Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Amsterdam: City of Adventure and Tolerance


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The city of ironies:   culture, dams, and soft drugs! 

Amsterdam, is a melting pot of diverse cultures. A "small" city but with "huge" capacities with lots  world-renowned art museums. Filled with too many tourists everyday, you can still enjoy exploring the city's small alleys and lovely canals, and being lost in the process. There is always something for everyone. Just take your pick; quiet strolls, bike (or motorbike) rides, fine art, smoking weeds, a little romance, Amsterdam has it all covered, all for you. :)

 So what should you do when you're there? What are the best lessons I learned in exploring this city? Things to do and lessons are in random order. :)

1. Just follow the throng of men and it will lead you to Red Light District! 

 
Amsterdam, a city built of dam around Amstel River has a long tradition of strong presence of prostitution. A harbor city, French-Belgium Jacques Brel in his classic song “Amsterdam”, describes the night in the city with women and alcohol, where sailors are the main clients. Despite moving the industrial area and shipyards in Rotterdam, the Red Light District has become a tourist atraction that every evening, tourists flock there.

But I learned something new. It’s not just red light but also blue light. Wanna know the difference? Red are for girls, while blue is for transgenders. This information was relayed to a Univeristy of Amsterdam professor  (who’s brother has a furniture shop around the area). It’s easy to know where the red lights are: just follow the throng of men. A small alley of exhibition: sex and ‘soft’ drugs especially marijuana abound. It’s okay to stare but never ever take photographs or laugh at them. Stay at the window if you’re interested with him/her. 50 euros for 15 minutes. Negotiate if you can but never make ‘tawad’/ bargain. My last night there, I was with Eder, a CouchSurfer friend and we even saw a fifty-somehting couple negotiating on the window. Just like any other business transaction. We wondered how much they'd pay.

This is the oldest profession legalized in the city. Prostitution is legal since 1830. The new law introduced in October 2000 clearly makes prostitution legal, subjecting it to the municipal regulations about the location, organization and the practice of business. The authorities try to regulate prostitution, aiming at protecting minors, eliminating forced prostitution and combating human trafficking. Any sex business must obtain from a municipality a license, certifying that it has fulfilled the legal requirements to operate.  This is to be able to register them and get social services from the city. However, it seems there's a huge 'turn-over' of the workers here. For every 1 legal worker, there are probably 9 illegal and trafficked women workers! :( The rent for the shop is also quite expensive. The rent is 300 euros every week. So what they do, two sex workers divide the rent.

As the ad says, Sex sells. And you can see it in your face here. Want to see live action? Condoms and anything about S-E-X?  It's all here!If you're with young children, better take a different route or probably, it would be a venue for sexuality education too. Your choice.

2. Know the difference between cafe and coffeshops! 
(Coffeshop photo from Cannabis-pictures.org. Picture taken was in my travel buddy's cam. )

If you want just coffee and you don't know where,  ask for café. If you want to try and be on high with the weeds (marijuana), then ask for coffeshops. Or you can just enter. And it' s everywhere. They might ask for an ID so be prepare. You must be 18 year old. The funny thing is, smoking cigarette is not allowed in coffesshops, but weed smoking isn’t. Funny people. And if you don’t smoke weeds,  you’ll still get high by just passing or walking these lanes. If it's your first try, never be shy. Ask the waiters what you want and they'll be too happy to tell you what's the differences on their menu.

To complete the experience, visit also the Hash Marijuana and Hemp Museum! Have fun taking your photos on their booth, it's for free! :) Sadly, the photo template for the woman has too small face, and my chubby cheeks would not fit! ugh!





3. People here generally, are very silent. Even their dogs! And even the kids! 

I mean, owners can bring their dogs and kids on the train. Everywhere. Dogs doesn’t bark and the kid’s playground, I seemed not to hear cries. They are not so stressed so they do not express their feelings? Has the pets been so integrated with the people that they no longer know how bark? haha!

4. When strolling, watch out for bikes and dog poops

5. Bikes are the main transportation.

I find it also cute when children are in front of the bikes. We have our ‘bote bakal’ bicycle, here it’s the daily transportation for the family especially for little children. 

6.  Try the B. van der Linde Ice Cream. 
 One of the best, creamiest ice cream. Despite the cold weather, it never stopped me to lick a whole cone. Not recommended for people on diet and thinking of slim waists! 

