Upon returning to civilization from the arctic, I discovered that my debit card had become a non-functioning piece of plastic, instead of the magic money-spewing device I had been enjoying for my entire trip. My first inkling of this was while I was still on board the good ship Expedition, awaiting my 4am flight out of Longyearbyen. At 2:45 I was woken up and informed that my card, upon which I’d placed my bar tab and gratuities for the trip, had been declined.
Long story short: I was able to use a different card to charge everything to. Sleep eluded me, and I arrived back in civilization with about an hour of sleep only to discover upon logging into my bank site that I had apparently been in Mexico instead of the arctic, withdrawing money from ATMs at a frantic pace.
Happily the fraud was caught.
Not so happily, my card is dead. Shuffled off the mortal coil. Pushing up daisies. It is an ex-card.
Taking stock of my situation, I found that I had some Kronor left from Norway, which converted to 16 pounds. I also had a 20 pound note left over from before I left for the arctic. I had been saving some Euros in case I ever landed in a Euro country again, but now I figured was a good time to convert them as well. Not a great deal of money. I would obviously need some method for acquiring more funds.
A not-so-quick call to my bank assured me of a few things:
There is no way to resuscitate my card now that it was compromised. Changing PINs would not be good enough. A new card is needed.
I should be able to use my credit card to get a cash advance from any bank that handles card transactions.
Good enough. I got a new card ordered and the following morning proceeded to take care of business:
Pick up the train ticket I previously purchased for my trip to Edinburgh.
Get cash from a bank to supply my trip in Edinburgh.
Wash my clothes that have become quite ripe after ten days.
Item #1 went off without a hitch since I luckily had purchased the ticket from a travel site using my credit card. Simply insert the card into a ticket machine and it spit out my tickets. Easy. Plotting how to get to King’s Cross station (point of departure to Edinburgh) was also simplicity itself: my hostel was right by a tube station that would take me directly there, and I still have money on my Oyster card so that’s sorted.
Item #2 proved to be a bit more difficult. The first bank I tried (HSBC) informed me that this wouldn’t work:
Lady: “No, sorry, we can’t do that here. You can get cash from an ATM though.”
Me: “No, I can’t because it’s a credit card, I need a cash advance.”
Lady: “Right, but you can put it in the machine and take money out with it.”
Me: “No, see, it’s a credit card, it doesn’t connect to my bank account.”
Lady: “I understand sir, but if you put that in a machine and put in your PIN…”
Me: “It’s a credit card, for charging things, there is no PIN.”
Lady: “I see sir. Well, you can go to a shop and buy things with it.”
Me: “Yes, that’s all well and good. However, I’d like to get a cash advance.”
Lady: “Yes, I’m sorry sir, we don’t do that here. Have you tried Lloyd’s?”
So I tried Lloyd’s. And I tried many other banks as well, eventually trying some rather out of place ones (an Arab bank, an Indian one, a tiny bank office from indecipherable origins). In desperation I even tried a Western Union branch, and they just laughed at me and said “try the post office.”
The post office? Really? Well, I had nothing to lose.
Actually, to be precise, I had about fifteen minutes to lose. While they had a “travel money” window, they informed me of the root of the problem: you could not get money from any process in the UK without a card that had chip+pin security.
See, if you have a card with a security chip on it, that attests that you have the card physically in hand. The PIN then validates that you are the proper owner of that card. In the US, we just have a magnetic stripe that holds account info. There are many machines that can easily read and store that info, and capture your PIN as you put it in a hacked machine. It’s frighteningly easy for a criminal to do this and I’ve found many sites that walk you through how this works, completely with pictures, and even places that sell the equipment.
The irony: I can only get a cash advance with a card that has chip+pin security. However, if the US had a chip+pin system, it would be far more difficult to spoof and defraud a card and I wouldn’t be in this position.
So, at the end of all this, I had to admit defeat. No cash for me.
As for #3, the travel fairy wasn’t done with kicking me yet. While the hostel had a relatively affordable washer and dryer rent (two pounds to wash, one pound to dry) the dryer turned out to not actually circulate air, just heat it up a lot. So after a couple spins through the full cycle, my load of laundry was still mostly wet. My roommates experienced a similar thing. So we all hung our laundry from our beds, window blinds, lockers, and any other surface that would let a piece of fabric hang.
We opened the window to increase air flow. The rain pelted right back in at us. Drying was going to be a challenge.
And so I sit here on a train to Edinburgh. 36 pounds in my damp jeans pocket, backpack full of clothes in various stages between wet and dry. The morals of this story:
Always travel with at least two payment methods, if not more.
The US should get off it’s butt and implement better card security like the rest of the world has.
A small hostel room filled with wet clothes ands up smelling like pungent cats after twelve hours.
Now it’s a race between my spending habits and the arrival of a new card.
In more positive news: train travel is so much nicer than air travel. No horribly security scans or forced checking of luggage. Abundant electrical outlets and free wifi. Ability to move around freely. Real breakfast served to you on a plate. Fabulous scenery. Space to set up a laptop or stretch out and rest. If only we could get high speed trains connecting the world.
“We are sitting in a bar on a ship, drinking a beer in the middle of the arctic, while a Philippino cover band busts out ‘Country Roads’ by John Denver. What.”
This was uttered to me by my erstwhile travel companion, Hate, as a reality check. It served its purpose well.
We started off in Oslo, where I met up with Hate and Damage.
