Leiden, Netherlands

On my first weekend in the Netherlands, we made a day trip to Leiden, which is half an hour by bus from Noordwijk, the beach where we were staying. Public transport is very expensive in Europe, although there are lots of very efficient buses, trains and trams, a single return ticket on this bus was about $9. What I love is the laidback atmosphere and open-mindedness of the people. Although I have not yet seen they gay capital of Amsterdam with its red light district, sex shops and drug paraphanalia, I think this attitude is epitomised by the treatment of dogs everywhere. They ride buses and trains, are let off their leads to run free in the dunes, and are carried into shops and restaurants. Apparently, some pubs cater for dog owners by providing biscuits at the bar, and none of this is in the least bit unusual. Obviously these dogs are well trained and well behaved, I think it would be quite a different experience if we tried it with my dog, or my friend’s pets from back home. Life seems to run at a slower pace, which can be frustrating in shops, with a very different idea of customer service, but is mostly enjoyable, feeling like I am really on holiday. The one exception, is on the roads.

With large motorways where the speed limit is difficult to determine, and busy suburban streets being shared by pedestrians, cyclists, cars, buses and trams alike, there is an apparent lack of self preservation as everyone zooms around, ignoring most road rules and common sense. Add to this that they are on the other side of the road, which takes some adjusting for tourists like me. Most people ride their bicycles since the whole country is flat. Although I was already aware that everyone has bikes, nothing really prepares you for the thousands of bikes you see everywhere. They have a four level ‘bikepark’ at Central station, where bikes are placed on hydraulic levers so they can be stacked on top of each other. No-one wears helmets, even on scooters which they also ride on the bike paths. There are so many different types of bikes, including trailers, baskets and saddlebags galore, and the skill of the riders is highly impressive. I have witnessed people riding two bikes, steering the second with their spare hand. It is common to see people pedalling along with no hands, texting or carrying bags of shopping instead. Some people use dual bikes where a smaller child’s bike is attached to the back, though many children as young as two or three are riding their own bikes, or adults ride along with several children balanced on the one bike.

With so many different vehicles sharing roads and bike paths, you have to look many times before crossing the road. Once I had mastered looking left first, walking on the right side of the path, and not staring in awe at the dangerous behaviour of the locals, I was partially ready to walk about town. Unfortunately, the road rules are very lax, and you have to remember to wait for cars when you get to a crossing, as drivers are supposed to give way, but many come tearing through regardless. You also need to wait for lights before crossing in most areas, but the lights conveniently count down for you, so you know how long it will be before you can cross again. I kept in mind the golden rule Tegan taught me on my first day, “if you hear a bell, run like hell” as this is often the only warning you have that you are about to be run over. It doesn’t help that I spend a lot of time looking up in awe at the beautiful buildings and scenery, or staring through the screen of my camera, like a Japanese tourist. With my eyes off the road, I have a tendency to drift onto bike paths, as they are right next to the footpath, much to the angst of Tegs and Timmy, who are constantly reminding me to get back on the asphalt.

Once in Leiden, we visited a local coffee shop, then went to smoke on the green grassy hill, in front of the canal, under the windmill. It was from this picturesque location that I watched my first sunset on the other side of the world with my little sister. We had a great time, catching up on all the details of her trip so far, then it was time to go home. It’s amazing how quickly the temperature drops as soon as the sun disappears. Everyone said how lucky I was to experience three days of full sun when I first arrived, I figured I had brought the Australian sun with me. I am yet to buy a proper coat, though I know I will need one soon, as it is predicted to be the coldest Winter in years. The locals are already rugged up, although it’s not that cold, my hoodie will suffice for now. Despite my inappropriate attire, and a camera permanently attached to my wrist, I am often approached for advice at transport crossroads in a foreign language. I usually respond with “I’m Sorry” in my broad Australian accent, at which they realise their mistake, I am just another tourist, and ask someone else.

I consider myself an intelligent and well-educated person, but have quickly discovered that it counts for nothing as I travel around. Most of the people here are bilingual, if not quadrilingual. I am forever grateful that most people speak English, and that signs or announcements often have English translations, for the arrogant unilingual English speaking tourists who never bothered to learn another language. I am glad I have good map reading skills, the transport systems are simple and try to force myself to learn some new words each day. I always read the papers in another language, hoping to work out what certain words mean, like a jigsaw puzzle. Over time I think I will learn to read and understand some other languages, but will probably still speak like a toddler, as the range of dialects and emphasis on different sounds are quite challenging. I am definitely going to spend time learning another language when I get home, but for now will continue to bumble my way through Europe, smiling politely and demonstrating my stupidity, and thanking all the wonderful people who patiently take time to help me and explain things in English.

