Amsterdam & Belgium- Nov 15, 2019 -
Hey There Lovely,
I would be remiss if I blogged only about Africa, albeit it was life-changing.
Amsterdam and Belgium have a bit of magic all its own.
It was quite a culture shock bumping along the Savannah plains in Africa to fly 10 hours to land in one of the most fashion-conscious cities I’ve ever visited. From sleek trench coat clad bicyclists to overflowing flower markets and festive pubs on every corner to Dam tot Damloop runners clad in numbers and little shorts. Amsterdam was bustling with life, even in the cold weather of September. My first mission was to change my clothes from the stinky flight, well really, my first mission was a bed and shower. But the bed would have to wait.
I had a reservation at the Anne Frank Huis in two hours. I still needed to find my driver, check into the hotel, and drop bags. I made it to Anne’s with 10 minutes to spare, not bad for a newbie to the city. I donned the audio set and slung my camera to my back, showing security I had no intention of using it while inside. They noticed my gesture and didn’t make me locker it. Anne’s was sad as you would expect. I climbed behind the bookcase where her family hid. I saw her bedroom walls and felt her frustration cooped up here. I heard the same church bells ring as she did all those years ago. In a city I had never visited, in a room full of strangers just as affected by this as I was, I never felt lonely — some of us crying, some sober. In the end, a beautiful video of famous people and museum guests were interviewed, asking their observations and comments on the war.
Oprah said, “We have to remember, this didn’t just happen to Anne.
And it didn’t. Many, many innocent people lost their lives. It was a sober way to begin my visit to Amsterdam, but it also immediately immersed me in the culture.
I found a little boutique that wasn’t so little after working my way through all the winding hallways. There is where I found the perfect cozy sweater to blend into my chic surroundings. I knew I needed to take it slow today after all the traveling I had just done. So I found a small hole in the wall to have a mozzarella, tomato, and pesto Panini with an espresso coffee.
Armed with all the essentials things: coffee in my belly, camera on my back, and map in hand, I set out for the Flower Market. September isn’t the season for tulips, but it didn’t stop me from checking out all the bulb varieties wishing I could bring them back with me to the states. I smelled the spices and marveled at the plants (as every plant lady does).
I came to the very last booth on the corner, hanging from the tent ceiling was solid with pink blooms the entire length and width of the tent, gorgeous buckets of hydrangeas, sunflowers, greens, and more — eye candy at every corner.
Between cheese stores, coffee shops, and boutiques I quickly settled into life in Amsterdam.
The next day after eggs that tasted normal (Africa’s left much to be desired due to the lack of protein), I walked the 19 minutes to Grand Central Station, a walk I would often take and know by heart, no GPS required. I still take that path in my mind.
This day was to be a 12 hour day with 6 hours of riding in a double-decker 100 person coach across the countries border down to Belgium. Our tour guide was native to Amsterdam and choke-full of knowledge, his name was Pedro. He spoke eight languages, nine if he is drunk or so he claims. Most of the trip to Belgium was full of interesting tidbits about Amsterdam. The Netherlands is #2 in agriculture behind the U.S.
“We don’t like mountains, so we don’t do mountains.”
They have gone as far as designing greenhouses close to the airport to ensure the produce is fresh. Pedro told us the Netherlands gained 3% more land last year. What!? How!? The Netherland reclaimed land by putting a dike around the lake, dig a canal, and put water pumping windmills atop the dikes. The windmills pump the lake water through the channel and eventually out to sea. This helped when people were starving after the war, and the population continued to grow. The Schipol Airport was made this way, once the lowest in the world, at over four meters below sea level.
“Someday we will be as big as the U.S. and Australia combined. Watch out for us!”-Pedro
Back when the French inhabited the country, Napoleon’s brother wanted Amsterdam to be the capital because he thought The Hague was boring, so the government stayed in The Hague while the capital remained Amsterdam to this day.
I felt a part of history hearing these stories and knowing my visit in 2019 marked 75 years of celebration of liberation from Hitler.
It’s hard to believe it’s only been 75 years.
The Netherlands and Belgium have a good relationship between countries. They didn’t require us to show our passport at the border. Belgium is known for a Big 5: Chocolate, Waffles, Lace, Beer, and Fries. (The French claimed Fries Belgium’s should be getting credit for) I think it’s exciting to say I did Africa & Belgium’s Big 5 on the same trip. Pedro lead us quickly to the city toward the best restaurant, Resturant Matinnee Tea Room. He gave us a choice to go anywhere, but he said this was the best, and it was.
