HOLLAND, 28th NOVEMBER – 4th DECEMBER, 2016
It was a sunny and frosty morning when we, unnoticed by the world, crossed a narrow foot bridge over a small canal and entered Holland.
By contrast, we were very much noticed earlier that morning when we unzipped the tent and realized that we had camped right next to a path in the dark the previous night. It was now busy with Germans walking their dogs and they all looked surprised to us crawling out of the tent. Fortunately, they deflated our worries about strict Germans, as the only aggressive attitudes came from the dogs, while their owners greeted us with smiles and concern, asking if we weren´t cold camping out in this cold. It was a question we had gotten used to and we would reply that in our numerous sleeping bags and jackets we stayed nicely warm – and this time I challenged myself to do so in my broken German, that had recurred slightly from the depths of my brain throughout our time in the country. I kind of liked to turn down their concern as a proof of the possibility to live outdoors also in winter, because I understood their questioning. I would have thought the same not so long ago.
Having crossed the border I could bury my German language skills in my brain again and instead entertain myself with Dutch, a language of which I knew nothing and yet somehow felt I understood. It came across as a charming cross between Danish, English and German and both the spelling and sound of it often made me smile.
We were not many minutes into Holland before we caught up with the Dutch super system of cycle routes finding the first sign showing an area map dotted with numbers and lines. All we had to do was choose our route, remember the row of numbers it passed and follow them as they appeared on signs at every turn on the roads and paths. We could be sure that 95% of the route would be on bike paths and so there was not much to worry about regarding safety and directions when cycling in Holland. It was like a great real life game that made the experience of cycling in Holland pleasurable and fun, although I managed to complicate the simplicity of it all by misreading the arrows on the signs and for example turn when one pointed straight on. Fortunately, Chris was perfectly capable of reading arrows and together we made it to our next destination, Groningen, before it got dark.
It was a bit of a trip down memory lane for me to reach Groningen, for a couple of reasons. First of all, I’d already visited the town during a cycle tour that I did in 2009. Secondly, Dea and I were staying this time with a young German man named Robin, who we’d both met in Southeast Asia in 2014. We’d encountered him in Luang Prabang, Laos, where he’d decided he’d had enough of cycling on his cycle tour and had bought a boat intending to paddle onwards down the Mekong instead. Two weeks later and just after Dea and I had gone our separate ways in Laos’ capital, Vientiane, I got a message from Robin saying he’d crashed his boat and returned to cycling. He made his way to Vientiane where we became good friends. I liked Robin, which was extra lucky because I was on the lookout for a hapless sidekick and he seemed perfect, what with being both hapless, and called Robin. So for a couple of weeks, in Laos and then Thailand, Robin and I, two long distance cyclists in far off lands, went along together. Unusually for two long distance cyclists in far off lands, we didn’t actually do any cycling together, but we played a lot of pool.
I was really looking forward to see Robin again and it was great to find him looking his usual cheerful self as we reunited outside his Groningen apartment. He showed us inside and we got straight down to the important business of playing games. First up was a game of Fifa on the Playstation. This ended in some controversy when Germany claimed an undeserved victory over England after Jack Wilshere’s 86th minute equaliser was ruled out for offside despite the replays proving that it should have stood. Livid, I suggested we head off to the pool hall, where I knew from experience I would have the upper hand. Sticking to our principle of not cycling together, Robin and I walked across town to get to it. We were pretty much the only ones walking, Groningen being a town of bicycles. I can’t say as I’ve seen anywhere in the world with quite so many bicycles, though this is easily explained by Groningen being a university town, in Holland.
We reached the pool hall. So far as my memory goes I was able to beat Robin at pool very easily in Thailand, so you can imagine my disappointment to lose three-games-to-two. I challenged him next to darts. Now I knew for sure I would beat him at this, I’d won every time in Thailand. Well, would you believe it, but he beat me at every game of this too. Some things are just better off left in the past.