7.  If you want to see more and save up, you can opt to buy the I AMsterdam City card.

The cost depends on how many hours you plan to explore the city.
8. Never forget the Canal Cruise! 
Holland International Cruise with multilingual audio tour- Dutch, English, Spanish, and Japanes.

Starting point of the tour just across the Centraal Station.
dams, old building, dams and old buildings. :)

The Eye. A film institute that will open on April 2012!

Science Center Nemo shaped like a ship. One of the best museums for kids and kids at heart! :)

Looking at Seven dikes :)
All buildings have hoist. During 1950s this is used for pullling mechandise up to the top floor. Due to space saving, Stairs are every narrow and it's difficult to move big furniture or bulks of merchandise. The solution? Bring it through the window through a hoist! :)


You can either take the morning or evening tour. Or even a dinner cruise with your lover. Through the canal cruise, you get to see many of the best sites in Amsterdam while relaxing on a great boat ride. The canals are more than 100 km long and are bridged by at least 1500 bridges. They were dug in concentric circles around the historic center of Amsterdam in the 17th century and are lined with historic well-preserved buildings that are famous for their gabled roofs. The tour takes around 1 hour. 

9. Sit for a while and enjoy the revelry at the Dam Square!


The Royal Palace

Remember, remember, the fifth of November!    
                                                                                                 The Niewe Kerk (New Church)


Dam Square is the  main square in Amsterdam and the frequent scene of many city-wide events and festivities. The Royal Palace served as the city hall from 1655 until it was converted to the royal residence in 1808. To the right of the Royal Palace is the Niewe Kerk (New Church) built in the 15th century. The Gothic style church is used for the royal coronations.

The square is a great place to do some people (especially boy) watching. haha! If you don't like crowds, this is not the place for you. But it's truly  the heart of the city and is worth a visit. 

I even witnessed a rally against budget cut on public education fund. Sadly, the tourists on group tours are even more than the protesters. :P

10. Listen and Look into Van Gogh's life story to the place dedicated for him! :)






Van Gogh Museum houses the  largest collection of Van Gogh paintings and drawings in the world. It's just across Rijksmuseum. The collections of Vincent Van Gogh's contemporaries and artists inspired by his works are also displayed. Highlights include his Bedroom in Arles and one of  his Sunflower paintings with a yellow background. Sadly, one of his famous painting, "Starry Night" was not on exhibit.

Listen and read on the exhibit's his brother Theo's love for the arts (his an art dealer) and belief on Vincent. Their  brotherhood is really inspiring. Brotherly love that surpassed all trials. :)  I wonder, what would Van Gogh think with the success of his works? (Indie) Artists' dilemma: to be known but not too known. 
 
And just outside the museum is a large park where you'll find vendors selling sunflower cookies, other replica of the paintings, souvenir items and hot drinks to warm yourself.

11.  Be inspired and reminisce Anne Frank's life in hiding during the Nazi occupation. 
“The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quite alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature. As longs as this exists, and it certainly always will, I know that then there will always be comfort for every sorrow, whatever the circumstances may be. And I firmly believe that nature brings solace in all troubles.”  ~ Anneliese Marie Frank, aka. Anne Frank
Anne Frank monument at the church near their hiding place
Anne Frank monument in Utrecht


The author of a diary who wished to be a well-known writer. She got her wish, albeit posthumously. She is the face of the millions of victims during the Nazi occupation. 263 Prinsengracht was the hiding place of ,Anne, her family, and four others. A small 500 square foot rear room of this canal-side home which was hidden behind a bookcase. They hid and lived in the  small room for just over two years at which point ( A telephone call to the Nazi army) they were found and taken to concentration camps. All of the people in hiding died, expect Otto Frank, Anne's father. Otto got her daugter's diaries and talked to various publishers to share his daughter's thoughts at staying in the 'Secret Annexe'.  However, due to the delicate material of the original works, only facsimile displayed in the museum. 


Note: The line for the Anne Frank House never stops so try to try to visit early in the morning or late in the afternoon/early evening. Visit the official website for opening hours and visiting regulations.