The former was named thusly for reasons that are obvious to anyone who spends more than five minutes with her. The latter earned her name through copious amounts of self-inflicted damage through use of various and sundry power tools or yard-taming devices.
We had a seven hour layover in Oslo. Since Damage is the most organized of the group, she decreed that we would use our time to go in search of boats. Specifically, the Fram and the Viking ship museums. I will just brush over this stuff as Oslo deserves far more time that I gave it. The town itself is clean, historical, beautiful, and full of character.
One of the main buildings was having a remodel done, and they printed out a tarp to look like the real thing, just to maintain the illusion. Well done:
From there, it was short ferry ride to the boat museums. The Fram is basically a temple to Roald Amundsen and crew, documenting their impressive polar expedition.
The most impressive part? The boat itself. It was designed to get stuck in the ice, built bulbous and massively curved to keep from getting crushed but instead pushed up on the ice, and the plan was to just let the ice flow carry them.
The museum is well worth a few hours of time, reading through everything they went through and picturing how dangerous and crazy it must have been at that time to attempt what they did. While in Oslo we also had to check out the Viking museum. Because, well, VIKINGS.
I was a bit crestfallen to learn that each of the three impressive boats there weren’t actually used for the pillaging of far off lands, but instead were burial ships. However, my imagination is not bound by silly things like reality, so I just jettisoned that “fact” and let my mind wander.
Soon it was time to go. We had to acquire some snacks though. Two things to know about Norway:
They love their queues. If you get in a line, you need to look out for a number dispenser. Several times I went to talk to someone only to be rebuffed and sent away, chastised, to take a paper ticket from a dispenser.
Buying anything, even a cheeseburger, will likely involve taking out a mortgage or providing collateral. Example: simple cheeseburger at the airport? $35. Hate opted for “cheez doodles”
Damage had been good enough to agree to Sherpa various cold weather gear across the Pacific for me, since I didn’t want to haul this across Mexico and Spain. Elder Wanker agreed to supply these from his rich cache of snow boarding equipment, and so it was that she arrived with several pairs of gloves, a hat, goggles, snow pants, parka, several pairs of wool socks, and enough hand-warming packets to burn a hole in a glacier. He also provided me with a little taste of home in the form of “Mike & Ike’s”. I mentioned potentially missing these once in some obscure blog post that has now been long forgotten, and for those of you unfamiliar, these are basically elongated jelly beans and I’ve been known to plow through a theater-sized box in one sitting. So, I was tickled to receive a box. I was more tickled to discover a second box. The third and fourth box seemed like they were just overdoing things a little. To quote Monty Python: “Five, is RIGHT OUT”. Yep, diabetes here I come.
From Oslo, it was a short ride up to Svalbard. More specifically Spitsbergen. More specifically than that, Longyearbyen.
Flying into Svalbard (the archipelago) is magical. I didn’t have a window seat, so my ability to snap pictures with my little camera phone was limited. But picture God’s own vat of Cool Whip, all smooth rounded piles of white and elegant pointed ridges and tops, with a few jutting and ragged mountains of rock stabbing out of the whiteness and you’ve got a decent idea. And looking out at that landscape reminded me: I would not see darkness again for more than week.
The plane landed in Longyearbyen (the town of Longyear, if that is correct interpretation of Norwegian naming), and promptly disgorged us through both for and aft doors (already getting the hang of sailor-speak, see?). The town isn’t large enough for all the trappings of a modern airport, so the plane just drops you off on the pavement and basically says “welp, good luck to ya.”
We settled into the “Radisson Blue”, which was a surprisingly good hotel for being out in the middle of nowhere, then experienced our first “night”. Note: it is basically required for all houses to have curtains thick enough to survive a nuclear blast so as to keep out the blinding sun 24 hours per day.
In the “morning” (really, such distinctions fall away out here, we’ll just say, when we woke and dragged ourselves through our starting rituals of showering and such), we explored the bustling burg of Longyear. They are good enough to supply a couple tourist attractions. The museum is surprisingly well appointed and extensive for a town of a couple thousand people. Also, walking around town you find a few curiosities:
We wanted to get down to the coast, but were impeded by a sign explaining that the Arctic Terns would attack you if you came near their nests, and explained that you could hold aloft a stick (provided, happily) to keep them from pecking your head off. It also instructed you not to wave the stick around, which might hurt the birds, but just hold it above your head. So while we weren’t sure if this was some sort of practical joke the locals entertained themselves with (“look, more tourists holding sticks! Ha ha!”) we took the sticks and went along.
Turns out they weren’t kidding. Two birds came leaping and screeching at us, then saw the sticks poised above our heads and thus stayed a safe distance from us, boiling hatred and menace in our general directions. This prompted Hate to observe:
“So, you don’t have to fend them off with the sticks, they just get intimidated by it? So they are stupid. And angry. They are basically Americans.” And thus the Tern would be known as “The American Bird” for the rest of the trip. One of the many nicknames to be generated.
But I get ahead of myself. Finally it was time to board the ship:
Now, while this is a cruise ship, it’s not really your “typical” cruise ship. It holds a little over 100 guests, and was converted from a car ferry. Still, it was perfectly nice for our voyage. We got the first of many briefings (this one of security, general rules and structure, how to put on life vest, etc), then prepared for departure.
