Netherlands and the journey home

This entry marks the final leg of my round-the-world adventure: visiting the Netherlands before my flight back home to Toronto… bringing my journey full-circle.

The highlights of this final leg start with the journey from Berlin to the Netherlands. While still in Poland, I researched the various travel options to get to Amsterdam and discovered an overnight rail service operated by Deutsche Bahn (German Rail). The prospect of taking an overnight train journey seemed like an exciting adventure: the purest form of “backpacking it through Europe” transportation I could think of. It would also save me a tonne of money traveling overnight: instead of paying for a hostel, I’d be arriving in my destination while I slept… saving lots of time too. I went with the cheapest option: an upper berth in a six-person sleeper cabin. I was really looking forward to the journey.

True to my excited expectations, the train journey was quite epic. In very un-German fashion, the train was two hours late arriving in Berlin… but it was the Eastern Europeans who were to blame, haha. The train originated in Moscow, went to Warsaw and then to Berlin on its way to Amsterdam. Literally a cross-hemisphere train with more than 50 cars. Talk about epic! The train finally arrived a bit past midnight, and I found my way to my cabin and met my cabin-mates (none of whom I could do anything more than exchange smiles with: a middle-aged man from Russia and an entire family of four from Japan. Imagine how strange an adventure it would be to travel by overnight train on a family vacation from Japan!). I climbed up into my cozy and snug berth (should have taken a photo; here’s a link to one I found online of the 6-berth setup) – had to be very careful not to bonk my head. The sleep was fantastic: the clack-clack-clack and rocking sway of the rails was soothing. I got up as the sun started coming through the curtains, and I took a walk to re-stretch from the compressed sleeping position. There were so many cars; and the train was mostly full. Suddenly, I noticed something interesting: the door to the on-board shower in the first class area was left ajar (it’s supposed to have a special first-class key card to enter). I raced back to my backpack, got my toiletry kit, and enjoyed a very refreshing on-board shower and shave. Sneaky, I know… but it made my adventurous train journey that much more exciting.

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The train entered the Netherlands and it became instantly clear that the Dutch have an interesting battle with the water their country is inundated with due to its below sea-level topography. The Dutch engineers are notorious for viewing water as a foe rather than working with it, and across the whole countryside there was evidence of the hydrological ingenuity that has tried to conquer nature. Every single span of water was perfectly straight with well-defined brick banks: I didn’t see a single naturally-flowing river. The scenery matched the stereotypical image of the Netherlands: canals, lots of traditional windmills, plus field after field of flowers and huge greenhouse complexes.

At mid-morning, my train pulled into Amsterdam Centraal (Central Station) and I was greeted by my Crystal Serenity shipmate friend Raymond, who lives a two hour drive from Amsterdam and invited me to come visit him at the end of my European travels. It was neat seeing a friend from shipboard life again; and comparing notes on how we transitioned from the ship. A month after completing our contracts, neither of us had really transitioned back to land life: I was still journeying around the world, and he was trying to decide whether he wanted to return to the ship or make a go of life on land like I planned to upon my return to Canada. It was worthwhile to hear from someone else going through the ship-to-land transition.

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We spent most of the day exploring Amsterdam, and I have to say it was somewhat different than what I expected. Perhaps the fact that it’s over-blown by media and cultural hype made me think that there would be prostitutes on the streets, drugs everywhere and lots of promiscuity. Not so: in reality, Amsterdam is like any other beautiful European metropolis… just that there are a wider variety of entertainment pursuits available to you if you should so choose. Yes, the coffee shops serve marijuana and you can enjoy it openly at these places (I was curious to know what they call shops that literally just serve coffee. Answer: “Starbucks.”) But it’s not *everywhere*, you can’t smoke out in the streets, for example. As well, a Conservative government had been in power for a number of years in the Netherlands – as a result some smoking, drug and prostitution laws were tightened: around the time of my visit, a law came into place banning smoking in restaurants and cafes. This includes the “coffee shops.” You can still have pure marijuana, but nothing involving tobacco.

When tourists think about Amsterdam, they immediately consider the Red Light district. I’ll get to that in a bit… but, first let me give you a sense of the city as a whole. For one thing: it’s a backpacker’s dream – there are hardly any cars anywhere. The top mode of transportation is bicycle, and there are more underground/covered bicycle garages than parking lots for cars. Most of the downtown streets are closed to cars: perfect for walking and biking. The city is also absolutely beautiful: you don’t always hear a lot about the amazing historic architecture and narrow tourist streets in downtown Amsterdam, but it is very scenic. The narrow buildings are interspersed with the many canals that cris-cross the city; some homes and offices have doors that open directly into the canals so you could take a boat right to work. I was impressed with now nice the city was and the overall atmosphere. Even if you took away the open attitude, Red Light district and coffee shop culture Amsterdam would still be a fine city to visit.

