Towards the end of the trip, while we were sinking our tired legs in Latha's Indonesian couch, our good hostess in Netherlands was showing off some photos from her recent trip to Egypt with her family. Their house full of odd souvenirs testified that the family was well traveled and hence proved that souvenir collectors do not make good interior decorators. A cuckoo clock from Switzerland, papyrus from Egypt, a photo frame from Greece, and a huge Chinese rosewood dining table made the home look like a spread at a potluck dinner.
‘My dad in India thinks that we always have fun because we travel a lot.’, Latha said as suddenly as the cuckoo appeared from the clock.
‘You don’t?’ I asked, quite taken aback considering they seemed to be dishing a lot of cash in this activity.
‘You travel, you should know. You know how much you have to walk and eat all kinds of shit. When Dad came here, we took him to Paris and make him walk all over the city till he collapsed. After that he has agreed that travel is not all that fun.’
I didn’t ask Latha the obvious question because I knew where she was coming from. Checking off places and buying souvenirs as trophies for all that hard work done, she epitomizes majority of us tourists. Though my idea of seeing places might be slightly different, in some bizarre level, we are all varying degrees of Latha. But when my relatives ask me how many states in the United States have I checked off, I simply say I am not sure if I want to go to Idaho even if that is the 50th state I have to tick off. It is impossible to fully savour any place by merely walking over its surface and taking pictures. Landing in a place while you are in transit is not considered visiting a new country. Three years are not enough to know a place, let alone three days. You have got to imbibe the smells, taste the flavors, meet with locals, connect with travellers, share a part of yourself to even scratch its surface. I can safely say that I have just been introduced to these wonderful cities in Europe; I am still waiting to shake hands. I regret not spending that kind of quality time to even give you a decent account, but here are the samplers. I'll go back for the main course some day, unless of course South America beckons with its unchecked countries.
Amsterdam- Cycling the Canals
Don’t let the Dutch fool you with their collecting-phlegm-from-the-inner-cavities-of-the throat-ready-to-spit kinda language. They all know English. They speak that way to ward off tourists so that they can drink all that beer in peace. First thing that strikes you about this place are the bicyclists. They can run you over if you are not watching them from the second floor of your hotel room. A mom riding her bike with three toddlers thrown in a beer barrel like contraption attached to the font of the bike. A businessman in Armani carrying a briefcase in one hand and a talking on the cell phone with the other. Nothing extraordinary about that if he wasn’t maneuvering his bike at the same time through the crowded canal streets. The bikes are not even fancy owing to the number of bikes that get stolen or thrown into the canals. I really didn’t spend enough time in Netherlands to understand why anyone would want to hurl vehicles of transportation into bodies of water. Maybe during their equivalent of Ganesh Chaturti.
Amsterdam, being below sea level, is a city of canals that look very romantic by the night. Canals bordered by narrow roads that are lined by cute row houses. Cute from the outside and pigeonholes from the inside. The houses are quite tiny and it’s quite a feat to climb those narrow steep staircases. Which is why every house has a slab like protrusion from the roof with a hook attached to it. This helps in moving furniture with the help of a pulley through windows. Some of the houses actually are built leaning towards the ground for the same purpose. Being a Civil Engineer and all, I almost went ecstatic thinking I discovered an engineering flaw in construction. Felt disappointed to learn that people living in these houses are actually safe.
People must set aside at least 4 hours for dining here (actually most of Europe). They have no concept of hurrying up. For harried Americans or for people from countries with large population and less seating, it is difficult to comprehend. The waiters take their own sweet time to take your order and a light year to bring the food. To obtain the check, you must perform three mujras to get the attention of the waiter who is merrily smoking pot in the next table.
Made way to the Rijksmuseum to see the milkmaid woman the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer painted. Saw Vermeer’s house in Delft and the museum where his famous Girl with the Pearl Earring is housed. Thanks Gabby for that book and making me want to rediscover this beautiful place with my own eyes and compare it with what my mind had once construed through the wonderful narrative of Tracy Chevalier. It was fun trying to look for that fish market where Griet ended up and actually finding it with the help of our noses.
Anne Frank Haus was a slight let down and for people who hadn’t even read the book, it must have must have been a torturous tour. Personally, I feel it can be skipped; the tour and not the book.
Night took us to the red light district after having a piece of hash brownie. Our local friend, Mich, advised us on having ¼ of what was doled out to us in the coffee shop. Yes, a normal coffee shop. Drugs are legal and as easy to procure as...yes coffee. Last time a friend went to Amsterdam for a conference, he ate this brownie thinking it was well…a brownie. He woke up two days later missing his flight and the conference. This brownie thing was hardly hitting me. Was getting slightly frustrated after having paid six bucks for something that tasted like a brownie that would normally cost a buck. Ate another quarter piece without anyone’s knowledge. Still nothing. Got distracted by the lovely ladies in interesting negligee selling their wares by their respective windows. You could get as close as you would to a red tailed chimpanzee in Mysore zoo. But you couldn't take photos. A red light above their window meant they were ready and a purple light meant they were ready too. Just that the purple were transvestites and if you don’t notice the 5 o’clock shadow and the occasional Adam’s apple, you could mistake them for the nice ladies under the red lights. If a curtain was drawn, it meant they were busy…maybe painting their nails.
Sometime at midnight that brownie had a profound effect on me. I had a giggling attack. So much for the sinister effects of drugs. My friends got jealous that it didn’t hit them and tried to put me to sleep very unceremoniously. The world went in spirals and I felt like I was being sucked into my pillow. Like some kind of engulfing feeling. Like they show in the movies. The same purple-pink thingies going zigzag and the yellow-orange thingaboos spiraling outwards. Pulled out my dairy put a check mark next to Take a Canal Tour in Amsterdam.