12. Climate Change and house boats! 

Climate change and increasing water level- these are two important matter to this huge delta and to archipelagos. Mitigation and adaptation mechanisms are needed. We might need new houses, not really 'new' but we need a house that will float in the future Waterworld! To get a glimpse of living in houseboats, go to Houseboat Museum. It's  located just across Anne Frank's house and see how the people in hosueboats lived. Unlike some misconception, houseboat living is not primitive, yaknow! And you'll be amazed, that up to 4 families can actually live in houseboats before! So Dutch people are not yet that tall before. :) 

To know more about the house boat, you can visit its official website.  



Kid's corner at the boat! :)
scale model of the boat museum


13. For a happy feeling. visit the Tulip Museum. If it's spring or Summer, visit the Flower fields! :)





The museum is also across Anne Frank's house. :) To maximize my city card, I took all the museums  first before lining up to Anne Frank's house.

14. Never leave the country without trying the bike! :)


 Netherlands has one of  the best cycle lanes in the world, so explore the city's nook and cranny with a bike.  I never biked in the city (it's quite expensive! hehe) but I tried it in Wageningen. :) And the country's quite flat so you'll have no hard time finding your balance. The narrow streets, canal layout and expensive parking fees make it a home to average of 350,00 bikes used daily (2011 statistics, Amsterdam museum).  

There are lots of bike rental shops so pick up one or better yet, met a local and borrow his/her spare bike (For Asians, borrow from an Asian too! You don't want to have a hard time reaching the pedals, right?) :D 

15. Drink Up! 

Try the pubs that brew their own beers. There are around 1,200 in the city so you have more than your fill. Take a look at their wide array of beer choices and taste everything! 

You can also take a tour at Heineken brewery (Stadshouderkade 78) to see how the famous beer is produced. If you just like small alcohol content, you can try Ciney and  Bellevue Beer  for a sweet after taste.
16. Engage your taste buds!
What is traveling without trying the food of the locality? :)  Here try their various specialties. 
Photos from VisitHolland.com 
Croquette
Poffertjes small "pancakes" with confectioners' sugar
Cheese. and lots of cheese! Try especially Chili Cheese!
Choco-vanilla Vla
 17. Have a good comfy shoes/boots for walking. You'll have lots of walking to do! :)
 18.  Take the public transportation. 
Take the tram, the train, bus and metro. Take note of the time of arrival and departure. You can always check online. Or better yet, just take any tram and be prepared to be lost! It's more fun that way! :) Oh, better get the Anonymous OV-Chipkaart or local transpo card at GVB (one of the biggest public transpo company). You need to 'swipe' it when boarding and taking off from the transpo. 
  19. Smile and document your travel. Use your charm.
It's always better to have a good photographer company. But if you're forced or would want to take a solo trip, you can always use your  charm. Smile sweetly and ask a fellow tourist or some random people to take your picture. A handy digicam is still the best way for this. 
  20. Befriend a local. Or anyone. Listen to their stories! :)
Your travel will be more enriching.. In this world full of people, making friends along the road will make your travel more memorable. Chance encounters. New friendships. You have nothing to lose, except saliva.
 
There still so many things you'll see.. and lessons you'll learn depending on how you will live up to the experience. 
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover. ~ Mark Twain



Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Couchsurfing (CS): A Vibrant Community

I first learned about couchsurfing.org, an online community from my sorority sister, Tiara Mejos. A fellow traveler (and she knows how restless my feet gets), she shared that there is an online community herein you can stay with someone’s couch at a certain area where you want to visit. You can message them for a meet-up and they can possibly give you a tour on their own place. It is not solely about getting a ‘free accommodation’ but it is also about sharing stories and meeting new people. It is a community ‘based on trust’. I was sort of doubtful as it is not easy to trust. Online scams and human trafficking are my major concern.

Then I went to Wageningen University for a two-week short course and Nur Hassanah, my classmate and a travelbug too shared about CS. A CSurfer picked her up from the airport and showed her around. So I got very interested. Sis Tiara was able to host 2 CSurfers already. And I heard positive feedback from Nur too. So it's my 2nd day at Wageningen, I signed up in CS and started the search for possible people to meet over a cup of coffee and just have someone to talk to. Close friends know how I love words and stories (in short 'talkative' haha!)and visiting a place is more memorable if you know someone. And my current work entails a lot of networking and meeting of new people.