We got underway and had our first meals and first sleep-period on the boat (really, you can’t call it a night when it’s just blazing sunlight the whole time). Now, this is a cruise ship, so food is plentiful. This is dangerous, as there’s also a lot of down time while cruising around between destinations where there’s not a lot to do, so eating always sounds like a great idea. Urp. As a down-side, the hand sanitizer provided smelled like tequila gone bad, so that put most people off their appetite. All the more for me.
Day two saw us on our first expedition, but it was rather a let-down. We rode out in groups of ten on zodiacs (big rubber boats) and walked around our first arctic tundra. We were told to keep well behind the guide who would be armed with a rifle. They posted several other long-range lookouts to scout for bears. They take their bear sighting seriously. They pointed out many different kinds of plants, which I found hard to get too excited by. The landscape was stark and beautiful, though the day was gray and cloudy. The tundra was surprisingly squishy, like walking on brains.
Near the end though, we came back to the landing spot and found a couple of walrus. Everyone gathered a safe distance away to take photographs, then Frank, one of the on-board wildlife experts, went up close to the walrus, barking and woofing. It was impressive to watch them respond, they wobbled up to him, confused, trying to see if he was actually one of them. I would always wonder if I was saying something insulting about their waistline if I attempted this. No pictures taken as I couldn’t get anything useful without a zoom lens. Ah well.
Every night there would be a “debrief” where on-board experts would do presentations about what we saw that day, or history of the area and other topics. I wasn’t expecting this, and honestly found it to be one of the cooler parts of the trip. You come away with a bunch of knowledge every day that you didn’t have before, ready to apply it to what you encounter the next day.
At dinner every night, we were joined by Damage’s friend who was the Kayak Master on board. He fit right in with the levels of sarcasm provided and more than earned the name Caustic. So, while the days were filled with beauty, the nights were balanced out with a dinner recap between Hate, Damage, Caustic, and myself. It was as strange counterpoint, but I left most nights weary from laughing so much.
Day three we stopped off at a research base, and a place named “Ny London” (New London), which was rather ambitiously named. First the research base: we walked around the town, took in the scenery, saw some birds, and learned about how Amundsen died looking for his one-time partner, then competitor, Umberto Nobile and the saga of airship exploration to the north pole. Overall good stuff.
As I mentioned: ambitiously named. Some guys were panning for gold and failed for many years. So then they found marble and set up a company to ship marble from here to all around the world. Got hundreds of thousands of pounds invested, set up lots of infrastructure then found that the marble, while beautiful when in the ground, basically crumbled to dust once you moved it. Heartbreak and tragedy followed. So we basically just get to be tourists in their misery.
Day four knocked it outta the park. We saw a blue whale. Now, taking a picture from the deck of a boat, even of something as large as a blue whale, just doesn’t do it justice, so I didn’t even try.
But come on people:
A Blue Whale.
I was pretty much happy to end the tour there. Largest living thing in the world, and I got to see it. Now, there are some pictures taken by the on-board photographer that they say will be made available to us all, but on last checking there’s nothing on the site they provided for us, so at some point I hope to update this post with those pictures. They are worth it. There was even a police boat that came to check on us, and almost got wiped out by the whale. Both boat and whale scared the hell out of each other and both buggered off. Fun times.
However, that wasn’t all! We also went kayaking out to glaciers and saw some fantastic calving happen. Giant towers of ice splitting off from their wall, crumbling to the sea in a cacophony of cracks and booms. Impressive. No action shots of calving, sadly. In fact, no shots from this day at all because I didn’t even think bringing my phone with me while kayaking would be a valid option. I remedied that in future excursions.
Day five we got what everyone wanted. First off, we got up to 90 degrees north (very close, geographically speaking, to the North Pole), we got into massive ice fields, and we saw our first polar bear.
So, yeah, the image is pretty underwhelming. Again, I’ll update this when I get access to all the excellent zoom-equipped images. For now, use your imagination.
Day six, disaster struck. Well, it struck me, at least. I came down with the same Montezuma’s-revenge type of stomach hell that I last experienced in Mexico. There was a family from Portland on board that all came down with it in the previous days, so I blame them. I stayed in my bunk, alternating between sweating, sleeping, and running to the bathroom. I heard people went out to “the bird cliffs” and saw another bear. I hobbled up on deck near the end of the day and took a few pictures. I couldn’t get terribly excited about it.
The following day I was magically all better. Sadly, it turns out that I had passed the evil to Hate. She lay in her bunk and plotted my demise, promising no less than ten times that I would die for this. I chose to enjoy my final days on this earth. I kayaked around more ice bergs. I climbed a glacier. I got to see an ice berg roll, break apart and disintegrate right near my kayak, which was alarming and impressive all at once. And I took pictures:
Eventually Hate got better and we agreed on a hold to hostilities long enough to take a zodiac tour around an ice field full of bergs. Fun fact: ice bergs have five different names. The top three aren’t all the interesting (small berg, medium berg, large berg), but the first two are great. The smallest ones are called “growlers”. Yep, just like those things you fill beer with. The second largest are called (and I’m not making this up) “bergy bits”. Yep, that’s the actual name.
The following days start to run together, and since this post has gotten ridiculously long, I’m just going list some high points:
Kayak trip out a relaxing coast line where we got out and hiked a rocky beach and found a perfect place for solitude at the base of a monstrous glacier, looking out at a perfectly blue sky day.
