Coming from Australia, there are not many places you can go to that involve spending less than 5 hrs in a plane. Even to get from one side of our country to another takes around four hours. And northern Europe is just about as far as you can get from my home. In fact, the question I get asked the most when people find out I am Australian is “How long did it take you to get here?”. <This is frequently followed by a question about kangaroos – people are genuinely surprised that they are not just bounding around our major cities, and rather horrified to find out we actually eat them.>
So, over the years I have become a bit fussy about how I plan my long haul flights. I am rather particular about the times I leave and arrive in cities, and, consequently, the times I spend in the planes themselves. For example, I like to make sure my longest leg is a night time leg, and try and sleep as much as possible. Aside from the take-off part, which is *awesome*, planes are not particularly interesting – there are only so many movies you can watch, or books you can read, or games you can play.
As a strategy to try and get as much night-time flying as possible, I now try to pick flights which have extended day-time stopovers. This is especially good when the stopover is in the central part of your journey. And as most major cities have frequent train connections from their airports, and visas are (generally) not required for a 24hr transit, there is little organisation involved.
This time I had two stopovers. The first was for two hours at Kuala Lumpur airport. I got here about 8pm local time and flew out around 10pm local time, which was just enough time to have a bit of a stretch and a beer. It was actually quite a nice little airport to have a walk around – it is arranged in a cross formation with a different type of entertainment at each end of the cross (eg – movies, sport, news) – they even have a mini rainforest!
I was rather happy that I had a couple of beers at Kuala Lumpur as my flight was delayed an hour on the tarmac before takeoff – part of the plane was damaged when they disengaged the Jet bridge, and they needed to get the engineers down to assess if we were safe to fly. The beers, combined with the long day and the little sleep I had had before leaving Australia, meant I was able to sleep through this, takeoff, and most of the flight. I was especially thankful for this as I had a woman next to me who was trying to keep herself as drunk as possible throughout the flight. Unfortunately this made her a little belligerent and unreasonable, especially with the cabin crew, and not the most congenial of travel companions. <In the morning I chatted with her a bit, and it ends up she was returning from a horror trip in a South East Asian country in which she had all her money and documents stolen and her life was threatened, and was now returning home after having to go to her embassy for help to get out of there. No doubt I would have wanted to be suitably sloshed if I was in her position!>
My long stopover this trip was in Amsterdam. This was a city I had been interested in seeing for quite some time, both because of its reported beauty and its reported “atmosphere”. When I arrived there it was early morning, probably about 9am, and the first thing that struck me was how *quiet* it was. It did not feel like a city of 2.2 million people at all! So I decided to spend the morning strolling along the canals, and chilling out. The second thing that struck me was all the bikes. This was definitely an awesome thing for me – where I come from bicycles are most definitely considered second class to cars and drivers – I was loving seeing so many two-wheelers around. Maybe this was why Amsterdam was so quiet? Was it the car noise that was lacking?
So after spending a lovely morning walking around checking out the sites, I decided that Amsterdam was definitely a beautiful city, but I was still not sure about where the atmosphere was. I mean, it was *nice* but I was sort of expecting something more. Maybe I was not looking in the right places? I decided to take a canal cruise to fill in some time, and get a different perspective on the city. This took about an hour, and when I got off things had changed. There were people everywhere! So it wasn’t that Amsterdam was quiet – I had just caught her too early in the day. Like the day after a big night out, she doesn’t start to function properly until after lunch. 🙂
Before catching the train back to the airport I grabbed a quick bite to eat at one of Amsterdam’s famous “cafés”. The guy at the counter was rather bemused when, in response to his question “Do you want marijuana?”, I responded with “Nah, just food thanks”. <I think food was the *safer* choice when I had to be on an international flight in a couple of hours!> It ends up the most substantial thing they had to eat was toasted cheese sandwiches – most food was snack-oriented, which was not too surprising considering the clientele. 😉 So, toasted cheese it was.
After lunch, I decided to finish my day with a stroll through the famous “red light district” of the city, although I didn’t really expect there to be too much activity there in the early afternoon. Actually, in hindsight, I didn’t really know what to expect at all, because when I walked past a glass-doored alcove in which there was a woman clad only in lingerie I was rather taken aback. My first thought was she had just quickly ducked downstairs, and was hoping no-one would see her, but then it clicked – she definitely wanted people to see her – this was *advertising*.
When the initial culture shock had started to dissipate, I was able to begin to take it all in. I am definitely not prudish, but it is not a normal thing to see women walking around wearing next to nothing – except at some particularly wild parties I have been to, and then it is likely that I am one of them! The red light district is in a rather pretty area of Amsterdam and is centred around a church, and in front of the church is a statue called Belle – Belle is there as a symbol of protection for the local sex workers. Although much of this may appear contradictory on the surface, in the end it all seemed so very, very right. I loved the openness of it, and the dichotomy, and the peacefulness. It didn’t feel sleazy at all. It felt like the way it was meant to be.
And this is why I love stopovers – used well they give you a chance to get a taste of a place and see if it is somewhere you would like to come back to. Amsterdam is definitely a place I would like to spend some more time in – but I think next time I would like to see what she looks like at night. 😉