We had a free day on Sunday and I decided to go to cities of Utrecht and Den Haag (The Hague) for a short visit. I went alone while my classmates went to Amsterdam. Since I’ll be staying for another week in Amsterdam after the short course, I did not join my classmates. So I searched couches in Utrecht and viewed profiles of people. I sent couch requests and message 2-3 people only within Utrecht. Just for a start. Then they started replying. I got excited!

In Utrecht, I got to met Kevin Basari and Freek van Den Steen.


 Kevin and Freek, The two travelbug gentlemen of Utrecht! :)

Kevin said, he can only join me on the morning as he’ll be helping a friend to move out in the afternoon. He invited me over if I wanted to help and also meet his friends. Then Freek also replied to my message. He’s okay for meeting up but he’s not a morning person. So I decided to meet Kevin first and then Freek after. I arranged for a meeting at 9AM on a Sunday! That was stupid of me since it’s very early but Kevin was so gracious to accept. He met me at the train station.

 
Kevin had visited Palawan already. :)
A man with Indonesian descent but he doesn’t know any Bahasa Indonesia and a communication specialist. He wanted to know what I wanted to see. The thing is, I never have anything in mind really. I just want to walk around and explore the city. So we just walk around and talk about trivial things. We walk on deserted stores and streets as the people are still sleeping at home, with a Saturday party hang-over probably. Then we had a coffee and life conversation at a quaint shop near the museum area. He even volunteered to pay for my Museum tour which I think is very sweet. But I declined. Not so much time for that. I am after the architecture. I learned from him the ongoing struggle of welfare states cutting more on support especially for education. He works with an advisory body for union on the public education system (as what I understood it. Hehe). One thing that drew me with his profile is, his background on communication. He’s a communication specialist. He shared the video he made with his friends as a birthday/congratulations gift for a friend who got a PhD. He also has a blog but in Dutch! So I told him that probably, he should post mroe blog entries in English too. hehe.  So we got to exchange the intricacies of science of language learning and phonetic. Kevin also brought me to a former Church now converted into an apartment. (I was wide eyed for this discovery!)

As it was about noon, we went back to De Doom and waited for my next CS host, Freek. Kevin waited with me. Good thing I got my pink scarf and bonnet with yellow flowers so I am easy to spot. Both guys shook hands and I was ‘turned over’. Ahahaha! So Freek, is not really into history and architecture but he knows a lot of cool stuff around. He knows ‘undiscovered’ alleys and places to hang-out.

 
Cheers at Olivier's

So he brought me to Oliviers. Little did I know that the said pub is…a former Catholic Church! High ceilings, organ instrument and statues still at the walls. Coming from a relatively ‘religious’ environment, this is something really shocking. And Prof. Rosanne Rutten of University of Amsterdam (one of our network)  told me, there is a ritual of ‘unchurching’ the Church...hhmm.. Very interesting. So I got to drink a beer inside a (former) Church!

Then, while we are enjoying a drink, there was an Indian girl who went to our table and asked me. “Miss, excuse are you from here?” I said no. Why? She smiled and was embarrassed. She thought I was someone she knew. Oh! That was so random. I got a familiar face eh? Freek just laughed with me. He told me that I could have just played along. I could have pretended that I knew her, smile and make ‘beso-beso’ just for fun. That was a good suggestion.

Then I had to leave for Den Haag. I didn’t send any Couch requests or messages for anyone in Den Haag. I wanted to explore the city alone. This is the place where the Institute of Social Sciences (ISS) is located. This is where most of my colleagues went for their masteral and diploma courses, as it’s known for its progressive curriculum. I dreamed of going there too. Soon. By His will. :)


Then I also wanted to meet someone around Wageningen as we will be staying there for 2 weeks. I sent a message to Maarten Ackerman and he graciously replied. Nur HAssanh and I will be going along. Maarten invited us over for a beer and dinner at his place with his friends.

We crashed at Maarten and his friends' weekly dinner

 We got to meet his circle of friends from different parts of the world. Wageningen attracts lots of ‘international’ students and it was fun eating and talking with language switching from Dutch, Spanish, English and German! There group has a weekly dinner tradition of potluck and cooking together. We met Cheon from Malaysia and he cooks delicious pastries (his a pro!) and Alex for desserts. Everyone talks freely and it made me missed university life!:)




Maarten, Nur et moi

Maarten lived with other 3 people on the apartment. His friends thought Nur and I will be sleeping in a couch as they thought ‘couch surfing’ is literally sleeping on a couch to a stranger’s home. Well sometimes. But not all the time, Maarten said.