A shore landing with five walrus, as well as a walrus bone yard and old shacks used for over-wintering. If living with no darkness was strange, how hard would it be living with no light? No thanks.
Many many polar bears, some of them eating seals leaving bloody smears across the ice. Nature in action!
The final kayak trip out to a shelf where we found a berg that must have broken off from the base of the glacier; super-compacted ice along with dirt and rocks that gave it a stunning and unique appearance.
A shore landing where we found arctic fox kits, a small herd of raindeer (named derp-deer, ’cause man do they look derpy when you see them up close), birds that dive-bombed both the deer and one of the guys trying to photograph the attack, and more raindeer poop than you can shake a stick at.
Some assorted beauty shots:
In between all these excursions, there was much food eaten (the chef kept a pretty good variety nigh-to-night). Nightly on-board music was provided by an LA dude named Clayton (which was quite the contrast: a sun-drenched musician in the arctic). We gathered for drinks at the bar most nights, and one night the staff band got up and played for three hours (covering, among other things, “country roads”, as mentioned).
Things in the bar weren’t always strictly logical.
Then finally back to Longyearbyen, onto a plane, and back to the real world. Looking back, the arctic has more majesty and mystery than I could possibly appreciate immediately. I find myself constantly thinking back and reliving my days there: being on the ice, or looking out from land at what the world looks like in its pristine, untouched, unpolluted state.
Sadly, the real world does encroach there: plastic washes up on the shores, and the ice is retreating rapidly. If I return to visit again in five years it will likely be a different, and lessened place than I saw now. But I am completely grateful I got to experience it as it is now.
On a clear day you can see forever. The air is crisp and has a clarity I haven’t experienced before. The land is raw, elemental, and strikingly beautiful. If you are in need of mental clarity, surrender, and tranquility, this place can provide it. This is a world so separated from your normal life it can take you completely out of your tiny self-important state. And if you want to see this world unspoiled and pristine, this is a stunning example of it.
Now I’m back to real life, and big cities. There are some benefits though:
Wow, my planned time on this trip is getting short. I have plans through August, but September will see me at the end. What’s next?
First: a few parting thoughts on Amsterdam:
The city is fabulous. Easily one of my favorite European cities. Take time to walk around it. All of it. The central rings have a gravity to them so you will constantly get pulled toward the center and all the madness that is the Red Light district. That’s all good. However, you owe it to yourself to explore further than that as well.
See the museums.
Take a tour of the canals.
Get to some nice restaurants.
Rent a bike to explore further in town.
Also: bike out in the countryside. Don’t think about it, just do it.
And then, there are some other distractions. Like touring the Heineken brewery. Culture? No, not really. But fun.
After taking in the brewery tour (and three beers, since they were provided as part of the tour…) A cruise along the canals seemed in order. I was surprised by the fact that as you cruised past many houseboats, you were basically just looking in on people going about their daily lives. Seemed a bit voyeuristic.
Still, it’s another beautiful way to see the city.
And then, what post about Amsterdam would be complete without a couple of signs. Neither one of these are bashing on the Dutch language though!
So, in the U.S. there is the saying “hang up and drive.” Here there is a different problem: people are cruising around on their bikes and scooters, no helmets, blissful and mindless, chatting away on their phones. Looks like they have put up signage to attempt to discourage this behavior. Isn’t working:
Lastly, I’ve engaged in discussions in the past about the obvious and inevitable trend towards a cashless society. Turns out the starting point is here in the Netherlands at a little bakery / market. Who knew?
Now I’m back in London, and I’m contemplating the end of my travels. I’m feeling a bit travel-weary, and can see that I’ll soon want a place that is “mine” again. To stop living out of a backpack, and have a place to put my toiletries and not pack them up the next day. I have one or two more adventures in store (Arctic! Edinburgh! Croatia!), but it’s time to plan for what happens after that.
So, when I started this, I wanted to accomplish a few things:
Figure out what is next for me career-wise.
Decide if I want to re-build a life somewhere other than Seattle.
Figure out what life I want to build next.
Basically I thought I wanted to “find myself” but actually I think I wanted to lose myself. To do this I selfishly cut off all ties I had: people, job, responsibilities, and looked to experience new things with no pre-conceived notion of who I was or how I would deal with them. I feel like I’ve gotten far enough away that I can now accurately see back to who I was and what my life was like.
I know that I had it pretty good. Amazing friends, fantastic job, great city, the works.
And it wasn’t enough. Why? Well, no surprise: ’cause I wasn’t settled with myself.
Now? Still not there. But I’ve got perspective.
I’ve spent time in places that I fantasized about living. Mexico (nope, couldn’t live there), Spain (Barcelona and Valencia are tempting), Amsterdam (kinda in love with this city right now) and London (pretty attractive… but man there are things I would miss about Seattle).
I’ve found that I just don’t stick with any sort of drawing like I used to when I was younger, when I would lay in bed all day and draw comics. So, art? Probably not in my future.
Writing: love it. I write every day now, sometimes for hours, sometimes for minutes, but every day something. I have a “story ideas” folder that runeth over. Can I make a career of it? Would I want to? Well, it’s worth seeing how I can take it to the next level…
So: September. Probably time to get gainfully employed again. Having this amount of time off from working makes going back to work very scary. All my freedom, gone! My free time, gone! Shackled to a desk, responsibilities, deadlines, stress and demands!
Also: teammates who become friends, satisfaction at making a difference, doing good work, creating things that others need or will use, learning and being challenged. Oh, and money. That’s always nice.
