Although we had arrived in Amsterdam with no clear idea of what to expect, in the space of the past three days we had quickly settled in and we both felt a growing fondness for the place. Unlike huge cities like London or Paris, Amsterdam is small and compact enough to enable visitors to quickly get their bearings and feel at home wandering the network of canals and narrow roads. The biggest challenge we experienced was in coping with the sea of bicycles that continually move about the city like corpuscles in some giant bloodstream.
At first we felt that, whenever we ventured beyond the front door of our hotel, we were being targeted by a thousand crazed riders intent on driving us into the nearest canal. However it is amazing how quickly people can adjust to their surroundings and, after a couple of days of dodging two wheeled suicidal cyclists, we were starting to grow in confidence. We discovered that the best approach is simply to walk straight across the flow of bikes and let the bikes just make their way around you. It is only when you hesitate that you sow uncertainty, and increase the chance of becoming another statistic.
The amazing tilting houses that crowd along every canal are really quite enchanting. Although many looked like they were on the verge of collapse, we never actually saw any fall over while we were there. We were glad that we will be returning to this city in less that 12 months time to begin our 2016 European Odyssey Ride across Europe.
On the morning of our departure we faced the daunting task of cramming our bags for the final time, hoping that the zippers would not give up at the most critical time. We almost succeeded in getting everything into the bags, but unfortunately there were a few items that had to remain behind. I emptied my pockets of loose change and found a handful of copper coins (they still make coins with a value of 1 Euro cent). Since the sum total was less than about 50 Euro cents worth, I left the entire pile on the desk as a gift to the housekeeper.
The next task was to manhandle our bulging bags back down the almost vertical staircase without either of us getting flattened in the process. We were very relieved when our bags were safely at the bottom and we were ready to go. I had already ordered a taxi to take us to the airport and was a little surprised when it arrived about 15 minutes early. Since it was still relatively early on a Saturday morning, the streets were quieter than usual and our black BMW taxi was able to make quite good progress. It would have seemed even quicker if the driver did not have the unpleasant habit of sniffing back a nostril full snot every couple of minutes. I felt like offering him my handkerchief, but didn’t.
We arrived at the Schipol Airport about 25 minutes later and collected our bags from the boot of the taxi. I asked the driver how much our fare was and received the reply “Forty six Euros”. Since we already knew that the maximum fare from Amsterdam to the airport is capped at 35 Euros, I questioned the driver again.
“Surely you mean 35 Euros ?”, I asked
“Oh yes, 35 Euros”, he replied. He appeared a little embarrassed that his attempted scam did not work. I suppose that is why he was driving a fancy BMW and not a Skoda like most of the other taxi drivers in the city. Handing over the 35 Euros (he lost his tip when he tried to cheat us), we made our made to International Departures. We were the first to arrive at the Cathay Pacific desk and were able to check in without any waiting. Maggie had been harbouring the unlikely hope that we might have been offered an upgrade on the flight, however these are about as likely as being invited to have breakfast at Buckingham Castle with the Queen.
There is no escaping the fact that it is a LONG way from Melbourne to Europe and, every time I squeeze myself into another economy seat, I am reminded just how long it really is. At least the passenger in front did not recline their seat so I was able to have the relative luxury of around 10 cm of legroom to cram my legs into. The plane began the first leg of the journey from Amsterdam to Hong Kong while we watched the flight tracker slowly trace our route across the globe. I was interested to see that we first headed north and then started a wide northerly route across the length of Russia, before finally turning south and crossing the length of China. We arrived in Hong Kong about 12 hours later, but it certainly felt like 12 days. My legs were numb (and so was my bum) when I tried to get out of my seat. We now had a three and a half hour transit before the second leg to Melbourne. Since our flight was delayed, it turned into four and a half hours. More of my life that I will never get back.
Finally we squeezed into another couple of diminutive seats and prepared for the next 9 hours by swallowing a couple of aspirin. Some claim that it reduces your chance of DVTs, I was just hoping that it might help me get some sleep. I would rather not talk about what happened during those long hours, but it did involve a couple of forgettable movies, a couple of pretty terrible meals and a few minutes sleep. Finally we touched down at Tullamarine and we were home (well almost).
Since our flight arrived at almost midnight on Sunday evening I had arranged for a shuttle bus to take us back to our home in Pakenham. We quickly cleared immigration, collected our luggage and made our way to the meeting area for the bus. A few minutes later the bus arrived and we joined about 10 others who were also eager to get to their homes. We sat in the bus waiting but the driver explained that he was waiting for the final passenger to get on. And where was this elusive final passenger ? She was sitting in the adjacent bus shelter having a smoke. The entire busload had to wait while she finished her nicotine hit.
When she finally boarded the bus she calmly looked at the waiting passenger and said “Oh, I didn’t know you were waiting”. I bit my tongue while Maggie elbowed me in the side to keep me quiet. The tardy passenger was a middle aged woman with huge painted fingernails and a ring on every finger. The toxic smell from her recent cigarette followed her into the bus and stuck in my nostrils. I just wanted to get home, but more was yet to come.
Although all the other passengers had paid in advance, the smoking lady apparently had not. The driver asked for her fare. She looked surprised and asked him to drive her to an ATM machine. Not just any ATM, but it “had to be a Westpac”, otherwise she would have had to pay an extra $2. I was impressed at the driver’s patience and surprised that he did not immediately offload her and her luggage back onto the road.
While we commenced our journey to the Eastern suburbs, the new passenger immediately started up a long and loud phone conversation with someone. We heard far more of her life story that any of us wanted to hear. When her phone call finally ended she looked at her phone and asked the driver if he could charge it for her. He would have been quite within his rights to throw it out his window, but he fumbled through his leads and plugged it in for her.
Some time later it was just the smoker, Maggie and me on the bus. As we neared her house the driver spotted a petrol station with an ATM and drove into it. At first she complained that it was not a Westpac, but this time the driver was adamant. She climbed out and walked into the office. When she had not returned some ten minutes later, we were all getting ready to strangle her. We looked out the window and saw that she had been stocking up on her groceries while she was in the shop. This was getting ridiculous.
She finally emerged with a bag of purchases under her arm, paid the driver and explained where her house was. We arrived a few minutes later and discovered that it was a block of units. The driver was about to stop outside in the street, but the smoker instructed “You will need to drive down the drive to my front door”. For some reason he did that and then had to reverse out the entire length of the drive. I was just glad to see her go.
About 30 minutes later Maggie and I were standing outside our own front door. It was about 1.30 am in the morning, the streets were deserted and everything looked quite different to the way it had looked 10 weeks ago when our journey started. We fumbled to put the key into the lock and open the door, almost feeling like we were entering someone else’s house. It was only when our bags were safely inside and the door was shut behind that we looked around and realised, yes we were home. After something like 35 different hotels in 35 cities we would soon be back in our own bed – and that is always something very special.