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The Flight – Emirates

I would firstly like to thank all of my friends and family who have wished me well or spent time with me in my final month in Australia. I have realised I am truly blessed to have so many caring and amazing people in my life. It made me very grateful for the love in my life and the knowledge that I have a wonderful home to return to when my adventures end.

I was looking forward to my first big international flight as an adventure in itself, as the longest trip I had taken was four hours to New Zealand. People warned me about the problems with sleeping, and screaming children, but I feel I am generally lucky with such things as I can sleep anywhere. My first issue came when I arrived at the airport to find I could only have one bag for carry on, which was quite a surprise as I have often flown in Australia with two. So I hastily unpacked important things from my backpack into my laptop bag at the counter, leaving me with an overflowing laptop bag with cords and books sticking out everywhere, stubbornly refusing to close as I had overstuffed it beyond the brim.

I had a coffee then tearily made my goodbyes with Mum and Teneale. Three to five long hugs later it was time to begin my adventure. I quickly got through customs and security and headed for the bar to down a double vodka surrounded by noisy South Africans as I waited to board. I don’t love flying, especially take off and landing, so was hoping to subdue my nerves. On board I discovered I was sitting on the centre aisle near the back of the plane, which turned out to be a good spot as I went to the bathroom several times throughout the flight without disturbing anyone. I was quite jealous of the guy across the aisle from me who had three seats to himself, which he promptly laid across and fell asleep after take off. I got up and walked around a lot during the first two flights as I didn’t have much room to stretch out and my legs were cramped up. On the way to Amsterdam I was blessed with a front row seat in the back section so I had ample leg room, but had to put my video screen away for take off and landing. By the time I touched down, I felt like going for a run, just to prove my legs could still do it.

I was flying with Emirates (www.emirates.com/), and I know many people are interested in the food and the blankets which have a high reputation. I was most impressed with the individual video screens in the back of each seat which included a USB port so I could charge my ipod. I had a selection of 100 new movies, 100 old movies and a range of TV shows. After 20 minutes of trying to navigate the controls, then realising I can just touch the screen I was set. Across my three flights I never had to read a book or use my ipod, which made entertainment easy. For those who are interested, I watched I am Number Four great sci-fi with decent action and a few surprises plus superpowers – loved it, can’t wait for a sequel; Pirates of the Caribbean 4, following the same formula of the earlier movies, had some laughs but was more predictable and less entertaining that the earlier films – I hope they don’t make another; Scream 4, combination of the witty parodies from the first film with ridiculous plot of the sequels – this needs to be the final one; Transformers: Dark of the Moon, agree with the critics that it was too long and drawn out for a movie with a fairly simple plot, the interaction between Sam and his new girlfriend was boring – but really, who doesn’t love watching the Autobots and Decepticons destroy an American city; The Adjustment Bureau, Matt Damon trying to cheat the ‘powers that be’ was full of twists, turns and entertainment – will definitely watch it again; Limitless, very clever movie about power, drug addiction and the limitless potential of the mind – really enjoyed it. So I lucked out by watching more new movies on my flight than I have seen this entire year, for free and totally enjoying myself.

We also received a warm facecloth after each take off. While I didn’t understand it at first, this was very much appreciated by the third leg of my flight where I was feeling a little dirty after travelling in the same clothes for more than 24 hours. The blankets were thin and small but very warm, and I regret not taking one with me in case of colder times in my journey. Each seat had an adjustable headrest that moved up and down and the corners moved in and out, rendering my neck pillow unnecessary. They also gave us a mini travel kit that included mini toothbrush and paste, eye mask and socks. I preferred my own socks and diva face mask just to be different. I found I could sleep for an hour or two at a time, before getting too uncomfortable and needing to move again, or being woken up by the smell of dinner. Leaving Australia we had chicken stir-fry or lamb with mash peas and gravy which was delicious. We also had smoked salmon and potato salad, some sort of lemon and berry cheesecake and a roll. The bread rolls were the only disappointing part of each meal. They were small and hard and cold, but the rest of the meal was so filling they were never necessary. For late night snack we had cheese and crackers, apples and muffin bars. Each meal also came with complimentary drinks so I made the most of wine and vodka available. For dinner from Bangkok to Dubai, I had chicken stir-fry with a prawn salad and another berry cheesecake, plus cheese and crackers for later. For breakfast was omelette stuffed with a spicy tomato and vegetable concoction with a side of hummus, and babaganoush with Lebanese bread. Unusual for breakfast, but also very tasty. There was also fruit, muffin bars, coffee and more alcohol. The vodka made it easy to sleep, and navigate through turbulence with little concern. For breakfast from Dubai to Amsterdam, we had croissants with cheese or meat deli platters, which felt very Dutch. Again I enjoyed vodka for breakfast to make the trip sail.