To truly ‘test’ a stranger’s generosity and hospitality and my unyielding trust to humanity’s goodness, I went to Brugge and made the first real ‘couchsurf’. I posted my itinerary for Brugge, Belgium as a cross-country trip (and to make use of the issued Schengen visa, hehe). One Sri LAnkan Dhanush replied that he’ll try to see if he can accept me as his relatives are coming over and his been travelling lately. The short course if about to end and I want to go to Belgium on March 5-7. Antwerp, Ghent, Brugge and Brussels are on my mind (as advised by Ate Lisa too. She said, skip Ghent if you have a limited time). Then one Peter Lanckriet replied to my post and said, if I don’t have anyone replying to my request he’ll host me. Holy camote! I said yes. I’d be grateful. So I arranged the dates and time of possible arrival as he’ll pick me up at the train station. When the training ended and I went back to Amsterdam, I immediately purchase the tickets to Brugge (change of trains at Antwerp). The good thing? I got a huge discount for train tickets because I am under 26! eiiiiii. And they don't ask for any evidence of my age. hhmm...Face value and height maybe are enough proof! hahaha

Touring Brugge with Dhanush

Peter, my gracious host
And true to his words, Peter was on the dot on picking me up. He’s a traditional medicine practitioner and food supplement supplier. I was kind of uncomfortable knowing he lives alone in a huge house but I just kept myself calm. I read his profile and surfers got good references for him. And truly, he’s a very gentle soul. He cooked warm soup and spaghetti for dinner. He even prepared mixed fruit juice composed of melon,strawberry,kiwi and banana every morning to perk up the day! Sadly, his mother died 3 weeks ago so he has to keep track of his business and he can’t tour me around the city. I told him it’s okay and thankfully, Dhanush offered to meet me and take me for a walk around the city.  Peter and I had 'deep' conversations over life, technology, love and conquering the world. :)  He loves to read Paulo Coelho and tends a garden (for me, this is a rarity for a guy!) :)


Johannes, my 'fallen angel". (a stalkerish pic I took. haha!) :)

My adventure there has some 'mishap' but I was 'saved' by a 'fallen angel' who happened to speak 4 languages fluently. Still in awe with that oddventure.:) But that made my Brugge trip truly memorable. I enjoyed it tremendously.

In Brussels, I was supposed to meet a Filipino, Jem Fernandez. A student from Ghent but he has classes in Brussels so we planned to meet there instead. But one mishap led to another. As Murphy's Law said, when something goes wrong, it will. I can no longer send an SMS through my roaming number, I cannot connect to the net (I forgot to write down Jem's mobile number), it rained hard that day, et.c etc. *sad face* I can only imagine how Jem and I would banter in Hiligaynon as he's fluent in that language too! But yeah, we just laughed it off and probably it's not just meant to be.

Jem, the unsuccessful meet-up. :(

 So I went back to Amsterdam and continued my journey. CS Community in Amsty are quite active. They have a weekly Saturday meet-up in a cafe somewhere Anne Frank's House. I was supposed to join a CS lunch meet-up when Eder Garcia, a fellow Filipino who's attending a training in Sweden will come over to the City. He sent me a message for meet-up and I gladly took his invitation. With Eder, I was able to explore more the city's alleys and Hemp museum. I also made a little experiment and I giggled with the thought. It's nicer if you have company with whom you can laugh and be silly with.

Having fun with Eder at Marihuana Museum

All in all, my CS experience is BEYOND POSITIVE. I just joined this month and just grateful for the experience of meeting and knowing these people. They made my Eurotrip more enjoyable and enriching. As one writer said (I forgot the name), there are people who just passes by our life who will teach us something,And it's really comforting to be in a place and be able to create conversations with a local. It's an empowering mindset: You have to communicate and travel together through words and truly share each other's experiences.

PS. CS is not a dating site. You might want to ask why I just met all guys? It seems CS guys were more active in answering my queries and requests during that period. :) 

Thank you CS for the opportunity of meeting these people.


In everyone's life, at some time, our inner fire goes out.  It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being.  We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.  ~Albert Schweitzer

 

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