First look Amsterdam

We wake ready to tackle our first full day in Amsterdam.

Our breakfast is excellent bread, an amazing selection of cheese and cups of strong coffee. We indulge and both agree we could get used to this type of morning start.

Nelda and Marieke suggest a tour of Amsterdam and we happily agree. We walk to the train station and receive an in service on how to buy tickets and read the schedules. We are fortunate as we have 3 lines available to take us downtown. Within minutes a train arrives, spacious, bright and clean we settle ourselves for the short trip downtown

We arrive and expertly Marieke and Nelda lead us to the correct exit, good thing as my instinct was to go in the opposite direction. We see cheese wheels in a shop dedicated to this pursuit, flowers for sale and the smell of baked goods encourage us to stop, though we continue moving.

We begin to exit the station oblivious to a commotion behind us. The train station is being evacuated. Nelda is concerned as she has heard the announcement. John and I have no idea until we are safely outside and Nelda explains. We later learn a Belgium citizen in retaliation to a controversy involving a Politician’s statements randomly stabbed several people as he exited the train. He was later shot by Police. This would be a main news story for several days. John and I comfortable in tourist mode with only a few words of Dutch between us continued to ooh and awe at the sites.

We marvel at the bikes, bikes, bikes everywhere. People of all ages ride, owning the road, pedestrians beware. We watch for cars, though are focused looking for bikes as they weave in and out. We wonder how anyone finds their bike at the end of the day. There are huge garages dedicated to storing the bikes, bike theft is a problem which seems bizarre when there are so many. Still it is the best way to get around and the people are fit. I think about home where we bike until we get a car and then most Canadians never bike again. Nelda tells us that abandoned bikes are a problem and at times they are marked and picked up. We also learn 13,000 bikes are removed from the canals annually.

We take the ferry for a short trip to arrive on a small island with a large building. We ride to the top and are treated to a 360 degree view of the city. This allows us to really gain an understanding of the city. We point out landmarks of places we would like to see, Rijksmuseum, Anne Frank House, and Marieke points out their home. There is a chance for swinging from the edge of the building though we decline and opt for gawking instead.

We find a great spot for lunch before continuing our tour of the city. We take pictures of the canals with the beautiful homes on either side, the quintessential picture of Amsterdam and I learn there is more than one street with a canal. In fact at every turn beautiful architecture exists. There are hooks at the top of these narrow homes to haul furniture through the windows as this is the only method that would work. These homes were built during the Golden Age when Holland was enjoying a boom. No expense spared though narrow and tall to avoid tax which was based on the width of the building.

We stop at the Rembrandtplein to admire the 3D model of the Nightwatch, Rembrandt’s famous painting. Our feet tired and demand respite we sit at a nearby open cafe. I smile as there is no pretence, all chairs are facing towards the sidewalk for maximal people watching. When in Amsterdam we think as we sip our Amstel radlers and join in this popular pastime.

 Stone Town Past Preserved

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Stone town is the past preserved. Young boys chase each other through the narrow streets, adults are content to mosy. As a child I roamed my streets unfettered without a care in the world. Today at home, our children grow pasty in flesh and slack in body safe in their rooms. They scroll through a virtual world. Here in Stone town, life unfolds in real time, unplugged.

Retail is everywhere, though no big box stores exist. Quaint shops appear doorway after doorway, their items similar. The Proprieters fan themselves on their stoops and chat amicably with their competition. They beckon us to look closer. “Just look,” they say. We venture in and like the spider to the fly once in we are trapped. Haggling is the order of the day. I ask, “how much?”  She responds with a price. I recoil, suggest a lower price, she looks horrified, clucks her tongue, counters with a slightly higher price. I accept for fear of further offence. The trinket is bagged in a recycled tote and I’m released. There are shops that have inflated fixed prices. Haggling, though exhausting, yields a better deal.

We pass a group of men and boys huddled around an antiquated television complete with rabbit ears. They are watching a soccer game in the open air.  They are happy and animated, joy contagious as they cheer for their team and grumble when the opposing team has possession.  My Mom told me that years ago when televisions were expensive that department stores would display them in store windows. People would gather together to watch and share. Those days are over. In our consumer driven culture everyone seems to have at least one flat screen television, lounge chair and privacy. We trade perceived luxury for camaraderie and community.

We tour the birth home of Freddy Mercury of Queen fame. There are odd items for sale, nearly as odd as the man himself. Freddy has achieved superstardom status in the Island of Spice and is marketed for profit. He was born here though spent his youth between India and Zanzibar before settling in Great Britain. His stardom occurred years after leaving Zanzibar. The tenuous connection is a conduit for currency in Zanzibar. Still, I imagine his carefree, boyhood days on this Island a sharp contrast to the life he led as an adult

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We have learned a great deal during our tour. I’m left with a longing of times past when our life was much like this one. We have sacrificed a great deal for our modern conveniences and there is no way to turn back or stop the clock.

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Stone Town, Zanzibar

Our clothes firmly stuck to our bodies, we open the door to our room and an air conditioned oasis greets and beckons us inward.  We happily comply and drop our bags, our cranky mood lightens as each fibre of our clothing retreats.  The room is beautiful, with high ceilings, stained glass and intricately carved doors.  The tub is odd, small, round and tiled.  There is a shower and finally I’m treated to a “Hollywood” shower and take full advantage.  We climb into our four poster bed and quickly fall deep asleep.

We awake early, excited to explore Stone town and our hotel.  We eat a hot breakfast, complete with most excellent coffee and prepare to meet the rest of the group for our formal City tour and a chance to learn.

The Guide explains some of the features of the doors that we admire.  I decide today I will photograph doors and envision creating a montage of sorts once I get home. I happily snap away while the Guide narrates.  He tells us that carved chains around the doors informs people that a Slave Trader lived at that address.

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If there was raised brass on the doors, it was designed to keep elephants away.  I wonder if that would work thinking of the elephants we just saw in Tarangire ripping apart the baobab trees with little effort.  Its unlikely that it would work, but is pretty and decorative.

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The town has effectively preserved its past.  There is an Arabian influence and the predominant religion is Muslim, though other faiths are also represented.  Everyone seems to live in relative harmony.  The electrical wires above our heads are ancient and not to code.  It is amazing that there is any electricity and that the place has not burned to the ground.

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There are many clocks in this town, but none tell the current time.  Still, they are correct twice per day. There are vendors each sitting outside their tiny shops, beckoning to the people that pass, each claiming that they have the best price.  We have no time to shop, but promise we will be back later.  They shrug, their livelihood is not dependent on whether we purchase, there is less desperation here.

We walk to where the Slave Trading occurred, sadly not so long ago. We are taken to a holding area where the Slaves were kept prior to going to market. It is a sad place with a small window to the outside and chains to leash people inside, it is oppressive. The Guide shows us the whipping post outside where the Slaves were whipped to separate the strong from the weak.  The stronger would fetch a better price.  The Guide tells us that the Slaves would adopt a saying, “Lay down your hearts, for now you are slaves.”  They would accept their lot, as to fight and struggle would be futile.

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It is always moments like this that I’m ashamed to be Caucasion. The Guide helps to lift some guilt when he  tells us that in many cases the people were stolen from their villages, or lied to about work,  by their own people who would profit by providing people to Slave Traders.  Many Slave traders were from the same country too, though of course many Slaves were eventually sold to Caucasians in other parts of the world.  It seems as though there was plenty of blame to go around.