Once upon a time, I had a solid group of friends and family around me on a regular basis. I saw the same folks, more or less, each day of my life. It was nice – it’s a great feeling of security. It’s comfortable.
Nowadays, however, the people I interact with aren’t familiar. I’m never just sliding back into that same old rapport with anyone; I’m always meeting new friends and acquaintances. This is also great: fresh and exciting, every day new. But then, after I’ve left, it won’t be soon that I return. See you again somewhere? If the stars so desire… but usually it just doesn’t seem to work out. Someone flies over the boat I’m on, lands in Europe, and travels back, weeks before I even see land again. Cycle tourists contact me to ride together, and the plans just don’t match up. It doesn’t help that I keep no itinerary; but at such a slow pace, I really can’t compete with other, more convenient, forms of transportation. And I’m happy this way; I’ve been trying my best to extract myself from the insanity of this culture of convenience, and I’m finding a less complex life much more satisfying.
It’s a bit lonely, sometimes, maybe… homesick could describe it too… And despite staying open and enthusiastic, and honestly exposing myself to the world, I always move on; I never stay. Consequently, I never really know the people I meet, and they never really know me… not compared to, say, my old homies from Madison. It’s all right, of course – isolation fosters elevation – but when Capers, a free-frolicking friend from the States, told me she was actually going to be in Holland over New Years, it was exhilerating. It felt like a fairy tale was weaving itself around me. Standing on the ship’s bow, I was facing forward toward new experiences; this time, a new land with an old friend, surrounded by serendipity.
* * *
I arrived on the morning of New Year’s Eve, bundled against the cold and ready to ride. I had a couple of plans, heaps of enthusiasm, and eight hours of daylight. At the terminal I queued politely behind a few cars, but was soon motioned around by the customs official. I thought he might want to see my passport, or at least ask me something, but he was busy checking in motorists, ignoring me. So I kept pushing on past, behind the office….
Walking by a couple of cig-smoking customs guys, I nodded, and their conversation(in Dutch) didn’t even stop. I passed through the gate as easy as a breeze.
I was in Holland.
IJmuiden, Noord-Holland, Nederlands.
It was 25 winter kilometers from IJmuiden(“aymowden”) to Amsterdam, through the thick mist and dusty snow. “They drive on the right side here!” I often had to remind myself that first day; and several times, nearby random pedestrians shouted something to me in Dutch, directing me off of the street(where I am accustomed to riding), and onto the bike path… which is everywhere!
I had a little map to the city center, and I didn’t even use it. There were bicycle signs at every corner, separate from the roadsigns, and of course people on bikes to ask for directions. I passed a cold couple of fellas on the way, one pedaling and the other sitting side-saddle on the rear cargo rack of his old Dutch bike, holding his mittens over his ears. Through his scarf, he said to keep cycling, keep cycling and I left him with an amused “Only in Holland!”
Downtown Amsterdam was bustling with trams and cars and bikes and tourists. The Station Centraal was teeming with travelers coming and going, waiting, or rushing to catch a train. I went there hoping to find a tourist info office and a free map of the city, but it was so hectic there, I was momentarily paralyzed, overwhelmed by all the sheer busy-ness. It’s Amsterdam, where the city posts “Beware of pickpockets” signs and hundreds of thousands of bikes are stolen each year; and not only that, but it’s the train station – generally the riskiest crowd to be in, no matter which city it’s in. There was no way I was going to leave my bike and gear alone, my first day in the city, among who knows how many bike thieves; even for a second, even to have a map. I’d just have to wing it.
So much for a map then; on to the next priority. I found the coffeeshop I was looking for, Homegrown Fantasies, and ducked in for a quick purchase before heading South to Leiden. It was a nice atmosphere in there, with a deliciously intoxicating aroma and a gregarious cashier behind the menu, rolling joints and shouting at tourists.
“It’s okay to roll tobacco in it,” and “Don’t leave, I didn’t mean to scare you, I just wanted to sell you drugs!”
I wanted to be impressed with the cannabis expertise in downtown Amsterdam, but when I asked him to recommend something that would chill me out, versus send me flying, his response was disappointing. He didn’t even really know which ones were Indica and which were Sativa. In the end I chose two grams(12 euros) of something called Euphoria, and I sat outside on the cold patio seating, next to my rig, and had my first smoke in Amsterdam. Not your average pre-rolled, walk-outside-in-a-haze Amsterdam coffeeshop tourist experience; it was more of a new take on an old hobby. Bike tour style – after finishing my doobie, I faced to the South, and with a deep breath, started riding. Down broad boulevards seething with big-city activity, through narrow criss-crossing alleyways, over canal bridges, and out of the city, using only my compass and those handy bikepath signs.
Fourty kilometers of car-free fietspad(bikepath) without a map, sailing past sunset in a foreign land… with the Homegrown attitude adjustment, it was one of the most entertaining rides I think I’ve ever done.
And then there was Capers! Capers with a song on her lips, Capers with that bounce in her step. It was as if Fate had decreed that we should meet with success, and had carefully watched over our every step and pedal stroke, guiding us inexorably together.
The air vibrated as we hugged; cats purred on plush cushions around the world and luscious fruits dropped ripe from their branches. The ink of a thousand poems in a hundred languages finally dried at that moment, their pages fluttering under the eager breath of cloud-chasing romantics and giggling children.
