Monday, April 12, 2010

North Sea and Amsterdam



Believe it or not, our entire non-tulipy flower adventure ended before it was even lunch time.   

We had finally reaResized_DSC03995ched a beautiful coastal road and enjoyed wandering along behind trucks and seeing loads and loads of thatched cottages!  That’s right – thatched Resized_DSC03998cottages, thatched houses, and even what I can only call thatched mansions are prevalent on the west coast of Holland.  And I thought it was a UK thing!  I didn’t  get a good photo, unfortunately, as we were moving along the road.  There  are lots of waterfowl all over the place in Holland.  Check out the duck, at right, up on the thatched roof.

We finally scored a map at a gas station and I realized that stopping at the beach would only be about a 20 minute detour.  This was not in the original plan but, once again seizing the moment within the moment, we wandered a bit further west to catch a glimpse of the North Sea.  Turns out the city we stopped in was called Zandvoort (roughly translated, the Town of Zander). Resized_DSC04007


Of course, Zander was very excited to show off hisResized_DSC04011 own little town, of which he was the ‘mayor’.  How he squeezed such a job in between all his regular activities, we aren’t sure.  We went to the tourist shop and let him pick out his own Zandvoort pill box.  How often do you see a city with your name on it?    Of course, we got out at the beach for an hour or so.  There was this awesome war relic, a sea mine, that Zander was fascinated by.  We had to pay to use the public toilet—but at least they had this beautiful lamp fixture.

Then we played on the beach.  The most exciting thing was finding a live starfish in a pile of shells.  I have never seen one alive before so I was super excited…..  We took the time to shoot some photos and touch it gently before putting it back in the ocean even though Zander was freaking out the entire time.  “Hurry!  Hurry!  It’s gonna die!  Let’s throw it back in the ocean!  Quick!  Quick!!!!”    Perhaps he heard the starfish story – always one of my favorites… (by Loren Eisley) “One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed a boy picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean.  Approaching the boy, he asked, “What are you doing?”  The youth replied, “Throwing starfish back into the ocean.  The surf is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.”  “Son,” the man said, “don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make a difference!” After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the surf. Then, smiling at the man, he said… “I made a difference for that one.”  Let’s hope Zander keeps that kind of spirit, always.   We couldn’t resist buying some French Fries and catfish off a truck parked right on the beach – absolutely divine and the people were super nice.  I love food trucks!

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As we left the beach and headed towards Amsterdam, we passed lots of what looked like large sand dunes.  I am wondering if these are natural or if they are some sort of dikes?  Of course, being in Holland, I am naturally becoming more curious about those dikes – remember the story of the little guy with his finger in the crack who saved the country???  (Or was that Denmark?) No matter!  A dike is a dike and the story behind them is fascinating.  I turnFile:Netherlandsbelowsea.pnged to trusty Wikipedia to find that more than 2/3rds of the Netherlands is vulnerable to flooding. (Graphic shows the areas vulnerable to floods in blue)   There are natural sand dunes as well as dikes and dams and floodgates that protect the citizens.  In fact, these measures have been fairly effective and catastrophic floods here are very rare.  It turns out that almost the whole area is “essentially an alluvial plain, built up from sediment left by thousands of years of flooding by rivers and sea. About 2000 years ago, before the intervention of man, most of the Netherlands were covered by extensive peat swamps.”  Peat swamps ringed by sand dunes!  So, attracted by fertile soil, people started to settle there, building little islands called “terpen or wierden”.  These things rose about 15 meters above the sea but were mostly dismantled in later years to use their fertile soil for farming.  Eventually the population began to grow, villages emerged and dikes started to be built.  This continued until the dikes crisscrossed the nation, even being used in times of war as defense!  “By flooding certain areas on purpose a military defensive line could be created. In case of an advancing enemy army the area was inundated with about 30 cm of water, too shallow for boats but deep enough to make advance on foot difficult.  The Dutch even used the covering water to hide underwater obstacles as canals, ditches and purpose built traps. Dikes crossing the flooded area and other strategic points were protected by fortifications. The system proved successful on the Dutch Water Line in 1672 during the Third Anglo-Dutch War but was overcome in 1795 because of heavy frost.”  Damn ice……  Modern weaponry makes this particular defense system obsolete but I think we need some sort of Hollywood historical epic with a dike battle, don’t you?

