Brussels to Rotterdam; A dinner party in Maassluis; Robbert and Belinda; Delft; In student residence again; Canals and leaning churches and a cool library; The Hague; A passport scare and a wake-up call; Amsterdam in the rain

We arrived in Rotterdam to find Robbert waiting for us on the train platform. We’d met him and his girlfriend Belinda while we were camping in Portugal (see the dispatch from Covilha on July 14th for details). It was good to see him again. I hadn’t realized but he and Belinda had planned a whole dinner for us at his parents’ house! If I’d known I’d have made sure we left Brussels earlier.

Belinda was waiting at the house in Maassluis, a small, quiet town about 35 minutes by train from Rotterdam. Robbert’s parents were wonderful people - welcoming and genial despite having had a terrible week. The food was great - fresh vegetables and barbecued chicken and sausages - and wonder of wonders, peanut sauce. We’ve been craving peanut butter for ages, and peanut sauce is just as good. They were hesitant about introducing us to it, calling it a weird Dutch food that foreigners might not like - I think they were surprised when we snatched it from them like starving wolves (albeit polite ones, I hope). Dutch food is, traditionally, very bland and boring - meat and potatoes, Robbert tells me. He’s very happy about the colonialist history of the Netherlands, saying it was the only reason that there’s anything decent to eat in the country. The peanut sauce comes from Indonesia, naturally, which I hadn’t realized was a Dutch possession at one point. In any case, it was an excellent dinner and I’m very grateful to them both thinking of it and for preparing it, and I hope Robbert will pass on my regards to his parents. After dinner we left for Delft where Belinda is living in a student residence and had saved us a space on her floor.

In the morning we had a bit of an unexpected scare. The tour company we’re using for our African overland segment had sent us an updated itinerary and notes, and one of the changes was in the visa and entry requirements section - it said that South Africa now requires six blank pages in your passport or you’ll be turned away at thge border! Six blank pages! That’s completely insane - I can’t imagine what a single country would do with six pages. It wasn’t an annoyance though - it was a real problem. I only have nine blank pages in my passport right now, and there’s an exit stamp from the EU, entry and exit in Qatar, and five African countries before we even get to South Africa. We all spent an hour brainstorming the problem before coming to the conclusion that it was Sunday, the embassies were all closed, and there was nothing we could do about it until Monday so we might as well relax and enjoy the day.

It was nice to have someone to spend a Sunday with, and something to do besides our usual Sunday routine in a new place, which is to search irritably for an open supermaket. Robbert and Belinda took us around Delft and showed us the sights. I was enchanted by all the little canals and boats and the crooked little houses. There’s one church whose steeple leans at a very noticeable angle, and another with a steeple that has three layers, each in a different colour of brick - brown, grey and pink as you go up from the ground. Robbert says it wasn’t planned that way, they just ran out of bricks twice. He’s a history major, and has a memory which is almost spooky in its breadth and capacity for detail. Walking through the town with hime was like a thousand little history lessons. He had some story about nearly everything we saw, but his enthusiasm for his subject kept it from ever being boring. He’ll make a fine professor someday. Belinda too has a love for her subject that’s impossible to miss. She’s studying industrial design, and it’s been a long time since I’ve seen anyone as happy and excited about their studies - it was wonderful to see. She took us to her university and showed us the outside of her faculty’s building (it was Sunday so we didn’t get to go in) and the library building. The library is amazing - it’s built into an artificial green hill that must surely be the highest point in all of flat Delft, and has a central light well that from the outside is a giant silver cone - it looks as if a gleaming 1950s rocketship is buried in the hill, waiting to be launched.

Lunch was another Dutch specialty - tiny pancakes with various toppings, mostly sugary. I’m always up for candy as a meal, and I wasn’t disappointed, it was really good. Sheryl was vibrating for hours from all the sugar. Afterward Robbert took us to see Delft’s last remaining windmill. I’d always assumed the windmills in Holland were used for the same purpose as windmills everywhere - grinding grain and the like. They were, but not until much later. Robbert told me that their original purpose was to pump water from the waterlogged ground to stop the country from flooding. Obvious in retrospect.

Afterwards they took us to see the Hague, the seat of government of the Netherlands. The Hague was chosen as a compromise candidate - it was a weak city-state, and naming it avoided strengthening any of the strong cities. It was nice, though bland and lacking in character - I preferred Delft’s canals to the Hague’s architecture.

