individual contractors, they rent out the window themselves and are responsible in securing their own clients.

The Red Light District

Those are the most prominent generalizations heard about Holland prior to my trip and as always, there are truths behind most of them. Despite paying higher prices, English speakers would find it very easy to navigate Amsterdam and Holland as a whole. The society's tolerance have surely made it a haven for immigrants and to those who are seeking vices not readily available in their own countries. I would recommend reading the actual laws before visiting for a marijuana trip. Lastly, we know that pimping ain't easy and in Amsterdam, it is illegal.   

Monday, October 14, 2013

Amsterdam Day One

Unlike my Prague arrival, I hit the ground running in Amsterdam. Literally. Upon disembarking the night train at Centraal Station around 9:30 AM, I was looking to purchase a tram pass for the duration of my stay, then noticed ads for an "Amsterdam Card" which included a canal pass, unlimited metro use for 24 hours along with free or discounted rates at museums and other attractions. Had I done my research properly, I would have figured out that the main museum I wanted to see, The Anne Frank House was not among the museums included in the package. However, the unlimited pass on the tram allowed me to live with myself.

My favorite shot of the city, with an iPhone 4S

After checking into my hostel, I was off on a canal cruise. It was a proper introduction to Dutch culture, who often struggled with the North sea and managed to build a society on reclaimed land. Of course seasoned/pretentious travelers scoff at guided tours but hey, I love hearing about trivial facts and retain most of what I hear. For example if a homeowner in Amsterdam built their row house too wide, they would be levied higher taxes.

Canal tour

As soon as the one hour tour concluded, I was off towards the Anne Frank House. The holocaust was among the darkest periods in western history but for whatever reason, I had great interest in the subject, especially when I was younger. I read books like The Devil's Arithmetic, Number the Stars, Night and was haunted by movies like Schindler's List, the Pianist, etc. So despite the steep price, I was able to step into the very same secret rooms behind the bookcase that two Jewish families called home. If you are not familiar with the story, it did not end happily ever after. Anne died a few months prior to the end of the war. Her father did survive and had her world famous diary published. It should be noted that Anne was brilliant and had a bright future. In addition to her diary the museum displayed her short stories and other works. Unfortunately, the museum prohibited cameras and I do not have any photos of the secret passage.

In a queue outside the Anne Frank House

On an interesting note, my visit to the Anne Frank house was within a week or so of Justin Bieber's. He controversially (and immaturely) wrote in the guestbook that he hoped Anne would have been a "belieber". Some people were upset by that comment, but if Anne Frank's own stepsister had no issue with it, I guess we shouldn't either.

After that melancholy tour, I had a bland yet expensive hot dog then was off again in search of a Rembrandt exhibit. I was in such a hurry because I wanted to maximize the value of that damn Amsterdam card! But alas, the Rembrandt exhibit was temporarily housed at a different museum on the other side of town. So after a hurried and flawed cost-benefit analysis, I went to the nearby Stedelijk Museum. I have zero knowledge of art but the name Nam June Paik sounded familiar and I saw his TV Buddha piece.

Top: Nam June Paik's TV Buddha
Bottom: The Amsterdam sign in the middle of a random park

After exploring the museum, taking advantage of its free wi-fi, I strolled about the area and stumbled into an iconic site: the Amsterdam sign. Turns out, my hostel was only a stop or two away from this area and headed back. I needed to find company for tonight's red light district outing, and the hostel was the place to look. I stayed at the Flying Pig and it had a full service bar and a smoking room, so patrons were relaxed and approachable. Eventually, I found a fellow solo traveler from Melbourne who herself was looking for company. As we headed towards the infamous part of the city, I reflected a bit on the day. I was definitely more confident here, and was not lonely. Although very pricey, Amsterdam was quite navigable and the trams ran like clockwork. The city is synonymous with all sorts of vice and I will address some of those in the next post.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Planes, Trains but no Automobiles

The final stop of my European trip was Amsterdam and I would journey there aboard the Phoenix, Deutsche Bahn’s night line from Prague to Amsterdam. I was stoked about finally experiencing the scenic way of traveling Europe. Railroad travel is iconic in a sense, as aspiring travelers have always included rail in their transport plans. However, the recent emergence of budget airlines like Ryanair and Easyjet have surely cut into the rail’s market share, leaving travelers with more options. Having the budget airline experience with Czech based Smartwings, I was ready for a more leisurely form of travel.

The Deutsche Bahn's Phoenix night line before boarding in Prague

So in addition to fulfilling my romanticized viewing of the countryside, taking the night train made more economic sense. The fare was a steal in my opinion at 48 euros (roughly 78 USD at the time), which is comparable to Amtrak fares from Charlotte to NYC. And since it was a sleeper train, I was able to save on one night’s lodging at a hostel. Let me introduce you to my lodging for the night below:

The downside to this budget fare was sharing such a confined space with 5 complete (and foreign) strangers. Fortunately, I would have the cabin to myself for the first 3 hours. Hopping aboard was a painless process, and I was relieved that I did not have to show my documents 30 times, get stuck in long queues and get reacquainted with the EU’s version of the TSA as I would by air.

Budget airlines have become popular as of late because they increase your destination possibilities with bargain fares and a reduction in transit times. My flight from Rome to Prague was a bargain at under 100 USD. The main gripes are the crazy departure/arrival hours, baggage fees and the tendency to use airports that are off the beaten path. Environmental groups have their share of criticism because flights are susceptible to low ridership, an inefficient use of jet fuel. Also, the increased air traffic in the outskirts of the cities contributes to noise pollution and causes worry in regards to emissions.

I welcomed being alone in the silence for the next few hours, which was the opposite sentiment upon arrival in Prague. The solitude as I watched the Czech countryside pass by was much needed. I sprawled out, listened to albums in its entirety and reflected on the trip thus far. I only had a couple of hours of daylight before the scenery dimmed for the night, and the darkness would only be interrupted by the occasional street lights and in one instance a welcome sight: the unmistakable golden arches of a Mickey Ds. I am clueless as to why seeing American fast food franchises comfort me when abroad. I wonder if others feel the same?

Top: Random stop in the Czech Republic
Bottom: Since I was alone at first, I made myself
comfortable on the other couchettes

As the train made its first stop in Germany, it seemed like another gaggle er class of teenagers hopped aboard, soon ending my monopoly of the cabin. A young German girl entered the compartment and although shy, was personable and spoke good English. We were content on keeping to ourselves for the next 30 minutes until I dozed off. I awoke right before dawn to use the restroom and to my surprise, the cabin was full. Six total strangers sleeping in close proximity. Well, that is budget travel for you.. I must have been exhausted, for I did not notice the four other roommates entering, fumbling their baggage and whatnot. 

Glimpse of a station somewhere in Germany
After dozing off for another hour, I got my belongings and exited the compartment. I much preferred watching the Dutch countryside go by and hoped to see a windmill. I would not make any new friends by letting the sunlight flood the room. I was ready to soak in Amsterdam and all it had to offer.