Like we were in a moonlit dream, we struck out into the night. With Josta, our gracious host in Leiden, we skipped down to the Turfmarkt in the center of town for the fireworks. We were like a couple of little kids, laughing and jumping about, celebrating everything. Imagine Capers on my shoulders as we play beside the canal, pyrotechnics blazing in the sky and reflecting in the water, the old windmill silhouetted against the fiery night. Sparkler-trail vision streaks in circles, thousand-string bangers unleash in deafening staccato. The smoke from a fresh spliff in the winter air, and a cold bottle of champagne to ring in the new year… it was pure magic.
The fairy tale continued as we explored the town and Dutch culture over the following days. Josta took us for drinks and authentic Dutch cuisine, and cooked the best “stampot”(they love to mash everything together over here) I’ve had this whole time, with language lessons and quirky side-notes sprinkled throughout. We meandered over the old cobblestones of Leiden, soaking in the history and the happiness. We visited the public library, we sat on the sidewalk and photographed people on bikes. We wandered and wondered, taking it free and easy.
Josta rented a bicycle for Capers, a classic Dutch single-speed coaster, and we took a trip back to Amsterdam. I couldn’t follow the route I took the first time, so we adventured onward with my compass, following perfectly flat bike paths toward the horizon along arrow-straight canals, detouring through quaint little villages, taking breaks, sharing fruits, and discovering life together.
In Amsterdam once again, this time I had a destination. Capers had set up a place for us to stay for a couple nights before we returned to Leiden(nice to let someone else worry about the accomodations for once!); a kind of dumpster-diving hitchhiker nomad base – more on Casa Robino later.
I asked if anyone had any recommendations down in the center of town, but all I got was “Get lost.” As in, ‘Getting lost is a great way to see the city.’ That fit snug with Capers and I, both being very try-it-and-see, faceful-of-optimism, adventure-around-every-corner livers of life; so off we went to see what all the hype was about.
It was a Saturday night, the perfect setting to witness Amsterdam’s world famous Red Light District. It was easy to find; it’s even shaded in and clearly marked on the free maps the police provide. We walked along that oh-so-famous strip full of neon sex shops and brothels, where scantily dressed, perfectly manicured prostitutes lay on their beds with their legs open and on display, or stare through the glass alluringly at the passersby. The aroma of marijuana could often be caught on the breeze from the coffeeshops and street corners, and lecherous drunks stumbled to and fro, wondering if they’ve got enough money left to get laid. On one particularly shady avenue, a small dark man dressed in black weaved through the crowd, subtly whispering “Coca?” to anyone that might be interested, and other rough-looking characters whistled from doorways and alley mouths to get your attention. I was of course targeted by the hoodlum type of drug dealers(I ignored them like a good tourist) but Capers, with her vibrant smile and her blonde dreadlocks, was approached by a bouncy dready hippie chic saying, “You’re not from here, are you? I was just wondering if you’d be interested in some LSD.” When Capers declined, she smiled and waved, and with a “No worries, have a nice day!” she disappeared. I guess Amsterdam has every kind….
It wasn’t long before we had had enough – the place is actually rather disturbing; even just window-shopping, we were rather disgusted by the sex industry(apparently most prostitutes are still working against their will) and certainly not interested in backdoor white powder. We split a paper cone full of fries and decided to call it a night.
We weren’t actually lost at first, but before long we realized we were a little underprepared to find our way back. We were 80% sure we had the street name and number right, but it’s a tiny street, and we hadn’t memorized any nearby landmarks. We didn’t have a cellphone, nor even the phone number. We had no map, no money, and no motor vehicles, just each other and a strong determination bred from principle – can’t give up just because the going gets a little rough. It was late, and the only people out were drunks; no one knew where Callenburgstraat was. And after an hour of wandering around trying to find something that triggered our memory, even the drunks were gone, and the streets were empty. Eventually Capers did flag a taxi, but only to ask for directions, and after another round-about detour, we stumbled upon a street corner we recognized. Hooray! We celebrated in relief with a big hug. Back inside, after a hot cup of tea, we slept with the sublime contentment of an adventure accomplished.
We returned to Leiden for the last few days of Capers’ stay. After meeting up with Josta, we took the rental back to the bike shop that’s attached to the train station. We’d be one less bike on the way back, so we rode Dutch-style, with me pedalling the rental and Capers sitting side-saddle on the rear rack – an experience I will never forget. It’s one thing to have a girl on the back of your bike(classic Dutch romance), but when Capers slid her arm around my waist to hold on, it felt so good I couldn’t stop the joy that bubbled up and burst forth in blissful laughter. What fun, cycling in Holland!
Josta’s kitty-cats finally got used to me the day before I left; silly scaredy cats – don’t they recognize one of their own? Then for our last night in town, we stayed with a guy named Niels who inspired me to build a bike-generator-powered battery charger from scratch. Still workin’ on that one….
And then I was walking with Capers for the last time, to the train station. We navigated the way effortlessly, with all the mystery and truth of the cosmos bouying our steps, and made it to the platform just in time. With a hug and a kiss and a toast to the future, we said fare-thee-well, and the marvelous fairy tale of Capers and Charlie in Holland came gently to an end.
And they lived happily ever after, surrounded by vibrant memories of inspiration, love, and joy.
Until we meet again….