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Biking the Countryside

By Steven Gluck

Thanks to an airline mix-up, my father and I were stuck in Amsterdam for a couple of days while awaiting an onward flight to Munich for Octoberfest. What to do?

First there was the sightseeing, then there was the obligatory canal cruise and finally came the window gawking in the red light district. The coffee shop might have been next, but at 80, my father thought it was a bit late in life to ruin a perfect drug test record. So we were now looking for a mini-adventure. We were looking for an eazzzy adventure, yet one that we could never the less brag about when we got back home. We wanted to save our strength for the massive onslaught of alcohol coming our way in Bavaria. 

They told me that biking in the Netherlands was like a ‘walk-in-the-park’. It’s flat. It’s unencumbered. Besides anyone who’s anybody whose everybody rides a bike. Two tours were offered, city and country. I thought about the city tour, but the shear quantity of bikes, cars and trams all sharing the same piece of concrete at damn near the same time intimidated me. I hadn’t been on two wheels for a while. I could just see myself in a Dutch emergency room as they extracted bicycle spokes, tram parts, and glass shards from my back end. 

So, we signed up for an all day bike ride in the countryside around Amsterdam. I liked the word ‘country’. It sounded safe, slow and easy. Besides, it was cheap. Where else can you kill a whole day, including bike, guide and elaborate commentary for 22 Euro? It was a steal.

Our English tour group turned out to be fun and interesting too. On any given day, you’ll find quite a collage of people in Amsterdam. You never know who you might bump into. There were three guys and three girls. There was our guide, my spry Dad and myself from Texas, and three young girls. Amazingly, the three girls were each independently touring Europe. One of the girls was a computer specialist from Tokyo who spoke limited English. Another girl was a sweet overly conscientious neuroscience graduate from California who worried about everything, especially the absence of bicycle helmets in Amsterdam. I suspect she deserved a two-month Euro-trip after four years of n-e-u-r-o-science. Just saying the word scared me. The other girl was a vegetarian internal auditor, from India, living in Washington, D.C., but temporarily stationed in London. She always had a smile on her face and was quick to laugh.

Our guide’s ancestors were from Singapore, yet he was born in the Netherlands. He was a likeable guy who had been instilled with the British values of impeccable English and strict adherence to a schedule. We teased him relentlessly. It started with his insistence on ‘sheduuuling’ our time and then moved onto his name, ‘Chet’. I think it started when the girl from Tokyo very politely repeated his name as he introduced himself, as is their custom. The only problem was, with her accent, it came out more like ‘Sh-t’. I suggested to Chet that he not take notice when we Americans expressed frustration during the course of the ride by exclaiming;” Oh sh-t!” He agreed and we did. Poor Chet good-naturedly took all the Ch-t we heaped on him.

Next, we were assigned our bicycles, if you want to call them that. They were black WWII looking battle cruisers that could surely leap over canals. Functional they were, pretty they weren’t. One speed……….slow. The brakes required you to back peddle. Hand brakes were not an option.

I asked our fearless leader Chet why the bicycle capital of the world drove such antiquated contraptions. He insisted their awkward appearance served a very worthwhile purpose. Firstly, they were durable. It would take a Sherman tank to stop them. Next, and more importantly, they would be less likely to be stolen by Amsterdam’s numerous ‘junkies’. More sophisticated bicycles apparently were converted to drugs faster than you could say ‘Mary Jane’.

Starting off on our great adventure we unfortunately had to take a bit of a city tour to get to the country tour. We had to leap frog from the rental shop to the main train station, maneuvering through buses, trams, cars and people that could actually ride those battle cruisers skillfully. We wobbled and weaved, taking liberties with poor Chet’s name until we somehow managed to make it to the fairy landing behind the central rail station. 

We boarded the boat and took a short ride across a small body of water. The ferry itself was an interesting combination of people, bikes, motorbikes, a golf cart sized car, and a pushcart with naked mannequins dangling helplessly in all directions. As we crossed the tiny bay, I encouraged the innocent young girls to take note of the ‘Dutch Mountains’, an optical illusion created by the light and cloud formations on the horizon. I actually had them believing it for a moment until I broke out laughing and their commonsense rejoined them.

Then, in a just a few moments, the ferry arrived and we were in a completely different world. Big city chaos quickly gave way to small town Holland. Little village homes, canal houses, waterways, and flower boxes lined every street. Traffic crawled to a standstill and neat roads and bicycle paths led us anywhere we wanted to go. I thought, “Wow, how could I have missed this, right here in Amsterdam’s backyard, behind the main train station I had been to so many times?” It was clean. It was neat. It was pretty. It was a lot of what Amsterdam isn’t. 

Bicycle paths border waterways everywhere. You cannot escape the water. It envelops you. If you’re not on a canal, you’re on a lake or the ocean. I guess when you steal half your land from the sea; you’ve got to put some of that water back. If I lived in the Netherlands, I think I would take a desert holiday just to get my land legs back. I felt like I was in the movie ‘Waterworld’.

First we stopped at an elaborate old windmill, contrasted shortly thereafter by a modern day windmill generating electricity. It looks great and serves a worthwhile purpose. Now, why can’t we do that back in the states? Clean, renewable, cheap energy you don’t have to fight any wars to preserve.

Then we meandered through small villages until we came to a ferry crossing at a canal. You just show up on one side, give the government worker napping on the other side a wake up call, and a ferry is dispatched by cable. You board the miniature barge and the cable pulls you across. Then you’re off snuggling your bike up to a new set of canals.