I sat with a total stranger, John, because there were no empty tables and because he offered.
He told me Amsterdam is his favorite city, and he stopped counting after 35 trips. I asked him why he didn’t have a timeshare there, and he said he had no idea. Pedro recommended the sea trash soup: Waterzooi. Everything from the sea, but the plastic. I scarfed it down and my lunch mates fries too. I attempted to drink kriek, a cherry beer is often popular among women who don’t enjoy beer. (That’s me) But it tasted like Mom’s cherry medicine from childhood. I had already decided I would be accomplishing the Big 5 with two items off the list already. I stepped outside to enjoy the beautiful sunshine to walk next door to the lace shop, where I found a pretty top to change into from my sweltering sweater. I picked up a few souvenirs for friends and met the lovely shop owner; we bonded over the lost art of needlework.
Away I went to my next stop following the path in my brain we had come from with waffles on my mind, my 4th item on the list within reach. I stood in line for Belgium waffles and ice cream. My lunch mate John ended up in line behind me, and I marveled at what a small world we live. Only to change my mind a few hours later. (I’ll circle back) The waffles were cooked to perfection as you would expect a Belgium waffle to be. A small flag and plastic ware to top it off.
I sat on the steps and gulped down my waffle as melted ice cream trailed between my fingers and the sounds of street performers filled my ears.
The occasional clopping of hoves reminding me of home, but yet so different. I worked my way closer to our meeting point, following the path we took to the open-air market we passed. This time I stopped to admire the local artisans’ work, then across the bridge to a quiet canal to think and reflect over this beautiful day in Bruges. I breathed in the air burning this moment in my memory. I watched the wind make ripples across the canal; the beautiful brick buildings built many years before my birth. The ducks, the crowds of people milling around.
My landmarks thus far had revealed themselves to me fully. The Statue, the cathedral, but the pink house was illuding me.
I came to a fork in the road with no pink house on the corner where it should be.
It was my cue to turn right; I made a right turn without the assurance of the pink house and strolled along, thinking I would be the first back to the bus from our tour. I quickly became distracted by the architecture and gardens; I continued walking without seeing anything familiar all the while remembering Pedro’s warnings,
“If You are not back at the bus by 6:15, we will leave you here, and you have to take three trains back to Amsterdam!”
Assuring myself that would never happen, I walked a little quicker to cross the street and stop at a map. An arrow pointed to the very park we arrived in, thinking it was a ‘you are here arrow.’ I slowed my pace, knowing I had plenty of time, but this park didn’t look familiar, as I rounded the next bend it revealed a totally different look. I followed along the water’s edge, remembering we had crossed a bridge at the entrance. I found a bridge operator raising the bridge for a passerby boat. This was not the same bridge. I waited for him to finish his task, then asked him directions. I dug out my little map Pedro had given me, showing the bridge operator where I needed to be. He pointed to a place far off the map and said you are here, and you have about 30 minutes to the bus. My heart immediately slammed in my chest. “What!?” I exclaimed, “Oh, no!” He calmly told me it was two bridges down and another 50 meters, it’s about 30 minutes. I looked at my watch, and it was 10 minutes until 6:00, meaning I didn’t have 30 minutes to get to the bus before it left me in Belgium, where I would have to take three trains to get back.
I turned on my heel, yelled, “Thanks,” behind me, and set out at a dead run. I do not run. I repeat I do not run.
Since my knee replacement six years ago, I have not run. My 15lbs backpack slammed into my back with each step. My pulse raced wildly, not just from the unfamiliar cardio but also from the fear of being left behind. I didn’t make it far at this pace and slowed to a power walk, never stopping. I prayed as if my life depended on it.
My fear was almost paralyzing me. My lungs felt like they were on fire; I passed one bridge. I ran and ran.
My knee started hurting. I ran some more, power walked and ran. I see the second bridge; I turned right. A cute couple walked toward me on the sidewalk, I tried to communicate, asking for directions, but they didn’t speak English. I said thank you and ran some more. I’m sure they thought what an odd American was running through the streets looking like a sweaty tomato, but all I cared about was not being left behind.
I wondered if my guardian angel was keeping up, especially since I never move this fast.