I said goodbye to Robin (for he was staying at his girlfriend’s and leaving me and Dea to look after his own apartment), and walked back alone. I wandered through the centre of Groningen and this brought back a lot of memories for me. During a cycle trip I did from the UK to Denmark in 2009 I’d stopped off in Gronignen. I’d stayed the night in a hostel after a VERY dramatic incident with a tick, a laundrette, and a frantic race to hospital, that I’m not going to get into now because it’s a bit embarrassing. As a consequence I had stayed overnight in town and ended up wandering around the main square and surrounding area after dark, something that I was now repeating seven years later. I recognised it very well, and even saw the vending machine fast food restaurant I particularly remembered. It was a sort of poignant moment for me to be wandering these streets again, because the first time I’d been here it was on a warm-up tour, a little practice before I planned to start cycling around the world for real. Now I was back and I remembered how it felt to have all the world ahead of me, full of excitement and anticipation. Now it was seven years on, and I had been around the world. I had done many of the things I dreamed of doing back in 2009. But I also knew that I wasn’t finished, wasn’t yet satisfied with what I’d done because there was still that desire in me to see more. Now I had Dea with me and the world was just waiting for us to go out and explore it all again.
We cycled out of Groningen in the most stunningly beautiful winter weather you can imagine with every straw of grass and branch on the trees thickened with white frost standing out on a background of a clear, light blue sky. The low, bright sun made the white landscape shine and glitter and in the flat, far away horizon all shapes and colours came together in a blurry blue. It was amazing and it stayed like this the whole day.
On top of this, it was also the day when Holland showed us its natural beauty as we cycled through big forests and across great grasslands that despite the temperatures evoked our fantasy about cycling in Africa spotting giraffes, rhinos and lions. The real animals we encountered were actually exotic and dramatic looking, but completely chilled Scottish cattle with long red hair and long curled and pointed horns.
As if all this was not enough to make it a great day, the trees along the roads seemed especially eager to get rid of their last leaves as autumn drew to an end and we therefore had some wonderful sessions of playing Catch the Leaf. This is another of Chris’s games that quite simply is about catching falling leaves while cycling. It may sound easy, but it actually takes a very special combination of concentration and reflexes and most of all that perfect timing where the lines of your forwards movement and the leaves’ downwards movement cross each other. Many times, I opened my hand disappointed to find it empty, but the feeling when there suddenly was a leaf in it for the first time was fantastic. Chris had only caught a few leaves throughout his whole carreer as a playful cycle tourer, but this day he achieved incredible results by for example catching two leaves at the same time and he ended up with seven successful attempts over the day.
To end this really great day we had the presumably easy task of finding a place to camp in a huge forest we were cycling through. It shouldn´t be too hard and optimistically we pushed our bikes into an area with soft looking moss and grass. But the looks were deceiving, everywhere the ground was lumpy, and after a thorough look around we found it quite ironic that it was impossible to find a 2×2 metres flat spot in the flattest of flat countries. Eventually we pushed our bikes back onto the path, continued and managed to find a nice, acceptably flat place. As Chris again went for a run to train for his marathon I sat outside the tent cooking beans on toast, one of my favourite camping dishes. It was cold and I could see my own breath, but I was warm wearing all my clothes, jackets and scarfs. All around me was silent, no cars, no other people, only plants and fresh, frosty air. A very wonderful day slowly faded into twilight, and I smiled into the darkness feeling very happy.
The next two days we cycled south following bigger, straight main roads to get to Nijmegen, where we would visit my old friend from Denmark Thomas and his German girlfriend Jana.
On the way there north of Arnhem we stopped at a memorial site and were reminded of the war scenes that had taken place here during the World War II. Civilians had been fleeing from the warzone of Arnhem by foot through the forests, driven away from safety and their homes into the unknown.
As we cycled on I thought about how back then the same trees I now passed had witnessed these refugees and also the German soldiers. All of them humans performing the roles defined by politics. The war scenes I imagined were so distant to me both in time and experience, but in Aleppo, people were experiencing the same things in that same moment I passed those trees. It was like a loop of history and human tragedy, but I was still reaching for it from an incomprehensible distance. Just like the trees, I was observing, but unable to truly understand those human’s situation, because I had never experienced anything like it, and I didn’t know how to feel about it. Relieved, guilty, sad?
