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The Netherlands

The Netherlands
Friday October 30th, 1998 to Monday November 9th, 1998

The ferry from Newcastle landed in the small town of Ijmuiden, about 25km from Amsterdam. We were scheduled to arrive in the late morning or early afternoon, and I didn't think I'd have any trouble finding a bus, or hitching, into Amsterdam; since the ferry had left about 6hrs late, however, it arrived at dusk, which meant there was virtually no chance of hitching. I asked the people at the information desk about a bus, and they cheerfully explained that there wasn't one from Ijmuiden, but if I could get to Haarlem (10km away) I could probably get a bus from there. I looked up Haarlem in the Lonely Planet and found that there is a hostel there, so I revised my plan, deciding to walk to Haarlem, sleep there, and then continue on the Amsterdam the following day.

Aside from a little queasiness resulting from my being back on solid ground after 20hrs on the sea, the walk to Haarlem through prosperous neighbourhoods and manicured parks was fairly pleasant. I grabbed a bite to eat at a supermarket on the outskirts of the town, and then started looking for the hostel. A local shopkeeper soon informed me of the futility of my search, however, since the hostel had closed for the season in mid October. It was, at this point, fairly late on a Friday night, and I didn't like my chances of finding a cheap bed in Amsterdam; I decided to wait the night out.

I spent some time having a look around Haarlem. It was a bit of a dangerous business, because people were starting to emerge from bars and clubs; being Dutch, they were climbing on to their bicycles to head home. There are few things more unnerving than a large drunk Dutch person hurling unstably toward you on a bicycle, all the while furiously ringing his or her little bell to warn you to get out of the way. After an hour or so I retired to the Haarlem train station, where I remained until I began to receive meaningful glances from the security staff; at that point I boarded a bus and headed for Amsterdam.

I arrived at Amsterdam's Central Station around 2am, and was happy to see a few other travellers (including some French Canadians with whom I briefly spoke) in a situation similar to my own and being tolerated by the security personnel. I claimed a little bit of floor space and spent the night watching people come and go. With the most liberal drug laws in Europe, the Netherlands (and Amsterdam in particular) seem to attract a lot of odd folks; a good number of them passed through the Central Station that night.

Hungry and cold, I set out shortly after sunrise to find a reasonably cheap hot breakfast; this was to prove an impossible mission, and I eventually ended up eating bread and cookies sitting on a bridge over one of Amsterdam's many canals (much of the city is situated below sea level, and it is full of manmade canals designed to prevent flooding — "the Netherlands" actually means "the lowlands"). A little later I successfully secured a bed for the night at the Shelter, Amsterdam's cheapest and most basic hostel, located on the edge of the red-light district. The Shelter is populated primarily by long-term residents, and over the course of the following week I think I came to develop a reasonably good idea of what life in prison would be like if there were 36 beds to a cell.

Fortunately, despite the prison-like atmosphere at the Shelter, they couldn't keep me there during the day, and I spent the following days exploring Amsterdam. The city has developed a reputation as a hedonist's haven, and the red light district and liberal drug laws were certainly eye-opening. I think it unfortunate, however, that Amsterdam's incredible culture and history is to a certain extent overshadowed by its role as drug and sex capital of Europe. The city is full of beautiful old churches and homes, tree-lined canals, and some of the finest musea in Europe (in particular the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum, which were temporarily integrated during my visit due to renovation in the building that usually houses the latter); other highlights included Anne Frank House and the Heineken brewery (at the end of the brewery tour they sit you down in a room for an hour and bring you all the Heineken you can drink — the last tour of the day is at 11am).

It was also in Amsterdam that I developed a strategy that would help me to keep warm throughout the rest of my trip, which was now taking place in November: I began to plan to be near a library after a few hours outside; I'd then spend an hour or so reading (most libraries in Europe seem to have at least a few English books or magazines) before heading out warmed up.

One of the most affecting sites in Amsterdam is the Anne Frank House, where she hid for several years with her family during the German occupation of the city (they were eventually found, and she died in a concentration camp shortly before the end of the war). During my visit to the museum that now occupies the house, I ran into a friend from university who was working at the time for the Canadian government in Brussels, Belgium. After giving adequate regard to the coincidence of meeting in a small museum on a foreign continent (not having spoken to anyone who knew my name for a month, I hardly responded when I heard someone say "Noah?," being quite sure that she was speaking to someone else), we went out for tea, and made plans to meet later in the day before she left to go back to Brussels. We met again later, at which point she introduced me to a Dutch friend of hers living in Amsterdam; after seeing my Canadian friend to the train station, I was invited for a home cooked Dutch meal of sausage, potatoes, and sauerkraut. Sitting in my new Dutch friend's apartment, I was quite fortunate to be able to glean a Dutch perspective on many of the impressions I had developed about Amsterdam. Unfortunately I wasn't able to accompany he and his friend to a film, however, as the Shelter maintains a strict 11pm curfew.

