The sun blinds us as we pedal towards the main square of the city. My jacket is dark blue from sweat, but mostly rain. All that stops me from sailing off in the wrong direction, is the dark lines of the cobbled stone in front of me that don’t catch the glaring setting light.
Ill preparation is part of my existence. I seem to feed off it, like as if the time constraint, the lack of supplies is a challenge to be faced, rather than a careless burden that could have been avoided. Everything is purchased last minute, bikes, locks, cellphone, GoPro gear. I don’t even consider proper shoes, clips, tubes or even a fully packed practice ride around the city. My route planning is also off, delusional that we could bike 50 km, even though Rachel has never biked long distance in her life. Plus, I hated doing things for endurance. I get no thrill in pushing my body, without allowing my mind to indulge in the culture and history that whizzes by without me giving it a second glance. And yet, with all that said, this week was all about Rachel’s endurance.
The first destination outside of Amsterdam was the old university city of Utrecht. We prepped for several days prior, getting bikes at second hand stores and markets, getting film equipment, etc. People who go to Amsterdam for that one immature purpose, miss the heart of why this city is so magnificent and how effortless it seems to be as awesome as it is, from it’s bakeries, to it’s architecture, to it’s wonderful herring and stroopwaffels. Besides the bike and camera stuff, we also had a chance to taste wonderful fresh stroopwaffels at a local market, all thanks to our fearless leader and host Dennis. If you don’t know what a stroopwaffel is, I will not bother explaining it, because I feel if I do, I will not do it justice and undersell it, even though it will sound as if I was 14 year old prepubescent girl talking about Justin Bieber. Just look it up. We also had a chance to look at a few museums, including Anne Frank’s house, the Rijks Museum and the Church in the Attic and the wonderful Rembrant’s House. We also saw the dark tryptic work of Frances Bacon, which was on display at the New Church and had a good chuckle at the Sex Museum. After all said and done, it was nice to see Amsterdam again and knew that we would be back at the end of our trip to see a bit more before heading home (so many museums!!).
The journey started out in a tangle of bungie cord and confusion. Putting on the panniers and gear for the first time made me come to the realization, when under the gun, it really looks better if during the actual event you had the entire procedure written into memory, rather than ad-libbing as you go. Many questions arose that morning:
What are all these straps for?
What snaps to what?
Where is this going to fit?
How does this even go on?
Lucky our couch surfer Dennis came to the rescue and explained everything in laymen’s terms, which is a nice way of saying, he had no other choice but to talk down to us. So after some trial and error we were off. Or were we?
Now, Rachel is amazing at many things. The one responsibility I have is to route plan. Now, when you route plan you have to take into account various factors, such as weather, terrain, wind etc. I did most of that, except for one essential piece of the puzzle, that without this one piece, the entire picture reads as unartistic nonsense, derelict of any rhyme or reason for it’s creation. When route planning you have to take into account as to who is cycling. Now, I thought, well 60 KM, no problem. Rachel, on the other hand, has never cycled a distance longer than 25 to 30 KM, so double that length, is quite a big deal. Needless to say, my acute blunderbuss led to many yelling fits at the elements, at the hills, at a innocent tree, whoever or whatever was around to receive a verbal lashing got it. But I shall cut out such details from our trip, because the first week’s scenery and adventure much overshadow such inane parts.
The bike paths in the Netherlands are wonderful and we easily exited Amsterdam without much issue. Along the river, we say a regatta race taking place, sponsored by the drink of champions and people who piss in public areas with no shame, Henieken. Over several lovely bridges, passed the Hermitage Museum, the Dutch extension of the Russian Hermitage in St. Petersburg. Then south, along another river, passed section off plots of land by green painted chain fences, where small gardens were just starting to show their bulbs and stalks through the wet earth. The weather was cloudy and it looked always on the cusp of raining, but thankfully, day one, we didn’t see a drop of precipitation.
