George Costanza: What is Holland?
Jerry Seinfeld: What do you mean, ‘what is it?’ It’s a
country right next to Belgium.
George: No, that’s the Netherlands.
Jerry: Holland *is* the Netherlands.
George: Then who are the Dutch?
It’s hard to tell where the Dutch prefer to be from, maybe they just don’t care. Our flight from Istanbul to Amsterdam was hands down the worst flight I have ever taken. To begin: We flew on a an extreme budget airline, Corendon, from the Asian Istanbul Airport, which was a hike, a boat ride and a bus away from our hostel. Our flight was originally scheduled for 11:59pm (not sure where they pulled that number from). A week before the flight we received a poorly constructed, fairly unprofessional email from the airline telling us that we would arrive in Amsterdam three hours later than originally projected. We were unclear whether this meant we were taking off later or magically adding 3 hours to the trip. Anything was possible. It turns out the flight was bumped up till 1 A.M then not till 2 a.m. Boarding was a debacle in itself since, like most Euro budget airlines there are no seat assignments, there was a rush of Turkish and Dutch travelers alike trying to get the best seat. I was amazed that I managed to snag the last bulkhead seat, which is pretty righteous considering budget airlines are also unforgiving to those with height. I was seated next to a cool guy from Morocco who had lived south of Amsterdam all his life. He and his girlfriend and two other friends had just taken a “holiday” to Istanbul but really they were there to take advantage of low-cost laser eye correction surgery. Probably not the place I would’ve chosen to let some doctors beam a high powered laser into both my pupils, but hey, the guy seemed okay, save the fact that every 10 minutes or so he sorted through ten different eye drops to “freshen his wound” as he said.
We waited for approximately an hour and half for the plane to, you guessed it, refuel. Refueling a plane while it is loaded with passengers is what the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration would call a big no no. Eventually we finally took off but then my friend with the dilated pupils next to me informed that this was not a direct flight by any means and that we would actually be stopping in the Turkish city of Bodrum, which if you look on the map below is in the other direction about 40 minutes or so. We landed in Bodrum, dropped off a couple people and picked up a couple more. Then we sat on the runway, again, for about 30-40 minutes before finally taking off for Amsterdam (strike two). A crazed woman 5 rows behind me at one point started off on a rampage of Turkish rants at a flight attendant. For a second I thought they would for sure have to remove her but then again, it was Corendon airlines so I guess that shit flies.
We landed in Amsterdam at around 9a.m. I had been able to sleep for the majority of the flight, which was pretty wicked on my part. Sam forgot to bring a fleece with him and as a result was freezing his ass off for the entire flight (Corendon also does not supply pillows or blankets). After taking a commuter train to the center of the city we headed to our hostel in the rain (strike three Istanbul to Amsterdam trek). Our hostel, Bob’s Youth Hostel, was located in a perfect spot for sight seeing and was conveniently situated near the infamous Red Light District, which I will discuss later.
Originally I debated even going to Amsterdam as I had more time to kill before heading to Spain and was interested in checking out either more of Eastern Turkey or going into Bulgaria, possibly meeting up with good old Janel who just started her two year Peace Corps stint in Bobov Dol, a small town in southwestern Bulgaria. Since flights from Istanbul to Amsterdam were cheap (I know now the reason for this) and since I figured it would be more fun to do Amsterdam with a friend than by myself we decided to head over.
As most of you know Holland or the Netherlands is one the most liberal countries in the world. To start, natural drugs such as magic mushrooms and weed are Kosher, as is prostitution and absinthe. The country also has a wonderfully tolerant attitude towards minorities, gays and lesbians and from what I hear they are eco friendly to top it off. As comedian David Cross once put it, “If the terrorists hate OUR freedom so much and 9-11 was a result of this as Bush will tell you then the Netherlands would be dust.” So as you can imagine a large portion of travelers to Amsterdam are there to dabble in the sticky-icky and oogle at the girls on display on the red light district.