We came into Nijmegen over the big railway bridge having a great view over the Waal river, the beach on one side and the old town rising on the banks on the other side. Arriving at Thomas and Jana’s address at dusk we were surprised by a famous feature of the Dutch culture, as they were living next door to the town’s Red Light District where prostitutes were displaying themselves in the windows for the people in the street. Although I find prostitution a genuinely sad concept, it seems to be an aspect of humanity that is very hard to prevent and somehow, I can appreciate how in Holland, it is not hidden away as if it didn’t exist. In a way, this is an honest way to face reality, although I’m afraid it doesn’t change or even show the grim consequences of this business.
We closed the doors and shut out the rather disturbing reality in the streets, and instead had a cosy evening and lazy morning in the company of my friends. It was great to finally visit them in their home abroad and to bring our way of living to them by cycling there. The exchange of lifestyles manifested when Chris and I were invited to join the short meditation Thomas and Jana did before dinner. That was something we had not tried before, and it certainly gave a new awareness to the everyday moment. After dinner, we had good fun playing a great game called Globalissimo where we had to estimate facts such as area, population and GDP and perform a general knowledge of geography. It was a game just to our taste!
It was almost midday before Chris and I forced ourselves back on the bikes now heading west towards Rotterdam. We cycled on paths on the dikes along the Waal river and peacefully watched the busy traffic of ships at a safe distance.
Along the river we also observed groups of hundreds of geese gathering in the fields. Already in Germany I had seen smaller groups of geese flying south and it seemed like we had been going the same way and that Holland was a meeting point for them. We had seen huge gatherings like this since our first day in the country and it had caught my interest in these birds. What exactly where they doing and how did they organize their meetings? They seemed to be sending out scouts that circled around cawing information to the group on the ground, maybe about what they had seen and where to go next? Suddenly and all at the same time, the hundreds of geese all went on their wings, flapping close over our heads, to settle in a new field. It was an amazing sight and feeling, and I actually hoped the geese would keep their ways of communicating secret, so I could keep having something like this to make me wonder.
Chris is a sincere animal lover and often talks to animals on our way. When we lived in Australia he invited three pigeons to stay on our balcony (the invitation consisted of breadcrumbs) and seeing the geese in Holland he now got the great idea to invite all the geese to follow us to England and stay on the balcony we knew we had access to in our new, Airbnb-rented home. He shouted out the invitation (I think, he didn’t have enough breadcrumbs to give all of them) and day by day the geese seemed to follow us in various numbers. I was a little worried, since our host in England was not informed of the number of pets we would be bringing. Five cuddly toys were already adding to the actual number of the company she had accepted.
After a short, lazy day on the dikes we had a long day’s ride to Rotterdam where our hosts Martin and Susanne expected us. And by a long day’s ride I mean 94 kilometres, which in summer time would be a decent, but not exactly long day, but on this winter ride we averaged 65 kilometres per day due to the few hours of daylight. We started out in the first daylight, the sun rose red behind us as we disappeared in the fog of yet another misty morning. Even better concealed though, were some little grey ponies that camouflaged perfectly in the bushes across a canal. They looked like wild horses, filthy and with incredibly tangled manes and tails, but I can’t imagine they really were wild horses, not in Holland. I got a good chance to look at them in their disguise, as we were stopped because the hub on Chris’s bike had stopped connecting with the wheel in the cold which meant he didn’t get any effect from pedalling. He sat on the ground trying to fix it with no luck, and it was a bit worrying as we had a ferry booked for the next day 100 kilometres away. Just as we were about to get up and start walking to the next town to find a bike shop there, a friendly man stopped in his car and asked if he could help. As Chris span the cassette to show him the problem the hub suddenly connected with the wheel again and the problem was (temporarily) solved.
We made it to Rotterdam as the sun set behind a mosque and the high rise skyline made of elegant, modern buildings. The soft colours of the evening sky were reflected in the water as we crossed the river Rotte on an elegant white bridge, and we stopped and took in the beautiful composition of nature and modern architecture. Then we cycled through the city centre under a thousand sparkling lights of the city’s Christmas decorations and it was magical. We had reached a goal, a destination we had been aiming for for the last few weeks. At the same time this was only just the very beginning of the long journey we had ahead of us. I was full of anticipation.