So, my next job I need to ensure one of two things: either the job allows me time (and brain power) to pursue my other passions (which right now is writing), or ideally: it enables me to exercise my passion at my job. Now, most writers I talk to say “dude, you don’t wanna be a paid writer, it sucks, the pay is awful, and it takes your soul away”. Okay, warning heard. But I will still look for something that could light me up. The alternative is a job that I can still have enough energy in my spare time to pursue writing as well.
Where to re-build my life? Ah, that’s a big question. Luckily I still have July and August to stew on that one. And to check out potential jobs. And to answer all the questions about my life. Sweet.
However, next: bring on the arctic! I’m quite excited: this will be so very different from all the traveling I’ve done to date. No big cities, no works of man to admire, no teeming crowds and exciting restaurants and new bars to try out. No beaches and sun and warmth. Nope: a boat, a bunch of ice, cold weather, never-ending days, salt water and barren tundra and freezing winds. Plus: no Internet. Gasp.
Today is my last full day in Amsterdam. Two weeks ago the doctor said that after two more weeks of wearing a boot, I can try using shoes. He was very light on details (I think socialized medicine is kind of a crap shoot on whether you get a doctor willing to go in deep with you, or one who is just working through a large case load). So, I’m basically easing into it, completely paranoid about re-fracturing anything in there. Stepping lightly. Still limping, keeping weight on my “good foot” (cue James Brown).
So, last day in Amsterdam, foot is free, what to do?
A bike ride, naturally. Now, the esteemed Mr. Yammy had advised that I should check out some of the surrounding villages if I want to get an overdose of quaint. Looking up said villages, two of them looked quite promising: Monickendam (close, on the coast, very quaint) and Edam, because dude: it’s named after Cheese. Or vice-versa. Either way: cheese. I bet they hand you a cheese round to gnaw on at the city entrance.
So, looking in my normally reliable Maps app on the Surface, I mapped out a path which came to around 14 kilometers. Sadly, while it includes directions for walking or driving, there’s no biking option (though presumably the walking option is similar). Still, to be sure I fired up google maps which DOES have a biking option. This directed me to a ferry that would be good to start the journey with, and also made me think I could “drive” the entire route in google maps using their street view before leaving.
So it was that I was huddled in my hotel room, clicking on virtual streets and seeing the seasons morph rapidly between winter, fall, spring and summer with every click. A little disorienting, but enough to show me that the roads are not bike-hospitable once you get outside of the city. Sadness.
However, Google assures me that a path exists, and I must reason that they don’t have mapping vehicles driving on all bike paths yet, so perhaps there are paths that are just not visible to the mapping cars that create their street view. So it was that I set out the in the morning with a mission to explore the countryside by bike. On my newly mobile foot (assisted by pedals, of course).
First decision: what bike to get? The rental options are “Hand Brake” or “Dutch”. Well, I’m in the Netherlands, and a complete cheapskate, so I’ll go with the local / cheaper option: give me Dutch!
Ah, yes, a mighty green steed! This bike, like the ones we rented in Spain, is not your wimpy, weight-reduced, high-end shifter, carbon fiber this and dura-ace that. No, this is a sturdy frame of steel and iron. A hardened, ruggedized, possibly even weaponized example of a bicycle. And the Dutch option means you can only brake by stepping back on the pedals. Just like that training bike you had when you were five. Awesome.
So, what to name it? The Green Hornet? Too obvious. The Hulk? Well, it is large, green and mighty, but I don’t think it’s really of heroic, Avengers proportions. It needs a name with a bit of Dutch flair to it. And it will be slow. So I thought I’d name it the Dutch word for “turtle”. However, I didn’t want to be yelling “Come, faithful zeeschildpad, we must away to the horizon!” every time I mounted it. So, I settled for “Vrijheid”.
And just like that (and nine euros) we were off!
Quick aside: found this restaurant near the bike-rental place. Finally a name I can really get behind.
Now getting out of Amsterdam, you are forced to realize you are not the only person on a bike. No, far from it. Most everyone is on a bike.
But eventually I reach the central station, where presumably I can get on a ferry across the water. Here I am promptly stopped by a couple of policemen who tell me I must walk my bike here, or face an 80 euro fine. Apparently it’s a “walking only” area. My assertions that this was patently preposterous because we are, after all, in Amsterdam, God’s own country for biking, were met with less enthusiasm than I hoped for.
Regardless: soon I was on a ferry, which you just hop on and don’t have to get a ticket or anything:
And as soon as the ferry took off, I realized I was on (how do I do this all the time) the wrong bloody ferry.
No worries, it got me across the water. I’m sure if I find the canal I was going to follow and ride along, everything will be fine. This positivity lasted for a short while, during which I just enjoyed the spectacular ride I was on. Seriously, I have never seen anywhere like this. Bikes are a first-class citizen here. The paths are beautiful, in perfect repair, wide and accommodating. There are hundreds of them, it seems like you could probably bike anywhere in the country if you wanted.
However, as the path changed from “wide-and-perfect” to “kinda-narrow-and-okay” to “you-don’t-belong-here”, I was forced to admit I might be lost. Luckily there are many signs around. Unluckily, they seemed to be angry at me or something:
Happily, it was around this time that a man and his wife flagged me down and asked me directions in Dutch. Side note: everyone here speaks Dutch at me. I need to work on seeming more… foreign? Anyway, after I explained that I was pretty much lost as well, I found they are from Arizona and come here for five weeks every year. We’ll refer to them using the Spanish method for male / female designation: Arizono and Arizona. So we banded together, Arizono got directions from another woman passing by (who happened to be from New York), Arizona and I exchanged pictures (below) and we were on our way.
