According to Samaritans’ last annual report, an UK registered charity aimed at providing support to anyone in emotional distress, every year about 200 people throw themselves in front of a train in the Netherlands, leaving the country in the 4th position in the European railways suicidal ranking. The suicide rate in the Netherlands is not that bad, around 0,0098% per year, but currently 12% of them are rail-related…
Sunny morning of May 3rd 2013. I was at Bergen op Zoom train station, but my train didn’t show up. I heard an announcement from the station speakers – in Dutch! What the hell are they saying??? Is my train coming or not? Was it cancelled? Is it broken? Is it being fixed or replaced? When is it coming? What am I supposed to do??????
I was just about to panic when I saw a few familiar faces popping up on the platform: the Heepsters I’ve met the day before were going back home. Hahaha awesome!! Heepvention at the train station!!!Corroborating the statistics, my friends explained to me that some hapless soul had decided to use my train to write down a last dot in his lifetime, that the high-speed train I was supposed to catch straight to Amsterdam wouldn’t come so early (misfortunes like this may take several hours to be cleared), and the more advisable in this situation would be to embark on an intercity train, far more time consuming but more reliable.
When I finally arrived Netherland’s capital with a two-hours delay and got a wifi connection, from my inbox I read a desperate message from my mom: ‘What happened??? Where are you now?? Someone named Krokus has called us looking for you… Who is this person? Are you in trouble??‘
Lesson learned: You can’t plan everything. All of a sudden things beyond your control are gonna happen. But there will always be someone nearby willing to help a traveler. Relax mom…
Before going forward with my adventures and misadventures in Amsterdam, I will make a bracket with some curious information about the Netherlands:
1- Social tolerance. The country is famous for its liberal policy towards homosexuality and prostitution (gay marriage and prostitution are legalized), euthanasia and abortion are allowed (which doesn’t mean you can stab your sick grandmother without legal authorization), the consumption of soft drugs like marijuana is tolerated, in a controlled manner. And all these don’t make the country a mess. Rather, it is one of the most civilized in the world, the revelers typically being tourists and not Dutch. Amsterdam is the primary travel destination of young Europeans in time to celebrate the early spring, bachelor parties, graduations, holidays, and so on. Live your life out the way you want, but don’t you dare to disturb the others.
2- Demography. With nearly 17 million people living in 41,543 square km (405 inhabitants per sq km), the Netherlands is the 10th most populous country in Europe and 24th in density in the world. And almost half of all these people are concentrated around 3 cities: Amsterdam, The Hague and Rotterdam.
3- Geography. Holland is extremely flat (it practically has no mountains) and 40% of the country is below the sea level. Amsterdam has 1,281 bridges and 2,500 houseboats, which makes sense since 24% of the city area is made of water.
4- Transportation. Just like 2 plus 2 is 4, an overpopulation of 17 million + flat terrain = bikes. The Netherlands have more than 15,000 bicycle lanes, and there are so many bikes as inhabitants. In fact, there are more bikes in Amsterdam (880 000) than residents (810,000). If you are planning to visit the city and you don’t fear the metallic swarms buzzing wildly in all directions, you can join the crowd renting a bike per day. If you’re not a bicycle enthusiast, you can catch a bus, a subway, a tram (streetcars) or a taxi – there are plenty of options and the majority of drivers speak English.
5 – Have you ever had the impression that the Dutch are very tall? Yeah, they are the tallest people in the world, with an average height of 1.81 m (5 ft 11.3 in) for males and 1.67 m (5 ft 5.7 in) for females.
6- Flowers. The tulip is the leading symbol of the country, and for the Dutch gardening is a very serious matter. I met a couple in Rome who explained to me in details the process of growing a tulip, with its peculiarities: from the period that the bulbs need to be frozen to the almost magical blossom of the flower, which grows completely inside the bulb, like a baby in its womb. Amsterdam’s flower festival occurs in the Keukenhof botanical garden from early spring until the end of May, with the exposure of 4.5 million tulips of about 100 different varieties. Still on the same page, here’s a brilliant article written by journalist Alexandre Versignassi regarding the tulip bubble that has crashed the Dutch economy in the 17th century. The case is so extraordinary it seems unreal: The universe in a tulip bud.
Now back to the tales. I was talking ’bout Krokus…
Once I reached the outside of Amsterdam Centraal Station I felt as as lost as an onion in a fruit salad: there was a huuuge square, full of tourists and bicycles, zillion bus and tram stops all around me. I knew the address and the number of the tram I had to catch, but at that moment, bushed and with only my enormous suitcase for company, I couldn’t decide which way to go to make a move. A woman approached me and gently asked: ‘Do you need any help?‘
As I said before, there’s always someone nearby ready to help a traveler. She gave me directions and wrote down the name of my stop on a piece of paper. Mankind scores another point.
And what about Krokus?
Krokus was the woman from whom I’ve rented a room in Amsterdam, through the web. Her house was located in a quiet and flowery residential neighborhood, not far from the city center. I took my boots off as soon as I stepped into, cause in the website she had made very clear her ‘no shoes at home’ rule. What wasn’t clear was the two flights of steep stairs I would have to climb carrying a 66lb suitcase to get to my room! 10 years practicing Kung Fu have served for something.