And then we were lost. The scent of the trail had gone missing and we are in a random residential area in Amsterdam Zuid. Asking around, after several wrong turns, through a university campus, dead end, turn around, we were off to Utrecht. Everything was on our side, the weather and the wind. Through some city and then WOOMP, into the countryside, with windmills and cows on all sides. Picturesque scenery overload. Small towns with people going about the daily routines gave life to the colourful backdrop, ancient structures with beings sitting inside of them reading books at a kitchen table, playing with their children or sitting outside at tables drinking cold beer and laughing, either at stories told or at the two strange figures, one with some sort of attena coming out of his head, pacing swiftly by on four wheels (two bikes, four wheels, yay math). The antenna, being the go pro camera, that while it looks a bit silly, is way better than the filming system I had on my last cycling trip in 2010, which involved me holding a handy cam in one hand and steering the bicycle with the other. The danger factor isn’t the concern, but the effort to do both things at once, film and steer and the shaky result, was like forcing people to watch one of those terribly amateur bootlegs of Lord of the Rings, lot’s of action is going on on the screen and you as the audience really want to enjoy it, but you are not sure what exactly is happening and the cameraman seems to have been sitting on a mechanical bull while filming it.
Around 3pm, we stopped at a lone restaurant in the middle of small town. I had a club sandwich and Rachel had an egg salad sandwich. Both hit the spot, giving us that burst of energy we needed to make it to our final destination for the day. Passing some house boats where people were out on their deck drinking red whine and people watching, we turned right into the city. Utrecht at around 6pm is full of students, biking in all directions, home or to the library or to an eatery, actually these are simply assumptions, who knows, they could be off to a cuddle party, I can’t be the judge.
We pushed on through the hordes, along the river, through the old buildings of red brick, that looked as if they we covered in flowing blood that was darkening in hue, as the sun dipped farther down behind them. A right turn and we were at Louis’s house. He was our host for the evening, a wonderfully jovial man, with a silent laugh and amazing electric viola skills. He greeted us with a banana, which seems perverse, but he actually presented us with the fruit, a very edible and peel-a-ble banana, intuitively knowing that the first day of cycling is hard. After locking up our bikes, we dragged our blue Ortlieb panniers up 3 flights of stairs, that I would consider to be more ladders than stairs, as you are forced, due to their verticality, to climb up them on all fours. I could imagine a night of drinking and being faced with this challenge. I can imagine a five minute climb, turning into an Everest ordeal, involving a lot of awkward body positions and several steps backwards and by steps I mean brutal falls.
That night, Rachel made a wonderful pasta and we drank wonderful local microbrewed beer and watched video of Louis at last year’s pride parade in Amsterdam, which involves 80 floats going down one of the larger canals. Louis’s float, which I don’t remember exactly who it was sponsored by, had a large Teddy Bear on it and a bar. Before reaching a bridge that stretched across the canal, the large inflated bear had to be deflated at a rapid pace and then inflated again once the bridge was cleared. Quite a process that involved some training prior to the actual parade day. It reminded of a Buster Keaton film called The Boat, which involved a similar gimmick. Behind their float, was a small boat, where a two woman, both in wedding dresses, celebrated their 16 years of marriage together. The magnitude of this event was impressive and the 700,000 people that attended just added to the epic proportions of it.
It was a wonderful evening, which again reminded me why I love couch surfing over hosteling. You can visit the museums, you can eat the food, you can even share some words with some locals, but actually being in a local’s house, eating with them, conversing with them, that’s where cultural exchange actually occurs, where you are no longer seeing a country as a tourist attraction, but as a visceral experience, with a unique soul and stories to be told in singular identifiable voices of people you have had the pleasure to be in the company of.
We awoke to a cat in our face. Chip, 16 years of age and grumpy looking, sits on my chest, starring at me expectantly. Louis has gone off to work, trusting us to lock up and be on our way. And we were, quite rapidly, out the door, down the three flights of ladders, out the door, bags on the bikes, sun peaking behind clouds, a slight ting of rain in the air and off we go, over bridges and cobbles and bike paths of painted red.