It was a feeling that was only enhanced during our overnight stay with Martin and Susanne, two cycle tourers we had been in contact with over Facebook but never met before. They had only just returned back to Holland a few months earlier after three years of cycling through Asia, and so we had a lot in common and stories and experiences to exchange. They had even invited another couple of Belgian cycle tourers over for dinner that were also planning a long trip across Asia, and the conversation weaved in and out of all aspects of cycle touring. It was so good to be together with people we had so much in common with for once. One of the reasons I travel is to meet people different from me and to widen my understanding of humans and the world. But no matter how interesting and rewarding it is, it shall be no secret that constantly being confronted with the unfamiliar can also be tiring at times. It made me aware that when living at home I’m usually surrounded by people very similar to me with the same interest, education, values and humor. And that is relaxing. Or at least I was before I caught the cycle touring bug. This new passion and lifestyle I could not truly share with friends and family at home, and it had sometimes made me feel estranged from them. Together with Martin and Susanne, Saar and Marteen I felt like we were on home ground despite being there with them for the first time. It was a really great and memorable experience that I appreciated a lot.
The next morning was another cold and sunny one and for the last time we followed the wonderfully colourful and ingenious bike ways with their own lanes and traffic lights integrated with the motorized traffic´s systems and the well signed cycle routes the 30 kilometres to Hoek of Holland where our StenaLine ferry waited to take us to England.
When we had entered Holland my first thought was “Gosh, Holland really is completely flat”. Obviously, it was a cliché, everyone knows Holland is flat (and full of windmills). But even though Germany had been pretty much the same flat on the other side of the border, Holland just felt flatter. After our days cycling through Holland I thought, it had to do with the many long, continuous lines that structured the landscape: the canals, the dikes, the alleys of slim, tall trees, the long straight roads and paths and the squares of the fields that stretched out into the horizon that was visible to all sides in a 360° panorama view. The lazy low winter sun that couldn’t be bothered to really rise high over the horizon had made the outline of our shadows stretch out elastically like playful cats over the fields perfectly opposite the source of light. Being in the Dutch landscape was a bit like being placed in a drawing exercise of perspective view, like you would do in school, with all the lines stretching towards the point of disappearance somewhere in the horizon.
It was a somehow calming experience because of the transparency and coherence of it all, although it also could give an impression of a rather strict structured society and mentality. Fortunately, the Dutch culture compromised such impression as it both added a charming feel of nostalgic traditionalism with flower decorations, clogs, old wooden boats and creaking wind mills and a humorous madness that sneaked in through the holes and gaps in the well-ordered system of things. Like the cat printed on the cycle route signs, the laying man on the parking sign, the goat statue on a bunker, the enormous figure of a head on a swing by a lake, the enormous colourful graffiti duck under a bridge or the infamous burger vending machine in Groningen. It was wonderfully crazy.
Holland was not only absolutely amazing for cycling, it was also fun and pleasurable to the eye, ear and mind, and on top of that inhabited helpful and friendly people. Of my rather short list of countries I had visited as a cycle tourists Holland was definitely in top three.
But it was not because I was sad to leave Holland that a few tears rolled down my cheeks as Chris and I stood on the deck of the ferry as it made itself free of the sandy coastline. During the recovery of my eye infection Hoek of Holland had been the furthest I could travel on my bike due to appointments with doctors and receiving my medicine by mail every two weeks within the Danish borders. I had cycled there to be reunited with Chris as he came back from his dash across North America, and it had been a satisfying achievement for me to make it there. But then I had had to turn around and cycle back to Denmark again. Hoek of Holland had been a limit line, I had only pretended to be free.
Now we crossed that line, and we did it on a boat that slightly reminded me of the cruise ship I had had to leave in Hawaii. In that moment, I felt like I stepped back into that dream I had been chasing and forced away from six months earlier, and it overwhelmed me with relief over the struggles that were now behind me and anticipation of the true freedom that this view of Holland disappearing behind us represented.
Groningen – Nijmegen – Rotterdam – Hoek van Holland,
442 kilometres cycled
Click below for more pictures in the Flickr Album #4: Getting things in the right perspective