After a week in Amsterdam I decided it was time to move on. I would have liked to have gone north, but between the plummeting temperatures and transportation hassles it didn't seem practical, so I headed south toward Den Haag (The Hague).

The area of the Netherlands in which Amsterdam is located is known as the Ranstad, which apparently translates directly as "urban agglomeration" (I have a little trouble believing that either ran or stad translates directly as " agglomeration," but who am I to question?). 6hrs after I set out to walk out of Amsterdam on my way to Den Haag, still in suburbs and hence unable to find any reasonable place to hitch, I began to understand what the Ranstad is all about: basically, there is no rural area at all, just cities connected by suburbs. I eventually managed to secure a ride on a highway on-ramp, but this only took me as far as Leiden, a university town a little more than half-way to Den Haag. Frustrated, I decided to stay at the hostel in Leiden and try to get to Den Haag the following day. I found the hostel, but there was no answer when I knocked, so I assumed that it had not yet opened for the night (it was only about 5pm). I got some tasty Asian food at a take-away called Yeung's, and then headed back to the hostel. There was still no answer when I knocked, but I noticed that the door was not locked, so I opened it and had a look inside. It immediately became apparent that the hostel was no longer a going concern (mattresses were strewn around the room, everything was filthy, and there was definitely no one there). By this point it was dark and too cold to spend the night outside; furthermore, Leiden is a fairly small town so I assumed that the train station closed during the night, which meant that I couldn't stay there.

According to the Lonely Planet, the nearest official (i.e., associated with Hostelling International) hostel is in Noordwijk, about 20km up the coast from Leiden. I found the bus that was supposed to take me there, but at the end of the line the driver explained that the route had been shortened by about 5km, and that I'd have to walk the rest of the way. I made a couple of wrong turns, but a local soon straightened me out, and I set off down the most rural road I had yet seen in the Netherlands. An hour or so later, having passed few signs of civilization aside from a large mysterious complex set quite a ways back from the road, I found the hostel. Apparently there are sand dunes nearby, and the hostel is packed during the summer (the Netherlands is such a flat place that sand dunes probably seem like the Himalaya to those who don't travel much outside of the country), but it was virtually empty in the middle of November.

The next morning I set out to retrace my steps, having found a highway on-ramp, close to where the bus had let me off the previous night, from which I hoped to catch a ride to Den Haag. On my way back up the road I noticed a small sign on the aforementioned large mysterious complex indicating that it was a psychiatric hospital. I didn't think twice about this, and continued to the highway. After a couple of hours, a car stopped, and the driver told me that he was going straight to Den Haag. Like most of the people I met in the Netherlands, he spoke perfect English (better than most native English speakers, I think); I asked him if he was from Noordwijk, and he answered: "Yes, I am hospitalized there;" he was an in-patient at the psychiatric hospital out on a day pass. Any misgivings I might have had were quickly allayed, however, as he was a conscientious driver, and cheerfully acted as tour guide as we entered Den Haag. I was impressed not only with his openness in telling me flat out that he was a patient in a psychiatric hospital, but with Dutch society in general, where, it seems, such a thing is not considered a dirty little secret to be hidden away.

I spent the day wandering the streets and beaches of Den Haag; the city is home to many impressive buildings, including the Dutch parliament, several royal palaces, the International Court of Justice, and the Mauritshuis, a 17th century mansion that now houses a museum. I spent several hours hanging around the beach watching people surf (in body suits, of course — the ocean on which Den Haag is located is the North Sea), and later watching the sun set. In the evening I caught a train to Rotterdam, only a few km away, and checked in to the hostel.

Rotterdam was bombed heavily on May 14, 1940, and there is consequently very little extant pre-20th century architecture. Some of the city's modern architecture is fairly impressive, and the city hosts what is arguably the world's largest port (some people — mostly Americans, it seems — say the Port of New York is larger), but it remains a fairly bleak place, and I had no intention of staying there for more than a night before heading south to Antwerpen (Antwerp), Belgium. In order to reach the southbound highway I had to walk for about 10km through the town; aside from the long bridge over the port, which offered some impressive views, the walk was fairly bleak. More bleak was the fact that, by the time I arrived at the highway, it was raining so hard that it was impossible for me to get a ride. I had learned previously that, upon seeing people hitching in the rain, drivers don't think "that poor wet person, I think I'll pick him up," they think "I don't want that wet smelly person in my car." It was, in fact, raining so hard that I spent most of the day under a bridge beneath the road rather than standing beside it. Aside from a brief conversation with an aspiring barber, it was a pretty boring and frustrating experience, and I eventually gave up and started the long trek back to the hostel knowing that I'd have to do it all again the following day. On the way back I passed an IMAX theatre showing the film Everest; I decided that after 4hrs of walking and 5hrs of standing in the rain I deserved a bit of a treat, so I blew the day's budget. The folks at the theatre gave me a little earpiece that I could plug in to my seat in order to hear the soundtrack in English.

The following day was a little drier, but it still took some time to get a ride. I eventually found one though, and after some confusion due to crisscrossing highways, I ended up in a truck heading for Antwerpen.

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