Of course, as you’re pumping your legs along the bicycle paths and roads you have to stay alert for the occasional car, motorbike or tractor. These roads and pathways serve every kind of purpose. It’s a small country and the Dutch are used to getting real cozy with all sorts of people, machinery and animals. They’ve seen it all. Tolerance is their middle name. I think you could ride buck-naked across Holland and no one would bat an eye. 

Everywhere you go you can’t help but blurt out the words ‘cute’ and ‘quaint’. If you’re a little shallow like me you just shorten it to ‘cute stuff’. Then you announce to the lead rider that he or she is responsible for making an announcement to the other camera happy riders when ‘cute stuff’ is impending. This lets everyone else know that you’re a no- nonsense, go for the gusto kinda guy, a real deep thinker and a truly cultured individual. You know, the kind that seeks out sensationalism instead of museums. Or the kind that keeps Jerry Springer and Ricky Lake in business, and sends scholars like Phil Donahue packing.

Once you’ve got your fill of ‘cute stuff’, then its time to indulge in the gastronomical delights of Holland. Along the pathway we found baskets of apples generously left out by a farmer for the travelers consumption. It seemed like a nice touch. Then we stopped for lunch in a historically rich village on a lake. 

The menu consisted of pancakes, pancakes and more pancakes. This place put IHOP to shame. They did things with pancakes you couldn’t imagine, some you wouldn’t want to. They made them into pizzas, cookies and desserts. I had the nut and herb/fruit paste pancake drizzled with something sweet. It was kinda yucky and expensive too. Naturally it came out on a plate that could have fed Shaquille O’Neil. To save face I smiled and ate every bite of that wretched thing. What was I thinking? I guess I was feeling kind of guilty when the vegetarian girl from India reawakened my own meatless bias. But even she was smart enough to put cheese on hers. Well, at least I had a large beer to drown that disgusting mess down with.

Of course after a belly buster like that the rest of the trip was allllll up hill without hills. 

Pancakes, especially in mass, drop straight down to your belly and then to your legs until you feel like you’re wearing a lead suit. 

Then as the four of us were trudging along someone noticed that along with our energy we had lost our guide. That was not cool. We all had been blindly following our leader and each street and canal looked like the rest. 

After a while, we reasoned that the company would probably frown on losing over half the group. Our guide would have quite an incentive to find us. So we stopped and waited. We were right. He did eventually find us.

However, much to our guide’s detriment, we had had too much time on our hands and came up with all sorts of devious solutions to our plight. We were going to phone the main office and tell them that we found it necessary to sell our bikes to fund a taxi ride home. We would explain that we were lost and that our fearless leader had either gotten face down drunk during lunch or run off with a woman of questionable character. We couldn’t decide. Our very proper guide, Chet, didn’t seem to like any of the potential solutions. He never lost us again.

Next it was off down a real country road. Just when I thought we might abandon the water for a while, our guide sent us walking our bikes over an open farm field where we crossed a series of special bridges. They were tiny narrow bridges with a small wooden board on one side to walk and a narrow rail on the other to walk your bike through on. It was pretty neat, but one wrong move and you or your bike would be swimming with the fishes.

After all those dicey tiny bridges we came to a pulley type bridge where we had to manually lower a gang plank across another small canal to reach the other side. Our guide asked for a volunteer to hoist the bridge up and down. No one spoke up, so I told the Japanese girl that it was ‘an honor’ to be the chosen one. She perked up upon hearing the word ‘honor’, but unfortunately the California girl stole her ‘honor’ before she could step up to the pulley.

Then our guide asked us all to assemble in a circle in an open field nearby. The group on one side jumped up and down and then the other side did the same, enabling each of us to feel the peat bog like field move up and down. It was real odd. It further drove home the notion that water and land are inseparable in the Netherlands.

Next, once again our leader teased us with a little dry land before we came across a lake and a hanging bell. You ring the bell, a guy who lives in a house with a picture window facing that direction on the small lake’s other side comes a motoring in his pontoon boat. You load up your bikes, kick back and in a couple minutes you’re on the other side in another little village. The cost; half a Euro. A bargain, but it doesn’t seem like much of an incentive for that guy to get off the couch, give up Oprah, and boogey on over to the other side of the pond, boogey back and then ask his wife what he missed while he was away.

It had been fun, but now it was starting to rain just a little. I asked some Dutch hikers in passing if they thought it was going to rain. They said, “yes”, chuckled and kept on walking. This made me nervous. The Dutch have this weird sense of humor. They wouldn’t lie, but they might keep me guessing by implying that it will rain eventually, someday. They left me in limbo. Now, I’m envisioning arriving back in Amsterdam soaked down to my short shorts and taking my old daddy to the hospital for pneumonia.

The mist continued to taunt us. I asked Chet if he thought it would rain. He asked me why I was afraid of a little water. He said ; “it isn’t the rain that bothers me, it’s the wind”. That was comforting. Of course, by now he had his fill of us smart aleck Americans teasing the Ch-t out of him and he was ready to initiate a little pay back.

He was right though, the rain never got beyond a mist. He was also right about the wind. It picked up a lot especially as we rounded the bend and headed for the dikes and the final thrust back to Amsterdam. Riding on top of a dike sounded pretty cool initially, but when you add gale force winds to the experience it changes completely. This was the only grueling part of the trip. The group slowly separated as the strong winds pushed the weaker riders further and further to the rear. 

Fortunately, we arrived at our final stop before Amsterdam, an old historic bar on the waterfront. The girls collapsed and I got a well-deserved mug of beer. After the rest and the beer I was oblivious to the wind. The bike practically drove itself back to the ferry and then to the bike shop. 

Reluctantly, I parted with my battle cruiser and became a pedestrian again, saying good-bye to new friends and taking away a whole new appreciation for Amsterdam and its environs.

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