We touched down in Bangkok for two hours to refuel and reload passengers. I opted to stay on the plane as it was 12:30am local time, 28 degrees and pouring with torrential rain outside with little to see at the dark airport. I curiously watched the 100 strong brigade of Thai cleaning staff, setting up the plane for the next section of our voyage. On landing in Dubai at 5:30am local time, I watched the most beautiful sunrise I have ever seen, over the famous buildings in the distance at a warm 30 degrees before the sun was fully up. We were quickly shuttled onto a bus for the fifteen minute ride to the main departure terminal, many kilometres away due to the airports enormous size. As we drove by the hundreds of planes I looked on in awe at all the Emirates logos, as they have sole control of Dubai airport, arriving and departing to the four corners of the globe. Unfortunately my camera was too difficult to access at this point, and the sun had completely risen by the time I disembarked at Dubai terminal. After going through security, I witnessed an amazing building, which looked more like an enormous shopping centre than an airport. The walls were lined with reflective silver, platinum and gold, and we rode giant shining escalators that rose three to four storeys at a time, watching the lifts scale ten floors to the top to the backdrop of a blue lit water feature several stories high in the centre of the building. Dubai has a well deserved reputation for opulence, and I tried not to stare as I passed the many shops filled with Louis Vuitton, Swarovski crystal and Armani goods, imagining myself coming here for a shopping trip in the future when I am wealthy. After a brief snack, I went to the restroom, and observed toilets that were filled with water, nearly working in reverse to our system of flushing, with warmed seats. Then I spent half an hour in the constructed garden in the centre of the departure gates, listening to music and catching up on the world’s news. We then boarded for the final leg of our flight, and I slept little, waiting with anticipation to touch down in my final destination.

Although there was a map on the plane to show how far we had travelled, it doesn’t really sink in, since you have spent the entire time in one seat. The best part of take off and landing was watching the on board video cameras at the front and the base of the plane so you could watch the city below, or the airport ahead. I think being able to see where we were going made take off and landing much gentler for my nerves. Even during turbulence, the plane ride seemed a lot smoother than any I have experienced before. As it was 1:30pm local time in Amsterdam, I enjoyed looking out the windows across the aisle, observing the coastlines and flat fields of the Netherlands, broken into squares by the numerous canals. I laughed as I thought to myself, “we’re definitely not in Kansas anymore.” After landing I plugged in my ipod to while away my time in lengthy queues at customs, where they checked only my passport, and bounced my way through the airport, happily listening to David Guetta, realising I had finally arrived on the other side of the world. I marvel at the world of modern aeronautical engineering, that we can fly halfway around the world in a day.

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As I prepare to set off on my first international adventure, I am beginning an online adventure as well. Dedicated to my family and friends back home so they can experience my journey with me, and as a substitute diary so I can remember my travels when I am old and grey. As a technologically challenged individual, I am looking forward to the highs and lows that will come with undertaking such a technical task as blogging.

It will mostly be my thoughts, musings, descriptions and reviews of places I have been, people I have met and the service I have been provided. Many of you know I like to be a critic and expert on everything in my spare time, so I am looking forward to judging many things and writing reviews for my own pleasure, but I have also had some special requests from people back home…

Which brings me to the other purpose of my blog – As I have few plans during my travels, I am opening my holiday up to being ‘the people’s trip’. Inspired by Rove‘s ‘Tell us where to go’ and Hamish and Andy‘s multiple adventures on behalf of their audiences, including a ‘dream day’ in New York, I am blogging about everything you want to know about Europe.

So if you are planning a trip and want to know what a place is like first, send me there, or if you missed somewhere on your last trip and regret not going, I can check it out for you. For those that may never leave their home, I can live the dream on your behalf, or visit those long distance relatives that you will never catch up with. I would also love recommendations of your favourite places to see and things to do, so I may experience the best that Europe has to offer, including those little gems that can only come from local knowledge or someone well travelled.

Stay tuned for my epic adventure, and the longest plane ride of my life…


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