Our hostel was full of wooked up hippies from across the globe, many of which had already started to blaze when we checked in at 10:30am (later that afternoon we returned to the hostel and found our room full of more passed out wooks). Sam needed a nap so I headed out to check out the Foam Photography Museum, which had a really cool exhibit by this Israeli photographer whose work was comprised of shots of random Israelis and Palestinians making goofy faces in front of the camera. His goal; to show unity between the two conflicted nations. You can check it out here http://www.foam.nl/index.php?pageId=9&tentoonId=118
After waking up Sam we explored the city a bit. Most people I talked to said that Amsterdam was a filthy city that was worth seeing for a couple day but after that you wanna get out. I actually didn’t find this to be true at all. While the city has a gritty, sleazy underbelly in the Red Light District, the rest of the city is actually quite nice. Similarly to Venice the majority of Amsterdam and the Netherlands in general, is under water. Amsterdam is a maze of canals and streams the weave around in almost perfectly linear patterns. The old part of the city is quite charming and despite what people told me I found the city to be fairly clean overall.
We also checked out the Rembrandt house and museum, which has a large collection of his sketches and etchings (very cool) and visited the Van Gough museum, which also has an impressive collection. The majority of the pieces were done during the last two years of his life (his madness years) when he painted roughly 200 paintings. He also I believe lost his ear during these years and later took his own life. It makes you wonder what the rest of his career would have been like if he hadn’t comitted suicide so early on. The self-taught painter went through a number of different styles and phases in his career and seemed destined to follow in the footsteps of someone like Picasso, another multi faceted genius.
Finally there is the Red Light District. This “district” is really one main drag with some smaller streets on its outskirts. A canal bisects the street in two and its about a 10 minute walk around or 40 minutes if you stop and stare along the way. The area got its name due to the fact that the stretch is red from the glowing aura of neon lights that line the street. The area is concentrated with sex shops, sex theaters, and brothels of all sorts. We spent a good hour walking around the whole area on our last night stopping to watch brave\creepy souls enter the establishments. Each time someone entered or exited there was a crowd of judgemental tourists outside waiting. Kind of unfortunate for the people who regularly take part in this sort of thing but then again, these people are creeps in my book. We stumbled upon a stoned dude from Colorado who was staring around like a kid in a candy store. We started talking and at one point he casually said, “yeah I’m not sure how this works.” I believe my response was, “I think you go up to the girl in the doorway and pay for sex.” Sam and I both agreed that the guy was for sure shopping around especially since he told us he was staying at the only hostel on the drag. I’ve never been to Las Vegas, which may be the U.S. version of Amsterdam, sans legal drugs, but I would imagine its a very similar experience. You know its wrong and dirty but yet you can’t take your eyes away.
The next morning we killed time before catching the train to the airport by exploring the city some more, checking out a number of cool parks and some monuments. On the way to the hostel we stopped at the red light district again to check it out during the day. Definitely not the same experience but still amusing to see. Like most businesses there is a night shift and a day shift on the red light district and the day shift is some kind of interesting.
In terms of food the Dutch, like the English, aren’t really known for the cuisine. The Moroccan fellow on the plane told me that the fries are really the only good thing in Amsterdam. He was correct. We went to the Amsterdam’s “Number 1 Chip Stand,” which had pretty damn good fries served with over 20 different kinds of toppings. I refuse to put mayonnaise on anything other than tuna so I opted for the surprisingly delicious curry sauce. Sam was lame and ordered ketchup.
All in all Amsterdam was a fun city to visit but I don’t know if I’ll be going back anytime soon. I’d much rather explore more of Holland, which people who I met told me is much nicer and still has the same liberal attitude. When I’m older and have some money to burn I think France and the rest of the Low Countries (Belgium, Netherlands) would be a cool trip.
We flew from Amsterdam to London Stanstead where Sam was to catch a return flight back to L.A. and I was headed to Santiago de Campostelo in Spain. Both our flights were the following morning, which meant we spent the night in the airport. Stanstead is a small cheap airline hub airport with not a lot to offer for the poor American backpacker. There was no way I was heading into London, which cost roughly 10 pounds or $20 to get to by bus one way, so we stuck it out in the airport. I found a nice nook behind a closed down coffee stand where I laid down some garbage bags I stole from a cart near the bathroom and proceeded to sleep on my backpack on the floor. Not my finest moment but was somehow able to get a couple hours in.
Sam and I parted ways the next morning. And then there was one.
Santiago, the mecca for European pilgrims, is up next.