After a short recovery rest and a little chitchat with my lovely hostess I caught the downtown bus to meet a friend from Brazil, college classmate, who was in the Netherlands for business. We walked the entire old town until we found a traditional Chinese restaurant in which he had been before, had supper, then stopped to sip some beers and catch up in a pub called Grasshopper. From there we went to explore the famous Red Lights District I was so eager to visit… 😀
I don’t know if it’s because I’m already used to heavy metal shebangs but the Red Lights was smoother than what I was expecting. The ‘shops’ are arranged along a canal and its cross alleys, dark and gloomy narrow cobbled streets with a medieval appearance, full of young drunkards and drug smugglers. From the distance only the blur of the red – or blue – lights installed over the windows is visible. Clarification note for lads who plan to indulge themselves in this lascivious market someday: the blue light means transsexual. To take photographs of the windows is not allowed but I assure you that most of the ladies are very beautiful, high quality. Of course you’ll find some “exotic” types there too. Different strokes for different folks.
If you’re dying to visit the district but feeling a little insecure, you can join the tour promoted by the Prostitution Information Center (PIC). In Dutch and English, tours are guided by ex-prostitutes, every Saturday and during Summer also on Wednesdays. De Wallenwinkel (Enge Kerksteeg 3, 1012 GV Amsterdam, tel + 31 20 420 73 28, e-mail: email@example.com).
Right in the middle of this bedlam I discovered the Excalibur Café. Decorated à la King Arthur and his Round Table, with snooker tables on the mezzanine, a bartender that looks like a tough guy but very friendly, loud heavy metal/ hard rock till late, I’ve found my home away from home in Amsterdam.
The next day my plan was to soften my lack of culture a little bit by visiting the newly reopened Van Gogh Museum, but the queue was discouraging I changed my mind – after grabbing a delicious hot dog from the stall strategically located by the entrance.
I chose the Museumplein to gobble my breakfast where at the same time I could do photosynthesis, write nonsense stuff on my tablet and watch funny vacationers trying to climb the letters of “I Amsterdam” in front of the Rijksmuseum. That’s what I call multitasking! haha
On this same plaza is located the Museum shop, and there I was able to buy a ticket for the next day skipping lines. Therefore I assume it was my fate to go for the Heineken Experience that day – the museum of the world’s most famous Dutch beer, inside their former factory established in 1864.
John, a friend from gym whose hobby is to produce craft beer , once told me that scotch whiskey is nothing else than distilled beer. So, when I decide to drink beer at home instead of the usual scotch, it’s always Heineken – which is 100% malt without being expensive. Foreigners might not know but commercial Brazilian beers are half made from GM maize.
If I ever enjoyed Heineken, after getting to know the museum I fell in love with it for real! Fully interactive, the tour begins with the story of its founders, passes through all the details of the manufacturing process and ends – obviously – in tasting. And I’ll share here the ace in the hole I learnt from my Brazilian friend: at the end of the tour there’ll be a quiz where right answers worth additional glasses of beer: ‘Why the foam is important for tasting?’, ‘Which ingredient gives the beer its golden color?’, ‘Which ingredient create the bitter flavor?‘, ‘How do you say Cheers in Dutch?‘ (Same in Germany: Proost!), and “What is my name?” (he starts introducing himself). I got myself three extra beers because of that – nobody else knew the answers! On my way out I got one more farewell glass of beer. And there’s more: also free with your Heineken Experience ticket you can sail Amsterdam canals on the shuttle boat from the factory to the brand store, where you’ll receive a super-exclusive bottle opener as a gift! Not to miss!
Is it necessary to mention that they sell beers on the boat…?
With 7 glasses of beer already on my head before 6pm I thought it would be advisable to fill my stomach with some junk before leaving again for the binge. In the Netherlands there is a fast food chain called Febo, where burgers and croquettes are exposed on a wall made of glazed little ovens: as in a soda machine, insert a coin and grab your snack. Not bad!
That night I went again to The Excalibur, this time on my own. At a certain point I was in need to pee but the ladies’ toilet was forever busy. Here comes from the restroom a costumed lad … um… I don’t know what he was… They were having a bachelor party, a common thing to stumble upon on weekends there.
Among others I met Henry from South Africa and I don’t know how we ended up in this matter but eventually we spent a century arguing about racism. On his side he was fiercely criticizing blacks, saying how dangerous they are and that they should be exterminated, while I tried to explain how things are different in Brazil and that if their behavior in South Africa is so violent that could only be product of the society where they live. Surely a conversation like this takes nowhere, but it was not easy to get rid of him… Finally at 3am I managed to take the bus back home and then… Someone woke me up when we reached the final stop! To give you an idea of how far away I went, I rode TWENTY SEVEN STOPS before getting back to the right place! Believe me, I reckoned! Luckily this time the driver helped me to get off at the right stop…
The day after was the time to redeem myself and visit Van Gogh. Maybe due to a festival that was going on in town or maybe because of an Ajax soccer match, the Museum was not as crowded as the day before. I enjoyed a perfect afternoon in this exceptional museum without tons of people poking me. The museum tells the story of VG since he decided to become a painter until his death, and the collection is quite complete, with works from all his phases. Bring some extra money cause on your way out you’ll a pass through a small shop full of nifty souvenirs!!
At evening I met my Brazilian friend again and together we went to another rock pub, The Waterhole. Because of the soccer game, the floor of the nearest plaza from the pub was filthy, carpeted with plastic cups, cans and bottles, some young folks in a awful state of drunkenness still roaming there. We witnessed some guys squabbling with police men and a girl being arrested.
The Waterhole is a great pub, with live music, free admission and cheap beers. As good as it gets!! We met some guys from Denmark there, Jakob, Lars, Ana and Alessandro, they taught us how to say Cheers in Danish ‘Skål’ and we discovered that they are the happiest people in the world!
As usual, I ended the night dozing on the bus again and missing my stop… Heehee
Time to try my luck in Germany.
Wanna see more pics? Here.