The sidewalk curved right, and a low white fence was my first sign of something familiar. I rounded the corner to see something up ahead that could be familiar. I remember looking behind me when we first arrived, taking note of our bus’ characteristics. It was black with an orange swirl on the back, as I drew nearer I could see it still sitting in the parking lot. Yes! I made it in time. I could see others from our group milling around using the bathrooms and getting ice cream at the little stand, utterly oblivious to my plight. I tried catching my breath, almost chocking. I fell onto a bench, exhausted, and looked at my Fitbit. Shocked, I tapped it again. Quickly doing the math, it told me
I had made it in 12 minutes. 12! How is that possible? It’s not.
I stopped so many times. I’m not a fast runner; how is this possible? I gulped in more air and tried to thank Jesus, and many times as I asked him to help me in that 12 minutes. Which I’m sure was about 180. I gulped in air and lowered my head between my knees to hide my tears of gratitude. My thirst drove me to the bus and that 1 peso’s worth of water was the best thing I had ever tasted! I found my seat next to my seatmate, who looked at me very peculiarly, but I’m sure it was just because I still resembled a sweaty tomato. We headed back to Amsterdam, with no one left behind.
Almost the entire bus was asleep an hour down the road. Almost. One sweaty tomato was still thanking her Jesus and marveling at His miracles.
Because a miracle is the only way to describe this event because I wasn’t breaking any track records before this. We arrived late at 10 pm, and I still needed to walk the 19 minutes back to my hotel. I decided if I saw a cab, I would splurge and take one. I never saw one, so I kept walking, thinking if God could turn 30 minutes into 12, He could give me the strength to make it back. A man stepped out of the shadows clearly out of his right mind. I was beginning to identify the strong sweet scent of marijuana pretty clearly at this point. He approached me but seemed harmless. I smiled and waved off his ramblings and quickly kept walking, leaving him stumbling along behind me. My feelings of invincibility shattering a bit. I refocused and began to pray for safety again. I needed to keep my guard up until I made it safely to my room. I kept a sharp eye out and tuned my ears to the sounds around me. Quick footsteps came up right behind me, I moved closer to the building ready to dart around a corner, but the footsteps belonged to a hurried traveler wanting something up ahead of me. I made my turn, sighing deeply, that’s when the peace came, slowly enfolding me with peace.
I took careful steps trying to save my knee from further trauma and smiled, thinking my huge guardian angel had quiet the workout today too.
When my mentor described him as huge, a clear mental image came to my mind; A massive frightening male angel with bent shoulders and watchful eyes, ready at any moment with a weapon in hand. I made it to my hotel room just as I thought I would. Initially, I thought I wouldn’t tell my parents until I was on U.S. soil, but when they questioned my fatigue, the story came pouring out of me during our evening chat.
The next morning I could feel the effects of my adventure from the previous day. I was still exhausted even after a night’s sleep. So when I arrived at Grand Central Station for my 12 hour day trip I was almost happy it had left without me. I failed to check the departure time, but the scheduler assured me I could go at 2:45 for the 6-hour tour instead. She gave me a 30-minute complimentary tour. Thrilled with the thought of sitting for the next 30 minutes, I jumped at the chance. A Cruise line called Lover’s Tour floated us through canals and waterways, giving us an architectural experience. It was a lovely way to spend the morning.
Claude Oscar Monet painted this very scene from an orange building across the canal.
I grabbed lunch and reluctantly headed to the 2:45 tour. The only thought that kept me going was I don’t want to miss out on something great, and tomorrow I get to whatever my heart desires, including sleeping in! I could have canceled this tour, I know that, but I had already paid for it. We made many stops along the journey, including the Delft Pottery museum, an original canal built when the city was mapped, beautiful cathedrals, famous landmarks, and Madurodam, a miniature city full of famed landmarks as a memorial for a fallen soldier.
This day went down and my least favorite of all days in the city.
Let me tell you why. Not only was I mentally exhausted at this point, but physically too. And to be completely truthful, some tour guides are just better than others. Our group was quite small, maybe 25 people versus yesterdays 82. So seat assignments were not required, and stretching out was a treat. The day was dragging on, although I found beautiful things to see and do. I decided I would ask one of the girls in the tour group for a photo.
This would be my first attempt at conversation and would prove to be my worst mistake of the trip.
