As a finale to our escapades with the bulls in Pamplona, our fearless group planned a quick trip to Amsterdam. Now, I know what most of you are thinking. Amsterdam? Isn't that the original city of sin and debauchery? The modern day Sodom and Gomorrah? Well, yes. But is any trip around Europe complete without a visit to the home of Heineken?
When we were first figuring this stuff out, Fletch sent out a few emails confirming flights, times, prices, etc. He even offered to purchase my tickets with the rest of the group. I kindly declined - with more than a few reasons bouncing around in my head. First, I only needed a one-way ticket from Madrid to Amsterdam. I haven't purchased a return flight for a quite a while now. Second, with the help of a few tips and tricks, I figured I'd probably find a better deal myself. And, I was right. Where their flights ended up running $200+ round trip, I found a one-way flight for about $30. Third, it's Fletch planning this stuff. Don't misunderstand - Fletch is pretty much my brother. We've been through a lot. But when it comes to travel planning, in my experience it's advisable to be on your own schedule.
So, Fletch, Trent and the Wolverine were to leave Madrid on a 7:30pm flight. They'd check into a hostel that night, and get a little sleep. My flight left the next morning, and I'd just check my email to see where they ended up, and meet them at their hostel. Simple enough.
Fast forward to 11:00am the next day. I'm walking the streets of Amsterdam, looking for an internet café. I found one right on the main street of the city, called "Easy Internet". It's run by the same company as EasyJet in the UK. The interesting thing about this place was that it was unmanned. There was no staff. You drop money into a ticket machine, which dispenses a piece of paper with a Username and a Password on it. You then sit down at one of the 100+ machines in the 4-story building, and enter the information. If you don't use all your time, you can log off and use it later. And, once you log off, the machine automatically restarts itself. Pretty cool.
Anyway, upon checking my email, I read the following messages from Fletch:
"did not get into the airport until about 30 before flight and there was not one human at any of the ticket counters so we are at Javi´s, we will get up in the morning and then make some calls and see what options we have I think the Wolverine may not be coming I am not for sure. Javi has to go to wokr at like 7, so after that I don´t think you will be able to reach us easily, I will check the computer often though.... ---FUCK. "
"We will be headed up with javi to the airport, to argue, probably to no avail, most likely we, Trent and I will be coming tommorow, using the Ryanair way, but if you remember the bus number or whatnot let me know, also what the name of your hostel is....dammit."
Now, part of me found this extremely funny, and made me look like freakin Nostradamus. On the other hand, it left me in a bit of a bind, as I expected them to already have a place to crash. And after spending another night in an airport, I was looking forward to a real bed. So, I went looking for a room. I finally ended up finding one a little outside of the city center which was in my price-range. Unfortunately it was quite a dump - a messy, unkempt 12-person dorm room on the 4th floor of an old hotel. However, it served its purpose. I secured my stuff, and took a nap that ended up lasting about 12 hours.
The next morning, I was walking out of a little grocery store, happy to be holding a cup of yogurt and some fruit - some of the only healthy things I've eaten for a while. As I was crossed the street and started walking near a small park, a huge set of hands grabbed me from behind. I whipped around to find a massive guy in a sweatshirt with a hood over his head. "Holy Crap!" I was pretty sure I was going to get stabbed in the middle of the park. Half a second later I realize it's Fletch. Then I see Trent standing right next to him smiling.
We took a few minutes to catch up in the park. They explained the story, starting from when we last saw each other two days ago in Madrid. They explained how they missed their flight, and how no amount of pleading with the staff would get them aboard. They spent another night in Madrid with Javier, and worked on other plans.
The Wolverine decided to stay in Madrid and just hang out until his flight back to the States. Already semi-shocked at the cost of a couple weeks in Europe, eating a $200+ ticket had understandably left a bad taste in his mouth. Fletch and Trent however, were determined to get to Amsterdam. They booked new tickets and flew in last night. Without a hotel room though, they ended up sleeping on the roof of a small building somewhere out by the airport. And to top it off, it was unseasonably cold in Amsterdam. They both looked like hell, and needed some proper sleep. They'd found a hotel room out by the airport, but couldn't get into it until 1:00.
Trent summed it up quietly and concisely: "Yeah, we've had a rough go of things." We agreed they'd be best served to go back to the hotel and get some sleep before meeting up later tonight.
That afternoon I walked the city, exploring the many canals and admiring the beautiful old buildings. There are apparently more museums per capita in Amsterdam than any other city in Europe. I'd believe it, as it seemed every block had at least one. Amsterdam is an absolutely beautiful city. It gets a bad rap, especially by conservative America as being a storehouse of sexual deviancy and drug use. It's definitely true that certain elements are present here in a much more obvious form than other places in the world. However, there is some amazing architecture and beautiful scenery around every corner.
Every block was lined with narrow brick houses, seemingly designed much more vertically than horizontally. I found out later this was due to the taxation system back in the day. Homeowners were taxed on the width of their houses. So, they built them narrow, long and tall. Weird.