Oour second day in the Netherlands was a Monday, and both Robbert and Belinda had school and work, so they were off early and left us to our own devices. We took the opportunity to research the passport problem. It’s no longer possible to insert blank pages into a passport at an embassy abroad, you have to get a new passport (blatant cash-grab, says I). Getting a new passport takes a minimum of 15 working days, which we don’t have. Flying home for rush passport service takes $800 which we certainly don’t have. So we were stuck without any options, and had just decided to try and fake it by asking border guards to use pages with stamps on them already, to save the blank pages for South Africa. Just on a hunch, though, I called the South African embassy for confirmation. We were very relieved to be told that the six-page reqruiement is not true, but only a rumour or misinformation that Dragoman is repeating. Very relieved is an understatement - we were reprieved from having three months of travel plans and our entire African segment collapse in confusion. Still, though, it was a wake-up call. Six pages or not, South Africa or not, we’re going to run out of space sooner or later. We’ve now decided to stay in South Africa long enough to get new passports and then get our Indian visas. It’s looking like it might be as long as six weeks now. I hope we like the place!

That question resolved, we set off for Amsterdam as per the original plan, only a couple of hours later. It was a miserably chilly and wet day, and when we reached the city the first thing we did was find a tea-shop and warm up a bit, glaring out the window at the rain. I’ve heard so much about Amsterdam - it has a legendary position in the mythology of perverts and stoners, and I’ve known too many of both. I’d somehow formed a mental image of an entire city full of prostitues and sex clubs, all overlaid with a thick cloud of pot smoke. The reality is far from that - it’s a cute place laid out in concentric canals lined with houseboats and builidings so crooked you’re nervous walking in front of them. There are lots of fun little shops and a flower market all along one of the canals. I saw some varieties of orchids there that were amazing - I wanted to have them all shipped home to my grandmother. And did you know there are black tulips? I didn’t.

We met Robbert and Belinda for dinner at a nice pizza place, and then Robbert took us on a tour of some of the old buildings, canals, and his university. It’s a sprawling heterogeneous collection of buildings with a couple of architectural gems - particularly the preserved front arcade of an old hospital, now used as a second-hand book market. I loved the thought of going down between classes and browsing through all the old books - academia at it’s best. Speaking of that - I tried to make Robbert promise that he wouldn’t be one of those academics, and do all his degrees and then teach all at the same university. He wouldn’t promise, on the grounds that there aren’t so many jobs out there for history professors, and if they made an offer, he’d take it - which is fair enough, I suppose.

After the university he took us on a brief tour of the infamous red-light district. It was a bit odd, to be honest. There’s not a lot that shocks me anymore, but I was somehow expecting to be shocked - it was Amsterdam, after all. But really, there was nothing there that I haven’t seen back home - at least, outside the builidngs there wasn’t, anyway. I’m sure lots goes on inside. The only thing I saw that surprised me were the… cubicles, I suppose I’d call them. Little glass-fronted booths with a bed and a curtain and a girl in each of them, all facing right out onto an alley or a street. That, I have to admit, bothered me a bit because it all seemed so utilitarian - like a sexual assembly line. Booth upon booth of plastic girls with basketball breasts, bad lingerie and the most unbelievably bored expressions on their mask-faces. They couldn’t even be bothered to jiggle their surgically-assisted assets. And why should they? Either a guy will choose one anonymous little glass booth, or he’ll choose the one beside it. Very strange for me, used to seeing the street girls work it.

By this time it was starting to rain hard. Robbert was staying in Amsterdam, so we said goodbye (sorry about the hug, mate - I tried to warn you earlier to expect it) and headed to Delft with Belinda. I’m really glad we got to see them again. They’re fantastic people and we’re lucky to know them. Thanks for the hospitality, guys - you’re the best.


One Comment on this Dispatch:

October 10th, 2008

I saw the photo of The Restaurant called Ghanghi, was it near the diamond merchant district ?
I so , I had lunch there 22 yrs ago … Wow you brought back a flood of memories

¬ Rupinder
October 12th, 2008

It was, actually. Struck me as remarkably bad taste to name a restaurant after a man known for his hunger strikes!

¬ Chris
Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
This travelogue comprises 16,426 photographs and 402,515 words in 307 dispatches written from 335 places in 52 countries on 6 continents around the world.
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