Raymond showed me some of the traditional Amsterdam tourist things: starting with a canal tour. We boarded one of the short boats (by ‘short’ I mean height clearance: I could hardly stand up without bumping into the glass ceiling). The boats are specially-designed to fit through the narrow passages under the many bridges, and more than a few times I wondered how the boats would fit if it ever rained and the water rose. Amsterdam is a city defined by its canals, and seeing it from the canals was pretty amazing. I learned that many of the streetscapes look very crooked, with the building-fronts not lining up (some buildings stuck out a few feet or were at different angles than their neighbours): this is because the watery terrain means that foundations settle differently or have to be built at different angles. I also learned that many of the century-old canal-font buildings have hooks and pulleys at the apex of the front facade: these would have been used to hoist loads obtained from the Dutch colonies up for storage in attics.

Returning from our boat tour, we hopped on a bicycle taxi (again, they hardly have cars in downtown Amsterdam… so this is the easiest way to get around, sort of like a faster rickshaw). Our expert cyclist darted through the throngs of pedestrians to our destination: the Red Light district.

So, what’s the district like? Well, once more, not quite like what I had expected (but perhaps different people have different expectations). At first I didn’t notice that there were any red lights at all; I had expected red lights in all the doors and prostitution everywhere. Instead, the regular-looking streetlamps are painted a redish colour. But there aren’t any prostitutes standing beside the lamp posts; I don’t think that’s allowed. Instead, they rent small window-front apartments – so yes, I did see prostitutes standing in their windows inviting us for business. There is also something in the Red Light district that’s different than what you’d find elsewhere: the strip club shows involve quite a bit more than just stripping… and I’ll leave that to your imagination. Overall, the Red Light district was much more tame that I anticipated and smaller in area.

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After our fun day exploring Amsterdam, we headed to Raymond’s hometown of Eindhoven: a city of 300,000 and the birthplace of the Philips electronics company (their main lightbulb factory is still in the city). My first introduction to one of Raymond’s flatmates was all too stereotypical of Dutch pot culture: he was passed out in front of his computer. We had a good two days in Eindhoven: went go-carting and celebrated Raymond’s birthday. The birthday celebration timed out fantastically: it was the same evening as a Eurocup match for the Netherlands… everyone was in Eurocup fever mode, and Netherlands won the match!

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I had a great time visiting with my friend and seeing the Netherlands; but my mind started thinking more and more and more about my return home and the excitement/apprehension/uncertainty of that whole transition. The “return to land life.” I noticed in Poland, actually, that a greater percentage of my thoughts were shifting away from the next destinations and adventures I’d see on my journey; instead I was thinking about the excitement of getting on with my career, getting a house, and planting some real foundations in my life. Balancing that with the joy of traveling and my thirst for adventure was something I knew I’d simply have to figure out along the way.

But, as with all things in life, the transition to the next chapter came sooner than later: I bid farewell to Raymond, and closed the book on my incredible global adventure of travel and personal growth.

*****

A very neat turn of events: my plan to fly home to Toronto from Amsterdam just happened to line up with my uncle Pierre’s return journey from charity work in Uganda. He had a stop-over in Amsterdam, and we were able to meet at the airport before each of our flights home. It was surreal running into a family member on the other side of the world; both on return from our own adventures.

The flight home was something special: I received a flight credit from Crystal Cruises to get me back home after my contract, and I found an Air Transat flight from Amsterdam to Toronto. Air Transat flights are so cheap that I was able to upgrade to ‘club class’ within the price of my flight credit. It was basically a budget airline’s first class, not too much premium, but sitting at the front the plane meant I got off first and got my luggage first. I was off the plane, through baggage and customs in 10 minutes flat!

I got out of Pearson Airport so fast and so ahead of schedule, in fact, that I had to wait for my best friends Vito and Tom to pick me up. It was remarkable seeing faces from home again, and to think of all that I saw and learned since I said goodbye to them in January.

Our first Canadian stop: Harvey’s poutine. And then the two hour journey down the 401 back home to London, Ontario. I have to say: with the entire world as my benchmark, a two hour trip seemed incredibly short!

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