I asked a young non-threatening looking young girl to take my photo. She asked me if I was alone, which I confirmed in the earshot of multiple people. We talked, sharing where we were from and other bits of info with her family members, at least I thought everyone was family. Our next stop, lead us to Madurodam where one of the men continued to ask if I was alone on this trip. A little voice inside my head sent warning bells to my mouth to censor my words. He asked what I do, where I am from, and if I thought we could work together in the future, where he could hire me for photographs of the building he was in the process of designing in Portugal. It was just too far-fetched for me. He pulled out a business card proclaiming him to be a Real Estate Giant in Texas. I attempted several times to distance myself from him, but the place was nearly deserted with it being so near closing time, and a fine mist had begun to fall. I made an excuse to need the ladies’ room then doubled back to the bus. I climbed to the top level looking out the one-way glass. I saw him looking for someone. He mentioned his wife earlier, so I hoped it was her he was looking for, but I didn’t think so. He had been sitting on the lower level before, and when I saw his head pop up the stairway to the upper deck and head towards me, I knew he was coming to see me. Internally, I started to twitch, trying to rationalize my thoughts. He stopped at my row and asked to join me. I said, sure, and removed my bag from the seat beside me. What do you say in a situation like this?
He stretched out in his seat, invading mine too. Here is what happened next…
Me: So, where is your wife sitting?
Him: My wife?
Me: Yes, you mentioned she comes with you on these trips.
Him: Oh no, she isn’t with me.
Me: But earlier, you asked, “Do you want to join us?”
“So, who is we?” I thought to myself. He did not answer and pointed outside to the beautiful building we were passing. I had to get away, but he was blocking my exit. I heard we were making another stop over the intercom.
I quickly formed a plan.
Fear gripped me; I would make my escape and be the last to board the bus. In case he became angry and confronted me about changing seats, I created an excuse while hiding in the back corner and prayed he wouldn’t come to find me. I remember that God is a God of confusion, so I specifically prayed that God would scramble his brains and cause him to forget my face, forget our conversation, forget we ever met. Over and over again, the entire length of the bus ride back to the station. “Lord, let him forget all about me.” We pulled up to the curb of the station. I was the fourth person to exit. I walked with a purpose but not frantic to the escalators that lead to the lower level. Then my prayer changed.
“Keep me safe, Lord. Keep me safe.”
I was hoping the crowds would slow him down if he was pursuing me. I crossed the metro tracks without looking back. I weaved between people, making it difficult to be followed then ducked into a pizza place, watching the door. No one. I grabbed a slice to ease my rumbling stomach and kept up my power walking. I made a beeline for my hotel entrance then thought twice if he had followed me I certainly didn’t want him to know where I was staying. I detoured and kept praying. Suddenly peace washed over me like a rainstorm. My huge guardian angel was on the job. I had nothing to fear. I crossed the last canal before my hotel and stood in the shadows, watching the flow of pedestrian traffic on the sidewalks. No one looked suspicious. I took a few night photographs. Breathing deep, I knew I was safe. That peace had stayed with me, but I also knew it’s never a bad idea to be careful. I crossed the street and landed on the steps of my hotel. I felt like a kid saying “safe’ as soon as they touch base.
I blew out a breath I didn’t know I was holding and climbed the 79 stairs to my room.
Ridiculous, right? It’s pretty smart the steeper the stairs, the more ground you cover, the fewer stairs you have, the lower the taxes. I climbed them all, wondering how many tax dollars they saved and thanking Jesus for this safe place. I was looking forward to the opportunity to sleep in the next day, the day before leaving for home. With no agenda, my day was wide open. I went back to my favorite little boutique to find they had heeded my advice about pairing their fiddle leaf trees together like mates. What a thrill as a plant lady!
I went back to Grand Central Station for souvenirs I couldn’t leave behind. I decided no matter what I was going, and if I saw the same man from the day before, he wouldn’t remember me because I prayed away his memory. I can’t live in fear just because something MIGHT happen. That’s no way to live.
This day was perfect. I found a man named Abraham feeding the birds. He saw me marveling at the hungry birds and shared the bird food with me. I asked him if he needed money for it, and he smiled and said: “If you like, but I just do it to see people smile.” What a nice man. The rest of the day was very chill until packing in the evening. The next morning I stood on the sidewalk at 4 am thinking this probably wasn’t my wisest decision when a group of people walking toward me. That peace I keep talking about retook, the group walked past all the while telling boisterous stories of their previous night; Completely oblivious to my existence, just as I preferred.
I was able to experience on multiple occasions the love, comfort, and peace of Christ.
And so can YOU! God’s love knows no limits; neither does his peace and comfort. Since this journey, I look for Him every day; Sometimes, I want to go back so that I can sit in his presence. Again His love knows no limits, including geography, level of faith, church attendance, or any number of failures. You don’t have to cross an ocean to find Him as I did. You just have to ask Him to show up.
Safe travels, until we meet again,
xoxo, Klassic Photography