Nowadays, huge amounts of money are spent (on the order of billions of euros) each year to maintain and reinforce the existing systems. People are really almost never flooded for the systems are very efficient.  The worst flood on record was iResized_DSC04037n 1953 and that one claResized_DSC04046imed 1835 lives (plus cattle).  The flood system was greatly strengthened against sea storms after this.  For the most part, further development has been halted due to environmental and practical concerns.  All the Dutch are particularly worried about the affect global warming, with rising sea levels, will have on the nation.   OK, end of dike lesson!

We ate our picnic lunch in the car and headed onward to Amsterdam.  It was tough to find a place to park downtown, probably since the whole city is centered around bikes.  There were towering piles of bikes at every train station, on the sidewalks and on ferries.  It reminded me a bit of Japan where bikes were also ubiquitous.  We passed lots of interesting things while we were wandering though – they have amazing architecture, old and new… 

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Finally we found ouResized_DSC04051r garage and walked over to where the genuine East India trading ship The AmsterdamResized_DSC04056 is docked.  (Actually it was a replica, but why worry about such insignificant details?)  We had to wander along the docks of the Amstel River before reaching the museum, but this, of course, was purely pleasureful.  There were lots of beautifully preserved ships, some of them over a hundred years old.  I did catch a darker side of that biking culture though when I spied this sunken wreckage in the murky depths.  That’s right, a bike.  Wonder how it ended up in Davy Jones Locker?  Did the captain go down with the bike?

Outside theResized_DSC04057 ship, there was a very interesting display of public art, it was some kind of cross between Mickey’s bucket brigade and a water wheel.  This thing, in fact, was there to explain chaos theory. Here is Resized_DSC04059what the plaque read:  “That’s how difficult it is to predict the weather.  Not just things like air pressure and air humidity, but also ocean currents and volcanic eruptions.  We can never know all these factors and that’s why we cannot accurately predict the weather.  But simpler systems can be unpredictable too.  For instance, this Lorenz water wheel.  The buckets are partly filled with water at the top and they therefore get heavier.  This will cause the wheel to turn.  But for how long?  The water will run out of some buckets, but others will again fill up.  This means you never know exactly how much water there is in each bucket.  So you cannot predict what the wheel is going to do.  What happens here is no coincidence.  We just don’t know (yet) all the factors that play a role here.  That’s why we cannot make predictions.  This is called chaos theory.  Edward Lorenz (1917-2008, American) laid the basis for this theory in 1950.”  (There was also a note warning not to drink the water and that wind puts it out of commission).  I found this kind of disappointing.  I mean, I thought chaos was supposed to be, well, much more chaotic.  You know, like a kids’ birthday party or something.

But, back to The Amsterdam.  We spent a wonderful hour or two wandering through the Resized_DSC04061ship.  The original ship was built in 1748 and measures 48 meters fromResized_DSC04067 stem to stem and 56 meters from keel to mast top.  That means it is higher than it is long, but, of course, lots of that is underwater.  It displaces 1100 tons of water when it is at sea and carries 42 cannons to ward off pirates.   The original ship was sunk in 1749, and only recently rediscovered, remarkably preserved, in 1969 along the coast of England.  It is one of the worlds best preserved shipwrecks and can actually be visited to this day. Volunteers rebuilt this ship, using ancient tools, between  1985 and 1990.  We had a chance to experience and learn about ship life. The kids were disappointed they didn’t get to climb up the rigging Resized_DSC04087but Resized_DSC04089contented themselves with pretending to steer the ship, explore the hold, eat the Resized_DSC04095gruel of the common sailor and rest in a hammock.  The sailors got gruel and hardtack while the captain and passengers ate chickens, cheese and even veggies.  Discipline must have been pretty tight since I don’t know if I could have resisted stealing some cheese or a few bites of chicken after 4 months or so at sea. I was surprised by the small size of the galley.   This room was fireproofed by a layer of brick and the cook and his helpers had to feed the crew and passengers for the 8 month journey.  A typical voyage on The Amsterdam would carry about 300 sailors plus about 20 to 40 passengers!   TResized_DSC04102hat’s a lot of people to feed from a galley smaller than your typical closet.  The huge hold below decks was half filled with food for the people and the other half was filled with Resized_DSC04091luggage and items to trade (particularly, bricks, coins, linen and wine).  Then, on the return voyage, the ship had to be re-victualed and the hold filled with tea, spices and china.  It is kind of amazing that such a journey could have been profitable. Wiki says that they needed over 200 sailors on the outward voyage (to China) but only 70 on the way back.  I find this both confusing and interesting.  I mean, didn’t the other 200 or so sailors want to return home?  And why would you need only 70 – are winds that different?   Hmm…..