We got lost a couple more times. Once ending up through a gate and into a police impound lot, where we were most certainly not supposed to be. Note: the phrase “yoo-hoo!” seems to be a common Dutch way to get your attention. I explain this to point out that having a large Dutch policeman run after you yelling “Yoo-hoo” removes any possible fear from the situation.
However, lost escapades or not, I don’t think you can be on a bike in the Netherlands in summertime and NOT fall in love with the place.
I even got some pictures of the local farms, where sadly the air turned slightly less pure and slightly more, well, dungy.
Worth noting with the sheep: you know those videos of screaming goats? Yeah, well I tried that out on the sheep. The closest one yelled back. This caused the two nearest him to bleat and yell. And so it erupted and rolled back through the meadow, like a wave. I listened for a while, then decided to take off before a Dutch farmer could come running out with a pitchfork to reprimand me for talking dirty to his flock.
Eventually I did reach multiple quaint towns. I ended up not going to Edam, because Arizono informed me that he had been there last year, and explained in very serious and disappointed tones, the lack of cheese. We both agreed this is a huge problem.
Monickendam though: worth the trip and as quaint as advertised:
After Monickendam, I headed back and briefly explored a place called “Waterland”. Turns out they didn’t have to stretch their imagination too far for that name.
In conclusion: should you find yourself in Amsterdam, take a day trip outside the city. It is stunning. And the biking is easy. This is no crank-fest like you’d do in the Northwest in the states. There are no hills. None. The most challenging incline you will encounter is the slight rise as you go over a canal bridge.
Also, since Senor Yam’s recommendations are now 3 for 3 (whisky bar, quaint towns, beer café), I have to recommend that should you ever find yourself in a foreign country, you should engage Yammerino Advisors of Travel (YAT) for all manner of travel ideas. Thanks Yams!
A few more odds and ends from my Amsterdam wanderings and musings. First off, they might be pretty darn serious about their flowers, as mentioned previously, as well as their ice cream, but they are also equally serious about cheese. And I can’t fault them for this.
And speaking of grocery stores, it turns out some very random things can make one feel closer to home. Take, for example, this sign outside their grocery store. Very reminiscent of a certain chain from the US:
Now, while walking around I’ve found many a pooch trundling along with its human, or riding in a basket on the bike, or just chilling at a café. However, this city is not about to let the town go to the dogs I just can’t let that horrible line stand. Let’s go with “not about to let the streets run rampant with poop”
Also, what post about Amsterdam would be complete without a couple more images devoted to language? None, I tell you. None:
Luckily, I found a bar whose name conjures surprising images:
Also, as mentioned they take the ice cream seriously. I’ve done my duty to take a fair sampling. Repeatedly. I’ve landed on a favorite shop, and I’m lucky it’s a chain with many stores around town because I would never be able to ask for directions to it. Ben and Jerry, as well as Haagen, should both be happy the marketing department for this store hasn’t considered how to spread beyond these shores with a pronounceable name:
While walking around town, you will experience more canals than you knew were possible while still maintaining a thriving city. Eventually you might wonder, as I did, how do they ever construct these things in the first place? I mean, how do you build things *IN* water? Luckily, reconstruction of bridge number 5 (such a romantic name!) is underway providing me with at least a modern insight of how this is done:
But I’m left trying to sum up Amsterdam. For each place I’ve been to there are scenes that stand out in my mind that kind of define my experience there. For example:
Mexico: having lunch with a woman and her three adult daughters who I met randomly and just wanted to help me learn Spanish and talk with someone from the States. Nicest people you’ll ever meet. The mom wrote Spanish cuss words on the back of a paper place mat while her daughters debated proper use and translation of them.
London: Legos on the carpet with Baylor’s son, with my leg elevated in it’s moonboot.
So how to sum up my time in Amsterdam? Well, its not over yet, but there are many candidates:
But I think I had the defining moment tonight. I hobbled over to a small restaurant near my hotel. I ordered some bruschetta and a fish / vegetable dish along with some green tea, and I watched as the late evening sun splashed on people cruising by on bicycles, wind in their hair, smiling and care free. A pair of dark skinned Italian women sat by the window next to me, and a group of middle aged guys behind me discussed spy novels and technology in Dutch, English, and what I think was occasionally Swedish. The food was fabulous, the people broadly European, and the weather was perfect.
So while Amsterdam has many sides: the pot and red light district, some impressive clubs and nightlife, beautiful buildings, streets and canals, I think it’s extreme multi-culturism defines it. At least for me. And just like the United States, I think great things come from a mixing of so many cultures and nationalities. This is an unforgettable city.
Okay kids, we’ve got a lot to go over, and all of it in pictures. Comfy? Good, we’ll dive right in.
In my last post I kind of laid into the Dutch language a bit. I feel I should expound upon that some. For instance, many of words are super easy and logical. For example, here’s a store that sells really old things:
Heck, even whole phrases are pretty easy to figure out:
And once you can figure out phrases, every day directions start to become clear, such as #1 and #4 here.