The tops of most of the houses had a "stair-step" design, which I'd seen in pictures, but never in person. It's quite unique. I also noticed most of the same houses had a large hook protruding out over the street from the top of the house. Turns out they are furniture hooks for getting heavy, bulky stuff into the upper floors through the windows. The narrow design of the houses made it pretty tricky to get stuff up the stairs.
Unbeknownst to me before arriving, Amsterdam is also famous for its bicycles. Everyone had a bike. Men, women, children, everyone. And, they weren't the top of the line mountain or street bikes you see in the states. They were old, old bikes, looking like something right out of the 1920's. It was fascinating. People would leave them locked up near the railings on the canals, one after another. It was actually quite beautiful.
Anyway, I met up with the freshly-napped fellas around 8:00, at which point we dined on a couple of pizza slices. We walked around the streets for a bit, doing some people watching, and making the necessary stops at the souvenir shops.
That night, we took a stroll through the infamous Red Light district. How can you not? Like a train wreck, it's something you have to go see, no matter how disturbing. And it surely is a sight to behold. The whole area does indeed glow red. The narrow streets of a five or six block area are lined with windows bordered with neon red lights. Each window is filled with a nearly-naked woman smiling, dancing and blowing kisses. It's bewildering. Behind each, you can see a small bed and chairs, among other things. As you walk along, each window has a woman of different size, shape, color, etc. Young and old, skinny and fat. Where there aren't windows full of women stand erotic sex shops selling everything you can and can't imagine.
Nearly as amusing as the area itself are the people wandering its streets. People of all ages and nationalities are gawking at the spectacle. Groups of men, groups of women, couples... Everyone staring and giggling like 12 year olds.
And where there aren't sex shops, there are "coffee shops". Now, normally, a coffee shop is a coffee shop. A closer look however shows signs saying "no one under 21 allowed inside." Now, I believe the legal drinking age in The Netherlands is 18, so it's not alcohol they're worried about. No, as you have probably heard (and if you've seen Pulp Fiction, you already know), these coffee shops are legalized hash bars. You can buy and smoke marijuana in these places, and almost every one of them was full of people.
Now aside from your or my point of view of these things, it had an interesting side effect. We walked around for a few hours, and saw very few drunks around. If you saw someone who was "impaired", it was due to being high, and they were as placid as sheep. Quite a contrast from the bar scene in the states where alcohol seems to fuel fight after fight every night.
Feeling we needed some culture, the next morning I met Fletch and Trent at the Van Gogh museum. It was pretty cool, housing a few of his most famous works. However, much to my dismay, his masterpiece, "Starry Night" was not there. Fortunately there were also a few exhibits from other artists, including an American, which were pretty good as well.
We then walked around an open green area in the "museum district", finding some pretty cool photo opportunities with some well placed signs.
We made our way to the Heineken brewery museum and took the self-guided tour. It was actually a pretty good deal, taking about two hours to run the loop, and also included three beers.
The tour itself was pretty entertaining - housing a bunch of the old marketing material, showcasing some of the old copper vats, and offering a few electronic media kiosks to play with. We even had the chance to make a video email, which is ridiculously bad.
At around 3:00, Trent went to the internet café to sort out some travel plans while Fletch and I joined a free walking tour of old Amsterdam. Our guide's name was Donald, "yes, just like the cartoon duck with no pants..." he said twice. He was in his early twenties, a little heavy set, and had more metal in his face than Jaws from James Bond. Every possible place you could pierce was pierced. Normally piercings don't really faze me -you can pierce whatever you want - I'm ok with it. But I couldn't look at this guy without feeling pain. It hurt my face to look at him. He'd be an airport security team's nightmare. An MRI would probably kill him.
Anyway, we inevitably ended up wandering through the Red Light district. Even then, a few of the windows were open for business. At 3:00 in the afternoon! We passed through, landing on the steps of a big Christian church right in the middle of the Red Light District. Strange, I know. In fact, some of the ladies' windows actually faced the church.
Our friend Donald told us how the church and the district had a symbiotic relationship dating back to the 1600's. Amsterdam has always been a trading Mecca; home to the East India Trading company, among other things. This of course meant lots and lots of sailors. Boats would arrive, freshly paid sailors would disembark, and the ladies were waiting. After being satisfied, the fellas would feel the need to redeem their souls, and would promptly head to the church, conveniently (and strategically) located a few yards away. In those times, the church was gracious enough to accept money for the pardoning of sins. Pay the proper amount, and all your transgressions were wiped clean. It was a win, win, win (that was for you Mr. Bell). The ladies made money, the church made money, and the sailors were happy and were headed to heaven. Quite a deal.
After a quick bite to eat, we jumped on a canal boat tour. A slow moving flat-bottomed boat motored us around a loop of the many canals running through the city.
It was pretty cool, though we fought some rain during the voyage. It was fun to float along underneath the many bridges we've been walking over for the past couple of days. It offered a whole new view of the city, and the beautiful buildings.
That night we parted ways, Fletch headed back to Madrid and Trent flying to Barcelona. It was wonderful to be able to travel with friends for a while. And, to be honest it was a little sad to say goodbye. But another part of me was a little glad to be rolling solo again. Two backpacks and the direction of the wind. It's great to have company, but making decisions for one is a lot easier than for three or four or...