I woke to the sound of Big Boi’s Shine Blockas, the familiar yet mostly dreaded tune of my alarm clock. I put some clothes on, splashed some water on my face, packed up a day bag, and left the apartment to head towards Rotterdam Centraal. I purchased a ticket to Hoek van Holland, translated the Hook of Holland. It’s on the coast directly west of Rotterdam, but north of the port.
Rotterdam Centraal is a very elegantly designed modern train station. It just opened this year. There are fully automated ticket dispensers and plasma screens displaying the track number and departure times. The ‘tickers’ that my mom described tracking when she was backpacking through Europe at my age seem to be bygone. At the automated ticket screen, I got the machine to talk to me in english but unfortunately some things were very much lost in translation. For example, one question I was asked was “would you like to pay the regular fare or a discounted fare?” Is that a real question?
On the train I discovered that I answered incorrectly. My return ticket was confiscated by the train conductor because discount fares are reserved for people with special cards or disabilities. There was no way I could have known that, though. It was an honest mistake but the train conductor was less than impressed.
I was lucky to get a ride all the way out to Hoek van Holland. The conductor was quite adamant about kicking me off the train right then and there. I played the clueless American tourist card and got some solid defense from the man sitting across the aisle from me. A little native tongue was all that was needed to resolve the situation. It turned out that my guardian was a greenhouse panel salesman and had recently spent some time in Waterville, Maine consulting a farm on a sale. I apologized to him on behalf of all pleasant parts of Maine.
It felt very freeing getting outside of Rotterdam. The train ride was 40 minutes and only cost me 6 euros (should have cost more) but I got to a completely new place. My roommates tell me that every 10km you find a different dialect of dutch, that every region has its own vibe. I am definitely going to take advantage of the rail system here and explore the hinterlands of the Netherlands in the next 20 days.
Once I got the the Hoek, my destination was the Maeslant Barrier, a mobile flood gate that protects Rotterdam.
I only had to bike a few miles until the barrier came into eyesight, it’s such a dominant object in the landscape. The flood defense consists of two iron curtains that close off when there are storm surges and high spring tides. Although it’s measured that the gate only needs to be used in conditions that occur once every five years, the barrier has it’s own brain that knows when it’s time to close. Each wing of the gate are eiffel tower sized arms that attach to a ball (that is 10m in diameter) and socket joint (52,000 tons) that can shift the gate move in all logical directions. The wall of the barrier rests on a dry dock. When the gate needs to be closed, the dock floods and the massive curtains start to float. The two sides are pulled together to meet in the middle of the channel. Then the curtain is filled with water so the whole wall sinks into the foundation in the seabed. The defense was designed specifically to protect the port and the millions of people that live inland in Rotterdam and beyond, yet the barrier still allows for the movement of hundreds of cargo and shipping containers that pass through each day.
It was difficult to get a good photograph of the barrier because of the massive scale. It was also savagely hard to draw. I’ll assume it looks best from the air. I’ve included a google image here so you guys can match an image to my words, then I made a gallery with my own content…none of it is great.
Because my train ticket got confiscated, I decided to bike the 30km trip back to Rotterdam. The biking was great, the sun finally came out, I met some sheep, and got some exercise.
But then, about 7km outside of Rotterdam I got a brutally flat tire. Obviously.
I had a small hand-pump that came with the bike so I tried inflating it, but I knew my efforts would be fruitless. Something bigger was wrong. The tire went kaput almost instantaneously. I tried hitch-hiking…no luck. (Maybe it’s time to shave the scraggily beard). I then thought I could just hike it back in. The sun was shining and I had Muddy Waters on my iPod. It could have been worse…raining and a system glitch where only One Direction would play. I walked a mile or two, but then the roads got windy, I started to get some blisters, and there was a Metro stop right in front of me.
In order to ride the Metro you need a special card that you top up with funds (like the Oyster Card in London) so in order to ride a few miles, I had to pay 14 euros. I decided my blisters weren’t that bad and I started looking for a local bike shop. For how many bikes there are in the Netherlands it was surprisingly hard to find a bike store. I absolutely realized how much we take smartphones, map applications, and a constant flux of information for granted. I just walked, asked, got terrible directions, walked more, found nothing, and so on.
Eventually I turned the right corner and found a shop. I told the store owner my story and he said he could replace the tube in an hour. I got myself a vanilla milkshake and things started to look up. I went back to the bike store and started chatting with the guy in the repair shop. He was awesome. He’d done some hiking on the Lewis and Clarke trail in Montana so I told him all about the expedition and in exchange he gave me all the dirty details about the best bike paths to make my way to the Hague and Amsterdam later on at the end of the summer. We hit it off so well he didn’t charge me for the service, I only had to buy the new inner-tube.
I realized when I was back on the bike pushing the final stretch towards home that minor inconveniences that trip up the journey really aren’t so bad. It was actually quite fun discovering the sequence of events that would lead me to resolve the problem the problem at hand. The solution I found was something I could have never even imagined when I first realized the tire was pancake flat.
A flat tire in the middle of no where isn’t such a big deal. Of course, I had the time to fix it, there was no pressing emergency, and absolutely no urgency. But the problem, which at first made me super irritated and annoyed led me to a great vanilla milkshake, a more than pleasant conversation with a local bike repair man, and a test of my own ability problem solve.
The day was exhausting, but I got home to a sunny day on the balcony. I flopped down on a bean bag, cracked open a can of Grolsch, and I cannot even begin to describe how good that felt.