However, I still find some signage either interesting, frightening, or just plain noteworthy. Examples:
So let me just conclude with the language here to point out that much of the words seem to have a heavy basis in both English and German, and I would assert that if you just walk around speaking English, while pretending to be the Swedish Chef who is trying to sound German, you’ll basically sound like a local. You can probably get by that way for a couple weeks, easy.
Now, most of my travel has been stumping around in my moonboot. This will change soon, but more on that later. I took time to visit the museum district, and take in the local sculptures. Impressive stuff.
Along with the sculptures, there’s an interactive art / water fountain that was fun to watch for a while:
Since I was already in the museum district, I had to stop by the Van Gogh museum. Now, I haven’t really been a big fan of his before. I have to say that this trip changed that. And actually, I have to blame a lot of my new-found appreciation on a graphic novel I read in their gift store:
This tells the story of his decision to become an artist, and the mere ten years he spent devoted to it before going mad and dying. Awesome art, great story, highly recommended.
After that, exploring his works and especially seeing the chronology of his work and how it progressed over the short time span was really cool. Theoretically you weren’t supposed to take photos of the pictures, but people were doing that all over the place. I tried to be a good little tourist and just took pictures of the building and surroundings.
Moving on, you will invariable run into the Flower Market:
You can literally spend days just walking around, and especially in summer, you’ll constantly be running into new things as they pop up and change day-to-day.
And then there are things that are there every day, but still awesome to stumble across:
As you walk around, you also notice that not only are flowers taken seriously here, but Ice cream is as well. This is an attitude I can get behind. The most ostentatious local example of this is the Magnum Ice Cream Bar Shop, where you can decorate your own Magnum bar with your choice of a wealth of toppings.
Now, the people in front of me were choosing safe bets like “marshmallows, coconut and caramelized sugar” or “strawberry sugar, crumbled cookies, and chocolate chips”. Please. Amateurs.
I stepped up and proudly announced my concoction would be the recipient of:
– crushed pistachios: a nutty compliment to the sweetness of the ice cream and chocolate shell.
– Goji berries: add something chewy and tart to the mixture
– Sea salt. At which the lady exclaimed: “oh, gosh, feeling adventurous!” Then she had to search for the salt bowl, leaving me to suspect I am the first to actually order salt. She asked me before assembling the whole thing if I was serious about the sea salt. I nodded gravely.
I don’t joke around where ice cream is concerned.
So, full of ice cream (not a day has passed without sampling the local wares), more wandering is to be done. You can’t avoid the canals here, and that’s a good thing. In addition, on the weekend, so long as the weather holds, it sees like the entire town comes out to the center.
Now, I’ve mentioned bikes a few times. However, I discovered not all bikes are created equal here. For example, since bikes are such an intrinsic part of life here, people have evolved the bike to be a carrier of things. They do this by combining a bike and a wheel barrow.
Anyway, I resume my ambulation with the canals:
I randomly stumbled on a huge park, which took me about 40 minutes to walk from one end to the other. Since it was a sunny day, pretty much every part of the grass was full of people sun bathing, bbq-ing, or just chilling. This pictures doesn’t do justice to the sheer mob of people at the park.
But even as crowded as it was, the park was large enough, and diverse enough, to offer places that somehow had no people.
near the center of the park, there was a bandstand set up, and I got to watch what I assume is a local band (Cirque Valentin) put on a show:
Now, after all my days of wandering, I’m pretty much in love with the city. What I’m NOT in love with, however, is the hostels here. I suppose I’m spoiled by my experiences in Spain, but each hostel I’ve been to here has been more hurried and impersonal, and doesn’t lend itself to the cool communal atmosphere I experienced in Spain. Plus, they are so busy that I was having to move almost every day, which was getting old.
So, I’ve splurged on a hotel room now. And boy did I forget how nice it was to just have your own room. Plus I have a balcony with a view. Life is good.
After taking it easy in London, hobbling around as best I could, my foot is potentially well enough to embark on travel again (although still strapped into a moonboot). Holland is a quick flight and is reportedly very easy to get around in, so it makes for a good test bed before I try to venture further.
Taking a train in to Gatwick airport is pretty easy, presuming you pay attention and don’t miss your stop. Galloping between trains with a moonboot, trying to catch a return train back in time to not miss your flight is fun. During this run, something started shaking around in my travelpack, like someone had deposited 100 pebbles in it. I had no time to investigate, but arriving at the security checkpoint, I pulled my laptop out to discover it was covered in a fine, white powder. Interesting.
You see, as part of ensuring my foot heals properly I’m taking vitamin D and calcium pills. The calcium pills upended in my speed-hobble and bounced happily around in the pack. Calcium pills are a chalky white consistency, so my laptop was nicely powdered on removal.
Needless to say the bomb scanners were less than amused. The laptop got a thorough scrubbing over with those little sheets that try to determine if a substance is… I don’t know, exploding? Drugs? just generally indicative of a bad person, I guess. Eventually they let me proceed, but not without a stiff British glower. Moments later I would use the restroom, check in the mirror and find that I had also rubbed my nose at some point after removing the laptop from my bag, leaving a nice dusting of powder on my nose as well.
I am a classy traveler.
The flight into Amsterdam: totally uneventful. Catching a train from the airport into the center: perfectly easy except for the fact that most card-operated machines in Europe expect your card to have a security chip. We in the US of A apparently don’t really care for this layer of protection, so it’s a bit of a search to find an ATM that will give you actual cash so you can buy a train ticket from an actual person.
