Sunday, August 15, 2010

That Day in Amsterdam

A couple of years ago now, on my way home from Kampala, I had the most wonderful day. The kind of day where time stands still, where nothing matters, where everything is sunshine and warmth and goodness.

It was an eight hour layover in Amsterdam. After spending two weeks exploring Uganda, after having my mind blown by the generosity of people and my heart broken by poverty and desperation, after seeing the effects of AIDS, of war, after two weeks of living in a strange hostel, of getting to know co-workers, of learning the Ugandan culture, and realizing, really realizing just how lucky I am, I was on my way back home, but not quite there yet.

Our big group of fourteen dispersed at the end of our time in Uganda. Some of my trip mates (the rich ones!) flew to Tanzania for a safari. Some flew back to their homes in Montreal, in Chicago, in New York. A couple went on to Kenya to do some more volun-touring. And so, it was just Eric and Jenn and I and eight hours in glorious Amsterdam. Eric and Jenn, who I barely knew before this trip, but who had experienced so much with me over the previous two weeks. Who were now my friends. We were jet-lagged and culture shocked. None of us had had much alone time in fourteen days. We were coming off a surreal adventure. We were only a day away from our homes, our beds, our friends, our families - but we were still thousands of miles away.

We landed in the early hours of the morning. In the airport, we exchanged money for Euros. We boarded the first train to downtown where we watched the sunrise on a 24 hour cafĂ© patio. We ordered the greasiest breakfast ever – a welcome treat after subsiding on basically rice, beans and plantains for the last several meals. It was a Saturday morning, and the narrow cobbled streets were littered with flyers, cigarette butts, evidence of night’s debauchery. It being 7 am, they were empty. We watched the street cleaning crews sucking everything up, making everything pretty for when the people wake up and want to go for a stroll. I remembered from my last visit, how clean and green the city was, and now I know it is all thanks to the early morning city workers, who work quickly, quietly, diligently to clear the streets of all that grossness.

Nothing was open yet. We walked around by the canals, and watched the city slowly wake up. Everything was so peaceful. Amsterdam belonged to us.

The first coffee shop that we found that was open was calling to us. We’d all been to this city before but we’d forgotten how it works – ordering up marijuana from a menu, we didn’t know what we wanted, we just knew we wanted a joint.

“You order.”

“No, YOU order.”

“No, YOU.”

Finally someone did, I don’t remember who. With our tiny green stash in hand, we walked across the city. Destination: Vondelpark, which I now know to be one of the prettiest, happiest places in the world.

It was maybe 10 am by the time we picked out a spot, by the water, under a large tree. Our feet hurt from all the walking. We plunked ourselves down. We’d stocked up on snacks. We fired up our first Amsterdam joint. We didn’t have to be back at the airport till four.

The three of us basked in the park. We made friends with dogs who were out on their morning walks, and we chatted with their people. (How old? What breed? So cute!) We thought about our own dogs at home and how much they’d love it here. We watched the dynamics of little dogs playing with bigger dogs, shy dogs meeting boisterous dogs. We smiled and nodded at joggers. We waved at bicycle riders. We spied on couples having picnics. We ate candy, in the morning. Tourists asked us for directions – which way out of the park? We had no idea.

We retrieved fly away Frisbees and returned them to their rightful owners. There were ducks in the water. We watched them paddle around, take off briefly, and then return. We laughed together, about so many things. Silly things, stupid things I don’t even remember, but what I do remember is feeling my cheeks hurt from smiling so much. We observed everything, even colonies of ants in the grass we were sitting in, and making up stories about each member, Eric adding on to Jenn’s contribution, me adding to Eric’s, the stories getting progressively more ridiculous as they went on.

Our senses heightened, we took in the sounds of the park, bird calls, water rippling, dogs barking, Dutch accents, bicycle spokes. We lied back in the grass with our eyes closed, feeling the sun on our faces. It was magical. We did this all day. A few times we convinced ourselves we should explore the park, and we got lost a few times, did a couple of circles without knowing it until landmarks looked familiar, realizing we’d past them before. We gave up our exploratory mission in favour of another sunny out of the way corner to talk, laugh, read, and take everything in. We tried not to think about how weird it would be to go home, to explain our last two weeks to our friends and families, how we would be back to work, back to normal routines. Because for now, we were here, happily stoned in Vondelpark, amongst the green grass and the sunshine, and loving every minute.

Nobody wanted the day to end. We contemplated changing our airline tickets and staying another day to do the same thing again the next, but in the end were too lazy to look into the costs, to wait in lines, to deal with customer service agents, to book hotels, to take all the steps needed to accomplish this. Still, we procrastinated on heading back to the airport, waiting til the last minute, getting lost once again on our way out of the park, after begrudgingly, we flagged down a cab and began the journey back to our real lives. The perfect end to a most amazing journey, and a day that I’ll never in my life forget...

Vondelpark will cast a spell on you -- go!

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