We can’t leave The Amsterdam, unfortunately, without mentioning toilets. The first photo shows where the commResized_DSC04093on sailors would go potty.  They would walk to the prow of the ship and just piss right over the side.  This is where the Resized_DSC04062term ‘head’ for toilet came from since they were near the figurehead of the ship.  For solid waste, they used the handy open hole shown in the photo.  Sounds easy enough, right?  But 2 of these for about 300 sailors sounds like it might get dicey.  The captain and paying passengers, got to use a privy – which was also a hole in the Resized_DSC04094ship that dropped into the sea but the hole had a lid and it was in a little private room.    We were wandering to the next floor in the ship when Griffin announced he had to go.  Now, keep in mind when Griffin says he has to go, he really has to go – like right now.  So, seeing no other alternative, we rushed back to the captain’s privy and opened the lid.   The kids kept a watch out for other tourists while he did his business (luckily only pee).  You can imagine our chagrin when,Resized_DSC04105 a few minutes later on a lower deck, we discovered the real, modern-day toilets on board!   Whoops!  Sorry Amstel river, for polluting you!   Having seen everything, we finally left the ship behind. 

Believe it or not, it was only about 4:30 pm at this point.  This was like, the day that never ended, folks.  So we decided to take an hour or so to wander along the streets of Amsterdam.  It is a great city and we had a blast just wandering through the town. 

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Amsterdam is such a diverse city.  There are people of every race imaginable wandering all over the street and the restaurants – oh, they had everything!  I was really wishing we had the budget to eat dinner out!  Here at left you can see the diversity.  In less than aResized_DSC04124 block you can see US (San Francisco), UK, Vietnamese, German, Italian and Latino restaurants!  We wandered past the Red Light district and Moulin Rouge and enjoyed the architecture.  I was particularly excited at the chance to go into a temple with the children.    The Fo Guang Shan He Hua temple is the largest Chinese temple in all of Europe.  (This surprised me since it was squished in between other buildingsResized_DSC04123 and seemed pretty small).  It was beautiful and peaceful inside, an aroma of fragrant incense permeated the air marking this as a space of refuge.  The room was centrally dominated by a large statue of Kuan Yin.  This is one of my favorite godesses,  She is:  “the compassionate sage who sees”  She has the  “ability to see all the suffering in the world and thus come to people's aid. She is said to have one thousand eyes and hands with which to save all sentient beings.”  She was holding all sorts of things in her hands, symbolic of her many talents to aid and help those in need.  She was sitting on a lotus blossom, a special Buddhist symbol:  “With its roots in the soil of the earth, it emerges to a beautiful, colorful and pure flower that reaches from the water out to the sky. It is the symbol of enlightenment.”  She had offerings of candles and fruit in front of her alter.   The cathedrals in Amsterdam wereResized_DSC04137 locked, but not this holy Resized_DSC04129place.   I feel lucky we got a chance to enter a place where sin and forgiveness is not a central theme – I think the very atmosphere is charged differently there – karma is a wheel.  I like that!

We headed back towards the car, naturally following a different path and saw two more things worth writing about (at least in my loquacious opinion!).  The first is shown at left.   Obviously, my mind is on the toilet during this blog!  That, my friends is a public urinal.  Right out there on the street where all can see what you are doing, even if they can’t see what you are doing it with!  My first reaction was a bit of shock, but that was quickly followed by jealousy –  where is the female version, if you please?  Last, but certainly not least, was naked butt man.  You know you are in Amsterdam when a man wearing a pleather unitard of some sort with the butt cut out wanders the sidewalk talking on his cell phone and passing the mom with baby and no one, and I do mean no one (except our obviously touristic selves)  even blinks an eye.    Run Free naked butt man, may the whole world soon be as accepting as this wonderful city!!!

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