Special note on the Amsterdam airport: it has not one, but two fully functioning florists. This bodes well, I think. It also bodes well when a train trip from the airport is as lovely and picturesque as many tours in other countries. Plus: the train is fast, silent, on-time, spacious, and comfortable. Can’t ask for a better start.
Hey Seattle, Portland: you think you are bike-friendly and have a lot of bikers? Yeah, you’re gonna have to step to the side and shut the hell up. Amsterdam is where all good bikes go as their eternal reward.
Now, my approach to traveling to a new city is basically:
Search on hostels.com for an 80+ rated hostel, under 30 euros, as close to city center as possible.
Book the room, book the flight. go.
I don’t complicate things, you see. This has worked out amazingly well for me so far. This time however, my procedure lands me right in the center of Pot Central and the Red Light District. So, walking the streets becomes not just interesting, but downright fascinating.
Let’s cover the sex stuff first:
There are shops on every block trying to sell you sex accoutrements. These range from standard (movies, magazines, etc) to slightly more surprising. For example, there’s some high end stores trying to make the everyday device be a thing of beauty and elegance:
Then there’s the occasional shop that seems to just be throwing things out there to see what sticks.
I’m not sure at what point someone goes: “Hey honey, we should get a gag / toilet paper holder device. For, you know, occasions.”, and if there is an explanation for this, I’m not sure I want to know it.
However, even the more commonplace items, such as a condom, go to extreme lengths (ahem) here:
In addition, there’s the red light district. I’m supplying no pictures for this for a couple reasons:
I’m much too classy to post images of nearly-naked sultry women trying to tempt you into their dens of ill-repute.
They will take your camera away if you try to take any pictures.
Suffice to say, you might be walking down an alley, enjoying a lovely stroll in the cool night air, when suddenly you are beset from all sides by women at full-length glass doors wearing garments made from strings and gland covers. Wakes one up, that does.
I’ve been trying to decide how I feel about the whole legal prostitution thing. On the one hand, it must make it safer for everyone, removes the whole horrible idea of pimps, and gives the country some ability to set controls, standards, protections, and taxes on the whole affair. On the other hand, it’s still a profession that most fathers would very much not wish on their daughters. All in all, if you accept that prostitution happens whether it is legal or not, it’s hard to argue that legalizing it so you can regulate it is better for everyone.
Now, as for pot: I was informed from both websites and people that Amsterdam is “cracking down” or limiting the pot business. If this is true, my feeble mind is unable to guess at what it used to be. Did they previously issue joints when you get off the plane? Was it pumped into the water supply?
The stuff is everywhere, and as you walk the streets you might find your thoughts evolving from amusement the first night “Haha, funny, you could get a contact high just walking the streets” to wonder: “wow, are there any smoke-free zones here?” and by the third day finally to dismay: “you cannot get away from the smell! I’ll have to wash everything I own and burn my backpacks!”
The way this works is you have stores that are called “coffeeshops” (not to be confused with a café, or Starbucks) which do not sell any coffee near as I can tell. These shops have a front part for selling, and a separate part (back, upstairs, etc) for smoking. But people seem to just wander the streets smoking away, so I’m not sure how much those areas are used.
Now the district is very much aware of it’s patrons needs. More than just serving the pot, they know what happens soon after, and have evolved shops appropriately:
Speaking of food, I’ve found some of the portions to be out of whack:
However, since Amsterdam is reportedly the most diverse city in the world (178 nationalities in 2010) you are not lacking for any nationality you might want. Sure, you have Thai, Chinese, and Indian foods. You have places advertising “English Breakfast” and “Authentic Irish food”. You have the fast food Americanisms (the busiest Burger King in the world is advertised as the one in the Amsterdam airport), but you also have things like Tibetan cuisine. Which, if you get a chance to have, I highly recommend. Watch the spices.
However, the thing that stands out the most for me so far, is the language. Now, pretty much everyone here speaks excellent English, enough for one to feel terribly inadequate and lame for not speaking a lick of Dutch in return. But the flip side is that the Dutch language is downright frightening.
For example, directions from my hostel to a museum consist of heading down Schoutensteeg toward Oudezijds Voorburgwal, turning onto Grimburgwal (which changes to Langebrugsteeg), making a right on Olieslagerssteeg… I’ll stop here, you get the idea.
Basically the language is a playground for flagrant abuse of vowel combinations and consists of a blatant disregard for whether or not any word is even pronounceable. The constant oral gymnastics required make Dutch lovers the best in the world (I might have made this up). Rumor has it that a Dutch scrabble board is a 128 x 128 grid and you get bonus points for finding the rare word that doesn’t have inexplicable and gratuitous combinations of vowels. (also might have just started that rumor, not sure, didn’t do a search to check its validity)
Some examples. Even the Heineken brewery gets into the act, if only slightly.
Given these aggressively concocted words, its no wonder that occasionally a translation yields some unintentionally fun results. For example, at a lovely, fancy, white-table-cloth type of establishment, I appreciated the honest description of the Dutch option for steak.
And given my heightened awareness of all words, I digressed into pretty much the lowest forms of humor.
So, let me cap off my Amsterdam explorations thus far by asserting that the hostel here has an addition in the toilet that should be installed everywhere in the world. If you’ve ever had to sit down at a public toilet where men have used it before, you will likely agree with me.